Keep up with the Language

vintage typewriter
Our language is continuously evolving. It behooves you as a writer to keep up with the changes.

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.

roundabout
Nowadays, we are rapidly replacing traffic circle with its British equivalent, roundabout. Don’t listen to the revisionists who try to tell you that there is a real difference between the two things. There isn’t. Well, there is one difference, and one only: on a roundabout the traffic moves clockwise, because the Brits drive on the left side of the road, whereas on a traffic circle the traffic moves counter-clockwise. This difference has proved fatal to many an American tourist driving a rental car in England. Americans do fine so long as they are on a straight road, but when they get to a roundabout, they instinctively turn to the right side—with predictably dire consequences.

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!

Copying Text Into a Word Document

Desktop Publishing: Importing
Writers focus on ideas, words, and sentences. Desktop publishers focus on presentation. Unless you are intending to change the typeface in your document (e.g., presenting a section as a letter or journal entry), maintaining uniformity in your typeface is essential. It provides the eye with an easy read and invites the reader to focus on those ideas and words and sentences you’ve created.

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.

Pasting in Word

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.

Pasting in Mac

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).

Avoid Misnegations

Here is a word you won’t find in a dictionary, but it is real, and it is being used: misnegation. Basically, it means to make too many negations in the same sentence.

Rapidsoft Press misnegations litotes
Here is a real example of a misnegation. A hospital waste bin, designed to be operated only with a foot pedal, displayed this warning sign: “The lid must not be hand operated and pushed past the point where it will not automatically return to the closed position.” The second “not” is the offender and should have been left out of the sentence.

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.

Don’t Omit Necessary Adverbs

Rapidsoft Press blog: unnecessary adverbs
Here is an ambiguous sentence: “Did you hear that Michael passed?” Umm . . . passed what? An algebra test? The bar exam? A car on the freeway? Without the crucial adverb “on” or “away” the sentence is ambiguous—and bad form in formal writing. There is no misunderstanding the sentence, “Did you hear that Michael passed away?”

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.

Rapidsoft Press gratuitous adverbs
One last, ironic, observation. This is the addition of a gratuitous adverb in sentences like, “We decided to continue on.” Ouch! The word continue means “go on.” So tacking the adverb “on” to the word continue is like writing “go on on.” It’s redundant.

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.

Avoid Bad Clichés

word choice
Notice I did not write “Avoid Clichés.” Clichés are near universally despised, but they have one thing going for them: When you use one, no one will misunderstand you. And good writing always conveys clear meaning. Using an occasional cliché, especially in dialogue, can be useful.

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:

“[Professor Strunk] devotes a special paragraph to the vile expression ‘the fact that,’ a phrase that causes him to quiver with revulsion. The expression, he says, should be ‘revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.’ . . . I suppose I have written ‘the fact that’ a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundred times in the cool aftermath. To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me, for it seems a betrayal of the man who showed me how to swing at it and made the swinging seem worthwhile.”

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.

speechmaking
As a prime example, take the speech John Kasich gave on May 5 about quitting the race for the presidency—in which, by the way, he never said that he was quitting the race. His second sentence was “[T]he first thing I have to do is to thank my great wife, Karen, for the fact that . . . she has endured my political career and also of course accentuated it.” He could just as easily have said, “thank my great wife, Karen, because she has endured my political career. . . .” Or preferably, “thank my great wife, Karen, for enduring my political career and of course accentuating it.” He needs better speech writers.

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.

Getting the Lead Out

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about fonts
Nearly six centuries ago, ca 1440, Johannes Gutenberg (Yoh-hah-nes Goo-ten-bairg) invented the printing press and movable type. The type was mostly lead, although it also contained tin and antimony (typically 75% lead, 15% antimony, and 10% tin). Ever since then—for some five centuries—printers called this “lead type.” Printers made lines of characters—called “sorts”—out of a lead alloy, and they called the separation between lines of type “leading” (rhymes with sledding).

Even today, after we’ve almost entirely supplanted lead type with modern methods of producing printed text, we call the spacing between lines of text leading. Leading is important because it can make a page of text clean and easy to read or make it ugly or hard to read.

