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Make one fewer error.

For those of us who write for a living, problems like the following are as common as the common cold, and just as annoying. Please read this lead datelined oakland, Calif.:

"Mike Greenwell was clearly gearing for a major announcement ... [perhaps] ... why he has one fewer home run than Mike Gallego this season."

Well, what's wrong with fewer ... except that it sounds weird? Do not the AP and UPI stylebooks croon virtually identical lyrics on fewer/less, chanting "use fewer for individual items, less for bulk or quantity"? Are not home runs individual achievements, judiciously totted up by statisticians of sports reporting?

All true, fellas and gals, but your ear still warns you, "Keep digging, bozo." And eventually you will find a book like Theodore M. Bernstein's The Careful Writer (Atheneum, 9th printing in 1972), a book that always keeps the needy reader in mind, that always adds the esoteric exotica the desperate writer must have, to wit:

"There is one oddity about fewer: Whereas it is fine to write, 'The Liberals won three fewer seats than in the previous election,' you cannot say 'one fewer seats,' nor can you say 'one fewer seat.' The only escape hatch is 'one seat fewer.'"

Ditto "one home run fewer" in our citation. I must note here that Ted went yet another step, adding, "The only other problem about fewer is to distinguish whether it is quantity or number that is being spoken of. For instance: 'Not many of these buildings are fewer than thirty years old.' The thought here is not of individual years but of a period of time; therefore, less."

There are stylebooks and there are great stylebooks. * Why is staying focused important? Here's one why: The Pontiac flipped into the air and the driver's side slammed into the tirewall and adjoining guardrail before coming to rest on its roof." Today's quiz: Find the antecedent of its. * I have just finished reading an unrevised proof of The Random House Guide to Good Writing, which is being published in November 1991, by you-know-who, and (though I never thought I could say this) I do believe this fondly crafted vade mecum can rest confidently alongside The Elements of Style and William Zinsser's On Writing Well.

The author, Mitchell Ivers, is RH's managing editor and former chief copy editor. His 256 pages brim with the same gentle, self-effacing excellence that pervades E.B. White's prose in Elements: "This book cannot be a guide to taste in writing; there can be no single standard. It is, rather, a guide to the principles of voice, tone, structure, grammar, usage, and style upon which writing judgments can be made. You may have learned these principles and forgotten them; you may never have learned them at all."

Ivers presents his rules and techniques as tools with which the reader can fashion her own writing, and he uses dozens of examples of good writing to illustrate his points. Ivers opines that "There is such a thing as good, clean, contemporary American writing style, and it is the goal of this book to help you achieve it." There are three appendixes: One is the RH style manual, which covers the basics on punctuation, caps, grammar, usage, and style used by RH's editors and proofreaders. The other two are classics of hood writing, each of which is outlined and discussed in Chapter 3 - Emerson's essay "Character" and Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death." One of the two indexes displays troublesome words and grammatical terms.

E.B. White admired the audacity and self-confidence of Will Strunk, his professor at Cornell who published the first edition of The Elements of Style in 1918. I find in Ivers's prose what must be a similar certainty of expression: "Purposeful prose gets to the point." "Reading good writing is the best way to learn good writing." "There are two basic ways to begin an essay." "The words you choose are your style." "If you have trouble formulating your purpose, your writing will show it."

Here you find all the nuts and the bolts, but you will also see the grand machine they help to hold together. The warmth of Ivers's writing and the huge usefulness that invests every page will keep this Guide in print for a long, long time. (The U.S. price is $15; add $4.50 for Canada. Hardcover, 5-1/2 x 8-1/4".) * Have you ever heard of the "Oxford comma"? Tuning in to Prodigy on our computer last week, I read a bulletin that used the phrase to identify the second comma in the series "red, white, and blue." I've found O.c. in no reference work, including the OED, and of my correspondents only Bill Penn, VP of SPELL (Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature) in Mountain View, Calif., has been able to define it: "The 'Oxford comma' is a reference to the style endorsed by Oxford University Press, which encourages ... the use of the comma before the 'and' in a series of more than two items. The term is not widely used; the comma is or should be, at least in this construction."

If anyone can add anything at all to this mulligan, it will be welcomed. * "I'll never forget good old what's-his-name!" The label for that temporary inability to recall a certain name or word is lethologica. You might want to write that down. Alden Wood, lecturer on editorial procedures at Simmons College, Boston, Mass., writes and lectures on language usage. He is a retired insurance industry vice president of advertising and public relations.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Wood on Words
Author:Wood, Alden S.
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Words:933
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