Sometimes Things Occur!

Do you ever listen to Fresh Air on NPR? It’s a terrific radio show. On February 5 Terry Gross interviewed Benjamin Dreyer, author of a wonderful new book about writing: Random House Copy Chief: Stand Tall, Wordsmiths! (But Choose Your Battles). You can listen to the interview and read a transcript at this link:

During the interview, Dreyer warned writers about passive voice. It’s not always a bad thing, of course. But Dreyer said that often it’s “weaselly,” and he gave a fine example: “Mistakes were made.” Nobody is named. Nobody has to feel guilty. It’s as if the mistake happened all by itself.

Terry Gross chimed in with her own example of “weaselly” language. She noted that many pharmaceutical companies list side effects as if they happened all by themselves:

So it’s like nausea, diarrhea, headache, broken bones, heart attack, difficult breathing and sudden death may occur. So, like, there’s no person responsible for this. There’s no drug being cited that’s responsible for this….And it gets the pharmaceutical company kind of off the hook….We’re just saying, like, hey. This might happen. Who knows why?

Bravo, Terry! But I need to point out that “sudden death may occur” is not passive voice. It just feels like passive voice.

Passive voice sentences put the subject (doer) at the end – or they completely omit the doer:

The ball was thrown by Jerry.  PASSIVE

The ball was thrown.  PASSIVE

What I want to talk about today is the word occur. It is a weak word that suggests that something sort of happened. There’s hardly ever a good reason to use occur when you’re writing. Usually you can substitute happen, and your sentence will sound better.

Note, though, that I said usually. Professional writers scoff at pronouncements that you should never use this word or that construction. What they do instead is stop, reread the sentence, and see whether the rule makes sense in that particular situation.

English is a stubborn language. Sometimes you’re better off making a mistake and sticking out your tongue at the rule.

Back to occur. In 1962 the Avon company – in what has to be one of the stupidest marketing decisions ever made – named a new perfume Occur!

Gack. I think they should have been able to feel how weak that name was. If you doubt me, consider this. Suppose you were thinking about a perfume to buy for yourself or someone special. There were little sample bottles on a shelf – one labeled Occur! and another labeled Passion. Which one would you sample first?

My purpose today is not to teach you how to buy or market perfume. I want to encourage you to think about two principles:

  1. Words matter. A lot.
  2. It’s not just about the meanings of words. You also need to think about their sounds.

Occur! didn’t last long at Avon. Gee, I wonder why…..


Jean Cleans Out a Folder

The folder where I store ideas about writing is starting to fill up! Here are some recent items:

1.  We often hear that complaints that language skills are deteriorating. I just came across some evidence that writing mistakes are nothing new. On September 5, 1819, poet John Keats sent a letter with a “should of” mistake. (“Should have” is the correct verb.)

“Had I known of your illness I should not of written in such sorry phrase in my first letter.”

What’s interesting is that elsewhere in the letter, Keats used “should have” correctly. So what happened? He made a careless mistake. That is not a sign that the sky is falling!

(I found the John Keats letter in Making Sense, a wonderful book about writing by David Crystal.)

2. Here’s a problematic sentence that Crystal talks about in his book. Can you figure out what’s wrong?

He had a large collection of illustrated magazines and books.

The grammar is fine, but the sentence is confusing. It could mean that the books are illustrated too – or maybe they’re not. Here’s a better version:

He had a large collection of books and illustrated magazines.

3.  Speaking of confusing sentences, here’s one I found on Quora:

Why are shop owners careless to leave the cash register unattended?

The sentence could have two meanings. That’s always bad when you’re trying to communicate with your readers. Here are two suggested rewrites:

Why do we think that shop owners are careless when they leave the cash register unattended?

Why do careless shop owners leave the cash register unattended?

4. If you read my blog often, you know that I despise the word respective. It’s empty and pompous, and you shouldn’t use it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Here’s a gack-worthy sentence from the New Yorker – which is usually meticulous about editing:

In their respective starring roles, Aidy Bryant and Pamela Adlon play messy, interesting characters who refuse to make nice.

Get rid of respective, and the sentence is fine. And that deletion doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

5. Good writers try to make most sentences active. That’s easy to say, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to apply that principle! Here’s an example (again, from David Crystal’s Making Sense):

The opportunities for advancement were an important factor in my decision to take the job.

“The opportunities were” is too static. Here’s a more lively version:

I took the job because it offered opportunities for advancement.


Freedom of Speech 2

This is a followup to my recent post about freedom of speech. Recently I’ve been hearing complaints about bias in various blogs and websites – especially social media. The argument centers on whether both sides of an argument should be covered. My answer is a strong NO.

Yes, I welcome feedback – negative and positive – to this blog. Sometimes I even invite guest authors to write a post from a viewpoint different from mine. It’s all part of the fun!

