Fake or Real?

  Instant Quiz 

Can you correct the error in the sentence below? Scroll to the bottom of today’s post for the answer.

Joe’s car pulled into the driveway, Anne ran outside to hug him.


Suppose you were arrested. You hired an attorney to defend you, and you won the case in court. Would you say that was a “fake” arrest?

Imagine that your family is planning a picnic this afternoon. You tune in to a local weather report and find out that a severe storm is on the way. You cancel the picnic. Was that a”fake” weather report?

You and a friend go to a movie and really enjoy it. Later you come across a review of the movie. The reviewer thought it was awful – badly written and acted, with a boring plot and dull characters. Was that a”fake”movie review?

I would say that the arrest, weather report, and movie review all were real. They happened. There was nothing make-believe about them. To me, “fake” means “not true.” An example would be a false murder scene: Someone laid a mannequin in a dark alley and shook catsup over it to look like blood.

Another example would be fake Rolex watch. It wasn’t manufactured by the Rolex company, and the quality is poor. It’s not a real Rolex.

Lately “fake news” has become a popular complaint. Some people don’t seem to know what “fake” means anymore. If you don’t like something, it’s fake. If it offends you, or it’s confusing, it’s fake.

This week someone on Quora argued that English spelling is “fake” because there are so many inconsistencies. Silent and psychology start with the same sound but are spelled very differently. So are key and quiche – and there are many others.

I understand their point – but I’m also flummoxed. If you say that psychology is a fake spelling, you seem to be asking for someone to supply the real one. But that isn’t what the questioner was asking. Apparently they were trying to say that the spelling doesn’t make sense, and why don’t we do something about it?

Perhaps in 20 years, “disagreeable” and “confusing” will be the dictionary definitions of fake. The meanings of words often change over time, and it could certainly happen to fake. (Silly used to mean “innocent,” for example.)

But right now we seem to be mired in confusion. People don’t trust the news media because all the reporting is “fake.”

Does that mean that journalists are making up – for example – the news that President Trump wants to extend the US-China trade talks past the March 1 deadline? I just saw a video clip of President Trump talking about the proposed extension. Is that “fake news”? Was I watching an actor pretending to be President Trump? If so, why didn’t the White House denounce it?

Language is a complex tool. Sometimes it shines a light on the truth; at other times it’s cagey and slippery. My suggestion today is that we try to be as precise as possible.

The English language is richly endowed with words we can use to disagree with something: error, mistake, distortion, dishonest, lie, bias, cover-up, oversight, overreaction, confusion, conspiracy, and so on. “Fake” – in my opinion – should be reserved for those eyelashes I used to buy at CVS to wear at dance competitions.

a fake mustache, nose and eyeglasses


Instant Quiz ANSWER

Today’s sentence is a run-on – two sentences pretending to be one. Another name is a comma splice. The simplest fix is a period:

Joe’s car pulled into the driveway. Anne ran outside to hug him.   CORRECT

You could also use a semicolon, which is the same as a period:

Joe’s car pulled into the driveway; Anne ran outside to hug him.   CORRECT

Or you could change one of the sentences into an extra idea. Then the comma will be correct:

When Joe’s car pulled into the driveway, Anne ran outside to hug him.   CORRECT

Another possibility is to use a comma + and to join the two sentences:

Joe’s car pulled into the driveway, and Anne ran outside to hug him.   CORRECT


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Writing a Strong Opening

A friend kept urging me to read Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. I was skeptical. I love picture books (Danny and the Dinosaur, anyone? Little Bear?). But I don’t write for children.

My friend was so insistent that I finally gave in and ordered it from the library. She was right: This concise book offers priceless advice. (Yikes: concise, priceless, advice – I’m starting to think in rhymes. I guess the book really got to me!)

Today I’m going to share a suggestion from the book and one of my own. Then I’m going to give you an example to think about.

Ann Whitford Paul wants you to ask yourself a series of questions about the opening paragraph of your book: Who is the main character? What does your main character want? When and where is the story taking place? What’s the tone? What’s the WOW factor?

I’m going to add one more: What’s the first interesting word? If you’re having trouble answering the questions, that’s a sure sign that you need to revise.

For example, often there are two people in the opening of a story – two friends, or a husband and wife, or a boss and an employee. That’s fine if it’s it clear right away which one is going to be the central character. If not, it’s time to revise.

