What good writing can do ... is to assure that the writer is really in communication with the reader, that he is delivering his message unmistakably and, perhaps, excellently.
— Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer

Brambles and Thorns
Common errors I find in all writing

It is true that if you make any of these errors (or all of them) the person reading what you have written will “know what you mean.” It is also true that if you pronounce the name of a prospective employer wrong or call your date by the wrong name, most people will know what you mean. But why not get it right? Why not learn to get it right? Why not make that effort? I suspect that your prospective employer will appreciate it. And I know your date will.

Unlike them, however, your readers may never even notice your efforts. Often their appreciation will find expression only in the ease with which they understand you, the sense of order and safety that your good writing imparts. They may never wonder why they feel at ease. But they will nevertheless profit from it and perhaps enjoy it, as they would good food, without noticing the source of their pleasure or the reason for their response.

Sometimes, when you want a good meal, you don’t fix it yourself; you get someone else to fix it for you. Just so, sometimes, instead of laboring over your text, you may want someone else to look it over, tweak it here and there, perhaps even give it a complete overhaul. And that’s where I come in.

I am Ronald Neff of Thornwalker Editing Services. I have been adding value to writers’ articles, essays, and books for more than 30 years. Let me see whether I can help you.

Thornwalker Editing Services
• “Just because X doesn’t mean Y.”

This is a common expression. It appears in casual conversation, of course, but also in formal writing. It is not uncommon to hear it on “talking head” shows used by speakers who have Ivy League educations.

It has no subject. This fact is obvious to anyone who has ever had to diagram a sentence, and it is unlikely that a non-English-speaker would know how to cast it in an inflected language.

It has to be rewritten. There are inelegant ways (“The fact that X is true does not imply that Y is true”). But the context will often lend itself to a construction that sounds more like English, and less grammatically robotic.

• The misplaced “only,” as in “I only want to say ...”

What the speaker or writer has just said is that he has only one desire in all the world and it is to say the thing replaced here by the ellipses. It is almost certainly not what he means to say. What he probably means is something like “I want to say only this to you, etc.” It is also possible that what he means is, “I am the only person in the world who wants to say ...” And that’s the trouble with misplaced modifiers: The writer may think he knows what he said; the reader may think he knows what the writer said. But when you get right down to it, neither can be sure, because misplaced modifiers make thoughts unclear.

• “including”

The following sentence illustrates a common error: “The president consulted several advisors including the chairman of the Federal Reserve System, his chief of staff, the Secretary of the Treasury, and others.” Once you have said “including,” the phrase “and others” becomes redundant. Either drop it completely or rewrite the sentence thus: “The president consulted the chairman of the Federal Reserve System, his chief of staff, the Secretary of the Treasury, and other advisors.”

• “based on”

“Based” is adjectival; it has to modify a person, place, or thing. Consider this sentence: “Based on the evidence, we must conclude that the foreign policy of Azerbaijan was developed to befuddle its neighbors.”

What is it that is based on the evidence? Nothing. The phrase has become a free-standing modifier, as it were a gerundive or something. Rather than concoct new grammatical categories, permit me to rewrite the sentence for you. The easiest way for you to fix it, although inelegant, would be to recast it thus: “On the basis of the evidence, we must conclude, et cetera.” Send me your article or book, and I’ll come up with something better.

• “due to”

“Due to” is like “based on”: it is adjectival and must have a noun or pronoun to modify. “Due to the streets’ being wet, I conclude that it rained last night.” Ask yourself what thing is it that is due to the observation that the streets are wet? Some rewriting is necessary; often a subordinate clause will do the job. Thus: “Because the streets are wet, I conclude that it rained last night.”

There is a correct way to use “due to.” Observe what happens if we let the temperature drop and the water freeze: “The danger the streets pose is due to their being covered in ice.” The streets are not dangerous “due to the ice”; rather it is the danger that is “due to” the ice.

• “like” and “such as”

Most of the time, when a writer says “like,” he means “such as.” The difference is one of inclusion.

A Republican might say, “I wish someone like Bill Clinton had not been elected in 1992.” He can take comfort: someone like Bill Clinton was not. Bill Clinton himself, however, was. Not someone like him. He himself.

When Archie and Edith sang, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover today,” they were speaking correctly and precisely. They knew they could not have Herbert Hoover, who was dead, but they wanted “a man like” him. If you want to include the person to whom you are comparing others in your thought, you need “such as,”: “We should honor men such as Archimedes, Newton, and von Braun” means that we should honor those men and others like them. “We need men like them today” recognizes that you cannot have them, for they have gone to their reward, but it would be a fine thing if there were similar men today.

If you are in doubt which one to use, substitute the phrase “similar to” for like. If the sentence says what you mean it to say, stick with like. But if you have uttered an impossibility or just something you didn’t mean, go with such as.

