Friday, August 31, 2007

August 31st is Blog Day!

Happy Blog Day, all! I hope that my five blogs give you some insight into writing or the on-line world. They’ve certainly helped and entertained me.

Brian Gill has a few blogs, most of which are valuable and/or entertaining – sometimes both at the same time. The one I’m including on this list addresses running a small business from home. Many of his tips apply to freelancing on-line, and the ones that don’t still offer interesting insights. His first post, the principle of the speckled ax, makes an important point about balancing perfection against effort. Sometimes, good just has to be good enough.

Then there’s Misti Wolanski over at Cuppa Caff. Her new blog covers writing and the theme for this month is “Why Write…”. She tackles various genres of writing including articles, fiction, and scripts and how to decide which of these you should use. I can’t wait to see what she chooses for next month’s theme.

Once you know what you want to write, visit the team at Daily Writing Tips for some refreshers and pointers. They cover a wide variety of writing subjects, including freelancing and writing style.

If you want to read about freelance writing and blogging, try Chris Bibey at Chris Blogging. The two subjects mesh on so many levels that having information from someone who does both helps you keep you perspective. He also comes up with great links – you know I love a good breadcrumb trail and Chris points me in interesting directions.

Finally, take a read through Lillie Ammann’s blog A Writer’s Words, an Editor’s Eye. She has a link list as long as somebody’s arm to other writing blogs, as well as posts on freelancing, writing, and publishing.

I hope that you find these as useful as I do. Now to let these folks know that I've included them in my Blog Day list. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Game for Language Lovers

Please excuse the short post today. I have a new obsession - the Human Brain Cloud. I cannot help trying to influence the contents by flagging offensive and incorrect garbage as well as adding complex associations (when they come to mind). The site is the brainchild, if you’ll excuse the pun, of 2D Boy. You can read their blog and understand the sense of play and experimentation that led to this toy.

I’m posting this because I like the idea that people who care about language can play with words in a forum that includes the words “massively multiplayer”. Nothing makes a grammar geek feel as cool as a gamer (or game player, the boring full phrase) like those words. Whether those who obsess over MMORPG - or whatever the proper acronym may be – rank as cooler than those of us who like to diagram sentences or not is debatable. At least they have their own acronym!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Writing with an Unspecified Gender: Wrap-Up

This post wraps up my relatively meandering series about writing about a person whose gender you either don’t know or wish to conceal. I had hoped to have a definite opinion on the subject by this point. Unfortunately, I still feel that the best way to deal with the topic is to avoid it by writing in the second person.

When one feels that one must use the third person, one wants to confuse ones readers as little as possible. If one uses the plural pronouns for singular subjects, one runs the risk of mixing up ones self and ones audience. When one chooses the one-note “one”, one alienates readers looking for a more casual tone. One is also forced to repeat oneself rather a lot.

The neologisms offer an interesting alternative but, unless your audience already knows the forms you will use, distract and confuse your readers. In addition, they would - almost without exception - fail to impress or entertain mainstream media editors and publishers. Unless you are using them to make a point, they won’t serve you well in a piece you want to sell.

While using forms “he” or “she” as defaults for writing with an unspecified gender offends some people, it’s by far the easiest way to construct an understandable piece. The key is to be consistent throughout your piece. Don’t change the gender of your subject halfway through! If you missed the first three posts, you can read them as follows.
Defining the Problem
Using Plural Pronouns
Using Neologisms

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Writing Tips and Thoughts

In looking for blogs to include on my Blog Day post tomorrow, I ran across Angela Booth. While I'm not in love with her style, she offers a lot of information for freelance writers. She's got one blog for writing for the Internet, another for freelance writing in general, and more on blogging and copy writing. You have to dig a bit for the meat, but she does hide plenty between the gristly ads.

I quite liked the technique she shared of chatting with yourself to get into your writing. You can use it to explain to yourself what you want an article to accomplish or what to include in your novel's next scene. You'll end up writing part of what you wanted to do anyway – just flesh it out properly!

Then I ran across Laura Spencer. Her post if friends and family are involved in your writing started a train of thought. I blog about writing style and grammar because no one in my off-line life cares about them enough to have lengthy, thoughtful, frequent discussions.

I wonder if that's a frequent motivation for bloggers – that they have an interest that their “real world” contacts don't share their passions. What an excellent reason to write articles and blog about something – because you want to connect with (and educate) others about what you love. There's my feel-good-about-the-Web thought for the week.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Why Do We Need Good Grammar?

