Category Archives: Writing Skills

Don’t Express It!

Instant Quiz 

Can you find the mistake in the sentence below?

We’re serving vanilla ice cream topped with chopped walnuts and carmel.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Here’s a ghastly sentence I came across recently:

Another dance friend who has not taken lessons in a number of years due to a move expressed this situation with Naomi to be a wake up call for her.

I am not going to say that this mess was created by a terrible writer. I often write sentences almost this bad myself! But here’s the thing. I never let anyone else see them. I fix them.

Here’s my version:

Another dance friend stopped taking lessons when she moved several years ago. Now she’s back on the dance floor. “What happened to Naomi was a wake up call,” she said.

Please, please: express is not a synonym for said or told. You express a feeling. You don’t express a problem with your boss or an insight into your son’s behavior.

And let me throw in a bonus point for you: often the best way to fix a messy sentence is to rewrite it as two or three sentences. That trick worked well today, didn’t it?

A chalkboard that asks if I'm doing this right.

______________________________________________________

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Don’t confuse Carmel (a city in California or a Carmelite monastery) with caramel (a delicious confection).

We’re serving vanilla ice cream topped with chopped walnuts and caramel.  CORRECT


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

Share

New York’s Subways

Short Pencil Point Deviant Art okInstant Quiz 

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

Safety is our principle concern as we implement the new policy.

________________________________________________________________________________________

Let’s spend a couple of minutes celebrating good writing.

A friend saves her old copies of the New York Times Magazine and Book Review for me so that I can lug them home and read them at my leisure. They’re always good reading, and sometimes an article crosses the line into the spectacular category.

That brings us to “The Case for the Subway” by Jonathan Mahler in the January 7, 2018 issue. The research in the article is astounding. Mahler covered facts and issues that I would never have thought of – and then organized them into a supremely readable article.

Take a look at this paragraph. This, my friends, is what you and I should be aiming to achieve in our own writing endeavors: 

Today, New York’s subway carries close to six million people every day, more than twice the entire population of Chicago. The subway may no longer be a technological marvel, but it continues to perform a daily magic trick: It brings people together, but it also spreads people out. It is this paradox — these constant expansions and contractions, like a beating heart — that keep the human capital flowing and the city growing. New York’s subway has no zones and no hours of operation. It connects rich and poor neighborhoods alike. The subway has never been segregated. It is always open, and the fare is always the same no matter how far you need to go. In New York, movement — anywhere, anytime — is a right.

Mahler’s writing is alive. We see a beating heart and a magic trick. The teeming population of New York comes together and spreads apart. And then we come to the the exquisite closing sentence: “In New York, movement — anywhere, anytime — is a right.”

 Did you notice that there’s not a single French or Latin word in that last sentence? It’s all English. Mahler is describing a “technological marvel,” but there’s a refreshing absence of jargon.

I hope you’re inspired. I know I am.

N

______________________________________________________

Instant Quiz ANSWER

The word needed in today’s sentence is principal. Here’s a trick that can help: when you mean rule, spell principle with an –le at the end. rule  principle

The rest of the time it should end in pal: principal – and that’s how we need to spell it in today’s sentence:

Safety is our principal concern as we implement the new policy.  CORRECT


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed

“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

Share

Jet Blue

Jet Blue is always my first choice when I fly. It’s not just the low fares, the TV at every seat, and the unlimited snacks: it’s the memories I have of Jet Blue employees going out of their way to be helpful.

So I was delighted when I read a recent newspaper article about Jet Blue’s plans to start flying from New York to London in 2021. Fist pump!

But the editor in my soul was not happy with this sentence from Savanthi Syth, a Raymond James Financial analyst:

“We believe Jet Blue’s entrance into the trans-Atlantic could be an overhang on investor sentiment.”

Gack. What on earth does that mean? I even looked up overhang, to no avail.

The first requirement for writers is to be understood. Savanthi Syth should know better. But I’m also blaming Mary Schlangenstein, who wrote the article for Bloomberg. She should have asked Syth to restate her point more clearly.

A Jet Blue plane in the sky

Share

Dangling Modifiers

What do you think of this sentence?

Although it’s just eight inches tall, baby rubber plant’s stems can creep sideways up to two feet.

If you noticed that it’s a dangling modifier, you’re an exceptionally good editor. Yes, baby rubber plant is just eight inches tall. But the real subject of the sentence is baby rubber plant’s stems.

Here’s the correct version:

Although baby rubber plant is just eight inches tall, its stems can creep sideways up to two feet. CORRECT

Here are two more dangling modifiers:

Driving home from work, the radio had an interesting report about Venezuela. (The radio can’t drive!)

