Watch your Modifiers

rogersgeorge on January 4th, 2017

Sometimes you can make your writing clearer by adding one or more modifiers. But be sure your added detail is necessary and meaningful. Saying you have a red car distinguishes it meaningfully from different cars (for example, of other colors) but often the word “different” by itself doesn’t carry a lot of content. The world being what it is, if you have another of something, it’s almost always a different one, so you’re not adding a lot of content to say “different.” I mentioned this in the past, so go there.

You have probably heard the tongue-in-cheek comment that someone is “a little bit pregnant.” Pregnancy is one of those things that either is or isn’t; you don’t have much choice of degree.

I just ran into another example of a not-very-meaningful modifier (emphasis mine):

It wasn’t however until Nov 1985 after a workshop that the first media report (in the NY Times) showed the NASA results (publishing another Oct 1983 map for a slightly different day).

They’re not talking about the weather, so I’m not sure that “slightly” means much. I mean, either its the same day or it’s a different day, right? Like being pregnant. Maybe they could be more explicit, saying something like “another day in the same week.”

Anyway, here’s the warning: Pay attention to your writing. And a tip: if you at all can, reread your work the next day. You’ll be able to give it a fresh look.

PS—Since I thought of it, I’ll add that Greek has an interesting way of handling “different.” They have two words, heteros, which means “another of a different kind.” Apples are heteros from horses, if you will. The other is allos, which means “another of the same kind.” My car is allos from your car.

Okay, back to work.

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Another Comic about Language

rogersgeorge on July 11th, 2016

Not exactly a lesson here, but clever. The strip is Soup to Nutz by Rick Stromoski.

Soup to Nutz

The second cell reminds me of one of my kid sister’s favorite jokes: “Is it mucus? No! it’s snot!”

I have to point out two things that he got right. “It’s” is spelled correctly, and he didn’t say “two different ways.”

Three Unnecessary Words

rogersgeorge on June 27th, 2016

Usually unnecessary, anyway. Not counting “please,” see a recent post. My term for unnecessary words is fluff. Don’t write fluff.

Successfully. If you did something successfully, you did it. No need to add “successfully.” Here’s a recent headline I saw in Inside Climate News:

Iceland Experiment Successfully Turns CO2 Emissions into Rock

Some might argue that the word implies that the success was a surprise, but face it—the headline works just fine without “successfully,” and turning a gas into rock would be surprising in any case.

I see a lot of pages on which a person applies for a job. They usually end with something like

Congratulations. You have successfully submitted your application for the position of whatchamacallit with our company.

Why not say something like “We got your application and we’ll take a look at it.”? (see an earlier post about using the future tense to be vague.)

Different. When you mention two (or more) things, you often don’t gain anything by saying they’re different, unless the difference is the point. Usually, if they’re different enough to enumerate, you have already made them enough different that you don’t need to say so.

The farm has two different bulls.
The farm has two bulls.

His wife has twenty-four different chickens.
His wife has twenty-four chickens.

There are two ways to hold a trombone.
There are two different ways to hold a trombone.

Conciseness is a virtue. (Technically it’s “concision,” but it’s also a virtue to be clear.)

Totally. I was talking with my daughter (not the one who wrote the guest post) about unnecessary words, and she suggested “totally.” If something is so, it’s totally so unless you say otherwise. Since a lot of things can be incompletely so, be sure to say so.

The poor creature was dead
The poor creature was totally dead.
The poor creature was half dead.

Unless you’re  Valley Girl, totally.

Three small mistakes

rogersgeorge on January 13th, 2012

(My apologies to those of you who got the unfinished version of this post a couple days ago. I clicked the wrong button, and I could not stop the RSS feed.)

So many of these little mistakes exist, I would make you cross-eyed if I tried to cover more than about three at a time, and you would forget most of them anyway. So here are three, and they are similar. That should help you remember them. They all involve using unnecessary words.

I call these sorts of things the Hard Part of Writing, by the way, because they are items that require you to think about what you’re writing to get them correct.

Rule 1. When you use “additional,” be sure you need it. I recently read an article about being persuasive. Among the article’s good advice was a comment to use a headline, and then write a paragraph that supports the headline with additional details. What’s wrong with that? A headline does not have details. It’s a headline! The details are not additional. So:

Write a headline, then write a paragraph that supports the headline with details.

That’s not only cleaner, it’s truer.

Rule 2. When you use “different,” be sure you need it. You encounter this mistake when you see writers make informal lists. “Ten different people friended me  after I told my doggie story.” Get rid of that “different,” and you have a cleaner sentence. It goes without saying (if you think) that you wouldn’t be writing about ten of the same person. Since they have to be different people, you don’t have to say so.

Ten people friended me after I told my doggie story.

I could have used “circled me” in the example, but then it would have been a hundred people, and some of them would have been really different, if you know what I mean.

Rule 3. The third little mistake is saying what you’re going to say. Perhaps you see these unnecessary words most in expressions such as “I’d like to say (thank you for all these wonderful gifts)…”  and “I just want to say that (you’re the best audience ever)…” These introductory expressions are unnecessary. (I was going to say “totally unnecessary” but “totally” is as unnecessary as “different”). They are a way of stepping back from actually saying what you have on your mind by saying that you’re going to say it. Just say what you want to say.

Thank you for all these wonderful gifts. You are the best audience ever.

More personal, direct, and straightforward, isn’t it? Since this is the Hard Part of Writing, I have an assignment for you: Write a short paragraph of nice things about someone, and see how many unnecessary words you can leave out. You have permission to send it to them.