“Amongst” or “among?” Honestly — it doesn’t matter. But . . .

My colleague Deb Bancroft asked me about this one a month or so ago. I’ve debated writing this long enough. I’m among friends, right?

“Amongst” is the older form of the word. There’s no difference in meaning between the forms, none whatsoever. “Among” is the same thing as “amongst.” My personal preference is for “among,” and as I often say: “Unless I’m reading Austen, I don’t want to see amongst in a book.” And for the most part that’s true.

However, if you’re writing a period piece and the older form makes better stylistic sense, by all means use it. If you’re writing a fantasy piece and you’ve chosen to use more archaic or even obsolete language as flavor for your characters’ speech, by all means use it.

Just don’t use it in your term paper about mitochondrial DNA, okay? Cool.

If your character might use these, then you might want "amongst."
If your character might use these, then you might want “amongst.”

Subjected to your approval . . .

Before I get rolling here, I wish to thank Deborah Bancroft for suggesting this particular pair of problematic phrases. I welcome suggestions from you, readers, so please don’t hesitate to leave a note here via the Submissions form or to contact me by either Gmail or through my G+ profile. (I am also on the Book of Face, but am much less active there. It could be quite a while before I would find your message to me.)

Now. Where was I? Oh, yes. “Subjected to” and “subject to” are the subjects of this post. They do not necessarily mean the same thing. Except when they do. And yes, the one I used in the title is incorrect. Did you get that answer right? Did you know there was a quiz? There’s almost always a quiz . . .

The key here isn’t even the spelling. It’s the pronunciation. The meaning depends on the pronunciation of “subject” — subJECT means one thing, SUBject means another.

“Subject (sub – JECT) to” is an idiomatic expression meaning “to cause someone/something to experience something” (thank you to the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms for that definition). This phrase may use “subject, subjected,” or “subjecting” and be correct. The accent is always on the second syllable for this particular meaning.

“As a teacher, I subjected my students to regular doses of Shakespearean language in everyday speech.”

“The auditor is subjecting all the ledgers to close scrutiny because of a discrepancy in the Entertainment entries for the month of May, 2011.”

“Be careful, or I’ll subject you to Coen Brothers movies for the rest of the weekend.” (For the record, I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan. Deal with it.)

“Subject (SUB-ject) to” indicates that one thing needs to happen before another will be allowed.

“Students’ attendance at the film night is subject to parental approval as indicated by returning a signed permission form.” [Unless the parental approval form is returned, the students cannot attend the movie.]

“The prisoner may be allowed more time in the yard. However, this is subject to her adherence to rules regarding conduct in the common areas within the block.” [If she doesn’t behave indoors, she won’t be allowed more time outside.]

“The vegan option for our feast menu is entirely subject to us being able to find the proper ingredients in time.” [If we can’t find the right kind of tempeh or TVP, all bets for a vegan dish are off.]

And this post’s title? Rightly it should be “Subject to your approval.” I’m not causing the post to experience anything. Rather, I am writing it and and hoping that you will approve. So, subject (SUB-ject) to your approval, I might find encouraging comments on this post in a day or so.

On the other hand, I could be subjected (sub-JECT-ed) to your disapproval, indicated either by utter silence or by nasty notes left under my door. Or here. Or at G+. I’ll be wary, in any case.

If Cambridge University Press ain’t safe, ain’t nobody safe.

I’ve talked about this before in other venues, but this time I’m including photographic proof.

When as prestigious a company as Cambridge University Press releases a book — and not just any book, but a dictionary with a study guide — with an egregious typographical error, we can be assured that no one is safe from the threat.

Perfection in a finished written work is a lofty goal, and one that is not always (perhaps never) attainable. Still, we should work toward it whether we’re Cambridge University or Joe Blow.

As seen in SFWA Bulletin #202

Here’s an article I wrote for my friend Jean Rabe, editor of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (or “the SFWA Bulletin” for short). Now that the print copy has shipped, I’m able to post my work here for everyone else to see. This is my last version of the original file, before it was sent to Jean. Nothing substantial was changed.

As usual, this is an opinion piece and should be taken as such. Hope you like it.


