Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

When you shouldn't 'write tight.' 'Behead' versus 'decapitate.' YesHony.

Episode Summary

944. Today, we untangle the often confusing web of writing styles. We'll explore the benefits of loose writing in fiction, creative writing, and academic writing, and how you can vary your sentence length to create a rhythm that resonates with your readers. Plus, we use the difference between "behead" and "decapitate" as a sneaky way to talk about the "be-" and "de-" prefixes in a way every word nerd will love.

Episode Notes

944. Today, we untangle the often confusing web of writing styles. We'll explore the benefits of loose writing in fiction, creative writing, and academic writing, and how you can vary your sentence length to create a rhythm that resonates with your readers. Plus, we use the difference between "behead" and "decapitate" as a sneaky way to talk about the "be-" and "de-" prefixes in a way every word nerd will love.

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

When it's OK to write 'loosely'

by Susan K. Herman

We recently published a podcast and article on our website about tight writing, and an astute listener asked a follow-up question: 

"Hello, Mignon. I have a question regarding your [episode last week], actually, on writing in a more compact way, and I was wondering whether there are any cases, in particular, where you do want to lengthen your sentence, where you want to add some more words there in the middle to prove your point, or where you do want some repetition … for rhythm or for convention. Are there any cases like this, or should we always … I get it's a general rule that we do want to write more compactly, but … are there any cases where we actually want to make a sentence longer? Yeah, that's my question. Thank you for your podcast and the content. Love you."

This is a great question. As with grammar, writing doesn't always follow a single set of rules. There are definitely times when you may need to include more detail or use longer sentences. 

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. Stick around because after we talk about expansive writing, we're going to talk about the difference between the words "behead" and "decapitate" — as a sneaky way to explore the "be-" and "de-" prefixes.

One time you may want to use looser writing is in fiction — where context, scene-setting, and character development all help your readers enjoy and follow your story. This may mean more adjectives, adverbs, descriptive phrases, and so on. 

Similarly, in other kinds of creative writing, like poetry or personal essays, you often want to get your ideas out and make people think. So you might use some "flowery" language or even stream-of-consciousness writing.

Academic writing is another area where you may want to use more words. This can include literature reviews, persuasive essays, research papers, opinion or commentary pieces, and more. According to publisher Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, "… academic writing involves expressing your ideas, but those ideas need to be presented as a response to some other person or group; and they also need to be carefully elaborated, well supported, logically sequenced, rigorously reasoned, and tightly stitched together." Most importantly, academic writing involves thorough documentation of evidence. Sometimes you just need more words to do that well.

Similarly, technical writing can require more words to make sure everything is exceedingly clear. For example, if you're giving instructions to an audience already familiar with the topic and lingo, you may want to give them all the nitty-gritty details, explaining every aspect of the process, design, and so on. But if your readers are not familiar with the subject or don't need to know all the details, keep it concise.

And finally, if you're writing for yourself, like in a journal, of course the sky's the limit! The important thing here is getting your thoughts or feelings onto paper or the screen. Don't worry about keeping it tight!

Now, let's talk about writing "loosely" and what it looks like. Writer and writing instructor Gary Provost offered the following wisdom: "The best advice I can give you is to vary your sentence length … So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader's ear. Don't just write words. Write music." This advice itself is a great example of creating "music" – or "rhythm" – with your writing, as our caller described.

There are many different types of sentences you can combine to create this music. As you'll find in the book "Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students":

Simple sentences have only one main clause (with a subject and verb), like "The kitten is trouble." 

Compound sentences are made by joining main clauses with a conjunction or semicolon, as in "The kitten is trouble, and he has destroyed all my knick-knacks." Both parts of the sentence could be complete sentences on their own if you put a period between them.

Complex sentences have at least one main clause and one dependent clause (which could not stand on its own), like "The kitten destroyed all my knick-knacks while I was sleeping." 

Lastly, compound-complex sentences have at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause, as in "The kitten is trouble, and he destroyed all my knick-knacks while I was sleeping." 

Use these different types of sentences to switch up your writing!

