Monday, January 04, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: Resolving Problematic Words

Considering it's a new year, my writing resolution is to clear up problematic words and phrases in my writing. I'm tired of sitting in front of the computer screen and stressing over whether to use bring or take. This, among others, is a question that needs to be answered, once and for all.

Bring and take cause a lot more trouble than they should, even for some expert writers. Here's the distinction: where is the action directed? If the action of the sentence is directed away from you, use take; if the action is directed toward you, use bring. For example, you would take out the trash or take the cake to the party. However, you would always ask someone to bring a salad to dinner (if it's at your house), or teachers ask their students to bring their books to class.

That and which are sometimes so tricky that people don't even try anymore to use the right one; they may just make a guess and hope for the best! But Chicago tries to make it easier to make the right choice between these two relative pronouns. For this one, that is used restrictively (it narrows a category or identifies a particular item) and which is used non-restrictively (it adds to an item, rather than narrows it).

Chicago states that those who are somewhat insecure in their grammar may use whom where who is appropriate. Certainly none of our readers have ever done that! And Chicago asks writers and editors alike to resist this tendency. In any case, who is a nominative pronoun and whom is an objective pronoun. Who appears as the subject of a finite verb or when it's following a linking verb. Whom may appear as the object of a verb or a preposition. Need examples? It was Jim who bought the coffee today. I learned nothing about the man whom I saw.

Here is another example of two words that are often confused or used incorrectly: further and farther. Luckily, when you know the rule, this is probably the easiest of all the problematic words to resolve. Use farther for a physical distance and further for a figurative distance.

As you can see, some of these problematic words are easily solved by interpreting the meaning of your sentence. Others, you have to know a little more about the parts of speech and their function in a sentence in order to pick the right word. My suggestion: keep a copy of Chicago and Webster close by at all times; with a little bit of digging, you should find the answers to all your word choice questions. But soon, you'll get the hang of it and never again second-guess whether you should ask people to bring or take snacks to your New Year's party.

No comments:

Post a Comment