“Omit needless words” is one piece of stellar, timeless advice from the oft-maligned (with good reason) Strunk and White. Nonetheless, I see a lot writing filled with what I call “couch potato words” – words that just sit there, doing nothing and eating your chips.
There’s a poster in my office that says, “Grammar is not a secret code.” It is a code, sort of, but it’s certainly not a secret. Grammar is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel confident using it. Plenty of resources exist to help people improve their grammar and language skills if they are so inclined.
Editors tend to love words, word puzzles and word games. I asked editing friends, colleagues and strangers on Twitter what they liked to play, and I got a broad range of answers. The games everyone knows came up, of course, but some lesser-known ones got mentioned and I learned about a few new ones to try. Continue reading Stuff editors like: Word games→
“The Wizard of Oz” movie came out more than 75 years ago. It’s a classic of American cinema, but it’s also been around long enough for wordplay based on lines from the movie to have become tiresome and worn-out.
Specifically, I’m talking about “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”
“A and B and C, oh my” seems to pop up far too regularly in news stories, marketing, ad copy and the like. It is not fresh. It is not clever. And it’s particularly annoying when the copycat phrase doesn’t even follow the rhythm of the original (ONE-two and ONE-two and ONE, oh my).
But English also has descriptive phrases that consist of seemingly opposite adverbs + adjectives, such as:
This cake is awfully good.
Her sister is terribly nice.
This hugely insignificant change won’t affect anything.
These immensely small subatomic particles were discovered only recently.
The blue shirt is a little big on you.
That couch the Bundys bought at the flea market is pretty ugly.
I’m thinking here about phrases used without irony, sarcasm or poetic license. I wondered whether this phenomenon has a name, so I went digging (figuratively) to find out. I looked in books, I looked online, I asked around. Continue reading ‘Bleaching’ the vibrancy out of words→
We need a gender-nonspecific third-person singular pronoun to ensure inclusive writing that isn’t awkward. Generic “he” just doesn’t cut it anymore; extended use of “he/she” and “his/her” in writing is clunky; random switching between “he” and “she” is distracting at best, confusing at worst. Additionally, having the option of “they” accommodates people who don’t identify as either “he” or “she.”
English speakers and writers don’t just use singular “they” now, we’ve been using it for centuries. We’re talking pillars of English literature here, too: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, and so on. Even the King James Bible uses it (and frankly, if it’s good enough for God, shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest of us?).
That leaves the issue of clarity: If a usage choice introduces ambiguity or confusion, it’s generally not a good choice. But singular “they” is always clear (unlike singular “you,” which has led us to y’all, youse, yinz, you’uns, you lot, etc., to specify singular or plural – and which is also an example of a plural pronoun shifting into the singular, so unless you complain about singular “you” being ungrammatical, the “singular they is ungrammatical” argument holds no water). We understand when “they” refers to a group of people, and we understand when it refers to an unknown or unspecified singular person. Clarity is also the advantage “they” has over pronouns such as “ze,” “hir” and “em” (and dozens of other failed pronouns over the past 150-plus years): People know exactly what it means.
We all use singular “they” without even thinking and read right over it with total comprehension. The time has come for it to be considered standard.
Today is National Punctuation Day, on which we celebrate the useful tools around the edges of our keyboards. Some — such as , and . — we use all the time so they are closest at hand and do not even require using “shift.” Some, such as ; , have enjoyed a renaissance through emoticons. And some, such as ‽ , are so rare that a writer must consciously choose to use them and jump through some typing hoops (or creatively copy-and-paste) to get them.
But all of the marks have their functions, and good writers know how and when to use them. Punctuation guides the reader and provides clarity. It doesn’t do all the work in terms of making writing clear, but it certainly helps.
On the heels of 5 things every editor should remember, here are a few things for writers to keep in mind. These tips are intended for writers of news and professional communication, so if you are writing creatively, feel free to ignore Nos. 2-5.
1. People will judge your content on the quality of your writing. You may be brilliant, have done superb research or have an innovative new idea, but if you can’t communicate it clearly and cleanly, you’ll lose your readers. If you’re asking for their time and attention, don’t waste it with sloppy, convoluted or error-riddled writing.
2. Readers do not know what’s going on inside your head — all they know is what your words say. Your thought process may be clear to you, but your writing needs to make it clear to the readers.
3. It’s not about you. It’s about the information. If you can render it in a particularly engaging and interesting fashion, all the better. But the line between lively prose and eye-rollingly over-the-top prose is fine, so be careful.
4. Get to the point. Don’t make readers slog through a bunch of background or detail before they find out what you’re actually talking about.
3. Don’t be a slave to the rules. Think of them as guidelines, and remember that clarity is always more important.
4. Trust, but verify. Always check names, dates, places, times, superlatives — anything you can check, check it. Anything that seems strange or off, check it. For that matter, even if something doesn’t seem strange or off, check it.
5. Math is your friend. Numbers are facts too, and should be treated with the same amount of care and scrutiny.
The headline of this post is an example of a misplaced modifier (more specifically, this one is a dangling participle). Misplaced modifiers pop up every day, and even though it’s often clear what the writer meant, they cause a little stumble — and occasionally major confusion — for the reader.
Why it’s wrong: When you “back into” a sentence with a phrase, the information in that phrase goes with the subject of the sentence. So here, the “having started this post” goes with “an idea,” which is not right — it belongs with “me.” Sometimes sentences start with a phrase that doesn’t belong with anything in the sentence, which can really confuse readers.
How to spot one: Anytime you have a sentence that begins with a phrase — an adjective phrase, a prepositional phrase, a participial phrase — make sure that phrase goes with the subject.
How to fix it: You may be able to simply move the modifying phrase closer to what it modifies, or you may need to rewrite the sentence. With a dangling participle, it’s often better to change the participial phrase to a subordinate clause, which is what works for the title of this post: “As I started this post, an idea struck me.”