Because, Because, Because

Instant Quiz:

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

There’s several reasons why I don’t want to go out with Tony.

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My husband’s first newspaper editor thought because was a bad word. Any time he used because in a feature, he would get a phone call asking him to change it.

She apparently never noticed that professional writers use because all the time. Nor did she  bother to look it up in the dictionary. Charlie and I breathed a sigh of relief when she finally moved on to another publication to annoy a new set of writers.

I’ve often wondered where her fear of because came from. I’ve known lots of people who believe (mistakenly) that you can’t start a sentence with because. (Of course you can! Go to www.Bartleby.com and use your Find command to see how great writers use because.)

But I’ve never known anyone else who thought because was a bad word. Where did that notion come from?

This morning I may have found the answer. Here are two sentences from an education blog. Note that the because idea is ambiguous here:

Our test scores were on the rise and had been for a number of years. We were not on the California list of worst schools because of said rise.

(I don’t like “said rise,” but let’s leave that for another day.)

Reading those two sentences, you might mistakenly conclude that the rise caused some schools to be on the California list. The sentence needs to be revised:

Because of that rise, we were not on the California list of worst schools.

Simple enough. So here are the points I’d like to make today:

1.  Because is a useful and proper word. Don’t be afraid of it.

2.  When you use because, make sure your meaning is absolutely clear.

3. (Big picture!) The workbook exercises and grammatical discourses beloved of teachers have limited usefulness in teaching students how to write well. They won’t, for example, help you make today’s sentence more clear.

4.  Always ask a friend or family member to read and give you feedback about what you’ve written. Don’t argue when they suggest you change something you’d written. Fix it.

One more point remains: the widespread (and mistaken) belief that you can’t start a sentence with because. Tune in Friday to learn where that urban legend probably came from (courtesy of my friend Neal Steiger).

Professional word cloud

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Sentences starting with here or there can be confusing. Should you use is or are?

Here’s how you figure it out: just flip the beginning of the sentence around.

Several reasons are there.  CORRECT

There are several reasons.  CORRECT

There are several reasons why I don’t want to go out with Tony.  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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Jean Cleans out a Folder

My folder of odds and ends about writing has started to fill up! Here’s a sampling.

1.  I copied three clumsy sentences from Quora (a question-and-answer website):

–  How can we remediate misinformation?

Remediate (“fix” or “correct”) is jargon. But that’s not the only problem.

This is a meaningless question. You and I are powerless over most misinformation. It’s true that sometimes we can write letters to the newspaper, email the author, or call the radio or TV station. But often there’s nothing we can do. How can anyone possibly write a useful answer to this question?

–  Who has the provision of academic freedom?

“The provision of” doesn’t add anything useful. Here’s better wording: “Who has academic freedom?” Answer: most college and university professors.

–  What subjects do I need to study to become a doctor in high school?

“Doctor in high school” is clearly a dangling modifier. Here’s better wording: What subjects do I need to study in high school to become a doctor?

2.  Here’s a sentence from a recent Carolyn Hax advice column:

“I have a friend whose daughter is struggling with depression and has been hospitalized twice in as many months.”

I would change it to “twice in two months.” You may have been told (wrongly) that it’s wrong to repeat a word or use two similar words (twice/two). That’s nonsense! Professional writers repeat words all the time. What you should avoid is repeating conspicuous words: stupendous, horrific, eternal, romantic.

Everyday words are almost invisible. Don’t worry about using them again and again. If you’re writing a piece about a train ride, guess which word you’re going to use again and again? Train! But don’t say – more than once – that the ride was amazing, adventurous, or delightful.

3.  Emma Donoghue’s Room is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Here’s a paragraph that offers some good advice about planning a writing task:

“It’s more like planning a military campaign or something. It’s quite exciting, because what you’re trying to do is to keep up the reader’s energy at every point. You’re looking for those spots where things would sag or get lost or come off the rails. You’re trying to keep up the momentum.”

a manila folder with a paper clip

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Precut, Precooked, and Pre-existing

Today I’m posting some thoughts that my friend Kelly Pomeroy wrote in response to a post I did last week. I was griping about the terms precut, precooked, and pre-existing – I think the “pre” is unnecessary. You can read Kelly’s response below – and you should.

