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November 16th, 2005

If you'd like to see your name in Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Would you like to see your letter or Web submission appear in this column? I’d like that too -- Word Court would be impossible if readers didn’t write me. But I feel bad when people write letters I can’t use. All of us who care about language are on the same team, and I wish I could give every one of my correspondents recognition.

To have the best chance of getting published, may I suggest:

Be lively. If you’re asking about something because you’ve had a dispute about it with your boss, spouse, co-worker, parent or teacher, don’t be shy about saying so. We all enjoy human drama. What’s more, the dramas demonstrate how common it is for people to get worked up about language. But if you’re asking about something simply because you wonder about it, that’s OK too. As in, anyone who invents a fictional dispute is misbehaving.

Be brief. Yes, do tell me the whole story, but try to tell it in as few words as possible. I love it when you share comments or funny stories that are asides to your question or dispute -- but those things aren’t likely to make it into print. I’m supposed to stay “on message.”

Be exact. People sometimes tell me they “constantly” hear something, and then they give me a specific complete-sentence example they couldn’t have heard more than once. Or they complain about a wrong phrase I’ve never heard, which is similar to a common one that I'd be delighted to write about if only someone would ask. I can touch up details. My editors and I edit readers’ letters as carefully as we edit my own writing. But if you ask a different question from the one you mean to be asking, or you supply faulty evidence of the problem, we can’t help.

Be original. People ask me over and over again about certain things. For instance, where did “gone missing” come from? England. Is it a blight on our language? I don’t think so. I said this in the installment of Word Court that newspapers got on Dec. 24, 2003. Readers kept asking, so I said so again on Dec. 22, 2004. But they were still asking, so I wrote about “went missing” on July 27 of this year. They’re still asking. I’ll bore everybody if I keep writing about the same things. And believe me, there are plenty of new things for us to discuss.

You’ll find all my old columns in the “library” on my Web site, www.wordcourt.com. In these archives, the headlines have been replaced with straightforward descriptions of what each column contains. You can search for words in the headlines, so you don’t even need to review all the topics to see whether I’ve already answered the question on your mind.

One more thing: My advice about how to get published in Word Court happens to be advice that writing teachers give everyone who’s writing anything. Be lively, brief, exact and original, and you’ll write something that people want to read. I’ve got just one tip that applies to writing to Word Court and nothing else: Please tell me your full name and where you live.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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