Anyone remember Shari Lewis? Anyone? Shari Lewis (1934-1998) was an American ventriloquist who hosted a children's show in the late 1950s (Shariland) and early 1960s (The Shari Lewis Show)--sort of Sesame Street for baby boomers. Every Saturday morning, along with an assortment of Hanna-Barbera and Looney Tunes characters, her skits and songs entertained kids and kept them out of their parents' hair, at least for a while. I owned her LP (that's a "long play" vinyl record, run at 33 1/3 rpm, for anyone born after, say, 1980) Fun in Shariland and used to warble along with her simple lyrics. In her song "C-A-T," she sang to Lamb Chop, who confessed to not being able to spell her own name (spelled sometimes as one word, i.e., Lambchop, and sometimes two--hence, the confusion), telling her, "You might be a great success, You might do very well, If only you could learn to spell…c-a-t spells cat…d-o-g spells dog," and so on. It was rote memorization but set to a catchy tune and it helped me learn to spell at an early age, much the same as Schoolhouse Rock helped a later generation acquire similar skills ("Verb," "Conjunction Junction," "Interjections").
So why am I tripping down Memory Lane? I recently watched "Weird Al" Yankovic's video "Word Crimes." Loved it. Found myself listening again and wanting to sing along, like I did with Ms. Lewis. And it struck me that Weird Al was sort of like a Shari Lewis for 21st-century grown-ups--a mocking, sometimes rude, but very funny Shari Lewis. Here he takes on the current trend to abbreviate just about everything:"Just keep in mind that
It's fun. It's catchy. And it's a breath of fresh air in an age where poor spelling and grammar increasingly are shrugged off, particularly in popular culture. So, kudos to Weird Al. And a big t-h-a-n-k y-o-u to Shari Lewis. Where would we be without you?
You know that old saying, a picture is worth a thousand words? A dangerous adage for writers; it puts us out of work. Sometimes, however, it is all too true—and not in a good way, as these examples attest:
Hmm. The plural of lady is ladies and the possessive of lady is lady's. So what does three lady's mean? I'm guessing it's a new form entirely: plural possessive singular.
Commonwealth of Virgina. On a college diploma, no less. Insert head slap here.
Really, Verizon? You misspelled your own name?
See the problem? No? This one's a little more subtle. It's the comma in the price: 24,95 USD
He's sick because he can't add?
Like most people, I end up visiting the same websites over and over, but I feel a little guilty that I'm not exploring more of the world (World Wide Web, that is). I admit, some of the Web sites I frequent are a huge time sink, but others are both entertaining and helpful, especially if you write. Here are a few of the latter:
Sesquiotica. This blog by author/editor James Harbeck is a buffet of words—what he refers to as "word tasting notes." Each post examines the etymology of a particular, often obscure, word (think rebozo, guggul, or acatalectic), but the focus is on what epicures might call "mouthfeel." He says of giblet, for example, that "it has the voiced tongue-tip affricate that makes me think of biting little grains between my front teeth." Beautifully written, often funny, and always informative. Sign up for his email so you won't miss a word.
Merriam-Webster.com. Helpful, yes, but entertaining? Oddly, also yes. The erudite editors at Merriam-Webster.com offer up some sassy little videos on this site in a feature called "Ask the Editor." Learn about the battle of I vs. me, explore the awkward case of his or her, and discover why words get cut from the dictionary (RIP, hodad and snollygoster). Hint: type a word, any word, in the search feature to bring up the video, then refresh for a new lesson in lexicology.
Quote Investigator. Blog writer Garson O'Toole digs through more printed archives than I care to think about to learn who is behind those clever quips we often quote. Who said, "Things are more like they are now than they have ever been"? No, neither Dwight Eisenhower nor Gerald Ford, although both have been been credited. O'Toole says it's somebody else entirely. You may not get a definitive answer to your question, but you'll come away wiser.
Chicago Manual of Style, FAQ. You have to pay to access the treasure trove of style guidelines, but you can read the monthly Q&A updates for free. There's even a Browse Q&A feature that makes it much easier to find the answer you've been seeking seemingly f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Commas, split infinitives, URLs, proper names—it's all in there.Got a few favorite Web sites of your own? Share them with me.
I don't text. Know why? Because I like words. I like the way they sound. "Crisp." Say it. It even sounds snappy, like you just broke a cracker in two. I like the way words can twist your tongue and fill your mouth. Inexplicable. Menagerie. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Okay, technically not a word, but still fun to say aloud. Abbreviations take all the fun out of words, and texting is all about abbreviations. Some, like LOL (laughing out loud) or BTW (by the way), are here to stay and there's no use complaining about them. But others just baffle me. IKALOPLT (I know a lot of people like that). How do you even pronounce that? By the time you mentally spell out the words in your head so you can type their first letters, you might as well have typed out the phrase. And how come G8 (great) uses a number but NGGT (not going to go there) doesn't? Makes no sense to me.
