Advice to College Writers:
Brian’s Little List of Common Problematic Usages

by Brian Donovan

I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

—from The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan

The purest and most scientific study of language neither prescribes (recommends) nor proscribes (forbids) but rather describes usages. In general, the pure way of science does not involve or even allow value judgments about the phenomena under study. Not as a linguist or scientist, then, but merely as a university teacher of composition, and something of a conservative regarding usage trends, I offer the following account of usages that I have found proliferating in student writing, but strongly prefer to avoid in my own writing and even speech—and that tend, however slightly, to lower my estimation of whoever uses them, particularly in writing that is or ought to be formal in register.

Table of Contents

^ “Able” or “ability” with passive infinitive (“to be      ed”) is very often awkward. If you find yourself writing, for instance, that “the file, once deleted, will still be able to be recovered,” you have found a needful occasion for sentence-level revision. The problem is that the ability or lack of ability in this example properly belongs to whoever might want or attempt to recover the file—not to the file itself. You can sometimes revise so as to use an adjective made from the verb plus the suffix -able or -ible: here, “will still be recoverable.” Those adjectives ending in -able or -ible do properly apply to whatever or whoever is on the receiving end of the action. In present or past tense we could use “can” or “could” respectively, since they work equally well with either the passive or the active verb: “The file, once deleted, can still be recovered” (passive) / “A user who deletes the file can still recover it” (active). But there is no future tense of “can,” and so we use “will be able to” instead, often leading to awkwardness if the verb is passive.

One good revision is just to recast the sentence with the doer rather than the done-unto as the grammatical subject, and an active rather than passive verb accordingly—which is more often than not an improvement anyhow: “A user who deletes the file will still be able to recover it.” (Writers can spare their readers much ugly and confusing awkwardness by taking the time and trouble to consider alternative structures for their sentences, so as to select the best and not just whatever came to mind first.)

A similar problem often arises with verbs such as try or attempt with passive infinitive, as when someone writes or speaks of “a better word for what is trying to be said.” A person may try to express a meaning, but the meaning itself cannot well try to be expressed.

A person may well try, however, and may well prove either able or unable, to get hired, which is a kind of passive infinitive, though with “get” instead of “be.” Passive infinitives using “get” thus are an exception. What is consistent is that you should avoid attibuting intent or ability to something inanimate, something that cannot be an agent—and that is what words such as “able,” “ability,” and “try” often wind up doing when they are followed by passive infinitives.

^ “Based off of” is increasingly, inexplicably, and lamentably displacing “based on” in speech and in student writing, though it has not made much of a dent in books as yet. When we say that X is based on Y, we typically mean that Y serves as evidence or premise for inferring X. This usage constitutes a metaphor: X is to Y as a building to its foundation, or as any physical structure to its base. Should a building somehow come “off of” its foundation, or a statue “off of” its base, it falls down. Possibly “based off of” constitutes a metaphor invoking the relation of rocket to launch pad, but since the rocket uses its energy to distance itself from that launch pad, that metaphor is ill suited to the task of asserting a reliable logical connection. If you actually want to signify that X merely takes off from Y or takes Y as its point of departure, those phrases are available and established. This is but one example of a whole category of usage norms whereby various words are only properly complemented by certain prepositions or other function-words. These pairings are often not particularly predictable or amenable to logic: for instance, “superior” and “better” mean pretty much the same thing, but on the one hand we say that one thing is “better than” another, while on the other we say one thing is “superior to” another.

^ “Being” cannot serve as the main verb of a sentence. You can build a part of a sentence around the -ing form of a verb, which is termed a present participle or gerund according to how it is used. For example, a perfectly grammatical sentence might begin “Other things being equal, . . .” or “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, . . .”—or it might end with that same type of structure, as in “Helen assigned the task to Rosa, John being away from the office.” But such absolute constructions (subject plus present participle) cannot serve as sentences on their own, or main clauses of sentences. Like relative clauses using “which,” absolute constructions need a main clause to attach to, within the same sentence, one that uses a finite form of a verb rather than a participle or infinitive. (“Drives,” “drive,” “drove,” “have driven,” “would drive,” and “will drive” are all finite verbs, but “driving,” and “driven” by themselves are present and past participles respectively, and “to drive” is infinitive.) When an absolute contruction that should be part of the preceding sentence stands wrongly on its own, it is what I term a “continuation fragment” as discussed further below under “which.” Present participles other than “being” can figure in this particular type of continuation fragment, but mostly I see just this one. Actually, a careful writer achieves a more vigorous style by keeping usage of all the various forms of “to be” to a minimum, preferring active verbs over passive ones, and letting verbs carry as much of the meaning as possible.

