Wednesday, December 29, 2010
I figured I’d be up to my armpits in unintelligible legal speak in which the actual “repealing” was couched in incomprehensible terms. Boy, was I surprised:
From the first section of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, titled “Glass-Steagall Act Repeals”:
Here’s the language:
“Section 20 repealed”
“Section 32 repealed”
Section 20 of Glass-Steagall said that banks can’t get involved in securities trading. (From what I understand, the authors thought banks’ playing with stocks and bonds was too risky and helped lead to the Great Depression.) Section 32 said that no bank officer could be officer in a securities-trading company.
In other words, leaders thought it was a bad idea to let banks, which hold depositors’ money, use that money to speculate on stocks and other yet-to-be-invented securities. By 1999, three congressmen -- Gramm, Leach and Bliley -- decided that, on the contrary, it was a good idea.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
"Jay Marshall, hunkered down in a cold wind while on a lift next to the broken one, said that his lift was moving but that the broken one was not."
Um, if he's on a lift next to a broken one, do you have to tell us that the broken one wasn't working? For that matter, do you have to tell us that one that's not the broken one was working?
And isn't "hunkered down in a cold wind while on a lift next to" a little inelegant? Letting go of "hunkered down in" might have helped:
" ... enduring the cold wind as he rode a lift next to the broken one."
Then again, maybe not. It might be best to just cut the whole sentence. After all, who cares if a guy on a moving chair lift noticed that a broken chair lift wasn't moving?
But then you get to the next sentence and see you've been led down the wrong path.
"Jay Marshall, hunkered down in a cold wind while on a lift next to the broken one, said that his lift was moving but that the broken one was not. There was a 'loud snapping noise' after the lift restarted, he said, then screams."
Aha. So the we see that Marshall was talking about something that happened earlier. But the verb "was," written in the same tense as "hunkered," made it sound as though Marshall's lift was motionless as he was hunkered down and talking to the reporter. Shifting from simple past tense ("was") to past perfect (i.e. "had been") would have saved us the confusion: Hunkered down in a cold wind, Marshall said that the lift next to his had stopped working (at some point prior).
Skimming the rest of the article, I see it's quite well written. (Even good writers let a clunker slip in now and then. That's why they have editors.) But its lone bad sentence just reached out and grabbed me. I hope this isn't the start of a trend. I'd hate to think what would happen if bad sentences starting banding together and coming after editors.
Friday, December 24, 2010
This one inventories verbs on one page of a Larsson book and compares his verb choices to those of Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King.
This one looks at his characters' dialogue and throws in for good measure some sample dialogue from two writers who I believe do it better.
This one, actually my first blog post on the subject, contains a sample rewrite of a short Larsson passage.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
I decided to find out. I did a Google search for the term "nutty flavor." Here are just a few of the foods that were described this way.
tawny port wine
Peterson Gran Reserva cigars
"strawberry fields" marijuana
brown butter sauce
two varieties of apples
hemp seed butter
soy bean flour
whole wheat biscuits
El Tesoro anejo tequila
cured raw ham
and, of course, the occasional nut
Sunday, December 19, 2010
True or False:
1. I always send out little Bobby’s picture because everyone oohed and aahed over how cute he was on our Christmas cards 15 years ago.
2. Childless people like looking at other people’s kids more, right?
3. My child has an Adam’s apple.
4. My child wears liquid eyeliner.
4a. My child’s eyeliner fully encircles her eyes, including around tear ducts. (+2 pts)
4b. My eyeliner-wearing child is a boy. (+3 pts)
5. As long as little Emma's face is out there, it's just a matter of time till she gets discovered.
6. Seeing my adorable kid could help my sister realize what she’s missing -- before it’s too late.
7. (New Englanders only) If we don’t send out our annual shot of Jimmy in his Red Sox cap, jersey, headband, and wristbands, how else will people know he supports the team?
8. If I have to look at my brother’s ugly kids every year, you better believe he's going to look at mine.
9. No one can tell that’s a booger hanging off his nose, right?
10. If you can think of a better way to show off her "Little House on the Prairie" costume, I’d like to hear it.
Scoring: Add up affirmative responses.
1 to 3: You’re the reason the rest of us own paper shredders.
4 to 7: Two words: tubal ligation.
8 or higher: Child Services is en route to your house.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
A chart of its occurrence shows a steady and marked increase in its use since the late 1920s until its sudden dropoff in the 2000s! I guess those two words are sick of each other, too.
I like this search engine. I like it a lot.
Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)
"Seasoned professional" is one of those terms I've long relied on. I use it in my own writing and I'm sure I've inserted it into articles I've edited.
But something happened yesterday. I must have seen the pairing one time too many and I just snapped. Suddenly, "seasoned professional" ceased to be a familiar, easy, informative term and became instead droning, meaningless noise in my ear.
I guess I just reached my limit for seasoning my professionals this way.
Yes, these two words have had a great run. But it's time they went their separate ways.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
"With the idea that instead of shopping all around New York, the attendees could have the city's best shops brought to them, retail outlets were set up with unique offerings of fashions, home decor, toys and cookware."
Even more than the two unnecessary passives that follow, it's the introductory phrase that floors me: "With the idea that instead of ..."
There was no coming back from that. I overhauled the whole sentence, making it something like:
"New York's top retailers set up boutiques at the festival, creating a one-stop shop for some of the city's finest fashions, home decor, toys and cookware."
