Lesson 6: Use Your Words

Though you may tend to think of the word “usage” as relating to the number of cell phone minutes you’ve expended since your last cell phone statement, in the land of Word Nerdery, “usage” refers to correct word choice.

I spot usage errors everywhere, and they have started to drive me a little batty. Here are a few recent examples that made me both laugh and cringe:

-“They are not aloud in the store.”

-“I except your offer.”

and my personal favorite for the week

-“If your issue is of an emergent nature, please call —.”

In my classroom, I often dissuade my students from trying to use “smart-sounding” language or sentence construction. I tell them it doesn’t sound smart when you use a word incorrectly that you think sounds good. (And please don’t argue that whoever is reading it probably won’t notice–because I will notice, and I am not alone. And what if the reader were a potential date or a potential employer? Embarrassing!)

Even though I had owned a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (the classic writer’s handbook) since my college president handed it to me at matriculation (see “Good Reads for Good Writes” page for more info), I finally cracked it open a few weeks ago while writing this blog. The contents page alone reads like one of the notes I would write at the end of my students’ papers. Here is an excerpt from page vii: (Note the imperative form of the verbs—DO, DO NOT, MAKE, AVOID, DO NOT, BE….ahh sweet, sweet imperatives, you can feel the power of the verb. Don’t worry, I will save the ode to commands for another post.)

11 Do not explain too much.

12 Do not construct awkward adverbs.

13 Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.

14 Avoid fancy words.

15 Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.

16 Be clear.

Anyhow, the point is that any writer who wants to be taken seriously, whether writing for work, fun, or publication, using the right words in the right context is imperative! (Pun intended.) On page 76, The Elements of Style elaborates on number 14 listed above:

Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by the twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able.

It’s not necessary to use highfalutin* vocabulary, especially when you are trying to get a basic message across. (*Note: the word “highfalutin” means pretentious, fancy, or high-flown bombastic language. I.e., it means what it sounds like. )

Take the third example of poor usage listed above:

“If your issue is of an emergent nature, please call–”

There are many ways that this sentence could be improved, but for the purpose of the post, I will focus only on the most glaring error–the use of the word “emergent.” I highly doubt that this writer meant to invoke the mental image of “issues” “emerging” as if from some secret hiding place in a dense forest. Most certainly this writer meant “of an URGENT nature” because he or she directs the reader to a particular person to call if there is something that needs to be dealt with immediately.

Besides being flat-out wrong, the writer seems silly to the reader. The writer of the sentence was clearly trying to be “cute” as Messrs. Strunk and White called it. The point of the sentence is, as I said before, to direct the reader to a particular person who can help. There is a better way to get the message across that not only avoids the usage error, but also eliminates the awkward, and almost accusatory “your issue” which seems to wag a finger at the reader right from the start.

If it were me, I would have worded it in a more conventional way. Here is a possible alternative:

“If you need immediate attention, please call–” or simply “Please call — if you need help.”

Even though I am creative writer and enjoy wordplay, I know when to get serious and use language that conveys the message in the most direct way possible. In this particular case, using conventional, concise language is the best way. As the saying goes, you can break the rules when you know them. I would add that you can break the rules when you know when to break them. Strong writers know when to hold back and when to get crazy.

As you practice, it’s a good rule to use what you know. Keep it simple. If you want to experiment, look up words that you are not familiar with. Lastly, do not trust what you hear. There is a very good chance the writer who swapped “emergent” for “urgent” thought he or she heard it used that way somewhere else. There are many words that are often misused in media, commercials, print, and other supposedly trustworthy sources. When in doubt, look it up. Thanks to Google, you can probably find an answer really fast.

Also note, spellcheck DOES NOT find errors in usage. There is a short list of words that some spellcheck programs can look for, but for the most part, if the word is spelled correctly, the checker will not point out that you should have used “affect” instead of “effect” or that you ought to have used “assure” instead of “ensure.” It is ALWAYS a mistake to let a software program do what you are capable of doing with a little effort and patience. Not to mention, you are likely more accurate than spellcheck.

Unfortunately, I don’t have room to list all the words that are commonly misused, but I will correct the other two examples I listed above:

-“aloud” means audibly while “allowed” means permission. The sentence should read: “They are not allowed in the store.”

-“except” means to leave out something while “accept” means to receive something. If you “accept” the award, you are gladly receiving it (likely). If you “except” the award, you are leaving it out (of what??) This construction is not typical, and probably incorrect. The sentence should read: “I accept your offer.”

Pay attention to the words that you use, and be sure that you are using them correctly. Once you find that you are comfortable, then you can get a little more creative.

*For great information about usage errors with fun ways to remember the difference, check out Grammar Girl’s podcast or book. Also, the Little, Brown Compact Handbook has a great list. Check out the “Great Reads for Great Writes” page of this blog for a list of books that can help.*

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About Taylor

Teacher/Writer/Word Nerd View all posts by Taylor

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