The Problem of Careful Usage

Whenever I research a debatable usage point, I inevitably run across these words or something similar: careful usage. As in:

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people, but it’s still avoided in careful usage.—Bryan Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage

The problem is that the phrase “careful usage” and its ilk don’t usually mean careful usage. They’re code that traditionalists (a.k.a. peevers, SNOOTs, errorists, pedants, etc.) use to pound us with rules that have no foundation in real-world usage. “Careful usage” usually means “usage that hasn’t accepted any changes in English since the 18th century when grammarians thought English would be much improved by becoming more like Latin.”

“Careful usage” does not have to mean you follow every one of Miss Thistlebottom’s made-up rules. Or E.B. White’s pronouncements. Or … Well, you get the idea.

It doesn’t mean that you take someone’s random, personal style choices and call them “good grammar.”

“Careful usage” means you look things up. You consider what the text is trying to say and how people currently use words—particularly those people you’re trying to reach. If they’re particular to the point of peevishness and think English should look like Latin, lacking the common sense to see that they are not at all alike, then by all means, follow nonsensical, random rules that don’t reflect how the majority of English speakers think and write. After all, it’s the message that’s important. Don’t rock the boat.

But if you’re not trying to placate the one percent, then don’t let the traditionlists’ “careful usage” throw you for a loop. Do your homework: Find out how the word or phrase in question is really being used and how your audience understands it. Then let the results guide your decisions.



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Writing Blogs You Love, Writing Books You Hate

Pick of the Week

We all have our favorite blogs about writing; some of mine are below. Nominate your favorite in Write to Done’s annual contest. You might even nominate The Writing Resource. “Nominate Your Favorite Writing Blog: 6th Annual Top 10 Blogs for Writers Contest

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Word Story: Fulsome

Some words travel a winding path to their meanings, causing language users confusion over what they actually mean. A word whose definition or usage is so hotly contested that it never fails to draw attention to itself is called a skunked term. It may be that language users will resolve the problem over time, but until then, what’s a writer to do? Today, the story behind fulsome and what to do with this stinky term.


According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the adjective fulsome means “excessively flattering or insincerely earnest,” “disgusting or offensive,” or “copious or abundant.”

Fulsome dates to the 1200s, when its components (ful + som) gave it the meaning “abundant, full,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary. By the mid-1300s, it had come to mean “plump, well-fed.” It morphed again in the 1600s to mean “overgrown, overfed” and “offensive to taste or good manners,” a meaning it retains today.

In 1828, Noah Webster listed the only definition of fulsome in his dictionary as “disgusting or offensive,” while The Oxford English Dictionary listed “excessively flattering” as the only current definition in 1897—dating it to 1663—labeling the others as obsolete.

Yet somewhere along the line, the original neutral meaning came back.

By the 1940s and 1950s, says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), there was an outcry against using fulsome to mean “abundant.” Usage mavens began urging the “disgusting or offensive” use, some mistakenly referring to it as its traditional sense. But language speakers haven’t listened.

Within the first 20 results on search for fulsome on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), we get three uses of the “excessively flattering” meaning, two uses of the “offensive” meaning, and 12 uses of the “abundant” meaning.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell in context which meaning is intended, though the “abundant” meaning is usually clear. Garner’s Modern American Usage notes that the “abundant” meaning is at stage 4 of its Language Chance Index: “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.” Even so, Garner’s prefers the “offensive” meaning and notes that the term is probably skunked. It advises avoiding the term at best and being extremely clear in the desired meaning at worst. MWDEU is in rare agreement with Garner’s because of the possible misunderstanding of the term and the probable firestorm from its use.

My guess is that in a generation or three, fulsome will be full accepted and understood as meaning “abundant,” whether or not the other meanings stick around. Until then, however, the wise writer should avoid the word when possible and should be crystal clear about the intended meaning when it must be used.

What definition do you have for fulsome? Do you receive criticism for it? Share your word story in the comments section!



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Get Help With the Writing Process

Getting your work written and into print can be a long, hard process. These articles can help you navigate the way.

Get Started

4 Ways Inspiration Helps You Beat Writer’s Block”: Use science to break your writer’s block. (Writer’s Digest)

Revise Your Work

How to Gain Perspective on Your Work”: It’s time to revise. Here’s how to go about it. (Writer’s Digest)

Prepare for Editing

11 Resources to Make Editing Your Novel Easier”: Whether you’re sending your manuscript to a professional editor or a publisher, self-editing can make the process smoother. Check out these resources. (Publetariat)

Get Readers’ Attention

4 Things to Do After Writing a Blog Post to Increase View”: You’ve put your work and creativity into your blog post. Now get it the attention it deserves. (

When Shouting Loudly Isn’t Enough”: Anyone and everyone is shouting about their book. Get readers’ attention by doing something different. (The Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing)

What kind of writing advice do you look for? Let me know in the comments section below.



