Make Every Word Matter!

Instant Quiz

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

Paul spends most of his evenings studing for his licensing exam.

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Some time ago, a friend who teaches fiction writing showed me some samples of her students’ work. Here’s an excerpt:

Joe heard a strange noise outside, whereupon he furtively pulled back the curtain a bit to look. Because it was dark, he couldn’t see anything. A few minutes later he heard the noise again.

And here’s the revision her group came up with:

Three soft taps – and then silence. Joe twitched the curtain and peered outside, but nothing was moving in the darkness. He heard three more taps.

I think the revision is much better! It moves – and one big reason is that the transitions are gone (whereupon, because, a few minutes later).

Often those transitions are useful. But if a story is marching along, you may be able to omit them. In today’s excerpt, your readers will instantly know why Joe twitched the curtain and why he didn’t see anything.

Our brains process language very rapidly. Avoid empty words that clog sentences. Make every word count!

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Study has two syllables. (Studing sounds like something that might happen on a horse farm!). The correct word is studying.

Paul spends most of his evenings studying for his licensing exam.  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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Getting Unstuck

When I checked my emails recently, I was very pleased to find an invitation to write for a brand-new criminal justice magazine. The target audience is police administrators and academy instructors – one of the target audiences for my book about writing police reports.

I immediately went to work on my first article for the magazine. I wrote drafts in my head while driving back and forth to dance lessons. I scribbled outlines and introductory paragraphs. I read some notes and research I’d stashed away.

Nothing clicked. Rats! I had many good ideas, but they didn’t flow. I couldn’t find a way to organize them in a logical progression.

Suddenly I had an idea. Instead of trying to write the article, I wrote an encouraging letter to myself describing (in glowing terms) the kind of article I wanted to write:

Notes for an article that was giving me trouble

Now I had something concrete to work with. I started drafting the article right away, and finished it the next morning.

The next day the editor sent me an acceptance letter and – as a bonus – a .pdf of the finished article to show me how it would look in the magazine. What a happy ending!

A light bulb symbolizes new ideas

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Don’t Think about the Beginning (for Once!)

There’s a good chance that you were exposed to formal grammar at some point in your schooling. You might have underlined subjects and verbs, labeled independent and dependent clauses, or tried to memorize pronoun and verb charts.

Many English teachers believe that grammatical terminology is one of the keys to better writing. I strongly disagree. Learning how to rebuild an automobile doesn’t ensure that you’ll know what to do at a flashing red light. And circling an adverbial clause doesn’t guarantee that you can organize and present information effectively.

But don’t you need to understand the parts of sentences? My answer is a strong no. If you grew up speaking English, you quickly discovered that the doer almost always comes first in a sentence. Even small children know that “Jane fed the cat” means something quite different from “The cat fed Jane.”

When you’re working on a writing task, it’s usually safe to assume that the important stuff is going to appear at the beginning of the sentence. Take a look at this example:

Misuse of prescription drugs cause/causes many serious medical problems.

Which is right – cause or causes? If you know the “go to the beginning” rule, you’ll make the right choice: Misuse…causes.

Misuse of prescription drugs causes many serious medical problems.  CORRECT

Prescription drugs can be lifesavers. They’re not the problem: misuse is.

But there’s an exception you should know about. In either/or, neither/or sentences, you need to skip the beginning of the sentence. Jump over the either/neither part, and go straight to the or/nor part.

Either the teachers or the dean is/are going to present the award.

Either the teachers or the dean is/are going to present the award.

Either the teachers or the dean is going to present the award.  CORRECT

You can learn more about this rule (and other subject-verb rules) at this link.

A chalkboard that asks if I'm doing this right.

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The Apostrophe Protection Society Part II

In my previous post, I told you about the Apostrophe Protection Society. It was founded by a former copy editor who’s fighting against apostrophe mistakes. I applaud the effort, but I want to note that sometimes John Richards (the Society’s founder) makes mistakes.

Today I want to take a broad look at how and why we use apostrophes. (If you’d like to review the traditional rules for using apostrophes, click here.)

1.  Why do we need apostrophes?

We probably don’t. The English language got along perfectly well without them for hundreds of years. Even when apostrophes finally made their way into English in the 16th century, there was a lot of confusion about them.

At first apostrophes stood only for missing letters (the missing “o” in don’t, for example). Soon, though, they began to be used with some plurals (comma’s). Today that’s considered a serious error, but it used to be accepted usage.

