Tag Archives: Pedantique-Ryter

Habit Words : Use, Abuse, Remedies

snoopy at pink typewriterDo you use habit words in your writing?

I bet you do. Perhaps all authors do? A few weeks ago, in her excellent presentation on snappy dialogue at the RNA Virtual Conference 2020, Virginia Heath confessed to overusing the phrase “he huffed out” as a speech tag for her heroes. Virginia, being a professional, knows how to catch and reduce her use of habit words. Do you?

To start at the beginning: what are Habit Words?

yellow bollards, repetition concept

Repetition can be boring. And people do notice…

Habit words and phrases are part of an author’s voice, the words and phrases that come naturally and automatically, that trip off the tongue, that make the writing sound like you. So, in Virginia’s case, her heroes huff. That’s very interesting, because it’s an unusual expression. I don’t remember ever having used it in any of my writing. So it’s not a habit word for me — it’s not even a word in my normal vocabulary.

masked ninja warrior with half-drawn swordBut I have many words and phrases that do sneak in, like thieves in the night, under the radar, in true cloak-and-dagger fashion.

And if you’re thinking I’m sneaking in far too many clichés here, you’d be right. They can count as habit words, too.

To be serious for a minute… Habit words are OK, and you’ll get away with using them, as long as the reader doesn’t notice. If the reader gets to the point where she notices, the author is in trouble. Because once a reader has noticed, she’s never going to un-notice again. cartoon of woman reading book eating apple

Think of your reader saying: “Everything in this ****** story is rather. It’s rather good, rather sweet, rather famous, rather young… If I see one more rather, this book goes in the bin.” Oops.

Sara Craven, authorNow, rather isn’t one of my worst habit words. Not any more 🙂
The late, great Sara Craven, having read one of my drafts on a writing retreat, advised me to beware of rather. So, since then, I have. Thank you, dear Sara (Annie).

But I have plenty more sins to my account. In fact, I commit so many of these authorial crimes that I have a rap sheet of habit words. Yes, a complete A4 sheet of them. I’m rather ashamed to admit that. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

When to check for evidence of habit-word sins

boot with ball and chain, labelled SIN

Once I’ve finished a draft, I usually check for overuse of habit words (= sins). Note that I do not try to cull them while I’m writing. Why not? Because they’re part of my writing voice. If I start watching for them while I write, I’ll risk becoming stilted and not-me. I’d be editing rather than creating. Not a good mix.

That first dirty draft, that no one else gets to see, has to flow and be natural, with my characters taking the stage and running the show. If they say rather too many times — I blame the characters, not the author — it can be fixed before anyone else sees. But if I tell them to stop using certain words, they’ll probably give me the two-fingered salute and stalk off in a huff.

[Oops! Seems I do use huff, after all.]couple in huff with each other

Sneaky tips for checking whether you’ve sinned

First, you need to identify your sins. [See starter** kit below.] You need to be aware enough of your writing habits to know whether you overuse words like rather and really and of course and… and… and…  My advice is to keep a list of them on your computer. And keep updating it, every time you identify another word-sin. Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone sins. And — shh! — you don’t need to confess yours to anyone else.old habits to new, remedy for habit words

Second, check how many times you’ve used each habit word/phrase in your completed first draft. Word processing is a great help here. If you use the Find or Search function, you should be shown all the instances of your sin. It will probably count them for you, too. If you just want a quick sin count, you can use Find and Replace + Replace All, putting the same word in each box. The screenshot below shows my count (5) for rather in my vampire story in Beach Hut Surprise.

screenshot of habit words

Be aware that Find or Find And Replace + Replace All can give misleading results. For instance, if you do it on just (a very common word-sin), it will also count justice, justify, Justin, unjust and any other word containing just-. The solution there is to put just in both boxes and then tick the box for Whole Words Only.

Remedies for habit-word sins

You may not need to do anything. You may not have overused your habit words in this particular MS. For example, of my 5 uses of rather in the screenshot above, two were rather than, which doesn’t count as a sin in my book. One qualified a verb, so I let myself off there. Two qualified adjectives. Would my reader be annoyed by two in twenty-thousand words? I reckoned probably not. What’s more, I thought they worked well in the context and so I left them in.woman against background of question marks

But if I’d found thirty instances of rather qualifying an adjective in that novella, I’d have been sure I needed to do something about them (or some of them).

What remedies are available?

