Gwynne's Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (2014)

Part II. Strunk on Style

Chapter 5. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

Many of the words and expressions here listed are not so much bad English as bad style, the commonplaces of careless writing. As illustrated under Feature, the proper correction is likely to be not the replacement of one word or set of words by another but the replacement of vague generality by definite statement.

All right. Idiomatic in familiar speech as a detached phrase in the sense “Agreed” or “Go ahead.” In other uses better avoided. Always written as two words.

As good as or better than. Expressions of this type should be corrected by rearranging the sentence. For instance, “My opinion is as good as his, or better” or “…  if not better.”

As to whether. “Whether” is sufficient; see under Rule 13 in Chapter 3.

Bid. Takes the infinitive without “to.” The past tense is “bade.” Thus “He bade me come”; not “He bade me to come.”

Case. The Concise Oxford Dictionary begins its definition of this word: “Instance of a thing’s occurring; usual state of affairs.” In these two senses, the word “case” is usually unnecessary. Thus:

“In many cases, the rooms were poorly ventilated” should be “Many of the rooms were poorly ventilated.”

“It has rarely been the case that any mistake has been made” is better as “Few mistakes have been made.”

Certainly. Used indiscriminately by some speakers, much as others use “very,” to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing.

Character. Often simply redundant, used from a mere habit of wordiness. “Acts of a hostile character” should be simply “Hostile acts.”

Claim, verb. With object-noun, means “lay claim to.” May be used with a dependent clause if this sense is clearly involved: “He claimed that he was the sole surviving heir.” (But even here, “claimed to be” would be better.) Not to be used as a substitute for “declare,” “maintain” or “charge.”

Compare. “To compare to” is to point out resemblances, or imply resemblances, between objects regarded as essentially of a different order. “To compare with” is mainly to point out differences between objects regarded as essentially of the same order. Thus life has been compared to a pilgrimage, to a drama, to a battle; Congress may be compared with the British Parliament. Paris has been compared to ancient Athens; it may be compared with modern London.

Clever. This word has been greatly overused; it is best restricted to ingenuity displayed in small matters.

Consider. Not followed by “as” when it means “believe to be,” as in “I consider him thoroughly competent.” Compare “The lecturer considered Cromwell first as soldier and second as administrator,” where “considered” means “examined” or “discussed.”

Dependable. A needless substitute for “reliable,” “trustworthy.”

Due to. Incorrectly used for “through,” “because of,” or “owing to” in adverbial phrases such as “He lost the first game due to carelessness.” In its correct use, it is related to a particular noun as predicate or as modifier, as in “This invention is due to Edison”; “losses due to preventable fires.”

Effect. As a noun, it means “result”; as a verb, it means “to bring about,” “accomplish” (not to be confused with “affect,” which means “to influence”). Again as a noun, it is also often loosely used in perfunctory writing about fashions, music, painting, and other arts, as in: “an Oriental effect”; “effects in pale green”; “very delicate effects”; “broad effects”; “subtle effects”; “a charming effect was produced by.” The writer who has a definite meaning to express will not take refuge in such vagueness.

Etc. Not to be used of persons. It is equivalent to “and the rest,” “and so forth,” and hence it is not to be used if one of these would be insufficient—that is, if the reader would be left in doubt as to any important particulars. It is least open to objection when it represents the last terms of a list already given almost in full or immaterial words at the end of a quotation. At the end of a list introduced by “such as,” “for example,” or any similar expression, “etc.” is incorrect.

Fact. Use this word only of matters of a kind capable of direct verification, not of matters of judgement. That a particular event happened on a given date, that lead melts at a certain temperature, are facts. But such conclusions as that Napoleon was the greatest of modern generals, or that the climate of California is delightful, however incontestable they may be, are not properly facts. On the formula “the fact that,” see under Rule 13 in Chapter 3.

Factor. A hackneyed word; the expressions of which it forms part can usually be replaced by something more direct and idiomatic. Thus:

“His superior training was the great factor in his winning the match” is better as “He won the match by being better trained.”

“Heavy artillery is becoming an increasingly important factor in deciding battles” is better as “Heavy artillery is playing a larger and larger part in deciding battles.”

Feature. Another hackneyed word; like “factor,” it usually adds nothing to the sentence in which it occurs. Thus instead of “A feature of the entertainment especially worthy of mention was the singing of Miss A.,” it is better to use the same number of words to tell what Miss A. sang or, if the programme has already been given, to tell something of how she sang. As a verb, in the advertising sense of offer as a special attraction, “to feature” should be avoided.

Fix. Colloquial in America for “arrange,” “prepare,” “mend.” In writing, restrict it to its literary senses: fasten, make firm or immovable, etc.

