Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Posts Tagged ‘writing guide

This is just to say…

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Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom

… that ‘ensorcelled’ means ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’. See Oxford Dictionaries. You can see from the word that its derivation is linked to the word ‘sorcerer’ (which I just had to check how to spell). I kind of like all of that, but is it a good choice in this article in the Guardian? The first paragraph includes the following sentence:

I was immediately ensorcelled by the singularity of the Shrigley worldview: here were pictures that had a bewilderingly complex naivete about them – it was as if a preternaturally intelligent child were rendering the attempts of a smart-aleck adult to draw like a kid.

Ensorcelled? Really? Why send your readers away (probably never to return) to consult a dictionary when ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’ would work just as well (probably better) there? Yes, I learnt a new word, no, I didn’t go back to read the rest of the article (I wrote this post instead). And is the writer just showing off? Oh, I don’t know. Sunday morning tea and toast calls.


Is it a verb? Is it a noun? An introduction to the gerund

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Some words are ugly and some grammatical concepts are very tricky indeed. And sometimes ugly combines with tricky. But I know you like a challenge.

Exhibit A: the gerund.

Don’t go — the butler’s serving drinks afterwards.

This explanation involves verbs and nouns.

Because — drum roll — a gerund is a verb that takes it upon itself to be noun. But only when it feels like it, of course.

Government health warning: This is quite a difficult area and grammarians disagree over its finer details. The following is just a brief insight but may explain some of those ‘strange’ constructions you sometimes see. Also, a little basic knowledge of the gerund can come in handy when writing or speaking formally.

Deep breath.

Verbs that can become nouns end in ‘ing’, for example, ‘leaving’ as in the following:

Would you mind me leaving?

Would you mind my leaving?

But which version, strictly speaking, is correct? Well, the second version is correct because ‘leaving’ is being used as a noun, making it a gerund. A good test is to replace the word you are not sure about with another similar word that is definitely a noun (and not one of those pesky words that can be both a verb and a noun):

Would you mind me absence?

Would you mind my absence?

The first example is obviously wrong.

And here’s a slightly trickier example of the gerund in action:

I like that man wearing aftershave.

I like that man’s wearing aftershave.

The first sentence means that I like the man (who happens to be wearing aftershave).

The second means that I like the fact that he’s wearing aftershave.

You can see that the verb ‘wearing’ has become a noun in the second sentence because it is preceded by a possessive apostrophe.

This doesn’t cover everything about gerunds, but it’s a good start. Next time someone mentions it you can look intelligent and murmur ‘verb acting as a noun’, and that’ll be you off the hook.

Here’s some more info on gerunds.

Picture: ajschwegler

Some things are worth repeating (and others aren’t)

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Can't Repeat

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Repetition is not necessarily a Bad Thing.

Some writers think that repeating the same word is to be avoided at all costs, but that’s not so. Very often, the linguistic gymnastics involved render a piece of writing inelegant and amateurish.

David Sexton, writing in the London Evening Standard, provides a brilliant example of the strained effect that arises from trying, unnecessarily, to avoid repetition. In his piece he quotes a well-known UK broadcaster, Melvyn Bragg, several times. At various junctures, according to Sexton, Bragg ‘argues’, ‘says’, ‘contends’, ‘complains’, ‘thinks’ and ‘wonders’.

Hmmm, could Bragg not have opined, expounded, expressed and expatiated as well?

Sexton should have just ditched all the fancy words along with his thesaurus and used ‘says’ throughout. The reading eye glides easily over this type of repetition and does not become distracted by a steadily mounting pile of synonyms strewn about the page.

On the other hand…

Look at this from the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

Mr. Paladino may have low approval ratings downstate. But to some residents around Buffalo, Mr. Paladino, a prominent local real estate developer, is a hometown hero. High turnout in Erie County, where Buffalo is, helped Mr. Paladino win the Republican primary.

As the column points out, a pronoun or two would have spared readers the jarring repetition of Mr Paladino’s surname in three consecutive sentences.

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In praise of flackery

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The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...

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I have just  read the After Deadline corrections column in The New York Times and, following some sound advice to be found in my last post, did so within easy reach of narrowed, glinty eyes and  big books with ‘Oxford’ in their title. 

Here’s what I read:  

Mr. Chaffetz said he took a fair amount of flack from other Republicans over his friendship with Mr. Weiner but found it easy to defend. 

If we indeed wanted to use a colloquialism here, the one we wanted was “flak.” 

Or, indeed, ‘flack’. ‘Flack’ being a variant spelling of ‘flak’ which means anti-aircraft fire, or, as used above, strong or annoying criticism or opposition. See Oxford Dictionaries. 

I wondered if maybe Americans are stricter about the flak/flack thing. However, although Garner’s Modern American Usage says ‘flak’ should not be spelt ‘flack’, Merriam-Webster does allow both spellings. 

In addition, I didn’t know that ‘flack’ is also a North American term for a ‘publicity agent’. It can be used as a verb, ‘flacking’, and the noun ‘flackery’ can also be derived from it. Hmm — could be more useful to use as a swear word when your mum is within earshot. 


Spelling tips and tricks.

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