Category Archives: usage

How to Avoid Writing That’s Gone Native

Here’s a sketchy piece of writerly advice to navigate with care: “Write as you speak.”

At first listen, this sounds good, but it’s a plan that can go terribly awry. How so? For most of us, our natural way of speaking is rife with criminally bad grammar, clichés, and stopped and started thoughts. Honestly, when we’re speaking off-the-cuff, most of us sound like middle-school dropouts.

Here, for example, is a snippet of an actual conversation between two students:

Speaker 1: So you don’t need to go borrow equipment from anybody to . . . to do the feet? To do the hooves?

Speaker 2: Oh, we’re going to have to find somewhere, so yeah. Sup, Dana. Are you gonna do the feet today? I’m gonna wait till, like, early in the morning to do this, cuz, I mean, you get so tired. You just—It takes, well, it takes me longer than most people because, you know, I’m not strong, and I’m not as good as somebody that would do it all the time, you know, I mean, uh, I mean, you know, I trim horses and stuff like that, but I mean I’m not like, I’m not, ah, I don’t know how to say it.

Painful to read, isn’t it? But trust me, you sound like that, too. We all do. Those who don’t are as rare as two-dollar bills. Now, I’m pretty sure you can gather that the advice I quoted doesn’t mean you should pepper your writing with “uh” and “I mean,” but here are some warnings to keep in mind:

  • Avoid paragraph-long sentences, particularly those in the stream-of-consciousness style. While the stream-of-consciousness method is brilliant when penned by a Faulkner or an Oates, for most of us, it results in an unreadable mess.
  • Avoid sentences lacking verbs, even if for stylistic effect. I list this one because it has historically been a favorite trick of my very own. To my inner ear, it’s natural-sounding, but every single beta reader I’ve ever had has been puzzled by it.
  • Likewise, avoid sentence fragments. This is another of our habitual spoken tendencies that only render your writing amateurish.
  • Avoid colloquialisms. Example: Until very recently, experts considered the use of “hopefully” in place of “it is hoped” to be a barbarism. While we resort to “hopefully” in speech, it was hoped that we writers would not make the mistake in writing. Alas, I’m afraid we let the grammar experts down, and it is now acceptable. Additionally, avoid “like” when you mean “as if,” “where” when you mean “at which,” and “people” when you mean “others” (or what have you).
  • Avoid trailing sentences (denoted by an ellipsis). As in the conversation transcribed above, our spoken sentences tend to trail off in a cloud of lily-livered uncertainty. Please don’t force your poor characters to sound so confused and unsure.
  • Avoid regionalisms unless you are specifically a regional writer. This means that you shouldn’t refer to turning the lights of as “cutting” the lights off, nor should you refer to “hitting” or “mashing” buttons when you mean pressing. Not sure what your regionalisms are? Welcome to the wonderful world of Wikipedia.

Learning the point at which to draw the line between writing that sounds natural and writing that’s gone native requires a vigilant word-for-word scrutiny of your work in the editing stage – not for the whole picture, and definitely not as an exercise in relishing your own genius. I can’t promise your spoken English will improve, but your writing definitely will.

He Said, She Said: Dialogue Tags

Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition, lists fifty-nine synonyms for “say.” You can declare, assert, and reply; announce, communicate, and utter. So many lovely words to choose from in order to say the same thing!

Do this right now: Take a Sharpie and mark out every single one of these synonyms. Because “say” and its forms are quite sufficient for most dialogue.

Here, for example, is a passage of dialogue from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

”Ho Dink,” Ender said. “Sit.”

”You gold-plated fart,” said Dink cheerfully. “We’re all trying to decide whether your scores up there are a miracle or a mistake.”

”A habit,” said Ender.

”One victory is not a habit,” Dink said.

Orson Scott Card's Ender's GameThe passage goes on, using “said” each time the speaker is quoted. Why didn’t Card mix it up with some declarations, assertions, and communications? Because “say” is a lot like an, and, a, and the. Readers don’t notice the word when it’s used, so it doesn’t get in the way of the flow of the story. In fact, in journalism classes, students are taught to stick to “said” for just this reason.

Let’s see the same passage with a few synonyms replacing “said.”

”Ho Dink,” Ender greeted him. “Sit.”

”You gold-plated fart,” responded Dink cheerfully. “We’re all trying to decide whether your scores up there are a miracle or a mistake.”

”A habit,” replied Ender.

”One victory is not a habit,” Dink rebutted him.

Do you notice those dialogue tags? I certainly do; I trip over them every time.

Try this experiment: take any well-written, contemporary novel, and check out a passage of dialogue. I’m willing to bet you’ll see the dialogue tag “said” used most of the time. And if it’s good enough for those writers, it’ll probably do just fine for you, too.

Complement Your Speech with the Right Word: Misused Words

You probably know all about the difference between their and they’re, but did you know there are hundreds of such wrongly interchanged words?

Today we’re going to look at a few of these—starting with the word “few” itself.

The next time you’re in the express line at the grocery store, check out the sign. Does it say Ten Items or Less, or does it read Ten Items or Fewer? Properly, it should read the latter.

The use of “fewer” applies only to items that can be counted, such as groceries, swords, or Hogwarts students. For example, you might say, “Nestor’s armory contained fewer swords than Musidora’s.” You would never say, “Nestor’s armory contained less swords than Musidora’s.”

