Archived Story

Good tips from ‘The Careful Writer’

Published 9:45am Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Column: Pothole Prairie

The first editor I had coming out of college was a Pulitzer Prize winner named Michael Gartner. He edited and, with partners, owned what was then called the Ames Daily Tribune after leading news organizations such as the Des Moines Register, Louisville Courier and NBC News. That all came after being the Page One editor for several years at the Wall Street Journal.

This man influenced my writing style more than any other. Being inquisitive, I questioned some of his editing decisions. He kindly gave answers. One time, when I had written “is comprised of,” he seemed a bit weary of my endless questions and, instead of explaining, referred me to a book called “The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage” by Theodore M. Bernstein.

So I bought it. The book came out in 1965, and it remains apt today. The book on a shelf in my Tribune office was printed in 1973.

Today, I wanted to share with you some entries. Everyone writes, no matter what you do, and, in this age of hasty Internet writing, it is always good to hear some tips. Keep in mind, Bernstein can be facetious. I like his explanation for “irregardless.”


About: The preposition about suggests inexactness; therefore, it is redundant when it is included in a sentence containing other such suggestions. “The crowd was estimated at about 4,000,” for example, contains two such other suggestions: the word “estimated” and the round number. Delete about. See around.

Around: Around for about, in the sense of approximately, is casual usage. Therefore, in written English, “about 3 o’clock” is preferable to “around 3 o’clock.” Around is likewise casual in the sense of from place to place or here and there — as in, “The candidate campaigned around the state, speaking in major cities.” In this sense, though, it is establishing itself.

Audience: Strictly speaking, an audience is a group of hearers, although its meaning is sometimes extended to a group whose principal activity is seeing, as the audience at a circus. The word is incorrectly used, however, in the headline, “Fire draws audience.” Likewise, the onlookers at sports events are not termed audiences.

Comprise: Comprise has the meaning of contain, embrace, include and comprehend. Thus, this usage is incorrect: “He also gave the names of the four books that comprised the body of Roman law.” The whole comprises parts, not the reverse. What is wanted in the example cited is composed, constituted or made up. Also to be avoided is “comprised of.”

Half: There are still some diehards who object to cutting a melon in half or slicing a deficit in half. They insist that the melon must be cut in halves or in two and that the deficit must be sliced by half. However, in half is well-established, and any attempts to outlaw it must be classed as overrefinement.

Himself (herself, myself, etc.): “At the meeting, he said, were himself, his wife and Mr. Jack.” Make it he. “He said his daughter, Mrs. Clifton Daniel and her family would spend the holiday with Mrs. Truman and himself at Independence, Mo.” Make it him. The “-self” words are used for two purposes: for emphasis (“I’ll fix it myself”; “The others were hesitant, but he himself had no qualms”) and reflexively, to turn the action back on the grammatical subject (“She dressed herself quickly”; “He makes himself inaccessible”). In the latter sense the words are reflexive pronouns.

Holocaust: The caust part of the word means burnt, and the whole word means fiery destruction entailing the loss of life. It is not merely a synonym for disaster or catastrophe.

In order to: A wasteful locution. In the vast majority of instances in order may be deleted with no loss.

Irregardless: Illiterate.

Midnight: It is odd that there should be confusion about a word that is as commonplace as midnight, but there is. For instance: “The picketing started at 10 a.m. Saturday and continued for 15 hours. Shortly after midnight Sunday the crowd of white persons had grown to several thousand.” It should be “midnight Saturday” (but, of course, the “Saturday” could be deleted). Midnight means 12 o’clock at night; it thus belongs to the dying day, not to the newborn one.

Senior citizens: One of the latter-day euphemisms, this is a term that could well be left to those who feel a need for it. There are plain words to say the same thing, e.g., in descending order of harshness, the aged, the old, the elderly and, perhaps, the older.

Ways: This word is fine in a shipyard, but not as a measure of distance. To say, “He was a long ways from home,” is to stray a long way from good English.

Xmas: The “X” stands for Christ, which in its Greek form, Christos, begins with the letter chi (x). The word, which incidentally should never be pronounced “exmas” is used in commercial messages but is inappropriate in any kind of more serious writing.

Zoom: Aside from its meanings connected with sound and camera, zoom, originally an aviation term, denotes rapid upward motion. Both the following sentences are therefore incorrect: “Melville zoomed down in incline in 2:15.2, a full second ahead of Tommy Burns of Middlebury”; “At least 12 large hawks are making their homes atop city skyscrapers and zooming down to snatch pigeons.” Both writers may have had in mind the word swoop. Swoop is usually down; zoom is always up.


OK, more from Bernstein the next two weeks.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column will appear the next three Tuesdays while alternating columnist David Behling takes a break.