Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Make Use of the Red Pen

We all have our pet peeves — in life, at work, and in language. Reading certain phrases just makes me want to shout expletives and flip off my computer screen. "Make use of" (hereafter MUO, so I don't have to keep reading it) is one of those phrases. Rrrrgh! I just HATE it. Why MUO something when you can just use it instead?

To my mind, MUO often leaves some ambiguity about exactly how you're supposed to use something. If you're shooting for ambiguity, then this usage is okay (though it can still rub me the wrong way). "If your husband talks in his sleep, make use of available pharmaceuticals." This sentence doesn't state which of the two, the husband or the wife, should take the "pharmaceuticals," or exactly what should be ingested — Valium for the wife? Cyanide pills for the husband? But then again, "use available pharmaceuticals" is nearly as ambiguous.

But that isn't usually how I find it. "MUO your office's recycling bins." is more like it. Luckily, as an editor, I can wield my mighty (virtual) red pen to obliterate two-thirds of that hated phrase.

(To be clear: There's nothing grammatically wrong with MUO. It's a matter of style. I imagine this is one of the phrases William Strunk had in mind when he warned against using passive voice in The Elements of Style.)

Corrected 9/4/08. I don't know what I was thinking. This isn't in the passive voice. Writing this in the passive voice would be much more horrible to my internal ear. Thanks, Bryn.