Saturday, March 29, 2008

Parameter versus Perimeter

In the book I'm reading, the author uses the following phrases: “created a parameter around” and “just within the parameter”. It particularly jarred me because the two phrases were within five pages of each other and I'd never seen the word used this way.

Naturally, I immediately set out to research it. I assumed that the author had meant “perimeter”, but I was willing to keep an open mind. I found that one acceptable definition of parameter was, indeed, limits, boundaries, or guidelines.

The sense of the word, however, does not fit the usage. People use parameter in mathematics and statistics to describe a type of variable. When you describe the limits of a physical space rather than a numerical or abstract set, use perimeter.

This author also chose to describe a building—the Allied Bank Plaza in Houston, Texas—as “a stylized trapezoid with rounded ends.” Once again, the hard-to-picture imagery distracted me from the story.

I don't know that you could describe that clearly enough in passing to let your reader picture it and as a part of the scenery. Perhaps he should have skipped the image altogether, but it would certainly have been more clear to describe it as a glass tower with one rounded side. I do know that it is not a trapezoid.

This message has been brought to you by the Thesaurus Anti-Abuse Brigade. Use your words, people, but be careful.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ultra-Quickie Post: Links of Interest

Here are a few recent posts that appeared on my grammar radar. These should tide you over until my real post, tomorrow. Happy Friday!

Grammarphobia on idioms

Tips from Rodman Phillbrick on how to write a book review

Michael Fortin’s guest post on the Friday Traffic Report listing on-line writing productivity tools

A brief explanation from Luna Tail of the difference between hypothesis and theory (complete with a nasty typo in the headline)

Monday, March 24, 2008

When Is Possession?

Now that we've discovered that no clarity exists on apostrophe “s” use to indicate possession, let's consider how you can decide whether possession need to be indicated at all.

Folks who have studied Latin or other languages that indicate possession with a different form of the word, rather than a confusing rule about endings, have learned a clearer way to show belonging in English. (Thanks heavens, because declinations confused me enough without punctuation concerns.)

When I began to learn Latin, there was no consideration of apostrophes. If one noun belonged to another, it was indicated with the word “of”, meaning “belonging to”. Thus, the possessive form of Mike and word shoes meant “the shoes of Mike” or “Mike's shoes”.

Making that decision with proper nouns presents most writers with little difficulty. What about yesterday's example of five years' hard labor? Can time own another abstract concept?

Again, substitute the word “of” for the apostrophe. If I'm sentenced to hard labor for five years, then the labor “belongs to” the years. It would make sense and be more clear to say “the hard labor of five years”, but nobody does.

In most cases, the “of” construction sounds stilted and old-fashioned, so I don't advocate writing it that way. When deciding whether your characters will meet in two weeks' time or over the course of two weeks apart, knowing that both indicate time's passage can help you decide whether to apostrophize the matter.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Apostrophes and the S

A question was recently raised on a forum that I frequent about apostrophe use. One poster contended that you use 's at the end of singular nouns except for characters in mythology. Thus Achilles' heel is correct but James' book is not.

I'd never heard such a thing before, and went to take a look. I found Herff Jones and his contention that proper nouns ending in “s” need only the apostrophe. Then I found the Page of Achilles, which offers a more thorough consideration of the matter.

As in most rules, I cannot understand why you have to consider the special cases to decide whether a rule applies (hence my support of the Oxford comma). If single nouns require an 's to indicate possession, them that's what they should get.

How people subsequently pronounce the word does not fall under my consideration when writing. Regardless of their oral stumbling, at least they can clearly understand what I mean. Apparently, I'm half right.

Ped almost agreed with me on his Telegraph blog post on apostrophes. There was interesting discussion on that post, as well. I get to trump that with the agreement of William Safire and The New York Times.

Out of gratitude, I'm skipping the quibble with Mr. Safire adding a possessive to the end of the Court of Saint James. Well, I'm not including it here. It does raise the question of indicating possession and how to decide whether it's needed. Is it a hard day's night? Shall I be sentenced to five years' hard labor? I'll reveal all in my next post.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Pet Peeve of the Day: Alright Is Not a Word

Unless Merriam and Webster come back from the grave and tell me differently, I will not accept alright as a word. Certainly, you may find it in the dictionary. That does not mean that you should use it.

