Archives for category: Language

There is a skill to editing. A different skill to writing I think. Where writing is more creative and subject to emotional highs and lows, editing seems to be on an even keel, more clinical.

Sometimes I prefer writing. The chance to take a blank canvas and turn it into something unique that moves, influences or informs people – possibly – is one that I take up three times a week on this blog.

Other times I like to edit. You can get through more material when you’re editing, especially if the writing is good and it sits within a sound structure and flow. It can be a slog to create something, heavy going, but then I suppose it can be the same when you’re having to do a major edit or, worse still, a re-draft.

Editing your own work is quite a challenge, particularly if it comes right after you’ve finished writing. You’re so close to the content that sometimes you forget you’re copy editing and you get taken along by the narrative. What you should be doing is checking every single word for appropriateness, spelling, typos and punctuation accuracy, as well as the sense and flow of what you’re reading. It’s hard to maintain that dispassionate distance from something you created. It’s easier to do that when it’s someone else’s work.

Copy editing is draining. You need to maintain a very high level of concentration, frequently circling back through what you’re editing to make sure you’re consistent in how you approach every instance of a heading, indentation, number, quotation or other conventions. In contrast, when you’re writing and it’s going well, it can feel like you’re not concentrating at all. The writing is flowing as fast as you can type, and you’re in some kind of zen-inspired zone, a passenger to the words flowing from your head through to your fingertips.

Editing your own work is not ideal. The role should really belong to someone else, unless you can take a big break after the creative phase and approach it as more of a stranger. This is less important when you’re blogging, as you can always go back and make a change after publication. When you’re publishing something final, however, like a brochure or a book, it’s a different story – literally.

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Some folks use short-hand to convey that something was too long for them to read it. They simply write TL;DR, as in too long, didn’t read. It’s often levelled at overly long blog posts and the like, something you could never say about this blog.

I was recommended to subscribe to Tim Ferriss’ emails by a friend some months ago. He’s very well-known as the creative force behind the 4-Hour Work Week, Tools of Titans and so on. His emails on interesting stuff he’s coming across and recommendations for life improvement are really good. I’d been saving a few of his emails to read in one go, because they featured podcasts of TV interviews he’d done with people I admired.

The other day I got the chance to listen to the podcasts. Except that I didn’t. They were so long! Each podcast was at least an hour, comprising very long pre-ambles and sponsor messages before you get into a conversation that seemed to last forever. I tried clicking into later parts of the podcasts, but it didn’t work and I ended up deleting them all.

I’m sure the content was excellent, but I didn’t have the time to wade through them. Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience, since I’ve not got my working week down to the stage where I’m only doing 4 hours and have oodles of time to spare. I suppose I could have had the interviews playing in the background while I was working, but then I wouldn’t really have been paying attention.

For me it was a case of TL;DL – too long, didn’t listen. A missed opportunity, for me and the originator.

These days when you ask an English person how they are, you still hear something along the lines of ‘Not too bad, can’t complain.’ I don’t think you hear it from the younger generations.

When I use the phrase I often add the comment, ‘much as I’d like to’, with what I imagine is a dry, worldly smile. I probably look like I’m in pain, which I guess would give me something to complain about.

For a lot of us English folk though, being ready to complain seems to be our default position. I guess that’s why we attract the ‘whingeing poms’ sobriquet. The phrase- can’t complain, not wingeing poms – is a pretty old one, so perhaps it originated from a time when, for most people, actually there was quite a lot to complain about. It also reminds me of the joke about the elderly Jewish gentleman in hospital. ‘Are you comfortable?’ the nurse asks. ‘I make a living’, he replies. He might as well have said ‘can’t complain’.

It is, I suppose, an example of using a negative phrase to reinforce a positive sentiment. I used to date a lady from the US who when she saw a handsome man would whisper to me ‘not too shabby…’

To give another example, my wife hates it when I describe a meal as ‘not bad’, ‘not too bad’ or even ‘not bad at all’. She doesn’t accept my protestations that they are all complimentary, as dictated by the tone I use to say them. To us English folk, not bad is good, not too bad is very good and not bad at all is very good indeed.

 

“That was easy. Like taking candy from a baby.”

It’s an interesting simile, obviously originating in the US, since in European English we would say ‘sweets’.

It’s interesting when you think about how it originated. ‘Like stealing or taking candy from a baby’. A really easy thing to do for sure, but who would do that? Who is so weak that they feel they can take something from someone over whom they have such an overpowering advantage? And why take what is not rightfully ours?

We need a new simile to describe something really easy, something that requires the minimum of effort. How about:

  • Getting burnt in the sun
  • Opening a letter
  • Smiling
  • Paying someone a compliment
  • Scoring in an open goal from a metre out

OK, so they’re not world-class, but they all convey the positive, rather than the negative.

One of the quainter English phrases is to ‘to and fro’, where fro is an old contraction of from. You can use the term ‘physically’, as in to go to and fro London, although I admit there’s the insertion of the verb ‘to go’ there. You can also use it figuratively, as in ‘I need to to and fro on this subject before I can make a decision I’m happy with’.

