Don’t Express It!

Instant Quiz 

Can you find the mistake in the sentence below?

We’re serving vanilla ice cream topped with chopped walnuts and carmel.

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Here’s a ghastly sentence I came across recently:

Another dance friend who has not taken lessons in a number of years due to a move expressed this situation with Naomi to be a wake up call for her.

I am not going to say that this mess was created by a terrible writer. I often write sentences almost this bad myself! But here’s the thing. I never let anyone else see them. I fix them.

Here’s my version:

Another dance friend stopped taking lessons when she moved several years ago. Now she’s back on the dance floor. “What happened to Naomi was a wake up call,” she said.

Please, please: express is not a synonym for said or told. You express a feeling. You don’t express a problem with your boss or an insight into your son’s behavior.

And let me throw in a bonus point for you: often the best way to fix a messy sentence is to rewrite it as two or three sentences. That trick worked well today, didn’t it?

A chalkboard that asks if I'm doing this right.

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Don’t confuse Carmel (a city in California or a Carmelite monastery) with caramel (a delicious confection).

We’re serving vanilla ice cream topped with chopped walnuts and caramel.  CORRECT


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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New York’s Subways

Short Pencil Point Deviant Art okInstant Quiz 

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

Safety is our principle concern as we implement the new policy.

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Let’s spend a couple of minutes celebrating good writing.

A friend saves her old copies of the New York Times Magazine and Book Review for me so that I can lug them home and read them at my leisure. They’re always good reading, and sometimes an article crosses the line into the spectacular category.

That brings us to “The Case for the Subway” by Jonathan Mahler in the January 7, 2018 issue. The research in the article is astounding. Mahler covered facts and issues that I would never have thought of – and then organized them into a supremely readable article.

Take a look at this paragraph. This, my friends, is what you and I should be aiming to achieve in our own writing endeavors: 

Today, New York’s subway carries close to six million people every day, more than twice the entire population of Chicago. The subway may no longer be a technological marvel, but it continues to perform a daily magic trick: It brings people together, but it also spreads people out. It is this paradox — these constant expansions and contractions, like a beating heart — that keep the human capital flowing and the city growing. New York’s subway has no zones and no hours of operation. It connects rich and poor neighborhoods alike. The subway has never been segregated. It is always open, and the fare is always the same no matter how far you need to go. In New York, movement — anywhere, anytime — is a right.

Mahler’s writing is alive. We see a beating heart and a magic trick. The teeming population of New York comes together and spreads apart. And then we come to the the exquisite closing sentence: “In New York, movement — anywhere, anytime — is a right.”

 Did you notice that there’s not a single French or Latin word in that last sentence? It’s all English. Mahler is describing a “technological marvel,” but there’s a refreshing absence of jargon.

I hope you’re inspired. I know I am.

N

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

The word needed in today’s sentence is principal. Here’s a trick that can help: when you mean rule, spell principle with an –le at the end. rule  principle

The rest of the time it should end in pal: principal – and that’s how we need to spell it in today’s sentence:

Safety is our principal concern as we implement the new policy.  CORRECT


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats 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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Jet Blue

Jet Blue is always my first choice when I fly. It’s not just the low fares, the TV at every seat, and the unlimited snacks: it’s the memories I have of Jet Blue employees going out of their way to be helpful.

So I was delighted when I read a recent newspaper article about Jet Blue’s plans to start flying from New York to London in 2021. Fist pump!

But the editor in my soul was not happy with this sentence from Savanthi Syth, a Raymond James Financial analyst:

“We believe Jet Blue’s entrance into the trans-Atlantic could be an overhang on investor sentiment.”

Gack. What on earth does that mean? I even looked up overhang, to no avail.

The first requirement for writers is to be understood. Savanthi Syth should know better. But I’m also blaming Mary Schlangenstein, who wrote the article for Bloomberg. She should have asked Syth to restate her point more clearly.

A Jet Blue plane in the sky

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Dangling Modifiers

What do you think of this sentence?

Although it’s just eight inches tall, baby rubber plant’s stems can creep sideways up to two feet.

If you noticed that it’s a dangling modifier, you’re an exceptionally good editor. Yes, baby rubber plant is just eight inches tall. But the real subject of the sentence is baby rubber plant’s stems.

Here’s the correct version:

Although baby rubber plant is just eight inches tall, its stems can creep sideways up to two feet. CORRECT

Here are two more dangling modifiers:

Driving home from work, the radio had an interesting report about Venezuela. (The radio can’t drive!)

Better: While I was driving home from work, the radio had an interesting report about Venezuela.

