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Archive for November, 2011

Words That Ain’t Words . . . Yet

“Ain’t” ain’t a word.  Right?  But, of course, it is one; we use it all the time.  It’s conversational English.  And though we wouldn’t use it in formal academic writing now,  the way our language constantly changes, someday we probably will.

The word “Diction” refers to the words we choose to use when we speak or write.  Academic writing requires Formal diction.  And even that is a moving target; lots of the words we might use in formal writing today would have been considered too informal a generation ago.  (Contractions are a convenient example.)

Some “nonwords” have been all but eliminated by word processors and spell check.  Time was, for example, that many, many essays contained the “words” “alot”, “definately”, “perservere”, and “sherbert”-but not so much anymore.

But there are several that are actually increasing in frequency; probably, over the long term, some are destined to become acceptable in formal prose.  For now, however, it would be best to avoid them.

Alright is not, technically, a word.  The idea it expresses is correctly written as two words, thus:  all right.

Orientated/Disorientated both add the unnecessary syllable.  At “orientation” you got “oriented”, not “orientated”.  (Just as when you made your presentation, you “presented”; you didn’t “presentate”.)

Ginormous is a delightful coinage that does a great job in conversation.  It’s probably on its way to the formal category, but it’s not (it ain’t?) there yet.

Irregardless means the same thing as regardless. So why the extra “ir”?  Nobody knows, but for some who hear it or read it (you know who you are!), it’s nails on a chalkboard.  (Remember chalkboards?)

Okay phonetically translates the (correct) O.K. or OK and makes it into something that kind of looks like a word.  But it’s not one.

Flustrated is another very useful coinage, and, like ginormous, could be on its way to respectability.   How better to quickly express a condition that is a combination of flustered and frustrated?

Was like, followed by a quote, is one of those wonderful (conversational) speech patterns that, while defying grammatical logic, manage to convey a great deal.

“When I walked in late to the party, he was like, ‘Oh, you decided to show up.’”

This efficiently communicates so much more than the (more correct) alternative, “he said.”  It captures not only his words, but also his attitude, his nature, and to some extent the whole gestalt.

But don’t write it in an essay.

Screamers, et. al.

The fact that punctuation is profoundly important in writing is nearly self-evident.  The inclusion or placement of even the lowly comma can make all the difference.

These sentences from Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves* have very different meanings, even though the words don’t change, only the commas:

“The people in line who managed to get tickets were very happy.”

“The people in line, who managed to get tickets, were very happy.”

In the first sentence only some folks got tickets, but everybody in the second sentence is going to the game.

Then there’s this famous example:

“Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.”

. . . which is far more disquieting than the punctuated version:

“Charles the First walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.”

So we really could not write very clearly without the common punctuation:  commas, periods, semi-colons, colons, and question marks.

But what about those other punctuation marks?   Let’s consider how we’re supposed to use square brackets ([ ]), curly brackets ({ }), ellipses ( . . . ), and, above all, exclamation points (!).

Square Brackets usually signify that we have changed something in a quote to make it clear or to make it fit in a sentence.  So:

“The reporter tried all day to interview [former] President Carter.”

“I could not see how ‘add[ing] another row of seats’ would solve the problem.”

You won’t use Curly Brackets (sometimes called “braces”) very much at all, but there they are on your keyboard, right?  I’m told that they’re useful in math, but in writing they pretty much only enclose a series of equal choices, thus:


“Grab your garment {coat, sweater, jacket, cape} and we’ll head out.”

An Ellipsis (aka  ”dot, dot, dot”) indicates that something is missing.  So when you are writing a research paper and you want to include a quote but the whole thing is too long, use an ellipsis to show that you’ve taken stuff out:

“The use of computers and robotics promises to . . .  enhance the ability to learn new complex operations.”

(NOTE: there’s a space between each dot in an ellipsis-space dot space dot space dot space.)

Exclamation Points ( in the ad agency business, at least) are often called “Screamers”.  And the best advice is to use them sparingly.   They indicate that what comes before is an exclamation, and exclamations are pretty rare, especially in academic prose.

“I can’t believe you just said that!”  or  “Wow!”

