More about Hyphens

What do you think of this sentence?

Jeff, a fifth-grade teacher, will soon be moving into his newly-painted house. 

Hyphens can be slippery! I want to make two points today. First, don’t use a hyphen with an adverb (a word ending in -ly). But note that hyphens are okay with well: a well-written story. (Some writers don’t use them, though. I told you hyphens are slippery!)

Jeff, a fifth-grade teacher, will soon be moving into his newly painted house.  CORRECT

Second, hyphens tend to disappear over time. The Associated Press recommends dropping hyphens when there’s no possibility of confusion. If you agree with the AP (as I do!), you can drop the hyphen in fifth grade teacher.

Jeff, a fifth grade teacher, will soon be moving into his newly painted house.  ALSO CORRECT

open can of paint on a wooden background


Subjects and Objects

If you visit my blog often, you know I dislike formal grammar. (Dislike isn’t the right word. I despise it.)

A discussion I saw on social media today stirred up all of those negative feelings. Someone asked which version is correct: “This is she” or “This is her.”

Several people explained (incorrectly) that this is the subject, is is the verb, and her is the object. Good grief. I’m appalled.

 Is doesn’t have an object. It’s like an equals sign. Compare these sentence pairs:

This is Jane. (Jane is subjective case)

This helped Jane.  (Jane is objective case)

This is she.  (she is subjective case)

This helped her.  (her is objective case)

It is I.  (I is subjective case)

It helped me.  (me is objective case)

This is the kind of mess you can get when people are forced to learn grammar. They lose their faith in common sense and invent garbled explanations to justify the answer they want.

But hold your horses – even though This is she and It is I are grammatically correct, they’re the wrong answers. They sound awful, and you’re not obliged to use them. This is her and It’s me sound better to most people. Feel free to use them.

The English language is a social tool. The rules are created by the people who use it. I use This is her myself.

If you’re holding your head in pain, I’m with you. This is the kind of pickle you get into when you start talking about formal grammar. We don’t need it. We shouldn’t bother with it. We’re better off without it.

*  *  *  *  *

But what about subjects and objects? And linking verbs? Don’t they matter?

Yes – sometimes. But you can’t force everything you say and write into a little box of Correct English. Sometimes you need to go with the popular choice – grammar be damned.

*  *  *  *  *

Here’s an example. Everyone knows all about is/are: is, plural; are, singular. Joe is here. Joe and Sam are here.

But we often say you are to one person: “Aunt Mary, you are my favorite aunt.”

The correct English would be “Aunt Mary, thou art my favorite aunt.” In Shakespeare’s day, people were starting to drop thou art, and grammarians were positively frothing and predicting the death of the English language. “You can’t say you are to one person!”

Today people win Pulitzer Prizes for books that use “You are”  for one person. Nobody cares. Nobody even notices.

*  *  *  *  *

And here’s the clincher: The people of France are maniacs about correct grammar. There’s even an official body that makes the rules. And do you know what? The French say “It’s me” all the time (C’est moi). Grammar be damned.

Notice I’m not giving you permission to get together with a couple of friends and make up your own version of English. But I am giving you permission to go with the popular choice when millions of people share the same view.


Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India

Here’s a troublesome sentence I read in an article about Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, in last week’s New York Times:

Modi is the proud son of a tea-stall owner who became a canny politician and skilled orator and who now, Putin-like, does adventure TV shows like “Man vs. Wild.”

It sounds (to me, anyway) like the tea-stall owner became a canny politician who does adventure TV shows. Wrong! The sentence doesn’t make it clear that the son became a skilled politician and TV star.

There are several ways to fix the confusing sentence. Probably the easiest solution is a couple of commas:

Modi, the proud son of a tea-stall owner, became a canny politician and skilled orator who now, Putin-like, does adventure TV shows like “Man vs. Wild.”

A better choice, though, might be to make it two sentences:

Modi, the proud son of a tea-stall owner, became a canny politician and skilled orator. Nowadays, Putin-like, Modi is doing adventure TV shows like “Man vs. Wild.”

