Semicolons: Easy or Difficult?

Instant Quiz

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

After dinner, Mrs. Charles lead us in the singing of the school song.


I usually enjoy Mary Norris’s articles about language. She’s a former copyeditor for The New Yorker and a terrific writer–funny, readable, and informative.

But…yikes! Sometimes she goes overboard. Here are her thoughts about semicolons:

That is, commas, semicolons, and colons were plugged into a sentence in order to highlight, subordinate, or otherwise conduct its elements, connecting them syntactically. One of the rules is that, unless you are composing a list, a semicolon is supposed to be followed by a complete clause, capable of standing on its own….Sentence length has something to do with it—a long, complex sentence may benefit from a clarifying semicolon—but if a sentence scans without a semicolon it’s best to leave it alone.

Anyone reading that would decide that it’s best not to attempt  to use a semicolon at all – ever.

There’s an easier way. Just write two sentences. Change the first period to a semicolon. Lower-case the next word (unless it needs a capital letter). You’re done!

Tuesday is my birthday. I’m throwing a party.  CORRECT

Tuesday is my birthday; I’m throwing a party.  CORRECT

Some of my writer friends blanch when they hear this. They insist that you have to make semicolons difficult!

No, you don’t. So there!


Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

The word you need today is led (the past tense of lead).

After dinner, Mrs. Charles led us in the singing of the school song.  CORRECT

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Which Is Correct: As or Like?

Because my field of study is English, I rely on the Modern Language Association (usually abbreviated to MLA) for help with research citations.

I also use their Style Guide to keep up with changes in writing rules. So I was very interested when the MLA sent me an article about the difference between as and like. That’s a word pair that sometimes befuddles me, and I was looking forward to some enlightenment.

Here’s the kind of sentence I find confusing:

I wish I could dance like she does.

I know that most grammarians (Strunk and White, for example) would disapprove. But why?

This is the explanation I found in the MLA email:

Wilson Follett has a handy rule: “as tells in what role or capacity the deed is done; like introduces a comparison.”

The sentence I just typed for you is a comparison, right? I don’t see a “role or capacity.” But I have enough of a grammar background to know that most grammarians would still say that it’s wrong. What to do?

After tying myself in knots for a few minutes, I came up with a solution: just rewrite the sentence.  Here’s my new version:  “I wish I could dance the way she does.” Problem solved!

You won’t find this advice in most grammar books, but every professional writer I know swears by it: When you run into a grammar problem you can’t solve, rewrite the sentence. Done!

A cup of coffee with a message "Unlock your confidence"



Joan Rivers, One More Time

In my previous post, I wrote about the word slunk, which showed up in a recent New Yorker article even though it’s nonstandard.

Today I’m inviting you to read a paragraph from the article about Joan Rivers. It is stunningly well written!

Many professionals do what author Emily Nussbaum did: end some of their paragraphs with a climax or a restatement sentence. (Don’t get nervous about the fancy term “restatement”! All it means is that you say pretty much the same thing you just said – in a different way.)

Putting this extra little polish at the end of a paragraph is a practice we should imitate. (But don’t overdo it! Notice that I said “some of their paragraphs.”)

Here’s the paragraph about Joan Rivers, with the restatement sentence in blue.

For half a century, this dark comedy of scarce resources had been her forte: many hands grasping, but only one golden ring. Rivers herself had fought hard for the token slot allotted to a female comic, yet she seemed thrown by a world in which that might no longer be necessary. Like Moses and the Promised Land, she couldn’t cross over.

You can read the entire article here. Joan Rivers

Portrait of Joan Rivers courtesy of Underbelly Limited


A Past-Tense Verb

Today I’m going to talk about a blind spot in my brain – one of many, I’m sure!

Lately I’ve been going through some New Yorker magazines that piled up while I was working on my book about Shaw.  I came across a wonderfully written article about comedian Joan Rivers that you can read here. (I’m going to add something admirable about Rivers that wasn’t mentioned in the article. She used to donate all her nightclub fees to a charity that provides nutritious food to patients in New York.)

There’s something odd in that article, however. Take a look at this sentence:

Eventually, exhausted, she slunk back to her teen-age bedroom.

Slunk? Obviously that was wrong. But then what was the right verb? Slank? I – Jean Reynolds, your self-appointed language expert – couldn’t come up with an answer to that question.

I did the obvious thing and went to the American Heritage Dictionary website to look up the past tense of slink. Guess what: it’s slinked. Slunk isn’t listed.

But doesn’t it sound right? Turns out I’m not the only person who feels that way.  Novelist Ursula Le Guin used slunk in an article also published in the New Yorker:

On a banquet night in Berkeley once, when somebody jogged my arm and my beer went straight down the back of Mrs. Robert Heinlein’s dress, I slunk away into the crowd.

