To Tread Where No Man Has Trod Before

I’m working on a story that includes the sentence “One meter from his feet was a place no man had ever tread.” I realized tonight, after I’d read that sentence a few times, that it was incorrect. The past of ‘tread’ is ‘trod’. Worse yet, the past participle is ‘trodden’.

I’m okay with ‘downtrodden’, but while I can barely stomach ‘trod’ I just can’t imagine writing a sentence with ‘trodden’. It’s ugly. Even substituting ‘trod’ in my sentence is painful; I considered changing the verb rather than use that form. The only problem was, ‘to tread’ is easily the most parsimonious word for the job. Parsimonious, yes, but ‘trod’ carries an archaic air with it that I don’t want in the story. People just don’t say ‘trod’ anymore.

But ‘stepped’ is a junky substitute, lacking gravity. ‘set foot’ is probably the closest modern substitute for ‘trod’, but it’s almost a clichĂ©. I could go long-winded and say something like “… was a place that had never felt the foot of man.” In this context, that’s a bit much. So I have ‘trod’. Honestly, though, I can’t use it. It’s like a big archaic raspberry at the end of the second sentence in the story, when I’m going all-out to set the tone. The more pleasant, albeit incorrect, use of the present tense bothers me less.

In the end, I will have to go with some alternative that, while lacking parsimony, does not go plop on the page. Alternatively, we could launch a campaign to make ‘to tread’ less irregular by allowing ‘tread’ to be the past tense.


It Goes Without Saying

Last night I set up the new home for the novel It Goes Without Saying, the latest masterpiece by promising young author Edgar Pildrot. What? You’ve never heard of him? Not a surprise, I suppose, as his epic has not been published yet. It hasn’t even been written, in fact. That’s where you come in. That’s right, dear reader, you can be Edgar Pildrot — or at least a part of him. Chapter 5 is under way, Damien and Alice are on the run from mysterious people dressed all in black, and the only thing that’s missing is what happens next. It could be anything, but it will likely be a bit odd.

If you would like to have a hand in determining the fate of our heroes, pop on over and sign up! (Or, just ask me nicely and I’ll create your account.) Once I’ve given you book-authoring powers, you will be able to add your own two cents to the embryonic novel. There are only two rules: Never use the word ‘said’ and every alternative may only be used once.

Of course, even if you don’t want to participate directly, you are welcome to hang out, read along and heckle comment. Take a look!

He Remonstrated, She Demurred, and a Project was Born

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she prevaricated.
“Yes you do,” he blaxtophosed.

As I was writing that last episode, I got an idea. Ideas come in a wide range of flavors, and many of them are undercooked. I’m counting on you guys to make this idea fully-baked. I think there are enough regulars now to make something like this work. Group fiction. Silly group fiction, anchored on a bit of patently bad advice every writer hears at one point or another.

I propose two chapters of a novel, chapters five and ten. The writing should be reasonable but for one rule: no word for verbal utterance can be used more than once. By chapter five our otherwise-talented author, Edgar Pildrot, will be scraping the bottom of the barrel. By chapter ten he’ll be reduced to wild invention to paraphrase ‘said’. Wild invention, I think, is something this crowd could do well. Perhaps also we should include a rule that no character can be described the same way twice. Forget names, they would have been used up in chapter one. Just a thought.

I imagine this would be a perfect application of some sort of wiki thing. I’ll try to figure out how to host one of them (I welcome any guidance), but there’s also the question of the story. What do you guys think? Would you play? How much structure should be there at the start? An outline of the novel with a little more detail for the relevant chapters, or is that too much? There must be some structure; I wouldn’t want a bunch of fun sentences that didn’t follow. Or is continuity part of the challenge? I wouldn’t want to stifle you guys too much. Where’s the balance? I’m figuring the group would write chapter five first, then chapter 10. Kind of a vegetables-before-desert thing, only in this case the veggies are tasty, too.

We also need a good name for the project. My first instinct was Outrageous Dialog Project, but that misses the import of the dialog markers.

So four (wait, five) questions:

Do you want to join us and write silly dialog?
Do you have any idea how to make the project work?
How much of the story should be predefined?
What should the project be called?
Something else?

