Tricky Tuesday: Being Consistent in your Writing

I thought it might be ironic to write about consistency when my blogging lately has been so inconsistent.

Intelligentediting.com makes the point well:

Writers and editors must constantly seek to achieve consistency. Each inconsistency we remove eliminates a barrier between readers and understanding, facilitates communication, and thereby increases the likelihood that our writing will convey the message we intended. Readers learn the conventions we have used early in a manuscript and use that knowledge to facilitate comprehension of subsequent material. Editing for consistency thus serves two goals: it both eases the task of reading by teaching readers how to understand our writing and eliminates obstacles that would make that task more difficult.

Essentially, this means choosing a style and sticking with it. I’ve written a lot about rules that it’s okay to break and situations there is a choice between different rules to follow, especially here and here. The key is that you need to choose a rule and stick with it throughout your writing, or at least throughout a given work.

This is why most publishers, newspapers and other industries that deal with writing have a “house style” – to ensure that their publications remain consistent. If you pick up any well-edited magazine, you should be able to read it cover-to-cover without encountering variations in style.

Further reading: American Journal Experts on consistency in academic writing. Most of what they say applies to pretty much any type of writing.

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Phrase Friday: Cliches

“I’m having the time of my life.”

“Let’s start with a clean slate.”

“He was driving like  bat out of hell.”

These are three examples of a cliche: an overused, often trite phrase, usually used to describe a person, thing or situation. It can be tempting to use cliches in your writing. Sometimes you might do it without even noticing.

The problem with using cliches is that they just aren’t very interesting. Why write about something in a way everyone has already heard? You’ll have a better chance of grabbing your reader’s attention if what you have to say is new to them.

Let’s start with those three phrases above:

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had, including that time when I parachuted off the Empire State Building!” – Not only does this grab the reader’s attention (who parachutes off the Empire State Building, anyway?), it tells you something about the person who is speaking. It also makes you want to know more – what could this crazy person consider more fun than parachuting off the Empire State Building? What on earth are they doing?

“Let’s do it again from the beginning, and this time I will try not to get angry.” – Again, don’t you feel like you know a lot more about the situation?

“The taxi driver was zooming through intersections and flying around corners, and I was quite honestly afraid for my life.” – Now you know who was driving, and you have a mental picture of where they are.

As always, context is extremely important, and while most cliches are one-size-fits-all phrases that can be applied in a variety of scenarios, coming up with an original description of your own is a lot more difficult.

Further reading: 681 Cliches to Avoid, The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill: Cliches and why you should avoid them, a dictionary of cliches, with explanations of what they mean and where they originated.

 

 

 

This and That Thursday: Adjective Sequence

I came across this fascinating article recently and wanted to share it here. The article talks about rules non-English speakers are taught when learning English, and how most native English speakers follow these rules automatically without even knowing they exist.

In particular, did you know that a series of adjectives has be in a specific order? I didn’t! But when you think about it, you would never put adjectives in the wrong order, because it wouldn’t sound right. For example:

  1. Her beautiful long blond hair.
  2. Her blond beautiful long hair.

Why does the second phrase sound wrong? I couldn’t have told you, other than “it just does.” Turns out, there is actually a correct order for a series of adjectives. It goes like this:

Opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose.

In the first example above, the adjectives are in order: opinion-size-color. When reversed, they don’t look right at all.

Try this yourself: next time you hear or say a series of adjectives, try rearranging them. I bet you’ll automatically know when they are in the wrong order.

Wordy Wednesday: Who vs. Whom

The question of whether to use “who” or “whom” in a sentence is easier to answer than you might think. These are the basic rules:

  • “Who” refers to the subject of a sentence. “Whom” refers to the object.
  • “Who” and “whom” work in the same way as “he” and “him.” You can work out which one to use by asking yourself the following:
  • “Who did that? He did” – “who” is correct. “Whom should I call? Call him” – “whom” is correct.
  • “That” is often used incorrectly in place of “who” or “whom.” Never use “that” in reference to a person.

Incorrect:

  • Who should I ask for help?
  • Whom helped you?
  • He was the only person that wanted to help.

Correct:

  • Whom should I ask for help?
  • Who helped you?
  • He was the only person who wanted to help.

 

This and That Thursday: Oops

So, I thought I had a post scheduled for this morning, and then I logged in to see how it was doing and… Nothing. Whoops.

Speaking of which, I’ve been blogging pretty consistently for the last couple of months. It hasn’t been too difficult; there’s not much else going on in my life and besides being a great learning experience for me, blogging has also been a great way to just kill the time.

In the next couple of weeks, though, that’s all going to change. I’m starting classes this fall (on Sept. 26th, to be exact), and I’ll probably be pretty busy between that and a part-time job, and another part-time job during November and December, and my husband coming home for the winter in late October. Yeah, my plate might be a little full. So just to warn you all, my faithful readers, things might get a little sparse around here.

With that having been said, I am going to do my best to keep the blog going. As always, I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions for future posts, et cetera.

Thank you for reading!

Wordy Wednesday: Pedal vs. Peddle

This is an error that I see all the time. These two words sound the same, and they are both verbs (although pedal is also a noun), but they have totally different meanings.

