Precision a Problem? Make It a Game


“I’m fine.”

If this is the response you get when you ask someone how they are, do you really have a firm grip on her status?

Said in anger or sarcasm, the meaning may be opposite of what the words would normally make you think. Said unsurely, it could make you unsure of the person’s real status. Even if said confidently, what does “fine” really mean? Is the person healthy, happy, doing okay but not great, mentally stable, or a combination of any of these?

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, there are three entries for “fine” with a total of 16 definitions!

Using precise words helps us avoid miscommunication. The better “mind picture” we can give, the surer the success of what we say or write.

This morning, if someone asked me how I was, I might say, “The gloomy weather is trying to get me down, but it’s not succeeding.”  A week before, it might have been, “I can’t stop smiling.”

One great method for trying to drill down to a precise word, is to play a sort of word chain. Here’s an example:

workspace > desk > L-shaped computer desk with writing area

Here’s another one:

food > snack > crackers > wheat crackers with a slice of cheddar cheese

The further you get in the chain, the more precise the description. Of course, there are times when “desk” or “crackers” will suffice, but you get the drift.

We should strive for precision with verbs, too.

Alfred is trying to get his keys out versus Alfred fumbled for his keys.

The customer seemed angry versus The customer demanded to see the manager about the defective product.

The best time to play this Precision Game is when you’re revising. The better you get at it, the less people will misunderstand what you’re saying.

Technology works great — when you make sure to push all the right buttons. Unfortunately, on those days when I feel like someone poured concrete into my sinuses, those buttons sometimes get neglected. Thus the reason for my absence last week. My apologies for any confusion. ☹

Why Does ‘Infamy’ Stick?

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941–a date which will live in infamy–the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

fdr_delivers_speechThis was how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened his address to Congress almost three quarters of a century ago. The word “infamy” still resonates, even after so many years. It was the perfect word.

Other phrases have stood the test of time: “Four score and seven years ago…” “We the people…”

Why do FDR’s words live in our cultural consciousness and not what President George W. Bush said on September 12, 2001?

Infamy-address-1The “Infamy Speech” was carefully crafted to show the world how the U.S. was the victim of aggression by Imperial Japan. “Infamy” is a strong word that stresses long-term, negative feelings. FDR wanted to highlight the negative with such a word. The passive voice shows the U.S. as the party acted upon, underlining the idea of victimization.

Why didn’t Abraham Lincoln just say “Eighty-seven years ago…”? He wanted to lengthen the expression to reflect the span of years and highlight the historical nature of Gettysburg’s dedication. “Four score and seven years ago…” is also an old-fashioned way to describe a number, again providing the flavor of history.

“We the people…” are the first three words of the Constitution because the people are what the government is based upon. Self-governance by the people is the prime purpose of the U.S. Government, and these words on the primary document of the nation makes sure there is no mistake about that.

Finding the perfect words isn’t easy. It takes hard work and an awareness of the environment surrounding the written piece, the purpose of the piece, and the audience to whom the words will be addressed.

Said so many years ago, “infamy” still lives.

3 Careless Flubs That Make You Look Bad

Okay, we’ve all done it – made embarrassing writing mistakes we wish we could take back. The trick is to avoid those mistakes that can cost us readers.

I fillRecently, my reading (especially on the Web) caused me severe eye-roll syndrome. A bunch of thoughtless errors made me want to stop reading, but I trudged on. I think most readers would have shared my frustration.

Careless errors reflect poorly on writers and cause readers to doubt writers’ abilities (maybe even their intelligence). We need to do ourselves a favor and avoid these three types of embarrassing errors.

Proper Verb Form

English is weird. It’s a combination of several other languages. This makes for some rather illogical verb forms. But using the wrong form will get us in trouble – fast.

I was reading an online news item where the writer twice used the word “payed,” as in “he payed for that mistake.” Now, that would seem to be the logical past tense of to pay, but the correct form is paid. Didn’t the guy have a spelling checker? It comes up on mine.

Another common tense hang-up is the went-gone difficulty. Too many times I have read and heard “I had went …” Seriously? It’s “I had gone…”

There’s always the lie (to recline) versus lay (to set down) confusion. When it comes to verb forms in English, it’s a good idea to have a chart of irregular verb tenses handy. I know I do.