Better: While I was driving home from work, the radio had an interesting report about Venezuela.

We saw the Eiffel Tower flying from London to Paris.  (The Eiffel Tower can’t fly!)

Better: We saw the Eiffel Tower while we were flying from London to Paris.

A caveat: Sometimes when you try to fix a dangling modifier, you end up with a hopelessly awkward sentence. Always make sure the cure isn’t worse than the original ailment!

sticky notes that say "right" or "wrong"

Share

Newborn Kittens

My husband and I used to do a lot of animal rescue work. We especially enjoyed raising motherless kittens. So I was happy to read a newspaper story about a local animal shelter that received a generous donation of incubators and other medical equipment. According to the story, “These devices will be used to take care of the hundreds of orphaned neonates – kittens without mothers to care for them.”

But my writer’s eye was not happy with that last sentence. There’s no reason to use neonates! If you were writing something instructional and needed to introduce and define the new word neonate, the sentence would be fine. I use this strategy all the time when I introduce a new term in my academic writing.

But why use neonates in a newspaper article? (Another problem is that the sentence makes it sound like neonates are always kittens and always motherless. No, they’re not. Any newborn mammal is a neonate.)

Your first goal as a writer is to connect with your readers. Never use an unusual word when an ordinary one will do. If you’re writing about a complicated medical procedure, of course you’re going to need anatomical terms that the average reader won’t know. But there’s no need to describe adorable kittens as neonates.

To put it another way: we need to get over the notion that Latin words (neonate) are better than English ones (newborn).

four kittens

Share

It’s a Crime, But It’s Not a Run-On

Many English instructors (including me!) consider run-on sentences a capital offense. In my view, serious writers are supposed to be able to identify a sentence and end it with a period or a semicolon.

But there’s a lot of confusion about what a run-on sentence is. If you encounter a very long sentence, does that qualify as a run-on? I’ve had students randomly stick a period into the middle of a sentence on the grounds that a) it’s very long, b) it obviously needs a period somewhere. Nope!

So let’s clear this up. A very long sentence is…a very long sentence. It’s not a run-on and it’s not wrong, at least as far as grammar is concerned.

But cramming a bunch of facts into one endless sentence is not good writing. Below is an example from a recent newspaper articleIn October 2018, Jake Patterson kidnapped 13-year-old Jayme Closs. She managed to escape three months later. Here’s the sentence:

Patterson pleaded guilty Wednesday to kidnapping 13-year-old Jayme Closs and killing her parents, in a move that spares the girl held in a remote cabin for three months from the possible trauma of having to testify at his trial.

Whew. There are five important pieces of information here:

  • Patterson pleaded guilty to kidnapping on Wednesday
  • His victim was a thirteen-year-old girl
  • He also killed her parents
  • She was held in a remote cabin for three months
  • The guilty plea will spare her the possible trauma of having to testify at his trial

It’s not a run-on, and you can’t fix it with a period. Start over, and write several sentences instead of one.

Here’s a rule for you: one fact or idea per sentence, please. Your writing will be more readable that way. And there’s a bonus: your writing will be more emphatic. A fact or idea has more impact when in its own sentence.

Kidnapping victim Jayme Close and her captor, Jake Patterson

Share

Expert Writing Advice

I just read a terrific article about writing – “See for Yourself” by Lewis H. Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine. It’s from the February/March 2019 issue of AARP Magazine. https://www.aarp.org/entertainment/books/info-2019/lewis-lapham-memoir.html

It’s a short article with some great advice. Here’s one example: “Go easy on the adjectives; handle adverbs with caution….To say that Beethoven’s music moves beautifully doesn’t distinguish it from a stock market swindle or a skirt.” Recommended reading!

Compass with needle pointing the word expert,

Share

An Editor at Work: Stephen King

I’ve become a big fan of Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature. You can read a significant chunk of many books absolutely free right on your computer screen.

“Look Inside” is intended to encourage browsers to buy books, but it’s also useful to writers. Instead of going to the library to browse through, say, 20 or 30 novels to see how a professional writes the first page, you can do the same thing at home. (Another great resource is www.Bartleby.com, which allows you to read the entire text of classic books online, absolutely free.)

Author Marilyn Durham used this strategy when she was writing her successful novel The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. How do the pros handle transitions from one chapter to another? How are new characters introduced? What does good dialogue sound like? Examining published works at the library helped her answer all these questions.

Today I want to point you to a “Look Inside” feature that can help you learn about editing. Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft lets you compare an original piece he wrote with the edited version. Annotations explain the reasons for each change. It’s fun to read – and enlightening! Click here to read it. (If you own the actual book, this section starts on page 277).