Most importantly, resist the temptation to add some zip to an otherwise humdrum sentence by ending it with a screamer.  It will be obvious to your reader that that’s what you’re up to.


*Truss, L. (2004). Eats, shoots, and leaves. Profile Books.

Only Part of the Story

I once heard (probably in an undergraduate art history class, but I’m not sure anymore) that Pablo Picasso had mastered the techniques of classical figure drawing by the time he was 12.  So that when he broke the rules, so to speak, it was intentional and done out of mastery.  The same goes for pretty much all of the elements of good writing:  a master knows when and why to ignore the conventions to achieve a specific effect-but the rest of us might better play it safe.

Q:  What do these three sentences have in common?

“Recent incidents of faulty evidence analysis whether they are eyewitness evidence or lab evidence; one or both will either cancel each other out dismissing a case and letting the free go or they will help each other out to serve as useful pieces of evidence to also free the innocent or imprison the guilty.”

“Interventions such as learning as much as possible about the illnesses, prognoses, and available treatments, knowing the clients’ family support systems and their views, realizing that the clients who are near death often need helping coping with their psychological pain and physical suffering, assuming the role of a resource person, helping clients understand the importance of various personal and formal documents, and most importantly offering comfort to loved ones and friends after the death.”

“A growing number of retailers as the growth in the field of e-commerce, which is shifting toward sites that sell goods directly to consumers over those that focus on bartering between individuals.”

A:  While they all begin with upper-case letters and end with periods, none of them is a sentence;  they are all sentence fragments.

A sentence is an idea or the description of an event.  It is a bit like a VERY short story in which some person or thing (the subject) does something (the verb) to some other person or thing (the object).  (“He smokes a cigarette.”)

And while a sentence (story) can indeed get along without an object (“He smokes.”),  it cannot be complete without a subject (“Smokes a cigarette.”) or a verb (“He a cigarette.”).

And that is true, as the examples above illustrate, no matter how many words the writer uses.


As for those examples:

#1 is complicated because the bit following the semicolon is indeed a complete sentence, while the part before it is just a noun with descriptors.

#2 gives a bunch of examples of “interventions” with no verb to complete the thought.

#3 feels to me more like a proofreading error than anything else.  It seems that a verb belongs after the word “retailers”.

Sometimes, to be sure, you may (in honor of Picasso?) wish to use fragments intentionally.  For emphasis.  But only sometimes.  And very carefully.  Without getting carried away.

Sailing, sailing . . .

A hallmark of our English language is that it is always changing.  Moreover, those changes tend to happen in the language of everyday people first, then work their way “up” until they become used in formal communications.  Words come into the language from everywhere and often change meanings as they are absorbed.  Finding out where words we use all the time came from (a.k.a. their “etymology”) can be fun.

For thousands of years, before trains (early 1800s),  planes (early 1900s), and automobiles (late 1800s), sailing ships provided the fastest way to transport people and goods over long distances.

Sailing ships were designed as cargo vessels, passenger carriers, and pleasure craft.  They were also the most powerful weapons of war.

Charles Darwin based his On the Origin of Species on what he had discovered on his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle.  A guy called Edward Teach became the pirate Blackbeard, an early celebrity outlaw, thanks to sailing ships.   And who knows how different things would be today had Senor Columbus not sailed west from Spain on his Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria?

England became the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth primarily because she ruled the waves.  And not only her coffers were enriched; but her language was too.  Indeed, a whole host of terms that we use in everyday speech and writing have-often forgotten-nautical origins.

Bitter end: This term originally referred to the end of a ship’s anchor cable that is attached to the ship.  “Bitter” here is not the opposite of “sweet”; rather it signifies that the cable was secured to the ship at a pair of posts called “bitts”.

By and large: We use this expression to mean something like “from any way you look at a thing.”   And its nautical meaning is related.  When a ship is “by”, it is sailing as closely as possible to the direction from which the wind is blowing.  When “large”, it is sailing with the breeze directly astern.

Three Sheets to the Wind: Despite their physical resemblance to bedsheets, sails are not called “sheets”.  A sheet, rather, is the sailing term for a rope that controls a sail.  Thus, if three sheets are blowing in the wind, the ship is out of control.  No wonder the phrase came to mean “extremely intoxicated”.