The world would be a different place if literature had been written with text phrases instead of full, glorious words. 2B or N2B TITQ. Just doesn't have the same panache as "To be, or not to be: that is the question." It was TBT it was TWT. Could mean "It was, truth be told, it was The Washington Post." What I meant was, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." But how would you know?
Go ahead, call me a fuddy-duddy (and how much fun is that word?). It's true. I may cave at some point in the future and start texting—so much to do, so little time, and all that. But IMNSHO, IDTS.
The phone books are out. Whew! What a relief! Foolishly, I had recycled mine several months earlier, convinced—make that, having been convinced that phone books were a thing of the past. After all, we have the World Wide Web and all those popular search engines that make life so much easier: Google, Bing, Yahoo! Got questions? Forget print. Find the answers online. Except, you can't always find the answers online. (And sometimes the answers you do find are incorrect.) For example, I needed to call an acquaintance but didn't have her phone number. No phone book (see above comment about being foolish), so I couldn't look up her number. A Google search didn't yield her number either. I could have tried other search engines or paid for the information online, but if I'd had the phone book, it would have taken me less time to leaf through its pages than to sift through the Web (and it wouldn't have cost me a cent).
Granted, I am in an industry that encourages print, so I think it's important to keep hard copies of documents and photos (and phone books). But many people today don't. I was reminded of this recently when watching the TV show Revolution. In that apocalyptic post-technology world, one character carries her cell phone for 15 years because it contains the only photos she has of her children. Unfortunately, the cell phone, like all technology, doesn't work so she can't view those photos. Yes, I know, it's just a TV show. But it does make you think. Doesn't it?
Ah, Snopes. One of my favorite Web sites. If anyone has ever emailed you a story purporting to be true, usually of the horrific (murdering madmen, freakish fatalities, prom dates gone wrong) or tearjerker ("The Soldier's Night before Christmas") variety, check out Snopes before passing it on. On second thought, don't wait for the urban legend to find you. Snopes is a trip to read whenever you have a spare moment or are perfecting your procrastination skills. And as amusing as it is—and it's all that and a bag of chips—aspiring writers should take note for another reason.
The Web site is the brainchild of Barbara and David Mikkelson, who do their due diligence separating fact from fiction, truth from falsehoods, wheat from chaff. No topic is too obscure for the big reveal. No, chewing gum does not take seven years to digest, but, yes, frozen squirrels have been used in criminal capers. Despite their exhaustive research, even the Mikkelsons caution against believing everything you read, no matter how reliable the source. That's why they created The Repository of Lost Legends (a.k.a. TRoLL): to "demonstrate the pitfalls of falling into the lazy habit of taking as gospel any one information outlet's unsupported word." You cannot believe everything you read. Check and double check. Remember the Texas woman who tripped over her own toddler and sued the store they were in—and won? Not true, even if you did read it in U.S. News and World Report.
"The world is filled with information and misinformation," write the Mikkelsons. "Figuring out which way is up will always require the use of common sense."
I do a lot of groaning and grumbling and head slapping when I read pretty much anything these days. It's an occupational hazard. Copy editors have a tendency to mentally correct the misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors that are ubiquitous in today's literature, both commercial and recreational. We—OK, I—often have blamed technology when ranting about this trend. Blogging, texting, Twitter, the abundance of opportunities to post comments online, all have encouraged creative spelling to fit as much commentary as possible into limited space. But, you know, maybe I was wrong. A little.
Turns out, there was a similar fad, substituting abbreviations for full words, in the 1830s. Popular slang included KG for "know go," which should have been "no go," but there you are, and KY for "know yuse," a weird variant of "no use" that sounds a lot like Joe Pesci's character in My Cousin Vinny. It's at this time that OK makes its first appearance in print. OK was short for "oll korrect." Should have been, could have been AC ("all correct"), but then how would we distinguish it today from A(ir) C(onditioning)? Is the AC AC? Too confusing.
Anyway, so maybe technology isn't the answer, at least, not entirely. What can I say? IWW. SBT.
Someone near and dear to my heart keeps telling me, "You should write a book," and then proceeds to tell me about the book he wants to write. "Why don't you write it?" I ask. "Because you're the writer," he says. That may be true but it's no excuse--at least, not a good one.
If you want to write a book, you should write it.
