Mind the gaffe!

Many of you will be working on your dissertations right now (unless you really did get sidetracked by this). This is your chance to get your thoughts down on paper on screen and show the world what you know.

Photo: Word Nerd by Ryan Hyde. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence
But how can you be sure you're expressing yourself perfectly?

You probably know the difference between illusion and allusion, but do you know your euphemism from your euphuism? Are you confident you know when to use fortuitous and when to say fortunate?


Well, don't worry, for help is at hand: the Library has plenty of guides to the English language. You can search MZE 140.3 on the catalogue for lots of examples, but my favourite is the no nonsense Mind the gaffe: the Penguin guide to common errors in English by R.L. Trask (MZE 140.3 TRA). In his introduction Trask says quite boldly:
Many other usage handbooks exist, but some of them are a little reluctant to lay down the law. They often tell the reader instead 'Well, some people prefer this, but other people prefer that.' I assume that you don't want to hear this. Instead, I expect, you want to read 'This is right, but that is wrong.' As far as possible, I'll try to say exactly that. This handbook adopts a much blunter tone than do most others. (p.2)
He does go on to moderate this statement (... or is that modify? aargh!) because he acknowledges that the English language is constantly changing, but Trask's approach is refreshing and his advice usually wise. Here are some typical entries:
  • Meaningful - a vastly overused word, and one often used inexplicitly... (p.184)
  • Methodology - a method is a single procedure for achieving some end. In contrast, a methodology is a set of conventional procedures, always principled and usually scientific or at least scholarly, for working in a particular discipline. The longer word is only appropriate in scientific and scholarly contexts, and it should not be used thoughtlessly as a fancy synonym for the shorter word. (p. 185)
  • Comprise, consist, compose, constitute - these four verbs are very frequently confused, producing awful things like "The NATO forces are comprised of soldiers from eight countries"... (p.77)
  • Simplistic - this is not a fancy word for simple… (p.260)

So if you're unsure whether you mean to say 'distrust' or 'mistrust', or if you're tied up in knots over whether to say 'due to' or 'owing to' then you might find this a very handy, light-hearted guide. (And for more of the same, I thoroughly recommend Lynne Truss' timeless Eats, shoots and leaves : the zero tolerance approach to punctuation - found at MZE 147 TRU.)

If you need more specific advice on structuring your assignment or developing your argument, then you could try dropping in at The Writing Centre in the Harry Fairhurst building, and for help with other study skills there is lots of advice in the University's Study Skills web pages.

And finally, even if you really can't seem to piece that dissertation together, whatever else you do don't try to fool anyone with this: http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/. It won't end well.

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