Archive for November, 2010


If Confusion Is The First Step To Knowledge, I Must Be A Genius* Or Mournful Teacherish Whinges About The Ambiguity Of Unclear Reference

November 13, 2010

I pretty much try to stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face.
• Johnny Depp

Pronouns are extremely handy. They protect a writer from endless repetition of nouns: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny Lorac’s crayons so Mij and Lenny could color” is much less cumbersome when it’s “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color.” Unfortunately, this kind of sentence can drift into ambiguity: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny their crayons so they could color” is an altogether different box of crayons indeed. And a level of complexity is added to the whole thing because, after all, we are probably wondering if generous Lorac is going to color with M and L. If so, this probably should read “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color with her.” Sentences are tangled webs just waiting to wrap writers in the sticky web of confusion.

For clarity when you’re writing, you need to be certain that it’s evident from the progression of your sentence to whom–or what or where or other-noun-wise–your pronoun makes reference. Here’s an example taken from The Big Book of Confusing, Vague, and Uncertain Tales Desperately in Need of Clarification Created for the Edification of Children Everywhere (Algernon P. & Merrypat E. Prindlesnap, 1884)**.

Once upon a time there were three little pigs named Oink, Grunt, and Squeal, and a big bad wolf named Gotcha. They had an even littler brother too and he called him Scaredyhoof for he was afraid of just about everything and often ran away at the first hint of danger. He was particularly afraid of him. This is their story:

Houses needed to be built. Immediately. He didn’t know what he was going to do. They didn’t know what he was going to do. None of them knew what they were going to do. Even the people in the town knew that something had to be done about the situation, and fast, but they didn’t know what they were going to do either. He was uncertain too. And everybody was frightfully scared of what loomed ahead.

Certainly there was danger and they had reason to be afraid. They knew it would soon be winter and they needed shelter from the cold as well as food to eat once the endless snows of winter descended on the valley where they lived. There were other dangers too. So they separated and each went their own way, looking for what was needed. One of them took their most recent acquisitions down to the meadow to the woodchopper’s shed where they often stored such things. He often used it for storage too.

He wasn’t happy with this hiding place. They didn’t want any of them to find the bricks and sticks and straw and stones and didn’t know what to do with them so they couldn’t find them. And they needed to hide him too.  So he took them instead to a cave in the woods. There, he thought, they would be safe, and if he were careful, he wouldn’t be able to find them.

He decided to build a house for them and asked him to help, but they couldn’t find the materials. They weren’t around to tell him where to look, so he asked him to help find them. They weren’t anywhere they looked and while they were looking, he came looking for them.

Well, that’s aplenty. You get the picture, I’m sure, but just in case, answer the following questions:

Who hid the materials?

Who was looking for the materials?

Who came looking for whom?

Always check your writing to make sure that pronouns such as he, she, it, they, that, which, and who that you’re using to replace another word refer clearly to the word they are meant to replace. This word is known as the pronoun’s antecedent. The antecedent should precede the pronoun in the current or previous sentence. Once other nouns intervene and too much distance develops between the pronoun and its antecedent, the waters of clarity become muddied (or the web becomes stickier–take your pick). Beware as well of creating problems because you are referring to a word that is implied rather than explicitly stated. (You likely know what you’re talking about, but your reader may not.)

In an effort to avoid the awkwardness engendered (pun intended) by non-sexist language, some speakers and writers replace constructions like she and he or hers and his with them and they and theirs. This can lead to ambiguity. “The student turned in their fundraising money,” for example, is unclear. Whose money did the student turn in? There’s no way to be certain from this sentence whether the student was handing in her or his contribution or was in charge of the contributions of the entire class.

When you’re done writing something—emails to essays to everything else—what are your strategies for making sure you’ve said what you intended to say?

There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.
• Thomas Reid

* Thanks to Larry Leissner for the title quotation.

** The Prindlesnaps were a brother and sister whose works were well-known in the schoolrooms of late nineteenth century England. Their opus, Commas, Periods, Semi-Colons, and the Odious Exclamation Point: A Study of Punctuation Abuses in Fairy Tales (1897), is no longer in print, although almost any reader would benefit from its study. Should you locate a copy of this rare tome, consider yourself fortunate indeed!


I Am The Wizard Of Ahs Or Perhaps X•Zinn•Trix. Whip R. Snapper, Zoom Hilda, Pina Collida, Bratty Duke, Maim E. VanDoren, Payne Mansfield, Marilyn Moanroe, Juana Fight, and Dee Stroyer Are Probably Already Taken.

November 7, 2010

Blitz McGee is rockin’ it tonight! Little Bunny FooFoo is on the bench again! Look out, here comes Tit Vicious and Skelo-Kitty! Oh, no, it’s Pepto Dismal!
• Roller Derby announcer, Roller Odyssey, Medford, Oregon, November 6, 2010

This is a first for me. I’m admitting publically that I’m too old to do something. I am not too old to blow bubbles or to swing on swings and slide down slides. I am not too old to love a ride on a Ferris Wheel or an old-fashioned roller coaster. I am not too old to enjoy toasting marshmallows over a fire or to love eating uncooked cookie dough even though I know that the raw eggs in it are a potential health hazard. There is very little I am too grown up to do.

Except for this. Who wouldn’t want to attend the Sis-Q Rollerz Fresh Meat Tenderizing Camp for those interested in joining roller derby? Perhaps you are not attracted to this opportunity. I am. There are very few organizations I’m tempted to join, but this offering is seductive. Unfortunately, I know better than to pursue it.

