Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Have you ridden an acoustic bike lately? Write it tight.

Episode Summary

940. Pork bacon, manual transmissions, and acoustic guitars: retronyms help us describe the original form of something that has now become a class. But sometimes, retronyms go even further. This week, we discover surprising ways "acoustic" is filling this role. Plus, learn what makes your writing "tight."

Episode Notes

940. Pork bacon, manual transmissions, and acoustic guitars: retronyms help us describe the original form of something that has now become a class. But sometimes, retronyms go even further. This week, we discover surprising ways "acoustic" is filling this role. Plus, learn what makes your writing "tight."

| Transcript:

| The "tight writing" segment was written by Susan Herman, a retired U.S. government multidisciplined language analyst, analytic editor, and instructor.

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Episode Transcription


by Mignon Fogarty

The other day, I saw an ad for pork bacon, and my first thought was, "Isn't that just … bacon???" But actually, it isn't, because now we have alternatives like "turkey" bacon. 

"Pork bacon" is an example of a retronym: a creation that describes something that used to be the only version of its kind. Think of a manual typewriter, an analog clock, or even a handwritten note. 

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. Stick around because after we talk about retronyms, we'll talk about tight writing.

"Retronym" is a relatively new word. No dictionary included it until the year 2000, according to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, which also pins 1980 as the year the term was coined by Frank Mankiewicz , "a broadcaster and journalist who was at one time Sen. Robert Kennedy's press secretary." It combines "retro" (Latin for "before") and "nym" (Greek for "name"). So a retronym is literally a before name.

We covered retronyms in general way back in episode 372, but today, we're going to look more closely at the specific retronym "acoustic guitar," which is used to distinguish plain old guitars from electric guitars, because the word "acoustic" seems like it might be breaking the bonds that tie it to the word "guitar" and is being used to mean all kinds of non-electric things. 

The expanding role of 'acoustic' as a retronym

I discovered this development when I posted about "pork bacon" on Mastodon, and my followers quickly replied with comments about the word "acoustic" taking on a new role as a retronym designator, expanding far beyond its musical roots. 

For example, Stephen Bell told me he's heard people referring to regular old bikes as "acoustic bikes," as compared to e-bikes.

A user going by Lizard joked that maybe we should call landlines "acoustic phones."

Spraakgerillan suggested that we could call snail mail "acoustic mail" and paper invitations "acoustic-vites" instead of "e-vites."

And this possible or at least joking expansion of the meaning of "acoustic" doesn't seem to be completely new either. Joseph Zitt told me he and his friends had a running gag in college in the late '70s about writing on "acoustic typewriters."

And as an aside, I just learned about typewriter orchestras, in which people get together and play typewriters as musical instruments, so in that case they are more literally acoustic typewriters. I'll put a link to a video in the show notes.

And finally, getting back to retronyms in general, they aren't specific to English — other languages have them too! Linguist Andrew Abdalian, who studies language change in the Tunica language spoken by the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, told me a story about the development of retronyms using the adjective “true.” He said, for example, "the word that once referred just to buffalo is now applied to all bovines. To specify "buffalo" specifically, you'd [now] talk about a "true bovine.”

I love how language adapts to our needs. We may end up with pedal bikes instead of acoustic bikes, and acoustic-vites may not replace e-vites. I didn't buy the pork bacon, but I'll still take this opportunity to sip on my regular coffee, pop some plain M&Ms, and brag about how I can drive a car with a manual transmission.


A listener named Bob wrote in about this sentence in the Darth Vader episode back for Father's Day:

Looking at the evolution of language more generally, linguists can’t say with certainty whether modern languages inherited the word [for father] from an undiscovered original early human language – likely African – or if this process occurred several times over the course of language history.

Bob said he was connected with East Africa for almost 30 years as a Baptist missionary and that it sounded odd when we identified “African” as a language. He wrote, "I’m curious about that. I’m neither a linguist nor a language historian, but I’m not aware of a language called 'African,' in either modern or ancient times."

Thanks for pointing that out, Bob, because I bet some other people had the same thought.

