Editing, writing

The Secret of -Nym and Other Ways to Win at Trivia

Linguists and grammarians have all kinds of ways to classify things to help us ordinary people make sense of language. Here is a quick guide to some –nyms and –isms to help you keep track of some common language pitfalls.

Acronyms versus initialisms

Did you know that there’s a difference? An acronym is an abbreviation formed using the first letter of each word in the phrase, and is pronounced as a word. Think NASA and NATO. An initialism is an abbreviation that can’t be pronounced as word, and needs to be spelled out in speech, like RCMP or DVD.

Does it really matter? Not always, but knowing some finer points of style can help make sure that your writing is clear. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “ … initialisms tend to appear in all capital letters, even when they are not derived from proper nouns (HIV, VP, LCD). With frequent use, however, acronyms—especially those of five or more letters—will sometimes become lowercase (scuba).”

Chicago also recommends that less common ones should be spelled out at first occurrence. Knowing the rules can help you get it right the first time, and avoid confusion for your readers.


homonym2There are two kinds of homonyms. Homographs are words that are spelled alike, but have different meanings. Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Knowing these three words might only be useful for trivia night, but knowing how to avoid common mistakes of each kind will improve your writing.

Common Homographs

minute: 60 seconds, or very small

wind: air that moves in a more or less rapid natural motion, or go in a circular, spiral, curved, or crooked course

wound: an injury, or the past tense of the verb “to wind”

Common Homophones

ascent: the act of ascending or rising

assent: consent, express agreement

reign: hold royal office

rein: long narrow strap with each end attached to the bit, used to guide or a check a horse

stationary: remaining in one place

stationery: writing paper

Of course, the most common homophone is their, there and they’re. It’s such a big deal that it even has its own website.

Redundonyms and oronyms

According to my beloved Canadian Oxford Dictionary, these aren’t actually words, but they do represent some writing pitfalls that are worth mentioning.

Redundonyms happen when we use an acronym (or initialism) followed by a word that is part of the acronym itself: ATM machine, PIN number, or HIV virus. If you think people won’t understand your meaning unless the last word is spelled out, it’s better to spell out the whole thing.

Oronyms are like homophones, but are strings of words that sound similar when said aloud, yet mean very different things: “I scream” and “ice cream”; “sixty sick students” and “sixty-six students”.

What’s next?

Reading your work out loud can you help spot funny business that might need to be corrected so that your readers don’t get confused. Meanwhile, if you really want to get ready for trivia night, find more examples of homonyms in this fabulous Twitter thread by Merriam-Webster Dictionary.


Editing, writing

Two grammar “rules” you can boldly ignore

As kids in school, we were taught lots of rules. Even in those days, some rules seemed more important than others. “Look both ways before crossing the street,” always seemed reasonable, as did “Always start sentences with a capital letter.”

However, “Wait for an hour after eating before you swim,” was always suspicious to me, as was, “Never start a sentence with and or but.” Luckily, rules change.

Here are two rules that aren’t really rules anymore, and which you have my (and others) permission to break.

“Never split infinitives”

It’s okay if you can’t remember what an infinitive is because it’s okay to split them. Star Trek brought us one of the most famous split infinitives: to boldly go. The infinitive is to go, and they split it in half with the adverb boldly. Some grammar aficionados want this to read to go boldly. But that wouldn’t work well at the start of a television show, would it?

The origins of this so-called rule come from Latin, where the infinitive form of a verb is only one word, and therefore can’t be split. The logic was, if it can’t be done in Latin then it shouldn’t be done in English either. That’s kind of unfair, no? It can also lead to clumsy sentence structures, which grammar rules are meant to prevent. So feel free to bravely split infinitives when you need to.

“You can’t start a sentence with and or butconjunctions

We could also throw because, or, and so into this category as well. All of these words are coordinating conjunctions, and I was taught in grade school not to use them at the start of a sentence. However, even the experts at the Chicago Manual of Style disagree.

There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so … It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.

We were taught—quite correctly—that these conjunctions are used to connect ideas together in a sentence. But they can also serve a similar purpose at the start of a sentence, and can help improve the flow of a paragraph. (See how I just did that?)

Our teachers probably discouraged this behaviour to prevent poor habits. Using conjunctions inappropriately at the start of sentences can lead to sentence fragments, which aren’t real sentences at all. So how do you know if you’re in safe territory? If the sentence is still complete without the conjunction at the beginning, chances are you’re just fine.

But you don’t have to believe me. Visit the experts at Oxford Dictionaries to read more about grammar myths. And the next someone tells you, “Hey, you can’t do that,” you can point them in the right direction.

Oh, and that business about swimming? You should always use common sense around the water, but even experts say you don’t have to wait an hour.

Editing, writing

Five tips to make your technical writing clearer

Writing about science and technology for non-technical readers can be hard work. In science-based companies, authors of web content are typically technical experts, often the best in their fields. They’re enthusiastic, and want to share everything they know. But everything that makes them brilliant can also hold them back from writing clear blog posts or web content that is accessible to a wider audience.

Here are five tips that anyone can use to make technical content easier to read.

Know your audience

sciencewritingWho are you writing for? Identifying your target audience will help you answer some important questions that should guide your writing. How much technical terminology will they understand? How much background should you include? Once you’ve identified your target audience, write for them in language they will easily understand.

Avoid jargon

Avoiding jargon doesn’t mean you need to avoid all technical terms. If you’re writing an article about the importance of the Higgs boson to quantum physics, you can’t help talking about particles. However, you should ask yourself, “Can I say this more simply?” If you can, then do.

