wordzly

The world of words, reading and writing

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

He Said, She Interpolated

It’s a debate for the ages: is ‘he/she said’ enough or is there room for alternate speech tags?

There is some heated discussion over this question and most people seem to have a very firm belief about which is correct. As I’ve shown before I believe all rules should be used as a guideline; there is always room for interpretation and it usually comes down to a writer’s individual assessment of the particular situation.

Personally, ‘said’ will usually be enough to get by on. Due to its commonality ‘said’ is almost like a punctuation mark: readers instinctively know how to read it and it doesn’t distract from the story. This is essentially what the debate boils down to. A reader is interested in the story, not how many variants of ‘said’ you know, and they will respect you for your commitment to the story over the showing of your eloquence.

There are variants of ‘said’; however, that are appropriate in the proper context and are actually more appropriate than ‘said’ in these contexts. ‘Asked’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘shouted’, ‘whispered’, ‘laughed’ and ‘interrupted’ are all useful, suitable replacements for ‘said’ that are clearer and less conspicuous where appropriate.

It is easier to read:

‘What’s that?’ she asked.    than

‘What’s that?’ she said.

Similarly,

‘There’s something I need to tell you’, he whispered.     and

‘Don’t go in there!’ she shouted.    easily convey a tone of voice that mightn’t be apparent with ‘said’.

So common variants of ‘said’ are fine to use where the situation calls for them but lesser-known speech tags can create confusion and distract from the story, especially when a reader doesn’t know what the word means. Therefore it’s probably best to stay away from tags such as ‘enunciated’ when you mean ‘said’, ‘tittered’ when you mean ‘laughed’ or ‘elucidated’ when you mean ‘explained’.

But what about adverbs? Is it alright to spice up plain old ‘said’ with a few modifiers like ‘she said: softly, harshly, quickly, quietly or hesitantly’. Some might say it’s unnecessary and that what a character says should make it clear how they said it but I still believe adverbs can be used, as long as they are used properly, effectively and sparingly. A few adverbs can make apparent exactly how somebody spoke when ‘said’ just doesn’t cut it but, like anything else in writing, if they’re covering the page it soon becomes distracting for the reader.

Remember also that sometimes a speech tag isn’t needed at all. In brief conversations or when there is only one or two people speaking, the reader is able to determine who is talking without the use of a speech tag every time somebody speaks.

Like Stephen King once said, ‘I didn’t say that!’

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Music’s Biggest Grammar Crimes

Pop songs: the pinnacle of grammar. Perhaps not. We can forgive singers taking some liberties with grammar in order to achieve the proper rhyme, rhythm and meter but we shouldn’t have to put up with utter nonsense. For your musical pleasure, I have compiled my own mix-tape of grammar gaffes of current and classic songs.

Double Negatives

Everyone should know double negatives are wrong because they just sound so wrong. Apparently these bands didn’t get that memo.

The Rolling Stones sang about how they ‘can’t get no satisfaction’. They can’t get no Nobel prize for literature, either.

In Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall they tell us they ‘don’t need no education’. Sorry Floyd but I think you do.

Similarly, TLC’s No Scrubs outlined the many reasons they ‘don’t want no scrubs’. Apparently, no education isn’t one of them. It sounds like the members of Pink Floyd would be a perfect match.

Misuse of Pronouns

A lot of people have difficulty knowing when to use ‘I’ and ‘me’. When you’re the subject of the sentence it’s ‘I’, as in ‘John and I chased a cat.’ When you’re the object of the sentence, it’s ‘me’, as in ‘The cat chased John and me’. If you’re always getting confused, don’t worry too much because a lot of singers have the same problem.

In No One, Alicia Keys just wanted ‘you and me together’. Oops, she actually meant ‘I’.

On the opposite end, Lady Gaga dedicated a whole song to the incorrect pronoun in You and I. ‘There’s something about, baby, you and I’ and it’s the incorrect use of the pronoun ‘I’. Miss Gaga goes on to hammer home her disdain for the word ‘me’ by shouting ‘you and I’ seven times in a single refrain.

