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Generally acceptable is not always particularly acceptable.

The proliferation of illogical and incorrect, but generally acceptable, usages got me to thinking that the best editors write for their best readers.

For example, the Feb. issue of the Wall Street Journal's in-house newsletter, Style & Substance, ran this "flub from the Journal": "Few celebrities want to hang out where they can easily be found by the hoi polloi." Newsletter editor Paul R. Martin comments: "Because hoi polloi means the many in Greek, purists insist that using the with hoi polloi is redundant. And many of our readers are purists."

That's the attitude I'm talking about-"Many of our readers are purists." Why turn off some of your audience even if what you're writing is generally acceptable? Consider these usages:

* Referring to the lectern, behind which a speaker speaks, as a podium is now widespread and acceptable. But the word podium is so obviously derived from the Latin word for foot and therefore to the raised platform on which a speaker stands that literate readers still bristle at such sentences as "For emphasis, the speaker slammed his fists on the podium." That leaves many people picturing the poor speaker lying on the podium pounding the boards.

* Literally has taken a beating in the last few years. Its literal meaning-"the primary or strict meaning of a word"-has been lost in its new popularity as an intensive adjective. "He is literally on the cutting edge of the new millennium." Certainly and undeniably are two more logical adjectives that come to mind.

* Fall between the cracks is taking on new currency. Here's a sentence that not only appeared in a newspaper article but was also highlighted as a display text: "Conventional wisdom says women don't invent things, and any little fact to the contrary gets lost between the cracks of history." Whew! Make that through the cracks. Between the cracks leaves one... well, still on the podium.

* Center around has slipped by the copy editors of many leading newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker. Idioms of course can defy logic, but this neo-idiom makes literate eyes glaze over. Center around probably arose from a confusion with circle around and revolve around. Make it center on or in. A center is a center, not a circle.

* Impact has taken root in our language as a verb--"The firings have impacted employee morale"-but many still think the word should be limited to the practice of dentistry. Influence, affect, strengthen, bolster, weaken or bolster are perfectly acceptable alternatives. Show your readers you're not a lazy writer.

* Grow as a transitive verb has also become trendy but is nevertheless unacceptable to many thoughtful readers. WSJ's Paul Martin said it: "We still think you grow crops and beards and increase earnings and revenues."

Let's say only 15% of your readers respect logic and a little class in your writing. That's no reason to turn them off Direct mail aims for smaller percentages than that. Write for the literate readers and the rest will follow.
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Author:Swift, Paul
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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