Category Archives: Writing Skills

Let’s Edit a Sentence

Instant Quiz

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

Grace has been pouring over that book ever since the librarian found it for her.

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I love to think – and talk – about sentences. Writers quite naturally want to talk about big concepts: unity, coherence, emphasis, and the like. I prefer to get up-close-and-personal with a sentence. I think that’s where great writing happens.

Let’s edit a sentence today:

Protein, as well as vitamins A and C, abounds.

It’s correct. But I don’t like it. I think readers are going to stumble when they come to abounds. Shouldn’t it be abound?

Nope. The sentence is saying that protein…abounds.

“As well as vitamins A and C” is extra. You drop your voice. Those vitamins don’t really count. (Read the sentence aloud – you’ll hear that it’s really about protein.)

I have a rule (okay, I made it up) that if a sentence sounds odd, you should change it. So here’s my version:

Protein and vitamins A and C abound.  CORRECT

Elegant and easy! (Isn’t that what we’re aiming for when we write?)

It’s always a good idea to take an extra minute or two to edit a sentence. Those small changes add up!

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse pour and pore. Grace has been poring over her book:

She’s been poring over that book ever since the librarian found it for her.  CORRECT


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
“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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An Interesting Sentence!

A friend just sent me a link to a wonderful article about self-publishing: “The Authors Who Love Amazon” by Alana Semuel in The Atlantic, July 20, 2018. (You can read it at this link: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/07/amazon-kindle-unlimited-self-publishing/565664/.)

I love self-publishing. It’s wonderful if you do it right! I always tell writers to use a free platform – Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, or both. Do not pay anyone to publish your book! You can find lots of resources for self-publishing at this link.

But what I really wanted to talk about today was this sentence in the Atlantic article:

Omer is one of a growing number of authors who have found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.  CORRECT

I’m reeling. Hardly anyone gets one of these sentences right – but there it is! Most people would have written it like this: 

Omer is one of a growing number of authors who has found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.

I insist that it should be have found. How do I know I’m right? Compare these sentences:

Omer is an author who has found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.  (one author)

Omer is one of a growing number of authors who have found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.  (a group of authors)

The first sentence is about an author who has found Amazon to his liking.

The second sentence is about a group of authors who have found Amazon to their liking:

Omer is one of a growing number of authors who have found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.  CORRECT

Three cheers for the Atlantic and its editorial team!

 

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Oops! Did I Really Write That?

Every fall my husband arranges for a crew to remove inflorescences and dead leaves from the palm trees at our building. Here’s a notice I posted for residents this morning:

About an hour later I realized that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. Did you spot it?

It is one of the trickiest words in the English language. The mistake I made is called an “indefinite pronoun reference.” In plain English, it was pointing to the wrong word. We were asking residents to move their parking spaces, not their cars. Or maybe we wanted them to move their palm trees! (My thanks to Joy Smith for pointing that out.)

Here’s the revised sentence:

If your parking space is near a palm tree, please move your car to visitor parking or Pope Avenue Tuesday morning.  CORRECT

Much better!

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Yes, You Can Start a Sentence with “But”!

Last week Ann Levin reviewed a novel called Red Bone for the Associated Press. You can read her review here: https://apnews.com/9f6ff3dccd604349b30b58157dfde523.

I immediately sent a response to my local newspaper, which printed Levin’s review. She made a serious error in her first paragraph:

Jacqueline Woodson begins her dazzling new novel, “Red at the Bone,” with an afterthought, in the middle of things, and breaking all the rules of grammar by starting with a “but”: “But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.”

Woodson didn’t break “all the rules of grammar.” She didn’t break even one rule of grammar. There’s no rule against starting a sentence with but – and never has been. AP articles frequently start sentences with but, and I’m astonished that Levin – an AP writer – doesn’t know this.

My letter appeared in yesterday’s newspaper. You can read it here: https://www.theledger.com/opinion/20190923/letter-but-you-can-start-sentences-with-but

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National Punctuation Day

It’s National Punctuation Day! Have fun! Celebrate!

Here are two websites to get you started:

www.NationalPunctuationDay.com (suggested by my friend Bev Lerner)

And just for fun: Victor Borge’s Phonetic Punctuation

Here’s a quick punctuation quiz. Read the five sentences below and correct any punctuation errors. When you’re finished, scroll down for the answers.

1.  We just got back from our trip to New York, it was a wonderful vacation.

2.  We spent a week there and visited: the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Bronx Zoo.

3.  Next year we’re thinking about visiting Washington D.C.; the nations capital and a fascinating place.

4.  Although, we might take the girls’ back to New York instead.

5.  A trip to Europe, if we can save enough money is our ultimate goal.

THE ANSWERS

Every item contains at least one punctuation mistake. Here are the corrected versions, along with explanations.

1.  We just got back from our trip to New York. It was a wonderful vacation. OR We just got back from our trip to New York; it was a wonderful vacation.  [Handy rule: “If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.”]

