A Long Sentence!

Instant Quiz

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

The total cost is estimated to be about $10,000.

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Last month I posted some comments from Ellen Holder about a very long sentence. (Ellen is a terrific writer who’s a member of my writing group.)

Here’s another perceptive observation from Ellen:

I was reading a novel by Kristy Woodson Harvey and came to a paragraph I can barely understand. I read quickly and, when I skimmed over this, I realized I could not picture what I was reading. I read it again…and again. I read it to my husband several times. When I finally thought I had figured out what she was describing, I could think of a much better way to write it. But it’s possible I still do not get the picture of what she wrote. What do you think of this?

I had walked to Holden that night and leaned beside him on a nonfunctioning radiator. I crossed my arms, looked down at his hands and sparked my lighter to the end of the cigarette hanging between his lips. He smiled out of one corner of his mouth and said, “Isn’t that supposed to go the other way around?”

I did figure out what she was describing, but I don’t think a reader should have to struggle to make sense out of a successful author’s writing. I was trying to picture her lighting his cigarette with her arms crossed, and I was trying to picture her looking down at his hands at the same time she was lighting his cigarette at his lips. Then I thought his question to her was referring to which end of the lighter she was using, which seemed absurd. On further thought, I realize he meant that usually a guy would light a cigarette for a woman.

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

I would omit “about.” An estimate is a guess – it’s not supposed to be exact.

The total cost is estimated to be $10,000.  CORRECT

When I showed today’s sentence to a friend, she suggested this version: “The estimated cost is $10,000.” I like it!


Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
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“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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Effective Business Writing

I’m going to give you a paragraph to read and think about. Here’s the situation. A  large organization has invited a famous speaker to make a presentation. It’s impossible to predict how many people will show up. The committee chair – Jane Morgan – has made a backup plan in case there’s an overflow crowd:

In the event of an excess of anticipated attendance, committee members are advised to carry out the following procedure. First, provide additional meeting space adjacent to the original location. Second, expand the reach of the presentation via electronic means.

Based on what you’ve read, what do you know Jane and her organization?

* * * * * *

The correct answer to my question should be that – aside from your assessment of Jane’s writing – you have no opinion of Jane and her organization. How could you? You don’t know anything about Jane. Does she have a college degree? How many years has she been with the organization? Is she reliable? Is she smart? Does she have leadership qualities? You have no way of knowing.

Similarly you know nothing about the organization. Is it honest? Innovative? Successful? Does it have a useful mission?

It would be ridiculous to make a judgment about Jane and her organization based on nothing but the three sentences you read a moment ago.

* * * * * *

But I can confidently tell you that every day – in offices across the United States – thousands upon thousands of employees like Jane use everyday writing tasks to try to convince others that they’re smart and they work for a superb organization or business. I’ve got to impress everyone. Otherwise they’ll think I’m stupid. They won’t respect me or my organization.

And so they try to make each sentence as long, elaborate, and tangled as they can. Here again is Jane’s message to the committee:

In the event of an excess of anticipated attendance, committee members are advised to carry out the following procedure. First, provide additional meeting space adjacent to the original location. Second, expand the reach of the presentation via electronic means.

Jane would save everyone’s time – including her own – if she wrote the instructions more simply, like this:

If too many people show up today, open another room, and set up a video broadcast of the presentation.

But she’s afraid to do that. They’ll think I’m stupid….They won’t respect me or the organization….

And so it goes.

Are you like Jane? I hope not. (The US government has a terrific business writing website: www.PlainLanguage.gov.)

 

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Bad Grammar vs. Bad Thinking

Here’s something troubling I saw on Quora.com recently. Someone asked whether it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. A self-proclaimed authority (who should know better!) came out strongly against the practice. What really bothered me is not just that he’s wrong (more about that in a moment). It’s an additional claim he made: bad grammar causes bad thinking.

But it seems to make sense, doesn’t it? You can’t possibly think clearly if you don’t know how to construct sentences properly.

He’s still wrong – in multiple ways. First, the question about a preposition has nothing to do with grammar. In fact most writing issues have nothing to do with grammar. There’s no grammatical reason why you can’t use ain’t in professional writing, for example. A sentence with ain’t can be diagrammed beautifully. Ain’t is bad usage – a completely different category.

Very few writing mistakes fall into the grammar category: misplaced modifiers, subject-verb agreement and a few other verb issues, and some pronoun problems. That’s about it. English lost most of its formal grammar a thousand years ago. Today our grammar is largely about word order, and most native speakers master it by the time they’re four or five years old.

Usage, on the other hand, is a vast topic that you can study (as I have) for years – and keep learning. Usage is about word choice, spelling, punctuation (a big one!), and many other writing issues.

