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. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Grammar Bite: Compose vs. Comprise

Which of these sentences is correct? (Hint: more than one maybe correct.)
Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a book.
As you might have guessed, today we're tackling the compose/comprise argument. Careful writers and editors have definite opinions on whether the two words are interchangeable and whether is comprised of is acceptable. Let's start with a couple dictionary definitions.

According to Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary, comprise means "to include especially within a particular scope : sum up...<a whole religion comprised within one book>  comprised in the party slogan>." It defines compose, in part, as meaning:
1 a : to form by putting together two or more things, elements, or parts : put together : FASHION -- now usually in passive composed body>  composed of delegates from every state in the union> b : to form the substance of :CONSTITUTE  composed his personality> -- now used chiefly in passive  composed of many ingredients>
American-Heritage defines comprise as "to consist of; be composed of" and "to compose; constitute," noting the usage problem with the latter definition. It defines compose as "to make up the constituent parts of; constitute or form," pointing to its usage note at comprise. 

In its collegiate dictionary, Merriam-Webster notes that a usage like "The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary" is "still attacked as wrong" although it's been in use for over 300 years. M-W is seeing comprised of in more literary uses but warns the writer may be taken to task for it. Best to play it safe, it suggests, and choose something like "The book comprises three chapters and a glossary."

What I like about American Heritage is that it doesn't suggest that someone has her knickers in a twist for wanting to be precise in her writing and lays out the issue in plain English:
The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. In strict usage: The Union comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose (or constitute or make up) the Union. Even though careful writers often maintain this distinction, comprise is increasingly used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states.Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected.
Both dictionaries, one more prescriptive, the other more descriptive, suggest that comprise can be used for compose and comprise of is increasingly used and acceptable, though careful writers should avoid both.

And you're a careful writer, right? Let's check in with the usage experts.

According to my pal Garner, in correct usage comprise means "the whole comprises the part," while compose means "the whole is composed of the parts." He also states that is comprised of is becoming "ubiquitous" (stage 4 in the Language-Change Index) but is still "considered poor usage" (175).

And what of Fowler, whom I reviewed last week? He doesn't mention it, though Burchfield explains in his edition that this was an oversight in the final version and quotes an early tract with Fowler's opinion (167-168). Both Fowler and Burchfield come down on the side of comprise not being the same as compose, and the latter offers plenty of examples, though he admits this may be a losing battle they're fighting.

Many other experts side with more precise wording, including The Associated Press Stylebook, The Gregg Reference Manual, Words into Type, 21st Century Grammar Handbook, and Barbara Wallraff in Word Court.

It seems, then, the correct answer is, as it so often is in language, it depends. You can certainly get away with any of the sentences we started with and not be wholly condemnable:
Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a book.
However, when you have to be understood, when first impressions truly count (and don't they always in writing?), don't use comprise to mean compose and don't use is comprised of. Remember: the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole:
Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a book.

What do you think? Would you use comprise to mean compose in formal writing? Would you dare to put is comprised of in your next book or business report? Let me know in the comments section! 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Weekly Vocab Builder

OK, weekly is a bit of misnomer here. I fell a little behind due to a severe head cold, so herewith is your "Weekly Vocab Builder...and a Bit More."
  • Scalawag: a troublemaker, racscal.
  • Hypallage: "reversal of the syntactic relation of two words (as in 'her beauty's face')"
  • Visceral: instinctive
  • Schoolmarm: a female teacher. Once it meant any female teacher, now it refers to one who is old-fashioned or particularly strict.
  • Whipsaw: to win two ways at once (more at the link).
  • Graphophobia: fear of writing.
  • Abrogate: to abolish.
  • Polity: the form of governance of a society.
Want to build your vocabulary daily? Follow me on Twitter to get the Vocab Builder every Monday through Friday. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Understanding a Classic: Fowler's Modern English Usage

I've said before that every writer needs five resources to help her in the writing craft: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, a usage guide, and resources that offer writing advice. A usage guide helps you determine how specific words and phrases are used or what word is wanted, such as whether you want less or fewer or what the proper positions are for adverbs.