Katy Perry’s song The One That Got Away would have been more appropriately titled The One Who Got Away, as long as the subject of the song does in fact refer to a person and not a thing. Maybe she really misses her dog that ran away.

Special mention goes to Lana Del Rey’s Video Games, which is a confusing mess due to her confusing use of pronouns. To understand, I’ve had to post the first three stanzas:

Swinging in the backyard
Pull up in your fast car
Whistling my name

Open up a beer
And you say get over here
And play a video game

I’m in his favorite sun dress
Watching me get undressed
Take that body downtown

The first two lines get this confusing mess of pronouns rolling. The absence of a pronoun in the first line makes it difficult to know just who is swinging in the backyard. Is it you or Lara? Similarly, who’s opening the beer? The third stanza brings in ‘his’, so is she in the favourite dress of some man who is separate to the ‘you’? Also, is it his favourite sun dress of hers or his own?  Who’s watching her get undressed? You? Him? The sun dress?  Then she tells us to take ‘that’ body downtown. It’s not her body or your body. Maybe it’s the body of whoever’s swinging in the backyard. Lana, please sort out your pronouns and then get back to me. I’m horribly confused.

Subject-Verb Agreement

Like double negatives, most people can instantly tell when a subject is in agreement with its verb. This obviously doesn’t include pop stars.

In ringmaster Britney Spears’s Circus ‘there’s only two types of people in the world’. Poor Britney, it sounds fine until you expand the contraction ‘there’s’ and realise she said ‘there is’ instead of ‘there are’.

In Rich Girl, Gwen Stefani tells us what would happen if she ‘was a rich girl’. Hopefully, she’d enrol in some English courses.

Timbaland asked us if we could handle him ‘the way I are’. The answer is a resounding no, at least until he sorts out the am/are distinction.

Non-Existent Words

I don’t mean to pick on Lana Del Rey but when she’s not mixing up her pronouns she’s just plain making up words.  Again in Video Games, Lana says that you’re ‘the bestest’, which is a lovely sentiment but terribly idiotic. She even had the right word and then kept adding to it, presumably trying to make it betterer.

Elvis Presley meanwhile tells us we Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog. While I refute your claim, Elvis, you aren’t anything but a poor grammarian. Even if dear Elvis had correctly used ‘aren’t’, the fact is he is still guilty of a double negative.

The Black Eyed Peas sing I Gotta Feeling. Presumably they were aiming for ‘I’ve got a feeling’ but took a wrong turn in the land of bad grammar.

When Justin Timberlake informed us that What Goes Around comes around he also told us ‘When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded girl’. Fair enough, with all that internal bleeding you’re apt to make a few poor word choices.

Misunderstanding of Irony

I reserve an honorary spot just for Alanis Morissette and her horribly wrong Ironic.

According to Alanis, irony is ‘rain on your wedding day’, ‘a free ride when you’ve already paid’ and ‘good advice that you just didn’t take’. Unfortunately for Alanis, none of these are ironic; they’re just unfortunate or annoying situations. The type of irony Alanis was attempting to explain is situational irony: an outcome or event that is the opposite of what would have been expected. It raining on your wedding day is unfortunate but in no way ironic. Perhaps if you had actively ‘ensured’ against it raining on your wedding day by holding your wedding in a desert where it hadn’t rained for three years and it raining anyway would be ironic. A free ride when you’ve already paid isn’t ironic. You don’t expect to be offered a free ride after paying but you also don’t expect to not be offered a free ride after paying. You just really don’t consider either option. It would perhaps be ironic if after paying you were offered a free ride which you accepted but the free ticket had expired and you were fined for fare evasion.

Sadly, it seems the only ironic thing about Ironic is that none of the situations she sings about are ironic. ‘Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?’

Death of the Adverb

It’s always open season on adverbs. No other word class attracts such contempt. It’s fashionable to hate adverbs; many so-called ‘pros’ will demand total adverb abstinence and many people subsequently remove adverbs with reckless abandon. Why? Because that’s what people say to do. Well that’s a stupid reason to do something so again I ask, ‘why?’

