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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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.

Why English is Spectiferous for Coining New Words.

English has a long history of adopting vocabulary from other languages. As James Nicoll put it: “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” Yet we don’t stop there. English is a bit more open to change than many languages, what with our verbal kleptomania and our muddled origins, and this seems to make us fond of both portmanteaus (words created by combining two other words), and coining brand new words.

Possibly more than any other language, English speakers just invent words on the spot, and some of them catch on, eventually being added to the official lexicon. As language is all about communication, any word that successfully communicates your idea is then language. The best example of this in a general sense is an anecdote of mine from high school. I once had a friend with a penchant for mispronouncing words. When it was remarked on that what he had said was not a word, his response was always the same: “Did you understand what I meant? Yes. Then it’s a word.”

Though probably not the main factor, a good part of English’s word invention habit results from grammatical conditions. Differences or errors in pronunciation are less likely to be problematic in English as positional context is more important and we have comparatively simple declensions and conjugations. This means that distinguishing between similar sounding words, or assigning probable meaning to an unknown word, is done partly by its position in the sentence, and there is rarely confusion as to what type of word it is.

The probable primary reason why word invention works so well in English is that we have a strong association between sound and meaning. I’m not talking about onomatopoeia here, though we have plenty of that as well, like ‘buzz’ for the sound a bee makes, and so on. What I’m referring to here is a different type of association, that of particular vowels or consonants which automatically invoke a particular attribute or feeling. Many other languages have this association as well, though not usually to the same degree.

High front vowels such as in ‘life’ and ‘tweet’ are often judged to be bright, small or cheery, while low back vowels as in ‘sad,’ ‘dark,’ and ‘mug’ are interpreted as being dim, large or dull. Word endings with a high vowel (-ie, -y) or a lateral consonant (-l, -le, -elle) are considered diminutive or less serious, and words ending with affricate sounds like ‘-ch’ are often considered unpleasant. So when native English speakers hear a nonsense word like ‘crulch,’ the immediate association for most of us is that, while we have no idea what it actually means, we assume it to be something unpleasant, clunky, and possibly sharp or sticky.

Sibilants like ‘s’ and fricatives like ‘sh’ often conjure a meaning related to soft, quiet, subtle, or subdued, which can be seen in words like squishy, plush, shady, sash, satin, silk, shadow, sappy, sheep, shame, sheesh, shush, shun, shy, and splash…. Sorry, got a bit carried away there. A few simple changes to the sound, like the addition of hard consonant sounds, can often give it a whole new connotation, as in sharp, stick, spit, swig, or shot. And those are just a few examples from the hundreds of complex, and under-studied, phoneme associations in English.

Shakespeare is famous for coining new words, many of which are now fully integrated and official. Words like ‘besmirch,’ which in context is recognizable almost instantly as meaning ‘to damage or soil one’s reputation,’ partly on the basis of its sibilant and affricate sounds. It conjures to mind similar sounding words, like soil, squelch, squish, switch, smirk, and itch, among others. ‘Gossip,’ ‘puking,’ and ‘bump’ are others that he invented, which likely stayed with us at least partially because their sounds fit so well with their meaning in the minds of English speakers.

jabberwocky

Probably the best example of how nonsense words can be understood based largely on their sounds comes from Lewis Caroll. In Jabberwocky, almost half of the principle words were invented, and can only be understood because either they are an obvious portmanteau, or they are phonetically constructed to convey a certain impression. Even without the context of the poem, words like ‘mimsy,’ ‘slithy,’ and ‘vorpal’ give us a very good idea of what they might mean just by their sound.

Numerous authors and personalities have contributed new words over time, such as J.K. Rowling’s ‘muggle,’ Rudyard Kipling’s ‘grinching,’ or Nick Kaltenbronn’s ‘quiz’. The Oxford dictionary adds about a hundred new words every year, many of which are acronyms or portmanteaus, but some of which are pure invention. If their sound fits and the word becomes popular enough, they inevitably become established words. In addition, rare, freshly minted, or newly assembled words seem to hold a fascination for many of us. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of websites now dedicated to coined words and portmanteaus in English, and even a few designed to help you out with randomly inventing new words.

Isn’t English frabjous?

Words to Avoid: Their absence will make your writing shine.

 

Writing is tricky. Trying to express your meaning clearly can be hard enough, but also making it engaging can be quite the balancing act. As a writer, I’m still working on it, but as an editor, ill-considered or lazy writing jumps off the page at me like a facehugger from Aliens. While much of any writer’s voice is a product of their individual choices, there are a few words everyone needs to be wary of.

DSCF4826

Some of these are ‘blah’ words, that don’t really carry any nuance or connotations; some of them are ‘pointy’ words that we throw in for emphasis or filler, to ‘point’ at other words, often when we don’t want to search for better phrasing. Many words have been tragically overused, and their meaning has become so lost that they are no longer of much use. There are also one or two ‘primer’ words that have haunted us since childhood, and lastly, each of us have our own favourite words or turns of phrase that we use too much, but I can’t help you with that. Be vigilant and wary for the ever-elusive favourite word, but in the meantime, here’s a list that might help.

1. Very– The pointiest of the pointy words.
This is probably one of the most overused and misused words in the English language, and it means almost nothing. People throw it in everywhere for emphasis when a better word could eliminate the need for it entirely. For example, “famished” sounds immeasurably better than “very hungry,” just as “furious” or “enraged” gets the message across more clearly than “very angry.” Then we get into the plainly ridiculous uses of the word, such as “very dead” or “very unique.” When you are describing something which is either there or it isn’t, emphasizing it doesn’t help; you can’t be “a little bit dead,” or “more unique than most.” Drop the “very” from your writing entirely, vary your vocabulary with other emphasis words, and for the love of your readers, don’t ever emphasize binary conditions.

