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Friday, June 26, 2009

Review: PerfectIt Proofreading Software

This week I've been checking out PerfectIt, a dedicated proofreading application produced by London-based Intelligent Editing Limited.

Like myWriterTools, which I reviewed in this recent post, PerfectIt operates as an add-in for Microsoft Word.

It works with Word 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2007. In versions of Word prior to 2007, PerfectIt is listed in the Tools menu. In Word 2007 (which I use) you click on the Add-Ins tab at the end of the Ribbon, then click on PerfectIt to run the software.

So what exactly does PerfectIt do? Essentially, it checks that any Word document is internally consistent. For example, it ensures that if you have spelt a word in one way in a document, you haven't spelt it differently somewhere else. PerfectIt runs a series of tests on your document and highlights any possible errors it finds. You can then allow the software to 'fix' these errors, or ignore them and move on to the next.

The screenshot below shows an example of the software in action. In my test document, it has found the phrase 'after school' used without a hyphen once and with one twice.

In this case, my usage was actually correct. The hyphen was required where the phrase after-school was being used adjectivally in front of the noun (an after-school club), but not where it was used adverbially (bored after school). As you can see, PerfectIt appreciates that this could happen and has included a note at the bottom of the box about it.

If, however, I had wanted to make all my uses 'consistent', I could have chosen the preferred phrase from the list. All exceptions would then be shown below this, and I could correct one at a time by clicking on 'Fix', or change them all by clicking on 'Fix All'.

I found the software easy and intuitive to use, and very fast. On my test documents (mostly modules from courses I've written) it found a few inconsistencies, mainly in my punctuation/capitalization of lists. PerfectIt also revealed that I had spelt 'specialize' with both a 'z' and an 's' in the same document. I'll have to correct these errors the next time the courses concerned are updated!

The software highlights any instances where contractions such as can't or won't have been used, and suggests writing them out in full. I'd accept that this would be preferable with formal documents, but that doesn't really apply to most of my writing. Still, you can skip any tests you don't want the software to run, either temporarily or permanently, using the Change Test menu item.

One other small irritation I found is that if you've written a word such as WILL in all caps for added emphasis, the software assumes that this is an abbreviation and asks you to define it. Again, though, I suppose you wouldn't do this in a formal document.

PerfectIt does NOT (oops - done it again!) check the spelling in your document, except for inconsistencies, and neither does it check for grammatical errors. Of course, Word has its own built-in spelling and grammar checkers, or you can use something like myWriterTools or WhiteSmoke. As mentioned earlier, PerfectIt is really a consistency checker. As such, it will work equally well with UK or US English or any other flavour/flavor.

Overall, I was highly impressed with PerfectIt and will be using it regularly from now on. I think anyone who regularly writes long(ish) documents would benefit from it, and it would also be particularly good for ensuring consistency in documents with multiple authors. Incidentally, companies can also get their own customized version of the software, incorporating their own house-style specifications.

If you think you might benefit from using PerfectIt, you can download a one-month trial of the full program free of charge from the PerfectIt website.

  • Finally, just a quick note of caution. Programs like PerfectIt, myWriterTools and WhiteSmoke can save you time and help you spot mistakes/weaknesses in your writing, but they are NOT a substitute for learning the rules of grammar and punctuation. My downloadable guide Essential English for Authors covers all the common problem areas, and will bring your written English up to a publishable standard in the shortest possible time.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Exemplar Possessive

A reader wrote to me recently regarding the Writer's Block CD, a product from my sponsors and publishers, The WCCL Network.

"Why is the apostrophe placed in front of the 's'?" he asked me. "Surely more than one person in the history of the world has suffered from this condition?"

I understood what he meant. The normal rule with possessives is that the apostrophe comes after the relevant noun. So the boy's room refers to a room belonging to one boy, while the boys' room signifies a room occupied by two or more. I discussed this in more detail a while ago in this blog post.

