Vocab Builder: Sounds Good to Me

This week’s Vocab Builder is nothing more complicated than a list of words I like the sound of. Fussbudget was one of my mom’s favorites when we kids were growing up—and it still sometimes describes me accurately, although I’m trying to reform.

  • fussbudget, noun: one who worries over little things.

In truth, his customary precautions do make him sound a bit like a paranoid fussbudget, but, he says, “I pay attention, and I’ve never had a problem.” —Washington Post, 1999

  • apocryphal, adjective: describes something that is spread around as true but is highly unlikely to be so.

That’s not counting the apocryphal bit of CIA lore from the 1980s wherein the agency’s spooks tricked the Soviets into installing rogue software on components of a Russian pipeline, causing it to explode. —Popular Mechanics, January 2011

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  • pugnacious, adjective: belligerent, quarrelsome.

Palin may say she’s a pugnacious jock primed to take on the big boys, but her beauty-queen figure and glossy hair are her calling cards. —Newsweek, June 21, 2010

  • jury-rig, verb: to set up in a makeshift fashion for temporary use.

Another excellent tool for insect collection is a seine, which you can jury-rig by tying your shirt or handkerchief between two poles. —Field & Stream, July 2010

  • Susurrus, noun: a rustling or whispering sound.

They whispered to themselves, a soft, low susurrus that might have been the crashing of distant waves were such an alien noise not unknown in this landlocked place. —John Connolly, The Lovers (2009)

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The Writing Resource Is a Finalist

Thanks, all, for helping The Writing Resource become a finalist in Grammar.net’s The Best Grammar Blog of 2011 contest. It’s in good company, too. I regularly read many of the blogs listed, and I’m honored that my blog is listed among such stalwarts of good grammar.

The final round of voting begins on September 26 and all blogs will start at zero. Please remember to vote for The Writing Resource in the final round.

Thanks for your support, gang!

The Best Grammar Blog of 2011 nominee

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The Best Grammar Blog of 2011: Nominate Now

The Writing Resource has been nominated in Grammar.net’s The Best Grammar Blog of 2011 contest. It’s in good company, too. I regularly read many of the blogs listed, and I’m honored that my blog is listed among such stalwarts of good grammar.

To make it to the final voting round, however, I need your help. Click on the badge below and nominate The Writing Resource to move on to the voting round.

The Best Grammar Blog of 2011 nominee

Thanks for nominating this blog. More importantly, thanks for reading it!

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Vocab Builder: It’s Kismet

Sometimes the only thing linking a post’s vocabulary words together is that they all appealed to me when I wrote my weekly list. This week’s Vocab Builder is such a one.

  • Obfuscate, verb: to confuse

As long as Islamist groups continue to deny, minimize, or obfuscate the problem, and government and police officials accept their inaccurate versions of reality, women will continue to be killed for honor in the West. —Middle East Quarterly

  • Viscous, adjective: having a thick, sticky consistency.

A new carbon-based material called forged composite is produced from a viscous slurry of carbon strands and resin that’s poured into molds. —Popular Mechanics

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  • soporific, adjective: causing drowsiness or sleepiness.

Gregory plans on telling security guards and school resource officers to keep an eye out in case students come to class impaired by the soporific sweets. —Las Cruces Sun-News

  • Kismet, noun: destiny.

Sneed says it’s kismet to have now hired Scott Schwartz, son of “Godspell” composer Stephen Schwartz, to direct “A Servant of Two Masters” for him, opening July 7. —Denver Post

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Vocab Builder: -Er Words

Next in our series of words that share suffixes is -er words. The -er suffix changes a verb, such as run, into a noun that denotes a person doing the action, like runner. It also changes nouns, such as ranch, into nouns that are somehow involved with the root noun, like rancher. The ending is native to English, coming to us from Middle English’s -ere and Old English’s -ere, according to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Alternate spellings include -or and -ar.

  • abjurer, noun: one who solenmly rejects or abstains from something.