But I don’t feel obliged to allow everybody to post everything on this blog. That’s a misunderstanding of freedom of speech. It’s true that the First Amendment protects us from government interference with our right to say and write whatever we wish. I‘m not the government. That means I’m free to set up this blog any way I want to.

I envision myself talking to a group of people who want to go off the beaten path when it comes to writing and the English language. So you’ll never see a post here about – say – how to use the future-perfect tense in English. Sure, it’s a worthwhile topic, and I hope someone, somewhere is covering it. But it doesn’t match my goals for this blog.

That would be true even if the some important language topics weren’t being covered adequately on the internet, and it applies to other issues as well. Lately I’ve been hearing lots of complaints that Twitter/Facebook/Quora/Instagram/take-your-pick leans so far to the right/left that a large portion of the population is not being heard. Important issues are being neglected. We’re all being shortchanged. It’s awful.

My response to that is…stop whining and get busy. If a social media site isn’t presenting your viewpoint, find one that does. If none exists, start one. If your ideas aren’t reaching a large enough audience, implement some strategies to help you build a following.

If we feel that we’re not being heard, we have to be the ones taking the initiative.

a microphone


Why Study Old English? Part 2

In a recent post I offered you some information about the history of the English language. I explained that in the 11th century, Old English began to lose its genders, conjugations, declensions, and grammatical cases. The great poets and storytellers in Anglo-Saxon England would barely recognize our language today.

In spite of those losses, English is still capable of great subtlety, variety, and beauty. If you know something about the history of our sturdy and vigorous language, you get the sense that English can survive just about anything that comes along.

So – for me, at least –  there’s no reason to panic about texting, slang, and the gradual disappearance of whom, shall, and other grammatical features of our language. Trust me: English is going to be just fine.

Today I’m going to talk about another reason why every writer should know something about the history of the English language. You might be surprised to know that there was a point in English history when our language almost disappeared.

Happily for us, the English language came roaring back, and today it’s studied and spoken all over the world. But there’s a lingering problem that every writer needs to know about.

Here’s what happened. In 1066, William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel and – with the help of a French army – conquered the British Isles. French became the official language of England, and everyone who wanted a good job made it their business to learn French.

Gradually English disappeared from everyday life for most people. Even the kings and queens in England conducted all their business in French. Only the lowest-paid laborers continued to speak English.

Eventually the French army left, and English again became the dominant language of the British Isles. But the Norman Conquest left us with an uneasy sense that French was better than English. After all, French was the language spoken by people who were wealthy and powerful.

You can still hear that uneasiness today. “Residence” (French) sounds fancier than “house” (English). We “express” (French) a feeling instead of “talking about it” (English). The problem is especially noticeable in business writing: “terminate” instead of “end,” “initiate” instead of “begin,” “facilitate” instead of “help” – you see this pattern everywhere.

The truth is that French words aren’t better than English ones. (I just wrote “aren’t inherently superior” – and crossed it out! I’d better practice what I’m preaching today.) A sentence written entirely in English often has more clarity and power than one clogged with French and Latin imports. Why say “Extinguish the illumination” when what you really mean is “Turn out the lights”?

English is a wonderful language! Let’s use it as much as possible. The next time you’re tempted to trot out a fancy French word, please pause for a moment. Could you substitute a plain and familiar English word that would do the job perfectly well?

                         William the Conqueror


Why I Use the Singular “They”

Would you say that the sentence below is right – or wrong?

If anyone forgot their ticket, see me in the Events Office on the second floor.

Many people (I used to be one of them) would say that their is wrong. Anyone is singular, so it should be followed with another singular pronoun: his or her. Many people feel that using their instead of his or her is one more sign that our language is deteriorating. Are they right?

The surprising truth is that using “their” as a singular pronoun dates back to the 14th century, when English lost its gender-neutral singular pronoun. It was standard English and used by many serious writers, including Caxton, Shakespeare, Austen, Thackeray, Shaw, and many others.

But in the late 18th century, an American attorney named Lindley Murray decided that English should be more mathematical.

He wrote a book complaining about that usage, and – unfortunately – it became an international bestseller. Schools began teaching students to say “he” instead of “they.” When feminism came along in the mid 20-century, it got worse: now we had to use the clumsy he or she phrase.

Anyone bothered by the math should think about this: Are is another plural word that we use for one person when we say “you are.” You never say “You is,” do you? “You are my favorite aunt” is perfectly grammatical English, even though you’re talking to just one person.

Back in the time of Shakespeare, you were supposed to say “thou art” when you spoke to a single person. Nevertheless, soon almost everyone switched to the plural “you are.” Today nobody bats an eye about it.

If we can use “you are” for one person, we can use “they” for one person too.

