Here is another widely misquoted saying. In the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Humphrey Bogart’s character, Fred Dobbs, asked a Mexican bandito, “If you are the police, where are your badges? Let’s see them.” To which the bandito is supposed to have replied, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” What he actually said was this: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!” See HERE.
Possibly the most notorious misquote has Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, in the film Casablanca telling the piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson), “Play it again, Sam.” What he did say—referring to Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa Lund—was, “If she can stand it, I can. Play it!” See HERE.
Numerous authors attribute the expression, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” to Scottish poet and author Robert Burns. This is not, however, precisely what Burns wrote. The quotation comes from the penultimate stanza of a poem titled “To a Mouse,” which reads:
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley.”
American novelist John Steinbeck used these words to form the title of his novella, Of Mice and Men, which was published by the New York City firm Covici Friede in 1937. Covici Friede was a joint effort by Pascal Covici and Donald Friede. (By odd coincidence, for several years prior to 1922, Covici published a monthly newsletter in Bradenton, Florida. Were it not for a gerrymandered ZIP Code area created to give the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport a toney Sarasota address, My Rapidsoft Press LLC business would have a Bradenton address instead of Sarasota.)
See HERE and HERE for more on this. (Note that in some versions of the original poem the words mice and men are capitalized as “Mice an’ Men,” and the word agley is sometimes hyphenated as a-gley.)
Although you will frequently see the last three words of the Robert Burns line translated as “often go awry,” a more literal translation, which comes closer to the author’s prosody, is “go oft awry.”
These examples show that you should be precise in your quotations. We all make mistakes, of course, but in this age of near-instant availability of accurate source information on the Internet and its World Wide Web, there is no excuse for sloppiness in quotations.
For example, take punctuation. We no longer use commas to separate things like junior or senior from names. Now you write John Doe Jr. The same thing applies to the commas we formerly used to separate Inc. or LLC from the names of businesses. You now can write Unilever Inc. or Rapidsoft Press LLC.
We no longer use periods for most abbreviations. The old sq. ft. for square feet becomes sq ft without the periods. One exception is the abbreviations for time of day: a.m. and p.m. It would look strange to write a.m. as am because it would look like the verb. (“At 7:00am am I going to the store?” simply looks and sounds wrong.) Some people duck this issue by writing the times without the m—seven o’clock in the morning becomes 7:00a and, in the evening, 7:00p. Take your pick.
Words are also changing. About forty years ago, William Safire wrote that the British word pricey had nearly driven the word expensive from our language. Around 1984, another word, spendy, tried to replace pricey, but failed to do so; it never sounded right to me. Its use is confined mostly to the Pacific Northwest. Pricey was first used in 1932, whereas expensive dates to 1610. Language sometimes changes slowly; other times, quickly.
Another British term that has crept into American English is spot on. I first saw this term in a 1978 letter from a British collaborator in a UFO investigation. “Your analysis was spot on,” he wrote me. It means the same thing as exactly right. Today in America, we commonly use the British term spot on.
A particularly picturesque British word that we’re beginning to embrace in America is gobsmacked. I first saw it in Eric Clapton’s memoir, Clapton. It means flabbergasted, astonished, rendered speechless. Dating to ca 1959 around Liverpool, it derives from struck (smacked) in the mouth (gob: Irish/Scottish Gaelic) and is believed to come from the theatrical gesture of clapping a hand over one’s mouth. Safe to use in dialogue, but you’d probably best not use it in formal writing.
Then we have mojo, a home-grown word. Believed to derive from ancient African traditions, it means a magic spell or charm. We use it broadly now to mean magical power. A good tennis player works his mojo on the courts. Preston Foster popularized the word with his song, “Got My Mojo Working.”
New words crop up continually. Keep your eyes and ears open and you can pick up many of them for yourself. Check the new words section of the Oxford English Dictionary. More than 500 new words have been added to the first quarter 2017 edition of that dictionary.
We are fortunate nowadays to have Internet dictionaries that keep up with trends like these. Language is not a static thing; it changes constantly. Keep up to speed!
First person plural is when more than one person tells the story. Such a story might include this:
Second person, a rather uncommon point of view, is when the narrator tells what you are doing. It’s tricky to get this right, and few authors attempt it. You might write:
Third person, which is still the most common, is when the narrator of the story tells what is happening. For example:
Third person comes in two varieties: third person omniscient, in which the narrator is privy to the thoughts of every character in the story, and limited third person, where the narrator is only aware of the thoughts of the principal character.
The worst thing you can do as an author is to mix different points of view in the same story. For example, you might write:
This little snippet starts out with first person point of view—“I had moved” and “[I] put it”—but abruptly switches to third person omniscient when it tells what Paul is thinking. How could you, as the narrator of the story, know what Paul was thinking?
