Friday, December 28, 2012

Keeping sort of humble

It's always an education to play word games with my friends and relatives. Words are a big part of my job, but I often lose Scrabble to Jane, or Boggle to Casey, or Quiddler to somebody else.

Still, it's fun being challenged to come up with words that fit combinations of letters, and it's a real triumph to come up with something that uses difficult letters such as J or X. I lost games at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and an earlier trip to Raleigh visiting friends, and still enjoyed them very much.

For the record: A quire is a quantity of paper, and it can also be used as a verb.

Also, although Merriam-Webster defines ley as a mere variant of lea, or meadow, and leaves it at that, it also has some more substantial definitions: Collins via The Free Dictionary says it's 1) grassland or pasture or 2) "a line joining two prominent points in the landscape, thought to be the line of a prehistoric track." Dictionary.com adds that ley is "a pewter containing about 80 percent tin and 20 percent lead." Finally, here's a Wikipedia entry about ley lines, both as old travelers' tracks and in the newer mystical interpretation.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Go me!

There was a design/copy editor
so sharp, hardly anything fretted her.
Her demeanor was placid,
but her wit could be acid,
and she pounced on mistakes like a predator.

Please excuse my little triumph song; I had a successful first week at my job! I'm back full-time in the newspaper world. I'm learning how this company's software works at a reasonable pace, and one guy says I'm learning quicker than he expected. Already, though, I've hit the ground running as a proofreader, catching a number of mistakes by others before their pages hit the press. I've also been complimented on my headline-writing ability.
I'll still continue with freelance work on the side. Also, following this first, busy whirlwind, I'm planning to keep posting here at least once a week. Cheers!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Salient and Desultory

I discovered today that "salient" and "desultory" come from the same root word, the Latin "salire," meaning to jump. That's very interesting to me, considering how modern usage has shifted them into nearly opposite meanings.

Merriam-Webster's first definition of salient is "moving by leaps or springs: jumping." I would say the more common use these days follows from its third definition, "projecting beyond a line, surface, or level," or "standing out conspicuously: prominent." A salient point originally simply meant some kind of projection, often related to military formations or structures, but it has gone from that to being used to describe the main thrust of an argument or discussion. The Free Dictionary suggests synonyms for "salient point" including "essence," "cornerstone," and "focal point," none of which seem related to jumping around!

"Desultory" comes from adding the Latin "de" (from) to salire, i.e. to jump from (something), so think of grasshoppers, not butterflies. Desultores were circus performers who leaped from one galloping horse to another. Dictionary.com's first definition of desultory is "lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful" and its second definition is "digressing from the main subject; random." I've also heard it used in conversation to simply mean casual, in the context of a dilettante, as in taking a desultory interest in some topic. 

Again, de means from or down from (or in some cases, about); it's not a preposition related to opposition, such as contra or adversus. Logically and etymologically, desultory should not be an antonym of salient, despite how their usages seem to be evolving in opposite directions. But then, if you crave order and reason in language, I'm afraid that English will often frustrate you; you might want to try instead for being amused by its surprises.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Narrative forms, translation issues, and more

Recently I listened to a lengthy interview by "The Skiffy and Fanty Show" of my friend and former co-worker, Sabrina Vourvoulias. It was an interesting and wide-ranging conversation, and I'll definitely be checking back on that podcast.

The interview was sparked by her recent publication of "Ink," a near-future dystopia that explores some foreboding implications of immigration-law trends. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but that wasn't a problem, because the interview talked far less about the plot than about inspiration, the craft of writing, forms of writing, translation, and other issues.

One thing Sabrina talked about was different forms of writing. She compared poetry to jazz, and journalism to folksy ballads, in which direct simplicity is a virtue. One of the interviewers suggested symphonies for comparison to fiction, and she agreed because of how symphonies -- and fiction -- draw on many different threads, and weave them together. She expanded on that, talking about the inclusivity of fiction,  how it can encompass other forms of writing.

That made me think of "Dracula," which comprised diary entries, letters, news clippings, and telegrams, and "World War Z," which is cast as a collection of oral histories about the zombie apocalypse. There are many other examples of this in fiction, and all this is a reminder that there are many other options besides first- or third-person character narratives, or even epics that switch perspectives among multiple characters.

