Sunday, December 5, 2010

Watch your Words

In my writer's meeting yesterday, one of my friends asked me, "How many different meanings can you ascribe to the phrase, 'He eats shoots and leaves'?"

I wondered for a moment where he was going with this, and then he continued, "You could say, 'The hunter eats, shoots, and leaves,' to say that he ate something, shot something, and left. Or you could say, 'The panda eats shoots and leaves,' which describes the panda's diet of shoots and leaves. It all depends on where you put the commas."

At which point, I said, "How about, 'He eats shoots, and leaves,' to say that he ate some shoots, and then departed?"

"Ah, but are we talking about the hunter or the panda?"

That discussion, of course, was about people's comma usage, or lack thereof. It's one of the things we plan on teaching a little more about in the near future. Not everyone remembers learning this stuff back in grade school, or middle school, or high school, or college, or from reading anything professionally published, but if you want to be a writer, it's pretty important to know how to use commas to convey the proper meaning.

Likewise, word choice is important. "I arm-wrestled a grizzly bare," has an entirely different meaning from, "I arm-wrestled a grizzly bear," even though they sound the same when spoken.

"I heard a commode from the bathroom," versus, "I heard a commotion from the bathroom." Don't laugh, there are people who make mistakes like that, meaning to write one thing but writing the other instead. Even if they get the spelling right, it's still a mistake.

Often we see people confusing "accept" and "except", "there, their, and they're", and so on, but I'm talking about things that you shouldn't be able to confuse.

"As we got to the drawbridge, the engine stalled." Uhhhhh... The car? The boat? The drawbridge? Which engine stalled makes a difference in how you imagine what's going on. It's one thing to create a mystery to be solved, but it's another to leave them wondering what the heck you're talking about. When you do that, you turn them off and they stop reading.

Even the title I use for this site illustrates this. Am I advocating More in Sanity, or More Insanity? Or am I doing both?

Pay just a little bit of attention to the words you use, the way you use them, and the commas you use to seperate them. There's a ton of difference between, "Susan Boyle, the singer," and "Susan, boil the singer."


Other articles you'll find interesting or entertaining:
You Might not Know how to Write in the English Language
Webster's Rejects
What you should Know about the Military before you Join



  1. Are you kidding?

    Not even I, a foreigner with English as second language, does (or is it "do"?) mistakes like confusing "accept" and "except" or "there, their, and they're"!

    /You know who (or is it "whom"?) ;)

  2. Sadly, I'm not kidding. I made a big, long list last year of commonly confused words, then realized it would be pointless to publish the whole thing because it was too big to read confortably. Instead, I used some of them in the above-linked humor article, "You might not Know how to Write in the English Language".


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