An erratic guide to consistent writing.
Thanks to the fantasy authors following in the literary tradition of, er, Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, arcane is assumed to be something to do with magic, chiefly magic done by wizards instead of by priests.
In fact, arcane simply means, secret, unknown to most people. In that sense, I can proudly call myself a Master of the Arcane (the arcane, in this context, being grammar and lexis) without infringing on anyone’s buggy strategy game. That is my excuse for writing these articles in my wizard’s hat, anyway.
For budding fantasy authors, I recommend that you find another way of describing your magical powers, and leave arcane to grammarians, watchmakers, and the people who calculate the prices of train tickets.
Verdict: This arc is too mainstream.
Another interloper from the Parallel Dimension of Terrible Words, incentivize means to provide an incentive which is all well and good, except that in most contexts, we do not talk about giving people an incentive, but encouraging them. Much like pressurize, incentivize is an unpleasant word redolent of office jargon, which I intend to blame for all linguistic evils, time and weather permitting.
In almost every circumstance, save perhaps an environment in which such jargon is required, encourage is the better word, even when writing an e-mail in an office to distribute amongst employees or customers. If my boss tells me he wants to encourage me, I feel supported. If he tells me he wants to incentivize me, I want to know from what scam he is distracting me.
Verdict: Insensitive blather.
Depending upon whom one asks, the difference between use (the noun, not the verb) and usage is either entirely arbitrary or the single thread upon which the cohesion of the English language hangs above the pit of barbarous nonsense.
You may be surprised to read that I do not fall into the latter camp and, indeed, only grudgingly use usage, if at all.
The idea is that use refers to the fact of using, whereas usage refers to a generally agreed upon standard of how something ought to be used. Usage can, also, paradoxically, mean poor treatment or mistreatment.
I have a feeling that arguments about the usage of usage are self-generating and largely unhelpful, and so in my own writing I only use use, with adjectives where necessary to clarify the meaning.
The inverse, however, is to be shunned: usage as a “sophisticated” alternative to use is wrong in just about everyone’s book, takes up space, and is generally awkward to read.
Verdict: Not to be usaged for the other usage.
One of the joys of this format is that I can find a problem even with entirely innocuous and essential words like was. Here, I am referring purely to was when used in conditional constructs, with or without if.
I wouldn’t do that if I was you.
This is how people speak, I do not deny that, but even so, phrases like this should not appear in formal speech or written work except as dialogue or a quotation. Instead, the form of the verb should be were. This helps to maintain the clear difference between something which might have happened in the past and something which could in theory happen in the future.
Were I braver, I would stand up to him.
If I were more sure of myself, I would be able to cope.
As opposed to,
If I was braver, it was only because you were with me.
If I was more sure of myself, I don’t remember it.
This (the subjunctive voice), unlike some other grammatical constructs, is quite easy to use once the form is explained. Thorough guides are available online. For those who are struggling to get off the ground with the idea, the trick is to look for places where if appears or could appear if the sentence were rephrased slightly in the context of a hypothetical or unreal scenario. If there is if, there might need to be a were not a was. That last sentence does not count.
Verdict: If only we was all grammarians.
Whom is an excellent word, but one which is tricky to use properly. Many people, especially university students (and I made this mistake, too) think it is simply a sophisticated variant of who but this is false and, indeed, because it can be a bit fiddly to use, The Economist published a pun-tastic article about how it is destined to fade away, but not on my watch. Incidentally, note the use of usage.
Whom can only be used to refer to a grammatical object, unlike who which refers to the subject. Although sentences can be entirely intelligible without whom, using it well and consistently can raise the register of a piece of writing and aid in clarity. Thus:
He is the man I love.
He is the man whom I love.
He is the man to whom I give my love.
Note that when using a preposition in a clause with whom, the preposition must precede the pronoun. This is where many writers err, writing sentences like this:
I cannot say whom it was given to.
This is the worst of both worlds: whom can seem fussy if over-used, especially in speech, but with that to dangling at the end, well, Churchill would be most displeased.
Of course, simply sprinkling whom everywhere and juggling prepositions will not automatically improve one’s writing:
He is the man than whom I am handsomer.
This is, as far as I can tell, grammatically correct, but it is still an unpleasant sentence.
He is the man handsomer than whom I am.
This is little better.
I am handsomer than he.
This is acceptable.
He’s just gorgeous!
This is probably safest.
Verdict: To whom all hearts be open.
whilst you’re here
I am delighted that, since I started this blog, so many people have been interested in what I have written, and I receive many repeat views. If you have found this blog entertaining and/or useful, please do share it with a friend or two. It would help me a great deal.
As thanks, please do let me know what you want me to cover next: I have already had requests to cover Tolkein (but that is a massive undertaking, so it will have to wait a while) but what else have people seen or read or heard which has made them think, ‘Does this make sense?’ Send me a message or leave a comment!