Category Archives: Usage

A Rose by Any Other Name

Publicity still from Harold Ramis’ sci-fi comedy Multiplicity (1996) with Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell, in which the Keaton character clones himself.

Many years ago, as a young college graduate, I decided to take a speed reading course at New York University. During the first class, the instructor boasted he was going to quickly double our speed without hurting our comprehension. The trick, so to speak, was to keep on going and not hesitate or backtrack on what we were reading. And lo and behold, everybody quickly fulfilled the instructor’s promise.

The reason this gimmick worked was rather simple. Unless you’re dealing with a very dense, scholarly tome, most writers almost unconsciously repeat themselves. They don’t necessarily do this by using the same words over and over again, but by reiterating the same ideas using different terms or phrases that have the identical or similar meanings (synonyms and related phrases, if you will). So, if you don’t immediately comprehend what’s on the page, you will quickly be cued in by the way the sentences and paragraphs are constructed.

While repetition may be inherent in your narrative, in writing nonfiction you need to be careful to not using the exact same word more than once in the same sentence unless absolutely necessary, or to make a point. Otherwise, your text might prove to be less interesting than it need be. (I’m not talking here of the use word repetition as a literary or poetic device.)

Thus, as an editor, one the most common ways I can improve a client’s writing is by looking for unnecessary word repetition and making appropriate substitutions. There are several ways to do this, the most common of which is to find a synonym or using alternative phrasing. The traditional way to find words with the same or similar meaning is by using a thesaurus. Today’s word processing programs provide useful lists of synonyms by placing your cursor on the word in question and either right clicking on it (in Windows) or by pressing the control key and tapping the mouse button at the same time (on a Mac); alternatively, you can use an online thesaurus like Miriam-Webster’s. Such sites not only provide useful lists of synonyms, but also antonyms (words with the opposite meaning), related words and phrases.

For instance, notice that in the opening paragraph of this blog post, I deliberately cut down the number of times I used the word “reading,” even though that was what I was writing about. Also, in the third sentence, I use the word “trick” in referring to what my instructor did, while in the opening of the second paragraph I used the “gimmick” instead. The process of doing so is not always easy, as you may have difficulty in finding an exact equivalent to such common words as (pardon the repetition) “reading,” but it’s worth the effort.

Grammar and Usage: Gender-Specific Pronoun Dilemmas

Josephine Cloffulia, The Bearded Lady Of GenevaWhen I was a kid, back in the dark ages, our teachers told us to use masculine pronouns when referring to a generic, unspecified individual.

For example, “When a police officer stops you, follow his instructions and don’t talk back.” (Police community relations are on my mind lately, sorry.) Police officers can be male or female, but in English, as in many languages, the masculine pronoun was traditionally used when the individual’s gender is not specified.

Now we are much more conscious of gender bias, and it is no longer acceptable to assert the dominance of the masculine form. Some people have been trying to invent gender-neutral pronouns, and there’s been a lot written about it.  The Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog seems to have a good summary.

But that doesn’t help you now, trying to turn in a term paper that isn’t going to come back with red marks all over it.

The culture has tried to solve it by substituting “their.” “When a police officer stops you, follow their instructions and don’t talk back.” This works on Facebook and a lot of other places, but it is not grammatically correct, and, depending on who is reading it, say a journal editor or a professor, you might get dinged for it.

The reason it is grammatically incorrect is that “police officer” is singular and “their” is plural.

You could say, “When a police officer stops you, follow his or her instructions and don’t talk back.” This is awkward sounding, but is both grammatically correct and gender neutral.

Another solution is to write, “When police officers stop you, follow their instructions and don’t talk back.” This is both less awkward and grammatically correct, although not entirely satisfactory. This is the solution I personally use when possible. Sometimes it doesn’t fit the rest of the paragraph, however.

Another solution, especially if you’re writing for a liberal-leaning audience, which might include your college professor, is to consciously use the feminine pronoun. “When a police officer stops you, follow her instructions and don’t talk back.” This does make a political statement, and might not be well received, so you have to know your audience.

— Vickie Deneroff