There are two things I like about her response. Kelly brought up points I hadn’t thought of – about psychology, for example. More important, she shows you how pros think and talk about language.

In school, there’s often so much to cover that teachers have to settle for a cut-and-dried, right-or-wrong approach. Pros know that there may be many layers of meaning and many angles to consider.

Here’s Kelly’s response:

Well, marketing deals with psychology rather than logic. The term “cut meat” is as chopped as the meat. It’s terse. It’s unfriendly. It’s followed by another monosyllabic word. It doesn’t flow. It highlights the violence of the word “cut.”

The term “precut” meat is softer, friendlier, more euphonious. It emphasizes the fact that much of the work – the bloodiest part of the work – is already done before you even buy the product. It also implies that the cutting was intentional, not the result of an accident. It was done out of concern for the buyer.

“Cooked” to describe a meal isn’t as stark as “cut,” because has two syllables. And cooking has positive associations that cutting doesn’t. So the “pre” may be less important in this case than with the “cut” example; but the pattern has been set. And the emphasis provided by “pre” gets extra mileage because of all the effort it takes to prepare a whole meal.

I think my argument is strongest in the medical example. If you’re being treated for cancer, it’s an existing condition (unless you’re being treated by a snake oil salesman). But it seems likely that the staff’s very consequential concern, under Trumpcare, was whether it existed when you signed up for the insurance.

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Is “Pre” Necessary?

Now that there’s been a shift in power in Congress, we can expect a lot of debate about the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as “Obamacare”). It’s going to be a difficult time for me because there’s going to be a lot of talk about pre-existing conditions.

Gack. Can anyone tell me the difference between an “existing” condition and a “pre-existing condition”?

Recently I came across a newspaper article about “premade” lunches that parents can purchase for their children to take to school. What, pray tell, is the difference between a “made” lunch and a “premade” lunch?

What about “prearrange,” “preplan,” and “preregister”?

Sometimes “pre” is useful (“prepay” and “preorder” emphasize that you’re shelling out your money ahead of time). And not all repetition is bad. Because the human brain is easily distracted, it’s sometimes helpful to say things more than once: “I will not – repeat not – vote for this bill.”

But do we really need words like “precooked,” “prepackaged,” and “precut”?

question marks on each side of a cube

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I.A. Richards and 100 Important Words

I.A. Richards is a familiar name from my college years. He was an important critic in the heyday of the New Criticism (which has long since stopped being “new” but is still a useful approach to literature).

My friend Jane McGinnis sent me an intriguing article that included Richards’ 100 Words Most Important in English. You can read the article here: https://www.thoughtco.com/important-words-in-english-1692687

Although Richards predated postmodernism, his list includes four words important to postmodern thought: copy, name, natural,  and use.

One omission from the list surprised me: imagination. Every moment of our lives is an imagining. There are no neutral events – there’s a sense in which we are always dreaming. Richards seems not to have read Carl Jung or James Hillman – but that’s not a complaint. Nobody can read everything!

What I’m hoping you’ll do is come up with your own list. (It doesn’t have to be 100 words!) Can you see something in a word that others can’t?

I’m thinking of Hillman, of course (imagine, soul, destiny, childhood) – and Derrida (write, copy, natural). Heck – I could include John Lennon with imagine. And I will.

And then there’s Paul Tillich. How many minds did he open when he wrote so powerfully about the words salvation, sin, and grace?

What words have special meanings to you?

The front cover of Principles of Literary Criticism by I A Richards

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Writing about a Picture II

In my last post, I talked about a picture as a stimulus for writing. My friend Janis Koike sent me this wonderful piece about a special picture – several pictures, actually. This is a fine example of what you can do with a picture. (Have you tried it yourself yet?)

