Showing posts with label words. Show all posts
Showing posts with label words. Show all posts

21 April 2024

The Tintinnitus of the Bells, Bells, Bells

My parents used to rebuke us: “Enunciate!”

Humph. I didn’t think I spoke badly, but they would’ve instructed the nation with resolutely precise enunciation if they’d had their own Discord and YouTube channels.

A couple of decades later found me in France at a colleague’s dinner table talking about the weather. I mention the harsh winter in Minnesota and my French friend stopped me.

letter T

“The harsh what?” he asked.

“Harsh winter,” I said. At his request, repeated it yet again.

He said, “I don’t understand.”

“Spring, summer, autumn, winter.”

He looked puzzled. “I thought winter had a T in it.”

He was right. I wasn’t pronouncing the T. Same with ‘plenty’. Likewise, I pronounced only the first T in ‘twenty’'. Some words with an ’nt’ combination – but not all– lost their ’T’s coming out of my mouth.

Banter and canter, linty and minty seem fine, but I swallow the T in ‘painter’. Returning after a year overseas and more conscious of enunciation, I sounded like a foreigner. “I just love German accents,” said my bank teller, cooing and fluttering her eyelashes.

Language in Flux

By age 8 or so, I’d become adept at soldering and still use the skill for repairs, projects, and mad scientist experiments. Pitifully, it took me decades to realize I didn’t know how to pronounce it.

I’m not sure if it’s a Midwestern thing or an American attribute, but I leave out the bloody letter L. Most people I know pronounce that compound of tin, lead, and silver as “sodder.”

I don’t do that with other LD combinations like bolder, colder, and folder. Even with practice, solder with an L does not trip readily off my tongue.

letter L

The Apple electronic dictionary that comes with Macs shows North American pronunciation as [ ˈsädər ]. Interesting… no L. Then I switched tabs to the British English dictionary where I learned it’s pronounced [ ˈsɒldə, ˈsəʊldə ]. Okay, there’s an L. But hello… What’s this? What happened to the R? Whoa-ho-ho.

Speaking of L&R, when was the R in ‘colonel’ granted leave? Kernel I understand; colonel, not so much. What about British ‘lieutenant’? The OED blames the French, claiming ‘lievtenant’ evolved to ‘lieutenant’ but pronounced ‘lieftenant’.

Finally, what happened to the L in could, would, and should? They seem to have broken the mould. The Oxford lords giveth and they taketh away.

Sounds of Silence

I know precisely why another word gave me difficulty. I tended to add a syllable to the word ‘tinnitus’, which came out ‘tintinnitus’. I’ve puzzled an otolaryngologist or two, because I conflated tinnitus with tintinnabulation.

(Otolaryngologist? Speak of words difficult to pronounce!)

Which brings us to a trivia question all our readers should know: How does ‘tintinnabulation’ connect with the world of mystery?

Rhymes Not with Venatio

Before Trevor Noah became a US political humorist, his career began as a South African standup comic. On one of his DVDs, he altered words to sound snooty and high class, such as ‘patio’ rhymed with ‘ratio’.

Junior high, Bubbles Mclaughlin: nineteen months and three days older than me. Like Trevor, this ‘older woman’ had no idea how to pronounce another word ending in ‘atio’. For years, neither did I, but she could have rhymed it with ‘aardvark’ and I wouldn’t have minded.

letter C

C Creatures

I’ve been listening to ebooks recently. Almost all text-to-speech apps claim to use buzzwordy AI, but most don’t, not when ‘epitome’ sounds like ‘git home’. Similarly, ‘façade’ does not rhyme with ‘arcade’.

When making the Prohibition Peepers video, I altered spelling of a few words to get the sound I needed, such as ‘lyve’ instead of ‘live’. What a pane in the AIss.

I wondered if ebook programs would pronounce façade correctly if their closed captions were correctly spelled with C-cédille, that letter C with the comma-looking tail that indicates a soft C. If you stretch your imagination, you can kinda, sorta imagine a cedilla (or cédille) looking a little like a distorted S. (For Apple users employing text-to-speech, a Mac pronounces it correctly either way.)

Our local Publix grocery (when their founder’s granddaughter and heiress isn’t funding riots) spells the South American palm berry drink as ‘acai’, which meant both employees and I sounded it with a K. If they’d spelled ‘açai’ with the C-cédille, I would have learned the word much sooner.

I could say ‘anemone’ before I knew how to spell it. The names of this flower and sea creature are spoken like ‘uh-NEM-uh-nee’, which rhymes with ‘enemy’.


Permit me to introduce you to Rachel and Rachel’s English YouTube channel. She kindly explains we often learn words through reading and don’t learn their sound until much later. I was shocked that three of the words she led with have given me trouble including one I hadn’t realized I was currently mispronouncing– echelon. I was saying it as CH (as in China) instead of SH (as in Chicago).

Those other two words: In grade school, I became confused how to say mischievous and triathlon, requiring more careful attention.

Rachel also discusses how modern usage omits syllables. I say ‘modern’ because my teachers would have rounded smartly on us had we dared abbreviate, so I tend to fully sound out several of her examples. One she doesn’t mention is ‘secretary’, at times said as ’SEK-ruh-tree’.

When is a T not a T?

The phrase ‘can not’ has been shortened and shortened again over time:

    • can not
    • cannot
    • can’t
    • can’

What? Rachel enters extreme territory beyond my ken, explaining the ’stop-T’. Listen to what she has to say about it. That’s all for now!

  © SleuthSayers


Answer to trivia question: Edgar Allan Poe famously used the obscure but wonderful word ‘tintinnabulation’ in his poem, ‘The Bells’.

19 March 2023

Absurd Lines

Weird Al Yankovic
Weird Al Yankovic

So I’m trying to think up an article and Lenovo Google Display is playing rock in the background when I hear the intro to ‘Blurred Lines’, a song so rampantly sexist even Andrew Tate declared, “Holy Ç¥Œ◊‰, that’s sexist,” and went on to say, “Can I get them b✫tch✫s’ phone numbers? What? What did I say?”

