He or She?

I just checked my AOL inbox and found the latest email from Grammarly.com there. I get Grammarly emails often, and they’re always fun to read. (I should mention, though, that I insist that what they’re talking about is usage, not grammar. But shouting at my computer screen doesn’t change anything, so I’ve stopped doing it.)

Today’s email features 10 Commandments of Grammar Lovers – mostly exhortations not to be obnoxious when you think someone has broken a grammar rule. 

Here’s what’s really interesting about today’s Commandments: Two of them contain pronoun agreement errors (and another pronoun agreement error showed up in another sentence.)

But maybe there weren’t any pronoun agreement errors. It depends on your point of view.

Here are the sentences I’m talking about:

4. Thou shalt not murder a learner’s passion for grammar by belittling them. (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “belittling him or her.”)

5. Thou shalt not steal another person’s confidence by inappropriately correcting their grammar. (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “correcting his or her grammar.”)

If someone brags about the way they corrected a shopkeeper’s grammatically incorrect sign with a Sharpie or humiliated a public speaker for their poor use of language, stand up to them—don’t side with them.  (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “stand up to him or her – don’t side with him or her.”)

Here’s the point I want to make: The rule that you have to use “he or she” with a singular pronoun is in flux. When a grammar website uses them and their with a singular noun – contrary to what English teachers (like me) have been teaching for centuries – that’s a sure sign that people are rejecting the rule invented by Lindley Murray in the 18th century.

One of my recent posts talked about the change we’re witnessing: http://wp.me/pU98s-1L7. Now I have evidence that I’m not the only one who’s noticing the change!

Editing ok


New Yorkese

Whenever I visit New York, I stay at a lovely little hotel on West 46 Street. It’s right next door to St. Mary the Virgin, a beautiful and historic Episcopal church. Often I can hear the Sunday morning church bells from my room.

Once, on a whim, I signed up for a weekly e-newsletter from St. Mary’s. The articles are interesting and well written, and I have been reading them ever since.

The big news this week is that St. Mary’s has hired a new organist, imported from England. According to the newsletter, this new organist is settling in well: He has already applied for a Social Security number, and he has learned to say schlep.

If you’re not a New Yorker, you might be wondering about schlep. It’s a Yiddish word (derived from Middle High German) that means “walk” or “carry,” but with a distinctive New York feel – a sense of moving along, but having a hard time at it. When New Yorkers schlep something (it’s also a transitive verb), they drag or pull or wrestle with it.

New Yorkers use Yiddish without even thinking about it, to the consternation of other Americans who may not know what we’re talking about. (Finagle? kvetch? mentsch?)

I just looked up schlep on Google and was reminded again why it’s the only search engine I ever use. Google delights me by its apparent ability to read my mind (think of all the possible meanings of “St. Mary the Virgin,” but the New York church came up at the top of the hits). And today there was a bonus – a timeline showing the history of schlep in English. Turns out it started to become popular in the 1950s.

Schlep and its Yiddish kin illustrate a writing problem I wrestle with all the time – or, more accurately, several problems: How much information should I provide for my readers?

Let’s say I’m trying to think of an example for a point I’m making. Do I choose one that my readers will instantly recognize – or one I like better which, however, is somewhat obscure? How much explanation should I give my readers? Should I risk insulting them by explaining something obvious – or is it better to just hope they know what I’m talking about?

That newsletter from St. Mary’s didn’t bother defining schlep, but I did. It’s just one example of the decisions that we writers grapple with every time we sit down at our keyboards.

Did that rector at St. Mary’s have a debate with himself before he inserted schlep into his newsletter? We’ll never know – but what a delight for readers to find it there!

Church_of_St._Mary_the_Virgin_145_West_46th_Street ok


Does Usage Matter?

I subscribe to a website that offers writing tips. A recent post contained two usage errors: A hyphen with an -ly adverb (overly-similar), and two sentences joined with however.

An inner debate began: Should I be charitable, or should I write something in the Comments section?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you already know the answer: I posted a comment (a polite one) with corrections. I don’t do this kind of thing often – honest. But geez. If you’re offering advice to writers, shouldn’t you follow the rules of Standard English?

I got a courteous response that included, however, this astonishing statement: We don’t write formally. We just aim to be understood.

I wrote another comment back (a calm, professional one.) I didn’t say, “Why the hell are you telling writers to use correct punctuation and word choices (I get lots of instructional emails from them) if you don’t think those things matter?”

I did, however, point out that “formally” doesn’t apply here. “Formally” means academic writing (lots of semicolons, no “I,” strict adherence to even obscure usage points).

What we’re really dealing with is the distinction is between colloquial and professional writing.

