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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bag the Baggy Words!

Would you use the following sentence in your writing?  Nick walked into the room.  How about this one?  Jim wore a nice shirt. 

Both of those sentences have problems.  They contain "Baggy Words."  Baggy Words fit like loose  jeans that are five sizes too big, and they don't flatter anyone's shape because they are too baggy.   How did Nick enter the room?  Can you be more specific?  Did he saunter into the room?  Did he rush?  What about stroll, leap, stumble, or shuffle?  What if he felt tired?  How would he enter?  These verbs are far more descriptive and specific.

A writer's diction may be correct but still be vague and imprecise.  For example, many writers overuse such vague adjectives as nice, great, and good, and such vague verbs as do, say, and go.  Writers should try to find specific adjectives and verbs to say more exactly what they mean.

       VAGUE                                                                              SPECIFIC

The day was nice.                                     The day was mild and breezy.
Julie is a great dancer.                               Julie moves fluidly and rhythmically when she dances.
I did the grass.                                           I mowed and edged the lawn.
Bridget said good night.                            Bridget whispered good night.
Jack went through the leaves.                   Jack shuffled through the leaves.

Suppose you want to describe Jan's dress:  Jan wore a red dress.  You might want to be more specific about the color:  Was it fire-engine red, brick red, or strawberry red?  You might want to be more specific about the material:  Was it silk, polyester, or wool?

Suppose you write:  Mary lived in a small house on Second Street.  Can you make the house more specific:  a Cape Cod cottage, a split-level, or a row house?

Suppose a dog enters your composition.  Make it a specific dog:  a loyal old, limping hound; a melancholy-faced, playful poodle.

Need a little practice?  The following sentences are general and unspecific.  Can you make each one  more vivid and specific?

1.  The person by the door made a point.
2.  She took a vacation.
3.  Louie left the house.
4.  Flo has nice eyes.
5.  The unfavorable weather began on July 4.

Work on being detailed and specific in your writing by getting rid of the Baggy Words.  Otherwise, your editor might think you would be better off stuffed in a garment bag.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is This Title Well-Designed?

No!  A grammar error lurks in the title above.  Is it still a mystery, or are you a world class grammarian?  (Ack!  I did it again!) 

Did you give up, or are you thinking it has something to do with the hyphen?  If you think it's the hyphen, you're right.  Did you ever wonder why sometimes well designed has a hyphen, and yet other times you've seen it without one?  

Here's the rule:

Hyphenate a compound adjective when it precedes the word it modifies.


a well-designed engine
The engine was well designed.

a world-famous skier
The skier is world famous.

the well-known actor
The actor was well known

the soft-spoken woman
The woman was soft spoken.

*Note:  Do not use a hyphen if one of the modifiers ends in ly.


a partly finished research paper

a heavily loaded truck

I hope this little-known rule  has helped clear up a small mystery in the world of grammar.  Happy writing!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Let's Exercise!

Do you actively check for instances of passive voice in your revision exercises?  No?  Drop and give me 20!

Choosing between the active and passive voice in writing is a matter of style, not correctness.  However, in most circumstances the passive voice is less forceful than the active voice, and a string of passive verbs often produces an awkward paragraph.

AWKWARD PASSIVE    Last night, the floor was scrubbed by my dad, and the faucet was fixed by  my mom.
ACTIVE                           Last night, my dad scrubbed the floor, and my mom fixed the faucet.

AWKWARD PASSIVE    The first wristwatch was created by a court jeweler when a watch in a  bracelet was requested by Empress Josephine.
ACTIVE                            When Empress Josephine requested a watch in a bracelet, a court jeweler created the first wristwatch.

SUCCESSION OF PASSIVES  When my mother was asked by the local camera club to give a guest lecture on the photography, we were all amazed by the request.  Neither of my parents had ever been chosen to do anything like this before.  Since I was considered the most imaginative member of my family, I was given by my mother the task of choosing the topics that would be presented.  Father was elected by us to choose the slides that would be shown to the amateur photographers.  Extra invitations were sent to us by the camera club and these, in turn were mailed by us to all of our friends.  When the night of the lecture finally arrived, my father, my two brothers, and I were seated by the usher in the first row.  The lecture was introduced by a discussion of how modern photography was influenced  by portrait painting and still-life painting.  After the lecture had been completed, I was impressed by Mother's knowledge and command of her subject.

*This paragraph is not effective because of the overuse of passive verbs.

