There’s No Such Thing as Objectivity

Instant Quiz

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

After three days of continuous interruptions, I hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on my office door. 

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Two days ago I wrote a post about some unofficial rules I’d made up. An old friend gently chided me because I’d said that the rules “worked great” for me. She thought I needed a more professional tone.

I emailed her that I’d checked the dictionary before publishing the post, and she was right: great indeed is an informal adverb. “Worked great” is too folksy for formal writing.

But here’s the thing: I don’t always feel like writing formally. And it’s not just that I hate pompous language: I also get tired of striving for objectivity.

Sometimes I want to discuss the mysterious pathways my thoughts have been taking…or exploring an idea in the context of my own life.

In the My Fair Lady article I just published, I talked about my thoughts and feelings several times:

On a recent trip to New York I bought a ticket for the Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s musical version of Pygmalion. My Fair Lady has always been special for me: it was my first Broadway play and my first encounter with Shaw. On the subway ride to Lincoln Center, I knew I was going to be seeing a superb production—but I also knew I was supporting an enterprise that would have appalled GBS.

When I first saw My Fair Lady in the early 1960’s, I was thrilled by the prospect of a Higgins-Doolittle wedding. But by 1992 my feelings had changed….I was sure Eliza would never marry Higgins, and by the time I’d bought my ticket for My Fair Lady in 2018, those convictions had deepened and hardened. Starting in October 2017, news outlets were flooded with #MeToo news stories about men who treated women as if they were less than human. I’d had some life experience of my own with male-female power struggles….

Our ideas about language are evolving. We used to think that you could ensure objectivity by carefully avoiding the words I, me, and my. Police officers were taught to write “this officer” instead of I. “The suspect was patted down” guaranteed that you were telling the truth; “I patted down the suspect” hinted that you were lying.

It was all nonsense, of course. Today (thanks in large part to the postmodern language theory) we’re recognizing that there’s no such thing as total objectivity. Avoiding the words I and me won’t turn a dishonest person into an honest one.

Every academic project involves opinions and decisions. Even choosing My Fair Lady as a topic involved a value judgment: I thought the play was important enough to be worth study.

Why not be honest about your values and opinions?

My larger point is that sometimes it’s okay to challenge the rules. That raises an important question: how do you know when you’re allowed to follow your own path?

The answer is that you don’t. If you’re a professional writer, it helps to study the publisher or journal you’re writing for. You can often get a sense of what they’re looking for and what rules they follow – and when it’s safe to break them.

But sometimes you just have to jump in. That involves admitting to yourself that you’re taking a risk, and deciding not to be disheartened if an experiment doesn’t work out for you.

Writing is always about you – your style, memories, experiences, values, beliefs, interests. Writing honestly is a way of honoring who you are. I encourage you to embrace the risks. And don’t forget to have fun!

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Continual means repeated with interruptions; continuous means nonstop. Don’t confuse them! Those are useful distinctions.

I’m thinking that today’s sentence requires continual. There’s a difference between many interruptions (continual) and nonstop interruptions (continuous). (But maybe you’ve worked in an office where there really are nonstop interruptions!)

After three days of continual interruptions, I hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on my office door.


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
“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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Five Rules I Made Up

Instant Quiz

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

For three hours I waited by the phone, but noone called to volunteer for the committee.

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Here are five grammar rules you’re probably not going to find anywhere else, for a very good reason: I made them up. They’re neither official nor foolproof, but most of the time they work great for me.

1.  Avoid the word “reason.”

Of course “reason” is a useful and perfectly good word. But it often gums up sentences. Safe bet: Try rewriting the sentence without it.

Her reason for skipping church this morning was that she hadn’t slept well.  AWKWARD

She skipped church this morning because she hadn’t slept well.  BETTER

2.  Don’t start a sentence with “by.”

Good writers start sentences with “by” all the time. I do it too. But student writers tend to come up with something messy like this:

By going to bed early helped me feel rested for the big test.  WRONG

This version would be better:

By going to bed early, I felt rested for the big test.  BETTER

But why take a chance? Cross out “by” and rewrite the sentence:

Going to bed early helped me feel rested for the big test.  BETTER

3.  Avoid using more than three commas in a sentence.

In the real world there’s no limit to the number of commas you can use. But once you insert your fourth comma, you’re likely to have a complicated sentence.