Here’s what I think:

If you’re a professional writer, you need to know your craft and (a more subtle point) SHOW that you know your craft. Make it clear that you spend a lot of time thinking about words, sentences, and everything that goes with them. You’re always learning something new. And you display (in subtle ways) what you know.

It’s like being a member of a secret club. When I spot, say, a gerundive with a possessive, I mentally reach across the miles to shake hands with the person who wrote that sentence. Ah, I say. You are one of us.

The Club doesn’t require perfection. Lately I’ve been allowing my husband to use an occasional dangling modifier in his gardening columns. (I know how arrogant that sounds. But I’m the one who types the columns, so I get to have the last word about usage.)

I was starting to worry that I was gradually losing my mind – and then I read, in Mary Norris’s Comma Queen, that the New Yorker (the New Yorker! The last holdout for the dieresis and other sticky usage points!) allows an occasional dangling modifier when the sentence would read better that way.

I’ve also decided to go back to pre-Lindley Murray days and allow they with singular pronouns (but not when I’m writing formally).

Who knows what will be next?

But I know what I’m doing. I care. If you’re a professional writer, and you spend time thinking about usage, good for you. Nice to have you in The Club!


Confused ok


Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Merton

I’ve just finished reading Merton & Waugh: A Monk, A Crusty Old Man & The Seven Storey Mountain, by Mary Frances Coady. This is a new book about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who still fascinates readers almost 50 years after his death in 1968. It’s short – under 160 pages – and covers Merton and Waugh’s correspondence between 1948 and 1952.

Merton had just published The Seven Storey Mountain, an account of his conversion and decision to become a monk, and Waugh agreed to edit the British edition. The book became a bestseller and is still in print today, to my bewilderment: I don’t think it’s a great book – in fact I’ve always found Merton unreadable, despite many attempts to like him. So I was interested in how Waugh responded to Merton’s writing in those early years.

Waugh’s advice turned out to be quite ordinary. (Apparently I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t think Merton was a great writer. Sigh.) One problem Waugh noted was Merton’s inconsistent style, which seemed to jump back and forth from lofty to slangy. Another problem was Merton’s tendency to repeat himself. 

Waugh also dealt at some length with Merton’s apparent confusion about who his audience was. In a later letter, Waugh complained that The Ascent (Merton’s examination of mysticism), seemed to be addressing skeptics in one section, advanced students of mysticism in another, and at least two other groups of people in other portions of the book.

I said earlier that I’ve always found Merton unreadable. That’s not entirely accurate. After Merton’s death, the monastery released a collection of posthumous essays called Contemplation in a World of Action. It is…readable, wise, and profound.

So I am wondering if Merton became a spiritual bestseller in spite of his spirituality, not because of it. The voice in those early books is honest and real, and you can hear it in both The Seven Storey Mountain and the letters to Waugh, where Merton complains about the monastery (“a three-ring circus”), censorship, and his publisher’s policies and practices. Merton also talks about saying Mass and praying the rosary, but I never get a sense of him as a man steeped in spirituality.

I’m not saying that he wasn’t holy, but I suspect that the Trappist spiritual tradition never really worked for him, and that’s why he couldn’t write about it in a believable way. But the voice was so powerful that people kept buying Merton’s books anyway.

It seems to me that in Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton finally could say the things he believed in. He talked about the alienation and anxiety that often characterized monastic life, and the ways in which the Trappist tradition – ironically – suppressed the work of the Holy Spirit instead of encouraging it to flourish.

Waugh never noticed any of those problems. One reason, of course, is that he had no experience of monastic life himself. Another reason is that Waugh was beset with his own spiritual difficulties.

Early on he used Merton as a kind of father confessor (even though Merton was about 12 years younger and not yet ordained). Here are the spiritual problems that Waugh discussed in his letters: the absence of loving feelings for his children, his indifference to others, a streak of cruelty, and a lack of remorse or guilt about his failings.

I don’t know if Waugh was ever able to resolve his spiritual problems, but I know where Merton ended up: At a conference center in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had made a presentation at an interfaith conference. Describing himself as “laicized and deinstitutionalized,” he was no longer trying to live within the strict confines of the Trappist tradition.

Merton died in his room at that conference center, apparently electrocuted by a malfunctioning fan. We can only wonder what his next adventure would have been.

The hour or so I spent reading the correspondence between Waugh and Merton reinforced two of my essential beliefs about writing: Have something important to say (I think Merton took many years to get there), and have a voice (it was there for Merton right from the beginning).

