I'm often asked where I get my ideas for this column. The answer is from you — that is, from readers, writers, members of my book club, members of my writers' group, participants in my training seminars and students in my college classes. In other words, from a community of readers and writers who care about language and are committed to its proper use.
One of those people, James, writes, "Blue Cross Blue Shield's motto for the last two years has been 'Live Fearless.' Do they also want us to eat good? A column on adverbs, particularly those in slogans and mottoes, would be appreciated."
As James knows, adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, as in "a fearless person." Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, as in "a very fearless person," so my ear tells me it should be "Live fearlessly." On the other hand, it could be argued that "Live fearless" is correct because the intended meaning is "Live without fear" or "Live in a fearless state of mind."
In response to a chapter in my new book on using the appropriate level of formality, Janice writes, "I saw a stellar example of terminal informality and imprecision today. In a weekly local paper, a man shot to death was referred to as 'the unidentified fellow.' The proper word, of course, would have been victim."
Patricia was dismayed to see an English teacher quoted in a book review as writing about students "clambering for a third copy of an assignment." She was equally dismayed that the reviewer, also an English teacher, failed to note the error.
"Really? Clambering? Didn't he mean clamoring, which means to shout or demand, or did the students actually clamber up the walls, all over the teacher, wherever?"
Jason writes, "I was talking with my son last night about when to spell out numbers and when to use the actual number. He told me that he just learned in his English class that the rule is any number under 100 (not 10). Makes you wonder."
Numbers usage depends on which style manual you're following. Standard usage is to use figures for 10 or more, and words for nine or less. An exception would be the practice of scientific and technical writers, who sometimes write all numbers as figures.
A smart question for students to ask teachers (and for writers to ask publishers) is which style manual they're using. The most common academic manuals are the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Diana Hacker's "A Writer's Reference" offers an overview of academic style manuals. Newspapers and magazines follow the Associated Press Stylebook. In my estimation, the most helpful and complete manual for on-the-job writers is William Sabin's Gregg Reference Manual. For descriptions of these and other recommended guides, google "Wilbers resources."
This is more information than you asked for, Jason, but I hope you find it helpful. The most basic rule for writers is the one we discussed in our Nov. 4 workshop: Look; don't guess.
See you Tuesday, Jason.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.