Adverbs are redundant. Anyone will tell you. Consider the following sentence:

She ran quickly.

Obviously, the adverb – ‘quickly’—is unnecessary in the sentence because ‘ran’ already establishes her quickness. Or does it? Does everybody run quickly? What if the subject is an eighty-year-old infirmed obese lady? Is the quickness of her running so clearly established?

So adverbs can be useful in modifying verbs but if the quickness of the person isn’t established by ‘ran’ then rather than modifying the verb what about changing it? There is a multitude of interchangeable verbs that carry their own connotations.

She hobbled

She sprinted

She darted

She scurried

She loped 

She shuffled

All of these verbs describe a different sort of movement that is much more evocative than the simple ‘ran’. So we can understand why the argument against adverbs makes sense. Rather than using an adverb to modify a weak verb it is far better to change the verb to a more suitable one.

The problem isn’t that adverbs are redundant. The problem is that people are making poor word choices and are trying to fix this with adverbs. While adverbs are one solution, better word choice is the better solution.

Adverbs aren’t the problem. But they’re also not the solution. So what to do with them?  Avoiding all adverbs is foolish because it shows an ignorance of the scope of what adverbs actually do. Adverbs modify not only verbs but adjectives and other adverbs as well.

She was the least impressive dancer.

The adverb ‘least’ is modifying the adjective ‘impressive’.

The letter should arrive very soon.

The adverb ‘very’ is modifying the other adverb, ‘soon’.

 

There are also two categories of adverbs that do more than just modify single words. They modify the entire sentence. They are crucial to the meaning of the sentence, and to remove them changes the sentence’s meaning.

The first of these – conjuncts – include words such as hence, however, therefore and thus. Similar to conjunctions – which join smaller parts of sentences together – conjuncts join whole sentences together.

So we might have something like:

Marcia’s in trouble. However, I don’t want to go out in the rain.

The use of ‘however’ joins the ideas of the two sentences and shows a clear link between them. Without ‘however’ the two sentences aren’t necessarily linked and the relation between the two is lost. So removing conjuncts from sentences is not a great idea.

The second category of adverbs – attitudinal adverbs – express an attitude that relates to the overall proposition of the sentence.

In the following sentences, attitudinal adverbs are italicised.

Maybe she will come.

Sadly that’s not the case.

Fortunately Stephanie Meyer has many years of writing ahead of her.

In each sentence, the attitudinal adverb changes the entire tone and overall meaning of the sentence.

‘Maybe she will come’ has an implication distinctly different to ‘She will come.’ It would be awfully silly if we were to remove attitudinal adverbs from sentences.

Here are some other really useful adverbs that you probably use all the time and just can’t do without:

Also, never, not, next, often, seldom, then.

 

So we definitely don’t want to remove all adverbs from our writing. I think the crusade against adverbs needs itself to be modified. Rather than fighting against adverbs we should be fighting for clear and efficient writing. Always strive to write accurately what you mean. Often, modifying the word choice with a synonym rather than modifying the word with an adverb will provide you with a more accurate depiction of what you are attempting to say. Sometimes you just won’t be able to find a more appropriate word and it is perfectly fine to make use of an adverb. If the adverb is contributing to the meaning and there isn’t a simpler, more appropriate way of doing so, keep the adverb. If the adverb is trying to hide poor word choice, then dispose of it.

Sayings We’re Saying Wrong

Why are humans so good at saying everything other than what we truly mean? We have so many bizarre sayings I couldn’t even begin to catalogue them all. Some seem senseless and some are used by senseless people. I’ve compiled a little list of some of those sayings that just don’t make sense. You probably hear them often and you probably hear them being used incorrectly just as often.

‘I could care less’

This one drives me the most crazy. People say ‘I could care less’ to show how little they care about something, and yet if they could care less that means they care at least a little. What people should actually be saying is ‘I couldn’t care less’.

‘They did a complete 360’

This saying comes from the fact that there are 360 degrees in a circle, so 360 degrees is a full revolution that takes you back to your starting point. When people say ‘they did a complete 360’ they are actually saying that a person went back to the view or opinion that they originally held. When you mean that a person completely changed their views what you should actually say is they did a 180.

