Category Archives: Lessons in Language

The Weasel-word Edit

weaselwordleWhen I’m writing a first draft, I use certain words and phrases far too much, trying to capture the image and tone in my head for the page. Some scenes play out like a movie in my mind’s eye and I end up too prone to minute stage directions, to expressions that qualify and prevaricate and waver where no such words are required. Sometimes, common grammatical functions in speech are a disservice in their written form.

When I edit other people’s work (which I do from time to time) I’m relieved to find that I’m not the only one who uses all that unnecessary verbiage.

But those extra words – those weasely, prevaricating, wishy-washy words that don’t add to the story, or worse, drain it of energy and impact – still need to be edited out.

Not every single example meets the Red Editing Pen of Death, though. Like all words, they are useful and important in their correct time and place.  The test for me is usually – can I take out those extra words without changing the meaning? Does the sentence have more impact/more truth with or without them? If deletion is an improvement, out it goes.

But what are these weasel words, exactly, and why do they make such a difference?

The Qualifiers

Words and expressions like: just, rather, probably, maybe, possibly, perhaps, a little, a bit, kind of and sort of all serve to diminish the intensity of the words around them. And sometimes that’s exactly what you want – particularly in speech, or in a person’s direct thoughts, because humans tend to tippy-toe around some ideas and prevarication is exactly what you want to convey.

But a lot of the time, that’s just you, the writer, not fully committing to the idea.  Here are a few example from my most recent novel-in-progress, Ravenfall.

  • James sort of shrugged. –> James shrugged.
    Really – what is ‘sort of’ about lifting your shoulders?
  • Gabriel hugged him a little harder. –> Gabriel hugged him harder
    Hugging is happening. Degrees of huggage hardness are not important at this point.

Filter Words

Suzannah Windsor recently wrote a blog about eliminating filter words, bringing my own focus closer to verbs about perception that can put distance between the character and the things they experience. Verbs like think, feel, look, see, sound

  • Michael in fact sounded far from astonished to hear from his brother. –>
    Michael was in fact far from astonished to hear from his brother.

    Saying that he only sounded unsurprised might suggest it’s a front. But Michael’s well used to his brother’s random and sporadic phone calls.
  • He felt the skin along his spine, his neck, his scalp, crawl with apprehension. –>
    The skin along his spine, his neck, his scalp, crawled with apprehension.

    He’s not simply feeling it; it’s actually happening to him. Remove the filter and his reaction is more immediate.

Grammatical Filler

In speech we often use filler terms at the start of sentences – commonly ‘there are/is/were’ or It is/was’. Most of the time, however, in these contexts ‘there’ and ‘it’ don’t refer to anything else. They don’t stand in for a known noun (though perhaps that’s coming up later in the sentence). Often, they only exist as a way to begin a sentence and they’re only putting more words between your story and your reader.

  • There are days when the shell is very thin. –> The shell is very thin on some days.
    Shorter, more direct, and it goes to the subject more quickly.
  • There are other interpretations to be placed on your visions. –>
    Other interpretations can be placed on your visions.

    Once more we are right into the heart of it, without the ’empty calories’ of a phrase with no direct reference.

Useless Extra Moments

I have a terrible tendency to say that someone ‘paused a moment’ or ‘considered for a moment’ or ‘waited a bit’. Frankly, pausing is already obviously only for a moment, so why weigh it down with more moments?

He paused, she considered, they waited – none of them need a second longer or any refining of their activity.

Padding Prepositions

English is a funny thing. One reason it has such range is our habit of adding prepositions to verbs to make whole new verbs. Pass up, pass out, pass something out, pass away and pass by all have very different meanings. These structures, called phrasal verbs, are really useful. Most of the time. But the difference between sit and sit down is minimal. Are you adding prepositions to verbs that don’t need them?

Also, sometimes characters look up or down or over or across at other characters and things, but the preposition isn’t always useful or necessary. If everyone is always looking up at everyone else, how can you tell who is the shortest?

