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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Trick To English Is Asking When You Don't Know

Every once in a while I run a column or feature from my SharingwithWriters newsletter on this blog. I thought this one from my regular "Q&A a la Ann Landers" column important because there is a special place in my heart for immigrants who must adapt to our English language with its expansive vocabulary (with words borrowed from everywhere! (-: ) and its idioms (the American-as-apple-pie ones and the borrowed ones).  This question came from our chiropractor, American born, second-generation Chinese, who--like umpteenth-generation Americans--has figured out that there is no way anyone can know everything there is to know about English. Ha!  But it applies to editing, too, so here goes!

Q&A A LA ANN LANDERS

QUESTION:

As you know, I am writing a book to use as a credibility booster and educational tool for my patients. I have an question and thought I'd run it by you.  I looked up definitions of the words ad hoc and venality I found in this article and tried to use them myself.  I put them together and thought I knew what it meant in a phrase, but I guess I'm still confused. What does it mean when it is written as no ad hoc venality?  I don't know why I am so confused with this, and just have a strong urge to know. Thanks and talk soon!

In peace,
XX, D.C.

ANSWER:

Pei, I could put on my teaching hat and applaud you for enlarging your vocabulary, but I’m putting on my editor’s hat instead. Big new words (Latin ones even!) are great. They increase our understanding when we read and thus our understanding of the world. But when we’re writing clarity should always take precedence.

By the way, this is a common problem among Chinese and Korean students I tutor. They want to do the best they can, even to appear smart (maybe brilliant). It's better to just be clear. If you are confused, you can imagine how confused others would be to read no ad hoc venality even in context. Use a thesaurus online or in your library at home to find synonyms for these words.

Hope that helps.  What do you think the percentage of American population knows the word venality?   I'd say maybe 20%.  And  if those, how many do you think sense the religious overtones of the word?  I'd say maybe 2%.  (-: There are probably 50 words that mean venality or close to it—and will easily be understood my most of your readers. Choose the one most close to what you are trying to say.

As for ad hoc, it's Latin and often used by lawyers. You know how people hate legal tracts!  Here's what dictionary.com (my favorite for easy explanations) says:  

1. adverb

for the special purpose or end presently under consideration:

a committee formed ad hoc to deal with the issue.

 
2. adjective

 
concerned or dealing with a specific subject, purpose, or end:

The ad hoc committee disbanded after making its final report.

 
So why not just deal specifically with venality (or whatever word you choose in its stead) and, if you need something in place of ad hoc, go for a plain, old Germanic word—the language English is derived from. Or at least a commonly understood one like temporary.

 
PS:  You can subscribe to my free SharingwithWriters newsletter so you don't miss a single column or resource on editing and the craft of writing at http://howtodoitfrugally.com.  There is a subscription window in the upper right corner of almost every page.  You can also read back issues at http://howtodoitfrugally.com/newsletter_copies.htm.  

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults. and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to AYovoid Humiliation and Ensure Success (How To Do It Frugally series of book for writers). Learn more about her other authors' aids at www.howtodoitfrugally.com/writers_books.htm, where writers will find lists and other helps including Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. She tweets writers' resources at www.twitter.com/frugalbookpromo . Please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:

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