Tag Archives: Word choice

Elements of Style (Illustrated)

The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, with illustrations by Maira Kalman (New York: Penguin, 2005), 142 pp.

During my senior year in high school, our honors English class had one textbook: The Elements of Style, which at the time was only 12 years old (though Strunk’s original book dated to 1918). Since then I have reread it a few times, always found it useful, and not hesitated to recommend it.

In recent years, though, the book has been criticized as stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. As an editor, I give first aid to writing, and even though I’m not a doctor, I occasionally write prescriptions for writing that needs it. I’m not against a prescriptive approach to writing and editing. There are, as the authors phrase it, some “experts in the art of bad writing,” and for them prescriptions are in order.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Elements of Style (Illustrated), based on the 4th edition, which was published in 2000, and in December 2017 I decided to read the whole book through again with a critical eye.

The Elements of Style holds up well if you are willing to take advice from professionals such as Strunk and White. In chapter V, “An Approach to Style,” they present “gentle reminders,” not rules. The authors are against writing that is “stiff, needlessly formal.”

However, much of the book is devoted to rules, and some of them, such as when to use shall and will, indeed are stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. Sometimes the authors appeal to Latin as a standard (I was taking Latin in my senior year of high school too), but Latin is not a good guide to English usage.

Also, some of the new material became outdated faster than the original text: “By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear,” they wrote; that prediction was totally wrong, as 17 years later all of those words are still in use.

Finally, “Maira Kalman’s whimsical paintings,” as the Los Angeles Times called them (according to the book’s back cover), are an embellishment, nice to have, but add nothing to the substance of the book.

My conclusion, after more than 45 years of using The Elements of Style: Adhering to this book will not harm anybody’s writing and will in fact do a lot of good. If you’re an experienced writer or editor who can sensibly reject some of the advice, go ahead. But it’s still worthwhile to lend an ear now and then to a couple of professionals who were confident enough to provide a little book of rules and gentle reminders to assist us.


Separated by a Common Language

Separated by a Common Language is a useful, interesting, and entertaining blog by Lynne Murphy, an American linguist (“Lynneguist”) who has been living and teaching in England for more than a decade. The blog’s name comes from a statement attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” The blog explores the differences between British and U.S. usage, and the readers’ comments expand the discussion of the English language to the variants in their own countries, often chiming in from Ireland, Canada, Australia and other places separated by our common language.

One fascinating revelation I received from reading the blog is that there are countless variations in spelling, pronunciation, and usage within Britain and within the United States. I learned too that some places in the United States, such as Pennsylvania and Appalachia, have preserved some speech patterns brought with them by early British settlers.

As an editor, I find the wealth of information presented on the blog to be tremendously helpful. If you’re an editor, a writer, or just interested in words, I think you’ll enjoy Separated by a Common Language.

I discovered it in Katharine O’Moore Klopf’s Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base, which I browse now and then to see what new resources have been added. The Knowledge Base has been listed in my favorite resources since I started the blog in late 2014. Now it’s joined by Separated by a Common Language.

A word of reassurance: Lynne’s daughter isn’t really named Grover. “Grover” is a kind of screen name. However, I had read many of Lynne’s posts before discovering this, and I’d been wondering whether Grover is a girl’s name in Britain.

And a word of caution: sometimes the posts and comments get a little raunchy, partly because some words that are innocuous in Britain are considered rude in America and vice versa; this information can be helpful if you are traveling.

Steve’s Hall of Shame:* Condense an agent?

“Condense or approach a customer service representative”: I saw this sign in the Wilmington, Delaware, railroad station, and I was baffled. Should condense have been contact? Maybe. Some writers readily accept nonsensical suggestions from a word processor’s spelling checker. Later, I wondered whether it meant “condense your baggage,” as in consolidate your luggage—maybe stuff it into one suitcase and stand on the lid to get it shut. The verb condense has two forms: transitive and intransitive. You can condense something (a book, for example) by making it smaller, or something can condense by becoming smaller, which happens when water vapor condenses into liquid water on a cold glass.

Don’t let this happen to you: Make sure that text makes sense the first time someone reads it.

* “Steve’s Hall of Shame” is what one writer called my collection of bloopers. I decided to keep the name.

When is value added?

“Do I add value?” asked a man walking past me on a train platform. I almost laughed out loud until I realized he was talking on a hands-free phone and possibly repeating a question from an employer who had questioned his worth.*

Adding value is a popular claim nowadays. Maybe it will help you keep a job.

