Words/phrases that don't mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

I recently took up the practice of reading my own writing. Whenever I’m about to post something, I do something else for a few minutes and re-read it later. I’ve realized that I’m much more long-winded and redundant than I thought I was. I often use words and phrases to transition between ideas without intending to, even when I’m unclear about what its role in the sentence and paragraph is. I’d appreciate advice on making my writing more concise and focused.

To be clear, here, I’m really talking about expository writing, that is, mostly responses to other peoples’ ideas and such. I love fiction a lot, but I just don’t have the stomach for writing it. Maybe someday I will.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about my use of language.

  • I really love beginning sentences with the word "So", usually backed up with a comma and often accompanied with "Yeah". This is especially prevalent in my personal writing (In case you can't tell, I'm talking about text messages and am too ashamed to admit that they represent the bulk of my 'personal writing'). I guess to me it serves to dissipate tension and awkwardness, but it doesn't work very effectively, and the majority of the time I'd be better off just diving in.
  • I like parenthetical phrases, but I don't like how fragmented and distracted they make me sound. The lightness and humor they bring to my otherwise dry and boring stuff is appreciated. I am a living, breathing human, and I want to sound like one. The problem is that they go on too long, and I'm rather unfamiliar with grammar rules covering where they should be placed and what one should have on either side of them, plus, when I return to the main sentence, I find myself wondering if readers will be able to keep their train of thought going from one side to the other.
  • I use emphasis words so often that they lack the punch I intend them to have. You know the words I'm talking about, right? These words are the targets of my crusade: really, absolutely, essentially, obviously, particularly, especially, actually, etc. However, whenever I consciously try to use them less, I feel like I'm limiting my range of expression.
  • I don't know what to do about "I-Statements". Different English teachers have advised me many different ways on this issue, or maybe I just forgot which way is really the right way. Each approach has its own merits. Using the I-Statement makes it feel at least slightly more personal to me, since I'm reminding everyone that the following words are what I think or feel. At the same time, it feels overly sentimental, and adds to the wall of text that I'm trying to combat. Eschewing the I-Statement makes my writing more concise, but leaves me feeling like a 'my way or the highway' sort of jerk. I want to be confident, but that doesn't mean I don't want wiggle room for people to take away their own impressions.
  • I haven't decided whether or not I'm an Oxford comma person. I think I understand that each approach is acceptable in most cases, but I don't know what the criteria are for one to be explicitly right or wrong. I usually just go with my gut.

If you have the inclination, please do respond to these issues, or, alternatively, post your own problems. I will help if I can.

Re: Words/phrases that don’t mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

I hope this helps, I imagine I missed something.

This sort of think is best done in dialogue; it’s best to avoid it in narration, even if it’s told in first person. There is a certain expectation that narration is more formal even if the narrator is not. You can do it in narration to dissipate awkwardness or start a joke, but it is best used sparingly.

For example: the narrator walks in on his/her parents having sex, the narrator responds with “so, yeah, that happened”. It acknowledges how awkward the scene if for the narrator and expresses his/her desire to move on to something else. It’s best saved for the bigger scenes, though.

In dialogue you don’t need to hold back if it makes the conversation sound real.

Parentheses (or brackets as we called them in my schools, even though brackets officially only cover one type) generally come in two flavors in fiction.

The first way is to include a word/phrase that was not really said but is needed to understand the context.

For example: “The mines here are (often) unsafe”, the brackets here show that there are exceptions to the statement given. It saves time from adding another sentence that explains the safety issues of the mines and how they aren’t complete death traps. The long explanation is not needed just get back to the story.

Example 2: “I think I saw him back at the old (salt) mine”, the speaker just called it a mine because that is the one the person s/he’s speaking to would think of first but the reader might need clarification (if there are several mines mentioned in the story but we were not told [or not told often] one of them was really old). As I just wrote you should use the square brackets if you have to use brackets inside brackets (try to avoid that).

The second way brackets are often used is to add to the end of a sentence (like I just did). These are (often) small statements that have no place in the main statement but are not interruptions (in which case use - dashes -, in college essays dashes might become your best friend). They’re unrelated to the paragraph at large and thus cannot be their own sentence without losing focus. They’re often used for jokes but they can be used to add extra information that the reader might need. For example: “She hasn’t been the same since the fall (when she broke her hip)”.

