Theodore Bernstein created an analog to the economic maxim that bad money drives out good: bad words tend to drive out good ones. Bernstein, a journalist and professor, wrote or co-wrote seven books on grammar and usage. As an addict of grammar and language books, I came upon his “The Careful Writer” from 1965 while browsing in the library. Some of it seems obsolete today, but here are highlights you can use.
“Literally” and “veritable” are examples of Bernstein’s law. These words are frequently misused and add nothing. Eliminate them from your writing. See more about why “literally” has turned into a cliché here.
Speaking of clichés, Bernstein advocates their use “with discrimination and sophistication.” Shun them as a substitute for precise thinking.
Avoid exaggeration. When everything is “awesome” or “amazing,” everything is prosaic. Bernstein calls these exaggerations “atomic flyswatters.”
Go ahead and split your infinitive. Bernstein gives this example: The setback was sure to defer further hopes of keeping pace. Does “further” modify “defer” or “hopes”? Clarity is better than ambiguity.
“Bias” can be for or against. If you (or a venire member) have a favorite color, you have a bias in favor of that color. “Prejudice” is a preconceived attitude that is almost always against. We all have bias. Sound out witnesses and potential jurors for prejudice.
Is a “verbal” agreement spoken or signed? It could be either. To avoid confusion, use “oral” for spoken words and “written” for documents.
Bernstein calls the pretentious use of jargon “windyfoggery.” Government or corporate documents might refer to “improved financial support and less onerous workloads” instead of “more pay and less work.” Better to speak and write plain English. Don’t let windyfoggery obscure your message.
Theda C. “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers’ compensation cases throughout California. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at www.WCMediator.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @WCMediator.