by Trista Cornelius
Does Your Writing Cut the Mustard or Cut the Muster?
I want to recommend a reference book that you should add to your collection of writing resources, so you’ll be able know whether your writing cuts the muster or cuts the mustard. However, I need to warn you that self-consciousness is a common side-effect (or is it affect?) the first time you peruse (or is it skim?) this book.
Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians gently ushers writers out of gnarly writing situations like these.
For example, it’s a rainy Saturday morning. You’re settled in your writing spot to re-create a dialogue between two people at a diner. The man with thinning hair says to his coffee mate, “Last night’s windstorm really wrecked havoc on my orchard.”
You pause and think to yourself, “Wrecked? No, recked. Reeked? Definitely not. Reaked? Is that a word? Wreaked. Yes, must be wreaked.”
All this attention to detail has you second-guessing, and now you’re wondering, “Havoc? What does that mean? Is that spelled right?”
For some of us, a small bump in the road like this is enough to make us close our laptop, tuck away our notebook and call it a day. Luckily, Paul Brians’ book remedies the situation quickly.
Listed alphabetically under both wreak and reek – so you can find entries even if you are using or spelling them incorrectly – Brians explains in five sentences all you need to know: Reek means smelling strongly. Havoc means destruction. The correct phrase wreak havoc means working great destruction or to play havoc with. He concludes with a gentle reminder not to mistake wreak for wreck.
Voila. Done. Now, back to the man with thinning hair: “Last night’s windstorm really wreaked havoc on my orchard.”
A woman wearing a red scarf turns from her table nearby and adds, “I know! I have a deep-seeded fear of storms. People underestimate the damage they can do.”
You pause again, “Wait. Isn’t it deep-seated?” Now that you have Common Errors in English Usage, you flip alphabetically to page 54 to learn not only that it’s deep-seated but why. Plus, you get to chuckle at Brians’ snide footnote about phonics included with the entry.
If you’re watching your budget or left your book at home, Brians includes many usage mistakes on his website. However, I find the book easier to navigate. The website seems a little jury-rigged. Or do I mean jerry-built? No, not built poorly. It’s jury-rigged: built impermanently with the technology available at the time in a makeshift but also somewhat ingenious manner (119).
That would have been a heart-rendering mistake. Errr, I mean, heart-rending.
Now that you know about one concise book on English usage, your writing will surely cut the mustard.
This is the third in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!