Amazing how that tangible subject + verb formula can save a bad sentence.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Excerpted here by the Wall Street Journal, the back-and-forth between Larsson and his editor, Eva Gedin, include two points I find particularly interesting.
First, Larsson knew his prose needed editing. "My texts are usually better after an editor has hacked away at them," he wrote.
Second, his editor seemed to like his pre-editing writing. "I'm pleased to hear that you think the books are well written."
Monday, November 29, 2010
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
I checked our designated dictionary, “Webster’s New World.” It does not contain the word “afterparty” (or “after-party,” for that matter). But I still wasn’t satisfied. My thinking: Who says that “after,” in this context, is a word? Can’t it be a prefix?
In the online version of Webster’s, I couldn’t figure out how to find the prefix “after-,” so I checked the hard copy of the dictionary. There it was, the “after-,” which Webster’s said was a “combining form,” (meaning you just splice it right on to the front of whatever word you’re pairing it with).
I was pleased with that answer and made the change, even writing a note in the text to explain it to the section editor. An hour later, the section editor came up to my desk. Long before I edited the piece, she had checked the archives of the publication that I work for and seen that house style demonstrates a clear house preference for the hyphenated form: after-party.
Had I worked just a little bit harder, I'd have gotten it right. Had I been lazier, I'd have gotten it right. But my half-baked efforts were just enough to assure I got it wrong.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I had no idea.
Check out the cama (camel+llama), zebrule (zebra+horse), geep (goat+shee), and coydog (coyotoe+dog) and other aberrations unto nature that Drew M. wrote about a while back.
Thanks for sharing, Drew!
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Words I'm Accidentally Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I stumbled across in the dictionary)
an animal developed by crossing the American buffalo, or bison, with beef
cattle (Webster's New World College Dictionary)
Monday, October 25, 2010
Today, someone at CNBC didn't:
Asset allocation strategists haven't had an easy time in recent years. They've grappled with deflation, recession, plummeting U.S. stock markets and surging
foreign economies. And for awhile they dished out bigger weightings to defensive plays-bonds, cash and commodities.
"Awhile" is an adverb. "While" is often a noun.
Prepositions like "for" take nouns or noun phrases as their objects -- not adverbs.
So after "for" you'd want the noun phrase "a while."
Here's how Webster's New World puts it:
Usage Note: Awhile, an adverb, is never preceded by a preposition such as for, but the two-word form a while may be preceded by a preposition. In writing, each of the following is acceptable: stay awhile; stay for a while; stay a while (but not stay for awhile).
Friday, October 15, 2010
changed to ...
Sybaritic was a new one on me. So I looked it up. It means "devoted to or marked by pleasure and luxury." Good word. I like it. Still, I couldn't justify keeping verbiage that means "marked-by-pleasure pleasures."
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
And that reminds me: A Times business story I was reading last weekend had "fun" in place of "fund."
The L.A. Times has laid off a lot of people in the last few years — partly out of necessity, partly to compensate for some bad business moves. The paper's downtown office, once bustling and exciting, now seems a prime location for tumbleweeds.
The inevitable result: typos.
Monday, October 11, 2010
In animal studies, they have been shown to cause cancer, liver toxicity andThe list is set up as parallel items that attach to "cause": "... cause cancer, (cause) liver toxicity ..." But the third item in the list has its own verb, meaning it doesn't attach right: "... to cause cancer, (cause) liver toxicity and (cause) interfere with growth ..."
interfere with growth and development.
Best solution is to break up the list form:
In animal studies, they have been shown to cause cancer and liver toxicity and(Side note: Sorry I've been absent lately. Crazy, crazy schedule stuff.)
to interfere with growth and development.
Monday, September 20, 2010
While both Jane Doe and John Public grew up in South Florida, their love story
began in Los Angeles.
This writer managed to use two of my biggest peeves in the first two words of an article!
For one, I hate loose uses of "while." As a synonym for "though" or "although," it can be sloppy and confusing. As for "both," that's more a personal prejudice. Often it's just wasted ink. In the cases in which "both" is useful, like this sentence, writers often put it in a less-than-ideal location. Here's what I did to the passage.
Though Jane Doe and John Public both grew up in South Florida, their love story
began in Los Angeles.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Guests sipped signature cocktails and nibbled hors d'oeuvres into the wee
hours until the evening winded down and they went home with gift baskets teeming
with treats from local merchants.
The catch ....
I changed "winded" to "wound."
"Winded," 99% of the time, means out of breath. The proper past tense of the verb "to wind" is "wound." Webster's New World does allow "winded" as a past tense, but calls it "rare." And in copy editing, we never opt for secondary dictionary choices, much less "rare" ones.
That was almost the one that got away.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
"If I see a correct semicolon, that makes my day! They’re so useful!"
Um, dude: If they were so useful, sightings wouldn't be so rare.
As I mention in my new book, I'm an antisemicolonite. In-the-trenches copy editing can do that to a person. Once you've seen enough writers composing ridiculously long and awkward sentences solely to create opportunities to show off their semicolon prowess, you see how semicolons can do more harm than good.
Stan makes some great counterpoints to the English-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket coalition. But, to me, the most striking thing about their mentality is this: The Chicken Littles bemoaning the decline of English never seem concerned that, if there is evidence that English is in decline, that could be a sign that education is in decline across every discipline.
