Monday, December 31, 2007

Connecting Independent Clauses: Commas Versus Semicolons

Conjunctions are those useful little words that link together parts of your sentence. They tell your readers the relationship between two things, be they clauses or single words.

Some conjunctions require the use of a comma. I have already written about the Oxford comma, that oft-maligned comma at the end of a list, but there are other guidelines for using commas and conjunctions together.

Independent clauses (those that could stand on their own as a sentence) require either a coodinating conjunction or an independent marker word to join them to another independent clause. The former are the FANBOYS—for, and, nor, but, or, ye, and so—and the latter are words like moreover, further or furthermore, and however.

Independent marker conjunctions are used at the beginning of an independent clause, hence the name. You use them to “mark” the clause as stand-alone and to indicate the relationship to the other clause(s) in the sentence. “I could have danced all night; however, my feet were killing me.” You join two such clauses with a semi-colon.

Coordinating conjunctions demand only a comma. “I would have danced all night, but my toes were pinched after half an hour.”

When writing for the web, shorter sentences work better. Unless your independent clauses are so closely related or so short that separating them weakens your piece, split them up. If you can't, or would prefer not, to do so, make sure you use the correct punctuation for your conjunction.

Sometime in the next week I'll address conjunctions and dependent clauses. I know, you're all atwitter, but good things come to those who wait. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Farther versus Further

Farther and further are closely related and, for most of their linguistic lives, have been interchangeable. And yet, they remained two distinct words. One supposes that it was for a reason.

Over time, the meanings have diverged slightly. Further means the same sorts of things that it always did—moreover, more so, in addition, deeper (as “in debt” or “in trouble”), as well, to advance (your education, my theory), and similar measures of degree or quantity.

Further can be used to indicate distance, though it is more often used to mean deeper, as above, or in some other way to indicate not a physical distance but a more abstract or hypothetical space. Thus, you couldn't be further from the truth, even if you're sitting on it.

Farther has come to indicate a physical distance. You can be farther down the road, farther from the heart of things, and farther up a tree. Think of farther as the comparative for far (farthest being, of course, the superlative). You can't do that with further, no matter what your feelings on animal rights.

Shockingly enough, I've wandered from my point again. Let's redirect this runaway train.

Use farther when you are talking about actual, physical distance. Use further to indicate an increase in less measurable characteristics. Use furthermore to replace in addition or moreover, if you like to use words of more than ten letters. That was as far as I meant to go, and no further.

This constitutes my 198th post on this blog. I'm considering doing something exciting for my 200th, like posting a picture or even a YouTube video, but the thought of all of that color and movement makes me nervous. If you've any suggestions for something you'd like to see here, please let me know.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Language Fun: Snowclones and Blogs

Once again, my blogging time was taking up today by reading other blogs. Once I start reading good posts, I can't seem to stop myself. Here are some of the folks who stopped me from writing my own darn post.

The Grammarphobia Blog comes up with great topics on a regular basis and the whole things is strung out on one page. I have spent ages here, scrolling farther and farther back into time. I find some of this site too in-your-face promotional but the blog offers wordy fun.

Then Dan over at Notes form the copy editor won my attention by using the term snowclones, a word I had difficulty making clear and had not seen anywhere else.

Of course, since I switched to Haloscan, you can't see the comments on that post, but you readers were unclear on the concept. I, of course, clarified brilliantly. I see now that I must take the time to transfer my comments by hand.

Our Bold Hero, Dan, lead me to do a search on snowclones, through which I discovered the Snowclone Database. The posts are a bit dry, but the topic fascinates me enough that I read them for 20 minutes before remember that I was supposed to be doing research and not enjoying myself.

You can find, there, the ubiquitous snowclone “Im in ur X, Ying ur Z”, which started the whole conversation. That reminds me that I have yet to make the lolcat of my dreams. He's going to say, “Im in ur blog, gerunding ur verbs.” Imagine my surprise to see the “verbing your nouns” variant already in the database. I may have to revisit the drawing board.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Capital Way to Make Sense

Let's address another group of confusing terms. There are three sets of words I'd like to cover today: do versus make, imply versus infer, and capital versus capitol. While you likely know the meanings of these words, at times you need to stop and consider what you've written to insure that you've employed the right word for the job. These reminders will help.

