Tag Archives: writing

Homonyn Horrors

I’ve talked previously about homonyms – words that sound alike, but have different meanings, such as peer and pier – and the importance of knowing the difference between them. Yet, these errors crop up, time and again, as well-meaning people get confused or don’t realize the limits of their vocabularies.

For a writer/editor, it’s jarring to encounter the misuse of a homonym while reading along in an otherwise well-written story or document. It stops me short and breaks the flow of the narrative; it also frustrates me that someone didn’t catch the mistake before the piece was printed/posted. It shows carelessness or ignorance and reflects poorly on the source.

I come across such words regularly, as much as I wish I didn’t. This week, while MountBakerreading through a brand profile provided by a client, I discovered that James enjoys discovering new flavours that “peak” his taste buds. Oy! Peak is generally used as a noun, not a verb, e.g., climbing to the peak of Mount Baker. The writer actually meant pique, or arouse (curiosity, interest, etc.).

The next day, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across an artistically designed, inspirational post from an acquaintance. The sentiment was lovely, but I couldn’t enjoy it fully, because it talked about finding someone to love who “compliments” you. (Hmmm, taken literally, isn’t that a given? Why would you want a lover who insulted you or ignored you?)  Complements, or completes, is the word the author was undoubtedly seeking, and all the work that went into creating the lovely lettering and layout was spoiled by the use of the wrong word.

To what shall I attribute these missteps? A poor educational system? Sloppiness? I know that language is fluid and ever-changing, but mistaken usage isn’t part of that evolution. Let’s get it right!


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“Letter” Rip: Sharing Your Thoughts

When was the last time you wrote a letter? If you’re like many of us, it’s so long ago that you don’t remember. Today, we have email, e-cards and texting. Why bother with snail mail when you can get in touch with someone in real time? LetterWriting

Recently, my hometown paper carried a story about a woman who is trying to revive this lost art, maintaining that letters are a way to tell someone else that you want to get to know them. It’s a lovely sentiment and one that rang true for many centuries. How else would we get to know many of the talented leaders and creators from times past if it weren’t for their letters to others?

Priya Parmar, author of Vanessa and Her Sister, a novel about painter Vanessa Bell and writer Virginia Woolf, told an interviewer that her understanding of the two women arose, in large part, from their letters. Many biographers turn to extensive correspondence for clues to the subject’s character.

I wonder if in today’s fast-paced world, where we are caught up in so many obligations, whether we have the time or inclination to truly get to know others. Perhaps Facebook, Twitter and other social media are the substitutes – a chance to share some of our thoughts and feelings, hoping to be heard. However, “Likes” don’t necessarily equal understanding and insight and they are no guarantee of real two-way communication.

The winter holidays are a time of year when we think of those we love and those in our larger circle. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to reach out to one or more of them in an unconventional way – the letter – and start a real conversation. All it costs is our time and a stamp.



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Advice on Writing? Horrors!

When the name of author Stephen King comes up in conversation, it’s usually to discuss his hair-raising horror tales and the movies that they have spawned: Carrie, The Shining and Children of the Corn, for example.

What many people don’t know is that he is also the author of On Writing, a respected book for budding authors. It is part autobiography, part writer’s guide, and certainly worth a read for anyone serious about improving their fiction.

Like many good writers, King has always been a reader and has absorbed language through his pores. However, he also consciously studies other authors whom he respects to learn from their stylistic strengths. In talking of description, for example, he cites such diverse voices as Raymond Chandler and T.S. Eliot.

“Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style),” he opines and filling your writer’s toolbox with these necessary elements. “Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”

Whether you enjoy King’s writing or not – I’m a coward when it comes to scary fiction – there is no arguing with his talent in achieving the impact and effect he sets out to create. His writing about writing is worthwhile reading for anyone who dreams of producing the Great Canadian Novel.

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Jargon and good writing don’t mix


When an application form asks if I am fluent in any foreign languages, I am tempted to list “jargon.”

