The Got Rule and the Thing Rule

Ricky Onsman
SitePoint Managing Editor
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Like many organisations focused on publishing content, SitePoint maintains a Style Guide: a set of instructions and guidelines all SitePoint authors and editors follow to ensure the presentation of text content is consistent and effective across all the SitePoint websites and print publications.

This is particularly important for a publisher like SitePoint because we have a truly global audience. We address an English-speaking audience, but English isn’t consistent in its usage around the world. We use American English as our “lingua franca”, mostly because it’s usually intelligible and familiar enough for English speakers from other countries, while our US readers are little more resistant to some of the quirks in English used by people in the UK, Australia, Canada, India and our other territories.

The Style Guide covers a vast amount of information on acceptable spelling, grammar, syntax, abbreviations, acronyms, product names, case, capitalisation, punctuation, word choices, colloquialisms, technical terms, code, emphasis, styling, captions, lists, numbering, titles, quotations, footnotes, links, web addresses, general sentence construction … right down to when to use which types of brackets in which circumstances.

As you can imagine, it’s quite a task compiling such a guide, and it’s never really finished. It slowly evolves as language and common usage change – slowly, because part of the point is to maintain consistency to make life easier for the reader. We don’t want to chop and change the rules without good reason.

You probably also can guess that the whole Style Guide is a mix of rules and guidelines common to all good publishers and good writers, plus specific style choices particular to SitePoint and our readers.

In going over it, preparing to immerse myself back into the daily editing and writing tasks that give SitePoint its unique tone and style, I was struck by two guidelines I haven’t previously seen articulated in quite this way, despite my having worked with words for a living for over 30 years.

If you’ve ever entertained the thought of writing for SitePoint – I know many of you have, and many more want to – you would do well to follow these two rules.

The Got Rule

get/got/gotten We always try to seek out an alternative for this all-purpose verb, though sometimes idiomatic usage holds sway. A good example is the ever-present call to action, “getting started.” I tried, but there really is no better way to start a SitePoint tome.

This is probably the right moment for a huge shout-out to original Editor Georgina Laidlaw and current English Editor Kelly Steele. The Style Guide is mostly their work, and Kelly is the final arbiter of any disputes about language use at SitePoint.

The Got Rule is brilliant.

If you review any piece of writing and substitute a more meaningful word for any instance of “get”, “got” or (shudder) “gotten”, you’ll increase the clarity, meaning and impact of that passage immeasurably.

The “all-purpose” verb is, in reality, a trap – a convenience we lean on when we can’t think of a better word. Its use is so pervasive nobody really minds it; we just accept it as a bland, non-specific verb and move on. For the aspiring writer, however, it should be regarded as an opportunity to lift your writing above the ordinary.

  • Sometimes you might just delete the word to improve a sentence: “There has got to be a better way” becomes “There has to be a better way”.
  • Sometimes you might substitute a more specific word: “I got it from the shop” could become “I bought it from the shop” or “I stole it from the shop”, depending on the circumstances.
  • Sometimes you might change more than just the key word: “Once I got over the shock …” becomes “Once I recovered from the shock …”
  • Sometimes you might slightly rephrase a sentence: “I quickly got my equipment set up” becomes “I quickly set up my equipment”.

Note also that common sense and the end purpose of clear communication allows for exceptions to this and (just about) any rule.

My other favourite is really a variation of this rule.

The Thing Rule

someone/something/thing/things – similar issue to “get,” try and say what it is instead

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet the end effect when you put this into practice is quite dramatic. As with the Got Rule, improvement often comes by either choosing a more specific word, by deleting the offending word or by changing the sentence structure.

  • “The thing about doing it this way …” could become “The advantage of doing it this way …” or the “The drawback to doing it this way …”
  • “This is something that should never happen” becomes “This should never happen”.
  • “There’s nothing left to stop you …” becomes “If there are no remaining obstacles …” or similar.

This last example also touches on another great rule in the SitePoint Style Guide, which is to use positive language wherever possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t convey negative concepts, just try to use positive language in doing so. The example the Guide gives is to replace “didn’t pay any attention to” with “ignored”. The latter is more direct, emphatic and positive, even though it’s a negative concept being described. At SitePoint, we’re definitely more “bottle is half-full” than “bottle is half-empty”.

