July 4, 2022

Some adverbs deserve to die

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“Avoid adverbs” is a popular bit of writing advice. There's some wisdom there, but the it’s usually applied too broadly and sometimes interpreted as “all adverbs are bad.” That, of course, is ridiculous. Adverbs are essential parts of speech, and even the much maligned manner adverbs — the ones that modify verbs and often end in “ly” — can be just what a piece of writing needs to make it sing.

 Even so, there are some adverbs that I kill on sight. Anytime one of these crops up in an article I’m editing (or when I catch it in my own writing), I delete it without hesitation.

Truly. Formerly. Currently. Absolutely. Definitely. Utterly.

These are the pudgy, overpaid middle managers of language. They contribute nothing and are almost always dispensable.

 Consider the sentence: Peterson is currently the CEO of the company.

Editors see stuff like that a lot. And all the editors I know agree that currently adds nothing whatsoever to this sentence. Formerly, which often goes hand-in- hand with the verb was, is no better. The verb is already in the past tense. So the reader doesn’t need to be told the situation is former.

Truly, absolutelydefinitely, really and utterly say a mouthful. Unfortunately, their message boils down to, “I really, really, really want you believe the thing I’m about to say.” Ironically, that makes the statement that follows seem less plausible.

For these adverbs — and any other that adds no new information whatsoever to a sentence — we can justify applying the old “Shoot first and let God sort ’em out” philosophy.

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June 27, 2022

'Sleight' of hand, not 'slight'

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"Magician used slight of hand skills to steal money while working at the cheese counter at Harrods,” announced a headline in the Daily Mail.

Don’t make this mistake. Trickery involving sneaking movements is “sleight of hand.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, sleight is a noun meaning deceitful craftiness, stratagem, dexterity or skill. Of course, you never hear it used that way. The only time it comes up is in the term “sleight of hand,” which is probably why the dictionary has a listing for the whole term. 

sleight of hand

 1

a: a cleverly executed trick or deception

b: a conjuring trick requiring manual dexterity 

2

a: skill and dexterity in conjuring tricks

b: adroitness in deception

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June 20, 2022

Alright, grey, judgement, barbeque: Alternate spellings and how to choose the best one

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Can you wear a grey shirt to a back yard barbeque if, in your judgement, it seems alright because your accoutrements match the ambiance? Not on my watch.

Grey, barbeque, back yard, judgement, alright, accoutrements and ambiance are just a few of the terms I change on sight — not because they’re wrong but because these alternate spellings are considered subpar in the world of professional editing.

English has lots of words you can spell two ways. In some cases, one spelling is strongly preferred. In other cases, both are equally good.

But in the publishing world, you can’t just pick one based on your mood — even if it’s correct. The reason? A newspaper or book can’t have barbeque in one paragraph, BBQ in another and barbecue on the next page. Inconsistencies like that are sloppy and unprofessional. For editors, there’s usually just one right choice. So how do we know which spelling to use? Two ways: style guides and dictionary cues.

The Associated Press Stylebook makes the call on certain words for news media that follow AP style. For example, if you look up “barbeque” in the AP guide, you’ll see “barbecue … not barbeque, Bar-B-Q or BBQ.” That doesn’t mean that “barbeque” is wrong. It means it’s wrong in AP style. It also means that your reader is accustomed to seeing news outlets spell it with a C, so if you spell it with a Q, it will seem a little unprofessional. Here's a look at other alternate spellings in my recent column.

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June 13, 2022

Empty sentences and how to fix them

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One of the biggest problems I see in marketing pieces I edit isn’t subject-verb agreement or apostrophe abuse or “forego” in place of “forgo.” It’s empty sentences.

Marketing copy is especially prone to empty sentences. The writer is trying to convince you to buy something. But he can’t say, “Just buy this thing.” He must build a case — show you why some product or service or idea is worth your money or time. And that’s where writers can fall short, stringing together words that, instead of giving the reader real information, say nothing more than “Blah, blah, blah, buy this thing we’re selling.”

A passive reader just hears the “blah blah.” A close reader homes in on the meaninglessness at the heart of the sentence. Either way, the writer fails.

Here, slightly disguised, are some real examples of empty sentences I’ve come across recently.

The strength of investor, developer and tenant demand for retail space was strong in 2021. There are a couple things to dislike about this sentence, but pare it down and you’ll see that the basic subject is “the strength” and the predicate is “is strong.” The reader already knows strength is strong. You can fix this one easily by chopping off the first three words of the sentence.

The fear of saying something that might upset the grieving family may make you feel uncomfortable. Got that? Fear, an innately uncomfortable feeling, may make you feel uncomfortable. This sentence needs an overhaul. Start by asking whether “fear” makes a good subject. It does not because you’re not really making a point about fear, so you have nothing to say in the predicate. The issue isn’t what fear does. It’s the fear itself. So make that the point: “You fear you’ll say something that might upset the grieving family.”