It’s likely that even the “his or her” sticklers use the “singular they” more often than they realize.

Mary Norris (a wonderful writer and an authority on English usage) came out against the “singular they” in her book Between You and Me. (Apparently nobody told her about Lindley Murray!) But she uses a “singular they” herself in the book: “Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.”

Common sense is beginning to prevail, and many people (I’m one of them) have happily gone back to the original practice of using “they.” I have made a vow that I am never going to use “his or her” again. If anyone is upset about it, that’s their problem, not mine.

rule against using the singular they


Do We Have to Obey the Rules?

In my previous post I raised an important question: what should you do when there’s a gap between an English rule and the way people actually use our language?

The answer is to think about the group you belong to – or the group you want to belong to. In a professional situation, you’ll probably want to be a stickler. In a social situation, you might not adhere so strictly to the rules.

But today I’m going to dig deeper. I want to talk about taking risks – deliberately breaking the rules to bring freshness and vitality to your writing.

This is something you probably won’t want to do until you’ve established your chops as a writer. If I were starting out as a scholar, I’d be afraid to even split an infinitive (ha! I just did!). You don’t color outside the lines when you’re the new kid on the block.

But more than 35 years have passed since my first foray into Shaw scholarship. I’m getting tired of being a disembodied, wise voice. My latest article (already accepted for publication later this year) is a discussion of My Fair Lady – the musical version of Shaw’s wonderful play Pygmalion. I considered questions like “Would Shaw have approved of My Fair Lady? Is it a fair treatment of his original play? How has My Fair Lady affected Shaw scholarship?”

But I also included my own reactions to My Fair Lady, and I talked personally about one of the controversial themes in the play – the male-female power struggles between Henry Higgins and his gifted pupil, Eliza Doolittle.

Can academic writing ever cross the line into personal writing? I would argue that it has to cross that bridge – even if we’re careful to avoid the words I and me. Our thoughts and experiences shape every word we write, no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Even the choice of a subject to write about is personal.

I’m going to rest my case by inviting you to read one of the greatest essays ever written about Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s called “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” and the author is the great literary critic C.S. Lewis. This excerpt from his essay gives me chills every time I read it:

I would not cross the room to meet Hamlet. It would never be necessary. He is always where I am. 

(I’m pausing for a moment to enjoy those shivers going down my spine.)

And now – just for the heck of it – I’m going to swerve away from my main theme to make two more points:

  1. The only Latin word in Lewis’s three sentences is “necessary.” Everything else is ordinary English – proof that you can write brilliantly without having to resort to pompous words.
  2. I just ran Lewis’s three sentences through two readability formulas. The results? Second and fourth grade.

Hmmm. Maybe we don’t have to worry so much about respecting that gap between personal writing and serious writing. Something to think about!

A "mind the gap" warning on a subway platform


Prescriptive or Descriptive?

Last week a disgruntled college student (let’s call her “Linda”) logged on to with a language problem. She had used dude in an academic paper. Her instructor said that dude is an inappropriate word for academic writing and crossed it out.

Linda wanted some ammunition to justify putting dude back into her paper. She felt that her instructor was being prescriptive rather than descriptive, and that was wrong…wasn’t it?

I told Linda that she was asking the wrong question. The terms “prescriptive” (laying down the law about language practices) and “descriptive” (suspending judgment about them) aren’t much help when you’re actually using the English language.

Language rules are slippery things. Here’s the best way to settle them: Think about the group you aspire to join – and adopt their language habits.

If your friends at college use dude in their conversations, go ahead and use it. But if your aim is to publish in an academic journal (or earn a good grade in Freshman Composition), you’re going to have to forsake dude. I’m sorry.

In my next post I’m going to dig deeper into Linda’s “Do I have to obey the rules?” question. It’s not as simple as you might think!

old strict teacher with glasses


The President Is Missing

I often read books and articles about better writing practices, and I’m usually disappointed. Although they’re fun to read, they rarely get specific enough to teach anything useful. But last week my friend Karen White showed me a magazine article that has some wonderful real-life examples of bad sentences that make important (and practical) points about writing.

The article is “High Crimes by Anthony Lane. It appeared in the June 18, 2018 issue of The New Yorker. Lane is reviewing The President Is Missing, a bestselling thriller written by former President Bill Clinton and bestselling novelist James Patterson.

Here are some examples from Clinton and Patterson’s novel (quoted by Lane), along with comments from me:

“She had to bite her tongue and accept her place as second fiddle.”

The first problem is the two overused images – biting your tongue and playing second fiddle. But what’s really wrong here is that you’re not seeing the woman in this scene. Of course she didn’t really bite her tongue. So what did she do? Purse her lips? Scowl? Frown? If you picture what she was doing, you could come up with a decent sentence.
Ann Whitford Paul says you should act out every scene when you’re writing a book. She’s even known writers who took acting classes – and found them helpful. So – act out the scene. What gestures, actions, and words did you use? Now you have something to write down.