But no, it wasn’t Robin Thicke nor even the originator of the tune, Marvin Gaye. It was Weird Al Yankovic presenting a video perfect for SleuthSayers. I could almost hear Rod Serling intoning, “Submitted for your edification, the words of one Mr Yankovic…”

Whereas most reviewers approved the video, some sourballs have to complain and not even about a couple of naughty bits slipped in. One argument grouched that judgmental grammatical purism promotes social distinctions, while another grumbled about  ‘linguistic prescriptivism’, i.e, we don’t need no rules. This flies in the face of classical education when rhetoric and logic reigned, when the educated believed rigor and precision of language underpinned rigor and precision of thought.

Uh oh. Now I’m channeling Pink Floyd…

18 March 2023

That's Easy for You to Say

As you probably know, this blog is about mystery fiction, and while we (and mostly I) occasionally stagger off the path and into movies and TV, our usual posts here are about writing short stories and novels.

Today I'm wandering afield again: I'd like to focus not on the written word but on the spoken word. Or should I say misspoken?

I can remember when, as a kid, I thought calliope was pronounced cally-ope and Penelope was penna-lope. And I had no idea about things like coup, epitome, hitherto (hit her, too?), etc. After all, I hadn't heard those words before--I'd only read them in books. On the printed page, Sean looked like seen, Seamus looked like seemus, and God Only Knew about Siobhan. I also remember seeing the name John Huston in the credits of a movie when I was a teenager and figured his last name was pronounced Huss-ton.

Now that I have (supposedly) grown up, I still find myself confused about some pronunciations, and my more intelligent wife's not always around to correct me.

Having said all that . . . here are some perplexing names and words that have stumped me now and then, along with what I believe is the correct way to pronounce them. See what you think.

Names of writers:

  • Ayn Rand. It's not ann. It's ine, as in wine.
  • Gillian Flynn -- Not jillian. It's GILL-yan, with a hard G.
  • Annie Proulx -- Not prool. It's proo.
  • Vladimir Nabokov -- Not NAB-okov. It's na-BO-kov.
  • Roald Dahl -- Not rolled. It's ROO-all.
  • Dr. Seuss -- Not soos. It's soice, as in voice.
  • Rick Riordan -- Not REER-din. It's RYE-or-din.
  • P. G. Wodehouse -- Not wode-house. It's wood-house.
  • Jodi Picoult -- Not pee-colt or pee-cult. It's pee-ko.
  • John Le Carré -- Not la-karr. It's la-kar-RAY.
  • Brendan Dubois -- Not doo-bwah. It's doo-boys.
  • J. K. Rowling -- Not RAOWL-ing, as in howling. It's ROLL-ing, as in bowling.

Other names:

  • Andrew Carnegie -- Not CAR-na-gie. It's car-NAY-gie.
  • Martin Scorcese -- Not scar-SAZE-ee. It's scar-SEZZY.
  • Ralph Lauren -- Not lau-REN. It's LAUR-en.
  • Demi Moore -- Not Dimmy. It's di-MEE.
  • Lindsay Lohan -- Not low-hann. It's LOW-en, as in Owen.
  • Kirsten Dunst -- Not ker-sten. It's keer-sten.
  • Charlize Theron -- Not the-RONE, as in Game of Therons. It's THERE-in.
  • Saoirse Ronan -- Not source or sarce. It's ser-shah.
  • Gal Godot -- Not ga-DOE. It's ga-DOTE.

(Yes, I know--these last six are actresses. I can't think offhand of any male actors's names I have trouble pronouncing, and if I did I doubt they'd care. Also note: I'm fairly sure this is the only time you'll ever see Lindsay Lohan and Andrew Carnegie in the same list.)

U. S. cities:

  • Kissimmee, FL, isn't KISS-im-ee. It's kis-SIM-ee.
  • Wilkes-Barre, PA, isn't wilks-bar. It's WILKS-barry (some say WILKS-bare).
  • Worchester, MA, isn't WAR-chester. It's WOOS-ter.
  • La Jolla, CA, isn't la-JAH-lah. (You know this already.) It's la-HOY-ah.
  • Biloxi, MS, isn't bi-LOCK-si. It's bi-LUCK-si.
  • Des Moines, IO, isn't duh-MOINS. It's duh-MOIN. No s.
  • Islamorada, FL, isn't IZ-lamorada. It's EYE-lamorada.
  • New Orleans, LA, isn't new-or-LEENS or new-ORLEY-uns. It's new-OR-luns.
  • Spokane, WA, isn't spo-KANE. it's spo-KANN.
  • Versailles, KY, isn't ver-SIGH, as in France. It's ver-SAYLES. Seriously. 
  • Milan, TN, isn't mi-LON, as in Italy. It's MY-lin.
  • Cairo, IL, isn't KY-roe, as in Egypt. It's KAY-roe.

(I won't attempt to phonetically spell the correct pronunciation of Norfolk, VA, but here's a true-story hint: I was once told by a resident that their unofficial school cheer was "We don't smoke. We don't chew. Norfolk, Norfolk, Norfolk.")

Common words:

  • Cavalry isn't calvary.
  • Athlete isn't athalete.
  • Realtor isn't realator.
  • Triathlon isn't triathalon.
  • Sherbet isn't sherbert.
  • Espresso isn't expresso.
  • Nuclear isn't nucular.
  • Larynx isn't lair-nix. It's lair-inks.
  • Potable isn't pottable. It's pote-able.
  • Mischievous isn't mis-CHEEV-ee-us. It's MIS-chev-us.
  • Gyro isn't JYE-ro, as in gyroscope. It's YEER-o, as in hero.
  • Applicable isn't ap-PLICK-able. It's APP-lickable.
  • Electoral isn't elec-TORE-al. It's e-LECK-toral.
  • Respite isn't res-pyte. It's RESS-pit.
  • Gala isn't galla. It's GAY-la.
  • Beignet isn't ben-yet. It's ben-yay.
  • Boatswain isn't bote-swane. It's boss-un.
  • Foyer isn't foy-ay. (Even though we like sounding fancy.) It's plain old foy-er.

