Defining New Words: Watch The Traffic!

Writing Tips

Stay on the crosswalk!

I blog about technology and psychology, and occasionally about the writing life. Sometimes the worlds of Internet culture, behavior and language meet. When it does, it ain’t pretty. Recently, a “comment war” started on my blog at that intersection. It was an accident waiting to happen; Imagine Cottman and The Boulevard with no stoplights.

The Internet, the World Wide Web, mobile phones, etc. all require new terms. Naturally, technology and social networking terms come up in my writing often. Neologisms are the red-headed stepchild pioneers of language, pushing boundaries of usage, staking claims on new concepts, and gaining the fascination and at times the hatred of the more traditional writer and speaker. This is my area of expertise. I early-adopt technology neologisms before your text-happy teen has typed them. By the time you’ve seen them, I’ve found a way to abbreviate or render the terms obsolete. After all, this is my job. I’m a techie geek: I’ve held jobs as a systems administrator, a web master, and a beta tester for new applications. I’ve been online since 1988. I now write for online and offline publications about how technology influences our lives.

As writers, we all keep our eyes on the language. We detect its changes, we embrace its nuances. I see tech terms come and go. Some terms stay exclusively in the developer community (“hacker” was an esteemed label for them). Some terms exist for specific applications, (e.g. “friend” as a verb in Facebook, “Tweet” as a noun and a verb for Twitter). Some terms so truly capture a cultural concept that both the concept and the term leak into the mainstream (read: “offline” if you’re over 35). “Meme” is one of those words. I’m here to warn you: Define it at your own risk.

The comment war on my blog began when a post of mine went a bit viral. As of this writing, the post has over 20,000 views. In the article, I outline how a popular Facebook phenomenon called “100 Books” is based on urban legend and not truth. The meme states that the BBC claimed people have read, on average, only 6 books of the best 100 books in all of Literaturedom. It turns out that the BBC never made any such claim, and the list’s origin is quite suspect at best.

I used the phrase “a chain-letter like game” to quickly define the word meme (pronounced meem, rhymes with dream) for my readers. Commentors began to take issue with my definition. Arguments ensued, mostly because I believe in a descriptivist approach to language, and some picky end-users of English are sticklers for the “law”. As a descriptivist, I don’t agree with the idea that there exists a “Proper English” to which we are all inescapably bound. Basic grammar exists so we can communicate with the least amount of ambiguity, but even basic grammar changes over time. The end-users I prickled are people under the (false) impression that words have perhaps one or two definitions, and that using the words in any way divergent from those definitions is unacceptable. Even the people at Google hate it when people use “google” as a verb to mean “search the Internet.” (I would think they’d be pleased as punch, like “Kleenex” “Aspirin” and “Band-Aid” are to cover their categories, but to each quirky company its own). I don’t feel like there is much room for the prescriptivist approach in tech or internet culture neologisms. We just have to use the terms, throw them out into the bits and bytes traffic of the Internet, and see what survives. The Internet culture moves too fast to do otherwise.

I won’t outline the details of the comment war; you can go witness that car wreck for yourself (links at end of post). I would just rather bring your attention around to your own struggles with words, or rather, your struggles as writers to get people to see your vision when they read your work. I know I’m tempting fate when I try to diagonally cross the intersection of Internet culture, end-users, language and theory, but when it comes to the information superhighway, I don’t wait for the light. If I see an opening, I take it. I run like the Dickens. Sometimes I reach the other side. Sometimes I’m smushed like an old lady dressed in black at 2 a.m.on a Friday night. When the Word Police leave me for dead, maybe you, my fellow writers, can come and scrape me up, dust me off, and send me on my way to dodge the traffic once more.

Let me know of your own run-ins and fender benders in the world of writing in the comments. I’ll friend you on Facebook if you do, I promise.

-Christine Cavalier

100 Books Meme on Facebook

Meme Definition from Merriam-Webster

Data is as Data were. Emerging Language in Everyday Speech.

Writing Tips

Data, Media, Rice, Water. Emerging language and winds of change.

Language changes. It grows. It adapts. Nouns are turned into verbs (e.g. “friend”), words take on many meanings (e.g. “peer”) and subject/verb agreement transforms. Scholars know that the phrase “correct English” is a misnomer at best, a downright falsehood at worst. Languages are living things that grow and change.

We are on the cusp of one of those changes now. It truly could go either way. As a language geek, it’s an exciting event to watch. How will the now-ubiquitous words “data” and “media” be treated? Will the educational system catch up and drill the original usage of “data” and “media” as being plural nouns that require a plural 3rd person verb agreement? Or will colloquial usage overwhelm the textbooks and the subject will be simple, single and quick?

Let’s go over some details.