Writer's block is not really an exception to this rule, more a special case. Where the question of ownership is much less important than the nature or provenance of the item, a single 'exemplar' noun is often used for the possessive. I call this the exemplar possessive - I'm not sure if it has a more 'official' name. Here are a few more examples:
  • goat's cheese
  • cow's milk
  • greengrocer's apostrophe
  • cat's eyes (reflective safety devices on roads)
  • collector's item
In some circumstances you can make a case either way, or even three different ways. Father's Day, for example, can be written in any of three ways:

Fathers Day - 'Fathers' here is seen as an adjective, like 'sports' in sports hall.
Father's Day - The exemplar possessive here signifies a day devoted to fathers and fatherhood in general.
Fathers' Day - The plural possessive here signifies a day belonging to all fathers.

None of these options is 'wrong', though each has a slightly different emphasis. If you're a dad, see whether and where an apostrophe appears on your cards on the day in question. Fun for all the family...

In other cases, however, the exemplar possessive is clearly required to avoid ambiguity. Suppose, for example, you have a recipe that includes among the ingredients six lamb's kidneys. Most people would understand this to mean that six kidneys from lambs - obviously not all from a single lamb - are required.

If, however, you wrote instead six lambs' kidneys (the plural possessive), it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that the recipe required the kidneys of six lambs, i.e. twelve kidneys in all. So in this case, using the exemplar possessive avoids any risk of confusing the cook!

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Ten Top Tips on Grammar and Punctuation

I have a particular interest in the 'nuts and bolts' of good writing. In the time I've been writing this blog I have discussed this subject on various occasions.

So in this post - written for Problogger's 31 Days To Build A Better Blog challenge - I thought I would list ten of my favorite such posts.

1. What Mr Sanders Taught Me

In one of my earliest posts, I reveal a valuable rule taught to me by my old English teacher, Mr Sanders (God rest his soul). If you're ever unsure where to place a possessive apostrophe, this rule will tell you.

2. Representing Thoughts in Fiction

This is a question that keeps arising on my writing forum. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but there are certain guidelines to bear in mind. In this post I set out my advice.

3. There's the Problem...

Who would have though an innocuous word like 'there' could create so many problems for writers? And yet, time and again, it trips up even professional authors and journalists.

4. Question Marks in Mid-Sentence

Question marks in mid-sentence - are they grammatical or not? It's a contentious area, but in this post I try to throw a little light on the issue.

5. Tense in Fiction

Should you use past tense or present tense for your novel or short story? In this post I examine the pros and cons.

6. Sean and the Vocative Comma

Many aspiring writers are unaware of the vocative comma and the rules governing its use - but if you omit or misuse it, you may end up inadvertently giving your readers entirely the wrong message!

7. Capitalizing Names

This old post gets a lot of search engine traffic, even today. In it I discuss the rules regarding whether you should write Dad or dad, Uncle or uncle.

8. Using Trademarked Terms in Fiction

This is another of those issues that many beginning writers agonize over - probably unnecessarily in many cases, as this post reveals.

9. What's a Worn?

In this post I discuss the importance of proofreading your work before submitting it, and offer a few tips about this. What's a worn? Read the post to find out!

10. Bad Grammar in a Holiday Brochure

In this post I talk about a grammatical mistake I spotted in a holiday brochure, and go on to discuss the correct use of a number of related prepositions.

Incidentally, if you would like a complete guide to bringing your English up to a publishable standard in the shortest possible time, you might like to check out my downloadable course Essential English for Authors, available from WCCL (see banner below).

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Writing Tips Competition

Recently my friends at SpellCheckPlus wrote to me offering two more annual subscriptions to their premium service, SpellCheckPlus Pro, for use as competition prizes.

For those who don't know, SpellCheckPlus is a free online spelling and grammar checker. I wrote about it a while ago in this blog post, though since then it has been considerably enhanced.

