Universal Translator: Pronoun

Dear Editor: Unsurprisingly, my colleague The Unlearned Dresgjas Sjart-Iiih grasps the incorrect end of the tree waste when he pontificates about nouns. He asserts that humans are primitive beings obsessed with naming objects, when in fact their complex culture is built on the ritual avoidance of nouns. I will attempt to set the record straight with this entry.

Pronouns. Words that take the place of nouns, so that these nouns cannot be specifically identified.

Types of Pronouns. Humans have demonstrated their cultural sophistication by dividing their pronouns into several categories.

Indefinite Pronoun: A pronoun used to avoid blame when an act has been performed that is contrary to social expectations. For example, when humans are challenged for putting forth a nonsensical idea, they will state “Everyone thinks that!” Or when someone’s fermented beverage is missing from any cooling device, the chief suspect can remark that “Anyone could have done it.”

Interrogative Pronoun: A pronoun used by human interrogators to force another human to reveal a specific noun: “What was taken?” Who did it?” “Which way did he go?” These pronouns require special care, and are only used by those with special roles in human society, such as mothers or expert swordsmen.

Inigo asking the Man in Black "Who are you?"

In this recording, the interrogator asks a ritually masked man “Who are you?” and is unable to force a noun from him. This demonstrates the strong taboo against nouns.

Demonstrative Pronoun: A pronoun used by humans to avoid identifying things when they are being interrogated. When asked what is missing, for example, a human can wave one of their appendages in a random geometrical pattern and say, “You mean those? Or these?”

Personal Pronoun: A pronoun that deliberately protects a human or valued object from being named and coming to the attention of any jealous, wrathful deities. When taking notice of either an accomplishment or a failure, a human will make statements like “I did it” or “That’s yours.

Intensive Pronoun: A pronoun used by important humans to compensate for their lack of a specific name and regain social status: “I myself believe that I am the most favoured of the gods.” An intensive pronoun can also be reused by these humans as a reflexive pronoun when admiring themselves in a mirror as an object: “I have taken an ocular impression of myself, and I look shiny during this diurnal cycle.”

Relative Pronoun: A pronoun that prevents the overuse of a noun when there is no choice but to name something or someone. This pronoun relates back to the noun. For example: “The Unlearned Dresgjas Sjart-Iiih, who is woefully ignorant, should employ my superior anthropological methodology in the future to ensure accurate scholarship.”

Entry submitted by The Superior Antarinalia Ravannilah of the planet Trin-La

(Editor’s Note: Find a real Earth expert next time – if there is such a thing!)


Image of Inigo Montoya from one of my favourite movies ever, The Princess Bride

Stay tuned for future entries on other parts of speech. 🙂 If you missed the entry on nouns, you can find it here. As always, I welcome any feedback. Was this post helpful for you? Superior alien minds want to know!

Seek Out Your Writing Intention…and Engage!

Have you ever read through to the end of a book and still couldn’t figure out what it was about?

Chances are you probably gave up long before that happened.

When assessing any kind of manuscript, the first thing that an editor looks for is the author’s intention. What is the author trying to accomplish with this text? It’s a simple question, but it can be a challenging one to answer.

As an editor, I have found myself lost in the deep space of a manuscript with no apparent way home. I’ve completed first reads on manuscripts that were trying to pack everything into 250 pages. I understand the writer’s need to include all of their favourite shiny bits. But this makes the editor’s job more difficult. Before I can provide any meaningful advice on what to change, move, remove, or add, I need to understand the intent of the work.

While reading through a chaotic manuscript, I was reminded of the classic Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok.” In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise are trying to establish relations with the Tamarians, who communicate using metaphors. One of the Tamarians, Dathon, tosses a dagger to Captain Picard while saying, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.” Picard interprets this as a request for the two of them to duel, and refuses. Dathon was actually referring to a story of two warriors who met and became friends by fighting a beast together on the island of Tenagra. He wanted to forge a relationship with the Federation by fighting an enemy together. Picard had completely misunderstood Dathon’s intention.

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together...

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together…

An author’s intention can be as mysterious to an editor (or to a reader) as a Tamarian metaphor. Please don’t force your reader into a tragic experience. You need to get to the heart of your story and find the core that your audience can recognize and engage with. To help you on this journey, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about various elements of intention. Just think of yourself as the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, where you need to find out your mission before the story can begin.

Overall Purpose

A good starting point for defining intention is to identify your overall purpose in writing the work. There are four main reasons for writing: to inform, to instruct, to entertain, or to persuade. You need to think about your primary purpose. There may be a secondary one, but your primary one helps you determine the best structure and appropriate content for your work.

Most fiction stories (like those on Star Trek) are there primarily to entertain the audience. But they can also serve as moral instruction, or as a method of persuading people to accept a point of view. The trick is to make sure your secondary purpose does not overwhelm the first.


