E. Jean Carroll in Court

Instant Quiz

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

Linda helped Joan and I select furniture for our living room.


The big news story this week was the jury verdict against former President Donald J. Trump. E. Jean Carroll sued Trump for defamation  – and won a five-million-dollar settlement. The case goes back to 2019, when Carroll claimed that Trump had raped her in a New York City department store.

What does all of this have to do with writing? Apparently very little – until you read a New York Times article about the clothes that Carroll wore in the courtroom. Journalist Vanessa Friedman makes the point that Carroll carefully chose outfits that sent a message about who she was: a serious person who doesn’t seek attention for its own sake.

Here’s how Friedman explains it:

Like all victims of sexual assault who take their cases to trial, her body was at the heart of the case. What she put on that body, how she presented it, mattered.

Words – like clothing – don’t just send a message: they are a message. Jumbled words point to a jumbled brain – even if you’re a genius who was experiencing a momentary lapse. Careless editing points to a careless person – even if you were in a time crunch for good reasons.

I know all about lapses. I make plenty of mistakes in my own writing, and I don’t always catch them. Nobody’s perfect. But I strive mightily to showcase my own competence and professionalism, for a very good reason. I know I have the power to control the message my words are sending.  That message matters – and I choose to wield that power every time I sit down to write.

Photo of E. Jean Carroll

Picture of E. Jean Carroll courtesy of Julieannesmo


Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Today’s quiz is about the “thumb rule” – a quick and easy way to get I/me right 100% of the time. (It works for any pronoun – he/him, she/her, we/us, and they/them.)

Here’s what you do: use your thumb to shorten the sentence.  In today’s sentence, cover up Joan and. Here’s what you end up with:

Linda helped I select furniture for our living room.

Does that sound right to you? Nope! Let’s try again:

Linda helped me select furniture for our living room.

That’s right! So you know that me is the correct word.

Linda helped Joan and me select furniture for our living room.  CORRECT

You can download an easy-to-use handout about pronoun problems at this link.

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


Improving a Sentence

Here’s a practice question from the SAT. How would you fix the underlined sentence?

There are over 50,000 therapy dogs in the United States, and they’re becoming more popular in countries from Norway to Brazil. Trained and certified by a variety of organizations, hospitals and other facilities welcome these dogs and their handlers, who interact with patients.

According to the SAT, this is a better version:

Trained and certified by a variety of organizations, these dogs and their handlers interact with patients and are welcomed by hospitals and other facilities.

The SAT is right, of course. But their sentence isn’t much of an improvement, for two reasons. There’s too much information, and it’s weak.  “Interact with patients” is the most important idea. Put it first.

Standardized tests are full of test questions like this one. No professional writer would write such a dull sentence! It’s a string of facts that aren’t connected. For example, we don’t learn why the dogs are trained and certified.

Here’s my version: 

Hospital patients enjoy playing with these dogs, which are trained to be comfortable in hospitals and other health facilities.

A therapy dog

Photo courtesy of Jami430 (CC License)


The @#$%&! Word “Had”

Instant Quiz

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

Joe called Mary and Susan called Frank.


Although I never met British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), he was one of my most important teachers. I’ve read just about everything he published, and the lessons I learned have stayed with me.

So I was pleased to read a New York Times article by Sarah Hart, a mathematician who admires Lewis as much as I do. But one sentence in her article troubled me:

I went off to Oxford to study mathematics, very happy to be living one street away from the pub where my childhood literary heroes C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had met each week to discuss their work.

More accurately, one word bothered me: had. I struggle with had the way some writers struggle with commas. I put had in, and then I take it out, and then I try it again…a huge waste of time. Usually the “take it out” impulse wins.

You might be wondering why I don’t just look up the rule for had and be done with it. The answer, unfortunately, is that I’ve done that – in fact I’ve taught the “had” rule many times. Sometimes it doesn’t help.

