So … right?

I do not like my verbal ticks.

I hate when they invade my writing.

The 2 I’m trying to address are verbal: “so” as a sentence opener and frequent conjunction; and “right” as a sentence ender and frequent conjunction (with “and” and the afore mentioned “so”).

“So” is the pernicious one. I use it as an interrupter, as a non-sequiter bridge, and general purpose conjunction. “So” infected my writing, especially informal writing like email and on this site.

Solution: I’m highlighting my use of “so” in my main writing platform, Gnu Emacs. I’m going to find a way to mark it in other apps in order to review my “so” use.

“Right” is something I picked up listening to a colleague. His speech is littered with “Right?” when he is trying to make a point. He uses it as I describe above. Talking with my colleague I often point out where his “right” is wrong. And now I hear myself using it in the same way, when I’m making points and convincing someone (maybe me?) that I’m correct.

Solution: a long term one, I am training myself to become hyper aware of “so” and “right” in my speech, similar to how I’m hyper aware of when I sound like my Dad. I love him, but I prefer to fight my own verbal ticks.

Get a paper dictionary

Austin Kleon with some excellent advice: “Go to Goodwill and buy a gigantic used paper dictionary for $5 and keep it on your desk.”
> When you’re looking for a word to replace a word in your writing, John McPhee suggests skipping the thesaurus and going straight to the dictionary: “With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of–at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.”
> The dictionary not only gives you a gives you a list synonyms for the word you’re looking up, it also gives you a deeper understanding of the meaning of the word, and sometimes the definition can lead you to a better way of phrasing altogether. (Stephen King: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”)
There are benefits to spending a little more to grab a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English or Merriam-Websters; note that the ODE is not the OED [Amazon] which is on another level of logophilia entirely. Get it as well.
(Via Get a paper dictionary by Rob Beschizza)

I cannot agree more! I just dropped ¥560 (about $5) on“>The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Third Edition [Amazon] (not a dictionary per se but a great resource in its own right).

Categorized as writing

Mencken's Notable, Quotable and Witty Compendium

Nobody reads a reference book to be amused, much less charmed. Useful though they are, the vast majority of dictionaries and encyclopedias are poker-faced pieces of work that stick to the facts and present them as soberly—and unstylishly—as possible. One of the reasons why this is so is that such books tend to be written not by individuals but by panels of experts. Try to imagine a joke written by a committee and you’ll get the idea.
Fortunately, there are a handful of shining exceptions to this drab rule, the gaudiest of which is H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles From Ancient and Modern Sources, a million-word monster (the original manuscript weighed 35 pounds) that is celebrating its 70th birthday this summer [2012]. The “New Dictionary” was a byproduct of its prolific editor’s fanatically industrious journalistic career. For years Mencken maintained a card file of quotations “that, for one reason or another, interested me and seemed worth remembering, but that, also for one reason or another, were not in the existing quotation-books.” In 1932 he decided to turn it into a book. When the “New Dictionary” finally saw print a decade later, Time praised it as “one of the rare books that deserve the well-worn phrase ‘Here at last.'”
Painstakingly organized and cross-referenced by subject, with each entry arranged in chronological order by date of original publication, the “New Dictionary” is formidably wide-ranging. Indeed, the only major writer missing from its index is Mencken himself. (“I thought it would be unseemly to quote myself,” he told a curious reporter. “I leave that to the intelligence of posterity.”) Its 1,347 pages abound with such innocent-sounding rubrics as “Civilization,” “Flag, American,” “Hell,” “Hypocrisy,” “Old and New” and “Science and Religion.” At first glance you might mistake it for a cornucopia of the world’s wisdom—but don’t let appearances fool you. The fathomlessly cynical Mencken wisely warned his readers in the preface that the “New Dictionary” was aimed at “readers whose general tastes and ideas approximate my own…. The Congressman hunting for platitudes to embellish his eulogy upon a fallen colleague will find relatively little to his purpose.” […]
For all its sly wit, H.L. Mencken’s “New Dictionary” is in point of fact a full-fledged reference book, one whose comprehensiveness and logical organization make it wonderfully easy to use. Would that it were still in print, but used copies are easy to find and worth acquiring. Rarely does a week go by that I don’t have occasion to consult the “New Dictionary,” frequently with amusement, usually with profit and invariably with gratitude to its maker, who may have been a cynic but who was also an amateur scholar of the highest seriousness—one with that rarest of scholarly attributes, a sense of humor.

