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 .


‘Y’ — the casual vowel

LetterYYes, we  all know that ‘Y’ is a consonant, but sometimes it likes to masquerade as a vowel. It carries out its duty as a consonant at the beginning of words like yacht and yellow, you, yes and yodel, but put it at the end of a word, and it screams like a vowel, crying ‘ee’! Verbs ending in ‘y’ often leave the ‘y’ out and place an ‘i’ in its place when changing form to past tense or a noun with the ending -ed or -er. Take note of cried, copied, fried to name a few, then the noun copier. Similarly, the same happens with the suffix -es, as in cities, spies, and flies. Other words with suffixes will also drop the ‘y’ — alliance, bounciness, marriage, plentiful, reliable.

Conversely, the ‘y’ can kick out an ‘e’ at the end of a noun to create an adjective. But there is a struggle at times, with the ‘e’ staying in place while the ‘y’ just has to follow. Examples include cagey, dicey, gamey and noseywhile bony, stony and wiry tend to leave the ‘e’ out.

Children and adults will often apply a ‘y’ informally to a word in colloquial conversation, such as in doggy, mummy, piggy, footy and telly. 

These insights into the use of ‘y’ as a vowel and more can be found in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage by Pam Peters, published by Cambridge University Press.

If you have written a fiction or non-fiction book or other work, and you need help with editing and proofing, then I may be able to help. Check out my website at http://paulvanderloos.wixsite.com/editor



“W” for WWWWW&H

LetterWWhat?! Am I writing gibberish now? No. WWWWW&H stands for What, Where, When, Why, Who and How. This is one of the first things I learnt when studying to become a journalist. It is a great formula for a reporter doing an interview because it poses all the basic queries that you need to answer for the reader. You cannot always get all the answers, but this formula covers the basics. Let’s say there is an event happening that you need to cover. The first thing you must answer is what is the event and what is it about. If it is something that the public can attend, then you need to know where it is and when — date and time. You then need to know why the event is being held — it might be raising funds for a worthy cause such as a cycling marathon raising funds for cancer research. You need to know who is involved and who can attend. The last question relates to how it is being organised, how you can get there etc.

You might think you are not a journalist, but you are a writer. These same questions can be posed in a short story or longer work. The reader still needs to know what the story is about, who the characters are; where, or the setting of the story; when, or the time period the story is set in; why characters behave the way they do; and how the characters and story develops to its ultimate climax and resolution.

For example, the fairytale story of Hansel and Gretel is about a boy and girl who wander off into the woods and discover a house made of gingerbread. They start eating the gingerbread off the house until a witch catches them and wants to fatten them up and eat them. They overcome the witch and throw her in the oven before escaping. Hansel and Gretel are the who of the story, and the description above outlines what happened.  The setting — the where — is the woods and the gingerbread house. The time — when — is generally during the day, although no actual month or year is stipulated that I can recall. The why or reason they run into trouble is because they had wandered off into the woods on their own and the witch caught them because  they started eating her gingerbread house. How it all happens is the actual storyline of them wandering through the woods and encountering the gingerbread house.

So, if you have to construct a story or write an actual account of something that happened, then remember the WWWWW&H formula to help you answer the questions the reader will want answered.

*If you need help in editing and proofing your work, why not send me a request. My website is http://paulvanderloos.wix.com/editor

“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.

If you would like a little help in editing and proofing your writing assignments, fiction or non fiction efforts, then check out my website http://paulvanderloos.wix.com/editor

‘S’ is for Slang

letterSMigrants to Australia naturally have difficulty mastering the language if they are non-English speakers, but even those who are, can have a problem with the way Australians speak due to the colloquial nature of our language, especially in places where people adopt slang as a big part of their communication. Vice-versa, we can encounter the same issue when visiting America, Canada and the UK, and closer to home in New Zealand, or dare I say other parts of Australia itself. Some slang has survived for so long that we don’t even recognise it as such — take the word cop, for example, which derives from the abbreviation of Constable On Patrol. In my youth, you would refer to a person who was nonchalant and at ease with life as cool. Now, youth say someone or something is sick, which is about opposite in meaning to the word’s intended meaning of ill or nauseous. They also say wicked and bad in a similar way. We can describe a physically attractive person as hot, saucy, or sexy. Money has been described in so many ways — dosh, dough, slices, pesos, etc.

