What a Difference a Word Makes

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During the last several months, I’ve been proofreading some of the copy for advertisements, newsletters, and Yankee stories. This task has made me even more sensitive than usual to the importance of proper language usage.

Recently, while dining at a local restaurant, I overheard this statement from a patron speaking to his waitress:

“I’ll do the duck.”

Oh dear. So many irreverent and inappropriate comments can be made in follow-up to that statement. I will resist for the moment. Let’s just let that gentleman serve as a cautionary tale, for what a difference a word can make.

Proofreading sounded easy enough. I have a decent command of the English language and a good eye for detail. No big deal, right? My wonderful colleague provided a collection of books to aid me in my task. Surely, there’d be no grammar or punctuation conundrum that I couldn’t solve, given enough time to consult these books.


My favorite of these books is Roy Peter Clark’s The Glamour of Grammar. Yet what this book taught me is that grammar and punctuation rules are not hard and fast. On the subject of the old rule to never end a sentence with a preposition, Mr. Clark advises that to follow the old rule “would mark you as a prig and a bore” if you were to say “From where are you coming?” instead of “Where are you coming from?” He further advises that to anyone who will not answer the latter question because it is a sentence ending in a preposition, you should ask, “Where are you coming from, you pompous ass?”

I do like that Roy Peter Clark. Yet these new trends and new rules make the work of a proofreader less cut-and-dried. Like fashion trends (it was once frowned upon to wear white after Labor Day, or anything but black at a funeral), the rules of grammar are modernizing. I rather wish it were not so. It is easier to defend a change in word usage or punctuation when the rules are black-and-white. So, what to do? Well, what’s proven to be the best advice I’ve received: Follow the rules as closely as makes sense, and follow one’s ear, too, for the way a sentence sounds when read aloud. Strive for clarity. And for goodness’ sake, order the duck.

  • Such a fun read, Deb. Can I borrow The Glamour of Grammar? I can certainly use some help and inspiration in the area of writing.

  • Mr. Clark,
    Thank you for visiting this little blog posting. I’ve recently placed an order for another of your books, Writing Tools. When it arrives, I’ll be a powerhouse of wisdom. Won’t that be just ducky?

  • Deb: Today I do the duck. Yesterday I did the duck. Tomorrow I will do the duck. And I am old enough to remember when a certain hairdo for teenage greasers was called a DA, or Duck’s Ass (think of The Fonz). Even if I had had the hair for it, I would have ducked that do. And thanks for your kind words about The Glamour of Grammar. Cheers.

  • Deb,
    Let’s wear white shoes next week and end everything we say with a preposition. I am in.


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