Empty Words

This is a follow-up to my previous post about redundant words. Today I’m going to alert you to some unnecessary words that can creep into your writing and clog your sentences.

But first I want to issue a warning. Eliminating empty words is a key to good writing – but it’s not the only one.

If you (like me) often look at writing guides, you’ll see that they’re full of warnings about redundancies like “Jewish rabbi” (of course the rabbi is Jewish!) and “in the event that” (if works just as well). Sometimes it seems that redundancy is the only problem that writers should watch for.

Not true! Crisp, powerful sentences are only one of the keys to effective writing. You also need logic, clarity, and flow – and attaining those qualities isn’t easy.

It’s fun to rewrite an absurd sentence like “The fluid supply in my writing implement is exhausted” (“My pen is out of ink”). It’s a lot harder to write a sentence that impresses you with its power.

OK – back to empty words!

Really, very, absolutely – There’s no difference between an interesting book and a really interesting book – or between a wonderful movie and an absolutely wonderful movie.

Quite, rather, somewhat – I hate these words. “Mr. Jeffries is rather nice.” He either is or he isn’t! Ditch “rather.”

Currently – There’s no difference between “I currently live in Florida” and “I live in Florida.”

Existing – Usually unnecessary. “Existing palms may be attacked by the palmetto weevil.” If the trees didn’t exist, the weevils couldn’t attack them!

Actually, literally – Usually unnecessary.

You should also watch for unneeded announcements: In my opinion, I am going to discuss, I believe, It’s clear that, Needless to say. Here’s my favorite example: someone will say, “Can I ask a question?” My invariable response is, “You just did!”

Here are two more examples of wording you usually don’t need:

Whereupon (“He fell to the floor, whereupon I called 911.” I would write, “When he fell to the floor, I called 911.”)

Proceeded to (“After my friends left, I proceeded to clear the dishes and put away the snacks.” My version: “After my friends left, I cleared the dishes and put away the snacks.”)

A fuel tank on empty

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Redundant…or Not?

Suppose you were an editor. Would you change anything in this sentence?

I talked to three different people on the phone before I found someone who could answer my question.

I would delete “different.” If you talked to three people, of course they were different! Unnecessary words clog sentences, robbing them of vigor and power. “Omit needless words” is one of Strunk & White’s most important rules. 

But sometimes you should ignore that rule. And – truth to tell – you have to ignore that rule many times every day. Redundancy and repetition are built into our language, for good reasons. The trick is to know when to use a tight, spare sentence and when to allow some repetition.

What – for example – would you do with this sentence?

He takes his daughter to day care on Mondays and Fridays.

I like it just the way it is, and I wouldn’t change anything. But – technically speaking – it’s redundant because it tells you three times that there’s one person (he, takes, his – all singular). And it tells you twice that he’s male (he, his).

If you’re thinking that you have to say his daughter – that’s not true. Finnish doesn’t have gender pronouns!

The English language wants that redundancy (he takes his). And many of our everyday sentences have similar hidden redundancies. Why?

Here’s the reason. We don’t always speak and read in perfect conditions. Someone nearby is streaming music. A thunderstorm, or loud traffic, or a conversation at the next table is creating background noise. We’re distracted by something, or the handwriting is bad, or we’re tired. Maybe there’s a bad phone connection. All those issues can interfere with a spoken or written message. A little extra repetition ensures that you won’t miss anything.

When you think about it, it’s amazing how many messages get through perfectly. And we can thank our language for that.

So – when is redundancy ok, and when should we get rid of it?

There’s no absolute answer – but I have a suggestion: look for empty words that can often be deleted from sentences: different people, respective , end result, final decision, exact same, existing – and so on. In my next post I’ll give you more examples.

But what about phrases like climb up, cut out, and explain about? And can you say that Joan and Jim were doing the cha cha together? I would probably leave those extra words in for emphasis.

Can you disagree? Of course. Sometimes I can’t make up my mind whether to remove a word or leave it in. What I do is to try it both ways and see which I like better.

What’s important is that you’re thinking about your word choices. That extra step automatically sets you apart from most people – and moves you closer to your goal of becoming an exceptional writer. It’s well worth the small extra effort!

frustrated man on the phone

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The Chicken or the Egg?

Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

And which came first –  English or English grammar?

Before I offer an answer, I’m going to talk about…ballroom dancing. I own an instructional video about foxtrot (my favorite dance!) done by Stephen Hillier, one of the world’s best ballroom dancers.

Two points that Hillier makes in the video have stuck in my head (and I think have relevance to our question about language vs. grammar).

