August 18, 2009
Ever tried to tell a story at a party that just bombed? I’ve done this a few more times than I care to count. We all have, right?
Thankfully, Ira Glass, host of This American Life, is attempting to remedy that. He has a YouTube video series about how to tell engaging, compelling stories. This is useful for anyone who:
- Would rather not watch another cocktail party story crash and burn
- Has a personal story to share with a large audience in a polished form
- Has information to share in a professional context — information that might snag people’s hearts, move them to action, entice them to buy something or help change their understanding of an issue.
Ira Glass knows storytelling better than just about anyone I can think of. I have heard second-hand (and I have reason to believe) that in this age of channel surfing, most people who stumble upon a radio broadcast of This American Life stick with it and listen to the whole, one-hour show, even if they don’t know what it is or weren’t planning to listen to it. It’s engaging enough to hook just about anybody, even though the show is little more than average people (who don’t have radio voices) telling stories that often sound like,
“OK, this one time this really weird thing happened to me. Isn’t that weird?!”
But Ira Glass makes it one of the most compelling programs of our time. The radio show is popular enough that it became a cable TV series. If he wanted to, he could probably use the show to affect great political or social change, and it’s possible that is happening already.
How does he do it? Here are some of the nuggets of goodness I gleaned from the video series:
An engaging story needs
Action/Anecdote + Information + Reflection (at least one of these should provide something previously unknown, unheard of or not considered)
Questions that are raised, questions that are answered
His approach comes straight from radio broadcasting, but there are elements of it that apply to just about any kind of communication. Rather than muddle up his words any further, I’ll just link you to the video series. Here’s a link to the first installment. Click here for the entire series (4 parts, each about 5 minutes) from Public Radio International.
August 11, 2009
Sometimes you have to change horses in midstream. Or at least adjust the saddle.
When I started developing the Write It blog, I intended it to be a resource or reference for people who had questions about writing and communication. As a lifelong word nerd, I’ve developed grammar pet peeves, and they came out quickly and easily in my Write It posts. But in those weeks, a few things quickly became clear:
- I don’t want Write It to be a blog about my grammar pet peeves. Fun as it is sometimes, it’s not always helpful.
- The people who read blogs like Write It are also word nerds. You are thinking about language at least as much as I am.
- There’s no way I’ll ever be a complete resource on correct use of the English language, no matter how much my librarian glasses give that impression.
- In many ways, I don’t believe that there is one correct use of the English language, and I love that it’s always changing along with the people who use it.
- People are reading this blog! You are sending me excellent questions that open up great learning opportunities for me and all of my readers. Keep the questions coming!
In light of all that, I’m shifting the focus of this blog. I’ll continue to answer questions about grammar, writing conventions and the English language, but you’ll hear from me less as an authority and more often as a facilitator of discussion or a link to resources. So instead of writing a blog that says, “Here’s what’s wrong and here’s the only way to correct it,” I’ll write blogs that will hopefully get you, dear readers, thinking and talking about writing and the English language. If I happen to have a grammatical insight and find a good rule of thumb for a troublesome aspect of language, I’ll share it and hope it helps anyone who’s wondered about it. But I don’t ever plan to have the final word — just to be part of a big, ongoing discussion.
Send me your questions! Let’s figure this stuff out together.
August 7, 2009
“The average test scores at my prep school were ridiculous.”
I heard an 18-year-old say something like this about five years ago. It was the first time I ever heard the word ‘ridiculous’ and was confused by it. I found myself thinking, “The scores were ridiculous? But I thought prep school kids were smarty-pants.”
It turns out that the scores actually were high, but I wasn’t familiar with the way she was using the word ‘ridiculous.’ Such was my introduction to its hipster usage.
Since hipsters love to make fun of things and point out absurdities, I hear ‘ridiculous’ everywhere in Portland and I even find myself saying it more than I used to. But I try to be mindful of its actual definition when I use it:
ri·dic·u·lous arousing or deserving ridicule : absurd, preposterous
At the risk of sounding old, I’ll say that I find a lot of teens and 20-somethings use ‘ridiculous’ to mean ‘over the top’ or ‘off the hook.’ Occasionally, I’ll hear people use the word in place of ‘absurd’ or ‘preposterous,’ which is great. But if you use the word to mean anything other that, you’re probably confusing anyone over the age of 30. Not to mention that you’re making yourself sound less intelligent than you’d probably like, especially if you’re misusing the word in your writing.
