Writing Productivity: Measurements and Tools

Recently on the Copyediting blog, I wrote about how editors could measure their productivity: what measurements are useful, how to measure your productivity, and what tools you can use to measure them.

Although writing is less linear than editing, productivity can be just as important to writers, particularly when you’re a writer-for-hire. You want to ensure that you’re getting paid for the time you put into thinking, dreaming, researching, writing, rewriting, and self-editing your piece. When someone offers you $250 for an 800-word article, is that a good rate? Is $75 for 200 words worth your time?

It’s tough to put a price on the art in writing—the creativity and originality you bring to a topic—but you can track the time it takes you to create that art and determine if you’ve gotten a fair price for your craft.

Read more about productivity on Copyediting:

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Try and Understand

Does the following sentence from Adweek bother you:

It is tempting—as well as, in liberal circles, heretical—to try and separate Roger Ailes from his politics.

Some language pedants will be immediately drawn to try and and will insist that it should be try to. But should it be? Let’s take a look.

Try And’s History

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Online Etymology Dictionary both date try as in “to attempt, to test” to the 14th century. The OED’s first reference for try and dates to 1686:

They try and express their love to God by their thankfulness to him. —The history of monastical conventions and military institutions (1686)

Right away, we can see we’re not dealing with a new concept. Try and has been in common usage for over 300 years. This Google Ngram shows that although try to has been more common than try and, the difference was fairly consistent until the early 19th century.

After 1820, usage of try and remained stable, but that of try to shot way up. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), try and started to be criticized as ungrammatical at that time. Never mind that by then, the usage had been in circulation for over 100 years and similar constructions (e.g., go and) had been around since the 13th century. Clearly, people started believing it to be ungrammatical, yet try and continued to be used to some extent.

What the Usage Experts Say

By the early 20th century, usage experts were advising that try and was a legitimate, if casual or idiomatic, construction. In 1926, H. W. Fowler wrote in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage that try and “is an idiom that should be not discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.” In 1957, Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans wrote in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage that try and is “standard English.”

While R.W. Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), is undecided about try and’s legitimacy, he notes many uses of it in literature. Finally, Bryan Garner (2009) puts try and at stage 4 of his Language Change Index: “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguist stalwarts (die-hard snoots).”

What We Really Say

The experts can tell us to use one construction over another all they want. The question is whether we listen.

Sourcetry andtry to
Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)2,34138,650
Time magazine2438,549
Google Books (1990s)70,3211.3 million
Google Books (2000s)125,5451.9 million
Google News35,10055,000
Google436 million900 million

All results from the above table are from written modern texts (spoken texts were filtered out of COCA), and all but the Google results are from edited texts. Clearly we are still using try and, but we continue to use try to more often. Surprisingly, the gap between the two is smallest within Google News results. Although newspapers tend to be written less formally to appeal to a mass audience, Google results contain links to many, many web pages that have not been written by professional writers, let alone edited. But the results seem to indicate that we use try to in our most formal writing, and try and is very common in less formal situations, which backs up what Garner and MWDEU tell us.

Try And’s Informality

Try and is neither a new construction nor an ungrammatical one. It’s been consistently used and accepted for centuries. However, it is typically used in casual writing, intimate writing, and speech rather than in formal writing. Before using try and, think about your text’s tone and style and your audience. If you’re writing something formal, such as an academic paper, stick with try to. However, if you’re writing something less formal, such as a magazine article, go ahead and use try and.

What other usage questions do you have? Send them to me!

Update: Thanks to reader KK for pointing out typos in this post. They’ve been corrected. Even editors need editors.

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Testament vs. Testimony: It’s All Relative

A Copyediting reader recently asked me about the difference between testimony and testament. Although both terms relate to evidence, testimony specifically refers to evidence from a witness, while testament is “tangible proof or evidence,” according to American Heritage Dictionary. The terms share a common, if distant, root that reveals their relationship.

Testament entered English in 1290 from the Latin testāmentum, “a will,” which is from the Latin testārī, “to make a will,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Testārī, Chambers continues, comes from the Latin testis, “witness.” The idea is that the testament, the will, was a witness in a lawsuit to the deceased’s wishes.

