“Okay,” quoth he

That’s extreme, but it’s also an example of today’s subject: choosing the right words for your work.

One of my biggest concerns when I’m editing is “voice.” I work hard to maintain my clients’ “writer’s voice,” because it’s their writing, not mine, that is being published. Part of that work is helping them choose the best words for the purpose. And part of THAT work is, quite often, teaching them about diction.

Not in the sense of “enunciation or elocution.” In the sense of word choice. None of my clients would come up with a sentence like the one I used for the title of this post. Some of them, though, have more trouble than others keeping a grasp on the language that best suits their purpose. It’s particularly difficult with “medieval fantasy,” a phrase I’m using here to encompass “the usual” in terms of a story with a pseudo-medieval setting, royalty, wizards, magic, dragons, elves (and perhaps orcs and so on), and the like. Your standard fantasy, perhaps.

When I’m reading a story with this kind of setting, nothing jars me more than modern speech patterns, phrases, and words. “Okay” is one of them. “Alright” (sic) is another. (Yes, I sicced that. I don’t like it. I’ve tried to get used to it, but — no. I see no point in it. I waffle about allowing it or not, and ultimately, if my clients overrule me, that’s on them. I mark it every time.) “Are you really going there?” is yet another, when used to mean “Are you actually taking that route in this conversation?” These words and phrases have no place, in my opinion, in a medieval fantasy setting unless there’s time travel involved. If a character from our modern world winds up in that setting? Well, I’d expect that character to speak appropriately for their origin, and for the other characters to be confounded by it.

Certainly there’s no need to write in the style of Shakespeare in order to write fantasy. But there’s no reason not to use appropriate language and sentence structures, either. The words shape the reader’s experience. What do you want your reader to see, hear, feel, taste, touch? For me as a reader, a voice that seems to have no direction, that wanders between the language I expect to encounter in a fantasy setting and that I hear every day, confuses me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be seeing, hearing, feeling . . . I need to be grounded in the world the writer’s created. The diction is the basis for that grounding. It’s entirely possible to use simple sentences and words to achieve this, just as it’s possible to use complex ones. The secret is in the combinations. I am not a writer, but I know when I’m drawn into a story and when I’m left floundering.

Hook me. Pull me in. Let me breathe the air of your world. Don’t throw me back out with poorly chosen words.

That’s not Shakespearean.

My brain just said those words as I was reading the etymology for “layabout.”

I was sure, in my head, that the word had to be Shakespearean. It sounds Shakespearean. I’m sure I’ve heard or read it in pieces that are set, chronologically, well before 1932.

And yet, there’s the date, in black and gray (that box isn’t white, it’s gray). 1932. American. The word doesn’t even have the courtesy to be British.

The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online site further explains that “lay” in this sense is the “nonstandard alteration of lie about.” I figured as much, but it’s always comforting to see such a thing in print.

Then there’s the other term, “to lay about,” which means “to strike randomly in all directions.” As in “He laid about with a mace and still managed to strike nothing.” Here’s the link to Etymology Online’s entry, showing the “put down (often by striking)” meaning.

I suppose, then, that a layabout might lay about if awakened suddenly.

 

Grammar Day 2016: Two days later

I knew Greenbaum had to address the subject/object pronoun situation somewhere. It’s taken me this long to find it. (And if you think that means I’ve been tirelessly poring over the text, hunting for the entry, I appreciate your mental picture of me. I picked up the book again this morning, opened it, flipped a few pages, and there it was. Silly me, having tried to use the index the other day. What a maroon.) Continue reading “Grammar Day 2016: Two days later”

Grammar Day, 2016

I see I didn’t bother writing anything for last year’s Grammar Day. I was probably busy working. I’m sure I wasn’t writing haiku. (Why would I write haiku, you ask? Because of the annual ACES Grammar Day Haiku contest.)

But, I digress. While pondering what to write for this year, I picked up my copy of Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar (Cambridge 2005) and flipped idly through its pages. Scattered throughout the text (not randomly, of course, but with forethought) are “Prescriptive grammar notes.” If you don’t know what “prescriptive” means, here’s a link to my post about the different types of grammar. I’ll wait while you go read. ::sips coffee:: Continue reading “Grammar Day, 2016”

Registering register

I’m going to blather a little bit about register.

