Very Unique Is Very Bad: Unique means one of a kind, something with no equal. It doesn’t get any better than that, folks. So what does “very unique” mean? None of a kind? Michael Jordan was not a very unique player. He was UNIQUE! So here’s the rule: unique is never modified. No very unique, no somewhat unique, no nothing unique.
If Only: Only should almost always come after the verb and as close as possible to the word(s) to which it refers. Don’t write “It was a very big raise for someone who only made $400 a week.” Instead, write “It was a very big raise for someone who made only $400 a week.” Don’t write “The principal only decided to cancel the prom after the senior class misbehaved so badly on the trip.” Instead, write “The principal decided to cancel the prom only after the class misbehaved so badly on the trip.”
I Got Rhythm?: Good writing has a rhythm to it (No. 3 from my previous post, What Every Writer Should Know). So if you hear too many short (or short-ish) sentences in a row, your readers will “hear” that unpleasant monotone-ish effect. Simple fix: combine two sentences.
To Have and Have Not: Have can be a perfectly respectable verb. For example, “Darn it, I have a flat tire.” Or, “I have great respect for anyone who runs a marathon.” But too often “have” is a wimp of a verb. Consider “They need to learn that other people have talents as well.” Consider this Plan B: “They need to learn that other people possess talents as well.” Once more, I refer you to my previous post. No. 5, to be specific: The verb is the most important word in almost every sentence.
This Is an Order: In almost any instance, “in order to” should be reduced by 2/3. In almost any instance, “to” is all you need.
How Not to End a Sentence: I see this time and again with my writing students: they make a good point and then dilute the strength of that point by adding unnecessary words to the end of the sentence. Don’t write, “Atticus tells his son that it is not about how one attains a position of power. What is important and shows humility is how one uses that power when it is attained.” Those last four words are unnecessary, to say the least. Ending the sentence with ” . . . how one uses that power” is a much better “punch line.”
But, Because, And: Just about every one of my writing students (I started in 2005) has been told in Middle School not to begin a sentence with but, because or and. Hogwash! It’s perfectly acceptable, and oftentimes rhetorically effective, as long as you don’t overdo it. By the way, rhetoric is the effective use of words, either written or spoken. And a good writer will play with the language to create a rhetorical effect. But not too often. Because then you overdo it.
Fewer vs. Less: Fewer is used to modify a noun when something can be counted. Less is used when something can not be counted. For example, The department has five fewer teachers this year. The cuts in staffing mean we will be forced to do less than we have in the past. Or, If fewer of us drove gas guzzlers, there would be less pollution of the environment.
In Conclusion, Hold Your Nose: This is for Middle Schoolers. If your English teachers tell you to begin the last paragraph of an essay with “In Conclusion,” and then tell you to recap the points you made already, be kind to them because THEY’RE WRONG!!! Don’t let them know that they don’t know what they’re talking about. As I wrote in No. 8 of my previous blog, they should be telling you to take your thoughts one step further in that conclusion. Just grit your teeth and wait for high school, where hopefully you will find competent English teachers. (Referring back to To Have and Have Not in this post, I started to type “where hopefully you will have . . . ” Oops and double oops, a weak verb. See how much better “find” is.