I am going to start cataloguing some of the little "nit-picky" things that professional writers come across in their work. These are those little bits and pieces of language that get used wrong or improperly, or words or phrases that don’t get used when the probably should. In other words, it will be about grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary, and writing style.
Of course, these nuances of English fall squarely into the "Who Cares" or "Does It Really Matter" categories for most people. Their response to most of these things will be a shrug, or the uneducated person’s favorite defense, "Oh, you know what I mean." But, for professional writers and for those whose meaning must be precise (attorneys often come to mind, but there are numerous others), these are the little gotchas that trip up good writers, bad writers, and everyone in between.
This will not be a rehash of common English grammar mistakes or misunderstandings, nor will it be a list of those little idioms that are technically incorrect. Most of that type of grammar discussion serves little value other than to puff up the egos of the pseudo-intellectual who thinks that by correcting who to whom that they are demonstrating intelligence. It will also not be a re-do of your high school English class or an admonishment against using double negatives. And, it will most certainly not be an ongoing complaint about the evolution of word meaning when adopted as slang into popular culture. (Yes, awesome does mean something very specific and is almost never used in that context anymore, but that is not what we’ll be discussing here.)
It will take awhile to put together. These little grammar tidbits don’t come up all that often, which is one reason why their misuse proliferates. If you keep getting their and they’re wrong, people will keep pointing it out and eventually, you should probably figure it out whether you want to or not, just like a dog figures out that they shouldn’t jump up on the bed. On the other hand, if you get these little things wrong, it may not come up again for a very long time. Chances are that even if someone did notice and wonder about your usage they probably wouldn’t know FOR SURE that you were wrong, and having no motivation to find out, wouldn’t say anything anyway.
But, for those of you who care about the precise meaning of words, or for those of you who are forced to understand the language better because of your profession, your teachers, or your desire to succeed, you have found your home.
The inspiration for this feature has been long in the making. Even before I started the freelance writing business, ArcticLlama, I ran afoul of words, phrases, and punctuation idiosyncrasies that stuck like little bits of sand in the folds of my mind waiting to irritate me at inopportune moments. Since becoming a professional writer, they have only increased in frequency and irritation, because not only is the precise meaning very important to writers, but also because people who care and know more about language than me judge my work. (We call them editors… at least to their faces.)
However, the immediate word issue that forced my hand into creating this long-coming feature involves that most wishy-washy of time constructs: awhile. Or, as the irritated brain skin around this nugget of sand wants to know is it a while?
The answer to this grammatical question is actually satisfying. That is nice, because it is not always the case.
For the purposes of writing AP Style, the Associated Press Stylebook lists a while and awhile together and as interchangeable. This reflects two things, one is that journalists seldom use the term since it is necessarily vague, and two that if the term is used, its vague nature means that precision is not necessary.
However, "awhile," as the good folks at Webster’s will have us know means, "a short period of time." Whereas, "while," means "a period of time."
Notice that while the literal definition of awhile means that is refers only to SHORT periods of time, the definition of while includes no such constrictions.
Thus, when writing, use awhile as one word when you mean a short period of time, and use a while as two words when you mean a period of time that can not be construed as short.
Astute readers (and writers) will note that there is actually some overlap here. Since a while carries no requirement of how long the period in question is, a while can also be used to indicate a short period of time as well. Furthermore, proper grammar requires that a while with a space be used whenever the phrase is the subject of a preposition.
A truly savvy writer may then choose to never use awhile and instead always use a while knowing that while the former may occasionally be incorrect, the latter never will.
Ironically, this is a favorite "correction" of many editors. So, while writing professionally, the writer is better off to use awhile for short and a while for longer time periods or when modified by a preposition.
To those of you who found this interesting, welcome home.
To those of you rolling your tired computer monitor eyes, stick with the articles about business and coffee. Don’t worry, I’ll break these posts out somehow 🙂