Increased ignorance about "affect" and "effect" is, to me, much less alarming than a decline in the number of students qualified to become engineers, physicists and mathematicians. Yes, these skills may go hand-in-hand with language learning. But that's the point: If they do, why are the Chicken Littles concerned only about the language part?
By emphasizing only language and by failing to put alleged language skills declines into context with possible declines in math, science and history, the English alarmists tip their hand. They're not about concern. They're about control.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Santa Cruz also offers year-round golf, riding the dunes in a four-wheel ATV, horseback riding, surfing, body boarding or fishing from its 1,100-foot pier.
There's an issue here that's cropping up so much lately I'm starting to wonder: Is it happening more? Or did I fail to notice it before?
The issue I'm talking about: "or."
The town doesn't offer surfing, body boarding or fishing. It offers surfing, body boarding and fishing. I wonder whether this happens because the list got so long that the writer forgot how the sentence was structured.
Just an interesting little mental blip is all. I changed "or" to "and."
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Researchers reading the brain waves were able to identify some of the words.
The story's here.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Thank you for writing to me. I do not hear from many friends since my brain problem. Im feeling alot better, even though I don’t remember too good what all happened that night. Hey, now that I hear from you I think I remember: Weren’t you driving my car that night? Please give me your phone number so my mom can call you and ask what happened that night and if you were drinking.
Also, come over for fluffer nutters.
It’s wonderful to hear from you, though I cannot say it was a surprise. I knew that one day Jesus would draw you close enough that I could help you find his light and help guide you toward His one true church: Uniscientarianism, which teaches that the one true path to God is through overseas missionary work combined with a carb-restricted diet, door-to-door testifying and shedding yourself of all your material shackles. I look forward to helping you come into his light over the months and years to come!
What a trip hearin’ from you. Man, if it weren’t for this Facebook stuff I tell you I’d go nuts in this place. By “this place,” I’m sure you know I’m talking about the San Tancredo State Correctional Facility, where I’m stuck serving fifteen to twenty just for downloading a few hundred pictures “the man” says I shouldn’t be allowed to have.
Having someone like you on the outs can definitely make my life in here a lot easier. And if you can follow my directions for baking me a very special kind of birthday cake, maybe you can help me make my time here a lot shorter, too!
Write back soon. I mean it.
How are you?!? It’s great to hear from you! I guess you found my Facebook page through the dating site where I linked it. I bet you were surprised to see me on a site that hooks up people who don’t meet society’s standards of beauty. But, as I’m sure you saw in my photo spread, I’ve let myself go these last few years. But, hey, you were never one for dentists, either, now were you!?! And we unattractive folks enjoy discreet encounters, too. After all, that’s what the Bumping Uglies website is all about!
Please write and let me know where you’d like to meet and what you want me to wear.
Thanks for friending me! I’m doing good -- really excited about getting started with Amway. Do you know about Amway? Well, it works like this …
Friday, September 3, 2010
The popularity of fashion eyeglass frames began to spread, becoming so popular
in the late 1920s that the Sears catalogue dedicated an entire page to them.
I'm still noodling over it. Does popularity spread? Or is it more idiomatic to say it grows or perhaps increases? And I almost overlooked that dangling participle, which seems to suggest "popularity became so popular."
Here are some alternatives I'm toying with.
The popularity of fashion eyeglass frames grew. By the 1920s, the Sears
catalogue dedicated an entire page to them.
The popularity of fashion eyeglass frames grew so much that in the late 1920s
the Sears catalogue dedicated an entire page to them.
Hmmm. I think I'll go with that last one.
Fashion eyeglass frames started to get popular. By the late 1920s the Sears
catalogue dedicated an entire page to them.
Fashion eyeglass frames became so popular that by the late 1920s the the Sears catalogue dedicated an entire page to them.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Words that Should Get a Divorce (One in a continuing series on words whose relationships have grown tired)
Poor naught. While its partner, for, runs around with every other word under the sun, naught can't find a single other preposition that will give it the time of day.
You'll never see from naught, to naught, with naught, or at naught. And no way will naught ever get to strike out on its own, heading up a sentence like "Naught is what you've got."
Nope, naught is hopelessly codependent.
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
due to preposition: Because of
Usage Note: Due to has been widely used for many years as a compound preposition like owing to, but some critics have insisted that due should be used only as an adjective. According to this view, it is incorrect to say The concert was canceled due to the rain, but acceptable to say The cancellation of the concert was due to the rain, where due continues to function as an adjective modifying cancellation. This seems a fine point, however, and since due to is widely used and understood, there seems little reason to avoid using it as a preposition.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Supporting each other through their education and in their career dreams has been a vein running through their 10-year relationship that continues today as Jones pursues her dreams of becoming a licensed psychiatrist.My friend was shocked. "You really have your work cut out for you," she said. On the contrary, I said. Fixing troubled prose like this usually means just 1. looking for ways to break up unwieldy sentences, 2. looking for unnecessary information that can be cut, and 3. cleaning up wrong verb tenses and awkward constructions. Here's how it looked when I was done.
After graduating from the New York-based Cornell University where Wilson earned a degree in chemistry and Jones earning multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology, Wilson realized that he did not want to pursue a career in chemistry. He enrolled in NYU to earn another bachelor degree in civil engineering. During this period, Jones decided that she wanted to enter medical school and thus began taking pre-med courses at Princeton.
