Using Words That Make You Seem Educated
We’ve all seen it on TV. The comedy character that uses words in completely the wrong context. Well, I’ve got news for you; those people appear in real life as well; those real-life characters are often professionals; more often, those people are writers.
The example that gets up my nose more than anything else is the use of “comprise” and any of its derivatives.
Let me ask you a question. What does “comprise” mean? If I bet every one of you a week’s wages that you can’t give me a suitable synonym and you all accepted the wager, I’d be very rich. At least ninety percent of you would not be able to tell me the correct definition.
Hand up anyone that would define it as “consist” or “compose.”
Congratulations. You are among the ninety percent who would be wrong.
The word “comprise” is defined as “include” or “contain.” So you can see that, used in a sentence, “comprise” or any of its derivatives will never be followed by “of” because it will not make sense.
Sadly, even journalists betray their lack of education by composing sentences like – “the article was comprised of a number of definitions for the key phrases.” A sentence that is wrong on more than one level, but specifically because of the use of “of” after the supposedly educated word. The correct use for the word would be –
“The article comprised a number of definitions for the key phrases.”
There are many further examples of “educated” words that are often used incorrectly. The key lesson here is –
Always ensure that you are certain of the correct usage for any unfamiliar words.
USING LANGUAGE ABOVE YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE
It’s no accident that the reading age level of our most popular newspapers is about eight. It is not that The Sun is marketed at eight year olds. It is pitched at that level to make it readable to the maximum audience.
Pick up a literary prize winning book and try to read it. You will (often) find it a much higher reading level that, say, a Mills and Boon or a popular crime novel. That is because they are aimed at a different readership. You certainly don’t need to be a Mensa member to read Fifty Shades of Grey.
Those of you who have read the whole Harry potter series will understand the importance of this principle. The Philosopher’s Stone was intended for a readership of between ten and eleven, while The Deathly Hallows was almost an adult novel.
So, decide on the reading age of your target audience and then knock a few years off. To appeal to a mass market, you need to set the level at about 12. It’s quite easy to gauge these days since Microsoft Word and, I’m sure, other popular word processors, has a “Readability Statistics” function.
USING THE WRONG WORDS
Back to our comedy characters again.
The office manager asked his staff to keep him appraised of the situation.
Well, he may have done so but he was demonstrating that he is not as educated as he was trying to let everyone think. You see “appraise” means to evaluate, review or judge not inform. What he should have asked was for his staff to keep him apprised of the situation.
The most irritating incorrect word for me is the use of “less” when the writer really means “fewer.” We’ve all seen the signs at the checkouts that say “10 items or less.” Enough to make me want to throw up. Will they ever learn that “less” applies to an analogue quantity (something that can’t be counted) while “fewer” is the word to apply to digital quantities (those that can be counted).
There are plenty such pairs of, supposedly, confusing words. Since there are many websites that list examples, I won’t repeat any more here. Just Google “most confused words in the English language” and you’ll find plenty.
OBSESSION WITH USING PASSIVE VOICE.
When you perform a grammar check on your word document, you may receive a warning that the highlighted phrase is in passive voice and that you should consider rephrasing. I suspect that many of you will not know what this means. Let me explain.
In English, the normal syntax for a simple sentence is subject-verb-object, as in
- The cat sat on the mat
- John entered the room
We are told who did what to what. Simple and understandable. This is active voice since the object is doing something.
In scientific writing, however, it is has become common practice to structure the sentence to use a passive voice, which means swapping the subject and object. So the above sentences become:
- The mat was sat on by the cat
- The room was entered by John
Therefore, the mat and the room have become the subjects but don’t actually do anything; rather, something is done to them.
For some reason that completely escapes me, this has now become common in the field of journalism. There seems to be an obsession with turning every report into a series of passive sentences to the extent that they become clumsy and almost nonsensical.
I’m not saying that passive voice is never desirable. A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of this rant. Do, however, minimise the passive voice content of your writing.
I have been a member of a number of writing groups over the years. As an actor as well as a writer, I get asked to cold read quite a bit. Few things irritate me more, in these situations, than a badly formatted script. It is hard to read and reflects badly on my skills as an actor.
If you are going to submit any form of written work, find out what the industry expects. There is no excuse for ignorance in this matter and ignorance will just mean that you have wasted your only opportunity to get noticed.
For example, manuscripts for novels should be double-spaced typed in black, 12 point Courier with a first line paragraph indent of five characters. All margins set at 1” (although I still remember when 2” left margin was the norm) and left justified. Every page should be numbered. However, some publishers may have different requirements – always check.
There is a reason for this specification – it makes the manuscript easy to read and allows space for comments to be written in by the reader. If you submit a manuscript that is single spaced, typed in an 8 point fancy font it will scream amateur. Guess where it will end up? It will go straight in the bin.
So, there you have it. Five writing mistakes that will definitely make you look like a rank amateur. Even if you are, you don’t really want people to know, do you?
Oh, if I’ve made any mistakes, please tell me.
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