SpellCheckPlus Pro, as mentioned above, is the premium (paid-for) service. It offers a number of advantages over the free version, including unlimited text length (the free version has a limit of 500 words), no ads, and an 'enrichment' tool that allows users to find alternatives to common, often over-used, words such as nice, good, bad, happy, and so on. The winners of my competition will get a year's free subscription to this service.

So what does the competition involve? Well, I thought I'd ask readers to submit their best writing tips of under 250 words including the title. Tips must be original (I will check this online), and they must be posted as comments on this blog. Only one tip per person, please. I'd also be grateful if you would give your tip a title so that I can identify it.

Tips can cover anything related to writing. Some possibilities might include beating writer's block, generating ideas, creating believable characters, making dialogue life-like, boosting your writing income, improving your grammar/spelling/punctuation, and so on.

As an example, here's a tip I submitted recently to the WeBook blog:

Write With All The Senses
by Nick Daws

The art of writing is bringing your words to life on the page. And one of the best ways to do this is to write with all the senses. In other words, don't just write about what your characters see. Describe what they hear, smell, touch and even taste as well. This is a guaranteed way to make your writing more vivid and exciting.

Here's a quick example:

Tony offered Malcolm one of his roll-ups. Malcolm had previously refused, but because he felt guilty about dropping Tony's paintbrush, this time he accepted. He didn't enjoy it at all though.

Now here's the same scene again, with the senses of taste and touch added. By the way, this paragraph comes from the published novel Painter Man by UK author Jeff Phelps:

Malcolm had already refused one of Tony's roll-ups, but now felt so bad about the brush that he accepted. Between his lips it had the texture of toilet paper. It tasted disgustingly of Tony's Old Spice aftershave.

No prizes for identifying which of these descriptions brings the scene more vividly to life! Writers are always taught to show, not tell, and writing with all the senses is one of the very best ways you can do this.

The closing date for this contest is Friday 31 October, so you have plenty of time to come up with your tip. I will announce the winners on the blog on Wednesday 5 November, so be sure to check back here on or after that date to see if you are a winner. One prize will go to the tip I consider best, while the other will be allocated at random by my cats ;-)

Naturally, contributors will retain the copyright in their tips and are free to offer them elsewhere after the competition closing date. They will, of course, remain on this page of my blog, however.

Good luck, and I look forward to reading some great tips posted as comments below!

* Just a quick reminder - when posting your competition entries here, try to avoid using 'smart quotes' and other special characters from Word, as they won't display properly online. It's best really to compose your tips in the Blogger comments box, or alternatively use a text editor such as Notepad and copy and paste from that.

The contest is now closed. Results will be posted shortly!

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bad Grammar in a Holiday Brochure

Here's a sentence from the current 'Manos' Greek holidays brochure. Can you spot the mistake?

Unwind amongst the tranquil setting of the Anaxos Hotel

And yes, as you may have noticed, this happens to describe the place where Jayne and I recently enjoyed a week's holiday!

Anyway, full marks if you noticed that the problem word is 'amongst'.

'Amongst' (or 'among') is normally used to introduce countable, plural nouns. So it would be fine to write:

He knew that he was among friends.
They reached an agreement among themselves.

He delved among the dusty papers for his father's letter.

But 'among' cannot, in standard English, be used for uncountable mass nouns, such as 'the tranquil setting' in the holiday brochure. An alternative is the word 'amid', as in the examples below...

Amid the confusion, she heard Jim calling her name.
The rescuers searched frantically amid the wreckage.

The hotel is located amid unspoiled countryside.

and, of course,

Unwind amid the tranquil setting of the Anaxos Hotel.

Or, as Jayne suggested when I mentioned this to her, you could simply say 'in'. But I must admit to liking the word 'amid', even if it does have a slightly literary ring to it!

Incidentally, 'among' can also be used with singular collective nouns such as 'herd' and 'audience' which consist of countable individuals.

There was panic among the herd.
A murmur arose among the audience.

Although where there are just two items, 'between' is normally preferred to 'among'.

