The Wordnik Five Favorites Review: How to Not Write Bad, by Ben Yagoda

Here at Wordnik we’re all about lists and favorites, so when we review books, we do what we love best: list our favorites.

Today we’re looking at a terrific new book from Ben Yagoda, one of our favorite language bloggers: HOW TO NOT WRITE BAD: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. As the title suggests, Yagoda focuses on not how to write well but how to write less badly. After all, “you have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run.” You have to write “good-enough” before you can even attempt to write like David Foster Wallace.

We liked a lot of things about this book. Here are some of our “five favorites.”

Five favorite terms


“I imagine the write-what-you-know bromide is mocked because it implies, or seems to imply, that you’re required to write about what you’ve already learned or experienced at the time you sit down at the keyboard.”

A bromide is “a commonplace remark or notion; a platitude,” or “a tiresome person; a bore.” This comes from the chemical sense of the word, “a binary compound of bromine with another element, such as silver,” which was used as a sedative, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Dickens Fallacy

“You could call it the Dickens Fallacy: somehow, we all seem to have an ingrained sense that we’re being paid by the word.”

British writer Charles Dickens was actually paid in installments, not by the word, but the idea of a Dickens Fallacy vividly illustrates some people’s penchant for wordiness. Yagoda’s examples – a verbose sentence followed by his more pared-down version – are helpful in demonstrating not only why concise is better, but how to get there.


“If I happen to be writing about unfortunate digestive conditions, I can put down diarrea and then diarhea and finally diarrhea – getting a frisson of pleasure from seeing the last one absent of a squiggly red line.”

Frisson is one of our favorite words. It means “a moment of intense excitement; a shudder,” and comes from the Old French fricon, “a trembling.” We also loved Yagoda’s advice about not relying too heavily on spell-check, that it’s “anything but a cure-all and actually can make things worse.” In other words, sometimes spell-check simply won’t help.

gueulade, la

“Gustave Flaubert, renowned as one of the great all-time stylists, used what he called la gueulade: that is, ‘the shouting test.’ He would go out to an avenue of lime trees near his house and, yes, shout what he had written.”

Yagoda suggests reading aloud what you’ve written to catch wordiness, repetition, and “sentences that peter out with a whimper, not a bang.” We’ve tried it, and it works.

skunked words

“The trouble is, like the language itself, the corpus of skunked words is always changing.”

Skunked words are those that were once considered “ignorant, illiterate, unacceptable, etc.,” but have become, by frequent usage, generally accepted. For instance, chomp at the bit was once champ at the bit, stomping ground was stamping ground, and pompom was pompon.

Five questions we had answered by this book

  • How do we convince comma-happy people to stop using so many commas?
  • What do we tell people who insist that ending a sentence in preposition is wrong (and often go through grammatical gymnastics to avoid it)?
  • Why is using “like” okay (sometimes)?
  • How do we make a sentence start strong and end strong?
  • Why do too many prepositions make a sentence seem weak?

Five words we’d use to describe this book

Useful. How to Not Write Bad is as useful for beginners as for seasoned pros.

Entertaining. One of our favorite lines from the book:

As for sound, students tend to insert commas at places where they would pause in speaking the sentence. This has about the same reliability as the rhythm method for birth control.


Sitting in class or dancing at a bar, the bra performed well. . .Though slightly pricey, your breasts will thank you.

We’ll never think of dangling modifiers the same way again.

Clear. Yagoda takes his own advice and writes in a clear, concise, and conversational way.

Example-ful. We at Wordnik love examples, and How to Not Write Bad has plenty of them, which do a great job of illuminating Yagoda’s points.

Memorable. Yagoda’s advice for not just correct but strong writing will stay with us for a long time, and we’ll be sure to return to the book for a periodic refresher.

This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Binders, Britishisms, and more

Welcome to this week’s Language Blog Roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite language blogs and the latest in word news and culture.

We celebrated Dictionary Day on Tuesday with a fictional dictionary contest – congratulations again to all the winners! – while at The Atlantic, Jen Doll told us a few things about Noah Webster, the lexicographer the day honors.