One of the heavyweights in this category is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler. It was such a big hit when it first appeared that, according to the introduction to the latest printing, "within a few years, people no longer felt it necessary even to mention the title and talked simply of 'Fowler'" (vii). The first edition is still revered by language mavens.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was first published in 1926, almost 20 years after the idea for it was first brought to brothers Frank and Henry Fowler's attention. The dictionary was written during a rise in prescriptive grammar: language experts were telling speakers how they should speak, prescribing how language should work, as opposed to describing how language speakers used language. And their ranks were swelling. So a book that told you how to use this word or that phrase was just the thing. Henry and his brother Frank worked on their dictionary while James Murray was working on the Oxford English Dictionary, and they kept tabs on that project (check out The Meaning of Everything, which gives a history of the OED). Ironically, the OED's goal was, and remains, to describe all the words in the English language. It gives not just the current definition of a word but all previous definitions of that word back to its first appearance in print.

Frank and Henry started planning the book in 1911, though Frank was actively working on the Pocket Oxford Dictionary until his death in 1918 while fighting in the war. Henry then finished the POD and picked up his usage dictionary work again, finally completing it in 1926.

The dictionary was revised in a second edition in 1965 by Sir Ernest Gowers. I've never seen this edition, but according to the New York Times, Gowers "gave it a light going-over, preserving both the spirit and the substance of the original." The book was revised again in 1996 by Robert Burchfield. This edition is generally regarded as heavily edited and more of Burchfield's work than Fowler's. It was this edition I was introduced to and it worked well enough for me, until I found Garner's.

Now Oxford has seen fit to re-release the original Fowler, restoring it to its former glory, as it were.

So is it worth slapping down $20 or $30 for another book that will gather dust on your shelf?

First, Fowler shouldn't be the only usage book on your shelf, particularly if you’re writing for a US audience. Fowler is undoubtedly a man of his place. His dictionary covers modern English usage, not American usage. He’s also a man of his time. There’s a revealing, if outdated, essay on "feminine designations”"(175-176):
This article is intended as a counter-protest. The authoress, poetess, & paintress, & sometimes the patroness & the inspectress, take exception to the indication of sex in these designations … These ladies neither are nor pretend to be making their objection in the interests of language or of people in general; they object in their own interests only; this they are entitled to do, but still it is lower ground, & general convenience & the needs of the King's English … must be reckoned of more importance … With the coming extension of women's vocations, feminines for vocation-words are a special need of the future.
Yikes. Did Fowler really say that we need words like murderess and edtriss (both listed in the entry)? Yup, he did. (Shudder.)

Fowler also reflects the his times in that he is sometimes prescriptive and sometimes descriptive. In his entry on split infinitives (558-561), he addresses people who don't know what a split infinitive is but who care about not splitting them:
These people betray by their practice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others; for they will subject their sentences to the queerest distortions, all to escape imaginary split infinitives ... the havoc that is played with much well-intentioned writing by failure to grasp that distinction is incredible ... After this inconclusive discussion, in which, however, the author's opinion has perhaps been allowed to appear with indecent plainness, readers may like to settle for themselves whether, in the following sentence, "either to secure" followed by "to resign", or "to either secure" followed by "resign", should have been preferred
Fowler concludes that split infinitives are grammatical in English and should be allowed.

But at "elemental, elementary" (133), Fowler describes the situation without making comment:
The two words are now pretty clearly differentiated, the reference of -al being to "the elements" either in the old sense of earth, water, air, & fire, or as representing the great forces of nature conceived as their manifestations ... & that of -ary being to elements in the more general sense of simplest component parts or rudiments.
Fowler does, indeed, have wisdom to impart, a wisdom that has held up for almost 85 years. In addition to the split infinitive conclusion (one largely held now to be the correct position), check out the entry for "affect, effect" (13):
These verbs are not synonyms requiring differentiation, but words of totally different meaning, neither of which can ever be substituted for the other. Affect ... means have an influence on, produce an effect on, concern effect a change in: effect means bring about, cause, produce, result in have as a result.
It's worth noting here that Burchfield kept this entry in his version but substituted his own essay for the split infinitives entry -- and came to a different conclusion.