Like all serious ballroom dancers, I’ve worked my way through the prescribed curriculum. One of the hardest steps is called a heel turn. Every woman who does international foxtrot struggles with it.

But according to Hillier, there is no heel turn. 

What he means is that nobody set out to invent a heel turn. It came about all by itself on the dance floor when couples were searching for a way to move from one particular spot on the floor to another. It worked so well that the couples who figured it out began showing it to other couples. Now all female ballroom dancers learn it.

Another surprise was learning how the ballroom curriculum originated. According to Hillier, some early ballroom enthusiasts decided they needed to codify the steps they were doing. Their solution was to hold a ballroom competition. The steps done by the couple who won provided the foundation for the curriculum.

So – what came first, the technique or the dance? The dance.

* * * * * *

Back to English. I’ve been thinking about an intriguing question I saw online. In the sentence below, is tall an adjective – or an adverb?

Trees grow tall in this forest.

Several dictionaries I checked listed “tall” only as an adjective. So what do we do with this sentence? Trees really do grow. If they can grow “thickly” (an adverb) why can’t they grow “tall”?

Lo and behold, I eventually found a source that does list tall as an adverb: The American Heritage Dictionary (which happens to be my favorite dictionary!).

* * * * * *

If you’ve hung in so far, thank you! Thank you!

Here’s the point I’ve been leading up to: Language always comes first. If I may paraphrase Stephen Hillier, there is no grammar. We have words and sentences. Someone comes along and tries to codify them.

In the small world of ballroom dancing, that organizational system works out well. But in the much larger realm of language, some elements resist our efforts to pin them down – the word tall, for example, which most dictionaries don’t list as an adverb even though it can clearly act as one.

Which came first – language or grammar? – is an interesting question. But we should be asking another question; Which is more important: language or grammar?

chick and egg

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Make Your Sentences Move!

If you want to be a successful author, you need to write powerful sentences. Today I’m going to offer a simple strategy for writing sentences that move. Here it is: strip away words that slow down the sentence.

Below is a list of heavy, plodding words that tend to sneak into sentences. You think you’re building power when you use them, but often the opposite happens: your sentence slows down.

Here’s the list: all at once, began to, eventually, immediately, just then, might, proceeded to, started to, suddenly, then

Please note that I’m not warning you against using them. (I sometimes use them myself!) What I’m asking is that you stop and think first. Read the sentence both ways – with the questionable word or expression, and then without it. Which version sounds better? And are there other changes you can make?

Taking that extra step immediately sets you apart for the average writer. Try it!

Here are some examples:

He saw Janey and proceeded to scoop her up in his arms.

The moment he saw Janey, he scooped her up in his arms.  BETTER

The dog ran to the door, barking furiously. Then Susan heard banging.

The dog ran to the door, barking furiously. Susan heard banging.  BETTER

As she fumbled with the doorknob, the packages tumbled from her arms all at once.

As she fumbled with the doorknob, the packages tumbled from her arms.  BETTER

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All about Prepositions

[Today’s guest writer is my friend Kelly Pomeroy. I enjoyed a recent exchange of ideas with Kelly so much that I asked her to do a guest post.]

 We’ve often heard that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. This arbitrary rule may have originated with 17th Century British author John Dryden, who greatly admired Latin – a language which did not provide for prepositions at the ends of clauses – and tried to apply its rules to English.

This thinking was picked up by Robert Lowth, an 18th Century British Anglican clergyman and biblical scholar who undertook to write a comprehensive grammar of English. He acknowledged that ending a sentence or clause with a preposition was in fact what people were doing, and that it served quite well. But perhaps he was deferring to Dryden when he added that “the placing of the Preposition before the Relative [its object] is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.”

But is it really more graceful to say “that’s the answer for which I’m looking” than “that’s the answer I’m looking for”?  No, it’s clumsy and odd-sounding.

Substitute the sentence “that’s not what I’m looking for” and there’s no way you can even rearrange it and still have passable English. “That’s not that for which I’m looking”? Try that one out if you want to receive some really odd looks.

Good English sounds natural, not contorted or “hypercorrect.” Competent writers know that and do not try to adhere to phony rules that serve only to interrupt the flow of their words.

P.S. Here are some specific examples of poor English written by people who should know better:

NASA 8/9/17:  “The best Perseid performance of which we are aware occurred back in 1993, when the peak Perseid rate topped 300 meteors per hour.”

Vice News 11/19/16:  It’s one of many economic challenges with which the government has been unable to deal….

MidSouth Week in Review 5/16/2017 “There is an app called ‘Moodies’, which can already tell in which mood you are.”

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A Question Mark in a Quotation

Here’s a thorny usage issue: where does the question mark go in a quotation – before or after the quotation marks?