After finishing the book, I got out my copy of Contemplation in a World of Action and reread “Final Integration” (my book opened to it immediately – it’s my favorite essay in the book). It’s as fresh as ever. I’m glad Merton lived long enough to discover new ways to integrate spiritual traditions from all over the world – and I’m sorry that Waugh apparently stayed stuck in the same spiritual problems for the rest of his life.

Waugh and Merton

Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Merton


Because, Because, Because

My husband is the garden writer for our local newspaper. Years ago, when he started writing for the paper, he had an editor who had a fetish about the word because. She thought it was a bad word, and if it ever slipped into a column he had written, she would call and tell him to substitute another word.

Ridiculous, of course. Good writers use because all the time.

But over the years I’ve come to realize that because is a tricky word, and her anti-because campaign probably could be traced back to a wise warning from some teacher in her long-forgotten past.

If you’re not careful, the word because can open the door to a dangling modifier. It happened to me in a letter I was writing just this week:

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.

It sounds as if a landscape crew comes because workers butcher trees. The problem is that the because idea comes directly after landscape crew rather than after my reference to Charlie’s free labor for our condominium.

I solved the problem by inserting a pair of commas so that even though a landscape crew comes every week becomes the “soft” part of the sentence. What sticks in your head is the “loud” part: Charlie does as much of the palm pruning as he can. If you read the sentence aloud, you can hear that there’s no possibility of confusion:

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.  BETTER

And that leads me to a major gripe with the way writing is taught. Students endlessly label parts of speech and circle various categories of clauses and phrases. Many students never – not even once – are asked to grapple with the kind of sentence I just used as an example.

Maybe that’s why my husband’s editor was so confused about the word because.

By the way, this is what a palm tree is supposed to look like: thick and green. Never cut a green leaf from a palm tree. Yellowing leaves should be left alone too – the tree draws nutrients from them. (It’s ok to cut totally brown, dead leaves. Here’s a link for more information: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep443)

Sabal ok



Structure, Style, and a Warning about the Word “He”

I’ve been going through some old copies of the New York Times Book Review. A librarian friend saves them for me, and I go through the pile slowly, as a treat and reward for plugging away at my current writing projects.

Sometimes the gap between publication and reading leads to surprises. I just read a review of a biography of comedian Bill Cosby that doesn’t mention any of the sex scandals that have been filling newspaper pages in recent weeks.

But Cosby is not my subject today. I want to talk about a column called “Can Writing Be Taught?” that appeared in the August 24 issue of the Book Review. Author Zoe Heller described her frustration when she tried to help her daughter with a school writing assignment. Here were the instructions her daughter was given:

In the first sentence, state your general theme; in the second sentence, state your thesis; in the third sentence, provide a road map of how you will advance your thesis….

“No one,” Zeller complained, “has ever talked to her intelligently about structure or style.” Amen. And I would add that the instructions provide no encouragement to engage the reader or provide background.

Templates and formulas often get a bad rap, but they’re immensely useful. I just evaluated a scholarly submission that would have been much better (publishable, in fact) if the author had used a formula: Get your reader’s attention, provide background, state your thesis, start each paragraph with a topic sentence that supports the thesis, develop the topic sentence into a paragraph, and build to a climax whenever you can.

But Zeller has a point. The formula or template must be taught in the larger context of talking “intelligently about structure or style.”

That scholarly submission would also have benefited from careful proofreading. (It’s mind-boggling: Someone submitted a scholarly article to an academic publisher without proofreading it. How? Why?)

One of the problems (among many) that I marked was with the word he. He (in case anyone asks you) is one of the most dangerous words in the English language. I’m not going to quote from the paper, but I saw a similar problem a few minutes ago in a literature newsletter:

Ezra Pound was among Hemingway’s friends when, in his early twenties, he arrived in Paris in the early 20s (that’s his passport photo).

192px-Ernest_Hemingway_passport_photo_40-1548M 2

So here’s a question for you: Whose passport photo – Ezra Pound’s or Ernest Hemingway’s? You can’t tell. (I finally Googled the picture and found out that it’s from Hemingway’s passport.) So here’s a rule: NEVER use he or him when there are two males in a sentence. Repeat the name if you have to, or revise the sentence in another way to eliminate any confusion.

Here’s how I would have written the sentence:

Ezra Pound was among Hemingway’s friends when, in his early twenties, Hemingway arrived in Paris in the early 20s (that’s his passport photo).  BETTER

Careful attention to these details is the mark of an excellent writer. That – and intelligent guidelines about “structure or style” – should be emphasized in every writing program.



Still Reading

Last night I read one of the best novels I’ve come across in a long time: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I was up until 1:30 this morning finishing it.