That’s fine, but how do you use the term in the past tense? Imperfect tense is OK – as in I was to-ing and fro-ing – although to hyphenate or not is slightly problematic. But what about the simple past tense, as in I did something? Here are some options, to my mind:

  • I to-ed and fro-ed
  • I to’d and fro’d
  • I went to and fro
  • I to and fro-ed

I’m not sure what feels right. Maybe the answer is context: if you mean it physically, then maybe use the verb to go with it. If your intent is mental, maybe it’s to-ed and fro-ed. Who knows, but this is the type of thing I think about and it’s one of very many small pockets of the language that I don’t have an answer for.

“You and me bud. Let’s do this. We’ve got a date with destiny.”

A ‘date with destiny’ is a phrase that’s become pretty popular these days. It’s got a nice ring to it, and it suggests an important milestone is coming up which could throw a serious shape on the future.

It got me thinking. Either you take an existential or a fatalistic approach to your destiny. By which I mean either you feel you shape your own destiny, or else you feel some higher power or a great systematic experiment has predetermined it for you. Whichever stance you take or belief system you adopt, isn’t it the case that every waking moment, every infinitesimally small action is a date with destiny?

Your destiny is your destination – I guess that’s why the words are related – so every division of time and distance is a part of the journey to get there. Not so much as a date with destiny then, as being on the destiny continuum.

Viewing destiny this way helps me stay in the moment, make everything I do of the best quality I can manage, if I have the energy, and avoid plundering time.

Here’s an odd thing. The word ‘WC’, developed from the delightfully old fashioned words ‘water closet’ to disguise with true Victorian values exactly what it’s really for, is not really used in English anymore. Indeed, its prim origins remind me of the American ‘restroom’. You’re hardly going to say ‘give me a couple of minutes, I’m just going for a quick rest’, are you?

I was recently using the facilities of a French campsite and there were instructions in 4 languages about what you could not put down the toilet. Pretty standard stuff, both in terms of what you couldn’t put down the privy and in the language used. Except that, in the English sentence the word ‘toilet’ was used, and in the French, Dutch and German the word ‘WC’ was used.

I thought this was hilarious. Here’s a case of foreign languages adopting the initials of olde English words – initials that don’t mean anything in their native language – and staying with them, long after the English had abandoned their use.

Now that I think about it, there are so many slang words for toilet, at least in English.

These are the sorts of things that I pick up on, to ponder over, on a regular basis. And you thought you had problems.

I was in France for a family holiday recently, and it got me thinking about how many French phrases we’ve incorporated into English. I mistakenly wrote ‘thinning’ on my first pass at this post, which is what I need to do after a fortnight of sublime croissants, brioches and baguettes has turned me from svelte to felt.

Déjà vu is a prime example of such a phrase, where a combination of visual stimuli brings back a memory where we pocketed exactly the same combination – or something very close – a long time ago. It’s quite a powerful thing.

Even more powerful I think is the recollection we get from one of the other more minor senses, namely smell. The smell of a certain food can instantly bring us back to our childhood. There is also a certain foul smell that makes me think of the smell of burnt bones from the glue factory near my childhood home. The smell of cinnamon always makes me think of Christmas shops in the mid-west US around December time – obviously…

It often occurs to me how compelling a force smell would be in marketing, even B2B marketing, away from the food and drink-related B2C areas where it is already deployed to great effect. ‘If you could bottle that’, as they say.

I don’t think the French would use the phrase, but if they did it would be ‘déjà senti’, I suppose, meaning ‘already smelled’. Doesn’t have the same ring unfortunately.

‘Try the fruit scones Miriam, they’re to die for.’

‘Do you see that dress in the window, it’s to die for.’

‘That woman’s figure, the one off the telly, oh it’s to die for.’

What an odd, extreme phrase that it is. To die for, really?

It seems a bit self-defeating that you would die for something that you wouldn’t be able to experience, because you would be dead…

The phrase strikes me, and I’m generalising here, as one more often used by the female gender. The more male version is of course more violent.

To kill for.

‘He’d kill his granny for a fiver, that lad.’

At least in the ‘kill’ scenario you’d have a chance of experiencing that which you covet, albeit briefly.

 

 

Many books have a beginning, a middle and an end. An introduction with an outline, a body and a conclusion. They tell a story. You start at the beginning and you work through the end to follow the narrative flow. This is true for works of fiction and non-fiction, or business books and leisure books.

Occasionally, a book is a collection of self-contained, separate topics that don’t fit into this conventional format where the narrative hangs the content together naturally. I’m coming to the end of the drafting stage of a self-help book I’m writing. It’s more than a hundred different ideas around a very broad topic, loosely arranged into 4 themes. Each idea fits into the typical length of blog post that I’ve been writing for the past few years.

The challenge – without the guiding structure of a narrative flow – is arranging and presenting the ideas in an order that works for the reader. I could present each of the themes in turn, but that might appear uneven. Or I could sprinkle all of the ideas randomly, but that might appear disjointed. Alternatively, I could go for a mixture of the two approaches, but I might not be able to build momentum to get the reader to the end.

I’ll get to the bottom of how the book will hang together, but it’s an interesting challenge.