The Guardians of Our Language
Excerpted in part from the multi award-winning
Frugal Editor, second edition.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
can help. Here are a few ways for word lovers to go
as much about grammar and vocabulary as possible.
Learn not to make the mistake of confusing a grammar
rule with a style choice.
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.
see a partial list of some of my favorite books that
will get you started on my anti gremlin crusade.
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.
Stylebook by Associated Press. Especially
good for those who write for newspapers
and some magazines.
Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s
Guide to Getting It Right by Bill Bryson
Manual of Style by the University of
Chicago Press Staff.
Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance
Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.
Especially good (and fun) for those writing
for the UK market.
From the Madding Gerund by Geoffrey
K. Pullum et al
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.
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
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
for Chicago Manual of Style by Kate
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
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
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.
Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury
of Terms & Literary Quotations by David
Grambs. One of my favorite references for
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.
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
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
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!