The same principle applies to other kinds of writing. If you’re working on a nonfiction piece, you might have three or four ideas in your opening. Is it clear which one will carry the book?  And you’d better get to an interesting word quickly! There’s a whole world out there competing for your reader’s attention.

I leave it to you to figure out how Paul’s other questions work, with this observation: if the answers aren’t clear right away, you need to revise. 

Let’s go on to an example. I’ve often taught Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel The Sun Also Rises. It’s a great book, but I also think there’s a serious flaw in the opening. Jake Barnes, the narrator, writes at length about Robert Cohn, his tennis friend in Spain. But as the book progresses, Robert Cohn fades away from the story.

There’s no rule that the first two characters have to be there on every page of your novel. But I always get the feeling that Hemingway had a different plan in mind for his novel. He finally changed the plan – but he didn’t go back to make sure the opening matched his new version.

Hemingway was such a great writer that the novel works anyway. But you and I can learn something important here. The beginning of any book generates the energy that will carry the story to the end. Make it powerful. Whatever goes into that opening should stay with the book all the way to the end. It’s good advice even if Hemingway decided not to follow it!

Front cover of Ernest Hemingway's Novel


Revise, Revise, Revise – and Revise Again

Here’s a famous quotation from Blaise Pascal’s Provincial Letters: “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.”

That probably sounds as odd to you as it did to me when I first read it. Why would writing less take longer than writing more?

The answer can be found in that magical (or painful, depending on how you look at it!) word revising.

For most people (certainly for me), first drafts tend to be long, loose, and rambling. Unwanted ideas creep in. There are detours and side trips.

Blaise Pascal (a famous French mathematician and philosopher) knew that good writing = rewriting. And it’s here that the distinction between poor writers and the real pros becomes apparent.

Unskilled writers tend to stop with that awkward, error-ridden first draft. Professional writers, on the other hand, keep plugging away until they’ve come up with something they can be proud of.

How full is your wastebasket? Poor writers have an empty wastebasket; good writers discard so many drafts that the wastebasket quickly starts to overflow.

If you use a computer, how many times did you hit that delete key? If the letters on your keyboard are starting to wear off from overuse, that’s a sign that you’re a serious writer.

(Maybe you’re wondering how many times I revised the post you’re reading right now. One lovely feature of WordPress – the posting system I use – is that it keeps track of my revisions. The total number today is 21.)

office wastebasket full of discarded paper


How Language Solves Its Problems

Perhaps you were puzzled by the title of today’s post. Language doesn’t solve its own problems…does it?

Yes, it does. (Regular readers of this blog know that I’m talking about postmodernism – the idea that language is much more than an inert tool we can completely control.)

The world is always changing, and language has to keep up. It is – after all – the engine that keeps the world moving. (I really like that engine idea because it reminds us that language has its own momentum and drive.)

No matter how hard we try, we can’t control what language will decide to do. It’s stubbornly going to march along, taking us with it where it wants to go.

One example is the way English handled the loss of its gender-neutral pronoun a thousand years ago (the “singular they” issue). If someone from UPS is knocking on your door, and you don’t know if they’re male or female, you’re supposed to say, “He or she is here with your delivery.”

You’re not supposed to say, “They’re here with your delivery.” That popular usage is an example of the deterioration of English.

But if you do some research, you discover that the “singular they” has been around since the 14th century. Language solved the problem of the missing pronoun all by itself, even though English teachers don’t like the solution it came up with!

You would have a hard time finding a famous writer – from Caxton to Shakespeare to Shaw – who hasn’t used the “singular they.” I did it myself earlier in this post: “If someone is knocking on your door, and you don’t know if they’re male or female….”

When you start to look for ways that language solves its own problems without input from the experts, examples are everywhere.

I started thinking about this process during a discussion of quotation marks on Quora. Mike Gower told me about a British practice that’s totally new to me:

What seems to happen in everyday use in the UK is that double quotes are used for quoted speech, and single quotes for quoted text. That’s probably less of a formal rule than a habit that drifted in from the need to differentiate between quoted speech in fiction and quoted text.

Will that practice catch on in the US? It might – and maybe it already has. In the past year or so, I’ve noticed that Americans are starting to mix British ‘inverted commas’ and American “quotation marks,” and it’s been driving me crazy.

It never occurred to me that English was feeling the need to differentiate between a formal quotation and a conversation – and found a solution. (I may have to stop griping!) In twenty-five years, English textbooks may even be telling students to use quotation marks the way Mark described.