Mollie

Mollie was spoken of rarely, and with reverence. As children, we were in awe of her framed black-and-white portrait which stood on a coffee table in our first Kansas City home. Mollie was elegant and beautiful in a white wedding suit, her hand carefully placed in her lap to show off her sparkling diamond. Mollie was my maternal grandmother.

I never met Mollie. I never referred to her as Grandma; she was much too young and beautiful for that. And she was dead. She died when my mother was just nine. The tragedy was multiple: Mollie was pregnant.

A collision with the coffee table or a wanton ball sent the photograph flying one time too many, and my mother retired Mollie’s picture to a closet without comment or anger or visible disappointment. 

Gramps and his wife Mollie were both born and raised in Chicago. They married in 1920. Gramps was a violinist and traveled with the big bands in the 20’s, 30’s, and early 40’s. When WWII ended and the big band era came to a close, he returned to Chicago and got a job selling neon signs to downtown businesses.

And he also remarried. Aunt Frieda, a long-time family friend, happily assumed the role of grandmother. Their visits to my home in Kansas City were the highlight of every summer. One week of non-stop fun. Following her divorce from the infamous “Mr. Feldman,” Frieda had taken a job as a buyer of women’s clothing at Marshall Fields. She changed her name to Frieda Fields, a name which danced to her personality. Her stories of work and friends kept me and my sisters in stitches for years.

But Mollie was always there in the background – quiet, sedate, perfect, and dead. I couldn’t fathom losing my mother as a child . . . or ever.

It was only after my own mother died, not so many years ago, that I went through some old albums and found pictures of Mollie, a young, healthy woman in lovely dresses, high heeled shoes, and stylish hats. My own mother stood beside her, a happy seven or eight year old with a round, smiling face and long brown hair. On the back of each photo were notes in Mollie’s handwriting. My favorite: “My girl. Ain’t she the cutest!”

And that is when I saw (and heard) Mollie, for the first time, as a real person.

empty picture frame

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Avoid Confusing Your Readers

Here’s a problem my husband spotted in a gardening column he was writing for our newspaper. Florida is a great place for gardeners because you can have flowers all year-round. Charlie recommended three winter annuals: Shasta daisy, snapdragon, and petunia.

Then he realized a novice gardener might think he meant Shasta daisy, Shasta snapdragon, and Shasta petunia. So he rewrote the sentence with Shasta daisy at the back: snapdragon, petunia, and Shasta daisy. Problem solved.

(If you’re a knowledgeable gardener, you might not see the problem. So let me give you a similar sentence: Chocolate milk, ice cream, and candy. This sentence could be read two ways: chocolate milk, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate candy – OR only the milk has chocolate flavoring.)

Charlie’s thinking process makes an important point. Many people overestimate the importance of formal grammar. They assume that if you know the parts of speech and can diagram sentences, you’ll be a good writer.

But formal grammar wouldn’t have helped my husband with that sentence. He needed to read the sentence while pretending to be a reader who knows nothing about gardening.

It’s not easy to set aside everything you know and read a sentence from another point of view. That kind of thinking requires an almost Zen-like emptiness of mind.

Schools don’t generally teach student writers to think that way, but they should. It’s a good habit to develop, and now – at the beginning of a new year – might be a good time to resolve to do it!

a Shasta daisy

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Happy New Year!

This is a post from New Year’s Day in 2018. A friend told me that it had inspired her to take a big step forward in her writing practices, and she asked me to run it again. So here it is:

Even if you don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, I think they’re a good idea for writers. It’s useful to have a tradition of taking stock of your writing practices at least once a year to see if there’s something new you should be doing.

Here are some suggestions. (Don’t overdo it – choose only one!)

