Category Archives: Effective Sentences

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.




Should You Write Long Sentences?

There’s a widespread misconception that special rules apply to long sentences. I’ve known people who believe that any long sentence is a run-on. (Wrong!) Some of my students used to think that any long sentence had to have at least one comma. (Also wrong!) And I’ve known people who always insert a semicolon right in the middle of a long sentence. (Wrong again!)

The truth is that long sentences are just like any other sentences; the usual comma and semicolon rules apply. There’s no special mystery to solve when you write a long sentence.

But there is one issue to watch for: Cramming too much information into a lengthy sentence. You won’t be violating any usage principle, but you might end up with a clumsy sentence that’s difficult to read. Here’s one I came across in a story about author Victor Hugo on a literary website:

On his eightieth birthday in 1881, it took six hours for 700,000 to parade past his house; more than that turned out for his state funeral in 1885, among which would have been a few from the first Romantic Army.

Here’s my version:

On his eightieth birthday in 1881, it took six hours for 700,000  people to parade past his house. More than that turned out for his state funeral in 1885. Among them would have been a few from the first Romantic Army.

Les Miserables ok


The “Because” Problem

Charlie used to have an editor who hated the word because. If because made its way into one of his gardening columns, she would call and ask him to change it. Luckily, after a short period she was promoted to a more important editorial position where she could presumably inflict her misinformation on an even larger group of writers. 

Because is a useful word, and a few minutes with a dictionary or Google could have cleared up that misguided editor’s mistake.

Where did her phobia come from? Very likely she’d had an English instructor who made the sensible observation that because ideas can be confusing. But that doesn’t mean you have to banish because from your writing. The remedy is to double-check the sentence for clarity.

I started thinking about the because problem this week when a confusing sentence popped up in an email I was writing. Oops! Here it is:

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.

Technically it’s a dangling modifier, sounding as if the crew comes every week because the trees are butchered. Wrong!

After some experimentation I came up with this solution:

Even though a landscape crew comes every week, Charlie does most of the palm pruning  himself. Workers tend to butcher the trees and can’t be trusted to do the job properly.

Here’s some writing advice you might find helpful: When a sentence is fighting all of your attempts to fix it, try rewriting it as two sentences. Often that trick works like magic.

And here’s some advice if you own palm trees: Never cut off a green or yellow leaf – and don’t allow landscape workers to cut off those leaves either. You can learn more here.

pruning saw Commons


“Omit Needless Words!”

No writing advice is more hallowed than this edict from William J. Strunk: “Omit needless words!” (If the Strunk name is unfamiliar to you, you need to download a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and keep rereading it until you’ve absorbed every scrap of information. It really is the bible of style.)

“Omit needless words!” is stellar advice for writers, but there’s a wrinkle. How do you know which words are unnecessary? (Back when speed-reading courses were the vogue, readers used to be told to skip over the unimportant words. Really? Don’t you have to read the words in order to figure out which are unimportant?)

And there’s another problem with “Omit needless words.” Strunk and White were talking about style, not content. (The book’s title is The Elements of Style, not The Elements of Writing.) “Too concise” can be as bad as “too wordy.” An interesting vignette, article, story, or book is an intricate dance between omissions and inclusions. Beginning writers tend to load up their writing with unnecessary – even boring – information and then forget to include the good stuff.

Today I’m going to offer you two strategies that will help you think about what to omit and what to include. Think of these as training wheels: Eventually they should become so automatic and instinctive that you can whiz down the street on your own.

Training wheels Flickr 2

1. “Arrive late, leave early”: If you’re telling a story, begin at the most interesting point. “Warm up slowly” is great advice for athletes but disastrous for writers. Start paying attention to the story lines in movies, TV shows, books, and magazines. You’ll soon discover that professional writers like to choose the middle of a story as their starting point. Learn from them.

Similarly, often you can let readers draw their own conclusions about the unfolding events in a story. The ring of a telephone, a smile, a few words – often that’s enough to tell readers that a long-awaited wish has been fulfilled: a new bicycle, a date for the prom, a scholarship. You don’t have to add explanatory dialogue. TV and movie writers use this “leave early” strategy all the time, and you can too.

2. “Give me five”: Write a rough draft. Then start over, writing five more sentences for each one you’ve already written. This activity forces you to dig into an experience, memory, or idea. Often you’ll find yourself uncovering intriguing points you had overlooked in your first draft. Work the best of them into your next draft.