Here are some more in my recent column.

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June 6, 2022

Is it true you should avoid adverbs?

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A lot of people go on and on about why writers should avoid adverbs. A lot of other people go on and on about how stupid the first group’s advice is, citing countless examples of adverbs used by the best writers. Often they cite examples of the anti-adverbs people using adverbs.

Who’s right? They both are. Who’s wrong? They both are. And the whole stupid argument occurs only because the anti-adverbs people overstated their case or the anti-anti-adverbs people took the other guys out of context.

When a writing teacher tells students to avoid adverbs, there’s a good reason. That teacher has seen how adverbs undermine amateur writers' work.

But taken too seriously, the “avoid adverbs” is silly. Adverbs exist for a reason.

Put every manner adverb to the “take it out” test. If, by taking the adverb out of the sentence, you lose nothing, keep it out. If, on the other hand, you lose some important bit of information, then by all means put the adverb back in.

Here are some real examples of one amateur writer’s adverbs that add nothing.

“Relentlessly, people began to pour out of the black mouth of the building.”

“Gus quickly grabbed his flamethrower.”

“Gus looked down at the small creature that had recently tried to end his life.”

“Gus watched the reflections from the city’s streetlights float across the windshield for several blocks before he finally spoke.”

“Jackson is currently president and CEO of Widgets, Inc.”

By deleting “relentlessly,” “quickly,” “recently,” “finally,” and “currently” from the above sentences, you lose nothing. In fact, the streamlined effect you get is actually a gain, giving the remaining words greater impact.

When you apply the "take it out" test, you benefit from the wisdom of both warring parties without falling into a stupid debate.

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May 30, 2022

The couple is or the couple are?

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The couple is going to purchase the house? Or the couple are going to purchase the house? Even after all my years of editing, I can still get tripped up trying to make verbs agree with collective nouns like “couple,” “team” and “majority.”

Collective nouns are singular in form, “a team,” but refer to a group of two or more people or things. In other words, they’re singular and plural at the same time. And since verbs are supposed to agree in number with their subjects — one cat is, two cats are — the roughly 200 collective nouns in our language cause a lot of confusion.

Compare:

The family is gathering at the park. The family are all accountants.

The staff is well trained. The staff are experts in customer service.

The choir is excellent. The choir are arguing among themselves.

The majority is powerful. The majority are enrolled full time.

Sometimes collective nouns seem to make more sense as plurals, while other times they make more sense as singulars. When you’re trying to write grammatically, that seems like a problem. But it’s not, because the rule is: If you mean it as a plural, it’s plural. If you mean it as a singular, it’s singular.

In most cases, this hinges on whether the individuals in your collective are acting collectively — the orchestra is playing Tuesday — or they’re acting individually — the orchestra are tuning their instruments.

With collective nouns, consistency counts. Here's my recent column explaining how to master them.

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May 23, 2022

'The couple is' or 'the couple are'? Collective nouns

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The couple is going to purchase the house? Or the couple are going to purchase the house? Even after all my years of editing, I can still get tripped up trying to make verbs agree with collective nouns like “couple,” “team” and “majority.”

Collective nouns are singular in form, “a team,” but refer to a group of two or more people or things. In other words, they’re singular and plural at the same time. And since verbs are supposed to agree in number with their subjects — one cat is, two cats are — the roughly 200 collective nouns in our language cause a lot of confusion.

Compare:

The family is gathering at the park.

The family are all accountants.

The staff is well-trained.

The staff are experts in customer service.

The choir is excellent.

The choir are arguing among themselves.

The majority is powerful.

The majority are enrolled full-time.

Sometimes collective nouns seem to make more sense as plurals, while other times they make more sense as singulars. When you’re trying to write grammatically, that seems like a problem. But it’s not, because the rule is: If you mean it as a plural, it’s plural. If you mean it as a singular, it’s singular.

In most cases, this hinges on whether the individuals in your collective are acting collectively — the orchestra is playing Tuesday — or they’re acting individually — the orchestra are tuning their instruments.

With collective nouns, consistency counts. “The main consideration in skillfully handling them is consistency in the use of a singular or plural verb,” writes Garner’s Modern American Usage. “If, in the beginning of an essay, the phrase is ‘the faculty was,’ then every reference to ‘faculty’ as a noun should be singular throughout the whole.”

Good advice in most cases, but this isn’t always practical. Here's everything you need to know in my recent column.

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May 16, 2022

Avoiding clichés is harder than it sounds

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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. 
 

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May 9, 2022

Big words don't make readers think you're smart

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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.

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May 2, 2022

Italics or quotation marks for movie and book titles?

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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.

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