LABELS: COPY EDITING, PREPOSITIONS
For a tiny word, “of” causes a lot of trouble. It pops up where it doesn’t belong in sentences like “I should of known.” It baffles even word-savvy users in expressions like “too big of a deal.” And it has an uncanny power to promote wordy, inefficient prose.
If you grew up speaking English, you never really had to learn “of.” Unlike “photosynthesis” or “gerrymander” or “noun” or any other word that teachers actively teach, “of” is so fundamental to the language that we can use it intuitively almost as soon as we start stringing sentences together.
A lot of English speakers probably don’t know that “of” is a preposition. Most of us couldn’t give a good definition for it. And most of us, if we ever looked it up in a dictionary, would struggle to understand what we were reading. For example, here’s the first definition of “of” in Merriam-Webster’s: “used as a function word to indicate a point of reckoning: ‘north of the lake.’” Here’s definition two: “used as a function word to indicate origin or derivation: ‘a man of noble birth.’”
When you think about how poorly we understand “of,” it’s amazing we can use it at all. No wonder we stumble sometimes. Here's my recent column about these common errors.
About a decade ago, I read a blog written by a linguistics student who proclaimed, “Prescriptivism must die!!!”
He was talking about the school of thought that believes that textbooks and other language authorities should lay down rules about how to use certain words and grammatical structures. This school of thought, which ruled the day in the 1950s and ’60s, says we need a Big Book of Grammar No-Nos and that everyone who doesn’t follow those rules is wrong.
The alternative to prescriptivism is descriptivism, which points out that language rules aren’t static and can’t be forced. What was wrong a century or two ago is right today. For example, the word “girl” used to mean a child of either sex. So it would have been wrong to insist “girl” referred specifically to a female child. Our language is always in flux, with every word in transition between incorrect and correct. So it doesn’t make sense to insist that “cool” is a temperature and not a state of Fonziness.
Some say this is linguistic anarchy. Not true. Descriptivism recognizes that language has rules. They’re just more liquid than prescriptivists would like. And those rules are made by everyone who speaks the language, not a few tweedy academics trying to boss everyone else around.
But it seems to me that prescriptivism is already dying. Here, in my recent column, are some prescriptivist rules I used to hear a lot and don't hear anymore.
LABELS: past tense, VERBS
No matter how long you’ve been speaking English, no matter how hard you’ve worked to perfect your grammar, some past tense verbs can stump you.
For example, the day after you decide to grin and bear it, would you say “I grinned and bore it?” Beared? Born?
That shiny car you saw yesterday, would you say it shined as it drove by? Or it shone?
Would you say you weaved baskets or that you wove them?
The questions are frightening, but luckily the answers aren’t far out of reach. Dictionaries list past-tense and past participle forms for every irregular verb. So you can always look them up — if you know how.
Here's my recent column that looks at four verbs with tricky past tenses: shine, weave, bear and bare.
LABELS: COPY EDITING, GRAMMAR, UNNECESSARY ADVERBS, VAGUE WORDS
There are a million ways to write badly, from corny dialogue to illogical juxtapositions of facts. But at the sentence level, some problems crop up again and again. And a lot of them are easy to fix, or at least improve.
Here are seven tips for fixing some of the most common writing problems I encounter.
1. Make sure the main clause of your sentence contains the information you most want to highlight. Compare these two passages. “After shooting his business partner in the face, John felt tired.” “John shot his business partner in the face. He collapsed, exhausted.” Your main clause is the marquee position in any sentence. Readers automatically know this is the main point. A subordinating conjunction like “after” suggests the stuff that follows is not the main point. So give your best information the billing it deserves by making it your main clause.
2. Break up long sentences. Compare: “I fired him even though I didn’t want to because he gave me no choice.” “I fired him. I didn’t want to. He gave me no choice.” Shorter sentences pack a punch. Longer sentences use connectives like “because,” which create a hierarchy among the ideas, subordinating some information in a way similar to what we saw in our first tip.
Five more, which are explored in full here in my recent column, are:
3. Choose the most specific and tangible nouns and verbs.
4. Delete adverbs that don’t add information.
5. Fix unclear antecedents.
6. Dispense with state-of-mind verbs.
7. Ditch connective words and phrases.