At the end of the day you might never really need to use brackets, try to see if it can be fit into its own sentence without ruining the flow or focus before publishing.

It’s best to just ignore that feeling; this kind of insecurity is normal for new writers. If you’re really unsure just ask your readers if there’s an issue with impact.

This is a narrative choice, how well it works depends on the context and how the rest of the narration flows. I can’t help here with any general advice; if you can give some specifics I can help evaluate them.

Generally I-statements are fine as long as you don’t overdo them. That’s all I can say on the issue for now, I’ll come back if I think of something else.

At the end of the day the Oxford comma use varies based on whether the writer is British or American (Americans generally expect it while the British don’t). Most of the time the Oxford comma doesn’t objectively make a difference but there are times when the comma makes a big difference.

Generally your readers won’t notice but proper comma use varies based on the context. You should remember that commas can be used to separate items on a list or separate clauses (statements that add to or explain the rest of the sentence) from a sentence.

For example: “I brought apples, oranges and bananas to the picnic” there is no comma before the “and” but if we added one then it would imply that oranges were the type of apple brought. The reader might not notice this because of an unfamiliarity with orange apples but the confusion is so easy to avoid that there’s no reason for it to happen in the first place.

A better example: “In order to curtail the cat population we have called in our experts, Bob and Joe” versus “In order to curtail the cat population we have called in our experts, Bob, and Joe”. The first sentence implies that Bob and Joe are the experts while the second sentence shows that Bob and Joe were called in along with the experts (since we know that one person cannot be the experts, plural, we assume Bob’s his own part of the list rather than one of the experts).

As a side note if you want to list the experts along with Bob and Joe you need a semicolon (;). “In order to curtail the cat population we have called in Bob, Joe; and our experts, Jim and Jeff.” The semicolon shows that the items separated by the next comma are a part of the same object in the list.

Re: Words/phrases that don’t mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

I suppose I was meaning more in my aforementioned personal writing than formal narration. I just feel like I sometimes have trouble breaking the ice when starting a conversation or discussion, not really anything that I feel is inappropriate, just a habit I’d like to rid myself of.

The first ‘flavor’ seems unnatural to me, I can only recall seeing it in journalism, most often when completing the name of someone mentioned in dialogue. The second one intrigues me because I cannot recall ever hearing that parenthetical phrases must be placed at the end of a sentence. Is this a hard and fast rule? I sometimes place them in the middle, because I want it located as close to the pertinent word or words as possible. I really think that the attractive part of using them is in being able to, in a sense, say two things at the same time. You’re saying something to the reader, and then you’re saying something to them about what you just said to them, the latter would be in parentheses.

Eh, this is a rather mediocre example.
The thing is that, for one thing, I think there’s a reasonable expectation that no one who can read English will assume oranges are a type of apple, for another thing, if it were a specific kind of apple, then it should be capitalized, and for a third thing, saying you brought apples and then clarifying that they were, in fact, Orange apples makes you sound like an apple snob. If you really insist on telling us exactly what kind of apples the were, then I think the way to go would definitely be “I brought Orange apples and bananas to the picnic.”

Maybe this is just me, but I wouldn’t use a semi-colon like that, it seems more natural to use two series, with some longer form of ‘and’ that delineates that you’ve got two distinct subdivisions, something like “Bob and Joe, in addition to our experts, Jim and Jeff.”

Thinking about it, I don’t think I really squarely identified the problem. I didn’t really mean the classical Oxford comma, used before the and in a series of three or more items. I think I really meant a more general discomfort with using commas before or after conjunctions, the nature of which I am presently unable to explain.

My final thought for the day regarding the Oxford comma is that I would like to register feelings of irony that the country in which its namesake institution is located has deserted it.

Re: Words/phrases that don’t mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

I have to agree that in the “apples, oranges, and bananas” example it is highly unlikely to be taken as anything other than a list of three fruits. The case I can see where someone could take it the other way would be if someone recognized both oranges and bananas as being types of apple. I believe the only way (by punctuation, at least) to make it likely that this would be interpreted as varieties of apple would be to use a colon, as in “…brought apples: oranges and bananas”.

