Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Word Best Forgotten

By Davilynn Furlow

Here’s another little writing tip that was inspired by a discussion from a LinkedIn group we belong to. The question posted was, “Are ‘compose’ and ‘comprise’ interchangeable?”

The person who started the discussion actually knew the answer and shared some academic thoughts on the subject, including some in defense of allowing a sentence like, “The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.”

Every right-thinking writer and editor, however, knows that to say “was comprised of” runs the risk of causing a fingernails-on-chalkboard reaction among educated readers. No matter how many times “comprised of” is used, it’s still wrong, and to let it go unchallenged is to contribute to dumbing down the English language.

The correct use of the word “comprise” is as follows: “The union comprises 50 states.” To say, “Fifty states comprise the union,” or “The union is comprised of fifty states” is flat wrong.

Bill’s response to the posted question was to advise writers to leave “comprise” alone and never use it. Used incorrectly it’s annoying, and used correctly it is awkward. When I come across the rare proper use of “comprise,” I automatically say to the writer, “good job,” which means the flow has been interrupted.

One person responding to the LinkedIn post pointed out that the Latin root word for “comprise” means “comprehend,” “contain” or “include.” You can’t turn those words around and get “fifty states comprise the union.”

Another suggested also forgetting about “compose” in favor of “consists.” “It is instantly recognizable…and is so commonplace the reader tends not to notice it – for either good or bad reasons,” she said.

So, are “compose” and “comprise” interchangeable? Of course not!

Thanks to Erin Brenner, Rosanne Dingli, Kathleen Much, Curt Mattson and Benjamin Lukoff, whose comments are represented here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Don't Go THERE

By Bill Furlow

Of the many variables that help determine which books get selected by agents, publishers or readers and which sell only a few copies online, one of the most important is whether a book reads like a professionally crafted work. An agent or publisher can flip the pages reading random paragraphs and quickly spot writing that doesn’t make the grade.

One sign that a work was written by a hopeful amateur rather than a skilled professional is the repeated use of the word “there” to begin sentences. Sentences that begin “There is/there are” usually indicate that the writer either is too lackadaisical to search for a more interesting way to make a statement or doesn’t recognize the weakness in his/her own writing.

We’re not talking about “There he goes,” where “there” refers to an actual place. Rather this is about what I call the “lazy there,” the practice of using the word to begin a very boring sentence. Think high school term paper.

I thought about this when reading an article on how to improve the chances of a blog getting found and read. The paragraph began, “There are many millions of blogs that currently exist on the Web.” What an awful sentence on a topic that’s really important to anyone with a blog. Better would be, “Many millions of blogs exist on the Web today.” Or, “The Web today hosts many millions of blogs.”

Usually “there” sentences can easily be rewritten to make them more compelling. Here are a few examples quickly pulled from books found on

“There was no music on as she preferred the quiet of her thoughts when maneuvering through traffic.”
She preferred the quiet of her thoughts when maneuvering through traffic, so played no music.

“There was a finch at the window and you had never seen one before.”
A finch sat on the windowsill, and you had never seen one before.

“There is a nude beach less than a hundred miles from where I live. I went there once in a while to get an all-over tan…”
Once in awhile I drove to a nude beach less than a hundred miles from home to get an all-over tan.

“There is a movie where the lead character says: ‘Every once in a while you've got to get a little bloody.’"
She remembered a movie character who says: “Every once in awhile, you’ve got to get a little bloody.”

Beginning sentences with “lazy theres” may not be a mortal sin, but it’s at least venal. If you want your book – or any other writing project – to be read by those who matter to you, read back over the work and find ways to eliminate them wherever possible.