Writing from a strong foundation
Writing — any kind of writing — is like building a brick house:
(1) start with bricks;
(2) lay them across to make floors;
(3) stack them on the floors to make walls;
(4) arrange the walls to make rooms;
(5) dress the rooms up with electricity and plumbing and posters of Erik Estrada.
So I don’t really know how to build a house. So it reads more like Minecraft than Extreme Makeover. Hang with me for a moment.
If the bricks of our artificially simplified house are crap, the floors fall down. If the floors fall down, the walls fall down. If the walls fall down, the rooms fall down. If the rooms fall down, the posters of Erik Estrada get buried in rubble, and what a tragedy that would be.
Everyone has a basic understanding of what keeps a house from falling down. If you see a house with crumbly bricks, would you enter it? If was leaning like a palm tree in a hurricane would you even walk up to it? Assuming you weren’t Pisani.
Now let’s build a story. Note this applies to any kind of writing you expect people to read, even a friggin’ email, except for step 4 which is pretty much tied to fiction:
(1) start with words;
(2) lay them across to make sentences;
(3) stack the sentences to make paragraphs;
(4) arrange the paragraphs to make scenes;
(5) add posters of Erik Estrada.
If you see a bunch of misspelled words, would you read it? If the grammar looked like it came from a preschooler, would you take it seriously?
I’m not talking about style here. Writers can misspell words on purpose or chop sentences for effect. Breaking rules occasionally makes writing interesting. Breaking rules constantly makes writing unreadable.
I have a strange affliction that makes it worse for me. My brain identifies spelling mistakes in any piece of writing, even if I’m not reading it, and they immediately leap from the page and dance in front of my eyes. I have a hard time reading anything with errors in it. I would seek treatment for this disease but frankly, I don’t think it’s my problem.
Our writing skills have been degenerating for decades. People blame texting, emails, bulletin board flame wars, influence of non-English speakers, reliance on spellcheckers and grammar checkers, not enough emphasis on writing in school, et cetera. These all contribute to the problem, but the root cause is apathy.
Yes, apathy. We just don’t care enough about spelling and grammar anymore. Anyone who does is called a Grammar Nazi.
Well, I say we need a little more verbal fascism. Not 100% all of the time, but if you don’t follow the rules of a language, how do you expect people to understand you?
So let’s call it verbal feudalism. Everyone must maintain his or her own demesne in a presentable state, but we can overlook a few drunken peasants or tumbledown shacks. We keep our main roads free of debris and practice a common language so we can trade with our neighbors. We can all be Grammar Lords!
Actually that is kind of silly. Let’s all just agree to take better care of our English, okay? Language is beautiful. It needs love and protection.
(another) awefull rant
Continuing my rant from earlier this week, let’s look at decimate. It was originally used to describe a punishment inflicted on cowardly or mutinous Roman legions. Every tenth soldier would be killed, as chosen by lot.
Hence the root deci- for “tenth”. Think of a decimeter (or decimetre for all you Brits and Canucks) which is one tenth of a meter (or metre for all you Brits and Canucks).
So decimate means “reduce by a tenth”. Yet somehow, decimate has come to mean “reduce to a tenth”. Or as used by the news media, “any number big enough to grab your attention that we can’t actually define”.
In fact, check out the Webster definition for decimate. It starts out with the correct definition then devolves to the wrong one.
So by this logic, a decimeter can also mean nine tenths of a meter. (Or metre for all you Brits and Canucks… yes, this is getting tedious.)
Here’s a fun one: awful. It can mean really bad, or really good. I’m serious. The original definition was “full of awe” — this makes sense. But now it means the opposite, which makes no sense.
Instead of fixing the problem, our English ancestors invented a new word to fill the gap: awesome. So far awesome has kept its original meaning, but its overuse in modern vernacular is awful.
How about PIN? It stands for Personal Identification Number. So why do people say “PIN number”? (You see that, right? They are saying “number number”.)
Same thing with LUN. Time to go all techie on you, so non-IT people can change the channel. Or maybe not, you can probably follow this and still find it amusing.
In the IT world, we use a lot of virtual disk drives. They are commonly called Logical Units, since they are real drives grouped logically to form a virtual drive. The main advantage is if one of the real drives crashes and burns, other drives can take over and you don’t lose any data.
Well, we need some easy way to identify this virtual drive, so we give it a number, because computers like numbers. We call it a Logical Unit Number, or LUN. Thus a LUN is a number that identifies a Logical Unit.
Well, everyone in the IT world (except me) refers to the drive itself as a “LUN”. It’s like calling your house an “address”. The address is how people find your house, it’s not the house itself.
In fact, when my colleagues want to know the number that identifies the virtual drive, they ask “what is the LUN number?” Yep, it’s “PIN number” all over again.
Sigh. You and I are the only sane ones here. And I’m not so sure about you.