'Championship Writing' -- Notes on usage

'Championship Writing' -- Notes on usage

In Paula LaRocque's book "Championship Writing: 50 ways to improve your writing," chapters were originally columns in Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. That makes it feel fitting that this week's entry among my favorite chapters, "Notes on usage," is labelled "columns 18 & 19."

Part of this section is the typical paragraph style of previous chapters , which I've reviewed in other posts. The rest is a list of words with LaRocque's recommendations and explanations for their use -- or avoiding their use.

As she says near the start of the chapter, "Words must mean what most educated readers think they mean. Definitions are not set in stone."

"However," she adds, "professional writers and editors -- especially professionals working for a mass medium -- should avoid using words that are in transition or are otherwise controversial."

"Why bother defending questionable usage?" she asks. (I love this part.) "Again, there's always a better -- and uncontroversial -- choice. The weakest defense for shoddy usage is 'lots of people use the word (or expression) that way.' Lots of people have only the most tenuous grasp of literacy, come to that, and therefore shouldn't be models for professional writers."

If you're looking for a usage guide (apart from this blog, of course), LaRocque suggests Theodore Bernstein's "The Careful Writer," but then admits it's out of print. My own favorite is "The Elements of Style," so familiar to many writers that you may have heard about it by its authors' names, Strunk and White.

For those not sure of what a usage guide does, I'll include a few of LaRocque's examples:

"DISINTERESTED means objective or unbiased, not bored or indifferent. The word for the latter is uninterested."

"FORTUITOUS does not mean fortunate. It means accidental, happening by chance. If a fortuitous event is also fortunate, so much the better. Many aren't."

"PRONE, SUPINE Supine means face up, prone face down. The columnist who wrote that she had spent the morning lying prone in the dentist's chair had the wrong doctor."

"SNUCK. Ungrammatical. Sneaked."

So there you have it -- humor can be sneaked into even those more Serious lists about word usage. Contrasts in meaning can make usage books more fun than dictionaries -- and make usage rules easier to recall than mere definitions. (I haven't had trouble with prone and supine since I first read this chapter.)

Happy, Serious writing to all!


Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.

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  • Love reading your takes on words and writing, Margaret. I have this book, too, and used it often while I was teaching.

  • In reply to Abbie Claire:

    Thank you, Abbie. I'm glad you enjoy reading these even though the material is familiar.

  • I stand corrected four times - especially regarding the word prone! Thank you.

  • In reply to folkloric:

    Thank you, folkloric. I dare you to forget prone now -- especially at the dentist, ha ha.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    "PRONE, SUPINE" Ouch. I have been mixing these two for years!

  • In reply to jnorto:

    OK, jnorto -- but now you won't, eh? I hope your dentist doesn't, either!

  • The problem, though, is that usage in the cited books is static. While I wouldn't argue that everything in the Urban Dictionary is good usage, tweet these days has little to do with birds. On the other hand, "gay" no longer means what it did in My Old Kentucky Home, although if I remember correctly from 2016, the whole phrase has been changed.

  • In reply to jack:

    Well, Jack, we could argue about whether static usage is a problem. We need to hang onto definitions so that we can understand things historically... even though I admit to trouble every Kentucky Derby day about "My Old Kentucky Home." That old Kentucky song has been the victim of some changes! It's a lot easier on my mind's other "race day," Indy 500 day, since "Back Home Again in Indiana" hasn't been so affected.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Speaking of race days, why do they play "O Tannenbaum" at the Preakness? (Yeah, I know).

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for the smile, Jack. For those who don't know, the same tune that's "O Tannenbaum" is the state song "Maryland, My Maryland."

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Based on some research (apparently both are based on some Latin liturgy), the words are by some Maryland garbage hiding in Louisiana who tried to get Maryland to secede with Virginia, using such fine terms as "northern scum." I guess that's why nobody from the Opry sings it, and the legislature was trying to change it, although I didn't see if they were successful.

    There's also a "Michigan, My Michigan," which does have Tannenbaumer ("whispering pines"), but also is of Civil War origin.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks, Jack. My Preakness memories usually center around the Derby winner (unusually for me and music), but I seem to recall a lot of voices trailing off after the words "Maryland, My Maryland." This may explain that memory. Any Marylanders out there are welcome to elaborate!

  • good the TV program that you missed in High Definition without You TV Player It's a problem for individuals with a weak link You TV Player, nice.

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