Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vocab Elements and Online Language Effects

We spend a lot of time on this blog learning new words to improve our writing and expand our minds. I wanted to know more about the study of words and how the online world is affecting our language. This month's books were an attempt to do that: English Vocabulary Elements, which  looks at how vocabulary works, and Always On, which looks at how the online world is affecting language. Both were interesting, but very different, books from Oxford University Press. Let's dig into them.

English Vocabulary Elements

English Vocabulary Elements by Keith Denning, Brett Kessler, and William R. Leben is a deep book. Which is not surprising when you consider the authors: Denning was a linguistics professor at Eastern Michigan University, Kessler is an assistant professor of psychology and philosophy-neuroscience-psychology (PNP) at Washington University, and Leben is a professor emeritus of linguistics at Standford University. Based on a college linguistics course, the book is well organized into topics, such as morphology (study of word structure), allomorphy (when two morphs are of the same morpheme -- I told you this was a deep book!), and phonetics (study of a language's sounds). It also discusses the history and sources of English, which I found most interesting. It includes study aides and quizzes to help you learn the material and is fairly readable, more so if you've ever studied linguistics (which I did many moons ago). The glossary is splendid, with such words as affix, backronym, diacritic, morph, rhotacism, and voice defined. There are helpful appendixes, reading lists, and an index as well.

I found chapter 2, on the history and origins of English, fascinating. I've known forever that English is a Germanic language and that many of my ancestors were Anglo-Saxons (that is, Germanic tribes that settled in England). But I didn't know how English and German were related, nor that they have the same ancestor, Indo-European and that language historians have been trying to recreate Proto-Indo-European. Indo-European gave birth first to Germanic, Italic, Celtic, and Hellenic. English comes from a Germanic decendant, West German (which also gave birth to German, though German is more closely related to West German than English is), whereas Latin comes from Italic and eventual gives birth to French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. I found the book's language "family tree" as interesting as my own (yes, I am a geek).

If you are an amateur linguist or really want to jump into nuts and bolts of word study, pick up this book. That said, I don't imagine many of my readers would want such an in-depth look at how are words are formed. It's a wonderful geeky, academic book, but for all that it's still a geeky, academic book. For myself, I think I'd look for a readable book on English language's history. I'm sure at least some of the words in the glossary will appear in the Weekly Vocab Builder. Poor spellers would benefit a lot from this book, as knowing the roots of words and how certain words are related can really improve spelling.

Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

Always On by Naomi S. Baron is look at how Americans use language online.  Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, uses her own research with college students others' research on online language and the platforms we use to communicate with online. She looks at e-mail, IM, Facebook, blogs, and texting to answer the question: how is online affecting language? Her conclusion is surprising: these platforms are not degrading the language; if anything is, it's the youth culture and its "whatever" attitude that defines American culture (her focus in this book is specifically Americans; she is currently working on mobile phone use by university students in Sweden, the US, Italy, Japan, and Korea). The real effect the online world is having on language is a result of our new ability to be "always on," always available to others through the Internet and our mobile phones. Because of that, we make choices about when to engage and when not to. How does this affect our relationships, online and off-? Do we lose depth for breadth? Do we lose depth for multitasking? What kind of people are we becoming?

To be honest, I expected to read things like there is a degradation in how complex our sentences are or we are now more adept at language usage because we are reading and writing so much more. Of course, those are extremes, but the book didn't tackle the middle either. Instead, Baron discovers that online writing, though casual, is much more like writing than it is like speech. She spends a lot of time discussing the volume (think noise here) of online language. We are learning to control that volume, turning one channel up and another down (both on- and offlline) as our needs change moment to moment, and it affects how we interact with the world. Chapters 4 through 7 discuss IM, Facebook (and similar networks), blogs, and mobile phones. It was interesting to discover we are using these platforms to fill ever-present needs and there are parallels to them that have been used before, such as diaries and talk shows (did you see that one coming? I sure didn't). Still, if you're familiar with online and mobile communication tools, much of these chapters won't surprise you; the author spends a lot of time simply defining them.

Chapters 8-10 wrap up the book and are worth the time to read. Baron even suggests you could read those first, and then go back and read more about her research, which is what I did. Chapter 8 discusses America's youth culture and it's "whatever" attitude and how that's more the source for the decline in reading and writing skills. Chapter 10 discusses the cost to our culture of "being always on." But Chapter 9, "Gresham's Ghost: Challenges to the Written Culture," is especially worthwhile for writers. The author closely examines the writing culture. She looks at why we write things down and why being published in the traditional sense is so important to us. She discusses vapor text, particularly Wikipedia. Is it changing our ideas of what authorship is? Where does writing fit into our culture, what will it become in the future? Should you bother reading blogs (like this one) about grammar and good writing? I'd argue you should, of course; language is still about getting your message not just out but understood. Good writing and good editing facilitate that.