He is a man who. A common type of redundant expression; see Rule 13 in Chapter 3. “He is a man who is very ambitious” should simply be “He is very ambitious,” and “Spain is a country which I have always wanted to visit” should be “I have always wanted to visit Spain.”

However. In the meaning “nevertheless,” it should not come first in its sentence or clause. Incorrect is: “The roads were almost impassable. However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp.” Correct is: “The roads were almost impassable. At last, however, we succeeded in reaching camp.” When “however” comes first, it means “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.” Examples: “However you advise him, he will probably do as he thinks best.” “However discouraging the prospect, he never lost heart.”

Kind of. Not to be used as a substitute for “rather” (before adjectives and verbs), or, except in familiar style, for “something like” (before nouns). Restrict it to its literal sense: “Amber is a kind of fossil resin”; “I dislike that kind of notoriety.” The same holds true of “sort of.”

Less. Should not be misused for “fewer.” Therefore “He had less men than in the previous campaign” should be “He had fewer men than in the previous campaign.” “Less” refers to quantity, “fewer” to number. “His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not so great as mine.” “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine.”1 It is, however, correct to say, “The signers of the petition were less than a hundred,” where the round number, a hundred, is something like a collective noun, and “less” is thought of as meaning “a less quantity or amount.”

Line, or along these lines. “Line” in the sense of “course of procedure, conduct, thought” is allowable but has been so much overworked, particularly in the phrase “along these lines,” that a writer who aims at freshness or originality had better discard it entirely. Thus:

Better than “Mr. B. also spoke along the same lines” is “Mr. B. also spoke, to the same effect.”

Better than “He is studying along the line of French literature” is “He is studying French literature.”

Literal, literally. Often incorrectly used in support of exaggeration or violent metaphor, as in:

“A literal flood of abuse” rather than “A flood of abuse.”

“Literally dead with fatigue” rather than “Almost dead with fatigue” or “Dead tired.”

“He literally looked daggers at me” rather than “He looked daggers at me.”

Lose out. Meant to be more emphatic than “lose,” but is actually less so because of its commonness. The same holds true of “try out,” “win out,” “sign up,” “register up.” With a number of verbs, “out” and “up” form idiomatic combinations: “find out,” “run out,” “turn out,” “cheer up,” “dry up,” “make up,” and others, each distinguishable in meaning from the simple verb. “Lose out” is not in that category.

Most. Not to be used for “almost.” Therefore “Most everybody” should be “Almost everybody” and “Most all the time” should be “Almost all the time.”

Nature. Often simply redundant, used like “character,” as in “Acts of a hostile nature,” which should be “Hostile acts.” It is often vaguely used in such expressions as “a lover of nature,” “poems about nature.” Unless more specific statements follow, the reader cannot tell whether the poems have to do with natural scenery, rural life, the sunset, the untracked wilderness, or the habits of squirrels.

Near by. An adverbial phrase, not yet fully accepted as good English, though the analogy of “close by” and “hard by” seems to justify it. “Near,” or “near at hand,” is as good, if not better. It is not to be used as an adjective. Use “neighbouring” instead. [Since Strunk’s day, it has become permissible to compress “near by” into “nearby,” when it can be used both as an adverb (“I am staying nearby”) and as an adjective (“I am staying in a nearby house”).]

Oftentimes. An archaic form, no longer in good use. The modern word is “often.”

One hundred and one. Retain the “and” in this and similar expressions, in accordance with the unvarying usage of English prose from Old English times.

One of the most. Avoid beginning essays or paragraphs with this formula, as in “One of the most interesting developments of modern science is, etc.” and “Switzerland is one of the most interesting countries of Europe.” There is nothing wrong in this; it is simply threadbare and forcible-feeble.

People. “The people” is a political term, not to be confused with “the public.” From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage. The word “people” is not to be used with words of number, in place of “persons.” If of “six people” five went away, how many “people” would be left?

Phase. Means a stage of transition or development, as in “the phases of the moon” and “the last phase.” It is not to be used for “aspect” or “topic.” Thus, “Another phase of the subject” should be “Another point …” or “Another question.”

Possess. Not to be used as a mere substitute for “have” or “own.” Thus:

“He possessed great courage” should be “He had great courage” or “He was very brave.”

“He was the fortunate possessor of” should be “He owned.”

Respective, respectively. These words may usually be omitted with advantage. Thus:

“Works of fiction are listed under the names of their respective authors” should be “Works of fiction are listed under the names of their authors.”

“The one-mile and two-mile runs were won by Jones and Cummings respectively” should be “The one-mile and two-mile runs were won by Jones and by Cummings.”