No one usage manual can do all things. Have more than one. Compare one's advice to another's and think about what truly lies in these entries. Fowler's classic first edition should be one of those -- for its advice that stays current and for the place in language history it illustrates.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Weekly Vocab Builder: Getting Canned

It's happened to most of us at one time or another: your company no longer wants you to work for it and it terminates you. But did you ever notice how many different words we use to avoid saying it straight out? This week's list explores some euphamisms that are meant to soften the blow. They all mean the same thing, though: you're fired.

  • Reduction in workforce. The XYZ Co. will make a reduction in its workforce during the first quarter.
  • Right-sized. Gargantuan Real Estate Pros right-sized its workforce to balance its budget.
  • Transitioned employee. I became a transitioned employee of Silly Services Inc. when the HR rep handed me my things in a box and walked me to the door. 
  • Heave-ho. Thomas got the old heave-ho from Newsy Newspapers when he was caught napping on the job.  
  • Pink slip. Sandy was pink-slipped from her job just before Christmas.
You can find even more euphamisms on my Wordnik list. Share your favorites in the comments below or on my Wordnik list. And follow me on Twitter to get the Vocab Builder every Monday through Friday.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Writing Groups: Eliminate the Isolation

Here in New England, winters can be long, isolating seasons. As a writer, you're already somewhat isolated: it's just you and that stupid blinking cursor on the screen, shouting at you that you've written nothing, nothing, nothing! Sure, you probably talk to others in the course of your research, but when it comes time to write, it's just you and a white expanse of nothingness.

You visit The Writing Resource and other places for help with grammar, vocabulary, and other tools of the trade to improve your writing. Your editor can guide you in the right direction and help correct what you missed (don't have an editor? Let me help). But sometimes you just need to talk to another writer. You want to ask someone's opinion on where to go next with your manuscript. You want to connect with someone who truly gets your troubles. To hear how others solve their dilemmas. To be encouraged, rather than corrected, and to do the same for others.

Enter the writing group.

Whether in person or online, a writing group is a place to try out new ideas, sharing what you've written with fellow writers who can offer healthy feedback. It's a place to grow your writing skills through exercises, events, sharing, and listening. It's a community that offers encouragement and understands the ups and downs of being a writer.

What kind of writing group should you look for? It should be a group that meets regularly, whether physically or virtually, at a time you can commit to. People will count on you to participate; you need to show up physically and mentally. Other than that, your group could be based solely on location, offering a serendipitous variety of writers. You could look for a group of writers who write on the same topic (e.g., science or science fiction) or in the same media (e.g., novelists, poets, or bloggers). I searched on "writing groups massachusetts" and came up with several groups in Massachusetts and a few online ones that are organization based on location. I even found a writing group in my city: Phoenix Writers.

You can also check out writing sites and periodicals for lists of writing groups looking for new members. offers a long list of writer organizations. The New Hampshire Writers' Project is a wonderful organization to belong to, even if you don't live in New Hampshire. Besides holding events and helping writers organize writing groups, it has a Web site that lists writing opportunities and an informative newsletter about, you guessed it, writing. I particularly enjoy the columns about the craft. Though I have to admit my bias: NHWP has been a client for a few years, and when I started this blog I became a member.

And if you can't find a group near you or you just want to start your own? There are resources for that, too.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers the thorough Writing Center Guide to Writing Groups. The Writing Groups Start Kit is invaluable. The handouts do a great job of helping members set expectations and organizing meetings so they are useful rather than a waste of time. The 6' Ferret Writers' Group is another site offering advice on starting your own writing group. It also offers writing exercises for individuals and groups, ideas for writing events, a suggested reading list, and more.