Who is your ideal reader for the book? What experience are you trying to provide for that reader? You need to construct your work according to your target audience’s expectations so they can understand your intention. Thinking about the age, gender, interests, reading habits, and knowledge of your readers will help you refine your approach.

From a practical perspective, the broader your work’s appeal, the more likely you are to have success in selling your manuscript. So think about your secondary readers as well as your ideal ones. Star Trek has had multi-generational success because it appeals to a large audience (and not just to sci-fi geeks like me).


A logline is the one-liner description of your work. Blake Snyder discusses how to create a marketable logline in his excellent book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. He stresses the need to be able to answer the question “What is it?” in one line. According to Snyder, a good logline is emotionally compelling, creates an intriguing mental picture, and attracts the target audience.

Think about the logline for your work. It’s difficult, I know. But if you can’t explain your story in one line, you may need to look at all the threads and think about how to focus your intent.

Here’s an example of a logline from the Star Trek universe to help get you started:

War breaks out across the stars as the Klingon and Romulan Empires fight for supremacy… with the Enterprise caught in the middle.

(Can you imagine having to write a logline for every single episode of the television show? The mind boggles.)

Personal Intent

I’ve saved the most important piece for last. There was a reason why you chose to spend hours of your life writing or typing rather than surfing the internet or chilling out on the couch. Why did you write? Was your intent to write a famous story that would sell millions of copies? Did you want to tell everyone about a cause that matters to you? Or did you simply want to put your thoughts on the page, and say you have written a book?

Everyone’s intention in writing is ultimately a personal one. Knowing this will help you determine your direction. Maybe you don’t care about marketability, and only want help in writing clear prose. Maybe you want to make sure that your theme is coming across to a wide audience. Know what you want, and tell your editor. Then you’ll be able to collaborate together and create a work that both you and your readers will love.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, stated that “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

Even the fictional crew of the Starship Enterprise had a clear intention: “To explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

So what’s your intention? Seek it out, and you’ll be ready to engage.


How do you deal with intention? Do you find you have a clear idea of what you would like to accomplish before you begin, or do you figure it out as you write? What helps you to focus your writing?

Universal Translator: Noun

Noun. A part of speech that caters to the human obsession with naming objects. Loosely identified by a primitive human song as “a person, place, or thing.”

(Side note: A formal protest has been lodged with the Galactic Council against human identification of other intelligent beings as “things” and not “persons.” Judgment is still pending.)

Types of Nouns. Humans like to categorize things, and have divided the simple noun into several unnecessary types.

Concrete Noun: An object, substance, or being that can be perceived using the senses (hut, dirt, sword). Humans rely mainly on their eyes, but can also sense things through their ears, mouth, nose, and skin. As their empathic sense is virtually non-existent, they do not consider emotions to be concrete nouns. (See: Abstract Noun.)

Abstract Noun: A thing that can only be understood by the mind, such as a concept (ignorance), a quality (ugly), or a measure (year). Some have expressed surprise that humans are capable of abstract thought. Evidence supports that they are capable, but illogical measurements such as the cubit prove that humans have not evolved competence in this area.

Countable Noun: Something that can be counted. Humans enjoy the repetitive action of counting items such as coins. (As proof, they produce physical tokens of money, even though these tokens are universally obsolete among all higher beings.) English-speaking humans assign a special importance to these nouns by adding an “s” to a countable noun when there is more than one, such as one dollar and two dollars. They also compare the amounts of countable nouns by saying things like, “You have fewer dollars than I have.”

The Money Changer and His Wife

An example in human art of their foolish focus on coin counting

Non-Countable Noun: Something feared and avoided by humans, since it cannot be counted and assigned the special “s” at the end of the noun. Examples include pollution and salt. Comparing amounts of non-countable nouns is handled by saying things like, “My meal has less salt than yours, and so I will live longer.”

Collective Noun: A noun that represents more than one person or thing, such as a flock of humans or a chorus of vehicles. These nouns confuse humans because they are usually treated as singular even though they refer to more than one item.

Common Noun: A noun that has no specific importance, and is not capitalized. Almost all nouns are common nouns.

Proper Noun: A noun that humans have decided is special, and warrants a capital letter at the beginning of the word. Examples include the name of a specific person or place. Humans continue to debate whether the name of their planet should start with a capital letter. Galactic grammarians are also divided on this point. Some argue that Earth should be capitalized, since it is a specific planet. Others argue that a backwater planet named after something as common as dirt has no importance.

Entry submitted by The Learned Dresgjas Sjart-Iiih of the planet Jassssh

(Editor’s Note: Clearly biased against humans. Find someone with more experience of Earth for future entries.)


Image credit: Wikipedia Commons, The Money Changer and His Wife

This is the first in my new series called Universal Translator. As some of you may have noticed, I was channeling The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I wrote this. 🙂 This series will feature entries from different beings around the universe, who will bring their unique perspectives to the study of the English language. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

Would Your Captain Be Proud?

