Suggestions for clearer writing

There are serious perks to working with words every day. Among them is that I get to brush up on and practice writing rules constantly. I know. You’re jealous. Because of this exposure, I’ve gotten to be pretty familiar with grammar and style rules—or at finding unfamiliar or forgotten ones in whatever style guide I might be using.

But anyone who worries I’m judging your texts, emails, and social media posts constantly—don’t. In informal writing, style guides need not dictate expression. My position toward publishers, however, is much less forgiving. But they deserve it; it’s their job to get this stuff right.

If you happen to be one of those people who does care excessively about language and clarity, below are a few of the—I hesitate to say “rules,” so—suggested uses we vigilantes follow that many others do not.

Toward/towards

Many people habitually add “s” to the end of the word “toward.” They do so because they hear and see people use “towards” all the time. Or, they don’t know that the word was originally “toward” and that “towards” is merely a contagious slip of the tongue. The book I’m reading right now actually uses “towards” throughout, which of course drives me mad but also shows that this use is rampant.

Is this distinction important for clarity? No. Should I really care? Maybe not. But it’s just one of those things where it’s nice to be consistent—and you’ll find that the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook both adhere to or flat-out call for the use of “toward.” So let’s just agree the word is “toward,” OK?

This, these, and those

This what? I find myself asking this question all the time when “this” (or “these” or “those”) is left without its referent—the word it’s referencing. See below.

This is the cause of much frustration. (This what? What are we talking about? I’m so confused!)

This common error is the cause of much frustration. (Aah I see. We’re talking about the error. I understand now.)

Unlike toward/towards, this suggested use (look at that great use of “this”!) actually is important for clarity. Without its referent, sometimes it’s not obvious to readers what you’re talking about, as you can see in the example.

I had trouble adhering to this suggestion when first learning it because I felt like it infringed upon my freedom of style. But I realized that style should never supersede clarity of meaning.

Last/past/most recent

Many people use “last” when they actually mean “past” or “most recent,” such as in the potential scenarios below.

“Ugh—that’s such a pet peeve of mine. My last boyfriend did that all the time.”

“Your last? You’re not planning on ever having another boyfriend?”

Versus

“Ugh—that’s such a pet peeve of mine. My most recent boyfriend did that all the time.”

“I remember that. He was the worst.”

Or

“In the last year, I’ve started contemplating death a lot.”

“I mean, I guess if it’s your last year of being alive, that makes sense.”

Versus

“In the past year, I’ve started contemplating death a lot.”

“Oh no! Have you talked to anyone about that?”

As you can see, mistaking last for past or most recent can potentially cause some confusion. Best to stick to using “last” when you mean “final” and using “past” or “most recent” when you mean “the thing that just happened.”

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That’s all for today. Look out for more grammar and usage blog posts from us in the new year.

Annie Mullowney

As an editor at Leff, Annie works with the editorial team to turn ideas and insights into substantive content for print and digital formats and to help ensure that client ideas are showcased as part of a comprehensive, integrated messaging strategy.

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