Category Archives: Language

How to Write Well

1.  Cut things that nobody will read.

How do you know what people will skip over?  The same things that you skip over–big blocks of text that describe the weather or that wax philosophical.

2.  Cut out every word that you do not need.

If you are not sure, cut a word and read the sentence aloud to see if it is weaker without the cut word.  If it really is weaker, put the word back.

3.  Read what you write aloud.

You are more apt to notice something dull or clunky when you hear it.

4.  Practice.

It’s odd that people think that writing is the one skill that does not require purposeful, daily practice.

5.  Remember that bad writers think that their work is good.

The best writers are self-aware and self-critical.  They want their work to be good but are never certain that it is.  The worst writers believe that they have written the next great classic.

6.  Enjoy your readers.

They are your friends, your companions.  They are not spectators.  They are not customers.  Write to please them and to stimulate their minds and their hearts.

7.  Accept something less than perfect.

You eventually have to finish a writing project.  You cannot correct and improve it forever, unless you are Walt Whitman.  Sometimes it is good enough, and you should move on.

8.  Write what you need to write.

All good writers that I know say that they write because they need to–both in general and during any particular project.  You have to be desperate to put on paper what is inside you.

9.  Write conversationally.

Your syntax and style should probably rise to a higher level than you use in conversation, but you should still imagine that you are talking to somebody when you write.

10.  Don’t romanticize writing.

It’s not about hanging out in a cafe and wearing a beret.  It’s not about being a dark, brooding personality.  Either you can put together a good, clear sentence, or you can’t.

 

Words and Phrases I Want to Ban

Here are some words and phrases that annoy me or that I am just tired of or both.

Please do not say your call is important to us unless you really mean it.  Show me by being helpful.  And if you are a machine, then the people who programed you to say it definitely didn’t mean it.

Stop talking about the actual facts.  There are no other kind.

Do not say that a movie or movie star is the winner of five nominations.  A nomination is not a win.

Please do not put Mc- in front of anything else.  It’s just annoying.

I wish that nurses would stop asking how are we today.  Obviously you are doing better than I am.

You should not say that somebody set an all time record until an eternity has actually gone by.

Please do not give whatever as an argument.  It is rude.  It also means that you  are not smart enough to think of a good argument.

There is no such thing as negative growth.  Say that something is shrinking or decreasing instead.

I think that app is a very inelegant word.  Is it really too time-consuming to say application?  Are the only words we can use now the ones that are short enough to fit on a tiny hand-held screen?

Why did people think we needed the word wellness Just say health.

Please do not tell me to stop giving you an attitude.  Everybody always has one kind of attitude or another.

Stop saying I feel when you are giving your opinion.  You think it or believe it.

I am tired of hearing about wardrobe malfunctions.  It’s one of those things that is only funny the first time.

Don’t say campaign rhetoric, unless you know what rhetoric really is.  It isn’t calling your opponent names or making outlandish promises.

I don’t think that a place can be overcrowded, since it is impossible for it to be undercrowded.  It’s just crowded.

There is no such thing as virtual reality.  Things are either real or unreal.  They can also be realistic or fantastic.

It is not necessary to say center median.  There are no side medians.

Don’t say that you want something because it is in the public interest when it is really in the interest of the people who gave the most money to your campaign.

Please don’t utilize things.  Just use them.

Things are not classic until they are very old and still popular.  There are no instant classics.

Don’t implement things.  Just start them.

 

 

Some of the New Lingo

I wrote quite awhile ago about things that my kids say that annoy me.  One of them was the overuse and misuse of the word awesome.  The other was like.

I’m glad to say that I do not hear them using the word awesome that much anymore.  Maybe they haven’t destroyed its original meaning.  Once in awhile something happens that is truly awesome, and it is nice to have a word that describes it.

I’m sad to say that they still pepper their speech with like.  It’s bad enough that they sometimes use it incorrectly and sometimes use it unnecessarily.  What bothers me the most is when they insert it after every three or four words.  It’s sloppy and terribly inelegant.  It is like smacking gum or tapping fingernails on the table or twirling one’s hair.

