Writing with Precision: Watch Out for These Twelve WordsPosted: March 16, 2008
“If writing must be a precise form of communication, it should be treated like a precision instrument. It should be sharpened, and it should not be used carelessly.” Theodore M. Bernstein
In pursuit of precision, we offer here are a dozen word usages that sometimes trip us up. We often use them without realizing their precise meaning.
Demolish, destroy. You can’t partially destroy or demolish something. Demolish and destroy do away with completely. So there is no need to say something is totally destroyed.
Fliers, flyers. People who fly airplanes are fliers. Handbills are flyers.
Annual. It’s never the first annual anything. If something is happening for the first time, it can’t be annual yet. You can say you expect it to become an annual event. Use annual only for second and succeeding times.
Funeral service. The word service is redundant. A funeral is a service. (I know I was taught this in newswriting classes but I still have trouble remembering it, in writing and in speaking).
Imply, infer. A speaker implies. A hearer infers.
Over, more than. Over refers to spatial relationships (the plane flew over the city). Use more than with figures. More than 50,000 fans attended the game.
Reluctant, reticent. If we don’t want to do something, we’re reluctant to do it. If we don’t want to speak about it, we’re reticent to talk about it.
Temperatures. Temperatures may get higher or lower but they don’t get warmer or cooler. Temperatures may rise, but they don’t warm up. The day becomes warmer or the air becomes warmer as the temperature rises.
And while talking about temperatures, if you think you’re coming down with a cold and you feel warm, don’t say you’re running a temperature. You are not. You may be running a fever. Our bodies always have a temperature, usually around 98.6 degrees. If it’s above that number, you probably have a fever.
Unique. Unique means something is the only one of its kind. It can’t be very unique or more unique or most unique (all of which imply comparison with other objects). It’s either unique (one of a kind) or it’s not.
Drown. Don’t say someone was drowned unless another person held the victim’s head under water to accomplish the deed. Otherwise, just say someone drowned.
Please leave a comment.