Tuesday Technique: Litotes

I became overly infatuated with the term litotes back in my Latin days, and I fancied myself rather avant garde for making it “new” again. Unfortunately, I was simply being a stereotypical college kid, since this literary device is not uncommon (bonus points if you see what I did there).

Litotes is a classical style device, but it’s one that we all use even today. Put simply, it’s just emphasizing a point by denying its opposite. The trick is that it has to be a deliberate understatement with subtle nuance.

Some examples:

  • I am not unwell.
  • She was not unfamiliar with the expression.
  • He’s not stupid.

See—simple. But in the right places, litotes can add something unique (at least, not boring).

Have some famous examples? Leave them here.

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Grammar Fail: Lying or Sitting

There are four verbs that cause more people to stumble than any other: lie/lay and sit/set. (I confess—these are pet peeves of mine). But they don’t have to be a mystery if you use my simple method for remembering how to use each.

First, let’s talk verbs—specifically, transitive versus intransitive. Sounds scary? Well, it’s not too horrible. Transitive simply means that the sentence has a subject (the noun doing something) and a direct object (what the noun is doing that action to). A transitive sentence would be this:

I burned my eyebrows.

The subject (foolish me) did something to the direct object (my former eyebrows).

Intransitive verbs don’t have a direct object:

My eyebrows melted.

In this sentence, the subject (crispy eyebrows) are not acting on anything. They simply have an action. (And yes, I did actually burn off my eyebrows once.)

With me? Good. Once you understand that difference, you know how to use lie or lay, sit or set. Why? Because lay and set are transitive (have a direct object) and lie and sit are intransitive (no direct object).

I lie down. [no direct object]

But

He lays his keys on the table. [direct object = keys]

Or

She set the WiiFit balance board on the floor. [direct object = WiiFit balance board]

But

She sat on the floor. [no direct object]

There are some trickier ones (and some exceptions we won’t discuss here). So, watch out. Try this one:

Now I lay me down to sleep. [direct object = me, though this is a rare use]

Or

Set your bottom in that chair. [direct object = bottom (I call this the parent/teacher use of set)]

Finally, remember the different forms of each verb.

lie, lay, lain

lay, laid, laid

sit, sat, sat

set, set, set

Weekend Website: Zoho

zoho-writer-logo1I’ve been a fan of Google Docs for a few years (as I’ve mentioned before), and there haven’t been many services that have made me consider switching. However, I am intrigued by a suite of online tools that I recently came across called Zoho.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had seen the site before a while back, but that was before they started targeting Google. Since then, the site has acquired an interesting array of apps. They’ve got what you’d expect: email, word processing, spreadsheets, notes, and document management. But they’ve also got much more: wiki, file sharing, invoice making, database management, web collaboration, etc.

Better than what they have, though, is how it works. In fact, their word processor (Zoho Writer) puts Google Docs to shame (think: the best of Word on the web), and their document management makes far more sense. Give it a shot (ironically, you can sign in using your Google account).

Website: Zoho

Episode 38: What to Expect from a Writer

Last week I railed a bit on what writers should expect from an editor. Fair enough, and a good topic that every writer should consider when entrusting something personal to someone they probably don’t know very well.

Now, let’s turn the tables. I am on both sides of the continental divide, and I know how taxing the writing process is. But as an editor, I have high expectations about the writers with which I work (and yes, it is fine to end a sentence with a preposition—old habits die hard).

More than simply cold words on a screen, I want to build a bit of a relationship so that I can better do my job of helping the writer succeed. To do that there are a few ground rules that I like to establish up front.

What I Don’t Expect:

  • Perfection: If I ask for changes—even major changes—I am definitely not attacking your talent as a writer. I don’t expect everything that’s sent to me to be ready for publication. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need my services.
  • Grammatical Genius: I’d love to see no grammatical issues, but if that’s why you need an editor, I’m fine with catching those. Send me your dangling modifiers, your fragments, your comma splices.

What I Do Expect:

  • Flexibility: Part of my job is knowing what works, what flows, what’s suitable, and what needs to be cut out. And I love doing just that. But I need to know that a writer is willing to let me do that job. Very few first (and even third) drafts are above major changes.
  • Communication: A past client was very reluctant to open up about what I had suggested, which made the process frustrating for both of us. The communication went mainly one way, and I have no idea what became of the texts. When I edit a work, I spend considerable time explaining suggestions and my impressions. If I’m getting paid to edit, that’s expected of me. However, I don’t want to dictate changes—mainly because the work isn’t mine. I want to know that the writer understands my suggestions, even if he or she completely disagrees.
  • Passion: This is the most important to me. If writers aren’t passionate about what they’re doing, then the editing won’t help. There’s no other way to put it. I’m not saying that the writer has to work 24/7, but I am saying that, given a choice, I will not work with someone who is not willing to dive in completely. If you’re sending money my way, first make sure that you’re willing to keep plugging away. It’s draining—but I’m in if you are.

The main point is, like with a writer and agent, an editor and writer should share a type of relationship with a certain level of trust. You trust the editor with your work, and the editor trusts you to take everything in good faith.

Writers: what is it that you want from an editor? Editors: what is it that you want from your clients?

Tuesday Terminology: Hyperbole

It’s no exaggeration to say that the hyperbole is a useful literary device. Well—then again—a hyperbole is an exaggeration, but it’s more than simply stretching the truth. To really get good mileage out of this figure of speech, you have to go extravagant for a particular reason.

For example, this is not a hyperbole:

The fish was a good 15 inches long—maybe 20.

Instead, this is simply something guys like to tell each other. A hyperbole, on the other hand, requires vivid language in a setting or about a character that elicits such astounding language—whether deserved or not. Imagine a tragic hero in his final hour saying this:

When this tempest tears apart the world and shreds the edges of the sky, I’ll finish raging and sleep so deeply nothing will rouse me again.

Because of the dramatic flourish, hyperbole is often reserved for drama or other elevated writing styles (Shakespeare and Keats were both excellent masters of the device). But it can also be quite useful for humor. In fact, much of the humor in movies and comedies is hyperbole (in the dialog or action)—think Mel Brooks.

Any examples that come to mind?

Grammer Fail: The Missing D

English is an odd beast at times. For one thing, the spoken language doesn’t always mesh with what’s written down. As my one-man crusade is to beat as much use out of grammar rules as I can before they die, I wanted to point out a trend that I’ve noticed for years.

In spoken English, consonants from one word sometimes get eaten up by similar sounding consonants in the next word. Chief among these is the d at the end of certain words.

For example, when we speak, we usually say (phonetically), “I use (uce) to go to the store every day” or “I was suppose (suppoce) to read this book.” But grammatically, the correct form is “used to” and “supposed to” because these are past tense verbs. The d falls off in speech because it butts up against the t.

When you speak, say it however you feel comfortable. Just remember that it isn’t written exactly like it sounds.

Don’t you love English grammar?

Weekend Website: Eyercize

Last year, I took a speed reading course designed to teach editors how to read—and comprehend—at an incredible rate. Sure enough, I did increase the speed with which I can parse the “big picture” aspects of writing, and my research goes much more quickly. However, speeding through something is not good for detail.

Nevertheless, I found a website, called Eyercize, that seems to follow many of the same methods that I was taught. The difference is that this site is free (though accepting donations).

If you want to speed your reading, keep in mind that you will—essentially—have to relearn how you comprehend what you see. Many of us read by “hearing” a voice in our heads, but this actually slows us down. That is, our brains can comprehend what we see faster than our “voice inside” can read.

It sounds a bit strange, but it works. Just be prepared to work at it.

Website: Eyercize