Full disclosure: There are some words I will happily continue to pronounce the way I want to pronounce them because I don't like the other ways, correct or not. To me it'll always be bobwire, snuck, Febyouwary, Wensdy, Dr. Soos, care-amel, pah-conns, poinsetta, pimento, surrup (not sear-up), turnament (not tour-nament), Flahridda (not Flore-idda), Nevahda (not Nevadda), dawg (not dahg), man-aze (not mayo-naze), pajommas (not pajammas), aint and uncle (not ahnt and uncle), day-ta (not datta), ee-ther (not eye-ther), nee-ther (not nye-ther), etc. 

Two more points. First, I still think the lived in short-lived should have a long i, as in deprived. (I've been lobbying a long time for that, to no avail. I mean, come on, if it's short-lived it has a short LIFE.) Second--and this isn't actually pronunciation--I don't like the word utilize, in speaking or writing. Use a perfectly good word like use instead. They mean the same thing.

Since writers are also speakers and listeners (and since this is a forum for 'em), what mispronunciations, including regionalisms, bother you the most? Please let me know in the comments below.

I think that's everything that's APP-lickable. See you in two weeks.

30 January 2023

Word salad? Dig in.

I fell in love with words at an early age.  I don’t just mean a love of literature, but of the individual words themselves.  One strong influence was all the adventure books from the late Victorian and early 20th century passed down from my father and grandfather that I devoured like giant bowls of buttered popcorn. 

They were written in the style of the 19th century, which leaned toward the purple and prolix.  Ornate language peppered with words you’d never see in contemporary literature, much less hear in everyday conversation.  I’d look up their meaning in my brother’s exhausted Merriam-Webster’s, and catalog the definition in my tender memory.

I also used quite a number of these forgotten words and usages in my earliest writing, much to its detriment.  Few high school English teachers had ever heard of Stygian darkness or a flexile snake.  Or would approve of a stern expression being described at a stately countenance, or a homeless guy on a street corner as a mendicant.  But I did.

By the way, Victorian writers often interchanged “he exclaimed” with “he ejaculated.”  Even as a junior writer I knew this was an anachronistic usage best avoided. 

It wasn’t until I started reading Hemingway, that god of succinct and efficient prose, that it dawned on me:  big words – worse, obsolete words – make you sound ridiculous and pretentious.  This was somewhat countered by James Joyce, who used every word in the language, and conjured a few neologisms of his own, but did so with such poetical brilliance that few griped about it.  Not being Joyce, I’d simply choose to pop in a bit of obscure vocabulary every once in a while, and wait for the editors to circle it and write, “Huh?”

I’m not the first logophile, by any means.  William Buckley famously confounded even hyper-educated PBS viewers with the sweep of his lexicographical panache, often insulting his guests on Firing Line without a breath of reproach, since they’d have no idea what he just called them.  Shakespeare is not only the Greatest English Writer of All Time, his vocabulary is still thought to be the largest ever recorded.  And this without Google, or dictionaries for that matter.  But I’d also commend modern writers such as Anthony Burgess, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher Hitchens as no slouches in this department.

English has been described as a whoreish language, in that it will copulate and reproduce with every other language on earth without shame or regret.  That’s how we ended up with so many words, so many derivations, such richness of expression.  The French, of all people, find this tendency unseemly, and try to block outside influence, which is one reason why English is now the closest thing we have to a common world tongue. The new Lingua Franca. 

With such an enormous and diverse palette to choose from, it takes discipline to select words that get the immediate job done, though I can’t resist the occasion when a big, fat, juicy splotch of verbal obscurity seems like just the right thing.  It may not always serve the purpose of my writing, but it’s fun. 

Even ineluctable. 


12 September 2022

The Shapes of Names to Be

Jessica Dall
Author Jessica Dall

I bumped into Jessica Dall when I stumbled upon an essay regarding word shapes. I identified when she confessed to being a name nerd. At one time, I’d written a program that harvested 60 000-some names from the web, including numerous details such as meaning, ethnicity, cognates, and variants. One of the basic rules is to avoid giving characters names with the same leading character (which I’ve flagrantly violated in an upcoming AHMM story). But Jessica brought something new (to me). I had to share her with our mystery colleagues.

Jessica Dall is the author of such novels as Forever Bound and The Stars of Heaven. She has written across an array of genres, though her love of history and romance always seems to find a way into her work. Born and raised in southern California, she now resides in Maryland with her husband and daughter. When not living vicariously through her characters, she enjoys travel, crafting, and helping others with their own writing journey.

You can find her on her web site, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

SleuthSayers, I’m pleased to introduce Jessica Dall.

— Leigh

Name Shapes
Jessica Dall


Picking names for characters is both one of my favorite and one of the most annoying parts of character building when I’m starting a new book. On the first hand, I’m a name nerd. I love looking at popularity lists and name meanings, finding things that would fit the setting I’m creating. On the other hand, names can really affect how a reader connects with a character—sometimes on a subconscious level. Even in the real world, a 2003 study by the University of Chicago found that traditionally “White-sounding” names received fifty percent more interview requests than identical resumes with traditionally “Black-sounding” ones. And when it comes to fiction, there is the added pressure of making sure that (1) you don’t break suspension of disbelief by using a name that feels wildly out of place for your setting (sometimes even when they would actually fit. See “the Tiffany problem”) and (2) you don’t trip a reader up while they are reading.

While this latter point can be a problem simple from a name being very complicated (if you have a fantasy character named F’thasheewerbhion, the reader is most likely either going to need to slow down to try to sound it out, breaking the flow of the story, or just think of the character as “F…whatever” the entire book) it can also be an issue with even common names that are easily confused with one another (for example, Alex and Alec).

