Category Archives: Writing Skills

Jean Cleans Out a Folder

Instant Quiz:

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

Donna forgot her jacket, and I think this one is her’s.


I have a folder where I jot down ideas for blog posts. It’s filling up, so here’s an assortment of writing tips and other odds-and-ends for you:

1.  Good writers are careful not to overuse personal and personally. Take a look at these two sentences:

Of all the cars I’ve personally owned, the Karmann-Ghia was my favorite.

Joe Maguire has been a close personal friend for many years.

Delete personally! All friends are personal (otherwise they would be acquaintances or colleagues). Everything you own is a personal possession.

2. Here’s a sentence I would never write, even though it’s correct: Either you or I am going to be the next president of the club. (The rule is that the or part of the sentence determines the verb: I am going.) I would deliberately write it incorrectly: 

Either you or I are going to be the next president of the club. (Go ahead – sue me!)

3. The words that exist and existing are often unnecessary. Take a look at this sentence from an AP News story:

Robin Bonifas, a social work professor at Arizona State University and author of the book “Bullying Among Older Adults: How to Recognize and Address an Unseen Epidemic,” said existing studies suggest about 1 in 5 seniors encounters bullying. 

If the studies didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be talking about them!

4.  Stephen Pinker’s book The Sense of Style includes samples of marvelous writing from other writers. Someone described Maurice Sendak’s books for children as “roundly praised, intermittently censored, and occasionally eaten.” An obituary of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown noted that “she was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.”


Instant Quiz ANSWER

Possessive pronouns (his, hers, yours, ours, theirs, its) don’t have apostrophes.

Donna asked me to look for her jacket, and I think this one is hers. CORRECT


Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from 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



Last week I had a routine appointment with my doctor. While I was waiting for my exam, I read a poster about a new medication (I’m going to call it Acmecare).

Turns out it was a good thing the nurse had already taken my blood pressure! I was so angry about the gobbledygook on that poster that my blood pressure probably doubled.

Here are two of the sentences I was reading:

  1. Symptomatic responses to therapy do not preclude the presence of gastric malignancy.
  2. Known allergic reactions to components of Acmecare contraindicate use of this drug.

I hope you a) know why the writing is so bad and b) have vowed you will never, never write anything this way.

Deep breath.

Okay. Here’s what’s wrong: 

For #1:

  • Symptomatic is unnecessary. Every response to a drug is a symptom. Just use responses.
  • Preclude isn’t a word you hear in everyday conversation. It has no place in a poster that patients will be reading.
  • There’s no difference between “gastric malignancy” and “the presence of gastric malignancy.” (Let me give you another example: “A headache sent me to bed early last night.” “The presence of a headache sent me to bed last night.” The presence of doesn’t add anything.)

Here’s how I would rewrite the first sentence: “Don’t assume that a stomach symptom is a side effect of Acmecare. It could be cancer. If a symptom seems unusual, have it checked.”

On to #2!

  • Delete known. If you had unknown allergic reactions, you wouldn’t pay attention to them, would you? Do you see how silly this phrase is?
  • Contraindicate is another word you don’t hear in everyday conversation. Don’t use it.

Here’s my rewrite of the second sentence: “Don’t use Acmecare if you’re allergic to the ingredients.”

(I just showed this post to a friend, and she suggested a variation: “Don’t use Acmecare if you know you’re allergic to the ingredients.” I nixed it (she says it’s ok for me to disagree with her here). How can you make a decision about an allergy if you don’t know about it?

Bottom line: don’t puff up your writing with big, repetitive words. A medical poster shouldn’t be about showing off your fancy vocabulary and high IQ. Your priority is to get the information to the person reading it.

“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


This Writing Life

Last month two Shaw friends asked me to write an article about My Fair Lady for an upcoming Shaw publication. I did not tell them that I would have paid them $100 apiece – that’s how much fun I knew I was going to have writing it. (I was right.)

This morning I made a few last-minute edits and sent it out. Now that it’s finished, I’m almost missing it! The next step will be hearing if it’s suitable for the journal and finding out what changes need to be made.

Today’s post – in keeping with the “Write with Jean” title of this blog – is going to list some thoughts I had while I was writing the article.

