Hyphens Would Have Helped!

When I was on Facebook a couple of minutes ago, I saw a picture that stopped me in my tracks, for two reasons. It was an picture of an ugly spider, but the caption said that it was a bird.

I looked more closely to see if it was a bird that had developed some really amazing camouflage. Nope – definitely a spider.

And then I figured it out. It’s a picture of an Australian bird-eating spider (more precisely, an Eastern tarantula). But the caption said bird eating spider, leading me to believe that I was looking at a bird that was eating a spider.

Bottom line: Hyphens would have helped: bird-eating spider.

Just in case you’re a person who’s intimidated by hyphens (as I was for years), here’s another example:

man eating shark (a man with a knife, a fork, and a very large fish on a plate)

man-eating shark (keep your distance!)

Not that difficult after all!

Queensland 2




Don’t Fool Yourself

I just came across a terrific Washington Post article that every aspiring writer should read: “How Corporate America Killed My Writing” by Jim Sollisch.

Sollisch is writing about a surprising problem: Readers who want to correct a professional writer’s work. (It’s happened to me!)

If you enjoy Sollisch’s article, here are two more that you might find interesting. One article questions some of the recommendations in Strunk and White’s beloved Elements of Style. It’s called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” You can read it at this link: https://shar.es/1vNaAZ G

And there’s another response to The Elements of Style in comic-book format. The author is a blogger who calls himself Tommy Gun.

I’m not trying to denigrate The Elements of Style. It’s a book I’ve read multiple times, and it’s been a huge influence on my writing and teaching.

My point is that professional writing is a complicated undertaking. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you know it all! There’s always more to learn. (And think twice when you’re tempted to correct a professional writer!)

Oops_Stop_Sign_icon 2


Tim Tebow

The football season is here, and Tim Tebow is back – sort of. Tebow was front-page news as a college player, and the excitement continued when he started his pro career with the Denver Broncos in 2010. But his career hit some bumps, and he’s now working for the SEC Network as a college football analyst.

There was a moment, though, when it looked as if he’d be going to the Philadelphia Eagles after a two-year hiatus from pro football.

I recently read an AP story about the excitement that Tebow was generating in Philadelphia. It included an awkward sentence that’s worth a close look: 

Tebow is back after sitting out two seasons and competing for a job as the No. 3 quarterback.

The sentence is grammatically correct – there are no usage or punctuation mistakes. But there’s a serious problem nevertheless: The sentence doesn’t communicate the meaning that the writer intended.

It seems to be saying that Tebow spent two seasons sitting and competing. Wrong. The sitting-out period was over (at least that’s what Tebow was hoping). He’d just begun competing for the quarterback position.

Here’s how the sentence could be rewritten for clarity:

Tebow is back, after sitting out two seasons, and competing for a job as the No. 3 quarterback.  BETTER

This sentence is an excellent example of a principle that a teaching colleague of mine calls “loud and soft.” You can use your voice to distinguish the important parts of a sentence (loud) from  the less-important parts (soft). If you read the Tim Tebow sentence aloud, you’ll hear what I’m talking about:

Tebow is back, after sitting out two seasons, and competing for a job as the No. 3 quarterback.  BETTER

Of course you don’t shout or whisper! But you do lower and raise your voice slightly. In writing, when you don’t have the benefit of a human voice, you use commas for the same purpose.

If I had my druthers, I would make one more change: Adding he’s after and to make the sentence even easier to read and understand:

Tebow is back, after sitting out two seasons, and he’s competing for a job as the No. 3 quarterback.  CLEAR AND CORRECT

(I know that Strunk and White have a prohibition against “needless words,” and of course you don’t need “he’s” to figure out that the sentence is still talking about Tebow. But I stand by my assertion that the additional word makes the sentence easier for readers. Isn’t that what writing is for?)

What I’m trying to do here is show you how professional writers think. We don’t run through a list of grammatical categories and rules. We read a sentence, think about it, and look for ways to make it better.

Diagramming sentences and memorizing grammar terminology won’t, alas, make you a better writer. The keys to writing success are 1) Reading a sentence slowly, 2) thinking about it, and 3) revising it as needed.

Tim Tebow

                  Tim Tebow


Be a Pro

In one of my favorite Andy Griffith Show episodes, Gomer Pyle is looking for a job and decides to answer an ad for a butcher. Andy asks, “Do you know anything about cutting meat?” Gomer, startled, says, “Do you think they’ll ask me that?”

It’s funny when Gomer Pyle says it. But that kind of attitude is NOT funny coming from a would-be writer. I regularly get asked to evaluate manuscripts from hopeful writers who haven’t taken the time to acquire the skills needed for a writing career.

Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue:

Me: “What word-processing system do you use?”

Writer: “What’s that?”

Other questions: Are you familiar with Amazon.com? (You’d better be – they’re going to be selling your books.) Have you studied books similar to yours to see how they’re put together? Are you thinking about self-publishing? (The odds are strongly against persuading a commercial publisher to take on your book.) How much time and energy are you willing to commit to marketing your book?

Writers who take themselves seriously can produce outstanding work. My husband, a garden writer, just came across a beautiful self-published book about ornamental tobacco plants: Illustrated Guide to Flowering Tobacco for Gardens by Richard Pocker. I’m writing a review of another impressive book, The Baby Mama Syndrome by Judge Robert Doyel.

Another self-published book didn’t impress me as much – and it underlines the point about knowing the writing business. I just finished reading The Art of Compassion by Yola Miller Sigerson. It’s a biography of Sigrid Undset, one of my favorite writers, and it’s beautifully researched and a joy to read. All the scholarly apparatus is there, including pages of endnotes.

But…there are no endorsements on the back cover. Sigerson spoke to Undset’s relatives and friends. Why not ask them to make some comments about her book to enhance her credibility? And there’s no acknowledgments page. Another problem is that the word didn’t was misspelled numerous times (with an extra apostrophe).

Yes, Gomer, butchers need to know how to cut meat. And yes, dear would-be writer, you need to go to the library, pull some competing books off the shelves, and learn how to punt your book into the same league.

It’s all about a commitment to professionalism.

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle

                   Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle



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!


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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.