Saturday, May 15, 2010

Idioms, Metaphors, and Analogies

I have recently been asked to think about the difference between idioms, metaphors, and analogies, and I thought it would be interesting to share it here.

Idiom is a combination of words that together have a different meaning from when used separately. For example, "give up" means to admit defeat. However, if we take the phrase word by word, “give” means to transfer possession and “up” means toward the top. Clearly, transferring possession toward the top is very different from admitting defeat. Idioms are made up of regular words. The power of an idiom is not in creating an association with another image (the words “give up” do not bring up an image of something else), but in providing special meaning to several words that when taken separately, mean something totally different.

Metaphor is a figurative expression used to describe something else. For example, “Ben can be a bull in a china shop” does not actually mean that Ben is able to turn into a large animal that likes shopping. This metaphor creates a figurative image of someone that is likely to cause damage because there is a mismatch between the person’s presence and the fragility of the situation.

Analogy is a comparison, an equation. Equations have two parts that are equated to each other. In analogies, words “as” and “like” often serve the function of an equal sign. “He is as clumsy as a bull in a china shop. She is fast like the wind.” Whereas in metaphors the meaning is implied, in analogies it is usually expressed. An analogy then is an equation one part of which is a metaphor.

Is it really important to understand all of these distinctions and to identify the name of a phrase before using it? I don't think so. We use idioms all the time. However, overusing analogies abd metaphors may make the language sound less natural, so be careful.

Natalie "Target Your Professional Growth" FREE writing tips, writing course, and writing workbook

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Delivering on the order

Whether you write for school or for work, you are likely to be given certain assignments. How well you respond to them can make a big difference in the type of praise you receive.

Let’s pretend that you are in a restaurant and a server approaches your table. You tell him or her that you would like a steak made rare and a side of mashed potatoes with cheese and mushrooms. After awhile the server brings you the plate and walks away. You quickly discover that the steak is overcooked and that mashed potatoes, while covered with cheese, have no sign of mushrooms. You wonder to yourself how difficult it is to get simple instructions straight and vow not to give the server any tip.

How is this example related to writing? Very closely. All assignments (just like restaurant orders) typically provide with them a set of instructions or a list of specific things that need to be included. Whenever those instructions are not fulfilled to the satisfaction of the requester, people get upset. Just like you wouldn’t be too happy if your plate was missing mushrooms and had an overcooked steak, your college instructor or work supervisor wouldn’t be too happy if parts of the assigned task are completely missing and others are not done to the exact specifications.

The moral of this story is that delivering exactly what is ordered (so to speak) is the first and very important step in satisfying your customer (i.e. instructor, supervisor, etc.). Satisfied customers in a restaurant tend to leave higher tips for their servers. Similarly, teachers and supervisors that receive exactly what they requested tend to grade the writers higher (literally and symbolically).

When you receive an assignment, review it carefully; if necessary, write down a list of things that you need to address and exactly how they should be addressed. As you start writing your response, check things off as you address them. Review the assignment again after you complete the report to make sure that you have done everything you were expected to do. Your reward is likely to increase to the extent that what you deliver matches the order.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Texting madness

Can writing be disruptive to a business? It can if it is done for inappropriate purposes or at inappropriate times. One such example is texting. Texting is a method of written communication through a cell phone. It has become increasingly popular; so much so that people often interrupt a conversation or a meeting to respond to an incoming text.

Communication has changed in the 21st century. Facebook, My Space, Twitter, and texting allow us to stay in constant contact. However, while we appear to get closer to each other, we are also becoming more detached, as most of our interaction happens through a machine screen instead of face to face. There was a time when people could not carry a phone out of a building. Today, many don’t leave the room without a phone in hand, bringing our need to stay in touch to the level of an obsession.

Some people act as though texting should logically be given precedence over anything else that happens at the moment. As a result, they interrupt all interactions and activities to attend to a text. In reality, maintaining a constant interaction with one’s social network is usually unnecessary and can be quite a nuisance. Excessive texting (just like excessive personal phone use) can be inappropriate and should be kept in check.

This is applicable not only to work situations but to any social situation. For example, have you ever been in the middle of a conversation with a friend only to be “put on hold” so that the friend could respond to a text? How did it make you feel to know that you come second to a text?

