A hawk-eyed reader has delivered me a dose of comeuppance.
He challenged my assertion that there is no such word as “upcoming.” I recently described “upcoming” as an expedient combination of “coming” and “up” — designed to save money on telegraph service, which charged by the word.
“Hawkeye” pointed out that “upcoming” has become a dictionary-approved word. You can look it up.
Guilty as charged.
It’s just that “upcoming” has been as much of a pet peeve to me as “hopefully” was to the late New York Times columnist William Safire.
Safire had been a speechwriter in the Nixon administration; he was most noted for putting into the mouth of Vice President Spiro Agnew the words quoted here, in a speech blasting the news media as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Most Safire columns focused on politics. But his occasional columns on the use and misuse of language gave readers special delight.
Safire was a stickler’s stickler.
For decades he crusaded against the misuse of “hopefully.” Whenever he spotted it in a sentence — frequently enough to infuriate him — he would write another column condemning its use and chiding its user.
This sort of common expression revolted him: “Hopefully, the hurricane will lose power before it makes landfall.”
That sounds as if the hurricane is full of hope. The writer actually means, “I hope the hurricane will lose power.”
Stickler though he was, Safire finally wrote: “I give up.” He notified readers that he would no longer publicly object to the entrenched misuse of “hopefully.”
A Colorado College student challenged my emphasis on precision: “How come you always look for errors?”
“I don’t look for errors,” I told him. “They leap off the page at me. I look for excellent writing, and when I find it, I promise to share it with you.”
One of the most common errors: misplacement of the word “only.”
An oddity: When we misplace “only” in conversation, our listeners generally get our meaning. But in writing, that lack of precision changes the meaning.
Consider this: “When I went to the market yesterday I only bought organic produce.”
Really? Was buying organic produce the only thing you did? Did you also buy bread, eggs, flowers? Talk with a fellow shopper?
The word “only” belongs right next to, or as close as possible to, the word it refers to.
In writing, to be clear, it should read: “When I went to the market yesterday I bought only organic produce.”
Not the genetically modified kind.
Some highly accomplished writers often misplace the word “only,” forcing a reader to work to discover the true meaning.
Writers should do the work. Precision produces clarity.
That excellent writing. That promise to my students to share excellent writing I now extend to you: “The Devil in the White City,” Erik Larson’s surprise-filled nonfiction book about Chicago’s 1893 world’s fair. His writing had me gasping with delight.
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through: www.writebetterwithgary.com.