Wednesday, January 26, 2011

WNW: Homophones Edition

Another edition of Word Nerd Wednesday with homophones brought to my attention by my trusty readers.

When a bolt of bright electricity shoots through the sky during a storm, that is lightning.
When dawn comes, the darkness is going away and the room may be lightening.

I see these two words used interchangeably, both as the past tense form of what a follower does with a leader. The confusion likely happens because the past tense of the verb lead is led, which happens to rhyme with the metal lead.

Present tense: I walk through the forest and lead the way for those behind me.
Past tense: I walked through the forest; I led the way for those behind me.

Anyway/Any Way
If something happens in spite of someone's efforts, it takes place anyway.
If you wonder whether something is possible, you may ask if there is any way it could come about.

When Mark pitches a baseball, he throws it.
When Janet is dealing with emotional turmoil, she could be in the throes of depression. Someone else could be in the last throes of death, or in the throes of passion.

First word here is simply the past tense of the one above: Mark threw the ball.
Something or someone passes through something else, such as a train through a tunnel.
An old-fashioned version of through is thru.

The top of a gable roof has a peak.
If you're peering around a corner, you may catch a peek at something secret.
The first page of a book may pique your interest.

All Together/Altogether
If something is very complicated, it could be altogether confusing. (In other words, completely.)
The family went to the store all together. (In a group.)

Have more homophones that confuse you? Send 'em in!

Friday, January 21, 2011

In Which Chocolate Upstages an Artichoke

For those who've asked, here's me on our local ABC affiliate's morning show, Good Things Utah, from Wednesday.

This clip has more than the 5 minute segment you'll find on their site. We have bonus material! It includes all the teasers they did throughout and (best of all) the fun at the end of the show when Angel Shannon was at the table to talk about an artichoke but the hostesses were passing around the cookie batter.

And in case you haven't voted yet, yes, I'm pestering again. I have two stories in the running at the Tweet Me a Story contest. You can vote for both (plus other favorites). My group, 13, had to use the word special in a story that consists of only 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation.

If you've voted already, THANK YOU!!! If you haven't voted, here's a HANDY LINK!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Word Nerd Needs Your Help!

Because I'm a nerd and like a challenge, I entered NYC Midnight's Tweet Me a Story contest.

The contest: Using a word they provide, using it exactly as written (so no making it past tense, shortening it, etc.) write a story that's no longer than 140 characters, including punctuation and spaces.

In essence: A story the length of a tweet.

Writers had to register in advance, and then we were placed in groups and assigned our word. We had 5 hours to come up with our stories, and we could submit up to three.

I was in group 13. Our word: special.

Something like 1,000 stories came in. The top 25 stories in each group were chosen by judges. They're now listed where readers vote to determine which ones proceed to the next round.

Here's where I need your help: TWO of my stories made it!

(Can I hear a WAHOOO?!)

Read my stories (and the other finalists in my group) HERE.

Then help me move to the next round. To vote for both of my stories, CLICK HERE.

Thanks in advance!!!

Post Script: I was on ABC4's Good Things Utah this morning showing another recipe from the book. I'll link over to the clip when it's available.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jane Austen & My Inner English-Major Nerd

It's no secret that huge numbers of readers (mostly women, granted) adore Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice in particular. (The A&E version and Colin Firth have nothing to do with that, right?)

Today, more than 200 years after her books were published, Jane's popularity is greater than ever. We've had more movie adaptations (you probably know Emma Thompson's Sense & Sensibility, but if you haven't seen the 2007 version of Persuasion, you're missing out.).

Many readers fall for Jane's romantic story lines. While I enjoy those, the English-major nerd in me enjoys other parts, too. I love knowing what society was like then and seeing how Jane's books are often pointed attacks on less-than-desirable elements of that society. (P&P is an excellent example.)

I could go on about the witty dialogue, which I find hysterically funny, but others, who can't stand Jane, find dry. (Chances are, if you don't think Jane's laugh-out-loud funny, the jokes are slipping by you. They're in 200-year-old language, so it's not like watching a sitcom.)

Jane Austen often wrote comedy, but many of her stories are built on social outrage. The opening line to P&P is a great bit of satire in and of itself. I believe it’s that uncanny blend of humor and angst that made and keeps her books classics.

So here's the total English nerd coming out in me: One of my favorites is Sense and Sensibility because of how brilliantly it uses two literary styles of her day. Jane straddled two periods, the Neoclassical and the Romantic.

The Neoclassical side of the fence was very much into science, logic, and reason. Those who clung to this side of things (not just in literature, but pretty much anywhere: politics, science, education, you name it) viewed emotion as a fickle thing you couldn't trust. But science and measurement and logic! Those were put on a pedestal. Being objective and dispassionate was highly valued.

The Romantic movement came largely as a backlash against the Neoclassical view. It embraced emotion above almost all else. (A modern example: Keating in Dead Poets Society embraces emotion and passion for life . . . and quotes mostly from the Romantics.) So we get Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and other guys who did drugs and wrote poetry while high on opium and who viewed that level of emotion as almost a religious experience.