“The sorrowful, deer-in-the-headlights look is long gone. The gloves have come off.”

Same problem, same advice.

“I terminate the connection and walk out of the room.”

Why “terminate”? Couldn’t you just say “stopped” or “ended” it? And who or what were you connected to? Again, we’re not really seeing what’s going on. “Walk out of the room” doesn’t convey anything useful. Did you leave abruptly? Suddenly? Quickly? Quietly? Would the sentence convey more information if you said that you marched or stomped out of the room – or fled it?

“Vokov’s eyebrows flare a bit.”

I hate a bit. It minimizes the point you’re making. If you’re “a bit” hungry, why do anything about it? Great writers don’t waste time with small, unimportant feelings.
And how can an eyebrow “flare”? If it flared “a bit,” would anyone even notice it?

“Augie lets out a noise that sounds like laughter.”

Apparently Augie wasn’t really laughing. So what was he doing? Telling your reader what isn’t going on doesn’t help at all.

A character “hiccups a bitter chuckle”

This sounds self-consciously clever to me. I’m trying to imagine how a hiccup could sound like a chuckle – and how a chuckle could sound bitter. Nope – I’m not coming up with anything.

“a  focused squint”
“a sweeping nod”

How can you focus a squint? When someone is squinting, you can barely see their eyes. And how can a nod be sweeping? Isn’t a nod a small, subtle movement?

* * * * * * *

Surprisingly, Anthony Lane liked the book. It’s an intriguing story, despite the clumsy writing. Maybe Lane shouldn’t even be criticizing a successful writer. But here’s my philosophy: just about every writer comes up with tons of awful stuff. Why not take pride in your work – and fix everything that doesn’t work? 

weakness warning


Is Wikipedia Reliable?

Should we trust Wikipedia? My answer is a strong yes. One study I saw found that Wikipedia is more reliable than the Encyclopedia Britannica. My husband and I have submitted edits to Wikipedia, and we’ve been impressed by the quality control process they use. We had to provide reliable sources for the changes we suggested.

It’s true that teachers are always telling students not to use Wikipedia as a source. But that’s not because there’s anything wrong with Wikipedia’s information. I’m a longtime college professor, and I never allowed students to use the Encyclopedia Britannica as a source. But we often used it in class for a quick fact-check.

What you need to remember is that encyclopedias publish only straight facts, and those don’t need documentation. You wouldn’t give a source for the date when Thomas Edison was born, or the length of the Thames river, or the number of rooms in Buckingham Palace, or the name of Queen Elizabeth II’s great-great-grandmother. Nobody is going to argue with you about those facts.

What you have to document are controversies – and those are beyond the mission of an encyclopedia. That’s where you start reading articles and books by experts. You want quotes, opinions, viewpoints, and statistics. Encyclopedias don’t deal with those. Just the facts, ma’am.

I use Wikipedia all the time, and I donate whenever they have a fundraiser.


The Thumb Rule

Pronouns (I, me, he, him) confuse many people. Read the following sentence. Is it right or wrong?

My father taught my brothers and me many important lessons about life.

If you said that the sentence is right, you’re probably a college graduate – maybe even an English major. Yes, the sentence is correct, even though many people would insist (mistakenly) that it should be “my brothers and I.” (To many people, “I” sounds more elegant than “me,” and they overuse it.)

A grammarian would say that taught is a transitive verb, taking the objective case. So you need “me,” not “I,” in this sentence.

But let’s be Writing Revolutionaries and skip the jargon. There’s an easy way to get sentences like this one right every time. Just use your thumb to make the sentence shorter.

Here’s how: Go back to the original sentence and cover up “my brothers and” with your thumb. This is what you end up with:

My father taught me many important lessons about life.

You can hear that “me” is right. So here’s the corrected sentence:

My father taught my brothers and me many important lessons about life.  CORRECT

Just for fun, let’s do the same thing with “I.” Cover up “my brothers and.” This is what you get:

My father taught I many important lessons about life.  WRONG

Doesn’t sound right, does it? You need “me” in this sentence, not “I.”

Let’s try one more:

In July my best friend and I will be going to Mexico for two weeks.

Cover “my best friend and.” Here’s what’s left:

I will be going to Mexico for two weeks.

Sounds right! So your sentence is correct:

In July my best friend and I will be going to Mexico for two weeks.  CORRECT

Take your thumb with you wherever you go. It’s a great language tool!

Just kidding. But this “Thumb Rule” trick works every time. You can download a free handout that explains pronoun rules at this link.

a thumb