Three new words have entered the vocabulary.  Have you heard them?

The first is fail as a noun.  That was a major fail, they will say when something that they tried does not work out well.  I have tried to explain that the noun is failure, but they look at me as though I am a primitive monkey-man scratching my armpits and grunting.  It reminds me of bad used as a noun, as in my bad.  When did that start, and why?

The second new word is epic.  Anything that is somewhat nice or good is epic, although they do tend to use it for something out of the ordinary or slightly exciting.  If one of their friends launches his or her bicycle off a ramp, it is epic.  If they take a hike up a mountain, it is epic.  But so is a trip to the store to buy potato chips or a silly prank that they played on somebody.  I have told them the real meaning of the word, but they don’t care.

The third new word is more of a prefix.  It is the German word uber.  It apparently can be affixed to any adjective.  A jalapeno pepper is uber spicy.  A bad comedy film is uber lame.  (Lame is another of their slang words, but it has been around for awhile.)  A beautiful new outfit is uber gorgeous.  (I’m not sure how gorgeous can be intensified, but there you go.)  As I have told them, the German prefix has the connotation of something’s being above and beyond the norm, like the English super (a cognate) in the words supernatural and Superman.  It literally means over, and usually has that simple meaning in German, even as a prefix.  It is also related to hyper, as in hyperactive and hyperinflation.

Language changes, and that’s just the way it is, but I have a hard time with the changes, especially the rapid ones that occur in informal dialogue.  During my lifetime I have heard good things called neat, groovy, cool, hot, bad, boss, fly, fresh, dope, radical, tubular, awesome, and now epic.  (I haven’t heard uber epic, but I’m sure that I will.)  Most of the earlier ones sound silly now, even embarrassing.  Do they show creativity and originality?  I think that they show laziness and sloppiness.  We already have words to describe good things, and some of them are much more specific and less exaggerated.  It just takes a bit of thought to use them.

I’m such an old fuddy-duddy!

Wittiest Comments Ever

Here are some of the cleverest and most amusing things that I have ever heard or read.  I do not know who first said or wrote most of them.

  • The secret to originality is knowing how to hide your sources.
  • Every rule has an exception–especially this one.
  • I can resist everything–except temptation.
  • When two egoists meet, it’s an I for an I.
  • What the world needs is more humble geniuses.  There are so few of us left.
  • Always forgive your enemies; it annoys them so much.
  • All I am asking for is the chance to prove that money will not make me happy.
  • The problem is not that there are too many fools but that lightning is not distributed right.
  • Nothing needs reforming as much as other people’s habits.
  • I see that I have entered a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent.
  • I am not young enough to know everything.
  • The man/woman whom you notice is handsome/beautiful.  The one who notices you is enchanting.
  • Behind every good man is a surprised woman.

Please comment by posting your favorite witty remarks.

Terror is Terror

     I read an article that questioned whether the recent killing of the American airmen  in Germany was terrorism or not.  What?  It wasn’t a Sunday picnic.

     Since when did terrorism come to mean only an attack by radicals from the Middle East?  Isn’t terrorism any sudden attack meant to terrorize people?

     I just read another article that says that authorities believe–believe–that terrorism was involved.  Terrorism occurs when people strike terror in others; therefore, this was terrorism. 

     In that article it says that they believe that the killer was motivated by Islamic terrorism.  That doesn’t make any sense at all.  Imagine asking, “Why did you do it?” and hearing, “because of Islamic terrorism.”  I think journalists are all public school graduates now.

     It’s like calling certain crimes “hate crimes”–as if other crimes are motivated by love or something.

Indivisible

     We Americans are “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  I believe those words, and I believe that they are more than just sentiment.  They go much farther and deeper than mere sentiment.  They are true no matter how a particular American or a particular group of Americans happens to feel at any given moment.  We are united, no matter how much somebody might try to divide us or how much somebody might consider us divided.