‘The exception that proves the rule’

This saying can actually be used properly although most people fail to do so. People incorrectly use it to discount contradictory evidence to a fact they have stated or observed.

‘John always wears blue pants.’

‘This morning he was wearing green pants.’

‘That’s the exception that proves the rule.’

In situations like this ‘the exception that proves the rule’ makes no sense. The exception has actually proved that no such rule exists. The correct usage of the phrase is for when the existence of an exception to a rule demonstrates that a rule exists. If a sign says ‘Free parking on Sundays’ then it is presumed that on all other days parking is not free. Therefore, free parking on Sunday is the exception that proves the existence of the rule ‘you must pay to park here’.

‘I slept like a baby’

This saying is used to express an excellent quality of sleep. It’s synonymous with ‘I slept soundly’ and yet anyone who has ever had a baby will be able to tell you that a baby’s sleep is the opposite of a peaceful sleep. Babies sleep in short interrupted cycles – hardly conducive to a good night’s rest.

‘beg the question’

A lot of people think this saying means a question that is begging to be asked or something which raises a question. Begging the question is actually a term used in philosophy to mean a circular argument that presumes the truth of the argument a person is trying to make. Its correct usage can be understood as follows:

If someone says, ‘Justin Bieber is the best ever because he’s better than everyone else’ this begs the question. The claim that Justin Bieber is better than everyone else can only be true if the conclusion that he’s the best is already true. Therefore this nine-year-old girl has begged the question because her argument presumes the truth of what she is trying to argue.

 

And just for fun, here’s an expression that sounds wrong but is actually right!

‘Below par’

People use ‘below par’ to describe something that is less than average or expected, as in ‘Susan’s work has been a bit below par lately’. But those familiar with how ‘par’ is used as a golfing expression may find this phrase confusing. In golf, par is the expected average number of shots a person should be able to make a hole in. Thus, scoring below par means that you took less shots than the average person, which is a good thing. Knowing this, it would seem as if performing below par would mean you are doing better than average, not worse. But this is where the English language’s tendency to double up on a word’s meaning creates confusion. In the context of ‘below par’, par refers to its usage in the late 1700s to mean the average amount or quality. So we actually are using this saying correctly.

Words aren’t flawed. People are.

Who Murdered Detective Fiction?

I love detective fiction, and it’s no mystery why: the mystery of it! It’s really exciting to have this puzzle put before you that you race to solve before the author can reveal it. Detective fiction creates such a dynamic relationship between the author and the reader. As a reader, you are wary of the author’s attempt to deceive you, and yet you are also trusting that they will ‘play fair’. Meanwhile, the author is judicious with what they give away. Not too much so that the reader is disappointed to find they have already solved the crime long before it is revealed, but just enough so that when the ending is finally revealed, the reader will be able to look back and go, ‘Of course. It all makes sense now’.

And as long as the author does play fair, the reader won’t begrudge being outsmarted by the author. In fact, they respect their ingenuity and the surprise of the dénouement. Disappointment or frustration only occurs when the author refuses to play fair: when they hold back information made freely available to the detective or when the solution flies in the face of logic.

Yes, I love the classic detective story. I yearn for its golden age back in the 20’s and 30’s when it reigned supreme. When writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers dazzled with their brillaint plots. Now, the classic detective story has all but vanished. It has been taken over by the ‘crime’ novel. ‘Whodunnit? ’ has been replaced by ‘Whydunnit?’. Thrillers and serial killers – the hot new thing – are strangling the struggling efforts of the classic detective story. And yet, while authors may be turning away from the traditional murder mystery, readers can still keep it alive. As long as the detective story lives on in the hearts of its readers, it shall never truly die.

1920’s Slang

I love the glitz and glamour of the 1920’s. Everything just seemed so dandy as everyone hobnobbed and jazzed around everywhere. Even the language managed to capture that sense of freedom and fun. So I’ve compiled a list of some really swell slang from the 20’s. Why not try some out and brighten your day?

