Malapropisms

"Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." - Yogi Berra

Malapropisms. The word itself makes my heart sing…so symmetrical and full of whimsy. But the concept is deadly.

What is a malapropism? Well, it came from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals. This character routinely mistook one word for another, and the resulting language was pretty comical. When the average person uses a malapropism in speech or writing, the result is typically high hilarity and a severe dip in his/her “take me seriously” quotient. Usually, a malapropism is used because it sounds a lot like the correct word. Continue reading

Affect vs. effect

Dear Conan:

Maybe this is one you can write about in your newsletter—when to use effect or affect. I am usually good at this rule but am unsure of my usage here:

The brand of your company also effects first impressions.

Since I am writing an article on first impressions, I don’t want to appear stupid.

~Beth

Dear Beth:

Amen, sis. That’s a sentiment I mutter on a continual basis, so I can relate. There’s an easy way to remember which is which, however, to cut down on the embarrassment factor (in this area, anyway). Thanks for the suggestion.

~Conan Continue reading

Hey! My cable guy’s a proofreader too!

I once edited a charming memoir written by a gentleman whose mother grew up in a North Dakota sod house. He wrote his book as a gift to his brothers and sisters, and he had it professionally published and bound. The final product will look great and is grammatically correct, so his family can concentrate on the content and not on the misuse of commas or the confusion of the words “then” and “than.” Continue reading

Reading aloud: not just for Big Bird!

Welcome to the Mercury Theater, ladies and gentlemen...

One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century is the computer microphone. Not only can you sing karaoke in the privacy of your own home without the benefit of gin and a disco mirror ball, you can download sound effects and make cute wav-file greetings. You can even record podcasts, if that’s your kink.

But there’s an even better application for this little gizmo that you can now purchase for two bucks used from any Goodwill store in the country–for proofreading and editing your writing.

I know I didn’t invent this little technique, but the first time I used it, I felt like Madame freakin’ Curie. Why hadn’t I done this for years? I could have saved myself endless embarrassment, improved my writing, maybe won the Nobel Prize…okay, maybe not that last part. But the point is, if you’re not making use of this practice, you’re quite literally missing out. You’re missing typos, bad sentence structure, stilted dialogue, the works. Let me explain.

As I’ve mentioned countless times in countless issues of Fun with Conan the Grammarian, as writers, we see what we think is there, not what’s actually there. We know the story so well, we can see it, smell it, touch it. It’s vivid in the cellar of our imagination. Unfortunately, this rarely translates directly to the page, and recording helps you see this.

Reading your work aloud into a recorder of any kind has a two-fold benefit. The first is that while you’re doing the actual reading, you will catch mistakes and problems because your reading speed is cut by 75 percent. When you have to slow down enough to speak the words (usually 50-100 words per minute), you’re really seeing the text, while when you read silently (200-250 words per minute on average), you skim, you infer, you fill in blanks.

The second benefit comes from then listening to the recording. “But Conan,” you whimper, “the recorder makes me sound like Joan Rivers on helium! I don’t sound like that!”

Yeah, actually, you do. Get over it.

Look: Even though listening to your recorded voice is nearly as torturous as listening to the Spice Girls, you must gut it out. Because this second time through, you will catch even more mistakes and problems, since you’ll be hearing dialogue spoken. At certain points, folks, I guarantee you’ll be thinking to yourself, “Nobody actually talks like that!”

You’ll also hear run-on sentences, awkward sentence construction and things that just plain don’t make sense. What you can’t make yourself see on the page, you will hear. I’ve found that I’ll even catch logistical problems. (Huh. In the last scene he was an amputee. Now he’s holding his face in both hands. It’s…a miracle!)

The absolute gold standard, however, is reading your work into the recorder, playing it back and then shaming someone else into recording your writing.  This is the best place to hear how your prose will sound inside your reader’s head, and where you’ll find out if you’ve written dialogue so that it sounds the way you meant it to sound, and means what you want it to mean.

Example: In my novel Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, a character named Bill says “You were a hippie, weren’t you?” to his frenemy, Father Pete. I thought it was obvious how it should sound, because I know Bill better than I know my own children. But when my husband Andy read it aloud, it was all wrong. I meant it as an insult, but Andy read it like an earnest inquiry. Big, big difference. So I had to clarify how Bill said it in the preceding exposition so there could be no mistaking what he meant.

Start using this little trick and you will be amazed at how much your writing improves…and maybe you’ll learn to enunciate too.

Won the Science Fair, Flunked the Spelling Bee

From the website of a Sanford, Fla., pharmaceutical company specializing in dermatology products:

Our criterion for marketing a product is simple:

  • It must work better then any other product
  • It must be safer then any other product
  • Patients will be able to afford it

Continue reading

Passive Voice Part I

A lot of folks are confused by the concept of passive voice. (You see that? I started right off with an example.) Let’s try again: The concept of passive voice confuses a lot of people.

So what’s the difference between active and passive voice? In the active voice, the subject performs the action, as in “Zsa Zsa slapped the waiter,” while in the passive voice the subject suffers the effect of the action, as in “The waiter was slapped by Zsa Zsa.”

The tip-off in most offending sentences is a form of the mealy-mouthed verb “to be.” It worked for Hamlet, but for those of us who aren’t Danish royalty, “to be” can be the writing kiss of death.

There are several reasons that passive voice is so often used in business writing. (Or should I say There are several reasons people so often use passive voice in business writing? I think you already know the answer.) The first is that it’s a stellar way of avoiding responsibility, a CYA strategy of passing the buck. Passive voice converts most sentences into vague, no-fault language that you can’t quite figure out why it’s so unsatisfying.

Example: The package containing the iron lung was lost in transit.

What does this sentence actually mean? “Our driver, Lance, forgot to close the tailgate on the truck. Your iron lung slid out the back somewhere on the prairie, so good luck!”

Another reason: to elevate oneself in a truly passive-aggressive manner with a little false modesty thrown into the mix. In one of my college writers’ workshops, a student named Jane vilified a short story I wrote about a punk band with this cleverly written critique:

Several bands of this type are known by me, and none of them act in this manner…

(Of course, she also wrote “this writer’s mind is so small she probably likes Norman Rockwell,” but that’s a story for another time.) What was Jane really saying? “Unlike you, I actually know and hang out with these bands, so clearly you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Passive voice usually produces fuzzy, ponderous, wordy sentences, rather than clear, concise sentences. Many business writers appear to be paid by the word, or at least get credit by the word. They seem to think that the more words they use, the more gravitas they ooze. But most of the time, passive voice, and its dimwitted cousin verboseness, makes them look pompous and self-important.

So whenever you see any form of “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, will be, has been, was being, etc.) pop up in your writing, stop and evaluate the sentence.

Now, you won’t hear this too often, but there actually are circumstances in which passive voice is appropriate. I’ll expound upon those in another post. In the meantime, don’t get too hung up on completely excising passive voice from your repertoire, because your writing can become stiff and unnatural.

But use it the way you would cayenne pepper or Phil Collins CDs–sparingly and with caution.

Even Proofreaders Need Proofreaders

A new client came the publicist’s way, one that promised to be lucrative. In her excitement, the publicist dashed off an incisive, newsworthy press release and threw it in the mail post-haste.

Before the publicist had a chance to follow up with the media, the client called and left a message on her voice mail. He’d received his copy of the news release in the mail. He would no longer require her services, he said.

Because she’d misspelled his business’s name throughout the news release.

Oh, the shame! The horror! The lost income! Continue reading