You often hear that grammar and sentence diagramming are needed to avoid writing confusing sentences. No. You need to know how to write a variety of sentence patterns. Then you can play with the sentence and come up with a better version.

How do you learn those sentence patterns? By reading. If you used a flashlight to read under the covers when you were a kid, you were on your way to becoming an effective writer.

(Maybe we should give every schoolchild a flashlight!)


There’s No Such Thing as Objectivity

Two days ago I wrote a post about some unofficial rules I’d made up. An old friend gently chided me because I’d said that the rules “worked great” for me. She thought I needed a more professional tone.

I emailed her that I’d checked the dictionary before publishing the post, and she was right: great indeed is an informal adverb. “Worked great” is too folksy for formal writing.

But here’s the thing: I don’t always feel like writing formally. And it’s not just that I hate pompous language: I also get tired of striving for objectivity.

Sometimes I want to discuss the mysterious pathways my thoughts have been taking…or exploring an idea in the context of my own life.

In the My Fair Lady article I just published, I talked about my thoughts and feelings several times:

On a recent trip to New York I bought a ticket for the Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s musical version of Pygmalion. My Fair Lady has always been special for me: it was my first Broadway play and my first encounter with Shaw. On the subway ride to Lincoln Center, I knew I was going to be seeing a superb production—but I also knew I was supporting an enterprise that would have appalled GBS.

When I first saw My Fair Lady in the early 1960’s, I was thrilled by the prospect of a Higgins-Doolittle wedding. But by 1992 my feelings had changed….I was sure Eliza would never marry Higgins, and by the time I’d bought my ticket for My Fair Lady in 2018, those convictions had deepened and hardened. Starting in October 2017, news outlets were flooded with #MeToo news stories about men who treated women as if they were less than human. I’d had some life experience of my own with male-female power struggles….

Our ideas about language are evolving. We used to think that you could ensure objectivity by carefully avoiding the words I, me, and my. Police officers were taught to write “this officer” instead of I. “The suspect was patted down” guaranteed that you were telling the truth; “I patted down the suspect” hinted that you were lying.

It was all nonsense, of course. Today (thanks in large part to the postmodern language theory) we’re recognizing that there’s no such thing as total objectivity. Avoiding the words I and me won’t turn a dishonest person into an honest one.

Every academic project involves opinions and decisions. Even choosing My Fair Lady as a topic involved a value judgment: I thought the play was important enough to be worth study.

Why not be honest about your values and opinions?

My larger point is that sometimes it’s okay to challenge the rules. That raises an important question: how do you know when you’re allowed to follow your own path?

The answer is that you don’t. If you’re a professional writer, it helps to study the publisher or journal you’re writing for. You can often get a sense of what they’re looking for and what rules they follow – and when it’s safe to break them.

But sometimes you just have to jump in. That involves admitting to yourself that you’re taking a risk, and deciding not to be disheartened if an experiment doesn’t work out for you.

Writing is always about you – your style, memories, experiences, values, beliefs, interests. Writing honestly is a way of honoring who you are. I encourage you to embrace the risks. And don’t forget to have fun!


Five Rules I Made Up

Here are five grammar rules you’re probably not going to find anywhere else, for a very good reason: I made them up. They’re neither official nor foolproof, but most of the time they work great for me.

1.  Avoid the word “reason.”

Of course “reason” is a useful and perfectly good word. But it often gums up sentences. Safe bet: Try rewriting the sentence without it.

Her reason for skipping church this morning was that she hadn’t slept well.  AWKWARD

She skipped church this morning because she hadn’t slept well.  BETTER

2.  Don’t start a sentence with “by.”

Good writers start sentences with “by” all the time. I do it too. But student writers tend to come up with something messy like this:

By going to bed early helped me feel rested for the big test.  WRONG

This version would be better:

By going to bed early, I felt rested for the big test.  BETTER

But why take a chance? Cross out “by” and rewrite the sentence:

Going to bed early helped me feel rested for the big test.  BETTER

3.  Avoid using more than three commas in a sentence.

In the real world there’s no limit to the number of commas you can use. But once you insert your fourth comma, you’re likely to have a complicated sentence.

