The Write Words
By Stuart Aken
These posts look at language use for writers. It’s easy to fall into bad habits; using redundancies, applying tautology, and employing clichés. Adverbs come easily, but is the verb you’re using the best for the piece? My suggestions here are the opinion of only one writer: writing rules are often questionable, so use your experience and judgment to determine how you can best enhance your prose.
Redundancies are words or phrases that serve no semantic purpose. In speech, they act as spacers, giving the speaker time to think. But in writing, except when representing natural conversation, they can hamper the reader’s progress.
Actual facts: something that is ‘actual, is factual, so this expression is a tautology. Facts are facts and need no qualification, unless, of course, you’re Donald Trump, and applying ‘alternative facts’; a euphemism for ‘lies’.
Cliché: a stereotyped or hackneyed expression; a phrase, opinion or other element of language that’s so overused it no longer holds power. However, clichés come into being as the result of their original effective ability to describe a situation or quality. Their use should be sparing: in dialogue, they’re fine, providing the speaker would use them.
Burn the midnight oil: This expression means to work long hours, and is often used metaphorically to express overwork, or even dedication to the task in hand.
‘If you continue to burn the midnight oil, you’ll be burned out yourself and no use to man nor beast.’
This sentence employs 3 clichés. Let’s see if we can improve it. ‘If you work long hours and without breaks, you’ll become exhausted and unable to finish the task.’ That’s a factual sentence, expressing the same ideas, but it perhaps lacks the emotional impact of the first sentence. So much of what we write depends on the context of the piece and the purpose behind it. So, we need to select our words with care to reflect our intentions.
Adverbs are as the word describes; an addition to a verb. A stronger verb always wins over an adverb propping up a weak verb.
Literally: Until relatively recently, ‘literally’ had a unique meaning; echoing the actual written words. So, ‘He literally killed himself with overwork.’ meant quite simply that overwork caused the death of the subject. Bowing to popular usage, however, the Oxford English Dictionary (the de facto ‘police’ of English language) decided to allow this word to mean ‘virtually’ as well. I think that was a mistake, as we now have no word that means only ‘in literal terms’, which is a shame.
So, the above sentence could now be read as if ‘literally’ was figurative, making the sense of the words, ‘He worked so hard that exhaustion overtook him and he had to rest.’
However, we’re examining the use of ‘literally’ as an adverb. So, to avoid the use of such a confusing qualification of the verb, ‘work’, we could try the different form of words as shown in the second sentence. Or we might try something like; ‘Working too hard caused him to collapse from exhaustion.’
Have fun trying to find alternatives as you edit your work, and see if that brings better and more expressive meaning to your text.
Word clouds created via WordArt.
Meet the Author
Stuart Aken, born to a homeless, widowed artist, in a neighbour’s bed, describes himself as a romantic, open-minded, radical liberal. Raised by a creative, loving mother and a step-father who educated him in things natural and worldly, he had what he describes as an idyllic childhood. An author who refuses to be shackled by genre, he’s written romance, thrillers, sci-fi, humour, fantasy and an autobiographical, self-help memoir, aimed at sufferers from ME/CFS. His fiction is the only place he bends the truth and, after love, remains his raison d’être.
You can read Stuart's column the 3rd Friday each month here at Pandora's Box Gazette.