Back to the man who railed against ending a sentence with a preposition. Why am I so sure he was wrong? Two reasons.

Reason #1: Fowler’s Modern English Usage – the most respected resource for English grammar and usage – says it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition – and it includes examples from many famous writers.

(Please bear with me for a moment while I complain about students of English who go to Quora or a similar website to ask someone’s opinion about a rule. For heaven’s sake: when you’re looking for answers, go to a respected reference book, or call the library, or visit a reputable website. Don’t ask for someone’s opinion!)

Reason #2: English is created by the people who use it, and we all end sentences with prepositions. “What did I just step on?” “I can’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into.” “My daughter loves to be read to.” I’ll be there at eight to pick you up.” “Let me explain what this button is for.” “I’ll see if he’s in.” “Where are you from?” “Why don’t you just call him up?” “We’ll go out to lunch when the meeting is over.” “I need to look that up.”

What about the claim that bad grammar leads to bad thinking? I’m sure there are a few instances where that’s true. But I’ve known many smart, knowledgeable people who make true grammar mistakes: “He don’t.” “Between you and I.”

One of my favorite hockey commentators is a big “he don’t” offender. And I used to have a brilliant ballroom instructor who often said “I have went.” Those mistakes didn’t affect their thinking and knowledge. Here’s one more example: Shakespeare used “between you and I” in one of his plays.

Back to prepositions. Here in the Deep South, where I’ve lived for many years, many people say “I don’t know where it’s at.” It’s a poor usage habit they have to break if they’re going to climb the career ladder. But the problem isn’t the preposition at the end. The real problem is that “where it’s at” is a regionalism that professionals avoid using. I can give you a perfectly acceptable sentence with similar grammar: “I don’t know which box it’s in.”

(I’m not putting down Southerners, by the way. Because I grew up on Long Island, I’ve had to work hard on remembering to use r’s when I’m talking. Every region has issues!)

So – if bad grammar doesn’t lead to bad thinking – why do schools and colleges (and business and government leaders) keep emphasizing writing skills? Here’s the answer: weak writing leads to weak thinking. And – trust me – grammar study will not make you a powerful writer. You’ll become skilled with verbs, pronouns, and modifiers – but that’s not the same as learning to write strong sentences and paragraphs.

More about this in a future post. (Hint: if you’re trying to write strong sentences, the word and can be a problem!)

a map of Long Island, New Yori

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Carousel

The Comparative Drama conference is over, and I’m back home. It was fabulous, but there was one frustration Friday afternoon when I went to a session about musical plays, including a terrific presentation about domestic violence in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

I fell in love with Carousel early in the 1960s when I started listening to my older sister’s LP Broadway cast albums. There was a magical moment when I first heard “You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan…” (queer meant something quite different in 1945!). I went to the public library and read the play, and it instantly became my favorite Broadway musical. It didn’t matter that I didn’t get to see a performance of Carousel until 30 years later.

Julie is a dreamy, unworldly girl who’s decided she’s never going to marry—but then Billy Bigelow comes along, and there’s that chemistry. It’s one of those mystifying moments when life opens up and we throw away common sense and the careful plans we’ve made.

But as time goes by, Billy Bigelow  – there’s no way to soft-pedal this – starts to hit Julie. The community around her speaks out against him again and again, but she doesn’t listen. 

At Friday’s conference session there was a lot of discussion about “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’”—Julie Jordan’s defense of  Billy Bigelow. It’s a lyrical and beautiful song that – if we’re honest – romanticizes domestic violence. Rodgers and Hammerstein reportedly struggled with that issue in the play, and from our vantage point in 2018, they could certainly have made that disapproval more prominent. Maybe Julie could have sung a song about waking up to what Billy was doing to her.

But that didn’t happen. For whatever reason, Carousel is what it is. Friday’s session quickly got heated. Several women argued that high schools and colleges need to stop mounting productions of Carousel

I disagree—in fact I’m going to see Carousel in New York on May 26, and I’m taking seven people with me. I count the first production I ever saw, back in 1992, as one of the best nights of my life. (I’m in good company: Steven Sondheim—Broadway royalty—says it’s his favorite musical.)

Of course I wanted to jump in and defend Carousel—but I never got the chance. The moderator had his back to us and never saw my hand go up.

Saturday morning after breakfast I rode the elevator upstairs to my room and— amazingly—the presenter was also on her way to her room. She recognized me and said she was sorry I hadn’t had a chance to join the discussion. She even skipped her floor and got off at mine so that we could talk.

