Monday, August 29, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: W

Wending our way toward the end of my list of editorial peeves, we wander into the wasteland of the double-u, where we will witness the wonky, the witty, and (perhaps) the wise. Wenjoy.

-ward vs. -wards

Do you work towards a goal or toward it? Do you forge onwards and upwards or onward and upward? Once your goal is reached, do you celebrate afterwards or afterward?

I've read numerous times that the -ward/-wards choice is a cultural one, that British English favors -wards and American English favors -ward. But notice that word favors. We're not talking rules here: the fact remains that it is a choice, and a personal one.

William RikerImage via Wikipedia
Little-known fact: Starfleet standard-issue trombones
include a gold-pressed-latinum-plated mouthpiece.
And personally, I prefer (with perhaps a bit more insistence than necessary) the -ward version. Why? For a few reasons. I think the -wards version sounds sloppier, calling to mind thick-tongued lispers speaking way too much and saying way too little. I also prefer (if you haven't noticed) writing that is succinct, compact, efficient; those useless Ses only add more sibilant bulk to sentences.

Then there is the matter of consistency. Americans and Brits alike use a host of -ward words that they wouldn't even consider adding an S to, like straightforward, leeward, forward-thinking, and untoward. Is there something special about these words that they aren't subjected to S-izing?

And then there's my nerdly upbringing. Captain Riker, after all, jazzed it up with his Starfleet Swingers in Ten Forward, not Ten Forwards. (It hurts me just to type that!)

The choice is, of course, yours.

But seriously, drop the extra Ses.


Budding bards take note: Whence isn't just another word for when. It means "from what place" and doesn't need an extra preposition to work

So when a writer at writes,
Fittingly, to comprehend where Campbell might be headed with both football and his life, one has to understand from whence he came. [emphasis added]
the writer is being redundant. One needn't "understand from whence he came"; one need only "understand whence he came."

And while we're on the subject of Shakespeare-esque words that you don't ever have to actually use, remember that wherefore — as in "wherefore art thou Romeo" — means "why," not "where."

Who vs. that

As Alex Baze (aka @bazecraze) once tweeted, "No, you don't hate people that correct your grammar. You hate people WHO do that."

And he's right. Not about the hating part, but about the part where you should use who instead of that when you're referring to a person. The world is dehumanizing enough; don't take the humanity out of your relative pronouns, too.

Now, whether you use who or that to refer to animals — and specifically pets — is another matter entirely. You could make a good argument for a statement like this: My dear Poopsy Flapdoodle, who we trained to use the toilet, is nothing like that horrible, patchy-haired mongrel that relieved itself on the hood of your car.

Who vs. whom

Since I'm writing about grammar and usage here, I'm obligated to include who vs. whom, right? Honestly, though, this isn't really a peeve for me. Some people will tell you that figuring out which word to use is easy, quoting that old trick of substituting he or him, seeing which one is right, and then changing he to who or him to whom. And that works when you're dealing with fairly simple sentences.
Barred Owl Baltimore MarylandImage via Wikipedia
An owl says what?

You gave him herpes? You gave whom herpes?
I didn't know he was an anemic vampire. I didn't know who was an anemic vampire.

But sentences aren't always that simple, and figuring out when to use whom can get downright difficult.

So if, while you're writing, you stop mid-sentence to consider which word you should use, give yourself some bonus points just for giving it some thought. Although the results might look the same, making a bonafide error after some consideration is loads better than simple laziness.

Give yourself a break. No matter how vigilant you are, you'll get it wrong sometimes. I know I have, and I will again. If you just notice that there's something there that you need to consider, though, you're already ahead of the game.


I am a big fan of neologisms. If you'd rather pufficate than smoke a cigarette, be my guest. If you want to refer to those annoying swarms of gnats as bugnadoes, more power to you. And if you're trying to work off your flablets instead of your love handles, good luck!

