Weird Words: Pair and Couple

Not interchangeable. The biggest lie that your primary school teacher told you was the one about opposites. I daresay I'll rant about that another day. The biggest lie that your highschool English teacher told you was the one about synonyms. The lie in question is this: synonyms exist. They don't. Even the sound of words, the length, the spelling, has different effects on different readers. Synonyms are one of those things that grammarians invent to try to apply rules and boundaries to language. But language, like life, is messy. It doesn't conform to rules, no matter how carefully they are defined. Know this and know it well: there are no synonyms.

Example (how proud Anne Soper would be): Pair and Couple.

To have a pair, or to have a couple, you must have two things. But not any old mismatched twain. (Twain is an excellent word. It means two things. They can be (in the immortal words of Edmund Blackadder) about as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod.) You can't use pair and couple as synonyms, any more than you can use anything else. (What is a thesaurus for? See below).

A pair is two matching items. A couple is two complementary items. A pair is identical. Or similar. Or associated because of some feature they share. A couple can be opposites (ahem) provided they fit together. A couple is yin and yang (if you like that sort of thing). Jay and Silent Bob are a pair and a couple.

A Thesaurus is not there to help you find a different word. If you are looking for an alternative to the word you already used then you used it wrong the first time. A Thesaurus helps you to find the right word. The aposite word, by looking up a word that you know isn't quite right.



HP v165w 16 GB USB 2.0 Flash Drive P-FD16GHP165-EF (Blue)Once your book is uploaded to Amazon or Smashwords or B&N, it's safe, pretty much for good. You've publicly declared that the content is your property and your responsibility, and it's joined some of the largest and most comprehensive distributed, "cloud based" backup solutions that the market has to offer. Your work will never be lost.

But if you're anything like me, your computer, your USB key(s) (thumb drives), phone, tablet and numerous notebooks are stuffed full of fragments of uncompleted stuff, previous drafts, shorts, character studies, notes and ideas for future work.

AmazonBasics 4.7 GB 16x DVD+R (100-Pack Spindle)Notebooks (the paper variety) are at risk. You can spill coffee on them or drop them in a puddle. I've scanned my oldest ones but that is a long and laborious process, so I don't use handwritten notes for writing at all any more.

All that stuff on your various drives is at risk too. So how do you protect it?

I have had customers who've lost a year of accounting due to a hard drive failure. One of them had to spend about $ 1000 on data recovery after a server was "dropped" and both hard drives failed. Another was unable to recover anything...

Backup solutions are many. Your data is pretty safe from loss if you upload it all to your Google account. As to how secure it is... it depends on who you listen to. The bottom line is "belt and braces":

Store your data in more than one location.
  • On your hard-drive and copied onto a couple of USB disks
  • On your raid 0 hard drives and copied to an external drive
  • Printed to DVDs and on your hard drive
Iomega StorCenter 4 TB ix2-200 (2 x 2TB) Network Storage Cloud Edition 35430For writers, I think the best solution is to use multiple USB keys (thumb drives). There is some great, free, simple software for synchronizing them. It analyses each drive and makes sure that the most recent version of any file is copied to every disk. 

The beastie depicted is a NAS Hard Drive - like a mini network server. I install these for my business customers for about $550 installation included. It contains 2 hard drives (identical copies in case one fails), and it manages all the backup itself. Even a fancy piece of kit like this can fail, however. Especially if you drop it. So I encourage my customers to keep copies of important files both on the NAS drive and on their own workstation. 

Aubrey Beardsley PbIt is also worth bearing in mind that your home or office could be burgled. If you have something like the Iomega StorCenter (20cm x 14cm x 10cm), when you go away for a few days, leave it with a neighbor. If you have a thumb drive or two, take one with you and leave another with a neighbor. The more copies of your work you leave lying around, the less will get lost.

Unless you are an Aubrey Beardsley or an Emily Dickinson, you probably don't want your notes to be burned in the case of your death. If that is a concern, it's probably best to keep your notes and sketches in flammable form, because as soon as you connect your work to a network, it starts to get harder to destroy.


Pacing — dialogue, read-speed, comma, semi-colon, colon, stop.

I already discussed layout of direct speech, nametagging and said last month, but a feature of dialogue that I overlooked was the issue of pacing.

In real life, when people speak, they do a whole lot of other things at the same time, and in between speech. Some of this is unrelated to the conversation — breathing, eating & drinking, swinging an ax. Some of it arises from or illustrates the dialogue: shrugging, gasping, pausing for effect.

Imagine a game of squash between a pair of irritatingly competitive young executives, letting off steam after an important negotiation. I imagine them warming up on court, pounding the ball rather too hard for tactical practicality, and then playing a couple of games, discussing both during and between points, the behaviour of their colleagues and their client; pausing in their dialogue occasionally when the game gets difficult or strenuous.

