How to Use “Only” Correctly

Instant Quiz 

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

Be sure to take extra cloths in case we stay an extra night.

 

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In everyday conversation, we usually don’t pay much attention to the word only. It’s an easy word to overlook – and so we end up with sentences like this one:

I only paid five dollars for this book.

Here’s the correct sentence:

I paid only five dollars for this book.

Taking a moment to place only correctly makes you look professional. Take a look at these three sentences:

Only I kissed her.

I kissed only her.

I only kissed her.

Every time you move only to a different position, the meaning changes! The next time you sit down to write, pay careful attention to only. Your writing will be more precise and more professional.

a man kisses a woman

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse cloths and clothes. Cloths are fabric. Clothes are garments. 

Be sure to take extra clothes in case we stay an extra night. CORRECT

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Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
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“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Last week a friend asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. Although we’ve never worked together, I’ve visited the classroom where she teaches, met students she’s taught, and talked to their parents. On top of that, I’ve known her since she was in junior high! So this was an easy letter to write.

I asked for a list of her accomplishments so that I could work them into my letter – and then I got to work. She was very pleased with my letter and took it to a job interview yesterday.

Last night I ran into her and asked about the interview. She thought she had done well and again thanked me for my letter – and then she added something: “He said he would hire you in a heartbeat.”

Huh? Really?

Well – ahem! – I’m a good writer. But my point today is that anyone can write a letter as good as mine. Clearly, though – they don’t. So today I want to go over some basic principles for writing that gets your point across and – incidentally – showcases you.

That’s a huge point that bears endless repeating: no matter what topic you choose, ultimately you are always writing about yourself. And you always need to ask how you’re coming across on the page. Arrogant? Pompous? Engaging? Lively? Warm? (I hope the answer is obvious!) My letter was – of course – all about my friend, but I was also putting myself onto that piece of paper.

Here come some rules for any writing task (not just a letter of recommendation):

1. Skip the pompous language and convoluted syntax. I just ran my letter through a readability index. The website used six readability formulas to evaluate the letter. Average score: Grade 8.

2. Use your voice. Here’s how I started my letter: “It’s a pleasure to recommend Jane Doe to you.” I have never in my life written “This is in reference to….” You shouldn’t either.

3. Give details. I mentioned learning centers my friend had set up, projects she had directed, and songs she had composed and taught to her students.

4. Start every paragraph with a sentence introducing the point you’re going to make. (English teachers call this a “topic sentence.”) This is an easy and effective way to make your writing well-organized, coherent, and easy to follow. (In short, you come across as a great writer!)

5. Tell stories. They don’t have to be long. I mentioned going to a dance class with my teacher friend. The mother of two students she’d taught years ago was taking the class – and was thrilled to see her. “Jane” remembered the mother and asked about the two girls by name. Notice all the information packed into that story: she knew her students, cared about them, and had wonderful rapport with their parents. Plus she has an excellent memory!

6.  Build to a climax. Here’s how I started my last paragraph: “I am going to close with what I think is “Jane’s” most impressive achievement: [a prestigious award she’d won].

Nothing in this list is complicated or difficult. Trust me – anyone can write well! You just need some guidelines and the time and determination to sit down and do it.

Typing on a keyboard

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Sentences with Because Can Be Confusing

When my husband started writing gardening columns 20 years ago, he had an editor who thought because was a bad word. Every time because found its way into a column, Charlie got a worried phone call from her. It was an enormous relief when she moved on to another newspaper and Charlie was free to write because whenever he felt like it.

We never found out where this peculiar phobia came from – but I have a theory. Very likely she’d had a teacher who said that “because” can be a tricky word (true – I’ll explain in a moment)  – and she misinterpreted that warning as a prohibition.

That editor came to mind a few days ago when I saw this headline for a Carolyn Hax advice column:

She thinks her daughter isn’t married because of her clothing choices

The worried mother thought the daughter’s revealing clothes were driving away nice, marriageable men. But when I first read the headline, I thought the mother was harboring doubts that her daughter was really married – based on her clothing choices.

Because is indeed a tricky word. Try this sentence:

We didn’t buy this house because of its location.

The meaning is obvious: Bad location – we said no to the realtor. But not necessarily! Imagine this conversation:

“What a great location! It’s easy to see why you bought this house.”
“No, we didn’t buy this house because of its location. What sold us was the unusual architecture.”

*  *  *  *  *  *

I often answer questions about writing posted on Quora.com . Many of those questions begin with “Is this sentence grammatical?” All too often the answer is yes, it’s grammatical – but it’s a lousy sentence: clumsy, unnatural, or (as in today’s example) ambiguous.

(And here’s a P.S. for regular visitors to my blog: Yes, today’s post is yet another example of the ways that language eludes our grasp and our control.)