Here's the deal: You're right that there isn't a single language called African. We were using "African" more as a descriptor like "Germanic." For example, long before recorded history, there was a language that linguists call Proto-Germanic, and every language believed to have come from that early progenitor language is now called "Germanic." So we were using the shorthand "African" in the same way to mean that a hypothesized but undiscovered early language originating in Africa gave rise to the words for "father" that exist in modern languages. (I was going to say "that originated on the African continent," but then I was afraid someone would correct me about shifting continents, and this is not a geology podcast.) Thanks for the question and other interesting comments in your email too.


10 tips for tighter writing

by Susan Herman

Back in February, we published a podcast segment and article called How To Actually Improve Your Grammar, specifically your writing. Today we'll be talking about tight writing. 

Late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated, "Get it right, and write it tight." In simple terms, tight writing means being clear and concise, and using only the words necessary to say what you want to say. Tight writing is not just about using fewer words, but using the right words.

We're all busy, and often you just get a line or two to catch – or lose – your readers' attention. Many sites are even giving us estimates of how long it will take to read an article before we dive in. And we've all experienced the dreaded work email that takes forever to get to the point. So it's important to get to the point quickly.

But tight writing is not easy. It takes practice and focus. Many experienced writers will tell you it is often harder to write a short piece than a longer one, including author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who said in 1857: "Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it shorter."

Fear not, though! We have 10 tips to help make your writing tighter:

1. Avoid redundancy. This may not always be obvious. Think of the phrase "extremely enraged." "Enraged" means very angry, right? So you can eliminate "extremely." Or how about "over-exaggerate"? "Exaggerate" means to make something more than what it is, or to stretch the truth. So "over" isn't necessary (and "over-exaggerate" isn't even a real word, by the way). 

2. Watch your modifiers. In "dark and stormy night" fiction, lots of adjectives and even a few adverbs might make things more interesting, but especially in academic or business writing, consider whether those modifiers are necessary. For example, "It was a productive, better-than-average, and stellar quarter for our company." You could just pick one of those adjectives and get the same point across. Or how about: "He was quite pleasantly surprised by the company's improved performance." Is "quite pleasantly" really necessary? Mmm, probably not.

3. Articles and prepositions aren't always necessary. Articles ("a," "an," "the") and prepositions ("of," "from," "to," "with," and so on) can clutter your writing. Consider this sentence: "The total number of people who use Facebook each month increased exponentially in the three months leading up to April of 2023." That's a mouthful, right? You could eliminate many articles and prepositions and instead write: "Facebook users increased by about 26 million monthly from January to April 2023." These changes may seem small, but they add up. You just went from 22 words to 13!

4. Conserve words in other ways, too. Sometimes we are just used to saying or writing things in a certain way, even if we are using unnecessary words. A great example is the phrase "in order to," which can almost always be replaced with just "to": "I plan my shopping trips in order to save money" could instead be written as "I plan my shopping trips to save money." Similarly, "outside of" can almost always just be "outside": "I don't let my cats outside of the house," can be written as "I don't let my cats outside the house." Other common wordy expressions are "close proximity" (just use "close"), "at this point in time" ("now" is perfectly fine), "in regard to" ("regarding" means the same thing), and "in spite of the fact that" can almost always be "although" or "despite."

5. Eliminate the "fluff." In her writing blog, Anne R. Allen describes "junk words" you could eliminate from your writing. She even has a list of the "Dirty Dozen Junk Words" to look out for. One common practice to avoid that you might remember from a previous episode is beginning sentences with "There is" or "There are." Just state what "there is" or what "it" is instead of using vague pronouns. For example, instead of writing, "There are hundreds of parade spectators lining the street" you can write, "Hundreds of parade spectators line the street." 

Another example is the word "that." Allen suggests: "A good test is to read the sentence out loud. If the meaning is clear without "that," cut it; if [not], leave it in." Consider this: "I love Grammar Girl's class that talks about writing email." vs. "I love Grammar Girl's class on writing email," or even better, "I love Grammar Girl's email writing class." Allen also talks about "mushy modifiers," which I alluded to before. But here's a caveat: This doesn't mean you can never use any of these phrases; just consider whether they're really necessary and make your writing clearer and more accessible to your readers.

