Archive for the ‘Language Use’ Category

(For the last few months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. This one is from 2013. We’ll be posting more blasts from the past for the next several months, and will intersperse them with new material.)

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by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

I recently read a short story by a well-known science fiction author, and found myself grinding my teeth as I plowed through it. Why? It was well plotted and the characters were well drawn, but it contained several common writing errors — errors that the editor should have caught, and that the writer should never have made. (She’s a major figure in the sci-fi genre, and the story collection was published by a major publishing house.)

The first error was misspelling of the past tense of the verb “lead”: it’s “led,” not “lead.”

The second was my current pet peeve, incorrect use of the infinitive: “and” is not part of the infinitive; “to” is. For example, “I’m going to try and get a job.” Wrong. “I’m going to try to get a job.” Right.

The third was misuse of both semicolons and colons.

Semicolons have only two uses: 1) to separate two closely related phrases that could stand as independent sentences; 2) to separate items in lists, especially within text. They can be used as separators in bulleted or numbered lists, but that’s optional.

Colons have a few more uses: 1) at the end of salutations in letters or e-mails; 2) to introduce lengthy quoted material; 3) at the end of a complete sentence when the following phrase, clause, or word illustrates or explains the preceding part of the sentence; 4) to introduce a list.

Everyone, at least occasionally, makes writing mistakes. But when abundant such errors indicate the following: 1) the author is simply a poor writer and doesn’t even suspect s/he’s making common errors; 2) the author takes little or no pride in his or her craft, is too lazy to learn proper usage, and doesn’t think it matters; or 3) the author is aware of his or her writing errors, knows they’re problems, and wishes to slough them off on lesser mortals (i.e., editors).

These are all excellent reasons for not wanting to work with an author.


Here’s the latest installment in our ever-popular Internet Crap series, which mixes links to sick and absurd but amusing crap with links to useful crap. Enjoy!

  • Skeptic Magazine has a great piece on a new successful hoax of a postmodernist academic journal. The piece begins:

    The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

    “. . .We used this preposterous sentence to open a ‘paper’ consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.”

  • Walking disease vector Milo Yiannopoulos’s publicists claimed, to Publishers Weekly, that his new self-published book Dangerous sold 100,000 copies during its first week. It turns out, according to industry reporting firm Nielsen BookScan, that it was only about 18,000. (To avoid misunderstanding, please understand that when we refer to Yiannopoulos as a “walking disease vector,” we’re referring to emotional, not physical, illness.)

  • Raw Story reports that “Conservative Christian reality TV star Toby Willis gets 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to child rape.” What channel was carrying the Willis program? You guessed it! TLC.  Raw Story further reports that “Willis’ rape case is the third sex scandal that plagued TLC. In 2014, the network first canceled ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ after Mama June rekindled a romance with a convicted sex offender. In 2015, it axed ’19 Kids and Counting’ following Josh Duggar’s molestation scandal.”
  • Well, this is a first. The Saudi government is usually in the news for persecuting atheists, committing judicial mass murder, forbidding women to drive (among other worse affronts), and committing war crimes in Yemen, but it’s come up with a new, amusing, and amazing offense it can use to hammer its citizens: excessive butt kissing.
  • If you’ve been listening to right-wing misrepresentation of Black Lives Matter,  please give a close listen to Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a found of Black Lives Matter, who presents a very insightful analysis of current political conditions in the United States, and how we can improve them.
  • Finally, the headline here (almost) says it all: “Juggalo March on Washington: Insane Clown Posse fans to demand end to ‘gang’ designation.”

For now, that’s all folks.

(We recently began running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. We’re currently featuring blasts from the past from 2013, and will be for the next few months; we’ll intersperse them with new material.)

Bad Writing Trends

Bad writing trends come and go in written English. (We’re not talking about, like, you know, spoken English.) Over the last few decades, one of the most prominent has been the use of apostrophes to form plurals, as in, “Idiot’s form the plural by inserting an apostrophe before an ‘s.'” Fortunately, this manner of forming plurals is now regarded almost universally as semi-literate, and it seems to be fading away.

Another really bad trend is use of wordy, pretentious “of” constructions in place of adjectives (mostly those ending in “ed”), as in “horse of disease” rather than “diseased horse.” Fortunately, this type of construction also seems to be fading away. If the contrary was true, we’d likely find ourselves reading sentences such as, “The girl of size in the dress of stripes bought a balloon of color.” Fortunately, such constructions are becoming increasingly rare, and the adjectival “of” form survives today primarily in the mandatory PC usage, “people of color.”

