Empty adjectives

We learn at school to use lots of adjectives to add depth to our descriptions, but when we leave school and pursue the creative craft of writing stories, we are told that we should avoid adjectives like the plague. In time, I have learned that we still need adjectives but not just any adjective – ones that are specific and not generalised and ambiguous. I call these lazy adjectives ’empty’ because they don’t show the reader what the author really sees. Take the adjective ‘beautiful‘. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The reader does not see the golden rays and red reflections off the clouds when a writer says ‘It was a beautiful sunset‘. Similar adjectives include ‘majestic‘, ‘awesome‘, ‘bad/good‘, and so it goes on. The author may use these adjectives but until he or she describes what they actually see or experience, then it is purely subjective on the part of the writer. The reader misses out on what the author means. Therefore, in order to fully connect with the reader, the author needs to elaborate on exactly what they mean when they say it was a ‘majestic scene‘, ‘an awesome concert‘ or a ‘bad person‘. Yes, it will mean more words are used, but they will not be wasted words.

On the other side of the coin, we have beneficial adjectives that add to what the author is trying to convey. We need to know the colour of a character’s clothing, whether they are tall, short, fat, wiry; their hair is curly or straight, long or short. There are lots of adjectives that do the work to convey a clearer picture to the reader. This also applies to adverbs, but that is another story.

Beneficial adjectives do the work of ‘showing’ the reader what the author wants them to see, while ’empty’ adjectives merely ‘tell’ the reader what the author claims is ‘beautiful, bad, awesome …’ The reader is blindfolded in the author’s landscape. What is beautiful to one person may be mediocre or perhaps ugly to another. A hippopotamus is beautiful to some, ugly and bloated to others.


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The Zero grammar words

zedAt this the completion of my alphabetical blog on grammar, I will examine those grammar exceptions that The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Pam Peters) describes as the zero adverbs, zero conjunction, zero past tense, and zero plurals.

We are taught that adverbs mostly end in the suffix -ly yet there are many that do not. These include:

  • adverbs that double as prepositions — above, after, before
  • negative adverbs — not, never, no
  • adverbs of time — often, soon, then
  • focusing adverbs — also, even, only
  • modifying adverbs — rather, quite, very

The zero conjunction occurs when the conjunction introducing a subordinate clause is omitted. This happens when the conjunction precedes a noun (content) or adverbial clause, and refers to the conjunction ‘that’. For example, I thought (that) you had walked the dog.

Some verbs stay the same in the past tense as they do in the present tense or past participle. Examples of verbs that operate this way include bid, burst, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, set, shut, slit, split, spread, sweat, and thrust.

Similarly, there are some nouns that remain the same whether they are singular or plural. Consider the following: deer, fish, giraffe, pheasant, sheep, series, and species. And there are some items that only exist as a plural but refer to a single item because of the two (or more) parts  in them. These include binoculars, trousers, clothes, means, news, scissors, and earnings.

I hope you enjoyed this series. More blogs on a different theme will begin soon. Remember, if you need help with editing and proofreading, send me an email. My website is http://paulvanderloos.wixsite.com/editor .


The extraordinary “X”!

ught-iron-house-letter-x-LET-X-2I thought I would try something extra different for this blog in the alphabetical list relating to grammar themes. Since there is little I can do with ‘x’ on its own, I will write about the use of the prefix ‘ex-‘ meaning ‘out of’ or ‘from’.

Firstly, the prefix -ex has been applied to a plethora of words, and the first thing you may say is that it’s present in the title of this blog at the beginning of the word ‘extraordinary’. Actually, this is not the case. The prefix for this word is ‘extra’, meaning ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’. And therefore ‘beyond ordinary’.

An excellent example of the use of the prefix ex- is in  the words explosion/explode. An explosion goes outwards while an implosion goes inwards. Another example is export where goods are sent out of a country, while import brings goods into a country from another country. You can deduce from this that the prefix im- must mean inwards or similar.

Other words that use the Latin prefix ex- include excavate, exception, excise, exclaim, extreme, exclude, exempt, exorcise and many more.

