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Better Writing

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 10, 2014
Category: Self Help

Good grammar and correct usage — I think they matter. A lot. In my cosmology, the faster standards erode, the more they matter. On these screens, I’m as obsessed with good grammar and proper usage as I am with the books, CDs and movies I choose to recommend.

And so, in the interest of feeling less alone, I’m going to give you ten common grammatical and usage errors that make me — and all readers and editors who actually liked English class — flinch. But first, a short sermon.

In J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” the eldest brother tells his youngest brother: You must not only appear on the family radio show, you must always shine your shoes for the sick, old “Fat Lady” who lives for the show. Good grammar is like shining your shoes: nobody may notice, nobody may care, but you want to get it right nonetheless. So listen up.

Everyone uses "hopefully" as a shortcut for "I hope." It is not. Yes, the dictionary allows it, but that’s just bending to popular usage. In my book, there is only one correct use for "hopefully." It’s a synonym for "prayerfully" — as in, "She looked up hopefully and said, ‘Dear Lord, please make it rain soon, or we’ll have no harvest.’" Do you want to say "I hope"? Then say "I hope."

As in "the perfect vacation" or "the perfect date." No. Nothing’s perfect. [Well, maybe: a perfect idiot, a perfect delusion.] People who use "perfect" — a dumb, empty, overused and altogether meaningless adjective — are not signifying their good taste, but their unwillingness to think of a more descriptive word.

As in: "Everyone knows what they want." Who is this "they"? A singular subject is followed by a singular pronoun. How to write this sentence correctly? I say: "Everyone knows what he/she wants." Looks awkward? True. But at least it isn’t sexist. Or wrong.

They’re not synonyms. "Since" only refers to time: "Since August, he’s been in a funk." It cannot be used to suggest causality: "Since he’s depressed, we never call him."

I think this started in real estate ads, where hype often trumps truth. "Your apartment is unique? Wait ’till you see this totally unique place." Implication: The new apartment is far more unique than the old one. But something can’t be "more" or "less" unique than anything else. "Unique" is an absolute. It can’t take a modifier. And if you stop to think about it, you grasp that everything is unique and everyone is unique — as in "one of a kind" — and, suddenly, "unique" becomes…banal.

"He has over a billion dollars." Wrong. Riveting, but wrong. "Over" refers to positioning in space — the opposite of "under," as in "over the fence." When you refer to quantity, you want "more than."

"Disinterested" describes neutrality. "Uninterested" suggests a negative point-of-view. A gay man may be said to be sexually "disinterested" in women; that is, he doesn’t care about having sex with them. But he may be "uninterested" if a woman propositions him; that is, he has a definite opinion on the idea, and it isn’t to rip her clothes off.

ITS and IT’S
Its amazing how often people get confused about this. Oops. I meant "it’s" — the contraction of "it is." The possessive adjective has no apostrophe.

A cliché used to describe 9/11, and, as a result, other events. What does "forever" mean here? That it didn’t change us in a way we could unwind? As if we could, with less momentous events, turn back the clock and have a do-over? No, unless there’s been a change in philosophy and physics, even if you could tidy up whatever occurred so there was no evidence anything ever happened, you and the place would be still be changed forever — you’re in a later time. All change is forever. Live with it. And dump the horror movie sound of "forever."

Tell me about the other kind. For that matter, re-consider “dead body” and ”completely destroyed.”

There you go. Ten easy lessons. But you may want a refresher course. Or the advanced course. Or you may have a friend who has the writer’s equivalent of bad breath and could use a style guide. Well, here are some books that can help:

The Elements of Style: Strunk and White created the all-time go-to guide. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

Bird by Bird: Anne Lamott writes now about spirituality, but back in the day, she had some smart, worldly advice for getting your thoughts on paper. [To read more and/or buy it, click here.]

On Writing: Part memoir, part instruction guide, Stephen King’s book is endlessly fascinating. [To read more and/or buy it, click here.}

The Creative Habit: Twyla Tharp is best known as a choreographer, but as she explains how she works, she shows you exactly how to create something out of nothing — as it happens, one bird at a time. [To read more and/or buy it, click here].

Yours, for better writing…