A variation is to talk with a friend or family member who can encourage you to add more details to what you’ve already written. I remember a session with my writing group when a member told us about waking up in the middle of the feeling so sick that she knew her life was in danger. That alone would have made a powerful story, but there was more: She was living by herself in a remote Central American village and had to call a friend with a boat to rescue her. 

When the group started asking questions, her story became vivid and real: How frightened she’d been when she woke up, all alone and in great pain. Her frantic search for her shoes and her phone. Her loneliness and fear as she waited on the riverbank for her friend to arrive – and the relief that rushed over her when she saw the light on his boat. Those memories transformed her story into a breathtaking adventure.

Good writers never stop thinking about omissions and inclusions. If you look at the manuscripts of great books from the past, you’ll see that every draft is full of cross-outs and write-ins. Often when a sentence is deleted, another one (or two or three or even more) is added somewhere else. Those classic writers knew what they were doing, and you can learn a lot from them.



The Rhythm of a Sentence

In a recent post I talked about writers who struggle with the rhythm of sentences. The other day I came across a sentence about playwright Sean O’Casey that gets the rhythm wrong. I started tinkering with it, but it’s not so easy to fix.

Here’s the sentence:

O’Casey’s love and admiration for his mother – he lived with her until he was forty, when she died – are shown in his account of his father’s funeral in I Knock at the Door, volume one of the autobiography.

The sentence sputters just when you arrive at its most interesting point: he lived with her until he was forty, when she died… (If you read the sentence aloud, you’ll hear that sputter!)

I tried rewriting the sentence and came up with this:

O’Casey’s love and admiration for his mother – he lived with her until she died when he was 40 – are shown in his account of his father’s funeral in I Knock at the Door, volume one of the autobiography.

It’s better – but not good enough. “Until she died” is still a subordinate (less important) clause – not a good choice for a major event in O’Casey’s life. And the main verb in the sentence is passive – “are shown.” Most seriously, there’s just too much information for one sentence.

I spent more time revising and came up with this:

Volume one of O’Casey’s autobiography, I Knock at the Door, testifies to his love and admiration for his mother. They lived together until he was forty, and it was only her death that separated them.

The ideas make more sense, and now there’s a climax: “it was only her death that separated them.”

Every writer struggles with overloaded and awkward sentences. Ernest Hemingway said that he rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times because he couldn’t get the words right.

All writing is rewriting. Remember that principle the next time you’re doing battle with a sentence that refuses to surrender to your will! 

Sean O'Casey

                Sean O’Casey



Coney Island

My husband and I always visit Coney Island when we take a trip back to New York. We eat french fries at Nathan’s, shop for souvenirs at one of the stores on Surf Avenue, and walk along the boardwalk. We both have fond memories of childhood trips to Coney Island, and we continue to marvel that this beautiful beach is available to everyone for the price of a subway token.

Charlie recently decided to use the now-defunct Parachute Jump at Coney Island as the beginning of a recent gardening column about “parachute plants” (plants that can propel themselves through the air). It seemed like a great way to start the column – but no matter what we did to the sentence, we couldn’t get it to work. 

Here’s Charlie’s original sentence. See what you think:

As a Brooklyn-born guy, I and my family often visited Coney Island for its beach, restaurants, and thrill rides. 

I didn’t like “I and my family,” but Charlie sensibly pointed out that “my family and I” is a dangling modifier, sounding like the family was a Brooklyn-born guy.

So we tried again:

As a Brooklyn-born guy, I often visited Coney Island with my family for its beach, restaurants, and thrill rides.

Notice anything? I did – right away. “Its” is an indefinite pronoun reference. The word it has to refer to the previous noun…which in this sentence is family, not Coney Island. This version sounds as if the family, not Coney Island, has its own beach. (Charlie’s family is not that wealthy!)

After a lot more experimentation we found that deleting family gave us a perfectly grammatical sentence:

As a Brooklyn-born guy, I often visited Coney Island for its beach, restaurants, and thrill rides.  CORRECT

But Charlie protested that the idea of family visits to Coney Island in his childhood was getting lost.

We finally settled on the sentence with the indefinite pronoun reference (crossing our fingers that nobody would notice the mistake):

As a Brooklyn-born guy, I often visited Coney Island with my family for its beach, restaurants, and thrill rides.