But where is writing headed? "The future of written culture," Baron writes, "will be a product not only of education and technology but of the individual and social choice we make about harnessing these resources." (212) Let's make conscious decisions about our education, technology, and harnessing them.

Coming Up

Writing is a lonely business. If you're in the New England area, consider going to the New Hampshire Writers' Project's Writers' Day on April 17. With sessions on the creative process, writers and social media, and pitching to agents, it's sure to be a great day. Sign up, and I'll see you there!

Don't forget: this is the last time I'll update this site. You can continue to read The Writing Resource at

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Weekly Vocab Builder

Hey, gang. This week's list is a mishmash of words that struck my fancy. Read on!
  • Groupthink: Decision-making by a group, especially when most of the group accept the decisions without thought or criticism
  • Cosmophobia: An irrational fear that the world will end with a cosmic event
  • Landraker: an obsolete term for a hobo or tramp
  • Kibosh: To put a stop to something
  • Kvetch: To complain nonstop in a whining fashion
  • Mooncalf: A fool
Get the Vocab Builder every weekday by following me on Twitter. And don't forget to check out The Writing Resource's new home. This site will not be updated after March 1.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing Tip: Journaling

A brand-new journal, all clean and crisp, is such a weighty thing. It holds such possibilities for discovery, creativity, and the all-important record. What would our modern society be without a record of events? We spend so much of our time reliving events in our talk, in our prolific online musings, in our dreams, even in our nightmares. Once it's set down, it's real. It's permanent. (Or so we like to think.) A journal, then, can be our own personal record of what really happened. Or, more precisely, how we viewed events through the color of our emotions. Our journals can be a place to discover who we really are, a place to work out issues, to dream big and in living color.

Why, then, did it take me two years to fill 234 pages?

I recently filled my old journal. It's a refillable journal, with a beautiful rust-colored leather cover and is filled with a 234-page lined book:
I've always tried to match my journals to my personality, to encourage me to write (you can see how well that worked). In 2007, I was very focused on using fewer resources. I sprang for the leather because I love the feel of it. But I liked that it  is refillable. OK, so not too many resources are saved, but a few are and that counts for something. At some point I had tucked inside two pictures of my kids from 2004. Here's the one of Duncan:

Not sure why they are in there, but I still love those pics. So I glued them in. Maybe with the new one, I'll glue one in the front from 2010 and one in the back at the time I finish. It'd be neat to look back and see how my kids changed in the time it took me to fill my journal.

My first entry is on October 19, 2007. It details the migraine I had that day and what I did for it. It also lists the exercise I took that day. For the most part, that's what I put in my journal: a record of my migraines, which can be severe, and of my exercise, which can be scarce. Both keep me aware of new patterns, like the fact that I've barely worked out since mid-December (sigh), and of how programs are working. Not very helpful as a writing tool, though excellent as a health tool.

There are other entries as well. Resolutions made and broken. I often resolve to watch less TV and workout more. And I always break them both. When I travel, I keep detailed notes. What the trip was like, how I felt about it, and so forth. I only recently started travelling alone and it was a new experience for me. I wasn't sure I liked it at first, especially since most trips were to NYC for business. New York is a very large place compared to Haverhill. It was overwhelming for me and not a lot of fun. After all, it was all work. But I got better at it, which I can see through  my journal entries. And there were fun trips too, mostly with the family. It's nice to read about those times; I may even share them with the kids some day.

I lived my Cursio in the fall of 2007, so that experience is recorded here. It was a wonderful growth in my relationship with God and it's lovely to revisit that weekend as I experienced it rather than as I remember it. There are other entries, too. Those that show me working my way through a depression, coming to the realization that I wanted to work for myself, working through troubled relationships. There's even an entry that is a rough draft of a flyer for a fundraiser that never got off the ground. Maybe I'll retread it sometime. Occasionally, I'll add a powerful dream to it. But mostly, I go to my journal when I'm overwhelmed, when just thinking won't do. When I've prayed and talked with others as much as I can, and I still need to order my thoughts or change my thinking about it.

Now there's a new journal in town, waiting to get to know me:

Writing this blog has me in the habit of writing more. Perhaps I'll journal more. Perhaps I won't. I know what I use journaling for, and that at least will continue.

It's often suggested that writers keep a journal, one in which they can practice their craft, open themselves up to risk in their writing. Your journal can be used to develop story ideas and characters or try out new writing styles. You should write in your journal regularly, even every day. Don't follow my example of taking two years to fill less than 300 pages! How long should you write for? In a podcast about journaling, Grammar Girl suggests writing for 15 minutes a day. If you're writing an hour or more every day, ask yourself if you're procrastinating a writing project you should be doing.

