Friday, November 20, 2009

A Writer's Checklist

You've nurtured an idea, slaved over every word, and you're ready to send your words out into the world. But wait! Have you reread your work? Unfortunately, many small, easily fixed errors can creep into your copy (I'm always finding errors in my blog posts despite the time I spend bleeding over them). Take just a few minutes to review your copy, with this handy checklist in mind, and you'll increase the quality of your work:
  • Watch for missing words. You know what you want to say, but for some reason your fingers didn't type all the words. Especially if your copy isn't going to an editor next, reread your copy slowly. Read it out loud. Read it backwards. Read it in a different setting. Whatever it takes to make it seem new.
  • Check for homonym errors. Spell-checkers won't catch these bad boys. Homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. "To," "too," and "two" are a common set of homonyms that are often misused.
  • Companies are not people. Companies and organizations are referred to in the third-person singular: it and its.
  • Choose the right relative pronoun. Who refers to people; that refers to things.
  • Double-check words that are frequently confused. Be aware of such words as than/then and lose/loose. Weber State University offers a good list of frequently confused words. Print it up and tape it to your desk.
  • Check your math. If you include numbers and equations in your writing, double-check your math. There's nothing worse than misplacing a decimal point or transposing two numbers...except having your readers find that you did it.
Today's world moves fast. We're forced to write more and faster. That's when most errors sneak through. Taking just a couple minutes to review your copy helps ensure that it is of the highest quality, encouraging your readers to trust you and take your words, your message, seriously. And if you run short on time, drop me a line. Getting a professional editor gives your writing a better chance to meet its goals.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Weekly Vocab Builder

Could your writing use some oomph? Try using one of these words this week:
And did you hear? The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its Word of the Year: unfriend. Says Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for the dictionary:
It has both currency and potential longevity. In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year. Most un- prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar un- verbs (uncap, unpack), but unfriend is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of friend that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!). Unfriend has real lex-appeal.
Check out this year's runners-up as well at OUP's site (hashtag appeared earlier on one of my Wordnik lists). And follow me on Twitter to get the vocabulary word of the day. Maybe one of the words I cover will be next year's Word of the Year!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

That Which Has a Tail, Part 2: Quiz Answers

Did you try the exercise in yesterday's That Which Has a Tail post? Here are the correct answers:
  1. The letter that came today was nice than the one that came yesterday.
  2. Usually my mail, which is delivered at noon, is nothing but bills.
  3. A letter that is full of compliments is a joy to receive.
How did you do? Comment below with your thoughts!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

That Which Has a Tail

Someone recently asked me the difference between that and which. I stumbled through a response, knowing I wasn't doing an adequate job of it. Herewith, a (hopefully) better answer. By the way, if you speak the Queen's English, the answer is short and sweet: there is no difference. But if you speak American English, read on.

That is a relative pronoun used for restrictive clauses, clauses that are necessary to the meaning of the sentence. If you didn't have the clause, the sentence would mean something different. The clause restricts the meaning. For example:
I picked up the books that were on the table.
The books I picked up are limited to the ones on the table; I didn't pick up the ones on the floor or on the shelf.

Which is a relative pronoun used for nonrestrictive clauses, clauses that add detail to the sentence but are not crucial to the sentence's meaning. If the clause were taken out, the sentence would still make sense. The sentence's meaning is not restricted. For example:
I picked up the books, which were on the table.
When I picked up the books, they were all on the table; there weren't any on the floor or the shelf. That they were on the table is extra information.

Note the comma before which. If you've got a nonrestrictive clause, you need that comma and the which. They tell the reader some extra information is coming up. You can remember that the witch (which) has a tail (,):

Bryan Garner gives three guidelines for deciding if you need that or which (Garner's Modern American Usage, 806):
  1. "If you cannot omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is restrictive; use that without a comma."
  2. "If you can omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is nonrestrictive; use a comma plus which."
  3. "If you ever find yourself using a which that doesn't follow a comma (or a preposition), it probably needs to be a that."
If it's still not clear, check out Grammar Girl's recent episode on that vs. which.

Back? OK, let's see if you've got it. In the following sentences from Grammar Smart by the staff of The Princeton Review (30), choose the correct pronoun:
  1. The letter (that, which) came today was nice than the one (that, which) came yesterday.
  2. Usually my mail, (that, which) is delivered at noon, is nothing but bills.
  3. A letter (that, which) is full of compliments is a joy to receive.
Update: Answers are posted here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Weekly Vocab Builder

Improve your writing by increasing your vocabulary. This week's list:
  • Nurturance: going beyond nurturing, the nourishment and emotional and physical care of someone.
  • Acrostic: a poem in which the first letter of the first word in every line spells out a word when taken together. For example:
    Elizabeth it is in vain you say
    "Love not" — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:
    In vain those words from thee or L.E.L.
    Zantippe's talents had enforced so well:
    Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,
    Breath it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.
    Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried
    To cure his love — was cured of all beside —
    His follie — pride — and passion — for he died.
                                               —"An Acrostic" by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Decision engine: Microsoft's marketing term for search engine.
  • Favicon: the small icon in a browser's address bar particular to a site.
  • More weight: Giles Corey utter these words during the Salem Witch Trials.
Follow me on Twitter to get the Vocab Builder every morning. (And thanks to City Dictionary for choosing more weight as yesterday's word of the day.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who vs. Whom and Other Writing Bugaboos

Every writer has them: little points of grammar she can never remember. Is it who or whom? When is effect the right word? Is it i.e. or e.g., and what do they stand for anyway? Herewith, a few points to help you produce cleaner copy.
  • Who vs. whom. Who is used in place of a subject noun, whereas whom is used in place of an object noun. Try switching out who/whom for he/him. If you'd use he, you want who; if you'd use him, whom is your answer:

    Who was late for dinner? He was late for dinner.
    I sent an e-mail to whom? I sent an e-mail to him.
  •  I.e. and e.g. I.e. stands for id est in Latin, which translates to that is in English. E.g. stands for exempli gratia in Latin, which is for example in English. If you can remember that i.e. is that is, you'll be able to make the right choice. (Anyone have a mnemomic device for remembering which is which?)
  • Affect and effect. Affect is generally used as a verb, and effect is generally used as a noun. Here's a mnemonic device, courtesy of Copyediting: "To Affect is to Act on, but the Effect is the rEsult."
  •  Farther vs. further. Farther is used for distances, while further is used for time or degree:

    I walked farther today than I did yesterday.
    John wants to discuss the topic further at the meeting.
What bugaboos haunt your writing? Let me know in the comments below and I'll cover them in a future post.