My favourite scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is known as “Captain’s Orders.” I’m not going into all the details here, because I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it. In this scene, Captain America tells a group of people a difficult truth that goes against what they believe. He then asks them to take courageous action based on that truth. And they do it. Why? Because the Cap asked them to.

If I had seen this in any other movie with any other character, I would have rolled my eyes. In today’s environment, where we have lost faith in so many of our leaders, who would act based on one person’s word? But it works. Because this is Captain America as played by the talented Chris Evans. And his character has unquestionable integrity.

Would you follow this man? I know I would. Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Would you follow this man? I know I would.

Anyone who’s worked in the corporate world knows how difficult it is to maintain your integrity, especially when you are in a leadership position. My worst experience as a manager was a time when I disagreed with upper management’s direction but needed to inspire my staff to follow it. I had to separate out the corporate message from my message, and speak to what I believed—because I needed to hold on to my integrity. At the end of the day, I’m the one who has to look at myself in the mirror.

Since that time, I’ve been careful to avoid putting myself in that situation. I try to live one of my favourite sayings from Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” This is the best statement on integrity I have ever seen. But it’s difficult to follow. So it’s good that I have many captains to look to for inspiration. Captain America may be the best of the bunch, but he’s not the only captain out there with integrity. What about Captain Picard of Star Trek: TNG or David Weber’s Honor Harrington? Speculative fiction abounds with captains who lead with integrity. And we can learn a lot about leadership and communication from them. Here are three things that I have learned:

Let them see who you are

The more genuine you are in your communications, the more your team will relate to you. Everything you say should come from your heart. This can make you feel vulnerable, but it will support you through difficult times. Don’t try to pretty things up or try on a different personality. People can sense when you are being yourself, and will respect you for it. As Captain Picard tells us, “If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for who we really are.”

Communicate with a clear intent

Do you have a purpose for communicating that you believe in? Your agenda in speaking should be clear to you and your team. I’ve written in the past about Captain America’s direct communication style. This goes beyond style and into substance. Having an influential speaking style is not going to get you anywhere if people do not see your belief.  Get out from under the corporate speak and say what you mean.

Tell the truth, but don’t feel like you have to tell everything

There are some things you just have to keep to yourself. If communicating something will make things worse for people, don’t say it. Talk about what will help, not what will hurt. If Honor Harrington always told her crew the truth about upcoming spaceship battles (“We are almost certainly going to die”), they would never triumph against the odds. Holding a harmful truth close to your chest is not a lie—it is an expression of your values.

The most important lessons in life are basic truths that you can post on your office wall. Walk the talk. Think, speak, and act in harmony. Value your people. And make your captain proud.


Thank you to Andrew Knighton, whose post on self-publishing and integrity inspired me to write this.

How do you maintain your integrity at home or at work? Are there captains in your life or in fiction that inspire you?

When universes collide

Have you ever suffered through a one-sided conversation? Maybe you have nothing in common with the other person, and you find the topic dead boring. Or maybe your conversation partner is an “expert” on everything, and is lecturing you about what you should do. This is sheer torture, you think. When can I make my escape?

Consider yourself lucky. You could be listening to Vogon poetry.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells us that Vogon poetry is the third worst in the universe. (Earth poetry is the worst, of course.) The Vogons know how much everyone hates their poems, but they force people to listen to them out of “sheer bloodymindedness.” Just witness what happens at a friendly Vogon poetry reading:

The sweat stood out cold on Ford Prefect’s brow, and slid round the electrodes attached to his temples. These were attached to a battery of electronic equipment—imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers—all designed to heighten his experience of the poem and make sure that not a nuance of the poet’s thought was lost.

– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Let’s face it, we all have an inner Vogon. We can get so caught up in what we think is important that we ignore what everyone else thinks. We keep on talking or writing, hoping that the sheer volume of our words will convince others of our rightness.

If you truly want to get your message across, remember that you are not the centre of the universe.  Everyone sees things from a unique point of view. You need to connect with others, not collide with them. Here’s some ways you can do this:

  • Address the “So what?” factor. This is also known as WIIFM or “What’s in it for me?” Why should people care about what you have to say? How will it benefit them? You may think the inner workings of the Infinite Improbability Drive are fascinating, but that doesn’t mean they will. Focus on the “So what?” and your message will be more successful.
  • Show some respect. Respect your conversation partner’s time by keeping your message short. Respect that person’s intellect by listening to what he or she has to say. In any conversation, try to spend more time listening than talking. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.
  • Speak in their language. Don’t use uncommon words or jargon that a lot of people don’t know. Your audience shouldn’t need a Babel fish to understand what you are saying.  If you need to use an unusual term to get your message across, then smoothly define it and move on.

And if you find yourself stuck listening to that annoying person? Just remember what The Hitchhiker’s Guide tells us in “large friendly letters” on the cover:

Picture by Jim Linwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.CC-BY-2.0

Picture by Jim Linwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.CC-BY-2.0

It will be over soon. Then you can go back to enjoying your universe.