In some kinds of formal writing, as in geometrical proofs, it may be necessary to use “respectively,” but it should not appear in writing on ordinary subjects.

So. Avoid, in writing, the use of “so” as an intensifier: “so good”; “so warm”; “so delightful.” On the use of “so” to introduce clauses, see Rule 5.

Sort of. See under Kind of.

State. Not to be used as a mere substitute for “say,” “remark.” Restrict it to the sense of “express fully” or “…  clearly,” as in “He refused to state his objections.”

Student body. A needless and awkward expression, meaning no more than the simple word “students.” Thus:

“A member of the student body” should be “A student.”

“Popular with the student body” should be “Liked by the students.”

“The student body passed resolutions” should be “The students passed resolutions.”

System. Frequently used without need. Thus:

“Dayton has adopted the commission system of government” is better as “Dayton has adopted government by commission.”

“The dormitory system” is better as simply “Dormitories.”

Thanking you in advance. This sounds as if the writer meant “It will not be worth my while to write to you again.” Simply write “Thanking you.” And if the favour that you have requested is granted, write a letter of acknowledgement.

They. A common inaccuracy is the use of the plural pronoun when the antecedent is a distributive expression such as “each,” “each one,” “everybody,” “everyone,” “many a man,” which, though implying more than one person, requires the pronoun to be in the singular. Similar to this, but with even less justification, is the use of the plural pronoun with the antecedent “anybody,” “anyone,” “somebody,” “someone,” the intention being either to avoid the awkward “he or she” or to avoid committing oneself to either. Some bashful speakers even say, “A friend of mine told me that they, etc.” Use “he” with all the above words, unless the antecedent is or must be feminine. [I have kept this for historical interest as much as for any other reason. For the official view represented in this book, please see what I say on the subject in the Preface.]

Very. Use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves.

Viewpoint. Write “point of view,” but do not misuse this, as many do, for “view” or “opinion.”

While. Avoid the indiscriminate use of this word for “and,” “but,” and “although.” Many writers use it frequently as a substitute for “and” or “but,” either from a mere desire to vary the connective or from uncertainty about which of the two connectives is the more appropriate. In this use it is best replaced by a semicolon. Thus,

“The office and salesrooms are on the ground floor, while the rest of the building is devoted to manufacturing” should be “The office and salesrooms are on the ground floor; the rest of the building is devoted to manufacturing.”

Its use as a virtual equivalent of “although” is allowable in sentences where this leads to no ambiguity or absurdity. Therefore “While I admire his energy, I wish it were employed in a better cause,” is entirely correct, as shown by the paraphrase, “I admire his energy; at the same time I wish it were employed in a better cause.”

Compare: “While the temperature reaches 90 or 95 degrees in the daytime, the nights are often chilly,” with “Although the temperature reaches 90 or 95 degrees in the daytime, the nights are often chilly.” The paraphrase “The temperature reaches 90 or 95 degrees in the daytime; at the same time the nights are often chilly” shows why the use of “while” is incorrect.

In general, the writer will do well to use “while” only with strict literalness, in the sense of “during the time that.”

Whom. Often incorrectly used for “who” before “he said” or similar expressions, when it is really the subject of a later verb in the clause. Thus:

“His brother, whom he said would send him the money” should be “His brother, who he said would send him the money.”

“The man whom he thought was his friend” should be “The man who (that) he thought was his friend” or “…  whom he thought his friend.”

Worth while or worthwhile. Overworked as a term of vague approval and (with “not”) of disapproval. It is strictly applicable only to actions, as in “Is it worth while (or worthwhile) to telegraph?” Therefore “His books are not worthwhile” should be “His books are not worth reading” or “not worth one’s while to read” or “…  do not repay reading.”

The use of “worthwhile” before a noun (“a worthwhile story”) is indefensible.

Would. A conditional statement in the first person requires “should,” not “would,” as in “I should not have succeeded without his help.” Also, the equivalent of “shall” in indirect quotation after a verb in the past tense is “should,” not “would,” as in “He predicted that before long we should have a great surprise.” To express habitual or repeated action, the past tense, without “would,” is usually sufficient, and from its brevity, more emphatic. Therefore “Once a year he would visit the old mansion” is better as “Once a year he visited the old mansion.”

1 Contrary to what some grammarians would say, Strunk is not incorrect in his use of “so … as” rather than “as … as” in this instance. As the Concise Oxford Dictionary confirms, “so” to express degree before an “as” clause may not be used when making a positive statement, but only with a negative. Thus: “I am not so eager as you” is correct, but “I am so eager as you” is incorrect and should be “I am as eager as you.”