Category Archives: Writing Skills

If Only Everyone Used “Only” Correctly!

Are you careful when you use only in a sentence? Most people aren’t – and hardly anybody notices. Today I’m going to try to make a case for positioning only carefully. It’s a small detail that will impress careful readers.

The rule is that you should place only right next to the word it modifies. Here’s a mini-lesson I’ve often used with my students. Notice how the meaning changes every time only is moved to a different position:

Only I kissed her.

I only kissed her.

I kissed only her.

All three sentences are correct, and they all mean something different. Start listening to how only is used in conversations, and make an effort to spot it when you’re reading. It’s worth the extra effort to use only correctly – even though it will only be noticed by a few perceptive readers.

Oops! I meant to write it this way: even though it will be noticed by only a few perceptive readers.

a man and a woman kiss


Fake or Real?

Suppose you were arrested. You hired an attorney to defend you, and you won the case in court. Would you say that was a “fake” arrest?

Imagine that your family is planning a picnic this afternoon. You tune in to a local weather report and find out that a severe storm is on the way. You cancel the picnic. Was that a “fake” weather report?

You and a friend go to a movie and really enjoy it. Later you come across a review of the movie. The reviewer thought it was awful – badly written and acted, with a boring plot and dull characters. Was that a”fake”movie review?

I would say that the arrest, weather report, and movie review all were real. They happened. There was nothing make-believe about them. To me, “fake” means “not true.” An example would be a false murder scene: Someone laid a mannequin in a dark alley and shook catsup over it to look like blood.

Another example would be fake Rolex watch. It wasn’t manufactured by the Rolex company, and the quality is poor. It’s not a real Rolex.

Lately “fake news” has become a popular complaint. Some people don’t seem to know what “fake” means anymore. If you don’t like something, it’s fake. If it offends you, or it’s confusing, it’s fake.

This week someone on Quora argued that English spelling is “fake” because there are so many inconsistencies. Silent and psychology start with the same sound but are spelled very differently. So are key and quiche – and there are many others.

I understand their point – but I’m also flummoxed. If you say that psychology is a fake spelling, you seem to be asking for someone to supply the real one. But that isn’t what the questioner was asking. Apparently they were trying to say that the spelling doesn’t make sense, and why don’t we do something about it?

Perhaps in 20 years, “disagreeable” and “confusing” will be the dictionary definitions of fake. The meanings of words often change over time, and it could certainly happen to fake. (Silly used to mean “innocent,” for example.)

But right now we seem to be mired in confusion. People don’t trust the news media because all the reporting is “fake.”

Does that mean that journalists are making up – for example – the news that President Trump wants to extend the US-China trade talks past the March 1 deadline? I just saw a video clip of President Trump talking about the proposed extension. Is that “fake news”? Was I watching an actor pretending to be President Trump? If so, why didn’t the White House denounce it?

Language is a complex tool. Sometimes it shines a light on the truth; at other times it’s cagey and slippery. My suggestion today is that we try to be as precise as possible.

The English language is richly endowed with words we can use to disagree with something: error, mistake, distortion, dishonest, lie, bias, cover-up, oversight, overreaction, confusion, conspiracy, and so on. “Fake” – in my opinion – should be reserved for those eyelashes I used to buy at CVS to wear at dance competitions.

a fake mustache, nose and eyeglasses


Writing a Strong Opening

A friend kept urging me to read Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. I was skeptical. I love picture books (Danny and the Dinosaur, anyone? Little Bear?). But I don’t write for children.

My friend was so insistent that I finally gave in and ordered it from the library. She was right: This concise book offers priceless advice. (Yikes: concise, priceless, advice – I’m starting to think in rhymes. I guess the book really got to me!)

Today I’m going to share a suggestion from the book and one of my own. Then I’m going to give you an example to think about.

Ann Whitford Paul wants you to ask yourself a series of questions about the opening paragraph of your book: Who is the main character? What does your main character want? When and where is the story taking place? What’s the tone? What’s the WOW factor?

I’m going to add one more: What’s the first interesting word? If you’re having trouble answering the questions, that’s a sure sign that you need to revise.

