Word Power- 10 ways to make your words have meaning and impact
By Michael Hall
In a time when electronic instant communication in all its forms is at the highest use, the maximum potential of word usage is getting worse. I doesn’t matter if a person is texting (which has its own language), twittering (a message of 140 characters or less), or using old-fashioned e-mails and ancient faxes. Even those who send traditional postal service “snail” mail letters can have the same problem. Wasted words.
The art of writing with power has been eroded by the new technology because of these wasted words, but these newer ways of communication have the potential to be even more effective with the proper word choice. Words are the bricks, which with the right mix of mortar, become the foundation of sentences. These sentences make the paragraphs, and the paragraphs are what we see in the variety of documents in reports, essays and creative works.
Sometimes we may not know who is sending the message being communicated or know them well-enough to interpret the choice of words or the order of words. So the writer has one chance to make that first impression. By the time a potential employee sends the cover letter with three mistakes in the first paragraph of a cover letter to the employer, that person should kiss that job goodbye. The next “corrected” version will hot help. Wasted words do have an economic impact.
As an instructor of English at an Indianapolis, Ind., community college, it is my job to show how students to harness the power of words, and this theme is reflected in the poetry I write, as well as the style of my poems.
Here are 10 basic ways to make the most of your words, regardless of the medium used.
1. A sentence is a complete thought. Do not go beyond that. Dependent clauses, appositives, and prepositional phrases and other devices can extend a sentence to an entire paragraph. These devices are sometimes necessary, but limit their use. A sentence with active verbs gets ideas going. Passive sentences, though grammatically correct, are longer, take more words, and can be confusing. Per sentence, the difference may be subtle, but like the colors of a sunset, the sum of the changes create a dramatic difference.
Passive-These groups want regulations for the industry to make riding three-wheeler safer for children and adults.
Active- These groups want to regulate the industry to make riding three-wheeler safer for children and adults.
2. Vocabulary – Knowing the audience will go a long way to communicate effectively. Spell the words correctly. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and nearly the right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug. Spelling is often considered “just a typo,” but these mistakes can be costly, and people have become too dependent on computer spell check programs. Homonyms can cause too many problems.
Too many “big” words can be too much for a younger group, or too many “small words” can be not enough for a more sophisticated readership. Don’t insult the reader, or he or she will literally turn you off. I still have my Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary from my freshman year given to me by my mother when I went to Ball State University. I have added a rhyming dictionary to the collection, along with a dependable thesaurus. A Scrabble dictionary can be a great source to win the game with that perfect word.
Be aware of the difference between denotation and connotation. Denotation is the dictionary or literal meaning of a word, but the same word may have, depending on its use, will have an emotional inference leading to negative or positive meaning. There is a distinct difference between calling a person “four-eyes”, instead of a scholar, or a person who is penny-pinching compared a thrifty grandmother.
3. Use pronouns correctly. There are several types of pronouns and each has to work with its correct reference or antecedent. There are several basic resource books available that will give more details. I am currently using the Quick Access reference for Writers, 5th ed., Lynn Quitman Troyka and Douglas Hesse, ISBN 0-13-195226-9. The best way to see a problem is to look at the sentence in a literal sense. What do the words say?
Wrong: Flying through the clear sky, I saw the kite vividly silhouette against the sun. Here it seems as though the person is up in the sky as high as the kite. This problem stems from the improper use of dependent clauses. Solve this by putting the subject first, thus creating action.
Correct: I saw the kite vividly silhouetted against the sun as it flew through the clear sky.
Personal pronouns relate to people.
Wrong: In those days, the courts used to hang you for stealing.
Correct: In those days, the courts used to hang thieves for stealing.
Wrong: Since the meeting was on the same night as the game, we had to miss it.
Correct: Since the meeting was on the same night as the meeting, we had to miss the meeting.
Wrong: Mrs. Snyder told Sherri that she was being promoted.
Correct: Sherri was being promoted, according to Mrs. Snyder.
Wrong: I dropped a decanter on the platter and broke it.
Correct: I broke the decanter when I dropped it on the platter.
4. Know basic punctuation rules. People put commas in sentences as randomly as they select lottery numbers. Sometimes, like the lottery, people set the right combination of commas, periods or other end punctuation. Students routinely miss placing a question mark for a question in an exercise I use with quotation marks, and they put a period or nothing at all.
Comma Fault. Wrong: I have a new book, it is interesting and humorous.
Two complete thoughts cannot be connected by a comma. Make them two sentences or combine the information.
Correct: I have a new interesting and humorous book.
Commas needed. Wrong. What time is it I haven’t eaten yet I am very hungry.
There are several sentences here. What time is it needs a question mark. The last two can be combined.
Correct: What time is it? I haven’t eaten yet, and I am very hungry.
Comma Fault. Wrong: You may not like spinach, however it is good for you.
Correct: You may not like spinach; however, it is good for you.
5. Keeping tense consistent is important. Mixing the past and the present is a job for a magician, not the writer. Some of the combinations are very subtle.
Wrong: Running along the beach, the sun shone in my face. First this sentence is missing a subject. Running implies a present action, and shone implies something that has happened.
Correct: As I was running along the beach, the sun was shining in my face. Wrong: Before beginning his speech, the audience gave the speaker a warm reception. Keep this one in the past. Using dependent clauses incorrectly like this also causes problems.
Correct: The audience gave the speaker a warm reception before he began his speech.
6. Subject- verb agreement. To make sense, a subject needs to be the same or agree in number with the verb in a complete sentence. The “–s “or” –es” in normally added to a noun to make it plural: cow to cows or tomato to tomatoes. Exceptions are goose to geese, when the form of the word changes. Confusion happens when plural words come between a singular subject and the singular verb.
