Category Archives: Writing Skills

The Chicken or the Egg?

Instant Quiz:

Can you find the mistake in the sentence below? Scroll to the bottom of today’s post for the answer. 

There’s many reasons why we should reject this proposal.

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Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

And which came first –  English or English grammar?

Before I offer an answer, I’m going to talk about…ballroom dancing. I own an instructional video about foxtrot (my favorite dance!) done by Stephen Hillier, one of the world’s best ballroom dancers.

Two points that Hillier makes in the video have stuck in my head (and I think have relevance to our question about language vs. grammar).

Like all serious ballroom dancers, I’ve worked my way through the prescribed curriculum. One of the hardest steps is called a heel turn. Every woman who does international foxtrot struggles with it.

But according to Hillier, there is no heel turn. 

What he means is that nobody set out to invent a heel turn. It came about all by itself on the dance floor when couples were searching for a way to move from one particular spot on the floor to another. It worked so well that the couples who figured it out began showing it to other couples. Now all female ballroom dancers learn it.

Another surprise was learning how the ballroom curriculum originated. According to Hillier, some early ballroom enthusiasts decided they needed to codify the steps they were doing. Their solution was to hold a ballroom competition. The steps done by couple who won provided the foundation for the curriculum.

So – what came first, the technique or the dance? The dance.

* * * * * *

Back to English. I’ve been thinking about an intriguing question I saw online. In the sentence below, is tall an adjective – or an adverb?

Trees grow tall in this forest.

Several dictionaries I checked listed “tall” only as an adjective. So what do we do with this sentence? Trees really do grow. If they can grow “thickly” (an adverb) why can’t they grow “tall”?

Lo and behold, I eventually found a source that does list tall as an adverb: The American Heritage Dictionary (which happens to be my favorite dictionary!).

* * * * * *

If you’ve hung in so far, thank you! Thank you!

Here’s the point I’ve been leading up to: Language always comes first. If I may paraphrase Stephen Hillier, there is no grammar. We have words and sentences. Someone comes along and tries to codify them.

In the small world of ballroom dancing, that organizational system works out well. But in the much larger realm of language, some elements resist our efforts to pin them down – the word tall, for example, which most dictionaries don’t list as an adverb even though it can clearly act as one.

Which came first – language or grammar? – is an interesting question. But we should be asking another question; Which is more important: language or grammar?

chick and egg

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

When a sentence begins with there, you’ll probably need to figure out what the correct verb is. Should it be there is or there are? There was or there were? There has been or there have been?

There’s no need (ha!) to panic. Just flip the beginning of the sentence around. You’ll hear the correct verb.

There is many reasons

Many reasons is there

Nope! You can tell right away that the sentence needs to begin with there are: Many reasons are there…There are many reasons.

There are many reasons why we should reject this proposal.  CORRECT

 This “flip the sentence” trick works every time. (And it works with sentences beginning with here as well.)

You can download a free handout that explains subject-verb agreement rules at bit.ly/SubVerbAgreement.

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Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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Make Your Sentences Move!

If you want to be a successful author, you need to write powerful sentences. Today I’m going to offer a simple strategy for writing sentences that move. Here it is: strip away words that slow down the sentence.

Below is a list of heavy, plodding words that tend to sneak into sentences. You think you’re building power when you use them, but often the opposite happens: your sentence slows down.

Here’s the list: all at once, began to, eventually, immediately, just then, might, proceeded to, started to, suddenly, then

Please note that I’m not warning you against using them. (I sometimes use them myself!) What I’m asking is that you stop and think first. Read the sentence both ways – with the questionable word or expression, and then without it. Which version sounds better? And are there other changes you can make?

Taking that extra step immediately sets you apart for the average writer. Try it!

Here are some examples:

He saw Janey and proceeded to scoop her up in his arms.

The moment he saw Janey, he scooped her up in his arms.  BETTER

The dog ran to the door, barking furiously. Then Susan heard banging.

The dog ran to the door, barking furiously. Susan heard banging.  BETTER

As she fumbled with the doorknob, the packages tumbled from her arms all at once.

As she fumbled with the doorknob, the packages tumbled from her arms.  BETTER

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All about Prepositions

[Today’s guest writer is my friend Kelly Pomeroy. I enjoyed a recent exchange of ideas with Kelly so much that I asked her to do a guest post.]

