The Holy City

True story.

My friend Joan and some Catholic friends were praying for a priest friend, Father John, who was making a trip to the Holy City. “It’s such a volatile part of the world,” Joan said. “I don’t know why he would go to Jerusalem now.”

Eventually Father John returned to the parish safe and sound. When the women told him about their prayers, he responded with a hearty laugh – the Holy City was New York!

I’m with him on that. I’m preparing for my own trip to New York next week, and of course I’m excited. Friends have been asking me about the trip (a Broadway play, a ballet, two art exhibits, and more). Often their parting words are “Be safe!” It’s a mantra that’s supposed to reassure me, but instead my brain starts to conjure up the opposite of safe – images of a mugger, gunman, or plane crash.

Blame language. So often we fashion a string of words to convey a particular message – only to discover that a shadow message has joined it.

You tell a friend how attractive she looks today, and she worries about what she looks like the rest of the time, or – worse – reports you for sexual harassment.  You tell a child that there’s nothing to be scared of at the amusement park – and she panics and has to be taken home. You warn a teenager about the enticements of street drugs  – and hear yourself listing all the reasons for experimenting with them.

I had a life-changing moment in graduate school when I heard my mentor, Richard F. Dietrich, make an offhand remark about Bernard Shaw: “I think of Shaw as a writer struggling with language.”

I was bewildered. In my mind, world-class authors didn’t struggle with language: That was a problem for college freshmen. That remark set me on a quest to figure out what this “struggle” might be. Slowly I began to see that Shaw indeed was a man struggling with language – and that he came out on the losing side of more than one battle.

We all do.

I’m planning some posts about the potholes and roadblocks that we’re likely to stumble over as we tackle a writing task.

But there’s no time for that right now because I need to pack a suitcase. I’ll be returning to this topic in future posts.

Times Square

                                   Times Square

Photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia


 

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

 

I nominate this error for the most common mistake on Facebook! The correct word in this sentence is you’re (a contraction of you are).

If you’re interested in our nursing program, come to the open house on Friday afternoon.  CORRECT

 


Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell Youcan be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.

What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed

“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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Fighting the Trend

In my recent post about Harriet Tubman and Andrew Jackson, I deliberately made an error  – at least in the minds of some editors:

Many progressives are pleased that the Treasury Department decided to replace President Andrew Jackson’s picture with Harriet Tubman.

What’s the mistake? I didn’t use that of:

Many progressives are pleased that the Treasury Department decided to replace President Andrew Jackson’s picture with that of Harriet Tubman.

Here’s the reason. I hate that of. It’s clumsy, I distrust it, and I refuse to use it. I’ve lived a long life, and I have a sharp eye. I don’t recall seeing the irritating that of very much in the past. I think it’s a recent fetish, and I refuse to sign on.

(Some of you may be thinking that there’s an alternative that bypasses the problem, and you’re right: Many progressives are pleased that the Treasury Department decided to replace President Andrew Jackson’s picture with Harriet Tubman’s. That was actually my first version – but then I wouldn’t have had a jumping-off point for today’s post!)

Back to that of. Here’s a typical example that sets my teeth on edge:

The monthly condo fee in Springside is higher than that of Rosedale.

Here’s an alternative that I like better:

The monthly condo fee in Springside is higher than Rosedale’s.

But some authorities forbid this usage on the grounds that buildings are inanimate and can’t be owners. A pox on them. People use possessives that way all the time:

The building’s exits need to be clearly marked.

If objects can’t be owners, there would be no need for a possessive form of it:

My favorite blouse is missing one of its buttons.

The rules of English usage – as I never tire of saying – are created by the people who actually use the language. Don’t let anyone use a convoluted logical principle to talk you into adopting an awkward construction.

The Association Fallacy in Formal Logic

         The Association Fallacy in Formal Logic

 

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Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman?

Who should be featured on the new $20 bill – Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman?

Many progressives were pleased when the Treasury Department decided to replace President Andrew Jackson’s picture with Harriet Tubman. Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, is one writer who favors the change.

(Allow me a detour for a moment: Robinson’s column is an example of stellar writing. That’s not surprising, since Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize winner. If you read the column, you’ll learn not only about Tubman and Jackson, but also about writing.)

