Ten examples of how the English language is trolling us

Regular readers of my blog will know that my full-time job is as an editor. You’d think that I’d be fully across all the various, ugly, beautiful permutations of English and its stupid-arse spelling.

You’d be wrong.

What brought this to my attention most recently is that in my latest manuscript I spelled “lightning” wrong. Like, every single time. My finger itches to put an e in there, but noooooooo, that would be the verb meaning to make something lighter. As in, “The lightning is lightening the sky.”

Because obviously.

Eyebrow Doctor

Now, to be fair, since I don’t work for the BOM, I don’t read about lightning in my job very much — so it isn’t something I’ve had trained out of me. But still, I did want to pull my hair out a little bit.

Here are some other examples of the ways that English is trolling us:

Alter / altar. One is the verb meaning “to change”; the other is a sacred table or platform at which religious offerings are made.

Baited / bated. One is describing something with bait (such as worms) attached. The other means “restrained” (with relation to breathing) — so the phrase “with bated breath” means with held breath, not with a mouthful of raw prawns. On behalf of all those romance heroines out there, I think we can say that’s a relief.

Blonde / blond. I gather this one is the fault of French, which has gendered adjectives. There, blonde is feminine and blond is masculine. In English, that’s sorta kinda true, but the application varies; my former publishing house’s convention was that “blond” was the adjective that describes hair colour and “a blonde” is a woman with blond hair.

Compliment / complement. The first is a nice thing someone says about you; the second has a bunch of meanings but generally relates to something that completes a thing or makes it perfect.

Climatic / climactic. One relates to weather; the other is the, er, climax of something. I have seen the wrong one used. Who knew weather could be so exciting?

Discreet / discrete. The first is wise, prudent or judicious; the second is detached or distinct. (I still have to look this one up every time.)

Exercise / exorcise. The first is physical activity and the second is to drive out an evil spirit — possibly in response to having seen me exercise! (Scary stuff.)

Grizzly / grisly. The first is something grey or a type of bear (but not a type of bare!). The second is something gruesome.

A sanction can be both authoritative permission and a provision of a law that enacts a penalty for disobedience — so two things that are OPPOSITE to one another. And in my dictionary, at least, as a verb it always means to approve or ratify something — so sentences such as “the UN sanctioned X country for breaching Resolution 1234” are actually saying that the UN approved the country’s actions rather than punishing it. Oh, UN, you so crazy.

Storey / story. One is a floor of a building; the other is a tale we tell ourselves. (This one’s not for US readers, who I gather use “story” for both…?)

So, all of that being the case, how do you avoid your writing being full of hilariously climaxing environments and buildings where each floor is a tale (but not a tail) of wonder (but not wander)? The answer is at once deceptively simple and also a lifelong job:

  • Read a lot
  • Own (and use) a current-edition dictionary of the specific English variant you’re using
  • Proofread your work (I noticed an incorrect “it’s” when I proofread this blog post — gah!)
  • Proofread it again (I did)
  • Have someone else proofread your work — copy editors are worth their weight (not wait) in gold
  • Make a list of words you know you get confused, and then double-check their usage whenever you see (not sea) them

What’s your favourite pair of words that are usually mixed up? Are they about meeting the principled principal? Having dessert in the desert? Eliciting illicit activity? I need (not knead) to know now!

Pleased Doctor


Update: words to be wary of

EditingI’ve been doing a lot of editing in the last two months. A lot. I’ve done a first read on Lucid Dreaming, and separately incorporated feedback from a CP on it. I’ve CPed something in return. And, the biggest one of all, I got my first-round edits back from Turquoise Morning Press on Isla’s Inheritance.

So I guess it’s no surprise that I’ve added words to my list of things to keep an eye out for. So here’s an updated version. Maybe it will help others out too.

Adverbs (words usually ending in ly) – Do a search for words ending in “ly” and see whether you need them. Sometimes you can delete them outright; other times you can write around them. Rarely will you need them.

Dialogue tags such as gasped, shouted, yelled, cried, squealed, exclaimed, pronounced, whispered… I could go on all day. Check out this post if you want more information.

began to, started to, suddenly – “She began to run” is a long-winded way of saying “she ran”. Sometimes “began to” can be useful—say, when a girl begins crying halfway through an argument with her boyfriend—but not usually. And the house “suddenly” exploding isn’t any more shocking than the house exploding.

had – I’ve seen some people suggest you never need the word “had”. I don’t agree; in a past-tense novel it can be useful to flag that you’re talking about something that happened prior to the current scene. For example, “I had been to the shops”. If you say “I went to the shops” the way you would in a present-tense document (or life) then people will get confused about when the event happened. That being said, it’s not always necessary so use with caution.