And then there was Jane, watching the two sides battle, with Neoclassicism dying out on one side and Romanticism rising on the other.

It's no surprise to me that she wrote a novel lambasting both. She used a great story to clearly demonstrate how neither extreme is healthy. She created one character who embodied reason ("sense") and another who embodied emotion ("sensibility").

See where I'm going here?

In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne represent the two sides Jane saw each day in literature, the newspapers, and society in general.

Elinor holds back emotions to an unhealthy and destructive level, using reason and logic to the point that she almost loses her one real shot at future happiness because she's closed off her heart and refuses to feel.

Her sister Marianne, on the other hand, is so caught up by Romanticism--emotions and passion--that when true happiness shows up right in front of her, she can't recognize it. Since it's not draped in iambic pentameter and glowing sunsets, she doesn't recognize the good, down-to-earth (logical) reality right in front of her that will make her happy.

Of course, by the end of the book, both sisters learn to adopt a bit of the other's way of seeing the world, learning that neither sense nor sensibility exclusively is a good way to live your life.

In further nerdiness, I'll point out that American literature also had a Romantic period, but it came a bit later than the one in England and featured a slightly different kind of passion and emotion (think Whitman and his barbaric yawp).

The two periods were similar enough for Mr. Keating to use both kinds of Romanticism with his students at Welton Academy and get himself into trouble.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Sample Sunday: Lost Without You

From the end of Chapter One of Lost Without You:

Christopher drove home, where his mother would be waiting for him. He knew something wasn’t right with him; the feelings surging through his body, the thoughts filling his mind, felt like something trying to take control over his body. He’d felt this way before, but not in years. He was younger then, less mature. This time, he’d handle it on his own.

He pulled into the driveway and killed the car, but didn’t go in yet. Mother couldn’t see him like this; he had to calm down first or she’d ask whether he’d taken his meds.

Rather, my poison. I’m fine—I don’t need any meds.

He hadn’t needed them for nearly two years, but he’d taken them faithfully in spite of the side effects until March, nearly two months ago. He blamed his extra twenty pounds and receding hairline on those pills. Not to mention the headaches and nausea. And tossing and turning every night, unable to sleep. Poison—that’s what those chemicals were. Brooke deserved a man without love handles or a shiny scalp. So he went off them.

Still gripping the steering wheel, a surge of emotion shot through Christopher again. He looked over at the passenger seat and stroked the spot where Brooke had sat minutes before. He wanted nothing but her. He needed her. What went wrong? Everything was perfect until she pulled that surprise out of nowhere tonight. Back and forth his hand went, stroking the seat. No matter. He’d win her back. The two of them would be together, in this life or the next. No matter what it took.

He tried to even out his breathing so Mother wouldn’t ask any questions. Even if she didn’t shove the pills down his throat, she might trick him into taking them inside food or—worse—drag him to see Dr. Hamilton again. He couldn’t risk that. So he leaned against the headrest and closed his eyes, breathing deeply while running his fingers across Brooke’s seat. After a few minutes he adjusted the rear view mirror to peer into his eyes. He blinked, searching his expression for anything Mother could find amiss. With one final breath, he got out, closed the car door, and headed up the porch. He glanced at his watch. Mother would be watching one of those news magazine shows. If he came in with a smile and gave her a kiss on the cheek, she might not ask why he was home early.

Christopher reached for the doorknob then gave one final glance at the passenger seat. Brooke would be his—he’d see to that. As he opened the front door, he couldn’t help but smile.

Buy now: $2.99

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

WNW: Their As a Singular Pronoun

A reader recently called me out on using their as a singular generic pronoun. (I forget who right now; feel free to claim the comment as your own!)

The issue: What pronoun do you use in a situation where the gender of the person acting either isn't known or isn't relevant? For example:

When an employee arrives . . .

The rest of the sentence is about the employee, who must sign in. What pronoun do you use?

When an employee arrives, ____ must sign in.

At one time, writers simply used he as the generic pronoun:

When an employee arrives, he must sign in.

But eventually came the complaints of sexism. (What if the employee is female?) That's when we started seeing a lot of he or she, just to be sure we covered our bases:

When an employee arrives, he or she must sign in.

That's seriously clunky and awkward, but it's better than the other weird compromise, s/he.

Others have opted to use she instead of he. That's annoying to me as a reader, because a) it's reverse sexism and b) historically he has a far more neutral feel than she, which jumps out like a flashing red light.

(Good writing should move smoothly, without jolts or flashing red lights.)

To keep the gender thing fair, some writers alternate between he and she throughout a piece. Personally, I think that goes beyond annoying and enters the range of shoot me now.

I've seen magazines that alternate on an article level: this article uses he, and the next one uses she. Not a particularly elegant solution, but at least it doesn't have me wanting to hit something.