Say the Secret Word

Some words are better used than others.

Some should be used once in a book, others once in a series of books, and others perhaps once in a lifetime.

I leave it to you to decide for yourself which words fall into which categories for your own purposes. As for me, if I never see another “exit” it will be too soon.

It’s a pretty common word, after all, isn’t it? We see Exit all the time while traveling interstate highways. It glows red above doors in public places. Those usages I can encounter without twitching. However, in a novel I really don’t need to see the word used ever again.


You see, it’s been ruined for me now thanks to something I read not long ago where every time there was a door or a tunnel opening or a cave mouth . . . every time someone left a room or a hallway . . . it was an exit. It wasn’t a door, or a tunnel opening, or a cave mouth. It was an exit. People didn’t leave. They exited.

Is there a secret club somewhere for authors with an entrance requirement that reads “Use one word to the exclusion of any possible synonyms every time you need to convey X concept or thought or movement”?

Did I miss the memo that said “For the month of February, we’ll be using the word ‘exit’ instead of ‘door, tunnel opening, cave mouth, or leave”?

Someone else told me that she’d encountered “undulate” in nearly every book she’d read over the course of several months, regardless of genre. Herpetology and belly-dancing notwithstanding, undulation’s not all that common a term in everyday parlance. It strikes me as one of those once-a-book words (unless the book’s about snakes or belly-dancers). While it’s certainly evocative, if it were to appear in every chapter (again, unless the main character’s a snake or a belly-dancer) the reader could well have one of two reactions: becoming inured to it, or becoming annoyed by it. Neither one is terribly desirable in my book. (Not that I’m writing one, you know. It’s a figure of speech. No, really, it is. I’m not a writer. Move along, nothing to see here . . .)

What’s the term? Oh, yes. “Hackneyed.” No one enjoys reading hackneyed writing. And things that weren’t hackneyed before can become so with overuse, like the convention of “a single tear.” It was powerful when we saw that public service announcement decades ago with that lone drop of saltwater coursing down the cheek of Chief Iron Eyes Cody. It really was.

But think about this; if every time characters become emotional we see a single tear course down a cheek, why should we care? Do they have a blocked tear duct in that other eye, since only one tear’s getting loose? That’s a serious medical condition, y’know.

Consider the act of nodding. Are your characters bobbleheads?

Sure, people nod in assent, they nod off, they nod to a friend they pass on the street. But do they have to nod every time they say “yes?” EVERY TIME? Can’t we assume they do, without seeing the word? We’re intelligent folks, most of us. If the dialogue tells us someone says “yes,” we’ll probably visualize them nodding. Now, if for some reason they’re nodding vehemently, we probably need to be told. But just nodding? Naah. We can figure that one out on our own, thanks.

Heaving bosoms. Alabaster ones, even. We don’t need ’em. Bodice rippers don’t even need ’em. Words that I could stand to see more often, but still only once per book: Mellifluous. Exaltation. Luxuriant.

Words I don’t need to see for a while (aside from “exit”): Massive. Cavernous. Stealthy.

And while I’m on about words I don’t need to see, let me rant for a moment about words that don’t really mean what you think they mean (like “massive”).  “Massive” carries a sense of weight, of enormousness. Buildings, mountains, even people can be massive. Caverns can’t. There’s no weight to a cavern. It’s a hole. A really really BIG hole, but a hole nevertheless. Caverns are—wait for it—cavernous. They’re enormous. They’re immense, perhaps. But they’re not massive.

So they’re enormous. But they don’t have enormity. See, “enormity” refers to an occurrence or a state of being. The tragedy of 9-11 can be called an enormity in the sense of “atrocity.”  Someone who is staggeringly brilliant can be described with a phrase like “enormity of intellect.” But a cavern doesn’t have enormity. It doesn’t have massiveness (it’s a hole, remember?).