Switching your point of view can happen insidiously, so be careful to keep the same point of view when you develop your story. Take one point of view and stick to it—religiously. Your writing benefits if you take care in preserving the same point of view throughout.
If you bring in copied text from another document and then continue typing from it, including hitting the return key to start a new paragraph, Word treats that as an extension of the previous text and its options. This is what is called inheritance in the trade: when you type a hard return (the Enter key) at the end of a paragraph, the new paragraph will inherit the formatting of the previous paragraph.
You have to be careful when importing text from another file into a Word document, especially from another Word file. The copied text will often bring with it Style settings that may interfere with ones you have set up for the document you’re working on. The safest way to do this is what is called “the nuclear option.” This ordinarily involves copying the text to a Notepad file (which removes all formatting) and then copying the Notepad file into your Word document.
With the nuclear option, your imported text will come through in whatever style is in effect at the cursor position when you do the import. If it’s your Body Style, then all the imported text will be in Body Style. If your Body Style includes a first-line indent (most do), then all the paragraphs you import will be indented. If some of the imported paragraphs should have no first-line indent, you will have to put the cursor in each of those paragraphs and click on your NoIndent Style to fix them. It’s a simple two-click operation.
You do use Styles in Word, right?
There are, however, easier ways to do this. In the source file, highlight the text you want to import and either select Copy from the Edit menu, or just use Control-C (meaning, hold down the Control key and press the C key). Then go to your Word document and use Control-Alt-V (hold down the Control and Alt keys and press the V key). This will bring up a little menu. Select the “Unformatted text” option and click on OK. This will copy in the text you want without any formatting.
Eric, a Goodreads author, has an even simpler solution. Place the cursor where you want to insert the copied text and right click. A menu will appear with three options that look like little file folders. The right-hand one will insert plain text. Click on that, and you’re home free.
For those Apple aficionados, Word for Mac offers an equally simple solution. Copy your block of text to be inserted. Click the Edit menu, then click Paste and Match Formatting. Literally and figuratively, you’ll be set.
With any of these options, you will have to manually restore any formatting, such as italics or boldface, that you want to keep, but ordinary punctuation will come across as is (including real—curly—apostrophes and quotation marks).
Here is a startling example, taken from a newspaper article, which stated that the Supreme Court “said if there is no reason to disbelieve that the accused cannot be reformed or rehabilitated, a sentence of death would be erroneous.” Here we have a triple misnegation, with a total of four negatives: no reason, disbelieve, cannot be, and erroneous. As written, the sentence means the exact opposite of what was intended. The mind recoils in abject horror from such linguistic torture!
Interestingly, we can easily fix this sentence simply by changing the no to a, stripping the dis from disbelieve, and dropping the not from cannot.* The result is that the Supreme Court “said if there is a reason to believe that the accused can be reformed or rehabilitated, a sentence of death would be erroneous.” That newspaper needs a good copy editor—badly.
Misnegations are, however, not to be confused with litotes, such as “he’s not a bad singer,” or “I don’t feel too bad.” Litotes (plural: litotes) is in the dictionary and dates to 1589. There is a litotes in my review of Killing Patton, in the third sentence, which begins with “This is not faint praise, . . .” (see Book Reviews)
* Thanks and a tip of the Thayer hat to Hal of New Montage Media for this neat, clean solution to the sentence.
There is an unfortunate trend in current spoken English to omit critical adverbs, leaving the listener to figure out the meaning from the context of the conversation.
Here are a couple more examples of this sort of thing.
“My son is hanging with some of his friends.” In my mind, this conjures up an image of the son and his friends, having been convicted of some dastardly crime, twisting in the wind at the end of long ropes. What the speaker really means is, “My son is hanging out with some of his friends.” Another case of the missing adverb.
One of the worst is writing, “That man is going to cave.” Really? Makes me wonder what cave he’s going to explore. In my dictionary, cave is a verb meaning “to explore caves especially as a sport or hobby.” What the writer actually means is “That man is going to cave in.” Another missing adverb. The guy is going to succumb to pressure and cave in to some kind of demand.
In formal writing, you should avoid the temptation to leave out these critical adverbs. It is certainly permissible to leave them out in fictional dialogue, since people do—sadly—leave out these adverbs frequently in spoken English. But good writers will include such adverbs in their manuscripts.
The only exception to this rule is in sentences like, “He decided to continue on his journey.” Here the word “on” is attached to “his journey” not to the word continue, so it’s all right to use there. Albeit, one could leave out the word “on” without loss of meaning: “He decided to continue his journey.”
A word of caution: Do not feel constricted by rules in your writing. Rules were meant to be at least occasionally bent, if not actually broken. Sometimes the rhythm or cadence of the words in a sentence or paragraph will call for wording that might otherwise be frowned upon. As a writer, it’s what sounds good to your ear that is important, not that you’ve followed some rule as if caught in some linguistic straightjacket.