6. Use "strong" verbs. These verbs convey action. Although I won't tell you to never use the passive voice (sometimes it is more appropriate), you can look at your writing and try to reword passive constructions. Consider your use of the verb "to be": "is," "was," "were," "has been," "have been," "is being," "was being," and so on). Much of the time, those can be replaced with an active verb, as in "The class was being taught by Susan" (passive), vs. "Susan taught the class" (active).

7. Avoid "five-dollar" words. Mark Twain warned us: "Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” In other words, you don't have to use fancy words to try to sound more educated. Use simple, clear words to get your point across, especially if you are writing for a general audience. As Steve Leonard points out in his "ClearanceJobs" article, "while some might interpret the use of five-dollar words as a sign of intelligence, the opposite is just as likely, especially when such words are habitually misused or used out of proper context." Of course, if you need to use technical or academic terms for your subject matter or audience, that is a different story. Lots of authors have written on this topic, including Don Roff, who ironically claimed, "I don’t use big words to show off because it’s ostentatious.” And horror writer Stephen King declared, "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule." Okay, maybe that's a bit absolute, but you get the point.

8. BLUF. This term comes from the military and stands for "Bottom Line Up Front." It applies to all kinds of writing, though. Simply put, BLUF means to state your main point up front – in your first sentence or at least in your first paragraph. Try to cover the 5 Ws in your BLUF – who, what, when, where, and why (so what?). That last one is important because you need to "hook" your audience. What is the point of your writing? Why should your audience take the time to read it? Let your readers know what they should expect, and then deliver it with supporting details. Everything you write should support your BLUF.

9. Edit, proofread, and revise. Part of being a good writer is knowing how to self-edit. Don't expect a "one-and-done" draft. You should review it several times (at least three), considering how to make it tighter. In the editing phase, you are looking at structure (chronological; main points and supporting details; or pyramid, where the main point is at the top, and then the text drills down to the more specific details). You're also looking for accuracy, tone, and appropriateness for your audience. Then you should proofread for structural issues, including grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When you're done, make your final revisions.

10. Keep practicing. The more you write, the better you'll get. As we discussed in our "How To Improve Your Grammar" article, there are many online writing resources that can help. Finding a good "writing buddy" or mentor to give you feedback can also be valuable. Finally, keep track of the things that give you difficulty, research them, and then jot them down for next time.

Now go forth and conquer that "loose" writing! And remember Polonius' declaration in Shakespeare's "Hamlet": "Brevity is the soul of wit."

That segment was written by Susan Herman, a retired U.S. government multidisciplined language analyst, analytic editor, and instructor.


Finally, I have a familect story.

"Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Erica Graham, high school teacher and lover of grammar. I have a familect for you. When my two children, Nicky and Teegan, were younger, some nights we would fix dinner, and I would gather together leftovers. And one night I had leftover pasta, fettuccini I think it was, and Chinese food, and some other sort of chicken, or I can't remember exactly what it was — but we threw it all together, and the kids said, 'What are we eating?' and my younger daughter said, 'Well, it's chopafui!' and anytime after that whenever we would have leftovers that were mixed of different cultures, we would call it chopafui. So not a word I've ever seen, but in our family, we always know that after a good week of leftovers, chopafui is coming. Thanks again for all you do. I actually give my students extra credit when they listen to your podcast. So keep up the good work and the good love of language. Have a great one."

Thanks, Erica! I love that your family has a name for that. I know mine doesn't, but I bet others have their own interesting names too. And thanks for letting me know you use the podcast with your students. I love to hear that! And a big hello to Erica Graham's students too if you're listening to this one for that sweet, sweet extra credit.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. It’s in the show notes, and be sure to tell me the story behind your familect because that’s always the best part.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast, Thanks to our audio engineer, Nathan Semes, and our director of podcasts, Adam Cecil. Thanks also to our ad operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; our marketing associate, Davina Tomlin; and our digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings, who is learning to cook fish — salmon and cod are next on the list. 

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.