Category Archives: Writing Skills

Hyphens Part I

Hyphens are the reason I almost didn’t become an editor. 

The problem was that hyphens seemed too confusing. I was sure I’d get yelled at for inserting a hyphen that turned out to be unnecessary. Or that I’d omit a hyphen that needed to be there.

The solution – of course – was to learn how to use hyphens. And that will be our topic in this post and another one later this week.

But first I have to tell you about a time when those fears came true. I was getting daily phone calls and office visits from colleagues complaining angrily about a hyphen I’d decided was unnecessary. (I hope your life is as interesting as mine sometimes is!)

I was a member of an editing team at the college where I used to teach. One of my responsibilities was to revise the college mission, which included our quest to become a world-class college.

Or were we trying to be a world class college?

I decided against the hyphen, for two reasons. The college had been using that mission statement for several years without the hyphen. More important, I think hyphens are ugly.

But here’s the thing. Neither of those reasons had anything to do with grammar. Luckily I had an ace in my pocket, ready to pull out when the complaints started coming. I had Googled “world class style sheet” and “world-class style sheet” to see if any other institutions had decided against the hyphen.

And here’s what I discovered: Yale University doesn’t use the hyphen either.

A couple of weeks ago I told the story to my writing group, and my friend Jane Brumbaugh came up with an explanation that I wish I’d thought of myself: Using  world class (rather than world-class) gives each word power that the hyphenated version does not. World and class each become powerful words.

I’m going to return to hyphens later this week. Right now I want to applaud Jane’s explanation. I think she’s hit on something hugely important.

When you want to be emphatic, your sentence needs to slow down. That means you’re careful not to clump words together. Consider omitting the hyphen (if you can get away with it).

And don’t pile too much information into a sentence. Compare these two versions:

Ben raced into the kitchen, shouting “I won the blue ribbon!”

Ben raced into the kitchen. “I won the blue ribbon!” he shouted.  BETTER

We’ll return to hyphens soon!

The words "world class"

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Don’t Overuse “And”

What constitutes good writing? Sometimes the answer depends on how professional you are. Take a look at this sentence:

We’ve had a lot of rain, and we were thrilled when the sun finally came out.

Both the grammar and usage are correct. But I would still recommend a change.

Here’s why: pros try not to join sentences with and. Your writing will have more sophistication if you define the relationship between the two sentences. My version sets up a before-and-after relationship between the two ideas:

We were thrilled when the sun finally came out after all that rain. BETTER

When I edit a piece of written, I always look at each and to see if the sentence could be improved. Here’s another example:

It rained for two days, and our street was flooded.

There’s a cause-and-effect relationship here. Here’s my version:

Because it rained for two days, our street was flooded.  BETTER

The sun shining in the sky

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The Run for the Roses

You’re probably familiar with the psychiatric terms schizophrenic and bipolar. They’re diagnostic labels for complex disorders that require highly specialized treatment.

To the average person, however, schizophrenic and bipolar have a very simple definition: a split personality. That definition would not be helpful in a busy psychiatric practice – but it can be surprisingly useful in everyday life. If we’re honest, we often see swings, contradictions, and anomalies in our own thinking and behavior.

So I have to admit that yes, I have a split personality – at least when it comes to the English language. I am a grammar stickler who hates grammar.

To explain what this is all about, I’m going to talk about the Kentucky Derby. My father loved horse racing. (That’s an understatement.) Derby Day – the Run for the Roses – was practically a national holiday in our house. My favorite moment came early in the TV broadcast every year. When the first horse took the first step onto the racetrack, a band started playing Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

We will return to Churchill Downs in a moment. Now I’m going to talk about a test question I just read about in a wonderful book about writing: Making Sense by David Crystal.

Schoolchildren were asked to fill in the blank: “The sun shone_____________in the sky.” One of the children wrote bright – and was marked wrong. Shone is a verb, and it should be modified with an adverb – brightly.

But can you guess what immediately came to my mind when I read that test question? The first line of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”: “The sun shines bright on my Old Kentucky Home….” I would have been marked wrong too because – damn it – I’m sure that’s what I would have written in the blank.

I just checked a couple of dictionaries, and they all dutifully note that bright is both an adjective and an adverb. If the test graders had taken the time to double-check their assumptions, they would have given that child (and me) credit for the right answer.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think bright is an adverb. Or maybe I should say that I don’t think we should try to put a grammatical label on bright. It was the right word for what Stephen Foster was trying to say, and the song is wonderful, and the lexicographers didn’t want to argue with him. So they said – in effect – okay, Stephen, it’s an adverb.

Who cares, for crying out loud?

I think a lot of English grammar is bogus. It’s an attempt to go back and retrofit some structure and logic on a lively and powerful language (English) that resists our best attempts to tame it.

If you watch the Kentucky Derby this year, think of me when the first horse steps onto the track and the band begins to play. I’ll be remembering my father, alert and expectant in front of the TV, with a cocktail in his hand, waiting to see which horse would be crowned with roses in this year’s run.

A Kentucky Derby winner wearing roses

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Who or Whom?