• “lie”/“lay”

Both words have more than one meaning, but the two meanings that are similar have resulted in the almost-complete disappearance of “lie.” There is no good reason for this. The language one speaks or writes is almost always the result of the language one has heard or read over the years. When grammatical errors creep into the language, they follow a kind of Gresham’s Law of Language: Bad grammar or word usage drives out good. The cure is to read more books that were not published in the last few years.

“To lie” is to rest, even for an inanimate object, which, presumably, does not actually need to rest. A book lies on the table; a person lies on a bed, and just before he is lying on it, he lies down on the bed. This verb is intransitive, meaning that it takes no direct object. For those of you who natively speak a foreign language, it means that “lie” never takes the accusative case. Its principal parts are “lie,” “lay,” and “lain.” Thus: I think I will lie down and take a nap. After I lay there for a while, I got up, having lain there too long.

“To lay” is to put something down (hence its use in rude accounts of sexual activity). One lays a book on the table (as a result of which, the book lies on the table) or lays a loved one to rest (after which, the loved one is lying in the grave). Think of the childhood prayer, if you said prayers in your childhood, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” (I would prefer “myself” to “me” in this context, but one does not correct venerable texts.) It is transitive; it takes a direct object; it uses the accusative case. Its principal parts are “lay,” “laid,” and “laid.” Thus: I usually lay my book on that table over there; it lies there until I pick it up. Once, I laid a book on that table and somehow forgot where it was, and it lay there for a long time. This was unusual because I have laid books there so often. No other book has ever lain on a table so long.

Getting these two verbs right may require some practice for those who now get them wrong. Still better would be to develop a habit of reading books published before, say, 1963, when authors were expected to know and to use correct English.

• “use” / “usage” / “utilize”

“Usage” is for words and language. “Use” is for everything else. “Utilize” is for tools only, and isn’t really needed unless you feel that “use” doesn’t make you sound educated enough.

• “This” and “These” / “That” and “Those”

For some reason this and its plural have become the bane of my existence. I have to correct the confusion here perhaps more often than any other, excepting only (possibly) like and such as (q.v.).

It’s a question of which way your head is turned. The thing you have just mentioned is that (or its plural). That is behind you. The thing you are about to mention is this (or its plural). This is in front of you.

There are exceptions; the most common one is this: If you’ve mentioned something, and you are going to go on talking about it, this is appropriate. The reason is not grammatical; it is idiomatic.

However, even if you are using the two words correctly, I caution against their use as stand-alone demonstrative pronouns. The fact that I must make the correction many times in almost every document I edit suggests to me that the word this, even when it is correct, is being overused.

• “honing in”

One hones the edge of a weapon by using a whetstone; one hones his skills at sharpening weapons by study and practice. When you want to focus on something (such as how to sharpen weapons), you may home in on it, but that will not sharpen the weapon. Once you have homed in on attacking and pillaging a city, however, you will probably want to hone the edge of your sword. Also your chariot-driving skills.

• “beg the question”

I guess that people who say that such-and-such begs the question and who then go on to supply the new question, think it makes them sound intelligent. In fact, it merely reveals that they never studied rhetoric or Latin. The phrase does not mean “to raise or suggest a question”; it means “to presuppose the answer to the question under discussion.”

Most people who use this expression incorrectly do so because it has become popular and adds some variety to their speech. In fact, very few have occasion to use “beg the question” in its correct meaning. An example could occur in a discussion of the existence of God. If a believer uses the occurrence of a miracle as evidence that God exists, and a nonbeliever scoffs that the event has a scientific explanation because God does not exist, the nonbeliever has begged the question of whether God exists.

A warning: Language does change and the meaning of words and phrases changes, hardly ever to the betterment of the language. “Beg the question,” in its correct meaning, will probably disappear before this century is out. Should that happen, a concept for which there are few expressions will be impoverished to the benefit of a concept for which there are already many expressions. This is what is meant by the “impoverishment” of the language. It is a thing to be lamented and avoided.

• “comprising” and “comprises”

A and B constitute C. They do not comprise C, and C is not comprised of them. They are comprised by C. C comprises A and B. The thing doing the comprising is the larger entity or concept. Think of it as you would “embrace,” except that you normally embrace only one person at a time, whereas one group can comprise many smaller groups all at once.

• “transpired”

Normally writers will use this word to mean that something occurred in a room, thus: “What transpired in the room that dark night we shall never know.” This is an understandable error, and perhaps has its origin in the resemblance to “conspire.”

In fact, it refers to what is learned later, thus: “It transpired that in the room that dark night, five men plotted a dastardly murder.”