In the European Union, if a company adds value to a product at some stage of production, it pays a tax on the value added: a value-added tax.

But what in the world is a “value-added product”?

“We expect the company’s increasing emphasis on its high-margin value-added products to positively affect its results,” stated Forbes on April 7, 2015, in an article about the aluminum manufacturer Alcoa. A Google news search on April 14 for “value-added” turned up 143,000 results, some of which made sense but a lot of which were incomprehensible phrases such as “value-added services” and a “value-added distributor.”

How did a meaningful phrase get turned into a meaningless business buzzword? I suspect that some business type heard the words “value added” and liked the sound but had no clue to the meaning and started sticking them everywhere.

If a product, distributor, or service adds value, it’s a value-adding product, distributor, or service. Grammatically, it’s like the difference between a gold-plated machine and a gold-plating machine. A machine might be plated with gold, but a product cannot be added with value. It’s nonsense.

But a grammatically correct turn of phrase still might be an empty buzzword. What exactly do the value-adding product, distributor, or service add, and for whom? It would be more convincing to hear some specific benefits conferred by the product, distributor, or service rather than a promise of vague value.

If, when editing, you see a “value-added” anything that isn’t a tax, please kill it with a stick. But don’t stop with fixing the grammar. See whether there’s any real meaning in it and try to bring that out.

* This anecdote is repeated from my Commuter Crossroads column that appeared in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance–Star newspaper on March 2, 2008.

Changed forever

Forever is such a long time. I would be careful about stating that something will be a certain way forever. Yet a current cliché gets a lot of use, as writers pronounce that something or somebody has changed forever, implying that up until a great turning point, things were a certain way, but from now on, until the end of time, they will be different.

Sometimes it’s a tragedy in a person’s life.

“Just five weeks after Arianna’s birth, the Terhune’s awoke to find their daughter lifeless in bed,” according to an Oct. 14, 2014, story1 in Nevada’s Carson Valley Times.

“‘Our world caved in from underneath us,’ Amber said ‘Our lives changed forever in an instant.’”

A similar example: “On February 10 Ciara’s young life changed forever when she was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” according to a story2 in the Fermanagh Herald of Northern Ireland.

Both statements imply that the people involved will live forever. OK. I believe that too. And I can accept that even in eternity they will be different, possibly better, people because of their experiences.

What about Scotland—will there always be a Scotland? “Scotland’s Finance Minister John Swinney MSP says: ‘Tomorrow is the start of a period of which Scotland as a country has changed forever,’” according to a British Broadcasting Corporation report3 on Sep. 19, 2014. A thousand years from now, or a million, will Scotland be different because of the 2014 vote to remain within the United Kingdom? Maybe.

How about football,4 women’s surfing,5 and the American way of life6—are they eternal? According to some writers, yes. So are the farming business,7 American politics,8 and deer hunting.9

Are all these writers who discuss eternity able to see the future? Or have they created confusion by using one more fuzzy cliché, which is what Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style, called “the foreseeable future.”

In 1983, recalling halcyon days of chummy commuters on the railroad, writer David Yuckman concluded an article with “We are left only with a memory of what commuting was once like—and it will probably never be like that again”10—much better than writing that commuting has changed forever.

Editors, let’s weed out “changed forever” unless it truly refers to a permanent, eternal difference. Or else this might be the day that editing changed forever.

1. “Our Lives Changed Forever in an Instant,” Gardnerville, Nev., Carson Valley Times, Oct. 14, 2014.

2. “Ciara So Happy to Hear News That She Is Now in Remission,” Fermanagh Herald, Northern Ireland.

3. “Scottish Referendum Results: Scotland ‘Changed Forever’ Says John Swinney,” BBC, Sep. 19, 2014.

4. “How American Football Changed Forever in 1936,” All Funked Up sports blog, Sep. 24, 2014.

5. “Women’s Surfing Just Changed Forever,” Surfing Life, Sep. 29, 2014.

6. “Watch Out for Falling Oil Prices,” Barron’s, Oct. 15, 2014.

7. John DeSanto, “845Life: Making a Living on a ‘Rock Pile,’” Middletown, N.Y., Times Herald-Record, Oct. 12, 2014.

8. Matt Bai, “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics,” New York Times Magazine, Sep. 18, 2014.

9. Craig Holt, “Public Hearing on Changing Deer-Farm Management Is Tuesday in Raleigh,” North Carolina Sportsman, Oct. 14, 2014.

10. David Yuckman, “Last Train from West Trenton,” New Jersey Monthly, February 1983.