2.  We spent a week there and visited the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Bronx Zoo.  [No colon. Use a colon only if a sentence stops before a list. Incidentally, the Oxford comma after “Metropolitan Museum of Art” is optional. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong to use it or not use it.]

3.  Next year we’re thinking about visiting Washington D.C., the nation’s capital and a fascinating place.  [A semicolon is like a period. If a period won’t work, a semicolon won’t either. This is actually a Comma Rule 3 sentence. Nation’s capital = capital of the nation and requires an apostrophe.]

4.  Although, we might take the girls’ back to New York instead.  [Three things are seriously wrong here! First, never put a comma after although. Second, anything that starts with although is an extra idea and must be glued on to a real sentence. Third, girls don’t own anything in this sentence: No apostrophe. See below for suggestions about correcting this fragment.]

However, we might take the girls back to New York instead. OR

Next year we’re thinking about visiting Washington D.C., the nation’s capital and a fascinating place, although we might take the girls back to New York instead.

5.  A trip to Europe, if we can save enough money, is our ultimate goal.  [Another Comma Rule 3 sentence.]

How did you do?

Man propping up a comma

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Do You Need to Be Politically Correct?

Recently I’ve been talking with some writers who are worried about political correctness – the pressure we may be feeling to choose a polite word in a sensitive situation.

Here’s one question we’ve been talking about: “How can I get my message across if someone else is telling me which words to use?” Here’s another: “Are we putting our democracy in danger?” And one of my friends wondered whether it’s possible to talk openly about sensitive subjects when we’re also thinking about being politically correct.

Instead of trying to answer those questions, I shared some memories. When I was a teenager, I read two remarkable books written by a former patient at a leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana: Miracle at Carville and No One Must Ever Know. The author – “Betty Martin” (she never revealed her real name) – described the heartbreak and loneliness she felt after she was diagnosed with leprosy as a young woman.

Eventually she and her husband (a patient she fell in love with and married in Carville) were cured. But the fear of being labeled a leper was so great that she kept their secret until her death in 2002 at the age of 93.

Soon after I read both books, I watched a TV documentary about leprosy. The TV host interviewed a physician who specialized in Hansen’s Disease (as leprosy is now called).

It was obvious that physician was dedicated to helping his patients return to health. But he had one complaint: he resented the pressure he was under to use the name Hansen’s Disease. “We should keep calling it leprosy,” he said. “That’s the correct name.”

I wonder if he would have felt that way if he had been of those patients. What would it be like to have even your own doctor refer to you as a “leper”? How does that help? Or – to turn the question around – what would have happened if had switched to the term Hansen’s Disease? Would he have been a less effective doctor?

* * * * * 

I used to drive by a house every day that had a large sign posted by the local police department: “Deaf and dumb child lives here.” It was a warning to drivers that this child couldn’t hear a car approaching or a horn honking. Good idea.

But was “dumb” really necessary? Suppose that deaf child – let’s call her “Sally” – had a brother who rode the school bus. Every day he and his friends saw that sign from the bus window.

Would some of the other kids on the bus have made fun of Sally? How would her brother feel? Would he have felt obliged to defend her? Do we really want to put those two children – “Sally” and her brother – into that situation?

* * * * * 

Is our democracy stronger if we say that there are around 6500 lepers (rather than 6500 Hansen’s patients) in the US today? And should the feelings of those 6500 patients make a difference?

Is it useful to make sure that everyone knows that Sally is “dumb”? Would our society lose something important if the police had tried to be more sensitive to the feelings of a little girl and her family?

* * * * * 

I’m a woman of Polish-American descent. I do not tolerate being called a Polack, a broad, or a babe. If you were a professional writer, would those restrictions hamper you? If you met me in person, would you chafe because I insisted that you refer to me as Polish-American or as a woman?

No answers today, just questions.

politically correct

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Some Frequently Asked Questions – and Answers

Here are some FAQ’s about writing for you! These are frequently asked questions that show up in social media and my email account.

What are some big words that will impress my readers?

There aren’t any. Nobody is impressed if you say “Extinguish the illumination” when you mean “Turn out the lights.” You need to have something interesting to say – and to know how to say it in an engaging way. That’s how you impress readers.

Can I start a sentence with but?

Yes. All English-language professional writers start sentences with but – frequently. You’ve probably never read a book, newspaper, or magazine that doesn’t have sentences starting with but.
You can learn more here:  Can a Sentence Start with But?

How do I know when to use a semicolon?

There’s no right (or wrong) time to use a semicolon. You never need one. (Well, there’s an obscure rule about using semicolons when items in a list have commas.)
Use a semicolon when you want to show off. It’s easy!
Find two sentences that go together. (Most sentences will fill the bill.)

Change the period to a semicolon. Lower-case the next letter. You’re done.
Jane overslept this morning. She was late for school.
Jane overslept this morning; she was late for school.
We had to change the date for our meeting. Tuesday afternoon is good for everyone.
We had to change the date for our meeting; Tuesday afternoon is good for everyone.

