Today we’ll discuss words you should never use and words you should always avoid—or something like that.
As many of you know, before I was Grammar Girl, I was a science and technology writer. Even as an undergraduate, my instructors said I was especially good at that kind of writing. My secret was that I hedged everything I wrote. I wouldn’t write anything as definitive as “Scientists found life on Mars.” I would write “Scientists appear to have found life on Mars,” or “Scientists report that they have found signs of life on Mars.”
In scientific writing, those kind of distinctions are important because knowledge changes as new data comes in. What looks like life on Mars today, could turn out to be an instrument malfunction tomorrow. Coffee seems good for you in one study, but bad for you in the next study that looked at different populations or parameters. But keeping absolute statements under control can also keep your everyday writing honest.
Using Always and Never
Some of the most dangerous words you can throw around are “always” and “never.” They almost beg people to ask, “Really? Never? Not even if aliens take over the world and change the laws of physics with their super-advanced technology?”
If I were to write, “Always italicize foreign words,” I’m certain that within 12 hours someone would write in with an exception. If I were to write, “Never start a sentence with a lowercase letter,” someone would remind me that Scandinavian last names such as “de Heer” start with lowercase letters and might come at the beginning of a sentence or that the “p” in “pH” must be lowercase when referring to the acidity or alkalinity of a solution whether it’s at the beginning of a sentence or not.
If you go out on a limb and use “always” or “never,” be darn certain there aren’t any exceptions.
When Should You Use Usually and Often?
So what about fudgy words such as “usually” and “often”? They aren’t horrible. When you’re tempted to write “always,” “usually” can be a safer choice: In English, we usually italicize foreign words.
The problem is that sometimes people use these words without any real knowledge of whether something happens often or usually.
I was tempted to write “people often use these words without any real knowledge,” but really? Is it often? I know I see it done, but when I think about it carefully, I’m not willing to commit to “often.” “Sometimes” is more accurate.
What Is the Difference Between Many and Most?
People have asked about the difference between “most” and “many.” OK, it was only one person, so it wasn’t really “people”; it should have been “someone.”
Both “many” and “most” indicate a large, indefinite amount. Technically, “most” is more than “many.” “Most” is a superlative that means “in the greatest degree” or “in the majority of instances,” so you could argue that it’s only correct to use “most” when you’re talking about more than half of something. For example, “most of the time” would have to be at least 50% of the time, although in practice, I suspect most people [get it?] don’t strictly adhere to that definition.
When Should You Use Most and Many?
My advice to careful writers is to avoid using “most” and “many” unless you have evidence that what you’re talking about is a lot—a lot of people or more than half the time, for example. It shouldn’t just be your opinion. The thought “I believe snails are adorable and make great mascots” floating through your head shouldn’t lead you to write “Many people believe snails are adorable and make great mascots.”
Going back to my opening paragraph, how did I know that many of you know that I used to be a science writer? I didn’t. Although I’ve mentioned it in a bunch of interviews, I have no idea how many of you already knew that I was a science writer. So I shouldn’t have started out with “as many of you know.” It’s pure speculation (and unnecessarily wordy).
As an aside, you can learn more about “more” and “most” in episode #124 in which we talk about using “more” to comparing two things (this painting is more spectacular than the last) and “most” when something is the best of more than two things (this painting is the most spectacular one we’ve seen all day).
A Quick and Dirty Tip: Name Your Sources
Finally, make your attributions clear. I don’t consider “some say” or “critics have asserted” to be meaningful. Name your sources. Earlier when I said “Someone asked me about the difference between ‘most’ and ‘many,’“ it would have been better to name the person: A reader named John T. asked about the difference between “most” and “many.”
More From Quick and Dirty Tips
This article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips. It has been republished here with permission.