Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Your Teachers Lied to You (a WORDS FROM THE FRONT Aside in the TIPS FOR ASPIRING WRITING Series)

Is your writing redundant and flat? I don't want to help any writers pass the buck about what they themselves create, but one culprit that often clips the wings of possible creative genius before it can fly is our educational system. So go ahead—blame your teachers next time someone comments about your stilted prose. But don't read further if you intend to do that, or you'll be making yourself a bit of a fibber.

As an editor, one of the most annoying things I have to do is rectify some common "rules" that many of us were taught in English class. Yes, I meant rectify; though one might argue that these rules are good for writers to follow (they aren't), they are instead substandard and tend to create overwordy and thus redundant prose. [Not everything in editing is annoying. When a writer turns a phrase that's completely original and communicates fully but without the affectations that go with trying to turn a phrase, it's joyous. And even the aforementioned (and about to be discussed) errors, if repeated consistently, are some of the easiest to correct en masse in a document.]

Often people chalk up to "style" those decisions that are really fundamental errors in writing effectively. If you feel that I'm wrong on any of the following gaffes for style reasons, I would suggest a trip to the style doctor to see if your style detector is perhaps malfunctioning or dead.

With that little setup, let's get to my biggest pet peeves in this category, while noting that the complete list is WAY longer than this.


W T F?

There's no need to append "or not" to "whether." It's like someone asking, "Hey, Sally, are you going to the game tonight? Maybe we can hook up under the bleachers or in the utility room like ol' times. Whatcha say?"

To which Sally replies, "I might go to the game or I might not go to the game. But regardless, your paunch, overinflated ego, and lack of steady employment are not as exciting for me as what you brought to the table back when I was a wee cheerleader and you were my quarterback honey, so I won't be rockin' it with you regardless of whether I go."

[Sorry, got a little carried away with that example; it just seemed that the story wanted to go there.]

Let's dissect this a bit. Sally's reply includes (1) "I might go to the game or I might not go to the game." That's equivalent to saying (2) "I don't know whether I will go to the game or I will not go to the game." Less stiltily (go ahead and look it up; you won't find it), it could be written (3) "I don't know whether or not I will go to the game." This sentence could be written more gracefully, however, as (4) "I don't know whether I will go to the game" or "I'm not sure whether [or if] I'm going to the game." The "or not" is implicit in the term whether, because whether by definition indicates a decision between two or more possible options (but usually two).

Now I know what your saying: Who cares? If you're a writer, you should. I'm not all about word count for word count's sake, but when unnecessary words are injected into otherwise good writing, they dilute the meaning of the words that actually convey meaning. Let's see what we have in our example above:

Example 1: 13 words
Example 2: 18 words
Example 3: 12 words
Example 4: 9 words

See the pattern? But it's only three words, really, one might say. True, but let's not use absolute numbers without context. Those three words equal a 25% reduction in word count if they are culled from one's writing, and a 33% increase in word count if added to one's writing (though why anyone would do that I can't fathom). 

There are times when whether needs or not. My guess is that's the reason for this so-called "rule"—so people don't screw up the exception when it occurs. One example is from the final line of the example passage: ". . . so I won't be rockin' it with you regardless of whether I go." It's correct as written, but if the word order is changed, it may require or not: ". . . so I won't be rockin' it with you whether or not I go." Here, the choice of "whether" to indicate choice requires that the choice be made explicit because it's not otherwise obvious from the earlier part of the sentence. Plain English? If your intended meaning is "either way" or "regardless of whether," then "whether or not" is what you need to use. Otherwise, drop it.


C'mon. When people compare two (or more) things, by definition they contrast them. Comparing is to note the similarities and differences between items. So there's no need to add "and contrast." And while we're add it, the proper phrasing is "compare with." "Compare to" should only be used when the intended meaning is "just like" or "the same as"—for instance, "The woman compared the bird to the plane she had seen at the aiport." If "with" were used instead of "to" in this sentence, she would instead be noting similarities and differences rather than saying that the bird was much like the plane.

It's a bit tricky because "contrast" alone usually means to note just the differences. 

And last, while we're on #2, try to lose these little redundancies as well: ATM machine, VIN number, and of course, ISBN number. 


I have no idea where this one came from. Educators with extremely bad ADD or ADHD? Readers who experience sporadic losses of memory while reading? I'm not sure, but I do know that writers tend to repeat themselves, which is super annoying if you got it the first time. And most good readers do. Which is the reason why I think this rule is SO bad: it encourages writers to be insecure and overcompensate; damn those readers who might feel like they've been bludgeoned with a giant moose rack. What do I mean? Remember this?
  1. First paragraph: State your premise, your main arguments and your conclusion.
  2. Second paragraph: State the premise and Argument 1 (or just Argument 1). 
  3. Third paragraph: Argument 2. 
  4. Fourth paragraph: Argument 3.
  5. Fifth paragraph: Restate everything from Paragraph 1, then describe why your arguments support your conclusion in Paragraph 1. 

Beyond the fact that this approach totally violates the scientific method by concluding first rather than hypothesizing (I get it, it's meant to be persuasive), it's just repetitive as hell. Yet my own kid is still taught this silliness in high school. Which is why I tell him to stick it to the man, of course.

Say it once; assume your readers get it. If they don't, they're bad readers. If you don't, then you're a bad writer.


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