But if you're just adding -wise to the end of a word, you aren't showing a lot of creativity. Word-wise and artistry-wise, it's just plain lazy. Utilization-wise, I used to think that it was mostly a sportscaster thing, but I keep hearing it in other situations, both business-wise and social-wise.

Annoying-wise, it's right up there with literally for me. Stop it already!
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Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Bookish Evening

Just a quick personal post to share two wordly-nerdly things that occurred tonight.

I was meeting friends for dinner at Stir Crazy tonight. I arrived about 20 minutes early and stopped in at the Border's, which, like all Border's, is going out of business.

I really have no business going to a ginormous bookstore where everything is half off. It's almost worse than going to a buffet — it takes a lot of concentration and will power not to load up with so much that I regret it later.

I managed to get out of there with only two books (and no Monty Python videos, even though they had a copy of "The Meaning of Life" available), and I'm inordinately excited about the larger one:

Books about word and phrase origins are great for long trips. So I guess now I need to plan a long trip.

So anyway, after the trip to the bookstore, I had dinner at Stir Fry, which was nice, but the place is kind of loud. I didn't enjoy having to raise my voice to have a conversation.

When the checks came, they were accompanied by the requisite fortune cookies. I cracked open the one given to me, and this is what I found:

If I believed in fate, this would mean a lot more to me than it does. Still, it's kind of creepy. Good creepy, if there is such a thing.

Does anyone make fortune-sized frames?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: V

Today, for the V section of my editorial peeves, I want to talk a bit about verb tenses and the problems I see with them.

Jumping from one tense to another in a single sentence or from one sentence to another is horrid, but not very common, and a writer will probably notice and fix the problem if she just reads again what she writes.

More common, at least in my copy editing work, is switching tenses between paragraphs. I think this is especially true of research papers, which aren't written as linearly as, say, a short story or a blog post, and which are focused more on the information than on the writing. This is especially a problem when a paper has multiple authors.

Most verb tense problems can be avoided if you do two simple things:
  1. Think about verb tense before you write. (If you're writing fiction, verb tense is as important as point of view.)
  2. Read what you wrote before you call it "final."

Of course, doing the latter can help you avoid all sorts of writing problems.

The most common problem I see with verb tenses, though, isn't unexpected shifts between past, present, and future, it's overuse of the progressive form.

In case you've forgotten your ninth-grade English lessons, the progressive form of a verb is created by pairing the conjugated form of to be with the participle (-ing) form of a verb: I was sleeping a minute ago. Now I am screaming at my neighbor's dog. They will be calling the police soon.

Progressive forms have their place and serve a specific purpose. The problem is that people use them too often, making sentences unnecessarily bulky and generally weakening otherwise strong verbs. They're easy to miss when you're writing, too, because they are perfectly grammatical.

But grammatical writing isn't the same as good writing.

Consider these pairs of sentences, the first using the present progressive form and the second using simple present tense:
  • When he's drinking, he gets violent.
  • When he drinks, he gets violent.
  • Giorgio is dead; Michael is running the show now.
  • Giorgio is dead; Michael runs the show now.
  • Rick is running off at the mouth and deepening our depression.
  • Rick runs off at the mouth and deepens our depression.
Yes, there are subtle changes of meaning from one to the next, but it might just be the subtle change you need to heat up your prose.

Here's a verb tense exercise you can try at home to improve your own writing:

Start with something you've already written, just a paragraph or two. Go through and highlight all the forms of to be that you can find. Highlight every is, am, are, was, were, and will be (might as well mark the perfect progressives and grab every has been, and will have been, too). And don't miss the contractions, either.

Now just see how many of them you can get rid of. Replace your "will be going" with "will go," your "was hoping" with "hoped," and your "is flagellating" with "flagellates."

You won't be able to get rid of all of them — and you shouldn't. Not every instance of to be indicates the progressive form. And sometimes the progressive form is exactly what you need. But what I hope you find after this little exercise is more succinct and efficient prose that uses stronger verbs.

And I hope that it's just plain better.