     We have been discussing political rhetoric on this blog and elsewhere recently.  I’m tempted to say that political discourse is the same as it always was, but as I think about what reader and commenter Scott Erb has written, I think that he is right– that it is at quite a strident pitch at this time in history.  In considering some of the things that politicians and pundits have said during my lifetime, I do see an increase in the use of violent metaphors and just plain incivility.  I do not think it is as bad or as serious as some people seem to think, but it bears taking a step back and giving it some thought.

     One step that we probably all need to take is to be willing to admit that there is guilt on all sides.  Scott Erb and I agree on that point.  There might be some difference in tone or content between those on the left and those on the right, but neither side, as a whole, can claim to be morally superior or above the fray.  On many “conservative” blogs you can find lists of vitriolic comments by leftists, and on many “liberal” blogs you can find lists of vitriolic comments by rightists.  In an earlier post I pointed out that even the President has made such comments.  He said in 2008 in Philadelphia, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”  He didn’t mean it literally, of course, but if we are going to talk about gun metaphors, let’s be honest enough to admit that Democrats have used them and other violent rhetoric, too.

     The right has Ann Coulter, whose words do often cross a line of civility and decency.  But the left has Al Franken, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Nina Totenberg, and others.  I list them not to claim that there are more such people on the left, but to establish that the right is not unilaterally making such comments.

     I am all for returning to more courtesy and respectfulness in public discourse, but not because I think that the recent events in Tucson were caused by rhetoric.  And not because I think that more violence will ensue if we do not change our ways.  I just think it would be nice for people to realize that you can debate without getting nasty and ugly.

     To me the issue of speech and violent action are separate.  Yes, we should have more polite political expression.  Yes, we should try to curb violence.  I just do not see a direct link between the two.  Even more so, I think it is completely wrong, completely unfair, to equate strong language with violent actions.  Before long we will have thought police arresting people for saying, “I’m going to slaughter you,” during a chess game or a tennis match.

     It’s a cliche, but can’t we agree to disagree?  What seems to be implied by many on the left is that people on the right should just shut up and stop asserting their free speech rights.  They want “compromise,” which seems to mean do what we want.  They want “tolerance,” which seems to mean accept whatever se say and do.  In addition to acknowledging that both sides are guilty, I think that both sides need to agree to put up with each other.  That’s the true meaning of tolerance and the true meaning of civility.

About Words and Definitions

     “A horse is a horse, of course, of course. . .”

     That was the opening line of a theme song for a television program named Mr. Ed.  Have you seen it?  It is about a talking horse, and it is very amusing.

     People often mix up words, their underlying concepts, and their definitions.  Although those three things are very closely linked, they are not the same.

     In our minds we have a concept of what a horse is.  We tend to visualize the typical or quintessential horse whenever we are prompted to think of one.  To that concept we ascribe the word horse.  We define it, either as it is commonly used or as zoologists use it, which turns out pretty much the same.

     If we wanted to, we could call it a caballo, as they do in Spanish, but English speakers have pretty much unanimously agreed to call it a horse.  We could call it a goat, but then we would probably have to come up with a different word for the animal that we currently call a goat.  We could assign it a numeric code or, as in sign language for the deaf, a particular gesture.  However, our ancestors decided to call it a horse, and dictionaries record that word and its definitions, as we use it.

     Prescriptivists are those people who see word defintion and usage as pretty much fixed.  They see the job of dictionaries as telling us what words mean and how they should be used.  Decsciptivists, on the other hand, see definitions and usage as subject to change.  They see the job of dictionaires as reporting  how most people define and use words.

     The thing that I think we should keep in mind, however, is that the concepts behind the words, and the underlying realities, are what they are.  No matter what words we use or how we define them, a thing or an idea is whatever it is.  We do not live in a magical world in which entities can suddenly be transformed by calling them different names or by imagining them in different ways.  We can humorously refer to weiners as “tube steak” but that does not transform them into sirloins.  A woman can imagine that her cubic zirconium ring is a diamond, but that does not make it so.

