Why Does It Have to Be a “But”?


I just read an absolutely marvelous article: “Things I Learned in Therapy That I Still Use Every Day.”

Although the topic is anxiety, the author – Tom Vellner – offers practical suggestions that can help anyone manage the stresses and strains of everyday life.

Since this is a blog about writing, I’m going to change directions and talk about two writing ideas I found in Vellner’s article.

1.  You don’t need fancy words and elaborate sentences to impress your readers. I ran two paragraphs from Vellner’s article through a readability calculator. The average score was ninth grade.

And Vellner’s article is fun to read. Sentences are lively and natural:

If your mental health would benefit from saying no, say no. 

Moral of the story: Don’t believe everything you think.

2.  There’s no jargon.

3. The article makes an interesting observation about but. Vellner was telling his therapist that he had mixed feelings about moving in with his boyfriend:

I said something to her along the lines of: “I’m so glad I moved in with him, but I really miss having my own space, so, like, what gives? I thought this is what I wanted.” She asked me, “Why does it have to be a ‘but’?”

I don’t think she was issuing an injunction against but – it’s a useful word that I use all the time. What interests me is the hidden meaning she uncovered: but often implies a judgment or regret. Get rid of but, and you might be able to get rid of the judgment or regret as well.

My father was a loving man, but he had a drinking problem.

My father was a loving man, and he had a drinking problem.

As the postmoderns keep reminding us, words aren’t inert transmitters of meaning. They carry their own complexity, like a coiled spring that’s hidden from view.

I hope you’ll read Vellner’s article!




I just discovered something amazing that I’d done several years ago. (Don’t worry: I’m not bragging!)

I was revising a 2010 post from my blog about police reports. See if you notice anything about this paragraph:

Let’s use an everyday example that might make the rule more clear. You can’t be the worst child in your family unless your parents had at least three children. If there are only two children, you’re the worse child. (Or, hopefully, the better one!) Best, worst, most, and so on require three or more people or things.

OK, here it is. “Or, hopefully, the better one” is a controversial way to use hopefully, which is supposed to mean “in a hopeful manner.”

Here’s the correct way to use hopefully:

Margaret looked hopefully at the door.  CORRECT

For some reason I’m proud of that not-quite-kosher “hopefully” sentence on my blog. (It’s still there, by the way – I liked it, and I’m not taking it down.)

Let me explain. I am hyper-aware of language. I know the rules. I automatically run everything I say and write through the usage-checking software in my brain. Of course I’m casual about language much of the time – but I always know what I’m doing.

Or that’s what I thought.

But now I have evidence that I didn’t notice I was using hopefully in a not-so-accepted way – and on a professional blog. Geez. I didn’t think I had it in me.

I’m going to start wearing a cap that says “I’m a human being!”

(By the way, I’m not alone in this. Mary Norris – author of the wonderful Confessions of a Comma Queen – does not approve of the singular they. But she used it herself in the same book where she denounces it: “Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.” Hey, Mary – you’re human too!)



A Long Sentence!

I often warn writers against writing lengthy and tangled sentences. My friend Ellen Holder recently sent me an email with some perceptive comments about a long sentence she’d just read. I thought her analysis was wonderful, and she gave me permission to reprint it here. (Thank you, Ellen!)

From Ellen:

I’ve noticed some writers often use long, meandering sentences. One I just read is 99 words long, filling the whole paragraph. What is the reasoning behind such a long, rambling sentence? I can take thoughts in manageable bites, but one long, continuous stream of thought is hard to swallow.

Here is the sentence:

As I lie in my four-poster mahogany bed with the giant canopy, the one I made love to my husband in for decades, I raise myself onto my elbows and study his features across the room as the moonbeams stream through the crack in the curtains, pouring into the open, snoring mouth, revealing the secret that the teeth seen in the daylight are only another ruse, that time has taken yet another one of my husband’s rights; the confinement to the hospital bed is not the only indignity.

I guess it’s good for me to read other authors and study their writing styles, but I do get exasperated with a book where the enjoyment of reading is lessened by such quirky, rambling writing.

And maybe it makes me feel superior, because I think I could write it better. Not the whole book, but I do truly think that sentence could be greatly improved with a few periods.

Something in me thinks I have to keep reading until I get to a period, but that is the purpose of punctuation, isn’t it?

Back to Jean: Yes, Ellen – that’s the purpose of punctuation. And yes, I know you could write it better! (Thanks for sharing your thoughts!)


Writing a Book


I am – heaven help me – writing a book about Shaw. I finally caved in and decided it was easier to start writing than to put up with visits from the ghost of Shaw at all hours of the night.

Today I’m going to talk about what it’s like to tackle a project like this one. Of course every writer has different issues! What I’m hoping is that you’ll get a glimpse of the quirks that authors have to deal with – and you’ll be patient and forgiving with your own odd habits.