Tics

All of us have our own writing tics. I tend to write people as nodding, turning, smiling, sighing and frowning way too often, so I search for those terms too, deleting any that are unnecessary or otherwise implied. They only get to stay if they indicate a shift in mood or status or their reaction needs emphasis.

The Weasel-Word Edit

When I have my first draft down and solid, I read it again and jot down words that are clearly overused, along with my regular weasel-word list. Then I search my word file. The number of times a word appears can be a huge surprise. I almost halved the appearance of ‘a moment’ from one draft to the next, and people only do a third as much frowning now.

Never Say Never

As you can see, I didn’t eliminate frowning or moments (or any other words or phrases on my hit list) completely. People are rarely so crisp in speech, so some of these terms still appear in dialogue when it’s appropriate to the character, situation and mood. A good deal of scowling, frowning and blinking still occurs. The story is full of vampires, werewolves, precognitive dreams and a flighty artist. Scowling, frowning and blinking are inevitable under the circumstances.

Don’t blanket-delete words from your list, because every word, no matter how weasely it sometimes appears, has its place in the scheme of things.

I’ve included a list of the words that I have on my weasel-word edit list. Perhaps it can help you to tighten up or polish your manuscript. The list isn’t definitive, so add your own tics and linguistic bad habits, and cross off the sins you don’t commit.

Happy editing!


Weasel-word list

  • a moment, a while, a little, a bit, sort of, kind of
  • just, rather, pretty sure, fairly, some, still
  • perhaps, maybe, probably, possibly, really
  • there are, there were, there’s, there is, it’s, it is, it was, does+verb
  • look, like, feel, felt, sound, seem, think, wonder
  • nod, smile, blink, sigh, frown, scowl
  • up, down, over, across, around

Adulting like a pro

Blog adultingI know I go on a bit about the correct use of language, but I’m not a complete stick-in-the-mud. Language evolves, I know. New words come in, archaic ones get shown the door and you only need to know them when you’re reading Austen or Conan Doyle or Shakespeare.

For all that, I’m very fond of the dynamic way language is thrown about and sometimes stretched into weird shapes in contemporary language – particularly in online communities. As long as the use (or misuse) communicates the intended message, turning an adjective into a noun or vice versa can add a robust energy to an observation or exchange. I like language to be fun and full of energy. I like it to surprise and delight me.

Not every new word is a delight, of course. I was recently introduced to ‘upweighting’ – which essentially means to put more investment into the promotion of a particular product or service to improve the item’s public profile or success. I don’t like the term because it’s vague. It didn’t communicate its meaning clearly to me. I had to have it explained because I had no idea what it meant, even contextually.

Actually, when I first heard it, I thought the term was ‘upwaiting’ and assumed it meant to handball a task to someone else up the chain to procrastinate on doing anything with it. I liked *that* version of the word. It was playful and descriptive, I thought. But alas, no, the truth was dull in comparison.

But I have adopted a new word: a delightful language twist I keep seeing on Tumblr.

I first found it in a post that said something like:

“I’m surrounded by all these teens doing stupid things and
I thought there should be an adult here to keep them in line.
Then I realised. OMG. That’s me. I’m the adult here.
BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO ADULT!”

I think it’s a perfectly glorious thing, to have turned ‘adult’ from a noun into a verb. In the context in which I see it, ‘adulting’ has a new and particular meaning that infers that behaving like an adult is a strange and difficult thing, an arcane skill to be learned. It implies that most so-called adults you see are still children inside, and that they have either magically grown into the skills of being a grown-up or else are faking it like mad. They are adulting like pros, even though they are still basically 12 and constantly scared of botching all their responsibilities.

Some people take to adulting like a duck to water. Some seem to be steeped in the behaviour from the time they’re seven years old. Some people get to grand old age, not only never knowing how to adult, but never knowing that they should learn. They are still, essentially, bawling, selfish five year olds refusing to share their toys and having tantrums any time they don’t get their way.

But most of us I think learn how to adult to lesser and greater degrees. Some days it comes easier than others, and our success depends on the circumstances and experience.

Mostly, I adult like a pro. I earn a living and pay the bills and take responsibility for my life and my choices.