I was also very interested in the segment about translation, and thinking in different languages. My dad took a course in Greek this year and was struck by the difficulty -- some words just don't have direct equivalents, and sometimes words have multiple meanings in one language, and the translator just has to choose one of those meanings instead of being able to find an equivalent that embraces the ambiguity.

Many of C.J. Cherryh's books deal with conflicts between different mindsets, but her Foreigner series deals specifically with a human translator who basically ends up by default as the ambassador, because misunderstandings are so dangerous...

Here and now on Earth, of course, it's very easy to think of examples of dangerous mistranslations between members of the same human species. It's not necessarily just that words don't correspond, but that ways of thinking, as reflected in and fostered by language structure, can be so different. I could write a whole essay just about that, so I'll stop here, but I'd love to see some comments! 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

"What is best in life?"
"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

Strong words, aren't they? This quote from  "Conan the Barbarian" seems pretty inappropriate for Thanksgiving, unless you're sociopathically driven, and/or Genghis Khan, but bear with me.

This quote will always remind me of Thanksgiving, because I first saw the movie on Thanksgiving Day, during my first year in college. Two other people and I had wangled invitations to visit a friend's family for the holiday, being too far from home to visit our own families.

The friend's dad graciously agreed to put us all up. Prior to this invasion, he had been planning to cook one Cornish Game Hen each for himself, his daughter, and his son. When the numbers doubled, instead of trying to learn how to cook a turkey, he simply got another three Cornish hens and crammed them all into the oven.

While he wrestled with the birds, the younger generation watched television. For some reason, even though this was in Texas, we didn't watch football, but caught the movie instead.

When I hear this quote, I know the words are about pitiless violence. However, because of the associations the movie holds for me, I always feel a trace of warm nostalgia, for a generous man, a nice family, and good times with good friends.

So I always try to remember: Unless I know the context of somebody's words, I may not really know what is meant.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Moving Beyond the Written Word

I've been working to learn Audacity, an audiofile editor, so here is my first podcast! Because I was recently reminded of the beauty of Ray Bradbury's prose, and because it's seasonal, I'm reading from "Something Wicked This Way Comes."
For the wind-rattling sound effect, I modified a file from freesound.org, "0203wind.wav" courtesy of sagetyrtle.

UPDATE: I re-recorded the dialogue and spliced it in with my previous reading; hopefully the salesman's voice is out of uncanny valley territory now. I also tried to fix the cut-off credit at the end by leaving some extra time at the end of the file, but although it sounded fine on the mp3 on my computer, Yodio cut off the end again when I uploaded the audiofile. If anyone wants to suggest some other free audio hosts besides Yodio, please do so!

Monday, October 15, 2012

'Blogger'

A new acquaintance was cut short today (the budding relationship, not the person), when I mentioned having started this blog recently. He said, with his voice rising in disgust, "You have a blog? You're a blogger?"
"Uh, yeah," I replied, nonplussed.

I'm still a bit bemused by this contemptuous reaction. As far as I'm concerned, a blogger is simply someone who keeps a web log, posting about whatever topics interest him or her. There are a lot of different types of blogs about a wide variety of subjects; some are fascinating or fun, some are dull or foolish, and some are just horrible. Apparently, to this guy, they're all bad.

His earlier cell-phone bragging meant he wasn't simply a technophobe. So it must have been the activity of blogging, not the medium, that offended him.

I know that a fair number of monolithic mainstream media organizations still look upon bloggers as a mob of pajama-clad ranters. But this guy wasn't a journalist, so I don't think he was irritated about encroachment on his turf.

However, the first definition of "blogger" on Urban Dictionary starts out this way: "Term used to describe anyone with enough time or narcissism to document every tedious bit of minutia filling their uneventful lives." And that's one of the polite definitions. Apparently there are a lot of people out there who have encountered enough trivial navel-gazing on the web that they just despise all bloggers.

Such generalizations don't make much sense to me, and I'm certainly not going to let that attitude discourage my own blogging. But it does serve as a reminder that even when people may agree on a technical definition for a word, they can differ strongly, even emotionally, about its connotations.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gatekeeping language

No, I don't know anything about obscure jargon used by tollbooth personnel, or anything like that. (Sorry, Georgette Heyer fans.) I'm talking about those who see themselves as guardians of proper English. Gatekeepers include English teachers and professors, editors of various sorts, and many amateurs who offer corrections for love of the language.