One unexpected difficulty has been deciding how much my Interior Writer can reasonably demand from me. It’s hard to describe what this means, but it is a very real problem.

I’m going to make an analogy with dancing. I am a serious (that’s an understatement!) ballroom dancer. I go to dance classes and show up for lessons even when I’m broke, I’m tired, don’t feel like it, don’t have time, or come up with some other excuse. There are exceptions, but not many.

My Interior Dancer is a hard taskmaster, but there’s one thing about my dancing life that I really appreciate: the requirements are predictable. When I get home and put away my dance togs, I’m done (until the next class or lesson rolls around).

But how do I convince Interior Writer that I really am trying hard, and I’ve done enough for the day, and can I please stretch out on the bed and read a novel? Later, when the book is well underway, Interior Writer will decide that everything is under control, and she’ll leave me alone. But so far she has been relentless and annoying.

Problem number two is that Interior Writer doesn’t think I can write a book about Shaw. It doesn’t matter that I’ve already written one book about Shaw, and it was a success.

So when I sit down to write – heck, before I sit down to write – there’s this unpleasant chatter in my head about how stupid I am, my ideas aren’t going to work, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m a lousy writer…you get the idea.

I have a secret theory that Interior Writer is like a hypercritical parent or coach who keeps yelling at you in order to make you try harder and do better. I wish I could convince her that I don’t need that kind of help – thank you very much – and I’d appreciate it if she’d find someone else to annoy. But I haven’t had any luck with that so far.

Hey! Do you want to write a book? It’s fun!



The Tenement Museum

Last spring I attended a college reunion in New York (I’m not saying which one!). It was amazing to discover that the connections from my college years were still there, as strong as ever.

One of many delights was discovering that a friend and I shared the same bucket-list item: we want to visit every museum in New York.

One place I’ve crossed off my list (but not really, because I’ll be going back) is the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. I’m interested in the history of New York, and I was excited about learning what tenement living was really like. (My grandparents probably lived in a tenement when they first came to the US.)

Avid readers will already have guessed another reason why I was so eager to visit a tenement: I loved (and still do) Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-a-Kind-Family books for children.

So I spent an afternoon visiting two apartments at the museum, watching a film, and talking with other members of the tour group. It was one of the best museum visits I can remember, and I immediately signed up for the museum’s newsletter.

It was through the newsletter that I learned something surprising. The Tenement Museum is not – as I had assumed – a NY history museum. It’s an immigration museum – and there was a huge controversy when it was first proposed because New York was already talking about starting another immigration museum: Ellis Island. (Yes, I’ve been there too.)

After I read an account of the dispute between the Tenement Museum supporters and the Ellis Island supporters, I thought about my own visits to both places. And I remembered that Ellis Island had displays both about the immigration process there and the broader history of American immigration.

The Tenement Museum docent (who was wonderful!) encouraged us to share stories about family members and friends who had immigrated to the United States. More recent exhibits tell the stories of Holocaust survivors, Puerto Rican migrants, and Chinese immigrants who lived in the building over the years.

The postmoderns were right: a name is much more than a label. Names create expectations, set limits, open up possibilities, and define experiences.  If that building at 27 Orchard Street had been called “The Lower East Side Museum,” it would have a different focus and mission, and it would be evolving in a different way.

I, for one, am glad it was designated an immigration museum. I only wish that my grandparents were still here and could pay a visit with me.


A Slippery Sentence

What do you think of this sentence?

We were planning a shopping trip when Aunt Mary arrived.

It’s perfectly grammatical – but there’s a problem: It could have two meanings.

  • We planned our shopping trip around Aunt Mary’s arrival.
  • Aunt Mary’s arrival interrupted our shopping plans.

Language (as the postmoderns keep reminding us) is a slippery business. It’s always a good idea to ask someone else to read anything important you’ve written. An English degree isn’t required! We all use language all the time, and that means we all have expertise.

In the writing group I facilitate, I always recommend taking feedback seriously. If even one person sees an alternate meaning – or has trouble processing what you’ve written – consider revising what you’ve written. 



On Academic Malpractice…and College Application Essays

I went to college in Brooklyn, the largest borough in New York City. My husband – coincidentally – was born there, near Coney Island. So last week we sat down together to watch a Samantha Brown TV show about visiting Brooklyn.

It was wonderful. Turns out there’s a lot about Brooklyn we didn’t know! But I also picked up something disturbing in Samantha Brown’s script. Here’s the beginning of a sentence from her introduction:

Many people associate Manhattan as the main reason to visit the Big Apple….

Gack. Or sigh. Or sob. Samantha Brown (who’s done many wonderful travel programs over the years) is not going to say “Many people think of Manhattan as the main reason to visit the Big Apple.” It’s too simple – too ordinary. And so we get nonsense: “Many people associate Manhattan as….” (You can hear it yourself by clicking the Brooklyn link below.)