In your experts case, however, the word “experts” can equally easily be either an adjective describing the two members of the following list or a noun standing as a part of the list in its own right. It is therefore up to the writer to arrange the sentence to make the proper interpretation the only reasonable one.

I don’t think your semi-colon example is quite right, but I’m not minded to pick it apart right now.

The rest of your post looks good to my eye - and one should remember that perfectly good writers disagree on all sorts of rules and when it is appropriate to break them - assuming such rule was valid in the first place.

Re: Words/phrases that don’t mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

Before I continue I remembered some advice about the I-statement (although it applies to fiction, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you wanted personal writing tips).

You can get away with using a lot of I-statements in narration, just be sure to break it up. Every once in a while describe the setting or someone else’s actions to avoid using I. It’s best to go at least one whole paragraph without using I every so often. Exactly how often is not exact, just go with how you feel for this one.

I agree, there’s nothing wrong with using “so, yeah” to break the ice. If you feel you’re using it too much just try to cut back on it and find another, similar, phrase to use every so often.

I’ve seen the first flavor in fiction narration a few times (I can’t exactly remember which books, though) it can be done. I think I just gave some bad examples when explaining it.

I don’t think it’s a rule, that’s just where I’ve seen it most often, I’m sorry for implying it is. As with any form of writing I think that if you think you can make it work you should try it. If you’re going to do it that way you should always ask yourself if the enclosed statement can also be done with commas as a subordinate clause and if it would work better that way. Those are more common but both are right so there’s no issue with using either.

I know, I gave a bad example with that one. I should have written it out as: “‘I brought apples, oranges and bananas to the picnic’ there is no comma before the ‘and’ but if we added one then it would make no difference to the meaning.” And then have moved on to explain the second example. It’s my fault for not doing more to proof-read it. I kept rewriting the examples with that one.

That works too, English leaves a lot of room for personal choice. If you feel it works better then go for it. I’d go with your version mainly because there aren’t more semicolons in the list. It looks nicer your way in that case.

I don’t think it’s wrong, it doesn’t look as well as it could to me because there’s only one real place for a semi colon. If the sentence was “In order to curtail the cat population we have called in our handler, Bob; veterinarians, Joe and Jill; and experts, Jim and Jeff.” then it looks better to my eyes.

I could be wrong about the other one, though.

That’s normal, I think. One of the hardest things as a writer is to learn commas; not because they’re hard to understand but because they can often feel like decoration. For me I used to use commas when I felt a sentence was going on too long without punctuation; so I used commas whenever I made a slight pause without thinking. Worrying more about how it made a sentence look rather than flow.

As I noted, Oxford commas are usually a personal choice in this day and age. If it doesn’t affect the reader’s understanding of the sentence then it doesn’t matter whether you use it or not.

That’s English for you, it adds and drops rules seemingly without thought at times. That tends to happen when a language is old (a lot of our spelling choices are based on outdated pronunciations), widespread (differing accents and dialogues make agreeing on a spelling reform impossible) and unregulated by a central authority (at this point our schools literally pick a dictionary/thesaurus and teach words based on how it uses them). I’m genuinely amazed that our grammar systems are still mostly uniform despite our disagreements over spelling and punctuation.

Re: Words/phrases that don’t mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

That next-to-last sentence in the last paragraph, TheOneWhoSees: Are you suggesting that the language would be better off if we had an equivalent of the Académie française prescribing one and only one acceptable form of the language?

And outside of academic writing, I’m <em>more</em> than happy accepting narration that’s written more like the spoken word than ‘the accepted narrative form’. Then again, I’m willing to use in parentheses, full-sentence-length phrases. The deciding factor for me is not ‘is this short enough that it can’t stand on its own’, but ‘is this so closely related to the sentence it’s embedded in that it makes more sense as a parenthetical statement than as a separate sentence that lets a subset of readers not-realize that it’s an integral part of the sentence it’s in?’

But I’ll admit that I’d probably get in <em>all sorts</em> of trouble with the majority of English teachers, let <em>alone</em> professors-of-the-sciences and such, were I careless enough to write in this fashion in an academic environment (with the exception of a creative-writing class, where I’d object if the instructor tried to veto my usage of parenthetical statements and such).

Re: Words/phrases that don’t mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

Agreed on the conclusion to the fruits example.

