George Orwell, author of 1984 and, among much else, an essay, “Politics and the English language,” which includes six rules of writing (see below)
Here’s a use of a word I believe good writers should always avoid: reference when the simple verb refer is what’s really meant.
Reference is a perfectly good noun:
- The professor gave Oscar, a superlative student, a glowing reference.
- I wouldn’t use that article as a reference; it doesn’t cite sources.
- The report made reference to a frequently cited climate-change model. (However, it would be preferable to write the report referred to … because it’s shorter, simpler and more reader-friendly)
It can also be used as an adjective:
- A good dictionary is an unparalleled reference.
In some specialized cases, it can also be used as a verb – usually as a past participle:
- His biography is replete with well-referenced material.
However, there’s no good reason to use reference as a verb where refer will convey your meaning more plainly and concisely. Unfortunately, I see this poor usage – typical of inflated corporate and academic jargon – far too often. Here’s a recent example in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal, normally a paragon of excellent writing:
On July 8, 2017, the Journal reported that a White House source had said “the issue was referenced but there was no substantive discussion.”
It would have been far better to write “the issue was referred to [or mentioned] but there was no substantive discussion.”
Replacing refer with reference violates three of George Orwell’s six rules of writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Reference in place of refer may not be exactly barbarous, but it’s far from pretty.