A Verb Question

A few days ago, my friend Jane Brumbaugh sent me a problematic sentence from the newspaper: “He’s one of the trustees whose been instrumental.” The obvious problem is that whose doesn’t work. The correct word is who’s (a contraction of who has).

But there’s another problem too. Or maybe not! This sentence contains a controversial grammatical structure that even expert grammarians argue about. I think the sentence should read like this: “He’s one of the trustees who have been instrumental.”

But many people think this is correct: “He’s one of the trustees who has been instrumental.”

I’m going to argue my case, and then you can decide which version you think is better. To begin, compare these sentence pairs:

He’s a trustee. He has been instrumental.

He’s one of the trustees. They have been instrumental.

I think these sentence pairs have different meanings. When you combine them with who, you need different verbs.

He’s a trustee who has been instrumental.

He’s one of the trustees who have been instrumental.

You can’t say “He’s one of the trustees who has been instrumental.”

I rest my case!

Judge announcing a sentence


The Rules of Academic Writing

Because I’m on the editorial board for a scholarly journal, I often give feedback to aspiring scholars.  (A bonus is that every piece of advice applies to any writing you do!)

  • Never submit to a journal you don’t read regularly. Know their preferred style and the topics that interest them.
  • Keep up with your field. Know what the breaking issues are. Know who the leaders are.
  • Be the writer that people want to read. Make your writing lively and strong.
  • Write straight, powerful sentences. Here’s a rule of thumb I use: if there are more than three commas in a sentence, it’s probably too complicated.
  • Have only one idea in a sentence.
  • Don’t be afraid to use I and you. They help you connect to your readers.
  • Professional writers start about 10% of their sentences with and and but. Follow their lead: those transitions make for lively writing. (If you’re afraid to start a sentence with but, read this: Can a Sentence Start with “But”?)
  • Never use passive voice unless you absolutely have to.
  • No gobbledygook, ever. Use ordinary words unless a big word is absolutely necessary. If you use an unusual word, define it right in the sentence: When you start looking for metadrama (“drama examining itself,” according to Richard Hornby), you’ll discover many surprises in Shaw’s plays.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. Then proofread again.
  • Find a mentor – an established authority in your field. Ask them to go over your article before you submit it. (Give your mentor plenty of lead time.)

Professional word cloud


Can You Start a Sentence with Because?

Yes, you can start a sentence with because!

This is a follow-up to my previous post about the word becauseI’ve always wondered why so many people are afraid to start sentences with because!

My friend Neal Steiger came up with a likely reason. He remembers being told that if you answer a question with because, you’ll probably end up with a fragment:

Why did you ride your bike to school today?

Because my mother didn’t have time to drive me here.  FRAGMENT

That’s great advice when you’re eight or nine years old! But let’s dig a little deeper. You need to know that anything that starts with because is an extra idea.

That’s no problem (despite what Mrs. Wilson told you in the third grade!) if you attach your because idea to a real sentence. (Think of a garage or a porch – they’re nice to have if you have a house to go with them.)

Here’s how you could use because to answer a question correctly:

Why did you ride your bike to school today?

Because my mother didn’t have time to drive me, I hopped on my bike.  CORRECT

I think this sort of thing happens all the time in school. A teacher gives you an answer that works fine if you’re eight or nine years old. But eventually we all have to grow up!

 I hereby give you permission to start sentences with because. Just remember to make sure they’re complete.

Because Big Bang Theory is such a funny TV show.  FRAGMENT

Because Big Bang Theory is such a funny TV show, I never miss it.  CORRECT

Because of the heavy rainfall last weekend.  FRAGMENT

Because of the heavy rainfall last weekend, we had to cancel our plans.  CORRECT

My thanks to Neal Steiger!


Because, Because, Because

My husband’s first newspaper editor thought because was a bad word. Any time Charlie used because in a feature, he would get a phone call asking him to change it.

She apparently never noticed that professional writers use because all the time. Nor did she  bother to look it up in the dictionary. Charlie and I breathed a sigh of relief when she finally moved on to another publication to annoy a new set of writers.

I’ve often wondered where her fear of because came from. I’ve known lots of people who believe (mistakenly) that you can’t start a sentence with because. (Of course you can! Go to www.Bartleby.com and use your Find command to see how great writers use because.)

But I’ve never known anyone else who thought because was a bad word. Where did that notion come from?

This morning I may have found the answer. Here are two sentences from an education blog. Note that the because idea is ambiguous here:

Our test scores were on the rise and had been for a number of years. We were not on the California list of worst schools because of said rise.

(I don’t like “said rise,” but let’s leave that for another day.)

Reading those two sentences, you might mistakenly conclude that the rise caused some schools to be on the California list. The sentence needs to be revised:

Because of that rise, we were not on the California list of worst schools.