All wet – a ridiculous idea or individual

‘Oh God, he wants to go out in the rain without an umbrella. He’s all wet.’

And how – expression of firm agreement

Applesauce – used as an expletive

‘Oh applesauce! I’ve forgotten the applesauce.’

Attaboy – Well done

Balled up – confused or messed up

‘You’ve balled up all my socks. Now I can’t find the ones I want. You’ve got me all balled up.’

Bank’s Closed – no kissing or ‘funny business’

‘I have a sizeable cheque I’d like to deposit in your account.’

‘Sorry, but the bank’s closed.’

‘I wasn’t talking about the bank.’

‘Bank’s closed.’

Bird – general term for a person but sometimes meaning odd, as in ‘funny old bird’

Butt me – To ask for or accept a cigarette

Caper – criminal act

Cat’s meow/pyjamas – fantastic

‘I’ve compiled every cat video on YouTube into the one video. Isn’t that just the cat’s pyjamas?’

Croak – to kill

Daddy – a young woman’s boyfriend or lover, especially if he’s rich

‘I saw Cynthia making out with her daddy. Isn’t that just the cat’s pyjamas?’

Dry up – shut up, get lost

Daisy – not very masculine

Dapper – a flapper’s dad

Glad rags – clothes for going out on the town

‘I’ve got my glad rags on and am ready to have a good time, as long as the bank isn’t closed.’

Grilled – questioned

Handcuff – an engagement ring

Keen – attractive or appealing

‘Now you’re on the trolley!’ – ‘Now you’ve got it/Now you’re right!’

Piker – a cheapskate or a coward

Rag-a-muffin – a dirty or dishevelled individual

‘Oh applesauce! Those rag-a-muffins have spilt applesauce all over my glad rags! The bank will certainly be closed tonight; I don’t care what my daddy says.’

Razz – to make fun of

Spiffy – an elegant appearance

Upchuck – to vomit from having drunk too much

‘Oh I shall razz my daddy something fierce. He’s upchucked all over my glad rags. I could croak him right now.’

Wet Blanket – a solemn person, a killjoy

You slay me – that’s funny

‘What? You’re going to stake me in the heart? Oh, you slay me!’

Pleonasms

People like to advocate the rule to be economical with language as long as that rule doesn’t apply to them. Why are humans so good at coming up with unnecessary phrases? In our increasingly busy world where we haven’t a single second to waste, why do we persist using these redundant little phrases? These redundancies actually have a name: pleonasms. Pleonasms are where more words than necessary are used. Below I’ve compiled a little list of only some of the terrible pleonasms heard daily.

Sit down

Really? Should I not sit up? Sideways? In what other direction am I going to sit but down? Fool.

Now then

Why don’t we just drop the ‘then’?

Guesstimate

I hate almost all portmanteaus (two words blended together to make a new word). But ‘guesstimate’ doesn’t actually create a new word so what’s the point? It means the same thing! An estimate is an educated guess.

Rough estimate

Again, stop! Everyone needs to go out, get a dictionary and look up the meaning of estimate. If it’s precise then it’s not an estimate.

No offense but…

I’m going to offend you/everything/everyone. Seriously, no one has ever started a sentence with ‘No offense but…’ and not gone on to say something offensive.

What an unexpected surprise!

What awful kind of surprise would people actually expect? A surprise that’s expected isn’t a very good surprise. A surprise that’s expected isn’t a surprise at all.

Book in advance

This helpful tip is always given out by restaurants and events that fail to realise how foolish they are. If I’m reserving something I’m doing so in advance. Can I book these tickets after the event?

Cease and desist

Ok, sometimes you add in a synonym to further hammer home your point but seriously please cease and desist saying this.

Each and every

Same as above. Each and every one of you caught saying this is about to get stabbed.

Group consensus

To hell with the group! I reached my own consensus!

End result

As opposed to the beginning result?

Pre-recorded

If it’s recorded, it was done before you watched it. Don’t you just hate recording your show after it’s finished and realising you haven’t recorded it at all?

