Sunday, August 30, 2015

Vocabulary Pointers

from The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker


In general, don't use a big word when a small one fits. "One or two will do no harm, but any accumulation is fatal––words like depart instead of go." Combining large words with small ones at the end can add power to writing, and was often used by Shakespeare:

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."
"These violent delights have violent ends..."
"Like as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore, so do our minutes, hasten to their end."


Be careful not to repeat the same words too often in your writing. Any word can be overused, dulling your work. But, some words, like very, quite, rather, etc., are used too often by other writers. So, even when you use them sparingly, they can still irritate readers.


Some words, like shark, knife, and bomb are concrete - they are things we can see and touch (carefully). Other words are abstract ideas, like truth, beauty, anger, etc. In general, try to use concrete words because they're more specific. "The writer's ultimate skill perhaps lies in making a single object represent its whole abstract class."

Examples:                                                       Better:

Friendliness is the salesperson's best asset.            A smile is the salesperson's best asset.

To understand the world by observing all            To see the world in a grain of sand. . . .
of its geological details. . . .

DENOTATION & CONNOTATION: two sides of meaning

"When we look up synonyms in our dictionary––shake, tremble, quake, quiver, shiver, shudder, wobble––we see that all of them specify, or denote, the same thing: a shaking motion. But each also connotes a different kind of shake . . . These connotations have certain emotional attachments: tremble (fear), quiver (excitement), shiver (coldness), shudder (horror), wobble (imbalance)." Make sure your words both denote and connote what you want.


These are short forms of verbs, like: don't, won't, can't, shouldn't, isn't. Avoid them in formal writing.


A Euphemism is when you change a word with negative connotations to one that's positive, like saying you had your dog "put to sleep", when you really took it to a vet to have it killed. There was probably a very good reason for doing it, and you shouldn't feel guilty. But people often do, so they sugarcoat their words to help justify their actions. Try to avoid euphemisms in essays, except in humorous irony.
Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck, or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.  ––George Orwell

A cliché is a phrase commonly found (and overused) in writing, art, and everyday speech.

Examples: It's my way or the highway.
                   You ain't seen nothin' yet.
                   It's all in a day's work.

Avoid using clichés in your writing––avoid anything that will make your readers' eyes roll. "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile." ––Gérard de Nerval


Jargon is technical speech, specific to a trade such as medicine, engineering, or education. Jargon is usually vague and confusing. Avoid it.

Example: The plot structure of the play provides no objective correlative.
Better: The plot is incoherent. Its structure is lopsided.

Example: The character development of the heroine is excellent.
Better: The heroine matures convincingly.

Example: Three motivation profile studies were developed in the area of production management.
Better: The company studied its production managers, and discovered three motivators.


Pronouns are troubling, but often necessary. Beware these common situations:

One is very formal, sometimes too formal. Try to cut it from all your writing.

Example: One finds one's opinion changing as one grows older.
Better: Our opinions change as we grow older.
Even Better: Opinions change with age.

We and You can sound pompous (pompézny) and presumptuous (príliš sebavedomý). Don't put words in other people's mouths.

Example: You probably hate ice cream because it melts too quickly and drips everywhere.
Better: Many people dislike how messy ice cream can be. [You said the same thing without accusing the reader of hating ice cream.]

You and They can also create confusion. It makes the reader ask, who exactly? See if you can change you and they to we or everyone.

Sometimes it's hard to know when to use nominative pronouns versus objective, especially when combined with like or as. As takes the nominative, and like the objective:

Examples: She dresses like me.
                   She dresses as I do.

Don't be afraid of saying me.                Right                         Wrong                      Also Wrong
                                                between you and me        between you and I      between you and myself

Don't confuse who and whom.

Wrong: Give the ticket to whomever wants it.
Right: Give the ticket to whoever wants it.

Don't confuse whose and who's. Whose is the possessive of who. Who's means "who is."

Wrong: Who's pen is this?            Wrong: Whose your favourite singer?
Right: Whose pen is this?            Right: Who's your favourite singer?


Be careful to note which words fit best with countable nouns and which with uncountable nouns.

Countable Modifiers             Uncountable Modifiers
many                                        much
few                                           less
a number of                              an amount of

How to Shorten Wordy Sentences

from The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker

1. "Our thoughts are naturally roundabout, our phrases naturally secondhand. Our satisfaction in merely getting something down on paper naturally blinds us to our errors and ineptitudes. It hypnotizes us into believing we have said what we meant, when our words actually say something else: "Every seat in the house was filled to capacity." Two ways of expressing a thought, two clichés, have collided: every seat was taken and the house was filled to capacity. Cut the excess wordage, and the absurd accident vanishes: "Every seat was taken."

2. Learn to count your words. Any time you can shorten a sentence, and keep the meaning, do it.

3. Don't use the passive voice! It adds more words, and it's weaker.

4. Remove redundant words (see attached lists)

5. Replace long phrases with short ones:

Examples:                               Better:                        In a Sentence
due to the fact that                   because            The game was canceled because of rain.
in connection with                   about                They liked everything about the university.
in many instances                    often                 People often take offense over trivialities.
in some instances                    sometimes         Sometimes it's better to be polite than right.
rarely ever, seldom ever          rarely                Billy rarely misses a chance for comedy.

