Writing tips for good usage vs common usage

Unpacking CMOS: Good Usage versus Common Usage

Jordan Wagenet Editing Tips, Grammar, Writing Tips

If your job is writing—whether it’s content marketing, creative essays, or technical handbooks—you know the value of clean copy in improving your readers’ experience and getting your point across succinctly. You likely also know the value of a good style guide toward that aim. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOSis one of the most respected and comprehensive style guides available, but let’s be honest—it’s a bit thick. Our “Unpacking CMOS” series attempts to demystify Chicago’s seventeenth edition and make its content more accessible to writers looking to improve their work.

Good versus Common Usage

Today we’re reviewing CMOS 5.250, “Good usage versus common usage.” One of the lengthiest sections in CMOS’s seventeenth edition, 5.250 illuminates tricky words and phrases that are commonly used incorrectly in American writing. Learning the proper style for these terms will ensure you don’t confuse your readers and embarrass yourself with erroneous word choice. What’s more, many of these tips will make your writing more concise, limit your word count, and more clearly communicate your ideas.

Section 5.250 largely deals with misspellings, homophones, word-form confusions, grammar, and indirect phrasing. If you find yourself asking any of the following questions, this section can help.

Three Questions CMOS 5.250 Can Help Answer

Can this sentence be written more succinctly?

Good writing should be concise. We’ve all felt our eyes glaze over at needlessly wordy sentences, but wordiness frequently slips into our own writing. Some of that stems from casual, spoken turns of phrase that don’t translate well into writing. Other wordy phrases arise from writing indirectly to sound more formal or simply misunderstanding where a word fits into a sentence grammatically.

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Let’s look at a few phrases that should be shortened.

Wordy Concise
After having [+ past participle] After [+ present participle].
As yet or as of yet Yet, still, so far, etc.
Due to the fact that Because
In actual fact Actually (or eliminate altogether)
Inasmuch as Because or since
In regard to About, concerning, etc.
In the near future Soon or shortly

As you can see, writers can often turn a multiword phrase into a single word with no loss in meaning, allowing readers to work less to understand their thoughts. (It’s great for shortening social media posts too!) Read through 5.250 for even more examples.

Is my chosen word or phrase nonstandard?

A good handful of words we use in everyday speech are technically not legitimate words (referred to as nonstandard in CMOS). The unacceptable ain’t is rarely seen in writing, but other incorrect words are still commonly found, such as irregardless. These nonstandard words should be replaced by the similar-sounding correct words that carry the intended meaning.

English is rife with homophones. Mixing up words that sound similar but have different meanings can weaken your authority on a topic. Click To Tweet

A few examples include the following.

Nonstandard Standard
As per As
Between you and I Between you and me
Center around Center on or revolve around
Close proximity Close; proximity
Could care less Couldn’t care less
Equally as As
Impactful Influential; powerful
In regards to In regard to (but see above on wordiness)
Irregardless Regardless

If you’re frequently tripped up by some of these, you may want to check 5.250 for more examples. Or maybe you’ll just want to share our article with that friend or colleague who often opines how he “could care less.”

Is this the correct word for what I intended?

English is rife with homophones, or words that sound similar but have different meanings. Add to that words that have the same root but different meanings, terms with nontraditional noun and adjective forms, and British and American versions of the same words, and English can become quite confusing. Mixing up these troublesome words can cause your reader to second-guess your intentions or—worse yet—your authority on a topic.

Thankfully, CMOS 5.250 offers many examples of these words and their correct meanings. Do any of the following confuse you?

Awhile A while
Cannon Canon
Cite Site
Classic Classical
Climatic Climactic
Complement Compliment
Condole Console
Corps Core
Crevice Crevasse
Dependent Dependant
Everyone Every one
Everyday Every day
Forebear Forbear
Rack Wrack
Stationery Stationary
Toward Towards

This list isn’t exhaustive, so refer to a dictionary and to CMOS 5.250 if you know you need help in this area.

Effective Writing Follows Rules for Good Usage

Understanding and following standards for good usage will bring greater consistency, quality, and authority to your writing. If you’re like us, you may want to keep CMOS 5.250 bookmarked for easy reference.

Do you need extra help eliminating common errors and making your writing more concise? We can help. Contact the Scribe Source today for professional editing and proofreading.


About the Author

Jordan is a freelance copywriter and business blogger who joined the Scribe Source team in 2018. While she is a prolific B2B and B2C content developer, she also has a master’s degree in geological sciences and is adept at developing scientific content. Jordan also works as an English tutor, teaching literary analysis to youth. She can frequently be found working on her own fiction or helping other writers develop their stories.