by Jennie RubyDo I use a or an before the word historic? Do I use everybody or everyone? Do I use toward or towards? These tiny questions and others like them have driven writers to distraction since--well probably since the invention of papyrus and pen. And for just about as long, editors have tried to answer them.
Professional editors in the field of publishing know a big secret that many business writers and members of the general public don't know. This secret is not addressed by most English or communications classes. The secret is that the answers to many of these questions are arbitrary.
Now, wait just a minute before you decide that you will fire your copyeditor and use a coin toss to make all future editorial determinations. The decisions are arbitrary, but they were also made long ago by practitioners in a long line of professional writers, editors and publishers. What you need to know is what those decisions were, and that you can find them in style guides, usage guides, and grammar books.
On a versus an with historic, the tradition in American English diverges from British English. American English uses a. How do I know? My authority for this is the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, paragraph 7.46.
Everybody versus everyone? These words mean exactly the same thing. You can choose whichever one sounds best to you in your particular sentence. But just so you know, everyone is used about twice as often in print. With anybody versus anyone, anyone is used three times as often in print. My authority for this? The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Bryan A. Garner. My personal opinion as to why this disparity in usage occurs is that everyone and anyone sound more sophisticated and smooth, whereas everybody and anybody sound more choppy and casual.
And the question of the s on toward? Again, American versus British tradition addresses this question: American usage is toward without the s. Garner came through with this answer.
Making your writing conform to these once arbitrary, but now traditional choices will enhance its credibility and professionalism. If you don't have time or inclination to collect a shelf-full of reference books and memorize much of what is in them, you can make it a practice to hire a good copyeditor for every job, or, if you like, just ask Jennie. I love hearing from our readers with questions on usage, style, grammar, and other writing problems.
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