Rules that Seem to Break the Rules

Today I’m going to discuss four usage rules that seem to break the rules. I’ve heard many people say that the correct usage looks wrong to them, and the wrong usage looks right. Today we’re going to focus on the right way, of course.

1.   either/or and neither/nor
These constructions don’t follow the usual “look at the beginning!” rule. You’re supposed to go to or/nor to figure out your verb. (It’s easier than you think!)

Either Jane or the Smiths (know, knows) how to get to the airport.
Either the Smiths or Jane (know, knows) how to get to the airport.

Here are the answers, with clues in bold:

Either Jane or the Smiths know how to get to the airport.
Either the Smiths or Jane knows how to get to the airport.

Either Jane or the Smiths know how to get to the airport.  CORRECT
Either the Smiths or Jane knows how to get to the airport.  CORRECT

2.  I or me?

Many people overuse I because they mistakenly think it’s more elegant. Sometimes me is the correct word (even if your grandmother thinks I sounds better!). The trick is to shorten the sentence – you’ll instantly hear which word is correct:

The Smiths drove Kay and (I, me) to the airport.
The Smiths drove me to the airport.
The Smiths drove Kay and me to the airport.  CORRECT

The Smiths and (I, me) went to the airport.
I went to the airport.
The Smiths and I went to the airport.  CORRECT

3.   well or good?

Many people think well sounds more elegant than good – and that tricks them into overusing it. Often good is the correct word:

I feel good today.  CORRECT
That color looks good on you!  CORRECT
A grilled cheese sandwich sounds good to me.  CORRECT

4.  possessive pronouns (his, hers, ours, yours, theirs, its)

Many people tell me they’re tempted to use an apostrophe in possessive pronouns. Don’t give in to that temptation! Here’s a trick for getting them right: Remember that his is a possessive pronoun. His doesn’t need an apostrophe – and neither do the others.

That locker is hers, and this one is his.  CORRECT
My jacket lost one of its buttons.  CORRECT
Jackie’s car is older than ours, but it looks newer because she takes such good care of it.  CORRECT

Broken Ruler Adobe

Short Pencil Point Deviant Art okInstant Quiz ANSWER

The correct word is lo (not low):

Lo and behold, there was my missing earring.  CORRECT

Lo is an old-fashioned expression of surprise or wonder that you might be familiar with from the Bible. Nowadays it’s most commonly used in two expressions: lo and behold and lo these many years.

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from and other online booksellers.

What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed

“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


Feeling the Ground Shake

A friend of mine is an ex-priest who is still a devout Catholic. I recently heard him give a talk about Gary Wills’ remarkable book Why Priests? A Failed Tradition.

Wills assembled a wealth of historical information to argue that Christianity was never intended to have a separate class of ordained clergy. But in postmodern fashion, the book sent a very different message to my friend (and many other religious-minded readers). What hit him – hard – was the discovery that some apparently timeless principles of the Catholic Church have a far less solid foundation than he used to think. I remember my friend shaking his head and saying, “They didn’t tell us any of this in the seminary.”

You probably already know that I’m not going to talk about religion today – so what’s my point? Here it is: Wills’ book is part of a colossal shift in thought that affects all of us – and it includes language. But before I get there, let me give you a non-religious example of this “shift in thought.”

Not long ago I watched a British TV documentary about the extraordinary range of wildlife that lives in the gardens behind Buckingham Palace. (Regular readers: Are you surprised that I’ve been to Buckingham Palace and seen those gardens? No, of course not.)

It was a charming TV show, but I detected an underlying message – a commercial, almost. The United Kingdom no longer believes in the inevitability of their royal family. They know that it’s the British public – not God or her blue-blooded lineage – who keep the Queen on her throne. For that reason, the royal family has undertaken a quiet public relations campaign to argue for its continued relevance.

Of course nobody is arguing that language is irrelevant, so what point am I trying to make? Here it is: Many of us grew up believing that the principles of correct language usage – like religion, like the divine right of kings – were absolute truths, their origins lost in the mists of time. A beloved English teacher imparted those truths to us, and we feel a solemn obligation to keep that tradition alive.