Should the abjurer desire to go to Scotland, rather than across seas, a border town or village took the place of the port of embarkation, and he was directed by the coroner to pass through the place assigned. –Norman Maclaren Trenholme, The Right of Sanctuary in England: A Study in Institutional History (1903)

  • busker, noun: one who plays music in a public place for donations.

Castle Street is a wide park-like thoroughfare given over to foot traffic, mercilessly hard stainless steel benches from another age, the occasional tree, and the obligatory busker or three. –Barry B. Longyear, “Murder in Parliament Street”

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  • warrantor, noun: someone who gives a warranty.

The army is the warrantor of the modern foundations of Turkey. —Focus News

  • bursar, noun: treasurer.

The college Bursar, with an eye to maintenance costs, requested a durable cladding material, which would not only look good, but would require minimal aftercare. –Build.co.uk

  • mollycoddler, noun: a person who excessively indulges or coddles someone.

The politician is more or less of a mollycoddler, but the high school debater having no ax to grind speaks out boldly and brings out many points which the public desires to know about a question. —The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Volume 2 (1916)

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Nine Words to Avoid in Your Writing

Some words really rile an audience up. Just read The Chicago Manual of Style’s Facebook wall on any given day. Suddenly the conversation isn’t about your writing but about your word choice. Online, comment areas are taken over by people vehemently opposed to the way you used one word out of a thousand. But you looked up the word and you know your use of it matches a dictionary definition.

Bryan Garner refers to terms like these as “skunked terms.” In Garner’s Modern American Usage, he writes:

When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another—a phase that might take ten years or a hundred—it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use, even if it originated purely as the result of word-swapping or slipshod extension*. Group 1 comprises various members of the literati, ranging from language aficionados to hard-core purists; Group 2 comprises linguistic liberals and those who don’t concern themselves much with language. As time goes by, Group 1 dwindles; meanwhile, Group 2 swells (even without an increase among the linguistic liberals).

A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become “skunked.”

Words change meaning; language evolves. In his new book, What Language Is, John McWhorter writes that it is “general silliness” to resist a “language’s moving on as all languages always have … No one in Milan walks around annoyed that people aren’t speaking Latin.” Yet if you use a word that’s in flux or that has grown to encompass a new meaning, especially a meaning at odds with a traditional meaning, there will always be someone who will take you to task … loudly.

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Lake Superior University goes so far as to publish an annual Banished Words List. Not all the words on the list are skunked terms in the sense that they have new definitions people object to, but several skunked terms have made it on to the list over the years, including refudiate (2011), czar (2010), green (2009), surge (2008), and awesome (2007).

Of course, what one person sees as objectionably another doesn’t even notice. Your audience might not blink at refudiate or surge or awesome, or they might storm the castle. For example, when I write for the Copyediting audience, I know that every word will be scrutinized. Many readers are language purists and wouldn’t hesitate to criticize the use of refudiate.

Unless an audience’s unbridled rancor at your word usage is your aim, your best bet is to know your audience and avoid terms that would distract them from your message. Once distracted, they won’t even give you credit for using the other 999 words correctly. Determining what riles your audience is the trick, of course. If they’re more linguistically liberal, you may have nothing to fear. If they are at all interested in language, you can expect them to notice at least the most contested words.

Here are nine to consider avoiding:

Term Traditional Meaning Newer Meaning
bemused to be confused; to be absorbed in thought amused
comprise be made up of make up
data plural of datum datum
disinterested impartial uninterested
enormity state of being outrageous, immoral state of being huge, enormous
fulsome excessively or insincerely flattering copious, plentiful
hopefully in a hopeful manner it is to be hoped
intrigue to secretly plot to arouse interest in
nonplussed surprised, confused unconcerned, not worried

 

What words rile you—or your audience—up? Share them in the comments section below.

* Stretching a word beyond its accepted meaning because its meaning isn’t properly understood, as with literally and verbal.

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Vocab Builder: How to “Ate” Your Words

Over the last few weeks, we’ve looked at different prefixes to help us improve our vocabularies. Now we move to the other end of words: suffixes. This week’s suffix, -ate, comes from the Old French -at (we added the e later) or (e), or comes directly from the Latin -atus, creating nouns or adjectives. In addition, -ate also comes from the French -er or directly from the Latin -are, creating verbs.