If those don't work for you, try the old standby: search on "starting a writers group." The Web is nothing if not prolific on just about every topic.

It's a new year. Make a new commitment to your writing by engaging with others like you. Take a break from the isolation and gather with other writers.

Let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Weekly Vocab Builder: Loanwords

This week's Vocab Builder focuses on loanwords, words borrowed from other languages. If you want to add a foreign flair to your writing, waking your readers up to what you're saying, try one of the following:
For more loanwords, check out these links:
  • Spanish. Some of these surprised me, as I wasn't aware of some of Spanish's influence.
  • French. I always think things sound better, more elegant in French. I admit, though, that I'm biased, having some French in my mongrel background.
  • Irish. Another bias of mine, I admit. (Didn't see that coming, with my first name, right?)
  • Words loaned in the 20th century. This page gives words from several languages that English has borrowed in the 20th century.
What are your favorite borrowed words? List them in the comments!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Words of the Year Roundup, 2009

Language is an organic system. It grows and changes to meet its speakers' needs. You can learn a lot about a society by watching the words it uses. Many dictionaries and other word experts catalog words that are in vogue. As a writer, you can leverage this information to help your writing meet its goals. Choose words that are popular to connect with your readers or avoid them to set yourself apart.

Let's take a look at what 2009's most popular words were.

2009 Word of the Year

The New Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) named unfriend its word of the year. This social media term means to remove someone from a social media network (see this Vocab Builder post for more on OAD's choice).

The OAD wasn't the only dictionary to choose a word of the year, however. Another heavyweight dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster (M-W), chose admonish ("to express warning or disapproval") as its word of the year. M-W bases its choice on searches made on its dictionary and thesaurus sites. Admonish was searched for the most often over the shortest period during the year.

Webster's New World College Dictionary chose distracted driving as its word of the year. Editor-in-Chief Mike Agnes briefly outlines why New World made this choice:

Word Lists

The Global Language Monitor tracks words and phrases used online (including blogs and social media) and in print media. Its proprietary algorithm popped up the following as the most popular words for 2009:
  • Twitter
  • Obama
  • H1N1
  • Stimulus
  • Vampire
  • 2.0
  • Deficit
  • Hadron
  • Healthcare
  • Transparency 
Hmm, I wonder what we were preoccupied with in 2009? is a repository of local words, resposited (yup, that's a word) by its readers. Want to add local flavor to your writing? Start here. You'll discover that New York claims schlep (one of my favs, meaning to carry stuff for a long distance) and slice (a slice of cheese pizza; if you want pepperoni, don't ask for "a slice" in NYC), while Boston claims clicka (a remote control) and carriage (a shopping cart).