  • It took me only 45 days to write an article that’s 6,400 words long with 53 notes – and I was on a cruise and away from my computer for 8 of those days.
  • It helped that I was writing about two plays I knew very well – Pygmalion and My Fair Lady (and I’d seen a wonderful Broadway revival of My Fair Lady in May).
  • Miracles happen. I hadn’t thought about going to see My Fair Lady when I went to New York. (Stupid! Stupid!) The friend I was traveling with wanted to see it – thank heaven.
  • When you’re a writer, you never know what’s going to be useful. Thirty years ago I bought a battered copy of My Fair Lady at a used bookstore. Time and again I started to throw it away because a) it was falling apart, b) I knew I’d never do anything with it, and c) we needed to make space for newer books. Each time I ended up putting it back on the shelf. (Maybe I’m a little bit psychic!)
  • The internet and are the biggest boons to researchers ever. In the past, I would have had to drive to Tampa to use the university library there – and probably spend the night in a motel because there was too much reading to do in one day.
    Not this time! I used a database to read the articles I needed online (often in my pajamas). Amazon shipped me the books I needed, cheaply and quickly. (I buy used books whenever I can.)
  • Google Books is the second biggest boon to researchers, ever. I was able to track down quotes there, figure out which book I needed, and then order the book. (Sometimes Google Books even provided the page number, and I didn’t have to order the book. Please don’t tell anyone I did that!)
  • There was another miracle: in 2012 the Oxford University Press published a scholarly book about the making of My Fair Lady. What a gold mine of information! (Without Amazon I might not have known about it.)
  • I usually listen to Pandora while I’m working. Time and again, while I was writing about a song from the show (“I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”), it would start playing on my computer.
  • Again and again Charlie spotted a coffee cup on the table where I was working, quietly picked it up, and warmed my coffee for me. (Today is our 45th anniversary.)
  • I write at a table in our living-dining room because I refuse to work at a desk. I hate desks and offices. They’re lonely (even though I’m an introvert), and sitting in that kind of setting feels too much like I’m working. (Well, that’s what I was doing – but I don’t want the reminder.)
  • There was another miracle: Last week Charlie recorded three TCM broadcasts of some Leonard Bernstein talks on the old Omnibus show. Guess what – one of them was about musical theater, and it was done right after My Fair Lady opened on Broadway. That broadcast gave me a broad perspective on musical theater that was a huge help with my paper.
  • I never used headings when I wrote papers in college and graduate school. (Listen – in college I wasn’t even allowed to use dashes!) Thank heaven for headings. You don’t have to make a transition every time you start a new paragraph. Just insert a heading and you can go off in a new direction.
  • Maybe it’s because I’m an experienced Shaw scholar, or because I’m older, or maybe I’m just braver than I used to be – but this is the first time I’ve dared to write a scholarly article that talks about me and my experiences. I even quoted myself – yikes!
  • I used a trick I’d learned from James Hillman’s books: find a seemingly unrelated detail and find a place for it. So – for example – Lerner and Loewe put a bust of Plato into Henry Higgins’s phonetics studio. I mentioned it in the section about Plato’s ideas about language.

Writing this paper about My Fair Lady was so exhilarating that I’ve gone back to working on my book about Pygmalion and Major Barbara. More about that project soon.

Poster for



Two Excerpts from the New York Times Book Review

A few days ago, last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (July 15, 2018) happened to come my way, and I copied two sentences to discuss in today’s post.

The first is from “The Urbane Bookworm,” James Wolcott’s review of Near-Death Experiences…and Others by Robert Gottlieb.

Gottlieb is an author and editor who has crammed more into his lifetime than most ordinary mortals could do in a century. One of Gottlieb’s pastimes is ballet, and – besides attending and reviewing performances for 70 years – he served on the board for the New York City Ballet.

Here’s the beginning of James Wolcott’s assessment of one of Gottlieb’s ballet reviews:

Heavy hangs the crown on choreographers, too, burdened by the romantic cliche of “the Anguish of the Tormented Artist,” as Gottlieb dubs it in his angry review of Boris Eifman’s biographical ballet “Musagete,” a Ken Russell-size vulgarization of the preeminent ballet genius of the 20th century, George Balanchine, which dishonored the stage of the New York City Ballet in 2004.

Sixty words crammed into one sentence. That, my friends, is bad writing. I don’t care how carefully you balance the clauses or how precisely you position the commas. There’s no excuse for forcing readers to battle their way through that much information before finally reaching the period and getting a chance to catch a breath.

On the facing page, Paul Begala wrote “A Pinch of C-Span and a Dash of ‘Sex and the City.'” Begala was reviewing From the Corner of the Oval, a memoir of a White House job by Beck Dorey-Stein. When Dorey-Stein was 26, she answered a Craigslist ad for a stenographer – and found herself working for President Obama. Here’s Begala’s description of what Dorey-Stein experienced on the job:

Advance teams and Secret Service agents arrive ahead of time, scouring travel routes and sweeping rooms for explosives. While the particulars are surreal (who travels with a surgical suite on their plane?), even the most unusual systems, in time, become routine.

Notice anything? I did – the much-despised singular they, right there in the New York Times Book Review (“who travels with a surgical suite on their plane?”). And I say – good for Paul Begala! The singular they has been part of the language since the 14th century. It’s much smoother and easier than the clumsy he-or-she construction we were all taught to use.

