Tricky Words

Many writers think that ordinary, everyday words are safe. But that kind of thinking can be risky. I’ve often warned writers about the dangers of deceptively simple words like that, there, and I. Today I’m going to give you two more tricky words: by and being.

If you’re a risk-averse person, I have some useful advice for you: never start a sentence with by

Did you notice the qualifier? I said “if you’re a risk-averse person.” Of course you can start sentences with by! I do it all the time. But I see so many “by” mistakes that I’ve started warning writers against starting sentences that way.

Here are a few sample sentences. Can you figure out which ones have errors?

1.  By changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.

2.  By working hard as a volunteer, Joe gained valuable experience and several excellent references.

3.  By offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.

4.  By changing her eating and exercise habits, Linda lost eight pounds in just five weeks.

Sentences 1 and 3 are wrong. Sentences 2 and 4 are right. How do you know? By always introduces an extra idea. You need a complete sentence to go with it. (Think of a garage and a house. A garage is nice to have – but you’d better have a house to go with it!)

Below the extra ideas are in red. The complete sentences are in blue. When you have red and blue together, you’re ok! (The comma after the “by” extra idea is another clue that you’ve done it correctly.)

Here are the answers:

X 1.  By changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.  (Correct version: Changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.)  

2.  By working hard as a volunteer, Joe gained valuable experience and several excellent references.

X 3.  By offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.  (Correct version: Offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.)

4.  By changing her eating and exercise habits, Linda lost eight pounds in just five weeks.

Let’s go on to being. I’ve never come across a rule for using being – in fact I’ve never heard anyone mention that it’s a problem. Nevertheless, it’s a tricky word.

My personal rule is not to use being unless I’m absolutely, positively sure the sentence is going to sound right. Many times being hopelessly gums up a sentence. Here’s an example of a bad one from the Huffington Post:

It’s hard to believe it’s mid-February with it being a balmy 70 degrees in New York City today.  AWKWARD

The sentence would be more correct if you changed it being to its being – but even then I would have insisted on deleting it if I’d been the editor. Bad sentence! Bad sentence!

I do a lot of writing, and I allow some being sentences to stay – but it doesn’t happen often. I just did a word search for being in my 278-page book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You. I used being 10 times in the entire book. Here’s one of those sentences:

She was tired of being taken for granted.  EFFECTIVE SENTENCE

Trust me – that sentence had to fight to stay in my book. I don’t like the word being!

 

Share

Leave a Reply