“But” Is a Dangerous Word

Instant Quiz:

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

There’s three people waiting to talk to you.

 

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If you visit my blog often, you know that I’m very interested in the deeper workings of language – the postmodern idea that language has a life and a mind of its own that often escapes our awareness and control. Today’s topic is some issues that might surprise you in sentences with but.

I came across a question on Quora last week that reminded me – once again – about the mysteries embedded within this tool that so many of us take for granted.

The question concerned a sentence that started like this: I’m a dedicated teacher, but….

Red flags immediately went up. (More accurately, I heard emergency sirens in my head.) But is one of the most powerful words in the English language – and one of the most dangerous.

The language philosopher Jacques Derrida talks about words that are “under erasure” – even though they’re right on the page, or they’ve just come out of our mouths, they don’t exist anymore. We’ve taken away their meaning.

Using but is one of the ways you might – without realizing it – put something you’ve said or written “under erasure.” This is not just some crazy idea that Derrida came up with when he had too much time on his hands. Psychologists have long warned their clients about the landmines hidden in this innocent-looking word. (Anne Wilson Schaef is one psychologist who is very wary of but. She tells her clients to use and instead.)

Well, I use but every day. I don’t think you have to take it out of the dictionary! And yes, I start sentences with but all the time. (Every professional writer going back at least to Shakespeare’s day does the same thing.) Here’s the thing, though – I use but carefully.

But erases what goes before it. Read these sentences, and you’ll see what I mean:

I trust Abigail, but sometimes she doesn’t tell the truth.

The weather report predicted rain, but I’m seeing blue skies.

I enjoyed my graduate program, but I can’t wait to finish.

Suddenly it sounds like you don’t trust Abigail, you don’t think it’s going to rain, and you didn’t really enjoy your graduate program.

Those sentences have lost some of their power because but weakens what went before. That subtle truth is really apparent in the partial sentence I put at the beginning of today’s post:

I’m a dedicated teacher, but….

No matter what you put after but (“I don’t think I should have to do bus duty,” “there’s too much unnecessary paperwork,” “I can’t meet everyone’s needs when there are 40 kids in my class”), the sentence loses some of its punch. She doesn’t sound quite as dedicated as she claims to be.

I told the beleaguered teacher on Quora to substitute and for but. Amazing: suddenly the sentence gets bigger and stronger!

I’m a dedicated teacher, and I don’t think I should have to do bus duty.

I’m a dedicated teacher, and there’s too much unnecessary paperwork.

I’m a dedicated teacher, and I can’t meet everyone’s needs when there are 40 kids in my class.

Here’s one more thing to think about: but is especially dangerous when you’re trying to come up with a thesis for an essay or report. Suddenly you have two main ideas, not just one, and you’ve lost your direction before you even start. It’s sort of like seeing a road veer off in two directions – and trying to drive down both of them.

Immigration is a serious problem in our country, but we need immigration labor to supplement our workforce.  TWO OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS

Moral: go ahead and use but whenever you like – but think carefully first. The sentence you save might be your own.

neurons

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

I often see mistakes when sentences start with there’s or there is. Solving them is easy: just flip the sentence around (or flip the beginning of the sentence). Today’s sentence is a perfect example:

There’s three people waiting to talk to you.  INCORRECT

Flip it: Three people are there.

Now you know that are is the correct word:

There are three people waiting to talk to you. CORRECT

You can download a handout that explains subject-verb agreement rules at bit.ly/SubVerbAgreement.

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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.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“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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Revising Sentences III

This week I’ve been talking about revising sentences to make them more effective. This is the the last post in this series. You can read #1 here: https://wp.me/pU98s-3Wf, and you can read #2 here: https://wp.me/pU98s-462.

The sentences come from a story I read recently. (The sentences are slightly disguised.) An inmate is describing an incident in his corridor: Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep.

Bert comes into the corridor and hits and kicks Tony, who falls to the floor. Other inmates grab Bert and call for a medic.

Here’s today’s sentence: I began to be obsessed with thoughts about getting out.

Our inmate narrator is starting to think about an escape – and that’s how I would reword and develop the sentence:

I started thinking about an escape, and soon I couldn’t think about anything else. A friend who worked next to me in the prison laundry noticed how distracted I was. Several times I forgot to remove clean uniforms from a machine when the washing cycle was finished.  STRONGER

When you’re writing fiction, every sentence should try to do one (or more) of three things: move the story along, develop the characters, or create an atmosphere.