^ “Being that,” or “seeing that,” does not adequately substitute for the subordinator “since” in formal English, to indicate cause-and-effect or “therefore” relationships—these are colloquial usages. The more formal usage is also the more economical and efficient in this case (as it is in many others).

^ “However” has two distinct senses: it can mean “in whatever way” (as in “However you phrase it, it still is bad news”); or, more commonly, it can be an adversative. Adversatives are a class of words and phrases, vital for argument, that also includes “but,” “still,” “yet,” “though,” “although,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” “even so,” and “on the other hand.” Adversatives serve to indicate or acknowledge that two clauses, sentences, or paragraphs are in a kind of tension with one another, as representing opposite sides in a debate. Only this latter sense of “however” concerns us here. When “however” is used as an adversative, it should not begin a sentence, nor even directly follow a semicolon that separates the two opposing clauses. Per the classic prescription of William Strunk, in formal writing it should be placed somewhere after the beginning of the sentence or clause wherein it is used. Wait for a convenient place to insert it between commas. If the sentence or clause is short, you can even wait for the end of it, and sandwich it between a preceding comma and the period that ends the sentence. For example, avoid the following: “Modern industrial agriculture likes to call itself ‘conventional’; however, it is a recent and radical innovation.” Instead, after the semicolon you can write, “it is, however, a recent and radical innovation,” or “it is a recent and radical innovation, however.” If you do not like how either of these options turns out, there are, as you can see, plenty of other adversatives with which to experiment.

^ “I feel,” or “In my opinion,” as a way of introducing an assertion, is generally worse than useless in the context of academic argument. For in that context what matters is not so much what the writer happens to believe, but what the writer can get the reader to believe—and optimally it is more a matter of thinking than of feeling. Argument, as a genre of writing, is largely defined by the writer’s expectation of a skeptical reader; and that means a reader who is not inclined to believe something just because the writer does, for fellowship. Although modestly hedging or qualifying an assertion in other ways can often help a writer’s credibility, identifying something as just one’s own opinion is commonly unnecessary and even annoying: good skeptical readers are smart enough to distinguish matters of opinion from matters of fact, and in the case of opinion to assume that the opinion is the writer’s own unless it is explicitly attributed to someone else. Silliest of all is “in my opinion, I feel . . .”—since the state of one’s own feelings is, to oneself, not a matter of mere opinion but can be known as surely as anything. Such considerations as these drive many teachers to ban first-person singular pronouns from academic writing altogether (that is, “I,” “me,” “my,” and “myself”). That blanket prohibition may be excessive, but these particular phrases, again as used to introduce assertions, should indeed be shunned. (A good philosophic argument, however, might very well include the statement, “When I contemplate my own death, I feel afraid.”)

^ “In today’s society” is perhaps the most meaningless phrase in the language. It has never contributed one atom of meaning to any sentence and it never will. For, regarding time, “today’s” tells us nothing that the main verb of the sentence does not tell us independently, merely by being in the present tense. As for “in society,” if the sentence concerns specifically human affairs or situations, the context inevitably must be society; and those are the only sentences to which people are tempted or likely to attach this dreadful phrase. (No one writes, “in today’s society, bats eat bugs”!) Students apparently think the phrase has a nice academic or scholarly ring to it, and add it for that reason. It most commonly appears at the very start of a paper, ruining the reader’s very first impression; this may be due to the superstition that academic papers must always open with cloudy generalities before focusing in on what they are about. Or it may just be a kind of throat-clearing. A similarly useless throat-clearing phrase is “in this day and age,” which has the added vice of pleonasm, using two words linked by “and” where just one would do the job. (Other examples of that vice include “each and every,” “first and foremost,” and “one and the same.”)

