Steven Pinker on rewriting

September 13, 2017

When you want to improve a piece of writing, showing it to someone (such as a beta reader) is often a good idea. This doesn’t apply to everything, obviously, but it’s especially valuable for text intended for publication, or when you’re concerned about how the audience will react to what you’ve written.

Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style (2014), recommends that you also ‘show a draft to yourself’ – preferably having spent time away from it. This too is sound advice. It’s not new, but I like the slant Pinker puts on it, that you should show it to yourself as though you were another person, which, in a sense proportionate to the time that has passed, you are. He says you may find yourself wondering, as he does:

‘What did I mean by that?’ or ‘How does this follow?’ or, all too often, ‘Who wrote this crap?’

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Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

September 9, 2017

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

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F.L. Lucas on style: ‘personality clothed in words’

July 19, 2017

Two of my favourite books on writing have the same one-word title: Style. Years ago I shared an essay by the author of the older Style, Frank Laurence Lucas, and having recently revisited his book, I’ll post a few excerpts.

First published in 1955, Lucas’s Style has dated in certain respects (try to ignore the generic male pronouns), but it is still full of sound advice and insights on the art and mechanics of composition. So then: What is style? Lucas describes it as:

a means by which a human being gains contact with others; it is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech. If handwriting reveals character, style reveals it still more – unless it is so colourless and lifeless as not really to be a style at all. The fundamental thing, therefore, is not technique, useful though that may be; if a writer’s personality repels, it will not avail him to eschew split infinitives, to master the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’, to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage by heart. Soul is more than syntax. If your readers dislike you, they will dislike what you say.

Three chapters are titled ‘Courtesy to Readers’. The first, on clarity, concludes with a note on how to achieve it:

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The ambiguous Oxford comma

April 21, 2017

The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.

Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.

Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.

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Book spine poem #39: Language, Language!

December 18, 2016

My latest piece of doggerel in book-spine form has an obvious theme.

*

Language, Language!

Language, language!
The story of language.
Language, slanguage
Spoken here: a history of
Language, a history of
Writing: style, style,
Style in fiction,
Linguistics and style,
Language and linguistics.
What is linguistics?
Understanding language.

*

[click to enlarge]

stan-carey-book-spine-poem-language-language

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Dictionary style labels: a Macmillan series

November 11, 2016

For my column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been looking at its style labels – supplementary terms like ‘humorous’, ‘formal,’ ‘offensive’, and ‘literary’ that are not part of a word’s definition but lend useful detail about it, especially for English-language learners:

Style labels help us become more familiar with the many varieties of English, especially if we’re learning the language. They enable us to use English more effectively and to interpret it more accurately when we hear or see it.

It’s a three-part series.

Part I looks at the formal–informal axis, with particular focus on the Scottish word bawbag. @MacDictionary’s tweet about bawbag – which stressed its ‘very informal’ status – made news headlines a few months ago.

Part II looks at the ‘offensive’ label, including the euphemism treadmill that sees terms like retarded go from acceptable to taboo, and words like lunatic that are now in a grey area. I also show how geographical and social factors can affect a word’s offensiveness.

Part III looks at other common labels, such as ‘spoken’, ‘journalism’, and ‘old-fashioned’. One interesting pair for pragmatics is the ‘showing approval’ and ‘showing disapproval’ labels. I also explain why Macmillan does not use the ‘obsolete’ label often found in dictionaries.

All my older posts can be viewed in my Macmillan Dictionary archive. Thanks for reading.


Pelecanos: the words, the rhythms, the slang

July 28, 2016

I’m slowly catching up on the back catalogue of George Pelecanos, who has written about 20 crime fiction novels (and also wrote for The Wire). Recently I read Hell to Pay (2002), which contains several items of linguistic or metalinguistic interest.

The book is one of a handful by Pelecanos that centre on private detectives Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the first black, the second white, the two ex-cops.

Terry Quinn goes looking for information from sex workers. He bums a cigarette as a way into conversation, but being a non-smoker he has nothing to light it with. Then he encounters Stella, a ‘pale’ girl ‘maybe knocking on the door of seventeen’:

She sat down without invitation. He handed her the cigarette.

‘You got a light?’

‘Sorry.’

‘You need a new rap,’ she said, rooting through her shoulder bag for a match. Finding a book, she struck a flame and put fire to the cigarette. ‘The one you got is lame.’

‘You think so?’

‘You be hittin’ those girls up for a smoke, you don’t ask ’em for a light, you don’t even have a match your own self?’

Quinn took in the girl’s words, the rhythms, the dropping of the g’s, the slang. Like that of most white girls selling it on the street, her speech was an affectation, a strange in-and-out blend of Southern cracker and city black girl.

‘Pretty stupid, huh?’

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