For my 100th post, I thought I'd put up a few links to others who defend the necessity of grammar. My short version goes like this, “You don't need perfect grammar to communicate. You do need it to communicate well. Excellent grammar allows people to find nuances in the language that escapes those who cannot construct a technically complex sentence correctly.”

For more detailed information, see:
Richard Mitchell's Why Good Grammar?
Eve Carmichael's cringe-inducing example
The National Council of Teachers of English's Grammar Page
This press release from the National Commission on Writing
An editorial on Whiskey Creek Document Design's site entitled, “Ahhh, But You CAN Teach Grammar!” and
Mr. Bauld's Sense and Nonsense about Grammar.

Some of these are very long and impassioned, but that's how I feel about language – passionate. People can learn to explain their beliefs and feelings to each other in great detail. Written communication can be clear and concise. And I can stop pounding on the table and saying, "That's right!" between sentences. Have a happy Monday, please, while I go calm down.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Writing with Unspecified Gender: Neologisms

There are a few versions of the neologisms created over the past few centuries that one can imagine using on a regular basis. Regardless of the set one choses (check this comprehensive list for a wide variety), using the new words will be a matter of consciously changing one's speech and writing habits. One may be dissuaded from one's experiment by the slow-communication period of adjustment - and of explaining the words to others.

You may have noticed that I used “one” throughout that last paragraph. That was an attempt to test the snooty factor in using it as a substitute for “he or she”. It wasn't difficult to do and it flows naturally, to me. It just seems that people have an aversion to using the word regularly. I blame British television comedies.

I found two other invented sets of words that I could imagine remembering long enough to use. The first is one that has enjoyed acceptance among those who care on the Internet. You would say, “This blogger is foolish. Sie acts like hir pets are important and sie repeats hirself. I'm bored by hir.” Please note that this is only for illustration and is not an actual review. I'd include the link.

Thus “sie” is “she or he”, “hir” is “his or her” (as well as “him or her”), and “hirself” is “himself or herself”. Sie is a German word and enjoys Teutonic flexibility in its meaning, which makes it perfect for this sort of adoption. The change is not drastic and the pronunciation is different enough (or can be) that the words will not be confused with, say, “see” and “hear”.

The second set is the “te, ter, tem” set used by Richard Maurer. Taking my previous example, you would then say, “This blogger is foolish. Te acts like ter pets are important and te repeats temself. I'm bored by tem.” Basically, this set is a singularization of they, their, and them. It's straightforward and easy to understand. Unfortunately, it sounds more like someone doing a bad impression of a Jamaican accent. The set is just too close to the original words to have wide appeal.

The problem with any of these neologisms is that they are new. You could post an explanation in the sidebar of your blog so that new readers understand you but daily verbal use would be intimidating. Could you stand up at an important meeting and say, “Our average customer knows what sie wants,” and then stop your presentation to explain it? If you said, “Te drives like ter the only one on the road!” would your spouse laugh at you?

In short (at length), is the change worth the effort? I like the idea of being on the forefront of change, but in I don't think it will happen. People have been trying for 150 years and not one system has gained long-standing use.

Note: Obviously, I have returned early and I'm glad to have kept the schedule I originally set. Four fish and seven hours in a boat were enough for the kids. Now I'm off to bathe in some aloe and follow it up with much lotion. Thank heavens I didn't sunburn my fingers. I'll post one last entry in this series on Wednesday. Now I need to come up with something for my 100th post tomorrow! Any suggestions?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Quickie Post: Blog Day, Job Listings, and a Note

I learned today about the 3rd Annual Blog Day celebration on August 31, 2007. The idea is to find five new blogs that you like. You post a link and brief description of each next Friday and let the folks whose blogs you included know about it. I will participate and am excited to see the results.

As this is a quickie post, I’m adding a link to Erik Sherman’s freelance writing job listings page. I’m going to check out a few of them (and the rest of his site) next week sometime and will post about any “new” ones that look promising.

I also learned that we are going camping this weekend so I won’t be able to post the next in my series on gender-neutral pronouns on Sunday as I had intended. I was going to write the whole thing up on Saturday but it looks like I’ll be out of town. You know I love ya, baby, but the family comes first. If I can weasel out some time between now and then, I’ll put it up. If not, I’ll post it as soon as I can next week. Have a lovely weekend! I know I will.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Writing with an Unspecified Gender: Plural Pronouns

To get an idea of just how muddy the waters of pronoun use are, try reading the first page of this thread about writing role playing games (RPGs). This level of consensus matches more technical grammar discussions, but shows the problem in a less preachy way. I thought it more fun as an example.