Throughout their 10-year relationship, the two have supported each other’s education and career goals. Both graduated from Cornell University, Cosby with a degree in chemistry and Jones with multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology. Soon after, Wilson realized that he did not want to pursue a career in chemistry. He enrolled in NYU to earn another bachelor’s degree, this one in civil engineering. Jones decided that she wanted to enter medical school and began taking pre-med courses at Princeton.
Here, bit by bit, is what I did and why.
The main clause of this sentence says "supporting each other has been a vein." Gerund subject, bland verb, abstract complement. I liked what the writer was trying to say here, but she failed to pull it off. So, rather than structure the whole sentence in service to the "vein" idea, I figured it was better to make "supporting" an action instead of a subject: "They have supported each other."
Supporting each other through their education and in their career dreams has been a vein running through their 10-year relationship that continues today as Jones pursues her dreams of becoming a licensed psychiatrist.
The clause "... that continues today as Jones pursues her dreams of becoming a licensed psychiatrist" contains some worthwhile information -- Jones is working toward a new goal and Wilson's still supporting her. But all that will become clear in the sentences that follow. And in an already unwieldy sentence, the clause was doing more harm than good. So I cut it and let the facts speak for themselves.
The next sentence was a mess:
After graduating from the New York-based Cornell University where Wilson earned a degree in chemistry and Jones earning multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology, Wilson realized that he did not want to pursue a career in chemistry.
The tense shift is the most glaring problem: "where Wilson earned and Jones earning." But the structure here is bad, too. There's a ton of info crammed into that subordinate clause "After graduating ..." The sentence is supposed to be about Wilson, but writer also used this "after" clause as a place to cram in some info about Jones. It's just too much. So I broke it up into two sentences, one about their education (Both graduated from Cornell University, Wilson with a degree in chemistry and Jones with multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology) and the other sentence about Wilson's decision (Soon after, Wilson realized that he did not want to pursue a career in chemistry).
The next sentence was almost fine:
He enrolled in NYU to earn another bachelor degree in civil engineering.
I changed bachelor degree to "bachelor's" -- mainly because that's our style. But there was a logic problem, too. "Another bachelor's degree in civil engineering" suggests he already held a civil engineering degree. That wasn't what the writer meant, so I inserted "this one in" for clarity, ending up with: He enrolled in NYU to earn another bachelor's degree, this one in civil engineering.
The final sentence was structured okay, but contained some lard:
During this period, Jones decided that she wanted to enter medical school and thus began taking pre-med courses at Princeton.
"During this period" is unnecessary -- not worth the extra words. And "thus," in my humble opinion, has no business in a feature article. Out it went.
Little fixes aside, this passage mostly needed its sentences broken up. And when you see how making a gerund like "supporting" into a real verb like "support," and when you see how information in an "after" clause can be made into a separate sentence, breaking sentences up is very easy to do.
* I disguised the passage by changing some details.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
This sentence is from an article I'm editing: "The groom was attired in a '50s-era linen suit."
In my little world, attire always shows up as a noun. "The attire is formal." If I've ever heard it used as a verb, I don't remember it. So I looked it up in Webster's New World, which is the designated dictionary for the publication I'm working for. Lo and behold, it lists attire as a verb first (transitive) and a noun second.
Attire me embarrassed.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
* web now takes a lowercase W, even though Internet and World Wide Web are still treated as proper names;
* you now capitalize the S in street when writing "at the intersection of Maple and Main Streets";
* iPod now gets a lowercase I when it begins a sentence; and, my favorite:
* "Names ending with an 'eez' sound - Names like Xerxes or Euripides now form the possessive in the usual way—with an apostrophe s. (When these forms are spoken, however, the additional s is generally not pronounced.)"
Again, that's for people who follow the Chicago Manual. All you AP Stylebook devotees can go back to puzzling over why Chicago continues to put so much focus on Xerxes and Euripides.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
chaise longue = 984,000 hits
chaise lounge = 1,430,000 hits
"Chaise lounge" is one of those terms that gets sticklers up in arms. It should be "chaise longue," literally "long chair" in French, they say. And dictionaries clearly prefer "longue."
Under the entry for "chaise" alone, Webster's New World mentions the "longue" option, but does not mention "lounge." Under its listing for "chaise longue," this dictionary doesn't even mention the "lounge" spelling.
But if you look up "chaise lounge," it's in there as a term meaning "chaise longue."
This is on my mind because I came across a "chaise lounge" in an article I was editing yesterday. I changed it, of course. And I'll continue to do so. But it looks like the tide is turning.
Friday, August 13, 2010
The retired couple has a maid and a gardener, each of whom visit once a week.
Should that visit be visits? Well, yes. Each has a singular meaning, so the verb should be singular as well. But in the process of researching this, I found some interesting stuff about each and when it might not be singular. It's a usage note from American Heritage Dictionary:
The traditional rule holds that the subject of a sentence beginning with each is grammatically singular, and the verb and following pronouns
must be singular accordingly: Each of the apartments has (not have) its (not
their) own private entrance (not entrances). When each follows a plural
subject, however, the verb and subsequent pronouns remain in the plural: The
apartments each have their own private entrances (not has its own private
entrance). But when each follows the verb with we as its subject, the
rule has an exception. One may say either We boys have each our own room or We
boys have each his own room, though the latter form may strike readers as
stilted. The expression each and every is likewise followed by a
singular verb and, at least in formal style, by a singular pronoun: Each and
every driver knows (not know) what his or her (not their) job is to be.
We readers have each her own opinion on this ...