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax

     Carolyn Hax

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Doesn’t or Don’t?

If you consider yourself a stickler, I have a thorny grammar issue for you. Is this sentence correct?

He’s one of those people who doesn’t trust politicians.

Is it correct? Or should it be “who don’t trust politicians”? Doesn’t or don’t?

“Don’t” is so overused (I hear “she don’t” and “he don’t” all the time!) that even I’m surprised that I prefer “don’t” in this sentence. But I do, and here’s why. In fact, here are two explanations. Take your pick. (Incidentally, there are English teachers who would disagree with me.)

1.  I ask myself what I see when I visualize the sentence.

This is one of my favorite ways to analyze a sentence and untangle a usage problem.

So what do I see here? To begin, I see the person who’s speaking. But then I see people who don’t trust politicians. In fact, this could easily be restated as two sentences:

He’s one of those people. Those people don’t trust politicians.

So I’d write it this way: He’s one of those people who don’t trust politicians.

2.  I try rewriting the sentence in a slightly different way. Contrasting the two sentences helps me see how the verbs work and can lead me to the correct verb.

So here goes:

He’s a person who doesn’t trust politicians.

He’s one of those people who don’t trust politicians.

To me, these two sentences are very different. The first is clearly about one person who doesn’t trust politicians. The second is more complex: he’s one of many people who don’t trust politicians. So – again – I’d choose He’s one of those people who don’t trust politicians.

Here’s one for you to try (and perhaps argue about!): Mirai Nagasu is one of the dancers who (is, are) likely to make it to the finals of Dancing with the Stars.

I’m choosing “are.” Your opinion?

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A Problem with “And”

What’s wrong with this sentence? (There are no grammar or usage mistakes.)

The steep path was iced over that morning, and Janet clung to Blake as they headed down the slope.

* * * * * *

The problem is the word and, which makes it sound as if the two parts of the sentence are unrelated: the path was dangerous/Janet clung to Jake.

The sentence needs to show that there’s a cause/effect relationship:

Because the steep path was iced over that morning, Janet clung to Blake as they headed down the slope.  BETTER

Professional writers are always on the lookout for ways to make sentences stronger, and one useful strategy is to consider revising sentences with and. Please note that I’m not saying you should avoid and! I’m suggesting that when and finds its way into a sentence, you should always ask if it’s masking a deeper relationship.

Be especially wary when and is joining two sentences. Overuse of and to join sentences often results in weak writing:

The train was late, and we missed the first five minutes of the show.  WEAK

Because the train was late, we missed the first five minutes of the show.  BETTER

And can be problematic even in shorter sentences:

Daisy is stubborn and difficult to work with.

Daisy isn’t really stubborn AND difficult: Her stubbornness causes the difficulties. Here’s a better version:

Daisy’s stubbornness makes her difficult to work with.

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Today I’m going to add a bonus (or a gripe, depending on your point of view!). I’ve been reading articles about writing at Medium.com, probably the hottest place online for publishing short pieces. And what I’ve discovered is that few of those authors (remember, the articles I’ve been reading are about writing!) seem to know the difference between its and it’s…or, if they know the difference, they don’t care.

I (ahem) know the difference. Here’s a sentence I wrote for this post a few minutes ago:

I’m suggesting that when and finds its way into a sentence, you should always ask if it’s masking a deeper relationship.

Did you notice that I used both spellings: its and its?

When I wrote finds its way, I omitted the apostrophe. It’s like finds his way. (You don’t use an apostrophe in his, do you?)

Please, please. If you call yourself a writer, make it your business to learn the difference between it’s (it is) and its (a possessive word, like his).

 

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The Word “Medalled”

I’m thrilled that contestants in the new season of Dancing with the Stars include two figure skaters who medalled in the Winter Olympics: Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu.

But when I mentioned the show to one of my friends, she made a face. Rippon and Nagasu weren’t the problem: it was my use of medalled. A medal is a thing and ever more shall be so, at least to her way of thinking.

What’s troubling my friend is a feature of English called “verbing” – turning a noun into a verb. Many people were bothered some years back when contact (“a person you communicate with”) became a verb (“getting in touch with someone”). I still get irritated when someone uses impact (“a collision”) as a verb (“have a strong effect”).

Here’s what we all need to do: get over it.

James Harbeck is a linguistics expert who writes a marvelous blog about language: www.Sesquiotic.com. In a recent post he offered a list of nouns that have been “verbed” (hah!) over the years:

crank, wreck, protest, target, broadcast, mind, flower, mangle, bloom, weed, matter, fume, bin, welcome, protest, dread, hold, class, nettle, like, start, air, pose, state, peeve, comment, process, fancy, rant, look

Before I started writing today’s post, I went to the Oxford English Dictionary to see when medal was first used as a verb. My guess was that it’s been around since the 1970s or 1980s. Guess what? William Makepeace Thackeray first used medal as a verb in 1860.