  1. Delete the habit word altogether, if you can. A word like rather can often be deleted and the text left unadorned. So, he seemed rather young for a… becomes he seemed young for a…
  2. Replace the habit word with something else. It’s a good idea to have substitute words listed on your rap sheet alongside your habit words. A good thesaurus will help you find alternatives. Against rather, your rap sheet might list quite, pretty, somewhat, a little, a bit, fairly, comparatively… etc. Armed with your list, you consider the context of he seemed rather young for a… and you decide to amend it to, say, he seemed youngish for a…
  3. Rewrite the sentence to get your point across without using the habit word or even a synonym for it. In this case, you might decide on he didn’t look old enough to be a…

Less drastic than the remedies below?

cartoon Victorian man takes camomile and senna remedies

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

**Habit Words — a basic starter kit

woman shocked and puzzledWere you shocked when I suggested, earlier, that you should know the words you overuse? Did you wonder how to identify them? Well — and well is a classic of the genre — I’ll make it easier to get started. Here’s a list of some commonly used habit words and phrases. Chances are that you sin with at least some of these (but congratulations if you don’t):

actually, after all, at least, certainly, clearly, doubtless, even, I see, just, no doubt, not even, of course, only, possibly, pretty, probably, quite, rather, really, simply, somehow, still, suddenly, surely, then, well, you see, !

Dig out your last complete MS and check how often you’ve used them. How often per thousand words? Then decide for yourself how often is too often.

exclamation mark in fireNote: That exclamation mark at the end of the list isn’t a mistake. Some readers get more annoyed by overuse of ! than by repeated words. Dame Isadora is very robust on the subject. It’s one of those habits that’s impossible to unsee once you’ve spotted it. (Look at Georgette Heyer’s dialogue if you don’t believe me.)

Try using Find/Replace to count the exclamation marks in your completed MS.
I, Vampire has 20. That’s one per thousand words. OK? I thought so, though I did check each one of them. Fingers crossed that no readers complain.

Good luck and do let us know whether this has been helpful. We’d love to know how you get on. And if you have your own habit-word tricks, please do share. We writers are always learning.


Clarity : Language Use and Misuse : Pedantique-Ryter rants

One of the casualties of the pandemic has been language. Clarity matters. What, I ask you, is social distancing?

couple distanced from each other

Social distancing? Or is it really physical distancing?

Regency ladyRegency servantIn my (pedant’s) book, social distancing relates to the strata of society.

So… Regency aristocrat Lady Evadne Piddling-Coot is socially distanced from her washerwoman Hattie Gutbucket. If they were to meet — unlikely, one would think — Hattie would drop a curtsey and say nothing. Or, if they met in a confined space such as a staircase, Hattie would turn to face the wall and Lady E would continue on her regal progress as if Hattie were not there at all.

Some fellow pedants have pointed out (in vain, sadly) that social distancing actually means physical distancing. What else could it mean, when we are talking about 2 metres, or 1 metre, or 1 metre plus? Continue reading

Criteria for Plural Phenomenon : Pedantique-Ryter rants

The other week, when I was reading the news online — I do occasionally use the internet, in case you were wondering — I came across an advert from a major UK bank. It may be one of the largest in the world, but it certainly is not the most educated. crime scene tapeThe HSBC advert (for it was they!) said, roughly:

The criteria for our offer is X…

Not an exact quote, but the subject of the sentence was the word “criteria” and the verb was definitely “is”.  And I decided, on the spot, that I could never, ever bank with HSBC.

oops! key on keyboardEven the authors in the Libertà hive know better.
I mentioned it to dear Sophie on the telephone and I could hear her teeth grinding.
Quite right, too.

Sophie knew better. Why didn’t #hsbc ?

Criteria? Singular or Plural?

Continue reading

Incoherent English : a Pedantique-Ryter Rant

Incoherent English? Yes, another bee in the Pedantique-Ryter bonnet.

Radio 4 Today programme in the dock for incoherent speech

industrious bee on flowerIn a short interval between my summer educational tours, I happened to be listening to what the pundits maintain is the UK’s “must-listen” political programme — BBC Radio 4’s Today. I heard an interviewer ask a question that was incoherent.

To save that interviewer’s blushes, I shall not repeat the actual words used. The question was roughly along these lines:

“As a supporter of the Rational Incoherence Party, I’m sure our listeners will want to know whether you would support policy X.”

Question: who is the supporter of the RIP?
[Note: As far as I know, no political party admits to that name. Perhaps one of them should?] Continue reading

Read aloud : an author’s critical editing tool?

