Sometimes we use particular words or phrases more often than we should, and we’re not even aware of it. For instance, a reader of a draft of my novel recently pointed out that I’d written ‘…she said, unnecessarily’ three times. Unnecessarily, indeed. Once would have been enough.
Try to be conscious of your favourite words and look out for overuse – but don’t expect a 100% success rate. This is where feedback from family, friends, beta readers and, of course, editors is valuable.
I’ll admit it: this one drives me more nuts than it should. When people say ‘potentially’ (and they say it far too often, in my opinion!) they usually mean ‘possibly’ – but the two words are not strictly interchangeable. If something is potential then it’s expected to happen in the future. If you ever studied physics, think of potential energy.
‘He was potentially murdered’ is illogical because the murder happened in the past. What the speaker (or writer) means is ‘He was possibly murdered’ or ‘He might have been murdered’.
‘Potentially’ is also one of those words people tend to throw in for padding. At best, it’s often redundant. Consider this: ‘If she’s late for work one more time, she could potentially get fired’. Take out ‘potentially’ and what happens? Your meaning remains clear, you’ve saved yourself from sounding officious, and you’ve made my day.
I was taught English by a strict traditionalist. She taught me what an infinitive was and warned me that I should never, ever, ever split one.
If you don’t know what an infinitive is, don’t worry. I won’t bore you with examples, because they really don’t matter. It turns out that my high school English teacher might have been wasting her energy on this point. When I studied editing, I learned that avoiding split infinitives was just some rule that a seventeenth-century poet (I think it was John Dryden) thought up because he had a thing about Latin, and in Latin infinitives can’t be split.
Apparently avoiding splitting infinitives has nothing to do with how clever you are (sadly, because avoiding splitting infinitives used to make me feel quite clever). The truth is that sometimes a sentence sounds awkward when you split an infinitive, and sometimes it sounds awkward when you don’t. Sometimes the placement of the adverb affects your meaning. So now I split to my heart’s content if it improves the clarity and flow of my prose – and when the ghost of my English teacher comes back to haunt me, I do my best to ignore it. There’s some guilty pleasure in that …
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.