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!




Word of the Day: Ubiquitous

(adj.) \yü-ˈbi-kwə-təs\

Originally derived  from the noun, ubiquity, which refers to a presence everywhere at all times, this handy adjective describes something which is, or seems to be, everywhere. It can refer to something universally common, something pervasive in a certain context, or that which is encountered constantly. It is often used with some exaggeration, for things which seem unavoidable. There is also an adverb form; ubiquitously, and an additional noun form; ubiquitousness. That’s English for you.

The company’s advertising jingle is ubiquitous.
Chocolate is now a ubiquitous snack, but it used to be quite rare.
This is currently a ubiquitous fashion trend.
He is ubiquitous at family gatherings; it’s impossible to avoid him.

(n.) He strives for ubiquity/ubiquitousness. (Personally, I think the original is far less cumbersome)
(adv.) The pamphlets have been ubiquitously dispersed by a crowd of volunteers.

Etymology: 1830, from ubiquity (late 16th century), from Latin ubique ‘everywhere.‘ 
And now common things have a bit more flair, thanks to their ubiquitous nature!

Word of the Day: Pareidolia

Hello, all! I am back after an unexpectedly long absence with a word that I adore, and had to share with you.

(n.) /pærɨˈdliə/ /parr-i-doh-lee-ə/

Pareidolia describes the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist, often attributing something familiar to random characteristics. This includes likening the pattern of craters on the moon to a human face, seeing shapes in the clouds, or hearing messages in music played at the wrong speed.
It was also likely a useful ability for our ancestors, to make sense out of a world which they did not have the science to explain.
 To demonstrate, here are a few birds flying over a cloudy sunset, but we can’t help but see them as smiley faces. Isn’t pareidolia cool?

Seeing patterns is a handy ability for us primates, but seeing patterns where none exist may well be the source of artistic expression.

Etymology: 20th century, from Greek; para (‘beside, instead of,’ or in this case, ‘faulty’) + eidolon (‘image, shape,form’).

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: Mellifluous

(adj.)  /mɛˈlɪflʊəs/

To me, this word seems to almost describe itself, or at least fall into its own description. Its meaning is that of a sound which is pleasingly smooth or musical to hear. It also has some versatility as an adverb (mellifluously) or as a noun (mellifluousness). It is figuratively something ‘honey-like,’ or the sound of one who is ‘honey-tongued.’ Enjoy!

Her low, mellifluous voice always made me feel better.
I find ‘mellifluous’ to be a mellifluous word.

Certain words just roll mellifluously off the tongue.
She speaks with magnificent mellifluousness and charms her audience completely.

Etymology: Late 15th century, from late Latin mellifluus (from mel ‘honey’ + fluere ‘to flow’).