For example, often there are two people in the opening of a story – two friends, or a husband and wife, or a boss and an employee. That’s fine if it’s it clear right away which one is going to be the central character. If not, it’s time to revise.

The same principle applies to other kinds of writing. If you’re working on a nonfiction piece, you might have three or four ideas in your opening. Is it clear which one will carry the book?  And you’d better get to an interesting word quickly! There’s a whole world out there competing for your reader’s attention.

I leave it to you to figure out how Paul’s other questions work, with this observation: if the answers aren’t clear right away, you need to revise. 

Let’s go on to an example. I’ve often taught Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel The Sun Also Rises. It’s a great book, but I also think there’s a serious flaw in the opening. Jake Barnes, the narrator, writes at length about Robert Cohn, his tennis friend in Spain. But as the book progresses, Robert Cohn fades away from the story.

There’s no rule that the first two characters have to be there on every page of your novel. But I always get the feeling that Hemingway had a different plan in mind for his novel. He finally changed the plan – but he didn’t go back to make sure the opening matched his new version.

Hemingway was such a great writer that the novel works anyway. But you and I can learn something important here. The beginning of any book generates the energy that will carry the story to the end. Make it powerful. Whatever goes into that opening should stay with the book all the way to the end. It’s good advice even if Hemingway decided not to follow it!

Front cover of Ernest Hemingway's Novel


Commas with And

It’s a question I hear all the time: when do you use a comma with and? If you’d like to learn about the Oxford comma, click here. What I’m going to focus on today is joining sentences with and.

Here’s the rule. If there are two sentences, use the comma. If not, omit the comma. Here are two examples:

We loved Hawaii, and we want to go back.  TWO SENTENCES: COMMA

We loved Hawaii and want to go back.  ONE SENTENCE: NO COMMA

But why? Many people just insert the comma (or leave it out) willy-nilly, without using a rule for guidance. What difference does it make? Answer: A huge difference. And I can prove it.

Take a look at this sentence:

We roasted marshmallows and a squirrel

Pretty nasty picnic! But now read this:

We roasted marshmallows and a squirrel grabbed one.

Much nicer picnic! So how do we make the sentence clear enough so that it can be understood on the first reading?

The answer is to insert a comma after marshmallows. That punctuation mark – a mere wiggly line – tells your brain that the roasting is over. We know that the squirrel introduces something else that happened.

We roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel grabbed one.  CORRECT

Let’s try another example. Here’s the beginning of a sentence about a party:

I invited Joe and Alice

Poor Alice – she wasn’t included! But maybe she came to the party after all:

I invited Joe and Alice asked if she could come too.

It’s another confusing sentence that can, luckily, be fixed with a single comma. Try this:

I invited Joe, and Alice asked if she could come too.  CORRECT

So here’s the rule: Use a comma when you join two sentences with and. (Sentences with but work the same way.)

And here’s the underlying principle: Your brain uses that comma to figure out that the first sentence is finished and a new one is beginning.

Let’s try one more example – an and sentence that doesn’t need a comma:

I invited Joe and Alice to the party this weekend.  CORRECT

There’s no need to separate “Joe and Alice” – they’re both invited. So I didn’t insert a comma.

Are you surprised how easy this rule is? I am too. Isn’t English wonderful?

a squirrel on a branch


Why Study Old English? – Part I

Many years ago I had a job teaching English as a second language. (That’s a misnomer: often my students were learning English as their third or even their fourth language.)

Along the way I took some courses to enhance my teaching skills. One course that was strongly recommended was the history of the English language. I thought that was ridiculous, but I wasn’t about to argue with my mentor. It turned out to be one of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken. (More about this in a future post.)

I had a small advantage because I’d already studied Old English in graduate school. (In a later course I read a big chunk of Beowulf in Old English. Talk about a challenge!

I don’t know whether the history of English course made me a better ESL instructor, and I’m still not sure why I decided to spend all that time studying Old English. I am not good at languages. If you showed me a line of Beowulf today, I’d be lost. None of the grammar and vocabulary stuck.