How do you go about writing the dialogue of such a scene? I would have a little fun with the vocabulary and the imagery, by having Steve and Gary use exclusively physical metaphors when describing the meeting:

"We totally pounded them on the preference agreement," Steve hustled left and Gary had to back into a corner and swung his reply awkwardly.

"It looked as if Janet would drop that one, until you jumped in." Carefully evading Steve's fillibuster, Gary changed his policy and forced Steve to negotiate a tricky trajectory.

"Didn't matter how much they fired at us; Clive just kept batting it away."

Their exchanges intensified for a few seconds, and Steve, overtaken with determination, responded to Gary's every demand, until finally, reaching high and wide, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

"Nice," said Gary, not needing to force good-humour in defeat; he'd already scored enough points in the meeting.

Apart from the language games, what I'm going for here is a sense of two things happening at once. On screen, in the theatre, action and words can be presented together. On the page, you have two choices: you can give them one after the other:

"I've got this one," Steve shouted as he ran across the court 

Or you can try to give a feel for the action during the dialogue as I attempted in the earlier section. Whatever the type of action going on at the same time as the dialogue, the dialogue needs to be paced accordingly. Pacing is the art of convincing the reader to experience the action at the right speed, and the key to it is convincing the reader to read the same way that you would have narrated aloud — at the same speed, with the same pauses in the same places. The key to this, I increasingly think, is not punctuation. 

You may have learned in school, or read in a style guide, that you can use punctuation to control the length of a pause, with the short dash (–) as the shortest break, followed in order of length by comma, semi-colon, colon, and full-stop (period). (The long dash (—) is fashionable at the moment in place of a comma or matching pair of commas, and some writers feel that it fits between commas and semi-colons in pause length). I suspect that this principle arises from a misunderstanding of part of the explanation of what these punctuation marks are for.

(Originally, commas indicated separations between related clauses in a paragraph. En-dashes indicate breaks, such as cut-offs or interruptions. Em-dashes indicate interjected clauses, such as a remark that breaks the flow and the content of a sentence (e.g. "Beverley, hung over, made her way — not her usual way mind you — drearily to the office."). Semi-colons indicate a change of section, such as a progression in a multi-stage argument. Colons indicate that what follows is consequent to the previous clause ("Jimi was loved and lauded the world over: his death was a shock."). Full-stops indicate the end of a grammatical logical closure (usually called a sentence). You can observe from this post that I use these marks much more loosely than this — but I think it is worth knowing.)

I do not think that punctuation is the key to pacing. Punctuation, like everything else in language, is subject both to regional variations, personal variations and the mercurial vicissitudes of fashion.

Strong diction is part of what makes for good pacing. Strong diction is taking time over the choice of words, and strong diction can sometimes completely countermand what I said in my previous post about the word "said". Consider:

“Holy macaroni,” Claudine repeated. “And how do you feel about the situation?”

You will infer that this is not the first time that Claudine has used this expression in the present exchange. In terms of telling us that it is Claudine who is speaking, the nametag is already redundant; doubly so, therefore, with the verb "repeated". And yet the nametag itself is serving the pacing. Suppose the author had said:

  “Holy macaroni!” She paused in surprise. “And how do you feel about the situation?”

We now know what the nametag is there for: to provide a pause in the flow of speech. The pause that results  from this explicit tag is slightly longer, and weakens the impact, compared with the technically redundant tag in the original version.

I think that the only reliable way to control the read-speed is by choosing the right words, and placing them appropriately. I attempted to demonstrate this in the first example using this paragraph as a pacing break:

 Their exchanges intensified for a few seconds, and Steve, overtaken with determination, responded to Gary's every demand, until finally, reaching high and wide, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

While it doesn't take as many seconds to read as it probably took Steve and Gary to play the point, it serves to control the pace without resorting to the explicit (and too short):

They stopped talking to finish the point. Steve won.

Of course, pacing is also an issue involving the author's unique voice. And a reason, therefore, why the author should practice reading his text aloud, preferably to a live audience. 


Evolution of the market to e-Pub; le mot de Hachette

Hachette, is the largest French publisher, and the fifth largest publisher in the USA and the second largest publisher of school textbooks in the World.

Seven PM this evening, Arnoud Nourry, managing director of Hachette was interviewed by Frédéric Martel on French national radio station France Culture. He explained that in discussions with colleagues from other (unnamed) publishers he realized that they, himself included, had been both wrong, and surprised, by the development of electronic publishing.

The common belief (he said) in the industry was that electronic publishing would be limited to dictionaries,  large picture books, cooking, travel and schoolbooks, but that paperback literary fiction would remain for a long time on paper. They had made this assumption because they believed that formats that would benefit from interactivity and connectivity were the ones that would take to electronic formats the most freely.

Nourry stated that First Quater of 2011, one in five books sold in the USA was an e-Book, and that "most" of these were paperback literary fiction - black on white content, intended for small simple readers like the Nook and the Kindle.