Cross My T makes a convincing case for the singular “their” on their wittily-titled page, Everbody loves their Jane Austen. The argument rambles on through dozens of examples in classic literature but they make their case in the second paragraph. They point out that the singular “their” was used and accepted until grammar snobs started regulating English under the rules of Latin grammar. You can read similar assertions in many places, including those cited on this page.

I admit that this argument sways me. People have been reading these books for centuries without finding the pronouns strange or confusing. If using "they" in referring to a person of undetermined gender worked for Jane Austen and HG Wells how can I object?

One problem comes when you are talking about a single person in relation to a pair or group of something else. “The player threw their dice and they landed on an orange square.” What landed - the dice or the player? Using plural pronouns confuses your readers in such circumstances. This distracts them from what you are saying and weakens the impact of your writing. It may cause readers to abandon you entirely and turn to another source.

Consider an unknown hotel guest how has the nasty habit of shaving without cleaning up afterwards. A note has been left by the person who cleaned the room explaining the situation to the manager.

“I won't clean Room 312 again. They leave their hair all over the bath after they shave themselves and it's nasty.”

Regardless of the even nastier things that hotel cleaning staff undoubtedly remove every day, we now have a plural guest with a singular verb. Would you use the invented “themself” or “theirself” to make “they shave” agree?

This has gone on long enough for one day. On Sunday I'll post arguments for and against using other pronoun forms. The variety of invented, gender-neutral constructs surprised me. You could grow accustomed to any of them but no one set has gained general acceptance.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Quickie Post: SEO Improves

On SEO Egghead there is a great post about remembering grammar in copy writing. It's an excellent reminder that using keywords overwhelms natural language if you don't choose the phrases and their uses carefully.

With search engines getting more sophisticated every month, writing repetitive copy will now lose you a job or lose your client the ranking for which they were looking when they hired you. Either outcome is bad for you as you don't get paid. Writing readable and "searchable" copy the first time will save frustration for both of you.

Increase your optimization with related terms, reordered phrases, and phrases with added modifiers. You will avoid boring and awkward copy and create useful and findable text. Your clients will jump for joy because customers can search for their products and actually find them. You can enjoy writing instead of slogging through repetitious drivel. Let's hear it for improved algorithms!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pet Peeve of the Day: They’re Iced, People.

Walking around the grocery store drives me nuts. Not only do I see the oft maligned (and grammatically incorrect) “10 Items or Less” signs, but people don’t know what has happened to their food.

When you take something hot, apply ice to cool it, then consume it, you call it “iced”. That’s what “iced” means. And yet, you have “ice tea” and “ice cream” on nearly every label for such products.

When you buy coffee on the rocks, the menu reads, “Iced Coffee.” That’s what they’ve done to it, after all. The word is descriptive. You don’t find ice in your Lipton Ice Tea. (I brew my own and think they should put the word tea in quotes, but that’s neither here nor there.) Either they iced hot tea or they should leave the word ice off their label.

Iced cream labels provide even worse examples. You can’t make it without freezing it; that’s why it’s in the freezer section. The term “ice milk” covers a different substance so I won’t quibble here. I don’t know how it’s made. But iced cream has been iced, indeed. It doesn’t contain ice; it was made using ice.

I am fighting a losing battle. Few people know, or care, that this is an error. I’m willing to stand up, however, as the word geek that I am. If I can convince even one brand to change their labels, I can rest in peace. Rest, that is, until my next attack of poor-language-use-induced hysteria.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Writing Using an Unspecified Gender: Defining the Problem

Let’s start with a sample sentence so that we know what this discussion covers.

“Each employee must provide HR with his or her form by Tuesday at noon.”
“Each employee must provide HR with their form by Tuesday at noon.”
“Each employee must provide HR with his/her form by Tuesday at noon.”
“Each employee must provide HR with his form by Tuesday at noon.”

An individual sentence allows room for any of these constructions. However, imagine writing an entire page of instructions for that memo. You would write one sentence after another to a mixed audience. How do you choose which pronoun(s) to use?

Do you just pick a gender and apply it throughout? Alternate among the above methods? Use the plural pronouns they and their? Employ the dreaded s/he? The grammatically correct way to write such documents no longer agrees with the politically correct way. Worse, the latter comes across as awkward and smarmy more than concerned with gender equality.

I’ve only defined the problem and this post’s length matches a normal one. I had intended to address this issue in a single post but now see that it will have to be a series. I will do posts on Thursday, August 23rd and Sunday, August 28th about the various options and arguments for and against them. I’m projecting two more parts but a third follow-up may be required if enough information presents itself. I’ll let you know here.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Can I Pique Your Interest with a Tool?