So it comes as a shock to learn that many of our most revered writing practices arrived late on the scene. Some were decided by amateurs who had no business making pronouncements about language. Many were offhandedly invented by people who operated printing presses. When we hear about these things, we experience the same shock my priest friend did. What is left to believe in? Or (a wail I hear all the time) “There are no more rules!”

In a sense they’re right. That beloved English teacher back in eleventh grade didn’t make the rules. Neither did Strunk and White, or Henry Fowler, or John E. Warriner (author of the grammar book we all used in high school). We, the people who speak English, are the ones who ultimately decide what to discard and what to keep.

If you think I’m overstating my case, let me give you an example. There’s an adverb in English that’s a synonym for stingy. It’s a perfectly respectable word that’s derived from the Middle English nigon. (The word “niggling” is a relative.) No grammar book that I know of has ever tried to make a case against this word, and yet almost nobody uses it anymore. Why? Because it sounds a lot like a racial epithet.

Logical? No. Cowardly? Perhaps. But – for better or worse – that’s how changes find their way into our language. And that’s how princes and princesses find themselves holding salaried jobs (as Prince Andrew is doing) and managing with a couple of domestic workers instead of a huge staff (as Princess Anne is doing).

That’s how religions find themselves reaching out to people who no longer want to be told how to manage, say, their sex lives or their finances. (Did you know that the Catholic Church used to prohibit investors from earning interest on their wealth? When was the last time you heard a sermon about the evils of money-lending and usury?)

Are you feeling the ground shake beneath your feet? I am too – but I’m also sensing the immense power that you and I hold every time we pick up a pen to write or open our mouths to speak. Let’s take a moment to honor our wonderful language – and our role as shapers and deciders of its future.



Is the Period Disappearing?

A recent article in the New York Times noted a distressing trend in social media: Many people are omitting periods (called “full stops” in the UK) from their text messages. According to David Crystal, author of more than 100 books on language,“We are at a momentous moment.” Instant messaging doesn’t require end punctuation, he says: It’s perfectly obvious where the sentence ends, even if there’s no period. “So why use it?” he asks.

Well, I can give you one pretty convincing argument for using it: If you don’t use punctuation conventions, no reputable publisher will touch your manuscript.

So I’m not fretting over the alleged disappearance of the period (or full stop). But I’m intrigued by something that Crystal mentioned in his interview with the Times: In instant messaging, periods are sometimes used to show irony or annoyance. 

For example, picture this scenario: A husband tells his wife that he’s skipping tonight’s school conference because he has too much to do at the office. She immediately suspects the real reason: He wants to avoid a standoff with their daughter’s teacher, who’s been complaining about Janey’s behavior in class. Here’s a snippet of their back-and-forth texts:

She: you just dont want 2 be there

He: hell no i hate these conferences

She: fine.

Can you hear the cold, flat, ok-you-win anger in her response? That period nails it (and nails him for trying to shirk his duties as a father).


Several things are going on here that I think are worth noting. Because Twitter imposes a 140-character limit, it makes sense to omit anything unnecessary – including end punctuation. That doesn’t mean everyone will follow suit. Newspapers have long used space-saving lower-case letters for titles like Queen, Pope, and President. That hasn’t stopped the rest of us from capitalizing those words. So I don’t see a slippery-slope happening here.

But I do see something else: People who send instant messages are learning how to make their texts replicate the human voice. That is an astounding development.

When I’m working with a student writer, I often hear protests when I delete an unnecessary comma: “That’s supposed to indicate a dramatic pause.” “The comma is showing hesitation and uncertainty.”

Nope. It just shows that you don’t know how to use commas.

Writers have only one tool to insert a space into a sentence…the ellipsis. If you’re a strict grammarian, you use an ellipsis only for omitted words (a shortened quotation in a research paper, for example). Despite my general conservatism and crankiness about punctuation, I think it’s ok to use an ellipsis for a dramatic pause – in fact I rather like it.

But – truth to tell – that practice isn’t very useful, for two reasons. One is that an ellipsis looks formal and out of place in a folksy conversation. Another is that those three dots quickly become wearisome. If you’re writing a conversation with many pauses for hesitations and dramatic effect, your finished product is going to look odd.

What to do? Most writers end up either a) taking up drinking and b) doing lots of rewrites until they get the effect they want.

Those ares the best answers I can give you…but perhaps all those people who are tapping away on their devices are going to come up with some fresh possibilities for the rest of us.

