Writing with Precision: Watch Out for These Twelve Words

“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.

© 2008 by Laverne Daley
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8 Comments on “Writing with Precision: Watch Out for These Twelve Words”

  1. What a great post. I know I am guilty of a few of these errors. It is cool to see that you are fighting the good fight.

  2. I’m guilty of quite a few of them, Leslie.
    When someone corrects me, I’m grateful — it’s fodder for more posts like this one (I’ve been corrected a lot!). Thank you for your comment.

  3. Laura says:

    Thank you for these handy reminders. I’m sure I commit ghastly errors all the time. I wish George Bush would read this blog every day.

  4. ldaley says:

    Laura: How many years has it been — 23, 24, 25 — since I first read your work? Never a ghastly error in the lot. I think you need no reminders. But I’m so happy to hear from you and glad to be able to thank you for commenting.

  5. Owen says:

    Good reminders. I’m forwarding it to my editorial staff. Could this be my old friend from Tennessee?

  6. The same, Owen. Good to hear from you. I’m glad you found something helpful here.
    Writing this blog is a lot of fun but I have to take care somemtimes that it doesn’t interfere with paying gigs.
    Have you written any more books since Bicycling Tennessee? I still promote that book whenever I meet biking people.

  7. Owen says:

    No books since that one. I still promote it and get royalties. Thanks for helping to spread the word. These days I keep busy as editor of a weekly, and helping my wife take care of our baby son.
    Glad I found your blog.

  8. ldaley says:

    I, too, am glad you found the blog. Sounds like you have a very busy, satisfying life. Check your email for a message from me.


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