If you find homonyms and words with similar meanings to be confusing, visit Confusing Words for a little clarity. They offer a few thousand examples of words that people mix up or misuse.

I posted this because, for probably the 100th time this year, I read a post from a supposed writer using the phrase, “It really peaked my interest.” The poster did not mean that their interest was taken to its highest point. He or she meant that the link or post to which he or she was responding “excited” interest.

Most people use “piqued” or, incorrectly, “peaked” to mean that they found something interesting. I suppose they think that it sounds more intelligent to use the term. Using the wrong word backfires on the writer, however. It also melts synapses in my head and forces me to write nasty responses. I don't post them, but I may snap any day.

The last sentence in the second paragraph above leads me to the great debate about gender-neutral writing. There is no consensus on using “their” for “his or her”, although it does make your writing less wordy and awkward. Some folks are horrified at seeing the plural pronoun to write about a single person.

In some instances you can avoid writing about a single person by referring to the group as a whole. In this post, I could have altered the paragraph to talk about all of the people who make an error that really piques my ire. But it would be better if I could simply have a word that makes clear the fact that I am unsure of (or do not wish to specify) the gender of the subject.

Tomorrow I will research the opinions of some experts and post links. I am on the fence about this issue. I prefer to have my pronouns agree with my subjects, but I also like the ease of using “their” and “they”. Here's hoping that I can come up with a solid opinion either way before I finish writing the post!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Two Tips from the Big Dogs

I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret: sometimes I read Problogger. I tried not to be a sheep. I resisted the pull. But with all of those guest bloggers there is just so much good content over there that I can't always stay away. Today, I weakened again.

Glen Stansberry has an excellent post there about how to become a better writer. The post boils down to a single point: read great writing. The rest is filler about why it's important for a blogger to write better, with a few examples at the end. Mr. Stansberry dismisses the sort of pristine grammar that I promote and allows for the occasional error. This blog didn't make the list, in case you wondered.

Grammar Girl has this to say about ending a sentence with a preposition. I work for a grammar geek as retentive as I am and we regularly say things like, “On what did you step?” I dislike that example because it calls to mind certain distasteful incidents involving heavily-treaded snow boots and my back yard. I've used that sentence when speaking to my children, however.

If I can recover this post from its digression, I intend to point out that I find the argument that people don't talk that way specious. I talk that way. People I know talk that way. But I agree with the general point, that ending a sentence with a preposition in normal speech is allowable. It doesn't matter if I ask, “On whose desk did you set it”? or “Whose desk did you set it on?” All I care about is where the darn papers went.

If you're writing for someone else, however, keep your audience in mind. An ad that is striving for a casual, friendly tone allows more flex in your grammar. A technical paper or formal business letter requires a more rigid grammatical structure. While experts may agree that you may end your sentence with a preposition in certain cases, it still raises a flag (or at least an eyebrow) when done in a formal piece.

In short, my tips for today consist of two things: read good writing and know your audience. I'm not breaking any ground but they are both critical to writing well.

Friday, August 17, 2007

-ing Words: Gerunds and the Passive Voice has a thorough section on gerunds that, perhaps unintentionally, highlights some passive sentences. This is useful because it can help you figure out which of your own gerunds need to go.

One of their examples is, “I have a boring teacher.” While that’s not strictly passive like, “My teacher is boring” it’s still pretty blah. How can we spice it up? Try, “My teacher bores me.” I realize that, as an active verb, bore is an absurd choice but I can only work with what I’m given. Please ignore the fact that I gave it to myself.

For another glimpse of why ESL sites are excellent sources of grammar theory, check out and their gerund and infinitive tutorial.

When you learn a new language you come at the grammar from a logical perspective rather than the intuition-based, “it just sounds right,” school of thought. The explanation of language and form usage on ESL pages, thus, clarifies more than the way students learn grammar rules in elementary school.

Part 2 of the tutorial includes a few examples of passive sentences. For example, change “Sandy is scared of flying” to “Flying scares Sandy”. Thus you save a couple of words, change the gerund from the object of a preposition to the subject, and change the wimpy “is” to the more vivid “scares”.

Not all gerunds are passive. Their use determines whether you should reword your sentence or not. But look for them in your writing and judge them on a case-by-case basis.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Another Passive Voice Tip and Some Tools

Penelope Trunk wrote an article called, Six Ways to Improve Your Writing that is directed to business writing.

