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!
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