Friday, April 29, 2011

Words and Punctuation Marks Your Writing Doesn't Need

After eight years as an editor, I feel that I'm in a position to offer writers some pointers. Specifically, I think I'm qualified to warn writers about words and punctuation marks that they should avoid or make sure they're using correctly. So I've compiled a short list of words and punctuation that writers should avoid or use sparingly.

Before I continue, I want to be clear that I'm not writing this in response to any particular manuscript I've edited. I also don't want to give anyone the impression that I think I'm above doing things that writers shouldn't do. I confess that I overuse parentheses and semi-colons; I use the word own even when it is not necessary; and I refuse to use they as a singular pronoun, even when stylebooks allow it and not using it as such results in an awkward sentence. (Everyone has his or her own quirks and foibles.)

Anyway, here's my list:

Utilize: Save some pixels and syllables by writing use. It's cleaner and more concise and has the exact same meaning.

Problematic, efficacious, pragmatic, and other college-paper words: These words are great when you're trying to convince a professor that you know what you're talking about (even if you didn't read the book), but they have no use in the real world. Efficacious is just a fancy way to say effective; pragmatic is just a fancy way to say practical; praxis is just a fancy way to say practice. And, if you have to tell me that something is problematic, you probably haven't done a very good job explaining how and why it poses a problem. When you're packing up your college dorm room or apartment, leave these words behind for the next class of incoming freshman.

Impactful: Unless you're talking about meteorites striking the earth, you should consider eschewing all forms of the word impact. The verb form of impact, meaning "to have an impact on," has found its way into dictionaries and usage manuals in recent years, but its use nauseates wordies and grammarians. (The verb form of impact, meaning "to collide into," has always been OK.) Impactful, which is fighting its way into the English lexicon even though most dictionaries don't include it, is particularly gross. Before you use impactful, think about what you're really trying to say. Influential? Effective? Transcendent? Impressive?

Multi-syllable conjunctive adverbs: In most cases, you can replace one of these with a simple, single-syllable conjunction or adverb. For instance, instead of however use but; instead of therefore use so; instead of henceforth use then. Unless you're trying to impress a college professor or potential employer, use conjunctive adverbs such as moreover and furthermore sparingly. Also pay attention to how frequently you use contrary adverbs and conjunctions such as but, though, yet, and nonetheless. Each time you use one of these words, you send the reader in a different direction. If you find yourself making lots of these twists and turns, you should look for a more direct route.

Quotation marks: If you use "quotation marks" for any "purpose" other than marking "quotations" or "titles of articles," your readers will think you're being a jerk. Sometimes that's what you're going for. Just be aware.

Em dashes: Em dashes are like horseradish. Small doses are a great way to add flavor, but large quantities will burn your eyes out. Before you hit shift-option-hyphen—or for Windows users, before you select "Start" then "Programs" then "Accessories" then "System Tools" then "Character Map," scroll down four pages, select the em dash, copy the em dash, and paste the em dash into whatever you're working on—ask yourself, "Could I use a comma instead?" (To answer the question you're no doubt asking, I needed to use em dashes in the previous sentence because the instructions for creating an em dash on Windows are so lengthy and complex that commas would not suffice.)

Ellipses: The ellipsis has a very specific purpose: indicating that words have been omitted. Do not use it for any other purpose.


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