     What is this about really?  A commenter recently wrote that marriage is whatever we define it as.  That sounds good at first glance.  Most people would read that statement and nod in agreement.  However, I humbly suggest that the person who wrote it, Scott Erb, was mixing up real things, concepts, and definitions.

     Take another example that is totally unrealted.  Would we say that a skyscraper is whatever we define it as?  It is hard to define that word precisely.  For example, is a ten-storey building a skyscraper?  I doubt that most people would refer to such a building that way nowadays.  They certainly would not call a three-storey building a skyscraper.  Does that mean that the word has no meaning at all?  If so, we would hardly be able to use it.

     A skyscaper is a very tall building, one that figuratively scrapes the sky.  When I think of one, I visualize the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building.  I probably drift into thinking about the John Hancock Building in Boston, because I have an early memory of being at the top of it.

     Whatever word we might use for those buildings, the concept exists.  We all can imagine a skyscraper when prompted to do so.  And the reality exists; there really are buildings that are much taller than average.  It does not matter one bit how we play around with the word or adjust its definition, the thing is what it is.

     What if we decided to call every building a skyscaper?  We could do it.  After all, a skyscaper is whatever we define it as.  However, I don’t think it would catch on with most people.  They would think it odd to apply the term to a structure that is only 15 feet tall.  Although it is scientifically imprecise, we think of the sky as being way above our heads.

     Now, let’s turn to marriage.  When most people hear the word, they probably think of a man (probably dressed in a black tuxedo) and a woman (probably dressed in a white gown).  Or they think of their own spouse or perhaps their parents or perhaps some of their friends who are married.  So, there is a concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and that has been almost the exclusive concept since the beginning of America–indeed throughout all of European history, if not human history.

     Our concept of marriage almost always involves opposites, even when we use it metaphorically.  We can speak of the marriage between coffee and milk in a cafe latte, which combines something dark and bitter with something white and mild. 

     The entity exists, whatever one might call it.  It is true that men and women join with each other in exclusive relationships that involve living together, supporting one another, having intimate relationships with each other, and producing offspring.  Sometimes we call it marriage, and sometimes we call it matrimony.  But whatever we call it, it is what it is.  It would not change if we decided to call it something else, say partnership or coupling.  It would not change if we imagined it a different way–for example, as a relationship between two people of the same sex.  The more common thing, the union of a man and a woman, would still be a very real thing, and we would probably want a unique name for it.

     After all, the union of a man and a woman is substantially and essentially different from the union of a man and a man or of a woman and a woman.  Those unions might be similar, but they are not identical.  Anatomy tells you so.  Genetics tells you so.  The little babies that are the usual result of the opposite-sex union tell you so.

     I am not arguing here that homosexual people should not have mutually exclusive relationships that are like marriage.  In the eyes of the law, they should be able to do whatever they want.  I am not arguing here that they should not call their relationship a marriage, if they want.  I am merely saying that there will still exist something different from that kind of relationship.  There will still be unions between men and women, and there will probably need to be a term for that kind of union, if the word marriage is routinely applied to a broader category of relationships.

     I am also arguing that it is in the sphere of the public, the common ordinary people, that definitions of words should be decided.  The government does have to define words for purposes of the law; for example, they must precisely differentiate between homocide and manslaughter, although the common word killing can apply to both.  However, with such a basic, cherished word as marriage, I am not sure that it is the function of government to tell us what it means or to tell us how we must use it.

     To summarize, the thing we have generally called marriage is what it is, which to most people is a union between a man and a woman, whatever we might have chosen to call it.  It cannot change by having the word marriage defined in a new way.  The concept of marriage to most people includes the essential feature that it joins things or people that are opposites.  The definition of marriage, as most people use the word, already matches that concept and that reality.  Why force a change on people officially?

