Domesticating Your Pet Words

Everyone has a word (or two) that they really like to use. I know I do, and every work I have ever edited has one word that just keeps popping up. Some of them are words like ‘thus’ or ‘indeed,’ some are adjectives such as ‘bright’ or ‘luscious,’ but believe me, every writer has at least one. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these words; thus, indeed, bright, and luscious are all perfectly good words with their place in writing. The problem is when they appear everywhere.

It’s difficult to notice in our own writing when we are overusing a word, or even a few different words. An editor will pick up on them, but sometimes you don’t want to hire one for a short document or something that won’t be published; who hires an editor for a cover letter, after all? A friend reading over it might notice them, but most people aren’t trained to look for that kind of thing. So what do you do?

There are a few options available for spotting this kind of thing on your own.

Word frequency counters: There are web-based word frequency counters, like this one from Write Words, in which you paste a selection of text, and it gives you the frequency of each word that appears. Naturally, articles and conjunctions (a, an, and, or, if, etc.) are going to top the list in most cases, but it can give you some insight into the words you use.

Manual search: A bit more time consuming, but available without internet access, you can also pick out individual words from a page and do a ‘find’ using your word processing program. This will give you a total number of times that word appears in your document. This usually works better if you already suspect that you overuse a particular word. If not, you’re going to spend quite a bit of time entering individual words to see what comes up.

Conscious writing: As you write, try to be aware of which words you are using. Often, a pet word crops up because we like something about it; the image an adjective conjures, the phrase emphasis of something like ‘indeed’ or the generic usefulness of a verb. If we try to be aware of our language, and use the word that best suits the intended meaning, rather than the one that seems more comfortable to us, which will eliminate many pet word incidents.

As an example, I ran this piece through a word frequency counter, and got the following results:

Of this list, it makes sense that ‘a’ is at the top, and that ‘word’ and ‘words’ show up frequently, as this is a piece specifically about words. Most of the other words in the upper range are the conjunctions and common usage words we would expect to see. The word ‘like’ is a bit more frequent here than it should be, but not concerning, so I can make a note to watch out for that one in the future. Of course, there were a large number of words that showed up once or twice that I didn’t bother to include.

There is only one word that stands out to me, as an editor, and that is ‘you.’ It shows up thirteen times here, which is fairly high frequency. While too common to qualify as a pet word, it makes me realize that the tone of this piece is second person instructional; I am speaking directly to the reader and giving examples as if they were writing them. This allows me to sit back and think, “Did I intend this? Is this the tone I want for this writing?” Since this is aimed at helping people improve their writing, I can decide that yes, it is, and leave it be.

Good luck in finding your pet words and giving them a much needed vacation.

Happy writing!

 

 

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Adverse Adverbs

Adverbs are incredibly useful, but often over-used; frequent adverb deployment often results in repetition, and can make a piece harder to read. As a writer, wanting to add detail is commendable, but many of us fall into the trap of always doing it the same way. Most writers have pet words that just appear too frequently, which will be discussed in a later post, but what we want to discuss here is not so much a single oft-repeated word, but a class of words.

ˈadˌvərb
Noun
-a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gentlyquitethenthere).

 

For example, a sentence such as “She slowly gathered her things.” is fine. The adverb ‘slowly’ conveys an important message of reluctance. If, however, it is followed by, “Somberly carrying her suitcase, she then slowly walked out the door, looked around sadly, and then hesitantly hailed a cab.” It gets to be a bit much. We get it, she’s slow and doesn’t want to go; we don’t need to get smacked upside the head with it.

The adverb count in those couple of lines is pretty ridiculous at nine out of twenty-five words, and it makes reading it a bit clunky. Sure, there’s detail, but does it really tell you anything new for all that it slows the pace?

“She slowly gathered her things. Somberly carrying her suitcase, she then slowly walked out the door, looked around sadly, and then hesitantly hailed a cab.”

Hint: No. No it doesn’t.

While every adverb needs a verb, not every verb needs an adverb. Many verbs can be quite expressive all on their own. In the above example, ‘then’ can be taken out in both cases, as the chain of actions is fairly self-evident. Some of the adverbs can be eliminated right away as redundant, such as ‘sadly’ and ‘somberly’. Another couple can be removed by choosing a more nuanced verb; ‘shuffled’ or ‘trudged’ instead of ‘slowly walked’ and ‘nodded at’ instead of ‘hesitantly hailed.’

“She slowly gathered her things. Carrying her suitcase, she shuffled out the door, looked around, and nodded at a cab.”

It flows better, conveys the same tone, and provides enough detail without beating the reader to death with it.

There are several ways to get around an accidental plethora of adverbs, and the first is to simply be aware of them. While not all adverbs end in ‘-ly’ it is common enough that doing a search in your word program for ‘ly_’ will give you a pretty good estimate of numbers.

If you realize that you may have a few too many, it’s time to start trimming them down. How do you do that? Glad you asked.

Reduce redundancy

Look for adverbs that can be taken out entirely. Are they just reinforcing something that’s already been said? Are they really adding anything? If the reader already knows how happy the character is, do you really need to add that they “skipped merrily” down the street, or is the fact that they are skipping more than enough? Do you have serial occurrences of “then” that are just bogging down a clear chain of events

Find better verbs

Look for adverbs that are there to prop up a non-specific verb, such as “walked” or “said,” and see if you can replace them both with a more descriptive verb. Are you repeating the same verb over and over, just using adverbs to set tone? Are you using any one adverb more than you should, just to try to get the verb to say what you want it to?