Please give your two cents in the comments below. I will interpret the sound of crickets chirping as an indication that the rest of you have actual “lives” and stuff, and don’t have time for such silliness. I’m not really sure how many participants it would take to hit that critical mass of fun.

He said, “said.”

Every once in a while you see advice for writers to lay off using the word “said” so much. When you read work by people who take this advice seriously, it shows. Characters who “exclaim” and “counter” and “blurt” when really all they’re doing is saying something is the mark of a writer who has forgotten their own experience reading. “The masters don’t use ‘said’ all the time,” I have heard people say.

Yes, they do. All the time. You just don’t see it. Good writers use those alternatives the way that quiet people use profanity. They are words for when you want to be noticed.

When I write (notice how by inference I am defining myself as a good writer — pretty sly, huh?), I use ‘said’ to resolve ambiguity about the speaker and to provide phrasing clues, to put in a narrative pause where the speaker is taking a breath. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ‘said’ is not a word, but punctuation. I postulate here that in the cognition of written language, that ‘said’ is managed by some sort of pre-processor, an arrow pointing to the character speaking, and by the time the text reaches the active story-enjoyment centers of the brain, the word is gone, in its place is an understanding of the voice of the speaker. The times I most notice ‘said’ is when it’s missing and I’ve lost track of who is speaking.

Still, I often find myself using a similar crutch. I will supply business to change the reader’s focus to the correct speaker:

Beth fiddled with her glasses. “That’s weird.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah.
Ed picked his nose. “You guys are just paranoid.”

Business can be useful, if it enhances characterization. If it’s just to replace “said”, it’s just a bad as

“That’s weird,” Beth mumbled.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed.
“You guys are just paranoid,” Ed whined.

A special subset of the ‘don’t use said’ crowd is the ‘never use the same word for a verbal utterance twice’ bunch. This can lead to some truly comic writing. (In fact, that gives me an idea… stay tuned. You and we and all of us, we have a project.) Generally I use the “business trick” when I want to name the reader before the spoken words, which can be helpful. For some reason I resist the form “Beth said, ‘That’s weird.'” and so forth. Part of my prejudice I’ll defend on timing grounds; I generally use the device when I want to slow the pace of the conversation. Still, there’s a limit, so the advice here about the invisibility of ‘said’ is directed toward myself as much as toward anyone else.

Meanwhile, what a great sentence: “‘Yeah,’ Joe agreed.” As if ‘yeah’ could have any other meaning. What the heck, why stop there?

Joe nodded. “Yeah,” he concurred agreeably.

So what can we conclude? Ed will be second or third to fall to the Kabin Killer, allowing him screen time enough to really annoy us before we cheer his downfall. Beth will last a little longer; she will almost escape but will lose her glasses at the critical moment, the only point in the film where there is any doubt about the outcome. Finally Joe will be the one to discover the killer’s weakness but too late to save himself. His demise will be heroic, as he leaves the critical clue for the others to find. He will be the last male to die. That’s what a few well-placed nuances in the dialog will do for you.

Typo of the Day

Obviously I was trying to type “biology” but the above is a great word in need of a definition. Suggestions?

Message from reality

I got a lead balloon from an old friend tonight. Heavy, but miraculously buoyant. The first part was an answer she gave to an essay question on a test. Mechanically, well, it was her runaway style. I’ve seen poet laureates try to manufacture her voice, and fail. Her emotions are felt so hard it’s impossible to write her off as sentimental.

(Somehow nowadays sentimental is a bad thing. I often disparage my own work for being sentimental. Here I am styling myself as a writer unconcerned with what other folks think, yet I can’t raise a sentimental middle finger to the Art Establishment.)

Anyway, tonight I was fortunate to hear from her. She has mastered the run-on sentence. No, more than mastered, she has made the run-on sentence her groveling minion and her flaming sword. I would not dare construct her sentences, and I am less for it. She is a verbal avalanche, and the only thing worse than being swept away by her is to wonder what you missed if you somehow got out of the way. In this way her language is an honest reflection of herself.