When you use current word processors or formatting software (such as InDesign or Microsoft Publisher), you should make Styles for the various parts of your text, such as indented paragraphs, non-indented paragraphs, subheadings, titles, etc. One of the things you will set when you create these styles is line spacing, which is actually the leading. You will find the defaults are usually something like “Multiple at 1.08” (Word) or “1.19sp” (Publisher). The programmers based these on some “standard” amount of leading, typically 120% of the type size. So 10-point type gets 12 points of leading. This may work for short lines, such as in a two-column publication or lines of verse, but generally more leading works better.

You want to over-ride the “standard settings” that text-generating software likes to force on you and set your own leading. Always do this in points. For example, if you are preparing a document to be printed full page-width on letter-size (8½ by 11) paper, 10-point type should have something like 14 or 15 points of leading, not the 12 points the software wants you to use.

Choose the right size of leading for a document by picking a number to begin with and then see how it looks. Depending on the particular font (typeface and point size) you are using (about which, more in a later blog), you may find that more or less leading looks better. The best way to do this is by trial and error. When you find the right number, stick to it for all paragraphs to be set in that font.

Here are three examples of leading for a column of text in 10-point Calibri:

desktop publisher samples

The 12-point leading in the first example is about right. The 10-point leading in second one is too tight; the 14-point leading in third one is too much.

Note that a typeface is not a font, as we incorrectly call it today. Times New Roman is a typeface. 10-point Times New Roman italic boldface is a font. 12-point Times Roman is a different font. They are both the same typeface. Learn the difference. It will be important when you have to deal with printers or publishers, who already know the difference.

Write with Nouns and Verbs

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david thayer tips for authors
Strunk and White, in their seminal work The Elements of Style, say (on page 57 of the Macmillan Paperback version): “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”

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

“Up the airy mountain,
   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.

david thayer revisions
The very next subject Strunk and White tackle is “Revise and rewrite.” Also good advice. Here is a one-sentence paragraph from First to Die: The Tragic Sinking of the SS Vestris containing almost nothing but nouns and verbs except for one adjective in a quotation—which could hardly be avoided—and three adverbs.

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.

“At 2:30 p.m. on Monday, November 12, 1928, in a cacophony of children screaming, women wailing, men cursing, and two lifeboats clanking against the sides of a ship they would never leave, the Vestris rolled over ‘like a big potato in a tub of water,’ as one of the survivors put it, and sank to the bottom, some 215 statute miles southeast of Atlantic City, New Jersey.”

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.

How to Make an Elegant Drop Cap

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In a previous blog I said I would show you how to make a real drop cap. I’m using Microsoft® Publisher (a powerful DTP tool), but you can do the same sort of thing with InDesign or QuarkXPress.

The illustration below shows two views of the same piece of a page. On the left side, the View
Boundaries box has been checked to show the elements that make up the drop cap. On the right side is the plain view.

Drop Cap Rapidsoft Press

The dotted blue line on the left is part of the text box that holds the text on the page. The large blue box around the S is where the drop cap is placed. This one is in 48-point Castellar (the rest of the text is 11-point Minion Pro). The drop cap text box is aligned with the left side of the page (using “Align” from the ribbon menu) and is placed so that the bottom of the S lines up with the bottom of the line of text reading “eye and yelled.”

When you place this text box, all of the text to the right will shift away from it. You don’t want this, so you click “Send Backward” from the Home ribbon menu. This puts the drop cap and its text box in the background. The text to the right will immediately fill in to the left, actually overwriting the S.

about drop caps
This is where the two foreground “bumper” text boxes come in. I call them “bumpers” because they position the text to the right of the drop cap where you want it to be. The top, narrower one, positions the word fragment “econd” so that it almost touches the S but not quite.

The lower, wider bumper forces the second line of text beginning with “eye” to the right, leaving a comfortable amount of white space between the lower part of the drop cap and the line of text. There is no rule for this spacing. Do whatever looks good to you.

The line below, beginning with “Captain,” is aligned normally on the page.

You now have a
well-crafted drop cap. You only have to do this once for each chapter in your book, so it’s not a real chore. Try it yourself and see.

Don’t Use Words Unless You Know What They Mean

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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).

shades of color

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.

Tips for Authors

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Avoid Said Bookisms

Three of the basic rules of good writing are to use nouns and verbs, avoid adjectives and adverbs wherever possible, and avoid said bookisms.

Rapidsoft Press Blog
You’re probably thinking, “Say, what?” It is easier to show what said bookisms are than it is to explain them. They happen when a writer tries to limit the number of times the words “said” or “says” appear in the text. So they write things like, “He muttered . . .” or “She murmured . . .”—the list is almost endless.

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.