To test yourself on this, next time you’re about to say, “That’s ridiculous” try mentally replacing it with “That deserves ridicule.” You’ll know you’re using it correctly if the sentence matches what you actually think about the subject (e.g., that you’re making fun of it). I don’t recommend saying this out loud, though, unless you’re a fan of sounding ridiculous.
August 6, 2009
Any time I think of air quotations, I think of my high school driver’s ed. teacher. Not only did Mr. Hillman use the air quotes in just about every sentence, he often gave us the double (or triple) whammy of the air quotes with the phrase “What we call…” or “What I like to call…”
What made this especially funny was that Mr. Hillman would do this when mentioning just about any person, place or thing. I have a very vivid memory of him saying,
“Next week we’ll do a little of what we call ‘driving.’”
Why did he do this? Who knows? Maybe because we call it “driving” but someone in the next town over might call it “toodling down the street”?
I’m guessing that excessive quoting was like Mr. Hillman’s equivalent of the words “um” or “uh” because I didn’t hear much of those. In a single class period, though, I counted him saying “what I call” or some variation of it at least 20 times. Granted, I flunked driver’s ed that year, so maybe I should have been paying attention to something else. But that’s not the matter at hand, is it now?
What we call “the matter at hand”
Having edited many a poster, brochure, business letter and press release, I have seen quotation marks used in more ways than I care to count. Most people are right in using them to cite the words another person has said or written. For example:
Tyler said, “I’m excited to play with Fruition String Band on Friday.”
(Note that the phrase in quotation marks is introduced by a comma and that its period, or any punctuation mark, goes inside the quote.)
“I’m excited to play with the band on Friday,” Tyler said.
(Here the quote ends with a comma to introduce the speaker.)
I’ll take a shot in the dark here, but I think that because some formats recommend using italics for titles of creative works as well as for emphasized words, and because some formats recommend putting titles in quotation marks, many people think it’s appropriate to put quotation marks around emphasized words or around the name of any person, place or thing. But this is not correct, and doing it can give your written message less credibility.
(By the way, I admit to misuse of single quotation marks and italics on this blog. But I am working to clean that up because I realize it’s distracting.)
A few guidelines
To simplify, here are some general rules for everyday writing in American English (not including specialty formats such as academic, journalistic, etc.):
- Quotation marks + names of creative works = Correct
- Quotation marks + reference to another person’s words = Correct
- Quotation marks + a word or phrase that is slang or unfamiliar to your audience = Correct
- Quotation marks + regular verb or noun = Incorrect
- Quotation marks + names of people, places or events = Incorrect
- Quotation marks + emphasizing a commonly used word = Incorrect
I don’t claim that this is a complete list, but I hope these guidelines are helpful for general writing.
Especially with the advent of interactive web technologies that don’t have handy buttons for making text bold, italicized, etc., it can seem like putting quotations around a word is the only way to emphasize it without the rudeness that comes with writing in all capital letters. But even online, inappropriate quotations can still be, well, inappropriate.
My favorite (informal) alternative to this is to surround a word with asterisks. For example:
Seeing people use air quotes *always* makes me laugh.
Either that or learn the HTML code needed to format your text. But if you don’t have the time or inclination to do that, I recommend the asterisks. They’re pretty, aren’t they?
The Internet also presents us with the problem of not having the option to italicize titles of movies, music albums, books, etc. In this case, my feeling is that is best to set the title off with quotation marks.
The use of quotation marks inevitably opens up the can of worms including italics, underlining, single quotation marks, capitalization, bold text and more. It wouldn’t be fun for anyone to cover it all in one post, but I will revisit those topics in time. Until then, Cliff’s Notes has a wonderfully clear and concise tutorial on uses of quotation marks that you can read here.
When in doubt, throw it out
Despite all the italicized and bolded words you may have seen on my blog, I do think that it’s often best to be sparing with your text formatting. If you want to emphasize a word or an idea, italics can help (quotations will not!). But the strength of your message should provide its own emphasis.