Just remember: There's nothing wrong with the simple past, present, and future tense. Using the simple tense doesn't make you simple any more than the progressive form makes you a progressive or the perfect form makes you perfect. Pay attention to your verbs.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Top Six Failed For Dummies Books

The For Dummies book series (see disclosure at the end) has been around now for two decades. In that time, they've published gazillions of books that have helped people do everything from creating a home network to playing the clarinet to building a chicken coop (seriously!).

But not every swing can be a home run. For Dummies has seen its share of flops. Here are the six biggest publishing failures of the well-known For Dummies series:


The CIA For Dummies

After painstakingly researching the history and current goings-on of the United States' leading covert agency, the author of this book sent his completed manuscript to an agent in Langley for a technical edit and some fact-checking. The manuscript that was returned was heavily redacted and was accompanied by a photograph of the author asleep in his bedroom the night before.

It was never published.


Learn to Read For Dummies

Somehow, the publishers had a difficult time connecting with their intended audience for this book.


Pyromania For Dummies

The first print run of 10,000 copies of this book was completely lost in a warehouse fire in Ames, Iowa. The publishers ordered a second printing of 5,000 copies, but just before the presses began running, the printer's business was razed in a mysterious explosion.

The causes of the explosion — as well as the possibility of ordering another print run of Pyromania For Dummies — are still under investigation.


Time Travel For Dummies

After an initial legal battle with H.G. Wells is ironed out, Time Travel For Dummies will have received both popular and critical success when it was published in 2035. Famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is quoted as will having said, "It's so good, I'm going to read it again last week!"

Unfortunately, recent research has proven that time travel is impossible, so this book will no longer have been published in our timeline.
NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.Image via Wikipedia
"It's so good, I'm going to read it again last week!"
Stephen Hawking, sometime in the future, 1996


Dial-Up Modems For Dummies

The first draft of this book has been uploading to the publisher's servers since 2002.


Procrastination For Dummies

Originally launched in 2001, the publication date for this book has been pushed back fourteen times. The book was recently handed off to its fifth editor.

Disclosure and disclaimer: For Dummies is a trademark of Wiley Publishing, who is not responsible for this blog. However, I am affiliated with Wiley Publishing. I work for Wiley, and specifically for
   The titles above were never actually published (though I wouldn't be surprised to see The CIA For Dummies actually hit the shelves sometime in the future). The faux titles above are intended as parody only. I am solely responsible for the content of this blog.
   Please don't sue me.

If you like the CIA For Dummies "novelty edition" book cover above, you can make your own by using the official For Dummies cover generator.
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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Writing Cycle

Ideas become words.

Words become sentences.

Sentences become paragraphs.

Paragraphs become chapters.

Chapters become books.

Books are read.

Reading sparks new ideas. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: U

For those of you just joining us, where have you been? I'm all the way up to the Us in this alphabetical list of my editorial peeves that began back in March.

At any rate, we're getting down to the lesser-used letters of the alphabet now, so the lists are getting noticeably shorter. (You're just dying to see what I'm going to have on the X list, aren't you?!) There are only three items (sort of) in this week's list.


(I'm going to get pounded by a lot of editors for this one.)

Grammar trolls like to pounce on people who use the phrase more unique. Yes, it is true, strictly speaking, that uniqueness is an absolute; something either is unique, or it isn't.

The problem with adhering to such a strict definition of unique is that the word becomes meaningless. Everything is unique in some way. No two things are completely identical; each thing has some characteristic that is unique to it, even if it's only its placement in space.* And because no two things can share every single characteristic, everything is, from a certain metaphysical point of view, unique.

Which makes the idea of unique being an absolute a little pointless.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Four Things I Learned from Blog Indiana 2011

The weekend's almost over, and I'm still coming down from the high I've been on since Thursday. Blog Indiana was amazing. (Of course, you already know this because you read my blog religiously, right?) In the last two days, I've offered you an overview and highlights of what I've done and what I've learned. With this post, though, I just want to give my final thoughts and look toward the future of Logophilius.

