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

01 December 2013

Professional Tips: Empty Words

by Leigh Lundin

As I grew more proficient at writing and heeded advice not to be overly wordy, especially with modifiers, I began to notice a few words that could be deleted, changing the sentence's meaning little or none at all. Pardon these exaggerated examples:
I certainly somewhat quite like M&Ms, mostly just the red ones.
Translation: I like red M&Ms.
She was very upset that her car somehow couldn't get any traction.
Translation: She was upset her car couldn't get traction.
Somehow they ambled about, very much as if cows, dumb as ever, could ever think.
Translation: The cows ambled dumbly, not as if they could think.
Empty Words

I began to think of these as 'empty words', hollow modifiers with little meaning. Granted, 'very' and 'really' act as intensives, but how useful are they? That question "How useful" is a key that can be applied to any modifier, but for 'empty words', the answer is often: "not at all."

If you say, "He buttered a certain slice of toast," does its particularity matter to the reader? If the answer's no, then the word does nothing but consume space and time– it only slows the story.

As I worked, I compiled a list of empty words and added to it adverbs of marginal utility.

Empty Words


The word 'that' is a special case. The word can be used as an adverb, a pronoun, a determiner, and a conjunction. We're primarily interested in the conjunction, but the adverb is worth a glance:

Adverb form: Jackson wasn't that drunk.
Conjunction: She said that she was sick.

Inspect the adverbial form of 'that' with an eye toward modifying. Use the conjunction only for clarity to set off confusing clauses, but otherwise avoid it. Deleting 'that' in the second sentence doesn't change the meaning at all.

Fat Words

Not long ago, I came across a list of 'fat words', sort of weasel words used as 'grey noise' in conversations, e.g: "Generally, I don't believe in politics and often I almost nearly always refuse to discuss it."

Many words in these lists can be used legitimately, but they often find themselves employed in writing or dialogue where they add dead weight to stories and drag them to a crawl. I added the word 'hopefully' to the existing list as another common 'filler'.

Be wary of other kinds of padding such as big in size or red in color. Santa is simply big and red.

Fat Words


It's difficult to write this article without using the words I complain about! What are your most annoying empty words and fat phrases?

The ƒ Word

One obvious word doesn't appear on these lists. More often than not, swear words are part of conversational 'grey noise'. But they're sometimes used as intensives, and the way they're used can reveal character– or lack of character.

I've long wanted to use a conversation from long ago, but I haven't come across the right story for it. I won't confess which line I spoke in the conversation that went like this:

"I ƒ-ing missed you."
"And vice versa!"

24 October 2013

A Question of Grammar

by Eve Fisher

In the course of a misspent life, I've noticed that words are tricky things. Slippery. Even though most people think they know exactly what words mean, what a passage means, what this SAYS - well, maybe not. There are two main reasons for this:

(1) We all interpret everything we read, hear, or say through the filter of our own separate minds, and we can never QUITE get across what is in our minds.

EXAMPLE: I taught (briefly) a creative writing class, and the first exercise I did was say words, and have everyone write down the image it conjured in their minds. Then we compared images. "Apple" was represented by Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, the Apple record logo and, of course, the computer. So much for precision in language - choosing the exact word that everyone will understand the same way...

(2) The actual grammar of language, learned as infants, coded almost into our DNA, leads to far more ambiguity than anyone ever talks about.

I have a lot of examples for the second one, which I personally think is very important. Some of it comes from when I put myself through undergraduate school by teaching ESL classes. I taught Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian, Vietnamese, and Puerto Rican students, and in the course of teaching them English, I learned a lot about my language, their languages, language in general.

English has the largest vocabulary on the planet, because we have incorporated, adopted, and stolen words from every culture we've run across. This gives us a huge array of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives to choose from. So many, that foreign students often got fed up. Just take a look at Roget's Thesaurus some time to understand why.

English has an obsession with time. Most languages make do with simple present, simple past, simple future, conditional past/conditional future (woulda/coulda/shoulda), and the imperfect past (the way things USED to be). English laughs at that simplicity, and slices and dices time until we swim like a fish in a multi-dimensional chronology that we take for granted. The prime example is that English (as far as I know) is the only language with three - count them, THREE - present tenses: I do. I do that often. I am doing it right now. I eat. I eat here often. I am eating. Drove students crazy, and they usually just stuck to the simple present, because they could never figure out the others.

But English is sweet when it comes to nouns, because we don't gender them. ALL our nouns are gender-free. The book; the chair; the woman; the man. All European languages, of course, decline nouns (changing the end depending on where it stands in the sentence) and they also gender nouns - they are male, female, and (sometimes) neuter. What this means is that the pronoun you use after you use the noun must match the gender of the noun. This is a piece of cake in English: I took the book to the library, where I gave it to the librarian. But in French, it would be I took the (male) book to the library, where I gave HIM to the librarian. Well, what's the big whoop about that, you might ask? Allow me to provide an example where changing the pronoun changes the meaning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5, King James Version)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Au commencement était la Parole, et la Parole était avec Dieu, et la Parole était Dieu. Elle était au commencement avec Dieu. Toutes choses ont été faites par elle, et rien de ce qui a été fait n'a été fait sans elle. En elle était la vie, et la vie était la lumière des hommes. La lumière luit dans les ténèbres, et les ténèbres ne l'ont point reçue. (John 1:1-5, Louis Segond version)

Or, to translate it literally from French to English [my emphasis added], "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. SHE was in the beginning with God. All things were made by HER, and nothing of what was made was made without HER. In HER was the life and the life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not receive HER."