She divided the pie between [not among] Robert and Philip.

'Amongst' and 'amidst' mean exactly the same as 'among' and 'amid'. They are, however, less concise, and also rather old-fashioned (especially 'amidst', which could also be seen as a bit pretentious). In most cases, therefore, I think it's better to use the shorter versions. Here's an example from What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn, an otherwise excellent book which I reviewed recently in this post.
Her home was in the only Victorian block of houses left in the area, a red-brick three-storey outcrop which looked uncomfortable amidst the grey and white council cuboids.
'Amidst' isn't actually ungrammatical here - amidst (or amid) can be used with plural nouns, as it simply means 'in the middle of'. In modern usage, however, 'amongst' (or among) is normally preferred in this context. I would therefore change the word in the sentence above to 'among' (also losing the archaic -st ending), so it reads:
Her home was in the only Victorian block of houses left in the area, a red-brick three-storey outcrop which looked uncomfortable among the grey and white council cuboids.
Just my opinion, of course, but I think that reads much better!

* If you need advice on bringing your writing up to a publishable standard, check out my new course from WCCL, Essential English for Authors.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Bad Grammar on Sky News

On my recent holiday in Cyprus I found myself watching Sky News quite a bit. I'm not a regular viewer of this station normally, but it was one of the few English language channels available on the TV in our hotel room.

While it was nice to have a lifeline to what was going on in the world over Christmas, one thing that quite surprised me was the number of grammatical errors made by Sky's presenters. Here's just one example I jotted down:

"The future of democratic elections hang in the balance..."

The story in question concerned the appalling assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and in no way do I wish to trivialise this. But hearing the presenter mangle the sentence in this way did succeed in distracting me from the story itself.

Of course, 'hang' in this sentence should be 'hangs'. The subject of the sentence is 'the future'. This is a singular noun and therefore requires a singular verb.

What seems to have happened is that the presenter - or whoever wrote his script - was distracted by the plural noun 'elections' directly preceding the verb, and therefore assumed that a plural verb was needed. 'Elections' is NOT the subject of the sentence, however. It is simply part of the adjectival phrase 'of democratic elections'. This is therefore an example of faulty subject-verb agreement.

I might excuse this if it was an isolated mistake, but in fact it was one of a number of such errors I heard. In addition, because Sky News is a rolling news channel, stories get repeated every twenty minutes or so. I waited hopefully for someone to have a word in the presenter's ear and get him to correct the mistake, but sad to say it didn't happen while I was viewing!

Anyway, I don't suppose the bosses at Sky News will lose too much sleep over this, but I'm afraid it diminished their channel's authority in my eyes. I was left with the feeling that if their presenters couldn't get their basic grammar right, how much faith could I have in their reporting of the facts? Perhaps it's time Sky News appointed a grammar czar? In the meantime, I've gone back to BBC News - where I've never heard this particular error committed at least - with some relief!

* Just in case you're interested, there is a whole module on subject-verb agreement in my brand new course Essential English for Authors.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Essential English for Authors Launched!

I'm delighted to reveal that my latest downloadable course for writers, Essential English for Authors, has just been launched by my publishers, WCCL.

As the name indicates, Essential English for Authors is intended for anyone who would like to write for publication but fears their written English might let them down.

As regular members of my forum will know, grammar and punctuation are something of a passion of mine. It's a subject I often post about in the forum in response to member queries, and I've really enjoyed having this opportunity to put all my advice together in a single, modestly priced guide.

In twelve concise but information-packed modules, Essential English for Authors takes you through all the common problem areas for new writers: from the basics of grammatical sentence and paragraph construction, through the principles of capitalization and punctuation, to "minefield" topics such as subject/verb agreement and how to set out and punctuate dialogue. I have tried to explain everything in simple, easy-to-grasp terms, with lots of examples to illustrate the points made.