To all English teachers out there: Be true to the kids. Be true to the language. Style counts, and when style is backed by passion… well, you dream about that already. There’s art nearby.

magnificent insignificance

My spelling checker didn’t like pissant. Stupid spelling checker. It suggested piss-ant. Just to make sure I wasn’t completely insane I consulted my dictionary (oh, dictionary, help me enumerate the ways I love thee…) and sure enough there it was. Origin: the noun piss+ant. So of course I looked up piss. It comes from the Old French verb ‘pisser’, which the dictionary theorizes is imitative of the sound. But then I had “French” and “pissant” in my head at the same time, and I typed in “puissant”, a fine word if ever there was one, and opposed to pissant on more than one axis. Not only do they mean pretty much the opposite, but people who are likely to use one are unlikely to use the other.

A challenge to the muddleverse: a bit of doggerel that will fit in the header above that uses both words, preferably next to one another. You may work individually or in groups.


Help me out. Glide is a graceful word, but in the past tense glided is particularly ugly. Glid? Glode? I could substitute floated, and in my context I could even use slid (see glid), but glide is the right word. Or it would be if the past tense didn’t have two abrupt stops in it that undermine the meaning of the word. The word serves as the antithesis of its own definition.

Here we have one of the hallmarks of English, its strength and weakness all in one, that rules are made to be broken. Yet we have a case where an irregular conjugation would vastly improve the word. How could Shakespeare’s inventive tongue ever have allowed glided to happen?


I was sitting in my accustomed corner at the Little CafĂ© Near Home, and having secured permission to unplug the television so I could jack in the laptop I was rolling along. Of course, with any writing adventure, there are the blue times, when you are letting things spin in your head, and typing would be a waste of time. It’s like bottling a cloud. It makes a lot more sense after things have condensed.

I was in such a state, moving the big Lego bricks in my head, a long way from the technical bits, when I was politely interrupted. I had peripherally noticed folk at the bar carefully poring over the labels of a couple of thin bottles. It turns out they were pooling their English knowledge to translate the propaganda on the bottle. Like a team solving a puzzle, they had it figured save for one critical word. “This word, chilled, does it mean a little hotter or colder?”

I answered “zima”, he was thankful, and that was that. Except… chill. It’s a reflexive verb now. (I trust my sister to correct me if I’m wrong, I’m just a guy chillin in a pub.) It’s an adjective. “That guy’s chill.” No matter how you use it, chill is good.

For well you know that it’s the fool who plays it cool, when all you have to do is chill.

Of course, by now teenage kids are rolling their eyes when their parents make awkward attempts to use chill. I’ve been a fan of chill for some time now, which means the the days of chill are long past. So it goes. This is one flash in the pan I will miss. Because, come on, “Take a chill pill, man” is poetry. American Haiku.


In Czech, there are seven forms for every noun and pronoun. These different forms provide important information about the relationships between the elements of the sentence. In English, most of those forms have been weeded out over the centuries, replaced by helper words and word order conventions. We still have the possessive form and the plural, but that’s it.

Except in pronouns. Now I call the English-speaking world to action, to hasten the inevitable and beat down those who would hold our language in stasis. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do. Let’s put the wooden stake through the heart of ‘whom’. No ambiguity is introduced when you use ‘who’ instead, English has developed all the mechanisms to keep the sentence clear without declining the pronoun. We just don’t need whom.

While we’re at it, let’s not stop there. I, me, my — it’s time to straighten all this out. We only need one pronoun to express the first person singular. All we need is ‘me’. “Me Tarzan, you Jane” is not at all ambiguous, and even introduces an implied ‘to be’ which can come in handy. “All for me grog” is not open to alternate interpretations. All these extra pronouns running about are causing more harm than good.

Granted, getting rid of ‘my’ may be pushing things a bit much, as English still uses the possessive form. If we really want to disdecline the language, we would have to resort to using ‘of’ a lot: “the pants of Jerry”, rather than “Jerry’s pants” (in the phrase “Jerry pants” mine name comes out as an adjective). Me not quite ready for that. Before you know it people would be writing “pants o’Jerry”, and the possessive would be back, only this time an o’ prefix rather than an ‘s at the end. Even so, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ could be consolidated without any loss. It’s already happened for nouns and most other pronouns. Kiss ‘my’ goodbye, and flush ‘yours’ down the drain.