And once a sentence gets complicated, there’s a good chance than an error or two will creep in. Keep your sentences simple.

4.  Avoid “being.”

 If “being” finds its way into one of your sentences, consider getting rid of it. It’s another word that often gums up a sentence.

I experienced many challenges while being a substitute teacher.  AWKWARD

Substitute teaching was a challenging experience for me.  BETTER

5.  Don’t let a comma touch the word “that.”

Any English teacher or professional writer reading this can probably come up with forty or fifty sentences with a comma next to “that” in no time at all. (I know this is true because I can do it myself.) I’m standing my ground, however.

Most of the time it’s wrong to put a comma right in front of – or in back of – that. This timesaving rule has saved me from many comma errors. 

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

No one is two words:

For three hours I waited by the phone, but no one called to volunteer for the committee.


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
“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 Is Still Writing

Instant Quiz:

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

Karen thinks it’s a miniscule problem, but I disagree.

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Harper’s Magazine recently published an article (Semantic Drift) arguing that English is deteriorating, and the solution is more grammar instruction. (My thanks to Margaret Swanson for telling me about it!). If you know me well, you already know that I disagree with the article on both counts. English is not deteriorating, and grammar instruction isn’t the solution to anything.

I started early one morning writing a couple of thoughts, and…boom! An essay started to take shape. I have a lot of historical information about changes in English, so it was an easy article to plan and put together. (I did a lot of chuckling and chortling.)

Another advantage is that I still have a library account with the college where I used to teach. Their online resources include the Oxford English Dictionary (often called the OED). O frabjous day! Calloo, callay!

(Note to self: write a post about the OED.)

One evening the ideas wouldn’t stop coming, and I plugged away at the article until nine o’clock. Finally the article signaled that I’d worked hard enough. I got into bed and read a couple of articles in the back issues of the New Yorker that I keep on my bedside table. At 10:30 I sleepily turned off my reading lamp.

And then at about two I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. The only solution was to sit down at the @#$%! keyboard and write another chunk. I really, really would prefer to skip these sleep interruptions – they mess me up the next day. But I don’t seem to have a choice.

What’s interesting is that I’d been dragging the previous week – unusual for me. I was thinking that my age was catching up with me, and maybe I should see my doctor. And then this essay popped into my head, already organized and accompanied by a list of examples.

I’m thinking now that my unconscious was working on the article the whole time and wanted peace and quiet. Do other writers go through these struggles? And always lose, like I do? (Incidentally, that “like I do” is bad, according to the Harper’s article. My response: I don’t care.)

It’s been interesting to compare the Harper’s response with another article I’m writing, about Shaw’s brief play Village Wooing. The Shaw article was supposed to take five or six days. It’s now been more than a month, and I’m having to make major changes because I came up with a new idea that doesn’t fit tidily with what I’d already written. 

The Village Wooing article started with one small point that wasn’t strong enough to warrant an entire essay. Then ideas started exploding, and I keep having to start over. I’m having so much fun with it that I sometimes feel guilty about sitting down to write. Shouldn’t I be vacuuming?

I’ve really enjoyed all the excitement. But what a nice change of pace this new project has been! Straightforward, easy to organize.

I hope your summer has been as much fun as mine has been!

A word cloud about grammar with a red X through it

 

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful with the spelling of minuscule. Look for the word minus:

Karen thinks it’s a minuscule problem, but I disagree.  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.
“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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Let’s Make It Simpler!

This is a follow-up to Monday’s post, where I discussed an interesting article in The New Yorker: Is the Internet Making Writing Better? Here’s a sentence from the article:

As with online irony, online civility emerges from linguistic superfluity, the perception that an extra effort has been made, whether through hedges, honorifics, or more over-all words.

I would have simplified it: Online writing sounds more polite when you take the time to write more words.

The article goes on to suggest three ways to add those words: “hedges, honorifics, or more over-all words.” Bad advice. The first suggestion – hedging – would weaken your writing.

The other advice is too vague to be helpful. What’s the difference between “more words” and “more over-all words”? And how do you do add words effectively?

Honorifics are titles or words indicating respect. How would you use them?