My friend who designs this website is fond of the Latin expression, “de gustibus non est disputandum”—roughly, about taste there is no dispute. A good thing to remember.
That said, some clichés are truly awful. You should avoid these whenever possible—and it is always possible to avoid two of the commonest of these accursed expressions.
The first of these is “the fact that.” In his introduction to The Elements of Style (William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White; New York: The Macmillan Co., 1959 and later dates), E. B. White writes:
E. B. White should have been ashamed of himself. The fact is (pun intended) that “the fact that” can be eliminated from any sentence in which you might be tempted to use it.
I have written many thousands of words, few of them in deathless prose, and likely more than a few sentences with grammatical errors of some kind. But not once have I ever used the phrase “the fact that.”
The second of the terrible two is “point in time.” This one apparently entered the language in the late 1960s, and so escaped the scrutiny of Strunk and White. There is no such thing as a “point in time.” Used in this sense, point is a synonym for time.
Take the sentence: “At this point in time we decided to quit.” You can remove either “point in” or “in time” from this sentence without diminishing the meaning in the slightest: “At this point we decided to quit” or “At this time we decided to quit.” In fact, you can remove either “point in” or “in time” from any sentence containing this trite cliché without changing the meaning of the sentence.
I have never used this expression in my writing, either. Which brings up a useless cliché. I first wrote “Needless to say” as an introductory phrase in the first sentence of this paragraph. A friend, acting as a copy editor, pointed out that if something is needless to say, then why say it? In effect, it’s a cliché that negates itself. The kind of thing an author writes without really thinking what it means. I followed his advice and deleted the phrase. A lesson not just for you but for me, too.
Excellent advice, although often hard to follow in practice. Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly, and only when they add significant meaning to a sentence. Strunk and White go on to say “Occasionally [adjectives] surprise us with their power, as in
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men . . .
“The nouns mountain and glen are accurate enough, but had the mountain not become airy, the glen rushy, William Allingham might never have gotten off the ground with his poem.” I would add that the adjective little was also indispensable in the last line.
Do not for an instant imagine that I dashed off this one-sentence paragraph in a flash of brilliant inspiration. No, it is the result of at least twenty revisions made not only with my hand but from suggestions made by both my coauthor, Kristin Delaplane of Our American Stories, and our dauntless editor, Joanne Asala. This paragraph comes at the end of the Preface.
The verbs screaming, wailing, cursing, and clanking convey all the description that is necessary to bring this little paragraph to life. The adverbs, never and over, are both required to convey the intended meaning, whereas the adverb some is necessary because the exact distance is unknown.
In particular, don’t use colorful language that you don’t really understand.
Case in point: Fifty Shades of Grey. Author E L James too often describes her heroine as blushing, and she uses words to describe this blushing that are, simply put, unbelievable. After the first ordinary blush she then blushes crimson, scarlet, and finally puce. Puce? Really?
Here is an illustration of these colors as they are defined by an international committee on color standards (CIE).
Not only are crimson and scarlet very close to each other in the color spectrum, but I have never seen a woman’s face blush anywhere near as intense a color as those. Have you?
And puce: omigod. A woman would look like death warmed over were her face to blush in a color anything like that.
It’s nice to use vivid, descriptive terms in your writing, but before you do, make sure you know what you are talking about. E L James is obviously using these color names to inject color into her story, but the colors she uses are beyond the pale. (And, yes, the pun is intended.)
Look before you leap, and think before you start typing your story.
Avoid Said BookismsThree of the basic rules of good writing are to use nouns and verbs, avoid adjectives and adverbs wherever possible, and avoid said bookisms.
These are said bookisms, because they swap “said” for what the writer hopes are more descriptive words. Said bookisms were once an accepted form in writing, but that was many years ago. The idea nowadays is to make writing sleek and effective without overloading it with these kinds of extras.
Sometimes even the word “said” is unnecessary.
Here is a quick example. Put two people, say Bill and Joan, into a room with nobody else present. They begin to talk.
“Bill!” exclaimed Joan. “Come see what I just found.”
“Is it about the Stoney Point incident?” asked Bill.
Now, as these two are the only ones in the room, this can be rewritten as:
“Bill! Come see what I just found.”
“Is it about the Stoney Point incident?”
There is no question as to who is doing the talking in each of these sentences. The extra words in the first set are just window dressing. They accomplish nothing useful.
So improve your writing by avoiding said bookisms. An occasional one may work, such as “he shouted” or “she whispered,” but only if they are appropriate under the circumstances of your story. And you should probably limit yourself to only a couple of things like this in a single chapter.