True, the additional section does make it look better. I agree that the first version may just be odd and not wrong, but I just re-read it and think the issue is that your original needed a semi-colon after Bob as well as after Joe:

“In order to curtail the cat population we have called in Bob; Joe; and our experts, Jim and Jeff.”

It’s worse than that. There are a number of words that were respelled by academics based on imagined Latin roots (semi-true), but the actual etymology of the word is through Norman French, never had the sound in English, and in fact had dropped the letter before reaching English. Doubt and Debt are two such words.

Hmmm… now I’m thinking too much about whether the above requires semi-colons. I think it doesn’t, but I’ve tended to have more interest in linguistics than formal grammar and punctuation.

I’m genuinely amazed that our grammar systems are still mostly uniform despite our disagreements over spelling and punctuation.

Perhaps, but my sense is that overall spoken grammar tends to change at a glacial rate compared to words, unless you have something like an influx of non-native speakers. This is why English, unlike other Germanic languages, has no grammatical gender.

Re: Words/phrases that don’t mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

I was mostly asking for a more consistent orthography rather than an outright language reunification but I’m not entirely against it. Personally I would rather it be like the Council for German Orthography mostly because I really don’t like the Académie française’s overly strict policies (particularly towards loan words). I feel that strict regulation can hinder a language’s development and run the risk of making the regulators look foolish and out of touch (running further risk of losing influence). I’d rather it stick to deciding on consistent spelling and punctuation than trying to tame the adoption of new words and phrases.

EDIT: As an added note I recognize that it’s possible we may already be at the point where we would have to go the French route and have multiple language councils (French has one council for Quebec French and one for the other French languages) for American/Canadian and UK/other Commonwealth dialects (I’m not an expert on these [or any] dialects so I’m not even going to try to list all optimal council divisions). This way at least they can have more phonetic orthographies for their own variations English. It will make us require more comprehensive language classes for international work and I’m not even going to pretend to know whether it will even be worth it in the end (but trying to do something about it is better than the current system).

I hadn’t considered that; I agree fully, though.

You seem to be right about that.

It’s actually proven difficult to find an example of this online; most sources just make every list item have a comma to avoid this situation. The closest I can find is one paragraph at http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-use-semicolons?page=2 that says

“both times you can use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction such as “and,” it’s because commas are already being used for something else, so using a comma could be confusing to readers. - See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-use-semicolons?page=2#sthash.BB9sjI1g.dpuf

So it seems that every item should be separated with a semicolon for consistency’s sake.

I left out using “scissor” as an example of this to save space but, yeah, this is a big, big, issue. It’s probably my biggest pet peeve about English so far.

I’ll admit I haven’t though of that. It makes sense. I do know that large cities have faster rates of change than more remote areas; that seems to go well with your non-native influx theory.

Re: Words/phrases that don’t mean anything, and what to do with them. (Writing help)

You may want a body attempting to prescribe a more consistent orthography, but I think current dictionaries and academic standards are probably about as close as we’re likely to get. The famed Samuel Johnson once tried to write a prescriptive tome in his dictionary and by the time he published he had come to conclude that a descriptive tome was the best he could do. To my knowledge nothing has fundamentally changed to allow for a successful prescriptive body beyond the prescribing inherent in describing current usage as dictionaries do today.

Probably because it is more work to invent an example that mixes elements with an internal comma and those without. Probably best to consider the comma and semicolon similar punctuation marks of different orders. Comma is the default, and in many cases the semicolon is much like a “super-comma”. Thus, in a list every division of the same order must have a punctuation mark of the same order.

On rate of change in language, while I’m not an expert, perhaps it would be better to have said that “grammar changes at a glacial rate compared to words” and left out the qualifier. If you’ve got a substantial enough group of adults learning a language as a second language and staying long enough (on the order of a permanent move) to make a significant change to grammar, they are going to bring with them a body of words that will be picked up by native speakers of the next generation, if not the existing generation. This can be seen in places where a substantial number of people have moved to from one language region - the English there has a lot more words and even grammar from the native language of the settlers, even several generations later.

The other piece of the grammar/word change rate is this: How many basic grammar patterns can exist compared to the number of words for a given [object]? Not terribly many.