Category Archives: Writing Skills

“A Number” or “The Number”?

I hope you’re up for another round of challenging the rules of English!

LinkedIn (a social media platform for professionals) hosts many discussion groups about a variety of topics. Recently someone raised a provocative grammar question:  should we say “a large number of researchers is active” or “a large number of researchers are active”?

How would you answer that question?

More than 50 writing professionals embarked on a lively discussion. Some argued for “is,” on the grounds that “a large number” is singular. Others argued for “are,” reasoning that “researchers” is plural.

Everybody was wrong.

I – ahem – answered the question correctly. A few people agreed with  me – but most ignored my comments and went back to arguing about prepositional phrases and singular and plural verbs.

So…I ask you…how would you answer today’s question? And (to add to the fun) would your answer be the same if you changed “a number of researchers” to “the number of researchers”?

And while we’re at it…how can I be so sure I’m right and almost everyone else was wrong?

*  *  *  *  * 

 Here are two principles for writers to live by:

  1. Usage – not grammar – is the key to writing correct English. Language is a social tool. People (not grammarians) make the rules.
  2. If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve been unconsciously absorbing English usage since you were a tot. Whenever you’re up against a rule, run it past your language experience and common sense.

Let’s look at some sentence pairs. Choose the one that sounds best to you.

1:

A large number of people is going to the show.

The large number of people is going to surprise the planners.

2.

A large number of people are going to the show.

The large number of people is going to surprise the planners.

3.

A large number of people are going to the show.

The large number of people are going to surprise the planners.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

Which sentence pair did you choose – #1, #2, or #3?

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

I’m delaying my answer to make it harder for you to cheat by looking for the answer before you’ve thought about it. OK – here it comes: #2 is correct!

The usual rules of grammar don’t apply to “a number” and “the number.” The rule is that “a number” is plural and “the number” is singular.

Chances are #2 sounded best to you when you read the sentences – but then you started to doubt yourself. What about that prepositional phrase – “of people” – aren’t you supposed to skip over that? (Yes.) And “a number” and “the number” are both singular. You couldn’t possibly make one singular and one plural, could you? (Right again.)

Except that the rules don’t apply in those case. Common sense and experience will point you to the right answer.

But how can I be so sure? By playing my trump card. I went to my bookcase and pulled down Fowler’s Modern English Usage – the absolute authority on correct English. (If you don’t have a copy, your library has one. You can even call the reference librarian and save yourself a trip.)

According to Fowler, “a number” is plural, and “the number” is singular. Case closed!

When I posted my answer (the correct answer) on LinkedIn, I added a comment about the silliness of trying to reason your way to an answer about a sticky usage question. Check an authority!

Forty-seven people ignored that sensible (and professional) advice. Sigh. 

Fowler's Modern English Usage

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Many people think that verbal means “spoken.” Nope! It means “referring to words.” A written document is just as “verbal” as a spoken conversation. When you want to emphasize that someone was talking, use oral.

All five police dogs obeyed the officers’ oral commands perfectly.  CORRECT

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What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
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When Wrong Is Right

Scott Joplin is my favorite composer. A line from his opera Treemonisha has been running through my head lately: “Wrong is never right.”

Joplin is correct, of course – unless you’re talking about language. Wrong is right when it’s more clear or more natural – or when you simply like it better. 

Here’s an example from the introduction to a personal essay by my friend Jane Brumbaugh:

Mary Ann, a music teacher, was a friend of mine. She invited me and a few other women to her living room to discuss forming a group to work toward passing the Equal Rights Amendment.

Someone in our writing group suggested that it would be better to put “me” second, like this:

“She invited a few other women and me…”

Check! Most of the time you’re supposed to put “me” after “women.” (Similarly, “Paul and I” sounds much better than “I and Paul.”) 

But I voted for putting me first in Jane’s piece. Doing it that way builds an oh-so-subtle bridge between the first sentence and the second one. Another advantage is that writing the sentence this way helps personalize Jane’s piece.

Mary Ann, a music teacher, was a friend of mine. She invited me and a few other women to her living room….