So the gender-neutral problem persists: English simply doesn't have a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

Finnish does have a gender-neutral pronoun, and I have to say, it's really convenient when you see a baby but can't figure out the gender. You can totally compliment the kid without offending the parents. Too bad English doesn't have an equivalent of hän.

(Another side note: Finns often use se instead of hän . . . which means it, even when referring to people. Totally works in Finnish. Not so much in English. Can you imagine referring to your friend and saying you're going to lunch with it?)

Chicago and a lot of other style guides suggest avoiding the problem altogether. Either 1) reword the sentence so you don't need the pronoun, or 2) change the sentence so you can grammatically use the plural:

When employees arrive, they must sign in.

That works fine at times, but it's still not a solution. Sometimes a piece needs the singular, and making it plural or otherwise doing acrobatics to avoid their as singular sounds odd.

This is precisely why their is becoming increasingly accepted as the singular pronoun, at least in conversation and informal writing. I'm in the camp that accepts this usage already (obviously), although some people still foam at the mouth when they see their used this way. (Just as I foam at the mouth at infer used for imply and other losing usage battles.)

That said, if I'm writing for a professional journal or something similar, I avoid using their as a singular. You write to fit the register you want the piece to fit in. If something isn't accepted in that arena, don't use it, and no, their is not accepted as Standard English.


I believe it's just a matter of time before their is considered correct and perfectly fine to use this way. People already do, often, sometimes by accident and other times absolutely on purpose (raising my hand here).

The new rule actually reaching style guides? That may take some time, but it'll happen.

Grammar Girl agrees with me and adds that "it takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use they with a singular antecedent today."

What can I say? I live on the edge.

WNW: Very Unique?

I hate that phrase. Gets my eye all a-twitchin'.

The reason is that unique means the only one or without its like or equal.

Therefore, unique is not something that can be compared by degrees, unlike like how warm, old, or bright something is. Those words can have very added to them and make sense. Something can be more (or less) warm, old, or bright.

Then you have words like unique that are absolute modifiers. That means the word, by definition, is not something that varies by degrees. It either is or it isn't.

It's absolute. (Hence: absolute modifier.)

So you can't be slightly dead. You're either dead or you're alive.
(We aren't going into the technicalities of medicine and life support and all that . . . you know what I mean. And of course there's Miracle Max, but that's a different story.)

You could argue whether some words are absolute modifiers, like Jerry and George do in an episode of Seinfeld with dry. Jerry insists you can't over-dry something, just like you can't over-die. So he says something is either wet or it's dry. (But, you could argue, there's the in-between stage. Where does damp fit in?)

Here's a list of some other absolute modifiers (words you do NOT add very or other comparing words to):

Add "very" to any of those, and you'll see that they don't make sense.

You cannot have a "very fatal" collision. (If you mean several people died, that's something else.)

A final exam must be the last one. (You can't have one exam that's more final than another. The first one wouldn't be final.)

While trying a case in court, a lawyer wouldn't say that the defendant's DNA was very identical to the one at the crime scene.

Those absolute modifiers are a bit more obvious than unique or original. You're less likely to accidentally use one of those.

Now that you know the concept, apply it where it's most easily forgotten: something either is or is not unique.

Don't add very.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sample Sunday: There, Their, They're

Sample Sunday is for authors to share a bit of their Kindle-published titles. I'll post a sample of Lost Without You sometime soon, but today I thought I'd put up a piece from my grammar book, There, Their, They're: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd, which is now on Kindle for all of 99 cents.

Below is the section that discusses splitting infinitives: what does it mean to split an infinitive, and is it wrong to do so?

(Check out the #SampleSunday hash tag on Twitter to read other samples from Kindle authors.)

Splitting Infinitives

At some point in history, grammarians and teachers decided that Latin, a dead language, should be our guide. Why it made any sense to use another language to prescribe English grammar, I’ll never know, but Latin is the basis for the argument that we shouldn’t split infinitives (and a bunch of other silly grammar “rules”).

Here’s the crux of the old argument: In most languages, the infinitive or base form of a verb is a single word.

Since I know Finnish best, I’ll use it as our example.

Finnish: olla

English: to be

You can’t take the Finnish olla and split it up. It’s one word. The same holds true for the French être and the Spanish ser. The infinitive is one word. Of course you can’t split it up and have it make any sense.

But English has two words for the infinitive: to be. So, heck, let’s throw something between them: to happily be

That’s what is called a split infinitive. Frankly, unless you’re writing a paper for cranky Mrs. Robinson from eighth grade who insists on her students abiding by antiquated rules, split infinitives to your heart’s content. Although you shouldn’t overuse any construction, splitting an infinitive isn’t wrong.

Consider how utterly flat the classic tagline from Star Trek would be if it held to this “rule”:

To go boldly where no man has gone before.

Sorry, Mrs. Robinson. That lacks punch. It’s lame. We really need to split that infinitive:

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Whether you like Vulcans or avoid them like a bad rash, you have to agree that the original tagline is the superior one.

From Chapter 2: Grammar Grapples, There, Their, They're: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd


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