Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Always pick on the correct idiom

This is the 16th of William Safire’s 18 rules for writers. I want to think of some funny, maybe even hilarious, ways to illustrate this one. The best person for this was Yogi Berra. Here are some of his gems.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.
The future ain’t what it used to be.
You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.
It gets late early out here.

Another couple of masters of this are Batiuk and Ayers, the creators of the comic strip Crankshaft.

Speaking of Italian cucumbers, Crankshaft says: I really like to ciao down on those.
About a bad football team: …they’re just a bunch of overpaid quarterbucks.
Something else is:…easy as rolling off a pie.

I guess a misstated idiom is actually a malapropism, right?

My character Mr. Toombs, a character in my own Eine Kleine Murder, spoke of the “phrases of the moon.” I got that from a guy I worked for when I was a teenager. Cracked me up.  

Do you have favorite idioms? Or messed up idioms?

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Adverb Always Follows the Verb

I’m working my way backwards through William Safire’s satiric rules for writers. I did the last one last week. This week, I'm doing the penultimate rule, which is:

The Adverb Always Follows the Verb

Okay, the main problem for me with this rule is the word “always.” I very much enjoy breaking rules that contain the words “always” and “never.” It’s great fun!

I think the actual rule is that the verb should follow the adverb. Maybe that’s the point Safire was making? One official exception is the word “always.”

She carefully walked into the house.
Does that sound better than the one below?
She walked carefully into the house.
The first one is supposed to be more correct.
Of course, fiction writers are encouraged to ditch adverbs whenever possible and use stronger verbs.
She crept into the house.
She tiptoed into the house.
She stole into the house.
Something like that.

“Only” is fun adverb. Here’s a great example of the importance of the placement of the adverb
Only she loves horses.
She only loves horses.
She loves only horses.
See? Three completely different meanings.

“Many” and “much” do get misused and there are actual rules that should be followed for them.
“Much” is a big amount of something. Singular. “Many” is a large count of something. Plural.
I gave her as many details about the project as I could.
I gave her as much detail on the project as I could.

Do you have any other thoughts on adverbs?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018


All writers are probably familiar with William Safire’s tongue in cheek rules for writers. The last one goes like this:

Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

However, I think they have their place. The most obvious is to put them into the dialog of a character you want to portray and, maybe, unoriginal, uneducated, even superstitious if he spouts old folklore things.

Where else can we use them? They’re shorthand for things that everyone instantly understands.
Here are some I think are useful:
As the crow flies
Bad blood
Chip off the old block
Eat crow
Flat as a pancake
(These examples are from

Sure, you could figure out new and fresh ways to say all of these, but you might not come up with anything better and you might confuse your reader if you don’t hit the nail on the head, so to speak.

Of course, you shouldn’t fill your pages with them and use them out of laziness. I think there’s a fine line. The occasional completely apt cliché can work for you. Too many of them will work against you.

Part of my motivation in defending the maligned cliché is that I hate to throw away finely honed bits of language, wisdom, and lore.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this!

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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Be Patient

I'm going to send my readers over to Janet Cantrell's post at Killer Characters today. Nigel is over there telling us to be patient. About what? He'll tell you!