Subjects, Verbs, and the New York Times

A friend who works in a library saves the discarded New York Times Magazines for me, and I read them in the evenings before I go to bed. (I’m including that explanation in case you’re wondering why it took so long for me to get to a magazine article published last November.)

Last week I read a fascinating article about the man who allegedly killed President Kennedy (Lee Harvey Oswald Was My Friend). Oops! A subject-verb agreement error slipped through. See if you can spot it:

The opening of formerly secret archives in Russia indicate that the K.G.B. didn’t want to recruit Oswald.

Did you find it? “Opening…indicate.” It should read “opening…indicates”:

The opening of formerly secret archives in Russia indicates that the K.G.B. didn’t want to recruit Oswald.

I spent a couple of minutes muttering about the disappearance of copyeditors – lo, how the mighty have fallen! And then I remembered that one of my favorite writers, Theodore Bernstein, used to work for the Times, and he compiled an in-house newsletter called Winners & Sinners where he pointed out these lapses. So it’s not a new problem.

But it’s avoidable. You can read about subject-verb agreement here. There are only six rules, and they’re pretty easy to learn.

checkmark

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Homophones? Really?

I wear t-shirts all the time, and one of my favorites displays this message:

There. Their. They’re not the same.

When I’m wearing that t-shirt, I’m a walking billboard about an important piece of usage information: Always go back and check when you write the word there. Or their. Or they’re. (I’ve made plenty of slip-ups myself with these words.)

It’s a concise reminder for writers, and I always enjoy wearing that shirt.

But many English teachers (sigh) don’t want to take the simple-and-direct route to better writing, as an article in today’s Salt Lake Tribune demonstrates.

It’s a ridiculous story. A social-media specialist for the Nomen Global Language Center was fired for posting a blog about homophones (sound-alike words like there, their, they’re). Tim Torkildson, who posted the blog, said that his boss was upset because homophone sounds like homophobia.

Good grief. Homo means “same” in Greek. It shows up in familiar words like homogeneous and homogenize. Phone means “sound” (telephone, phonograph).

Clarke Woodger, who did the firing, should be ashamed of himself.

But I’m also angry at Torkildson. I have (ahem!) a Ph.D. in English, along with 40 years of experience teaching in English. I’ve published two books with a university press. I’m an editor for a scholarly journal.

And I’ve never used the word homophone in my life. (Well, actually I did – I wrote an indignant post about the Salt Lake Tribune article for Facebook this morning.)

There is no need to use homophone – or any of the other jargon so beloved by English teachers. “Easily confused words” does the job very nicely. Or “sound-alikes.”

What infuriates me is that all this unnecessary complexity scares off people who would like to learn more about writing. They get the unfortunate impression that a huge body of technical knowledge must be mastered before they can get to the good stuff – strategies for better writing.

You, reading this post, please believe me: You don’t need a Ph.D. in grammar to be a good writer (just as you don’t have to know how to dismantle a car in order to drive safely). Focus your energies on finding something to say, developing strategies for engaging your readers, and learning standard English usage.

Here’s a good way to start: Take another look at the message on my t-shirt.

t-shirt

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Holding Back

There aren’t enough good books about writing out there. If you want to learn about English usage, you can’t do much better than Theodore Bernstein’s books. Right now I’m reading an absolutely marvelous book called Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara - absolutely the best book on the craft of writing that I’ve ever read.

I didn’t like Stephen King’s On Writing as much as I thought I would. But there’s a marvelous chapter that shows how he revised a few pages of his work – everyone should read it. (How often do you get to watch a real writer – a successful one – at work?)

Here’s my favorite point in that chapter: Don’t do your readers’ work for them. In other words, don’t include any unnecessary explanations.

It’s a problem I run into all the time in writing workshops – and, oddly enough, in police reports. (One of the hats I wear is expertise in police report writing – I have a book and a website.)