Monday, August 9, 2010
Imagine you're writing about a gathering of parents of one-child families -- a support group, maybe, or perhaps some kind of political movement. Would it be better to write, “Six hundred parents brought their child” or “six hundred parents brought their children”? The former seems to suggest that six hundred people all share just one kid. The second could be interpreted to mean that some or all of them had multiple kids.
This is not a new issue by any stretch, but it’s one that continues to drive me nuts in my editing work.
Another example: “About two dozen customers had their car serviced” or “… had their cars serviced”?
Another: “Flood victims should read their homeowner policy” or “policies”?
Obviously, you can often sidestep this problem, especially with the word “each.” Six hundred parents attended, each with his or her child in tow.”
But what about when you can’t or just don’t want to?
In theory, I prefer the plural object. Six hundred parents don’t share one child. True, “Six hundred parents brought their children” does not make it clear that each had only one. But at least it doesn’t say all those parents possess a singular child. In other words, it doesn’t explain how the kids are divvied up. But at least you know you’re not divvying up just one.
But then I come across stuff like this Los Angeles Times excerpt, and see it’s not so simple: “The drugs help patients who have had heart attacks” really does sound like each patient had multiple.
The editor in me wants a precise way of dealing with this. The rest of me knows better.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Came across this sentence in a personal finance article today:
One way crooks steal your name is by swiping preapproved credit offers from your mailbox to open an account.I haven't heard "swipe" used to mean "steal" in so long I had almost forgotten about it. So I Googled it.
In the first two pages of hits returned, I saw a lot of references to credit cards, a few dictionary and wiki definitions referring to taking a swing at someone, physically or verbally. And even: "The Swipe is one of the most recognizable power moves in breakdance. The breaker leans back, whips his arms to one side to touch the ground, and his legs follow closely behind, twisting 360 degrees to land on the ground once again." (I would have called that the "Not Tonight I Have a Headache," but what do I know?) But not one reference to stealing.
So I guess thieves have had their word stolen from them.
Monday, August 2, 2010
I know what bade means. It's the past tense of bid. Today I bid you farewell. Yesterday I bade you farewell.
That's not why I was looking it up. I looked it up because I wanted an official ruling on how to pronounce it.
On the rare occasions when I hear people use this word, they always pronounce it "bad." Seemed like a bad call to me. If they would pronounce it as ryhming with "made," there would be less chance of confusion. After all, "bad" is a very common word but "bayed" is pretty rare (despite the sudden emergence of werewolf chic).
So, at long (long, long) last, I looked it up.
"Bad" news. I was wrong.
Dictionary.com and Webster's New World College both said it's pronounced "bad," not "bayed."
Makes me wanna howl.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
A few months ago, my work computer got a security upgrade. Now when I double-click the time, the computer tells me, "You do not have the proper privilege to change the System Time."
You've won this round, rude, belittling, inarticulate computer ...
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Two of my favorite words: "ultracrepidarian" and "mumpsimus." They're closely related.
ultracrepidarian = one who pretends to greater knowledge than he or she actually possesses; esp., a know-nothing know-it-all.
mumpsimus = one who persists in error despite irrefutable correction. President. G.W. Bush was a mumpsimus when it came to saying "nuclear."
Neither Webster's New World College Dictionary nor Merriam-Webster contained either word. But Dictionary.com had 'em: ultracrepidarian
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
It teaches how to improve writing at the sentence level. I based it largely on the writing problems I see in my copy editing work. It talks about upside-down subordination, passives, weak verb choices, weak noun choices, how to pare down flabby prose, how adverbs can backfire on a writer, and more issues that make good writing go bad.
I also use real-life examples of badly written sentences (many of them by professionals) and show how to break them down into parts and rebuild them better.
Here are links on Powell's, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, and IndieBound.
It Was the Best of Sentences scored back-cover endorsements from literary agent and author extraordinaire Donald Maass (author of The Fire in Fiction), Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty (author of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing), and Elizabeth Little (author of Biting the Wax Tadpole, which, by the way, is a fascinating read for anyone interested in foreign languages).
I really hope It Was the Best of Sentences will help some struggling writers become great writers!
Monday, July 26, 2010
After that, for contrast, are dialogue excerpts from James Cain’s “Double Indemnity” and from my friend Christa Faust’s novel “Money Shot.”
* * * * *
“He made it very clear that this was a matter that required the greatest possible discretion and that we should get as few people involved as possible. Bjurman should never have had anything to do with it -- it was way above his level -- but since he already knew what was going on it was better to keep him on rather than bring in somebody new. I assume that the same reasoning applied to a junior officer like myself. (Officer Bjorck, “Fire” p. 527)
“Salander has been subjected to a number of infringements on her rights, starting when she was a child. I do not mean for this to continue on my watch. You have the option to remove me as leader of the investigation, but if you did that I would be forced to write a harsh memo about the matter.” (Officer Bublanksi, “Hornet” p. 27.)