Dialogue tags are a good place to start. There are few things more jarring than reading a dialogue that goes something like this:
“…” She said seriously.
“…” He said glibly.
“…” She asked brusquely.
“…” He answered sulkily.
You can toss out a bunch of dialogue tags altogether if the conversation is only between two people, and if you do need them, you can replace basic tags and adverbs with more expressive verbs. “He joked” “She snapped” and “He pouted” for instance.

General verbs like “walked” or “looked,” among many other verbs, are so vague in meaning that any nuance has to be added via adverb. English has a vast array of synonyms, however, each carrying their own particular connotation of meaning. Compare ‘walked’ to trudged, skipped, sauntered, shuffled, strolled, hiked, strode, or paraded. Why say “She walked slowly” when you can say “She ambled” or “She plodded” and be much more precise with the tone you want to set?

Be Quite thorough

‘Quite’ is another common offender, much like ‘very’ is with adjectives, as discussed here. It has its uses for emphasis, of course, not to mention fine snarky comments, but many people just use it a bit more than necessary, and it starts losing its impact.

Cleaning out a cluttering of adjectives is a good step in readable writing. It makes your piece easier to read, and thus more likely to get accepted by a publisher. It also makes it easier to edit, and if your editor doesn’t have to slog through an abundance of adjectives, it will save a bit on your budget.

Hope these tips are helpful to you, and keep an eye out for Cor Lingua’s next post, coming soon. Happy writing!

 

Commonly misspelled words, part 1: Not ‘too’ hard ‘to’ learn.

There are many homonyms in English; words which sound the same but have different meanings and different spellings. Some are so common that we rarely need help to differentiate them, but sometimes people need a mnemonic to help tell them apart.

MnemonicContractions are a common variant of homonyms; if the apostrophe doesn’t indicate a possessive, such as “Samantha’s book,” then it’s a contraction. They can often be eliminated as a confusing homonym by simply expanding the contraction.

Here’s a list of some commonly mixed up words, accompanied by some quick mnemonics to help determine which one should be used where.

To: Expressing motion in the direction of (a particular location)
“She is going to Toronto.”
Too: (1) A higher degree than is desirable or possible; excessively. (2) Also.
“He had too much ice cream.” “Is she coming, too?”

Handy mnemonic: If it has a second ‘o’ that’s one ‘too’ many.


They’re: A contraction of ‘they are.’
They’re going to a restaurant.”
Their: Belonging to or associated with people or things previously mentioned.
“Where did they put their leftovers?”
There: In, at, or to that place or position, opposite of here.
“The leftovers are right there on the table.”

Handy mnemonic: ‘There’ has ‘here’ in it.


Weather: Atmospheric conditions at a particular time and place.
“The forecast of rainy weather may cause the event to be rescheduled.”
Whether: Expressing a doubt or choice between alternatives.
 “She’s trying to decide whether to go to the party, or finish her assignment.”

Handy mnemonic: ‘Whether’ expresses a question, and starts with ‘wh’ like other questions, what, where, which, why, who.


Breathe: The verb; to inhale and exhale.
“I can’t breathe.”
Breath: The noun; the air that is inhaled or exhaled.
“Take a deep breath.”

Handy mnemonic: The action of breathing is more ‘energetic’ than the breath itself, so it has an ‘e’ on the end.


You’re: A contraction of ‘you are.’
You’re going to have to practice more.”
Your: Belonging to the person or people that the speaker is addressing.
Your order is ready to be picked up.”

No mnemonic here, once you expand your contraction, you’re all set.


Desert: (1) A dry climatic zone, often sandy and barren.
“Surviving in a desert requires a large amount of water.”
(2) To leave or abandon a person, place or organization.
“Now is not the time to desert your family, when you need each other the most.”
Dessert: A sweet course consumed after a meal.
“She had chocolate cake for dessert.”

Handy mnemonic: Dessert is the one you would want two helpings of, so it has a double ‘s’. To desert something is to leave it on its own, so it just has one ‘s’. Like-wise, a desert is a barren place, so only one ‘s.’


I hope these are helpful to you either as a personal reference, or as a teaching aid. The internet is full of people who could probably use some help with these problem words, so pass it along. Enjoy, and write on.

Word of the day: Logomachy

(n.)  /ləˈɡɒməki/

Apropos to the subject matter of Cor Lingua, logomachy refers to an argument about words. The plural, also usable as a count noun, is logomachies. Use it well, and I hope you don’t get into any logomachies over it – unless you want to, of course.

Examples of use:
They got into quite the heated logomachy.
Her favourite thing to do is engage in logomachy.

It will eventually be settled, after many late-night logomachies.
Logomachies are common in literary circles.

Etymology: Mid 16th century. From Greek logomakhia, from ‘logos’ (word) + ‘makhia’ (fighting).

Word of the day: Velleity

(n.)  /vɛˈliːɪti/

Velleity is a perfect word to describe a wish or inclination which is not quite strong enough to actively pursue or lead a person to action. It can describe an idle wish or passing idea, as well. The plural is ‘velleities.’

Examples of use:
The idea was intriguing, but it remained a velleity.
Their head is full of velleities, but no real plans.

Etymology: Early 17th century. From Medieval Latin ‘velleitas’, from Latin ‘velle’ (to wish).