In our defense, I’m going to cite Mary Norris, copyeditor for The New Yorker and author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, a delightful book about English usage. Sometimes (gasp!) she allows a prohibited construction to slip through because the sentence works better that way.

It’s sort of the usage equivalent of a parachute jump: Risky…but the results are worth it.

The Parachute Jump at Coney Island

           The Parachute Jump


Does Sentence Diagramming Help?

I sometimes talk with people who assume that I must yearn for the good old days when students learned how to take sentences apart.

They’re partially right. Many of my college students had never spent any time thinking about how language works and how sentences are put together. Teaching them to slow down and notice language was both a challenge and a pleasure.

But sentence diagramming is not the answer. And – truth to tell – it’s a skill I never acquired.

Below is a sentence diagram I found online. Let’s take a close look to see if it would help students sharpen their writing skills:

The very young elementary school children were misbehaving during the annual Chistmas performance in the school’s auditorium.

Sentencediagram 2

Suppose you dictated this sentence to – say – a class of eighth graders. What mistakes would they be likely to make – and would sentence diagramming help them do better?

Based on 40 years as an English instructor, I can tell you that these students would probably:

  • misspell “elementary,” “annual,” “performance,” or “auditorium” (and perhaps other words)
  • forget to capitalize “Christmas” (and perhaps mistakenly capitalize “school”)
  • omit the apostrophe in “school’s”
  • insert an unwanted comma somewhere for the dubious reason that this is a long sentence, so surely it needs a comma

Would a background in sentence diagramming help those students avoid any of those mistakes? No.

More important, though – would any of those students know that this is a static sentence that should be rewritten? No again.

The sentence is perfectly grammatical, but it’s weak. The words “were misbehaving” don’t help us see and hear the chaos in that auditorium. We need to substitute details like these:

  • flipped the auditorium seats up and down
  • climbed over the seats
  • shouted to their friends
  • ran up and down the aisles
  • threw spitballs at their classmates

I would encourage students to write at least two sentences about the misbehavior so that they can include several examples without making the sentence uncomfortably long.

Basic English usage isn’t hard to master. There are four pronoun rules, five subject-agreement rules, three comma rules, and two ways to use an apostrophe. A semicolon is like a period. There are a few rules for capital letters…and not much more. Even advanced usage doesn’t have a burdensome amount of content.

Does sentence diagramming instill any of those skills?

The answer, sadly, is…no.

Students need English teachers who can efficiently teach the usage skills needed for effective writing. More important, students need to learn how to use language to communicate ideas and experiences – express themselves vividly and powerfully – and showcase what they know.



More about Passive Voice

In a recent post, I noted that writers disagree – sometimes fiercely! – about passive voice. 

I came out sort of in the middle – passive voice can be useful, but there are risks.

One troublesome feature I mentioned was that passive voice tends to omit the subject of the sentence. Compare these two sentences:

Joe threw the ball.  ACTIVE VOICE

The ball was thrown.  PASSIVE VOICE

Both sentences are perfectly grammatical – but the second one doesn’t explain that Joe did the throwing.

Today I want to look more closely at this feature of passive voice, and I want to focus on something that might surprise you: Magical thinking.

Language, we think, is a pretty straightforward affair. We talk about everyday life: I went to the movies. Larry and Susan split up. A cold front is coming. Where’s the magic?

Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see that we often attribute magical properties to language.  Here’s something that happens to my husband and me all the time: We want to know what kind of weather we’ll encounter on an upcoming trip. A weather forecast predicts mild temperatures and sunny weather. I turn to my husband and say, “Great! No rain!” And then gloom descends. “Uh-oh – I shouldn’t have said that.”

I’ve called up the jinx, and he and I know there will be a deluge during our whole vacation.

Another example: During the trip he comments that our car has been wonderful – not a speck of trouble since we drove it out of the dealership. Uh-oh: Before we’ve driven another 100 miles, the transmission will fail, or the radiator will overflow, or the serpentine belt will break.

If you’re a baseball fan, you’re familiar with the jinx. Many sportscasters won’t mention that there’s a no-hitter in the works for fear of spoiling the pitcher’s chance for a perfect game.

What does this have to do with passive voice? Criminal justice experts used to believe that you could magically ensure an officer’s honesty by banning the words “I” and “me.” If a police report said “I saw a bulge in the suspect’s right pocket,” the officer might be lying. The remedy was passive voice: “A bulge was seen in the suspect’s right pocket.” 