Datum is a single piece of data. Data are more than one datum.
Medium is a single type of media. Media are all the mediums lumped together.

The subject/verb agreement with these words traditionally went like this:

The datum is written on a piece of paper.
The data are enclosed in the report.

The medium was radio.
The media were newspapers.

(Or, in the case of journalists as a group of people: “The media report a storm coming up the coast.”)

Usage of “data” has morphed into the singular subject/verb agreement for many colloquial speakers (that means “regular people speakers and not specialized people like academics, scientists, etc.) “Data” and “Media” are being treated as mass nouns, like rice (e.g. “The rice is in the cooker”) or water (e.g. “This water is cold!”). Now we are seeing usage like “The data doesn’t support your claim.” and “The media isn’t welcome in the courtroom.”

We are seeing the singular subject/verb agreement usage more with the word “data” and with the word “media.” I don’t think most people would have “medium” on the tip of their tongue if they were asked to name the singular of media, but journalists have been drilling us with their self-referential phrase forever. So we know what “media” is supposed to sound like in a sentence, for the most part (If “data” usage changes, then I think “media” won’t be far behind. But we’ll leave “media” be for now).

“Data” is another problem entirely. I’ve been intimately aware of the usage rules around the word “data” for my entire adult life. When I was 18, I started at the University of Pittsburgh in a Psychology major, and I was quickly treated to a grammar lesson I didn’t soon forget. After years of psychology and biophysics research, then on to business research, I knew the expected plural subject/plural verb conjugation for the word “data.”

But here we are at the crossroads, where seemingly everyone else besides the hardcore researchers use “data” as a mass noun. Sure, the Twitterati will do their best to knock you back into their supposed knowledge and comfort zone as soon as they see a wayward “data is” or “data was.” But they aren’t looking at the big picture. Let’s think for a moment about data. This is a perfect example of why language changes. A cultural change happens, then language reflects that change. (I am now going to start using “data” as a mass noun. That means I will be using it in the singular, so those of you who are grammar-feint-of-heart, I suggest you stop reading now. But I do wish you would just hold your breath for a second and hear me out.)

Data is everywhere. It is coming at us from all sides. We have many convenient ways to get data. We have to make an effort to avoid data. We are data junkies. All of us. But in the end, we see data as a separate entity from ourselves. It is something we consume, like water. We choose to step up to it like we walk to the ocean’s very edge. We make the choice to dip our toes into it, or run away. We have our favorite ways of getting data, just like we have our favorite shoreline beaches. But we see it as a huge mass, almost one big entity of which we take small parts. We make distinctions on its bits. The grains of rice are in the container, but my rice is already cooked. No drops of water are on the window but water is leaking in everywhere. Bits of data are scattered around the internet but my data is on my blog. Wikipedia defines as mass noun as such:

“In linguistics, a mass noun (also uncountable noun or non-count noun) is a common noun that presents entities as an unbounded mass.”

An unbounded mass. Think about that. Think about all the info on the internet. Doesn’t it feel like “an unbounded mass” to you?

(ok grammarians, you can let out that breath. wasn’t too bad, was it?)

See what I mean? Which way will this go? Will data be accepted as a mass noun in the general culture? Or will everyday speakers be exposed to the word in its plural form so much that the phrase “the data are everywhere” sounds right to them?

Let me know what you think in the comments. Your data is/are important to me.

Christine Cavalier, PurpleCar

Writing Software. Review of Write It Now 4.


Back in November of 2009, I attempted to write 50,000 words along with other crazy people around the world. National Novel Writing Month is every November and it’s a mad rush to the finish.
The people at Ravenshead Software sent me a full version of Write It Now 4 (WrIN4) to use during that crazy month. I didn’t get to 50,000 words this year, but I gave the software a thorough 10,000-word thrashing. The software held up well.

There are more than a few software packages out there for writers. One could spend hundreds of underpaid and overworked writer dollars on these applications. Before I delve into my review of WrIN4, just know that none of these programs will write your novel or short story for you. They can help with organization, though.
The WrIN4 application, available for Mac and Windows, is deceivingly simple. The menus and tabs are easy to understand and use, but behind these screens are added drag-and-drop features that make editing almost fun. The Tools menu has helpful things in it like “Create Random Character,” which will create a character for you based on typical story archetypes. For example, the software created the character “Alexandre” for me, and gave me this description:

“Created with the Archetypes personality data using the Character type ‘Trickster’.Alexandre needs to make people happy. He loves surprises. Recently Alexandre worked as an entertainer. Bart in ‘The Simpsons’ is a typical example of this. Alexandre is fairly tall. He has a cheap coat. He has smooth skin and is extremely presentable. His hair is expensively cut. Alexandre looks strong and is extremely wiry. ”

That’s probably enough to put you over the top of your writer’s block wall right there.