But those courses did reshape my thinking about English – and about languages in general. Along with an introductory linguistics course, they’re probably the most important learning experiences I had in college.

They convinced me that some of my ideas about English – and languages in general – didn’t work, and they prompted me to replace those outworn ideas with better ones.

I used to worry about the deterioration of the English language. Every day I saw clumsy sentences, misused words, and bad grammar. I viewed the future of English with dismay and foreboding.

So it was a salutary shock to learn that the deterioration had already taken place – back in the eleventh century! Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, Old English was an incredibly sophisticated language. It had an elaborate system of genders, declensions, and conjugations. Many nouns had eight forms, and some had ten.

Modern English has only two forms for most words (bird, birds, rock, rocks). Some nouns have only one. When I say pants or scissors, I could be talking about fifty of them – or only one.

If the Beowulf poet could hear us talking today, he would weep. Almost all of the elegant grammar he used so carefully has disappeared.  Cat is cat whether you’re using the nominative, accusative, dative, or ablative cases. We do have a genitive form: cat’s. But that’s all.

And yet we can write and speak with immense subtlety and sophistication. We have the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of John Donne, and the complexity of a technology manual or a medical textbook. How is that possible?

The answer is that word order took over the job that those declensions used to do. In Old English (as in Latin and many other languages), word order didn’t matter. The endings told you whether John loves Mary or Mary loves John.

And so I learned here’s no such thing as a “primitive” or “deteriorating” language. When one feature is lost, another one takes its place. Language always finds a way.

Think for a moment about sign language. There’s very little to work with – no sounds, very little punctuation, and no capital letters. But a hearing-impaired person can grasp even the most subtle points in a lecture just by paying attention to the person who’s signing.

Charlie Labonte – a friend who’s an interpreter – told me that interpreters use facial expressions to convey adverbs (happily, sadly, quickly, angrily).

Back to English. It’s likely that English will undergo some significant changes in the next 70 or 80 years. We may lose some cherished grammar and venerated rules. But English won’t lose its power. As little snippets of our language fall into disuse, new ones will come along…that’s a guarantee.

So we can all relax – at least as far as the future of English is concerned!

There’s one more point before I go. You might wonder if I was exaggerating about the differences between Old English and Modern English. I can assure you that I wasn’t. As evidence, here’s the Lord’s Prayer in Old English:


Words with Friends

When I started this blog, it never occurred to me that I would be making friends. In fact my big worry was that nobody would read my posts at all.

Surprise! Build it and they will come. I hear regularly from friends – old and new – with questions to ask and knowledge to share. Here are three interesting exchanges I had in January:

1.  My friend Janis Koike made a perceptive comment about a recent Instant Quiz. Here’s my quiz sentence:

Because of the noise in the next room, we couldn’t hear her verbal directions. WRONG

My point was that verbal means “having to do with words,” so writing is also a form of verbal communication. Here’s the correct answer I was looking for:

Because of the noise in the next room, we couldn’t hear her oral directions. CORRECT

But – as Janis pointed out – you don’t need oral. If we didn’t hear the directions because of the noise, of course they were spoken. So “we couldn’t hear her directions” works just fine.

I want to pass this on because redundancy is a habit many of us fall into: “a Jewish rabbi,” “first dibs” (I heard that one on The Big Bang Theory), “the final conclusion.”

2.  My next example isn’t going to teach you anything useful. Well, maybe it’s useful to know that I’m crazy!

A reader I know only as Willem suggested I might have used shibboleth incorrectly in a post.

That seemed strange because I knew for a fact that I had never used the word shibboleth in my life. It’s not part of my working vocabulary. I wasn’t even sure what shibboleth meant.

I started scrolling through recent posts so that I could tell Willem he must have imagined it…only to spot shibboleth in my January 28 postI’ve often wondered where the shibboleth against because came from.

Yikes. I quickly looked up shibboleth and decided Willem was probably right. Here’s my revised sentence: I’ve often wondered where the fear of because came from.

But I’m also discovering that I apparently don’t know my own brain and my own habits!

3.  My third example comes from the January 14 issue  of The New Yorker. An article called “Greek to Me” includes a sentence describing how “a band of traveling dwarfs plunder treasure from the past.”

