Friday, May 22, 2009

Elements of Style: Word use and abuse II

This is the fourth installment of the Elements of Style Series where I relay helpful hints for good writing from the classic book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

In my previous Elements of Style post, I explained why many writers misuse the words certainly, fact and less. This post unveils three more of Strunk and White's phrasings to avoid. I selected the phrases that I find most surprising and useful. Therefore, I probably picked the words and phrases I most frequently misuse. I apologize for any apparent hypocrisy. No writer is perfect!

One of the most. Strunk and White advise against using this phrase because it is bad style, not bad grammar. In their words, "it is simply threadbare and forcible-feeble." I think it helps to see the words in use:

Steve Levitt is one of the most influential American economists.

This is a fine sentence, but it lacks zing. Instead of using "one of the most," let's try a colorful adjective:

Steve Levitt is a supremely influential American economist.

Isn't that better?

If this isn't what you mean to say, there is another alternative. We can avoid the one of the most phrasing by "pulling the trigger." If you really think he is that good, it is appropriate to use:

Steve Levitt is the most influential American economist.

So. Using the word so as an intensifier is a huge no-no unless you are trying out for the cast of Clueless II: Revenge of the Valley Girls. For example, it is bad style to say:

Steve Levitt is a wonderful economist. His analysis of cheating in sumo wrestling is so insightful.

Strunk and White do not look highly upon intensifiers. For the same reason, they denounce the word very as well. Replacing so with very misses the point on why this phrasing is bad style. If the word lacks the spice you desire, pick a spicier word. It is bad style to put salt on a bland word. Here's what a stronger word does for the phrasing:

Steve Levitt is a wonderful economist. His analysis of cheating in sumo wrestling is profound.

While. This word is best used to mark the passage of time. When used as an alternative to although, it can be confusing about what the author means. Take an example:

While I discussed Freakonomics with Steve Levitt, I longed to ask about his sumo wrestling research.

This sentence is wrong if I want to convey a deep longing to talk about sumo wrestling, rather than Freaknomics. For that purpose, replace while with although. On the other hand, if my purpose with the sentence is to describe the thoughts that occurred to me at the time of discussing Freakonomics with Levitt, while is a wonderful word.

Of the commonly misused words and phrases, I selected six. There are many more. Get a copy of The Elements of Style and check them out if you like what you've read here.

The next installment of the Elements of Style Series, "Omit needless words" will appear on this blog on Friday, 29 May 2009. I will continue this series each Friday until I run out of interesting topics in grammar and writing.

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