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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.

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