And here's a note: With compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences, be sure to use proper punctuation so your writing is clear and easy to read. Always use a comma before a conjunction – like "and," "or," and "but" – joining two independent clauses. And don't forget about our friend the semicolon (which often gets no respect) to separate independent clauses that are closely related when you want more of a pause than a comma and conjunction offer, but not as much as a period, as in "The kitten is a lunatic; he destroyed all my knick-knacks while I was sleeping."

Now, if you want to add more detail or context to your writing, consider loose and periodic sentences. Loose sentences begin with an independent clause and end with subordinate clauses or modifiers. For example, "The kitten is trouble, and he tears through the house like a lunatic while I am sleeping, destroying all of my knick-knacks." The main clause – "The kitten is trouble" – is followed by various descriptive phrases. As Felicity Nussbaum pointed out in her 1995 book "The Autobiographical Subject," loose sentences can be used to give "the impression of spontaneity and  immediacy."

Periodic sentences, on the other hand, begin with descriptive elements and end with the main point – the independent clause. Compare this to the first example: "Tearing through the house like a lunatic while I was sleeping and destroying all my knick-knacks, the kitten is trouble." In this case, the sentence starts with the descriptors and ends with the main point. Which type of sentence you use will depend on the importance of detail to your writing and how quickly you want to get to the main point.

The Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) Writing Center echoes Provost's advice: "During revision, pay attention to sentence structure. Using too many loose sentences can be monotonous, while overusing periodic sentences lessens their rhetorical [think stylistic] power. Instead, use various sentence structures." Break up the monotony with simple sentences every now and then. And remember that your first draft is bound to have some extra wordy sections. Don't worry about perfecting your writing the first time around. That's why we have revisions.

Finally, whether you're writing in a "tight" or "loose" style, always consider your audience! What is your purpose? To entertain them? Instruct them? Persuade them? Educate them? Give quick bits of critical information? If your audience is very busy and receives several business reports per day, for example, you want to employ tight writing and get the point right away (remember the BLUF – bottom line up front!). If you are writing a funny email to a friend you haven't spoken to in a while, it's perfectly fine to be wordier.

Thanks for the question. It helped us highlight the different styles and purposes of writing. So keep it tight, but don't be afraid to loosen it up when appropriate, too!

That segment was written by Susan Herman, a retired multidisciplined language analyst, analytic editor, and instructor for the federal government.


Next, I thought the following segment by Edwin Battistella — using the difference between "behead" and "decapitate" as a way to talk about the "be-" and "de-" prefixes — was an especially nice follow-up to our recent piece about the "a-" prefix.

Off with their prefixes

by Edwin Battistella

I was teaching the history of the English Language and had just mentioned that, following the English Civil War, Charles I had been convicted of treason and beheaded.  

A question came from the back of the classroom:  “Why do we say ‘beheaded’ and ‘decapitated,’ not the other way around?” As in, why do “deheaded” and “becapitated” sound so wrong?

I said that I wasn’t sure, but suspected that it was because [the prefix] "be-" and "head" were Anglo-Saxon forms and [the prefix] "de-" and "capit" were Latin forms. Anglo-Saxon prefixes tended to go with Anglo-Saxon roots and Latin prefixes with Latin roots, I speculated, dangling a research project for someone.  

No one took me up on that, but try as I might, I couldn’t get the "be-" and "de-" question out of my head. "Be-" was especially puzzling because it has such a wide range of meanings and uses. In some words, "be-" indicates loss, as in "bereaved," "bereft," and "behead." But more often "be-" can hint at creation or causation, as in "beget," "betroth," "bedevil," "belittle," "begone," "become," "befuddle," "befriend," and "bewilder." Or it can refer to things that have been caused — or just happened — to excess (like "bejeweled," "bedazzled," and "bespattered"). And it can note position ("beneath," "beside," "beyond," "below," and the old-timey "betwixt"). Sometimes the contribution of "be-" is subtle. What is the difference between "moan" and "bemoan," "stir" and "bestir," "loved" and "beloved"?  