If you doubt my word, check the definition yourself. The reason it has been included is that so many people use it. Explaining how a bank robber escaped doesn't equal condoning his actions, does it?

Use “all right”, if you must. The phrase has its place in dialog and informal writing. It covers a wide range of adverbial and adjectival functions, generally meaning acceptable or satisfactory. It conveys a mediocre level of the word it modifies, as when “doing all right” means “I'm okay” but not “Life is great!”

Get out that pesky Thesaurus and find better words to describe what you think of as “all right”. An “all-right guy” could be boring but reliable. The term is broad enough to have little meaning, much like the equivalent term “okay”. Replace it with a more specific word when you edit. You can strengthen an all-right piece that would have made readers think, “Ho hum.”

Before you tell me, I know, I know. But Messieurs Webster and Merriam did not write that. I'm holding out for spirit communication.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Peak versus Peek versus Pique

I've mentioned my pet peeve tweaked by pique, but I see peak used to mean both peek and pique with increasing frequency in the fora that I visit over the course of a week. For those of you who are still unsure, I'll lay out the words' definitions below. If you share this pet peeve, please, for the love of all that's good, uphold their proper usage.

A peak means the topmost point of something, its apex or point. You normally use it as a noun, although you can use it to indicate something that reaches it's maximum point, as when a storm peaks and then blows away. You may also employ peak as an adjective, as when describing the peak tourist season in your home town as “never”.

Peek indicates either a quick look or something barely visible peeking out of its hiding place. You can peek from behind the curtain, take a peek at the monsters in a horror movie, or peek into the box in which your present is hidden. Rabbits may peek out from under the deck or mushrooms peek through the fallen leaves. Replace this word with peep, to check that you're using the correct one.

Before you stomp out in a fit of pique, consider the last homophone in this set. To pique your interest, I'll keep inventing examples without defining the word directly. It would pique my pride if you chose to leave now, after all. Please note that you spell none of these with an accent of any sort over the final “e”. Such decoration changes the word to a much wider term relating to fabric, gloves, ballet, and inlay.

Should you replace pique with prick or poke, your sentence will still be correct (if perhaps risqué) if you've used the right word. You could also consider catch or wound, but those don't start with “p” and thus I have disallowed them for today's post.

Thanks for taking a peek into the peak of my recent pique. Clearly, it's prodded me to action.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Fixing the Terrible: Step Two

Let's review where I left off. “Gathering the necessary information before generating hardware groups makes the process faster and more accurate.”

The new version still lacks any punch, although it sprawls far less than the original. What point were these folks trying to make? You have to wait until halfway through the sentence to discover what it's about. Let's fix that.

“Generate hardware groups faster and more accurately by gathering the necessary information first.” At least you can identify the aim of their course now.

I grant that this will never be a gripping sentence, but it can still get better. “Faster” wastes its energy on vagueness, rather than making the reader think, “Wow, I can make my job easier!” You still cannot identify the aim of the seminar. Let's adjust the focus.

“Learn to quickly create accurate hardware groups with these research techniques.”

Ah, now we can see why these fine folks think their course will help building design professionals. This sentence won't grab just anyone by the scruff of the neck, but it will catch the attention of people who use the phrase “hardware groups” in their business. Who wants to spend their time picking out door hardware, anyway, when there are architectural details to decide?

When you write, ask yourself if readers can understand your points and follow them to your conclusion. Have you explained why they should care? Have you obscured your direction with weak words, prepositional phrases, and fourteen gerunds?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Rewriting a Terrible Sentence: Step One

“Pulling together all the information that will be needed before starting to generate hardware groups makes the process go faster and helps avoid costly changes later.”

I had intended to post the entire paragraph from which I drew this sentence, as an example of technical writing gone horribly awry. Upon subsequent re-reading, I decided that it would take a far, far longer post than normal to address the myriad issues. We'll have to make do with a rewrite of this one sentence.