Here’s what I had wanted to say. Literature isn’t a rule book, and it doesn’t offer advice or solutions. The meaning of many great works of literature is a simple one: life happens. (And—by the way—it makes no difference whether we approve or not.) A good play or novel or short story or poem doesn’t need closure or a wise message. All it has to do is make a connection with us—and Carousel certainly does that. (I told the presenter that I’d instantly connected with Julie Jordan when I was a teenager. Her response: “We all did.”)

Please, please, don’t tell me I have to fold my arms disapprovingly when I go to see Carousel next month. Do we have to judge everything? 

Julie doesn’t have the last word, and neither do Rodgers and Hammerstein. We do, and that’s enough.

 

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The Comparative Drama Conference

For Christmas a year ago, my friend Jenna gave me a copy of Julie Andrews’ wonderful autobiography Home: A Memoir of My Early Years. Of course I immediately looked for the chapter about starring with Richard Burton in Camelot!

But then I sat down to read the whole book. Today I’m going to talk about one point that I keep thinking about. Andrews was starring in the long-running musical My Fair Lady. She had some concerns about doing the same play again and again, eight times a week. A friend told her to view it as a learning experience: actors learn more from doing one role repeatedly than from appearing in a variety of roles and plays.

I have thought about that advice a hundred times. It doesn’t make sense to me, but I’ll have to take Julie Andrews’ word for it. After all, she thought it was worth putting into her book.

As I write this, I’m at a comparative drama conference, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that question of which is better: focusing on one thing, or having a variety of experiences.

Breaking out of my regular routine often stimulates me to take a step back to think about the way I live my life and the choices I’ve made – and that’s certainly been true these past few days. I did a presentation about Shaw that went well and stimulated a lively discussion. Last night I had a delightful (at times uproarious!) dinner with three special Shavian friends.

I am really grateful for the twists and turns in my life that caused me to be here this week. (What if I’d never signed up for that Shaw seminar way back when I was in graduate school? I shudder to think about it.)

But this conference also has reminded about what I’ve missed along the way. I spent most of my career teaching developmental writing in a community college. I had a heavy teaching load, and my evenings were spent on student papers, leaving little time for reading. At this conference I keep hearing excited conversations about plays and books I’ve never read. Often I’ve never even heard of them.

I have some chops as a Shaw scholar – an advanced degree and  some publications and presentations. But what else could I have learned if I’d had more time?

And so I wonder…was it really wise to teach all those writing classes? Common sense would suggest that after – say – 20 years, I had learned whatever was out there to learn about writing. From that point on it’s just the same thing over and over. So – wouldn’t it have been better to vary my teaching load and include more literature courses?

The answer, of course, is that there is no answer. I will never have an opportunity to travel the Road Not Taken to see what awaited me there.

But I have a strong hunch that my choices were good ones and – common sense notwithstanding – I was still learning even after many years of thinking about the same topic.

For example, I had to take a long, hard, and honest look at what I was trying to accomplish. Along the way I discarded many widespread beliefs about traditional grammar (“It’s helpful to circle adverbial clauses in a workbook”), students (“They’re hopeless, and it gets worse every year”) and the act of writing itself (“Use as many big words as you can, and make every sentence as long as possible”).

My students and I focused on drafting and revising. We spent many hours correcting errors and rewriting sentences to make them stronger and more interesting. We took jumbled paragraphs apart and put them back together so they made more sense. Often my students suggested wonderful changes I hadn’t thought of.

I just thought – absurdly – about Henry David Thoreau, who declared that he “was determined to know beans.” I was “determined to know writing.” And then I thought of something else. Thoreau was sort of saying the same thing that Julie Andrews was told: You can learn a lot by focusing on one thing for a long time.

I made a good choice.

 

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Don’t Hedge Your Bets!

Today’s topic is powerful writing. How do we get there? Here’s one piece of advice I’ve heard many times: “Strive for precision, and powerful writing will happen.” Who could disagree?

I could.

Take a look at this sentence: The ambulance rushed to the scene of the accident.

Ambulances don’t rush! It would be more accurate to write, “The ambulance was quickly driven to the scene of the accident.” But the revised sentence doesn’t have the energy and power of the earlier version.

So – what should you go for? Power – or accuracy?

Powerful writing should always be the goal – but that common-sense principle can get overlooked in writing courses. (I’m afraid that was sometimes true of the classes I taught myself.)

Students are routinely taught to soften their opinions  – for good reason. How can fourteen-year-olds formulate a workable set of guidelines for dealing with – say – the opioid crisis in the US? Every time a kid states an opinion, a teacher is going to jump on their case: “Johnny, that’s sometimes true.” “Susan, it’s rather important.” “Billy, it’s fairly common.” [My friend Darrell Turner makes an important point that I wish I’d included in the original version of this post: qualifiers like “some” and “many” are important when you’re talking about Christians, Muslims, or any group of people.]