These silly pronouns are holding us back. They remain mired in days gone by, the subjects of rules that are based simply on properness, not effectiveness — all they do is prove you paid attention in school. (Ironically, one pronoun we already have shed, ‘thee’, would still be useful to reduce ambiguity. Me therefore also call for the recognition of y’all to be what ‘you’ once was.)

Me not ready to embrace this principle in me everyday writing, as, alas, there are many who would judge me based on outdated ideas of correctness. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? If me were to go it alone, me would be quickly written off as an ignorant buffoon, not a force committed to making the English language better. What can me do?


“Have your eyes ever glown red?” sounds so much better than “have your eyes ever glowed red?” I have no reference that would allow me to use this, however. Any help out there? (Keeping in mind that I’ll use any word I want, but going against the grain is a conscious risk.)

Language Log is Ruining My Life

I mentioned before that I have added a link in the sidebar for Language Log, a blog that is the product of the musings of some (I am led to understand) pretty heavy names in the linguistics biz. That their writing is (generally) as accessible as it is interesting is a credit to them and a drug for me. It’s nice to find eggheads with a sense of humor.

Today I was drifting through the archives brushing up on profanity — how it’s encoded, and how it’s legislated, and what makes something taboo in the first place. Recently they have been posting comic pages that go “meta”, stepping outside the frame to look at just what is coming out of their mouths, as when Beetle Baily asks Sagre how a little flower symbol snuck into his invective. It reminded me of a time I actually laughed at The Wizard of Id:

PEASANT: I’m here about the job in the stables.
STABLE BOSS (holds out small object): What’s this?
PEASANT: Shinola
STABLE BOSS: You’re hired.

I laughed because a clean, family-oriented comic made a joke that was funny for no other reason than it made the reader think of the word “shit”. (It’s like saying to someone, “You’re full of something, and it’s not shinola.”) Certainly the lads in the stable refer to shoveling and various other animal waste-related activities, but this time, there was no escaping the shit — not the substance, but the word. The word is far more taboo than the offal it represents.

After that I read some stuff on recent debates about the nature of language. Some heavyweights in the field, including Chomsky (whose value to the science seems to be his ability to start fights), have proposed a definition for human language that damn near rules out Hemingway’s version of English. Some of those arguments were, admittedly, beyond me, but there is no doubt that my writing here, wandering and layered, a double-jointed drunkard lost in the desert (“recursive” is the word the wonks are all going on about these days), qualifies as human. The argument is that no other animal has true language, because other animals are not able to embed ideas within other ideas, and this embedding makes a language able to convey an infinite variety with a finite number of words. Or something like that.

Personally, I’m new to this game, and dangerously ignorant. As far as I can tell these arguments are all about the mechanics of the language, not what is done with it. If those guys asked me, the two distinguishing characteristics of humans are the ability to misuse tools and the ability to use metaphors. Other animals have developed primitive tool-using behaviors, but only people have invented screws and screwdrivers yet still pound screws in with hammers. Similarly, if you told Koko the gorilla, “You’re pounding a screw in with a hammer,” meaning she was going about something the wrong way, she would be confused because she did not even have a hammer. (Don’t give gorillas hammers. Trust me on this one.)

I’m pretty sure the folks in Language Log Plaza would consider the metaphor bit not to be germane to the current argument, which is OK for now as they are finding plenty of things to argue about already. But if they ever run dry, I’ve got a reservoir they can tap.

What a great job to have, where a major part of the job description is to sit around arguing about esoteric shit. To Koko, there is no shit that can’t be thrown.


As metaphoric as a lunchbox

Yesterday morning I came slowly out of the Land of Nod with a phrase resonating in my head: gaseous as Persephone. I toyed with it a bit, kind of liking the cadence and the classicalness of it. “She sat across the table, lost in the shadows, gaseous as Persephone…” Persephone’s got that whole underworld thing going for her, to boot. (She’s the first snowbird, finding a warmer place to spend winters.)

There’s only one problem with the phrase: it makes no sense whatsoever. Sure, I like imagery and metaphor as much as the next guy (maybe more), but Persephone was never reputed, to the best of my knowledge, to be gaseous. (Gassy, perhaps, if pomegranate seeds cause flatulence, but that’s hardly the image I was shooting for.)