Alas, this kind of writing isn’t rare. I sometimes get requests from friends to go over their son’s or daughter’s college admission essays. You have never read such gobbledygook! What’s really depressing is that these students are graduating from high school honors programs. Here’s a sampling (adapted and disguised):

#1 The more familiarity and interaction I had with the participants in the club positively correlated with the speed at which I could adjust; at which point it became apparent I had achieved my ultimate goal of comfortable adaptation.

#2 These requirements are needed in order that challenges facing various professions can be considered from disparate viewpoints, leading to developments that are effective as well as innovative.

If you’re a parent, you need to look at your son or daughter’s writing assignments to make sure they’re not full of vague, confusing syntax like this. If your student says this kind of writing is expected and encouraged, you need to storm the school and insist that it stop. This is educational malpractice.

No one is served by this kind of writing. The garbled words (“The more familiarity and interaction I had…positively correlated“) are bad enough. But what’s even worse is the absence of specific details. You learn practically nothing about these student writers – their values, hopes, and ambitions.

Go back to the first sample. That student was describing a powerful learning experience. But we don’t get into his soul to learn what happened. He had lots of “familiarity and interaction.” He “adapted” and “adjusted” – quickly. To what? How? I have no idea.

Student #2 wants to enroll in a college program that emphasizes debate and discussion. She hopes to gain skills that will help in her future career…in what field? I don’t know. What topics will she be debating and discussing? No idea.

Someone needed to tell her to read as much she could about the honors program she was applying to…and then make a connection to her own ambitions. (Well, I did tell her.) Here’s an example of what I was looking for. This paragraph is similar to what Student #2 finally submitted. (Incidentally, she was accepted into the Honors Program.)

I’ve been involved in student affairs for three years at my high school. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I have good ideas, but I don’t always know how to organize and present them. The weekly small-group discussions in your Honors Program 101 Course sound like an ideal way to improve my leadership skills. As a hospital nurse, I’m going to be part of a healthcare team that will be exchanging viewpoints about patient care. I want to be an effective member of that team.  BETTER

Good writing doesn’t have to call attention to your big vocabulary and your ability to write long sentences. It showcases you. This student has told us several important things about herself: 

  • she was involved in student affairs at her high school
  • she’s interested in personal growth
  • she wants to be a nurse
  • she’s spent time learning what a nursing career would be like
  • she’s spent time researching the Honors Program
  • she’s spent time thinking about why the Honors Program would be a good match for her

I call that good writing, and I want to see more of it – much more. Please!



Tricky Words

Many writers think that ordinary, everyday words are safe. But that kind of thinking can be risky. I’ve often warned writers about the dangers of deceptively simple words like that, there, and I. Today I’m going to give you two more tricky words: by and being.

If you’re a risk-averse person, I have some useful advice for you: never start a sentence with by

Did you notice the qualifier? I said “if you’re a risk-averse person.” Of course you can start sentences with by! I do it all the time. But I see so many “by” mistakes that I’ve started warning writers against starting sentences that way.

Here are a few sample sentences. Can you figure out which ones have errors?

1.  By changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.

2.  By working hard as a volunteer, Joe gained valuable experience and several excellent references.

3.  By offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.

4.  By changing her eating and exercise habits, Linda lost eight pounds in just five weeks.

Sentences 1 and 3 are wrong. Sentences 2 and 4 are right. How do you know? By always introduces an extra idea. You need a complete sentence to go with it. (Think of a garage and a house. A garage is nice to have – but you’d better have a house to go with it!)

Below the extra ideas are in red. The complete sentences are in blue. When you have red and blue together, you’re ok! (The comma after the “by” extra idea is another clue that you’ve done it correctly.)

Here are the answers:

X 1.  By changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.  (Correct version: Changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.)  

2.  By working hard as a volunteer, Joe gained valuable experience and several excellent references.

X 3.  By offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.  (Correct version: Offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.)

4.  By changing her eating and exercise habits, Linda lost eight pounds in just five weeks.

Let’s go on to being. I’ve never come across a rule for using being – in fact I’ve never heard anyone mention that it’s a problem. Nevertheless, it’s a tricky word.

My personal rule is not to use being unless I’m absolutely, positively sure the sentence is going to sound right. Many times being hopelessly gums up a sentence. Here’s an example of a bad one from the Huffington Post:

It’s hard to believe it’s mid-February with it being a balmy 70 degrees in New York City today.  AWKWARD

The sentence would be more correct if you changed it being to its being – but even then I would have insisted on deleting it if I’d been the editor. Bad sentence! Bad sentence!

