What if my QQ isn’t funny?

Occasionally someone will tell me, “Oh, I wrote a QQ the other day but I didn’t submit it because it wasn’t…”  Either it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t interesting, or it wasn’t “good enough” — so they thought. 

If you ever find yourself in that position, please go ahead and submit your sentence.

When in doubt about a piece you’ve written, remember that being funny, or interesting, or clever is not a QQ requirement.  We love sentences that exhibit those qualities, but we also welcome sentences that are plain.  As one contributor wrote, “for me it’s only the variety of ‘solutions’ that entertains, not which is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another.”

I’m not writing this post to tell you that QQ is easy and anything goes; we do have specific submission guidelines, and most people I know find the game quite challenging (including me).  Some submissions don’t make it to publication because 1) they don’t use all four words, 2) they don’t show an effort to illustrate the word meanings, or 3) they don’t show care in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  However, as moderator, I’ve never turned down a sentence because it wasn’t “interesting.” 

If you’ve really managed to illustrate all four words in a single sentence, I assure you that what you’ve come up with is interesting enough—you’ve solved a very unusual challenge, and no two solutions are the same.  I bet you’ll never have occasion to use those four words together again, so mark the moment.  Don’t let your sentence wither in isolation; submit it to QQ where it will find some good company.

If you have a solution for a past Quandary that you never submitted, please send it to rudi@quadrivialquandary.com.


To proofread, or to proofread?


This image is from a Bible printed in 1631. Due to a single missing word, the publication became known as The Wicked Bible.  Most copies of The Wicked Bible were burned.

This example may be taken as an admonition to proofread before submitting QQ resolutions. 

No, if some wickedness slips through, we won’t burn your entry.  We do ask that you write to us so that we will know to correct it.  We wouldn’t want any readers of your typo to get the wrong idea, now would we?

Call For Submissions

I’ve been building up quite a TODO list for the QQ blog, and I’ve heard from readers that they’d like to see more discussion here. While I won’t promise a steady stream of “fresh content,” I’ll endeavor to post more often, and I invite you to join me.

How can you become a guest blogger here at Omnium Gatherum? It’s as simple as sending me a few thoughts in an email—just a single paragraph could make for an enjoyable post. If you can’t decide on a topic, start with #1 below. Or if you’re looking for an “easy” form of post, try #2. You can email me at rudi@quadrivialquandary.com with the finished text of your post or just a sketch.

If you’re not yet inspired to post, you can still participate by looking over this Call For Submissions and telling me which ideas you’d like to see explored. A friendly nudge always helps me get started on posts of my own. If you’re new to QQ or haven’t contributed a sentence yet, you might still enjoy browsing our list, as it will give you a sense of what the site’s all about—I’ve included links to previous discussions, which you’re welcome to join. I’d say this list is pretty long, but please add to it if you can!


