Getting the Words Right by MM Pollard, editor, Black Velvet Seductions and the MM in Workshops with MM
©MM Pollard, December, 2012
As you sit at your desk searching your brain for that perfect word, do you ever image a famous author sitting at his or her desk, typing away, every word perfect?
Sorry, but that never happened for any famous author I’ve studied or taught. Hemingway told interviewer George Plimpton for the Paris Review that he revised the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. When Plimpton asked him what stumped him, Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.” (Theodore A Rees Cheney, Getting the Words Right, p. 10)
I advise writers to get the words right, not to strive for the perfect word. I promise you’ll have more hair if you switch your thinking just a little. Besides, getting the right word is hard enough, thanks to confusing word groups like “affect” and “effect,” but you already knew that, didn’t you?
I have chosen a few confusing words that drive writers crazy. Before you ask, I do have a workshop on confusing words in August, 2013, and again in December, 2013. Check out my blog at http://queenofenglish.wordpress.com for more information on this workshop and on many others.
Before I go on, let me tell you a true story. I was on a book seller’s website browsing for an e-book to add to my Nook Color when I found an intriguing romance title. I clicked on it and up came the blurb from the back cover of the book. I was about to buy the book when I read the last sentence (I’m paraphrasing here): Can the heroine’s love save the hero from his decent into madness, or will her love doom her to madness as well?
I didn’t buy the book. If the editor and author couldn’t find a mistake on the back cover, I didn’t feel confident that the story inside the covers would be mistake-free.
When I read a romance, I want to lose myself in the story. I become the heroine. I can lust for the hero all I want, and it doesn’t bother my husband one bit. Nothing takes me out of the story quicker than a mistake like the one in the blurb I gave as an example.
Did you find the mistake that cost that author a sale? I’ll give the answer in this post later.
Here’s the list of words I will cover here.
fewer and less
decent, descent, and dissent
anxious and eager
My biggest pet peeve I have as an editor in this category is fewer and less.
If you use these two words correctly, you’ll be ahead of most of the English-speaking population. You’ll hear these words mixed up on even TV news programs and in publications.
Here’s the rule:
Use few, fewer, fewest to refer to objects that can be counted. Use little, less, and least to refer to things that can’t be counted, with a singular noun (countable or noncountable), with time, distance, and sometimes money.
Basic rule: noncount noun
I have less flour now that I have baked three cakes.
You can’t count flour.
I baked fewer cakes today than I did yesterday.
You CAN count cakes.
Less with a singular noun, count or non-count:
I baked one less cake today than I did yesterday.
Less is correct because CAKE is singular.
I had less time to answer the questions because I was late for the test.
Time is a non-count noun. Think amount here.
Money vs. dollar bills:
I have less money after spending some in the soda machine.
Money here is a non-count noun. Think amount here.
I have fewer dollar bills in my wallet now that I left a tip.
You CAN count dollar bills.
With time and distance:
It took less than two hours to fry the turkey.
Think of less than two hours as one unit of time.
That distant planet has fewer hours in its day than earth has.
Here, we are talking about many individual periods of time – hours, not one unit of time made up of many hours.
Here’s a confusing threesome—another pet peeve of mine and of an editor with Entangled Publishing
Decent, descent, and dissent – These three words sound very much alike, but have very different meanings.
Decent is an adjective and means honest. A decent person is an honest person.
Descent is a noun and means a downward slope or family origin. The missile’s sudden descent worried the soldiers on the ground. Darwin wrote about the descent of man.
Dissent is a noun and means a disagreement. If students had been on the rules committee, there would have been no dissent.
Remember my example from the book blurb? The mistake is here. Do you see it?
Yes, decent should have been descent.
Another one of my pet peeves—the mistake most commonly made
Anxious and eager – These two are my second biggest pet peeves in this category. DON’T USE THESE WORDS AS SYNONYMS. If you are anxious about something, you don’t want it to happen. If you are eager about something, it can’t happen too soon for you.
Many people think these words are interchangeable. They aren’t. Using one for the other can change your story. Let me show you what I mean.
Sandy waited anxiously in baggage claim for Tommy. He was coming home from Afghanistan after being gone for six long months. During those months, she had kept her secret out of her letters and phone calls. Not telling him had been easy. Facing him today would be hard.
She saw him coming down the ramp. How would he take the news? Unsure of the answer, she bit her lip and crossed her arms over her swollen stomach.
Second paragraph – same situation, changes result from eager’s meaning.
Sandy waited eagerly in baggage claim for Tommy. He was coming home from Afghanistan after being gone for long six months. During those months, she had kept her secret out of her letters and phone calls even though it had been the hardest thing she had ever done. She had wanted to wait until they were face to face.
She saw him coming down the ramp. He waved his hand and had a big grin on his face. What would he think of the surprise? she wondered.
She gently patted her swollen tummy. He’s love the surprise just as much as he loved her.
If I swapped anxiously and eagerly, I would be guilty of misleading the reader. The details in the passage would seem to contradict the first sentence. Writers who mislead their readers through the misuse of words don’t keep their readers for long.
That’s it – my three biggest pet peeves as an editor and trouble for most writers.
Okay, let me ask you a question? Want to win something? How about a pdf of Apostrophe Anxiety and MM’s Cure for It? Here are four rules that take the anxiety out of using apostrophes. Promise.
I will e-mail my cure for this dreaded yet common condition among writers to all who leave in a comment words that drive them to tear their hair out, bite their nails, reach for the bottle–only joking about the last one. I hope, anyway.
Deadline to win is December 20, 2012.
ABOUT MM Pollard
As a copy editor for Black Velvet Seductions for three years and now acquisitions editor, MM Pollard has read many entertaining and thought-provoking stories. She has also found common mistakes in the fundamental skills of writing.
With fifteen years of experience teaching English serving as a resource of knowledge and a life-time love of teaching and of language, MM began presenting workshops in February, 2011. She has presented workshops for many RWA chapters, Savvy Authors, Writers Online Classes, and in her own virtual classroom. MM is excited to have over thirty workshops scheduled for 2013. Check out her blog for more details.
Also check out her new forum for free workshops and advice on using English correctly. If you aren’t a member of Lefora.com, you’ll first have to register as a member. It’s free, too.
MM has helped many writers improve their language and writing skills through her fun workshops. MM is sure she can help you, too, master the fundamentals of English.
MM Pollard, editor, Black Velvet Seductions
Workshops with MM
MM’s Fundamentals in English blog http://queenofenglish.wordpress.com
MM’s free forum http://freeworkshopswithmm.lefora.com