Epic fail.

Literally the best.

The most amazing.

The absolute worst.

These superlative descriptions are best reserved for, respectively, the sinking of the Titanic, invention of the wheel, the Great Pyramid of Giza and the 1918 flu pandemic.

Today, it’s hard to know where you stand when something as minor as burnt toast can be considered an epic fail, or a particularly good burger becomes literally the best thing ever. An affliction of modern discourse is our penchant for exaggeration. Having been a vegetarian for seventeen years, to me there are few foods that come close to the glory that is a nice thick juicy burger. But let’s not get carried away; I’ve had ups and downs, but my life would be pretty grim if a hunk of ground beef was literally the best thing ever.

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Envision a gothic fantasy tale, with a blood-sucking horror sitting at a piano. His cold, pale hands dance over the white, glistening keys of the ancient instrument as his haggard, wet breath exits his chest in a tremendous gray cloud of cold, damp vapor.

Your skin may have crawled a little while reading that, but not because the tremendous number of descriptors painted a vivid picture in your mind. In fact, you may have even been distracted by how many words were used to say something so simple. This is an example of the danger of over-reliance on adjectives in your descriptions.

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It may not have escaped your notice that Americans like to sue each other. One of our great modern thinkers, “Weird Al” Yankovic, even wrote a song about it (in part: “I’ll sue ya, I’ll take all your money / I’ll sue ya, if you even look at me funny!”). One thing that really gets our litigious juices going is when someone says nasty things about us, either in speech or in print. Yes, today’s topic is libel and slander (mostly libel, though; more on the difference later). If you are a writer who writes about real people, it’s something you should keep in mind.

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Welcome to another edition of Questions for a Language Ninja, where the Ninja explores common grammar and usage issues that, hopefully, at least one other person will find important. Let’s get going!

Q: Why is it that common expressions like “cheer up,” “clean up,” “mess up,” “calm down,” and “make up” don’t have an opposite adverb equivalent? Shouldn’t we be able to logically say “clean down?”

A: We should, and we would – if English language usage was governed entirely by logic. Alas, it is not.

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Advertising, like language, is no modern phenomenon. Today, we’re so overburdened with ads that advertising has garnered a negative connotation. “Ugh, how can we get ads off of Facebook?” or “Why can’t they skip the ads before the movie starts?” are common 21st century woes.

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