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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Part II: Bogus grammar 'errors'--or not--and writing myths and superstitions


In my my blog post yesterday, March 11, I commented on six of the errors that author Ben Yagoda wrote about in 7 bogus grammar 'errors' you don't need to worry about. Since that blog entry had gotten long, I saved for this post my comments on Yagoda's seventh "It's okay to use ..." item.

I agree with "a lion's share" of Yagoda's first six bogus errors but found more differences with him on his "okay to use" words. When choosing words or phrases, I advocate using the most familiar, simplest version of synonyms that more people will likely understand immediately. But I think it's also useful to choose words, when they're available, that have a precise meaning for your message. 

I accept that our language changes over decades and centuries, but the richness of our language and our communication weakens when we get to the point of noting only blue, symbolically, and not the unique shades of blue, like turquoise and teal. We should use familiar nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs but favor familiar words (or phrases) that have unique or even subtle differences in meaning when significant to the message or context of our writing. 

Below, I've excerpted my related entries from Garbl's Editorial Style Manual, also noting my agreement or not with Yagoda:
[agree] decimate Commonly misused. Remember that the Romans used this word centuries ago to mean killing only one in every 10 of their enemies. They didn't use it to mean killing all their enemies. To decimate now means "to destroy a large part of something or to kill many people." Don't use it to mean simply destroy or annihilate, demolish or wipe out, all of which imply doing away with something completely. And don't use decimate to mean something less significant, such as break, damage, defeat, hamper, kill or reduce. Use one of the stronger or weaker alternative words if that's what you mean.
[disagree] including, like, such as Use including and such as when listing examples or when the items that follow are only part of the total; don't list everything or end the list with words such as and moreand othersetc.He's a fan of British rock groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. [He's a fan of British groups that include The Beatles and the Stones.]
Use like when listing similar things or similarities: He's a fan of British rock groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. [Though he's a fan of groups that resemble The Beatles and the Stones, he might not be a fan of The Beatles and the Stones.] ...
[disagree] liable, libel, likely Sometimes confused. Both liable and likely express probability of something happening, but liable suggests exposure to something undesirable or unpleasant. 
[agree] hopefully Ignore the rapidly dwindling number of style gurus who think it is incorrect to modify the meaning of an entire sentence by beginning it with the adverb hopefully. As other style experts note, adverbs such as apparently, fortunately and obviously are already used correctly to modify entire sentences. And hopefully can be used that way too! Thus, go ahead and use hopefully to mean "it is hoped, let us hope, we hope" or "I hope" when describing feelings toward the entire sentence: Hopefully, the war will end quickly with few civilian casualties. ...
[mostly disagree] over, more than Over usually refers to one thing being above another thing: The plane flew over Bellevue. More than is preferred when using figures, numbers and amounts: More than 300 people attended the meeting. The document had more than 40 pages. But over may be less awkward in some uses: He is over 40. Let your ear be your guide.
[mostly agree] because, since Both words can be used to mean "for the reason that." Because is the stronger conjunction for pointing out a direct cause-effect relationship: They went to the concert because they had been given ticketsSince is milder in suggesting a cause-effect relationship: Since I love folk music, I went to the concert. When readers might confuse since with its meaning "from the time that," use because. See Garbl's Myths and Superstitions of Writing.
[mostly disagree] while Avoid the indiscriminate, ambiguous use of this word for and, but and althoughWhile is best used to mean when or as a simpler word for at the same time or during the time that.
[agree, but ...] momentarily [My style manual doesn't include this word (yet), but I know its original meaning of "for a moment" is being replaced by "in a moment"--somewhat like switching from now to soon. To prevent confusion among some readers, using "in a moment" or "for a moment," depending on what you mean, could be a better choice.]
[agree, but ...] the lion's share [My style manual also doesn't include the lion's share, but I agree it could mean "the majority" ... or "most." To reduce reader confusion, especially among readers not familiar with that phrase, I suggest using either majority or most instead. See below.]
majority, most Often confused. Use majority to describe "more than half a total or amount" and "the group, party or faction with more than half the votes": A majority vote of only 51 percent is no mandate to make changes that affect everyone. Use simpler most to mean "greatest in amount, quantity, number, extent or degree." Also, use simpler most instead of almost all. And simpler most may replace these wordy phrases: vast majority, the great majority, a significant majority and the overwhelming majority. Or be more specific about the details.
Use majority for describing the larger of two clearly divisible things: A majority of the councilmembers voted for the resolution. Or be specific: Fifty-two percent of the councilmembers were for the resolution. ...
[mostly disagree] oral, verbal, written Use oral to refer to spoken words: The planner gave an oral presentation. Or be less formal and more specific: The planner gave a talk ... The planner spoke about ... The planner talked about .... Use verbal to compares words with some other form of communication: His facial expression revealed the ideas that his limited verbal skills could not express. Use written to refer to words on paper: The two jurisdictions had a written agreement
[disagree] could (not) care less If you care somewhat about something, drop the not. But if you don't care at all, keep it.
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Yagoda's column is featured in the March 11 edition in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription. 
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