The hedging habit results in student writing that’s filled with hedging: “I would argue….” “In my view….” “It appears that…”

Eventually those kids grow up, graduate, and get jobs where they spend hours churning out weak writing. The rest of us wring our hands and moan that kids today are unteachable and nobody knows how to write anymore.

I used to teach developmental students – kids who failed the placement exam and supposedly couldn’t write a sentence and were hopeless. After a lot of trial and error, I worked up a unit that was a lot of fun and produced some interesting papers. We studied the Lizzie Borden axe murders. (I’ve actually spent a night in Lizzie Borden’s bedroom. I am not making this up.)

Students did a lot of library research, so that they knew as much about the murders as I did. And then I showed them a short – and hokey – news report about alleged new discoveries about the murders. Their job was to respond to the news report.

You never saw such writing! Students had something to say. They wrote confidently. They created sentences that linked ideas and evidence.

All their lives they’d been talking with power and conviction. (“I’ll tell you the real reason Kathy broke up with Bob. It started a month ago when….”) But nobody had ever challenged them to write that way.

What does this have to do with you and me? A lot. The hedging habit is ingrained in all of us. (You’d be surprised at all the cautious qualifiers that creep into my own writing. I slash away at them – but the moment I turn my back, they creep in again. Sigh.)

We need to remind ourselves that writing begins – and ends – with having something to say. It’s about power and energy. Everything else is secondary.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I make a dance analogy. I take two adult ballet classes every week. It’s easy for a bunch of older women to sink into a hopeless I-can’t-dance funk. But then our teacher will remind us that we’re performers – and suddenly the room vibrates with energy. I sometimes steal a glance at the women standing in the line with me – and I see magic: glowing faces and arms and legs and bodies dancing.

If you – like me – tend to plod along in your writing, stop! Forget about grammar jargon and the teacher who used to scribble comments all over your papers. What do you have to say that’s exciting? Say it. Be clear and strong. When you see a hedge word, strike it out. Have fun! Empower yourself! Language is wonderful. You are wonderful. (If you didn’t believe that, why would anyone want to read what you have to say?)

 

 

 

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Jean Comes Up for Air

Earlier this month I decided to start writing a new book about Bernard Shaw. It is at last underway (I’ve drafted the first chapter). So here’s the second installment in the exciting adventure of What’s It’s Like to Write a Book – for real.

I’m joking about “exciting adventure,” of course. It’s a lot of hard work – but maybe I’m not entirely joking. It is immensely satisfying – joyful even – to watch the ideas take shape and start flying around my head.

My writing process violates the rules you find in how-to-write books. You’re supposed to push on without stopping to fix a sentence. Nope. I sweat over every sentence – at least in a heavy project like this one. Making the ideas flow is hard work. (“Absolute murder” is the phrase that just came into my head.)

Sometimes the transition from one paragraph to the next depends on a particular word. If I’ve already used that word in a paragraph – something that happens a lot – I have to go back and change everything.

Sometimes the word I want already showed up in one of the quotations from Shaw. Drat you, Shaw – stealing my best stuff.

Those paragraph transitions are the hardest part of writing. Years ago, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation about Shaw, my advisor kept pointing out my “weak paragraph transitions” (words that still ring in my head). I am still battling them.

Another problem (does anyone else struggle like this?) is that after a while the ideas get stalled. I’ve learned that (for me, anyway) 100% of the time the problem is that I didn’t have a strong enough point to begin with. That means I have to go back to the beginning and look for something better. @#$(%! As I said, that’s true 100% of the time.

(What’s also true is that I always say “This time it’s going to be different!” and stubbornly stick with it – until I’m forced to admit that I’ve hit a dead end. Some people never learn.)

Two more thoughts:

  • My best ideas come when I’m walking or driving. When I get stuck, I go for a walk. I don’t like to work on a book when I’m driving – I’d rather just relax and let my brain babble. But because I spend so much time driving to dance lessons, I’m trying to use that time productively.
  • I reread everything I write about a zillion times. Every time I sat down to work on Chapter 1, I went back to the beginning and read what I had already written. Invariably I found several things to improve.

On to Chapter 2! I came up with a tidy plan (ok – I thought it was brilliant) that fell apart when I got to second page…which means I don’t have a strong enough idea for that chapter. Rats. But fun. Exciting. Sort of like exploring a new country!

Bernard Shaw

 

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A Narrative about Overcoming Fear

“Use Language to Overcome Fear” is an 11-minute TED talk by my friend Mark Gai. It’s worth listening to for two reasons.