And once a sentence gets complicated, there’s a good chance than an error or two will creep in. Keep your sentences simple.

4.  Avoid “being.”

 If “being” finds its way into one of your sentences, consider getting rid of it. It’s another word that often gums up a sentence.

I experienced many challenges while being a substitute teacher.  AWKWARD

Substitute teaching was a challenging experience for me.  BETTER

5.  Don’t let a comma touch the word “that.”

Any English teacher or professional writer reading this can probably come up with forty or fifty sentences with a comma next to “that” in no time at all. (I know this is true because I can do it myself.) I’m standing my ground, however.

Most of the time it’s wrong to put a comma right in front of – or in back of – that. This timesaving rule has saved me from many comma errors. 


Jean Is Still Writing

Harper’s Magazine recently published an article (Semantic Drift) arguing that English is deteriorating, and the solution is more grammar instruction. (My thanks to Margaret Swanson for telling me about it!). If you know me well, you already know that I disagree with the article on both counts. English is not deteriorating, and grammar instruction isn’t the solution to anything.

I started early one morning writing a couple of thoughts, and…boom! An essay started to take shape. I have a lot of historical information about changes in English, so it was an easy article to plan and put together. (I did a lot of chuckling and chortling.)

Another advantage is that I still have a library account with the college where I used to teach. Their online resources include the Oxford English Dictionary (often called the OED). O frabjous day! Calloo, callay!

(Note to self: write a post about the OED.)

One evening the ideas wouldn’t stop coming, and I plugged away at the article until nine o’clock. Finally the article signaled that I’d worked hard enough. I got into bed and read a couple of articles in the back issues of the New Yorker that I keep on my bedside table. At 10:30 I sleepily turned off my reading lamp.

And then at about two I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. The only solution was to sit down at the @#$%! keyboard and write another chunk. I really, really would prefer to skip these sleep interruptions – they mess me up the next day. But I don’t seem to have a choice.

What’s interesting is that I’d been dragging the previous week – unusual for me. I was thinking that my age was catching up with me, and maybe I should see my doctor. And then this essay popped into my head, already organized and accompanied by a list of examples.

I’m thinking now that my unconscious was working on the article the whole time and wanted peace and quiet. Do other writers go through these struggles? And always lose, like I do? (Incidentally, that “like I do” is bad, according to the Harper’s article. My response: I don’t care.)

It’s been interesting to compare the Harper’s response with another article I’m writing, about Shaw’s brief play Village Wooing. The Shaw article was supposed to take five or six days. It’s now been more than a month, and I’m having to make major changes because I came up with a new idea that doesn’t fit tidily with what I’d already written. 

The Village Wooing article started with one small point that wasn’t strong enough to warrant an entire essay. Then ideas started exploding, and I keep having to start over. I’m having so much fun with it that I sometimes feel guilty about sitting down to write. Shouldn’t I be vacuuming?

I’ve really enjoyed all the excitement. But what a nice change of pace this new project has been! Straightforward, easy to organize.

I hope your summer has been as much fun as mine has been!

A word cloud about grammar with a red X through it


Let’s Make It Simpler!

This is a follow-up to Monday’s post, where I discussed an interesting article in The New Yorker: Is the Internet Making Writing Better? Here’s a sentence from the article:

As with online irony, online civility emerges from linguistic superfluity, the perception that an extra effort has been made, whether through hedges, honorifics, or more over-all words.

I would have simplified it: Online writing sounds more polite when you take the time to write more words.

The article goes on to suggest three ways to add those words: “hedges, honorifics, or more over-all words.” Bad advice. The first suggestion – hedging – would weaken your writing.

The other advice is too vague to be helpful. What’s the difference between “more words” and “more over-all words”? And how do you do add words effectively?