     If most people are willing to regard same-sex unions as marriages, the change will catch on.  People who don’t like the change can adapt by coming up with a new term for opposite-sex unions.  Eventually the law and the government could officially recognize the change adopted by the public at large.  Why not let it be settled that way?

Annoying Expressions

     I’m really tired of the following expressions.  How about you?

Past History

. . .as in “the shooter had a past history of violence.”

Is there such a thing as a future history?  Just say history.  We will all realize that you are talking about the past.

No Easy Answers

Obviously if there were an easy answer, somebody would have already given it and there would be no need to say that there aren’t any.

Violence/War Broke Out

People start fights.  They don’t just spontaneously occur.

Mecca

. . .as in “a vacation mecca.”  Let’s only use the word when we mean the actual holy city of Islam.

Broad Daylight

Is there any other kind?  I have never seen narrow daylight.  Have you?

Senseless

as in, “a senseless crime.”  I suppose that is in contrast to a sensible crime.

Years Young

I know, I know, it is supposed to make people feel better to say that they are 75 years young, but it is silly.  We all know that they are not really young, including the person in question.  The first person who said it was somewhat clever, but it has gotten old (not young).

Gave Birth to a Baby

. . .as in “gave birth to a baby girl.”  She couldn’t have given birth to a full grown woman, could she?  Just say that “she had a girl.”

Buy Into

Please do everyone else a favor and just say that you accept an idea or plan.

A Whole Nother

It’s not cute or clever.  It’s just babyish.

Address the Issue

Please don’t just address issues.  Actually do something about them, preferably something successful.

Meteoric Rise

Actually, meteors fall.  And they burn up as they fall.

Safe Haven

Think about it.  There’s no such thing as a dangerous or unsafe haven.

Turned Up Dead

You discover dead people.  They do not turn up.  (Except for zombies, I suppose.)

Decadent

It is a fine word, but could we return to using it to describe things other than chocolate.

Not a Bad Kid

This is how parents often describe their child after he or she has been suspended from school for beating up another student.  News flash:  beating up people is being bad.

Area Residents

Aren’t they just the neighbors?  Journalists really like the phrase, but real people do not say, “I’m going to invite the area residents to our block party.”

Famed

The word famous still exists.  It is a simple, elegant word.  So please talk about a famous musician and not a famed one.

Unanswered Questions

If they were answered, there would be no point in talking or writing about those questions.  Would there?

Staffer

If a baker bakes, does a staffer staff?  The person in question is a staff member, not a staffer.

Plagued

Isn’t anybody troubled or bothered anymore?  It seems that everybody is plagued by problems nowadays.  (HINT:  If you are the only one suffering, it is not a plague.)

Hospitalized

If a word is capitalized, the first letter is made a capital.  If somebody gets hospitalized, does that mean he or she becomes a hospital?  What’s wrong with simply saying that somebody was admitted to the hospital?

Motorists

Aren’t there any more drivers around?

So Random

     My teenage children use the word random in a way that really annoys me.  Have you heard teenages use it in a nonconvential way?

     The way I first learned it, and the way I still use it, is to mean “not having a predictable pattern or sequence.”  When I first learned to write computer programs, I used a random number generator to create visual effects, such as snow falling, or for certain features in games, such as a virtual roll of the dice.  Radomness relates to things like picking out names from a telephone directory in no particular order or like dealing the cards in a poker game.

     The first time I heard my son use it in a new way, we were watching some mind-numbing teenage movie in which a boy on a skateboard slid down a railing and crashed into the sidewalk below.  “That was so random,” said my son. 

     “What do you mean?” I said.

     “It was random.  It was lame.  He had no reason to do that.”

     I replied, “That’s not exactly what the word random means.”

     “What are you talking about?” he asked.

     “The word really means something happening by chance.  For example, the exact spot that the boy would land when he fell could be thought of as random.”

     “Dad, that’s really random.”

     “What do you mean?” I asked again.