Jessica Dall – Forever Bound

One thing you quickly learn as an author when you’re ask to do readings is that you need to practice out loud. This isn’t only to make sure you get the delivery right, but it is the only way to make sure you have the right amount to read for your time slot. Everyone’s reading and speaking speeds obviously differ, but it is easily possible to read an extra hundred words a minute in your head than reading aloud— a difference that quickly stacks up in a ten-, fifteen-, or even thirty-minute reading.

Part of the way that people can read so much more quickly in their heads is that brains often take in the “shape” of familiar words and phrases and fill in what should be there are you move forward. This is how even several rounds of professional editing can sometimes not catch typos like missing or repeated words. Your brain is expecting to read “top of the class,” not “top of class,” and skips over the fact that that isn’t what’s on the page. It is because of this phenomenon that some writers suggest not starting character names with the same letter. Where F’thasheewerbhion may become “F-whatever” to keep the reader from needing to sound it out, even a “simple” name like Alan might register mostly as the “A” with the reader’s brain filling in “Alan” much like it fills in the missing “the” above. If there is then a “Alice” on the same page, a reader subconsciously doing this would need to slow down and figure out which character is doing what versus getting caught up in the action.

Jessica Dall - Stars of Heaven

Personally, I don’t subscribe to anything that austere. For example, in my most recent novel, Forever Bound, there is both a Cormac and a Colm. While there is possibly some room for confusion, I felt comfortable using both because they don’t have the same name “shape.” While some readers’ brains may take the first letter and run with it, I find it is more common for people to take in the entire shape of the word, even while reading quickly. Because of that, the issue with Alan and Alice isn’t only that they both start with A, but that the shape of the two names is relatively similar. They are an A followed by a “tall” letter (l) and then close to the same number of “short” letters. This makes them visually very similar to a quick reader. Alternatively, “Cormac” is a C followed by all short letters and “Colm” is a shorter name with a tall letter in the third spot. This makes them more visually different even at first glance.

To note, I also took into consideration the fact that these two characters never share a scene together. This separation also makes it less likely for the reader to get tripped up versus in, say, a quick back and forth dialogue. Similarly, I don’t worry about minor characters who aren’t active players in the story as much as I do those often front and center. For example, in another novel, The Stars of Heaven, I have both a João and a John.

Normally, these would be too visually similar for me to feel comfortable using. However, since João is a very minor character, only ever mentioned a few times in exposition, I wasn’t worried about readers getting confused, and thus I felt free to indulge myself (I specifically made the choice since it means that both characters are more or less named John (João is the Portuguese equivalent). Since the book takes place in the eighteenth century, when John was an exceedingly popular name choice, it seemed fitting. I also found it amusing, since both characters are sailors and so linked by the name).

When it comes to naming characters, though, I always suggest writers pay attention not only to if the name fits their setting, but if it will affect readability. A big part of this is paying attention to name shapes. Namely (pun intended), you should look if two names you are using are similar lengths and have tall (e.g. “l, f, b”) short (e.g. “s, r, o”) or long (e.g. “y, g, p”) letters in similar places. Where it’s relatively easy for readers to keep track of who’s speaking when it’s Anne and Alexander having a conversation, it’s going to force some people to backtrack and lose the flow of the story if it’s Alex and Alec. All those little things really help shape the experience of reading the story in a way many don’t think about.

22 May 2022


Not Eurythmics

Long before I began to write, I realized some words have soft forms and others hard edges, even harsh, jagged teeth. The letter G has a soft feel that alliterates with J, but the hard G means serious business. For example:

glare, goat, glum, gormless, gut, gash, gears, glut, gangster, garage, gag, gasp, guttural, gale, gaffe, gaff
Combine the G with the letter R, then Gr… can sound overly masculine, even violent.
grit, gravel, grind, grubby, grungy, grumpy, grate, grill, grotesque, grab, grope, grease, gross, grim, groan, growl, grunt, grrrr

The sounds– the letters– that follow can soften a word. Examples include:

glen, glade, gorgeous, glorious, giggly, glamorous, girl

The Sound You Hear…

Not Ebonics

The understanding and practice of sounds is called euphonics. It comes to us from the realm of music and poetry, and it refers to the sounds of words. Some words work well together where one word seems to naturally follow another. Contrarily, other words don't sound right when harnessed together. Poets and lyricists treat euphonies as one of their best tools.

Authors also use euphonics, although they may not be aware of it. I pay a lot of attention to names: ethnicity, meaning, type (occupational, place, etc) and the sound. I often try to fit a name with a character’s personality: Is she smart, sly, sensible, seductive, sensuous, soft, sordid, staid, straight-laced, stalwart, or staggeringly strong? I strive to reflect that in the name.

Positive About Negatives

Thanks for a tip from ABA and Sharon pointing me to an article by Joslyn Chase. Chase drew my attention to a book, Euphonics For Writers by Rayne Hall. Among other topics, they point out words beginning with N tend to impart a negative tone. I might add that many, many languages have this same characteristic:

no, nay, nix, non, nein, ne, nee, nej, nie, não, nu, nyet

Not only do words have meaning and inflections carry meaning, but the sounds of words also affect readers and listeners.

If you’ve read Rayne Hall’s book, what is your impression?

14 May 2022

Your Word of the Day Is Panglossian

First of all, if anyone stops you wherever and accuses you of being Panglossian, hit pause. They're guilty of SAT-style, Fancy Pants vocabulary. Fancy Pants needs a stiff drink and mirror time over what they're about. Secondly, and here's where plain language comes in, Panglossian isn't a compliment. It's a warning. Maybe both of y'all need to check yourselves.

To be Panglossian is to remain excessively optimistic against all evidence to the contrary. Failure, consequence, injury, whatever. Adverse outcomes are merely trifles. Signs, actually. Signs of a larger plan in motion and destined to end fabulously. 