Are periods disappearing?

                                                             Is the period disappearing?


Guidelines for Underlining

Back in the 60s I learned how to type on a manual typewriter. Businesses were just beginning the transition to electric typewriters, and of course there weren’t any computers.

Typewriters had limited options for style and emphasis. My typing class learned to center titles by pressing the space bar over and over. Boldface was accomplished through patience and backspacing.

There was an underline key, but it was supposed to be used only to indicate italics (although high-school students like me used it recklessly to add emphasis and variety to whatever we were writing).

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Word-processing programs come with built-in styles that automatically format titles and headings. Our options are dazzling: Color, serif and sans-serif typefaces, and a whole range of font sizes. Boldface and italics are available by pressing a key.

So what do many writers do? They underline. @#$%&!

I’m going to list, calmly and rationally, the guidelines for underlining. Here they are:

  1. Never underline anything.
  2. Pretend there’s no underline key on your keyboard.
  3. Repeat this mantra as often as necessary: “Underlining is ugly, and professionals never use it.”
  4. Make use of the other formatting options in your word-processing program.

So why is the underlining key there if we’re not supposed to use it? That’s a legitimate question, and a few years ago I finally found the answer.

A few years ago a friend and I put together a book for a university press. We had to follow a complex set of formatting guidelines to ensure that our manuscript was compatible with the company’s publishing system. Everything had to be set up in a courier typeface, and we were forbidden to use any special keys except – gasp! – the underline key. No boldface, no italics, no colors. We couldn’t switch typefaces or font sizes. Our instructions were that any time we saw something that needed italics, we should underline it.

We duly followed the directions, and lo and behold: When our book was published, the ugly courier typeface had been magically converted into something snazzy and professional, and all the underlined words were transformed into italics.

And that, my friend, is the only time you’re allowed to use underlining. No, wait: There are two more. You can underline when you’re writing by hand, since you don’t have other formatting options. And if by chance you still own a manual or electric typewriter, you can underline to your heart’s content. Be my guest!

Typewriter Keys


Affect or Effect?

Many writers are befuddled by affect and effect. Today I’m going to offer you some practical tips, unconventional advice, and advanced information about these two words.

Here’s a trick for keeping them straight: Affect is usually an action – both affect and action start with “a.”

Effect is usually a thing: the effect. Did you notice there are two e’s in a row? The effect.

Let’s go on to the unconventional advice. Here it is: Don’t use the verb affect. Ever. Here’s why: It’s vague.

For example:

The new medication affected his glucose level.

Did the medication raise the glucose level – or drop it? Was the change beneficial – or harmful?

I used to circle affect on students’ papers and ask for a revision with a more specific word. Here’s what I would get back:

The new medication altered his glucose level.


Here are some useful substitutes: help, harm, benefit, improve, damage…you get the idea.

Let’s go on to the advanced information. Earlier I told you that affect is usually an action, and effect is usually a thing. Why did I fudge with “usually”? I did that because professionals use these words in specialized ways.

  1. Effect can be a verb (action) that means “bring about change”: “The benefits effected by the new policy did not justify its cost.”
  2. Psychologists sometimes use affect to mean emotion: “The dramatic changes in affect proved that the new therapy was working.”

I suggest leaving these two usages to the specialists.

Before we return to conventional usage of affect and effect, allow me a digression. I struggle with the words petal, pedal, and peddle. Just this morning I saw peddle used correctly in a newspaper article, and my immediate reaction was that it was wrong. I had to stop and think before I mentally congratulated the journalist for getting it right.

Petal (which I always confuse with pedal) is a particular problem because I do all of my husband’s typing for him – and he is, of course, a garden writer. Do you have any idea how many plants have petals?

My point is that I always slow down, double-check, and ultimately get these troublesome words right (even when my husband is impatiently waiting to dictate the next sentence about his damned petunias).

Get out a dictionary, go online, call your mother-in-law who’s a grammar curmudgeon – do whatever you have to do, but don’t guess when you encounter a troublesome word!

question mark cube Pixabay ok


The Vanishing Palm Tree

Friends entering our living room for the first time always ask the same question: “That palm tree – is it real?”

