Filler words—Avoid words that waste space and tell nothing, such as seem and appear. Since we perceive everything in a novel from some character’s point of view (everything seems or appears to a character), then the use of seem or appear implies doubt. Be emphatic in your writing. If you sound unsure about something in your setting or plot, how can your readers be sure? Found is a filler word, too. You don’t want characters to find anything unless it is lost.
For / because—When you mean “because,” I’d recommend that you use the word because instead of the word for. The word for has other meanings, so you are forcing the reader into his mental dictionary before he can move on through the sentence.
Foreign words—The first use of a foreign word, phrase, or sentence should be set in italics if it does not appear in the dictionary, which indicates that it has not been assimilated into mainstream English. Thereafter, such language should be set in roman unless it’s part of a new foreign expression.
Further / farther—These two words should not be used interchangeably. Use farther to refer to physical distance (He lives farther from town than I do) and further as an adverb meaning “to a greater degree or extent” (Let’s discuss this further) or as an adjective meaning “going or extending beyond” or “additional,” as in further education. Further may also be used as a verb that means “to promote or enhance.”
Gender-neutral—Man is no longer considered politically correct to use as a substitute for humanity, people, human beings, humans, or any other inclusive term. Same goes for using the masculine pronoun to mean “anyone” or “everyone.” Besides grammatical considerations, you don’t want to exclude fifty percent of the population and alienate your female readers (who are the majority of book buyers). You have a number of choices. You can use the word people, which is correct yet not so formal that it can’t occur naturally in conversation, and us has the appeal of emphasizing inclusiveness. Avoid using he/she and his/her. Any noncorporeal entity such as God, spirits, and souls is genderless, but expressions like God in His mercy persistent despite the gender-neutral revolution.
Good / well—Incorrect: He was doing pretty good. Good is an adjective, and well is an adverb (which always modifies a verb): Good shoes wear well.
Homonym—Each of two words that are pronounced the same way or have the same spelling but different meanings is called a homonym. Spell-checkers will not pick up an incorrect use of homonyms, so you must be careful not to confuse words like these: past/passed; except/accept; here/hear; there/their; diffuse/defuse; peak/peek; soul/sole; waive/wave; compliment/complement; to/too; who’s/whose; decent/descent; climatic/climactic; wet/whet.
Implied verbs—Incorrect: Richard’s voice got low and his face depressed. The verb got is implied in the second half of the sentence: Richard’s voice got low and his face got depressed. If you want to keep that particular structure, you must choose other verbs. I would rewrite the sentence, because faces do not get depressed, people do. You could write: Richard’s voice became low, and he looked depressed or Richard looked depressed. He spoke softly.
In / into—In is a preposition that often indicates a position within something else. Into implies a movement from outside to inside. Examples: He lives in a mansion. He put his hand into his pocket.
Inanimate objects/possession—In most instances, do not ascribe possession to inanimate things such as buildings. Examples: the hospital’s wide, double doors. This example isn’t nearly as weird as one I caught in an unpublished short story once, where the writer used the phrase the chimney’s smoke, but it still breaks the rule that says inanimate objects cannot possess. Some phrases that form all or part of the subject or predicate are acceptable, however: He spent a week’s salary on computer games. Day’s end found the expedition at the river. They discovered her body at the water’s edge. Also, certain inanimate objects that have been personified may show possession: The ship’s rudder was damaged when it ran aground. The students made a model of the airplane’s fuselage.
Editors are generally more tolerant today about applying this rule, so few would cavil at innocuous expressions like the hospital’s wide, double doors. Nevertheless, I would not push my luck by writing expressions such as the chimney’s smoke and the house’s roof.
Inventing adverbs— The venerable Professor Strunk (Elements of Style) wisely advises writers not to construct awkward adverbs by adding -ly to inappropriate adjectives and participles. Doing so, he says, is often just dressing up words “as though putting a hat on a horse.” Example: tangledly.
Italicized words—Use an italic font to italicize a word or words. A variety of words should be italicized, including the names of books, magazines, newspapers, movies, plays, television serials, ships, etc. Foreign words, phrases, and sentences should be italicized, too, unless you’re dealing with common words and expressions that English has adopted, e.g., c’est la vie and compadre. Unassimilated foreign terms and expressions are set in italic the first time they’re written (and defined in the text); thereafter, they may be set in roman unless they’re part of a new foreign phrase or sentence. Words that denote sounds (Roof! Roof!) and words used as a word should be italicized, too: "Does the word honor mean anything to you?” Some words may be italicized for emphasis, but this should be done sparingly. Italicize only those words that need an extra punch for special emphasis. Check The Chicago Manual of Style for other words that should be italicized.
Its / it’s—The word it’s is a contraction that means “it is” or “it has.” Other contractions are can’t (cannot) and I’ll (I will). The word its is a possessive pronoun that means “belonging to it.” Other possessive pronouns are hers (belonging to her), his (belonging to him), and my (belonging to me). No possessive pronouns have an apostrophe.
“Kind of” / “Sort of”—These are two of a group of locutions that includes that kind of thing, those kinds of things, those kind of things, and that kind of a thing. Such constructions have a long history of use and are generally accepted today, at least in informal writing. Most usage books will tell you to use this or that with the singular kind or sort and follow of with a singular noun. Likewise, you should use these or those with the plural kinds or sorts, following of with a plural noun. Be advised, though, that actual usage is much more varied and complex. To avoid the whole issue and sound less colloquial, replace that kind of thing with things of that kind. Similarly, you could say “people of the same [kind] [type]” or “similar people.” Personally, I have no strenuous objection to the same kinds of people except in a formal context.
Kinship names—These names—father, mother, uncle, etc.—are lowercased when they’re preceded by a modifier (my, his, for example). When these terms are used before a proper name or alone, in place of the proper name, they are usually capitalized. Some examples:
His father died at the age of ninety-two.
My brother and sister live in Florida.
I know that Mother’s maiden name is Fletcher.
Please, Dad, let’s go.
Happy birthday, Uncle Ed.
Note that when a possessive pronoun is used before a kinship name and a personal name, the kinship name becomes a common noun in apposition and is lowercased: You must taste my grandmother Maude’s chocolate cake. My uncle John had a great influence on me. Also do not cap brothers in a sentence like this one: The James brothers were notorious outlaws.
Book editing | Writing services | Manuscript evaluation | Critiques
Fiction writing tips | Copyediting | Proofreading
© 1997-2015 Thayer Literary Services