Testimony entered English before 1382, referring to the Ten Commandments, as used in the Wycliffe Bible. It wasn’t until about 1425, says Chambers, that testimony picked up its legal meaning from a borrowing of the Old French testimonie and the Latin testimōnium, both meaning “evidence, proof.” Now, watch what happens when we pull apart testimony’s Latin ancestor.

Testimōnium, says Online Etymology, is from testis, “witness” and -monium, a suffix that means an “action, state, condition.” That testi- that is hiding in both in testament and testimony ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *tris- for “three,” as in the third party who gives witness.

From three to witness to evidence, it’s all relative.

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Dots, Words, and Juice: Three Books on Words

I’ve reviewed several serious reference books in this blog. But language books don’t all have to be serious to be worth reading. Sometimes they can be fun and entertaining—and still teach you something. Here are three books that fit that description.

Alphabetter Juice

Roy Blount (pronounced blunt) Jr. is the author of many books on various topics, a frequent panelist on Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and a member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel. Alphabetter Juice is a follow-up to Alphabet Juice, both humorous works of word stories.

Blount espouses the concept of sonicky, a word he created from “sonic (evocative of sound) and kinesthetic (evocative of body movement).” Sonicky words, “the most expressive English words,” he writes, “engage the ear, the vocal apparatus, and by implication other parts of the body: call me suggestible, but I can feel hump, which first appeared in English as part of humpback, in my upper back and shoulders.” It’s an interesting concept, one that leads Blount to look at all manner of words, including ad hominy, gag, and knickknack.

The entries are arranged alphabetically (more or less), so you can jump in and out any way you’d like, making it a great read when you don’t have much time to read. Read a couple entries while your computer boots up. Read a couple more while the cupcakes bake. Read a couple of pages just before bed. (Now you know how I get my reading done. Cupcakes, anyone?)

One note: I read this book on my Kindle. I love the advantages of an e-reader, but Blount’s book deserved better treatment than it got. There were many odd line breaks and some typos, neither of which exist in the print edition. I’ve read other e-editions that don’t have this problem, so I know this isn’t a universal problem. Whoever prepped the book for e-readers needs to hire a proofreader (I’m available). Do yourself a favor with this particular book: read it in print.

On the Dot

On the Dot by Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez is ostensibly about that mark we use for periods. Really, though, chapters just start with the different uses of the dot, such as in Morse Code, as bullets, with musical notes, and as part of several punctuation marks. The discussion then goes wherever the words lead the authors. You might get a brief history of Morse Code and ciphers, such as the cipher George Washington used, or an explanation of bullet lists followed by an entertaining history of the word bullet to mean the projectile that comes from a firearm.

The brothers Humez know their stuff, too. Writers independent of each other, they’ve coauthored several books on language, including Latin for People and Alpha to Omega. Their writing is rhythmic and witty, their topic light and entertaining. On the Dot is a fun read for a dreary day.

How to Read a Word

Historical lexicographer Elizabeth Knowles knows words and how to build “word files.” She’s worked on the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And she knows how dictionaries work.

Her book How to Read a Word introduces readers to the art of creating word files and, thus, dictionaries. Knowles walks us through the process, sharing plenty of word stories along the way. You can read the stories behind wordhoard, Twitterati, vocabulary, and more.

Knowles encourages readers to build their own word files. In the introduction, she writes:

Encountering an unfamiliar word or phrase … is a provocation to find out more. … There has probably never been a time when someone who wishes to explore words has had richer resources to hand. I hope that How to Read a Word will offer its readers a chance to make full use of what is now available to us all.

The book is smartly written. A little more formal than either On the Dot or Alphabetter Juice, it is nevertheless accessible to general readers and is a wealth of information for word lovers.

Don’t forget to vote for The Writing Resource in Grammar.net’s Best Grammar Blog of 2011 contest!

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Grammar Quiz: National Grammar Day Contest

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a contest here on The Writing Resource, and with National Grammar Day coming up next week, I want to give you an opportunity to win a cool grammar prize.

So here’s the deal: correct the following sentences, then submit your answers to me via email by Sunday, February 27, at 5 pm (ET). The person with the most correct answers will win this cool Grammar Day T-shirt and bragging rights. In the event of more than one correct entry, I’ll put all the names in a hat and have my kids pick a winner.

Answers and the winner will be announced here on March 4, National Grammar Day. In many cases, more than one correct answer is possible. I will judge a correct answer as a sentence that is grammatically correct without sounding stilted. All decisions are final.