“His injuries seem to be similar to those of a car crash victim -- it's hardly credible that anyone could do such damage with his bare hands.” (Chief Spangberg, “Hornet” p. 29)
“I have met Mikael Blomkvist on several occasions in the course of this investigation. I have found him quite likeable, even though he is a journalist. I suppose you’re the one who has to make a decision about charging him. All this stuff about insults and resisting arrest is just nonsense. I assume you will ignore it.” (Officer Modig, “Hornet” p. 31)
“I agree with Sonja. I too think Blomkvist is a man we could work with. I’ve apologized to him for the way he was treated last night.” (Officer Erlander, “Hornet” p. 31)
“You set up your observation post on precisely the spot where we’d positioned alarms. It’s the best view of the farm. Usually it’s moose or deer, and sometimes berry-pickers who come too close.” (Organized crime boss/pimp Alexander Zalachencko, “Fire” p. 599)
“If they called us up, we’d cancel on him wouldn’t we? You bet we would. We’d return his unused premium so fast you couldn’t see our dust, and he knew it. Oh no, he wasn’t taking a chance on our doctor going out there to look at his leg and tipping things off. That’s a big point.” (Insurance inspector Norton, “Indemnity” p. 58)
“I had an aunt named Lia. But she was a fat, religious woman with eight kids and more hair on her chin than I have on my pussy.” (Porn actress Tabitha Moore, “Money Shot,” p. 116)
Friday, July 23, 2010
The edits are similar to what I do to some of the feature articles I work on. The difference is that, with a full-length novel, no one really has the time to do the detailed, extensive line-editing Larsson’s work requires. (I base that on the first two books in the Larsson’s “Milennium” series, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” which I recently finished reading.) In the book world, most editors would simply reject the manuscript with a note like, “Good story. But the writing’s not quite there.”
Yet an editor acquired Larsson's three manuscripts, and the series became one of the biggest blockbusters in years. (This is where my explanation would go if I had one.) Here’s the page, the edited page, and the sample rewrite.
Friday, April 8
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.
“What? he said, confused.
“Rescue Service helicopter coming in. Two patients. An injured man and a younger woman. The woman has gunshot wounds.”
“All right,” Jonasson said wearily.
Although he had slept for only half an hour, he felt groggy. He was on the night shift in the ER at Sahlgrenska hospital in Gotegborg. It had been a strenuous evening.
By 12:30 the steady flow of emergency cases had eased off. He had made a round to check on the state of his patients and then gone back to the staff bedroom to try to rest for a while. He was on duty until 6:00, and seldom got the chance to sleep even if no emergency patients came in. But this time he had fallen asleep almost as soon as he turned out the light.
Jonasson saw lightning over the sea. He knew that the helicopter was coming in the nick of time. All of a sudden a heavy downpour lashed at the window. The storm had moved in over Goteborg.
He heard the sound of the chopper and watched as it banked through the storm squalls down towards the helipad. For a second he held his breath when the pilot seemed to have difficulty controlling the aircraft. Then it vanished from his field of vision and he heard the engine slowing to a land. He took a hasty swallow of tea and set down his cup.
Jonasson met the emergency team in the admissions area. The other doctor on duty took on the first patient who was wheeled in -- an elderly man with ….
Friday, April 8
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. (PROBABLY NOT A GOOD IDEA TO START WITH TWO PASSIVES IN THE VERY FIRST SENTENCE. PLS REVISE.) It was just before 1:30 in the morning.
“What? he said (ASKED?), confused. (IS THERE SOME SIMPLE WAY TO SHOW HIS CONFUSION?)
“Rescue Service helicopter coming in. Two patients. An injured man and a younger woman. The woman has gunshot wounds.”
“All right,” Jonasson said wearily. (HAVING HIM SAY “ALL RIGHT” SEEMS UNNECESSARY. WOULD IT BE MORE INTERESTING TO SAY WHAT HE DID RATHER THAN WHAT HE SAID AND HOW HE SAID IT?)
Although he had slept for only half an hour, he felt groggy. (ALTHOUGH? SEEMS TO ME THAT SLEEPING FOR JUST A HALF HOUR COULD BE WHAT MADE HIM GROGGY.) He was on the night shift in the ER at Sahlgrenska hospital in Gotegborg. It had been a strenuous evening. (VAGUE. SHOULD WE THROW IN A DETAIL OR TWO ABOUT THE EVENING AND PERHAPS ABOUT THE HOSPITAL, TOO?)
By 12:30 the steady flow of emergency cases (SEE NOTE ABOVE) had eased off. He had made a round to check on the state of his patients (DELETE “THE STATE OF”) and then gone back to the staff bedroom to try to (DELETE “TRY TO”) rest for a while. (I’VE NEVER HEARD OF A “STAFF BEDROOM.” ANY WAY TO MAKE THIS MORE VISUAL?) He was on duty until 6:00, (DELETE COMMA) and seldom got the chance to sleep even if no emergency patients came in. (WHY NOT? WHAT OTHER WORK WOULD KEEP HIM SO BUSY ON THE GRAVEYARD EMERGENCY ROOM SHIFT?) But this time he had fallen asleep almost as soon as he turned out the light. (“BUT THIS TIME” DOESN’T MAKE SENSE HERE. YOU’RE CONTRASTING A SENTENCE ABOUT NEVER HAVING THE CHANCE TO LIE DOWN WITH ANOTHER THAT SEEMS TO SUGGEST THAT LYING DOWN AND TURNING OUT THE LIGHT IS COMMON AND THE ONLY THING DIFFERENT IS HOW FAST HE FELL ASLEEP. PLS. FIX.)