You’re supposed to use had any time you’re writing about two different times in the past. “I did the laundry after I had eaten breakfast.” Easy enough, and I use that rule often. But sometimes had  seems unnecessary. It would be more natural to write, “I did the laundry after I ate breakfast.”

I’m pleased to report that some editors agree with me. If an event obviously happened earlier in the past, you can omit that pesky had.

So there!

Photo  of C.S. Lewis courtesy of Aronsyne (CC License)


Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

This is a Comma Rule 2 sentence. Use a comma when you join two sentences with and.

Joe called Mary, and Susan called Frank.  CORRECT

Notice what happens if you omit the comma. Your readers think that Joe called two people – Mary and Susan. They have to backtrack and read the sentence again.

Commas are easy to learn – and a big help to your readers!

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


A Panda Goes Home

Ya Ya is a female panda who’s been living at the Memphis Zoo for 20 years. Some animal activists say that she should have been sent back to China many years ago. You can read  about Ya Ya at this link: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/12/world/asia/panda-china-memphis-zoo-ya-ya.html

I’m glad Ya Ya is going home! But my subject today is something else – this headline from the print edition of the New York Times:

A Panda Homecoming Said to Be Long Overdue by Worried Activists

A grammarian would say that “by worried activists” is a misplaced modifier. In plain English, it’s awkwardly placed, sounding as if the worried activists are supposed to be the ones sending Ya Ya home to China.

A conventional editor would have changed it to this: Activists Are Worried about a Long-overdue Panda Homecoming.

But that’s not the solution I would have chosen. I think I know why the headline writer chose that awkward wording, and I would be inclined to leave it alone.

Here’s why: it’s a story about a panda, not a group of worried activists. The most important element of a sentence should usually go first in a sentence. (That’s an important writing principle called “emphasis.”)

If it were up to me, I would leave “A Panda Homecoming” at the beginning.

But there’s an even better solution, and that’s exactly what the Times did in their online edition. They rewrote the headline so that it made sense – while leaving the panda at the beginning. Here’s their revised headline:

A Panda Is Coming Home, and Her Chinese Fans Say It’s About Time

Welcome home, Ya Ya!

Ya Ya, a Chinese panda who lived at the Memphis Zoo for 20 years

                Ya Ya at the Memphis Zoo

Photo courtesy of Frank/Flickr  CC License


Making Writing Choices

Recently my friend Mike Goronsky and I had an interesting discussion about the term expletive. I’ve always thought that an expletive was a swear word or vulgar expression. In 1974, when the Watergate story broke, President Richard Nixon released transcripts of taped conversations in the White House. Nixon often used swear words, and the transcription was full of notations like “expletive deleted.”

But thanks to Mike, I learned that expletive can also mean “an unnecessary word or phrase”: there is, it is, indeed, and so on. Getting rid of those lazy words can make your writing stronger:

There are going to be hundreds of people attending the party.  WEAK

Hundreds of people will attend the party.  STRONG

I’m sure many writing instructors routinely tell their students not to start sentences with there is and there are. It sounds like a sensible rule, doesn’t it?

But writing “by the rules” is risky. You’re relinquishing your power – letting a rule make the decisions instead of using your own eyes, ears, and brain.

Compare the two versions below. Which sounds stronger to you?

1. There are many opportunities for promotion.

2. Many opportunities exist for promotion.

I would choose #1. “Many opportunities exist…” turns me off. Exist is a weak verb.

You might disagree, and that’s fine. The point is that you’re processing the sentence yourself – listening to it carefully and making up your own mind. That’s what good writers do.

Rules are only guidelines.

I have another example. Some time ago my friend Jane Brumbaugh wrote a marvelous article about a community that came together to start their own library. Here’s her first sentence:

There was no library in Lake Alfred in 1961.

A writing textbook might tell you that this version is better:

Lake Alfred didn’t have a library in 1961.

Nope. I like Jane’s original sentence.