 We’ve often heard that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. This arbitrary rule may have originated with 17th Century British author John Dryden, who greatly admired Latin – a language which did not provide for prepositions at the ends of clauses – and tried to apply its rules to English.

This thinking was picked up by Robert Lowth, an 18th Century British Anglican clergyman and biblical scholar who undertook to write a comprehensive grammar of English. He acknowledged that ending a sentence or clause with a preposition was in fact what people were doing, and that it served quite well. But perhaps he was deferring to Dryden when he added that “the placing of the Preposition before the Relative [its object] is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.”

But is it really more graceful to say “that’s the answer for which I’m looking” than “that’s the answer I’m looking for”?  No, it’s clumsy and odd-sounding.

Substitute the sentence “that’s not what I’m looking for” and there’s no way you can even rearrange it and still have passable English. “That’s not that for which I’m looking”? Try that one out if you want to receive some really odd looks.

Good English sounds natural, not contorted or “hypercorrect.” Competent writers know that and do not try to adhere to phony rules that serve only to interrupt the flow of their words.

P.S. Here are some specific examples of poor English written by people who should know better:

NASA 8/9/17:  “The best Perseid performance of which we are aware occurred back in 1993, when the peak Perseid rate topped 300 meteors per hour.”

Vice News 11/19/16:  It’s one of many economic challenges with which the government has been unable to deal….

MidSouth Week in Review 5/16/2017 “There is an app called ‘Moodies’, which can already tell in which mood you are.”

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A Question Mark in a Quotation

Here’s a thorny usage issue: where does the question mark go in a quotation – before or after the quotation marks?

For example, suppose you’re writing a short story about a party. The host – let’s call him Bob – whispers a question to Mary, one of the guests. Mary’s husband is suspicious about the whispering and wants to know what was going on. He soon finds out it was perfectly innocent – Bob just wanted to know the name of one of the other guests.

Would you put the question mark inside – or outside? And is there a hard-and-fast rule? 

What I do is to think about the speaker’s voice. Everything inside the quotation marks belongs to the speaker. Since Bob had a question mark in his voice, I would put the question mark inside the quotation marks:

Bob whispered, “Mary, do you know the name of the woman in the corner who’s wearing a red suit?”  CORRECT

Now let’s try a different situation. I have a line of poetry in my head – “But I have promises to keep.” I think Robert Frost wrote it, but I’m not sure. I call my friend Jane. Here’s my question: 

Did Robert Frost write the line, “But I have promises to keep”?  CORRECT

There’s no question in Robert Frost’s voice, so I put the question mark outside.

The same principle works for exclamation marks. In the sentence below, there’s excitement in Clare’s voice, so I’m going to put the exclamation mark inside the quotation marks:

The first thing Clare said to me was, “I’m so happy to see you!” CORRECT

Now let’s look at a different situation. A store manager refused to give me a refund that I think I’m entitled to. He was speaking calmly. I’m the one who expresses shock:

I can’t believe the manager told me, “You’re not entitled to a refund”! CORRECT

Let’s try a few more:

Joe asked, “What time is the show supposed to end?” CORRECT

Did Marilyn say, “I’ll probably be 30 minutes late tomorrow”? CORRECT

When we’d finished dessert, Sally said, “What a great meal!”  CORRECT

After we’d spent the whole weekend helping George, he didn’t even say “Thank you”!

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An English Teacher Corrects a Letter from Donald Trump

An English teacher recently marked up a letter from President Donald Trump, took a picture of her corrections, and posted the marked-up result on Facebook. You can read the letter and see her corrections at this link: https://nyti.ms/2J6Ambs

She’s…wrong, on many counts:

  • Her folksy feedback (such as “Have ya’ll tried grammar and style check,” yellow highlighting, and “OMG!”) isn’t organized for clarity
  • I couldn’t figure out why she highlighted “I hosted,” “I brought together,” and “I signed into law”
  • Her complaints about incomplete information (“explain rule,” “which agency?”) have nothing to do with grammar and style
  • The alleged mistakes in capitalization (Nation, Federal, State, President) are actually prescribed practices for government correspondence, according to a style manual obtained by the New York Times. In fact those capital letters appear in letters signed by Presidents Bush and Obama.