^ “Lay” is a tricky word, being both the present tense of a transitive verb and the past tense of an intransitive one. A transitive verb is one that grammatically requires a direct object as well as a subject, as in “Mike sharpened his knife,” where “Mike” is the subject, “sharpened” is the verb, and “his knife” is the direct object—what he sharpened. An intransitive verb takes no such object: for example, “Mike snored.” It would be nonsensical to ask what he snored, unless perhaps he were so talented as to snore a trombone sonata. Most English verbs can have both transitive and intransitive uses, as in “Sue walks” (intransitive) or “Sue walks her dog” (transitive). Now, the verb “to lie” (in the sense to position one’s body horizontally) is intransitive; if I say “I want to lie down,” “down” is not a direct object, being an adverb rather than a noun—“down” is not what I lie but rather how. The verb “to lay,” by contrast, is transitive: “I am ready to lay my cards on the table” (“my cards” is the direct object). The only context where I would ever say “I’m going to lay down” would be a game of gin rummy, where direct object “my cards” is understood without being spoken. Confusion between these two verbs arises in part because the past tense of “lie” is “lay,” as in “last night I lay down on my bed.” (The past tense of transitive “lay” is “laid.”)

^ “Issue” is a uniquely valuable word for denoting a question with two or more arguable sides to it. Too often, however, it is used as a mere euphemism for “problem.” This usage impairs its more valuable function.

^ “On behalf of” has a specific meaning: it works as a kind of compound preposition, launching a prepositional phrase that modifies some action word, so as to indicate that the action in question is performed by one person or group as agent(s) or representative(s) of some other person, group, or interest: “the lawyer entered a plea of ‘not guilty’ on behalf of her client.” If you are looking for an all-purpose connector for any two ideas, this phrase is not it, nor is any other: your job as a writer is to come up with words and phrases specifically suited to particular needs and contexts.

^ “Portray” is what a portrait-painter or an actor does; it denotes an act of imitation or representation. Its abuse as a verb so vague as to be almost all-purpose appears to be on the wane, fortunately.

^ “Positive” and “negative,” for “good” and “bad” respectively, are pretentious. This is not merely a general objection to using three-syllable words where one-syllable ones will do nicely, like “utilize” for “use,” though that is part of the problem. More specifically, those who use “positive” and “negative” for “good” and “bad” are pretending to a scientifically objective (or otherwise “non-judgmental”) stance. That pretense is patently false when either or both of these words are used to express value judgments. Do not be ashamed to express value judgments in plain words. (Personally, when I want a noun to denote a bad thing or situation, I do not even hesitate to use the word “evil,” as in “What evil is this law supposed to remedy?” I admit people are often taken aback by that usage, but I refuse to cede a perfectly good and ordinary English word entirely to moralistic bombast.) “Positive” and “negative” have perfectly valid technical usages involving electrical charges and polarities, logical propositions, and behavioral reinforcements; it is only their usage in expressing value judgments (while pretending they are no such thing) that I find objectionable.

^ “Quote” is properly a verb, not a noun. When one quotes, the result is called a “quotation,” and unless it is long enough to be inset as a block (i.e., more than forty words per APA, four lines per MLA), one encloses it in “quotation marks.” (I except and accept the valuable expression “scare quotes,” for quotation marks used to set off not actual quoted material but rather some term that the writer wishes to hold at some distance, as being figurative, sarcastic, or just somehow suspect. Nine times out of ten scare quotes are a cop-out and a blemish: if a word is so wrong, so unclean, as to require handling with these tongs, then the writer should take the time to find a better one.) “To be or not to be” is not “a quote” in Hamlet; it is not even a quotation in Hamlet; it is only a quotation when and as it is reproduced outside Hamlet, as here.

^ “Relatable” occurs most often in student writing as a sloppy, slangy, 70s substitute for “understandable,” “accessible,” or “sympathetic.”

^ “So,” where it serves as an intensifier, needs to be part of a coordinate structure involving two clauses, one of which is a result clause, often though not always introduced with “that”: “The wind was so strong | that the cyclists coasted uphill” or just “The wind was so strong | they coasted uphill.” The expectation of a following result clause is so strong that this became a classic joke formula: “My home town was so small . . .” [Chorused audience response] “How small was it?” “. . . the general store only sold privates!” [rim shot]. This word “so” also has other uses besides this, as in “so be it” or “I suppose so,” or even to introduce another kind of result clause, as in “The book lay open, so I started reading.” The problem arises when people use “so” as a simple substitute for “very,” with no result clause following: “That is so immature!” This could be analyzed as the rhetorical figure of aposiopesis: the immaturity is so extreme that no result clause could do the matter full justice, and words fail the speaker. In any case, use of “so” for “very” in writing comes across as a colloquialism—that is, an expression better suited to informal conversation than to formal speech or writing. Some kinds of fiction and poetry, however, intentionally and legitimately favor this and other colloquialisms—much as medieval poets like Dante and Chaucer favored the vernacular languages that people ordinarily spoke, over the Latin then favored for formal, public, official, or academic writing.

