Iâ€™m reminded of phrases from my favorite writers. Any Rand, in Atlas Shrugged, Francisco talking to Dagny Taggartâ€™s brother: â€œWords have an exact meaning.â€ Henry Higgins ranting in My Fair Lady â€œBy rights they should be taken out and hung, for the cold blooded murder of the English tongue.â€ As a writer, it grates every time.
You hear it on newscasts and read it in newspapers: â€œThe person, that works for the company.â€ If itâ€™s a person, then itâ€™s a who. The rules read as follows: (taken from http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/whoVwhVt.asp)
Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups or things. That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses. If this, that, these, or those has already introduced an essential clause, you may use which to introduce the next clause, whether it is essential or nonessential.
The website gave some examples. In the interest of active writing, I would suggest going one step further. For: â€œShe belongs to an organization that specializes in saving endangered species.â€ why not write: â€œShe belongs to an organization specializing in saving endangered species.â€? Reduces the word count by one but punches up the sentence. Our minds automatically hesitate on certain words, including â€œthat.â€ When editing, I first go through to remove â€œthatâ€ plus any version of the â€œto be.â€
So instead of saying â€œThe group that is going to the museum.â€ try â€œThe group going to the museum.â€ And so on. Of course once you start, your automatic editor will intrude when youâ€™re reading for pleasure, and take some of the fun out of your stolen hours.
While Iâ€™m on an editing soapbox, letâ€™s look at the word â€œlaconic.â€ By definition, â€œlaconicâ€ means terse, of few words. The word has nothing to do with eyebrows, facial expressions, or any other body part. Unfortunately, some popular authors started the trend of such phrases as â€œhe raised a laconic eyebrow.â€ Have any of you ever heard an eyebrow talk, tersely or otherwise? Because I certainly havenâ€™t, nor would I want to. Eyebrows are supposed to stay quietly on my face, somewhere above my eyes.
Words have an exact meaning
For that matter, a phrase Iâ€™ve heard all too often recently is â€œmandatory spay/neuter,â€ referencing the removal of sexual organs from dogs or cats. Neuter is non gender specific, but is used for the sterilization of male dogs, most likely because the accurate word, â€œcastrate,â€ is too painful for males to hear. Since this PC phrasing has been used to mitigate the importance of these surgeries, and to encourage more people to support the goals of animal rights advocates, it is doubly important to use the correct word. Spay. Castrate. Sterilize. If you want to speak collectively, neuter is appropriate. For impact, Iâ€™ve been known to use â€œForced Sterilization.â€ If you want to sound a bit more knowledgeable, or just have fun, try Gonadectomy, a personal favorite of mine.
Words have an exact meaning and as writers we need to protect those meanings.