Friday, May 15, 2009

Elements of Style: Word use and abuse

This is the third 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.

Most writers mistakenly use words that are not right for their intended purpose. Unlike most books on writing, The Elements of Style has an entire section devoted to exposing the words we most commonly misuse. Some of you might expect that these suggestions are a bit dated. After all, the book was published in 1918. Despite this early publication date, Strunk and White's suggestions for word choice are timeless and surprising.

This post is not about appropriately using your and you're, nor is it about using to, too, and two in the right spots. These are basic mistakes that anyone who has a grammatical pet peeve should know to avoid. Strunk and White's suggestions are much more pervasive. Most writers make at least one of the word choice mistakes in The Elements of Style. We do this because we develop bad habits. Good writing is hard work because we need to constantly guard against these bad habits.

I recently read the chapter on words commonly misused. Here are three of the more useful or surprising words commonly misused. In my next Elements of Style post, I plan to discuss three more.

Certainly. Strunk and White warn against indiscriminately using this word to "intensify any and every statement." If you think that your sentence lacks some zing, don't add the word certainly, use a stronger word. For example, it is bad style to write: Shanna certainly enjoyed the chocolate cake. What is a better phrasing for the same idea? Shanna savored the chocolate cake.

Fact. Strunk and White tell us to use fact only when it is something that can be directly verified. For example, it is a fact that Tony was born on September 17th. Even though it is a reasonable conclusion, it is not a fact that Napoleon is the greatest modern general.

Less (versus Fewer). Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. For example, the speedy lane at the grocery store should say "15 items or fewer." Whenever I encounter a "15 items or less" checkout counter, I wonder about the quality of the store's grapefruit. My personal rule of thumb is to ask whether I can count the objects being described. If so, it is a number and fewer is the appropriate word to use.

The issue becomes convoluted when less versus fewer describe emotions or feelings. As Strunk and White demonstrate, "The King's troubles are less than mine" and "The King's troubles are fewer than mine" are both valid sentences, but the two sentences have different meanings. The first sentence means "The King's troubles are not so great as mine," whereas the second means "The King's troubles are not so numerous as mine."

Returning to my rule of thumb, if I survey my troubles and observe that they are worse than the King's troubles, less is the appropriate word because it describes magnitude. On the other hand, if I survey my troubles and observe that I have more things that trouble me, I should use fewer to convey this point.

Think about that the next time you stand in line at the grocery store!

The next installment of the Elements of Style Series, "Word use and abuse: Part II" will appear on this blog on Friday, 22 May 2009. I will continue this series each Friday until I run out of interesting topics in grammar and writing.

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