Words That Make People Grumpy

fingernails, blackboard

photo (cropped): redpangolins, creative commons license

Every reader—writers, too—have certain words that sound to them like fingernails on a blackboard. I have a thing against “hopefully,” though that’s a losing battle. I don’t like alright—the phrase is “all right already”—and I’m not a fan of the singular “they.” Most times making the antecedent plural fixes it:

NOT: The patient should fill out their own forms.
BUT: Patients should fill out their own forms.

That is to say, if you find “his/her” and “s/he” and their spawn hopelessly awkward, I agree.

Rebecca Gowers in The Guardian has compiled “An A-Z of horrible words,” and I’m happy to find both alright and hopefully in it. On my own mental list of horribles, I can usually identify which grammar zealot burdened me with carrying their torch. Some examples: “under way” is two words, not one; don’t use “over” when you mean “more than”; “presently” means “soon,” not “at present”; use “whether” not “if” when “whether” is meant. And so many, many more.

Gowers’s article isn’t just another listsicle. She explains her prejudices, how the words came to be, and provides amusing sidelights (that would be a “compound”). The entry for “euphemisms” is especially enlightening.

Under “finally,” I discovered I ran afoul of this one just yesterday, using it to mean “at last,” rather than “for the last time.” Oops. Fingernails and a screeching blackboard for some irritated reader. Fixed.

Take a peek at Gowers’s list and tell me what Really Important pet word peeves of yours she overlooked!

Princeton Literary Inspirations

Elvis, Fort WorthYesterday, poet Ciaran Berry and novelist Nell Zink read from their work as part of a series of author presentations at Princeton University, open to the public (that’s me!). On Friday, Man Booker Prize-winner and Ireland’s “first fiction laureate” Anne Enright will read excerpts from her most recent novel, The Green Road. I’ll be there!

The series of readings is conducted by the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, with Enright’s presentation sponsored additionally by the Fund for Irish Studies. (Last year’s fantastic presentation by Belfast author Glenn Patterson was under the Fund’s aegis also.)

Ciaran Berry

Coincidentally, award-winning poet Ciaran Berry also is an Irish poet and grew up in County Galway and County Donegal. He now directs the creative writing program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He doesn’t have the full-out accent, though.

Berry read several of his poems from various periods, including The Death of Elvis and Liner Notes. His particularly lovely poem For Shergar, Neither Ode nor Elegy, is a tribute to the legendary race horse Shergar, kidnapped and killed by the IRA, and includes this: “the past tense entering its perfect form.” It’s one of those, “wish I’d thought of that” lines.

Nell Zink

Nell Zink grew up in King George County, Virginia, but for many years has lived in Israel and Berlin, and has become a recent literary phenomenon in this country. She was introduced by faculty member Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Marriage Plot) who said the classic “Nell” and its assertive “Zink” is “a name just waiting to be famous.”

Zink’s debut novel was The Wallcreeper, from which she read a passage about a married woman who plunges into an affair with a gas station attendant named Elvis—acknowledging the nifty segue from Berry’s poem. A New Yorker profile of Zink by Kathryn Schulz said The Wallcreeper “sounds like nothing you have ever read, and derives its bang from ideas you hadn’t thought to have.” Smart, funny, insightful. Likely to come to a bad end. In this setting, it’s hard to get a sense of the whole work, but the voice was terrific.

Her second excerpt was from the more recent novel Mislaid, a scene in which two gay men eating dinner in a crab restaurant make observations about other diners and themselves. The novel is notorious for its Caucasian main character Peggy, who reinvents herself and her white-blonde, blue-eyed daughter by claiming they are African Americans—“a high comedy of racial identity,” Schulz says, and not easy to pull off. About such tectonic plot shifts in her books, Eugenides said, “You cannot call them plot twists, because that implies some underlying straightness.”

In short, the subjects she takes up and the unflinching way she renders them make her, he said, “a bull in the china shop of contemporary American fiction.” More to read, more to read.

It’s Red Pen Time!

editing, red pen

(photo: Nic McPhee, creative commons license)

BookBub marketing expert Diana Urban has advice for writers—and that’s pretty much all of us, right?!—about words to excise in our prose. You have probably heard many times about the importance of some of these, but yet, when I read the drafts of new writers, not to mention people who should know better (like me!), they are persistent problems.