Some of my favourite colloquial expressions come from the people of rural and outback areas. I had a friend who spoke of farmers as dirt doctors, but there are many terms that have become as famous as the Aussie meat pie. Here’s just a sample:

If we think someone is stupid, we might describe them as a few stubbies short of a six-pack, a few sandwiches short of a picnic, or having kangaroos up the top paddock.  The ‘stubbies’ are small bottles of beer, and the ‘top paddock’ refers to the brain. You might also call them drongos and galahs after two of our native birds. I don’t know how the poor drongo was given that slight, but I have witnessed how the galah, which is a type of parrot, will fly off a road from approaching traffic only to fly back across in front of the cars and be killed.

Rhyming slang also has its place in Australia as well as back in the ‘motherland’ England. We say we are going to hit the frog and toad to mean that we are about to get in our car and drive on the road.  Another example is Oxford Scholar for ‘dollar’.

Let’s look at some English slang terms:

Chin wag: To have a chat with someone

Gobsmacked: Amazed

Knackered: Tired

Porkies: Lies

Spend a penny: Go to the toilet

Up the Duff: pregnant

And some American slang to finish it off:

Trash: To destroy

Put up your dukes: Fight with your fists

Shoot the breeze: To have a chat with someone

John Hancock: Signature

Monday morning quarterback: Criticise from a position of hindsight.

This is just a sample of the slang that people use. It can create headaches for newcomers who simply don’t understand, as the words are contrary to their original meanings or used in a way that disguises the meaning. But it does add to the ‘colour’ or a region’s culture. I ‘bet’ you will know a few slang terms yourself. Why not cast a few this way and share.

‘Q’ is for Quotation marks

InveKvluSNCsAhrPdbhf_the_letter_qI was initially going to talk about current usage of quotation marks, also known as ‘speech marks’ or ‘inverted commas’, but I was curious about the origins of the marks themselves, so decided to do some research. However, rather than reinventing the wheel, so to speak, I found an excellent article which is an excerpt of author Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. If you want the details on quotation marks, then head to this link (click here) for a fascinating read. But I will endeavour to sum it up here.

Houston traces quotation marks back to the early Greeks at the Library of Alexandria in the second Century BC. Apparently, a librarian named Aristarchus was helping edit and clarify the library’s holdings, which at that time comprised handwritten papyrus scrolls. He used an arrow-type character (>) called a diple (double) to mark in the margins of text of noteworthy interest, and a ‘dotted diple’ to mark passages where he differed with the reading of other critics. Then the early Christian church came along and applied the diple to clarify the words of Jesus Christ and his disciples in scripture. Latin took over from Greek and parchment books replaced papyrus scrolls.

However, the diple and the double diple were given various jobs and were not applied consistently, and the marks were altered into various forms, including a dot placed in the wedge of the diple and the mark rotated into a ‘V’ with a dot cradled in the upraised arms. Thus, the traditional diple mark had disappeared by the end of the eighth century.

Handwritten books then gave way to the advent of printed material with the invention of the first movable type, and this had its effect on quotations. Printers experimented with different ways to handle quoted text — alternative typefaces, parentheses and so on. Some books did not even bother with distinguishing quotes.

The diple returned as double commas at the start of the 16th century, derived from the slanted virgule (/), used to indicate a brief pause. However, the mark was still applied to the margin against lines with quoted text though not precisely indicating the start and finish of a quote. Bishop John Fisher, in a work published in 1525, was the first to orient the commas so that they ‘opened’ towards the text. Commas in the outer margin of right-hand pages were set as normal, while those on left-hand pages were rotated 180 degrees or ‘inverted’.

But this was by no means the end of the story, as usage was haphazard and Latin quotations were often placed in italics which gave rise to the still current practice of using italics to highlight names and quoted or referenced material. Houston writes that it was around the end of the 16th century that quotation marks took two significant steps: inverted commas moved to the body of the text itself; and quotation marks were first used to indicate direct speech.

The arrival of the novel in the 18th century pushed the need for quotation marks further as novelists ‘quoted’ their characters’ speech with all its accents and slang intact. Writers started to indicate changes in speakers with paragraph breaks and explicitly opening and closing quotations. There was no more tackling the tedious task of placing quotation marks against each line. Printers cast the double quotes in single blocks of lead, doing away with the need to apply separate pairs of commas, and both America and England agreed on the practice of enclosing quoted text with matching pairs of opening and closing marks.

One would surmise that now the consistent usage of quotation marks was set in stone (or lead!) but Britain diverged from America’s use of double quote marks in the 20th century, opting for single marks for direct speech, while double quotes were relegated to reported speech.

And this is merely a brief summary of the article, which in itself has been condensed! I hope this helps you understand more about the quotation mark and what I am about to say about its current use.

Whether you decide to go with the American style of double quotation marks or the British style of singular ones, if the person you quote is in turn quoting someone else, then the internal quote will use the alternative mark, and that is singular used within speech that starts with double quote marks, and vice versa.