If you spend even a minute thinking about this, you’ll see how ridiculous it is. Honesty and integrity are hard-won character traits. You can’t instill them with verbal tricks.

But generations of police officers were taught to write reports this way, and the tradition has stuck. Police trainers are still struggling to reverse course and persuade officers that it’s ok to write in active voice.

Because I have a report-writing blog, I read many police reports. I’ve found that the effort to undo the passive-voice habit has been only partially successful. Many reports start out in active voice (“I interviewed MacKay”). But near the end, passive voice invariably finds its way back in, with sentences like these:

The suspect was handcuffed.

The evidence was logged into the Evidence Room.

Barton was transported to jail.

An essential piece of information is missing in each sentence: Who handcuffed the suspect, logged the evidence, drove Barton to jail?

Imagine that you’re an officer testifying in court about a crime you investigated. The defense attorney has some questions about an injury related to the way handcuffs were used on her client. You gulp and realize that you weren’t the one who did the handcuffing – another officer at the scene did it

Your mind races. Who was it? Everyone in the courtroom is staring at you. You look hopefully down at your report, and here’s what you find: The suspect was handcuffed. No name.

Finally you remember that it was Officer Peterson. You look desperately around the courtroom, and then you sigh. No, he’s not here. The trial has to be postponed, and you’ve embarrassed yourself and your agency.

Recently I came across a report that used active voice the whole time, and I was so stunned that I wrote an entire post about it. The topic was the arrest of NFL free agent Montee Ball, and here’s a sentence that especially impressed me:

I transported Ball in the rear of my patrol car to the Dane County Jail.  ACTIVE VOICE

Let’s review what we learned today:

  • Passive voice is grammatical but risky
  • It sometimes omits the person who performed the action
  • Magical thinking about language is very common

It’s a fascinating topic, this language of ours!

Magic Wand Pixabay ok


Passive Voice

Last week I had two reminders that passive voice is a controversial topic. A friend gently chided me about a passive voice sentence I’d included in a law enforcement newsletter I’d just sent out. Here’s what he wrote:

Had I been the officer’s supervisor, I would have suggested active voice, from “Richard is enjoying his new job as a school resource officer ” to “Richard enjoys his new job as a school resource officer.”

A few days later, passive voice was the subject of a Grammarly quiz question honoring National Grammar Day. The quiz was designed to determined how fanatical you are about grammar (I scored high). One of the questions asked whether I considered passive voice a) outdated b) acceptable sometimes c) incorrect or d) confusing. I chose b, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Twice in one week…hmmm. Seems the grammar gods want me to weigh in on passive voice.

So, what is passive voice – and why do writers argue about it?

Whenever you’re writing, you can choose to write in active voice or passive voice. Active voice is much more popular, but passive voice is equally correct.

Passive voice is a grammatical construction that emphasizes the receiver of the action, not the doer. In simple English, passive voice flips sentences around. Take a look at these examples:

Joe threw the ball.  ACTIVE

The ball was thrown by Joe.  PASSIVE

Pam drove me to the mall.  ACTIVE

I was driven to the mall by Pam.  PASSIVE

The first point I need to make is that my friend was wrong: “Richard is enjoying” is still active voice. (Technically it’s called progressive present tense.) Passive voice would be “The new job as school resource officer is enjoyed by Richard.”

Now we’re going to turn to another, more problematic aspect of passive voice. Often it omits the doer completely:

The ball was thrown.  PASSIVE

I was driven to the mall.  PASSIVE

Who threw the ball, and who drove me to the mall? The sentences don’t tell you.

And that’s where today’s topic starts to get interesting – and complicated. Passive voice tends to be impersonal, clumsy, and unnatural – pompous, even. Writing experts generally recommend avoiding it. I’ve run into people who believe that passive voice is always wrong. If you use the grammar checker for Microsoft Word, you’ll receive a warning every time you write a sentence in passive voice.

Passive Voice Is Impersonal

But the impersonality of passive voice can be useful – and that’s why I chose b (“acceptable sometimes”) as my answer for the Grammarly quiz.

Suppose, for example, someone has been leaving dirty dishes in the sink in the break room at work. You’re the supervisor, and you don’t want to name the person – you just want the problem to stop. So you post a sign in the break room that uses passive voice:

Dirty dishes have been left in the sink three times this week.  PASSIVE VOICE

You haven’t accused anyone. Passive voice solves the problem nicely!