  • aerate, verb: to supply with air or to expose to oxygen.

I’m fortunate that I can get aged wood shavings that provide soil drainage and help aerate the soil, making it much fluffier. —Mother Earth News

  • collegiate, adjective: of or related to college.

The first known cheer came from some Princeton spectators during a Princeton-Rutgers football game – the first collegiate football game ever–in 1869. —The Washington Post

  • desolate, adjective: deserted or empty; sad, joyless.

With profits from oil and natural gas, the young emir transformed this desolate spit of Persian Gulf real estate into one of the richest countries on Earth. —The Atlantic Monthly

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  • maturate, verb: to mature.

As students adjust to the college or university environment and maturate beyond the learning style restrictions of their first year, the development of a repertoire of learning styles becomes important to the student expecting to obtain a degree. Journal of Instructional Psychology

  • prelate, noun: a high-ranking official, such as a bishop, in the Christian Church.

The bishop has compared himself to another prelate, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who in 1993 was accused of sexual abuse by a man who later recanted. —The New York Times

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Vocab Builder: Comparing Intra- and Inter-

We continue our look at prefixes with a pair that people often confuse: intra- and inter-. Intra-, meaning within or inside, comes from the Latin intra, which also means within. Interestingly, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the prefix intra- was not often used in Latin. Inter- is also Latin, meaning between or among, as well as reciprocally. The Latin term is believed to descend from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *enter, also meaning between or among. An intranet, then, is a network only for those within a certain group, such as a company, while the Internet is a network open to anyone. Let’s look at some more intra- and inter- words.

  • intramural, adjective: occurring within one community, such as sports within a college.

Republican prospects rest on the savvy and intramural statesmanship of a trio of leaders who were hunkered down last week in an otherwise deserted Capitol: Gingrich in the House, Bob Dole and Phil Gramm in the Senate. —Newsweek

  • intrapersonal, adjective: occurring within one’s self.

The psychological variant emphasizes the intrapersonal origins of poverty: emotional problems (for example, depression) or lack of interpersonal abilities (Alcock, 1997). —Social Work

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  • interdependent, adjective: of two or more people or things that rely on one another.

Since then, the operations of multinational corporations have evolved into an integrated, interdependent worldwide network of resources and capabilities best characterized as transnational. —USA Today

  • interfuse, verb: to join two or more things together.

The crisp shadows of afternoon dissolved, and in a progression without increments it seemed that their constituent darkness interfused the remaining light. —Southwest Review

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Take a Minute to Write Right

Writing books abound. Some are invaluable, such as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, while others aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Two books I came across recently, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey and Write Right, offer quick writing tips that you can put to use immediately. The writing in both is crisp, clean, and clear, and the advice is on the money. Oh, and they’re self-published books, demonstrating that DIY books can be worth seeking out and purchasing.

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

This short work by Steve Almond focuses on fiction writing and is an example of creativity you won’t find in books from traditional publishers. The first half of the book (or perhaps the second, depending on your point of view) contains 30 very short (1–2 page) essays on writing fiction. Flip the book over, and there are 30 flash fiction stories that back up the essays.

Almond’s writing style is straightforward and no holds barred. The first essay points out the two opposing forces of writing: “an absolute conviction in the importance of your work … that you (and you alone) have stories the world must hear” and “the creeping suspicion that any sustained effort to write is doomed.” The remainder of the essays teaches you to control one or the other force. They’re never completely defeated, of course, but controlling them is the first step to becoming a better writer.

Almond helps you to get your ego under control and to see the reality of your work. Only then can you improve it and make it worthy of readers. And worthy it must be. His Hippocratic Oath of Writing—never confuse the reader—makes the need plain. “Back when I was editing a literary magazine,” says Almond, “the most common reason we rejected stories was not because of shoddy sentences or flat characters but because we were fucking lost.” If readers spend the first few minutes of reading your story trying to figure out what’s going on rather than relating to your characters, they’ll give up. The author lists a few ways to tell if your story is too confusing for readers.