That word move is hugely important. Keep things moving! Don’t say “My job was in the laundry.” Remind readers that it’s a prison laundry (and mention uniforms). Make your sentence active: “A friend who worked next to me in the prison laundry…..”

“Began to be obsessed” is flat. Our narrator isn’t doing anything; it’s happening to him. What did he do because he was obsessed? He forgot to remove uniforms from a machine. Now your story is moving.

Here’s another example:

I began to be happy in my new school. WEAK

I started to enjoy my new school. STRONGER

Better yet, add some actions. “By the end of the first week, I made three new friends.” “For the first time ever, algebra started to make sense to me.”

Keep it moving!

prison uniform on a hanger

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Revising Sentences II

This week’s topic is revising sentences. I’m suggesting some rewrites for sentences in a story I read recently (it’s been disguised). This is the second of three posts. (You can read my first post at this link.)

Here’s the situation: An inmate is describing a violent incident in his corridor. Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep. Bert comes out of his cell and punches Tony.

Today’s sentences:

Tony hit the floor, curling up like a newborn. “Oh, no!” I muttered aloud. Bert administered a kick to the face of Tony, who was still prone.

There’s a lot to like here. We’re seeing action. (“Hit the floor” is wonderful!) We’re getting a picture of what happened to poor Tony. Even better, our narrator is reacting (always important when you’re writing fiction). One more nice point is that the attack on Tony is broken into parts – after Tony hit the floor, he got a kick.

My comments:

  • Separate “hit the floor” and “curled up like a newborn.” Don’t rush when you tell a story. Give each action its own sentence.
  • “Muttered aloud” unnecessary. You can’t mutter silently!
  • “Administered a kick” is…bad. You kicked him. No fancy words unless they’re absolutely necessary.
  • Prone is an objective word that’s suitable for a medical textbook. It doesn’t convey the agitated feelings in that prison corridor.

Here’s my version:

Tony hit the concrete floor with a thud. “Shit,” I muttered. A thought formed – I should go out and help – and dissolved just as quickly. Bert was a lot bigger than me. 

Two of the old-timers – big guys who lived in our corridor – made a lunge for Bert, but he managed to kick Tony one time before they grabbed him.

Tony lay on the floor, shuddering and curled up like a newborn. Nick (in for fifteen years on a murder conviction, but a nice guy) hollered “Medic! Medic!” to the officer on duty at the bottom of the stairs.

Revise!

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September 11, 2001

Today’s guest author is Janis Koike. I think you’ll be as moved by this true story as I was.

A Day That Changed America and a Few Words That Said a Thousand

By Janis Koike

The telephone rang just as I hit “Enter” to install a new database upgrade for the Mosaic company in Bartow. “This is Janis,” I said in my office voice. A familiar voice responded, “Mom.” Strange, my children never called me at work. “What’s up?” “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.” I heard screams. The voice continued, “I gotta go.” My son Michael lived and worked across the street from the World Trade Center.

I left my office and walked down the hall. I repeated my son’s message. “A terror attack,” my co-worker responded. He ran into the conference room and turned on the TV. The next few hours mirrored the experience of many. My son was probably OK. My daughter lived just a few blocks from the Pentagon, but worked in Reston. She was probably OK, too.

Michael had just graduated from college and was a new resident of the city. Returning to his apartment was not an option. He knew no one, except the Martinez family on Park Avenue. Their son Romy had been Michael’s roommate in prep school; and throughout high school and college, Michael had spent weekends with the family. So accompanied by so many others who headed north, he spent most of the day walking the crowded streets and wondering. Late afternoon, as Michael greeted the doorman of the Park Avenue apartment building, a woman came running out. “Michael,” Mrs. Martinez cried, “We have been watching for you all day. Where have you been?” A meaningless question perhaps, but the emotion prevailed.

The rest of Michael’s story reflects that of so many. He was displaced from his apartment for about a week, but then went back to work, looking occasionally at the scraps of paper which covered the streets – pieces of people’s lives: spreadsheets, menus, memos, receipts. Did the owner make it or not?

Some years later, Michael was invited to be a groomsman and offer a toast at Romy’s wedding. He would be the last to speak. Every compliment would have already been bestowed upon the Harvard and Yale Law School graduate. Michael asked what I thought. “Short and sweet,” I responded. But then I had a better idea. Why not honor the Martinez family with the 911 story, just a few words to portray a warm, truly caring family. And he did. 