Simple enough. So here are the points I’d like to make today:

1.  Because is a useful and proper word. Don’t be afraid of it.

2.  When you use because, make sure your meaning is absolutely clear.

3. (Big picture!) The workbook exercises and grammatical discourses beloved of teachers have limited usefulness in teaching students how to write well. They won’t, for example, help you make today’s sentence more clear.

4.  Always ask a friend or family member to read and give you feedback about what you’ve written. Don’t argue when they suggest you change something you’d written. Fix it.

One more point remains: the widespread (and mistaken) belief that you can’t start a sentence with because. Tune in Friday to learn where that urban legend probably came from (courtesy of my friend Neal Steiger).

Professional word cloud


Jean Cleans out a Folder

My folder of odds and ends about writing has started to fill up! Here’s a sampling.

1.  I copied three clumsy sentences from Quora (a question-and-answer website):

–  How can we remediate misinformation?

Remediate (“fix” or “correct”) is jargon. But that’s not the only problem.

This is a meaningless question. You and I are powerless over most misinformation. It’s true that sometimes we can write letters to the newspaper, email the author, or call the radio or TV station. But often there’s nothing we can do. How can anyone possibly write a useful answer to this question?

–  Who has the provision of academic freedom?

“The provision of” doesn’t add anything useful. Here’s better wording: “Who has academic freedom?” Answer: most college and university professors.

–  What subjects do I need to study to become a doctor in high school?

“Doctor in high school” is clearly a dangling modifier. Here’s better wording: What subjects do I need to study in high school to become a doctor?

2.  Here’s a sentence from a recent Carolyn Hax advice column:

“I have a friend whose daughter is struggling with depression and has been hospitalized twice in as many months.”

I would change it to “twice in two months.” You may have been told (wrongly) that it’s wrong to repeat a word or use two similar words (twice/two). That’s nonsense! Professional writers repeat words all the time. What you should avoid is repeating conspicuous words: stupendous, horrific, eternal, romantic.

Everyday words are almost invisible. Don’t worry about using them again and again. If you’re writing a piece about a train ride, guess which word you’re going to use again and again? Train! But don’t say – more than once – that the ride was amazing, adventurous, or delightful.

3.  Emma Donoghue’s Room is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Here’s a paragraph that offers some good advice about planning a writing task:

“It’s more like planning a military campaign or something. It’s quite exciting, because what you’re trying to do is to keep up the reader’s energy at every point. You’re looking for those spots where things would sag or get lost or come off the rails. You’re trying to keep up the momentum.”

a manila folder with a paper clip


Precut, Precooked, and Pre-existing

Today I’m posting some thoughts that my friend Kelly Pomeroy wrote in response to a post I did last week. I was griping about the terms precut, precooked, and pre-existing – I think the “pre” is unnecessary. You can read Kelly’s response below – and you should.

There are two things I like about her response. Kelly brought up points I hadn’t thought of – about psychology, for example. More important, she shows you how pros think and talk about language.

In school, there’s often so much to cover that teachers have to settle for a cut-and-dried, right-or-wrong approach. Pros know that there may be many layers of meaning and many angles to consider.

Here’s Kelly’s response:

Well, marketing deals with psychology rather than logic. The term “cut meat” is as chopped as the meat. It’s terse. It’s unfriendly. It’s followed by another monosyllabic word. It doesn’t flow. It highlights the violence of the word “cut.”

The term “precut” meat is softer, friendlier, more euphonious. It emphasizes the fact that much of the work – the bloodiest part of the work – is already done before you even buy the product. It also implies that the cutting was intentional, not the result of an accident. It was done out of concern for the buyer.

“Cooked” to describe a meal isn’t as stark as “cut,” because has two syllables. And cooking has positive associations that cutting doesn’t. So the “pre” may be less important in this case than with the “cut” example; but the pattern has been set. And the emphasis provided by “pre” gets extra mileage because of all the effort it takes to prepare a whole meal.

I think my argument is strongest in the medical example. If you’re being treated for cancer, it’s an existing condition (unless you’re being treated by a snake oil salesman). But it seems likely that the staff’s very consequential concern, under Trumpcare, was whether it existed when you signed up for the insurance.


Is “Pre” Necessary?

Now that there’s been a shift in power in Congress, we can expect a lot of debate about the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as “Obamacare”). It’s going to be a difficult time for me because there’s going to be a lot of talk about pre-existing conditions.

Gack. Can anyone tell me the difference between an “existing” condition and a “pre-existing condition”?

Recently I came across a newspaper article about “premade” lunches that parents can purchase for their children to take to school. What, pray tell, is the difference between a “made” lunch and a “premade” lunch?

What about “prearrange,” “preplan,” and “preregister”?

Sometimes “pre” is useful (“prepay” and “preorder” emphasize that you’re shelling out your money ahead of time). And not all repetition is bad. Because the human brain is easily distracted, it’s sometimes helpful to say things more than once: “I will not – repeat not – vote for this bill.”