Here’s another example of how language adapted to meet a need. My English professors taught me to use quotation marks for titles of short works, like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Italics were for full-length works, like The Da Vinci Code.

But you can also use italics to show what a fictional character is thinking. In a short story you might read about a young soldier who’s just seen an attractive woman and thinks: She’s the one. I’ve got to find an excuse to talk to her. I’ll ask if she knows where Curzon Street is.

Who knew you could use italics this way? Nobody told me in college.

I can’t resist giving you one more. We often decry texting because it allows abbreviations and phonetic spellings. But texting is developing its own subtleties.

We all know that punctuation is often omitted in texts, which tend to be casual and conversational. But beware. Picture this scenario: you text your girlfriend tat you’re cancelling tonight’s date because an old friend is in town, and he wants the two of you to go bowling. Here’s your girlfriend’s text response: 


That period would be standard English if you were writing a school essay or a business letter. But in this conversation it’s the equivalent of a hiss through gritted teeth. You’d better set up another time for that trip to the bowling alley – or start looking for another girlfriend! The period – that innocent punctuation mark we were introduced to in first grade – is becoming a weapon in the war of the sexes.

And so it goes. The world changes. Language sees a need and fills it, without so much as a by-your-leave. Who says that language doesn’t have power?

bowling pins


Commas with And

It’s a question I hear all the time: when do you use a comma with and? If you’d like to learn about the Oxford comma, click here. What I’m going to focus on today is joining sentences with and.

Here’s the rule. If there are two sentences, use the comma. If not, omit the comma. Here are two examples:

We loved Hawaii, and we want to go back.  TWO SENTENCES: COMMA

We loved Hawaii and want to go back.  ONE SENTENCE: NO COMMA

But why? Many people just insert the comma (or leave it out) willy-nilly, without using a rule for guidance. What difference does it make? Answer: A huge difference. And I can prove it.

Take a look at this sentence:

We roasted marshmallows and a squirrel

Pretty nasty picnic! But now read this:

We roasted marshmallows and a squirrel grabbed one.

Much nicer picnic! So how do we make the sentence clear enough so that it can be understood on the first reading?

The answer is to insert a comma after marshmallows. That punctuation mark – a mere wiggly line – tells your brain that the roasting is over. We know that the squirrel introduces something else that happened.

We roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel grabbed one.  CORRECT

Let’s try another example. Here’s the beginning of a sentence about a party:

I invited Joe and Alice

Poor Alice – she wasn’t included! But maybe she came to the party after all:

I invited Joe and Alice asked if she could come too.

It’s another confusing sentence that can, luckily, be fixed with a single comma. Try this:

I invited Joe, and Alice asked if she could come too.  CORRECT

So here’s the rule: Use a comma when you join two sentences with and. (Sentences with but work the same way.)

And here’s the underlying principle: Your brain uses that comma to figure out that the first sentence is finished and a new one is beginning.

Let’s try one more example – an and sentence that doesn’t need a comma:

I invited Joe and Alice to the party this weekend.  CORRECT

There’s no need to separate “Joe and Alice” – they’re both invited. So I didn’t insert a comma.

Are you surprised how easy this rule is? I am too. Isn’t English wonderful?

a squirrel on a branch


Why Study Old English? – Part I

Many years ago I had a job teaching English as a second language. (That’s a misnomer: often my students were learning English as their third or even their fourth language.)

Along the way I took some courses to enhance my teaching skills. One course that was strongly recommended was the history of the English language. I thought that was ridiculous, but I wasn’t about to argue with my mentor. It turned out to be one of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken. (More about this in a future post.)

I had a small advantage because I’d already studied Old English in graduate school. (In a later course I read a big chunk of Beowulf in Old English. Talk about a challenge!

I don’t know whether the history of English course made me a better ESL instructor, and I’m still not sure why I decided to spend all that time studying Old English. I am not good at languages. If you showed me a line of Beowulf today, I’d be lost. None of the grammar and vocabulary stuck.

But those courses did reshape my thinking about English – and about languages in general. Along with an introductory linguistics course, they’re probably the most important learning experiences I had in college.

They convinced me that some of my ideas about English – and languages in general – didn’t work, and they prompted me to replace those outworn ideas with better ones.

I used to worry about the deterioration of the English language. Every day I saw clumsy sentences, misused words, and bad grammar. I viewed the future of English with dismay and foreboding.