  • Avoid passive verbs—the classic example “Mistakes were made” illustrates the problem perfectly. Who made those mistakes? Passive constructions remove the “actor” from the “act.” “The keys were misplaced.” Yes, but who should be looking for them?! With the passive, you never know; responsibility diffuses in a miasma of vagueness.
  • In fact, avoid auxiliary verbs in general. “I was standing at the window, and I was gazing at the sheep” may have been an acceptable dozy writing style 150 years ago, but today’s readers want to get to the point: “I stood at the window and gazed at the sheep, including that black one.” (Hero of the rest of the story, no doubt.)
  • I once had to cut 40,000 words out of a 135,000-word manuscript and found having people simply go to the window and look at the sheep took a lot fewer words than saying they stood up first. Unless a character has problems standing, it isn’t necessary to have them stand, then go. Nor do they need to stand up, as Urban points out, or conversely, sit down. Sit.
  • Similarly, it isn’t usually necessary to say “I started to call the police,” “I began wondering whether . . .” As Nike would say, just do it! “I called the police”; “I wondered whether . . .” Only rarely do you need the pause created by “I started to call the police, but he pulled out a gun and pointed it at me, and I laid the phone gently on the desk.”
  • Intensifiers, like “very,” “really,” (really bad, that), when perhaps your prose would perk up with a jauntier verb. Either something’s bad or it isn’t. How much badder is very bad? Similarly, “totally, completely, absolutely, literally.” Careless writers include phrases like “completely destroyed.” Redundant. Totally.
  • Removing “just” or, in my case, “even” is a bit harder, but they are superfluous most of the time.

Urban’s list continues, including 43 words to jettison. And, she demonstrates a handy way to find these stumblers in your own writing. It’s hard to do, because some of them are so prevalent they slip under the radar. I do searches for them in my prose and find them in embarrassing profusion, so I’ve taught myself to recognize them.

Naturally, what is questionable in the narrative part of your work may be acceptable—and desirable—as part of dialog. People rarely speak as precisely as they write, and a character’s persona may appropriately employ certain verbal tics. What’s important is that the writer recognize them for what they are. Absolutely.

Pump Up Your Vocabulary


(photo art by Darwin Bell, Creative Commons license)

Stuck in a rut when you’re writing and want to find some fresh words for your ideas? Not sure where you stashed that dusty old thesaurus? If your vocabulary needs a bit of a boost, the Just English website has produced a gaggle of synonyms for the 96 words that are most commonly used in English. While the list doesn’t replace a thesaurus (online, I’m a fan of Visual Thesaurus), equally interesting is what those 96 words are.

Who would guess these most frequently used words would include crooked, idea, neat, and predicament? Some of the commonly used words cited include alternative slang definitions, which undoubtedly increase their usage, but Just English doesn’t provide synonyms for these.

Anger, angry, awful, bad, fear—they’re all there. A few more alternatives for “bad” than for “good,” but perhaps it means something positive that we have 27 alternatives for “beautiful,” and only 19 for “ugly.”

By age four, children know some 5,000 words in their native language, and children of age eight know 10,000 words. The average adult who is a native English speaker has a vocabulary of 20,000 to 35,000 words, and most adults learn about one new word a day until middle age. The New York Times is happy to help with that. A bit more challenging assortment can arrive in your email inbox from A.Word.A.Day.

Teens who read “lots” have about twice the vocabulary of those who read “not much”—more than 20,000 words, versus about 10,000. While reading builds vocabulary, and people who read “a lot” throughout the lifespan have a bigger array of words in their communications repertoire than do non-readers, what they read matters. On average, people who read fiction “a lot” have larger vocabularies than people who do not—even if they read a lot of non-fiction.

You can test the size of your vocabulary here. More than 5 million people have taken this test; I did, and my estimated vocab size is 37,000 words.

27 Maps about English & America

language tree

Ellis Island Language Tree (photo: Colin Howley, creative commons license)

The English language is rich and diverse—and so difficult to learn, especially the spelling—for reasons made amply clear by the first map in this fascinating series. The English language has grown root and branch from a wide diversity of linguistic traditions.

Moreover, English is full of idioms derived from all these different cultures. (A friend who is a native German-speaker wanted a book to read to improve his language skills, and I suggested The Big Sky, a 1947 novel about the American frontier by Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. B. Guthrie, Jr. It’s told in the plain language of the era and characters, and I thought it also might shed light on the formation of the American outlook, pre-1970 or so. Big mistake. Although the vocabulary was easy, the book was so shot full of idioms, phrases an American reader would understand at once, it was impossible for an outsider to parse.)