“Do” and “make” comprise two sides of one coin. Doing is just that—performing an action. Making means creating or building something. That something does not have to be tangible. You can make a telephone call or a date, after all. You do homework, do lunch, and do the hustle. You don't do pottery or money, you make them. You do good to make a difference.

Imply and infer make a coin of a different color. When you imply something, you state it indirectly and leave your audience to infer it. You can create the noun “implication” from imply. In case you missed it, the writer or speaker implies things that the audience infers from the unstated or partially explained hints.

Capital and capitol present a more complicated case. The words have more than one meaning and each has one that comes mighty close to the other. “They built the capitol building in Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska.”

It turns out, however, that only buildings use the “-ol” ending. Things like money (the capital needed to start a business), upper case letters, and the synonym for very good (Capital idea, old sport!) all require the “-al” ending. Don't let these two tricksters confuse you. Unless you're writing about a government building, stick with capital.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Back to Basics: Interjections!

Interjections present a challenge for those enamored of grammar. They stand alone, rogue fragments that leap out from sentences to express an overflow of feeling. Woo hoo! Great Scott! In your face!

While these “sentences” don't follow the basic rules of grammar (and may not even be words), they nonetheless comply. By their nature, interjections defy requirements for subjects and verbs. You use them to convey strong emotion to your readers.

Be cautious in using them, however. "What?!" you say. "I love those little bursts of feeling!" When used excessively, though, interjections make you sound overwrought, positively hysterical. Reserve them for emphasis and you won't be beating your readers over the head with the emotions of your hero.

Certainly, having the knife slip when cutting oneself free from ones bonds merits a hearty, “Damn!” or at least an, “Ow!” But cute catch phrases like, “Holy fishcakes, Batman!” are best reserved for cheesy television shows and poorly-written novels. You can do better than that.

Saving interjections for emergencies gives them much more impact. You subject may be an excitable person, but if you show that in your writing then their rare verbal explosions will convey the direness of the situation more clearly.

If you find yourself liberally sprinkling your writing with exclamation points, look for wild interjections that make your character appear certifiable. Knock those out and tell your reader what's happening, instead. It will make the story more powerful and the hero more believable. Unless you're writing about Homer Simpson, that is.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Take Advice with a Grain of Salt

I rarely post links to the big blog dogs, mostly because they're doing just fine without my help and there are so many great small blogs out there that deserve the attention. But every so often one of them jumps out from behind a virtual bush and demands some attention.

Copyblogger attacked me thus, recently, with a post about how writing is like a dog. Okay, it was actually called, “3 Writing Lessons I Learned in Dog Obedience School”. We'll ignore the fact that Mr. Morrow should have spelled out three, because that's not what this post is about.

I wanted to say that, if these tips work for your life, they are excellent. If you have the flexibility and time to set and stick to a writing schedule in your daily life, it's a fantastic way to discipline yourself and your muse.

I also wanted to remind people that it may be impossible to follow this advice at certain points in your life. Right now, I work full-time and have a husband, two small children, four animals, and a blog. Those things use my “spare” time and oblige the time that isn't spare. I rather like it that way, even if I can't set a writing schedule and whip my muse into shape.

I write when I can, and I find enjoyment in every moment of it. I write in my head when I'm trying to get to sleep or in the shower. I play with words. My muse jumps through hoops and sits up and begs whenever I have a few minutes to put her through her paces.

But my muse has never wet the carpet in my head or chewed up my mental couch. The same cannot be said for my two dogs, who early trained me to follow their schedule for letting them out to do their business. Jonathan Morrow came up with an effective metaphor and some good advice. Just don't take it too much to heart if you can't follow all of it to the letter. Not everyone can dedicate eight or more hours a day to reading and writing. But we can all dream about it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Less Versus Fewer; Much Versus Many

Less, fewer, much, and many vaguely relate to each other in that the mistake people make in using them lies in not knowing how to count.