Big Little Lies is an unusual murder mystery because you don’t find out who the victim was until close to the end of the novel. But that’s not why I enjoyed the book so much. What was really special is that I was so interested in the characters that I really didn’t care about waiting for the murder to happen – in fact it would have been a terrific book without the underlying mystery.

But there’s a flaw in the book, and it’s the kind of problem I often discuss with my writing group. The book starts off strong with a warning that something dire has happened. And then the pace slows to a crawl as several mommies head to kindergarten orientation with their offspring. One mommy falls and injures her ankle. The accident sets up an important relationship between several important women in the novel – but it is slow and dull.

I would have stopped reading except that a friend recommended the book and told me not to be put off by the slow start. She was right. But a good editor should have intervened before the book was published and figured out a way to keep the book moving.

I’ve also been reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. She is one of the most entertaining writers I’ve ever read. Her descriptions of working in the dairy industry are delightful. And she’s a Honeymooners fan!

But she also exemplifies an approach to writing that I dislike: Abstract theory and confusing terminology. For example, her explanation of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses assumes that you’ve never spoken English. She wants you to work your way through a lot of tedious reasoning to discover where the commas go.

None of that torture is necessary. We all learned about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses in childhood by imitating the speech patterns of adults. All that an English teacher has to say is this: “Read your sentences aloud. When you change your voice, use a pair of commas.” I used to bring a clip of the opening of the old Adventures of Superman show (with George Reeves) to teach the commas to my classes, and my students never had trouble with them after that.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Read these two sentences aloud. Where do you change your voice?

The personnel director asked me for a list of officers who will retire next year.

Your mission should you choose to accept it is to unravel the enemy plot to take over the airport.

The answer is that you wouldn’t change your voice at all in the first sentence, which doesn’t require any commas. The second sentence does require a pair of commas, like this:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to unravel the enemy plot to take over the airport.  CORRECT

But Norris’s book is still a delight to read, and I’ve learned a lot. The section on hyphens alone is worth reading and rereading. (Hyphens have also intimidated me.)

But my real point today isn’t about how to write a novel or insert commas and hyphens. It’s about reading. Spending hours and hours with a pile of good books can feel decadent because a) it’s so enjoyable and b) there are usually so many other tasks waiting to be done.

It’s important to pause now and then to remind ourselves that reading is the royal road to writing. When we can read thoughtfully, notice the author’s strategies, and evaluate them, we’re creating circuits in our brain that will be ready to help us with our own writing tasks.

Mission Impossible



Surprise Me!

For the past two weeks I’ve had much more free time than usual. My Pilates trainer is on vacation with his family, the ballet school is closed for the summer…so I’ve been reading.

And – inevitably – I’ve been thinking about writing.

One of the books I read was a disappointment: Effective Time Management In a Day For Dummies by Dirk Zeller. I’m revising my own book about time management, so I was looking forward to picking up some new ideas. But the book is boring – or at least started that way.

After a few chapters, the book became livelier, and I finally realized what the initial problem was: Zeller had been writing in an textbook style. When he started talking personally about his struggles with time management, the book became more enjoyable and believable.

Of course stories (good ones) always help a book along, but I suddenly realized that there was something else involved: There was a surprise – the time management guru is one of us, engaged in his own struggle to get things done.

That revelation started me thinking. Surprise isn’t a word you’re going to hear often in a writing class – but you should.

The point really hit home a couple of days later when I picked up a book I liked much better. It’s called More than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting by Serena B. Miller. After I’d finished reading it, I checked to see who the publisher was. Egad: Simon & Schuster. It’s nice to know that there’s still at least one publisher who pays for editors and insists on quality.

And that surprise factor was there again. What, you ask, could possibly be surprising about Amish parenting? A number of things! I learned that Amish children receive only one gift at Christmas. Amish parents use rewards liberally to encourage good behavior. One Amish family owns a battery-operated DVD player so that the children can watch Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. Amish children are allowed to bring toys to church services.

Most of the book consists of stories, all well told, all illustrating a point. Many illuminate not only the character of the Amish families, but also…the author’s character.

My favorite story concerned a noodle casserole. It’s a dish that Serena Miller, the author, liked to cook. She was surprised to learn that her Amish friend had never heard of it. So Miller decided to cook it for the woman’s family. Word about the special dinner spread through the Amish community, and the author discovered to her horror that at least 20 people were coming (with little advance notice) to try the dish.

And there was another complication: Several children were sent to the kitchen to help, including a five-year-old. Miller did not relish having to supervise a small child while she was frantically trying to stretch her recipe.

And then she discovered that the little girl could break eggs, roll out dough, and cut noodles with the best of them.