For example, suppose you’re writing a short story about a party. The host – let’s call him Bob – whispers a question to Mary, one of the guests. Mary’s husband is suspicious about the whispering and wants to know what was going on. He soon finds out it was perfectly innocent – Bob just wanted to know the name of one of the other guests.

Would you put the question mark inside – or outside? And is there a hard-and-fast rule? 

What I do is to think about the speaker’s voice. Everything inside the quotation marks belongs to the speaker. Since Bob had a question mark in his voice, I would put the question mark inside the quotation marks:

Bob whispered, “Mary, do you know the name of the woman in the corner who’s wearing a red suit?”  CORRECT

Now let’s try a different situation. I have a line of poetry in my head – “But I have promises to keep.” I think Robert Frost wrote it, but I’m not sure. I call my friend Jane. Here’s my question: 

Did Robert Frost write the line, “But I have promises to keep”?  CORRECT

There’s no question in Robert Frost’s voice, so I put the question mark outside.

The same principle works for exclamation marks. In the sentence below, there’s excitement in Clare’s voice, so I’m going to put the exclamation mark inside the quotation marks:

The first thing Clare said to me was, “I’m so happy to see you!” CORRECT

Now let’s look at a different situation. A store manager refused to give me a refund that I think I’m entitled to. He was speaking calmly. I’m the one who expresses shock:

I can’t believe the manager told me, “You’re not entitled to a refund”! CORRECT

Let’s try a few more:

Joe asked, “What time is the show supposed to end?” CORRECT

Did Marilyn say, “I’ll probably be 30 minutes late tomorrow”? CORRECT

When we’d finished dessert, Sally said, “What a great meal!”  CORRECT

After we’d spent the whole weekend helping George, he didn’t even say “Thank you”!

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An English Teacher Corrects a Letter from Donald Trump

An English teacher recently marked up a letter from President Donald Trump, took a picture of her corrections, and posted the marked-up result on Facebook. You can read the letter and see her corrections at this link: https://nyti.ms/2J6Ambs

She’s…wrong, on many counts:

  • Her folksy feedback (such as “Have ya’ll tried grammar and style check,” yellow highlighting, and “OMG!”) isn’t organized for clarity
  • I couldn’t figure out why she highlighted “I hosted,” “I brought together,” and “I signed into law”
  • Her complaints about incomplete information (“explain rule,” “which agency?”) have nothing to do with grammar and style
  • The alleged mistakes in capitalization (Nation, Federal, State, President) are actually prescribed practices for government correspondence, according to a style manual obtained by the New York Times. In fact those capital letters appear in letters signed by Presidents Bush and Obama.

Here’s what I found most interesting: Ms. Mason (the English teacher who wrote the letter) isn’t such a stickler herself. I was surprised to read this comment she made afterwards: “If someone is capable of doing better, they should do better.” That’s a violation of the prohibition against using a singular “they” that’s been taught in schools and colleges for more than 200 years. (Many teachers and editors would insist on changing the sentence to “he or she should do better.”)

I’ve abandoned that rule myself, so I don’t have any problem with her version. But when you’re yelling at other people – publicly! – about their alleged mistakes, I think you’d better be on your best behavior yourself.

What are my own thoughts about the original letter from the White House? One big positive is that the letter begins warmly – “Thank you for taking the time to share your views….” (I still get business letters that begin with an archaic opening like “This is in reference to…..” Gack.)

I’m also impressed that the sentences and paragraphs are well constructed,  and there are specific examples to illustrate the points in the letter.

For me, the sole negative – and it’s a big one – is that the letter doesn’t even mention the suggestion Ms. Mason made in her original letter – that President Trump should visit the families of the Parkland shooting victims. Our English teacher has a legitimate gripe there.

But grammar and style? Nope – not from where I’m sitting.

_________________________________________________

Update: The President and First Lady visited the Parkland victims in February – well before the White House letter was written in May. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/trump-visits-parkland-shooting-victims-florida-hospital-n848826

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Project Semicolon

Project Semicolon is a suicide prevention organization that is saving lives:

A message about preventing suicide

I applaud this compassionate group!

I hope they (and you!) won’t mind if I use their lifesaving message as a springboard to talk about two important usage issues.

1.  This isn’t quite how authors use semicolons. I’ve known students (and – sigh – a few professional writers!) who think a semicolon is a cure for a long sentence. You get out a ruler, find the midpoint, and stick a semicolon there. Problem solved!

Nope. A semicolon is like a period. Here’s what you do: find two sentences that go together. Change the period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter (unless the word requires a capital letter – Jane, October, Delaware).

