Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ms. Smith’s Writing Pet Peeves Part I

Some words and sentence constructions just drive me crazy in writing. I mean, they bug me a lot. So, whatever you do, avoid these like the plague. I really, really mean it!

A lot—Yes, it’s two words. And a lot is a place where you park your car, or where you park your trailer, or where you build a house. A lot is a vague and imprecise way to indicate number: “I have a lot of friends.” Well, exactly how many friends do you have? It’s more precise to write, “I can count my true friends on one hand.” That construction is clichéd, but it gives me a more precise idea. Try using many, a few, several—while still imprecise, those aren’t as annoying. And think of how impressed your boss will be if you walk into his/her office and say, “I have 27 reasons why you should give me a raise today.”

Trash words—Words such as really, truly, actually, both, very (and many others) don’t add anything to your writing. If you write, for example, “Tony and I both went to the concert,” you’re being redundant. If you and Tony went, then both of you went. Say one or the other, whichever is appropriate. Words such as really, truly, actually and very just take up space and don’t add anything.

Very, truly or really unique—Something cannot be really, truly or very unique. The definition of unique is “unlike anything else.” Something cannot be “very/truly/really unlike anything else.” “Unique” does not have degrees of “uniqueness.” Either it is or it isn’t unique.

Clichés—A cliché is a phrase that is commonplace and overused. For example, ”I avoid him like the plague.” Sometimes, you can use a cliché to provide comedy or irony in writing, but too many clichés gum up the works. If you’ve heard it in the last month or two, don’t use it, even if you are “head over heels in love.”

Due to the fact that—Bills are “due to” your creditors, and, if something is a fact, just state it. You don’t have to tell us it’s a fact. This phrase is a trash phrase. It just takes up space. Instead of “due to,” use “because of” or “because.” “I failed the class because I did not study” instead of “I failed the class due to the fact that I did not study.” Yuck!

Passive voice, or “the cart before the horse” sentence construction—Sentences should be dynamic. Dynamic sentences place the subject of the sentence as close to the beginning as possible. For example, “The dog chased the cat,” is active voice. The dog is performing the action of the verb. Passive voice would be, “The cat was chased by the dog.” The dog is still chasing the cat, but the reader has to work harder to understand that. A more common sentence is, “My mother was rushed to the hospital by the ambulance.” This should look familiar. But the sentence should read, “The ambulance rushed my mother to the hospital.” The ambulance is doing the rushing. Many business writers use passive voice because it delays the “bad news.” Be direct and active. It’s less frustrating for the reader. Frequently, you can tell a sentence is passive voice because it uses a form of “to be” as a helper (usually “was”), but not always. For example, “I was thinking about the fall” is not passive voice because the subject, “I,” is doing the thinking.

There is, there are—You can rewrite “There are 50 ways to pass this course” as “I can give you 50 ways to pass this course.” “There are” and “There is” delay the true subject of the sentence and take up space. “There are a number of reasons why I should be promoted” is more directly written “You should promote me for a number of reasons.” Be direct. Besides, there indicates place (see below).

Pronoun agreement—This may be harder to recognize. Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns in a sentence (pro = for). Pronouns need to refer back to nouns or equivalent pronouns. For example, “My mother has petunias growing in her flower bed.” That’s an easy one. This one is more difficult: “Someone said they saw my boyfriend with another woman.” “They” is the wrong pronoun. Why? Because it refers to “someone,” which is singular. Singular nouns take singular pronouns; plural nouns take plural pronouns. Pronouns need to agree with their antecedents (the words they refer back to) in person (1st (I, we), 2nd (you, you), 3rd (he, she, it, they)) and number (singular (I, you, he, she, it) or plural (we, you, they)).

Pronoun Confusion—Avoid switching pronouns, especially in a sentence: “I couldn’t think of how to solve this problem; you just can’t think when you’re under pressure.” If you begin in 1st person, and you are still writing about yourself, stick with 1st person: “I couldn’t think of how to solve this problem; I just can’t think when I’m under pressure.” And always make sure the pronoun has a clear antecedent: “Mary and her mother went with me to the mall; she told her mother that she needed to buy herself a new dress.” Huh? Who needs the new dress, Mary or her mother?

That and who—People are who; things are that. Not “The people that bought my car,” but “The people who bought my car.” “The dog that ate my periwinkles should be feeling sick.”

That and which—If you use which, you usually need to use a comma before it: “I took calculus this semester, which isn’t difficult when I study for it.” If you use that as a conjunction, you don’t need a comma: “The trip to Ireland was the vacation that I always wanted.”

Apostrophes—Use apostrophes to show possession with nouns: John’s house, Mary’s car, the Jones’ boat. Do not use apostrophes for years: not ‘30’s, but ‘30s (as in 1930s), or “She is in her 30s.” Use an apostrophe for contractions—it’s (it is), that’s (that is), doesn’t (does not)—but make sure you are using the correct word. Its is a third-person possessive pronoun (“Its outer shell is polished steel.”); it’s is a contraction (“It’s too late to take the test.”) It’s easy to get confused. Possessive pronouns do not use apostrophes: hers, his, its, ours, theirs, yours.

There, their, they’reThere indicates place: “I am going there after work.” Their is a possessive pronoun: “Their car is wrecked beyond repair.” They’re is a contraction: “They’re going to the market on their way to the mall.”

I have a number of pet peeves that I haven’t listed here because they don’t manifest that frequently. I deal with them as I find them. And, you’ll notice, I haven’t listed all of the problems with punctuation—I think I’ll save that for another list.

You will not remember all of these, and I don’t expect you to stop writing a draft every time you use one of these. However, when you revise and edit anything you write, I expect you to eliminate and correct as many of these as possible.

William Strunk and E. B. White, in The Elements of Style, provide this rule for writing (along with others): Omit needless words. You can’t get more precise or concise than that. Remember: be specific, eliminate clutter. If you excise or avoid one overused or inappropriate word or phrase per sentence, your writing will be less cluttered and easier to read. It takes practice. So practice.