Tag Archives: words

5 things every writer should remember

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.

5. For that matter, make sure you have a point.

HAVE A POINT

In defense of plain English

Sir Humphrey in "Yes, Minister" was skilled at talking a lot but saying nothing.
Sir Humphrey in “Yes, Minister” was skilled at talking a lot but saying nothing.

Last year I revisited the classic BBC show “Yes, Minister,” which is about a hapless British cabinet minister trying to get things done and the Civil Service employees who seek to thwart him. Much of the show’s humor lies in the dense, rambling speeches of Sir Humphrey, the minister’s permanent secretary, who can turn a single sentence into several jargon-laden, empty-phrased-stuffed minutes while saying next to nothing. Did I say the show was a comedy?

(Interestingly enough, the British government has made efforts to reduce jargon in government communication.)

Jargon has its place in language: it’s a shorthand for members of a particular group that allows them to communicate specific concepts quickly to other members, who don’t require definitions or explanations.

Problems arise when jargon bleeds into everyday speech or writing and ends up impeding communication instead of making it clearer. The same can be said for buzzwords, unnecessarily long words* and needlessly wordy sentences. This is not to say that every sentence has to be subject-verb-object only — we don’t want to sound like a second-grade reading textbook — but that separating individual ideas into their own sentences generally increases clarity.

In my experience, people who use too much jargon or construct overly dense sentences outside of professional discourse generally have three reasons for doing so:

  • They want to hide something. Government “bureaucratese” is the best example of this: if you really don’t want people to find out about something, bury it under an avalanche of convoluted sentences, jargon and endless prepositional phrases.
  • They want to seem smart. The old saying goes, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Lots of people think using big words makes them appear intelligent, but the reality is that making a point clearly and concisely requires a lot more thought and smarts.
  • They want you to think they know something that they don’t. People don’t like to say “I don’t know,” especially when it’s something they think they should know. If you’ve ever watched an unprepared student get called on in class and try to muddle through an answer, you’ve seen this.

Because people can see through the use of jargon, a bunch of satirical websites have popped up to make fun of it. If you are so inclined, check out the educational jargon generator, the postmodernism generator and the business gobbledygook generator, or print off a B.S. Bingo card to make those long, boring business meetings more interesting.

All kidding aside, we do need to strive for clear, informative writing. If there’s a chance that something might be confusing, ditch the jargon in favor of straightforward language. Take a machete to overgrown sentences to clear a path for the reader. And if you don’t understand something, you can bet your readers won’t, so don’t be afraid to ask “What does this mean?” or “What are we trying to say here?” and adjust the writing accordingly.

Remember, no one will ever complain that something is too clear.

* I’m not one to shy away from sending people to the dictionary from time to time, but only when the word that will require looking-up is the best word for the situation and lacks a less-obscure synonym.

Contronyms: Literally having opposite meanings

literallyVociferous hue and cry arose recently over the inclusion of the figurative meaning of “literally” (that is, using it to mean “figuratively” instead of “actually”) in the dictionary. The history of the word’s usage and the purpose of a dictionary have been well discussed, so here I want to talk about the phenomenon of a word having two meanings that are opposites of each other.

These words are called “contronyms” (also “auto-antonyms” or “Janus words,” after the two-faced Roman god) and they’re more common in English than you might think. Here are a few examples:

Cleave can mean “to cut apart” or “to cling together.”

Impregnable can mean “able to be impregnated” or “unable to be breached.” (The tricky “im-/in-” prefix leads to confusion over the word “inflammable,” which means not “non-flammable” but instead “highly flammable.”)

Rent and lease can each mean either to allow someone to use something (such as a residence, vehicle or piece of equipment) for money without selling it, or to pay money to use something without buying it.

Sanction can mean “to allow” or “to restrict.”

Strike can mean “to hit,” or, in baseball, “to not hit.”

And, of course, literally can mean both “actually” and “figuratively.” No one can accuse English of making sense.

(Daily Writing Tips offers a much longer list if you want to see more contronyms.)

Don’t sweat it: Since and because

From "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins," by Theodore Bernstein
From “Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins,” by Theodore Bernstein

I’ve already said not to sweat “due to” and “because of,” and here’s another pair that includes “because” that you don’t need to sweat. “Since” has been used with a causal meaning for centuries, and there’s no reason to prohibit that sense of “since,” even though some people insist we should (and discussions about it can get a little heated).

The reason for this insistence is that “since” might be ambiguous, since it can have either a time sense or a causal sense. But there are only a few instances where “since” may truly be ambiguous (“Since you came over, I feel better” — does “since” here mean “because” or “from the time that”?); in fact, most sentences containing “since” have enough context to make the meaning clear.

Bottom line: If you think a sentence containing “since” might be misunderstood or cause a reader to stumble, recast it to ensure clarity. Otherwise, use “since” to mean “because” wherever you like.

Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Speaking of bring / brought / brought, people often get confused about when to TakeBringClouduse “bring” and when to use “take.” Some people use the two words interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable, or they aren’t if you are trying to communicate clearly.

