Behold the Cuttlefish!
“He that uses many words for the explaining any subject doth, like the cuttlefish,
hide himself in his own ink.”
—John Ray, seventeenth-century naturalist
The cuttlefish is a deep-sea creature that, when threatened, squirts an inky substance into the water to provide cover for its getaway. It’s a useful strategy for the cuttlefish but worse than useless for a writer whose need is to provide clarity, not obfuscation.
A peculiarly human disposition renders our species susceptible to a deep yearning for prolix communication—the urge to express oneself in flowery, verdant language; for redundancy—for writing so overgrown with weediness and wordiness that the actual transmission of facts and ideas is rendered impossible.
Why do we mangle the language this way?
A couple of reasons present themselves. First, there’s the normal human desire to impress, and too often we succumb to the belief that big fancy words will impress our readers. The problem is that often we impress people but not the way we had hoped, especially when we get our inspiration from the thesaurus.
For instance, suppose a writer composed the sentence, “Lonnie grew up in a primitive log cabin.” Let us say that our writer is satisfied with the sentence as a whole but wants a more sophisticated word than primitive. He consults a thesaurus and finds, among other words: embryonic, original, nascent, simple, and basic. Embryonic obviously won’t do the job. Simple would work well, but it’s too, well, simple. Nascent, then? The word sounds impressive enough, so he goes with it.
But what, exactly, does nascent mean? Thirty seconds of effort would have told him that the word means: embryonic, incipient, young, fledgling, evolving, emergent, dawning, burgeoning—all words that sound ridiculous if used to describe a log cabin. Clearly, simple or primitive would be the best words to describe such a building.
The second reason comes into play when people are trying to meet a mandated word count and come up short. Instead of going to the trouble of creating more content, they simply begin adding more words.“Some scholars believe Shakespeare’s plays were written by de Vere” becomes “As a matter of fact, there are some people, including several scholars who are very famous, who have actually reached the conclusion, which is very strange, that a gentleman who had the name of Edward de Vere was in fact the person who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
Worth remembering—old but true—Keep it simple, stupid!
The Fraternal Twins of Punctuation
TODAY WE ARE HAVING a fun-filled, action-packed grammar lesson!
And today’s topic is the following: colons and semicolons! They look similar and sound similar, but boy, are they different!
A colon looks like this: and means “and this is what it is.” Or else “and this is who she is.” Or maybe “and this is what they are.” You get the basic idea. Here are a few examples:
I’m taking the following things on my camping trip (and this is what they are): a frying pan, a swimsuit, extra underwear, freeze-fried gourmet meals, and my best evening gown.
I have but one object in life (and this is what it is): to win your affection.
We should stay away from him for just one reason (and this is what it is): he’s as crazy as a pack of bargain-hunters on Black Friday.
Just make sure you don’t use it where those six words would not make sense. For instance:
I’m going to the store to buy (and this is what they are): bread, juice, toothpaste, and bananas.
Doesn’t make sense that way, does it? So leave the colon out of that one.
The semicolon is the fraternal twin of the colon: similar in looks but worlds apart in behavior. Here’s a semicolon; it is used to separate parts of the sentence which carry equal grammatical weight. What does that mean? OK, here are some examples:
He drank; she didn’t. She is; he isn’t.
On either side of the semicolons is a stand-alone clause; teachers and grammarians call them independent clauses. In these sentences, the semicolon takes the place of a conjunction-comma combo: He drank, but she didn’t. She is, but he isn’t.
Sometimes, however, you’ll want to write a sentence that’s more like this one:
When my mom decides something everyone had better look out; for example, one day she decided we needed new cupboards, and she had all the old ones ripped out before anyone else got home.
Sean knew the code and was very fluent in using it; however, he always seemed to mess up under pressure
You’ll need a comma after words such as for example and however when those words are used after a semicolon. More words which qualify for this treatment are also, however, instead, meanwhile, then, therefore, nevertheless, for example, and in addition.
So far, so good?
Sometimes you need a semicolon in other places. Take this sentence:
On my trip I’ll be giving lectures in Sao Paulo, Brazil, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Miami, Florida, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Bracknell, England.
You’ll be going where? Well, you can figure it out if you try, but why make your reader go back over a sentence twice? So to makes matters easier, we insert some semicolons:
On my trip I’ll be giving lectures in Sao Paulo, Brazil; San Luis Potosi, Mexico; Miami, Florida; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Bracknell, England.
In each case a city and a country or state lie between the semicolons, making them equal to one another in weight. The sentence is now a much easier read.
One last case where semicolons are called in to rescue a sentence from confusion:
The king called for his pipe, a giant meerschaum, he called for his bowl, a large one used principally as an emesis basin, and he called for his fiddlers three, though not one of them could play on tune.