Back to the maps. Others of particular interest include #7, the accompanying text of which points out that the pronunciation of American English today is closer to 18th-century British English than what current British speakers use. The changes that occurred in British English in the 19th century led to the dropping of the “r” after vowels, which elegant Hollywood stars of the 1930s and 1940s would emulate (“Chahles, wheah did you pahk the cah?”) and other pseudo-elegances, leading inevitably to Singin’ in the Rain’s “I cahn’t, cahn’t, cahn’t.”

#13 is a map of Europe showing where English-speakers can most likely have a conversation in their native language. More than 95% of Britons can carry on such a conversation, as can 39% percent of people in France. Whether they will do so is a separate question, though the French I’ve encountered have shown great patience with my fumbling attempts at their language.

Don’t miss #22, which is a reprise of a video that made the rounds some months ago, a woman demonstrating 17 different British accents. First up is the “received pronunciation” that straddles differences across regions, akin to what we think of in the United States as newscaster-speak, or, more technically, as shown in map #24, “General Northern.”

“General Northern” has replaced a “truly astonishing” number and variety of language families present on the North American continent when European explorers arrived. Few of these American Indian languages survive today. This story also is graphically told on these two maps, accompanying Orin Hargraves’s Visual Thesaurus story on “The Continent of Lost Languages.”


Goodnight Moon, Children's book

(photo: wikipedia.org)

Not just authors, but most of us often have to communicate in writing, whether in reports for the office or papers for school or other purposes. But, how readable are our efforts? What readability standard should we strive for? Shane Snow’s recent Contently article began by saying, “Ernest Hemingway is regarded as one of the world’s greatest writers. After running some nerdy reading level stats, I now respect him even more.”

Leaving aside the “world’s greatest” issue, certainly Hemingway is considered one of the most direct and uncluttered authors of the 20th century. This is an assertion that can be tested using the various scales developed to measure the readability of texts. How does he stack up? Snow ran The Old Man and the Sea through one of the most-used readability tools, the Flesch-Kincaid index, and Hemingway’s classic was pegged at a fourth-grade reading level.

He reports results of similar analyses of a number famous authors’ works–both fiction and nonfiction. Among fiction writers, Hemingway’s effort was at the low end of the scale, only slightly less demanding (in terms of readability) than the writing of Cormac McCarthy. Most demanding was Michael Crichton’s work, which scored at almost grade 9. So even the “most challenging” of the 20 or so fiction authors tested required less than a high school education. That isn’t to say that the content of these works was suitable for children in those grades. Just because the words and sentence structure are simple, the meaning may not be.

Test your own work here: Just cut and paste your text into the window and instantly find out how it scores on six different readability measures. (This piece, which seems pretty straightforward to me, tests out at almost the ninth-grade level.)

I ran a short story I’m working on through the tests, and it came out at grade 6.1, approximately the difficulty of the work of Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer. In another popular measure—the Flesch-Kincaid “Reading Ease” score—my story had a score of 74.2, similar to the work of Dan Brown (holding my tongue), J.K. Rowling’s 7th Harry Potter book, John Grisham, and James Patterson, but easier than work by Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace. In this particular test, Hemingway and McCarthy are both more “readable” than Goodnight Moon.

The most recent national studies, which are now more than a decade old, suggest the average American reads at about an eighth grade level. Inexperienced or academic writers shoot themselves in the foot when they make their writing too complex in an effort to appear more intelligent. This strategy fails miserably, according to the results of experiments published a decade ago and summarized here.

And, even if people can read at a higher than eighth grade level, do they want to? My theory about the booming popularity of “young adult” fiction is that people like it because it’s easy to read. They don’t want to have to slog through a lot of complicated vocab and syntax. Looks like Hemingway was onto something!

Let there be . . .

birthday cake, candles

(photo: pixabay)

This week Orin Hargraves posted an illuminating essay on his Visual Thesaurus blog in tribute to the designation of 2015 as International Year of Light. Light, says Hargraves is “one of the most productive concepts for metaphor in English.”

Metaphors about light relate not just to our dependence on light for seeing (“light of day”; “leave a light on for me”), but, more profoundly, on light as a fount of understanding (“shed light,” “puts a new light on the matter,” “I see, . . .”). By contrast, dark suggests not just not seeing, but also not understanding (“in the dark,” “unenlightened,” “a cloudy perception”). No surprise, then, that the original meaning of “obscure” was “dark, opaque, gloomy.”