So it was a salutary shock to learn that the deterioration had already taken place – back in the eleventh century! Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, Old English was an incredibly sophisticated language. It had an elaborate system of genders, declensions, and conjugations. Many nouns had eight forms, and some had ten.

Modern English has only two forms for most words (bird, birds, rock, rocks). Some nouns have only one. When I say pants or scissors, I could be talking about fifty of them – or only one.

If the Beowulf poet could hear us talking today, he would weep. Almost all of the elegant grammar he used so carefully has disappeared.  Cat is cat whether you’re using the nominative, accusative, dative, or ablative cases. We do have a genitive form: cat’s. But that’s all.

And yet we can write and speak with immense subtlety and sophistication. We have the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of John Donne, and the complexity of a technology manual or a medical textbook. How is that possible?

The answer is that word order took over the job that those declensions used to do. In Old English (as in Latin and many other languages), word order didn’t matter. The endings told you whether John loves Mary or Mary loves John.

And so I learned here’s no such thing as a “primitive” or “deteriorating” language. When one feature is lost, another one takes its place. Language always finds a way.

Think for a moment about sign language. There’s very little to work with – no sounds, very little punctuation, and no capital letters. But a hearing-impaired person can grasp even the most subtle points in a lecture just by paying attention to the person who’s signing.

Charlie Labonte – a friend who’s an interpreter – told me that interpreters use facial expressions to convey adverbs (happily, sadly, quickly, angrily).

Back to English. It’s likely that English will undergo some significant changes in the next 70 or 80 years. We may lose some cherished grammar and venerated rules. But English won’t lose its power. As little snippets of our language fall into disuse, new ones will come along…that’s a guarantee.

So we can all relax – at least as far as the future of English is concerned!

There’s one more point before I go. You might wonder if I was exaggerating about the differences between Old English and Modern English. I can assure you that I wasn’t. As evidence, here’s the Lord’s Prayer in Old English:


Words with Friends

When I started this blog, it never occurred to me that I would be making friends. In fact my big worry was that nobody would read my posts at all.

Surprise! Build it and they will come. I hear regularly from friends – old and new – with questions to ask and knowledge to share. Here are three interesting exchanges I had in January:

1.  My friend Janis Koike made a perceptive comment about a recent Instant Quiz. Here’s my quiz sentence:

Because of the noise in the next room, we couldn’t hear her verbal directions. WRONG

My point was that verbal means “having to do with words,” so writing is also a form of verbal communication. Here’s the correct answer I was looking for:

Because of the noise in the next room, we couldn’t hear her oral directions. CORRECT

But – as Janis pointed out – you don’t need oral. If we didn’t hear the directions because of the noise, of course they were spoken. So “we couldn’t hear her directions” works just fine.

I want to pass this on because redundancy is a habit many of us fall into: “a Jewish rabbi,” “first dibs” (I heard that one on The Big Bang Theory), “the final conclusion.”

2.  My next example isn’t going to teach you anything useful. Well, maybe it’s useful to know that I’m crazy!

A reader I know only as Willem suggested I might have used shibboleth incorrectly in a post.

That seemed strange because I knew for a fact that I had never used the word shibboleth in my life. It’s not part of my working vocabulary. I wasn’t even sure what shibboleth meant.

I started scrolling through recent posts so that I could tell Willem he must have imagined it…only to spot shibboleth in my January 28 postI’ve often wondered where the shibboleth against because came from.

Yikes. I quickly looked up shibboleth and decided Willem was probably right. Here’s my revised sentence: I’ve often wondered where the fear of because came from.

But I’m also discovering that I apparently don’t know my own brain and my own habits!

3.  My third example comes from the January 14 issue  of The New Yorker. An article called “Greek to Me” includes a sentence describing how “a band of traveling dwarfs plunder treasure from the past.”

No. No. No. The rules of subject-verb agreement require you to write that “a band of traveling dwarfs plunders treasure from the past.” A band…plunders. (You skip over “of traveling dwarfs” because it’s a prepositional phrase.)

Let me assure you that I don’t have a nervous breakdown every time I come across a verb mistake. (I make them myself!) But this is The New Yorker, which fusses over every comma, every verb, every hyphen. And the article was written by Mary Norris, who spent years as their head copyeditor – and has written a wonderful book called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

So I wrote to her. A few days later I received this comforting reply from Mary:

With collective nouns, the effect of the plural sometimes trumps the grammar. The effect of the plural “dwarfs” overruled the singular “band.” These things are not cut and dry.

