Words on Writing: M

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Words about words (noun, preposition, form class, structure class, modifier, independent clause, etc.). Metalanguage is talk that talks about itself, a downright gymnastic proposition. I would compare it to a sketch sketching itself, but everyone knows that’s impossible.

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

metaphor (comparative trope)

A comparison of one thing to another. This sled has wings is a metaphorical statement that compares a sled to something that can literally fly. Throw in like or as, and you have a simile, a type of metaphor whose comparison is explicit: This sled sails through the air like a <crash> … never mind.

For more, see the chapter “Metaphors Are Jewels” in Word Up!


The rhythmic structure of a group of words, that is, the patterns formed by their accented syllables. The meter is determined by two elements: the type of metrical foot and the number of feet per metrical grouping. For example, iambs repeated in groups of five form the meter known as iambic pentameter: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

Even if you aren’t writing poetry, if you keep meter in mind as you choose words—particularly at the ends of sentences and sections—you GIVE your READers THAT much MORE to LIKE.

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

metrical foot (foot)

The basic unit of meter. The best-known metrical foot is the iamb (da-DUM). A metrical foot is the grouping of syllables according to two elements: the number of syllables in the unit and the arrangement of accented syllables. If you were to tap your foot to the beat as you read aloud, you’d tap once per accented syllable but not necessarily once per metrical foot. The longest foot, a dispondee, is DUM-DUM-DUM-DUM. Metrical feet come in over two dozen types whose names (ditrochee, molossus, etc.) MOST of US will NEVer NEED to KNOW.

misplaced modifier

A word or phrase that, by virtue of its position, modifies the wrong word. In Geraldine saw the snowplow peeking through the window, the phrase peeking through the window follows, and therefore modifies, snowplow. Presumably, Geraldine did the peeking, in which case the phrase peeking through the window is a misplaced modifier. It belongs next to the word it modifies: Peeking through the window, Geraldine saw the snowplow.

Compare dangling modifier and squinting modifier.

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

modal auxiliary

See auxiliary.


A word or phrase that modifies—adds meaning to—another word. In wooden handle, the word wooden modifies the word handle. For clarity, modifiers must stay as close as possible to the words they modify. Otherwise, the sentence could end up suffering (perhaps hilariously) from one of these modification errors: dangling modifier, misplaced modifier, or squinting modifier.

See also compound modifier.

 mood (modality)

A verb attribute that indicates such abstractions as conditionality, probability, obligation, ability. Moods in English include the following:

  • indicative (the most common mood: Taylor goes or Taylor is going)
  • imperative (Taylor, go!)
  • subjunctive (if only Taylor were going)
  • conditional (Taylor would go)

Compare aspect, tense, voice. See also auxiliary.


An element that recurs throughout a piece of writing. If you read these glossary entries straight through, you’ll discover two motifs: winter activities and the New York Times crossword puzzle.

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)

Last modified: December 14, 2012

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