In another context, ex- has been adapted to mean ‘former’ and forms words that are often hyphenated, such as ex-wife, ex-husband, ex-president and so on. Colloquial use has even shortened this usage to simply saying ‘ex’ on its own as in My ex came over to collect his belongings. 

I guess ‘X’ marks the spot as there is a lot of literary treasure to be found in the humble ‘x’!


“V” is for verbs

LetterVVerbs similar to vowels. They the gate between all the other words. Without them, sentences such as these first three quite sense. 

See what I did there? I left out the verbs. You could probably follow the first two sentences, but the last would be rather ambiguous. Let’s put them back in: Verbs are similar to vowels. They are the gate between all the other words (letters). Without them, sentences such as these first three don’t quite make sense. 

At school, you learn that nouns are naming words and verbs are doing words — the words that describe the action. You learn that in a sentence there is a subject, a verb, and an object. For example, Joanne walked her dog.  Joanne is the subject. She is the one who is ‘doing’ something. Walked, of course, is the verb or the action, while her dog is the object of that action.

Now, let’s complicate things a little. What if we extend the sentence like so: Joanne left the house to walk her dog. The subject remains the same but the verb and object have changed. The verb is now left and the object is the house. The reason she left the house is to walk her dog. The verb walk has been linked with to to create an infinite form of the verb. It is no longer fully active although the intention of Joanne to leave the house is to walk her dog. However, as I have discovered much to my surprise, not all infinitives are formed with ‘to’. When other verb helpers are linked with the verb, these form ‘bare infinitives’. For example, Joanne couldn’t leave the house to walk her dog because it was raining. The inclusion of couldn’t with the basic verb forms a bare infinitive. (Is your head hurting yet? Mine is!). The bare infinitive (without ‘to’) is used after the auxiliaries shall, should, will, would, may, might, do, did, can, could, must, need and dare

The tense (present, past, future) affects the form of the verb. Let’s go back to the first example and use the three tenses:

  • Joanne walks her dog. (present);  Joanne is walking her dog. (present continuous)
  • Joanne walked her dog. (past);  Joanne was walking her dog. (past continuous)
  • Joanne will walk her dog. (future);  Joanne will be walking her dog. (future continuous)

(Take something for that headache!)

And this is just the beginning of the story about verbs. There are verb phrases, verbal nouns, phrasal verbs, irregular verbs, transitive and intransitive verbs. But before our headaches get much worse, just remember the basic premise to a verb — the thing you learned when you were a youngster at school: that a verb is a doing word. We can all be fine writers without understanding all the terminology and forms. After a while, it becomes intuitive. And anything that you are doubtful about can be referred to English usage guides such as the one I used to throw all these terms at you — The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Pam Peters). It’s a useful reference book if you are serious about writing. Of course, there are a number of other useful grammar guides that you can also refer to, and Google can help you out too. The site http://www.englishgrammar.org/bare-infinitive/ assisted me in this blog post.

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“U” is for negatively un-

UletterYou could probably say that un- is the most negative prefix of them all, but a very useful one when you want to reverse the meaning of lots of words. In its simplest form, un- means ‘not’. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage lists some examples: unable, uncertain, uncommon, unfit, unjust, untidy, unusual, and unwilling. The guide makes a distinction with some words where un- simply reverses the meaning rather than just meaning ‘not’. The guide’s examples include: uncover, undo, undress, unfasten, unleash, unload, unlock, unplug, untie, unwind. You would have to agree that applying the simple meaning of ‘not’ to these latter examples would sound silly (not do!) and would not convey the meaning of the word.

Now, let’s look at some of the words from the first list of examples. If you are writing, whether it be a story or a non-fiction work, a number of these negative words could be replaced by words that are in the ‘positive’ but mean the same. I’ll take some of the examples and show you alternative words you could use in the right context. I am not saying their usage is always more effective, but they show the diversity and possibilities of our English language.