As an editor some years back, I felt guilty for using "tidal wave" in a headline instead of "tsunami" -- I wasn't sure about the reading level of my audience, but shouldn't I have given them the benefit of the doubt? I felt a little better after finding out that the Japanese word's roots simply mean "harbor wave," which isn't any more accurate in describing the phenomenon. Scientists prefer tsunami, but most people understand that "tidal wave" refers not to neaps or ebbs or other types of gravity-based water movements, but to the walls of water caused by earthquakes.

English is a constantly evolving language, with users borrowing from others, creating new words, and using old ones in new ways. (The whole plot of the wonderful 1941 comedy "Ball of Fire" gets started by Gary Cooper's realization that he's falling behind in his attempt to list and define slang expressions for an encyclopedia.)

Language lovers face constant conflicts between purism and popular usage, and like actual battles, experts love to keep rehashing old ones. A recent NPR commentary reviews a new book, "The Story of Ain't," about the cultural upheaval caused in 1961 by Merriam's publication of the third edition of Webster's  International Dictionary.

I wasn't born yet when that controversy arose, but I know something about it because of my reading habits. Rex Stout's 1962 murder mystery, "Gambit," features a scene where detective Nero Wolfe is ripping out pages from that dictionary and burning them. Before he consents to take on a new client, the linguiphile asks her whether she uses "infer" and imply" interchangeably.

Wolfe, Miss Blount, and I (and probably Stout) all agree that the answer to this should be "No!" To infer is to deduce a conclusion from available facts or statements, and to imply is to arrange statements in a way that suggests a conclusion. (Suppose I say that Jane's failing store burned down the day after she took out extra insurance; I'm probably implying that police should check for accelerants, and you may infer that I think arson is a possibility.) Saying that "infer" may be used in place of "imply" creates ambiguity and undermines the value of both words.

However, aside from condoning conflation of distinct words, Webster's third edition drew a great deal of criticism for its inclusion of colloquialisms including "litterbug." Here, I am in favor of modernizing language. New words are needed to label new technologies, new cultural practices, and new times in general. Few people these days object when dictionaries add new words; Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary, among others, invite publicity when they release lists of new words.

For me, the question to be asked in evaluating word usage is whether it eases or hinders communication. If a new word, or a new use of a word, helps clarify meanings, then I'm all for it. If it muddies the waters, well, I wouldn't burn a whole dictionary over it, but I would definitely call it out as a mistake.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Titles that say 'skip me'

Recently, I smirked at a headline in my local newspaper's business section:
"Frosty interview may signal trouble." Is there really anyone who wouldn't interpret a chilly atmosphere in the interview room to mean that it wasn't going well?

The purpose of a headline is not to convey information. Its purpose is to get you to read the story. The same goes for the title of a book -- the purpose is to get you to pick it up and hopefully even buy it.

Of course, conveying information is one way, and often the best way, to engage a reader's attention. (Other methods include asking questions and using kickers, which I'll discuss in another post.) To do this in a headline, you can summarize the article, or pick a point to highlight, or tell why the reader should care.

However, conveying the information that an article will contain staggeringly obvious points is NOT the way to get people to read it. Why would anyone want to read that column? I'd be more likely to read one with a totally bland headline like "Tips for job interviews" than the one here.

Because I've worked in newspapers, I know that the editor often writes the headline, rather than the reporter or columnist doing so. Sometimes the editor is rushed or even incompetent, so a dumb headline doesn't necessarily mean the article is bad, any more than a witty headline means it's good.

Even a smart, witty, or urgent-sounding headline won't always draw readers. But my goodness, doesn't it help?

Please let me know if you'd like to share any really obvious, dumb, or funny-by-mistake headlines or titles!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Readability

For a lot of this post, I'll be writing mostly for myself, as reminders for future endeavors. However, I hope my thoughts may prove useful for others, as well.

I was talking with several people this weekend about websites, and one thing we all agreed on was the importance of readability. This is an era of short attention spans, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. Anyone who wants visitors to stick around a site or return to it has to make it easy on them.

I'm not talking about talking down to your potential readers. I'm not even talking about the words you use, yet. As a writer, I'm slightly pained to admit it, but as a longtime layout editor, I know that design is on a par with content.

 A relative of mine refuses to visit a restaurant chain because she hates their website so much, with all its flashy, animated clutter. A lot of people have less visceral reactions but still won't spend long on sites that make them uncomfortable. If you're not a professional designer, then just focus on this: A simple, high-contrast layout will make it easier for the visitor to focus on the content instead of being distracted by the packaging.