While we’re on the subject, let’s try to crack another mystery: why does medalled have a double l? There’s a spelling rule (I used to teach it until spellcheckers came along) that says that you double the last letter when you add a vowel suffix (forget becomes forgetting) if a word ends in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel AND has a stressed final syllable.

Good grief. Did I really waste time teaching that mouthful? Yes, I did – sigh.

I just did a Google search for an explanation of the spelling of medalled. Here’s what I found out: Yes, you double the last letter if a word ends in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel AND has a stressed final syllable – but that rule doesn’t work 100% of the time.

So much for rules!

But it’s nice to know that medalled has been around for such a long time, and I’m glad my word processor has a spellchecker, and I’m thrilled Mirai Nagasu and Adam Rippon will be dancing on TV. Heck, I’m even happy that Tonya Harding is back. I love figure skating! (I’m probably the only person in the world who got a sympathy note from a friend when Dorothy Hamill decided to quit Dancing with the Stars.) Go, Olympics skaters! I’ll be cheering you all the way.

 

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Nominalizations

We’re lucky that English is a flexible language that allows us to experiment with new ways to use familiar words. So – for example – a few years after microwave ovens became available, we started hearing sentences like this one: “I had a mess on my hands because I didn’t cover the sauce before I microwaved it.” Microwave – a noun – became a verb that many people (including me) happily use all the time.

When someone turns a verb or adjective into a noun, the result is called a nominalization. An example is turning the verb postpone into the noun postponement: “We agreed upon a two-week postponement of the meeting.”

Nominalizations can be useful because they add to the variety and scope of our language. Think of happiness (a noun based on the adjective happy), prevention (a noun based on the verb prevent), and argument (a noun based on the verb argue) – useful words all. And there are many, many more that have enriched our language.

But nominalizations don’t always work well. Turning a strong, vigorous verb into a noun can drain the power from a sentence. So – for example – turning postpone (an action) into a thing (postponement) can make a sentence feel flat and static. Below are some examples:

We agreed upon a two-week postponement of the meeting.

We agreed to postpone the meeting for two weeks.  BETTER

After Jo experienced failure in three of her college courses, she made several improvements in her study habits.

After Jo failed three college courses, she improved her study habits.  BETTER

My financial advisor made the suggestion that I invest in preferred stocks.

My financial advisor suggested investing in preferred stocks.  BETTER

Several officers have been pursuing a criminal investigation.

Several officers have been investigating the crime.  BETTER

Here’s some advice for you: start looking for nominalizations in your own writing (especially if you perform writing tasks for your job). Sometimes a slight change can transform a weak sentence into a strong one.

a hand writing "My name is" on a chalkboard

 

 

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A Long Sentence!

Last month I posted some comments from Ellen Holder about a very long sentence. (Ellen is a terrific writer who’s a member of my writing group.)

Here’s another perceptive observation from Ellen:

I was reading a novel by Kristy Woodson Harvey and came to a paragraph I can barely understand. I read quickly and, when I skimmed over this, I realized I could not picture what I was reading. I read it again…and again. I read it to my husband several times. When I finally thought I had figured out what she was describing, I could think of a much better way to write it. But it’s possible I still do not get the picture of what she wrote. What do you think of this?

I had walked to Holden that night and leaned beside him on a nonfunctioning radiator. I crossed my arms, looked down at his hands and sparked my lighter to the end of the cigarette hanging between his lips. He smiled out of one corner of his mouth and said, “Isn’t that supposed to go the other way around?”

I did figure out what she was describing, but I don’t think a reader should have to struggle to make sense out of a successful author’s writing. I was trying to picture her lighting his cigarette with her arms crossed, and I was trying to picture her looking down at his hands at the same time she was lighting his cigarette at his lips. Then I thought his question to her was referring to which end of the lighter she was using, which seemed absurd. On further thought, I realize he meant that usually a guy would light a cigarette for a woman.

 

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Effective Business Writing

I’m going to give you a paragraph to read and think about. Here’s the situation. A  large organization has invited a famous speaker to make a presentation. It’s impossible to predict how many people will show up. The committee chair – Jane Morgan – has made a backup plan in case there’s an overflow crowd:

In the event of an excess of anticipated attendance, committee members are advised to carry out the following procedure. First, provide additional meeting space adjacent to the original location. Second, expand the reach of the presentation via electronic means.

Based on what you’ve read, what do you know Jane and her organization?

* * * * * *

The correct answer to my question should be that – aside from your assessment of Jane’s writing – you have no opinion of Jane and her organization. How could you? You don’t know anything about Jane. Does she have a college degree? How many years has she been with the organization? Is she reliable? Is she smart? Does she have leadership qualities? You have no way of knowing.