of the – This is a typical indicator of a passive sentence, which is often unnecessary and always more wordy than an active sentence. For example: “The hair of the dog” vs “The dog’s hair”. Times you might want to keep a passive sentence include when the actor in the sentence is irrelevant or unknown; for example, “He was killed” versus “Bob killed him”. The latter is spoileriffic!

around, possibly, probably, likely, usually, almost, mostly – Do you need the qualification? If not, it should go.

seemed to – Because both my books are in the first person I overuse this phrase to describe my character’s interpretation of others’ feelings, thoughts or opinions. But nine times out of ten it doesn’t need to be there.

realised, knew, thought, saw, heard, felt (or their present-tense equivalents) These phrases all flag a place where you’re telling rather than showing. “I felt angry” is the author telling the reader how the character felt, rather than showing it: “My fists clenched as fury raced through my veins”. (It’s terrifying how often I misuse these words!)

of Sometimes this is unnecessary. Consider ‘The rage beat inside of my heart’. What is the ‘of’ contributing?

that – Sometimes you need “that” in a sentence. There are quite a few of them throughout this blog post. But you can often delete it with no impact on the meaning. Also, make sure you shouldn’t really be using ‘which’.

very, really, pretty (when it’s being used to mean “very”), just, simply, totally, finally, apparently, allegedly, supposedly, usually, awesome, fabulous, fantastic, incredible, wonderful – I keep these in dialogue and thoughts (because that’s how people talk), but at almost no other time. Note a lot of them are also adverbs?

He said, she said: dialogue tags

Source: wiki commons

Source: wiki commons

I mentioned dialogue tags briefly a while ago in a post about “crimes” I commit when drafting—I tend to leave out the name of the other actor in a conversation between them and my first-person main character. It’s one of the things I edit in later.

Here’s a more comprehensive set of thoughts on dialogue tags. Anyone who’s read On Writing by Stephen King will know his advice, but here’s a summary:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of “said”. Readers usually don’t notice it, and it lets you anchor the identity of the speaker in the reader’s mind with a minimum of fuss.
  • You don’t have to attribute every single line of dialogue. In a back-and-forth conversation between two characters, it’s usually pretty obvious who is speaking for several lines after you include a dialogue tag. And if you have “X said” at the end of every quote, your reader will get annoyed.
  • Dialogue tags other than “said” should be used sparingly (see example one, below).
  • Consider using character action as part of the same paragraph that contains the dialogue. The action then identifies the speaker.

Example one: too many dialogue tags

This excerpt is taken from Isla’s Inheritance, although I’ve edited it to demonstrate how jarring excessive dialogue tags can be.

“It’s me. Dominic,” he said.

“Dommie?!” I squealed.

“If you must,” he replied dryly.

“I didn’t know you were back!” I exclaimed.

“Got back a few days ago; been catching up with the folks. Hence the lack of effort,” he laughed, indicating his Halloween costume with a wave of his sheet.

“It could have been embarrassing—I almost wore the same thing,” I admitted.

I’ve actually seen poorly edited books that read like this. I sit there wondering whether the author used a thesaurus to avoid repeating the same descriptive word—which means I’ve stopped paying attention to the story and am paying attention to the poor craftsmanship instead.

To make it clear: I’m not saying to never use these words. But I avoid any dialogue tag that doesn’t describe something the reader wouldn’t have gotten from the dialogue itself. For example, “shouted” and “whispered” are okay in moderation, as are “murmured” and “muttered”. But there’s never a reason to use “exclaimed” (because the punctuation mark already indicates that the dialogue is an exclamation), and if you’re using words like “flirted”, consider instead describing the flirtation. (“Hi there,” I flirted doesn’t tell us much; “Hi there,” I said with a wink is much more descriptive.)

Example two: a mix of tags and action

Here is the same sample text as in example one, with minimal dialogue tags, and action used to anchor the reader in the scene. (I also used fewer adverbs.)

“It’s me. Dominic.”

“Dommie?!” I sat up straight.

“If you must,” he said, voice dry.

“I didn’t know you were back!”

“Got back a few days ago; been catching up with the folks. Hence the lack of effort.” He indicated his Halloween costume with a wave of his sheet.

“It could have been embarrassing—I almost wore the same thing.”

Because there are only two characters, I don’t need to attribute every line. It gets more complicated when you’re dealing with multiple characters, but that’s where use of action really comes into its own.

Know the rules before you break them

One technique I noticed Aussie bestseller John Marsden use is not bothering even trying to attribute the dialogue. He used this particular technique when he had a bunch of teenage characters chatting excitedly and it didn’t really matter who was saying what. Stripping all the dialogue tags and action out sped the dialogue up to a sprint, which conveyed the conversation’s sheer chaos.

