My thoughts on writing tips found online and in published works (with some random thoughts thrown into the mix).

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Commonly Misused Words and Expressions, #3

Selected tips from Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, with my own commentary:

  • Fact.
    • In our culture, especially with the younger generation, it is common to hear "fact" being used for things that are, well, not really facts. If it is an opinion, an idea, or a theory, do not use the word "fact" as a substitute. If there are no tests, studies, or years of reality to support your claim, do not use the word "fact." If it is at all questionable, do not use "fact." If it could be a matter of angle or point of view, do not use "fact." If it is a common assumption, culture-wide belief, or even a widespread comment, unless you can verify it, don't call it a "fact." Basically, this word is one of those rare ones you hide away in your writer's basement for special occasions.
  • Farther. Further.
    • Farther refers to distance. Further refers to time or quantity. Simple enough.
  • Flammable. Inflammable.
    • Inflammable means combustible. Something that can spark a fire, catch on fire, or otherwise easily become a tower of flames. Flammable is only used on trucks that carry combustible materials, such as gas trailers, due to the confusion of people thinking "in" means "not." In formal writing, use inflammable or combustible. That is, unless you are writing for a stupid audience. Are you? Didn't think so. (Oh, and another tip: You should never think your audience is stupid. Uneducated or uninformed, maybe, but never stupid.)
  • Fortuitous.
    • This is used to describe something that happens by chance. Something that could not have been predicted. Something unexpected or out of the blue. Do not use it to mean lucky or fortunate, please.
  • Hopefully.
    • This is traditionally used to mean "with hope." Now, it is commonly interpreted as "I hope" or "it is to be hoped." In the current times, the word is so overused, you should get tired and sigh just from looking at it. Find another way to express yourself that is more accurate and your reader will thank you.


  1. :-) I have "The Elements of Style". To me, it is rather like reading Twain or Dickens. I know there is a great message in those words, but don't enjoy reading them to extract it. This was a pleasant visit--since you did the work of pulling out some gems from Strunk and Whites's book. :-) Thanks, Rebecca!

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I strive to update daily (and so far, am succeeding!) so check back often for new posts!

  2. Hi Rebecca. This is an interesting post and one which I've Tweeted as I think others should read it. I like it when people such as yourself analyse the language we use. I have to admit I've learned something too - 'fortuitous', for example, although not a word I think I've ever used, could easily be mistakingly used. As for 'farther' and 'further', these words are often explained as derivatives of the comparative form of 'far', so again, hats off to you for suggesting their true origin of use ; ) John