Who’s right? I don’t claim to be infallible. But here’s my reasoning: the most important word in that sentence is library. Starting the sentence with “Lake Alfred” sends the wrong message: this is going to be about a small town in Central Florida.

The article was about creating a library with practically no resources. I want the word library to be close to the beginning of the sentence. 

It’s easy to forget how precisely our brains work. Tiny shifts in a sentence – even if they break a rule or two – can add power to your writing. Trust yourself!


A Rule about Apostrophes

I just read an article that clears up some confusing points about apostrophes.  I wish I could say I’m pleased, but I’m not. I have a feeling I’m going to be cranky all day.

Here’s what’s bothering me: The author wants us to use the term pronomial pronouns. That’s supposed to help us remember a group of words that never get apostrophes: his, hers, yours, ours, theirs and its.

Why make apostrophes so complicated? I have a Ph.D. in English, and I can’t remember ever seeing the word pronomial before.

I’m going to suggest a much simpler way to learn how to use these pronouns. Here it is: Think about the word his. No apostrophe, right?

All these pronouns (his, hers, yours, ours, theirs and its) work the same way: no apostrophe.

These examples are correct:

That book is his, not hers. 

The dog buried his bone.

The dog buried its bone.

His is the blue Subaru.

Ours is the blue Subaru.

If the wallet is his, he can claim it in the office.

If the wallet is yours, you can claim it in the office.

No apostrophes! Easy, isn’t it?


Do You Need to be a Grammar Stickler?

New College is an innovative learning institution in Sarasota, Florida that’s suddenly become controversial. Here’s a headline from a recent edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

How does Richard Corcoran’s New College salary compare to other Florida universities?

I like the headline. But there’s a problem! A grammar stickler might say that the headline is wrong. You can’t compare a salary to a university.

Here’s the supposedly correct version: “How does Richard Corcoran’s salary compare to that of other Florida universities?”

My response is…bosh. I hate that of, and I refuse to use it. It’s clumsy, unnatural and unnecessary. Nobody who reads that headline about New College is going to be confused.

Grammar sticklers sometimes forget that our brains are superbly wired to process language. Sentences don’t need to be carefully balanced (despite what an overenthusiastic English teacher might have told us). Our brains happily figure out what’s going on.

Mary Norris – former copyeditor for The New Yorker magazine – discovered that some dangling modifiers make more sense and read better if you don’t fix them.

A wise woman! We would do well to follow her lead.

                           Photo courtesy of Lawrence G. Miller


Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?

Here’s a sentence I found on Grammarly (a platform where you can improve your language skills). I like it!

He is totally beguiling, and I’m bewitched.

But Grammarly says it’s a bad sentence: you’re supposed to avoid passive voice. I’m bewitched is passive because the sentence doesn’t tell you who did the bewitching.

Here’s Grammarly’s version:

He is totally beguiling, and he has bewitched me.

My reaction is…pfffft. I’ll agree that it’s a good sentence. But so was the original! “I’m bewitched” is strong. I can feel the witchcraft!

Sometimes grammar doesn’t matter. The sentence feels alive – and isn’t that what we want from our writing?

My oft-repeated advice still stands: be wary when someone throws a rule at you. Rules are only guidelines.

You have a lifetime of language experience.  (So does everyone else!) You know – instantly – whether a sentence works or not. Trust yourself!


Prepare to Be Shocked

A few days ago I stopped by my local library to drop off some books. When I was getting ready, I remembered that we had some pencils that needed sharpening.

I put a rubber band around them and headed for the library – which, it turns out, does not have a pencil sharpener. Those pencils are still in my purse. @#$*%&!

Did that little anecdote offend you?  Probably not. Pencil is such an innocent word that even kindergarten children use it. 

But if you look up the etymology (origin) of pencil,  you might be shocked. (The picture below might help you figure it out!)

Many lovers of English believe that we should avoid words that have an uncomfortable history.

