Saturday, August 30, 2008

Do You Really Mean It?

After a rash of posts this week at BlogCatalog in which "really" appeared in quotation marks, I was moved to explore this overused word. Really acts as an adverb that intensifies other words or means "in truth" or "in fact".

Really does not, however, indicate the degree to which a writer wished to intensify the word modified. For that reason, many regard it as a fluff word, intended only to take up space rather than to add meaning to your sentences. In telling your readers that you feel "really sad", really only implies "more than a little".

In that case, you may as well use "very sad", as both nondescript words leave your readers with a nebulous idea of your intentions. Rather, you could specify that you are morose, that you feel dejected, or that you are prostrated with grief. All give your audience a clearer idea of what you mean.

It its other use, really stands for "actually" or "truly". These adverbs intensify words as well. After an accomplishment in a new hobby, you may write that you consider yourself "really a lacrosse player, now". You played the game before, but you feel more like a player after the new experiences.

While this second definition works better to explain your intent to your readers, really has garnered such a poor reputation from its excessive use that you would do better to avoid it. You can alter your sentence and use the adjective form of real. Instead of "I am really a lacrosse player, now," you can write "I am a real lacrosse player, now." Thus you make clear that you felt like a pretender until your recent successes. Then again, you could just write that and remove all doubt.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Particles of Grammar

I was considering tag questions, today, and wondering how they would be classed in terms of the parts of speech. Much to my surprise, I discovered that linguists consider them to be particles. Naturally, I had to learn more.

Grammarians identify uninflected words that explain the grammatical purpose of other words. The lack of inflection sets particles apart from other parts of speech. They lack the ability to indicate number, gender, tense, or person. Thus "the" operates as a particle while "an" does not. The latter modifies only a singular word or phrase, such as "an open house".

Tag questions are a more interesting subset of grammar particles. They exist as additions to a declarative sentence, either to flip its meaning from positive to negative, or vice versa, or to add a fillip of sarcasm. "You'd like waffles for breakfast, wouldn't you?" "You'd like waffles for breakfast, would you?" The former hints to the addressee that he or she would, indeed, like some waffles. The latter implies that asking for waffles is a bit much, and that perhaps cold cereal would have been a more reasonable request.

I'll be posting more about particles in the future, as I'm not yet clear on the difference between an article and a particle, outside of the additional letter p. If you've got questions or insight to share, I'd welcome it, wouldn't I?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cleaning Up After Yourself: Editing

Editing your writing can be harder than composing a piece in the first place. While enjoying the heat of creation, you can blaze through five hundred words, marveling at your own cleverness and erudition. Only with a little time and some self-discipline can you see that what you found witty was only cute and that your brevity came at the price of skipping a word or two, destroying your clarity.

You can find editing advice all over the web. Most places, including my own editing suggestions, reiterate some of the same key points. Most of them bear repeating because writers forget or ignore them so often.

From time to time, you can find new editing tips in the mix. Things like changing the font of your piece and covering all but the line or paragraph you are editing can help you focus on the words themselves rather than getting distracted by the piece as a whole. These tricks make spelling and grammatical errors stand out from the concept on which you were concentrating when you wrote the piece.

Take some time to explore the editing advice you see on-line. Reminders to read your writing aloud and to check for subject/verb agreement call your attention to these basics, and new ideas can help you improve your writing by offering tools that make your editing time effective and less frustrating.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Word Tidbits: Macaroni

In reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I came across this phrase: "He had been a macaroni of the eighteenth century". Having not seen that use before, I immediately thought to share it with you. Naturally, I hastened to find a definition outside of the more familiar noodle associations. I could only guess that Oscar Wilde did not mean that Mr. Gray's ancestor was, indeed, a piece of pasta.

Labeling the man a macaroni, in this case, meant that he had been well-traveled and affected foreign habits and mannerisms. In essence, the man was a poser and a fop, a well-dressed trend follower.

Finally, I understand the meaning of the words to Yankee Doodle. Calling the feather "macaroni" was not some sort of pasta hallucination. Nay, young Mr. Doodle meant his hat to be Continental and suave. My sympathy for him has evaporated, as I used to think he suffered from some sort of mental illness and now know that he was, quite simply, an imitator.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another Freelance Resource

I've spent some time today writing for clients at Textbroker. (There is no referral program that I know of, and that is not an affiliate link.) I just joined the site, and immediately found assignments that I could fulfill with a little research and a little time.

I spent about two hours exploring the site and writing to two such assignments. One of them took five minutes to complete and will pay about $1.50 when it's accepted. If I find and complete even half a dozen of those in the course of an hour, that works out to nine dollars for very little effort. The other was longer and pays a penny a word. My by-line won't appear, but I'm content to ghostwrite for that sort of pay.

In a case like this, where you are ghostwriting for another site, it behooves you to read the content already posted. For my first assignment, the site displayed articles in the third person with little individual personality displayed. The second was a blog-style post in which I could write more freely, as myself. Had I not paid attention to the existing style of the sites, I might have written them not as the clients wished and had them rejected. What a waste of time that would be for me and for them.