Tubman was an escaped slave who returned to the South to lead 70 other slaves to freedom. During the Civil War, she led a raid on plantations along the Combahee River that freed more than 750 slaves. Robinson says she was probably “the first woman to lead U.S. troops in an armed assault.”

Now let’s turn to Andrew Jackson. Before he became President, he was a military hero who won the pivotal Battle of New Orleans. But he was also the driving force behind the “Trail of Tears” that robbed thousands of Native Americans of their tribal lands and – in many cases – their lives.

Robinson calls that undertaking “genocidal.” But a number of commentators feel that Jackson’s military success and Presidential accomplishments more than offset the harm wrought by the Trail of Tears – former Presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, for example. (I was appalled by his column, but I’m providing the link so that you can read it yourself.)

This blog is about writing, not history, so I’m going to change my focus here and explain why I’ve been thinking about the Tubman vs. Jackson debate in the context of writing. What interests me is the link to a thorny issue – modes of development.

If you take a college composition course, at some point you’ll study modes of development: Narrative, Comparison/Contrast, Definition, Process, Classification, and Cause/Effect. The model paragraphs and essays in your textbook will probably be lists of boring information: The steps in changing the oil in your car. The differences between sports cars and sedans.

Most textbooks don’t provide the slightest clue about why you’re studying these modes and how they apply to real-world writing. The fact is that very few workplace tasks call for a specific mode. Yes, you might be asked to write a narrative about a business trip, or a comparison/contrast report about new models of copy machines. But most people I’ve talked to say they rarely use modes of development the way they’re taught in schools and colleges.

So the modes are a waste of time, right? Wrong! Modes of development are highly useful if you combine them. If you’re defending – say – the decision to feature Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill, you could include a narrative paragraph (the story of her life), a comparison paragraph (stacking Tubman against other historical figures), and a contrast paragraph (demonstrating why her accomplishments matter more than Jackson’s).

Many workplace writing projects can benefit from a similar integration of various modes. Sadly, though, few textbooks encourage students to take that step.

It takes time to develop skill with these modes, but the investment in time and energy will pay huge dividends. Start learning about them, and start looking for them in your everyday reading. You’ll be surprised how useful they are – and your own writing will benefit.

$20 bill

 

 

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We the People…

Today you’re getting a bonus – two bonuses, in fact. My primary objective is to clear up an apostrophe issue with the word people. You’ll also get a linguistics lesson, and you’ll learn an unusual rule about plurals.

I’m going to begin with a tale from my early days as a college English instructor. A major publisher had just issued the first edition of a comprehensive English handbook that is still in print, many editions and millions of copies later.

And there, in an example box, was a sentence containing the word peoples’. Gack: The apostrophe should have been before the s – people’s. And this in an English handbook!

Nobody – not the author, the editor, or the copyeditor – caught the mistake. It was too late for the publisher to do anything about it: The book had already been printed and distributed. (The mistake was corrected in the next edition.) 

You don’t have to be clairvoyant to figure out how that mistake happened. Apostrophes are usually (and stupidly) taught with a rule that goes like this: “Before the s if it’s singular, after the s if it’s plural, but before the s if it’s a special plural – a plural that doesn’t end with s, such as men, women, children, and people.

Of course many people (ha!) immediately forget about those special plurals, and that’s how we end up with mistakes like “childrens’ health” and “Dr. Reynold’s office.”

There’s an easier way. Just spell the word or name, and put the apostrophe after the last letter. This trick will work 100% of the time.

Dr. Reynolds – Dr. Reynolds‘ office

children – children‘s health

people – people‘s wishes

But some of you whose knowledge of English is deep and broad are protesting that peoples’ wishes can be correct in some circumstances. You’re right!

Anthropologists use people to signify the members of a nation, community, or ethnic group. A diverse country or region would be inhabited by various peoples. So, for example, you could talk about “the peoples of Australia.”

If you’re a royalty fan, you probably remember a famous story about King George VI (father of the present Queen) and an exchange with some of his subjects during the Blitz. On one of his visits to a bombed-out neighborhood, someone called out, “Thank God for a good king!” His quick-thinking response was, “Thank God for a good people!”

Most of us would have said “Thank God for good people” – but his choice of a good people reinforced the idea of British unity.