Honorifics are titles or words indicating respect. How would you use them?

I’m surprised The New Yorker didn’t send the article back for some revisions.


Internet Writing…and More

I just read an interesting article in The New Yorker: Is the Internet Making Writing Better? It’s a review of Gretchen McCulloch’s new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

Although I haven’t read McCulloch’s book yet, the article is fresh and worth reading. Writing tends to be a stuffy and stagnant subject. I often feel that I keep reading the same ideas everywhere I go. McCulloch argues that technology opens up new possibilities for writing.

Here’s a paragraph from that New Yorker article that got me thinking:

As with online irony, online civility emerges from linguistic superfluity, the perception that an extra effort has been made, whether through hedges, honorifics, or more over-all words.

If you pull your copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style off your bookshelf, you’ll find this advice in the “Elementary Principles of Composition” chapter: Omit Needless Words.

“Vigorous writing is concise,” counsel Strunk and White. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a machine should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

But I’d say that Strunk and White were only partially right. First, it’s not always obvious which words are unnecessary. Second – and this is the point McCulloch makes – sometimes it’s better to take extra time and say something more.

When I taught at a business school, I told my students to “say yes quickly – but say no slowly.” Make your reader feel that you took the time to think about the situation and come up with your answer. It softens the disappointment.

Here’s another example of taking extra time: I often tell writers to add an extra sentence to the end of a paragraph (a strategy I used in the paragraph before this one!). That might seem odd in light of Strunk and White’s insistence on brevity. But that extra sentence adds a professional touch – like a bow on a package.

Here are some closure (final) sentences that impressed me:

  • I still think about that weekend.
  • He keeps her picture in his wallet.
  • That rosebush blooms every year, without fail.

In today’s post I’ve offered two pieces of advice about writing. One is to pay extra attention to the ends of your paragraphs. Often an additional sentence can add some pizzazz. (But don’t try it in every paragraph!)

My other suggestion is to keep looking for new ways to learn about writing. Don’t get stuck in the tried-and-true advice we’ve all heard a hundred times.

I discovered the closure trick by reading student papers at a community college. A few students did it naturally, others imitated them, and I soon realized we were on to something.

When you read something you like, slow down and ask yourself what made the difference. Then try it yourself. It’s one of the best ways to develop your writing skills.

Yes, I think Gretchen McCulloch is on to something. The Internet is going to teach us a lot about writing. I can’t wait!


Affect or Effect?

Affect and effect cause a great deal of confusion because the spellings are so similar. My advice about them might surprise you: don’t use affect at all.

Affect is a vague word that tells your readers nothing:

The new zoning law will affect the value of our property.  VAGUE

Will your property be worth more…or less? “Affect” doesn’t tell you.

The new zoning law will lower the value of our property.  BETTER

The new zoning law will increase the value of our property.  BETTER

What about effect? It means “a result.” Here’s a trick: Try inserting the in your sentence and see if it works. If it does, chances are you have the right spelling.

We hired a consultant to help us explore the effects of the school proposal.  CORRECT


All about Parentheses

Parentheses are wonderful punctuation marks. They enliven your writing by allowing little interruptions. (I use them all the time.)

But many writers are afraid of them! So here’s a crash course in parentheses:

  • Be careful not to overuse them. You don’t want to sound like a breathless teenager!
  • Never put a comma in front of parentheses. That’s an ironclad rule – and a useful one. You don’t have to parse the sentence to figure out whether it needs a comma: if there’s a parenthesis, NO COMMA.
  • But of course you can put a comma after parentheses (like this), if it’s needed.
  • If you put a complete sentence into parentheses, start with a capital letter and end with a period. (You can also use question marks, exclamation points, and other end punctuation.)
  • If it’s not a complete sentence, start with a lower-case letter, and don’t use a period (savvy readers will notice).

Congratulations! You now have a Ph.D. in parentheses. (Easy, wasn’t it?)