A Hero for Our Time(‘)s

I knew when I read about this masked vigilante who removes superfluous apostrophes from signs, that he should be recognized in a post on this site. The story also contains several hopeful pleas from ordinary civilians regarding other offending signs that have assaulted them (including some that do not involve punctuation errors). I personally wince but turn away from such mistakes on hand-made signs and in emails but take umbrage with professionally made signs and advertising materials that don’t understand how plurals actually work in English. If one pays for a job, one should be able to expect that the job will be done with competence. As for the authors of ‘free puppy’s’, I absolve you.

She Shrugged and Tossed Her Curls

Trying to keep readers from guessing your dominant gender? You would do well to take a peek at this piece reviewing a book in which 100 classic works, 50 by men and 50 by women, were analyzed for word frequency differences. Three of the words that most suggest yours truly is a woman (freely admitted) appear in the title of this post. The piece also points out that some authors, Vladimir Nabokov in particular, are more apt to mix it up in terms of word choice.

While I have never before reviewed research on this subject, I do have experience with gender evasiveness. When I joined writing.com several years ago (I’m no longer a member), I chose for a screen name the nickname of a masculine character from a book series I had been reading. I was experimenting, testing to see if commentary would run one way or another in response to my posts. With the fiction I posted, I took no special measures, but with the blog I kept, I avoided pronouns (sometimes tortuously) that would give away my gender or that of my spouse (those being the days when the likelihood of my spouse being the opposite gender was extremely strong). I must have had some success at convincing readers I was male because I did receive a comment or two scolding me for what struck the readers as sexist remarks made by a member of that group.

Being scolded by women while I posed as a man was not a novelty. In college I played a male character in a role-playing game, tipping the gender balance of our group, which was comprised of more women than men. Since my character tended to strike a protective pose with the women (more because they were less armored and had fewer weapons than because of any skill deficit), I often got complaints about patronizing behavior. To be fair, the men in the group scolded me for hanging back too much. I once got soundly trounced for choosing not to enter a pub by busting down the door, though I was fully capable of doing so and was apparently expected to exercise my abilities to their fullest at all times. The motto must have been: Why do anything without all your weapons drawn?

The only novel-length piece I have written in first voice was done through the eyes of a male character. I have no doubt that if I re-read that book with an eye to the language, I’d find my hero wandering in the same no-man’s land as my role-playing alter ego. I offer no apology for that, since, judging from the men I know in real life, gender is not a hard and fast determinant of your behavior or language. My own experiments aside, I also don’t believe that one gender is not capable of accessing and describing the experiences of the other. It may be that the 100 works chosen for the survey cited above were more exemplars of place and time (and of who could get published) than of true social rules.

Anyway, it’s exhausting carrying a crossbow everywhere.

A Little Talking-To About Hyphens

In another post, I noted that lost commas can be the root of drama. From this post about how lack of a hyphen nearly cost a job, we learn how still another bit of punctuation can be a make-or-break force.

I won’t take the conversation any further, except to recommend this “well-intentioned rant on hyphens” by the good people at The Atlantic. I’m exhausted from battling with them in a draft given to me by a colleague where the hyphens had migrated from their necessary places to forbidden territory. For example, “follow up,” which is a (sort of) verb, got turned into “follow-up,” which is a (sort of) noun, and vice-versa. (NOTE: the last reminds me of my husband’s story of working for a boss who ordered him to “not visa-verse things.”) At least like my Northeastern US-born husband and his “conservation of R’s” (saying “cah” for car and then  “dramar” for “drama”), the writer lost no hyphens.

The best advice comes from The Atlantic article: before you slap a hyphen in place, check whether it’s advisable to use one.

When Bad Words Go Gooder

Time magazine published a sidebar column tracing the history of a handful of words and phrases that have broken the rules of grammar and lived on in their improper form as acceptable formulations. One example is the word “contact,” which is now understood as a verb as well as a noun. The column describes those of us who care about grammar as “snapping their monocles” over change but we all understand that English is a living language and, like our children, changes over time, sometimes in ways that make us cringe. We still love you, Mother Tongue, you wily, complex, eccentric old thing.

Zeroize the Verbing of Innocent Nouns

So, here I am socializing this list of problematic words with my stakeholders….but since this sentence (while perfectly acceptable in my place of work) barely sounds like English, let me explain. Lake Superior State University reminds us they exist every year by publishing their annual list of words and phrases that have been overused and should be sent to the bench, the showers, or perhaps the airport with a one-way ticket. Many of those words appear in the opening segment of this post and two of my favorites from years past appear in the title.

I was appalled in reviewing the complete list to note how many of these have crept into my writing and my everyday vernacular. In my own defense, the list has been growing for 40 years and has managed to identify some intractable dandelions that have stuck with us in American English (example: “My Bad”) along with some withering violets that have faded from use (example: “Sit On It”).

Review this list carefully and do note that while you are there, you can apply for a Unicorn Hunting License. There are worse ways to support LSSU and good clean English usage…I guess.

Panicking is Permitted

A colleague sent around this link after one of our spelling cops virtually rapped him on the knuckles for a blooper on one of our reports.  This is a useful exposition on when to double your consonants for participles in English, with a brief note on the variation between British and American English. Apropos of the article, the “cop” replied “I apologise,” a spelling that trips my spell check here in the colonies but is perfectly fine across the pond. The typo-criminal above should take heart (and so should the rest of us), though, in this BBC news commentary (about “words spelt incorrectly,” another phrase that sets my spell check off). The writer suggests (despite oodles of articles to the contrary on LinkedIn, one of which she cites) that spelling errors are not a sign of stupidity but can be the opposite, a sign that the writer is a competent professional much more concerned with form and structure. Since senior management at most companies is not that enlightened however, we need our cops to keep watching.

P.S. Maybe, though, we don’t need to get as spastic as Weird Al does in “Word Crimes.”

Shaken and Stirred

I recently received this useful piece of advice from Larry Niven via a quote in an email:

If you want to know that the story you’re working on is saleable, try this: I tell it at a cocktail party. I dreamed up “The Flight of the Horse” one morning, outlined it that afternoon, and by that night was telling the tale to a clutch of cousins. I held their attention. I didn’t miss any points. I kept them laughing. The noise level didn’t drown out anything subtle and crucial. Then, of course, I knew how to write it down so I could mail it and sell it.

 I told the sequel the same way (“Leviathan!”) and sold it to Playboy for what was then fantastic money. 

 This makes for good memories. It’s also a useful technique. 

 Some of the best stories simply can’t be told this way, and I can’t help you write those. Nobody can. They are rule-breakers. Try some early Alfred Bester collections. But any story you can tell as a cocktail/dinner conversation, without getting confused and without losing your audience to distractions, is a successful story. 

—Larry Niven

If you’re like me and you don’t typically get into social situations where throwing out your latest story would be welcome, I’ve found walking through it aloud on my own can be helpful. I have even recorded my “pitch sessions.” EXTRA TIP: If you run through your pitch aloud in the car, stop talking to yourself at the stoplight, especially if you live in a state where cellphone use in cars is illegal and, like me, you work in the same building as the state police headquarters.