A number of my clients over the years have done just that and few of them were professional writers before they published. Most had never written an article, much less a book. But that didn't stop them. They had a story they were determined to tell, and tell the tale they did.
I'm not saying it was easy for them. Writing is hard work, even for individuals who write for a living. "Every writer I know has trouble writing," wrote Catch-22 author Joseph Heller. But every writer will also admit writing has its rewards. For some, it's the intense satisfaction that comes from creating something. For others, it's the thrill of seeing their name in print. For me, it's knowing that a piece of who I was will be around when I'm not. For you, it may be something else.
But to find out what that is, you'll have to start writing.
Long ago and far away, I took a writing course because I fancied myself a writer. After all, I had won the English award in high school. But I hadn't actually sold anything I'd written since then and figured I could use some pointers or, at the very least, a refresher. I remember the instructor opened the class with a little icebreaker, asking each student to name his or her favorite author(s). Illustrious names flew thick and fast: Grace Paley, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Toni Morrison. When it was my turn, I announced my then two favorites: "Oscar Wilde"--nods of approval all around the room--"and Stephen King."
Pregnant pause. One of those so-quiet-you-can-hear-a-pin-drop moments. The instructor, thinking to rescue me from my literary gaffe, offered me a second chance. "Stephen Crane?" she asked.
"No," I said, "Stephen King."
She gave me a somewhat pitying glance. Clearly, in her opinion, and many in the class looked of like mind, I'd stepped in it. Because while Stephen King was and is a commercial success, they didn't consider him a legitimate writer. Perhaps his vocabulary wasn't complex enough or his meaning sufficiently obscure. But isn't a "legitimate" writer one who resonates with his or her readers? King does this by keeping things simple.
Consider the tale of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodor Seuss Giesel. Seuss's editor bet him he couldn't write a book using 50 or fewer words. Can't get much simpler than that. The bet ended in one of the best-selling English-language children's books ever.
So, whether you're writing fact or fiction, short stories or ad copy, tell a story. Tell it simply. It just might be your best bet for success.
Last night, I heard someone refer to the "large amount of people" at an event. Would you say you have a large number of milk in your glass? Probably not. Milk comes in amounts, people come in numbers. Simple rule of thumb: If you can count it, use number. If you can't count it, use amount.
Then there's "its" versus "it's." Yes, I know, typically you use an apostrophe with possessive nouns. But not with "it." Ever. "It's" means it is or it has. Always and forever. That's the rule. And why say "irregardless" when there are two excellent words with respectable histories: irrespective and regardless. Irregardless? Not respectable or acceptable. I feel the same way about "ginormous." I like gigantic and enormous. Ginormous? Not so much. Finally (at least for now), there's the phrase, "I could care less." How much less could you care? Oh, you mean you couldn't care less? Now it makes sense.
Words are symbols and we share their meaning so we can understand each other. Recently, I noticed Merriam-Webster Online has allowed users to take issue with the experts, posting their own comments and opinions about words below the official definitions. I'm not sure what purpose this serves. Anyone? (Bueller?) I agree with Mark Twain. "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter," he wrote, "it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."
To my friends who have never given me a Word-A-Day calendar, I just want to say, "Thank you." Those things stress me out, even though I make my living crafting and editing words in different configurations. Despite mumbling a day's word over and over and even trying to use it in conversation, within a week I would forget it and likely all its successors.
I used to blame it on my less-than-stellar memory. Then I realized I simply didn't care enough about these words to remember them. When you get right down to it, words are personal. You choose and use words that interest or are relevant to you. That's how you acquire a distinct "voice" as a writer. Change your vocabulary, change your voice.
Change is good. So I decided to create my own learn-a-word plan. I began with schadenfreude, a great German word I stumbled across on a popular culture website. Then I added haboob, a bouncy little word that entered my consciousness through the news. A project I was working on introduced me to the catchy rhythm of onomatopoeia. So far, it's working; I'm actually remembering these words and since have added others.
Give it a try. There's no shortage of inspiration; words are everywhere. You may create or change your own voice. At the very least, you'll improve your Scrabble score.
Way back in 1995 (cue sound of aged gums smacking), I was told by an incoming boss that print would be obsolete in five years. Let's see, that would mean books, newspapers, magazines, etc. all dropped out of sight sixteen years ago. Didn't happen. Clearly, this guy was no Nostradamus.
But with so much "e" in our lives--e-book readers, e-zines, e-newsletters--it may seem as though paper is finally on its way out. So why publish anything in hard copy? Here's why: A surprising percentage of people (including 30 percent of Americans) never access the Internet. That means they'll never see your Web ad or read your blog. Some people find reading on-screen difficult. Others just like their media tactile. Print lasts longer than a TV commercial and is more permanent than a Web ad. It never needs charging. And here's a question for you: do you now receive more spam or more junk mail? I'm guessing the former.