So here are four things I learned from Blog Indiana 2011 (aka BIN2011):

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blogging about Blogging: BIN 2011 Meta-Post #2

Home from the second day of Blog Indiana 2011 (aka BIN2011). (Read about the first day here.) Common cliché would have me write "the second gruelling day," but the most gruelling thing about Friday was rolling myself out of bed in the morning. Except for everything that happened before my second cup of coffee — which I don't technically remember anyway — I enjoyed every minute of this conference.

Like yesterday, a tremendous amount of information was presented, more than anyone would want to read in a blog post. And so, like yesterday, I'll do my best to hit some of the more interesting and useful highlights.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Blogging about Blogging: BIN 2011 Meta-Post #1

I (thankfully) had the opportunity to attend the Blog Indiana 2011 conference in Fisher, Indiana, today. A day full of interesting people and great speakers talking not only about blogging but about social media as a whole. So much that I learned and so much that I want to share!

But I walked away today with seven-and-a-half pages of notes. Considering one discussion today about the merits of a 200-word blog post over a 2,000-word blog post, it is right and fitting that I do not attempt to condense all that great information into a blog post. So I'll just try to boil down some of my key takeaways for you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: T

If you're looking for some editorial gripes and the occasional bad pun, this blog post will suit you to a T.

Than vs. Then

This first, though, isn't a matter of taste or opinion. There is no room for discussion about whether a sentence should use than or then because there is no overlap between the two. They don't have any similar alternative meanings like, say, affect and effect.

I pretend that the vast majority of than/then switcheroos I find are just typos — someone understands the difference but is just typing too quickly and paying too little attention to notice the mistake. I pretend that, but I also know that there are plenty of people out there who just don't know the difference.

So here it is, quick and dirty:

Monday, August 1, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: S (cont.)

Last week, I wrote about the semicolon and how it really is a useful bit of punctuation and not a torture device invented by sadistic English teachers. The semicolon deserved its own blog post, but there are a few more editorial peeves on my "S-list," if you know what I mean.


A caption here would only get me in trouble, don't you think?
It's counter-intuitive, yes, but religious is not part of the word sacrilegious, even though it refers to irreverence toward the sacred and religious. If it helps, consider this:
"The Pope's scrotum is a 'sac religious'." That statement might be sacrilegious.
If you can just remember not to put the Pope's scrote into your writing, you'll never misspell sacrilegious again!

Split infinitives

Split infinitives? Not a peeve. If your text looks and sounds better with a split infinitive, split away! There's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

No, what gets me is people who still insist that split infinitives are ungrammatical. Fortunately, they're a small and dwindling group.

Stationary vs. stationery

The difference between the adjective stationary and the noun stationery is something people just need to learn. It might help (and that's a definite might) to think of them like this: Being stationARy means that you stay where you ARe; stationERy is a type of papER.

It's a bad mnemonic, I know. Other suggestions welcomed. You should learn the difference regardless.

Subject-verb agreement

One of the copy editor's special skills is the ability to look at a sentence and take it apart to find its essence. We can strip away the adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and appositives, isolate the dependent and independent clauses, and look into the foundation of the sentence: the subject and predicate. If these don't agree, the sentence won't stand.

I gave a whole blog post over to the semicolon; to cover the rules, exceptions, and idiosyncrasies of subject-verb agreement, you'd need an entire book. And that's a book I don't want to write.

But I do want to help people become better and more comfortable writers, so I can offer a little advice here. The best thing you can do to keep your subjects and verbs in alignment is just this: Re-read what you write before you click Send or Post or whatever. Simply re-reading what you wrote (doing it aloud can really help, too) will reveal all sorts of little things that you didn't notice when you were first typing.

Do this for papers and blog posts. Do it for e-mails. Even do it for tweets.

I'm going to go do it right now, before I click Publish Post.