Back to peoples. Scientists often use plurals to signify diversity. If you keep goldfish in an aquarium, they’re fish. But if the tank holds several species – angelfish, tetras, and gouramis – they’re fishes.

One topic remains: That lesson in linguistics I promised you.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White contains this astonishing injunction (which I’m going to debunk in a moment):  “The word people is not to be used with words of number, in place of persons. If of ‘six people’ five went away, how many ‘people’ would be left?”

There’s some linguistic history behind this silly rule. Our word people traces its origin back to the Latin word populum (“the population”). Clearly populum can’t be used with a number. The proper Latin word for an individual is persona. So it makes sense that you can’t talk about “six people.”

Except that you can.

The golden rule for language is that rules are made by the people (persons?) who use that language. If you do a Google search, you’ll discover that professional writers use people with a number all the time. Here’s an example from a March 1 article in the Washington Post:

Six people were shot and wounded — one of them critically — in Southeast Washington on Monday afternoon and early Tuesday, according to D.C. police.

If you check the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the history of words in English, you’ll discover that writers have been using people with a number as far as Chaucer.

But what about that etymology problem? The answer is that a word’s origin doesn’t determine its meaning: Common usage does. Think of the word manuscript, for example. The original Latin means “written by hand.” But if you submitted a handwritten manuscript to a publisher today, it would be unceremoniously tossed in the trash.

I hope you enjoyed today’s triple lesson (and the nod to royalty!).

King George VI

    King George VI

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The “Because” Problem

Charlie used to have an editor who hated the word because. If because made its way into one of his gardening columns, she would call and ask him to change it. Luckily, after a short period she was promoted to a more important editorial position where she could presumably inflict her misinformation on an even larger group of writers. 

Because is a useful word, and a few minutes with a dictionary or Google could have cleared up that misguided editor’s mistake.

Where did her phobia come from? Very likely she’d had an English instructor who made the sensible observation that because ideas can be confusing. But that doesn’t mean you have to banish because from your writing. The remedy is to double-check the sentence for clarity.

I started thinking about the because problem this week when a confusing sentence popped up in an email I was writing. Oops! Here it is:

Charlie does as much of the palm pruning as he can even though a landscape crew comes every week because workers tend to butcher the trees.

Technically it’s a dangling modifier, sounding as if the crew comes every week because the trees are butchered. Wrong!

After some experimentation I came up with this solution:

Even though a landscape crew comes every week, Charlie does most of the palm pruning  himself. Workers tend to butcher the trees and can’t be trusted to do the job properly.

Here’s some writing advice you might find helpful: When a sentence is fighting all of your attempts to fix it, try rewriting it as two sentences. Often that trick works like magic.

And here’s some advice if you own palm trees: Never cut off a green or yellow leaf – and don’t allow landscape workers to cut off those leaves either. You can learn more here.

pruning saw Commons

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Updates

My friend Lois Smith had some interesting responses to two recent blog posts.

You may remember that I asked my husband to rescue a lizard that turned out to be a carpet stain in a hallway. I was impressed that Charlie made a connection to military camouflage, which often tries to make something flat look three dimensional.

Lois made another connection – to facial recognition, which she says “is why we see things in the dark, and in ink blots – see two women in hats, facing each other in that famous illustration, etc.  So I’m thinking our facial recognition slips over to other recognitions, like lizard stains.”

Intriguing! Thanks, Lois.

Lois also had some thoughts about a grammar issue I discussed in a recent post. I was comparing these two sentences:

The arena is big.

The arena is west of here.

In the first sentence, big is an adjective modifying a noun – arena. But in the second sentence, west is an adverb. Adverbs don’t modify nouns. What’s going on here?

Lois dug into her memory bank and came up with the term predicate adverb from grammar lessons in elementary school.

I looked it up, and Lois is right – but it seems to be a questionable term. Most grammar websites don’t mention it.

Here’s what I think happened: At some point a grammarian noticed this anomaly – an adverb with a copulative verb. Aughhh! Formal grammar doesn’t allow anomalies. And so the term “predicate adverb” was invented to cover this situation.

To put it another way: Language – not grammar – is primary. I suspect that many hallowed grammar rules were invented by grammarians trying to cover gaps in their theories.