We saw the Eiffel Tower flying from London to Paris.  (The Eiffel Tower can’t fly!)

Better: We saw the Eiffel Tower while we were flying from London to Paris.

A caveat: Sometimes when you try to fix a dangling modifier, you end up with a hopelessly awkward sentence. Always make sure the cure isn’t worse than the original ailment!

sticky notes that say "right" or "wrong"

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Newborn Kittens

My husband and I used to do a lot of animal rescue work. We especially enjoyed raising motherless kittens. So I was happy to read a newspaper story about a local animal shelter that received a generous donation of incubators and other medical equipment. According to the story, “These devices will be used to take care of the hundreds of orphaned neonates – kittens without mothers to care for them.”

But my writer’s eye was not happy with that last sentence. There’s no reason to use neonates! If you were writing something instructional and needed to introduce and define the new word neonate, the sentence would be fine. I use this strategy all the time when I introduce a new term in my academic writing.

But why use neonates in a newspaper article? (Another problem is that the sentence makes it sound like neonates are always kittens and always motherless. No, they’re not. Any newborn mammal is a neonate.)

Your first goal as a writer is to connect with your readers. Never use an unusual word when an ordinary one will do. If you’re writing about a complicated medical procedure, of course you’re going to need anatomical terms that the average reader won’t know. But there’s no need to describe adorable kittens as neonates.

To put it another way: we need to get over the notion that Latin words (neonate) are better than English ones (newborn).

four kittens

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It’s a Crime, But It’s Not a Run-On

Many English instructors (including me!) consider run-on sentences a capital offense. In my view, serious writers are supposed to be able to identify a sentence and end it with a period or a semicolon.

But there’s a lot of confusion about what a run-on sentence is. If you encounter a very long sentence, does that qualify as a run-on? I’ve had students randomly stick a period into the middle of a sentence on the grounds that a) it’s very long, b) it obviously needs a period somewhere. Nope!

So let’s clear this up. A very long sentence is…a very long sentence. It’s not a run-on and it’s not wrong, at least as far as grammar is concerned.

But cramming a bunch of facts into one endless sentence is not good writing. Below is an example from a recent newspaper articleIn October 2018, Jake Patterson kidnapped 13-year-old Jayme Closs. She managed to escape three months later. Here’s the sentence:

Patterson pleaded guilty Wednesday to kidnapping 13-year-old Jayme Closs and killing her parents, in a move that spares the girl held in a remote cabin for three months from the possible trauma of having to testify at his trial.

Whew. There are five important pieces of information here:

  • Patterson pleaded guilty to kidnapping on Wednesday
  • His victim was a thirteen-year-old girl
  • He also killed her parents
  • She was held in a remote cabin for three months
  • The guilty plea will spare her the possible trauma of having to testify at his trial

It’s not a run-on, and you can’t fix it with a period. Start over, and write several sentences instead of one.

Here’s a rule for you: one fact or idea per sentence, please. Your writing will be more readable that way. And there’s a bonus: your writing will be more emphatic. A fact or idea has more impact when in its own sentence.

Kidnapping victim Jayme Close and her captor, Jake Patterson

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Accident or Collision?

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog, you know that I like to talk about the philosophical issues we run into when we use language.

But I sometimes talk to real-world writers (like police officers!) who wonder if all this theoretical stuff really matters. Postmodern language issues can seem far removed from everyday life.

But they’re not – and here’s an example. You may be aware that some jurisdictions have improved their procedures for dealing with vehicle accidents. The New York Police Department is a good example.

Some time ago, the NYPD instituted a number of changes in the way it investigates and documents vehicular crashes. Case in point: The word “accident” has been replaced with “collision.”

The reason? The word accident evokes something unfortunate that happened on its own. But the word collision suggests that something went wrong. It feels more like a police matter. (You can read about the NYPD policy changes here.)

Paul Steely White is the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group. He said the changes constitute “a very significant step toward a safer, more humane city.”

Words matter! “An accident is when a meteor falls through your house and hits you in the head,” he said. “Collisions can be prevented.”

Words are more than just labels we stick onto things. They shape our thinking and help us make effective decisions – if we’re wise enough to think about them and make wise choices.

a collision

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Expert Writing Advice

I just read a terrific article about writing – “See for Yourself” by Lewis H. Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine. It’s from the February/March 2019 issue of AARP Magazine. https://www.aarp.org/entertainment/books/info-2019/lewis-lapham-memoir.html

It’s a short article with some great advice. Here’s one example: “Go easy on the adjectives; handle adverbs with caution….To say that Beethoven’s music moves beautifully doesn’t distinguish it from a stock market swindle or a skirt.” Recommended reading!