Here we have a series of nouns followed by appositive phrases: in other words, people or things followed by words that describe them. Confusing, wouldn’t you agree? So let’s drop in a few semicolons.
The king called for his pipe, a giant meerschaum; he called for his bowl, a large one used principally as an emesis basin; and he called for his fiddlers three, though not one of them could play on tune.
Much clearer! Note that using a conjunction right after a semicolon is not a no-no; just as long as the sentence elements between semicolons are roughly equal, all is well.
Well, that about wraps it up for today, folks. Have a great weekend, everybody!
Wanna Learn to Write So You Sound Like a Pro in Three Easy Lessons?
Sorry! Writing like a pro takes work, work, and more work.
BUT I can teach you a few easy tricks that can make you look a sound pretty impressive. So here goes the first one:
You know what an interruption is, right? You’re really into your game, you’ve almost got the next level, when the phone rings, and it’s some idiot trying to get you to vote for a political candidate you totally detest! Some nerve the guy’s got! What’s worse, it’s not a real guy, it’s a robot making a robocall!
I think guys who interrupt a game with a robocall about politics should be strung up by their toenails!
So you take the first couple of words from that sentence and slide them down into the middle of the sentence, like so:
Guys who interrupt a game with a robocall about politics should, I think, be strung up by their toenails!
Allowing those two words to interrupt the natural flow of the sentence gives it a certain zing, doesn’t it?
Or how about this?
There are many people who want to join the Navy Seals program, but they must endure rigorous training.
Take the first part of the sentence and slide it between a couple of words further in:
People who want to join the Navy Seals program—and there are many—must endure rigorous training.
One last example:
Now that I think of it, we should plant some more weeds in the lawn this spring.
Place an interrupter in the middle:
We should, now that I think of it, plant some more weeks in the lawn this spring.
Try it in your next piece of writing and see if you don’t impress your readers!
Next time we’ll talk about another stylistic trick.
My Fearsome Foursome and Commas Pertaining Thereunto
I HAVE FOUR children. Here they are. I hope you are impressed.
The reason I am showing them to you, however, is actually not to impress you but to drive home a point having to do with commas. So here goes.
Take a look at these two sentences:
My daughter who loves to grow daffodils is a physician assistant.
My son who is wearing a gray vest is a nurse practitioner.
How many commas should the first sentence have?
Assuming you don’t think any of my three sons looks like a woman (if you do, please don’t tell him), you know that I have one daughter. That being the case, you do not need the adjective clause “who is a physician assistant” in order to know who I am talking about. And since you don’t need the clause, you do need the commas, like so:
My daughter, who is a physician assistant, loves to grow daffodils.
How about the sentence about my son? You can tell by looking that I have three of them, right? So do we need the adjective clause “who is wearing a gray vest” to know who I am talking about?
Yes, you do, since as far as you know any of the three men in the picture could be the nurse practitioner. So:
My son who is wearing a gray vest is a nurse practitioner.
And since you do need that clause, you don’t need any commas.
Here’s another example, this time from a local newspaper:
The director of the E-911 Center who was swept into the post 10 years ago on a wave of employee support faces losing the job after an employee survey found deep dissatisfaction with his management.
After skimming through this sentence I found myself thinking “Say what? What exactly is an employee support face?” When I went back and reread it, I discovered that a pair of missing commas was at least partly responsible for the confusion. (The fact that I was trying to speedread bears some of the blame, of course.) The sentence should read like this:
The director of the E-911 Center, who was swept into the post 10 years ago on a wave of employee support, faces losing the job after an employee survey found deep dissatisfaction with his management.
There’s only one of him, so we know who he is; therefore the commas are needed.
That’s it for now! ♦ PM
THE WIND BLEW fresh and fierce all night, and the
stars whirled and the pines tossed. The sizzling days of summer were done and that night with its wild beauty had not been made for sleep.
Before dawn I slipped from my sleeping bag and into my shoes and set off across the hills. In the soft expectancy of early-morning darkness I hiked the familiar woods, coming suddenly upon an antlered buck atop a piney ridge. I drew up and halted and we stood a dozen paces from each other, for several minutes taking each others’ measure. Then he plunged down the hill just as the sun leaped over the opposite ridge, and I set off down into the tiny valley.
Young light skittered around the California poppies and the goldenrod. Sunbaked grasses swished around my knees. Jays squawked their bellicose challenges to the world.
And there, halfway up a tree at the bottom of the hill, he sat. He was certainly no housecat, unless a creature three feet long could be a housecat. And anyway, this creature’s short, tawny fur was in texture like that of a golden retriever, not soft and silky like my tabby’s.