Similarly you know nothing about the organization. Is it honest? Innovative? Successful? Does it have a useful mission?

It would be ridiculous to make a judgment about Jane and her organization based on nothing but the three sentences you read a moment ago.

* * * * * *

But I can confidently tell you that every day – in offices across the United States – thousands upon thousands of employees like Jane use everyday writing tasks to try to convince others that they’re smart and they work for a superb organization or business. I’ve got to impress everyone. Otherwise they’ll think I’m stupid. They won’t respect me or my organization.

And so they try to make each sentence as long, elaborate, and tangled as they can. Here again is Jane’s message to the committee:

In the event of an excess of anticipated attendance, committee members are advised to carry out the following procedure. First, provide additional meeting space adjacent to the original location. Second, expand the reach of the presentation via electronic means.

Jane would save everyone’s time – including her own – if she wrote the instructions more simply, like this:

If too many people show up today, open another room, and set up a video broadcast of the presentation.

But she’s afraid to do that. They’ll think I’m stupid….They won’t respect me or the organization….

And so it goes.

Are you like Jane? I hope not. (The US government has a terrific business writing website: www.PlainLanguage.gov.)

 

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Bad Grammar vs. Bad Thinking

Here’s something troubling I saw on Quora.com recently. Someone asked whether it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. A self-proclaimed authority (who should know better!) came out strongly against the practice. What really bothered me is not just that he’s wrong (more about that in a moment). It’s an additional claim he made: bad grammar causes bad thinking.

But it seems to make sense, doesn’t it? You can’t possibly think clearly if you don’t know how to construct sentences properly.

He’s still wrong – in multiple ways. First, the question about a preposition has nothing to do with grammar. In fact most writing issues have nothing to do with grammar. There’s no grammatical reason why you can’t use ain’t in professional writing, for example. A sentence with ain’t can be diagrammed beautifully. Ain’t is bad usage – a completely different category.

Very few writing mistakes fall into the grammar category: misplaced modifiers, subject-verb agreement and a few other verb issues, and some pronoun problems. That’s about it. English lost most of its formal grammar a thousand years ago. Today our grammar is largely about word order, and most native speakers master it by the time they’re four or five years old.

Usage, on the other hand, is a vast topic that you can study (as I have) for years – and keep learning. Usage is about word choice, spelling, punctuation (a big one!), and many other writing issues.

Back to the man who railed against ending a sentence with a preposition. Why am I so sure he was wrong? Two reasons.

Reason #1: Fowler’s Modern English Usage – the most respected resource for English grammar and usage – says it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition – and it includes examples from many famous writers.

(Please bear with me for a moment while I complain about students of English who go to Quora or a similar website to ask someone’s opinion about a rule. For heaven’s sake: when you’re looking for answers, go to a respected reference book, or call the library, or visit a reputable website. Don’t ask for someone’s opinion!)

Reason #2: English is created by the people who use it, and we all end sentences with prepositions. “What did I just step on?” “I can’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into.” “My daughter loves to be read to.” I’ll be there at eight to pick you up.” “Let me explain what this button is for.” “I’ll see if he’s in.” “Where are you from?” “Why don’t you just call him up?” “We’ll go out to lunch when the meeting is over.” “I need to look that up.”

What about the claim that bad grammar leads to bad thinking? I’m sure there are a few instances where that’s true. But I’ve known many smart, knowledgeable people who make true grammar mistakes: “He don’t.” “Between you and I.”

One of my favorite hockey commentators is a big “he don’t” offender. And I used to have a brilliant ballroom instructor who often said “I have went.” Those mistakes didn’t affect their thinking and knowledge. Here’s one more example: Shakespeare used “between you and I” in one of his plays.

Back to prepositions. Here in the Deep South, where I’ve lived for many years, many people say “I don’t know where it’s at.” It’s a poor usage habit they have to break if they’re going to climb the career ladder. But the problem isn’t the preposition at the end. The real problem is that “where it’s at” is a regionalism that professionals avoid using. I can give you a perfectly acceptable sentence with similar grammar: “I don’t know which box it’s in.”

(I’m not putting down Southerners, by the way. Because I grew up on Long Island, I’ve had to work hard on remembering to use r’s when I’m talking. Every region has issues!)

So – if bad grammar doesn’t lead to bad thinking – why do schools and colleges (and business and government leaders) keep emphasizing writing skills? Here’s the answer: weak writing leads to weak thinking. And – trust me – grammar study will not make you a powerful writer. You’ll become skilled with verbs, pronouns, and modifiers – but that’s not the same as learning to write strong sentences and paragraphs.

More about this in a future post. (Hint: if you’re trying to write strong sentences, the word and can be a problem!)

a map of Long Island, New Yori

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