The article contains a tip for avoiding the passive voice that I’d not heard before. Ms. Trunk suggests looking for the word “by”. This, with the exception of attributing authorship, would indicate that the actor is not acting in the sentence. I don’t often construct my sentences that way, but it’s another tool for the passive voice prevention toolbox.

If you’re looking for a compendium of articles on writing, take a wander past AutoCrit. Once you’ve used their information to craft a fantastic article, you can paste 800 words of it into the AutoCrit for free. The non-member analysis is limited to a few items but every little bit helps.

Instead, you can pay them $40 a year and analyze up to 8,000 words at a time for a wide variety of writing issues like clichés, redundancies, and repeated words. That’s actually not bad if you have, for example, a 5,000-word e-book that you want to sell. If it reads well it will carry a lot more weight than a choppy, poorly edited mass of text.

Should you not wish to pay the fee to find clichés, you can use Cliché Finder. That site doesn’t specify a length limit, but there may be one. It’s a stripped-down little site.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Quickie Post: Free Courses and Common Errors

Open Education Resources offers a wide variety of free courses, including seven about writing. While they may not all be your cup of tea, they may be valuable as writing exercises or prompts. If you need a breather from all of that writing talk, you can always wander over and take an algebra refresher.

Your Dictionary offers a list of the 100 most common mispronunciations. I don’t agree with all of the ones on the list (like fisical for fiscal), but their etymology is interesting and some of my worst pet peeves are there (like prolly for probably). That last example includes an explanation of haplology. The folks also explain that snuck is not a word. Who knew?

They also offer the 100 most misspelled words where you can learn just why you spell bellwether that way. The list also includes the little-known “playwright” and the wily “medieval”.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

-tion Words: A Specific Example

I finally gave in to the peer pressure and joined Stumble Upon today. My weakness was rewarded instantly with Visuwords. Sure, you could use a normal thesaurus, but why would you when this fun toy is out there? It seems to work best when you use the most basic form of a word, e.g. fascinate instead of fascination. You can build your vocabulary and discover connections between words you never associated with each other.

That was a distraction from my thoughts for today. I was lying in bed last night, thinking about –tion words. Yes, I lead an exciting life. I was trying to think of sentences using them that avoid the passive voice. I came up with, “Participation is required.” Does the “is” make this a passive sentence? Think of it this way – who is doing the requiring? Is it the participation? Nope.

Add the actor such: “Participation is required by the management.” Clearly, the sentence is passive. It relegates the actor to a footnote at the end. Rearrange it and you have, “The management requires participation.” Ah, our feckless verb “require” becomes active at last!

But you still have the –tion word. “The management requires that you participate.” Ah, here we have the management doing something that acts on you, who then acts (or suffers the implied consequences). But is the –tion really so bad? Consider the implied end of the sentence – the management requires the participation of you. You can argue that that is not clear, that you believed participation was being required of someone else. Eliminating the –tion words makes the sentence clear. That’s what all of these rules are for, isn’t it?

If you’re tired of my take on the matter of the passive voice, try Michael Dembrow’s on getting active. If you're not, check out my last post on -tion words.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Quickie Post: Writing with Snowclones

Should you find yourself with a few hours on your hands, take a wander by the Language Log where the term “snowclone” takes on more shades than Eskimos have words for snow. In order to “get” that joke, you’ll have to take a read through the post about such phrases that lazy writers use. Then head to the main page and start reading the new posts.

I was so engrossed that I almost forgot to post today, which is my backhanded way of apologizing for so skimpy a contribution. Then again, I don’t have much to add except that I agree with the initial assertion. If the best opening line you can come up with is a play on a well-known phrase (a snowclone, in other words) then you’d better take a break from trying to write one. Go play with your lolcats for a while. That makes two new terms I learned today worked into one post. The Internet is a dangerous and fascinating thing.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Quick Links: Free Toys, Networking, and Finger Shaking

Grammar Now! offers a fun pair of tools when know your question and need a quick answer. The rest of the site appears dedicated to things you have to pay for, but the tool dictionary and grammar term tools are free.

If that's not enough grammatical entertainment for you, try taking a grammar safari. This idea combines excellent language practice with playing on the Internet – what more could you want?

For those of you looking for more information on my position from yesterday, please take a read through the argument presented at Its eloquence and logic may persuade you if I failed. As a bonus, the examples give you a few laughs along the way.

If you're looking for a place to network with writers and educators, take a wander though the Association of Writers and Writing Programs's fora for writers. They offer a separate forum each for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The “General Chat” forum shows a few calls for submission from a few journals, although they date back several months.