But that impersonality can create problems – huge ones. Last October the New York Times published an article about the weak portrayal of slavery in Texas textbooks. Take a look at this sentence:

Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner.  PASSIVE VOICE

Who conducted the sales and broke apart the families? There’s no subject in this passive-voice sentence. That impersonality sucks energy out of the sentence. By contrast, notice the power you feel if the same sentence is written in active voice:

Slaveholders often broke families apart by selling a family member to another owner.  ACTIVE VOICE

Here’s what the Times writer said about the way the Texas textbooks presented slavery:

Though we don’t always recognize it, grammatical choices can be moral choices, and these publishers made the wrong ones.

Are you as astounded as I was? When was the last time you heard someone talk about grammar as a moral issue?

Bottom line: If you choose to write a sentence in passive voice, be sure you have a good reason.

Grammatical choices can be moral choices.

Grammatical choices can be moral choices.



Here’s something I do often: read books about writing. Here’s something else I do often: gripe about books about writing. I’ll be talking about some of those complaints in upcoming posts.

Today I want to offer a general observation (okay, a gripe) about these books: Even the famous ones tend to dance around the topic of writing without really telling you what to do. (Adair Lara’s wonderful book Naked, Drunk and Writing is a notable exception.)

For example, here’s something I hear all the time from writers who are headed in the wrong direction: “I want readers to make up their own minds about ________.” (Fill in the blank – a character, action, or situation).

Translation: You haven’t really worked your material. You don’t yet know your characters, or you haven’t really dug into your plot. Good writers care – a lot – about what’s happening to the people they’re writing about. If you’re not deeply involved with your characters, why on earth should your readers care about them?

One remedy is to have the other characters react to what’s unfolding. In fact this is a handy rule of thumb for anyone who’s writing fiction, a personal essay, or a memoir. If you’re creating a scene where several people are present, each one should react to everything that happens.

Of course then you’re faced with another problem – potential chaos as responses fly from one person to another. But skillful writers pull this kind of thing off all the time.

Here’s an example from Ernest Hemingway’s masterful story “The Killers.” Two thugs have just walked into a diner to kill a man named Ole Anderson. They’ve heard that Ole comes to the diner every evening at six. George, who waits on customers, sends young Nick Adams to find Ole and warn him.

“Mixing up in this ain’t going to get you anywhere,” the cook said. “You stay out of it.”

“I’ll go see him,” Nick said to George. “Where does he live?”

The cook turned away.

Hemingway moves the story along by having Nick decide to deliver the warning to Ole. But we’re not allowed to forget about the cook – and it takes just four words: The cook turned away.

(How many of us are afraid to write short sentences because we’re worried about sounding juvenile? But Hemingway didn’t worry about it!)

Here’s something else I hear from writers that immediately raises a red flag: “My story is going to build up slowly.” So will your readership! You have to sell whatever you’re writing quickly. Readers who don’t feel engaged are going to start looking for something else that’s more interesting.

I used to ask my college students to find the first interesting word in an essay they were handing in and then count how many words it took to get there. Skilled writers usually put an attention-getter into the first or second sentence.

Other sins are telling readers what they already know and doing readers’ thinking for them. I’m going to address these in a future post, but for now I’m going to suggest that you do what I did – think about those warnings.

“Don’t do your readers’ thinking for them” is an idea I first came across in Stephen King’s On Writing. He offers only one brief example – but it’s a principle I’ve thought about again and again, in all kinds of contexts, and I’ve learned a lot that way.

And now I’ve arrived at my most important point: You know more than you think you do. You’ve been reading for almost your entire life. As a kid you probably read books under the covers when you were supposed to sleeping. Decades later, you’re still reading voraciously (all writers do it).

Maybe you’ve even done what I did – sneaked away from a dinner party because you were so absorbed in a book (in my case it was Emma Donoghue’s Room) that you couldn’t wait to see how it turned out.

Before I finish this post, with its list of no-nos and don’ts, I want to leave you with an example of what writers should be doing. Here’s a sentence written by Ryan King, a member of a prison writing group I used to sponsor.

“With the other inmates, I finesse my way through the shoulder-butting and out the door.”

Suddenly you’re there in the prison dorm, and you know what kind of person Ryan is, and you understand what kind of people his inmate companions are, and it hits you what he’s up against. All of that happens in only 16 words. Whew.

That’s exactly what we’re talking about, isn’t it?

Bunk beds prison Wikipedia