I do a lot of writing, and I allow some being sentences to stay – but it doesn’t happen often. I just did a word search for being in my 278-page book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You. I used being 10 times in the entire book. Here’s one of those sentences:

She was tired of being taken for granted.  EFFECTIVE SENTENCE

Trust me – that sentence had to fight to stay in my book. I don’t like the word being!





I’ve been spending a lot of time (confession: too much time!) on Quora.com. For a language addict like me, the questions and discussions on Quora are so exhilarating that it’s sometimes hard to go back to my (sigh) To Do list.

Luckily there’s a hidden benefit – the insights I’m getting into the ways we think about language. Here are some thoughts, based on the questions I’ve been reading and answering:

  1. Many questions come from speakers of other languages who are eager to learn English. Unfortunately they tend to focus exclusively on grammar – an approach that doesn’t always work well.
    For example, one recent question concerned the. It was answered by an overseas student of English who dutifully wrote a long essay about grammar points related to the. Unfortunately the answer failed to mention that the is often a usage issue. Practices can be arbitrary and regional.
    So, in the US, we say that someone is “in the hospital.” The UK version is “in hospital.” And both nations say that someone is “in school.”
    I’ve seen similar answers again and again on Quora: too much grammar theory, and not enough attention to the living language.
  2. Some questioners have unrealistic (even unreasonable) expectations. I’ve seen questions like “explain would” or “tell me how the future tense works in English.” You should use Google to find some reliable websites or visit a library.
    Anyone who’s ever written an English textbook (I’ve done two of them!) knows that grammar explanations are time-consuming and hard to write. Don’t ask a Quora volunteer to do that work free!
  3. I’m surprised (and dismayed) that Quora is the first choice for many issues that require a credible, professional resource. For example, someone recently asked why so many English speakers continue to use the archaic words amongst and whilst. A reliable dictionary would have explained that a) amongst and whilst aren’t archaic at all, and b) they’re common usages in the United Kingdom.
    Quora is fun, and you can learn a lot from the open discussions you find there. But it’s important to remember that often you’re getting opinions, not the result of careful research done by lexicographers and other experts with many years of training and experience.



Vocabulary Choices

Today’s topic is a writer’s vocabulary. What principles should guide you when you’re choosing words for a writing project?

Here’s a principle many aspiring writers live by: “Never use an ordinary word when a more sophisticated word will do.” You can see where they’re coming from. Isn’t it common sense to make yourself sound smart?

No, it’s not. Professional writers want – more than anything else – to be read. Good writing attracts readers because it’s energetic and exhilarating. The ideas keep coming at you. I always think of sitting on a big, beautiful horse that knows where he’s going and won’t let anything stop him.

But what if you’re an expert who writes about serious subjects? Won’t your readers lose respect for you if you make everyday word choices?

Let’s see if that’s true. I’ve published three articles and two book reviews in the Journal of Bernard Shaw Studies – a scholarly publication from the Penn State Press. (I’m also a member of the editorial board.) Do I practice what I preach?

To find out, I copied the introductory paragraphs (304 words) from my most recent article, “Shaw’s Pygmalion: The Play’s the Thing,” and crunched some numbers. (Did you notice the title I chose? It’s all one-syllable words except for Pygmalion, the title of Shaw’s play.)

The first step was to calculate the reading level: 11th grade, according to a readability website – within the ballpark for a scholarly journal. Two of my sentences came in at seventh-grade level: 

Playwriting was not Shaw’s first career choice.

The passage of time has also deepened our understanding of the play.

Next I counted all the one-syllable words. There are 134 of them – more than a third of the total word count. (Examples include the, in, a, his, plays, still, more, than, has, place, great – nothing unusual.)

What about the longer words? Most of them aren’t difficult either: About, delighted, problems, issues, weren’t, directly, professional, effectively, creation, public, successful, popular, recent, interest, explains. Two words – theatrical and dramatist – might not appear in an ordinary conversation, but they’re not hard to understand.

Now for the hard words. In addition to Pygmalion (three times), and the names of two scholars (Hornby and Gainor), I counted ten words that only educated readers might know: Rapturous, refuted, pantheon, metadrama, inherent, transmitting, generate, persona, collaborative, and reproach. That’s 3% of the 304-word total – only 1 word out of every 33.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

When I tackle a scholarly project, my focus is finding something new and different to say. (In fact that’s how I tackle any writing project.) I’ve been working on a paper about Shaw’s play Village WooingThe early stages have been frustrating – every idea I came up with was something that my listeners might have heard before. Finally I was able to find something that (I hope!) will interest them. If not – the delete key will be there for me.

Once the ideas are in place, I concentrate on that riding-a-big-beautiful-horse feeling. Is my audience going to gallop along with me? If not – you guessed it! – it’s time for that delete key.

Bottom line: Good writing isn’t about your desire to impress. It’s about creating an experience for your readers – a lively and engaging one that they’ll enjoy and remember.