• “purported”

The only time you should ever see purported is when it is being used as a past tense or perfect tense, as an active verb. Purport cannot be a passive verb (“he was purported to be from the government”) because its meaning is already passive.

The subject should almost never be a person, but rather the thing, thus: “This vehicle purports to have 2500 miles on it,” or “his account, which purports to be autobiographical, is a fabrication.”

Still worse is the form purportedly, which has no intelligible meaning. “This book is purportedly a first edition.” Since purportedly is being used as an adverb, one must wonder just exactly in what way a book can be a first edition; what does it mean to be a first edition in a purported way?

The words purport and purported certainly have their proper, indeed noble, uses, but anymore they are far outnumbered by their misuses.

• “supposedly”

I wish I could treat supposedly the same way I just treated purportedly above. Since nothing can be done or said in a “supposed” way, the word has come to mean something like “as we all suppose,” or “as they all suppose.” Since neither “we” nor “they” all ever suppose anything, what it really means is “as some of us suppose,” or “as some of them suppose.” And of course, we are never told who exactly “some of us” or “some of them” may be, except that the reader may be sure he is not one of them.

I hate to say it but I fear that supposedly has become so entrenched in the language that even a rear-guard action in its defense would be of no avail. It seems to have become one of the casualties of of the war against clear writing and clear thinking. I must console myself with what Cyrano de Bergerac said to Le Bret: “Someday, we shall avenge you as well.”

• “lead”

The past tense and perfect tense of the verb “to lead” is spelled “l-e-d.” Educated writers may think it unnecessary for me to supply this information, but when I first began editing and proofing, it was by far the most frequent spelling error I encountered.

When “lead” is pronounced as a homonym with “led,” it is a noun and refers to a particularly dense element (Pb, atomic number 82 in the Periodic Table) which Superman’s X-ray vision cannot penetrate.

• Pronouns

Hardly anything makes a speaker or writer sound more poorly educated than getting his pronouns wrong. Academics and talking heads on TV who make more money than you or I do by talking (for a living and in public!) sound like grade-school drop-outs when they say, “Me and my father used to go fishing there.” Or, “My father and me used to go fishing there.”

The easy way to test a pronoun when it occurs with “and” is to drop the reference to the other person and the word “and” and see what you get: “Me used to go fishing there.”

For some reason, it is the word “I” and its non-subject forms that give trouble. “The band instructor often kept the other trombone players and myself after school for additional practice.” No, he didn’t. Test it: “The band instructor often kept myself after school for additional practice.” If you find yourself being unsure of whether to use “I,” “me,” or “myself,” just omit the other people in your sentence mentally before you speak; that will give you the correct form to use.

Then there is an error which appears to be quite the opposite, but in fact is not, thus: “Between you and I, this is the best shortcake I have ever eaten.” This one is tricky to test because the test doesn’t quite work; it yields “Between I, etc.” and no one would ever say that because “between” requires that there be another person in the sentence. But if you will also replace “between” with “for” you will get the direction you are seeking.

Another rule: In a series, “I” normally follows the word “and.” In poetry and in certain emphatic expressions that will not necessarily be the case, but it is never wrong to put it in that position.

Pronouns are supposed to make reading easier. We don't have to read (or say) that on the day of Don Corleone’s daughter’s wedding, Don Corleone received visitors and the visitors made requests of Don Corleone. “His,” “he,” and “him” do the work of referring to the Godfather once he has been introduced. And “who” keeps us from having to repeat “the visitors.”

Pronouns should not be used to force the reader to think of matters that are not the subject of the text. And they should be used in idiomatic order. When a writer says “she or he” — when he suddenly throws in a “she” when the sex of the person referred to is irrelevant — when he confuses you by saying “they” though he is referring to only one person — in those cases, you can be sure that the writer is making a social or political point that has nothing to do with the subject of his writing. More often than not, he is making that point because he is terrified of his female co-workers or bosses or because his publisher has ordered him to do it. Whether you knuckle under to such pressures is your business, and you can make the changes demanded if you want to. But there’s no reason to follow those protocols when you don’t have to.

And while it is true that “whom” is being deprecated and discarded (not because it serves no purpose but because the people we hear on the television are terrified of getting it wrong), it has served our language well over the centuries and deserves the recognition and use to which it is entitled.

• Useless phrases

“Filler” words and phrases just clutter up your website or book. Once they’re removed, you’ll have plenty of room going forward to say what you want to say. “Going forward”? Just what is that supposed to mean? I think every time I have ever heard it, there was no possibility of going backward anyway. It makes me think that the people using it are being paid by the word. Send me your books, articles, applications, advertising material, and I will lovingly and gently extract these lazy alphabet clusters, and replace them with muscular words that will do an honest day’s work for you.

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This site was last updated March 25, 2020.
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