As noted in a previous post, “and” is increasingly used in place of “to” in the infinitive, as in the barbaric, “I’m going to try and write literate-sounding sentences.” This usage seems to be on the upswing, but it’s so ugly that one suspects (well, fervently hopes) it will disappear in short order. Just remember, “and” is not part of the infinitive.

(As a side note, I was dismayed a couple of nights ago, while rereading Heart of Darkness, to see that even Joseph Conrad used “and” as part of the infinitive — in 1899! [The horror! The horror!] There’s only one instance of this in the book, but still . . . . . So, while I detest this mangled form of the infinitive and wish it would go away, I’m not holding my breath.)

Another really bad and ascending trend is the overuse of hyphens, what one might term “hyphen glut” (or should that be “hyphen-glut”?). Hyphens are creeping into places where they simply should not be, where they’re simply unnecessary. The primary example is “well-known.” In this usage, “well” is an adverb, a word that modifies an immediately following adjective. Hence, the hyphen is unnecessary; it’s ugly clutter. It’s even common nowadays to see hyphens inserted between adverbs ending in “ly” and following adjectives, as in “friendly-sounding.” This is even worse than inserting hyphens after other adverbs. The “ly” ending is figuratively leaping into the air, waving pom poms, and screaming, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m part of an adverb!”

Just remember, do not use hyphens between adverbs and adjectives; rather, use them in adjectival phrases that precede the noun being modified, as in, “Bubba downed five shots of tequila in his end-of-the-day ritual.” And omit the hyphens if the phrase comes after the noun, as in, “Bubba’s ritual consisted of downing five shots of tequila at the end of the day,” (which after an hour of writing about verbal atrocities sounds like a pretty good idea — cheers).

(We recently began running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. We’re currently featuring blasts from the past from 2013, and will be for the next few months; we’ll intersperse them with new material.)

Why we rejection 99% of queries and manuscripts

by Chaz Bufe

As primary editor for See Sharp Press, I’ve seen thousands of queries and manuscripts over the years. I reject probably 99% of them. I derive no joy from doing this, but I have to do it. There are reasons.

The first is that probably half of the authors who approach us don’t bother to read our submission guidelines. Some send manuscripts rather than query letters. Others send queries about books that are outside of our  niches, often way outside, in areas we specifically state we do not publish. Still others are obviously making simultaneous submissions, something to which we loudly say no in our guidelines.

That takes care of most submissions. But what of the rest?

A surprising number of authors don’t know how to write queries. Some are so short (one sentence) that they give us virtually nothing to go on. Others omit essential information, such as word count, working title, or even the manuscript’s topic. Still other queries are so badly written (misspellings, mispunctuation, passive voice, boasting) that there would be no point in looking at the authors’ manuscripts. Similarly, some queries come from the clearly demented. And still other queries are insanely detailed, some running to several thousand words set in tiny, html-formatted type.

Rejected manuscripts are another matter. The ones that I find the hardest to reject are well written, have something to say, and probably wouldn’t sell enough copies to justify the hard work and expense of publication. Such submissions account for perhaps 5% of the total. In such cases, I try to recommend other publishers that might be interested, and I’ll sometimes make suggestions about both content and the initial query. I hate saying “no” to such submissions, but if I want See Sharp Press to stay in business, I have little choice.

That still leaves all too many rejected manuscripts. The primary problem with almost all of them — in addition, in most cases, to their being commercially unviable — is that they’re poorly written.

By far the most common fault is use of passive voice. Passive voice pervades present-day American English to such an extent that many, probably most, would-be published authors are blissfully unaware of it and use it incessantly. Almost certainly, many don’t even know what it is. (As writing instructor Rebecca Johnson notes, “If you can insert ‘by zombies’ after the verb, you have passive voice.”)

What’s so bad about passive voice? Passive voice is vague. It allows writers to describe actions without ascribing responsibility for those actions–hence its popularity in “Pentagonese”/”corporatese.” Take, for instance, the sentence, “Fifteen hundred civilians were killed in Fallujah today,” versus “The U.S. military killed fifteen hundred civilians in Fallujah today.” Both of these sentences could truthfully describe a mass killing, but which provides more information?