After spending years in an office setting, I can be obtuse with the best of the business crowd. I can ask for buy-in, put projects on the backburner, leave meetings with action items and worry about having enough bandwidth to get the job done.

Eh, what? If such terminology leaves you cross-eyed, you’re not alone. Jargon is the antithesis of clear, understandable language, and it often flips usage on its head, turning nouns into verbs (e.g., ballpark) or vice versa.

The Canadian Oxford English Dictionary has two useful definitions of jargon, which, in combination, explain it well: Words or expressions used by a particular group or profession; and language marked by affected or convoluted syntax, vocabulary and meaning.

“Jargon masks real meaning,” Jennifer Chapman, a management professor at the University of California Berkeley, told Forbes magazine in a 2012 interview. “People use it as a substitute for thinking clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.”

Yet, it surrounds us in the workplace, perhaps because it’s easy and convenient. Individual professions and industries each create their own vocabularies. Jargon can even become a symbol of membership or status; if you talk like a physician, then you will be recognized as a physician.

Stemming the incoming assault of confusing workplace shorthand is no easy task. It’s time for writers and editors to take to the battlements, guarding against the onslaught and helping to strike a blow for straightforward language.

As you delve into any writing or editing project, prepare to think critically about the language. Is it clear or will it require a dictionary to decipher it? Is it language that a Grade 7 student would understand? Does it contain phrases that you only hear in the workplace? If the answer is “Yes” to the second question and “No” to the next, you are on solid ground. If not, it’s time to paraphrase.

Writers and editors are the guardians of clear, understandable communication, and it’s not a job for the faint of heart. Negotiating changes to the CEO’s monthly newsletter column may be a political nightmare, but it’s a sacred trust. What is the point of expounding on a topic if the audience has no idea of your meaning? You may not get thanks, but you’ll get grateful readers.

So, as you sit down to write your own stories or edit someone else’s, make sure to set your jargon meter and listen when it starts ringing. It’s a sure sign that revision is necessary.


Test your own understanding of jargon:

Match the jargon phrase with its meaning.  If you score 10 out of 10, you’re due for a vacation. If your score is three or lower, you love language. Anywhere in-between: think before you speak! (No peeking at the answers!)

  1. Binary answer                                                   a.  To fire
  2. Granular                                                              b.  A useless project that will require lots of time
  3. Peel the onion                                                  c.  A person of influence and power
  4. Heavy lifting                                                       d.  More detailed
  5. Major player                                                      e.  A subordinate
  6. Magic bullet                                                       f.  A yes or no answer
  7. Time pig                                                               g.  A change or difference
  8. Report                                                                  h. The perfect solution to a problem
  9. Dehire                                                                  i.  The hard work
  10. Delta                                                                     j. To get to the heart of an issue

Answers: 1f; 2d; 3j; 4i; 5c; 6h; 7b; 8e; 9a; 10gSource: http://www.theofficelife.com/business-jargon-dictionary

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Tools of the Trade

Dinosaur reading dictionary

When I sit down at the computer to write, I like to know that the tools of my trade are handy.

Just as a carpenter heads off to a job with a toolbox containing a hammer, nails, a screwdriver, wrenches and other implements that will help accomplish the job, a writer needs various instruments to create the best possible product. The top three tools in a writer’s arsenal are: 

  • a dictionary;
  • a thesaurus;
  • a grammar guide; and
  • a spell-checker.

 Luckily, in our computerized world, word-processing programs generally come with built-in tools that can go along with me anywhere I take my laptop. What’s not to like about an online dictionary and thesaurus? As I write, I find a dictionary useful when I’m unclear about the nuances of a word or to ensure that the word I’ve chosen to use actually means what I assume it to mean. 

I keep a copy of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary close at hand when I’m reading, too. It has Canadian words that aren’t found in the average English language dictionary, such as double double (coffee with double cream and double sugar) and two-four (a case of 24 cans or bottles of beer.)