The SitePoint Style Guide covers a vast amount of territory and always tries to remain operable in a common sense, reader-friendly way. I have my own bugbears I’d like to see addressed. Why do so few people understand the difference between disinterested (meaning unbiased, without a prejudicial interest) and uninterested (meaning not interested in)?

However, it’s probably not even desirable to have a single authoritative rule for every language possibility. Writers have to be free to choose their words according to their intent and their desire to communicate with the reader.

The point of the Got Rule and the Thing Rule is they are both aimed at removing word choices that are non-specific, unclear and – often – quite meaningless.

So, if you have a nearly-finished article you want to submit to SitePoint, go back over it and apply the Got Rule and the Thing Rule before you send it to us. You’ll find your chances of publication are much greater and when you are published, your article will receive a much more positive reaction from SitePoint readers.

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  • http://www.xhtmlcoder.com/ xhtmlcoder

    Ricky, it looketh like you might have fallen into a similar trap regarding the four bullet-points all beginning: “Sometimes you might…” unless those were on purpose to test the readers? Only joking. However, it did stick in the mind when reading the article. Thus you’ve managed to communicate effectively there are many different word-traps.

    Yes, it is quite true that people will overuse a selection of those specific words highlighted above. I’d have to agree that usually one should also strive for ‘positive writing’ if possible – aim to remove the ambiguity. Hmm, “nice” is also an example of a weak wishy-washy descriptive word, I’ve heard many-a-time in positive judging competitions. Albeit using “good” (followed by solid reasoning) instead of the “nice”, is a more apt positive word to describe the object in question.

    Going onto a slight tangent, that reminds me of the generic spam-like one liners that go; “Great post” also of little value, you see dotted around – the bane of many blogs and forums, etc.

  • Mazz

    My late mom had a story where her teacher would literally set fire to any writing that used the word ‘got’. He would take the writing outside and light it up. Now that’s a style you’ll remember! (This was 1960’s Australia so, you know).

  • Aankhen

    These are useful rules. Thanks for sharing!

  • Stevie D

    A great resources for English writers – particularly UK English, but most of the contents applies around the world – is the Guardian Style Guide, as used by the newspaper of the same name, which gives an A–Z guide to common pitfalls with regards to spelling, grammar, acronyms, homophones, current (politically correct) usage, and so on – check it out at http://guardian.co.uk/styleguide

    How ironic that after xhtmlcoder likens using these banal, bland words to the fluff posting that infests comments pages across the internet, and 12 hours later we have exactly that. The FIRST rule of writing is … if you haven’t got anything to write about, don’t write anything!

  • http://tulsawebresults.com Kevan Judah

    Thanks for reminding us how important well written content is created and for pointing out two more words I should write around.

    My list already includes ‘it’ and ‘that’. ‘It’ has a name, or a synonym and I try to use those instead, and when it comes to ‘that’ I can usually just delete it and the sentence still works.

    Great post

  • linda

    I have a similar “thing” about the word “located.” Why say the house is located on a corner when you can just say the house is on a corner? And why do so many people describe things as red or silver “in color” or elliptical “in shape.” I can understand wanting to qualify that something is not made of pure silver but silver-colored, but usually that is clear by the context and, if not, “silvery” will probably do.

    • Anton

      They obviously are trying to gain employment at the Department of Redundancy Department. :-)

  • http://dailyprayer.us Mason Barge

    Hmph. Part good, part highbrow Latinization of a basically Germanic language.

    1. “This is something that should never happen” becomes “This should never happen”. The most improved sentence but it has nothing to do with “thing”. The construction “this is . . . that” is, indeed, one that should almost always be eliminated.

    2. “Once I got over the shock …” becomes “Once I recovered from the shock …” The rule fails. You’ve only made it sound more stilted and formal.

    3. “There has got to be a better way” becomes “There has to be a better way”. These have two different shades of meaning. Really, there must be a better way to improve writing than slavishly following rules like these.

    • http://www.onsman.com Ricky Onsman

      You have got to be joking! No-one wants you to be a slave, Mason. This is more about not slavishly following bad habits. But that’s OK. You stick with your Hmph. The rest of us will get along fine without you: we have to, we must, we just got to.