Learn how to properly use these dangerous words.
Today we'll discuss words you should never use and words you should always avoid—or something like that.
As many of you know, before I was Grammar Girl, I was a science and technology writer. Even as an undergraduate, my instructors said I was especially good at that kind of writing. My secret was that I hedged everything I wrote. I wouldn't write anything as definitive as "Scientists found life on Mars." I would write, "Scientists appear to have found life on Mars," or "Scientists report that they have found signs of life on Mars."
In scientific writing, those kinds of distinctions are important because knowledge changes as new data comes in. What looks like life on Mars today, could turn out to be an instrument malfunction tomorrow. Coffee seems good for you in one study, but bad for you in the next study that looked at different populations or different parameters. But keeping absolute statements under control can also keep your everyday writing honest.
Using Always and Never
Some of the most dangerous words you can throw around are always and never. They almost beg people to ask, "Really? Never? Not even if aliens take over the world and change the laws of physics with their super-advanced technology?"
If I were to write, "Always italicize foreign words," I'm certain that within 12 hours someone would write in with an exception. If I were to write, "Never start a sentence with a lowercase letter," someone would remind me that the P in pH must be lowercase when referring to the acidity or alkalinity of a solution whether it's at the beginning of a sentence or not and that the Chicago Manual of Style says to keep the I in iPhone lowercase even if the word is at the beginning of a sentence.
If you go out on a limb and use always or never, be darn certain there aren't any exceptions.