Ready for another one? Here’s a sentence I wrote myself based on a nono in Theodore Bernstein’s wonderful book Watch Your Language. Bernstein would give this sentence a thumbs-down. Even though I’m a great admirer of his, I would leave the sentence the way it is. (And to make things more interesting, I sneaked in another problem! Can you find it?)

The trio was honored for the performance they had given in March.

Give up? Trio is singular, and they is plural, so there’s an agreement error. (The sentence should be worded this way: “The trio was honored for the performance it had given in March.”)

I like my version better (sorry, Mr. Bernstein!) because it humanizes the singers. They is a better choice than it, even though a strict grammarian might slap my wrist with a ruler.

It’s true you could avoid the problem altogether by writing the sentence this way:

The trio was honored for the performance in March.

But I like “they had given” because now I can see – for just a moment – that trio performing on stage.

Let’s go on to the second problem – passive voice. I’ve known some self-proclaimed experts who say that passive voice (“the trio was honored”) is always wrong. Here’s how they’d want me to write the sentence:

The Arts Council honored the trio for the performance it had given in March.

Word processors tend to agree, and they always put an angry red line under passive-voice constructions.

So why did I decide to stick with passive voice? Because my version puts the trio in the position of importance, right at the beginning of the sentence. I don’t even want to mention the Arts Council. I want all the focus to go on the trio – and passive voice does the job for me very nicely.

Let’s challenge one more rule. Last month I did a post about Strunk and White’s admonition to “Omit needless words” in their classic book The Elements of Style. I suggested that sometimes those apparently needless words can enhance a sentence. Along the way I quoted an excerpt from Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind.

Enter Darrell Turner, a regular visitor to my blog who often leaves thoughtful and intelligent comments for me. He noticed something I had missed in that excerpt from Gone with the Wind: Mitchell’s unnecessary words. Here’s Darrell’s list:

“expectantly” in “expectantly upon him”

“long” in “long harangue”

“always” in “country funerals were always long”

“loved” in “loved friend”

What a great comment! I hadn’t noticed the redundancies. What’s even better is that Darrell’s comment got me thinking. If I had been Mitchell’s editor, would I have omitted those unnecessary words?

Umm…maybe. Editors need to be wary of making changes for a writer as strong as Mitchell was. And there’s always the question of whether those seemingly unnecessary words add something to the book. On the other hand, Gone with the Wind is a huge novel. Surely some cuts would be helpful, especially for readers who might not want to tackle such a weighty book.

So – here goes. I would have cut “expectantly” and “always” on the grounds that they don’t evoke any of the five senses. I would have kept “long” and “loved,” which are more tangible words.

What would you have done?

That last question is more important than anything else I’ve told you today. If you find yourself scratching your head when you’re working on a piece – wondering if there’s a better way to word a sentence, or trying to decide if the word you’ve chosen is the right one for the job – congratulations! You have entered the realm of real-world writers.

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Subjunctives

You rarely hear complaints about people who overdo grammar. It’s much more common for people to be careless with subject-verb agreement, diction, pronoun case, and similar issues.

But I occasionally hear people using the subjunctive mood (that’s the grammatical term) when it’s not necessary. The word to watch for is if, and the question is whether to use was or were. (I’ve known people who use were all the time, just as I’ve known people who always use whom. Not a good solution!)

If your radio were tuned to NPR this morning at about 7:15, you heard an excellent report about Brexit.  INCORRECT

If I were a British citizen, I’d already be feeling the effects of Brexit.  CORRECT

Here’s what you need to know. The subjunctive (if I were) is only for situations that don’t exist. If something is (or was) possible, use was with if.

So…your radio really could have been tuned to NPR this morning. Use was:

If your radio was tuned to NPR this morning at about 7:15, you heard an excellent report about Brexit.  CORRECT

Here are two more examples. In the first sentence, Joan really could have been in Florida during the hurricane: use was. In the second sentence, Joan isn’t going to stop being busy, so you should use were.

If Joan was in Florida last month, she experienced the full force of Hurricane Irma. CORRECT

If Joan weren’t so busy, I’d ask her to chair the committee.  CORRECT

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Ten Tips for Successful Essays

Take it from an English professor with 30 years of experience: these tips work. (Many of them are also helpful for professional writing!)

