To Err is Human (Good Copy is Divine)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Let me ask you a question: If I do a butt load of work until this post screams "Awesome!", has my work been "intense" or "intensive"? 

You choose: "JP worked 'intensely' to rock his readers' world" or "JP worked 'intensively' to rock his readers' world."  Which is correct?  (Feel free to make snide comments about the truthiness of either of these statements below ;))

If I decide to shorten this post (and I am notoriously verbose--so this happens often), will I then have "less" words, or "fewer" words?  Which is the correct descriptor?

The answer to both those questions didn't come easily to me.  How 'bout you?

Word choice is the most fundamental act in the writing process and cuts across everything a writer does, from the WIP, to the query letter to the agent, to the email to the publisher's assistant. 

A writer's words are like colors to a painter.  Just as the best painters have an innate ability to understand how a certain shade of red both compliments and enhances the other colors in a painting, good writers understand why a particular word fits their composition. 

Understanding the meaning behind words is a key element of this skill.  Pick the wrong word or term and you're like the watercolor artist with a stunning oceanscape--painted in subtle greys and delicate blues--who abruptly adds a dollop of garish yellow-brown to the white wavetops for no apparent reason.  Trust me.  It's an easy mistake to make.  Don't be that guy/gal!

Solomon, smart fellow that he was, said in Ecclesiastes 1:18: "With great knowledge comes great sorrow" (I always wondered if knowing that bummed him out).  I will co-opt his quote and offer instead: "With great knowledge comes great writing."  (I'll not comment on the connection between writing and sorrow--maybe another time). 

And the good news for all us struggling writers is that the knowledge is out there.  Here is a helpful link a friend sent me to aide in making effective word choices:  Common Errors In English Usage.

A few more great examples:

  • When I want to footnote something, do I use an asterick or asterisk?  Answer here.
  • If I call someone, do I "get ahold" of them or "get hold" of them?  Answer here.
  • Do I have a "method" or "methodology" for coming up with great story ideas?  Answer here.
  • If an agent writes back and says your novel is "mediocre," are they saying it is average or bad?  Answer here
  • If I am in the middle of a "sojourn," am I moving or stationary?  Answer here.
  • Is my midsection my "midrift" or "midriff"?  Answer here.
And check the link for a lot more!

I hope you find the page helpful.  I certainly did.  Oh yeah, my work preparing this post was intense and all the editing resulted in fewer words.

What are the errors you most commonly make?  Also, there's one (pretty obvious IMHO) error in my post.  Can you find it?

HINT: The error is one of the ones listed at the link.

12 bolts from the blue:

Anonymous said...

I think I found the other "obvious" error, in this sentence: " I use *and* asterick or asterisk?" Should be *an* asterisk.

Also, I hope you don't mind my being picky, but Ecclesiastes wasn't a "fellow" but rather the name of the book the fellow wrote. The fellow was actually Solomon, son of David. And now I shall break out into song..."To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season (turn, turn, turn)..."

Enough of that. This was a great post. I passed the test except for "mediocre." I suppose I should brush up on my English usage skills!

Thanks for sharing this.

Jon Paul said...

Propinquity, thanks for the great comment. Alas, the *an* was an old-fashioned typo and has been corrected. Also the quote origin is a huge error and I'll correct that as well.

I guess my title was more apropos than I thought!?!

Thanks for stopping by.

Jon Paul said...

Just so we're clear--for all you puzzle-solvers out there, despite the other errors that propinquity pointed out (thanks very much for the assist!) the original error to which I refer in the post is still there.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll step aside and let someone else figure it out. This has been fun.

Postman said...

I would've said that you worked "intensely" and you had "fewer" words.

And while I've seen people whose job title was "aide" I've only ever seen them "aid" their commanding officers, not "aide" them.

Not to brag, but I used to be pretty ahead of the game. I had a college-level reading ability when I was in grade school. Always remembered to spell "misspell" with two S's (keep forgetting that there are two R's in "embarrassing" though).

Great post, very helpful and a useful heads-up on a deplorably common problem. I appreciate the simple, informal way you explain things (your simile comparing words to paints, for example, and that thing with Solomon: "I always wondered if knowing that bummed him out" HA!).

Elana Johnson said...

This is a great post! I've found myself using words the wrong way. My most humiliating one was where I used "inhumane" for "inhuman." Yes, that was awful. ;-)

Suze said...

I like to think that I'm pretty ahead of the curve, having experienced a old fashioned, English girls' school education with corporal punishment as motivation! It worked. The only word usage I find to grasp is that of common American idiom. The 'get hold' or 'get ahold' stmped me because the phrase is uncommon to me... I would guess the latter? Mistakes that make me smile: disinterested for uninterested, stationary for stationery and complimetary for complementary. Lovely post - thanks!

Suze said...

By the way, I think the job title 'aide' traditionally comes from the French 'Aide de Camp'.

Liza said...

Thank you for the link. Sadly, I use the wrong words often. When I'm lucky, I find them and then press "edit." On my college thesis, I'll never forget, I used "entwined" (no such word) in place of intertwined...which, with out looking it up, I'm still not sure I've spelled correctly. Lazy! Ok, I'm looking it up now.......yup, got it right this time. Still got an A- on my thesis though...

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I can relate. I'm constantly checking my phrasing or spelling of words to make sure I've got it right. Since I've been writing novels I've realized I've had many sayings wrong since I was a child. Embarrassing, but at least I'm learning. ;)

Jon Paul said...

First out the gate--ladies and gentlemen, we have two winners: Postie and Suze nailed it. The erroneous word should have been "aid," not "aide." And Suze, in the U. S. Army, an assistant is still called an "Aide de Camp." Incidentally, the Navy calls it a Flag Lieutenant.

Propinquity--Thanks again for helping me spot my other errors--and it cracks me up that a post about errors should have so many errors. :D The helping hand is appreciated.

Postie--I get "embarrassing" wrong all the time. It's sorta, uh, embarrassing. Thanks for the kind words. It's much appreciated.

Elana--Thanks. And aren't you supposed to be taking a break? :D

Suze--unfortunately I am the product of the American public school system, so I get American idiom wrong as well as a boatload of other things. In my experience, corporal punishment is a great motivator (I'm remembering Officer Candidate School here).

Liza--maybe entwined isn't a real word, but maybe it should be. I hereby declare entwined part of the WSMG lexicon. And good job on your thesis! :D

Karen--I'm with you. Learning is certainly the key. I'm getting ready to start my first (real) novel, so I expect to be learning a lot.

Thanks everyone for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

Postman said...

Hey, I was taking my evening constitutional yesterday and thinking about this post when I suddenly remembered one I get wrong all the time (much to

Equivalent? Or equivocal?

Ambivalent and ambiguous are terms I get mixed up all the time, too. It appears that I don't get along well with that "-vent" suffix.

"Ensconced" and "absconded" are pretty easy for me to mix up, too...

P.S. You're quite welcome, sir. And again, thank you for the link love.

Waddaya wanna say?

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