Last, take a peek at Peak Writing's article about what not to do in your introduction. The third point makes the best point: don't use a dictionary definition. If you can't explain your topic without resorting to this tactic then you shouldn't be writing about it in the first place. Demonstrate your grasp of the subject with your writing. Don't rely on stilted and predictable openings like, “The definition of shoehorn at is...” Readers will leave without bothering to get any further than that.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why Do I Care About Grammar?

I've been holding forth on the Helium message boards about the need for syntax and grammar. I should have cut myself short and posted the rant here, instead. I actually had two other opportunities to stand on my soapbox there today.

The first was a thread about its versus it's that veered a bit off-topic into handling indeterminate gender. The second addressed using short or long sentences in your writing. I've discovered that the Writer's Craft board there is full of such treasures and gives me much fodder for posts both there and here.

I've not put into words before why grammar and writing style matter. To define “writing well” you must consider what type of writing you are talking about and rank the elements of a “good” piece. Otherwise, you are left saying, “I know good writing when I read it.” That's fine on an individual level, but if you're going to put yourself out there as a writer you need to be able to point to specific instances.

Can you write an opening paragraph that grabs the readers attention, introduces the subject, is clear and concise without being abrupt, and can be followed readily? Did you misspell anything or insert unnecessary commas? It takes a lot of practice to catch more subtle errors of grammar and syntax as you write them. This practice comes from proofreading and from reading well-written material.

Popular novels are often a miasma of grammar meltdowns and poor construction. If the story can carry you past those, more power to the author. But the minute they stop holding your attention is the minute you start noticing awkward language that distracts you from the book.

Ideally, the story will be riveting and the underpinning will never show. Realistically, there must be more to admire than concept or a book (or article) will not stand up to rereading. Your bread and butter as a writer comes from people wanting to buy your book to read again and again, and to buy copies or recommend you to other people. Add the depth and strength of a powerful idea and a strong structure to capture them every time.

Of course, I keep my mind open to other points of view and welcome a dissenting opinion. Some authors experiment with language quite successfully. Tell my why I'm wrong and you may just change my mind.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Writing Blogs and Article Determination

As I discovered today, Mike Billings at Copy-Editing Corner has a pile of useful language observations and tips. He also has some great links in his blogroll. One of those led me to Bill Walsh and his Sharp Points.

There, I found a pointed exposition on “a” versus “an”. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read through not only Mr. Walsh's opinion but the quotes for other writers as well. I was concerned that my bourgeois insistence on “a historic” was going to be mocked. Apparently, I've been correct all along. It's nice when professionals agree with you. [Please read that paragraph as tongue-in-cheek, as it was intended. I'm really not that insufferable.]

One of the points on which he touches is brought up by Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. What do you do when writing with acronyms? I have seen people who adhere strictly to the rule of using “a” before consonants, leading to nasty things like, “a SPCA protest”. The article depends on how the following word or letter is pronounced, not on whether or not it begins with a vowel.

If SPCA is pronounced as a series of letters (as invariably happens) then “es” is the sound following the article and “an” is the article required. Similarly, you would use “a CAT scan” because you don't spell out the acronym when you read such a sentence out loud.

If you needed another reason to read your work aloud, there you have one. Strict adherence to a rule of grammar can lead to awkward sentences that disrupt the flow of your writing. That's why exceptions get made and why people argue about their application. Having these discussions pushes the language to evolve for better usage.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Style Tips, Nonetheless

Kathy Henning has an excellent article at clickZ. It’s part of a series on writing for the web. I love the exercise she set herself of deconstructing the first sentence of Moby Dick. It serves as a reminder that extraneous phrases and description can slow your flow to a crawl.

I want to address two specific points raised in her top ten. Number four suggests using subheads for the sections of your text. I agree with this wholeheartedly, not least because people can skip the portions of your article they already know and get straight to the meat of the matter.

If someone sought out your article to learn more about a subject, the basics or review section you likely wrote for the beginning will lose their interest. Give that section a heading like “A Review” or “The Basics”. When you’ve finished giving background, insert another subhead to draw attention to the shift in subject. Subheads act as signposts for readers.

Rule seven commends transitional words and I agree with the rule itself. I took issue, however, with the note. Ms. Henning suggests that you ignore Misters Strunck and White by using “However,” at the beginning of a sentence rather than “Nonetheless”.

My reaction? What fault has she found with the word nonetheless? It’s a perfectly lovely word and widely understood. It is a rare sentence begun with nonetheless but I don’t believe it would be a stumbling point for readers. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Quickie Post: Playing with Meaning

Changing Minds has a slew of interesting pages on the use of language to persuade, but I wanted to share one in particular. The page about redefining terms struck me as a common technique that I hadn't considered.

