Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A dizzying array of cliches

"Get me rewrite, sweetheart."
Washington Post Outlook section editor Carlos Lozada keeps a list of cliches his writers are forbidden to use. Among them:
  • Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)
  • Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)
  • Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely)
  • Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are grizzled – unless they are “seasoned”)
  • Manicured lawns (in journalism, all nice lawns are manicured)
  • Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)
  • Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)
  • Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)
  • Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids are predawn)
And my favorite: the high-speed chase. In journalism, all chases are high-speed. This is to distinguish them from the low-speed chases.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

So don't believe me

If you wish to persuade others, you must first understand where they are. Do they even know who you are? Do they understand the subject you have an opinion about? Do they speak your language? Do they understand your jargon?

On and on. One important question to ask: what does my listener/reader believe about the topic? You might be able to persuade them with logic, but you'll have a hard time if your viewpoint violates a belief they have or is inconsistent with their everyday knowledge.

This is why people on different sides of the political aisle never get anywhere: each side starts with long-held beliefs that color their perception of arguments. Think about these subjects: climate change, biological evolution, nuclear power, genetically modified crops, exposure to synthetic chemicals, concealed carry of guns, vaccines, video games, fracking, organic foods, and sex education.

It's pretty obvious with these hot button topics that if you or your organization want to persuade people you'll be going up against some strongly held beliefs. But what about more innocuous subjects? What do people think about consultants, automatic subscription renewals, credit cards, borrowing money, charity, customer service, big banks, rebates, and on and on?

This tendency is known as belief bias. This has been studied endlessly. One recent study helps explain the political divide in our country.

Here are three examples:

  1. We tend to believe that a good experience is more enjoyable when it follows a bad experience. Not always so.
  2. We tend to believe that more choice is better. Research proves otherwise.
  3. We believe that new experiences give us more pleasure than things we know. Not always.

You'll run into variations of this. One is "belief perseverance," which occurs when someone clings to a belief despite all the evidence. Another is "confirmation bias," the name for someone finding only evidence that supports his belief.

If nothing else, this might save you from a pointless argument at the dinner table. At best, it may help you craft your next op-ed or speech.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Spell Czech want help yew hear

These words sound correct, but they're wrong: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen.

Some of these are homophones, words that are pronounced the same as other words but spelled differently.

Elsewhere in the world of words, a homograph shares the same written form as another word but has a different meaning:
  • agape – with mouth open OR love
  • bass – type of fish OR low, deep voice
  • bat - piece of sports equipment OR an animal
  • bow – type of knot OR to incline
homonym shares the same spelling and pronunciation with another word but has a different meaning. Thus homonyms are simultaneously homographs and homophones. 

Take the word fluke. A fluke can be:
  • A fish, and a flatworm.
  • The end parts of an anchor.
  • The fins on a whale's tail.
  • A stroke of luck.
Thus, fluke can describe both my boss and how he got his job.

Here's a handy chart for those of you who need something on the wall.

HomographDifferentSameSame or different
HomophoneDifferentSame or differentSame
PolysemeDifferent but relatedSameSame or different
Different when
Same except for
Same or different

By the way, for those of you whose eyes have yet to glaze over, the state of being a homonym is called homonymy.

Eat it up!
This is just like hominy, except it isn't.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Write like you know what you're doing

Correctly using like and as will let your discerning readers or listeners know that you know. It will also make your message clearer.

Good instruction in this can be found in The New York Times' blog on the language, After Deadline. Philip Corbett writes:
The word like plays many grammatical roles. The one that raises a usage issue is its sense as a preposition meaning similar to. In that guise it can introduce only a noun or a pronoun: He deals cards like a riverboat gambler. If in doubt about the fitness of a construction with like, mentally test a substitute preposition (with, for example): He deals cards with a riverboat gambler. If the resulting sentence is coherent, like is properly used. 
But when like is used to introduce a full clause — consisting of subject and verb — it stops being a preposition and becomes a conjunction. Traditional usage, preferred by The Times, does not accept that construction:He is competitive, like his father was. Make it as his father was, or simply like his father. If the as construction (although correct) sounds stiff or awkward, try the wayinstead: He is competitive, the way his father was. 
In other cases, if like fails the preposition test, as if may be needed: She pedaled as if [not like] her life depended on it. 
When like is used correctly as a preposition, it faces another test. The items linked by like must be parallel, and therefore comparable. Do not write Like Houston, August in New York is humid. That sentence compares August to Houston, not what its author meant. Make it Like Houston, New York is humid in August.
Like, you know?

Friday, March 8, 2013

So don't use any

"A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation."

-- Mark Twain

An expert speaks. I could care less.

One thing about words that never changes is that their meanings always change, writes Ben Yagoda, professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware.
The process takes time, and to be an early adopter of a new meaning means putting yourself at risk of both incomprehension and abuse. However, at a certain point, clinging to old definitions is a superstitious waste of time and thought. Here's a list of words and expressions whose new meanings, though still scorned by some sticklers, are completely acceptable. (If it puzzles you that there is any objection to some of these, or to find out the original meaning, Google the word or phrase. You will find a lively debate, to say the least.) 
It's okay to use...
  • decimate to mean "kill or eliminate a large proportion of something"
  • like to mean "such as"
  • liable to to mean "likely to"
  • hopefully to mean "I hope that"
  • over to mean "more than"
  • since to mean "because"
  • while to mean "although"
  • momentarily to mean "in a moment"
  • the lion's share to mean "the majority"
  • verbal to mean "oral"
  • I could care less to mean "I couldn't care less"
 And, Yagoda adds, if you have a problem with that, I could care less.

I'll see you outside, Ben.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Proofread your work, and give your reader a break

Here are some tips from Anna Lewis, founder of CompletelyNovel.com, an online publishing community offering self-publishing:

1. Put your writing aside for a while. This allows you to see it again with fresh eyes that are more likely to spot errors.

2. Look at your weaknesses. Do you regularly misspell or repeat words? Do you make particular grammar or punctuation errors? If you are aware of these weaknesses, take extra care to search and spot them.

3. Read your work out loud. If you read aloud, your ear might catch errors that your eyes may have missed. Alternatively, you can use text-to-speech software.

4. Try proofreading backwards! To spot typographical errors, read your work from the end to the beginning, either word by word, sentence by sentence, or paragraph by paragraph. This disconnects your mind from the content and helps you focus on the text. Particularly useful for checking the cover.

5. Keep style and usage handbooks readily available and use them! The Guardian Style Guide is a good choice.

6. Watch out for those pesky contractions, apostrophes, and homonyms.

7. Run the spell check to catch any obvious errors. However, don't rely on this alone as it can't always be completely accurate.

8. Highlight all punctuation marks so that you can evaluate each one for accuracy.

9. Proofread a printed version of your work. People read differently on screen and on paper, so print out a copy of your writing for another read.

10. Get someone else to proofread it. A fresh pair of eyes is a great way to spot errors.