Post by Jenny
Recently, a friend and I were discussing teenage drivers and how soon we’ll be experiencing that adventure of parenting. Adventure…maybe that’s putting it mildly. There’s just no getting around the fact that there’s an awful lot to learn about driving before one can call oneself a driver.
The same can be said of writing. Even before a writer can craft a compelling story or article, he or she must have a good working knowledge of how to properly assemble a sentence. To do so, there are hundreds of rules that must be mastered. Writers can, and do, take creative license, but in general, incorrect grammar and spelling indicate sloppiness, laziness, and/ or ignorance. Any writer wanting to succeed in a tight market should avoid those pitfalls like the plague.
Thank goodness for The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly, by Charles Harrington Elster. This fun book is “a meandering road trip along the hazardous highways of English usage…discussing 350 perilous points of interest along the way.” The journey begins with the more basic everyday blunders and continues through the “niceties that nettle the most practiced” writers. In short, it’s a course in how to become a “wreckless” writer.
The book begins with twenty sentences containing 101 common “accidents of style.” Anyone who can identify ninety or better is already a wreckless writer. (Sadly, I did not qualify.) After the pre-test, the trip begins. The first twenty stops are pretty basic—for instance: a lot, not alot (#4); it’s or its (#7); and there, their, and they’re (#11). I was surprised to find gasses or gases at #9. Is that really a common problem?
Moving on down the road, Mr. Elster warns against use of the trendy (“but, hey”), the redundant (“final decision,” “overexaggerate”), and the flat out wrong (“preventative,” “orientate”). He advises writers to be succinct (Don’t “make a decision.” Decide.) and to be careful with commas and apostrophes. Number 238 was one of my favorites, because it has long been a pet peeve of mine. Nauseous means causing nausea. Nauseated means sick to one’s stomach. Number 350—the last stop—explains the tricky who or whom.
The road trip ends with a post-test: 125 quotations from newspapers, magazines, books, and Google news sources. Yes, they all contain errors. No, I did not identify every one of them. But I improved, and I learned a lot (not alot) along the way.
Which grammar or spelling rules trip you up?