Even where there is no desire to deceive, the vagueness of passive voice still leaves readers in the dark as to responsibility. For instance, the sentence, “John was beaten with a baseball bat,” invites the question, “by whom?” When you answer the question in passive voice, you end up with a lifeless sentence that is wordier than its active voice counterpart: “John was beaten with a baseball bat by Bill,” versus “Bill beat John with a baseball bat.” Nine words versus seven. And the first (passive voice) sentence makes the reader wait until its end to reveal the subject, which, along with its wordiness, robs it of vitality.

Other common problems include poor organization, incorrect use of punctuation (especially semicolons), limited use of punctuation (periods and commas only), and lack of variation in sentence structure. (Spelling problems are mostly a thing of the past, thanks to spell checkers.)

Science fiction submissions often have additional problems. The most common is that writers don’t bother to “get the science right.” It’s one thing to base a story on plausible projection of current scientific speculation; it’s quite another to blithely ignore Newtonian physics (which quite accurately describes day-to-day physical events).

In science fiction, there are always at least one or two  “gimmes”: faster-than-light travel, immortality, artificial intelligence, etc. It’s perfectly fine — in fact necessary — to use such scientific projections. But don’t rob your story of plausibility by ignoring known science or through inconsistency. Science fiction isn’t fantasy — and even in fantasy, consistency is vital.

Another very common problem with science fiction manuscripts is careless writing. Science fiction, when properly done, is harder to write than any other kind of fiction: mysteries, westerns, “literary”  or historical fiction, romance novels, etc. The reason is that sci-fi authors have to create an alternative, internally consistent world with which their readers are not familiar. Writers of other types of fiction have the huge advantage of writing against familiar backdrops; they don’t have to create them. In all too many of the science fiction submissions I read, authors seem unaware of this, and many authors don’t even strive for internal consistency. Unawareness does, in fact, probably account for most such problems; the other most likely reason is sheer laziness.

To increase your chances of selling a manuscript (to See Sharp Press or any other publisher), you’d do well to do the following: 1) Read the submission guidelines; 2) Follow them; 3) Write a query of 200 to 300 words in which you address the submissions editor by name (find it), provide the working title, describe your book, describe the potential audience, mention your previous published works (if any), tell the publisher why your book is a good fit for them, and mention any similar titles the publisher has already issued.

In your writing: 1) Produce a detailed outline before you start to write; 2) Use active voice; 3) In science fiction submissions, get the science right and strive for consistency; and 4) Edit your work several times and, if you can, have other writers go through it, too. All of this is crucial. Editors generally consider poorly written work an indication that the writer is incompetent, lazy, and/or so egotistical that he thinks it’s beneath him to clean up his own mess.

If you follow the advice in the previous two paragraphs, you’ll vastly increase your chances of finding a publisher for your book.

Good luck.

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Joke of the Day 1-27-17

Posted: January 26, 2017 in Humor, Jokes, Language Use

“Don’t you just hate rhetorical questions?”

–no idea where this came from, so let’s credit it to Anonymous

No, I’m not going to belabor the obvious. I’m not going to talk about the difference between language and lashing, between pious preaching and priestly pedophilia.

As those of you who haven’t unsubscribed might have noticed, I dropped an “F-bomb” for effect at the end of the next-to-last post.

Why? Precisely because it had an effect.

It’s still an effective means of shocking people, sometimes for the sheer sake of shock (as in that post), and sometimes for the sake of accurate portrayal of everyday language.

A few days ago I was talking with a friend who’s done construction work for decades. He recently worked on the new Mormon temple up in the foothills.

It is, of course, a monstrosity. A raised middle finger to the environment and the people of Tucson. As are all Mormon temples. (And yes, the ugliness is deliberate: they build temples according to pre-ordained plan.)

To add insult to injury, they demanded that all of the construction workers building their temple have no visible tattoos and refrain from cursing while on the job. (No, I’m not kidding.)

I asked him, “Do they have any fucking idea of what construction workers are like?”

Apparently not. (used to be one myself)

Decades ago, for an environmental organization, I canvassed the neighborhood downhill from the recently constructed Mormon temple in the Oakland foothills.  The Mormons had capped a number of springs on their property, and the water, as one would expect, found a way out, destroying several houses in the process.

The Mormons, of course, refused to admit that their tax-exempt temple was in any way responsible for the destruction of the tax-paying properties below them.

Now that’s obscene.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist pointing out the obvious.)


Crude Joke of the Day 12-9-16

Posted: December 9, 2016 in Humor, Jokes, Language Use


(Sorry, but I do not know where this came from. Thanks to my pal Leo for passing this one along.)