I picked up my copy of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, then found Hargraves consulted them on this matter, too. The two linguists cluster these and many similar metaphors under the rubric “Understanding is seeing; ideas are light sources; discourse is a light-medium.” Their examples include “What is your outlook on that? I view it differently. Now I’ve got the whole picture. It was a murky discussion.”

The relevant metaphors extend from direct references to light and dark to more indirect ones (“point of view”; “a transparent argument”; “lamp of knowledge”; “it dawned on her”; versus “someone not too bright”; “he’s a dim bulb”) and once you start looking for them, you find them embedded everywhere. In fact, Hargraves says, “there is hardly a noun, verb, or adjective in English with a core meaning arising from light and vision that cannot be used in metaphoric extension to depict knowledge and understanding.” And, to a great extent, the obverse. The full essay is a great read. Enjoy!

A random closing thought, but is it possible that birthday candles are a subconscious but resonant metaphor for the accumulation of understanding gained with each passing year?


*****The Fragrant Harbor

Hong Kong, city at night

(photo: c2.staticflickr.com)

By Vida Chu – I don’t usually review poetry, it being strictly a case of “I know what I like,” but my friend Vida Chu has published a lovely, evocative collection of 43 poems, The Fragrant Harbor (Hong Kong), and I like it a great deal.

Her poems recall the legends of ancient China and the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, the dislocation of being far from one’s roots and finding home, and the attenuation of family relationships across generations. In beautifully quiet images, she indelibly describes Hong Kong, writing (“Fragrant Harbor”):

The city’s colored lights and stars
Embroider the velvet water.

I especially liked the poems that recall the days of scholars and monks, Emperors and concubines (from “Things I Never Told You About Chinese Painting”):

That Wu Daozi once brushed a huge landscape
onto the palace wall. When he pointed to the grotto
and clapped his hands, the entrance opened.

He stepped inside the painting
and disappeared
in front of the Emperor’s eyes.

The family dynamics Chu describes in many of the poems are universal. What people leave unsaid, the haunting family ghosts, moments of joy (from “Wedding Rain”):

With rings on their fingers
The couple sobbed in each other’s arms
The heavens applauded with a downpour

Like all émigrés, always a bit out of time and place, and in a way that for her has sharpened her perceptions, Chu also describes her roots in America (from “Foreign Students”):

Our lives no longer can be packed in suitcases.
We return to visit as tourists.

We have grown complacent in the rich feeding ground.
We have lost the passion to swim upstream.

This is a collection to read time and again. A special gift for a special person. Yourself? Enjoy!

Ravel-Edged Storytelling

forest poetry

(photo: as0.geograph.org.uk)

A walk in the woods of poetry and prose and pleasantly lost in thickets of words.

The current (subscription only) newsletter from AGNI—Boston University’s well-regarded literary magazine—includes an interview with prize-winning poet and nonfiction writer Rosalie Moffett about “Ravel-Edged Storytelling.”

A Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, Moffett says she mostly considers herself a poet, but believes that the two genres—poetry and nonfiction—“share a border, and sometimes I look up to find I’ve crossed it.” A work that started out to be one thing takes an unexpected and serendipitous turn to become the other. In reading this month’s submissions to the writer’s workshop I attend, I encountered one 1200-word short story excerpt that seemed to want to become a poem and might have become one, by just changing the line lengths.

Answering Questions

Moffett says she writes prose and poetry for the same reason: to answer questions and, most of the time, poems “end up being the best arena for my mind to answer them.” This suggests a mind that ranges freely through a forest of possible answers, where the ambiguity of words can be pulled into service of meaning and intent. Strung together in a particular way, they can be the perfect example of the whole being more than the sum of the parts. That phenomenon is is one function of subtext.

dinner table, family

(photo: creative commons generic license)

AGNI online offers Moffett’s essay Sidney, whose story she says absolutely required “the ravel-edged” kind of telling offered by prose. Prose also provided a more valid recreation of how she originally heard—or overheard—the family stories, and the stories about Sidney himself, with all their half-bits of information, inferences, and unanswered questions like loose threads in a bag of knitting ravaged by moths or kittens. Prose “puts our stories together in a way they never had the chance to be before people died, got bitter, or went off their rockers.” I urge you to link to it and start reading; you won’t be able to stop!