Jonasson saw lightning over the sea. (YOU HAVEN’T GIVEN THE READER ANY SENSE OF PLACE – MUCH LESS ONE THAT INVOLVES A STAFF BEDROOM IN A HOSPITAL WITH AN OCEAN-VIEW WINDOW. ONCE YOU’VE EXPLAINED THE PHYSICAL LAYOUT THAT MAKES THIS POSSIBLE, PLEASE PLACE HIM AT THE WINDOW BEFORE SAYING WHAT HE SAW THROUGH IT.) He knew that (DELETE “HE KNEW THAT.”) the helicopter was coming in the nick of time. All of a sudden a heavy downpour lashed at the window. (1. SO MAYBE THE HELICOPTER ISN’T COMING IN THE NICK OF TIME? 2. “DOWNPOUR” USUALLY REFERS TO A WHOLE STORM AND NOT JUST A WAVE OF RAINDROPS HITTING A WINDOW. 3. “LASHED AT” SEEMS LIKE THE RAINDROPS CAME NEAR THE WINDOW BUT DIDN’T ACTUALLY TOUCH IT.) The storm had moved in over Goteborg.(DELETE WHOLE SENTENCE.)
He heard the sound of the chopper and watched as it banked (WHERE IS HE? SEEMS AWFULLY CONVENIENT THAT HE CAN SEE BOTH THE STORM ROLLING IN AND THE HELIPAD.) through the storm squalls(THAT WAS FAST) down towards the helipad. For a second he held his breath when the pilot seemed to have difficulty controlling the aircraft.(WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT DID HE SEE?) Then it vanished(UNCLEAR. EXPLAIN.) from his field of vision and he heard the engine slowing to a land. He took a hasty swallow of tea (KIND OF WEIRD THAT A JUST-SLEEPING MAN HAD SOME TEA HANDY. ALSO, SHOULDN’T HE BE SCRUBBING UP OR SOMETHING?) and set down his cup (ON WHAT?)
Jonasson met the emergency team in the admissions area.(DETAILS?) The other doctor on duty(DETAILS?) took on the first patient who was wheeled in(MIGHT BE BETTER IF WE DID THIS IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER: FIRST THE PATIENT WAS WHEELED IN, THEN THE DOCTOR “TOOK ON” THE PATIENT, BUT FIND A MORE SPECIFIC ALTERNATIVE TO “TOOK ON”—an elderly man with ….
Here is a rough sketch of how I suspect other authors might have approached the page:
Nurse Helga Olsson placed a firm hand on the sleeping doctor’s shoulder and shook him gently.
“Chopper coming in,” she said. “Two patients. An injured man and a woman with gunshot wounds. They’ll be here in five minutes.”
Dr. Sven Jonasson sat up and looked at the digital clock on the steel surgical tray that served as a nightstand. It was 1:28 a.m.
He felt groggy. He had only slept for half an hour on a cot in the small room next to the doctors’ lounge. It had been a rough night. Sahlgrenska Hospital’s ER had treated two stabbing victims, a couple of broken bones, and a peanut allergy reaction so severe Dr. Jonasson had to insert a breathing tube in the patient’s bloated neck to save her life.
By 12:30 a.m. the emergency cases had eased off. Dr. Jonasson made a round to check on his patients then went into the small room and lay down. He had fallen asleep almost as soon as he turned out the light.
He stood and watched nurse Olsson leave, then he walked to the window and looked out over Dorn Bay. A flash of lightning illuminated the water and he could see the torrents moving in. Within seconds, rain was lashing the window.
He heard a chopper and watched as it slowly came into view over the water. It banked through the storm squalls toward the helipad at the north end of the hospital grounds. Suddenly, the copter dropped about thirty feet, then it wobbled back and forth. Dr. Jonasson gasped and then held his breath as the chopper leveled and headed toward the helipad, where it landed safely.
He reached for the cup of tea he’d left on the makeshift nightstand and took a sip. It was cold and milky. He grimaced and set down the cup.
He arrived at the emergency room the same time as Dr. William Sorli, a skinny, wide-eyed intern who had been working the ER for about six months. They watched as a breathless EMT wheeled in the first patient—a crumpled old man who …
Thursday, July 22, 2010
I was also patting myself on the back for my eagle-eyed spotting of that little A before "mental," messing up a word that should of course be spelled "tempermental." Then I looked it up.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
At present, the university has 15 schools and 52 departments.
... changed to ...
The university has 15 schools and 52 departments.
Feels so good to do that ...
Friday, July 16, 2010
President Obama took on House GOP Leader John Boehner’s call for repealing financial reform before it’s signed yesterday.
Never thought I'd see a boo-boo that made me long for a "t'were." I wonder if this was an editor-inserted error. (They happen. Take it from an editor who's inserted her fair share.)
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Guests are given glowsticks to guide their way through the already freaky figures and dioramas—a gauntlet that’s pretty scary to run even with the lights on.
It's weird enough that it seems to be based on a metaphor mixing "run the gamut" (range, scale) and "throw down the gauntlet" (glove). But "a gauntlet that's scary to run"?
I changed it to "a course that's pretty scary to run." But it'll be a while before I'm confident about it ...
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
I have no idea how much effort the creators put into making it scientific, but it's definitely fun. A chapter from my last book in which I wax philosophical about pudding shakers was compared to the work of Agatha Christie. A sappy column I wrote after Vonnegut died scored me a Stephen King comparison. And two paragraphs from my brand-new book (which I just got in the mail today!) was written in the style of Charles Dickens.
But here's the funny thing: The book is called "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences" -- a play on Dickens! And, no, the excerpt did not include those words or any other Dickens stuff. Spooky.
