Monday, 9 May 2011

U is Not a Word!

I was looking at a Facebook update on the weekend, and for such a short message it had a large number of errors. The kind of errors I would hope most people can see immediately, if they have a decent grasp of the English language. I pointed it out to my husband, who was about as put off by it as I was. It was meant to convey a message about what the individual was doing at that moment in time, but it also told a story about what the person hadn't been doing the past few years. And probably, about what that young person's teachers had been neglecting too.

I know I'm not the only one who appreciates a well crafted turn of phrase. There are still literate people out there who enjoy reading a colourful description. There are still lots of curmudgeons who complain about the mistaken substitution of certain homophones in writing, and who are concerned with how common netspeak has become.

No, "U" is not a word! It's one thing when you are paying for a newspaper ad by the letter, or when you are limited to 140 characters per Tweet. But what about when the abbreviations creep into your other writing? What about when netspeak creeps into your verbal self-expression? Have you ever caught yourself saying "LOL" or "OMG" out loud?

I learned to use abbreviations and self-styled shorthand in high school to take notes. These are useful things, as are the abbreviations that allow people to convey meaning concisely using a Tweet or a text message. I'm not a fan of certain abbreviations, but there are lots that I will use. And hey, I'll gladly add an emoticon where it fits too.

But I am concerned. In this world of electronic everything, autocomplete functions, and fill-in-the-blanks worksheets, are we getting enough practice actually writing out full words and sentences? Do our kids ever do boardwork at school? Do they really learn to write compositions and essays, or are they being taught essentially to cut and paste? Will they remember how to write something out longhand when it matters?

College professors complain that we have an entire generation of high school graduates who can't do simple arithmetic without a calculator. how many of these same young people similarly can't construct a sentence or a paragraph, don't know how to write a business letter, and think that "U" is a word?

My daughter was saying the other day that she doubts a certain public figure would respond if she wrote to him, so I told her to send him a letter and see what happens. Her response was, "I don't know how to write a letter."

Time to get out the writing pad! If I'm going to complain about it, I'd best be doing something to fix the problem too. It's time to review letter writing skills with my girls...

I'm blogging my way from Z to A in May!
You can find my "V" post at The Special Needs Family.

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Sunday, 1 May 2011

Z is for Zed, and I'm Not Giving It Up!

I began my education in Southern Ontario, where teachers regularly chastised students for the use of American spelling and where the letter z was most definitely pronounced "zed."

Moving to Quebec after five years of singing God Save the Queen at school assemblies and learning that "practice" is a noun and "practise" is a verb, I found "zed" was one of the few things I had in common with my classmates. It even came in handy when I tackled the job of catching up on five years of French classes in one semester. With the strange pronunciations of some letters and the interchanging of g/j and the fact that "ee" was an i, at least there was one letter in the French alphabet whose name I already knew!


Those who think of "zee" as the dominant pronunciation may be surprised to learn that most of the English speaking world says "zed." Pronunciation in many other languages is close, often something like "zet" or "zeta." But the letter has gone by a number of other names in its history, including "izzard." Speakers of some English dialects may be familiar with this word for its use in the expression, "from A to izzard." The meaning is intuitive: a large collection of things; the whole of something. We have a full range of products to fill your needs, from A to izzard.

A similar expression is, "to know A from izzard." It could easily replace a more common idiom, which compares one's rear end to one's elbow. He has no idea what he's doing. He doesn't know A from izzard. It's a colourful expression that would be fun to incorporate into your writing.

American Origin?

If you were thinking "zee" originated in the United States, I'm sorry to have to disappoint you. The alternative pronunciation apparently was in use in at least one region of England in the 17th century, and would have come to North America with speakers of that particular dialect. You may also be surprised to learn that z wasn't always the last letter of the alphabet. It was borrowed into Latin from the Greeks, who placed it near the beginning of their alphabet. The Semitic zayin, origin of the Greek zeta, also comes closer to the beginning.

American Pronunciation Overcoming the Zed?

And what of the suggestion that the pronunciation favoured by Americans is suppressing the use of "zed" in Canada and other countries? I am one of the first to bemoan the fact that today's school teachers commonly fail to use, let alone teach, standard Canadian English. But it seems that at least where zed is concerned, Canadians are holding fast to their language.

Linguist Jack Chambers writes that the zee/zed controversy has been with us since at least 1846. He describes the use of "zee" by Canadian youth as an age-graded change, which repeats itself over successive generations. The trend is for young people to adopt the use of "zed" as they get older. There is no overall decline of "zed," nor any increase in the use of "zee" in the population Chambers studied.

In other words, younger Canadian children may prefer "zee" because of their exposure to it through popular songs and educational TV produced the US. But as a population, we drop "zee" in favour of "zed" as we mature.

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Saturday, 19 March 2011

Honing Your Writing - How to Write on the Cutting Edge

I'm working my way through Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card as I revise my novel. The book is part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series, and I ordered it at a time when I was struggling to really the unique voices of the characters in my book.