Use the passive voice sparingly.  Avoid weak and awkward passives in the interest of variety, and avoid long passages in which all the verbs are passive.  Although this rule is generally true, there are a few situations where the passive voice is particularly useful.

            1.  Use the passive voice to express an action in which the actor is unknown.
                        An anonymous letter was sent to the police chief.
            2.  Use the passive voice to express an action in which it is desirable not to disclose the actor.

                        The missing painting has been returned to the museum.

*Sometimes the passive voice is more convenient, and just as appropriate, as the active voice.  In the following sentences, the passive voice is completely acceptable and probably more natural.

            Penicillin, a modern wonder drug, was discovered accidentally.
            The person who was standing near the entrance was asked to close the door.
            The top player was eliminated in the first round.

Remember to use passive voice sparingly, and check for it when you revise your writing.  Otherwise, you'll be a weakling and never get stronger writing muscles!

Monday, June 13, 2011

♪ Down Dooby Do Down Down, Comma Comma..... Breaking Up Is Hard to Do...♪

Did you realize Neil Sedaka used an English grammar term in his lyrics?  No wonder Breaking Up Is Hard to Do is one of my all-time favorite songs!  :)

Speaking of commas (or should that be singing?), I thought it might be helpful for everyone to brush up on four easy comma rules that folks may have forgotten.   So, without further ado (or singing!), here they are.

Cindy's Four Easy Comma Rules

1.  Use a comma after introductory words such as well, yes, no, and why when they begin a sentence.

     Yes, I heard your question.
     Well, I really haven't thought about it.
     No, I don't think I'll go to the movie.
     Why, I can't imagine where I left my keys.

2.  Words used in direct address are set off by commas.

      Mother, did you remember to call Mrs. Johnson?
      Your essay, Martha, was late.
      Will you answer the question, Monica?

3.  Use commas to separate two or more adjectives that modify the same noun.

     Lana is an intelligent, responsible, sensitive director.

4.  Expressions that interrupt, such as parenthetical expressions, are set off by commas.

Many words and phrases are used parenthetically.  Such expressions may serve as explanations or qualifications, but they do not affect the grammatical construction of the sentence in which they appear.  The following list contains a few of the most commonly used parenthetical expressions.

after all
as a matter of fact
by the way
for example
I believe (hope, think, etc.)
in fact
in the first place
on the other hand

     As a matter of fact, I was just going to call you.
     That is, of course, only one opinion.
     Why don't you come, too?

Of course these expressions need not be used parenthetically.  When they are not, do not set them off by commas.

     It is, in my opinion, an excellent book.  (parenthetical)
      Are you interested in my opinion of the book?  (not parenthetical)

A contrasting expression introduced by not is parenthetical and should be set off by commas.

     It is the humidity, not the heat, that is so exhausting.

 *Note -- Rule #4 is often deliberately not followed for several reasons.  First, a writer may omit the commas setting off a parenthetical expression in order to avoid overpunctuating a sentence.  Second, and of great importance, is the writer's intention.  When you wish the reader to pause, to consider the expression as parenthetical, set it off; if not, leave it unpunctuated.  You will always be safe, however, if you follow Rule #4.

May your writing be blessed with appropriate commas, or you might be singing the blues when your editor gets hold of you.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Could of Used a Grammatically Correct Title!

Did you notice something wrong in my title for this blog entry?

As I'm typing the rest of this entry, I would of thought you might notice the grammatical problem, but then I should of realized many people make this mistake so often that some people might not even notice I've deliberately used this common mistake two more times in this sentence.  Surely you must of figured it out by now (Ack!  I did it again!).  Have you figured out what the mistakes are?

There is no such phrase as could of, would of, should of, might of or must of.   That's right -- could of and the other similar forms are not grammatically correct.  Are you guilty of using any of these  in your writing when you should be writing have instead?

Here's the rule:  Watch for two common errors in the use of of.   Do not write of in place of have in such phrases as could have, should have, might have, must have, etc.  In everday speech we often slur the word have, producing a sound that might be written could've or could of .  There is no such phrase as could of -- it's could have.  Do not allow speech habits to lead you into spelling and usage errors.

Incorrect:  She could of had straight A's if she had worked harder.

Correct:    She could have had straight A's if she had worked harder.

Speaking of of, here's one more little rule to remember to help you avoid wordiness and be more concise in your writing:

Do not use of unnecessarily in such phrases as had of and off of.

Incorrect:  If I had of known about the shortcut, I'd have been here sooner.