And Telling Stories

In the essay about Sidney, she talks about how as a child younger than six visiting her grandparents, she got up late in the evening feigning hunger, so she could camp out in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal and overhearing the adults’ conversation in the next room: “I remember the music of the stories more than their substance. I sensed their pull and power. I wanted, suddenly, nothing more than to have stories to tell, and to sit at that table and tell them.” “Sidney” shows she absolutely got her wish.

I think I resonated with her responses in the interview largely because of the process in the last two weeks, of writing my blog posts, The Rouge Shadow and Coming to Amerika, based on a longer essay about my father’s immigrant parents. So different from Moffett, who can draw on a deep well of family detail—conversations, rooms she’s spent time in—I know next-to-nothing about my father’s parents. Yet, even from the few stray threads I have, many stories could be woven. To write these essays, I pieced together the backdrop for a plausible narrative from minute clues. Moffett says writing an essay “feels like the hunt for an answer.” And sometimes the answer is that there is none.

Further Reading

Rosalie Moffett’s website includes links to some of her poems, including this one, “Gifts from the 7-11.”

Agni is the ancient Vedic god of fire and guardian of humankind, a messenger to the other gods. You can find out more about this aptly named literary magazine here. And about the god of fire here.

The Art of Subtext, by Charles Baxter– The most eloquent and approachable group of essays on subtext that I’ve found. For only $3.88 used to $10.28 new, you can awaken to new possibilities. Reading it was like seeing, after not seeing.

Creativity is UP!

Up, Navy Pilot

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) is a classic study of the way metaphor shapes our understanding of the world. Published in 1980, it dismisses the idea that metaphors are strictly a matter of language, the frosting on the cake of meaning, as argued by various competing philosophical and linguistic traditions. In what I usually read, the search for truth is conducted not by academics, but by a fictional detective, so some of this was heavy going. Where the authors dig into the language, their examples are fascinating.

Lakoff and Johnson are not generally talking about literary metaphors, but rather about the ones so thoroughly absorbed into the language that we no longer notice them as metaphors. One fundamental set of such metaphors reflects “orientation”: up-down, in-out, back-front, and so on. Although some metaphors in this set appear to be more or less universal across languages, others are more culturally determined. In Western culture, many common phrases reflect the metaphor “happy is up” and its opposite, “sad is down.” Examples are:

  • That boosted my spirits.
  • I’m depressed.
  • It gave him a lift.
  • My heart sank.
  • Being up-beat.

Extending this pattern, health and life are up:

  • It’s time to get up.
  • He’s at the pinnacle of health.
  • Lazarus rose from the dead.
  • She sank into a coma.

More is up (this one, we even represent graphically):

  • My income rose last year.
  • The Dow reached a new high.

Having control is up:

  • He’s at the height of his powers.
  • She has control over the situation.

And so on. This metaphor is so pervasive, we don’t notice it. The other orientation pairs are embedded in the language in much the same way, and from the various concepts they signify, they form a coherent way of understanding our world.

Lakoff and Johnson also discuss how we depend on metaphor to help us structure inherently vague concepts, like emotions, in terms of more concrete things we may have directly experienced. Complex emotions, like love or anger, have inspired many overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) metaphors. For example:

  • Love (vague) is a journey (concrete).
  • Anger (vague) is hot (concrete).

The “love is a journey” metaphor underlies statements like: “We’re on the road to romance” (think Sinatra’s: “Nice ‘n’ Easy”); “It’s a rocky road to love.”; “We went in different directions.”; or “This relationship isn’t going anywhere.” The “anger is hot” metaphor leads to: “I was boiling mad”; “Cool it!”; and “in the heat of the moment.” (Icy cold anger is scary perhaps because it’s so counterintuitive.)

I’m trying to understand all this (which is the tip of the tip of the iceberg, you understand) in terms of writing. “We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor,” say Lakoff and Johnson. The orientation metaphors and their many variants perhaps explain why, a writer’s attempts to create a literary metaphor sometimes miss the mark. Perhaps they have violated this coherent, and implicit language system.

A linguistic exploration of the metaphors underlying emotion seems to me like an endorsement of the frequent dictum: “show, don’t tell.” Simply saying that a fictional character feels love or anger or happiness conveys little to the reader, because readers will have different ways—and many competing ways—of interpreting that emotion, depending on the metaphors through which they see the world. The metaphors underlying those feelings must be expressed—and in some fresh way that is consistent with the existing substrate (safer) or totally new, stretching both writer and reader.

Read more at: The Literary Link and, for some juicy literary metaphors, Welcome to the World of Metaphor.