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By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

The Guardians of Our Language

Excerpted in part from the multi award-winning Frugal Editor, second edition.

Languages have always been fluid, only one of the reasons writers, readers, and any anyone else who loves books must be on guard against anything and anyone who might be cousins to the gremlins I talk about in my book, The Frugal Editor—or the folks who unwittingly fall into their traps. They are bent on degrading our language and don’t mind enlisting the help of others to achieve their ends.

One of their favorite traps is luring us to use a word incorrectly so often that it soon cannot function in its original meaning without being misunderstood. When that happens, we no longer have that word on hand to use for its original meaning.

When there is no good substitute, we lose some of our linguistic power. Enormity and factoid come to mind as examples. (Enormity does not mean big and factoid does not mean fact but rather false or meaningless bits of information.) I could build you a list. In fact, I do in my book and booklets on editing.

The French have long been aware of this problem and been on guard for a very long time. Often to no avail. Being a language guardian is a tough job. It often leads to disappointment. And we must recognize that there is a happy medium. We don’t want to close down creativity, either. With vocabulary. With structure. With style choices. Being a language guardian requires a sense of humor, vigilance, and a willingness to speak out.

We need to watch for whatever dilutes and weakens. We need to stand against anything that obfuscates. Wordiness. Grammatical degenerations. Clichés that begin to get on our nerves. What is candy to texters and surfers can be subtle career killers for the rest of us.

Sometimes I think the world is against writers. Certainly the Net has brought us new language, new formatting, new design—and not all the newbies are bad. Languages have always been influenced from the street up. By movies. Later by TV. They often contribute to a more colorful language. Sometimes to a more flexible language. They’re a little like marriages; their influence can be for better or for worse.

Writers are the guardians of our language—or should be. We have a stake in protecting it. We are hired to do jobs that people with very good command of the English language cannot do because they don’t know as much about it as we do. Have you ever wished that more companies would hire great tech writers to write or edit the instructions they put on the backs of their boxes or into the booklets for their electronic products? Some of us make our livings based on how well we foil gremlins.

Readers can help. Here are a few ways for word lovers to go about it:

  1. Learn as much about grammar and vocabulary as possible.
  2. Learn not to make the mistake of confusing a grammar rule with a style choice.
  3. Speak up (politely, please!). If you aren’t right, you’ll probably get a reply with an explanation that will make it clearer for you. If not, you may—should—get a sincere thank you.
  4. Please see a partial list of some of my favorite books that will get you started on my anti gremlin crusade.

Instead of the usual abbreviated “Tips and Tidbits” that you usually find here, I’m substituting a list of books that I recommend for a better understanding of all the gremlins’ favorite snares in The Frugal Editor. Things like style choices vs. grammar rules. Wordiness. Word trippers. And, yes, out-and-out grammar errors. There are other recommendations in the Appendix of that book, but these are great starters.

AP Stylebook by Associated Press. Especially good for those who write for newspapers and some magazines.
Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right by Bill Bryson ( ).
Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press Staff.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. Especially good (and fun) for those writing for the UK market.
Far From the Madding Gerund by Geoffrey K. Pullum et al
Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner is excellent for Americans. For our purposes—that is not to rile an agent or publisher—choose the more formal of possibilities it offers. If the suggestion feels stilted, rearrange the construction of your sentence.
Grammar Snobs Are Big Meanies: Guide to Language for Fun & Spite by June Casagrande, published by Penguin. Use this book when you want to be informed and confident enough to edit on your own or to judge the expertise of the editor you hire. It is an excellent source (and a fun one) to learn more about style choice vs. grammar rules. A more formal tome that helps with basics but isn’t as fun is The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage by Fowler and Burchfield.
Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs—Even If You’re Right by June Casagrande. The more you know about choices, the better writer you’ll be. You will not always need to cater to gatekeepers.
It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences by June Casagrande. This is the best single book to review before you begin to edit any major writing project.
StyleEase for Chicago Manual of Style by Kate Turabian.
A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers by Kate L. Turabian is an excellent resource for academics.
Perrin and Smith Handbook of Current English has been around a long time. When you have read it, you will know the difference between temerity and timidity—or at least know to look them up. “Half knowing a word may be more dangerous than not knowing it at all” is the kind of truth you will find within its pages. Trouble is, you may need to search for it in a bookstore that sells used books or watch for it at garage sales.
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, by William Strunk Jr., E. B. White, Roger Angell. See my cautionary notes in this book about using Elements as if it were The Ten Commandments.
The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations by David Grambs. One of my favorite references for creative writing.
When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style (Wadsworth Series in Mass Communication and Journalism) by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald . Perfect for freelance writers, copywriters, journalists, and media writers.

Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella is a must-read because poor dialogue technique is a glaring tipoff to editors and publishers that a manuscript is written by a beginner who has not taken the time to learn his or her craft. It is one of those books I wish I had written myself. No need. Chiarella did it.
Writing for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques to Attract, Engage, and Fascinate the Reader from Beginning to End by Karl Iglesias . Fiction writers can learn a lot from screenwriters and playwrights and vice versa.
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. I recommend this book to all my editing clients.
Join me in my battle with the gremlins. But have fun doing it!

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