Using ‘On’ or ‘About’ and Other Tough Word Choices for the Writing Perfectionist
When you write for a living five days a week, you become very familiar with the ins and outs of sentence structures, the way a story should read and the meanings of words.
In fact, as you begin to parse their meanings and the way words fit into sentences, you might suddenly realize that the way you’ve long been writing something can be vastly improved by choosing a more precise word.
Those light bulb moments are the proof of growth as a writer – especially when they happen while sitting in traffic or cooking dinner. Those are the times when you know that you are a writer, through and through, obsessing over the difference between words that to a normal person are completely interchangeable.
“On” and “About”
One example of a nuance that might only occur to someone who does a lot of writing is the difference between “on” and “about” when introducing the idea of something that someone is going to say.
The police commissioner asked Lt. Columbo to answer questions on the conclusion of the investigation.
The above sentence is not necessarily wrong. It is written the way people talk. But “on” is a preposition that means “to be supported by or suspended from.” “The book is on the table.” “My coat is draped on the back of the chair.” When it comes to answering questions or giving a talk about something, a better word choice would be “about,” a preposition that means “of, concerning or in regard to.”
Lt. Columbo will answer questions about the conclusion of the investigation.
“And” and “To”
Another nuance is the difference between “and” and “to” when describing things people do that are sequential.
The high school athletes signed up for summer training camps to help them focus their energy and train correctly.
The training camps will help these high school juniors do a couple of things – focus and train – and the order of those activities is not important.
But if the order of what they’re doing is important, then “and” isn’t the best word choice. Let’s say these young athletes are going to be focusing their energy on correct training techniques so that they can be as successful as possible once they become college athletes. In that case, the correct techniques have to be in place before college success can happen, so “and” should be replaced by “to.”
The high school athletes signed up for summer training camps to help them focus their energy on correct training techniques to build successful careers as college athletes.
“At” and “During”
When describing when or where an event will happen, “at” is the perfect all-purpose word.
Let’s say that you have a granite wall bearing the names of military veterans who died in action. And each year at that wall you hold a memorial ceremony to honor them.
Here’s the headline to announce the memorial ceremony:
Remembering the Fallen: Locals to Salute Heroes at Annual Memorial
“At” can refer to a time or a place, but when it refers to a time, it really should only be a moment in time. “We’re going today at 5.” Now think about the length of any kind of ceremony. Of course, it has a start time, but the ceremony takes longer than just a moment. The above headline isn’t necessarily wrong, but to properly reflect the time that the heroes are going to be honored, “during” would be a better word choice.
Remembering the Fallen: Locals to Salute Heroes during Annual Memorial (Ceremony)
“At” would be best word choice for a headline that refers to the memorial wall itself.
Remembering the Fallen: Locals to Salute Heroes at Memorial (Wall)
“Last” and “Past”
In 2011, news reports had fun exploring the idea that 2012 would literally be the last year of human existence because the Mayan calendar would end on Dec. 21, 2012. Thankfully the human race is still here, along with an interesting trend to change “last” to “past” in references to moments, days, weeks and years to indicate something that happened before rather than the end of all things.
Over the last three years, I’ve knitted four sweaters and an afghan.
Following this trend, you might think the sentence should begin “Over the past three years ….” After all, the knitting didn’t take place over the final three years of life on Earth, but over the three years preceding right now. But a quick read of the definition of “last” – the most recent or the latest – debunks a blanket need to switch out “last” to “past.”
Over the last (most recent/latest) three years, I’ve knitted four sweaters and an afghan. My days of buying off the rack are past.
“Since” and “Because”
Everyone knows that we use “because” in a sentence to signal that we’re about to explain the reasoning for some action or request.
I’m taking the long way to the airport because Gaines Street is always a parking lot this time of day.
Because I said so! (The parental prerogative of not having to explain!)
Sometimes people substitute the word “since” in place of “because” since they are practically synonyms, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Because the word “since” actually means between a time in the past until now, it really should never be substituted for “because.”
Sometimes people incorrectly substitute the world “since” in place of “because” because they mistakenly think the two words are synonymous.
“That”: A Defense (bonus content)
A few years ago, a trend emerged to remove “that” whenever possible as an unnecessary word. It sort of became the defining ritual of a secret society of overeager writers and copy editors.
Sometimes “that” defines the thing you’re talking about.
I’d like that puppy.
That’s the best mac-and-cheese I’ve ever had!
At other times “that” refers back to something that was just said.
I say, “I can stop by to show you my new puppy tomorrow at 2.” My friend responds, “That would be great! And bring some mac-and-cheese.”
And sometimes “that” introduces a clause – a new idea being introducing into the conversation.
Seconds matter during a tragic event like a mass shooting, and this new law will ensure that people calling for aid will not be transferred when calling 911.
Even though it would not be incorrect to remove “that,” you might as well leave it in just because it helps the reader better understand that you’re signaling the introduction of a new thought.
Thankfully, writers write. And as they continue to do what they do, they will continue to find quirky word choices to obsess over.