Monday, March 28, 2011

Last Monday Book: The Accidents of Style

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?


Jean W said...

Although tecnically not grammar, I use an excessive number of commas. Every time I pause, or make a list, I feel the need to place a comma. Maybe, The Accidents of Style, can straighten me out.

April Moore said...

I really make an effort to avoid using passive language. So when I read it in other people's work, I just want to scream ACTIVE VERBS!! USE ACTIVE VERBS! (I'm also a comma fairy--sprinkling comma fairy dust over my work, letting them fall where they may).

Cricket McRae said...

I use too few commas -- at least according to my copy editor who is old-school about usage. For a while I was bad about properly hyphenating compound modifiers but managed to get over that (I hope). And nauseous vs. nauseated is one of my peeves, too.

Looks like a fun read and good reference!

Jenny said...

Jean and April, I make liberal use of commas, as well. (Comma fairy--love it). Maybe we should donate some to Cricket.

April, I recently finished reading a very long book with many passive verbs, and I'm pretty sure I rewrote every one in my head!

Anita said...

I never know whether to use toward or towards. I should probably find out!

April Moore said...

Jenny--isn't it distracting?!

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