“Bring” vs. “take” is easier to understand if it’s compared with “come” and “go,” because both pairs are distinguished by viewpoint.

“Come” and “bring” are both used when movement is “toward”:

Harry is coming at 8 tonight. He is bringing Hermione and Ron to meet us.
(The speaker is, or will be, where Harry is arriving.)

“Go” and “take” are both used when movement is “away” or elsewhere:

Harry is going to Hogsmeade. He is taking Hermione and Ron.
(The speaker is not, or will not be, where Harry is arriving.)

Continue reading Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Why does English … ? Just because

As a child, I hated the answer “Because” when I asked the question “Why?” It’s a non-answer answer that imparts no information and implies that the matter is closed.

As an adult, I teach editing and writing, and work individually with students who need help in both. They have lots of questions — good questions — about why English is the way it is. And, unfortunately, the simple answer to many of those questions is “Because.” (In fact, many of the questions have complicated answers based on when words entered English, where they came from and when their forms were standardized, but those answers don’t fit neatly in a sentence or two, so I’m left with a choice between 10 minutes of explaining or “Because.”)

Continue reading Why does English … ? Just because

Who gets to decide how language is used?

Few people use "forsooth" anymore.
Few people use “forsooth” anymore. It’s marked “Obs.” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Recently during a discussion about standard English, usage manuals and stylebooks, I was asked, “Who gets to decide?” My answer was, “We all do.” As users of the language, we are the ones who ultimately determine the direction of our language: the fate of words old and new, changes in meanings, and addition or subtraction of grammatical constructions.

Of course, it’s not as simple as a few people saying, “Now X will mean B instead of A.” Change rarely happens from the top down; it’s an organic process that takes time. In the past, given enough time, one language would gradually split into new ones that were no longer mutually intelligible. It’ll be interesting for linguists of the future to study the effects of standardized usage, high literacy rates and mass media on language change.

As it is now, words that most people no longer use eventually get labeled “archaic” or “obsolete” and fade from the language. New words appear to describe new concepts or technologies (or newly discovered old things, like “Nasutoceratops”). Continue reading Who gets to decide how language is used?

Welcome to Madam Grammar!

I’ve started this blog to have a place to put stuff too big for Twitter and too opinionated, tangential or snarky for my official work website. You can read the “About” page to see more about me.

Come on in!
(Crystal Leigh Shearin/stock.xchng)

My goal for this blog is to have a place to share thoughts and tips about grammar, language, words and editing, and teaching all of those, in journalism particularly; to point out egregious errors in the hopes that they will help others avoid such mistakes (or give some folks a laugh for the day); and to explore different and changing usages in English.

As an editor, I know that “standard” language is important in professional writing, and that certain rules need to be followed for a writer to be taken seriously. As a teacher, I know that students need to have a good command of the rules to understand how language works and how to write clearly, then to know when they can successfully break or ignore these rules. But as a linguist, I know that “rules” are a moving target — only dead languages never change. It’s not impossible to reconcile these three aspects, and I strive to be a “reasonable prescriptivist.”

The world’s a smorgasbord for English

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Aug. 30, 2011.

“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

The origin of this quote is uncertain, but its accuracy is not in doubt: As languages go, English takes what it needs from wherever it can.

Of the hundreds of thousands of words that make up English, the vast majority come from either Germanic or Latin sources.

Most of our short one- and two-syllable words for common objects, actions and qualities (house, hat, run, sing, green, etc.) and basic bits of grammar (the, one, and, in, etc.) are Germanic.

Most of our longer words — ones that have a root and a prefix or suffix — are Latin, or Greek. These would include such patriotic words as independence, constitution and government, and such workaday words as computer, television and refrigerator.

But English is not at all particular about where it picks up its words: The world’s languages are just one big smorgasbord (that one’s from Swedish) for our mother tongue to nibble from. Continue reading The world’s a smorgasbord for English

Portmanteaus: Word mashups

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Jan. 19, 2011.

This cake is choctacular!

“A Lick and a Promise” is a mockumentary about stamp collecting.

We’re doing a webinar on knot-tying.

These three sentences contain what linguists call “portmanteau words” or “portmanteaus,” which are basically word mashups: Take two existing words that you want to combine — chocolate and spectacular, for example — and mash them together, usually the front part of one with the back part of the other.

The word “portmanteau” — originally meaning a suitcase — was given this new definition by Lewis Carroll (of “Alice in Wonderland” fame), and anyone who’s read his poem “Jabberwocky” can understand why he needed a word for this:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Humpty Dumpty later explains to Alice:
“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Many portmanteaus arise in the technical sphere, often because the words they combine are long, like modem (modulator + demodulator) and malware (malicious + software).

And a lot of portmanteaus are used for fun, like bootylicious and shopaholic. But some portmanteaus, like smog and humongous and motel and even Internet, are so common that we don’t even realize they’re combinations of two words (smoke + fog, huge + monstrous, motor + hotel, inter + networking or internetworking + networks).

The key to portmanteaus is that they have to be easily understood even though they may not be “real” words. You might not find guesstimate or sexcapade in the dictionary, but you know what they mean.