I stood tiptoe looking up at him, thrills of excitement running from spine-top to tiptoe. The bobcat, for I was sure that was what it was, stared calmly down at me, and we stayed like that, silent and motionless, for several minutes. Eventually I had to leave, of course, and I reluctantly turned and walked down through the valley.
Years later I happened upon a group of bobcats in a zoo. Until that moment I had had no very clear idea what a bobcat looks like. Those animals were nothing like the cat I had encountered. It was not a bobcat.
At the library I found pictures of mountain lions, and there sat my cat. It had most definitely been a young mountain lion. And I had been too trusting and naïve to be afraid.
Fear breeds contempt, and possibly my complete lack of fear inspired respect. Or more likely, he was young and his stomach full. But what has stayed with me throughout the years was the majesty and grace that flooded that entire morning.
I was a teen back then, and I just celebrated the seventh birthday of my eighth grandchild.
Record the majesty or the mayhem of each new day, and you will not forget. ♦ PM
Ten Words Guaranteed to Make You Look Stupid
TAKE A LOOK AT the following sentences. Each one contains a word which just isn’t right. Here’s your challenge:
Find the problem word in each one. Determine whether the word is almost right or totally wrong.
Now, here are the sentences.
1. “The public education system in America is one of the most important foundations of our democracy. After all, it is where children from all over America learn to be responsible citizens, and learn to have the skills necessary to take advantage of our fantastic opportunistic society.” George W. Bush
2. The torturously winding river slid through the jungle.
3. “I want to remind you all that in order to fight and win the war, it requires an expenditure of money that is commiserate with keeping a promise to our troops to make sure that they’re well-paid, well-trained, well-equipped.” George W. Bush
4. “I’m going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there’s an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened.” George W. Bush
5. “Anyone engaging in illegal transactions will be caught and persecuted.” George W. Bush
6. Any student who deliberately flaunts the rules will spend two days in ISS.
7. For all intensive purposes, the job is now complete.
8. After three days of work without letup, the workmen were literally dying of exhaustion.
9. Today I’d like to demonstrate to you an ingenuous little gadget which will save you hours of work!
10. “The true story of Louis Zamperini (1917-2014) from street hooligan to Olympian to bomber operator to POW is one of the most astounding stories of American determinism to come out of WWII.” From a film critique
OK, let’s take a look at what we have here:
1. Though our society does tend to be opportunistic, that’s not what the writer meant. The appropriate word would be “opportunity-laden.” While “opportunistic” can simply mean “taking advantage of opportunities as they arise,” another—and more usual—meaning is “exploiting opportunities without regard to moral considerations.”
2. Anything torturous is horribly painful; something winding, such as a road or a river, is tortuous. If a path were so winding as to be excruciatingly painful, the words tortuous” and “torturous” might both apply, but the rest of the time, they’re miles apart in meaning, no matter how similar they might sound.
3. To commiserate with someone is to express sympathy for him or her. The president means commensurate, in keeping with.
4. The U.S. is opposed to authoritarian regimes, such as the governments of North Korea and Libya, because of their unbending oppression. What the president wants to be known for is an authoritative voice, one which carries with it a note of authority.
5. The president obviously didn’t want to be known as one who persecutes others, because persecution is what bullies, thugs, and authoritarian types engage in. While it’s true that sometimes we persecute people by prosecuting them in a court of law, these two words are not otherwise related.
6. Your average teacher won’t get upset at the students who flaunts the rules: “Ha ha, my teacher’s rules are better than your teacher’s rules!” What gets a teacher going is the student who flouts the rules: “I hate these rules and I’m not going to keep them!”
7. “All intents and purposes” is the phrase intended here: “all intensive purposes” would be all those purposes which are highly focused.
8. OK, after three days of nonstop work you’d likely feel as if you were dying of exhaustion, but you probably wouldn’t be near death’s door. Literally doesn’t mean “almost,” it means “exactly” or “in fact.” Its opposite is “figuratively.”
9. Maybe the gadget is an unusually honest one, but probably the writer means it is very cleverly constructed. Ingenuous means frank, honest, or naïve; ingenious means clever.
10. Determinism means the theory that everything is predetermined, leaving us without the capacity for free will. The writer obviously means determination.
Did you get them all right? Good! And you also realize that none of the ten wrong words is an almost-right words; they’re all dead wrong!
But they won’t make you look stupid unless you use them the wrong way! ♦ PM
How to Roll Your Eyes in Writing
WHICH OF THESE two sentences is correct?
- Sherry was appropriately dressed for school in baggy jeans, bare shoulders, and clown face paint.
- Sherry was “appropriately” dressed for school in baggy jeans, bare shoulders, and clown face paint.
The answer? Either or both, depending. The first sentence is delivered with a straight face; the second is accompanied with an exaggerated eye roll. The writer of the first sentence trusts his readers to get the sarcasm, but the second writer, by placing the word “appropriately” in quotation marks, has erased all doubt as to his meaning.