Local Words of the Year celebrates "local words that highlight the unique culture of American cities. While each of the five words was selected for its own distinct reasons, each is in some way representative of the local culture from which it comes and is not (yet) widely known across the country," says CityDictionary. Its picks are:
  • sconnie (Madison, WI): term that describes something related to Wisconsin
  • neutral ground (New Orleans, LA): most commonly used to mean the median of a street
  • polio water (Boston, MA): a puddle of water, usually dirty (I have to admit that I'm unfamiliar with this one)
  • slugging (Washington, DC): a type of hitchhiking in which individuals (slugs) line up near the highway (freeway, to some of you) and cars stop to pick up the slugs, thus enabling the driver to use the HOV lane on the highway
  • meat raffle (Minneapolis, MN): a charity event that often takes place in Minnesota bars, and raffles off, you know, meat (yeah, that's not where my mind went on that one. Hey, a dirty mind is a valuable quality in an editor; you need to think dirty to catch double entendres before they publish and embarrass the writer)
But my favorite list is Lake Superior State University's (LSSU's) Banished Words. LSSU receives nominations throughout the year for words to be banished from "the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness." This tongue-in-cheek list is great fun and gets a lot of publicity. Getting people to actually stop using the words, however, is probably a pipe dream. 1988's list included my bad and Generation X, both of which are still popular. Below are the list and my opinions. You've been warned.
  • shovel-ready: This term implies "that a project has been completely designed and all that is left to do is to implement it...however, when something dies, it, too, is shovel-ready for burial," said one nominator. I actually think this is a good call. It was meaningless to me until I searched out a definition. Besides, how useful is a term if you don't know whether the project is ready to implement or dead?
  • transparent/transparency: The comments indicated that people are tired of politicians using these words when they are being anything but transparent. I'm all for transpar-, uh, being clear.
  • czar: Interestingly, George W. Bush appointed 47 people for 35 czar positions. Barack Obama has (thus far) appointed 8 people for 38 czar positions. Mr. President, would you help ban czar by appointing people to positions not labeled as czar? Language mavens everywhere will appreciate it. Thanks.
  • tweet: This includes all tweet's variants, including tweetaholic, retweet, twitterhea, twitterature, and twittersphere. I have to argue against this one. You can read the comments to ban it for yourself, but it seems to me that those commenting don't actively use Twitter. I do, and I know a lot of others who do too. If you say you tweeted something, I know you posted something specifically on Twitter. If you say you retweeted something, I know you reposted someone else's tweet, giving them credit. If you say you posted an update (three words rather than one, mind), I wouldn't know if you posted something on Facebook, FriendFeed, or some other social media site or microblog. Do the variations get silly? Certainly. But those will be weeded out over time. Tweet and retweet will hang around as long as Twitter does, maybe longer, especially as the platform becomes more popular.
  • APP: I was surprised to see this in all caps. "App" is a shortened form of "application," much as "bus" is for "omnibus." (If someone can explain to me why it's capped, I'd appreciate it.) And I think it'll stay. People tend to shorten longer words they use a lot; applications are part and parcel of technology in general. Good luck banning it, folks.
  • Sexting: to send sexual text messages and pictures via cell phone. I have seen this term a few times but haven't had any cause to use it (maybe I'm just not writing about sexy enough topics). If the act becomes mainstream in any way, though, this word will stick around. If someone's doing it, we need a word to describe it. Sorry, folks.
  • Friend: to make someone a part of an online social network. I see nothing wrong with this word. Befriend may sound better to some people, but friend creates a picture in my mind of an online relationship, perhaps even restricted to online (though I wouldn't count on it staying online only).
  • Teachable moment: Otherwise called a lesson. If you're raising or teaching kids, I would think every moment is one in which you can teach. Lesson is a perfectly good word. No need to get all snooty about it. Unless, of course, there is a need to get snooty about it. It's all about knowing your audience.
  • In these economic times: Yup, I'm over this phrase. What I'm really over (and what is really overdone) is story after story about the economy. I know it's bad; I've checked my wallet. And I know it's affecting everyone, because I talk to other people. Are you really going to rehash what we all know is going on? Must you tell us something we already know...again? Say something new or I'll move on.
  • Stimulus: Another overdone topic. I've tuned it out.
  • Toxic assets: The image in my mind is of a rusty oil barrel with oozing, bubbling green yuck. It's a good image. But if it's the 10th or 100th time your reader has seen it, it becomes meaningless. If you want to emphasize how bad the stocks were, try being original about it.
  • Too big to fail: The concept makes me -- and lots of other people -- angry. If your goal is to anger readers (and it might be), keep using this phrase.
  • Bromance: Admittedly, I had to look this one up as I'd never heard of it before. According to Wikipedia, it's "a close but non-sexual relationship between two (or more) men, a form of homosocial intimacy." Um, can't guys having loving friendships without everyone getting their knickers in a twist about what kind of love it is? Geez, guys, get over it.
  • chillaxin': If chilling means relaxing, what are you doing if you're doing both? Are you extra chilled? Extra relaxed? It is overkill to sound cool and fails miserably.

Your Turn

Words come and go, fashionable one minute, gauche the next. Now you know what the coolest, and not so cool, buzzwords are. Sprinkle them liberally throughout your writing or ban them forever more. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

And if you want to add your own two cents, vote for's Word of the Year.