The room stood and applauded.

Flags at half staff remembering 9-11-2001 NYC

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Revising Sentences I

Today’s topic is revising sentences…or perhaps I should say that this week’s topic is revising sentences. There will be two more posts with this theme.

I started thinking about revisions when I came across a short story that I thought I would enjoy – but I stopped reading after a few paragraphs.

The writing was grammatical, and the story was interesting. So what was wrong? The story lacked powerful sentences to drive the action along.

I’ve selected four sentences (and disguised them in case the author happens to visit my blog!). Today I’ll talk about the first sentence.

An inmate is describing an incident in his corridor: Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep.

Here’s today’s sentence, adapted from the original story:

I was standing next to the door of my cell, watching what was going on in the corridor, when Bert, one of the inmates, rose from his bed and calmly approached Tony.

Here’s my feedback. (I’m sure that many of you can come up with better revisions than I did! I’d love to hear from you.)

1.  Although the story is about an inmate, there’s no prison feeling here. I worked in a prison for three years: it was crowded, and there was a lot of tension.

2.  The inmate narrator doesn’t have a personality and a voice. He’s not reacting to where he is or what’s going on. He could be standing in the front yard of a suburban house, looking at his neighborhood.

3. There’s too much information crammed into the sentence. The story would be more interesting if we could watch the action unfold, a step at a time.

My suggested revision:

When you’re in prison, peace and quiet are hard to come by. It was “free time” (hah!) when cell doors were open and we could roam the corridor, but I was trying to avoid the hubbub outside.

I was working on a poem for Kathy when I heard a commotion in the corridor. It was Tony and Cal again, talking much too loudly about something that had gone wrong in the prison kitchen that morning. I didn’t mind them talking. Hell, you need friends in a place like this. But did we have to hear every word of it?

I went back to my poem. I was just finishing the last line when I heard a clang from the iron door in the cell next to mine. Bert was on the move.

Bert did shift work in the prison, and sleep was hard for him to come by. I’d seen him flip out when the sleep deprivation was too much to bear. He once told me he welcomed the occasional trips to the detention block where inmates were sent for breaking the rules. “You get to sleep for eight hours,” he said.

Hands gripping bars of a prison cell

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Keywords

If you’re a writer, you know that a writing project often has a mind of its own. There are lots of battles, and the project usually wins.

The book I’m writing about Shaw is taking the usual course of fighting me every step of the way. I have a graveyard of chapters that hit a brick wall after three or four pages.

This week has been typical. The writing seemed to get off to a roaring start. Monday morning, on a legal pad, I scratched out an outline for the first half of a chapter and then dictated a rough draft into my phone.  (Evernote automatically converted it into text – I love you, Evernote!)

But the next morning I read what I had dictated and was horrified. Not a single keyword had made it into the draft. @#$%&!

Flashback: when I was starting my doctoral dissertation, my wonderful advisor – Dick Dietrich – gave me some supremely useful advice (which I didn’t always follow, alas): find a key idea and keep hammering away at it.

In order to do that, you need keywords that match your ideaThis book-in-progress has two big themes: language and metadrama. I am happy to tell you that I came up with a nice list of keywords: words, Derrida, Platomargin, definition, imagination, and erasure (for “language”) and role-playing, drama, acting, natural, artificial, and performance (for “metadrama”).

(If you’re savvy about language theory, you already know what I’m going to say next: there’s a lot of overlapping between the two lists. That overlap will help me write a unified book.)

Back to my writing struggles. Turns out there’s hope after all. This morning I woke up with a revised outline in my head, just waiting for me to put it on paper. I grabbed a legal pad and took it with me for a breakfast get-together with a close friend. I had just finished scribbling when she sat down at our table.

Yes, there are keywords galore in this latest version. Thank you, thank you, O writing gods!

But my brain is fried right now, so I’m going to do just a quick once-over on two random language points that have been on my mind for this blog:

1. I refuse to use “that of.” Here’s a sentence I wrote on Quora this morning:

Her English was better than some college graduates I’ve met.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to write “Her English was better than that of some college graduates I’ve met.” My admittedly ungrammatical version sounds natural, and there’s no confusion over the meaning. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem.

2.  I just came across a question on Quora about how to respond to someone’s personal opinion about a controversial topic. Folks, all opinions are personal. Ditch personal.