  1. Set a daily writing goal. You’ll be following in the footsteps of many famous writers who challenged themselves to write a set number of pages every day. When Bernard Shaw was starting his writing career, he forced himself to write four pages a day. If he skipped a day, he wrote eight pages the next day.
  2. Spend five minutes a day exploring the features in your word-processing software. I’m endlessly shocked (“appalled” is probably more accurate) by the writers I meet who don’t have basic word-processing skills such as find & replace, save as, and autocorrect. It’s fine (and fun!) to play with the pull-down menus, and you’ll learn a lot.
  3. Start adopting the working habits of professional writers. If you’re using open-source software, save up and install Word on your computer. Learn how to use the Styles feature in your word-processing software. Stop underlining for emphasis (professionals don’t do it, and neither should you). Learn how to punctuate direct quotations (in the US, the commas and periods always go inside). If you’re still spacing twice after a period, STOP IT!
  4. Learn about formatting manuscripts and books. Smashwords.com has a free ebook that will teach you how to do this (that’s how I learned): https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52. You can read it on any e-reader or just download it to your desktop as a .pdf.
  5. Read at least one good book about writing or language. Start with (of course) The Elements of Style. Other recommendations include anything by Theodore Bernstein or John McWhorter; Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing; and Mary Norris’s Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.
  6. Join a writing group. If there’s no group in your community, start one. Your public library probably has a meeting room that you can use free, and it will help you publicize your group.
  7. Learn about online resources available through your library card. You may be able to access ebooks, newspapers, magazines, and reference books at home, free. Good writers are good fact-checkers and researchers.
  8. Set up a free Google Alert for a topic that interests you (especially if it’s related to a writing project). Because I’ve published a book about writing better police reports, every day I receive a free list of links to news stories that involve police reports. Some of those stories provide useful fodder for my blog and help me sell books.
  9. Join LinkedIn. Set up your profile, upload a photo, and get involved in at least one group (listed under the Interests tab). LinkedIn puts you in touch with other professionals, provides opportunities for you to post your writing, and helps you keep up with trends in your field. Most important, it gives you credibility as a writer.
  10. Set up an appointment with a professional photographer for a head shot that you can use online.
  11. Subscribe to a magazine for writers, or stop by the library every couple of weeks to read one of their magazines.
  12. Build connections to other writers. Be generous about sharing what you know. If a friend publishes a book, post a review on Amazon.com

My advice is to pick one resolution, get it under your belt, and then select another one. Keep pushing ahead and growing. You’ll have an exciting time, and your new skills will amaze you.

Best wishes for success and happiness in 2019!

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Writing about a Picture

When I was teaching college English, a favorite writing assignment was writing about a picture. Students could use any picture they wanted – even one they wished for but didn’t have.

Most of the papers were astonishingly good. It’s something I wish I’d learned much earlier: A lot of what we label “poor writing” isn’t caused by weak skills. The real problem is a dull topic.

*  *  *  *  *

One of my end-of-the-year projects has been scanning and organizing old photos. Here’s one of my favorites – a picture of my husband when he was four years old:

Cousins lined up on a dock for a snapshot

I didn’t know Charlie (my husband) until we met in our twenties. But I know the rapturous little boy in the picture very well. Everyone else is seeing an ordinary little fish on a line – not even worth keeping. But to four-year-old Charlie, it’s a magical moment.

He still loves fish – any type of aquatic life, in fact. It doesn’t have to be exotic or impressive. On a trip to the Everglades years ago, we had to stop at every puddle so that he could check it for crayfish.

If you have a free evening, consider spending it with some old photo albums. Can you find a picture that makes you say, “Yes – that’s mom” (or dad, or Uncle Stan, or your best friend)? Do you have a picture that reveals something essential and important about you?

Let’s take it a step further. Can you think of an anecdote that perfectly sums up someone you know – or can tell us who you are?

I remember a date with Charlie shortly after we started going together. We were walking home from a restaurant in New York. A man in shabby clothing staggered past us, obviously drunk. Charlie left me standing there, put his arm on the man’s shoulder, and gently guided him across the street until the man pointed to a doorway and went inside.

That’s Charlie, and that heart of his is one reason I married him.

Do you collect stories? Is your writing crammed with them? They add interest to everything you write. More important, they bring your writing to life.

It’s not January 1 yet, but here’s a New Year’s resolution for you: Promise yourself that you will become a collector and a connoisseur of stories. You’ll be amazed at the difference they make in your writing – and your readers will be just as impressed.

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