Take a look at this sentence from an article in the New Yorker: “A couple of weeks after that, a woman in California called the police on three black women whom she thought were behaving suspiciously.”

No, no, no! “Who she thought were behaving suspiciously.” Here’s how you know: substitute he for who, him for whom. (If that sounds like the song “Tea for Two,” I’m right there with you.)

So: “She thought he was behaving suspiciously” “She thought who was behaving suspiciously.” And: “who she thought was behaving suspiciously.”

The New Yorker is meticulously edited. Their writers are the best of the best. If even they can’t figure out how to use whom correctly, I’d say it’s time to let it go.

Whom doesn’t add any clarity to a sentence. It confuses even excellent writers. Begone!

whom

                                    Whooom?

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Champ or Chomp? (Or Chump?)

A controversy is raging about the expression “champing at the bit” – or is it “chomping at the bit”? The argument even showed up on a recent episode of the TV show Billions

I am going to weigh in on this – and it’s going to go off in a direction you’re not expecting. I hope you’ll hang in.

I did what scholars do. I looked up both chomping and champing at the bit in the Oxford English Dictionary. (Trust me – it’s the ultimate authority on any historical question about English.)

Turns out “chomp upon the bit” was first recorded in 1645. “Champ the bit” isn’t recorded until more than a century later, in 1797.

That doesn’t mean that champing (or chomping) is the preferred version in 2019. But it does take the wind out of the sails of anyone who wants to claim that champing is the more authentic choice.

Now we’re going to take a detour. According to the OED, the first recorded usage of “chomp upon the bit” was in an obscure book called Epistolae Ho-elianae by an equally obscure Welsh-English writer named James Howell (1594-1666).

I am – ahem – one of the living authorities on James Howell. I am not making this up.

In 1972 I published “James Howell and the Stock Welshman” in the Anglo-Welsh Review. It’s a discussion of a forgotten article by Howell that I discovered when I was working on my master’s degree.

Years later I came across a Celtic bibliography and nervously looked up my name. Yes! There was my article!

Anybody who thinks that scholarship is dull should have been there when I discovered Howell’s long-forgotten article in the Rare Book Room at the New York Public Library. The quest to learn more about Howell eventually took me to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and the reading room at the British Museum – the same room that was so important to Bernard Shaw’s self-education project. Perhaps I sat in the same chair that he did.

Trust me – it’s been fun!

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Good Writing…or Bad?

I just came across an amazing paragraph from Eduardo Galeano’s The Book of Embraces. His topic is “nobodies” – working-class people who live on the edge of poverty:

Who don’t speak languages, but dialects. Who don’t have religions, but superstitions. Who don’t create art, but handicrafts. Who don’t have culture, but folklore. Who are not human beings, but human resources. Who do not have faces, but arms. Who do not have names, but numbers. Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper.

Many English teachers would avoid showing this selection to their students: it repeatedly breaks the almost sacred prohibition against sentence fragments. But look at the elegant parallelism, and look at the new meaning that ordinary words like handicrafts and folklore take on: Suddenly we see the cultural bias behind them.

If only we could all write so elegantly and powerfully!

folk dancers

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Do You Think Like a Pro?

I enjoy answering questions about grammar and usage on Quora.com. Here’s a recent one that set me thinking: What’s the most widely misunderstood English usage rule?

There are lots of possible answers! Confusion about its/it’s has to be high on the list. But my nominee for the top spot has to be quotation marks.

Rarely have I taught anyone who knows that in American punctuation, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. Right after I say that there are no exceptions (none! not ever!), students always say, “Yes, of course – but the period and comma go outside when….”

Disbelieving looks follow when I hold my ground, along with muttered rebuttals and promises to prove me wrong…followed by sheepish looks at the next class meeting.

But maybe you really can argue that I’m wrong. After all, I’m not the one who makes these rules. Can I really declare that my way is the only right way?

I’m going to suggest that those are the wrong questions. If you’re a serious writer, you should be going down a different road altogether. I think you should be asking how you can demonstrate to a publisher/editor/professor that you’re a genuine, honest-to-goodness, serious professional writer.

One way is to submit a manuscript that doesn’t have glaring mistakes. Pros don’t ask anyone to clean up after them. They know what editors, publishers, and professors want, and they just sit down and…do it.

It doesn’t matter that thirty years ago your typing teacher told you to put two spaces after a period. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! The rule today is one space after a period. When a pro submits a finished article or book, no one has to go through it and remove the extra periods.

Similarly, nobody has to rework the quotation marks. All the periods and commas are nicely tucked inside the quotation marks. And it doesn’t stop there. Pros always ask for a style sheet that adjudicates controversies about spelling (ok/okay/OK/o.k.), compound words (health-care/healthcare), and punctuation issues (yes or no to the Oxford comma).

A few years ago I wrote a chapter for a volume that a friend was compiling for a British publisher, the Cambridge University Press. I am a proud American. But when I wrote my chapter, I used British spelling and punctuation throughout.

That’s what pros do, and that’s what you should do too.

Professional word cloud

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Don’t Express It!

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.

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New York’s Subways

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

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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

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