  1. Why do you do QQ? What do “get” from it? What does it mean to you? What’s the hardest part (e.g. have you experienced the “fourth word phenomenon“)? What do you enjoy most? How did you first discover it? (You can find my own answers to some of these questions in my Origins essay.)
  2. Have you come across an article on writing, words, or creative problem solving that relates to QQ in some way? Send in the link along with a quick summary or teaser—one or two sentences would be great. (For example, this one about invented languages is on my reading list.)
  3. What is your creative process for solving QQ? How do you go about it? Do you have a routine — time of day, place, etc.? What do you do when you’re stuck? How long does it take? (In the logs of Omnium Gatherum, you’ll find notes on process by cusheamus, Captain Thunderbeard, and Et Seqq.)
  4. What makes a successful QQ resolution?  (Along with our guidelines, the topic is addressed here — further thoughts are welcome.)
  5. Essay idea: what is a sentence anyway? Different ways of defining “the sentence” — as a grammatical unit, an orthographic unit, an expressive unit, a rhythmic unit.  How well is Wikipedia doing in pinning it down?  Examples of extreme sentences.  Where is the boundary between a long but cohesive sentence and a run-on? What definition of “a single sentence” is best for QQ? Do some QQ submissions fall outside that definition?
  6. A look at “The Long Sentence” in QQ and in general. Techniques for making a long sentence work.  Spoofs of those techniques. Thoughts about why “long is lovable” — what makes the experience of reading long sentences so different (and for a certain type of reader, so much more engaging) than a sequence of shorter sentences including the same material.  (See these thoughts in the LA Times from Pico Iyer.)  Selections of favorite long sentences from literature. Discussion of changing views about writing, why long sentences fell out of fashion, and whether “copia” is undergoing a revival.
  7. Sentence Spotlight: pick a favorite resolution from the archives and discuss why you like it, why it works.
  8. Which challenge do you find more interesting: writing the tersest possible QQ resolution, or the most illustrative one?  How often do you find those goals to be at odds?
  9. Word recall: do you look to QQ as a way of learning vocabulary for future use, or simply as a way of experimenting with words that you’ll be OK with forgetting? How many words from past resolutions do you remember?  Which of those have you used outside QQ?
  10. Take a look at a specialized “genre” of QQ entry, including the Limerick entry, the self-referential entry (specifically, entries that both include and exemplify a rhetorical term, like rhopalic), the non-fiction entry (managing to state a fact or describe a historical event), the dialect entry (imitating a specific style of speech), the epistolary entry, the position entry (where you state a belief that you actually hold), the Homeric Simile entry, and so on.
  11. Provocative phrases: gather a few of your favorite phrases from within long QQ sentences and present them as teasers, along with links to the full sentences
  12. Memorable characters: take a look at the most memorable characters (and character names) that have appeared on QQ; also talk about character naming as a QQ technique
  13. Memorable places described in QQ resolutions; memorable place names.  Places that occur in multiple entries (e.g. since meeting it as a QQ word, I’ve become fond of Ruritania.)
  14. The running story: explore a phenomenon that has occurred at several points in QQ’s history — a story-line that managed to extend (through the efforts of a persistent author) across several days’ resolutions
  15. A closer look at “illustration”: what does it it mean for a sentence to be illustrative? Can we categorize different ways of illustrating word meaning?  How do you judge whether a QQ sentence succeeds in illustrating a word—how much illustration is enough?
  16. In QQ our goal is to illustrate each of the four words, whereas in other writing we often simply employ words, assuming the reader already knows their definitions. In some cases we do end up illustrating a word by employing it, with no extra fuss. But is there value in paying conscious attention to illustration outside of QQ—in deliberately hinting at a word’s meaning even as we rely on the word to carry that meaning?
  17. Word spotlight: what are your favorite words that have appeared on QQ? Also, give suggestions for words you’d like to see here.  (I had been waiting for zugzwang, but now I see it already appeared—on 7/19/2011, when I was away from the game.)
  18. Audio recording of you reading a QQ sentence, or if not you, then an actor friend
    of yours.  Could you read it like Amy Walker?
  19. Sketch or cartoon illustration of a QQ sentence; or, an interesting image from the public domain that goes particularly well with a QQ sentence.  (Edward Gory’s work has come to mind more than once.)
  20. Language resources: links to favorite word/dictionary sites, corpora, etc.; also other language games and writing challenges that might be of interest (OEDILF, Bulwer-Lytton)
  21. Difficult words: how you handle words you might not like or fully understand how to use — do you remember one that was hardest for you?  (I’ve shared some thoughts on “useless” words.)
  22. Contributor spotlight: anything about yourself you’d like to share, other writing activities, other interests. Personal anecdote involving an interesting word. Your history: when did you first develop or recognize your interest in words?
  23. Site suggestions: for building the community around QQ, adding new features to the site (does everyone know about comments?), networking with other sites/forums, showcasing our achievements, expanding QQ’s readership
  24. “Applications” of QQ: specifically, how it could be used in education or language learning
  25. Announcements of anything relating to QQ (like Sami’s book) and anecdotes or stories relating to QQ (like Queen of East Pond’s victory)
  26. Pure silliness (like my QQ photo shoot and discussion of QQ’s cartographic celebrity)
  27. Evangelism: have you been able to persuade any of your friends to try QQ? Have you met resistance? What do you say to people who think they could “never” do QQ?  Is there an innate predisposition to QQ?
  28. Collaboration stories: have you ever worked on a solution with someone else? How did it go?
  29. Vacations: have you needed a break from QQ? How did you come back to it? Thoughts on staying with it and/or returning to it.
  30. Changing approaches: has your approach to writing QQ sentences changed as you’ve continued to do it? Have your ideas about what makes a good sentence changed?
  31. Has QQ made you a better writer?  Has it hurt any aspects of your writing (aggravated sesquipedalianism, etc.)?
  32. QQ as an exploration of creative problem solving, QQ as a writing prompt
  33. Book Reviews: books on writing (with a focus on the sentence), rhetoric, linguistics, flash-fiction.
  34. Pose an open question to the forum for others to respond to.  Ask for help with a sentence.
  35. Other languages: if English is your second language, tell us about your particular experience with QQ. If you’re fluent in another language, have you called upon it in solving QQ?
  36. Is there a connection between the skills involved in QQ and those involved in improv or sketch comedy? Does practice in connecting unrelated ideas help us with anything outside QQ?
  37. Rejects and Train Wrecks: share a sentence that you just couldn’t complete, or didn’t see fit to submit—maybe one that included only three of the words.
  38. Extended resolution: take one of your QQ sentences and expand it (perhaps into a paragraph-length story). Or, try writing a short story using all the words from one week of QQ. Or (for daredevils) try writing a single sentence using all words from two consecutive days of QQ.
  39. Punctuation: discuss: courteously.
  40. Do you think computer scientists will ever be able to develop a generator for vaguely plausible QQ solutions, like this Postmodern essay generator?  Why or why not?
  41. Review “a day of QQ”: compare and contrast the approaches that different contributors took to solving the same day’s Quandary.
  42. Archive Trivia: explore patterns and oddities in the history of QQ’s daily words. For example, has the same word appeared twice in one day? How many times has a word been accompanied by one of its synonyms on the same day? Have we had four parts of speech represented on the same day? What’s our longest word so far? How often has a word appeared both as an adjective and a noun (as I write this on 12/21/2012 I see we’ve got solstice and solstitial)?