There’s a lesson here for all of us: Language – not grammar categories – should always be our first priority.

And now I want to veer off to another topic: Feedback. Writing posts for this blog has show me again and again how important it is for writers to have a living, responsive audience (and not just a copyeditor or teacher who makes corrections).

Feedback for this blog shows up in the Comments section and in responses from friends in conversations and emails. Even though I have a plugin that gives me detailed statistics about activity on my blog, there’s nothing like a thoughtful response from a real, live reader.

You’re reading this post because you’re a writer. Who regularly gives you feedback? If the answer is “no one,” please find a support group!

compass-32477_640

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A Royal Birthday

Queen Elizabeth II turns 90 today.

Hip, hip, hurrah!

I have been fascinated by the Queen since childhood, and my favorite book has long been The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford, nicknamed Crawfie by the royal family.  Crawfie was the governess to Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, when they were growing up. It amuses my husband no end to come upon me reading The Little Princesses yet again (and again and again). “Are you sure you have a Ph.D. in English literature?” he’ll say.

OK, I get it. My favorite book is a sentimental bit of fluff. I have lapses and failings just like everyone else.

Except that lately I’ve begun to revise my opinion of The Little Princesses. Upward. I’ve decided that it really is a great book, and today I’m going to talk about why.

One reason is the historical information in the book. Readers get an up-close-and-personal look at the abdication of Edward VII and its effect on the princesses and their parents. Even more interesting are the descriptions of everyday life during World War II: rationing, coupons, air raids, gas masks, trenches…all seen through the eyes of Crawfie and her young charges. The princesses mix with refugees evacuated to Scotland when London becomes too dangerous. Princess Elizabeth is trained as a military mechanic. Crawfie herself has to register for military service.

Equally impressive is the quality of the writing. It is Crawfie who makes this book so remarkable – or, more precisely, the anonymous ghostwriter who turned Crawfie’s original manuscript into a bestseller. It’s a shame that we’ll never know who actually wrote the final draft, because it is such a model of good writing.

Here’s what I’m talking about. When I work with memoir writers, I relentlessly remind them to insert themselves into the stories they’re telling. “React,” I preach again and again. “Never allow anything to happen without a response from you.” Crawfie – present on every page of The Little Princesses – exemplifies that advice.

Here, for example, is a snippet from Crawfie’s account of the abdication:

On December 3, 1936, the newspapers carried a grim headline: THE KING AND HIS MINISTERS. GREAT CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS. I had been out. I bought an evening paper just outside in Hamilton Gardens, and I remember I read the headline while I waited for the door to open.

And here’s an excerpt from Crawfie’s account of the coronation in 1937 (“Lilibet” was Princess Elizabeth’s nickname):

When they finally got home again, I asked Lilibet, “Well, did Margaret behave nicely?”
“She was wonderful, Crawfie. I only had to nudge her once or twice when she played with the prayer books too loudly.”

 The Little Princesses exemplifies the “show – don’t tell” principle that many writers never quite get a handle on. Crawfie doesn’t step back and reflect: She takes us into the royal household with her so that we can watch the two princesses grow up. Because Crawfie is always there, so are we. As a result everyone in the book – even the royal pets – is right before us, lively and real. Even if you aren’t as besotted with the Queen as I am, you might be surprised by how much fun it is to read this book.

Happy birthday, Your Majesty!

The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford

                The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford

 

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Annie Besant

Whenever I visit New York, I spend hours walking around Manhattan. A favorite stop used to be the East West Living Bookstore at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street (sadly, it closed its doors in 2010). It was a mystical place that sold incense and other spiritual accessories, along with a wide selection of books about depth psychology I couldn’t find anywhere else in those pre-Amazon days.

One sunny afternoon while I was searching for a book by Carl Jung, I spotted a brightly colored display of brand-new paperbacks on a countertop. Curious, I walked over to take a look. It was a set of books by Annie Besant.

I reeled.

Annie Besant was a British political activist and author I had encountered in my Shaw studies. She was a revolutionary thinker who was far ahead of her time (1847-1933). (Heck – she would probably be ahead of her time if she were living today.)