This is definitely a case where you need to understand the rules before you disregard them, though—the same technique wouldn’t have worked in any of the other dialogue scenes in his book, so he didn’t use it there.

Variety is key

As with most things in life, the best guide for dialogue tags is “everything in moderation”. If you mix up “said” with other dialogue tags, no dialogue tags and action, you’ll have a pretty solid foundation for conveying your dialogue and furthering your story.

Four ways to see your writing anew

Plotting: an artist's impression (image: Wiki Commons)

A plotters journey: an artist’s impression (image: Wiki Commons)

Drafting a novel is like hiking through a huge forest. Your approach to the impending journey may vary: some of us come up with a detailed map, set their feet on the a path and power on through, while others see the edge of the trees, think “let’s see what’s in there”, and wander in. Most of us have approaches somewhere in the middle: we might know where we want to end up, but not have a specific path in mind. Almost all of us get distracted by things along the way; sometimes the distractions turn out to be just that, while other times they are a valuable addition to your journey.

But there’s an idiom that also applies to a writer who is in the middle of or has just finished drafting a novel.

I can’t see the forest for the trees.

Whether you love your work or hate it, when you type THE END, you are not seeing it clearly. Everything from being able to discern the dead wood, those scenes, characters or chapters that don’t move the story forward, to spotting typos is harder. You don’t have the altitude. You’re still in the trees.

So here are four ways to see your work differently: to get a Google maps perspective on your forest.


This is the first and most important, which is why I gave it shouty caps. If you can possibly avoid it, don’t jump straight back into editing. Give the manuscript a few weeks to stew. Read a book (or five). Write something else. Go on holiday. Spend some time with the loved ones you’ve been neglecting. You’ve written a novel, which is a thing to be proud of. Celebrate, but not by re-reading it.

This point should be applied in conjunction with one or more of the other suggestions, below. The only exception is if you’re up against a hard deadline that doesn’t give you the luxury of time. I’m not talking about a pitching contest you want to enter—there will always be more pitching contests—but something with legal ramifications, like a contractual requirement.

2. Read it in hard copy.

Speaking of trees (sorry about that, forests of the world)… This is my favoured approach. I wish I could get the necessary distance while still reading my words on a screen, but that’s the place where I drafted it, and I just can’t. On paper I can see misspelled or misused words, tracts of exposition—they all leap out at me. Usually I do a dirty word search before I hit print and make those amendments to the soft copy (looking for the crimes against English that I know I commit when drafting). Then I sit down with a pen and have at it.

This does have the drawback that I have to enter my edits onto the soft copy afterwards. It’s tedious but, for me, worth it.

3. Change the appearance of the words.

If you draft in Arial, try looking at your manuscript in Times New Roman. Or Comic Sans MS, if that’s what floats your boat—just remember to change it back before you submit it to any agents or publishing houses. I know some people who actually format their book and read it on their Kindle, to try and put themselves into the role of a reader rather than the author.

As an aside, I do this with all my blog posts. I write them in Word, do one proofread in the WordPress data entry screen, and then do a final check in the blog preview screen.

4. Read it aloud.

Obviously this is better for picking up line edit problems—passive sentences, overused words, that sort of thing—rather than structural problems. Although if you get bored reading a scene maybe that’s a sign the scene could go. There are also text-to-speech programs that you could use if you don’t want to read your 150,000-word opus aloud for fear of never being able to speak again. (And, um, if that’s your first novel I also recommend reconsidering the length.)

I’m tempted to add a fifth point here that says “see point one”, but I won’t. You get the idea.

Do you have other tricks that you use to let you see your words afresh?

FAQ: Search Term Bingo

I was just browsing the various search terms people have used to find my blog. I suspect many of them went away without knowing the answers they were seeking, so here is a post that attempts to remedy that for at least some of them.

isla vs cassandra

In a battle between myself and the main character of Isla’s Inheritance, she would win. As well as having Powerz (TM), she’s also seventeen and spry. I am not seventeen. Nor am I spry.

will kiya hope of the phraoh be available on amazon uk

I checked with the author and it already is. Here ya go!

“Love Bomb”

cassandra’s lazy style

How kind of you to notice. My hair is brought to you by bobby pins and a pony tail. My clothes are courtesy of “whatever jeans I can find that fit my epic shortness”, and “the internet for cool geek t-shirts”. Currently I’m wearing a Minecraf t-shirt courtesy of Threadless (see right).

girl smoking sexy

I’m unclear due to the lack of grammar, but if you’re asking me if I think girls smoking is sexy, the answer is no. Eau de ashtray is not for me.

