Do You Speak French?

Anu Garg from A Word A Day once noted: “If you speak English, you know a little of more than a hundred languages. That’s because English has borrowed words from so many languages around the world.”

Generally, these words are commonly known and easily understood. In most cases, the original language is unknown to the speaker, writer, or reader – and they are merely assumed to be English words.

Some words, though, are in a state of transition, with their roots clearly in another language and their current usage only somewhat comprehended by English speakers. However, given time, these words will increasingly be understood by the English-speaking masses.

A few years ago at a conference, I met a man whose language of birth was Spanish. His accented English was quite clear and understandable, yet he would occasionally interject a Spanish word into our conversations. Each time he did so, he apologized. Yet each time, I also understood what he was saying. These words were in a state of transition. One day they will become common for those of us who speak English.

Although this is fine for informal verbal communication, the question is, should we use such words in our writing? Although doing so presents readers with a chance to increase their vocabularies, it also runs the risk of irritating them.

As for me, an example is French. I do not speak French, and I am quite annoyed when I encounter a French word in my reading. These are not French words that have made their way into the English language, and I’m not even sure if they are in a state of transition. What I suspect – either right or wrong – is that the author is trying to show off. And that irritates me further.

What do you think: When should foreign words be used in English writing?

Five Words About Books from A Word A Day

Each weekday I’m treated to a new vocabulary word that arrives via email. It is called “A Word A Day” and is provided by author, speaker, and linguaphile (word lover) Anu Garg. Starting 1994, the subscriber list is now over a million strong. Although the words shared have little chance of being added to my vocabulary or appearing in my writing, it is good to see the diversity and color of the English language, learn a word’s history (etymology), and see an example in contemporary writing.

Last week, the theme was “words about books.” Check out these five beauties:

vade mecum (VAY/VAH-dee MEE/MAY-kuhm)
noun: A book for ready reference, such as a manual or guidebook.

enchiridion (en-ky-RID-ee-uhn, -kih-)
noun: A handbook or a manual.

roman-fleuve (roe-MAAN*-fluhv) [* the middle syllable is nasal]
noun: A long novel, often in several volumes, that tells the story of an individual, family, or society across several generations.

chapbook (CHAP-book)
noun: A small book or pamphlet containing stories, poems, or religious tracts.

omnibus (OM-ni-bus)
noun: 1. A volume reprinting several works by one author or works on one theme. 2. A public vehicle designed to carry a large number of people.
adjective: Including or dealing with many things at once.

I’m familiar with the last two and even used the last one in my writing. As far as the first three, it’s nice to know these words exist, but I don’t see myself ever using them.

If you are a writer or someone who loves words, I encourage you to sign up to receive A Word A Day.

Eleven Writing Exercises to Sharpen Your Writing

Like physical exercises, which are beneficial for your body, writing exercises are beneficial for developing your skill as a writer. While exercise is seldom pleasant, it is a wise and worthy pursuit. Here are some exercises to consider in developing your craft as a wordsmith:

  1. Revise something you wrote to hit a specific word count. This could be to expand it or condense it. Both are helpful skills to have. Editors appreciate it when you can hit a target length.
  2. Completely rewrite something without referring to the original. Then compare the two. Note what is the same, what is different, and what is better. Now merge the two into a third — and hopefully superior version.
  3. Taking a 1,200-word article or essay that you wrote, condense it into a 600-word version. Then revise it to a 300-word blog post. Finally, turn it into a 140-character tweet.
  4. Do the reverse, taking someone else’s tweet, expanding on the concept (don’t plagiarize) to make a blog post. Then expand it further to become an article, essay, or short story.
  5. Write a short story using only one-syllable words (or any other creative restriction you can concoct).
  6. Write a 26-sentence story where each sentence starts with a successive letter of the alphabet, A through Z.
  7. Subscribe to A Word A Day. Each weekday they will email you a unique or interesting word. Use that word in conversation or writing that day.
  8. Rewrite something you wrote, adding alliteration to the text.
  9. Write metered poetry, song lyrics, or haiku. All of these force writers to fit cogent ideas into a certain rhythm or number of syllables.
  10. Often writing magazines will suggest a writing exercise. These add variation to your writing workouts. Some also have contests. Even if you’re not ready to submit your work, it is great practice.
  11. Come up with an interesting or catchy title — now write to that title. The same can be done writing to reach a predetermined, pithy conclusion.

Personally, I have done most of these at one time or another. What I find most helpful are those that affect word count, helping me to be more concise or more inclusive in what I write. I’m also a big fan of alliteration, but need to guard against going overboard with it.