Words About Words

In this column, I routinely use words that describe aspects of language. But these terms are often misunderstood and confused. Here’s a brief guide, followed by a few tips to improve your writing.

  • grammar refers to the rules and structure of language, the way words combine to form sentences. Example of a grammatical error: “He done gone.”
  • syntax refers more specifically to the order of words within a sentence. Example of a syntactical error, as might be made by someone learning English as a second language: “I am here for the job to apply.”
  • usage refers to the way words and phrases are used. Often, a mistake is called a grammatical error when it’s really an error of usage. Example of a usage error: the widespread misuse of literally when “not literally” is meant.
  • style refers to how something is expressed. Two writers might say the same thing in different ways. Neither is incorrect, but one style may be more suitable to the context. For instance, one could write “the murky water” or, as Homer phrased it more poetically, “the wine-dark sea.”
  • rhetoric refers to the use of language to achieve a goal, most often to persuade. Today, the word is often used pejoratively to describe bombastic or insincere verbiage, as in “The senator’s speech was mere rhetoric.” But the traditional meaning of the word is valuable and should be preserved.

Some language issues can be characterized as matters of right and wrong. Others are discretionary. Numerous ways of expressing a point exist, but some are likely to be superior.

One lesson I’ve learned as a writer for 35 years is that every early draft can be improved. If the document is important, print it out. You’ll see things on paper that you miss on screen. Edit with a pen or pencil, then plug in your corrections. Repeat as needed. Allowing the document to marinate overnight or for a few days often helps, as does reading it aloud or asking someone for a critique.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]