A Word, Please: Prose and context

When I write, I often begin sentences with "and." But when I edit other people's writing, I usually delete those "ands."

When I edit feature articles, I don't change "like" to "such as." But when I edit advertorial articles, I do.

I often point out that sources like "Webster's New World College Dictionary" say it's fine to use the word "healthy" as a synonym for "healthful," meaning "promoting good health." Yet I applaud the Los Angeles Times' habit of frequently opting for the more conservative "healthful" in its weekly Health section.

In fact, there are lots of language precepts that I might follow on a Monday, but disregard entirely on a Tuesday. Does that make me two-faced? Hypocritical? Fickle? Does it mean I have a congenital inability to remember grammar rules? No, it just means that I'm taking into account one of the most important guidelines of all: context.

A reader seeing the same wording in two different publications might interpret it very differently. A usage that appears in a free small-town newspaper might be perceived as an error while the same usage appearing in a large, respected publication could be assumed to be a conscious choice. New York Times editors are more likely to be aware of the healthy-vs.-healthful issue than the copy editors at the Polukaville Post.

So, when I write and especially when I edit, I try to keep this in mind.

Here are some of the issues I consider on a case-by-case basis.

A lot of people say that "like" can't mean "such as" or "for instance." According to these folks, "like" means "similar to." So if you say, "I enjoy activities like hiking," you're saying that you don't enjoy hiking but you may enjoy walking on flat surfaces or perhaps just hanging out in the woods. This isn't true. The "Webster's New World" and "American Heritage" dictionaries say "like" can mean "as for example." So I leave it in most articles I edit, with the exception of advertorial and marketing pieces. Marketing writers don't get the same respect as people who write without a sales goal in mind. So I try to spare them the unkind assumptions some readers would make if they saw a "like" standing in for "such as."

Many people think that "over" refers only to physical proximity: The cow jumped over the moon. They say it can't mean "more than," as in, "Joe makes over $50 an hour." Many dictionaries disagree. But a lot of people would say that "over" sounds less formal. So while I would usually leave this "over" in a breezy feature article, I might change it to "more than" in a more serious piece.

Ditto that for "under" in place of "less than."

"While" used as a synonym of "though" or "although" is a big peeve of readers who believe that it means only "during the period that." For example: While you were out, Mary slept. So some say it's wrong to write, "While he's good at math, Joe is also good at geography."

Usage guides say that's just superstition. But I like it anyway. Why use a word that could momentarily confuse a reader, making it appear that you're talking about a time span, when choosing "although" or "though" could make your meaning clear from the start?

A lot of people think this "and" at the beginning of a sentence is wrong. It's not. But in newspaper writing, where economy of words is king, it can be a waste of space. That's why I often take it out.

There are other language issues I consider on a case-by-case basis, and they all lead to the same conclusion: Context counts.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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