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Another problem fiction writers commonly deal with is trying to be artsy and stylish. “Style is doomed, to the exact extent it implies a conscious effort to shape the language” (author’s emphasis) So what’s the fix? Stop thinking about it and just write, says Almond. Don’t try to shape the language. “Voice is what emerges when you stop performing, when your voice on the page flows from your voice off the page, its particular tone and vernacular” (author’s emphasis).

Write Right: 26 Tips to Improve Your Writing. Dramatically.

The purpose of fiction writing is to tell the stories you have tell in a way that makes readers want to read them. The purpose of business writing is to create results, and Roger A. Shapiro has been creating results for over 35 years. He’s written corporate communications, advertising, speeches, and training materials and led writing seminars and workshops for students and corporate employees. His book is loaded with lessons he’s tried and proven over the years.

The first thing Shapiro wants his readers to understand is what a result is. It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are if you don’t know what your writing is supposed to accomplish when you set the words down. Whether your business objective is to increase site traffic, build your corporate brand, increase sales, or something else, the result you’re after is that the reader takes a specific action after reading your copy.

“What do you want your reader to do after taking the time to read [the] marketing tool you created?” says Shapiro. Answer that question, and you’re ready to begin the writing process.

The writing process, however, doesn’t begin with the actual writing. “An average writer quickly accepts writing assignments and hits the keyboard writing,” says Shapiro in the second tip. “A great writer … incorporates a deep pre-writing process” in order to understand what action he wants the reader to take.

As in fiction, readers who spend the first few minutes reading your business message are not likely to read through to the end. In fact, they’re less likely to keep reading because they know they’re being sold to. Shapiro shows you ways to tighten your writing throughout the book, such as eliminating prepositions. Not all of them, of course, but many of them. He offers this comparison:

The wireless router on your network lets anyone in your office access your data quickly and easily.
Your network’s wireless router lets anyone access your office data quickly and easily.

Four words eliminated, and suddenly the sentence is much quicker to comprehend.

Conclusion

I highly recommend both books. The one complaint I have with both of them is the lack of exercises. The best way to really learn a lesson is to practice it. Yes, you can practice on your own, but the results are so much better when you practice each lesson in an exercise designed to help you practice what that lesson was teaching. Repetition can be a great teacher. Without exercises, writers may read the lessons but never put them to work. They are eager to jump into the writing, all the words of wisdom forgotten in the moment. If either of these books is revised in the future, I’d love to see some more guidance for writers in the form of practice exercises.

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Vocab Builder: Greek Syn-

Last week we looked at the Greek prefix epi-, meaning addition, above, or upon, to expand our vocabulary. This week, we’ll look at syn-, a prefix meaning all together or united. Syn- descends from the Greek sun-, meaning with.

  • synchronous, adjective: Two or more things happening at the same time.

In mid-June, the Smokies’ synchronous fireflies-the only species in the country that flash in unison-are at the peak of their group blinking frenzy for a two-week window. —Backpacker

  • syncope, noun: when one loses consciousness because of a drop in blood pressure.

Because vaccinees may develop syncope, sometimes resulting in falling with injury, observation for 15 minutes after administration is recommended. —MarketWatch

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  • synergy, noun: cooperative action of at least two organizations that yields something greater than the sum of the parts.

This sort of synergy created between a creative fan base and a group of players can be magical as we witnessed last night with Miguel Olivo. —Seattle Post Intelligencer

  • synodic, adjective: Relating to the conjunction of heavenly bodies.

No relationship was found between domestic violence calls and either the anomalistic (apogee to apogee) or synodic (full moon to full moon) lunar cycles over the first 2 years, but more calls occurred at the third quarter during the 3rd year. —Journal of Psychology

  • syntax, noun: Rules governing word order in grammatical sentences.

Jim Dwyer, the New York Times columnist, movingly recounted how Ms. Ponsot was groping not only for vocabulary bur for order and placement and usage — in a word, for syntax. —America

You can get the Vocab Builder every weekday by following me on Twitter.

Update: Thanks to Susan Freeman for noticing that I incorrectly labelled synchronous as a noun rather than an adjective. Even editors need editors!

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