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Tag Archives | Word choice

Addressing the relatively incorrect use of the word “relative”

One of the most common mistakes I find when editing is the misuse of the adjective “relative” or its derivative adverb “relatively.” Here’s an example:

She was a relatively heavyset woman.

What is the woman’s appearance relative to? Twiggy? A hippopotamus?

When describing an entity as relative, it needs to be compared to something else. The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition (on my iBook) defines relative as

considered in relation or in proportion to something else: existing or possessing a specified characteristic only in comparison to something else; not absolute

Unless you clarify what is being compared, “relative” and “relatively” add no meaning to your writing and should not be used (unless, of course, you’re talking about your Uncle Frank from Oakland).

Many writers are afraid of being forceful, lest their readers disagree with them. So they dilute their conclusions with meaningless adjectives and adverbs.

If you’re afraid of your conclusions being misinterpreted, use specific words that clarify your opinion. If you’re just afraid your audience won’t like what you have to say, don’t be. An irritated reader often denotes an effective author.

One is unique; two are unusual

Last night I caught myself on the cusp of making a common writing mistake: I was about to use “unique” when I meant “unusual.” The difference? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition (on my iBook), “unique” means “being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.”

I was referring to The Inn at Easton, a great restaurant in Easton, MD, that serves kangaroo and barramundi. While it’s not typical for an Inn on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to serve such Australian fare, I’m not sure if it is the only establishment that does so. Hence I opted for “unusual.”

Using “since” as a conjunction can confuse your readers, be it about Iraq or Britney Spears

From the definition for “since” in the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition (on my iBook):

When using since as a causal conjunction to mean “because” or “given that,” be aware that in some contexts or constructions the word may be construed as referring to time.

Here’s an example of when using “since” can be confusing: “Since Britney Spears married Kevin Federline, her career has been a disaster.” While there’s no doubt about the meaning—or truth—of the second part of the sentence, the first part is unclear. Did Britney’s marriage cause the downward spiral of her career? Or did some other events occur after her nuptials that brought about her tragic fall?

Here’s another example: “Since the United States entered Iraq, the country has fallen into chaos.” Did the United States’ presence cause the chaos? Or have other events unfolded after U.S. troops arrived in Iraq that led to the chaos? Here using “since” can cause readers to have opposite interpretations of the same sentence—and can lead to radically different courses of action.

While it’s not wrong to use “since” to mean “because,” it is wrong to confuse your audience. Don’t use “since” to note causation, but instead rely on other conjunctions, such as “as” or “because.”

Tips from Toastmasters that will improve your writing

While preparing for a Toastmasters speech that I gave last night (Project 4: How to Say It in the Communication and Leadership Program manual), I noticed the speech instructions had great advice not just for speaking, but also for writing:

  • “If you want listeners to understand and accept you, be sure to speak the same way they speak, using familiar words and concepts.”
  • “Select words that leave no opportunity for misunderstanding.”
  • “Select verbs carefully…use verbs that have energy. Shake, roll, and wiggle have more energy than move.
  • “Use active voice…The active voice uses fewer words, is easier to follow, and sounds more lively and interesting.”
  • “The verbs is, are, were, and was weaken your message because they don’t show action.”
  • “Strive to say a lot in as few words as possible. Many words are unnecessary or are used as ‘fillers.'”
  • “Use specialized terminology only when speaking to people familiar with those terms.”

A plethora of fodder to use whilst speaking or writing

We all have words that we enjoy using. Here are mine:

  • bamboozle
  • behoove
  • canoodle (yep, that’s three straight words with double “o”s)
  • cull
  • fodder
  • hobgoblin (ok, I just encountered this word in a book I was reading a few days ago, but I’m looking to up my usage)
  • plethora
  • rectify
  • satchel
  • whilst
  • yonder

Originally I forced myself to use those words, but now they’ve worked their way into my natural speech and writing. That is, except for “yonder.” A Massachusetts native can’t sound normal dropping that one.

I’m sure more words will come to me later, so expect a follow-up post.

Are there any words with which you try to pepper your speech? And if you have any suggestions for how I can squeeze in “hobgoblin,” please let me know!

Oh the scandals in those trashy British papers!

Ok, so this row isn’t as juicy as the ones in other British media outlets, but the battle over grammar in The Economist (see my earlier post) continues to rage:

Like, duh
SIR — David Legard used sarcasm to criticise The Economist for employing a popular phrase (“it’s sooo yesterday”) that flummoxed his language students (Letters, August 5th). But if he really does “appreciate excellent written English”, how can he not appreciate your use of humour? English constantly evolves and to anyone who thinks the language should be preserved in a state of petrified perfection I say: it ain’t gonna happen, dude.

Colin Webb
Perth, Australia

More concerns about The Economist‘s grammar

It seems I’m not the only person to have questions about The Economist‘s grammar. From the letters in the August 3, 2006 issue:

Like, er, awesome
SIR— The Human Genome Project is “sooo yesterday” (“A study with a lot of balls”, July 29th)? I mean, like, wow. My advanced language students use The Economist to appreciate excellent written English. Like, unreal. Perhaps we should switch to a different text? Like, Hello!?

David Legard

More useless words to avoid

Here are some words that I delete almost every time I encounter them:

  • Extensive
  • Efficient
  • Effective
  • Relevant
  • As appropriate
  • Recognized
  • Wide (as in “a wide variety”)
  • Very
  • Significant
  • Actual

Why do I delete them? They add no meaning.

What’s the difference between saying, “Bill has extensive experience improving systems design” and “Bill has improved systems designs?”

Two extra words, which make the sentence less punchy.

Like the other words on the list, “extensive experience” is so ambiguous that it’s meaningless. Similarly, what’s the difference between “a recognized leader” and “a leader?” “Actual results” and “results?” “A very active trading day” and “an active trading day?”

Nothing, nothing, and nothing.

If you have a problem using extraneous words, contemplate the opposite: if you hanker to write that you have “relevant skills,” think if anyone would ever say his or her skills were “irrelevant.”

Your audience is busy; don’t subject it to words it doesn’t need.

For more information about words to avoid, read my post “We would like to thank…

We would like to thank…

Well then why not just thank them?

Excess words plague most documents. Maybe it’s because writers usually are paid for their work and feel obliged to give their client as many words as possible, but it makes for a tedious read.

Some examples of words that you should rarely—if ever—use:

  • To date
  • Would like to
  • As follows
  • In their efforts to
  • Currently
  • Both
  • It should also be noted
  • Over time
  • The fact
  • In order
  • When necessary
  • As appropriate
  • Include the following
  • As the means
  • In the process of
  • For your information
  • In an attempt to
  • Please note

When you use one of those words or phrases, consider if it adds any meaning to what you’re trying to say. You’ll probably end up deleting it.

Why does brevity matter?

People are presented with scores of material to read. Do them a favor: keep it as short as possible without losing any meaning. And you’ll be doing yourself a favor too, as people will be more likely to read your product.

Don’t trust me? Then take it from this guy:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
—William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style