But frankly, I still feel many days as though I’m faking it. Inside, I’m still just a kid looking for adventure and running through the world like it’s a playground. I talk too loud and too fast, I eat sometimes foods like it’s going out of style and I take a giddy delight in the things I’m passionate about, incautious in my enthusiasm. I often don’t really know what I’m doing, except that I’m doing it optimistically.

Never mind. When occasion demands, I can adult with the best of ’em, and no-one can tell that there’s the occasional panicked voice in my head wailing “BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO ADULT!’

The Secret Life of Dashes

dashesI was explaining the difference between hyphens, en dashes and em dashes the other day, and the recipient of my edited-for-brevity wisdom suggested I should blog it, as it was the first time she’s understood the differences.

So here it is. It’s certainly not comprehensive – the hyphen has a number of rules, all of which you can disover at  Purdue University’s handy OWL site.

But here’s a quick rundown on the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash for everyday, contemporary use.

The hyphen  is only used to combine words into a compound word, or to add prefixes to terms for clarity.

  • Some juice company wants you to buy a rubbish-free lunch, as opposed to a rubbish free lunch (that is, a free lunch that is rubbish).
  • Students benefit from one-one-one time.

Note that hyphens are not needed when combining an -ly adverb with an adjective.

  • Golf is sometimes played with a brightly coloured ball.

The en dash (so-named because it was originally the same width as a printer’s capital N) is usually used to separate number ranges and has a space on either side. The keyboard command (using the number pad) is ALT 0150.

  • Turn to pages 16 – 18.

In online texts, the en dash is also often used in place of the em dash to separate words or sub-clauses that might otherwise be separated using brackets or commas, and to add emphasis to the item following the dash.

  • I used to live in Canberra, if you call that living.
  • I used to live in Canberra – if you call that living.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities (bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing) for the brave and bored.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities – bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing – for the brave and bored.

The em dash (which was the width of a printer’s capital M) is used without a space on either side and generally separates words or clauses.  As with the en dash, it often adds emphasis to the word or phrase following the dash. This dash is much less commonly used in online texts these days, as it’s considered harder to read on screens. The keyboard command is ALT 0151.

  • I used to live in Canberra—if you call that living.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities—bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing—for the brave and bored.

This is a very broad guide and is certainly not definitive. The use of dashes might vary depending on the style guide for your company/publisher too – but this’ll do for starters.

Lessons in Language: Fine Toothcombs and Fine-toothed Combs

fine tooth combYou know what surprised the merry hell out of me when I googled in preparation for this language rant?

There is indeed such a thing as a ‘toothcomb’.  A toothcomb refers to a dental feature in some mammals where a row of long, thin teeth mimic the teeth of a comb, and are used by the mammal in question for grooming. Lemurs have them. So do some antelopes. I know this is true because Wikipedia told me so.

Do you know what mammalian dental configurations called toothcombs are not used for? Describing how people search in detail for something. No, you do not search through records with a fine toothcomb. I don’t care how fine that dental work is, it’s not used for searching for detail.

For that, you need a fine-toothed comb.

Yeah, I know I should probably learn to breathe deeply from my diaphragm and just let things go, but this one, whenever I see it, makes my teeth hurt. My regular ol’ human teeth, which I do not use for grooming.

You see, the marvellous agility of the English language already defines ‘to comb’ as, among other things, to perform a thorough search. It has always seemed to me such a small and eminently logical step that one would search in depth with a fine-toothed comb (or fine-tooth comb, since ‘fine-tooth’ will do as well as ‘fine-toothed’ for an adjective).

Doesn’t it make sense? To, you know, search, more thoroughly, with a comb that has finer teeth than the average, to separate minutiae of data or material? Doesn’t it? Is it really just me?

So, perhaps, for the sake of my hurting teeth, if not for the eloquence and logic of language, please do away with going through evidence with a toothcomb. Your evidence does not need grooming. Employ a fine-toothed comb in your search for unassailable facts. I’ll thank you personally. Possibly with chocolate.