The fact that I used the word “blather” is a cue that the register of this post is informal. If I wanted to be formal, I’d say “This post is about register in writing.”

See the difference? The latter is stuffier, less conversational, more like what you’d expect to see in an article or a textbook, perhaps.

When I blog, post, or tweet, I get pretty informal. (See? I did it again. “I get pretty informal.”) I use acronyms and abbreviations and IDGAF who gets upset by them. I also curse, obviously. However, I can write in a very formal tone if that’s what’s required of me. Continue reading “Registering register”

PAR means “average”

My husband calls me in the mornings, sometimes, after he’s dropped off his younger daughter at school and he’s driving to his workplace. Today, he included a tidbit that had occurred to him about the terms “above par” and “below par,” and how they’re opposite in golf and elsewhere. I see a lot of discussion on “ask us” websites (Yahoo, Quora, Reddit, and so on), but I didn’t keep digging into search results to see if any language blogs had addressed it.

I’ll address it.

First off, here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about the meaning and etymology. Notice that the first simple definition is the one used in golf, and the second has to do with stock values.

In the game of golf, each hole is assigned a number of strokes as “par.” That’s the average number of strokes a player is expected to need to get from the tee to the hole. (I don’t play golf; can you tell?) If a player uses more strokes than par, that’s “bad.” If a player uses fewer strokes, that’s “good.” If the player’s control and strength and all the rest are expert, we expect the player to come in “below par.” And that’s good. If they play like I do, they’ll be “above par” and that’s bad. (I know I’m bad. I despise golf.)

However, in business and elsewhere the meanings are opposite. As you can see from the simple definition, if a stock is valued “below par,” it has lost value since it was issued. A value “above par” is desirable, because it’s worth more than at the time of issuance. Common usage extends this to many venues. Students’ performance is said to be “above par” if they’re doing well (scoring above average), and “below par” if they’re doing badly (scoring below average). The same applies to employees, to vehicles, to many things. The business/stock sense reaches far beyond pieces of paper with assigned monetary value.

If you keep in mind that “par” is average, the opposite meanings might be less confusing. In golf, you want to use as few strokes as possible to get from 1 to 18 (the standard number of holes on a course). You want to be below par. In everything else, you want to be above average.

The twelfth link of Christmas: English for the ESL student

Most of what’s in this collection is linked to the Cambridge Dictionary blogs. I don’t do as much with it as I probably should (and definitely not as much as I could), but that’s a goal for 2016.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that I’m fairly certain most of my followers are ESL speakers/writers/students. I see a lot of names from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, and so on. I intend to provide more content for them in days to come.

The eighth link of Christmas: Books! (BOOOOOOOOOKS!)

This is a fairly small collection as well, being one of titles I’ve discussed or reviewed, generally speaking. I read when I am able (as in, when I make myself make the time, because let’s face it, I’m reading for six to eight hours every day when I’m editing), and I admit to being very bad at leaving reviews (mostly because I don’t quite know why anyone would care what I think, unless they ask me personally).

I should probably add some of the linguistics books to this. I’ve been reading McWhorter of late, and the only title of his that shows up in here is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. I’ve also read Word on the Street and have opened the cover of The Power of Babel. I need to get busy reading.

The seventh link of Christmas: Plain language

This is the smallest of my collections, which says something itself, I think.

I share what I find, and I find very little. In my experience, new writers tend to think they have to use florid language (big words, fancy syntax) to make their writing worthwhile.

Nope. If the writer is capable, that’s one thing. If the writer’s new, chances are good that simpler language (in both words and construction/syntax) will be the better option. Again, I’m speaking from my experience as a freelance editor. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

This little collection contains posts on legal, medical, academic, and business writing. You’ll see some familiar names, I think: Bryan A. Garner, Steven Pinker, Conscious Style Guide, and even the Mental Floss site. (AND June Casagrande, one of my editorial heroes.)