No, I didn’t know Panglossian was a word, either. Maybe I did when I prepped for the SAT. That was a few years ago. I happened upon Panglossian on March 9, 2021, when made this their Word of the Day. Panglossian. It's nice on both the eye and tongue. Fun, and I love a fun word. That SAT prep got me into a liberal arts school.

At the risk of further hoity-toity, the word traces back to Voltaire’s Candide (1759). A smash synopsis: Candide and his enthused adventuring companions stumble from satirically bad events to ever worse, no matter what anyone plans next. Candide's friend and tutor, Pangloss, philosophizes away each non-stop disaster--syphilis, violence, loss of personal freedom--as evidence of that larger plan cooking along fine. Our universe, as perfectly created, must always run to perfection.

Wrong. Sometimes, things suck. Sometimes, things are flat terrible, and somebody needs to do something about it right darn now. Pangloss couldn't grasp that--because he couldn't acknowledge flat terrible things. Trapped in his circular pathology, Pangloss never took obvious steps to avert his next disaster. 

Somewhere March 10, 2021 or later, I had an urge to write something Panglossian. I've done stories with folks planning jobs too big for their talents and with folks using doomed perseverance as a defense mechanism. I wanted another level of that. An optimist's optimist, someone all-in on their rose-colored lens no matter what.

I could just whip that up, right? Sure, start ‘em in trouble and make it worse. Then worse again. Dump a whole Freytag's Pyramid on 'em.

Easy as pie. It's a great thing, to be alive and writing.

So I wrote it in one fast sprint. I dropped a first-person character in a bank robbery already gone totally wrong. The cops have the branch surrounded, the driver has wisely taken off, and the rest of the crew are stuck and not seeing eye-to-eye. That set-up could go dark, but noir and optimism aren't two great tastes that taste great together. This had to be a light tale, a comic caper. I've done those. Lots of 'em. Yes, this was going to be terrific.

Draft one had a rough spot. Okay, a big rough spot comprising about 100% of the manuscript, but that's what first drafts are. Rough. Milestones toward final glory.

Sure, I didn't have the POV's name yet, and sure he was emotionally low when he should've hit optimistic highs. This is why there are second drafts (and thirds and fourths and fifths, etc., etc.). All part of the process. Yes, this was going great.

Another smash cut past many more drafts. Which weren't coming together.

I had the premise, the plot, the location, the cast, but I'd rushed past one crucial thing: the character. He wasn't talking to me. Didn't want to. I hadn't respected that this was his story, too. So I did something I rarely do. I asked him to answer a few background questions for me. Forget what's on the manuscript page. Let's rap. He leapt to share who he was, his whole life story and why it drew out the optimist in him. There were only two last drafts before the version Mystery Magazine picked up.

I can be too optimistic. I am perfectly capable of under-engineering a story. I'm also capable of recognizing flat terrible things and working them into shape. It's that liberal arts education. They taught me to better myself.

We can all learn. We can all challenge our work to another level. Rewards await, rewards that escaped Pangloss. If nothing else, we'll rest easy knowing that Fancypants won't have this vocabulary zinger against us.

19 February 2022

Deja Vu All Over Again . . . One Last Time

Today I'm doing something different: I'm posting a column that was previously featured almost ten years ago at this blog. I wrote and ran "Deja Vu All Over Again" in April 2012, less than a year after several of us former Criminal Briefers established SleuthSayers, and although the subject of this post is not original, I think it still applies to the fiction we write. Anyhow, since I've run into some unexpected health problems at the moment, I'm falling back on this reprint, and I hope to be up and functioning again shortly. If you remember reading this post I hope you'll indulge me in my repetition, especially since this is a column about repetition, and if you don't remember reading it I hope you'll find it informative. -- JF

Driving home from the post office the other day, I heard a newsman on National Public Radio say someone "shared something in common" with someone else. That bothered me. Not enough to make me switch to a rap or gospel music station, but it did bother me. I've forgotten exactly who he said was sharing something in common with whomever, but to use an example based on a Grisham book I'm currently reading, if you and your father are both baseball fans, you either share a love of baseball or you and your father have that in common. You don't share it in common, and if you say you do you've created a redundancy

This kind of error can be forgiven more easily in speech than in writing. Writers are supposed to know better, and to pay attention to things like that. (So are NPR newscasters, actually.) Not that I am guiltless. Right here at this blog, I recently used the term added bonus. That's a bit silly. If it's a bonus, it is by definition added, and to use both words is redundant. And in real life I'm always talking about something happening the exact same way it happened earlier. Other phrases I use a lot are final outcome, free gift, and plan ahead. Imagine how much time I would save and how much smarter I would sound if I cut out the words exact, final, free, and ahead

Alternative choices

I know what you're thinking. Sometimes phrases containing redundancies are used intentionally, to add emphasis. Examples might be completely surrounded, truly sincere, each and every, definite decision, cease and desist, direct confrontation, forever and ever, etc. Redundancies also come into play when using certain abbreviations, like UPC code, HIV virus, please RSVP, DOS operating system, and AC current. My favorite is PIN number. But I still use the term. The technically correct PI number just wouldn't roll off the tongue well. 

A working awareness of this kind of thing can be handy to writers, because cutting out redundancies provides us with yet another way to "write tight." An argument can even be made that such common and inoffensive phrases as sit down, stand up, nod your head, and shrug your shoulders are literary overkill as well, and do nothing except add extra words. Why not just say (or write) sit, stand, nod, and shrug? Where else would you stand but up? What else would you shrug except your shoulders?

