Monday, April 13, 2015

Weak Word Habits

***This post originally appeared on Katherine Harms' blog January 27, 2015.

Scholarly analysis speculates that there are at least 250,000 distinct words in the English language, and some methods of counting distinct meanings produce an estimate three times as large. If that word count is even approximately true, why do writers and speakers use so few of them? When I edit book manuscripts, despite the broad spectrum of subjects and genres in those manuscripts, some words and phrases pop up everywhere, and many are terribly overused.

Overuse of any phrase annoys readers. A phrase that recurs on every page of a book starts to feel like sand in a flip-flop at the beach. If it is annoying the first time, it soon becomes a major hassle. A writer who annoys his readers on every page soon loses the readers. Even such a simple element as a repeated form of inflection such as –ing, or a suffix such as –ly, can make a reader wish for fly spray.

My husband is an avid reader of action and thriller novels. Several months ago he picked up a book by a writer new to him. After slogging through page after annoying page littered with adverbs that ended in –ly, he made the decision not to read any more books by that author. He liked the story very much, but he could not make himself read another page full of words ending in –ly.

I recently edited a wonderful story by a new author. Her plot had interesting twists and turns. Her characters were credible. The idea around which the story was constructed was engaging. She had no spelling errors, very few punctuation errors, and almost no grammatical errors. The most prominent problem in her story was that she narrated each speech with the same speech tag: as he or as she. Her scenes sound something like this: A character named Ellen is arguing with her boss. “You never listen to my side of the story,” Ellen said as she slammed her notebook on the desk.

“Well, you never pay any attention to the rules,” said Margaret as she stood up and pointed to the door.

This device for describing the scene is legitimate, but if it is the only way the writer portrays dialogue throughout a long book, the reader will tire of it. This author actually varied the actions frequently, but this phrase was repeated in every dialogue. Use of this phrase is not in itself a writing error. However, a reader does not want to read that every character spoke “as he” did something. There are many different ways to set speech inside the story. Overuse of any device wearies the reader.

Some problems occur in almost every manuscript. For example, many writers say that a character “ended up” somewhere. The phrase end up has become a common element of conversational speech. When writers incorporate it in stories or blog posts, it sounds comfortable and folksy. It does not sound professional. If a writer wants to sound as if he is speaking conversationally with the reader, the phrase end up to express arrival at some point or destination is acceptable. However, if a writer wants to sound authoritative when writing about a complex subject, or if a writer wants the prose of his novel to express his art, he will find some other way to construct the sentence that contains the phrase end up.

Here are some examples of the way the phrase "end up" appears in the writing of both beginners and experienced writers.

Problem: A dangerous mistake can end up costing you.
Improvement: A mistake may be expensive or even dangerous.

Problem: A counselor may end up with a skewed view of himself.
Improvement: A counselor’s view of himself may become skewed.

A sentence may have more than one issue.

Problem: Counselors may end up with a skewed view of themselves.
This sentence not only includes the weak, overused phrase end up, but it also includes a number problem.

counselors (plural) may end up with view (singular) of themselves (plural).

The subject “counselors” is not a group that acts as one, such as a national association of counselors. The association might end up with a single view by engaging in a deliberate effort to reach consensus, but a number of individual counselors will end up with various individual views. Both the phrase end up and the inconsistent number of subject and object must be revised in order to improve the sentence.

Improvement: Counselors may develop skewed views of themselves.
Some sentences have so many problems that the idea must be extracted and completely rephrased.

Problem: At some point in everyone’s life they’re going to end up in a cave.
What is wrong with this sentence?

First, it includes the weak and overused phrase "end up."

Further, the word everyone is singular, but the pronoun referring to it is they, which is plural. In daily conversation, people who fear being called out for sexism struggle to say anything that will not be criticized, and in the process, they fall upon the usage of third person plural as the generic for the singular of either gender. It is extremely common in conversation, and even professional writers of news copy have begun using this device. There are some situations where no other alternative is really available, but this sentence is such an utter disaster, that a writer should simply keep in mind that his writing goal is to engage the reader with his ideas, not to send the reader into the throes of gender activism.

The phrase "end up" cannot be valued even for adding color. A novelist writing dialogue can credibly use this phrase, because it sounds natural in dialogue. A person writing a book or even a blog post on the subject of life skills will have no reason to waste a moment of the reader’s attention on meaningless words and phrases. A nonfiction writer might use the metaphor of a cave for things such as addictive behavior or depression. He will not waste the precious reading time of his target audience with such an empty phrase as end up.

Improvement: Hardly anyone lives a normal life without spending some time in a cave.
Many words and phrases heard commonly in conversation have no place in writing outside dialogue. The reason is that sentences in conversations are created on the fly. People rarely examine a spoken sentence and repeat an edited version of it. When spoken words create confusion in the hearers, people use both actions and words to clarify meaning. Writers, on the other hand, usually have the freedom to examine what they wrote and make it better before they need to share it with a reader.

When a writer uses the phrase "is going to," he normally is talking about something in that will happen in the future or he may be discussing a predictable outcome. He might even use the phrase to talk about something constant. The sentence below describes qualities required in an effective advertisement:

Problem: A well balanced ad is going to need both the intellectual and visual to make the most impact.

The phrase "is going to" in this sentence simply replaces an auxiliary verb. The problem with this phrase can be eliminated by replacing it with the word will. To do so replaces a phrase of general usage with a more specific verb for future tense. However, as soon as the writer sees the flow of the sentence “ad will need both” he is likely to realize that this statement is a statement of a universal principle. It is true in the past, the present and the future. Hence the best way to improve the statement is to say,” . . . ad needs both . . . .”

Additionally, The Chicago Manual of Style prefers hyphenation for the phrase well balanced.

Good writing uses parallelism for smoother flow, and in this sentence, it improves parallelism to use the article “the” for both objects of the verb need.

Finally, the closing infinitive phrase to make the most impact sounds disconnected, because the reader is focused on a well-balanced ad. The place to make the point that well-balanced ads have more impact than those that are not well balanced is in the introduction of the need for balance. This sentence is about achieving the balance.

Improvement: A well-balanced ad needs both the intellectual and the visual.

Most good writers can write coherent copy in their sleep. However, if they yearn to write books and blog posts that glue people to the page—or the screen—then they must revise and rewrite. The content of this post addresses few real grammatical errors. The problems are not elementary. These improvements make the difference between correct writing and good writing.

Think about your own work. Do you habitually use weak or inexact phrases? What are your word habits? When was the last time you cleared away foggy writing and crafted something powerful and beautiful in its place? Share your experience in comments.

****Katherine Harms is an editor who can be found:

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