Useless Words?

Have you ever seen a word that made you ask “How and why would I ever use this?”  It happens to me all the time.  The difference between stumbling on a “useless” word in the dictionary and finding it on QQ’s homepage is that QQ requires action: no matter how you feel about the word, you must use it somehow — before midnight Eastern.

If solving QQ always means answering the how-do-I-use-this question, solving it with craft means addressing the why as well.  The best solutions go beyond employing the words, even beyond illustrating them; the best solutions situate the words, creating a context where each word seems to fit more snugly than other options, thereby making a case for the utility, even the necessity of a few syllables that we might otherwise call useless.

But let’s take a step back — what is this talk of “uselessness” on a site dedicated to the joy of uncommon words?  Do we not presuppose an interest in everything obscure, antique, and tragically obsolete?

I confess to two reasons for considering words as useless to me.  The first case is when the word refers to some extremely technical or specialized concept in which I have no plan to develop an interest.   Often this case arises with medical terms describing conditions that I hope never to develop.   Rhabdomyolysis: if I’m ever diagnosed with it, I’ll look it up.  But in such a circumstance, I’d have no quibble with the word.  That’s just what it’s called — if you want to identify the condition, you need that term.

Now, to use rhabdomyolysis in QQ, you might create a character who suffers from it.  The challenge is to fit this detail into a story-sentence with the other three words and to give some hint of what your poor protagonist’s ailment involves.  That’s no easy feat, but once you’ve done it, there can be no question whether rhabdomyolysis was right word; alternatives don’t abound.

