Avoid These

I’ve been reading a wonderful little book called The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I feel that I am learning a lot from the book, but at the same time I know that I’m going to have to really work hard at its principles in order to fix some of the problems in my writing.

Right now I’m in a section of the book called Misused Words and Expressions. I believe this section was an addition by E. B. White, but that is irrelevant to you. I wanted to quote a few segments from this section for you, because I found them humorous.

OK, since this is grammar related, most of it is just interesting (I still got a good chuckle from a few of them). Here’s one that many people get wrong, or they may realize that one variation is wrong and fail to latch on to the correct one. Let us allow Mr. White to enlighten us:

Care less. The dismissive “I couldn’t care less” is often used with the shortened “not” mistakenly (and mysteriously) omitted: “I could care less.” The error destroys the meaning of the sentence and is careless indeed.

I know that has come up more than once with several of my friends, some being grammar fanatics. I think most people get it right, but those who fail to stop and think about what they’re saying probably get it wrong.

Some of the words and phrases listed seemed to pierce me to the core. The author used sharp language that left me wishing I could take back some of what I’ve written in the past:

Character. Often simply redundant, used from a mere habit of wordiness.

“A mere habit of wordiness?” Ouch. I understand that he said “often” and by this he probably means that referring to good character is permissible. However, he gives the example: “acts of a hostile character,” saying it should be replaced with: “hostile acts,” and I know I’ve probably used character in that sense before. I think I do have a habit of wordiness, and I’ve been aware of it for a long time now. That’s why I’m reading books like this. I want to drop the habit.

This one was just interesting:

Clever. Note that the word means one thing when applied to people, another when applied to horses. A clever horse is a good-natured one, not an ingenious one.

I had heard of clever horses with this meaning, but failed to understand.

This one was funny:

Enthuse. An annoying verb growing out of the noun enthusiasm. Not recommended.

He then lists two examples of it in use with his recommendations of how to fix it using the noun rather than the “annoying verb.” I think it’s funny that he used “annoying” to describe this. I too find verbs that grow out of nouns annoying. In fact, I find most modern, lazy speech annoying.

This one was the last one I read this morning, but it made me laugh out loud and I had to share it with you. Careful, the author might be calling you illiterate!

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning “combustible” is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means “not combustible”. For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

The author is obviously expressing his opinion that only children and illiterates would be confused by the proper use of inflammable. If you didn’t know this, or had doubts before about this word (or any of the others I’ve listed), perhaps it’s time to brush up on your English.

Of course, I’m not perfect. Several years ago I saw something correctly labeled inflammable and was thrown off by the prefix. I looked it up and have ever since been aware of this. What a relief it is to not be illiterate!

That makes five words or phrases I’ve shared with you. The rest of what he listed was either uninteresting or unlikely to come up in every-day use. If you’d like to know more, read the book. As I finish reading I might find something else funny, and you can bet I’ll share it with you.

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1 Response to “Avoid These”


  1. 1 moo September 7, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I could read about grammar and spellings all day long and never get tired of it!


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