Let’s go back to those exits for a moment or five. When I read something like the project to which I referred earlier, and I’m seeing the same word over and over, I start making notes on the side (usually actual notes, with real dead-tree paper and ink or pencil). Sometimes those notes end up going to the author after I’ve inserted them into the file as comments; sometimes they’re just for me. In the case of the excessive exits, most of them were just for me. I’d mark the sentence and make a note for myself to come back later and try recasting it to eliminate the word, tightening the prose as I did so. (I tightened an awful lot of prose in this project. A few thousand words’ worth.) “He stood up from the chair and exited the room” might have become “He rose and stalked out.” (I’m not giving you the actual sentences and changes. I’m using very similar sentences, though. They’re pretty much burned into my brain. Someday they’ll fade . . . I hope.)

Then there are the words that just plain don’t belong. At all. If you’re using voice-recognition software, you need to be aware that what you say might not come out the same on the other end of the process. You can end up with things like this: “The fact that all of those attacks had the same purpose couldn’t have been quintessential.” What? “Quintessential?” I kid you not; I stared at that sentence for a long time before I finally read it aloud. Then and only then did I realize the word had to be “coincidental.” Perhaps it would have clicked sooner for some of you, and perhaps not. Some of you might still be staring at it a month later. (I hope not, but it could happen, I suppose.) The words don’t sound that much alike to me, but if someone had less-than-good diction I can understand how a piece of software might confuse the two. That one incident caused me to do another round, this time reading aloud (which I don’t usually do) just in case I’d missed something else. (I hadn’t.)

I suspect the same thing might have happened to cause the word “perimeter” to show up instead of “parameter.” Those two sound far more alike than “quintessential” and “coincidental,” so I was far less confused. I bring this up because I know quite a few writers are turning to voice recognition; they’re dictating their drafts instead of typing them, because it’s faster. Faster is good. Faster isn’t always better. If you’re doing this, I beg you on behalf of copyeditors everywhere: Read your work after it’s transcribed. Aloud. Don’t skim it. READ it. You’ll save time and money and effort if you catch these errors before we do. (You’ll also save yourself the ignominy of being written about in essays, albeit anonymously so.)

But I digress . . .

Back to that repetition issue. If you have an assassin who wears black from head to toe, think twice before referring to him as “the man in black” every time he appears. A less-friendly copyeditor than I might change all references to him to “the MIB.” (Or they might refer to him as Cash. Points for getting that reference. No cash, just points.) Ask yourself how else he might be called, what other terms or epithets you could use. If his identity’s a state secret and only a handful of people know his real name (or perhaps no one knows his real name, but a handful know his code name) you’ll have to be more creative than usual with this, but I have faith in you as a writer. Read every scene where this fellow appears, and see how often you’ve repeated the same phrase describing him. You may well end up rewriting entire paragraphs to avoid the repetition. So be it. Your readers (and your copyeditor before them) will be forever grateful.

A caveat, though. Avoid the temptation to reference a thesaurus every time you get stuck. Readers have great radar for the results of this action. While the occasional twenty-dollar word (like ignominy) can boost your writing, using a whole passel of them in one or two paragraphs will set off every thesaurus-alarm in the country. Contemplate your intended meaning and choose the best words to convey it. Those might well be simple everyday words, not the pricey ones your reader will have to look up. How they’re put together will make the difference.

Words are our friends. Let them do the talking, in all their variations, their shades of meaning. Don’t send your readers running for the exit (door, tunnel opening, cave mouth) before the story ends.

How do you plead?

More apropos: “How have you pled? Or pleaded? Which one is it, anyway?”

The answer is: Both. Yes. Either. Doesn’t really matter.

I told you you probably wouldn’t like the answer to that question in my last blog post. But did you read it? Did you listen? Do I sound like your mother?

This site provides an interesting perspective that, to me, cuts to the heart of the matter. It’s a legalese issue from my point of view. Think about it for a moment. What’s the real difference between “The mother pleaded for mercy on her child” and “The suspect pled not guilty”? The first one takes place outside the courtroom (one assumes, anyway), the second inside it. Dictionaries tell us that “pleaded” is the standard form, but we’re used to hearing “pled” because we’re addicted to courtroom dramas from “Perry Mason” to “Law & Order.”

Another site points out the poetic use of “pled” (citing Spenser, among others) over “pleaded,” and explains that while lawyers also tend to use “pled” over “pleaded,” they use “deeded” instead of the “unfortunate-sounding alternative” one would arrive at if following the same formula. (I’ll wait while you work that out.)