The second case for calling a word “useless” is when alternatives do abound, when the word is outshined by more popular and perfectly effective synonyms.  Rugose, for example, means wrinkled.  Why not just say wrinkled?

On days of low energy, I will sometimes think of the simpler word, like wrinkled, when constructing my sentence, and then replace it with the harder one before I finish, hoping that rugose doesn’t sound terribly misplaced, which it probably will.  This is not the approach I recommend, as it can lead to sentences that only reinforce the question: Why does this word exist?

One fertile approach to championing a word (and I take this championing as an implicit, though not always reachable goal of each QQ resolution), is to concentrate on its particular sound.  Can you create a context where that sound — more so than any synonym’s — is just what a reader would want to hear?

A poet might choose an uncommon word if it fits into a scheme that a common one does not: the rhyme creates the need.  And we do have poetry on QQ, including some clever limericks.  The bulk of QQ solutions don’t involve rhyme or strict meter, but many solutions still make use of roughly “poetic” techniques.  For example, on 10/22/2009 luigi’s character remembered his grandmother’s “rugose, ringed, rugelach-kneading hands.”   In this case, alliteration binds the obscure word into a phrase with more familiar words, making rugose seem like “one of the gang.”  Arguably, wrinkled could have worked here too, but one feels that losing rugose would be very sad for rugelach, its companion in the dictionary under rug… as well as in this phrase.

Along with the poetic approach, focused on sound and feel, one can take a narrative approach to championing the word, looking for a character who might gainfully employ it.  A natural character type for QQ solutions is a crazed logophile who uses obscure words simply because he or she is obsessed with them.  Since many QQ contributors have something of that character inside them, this is a tempting voice to assume — do have fun with this approach, but remember there’s more to try!  You might create a character who is not necessarily a word lover but who must use jargon in a specific social or professional context.  American Heritage Dictionary gives one definition of rugose as a term from botany: “Having a rough, wrinkled surface, as in certain prominently veined leaves.”  Your character might be a botanist who speaks much of plants, or who speaks of everything in the world as if it were a plant.

New Feature: Comments

One of the most frequent questions I receive from QQ contributors is whether there’s a way to share feedback with other contributors.  Today we’re introducing that feature.  We’ve just added a comment section at the bottom of each sentence’s dedicated page.  Users who have published at least one sentence on QQ are eligible to post comments.

The comment forum is meant as a place to express appreciation for sentences you’ve enjoyed, and to offer constructive feedback. 

I welcome your thoughts on this addition to our site — share them with me at rudi@quadrivialquandary.com.



PS.  As I’ve tried to keep the main announcement short and sweet, I’ll take the liberty of reflection in this addendum.  Well, the new comment feature has been a long time in coming.  Very soon after QQ was born in 2009, I began hearing from contributors who hoped for more interaction on the site:


What a wonderful idea Quadrivial Quandary is! I wish I’d thought of it, which brings me to my question: what about some way to give a round of applause to particularly felicitous solutions? Every now and then there’s something absolutely brilliant that leaves unfulfilled the urge to shout, ‘Oh, well done!!’ through one’s tears of envy.


Thanks for the site. … Would it be possible to have comments on the QQ page?  There’s just so much information in some of these posts, I’d love to be able to comment or follow-up with questions. I think it could be a really neat addition.


I’m really enjoying both reading and contributing to the wonderfully creative linguistic cauldron you’ve devised.  I have a suggestion that might make it even more fun. It occurred to me today when I read [a certain] highly enjoyable submission. I found myself wishing I could give it a ‘thumbs up,’ like you see on YouTube, Facebook, and oodles of other websites; just a way to express appreciation or enjoyment.  So I figured I’d ask you about it. What do you think of the idea of being able to express appreciation for a fellow poster’s work?


The idea is to create a way for players to interact with each other. Perhaps something like a message board kind of place, where we could actually ‘meet’ each other, become friends, compliment each other’s work, etc. I’ve often thought it would be nice to make friends with some of these clever logophiles.