Ready? Let’s go!

The Writing Resource’s National Grammar Day Contest

Correct the following sentences for grammar. More than one answer may be possible.

  1. The title of the book was very interesting, and the book itself was very dull.
  2. Father Meyer came to the house daily, from which a sturdy friendship grew.
  3. Chicago stretches along the shore of Lake Michigan, which makes a beautiful shore drive possible.
  4. Critics agreed that the movie was unrealistic and it was too long and that it wasn’t interesting.
  5. Come to the meeting prepared to take notes and with some questions to ask.
  6. If a student does his homework daily, your tests will be passed easily.
  7. The flour and butter should be mixed into a paste, and add a small amount of milk.
  8. Unless the mayor sets a new course, our city is likely to be buried beneath a mound of debt.
  9. The selection of stories in both books were extremely good.
  10. Asking one absurd question after another, Bob’s teacher was soon made to dislike him.

You do not have to have your name published to win, but you must email your answers by Sunday, February 27, at 5 pm (ET). You must also be willing to send me your mailing address to receive your prize—the Grammar Day Basic T-shirt in white and in your size choice—should you win. Answers and the winner will be announced on Friday, March 4.

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Punctuation Point: How to Use Brackets

Brackets are those square parentheses next to the letter P on most keyboards: [ ]. Maybe you’ve noticed them sitting there and wondered what they were really for. Today, I’ll give you a brief rundown of how to use them.

To Be More Specific

Actually, what we Americans call brackets are often referred to as square brackets in other places. Our parentheses are otherwise called round brackets: ( ), and both are types of brackets. There are also curly brackets, or braces: { } and angled brackets, or chevrons: < >. And if you’re paying close attention, you’ll note that I used greater than and less than symbols instead of true chevrons. Most keyboards don’t have keys for chevrons (at least here in the States), so the greater than and less than symbols have become popular stand-ins. But let’s not confuse the issue.

Using Square Brackets

The most common use of brackets is in scientific copy, including mathematics and computer coding. However, these are specialties. Here are some common uses of brackets in more general copy:

  • Enclose editorial comments within quoted material. This is the most popular use of brackets in general copy. Whether you’re simply stating sic, translating a term, or adding explanatory text to the quote, enclosing it within the brackets tells your audience that the added text is yours and not part of the original quote.
  • Offer a translation. Sometimes you’ll use a foreign term in your copy. If you want to offer your audience a translation, you can enclose it within brackets.
  • Offer the original foreign term. On the flip side, in translated texts, you might want to include the original foreign term after its translation. Enclose the original term in brackets.
  • Nest parentheses inside of parentheses. If you have one set of parentheses inside another, you can use brackets for the inner set of parentheses. It’s similar to using single quotation marks inside of double quotation marks.
  • Offer phonetic transcriptions. In the rare case you offer a phonetic transcription of a word or phrase (or in the not-so-rare case if that’s your thing), enclose the transcription in brackets.
  • Show indentation change. Proofreaders and editors who still mark up copy by hand will use brackets to show where an indentation should be changed in the copy.

Note that brackets are not usually italicized, even if the text within them is.

A Word of Caution

Check your style guide before you break out the brackets: not all guides use them as I’ve outlined here and some outlaw them completely. The AP Stylebook, for example, doesn’t allow brackets at all in copy for the practical reason that they don’t transmit over the AP’s wire.

Questions? Leave them in the comments section below or email me directly.

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Vocab Builder: Fifty-Cent Words

Last week, I mentioned my love of lyrics that use fifty-cent words. According to Merriam-Webster, a fifty-cent word is “an obscure word used to describe a simple idea thus making the user self-important.” Despite the negative connotation, I don’t think using such words is always a bad thing. They can help you say what you mean and challenge your reader, just a bit. So this week, some big, rare words to add spice to your writing.

Hungry for more? Check out “Fifty-Cent Words: A Vocabulary Words Quiz” and “More 50-Cent Vocabulary Words” on WordPlay.

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

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Vocab Builder: Lyrics

The Christmas music that so recently surrounded us put me in mind of a word list I’ve been wanting to do: unusual or older words found in lyrics. I confess that I like my music to have lyrics with meaning, lyrics that make you think, even, dare I say it, lyrics that use fifty-cent words. Today, a few words from some traditional Christmas songs and a couple from two of my favorite bands.

