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Between the Lines: The Small Stuff

By John D. Banusiewicz
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, March 3, 1998 – Editor's note: With the retirement of David Ginsburgh we asked John Banusiewicz, DINFOS Editors Course Coordinator, to take over Between the Lines.

Many misused words and wordy constructions are so common they slip past even experienced copy editors and find their way into print. Here are a few examples. Would you catch them?

Comprise. The whole "comprises" its parts; it is not "comprised of" its parts. Wrong: The directorate is comprised of three divisions. Correct: The directorate comprises three divisions. Using the verb correctly, however, raises the question of whether you should use it at all. Don't use a big word when a small one will do: The directorate has three divisions.

Hopefully. This word doesn't mean "I hope" or "we hope." It means "in a hopeful manner." Wrong: "Hopefully, the new procedures will improve the quality of training," he said. Correct: He said he hopes the new procedures will improve the quality of training. Note the paraphrase to correct the speaker's misuse of the word. Here's a proper use of the word: The contestants stood by hopefully as the winning numbers were drawn.

Presently. It's not a synonym for "currently" or "now." It means "soon." And why use it anyway? The verb tense usually is enough: The unit is preparing for an inspection says the same thing as The unit currently is preparing for an inspection.

Regime. We see this one misused a lot, both in military papers and mainstream publications. A regime is a political system or administration. A system of diet or exercise for health is a regimen.

Unique. Uniqueness has no degrees. Something either is or isn't one of a kind. Therefore, nothing can be "somewhat" or "rather" unique.

Historic. The problem here isn't with the word itself, but rather with the tendency to precede it with an. The word starts with a consonant sound, so it's a historic flight, not an historic flight. Would you wonder if there's an hospital nearby when you're shopping for an house?

The month of. Wordy: The recruiters all met their goals for the month of January. Better: The recruiters all met their goals for January. Better still: The recruiters all met their January goals.

A total of. Wordy: The soldiers raised a total of $575 for the orphanage. Better: The soldiers raised $575 for the orphanage. The phrase does have a useful application, however. Use it to avoid starting a sentence with a spelled-out number and you'll serve a greater good. Awkward: One thousand four hundred thirty-six base people are eligible for the program. Better: A total of 1,436 base people are eligible for the program.

Past experience. As opposed to experience you had in the future?

Future plans. Does anyone make plans for days gone by?

Personal opinion. Opinions, by definition, are personal. No need for the qualifier.

At this point in time. How about "now"?

True, most of these problems don't seem like problems to the untrained eye. No one's going to congratulate you for saying "August" instead of "the month of August." But these specific examples represent broad issues – wordiness, word choice, syntax and redundancy – that sit at the core of whether you're a good writer or editor.

I could fix you a meal you'd eat without complaint. But you'd have no trouble distinguishing between the meal I made and the same meal prepared by a professional chef. My cooking usually is edible, and sometimes it's even good. But unless I take the time to learn, practice and internalize the fine points of the craft, I'll never be able to cook professionally. Writing is no different; knowing the "small stuff" is out there and paying attention to doing it well is the only route to being a true professional.

(Banusiewicz is the Editors Course Coordinator at the Defense Information School)

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