I did some sleuthing (don’t you love these -sl words?) and discovered that Oxford University has already admitted slunk into its dictionary. (Did you know that lexicographers from one dictionary might disagree with lexicographers at another dictionary?)

Isn’t language interesting?

Joan Rivers

Portrait of Joan Rivers courtesy of Underbelly Limited


Good Writing from the New York Times

I just opened the New York Times for Saturday, April 9, and found an article about why the Russians weren’t able to take Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The writing is wonderful! Here’s an example:

But fighting for a major city like Kyiv is notoriously difficult, bloody and time-consuming. There are plenty of places to hide. Opposing forces can camp out in tall buildings. Rubble hides fighters as well as standing structures do.

There’s sophistication (the parallel construction in the first sentence) followed by short, punchy, active-voice sentences that let you see what happened in Kyiv. Opposing forces camp out. Rubble hides fighters.

You don’t need fancy words to impress readers. You do need interesting information and vivid examples! (Good writing helps too.)

Anti-war demonstration

                               Photo courtesy of GoToVan



Should You Worry about These Errors? Part 4

This is my last discussion of a provocative article by Bill Murphy, Jr., about writing mistakes. 

16. Double negatives
Murphy reminds us that people often use double negatives jokingly: “I don’t got none.” I wouldn’t have included this reminder in the list. Almost everyone I know has a sense of humor and can spot a joke when they hear one.

17. Confusing habits with rules
I would have reworded this one. Here’s my version: “Don’t be taken in by urban legends about English.” There are lots of nonsensical rules: Don’t start a sentence with but. Don’t split infinitives. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.

You won’t find any of these stupid rules in reputable grammar books. Professional writers ignore them, and you should too.

One More Thing!
I think Murphy’s title is a mistake: “17 Grammar Mistakes You Need to Stop Correcting, Like Now.”

A strict grammarian would say that two things are wrong here: You should spell out a number (Seventeen instead of 17) at the beginning of a title or a sentence. And “Like Now” is too folksy for an article about – of all things – correct grammar.

I’m not a strict grammarian. My response is…pish-posh. I like to see writers run a red light once in a while!

My problem is the @#%&! word grammar. Grammar should be reserved for rules that explain how to put a sentence together. (A close synonym would be syntax.) Far too many people believe that if you master the rules of grammar, you’ll be a great writer. That’s not true.

Many important issues lie outside of grammar: word choice, capital letters, and many punctuation rules, for starters.

Most of Murphy’s rules fall into the category of usage – writing practices that 1) are subject to change over time and 2) don’t alter the structure of a sentence.

Don’t waste your precious time learning how to diagram sentences and label parts of speech! Be careful with usage, and you’ll see a big improvement in your writing.

A word cloud about grammar


A Proofreading Tip that Works!

The April 2022 issue of Psychology Today includes a provocative article about – of all things – proofreading! It makes sense when you think about it: language is a brain function. (My thanks to Margaret Swanson for sending me the link.) 

I have one gripe, though. Here’s author Holly Parker’s advice: “Try rereading what you’ve jotted down while verbalizing it.”

I would change verbalizing into normal English: “reading it aloud.” Never use a fancy word when there’s an easier way to say something.

Click here to read “A Simple and Effective Cognitive Method to Catch Typos and Other Errors.”



Should You Worry about These Errors? Part 3

Today I’m going to comment on five more errors discussed in a provocative post called “17 Grammatical Errors You Need to Stop Correcting” by Bill Murphy Jr. (You can read my previous set of comments here.)

11. Oxford commas
This is the rule about using a comma before the last item in a list: “red, white, and pink roses.” That comma is optional. (I like it, but I never insisted that my students use it.)
Murphy says, “
Believe it or not, there are people who get really worked up about this rule. Don’t be one of them.” He’s right, and I’m applauding.

12. I.E. versus E.G.
Murphy explains that i.e. means “that is,” and e.g. means “for example.” He urges his readers not to criticize writers who get those Latin abbreviations confused.
My position is different – and simple: Don’t use them. Ever. “That is” and “for example” are perfectly respectable English phrases.

13. Split infinitives
Murphy is talking about expressions like “to boldly go,” which used to be considered bad grammar. He suggests being tolerant when other writers use them.  Once again I’m taking a stronger position: It’s a stupid rule. Ignore it.

14. Incomplete comparisons
Murphy is bothered by sentences like this one: “Our company’s products are better, cheaper, and more efficient.” Better than what?
I’m not bothered by these sentences at all. I don’t think we need to be that picky.

15. Into versus in to
There is so much gobbledygook in Murphy’s explanation that I stopped reading. (Does he really need to talk about transitive verbs?)
Here’s my take on in and into: I think about walking in a room (walking around it) and walking into a room (entering from the hall). If you understand the difference, that’s all you need to know!

In the last post in this series, I’ll be talking about Murphy’s final two errors – and grammar in general.

Referee blowing a whistle