Words and Expressions Commonly Misused :: Strunk and White

Many of the words and expressions listed here are not so much bad English as bad style, the commonplaces of careless writing. . . . [T]he 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.

The shape of our language is not rigid; in questions of usage we have no lawgiver whose word is final.

* * * * *

Alude. Do not confuse with elude. You allude to a book; you elude a pursuer. Note, too, that allude is not synonymous with refer. An allusion is an indirect mention, a reference is a specific one.

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.

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

Compare. To compare to is to point out 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.

Comprise. Literally, “embrace”: A zoo comprises mammals, reptiles, and birds (because it “embraces,” or “includes,” them). But animals do not comprise (“embrace”) a zoo — they constitute a zoo.

Contact. As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact people; get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, or meet them.

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

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

Facility. Why must jails, hospitals, and schools suddenly become “facilities”?

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

Farther. Further. The two words are commonly interchanged, but there is a distinction worth observing: farther serves best as a distance word, further as a time or quantity word. You chase a ball farther than the other fellow; you pursue a subject further.

Feature. Another hackneyed word; like factor, it usually adds nothing to the sentence in which it occurs. . . . As a verb, in the sense of “offer as a special attraction,” it is to be avoided.

Finalize. A pompous, ambiguous verb.

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.

Folk. A collective noun, equivalent to people. Use the singular form only. Folks, in the sense of “parents,” “family,” “those present,” is colloquial and too folksy for formal writing.

Fortuitous. Limited to what happens by chance. Not to be used for fortunate or lucky.

Get. The colloquial have got for have should not be used in writing. The preferable form of the participle is got, not gotten.

Hopefully. This once-useful adverb meaning “with hope” has been distorted and is now widely used to mean “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, “Hopefully I’ll leave on the noon plane” is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you’ll leave on the noon plane in a hopefull frame of mind? Or do you mean you hope you’ll leave on the noon plane? Whivhever you mean, you haven’t said it clearly. Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ears of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.

Imply. Infer. Not interchangeable. Something implied is something suggested or indicated, though not expressed. Something inferred is something deduced from evidence at hand.

In regard to. Often wrongly written in regards to. But as regards is correct, and means the same thing.

In the last analysis. A bankrupt expression.

Inside of. Inside. The of following inside is correct in the adverbial meaning “in less than.” In other meanings, of is unnecessary.

Insightful. The word is a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive.” If it is to be used at all, it should be used for instances of remarkably penetrating vision. Usually, it crops up merely to inflate the commonplace.

In terms of. A piece of padding usually best omitted.

Interesting. An unconvincing word; avoid it as a means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.

Irregardless. Should be regardless. The error results from failure to see the negative in -less and from a desire to get it in as a prefix, suggested by such words as irregular, irresponsible, and, perhaps especially, irrespective.

-ize. Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix. Many good and useful verbs do end in -ize: summarize, fraternize, harmonize, fertilize. But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, prioritize, finalize, to name three. Be suspicious of -ize; let your ear and your eye guide you. Never tack -ize onto a noun to create a verb. Usually you will discover that a useful verb already exists. Why say “utilize” when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?

TO BE CONTINUED . . . . .

[from The Elements of Style Fourth Edition, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White]

5 thoughts on “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused :: Strunk and White

  1. This is very helpful, but as a second language student, I would understand better if there were more examples following each comment. Thanks anyway.

  2. Pingback: So many things | What's that– 6 o'clock you say?

  3. Justin, I saw the typo too and wanted to contact the author. When I clicked on “Your host” I found that he had chosen to leave this world and is no longer available physically to make the correction. So I will simply be grateful for what he has written and who he was, and leave it at that.

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