Here’s what I mean. Officers often write something like this:

Alma responded to his threats by throwing the mashed potatoes on the floor. George became even angrier and retaliated by slapping her face.  TOO MUCH EXPLANATION

You don’t need to explain that Alma was responding “to his threats,” or that George “became even angrier and retaliated.” It’s obvious from the two actions (throwing the mashed potatoes on the floor and slapping) that both people are angry. So all you need to write is the following:

Alma threw the mashed potatoes on the floor. George slapped her face.  BETTER

I often come across the same problem – unnecessary explanations – in my writing groups. For example, recently a group member wrote that he thought he was having a heart attack. Because he was all alone, he called a friend and asked for a ride to an emergency room. His description of that evening repeated what readers already knew:

I called George and told him I was having pains in my chest. I was terrified and wanted to go to the emergency room. Could he drop everything and drive me there?  TOO MUCH EXPLANATION

All that’s needed are a few words: 

I called my friend George. Ten minutes later I saw the headlights of his car in my driveway.  BETTER

Until I read King’s On Writing, I’d never thought about this issue of unnecessary explanations. “Don’t do your readers’ work for them.” It’s good advice for any writer.

King

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Writing with a Computer

People used to write without computers. I used to write without one.

Really? How?

I get a taste of what writing used to be like when I try to compose on my ASUS tablet. It’s still a space-age device, of course. But the keyboard is infuriating, and it doesn’t have all the functionality of my beloved Mac, with its huge screen and sophisticated writing tools. Writing on my tablet – which I take with me on trips – is such a struggle that I just put off most writing tasks until I get home.

What’s so great about a writing on a computer?

Let’s skip all the usual answers: spellchecker, grammar checker, copy-and-paste, etc. What I really like is the ability to synthesize multiple sources – and have fun doing it.

I write for a law enforcement website, and I always use multiple sources. If everything I need to know comes from one article, I look for a related article so that I can add some complexity.

The website I write for just published an article about crime-fighting success in Tampa Florida (you can read it at this link).

I used four sources for this article. In the old, pre-computer days, I would have had newspaper clippings and photocopies stacked up in my home office (which I share with our cat, but that’s another story). I would have been busy highlighting information and cutting and pasting with a pair of scissors and a bottle of Elmer’s glue. It would have taken hours and hours to get the article in shape.

Here’s the most important difference: If I didn’t have a computer – a good one – I probably would never have written the damn thing at all. It’s more than 1800 words long, and I wouldn’t have been able to get started.

With the help of my computer, I’ve worked out a system that makes writing even a complex project much more manageable. Here it is:

1.  Hatch an idea.

Often my editor suggests topics and sends me a link to a current article to get me started. I discover others in our daily newspaper. Facebook is another great source: I follow ThinkProgress, which often posts articles about crime, domestic violence, and prisons. (If you want to use my system and you’re not writing about law enforcement, set up a Google Alert about your subject.)

2.  Read.

3.  Copy your sources into a document.

Since I write many articles for the same website, I’ve developed a template with headings for the Summary, Title, Body, and Sources, along with a blurb about me. I paste everything into the template without worrying about the inevitable mess caused by typefaces that don’t match. I copy the URL for each source and paste it in too. (Useful tip: If you click on the Tweet link for each article, you’ll often get a short, efficient URL.)

4.  Read the articles again.

5.  Highlight anything that might be useful in the finished article.

This is fun. (I don’t actually use a highlighter – I usually change the type color to blue or red.) You don’t even have to think about how you’re going to organize the article. (Tip: Format Painter is a great tool for this step.)

6.  Start moving the highlighted information around.

What you’re really doing is outlining – but this is much more fun!

7.  Cut the parts you won’t be using.

I paste them at the bottom of the document. If the cuts are incredibly long, I open a separate document. (An article I wrote last week had 30 pages of sources, and the document with cuts was 25 pages long.) You want to save this information because you might discover you need it later.

8.  Start looking for ways to connect the ideas and information in your document.

In traditional writing terminology, you’re creating your rough draft. But because everything is already in place, and you’ve probably figured out the connecting ideas, it doesn’t feel like you’re starting from scratch. (Tip: Don’t plagiarize. You should be interpreting the information, not just copying what you’ve already read.)

9.  Revise and proofread.

This is my favorite part of the writing process. I can see the finish line, and most of the work is done! I enjoy fixing and enhancing what I’ve written.

That’s it!

