by Amy Haagsma; review of seminar Usage Woes and Myths with Frances Peck (offered by EAC-BC on April 12, 2014)
Although an EAC member for almost a year, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to attend one of EAC-BC’s professional development seminars. Usage Woes and Myths with Frances Peck caught my attention right away, as I had learned a lot from Frances through her courses at Simon Fraser University. It initially occurred to me that I might not need the seminar, as I thought I had a pretty good grasp of word usage, but as I started reading the description I realized how wrong I was.
“You’ve sorted out imply and infer.” (Check!)
“You know it’s not all right to use alright.” (It’s not?)
“But what about more troublesome usage points, like the difference between may and might?” (Hmm. I may [or is it might?] need to take this seminar after all.)
“Or such commonly misused words as dilemma and fulsome?” (What’s a fulsome?)
“Is it true that you should always change though to although, till to until?” (I definitely need to take this seminar. Sign me up!)
“Is impact now officially a verb?” (Stop the madness!)
Jargon and other questionable usage
The first category we looked at was jargon and other questionable usage. Although jargon is generally frowned upon in formal writing, I was surprised to hear Frances say that it can have a place when used with an audience that will understand it. In some cases, recasting a sentence to avoid jargon creates problems such as wordiness, particularly with technical terminology where an exact synonym may not exist. Frances described making the decision to use reflectorization rather than introducing a wordy rewrite, because the term appeared multiple times within the text and would be understood by the audience.
Frances also introduced us to the spectrum of acceptability, which describes the stages new words go through before they are accepted. Words that arise to name something often move quickly along the spectrum because they fill a need in the language. (This may explain how selfie became Oxford Dictionaries’ 2013 Word of the Year.)
We learned about Bryan A. Garner and Garner’s Modern American Usage, the “[d]efinitive guide to current American English usage,” according to Oxford Dictionaries, and generally applicable to Canadian English as well. In the newest edition, Garner introduced his own spectrum of acceptability, the Language-Change Index:
- Stage 1: Rejected
- Stage 2: Widely shunned
- Stage 3: Widespread but…
- Stage 4: Ubiquitous but…
- Stage 5: Fully accepted
Next we looked at accurate usage and words that are often misused or confused. This included problematic pairs such as historic and historical, and misused words like dilemma and fulsome. An extreme example of misusage is the word literally, which has gained traction as a general intensifier more on par with figuratively. Defenders of this usage point to recent dictionary entries that include the definition, though it should be noted that dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, they describe how language is being used rather than prescribing how it should be. Garner has ranked this usage as Stage 3 on the Language-Change Index, with the perhaps tongue-in-cheek example “we’re literally toast.”
The last and most entertaining item on the agenda was usage myths. We looked at ten myths, such as not to start a sentence with however, because, and or but. (Some of these so-called zombie rules can be traced to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.)
Saving the best for last, Frances also included a bonus myth: “It is incorrect to use over to mean more than or in excess of.” This myth was officially busted in March at the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference, with an announcement from the editors of The Associated Press Stylebook. According to Sharon McInnis (a.k.a. the ProofingQueen®), who attended Frances’ seminar as well as the ACES conference, the announcement was met with a collective gasp from the audience. (Read more from Frances on the busting of this myth on the West Coast Editorial Associates’ blog.)
Takeaways and lessons learned
Overall, the seminar was excellent. Frances is a fantastic instructor and she is always thorough and methodical with her subject matter. We covered over three dozen usage cases, and I finally learned what fulsome means. Perhaps more important though were a number of underlying lessons and themes:
- Usage changes, so it’s important to maintain current knowledge (and keep a usage guide handy).
- If you don’t know, look it up. If you think you know, look it up.
- Every editor has their own usage pet peeves (many came out over the course of the day), but you shouldn’t change something just because you don’t like it. Editors must be both mindful and flexible.
- However, editors also need to consider the audience. If the audience is likely to think that a correct usage is incorrect, consider sticking with more traditional usage.
- Also consider that style guides and usage guides are only guides, and they reflect the decisions and preferences of a select individual or group. Your style and usage decisions must reflect your own circumstances.
Amy Haagsma is a marketing communications professional and a student in SFU’s Editing Certificate program.
Image by Amy Haagsma