Just like I’ve said about cliches and adverbs, if you’re relying heavily on quotation marks, italics and the like to emphasize parts of your message, take a minute to look carefully at the words you’re choosing. When it comes to written communication, carefully chosen words are what do the job best.
July 29, 2009
A show of hands from everyone who is thoroughly roasted this week? Thanks, you can all put your hands back in the buckets of ice now.
In honor of my broken air conditioner, today’s post will give a bit of background on a commonly used phrase: “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”
The phrase actually has little to do with heat. Its common use means, “I’m not bothered by the obvious problem, but by a related one.” So in my case I might say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the broken air conditioner.”
Since weather is always an easy topic of conversation, the phrase has been used often throughout history — enough to be included in my good ole Dictionary of Cliches. But one of the earliest public uses of the phrase was in Langdon Mitchell’s 1906 play The New York Idea, which has little to do with weather and more to do with marriage and divorce. Go figure.
While a cliche can be fun here and there, it’s important to try and spot them when they come up repeatedly in your writing. The biggest reason for this is that using a cliche means you’re using someone else’s words — it’s likely that you could come up with a more unique, or even more clever, way to get your point across.
The more I think about this the more I realize that cliches are nearly impossible to avoid. And sometimes they’re pretty fun. After all, I am the owner of an entire dictionary of them. But too many of them can turn a piece to fluff. To give you an idea, here’s a link to a few written pieces that are nearly entirely composed of cliches. They’re good for a chuckle, but if you really want to make a point or communicate a clear message, they’re probably not the way to go.
What I would really love to do someday is coin a phrase (sorry! cliche!) that is so commonly used that it becomes a cliche after I die. How’s that for a dying wish?
While we’re at it, what are your favorite/love-to-hate cliches? Or your favorite ways to describe a crazy-hot day such as this one?
July 24, 2009
Unexpectedly, he was on his feet, bounding away, instantly out of sight, only to appear beneath the same tree as before, having circled the meadow in a half second.
“As if you could outrun me,” he laughed bitterly.
He reached up with one hand and, with a deafening crack, effortlessly ripped a two-foot-thick branch from the trunk of the spruce.
… I’d never seen him so completely freed of that carefully cultivated facade. … His lovely eyes seemed to glow with rash excitement. Then, as the seconds passed, they dimmed. His expression slowly folded into a mask of ancient sadness.
“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured, his velvet voice unintentionally seductive.
… He sat sinuously, with deliberately unhurried movements, till our faces were on the same level, just a foot apart.
– Excerpted from Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, pages, 264-265
While camping last week I was sucked in to the Twilight book series. I’m a little slow on the uptake, but after reading the first book I see what all the hoo-rah is about. I was absorbed in the story, reading it in less than three days. But I was also irritated with the author’s writing conventions, as many word nerds are.
I’ve never been a best-selling author, so rather than write a snarky piece about Stephenie Meyer’s writing, I would like to channel my snarkery into a lesson on adverbs, which run rampant in Twilight.
First of all, what’s an adverb? The clearest answer I’ve found is in a cartoon called “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” I’m not kidding!
Key points from the Lollys:
- An adjective is a word that adds description to nouns — people, places and things. (Example: I am a slow runner, even when I wear expensive sneakers.)
- An adverb is also a descriptive word, but it has the power to describe or change verbs (action words), adjectives and even other adverbs. (Example: Very unexpectedly, he was on his feet.)
- As the Lollys told us, adverbs are words that help answer the questions How?, Where? and When? They also help show conditions, reasons, comparisons and contrasts.
- Often, but not always, adverbs in English end in -ly. (Examples: Neatly, sloppily, indubitably)
- Adverbs that don’t end in -ly include very, quite and rather.
So why does it matter that Twilight is full of adverbs? Adverbs are useful, but too many can weaken a piece of writing. As one of my professors hammered in college, if you’re depending on adverbs for description, it means your verbs don’t cut the mustard. Or that you might be burying verbs that would be perfectly effective on their own. Since a verb is an action word and an adverb is an add-on, an verb is often more powerful than an adverb.
Choosing effective verbs instead of relying on adverbs often means you’ll have clearer, more succinct sentences. And in many ways, brevity really is the soul of wit. If you’re using ten words when five would do the job, you’re not impressing anyone — you’re making it harder for readers to see your point.