I could play with the Tools section all day. I particularly like the built-in Thesaurus and reading level assessment (under “Story Readability”).
I kept in close contact with Ravenshead services throughout the month of November. Here were some of the finer points that I’d like to see addressed in the software:
*Can’t add images into the text. We are now in a multi-media age. Writing software needs to catch up. There are times we writers will want to place an image, for example, a picture of a molecule, within the text. You can’t do this with WrIN4, and I don’t know if competing software can do this either.
*The + and – buttons at the bottom of the left-hand column are teeny tiny and their function was a bit confusing. What was I adding? What was I subtracting?
*The program makes you save again to exit. This is ok for most folks, but I find it annoying to have to click through another menu when I’ve already saved the document 2 seconds earlier.

Ravenshead said that they’d look into these complaints and see if they could tweak things before their update release.

One last note: The pricing isn’t great. It’s more expensive than Scrivener, another popular writing program (for Mac only, though). I think they can lower the price a bit to be a bit more competitive.

Download the demo and tell me what you think.

Christine Cavalier

Wacko Wednesdays: Positive Psychology

Writing Tips

Psi2As a continuation of my previous post on Happiness, I’ll talk a little bit about Positive Psychology (PP) and the lessons we can learn, as writers, from this emerging field (perhaps in a way you might not predict, though.)

In 1998, the American Psychological Association’s then-president, Martin Seligman, used the term “Positive Psychology” to describe a new trend in Psychology research: the study of how humans become and stay happy. Dr. Seligman was tired of mental illness being the sole purpose of Psychology research and practice; He wanted Psychology to study more of what makes and keeps people happy instead of only mending the sick. PP has been the trending topic in Psych since then. Graduate students are clamoring to study topics like resiliency, decision-making, sense of control, character strength and uplifting traits. Journals publish more and more studies about the effects of “learned optimism.” Books like Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert are topping New York Times’ bestseller lists.

Like with all emerging fields, PP has its critics. The biggest and strongest critique of PP is that the field isn’t regulated. Any person can stick the term “Positive Psychologist” on the end of their name and claim to know how to apply the concepts that certified scientists and counselors developed. This means that every “life coach” kook is all over the Web promoting themselves as a “PP Counselor,” and no law or national certification program is barring them from doing so.

Another critique that is of lesser strength but more relevant to us as writers is the type of personality PP seems to attract. Those kooks on the internet and late-night infomercials are the most slimy of the bunch, but from an outsider’s view it does seem that the PP people have drunk the kool-aid. PP people are very gung-ho and tend to be exuberant evangelists for the field. The majority of them are do-gooders at heart; they want people to be happy and they think they’ve found science that can help.

Do you know a person like that? A person who stresses the positive so adamantly that it becomes unbelievable or in the very least, annoying? Your answer to this question will probably have more to do with your own place on the cynical scale than with the PP-type you’re remembering, but nonetheless let’s take a look at that character more closely. This person isn’t a snake-oil salesman; they are what I call a Believer. For reasons they usually aren’t too familiar with themselves, Believers truly feel that their solution is the answer to many people’s problems. How does a first encounter with a person like this go? What are you thinking? What would by-standers think as they listened to your conversation?

One thing about people who are enthusiastic about life is that they are usually magnetic. They light up a room, they are always surrounded by a crowd. People naturally gravitate toward other people who are happy and seem in control. But what happens when you get close enough to see that they are just trying a tiny bit too hard to be legitimate? What if the consistency or substance isn’t there? How does that character keep up the charade? How do you see it? How, if there is truly no substance, do you as a reader discover it? Will it be in the Believer’s frayed pant leg or missing button? Will it be in the quick glance down she makes after every human encounter? Just like the emerging field of PP, every character must have cracks in the armor. Even the Truest-Happiest-Believer-of-All-Things-Positive has a ding in the shield. What is it? Does the critique of that person’s belief-system hold water? Could the character make a journey over time to mend the damage?

You need both positive and negative forces in opposing characters for your novel or work of fiction to be memorable. Chart which side, positive or negative, your character will fall on. No middle ground. You can make a sliding scale (using a common measurement tactic from Psychology), but you still must divide the scale into two halves. The scale can have two of any extremes (e.g. Grape Jelly Fan vs Strawberry Jelly Fan), but you need to put each of your characters on that spectrum.

If PP had its way with your characters, they would test them on a variety of scales to diagnose current states and predict future behaviors. PP would look at self-efficacy (which is like “agency” – the ability and belief that one can accomplish tasks and goals on their own), resiliency (the ability to bounce back from trauma) and perhaps even sense of humor and daily laughter rates. The science behind PP is the same as a lot of Personality, Developmental, and Behavioral Psychology, they are just choosing to measure different traits. As writers, we tend to go into the dark sides of characters; It’s almost easier to write drama than it is to write pleasantries. But having no happy characters, or people who are optimists that promote achievement and satisfaction in others, isn’t giving your novel the opportunity for some significant conflicts.