For example, if you’re a Roman Catholic, you’re supposed  to get angry when someone says “hocus pocus.” The reason? It’s believed to be a mocking reference to the holiest words in a Latin Mass. (But there are other possible origins of “hocus-pocus.” You can learn more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hocus-pocus)

Similarly gee, gosh, and golly may have started out as references to Jesus and God: if you use them to express dismay, you’re guilty of blasphemy.

It sounds like a valid academic argument. Shouldn’t we stick to the original meanings of words?

My answer is no – and many linguistics experts agree. It’s what the word means today that counts. (Yes, you can talk about a pencil!)

I have a favorite rebuttal when someone argues for the original meanings of words. Manuscript means “written by hand” in Latin. If you’re a professional writer, do you write your manuscripts by hand? Of course not! You use today’s meaning.

What’s most important is reminding ourselves that language is slippery. A word that bothers one person may seem perfectly okay to someone else. For example, I’ve been told that we shouldn’t say “master bedroom” because it evokes slavery. But it doesn’t have that association for me, and I have no problem with “master bedroom.”

On the other hand, there’s a church in my neighborhood that uses the term “overseer” instead of “pastor.” Umm – no. It’s not a word I would ever use. (Maybe I’ve read Gone with the Wind too many times!)

But many people are perfectly okay with “overseer.” For years I’ve been driving past a sign that announces the name of the “overseer” of that church. Nobody seems to have complained about it.

And that takes us to a larger point I want to make today. Language belongs to everybody. We need to be wary of anyone who lays down the law about a word, expression, or rule.

For many people, that’s an uncomfortable truth. Wouldn’t life be easier if we had one set of language rules? Yes, it would. 

But the easy route isn’t always the best route. In the end, I’m grateful that we have the right to make up our own minds about how we’re going to use our wonderful language.

Of course problems are going to arise, and mistakes will happen. But I’ll gladly accept that risk (even though I’ve stumbled myself numerous times!). I’m proud to be an owner of the English language. I hope you are too.

English reference books on a shelf

                                                                                                                          Courtesy of John Keogh, CC License


Robert Caro

Robert Caro is one of our greatest nonfiction writers. For many years he’s been working on a multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Below is a sentence from Caro’s account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson (Kennedy’s vice-president) immediately became the US President. It’s a dramatic story, climaxing when Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One, the official Presidential airplane.

It’s great writing, but that’s not why I’m posting it here. There’s something else that excited me: two words that I don’t think any other writer would have bothered with.

Can you figure out what they are? 

Taking his wife, Lady Bird, by the arm to bring her along, Lyndon
Johnson walked over to the fence and started to follow the Kennedys, but
the faces remained turned, and the arms remained stretched, toward the
Kennedys, even after they had passed, and Johnson quickly moved back to
the gray convertible that had been rented for him.

Here are the two words: Lady Bird. (I don’t mind if you think I’m nuts!)

Almost anybody interested in reading Caro’s book would already know the name of Johnson’s wife. She was an amazing woman who was in the news all the time.

But Caro is an exceptional writer. You can almost hear his thoughts clicking: Lyndon died in 1973. Lady Bird died in 2007. Some readers today might not know who they were! Caro didn’t want anyone to be confused – not even for  a second.

There’s a reason I’m so excited about this. (In case you’re wondering, I lived through the Kennedy and Johnson years. Yes, I knew her name was Lady Bird!)

The New Yorker (where this chapter was published) is my favorite magazine.  But its writers have the annoying habit of mentioning a name and repeating it later – with no clue about who “Greg” or “Sam Smith” was. A brother? Childhood friend? Politician?

 I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to backtrack to figure out who’s being talked about.

Great writers think about their readers, making tiny changes that most people wouldn’t even notice. The goal? Creating a pleasurable experience for their future readers.

Do you edit your work with your audience in mind? Do you look for opportunities to make reading easier for them?

[Source: “The Day L.B. J. Took Charge” by Robert A. Caro from The New Yorker, April 2, 2012. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/02/the-transition?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker]

Robert A. Caro

Robert Caro