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The Plagiarism of “Secrets”

Earlier this week, Little, Brown pulled one of its Mulholland books off the shelves and is issuing refunds to those who bought the book. Released last week, Assassin of Secrets by Q. R. Markham (Quentin Rowan), was recalled by the publisher because it was found to have liberally plagiarized several previously published spy mystery novels, including some of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Several commentators have wondered how this could have happened. Shouldn’t someone in the review or editing process who read the book have been familiar enough with the genre to spot Markham’s deception?

Given the state of the traditional publishing industry, perhaps we know why the problem remained hidden until readers pointed it out.

The website Reluctant Habits did an excellent job of demonstrating the breadth of plagiarism evident in the book. Edward Champion found 33 instances of plagiarism in just the first 35 pages. That’s almost one stolen idea per page! For example:

Markham, page 13: “The boxy, sprawling Munitions Building which sat near the Washington Monument and quietly served as I-Division’s base of operations was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space.”

Taken from Bamford [James Bamford’s Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency], page 1: “In June 1930, the boxy, sprawling Munitions Building, near the Washington Monument, was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space.”

What intrigues me is a lengthy comment on Reluctant Habits from a Dr. Edwin Poole. Poole doesn’t think Markham did anything wrong. Plagiarism is a fallacy, he claims. He writes:

Isn’t the idea of the total originality of a work of art supposed to be one of the worst fallacies of romanticism? How can any spy novel, or any other type of genre novel, be totally original? …. Isn’t the mere re-use of English words previously used by others a form of plagiarism?

Which brings us to the central question: what is plagiarism?

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, to plagiarize is “to reproduce or otherwise use (the words, ideas, or other work of another) as one’s own or without attribution”; “to present another’s words or ideas as one’s own or without attribution.”

Anyone who compares even a couple of the quotes from Markham’s book to their original sources can see that Markham didn’t just use the same English words in a similar order that another author did; he took other authors’ ideas and their specific expressions of them and presented them as his own.

We’re not talking about the same plot being reinvented. I believe it was Aristotle who said there are no original stories left; they’ve all been told (someone please correct me if I’ve confused my ancient philosophers). But the key word is reinvented. Good writers can take a story told for millennia and write it as they see it, bringing their unique take to the story, creating a new work of art.

That’s not what Markham did. He presented other writers’ ideas as his own. He lied. Other authors did the work of creating characters, settings, and events. Markham doesn’t make you experience the story in his book; the original writers did. Markham simply edited those ideas to fit them together.

Poole claims it’s all about money. You can steal all you want if you pay for it, he says. Here, he’s almost right. It is all about money, at least in this case. But if you pay for the right to republish someone else’s work, you’re not stealing. You’re sharing the benefit you get from using someone else’s work with that person.

You can write whatever you want. You can copy the works of Shakespeare, James Joyce, or any other author, published or not, to your heart’s content. The moment you claim someone else’s works as your own, however, you are stealing. You’re benefiting from someone else’s work. And in our society, you can’t do that without sharing the benefit you gain. The benefit doesn’t have to be in terms of dollars and cents. It could be a good grade, the admiration of the person you make this claim to, or something else.

It’s one thing to be influenced by other writers’ works. To create a similar, yet distinct, style of telling a story. It’s another thing to copy down someone else’s ideas, word for word, and claim them as your own.

Poole asks, “How many plagiarized sentences are allowed in a book of fiction? Of history? Of humor? Is there an exact formula? Or is it merely guesswork? Is one copied sentence sufficient to ban a book? Or five? Or fifty?”

How would you answer him? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.



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Results Not Typical and Other Stories

Whether you need inspiration, writing advice, marketing ideas, or a reason to self-publish, there’s a story here for you.

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Blessings and Well Wishes

Last week, I struggled with a cold that left me empty of ideas for The Writing Resource. When I asked the Twitterverse for ideas, 4ndyman suggested that I stick with my cold and look into the phrase “God bless you.” It proved to be a more daunting task than I anticipated, even once my head cleared.

God Bless You

God bless you has been said after someone sneezes since at least 77 AD, according to Barbara Mikkelson on Pope Gregory the Great later ordered the phrase used as the bubonic plague reached toward Rome (750 AD). It was thought that sneezing was a sign of the plague, and the hope was that God bless you would be a prayerful way to stave off the disease. (Yeah, that worked well.)