Wacko Wednesdays: Fathers

Writing Tips
***Wacko Wednesdays: Each Wednesday, I’ll outline a human quirk or phenomenon in the study of Personality Psychology, or perhaps talk about a specific type of research into personality. I’ll provide information, links, and my own experiences to help you along in your goals of writing memorable characters.***


Writers don’t write about mothers much. I was at a writing conference where the speaker asked the audience to call out something they’d read that examined the mother-child relationship. No-one spoke up. The speaker had made her point. The mother/child relationship is very complex and close to the heart. Even Disney likes to kill off moms so they don’t have to deal with trying to navigate those murky-mommy-issues waters. Fathers, on the other hand, abound in fiction. Father’s Day is this Sunday. Because we know all psychosis comes from our parents (not!), for today’s Wacko Wednesdays, let’s talk about at writing about the father/child relationship, or writing a character as a father.

For decades, psych research focused on the mother’s parenting as pathology for mental illness in children. More and more, researchers are looking at the father’s influence (especially with the area of girls and eating disorders). The father’s attitudes and behaviors toward parenting would influence your main character (MC). The father’s raising of your MC will probably all be backstory that happens offstage (i.e. not in the novel), but it is perhaps the most important character detail that fuels your MC’s current motivations. Let’s take a look at how some psych research examines how a father’s behaviors influence his children.

In the book, “The Role of the Father in Child Development” (.pdf of intro here), Editor Michael E. Lamb outlines the 3 areas that many researchers concentrate on when researching the father/child relationship: Engagement, Accessibility, and Responsibility.

“Whether and how much time fathers spend with their children are questions at the heart of much research conducted over the past three decades. In the mid-1970s a number of investigators sought to describe—often by detailed observation and sometimes also through detailed maternal and paternal reports—the extent of paternal interactions with children (Pleck & Masciadrelli, this volume; Lamb & Lewis, this volume). Many of these researchers have framed their research around the three types of paternal involvement (engagement, accessibility, responsibility) described by Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, and Levine (1987). As Pleck and Masciadrelli note, researchers have consistently shown that fathers spend much less time with their children than do mothers. In two-parent families in which mothers are unemployed, fathers spend about one-fourth as much time as mothers in direct interaction or engagement with their children, and about a third as much time being accessible to their children. Many fathers assume essentially no responsibility (as defined by participation in key decisions, availability at short notice, involvement in the care of sick children, management and selection of alternative child care, etc.) for their children’s care or rearing, however, and the small subgroup of fathers who assume high degrees of responsibility has not been studied extensively. Average levels of paternal responsibility have increased over time, albeit slowly, and there appear to be small but continuing increases over time in average levels of all types of paternal involvement.”

Engagement, Accessibility and Responsibility are the three things you can think about when forming your character.

Engagement: How “hands-on” was your MC’s father when she was small? Was he a good guy but had a job that took him away often? Did he just seem like he was yelling everytime he spoke to his kids, but he was just trying to encourage them?

Accessibility: Could your MC bring any question under the sun to her dad or was she relegated to communicating with him through his secretary? Did he send the MC off to boarding school and say “See ya at Christmas?” Was there always a DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door, but he was very attentive at dinner time?

Responsibility: Did your MC’s father support his family well? Was he a good earner but a fierce disciplinarian? Was he a drinker but loved his family with all his heart? Was he a drifter that constantly told his kids to reach for the stars?

Look for ways you can build in contradictions in each of these areas, then think about how a kid would reconcile those inconsistencies. How we judge people is a lot of our character. A father’s personality greatly influences our sense of judgment. In flat characterizations, fathers are either no-good bums or unsung heroes, drinking louses or quiet loyalists. Usually a main character (MC) comes to acknowledge the father’s cheating ways or learns to appreciate the constant wisdom that they couldn’t recognize before. It’s all so cheesy and cheap. Try to go for some more depth. What kind of roles does the father character in your book play? What kind of parent is he? Is he a stand-offish, everyone-has-to-learn-for-themselves kind of guy or is he a soccer dad that is with his kids every step of the way? How can he be both? What generation is he in? Is he a 70-year-old but a modern diaper-changing/sling-wearing dad? Was he raised to think he’d let the kids grow up before he had any kind of relationship with them, even though he’s just 20 years old?

Take those three aspects of measuring fatherhood, Engagement, Accessibility and Responsibility, and mix and match good and bad characteristics of each. Make the father character a conflicted, true-hearted, complicated being that marked your MC with distinctive world views. Happy Father’s Day, to all of those dads out there!