It would seem to me, based on these readings and several dictionaries, that “pleaded” is the standard form for the past tense of “plead.” It would also seem to me that if the writer prefers the sound of “pled” for some reason (be that poetic license or legalese), that is also acceptable in general. As always, check your preferred usage manual if you care about that sort of thing. (And you should care about it. If you don’t, why are you reading this blog in the first place?)


Past tense needn’t be tense

I’ve been getting questions off-blog lately about simple past verb forms, most of which can be addressed via speaking to UK versus US usage. This subject has been addressed often elsewhere, but not here. I will suggest up front that if you want more information, by all means employ your own brand of Google-fu and go get it. It’s all out there, waiting for you. Meanwhile, I’ve distilled one small part of the gist of this subject for today’s post.

In general, a verb form ending in -t is indicative of UK usage. Likewise, one ending in -ed is indicative of US usage. Witness these examples.






I cannot stress enough that I am speaking in generalities. There are undoubtedly exceptions to what I’ve just said. If you feel the need to post them as comments, knock yourself out. I’m not trying for an exhaustive list, I’m just showing folks the way this works. (I’ll beat some of you to the punch. The past tense of “to deal” is “dealt,” no matter which usage you’re employing. There is no such word as “dealed.”)

“But Karen, I’ve used dreamt all my life and there’s no one British in my family!” Y’know, I believe you. I’ll tell you this much: You probably grew up/live in an area of the US with strong linguistic ties to England, which means that usage in your area leans toward the UK versions of things. I grew up in an area with strong Germanic/Dutch ties, so we had sayings like “The bread is all” meaning “There’s no more bread.” Linguistics are fascinating. Do some reading on the subject if you’re so inclined. Google-fu is powerful stuff indeed.

“But Karen, what about lent?” Well, I’ll tell you. Lent as a verb is the past tense of lend. Lend/lent, loan/loaned, lean/leaned. Lend and loan are mostly interchangable; the latter has the connotation of financial dealings, which is why we lend a hand, but loan a fiver. We lend an ear, because if we loaned one it would involve surgery. We can lend a bike, or we can loan one. Last week, I lent someone a book and I loaned my daughter a few dollars.  It’s all good.

That tree leaned the other way before the big windstorm. If I lived in the UK, I’d say it leant the other way.

I’ll point you to the Daily Writing Tips blog (see it in our blogroll) for this kind of information. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary is good as well; when applicable, it notes differences in US/UK usage clearly. Remember that the preferred form appears first in the listing; coming second doesn’t mean a form is wrong, it merely means it is not the preferred form. (And that usually means that copy editors like me will change the less-preferred form to the more-preferred one, without a compelling reason not to. And by compelling, I mean stronger than “because I like it better.”)

Watch this space for an upcoming post about those pesky -ou- spellings (also UK usage), and perhaps even one about the correct past tense of “to plead.” You probably won’t like the answer. I don’t care. Ha.

Signs and Portents

Because I like the word “portents” in combination with “signs,” and for no other reason, I made that the title. I’m sure you’ll deal with it in your own ways.

Well, okay; part of my reason is also that I have this neat pic of a sign, which I’ve quite openly swiped from Amanda Patterson over at The Plain Language Programme (Aussies spell things with extra letters, just like the Brits do).

Here’s your sign. (Apologies to Bill Engvall for stealing his line, but in this case it really is relevant.)

All that’s needed to correct the problem is an “s” and an apostrophe. That’s all. Such a simple fix, yet so very far away . . .

Then there’s the gem I received via a Facebook message from a friend, Janet Deaver-Pack. She shared with me a typo from the cover of the newest catalogue from Bits and Pieces (http://bitsandpieces.com), which features a “secret book box” that I presume is like this one. I presume this, because the same error appears on this item. Look closely at the central “book” title. The last time I checked, something decorated with gold is “gilded.” Perhaps the creator of this product is a union supporter; that might begin to explain the typo.

As Janet said to me, “There are dictionaries in the world.” Of course, some folks need the special “misspeller’s dictionaries” because after all, if you don’t know how to spell the word to start with, how are you supposed to find it?