In politics, Ben Zimmer discussed moochers, while in the aftermath of the first presidential debate, he examined President Obama’s after-the-fact comeback, or l’esprit de l’escalier, “the wit of the staircase.” Orin Hargraves, meanwhile, delved into the language of both contenders.

After the vice presidential debate, we heard a lot of malarkey, my friend, from Ben Zimmer, Jen Doll, and Nancy Friedman, while the second presidential debate gave us a sketchy deal, binders and barb words, binders full of women, and binder reviews (oh, internet, will you marry me?). We learned about interruptions in debates, Paul Ryan’s accent, and how to say Missouri.

In Australia, the prime minister’s speech prompted a dictionary to change its definition of misogyny, which, Fully (sic) explained, wasn’t so much a change but an update “to bring it up to speed with the last 30 years of common Australian usage.”

This week we also learned that Americans are apparently “barmy over Britishisms,” to which Jen Doll, Lynneguist, and Dialect Blog all responded. Perhaps part of that barmy-ism can be credited to the Beatles and their influence on the English language, as discussed by Michael Rundell at Macmillan Dictionary blog.

Also at Macmillan, John Williams wondered if there’s a case for publically, and Stan Carey took a look at some lesser spotted portmanteaus, and on his own blog, posted about Scott Kim’s very cool symmetrical alphabet.

At Language Log, Victor Mair pleaded against the butchering of the name of the winner of the Nobel prize in literature, Chinese writer Mo Yan, and Mark Liberman considered the pronunciation of the seemingly simple word, with. Johnson discussed the slang term, guys, and Grammar Girl taught us some Yoda grammar.

At Lingua Franca, Allan Metcalf announced the winners of his latest contest, invent “a new bogus rule of usage,” and suggested that weird words won’t win in the game of neologism. Ben Yagoda talked about reaching out and had some fun with some puns.

In words of the week, Fritinancy selected hustings, “a place where political speeches are made; more generally, the campaign trail,” while Word Spy spotted sageism, “discrimination based on a person’s gender and age”; doorer, “a driver who opens a car door into the path of an oncoming cyclist”; tech-life balance, “the use of technology in such a way that it does not interfere with or reduce the quality of one’s personal life or relationships”; and digital dualism,“the belief that online and offline are largely distinct and independent realities.”

Erin McKean’s word selections included sundowning, a condition “in which the fall of darkness causes confusion and fear” in patients with dementia; boffo, Variety magazine speak for “excellent”; and ralli quilt, a “marriage blanket” from Pakistan or India. Erin also spoke with the ModCloth Blog about the awesome job of lexicography.

The Dialect Blog wondered if Received Pronunciation – or a “standard British accent” – was ever rhotic. Sesquiotica considered the whippersnapper and enjoyed the foliage. The Virtual Linguist told us about having a stiff upper lip, being on the ball, and the origins of the pomegranate.

We found out how British sign language is changing, that slang is the universal language, and about bigger, better Google Ngrams. We learned how New York City neighborhoods got their names, the origin of the dog ate my homework, and why people quit cold turkey.

We’re excited about this previously unseen poem from JRR Tolkien and this new volume of “spare words” from Douglas Adams, and are intrigued by the idea of a science fiction adaptation of Moby-Dick, which, by the way, celebrated its 161st anniversary yesterday.

We loved these photos of writers hanging out together, this letter from typewriter lover Tom Hanks, and these Halloween costumes based on books. We were in awe of these incredible libraries from around the world and that MythBusters host Adam Savage has a list of 17,000 palindromes (come to Wordnik, Adam! we love lists too).

That’s it for this week!

Synesis and Garden State places

Today’s word of the day is synesis. The dictionary definition is “a construction in which a form, such as a pronoun, differs in number but agrees in meaning with the word governing it.” A typical example is when the subject and verb don’t agree, as in “There were a large number of people waiting.” To most people, that sounds better than “there is a large number of people waiting,” even though “number” is ostensibly the subject which should be paired with the “was” form of the copula.

Today’s list of the day is “funny place names in the Garden State.” Cheesequake, New Jersey, is a helluva town.