That “not cut and dry” was exactly what I needed to hear, and I pass it on to you. If the rule makes a sentence sound awkward, screw the rule. (Mind you, I don’t think Mary Norris would put it that inelegantly.)

Isn’t it wonderful to have friends?


Question Marks and Quotation Marks

My students often hear me insist that periods and commas have to go inside quotation marks, like this: Scott Joplin made musical history with “The Maple Leaf Rag.”

But what about question marks? The answer is that it depends on the sentence.

If the question mark is part of what you’re quoting, put it inside. For example, there’s a famous song called “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” The question mark is part of the song. Put it inside (as I just did).

But the song “Yankee Doodle” doesn’t end in a question mark. If you’re asking a question about the song, put the question mark outside the quotation marks: Do you know all the verses to “Yankee Doodle”?

Let’s try it with a couple of sentences. If someone is asking a question, put the question mark inside: “Where are my gloves?” asked Abigail.

Now compare this sentence: Did Joan just say “I lost my wallet”? There’s no question in Joan’s voice. She was making a statement. Put the question mark outside (as I just did).


How Do You Define Good English?

Today we’re going to analyze three sentences you might hear at a job interview. Are they written in good English – or bad English? (I want to give credit to James Harbeck for some of these ideas.)

  1.  I think you’ll be a good fit in our department.

  2.  Your skill set is compatible with the rest of our team.

  3.  You’ll be an enjoyable person to work with.

This is a good test of how much of a stickler you are! I would rate myself high on a Cranky English Teacher scale. But – surprisingly – I would accept all three sentences as written.

1.  I think you’ll be a good fit in our department.

This sentence might bother some sticklers because it uses a personal verb (think) and a contraction (you’ll). In business writing you might want to speak for the whole department or the whole company rather than yourself. And if you’re writing formally, you’d probably insert that: “I think that you’ll be a good fit in our department.” 

But in a conversation in a job interview, I think the sentence is fine.

2. Your skill set is compatible with the rest of our team.

A stickler would revise the sentence with “that of”: “Your skill set is compatible with that of the rest of our team.”

But I refuse to use that of. Ever. (So sue me!) Again – the sticklers have a point. The original sentence is comparing a set of skills with a group of people. Inserting “that of” makes the sentence tidier and more logical.

I would argue that English was never meant to be tidy and logical. Inserting that of makes the sentence sound stiff and unnatural. The meaning of the sentence is perfectly clear. Why gum it up with that of?

3.  You’ll be an enjoyable person to work with.

A stickler might be unhappy about using “with” at the end of the sentence (even though there’s no rule against doing that). You can revise it to avoid the issue: You’ll be an enjoyable person with whom to work. But to me that revision sounds stiff and unnatural.

Before I finish, I’m going to offer one more version:

4. I’ve expressed to the department that the advantage of working with you will be considerable for us.

My immediate reaction to this sentence is – GACK. If you know anyone who writes this way, please do them (and all of us!) a favor: straighten them out. I beg you.

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The point today is that good English seems easy to define when you’re an English teacher talking to a class of wiggling fifth-graders. But in the workplace – or your own creative writing – it may not be simple at all.

All of us need to be aware of the rules that shape our writing. Are they outdated? Are they still doing the job for us? Where did they come from? Was it a credible source? Most important – do we understand the importance of varying our writing practices as we go from one setting to the next?

Good questions all!


A Verb Question

A few days ago, my friend Jane Brumbaugh sent me a problematic sentence from the newspaper: “He’s one of the trustees whose been instrumental.” The obvious problem is that whose doesn’t work. The correct word is who’s (a contraction of who has).

But there’s another problem too. Or maybe not! This sentence contains a controversial grammatical structure that even expert grammarians argue about. I think the sentence should read like this: “He’s one of the trustees who have been instrumental.”

But many people think this is correct: “He’s one of the trustees who has been instrumental.”

I’m going to argue my case, and then you can decide which version you think is better. To begin, compare these sentence pairs:

He’s a trustee. He has been instrumental.

He’s one of the trustees. They have been instrumental.

I think these sentence pairs have different meanings. When you combine them with who, you need different verbs.

He’s a trustee who has been instrumental.

He’s one of the trustees who have been instrumental.

You can’t say “He’s one of the trustees who has been instrumental.”

I rest my case!

Judge announcing a sentence