Successful writers are always developing their craftsmanship. We’re fortunate to have the Internet right at our fingertips, offering us endless resources to help us achieve our writing goals.

Share

Sometimes Things Occur!

Do you ever listen to Fresh Air on NPR? It’s a terrific radio show. On February 5 Terry Gross interviewed Benjamin Dreyer, author of a wonderful new book about writing: Random House Copy Chief: Stand Tall, Wordsmiths! (But Choose Your Battles). You can listen to the interview and read a transcript at this link: https://n.pr/2RIgvj8.

During the interview, Dreyer warned writers about passive voice. It’s not always a bad thing, of course. But Dreyer said that often it’s “weaselly,” and he gave a fine example: “Mistakes were made.” Nobody is named. Nobody has to feel guilty. It’s as if the mistake happened all by itself.

Terry Gross chimed in with her own example of “weaselly” language. She noted that many pharmaceutical companies list side effects as if they happened all by themselves:

So it’s like nausea, diarrhea, headache, broken bones, heart attack, difficult breathing and sudden death may occur. So, like, there’s no person responsible for this. There’s no drug being cited that’s responsible for this….And it gets the pharmaceutical company kind of off the hook….We’re just saying, like, hey. This might happen. Who knows why?

Bravo, Terry! But I need to point out that “sudden death may occur” is not passive voice. It just feels like passive voice.

Passive voice sentences put the subject (doer) at the end – or they completely omit the doer:

The ball was thrown by Jerry.  PASSIVE

The ball was thrown.  PASSIVE

What I want to talk about today is the word occur. It is a weak word that suggests that something sort of happened. There’s hardly ever a good reason to use occur when you’re writing. Usually you can substitute happen, and your sentence will sound better.

Note, though, that I said usually. Professional writers scoff at pronouncements that you should never use this word or that construction. What they do instead is stop, reread the sentence, and see whether the rule makes sense in that particular situation.

English is a stubborn language. Sometimes you’re better off making a mistake and sticking out your tongue at the rule.

Back to occur. In 1962 the Avon company – in what has to be one of the stupidest marketing decisions ever made – named a new perfume Occur!

Gack. I think they should have been able to feel how weak that name was. If you doubt me, consider this. Suppose you were thinking about a perfume to buy for yourself or someone special. There were little sample bottles on a shelf – one labeled Occur! and another labeled Passion. Which one would you sample first?

My purpose today is not to teach you how to buy or market perfume. I want to encourage you to think about two principles:

  1. Words matter. A lot.
  2. It’s not just about the meanings of words. You also need to think about their sounds.

Occur! didn’t last long at Avon. Gee, I wonder why…..

Share

Jean Cleans Out a Folder

The folder where I store ideas about writing is starting to fill up! Here are some recent items:

1.  We often hear that complaints that language skills are deteriorating. I just came across some evidence that writing mistakes are nothing new. On September 5, 1819, poet John Keats sent a letter with a “should of” mistake. (“Should have” is the correct verb.)

“Had I known of your illness I should not of written in such sorry phrase in my first letter.”

What’s interesting is that elsewhere in the letter, Keats used “should have” correctly. So what happened? He made a careless mistake. That is not a sign that the sky is falling!

(I found the John Keats letter in Making Sense, a wonderful book about writing by David Crystal.)

2. Here’s a problematic sentence that Crystal talks about in his book. Can you figure out what’s wrong?

He had a large collection of illustrated magazines and books.

The grammar is fine, but the sentence is confusing. It could mean that the books are illustrated too – or maybe they’re not. Here’s a better version:

He had a large collection of books and illustrated magazines.

3.  Speaking of confusing sentences, here’s one I found on Quora:

Why are shop owners careless to leave the cash register unattended?

The sentence could have two meanings. That’s always bad when you’re trying to communicate with your readers. Here are two suggested rewrites:

Why do we think that shop owners are careless when they leave the cash register unattended?

Why do careless shop owners leave the cash register unattended?

4. If you read my blog often, you know that I despise the word respective. It’s empty and pompous, and you shouldn’t use it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Here’s a gack-worthy sentence from the New Yorker – which is usually meticulous about editing:

In their respective starring roles, Aidy Bryant and Pamela Adlon play messy, interesting characters who refuse to make nice.

Get rid of respective, and the sentence is fine. And that deletion doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

5. Good writers try to make most sentences active. That’s easy to say, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to apply that principle! Here’s an example (again, from David Crystal’s Making Sense):

The opportunities for advancement were an important factor in my decision to take the job.

“The opportunities were” is too static. Here’s a more lively version:

I took the job because it offered opportunities for advancement.

Share