“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.

*If you need proofreading or editing assistance, check out my services on my website: http://paulvanderloos.wix.com/editor




“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!

‘P’ is for prefix

letter-pOne of the most useful add-ons to words to create new words is called the prefix. It is also helpful for anyone studying English to understand the common prefixes, which in turn broadens your understanding of the words. The term prefix itself includes the prefix pre which means roughly to go before. As you may already observe, the prefix affects the meaning of the base word, sometimes to the point of imposing the opposite meaning to the original. Thus, if you take the word prefix itself, you can discern the approximate meaning as to fix before (a word).

Here is a list of common prefixes used in English. I am choosing just a sample that you should be familiar with. Each line has the prefix, meaning and example.

  1. un-    not, opposite of        unhappy
  2. re-     again, back               return
  3. dis-   not, opposite of         dissimilar
  4. over-  too much, above      overgrown
  5. mis-    wrongly                    misjudge
  6. sub-    under, lower            submarine
  7. inter-  between, among     international
  8. fore-   before                         foresee
  9. trans-  across                        transport
  10. super-  above                        supermarket
  11. semi-    half                            semicircle
  12. anti-     against                     antidote
  13. mid-    middle                       midsemester
  14. under-  too little, below      underfed
  15. pro-     favour/forward       pro-trade/progress
  16. tele-    distant                         telephone
  17. auto-   self                              automobile
  18. bene-   good                           benefit
  19. bi-        two                              bicycle
  20. cent-, centi   hundred(th)    century/centigrade
  21. circu-  around                        circulate
  22. co-      together                       cooperate
  23. ex-     out                                 exit
  24. ambi-    both, around           ambidextrous
  25. poly-    many                          polygamy

A sound knowledge of the meanings of prefixes and the root/base words will help you unlock the meanings of many words. Prefixes have Latin and Greek origins and among the foundation elements of our complex English language.

Righting Your Writing

Points to ponder about our changing language.


Don’t feel confident about your word choice? Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style, provides writers with useful advice about language and punctuation choices now acceptable in modern English.

Unfortunately, his early chapters, on structure and grammar, are hard going and not that useful if your interest is in knowing what’s OK and what’s not in modern language use. These chapters provide the logic behind language choices. But it’s like expecting someone to memorise the whole grammatical structure of a language when all they want to do is order a cup of coffee.

He lightens up the text a little by adding cartoons about language and punctuation, plus comical examples to illustrate how writers may unintentionally mislead. What we write is not always what we mean:

  • I enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever.
  • After the governor watched the lion perform, he was fed 25 pounds of raw meat.
  • Guilt, vengeance, and bitterness can be emotionally…

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‘O’ is for Onomatopoeia

531228_1It sounds like some exotic species name, but onomatopoeia refers to a figure of speech where words appear to express the sound of the thing they refer to or represent. BANG! CRACK! SNAP! You know the words … croak, quack, rustle, splash … I could go on. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Pam Peters, Cambridge University Press, 2004) goes on to say that these words have no relatives among English words or even in other languages, where the same sounds are represented by different words. It’s all a lot of fun, and many of us know of the comics where a superhero gets into a fight to the expressions of POW! BIFF! and so on. Authors can often use onomatopoeia to bring the sounds of their worlds to the reader.

Have a crack at it yourself.

Lyonizing Word: Shifting Styles

I admit that I don’t want to lose this MS Word advice, but many writers would find this useful information as well. Thanks to An American Editor.

An American Editor

Shifting Styles

by Jack Lyon

In its undying efforts to be “helpful,” Microsoft Word can cause no end of problems. Among the worst of these are what I call “shifting styles,” which can change the formatting of your document without your consent and sometimes without your knowledge. Yow! I know of five ways this can happen. Here’s how to identify and fix each one.

Automatically Update Document Styles

The Problem

You go through your document, fine-tuning its style formatting to the peak of perfection. Then you carefully save your document for posterity. A week later, you reopen your document. What the…? All of your styles have shifted back to their original formatting. You’ll have to do all of that work over again! And how can you be sure it will stick?

The Solution

  1. Open the document.
  2. Click the Developer tab. (If you don’t have such a tab, click File >…

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