If you're going to keep a writing journal rather than any other type of journal (all are good IMHO), there are lots of creative writing exercises that would suit your journal. You don't have to do one every day. Try one once in a while or when you're feeling stuck. These sites offer some good ideas:

And there are lots more. Search on "journal writing exercises" or "creative writing exercises" or something similar.

Do you journal? What kind of journaling do you do, and how has it helped your writing (or has it)? Share your experience in the comments section!

Today's post can also be found on The Writing Resource's new home. Check it out there! This site will not be updated after March 1.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Weekly Vocab Builder

Hey, gang. This week's vocabulary builder focuses on the negative side of the digital world:
  • Hashtag spam: Tweets that use a (usually popular) hashtag (#) that has nothing to do with the tweet and that is used just to gain attention
  • E-snub: The act of permanently ignoring an e-mail sent 
  • Cyber disinhibition: A loss of one's inhibitions online
  • Social media hangover: What businesses get when they spend so much time on social media for marketing purposes without knowing how it is (or isn't) increasing sales
  • Robocall: A phone call dialed by a computer and consisting of a prerecorded message
  • Unfriend: The act of removing a connection (a "friend") from one of one's social networks
  • Sexting: The act of send sexually explicit SMS or MMS messages via a mobile phone
What other negative digital terms have you heard? List them in the comments!

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Direct Address Comma: Quiz Answers

Hey, gang. Here are the answer's to Friday's quiz:

  1. Arthur, you really should consider running for office again.
  2. When Arthur ran last time, he lost by just a few votes.
  3. Don't you want to go the distance, Arthur?
  4. Right now, Arthur, is the best time to campaign.
  5. Just because the election is two years away is no reason for Arthur not to start knocking on doors.
How did you do? If you have questions, e-mail them to me.

The Writing Resource on the Move

You can now find The Writing Resource at I'll continue to post entries here for a bit as well as at the new URL, while I get things up and running over there. Check it out!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Punctuation Points: The Direct Address Comma

Recently, this cartoon made the rounds of language mavens:
The comma rule depicted here is simple: use a comma with the name of a person you are directly addressing. If the name comes first, it is followed by a comma:
Children, please stop jumping on the beds.
If the name comes at the end of the sentence, the comma precedes the name:
Stop jumping on the beds, boys.
And if the name (or names) comes in the middle of the sentence, surround it with commas:
What I said, Sean and Duncan, was to stop jumping on the beds!
As you can see from my example sentences (other than my children's habit of jumping on the beds) is that you don't have to use a proper name to address someone. A title works, even an informal one like boys. 

In the cartoon, the comma changes the sentence from a bothersome one about cannibalism to a friendlier one about a grandchild encouraging Grandpa to have something to eat (as long as it's not Grandma). Got it? Good. Let's try a quick quiz.
  1. Arthur you really should consider running for office again.
  2. When Arthur ran last time, he lost by just a few votes.
  3. Don't you want to go the distance Arthur?
  4. Right now Arthur is the best time to campaign.
  5. Just because the election is two years away is no reason for Arthur not to start knocking on doors.
Give it a whirl, and check back on Monday for the correct answers. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, post them below. And if you just want someone else to think about commas for you, visit my Web site.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Weekly Vocab Builder: Humor

Lately, I've been thinking about humor and the varieties it comes in. My husband has been talking about it on his blog, too, which is what got me started. In general conversation, we tend to use humor labels loosely. But your writing should never be so loose. This week's Vocab Builder brushes you up on some different types of humor. Be laughed with, not laughed at!
  • Sarcasm: "a cutting, often ironic remark intended to wound"
  • Irony: humor in which what is said is "marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning" 
  • Gallows humor: humor about serious or grave situations 
  • Parody: "a literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule." 
  • Dry wit: humor that pokes fun of people in a way that those being made fun of laugh at the joke/themselves 
  • Blue humor: "adult" humor: foul language, sexual remarks, scatalogical remarks, grossness, etc. 
  • Black humor: "humor marked by the use of usually morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes." 
  • Burlesque: "marked by an effect of comic or grotesque imitation or exaggeration usually with the intent of mocking or making ridiculous: derisively imitative"
  • Satire: "irony, sarcasm, or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice, or stupidity."
  • Repartee: "a swift, witty reply"
  • Wit: "the natural ability to perceive and understand; intelligence"
There's no end to the types of humor. Here are couple sites with extensive lists:
Want to build your vocabulary daily? Follow me on Twitter to get the Vocab Builder every Monday through Friday.