2. Good, Bad, Nice– The ultimate blah trio.
I’ve lumped these together since they are all on the no-scribble list for the exact same reason; they are so generic they are practically meaningless. If you ask me how the movie was, and I say “nice,” what does that tell you about the movie? Nothing, except that I vaguely enjoyed it. While my opinion is relevant, of course, you might want to know more. It could have been “classic,” “visually spectacular,” “playful,” “satirical,” or any combination of dozens of adjectives that all tell you much more than “nice,” “good,” or “bad.” They’re boring, they’re generic, and while you may legitimately have to use them once in a while, you should try to avoid them wherever possible.

3. Because– The primary primer word.
There are times when one has to use “because.” it is a useful word, and one which has few synonyms, but using it too much, or in the wrong place, might come across as a bit early-childhood. It comes from how we were initially taught to answer questions in school: “Why is the dog outside? The dog is outside because he barked too much.” If too much of that translates into our writing now, we end up with things like, “The report was late because the input was late,” or “She couldn’t go because her mother wouldn’t let her.” Technically there is nothing wrong with these, but they evoke a grade school connotation that most writers want to avoid, especially when they are easy to fix. “Due to the delay in input, the report was also late,” and “Her mother would not let her attend, so she did not,” mean the same thing as the sentences above, but sound less clunky and more adult-like.

4. Alot– So blah, it’s not even a word.
Never use it. In fact, don’t use “a lot,” either, unless you are talking about a thing you park cars in, or that is measured by lots. It’s overused, generic, and there is always a better way to say that you have a large quantity of something. Really, there are a plethora, tons, immeasurable quantities, well, okay, a great deal of ways to get your point across without resorting to “a lot.”

5. Actually– The most pretentious pointy word.
Though sometimes misused, it is often correctly used as emphasis, “He actually expected me to help out!” or in its more useful form, as a way to differentiate, “You thought she was doing this, when she was actually doing that.” Either way, it gets used in far too many places. People also have a habit of starting rebuttals with “actually” (I’m guilty of this too, on occasion), and there it is excellent at conveying a sense of arrogant intellectual snobbery. So assuming you don’t want to be universally disliked, just try not to use it where it isn’t actually needed; your readers will like you more. Trust me.

6. Awesome – The flattest pointy word in the world.
Far from the awe-inspiring meaning it used to have, awesome is now just another word like “cool.” In fact, if you write using “awesome,” try replacing all instances of it with a word you wouldn’t use, like “groovy,” or “phat.” If it comes out looking odd, that’s because it is. Remove the “awesomes” from the page and it will make your writing that much more awesome.

7. Totally – The celery of words; nothing but filler.
No longer expressing a completeness or all-encompassing attribute, it is now mostly used as a strong affirmative or a generic pointy word, “It was totally amazing!” While something like that can be useful in casual speech, in writing it just fills space without purpose. It’s totally pointless; resist.

8. So – The overused, blah, filler, pointy word. Just stop.
While there are some legitimate, and necessary, places to use “so,” If you use it for verb emphasis it sounds juvenile; “I am so going to that kegger.” If you use it as a transition word, it ends up being unnecessary filler; “So, I went to the open house,” is no different in meaning from “I went to the open house.” So true. Speaking of which, using it for noun emphasis, while less ridiculous than other forms of emphasis, is still irritating to read, and rarely adds any meaning. It’s either true, real, over, empty, rockin’ or not. The “so” is irrelevant. Don’t be a so-and-so.

9. Really– The villain.
Much like “awesome,” “totally,” and similar words, it has lost most of its specific meaning in favour of generalities. Often it is considered interchangeable with “very” and is an equally poor choice. As an expression of affirmation or disbelief it has slightly more usefulness, as in, “Really? She said that?” and “Yes, she really said that.” It should really be avoided in almost all circumstances, though, as readers really find it annoying, it’s really likely your work will not be well received, and most editors will really tear your work apart. Really.

10. And Then– Just ugly.
Fine, it’s technically two words, and either of them are perfectly useful on their own, but when you combine them, you suddenly sound like you’re doing a grade two report. “We went home, and then we went to school, and then we went to the zoo…” You get the idea. There are much better ways to express consecutively timed events, I promise. There are several useful prepositions, and after you review them, following them up with some appropriate verbs, you may proceed to use them accordingly, and continuing along, can end by eradicating “and then” from your writing repertoire. While that’s going on, check out the bonus round below.

11. Common Verbs The everyday words.
This is more of a category of words to watch out for and try to change up. Words including “like,” “went,” “said,” “got,” “seem,” “ask,” and “came,” among others, are such useful words that they are used with alarming frequency. It’s worth your time to check for synonyms and use them where you can so your work doesn’t sound too repetitive.

Bonus round: Don’t use elementary sentence structures
This isn’t about words, but short, declarative statements often fall into the category of ‘primer’ writing, which is no problem for a third-grader, but not likely to garner respect for an adult. Sentence structures with just the basic ‘subject verb object’ don’t convey much information and are jarring to read, not to mention wasting precious words that could be used to better effect. Statements like “The man saw Jane,” or “We finished the research. It proved our hypothesis,” sound much like “I hate jam,” and “My dog has spots. It wags its tail.” Vary your sentence lengths and use all the gifts of modern syntax available to you; clauses, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs are your friends. Don’t neglect them. I’ll be writing more about those as time goes by.

Remember, if you treat your words right, they will serve you well. Much like minions. Happy writing!