Monthly Archives: July 2015

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.

Save the Preaching for the Sunday Sermon

As a writer, you more than likely have strong opinions. And more than likely, a majority of your writing will stem from those strong opinions. You might write dystopian sci-fi to warn your fellow man of the dangers of our all becoming Cylons, or you might write fantasy stories that act out the consequences of chauvinism. Or, alternately, you might write literary fiction concerning some awful social injustice.

This is good–illustrating the human experience is the point of art. But in each piece like this, you run a risk: the risk of preaching.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from imagining a dystopian future to preaching? Usually, you’ll create a character, probably older and jaded, into whose mouth you’ll put long speeches to explain why the world has gone or is going to hell.

You know what? That’s boring.

Stranger in a Strange Land
A prime example of a character who does little besides preach is Robert A. Heinlein’s Jubal in Stranger in a Strange Land. This classic starts off in typical Heinlein fashion, all story. At some point, however, Heinlein begins using the story as a platform for preaching–largely through the (older and jaded) character of Jubal.

Throughout most of the book, Jubal goes on long-winded rants about society, art, religion, and endless other subjects. Are they on target? Yes, these speeches certainly are. As a reader and artist, I agreed with the speeches. But did I find them interesting? Not at all. Did they move the story along? Not at all.

And that’s the risk you run with preaching in a story. When you stop relying on the action in the story to do the work and instead put your ideas into sermons Father O’Shaughnessy would approve of, you’re really not doing anything artistic—you’re just ranting, and because the speeches have little action to back them up, your readers won’t be inclined to agree with you. Worse, they may abandon the book altogether.

It’s definitely true that a piece of fiction must enlighten readers. But it’s even more true that a piece of fiction must entertain. Honestly, nobody is going to enjoy reading a book that does little besides preach at you. And if your readers don’t enjoy your work, who on Terra is going to learn from it?

Pardon Me, But Your Modifier Is Dangling

We’ve all heard the term “dangling modifier,” but what is a dangling modifier?

A dangling modifier is a misplaced phrase that seems, inappropriately, to modify a sentence, usually because you have written the sentence in a passive tense or left out the object of the phrase. It’s called a “dangling” modifier because it’s left dangling in the sentence, its object nowhere to be seen.

For example, if I write,

Turning the corner, the hermit’s hut was before me,

then the phrase “turning the corner” appears to modify “the hermit’s hut.” The sentence reads as if the hermit’s hut did the corner-turning!

How would I fix this? Follow the dangling modifier up with a reference to the person, animal, object, or what have you that the modifier is about. For example, I would fix my above example in this way:

Turning the corner, I saw the hermit’s hut before me.

I rewrote the sentence in an active voice, and I also immediately followed the action of turning the corner with a reference to the character who turned the corner.

Let’s try another example:

Listing to one side, the wake of the great sea serpent rocked the longship.

Sea serpent.Is the wake of the sea serpent listing to the side? No, the longship is, but you wouldn’t know this from the example.

To fix it, once again I must follow the introductory phrase with its object.

Listing to one side, the longship rocked in the wake of the sea serpent.

As usual, don’t worry about dangling modifiers as you’re drafting, but when you’re rewriting and revising, keep a lookout for these suckers. Their comical effect can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing.

Ain’t Got No Time for Good Grammar–When It’s Okay to Use Poor Grammar

Believe it or not, there are times in your writing when you should use poor grammar.

Yes, really!

South Park Hillbilly BrigadeIn what situations? Usually, you might use poor grammar in order to better convey a character. For example, let’s say your character is a backwards, uneducated slob named Rollo. Rollo is visiting an alien planet for the first time—perhaps a cosmopolitan pleasure planet. He’s shocked and frightened by the forwardness of the aliens on this planet, and he doesn’t know what to make of them. Which bit of dialogue would better convey Rollo’s character?

Then the tall, blue-skinned alien set down a frosty glass of Uxorian ale. “Why don’t you try this?” the alien said to Rollo. “It might help you see things on our planet differently.”

”Did you drug that drink?” Rollo asked, narrowing his eyes. “I won’t understand you savages simply because I had a glass of ale. Nothing about this planet makes sense to me—I doubt a drink will change that.”

Or:

Then the tall, blue-skinned alien set down a frosty glass of Uxorian ale. “Why don’t you try this?” the alien said to Rollo. “It might help you see things on our planet differently.”

”You slip some kinda roofie in that?” Rollo asked, narrowing his eyes. “I ain’t gonna understand you savages just ‘cause I had one of your fancy drinks. Ain’t nothing about this planet makes sense to me, and no drink is gonna change that.”

In the first example, in which I put good grammar in Rollo’s mouth, he sounds educated, urbane. Perhaps still too conservative, but certainly not the backwards slob we were hoping to convey.

In the second example, in which I put poor grammar in Rollo’s mouth, he sounds utterly sheltered, more suspicious of the Uxorians, more prone to paranoia, even more close-minded.

In your writing, do not strive for good grammar over the sake of effect. If a character is uneducated, then let his grammar reflect that. This does not mean to make him sound stupid–indeed, a lack of education and intelligence aren’t really correlated. But on the other hand, he should not sound as if he went to Oxford. Likewise, if a character is an Oxford graduate who uses pretentiously good grammar, with an inappropriately vast vocabulary, then let her sound ridiculous. Don’t tie yourself so tightly to good grammar that your characters can never have a personality of their own-—as with children, you must allow them to fly the nest.

No Dumping: Establish Conflict in the Very First Sentence

How do you start a story? Do you, like many writers, meander around like this?

The day promised to be warm and sunny, another clear, orange day on the alien planet. Lucrezia rose early, and after bathing in the spring near the pod, she contemplated what to have for breakfast. So many of the large, crested, birdlike creatures roosted in the giant trees near the landing site that she imagined she could find some of their eggs to eat.

Today, Lucrezia decided as she shimmied up the nearest tree in search of eggs, she would fix the ship’s Universal Translator. She had not come across any inhabitant of this unknown planet, but she had found elf bolts near the spring the day before. In her travels, she had come across so many different types of aliens. . . .

And so on. What’s the point of these paragraphs? Do they introduce a conflict? No. Does anything happen? No. Do they do anything but info dump? No.No dumping!

Conflict is essential in storytelling; without a conflict, whether inner or external, a story is just not interesting and reads more like an anecdote. And the most essential aspect of the opening lines of a story, whether short or long, is to establish that conflict.

So start with the problem. You don’t have to give away the ending, but you do have to let your readers know from the very first sentence that trouble is brewing. For example, what if Lucrezia found one of those elf bolts buried in a suspiciously human-looking skull?

Now that begins a story.