Actually, people who make errors with these words don't realize that you can only have fewer of how many items you had if you can count them. It may be a theoretical count, like the census that tells you “how many” people live in your city and if there are fewer residents than the decade before, but you could count them all of you really felt the need.

Less and how much are reserved for things that you cannot count. You may be able to count parts of the whole, as with money, but what people mean when they ask how much money you make is that they are nosy how much money you made of the total in an undefined set.

It could be the percent of the gross profits of your corporation or of the gross national product. I doubt they know what they mean any more than you. That's why you can't count how much money you make.

You also can't count things like juice and pie. You can ask how many glasses of juice my group would care to drink, or how many slices of pie we'll eat. I may need to ask you how much juice is left and if you have less pie than you did when I made the reservation this morning.

I find it unlikely that you would pour out the juice into individual glasses to tell me an exact number, how "many" juice you have. If you put me on hold to do so, I would cancel the reservation anyway because I'm not drinking juice that's been sitting in a glass on your counter for four hours.

I seem to have wandered a bit far afield, here. What I meant to say here was simply that many and fewer work with countable nouns only. Much and less are used with everything else. I have less focus than usual today. I blame that on how many cups of coffee I've left in the pot. You can't have too much caffeine, after all.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Few Grammar Resources

I want to share some lesser-known resources today. Sometimes you want to get more than one take on a question and get tired of reading Grammar Girl's post on a subject rehashed a hundred times. Try these sites for something completely different.

Oxford Dictionaries offers a good interface if you're looking for a specific grammar or spelling tip. There's also a long list of commonly confused words with a brief explanation of the differences.

You can also find some quick and useful tips in the Grammar Slammer. They style themselves a help file for grammar questions including a handy search screen.

Accu-Assist offers a treasure trove of tips in their archive. Many of them relate to commonly confused or misspelled words but you can find a fair amount on punctuation and questions of style.

For a more bizarre concatenation, check out English Guide. This site concentrates on more technical questions regarding tenses and part of speech. It also has a forum, sparsely visited though it may be.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ultra-Quickie: Grammar Isn't Rocket Science

Sure, both have nigh-innumerable combinations and permutations of the respective building blocks. Both have immense flexibility within a given set of rules and requirements that constant scrutiny evolves and refines. But one uses metals, ceramics, and highly explosive rocket fuel. The other uses ink and paper. One launches us beyond this workaday world to offer a different perspective on humanity and its place in the universe. The other does that physically, using spacecraft.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Back to Basics: Prepositions

We use prepositions to tell our readers the relationship between nouns and pronouns. Imagine that you write:

On Tuesday, I put the gifts under the bed next to my slippers.
With a few simple words you have given your reader a clear picture of when you performed an action (on Tuesday) and where you acted (under the bed) in relation to another object (next to your slippers).

Using a preposition requires an object. How can you explain the connection between two things if you don’t specify which two things are related? Prepositional phrases act as signposts for your readers, showing them how the parts connect and interact (or don’t, as the case may be).

Like other parts of speech, various prepositions illustrate specific relations. You can fall against, into, or with something and each of those communicates a different experience. Some are number-specific, as between requiring two objects, no more and no fewer, and among requiring at least three. Thus, you can be between a rock and a hard place among your peers but not vice versa. Learn little words, like prepositions, as well as the more impressive ones when you expand your vocabulary.

Under certain circumstances, especially in casual conversation, you and your audience assume the prepositions or objects rather than expressing them. Had I begun that sentence with “The other day,” you would assume that I was acting “on” that day. We understand that preposition to apply even though I did not explicitly state it. Indeed, some formations are assumed so often that you would sound foolish or foppish including them.

Finally, we have the big debate about ending your sentence with a preposition. I already had my lengthy rant on that subject, Part One: What Do You End a Sentence With? and Part Two: With What Do You End a Sentence? Even if you feel that using that ending preposition is acceptable through common use, it creates one more reason for your reader to miss your point by focusing on your individual words.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Suffixes: -Er Versus -Or

In my travels today, I came across a blog neighbor (just down the Interstate from me) who has much to say on grammar and language. I suspect we will clash on some topics, but I found some nice, chewy food for thought.

