OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnnouncer: "Not available in all locations"

Me (yelling at radio): "Then why the hell are you advertising it? If it's not available anywhere, you could save some money on advertising!"

It's really shocking how often this happens, because this little gem occurs in the verbal fine print -- that quick-talking disclaimer at the end of a commercial that says "just kidding" about all the implied benefits of the product or service just described. It's shocking because those disclaimers are written or influenced by lawyers, the great purveyors and arbiters of precise language. Well, there's nothing precise about "Not available in all locations."

What they mean, of course, is "not available in some locations."

Big difference, huh? It's kind of like "all people are not created equal." I bet some geneticists who study identical twins would beg to differ. The correct usage is "not all people are created equal." In other words, some are and the vast majority is not.

These absolute words, as I call them - all, only, never, always, every, etc. - represent big pitfalls to good writing. They often have the writer saying something that he really doesn't mean. "Only" is probably the most often misused.

For example, it's wrong for me to say "I only write while listening to music." In fact, I do lots of other things as a human being - I live, breathe, work, drive too fast, watch football, write about esoteric things that only a handful of people find interesting, etc. Writing while listening to music is not the only thing I do. Get it? Instead, the correct way to write that is "I write only while listening to music". Moving "only" just one space makes a huge difference in meaning.

So be on the lookout for absolute words. They can lead you astray. Remember, words matter.

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