Linda is excited about her new car. She invited all of us to go for a drive yesterday.  CORRECT

Linda is excited about her new car; she invited all of us to go for a drive yesterday.  CORRECT

2. Sticklers may have had a mild heart attack when they saw “could’ve chosen to end their life.” I – myself – have written two textbooks telling students to use his or her in this context. When you use they for one person – “an author could have chosen to end their sentence” – you’re committing a usage error called the “singular they.” At least that’s what students have been told for the past 200+ years.

That rule is starting to fall by the wayside, and many people – including me! – couldn’t be happier about it. I would leave “chosen to end their sentence” just the way it is. You can read more about the demise of the singular “they” here.

A word cloud about compassion

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My Fair Lady

I’m in New York! A couple of nights ago, a friend and I went to see a lavish production of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center. (They had a two-story house onstage – and it revolved!) My Fair Lady is based, of course, on Shaw’s wonderful play Pygmalion.

Shaw scholars sometimes gnash their teeth when My Fair Lady is mentioned. Shaw hated the idea of turning his play into a musical, and the Shaw estate had to wait until he died to bring My Fair Lady to Broadway. Along the way, Shaw’s edgy and provocative play became tamer and more conventional.

I’m a Shaw scholar myself, but I have a much more friendly attitude towards My Fair Lady. It was, after all, my first introduction to Shaw – and it’s a wonderful play with a glorious score.

But it’s not Shaw. Friday night I noticed something for the first time in “Why Can’t the English,” a song from the show. Henry Higgins is bewailing the sad state of the English language, and he sings, “In America, they haven’t used it for years.”

No linguistics expert would ever say that, and neither would Shaw himself. I’m an American, and I don’t think there’s anything in this post that’s inferior to British English – or even significantly different.

Yes, there are differences in spelling and pronunciation when you cross the Atlantic Ocean. But that doesn’t mean one side of that body of water is right and the other side is wrong. Shaw would never have taken that snobbish position.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Here’s one of many reasons I adore Shaw: he thought New York accents were “elegant.” Yikes! I’ve always been ashamed of mine, and I’ve struggled – in vain – to erase it. My accent is a dead giveaway that I grew up on Long Island and attended public schools. I do not (sigh) have a classy accent.

But here’s what’s funny. If you didn’t grow up in New York, an accent like mine is extremely difficult to imitate. (Ask any actor!)

People think “boyd” is the New York pronunciation for bird. Nope! What we actually say sounds something like “buh-eed.” There are all kinds of subtleties like this embedded in our accent. Another feature of a New York accent is that we turn most of our vowels into diphthongs. And – famously – we often drop the r in words.

I suspect that all regional accents have these subtleties – and they all carry a linguistic history. I’ve been told that my New York accent originated in – of all places – Ireland and was brought here by immigrants.

If you’re a Beatles fan, you probably know that people from Liverpool tend to make the word book rhyme with Luke. (The boo– sounds like a Halloween boo.) That pronunciation proves they’re not educated, right?

Wrong. Book-rhymes-with-Luke is actually the original pronunciation. It died out in most places in England but lived on in Liverpool. So our Liverpudlian friends can snobbishly claim that they’re more authentic than the rest of us.

So – yes, I have a stubborn New York accent. But I also have an enlightened and respectful attitude towards other people’s speech habits, and that is something I can be proud of. Besides, Shaw thought my accent was “elegant.” So there!

                             My Fair Lady

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How about It?

It is one of the trickiest words in the English language. Sometimes it has a definite meaning: “It needs more salt” clearly refers to food, and “It matches your eyes” probably has something to do with jewelry or clothing. But what about a sentence like “It looks like rain”? What does it refer to?

Luckily you and I don’t have to philosophize about what it means – we can leave that thorny question to the linguistics experts. There’s a simple rule of thumb for using it correctly. Here it is…uh…Here’s the rule:

If it starts with “it,” it’s a sentence.

Elegant, isn’t it?

This lovely little rule will help you avoid run-on sentences and various other writing sins. Let’s look at some examples:

The dress is lovely, it will be perfect for the party.  WRONG

The dress is lovely. It will be perfect for the party.  RIGHT

You’ll need your umbrella, it looks like rain.  WRONG

You’ll need your umbrella. It looks like rain.  RIGHT.

If you’re afraid that your sentences are too short, change the period to a semicolon (and get rid of the capital letter, of course):

The dress is lovely; it will be perfect for the party.

You’ll need your umbrella; it looks like rain.

It (hah!) isn’t difficult to use it correctly when you apply this little rule. Try it!

umbrella

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