Skip to content

Archive for the ‘WordWorks’ Category

Workin’ It

Writing is hard work.  Having an idea of what to do first, second, third, etc. tends to help get the work done and results in a finished product that does what it’s supposed to do.

“Process” is one of those words that we hear and use all the time to denote lots of different things.  There’s “due process” and “process industry” and “processed hair” and “word processing.”  It’s even a verb: with the accent on the “pro,” we march to Mr. Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”

In general, though, the word is always about doing things in an order, Step 2 following Step 1, and so forth.  But it’s more than that:  in a “process”, Step 2 not only follows, but also depends on Step 1.

So it is with what we call The Writing Process.  And that goes something like this:

–Gather Information






Step 1 of the Writing Process, Information Gathering, can be a multi-year research project or a 3-second quick thought.  But we can’t write without something to write about.

In Step 2, we put our thoughts into some kind of order using an Outline.   This doesn’t need to be a formal document with I., A., 1., II., B, 2, etc.  A quick list of topics will do nicely-just enough to remind us of what we need to cover and in what order.  (NOTE:  I know some superb writers who don’t use outlines.  They say that an outline feels confining to them.  They know where they want to start and where they want to end up.  Whatever works.)

Writing the Draft is Step 3.  And the point of the Draft is to give us something to work on.  Only when words and sentences get out of our heads and become objects on a screen or piece of paper can we move them around, find better ones, and make sure they say what we want them to say, in just the way we want them to say it.

Once we have a Draft on which to work, we get to the most important step:  Step 4-Rewriting and Editing.  This can mean several trips through the document, fixing, changing, rearranging, adding, and deleting.  And this is the step that makes the difference between adequate and terrific.

When we are happy with the writing of the document, it’s time for Step 5, the Format.   In all ASAP courses, that means APA.  (Find out all about APA here.)  But in general, it just makes sense to consider the impression your document will make, and to format it thoughtfully.

We’ve talked a lot in previous Wordworks about the importance of the final step, Proofreading.  So we’ll just note that all the work we put into the first five steps can be wasted if it looks like we didn’t take the time and trouble to proofread.

Words to Watch For – VIII

A longtime friend of mine (I hesitate to call him an “old” friend.) observed in an email the other day that he had corrected a colleague’s use of “historical” when she really meant “historic”.  Thank you for the tip, Mr. F.

When you are preparing to sell your house, get ready for the realtor to walk through and point out all the stuff that you might want to fix up a bit or remove altogether.  And she’ll be right, but-seeing them every day-you got used to them; they’re part of your everyday reality.

The same phenomenon occurs with word usage:  we get so used to hearing words used incorrectly that they start to sound OK.

Here are a few of those.


A battlefield, document, or mansion, because they are important bits of history, are “historic” not “historical”.  The interest that an historian has in those things is “historical”.


Adding the suffix “oid” to a noun indicates that the thing being described looks like, but is not the same as, the original.  So a “humanoid” in sci-fi looks like a human, but isn’t.  And a “factoid” is not a “little fact”; it’s something masquerading as a fact.


“Anxious,” as its root would imply, means “worried,” “filled with anxiety.”   Unless something is terribly wrong, you’re “eager”–not “anxious”–to get home.


“Verbiage” does not mean “wording.”  It’s a disparaging word used to describe lots of unnecessary words.  (It would be an insult to have your writing referred to as “verbiage.”)

There is no such word as “verbage.”


This one is pretty straightforward:  it would not make sense to say that the price of something is expensive.  The price is high or low; the thing is expensive or cheap.

What Am I Saying?

 It’s probably impossible to overemphasize the importance of proofreading.  After you have thought, outlined, drafted, revised, edited, formatted, and rewritten-then it’s time to proofread . . . and proofread again.

If you wrote something like this . . .

“The manger has two no weather or knot too invest in professional development and four witch employees it mite be appropriate.”

You might argue that your reader will know what you meant to say, despite the errors (none of which get flagged by spell check-see below).  And you’re right; I probably can figure out what you mean, but that’s not all there is to communication.

Indeed, when somebody reads what you have written, consciously or not they draw conclusions about you.  They have an image of you.

Part of that image is defined by the care you have taken in the presentation of your writing.

But it goes beyond image.  A sentence like the one above tells your reader that what you are writing about is not that important to you, that it’s not worth the time or trouble it might take to proofread.

Worse yet, it tells your reader that he or she is not very important to you-not really the message you wish to send, especially to your instructor.

