Words on Writing: A


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active voice

The voice in which the subject performs the verb’s action instead of receiving it. In Edgar shoveled that crooked sidewalk four times before noon, the verb shoveled is in the active voice because the subject (Edgar) performs the action. If shoveling isn’t active, I don’t know what is.

Compare passive voice.

For more, see the chapter “To Be or Not To Be” in Word Up!

adjectival

Any word or phrase that acts as an adjective. In Call me a shoveling fool from Liverpool, the word shoveling is an adjectival because, although it’s a verb in form (it ends in –ing), it acts as an adjective, modifying the noun fool.

For more—including a diagram of the above example sentence—see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

adjectival compound

See compound modifier.

adjective

To call any word an adjective is ambiguous. Is it an adjective in form? In function? Both?

Adjective in form: A form-class word (crooked) that can change form, in natural usage, in ways characteristic of adjectives. In other words, an adjective in form is a word with adjective features of form. In isolation, it can pass linguistic tests for adjectiveness. Crooked, the standalone word, qualifies as an adjective in form (example test: crooked+est = superlative). Of course, crooked also qualifies as a verb in form (crook+ed = past tense); like many English words, it belongs to multiple form classes.

Adjective in function (an adjectival): Any word or phrase that acts as an adjective (a modifier of a noun) in a phrase or clause. An adjective in function typically describes something. In Siegrid cleared the crooked sidewalk, the word crooked is an adjective not only in form but also in function because it modifies sidewalk.

For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

advance organizer

A preview or overview. Advance organizers typically describe the structure of the information to come, sometimes listing the section headings as a sectional table of contents. This device presumably gets its name from its purpose: organizing the reader’s brain in advance of reading.

For an example, see the chapter “How To Do How-To: Watch Your Steps” in Word Up!

adverb

To call any word an adverb is ambiguous. Is it an adverb in form? In function? Both?

Adverb in form: A form-class word (frantically) that has adverb features of form. In isolation, an adverb in form can pass linguistic tests for adverbness. Frantically, for example, has the telltale –ly ending, so you might call it an adverb in form. You can’t be sure with adverbs, though. They are “the most difficult of the four form classes to identify” by form alone because adverbs and adjectives have overlapping form characteristics.[1] (The adjective friendly ends in –ly too.)

Adverb in function (an adverbial): Any word or phrase that acts as an adverb (a modifier of a verb, an adjective, or another adverb) in a phrase or clause. An adverb in function typically describes when, where, or how something happens. In Tim shoveled frantically, the word frantically is an adverb not only in form but also in function because it describes the manner in which Tim did his shoveling.

For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

adverbial

Any word or phrase that acts as an adverb. In Zelda hurled her shovel into the ravine, the prepositional phrase into the ravine is an adverbial because it tells us the direction in which Zelda did her hurling.

For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

alliteration

The repetition of sounds within words or among neighboring words. Alliteration comes in two types: assonance and consonance. In Utterly, unutterably sumptuous to utter, the alliteration consists of six uhs and five t sounds. (Only the sounds count; the ear doesn’t care about spelling.) The New York Times crossword puzzle often mixes both types of alliteration in a clue, as in Stash for cash (answer: “IRA”).

Used judiciously, alliteration adds pizzazz. Too much alliteration distracts the reader and sounds corny.

For more, see the chapter “Your Words Come Alive with a Hint of Music” in Word Up!

amplification

The repetition of a word or phrase followed by additional detail. Example: The sidewalk, groaning with snow, aroused Gena’s sense of responsibility—her sense of obligation, decency, and saintliness. The repetition of the phrase sense of affords the addition of three nouns—obligationdecency, and saintliness—that amplify the meaning of responsibility.

Here’s another amplification example (from the chapter “Explore and Heighten: Magic Words from a Playwright” in Word Up!): Those are the times to add detail, the times to expand. The repetition of the times affords the addition of a second phrase (to expand) that amplifies the first (to add detail).

anadiplosis

The repetition of words from the end of one sentence or clause at the beginning of the next: Clint decided that the time had come. The time had come to haul out the snow blower. This device can help create emphasis or transition.

Here’s another anadiplosis example (from the chapter “Decisions, Decisions” in Word Up!): This usage resonates with me—its upside-downness. Upside-down is how I feel in this place.

analogy

A comparison that highlights similarity not just between two things but also between two relationships: That kid is as handy as a pocket on a shirt. (Relationship 1: Pocket on a shirt and handiness. Relationship 2: Kid and—by extension—handiness.) Analogy goes beyond straight metaphor, which would have the kid being a pocket on a shirt.