I will wait and see what comes of this site, but to go from first sight to earning over $5 in two hours doesn't seem too bad to me. At the very least, the assignments will work as writing exercises, to help me practice using different styles for various topics. Were I freelancing full-time, I could fit these little pieces between larger tasks to supplement my income.

Clients can ask you directly to take an assignment at this site, which seems like an excellent way to break into freelance writing. I will also have clips on-line that I can add to my portfolio. These can display versatility and skill to prospective clients without requiring links to Helium or Associated Content. Both sites are good for their purposes, but many publications feel that their lack of professionalism in general carries a stigma that it may be best to avoid.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Invaluable Consideration

Contrary to initial appearances, the word invaluable does not mean worthless or without value. Although the in- prefix adds "not" to the word valuable, you have to take into consideration the structure of the word.

Valuable essentially means "of worth", so adding an in- prefix would create a word that means "not of worth". That seems pretty straightforward, but it isn't what is happening here.

Invaluable actually consists of three parts: the prefix in-, the root value, and the suffix -able. When you define value as "place a price on", the meaning comes clear. An invaluable service is not worthless but one on which a value cannot be placed, one which we are not able to value. Thus, priceless and of inestimable value work as synonyms. Why you would choose to use the latter when the word invaluable means the same thing and requires fifty percent fewer characters, I couldn't say.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Dictionary Foolishness: Everybody and Everyone

I attempted to research any difference between everybody and everyone today. I discovered a curious thing: Merriam-Webster each of these terms by using the other. Everyone is defined as “every person: everybody” while everybody displays an even more succinct definition of “everyone”. defines both as “every person”. From everything else that I read, writers make no distinction in use between the two. Both are indefinite pronouns. The only difference I could uncover was that everyone originated in the 1100s and everybody dates back to the 1500s.

I find no reason to believe that one or the other works in more formal writing. If you seek a formal version, try using the word each, instead. Each person or one or student means the same as everybody, as well.

Which term you choose depends solely on your preference. All of these terms work the same, to indicate a single person in a group without specifying which one is meant. Everybody knows that, and everyone has his or her own writing style. Each of us may avoid the entire question by writing in the second person. All of you can do that, can't you?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Some Unexpected Validation

A few months ago, I posted about phrases like way back when. I wondered if the word way should have an apostrophe at its beginning, since it acts as an abbreviation of the word away or the phrase far and away.

The answer that I arrived at was that there is no answer. I could find no indication that the apostrophized version had ever been standard or, indeed, that it had been considered by more than one other person.

Imagine my delight when, in my rereading of Joseph Heller’s delightful Catch 22, I came across the following:

“…if the chaplain’s reticent, unimpressive manner were really just a sinister disguise masking a fiery ambition that, 'way down deep, was crafty and unscrupulous.”
This provides no further information on the etymology of that use of way or away, but I’m relieved to know that I’m not alone in my belief that such phrases warrant an apostrophe. I’d welcome any other examples or opinions, though.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Bad Examples for Writers

We have come to another round of scolding for lazy or under-educated writers. Today's examples come from articles and discussion boards where people ought to know better. Revel in the snark, and add your own examples if you feel moved so to do.

“Do bare in mind...” While this gentleman may have meant, “Do think about removing my clothes (or your own),” I suspect that he intended to ask the reader to “bear in mind” the concepts he went on to address.

“I haven't tried that one yet, but I about bet I could get it accomplished too!” This beauty appeared as part of an article. The author wondered why it had been rejected for payment. It closes out a four-sentence, introductory paragraph and springs the second exclamation point in those four sentences. Nowhere in the introduction does our illustrious author mention the subject of the article. At this point, the article appears to be about the feasibility of grilling cookies.

The “writer” follows the example sentence with a passive construction and a sentence fragment, both proudly displaying their own exclamation points. I don't remember the last time I was that excited about cooking, even on the grill.

“No amount of money can ever be set aside to reward teachers.” As the intent of the article from which I took this was to praise and support teachers, I presume that the writer intended to say just the opposite of this. Since the author claims to be a teacher, one would think he or she would have written, “There can never be enough money set aside to reward teachers.” I'd respectfully disagree with that notion, but at least the article would make sense.

“...I want to bring in examples of studies from the news or political poles.” Another teacher apparently uses some sort of sticks or perhaps signs gathered from various candidates. I suppose she could have meant that she uses “political polls” as examples for her classes. I would have assumed that this was a typographical error, except that the same spelling appears later in the paragraph.

“it's all about the benjimins!” The horrors of this “sentence” do not bear exploration. I simply offer it so that you may feel better about your own writing abilities. I realize that discussion boards do not require the formality of an article, but a small dose of not looking like an idiot would make his advice much more credible. Surely, you would never write something replete with capitalization and spelling errors, based in a passe cliché, would you, dear reader?