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A Word, Please: Prose and context

September 14, 2010|By Julie Casagrande

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.

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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."

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