Dan's recent post on the word impostor made some excellent points about taking the commonality of non-standard uses (or culturally accepted uses, like flavour versus flavor) into account when mocking the “spellingly” challenged.

He also makes the point that no one has come up with a rule for remembering which words use the-or ending. Many people have attempted to write one, but the choice is based in preference and word etymology rather than something quantifiable. I prefer the -or ending and use that as a placeholder for words that I need to look up before making them public.

I can't say that I'm surprised that the -er ending has proved more popular, however. It's how children are taught to make a word for someone who performs an action: a person who advises is an adviser. (Except that he or she is not. The word is advisor.) A person who shops is called a shopper and one who hops is termed a hopper. Why wouldn't one who imposts be an imposter?

Ah, you see the problem now, don't you? Not all words ending in -er or -or have had a suffix appended, at least not to an immediately recognizable root. Can you find the poser in impostor?

Topics like these keep a blog like this going. Do you have any tips for remembering which suffix converts a verb into the noun for a person who performs that action?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

More Atrocious Ads and Articles

Reviewing examples of what not to do helps us spot similar flaws in our own writing. I find examples of egregious or entertaining errors regularly. I read a wide variety of books, magazines, and web sites, both fiction and non-fiction, and am often surprised by the sorts of mistakes that get published.

The following examples are from national magazines, on technical, one a niche topic, and one exceedingly popular. I've included my objections and corrections but welcome input as well. If you have a different (perhaps better) suggestion, let me know.

Example 1
“Government often creates civil liberties concerns any time it proposes combining [these techniques].”
This writer needed to make up her mind whether the government often horrifies its citizens or does so any time they act. Any time includes often, so you can leave out one or the other. “When the government combines these techniques it raises civil liberties concerns.”

Example 2
“Create a shimmering flow of bubbles to oxygenate and circulate any aquarium.”
I'd rather my aquarium stayed on the stand, thank you. Do you suppose the writer meant that the water in my aquarium would be oxygenated and circulated? That sounds much more appealing.

Example 3
“Some people may guard themselves against receiving anything at all: This insulates them from....”
After I recovered my jaw from my lap, I decided that this had been a typo. No one would intentionally follow a colon with a capital letter, would they? Please, lie to me and say, “No.”

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When Clever Kills

The Copywriting Maven has another great landing page makeover posted. While much of her advice focuses on design and selling, she also had this to say about being clever:

“Writing clever [sic] is all about drawing attention to the writer. Writing for clarity, on the other hand, is all about respecting your reader. Clever in small doses in an excerpt or pull-quote can add a nice zestiness to ad copy, but your reader can’t and won’t digest a whole meal of it.”
Many writers (including me, alas) lose sight of these points while attempting to engage their readers. That fine line between being clever and getting cute divides decent writers from skilled craftspeople.

Happily, you can move from one side of the line to the other through learning and practice. Write things that you would like to read, get feedback from others, and set your pieces aside when you can to edit after a perspective break. Often something that cracks you up when you write it sounds silly or excessive after a cooling-off period.

Remember that, unless you blog about yourself, your writing should draw your reader's attention to your subject instead of you. Inject some personality, by all means, but don't do so much of that that you detract from the points you are making.

Your reader might want to go out for coffee or a drink with you after reading a cleverly written piece, but if that's not what you (or your client) are after then you've failed in writing that piece. Remember that the next time that you are tempted to quip.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Beware the Wily Thesaurus

Mr. Stoneman recently posted about how too much thesaurus can be bad for your writing. He makes a valid point, and one which I'd not thought to specify.

I've often advocated thesaurus usage on this blog. I believe that they nudge your brain into recalling or learning just the right word for what you are trying to express.

I have neglected 'til now, however, to point out that new words should always be cross-referenced in a dictionary before you use them. While you may love the sound of a word listed as a synonym in the thesaurus, it may not mean quite what you think.

As an example, I looked up the verb “advocate” from two paragraphs ago in a thesaurus, specifically at I found recommend, urge, and advise. Those three words work well for my original sentence. Vindicate also appeared as a synonym, and starts the meaning slide.