Wrong: The group of students were late to the play on the field trip.
The subject of the sentence is “group,” and the prepositional phrase, “of students” is used to describe the group.
Correct: The group of students was late to the play on the field trip.
Indefinite pronouns usually like each, nobody and everyone use singular verb.
Correct: Each of the paintings was already sold (not were).
Correct: Everyone in the audience is going to get a copy of the new movie. (not are)
When the conjunction “and” is used, the subject becomes plural. When conjunctions “or “and “nor” are used, the verb agrees with the closer subject since each subject is a choice and independent of each other.
Wrong: Neither the manager or the workers knows the new policy. Correct: (1 )Neither the manager or the workers know the new policy. or (2) Neither the workers or the manager know the new policy.
7. Sculpt your sentence: Eliminate the wasted words that get in the way- redundancy , ditch clichés and worn out phrases, simplify phrases. Wordy phrases such as ”at the present time” mean “now, and the phrase ”the reason is that” should never be used. Redundant words take way reader’s time, and never “repeat again” because something’s “cheaper in cost” or is a “new innovation.”
Here’s a poem I wrote that may help:
From blocksofbooks a
writer c h i s e I s
away unnecessary words
and letters f
to the floor in no par t icu la r pattern.
After hoursof work, a sculpture
called a poem
is created reflecting an idea
the artist treasures.
(copyright 2009 by MDH/World of Words by Elias Tobias)
8. Use of adjectives and adverbs- show not tell what is going on. One of the major faults a young inspired writer has is to use words that merely tell the action happening. Realizing that 140 characters in a twitter message is limiting, E-mail messages are not limited in the same way, but are usually brief. While not writing a novel, word choices should be made to that the words show what is happening like a movie painting a picture in the reader’s imagination.
Telling: Stores have sales when they have too much stuff.
Showing: Stores have sales to clear out old stock, to raise money or to advertise the store.
The better example also demonstrates a concept of parallel construction for parallel ideas.
Do not shift from one grammatical construction to another in a sentence when you are expressing similar ideas.
9. Placement of modifying words and phrases. The order of words in a sentence is just as important as your choice of words, and the wrong order of words can change the intended meaning of the communication in whatever form, leading to confusion and misinterpretations of information or policy. This leads to other emails or communication to clear up the mess, which makes the situation worse. Be clear the first time.
Wrong: She left the book on the table which she had bought from the publisher.
Did the person by the table or the book form the publisher? It could be both situations.
Correct: She left the book, which she has just bought from the publisher, on the table.
Wrong: Rex poked the snake with a small twig that he has just killed.
Did Rex kill the snake or the twig?
Correct: Rex poked the snake, which he had just killed, with a twig.
Pronouns can cause several problems when the antecedents to which they refer are not clear.
Wrong: When the car hit the truck, it turned completely over.
Correct: The car turned completely over when it hit the truck.
Wrong: Mary told Laura that she had used her perfume.
Correct: Mary told Laura that Mary had used Laura’s perfume.
Wrong: She borrowed an egg form a neighbor that was rotten.
Correct: She borrowed a rotten egg from a neighbor.
10. Keep the person consistent. First person is something observed by that person, like a diary entry. The key word is “I” as the subject. Second person involves a conversation with two people. The key word is “You” as the subject. Third person uses something written as an observer. The key word is a regular is a noun or pronoun (he, she, they). Mixing the person gives the reader two points of view, like two sources of light on the same subject and the shadows mix. By using one source of “light” throughout the work, the reader will not be confused. In formal writing, “you” or its other forms are not accepted, since research papers are not considered conversation (compared to direct dialogue).
Wrong: The student that made the comment said they were sorry it was ever reported.
Correct: The student that made the comment said he was sorry it was ever reported.
Bonus: Capitalization, abbreviations and numbers. This part is basic style. Publications differ in style, but as long as the style is consistent, there is less of a chance for miscommunication. In electronic communication- ALL CAPITALS resembles shouting. Beyond that the start of every sentence should start with a capital letter to show that a new sentence has started, and all proper nouns inside the sentence need to be capitalized.
With texting, use of abbreviations has risen to new heights, and in research papers, uncommon abbreviated need to be explained, at least for the first reference. The military has their own version of alphabet soup, much more that any specific area or discipline. When it comes to abbreviations, know your audience and make use the medium to its fullest potential. Never get so abbreviated to the point the reader cannot understand the message.
In regard to use of numbers, like abbreviations, know who your audience is and where the numbers are being used. Research papers will have a style different than an inter-office memo e–mail. Be clear with a way of typing dates, and be consistent. There is difference between August 24, 2009 and 24-8-09. In some places, one to nine is spelled out, and above 10, numerals are used, except in the start of sentences. Ages should be defined. The boy, 8, fell in the well is different than An eight-year-old boy fell in a well.
By making sentence effective sentences, then paragraphs have only one thought, too. These are used to build effective collections of paragraphs into report that are written for a variety of purposes: to inform, persuade, evaluate or to just tell a story. By using the basics of what I call word power, then the person who reads the next email to send will not have to send a request to have it interpreted. Say that you need to say the first time around.
Supplemental books recommended
Supplemental books recommended, for further information and technique include, The classic publication, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. Whites, The Elements of Style, beyond the fourth edition; The Random House Guide to Good Writing, by Mitchell Ivers, an essential handbook for writers; and just for fun, Creative Writing: Forms and Techniques by Lavonne Mueller and Jerry D. Reynolds; On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition, The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. The book “… has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet,” wrote one reviewer.