In addition to being disruptive, texting can also affect people’s writing skills. Many of today’s college students no longer capitalize their names (a skill taught in kindergarten) because they are used to the type of writing that does not follow normal writing conventions. Others start utilizing commonly accepted texting abbreviations, such as “u” for “you,” in other writing. This can have potentially damaging consequences because people are often judged by the quality of their writing.

While new technologies bring us new ways to stay in touch, we need to be careful and conscientious about how we use them. Writing to stay in touch is a great idea, but please do it at appropriate times and remember that the style of writing acceptable within the social networks is not acceptable within other forms of writing.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Words that end with ING

Can we begin sentences with words that end with ING? Sure. Here are some words that end with ing - reading, talking, dancing, trying.

Words that end with ING are interesting because they can play two very different roles in a sentence. The same word can take on the role of a verb (action) and noun (thing). For example, if I say "I am reading right now," the word "reading" describes what I am doing at the moment; it is an action; therefore, the word is being used as a verb. However, if I say, "I love reading," the word "reading" describes the thing that I love. Things are named by nouns; therefore, the word here is used as a noun.

When the word with ING is used as a noun, it is called a gerund. It is ok to begin sentences with gerunds, but not ok to begin them with verbs. If you begin a sentence with a verb, you will sound like Yoda from Star Wars who regularly started sentences with verbs (Remember him we must). In English, sentences need to start with nouns, so Yoda would not be a good role model when it comes to speaking.

Starting a sentence with a gerund (word with ING working as a noun) is a different story. Here are some examples:
* Writing well is an important skill for a manager.
* Teaching is my passion.

When you start the sentence with a gerund, it is typically followed by the verb TO BE and an explanation. For example: Exercising is good for you. Gardening is relaxing.

Thank you for your questions. Keep them coming.

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Dealing with apostrophes

Someone asked about thanking people for a donation in someone's name. Do you thank them for a donation in NAME'S memory or in NAMES' memory. This is a great question that has to do with apostrophes.

Apostrophes are usually used for two things - to create contractions (Mary's not here) and to show possession (this is Mary's book). The question about a donation has to do with possession. In other words, we are talking about somebody's memory. If it is the memory of one person, then the apostrophe goes right after the person's name (MARY'S). If there are several people (let's say a family), then you put their name in the plural form and then place the apostrophe after that (the WILSONS' memory).

The easy rule to remember is that if something belongs to one, then apostrophe comes after that one (Mary); if something belongs to many, then apostrophe comes after the many (Wilsons).

Thank you for the question.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

The etiquette of folding letters

I once worked with a workshop presenter who would submit his paperwork to me folded into a little rectangle. He used a regular number 10 envelope, but folded the sheet of paper six or eight times, until it felt like a little plump cushion inside the envelope. It always irked me to receive a crumpled document, and I wondered if he might be sending out other important documents in a similar fashion.

Thanks to the question posted earlier, we can address this topic:
Is there a special way to fold a business letter (8 1/2 x 11) before placing it in the envelope? Should the folded side or the unfolded side be seen when the receiver opens it?

Business letters are typically mailed in number 10 envelopes, which require that the sheet of paper be folded in three. To fold a business letter, pull the bottom of the letter towards the top (to right below the address) and crease it. Then pull the top part of the letter down until the edges meet and crease it.

Insert the letter into the envelope right side up. In other words, the person opening the letter should be able to look at it and read it without having to turn it around.

When mailing a letter, also make sure that the paper is not bent or rumpled (prior to folding) and that it is clear of any stains.

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Punctuation with quotation marks

Thank you for your welcoming comments. I would like to address one of the questions that was posted earlier - should punctuation go before or after quotation marks at the end of a sentence.

The rules vary somewhat for different punctuation marks. Periods and commas, for example, always go within the quotation marks. It does not matter whether the period or comma belongs to the quote. For example,

"Annie," he said, "don't close the door."

Question marks, semicolons, colons, and exclamation points may go inside or outside of the quotation marks. That typically depends on whether the punctuation belongs only to the quote or to the entire sentence. For example,

Brian asked, "What is the time?"
When do you plan to discuss "The Wednesday Sisters"?

Hope this helps. Please keep submitting questions.

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