     “What you said.  It was random.  Like, it didn’t follow anything.”

     So, apparently, random can describe a non sequitur, as well as a stupid act done without reason.  Mind you, what I said did follow from what my son had said, but let’s not bother with the facts for now.

     Apparently there is a show on the Disney Channel called “Sonny With a Chance,” and in that show the characters are part of a fictional TV show called “So Random.”  The fictional show-within-a-show apparently includes skits featuring absurd situations.  There doesn’t seem to be much randomness, just a buch of nonsense.  (I’m not opposed to nonsense, I just do not think that it is necessarily random.)

     I have several problems with the new definitions of the word random.

     1.  When kids encounter the word in a math class or in a statistics class, they will have a difficult time understanding the traditional meaning.  They are likely to get confused, as kids are wont to do anyway.

     2.  It seems to be very subjective.  I have heard a group of kids argue about whether something was random or not.

Kid A:  My mother made me eat breakfast this morning.  It was so random.

Kid B:  That’s not random.  My mother makes me eat breakfast every day.

Kid C:  I really like scrambled eggs.

Kid B:  Dude, that comment was so random.

Kid C:  No, it wasn’t.  We were talking about breakfast.

Kid A:  Whatever!  This whole conversation is totally random.

     3.  There are already words to cover the meanings that they have in mind, such as senseless, pointless, unexpected, and irrelevant.  It wouldn’t hurt the kids to learn a few more words, espcially useful ones that are just right for their purpose.

     What do you think?  Have you heard people use the word random in these new ways?  Does it annoy you?  Do you even care?

Dr. Laura’s Slip-Up

     Who knows if Dr. Laura Schlessinger really feels remorse for using the N-word the other day on her radio program?  She has said that it was wrong and made no excuse for it.  I would guess that she knew it was expedient to apologize and confess her “sin.”  She cannot afford to lose listeners or sponsors.

     I would have lost all respect for Dr. Laura if she had called somebody that name.  It is ugly and mean and no decent person would call somebody that.  But that’s not what she did.

     What she did was point out that the word is heard routinely on HBO and elsewhere by black comedians. 

     It’s called context, people.  It would be impossible to condemn the word without using the word or at least obliquely referring to it.  It would likewise be impossible to talk about the cultural phenomenon of the word’s use by rappers and African American comedians.

     I heard a recording of the broadcast in question, and it seemed that Dr. Laura went a bit overboard in making some valid points.  One point that she was trying to make was that sometimes people are overly sensitive and take offense where none was intended.  Another point she was making was that there is a double standard in America when it comes to race and racial epithets.  I agree with both points.

     One thing that I wish Americans would do is to get over our obsession with words, as words.  We need to care more about motives and intentions instead of the words themselves.  Is the person being (or trying to be) funny?  Are they using the word sarcastically, which means that they actually dislike it?  Are they throwing it back at somebody else who is being purposely offensive?  Are they purposely trying to shock people without actually meaning what they say?  Are they imitating somebody else?  Are they commenting on the usage of the word?  Or are they really using the word to hurt others?

     People need to stop applying double standards, too.  It is wrong to condemn a white person simply for uttering a word, but insisting that everything said by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or other prominent black leaders must be interpreted correctly and taken in context.  It shouldn’t be the other way around, either.

     And I think many Americans are too sensitive.  I’ve been called so many things in my life that you’d get plain bored reading the list.  I’ve managed to live through it.  In fact, I reached a stage a few years back when I no longer cared one bit what people called me.  It just isn’t worth my time to worry about it.  (I do care when they ascribe bad motives, intentions, or character to me, though.)

     People, including Dr. Laura, should strive to be more civil.  Even though I think many people are hypersensitive, I have also observed more and more that many people disregard the feelings of others.  This is a bad combination of attitudes.   Dr. Laura, as I said above, did go overboard.  She got extremely intense and excited about the topic and was too blunt toward her call-in guest.  It wasn’t necessary for her to get that worked up.