Mea Culpa: ‘If you’re going to irritate readers, do it on purpose’

Questions of style and usage in this week’s Independent, as measured against a new guide

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Friday 14 June 2019 13:12
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Does he really need to be that hungry, Eric?
Does he really need to be that hungry, Eric?

I am reading Dreyer’s English, the British edition of a book about style by the American Benjamin Dreyer, who is the chief copy editor of Random House. It is boisterously well written and I recommend it highly.

His advice is to try to go a week without using the words very, rather, really, quite or in fact. And the book includes several more lists, of “rules and non-rules”, “things to do (and not to do) with punctuation”, “easily misspelled words”, “the confusables” and “peeves and crotchets”.

Of the last, he says cheerfully that many of the common gripes about usage are simply matters of taste, but “if you’re going to irritate readers, you might as well irritate them (a) on purpose and (b) over something more important than the ostensible difference between ‘eager’ and ‘anxious’”.

So I checked his list, and found we had used surprisingly few of them this week.

Off centre: We used “centred around”, for example, in a hotel review: “The most swish rooms, with dusky pink walls and marble touches, are in the mansion house, where there’s also a vast three-bedroom suite centred around an octagonal room with four-tiered Murano glass chandelier.” I think “centred on” would be better there, not that the floorplan is clear in my mind.

In-consist-ent: Another word on Dreyer’s list of common gripes is “comprise”, although he says “I can barely remember which is the right way to use this word”. We said, in a review of bathroom storage: “Five separate storage compartments comprise the neat and space-sensitive storage pillar.” If this is the sort of thing that matters to you, you might think it should be: “The pillar comprises five separate storage compartments.”

Dreyer and I would probably say ditch it altogether and write “is made up of”.

Hit job: Next, Dreyer says people often complain about “impact” being used as a verb. We did that a couple of times this week, including in a review of olive oil: “Adding heat to olives allows for more oil to be extracted, however, it can impact the taste.” I freely confess I am one of those who thinks “affect” would be better. It just is.

Incentive scheme: Then there is “incentivise”. We used that once this week, in an article about plans to use airspace more efficiently. This will help airlines to cut costs and fares, we said, “which will ultimately incentivise more of us to fly”. Again, I agree with Dreyer: “encourage” is just better.

Finally: Dreyer warns against “passed away”. He says: “In conversation with a bereaved relative, one might, I suppose, refer to someone having passed away or passed. In writing, people die.”

We used “passed away” twice this week, once in a picture caption on an obituary of Raymond Louw, the South African newspaper editor who campaigned against apartheid. In the caption we said he “died on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after his wife Jean passed away”. Presumably this was to avoid duplicating “died”; it would have been better to say something like “less than 24 hours after the death of his wife Jean”.

Overall, though, I think we passed the Dreyer test well. And I used very, rather, really, quite and in fact only twice each in this column.

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