It's not just the basics, however. A long module titled "Putting on the Style" covers a range of matters that, while they may not all be essential to achieving publication, will help bring your written English up to the highest professional standards. The topics discussed in this module include parallel construction, active v. passive voice, use of the subjunctive in modern English, when to use "who" or "whom", and many more. There are also self-study tests you can complete to check your understanding of the material covered.

The course assumes no previous knowledge (beyond a basic familiarity with English), and is ideal for beginners and people for whom English is not their first language. It is, however, equally suitable for established writers who want to brush up on their knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation. And for aspiring self-publishers - especially if they won't be engaging a professional editor - it's an essential reference to ensure that your book isn't laughed out of court by critics and reviewers.

And even if you don't aspire to write for publication but just want to bring your written English up to the best possible standard in the shortest possible time, Essential English for Authors is ideal for you too!

Essential English for Authors is intended to be suitable for anyone in the world. It's written in US English, but British English is referred to throughout (I'm a Brit myself, of course).

For more information and to order Essential English for Authors, just click any of the links in this post to go through to my publisher's sales page. Alternatively, if you would like to read a short extract from the course first, please click here to go to the relevant page on my website.

Finally, I should mention that Essential English for Authors is currently on offer at a low launch price. After the launch period is over, this will certainly rise - so if you'd like to take advantage of the current special offer, please don't hesitate too long.

Good luck, and happy writing!

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Decline of the Hyphen

An interesting article was posted on the BBC News website today titled Small Object of Grammatical Desire.

The article concerns the decline in recent years in the use of hyphens. Apparently the new, sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has knocked the hyphens out of 16,000 words, many of them two-word compound nouns. According to the article, "Fig-leaf is now fig leaf, pot-belly is now pot belly, pigeon-hole has finally achieved one word status as pigeonhole and leap-frog is feeling whole again as leapfrog."

It's interesting to see some of the other words that have lost their hyphens in the latest edition of this widely respected reference guide. The following are now shown as two separate words: fig leaf, hobby horse, ice cream, pin money, pot belly, test tube. By contrast, the following, which previously contained hyphens, are now shown as single words: bumblebee, chickpea, crybaby, leapfrog, logjam.

The article suggests that the Internet may be partly responsible for the decline of the hyphen, with people rushing to send their e-mails (or, more likely nowadays, emails), and rejecting hyphens as just too time consuming.

In any event, one thing the article does illustrate is that the English language is constantly changing, and no-one can afford to be too dogmatic about whether hyphens are or are not required in any particular case. The best that writers and editors can hope to achieve is consistency, and this is often best achieved by referring to a reference book such as the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary or the The Chicago Manual of Style and following its recommendations. Many publishers nowadays produce their own house style guides, or require editors to follow a particular guide such as those mentioned above. Again, this is done not to ensure grammatical correctness (there is no final arbiter on what is "correct" in the English language) but consistency.

On a totally different note, thank you to those readers who have expressed concern that this blog hasn't been updated for a while. No, I wasn't ill, just enjoying a much-needed holiday in Greece. Normal service - as normal as it ever gets - will now be resumed!

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Visit The Self-Appointed Grammar Police!

I recently discovered an entertaining website by the name The Self Appointed Grammar Police, or SAGP for short. It won't win any prizes for cutting-edge design, but I enjoyed its tongue-in-cheek humour, and there's also plenty of genuinely useful info for anyone with an interest in English grammar.

The site has a number of sections, but the largest and most useful is Casebook, which can be accessed from the menu at the foot of the screen. This is where the 'grammar police' list grammatical errors and other examples of bad English they have seen, along with their comments and corrected versions. As an example, here's Case 9 - 'Tripping Over a Dangling Modifier'. Note the pseudo-legalistic style!

The Offence: Increasingly, the error known as a 'dangling modifier' is becoming endemic. Here's an example, from Douglas Kelly, 'The Captain's Wife' (NY: Dutton, 2001), p. 23: Mary was thrilled by the sight from the quarterdeck of the canvas straining before the wind. With all sails out, she could barely see the tops of the masts ...

