I love the serendipity that can happen in a library. Passing by stacks a few weeks ago, I found Right, Wrong, and Risky by Mark Davidson displayed prominently on an endcap. Here was a usage book, that although not new, I hadn’t heard of. The cover looked smart, so I scooped it up, hoping what was inside was just as smart.
Davidson offers three quotes in his front matter:
“The greatest possible merit of style is, of course, to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought.”—Nathanial Hawthorne
“The greatest problem about communication is the illusion that is has been accomplished.”—George Bernard Shaw*
“[Language] is the most vivid and crucial key to identity. It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger public, or communal identity.”—James Baldwin
These sentiments sum up perfectly our need for usage guides, and Davidson seems to use them as guides throughout his book.
Davidson was a communications professor at UCLA and the University of Southern California and held an advanced degree in journalism. His background is certainly apparent in the entries. He offers specific advice that fits with journalism style: writing that is precise but not overly fussy.
“Standard American English is not culturally superior to other varieties of American English that thrive in our nation,” he writes in the introduction. “But Standard American English is a master key to success and interethnic communication in today’s multilingual, multicultural America.” The author attempts to balance his usage advice between what will be accepted as Standard American English and what will reflect real-world usage.
“This book’s approach also acknowledges that language evolution can and should be guided by socially beneficial criteria,” he continues. “The criteria applied here are grace, logic, clarity, precision, the desirability of preserving useful word distinctions.” My review focused on whether he meets these criteria. However, grace and, to some extent, precision can be subjective ideas, so one person’s success is another person’s failure.
In one entry, Davidson advocates for passive voice in the right circumstances. It’s a “style of communication that can be as helpful as it is harmful,” he writes. Passive voice is perfect for when you want to emphasize the receiver of the action rather than the doer. Such advice demonstrates grace, logic, clarity, and precision in my book.
In another entry, Davidson points out the difference between adieu (“goodbye”) and au revoir (“until we meet again”). Authors might be tempted to allow a character to soften a parting by saying adieu instead of goodbye, but what they want is au revoir. Precision and clarity? Check.
Yet like all usage guides, this one has its subjective entries as well. Davidson’s preferences aim at grace and precision, but they aren’t always necessary to achieve the goal. For example, in the “a/an or the in a series”entry, he advises using an article before each item in a series, as with his example:
Please put a plate, a knife, and a napkin at each place at the table.
This, he tells us, provides “clarity and consistency.” You can skip repeating the article, he goes on, when the items “commonly go together,” as in And don’t forget the bread and butter.
I’m not sure how repeating the article would clarify anything, and this seems a case of consistency taken to extremes. Your ear should tell you when repeating the article would improve the rhythm of the sentence. Follow the advice if you will, but note that it doesn’t necessarily improve the text.
With Right, Wrong, and Risky, you’ll find applying the various entries will create straightforward, precise writing. The grammar lessons are spot on for the most part. If you’re a journalism editor, this book will be of particular use to you, as it will guide you toward a journalism style.
In this case, the book cover was as smart as the contents inside. Recommended.
*We discovered in the editing process that the correct quote is “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Our June–July newsletter will teach you how to write better headlines, to link smartly to other articles, and to use social media to promote your publication. Subscribe now!