I could also have called this post “Writing When You Don’t Have Time to Write.” The playful part of the process at the beginning – discovering articles, pasting them into a document, and highlighting the bits you want to use – doesn’t take long, and it doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. I can pick it up and drop it without worrying about losing my train of thought.

How on earth did we manage writing tasks before computers? I’m shuddering at the memory.

Computer ok

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Too Busy

I’ve been too busy writing to do any writing.

It is now June 12. This year I’ve been to Nashville three times to read scripts I’d written (31 of them) for an educational company that hired me to design three online writing courses.

I also went to Savannah with my sister (spending every evening writing scripts).

I went to Miami with my husband for our annual botanical-gardens trip. I worked on scripts on the train and in the evenings.

My husband and I also went to Canada. By then the scripts were done and the project was over, and I spent evenings working my way through a backlog of almost 300 emails (mostly articles I wanted to read). I also outlined a Shaw presentation I’m hoping to do at a conference in New York next year.

And I went to New York City for a bliss-filled five-day trip that included two Broadway plays (both female stars won Tonys), two dinners at Sardi’s, a family-and-friends cookout, a visit with my husband’s family, a ragtime concert, a wonderful library exhibit, and visits to Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace and the Tenement Museum. And pizza. Lots of pizza. No writing while I was there. Well, I sent a few postcards.

This year I’ve already written eleven articles for a law enforcement website. And last weekend (after two weeks of rehearsals) I danced in the ballet school’s annual show (both an evening and matinee performance). I went to a meeting about a consulting job in July.

Seven trips in less than six months. In April and May we just parked the suitcases in our living room.

Enough of that! I want to get back to MY writing. Before all the trips began, I was working on my writing book. I would love to get back into it. I have a newsletter to send in three days – haven’t done anything with it. There are five blogs to keep up with. I posted an entry yesterday, this one will be done in a few minutes, and that leaves three to go. I have two letters to write and four articles to do for the law enforcement website.

This weekend I have NOTHING scheduled. Yay. I’ll be able to focus and write, and write, and write. Can’t wait.

airplaneok

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Watching Writers Think

It can be immensely useful to watch writers think.

This morning I came across two posts that offer intriguing insights into the writing process. I especially liked the off-the-beaten-path quality I found in both of them.

The first is a LinkedIn article suggesting that writing mistakes can help (rather than hurt) ambitious young whippersnappers who want to get a leg up on their careers.

Mind you, I’m not sure it’s sound writing advice. True story from a college professor: One of her students sent out an application for a required teaching internship. The procedure was for the application to be passed along, from institution to institution, until someone in the chain accepted her for the post.

Problem: She misspelled the name of her major. The first reader circled it in red and added a critical little note in red pen. And so it went, from school to school, collecting an impressive chain of rejections. She never did get to do an internship.

So why did I like the article so much? Because it breaks through the standard (and boring) advice about writing (proofread! be careful with usage! write to impress!) to suggest that foregrounding your personality (I’m into so much stuff that I’m not going to waste time writing a picture-perfect letter) can be a useful writing strategy.

Amen.

The second article is a short New Yorker interview with two expert writers who talk about choices they’ve made that help get their point across. One is using a child as a narrator. Children, they say, sometimes work better than “jaded, calculating adults.”

They also discuss fantasy (“nobody enjoys examining the worst parts of the world they occupy, but might be more willing to do so when elves or werewolves are involved”). And they also explain why imaginary realms are so often horrifying. Writing about a perfect world just isn’t very interesting: “What conflicts are there in Eden?”

Writers – especially beginners – can have a hard time crossing the bridge from writing-what’s-in-their-heads to writing from the larger perspective of how-do-I-best-convey-my-ideas. This New Yorker interview is a wonderful glimpse into the brains of successful writers who have learned that useful skill.

think3ok

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One Word or Two?

That big game we’ll all be watching tomorrow – you know, the one with all the commercials – is the Superbowl? Or the Super Bowl?

Door #2 is the correct one: It’s the Super Bowl.

How do you know? I find Google a tremendous help for questions like this one. When I Googled “superbowl,” the official website for the game came up: www.Superbowl.com. Yes, I know that it’s spelled as one word there. But when I clicked on the website, here’s how the heading read: 2014 Super Bowl.