For context, imagine that you read this as the last sentence in the description of a seminar. Does this inspire faith that the presenter will engage your interest? Does it lead you to believe that you will find the class useful and even vaguely enjoyable? I think not.

How can we improve the mess that this organization has published? Let's start with some consolidation. Rather than “Pulling together” we'll use “Gathering”. Eliminate “all”, change “that will be needed” to “necessary”, and move it back a word. Now we have, “Gathering the necessary information before...”. Here, we come to yet another gerund-infinitive combination, “starting to generate”. Why not just “generating”?

The two-fold verbs and predicates can also be simplified, into “makes the process faster and more accurate”. Why use two verbs when one will do?

Thus, the new sentence becomes, “Gathering the necessary information before generating hardware groups makes the process faster and more accurate.” I see improvement, but we can do better. Check back for a second post that takes version two from acceptable to attention-getting.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Use a Variety of Words, Carefully

I recently discovered through the Apathetic Lemming of the North tumblelog. Their list of commonly overused words stands out as the best page of the exceedingly useful bunch. Not only do they give you a list of tired words but they offer synonyms that may better suit your sentence.

Keep in mind the danger of forcing uncommon words into your writing, however. The ones chosen for this page generally fall within the realm of well-known words. Be sure that you understand the meanings of the alternatives, however. You wouldn't want to write about saturating your cup with coffee just to avoid the word fill, for instance.

Especially when writing for the Internet, choose your words with a thought to the balance between variety and clarity. While a repetitive and 10-year-old vocabulary lacks the power to catch a reader's attention, flowery language and obscure words push them away from your writing just as quickly.

As in many aspects of writing, word choice requires that you consider your readers more than yourself. Know your audience so that you can tailor your vocabulary and style to their expectations. You may still dazzle them with your insight, and are more likely to do so if they can understand and care about what you've written.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Have You Stumbled Recently?

You may have wondered why I places quotes around the word stumbled in the first sentence of yesterday's post. I chose to do so since I literally Stumbled Upon the site. If you've lived under a rock for the past year or so, you may not have heard about this little social media tool.

The basic concept sounds simple—you install their toolbar and give sites a thumbs up or a thumbs down if you feel your reaction is strong enough to warrant it. You click the “Stumble” button if you'd like the site to send you to one that other users have liked, based on your interests and their tags.

Realistically, the amount of dreck on the web and the number of people who share your taste in just about anything means that you'll run across plenty of crud. You can find gems, however, if you're patient enough. And you get the opportunity to vote against the types of sites that you really dislike, such as poorly-worded lolcats and un-funny cartoons.

You must participate at StumbleUpon to see any real benefits, though. Review other sites, click those thumbs, and join some groups. The occasional submission of your own work won't raise any eyebrows, but you're intended to recognize the good (and bad) jobs that others have done.

I get little direct traffic to this blog from them, although it was submitted there by someone else. I “stumbled” the site where I attempt to organize my posts by topic, and that has received about 8 people a day through StumbleUpon. Many of those visitors click through to read these posts. I discover new sites and posts I'd not have found on my own. It's social networking that works. What's not to like?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

An Editing Tip

The following quote from Write to Done caught my interest, as did the way that I “stumbled” on the site. I'll write about the latter tomorrow. For now, let's consider editing.

Streamline your writing to grab your readers and drag them along the journey, even if they had intended to only read a few paragraphs before cooking dinner. Ideally, your story will compel them to keep reading while their fettuccine boils over onto the stove.

You do this in many ways, but stripping repetitive and useless words from your writing takes you a large step closer. That brings me to the quote in question:

“I’m not saying you’ll have to check every single word in your novel (although, if you have the patience for it, it would probably do the book a lot of good). All I suggest is that you do a page a day, and that you take notes. Keep track of which words you delete. Look for patterns. Make a list of words you consistently delete, which will narrow down your later searches to a simple Find/Replace.”
Many writers have phrases that pop up repeatedly in their writing. If you keep a list of the words and phrases that your strip from your pieces, you may find yourself frequently excising the same ones. Once you're aware of them, you should start catching yourself as you add them rather than having to return later to pry them out of the full story.