What to do in the case of a word/definition mismatch

Yes, I know — the “Definitions” section of the QQ homepage occasionally exhibits a searing internal conflict in which a word and its accompanying definition disagree. This happens when one of QQ’s word sources offers conflicting data in its RSS (syndication) feed.

Today, for example, Merriam-Webster tempts us with juicy “tenderloin” but then provides a definition of, like, you know, “phatic.” With these two words competing for our attention, which should we favor?

The Official QQ Policy is to use whatever word appears in the yellowish box at the top left of the homepage. So, for today, tenderloin prevails over phatic. However, contributors are invited to intensify the day’s challenge by using phatic, or whatever the extra word happens to be, along with the other four from the yellow box.


Et Seqq on process and participation

[Here are a few words from correspondence with Et Seqq.  -Rudi]

On process:

“I don’t have much to offer on my QQ creative process . . . initial trial linkage(s), rejection, rejection, frustration/desperation/inspiration (just one or all three), honing, honing, that’ll do, and then ‘click’ and toodleoo. That about sums it up.”  – Et Seqq

On staying engaged:

“QQ stands or falls by the quality of its daily contributions. We all of us have our good, average, and bad days. For my part, if I find one or two of my own and others’ contributions per week reasonably entertaining, witty or humorous, or just straightforwardly well-crafted, then it keeps me engaged and ready for the next day’s mini-challenge.” – Et Seqq

What makes a successful QQ sentence?

[Here at Omnium Gatherum, QQ contributors are invited to share their thoughts about the challenge — what makes a successful QQ sentence and how to actually write one?  To get us started, cusheamus has written this post expanding on those questions, setting down a few groundrules for discussion, and offering some initial examples.  What do you think?  If you have a brief comment, add it directly to this post (comments are moderated); if you have longer response, send it to rudi@quadrivialquandary.com and I’ll add it as a separate OG post — Rudi]


There are two things it would be interesting to discuss. The first is what makes a successful QQ sentence. The second is how meaning can be made clear from context.

When we talk about successful QQ sentences, there a few things we might keep in mind. First, for the sake of everybody’s sanity and self-respect, if we need to give an example of something that doesn’t work, it should be our own work, something we make up to illustrate a particular point or even something of our own we’ve posted on QQ. On the other hand, when looking for an example of a sentence that does work, other people’s submissions are fair game, a possible bonus being that the author may be prompted to discuss it from his/her own perspective.

So the question is, what QQ sentence do you particularly like and why do you think it’s a successful solution to the Quandary? This is an exercise undertaken primarily from the point of view of the reader, not the writer.

The second matter for discussion is from the writer’s point of view: how do you make meaning clear from context? Meaning-from-context is perhaps the hardest part of QQ and any thoughts about how it’s achieved would be welcome.


Ex. 1. What makes a successful QQ sentence? I picked a date at random and chose the contribution I liked best. (I don’t think there’s any need to give the date or the contributor’s name.) The words were canonical, occult, doldrums, and draconian. The sentence is:

” Dear Kapellmeister Bach, We acknowledge receipt of your latest musical offering, The Art of the Fugue, but would respectfully observe that it is not only incomplete but includes many wilfully abstruse canonical pieces that are, frankly, altogether passe, having been occulted by more accessible rococo styles; therefore we trust that you will not find our considered rejection unreasonably draconian, driven as it is by the commercial imperative to escape the doldrums of the current recession.”

This seems like a very good example of a sentence where the meanings are obvious despite the fact that there aren’t any synonyms or restatements or analogies or stealthy definitions. I think this is because the setting is really clear, the evolution of it is straightforward (no tangents), and most of the phrases are stealthily helpful, resulting in there being only one small class of thing each word can mean in at least three of the four cases. For instance, if the letter writer is driven by the imperative to escape the recession, clearly the doldrums are not a happy, productive place to be! The words fit nicely in their places without any explanation at all, which is pretty impressive.

Ex. 2. What are some ways to make meaning clear from context? Just a brief example here from my submission on 9/4. The laziest way to define a noun, in this case thimblerig, is to find a way to say it in a couple of different ways, synonyms, or almost. So I read about thimblerig and learned that it is a shell game, related to three card monte and the like, so I just worked those two (“shell game” and “three card” – a slangy way of saying ‘three card monte’) into my sentence in a way that made it clear that thimblerig was the same sort of thing.


Captain Thunderbeard: How I solve the Quandary. Plucking banjo vs. violin.

I solve the quandary by choosing a word I already know and picking out the strongest image that comes to mind. I then take that image and try to build a scene based on the definitions of the remaining words.

I am satisfied when I come back after 5 minutes and reread my sentence — if it is not apparent I am shoe-horning four words, I am happy. I also strive for a certain level of ‘flow’. My sentences are sometimes very long, and getting the punctuation correct is a bear.

I find that the most challenging part of QQ is making the sentence feel natural, without being wordy. I like to read long, descriptive sentences, but in general hate writing them. My mind works like a plucking banjo, not a violin.

At first I just wrote the kind of sentence that came naturally with the four words: four distinct ideas crammed into a single, long sentence. I now continue to do QQ because my goal is to fit them into a single, short, crisp sentence rather than a long one. It becomes a different kind of challenge. At first it was to use the words each on their own, and now it is to use them as ingredients, rather than standalone dishes. For example:

(in the beginning):

The harried mother chased her two rambunctious boys across the bistro, adjuring the elder to return the baguette he pilfered from the fulsome feast laid out on the neighboring table, but he paid no heed and busticated it happily over his brother’s head.

The stolid bear looked up from his fresh kill to watch a mischievous crow bouncing jauntily along the esker toward him, piercing the air as he went with his squawking koans.


Captain Thunderbeard



Editor’s note 9/15/2010:

Some correspondence followed Captain Thunderbeard’s post.

One contributor felt that, of the two sentences Captain provided, the first made the meanings clearer. In the second sentence, “stolid,” “esker” and “koans” could be replaced with very different words (say “hungry,” “telephone wire,” and “comrades”) and still make sense, whereas in the first, the Quandary words seem more firmly situated; if not inextricable, at least harder to substitute.  This contributor wanted to know more about how Captain weighs “the requirement that a reader unfamiliar with a word be able to make a good guess about its meaning from the way it’s used in the sentence.” “For me,” writes the contributor, “it’s dead easy to write a sentence using all the words, but very difficult to do so in a way that gives real clues about their meanings. All of us falter, if not fail, regularly at the meaning-from-context problem, so I’d really like to read a follow-up post with more thoughts about that in particular.”

Captain replied with some comments about how he’d been interpreting the word “illustrative” in QQ’s challenge statement “use all four words together in one illustrative sentence.” He had been seeking to paint a vivid picture with the words, but not necessarily to explain by example. He preferred his second sentence because he felt it evoked a “simple, uncluttered image.” He pointed out that in some cases a writer might over-suggest the meaning of word using contextual clues and thereby make the word itself seem extraneous.

Still, Captain looks to refine his approach. He follows the philosophy that “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.  However, Captain plans to balance his interest in crisp sentences that convey a vivid, uncluttered image with the aim of conveying definitions – “illustrating” the words in the sense of expressing their meanings.

Aye, Captain – good luck seeking that balance, don’t be afraid of a misstep here and there, and keep the sentences coming!