Using simple language isn’t the same as “dumbing it down.” It just means using the simplest words you can to suit the purpose. Consider these examples:

  • Utilize / use
  • Constitute / make up
  • Erroneous / wrong
  • Initiate / start
  • Terminate / end

The longer words are still common, but if your goal is to make your work accessible, why use a longer word when a shorter one will do? In fact, this research from Princeton University suggests that writers who needlessly use complex language are seen as less intelligent than those who use simpler simpler words. Save the more complex words for when you have no other option.

Limit the passive voice

Passive voice is different than past tense. Passive voice creeps in when we let the subject in a sentence have something done to it, instead of having the subject do the doing. Consider the difference between:

“The test was run using a new methodology that was developed specifically for this product,” and, “We ran the test using a new methodology that we developed specifically for this this application.”

Active sentences with strong verbs are more engaging. This is generally good practice, but it’s especially important when readers are unfamiliar with your subject. It helps them see where the action is, which makes understanding your content easier.

Be wary of the verb “to be”

Speaking of jargon … closely linked to passive voice we have something called “expletive structure” — the fancy term for sentences that start with “There is/are/were” or “It is/was/would be.” Sentences that start this way are often wordier than they need to be, and they bury the real action under a weak verb. Consider the difference between:

“There is a possibility that the next version will be released early in the new year,” and, “The next version might be released early in the year new year.”

Read it out loud

I’m a big fan of reading out loud. Even though we don’t speak the way we write, reading out loud is a fantastic way to find sentences that need to be shorter and words that don’t work well together. If something doesn’t read well out loud, it probably won’t work well for your reader either.

What techniques do you use to make your technical writing more accessible? Share them in the comments below.


Why the past isn’t always perfect

One of my favourite ways to edit my own work is to remove a bunch of pesky “hads” that sneak in when I’m not paying attention. Not the really important ones like, “I had fifty dollars.” I’m talking about the unnecessary ones I throw in sometimes because I think I need them. You know the ones: “I had lost my wallet,” or, “My boss had been arrested and brought to the police station.” It’s called the “past perfect”, and it’s a tricky beast. The trick, of course, is knowing when you need it and when you don’t.

Where do they come from, anyway?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary calls the past perfect (or pluperfect) a grammar tense “denoting an action completed prior to some past point of time specified or implied, formed in English by had and the past participle, as: he had gone by then.”

Put another way: there was this thing that finished happening, and we want to tell you about it in relation to this other thing that happened after. The word “had” gives us a signal about how these events are related in time, a clue we would miss if the sentence was written in simple past tense.

So from the example above, we know that something happened: he went.

And we know he did that before a specific time: by then.

And so: He had gone by then.

When do we need the “had”?

But let’s add another detail: He had gone to the store by then.

As long as we have “by then” as a point of reference, we need the past perfect. We couldn’t say, “He went to the store by then.” But if the story was different, we might just say, “He had gone to the store.” Without a specific or implied point of time, we don’t need the had. We can just say, “He went to the store.” Crisper, yes?

These hads crop up where we don’t need them, often in sneaky ways that are hard to catch, and they gum up perfectly good sentences.

Irregular verbs like “to be”, which turns from “it was” to “it had been” are especially messy. They crop up in storytelling and flashbacks, because we’re trying to set a scene or mood. How about: “It was my first day on the job, and there had been a goodbye lunch for the person I replaced.” The had been is awkward, and makes the reader wonder, did the lunch still happen? Unless the lunch is important to the rest of the story, it would be cleaner to say “… there was a goodbye lunch …” and move on to more important things.

What’s the big deal?

In a single sentence, you might not mind, but chronically missing or unnecessary clues can make it hard to follow a series of events.

How about: “She had been talking about how she had needed to get the furnace repaired.” As a writer, you might want to keep the first had (especially if her conversation was interrupted by the furnace breaking down), but it might be just as good—or even better—to say, “She talked about how she needed to the get the furnace repaired,” or even, “She talked about needing to repair the furnace.” And there’s the double-hads: “I had had a headache.” It might be accurate, but it’s hard to follow and it might not add value to your story.

So who cares? If you’re writing a report for your boss or client, you want to be convincing. If you’re writing a memo to employees, you want to be understood. And if you’re writing a novel or a how-to manual, you want your reader to stay awake.

So what do I do about it?

As a writer, you don’t need to delete the hads with wild enthusiasm, but you should ask yourself: Is this a helpful sign post for the reader, or does it make things harder for the reader to follow?

Understanding how to use the past perfect will add clarity to your writing, no matter who your audience is.


Why you should try reading out loud, even if you hate it

I don’t like hearing the sound of my own voice. But the longer I’ve been writing, the more I’ve learned to appreciate the value of reading out loud to improve my work. Here’s how you can use this trick to improve your writing.

Slow down

Reading out loud forces us to slow down. Research shows that our brains work faster than our mouths, which means that when we read to ourselves we’re prone to skipping over things that might contain errors. Do you remember that word illusion from puzzle books all those years ago?


When we read out loud, we have to focus on each word, which makes it easier to find spelling mistakes, missing or duplicate words, and grammar mistakes that we might otherwise miss.

Do a sound check

Making shapes with our mouths and forming sounds with our tongues shows us how the words in a piece fit together. If you stumble over a phrase when you say it out loud, chances are your future reader will stumble too.

On paper, the sentence “Eddie edited it,” makes perfect sense. But when you read it out loud, you realize that it might flow better if you said, “Eddie made the changes.”

Conduct the symphony

When we read out loud, it’s easier to spot language that sounds too formal or too casual, and we can catch places where we’ve accidentally switched from one to the other. It also shows us where we need to breathe. This helps us find long sentences that might need to be broken up.

Whether you’re writing web content, an instruction manual, or the first chapter of a novel, reading out loud is one easy step you can take to improve the quality of your work. So go ahead — find a quiet space where no one can hear you, and use this trick on your next piece of writing.