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
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 gremlins.
can help. Here are a few ways for word lovers to go about
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.
Tips and Tidbits
(Each month in this box, Carolyn
lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote
better. She will also include a Tip to help readers
find a treasure among long-neglected books or a
sapphire among the newly-published.)
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
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
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 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.
for Chicago Manual of Style by Kate Turabian.
• A Manual for Writers of Research Papers,
Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition:
Style for Students and Researchers by
Kate L. Turabian is an excellent resource
• 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
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 it.
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.
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!
nominate a book that fits within the parameters listed
in this year's Noble Back to Literature column. Explain
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Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning novelist, poet
and author of the HowToDoItFrugally series of
how-to books. She occasionally teaches classes for the
renowned UCLA Extension Writers' Program.
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