On Choosing the Right Words (usage) and William Zinsser

Once a month the editors at my workplace get together for a meeting we call “Editors on Editing.” It’s a great time. We set aside one hour each month to talk about the crafts of writing and editing. We compare notes, share books, tell stories, and laugh a lot. We also take turns leading the discussion at each meeting.

On writing wellWe’re going to have the September meeting tomorrow. In preparation, the colleague leading the meeting asked the rest of us to read through William Zinsser’s chapter on usage from On Writing Well (chapter 7).

On Writing Well is easily one of the best books on writing I have ever read. I’ve recommended it countless times and I reference it frequently. The chapter on usage is a gem. Not only does Zinsser convincingly argue his points, he keeps you laughing all the way through. His witticisms made me laugh out loud as I read them again in preparation for today’s meeting.

My colleague also asked us to be prepared to answer these questions:

1) What are some current words or phrases that are growing in acceptance but that still bother you?

2) Can you think of any words or phrases that have been granted acceptibility despite having a somewhat distasteful past?

3) How do you feel about the following constructions? Are they becoming acceptable in a world that cares less and less about proper usage?
My son went to dinner with my wife and I.
The school administrators decided to up their tuition rates.
Everyone should bring their own lunch. 

Here are the answers I’ve prepared.  All of them use examples from the publishing industry. What do you think? 

1) [a] Impact and impactful. Common usage of these words sound too violent (The car made an impact with the tree; vs. That book really impacted me.), “Impactful” just sounds ridiculous (We increased our Facebook ads to create a more impactful marketing campaign). [b] I regularly hear the word target used when the word aim should have been (We’re going to target that consumer with this advertisement). [c] I hear the word strategically used to dress up sentences in conference rooms, usually creating redundancy in sentence (Let’s think through this and create a strategic plan to release this book with a specific goal in mind. — I’m not kidding. I hear sentences like these all the time.) [d] I hear the word jealous used when envious should be used (I’m so jealous that you got that advance; vs. I’m envious that you got an advance. I’m jealous about letting anyone else talk to my editor). [e] Literally. This word is so commonly abused. Just go talk to someone and you’ll hear it done — literally. [f] Words with the suffix ‘ize’ that shouldn’t have them, unless you’re trying to be funny (Let’s Twitter-ize this marketing campaign; vs. I’m going to mayonn-ize this sandwich.)

2) Sexy and hardcore. [a] During high school I was into the new ska music of the late ’90’s. We used to talk about hardcore ska bands and hardcore punk bands. Later on in college I would say things like, “He is super hardcore into video games.” But isn’t hardcore a pornography term? Isn’t it originally meant as a descriptor to separate ‘soft’ porn from the extra nasty stuff? By using hardcore instead of committed, fanatic, devoted to, or enamored with, are we comparing otherwise good things with fetishes? [b] It strikes me as distasteful when the word sexy is used outside of the subject of sex. I’ve heard new computers, iPhones and iPads, book covers, marketing plans and a thousand other non-sexual things described as sexy. Why not cool, modern, savvy, current, or even just awesome? “We’ve put together a sexy campaign that will make this product a best seller.” “Sexy new flat screens on sale for $99.” Ugh. Seriously? When did sexiness become the epitome of cool? The day your new phone makes you want to take off your pants is the day you have a hardcore problem.

3) How do you feel about the following constructions? Are they becoming acceptable in a world that cares less and less about proper usage?
My son went to dinner with my wife and I. — This is common. It’s perceived to be correct. I often use I and me incorrectly too.
The school administrators decided to up their tuition rates. — Up should be raise. This is just poor English.
Everyone should bring their own lunch. — I can’t decide on this one. I think “his and her” sentences cause clumsy reading. Especially if you have to read it over and over again. (Everyone should bring his or her own lunch. Then, if everyone could put his or her lunch into his or her locker, we’ll get started.) I think I’m fine with their.

I make no claims to be an expert on word usage. (I used both workplace and convincingly in unconvincing ways in this post alone.) But I’ve obviously got opinions. What about you?


3 thoughts on “On Choosing the Right Words (usage) and William Zinsser

  1. cubfann

    I agree with you on the words impact and impactful. Our old Zondervan friend Rich Tatum would also agree. He once went on a rant about how those are primarily terms used in dentistry. As for me, what bugs me is laziness in speaking and writing. I think of someone describing something as awesome or cool. These are very nondescript descriptive words. Let’s use words that make the reader, listener feel like they are present. When everything is awesome, nothing is.

    Other words that bug me are filler words such as “just”, “really”, and “very”.

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      I agree. Cool is probably the filler word that I resort to the most. It means to me the same thing that good means. “That shirt is cool.” “That shirt looks good.” We get away with stuff like this in conversation, but when written they are boring.


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