6. Change a noun to a verb to shorten a sentence:

Examples:                                                                    Better:
Acid rain causes water pollution.                                 Acid rain pollutes water.
The invasions caused depopulation of the country.     The invasions depopulated the country.

7. Limit your of's. If you use too many, it begins to look like sausage links:

Example: "Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge."
Better: "Education instills the art of using knowledge."

8. You can shorten a complex sentence with the following tricks: appositives, relatives understood, phrasal adjectives, past participles, gerunds, and ablative absolutes.

Apposition (not opposition) is when two things sit next to each other, in this case words. An appositive is a noun, used as an adjective, like William the Conqueror. Conqueror is a noun, but here, it describes William. This is a shortened form of "William, who was a conqueror," and adds complexity to a sentence. Appositives can be a word or a phrase:

Examples:   "Bob's car, a wreck, could barely go past 40 kph."
                     "Columbia University, the second-largest landowner in NYC, is part of the Ivy League."

Phrasal Adjectives
This works just like an appositive, using an adjective in place of a noun
Example: "There was the lake, [which was] smooth in the morning air."

Relatives Understood
These are sentences where you can omit the words that, which, and who. Basically, when you don't have to use these words, it's better not to.

Example: The house, [which was] facing north, had a superb view.

Past Participles
1. You can start a subordinate clause with a participle. In this example, there are three participles leading up to a simple sentence.

Example: "Dead to the world, wrapped in sweet dreams, untroubled by bills, he slept till noon."

2. Beware dangling participles!!! This is when your clause doesn't agree with the subject. This creates confusion:

Example: "With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the arena."

This sounds like the speaker's father has a tail. Most likely, the poodle held its tail high, not the man.

Fixed: "With his tail held high, the prize poodle followed my father around the arena."


Gerunds can begin clauses, just like participles, and can also fall into the same trap:

Example: "Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed."

This sounds like the deer was driving like a maniac. But most likely, there was a human at the wheel, and the deer was merely crossing the street at the wrong time.

Fixed: "Driving like a maniac, Paul hit and killed a deer."

Note how similar this sentence is to a Relative Understood:

Example: "Paul, [who was] driving like a maniac, hit and killed a deer.

Ablative Absolutes

These are prepositional phrases, where the preposition itself is omitted (ablative means omitted). These are similar to appositives, but notice how the nouns don't describe the subject, because they're part of a prepositional phrase:

Example: "He ran up the stairs, [with] a bouquet of roses under his arm."

 "The cat froze, [with] its back arched, [and with its] eyes frantic."

Punctuation Pointers

from The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker


1. Commas add clarity, showing which words fit together to form thoughts, and which words are separate.

Example: After the first letter she wrote again. (This sounds like a sentence fragment)
Better: After the first letter, she wrote again.

2. A single comma can change the meaning of a sentence:

3. Sometimes a comma won't make such a big difference, but will still suggest an emotion.

Example: He granted the usual permission and walked away. (He granted it without really caring.)
More Emotional: He granted the usual permission, and walked away. (It seems he was upset.)

4. Commas are used with clauses, conjunctions, some inserted words, and lists.

Clause: In the autumn, he went to Paris.
Conjunction: He was tired, so he went home.
Inserted words (a little interruption): I think, however, we still shouldn't do it.
                                                                He moved from Dallas, Texas, to Detroit.
List: I bought a suitcase, a bottle of Jack, six pairs of socks, a toothbrush, and a ticket to Vegas, baby.

5. There are special cases where a comma can join two sentences together, without a conjunction. This is done in cases of extreme, intense drama, when you feel like you need to say several things at once:

Examples: I came, I saw, I conquered.
                   She sighed, she cried, she almost died.

Note the subjects in each of these examples remains the same. Repeating and in these sentences would ruin the mood. There's no clear rule to this, you just have to feel when it's right.


1. Semicolons are stronger than commas and weaker than full stops. They take the place of a conjunction, connecting two sentences, so long as they are logically related!

Correct: Semi-colons were once a great mystery to me; I had no idea where to put them.
Incorrect: Semi-colons were once a great mystery to me; I'd really like a sandwich.

2. Semicolons are optional. So, why do we have semi-colons if they're not necessary? For variety. If all your sentences are separated by full-stops, it can feel a little staccato. Semi-colons represent a shorter pause and show readers how sentences relate to each other.

3. When two sentences use the same verb, you can even cut it out of the second:

Example: Golf demands the best of time and space; tennis demands the best of personal energy.
Better: Golf demands the best of time and space; tennis, the best of personal energy.

4. Semi-colons work well with transitional words like: moreover, therefore, then, however, nevertheless.

Example: He was tired, dirty, and lonely; moreover, his foot hurt.