Proofreading tips:

Experiment with different proofreading methods.

Some people can very successfully read their work, find errors, and fix them right on the computer screen.  Others of us have more success making corrections on paper.  Find out which one works best for you.

 Read your work out loud.

Proofreading is not easy, especially proofreading your own work.  You know what you meant to say, and often that’s what you will read-even if that’s not what you wrote.  Reading aloud will help you to hear what’s actually there.  Getting someone you trust to read to you is even more effective.   If something sounds “not quite right” to you, it probably means you have some editing to do.

 The most likely place for a typo is in a heading or title.

Our tendency is to read the “small print” (references, citations, etc.) much more closely than we read headings.  So make sure you give them an extra look before you hit “send” or “print”.

 Get as much distance as you can.

When you are confident you have finished proofreading and everything is perfect, put your work away for awhile (an hour, a day, a couple of days-the longer, the better).  Then come back and proofread again.  You certainly will find something that needs fixing.

Do not rely on Spell Check.

As we saw above, Spell Check cannot be counted on to find incorrect words-unless they are misspelled.  This little poem says it all:


Spell Czech

 Eye halve a spelling chequer. It came with my pea sea.

It plainly marques four my revue miss steaks eye kin

knot sea.

 Eye I strike a key and type a word and weight four it

two say

Weather eye wrong oar write. It shows me strait a


 Ass soon as a mist ache is maid, it nose bee fore two


And eye can put the error rite. Its rarely ever wrong. 

Eye have  run this poem threw it, I am shore your

pleased two no.

Its letter perfect in it’s weight. My chequer tolled

me sew.



Change is the only constant.

Time may change me

–David Bowie

  When I was younger, the phrase “hook up” meant something like, “join” or “become acquainted with”.  But a few weeks ago, after I suggested to a crowd of visiting families that anybody who wanted to could “hook up” with a tour guide outside the auditorium, I was made aware that the meaning of that phrase has changed.  Won’t make that mistake again!

The English language is constantly changing, and that is one of its chief glories.  Words change meanings; they can become different parts of speech; what was grammatically unthinkable becomes correct and usual.  Best of all, those changes tend to be bottom up rather than top down.  The language of everyday conversation and discourse-of “the street”-becomes, over time, acceptable in formal speech and writing.

Gone, but not quite forgotten

Of course, there are many, many words that were once common that we don’t use at all anymore.  You run into them in Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels.

It used to be, for example, that if you wanted to go shopping, you might have said, “I would fain go shopping.”

Or if the student would not hear of any opposition to her plan, she might have expressed it as, “I will not be gainsaid.”

We no longer say hark when we mean listen.  We no longer say twain when we mean two.  And should you express the desire to gaze at the welkin, who would know you meant the sky?

Becoming correct

A prescriptivist is a language expert who tells us how we should use words; a descriptivist is one who tells us how we actually do.  They agree sometimes.

So the prescriptivist will insist that alright is not an English word, that the correct way to write it is as two words:  all right.  The descriptivist is probably closer to the right of it:  alright is on its way to becoming a word.

The prescriptivist maintains that words like access and impact are nouns, names of things.  But we all know and accept that we can access data and impact outcomes.  So they have become verbs.

My fellow grammarians and I have insisted for years that using the word hopefully when you really mean I hope is an error and should be corrected.  But I think we have to surrender; the language has changed.

Hopefully we can get used to it.

Keep It Together

“Convoluted”, “complicated”, and “dense” are often fitting adjectives for what passes as sophisticated writing.  But they are rarely fitting descriptions of good writing.  Indeed, good writers work very hard to make their writing clear, straightforward, and easy to follow.

The most basic English sentence consists of a subject, a verb, and an object.  Some person or thing does something to some other person or thing.  And the truth is that sentences that keep those parts together, as a unit, tend to be clearer than sentences that let those parts wander around and get mixed up with modifiers, limiters, categorizers, and other sentence elements that, despite the best intentions, can really lose your reader.

So, for example:

My cat killed a mouse.

This sentence really could not be clearer.  That’s not to say it couldn’t be more interesting, however.  But, in adding interest, it’s a good idea not to disturb that three-part unit.  So:

My fifteen-year-old calico cat killed a mouse on the back steps and brought it into the house during dinner.

That’s a lot clearer than something like:

My cat, who is fifteen years old and calico, brought in to the house during dinner a

mouse she had killed on the back steps.

And that’s because that three-part unit has been lost.

