Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)

Most major publications have both an official style guide and an official dictionary they turn to to make decisions. For example, some dictionaries my spell "air conditioning" with a hyphen while others don't. The only way a copy editor can know which one to use in her publication is to check the official dictionary for that publication.

Of course, in my case, the official dictionary for the publication I'm copy editing is on somebody else's desk, all the way across the room. So I often just check dictionary.com first, as I did for a recent article that referred to cute, "wisp thin," fashionable young women as "gamins."

n. a neglected boy left to run about the streets; street urchin --

n. an often homeless boy who roams about the streets; an urchin
-- American Heritage Dictionary

I was in a conundrum. Sure, I could just change the word. But then I'd be up a creek when the editor who had already edited the story -- and left "gamin" in -- wanted to know why I changed a perfectly good word. So I hauled my poor self all the way across the room and opened our official dictionary, Webster's New World College Dictionary:

1. a neglected child left to roam the streets; street urchin 2. a girl
with a roguish, saucy charm: also gamine

It was official. One out of three dictionaries approved use of "gamin" for a girl, albeit without really emphasizing the skinny part that was central to the story. In the end, I decided that I still didn't like it. It was too distracting, taking the reader (or at least one reader) out of the story. I changed it to "waif."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Media Moment (First in an occasional series on notable uses of language in the media)

NBC correspondent Tim Russert, when asked on Aug. 23 how big was the news that Republican Senator John Warner had broken ranks with the president on the war issue, answered:
"In a word: Very big."

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)

adj. Slang Used as an intensive: He's a helluva great guy.
Alteration of 'hell of a.'
-- American Heritage Dictionary

* adj. phonetic sp. of 'hell of a' -- Webster's New World College
Take that anyone who believes that words don't evolve from misuse and misspellings.

* Asterisk stands in for the little star Webster's uses to denote an "Americanism." If only I had a British English dictionary I'd check under "b" for "bloodyhelluva."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Great Moments in Copy Editing (First in an occasional series)*

I've been doing some freelance copy-editing/proofreading work lately. I don’t want to say for whom, because that would make it rather uncool of me to share this incriminating little tidbit:

In an article about lighting fixtures used in interior design, today I corrected not one but two instances of the term "wall scones."

Mmmmmm ... wall scones.

* I changed this header after realizing this could be an ongoing thing.

Comma Magic

Reporters who do not read the style guide should not complain about their

Reporters, who do not read the style guide, should not complain about their

Big difference, huh? (I had forgotten about this example until I rediscovered it in a style guide yesterday.) The rule at play: Use commas to set off nonrestrictive clauses -- i.e. clauses that don't restrict or narrow down the subject. Use no commas when the clause is designed to do just that -- i.e. narrow down the set of reporters to just those who don't read the guide (instead of suggesting that none of them do.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Reading for Writing?

A few days ago, RS commented:
I was thinking of this rather tired statement today: "The more you read the
better your writing will be." Any opinion on the subject?

Hmmmm. I dunno. In these situations, I always feel as though I should have an opinion and, if I don't, that I should form one on the spot. So I'll take a crack at it.

Reading seems to have helped my writing. I think there's a lot of truth to the aphorism. But these things, it seems, are never universal.

Augusten Burroughs comes to mind. In "Running with Scissors," he mentions that it never really occurred to him he might become a writer because he had never been a reader. (He grew up in an environment so chaotic it would have been nearly impossible for a child to develop reading habits.) This was true even though he had been journaling (if I remember right) most of his life.

Reading "Running with Scissors," it seems pretty clear that Burroughs is a natural.

I think reading really, really helps. If nothing else, it opens up your writing options by showing you different styles and approaches and genres. But I don't see a universal rule.

Of course, if you were to state the question as, "I want to be a writer. Do you think it would be helpful if I made it a point to read a lot"? the answer would be, "Hell, yes."

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Clearly, I'm a Dink (First in an occasional series on why, clearly, I'm a dink)

In my last post, I blathered on about how none of my three most-used dictionaries contained an entry for the word "Hallows" as a noun. As of today, however, close readers will notice that "three" has been changed to "two."

That's because yesterday, my fiance, Ted, opened up our 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary (one of the three I had accused of neglecting the word), pointed to a page and said, "Didn't you see this?"

It was right under my nose.
Hallow: usu. in pl. hallows. 1. A holy personage, a saint. ... 2. In pl., the
shrines or relics of saints, the gods of the heathen or their shrines.

And lo and behold, with one reference to "relics" we get a really solid clue about how the word evolved from "saints" to "spooky stuff."

On a similar note, did you know that the word "gullible" is not in the dictionary? Better yet, would you believe that I fell for that gag not once but twice?

Dinkily yours,

Monday, August 6, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)

"hallows" (as in "Harry Potter and the Deathly")

More than halfway through the book, I finally realized that I really should look up "hallow" -- a word with which I have no better than a nodding acquaintance. I had only heard it in adjective form, "hallowed be thy name," and have occasionally heard it used as a verb, "to hallow" something, as in to revere.

Surely, the Florida public school system can be faulted for my not knowing it's also a noun, right?

Maybe not.

As I open up my two most-used dictionaries, I see a lot of entries for "hallow" the verb. But there are no entries for "hallow" as a noun. Here's a typical definition:
vt 1. to make holy or sacred; sanctify; consecrate; 2. to regard as holy, honor
as sacred; venerate
-- Webster's New World College Dictionary
Indeed, if Webster's New World College Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary make the rules, there is no noun called "hallow."

