Peeve of the Day

Listen up, people.

I keep reading bits of narrative lately where a character who’s walking around aimlessly or randomly is described as “milling about.”


Milling about is not something one person does, or even two people.  Milling about requires at least a small crowd.  The “mill” part of the verb comes from the idea that the random circular motion of such a crowd resembles the rotary action of a mill wheel.

One person alone might pace, or might wander about, but they aren’t going to be milling, even if they’re doing it with a friend.

Peeve of the Day

Listen up, people.

Flare is not the same as flair, so don’t use one when you mean the other.

A flare is a sudden burst of flame or light:

A solar flare will cause the aurora borealis to be visible (except for wherever I happen to be at the time, which will be clouded over.)

Or it’s something that starts out narrow and ends up wide:

The sleeve of the gown was a graceful flare, trimmed with gold embroidery at the open end.

A flair is a knack for doing something stylishly and/or particularly well:

Janet has a flair for mathematical puzzles.

Flair without the definite or indefinite article refers to a quality of stylishness, élan, and panache:

The final entry in the show was presented with even more flair than the ones that preceded it.

Highway flares, of course, are related to the first definition, since they spring into light with a sudden burst when struck.  (They also give us the technical term flare out – as in, the first EMT to respond to the accident flared out the scene, meaning that they lit flares and placed them on the roadway to warn drivers of the obstruction.  I love technical jargon and specialized lingo; they do fascinating things to the language.)

Harbingers Ahoy!

First Tree Color SmallerThat tree in the front driveway that I was talking about the other day is now showing its first patch of color.  Summer is now officially (for local household values of “official”) transitioning into autumn.

We have also recently taken in our first batch of gift zucchini. Likewise a couple of locally-grown tomatoes, which promptly went into BLT sandwiches.  Raising tomatoes up here in northern New England is a triumph of hope over experience every time; they have to be started indoors, and once they’re out in the garden, it’s a race between them and the first frost.

(A harbinger, by the way, was originally a person who went ahead of an army to arrange for lodgings, going back through Old French to Old Saxon to a couple of root words heri and berga – meaning, respectively “army” and “a fortified place.”  The latter is the same root that shows up in a lot of place names, since for a long time, historically speaking, “city” and “fortified place” were more or less synonymous.)

Peeve of a Summer’s Day

The air is thick with humidity and allergens, and I am peevish.

Listen to me, O People, when I say unto you, the phrase is not “mother load”, it is “mother lode.”

The term comes from mining, specifically gold and silver mining, where it refers to a principle vein or group of veins of ore.  The Mother Lode, in the United States, is an area of hard-rock gold deposits in California’s Sierra Nevada, running through a zone 120 miles long and in some places almost 4 miles wide.  (It was, unsurprisingly, discovered during the California Gold Rush.)

A mother lode of something, then, is an abundant source or principle supply of that thing.  The “mother” part comes from the use of “mother” to refer to a source or origin:  “Mother of pearl” refers to the substance known as nacre, with which a mollusk encases the bit of irritant which forms the center of a pearl; “mother of vinegar” is the naturally-occurring bacterial culture which, when added to wine or other substances, causes them to ferment into vinegar; and “mother” or “mother dough” is a term sometimes used in baking to refer to a naturally-cultivated yeast starter.

And the “lode” part?  That’s from the Old English lād, meaning “a way” or “a course” – usually a watercourse of some sort.  So a lode is a way or course that ore runs through, like water runs in a stream.

It’s Dr. Doyle’s Question and Answer Time!

Q. Are you really a Doctor?

A. Yes.

I got my Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, back in the Dark Ages 1981. My primary field was Old English, and my cognate field was Old Icelandic, which makes me the sort of person who once stayed up until 2 in the morning reading a book on historical linguistics for fun. Old Icelandic is a great language – we get “to egg (somebody) on” from there, as well as “ransack”, plus a wonderful verb that we don’t have in English but sometimes I wish we did, ydda (“to show the point [of something] on the other side [of something]”; as, for instance, a sword and someone else’s back.)†

Q. What on earth are you doing here, then?  Shouldn’t you be off in an ivory tower someplace, instead of writing fiction and editing other people’s novels for pay?