But do we really need words like “precooked,” “prepackaged,” and “precut”?

question marks on each side of a cube


I.A. Richards and 100 Important Words

I.A. Richards is a familiar name from my college years. He was an important critic in the heyday of the New Criticism (which has long since stopped being “new” but is still a useful approach to literature).

My friend Jane McGinnis sent me an intriguing article that included Richards’ 100 Words Most Important in English. You can read the article here: https://www.thoughtco.com/important-words-in-english-1692687

Although Richards predated postmodernism, his list includes four words important to postmodern thought: copy, name, natural,  and use.

One omission from the list surprised me: imagination. Every moment of our lives is an imagining. There are no neutral events – there’s a sense in which we are always dreaming. Richards seems not to have read Carl Jung or James Hillman – but that’s not a complaint. Nobody can read everything!

What I’m hoping you’ll do is come up with your own list. (It doesn’t have to be 100 words!) Can you see something in a word that others can’t?

I’m thinking of Hillman, of course (imagine, soul, destiny, childhood) – and Derrida (write, copy, natural). Heck – I could include John Lennon with imagine. And I will.

And then there’s Paul Tillich. How many minds did he open when he wrote so powerfully about the words salvation, sin, and grace?

What words have special meanings to you?

The front cover of Principles of Literary Criticism by I A Richards


Writing about a Picture II

In my last post, I talked about a picture as a stimulus for writing. My friend Janis Koike sent me this wonderful piece about a special picture – several pictures, actually. This is a fine example of what you can do with a picture. (Have you tried it yourself yet?)


Mollie was spoken of rarely, and with reverence. As children, we were in awe of her framed black-and-white portrait which stood on a coffee table in our first Kansas City home. Mollie was elegant and beautiful in a white wedding suit, her hand carefully placed in her lap to show off her sparkling diamond. Mollie was my maternal grandmother.

I never met Mollie. I never referred to her as Grandma; she was much too young and beautiful for that. And she was dead. She died when my mother was just nine. The tragedy was multiple: Mollie was pregnant.

A collision with the coffee table or a wanton ball sent the photograph flying one time too many, and my mother retired Mollie’s picture to a closet without comment or anger or visible disappointment. 

Gramps and his wife Mollie were both born and raised in Chicago. They married in 1920. Gramps was a violinist and traveled with the big bands in the 20’s, 30’s, and early 40’s. When WWII ended and the big band era came to a close, he returned to Chicago and got a job selling neon signs to downtown businesses.

And he also remarried. Aunt Frieda, a long-time family friend, happily assumed the role of grandmother. Their visits to my home in Kansas City were the highlight of every summer. One week of non-stop fun. Following her divorce from the infamous “Mr. Feldman,” Frieda had taken a job as a buyer of women’s clothing at Marshall Fields. She changed her name to Frieda Fields, a name which danced to her personality. Her stories of work and friends kept me and my sisters in stitches for years.

But Mollie was always there in the background – quiet, sedate, perfect, and dead. I couldn’t fathom losing my mother as a child . . . or ever.

It was only after my own mother died, not so many years ago, that I went through some old albums and found pictures of Mollie, a young, healthy woman in lovely dresses, high heeled shoes, and stylish hats. My own mother stood beside her, a happy seven or eight year old with a round, smiling face and long brown hair. On the back of each photo were notes in Mollie’s handwriting. My favorite: “My girl. Ain’t she the cutest!”

And that is when I saw (and heard) Mollie, for the first time, as a real person.

empty picture frame


Avoid Confusing Your Readers

Here’s a problem my husband spotted in a gardening column he was writing for our newspaper. Florida is a great place for gardeners because you can have flowers all year-round. Charlie recommended three winter annuals: Shasta daisy, snapdragon, and petunia.

Then he realized a novice gardener might think he meant Shasta daisy, Shasta snapdragon, and Shasta petunia. So he rewrote the sentence with Shasta daisy at the back: snapdragon, petunia, and Shasta daisy. Problem solved.

(If you’re a knowledgeable gardener, you might not see the problem. So let me give you a similar sentence: Chocolate milk, ice cream, and candy. This sentence could be read two ways: chocolate milk, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate candy – OR only the milk has chocolate flavoring.)

Charlie’s thinking process makes an important point. Many people overestimate the importance of formal grammar. They assume that if you know the parts of speech and can diagram sentences, you’ll be a good writer.

But formal grammar wouldn’t have helped my husband with that sentence. He needed to read the sentence while pretending to be a reader who knows nothing about gardening.

It’s not easy to set aside everything you know and read a sentence from another point of view. That kind of thinking requires an almost Zen-like emptiness of mind.

Schools don’t generally teach student writers to think that way, but they should. It’s a good habit to develop, and now – at the beginning of a new year – might be a good time to resolve to do it!

a Shasta daisy