Tag Archives: Grammar

Lauding a Literary Lexicon

18 Jan

NOTE to non-writers: The following blog is apt to bore you to blubbery. It’s not just serious; it’s also instructive. Proceed at risk of infusing your daily rumination time with minutiae. Don’t accuse me later of not presaging disgruntlement.

After having so much fun with last week’s blog, I’ve decided to pay close attention to the national observance lists throughout the year, and I’m delighted to learn that . . .

Today is National Thesaurus Day!

In other words (heh, heh, see what I did there?), it’s a perfect day to whine, babble, drone, pratter, blather, gabble, instruct folks about thesaurus abuse. I spent 12 potentially good years of my life editing papers written by brilliant analysts, many of whom, unable to be content in said brilliance, believed they had to stupefy their readers with writing embellished to the point of obscufating their work into a state of puffery.

Much of this obscufation (no, these aren’t words, but variations on “obscurity” that I learned from those same analysts and am clinging to), was the result of Thesaurus abuse. In fact, I still remember my favorite sentence from that era: “Exploits of their loins have persisted since the middle ages.” Sadly, I cannot seem to remember nor translate to you the original thought behind this monstrosity, but I do remember the crestfallen face of the analyst when I scratched it out.

You see, the thesaurus is a perfectly good, sound, suitable, reliable, obedient tool until misused, at which point, its use can cost a writer his credibility. Its purpose is not to make your words more impressive, but to make them (and your message) more clear.

Therefore, we must follow steps to be responsible thesaurusers, steps that I shall now outline, sketch, silhouette, delineate, summarize and pontificate about.

  1. Question your motivation before clicking that “synonym” pull-down.
  2. Select the word you think you want.
  3. Look that word up.
  4. Repeat steps above until you find the perfect word or concede your original is just fine.

Motivation: Upon being inspired to consult your thesaurus, first ask yourself, “Why must I?” If your goal is to impress your readers with your brilliance, then answer yourself, “You mustn’t.” If it’s because your original word isn’t sexy enough, the answer is again, “no.” However, if the word in question falls short of accurate, OR if you are repeating the same term too many times, yes, click that pull-down.


That’s right, I’m engraving a blog post!

Selection: Again, sexy isn’t the goal (which is how I arrived at “obedient tool” above, in case you missed that.) There are as many wrong words in your pull-down lists as right. I don’t necessarily advocate shying away from new words, because part of the joy of reading lies in adding to one’s vocabulary. However, there’s a lot to say for keeping it simple, AND knowing one’s audience. I recently edited a book for my good buddy Brent, who insisted on using “countenance” where most humans would say “face” (approximately 20 times in the book). Yes, the words mean the same thing, but most people today would trip over it. It’s the kind of word that halts a reader, which I liken to poking a stick at him while he’s trying to read.

So, your chosen word must be pertinent, which brings us to . . .

Look it up: You don’t even need to switch to the dictionary. Feed your chosen utterance into the thesaurus. If the words on the new list are even further away from your intended meaning, let it go. This seems to be where some writers stumble. They fall in love with the sound or feel of a word and the way it livens up a sentence (as in, “A grin lit up her countenance.” RESIST, I say, plead, beg, beseech implore you!  The reading world DOES actually care. (I’m not sure my buddy Brent agrees with me, but he did heed my advice. When he’s a best-selling author and asks me to introduce him for some momentous award presentation, I plan to chide him for his stilted vocabulary.)

Repeat: Search only for a limited time and then just continue writing. Sometimes the word just isn’t there. If you’re like me, you’ll concede in favor of the Diminishing Returns formula (Passion ÷ Deadline = Sanity) and settle for something close. Then, after publication, and usually around 2 a.m., the perfect word will leap into your brain. That’s okay, really. I’ve learned that I’m actually the only person who notices. I can say with certainty, nobody has ever approached me after reading my prose and said, “You know, there’s a better word for that.” Keep your sanity. Make your deadline.

So that’s that. I hope this is helpful advice. As an editor, I urge you to treat your thesaurus as a valued employee. Recognize its potential but don’t overwork it.

I leave you with two final words of caution, derived from another great sentence in a past work of brilliance: “The nation’s non-metal resources include limestone, marble, anthracites, and various types of cola.”