Unintentional mistakes

Even if you're not a writer, here are a few more redundancies that come to mind:

  • twelve noon
  • sum total
  • commute back and forth
  • mental telepathy
  • advance reservations
  • drowned to death
  • merge together
  • observe by watching
  • armed gunman
  • visible to the eye
  • for all intents and purposes
  • hot-water heater
  • overexaggerate
  • false pretense
  • hollow tube
  • fictional novel
  • disappear from sight
  • myself personally
  • a prediction about the future
  • safe haven
  • during the course of
  • regular routine
  • a variety of different items
  • filled to capacity
  • pre-recorded
  • a pair of twins
  • unexpected surprise
  • the reason is because
  • originally created
  • red in color
  • few in number
  • poisonous venom

could also mean a pair of twins

Do you ever find yourself using these, or similar, phrases when you speak? More importantly, do you embarrass yourself by using them when you write? I try to watch out for--and correct--them in my own manuscripts, but I'm sure some of them manage to make it through intact. Can you think of others that I neglected to mention? Are there any that you find particularly irritating?

The end result

Time for a confession, here. I will probably (and happily) continue to use many of these redundancies in everyday conversation, and even in writing if they're a part of dialogue. Sometimes they simply "sound right." But I wouldn't want to use them in a column like this one. 

In point of fact, lest any of you protest against forward progress, past history reveals the unconfirmed rumor that a knowledge of repetitious redundancy is an absolute essential and that the issue might possibly grow in size to be a difficult dilemma. If there are any questions to be asked about the basic fundamentals, I'll be glad to revert back and spell it out in detail. And even repeat it again. 

Or maybe postpone it until later. 

Hoping to be back with you in two weeks.

05 February 2022

Why Tock-Tick Doesn't Sound Right

For today's post, I'm using something my wife told me she saw on Facebook the other day. As you know, some FB posts aren't exactly worthwhile and/or entertaining. (I'm sure some of mine aren't.) I thought this one was both.

I saw no byline on the following, but it was posted at the For Reading Addicts site, and they said it came from an unnamed BBC article. Some of the piece sounds correct and some sounds a little iffy, but I found it interesting. I love this kind of thing anyway.

Here it is:


Ever wondered why we say tick-tock, not tock-tick, or ding-dong, not dong-ding; King Kong, not Kong King? Turns out it is one of the unwritten rules of English that native speakers know without knowing. 

The rule, explains a BBC article, is: "If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip-top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

There's another unwritten rule at work in the name Little Red Riding Hood, says the article. 

"Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you'll sound like a maniac.

That explains why we say "little green men," not "green little men," but "Big Bad Wolf" sounds like a gross violation of the "opinion (bad)-size (big)- noun (wolf)" order. It won't, though, if you recall the first rule about the I-A-O order.

That rule seems inviolable: "All four of a horse's feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip."

This rule even has a technical name, if you care to know it--the rule of ablaut reduplication--but then life is simpler knowing that we know the rule without knowing it.

One thing I'm not sure about is the part about the order of multiple adjectives. Maybe opinion-size-age-etc. is the preferred order, but saying the adjectives have to be in that order sounds a little tock-tick to my ears. And the supposed rule that the order has to go I, A, O for three-worders sounds funky also. Big Bad Wolf indeed fits the bill, but Little Orphan Annie, sweet Mother Mary, big fat liar, Jolly Green Giant, little old lady, etc., don't. Maybe the I, A, O sequence just sounds more pleasing to the ear.

I should add the fact that I did locate the article from which the FB post appears to have been taken--"Ablaut Reduplication," written two years ago by Romit Limbu, at ALM Translations--and, to be fair, the original article does say there are exceptions to the adjective-order rule.

What do you think about all this? Comments welcome!

P. S. Maybe you would say Kong King in a roll call. ("Present," he roared . . .)

21 March 2021

50+ Troublesome Words and Phrases

Leigh Lundin

My friend/editor Sharon sent me an article titled ’43 Embarrassing Grammar Mistakes Even Smart People Make’. I’ve become complacent about these lists– Velma says smug. Most of the usual suspects were there, but to my surprise, I found a couple I hadn’t given thought to.

Unthawing Foreign Relations

One was the word unthaw. I’ve heard others use it without setting off my grammar alarm. I don’t think I’ve used it, but now it’s on my radar. To unthaw literally means to freeze. Yikes!

Emigrate (which I’ve included in the list below with immigrate) requires the preposition ‘from’, although we can optionally include the destination ‘to’. Likewise, immigrate necessitates the preposition ‘to’, although we may choose to include ‘from’. For example,

  • She immigrated to Canada (from Angola).
  • She emigrated from Angola (to Canada).


I’ve long been nonplussed and dismayed and, yes, gobsmacked that the Oxford English Dictionary insists that silly Americans misuse ‘nonplussed’ (surprised) to mean its opposite (unperturbed). In my unscientific polls amongst uneducated citizenry, I’ve met only one person who hit upon the wrong meaning, but admitted he didn’t actually know what the word meant. Chew on that, OED!

juvenile flounder
juvenile flounder © Wikipedia

mature flounder
mature flounder © Wikipedia

Bagging the Question

I attended a Latin school where rhetoric, logic, and debate were taught. One of the trickier concepts to master was ‘beg the question’, which assumes an assertion as fact without laying the foundation for it. I’ve notice more commentators and newscasters using ‘beg the question’ to mean ‘ask the question’, including the acme of academia, the world-renown BBC. Recalling my schoolhood efforts to pin down the original concept, I have some sympathy for those without the benefit of rhetoric, logic, and debate, but I recommend avoiding the phrase altogether. Eschew on that, Miss Arthur!


À propos of nothing, my Aunt Rae noted the difference between prostitute and prostrate was the difference between a fallen lady versus one who temporarily lost her balance. And then we have the serious matter of prostate. If nothing else manages to kill a man, his prostate will!

How to Catch a Flounder (without Baited Breath)

Too often when people speak of a person or project that stumbles or sinks, they say it ‘flounders’ (a fish) instead of ‘founders’. This particular fish is unusual. When it’s young, it swims upright like most other fish. But when it matures, it sinks into the bottom, blending in with the sea floor. There it performs a slow-motion magic trick, distorting its own head and body to suit its environment. Its eyes migrate to the new upper surface and its mouth usually twists in the opposite direction. It may look like it’s about to founder, but it’s only a flounder.