I can just see Mary with all her sails out, can't you? At least three more instances of similar gaffes mar this book, and I'm seeing the same sort of thing in other novels and in newspapers. The Verdict: Kelly is guilty of perpetrating a dangling modifier. He wants 'With all sails out' to modify the tops of the masts (or maybe the ship itself - which isn't even mentioned.) But it doesn't: it modifies the subject of the sentence, which is Mary.What he meant to write is something like: With all sails out, the tops of the masts were almost hidden from her view.

The Sentence: Mr. Kelly is a corporate pilot, and this is his first novel. The writing is undistinguished, but he has told a good story, and told it well. Though it would be nice if he turned over to his publisher an immaculate manuscript, I don't blame him much for making a few errors. I blame the publisher (Dutton, a member of the Penguin Group), who is obligated to correct authors' errors. So let's hang the publisher from the yardarm, and let Mr. Kelly off with only one stroke of the cat-o'-nine-tails.

Incidentally, the spelling checker for Microsoft Works 4.5 thinks Mr. Kelly should have put a hyphen between 'quarter' and 'deck.' Let's keelhaul the landlubber who's peddling that particular piece of idiocy. Next case!

There are currently over thirty 'cases' listed, and they all make interesting - and entertaining - reading. Other areas of the site include a short how-to section, a list of recommended books about English, and a frequently asked questions section.

Overall, I recommend the The Self Appointed Grammar Police website as entertaining light reading for anyone with an interest in English grammar (which should include all writers, of course). It's only a shame that the site no longer appears to be regularly updated.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

WhiteSmoke Creative Writing Version for $1!

OK, I do mean just a dollar more than the standard version! But that still makes for a very substantial discount on the normal price for the Creative Writing version of WhiteSmoke (which is definitely the one that any serious writer should have). The discount is available until Sunday 26 August under WhiteSmoke's special 'Back to School' promotion.

To remind you, WhiteSmoke is a program that aims to help its users produce better-written documents. It does this by analyzing the spelling, punctuation and grammar in any document, and then suggesting corrections and possible improvements. If you missed it, you can read my full review of WhiteSmoke's software here (though note that this does not mention some of the new features added recently, such as the built-in dictionary).

For more info, or to order, click on the banner below or in my review, and click on the 'Back to School' banner on the WhiteSmoke website. As mentioned, this special promotion only goes on till Sunday, so don't leave it too long to order if you are interested.

GOOD NEWS! WhiteSmoke have just announced that the 'Back to School' promotion is being extended to Sunday September 2nd.

WhiteSmoke Writing Tool

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Tense in Fiction

One thing all fiction writers try to achieve is a sense in the reader that the events described are taking place as he or she reads about them.

So it's a bit of a paradox that most novels and short stories are written in the past rather than the present tense. And yet, for reasons that go back to the origins of storytelling, past tense sounds more natural to us when reading or listening to a story. We don't notice the tense and - with a well-written tale - simply become immersed in the events unfolding.

You can, of course, write a story in the present tense. Because this is less familiar to readers, however, they may feel less comfortable with it, and there is a risk they will notice the unusual style rather than becoming engrossed in your story. Stories written in the present tense can also look mannered and self-conscious.

Of course, good writers can and do write short stories, and even novels, in the present tense. The US writer Alison Lurie's novel Foreign Affairs begins as follows:
On a cold, blowy February morning a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman's name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain and unmarried - the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children's literature.
And the whole novel continues in the present tense. It's an unusual approach, yet as a reader you quickly get used to it (it helps that Ms Lurie is a highly accomplished author, of course). I'd be hard put to say exactly why the author chose to write the book in the present tense or whether it would be any the worse if written more conventionally in the past. It does certainly give the novel a distinctive "voice", however.

Even so, I'd always advise a new writer, and especially a new novelist, to write in the past tense. Apart from anything else it's what publishers are accustomed to, and if you write in the present tense you are giving yourself an additional obstacle to overcome to get your work accepted.