  1. Not all soda is cola.
  2. If you make me laugh. You may end up in a blog post.


Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. – Philippians 3:12


Me, Myself, and Sigh: A Grammarian’s Plea

4 Mar

Happy Grammar Day, everyone! That’s right, once again it’s the Word Nerds’ favorite observance, March 4th, the only date on the calendar that’s also an imperative. This is the one day of the year, aside from National Punctuation Day, when I can risk letting loose the annoying grammar critic I keep bound and gagged in the recesses of my brain.

You see, on most days, it takes all I’ve got to NOT correct people’s grammar. I like my friends, and I hate it when they look at me in that mathy way that says, “Keep away from me with that preposition stuff or I’ll cite an algebraic equation!”

So, for the sake of friendship and social protocol, throughout the rest of the year I seethe in silence when I see ads for “grass-fed steak,” and cringe quietly at news reporters when they rant about the “scarce” shelves at the grocery store. And, although, when I read on the side of the restaurant hot sauce bottle, “All sauces made on premise,” I might show it to those at my table, I don’t bring it to the manager or post a picture of it online accompanied by a snarky sneering comment.

Okay, those examples are not about grammar, but word choice. I’m not sure I should pick on poor word choice, even if there were such an event as National Word Choice Day (I checked. There isn’t. Yet.), because my own vocabulary is diminishing at a fear-inducing rate. Every day, words that have been trusted friends in my brain for decades leap overboard into the River of Old Age and float away like dead leaves along its fast-moving current. One day soon I’ll forget the word for, er… what’s that thing that makes the thingy noise?

Word choice aside, true grammar errors would be more like the Buffalo Bills’ announcement in January that they’d hired their “first full-time female coach.” To me, that’s personal information irrelevant to the story. The aspect of this press release that hurt my heart most deeply was that so many media venues repeated it verbatim; NOT ONE thought to change it to “first female full-time coach,” or better (word choice issue again), the team’s “first woman full-time coach.”

However, I’m not going to waste this year’s soap-box time on the usual rant about misplaced modifiers; the “they’re, their, and there” battle; “it’s” vs. “its”; or even “that” vs. “which,” an oft-made error that grates on my nerves like knuckle skin across asphalt.

Instead, this year’s fulmination (snatched that word out of the river because it got hung up on a mid-stream boulder, heh-heh) is about three simple pronouns we learned before Kindergarten that for some reason we have no idea when to employ: Me, myself, and I.

We seem to have developed a phobia around using the words “me” and “I,” and we’ve started boldly inserting “myself” into statements the way one might push forward a socially awkward niece in hopes of hooking her up with a blind date:

“See Martha or myself after the meeting and we’ll take your information.”

“Give your surveys to myself before you leave.”

“You’ll get an e-mail from Bob or I about that.”

Well, to all of you who have fallen into these habits, I say…

Stop it.

Stop Myself-ing

Give myself a rest, wouldja?

I blame your mom and grandma, bless their hearts. They screwed you up back when you were a wee one running into the kitchen yelling, “Can Danny and me go out to play?”

“Danny and I,” they chastised, sliding the chicken in the pot.

Did they stop to explain that it had nothing to do with referring to yourself as me, but that, as the subject of the sentence you use the pronoun “I”?

They did not. Nor did they explain that you use “me” as the object of the preposition. They were too worried about that stupid chicken to consider the long-term effects of their incomplete correction.

Over the years, their failure to explain left you not only fearful of the word “me,” and unsure when to use it, but oblivious and untrusting of “mysterious” grammar terms (fess up, seeing the words “object,” “subject,” and “preposition” there made your brain shudder).

Frankly, your friend, Danny, didn’t help either. If he hadn’t been there, you would have had no problem asking, “Can I go out to play?” And Grandma wouldn’t have corrected you.

So, here’s the secret: You don’t need to know the grammar terms. When you want to know whether to use “me” or “I,” get your friend out of the picture. Hence, the e-mail example above would be “You’ll get an e-mail from me,” which is correct. Once you’ve determined the correct pronoun, bring the friend back into the sentence and relax; it’s still correct.

But what about “myself”? For the most part, you can toss it. In fact, the only time one would use that word would be in a sentence that also has the word “I” in it, such as, “I gave myself a raise.” Simple, right?

There ends today’s grammar lesson. I hope I’ve made a positive difference in your grammar, and not worsened your brain-shudder effects. I’ll get off my soap box now until Punctuation Day, and then, boy, is your serial going to get it!

Now, I’m going to celebrate by erasing all the erroneous apostrophes in the grocery store. Could take all day.



Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. –Proverbs 9:9