They remind me, however, that this can't have always been the case. Most of us have heard the etymology of the word "Halloween." It's an evolved term meaning (or once meaning) "all hallows' eve," a synonym for "all saints' eve."

I bet if I had $800 to spend on an Oxford English Dictionary (hint, hint all you Santas out there in cyber-land), I would find more information about "hallow" as a noun and its relationship to the word "saint." But even then I'd still be scratching my head right now because, in the book, the things referred to as "hallows" are definitely not saints. I'm not sure what they are, but that much I know.

Wikipedia gives me my best clue. According to this source I don't quite trust yet find myself relying on more and more all the time, "The word 'hallows' has been used in legends to represent important and powerful objects."

A lot of this seems to center around Irish lore, in particular a legend that has come to be known as the "Hallows of Ireland." There's also an instance of the word in the "Lord of The Rings" -- "kings and stewards of Gondor were laid to rest in tombs in 'the Hallows' of Rath Dínen," Wikipedia says.

And, in Arthurian legend, the Thirteen Royal Treasures of Britain have been called the "Hallows of Britain."

So clearly, it's a UK thing. Now I'm just wondering why this well established noun isn't in my supposedly "English" dictionaries.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dissecting You-Know-Who

If you cruise any of the Internet message boards where amateur writers post their work for critique, you'll come across passages like this:

The Wilsons arrived the following morning at eleven o'clock. Dylan, Paul, Emma,
and Beth were feeling quite resentful toward the Wilsons by this time, and it
was with ill grace that Paul stumped back upstairs to put on matching socks, and
Dylan attempted to flatten his hair. Once they had all been deemed smart enough,
they trooped out into the sunny backyard to await the visitors.

If I saw this on a please-critique-me message board, my first note would be: Look at the sequence of events. The passage starts with "The Wilsons arrived," then you jump to a time fifteen minutes earlier when others are preparing for their arrival, then you end the paragraph with Dylan and co. still waiting for the Wilsons to arrive. Worse, the way it's written, it takes the reader several full sentences to realize they've jumped back in time.

A major problem? Hardly. But when a work is riddled with stuff like this, it demonstrates lack of skill on the writer's part. Especially when a simple fix, "The Wilsons were to arrive," could help the reader tremendously.

Another questionable choice: "Once they had been deemed smart enough." Deemed by whom? Aren't actions usually more interesting when a character you know is doing them?

You see this lack of skill all the time in amateur writing. But when one of the most successful writers of all time consistently writes this way, well, that's when you know you've got some blog fodder on your hands. You see, I changed the names. The Wilsons are really the Delacours. Paul, Emma, and Beth are really Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. And Dylan, if you haven't guessed it, is Harry. Harry Potter.

Yes, I'm splitting hairs. But the real problem with J.K. Rowling's writing is that there are so many hairs to split. Here's another passage from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows":

Harry looked around at the stacked shoes and umbrellas, remembering how he used
to wake every morning looking up at the underside of the staircase, which was
more often than not adorned with a spider or two. Those had been the days before
he had known anything about his true identity; before he had found out how his
parents had died or why such strange things often happened around him. But Harry
could still remember the dreams that had dogged him, even in those days:
confused dreams involving flashes of green light and once -- Uncle Vernon had
nearly crashed the car when Harry recounted it -- a flying motorbike.

It's that last sentence that interests me. It starts with a "but," suggesting that what follows will be logically contradictory to something before. But that's not the case. The bigger problem occurs when Uncle Vernon pops into the story. Harry is in a house, looking at shoes and reminiscing. Then we're hearing about his dreams. Then suddenly we're forced to piece together something that happened long ago.

Apparently, sometime before, Uncle Vernon was driving Harry in the car and Harry shared with him (which seems implausible to anyone who knows their relationship) a dream about a flying motorcycle. This was so shocking to Uncle Vernon that it nearly caused him to crash.

But, in expecting us to piece together a past event, Rowling doesn't even give us the clues in chronological order. They're all in reverse, forcing us to work backwards.

"Uncle Vernon had nearly crashed the car when Harry recounted it -- a flying motorbike."

First comes Uncle Vernon, then comes the near crash, then comes Harry recounting something, then comes the something: the big reveal -- the shocker -- a flying motorbike. The sentence has a lot more impact if you nix the reference to Uncle Vernon altogether.

Again, not an unforgivable literary crime, unless you're a habitual offender:

The first sound of their approach was an unusually high-pitched laugh, which
turned out to be coming from Mr. Weasley, who appeared at the gate moments
later, laden with luggage and leading a beautiful blonde woman in long,
leaf-green robes, who could only be Fleur's mother.

Now that's a bad sentence. The subordinate clauses stacked one on top of the other. The choice of lame verbs over action verbs -- "was," "turned out to be," "appeared," "be." The fact that Rowling does not actually set a scene here. She could have said, "Harry and Ron were standing in the yard when they heard an unusually high-pitched laugh." In other words, she could have told of the sound from the perspective of the character hearing it. She could have told us where that person was and what he saw and heard. But she didn't.

Rowling is not a terrible writer, but she's not a good one, either. Still, despite her shortcomings, she created a world so many of us want to visit for so very long. The lesson here? I don't offer one. I don't want to make overly broad, embittered statements about how bad writing pays, nor do I want to slam the tastes of the masses.

I just want to say that, by taking a moment to look at another's writing weaknesses, we can understand how to be better writers ourselves.

And with that, I return to my reading.


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