Today's inspiration was an article I just read that used the phrase "diffuse the situation." Twice. Unless the professional journalist who wrote the article meant that the situation slowly faded away, the word they wanted was "defuse," as in removing the fuse from a bomb. The problem here is that "diffuse" almost works in this context, but lacks the urgency and danger of "defuse." I am now tempted to come up with a sentence in which "diffuse the situation" is precisely correct just to tick off people like me.
I do a lot of editing in my science-writing day job, and have concluded that if I could strike any two-word phrase from the language it would be "in order." It is never necessary. "We followed the yellow brick road in order to see the Wizard"; "We followed the yellow brick road to see the Wizard." Skip right to the verb, no one will mind.
Three paragraphs in, and I can already tell that this Mr. Language Person post isn't as good as the last one.
However, after four paragraphs, it seems to be picking up a little. Here, this will help:
I don't enjoy the company of Language Nazis, although I have one living inside my head. I believe (and for the rest of this sentence I'm being totally sincere) that clear writing indicates clear thinking, and sloppy writing indicates sloppy thinking. Ask a person who's written a confusing sentence to explain what it means, and half the time they'll answer, "I don't know." The other half, they'll reply with the sentence they should've written in the first place.
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” If you already knew that Mark Twain wrote that, you might have a Language Nazi living inside your head as well.
Your/you're, its/it's, then/than, yeah yeah yeah. Tell me another one, grandpa. And yet it matters. It has to matter, doesn't it? At least sometimes?
|For example, if it's on your chest forever (from here).|
The difference between "imply" and "infer" is the difference between pitching and catching. "Implying" is transmitting, "inferring" is receiving. I imply that you're a filthy degenerate; you infer that I'm an excellent judge of character.
Assure/Ensure/Insure: this one's tricky and gray, and also depends on whether you're speaking U.S. English or the other sorts. To be on the safe side, limit "insure" to times you're talking about actual insurance policies. "Assure" is to make another person confident of something (think of "reassure"), while "ensure" is to make certain something gets done.
I almost didn't include that paragraph because in my mind it's a fine point that's hard to explain. But what the heck. Mr. Language Person likes living on the edge.
Like starting a sentence with "but," which there is absolutely nothing wrong with.
With which there is absolutely nothing wrong.
I have a unique problem in that I wrote a book whose title includes a question mark: Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Try working that into a sentence.
"I loved Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?" Well, did you or didn't you?
"Does your store carry Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow??" Why are you shouting at me??
Just to avoid confusion I usually omit the question mark and, should I have the opportunity to publish more books in the future, will not make that mistake again.
Wanna start a bar fight? Bring up the Oxford (or serial) comma and watch passions flare. The Oxford comma is the last one in this sentence: "I ate ham, bacon, and eggs." When I was a cub reporter, the Associated Press Stylebook taught me to omit the final comma in a series: "I ate ham, bacon and eggs." I infer (see there?) that one reason was to save one character space on a packed page of newsprint. I was also told that the commas take the place of the implied word "and" (ham and bacon and eggs), and since the final "and" is still there you don't need a comma. Oxford defenders return fire with some good counter-examples: "I'd like to thank my parents, Oprah and Jesus" really needs another comma. As with so much else in writing, clarity > economy. The Oxford comma looks clunky to me and I tend to omit it out of habit, but always keep an eye on whether it's needed.
word that begins with an "f." You have been warned.)
Language evolves. Only a fool would try to hold back the tide. English in particular is a raucous riot of adaptation, appropriation, and mutilation (Oxford comma). As I mentioned in the previous Mr. Language Person post, Ben Franklin grumped to Noah Webster about the fashionable use of the new verbs "notice," "advocate" and "progress," which up to his time had been only nouns. Complain all you want, English is moving on and leaving you behind.
I knew a great teacher and journalist who raged at the misuse of "decimate," which most folks mean to destroy completely but properly means to reduce by one-tenth, which is considerably less than completely. He lost. English moved on.
After working me over for several years, my friend Mike Peterson--journalist, editor, writer, scholar--brought me around on "alright" as a valid alternative to "all right," arguing that it had a different clear meaning, filled a need, and had historical precedent. I still can't bring myself to use it but no longer cast a stink-eye at those who do.
|Those who do include The Who.|
|Bob may have been all right, if not alright. Pastis.|
"Hopefully" is a lost cause and I'm glad. The word should only be used as an adverb describing someone acting with hope: "They waited hopefully for rescue." It should only modify a verb ("waited"). However, these days it takes the place of "I hope" and doesn't modify anything at all: "Hopefully, the rescuers will arrive soon." That's wrong but I'm all right (alright?) with it. English needed a word that performed that function so we took "hopefully" into the back alley, beat it up, put a different suit on it, and shoved it back onto the sidewalk.
I don't think that metaphor works but I so enjoyed writing it that it stays.
I recently reread Strunk and White's Elements of Style, a classic guide I pull off the shelf every few years and have given to a few young budding writers, none of whom seemed to appreciate the significance of having Excalibur bestowed upon them by a battle-scarred knight. Ungrateful punks. But I digress. I actually find myself arguing with Strunk and White more than I used to, but I think it's always an argument worth having and still recommend the book.
Stephen King's On Writing may be the best book on writing I've read. Thank goodness, because if it were on neurosurgery it would be wildly deceptive. Also recommended.
Forty-five states no longer require their schools to teach cursive writing. I think learning cursive is important but I can't explain why.
Go ahead. Disagree with me.
EDITED TO ADD: In the comments, Jonas pointed out the Onion piece "4 Copy Editors Killed in Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence." Beautiful! And it even mentions the Oxford comma.