At its most useful, the by-extension part of an analogy illuminates the unfamiliar. At its least useful, it creates a logical fallacy, implying that the by-extension similarity equals truth: Just as efforts to influence the weather are futile, so, too, are efforts to influence language usage. Analogous reasoning can have a persuasive effect on people who fail to detect the points at which the analogy breaks down. For a discussion of this weather-language analogy, see the chapter “Up with (Thoughtful) Prescriptivism” in Word Up!

anaphora

The repetition of a key word or phrase at the beginning of two or more clauses or sentences in a row: The snow fell for an hour; the snow fell for a day; the snow fell for weeks—and it’s still falling.

For another example of anaphora, see the opening paragraph of the appendix, “Up with Human-crafted Indexes,” in Word Up! Five consecutive sentences start with Like other writers.

anecdote

A short, usually true story that introduces, clarifies, or reinforces what’s being said. Want to draw your reader in? Start with The other day. For an example, see the opening of the chapter “Who’s Your Sam?” in Word Up!

antecedent

noun or noun phrase to which a pronoun refers. In Where’s my parka? I know it’s around here somewhere, the noun parka is the antecedent for the pronoun it. Keeping pronouns close to their antecedents avoids ambiguity.

For more, see the chapter “Touching Words” in Word Up!

anthimeria (antimeria)

See enallage.

antithesis

The juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas highlighted by a grammatically parallel structure: To ignore the snow is human; to shovel, divine.

Here’s another antithesis example (from the chapter “Decisions, Decisions” in Word Up!): She persisted. I relented.

appositive

noun or noun phrase that renames the noun directly preceding it. In My neighbor Aleks, a rock collector, is digging out her driveway, the phrase a rock collector is an appositive. If an appositive is nonrestrictive (not required to identify the noun), it is set off with enclosing commas.

For more, see the chapter “Lend Your Commas a Hand—or Two” in Word Up! See also the blog post “Commas around Appositives—When and Why?

article

See determiner.

aspect

A verb attribute similar to tense in that it conveys information about time. In English, aspect and tense are tangled up together. Aspect has to do with an action’s ongoingness or lack thereof: Bob is/was shoveling or Bob has/had shoveled. You need words like progressive and perfect to talk about aspect. I leave it to you, if you’re so inclined, to venture into those deeps.

Compare mood, tense, voice. See also auxiliary.

assonance

A type of alliteration in which vowel sounds are repeated, as in Come up to Uncle Bud’s for supper. Here, the assonance consists of five uhs. (Only the sounds count; the ear doesn’t care about spelling.) The New York Times crossword puzzle often uses assonant clues, as in Prepare to share (“divide”).

For more, see the chapter “Your Words Come Alive with a Hint of Music” in Word Up!

auxiliary

A structure-class word that signals the coming of a main verb. In Let’s get working, the auxiliary get signals the coming of working. In Teresa will have gone ice skating by this time tomorrow,the auxiliaries will and have signal the coming of the main verb gone.

Although sometimes called auxiliary verbs or helping verbs, auxiliaries are not “true verbs.”[2] They are verb helpers. Unlike true (main) verbs, auxiliaries are not form-class words. We recognize auxiliaries not by form but by function. One or more auxiliaries work with the main verb to determine moodtensevoice, and aspect.

The role of auxiliary can be played by a be-verb, have-verb, do-verb, or get-verb or by one of the modal auxiliaries: can, could, will, would, shall, should, ought, may, might, must.

Unlike the modal auxiliaries, be-verbs, have-verbs, do-verbs, and get-verbs can also function as main verbs: I’ll be fine. You’ll get better. In the leading role, be, have, do, and get transform from verb-helping auxiliaries (structure-class words) into true verbs (form-class words).

Unique among the auxiliaries, the modal auxiliaries, in normal usage, play a supporting role every time. You never hear of people mighting their hearts out, for example, although they might sing their hearts out. Linguists argue convincingly that modal auxiliaries never act as form-class words—as main verbs—even when they seem to. Modal auxiliaries have no features of form; they never change form. Might is might is might. For these reasons, modal auxiliaries qualify as “prototypical structure words”;[3] in normal usage, they never wander from the structure class into the form class.

Unless they take a notion to act as nouns. They have the might to do so.

Compare linking verb.

For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

A-Z page

This is not a list of all words about writing—you’d be scrolling all day. These definitions evolved while I was writing Word Up! I enjoyed what I learned and wanted to share it.

Get the full glossary and more in the book: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)

[1] Thomas P. Klammer, Muriel R. Schulz, and Angela Della Volpe, Analyzing English Grammar, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2007), 81.

[2] Ibid., 106.

[3] Ibid., 107.

Last modified: November 9, 2014

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