book reviews / writers tips

Writers Tips #102: 17 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-five-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 juice so much, 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 the 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:

  1. accident vs. mishap: accident is an undesigned occurrence. Mishap is an unfortunate happening.
  2. amid vs. amidst–Americans prefer amid; Brits prefer amidst
  3. can vs. may: use can for ability or power to do something, may for permission to do it
  4. elder vs. older: older compares old things whereas elder compares people
  5. 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.
  6. hanker takes the preposition after or for
  7. hara-kiri–the correct word for the more popular term, ‘hari-kari’ and not a correct substitute for the Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku
  8. how come: out of place in good writing and not legitimized because Shakespeare used the term ‘how chance’
  9. incidental: takes preposition to or upon
  10. libel vs. slander: slander is oral defamation while libel is defamation by any other means
  11. like vs. as: Bernstein takes three pages–filled with humorous examples–to explain the use of these two words
  12. madam vs. madame: one is a married woman; the other the keeper of a bawdy house
  13. may vs. might: may is present tense; might is past tense–who knew that?
  14. mixaphor–when a writer mixes his metaphors. I love this.
  15. 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)
  16. 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.
  17. 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:

Dialogue Tags Do’s and Don’ts

Top 10 Tips for Writers in 2016

Back up a long WIP

Click to have Writer’s Tips delivered to your email box

Questions? Leave a comment and I’ll answer.

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, and the thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and  Twenty-four DaysShe is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


69 thoughts on “Writers Tips #102: 17 Tips from The Careful Writer

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  4. Jacqui, great resource. One I use often while writing. Actually, I’ve used Bernstein, among other, to create a word vs word dictionary which I refer to constantly while writing. I update my dictionary whenever I find more word vs word lists. It’s become an indispensable tool.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your custom dictionary sounds interesting. I keep word lists which I don’t refer to that often anymore. What I use a lot are phrases and descriptions of lots of stuff–to inspire me.

      Nice to hear from you, Michael. Hope your next book is going well!


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  6. wow, I wouldn’t have even thought about some of those concerns you listed. And that’s the hardest part. You don’t know that you don’t know, so you don’t know when to check or not to check. I guess that’s what editors are for.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What an interesting post, Jacqui! I liked learning a bit about Bernstein and enjoyed the examples you’ve picked out – I’m sure I’m guilty of mixaphors (great word!) and I’ve sat here now making up may/might sentences and trying to feel that past tense. Many thanks for the tip about this book…and smiling at the archaic feel to it! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So interesting!. Prepositions can be a nightmare for sure, even more when English is your second language…. I had no idea that Hara-kiri was not correct, by the way. Excellent post, dear Jacqui… Happy week ahead 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Not the kind of book you sit down with in your easy chair, ready to spend the day immersed in story – but sounds like an essential guide to how to write. I’ve relied on Diane Hacker’s Rules for Writers, also close to 600 pages. It’s easy to access the info I need about everything grammar, mechanics, word confusion, and all things writing. But it is dry, no humor. Maybe I’ll take a look at Bernstein’s book – thanks for the info.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Jacqui – 500 pages … gosh lots in there. I honestly don’t think I’d cope – though I suspect he’s got it all down pat… Mostly I am all right – but am I alright .. this one defeats me rather more often than I wish to concede! Great to know about Bernstein … and yes authoring isn’t such a great verb is it – but well used now-a-days … cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. Thanks for the suggestion, Jacqui. I knew many of the examples already, but a couple were new to me. I appreciate knowing about this reference.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Liked by 1 person

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