book reviews / writers tips

Writers Tips #102: 10 Tips from the Careful Writer

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Theodore Bernstein’s fifty-year-old, 512-page The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (the Free Press, 1963) and its more than 2000 problem-solving entries has some of the best tips you’ll need if you’re serious about becoming a writer. Bernstein, former consulting editor of the New York Times, wrote/co-wrote seven books on writing, but this one–in my estimation–is his best. The font styles are old; the archaic structure of its syntax at times made me chuckle; and the topic is as appealing as banana juice (though I understand our Army boys in Kuwait love banana juicer–they can’t keep it stocked), but it has stood the test of time and writers should  consider it a must-have for their reference library. Where else will you go with a question like, Is ‘none’ singular or plural? It doesn’t hurt that Bernstein schools readers with a dry sense of humor, making the medicine more palatable.

A little about Theodore Bernstein (November 17, 1904 – June 1979). He was an assistant managing editor of The New York Times and from 1925 to 1950 a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism. When he died, Time Magazine wrote an obit bio on him that read:

Theodore M. Bernstein, 74…served as the paper‘s prose polisher and syntax surgeon for almost five decades, authoring seven popular texts on English usage and journalism…In a witty Times house organ called ‘Winners and Sinners’, the shirtsleeves vigilante caught solecists in the act.

Bernstein would have objected to their neologistic use of ‘author’ as a verb. Today, no one would even notice.

Besides covering basic good grammar, Bernstein addresses the idiomatic words that are more difficult to classify and covers them with the same rigor as he does the traditional words. Here are some of his best tips:

  • accident vs. mishap: accident is an undesigned occurrence. Mishap is an unfortunate happening.
  • amid vs. amidst–Americans prefer amid; Brits prefer amidst
  • can vs. may: use can for ability or power to do something, may for permission to do it
  • elder vs. older: older compares old things whereas elder compares people
  • he has lots of slang-type of phrases--guild the lilly, likes of, pinch hitter (which he terms a ‘weary cliche’), some of which have since 1963 become mainstream. American English is nothing if not adaptive.
  • hanker takes the preposition after or for
  • hara-kiri–the correct word for the more popular term, ‘hari-kari’ and not a correct substitute for the Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku
  • how come: out of place in good writing and not legitimized because Shakespeare used the term ‘how chance’
  • incidental: takes preposition to or upon
  • libel vs. slander: slander is oral defamation while libel is defamation by any other means
  • like vs. as: Bernstein takes three pages–filled with humorous examples–to explain the use of these two words
  • madam vs. madame: one is a married woman; the other the keeper of a bawdy house
  • may vs. might: may is present tense; might is past tense–who knew that?
  • mixaphor–when a writer mixes his metaphors. I love this.
  • pupil vs. student: those who attend elementary schools are pupils; those who attend higher institutions of learning are students (again, who knew? In this case, probably more of a history lesson than followed)
  • sensual vs. sensuous: sensual applies to gratification of the animal sense with overtones of lewdness; sensuous applies to enjoyment produced by appeal to the senses.
  • though vs. although: mean the same with two exceptions: 1) only though can be used in idioms like ‘as though’, and 2) only though can be used adverbially in a final position

If you are in a position where you must–really must–be accurate in your grammatical decisions, there is no more authoritative voice than Bernstein. Others may have an educated opinion, but Bernstein is the trump card.

More writing tips:

Writer’s Tip #29: No Exclamation Points! Please!

Writer’s Tip #25: It Depends On the Definition of the Word ‘It’

Do You Make These Writing Blunders?

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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13 thoughts on “Writers Tips #102: 10 Tips from the Careful Writer

  1. What a gold mine of writers tips hidden away from this ignorant novice writer! [proper exclamation mark?] Thank you Jacqui for bringing this to my blind-world. This will surely make me a better writer one day. Arun

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