Why to Avoid These Usage Mistakes

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Have you ever been told not to make certain usage errrors, but were unclear about why?

Today I saw a typical article about common usage mistakes and how to fix them. The article was strong on WHAT but weak on WHY.

I won’t link to that article, but I will take a few prescriptions I’ve seen and and try to explain the “why” a bit more.

  • Avoid passive voice
  • Avoid dangling modifiers
  • Don’t use irregardless (or any other word that people say isn’t a word)

Passive Voice

“Johnny threw the ball.”

“The ball was thrown by Johnny.”

Both sentences describe the same thing, and both are grammatically correct, but there’s a difference.

In the first sentence, Johnny is active. He’s doing something.

In the second sentence, no one is active. We see that the ball had something done to it, but we don’t see anyone DOING anything.

When no one is doing anything, that’s passive.

Ok, so why is this bad?

Well, there’s a time and place for passive voice, but unless there’s a specific reason to use it, I suggest sticking with active voice for two main reasons:

  • It’s less complicated. It just takes a little less work to read active voice. You get the main stuff faster (who did what), and you have to read fewer words overall.
  • It’s more powerful writing. We like to hear about things happening. The shark attacked, the dog barked, the plane soared. And yes, Johnny threw. Passive voice takes away the immediacy and emotion of the sentence.

Dangling Modifiers

“Driving home from the dessert shop, the ice cream dripped on my lap.”

This sentence isn’t confusing. It’s clear what happened. But if you read it carefully, it’s actually saying that the ice cream was driving home.

The modifier (“driving”) is supposed to refer to something in the sentence, but it isn’t. It’s dangling.

This isn’t usually a problem in conversation, because our brains can connect the dots. But there are several reasons to keep it out of your writing.

  • Your readers may not speak English as a first language. They expect to find who was driving the car.
  • You may want to have your document translated some day. Ambiguity leads to the translators guessing at your meaning. Maybe they guess wrong, or maybe they charge you when they call to confirm their guess.
  • Even if your readers aren’t confused, their brains have to do a little bit of extra work.

To illustrate the last point, read the sentence below:

“Driving home from the dessert shop, ____ did something.”

Fill in the blank. Or ask someone else to do it. We expect the blank to be filled with something like, “the driver,” or “I,” or “Henry.” In other words, the blank represents someone who was driving.

When we find the words “ice cream” in that spot, we have to do a little adjusting. Sometimes the adjustment is a small thing, but sometimes it means we have to re-read the sentence (even if we don’t know why). Unless you have a good reason to make readers do that, avoid the whole thing.

Irregardless (or other non-words)

The article I’m not linking to said to use “regardless” rather than “irregardless,” because the latter is

“not a word.  In other words, it communicates nothing other than the fact that you are trying to sound all edu-ma-cated and fancy-like, when you are anything but.”

Well, yes and no.

It’s just not true that the word doesn’t communicate anything. Everyone knows that “irregardless” means “regardless.” It’s not as though most readers would get to that word and stop in confusion to pick up a dictionary.

Clarity is absolutely the key goal, and being understood is far more important than being right. But both words are clear.

So we need a better reason not to use it.

Generally, the last thing we want is for someone to be thinking about the words we choose rather than the ideas we’re writing about.

It’s like when I heard a British person explaining his point of view, only to be answered with: “I just love your accent.” Well, I mean, thanks, but were you listening to what I said?

Which brings us back to “irregardless.”

I figure that there are two major groups of readers: Those who know that irregardless is considered wrong, and those who don’t.

People who don’t know that it’s considered wrong would be fine reading “irregardless.” They’d also be fine reading “regardless.” They don’t care either way, so you don’t have to worry about them.

People who know that it’s considered wrong would be fine reading “regardless.” But if they read “irregardless,” then they’ll question your education, refinement, social standing, and your ability and expertise as a writer. I’m not exaggerating. That’s how people react.

Hmmm.

I know which word I want to use.

To reiterate an important point, clarity trumps correctness. If I thought that the word “regardless” confused people, I’d start using irregardless right away. I’d rather be understood than be right, even if it annoys some people. So you have to decide on a case-by-case basis, but in this case, the choice is clear.

So… are these helpful descriptions of WHY to avoid these things? Has anyone seen really good guidelines elsewhere?


External links:

Confusing Words

A Thought on Clarity

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2 Responses to “Why to Avoid These Usage Mistakes”

  1. Anindita Basu
    September 16, 2010 at 12:55 am #

    Hey Rob,
    Great post. Especially the “irregardless” 🙂
    It’s a coincidence that just last week I wrote a blog post on “Johnny threw the ball” (http://writing-technical.blogspot.com/2010/09/myth-of-holy-cow.html). It’s a post where I’ve tried to look at the WHY. Can’t say if these are good descriptions, but just wanted to share.

    I also notice you have a very helpful feature on this site. The “Subscribe without commenting.

    • admin-Robert
      September 16, 2010 at 5:13 am #

      Thanks, Anindita!

      I like how, in your post, you mentioned a specific example of when passive voice is ok, or maybe even preferred, in tech comm.

      By the way, the ability to subscribe without leaving a comment is part of a really nice WordPress plugin called “Subscribe to Comments Now!”.

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