Usage is one of the things an editor will correct when copy editing your manuscript or copy. But what is “usage”? When editors talk about usage they mean the conventions of language usage–for example, how do you use “pedantic” properly? Correcting usage, grammar, and punctuation make up mechanical editing, the barest necessities of editing. Usage dictates meaning–correcting your usage clarifies your meaning.
I’m continually looking up words in the dictionary to make sure I understand their usage. There are some tricky distinctions in the English language. For example, the difference between “continual” and “continuous.” Continual means frequently occurring; intermittent. Continuous means occurring without interruption; unceasing. If I were continuously looking up words in the dictionary, I’d get no work done. Other examples are the distinctions between “affect” and “effect,” “anytime” and any time,” and so on. Sometimes, however, usage can be idiomatic–that is, the language of the everyday or vernacular, rather than that of formal writing. A recent example of this, and one that illustrates the importance of idiomatic usage, is the use of “swine flu” vs. “H1N1.”
Health care professionals somehow convinced media to use “H1N1″ when talking about that particular strain of influenza. In spite of this, people generally kept referring to this same flu as “swine flu.” Now here is where an editor’s touch can make all the difference. When writing about this particular flu, what is the more appropriate usage? Well, it depends on your audience. And part of an editor’s role is to understand your audience and to ensure your copy speaks clearly to that audience. So, for example, if you were producing a memorandum for hospital staff, it would make the most sense to use “H1N1.” But if you were writing a piece on preparedness meant for rural families, it might be best to use “swine flu.” Emily Amos, of Word Savvy Business Writing, wrote about this on her blog. The point being, often usage has more to do with speaking to your audience than with strict prescriptivist definitions. As well as correcting simple faulty-usage, a good editor can help you choose the words that best suit your audience.
So next time you run that spelling and grammar check on your computer, give some thought to usage. The right word can go far toward clarifying your meaning for your audience.