I could also have clicked on a website with a reputation for accuracy and fact-checking, such as www.NYTimes.com or www.ESPN.com.

Real pros – professional writers, proofreaders, copyeditors, and editors – constantly ask these questions and double-check the answers.

Enjoy the game tomorrow!

Super Bowl or Superbowl?

Super Bowl or Superbowl?

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The Boarding Pass

Last year I boarded a plane 10 times. A friend bought me a little around-the-neck pouch for storing my boarding pass and passport. It is one of the best gifts I ever received. Stowing my boarding credentials in the pouch saves me from a) worrying that I’ve lost them and b) fumbling every time I have to show them.

Of such small things is mental health made.

National Public Radio just broadcast a feature about a proposed boarding pass that’s been designed with passengers in mind. The information passengers need (gate, boarding time) is on top. There’s even a place for the destination temperature and the time difference there.

Some airlines say they’re considering a switch to the new design. Good for them!

Here’s a picture of the current boarding pass:

Boarding Pass 2

And here’s a link where you can see the proposed new boarding pass: http://n.pr/1cZ7K8x.

Pete Smart, the designer, says, “For airlines, a boarding pass is something they see every day so they know exactly where to look,” he says. “But for a customer, a boarding pass is a more unique experience, and therefore it takes them a bit of time to actually find the relevant information. It has to do with the hierarchy — the priority that information is given, it should be in order.”

Amen. Amen. Amen. And now we come to writing – the kind that you and I do.

It’s human nature to do exactly what the airlines do – display information in a format that’s useful to them. We writers tend to do the same thing, organizing ideas, facts, and experiences in a way that makes sense to us.

And that’s a mistake. What we need to do is present our information in a way that makes sense to our readers. That sounds simpler than it really is.

Here’s what usually happens: We forget to create a context – a meaning – for our information. And what we end creating is a list rather than an event, idea, or experience.

To see what I’m talking about, compare the two paragraphs below:

Sunday dinner was always the same when my mother cooked for my father. They always had roast beef, gravy, roasted potatoes, a vegetable, and coffee and dessert.

 Sunday dinner was always the same when my mother cooked for my father. They always had roast beef, gravy, roasted potatoes, a vegetable, and coffee and dessert. But it was different when I was coming for Sunday dinner. My mother knew I didn’t like roasted potatoes very much, so she always added mashed potatoes to the menu.

Version one is a list (and a boring one at that) of what my parents ate for Sunday dinner. Version two adds another whole dimension: My mother loved me enough to go to the trouble of making two kinds of potatoes.

It’s like…the boarding pass. Think about it: You can present a jumble of information that doesn’t seem to have any order or meaning. Or you can create something powerful – like a loving mother looking forward to having her daughter at the Sunday table for dinner.

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Double Negative?

Double Negative

It’s an article of faith for English majors: Two negatives make a positive. So, in the minds of these jurors, “didn’t do nothing” = “did something.”

If they had majored in linguistics, they wouldn’t make that mistake. (Sorry, English majors!) Many languages have double negatives; they’re a form of emphasis. Spanish and Welsh are examples, and – surprisingly – so is English. Old English and Middle English, that is. Yep, our Anglo-Saxon forefathers (and foremothers) routinely used double negatives.

Here’s an example: In the “Friar’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer used a double negative: “Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous.”

English isn’t mathematical, and it isn’t logical. Languages evolve in their own way, often defying common sense…and English majors’ attempts to inject sense and structure.

Everyone who’s ever studied formal grammar knows that you can’t say “It’s me” because the copulative verb is requires a nominative case pronoun (I, in this case).

But wait a minute! French speakers say “It’s me” (“C’est moi“) all the time.

So that means I advocate throwing out all the rules, right?

No.

Language rules arise from the desire to fit in with the group of speakers you belong to (or the group you aspire to belong to). If you want to hang out with educated professionals, your speech and writing habits need to match theirs.

In the 21st century, educated professionals generally don’t use double negatives.

It’s that simple. It’s even logical. (But not mathematical.)

(To learn more about pronouns, click here.)

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