^ “They” and its related forms “them,” “their,” and “themselves” are all plural third-person personal pronouns. Often, however, people use one of these pronouns to refer to just one person, someone who has been mentioned before, but was introduced only generically or hypothetically, and is thus of indeterminate sex: “A driver should always signal before they change lanes.” Using “they” and its related forms in such contexts avoids specifying sex with either “he” or “she,” but at some cost: a scientific study showed that the brains of native English speakers do some kind of double-take when required to process “they” as a singular personal pronoun.* This usage, called “singular they,” has a long history, with examples from the works of Shakespeare. But Shakespeare also provides an interesting example of another solution to the problem entirely, when in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon describes the power of a magic purple flower: “The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid / Will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees” (“or man or woman” = “either man or woman,” a perfect example of the hypothetical individual who could be of either sex). Despite that precedent and its obvious logic, the sex-neutral singular personal pronoun “it” now enjoys far less acceptance in this role than “they”—because people feel “it” not to be personal, but rather to reduce a human being to the status of mere thing. Many have tried to resist the proliferation of singular “they,” and it is still excluded from certain fastidious publications, but it is clearly a losing battle at this point. I still avoid using it. But what are the alternatives? The use of the masculine pronoun in such cases, called the “generic masculine,” was the accepted rule when I was young, but then feminism’s second wave succeeded in overthrowing that rule as sexist (as indeed it was, though curiously enough it had been first established by a woman in 1745). Attempts to introduce new pronouns have all flopped. “He or she” is cumbersome, “s/he” suggests no definite pronunciation for the mind’s ear, and random alternation between masculine and feminine pronouns is obtrusive and distracting. My favorite solution is to use the plural “they” and its related forms but to make sure their antecedents (the nouns or noun phrases for which pronouns serve as stand-ins) are also plural: “Drivers should alway signal before they change lanes.” Other solutions involve “one” or “you”: “One must always signal before one changes lanes” or “You should always signal before you change lanes.” But a writer who opts for “one” must persist in that choice, as shown, and the resulting proliferation of the word tends to sound stuffy; while the generic “you” strikes many readers as overly informal or even presumptuous. Other solutions may fit particular situations, as here “A driver should always signal before changing lanes.” But there is no such problem to be solved in contexts where the hypothetical or abstract or generic person referred to can only be male or can only be female. Thus there is no excuse for singular “they” in such sentences as “A Roman Senator would have a purple stripe on their his toga” or “Any passenger who is pregnant should be offered assistance with their her luggage.”

^ “Which” can function as an interrogative pronoun (as in “which witch is which?”), but more often it functions as a relative pronoun. As a relative pronoun, it refers back to something mentioned just previously, and stands in for that thing in a clause of its own, a relative clause (which is a type of subordinate or dependent clause). Thus instead of writing “I attended a concert; the concert lasted four hours,” one can write, more smoothly and economically, “I attended a concert, which lasted four hours.” The words “that” and “who,” likewise often (though not always) function as relative pronouns. Any decent English handbook will satisfactorily explain how the three relative pronouns differ in usage, but here I want to warn against two particularly rank abuses of “which” specifically. One is using “which” as a coordinating conjunction, as if it were “and,” introducing an independent clause, such as could stand on its own as a complete sentence: “This led to the closing down of the whole program, which no one really wanted any such outcome.” The other involves punctuating the relative clause as its own sentence. (As a subordinate clause, it needs to attach to a main clause within the same sentence.) For instance, “This led to the closing down of the whole program. Which no one really wanted to happen.” The former exemplifies what I call a change-of-plan error, where a writer begins a sentence according to one syntactical plan and finishes it according to a different one. The latter I call a continuation fragment, in which what is properly a continuation of the preceding sentence gets improperly punctuated as a separate sentence all its own—perhaps because in spoken English a substantial pause or even a change of speaker might well come before it. (Both these types of error take plenty of other forms, besides these two that involve “which.” See above under being for another common type of continuation fragment.)

*Sanford, Anthony J., and Ruth Filik. “‘They’ as a Gender-Unspecified Singular Pronoun: Eye Tracking Reveals a Processing Cost.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 60.2 (2007): 171–78. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 May 2014.

This page put up 24 May, revised 19 August, 16 October, and 11 November 2014.