  • Uncertain = doubtful
  • Uncommon = rare
  • Untidy = messy
  • Unwilling = obstinate
  • Uncover = reveal
  • Undo = loosen
  • Unleash = release
  • Unlock = open

I know that you may say that the alternatives expressed here may not ‘equal’ the negative term in all circumstances, and that is why you need to consider the context that they are within.

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“T” is for Tenses

LetterTOne can get rather intense about tenses, especially when you branch out into the confusing aspects of simple, continuous, and perfect forms of each tense. But as Maria (Julie Andrews) says (or sings) in The Sound of Music, ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’.

The three tenses are, of course, Present, Past, and Future, and affect the form of the verb when talking about things that have happened in the past, are occurring now, or are yet to happen. The past and present forms of a verb differ, but the future form uses what is called a compound verb.

For example, let’s look at the verb ‘go’. The forms are I go (present), I went (past), and I will go (future). But what if this is in the process of occurring as I say it. I would then say I am going. This is what is called the Continuous form of the present tense. Thus, the Continuous suggests that the action is happening as one talks or writes about it, and this can apply to the past or future. I will then say I was going (past) and I will be going (future).

The last aspect of the tenses is called the Perfect, and indicates that the action has been completed, even if it has yet to be. Say I had an appointment at 2pm tomorrow and a friend wanted to see me at 2.15pm. I will say to my friend that I will have gone by then. If the friend comes at 2.15pm without telling me that he is coming, then someone may tell him that he has gone (present perfect), which means he only just missed me. If the friend doesn’t come but tells me the next day that he was thinking of visiting me at 2.15pm, I would say I had gone (past perfect) to my appointment by that time.

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‘R’ is for Rime and Rhythm

LetterRI wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger, much of it full of adolescent angst and romantic yearnings. Then, as I matured, the poetry became experimental and exploratory. I learnt that a poem didn’t have to depend on a strict rhyme scheme as long as there was a rhythm, a flow, that allowed me to read them aloud without any awkward long lines or forced rhymes. It became more difficult to write what I felt was a reasonable poem as I raised the bar along the way, and now I have moved on to writing long prose works otherwise known as novels in the fantasy genre.

Nevertheless, there is something pure about poetry, as there is in its close relation, song. Words are honed down to their essential meaning and gathered together in a form that expresses a lot in a short form. But now, let’s examine the two aspects of poetry (and song) that make it special and so easy on the ear.

I used the early spelling form ‘Rime’ in the heading as a reminder of its original spelling back in the 13th Century and surviving until the 18th Century. It is conjectured that Rime was a French adaptation of the German Rim for number. The modern spelling of Rhyme gradually became the norm in succeeding centuries, and its origin has a common ancestor to Rhythm in Rhythmos. And that makes the association of rhyme and rhythm all the more engaging.

Rhyme is used in many ways. Rappers often use a repetitive single rhyme, for example, heard, bird, word, gird , which are all spelled differently but sound the same. Older classic poetry forms used such arrangements as rhyming couplets, where the end words of two consecutive lines rhymed; or alternate rhyme, in which only the last words in alternate lines rhymed.  Sonnets commonly adopted an abba rhyme scheme (first and fourth line rhyming; and the second and third being a rhyming couplet. This could vary in the following lines.

Rhyme usually goes by the sound of the word being the same, but sometimes there is what is called ‘eye rhyme’ in which similar spelling is used but pronunciation differs, for example, love and move. Rhyme can also occur within the line rather than at the end.

The mention of sonnets — classic poems of 14 lines — also brings us to the subject of rhythm, which refers to a specific beat in the structure of the text. Shakespearean sonnets adopted a rhythm known as iambic pentameter. This referred to the stresses on each syllable and the number of those coupled feet in a line. An iambic beat has an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, and pentameter means that there are five of those feet beats to the line. Thus it goes: da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM. Poet John Keats’ piece To Autumn used this beat as follows:

To swell / the gourd, /and  plump/ the haz/el shells

Of course, there are many rhythms that are used in poetry and music, and these help to lift us up out of the mundane of each day. Ah, music to the ear!