Now, about the writing: Don't do anything to slow the reader down. If you want to make people stop and think about your topic, great, but don't make them have to stop and figure out what you were trying to say.

First of all, use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Even if you don't care about such things, more of your readers will care than you may expect -- even if they just make silent, subconscious judgments of your site as being less than professional. If you can't find a friend or an editor to review before you post, consider writing a draft of your text in Word or something else that will point out errors. It won't catch them all, though! If readers point out an error, thank them and fix it.

Next, know your audience, and use appropriate vocabulary. If you're trying to reach a mass market, use simple words and short sentences. If you're expecting readers who love language, then share your own favorite words, but don't show off just to seem smart. If you lean toward subordinate clauses and other complexities, read back through and see if you can break anything down.

Don't waste time getting to the point. 
  • If the point is to get people to visit your store or buy your merchandise, put a description of what makes you special on your homepage, along with vital stats including address, hours, and phone number.
  • If the point is to convey information, tell the main point and then go into details, not the other way around. The old journalistic list of who, what, where, when, why and how helps here.
  • If you're telling a joke or a story with a twist at the end, make sure your lead is compelling. See if you can ask some sort of question that will make people want to keep reading in order to find the answer. 
  • If you just want to piffle about your daily life, make sure you give some kind of warning about this early on, so that people don't finish your post, wonder why they wasted their time, and unfollow you.  A rambling post may be okay once in a while, if it helps readers feel they're getting to know you, but try not to make a habit of it.
Finally, reread what you wrote. If it's short enough, read it aloud (subvocally, at least) to slow yourself down and make sure you don't skim over things. If you have time, put it aside and do something else so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes for proofreading. Is there anything that you meant to say and simply left out? Is there any assumed knowledge -- stuff where you know what you meant, but a visitor won't get it? Seeing what you MEANT to write instead of what you DID write is always a danger, so be careful!

These are the main points I try to pay attention to when I'm evaluating my writing style. The content is an issue for another day. If anyone else has suggestions for making writing as readable as possible, I'd love to hear them!


Friday, September 28, 2012

Ladylike?

Recently, the word "ladylike" has come up in the news. Oxforddictionaries.com defines the word as “appropriate for or typical of a well-bred, decorous woman or girl.” Merriam-Webster.com gives similar first and second definitions, but has a third definition of “feeling or showing too much concern [my own emphasis] about elegance or propriety.”

Going a bit further back, the Online Etymology Dictionary says the roots of the word “lady” are “hlaf” (bread) and "dige" (maid), i.e. “one who kneads bread,” which I think is somewhat ironic (in the modern, colloquial sense) if you compare it to the traditional gender assigned to the word “breadwinner.” It goes on to say that ladylike was used starting around the 1580s to signify a woman whose behavior was suitable for high rank.

However, I’m also thinking about actual noblewomen. One of the most famous Ladies in history was Lady Godiva, a real person. The legend about her riding naked through Coventry to persuade her husband to cut taxes on the townspeople is unconfirmed, but it certainly says something about the mores of the time. What she allegedly did was shocking, but it was done out of charity, and the legend certainly does not condemn her behavior.

Another very different Lady was Lady Nancy Astor. She was a native Virginian, but her combination of saucy wit and pious behavior won her an Englishman (another ex-American, who later inherited a title from his ennobled father) for a second husband. After Waldorf Astor moved to the House of Lords, Lady Astor won his seat in the House of Commons. Her sharp tongue angered many people and amused many others. Some aspects of her character were quite disturbing, but she certainly mattered.

 Is being ladylike important? Certainly, courtesy makes it easier and more pleasant to socialize and to work together, but that doesn’t mean that being nice is always the right thing. Sometimes a bit of stridency, or acting in an unconventional way, is the best or even the only way to get anything accomplished. Using strong words and contradicting other people can be ladylike if that's what's needed. Even among ladies, there are many models to choose for one’s own behavior; so if you want to be ladylike, remember that you have power and responsibility, not just to be, but to do.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Salutations!

I'm going to be using this blog to comment about words, language, writing, and news. Although my education focused on science, I've been a journalist for about 20 years, mainly as an editor, but also as a reporter. I've also done some creative writing and technical writing. I hope you enjoy hearing from my perspective!