An editor in real life

Today’s post was inspired by the following passage from a book I love — On Writing Well by William Zinsser:

“Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: ‘a bit,’ ‘a little, ‘sort of,’ kind of,’ ‘rather,’ ‘quite,’ ‘very,’ ‘too,’ ‘pretty much,’ in a sense’ and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.

“Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.

“Don’t say you weren’t too happy because the hotel was pretty expensive. Say you weren’t happy because the hotel was expensive. Don’t tell us you were quite fortunate. How fortunate is that? Don’t describe an even as rather spectacular or very awesome. Words like ‘spectacular’ and ‘awesome’ don’t submit to measurement. ‘Very’ is a useful word to achieve emphasis, but far more often it’s clutter. There’s no need to call someone very methodical. Either he is methodical or he isn’t.

“The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.” (pg. 70)

When it comes to writing, I agree thoroughly with Zinsser. Yet in everyday conversation, I also enjoy mixing adjectives. When something surprises me, I like to tell people that I am “mildly terrified.” In fact, if you were to meet me in the grocery store, my occupation may not be readily apparent. I don’t like to correct the grammar of people I meet casually. Though I wince inwardly when someone says “weary” even though they mean “leery” or “wary,” I usual only mention such pet peeves to close friends.

My husband knows that I edit life in my head, but I strive to be sensitive to the fact that not many people care about grammar as much as I do. For that matter, in day-to-day life I don’t even care about grammar as much as I do when I am editing. I’ll admit it . . . I tell people daily that I am “doing good,” even if I am not working for Habitat for Humanity or serving in a soup kitchen at just that moment!

When we speak, our words do matter, but so does our ability to connect with those around us. I’d rather speak colloquially and be relatable than concern myself so much with the finer points of grammar that I can no longer carry on a normal conversation. Choose your words carefully, but give yourself (and others!) the freedom to make a mistake or to intentionally play with the beauty and fluidity of language.

What about you? What language rules do you knowingly break in casual conversation?

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Today, I might be wrong.

As I was working through a lesson today, I got stuck. I had no idea whether to say “pull the tape off  the paper” or “pull the tape off of the paper.” Both sounded fine to me, and “off of” sounded just a tiny bit better. However, a quick web search and some of my favorite grammar blogs stunned me; apparently, the grammar world thinks that my acceptance of the phrase “off of” is “illiterate,” “incorrect,” “unnecessary,” “dialectal or informal,” and even hated! 

Grammarphobia.com explains the issue well. Read on to see what you think:

Is “off of” so awful?

Q: Listening to you on WNYC the other day, I was surprised to hear you use the term “illiterate” to describe the construction “off of” (as in “Keep off of the couch”). I’m a post-doctoral fellow in linguistics who uses this non-standard form. And judging by Google, it’s widely attested.

A: I’ve been bothered by that “illiterate” statement ever since it left my mouth. It was uncharacteristic of me. I’m not generally so judgmental. Even my husband let me have it when I got home from the radio studio!

My big Webster’s New International Dictionary (in a 1956 printing of the second edition) does indeed say “off of” (meaning “off”) is “now illiterate.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary labels it “in later use only colloq. (nonstandard) and regional.” In other words, this construction was once standard, but is no longer.

For centuries, nobody considered the “of” redundant. The OEDsays that “off of” may have been around since the mid-15th century. Here are some relevant citations, beginning with the earliest (where it appears as “of of”):

circa 1450, from a medical text: “Take a sponfull of the licour … of of the fyir and sette it in good place tyl that it be ny colde.”

1667, from Andrew Marvell: “The Lords and we cannot yet get off of the difficultyes risen betwixt us.”

1712, from Richard Steele, writing in the Spectator: “I could not keep my Eyes off of her.”

1884, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: “I’d borrow two or three dollars off of the judge for him.”

By the time Twain put those words in Huck’s mouth they were probably considered a regionalism. (As Twain wrote in an author’s note, “In this book a number of dialects are used.”)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the “off of” construction lost its respectability in the last quarter of the 19th century. Although it has “faded into the past” in Britain,M-W notes, it has become idiomatic in the US.

Today, the usage guide says, this “innocuous idiom” seems to be used primarily in speech in contexts ranging from “uneducated” to “general.”

“If it is part of your personal idiom and you are not writing on an especially elevated plane,” M-W adds, “you have no reason to avoid off of.”

I admit that I went too far in calling “off of” an illiterate usage. This isn’t 1956. But I still think it’s nonstandard and doesn’t belong in the best written English. Conversation and informal writing? Sure!

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says: “The compound preposition off of is generally regarded as informal and is best avoided in formal speech and writing: He stepped off (not off ofthe platform.”

Another source, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), finds the construction “much inferior” to the form without the “of.”

The author, Bryan A. Garner, puts the usage at Stage 4 in his “Language-Change Index,” which means “Ubiquitous but….” (In his system of gauging change in the language, Stage 5 means “Fully accepted.”)

One day “off of” will undoubtedly be accepted as standard American English, but not yet.

Interestingly, many other pairs of prepositions are routinely coupled in English: “next to,” “away from,” “out of,” and so on.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has an extensive discussion of prepositions followed by prepositional phrases. “Because,” “ahead,” “instead,” “upward,” “alongside,” “inside,” “outside,” “out,” and others are often followed by prepositional phrases beginning with “of.”

However, the Cambridge Grammar notes that the combination of “off” followed by an “of” phrase occurs only in American English.

Re-blogged from: http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/12/is-off-of-so-awful.html

Well, what are your thoughts? Is “off of” still just as acceptable now as it was in 1956? Or am I wrong today?