It's a good debate technique - throw your oponents into confusion while you carry your point. They'll be so busy trying to come up with a reason your definition is invalid that they won't be able to rebut the argument effectively. This will also work in an article, if you slide the re-definition in early and continue on with your arguemnt without drawing the readers attention to it. This trick can also be known as "dazzle them with bull..." Well, you get the idea.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Another Ridiculously Useful Tool

Jack Lynch is my hero for the day. He has compiles an alphabet’s worth of tips, observations, and guidelines for writing. I have linked to the “B” page because I found the first section on back-formation fascinating.

Language evolves in such unusual ways, but I confess that this particular direction had not occurred to me. Where, for instance, did the word sleazy come from if it wasn’t from sleaze?

I chose this page for another reason: it addresses the topic “begging the question.” For those of you who were not logic students or members of the debate team, begging the question means using the conclusion of your argument to prove it.

While that sounds obvious, it is often subtle thing. Making the case for something verbally does not work the same as constructing a mathematical equation. Ideal arguments, like those geometry proofs with which you (or at least I) struggled so much, follow a logical and undeniable progression. If you make the right steps the conclusion is indisputable. Unfortunately, few subjects allow for black-and-white presentation.

When you have finished creating an article that presents a conclusion, return to the beginning and write a sentence or phrase for every step in your argument. Check to see that they follow each other logically in the order in which you have presented them. Consider whether you assume your conclusion to be true in any of these steps.

You can write a grammatically perfect and linguistically elegant piece but if the flow is illogical they won’t be impressed with your verbal gymnastics. All of the pieces need to work together. Why do you think writing is so darn hard?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Proper Plurals: The Argument Over Fora

I tried to post a response to this post at Using English about choosing “forums” versus fora as the plural of forum. Unfortunately, I previewed my post and the blog then told me that I could not post it because I had posted too many comments too close together. There is another interesting discussion in the comments on this post at Pain in the English about the same subject. Below is my response to both.

This is one of my pet peeves. It's almost as bad as hearing someone refer to themselves as "an alumni of" a school. It seems to me that the fact that Google registers more people making the error than not speaks more to laziness of thought than it does to a "will to change" on the part of people who use forums instead of fora.

Is insisting on the use of oxen and foxes unreasonable or pretentious as well? Ought we not to argue for proper usage if we know it? If someone were to show me the correct way to pluralize anorak (or Inuit, as far as that goes) I'd be happy to use it correctly and disseminate the knowledge. Do we want to elect Microsoft the king of English evolution by default?

The issue cuts both ways. People forget that agenda, for instance, is a plural and that an “agenda item” is actually an agendum. I never use that word because it would require my explaining the reasoning to my board members. It’s even worse with the word “memo”, which is short for memorandum. Try using the word memoranda instead of “memos” at your next corporate meeting.

The fact is that words are absorbed into English and altered to the lowest common denominator. Is it so wrong that people fight to raise that level, to counter-balance those who would rather use “mouses” and “hoofs” than learn the right words? And the idea that cherubs should be in a dictionary fills me with horror, not least because cherubim is such an evocative word.

I will admit to having been struck favorably by the idea that hippopotamus should be pluralized as hippopotamoi. It sounds so much more majestic that “hippos”.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Freelance Job Listings and Quick Style

Since my job listings post yesterday was about a site that does not yet have freelance jobs, I wanted to balance that out with a few sites that do. has a conglomeration of jobs from several different sites. They also maintain a list of some excellent writing contests. It runs toward poetry and short stories, as most of these lists do, but contains some impressive offerings.

Then you have Deborah Ng at Writer's Row with near-daily job leads and the freelance writing jobs listed at I'd not heard of the latter and was impressed to find jobs for the US Senate and Aetna Inc.

Both of those jobs were culled from other job boards I hadn't seen before, either. It just goes to show you that you can never know everything. Following these breadcrumb trails ought to keep you folks busy for more than a few minutes!

Once you've hooked that freelance job you'll want to make sure that your article or other work passes muster. The College of Wooster may not want to hire you, but they do offer you a gift. Their web site has an APA Style Crib Sheet is available for download or your perusal. The section on hyphenation alone may keep me up at night.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Passive Discussion and Gumtree Classifieds

For a fantastic discussion on writing well, check out this thread on The Velvet. The end veers off-topic but the first two thirds addresses why the passive voice isn't necessarily a bad thing and how to avoid boring your readers to tears. Not in so many words, of course, but the discussion addresses the difference between the passive voice and using “to be” words to clarify verb tense and the sequence of events. I had to share because I was so impressed with the strength of the analysis here.

