David Foster Wallace: Five Common Word Usage Mistakes

I’m a big David Foster Wallace fan. His 2005 commencement speech will go down as one of the best ever.

If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently … You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

He’s also a big proponent of thinking.

I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

Here is DFW’s 2002 Pomona College handout on five common word usage mistakes for his advanced fiction writing class.


1. The preposition towards is British usage; the US spelling is toward. Writing towards is like writing colour or judgement. (Factoid: Except for backwards and afterwards, no preposition ending in -ward takes a final s in US usage.)

2. And is a conjunction; so is so. Except in dialogue between particular kinds of characters, you never need both conjunctions. “He needed to eat, and so he bought food” is incorrect. In 95% of cases like this, what you want to do is cut the and.

3. For a compound sentence to require a comma plus a conjunction, both its constituent clauses must be independent. An independent clause (a) has both a subject and a main verb, and (b) expresses a complete thought. In a sentence like “He ate all the food, and went back for more,” you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.

4. There are certain words whose appearance at the beginning of a clause renders that clause dependent. (They basically keep the clause from expressing a complete thought.) Examples include since, while, because, although, and as. You may have learned to call these kinds of words Signal Words or Temporal Adverbs in high school. They, too, affect the punctuation of a compound sentence.

The crucial question is whether the clause that starts with a Signal Word occurs first in the sentence or not. If it does, you need a comma:

“As the wave crashed down, the surfer fell.” “While Bob ate all the food, Rhonda looked on in horror.”

If the relevant clause comes second, you do not need a comma:

“The surfer fell as the wave crashed down.” “Rhonda looked on in horror while Bob ate all the food.”

5. In real prose stylistics, though, the Signal Word thing can get a little tricky. If you look at the last sentence of item (3) above, you’ll notice that there is no comma between “and” and “because” in the compound “…you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.” This is because of the basic rule outlined in (4). But because is a funny word, and sometimes you’ll need a comma before its appearance in the second clause in order to keep your sentence from giving the wrong impression. Example: Say Bob’s been murdered; the question is whether Rhonda did it. Look at the following two sentences:

a. “Rhonda didn’t do it because she loved him.”
b. “Rhonda didn’t do it, because she loved him.”

Sentence a, which is grammatically standard, here really says that Rhonda did kill Bob but that her reason for the murder wasn’t love, i.e., that the reason Rhonda killed Bob was not her love for him. Sentence b says that Rhonda did not kill Bob and that the reason she didn’t is that she loves him. In 99% of cases, what someone’ll be meaning to say is what b says. So, though nonstandard in the abstract, b can be semantically correct, correct in a meaning-based context.


If you’re curious about grammar, read Tense Present, Wallace’s review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. If you’re curious about DFW, I highly recommend Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.