If I click on vindicate on the site, I find synonyms like absolve, confute, exculpate, and rationalize. These are terrific words, but none of them convey the idea that I like thesauri and believe that they can help you write more clearly. In fact, they give the opposite impression—that the tool has a negative impact for which it needs to be excused or forgiven.

Learn new words, certainly. A strong vocabulary gives you tools to build cleaner and more precise sentences. But remember that approximate meanings won't suffice. Just because the word looks like a screwdriver doesn't mean it won't strip out the meaning of your writing.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Number Agreement: A Reminder

Disagreement can be a good thing. It can foster discussion and lead to open dialogue. But between parts of speech, disagreement creates confusion and destroys clarity.

Nouns and their pals, verbs, must agree for a sentence to work. The verb must acknowledge how many of the subject are performing its action. Sure, you'd think the noun could bend from time to time, giving in to the verb to keep things on an even footing, but you'd be mistaken.

When writing, the subject of a sentence holds all of the power. Everything else revolves around it. Your subject should be performing any action, affecting objects, and basking in description. If the subject declares itself to be plural, the verb and the rest of the sentence have to play along.

Only in cases where the noun is of indeterminate number are other parts of speech allowed to choose. When writing about sheep and moose, for instance, only context allows your reader to know whether one or a flock watched you pass.

Unless you're a shepherd in the wilds of Canada, you likely don't write about such things often. Even when you do, you already know how many of your subject exist. Make certain that the rest of your sentence tells your readers as clearly as your recollection or imagination of the scene tells you.

When editing, you may change your mind about how many moose (or nouns) are involved in a sentence. That's why you edit. But remember that changing the number in a sentence involves the whole thing, not just revising your noun.

After you've edited, read your whole piece from start to finish. If you can, print it out and read it from the page. The change in perspective may allow you to see errors that had been hiding in the screen's familiarity. Read your work aloud, as well. Flow problems point to language troubles, which often highlight errors.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Change in Circumstances

After some significant upheaval this week, it shakes out that I will no longer have Internet access every day. I'll still post on weekends and, when I can get away during the day, I'll pop in somewhere that I can get on and post on weekdays. I can't promise daily posts but I'll keep going. Thanks for sticking with me. You never know how long it will be before things change again!

It's been so long since I posted that I barely remember how. We watched The Shawshank Redemption last night and I was reminded of how many people speak of Stephen King as a hack because he doesn't use many big words and does use a generous sprinkling of coarse language and topics.

I hope that a good many of them saw that movie and then read the short story on which it was based. Perhaps it will open their minds to the idea that you have to put those words together just right to build something that effective out of nothing at all. Stephen King may never win the Nobel Prize for literature but that doesn't make him a bad writer. It makes him accessible.

I meant that to sound more like encouragement and less like a defense of Mr. King. He's certainly come up with a stinker or two of his own, as have all of us. But judging a writer by superficial circumstances can lead to miss some great writing.

Read everything. Read in styles and on topics that you don't think you'll enjoy. Pay attention to what works and what doesn't in books, short stories, and articles. Read on-line about any topic that strikes your fancy. If you avoid reading snobbery, you open up a world of writing possibilities. You will uncover new words, and new ways of putting them together.

Gee, can you tell I've found more time to read this week? Maybe being off-line isn't all bad.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Converting to HaloScan

I've been contemplating moving over to HaloScan for comments and trackbacks for a while. I've been hesitant to do it because I lose all of the wonderful (and useful) comments that folks have made here to date. I discovered, however, that Blogger has made another change which makes removing the nofollow tag insufficient to follow commenters.

I decided to bite the bullet and make the jump today. If you can take the time to read and comment on my blog, I can certainly offer a backlink. One Step Forward may only have a PR of 3 but I'm certainly willing to share what little "juice" I've got.

If you cannot find one of your previous comments, know that I still remember it (and can see that it exists, even if I can't re-read it). I am considering putting some of the older ones into the posts on which they were made. That will take some template flipping, so if you wander by during the next few weeks and this blog is acting strange, please be patient.

I feel so lazy, not posting any grammar-related topics this weekend, but it's a bit of a break after finishing NaBloPoMo. I'll get back to my regularly scheduled topics tomorrow.