Chamaedorea seifrizii

               Chamaedorea seifrizii

Yes, it’s real. You have to understand that my husband loves palms, so he has to have at least one to call his own – even though we live in a small fourth-floor condo.

Actually there have been two palm trees in that spot. The first – an unusual species called Chamaedorea erumpens – was later replaced by a Chamaedorea seifrizii, a widely available species commonly called a bamboo palm.

It would be logical to assume that the first palm succumbed to a disease, or outgrew the space, or no longer matched our decor. Wrong on all three counts. In fact we don’t know precisely when the switch took place. Call it the vanishing palm tree.

OK, I’ve teased you long enough. Here’s what happened: Palm taxonomists changed the name, deciding that there never was a Chamaedorea erumpens. Palms with that name were reclassified as variations of the familiar Chamaedorea seifrizii.

Does the name of our palm tree matter? Not to Charlie and me. We think it’s beautiful and admire it daily. But if we were collectors, the name might make a huge difference. Someone who’s trying to study as many species as possible wouldn’t want to allocate money and space for a duplicate specimen, even if it’s beautiful and healthy.

Why am I writing about palm trees on a language blog? I want to introduce you to an essential postmodern language concept: Language creates our reality. When we decide that the differences between two items are significant enough to be noticed, we give them different names. Things exist – in a sense – only because we name them.

Here’s what’s even more interesting: Postmodern language theory is simply restating what scientists have known for centuries. Names organize our world for us, via the same thinking tools that taxonomists use: splitting (separating members of a category) and lumping (finding connections between things that seem to be unrelated). In fact I think you could make a case for calling Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) one of the fathers of postmodernism.

Renaming is often the result of a complex thinking process. I just read a provocative article about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder): No Diagnosis Left Behind: The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic.

ADHD is a psychiatric diagnosis for children (and some adults) with persistent behavior problems. Medication can make a huge difference for these patients and the people who live and work with them. But some pediatricians are raising important questions about the way ADHD is diagnosed today: Are medical professionals overdoing it?

Sometimes it comes down to a naming issue: Where do you draw the line between a “behavior problem” and “kids just acting like kids”? Some professionals are worried that an ADHD diagnosis could result in future legal and medical problems for a group of children whose only problem is that they can’t sit still in school. [Please note that no one is denying that ADHD exists and that treatment is valuable.]

To put it differently: When we’re talking about a large number of childen, it makes a huge difference whether you lean more towards “splitting” (placing many kinds of behavior in the “psychiatric disorder” category) or towards “lumping” (assigning most childish misbehavior to the “normal” category).

The debate belongs to the professionals, and we’ll leave it to them. My point is that when we view the debate from the vantage point of language, we add another whole layer of meaning to the discussion – and that, in my opinion, is a good thing.

There’s much more to say about classifications, categories, and naming, but I just want to introduce these topics today. Here’s a project for you: Start thinking about naming. Here are two activities to get you started:

  • Criminal Justice – can you think of any behaviors that used to be labeled crimes but are now perfectly legal – and vice versa?
  • Health – can you think of any substances that used to be labeled dangerous that are now considered safe – and vice versa?

If you’re multi-lingual or multi-cultural, you have an exceptional doorway into the ways that language organizes experience. Does your first language make any distinctions that other languages ignore? And were you introduced to any new concepts when you learned a new language? (I’m thinking of the Welsh word hiraeth, the Finnish word sisu,  the Spanish word duende, and the Danish word hyggelig.)

Bottom line: Think about any great writer, and you’ll find that he or she used words in new ways to expand and explain human experience. Understanding the significance of names is the first step.

I’ll have more to say about this later!


A Tale of Two Sentences

Today we’re going to look at two sentences that contain errors. Of course I’ll explain the mistakes – but my real purpose today is to ask whether the mistakes matter.

The first sentence is from a New York Times article from 2013 by psychologist Maggie Koerth-Baker: No Diagnosis Left Behind: The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic. (I should explain that A.D.H.D. is an acronym for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.) Here’s the sentence:

Numerous brain-imaging studies have also shown distinct differences between the brains of people given diagnoses of A.D.H.D. and those not — including evidence that some with A.D.H.D. may have fewer receptors in certain regions for the chemical messenger dopamine, which would impair the brain’s ability to function in top form.

