“The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage”


Unfortunately, I have been so busy lately that I have not had very much time to write or to post anything new of any substance.   However, to polish my writing skills I have been perusing The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage by Thomas Berry during some of my few free moments.  Although the book is nearly ancient by today’s standards (first copyrighted in 1961) and some of the advice is certainly well behind the times, I find it is still quite a useful reference, because much of the advice focuses on the exact meaning of words as well as the basics of English.

Unless you are a grammar aficianado, the book is by no means an exciting read, and I would not call it entertaining, but it can pique one’s interest with discussions of the subtleties in the meanings of common words, words I normally take for granted.  One word discussed that is undoubtedly used by writers of horror frequently is “sadistic”.  In his chapter “Words Commonly Misused” Professor Berry notes:

“The word ‘sadistic” refers to a form of sexual perversion.  Only careless writers and speakers use it to mean ‘strong interest in gory details’.”

Whether you agree with his assessment or not, it should be enough to pique one’s interest enough to ask yourself if you are using the nuances of the word to your advantage.

Another assessment I found interesting was that of “livid”.  According to Professor Berry:

“The word ‘livid’ means ‘a bluish color,’ ‘of the color of lead’, or the ‘black and blue coloring of flesh that has received a contusion’.  This word is commonly used to mean other colors. Also, the word ‘livid’ is absolute and consequently, one object cannot be ‘more livid’ than another.”

Other bits of sage advice that I find useful in giving my writing a poetic undercurrent concerns positioning modifiers in a sequence either by length or by logical order.

“Whenever possible, modifiers should be arranged according to length, with the shortest preceding the others.

Uneven:  It was a battered, worn, broken desk.

Better:  It was a worn, broken, battered desk. “


“Modifiers should always be arranged in a logical sequence.

Wrong:  As the days wore on, he became tired, bored, and exhausted.  (Wrong because he probably became bored before he became tired.)

Right:  As the days wore on, he became bored, tired, and exhausted.

Even if Professor Berry’s advice or attitudes may be out of date or not in line with current thinking, I recommend reading The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage if for no other reason than just to start the creative juices flowing and to start one thinking about how to maximize the use of the subtleties of grammar and meaning to their fullest effects.

Thoughts?  Comments?

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