As luck would have it, my muse kicked in just after I placed the order and I had pretty much resolved my voice issues by the time the book arrived a few days later. Because I enjoyed Card's fiction I decided to browse my way through the book anyway.

I'm glad I didn't immediately relegate it to the bookshelf. Thumbing through a few pages here and there has been helpful. Card is forcing me to reconsider details such as point of view, that I had probably decided in too much of a hurry when I sat down to write the first draft.

I still haven't made any life altering decisions - or at least decisions that would lead to a global rewrite! But I'm toying with individual scenes, reading more of Card's advice, and giving myself time to think about how I can best communicate my characters and their story to the reader.

Every few days I stumble on advice I hadn't expected to find in a book on characters. A good example is this passage about writing conventions, and how too many writers feel obliged to write something unconventional if they want to be taken seriously:
There are many young writers . . . who believe that good writing must be unconventional, challenging, strange . . .
This is far from the truth. Most great writers followed all but a few of the conventions of their time. Most wrote very clearly, in the common language of their time; their goal was to be understood. Indeed, Dante and Chaucer were each the starting point of a national literature precisely because they refused to write in an arcane language that nobody understood, and instead wrote in the vernacular, so that people could receive their stories and poetry in words they used every day.
It is often said that Shakespeare wrote his plays in the vernacular of his time, but I wonder how many of us would think the same of more challenging authors like Chaucer. This message will probably take a while to percolate into the minds of aspiring writers, precisely because works that have achieved the status of "classics" were generally written in an English that differs from our own. But as Card says, language evolves and so do the expectations of the reader.

We need to write for today's reader. The goal isn't to dazzle the reader with great feats of linguistic prowess, but to make our words seem so natural they are almost invisible. Then what shines through is the story we want to tell. As Card puts it, "Choose the simplest, clearest, least noticeable technique that will accomplish what the story requires." If you want to be on the cutting edge of writing, I suspect this is the place you'll find it.

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Friday, 18 March 2011

Business Resources for Freelancers

Angie Mohr's business e-book bundle is still available, for anyone who works as a freelance writer or is thinking about setting up a freelancing business. An accountant and freelancer herself, Angie offers advice on setting up your business and keeping financial records, as well as on preparing your taxes and even dealing with copyright infringement.

The bundle contains two e-books: Managing a Freelance Writing Business and Tax Preparation & Planning for Freelance Writers. There is also a set of spreadsheets you can use to track revenues, expenses and writing projects.

The entire freelancing e-book bundle is available for the price of US$25, of which three dollars goes to support writer Rissa Watkins in her fight against leukemia. If you haven't already taken advantage of the offer, I hope you'll take the time to head over to Angie's web site and learn more about this useful resource. With taxes due in the coming weeks, this is a great time to make an investment in your writing career.

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Business Resources for Freelancers by Kyla Matton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Thursday, 10 March 2011

Kyla the Grammar Cop: Vertebrae vs Vertebra

I am not much of a sports fan, but you'd have to live under a rock not to know that Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty was seriously injured in a home game against Boston this week. Pacorietty spent several minutes unconscious on the ice Tuesday night, and remains in hospital today with a concussion and a spinal fracture.

I'm not going to comment on how the incident that caused the injury  is being handled by the police or the NHL. I was actually spurred to write this post because of how many times I've cringed when I heard someone official use the wrong word when describing Pacorietty's spinal injury. Every single report I heard on TV featured at least one person saying the hockey player had suffered "a fractured vertebrae."

OK, time for me to put on my grammar cop helmet! Please people, could we say "a fractured vertebra"? Please???

"Vertebrae" is the plural of "vertebra" — just like "antennae" is the plural of "antenna." It's an unusual construct in English, I know. But in Latin, some plurals end in -ae, and some of those words have been borrowed into our language. It's one of those things we have to learn to do correctly, if we want to improve our use of English.

The good news is that all the text I found relating to the hockey injury correctly used the singular form "a fractured vertebra." And I'm willing to bet that all those news anchors and sportscasters saw "vertebra" on their prompters too. With so many folks getting the word wrong, perhaps some got confused and others just decided it was safer to go along with the crowd.

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Dialect: What's a 'punter'?

I'm listening to my morning news show while I get ready for the day, and the weatherman mentions a headline that reads, "Brit punter wins tickets, wins jackpot."

The weatherman and one of the anchorwomen are both big sports fans, so of course they both found the use of the word punter interesting. But this story has nothing to do with football, he explains: A punter is a gambler. He adds that he hopes he hasn't just said anything offensive to folks who speak British English.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

New Flash Fiction eZine

Are you familiar with flash fiction?

It's a phenomenon that might sound new to you, but it really isn't. Flash fiction is a special kind of short story. Usually it is defined by how many words are used.