Weekend Website: Phrases.net

phrasesPhrases.net is a convenient place to find an exhaustive list of English idioms, definitions, and how they’re used. After that, you can let the site pronounce the phrase for you—or even translate it into another language. I don’t know how accurate they are, though, since my foreign language skills are a bit rusty.

My only problem with the site is that phrases with two or more meanings are listed as separate entries—instead of being tied together. And there are ads all over the place, which can conveniently be removed by ad blocking software.

But why not give it a whirl?

Website: Phrases.net

Episode 66: Seven Ways to Do More with Less

  1. Cut the that: One of the simplest ways to make your writing seem more polished is by cutting out any extraneous that from relative clauses. Relative clauses contain a subject and a verb and begin with a relative pronoun, such as who, whom, whosewhich, or that (the pronoun itself can be the subject), or a relative adverb, such as where, when, or why. For example, “that you know the final score” and “who played violin” are both relative clauses. Most of the time, if there’s another subject besides that, you can cut the that right out. Instead of “I heard that you know the final score,” use “I heard you know the final score.”
  2. Be direct: There are some phrases in English that are big on presence and small on meaning. While they may seem impressive, they actually dilute the sentence. Here are some examples: in order that, for the purpose of, for all intents and purposes. Even in technical or formal writing, these phrases get in the way. There are much simpler ways of saying the same thing: in order that = to, so that; for the purpose of = because, to; for all intents and purposes = [nothing—you can usually cut]. The context dictates what the replacement is.
  3. Zap adverbs with verbs: Not all adverbs are useless. Some can convey a meaning that a verb alone can’t quite capture. But using a more descriptive verb thrusts an image more clearly into the readers mind. “I ran fast across the field” is not nearly as piquant as “I zipped across the field.”
  4. Get words:  The right word can save you three—or more. For example, “spindrift” creates more interest and conveys more meaning than “spray blown from waves during a gale.” Creating word pictures requires reaching into your brain and pulling out the right phrasing from the vocabulary you have. Never stop seeking out new ways to communicate.
  5. Become active: Passive sentences require more words to say the same thing, and they add a layer of disconnect between the reader and the prose. Sometimes passive is unavoidable (and sometimes it’s useful), but active is usually better.
  6. Don’t think: Well, you should think, of course, but don’t tell the reader you are. If you’re writing an opinion piece, the reader knows it’s your opinion. So, there’s no need to say “I think” or “in my opinion.”
  7. Keep it simple: Most of the time, you should avoid present continuous/present progressive verbs. You’ll usually know these by the following format: form of to be (is, are, am) + [verb]ing. For example, avoid “I am hiking” or “he is moonwalking” and stick with the simple present: “I hike” or “he moonwalks.” The same is true with past tense verbs. Eschew “they were traveling” for “they traveled.”

Tuesday Terminology: Enallage

You ain’t got you nary any writing skills until you seen this literary device.

And, no, that’s not bad grammar—it’s enallage. The difference is intent (as with most grammar-defying constructs). I began this post with an obviously incorrect line to grab attention, and that’s the core of today’s term.

  • enallage: intentionally making grammar mistakes for characterization or to create (or use) a catchy statement [Note: There’s a wider definition we won’t discuss here.]

For example, in American culture the phrase “You ain’t seen nothing yet” is well known—and also wrong. But part of what makes it memorable is the brash defiance of the rules. It’s a rebel sentence. Newspapers, magazines, and advertisers often use these (sometimes with excessive quotation marks) to capture the culture or for humor.

As is normal, you should definitely approach this with caution. Some readers don’t like authentic dialect (which is a type of enallage) or an abundance of grammar-bending buzz phrases, as both tend to wear thin with overuse. So, be sure that your use of this device makes sense for the work.

By the way, intentional spelling errors are often considered neologisms or metaplasmus and not enallage. We’ll talk about this later.

For now, hows about yous guys hit me with your favorite enallage?

An Infinitive in Need of a Split

Some rules in English grammar are actually grammar folklore. We accept them; we get graded on them; and they take on iconic status. But they aren’t really as ironclad as they seem.

I already tackled ending a sentence with a preposition. So, today we take on split infinitives.

Most people know how to use infinitives—even if they don’t think about what they’re called. The basic format is to + a base verb:

  • to be
  • to hear
  • to go
  • to listen

Growing up, you may have been told that infinitives cannot be hacked apart. That is, the to has to go right with the verb and nothing shall render it asunder. If you’re like me, you may have even run up against a few red pens when you crossed that line.

But I’m here to free you from the historical misunderstanding. In Latin, an infinitive can’t be split because it’s one word (e.g., amare—to love), and since Latin was once considered a model language, this rule-that-is-not-a-rule crept into English.

English isn’t Latin, however. Oh, sure, there’s Latin in our jumbled language, but there’s no reason to abide by Latin constructs (especially for a German-based tongue). So, don’t feel guilty. Go ahead and use these:

  • to boldly go
  • to never surrender
  • to slowly slip

I do want to caution you, though. If you bump the infinitive apart and squeeze in an adverb (as I did above), some readers will think of it as wrong. The myth is too well engrained to easily be removed.

Also, some infinitive chopping can actually make the phrase confusing:

We need to before the day dawns go to the mountain.

The infinitive to go is so widely split that it’s awkward. The better sentence is this:

We need to go to the mountain before the day dawns.

A word or two between the to and the verb is usually fine. But three or more makes the brain work too much.