5. Only use semicolons where you could also use a full stop! Don't use them with a dependent clause, That's what commas are for.


1. Colons have several functions. They can be used for lists, or to join sentences, like a semi-colon. Here's the main difference. The two parts of the sentence aren't merely related logically, like with a semicolon. The second part explains and describes the first:

Example: Sports at any age are beneficial: they keep you healthy and fit.

2. The second part doesn't need to be a stand-alone sentence. It could be a single word or a list:

Example: Pierpont lived for only one thing: money.
                 The following players will start: Smith, Jones, Baughman, and Stein.

3. Colons are also used in ratios, telling time, and book titles.


1. Hyphens are used to connect words together, specifically when two words work together as one adjective.

Example: a high-school teacher works in a high school.

Be careful to put hyphens in the right place. Five sentence-exercises are not the same as five-sentence exercises.

2. You also use hyphens for words like T-shirt and X-ray, and to add prefixes to certain words: ex-husband, anti-taxes, pro-life. You also use them for two-word numbers: twenty-one, forty-two, etc.

3. You can also use hyphens to break a word in two at the end of a line, typical in newspaper articles, so long as you follow a couple rules:

          1. You must break the word according to its syllables. If the word is one syllable, you can't break it.
          2. If the word is already hyphenated, like self-sufficient, break it along the hyphen; don't add another!


Dashes are long hyphens (just put two together), and they work like commas to interrupt the main thought of a sentence with additional information. You don't have to use them, but they add more emphasis. They're louder, and faster, indicating that the speaker is excited, and talking quickly:

Examples: If Peter wanted to go, whether invited or not, he certainly could have.
                   If Peter wanted to go––whether invited or not––he certainly could have.


These function like dashes, only where dashes shout, parentheses whisper.

Examples: Thus did Innocent III (we shall return to him shortly) inaugurate an age of horrors.
                   But in such circumstances (see 34), be cautious.


1. Quotation marks indicate the inclusion of someone else's voice, copied verbatim. Not every quote needs quotation marks. It depends on how you show it. If you add a quote directly into your paragraph, like, "All the world's a stage," then you need to add quotation marks. But, when you quote a longer passage, don't use them. Instead, add a line of space above and below, and indent it, like this:
All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.

2. When writing dialogue, signal every change of speaker by forming a new paragraph. If one speaker goes on for several paragraphs, place quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but at the end of only the last paragraph.

3. When writing dialogue, if one speaker quotes someone else, use single marks within the quote.

Example: Kirk said, "A majority of the informants thought infer meant 'imply.' "

Note the space between the single and double quotation mark at the end. This makes it easier to read.

4. When quoting poetry, you typically center it on the page, not using quotations:

                                                An aged man is but a paltry thing,
                                                A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
                                                Soul clap its hands and sing. . . .

To insert this poem directly into a paragraph (entirely up to you), add quotation marks like this, "An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its hands and sing. . . ." This is also the only acceptable time to use a virgule "/" in your essay.

5. Periods and commas go inside your quotation marks, but colons and semi-colons go outside.

Examples: "This strange disease of modern life," in Arnold's words, remains uncured.
                   In Greece, it was "know thyself"; in America, it is "know thy neighbor."
                   He left after "Hail to the Chief": he could do nothing more.

ELLIPSIS   . . .

Use an ellipsis when you want to cut out part of a quotation to make it shorter. Be careful not to change the meaning!

Example: All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; . . . And one man in his time plays many parts . . . .

Note, the last ellipsis has four dots because it includes a full stop at the end.


Use brackets to insert your own words into a quotation, so it makes better sense, or to add more information.

Example: "Byron had already suggested that the gentlemen of the Quarterly Review [especially Croker] had killed John Keats."

Brackets are useful when you're quoting someone who made a mistake, and you want to show it was his mistake not yours:

Example: "On no occassion [sic] could we trust them." (occassion is misspelled)

Sic is short for sic erat scriptum, meaning, "thus it was written."

ITALICS  abcdefg...

1. Italics emphasize the importance of a word, especially reflecting how people speak in dialogue, their voices and accents:

Example: He wanted to tell them that those dead boys who had lurched and shambled their way down the spiral staircase had done something worse than frighten him: they had offended him.

Example: "Come in, my friend," a voice––not Rimer's––called.  It was followed by a tittery laugh that made Jonas's flesh creep.  He laughs like a dead person, Roy had said.

2. Also use italics when adding foreign words into a sentence, unless it's already been assimilated. Words like naïve and exposé are already common in English, so they don't need italics:

Examples: The author of this naïve exposé suffers from an idée fixe.

3. Slang, however, is best noted with quotations marks (although you should avoid slang in essays):

Examples: Some "cool" pianists use the twelve-tone scale.

A subject like jazz includes a great deal of slang, so it makes sense to explain and clarify just what the terms mean. It can't be avoided.


As stated earlier, only use this when quoting poetry. Don't use expressions like and/or.

Wrong: bacon and/or eggs.        Wrong: male/female

Right: bacon or eggs, or both.    Right: male-female