A slight difference. With implications. For one thing (aside from all questions of faith or Catholic doctrine) I think it helps explain the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and the concept (later doctrine) of Mary as Mediatrix of all the graces.

On a lighter note, my favorite example of differences in translation:

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (KJV, Matt. 5:5)
"Heureux les débonnaires, car ils hériteront la terre!" (Louis Segon, MAtt. 5:5)
Let me assure you, les debonnaires are not the meek... they are the good-natured, the easy going. THEY will inherit the earth, at least in France!

Pronouns matter; words matter; grammar matters. Think about that the next time you read a Maigret, or a Steig Larsson - or the next time someone tells you, "just do what it says."

PS:  By the way, the fact that all of the quotes above are from the Bible is in no way deliberate - it's just that the Bible has about the only books that I've read both in French & English.  Almost all the other books that I have read in French, I have only read in French.

31 December 2012

Five Red Herrings IV

1.  Scientists find cure for writer's block

Well, not really.  But my advice to anyone struggling for an idea: go to this collection of photographs captured by the Google Street View cameras.  Pick one at random, and write an explanation of what you are seeing, and what happened next.  Extra credit: start with one photo and finish with another.

2.  Word needed

There are wonderful terms for certain quirky errors of speech: spoonerisms, maleprops, mondegreens.  I suggest we need one for the weirdities that autocorrect and spellchecks occasionally throw our way.  Maybe: malcorrects?  For instance, I had a tough police chief unholster his gun.  Microsoft word suggested that he might upholster his gun instead.  Gave me a whole new insight into the guy.

3.  Rube Goldberg meets John Dillinger

If you don't read Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine website (and why not?) you probably missed this feature from Cracked Magazine: The Six Most Needlessly Overcomplicated Crimes Ever Planned.  Reminds me of a dream I had once about breaking a man out of prison by filling a fast food restaurant with Jell-o.  No, I have no idea how that was supposed to work.

4.  Her Little Corner

And while I am plugging websites I hope you are all reading Sandra Seamans' My Little Corner.  Not only intelligent commentary on the mystery field, but a great source of marketing information.

5. A glorious opportunity

Are you a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society?  Free to join.  All you have to do is subscribe to the list.  Join by the end of the year (that is, TODAY) and you can vote on the Derringer Award nominees in a few months.  Think of the power!  The glory!  The chance to read some really good stories.  Cheers.

22 August 2012

The Name Is Familiar

I recently stumbled over a book in our library called WORD PEOPLE, by Nancy Caldwell Sorel.  The first thing you are likely to notice about the book is that the illustrations are by her husband, the great cartoonist  Edward Sorel.

It is a book about eponyms, people whose names became words.  I was intrigued by how many of them are related to crime.  Some of them will probably be familiar to you, others not, so try to guess them before you read the definition.  I’ll start with the easiest.

Joseph Guillotin – He did not invent the world’s fastest haircut machine; he merely popularized it in France just as a whole lot of people were about to get de-lifed..  Dr Guillotin noted that noblemen were executed by sword, while peasants were hung, and suggested that it would be both more egalitarian and more merciful if all convicted criminals were decapitated.  The first guillotine was a bargain at 300 francs, plus another 20 for a bag to catch the head..

Sir Robert Peel -  Founder of the London police force, gave us the word Bobby.

Henry Deringer – Inventer of the banjo.  Just kidding.  His small gun was so popular that fakes were made in lifetime, including French guns called Derringer, a name that seems to have stuck better than his own.

Captain Charles C. Boycott – Agent for English landlords in Ireland.  Irish leader Charles Parnell said of such people “leave him strictly alone!”  People refused to work for Boycott, or even sell him food.  He and his family had to flee.  Interestingly enough, years after the reform laws the Irish had demanded were passed, Boycott returned to Dublin on a visit, where he was recognized and cheered.  People wanted him to know it had been nothing personal.   

Colonel William Lynch.  According to no less an authority than Edgar Allan Poe, the colonel started a vigilante gang in Pittsylvania, Virginia in 1780, thus giving rise to lynch law, and later to the verb.

William Burke – Irishman of Burke and Hare fame, They killed people in Edinburgh in order to sell their bodies to a medical school for autopsies.  To burke is to smother.

E.C. Bentley – This mystery writer’s middle name was Clerihew, the handle he hung on a form of poetry he created: a quatrain about a person, whose name is the first line.  For example:
E.C. Bentley
To put it gently
Earned no disgrace
With Trent’s Last Case

James Granger -  Never heard this one, but it is fascinating.  Granger was a British clergyman with a rather horrible idea.  His Biographical History of England had no illustrations.  Instead the reader was encouraged to buy OTHER books and slice them up to illustrate your copy of his book.  To grangerize means to mutilate one book in order to create another, ie. I personally prefer Monsieur Guillotin’s contribution.

And here’s one that didn’t make Sorel’s book (possibly because the word is trademarked!) but which I use from time to time.  I’ll bet Dale recognizes it, if no one else does:

Frank Shepard – in 1873 he invented Shepard’s Adhesive Annotations, which allowed attorneys to slap changes or revisions to laws and court cases directly on the page that contained them.  Today lawyers still shepardize  cases by checking Shepard’s Citations or competing services to see if legal opinions have been overruled or otherwise altered.

And here are a few more from the book you might not have thought of as eponyms: quisling, mesmerize, cardigan, derby, sideburn, silhouette, and dunce.