When an English Usage Rule Doesn’t Work

Here’s a problematic sentence that my friend Gustavo A. Rodríguez sent me:

This year performances have been intermittent because of the weather.

It’s an interesting sentence because it obeys the rules of English usage – but it doesn’t work! Our brains want to change “this year” to “this year’s.”

Gustavo’s solution (which was right on!) was to put a comma after “this year”:

This year, performances have been intermittent because of the weather.

Gustavo’s sentence triggered some thoughts of my own:

1. Many English teachers wrongly believe that writing problems could be eliminated if everybody would just buckle down and learn the rules of English usage. The reality is that many perfectly grammatical sentences just don’t work.

2.  My own rule of thumb for introductory phrases (like “this year”) is to count the syllables. Five or more syllables: use a comma. Fewer than five: no comma. But in this sentence I’d insert the comma even though “this year” is only two syllables. The sentence is easier to read that way.

3.  Our brains know more about language than we think they do. Our brains form expectations while we’re reading or listening.  It’s like there’s a hidden language-processing machine inside our heads.

4.  In my writing classes, I used to type sentences from student essays (with no names, of course) onto a handout and put students into groups to evaluate them – and revise them when necessary. When we came together as a large group to talk about the sentences, I tried to stay out of the discussion as much as possible. Learning by talking – and grappling with real-world writing – are great ways to improve writing skills.

5.  Often there are several solutions to a problem. Many editors counsel writers to consider replacing forms of the verb to be (is, are, was, were, will be, have been, etc.) with active verbs. I think that’s good advice (though you shouldn’t follow it slavishly!). So here’s another way to revise today’s sentence:

This year the festival canceled many performances because of bad weather.

6.  And I have another suggestion. Some writers have an almost superstitious fear of passive-voice constructions, but I think passive voice would work well in today’s sentence.

This year many performances were canceled because of bad weather.

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