There are lots of other reasons, but the above make my point. Print is still alive and kicking. Don't abandon it entirely. At least, not quite yet.
I keep a humor file containing funny cartoons, articles, and such from bygone years, and in this file is a list of "forbidden words of the 1990s" from the Utne Reader, circa 1990. Among the verboten: celebutante, interface, mommy track, tubular, wired, and yuppie. Remember how hip you sounded dropping those words in conversation? (Remember when saying "hip" used to be hip?)
That got me thinking about what words were popular last year. Merriam-Webster Inc. lists the most popular word of 2010 as austerity, defined as "enforced or extreme economy." According to the Global Language Monitor, the top word was spillcam, the device that gave us live-feed coverage of BP's oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. "Austerity" and "spillcam"--grim words both. But then, 2010 was a grim year for a lot of people.
It's too bad we can't pick this year's top word now and make it happen. I like the sounds of "felicity" and "abundance." I wish you both.
Recently, the TV Guide Web site ran a short column on the week's best TV moments. In summarizing the events of one show, the writer committed a grammatical blunder, noting a character had escaped a life-threatening situation by "covering he and [another character] in entrails." Disturbing imagery, yes, but also amusing. Why? Because TV Guide, like so many corporate Web sites these days, encourages interaction by asking readers to comment on content, in this case, "What were your top TV moments of the week?" The first four contributors played along, happy to share their own perspectives on the state of television today. But the fifth respondent felt compelled to correct the writer, saying the sentence should read "covering him and [so-and-so] in entrqils." This started a juggernaut rolling. Several noted the respondent had misspelled "entrails." One corrected the original sentence to read, "[unfortunate sidekick] and himself." Yet another corrected the grammar of a fellow contributor who corrected the grammar. And so on.As entertaining as this was (for a copy editor, it is all that and a bag of chips), by the time I finished reading the first page of remarks, I completely forgot the original call for commentary. What was the topic, anyway? This brings us to lesson four: be succinct. If you have something to say, especially in business, make your point. Then get out.
Okay, I confess. I like to shop. Sometimes, perhaps too often, I shop not wisely but too well (apologies to Shakespeare). The evidence is all around me where I live and work--stuff I purchased because it seemed like such a good deal at the time. I was seduced by an attractive price. Beaten by a bargain. Done in by a devilish deal. You get the picture. And judging by the profusion of yard and garage sales around the country every year, I'm not alone. It occurs to me that had I focused on quality instead of cost, I would have less stuff but it would be better stuff. It might even appreciate in value.The next time you go shopping for vendors, such as writers and copy editors, think about this because the same lessons apply: You get what you pay for. Quality stands the test of time. And print is permanent. (I made up that last one, but it's true.)
Anyone remember Norm Crosby? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?Norm Crosby gained a name for himself in the 1960s and '70s as a stand-up comic, known for his mastery of malapropism. Malapropism. It's a great word. Merriam-Webster defines it as "the usually unintentional humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase." You know...instead of saying something like, "She was renowned for her unparalleled wit," you might say, "She was renowned for her unparalyzed wit." Funny. Years ago, a student of mine wrote that "it's a doggy-dog world" rather than "it's a dog-eat-dog world." Same thing. My point is that while Norm was intentionally funny and the student unintentionally so, misusing words can, on occasion, cost you, whether you're applying for a job, plugging a product, or trying to make an impression on someone. Anyone. (Bueller?) So, get it right. Look it up. Have someone review it before you go public. This goes for the big boys too. A recent McDonald's commercial referred to "Canadian" geese. That's "Canada" geese, McD. Get it right.
Pick up a newspaper or magazine, browse the Web, or get comfy in front of your TV and, without even trying, you can pick up on a few spelling errors or grammatical snafus. They're everywhere. Here's a sample of what I'm talking about (names have been deleted to protect those who should know better):
Hey, everybody makes mistakes, right? Right. But these mistakes are so easily corrected I am at a loss to understand how they managed to escape quality control, especially given the likely marketing budgets of the above offenders. If you don't have the funds to hire a professional (shameless plug, but it's my Web site and I have no shame), try a couple of easy techniques. First, read the entire text from end to beginning. It's awkward and slow going, but that's exactly why this strategy works. You'll find more than you expect. Second, have someone, preferably a nitpicky friend or relative, read what you've written. It's a sure bet he or she will find something. (See? Even annoying habits can be useful.)