Here’s the clincher: Miller did something she had often done for her own children: Bestowed a compliment. “What a good little helper you are!” she exclaimed.

The five-year-old ignored the comment – and Miller realized with embarrassment how condescending she must have sounded. The Amish, she realized, respect children and take them seriously.

It was very different from what I expected to read about Amish child-rearing practices (Set limits! Teach values! Hand down traditions!).

It’s a great book. And the takeaway is…Don’t tell your readers what they expect to hear. And whenever possible, resist the temptation to pontificate an all-knowing voice dripping with wisdom.

In short, surprise them.

surprise ok


Joyce Carol Oates

I just finished reading A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s most talented and versatile writers. A Widow’s Story, describing the death of her husband in 2008 and the severe depression that followed, is very different from her previous books (she’s most famous for her fiction) – intimate and painfully honest.

Oates’s sadness over the loss of Ray, her husband, takes over her life. She is so depressed that everyday tasks are are overwhelming. A Widow’s Story plunges you into the grief and despair she is experiencing, and it also says a lot about this gifted couple and their relationship.

The Smiths’ marriage (she uses “Oates” only for her writing career) was both loving and quirky. Her husband never read her published writings! (Few of her students at Princeton had read her work either. I’m flabbergasted.)

Nor did she ever read a novel that Ray had started before he met her and never finished. Late in the book she finally began reading it, and she imagined what she would have said to Ray if she’d had the opportunity. The manuscript gave her insight into pieces of him she had ever known – his imagination and his past, for example.

What fascinates me is that the professional-writer part of her brain kicked in at the same time. Of one episode in the novel that’s clearly related to his past, she says that it couldn’t have been published: “Not that it’s too raw or unintegrated with the plot – revising and recasting could have remedied this – but rather, the material is just too personal.”

How extraordinary! Here’s a woman who’s almost paralyzed with grief, encountering her lost husband on a new level – and her writer’s brain instantly switches into analytic mode, with thoughts about “revising” and “recasting.”

Writing well requires a different kind of thinking, and that means learning to write isn’t just about acquiring skills and techniques. You need a new kind of brain, and that requires willingness to endure a confusing period when things just aren’t going to make sense.

The bad news is that it’s hard to learn how to write well. The good news is that even when you think all is lost – as Oates did – the ability to write stays with you. Oates was so grief-stricken that she couldn’t open mail or listen to phone messages from friends who were worried about her. But nothing could stop her from thinking like a writer.

Joyce Carol Oates

                Joyce Carol Oates


Improving a Sentence

Here’s a sentence I read a few days ago in a newsletter about literature. Read it yourself and see if something seems awkward to you:

Many biographers debate whether Leonard could or should have gone the next step for his wife by replacing the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors with psychoanalysis.

Here’s what bothers me: It sounds as if she got the ineffective cures from doctors afflicted with psychoanalysis. Of course if you think about it for a moment, you realize that’s not what the writer meant. The sentence is trying to say that Virginia Woolf (Leonard’s wife) should have been treated with psychoanalysis rather than “the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors.”

There’s a simple guideline that tells you why this sentence is awkward: It breaks up words that should go together: “replacing with psychoanalysis.” Here’s one way to improve the sentence:

Many biographers debate whether Leonard could or should have gone the next step for his wife by rejecting the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors and replacing them with psychoanalysis.

Before we go on (I think the sentence still needs improvement), I’d like to explain why there’s no comma after “a dozen doctors” (she got from a dozen doctors and replacing them with psychoanalysis). There’s no need for fancy grammatical terminology. Just zoom in on the word and. Is it followed by a sentence? (There’s an easy way to tell: Does it start with a person, place, or thing?)

replacing them with psychoanalysis

No. So there’s no comma because replacing isn’t a person, place, or thing. (Click here and look at Comma Rule 2.) 

Let’s go back to the improved sentence, which still isn’t good enough, in my opinion. There’s too much information to be crammed into one sentence. I especially dislike “could or should have” – it hints at a big issue and deserves its own sentence. Here’s my revision:

Many biographers debate whether Leonard should have insisted on psychoanalysis instead of  the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors. It’s a complicated question because….

I didn’t complete the sentence because I don’t know why Leonard might not have been able to try psychoanalysis for Virginia. Perhaps no competent practitioner was available. Or Virginia might have resisted the idea. Or there might have been some other problem that I haven’t thought of.

I hope I’ve made my point. Sometimes clumsy writing conceals a gap in the writer’s understanding. Fixing a bad sentence isn’t always a matter of shifting a few words or inserting some new punctuation.   Sometimes you have to rethink what you’ve written or go back to the library.

Virginia Woolf 2