I’m wondering if a bit of feedback might help.  I looked at the blog again today and realized that I had hoped to see some new discussions there.  … I would have liked to offer kudos for some of the contributions I’ve seen, or make an occasional comment — or hear what folks thought of my scribbles.



At the same time, I’ve heard some strong reservations about increased interactivity:



I enjoy Quadrivial Quandary tremendously just the way it is. I love trying to find a story to fit the words instead of words to fit a story. The only time I wish there were a way to comment is when something is particularly (and usually hilariously) felicitous, like managing to use the phrase ‘shored up’ when one of the words is ‘littoral’. Better have no comments than have more comments than there are sentences.  Don’t you bet that most of us are Shy Persons? (I myself go under the subheading Eccentric Recluse, Amiable Crackpot variety.) I don’t think we want to be doing, you know, open heart surgery on puzzle solutions. But anything you decide is fine with me, as long as the essential Quandary remains unchanged.


I think you’ve got the site about right as it is. If it were to be opened up to ‘comments’, there is (what I see as) a danger of a voting system arising, or of the (not necessarily impartial) bestowing of laurels and hurling of brickbats, and for me it’s only the variety of ‘solutions’ that entertains, not which is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another. Since in many cases we’re struggling to define and accommodate words new to us – resulting in occasionally some poor usage or downright misunderstanding – I think that it might deter some Friends if any smart aleck  (presumably another moderated contributor) came along nose-tweaking and wrist-slapping and generally putting down. At worst, this could degenerate into rancorous mudslinging. [One curious side-effect of participation on your site is for just-typed words to clamour to be candidates in a parallel QQ – e.g. (1) rancorous (2) smart aleck (3) wrist-slapping (4) brickbats . . . insidious, or what? – (5, bonus word:) insidious.]


I can’t thank you enough for creating the site. What a joy to have found it and what a pleasure to participate in the daily challenge. With regard to commenting on the sentences I am severely conflicted. A part of me really, really wants to and another part thinks it’s not a good idea. That bi-polar response is probably my way of saying that it is your creation to do with as you see fit and I will support your  choice. … A brief second thought: the process of creating the sentence is intrinsically competitive and we all applaud, groan, and or vilify the creations of the others, but having an area to comment directly about this could only generate the distractive noise of which you speak. Whereas without it that competitiveness is dedicated entirely to the service of the sentence and drives us to new heights of focused creativity.  Short version: comment part not good.


Over the years, I’ve felt “severely conflicted” about comments, to quote the contributor above.  I too have wanted a way to celebrate the best sentences I’ve read, and to know when others have gotten a kick out of what I’ve written.  But I’m sometimes frustrated by the norm of today’s web, where everything is commentable, voteable, likeable, shareable and subject to other social operations.  I’ve often thought of QQ as one place of refuge from all that chatter, where we invest in the old-fashioned pursuits of writing and reading in as close to an “acoustic” or “unplugged” setting as one can find in the buzzing digital world.  Words reveal their power more fully, I think, when they’re not drowned in commentary — when we commit to finding meaning in them just as they are, taking the time to hear their unamplified sounds before turning to the peanut gallery for a surrogate opinion or a quick path to judgment. 

What was the clincher for me?  First of all, the number of requests for a comment feature over the years was just too high to not act on somehow.  Second, I considered my goals as founder of QQ, and realized that building our community is a deeper aim than protecting the site from growing pains.  I like to think of the new comment forum as an experiment we’ll undertake together as contributors.  If the feature works for us in its current instar (to use one of yesterday’s words), great.  If there are complications, we’ll improve it. 

When I finally decided to move forward with comments, earlier this year, the next question was how to make it happen.  QQ’s software infrastructure needed a major upgrade before we began new development.  I’m indebted to aslam, one of QQ’s very first contributors, for all of his great work on the technical front, and to saintduf
for discussion, encouragement, and help in testing the new feature once it was ready.  Now, I look to your feedback on how it’s working.