U is for Use, Usage, Utilize, and other Useful and Utilitarian Units
What with all the rules about grammar, usage, and style, it’s a wonder anyone can get anything down on paper. Fortunately, native-born English speakers have internalized the rules and can speak and write from intuitive knowledge of how words work together in sentences. Any time we have a question about correctness, we can just pull our our handy reference manuals or go online to find the information we need. Or better yet, we can just let our editors fix the glitches in our writing.
What? You don’t have an editor?
Well, I don’t either, but my grammar-picky husband steps in and whacks at my writing. Sometimes he’s even right.
Grammar Reference Books and Textbooks
Good writers do use grammar reference books, and proofreaders and editors keep a large stock of them on hand. My own rather extensive collection starts with one first published in 1926. Here’s its classic opening sentence:
The Doorway to English is an outgrowth of a need of the classroom teacher of English who has been struggling long to achieve results in quality of speech from textbooks instead of making technique contribute to the quality of better speech. Almost any teacher of English can readily distribute the technique in orderly fashion through the respective grades, but few teachers are capable of allotting through a definite period of instruction the expanding qualities of good speech. L. Rader and P. Deffendall, The Doorway to English, Fifth Book, 1926.
What? Strunk and White, authors of The Elements of Style, would definitely not give this textbook writer an A for clarity.
Of course, some reference manuals vary in their pronouncements and create long-standing, hard-core devotees and crusaders, maybe even Grammar Police and Grammar Nazis.
One good example is the controversy over the serial comma, or the Oxford comma as the Brits call it. Do you use a comma after the second word in a series before the and? Journalists frown on the use of the serial comma; academic writers adore it. Chicago Manual of Styles says yes, use it. APA says no, don’t use it. What’s a writer to do? Most writers follow what they were taught in junior high and high school, then look for evidence and authorities to support that position.
Usage and Style
Grammar and usage are different. Grammar: how words should be used in sentences. Usage: how words are used in sentences.
It’s Prescriptivist Grammar (this is the way it should be) versus Descriptivist Grammar (this is the way it is.)
Style is how an individual author puts together his or her knowledge of grammar and usage in writing.
A college professor, for example, would use a more formal, politically correct style in presenting his final report to the college president on, “The Liberalization of the Humanities Department through the Utilization of Descriptivism in Chauvinistic Literature.”
The teenager writing on Internet uses a more informal style: mysterious acronyms that confound mature readers; pop idioms and slang; and improper spelling of there, they’re, and their, and your and you’re.
Here’s an example of a style suggestion from Strunk and White.
Avoid fancy words.
Although Strunk and White’s book does have it gallery of critics, it does offer helpful advice to developing writers. Their advice ranges from elementary rules of usage to the more hard-to-pinpoint style.
Why use a complex word when a simpler word will do? That college professor would do well to tone down his writing. The teenager will hopefully use a bit more formality in his academic writing.
Hey, humans, why worry about all of this. We cats have our own grammar. The fuss that you make about these sticky details puts me to sleep. Get a life! Meow for now. =<^;^>=