Correct:     If I had known about the shortcut, I'd have been here sooner. 

Incorrect:  The dog jumped off of the couch as soon as it heard its owner coming.

Correct:     The dog jumped off the couch as soon as it heard its owner coming.

Have a Happy Writing Day!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Like Fingers on a Chalkboard....

*Use these mistakes in your writing to represent some dialect, and use them in ordinary conversation if you so desire, but it's always wise to use Standard English in writing or speaking when the occasion warrants it.  I often think that so many of us hear something incorrectly so frequently that we don't always realize we're using Nonstandard English because it's become more-or-less acceptable.  

With our Appalachian influence in this section of the country, for instance, I've heard even educated business professionals say while conducting meetings: "I've went to the conference..." and "He has ran..." -- they've probably heard this language this way all their lives and are totally unaware it's Nonstandard English.  Perhaps they don't care, but a writer and a speaker should know the difference, as well as when to use each.  In addition, I've actually seen two of the following mistakes in the names of two local businesses -- I felt compelled (not because I'm a "wise ass" but because I would want someone to tell me if I did something similar) to call and explain that even though it wasn't my business (literally), I wondered if they realized the names of their companies contained grammatical mistakes, just in case they wanted to correct them.

Easily Corrected Mistakes:                         Should Be:

Alot                                                                   a lot   
Ice tea                                                                iced tea

old fashion                                                        old-fashioned 
strickly                                                              strictly

congradulations                                                congratulations

alright                                                               all right

to much sun                                                     too much sun

he don’t                                                            he doesn’t

she has went every week...                              she has gone every week...

ect.                                                                    etc. (et cetera = and so forth)

Me and Jim                                                       Jim and I (or Jim and me, depending on the situation)
I seen someone leave...                                    I saw someone leave...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Misplaced Modifiers Should Be Sent to Lost and Found

Rushing out into the street, he caught the puppy, wearing only a bathrobe and pajamas.  Uh-oh!  I didn't realize puppies wore bathrobes or pajamas.

 Do some of these sentences look correct to you? 
     1.  There is an Egyptian bracelet in a local museum that is four thousand years old.
     2.  Mary rushed to the airport as the Los Angeles plane arrived and grabbed a malted milk.
     3.  I found a book about Virginia Woolf written by her husband at a garage sale.

 If you said yes to any of these sentences, then you may have some misplaced modifiers in your writing, and during revision, should look a little more closely at this particular thing.  All three of the sentences above contain misplaced modifiers and need to be revised. 

In the sentence The tense hunter watched the raging lion come charging at him while readying his bow and arrow, the reader might think the lion owned the bow and arrow.  Successful writers make their meanings clear.  Misplaced modifiers are obstacles to understanding, so a writer needs to place phrase and clause modifiers as near as possible to the words they modify.

Here's one more example:

Confusing      We listened breathlessly to the stories told by Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights, munching peanuts and crackers.

Clear     Munching peanuts and crackers, we listened breathlessly to the stories told by Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights.

But what are dangling modifiers?  Everyone's heard of them.

A modifying phrase or clause must clearly and sensibly modify a word in the sentence.  When there is no word that the phrase or clause can modify, the modifier is said to dangle.

Example:     Eating my dinner quietly, the explosion made me jump up.  (Was the explosion eating dinner?  Who was eating dinner?  The sentence doesn't say.)

Corrected:  Eating my dinner quietly, I jumped up when I heard the explosion.

            or:  While I was eating my dinner quietly, the explosion made me jump up.

Example:  To finish her paper on time, Mary's weekend was spent in the library.

Corrected:   So that Mary could finish her paper on time, her weekend was spent in the library.

     or:         To finish her paper on time, Mary spent her weekend in the library.

*Note:  A few dangling modifiers have become accepted in idiomatic expressions.
     Generally speaking, Americans are living longer.
     To be honest, the party was rather boring.

I hope this posting helps everyone who misplaces or dangles their modifiers :)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Business Letter Tip

Since so many writers are composing queries to agents and publishers as well as cover letters, here's one tip for business letter format:

The style of abbreviation and punctuation in the inside address should be identical with that of the heading.

In other words, if you write out the word "street" in the heading, you need to write out "road" or "avenue" in the inside address (or if you abbreviate in the heading, abbreviate in the inside address.)  Likewise, if you write out the state name in the heading, write out the state name in the inside address.  Whatever you do, keep the forms the same for a more professional business letter.