Pedal: verb

  • to push the pedals of (something, such as a bicycle)

  • to ride a bicycle to a particular place

Pedal: Noun

  • a lever pressed by the foot in the playing of a musical instrument (as an organ or piano)
  • a foot lever or treadle by which a part is activated in a mechanism

Peddle: verb

  • to travel about with wares for sale; broadly

  • to be busy with trifles

  • to sell or offer for sale from place to place

  • to deal out or seek to disseminate

  • to offer or promote as valuable

 

 

Tricky Tuesday: Half and Other Fractions

numbers
Picture via Pixabay

Half is a weird word because it can be either singular or plural.

Example 1: Half of a pie was left after we each ate a slice.

In this sentence, a singular verb (was) is used since I am referring to half of a singular object (pie).

Example 2: Half of the sodas were left after we each drank one.

In this sentence, a plural verb (were) is used since I am referring to half of multiple objects (sodas).

Fractions can be tricky since sometimes they are plural, even though a fraction is usually less than 1. For example, all of the following are correct:

  • Three quarter teaspoons
  • Three quarters of a teaspoon
  • Three eighths of a truckload
  • .375 truckloads (read aloud as “point three seven five truckloads”)

Usually in writing, it’s best to write a fraction as “half” or “three eighths,” etc. Only use decimals when it is important to be accurate and a simple fraction can’t be easily conveyed, as in “that house is worth $3.279 million.” If the house were worth $3.5 million, you could say “that house is worth three and a half million dollars” or “that house is worth $3.5 million.” It all depends on the context.

There really isn’t a rule that applies across the board with fractions, so sometimes it is best to check a dictionary if you are unsure. Or you could always check with your editor!

This & That Thursday: The Ampersand

Image via fonts.com

“And” is the only word that has its own unique symbol. Why, and where did it come from?

The Latin word for “and” is “et,” which when written in Old Roman cursive (uppercase E, lowercase t), looked like &. This is why “etc.,” short for “et cetera,” is sometimes written as “&c.”

The symbol we now know as the ampersand first appeared written on a mural in Pompeii in the 1st century A.D. As the centuries passed, it actually became accepted as the 27th letter of the English alphabet, although it has been dropped from the alphabet in the last two centuries or so.

The term “ampersand” comes from the phrase “et per se and,” which means something like “et, in other words, and” (not a literal translation).

Here is a short video that gives a nice summary of the ampersand’s history.

Modifier Monday: Dangling Modifiers

Also see last week’s post on Squinting Modifiers.

A dangling modifier is one that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. Dangling modifiers are most often found at the beginning of a sentence, and they usually begin with a verbal. In the following examples, I have bolded the verbal and italicized the whole modifier so you can see what I mean:

Having gone on a long hike, water ran out.

After eating everything in the kitchen, a shopping trip was in order.

Coming home after a long day at work, a beer was necessary.

These sentences do not have a clear subject to which the dangling modifier belongs. There are two ways to fix them. The first is to add a subject to the modifier, turning it into a complete sentence:

When the group went on a long hike, water ran out.

After Suzie ate everything in the kitchen, a shopping trip was in order.

When Bill came home after a long day at work, a beer was necessary.

The second way to fix these sentences, which leaves the modifier intact, is to add the subject to the second part of the sentence like this:

Having gone on a long hike, the group ran out of water.

After eating everything in the kitchen, Suzie had to go grocery shopping.

Coming home after a long day at work, Bill felt that a beer was necessary.

The second solution is usually recommended since it makes the sentence active and more clearly answers the question of “who?” For instance, in the example where Suzie eats everything in the kitchen, the first solution doesn’t make it clear who has to go shopping. Of course, it could be that Suzie is a child whose mother does all the grocery shopping, in which case you could say, “after Suzie ate everything in the kitchen, a shopping trip was in order for her mother.” Context is always important.

Modifier Monday: Squinting Modifiers

For the next couple Mondays, I’m going to be covering common modifier misuses. Watch for dangling modifiers next week and misplaced modifiers in two weeks.

A “squinting” modifier is one that is placed between two phrases so that it could be modifying either one. It’s called a squinting modifier because it’s unclear which phrase it is “looking” toward. For example: “Climbing a mountain quickly gets you in shape.” It’s impossible to tell whether the modifier, quickly, is pointing at the first verb, climbing, or the second, gets.

DSC01359
I just climbed a mountain, not so quickly though. And I’m squinting. Location: Hatcher Pass, Alaska. Photo by my husband.

To clarify whether you have to quickly climb mountains in order to get in shape, or whether the act of climbing mountains will get you in shape quickly, you’d need to restructure the sentence. Sometimes all you need to do is move the modifier closer to one side, for instance, “Climbing a mountain quickly will get you in shape,” or “Climbing a mountain will quickly get you in shape.” Here, I changed one of the verbs so now there isn’t ambiguity between “climbing” and “gets.” When you have two different verb tenses, placement of the modifier can make it clear which one it’s pointing to.

You can also simply move the modifier to one end of the sentence without changing anything else:

“Quickly climbing a mountain gets you in shape.”

“Climbing a mountain gets you in shape quickly.”

Or you can change the wording more drastically, as in the following examples:

“A quick climb up a mountain gets you in shape.”

“To get in shape quickly, go climb a mountain.”

Usually, a sentence can be worded in multiple different ways. Avoiding the ambiguity caused by a squinting modifier is really pretty easy!