Just 'cos I'm a grumpy so and so, here are some things that really bug me, which are extremely easy to remove:
the weak comma.Oh, how I hate the weak comma. I mean, how hard can it possibly be? If it's a new clause unrelated to the previous one it's a new damn sentence! Example:
- John was 15 years old. He hated being 15.
- John was 15 years old, he hated being 15.
If it works with an 'and' or a capital letter the chances are it needs one.
Pointless repetition or clunkingly obvious deliberate non-repetition.OK, I know that sounds like I want it both ways. But although I find it extremely annoying, like most people do, when a writer can't be bothered to be imaginative enough to phrase something differently, I find it even more annoying when their attempts at avoiding this are so smug and obvious they have an even more detrimental effect.
- Sometimes Sarah was angry because of Simon's lies. His lies were so childish and petty.
could be more effectively phrased
- Sometimes Sarah was angry because of Simon's lies. They were so childish and petty.
or in myriad different ways.
But equally, if repetition is necessary:
- He owned a dog, but his mother owned a cat
don't bloody put
- He owned a dog, but his mother possessed a cat
It's entirely superfluous and distracting. It makes the reader wonder why there's a change.
There's a good example of this in the brilliant H.W. Fowler's 'English Usage', taken from something called the Westminster Gazette: Fowler has not room to record at length the elegant variety of fortune that attended certain pictures, which (within twenty lines) made, fetched, changed hands for, went for, produced, elicited, drew, fell at, accounted for, realized, and were knocked down for, various sums. This is clearly just silly.
tautology. People think this looks sophisticated when in fact it just looks stupid. I used to do it myself the whole time, and came up with such gems as:
- He was joyful, elated, euphoric.
These all mean the same thing, more or less. Say what you mean, and mean what you say: ask yourself if he really is all three or if you just want him to be because tricolons are pleasing to the ear and you like using all those words. The overriding rule of thumb, as always: keep it simple.
This one really bugs me. NEVER USE A LONG WORD WHEN A SHORT ONE WILL DO. Many people seem to believe the opposite.
Another example from Fowler:
- One of the most important reforms mentioned in the rescript is the unification of the organization of the judicial institutions and the guarantee for all the tribunals of the independence necessary for securing to all classes of the community equality before the law.—Times.
- One of the most important reforms mentioned in the rescript is that of the Courts, which need a uniform system, and the independence without which it is impossible for all men to be equal before the law
This also applies to single words. Don't say the books are 'homogenous' when you mean they are 'the same'; don't say you 'concur' when you 'agree'. It betrays a lack of confidence in your writing and a desire to hide behind the breadth of your vocabulary.
I have many more such bugbears, most of which I commit myself on a regular basis, but I don't have time for them all, so, finally, a couple of brief points: don't use semi-colons or colons unless you're very confident you're correct - consult a book - and don't use quotation marks to excuse a bad or wrong register phrase which you can't be bothered to think out properly.
There's enough of this stuff for a book, and I'd finish by recommending several very good ones. 'Fowler's English Usage' is the basic text, Kingsley Amis' 'The King's English' is funny as well as instructive, and 'The Economist Style Guide' is a straightforward instruction manual which that excellent magazine sticks by more or less religiously.
Good style matters because bad style is obvious and uncomfortable, and takes the reader out of what he is reading to remind him he is reading it. Good style (in journalism, at any rate), like a good referee, should be more or less unnoticeable except by it's absence.
post-node note: I got about a million messages after writing this pointing out typos - fair enough, I guess, given the subject matter. But I'd maintain that there's a difference between a conscious decision which leads to a stylistic error and a misspelling of a word as a result of pushing the wrong key or not capitalising an 'i'. Still, I'm pretty embarrassed that I put 'it's' rather than 'its'!