Stooping to using nonsense like that is what we in the business call “putting on airs”, and writers do it all the time. Some are better at it than others; some can even make drivel like that into poetry. Those few only encourage a host of others to try their hands at it, and most of them suck. I’m sure I could go back and find plenty of times I’ve committed this very sin, but this time I managed not to. For that we can all be thankful.

While we’re on the subject, I’ve added a new link over in the “Blogs for Writers” section, to a place called Language Log. Warning: it cost me several hours of my life the other day. It’s a blog by a group of respected linguists across the US, created for non-linguists. Most entries are very interesting and well-written, and some are downright fascinating. The essays about Dan Brown are entertaining, as they look at his use of the English language. Although “gaseous as Persephone” isn’t linguistically horrible (or maybe it is — my ignorance of the field is staggering), I’m sure they would have something to say about it.


“For your deliction” might more awkwardly and less precisely be phrased “to be enjoyed by you as a delicacy”, or “for you to find to be delicious”. “For your indulgence” is a common enough phrase, but there are different nuances that leave the substitute inadequate. I’m not indulging you. Deliction is about the simple pleasure of a moment, and has none of the decadence implied by indulgence. I’m not asking for your indulgence, either. If you don’t find this delicious, blow me. “For your delight” is closer, but less tasty.

The closest standing word in Mr. Oxford’s American Dictionary is “delict”, a legal term, a noun, something about breaking laws. Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas (“The Empire”), its author, flunkies, hangers-on, sycophants, functionaries, yes-men, no-men, toadies, and armies of brain-hungry zombies do not condone or encourage any legal misdeeds by using the word “deliction” in the “What’s New” section above.



It was a typo. I wrote whorker rather than worker. I looked at the word. I liked the word. I’ve been savoring it for a couple of days now, searching for the best way to explain it.

Tonight, Soup Boy gave me the answer. I haven’t seen much of him lately, and moments ago I got a message from him about how working thirteen-hour days was beating him down. I nodded, understanding. That’s a hell of a long work day.

Only, I’m on hour thirteen as I write this. I’m tired, but although today was uphill, good things came of it in the end. I made some real progress, mostly identifying problems I will need to fix later, but you have to do that sometimes.

I am a slacker, apparently, simply because I love what I do. (True, I make almost no money at it, but when was that ever a measure of success?) I spend my days working, to the exclusion of my frustrated friends and bemused family members, but because I genuinely enjoy what I do to a degree that may not be healthy, to many of them I am not working. Today, part of my job was to read a fascinating piece by Milan Kundera about Franz Kafka. It was not an easy read; there was much to think about with each paragraph. It was fun, but it was work. I work every day. Enter whork.

If you’re watching the clock, pining for the whistle that marks the end of your shift, you’re not working. You are whorking. I had a blast building a software company, but eventually my work became whork. It took me a long, long, time to realize that, and in the meantime I whorked myself into a position where I can work for a while now, without worrying too much where the next slice of pizza is coming from. No, I am not in any way above whorking; I have done it and will almost certainly do it again. I simply wish working was given as much respect. Suffering on the job has been elevated to the point where your job can’t be worthwhile if you don’t feel trapped and suffocated. Suffering on the job has become a virtue. Somewhere along the way whork has become more meaningful than work.

That’s messed up.

And I probably have it all wrong. Blame Kafka. [Let us pause for the moment while the author clinches down really hard to repress the urge to compare Kafkan bureaucracy to modern America, where the state is granted the right to define existence, and privacy is unpatriotic. Must… avoid… insane… rant!]

There are plenty of days I don’t work thirteen hours. Every now and then there is a day I don’t work at all (not seriously, anyway—there’s no way to stop a writer from testing words and savoring phrases). The most magnificent part of my life is that I am not whorking. Not for the moment, anyway. When I find myself muttering, “ah, crap. Astounding wants another Tin Can story,” then perhaps I will discover my inner whore once more. (It’s there. Don’t let my pompous language fool you. My whole career is a campaign to sell out.)

Crazily, happily, there are accountants who love numbers, who work rather than whork. There are probably damn few teachers who are whorkers. I’d even go so far as to say that there are more workers out there than there are whorkers. And now, by gum, I’m one of them. It feels great.