A. Hah.  Don’t I wish.

I finished my degree at about the same time as Academia started devouring its own young.  The need to hire lots of new-minted scholars every year to teach the glut of baby-boomers and draft-avoiders was coming to its end, and colleges were starting to use spreadsheets and do the math and figure out that they could hire adjunct faculty (aka “temps with doctorates”) and avoid the extra cost of insurance and other perks, and tenure-track positions got scarcer and scarcer.  (Also, colleges realized that you could dangle the prospect of tenure in front of a new hire, and they’d run after it like a greyhound after a mechanical rabbit for five or six years of high toil and low pay, and then you could turn them down for tenure and start the whole process up again with the next victim.)

So I became one of the science fiction and fantasy field’s renegade medievalists, instead.

Q.  Well, that explains the writing, I guess.  What about the editing?

Money, at least in part.  Writing can pay well, but it always pays irregularly, and almost all the writers I know do a lot of other different things to fill in the gaps.

As for why this, in particular:  Teaching (and marking up essays) was something I learned how to do as a grad student and teaching fellow at Penn, and while at the time I thought I didn’t like doing it very much, I eventually figured out that what I actually didn’t like was working on stuff written by people who didn’t want to be writing it.  (I’ve graded freshman essays, and I’ve read slush – unsolicited manuscripts, for those not conversant with the lingo of the trade – and I’m here to tell you that as bad as slush can get, at least it’s all written by people who are willingly putting words onto paper or pixels onto screen.)

Working with people who are actually interested in improving what they’re doing is, on the other hand, fun.

Q. Do you only work with established writers and self-publishers?

A.  Heavens, no.  I’m just as happy to work with writers who are at an earlier stage of their development.  As I say on my “about” page, I can’t promise that their  work will publishable when we’re finished, but I can promise that it will be better than when we started.

Back when I was laboring the the fields of freshman composition, under whatever name it was being called at the time – Introduction to Rhetoric, Expository Writing, or plain old English 101 – I often found that while working with the one or two natural A-level students in the class was easy and refreshing, at the end of the semester I got more satisfaction from having helped a high-B+ student move on up into the A range, or from helping someone who started out as a C- lift themselves up to a good solid B.

†I’ll freely admit that I picked Old Icelandic for my cognate field because I liked all the bloodshed and violence in the great sagas. But my geekhood is safe – my other big interest was subordinate clauses in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Summertime, and the Living Is Sneezy….

We’re now well into the time of hot, oppressive days and high pollen counts.  The cats, instead of sitting like little furry meatloafs with tails and paws neatly tucked in, are stretched out into longcats, and can be reliably used to find the spots with the best cooling cross-drafts.

Which are no good to the rest of us, because the cats own them.

Summer is not the most enjoyable time for doing work, but work nevertheless must be done (this is where I point, in a discreet parenthesis, to the “Editorial and Critique Services” link up at the top of the page), so I’ll leave you with a handful of links to amuse or interest you during the days when you’re not on vacation at the beach, or in a mountaintop cabin, or in a hermetically sealed and thoroughly air-conditioned hotel room, if such is your pleasure:

First, a clip of Jim Macdonald, my co-author, in his other role as a magician (complete with top hat!)

Next, a good (and funny) explanation of the context rules for the use of bad language, and a report on the discovery of the earliest known use of the f-word in written English.

And finally, a video demonstrating how to put on a set of late 14th-century armor.

Stay cool, and enjoy.

Sometimes the Transmission Gets a Bit Fuzzy

As a tool for getting ideas out of one person’s head and into another’s, language (whether spoken or written) is a poor substitute for telepathy . . . but it’s the only tool we’ve got.

It’s not surprising, then, that writers often have an ambiguous relationship with language.  It’s both the tool we use and the medium we work in, and we admire its beauties and cherish its quirks at the same time as we curse at it for its limitations – not least because we can never really be certain that the worlds and characters which we use language to create are being re-created as we intended in the minds of our readers.  (Who, after all, speak their own personal  subsets of our common language, which of necessity are not the same as ours.)

For an interesting example of this phenomenon, consider this post on the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog, which discusses J. R. R. Tolkien’s description, in the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, of Lúthien dancing in “a mist of hemlocks.” The blogger points out that English and American readers may well visualize that scene differently, since the English “hemlock” is a flowering plant and the North American “hemlock” is most commonly a tall coniferous tree.

Really, given the different word-hoards and world-views that we all carry around inside our head, it’s amazing that language works as well as it does.

Peeve(s) of the Day

Because this is a season for feeling peevish about so very many things.

Peeve #1:  The phrase is not “been through the ringer” – it’s “been (or put) through the wringer”, with a wWringer comes from the Old English wringan, meaning “to press, strain, wring, or twist”, and it refers to a now pretty much obsolete laundry appliance used to extract the water from clothes that have been washed.   (But if you really want one, Amazon will sell it to you.)