By the way, Begala’s two sentences add up to only 41 words. They’re readable and get the point across. This is good writing.

Everyday reading gives us many opportunities to think – and rethink – our ideas about good and bad writing. I’m always doing little assessments as I read, and it’s a practice I recommend to you.

The New York Times Book Review


Do’s and Don’ts for Apostrophes

Did today’s heading look odd to you? I put an apostrophe into do’s, which isn’t possessive. My reason is that apostrophes (contrary to what your teachers might have told you) are sometimes used for plurals: Mind your p’s and q’s. Your 4’s sometimes look like 9’s. I moved to Florida in the 1970’s. And you probably heard your mother say “If if’s and but’s were candy and nuts….” (Mine did!)

Suppose you wrote a note to a co-worker saying, “I have trouble reading your handwriting because sometimes you forget to dot your is.” You meant that your co-worker forgets the dot on the “i.” But it looks like you wrote the word is.

So you’d use an apostrophe, like this:

I have trouble reading your handwriting because sometimes you forget to dot your i’s.  CORRECT

Here are a few more examples:

I’m revising my essay because I used too many and’s. CORRECT

My computer keyboard sticks when I try to type 2’s and 9’s. CORRECT

Gail earned straight A’s in college. CORRECT

Is everybody clear that I’m NOT giving you permission to write Smith’s when you mean the whole Smith family? They’re the Smiths.

The Smiths sent us a postcard from Hawaii. CORRECT

Let’s go back to do’s and don’ts. There have been heated arguments about the apostrophe in do’s. If you’re trying to be consistent, you’ll also insert it into don’ts, and then you have this odd construction: do’s and don’t’s. But if you omit the apostrophe, the result is just as odd: dos and don’ts. How do you settle this?

The answer is that you do whatever works for you (or, if you’re writing professionally, whatever your organization’s style guide tells you to do). Rules are guidelines. They’re supposed to facilitate writing and reading, not get in the way. I like do’s and don’ts, and that’s what I use.

(I just did some research and learned that the Macmillan Dictionary uses the apostrophe in do’s, but the Oxford Manual of Style omits it.)

Earlier you might have noticed that I inserted an apostrophe into 1970’s (“I moved to Florida in the 1970’s”). That apostrophe is gradually disappearing – some style guides still use it, while others don’t.

I can hear someone out there moaning that the sky is falling, and there are no rules anymore, and….

Guess what: language rules have always been in flux. Do some research about punctuation rules from three or four centuries ago: you’ll probably have a coronary when you see how much they’ve changed! It’s like traffic laws. We need to know the rules that apply here and now. (In Florida you can make a right turn at a red light – but don’t try that in Manhattan!)

candy and nuts


Is Fishes Correct?

A friend and his son visited an aquarium recently and came home with a grammar question: Is fishes correct?

Answer: Sometimes.

Language is an amazingly efficient communication tool. Often a single well-chosen word can convey a wealth of information. Fishes is a good example, telling you that a person is talking about several species grouped together.

If you have a tank of goldfish, you would say, “I fed my fish this morning.” But if you have blue gouramis, blind cavefish, and zebra fish (as we once did), you would say, “I fed my fishes this morning.”

It’s the same with deer. My younger sister often sees white-tailed deer in the back yard of her rural Massachusetts home. But if she lived in, say, Montana, she might see both white-tailed deer and mule deer in her back yard. In that case (being my sister and therefore a person who takes usage seriously), she would say, “I saw several deers today.”

This usage explains why you sometimes hear or read the word peoples. When you’re grouping human beings together, they’re simply called people:

Many people in the United States worry about global warming.

But when you’re talking about several ethnic groups, use peoples:

Anthropologists study the peoples of the world.

King George VI used people this way in a famous remark he made during World War II. Someone in a cheering crowd called out to him, “Thank God for a good King.” His reply, “Thank God for a good people,” shows that he could have been an excellent English teacher as well as a very effective king. Good for him.

A portrait of King George VI

                                        King George VI



Yesterday I read a sentence – well, part of a sentence – that thrilled me. It’s from “We’re Having The Wrong Debate About Pronouns” by Ben Freeland:

It’s a linguistic shortcoming that blinkers our senses and truncates our spiritual epiphanies.

I love (that’s an understatement!) “blinkers our senses.” I can see those blinkers. (I’m less thrilled with “truncates our spiritual epiphanies” – I would have used shrivels.)

But when I showed the sentence to a friend, she sniffed and said one word: “verbing.” 

Ah, verbing. It means changing a noun (or another part of speech) into a verb. Blinkers are things. You can’t blinker – or so the argument goes. Many people positively froth when they encounter a word that has moved from one grammatical category to another.

Oops! I just did it myself. Froth is a thing. You can’t froth – or can you?