Another problem with writing in the present tense is that it's fatally easy to stray into the past tense by accident. As I mentioned above, we're all so used to past tense narration, it's easy to fall into it without even noticing. A story that switches to past tense in the middle (unless for a very good reason) then switches back to the present again is likely to be returned to the author in short order.

And finally, if you write in the present tense, you need to be very careful when referring to events that occurred in the characters' past. In ordinary, past-tense narration, we use the pluperfect tense to introduce such "flashbacks":
Mary smiled and sipped her tea, remembering when they first met. It had been a cold November morning...
If using the present tense, however, you need to use the simple past tense instead:
Mary sighs and sips her tea, remembering when they first met. It was a cold November morning...
It would be perilously easy to write "It had been" in the second example as well, yet this would be incorrect, or at least very poor style. If you are writing in the present tense, when referring to events in your characters' past, you should use the simple past tense rather than the pluperfect (past participle with "had").

To sum up, then, I highly recommend sticking to the past tense in your fiction. But if you want to experiment with writing in the present tense, be very careful you don't switch to the wrong tense at some point in the narrative. It's possible to make this mistake when writing in the past tense, of course, but it's much, much easier to get your tenses in a twist when writing in the present!

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why You Should Never Rely on a Thesaurus...

I'm grateful to my colleague Karl Moore for drawing my attention to this excellent article by Michael Leddy at It's quite short, so I've reproduced it in full.
Reading an essay from a college freshman many years ago, I came across a sentence that baffled me - it referred to "ingesting an orange." I crossed out "ingest," wrote "eat," and wondered why anyone would've written otherwise. At the time, it didn't occur to me that my student had very likely started with "eat," only to cross it out and substitute a word that seemed somehow better - lofty, less plain, more imposing.

Since then I've taught many students who seek to improve their writing by using "better" words. Their revision strategies focus on replacing plain words with big, shiny ones. Such students usually rely on a thesaurus, now more available to a writer than ever before as a tool in many word-processing programs.

But dressing up a piece of prose with thesaurus-words tends not to work well. And here's why: a thesaurus suggests words without explaining nuances of meaning and levels of diction. So if you choose substitute-words from a thesaurus, it's likely that your writing will look as though you've done just that. The thesaurus-words are likely to look odd and awkward, or as a writer relying on Microsoft Word's thesaurus might put it, "extraordinary and uncoordinated." When I see that sort of strange diction in a student's writing and ask whether a thesaurus is involved, the answer, always, is yes.

A thesaurus might be a helpful tool to jog a writer's memory by calling up a familiar word that's just out of reach. But to expand the possibilities of a writer's vocabulary, a collegiate dictionary is a much better choice, offering explanations of the differences in meaning and use among closely related words. Here's just one example: Merriam-Webster's treatment of synonyms for awkward.

What student-writers need to realize is that it's not ornate vocabulary or word-substitution that makes good writing. Clarity, concision, and organization are far more important in engaging and persuading a reader to find merit in what you're saying. If you're tempted to use the thesaurus the next time you're working on an essay, consider what is about to happen to this sentence: "If you're lured to utilize the thesaurus on the subsequent occasion you're toiling on a treatise, mull over what just transpired to this stretch."

Good advice this for all writers, not just students!

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Monday, January 29, 2007

The OED Needs Your Help!

The Oxford English Dictionary is enlisting the public to help them trace 40 well-known words and phrases. All of them are currently in the dictionary with a date of the earliest evidence of usage, but the OED's researchers want to know if anyone can do any better.

The results will feature in a new series of the BBC2 TV show 'Balderdash and Piffle', presented by Victoria Coren. Last year members of the public came up with evidence to update the history of words including ploughman's lunch, the 99 ice-cream, and the full monty. John Simpson, the OED's chief editor, said: 'Wordhunters made some remarkable discoveries in the last series. They found wordhunt words tucked away in football fanzines, LPs, school newspapers - just the sort of sources we can't easily get our hands on.'