50+ Often Misused Words and Non-Words

Confused Words
    Words in the left column of this first group aren’t necessarily wrong. They bear review because they’re often confused with those in the right column.
adopt (take up, take on, assume) adapt (change to meet conditions)
adverse (unfavorable) averse (opposed to)
bemused (confused) amused (entertained)
disinterested (impartial) uninterested (uncaring)
enormity (evil, wickedness) enormous (huge)
flounder (a fish) founder (break down, sink)
i.e. (id est: that is) e.g. (exempli gratia: for example)
infer (deduce) imply (intimate)
inflammable (burnable) nonflammable (not burnable)
jive (dance, talk) jibe (match)
literally (actually) figuratively (metaphorically)
nauseous (sickening) nauseated (sickened)
prostrate (prone) prostate (gland)
review (examine, reassess) revue (theatrical entertainment)
sympathy (understanding) empathy (intuiting another’s feelings)
trooper (soldier, state police) trouper (persist uncomplainingly)
under way (moving along, travelling) under weigh (lifting anchor)
  • Never use apostrophes for pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, its.
  • Omit apostrophes in collective proper nouns such as family names, as in “the Kennedys”.
  • Either use double apostrophes or omit them altogether for nouns that might be confused. “She dotted her ‘i’s and crossed her ‘t’s.” Alternatively, “The third measure of the musical score contained three Gs and an A.
  • Omit apostrophes when specifying an era such as a century or decade. “The most popular song of 1929 was Makin' Whoopee and 1930’s was ‘In the Mood’, but ‘Over the Rainbow’ topped the 1930s.”
its (possessive) it's (contraction: it is)
Smith’s (possessive) Smiths (collective noun)
VIPs (plural) ‘A’s and ‘B’s (plural)
1960’s (possessive) 1960s (era, decade)
    These phrases concern superfluous wording, excess verbiage that add nothing and dull their sentences. I’ve probably used “tenth-year anniversary” without realizing it.
first-year anniversary ✘ first anniversary
hot water heater ✘ water heater
red in color ✘ red
large in size ✘ large
political in nature ✘ political
Prepositional Requirements
    Discussed above, these two words require certain prepositions. Emigrate implies leaving one’s country and generally requires ‘from’, especially if ‘to’ is present. Immigrate implies entering a new residency and requires the target ‘to’, particularly if ‘from’ appears. Some uses require no prepositions at all: “He plans to emigrate.”
emigrated to ✘ emigrated from
immigrate from ✘ immigrate to
Incorrect Usage
    The following common nonsensical words and incorrect phrases include misspellings and misunderstandings. That said, many of us would like to apply “nipped in the butt” from time to time.
baited breath ✘ bated breath
boldface lie ✘ baldface lie
chalk full ✘ chock full
chock it up ✘ chalk it up
could care less ✘ couldn’t care less
dark-complected ✘ dark-complexioned
deep-seeded ✘ deep-seated
do diligence ✘ due diligence
expresso ✘ espresso
extract revenge ✘ exact revenge
free reign ✘ free rein
honed in on ✘ homed in on
irregardless ✘ regardless
jerry-rigged ✘ jury-rigged
make due ✘ make do
mute issue/point/question ✘ moot
nip in the butt ✘ nip in the bud
peak my interest ✘ pique my interest
per say ✘ per se
perview ✘ purview
piece of mind ✘ peace of mind
shoe-in ✘ shoo-in
should of, would of ✘ should have, would have
slight of hand ✘ sleight of hand
sneak peak ✘ sneak peek
through the ringer ✘ through the wringer
tie me over ✘ tide me over
tow the line ✘ toe the line
unthaw ✘ thaw
wet the appetite ✘ whet the appetite
worse comes to worse ✘ worse comes to worst

Do you find any of these troublesome?

What addition would you make?

22 November 2020

100 Words

Leigh Lundin

Both Sharon and ABA happened to send articles about old and little used words. That set off research into other candidates that might prove useful in historical stories and even insert playfulness or elocution (there’s a word not heard anymore) in ordinary writing.

Following is a random selection. A few, such as those beginning with ‘fiddle’, I wouldn’t miss outside an English cosy.

Worry not. I don’t expect you to look up each entry. If you hover your mouse over a word, you should see its meaning.

accouchement cordwainer gallivant pantywaist
affright coxcomb glabriety peregrinate
appetency cutpurse gobsmacked persnickety
avaunt d’accord gyve picaroon
balderdash davenport habiliment poppycock
baloney delate hoodwink ragamuffin
bamboozled discombobulated hotrod rapscallion
barnstormer disport hullabaloo rigmarole
bejeebers doohicky humbug shenanigans
beldam éclaircissement jalopy skedaddle
bijoux egads jargogle skewwhiff
bloomers facinorous kerfuffle sweeting
bodkin fainéant kibosh tenterhooks
brabble farthing knave thingamebob
britches feminal knickknack thingamyjig
bruit fiddle-dee-dee knucklehead thunderation
buttonhook fiddle-faddle lollygag tomfoolery
caterwauling fiddlesticks lurdan trigon
catawampus fizgig magdalen varlet
chesterfield flabbergasted malarkey whatchamacallit
churchkey flibberty-jibbit malapert whatsit
codger flim-flam moxie whosemegadget
concoction flummoxed nimrod willy-nilly
confuzzled frore nincompoop wishywashy
contumely fuddy-duddy numbskull yclept

The word ‘nimrod’ has lost its original Biblical meaning, that of a sharpshooter or an outstanding hunter. It’s now used as an insult. A young acquaintance succinctly explained, “a numnutz.”

Bonus Word: Izzard

You may know the letter Z as ‘zee’ or ‘zed’, but once upon a time as early as 1726, Z was called ‘izzard’.  Samuel Johnson featured the word izzard in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. The expression “A to izzard” means “from beginning to end.”