I’m not sure why, but people have trouble with the preposition of.

Sometimes they’ll leave it out, as in “we had a couple drinks to celebrate.” Does that make “couple” an adjective instead of a noun? How about “I drank a can soda”? That just doesn’t sound right.

On the other hand, people will use of when they mean have, to whit “I could of been a contender!” The difficulty here is one of sound. When we make the contractions “could’ve” or “should’ve,” that second syllable sounds an awful lot like “of.” But, well, it’s still wrong.

Wrong Words

Using a word we think sounds right instead of the correct word is the worst kind of error. It’s just plain sloppy writing, and the reader knows it.

We all know the problems with there, their, and they’re, and its and it’s. Yet, people will use fill when they mean feel. I had one student who kept using an in the place of and. It took me a while (and a lot of re-reading) to catch on.

And it mystifies me why people will use the word defiantly when they mean definitely. They are not even close in meaning or even pronunciation.

Using incorrect words forces the reader to figure out what the writer really means, and we don’t want to make the reader work that way.

Remember: We always want the reader to concentrate on what we’re saying, not struggle to translate the mistakes in our writing.

There are all kinds of crazy writing errors out there. What are some of your favorite (or should it be despised) errors?

Writer, correct thyself!

Last time, I talked about how important revision is. What we write serves as our introduction to strangers. Just like in a job interview, first impressions are important.

Editing and proofreading are important parts of revision. Although the bulk of our efforts should be spent on organization, we mustn’t forget the details. Think of it as a wedding cake. The structure is vital, but it’s the details that make everyone go, “Ahhh!”

“If I make a mistake, how can I know that I’ve made it let alone correct it?”

Never fear! It’s usually not as hard as we want to believe.

The first thing to remember is that we begin writing by just trying to get the information or story down. We never expect that first effort to be perfect because we know we’ll go back and revise it.

We all have weak spots in our writing that we should become familiar with. I know that I tend to repeat certain words and phrases. I also have a hard time spelling certain words (truly, judgment, etc.). Then there’s my tendency toward overblown vocabulary, parenthetical statements, and convoluted sentences. I know I do all this, so I look for these when I’m revising.

Spelling and Word Use

For those who have trouble spelling and using the correct words, there’s good news – and bad news. Most word processing software has spell check and grammar check capabilities. Spell check is very helpful, especially for those of us whose minds work faster than our fingers. I love it when it changes “adn” to “and” automatically.

However, spell check doesn’t know the difference between homonyms, words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. Their, there, and they’re are major culprits as are its and it’s. Learn how each should be used and work to always use them correctly. (One of my pet peeves is alot, which is not a real word.)

Sentence Structure

Lots of people have problems with sentence structure. They either tend to write sentence fragments, or they write run-on sentences.

Fragments often happen when we start a sentence with a dependent clause and neglect to write in the independent clause that it depends on. This is why many people were told in elementary school not to begin a sentence with “because.” Because he was the cutest and nicest boy at the school dance. That is not a sentence. We are left asking, “So?”

Think of fragments as building a hot rod, except that you neglect to put the right rear hub and wheel on. It looks cool, but it isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes we want to use fragments for effect, but we can’t make the mistake of thinking we can get away with it all the time. Then it goes from writing for effect to sloppiness.

Run-on sentences come in two forms: fused and comma splices. Fused sentences happen when we just stick a bunch of independent clauses together without giving the reader clues, through punctuation, that they are different thoughts. I saw a program about Scotland yesterday it was interesting it talked about kilts and whiskey it talked about food including haggis it had a segment about Scottish games the contestants threw a bunch of things the caber, or a big pole, was the most unusual.

Comma splices are way too common. Yes, I know; nobody likes, commas. They’re a pain in the neck. However, sometimes we ask the comma to carry too heavy a burden. Harry and Maude went to the movies, they saw “Guardians of the Universe.” Here we are asking the comma to hold up two independent clauses on its own. It needs help. Either put in a coordinating conjunction after the comma or replace the comma with a semicolon. (By the way, grammar check doesn’t recognize comma splices as grammatically incorrect – one of the many reasons why we shouldn’t rely on it too much.)

Listen, this is not rocket science. Does it take effort? Yes! Is it easy? No, but then writing well is never really easy. Yet the payoff for all this hard work is that our readers have a much better impression of us.