Sometimes a Word Gets Tired and Needs a Nap

“When our tacos were ready, Ben grabbed them from the window. They came stuffed in red and white checkered cartons. He grabbed all of them and balanced them over his forearms and in his hands.” 


Forever Interrupted, Taylor Jenkins Reid


Taylor Jenkins Reid is a best selling author of novels, such as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. A tremendous hit. Her publisher is Simon & Schuster, also a huge hit. You’d think they could afford an editor.


In her first novel, Forever, Interrupted, Reid uses a form of the word “grab” 89 times in 319 pages, which is to say,  every three-and-a-half pages. Only once, so far as I can tell, does she use the word correctly. 


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “grab” is a transitive verb that means


“To grasp or seize suddenly and eagerly; hence, to appropriate to oneself in a rapacious or unscrupulous manner.”


So it seems fair to say that when Reid writes, “I saw him grab his jacket,” she does not mean, “I saw him appropriate his jacket to himself in a rapacious or unscrupulous manner.” She means he picked it up from wherever it happened to be. 


The word “grab” has permeated the language like a disease since about the 1980s and has now become completely exhausted in both writing and speech. We don’t usually mean, “Let us appropriate a cup of coffee in a rapacious or unscrupulous manner” when we say, “Let’s grab a coffee.” But that is, indeed, what we are saying. Shame on us for saying it when we don’t understand it. Deeper shame if we write it. And the profound shame of incompetence on our editors, should we have any, when they fail at the one thing they’re hired to do: correct this kind of blunder. 


Simon & Schuster is the publisher of one of my books. I had a real editor at the time in the 1990s. His name was Michael Korda, and he was a demon for stuff like this. Michael, where are you when we need you? 


Retire the word “grab” and make sure that you know what you want to say and which words will say it for you.


And as a general rule, don’t use any one word too many times in one piece of writing. It’s easy to become unconsciously attached to a word and simply repeat it because it is echoing in your head. But writing skillfully means paying attention to each word and recognizing when something is appearing over and over. You have to step back from the canvas to see the painting.