Past experience

From the experience I’m yet to have…

Armed gunman

Maybe they mean a gunman with arms? As opposed to all those amputee gunmen. Hey, I’m not one to discriminate. If amputees want to rob banks and run around with guns let them. (Please don’t actually let amputees – or anyone else – do this.)

Complete opposite

It’s sort of the opposite but not exactly. It’s, like, half-opposite. Well it’s not actually opposite; it’s just a different thing.

So unique

Like ‘opposite’, there are no varying levels of uniqueness. Something is either unique or not, so one thing can’t be more or less unique than another. So if everyone can stop saying this then that will be, like, soooo good.

My personal opinion

I prefer the alternative for when you’re afraid what you’re about to say is stupid: ‘In the opinion of the man next to me…’

Close proximity

For when you really want to emphasise the proximity of two things in proximity of each other. Sure, my eyes are in proximity to one another but my fist is in close proximity to your face.

Whether or not

This mistake is understandable but ‘whether’ covers both possibilities. ‘Tell me whether you’re coming’ covers both possibilities of someone coming or not.

Not yet

This is used as an excuse by lazy people for not having done something they were supposed to. If you haven’t yet done something then you haven’t done it.

However, I have to admit I’m guilty of ‘not yet’. Even though it’s the same as just saying ‘No’, ‘not yet’ carries a gentler tone and implies that while the answer is no for the moment that will change.

When asked, ‘Have you vacuumed the floor?’, ‘No’ can sound a little like, ‘Nup, f*** ya.’

‘Not yet’ implies that while you haven’t done it yet, you still intend to.

If you know what I mean

The meaning of what you said doesn’t rely nor change dependent on whether we understand you or not. ‘E=mc2, if you know what I mean.’ If we don’t understand what you mean, that doesn’t change the meaning of ‘E=mc2’.

Unless you’re a master of sexual innuendo and you’re using this phrase to slip one in, if you know what I mean.

 

When you think about it, there are so many redundant words and phrases we use every day. If we could just stop using a few of these I would be a happier and saner person. Like Hemingway once said, ‘Goddamnit, stop making stupid with your words’. Oh wait, he didn’t say that.

Beginnings

Where does a story begin? Can you ever truly define the beginning of something? When can you stop, look back over an event, pinpoint an exact moment and say ‘This is it. This is where it all began’?

Where does my story begin?

A beginning should capture the reader’s attention but it shouldn’t promise what it can’t deliver. What I mean by this is a false start: a beginning that is designed purely to catch attention rather than as an organic introduction to the rest of the story. These often take the form of ‘prologues’ and are perhaps most commonly found in thrillers. The type that begins with some brazen crime to show just how serious a criminal we’re dealing with. Many a time I have been tricked into reading an action-packed opening that ultimately leads nowhere. Action is fine – it propels the story along – just as long as it isn’t being used as a gimmick. If no important characters are being introduced, if the opening is just ancillary action and there is no connection or relevance to later events then the opening is a false start. And I feel cheated.

But is there such a thing as the perfect beginning? Writers will often spend many wasted hours fretting over the perfect opening sentence, which extends to the perfect opening paragraph, the perfect opening page, the perfect opening chapter…

A perfect beginning simply begins the story. It gets the ball rolling, so to speak. Of course there are many ways to begin a story. So the best advice would probably be to pick one and go with it.

‘Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ Perfect advice.

Preface

Welcome to Wordzly: the wonderful world of words! I created this blog to share my passion for words, reading and writing.

I hope to explore the interesting and curious side of words, how they work, what they do and how we use them.

I’ll also be indulging my love for books. Expect reviews and my thoughts on the role of books in our lives, where the future of books is heading, what makes a book good (or bad!) and anything that pops into my head along the way.

Undoubtedly, my obsession with detective fiction will shine through. Those that share my obsession will cheer rapturously and perhaps those that do not may do so eventually.

Like writing itself, hopefully my little blog will continue to grow and evolve over time. I hope I shall enjoy its journey and I hope you shall too.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop’. – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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