Compass with needle pointing the word expert,

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#YouToo

Last week I read an intriguing column by Heidi Stevens: Monica Lewinsky Has a Message We Need to Hear. Thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, views about sexual misconduct are beginning to shift. (You will remember that Monica Lewinsky was a White House intern whose affair with President Clinton triggered impeachment proceedings.)

Instead of quickly concluding that “It’s all her fault,” we’re beginning to hear more discussions about sexual predators and abuses of power. (See also Joyce Maynard’s reminiscence about her affair with J.D. Salinger in What Writing about my Abusive Relationship with J.D.Salinger Taught Me about Silencing Women’s Voices.)

Of course those ideas are nothing new. One of the best articles I ever read about sexual misconduct appeared in a 1991 article in Christian Century magazine: Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse by the Reverend Pamela Cooper-White. 

 *  *  *  *  *  *

I named today’s post #YouToo in order to make a point: stories don’t arrive with a built-in meaning. We all have the power create the meaning. (Yes, you too!)

I’m not talking about the nonsensical notion that a word or a narrative means whatever you want it to mean. I’m saying that life is mysterious and people are complicated. The meaning of an event can change as time passes – or as you move from one person’s perspective to another.

Sally remembers Grandma as a lovely person; her brother Greg thinks Grandma was mean. A marital dispute that felt like World War III looks silly years later – or we realize it was a harbinger of an inevitable breakup down the road.

Language doesn’t just record facts: it sorts and evaluates them, opening us up to new insights and fresh possibilities. Good writers make language choices that help this process along.

And that brings me to Into the Clear, a provocative 2000 New Yorker article about novelist Philip Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint. The author, David Remnick, recalled a 1998 conversation he had with Roth about the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton controversy:

Roth straightened and said, only half in jest, “Maybe [Clinton] should get on TV and talk frankly about adultery.” Maybe he could talk about the complexity of a long and difficult marriage, about frailty, and maybe he’d dare to ask if he is really so alone in his weaknesses. But there was, of course, no political sense in that.

Roth was right. Americans were eager to blame Lewinsky, or Clinton, or both. There was no “political sense” in exploring the forces that drove those two people into doing what they did.

But do we really have to be stuck there forever? Suppose Bill Clinton or Monica Lewinsky really had talked frankly about what led to the affair. We would have learned something.

That doesn’t mean we would have approved or excused what happened. I imagine it as taking a side step – and suddenly getting a whole new perspective. We’re adding to the meaning, not changing it. It’s an opportunity to dig into parts of the story we may have skipped over – and in that process we may gain understanding.

Perhaps we would even learn something about ourselves – about the forces in our own lives that sometimes trip us into abandoning our values, even if it’s just for a moment.

I am not asking you to reevaluate your opinion what Lewinsky and Clinton did (or what happened when Joyce Maynard lived with J.D. Salinger in 1972). But I am asking you to realize that language has the power to transform everything we know, think, and believe.

That doesn’t mean you have to do something big and serious. Language is fun (as every child babbling a string of nonsense words already knows!).

It does mean that language often offers us an opportunity to take that side step and discover a fresh perspective. We all need to make judgments about good-versus-bad and right-versus-wrong. But we can also ask questions that start with words like what, how, when, why, and what if. And we may come up with some amazing answers. Worth a try!

                   Philip Roth

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An Editor at Work: Stephen King

I’ve become a big fan of Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature. You can read a significant chunk of many books absolutely free right on your computer screen.

“Look Inside” is intended to encourage browsers to buy books, but it’s also useful to writers. Instead of going to the library to browse through, say, 20 or 30 novels to see how a professional writes the first page, you can do the same thing at home. (Another great resource is www.Bartleby.com, which allows you to read the entire text of classic books online, absolutely free.)

Author Marilyn Durham used this strategy when she was writing her successful novel The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. How do the pros handle transitions from one chapter to another? How are new characters introduced? What does good dialogue sound like? Examining published works at the library helped her answer all these questions.

Today I want to point you to a “Look Inside” feature that can help you learn about editing. Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft lets you compare an original piece he wrote with the edited version. Annotations explain the reasons for each change. It’s fun to read – and enlightening! Click here to read it. (If you own the actual book, this section starts on page 277).

Successful writers are always developing their craftsmanship. We’re fortunate to have the Internet right at our fingertips, offering us endless resources to help us achieve our writing goals.

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