Avoiding clichés is harder than it sounds
Posted by June on May 16, 2022
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Any writing expert will tell you: If you want to get your message across, avoid clichés. The problem is, no one seems to know what, exactly, a cliché is. Is it an overused sentence like “The grass is always greener on the other side”? Is it a two-dimensional rendering like a mobster who wears a fedora or a private investigator who keeps a liquor bottle in his desk? Is it any needless phrase like “It is important to note that”? Can it be a single word, like “synergies”?

The answer isn’t clear, but the lesson is: If your words or descriptions are so overused that they’ve lost their impact, you should look for ways to rephrase them. Sometimes you won’t find a better alternative because that’s the nature of clichés: They get overused because they capture an idea or image exceptionally well. But if you make an effort to replace clichés, sometimes you’ll find a fresh new way of saying something that actually has an impact on your reader.

Every writing genre has its own clichés: fiction, journalism, marketing, business communications. So every list of clichés is different based on the list-maker’s own observations. My recent column looks at the following clichéd words and expressions: first and foremost, burst into tears, sweat profusely, bleed profusely, it’s a win-win, underscores our commitment, a perfect storm, think outside the box, decadent desserts, pop of color, break into a cold sweat, a bucolic setting. 

Big words don't make readers think you're smart
Posted by June on May 9, 2022
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It’s a question that has hounded us all: What are the consequences of erudite vernacular used irrespective of necessity?

OK, not really. That’s the ironic title of an academic paper published in 2005 by Carnegie Mellon psychologist David Oppenheimer that studied the effects of stuffy, reader-unfriendly language. The subtitle brought it back down to Earth: “The problems of using long words needlessly.”

Oppenheimer’s study turned up some interesting findings about academic writing that apply outside the academic world, offering lessons for business writers, essayists, bloggers, novelists and anyone who wants to write better.

The big takeaway: Highfalutin, fancy language doesn’t make readers think you’re smart. Quite the opposite.

For the study, the author manipulated the language in written works, leaving some pieces in simple terms and putting others in unnecessarily complex language. Then readers were asked how smart the writer seemed to them.

The results: “a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence.” In other words, the fancier the language, the dumber the writer was perceived to be. Read more about it here in my recent column.

Italics or quotation marks for movie and book titles?
Posted by June on May 2, 2022

When you’re writing titles of movies, books and other compositions, you usually have a choice between using italics and putting them in quotation marks.

Associated Press style says to put movie and book titles in quotation marks. “Star Wars.” “Slaughterhouse Five.” That makes sense when you consider that AP is a news writing style and early printing presses could not make italics.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed by book and magazine publishers, says to use italics for book and movie titles. Star Wars. Slaughterhouse Five.

Neither style says to underline titles, which throws off a lot of writers who remember doing so in school. But that convention of some academic styles isn’t really followed in professional publishing.

As for those ALL-CAPITAL TITLES THAT SEEM TO SCREAM AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS, those are common in marketing writing. But you won’t find titles written that way in newspapers or books. In fact, even proper names that are supposed to be in all caps, like the entertainment complex L.A. LIVE, don’t stay all caps in many newspapers. This one, for example, becomes L.A. Live.

Both AP and Chicago have special rules for song titles, magazine titles, composition titles, poem titles, and just about anything else that a writer has given a name to. There are too many to commit to memory. If you absolutely need to get them right, consult a style guide. Otherwise, don’t sweat these too much. It’s probably fine to just choose one style — quotation marks or italics — for all. No one will think less of you for not knowing every little rule. After all, even editors often have to double-check.

'A historic' or 'an historic'? 'A FBI agent' or 'An FBI agent'? 'A AAA-rated hotel' or 'an AAA-rated hotel'?
Posted by June on April 25, 2022
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English has just two indefinite articles and the choice between them is usually easy. “A” precedes a consonant sound: a cat, a truck, a man. “An” precedes a vowel sound: an idea, an octopus, an intelligent octopus.

Usually, a word starts with a vowel sound because it starts with a vowel — an umpire —or it starts with a consonant sound because it starts with a consonant — a referee. But not always. The word “university,” for example, starts with a consonant sound: Y. That’s why you say “a university” and not “an university.”

Even in these cases, “a” and “an” are easy for native English speakers.

Sometimes an indefinite article that comes naturally when you’re speaking can make you second-guess yourself when you’re writing. For example, some struggle with the question of which article to use before an abbreviation like “FBI.” F is a consonant and it stands for a word that begins with a consonant sound, “federal.” But when you say the letter F, you start with a vowel sound: “eff.” That’s why when you’re speaking, you say “an FBI agent” and not “a FBI agent.”

Whether speaking or writing, the rule is based on pronunciation. So you’d write “an FBI agent.”

People disagree on how to handle “historic.” But there’s no wrong answer. If you treat the H as silent or nearly silent, you can use “an historic.” People who prefer this method point out that, because “historic” puts the stress on its second syllable, “stor,” the first syllable is all but lost without “an” in front of it. People who pronounce the H use “a historic.”

The Associated Press Stylebook, which I follow in my editing work, says it’s “a historic.” So that’s how I do it. The guide for book and magazine publishers, the Chicago Manual of Style, is less rigid: “The word ‘historical’ and its variations cause missteps, but if the H in these words is pronounced, it takes an A (an hour-long walk at a historical society).”

The oddest case of all is the abbreviation for the American Automobile Association. Is it “an AAA” or “a AAA”? The answer in my recent column.