  • Gladsome: showing happiness. “Angels We Have Heard on High” (traditional)
  • Stanchion: a pole or post that stands upright, such as on a ship. “Old Polina” (Great Big Sea)
  • Dirigible: airship. “Sons and Daughters” (The Decemberists)
  • Wassail: a toast to someone’s health; to  drink to someone’s health. “Here We Come A-Wassailing” (traditional)
  • Upsot: poetic term for upset; to tip something over. “Jingle Bells” (traditional)

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

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10 Subject-Verb Agreement Rules

Subject-verb agreement sounds easy, doesn’t it? A singular subject takes singular verb:

Tom rides his bike to work every day.

A plural subject takes a plural verb:

The boys are climbing the walls like caged animals.

Yet The Copyeditor’s Handbook lists no fewer than 25 cases that aren’t so clear cut, and Garner’s Modern American Usage devotes nearly 5 columns to the topic. Even the comparatively diminutive Grammar Smart devotes five pages (including quizzes) to the topic. What makes subject-verb agreement so hard?

One thing that trips up writers is a long, complicated subject. The writer gets lost in it and forgets which noun is actually the head of the subject phrase and instead makes the verb agree with the nearest noun:

The arrival of new fall fashions have excited all the back-to-school shoppers. (should be has to agree with arrival)

Another trap for writers is the trend away from strict grammatical agreement toward notional agreement, that is the verb agrees with the notion the subject is trying to get across, whether it’s singular or plural:

Twenty-five rules is a lot to digest.
Twenty-five rules are listed on the notice.

And then there’s the fact that English just refuses to fit neatly into a box and stay there. If English can take a left turn when you thought it would go straight, it does.

Here, then, is a brief rundown of 10 nuances of subject-verb agreement.

A subject made up of nouns joined by and takes a plural subject, unless that subject’s intended sense is singular.

She and I run every day.
Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite sandwich.

When a subject is made up of nouns joined by or, the verb agrees with the last noun.

She or I run every day.
Potatoes, pasta, or rice pairs well with grilled chicken.

Collective nouns (team, couple, staff, etc.) take either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the emphasis is on the individual units or on the group as whole.

The football team is practicing night and day for the Super Bowl.
Boston’s school committee disagree about what to cut from the school budget.

Connectives, phrases such as combined with, coupled with, accompanied by, added to, along with, together with, and as well as, do not change the number of the subject. These phrases are usually set off with commas.

Oil, as well as gas, is a popular heating choice.
Peanut butter combined with bread and jelly is a tasty snack. (Here, the peanut butter, bread, and jelly are one unit, a sandwich, so no commas are needed and we keep the singular verb.)

Collecting noun phrases (a bunch of, a group of, a set of, etc.) take either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the emphasis is on the individual units or on the group as whole:

A group of boys were digging in my flower beds!
A set of 12 dishes is all you need for the dinner party.

Each takes a singular verb.

Each boy is excited about the meet; each is well prepared.

None takes a singular verb if what it refers to is singular and a plural verb if its referent is plural.

None of the peas are left on Sean’s plate.
None of the book is reproducible without permission.

With fractions, the verb agrees with the whole.

One-fourth of the books are gone.
One-fourth of the sand is white.

With money, if the amount is specific, use a singular verb; if the amount is vague, use a plural verb.

Within a year, $5 million was spent on building a new factory, and millions more were spent on training future factory workers.

The phrase more than one takes a singular verb (yes, I know that doesn’t sound logical; try to remember that one is followed by something, whether explicitly or implicitly).

More than one box is sitting in the hallway.
More than one is sitting in the hallway.

Have a specific question on subject-verb agreement? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll cover it in this space.

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Weekly Vocab Builder: Patriotic Terms

This week’s words come from a famous document in America’s history. If you are the first person to e-mail me the correct answer, I’ll send you a copy of the document! Here’s the list:

  • Unalienable: not to be separated or given away
  • Liberty: being free from restriction or control
  • Usurpation: a wrongful exercising of authority
  • Despotism: absolute power
  • Tyranny: a government ruled by one person with absolute power

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

Remember, the first person to e-mail me the correct name of the document all these words come from wins a copy of that document! The winner will be announced in this space.

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