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Editor at Large Written English

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Style

Today I found a stylish and informative reference site on writing from Jack Lynch at Rutgers. One of my favorite bits, on that versus which:

Many grammarians insist on a distinction without any historical justification. Many of the best writers in the language couldn’t tell you the difference between them, while many of the worst think they know. If the subtle difference between the two confuses you, use whatever sounds right. Other matters are more worthy of your attention.

And here’s Lynch on Microsoft Word:

MS Word, in its many versions, is now the most common word processor on both the PC and the Macintosh. It’s so widespread, and so meddlesome, that it deserves a special note. The “AutoCorrect” feature, in particular, is a damned nuisance. It was designed by and for people who like high-tech toys, not by and for people who write.

The “Track Changes” feature, however, is absolutely indispensable. I only fully appreciated it after working with the horrendous editing features of Adobe Acrobat Professional, which made me want to throw my tablet stylus across the room. I agree that “AutoCorrect” is a waste of code. But “Track Changes” is how I make my living! Too bad there’s no entry from Lynch on that.

By the way, I successfully upgraded my site to WordPress 2.5 today! I am so proud of myself!

10 replies on “A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Style”

Annie Glimmerglasssays:

I don’t know the rule regarding “that” and “which”; I just know that, when I’m driving along, listening to NPR, I’m likely to mumble “WHICH, you twit, not THAT”. I have a vague notion it pertains to whether it’s an animate or inanimate thing it’s pertaining to….(how’s that for bad writing?). By the way, Daniel Schorr did a bit on bad grammar this morning on Sunday Edition of NPR, including my new fave – “literally” being used when it’s obviously “figuratively” (or what I’d rather say, “virtually.”)

Annie Glimmerglasssays:

and…… how does one learn “Track Changes” so that one doesn’t go mad figuring out how to make it go away when one wants it to? I know this is a program that should be invaluable in my writing, but it’s so confounding!

Annie Glimmerglasssays:

Wait! Obviously I’m not looking these things up in my Strunk an White, but it now occurs to me (after I’ve actually used “which” in something I’m writing) that “which” is used when the thing it’s pertaining to has been used as the object (of a preposition, for example) rather than the subject. Or something like that.

I have always found the “rules” for grammar to be fascinating and humorous. I learned my grammar from a mother for whom English was a second language, and have never learned the “rules”. I count on my ear to tell me the correct usage, and find that I am right 99% of the time. Grammar wrought from family dinners at which the spoken word was the coin of the realm, and mistakes were jumped on faster than light.

Lynch says “…which made me want to through my tablet stylus across the room…”. Yup, well – just goes to prove there’s no substitute for proof-reading one’s work!

Annie Glimmerglasssays:

Uh, er…I believe it was Ms. Butterfield who made that blunder. But she’s entitled, I think. She’s doing a lot of writing here, and if she’s getting the work she’s got this website for, it’s probably not the only writing she’s doing. Ms. Butterfield….do you need a proofreader? I’m available any time.

@Emma: Thanks for the tip! You make an important point, too: often we writers are NOT the best proofreaders of our own work. That’s why it’s so important to get someone else to look at it. I’ve fixed the error…but I’m sure there will be more of them in my future. Such is the nature of a daily blog, when most of my efforts go into the editing I do for private clients!

@Annie: There’s a great site out there that exists solely to point out erroneous uses of “literally.” I’ll leave it up to you to find it. I’d love to have a proofreader for this blog, but my publishing schedule doesn’t really allow time for one. A great tip for “that” and “which”, which may have come from Lynch (I don’t remember where I saw it), is to imagine a “by the way” after every which. If you can’t fit in a parenthetical “by the way,” it should probably be “that.” Thanks for the (voluminous) comments–do you have your own blog somewhere?

@Kenneth: Grammar by ear, or intuition, is a tricky thing. Some people are lucky enough to be right most of the time. The trouble with relying solely on intuition is that you have no way of knowing when you’re being misled!

Annie Glimmerglasssays:

Of course those who ruthlessly use “that” when it should be “which” will be just fine with “by the way” coming afterwards. They won’t hear it as wrong.

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