We attended the Feast of Fury Roller Derby Contest Saturday night where the Sis-Q Rollerz faced off against the Tsunami Sirens. Irresistible! There were fishnet stockings galore, lots of billboard buttery of the “Roller Derby Saved My Ass” ilk, extremely short schoolgirl skirts, and crinolines reminiscent of Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan days. All this finery adorned a variety of body shapes, all proudly fierce and skating like crazy. I loved it. But I’m too old to join in. I can’t imagine going to work with a broken appendage, explaining to my students, colleagues, and bosses that I broke my whatever in a roller derby smackdown. Plus, I’d be thinking of all the word processing I need to do and protecting my hands and arms when I ought to be concentrating on fast and furious skating. I hate to say I know better, but I do. I truly am too old for this and common sense wins out over desire.

I can’t join the game, but I can have a name. I find Melissa “Melicious” Joulwan’s site, Roller Girls Totally True Tales from the Track and the “Rollergirl Personas Generator” ( where you can log in and troll through a collection of possible names (see post title for samples) and then test your choice against a master roster of registered Rollergirl names to make sure you aren’t appropriating someone’s moniker. I go directly to the site and check on my favorite conference name, Anne R. Key, but she’s too close to someone else’s. So is Dr. Z. But The Wizard of Ahs is available and so is X•Zinn•Trix, and W-OZ couldn’t be happier

What would your Rollergirl—or Boy—name be?

Here’s what’s forbidden: No hits above the shoulder. No choking. No hitting. No punching. No biting. No fighting. No kicking. Just have fun.
• Roller Derby announcer, Roller Odyssey, Medford, Oregon, November 6, 2010


The Write Stuff Too, Or As Nathaniel Hawthorne Said, Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing

November 6, 2010

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
• Gene Fowler

I’ve just finished more than ten hours of reading over the last few days and I’ve been keeping track of some hints for writers based on things I’ve been seeing over and over in papers.

The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish.
• Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare (1827), Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers

Edit. Edit. Edit. This is hard work and requires you to read what you’ve written with a critical and thoughtful eye. I read many essays that are compilations of ideas from several essays that are stewing in the writer’s mind. It is not the editor or reader’s job to tell you what to include. It’s your job to determine a direction so that the editor/reader will be able to help instead of becoming lost in a forest of words.

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
• Elmore Leonard

Lengthy, repetitive paragraphs that include the same information said in several ways generally need sentence-combining and serious deletions. And lengthy paragraphs need to be broken up. Any time there’s a paragraph of a page or more, it’s probably too long.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.
• Truman Capote, McCall’s, November 1967

Read what you’ve written out loud to someone else. You’ll likely catch awkward sentences this way. When someone says that your writing is “awkward,” it generally means that something is poorly worded and stops the reader who has to try and figure out what it means or who is struck by something that just doesn’t sound right.

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.
• Enrique Jardiel Poncela

Please, I beg of you, do not rely on the thesaurus provided in your word processing program’s “toolbox.” It doesn’t necessarily provide you with the correct word when you’re seeking a substitute. When you look up the definition of a word online, be sure to read all the meanings to be certain that you aren’t accidentally saying something you don’t really mean. This is a particular problem with words that may have negative connotations.

A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.
• Baltasar Gracián

Sometimes the writing I read, particularly when it’s related to personal beliefs, is platitudinous, filled with worthy aspirations and high-minded concepts, but devoid of personality because no personal connections are made with the content. Simply using first person does not assure that your words will connect the writer with your meaning. You must use stories, anecdotes, and other concrete examples that bring your beliefs to life and that make for interesting reading. Is your writing compelling, enthralling, infused with your experiences, and written in a way that only you could write it? Or could your work have been written by anyone?

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
• Anton Chekhov

Read what you’ve written after letting it sit overnight, or at least for several hours. Sometimes what’s on the page seems to be the opposite of what you mean. Getting distance from your work is useful.

No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.
• Henry Brooks Adams (1907), The Education of Henry Adams

Most unique. Peak pinnacle. Canine dog. Beware redundancy. Beware the use of clichés as well.

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.
• James Michener

Regardless of how creative you’d like to be, when you’re writing something that will be read quickly by someone (an application letter or essay, for example), your writing should have a clear organizational structure that allows the reader to readily understand the point(s) you are making. This includes having a clear introduction with some kind of statement of purpose, an organized body, and a definite conclusion that returns in some way to the introduction, reminding the reader of your purpose.

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.
• Sholem Asch

There’s almost never a time when an exclamation point is really needed in formal writing. When you’re tempted to use one, think about it and unless you can truly justify its use, remove it.

An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
• F. Scott Fitzgerald

Then/than, choose/chose, loose/lose, and other personal challenges need to be identified and given special attention each time you write.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
• Mark Twain (Zinn’s corollary: And lightening is yet another thing!)

Write out the word and; don’t substitute the ampersand (&). This goes for words like 4th and 5th as well. Use fourth and fifth. I won’t list all the substitutions that reflect the drift of textspeak into writing, but each of them is inappropriate for formal writing.

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.
• Mark Twain

Reading what other people have written and trying to help them improve their work is time-consuming. Few people who do so want to annoy the writers they’re hoping to assist. Still, this sometimes happens since many papers are hard-birthed and no one wants to be told that their baby is ugly in any way. Be grateful for feedback and realize that in the end, you can do as you wish with it (unless, of course, there’s a scoring guide or some other kind of guidelines you have to meet).

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper.
• Isaac Bashevis Singer

See “The Write Stuff “ (Zinnfull, October 25, 2009) for additional hints, including the correct use of myself, agreement issues, and the need for interesting titles.

What’s the first step you could take to improve your writing?

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
• William Wordsworth

Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.
• Theodore Dreiser, 1900