Another example:

Barack Obama made a speech.

Again, not that interesting, but clear as crystal.

Reacting to criticism from a variety of sources both in and outside of his own party, President Barack Obama made a speech in which he defended his actions with respect to Afghanistan.

Because that subject-verb-object unit remains intact, the sentence is still clear, but lots more interesting and informative.  Disaster strikes when each of those three parts goes off on its own:

President Barack Obama, reacting to criticism from a variety of sources both in and outside of his own party made the defense of his actions with respect to Afghanistan the topic of a speech.

The takeaway here, I think, is:  when you’re proofreading your work, and you come across a sentence that just isn’t working, that seems convoluted and confusing, find that subject, verb, and object.  Then put them together as a unit and let everything else relate to that unit.

It really works.

What’s Another Word for . . .

One of the really wonderful things about our English language is the multiplicity of words-especially slang words-for the same thing or idea.  Regional, cultural, class, nationality,  generational, and other differences contribute to the rich mix.

A “synonym” is a word that can be substituted for another word.  And it’s fun to take a look at certain words, just to see how many ways there are to say the same thing.  Lots of synonyms grow out of every day use; some are jargon; a few are little one- or two-word poems.

Here are a few words that have attracted lots of synonyms.  I’ll bet you know more for each of them that I didn’t think of!


Battery acid, bean juice, java, Americano, brew, caffeine, cuppa, leaded/unleaded, mud, mocha, and joe.


Bathroom, convenience, head, privy, crapper, bog, john, gents/ladies, water closet/w.c., loo, throne, lavatory, can, jakes, closet, latrine, pissoir, washroom, and outhouse.


Auto, rod, bucket, buggy, clunker, conveyance, heap, jalopy, junker, limousine, machine, motor, motorcar, pickup, ride,  roadster, wheels, and wreck.


Loot, cash, bucks, swag, dinero, dead presidents, lucre, dough, clams, bread, moolah, pelf, simoleons, beans, skins, and fun tickets.


Calaboose, slammer, big house, inside, lockup, brig, nick, stir, cooler, hoosegow, joint, jug, pokey, pen, and (my favorite) crowbar hotel.

Successful Presentations I

What’d I say?

–Ray Charles

 I read in Business Week magazine several years ago that something like 33,000,000 presentations get made in the U.S. every day.  Why do I suspect that most of them are terrible?

No matter what the profession, it’s fair to say that a great presenter with a mediocre idea is far more likely to succeed than a mediocre presenter with a great idea.  So it’s probably worth a few minutes to think about some things that can get in the way of great presentations.


 Every so often, the “what do you fear most” surveys (there are lots) are conducted, and over the years “public speaking” always comes in first or second.  (“Death” typically comes in somewhere around sixth.)

But knowledge conquers fear.  I.e., if you really feel like you know way more about your topic than your audience does, you’ll be lots less afraid.  Hard work getting to know your facts and practice, practice, practice will make you a star.

(By the way, that’s not to say you shouldn’t be nervous, because you probably should be.  Everybody is nervous, even if they don’t necessarily look it.  A little touch of nerves means you care and makes you sharp.)

Bad Visuals

 Well at the top of this category sits the fabled “death by PowerPoint” committed by presenters who read their slides to their audiences.   Not only is this practice unutterably boring, but it is also profoundly insulting-as though your audience is so limited that they must be read to, even though the words are right there on the screen.

One of the best PowerPoints I ever saw contained no words at all, just a series of well-chosen photographs that powerfully symbolized the speaker’s points and to which she was able to speak.

The best visuals, I would argue, are actual, three-dimensional objects.  I could talk all day, with pictures, about how a bike helmet could save your life, but you will remember my point much better if I hold up a cracked bike helmet and tell you about the head inside that was spared.

(NOTE:  resist the temptation to pass things around the room or to give your audience notes or a printed PowerPoint outline during your presentation.  You need to be everyone’s focal point, and anything that competes with you for attention is bad.  Give them stuff at the end.)

Unclear Focus

Your audience needs to know, right up front, exactly what this presentation is about.  So, just as in an essay, articulate your thesis right away:   What is my subject?  What is my attitude toward my subject?  What will be my method?

And, as much as you can, think hard about what your audience knows and cares about-where are they “coming from”?  About the worst thing that can happen would be for some guy in the back row to wonder to himself, halfway through, “when is she going to start talking about me?”

It’s Only Words . . .

It’s only words,

And words are all I have

To take your heart away.