If you’re looking for a picture of a girl smoking something sexy, or the abstract notion of “sexy” itself, I can’t help you … but I doubt it’s hygenic. Just saying.

summer heacock twitter

Here she is.

grammar joke

“The past, the present and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.”

That’s my favourite. What’s yours?

when writing dialogue is there a comma after said when an adverb is used?

No. But may I urge you to reconsider using the adverb?

poem about a me and my dog with adverbs

Here you go:

I quickly walk my dog
He swiftly jumps a log
Hurriedly fetching a stick
I carelessly gave the flick
It’s covered in his spit
He doesn’t give a–

Ok, and that’s my daily allocation of adverbs consumed. I’ll have to finish it another time.

i follow the rules

Me too. Mostly.

words to edit out of a novel heard

That’s a pretty good suggestion to add to my list of words to be wary of, actually. Why say,

“I heard an eagle shriek.”

when you can say:

“The eagle shrieked.”

Good job, you!

play your cards right hashtag

May I suggest #PlayYourCardsRight?

grow out your hair

I tried but it didn’t work. Really, I tried for about ten years! I just had it cut back to shoulder length and it’s much healthier and more managable. Thanks for the advice, though.

fantasy book with isla as a character

Mine comes out in the (northern) fall of 2014. 😉

‘Which’ versus ‘that’: when to use them!

It’s time for another grammar rant from me. This one is about when to use “which” and when to use “that”. I see a lot of published documents—fiction and otherwise—that use them both (IMO) incorrectly.

Consider the following sentence:

I bought a car which is pink.

According to some grammar books, the “which” is wrong. According to others, it’s not incorrect but it’s also not the best choice of words because it leaves the reader to guess what you’re trying to say. Either way, it should be fixed.

Both “which” and “that” can be used to introduce a clause. But when they do, they flag different things to the reader. “Which” flags a non-defining clause: one that contains supplementary information not required by the main clause. “That” flags a defining clause: one that is part of your main message.

When used to introduce a clause, “which” requires a comma in front of it and “that” shouldn’t have one.

So, in the case of the car, if I’m trying to tell you a bought a car that happened to be pink, I’d say:

I bought a car, which is pink.

The information after the comma is supplementary, not essential to the sentence. But if I’m really excited about the fact my car is pink, and it’s the main focus of what I’m trying to say, then I’d use “that”:

I bought a car that is pink.

Of course, with a simple sentence like this I’d edit it further to tighten it up even more: I bought a pink car! But in a more complex example, such a rewrite isn’t possible to do elegantly. See below.

This is wrong:

I went into the bakery which sold egg-and-bacon pies and hot cross buns.

This is the non-defining clause (the bakery I went into happened to sell pies and buns):

I went into the bakery, which sold egg-and-bacon pies and hot cross buns.

This is the defining clause (I specifically went into a bakery that sold pies and buns as opposed to the one that sold, say, bread and sausage rolls—and why wouldn’t you?!):

I went into the bakery that sold egg-and-bacon pies and hot cross buns.

Mmm, egg-and-bacon pies…

Sorry, what were we talking about? :p

Editing: more things to watch out for

In this post I had a bit of a rant about words to watch out for when you’re drafting or (more likely) editing. I want to add a couple more to the list. Well, one word and one sentence construction.

The word is the humble “of”. The book I’m reading now is well edited, except for slightly awkward sentences like this:

The rage beat inside of my heart.

Every time I see a sentence like this it pulls me out of the story, because I want to cross the “of” out. It isn’t doing anything there except adding to the word count, which is only ok in the first draft of a NaNoWriMo manuscript—but once you’re past the drafting stage, show no mercy.


The other construction is more egregious because of the potential to cause the reader to giggle. I heard this one on the news the other day:

Large and out of control, hundreds of fire fighters are working to control the blaze.

I’m sorry, what?!

This type of construction is called a “dangling modifier” (I usually call it a “dangling whatsit”, because that’s how I roll.) I’m sure you can see the problem: by having the modifying clause where it is, the sentence reads as though the fire fighters are the ones out of control, rampaging through the wilderness like Godzilla with a fire hose.

I want it to be true, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what they meant.

Whenever a clause doesn’t contain the subject (like “large and out of control”), make very sure the part that follows immediately after specifies what the subject is. Likewise, if you use an “it” or a “they” (or any other pronoun), make very sure it’s 100% clear what you are referring to. (Or “to what you are referring”, if you want to be all stuffy about it. This is a plain English blog, though, so I don’t tend to bother with that.)

Wikipedia has a good post on dangling modifiers here if you want to learn more.


Caution: lack of punctuation in use!