Here’s my rough attempt at revising the previous Twilight passage, this time with the adverbs toned down and the verbs emphasized:
He jumped to his feet and disappeared, then reappeared beneath the tree, having circled the meadow in a half second.
“As if you could outrun me,” he laughed.
He reached for a two-foot-thick branch on the spruce and there came a deafening crack as he ripped it from the trunk.
… I’d never seen him so free of his facade. … But then his expression folded into a mask of ancient sadness.
“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured.
… With care, he inched toward me until we faced each other a foot apart.
OK, I have no idea if my revision is much better than the Twilight original. It’s still a teen vampire romance. But I will say this: The Twilight passage had 129 words. My version had 91 — about 30% less. In theory, this means the 498-page novel could be at least 150 pages shorter. But that’s another blog altogether.
The point of the revision is to show how writing can change with an emphasis on verbs instead of adverbs. Why say that he “sat sinuously” when we already know he has rippling muscles? Why say he “effortlessly ripped” the branch from the tree? Clearly, a guy who can rip a branch from a tree is crazy-strong, no matter how much effort he puts into it.
I could go on and on about this, but I’ll end with a reminder: If you see adverbs pop up often in your writing, go back and identify each one, then see if you can replace it with a strong verb — a solid action word. In many ways, actions speak louder than adverbs.
July 11, 2009
What is it to be snarky? Is it always a negative thing to be snarky? Can you be a snark? Are only women snarks? What does it mean to be snarktastic? Or a snarklepuss with snarkolepsy?
‘Snarky’ is a word that seems to mean different things to different people. I set out to write a post on what exactly this word means, but without access to the Oxford English Dictionary (at the very least!) I’m not going to attempt to be definitive. Especially now that the word is part of our everyday slang, it’s becoming harder to define because it’s being thrown around willy nilly. I personally think it’s gained popularity because it’s so fun to say, but maybe it’s happened because we as a people are getting snarkier (or should it be ‘more snarky’?).
I first heard the word about three years ago among friends from the East Coast. I took it to mean ‘bitingly funny’ — kind of like the mornings when I wake up grumpy and happen to say something that other people find really funny. This was confirmed when I heard Susan Isaacs‘ memoir, Angry Conversations with God, repeatedly described as ‘snarky.’
Another example of written snark (as I understand it) comes from the Fug Girls, bloggers who apparently make a living by chronicling the fashion foibles of the famous. And I quote:
“These are the ugliest harem pants ever created by human hands. In fact, I think they might have been created by INHUMAN hands. Yes, that’s right. I just floated the theory that Satan spends his spare time kicking back down in Hell, stitching wee pieces of picnic tablecloth to diaphanous white material, and cackling about the retina-searing, soul-inflaming, leg-havoc they will unleash on any weak mortal foolish enough to don them, and the accompanying horror that will wash over any innocent bystanders to said donning.”
But I know some take ‘snarky’ to mean ‘irritable’ or just flat-out bitchy, and there are plenty of other loose definitions. I hesitate to only go with a dictionary like Merriam-Webster on this one because it’s slang — it can pretty much mean whatever people want it to mean. So I guess this post is about the possibilities of ‘snark.’
The Urban Dictionary has a huge list of definitions for ‘snarky’ but when there are that many definitions it’s hard to really get a definite sense of what the word means. At the same time, I really dig this site A) because it’s pretty funny, and B) because it shows how this word has spread through our culture and language. One definition says it comes from the words ‘snide remark’ (magically morphed into ‘snark’), another says it’s from British slang meaning ’to nag, find fault with’, or ‘to snort, snore.’
My favorite part of the Urban Dictionary’s snark page is its long list of ways the word has morphed. Some of my favorites:
The list goes on and on, and I’m sure many of you could add to it. So let the Snarkolypmics begin! What does ‘snarky’ mean to you? What are the ways that you use it or have heard it used? What’s the funniest use of the word you’ve heard?
Other snark links:
- Merriam-Webster’s definition
- A bit on the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition
- A reference to what might be the first printed use of the word
Kudos to Sadie for giving me the idea for this post!