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June 19, 2013

Ex Libris: Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time

Filed under: ex libris — amastyleinsider @ 2:12 pm
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Of all the books in Grammar Girl’s 101 words series, 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time is probably the most useful for editors. This books lists 101 words that, as author Mignon Fogarty puts it, “are only sort of wrong.” These words are particularly challenging for editors. Do we bow to convention and allow established usage to reign or do we forge new ground (as editors often do) by insisting on up-to-date usage? With this book, Grammar Girl guides the way.

Each entry in 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time begins with a response to the question, “What’s the trouble?” In her response, Fogarty points out why the designated word is troublesome. For example, in the entry on healthy, she writes, “Some people insist that carrots aren’t healthy; they’re healthful because only healthful can mean ‘conducive to health.’” After outlining the trouble, Fogarty details the history of the problem. For healthy, she writes, “Healthy has long been used to describe things that improve your constitution. Healthful gained ground against healthy starting in the late 1880s, but healthy fought back and now, although healthful isn’t wrong, healthy is the dominant Standard English word we use when describing fruits, vegetables, exercise, and other things we hope will make us live longer.” Finally, Fogarty answers the question all editors ask themselves, “What should you do?” In the case of “healthy,” she states, “Ignore anyone who says you have to use healthful instead of healthy (unless you’re trying to feign an ‘old-timey’ air).” Fogarty concludes each entry with 1 to 2 quotations from pop culture sources (as she does throughout the 101 words series).

There are numerous entries in 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time that are applicable to the medical editor and that support (and occasionally refute) information found in the AMA Manual of Style. The following is a table of terms commonly found in medical editing and an explanation of how the AMA and Grammar Girl handle each term.

Term AMA Grammar Girl
African American “For terms such as white, black, and African American, manuscripts editors should follow author usage. … In the United States, the term African American may be preferred to black (not, however, that this term should be allowed only for US citizens of African descent).” “For Americans of African descent, use African American or black. If the person you are describing is from another country, use another appropriate term, such as Caribbean American.”
Aggravate “When an existing condition is made worse, more serious, or more severe, it is aggravated (also, exacerbated), not irritated.” “In formal situations or if you’re feeling especially sticklerish, avoid using aggravate to mean ‘irritate.’”
Billion “The word million signifies the quantity 106, while billion signifies the quantity 109. Although billion has traditionally signified 1012 (1 million million) in Britain, many British medical journals now use billion to indicate the quantity 109. A number may be expressed in million rather than billion if the latter term could create ambiguity. In that case, the decimal should be moved 3 places to the right. Trillion should be used to denote the quantity 1012.” “Today you can safely use billion to mean 1,000,000,000.” When you are reading old or translated documents, however, be aware of their country of origin and remember that the meaning of billion could be 1,000,000,000,000.”
Data “…retain the use of the plural verb with data in all situations.” “In general writing, if information won’t work because you’re using data as a mass noun to mean ‘information collected in a scientific way,’ data can be singular; however, in scientific writing, always treat data as plural.”
Gender Sex is defined as the classification of living things as male or female according to their reproductive organs and functions assigned by chromosomal complement. Gender refers to a person’s self-representation as man or woman or how that person is responded to be social institutions on the basis of the person’s gender presentation.” “Gender is a social construct, so when you ask someone’s gender, you’re asking whether a person wants to be perceived as what society calls males or society calls female. … If your readers are likely to be extremely squeamish about sex, it’s OK to use gender as a replacement for sex, but if not, try to keep the distinction between the two words.”
Media “In the sense of laboratory culture or contrast media, medium should be used for the singular and media for the plural.” “When media is used as a collective noun, it’s fine to use a singular verb.”
Over Time: Over may mean either more than or during (for a period of). In cases in which ambiguity might arise, over should be avoided and more than used. … Age: When referring to age groups, over and under should be replaced by the more precise older than and younger than. “Unless you work for a publication that follows AP style, freely use over to mean more than if it works better in your sentence.”
Percent “The term percent derives from the Latin per centum, meaning by the hundred, or in, to, or for every hundred. The term percent and the symbol % should be used with specific numbers. Percentage is a more general term for any number or amount that can be stated as a percent. Percentile is defined as the value on a scale of 100 that indicates the percentage of the distribution that is equal to or below it.” “When you are writing about increases or decreases in measurements that are themselves percents, it’s often important to be painfully clear whether you changes are percent changes or percentage point changes.  For example, if 6 percent of students attended swim meets last year, and 8 percent of students attended swim meets this year, that’s a 33 percent increase in attendance, but an increase of only 2 percentage points.”
Preventive “As adjectives, preventive and its derivative preventative are equal in meaning. JAMA and the Archives Journals prefer preventive. “You may certainly choose to use the sleeker preventive, but don’t chide people who prefer the longer form.”
Since Since should be avoided when it could be construed to mean ‘from the time of’ or ‘from the time that.’” “Don’t be afraid to use since as a synonym for because. Just be sure you aren’t creating ambiguous sentences.”
Unique “An adjective denoting an absolute or extreme state or quality does not logically admit of quantification or comparison. Thus, we do not, or should not, say deadest, more perfect, or somewhat unique. It is generally acceptable, however, to modify adjectives of this kind with adverbs such as almost, apparently, fortunately, nearly, probably, and regrettably. … [Unique] should not be used with a comparative (more, less), superlative (most, least), or quantifying (quite, slightly, very) modifier.” Unique is an absolute term, but it’s common to hear people modify it, saying such things a very unique. Grammarians call adjectives such as unique, dead, and impossible ‘ungradable.’ It means they can’t be more of what they already are. … Unique means ‘one of a kind’ or ‘having no equal,’ and things can’t become more unique. … Gradable terms can be modified down, however. For example, almost unique is fine. … Reserve unique for things that are truly one of a kind.”
Utilize Use is almost always preferable to utilize, which has the specific meaning ‘to find a profitable or practical use for,’ suggesting the discovery of a new use for something. However, even where this meaning is intended, use would be acceptable.” “Often, you can replace utilize with use and your sentence will mean the same thing and sound less stuffy. Utilize does have its uses, though. It conveys more of a sense of using something specifically for a purpose or for profit than use does. … Don’t use utilize just because it sounds like a fancy word. When in doubt, choose use. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use utilize when you’re confident that it’s the right word.”

The above table is meant as a guide for the editor. As always, usage depends on whom you’re writing for and what you’re writing. However, before editors can make decisions on usage, they need to know the options and the reasoning behind them. Both the AMA Manual of Style and Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time provide useful guidance on how to handle some of the trickier terms encountered while editing.—Laura King, MA, ELS

4 Comments »

  1. Interesting piece. However, I think you mean word instead of work in this sentence: “Don’t use utilize just because it sounds like a fancy work.”

    Comment by Ruth SoRelle — June 19, 2013 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  2. Wow, Grammar Girl is the first I’ve seen to say “over” and “more than” are interchangeable. Let the quibbling begin! :)

    Comment by Dina Santorelli (@DinaSantorelli) — June 23, 2013 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for the helpful tips! You might want to check this sentence as well: ““Today you can safety use billion to mean 1,000,000,000.” Do you mean safely?

    Comment by M. Set — June 23, 2013 @ 8:56 pm | Reply


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