I hope your day started out as well as mine did!hammer and nai

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Capital Letters

Here’s a surefire way to stump your friends: Ask them whether it’s correct to capitalize Mother.

Or is it mother?

The answer, of course, is that sometimes Mother is correct; at other times it should be mother.

How, pray, can you tell when to use the capital letter? The conventional answer is to use the capital letter when it’s her name, like this:

I called Mother for her birthday. CORRECT

When it’s a role in life, use lower case:

Any mother appreciates a phone call on her birthday. CORRECT

A useful trick here is to remember that you always capitalize names: Joe, Clare, Fido, Cinderella.

But if you still find yourself getting stumped once in a while, try asking yourself who you’re talking to. I know – you’re wondering how that will help. But if you try it, surprisingly often the confusion will clear right up.

Here’s why: when you’re talking to a family member, “Dad” is clearly his name: “I talked to Dad this morning.” When you’re talking to someone else, “dad” is clearly a role: “I’m taking my dad to a baseball game this weekend.”

Let’s try these sentences:

I’m helping dad clean out the garage this weekend.

You’re welcome to bring your dad to the awards dinner.

In the first sentence, you’re clearly talking to a family member. In your little circle, “Dad” is his name. Use a capital letter.

In the second sentence, you’re talking to someone outside your family. If that dad indeed came to the dinner, you’d probably call him “Mr. Whatever.” He’s not your dad. Use lower case.

Here are the corrected sentences:

I’m helping Dad clean out the garage this weekend. CORRECT

You’re welcome to bring your dad to the awards dinner. CORRECT

And here’s one more clue: If you use “my” or “your,” the person usually isn’t a family member. You’ll probably use lower case.

father playing with his son

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The Rest Room

If you decide to skip today’s post, I won’t blame you. It’s about…toilets.

I just read an extraordinary article (Prescriptive and Descriptive Labels, by Jorge Arango) about – yes – toilets. Arango doesn’t mention Derrida or postmodern language theory. But if you’re interested in language (his real topic), the article is worth reading.

Most of us naively think that naming is all about slapping labels onto things. Not true. Naming almost always involves something else as well: classifying things. It’s a subtle process, easily overlooked, that has colossal implications for how we think, how we relate to others, and how we live our lives.

Jorge Arango’s article is about choices for a public restroom door. Suppose you were opening a new business, and you were getting ready to put a sign on the restrooms. Instead of the traditional picture of a woman on one door, and a man on the other, you could do something different. One restroom door could have this picture:

toilet sign

And the other restroom door could have this picture:

toilet and urinal

Suddenly everything changes. Customers of both sexes have a choice – handy if it’s a busy time (the ladies’ room often has a line, while the men’s room often doesn’t).

This set-up (actually used in the coffeeshop of the building where Arango works) has some unexpected advantages. It eliminates arguments about which bathrooms transvestites and transgender persons should use. And it makes life easier for parents with young children of the opposite sex. Mom doesn’t feel quite right taking little Junior into the ladies’ room with her – but he’s not yet ready to cope with the men’s room by himself. And what father really wants to take a little girl into the men’s room with him?

It would also challenge us to re-examine some of our assumptions about everyday life. In the US, it’s almost unthinkable that a man would enter a woman’s rest room, and vice versa. But when I traveled in Mexico, I often visited restrooms with male attendants, and I quickly got used to it.

Of course there’s a reason this restroom arrangement doesn’t cause problems in the coffeeshop in Arango’s building: the restrooms are single-use only. But it is really inconceivable that a bigger public restroom couldn’t be designed with the urinals placed at – say – an angle so that women don’t have to look at them?

If you’ve hung in this far, I hope you’re starting to realize that my point isn’t about public restrooms at all. I’m trying to show that what you name something makes a difference. Replacing traditional Men/Women restroom signs with Toilet and Toilet + Urinal would generate some rethinking and might even lead to some changes in behavior.

That is what great writers do with words. The book I’m working on right now is going to have some examples of how Shaw played with words to shake up our thinking. Here’s one example, from Shaw’s play Major Barbara: How do you classify poverty? There are four possibilities:

  • a virtue (religious men and women take a vow of poverty)
  • an immutable fact of life (the Bible says “the poor we will always have with us”)
  • a product of laziness and other character defects
  • a crime against society

After you’ve read Shaw’s Preface to Major Barbara, you’ll never be able to say “the deserving poor” or “poor but honest” again. Those phrases – which fall trippingly from the tongues of so many people – will no longer make sense to you.