Read aloud: as writing tutors advise

Almost every writing tutor — including Sophie and Joanna of this parish — will tell aspiring writers that it’s a really good idea to read aloud during the editing process, in order to judge whether the manuscript needs more work. Basically, if you fall over your prose while trying to read it aloud, you haven’t got it right. Yet.

Apparently, we and all the other tutors are guilty of logocentrism. (Is that another of those incomprehensible words that Dame Isadora was ranting about, a few weeks ago? Maybe, but I haven’t been able to ask her, because she’s off in one of the wilder parts of the world, advising some government panjandrums about communication skills. I imagine her audience is still reeling…)

Logocentrism — wot?

Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter rants about incomprehensible words

In a recent newspaper column about methods of drying hands, I read the following (to me) incomprehensible paragraph:

The fundamental superiority of paper never looked to be in doubt, though. With paper, you didn’t have to wait restlessly for half a minute for the dryer to finish its bloviation. You didn’t have to fear a malfunction. You could dab at spots on your tie, or dry a washed face, or wipe sweat from your brow.

No, me neither.

The piece, by Samanth Subramaniam, was about the struggles between the producers of paper towels and hot-air hand dryers to win business in public toilets. I had a context; but the word remained incomprehensible.

I consider myself reasonably well educated and yet I was stumped.

Blowing? Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter: Could Have or Could Of?

We could of had it all

exclamation mark in fireIf you do a web search for could of, you’ll find quite a few people searching for song lyrics. Examples of search terms include: exploding champagne as in "it could of been the champagne"It could of been the champagne

and “It could of been me.”

We could of had it all” was a search for a song by Adele, called Rolling in the Deep.

And the line in question was, of course,
We could HAVE had it all“.

What’s happening here?

Continue reading

Mnemonics: spelling and those dreaded lists

exclamation mark in fire; just right for mnemonicsMnemonics for spelling

Mnemonics, as a word, is no advert for English spelling. And English spelling most certainly needs help. What’s the point of that silent M at the start? (Blame the Greeks. Their spelling isn’t easy either.)

English spelling (and pronunciation) may well be the world’s worst. How many students, trying to learn English as a foreign language, have been flummoxed by:
through, thorough, cough, enough, hiccough, sough, dough?

I often have problems with words where changing the spelling changes the meaning: practise/practice and the like. The spellchecker is no help to me with that, of course.

My regular bugbear is affect/effect. I have to stop to work out which is correct when I’m writing.
The Oxford Dictionary tells me that affect and effect are quite different in meaning, though frequently confused. (A statement of the bleedin’ obvious?) Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter : changing meanings, right and wrong

hand slicing through a stone question markEnglish usage is full of constantly changing meanings. How often do you yell at the radio or TV because some idiot presenter doesn’t know his (or her) English usage? How is it that educated people so often get fairly common words wrong?

English is a vibrant, living language and evolving all the time.

Not always changing for the better, in my pedantic view. But I know I am probably fighting a losing battle against sloppy English.

Changing meanings as words enter more common usage

Some words used to have very specific and precise meanings but have been misused so much that the original meaning has no traction any more.
So, if I say, “We underestimate the enormity of the decimation,” what do I mean? Continue reading

Right word : wrong place? Pedantique-Ryter rants

stars with text Even Illustrious Organs can get words wrong

Even the most illustrious organs get word usage wrong some of the time

Torturous or Tortuous? Right word, wrong place?

Earlier this month, the Guardian included this quote in a piece on the Cambridge Analytica data enquiry:

Ravi Naik, a human rights lawyer with Irvine Thanvi Natas, the British solicitor who is leading the case, said the decision “totally vindicates David’s long battle to try and reclaim his data”. He added: “The company put him through such a torturous process over what should have been a very simple subject access request … “

question mark : which of a word pair to use?A torturous process? Is it really being suggested that Cambridge Analytica tortured David Carroll? Or was it a process full of twists and turns, excessively lengthy and complex?
In fact, a tortuous process?

Lots of writers confuse the two words, possibly because, in speech, it can be difficult to tell them apart. If the Guardian‘s quote was taken over the phone, it could be a mis-transcription. Or maybe it’s not wrong? Maybe the speaker did in fact mean that it was a process involving or causing torture?

Or perhaps — subversive thought — some of the increasingly common misuse of torturous arises because writers don’t know that two different words exist? Continue reading