So looking like you’ve been “put through the wringer” means that you look like you’ve been pressed flat between the appliance’s upper and nether rollers and squeezed dry.

Which is how a lot of us feel these days – I can’t imagine why.

Peeve #2:  “Diffused” and “defused.”  Something is diffused when it is dispersed or spread out over a large area or in a large volume of something:

The smoke from the burning incense was diffused throughout the room.

Something is defused when it has had its fuse removed, often in order to prevent it from doing something undesirable, such as exploding.

The bomb tech defused the explosive device.

  Metaphorically speaking, something is defused when somebody does or says something to reduce the tension or head off unpleasantness:

The dinner-table conversation on Christmas Day was on the verge of turning into an argument, but Jane defused the situation by bringing out the plum pudding and setting it on fire.

Because there’s nothing like a little creative arson at the dinner table to redirect people’s attention.

Things Seen and Unseen

Let’s talk for a minute about point of view. In fact, we could talk about point of view for considerably more than a minute, because it’s a complex and many-layered thing – not to mention being, for some writers, the key to making everything else click into place. (For other writers, the key might be something else. Nothing about this job is universal, except maybe that if you don’t write you won’t ever have written.)

I’m assuming right now that if you’re reading this you’ve already absorbed Point of View 101: Third Person, First Person, and the Weird Stuff. (I’ve blogged about those already, here and here, if you want a quick refresher.)

What I’m thinking about now is a bit more subtle – it’s one of the failure modes of point of view.  Point of view is implicit in a narrative, even if it isn’t directly specified, and sometimes the narrative “sees” things which nobody is observing.  This results in clumsy writing, or in writing which, while not precisely clumsy, nevertheless has an off-center sort of wrongness to it that can have a cumulative effect on the reader’s sense of immersion in the story.

An example:

As Joe looked at the kitchen door, it was angrily thrown open.

There are a couple of things wrong with that sentence, starting with having the active observer relegated to a subordinate clause, and the important action – the throwing-open of the door – occurring as an agentless passive verb. (Who is throwing open the door? The narrative doesn’t let us see them.) Those wrong things, though, are made worse by the point-of-view failure we get in that adverb “angrily.”

Anger is an emotion, a state of mind; somebody is experiencing it as he/she/they throw open the door.  But we don’t see the door-opener, so we’re not in a position to draw inferences about their state of mind.

Fixing that sentence requires either showing us who is on the other side of that door – As Joe looked at the kitchen door, Jane angrily threw it open – or replacing “angrily” with a verb, or verb+adverb, that doesn’t have an implied state-of-mind attached – As Joe looked at the kitchen door, it was abruptly thrown open/jerked open.  (In this case, I’d probably go with the latter fix; that is, if I didn’t decide to rewrite the whole sentence from scratch, and possibly the paragraph it was part of as well.)

In a similar vein – don’t refer to a character as holding onto something with a white-knuckled grip if that character is wearing gloves.  Nobody, including the character, can see the knuckles in question.

As a general rule, when you’re writing description, it’s always good to pause every so often and query yourself:  Where is the (named or just implied) viewer standing?  Is everything you’ve just mentioned visible from that point?  If you’re doing the verbal equivalent of a tracking or panning shot, is your observation moving smoothly from point to point, or is it jumping around at random?*

Point of view may not, as I said at the beginning, be the key to everything.  Nevertheless, if you’ve got a good handle on point of view, you’ve probably got most of your other ducks lined up and quacking in formation as well.

*Yes, there may be occasions when you want a sense of jumpy and random observation.  But there, too, point of view rules:  your reader is going to draw inferences from that jumpiness about your observer’s probably-confused state of mind.

Peeve of the Day

Because a peeve is like an itch that you just have to scratch….

Exactly like, in this case.

Itch, the noun, is a physical sensation:

Starched clothing against the skin can cause an annoying itch. 

Itch, the verb, is the act of feeling that sensation:

Joe’s skin itches where his starched collar rubs against his neck.

The verb for what the starched collar is doing against Joe’s skin, on the other hand, is scratch:

Joe’s starched collar scratches the skin of his neck.

Scratch is also the verb for what Joe does to relieve the annoyance:

Joe scratches the itch caused by the starched collar rubbing against his skin.

The starched collar, on the other hand, does not itch Joe’s skin.  It scratches it.  Which makes it itch.  Which makes Joe scratch it.

Get it?  Good.