You can ignore the rest of this post or just use it for informational purposes if you happen to live in the UK and are looking for a job or on-line classified listings. I was sent a link to a page of jobs in Edinburgh, Scotland. That page is specific to the town but the main Gumtree site offers similar listings for London with links to a pretty impressive list of cities.

When I was sent the link, I was hoping that Gumtree would be along the lines of craigslist, which is the gold standard for on-line classifieds so in the US far as I'm concerned. If they can get enough interest from both advertisers and searchers, I think they could be the UK-centric version. They have built a long reach already, including Australia, Ireland, and South Africa in at least a limited way.

For an example, I went to the page for jobs in Edinburgh. All of the jobs listed are actual, physical jobs that you need to be in Edinburgh, Scotland to perform. While that's a fantastic resource for people who live there, it doesn't really help people looking for an on-line job (such as, say, freelance writing) where work and payment are very often conducted electronically. At this point Gumtree doesn't offer a “gigs” section although there were a couple of on-line jobs in the “media jobs” section.

I will check these folks out in a few weeks to see if they are building more freelance options and possibilities. I'll also keep an eye out for listings from them on other freelance job sites. If it turns out that they are going to be a source for freelance opportunities I'll let you know.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Brevity, Again

and other modifiers that do nothing but lengthen sentences. I have learned, however, a few ways to avoid stuffing them into my sentences in the first place.

My recent posts on avoiding the passive voice have helped, especially the one on -tion words. Another trick that I use is to keep an eye out for gerunds at the beginning of sentences. If I find an –ing word at the start there is almost a version of “to be” as the verb and between the two I’ve got a passive sentence. Between the two, I nip 90% of my wordiness in the bud.

There are a hundred different ways that extra words sneak into your writing (and mine). For an excellent discussion of them, visit Right Words.

They rightly point out that you can get carried away with editing for brevity. You have to keep the clarity of your piece in mind as you slash the dead wood. Cutting too much kills the tree, after all. You can leave your readers with a series of puzzling half-thoughts instead of a coherent argument. Use descriptions when necessary so that you can catch your readers’ attention and fire their imaginations.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Knowing More Words Equals Better Writing

Knowing a wide variety of words helps good writers craft compelling stories. You don’t need a huge vocabulary of five-syllable words to write well but you do need a strong knowledge of language.

Short words with slightly different meanings give specifics that even a long or little-known word may not offer. If you can accurately choose, for example, between snobby, snotty, snarky, snippy, and snooty to describe someone’s tone of voice you add color to your characterization. All of them are shorter than cantankerous, and easier to spell as well.

Collect words as you read and talk to people. Listen to folks who come from different regions or countries and take note of words with which you are not familiar or that conjure a strong image. Use a thesaurus from time to time for relatively simple words to look for more interesting alternatives. The flow and strength of your writing benefit from selecting the right word rather than the most common.

The folks over at Capital Community College have a huge page on vocabulary building that offers not only tips on learning new words but links to sites with crossword puzzles, quizzes, and word-a-day sites. The vocabulary page comes as part of a larger grammar and writing guide filled with tips, tricks, and toys that are well worth a look.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Avoid the Passive Voice: -tion Words

In my wanderings today, I found Daphne Gray-Grant's Publication Coach site. I see a pile of such sites every week but this one has something that caught my eye. The front page shows you how to customize your grammar and style checker in MS Word and offers a free sample of her equally free newsletter.

The sample newsletter shown contained the following:

There are three big problems with “tion” words.
1. They are usually long - three to four syllables. Readers tend to stumble on long words.
2. They usually don’t create a picture in the reader’s mind. (If I write “dog” you are likely to see a dog in your mind’s eye. If I write “allocation” you will see nothing). Good writing is all about pictures.
3. You usually form these words by taking a perfectly good verb (eg: observe) and adding “tion” to turn it into a noun (“observation.”) To make a sentence, you THEN have to add ANOTHER verb - usually a boring one like “is” or “made” (eg: “He made an observation.”) This makes your writing dull and wordy.

What a flash of brilliance! Another tool for hunting down the dull and blabby passive voice - how could I resist? I tried to sign up for her newsletter but the site timed out so I haven't started receiving it. I'll try again and post whether I am successful. She has not included any indication of how often that page changes, so I included the important text here in case it disappears.