Here’s what I found most interesting: Ms. Mason (the English teacher who wrote the letter) isn’t such a stickler herself. I was surprised to read this comment she made afterwards: “If someone is capable of doing better, they should do better.” That’s a violation of the prohibition against using a singular “they” that’s been taught in schools and colleges for more than 200 years. (Many teachers and editors would insist on changing the sentence to “he or she should do better.”)

I’ve abandoned that rule myself, so I don’t have any problem with her version. But when you’re yelling at other people – publicly! – about their alleged mistakes, I think you’d better be on your best behavior yourself.

What are my own thoughts about the original letter from the White House? One big positive is that the letter begins warmly – “Thank you for taking the time to share your views….” (I still get business letters that begin with an archaic opening like “This is in reference to…..” Gack.)

I’m also impressed that the sentences and paragraphs are well constructed,  and there are specific examples to illustrate the points in the letter.

For me, the sole negative – and it’s a big one – is that the letter doesn’t even mention the suggestion Ms. Mason made in her original letter – that President Trump should visit the families of the Parkland shooting victims. Our English teacher has a legitimate gripe there.

But grammar and style? Nope – not from where I’m sitting.

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Update: The President and First Lady visited the Parkland victims in February – well before the White House letter was written in May. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/trump-visits-parkland-shooting-victims-florida-hospital-n848826

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Project Semicolon

Project Semicolon is a suicide prevention organization that is saving lives:

A message about preventing suicide

I applaud this compassionate group!

I hope they (and you!) won’t mind if I use their lifesaving message as a springboard to talk about two important usage issues.

1.  This isn’t quite how authors use semicolons. I’ve known students (and – sigh – a few professional writers!) who think a semicolon is a cure for a long sentence. You get out a ruler, find the midpoint, and stick a semicolon there. Problem solved!

Nope. A semicolon is like a period. Here’s what you do: find two sentences that go together. Change the period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter (unless the word requires a capital letter – Jane, October, Delaware).

Linda is excited about her new car. She invited all of us to go for a drive yesterday.  CORRECT

Linda is excited about her new car; she invited all of us to go for a drive yesterday.  CORRECT

2. Sticklers may have had a mild heart attack when they saw “could’ve chosen to end their life.” I – myself – have written two textbooks telling students to use his or her in this context. When you use they for one person – “an author could have chosen to end their sentence” – you’re committing a usage error called the “singular they.” At least that’s what students have been told for the past 200+ years.

That rule is starting to fall by the wayside, and many people – including me! – couldn’t be happier about it. I would leave “chosen to end their sentence” just the way it is. You can read more about the demise of the singular “they” here.

A word cloud about compassion

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How about It?

It is one of the trickiest words in the English language. Sometimes it has a definite meaning: “It needs more salt” clearly refers to food, and “It matches your eyes” probably has something to do with jewelry or clothing. But what about a sentence like “It looks like rain”? What does it refer to?

Luckily you and I don’t have to philosophize about what it means – we can leave that thorny question to the linguistics experts. There’s a simple rule of thumb for using it correctly. Here it is…uh…Here’s the rule:

If it starts with “it,” it’s a sentence.

Elegant, isn’t it?

This lovely little rule will help you avoid run-on sentences and various other writing sins. Let’s look at some examples:

The dress is lovely, it will be perfect for the party.  WRONG

The dress is lovely. It will be perfect for the party.  RIGHT

You’ll need your umbrella, it looks like rain.  WRONG

You’ll need your umbrella. It looks like rain.  RIGHT.

If you’re afraid that your sentences are too short, change the period to a semicolon (and get rid of the capital letter, of course):

The dress is lovely; it will be perfect for the party.

You’ll need your umbrella; it looks like rain.

It (hah!) isn’t difficult to use it correctly when you apply this little rule. Try it!

umbrella

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How to Use “Only” Correctly

In everyday conversation, we usually don’t pay much attention to the word only. It’s an easy word to overlook – and so we end up with sentences like this one:

I only paid five dollars for this book.

Here’s the correct sentence:

I paid only five dollars for this book.

Taking a moment to place only correctly makes you look professional. Take a look at these three sentences:

Only I kissed her.