I’m surprised The New Yorker didn’t send the article back for some revisions.

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Internet Writing…and More

I just read an interesting article in The New Yorker: Is the Internet Making Writing Better? It’s a review of Gretchen McCulloch’s new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

Although I haven’t read McCulloch’s book yet, the article is fresh and worth reading. Writing tends to be a stuffy and stagnant subject. I often feel that I keep reading the same ideas everywhere I go. McCulloch argues that technology opens up new possibilities for writing.

Here’s a paragraph from that New Yorker article that got me thinking:

As with online irony, online civility emerges from linguistic superfluity, the perception that an extra effort has been made, whether through hedges, honorifics, or more over-all words.

If you pull your copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style off your bookshelf, you’ll find this advice in the “Elementary Principles of Composition” chapter: Omit Needless Words.

“Vigorous writing is concise,” counsel Strunk and White. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a machine should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

But I’d say that Strunk and White were only partially right. First, it’s not always obvious which words are unnecessary. Second – and this is the point McCulloch makes – sometimes it’s better to take extra time and say something more.

When I taught at a business school, I told my students to “say yes quickly – but say no slowly.” Make your reader feel that you took the time to think about the situation and come up with your answer. It softens the disappointment.

Here’s another example of taking extra time: I often tell writers to add an extra sentence to the end of a paragraph (a strategy I used in the paragraph before this one!). That might seem odd in light of Strunk and White’s insistence on brevity. But that extra sentence adds a professional touch – like a bow on a package.

Here are some closure (final) sentences that impressed me:

  • I still think about that weekend.
  • He keeps her picture in his wallet.
  • That rosebush blooms every year, without fail.

In today’s post I’ve offered two pieces of advice about writing. One is to pay extra attention to the ends of your paragraphs. Often an additional sentence can add some pizzazz. (But don’t try it in every paragraph!)

My other suggestion is to keep looking for new ways to learn about writing. Don’t get stuck in the tried-and-true advice we’ve all heard a hundred times.

I discovered the closure trick by reading student papers at a community college. A few students did it naturally, others imitated them, and I soon realized we were on to something.

When you read something you like, slow down and ask yourself what made the difference. Then try it yourself. It’s one of the best ways to develop your writing skills.

Yes, I think Gretchen McCulloch is on to something. The Internet is going to teach us a lot about writing. I can’t wait!

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Affect or Effect?

Affect and effect cause a great deal of confusion because the spellings are so similar. My advice about them might surprise you: don’t use affect at all.

Affect is a vague word that tells your readers nothing:

The new zoning law will affect the value of our property.  VAGUE

Will your property be worth more…or less? “Affect” doesn’t tell you.

The new zoning law will lower the value of our property.  BETTER

The new zoning law will increase the value of our property.  BETTER

What about effect? It means “a result.” Here’s a trick: Try inserting the in your sentence and see if it works. If it does, chances are you have the right spelling.

We hired a consultant to help us explore the effects of the school proposal.  CORRECT

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All about Parentheses

Parentheses are wonderful punctuation marks. They enliven your writing by allowing little interruptions. (I use them all the time.)

But many writers are afraid of them! So here’s a crash course in parentheses:

  • Be careful not to overuse them. You don’t want to sound like a breathless teenager!
  • Never put a comma in front of parentheses. That’s an ironclad rule – and a useful one. You don’t have to parse the sentence to figure out whether it needs a comma: if there’s a parenthesis, NO COMMA.
  • But of course you can put a comma after parentheses (like this), if it’s needed.
  • If you put a complete sentence into parentheses, start with a capital letter and end with a period. (You can also use question marks, exclamation points, and other end punctuation.)
  • If it’s not a complete sentence, start with a lower-case letter, and don’t use a period (savvy readers will notice).

Congratulations! You now have a Ph.D. in parentheses. (Easy, wasn’t it?)

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Thinking and Telling

Today I’m going to tackle one big guideline for writers: Don’t confuse thinking with telling. They’re not the same thing.

Thinking on paper can look like telling. There are lots of words, many ideas, tons of examples. You’re scribbling or typing very fast. But you’re not writing for an audience…yet. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that your audience is you.