And as an aside, if you find this interesting, we did a whole episode recently about why some words that end in "-ed" can be pronounced two ways, like "beloVed" and "belovED." That's episode 869.

But back to the "be-" prefix …

Time has separated the meanings of some "be-" words from their roots ("stow" and "bestow," [and] "night" and "benighted" [for example]) and some have roots no longer used with that meaning (like "berate," from [the] Middle English [word] "rate," meaning “scold”).

If you look in a dictionary, you’ll find close to a hundred "be-" words, from "becalm" and "because" to "bewitch" and "beyond." Many combine "be-" with an Anglo-Saxon word, but not all do. There is "bespectacled," combining "be-" with a word from Latin. And new "be-" words are still coming, like "beGoogled."

"Decapitation" seems to be a more clinical expression than "behead," as befits its French and Latinate roots, and naturally it entered the language later: the Oxford English Dictionary gives a first citation from 1611. The meaning of the prefix "de-" seems to be regularly associated with the ideas of “off” and “away.” We find words like "de-escalate," "decaffeinate," "decertify," "deflate," "depress," "detoxify," "demoralize," "decompose," "deprioritize," "deglaze," and "deregulate," where the semantics are fairly obvious. "Deceive" (“to hide away the truth”) requires a bit of thought. Others are tricky: "derive" is not from "de-arrive" as one might casually hope, but from French "dériver," referring to a ship’s drift and also to the overflowing of a river.  

Like "be-," "de-" is still a productive element. The twentieth century brought us "de-Nazification" after World War II, "de-Stalinization" in the 1950s, "Deconstruction" in literary theory, "Deconstructivism" in architecture, and "desilofication" in data management. 

To me, the "de-" words convey a technocratic tone you don’t find in the "be-" coinages. That leads to a final question: are "behead" and "decapitate" synonyms? For "behead," Merriam-Webster gives “to cut off the head of, decapitate” and for "decapitate" we find “to cut off the head of, behead.” While the two are close, the synonymy is not complete. A beheading seems always intentional (combining the causative and away-from senses of "be"-) and it invokes images of medieval swords and axes. "Decapitation" can be accidental, the result of a botched hanging, an industrial or vehicular mishap, or even a shark or crocodile attack. And it is more likely to be applied to non-human victims or extended metaphorically: an organization made leaderless might be described as decapitated but probably not as beheaded.  

Beheading, with its Anglo-Saxon feel of swords and axes, fits English history, whose headless parade of notables includes not just Charles I but Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Oliver Cromwell—the last posthumously beheaded at the order of Charles II.

That segment was written by Edwin L. Battistella, who taught linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he served as a dean and as interim provost. His books include Bad Language: Are Some Words Better than Others?, Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, and Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump. It originally appeared on the OUP blog and is included here with permission.

Ye Shony

Finally, I have a familect story.

"Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Dave from Maple Grove, Minnesota, with a familect story for you. Years ago when I was vacationing with my family, we were stopped at a traffic light behind a car that had a vanity plate with the letters Y-E-S-H-O-N-E-Y, and my wife got kind of a puzzled look on her face, and she said what does 'ye shoney' mean? And my kids immediately started laughing out loud uproariously because at first glance, she hadn't internalized it as the two-word phrase 'yes honey.' and from that moment on 'ye shoney' was born into our family, and it's meaning has expanded since then, and it's moved from vanity plates to hashtags or really anything that's short and abbreviated or concatenated and of course misunderstood. Thanks, Grammar Girl.

Thanks, Dave! I laughed especially hard at this one because I am famously bad in my family at interpreting vanity plates like this. For example, there was a black Land Rover in our neighborhood for a while with the license plate B-A-K-N-B-L-K, and I looked at it and looked at it, and asked my husband, "bacon black?" And of course, it was "back in black, like the song," and we still joke about that today almost every time we're behind a car with a vanity plate that isn't immediately obvious. Bacon black! Thanks for the call.

If you want to share the story of your familect, your family dialect, 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, whose favorite season is fall, and she says she lives for pumpkin flavored anything.

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