Ten Tips for Successful Essays

  1. Before you start writing, review the directions from your instructor.
  2. Start working on your essay well before the due date.
  3. Freewrite to generate ideas before you begin drafting.
  4. Plan your essay carefully.
  5. Select a keyword that’s central to the point you’re making.
  6. Build your thesis (main point) around the keyword you selected.
  7. Take advantage of your instructor’s email, office phone, or office hours when you need help.
  8. Use your computer’s spellchecker and grammar checker.
  9. Use the free tutoring and other services offered by your school or college.
  10. Before submitting your essay, ask a friend or family member to read it and give you feedback.

Videos, PowerPoints, and other aids for writing effective essays are posted free at www.PlanMyPaper.com.

 

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Words to Avoid

I’ve been watching figure skating on TV since high school. Years ago, Dick Button (my favorite commentator) started a competition broadcast with a dramatic announcement: figure skating rules had changed. The new rules encompassed every aspect of competition: skating elements, scoring, music, and costumes.

Button mentioned the changes again and again that weekend: “We’re going to see something different now!”

But here’s the thing. I never found out what those changes were or what they meant. Were restrictions eased, or did the rules tighten? What was their purpose? To challenge the skaters more – or to add pizzazz to the competitions (which were big moneymakers on TV)? Most important, what did Button think of those changes – were they good or bad for the future of figure skating?

I never found out. Not once in that competition did Button explain what the changes were. (This was – of course – decades before the Internet, so I couldn’t just Google “figure skating rules” to get the answers to my questions.)

That frustrating weekend can be laid at the door of two bad habits that beset writers as well as sports announcers:

  1. Forgetting to put yourself into your viewers’ (or readers’) shoes.
  2. Using words that confuse rather than clarify.

Today I’m going to deal with the second point. Here are some words to put on your Do Not Use list:

change  alter  modify  revise  different

The problem is that these words are vague. Instead of change, alter, modify, and revise, consider these words: reform, improve, worsen, damage, help, enrich, enhance, harm, fix. For different, substitute better, worse, finer, superior, inferior, stricter, looser…you get the idea.

If you’re not finding the word you want, try a comparative word or phrase: stronger, happier, sadder, more clear, more miserable, and so on.

This is also a good opportunity to reinforce the first point: don’t forget about your readers. Put aside your excitement about what you know and try to think about what your readers don’t know. Trust me – they will thank you for it.

                        Dorothy Hamill

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Butterfly McQueen

I can’t resist adding one more story to my two recent posts about Gone with the Wind.

Back in the early 70s, when I was living in New York City, I did all my banking at a savings-and-loan in Times Square.

One day while I was making a deposit, a middle-aged black woman on another line handed the teller two dollars and asked for a roll of nickels. There was no mistaking that voice! It was Prissy (“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no baby”) – the actress Butterfly McQueen from Gone with the Wind.

Everyone in that lobby (including me) let out a gasp…and then there was pandemonium. Bank business halted as tellers and customers rushed to shake “Prissy’s” hand.  Someone fetched the manager, who came down from his office and solemnly handed “Prissy” her roll of nickels. (I am not making this up.)

So much for blasé New Yorkers.

 *  *  *  *  *

One afternoon a few months later, I was riding the M104 bus back to my apartment on the Upper West Side – and there she was, wearing a coat with mismatched buttons, listening to the Mets game on a transistor radio.

I wanted to talk to her – but then I thought of the chaos that was sure to follow. (Imagine triggering that reaction every time you opened your mouth to speak!)

I got off at my bus stop a few minutes later, leaving Butterfly McQueen – Prissy – to listen to the Mets game in peace.

Click here to see a youthful Butterfly McQueen in a scene from Gone with the Wind.

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Intelligent and Interesting

How do you get to “intelligent and interesting” without sacrificing readability? It’s a problem that besets every writer.

Today I’m going to use an incident from Kathryn Hulme’s novel The Nun’s Story to show you a useful strategy. Two missionary nuns – Sister Augustine and Sister Luke – are traveling on an ocean liner bound for Africa.