Leeway: A sailing ship, unlike a railroad train, does not run on tracks.  And as it is moved by the wind, it must necessarily be blown at least a little bit sideways even as it moves forward on its course.  The wind blows at the ship from the “weather” side; the other side is the “lee” side.  “Leeway”, then, is the distance between the ship and the nearest land on the lee side–enough room to try something different or even make a mistake and not worry about crashing into a rock.

Know the Ropes: Everything from keeping the masts standing upright to stretching certain sails in the right direction, to providing ladders was accomplished on a sailing ship by hundreds of ropes.  A young crewman had to learn what they all did–he had to “learn the ropes”–while an experienced sailor was said to “know the ropes”.

Footloose: With all due respect to Kenny Wormald and Kevin Bacon, the origin of this term has nothing to do with dancing or even human feet.  The bottom portion of a sail is called the “foot”.  If the foot is unsecured (by ropes, naturally!), the sail flaps in the wind and cannot be made to do its duty.


(NOTE:  If you enjoy this sort of thing, you might like a book called A Sea of Words, by Dean King,, Henry Holt & Co., 1995.)

Language is a Treacherous Thing

. . .language is a treacherous thing, a most unsure vehicle.

–Mark Twain

Some of the people I admire most are those who can speak and write in several languages.  And I am especially in awe of those who have learned English as a “foreign” language;  it can be so confusing!

“Affect” and “Effect” are prime examples of just how confusing.

Most of the time, of course, the meanings of the two words are pretty straightforward.

“Affect” (with the accent on the second syllable) is a verb.  It means something like “influence” or “alter”, as in:

“Extremes of climate affect different crops in different ways.”

“Effect” (also accented on the second syllable) is a noun.  It means “result” or “what was caused”.

“She insisted that the wine had no effect on her whatsoever.”

“The real problem was that they didn’t think through the possible effects of their decision.”

But, sometimes . . .

“Effect” can be a verb.  As a verb, it is almost always used in the sense of causing some change or other.

“In order to effect a more orderly transition, the president promoted certain individuals and transferred others.”

“They were desperate to effect a change in their living situation.”

Likewise . . .

“Affect” (accent on the first syllable) is a noun with several related meanings, all having to do with “appearance”.

“Certain diseases can result in a person losing affect; i.e., her face stays the same regardless of what emotion she is feeling.”

“Affect” can also mean “affectation”-putting on the appearance of something one is not.

“His ten-gallon hat, boots, and spurs gave him a “cowboy” affect, even though he was born and bred in Greenwich Village.”

Are We Positive?

. . . negativity won’t pull you through. 

–Bob Dylan, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”


In the rewriting process, certain words can function as signals to us that here might be a good place to think about whether we have said things as well as possible.  “Not” is one of those words.

As readers, we quickly lose the thread of what we are reading if things are ill-defined or vague.  So as writers it’s our job to say what we mean to say, and that can be much easier said than done.

One way to try to do it is to say things positively, i.e., to define them, to declare that this or that is the case.  And that’s why we need to be on the lookout for the word “not”.

When we write that something is NOT the case, in some instances all we have done is to eliminate one possibility out of a whole host of them, and our reader is no closer to knowing what we mean.

So, in this sentence:

“The visiting professor was not favorably impressed with the school’s facilities.”

We have a vague sense that she was-what?-disappointed?  outraged?  moved to sympathy?   We can’t tell.

Or here:

“Employees are not putting in an undue amount of overtime.”

Is everybody going home at 5:00?  Are they working overtime, but not a lot? Is business way off?  Are they choosing not to work extra?  Who knows?

One more:

“He will not look for a job.”

So what WILL he do?  Go on welfare? Keep the job he has? Turn to a life of crime?

(NOTE:  “Not” can be used for emphasis, if we follow with a positive statement, thus:

“He will not look for a job; rather he will try his luck and talent as a freelancer in the global, internet marketplace.”)

Just to be clear.  Much, even most, of the time the word “not” is perfectly clear and we can proceed without changing a thing.  But that should be a conscious, thoughtful decision.