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The Start of the Don’t-Do’s

July 30, 2007

I’m determined to get back in the saddle with this whole style gripe and discussion thing. Back in February, before this site got its feeble launch, Will contributed a hilarious post to Always Double Back about the list of cliches he was determined to purge from all articles that crossed his desk at Esquire. Our readers jumped in on the comments and helped us geek out a little further with other egregious examples. See that post here.

Now, inspired by the list cited in the post below, I’m going to start a list of common usage errors that I run across with disheartening frequency. Here’s a few off the top of my head; please, smarty-pants readers, jump in with ones that I’ve either forgotten or haven’t thought of. One of these days, when I have enough, I’ll pull together the whole list of errors, clumsy phrases, and cliches and spread my manifesto throughout the land so that Americans will stop sounding like such dumb-asses.

Errors of Usage:

comprise: Once and for all, five people comprise the group. The group is not “comprised of” five people!

myriad: It’s an adjective, not a noun. You don’t have “a myriad of” choices, you have myriad choices. I rejected an intern once for getting this wrong in her letter of application.

Update: Sendhil points out below, and Webster’s 11th backs him up, that this apparently is okay to use as a noun, but I still can’t bring myself to agree. The first definition is (noun) ten thousand (but I wouldn’t say “a ten thousand of”). The consensus seems to be that both are correct, but I just can’t accept that–it just looks and sounds wrong to me as a noun. Then again, I once had strong feelings about split infinitives, and now I allow them when the alternative would sound too stilted. Perhaps it will be so with this.

further/farther: Further applies to more abstract concepts (to further one’s career); farther applies to distance. I can’t believe how many people get this wrong.

principle/principal: Again, these are shamefully misused. A principle is something you believe in. A principal is someone to whose office you’re sent when you’ve been caught smoking in the bathroom.

who/whom: Who is the subject, whom is the object. Why is this considered to be such a complicated concept?

impact: This is my mom’s favorite. I will allow that you can have an impact on something, although that veers into lame cliche territory. But if you start talking about impacting stuff, you’d better mean that you’re squashing it into a tiny little cube or something. In my last job, I often had to purge the made-up atrocity “impactful” from various reports and speeches.

that/which: Most common misuse throughout academic writing. “That” introduces dependent clauses and “which” introduces independent clauses. As with who/whom, this stymies people as if it were advanced calculus.

decimate: Latin class! To decimate means to reduce by one in ten–this is often significant, but it’s not the total wipe-out that people mean when they misuse this word.

where/when: Seriously, how could someone mess these up? “Where” refers to places, “when” refers to time. Why, then, do I so often see something like “there was this time where I was so embarrassed”?

who/that: “Who” refers to people, “that” refers to objects. It makes my skin crawl when people refer to their friends that are so much fun.

I’m getting tired of typing now, but there will be much more where this came from. Please contribute your own peeves in the meantime.



July 27, 2007

Talk about being lax. But, since Bethie scolded me below for neglecting this site, I’ll pop something up that caught my eye this week. A few weeks back, my former boss directed my attention to an e-newsletter called The Head Butler that gives general information and tips about good music, books, movies, and other things. Yesterday, my daily Butler update contained the editor’s grammatical pet peeves, prompted by the ubiquitous misuse of apostrophes. Honestly, if English is your first language and you passed the fourth grade, these should not stump you. Anyhow, he has most of the usual suspects in there, including my pet since/because and over/more than peeves. Perhaps this would be a good starting point for the official Geode Style Guide.

Click here for the list.

Posted in Grammar, Style Sheet

Book Dip: More Fowler

June 3, 2007
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First, in response to readers’ requests for an example of an inversion, here is one from Fowler:

Little by little are these poor people being hemmed in & ground down by their cruel masters.

And, since he cross-referenced to Elegant Variation in that entry, here is an excerpt:

It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. . . . There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, & this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity.

The fatal influence is the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence–or within 20 lines or other limit. . . . The writer, far from carelessly repeating a word in a different application, has carefully not repeated it in a similar application; the effect is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointedly that it has none:– The Bohemian Diet will be the second Parliament to elect women deputies, for Sweden already has several lady deputies.

Boiled down, it’s the cliche of a foolish consistency, etc. Don’t be slavish to your English teachers’ admonitions, kids! Your writing will come out tentative and stilted.


May 25, 2007

Today’s Times carries a brief review of Pearl Harbor, a “historical novel” by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, and all I can say is that my heart went out to the book’s copy editor the moment I saw the headline: An Assault on Hawaii. On Grammar Too. This book was put out by St. Martin’s Press, a venerable house that I’m sure employs wonderful copy editors. I’m also sure that Mssrs. Gingrich and Forstchen stetted every single red mark on the manuscript. How else could the following be explained?

[Y]ou . . . find phrases like “to withdraw backward was impossible,” sounds like “wretching noises” to accompany vomiting, or constructions like “incredulous as it seemed, America had not reacted.” Although the book has two authors, it could have used a third assigned to cleanup patrol.

This is not a matter of isolated typographical errors. It is a serious case for the comma police, since the book’s war on punctuation is almost as heated as the air assaults it describes. “One would have to be dead, very stupid Fuchida thought,” the book says about the fighter pilot Mitsuo Fuchida, “not to realize they were sallying forth to war.” Evidence notwithstanding, the authors do not mean to insult the fighter pilot’s intelligence — or, presumably, the reader’s.

I can’t imagine that these issues went unnoticed by the good people at St. Martin’s, although I’m sure everyone connected with the book (except, perhaps, for the agent, who probably made a lot of money on this deal) is now writhing in embarrassment and regret. They can comfort themselves, though, with the knowledge that the book’s target audience probably doesn’t know any better.

Font Musings

May 25, 2007

As a copy and production editor, I pay very close attention to typefaces. At both the manuscript and proof stages, my life is made much easier when the body text is in a nice, clear serif font. Running heads, heads, and captions look better in a sans-serif face, and there should never be more than three fonts used in a given document or publication.

These issues came to mind last night as I read an article on Slate about various authors’ favorite fonts, inspired by the MoMA’s current exhibition devoted to Helvetica, that most classic of sans-serif fonts. I was pretty surprised to see that the perference was overwhelmingly for Courier or Courier New, fixed-width fonts from the early days of computer programming. Some people consider these fonts to be easier to read for editing, but something about them makes me miss the most basic and obvious errors. Maybe these faces are just so ugly that my eyes glaze over. A few authors earned points in my book for choosing Times Roman (hooray for Anne Fadiman!) or Century Schoolbook. Neither of those would be suitable for a typeset book, but they’re nice and clear for manuscript editing. I was pleased to see that nobody was so unprofessional as to choose a sans-serif for their manuscripts; I’ve had a few authors submit their MSS in Arial or something similar, and those were cruel reads.

So to my tiny band of readers: What are your favorite fonts for editing or typesetting?

Posted in Style Sheet