The word god entered English in 725, but it reaches back as far as Proto-Indo-European. It either comes from ghut-, “that which is invoked” or ghu-to-, “poured,” from the root gheu-, “to pour, pour a libation,” according to Online Etymology Dictionary.

The idea of offering a blessing after a sneeze doesn’t seem to have originated with Christianity, either. According to An Uncommon History of Common Things, ancient Romans said “Jupiter preserve you,” and the ancient Greeks had similar customers, says Online Etymology Dictionary.

Other Options

Also popular in the US, as well as in many other countries, is the German gesundheit, meaning “good health.” It’s first recorded in English in 1914 but was probably in use for a century before that by the Pennsylvania Dutch, according to An Uncommon History.

Other responses include:

  • Russia: Bud zdorov, “Be healthy.”
  • China: Yi bai sui, “May you live 100 years.”
  • France: À tes souhaits, “To your wishes,” or À tes amours, “To your loves.”

In some cultures, it’s the sneezer who says something after a sneeze. In Egypt, the sneezer says Yarhamukun Allah, “May Allah have mercy.” And in Malaysia, a Muslim sneezer says Alhamdu lil-Lah (“thank God”), while the listener responds, Yarhamukun Allah.

Why a Blessing?

Although some cultures superstitiously wish the sneezer good health and others wish them other good things, overwhelmingly people often wish the sneezer a blessing from their god. Why?

There’s seems to be no good answer, although lists quite a few theories, including:

  • “Bless you!” was a protective oath uttered to safeguard the temporarily expelled and vulnerable soul from being snatched up by Satan (who was always lurking nearby).
  • The sneeze itself was the expulsion of a demon or evil spirit, which had taken up residence in a person. Therefore, although the “Bless you!” was again a protective charm meant to protect the sneezer from evil, in this version it was meant to ward off the re-entry of an evil spirit which a tormented soul had just rid itself of.
  • The heart was believed to momentarily stop during a sneeze (it doesn’t), thus the “Bless you!” was uttered either as a supplication for life to return or as a congratulation upon its successful restart.

Whatever the reason, An Uncommon History points out that most North Americans say “God bless” out of social obligation rather that religious belief, just as the sneezer obligingly responds, “Thank you.”



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Word Story: Bludgeon

This week’s word story is perfect for writers looking for a synonym for club that isn’t overused.


Bludgeon can be a noun or a verb. As a noun it means “a heavy, short club that is thicker at one end or is weighted at one end.” Think of the clichéd caveman’s club, and you’ve got the right idea.

As a verb, bludgeon means “to hit someone or something with or as with a heavy club.” As in:

A man who tried to bludgeon his neighbour to death with a claw hammer has been jailed for 18 years. —Essex Echo (2011)

The noun form appeared first, in 1730, in Dictioarium Britannicum by Nathan Bailey. It seems we don’t know where Bailey picked it up. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us the reference:

Bludgeon, an oaken stick or club.

The verb form came later, in 1868. By 1888, says Chambers Etymology, a figurative sense appeared: “to bully or threaten.”

One of the Rangers’ surprising postseason heroes continued to bludgeon opposing pitchers, delivering a key three-run home run in the sixth inning. —Shreveport Times (2011)


Unfortunately, no one knows where bludgeon came from. A couple of other words have the same -udgeon stem and are also of unknown origin: curmudgeon, “someone who is cranky, stubborn, resentful,” and dudgeon, which Michael Quinion of World Wide Words defines as “a state of anger, resentment, or offence.”

Are they all from the same source? It could be. Perhaps a curmudgeon, in a dudgeon, would use a bludgeon to quell his anger.

Current Usage

Perhaps it’s because we’re a kinder, gentler people (more like it’s because we have more efficient weapons), but bludgeon’s popularity seems to be on the wane. A search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English produces only 124 hits (among 424 million words), a good chunk of them from transcripts.

This Ngram shows that bludgeon is also appearing less often in books:

But I like bludgeon. It’s got that sonicky quality that Roy Blount writes about. It starts with a small effort (bl-), as when one raises a bludgeon. Then it gets forceful in the middle (-dge-), when the impact of such a blow hits a person. It ends on a downbeat, with the -on almost getting swallowed up. Rather like being bludgeoned. After the initial impact, you probably aren’t aware if the club has been lifted for another blow or not.

How would you use bludgeon in your writing?



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Voice, Accountability, and a Quiz

Over at Copyediting, I write a daily News Roundup. Each roundup is a collection of links that copyeditors would find useful. But I read a lot of great stuff every day that writers would find helpful, too. Forthwith, a collection of links to tips, tricks, and advice just for writers.



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