Good Writing…or Bad?

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.

That smile of her’s would brighten even the darkest day.

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I just came across an amazing paragraph from Eduardo Galeano’s The Book of Embraces. His topic is “nobodies” – working-class people who live on the edge of poverty:

Who don’t speak languages, but dialects. Who don’t have religions, but superstitions. Who don’t create art, but handicrafts. Who don’t have culture, but folklore. Who are not human beings, but human resources. Who do not have faces, but arms. Who do not have names, but numbers. Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper.

Many English teachers would avoid showing this selection to their students: it repeatedly breaks the almost sacred prohibition against sentence fragments. But look at the elegant parallelism, and look at the new meaning that ordinary words like handicrafts and folklore take on: Suddenly we see the cultural bias behind them.

If only we could all write so elegantly and powerfully!

folk dancers

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

There’s no apostrophe in hers (or yours, theirs, and ours). If that seems strange to you, think about his. No apostrophe, right? They all work the same way. (Incidentally, that’s also true of its: The town is honoring its veterans today.

That smile of hers would brighten even the darkest day. 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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Do You Think Like a Pro?

  Instant Quiz 

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

Were leaving for Cozumel tomorrow.

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I enjoy answering questions about grammar and usage on Quora.com. Here’s a recent one that set me thinking: What’s the most widely misunderstood English usage rule?

There are lots of possible answers! Confusion about its/it’s has to be high on the list. But my nominee for the top spot has to be quotation marks.

Rarely have I taught anyone who knows that in American punctuation, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. Right after I say that there are no exceptions (none! not ever!), students always say, “Yes, of course – but the period and comma go outside when….”

Disbelieving looks follow when I hold my ground, along with muttered rebuttals and promises to prove me wrong…followed by sheepish looks at the next class meeting.

But maybe you really can argue that I’m wrong. After all, I’m not the one who makes these rules. Can I really declare that my way is the only right way?

I’m going to suggest that those are the wrong questions. If you’re a serious writer, you should be going down a different road altogether. I think you should be asking how you can demonstrate to a publisher/editor/professor that you’re a genuine, honest-to-goodness, serious professional writer.

One way is to submit a manuscript that doesn’t have glaring mistakes. Pros don’t ask anyone to clean up after them. They know what editors, publishers, and professors want, and they just sit down and…do it.

It doesn’t matter that thirty years ago your typing teacher told you to put two spaces after a period. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! The rule today is one space after a period. When a pro submits a finished article or book, no one has to go through it and remove the extra periods.

Similarly, nobody has to rework the quotation marks. All the periods and commas are nicely tucked inside the quotation marks. And it doesn’t stop there. Pros always ask for a style sheet that adjudicates controversies about spelling (ok/okay/OK/o.k.), compound words (health-care/healthcare), and punctuation issues (yes or no to the Oxford comma).

A few years ago I wrote a chapter for a volume that a friend was compiling for a British publisher, the Cambridge University Press. I am a proud American. But when I wrote my chapter, I used British spelling and punctuation throughout.

That’s what pros do, and that’s what you should do too.

Professional word cloud

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse we’re (a contraction of we are) and were (the past tense of are). In today’s sentence, the correct word is we’re.

We’re leaving for Cozumel tomorrow. CORRECT

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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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Don’t Express It!

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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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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