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Yes, You Can Use "Off-Putting" & "Ongoing"

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's The Elements of Style is an iconic language guide, and deservedly so. It provides invaluable advice for English usage in a highly concise format, and—perhaps more importantly—it is written with actual personality, unlike most other tomes on the subject.


However, Strunk and White were born in the 19th century, so their advice has naturally become outmoded in some areas in the many years since the book's first edition. To be sure, recent editions have been updated to reflect certain modern English trends, but some of the advice in the text—particularly pertaining to the usage of relatively recent coinages—remains old-fashioned.


On this front, I will be writing a few posts on certain words that are now perfectly acceptable, despite Strunk's and/or White's objections. In this post, I discuss "ongoing" and "off-putting."

"Rules" You Can Ignore: Yes, You Can Use "Off-Putting" & "Ongoing" (Ex: "The ongoing use of these words should not be off-putting."

What Strunk & White Say

The Elements of Style (4th edition) has this to say about the words "off-putting" and "ongoing":

Newfound adjectives, to be avoided because they are inexact and clumsy. Ongoing is a mix of "continuing" and "active" and is usually superfluous. ... Offputting* might mean "objectionable," "disconcerting," "distasteful." Select instead a word whose meaning is clear. As a simple test, transform the participles to verbs. It is possible to upset something. But to offput? To ongo?

* As a side note, Strunk & White spell "off-putting" without a hyphen, but both Merriam-Webster (U.S.) and Oxford (U.K.) use the hyphen, so you should hyphenate, regardless of where you live. This isn't really consistent with how similar words are written, but, well... English is inconsistent sometimes.


This entry smacks of an old-fashioned writer's resistance to change. Even at the time those words were written, there was nothing "inexact" or "clumsy" about the words "ongoing" or "off-putting." True, "ongoing" blends the meanings of existing words, but that is a benefit, not a drawback! This blending allows writers to express a complex concept in one word instead of several. Indeed, that is why the coinage caught on in the first place: It was useful.


Yes, "ongoing" can sometimes be superfluous, and it should be omitted in those cases. For instance, this sentence has the same meaning without "ongoing," so it should be rewritten without that word:

Annette volunteers as part of an ongoing program that provides tutoring to at-risk teens. Annette volunteers for a program that provides tutoring to at-risk teens.

However, many uses of "ongoing" add meaning to a sentence. In these cases, the word should be preserved. For instance, in this sentence, "ongoing" is necessary:

The committee passed its spending rules last month, but its budgetary efforts are ongoing.

Here, "ongoing" serves to contrast the continuing efforts with the completed action.


As for "off-putting," it does contain elements of all the listed meanings, but that does not make it unclear. Tons of commonly used terms contain elements of multiple meanings; the only problem with such terms is if they are used ambiguously. Given the proper context, "off-putting" is no more unclear than, say, "green" (which refers to the color but can also mean "envious," "youthful," "naive," and "ecologically friendly").


The final objections that Strunk and White provide are particularly disingenuous. Sure, it is not possible to "offput" or to "ongo," but it is definitely possible to be "put off" by something, or to "go on." The authors willfully put the prepositions in the wrong position to try to support their instinctive (but invalid) distaste for these words, which were relatively recent coinages at the time of writing. However, once the prepositions are put in the correct positions, there is nothing at all unseemly about the expressions that gave rise to "off-putting" and "ongoing."


The prepositions were likely moved to the front of the adjective forms simply because "put-offing" and "go-oning" would've been much more awkward. This happens all the time in the creation of new words. There are dozens of examples in which a preposition is moved to the front when coining an adjective or noun form of a verb, including "intake" (from "take in"), "upkeep" (from "keep up"), and "overcast" (from "cast over"). These terms are generally accepted, so "off-putting" and "ongoing" should be, too.


I've shown in this post that the grumblings of Strunk and White—entertaining as they may be—are not always based in fact. You should feel comfortable using "ongoing" and "off-putting" wherever they are appropriate (and not superfluous). I hope you've enjoyed it! If you have any pet peeves about advice from The Elements of Style or any other language manual, please let me know, and I will write about them. You can leave a comment below or email me at info@elevationediting.com. Thank you for reading, and remember to use ElevationEditing.com for all of your editing needs!

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