Here's the site: http://iwl.me/
Sunday, July 11, 2010
I list these verbs in their base forms -- i.e. “had been” and “were” are listed as “be.” Verbs forming independent clauses are in all caps. Verbs forming subordinate clauses are lowercase. Participial modifiers are not counted as verbs.
Larsson, page 414 -- 18 sentences:
3. RECALL, HAVE, be
6. BE, FIND, find
7. BE, gnaw
8. NOTICE, take, keep
9. BE, BE, summarize
10. HAVE, BE, clear out, throw
12. BE, FIND
13. SEE, remove, deal with
14. SPEND, MISS, COME, HAVE
15. FIND, contain
16. GO, try, find
18. DISCOVER, GO, USE
McCarthy, page 136 -- 15 sentences
1. bend, see, FEAR, be, put
2. GO, CROSS
3. SET, TAKE, PUNCH, PUNCH, DRAIN
4. PULL, POUR
5. TWIST, MAKE, POUR, PUT, SHAKE
6. POUR, TAKE, STUFF
7. TAKE, GET, STRIKE
8. TRY, STOP, POUR
9. FLARE, say
11. RAKE, BLOOM
12. REACH, BLOW, HAND
King, page 61– 27 complete sentences
1. HOLD, LOOK
3. cut, SAY
4. LOOK, CUT
6. TRY, scramble, go, thump
7. PIVOT, BE
10. GET, TURN
12. BRING, WANT, MAKE
13. REMEMBER, choke up
16. BE, be, SOUND, slacken
17. HAPPEN, BEGIN
20. do, SAY, REACH, take
21. SAY, SWING
23. BURST, snap
24. RUN, PATTER
25. stop, SAY
17. SAY, BRING
25% (ten) of Larsson’s verbs are “be.” Just over 25% (eleven) are nonphysical or mental actions like “recall, “understand,” “summarize,” “discover” and “find.”
2-1/2% (one) of McCarthy’s verbs are “be” and 2-1/2% convey a state of mind (“fear.”)
10% (five) of King’s verbs are “be” and most of the rest are actions.
The process I used to choose these pages probably wasn’t fair. I started with a Larsson page I had already noted as bad then flipped through McCarthy and King for pages that looked about as dense with narrative as the Larsson page (that is, pages that didn’t have much dialogue). Still, I bet that a fair and complete accounting of the verbs in all three books would show similar -- if not quite as marked -- tendencies. That is, McCarthy and King rely more on action verbs while Larsson’s work relies more on verbs that convey being, seeming, or thinking.
That’s partly why I prefer reading McCarthy and King.
Larsson structures a lot of his sentences like this:
“The reason for her visit to the crime scene was to get two pieces of information” and “Second was an inconsistency that kept gnawing at her.” (p. 414)
Notice how, in both, he hangs the main clause on “was” and crams the more interesting stuff into less-prominent parts of the sentence. Imagine he had written them:
“She visited the crime scene to find two pieces of information.”
“An inconsistency kept gnawing at her.”
See how the noun “visit” can be made into an action? See how “gnaw” can be made the main action in the sentence instead of just part of a relative clause in a sentence whose main verb is the ho-hum “was”?
I think there’s a lesson in here …
Saturday, July 10, 2010
The prose in "Dragon" was pretty bad. But the story was fast-paced enough to distract me from the writing. Not so with "Fire." As the story drags on, I've started noticing sentences and passages I want to fix. (It's a copy editor thing. A disease, really.) I started dog-earing examples of problem sentences and paragraphs, figuring I'd analyze them here. But soon, it seemed that every other page was dog-eared with examples too bad to pass up. And I could feel my chest tightening: It's too much. The writing's too convoluted. I can't possibly fix all this. But I can't just let it go, either.
So, in the interest of maintaining healthy blood pressure, I decided that I didn't have to fix all Stieg's problem passages. I could just share some here (tinkering only if it didn't seriously affect my heart rate). So here's an example of Stieg prose (which is also an example of how often huge sales success goes hand in hand with bad writing).
Larsson wrote in Swedish, was translated into English, and then the manuscript presumably passed through the hands of an editor and copy editor. I'm not sure where the blame goes. That said, here's the passage from "The Girl Who Played with Fire."
Salander soon discovered that the person who had leaked the information to the media was Ekstrom himself. This was evident from an email in which he answered follow-up questions about both Salander's psychiatric report and the connection between her and Miriam Wu.
The third significant piece of information was the insight that Bublanski's team did not have a single lead as to where they should look for Salander. She read with interest a report on what measures had been taken and which addresses had been put under sporadic surveillance.
Note how the pivotal verb in three out of four of those sentences is "was." Here's one way that, I suspect, a lot of writers might have written it:
Salander skimmed Ekstrom's emails until she saw one with the subject line "Re: Psych report, Wu connection," addressed to a reporter at a local paper. She opened it. "No," the first line read, "Salander's doctors never used the word 'sociopath' in the report. But they did consider her violent. Re your other question: Miriam Wu admitted she and Salander played 'sex games,' as she called them."
So Ekstrom was the rotten son of a bitch who blabbed to the media.
Salander also found on Ekstrom's computer a list of the places police had been staking out to find her: her old apartment, Miriam's place, Mikhael's cabin. The condo wasn't on the list. They had no clue where she was hiding. Good.
Friday, July 9, 2010
I'll never stop marveling at NY Times' use of apostrophes to form plurals of initialisms. It's a valid choice. I just don't get the why.