First, it’s inspiring. Second, he makes two important points that I keep harping on: language creates our reality, and stories (“narratives” is the term writing instructors use) are a great way to get a point across. Well worth watching!  https://youtu.be/ioWTafYtfoU

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard came from an inspiring teacher I had in high school: “Collect stories,” he said. “They have a million uses.” He was right. Mark’s talk demonstrates how powerful a good narrative can be.

A name sticker with a message about courage

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The Oxford Comma: For and Against

Controversy has always surrounded the Oxford comma. The term refers to the optional comma you can insert just before the last item in a list: candy, cookies, and ice cream.

Notice I said optional.  There are misinformed people who will try to convince you that the Oxford comma is evil – and others who insist it’s the only correct way to punctuate a list. Both groups are wrong.

If you’re writing for yourself, you can use the Oxford comma or omit it. Your choice. If you’re writing professionally, you may be required to use it – or to omit it. (Professional writers check a style manual before they submit something they’ve written.)

My husband writes two newspaper columns every week. Because his newspaper prefers AP style, he never uses the Oxford comma. I write books for publication, so I have to use the Oxford comma.

Many companies and organizations have a policy about the Oxford comma. For example, The New Yorker always uses it.

And now things get interesting. I receive a newsy email from The New Yorker every day.  Last week I found this link in one of those daily emails:

Lucy Dacus, the man who invented the power chord, and the wise jazz of Fred Hersch  

I’m sure you were as startled as I was when I read it. Lucy Dacus sounds like a woman’s name – but the link suggests that she’s a man.

What it’s trying to tell you, of course, is that the link takes you to information about three people: Lucy Dacus, Link Wray (the man who invented the power chord), and Fred Hersch. But the Oxford comma makes “the man who invented the power chord” sound like an appositive describing Lucy Dacus.

People who hate the Oxford comma (and there are many of them!) love to use examples like this link to show how stupid and bad and awful the Oxford comma is.

I like the Oxford comma, and I almost always use it. So…why would someone who’s proud of her writing (like me) use a punctuation mark that can cause such confusion and awkwardness?

The answer is that I employ some common sense when I’m writing. If the Oxford comma makes a sentence confusing, I take it out – or I find another way to write the sentence.

If I’d been writing that email link for The New Yorker, for example, I would have just listed the three names:

Lucy Dacus, Link Wray, and Fred Hersch  BETTER

I could also have revised the list to include information about each person. This version is too jumbled for my taste (I like parallelism). But it’s better than the is-Lucy-a-woman-or-a-man version you saw earlier:

Singer-Songwriter Lucy Dacus, Link Wray (Inventor of the Power Chord), and Wise Jazz Musician Fred Hersch

Clarity and readability should always be your first goal. Many times – while typing for my husband – I’ve wished that the AP would forget about its stubborn rules once in a while to allow an extra comma for clarity.

In the same way, I sometimes delete an Oxford comma if I think it’s creating a problem. Good writing should always matter more than adherence to a rule.

                                Link Wray

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Why Does It Have to Be a “But”?

 

I just read an absolutely marvelous article: “Things I Learned in Therapy That I Still Use Every Day.”

Although the topic is anxiety, the author – Tom Vellner – offers practical suggestions that can help anyone manage the stresses and strains of everyday life.

Since this is a blog about writing, I’m going to change directions and talk about two writing ideas I found in Vellner’s article.

1.  You don’t need fancy words and elaborate sentences to impress your readers. I ran two paragraphs from Vellner’s article through a readability calculator. The average score was ninth grade.

And Vellner’s article is fun to read. Sentences are lively and natural:

If your mental health would benefit from saying no, say no. 

Moral of the story: Don’t believe everything you think.

2.  There’s no jargon.

3. The article makes an interesting observation about but. Vellner was telling his therapist that he had mixed feelings about moving in with his boyfriend:

I said something to her along the lines of: “I’m so glad I moved in with him, but I really miss having my own space, so, like, what gives? I thought this is what I wanted.” She asked me, “Why does it have to be a ‘but’?”

I don’t think she was issuing an injunction against but – it’s a useful word that I use all the time. What interests me is the hidden meaning she uncovered: but often implies a judgment or regret. Get rid of but, and you might be able to get rid of the judgment or regret as well.

My father was a loving man, but he had a drinking problem.

My father was a loving man, and he had a drinking problem.

As the postmoderns keep reminding us, words aren’t inert transmitters of meaning. They carry their own complexity, like a coiled spring that’s hidden from view.

I hope you’ll read Vellner’s article!

 

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