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

Whether you enjoy verbing or hate it, there’s no getting away from it. Yesterday I encountered another example: My friend Ellen Holder emailed me a question about a man who “white-knuckled” the steering wheel as he was driving. Again, I loved it – but I know many people who would have shuddered.

And I’m apt to shudder myself at some examples of verbing. Sometimes the language already has a perfectly good verb, and the newcomer sounds pompous. For example, I never use impact as a verb. “The news impacted the stock market” – yuk. I would say that the stock market rose or the stock market fell when it heard the news.

And I gripe when contact shows up in police reports. Did the officer visit the person? Phone? Text? Send an email? Tape a note to the door? In a criminal case, it’s important to be specific.

So how do we sort this all out? Some thoughts:

  • All languages change over time.
  • English lends itself to verbing because we have so few conjugations and declensions. It’s super-easy to move flower (a noun) into the verb category: You don’t have to add an ending.
  • Some expressions that seem fresh and new (“blinkers our senses”) have actually been around for a long time. I just looked up the history of blinkers. It was first used as a verb – hold on to your hat – in a book published in 1865.

Here’s the bottom line: some new words and usages work very well, while others are clumsy or vague. What’s really important is to know the difference

A horse with blinkers


There’s No There There

Describing Oakland, California, where she grew up, Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there there.” It’s a great quotation that I’d forgotten until my husband used it yesterday to describe a particularly unimpressive political candidate.

Today we’re talking about sentences that start with there (and its close relative here). Here are a couple of guidelines:

  • Think twice before starting a sentence with there is or there are (unless you’re Gertrude Stein!). Yes, you can start sentences this way. (I do it myself.) But do make sure that’s what you want to do. There is/there are don’t give your readers anything interesting to look at or think about. There’s no power there. (Oops!)
  • Learn the subject-verb agreement rule that governs there is/there are sentences. Here’s an easy way (oops again!) to make sure you get these sentences right: Switch them around in your head (sort of like adding a column of numbers from the bottom to the top to double-check your answer).

Let’s try a few of these.

  1. There’s two bills and a letter on the table for you.

Reverse it:  Two bills and a letter are there.

There are two bills and a letter on the table for you.

2, Here goes nothing.

Reverse it: Nothing goes here.

Here goes nothing.

3. There are two problems with this report.

Reverse it: Two problems are there.

There are two problems with this report.  CORRECT

4. There’s no reason to make errors with these sentences.

Reverse it: No reason is there.

 There’s no reason to make errors with these sentences. (For real!)  CORRECT

There’s no there there. CORRECT! Gertrude Stein certainly knew her subject-verb agreement rules, didn’t she?

Gertrude Stein


Helen Keller

I just came across a wonderful New Yorker article about Helen Keller, the deaf-and-blind humanitarian. Of course I stopped what I was doing to read it. I was sure there’d be nothing new for me in the article – I’ve been fascinated by Keller all my life, and I’ve read the major biographies – but I plunged in anyway.

Turns out I was wrong. What I learned from reading it is that Keller (who died in 1968) was a postmodernist.

Keller was an amazing woman – and a controversial one. She had a goody-goody image that belied the tough woman she really was. (One example: she was a tireless crusader for eyedrops to be routinely given to infants to prevent syphilis-related blindness.)

Keller was most famous as a writer. She had a huge audience that inevitably included a number of critics and doubters. Everything she wrote, the skeptics said, was derivative. Because she was blind and deaf, her life experience was too limited to have generated the vivid descriptions and provocative ideas that filled her books.

If you’re a student of philosophy, you can hear an echo of Plato’s Phaedrus – the old speech vs. writing argument – in the complaints of those critics. Writing is bad because it’s secondhand and derivative. Only what we experience firsthand, in the present moment, is real.

It’s extremely unlike that Keller ever read anything by James Hillman or Jacques Derrida, but she firmly aligned themselves with them. “The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction,” she said. For Keller, history was “but a mode of imagining, of making us see civilizations that no longer appear upon the earth.”

Cynthia Ozick, author of the Keller article, adds, “Are we more than the sum of our senses? Does a picture—whatever strikes the retina—engender thought, or does thought create the picture?” Ozick reminds us that much of her knowledge comes not from our senses but from collective memory, heritage, and literature.

You – reading this – aspire to write. What that means is that you yearn to fly (just as Keller did when she figured out how to experience a world she’d never seen or heard). Imagination is the lens through which we experience life. We need to resist the forces that want to tie us down to the concrete reality of the here-and-now.

Today – right now – take the time to fly for a minute or two. And when it’s time to return to Earth, keep your wings handy. You’ll need them the next time you sit down to write.

Helen Keller, age 8, with teacher Annie Sullivan

Helen Keller, age 8, with teacher Annie Sullivan