It’s not as much fun to curl up on the couch with a computer, but there are solid online dictionaries, too, such as Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/) or the splendid Cambridge Free English Dictionary (http://dictionary.cambridge.org), which allows the reader to choose between British and American English.

 Now, a thesaurus – there’s a tome that a writer can get behind. It’s almost a law of physics that as I compose at the keyboard, synonyms will go into hiding, and my brain will be incapable of finding them. Once upon a time, Roget’s was the definitive thesaurus, but it had a fatal flaw: it didn’t list words alphabetically. Today, there are myriad others whose editors have realized that even though writers may forget synonyms, they certainly know the alphabet. Choose one of those for ease of use. There’s a Gage Canadian Thesaurus on my bookshelf. For online use, the aforementioned dictionaries also offer thesaurus options for one-stop shopping. Make sure to bookmark one of the sites for ease of use. 

Good writers use good grammar, but we’re not perfect. Sometimes, we need to decide whether to use who or whom, or we can’t remember whether to employ “Mary and I” or “Mary and me.” (Hint: It depends on whether it’s the subject of the sentence or the object of a preposition.) 

The grammar book of choice back in the Stone Age of my youth was Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition – they had an edition suitable for students in each grade. I confess: I keep one on my bookshelf, but I am just as likely to use an online service, such as Grammar Girl (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl). There is also Grammarly, (http://www.grammarly.com/) a handy site that will check the grammar in an entire document.

Whoever invented the online spell-checker was a genius! It’s a given that a writer will make errors in typing when writing online, and it’s just as certain that there are words whose spellings haunt writers each time they use one of them. For ages, I was convinced that persevere was perservere – don’t ask me why! 

Thank heavens for the spell-checker. It catches most my typos before it’s too late. However, I do suggest reading through the document again, to ensure you haven’t accidentally accepted any incorrect changes – the human eye is an excellent backup system. 

Don’t leave perfection to chance. Next time you sit down at your computer, whether to compose an email, a short story or an annual report, make sure your work has that professional polish. Bolster your book collection or your online favourites list with the writer’s “sacred trinity”: a dictionary, a thesaurus and a grammar guide. And before you hit the “send” button, run your maserpiece through the spell-checker. Believe me, you won’t be sorry.

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Spelling: It’s so last year – or isn’t it?

An elementary school teacher confided in me recently that he encouraged his first graders not to worry about spelling.

“Just get the idea down,” he urges them when they are blocked by uncertainty about how to spell a particular word. “Your ideas are what are most important. No one ever reads the work of a famous writer to enjoy the good grammar and spelling.”

True, and perhaps suitable in Grade One, but I wouldn’t support such a strategy for too much longer. Spelling may seem irrelevant in the world of ideas and creativity, but in the cold, cruel adult world, correct spelling is also an indicator of education and, by extension, of social class. As harsh as it may seem, strangers will judge you based on your written words, as well as your speech. Poor spelling marks you, rightly or wrongly, as sloppy or uneducated; even worse, you may be condemned as unintelligent. It’s not the impression you wish to make on a prospective employer.

Good spelling habits are often just that: habits. If children are required to learn correct spelling at an early age and are forced to correct mistakes, it is to be hoped that they are sensitive to the need to spell correctly throughout their lives. Practice makes perfect, too. The spelling bee was undoubtedly created to encourage youngsters to make a game of learning to spell properly. (“Language. That’s L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E. Language.”)


Spelling is a challenge, especially in this age of technology and texting. It may appear to be a useless skill when one can simply run a document through the computer’s spell checker or send a text message that pares words to bare essentials: How r u? Those of us who insist on precision may appear uptight and unnecessarily rule-bound. So be it 

As informal as our world can be, formal language still has its place. And unfortunately for those who denigrate spelling prowess, correct language is often necessary when there is a lot on the line, such as a potential job or a chance to impress a supervisor with a well-written proposal or presentation.

Don’t encourage children get off to a poor start with incorrect spelling. Creativity is wonderful and laudable, but rules exist to help us all get along. For those who want to succeed, spelling rules are worth mastering.

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