Bonus Word: Trumpery

Trumpery is defined as (adj) showy but worthless, attractive but of little value or use; delusive or shallow; (n) practices or beliefs superficially or visually appealing but of little real value or worth.

16 August 2020

Professional Tips – The Deadwords

graphic of the word 'deadword'

Facts and Artifacts

Deadwords, like deadwood, take up space but offer little useful. In the negative space graphic above, your eye thinks it sees a word or two that aren’t there. Deadwords introduce noise, dim and distracting dreck that shouldn’t be there. Authors want to move from empty words to more powerful, robust, descriptive writing.

I find it useful to review deadwords and weak words, those bits that clutter writing and dull the senses. I manage to avoid the usual suspects, e.g, some, very, nice, etc, but not so well at others appearing on recent lists: as, like, then, and so on. My bad habits need reminders. Professional colleagues know these tips, but beginning writers might find some of the following useful.

As mentioned before, I know no other crime writers in Central Florida– most are too sensible to congregate in a coronavirus hotspot. Without fellow mystery enthusiasts, I exchange editing with local romance writers. (Hi, Haboob and Sharon.) Whew! I bet my instruction in anatomy is more fun than most mystery authors.

Romancing the Own

Haboob drew my attention to a word not in the list below, ‘own’, as in ‘my own writing’. I used it everywhere– his own, her own, their own instead of simple his, hers, and theirs. In ordinary conversation, I seem to use it as an intensive, an unnecessary one. While that guy Shakespeare got away with, “To thine own self be true,” ‘own’ sucks the lifeblood out of my sentences.

In turn, I found the words ‘breath’ and ‘breathe’ cropping up far too often in the ladies’ romance works. They have good reason– the thesaurus suffers from a paucity of alternative non-technical words. Consider:
She breathed in his scent. Her breath stopped when his fingertips traced her bare skin.
Other than the words ‘pant’ and ‘wheeze’ (Feel the romance!) what substitutes can they use?
She aspirated into her lungs the molecules of his scent. Her inhalation and exhalation respiration terminated when…
Nahh… What’s a girl writer to do? (Leave brilliant suggestions in the comments so I can look like a genius at the next editing session.)

In the following list, I’m not including verbal tics and the clichés in current conversations, such as store clerk acknowledgements, “Perfect,” instead of “Thank you.”

be/is/are/was/were/will be
down/up on/in
(have) got
(a) lot
of course
one of
start/begin to
used to


Many words made the list because they’re weak or indefinite. Further to this…
Down/Up, on/in/into
This refers to extraneous coupling of prepositions. “She climbed up into the attic before descending down into the depths of the basement.” Simply: “She climbed into the attic before descending into the depths of the basement.”
Quite, rather
Victoria and Edwardian literature dominated our home library, so both ‘quite’ and ‘rather’ sound normal to my ears, but virtually no one else’s. *delete*
See, saw, look, think, feel
“When she began to look at some of his writing, she felt certain words could weaken sentences, but she couldn’s see how to find a solution.” Simply: “When she looked at his writing, certain words weakened sentences, but she couldn’s find a solution.”
It/there, is/was/were/will be
“There are many examples in literature,” can be reworded “Examples abound in literature.” Jane Austen came up with the cleverest opening line in romance literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” She pulled it off. Me, I should stick to basics.
Shakespeare, Jane Austen… who knew where this was headed! Colorful writing… did we achieve it?

graphic of the word 'word'

John Floyd would be proud of a SleuthSayer coining a compound— ‘deadword’.

02 February 2020

When Opposites Repel

Leigh Lundin

Recently, we brought you an outrageous example of those Brexit colonialists claiming North Americans misuse ‘nonplussed’ to mean ‘unperturbed’ rather than ‘confused surprise’. Hmmph.

Thus nonplussed, I brought in the legendary James Lincoln Warren to sort out the word ‘belie’ in the same article. Today, we hope to render you further nonplussed with a list of forty dastardly contronyms, words with opposite meanings. Let’s have at it.

The ⇆ Glossary

The subject gives lie to the object; the object gives lie to the subject.
Having money (currency); owing money or seeking money owed.
To flee; to hold together.
Head toward a destination, restrained from heading anywhere.
To fasten or join together; to collapse under pressure.
Praising an act; issuing summons for an illegal act.
To adhere together; to split apart.
To fasten together with a paperclip; to detach with shears.
To seek advice; to give advice.
A common practice; a unique bespoke item.
To apply a fine power; to remove fine powder.
One or the other; both (original meaning; i.e, surrounded on either side).
To order someone to act; to prohibit someone from acting.
Firmly fixed, unmovable; unattached and able to move quickly.
Completed; wrecked, destroyed.
Creation (company, city); destruction (sink, go lame, fail).
To add or enhance (foods); to seize or withhold (wages).
An advantage to equalize (golf); disadvantage rendering equality difficult.
To rent property; to offer property for rent.
To remove oneself from a location; to be left behind in a location.
Departed; remained behind.
Precisely and concretely; figuratively (through misuse).
Original upon which others are based; a copy.
Not operating (i.e, lights went off); operating (alarm went off).
A fresh idea; an old notion.
Visible (stars are out); invisible (lights are out).
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
Overseeing Lookout Mountain
© courtesy Town of
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
See to; fail to see.
To repeat an action; to not perform an action at all.
To skim; to read carefully (original meaning).
To separate; to become entangled.
To lease; to offer property for lease.
To approve an act; to punish an act.
To hide, obscure; to show (a film).
To add seed (to a lawn); to remove seed (from a melon).
To hit; to not hit (a baseball).
Invisible; obvious.
To add (decorations). to remove (hair).
A particular type; many types.
To endure; to deteriorate.
To withstand or endure; to be worn away.
Note: I have not included word combinations and phrases such as ‘back up’, ‘hold up’, ‘go off’, ‘out of’, ‘throw out’, and ‘wound up’ that can imply their own opposites.

Confused? My job’s complete. Can you think of others?