Can you recommend a grammar book for me to study?

No. Formal grammar is a waste of time. Circling words and memorizing parts of speech never helped anyone become a better writer.
Here’s what you need to work on:
-usage (punctuation, word choice, diction, capital letters, and similar skills)
-writing powerful sentences
-writing strong paragraphs
-selecting, organizing, and presenting ideas and information

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Sometimes More Is Better

Books about writing often warn you about unnecessary and repetitious words (whispered softly, ran quickly, a smile on his face). You don’t want empty spaces in your writing. Stimulate your readers and hold their interest by making every word count.

But sometimes longer is better. Wordiness can be an effective choice. Good writers know that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all rule for every writing situation.

More-is-better is a useful principle when:

  • You’re trying to create a mood or an atmosphere
  • You’re giving unwelcome news (for example, saying “no” to a customer
  • You’re explaining something complex
  • You’re emphasizing a point that readers might miss

Here’s one example of useful redundancy: The close of a paragraph. Let’s say you’ve just described the warmth and love you experienced in your grandmother’s kitchen as a child.

You’ve said it all: The cinnamon in the air, the purring of her cat, the teakettle whistling on her stove, the songs she used to hum when she was making her famous chicken and dumplings.

What’s left to say? Nothing – but if you’re an exceptional writer, you’ll wrap up the paragraph with one more closure sentence. Here are three possibilities:

  • I was happy there.
  • I wish I could go back.
  • I have wonderful memories of her.

There’s a grace and ease about a few extra words in just the right place. Don’t be afraid to take a little longer to say exactly what you want your readers to know. The results will be worth the effort.

(Did you notice that last sentence? It’s not really necessary, but it added a little finesse to what I’d written. At least I hope it did.)

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How to Write Well

I am joyfully reading a new book about writing: The Destiny Thief, by Richard Russo. Note that word “joyfully.” I can’t remember the last time I read such a wonderful book about writing. The only author I can come up with is Theodore Bernstein. Please, please – surely there have been other good books about writing since I read Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins twenty years ago!

Maybe not. So let’s talk about Richard Russo. I did not – I’m sorry to admit – enjoy his novel Empire Falls. But I loved Straight Man. It’s one of the rare books that left me feeling empty and bereft when I got to the last page. I couldn’t let go of the characters. Please, please – I wanted more! Alas, it was over.

I had low expectations for The Destiny Thief. Most books about writing are…dull. I’ve heard it all before, and often the writing isn’t very good. So I was delighted when I came upon this on page 1, where Russo is describing a conversation with one of his university professors:

My prose, he explained, was full of jargon and intellectual pretension. Most writers had about a thousand pages of shitty prose in them, he went on, and these have to be expelled before they can hope to write seriously. “In your case,” he added, “make it two thousand.”

Amen. Amen.

So how do you make the switch from “shitty prose” to good writing? I don’t have any foolproof formula to teach you how to write well. But I do have three suggestions.

1.  Monitor your own feelings while you’re reading. If you’re reading something and start experiencing the Yippee! feelings I had while reading The Destiny Thief, go back and read it again. Try to figure out what makes this piece so wonderful – and do likewise.

2.  Make a vow that you’re always going to aim to create that feeling for your readers.

3. Read the New York Times.

Here are a few sentences from a page 1 story in last Friday’s Times about the 73 million Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar:

The Rohingya have not returned by the hundreds of thousands, or even by the thousands.
In fact, they have hardly returned at all.
After all the assurances that it was safe for them to return to Myanmar, only a few dozen have done so. The first batch of about 1200 returnees was supposed to be sent home in January 2018….

That is gorgeous writing. No pretension. Why doesn’t everyone write like this? (Why don’t I always write like this? I hope I do part of the time. But why not all the time?)

It’s so readable and clear – and so human. You’re drawn in to the story. You understand the problem that journalist Harriet Beech is describing, and you’re trying to figure out what’s coming next. She’s piqued your interest, and you want to keep reading.

I ran it through seven readability formulas. They all placed it in the “difficult range” – 11th or 12th grade. But it’s still eminently readable. Pleasurable. The only slightly difficult words are “assurances” and “returnees.” What lovely, lovely writing. 

Have you made that vow? (I did.)

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The Apostrophe in People’s

I used the phrase “the people’s choice” in a post last week, and a couple of people thought the apostrophe was wrong. Their reasoning: people is a plural word, and therefore the apostrophe is supposed to go after the “s.” Isn’t that right?

No. The before-the-s, after-the-s rule is guaranteed to get you into trouble. I wish books would drop that explanation.

Here’s the problem: there are exceptions: men’s, women’s, children’s, and people’s. I like rules that work 100% of the time. No exceptions. So here goes:

Spell the word. Put the apostrophe after the last letter.

people

The last letter is “e.” So: people’s.

You can see more applications of this handy rule by clicking here.

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