Although the nuns aren’t usually permitted to drink wine, the convent has lifted that prohibition for the cruise so that the two nuns won’t seem different from the other passengers. Hulme describes a dinner during the voyage:

[Sister Augustine] picked up her wine glass and turned it slowly. She smiled back at her companion as though saying, “It’s a good wine. We are blessed with the dispensation to drink of it freely on shipboard so as not to singularize ourselves in the eyes of passengers by drinking water.”

They ate in silence as always, anticipating each other’s needs for salt, more bread, a bit of horse-radish, passing these back and forth with practiced grace and little nods which occasionally caught the eyes of diners at nearby tables and made them stare musingly at the two white sisters who seemed able to read each other’s thoughts.

I first read The Nun’s Story as a teenager. Back then I was completely caught up in the story, and I’m sure I missed the deeper meaning of that dinner on the ocean liner: the superiors at the convent never thought about lifting the rule against talking during meals. The result is that the nuns are “singularized” even though they’re drinking wine like everyone else.

Old-fashioned convents were odd institutions. It would be easy for a writer to portray nuns as ogreish women who have lost their humanity. But Hulme’s novel never does that. Instead she shows us – again and again – how convent traditions got in the way of the purpose they were created for: helping nuns attain ever-higher levels of spirituality. I would certainly place The Nun’s Story in the “intelligent and interesting” category.

* * * * *

In my most recent post, I talked about the positive spin on slavery in Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the WindCould she have written her novel differently – without turning it into a treatise on social justice?

I think the answer is yes. Mitchell could have done what Hulme did – offer readers small details that gradually build a case against slavery. For example, Gone with the Wind could have used a  slave funeral to show us – without commentary – some of the indignities of slavery:

  • the white slaveowner conducted the service
  • he was in a hurry
  • the slaves stood a respectful distance behind him
  • the slaveowner walked past the slave’s widow without acknowledging her
  • in a casual conversation later, the slaveowner speculated how much it would cost to replace the deceased slave

A brilliant novelist like Margaret Mitchell could probably have come up with much better ideas than I just did! But I hope I’ve made my point: understated, pointed details can build a powerful case without disrupting the story to explain why slavery was wrong.

The same principles apply to a memoir, a business report – almost anything that a thoughtful person might sit down to write. If you’re an ambitious writer who’s trying to take your writing to the next level, here’s a suggestion for you: keep a journal where you record details of your everyday life. Start looking for the meanings attached to everyday actions.

I’ll get you started with one of my own: After I moved into my own apartment, I came home on many Sundays to eat dinner with my family. My mother used to make oven-roasted potatoes because my father liked them – and mashed potatoes for me. If I were writing a memoir, I would be sure to put two plates of potatoes on the dining-room table.

 
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“Omit Needless Words” – But Not Always

I was in high school when I read Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style for the first time. I was particularly impressed by their famous command to “omit needless words.” For many years – nay, for decades – I relentlessly hunted down unnecessary words and mercilessly deleted them.

Oops! Make that: hunted down unnecessary words. (“Down” is an unnecessary word.)

In recent years my thinking has changed. I’ve started to realize that repetition and wordiness are built into our language and sometimes serve a useful purpose.

Here’s something you instinctively know but may not be aware of: when it comes to language, longer often sounds better. Many writers unconsciously look for ways to lengthen words.

For example, I’ve noticed that more and more people are saying “first dibs” instead of just “dibs,” which has the same meaning. (There’s no such thing as “second dibs,” right?) Most sometimes becomes utmost. We can even use words to make small things smaller: drop becomes a droplet, and the hint becomes the merest hint.

And did you notice that I wrote “more and more people” in the previous paragraph?

While I was planning today’s post, I remembered an incident in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind that illustrates our preference for wordiness. Family and friends have gathered to bury Gerald O’Hara, owner of the Tara plantation and father of Scarlett, the novel’s central character.

Because no Catholic priest is available, neighbor (and Scarlett’s secret heartthrob) Ashley Wilkes conducts the graveside service. He comes to the end of the burial prayers and realizes there’s a problem: the Catholic service is too short.