Great writers often make commonplace words and ideas suddenly seem shockingly different. Can you do that? You might have the makings of another Bernard Shaw in your soul.

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A Cup of Coffee and a Dream

If you are serious about becoming a writer, something you absolutely have to do is cultivate a relationship with a coffee shop.

Here’s advice from Natalie Goldberg, author of the classic book Writing Down the Bones:

Go hungry so you will want to eat….Also if you are taking up a table for a few hours, leave more than the ordinary tip. The waitress makes money on table turnover, and you are staying longer than your turn. Do not show up at lunch or dinner when they are the most crowded. Go at the end of rush hour when the waitress will be glad to see you, because she is very tired and knows you won’t order a lot and don’t expect fast service.

(How times change! Back in 1986, when Goldberg published Writing Down the Bones, it was still ok to say “waitress” instead of “server.”)

What hasn’t changed is the soundness of Goldberg’s advice. Remember J.K. Rowling? She wrote much of the first Harry Potter book in the Elephant House coffee shop in Edinburgh. She had an advantage: Her brother-in-law was the owner. But she also was on to something.

I did much of the prewriting for both my doctoral dissertation and my book about George Bernard Shaw in a very crowded, very noisy coffee shop. It was not at all conducive to concentration, and I remember that I read the first chapter of Michael Ryan’s Marxism and Deconstruction – for example at least twenty times before I thoroughly understood it.

Twenty times? Any sensible person would say that was an inefficient way to go about it. Any sensible person who’s not a serious writer, that is. Here’s the point: I don’t think I would have read Marxism and Deconstruction over and over without that coffee shop. It’s a dense and difficult book, and even in the best of conditions I would have had to read it over and over before I could make sense of it.

Writing can be tedious and frustrating. It’s great to be talented, but talent alone won’t keep you going. What separates the amateurs from the pros is persistence. And that’s where a friendly server, frequent refills, and some lively background noise can be a lifesaver.

“Lively background noise” probably doesn’t sound like a prescription for sustained critical thinking. But look at it this way: You’ll learn how to concentrate. And relaxing in pleasant surroundings works much better for writing than lonely boredom.

Still another advantage is that it’s easy to get into a writing routine. I looked forward to lingering over my cup of coffee every evening (not to mention escaping from all the yucky tasks waiting to be done at home).

That evening ritual gave me an incentive to sort the notes I was working on, pack everything up, and head for the coffee shop to work.

One more advantage: It’s fun to tell curious onlookers that you’re that most exotic of creatures – a writer.

cup of coffee

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Parallel Construction

Here’s a skill for you to work on: parallel construction. This skill is useful, easy to learn, and rare. (That sentence is an example of parallelism.)

Even professional writers regularly go astray when they try to write sentences that feature parallelism. Or perhaps the problem is that they don’t try.

Here’s a sentence with parallelism:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. CORRECT

(BTW: Did Abraham Lincoln really start a sentence with but? Yes, he did – as good writers often do.)

Here’s another parallel sentence:

Give me liberty, or give me death. CORRECT

Imagine Abraham Lincoln saying “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, and the ground can’t be hallowed.” Painful to your ears, isn’t it? And imagine Patrick Henry saying “Give me liberty, or you can kill me.” Not quite the same effect.

So what do you need to know about parallelism?

1.  All the parts need to match.

2.  If you’re writing a sentence with three parts, the third one will be the problem. Guaranteed.

3.  A useful trick is to write the sentence in question like a little poem. Make sure all three parts match a word near the beginning.

4.  An easy solution to parallelism problems is to break the sentence into two shorter ones.

Sound complicated? It really isn’t. Let’s try one.

For his birthday we’re treating George to dinner, giving him a gift certificate, and he’s taking the day off from work.

Here’s the same sentence, written like a little poem:

For his birthday we’re

-treating George to dinner

-giving him a gift certificate, and

-he’s taking the day off from work.

“He’s taking the day off from work” doesn’t go with we’re. So the sentence needs to be fixed. Usually the easiest solution is to make two sentences, like this:

For his birthday we’re treating George to dinner and giving him a gift certificate. He’s taking the day off from work. CORRECT

Parallelism is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Look for examples (they’re everywhere!) and practice fixing them. Soon you’ll be an expert.

Parallel railroad tracks

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