 –The BeeGees

 You can’t know too many words, right?  Sure, you can always consult a Thesaurus to find another word to replace one that you don’t want to overuse, but that can be dangerous:  words that mean nearly the same thing may carry different suggestive meanings (called “connotations”) that can trip you up.  So it’s better just to use words you know-and, again, the more the better!

Here are some little-used words that you may know.  Match the word with the definition that most nearly fits.    Find the answers at the bottom of the page.  Good luck and have fun!

1.        Aught

a.       Should

b.      Anything

c.       Eight

d.      Bad

2.       Scabrous

a.   Obscene

b.   Ripe

c.   Full of scabs

d.   Ancient

3.      Victual

a.      Not actual

b.      Like a victim

c.       Accusatory

d.      Food

4.       Uxorious

a.      Greedy

b.      Overweight

c.       Foolishly affectionate

d.      Rhythmic

5.      Aplomb

a.      Self-possession

b.      All together

c.       Uncooked

d.      Despair

6.       Gerrymander

a.      Wander aimlessly

b.      Prepare dessert

c.       Sing out of tune

d.      Redistrict


Answers:  1-b, 2-a, 3-d, 4-c, 5-a, 6-d

Plagiarism F.A.Q.s

A few years ago, to help prepare myself to give a brief presentation on plagiarism, I did what I-and, I expect, most people-always do:  I Googled.  My search term was the single word “plagiarism,” and I was amazed at the results, which-on the first page, at least-consisted of site after site offering term papers for sale . . . cheap!

I relate this story to underscore the central reality of plagiarism in the internet age:  it is so easy to do.  (Those of a certain age will recall a time when, in order to plagiarize, you had to do a lot of typing.)  And it takes many forms, all the way from the obvious cheating involved in patronizing one of those term paper mills to the much less serious failure to properly cite a source.


Q1:   What is Plagiarism?

Webster’s online dictionary defines “plagiarism” as:  “A piece of writing that has been copied from someone else and is presented as being your own work.”  That’s pretty clear, right?  So plagiarism involves stealing (copying) and lying (presented as your own work).

That’s why plagiarism is treated so seriously by the college.

Q2:  What information do I need to cite?

To some extent, this is a judgment call-because it involves deciding whether what I have written is “common knowledge” or not.  This can be tricky, but it’s usually fairly easy to determine.  Everybody knows that Abraham Lincoln gave a speech called “The Gettysburg Address”-that’s common knowledge.  Not everybody likely knows that on the day of the speech, those in attendance, Lincoln included, thought that the speech had been a flop.

Q3:  My teacher said I cited too much.  How could that be?

When the paper you submit consists of one quote after another, with very little of your own thinking, you can’t really say that you have “written” anything.  While your citations and References page may be laudably accurate and complete, what you have done is assemble other people’s writing.  In writing for college, it’s important that most of what you write represent your own thinking, opinions, experience, and analysis; you’ll want to use other people’s writing only to support your own position or to substantiate facts.

OK.  Surely you have other questions about plagiarism.  Please send them along, and I will be glad to devote future Workworks to trying to provide some answers.  In the meantime, the ASAP Writing Center website has a useful section on avoiding plagiarism.  Check it out!

Email Best Practices

For many of us, e-mail has become the default communications method, for work and school, at any rate.  Clearly, that’s because it works so well:  it allows us to take care of things efficiently; it leaves a record; it gives us the chance to craft our messages so they have maximum effect and clarity.

Email can also be annoying.  And, if not used carefully, it can have disastrous effects.  The following list is the result of many, many conversations with students, colleagues, and clients.  The list of Email Best Practices is always open for comment, editing, and input.  But it’s a place to start.  Let me know if you have any “Best Practices” that should be added.

When you communicate via e-mail . . .

–Be concise and to the point.

–Answer all questions your reader may have and pre-empt further questions.

–Use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and do not trust Spell check or Grammar Check.

–Make it personal.

–Always use a meaningful subject line, putting topic first.

–Answer swiftly.

–Do not write in all CAPITALS or use various and/or colored fonts.

– Don’t leave out the message thread. Also:  don’t start new; continue with old thread.  Conversely, don’t start a new conversation with an old thread.

Read the email before you send it.  (Hint:  Fill in the “To” line last.)

– Do not overuse “Reply to All.”

–Do not use email to discuss confidential information or to address conflicts.

Finally, don’t use email when another communications tool (the phone, a formal letter, a face-to-face meeting) will do a better job.