I kissed only her.

I only kissed her.

Every time you move only to a different position, the meaning changes! The next time you sit down to write, pay careful attention to only. Your writing will be more precise and more professional.

a man kisses a woman

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Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Last week a friend asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. Although we’ve never worked together, I’ve visited the classroom where she teaches, met students she’s taught, and talked to their parents. On top of that, I’ve known her since she was in junior high! So this was an easy letter to write.

I asked for a list of her accomplishments so that I could include them into my letter – and then I got to work. She was very pleased with my letter and took it to a job interview yesterday.

Last night I ran into her and asked about the interview. She thought she had done well and again thanked me for my letter – and then she added something: “He said he would hire you in a heartbeat.”

Huh? Really?

Well – ahem! – I’m a good writer. But my point today is that anyone can write a letter as good as mine. Clearly, though, they don’t. So today I want to go over some basic principles for writing that gets your point across and – incidentally – showcases you.

That’s a huge point that bears endless repeating: no matter what topic you choose, ultimately you are always writing about yourself. And you always need to ask how you’re coming across on the page. Arrogant? Pompous? Engaging? Lively? Warm? (I hope the answer is obvious!) My letter was – of course – all about my friend, but I was also putting myself onto that piece of paper.

Here come some rules for any writing task (not just a letter of recommendation):

1. Skip the pompous language and convoluted syntax. I just ran my letter through a readability index. The website used six readability formulas to evaluate the letter. Average score: Grade 8.

2. Use your voice. Here’s how I started my letter: “It’s a pleasure to recommend Jane Doe to you.” I have never in my life written “This is in reference to….” You shouldn’t either.

3. Give details. I mentioned learning centers my friend had set up, projects she had directed, and songs she had composed and taught to her students.

4. Start every paragraph with a sentence introducing the point you’re going to make. (English teachers call this a “topic sentence.”) This is an easy and effective way to make your writing well-organized, coherent, and easy to follow. (In short, you come across as a great writer!)

5. Tell stories. They don’t have to be long. I mentioned going to a dance class with my teacher friend. The mother of two students she’d taught years ago was taking the class – and was thrilled to see her. “Jane” remembered the mother and asked about the two girls by name. Notice all the information packed into that story: she knew her students, cared about them, and had wonderful rapport with their parents. Plus she has an excellent memory!

6.  Build to a climax. Here’s how I started my last paragraph: “I am going to close with what I think is “Jane’s” most impressive achievement: [a prestigious award she’d won].

Nothing in this list is complicated or difficult. Trust me – anyone can write well! You just need some guidelines and the time and determination to sit down and do it.

Typing on a keyboard

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Sentences with Because Can Be Confusing

When my husband started writing gardening columns 20 years ago, he had an editor who thought because was a bad word. Every time because found its way into a column, Charlie got a worried phone call from her. It was an enormous relief when she moved on to another newspaper and Charlie was free to write because whenever he felt like it.

We never found out where this peculiar phobia came from – but I have a theory. Very likely she’d had a teacher who said that “because” can be a tricky word (true – I’ll explain in a moment)  – and she misinterpreted that warning as a prohibition.

That editor came to mind a few days ago when I saw this headline for a Carolyn Hax advice column:

She thinks her daughter isn’t married because of her clothing choices

The worried mother thought the daughter’s revealing clothes were driving away nice, marriageable men. But when I first read the headline, I thought the mother was harboring doubts that her daughter was really married – based on her clothing choices.

Because is indeed a tricky word. Try this sentence:

We didn’t buy this house because of its location.

The meaning is obvious: Bad location – we said no to the realtor. But not necessarily! Imagine this conversation:

“What a great location! It’s easy to see why you bought this house.”
“No, we didn’t buy this house because of its location. What sold us was the unusual architecture.”

*  *  *  *  *  *

I often answer questions about writing posted on Quora.com . Many of those questions begin with “Is this sentence grammatical?” All too often the answer is yes, it’s grammatical – but it’s a lousy sentence: clumsy, unnatural, or (as in today’s example) ambiguous.

(And here’s a P.S. for regular visitors to my blog: Yes, today’s post is yet another example of the ways that language eludes our grasp and our control.)

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax

     Carolyn Hax

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