The 40 words for which help is being sought this time include some whose origin is still unknown or uncertain, including shaggy dog story, loo, bonkers, Bloody Mary, take the mickey, bung and spiv. The dictionary is also hoping for more information on mucky pup, sick puppy, glamour model, hoodie, shell-suit, stiletto, marital aid, pole dance, and one sandwich short of a picnic. They emphasise that they are seeking documentary evidence for the use of these words and expressions: 'I remember my granny saying...' wouldn't be good enough. More information can be found at

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Review: WhiteSmoke Writing Software

Recently the good folk at WhiteSmoke sent me a copy of their writing software to evaluate. So here's my review of this popular tool for writers...

For those who don't know, WhiteSmoke is a program that aims to help its users produce better-written documents. It does this by analyzing the spelling, punctuation and grammar in any document, and then suggesting corrections and possible improvements. WhiteSmoke is compatible with Microsoft Windows ME, Windows2000, Windows XP and Windows Vista. It will work in almost any text-based application, including word processors, email programs, web-based forms, and so on.

Once WhiteSmoke is installed on your PC, you use it as follows. First, you create your text in your chosen application (e.g. Microsoft Word). Select the text you want to analyze by highlighting it in the normal way, then press the WhiteSmoke shortcut key. This is set by default to F2, though you can change it if you like. In Word a separate "Enrichment" button is created on the toolbar, and you can click on this as an alternative to pressing the shortcut key.

WhiteSmoke will then open in a new window, with your selected text in a box in the middle. Spelling mistakes are highlighted in red and grammar mistakes in green. When you move the cursor over any item, suggested corrections (a range of them) appear in a box at the foot of the screen. You can accept or reject any correction just by clicking on it.

Perhaps the most interesting feature for writers, however, is the enrichment function. The WhiteSmoke software analyzes your writing and looks for ways it could be improved, e.g. by using an alternate word or phrase (thesaurus function), or by adding extra words. All candidates for enrichment are highlighted in blue in the WhiteSmoke window, and suggested additions and alternatives are shown in the boxes below. Again, you are at liberty to accept or reject any change. Once you have gone through all the program's suggestions, just save the changes and close WhiteSmoke, and the corrected and "enriched" version will automatically appear in the original application.

Overall, I was impressed with how easy WhiteSmoke was to use, and its effectiveness. Obviously Word does have its own spelling and grammar checkers, but WhiteSmoke's appear to work better. This is especially so with the grammar checker, which is far more user-friendly than Word's. The "Enrichment" function is particularly good for revealing ways in which text can be improved. Obviously not all the changes the software suggests will be appropriate, but simply seeing the suggested alternatives can jolt you out of using the same old words and expressions, and give your writing a new, fresher feel.

The version of WhiteSmoke I evaluated was the standard one, which is really aimed at business users. It would still be useful for writers, but WhiteSmoke also offer a version of the software specially tailored for use by creative writers. If you're a novelist or short story writer, this would probably be the version to go for. It has a larger vocabulary than the standard version, and is less likely to suggest inserting business-related terms such as inventory and turnover into your sensitive description of a woodland sunset...

Are there any drawbacks to WhiteSmoke? Well, a possible one for some users is that you need to have an Internet connection open while you are using it. WhiteSmoke say this is because the program's database is constantly updated via the web. For most users this is unlikely to present problems, but if you regularly use your computer off-line, it might be a bit frustrating.

WhiteSmoke is probably ideally suited for writers who are buzzing with ideas but know that they have a few shortcomings in grammar, punctuation, and so on. Even if you're reasonably confident in these areas, however, WhiteSmoke can give you a fresh perspective, and suggestions for improving passages of text you may have become "bogged down" on.

For more information about WhiteSmoke, click on any of the links in this article to visit their sales site. Watch out for their regular special offers!

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