June 20, 2016

Accidents of Style on the Way to Better Writing

Accidents of StyleAccidents of Style

Product: The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly - Kindle edition by Charles Harrington Elster
Price: $7.99
Product: The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly: Charles Harrington Elster
Price: $14.03

I don't remember being taught much grammar. Catholic school in India might have taught me the rules of grammar, but for some odd reason, I don't remember any of it. I have been writing. All my life. The dominant rule was, "Does it sound right?" As long as it did, I was happy with it. No one complained. The grammar police didn't break down my door, I was happy.

I started writing this blog in its various incarnations about eight years ago, and wanted for the first time in my life to make an effort to write better. I had no idea how to go about that. What is better? How do you achieve it?

I decided to do four things:

  1. Write more. I figured it was a skill. Practice would make me better.
  2. Edit. This is a skill which I am learning. Can a sentence be shorter? Am I using too many adverbs? Can I make this engaging? Is it passive? I must admit that this is a work in progress. I am nowhere near "good" at this point.
  3. Read more. I have always read voraciously but I have broadened the subjects that I read now. I am reading books on writing. Reading books on grammar. Trying to learn a few new skills is how I see it.
  4. Read critically. I am not only reading the subject but also reading the writing. I am paying attention to how authors write.

In the course of this journey I am coming across a few gems I will share over a few blog posts. Today's candidate is an interesting book. It is written by Charles Harrington Elster and is called, "The Accidents of Style: Good advice on How Not to Write Badly."

Remember I said that the rule I used to use was, "Does it sound right?" This implies that my ears can tell the difference between what is right and not so right. It means that even though I cannot explain why something sounds wrong, I know it when I hear it. Horsepucky. Doesn't work that way at all. I am going to give you an example of an excerpt from this book to demonstrate how wrong I was.

Accident 1

Every day or everyday?

The confusion between every day and everyday occurs multiple times every day; it’s an everyday accident. Even The New York Times Magazine is not immune to it: “As a kid, I had a sailor shirt and the same old corduroy pants, and that’s what I wanted to wear everyday.” Make that every day.

What’s the difference? Every day is a standalone phrase that can fit almost anywhere in a sentence, while everyday is an adjective meaning “daily” or “ordinary” that always modifies a noun, as in everyday life, everyday clothes, and everyday problems.

The trick to getting it right lies in determining whether the phrase can stand by itself (“I think of you every day”) or whether it is tied to a following noun. If something can be used every day, it is suitable for everyday use. Some chores must be done every day, which makes them everyday chores. What’s the first line of the song “Everyday Blues”? It’s “Every day I have the blues,” of course.

Before reading this book, I had no idea what the difference was between "everyday" and "every day." I have, I am certain, used them interchangeably. And I was wrong, some of the time. I didn't know the difference, that meant that my ears didn't have the ability to pick up on what was wrong. I didn't know that "everyday" was an adjective that always modifies a noun. My ears, as arbiters of what is correct and what is wrong, fell woefully short. The book covers 350 accidents like this one. Some of them I knew. Most of them were eye-opening, aha-moments for me.

If you are serious about wanting to write better, you might want to read this book. It has taught me so much that I intend to read it a few more times.

Recommended heartily.

macosxguru at the gmail thingie


Previous post
Set up Night Shift in iOS One of the nice features of iOS 9 is the introduction of Night Shift. You turn on Night Shift to protect your Circadian rhythm, and to make it
Next post
TermHere Opens a Terminal Window Where You Want It Termhere Product: TermHere on the Mac App Store Price: Free (Donation of $4.99 requested) TermHere is an OS Service and Finder extension that does