(Via The Wall Street Journal; picture from
I would love for a new edition of this book or a viable ebook. Digital scanned copies can be checked out on The drawback is that the scan is dicey in spots. I picked up my dead tree edition off of eBay (or maybe Amazon) in slightly damaged condition originally sourced from the Rowan Public Library of Salisbury, North Carolina.


How to Use a Thesaurus Correctly, According to Martin Amis:

Martin Amis uses a thesaurus. The British novelist and critic is known as kind of a snob, and the thesaurus is known as a dangerous tool abused by amateur writers trying to sound smart, but as you’ve probably guessed, Amis uses his thesaurus very differently than a college freshman. In the Big Think video […] (via Open Culture), he describes a better way to use a thesaurus. […]
Amis uses a thesaurus to match the style and rhythm of his words. He might find his current word too long or short for the sentence it’s in. Or he might want to avoid an awkward rhyme or alliteration. He points to Vladimir Nabokov, who changed the English title of his novel Invitation to an Execution to Invitation to a Beheading. Say both out loud and you’ll hear the improvement.
He also double-checks his word use by looking up words in the dictionary—not necessarily to check their definitions, but to check their etymology. For example, he says, the lapid in dilapidated comes from the Latin word for stone, so while he might refer to a dilapidated house, he wouldn’t refer to a dilapidated hedge.
You don’t have to be as careful as Amis with your word choice.

(Via Lifehacker: picture Mark Miller)
You should be as careful as Amis. I try to be:

if you truly want to write better, pay more attention to the rhythm of your words, and study their usage and etymology. Your thesaurus and dictionary are one right-click away—use them well.

Check out my Tools page for a listing of mostly free resources for writing, presentation tools, and tips.

Terminology: Where Word Explorations Begin

Terminology: Where Word Explorations Begin:

When I hear a term that’s new to me or I’m struggling to find the perfect word for a sentence, I turn to Terminology. It’s a powerful utility app for iPhone and iPad from Agile Tortoise, the creator of Drafts.
In much the same way that Drafts gives you a place to start writing, Terminology gives you a launchpad for your word explorations, and its extensible actions are powerful enough that you will usually find what you need …
Terminology makes it incredibly simple to tap into any related words to view their results, arrow back and forth through your history, and, most importantly for me, follow the skein of terms wherever it leads. With the speaker, pencil, and heart icons in the upper right, you can have any word pronounced out loud, add notes to it, and favorite terms you want to revisit later. I find myself mostly relying on my search history in lieu of favorites. Your notes, favorites, history, and settings all sync between your devices using iCloud, so there is no need for an account.

I’m a fan of quality writing tools, and Terminology is now one of them. I quickly came to appreciate it – I quite literally used it twice today to help me better explain English idiosyncrasies to my Japanese colleagues.

Terminology for macOS

Although Agile Tortoise makes a version of Terminology for macOS, it’s not an app per se. What the company has done instead is make their Terminology dictionary and thesaurus available to add as a search option in Apple’s bundled Dictionary app. This is nice to have, especially for a free download. But you don’t get most of the features of the iOS version of Terminology, and I don’t find myself using it much.
If you do decide to try the macOS version, note that it requires a slightly complicated installation process that involves moving the Terminology.dictionary file to the appropriate folder and then activating Terminology within the Dictionary app’s preferences. Agile Tortoise provides a clear installation guide.
So give the Mac version a try if you like, but I highly recommend Terminology for iOS. It’s free to download from the App Store with an in-app purchase option to unlock the Pro features for $1.99.

(Via TidBITS)
I like the Mac version more because I draft more of my long prose on Mac. I still prefer the 1913 Webster’s dictionary (get my version here) and my slightly mangled physical copy of H.L. Mencken’s A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources (1942) for writing, but this is a solid digital tool for my portable toolbox.

Man is a tool-using animal. Nowhere do you find him without tools; without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.

(Thomas Carlyle: Sartor Resartus, I, 1836)
I added these to my Tools page for writers.

Categorized as writing