No. No. No. The rules of subject-verb agreement require you to write that “a band of traveling dwarfs plunders treasure from the past.” A band…plunders. (You skip over “of traveling dwarfs” because it’s a prepositional phrase.)

Let me assure you that I don’t have a nervous breakdown every time I come across a verb mistake. (I make them myself!) But this is The New Yorker, which fusses over every comma, every verb, every hyphen. And the article was written by Mary Norris, who spent years as their head copyeditor – and has written a wonderful book called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

So I wrote to her. A few days later I received this comforting reply from Mary:

With collective nouns, the effect of the plural sometimes trumps the grammar. The effect of the plural “dwarfs” overruled the singular “band.” These things are not cut and dry.

That “not cut and dry” was exactly what I needed to hear, and I pass it on to you. If the rule makes a sentence sound awkward, screw the rule. (Mind you, I don’t think Mary Norris would put it that inelegantly.)

Isn’t it wonderful to have friends?


Question Marks and Quotation Marks

My students often hear me insist that periods and commas have to go inside quotation marks, like this: Scott Joplin made musical history with “The Maple Leaf Rag.”

But what about question marks? The answer is that it depends on the sentence.

If the question mark is part of what you’re quoting, put it inside. For example, there’s a famous song called “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” The question mark is part of the song. Put it inside (as I just did).

But the song “Yankee Doodle” doesn’t end in a question mark. If you’re asking a question about the song, put the question mark outside the quotation marks: Do you know all the verses to “Yankee Doodle”?

Let’s try it with a couple of sentences. If someone is asking a question, put the question mark inside: “Where are my gloves?” asked Abigail.

Now compare this sentence: Did Joan just say “I lost my wallet”? There’s no question in Joan’s voice. She was making a statement. Put the question mark outside (as I just did).


How Do You Define Good English?

Today we’re going to analyze three sentences you might hear at a job interview. Are they written in good English – or bad English? (I want to give credit to James Harbeck for some of these ideas.)

  1.  I think you’ll be a good fit in our department.

  2.  Your skill set is compatible with the rest of our team.

  3.  You’ll be an enjoyable person to work with.

This is a good test of how much of a stickler you are! I would rate myself high on a Cranky English Teacher scale. But – surprisingly – I would accept all three sentences as written.

1.  I think you’ll be a good fit in our department.

This sentence might bother some sticklers because it uses a personal verb (think) and a contraction (you’ll). In business writing you might want to speak for the whole department or the whole company rather than yourself. And if you’re writing formally, you’d probably insert that: “I think that you’ll be a good fit in our department.” 

But in a conversation in a job interview, I think the sentence is fine.

2. Your skill set is compatible with the rest of our team.

A stickler would revise the sentence with “that of”: “Your skill set is compatible with that of the rest of our team.”

But I refuse to use that of. Ever. (So sue me!) Again – the sticklers have a point. The original sentence is comparing a set of skills with a group of people. Inserting “that of” makes the sentence tidier and more logical.

I would argue that English was never meant to be tidy and logical. Inserting that of makes the sentence sound stiff and unnatural. The meaning of the sentence is perfectly clear. Why gum it up with that of?

3.  You’ll be an enjoyable person to work with.

A stickler might be unhappy about using “with” at the end of the sentence (even though there’s no rule against doing that). You can revise it to avoid the issue: You’ll be an enjoyable person with whom to work. But to me that revision sounds stiff and unnatural.

Before I finish, I’m going to offer one more version:

4. I’ve expressed to the department that the advantage of working with you will be considerable for us.

My immediate reaction to this sentence is – GACK. If you know anyone who writes this way, please do them (and all of us!) a favor: straighten them out. I beg you.

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The point today is that good English seems easy to define when you’re an English teacher talking to a class of wiggling fifth-graders. But in the workplace – or your own creative writing – it may not be simple at all.

All of us need to be aware of the rules that shape our writing. Are they outdated? Are they still doing the job for us? Where did they come from? Was it a credible source? Most important – do we understand the importance of varying our writing practices as we go from one setting to the next?

Good questions all!


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