People often get thinking and telling mixed up. I do it all the time. I’ll be rattling away excitedly about some idea that has just grabbed me. Suddenly my husband (or someone else who loves me) puts up a hand and says, “Stop! What are you talking about?”

And it hits me: I was talking to clarify my thinking for myself, rather than the person who’s listening.

Writing has (or should have) two clear-cut stages: Thinking and telling. Don’t even attempt to present your thoughts to a reader until you’ve thoroughly explored them. That often requires research, and it ALWAYS involves a first draft.

I’m convinced that many of the weak student essays I’ve read over the years are the result of the same mistake. Ideas – facts – opinions pour onto a piece of paper. The student is overjoyed. I’m writing! I have something to say!

Wrong. You’re preparing to write.

Here are some signs that you’re in the discovery phase:

  • You’re surprised by some of the things coming you’re saying or writing
  • The topic is new to you
  • If someone asked you to summarize your point in a single sentence, you wouldn’t know what to say
  • You have a pile of notecards in front of you that you’re trying to string together
  • You’re so busy thinking about your topic that you haven’t thought about your readers

Discoveries are a good thing! Write them all down. Explore your topic from every possible angle. Marshal all your examples. Then you can start shaping them for your readers (devising an opening strategy, organizing your supporting ideas, thinking about transitions and climaxes).

Think first, tell second: Simple advice that can make all the difference in your success as a writer.

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Jean Keeps Writing

I’m still working on a presentation for a Shaw conference in Spain next May. The road has been both bumpy and fun.

I was delighted when I had filled up seven pages. At the beginning of this project, I was afraid it was so slight that I’d have nothing interesting to present. That seventh page was a milestone and a beacon of hope. I could picture myself crossing the finish line.

But then I discovered that Village Wooing (the play I’m writing about) is much more interesting than I expected. Ideas started tumbling out. Yikes! I had to go back to the beginning to make room for my new insights.

Here – in no particular order – are some thoughts:

  • My goal is to create a lively PowerPoint for the conference. So why am I struggling to write a @#$%! paper that may never get published? Here’s the answer: a paper requires precise, orderly thinking. That discipline is forcing me to dig deeper and come up with better ideas.
  • The first page (which I’ve rewritten at least 10 times) is the key to everything. Once I’ve set up a reason to discuss Village Wooing, and introduced the points I want to make, everything else is going to be easy. (Or so I hope. I’m still working on that first page.)
  • I know it’s crazy to think that writing an academic paper is similar to writing a novel. But I think there are some similarities. I have to keep my readers in mind the whole time – setting them up for what’s coming without giving too much away. I suspect it’s similar to the thinking process that novelists use.
  • You might be surprised how much invention goes on in academic writing. Of course I’m not really inventing anything. This is a serious project that I hope will have lasting value. But it involves lots of choices. Which point will I make next? What’s the best way to support it? What should be left out? What needs to be emphasized?
  • It’s frustrating to have to backtrack. Sometimes I hold my head when I reread what I’ve written: who wrote this mess?
  • But it’s also great fun a lot of the time – and it’s thrilling to come up with something really good that hasn’t been said before.

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

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Whoever or Whomever?

If you’ve encountered the word whomever recently, I’d give you better than even odds that it’s been used incorrectly. Here’s an example of the kind of mistake I hear (or read) all the time:

Give the money to whomever needs it.

I would argue that the sentence should read:

 Give the money to whoever needs it.

But some people think whomever is more elegant, and they overuse it.

How can we solve this problem? First, let’s get who and whom straight. Who is like he; whom is like him. So far, so good.

But now we’re stuck between two choices:

1.  Give the money to him. Give the money to whom. Give the money to whomever. Give the money to whomever needs it. (This is what many people would do with the sentence.)

OR…

2.  He needs it. Who needs it. Give the money to whoever needs it. (This is my choice.)

So how do you know which is right? You reword the sentence and try our who = he and whom = him strategy again.

Let’s go:

Give the money to the person who needs it.

You wouldn’t say “him needs it.” So who and whoever are correct:

Give the money to whoever needs it.

Whom and whomever are disappearing – and I (for one) am thrilled. Whom doesn’t add anything useful to a sentence. It wastes time and confuses people. Who needs it? (Ha!)

whom

                                        Who?

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