You would also say, “I have fewer students in my Defense against the Dark Arts class this semester.” You would never say, “I have less students this semester.”

Clarette in her lime-green tea frock.Alternately, “less” applies to matters of degree, value, or amount. For example, you would say, “The plant Uxoria is less hot than the planet Teito.” You would also say, “I have less money than Eadith.” And finally, you would say, “I have less courage than Clarette, for I would never appear at the prince’s ball in a lime-green frock.”

Here’s another one English speakers commonly confuse—“complementary” and “complimentary.” Complementary generally means that the each of two items provides what the other lacks. So, for example, a witch cooking up a love potion might complement a love herb with a passion herb.

Complimentary, however, means “given free.” That is, you might be given a palm reading for free—a complimentary palm reading. And those free samples at Target on Sunday afternoon? Those are complimentary, too.

One final example: ensure versus insure. “Ensure” means to make certain or sure. So before leaving for vacation on Risa, the Riker family might ensure that the Good Ship Lollipop is secure. Alternatively, Queen Dagmar might ensure that the throne passes to her responsible daughter Josetta instead of to her spendthrift son Newall.

“Insure,” on the other hand, refers to, well, getting insurance. You don’t ensure your engagement ring; you insure it. You do, however, ensure that you get insurance.

Many, many such examples of misused words exist in the English language: comprise versus compose, founder and flounder, reticent versus reluctant, and so forth. But by now you know that our speech is so rife with them that you’d probably like a longer list. And here it is.

If He Had Only Wanted to Fight: The If-Then Clause

Here’s a common grammatical mistake I see: the use of the verb phrase “would have” after an “if” clause. For example, try this: “If Sigwald would have paid more attention to his martial arts training, then we wouldn’t have lost.”

The use of “would have” in a clause introduced by “if” is always, always wrong. Technically speaking, “would have” is a conditional perfect construction, and it just doesn’t belong after an if. Because “would have” expresses a conditional mood, it is used only for hypothetical situations – such as in clauses introduced by “then.”

For example, you would say, “If Sigwald had wanted to fight the invading army, then he would have joined the other men as they swarmed the town walls to pour hot tar on the enemy.”

In that sentence, I am expressing a hypothetical: Sigwald did not fight because he didn’t want to, but hypothetically, if he’d wanted to, then we’d have found him among the ranks.

Notice that in my example sentence, the “would have” applies not to what Sigwald actually did, but to what he might have done, had the situation been different. What he actually did was not want to fight. What he might have done was join the other townsfolk. That’s why I did not use “would have” in conjunction with the “if”: we know already that Sigwald didn’t want to fight. It isn’t conditional at all.

What was conditional in my sentence was the hypothetical outcome of a desire Sigwald clearly did not possess. And since it is hypothetical, I therefore did use the conditional “would have” with the “then” clause.

If this seems confusing, remember that when you are stating in an if clause what a character actually did or did not do – break the alien’s telepathic hold, create a monstrous chimera, or fail to make it to the wormhole in time to get back to the Alpha Quadrant – do not use “would have.” On the other hand, when you are stating the outcome that then did not happen, it is proper to use “would have.”


We Don’t Want None of Your High-Falutin’ Kind Around Here: Abusing the Thesaurus

Ah, the thesaurus. Have you ever taken the time to just page through a copy? So many beautiful words! Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus has fifty-one synonyms for the word “write” alone – such gems as “chalk,” “transcribe,” and “formulate.” The same thesaurus lists twenty-three ways to describe “controversy.” Forty-four terms exist for “literature.” And a whopping fifteen separate entries describe every permutation of the word “take,” each with its own set of synonyms.

The nobility gossiping about Abel.If, like most writers, you love words, then a book or website full of synonyms can make you a bit heady. Why say, “The nobility did not accept Abel as a member because of his boasting,” when you can say “The patricians considered Abel a parvenu because of his rodomontade”? Why say, “Barnum tended to laziness and considered deserting his post,” when you can say, “Barnum tended to faineance and considered tergiversation”?

Why shouldn’t you? Well, honestly, because doing so makes you sound pretentious and leads to what is known as “purple” prose.

Wikipedia defines purple prose as “prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”

As I’ve said before, your number one goal in writing words is to sound natural. You essentially want readers to become so immersed in your words that they forget that they’re reading at all. To that end, any words or turns of speech that you use that fit the definition of purple prose sound contrived and unnatural.

More to the point, they annoy the reader. When you write such productions as “The caliginous water reflected the assassin’s lugubrious visage back to him,” you give the impression that you’re really, really impressed with your own vocabulary and want to show it off.

In some writing classes, such as media writing, you learn that you should write for an audience of about an eighth-grade reading level. If you pay attention to the average news story, you’ll notice that most of them do this. This advice is, however, controversial, with others believing that you should not talk down to your readers.

I personally think that you can use everyday words without “talking down” to readers. As I wrote in my last article, you should always use the most precise word – but never use a word simply for the sake of how impressive-sounding it is. Does “saturnine” really exactly describe Detective Barebones or would “gloomy” convey the same impression? Do you really need to say that Hiberna “circumambulated” or would “wandered” mean the same thing?

Use a thesaurus, whether a book or a website, but don’t abuse it. A good rule of thumb: if you’re grinning to yourself over how smart your sentence sounds, then you probably overdid it. Pare that same sentence back to simple (but exact) words, and if the “smart” sentence is bad in comparison – kill it, even if it kills you.