Shaw – a revolutionary thinker himself – had been romantically entangled until her until she broke his heart by giving up politics for theosophy, a mystical approach to enlightenment. Her writing created a minor sensation for a time back in the late 1800s and then fell into obscurity.

But there in front of me was a sparkling display of her books, looking as if they’d just been published. It was as if I’d stepped into a time machine. I abandoned my search for the book by Jung and stumbled to the door.

When I stepped outside, I was sure I was going to bump into a youthful Shaw and some of his friends on the sidewalk. I staggered down Fifth Avenue, oblivious to taxis, pedestrians, and flashing DON’T WALK signs, until modern-day New York finally reclaimed my consciousness.


All writers are time travelers. That doesn’t mean that we need an extensive background in history and literature. It does mean we’re alive on some level we can’t explain and stirred by things incomprehensible even to those nearest and dearest to us.

And it means we’re constantly tossed back and forth between the need for self-discipline – lots of it – and the necessity for wandering down twisting streets that apparently lead nowhere.

I would have been a much better college student if I’d spent less time listening to the Beatles, mooning over Richard Burton, and standing in line for cheap tickets to see Nureyev and Fonteyn. And I would be a better Shaw scholar if I’d systematically read all the major works by and about GBS instead of gobbling up books by Jung, Fromm, and Hillman.

But I wouldn’t be as good a writer.

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Distractions – For and Against

Distractions are bad. Except when they’re good.

Here’s a useful rule of thumb for writers: Don’t distract your readers. They shouldn’t have to stop to look up a word or allusion. They shouldn’t be confused by a character’s puzzling or inconsistent behavior. Sentences should make sense the first time they’re read. If you’re writing words or phrases in a foreign language, the context should make the meaning clear.

I’m thinking right now of one of my all-time favorite books, The Hatter’s Phantoms by Georges Simenon. (Go to the Barnes & Noble website if you decide to buy it – the description of the book at Amazon.com gives too much away.) 

Why would I read a mystery over and over? Surely I know all the twists and turns by now. The answer is that The Hatter’s Phantoms makes me feel as if I’m in a small town in France, and I love that feeling.

Good writing is like that. Your everyday reality dissolves, and you find yourself living someone else’s life, or embracing their ideas, or taking on their problems or successes. Nothing should be allowed to break that spell.

Simenon (a Belgian novelist who was one of the world’s best-selling writers) was a master at drawing you in to the characters and settings of his books. Pick up anything he’s written (his Inspector Maigret mysteries are wonderful) – and you’re off to France, the setting he chose for most of his books.

But sometimes distractions are good. Sometimes (and this is a postmodern idea) writers want to call attention to themselves. Writers with an agenda employ various strategies to ensure that you hear their voices while you’re reading – quite a trick, when you think about it, but some writers (Bernard Shaw was one) are masters at it.

I’m about halfway through Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On, a marvelous book about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. Corrigan’s writing is so good – often so clever – that I keep putting the book down to take a breath and wonder how she does it.

And then there are writers who take on someone else’s voice. I’m thinking of the five-year-old boy who narrates Emma Donoghue’s Room (one of the best novels I’ve ever read). In order to figure out what he’s talking about, you have to become a five-year-old yourself.

And now two things are going on inside your head. You’re making plans to get your hands on one of the books I’ve recommended, and you’re also trying to figure out how distractions – which seem to be a bad thing – can also be beneficial.

I’m trying to get you to question the way you usually write your stories or present your ideas. Most of the time we adopt a traditional third-person, omniscient narrator or expert. There’s a wise, anonymous person offstage who’s doing the talking (as I’m doing here).

But your writing will be richer and more interesting if you try your hand at other possibilities. Invent an “I” to tell your story. You can be a wise old sage, a young person on the brink of adulthood, or a person of the opposite sex. You can take on another identity even if you’re writing nonfiction. Try sounding younger or older, or angrier, or funnier, or…just try something different.

Very likely you’ll return to the traditional third-person, omniscient narrator or expert after your experiment. That’s fine – honest! The benefit is that you will have explored some new writing options, and that experiment will bring new vitality to your writing.

In other words: Make a mess. Fool around. Get it wrong. All writers need to stray from the tried-and-true pathway once in a while. Please give it a try!

wander 2

 

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