Did you notice the indefinite pronoun reference? Here it is: which would impair the brain’s ability to function in top form. The word which should refer to something that’s already been stated. But if you ask what impairs the brain’s ability to function in top form, you come up with this answer: The smaller number of receptors in the brain of someone with A.D.H.D. Since those exact words don’t appear in the sentence, we have an indefinite pronoun reference.

Does the mistake matter? I would argue that it doesn’t in this case: The sentence is perfectly clear. So why would anyone even bother learning how to identify and label a construction called an indefinite pronoun reference? Here’s why: In some situations (a legal case, for example), precision is essential.

Now let’s look at today’s second sentence. My friend Ellen Massey sent me a link to an NPR feature about this problematic sentence from the just-adopted party platform of the Texas Republican Party:

Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans.

Take a look at the second half of the sentence: ...that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. You can’t say that truths “has been ordained.” You need the verb have.

So – according to the sentence – it’s homosexuality that “has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans” – the opposite of what the Republican Party intended. (Oddly enough, the 2014 version of the platform had the correct verb.)

Now let’s ask the same question: Does the mistake matter? Everyone knows what the Republicans meant. You can make a strong argument (as I did with our first sentence) that a writer’s real goal is to be understood, and one picky mistake doesn’t change anything.

But suppose a sentence like this was the pivotal point in a legal case. Do attorneys ever take sentences apart to determine their meaning – and do judges ever hand down decisions based on a grammatical construction?

You betcha. Arguing that a mistake slipped past you and changed the meaning of a sentence probably won’t hold water in a court of law. (In the workplace, your boss might not have much sympathy either.)

And there’s something else to consider. Articles about the mistake in the homosexuality sentence appeared in the Huffington Post, the Texas Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. How many of us are willing to risk being embarrassed that way?

A word to the wise: Learn as much as you can about sentence structure – and always double-check your verbs! A mistake you overlook could come back to haunt you.




The Cat in the Monastery

A monastery was having a problem with the abbot’s pet cat. Felines are nocturnal, and this cat – true to form – became more active at night. When the monks gathered in the chapel to say their evening prayers, the cat distracted them by running, leaping, and meowing.

A monk was appointed to tie up the cat just before evening prayers every night and release it afterward. Problem solved!

Time went by, and the abbot died, and so did the cat. The monks promptly adopted another cat so that they could tie it up before evening prayers.

Question: How often do we forget the original reason for doing something – and keep up the practice even though conditions have changed?

When I conduct writing workshops, I’m often asked whether it’s one or two spaces after a period. I know right away that my answer – only one space, please! – is going to be met with howls of dismay: “But my typing teacher told me TWO spaces!”

Here’s a question I use to shake up those people: How is your typing teacher doing it now – one space or two?


My bet is that most of those teachers have switched to using only one space. Professionals know that computers are sophisticated typography machines with capabilities that the typewriters of old didn’t have.

Look at a capital I and a capital W: Their widths are very different. Typists used to be taught to insert an extra space after a period so that the differences in capital letters wouldn’t be so noticeable. But computers automatically adjust that space themselves. If you insert a second space, you’re announcing that you’re stuck in the past. (I also ask those skeptics if they still use a carriage return at the end of a line. Of course they don’t!)

I often encounter writers who are trapped in something a long-ago teacher (who wasn’t a professional writer) told them. The superstition (that’s all it is) about not starting a sentence with but, or and, or because is one of them, but there are others. For example, English teachers want sophisticated sentence patterns and vocabulary choices, but criminal justice reports require short, objective sentences and everyday language. I’ve seen many cops try to make a report about a stolen bicycle sound like critical treatise on Hamlet. It doesn’t work!

And then there are writers who studied journalism and think that the Associated Press Stylebook is an infallible guide to writing practices. It’s not. The AP is much more concerned with saving space and ink than other forms of publishing – hence the requirement to delete the last serial comma in a series and to lower-case words like president and pope. Other forms of publishing want greater length. Books, for example, need to be long enough to justify the selling price, so punctuation and capitalization practices are different.

Writers are (or should be) lifelong learners. Every writing situation is different. Start thinking about strategies for adjusting your habits as situations change. It’s a great way to grow as a writer, and it’s a requirement if you aim to be taken seriously in the professional world.