What has particularly been discovered is that the main adopters of e-Readers are the large volume readers (those who read a lot of books, not those who read big books! - translating as I listen folks), and that as soon as they have acquired their reading devices, the transfer much of their consumption to electronic formats.

This took the publishers by surprise,  as they thought that the iPad would lead the way, with interactive and video content.

He went on to talk about their publications for schools, which are now systematically published in both paper and electronic formats - and in electronic format they are enriched with interactive content. He did not give details of the levels of adoption.

He went on to discuss the negotiations that Hachette has had with Google over Google's project to digitise all books that were out of print, and after lengthy negotiations Hachette has an agreement with Google that (while it doesn't really bring them in line with French copyright law) at least acknowledges the author and publishers rights. Every time Google digitizes a text originally published by Hachette, Hachette obtains a copy of the digital text for which they have full distribution rights.

In discussing Hachette's relations in negotiations with the big electronic publishers - Google, Apple, Microsoft - he was very positive about the future of Hachette, both because Hachette is very large, and because Hachette is protected by French law, and because Hachette has a positive attitude to the electronic future and a desire to seek, negotiated partnerships with the big players [I'm interpreting rather than translating here - these are my impressions from a rather vague and lengthy exchange].

The discussion moved on to the future of booksellers and in particular of bookshops. Neither I nor the interviewer was much convinced by his position that the bookshops were likely to suffer less than publishers from "dematerialization", indeed that they may benefit, as they have a key role in sorting and classifying books for the purpose of recommending them to readers. His supposition was that a bookshop would become a space where people go to discuss and discover. He did have examples to back this up. I invite you to voice your opinions on this...



Register, in writing or speaking, is the socially or contextually conscious choice of vocabulary and grammatical structure. Those people who are apt to adopt more than one register most commonly do so in formal and informal registers. In some cultures this is part of formal education   — notably France where written language has a distinctly different register from spoken. In other cultures, changes of register are used by people who move between different social groups as part of their daily lives, such as teachers and social-workers. Register differs from diction in that it is socially or culturally aware (even if subconsciously).

Writers love register. It enables them to set the scene, the atmosphere, the social status, the background.

a) "Oh woe! Oh woe!" she cried, tremulous but stentorian, "we are undone!"

Whoever she is, her register is telling us something about her. At the very least, this is set in the past - anywhere from the middle ages backwards. If I put her in a toga, we are in ancient Rome, and she's a soothsayer.

b) "Lawksamercy if he hasn't gone and done it again," she hawked and spat, "and it's these old bones what'll have to clear up the mess if I'm any judge."

Now to demonstrate the extremes of register I'm going to put those two statements into the mouth of my son's favourite character, The English Butler.

Jeeves in the Offinga) "I'm sorry," he announced to the assembled guests, "but an incident has occurred."
b) "Ahem," the English Butler cleared his throat to gain the attention of the assembled company; "his Lordship has had one of his turns, and I must deal with it."

The English Butler's register is without emotion - and consciously so.

Writers can use register to great effect, therefore, to distinguish between characters, between time, place and setting. Between formal situations and informal; between characters who know eachother well and ones who are strangers. This has its pitfalls, of course. The two most common are register blindness and register seepage.

The Ant-Man of Malfen (The Chronicles of the Nameless Dwarf)Register blindness is when the author has his own strong style, and it dominates to such an extent that all characters start to sound like the author - or whichever of the author's styles he happens to be using. I know that Derek Prior won't mind my mentioning that in an earlier draft of Cadman's Gambit, he had an aboriginal shaman who kept talking like Basil Rathbone, and a group of professional assassins who spoke like a gathering of English country vicars. It wasn't through poor characterisation, but through inattention to register. (I should add that in rewriting these parts Derek really went to town!)

Register seepage occurs when the characters' register creeps into the narration. Sometimes this is not an issue. In Mike Dennis' novels, strong first person point of view means that the register of narration is the register of the main character. In most chicklit and pretty much all romance, the register is informal vernacular with good grammar - so the narrator's register is the same as most of the characters'.

SETUP ON FRONT STREETRegister seepage is at its worst in historical and fantasy fiction. Heroic fantasy is set in the Forgotton Realms™ European middle ages, where everyone says "unto" instead of "to" and "wherefore" instead of "why" (or instead of "where" in the bad cases). You get an awful lot of Yoda-speak. (Word order change will you, and wise will you sound.)

This is okay as long as only the characters speak this way, but it is all to easy for the author to get swept along by the characters to the point where he uses "unto" in the narration. And "atop".

"Atop" is a bugbear of mine. It isn't a fancy way of saying "on". "Atop" means "on top of the highest point of". So in the missionary position, the man is "on top of" the woman, not "atop" her. But the Star can be atop the Christmas tree, however silly that sounds. YKWYA... 

Register can be a powerful tool, and is a key part of the author's armoury, as it enables him to avoid lengthy character establishment and even to minimise nametagging in direct speech. It is something of which authors should be aware, so feel free to prod me for more if my explanation isn't clear or detailed enough.