Let’s look at another example:
The impoverished people making over $100,000 a year are having to do without their trips to Hawaii these days.
Surely everyone will get the sarcasm, won’t they? But if you’re not quite certain, plunk in a strategically placed pair of quotation marks:
The “impoverished” people making over $100,000 a year are having to do without their trips to Hawaii these days.
So when you need to roll your eyes in writing, often the simplest possible way is to rely on punctuation. ♦ PM
You Too Can Write Like Shakespeare!
OR AT LEAST somewhat!
So today let’s begin with three ways of saying basically the same thing.
- I sure feel bad about what I just did to the king! I mean, it’s so bad that if I dipped my hand in the ocean, the whole thing would turn red with blood!
- The culpability for the king’s demise weighs heavily upon me. Were I to submerge my digits in the briny substance that encircles our terrestrial orb, its liquescent fluid would no longer be emerald, but would rather become rubicund.
- Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
I assume you can tell that the first example was not written by Shakespeare. It is modern informal English, the kind we hear spoken around us.
But what about the second example? It uses a lot of fancy words—culpability, demise, digits, terrestrial, liquescent, rubicund, and so forth. We’re always being told to write using unusual, interesting words, not trite everyday ones, aren’t we?
The second example does that, all right. Problem is, it’s not real English: it’s gobbledygook. That’s writing that sets out to be impressive and ends up needing a translator. If your English teacher returns a piece of writing to you with “Write in English!” blazoned across the front page, chances are you’ve written gobbledygook.
So am I saying the second example isn’t English? All the words in that passage can be found in most any English dictionary. But it contains way too many Latinate words—words with Latin roots. Those words are going to slow down even a person who knows what all of them mean. Your reader is going to pick his way through the mess and end up scratching his head and saying, “Come again?” And many readers will abandon the quest after the first sentence.
What’s even worse is that often people who write like this are trying so hard to be impressive that they resort to using words they’ve never encountered outside a thesaurus or dictionary. The result can be hilariously disastrous. More on this in a later post.
Let’s take a look now at the third passage, written by the master himself. Does he use any Latinate words? Yep—exactly two! I’m sure you can spot them: multitudinous and incarnadine. The latter term, by the way, was created by Shakespeare; you can do that if you know the rules of word creation. He simply took the Latin incarnatio and replaced the ending with the suffix “adine.”
The rest are just ordinary everyday words, mostly Anglo-Saxon words derived from German: wash, clean, blood, hand, green, red. But those two words from the Latin spice up the passage without overwhelming it. They actually add pizzazz.
Realistically, you and I will likely never write like Shakespeare. But if we just imitate him in this one matter, sticking to simple words most of the time but adding enough of the others to spice it up, our writing will benefit and our readers will thank us. ♦ PM
How to Write a Book
HUH? WHAT? Are you just kidding? EVERYBODY knows how to write a book! You just plant your back porch in a comfy chair and start hammering the keyboard. In due course, you have a book.
Ah—and if only it were that easy. If it were, finishing a book would be easier than finishing off a Klondike Bar. Alas, every month, thousands of aspiring authors write the first few paragraphs of America’s next best-seller, only to have it soon languishing on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust.
Why? Well, many are the reasons, but one of the biggest is that writing a book triggers the “intimidation factor.” It’s one thing to write a 15-page report for a high school or college class, but quite another to face grinding out a book of, oh, let’s say, 365 pages.
And why 365? Because that’s a single page per day, for a year. Maybe you can’t crank out a book that size in a week or a month, but can you write one page a day?
Many of us who write to encourage other writers call this the “salami technique” (and if you’re a vegetarian, you can find big logs of veggie salami in many health-oriented shops). As you know, if you were to sit down and try to polish off a 24-inch roll of salami all in one sitting, you’d probably fail in the attempt and start turning green just before ralphing up the whole business before finishing (no offense to guys named “Ralph”!).
But let’s say instead that for a solid year, you ate just a single slice of salami per day—one 365th of a roll. Maybe in a sandwich. Maybe in a casserole. Maybe mixed into a salad. Think you could do that? Quite likely! And if you can do that, you can also plant yourself in front of a computer and refuse to get back up until you have written a page—or if you prefer, 300 or 400 words. Most books of the standard dimensions of 6 x 9 inches have around 400 words per page, give or take.
It’s a LOT easier to commit to a smaller writing challenge than to one that could turn out to be overwhelming. In a Writer’s Digest article a few years back, prolific author Stephen King shared that he refuses to eat breakfast until he’s written 1,500 words. Now, you don’t even have to write that much to turn out one 365-page book per year. If you’d been doing that most of your adult life, how many books would you have by now? ♦ KM