The eyes of the neighbors were expectantly upon him as they settled themselves in easier positions for a long harangue. They were waiting for him to go on with the service, for it did not occur to any of them that he was at the end of the Catholic prayers. County funerals were always long….The neighbors would have been shocked, aggrieved and indignant, had these brief prayers been all the service over the body of their loved friend, and no one knew this better than Ashley.

Ashley’s solution is to improvise a longer service. He’s familiar with the more wordy Episcopal burial prayers because they are used for slave funerals. No one notices what’s going on except Scarlett’s sister Carreen, a devout Catholic who feels betrayed by what Ashley is doing.

I’ll have more to say about Gone with the Wind in my next post. Right now I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about this issue of unnecessary words. Take a look at this sentence:

Joe rides his bike back and forth to school every day.

If you think there’s no redundancy in this sentence, think again. How many times are we told that there’s one person? Three: Joe, rides, and his. And we’re told twice that Joe is male (his masculine name and the pronoun his).

Telephone companies have done extensive research into the inner workings of our language. It makes sense when you think about it: There’s a fine distinction between good-enough technology (a sound business philosophy) and unnecessarily superior technology (bad for the bottom line).

What the phone research showed (reinforced by our own daily experience) is that we can accurately receive a message even if there’s static on the line and a lot of background noise. There’s so much redundancy in our language that we can miss some semantic units and still figure out the gist of what’s being said.

In my own writing, I sometimes allow an unnecessary word to slip into a sentence (sorry, Strunk and White!). For example:

Betsy fell down and cried.

Cheryl’s loud shrieks alarmed the neighbors.

He pressed the foot pedal again, but nothing happened.

The tree fell to the ground with a loud crash.

An editor might argue for deleting the italicized words because they’re not necessary. (I suspect that newspapers are especially wary of unnecessary words because paper is so costly.) I – on the other hand – would be tempted to let the italicized words stand because they reinforce the meaning of the sentence. And here’s something else to think about: words like down, loud, foot, and ground are about the five senses. They give us something to see or hear – more reinforcement.

Bottom line: Strunk and White notwithstanding, I sometimes allow an unnecessary word or two to remain in a sentence. So…how do you decide which words to keep and which to delete? I like to walk away from a finished piece and go back to it the following morning. Reading what I’ve written with fresh eyes allows me to make thoughtful editing decisions. It’s a practice I heartily recommend.

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Sequence of Tenses

Today’s topic is sequence of tenses. That’s a fancy name for rules governing verbs – such as when you use past tense (went, liked, saw) and when you use past-perfect tense (had gone, had liked, had seen).

In conversation, you’re probably not going to pay much attention to the rules I’ll be reviewing. (At least I don’t.) Sequence of tenses starts to become important when you want to showcase your skill and precision for a professional writing task.

Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception: You should use the same tense for all the verbs in a sentence. No, no, no. It’s perfectly ok to mix verb tenses.

Take a look at these examples. (All are correct.)

My doctor told me that headaches are a possible side effect of the medication. (told is past, are is present)  CORRECT

The meteorologist said the storm will be over by 8:30. (said is past, will be is future)  CORRECT

Joe recommended taking Central Boulevard because it tends to be quiet this time of day.  (recommended is past, tends is present)  CORRECT

We spent some time discussing store hours for Christmas Eve, which falls on Sunday this year.  (spent is past, falls is present)  CORRECT

If you’re looking for a rule, here it is: trust your common sense. Take a look at this sentence, which needs two past-tense verbs:

Theodore Roosevelt declared that he would not run for a second term.  CORRECT

Let’s go on to past-perfect. In general, past-perfect is needed when two events happened at different times in the past. Use the past participle and had in front of the event that happened first. Most past participles will end with –ed, but a few verbs have special forms: gone, seen, done, and so on.

Although Karen had invited me to stay with her, I booked a hotel room instead.  CORRECT

I returned the DVD when I realized I had seen the movie with Jeff.  CORRECT

There’s an exception. When the sentence includes a time marker (last week, yesterday, in 1902), you don’t need to bother with a past-perfect verb.

After Joan told me about Grisham’s latest novel last week, I reserved it at the library.  CORRECT

Does it seem like there’s a lot to remember? It’s really not as much as you might think. If you review the rules a couple of time and practice writing a few sentences, you’ll quickly master sequence of tenses.

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