In the 18th century, apostrophes began to be used in “of” expressions: “Tom’s car.” Gradually the rules were standardized.

Many people (including me!) think apostrophes should be part of every writer’s toolbox. But let’s remember that apostrophes are relative newcomers – they’re not essential. You can read more here: https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/05/apostrophes-and-when-to-use-them-punctuation-necessary-at-all-not-really.html

2.  Does everyone agree about apostrophe rules?

Would that it were so! No, they don’t. For example, I often see mistakes with the apostrophe in  people’s. (“The people’s wishes” is correct). Even some professional writers make mistakes with its and it’s.

The problems go beyond occasional slip-ups. Sometimes even the experts can’t settle on a rule that satisfies everyone. I confess that I’m one of the offenders: I refuse to add an extra “s” in expressions like “Carl Jones’ car” and “Lois’ job.” (The sticklers insist on “Carl Jones’s car” and “Lois’s job.” Nope. I’m stubborn.)

Then there are the debates about whether the apostrophes in “of” expressions are always necessary. Last week Dave Norman – a regular visitor to my blog – told me something I didn’t know: The US Board on Geographic Names discourages the use of apostrophes in place names.

If you’re thinking that’s a sign of the deterioration of English, think again: that stance goes all the way back to 1890.

Some exceptions are allowed, so that there are apostrophes in Martha’s Vineyard and Clark’s Mountain, but none in Pikes Peak and Harpers Ferry.

3. Do apostrophes serve a useful purpose?

My answer used to be “Of course!” – but now I’m not so sure. Getting every picky little apostrophe right takes time and concentration – and I’m not sure all that effort makes any difference.

A moment ago I realized that my Jones example was wrong earlier in this post. Of course I fixed it immediately. But would you have figured out the meaning anyway? I’m sure you would.

And there’s another problem that’s worth thinking about: some people think apostrophes are ugly. Playwright Bernard Shaw hated the apostrophes in contractions like can’t and don’t, and he had enough clout to get his way much of the time.

4.  If you’re smart about apostrophes, does that make you a good writer?

Not necessarily. (Sigh.) I started this column by talking about John Richards, the founder of The Apostrophe Protection Society. Recently he announced that he’d given up on apostrophes, and was going to turn his attention elsewhere. “The use of the comma is appalling,” he said. “When I read some newspaper websites they just don’t understand what it is used for.”

Notice anything?

There should have been a comma after websites: “When I read some newspaper websites, they just don’t understand what it is used for.”

My advice: beware of setting yourself up as the last defense post against bad English!

Defender

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The Apostrophe Protection Society – Part I

For twenty years, a former copy editor named John Richards fought for the correct usage of apostrophes. But recently he has admitted defeat, declaring that “The ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

Richards (who’s 96 years old, incidentally) isn’t taking down the website for the Apostrophe Protection Society he founded. But he will no longer be posting content. You can read more here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/12/02/apostrophe-protection-society-john-richards-england/

I’m a stickler about apostrophes (of course!), but I’m not one of Richards’ fans. My position is that before you start railing against a punctuation mistake, you need to know what you’re talking about. I appreciate his passion for good English, but – truth to tell – sometimes Richards is wrong.

This is the first of two posts discussing some offbeat and interesting points about apostrophes. (But if you’d like to work on the conventional rules for apostrophes, good for you! Go to this link.)

I had fun writing this post today. Even if you’re not as fascinated by grammatical pickiness as I am, I hope you’ll enjoy watching some supposedly hallowed usage rules crumble and fall apart.

Here’s an example. Richards said that his sole victory (in 20 years!) was getting a local library to correct its sign for “CD’s.” Well, good for him! But the sign didn’t need correcting.

Plurals of numerals, letters, and acronyms always used to have apostrophes: 1990’s, ABC’s, GMO’s, RSVP’s, SEO’s. Recently they’ve begun to disappear (the AP no longer uses them, for example). But some professional writers still use them. And take a look at the logo for the Oakland A’s:

Let’s look at another issue. Richards is infuriated by signs advertising “ladies fashions”  or claiming that “Diamond’s are forever.” I’m with him 100% on that unnecessary apostrophe in diamonds. I see those unnecessary apostrophes everywhere, and I too wish we could get rid of them.

But what about that omitted apostrophe in ladies?  I’m not sure that a sign for the Ladies Room (“room of the ladies”) absolutely has to include an apostrophe – Richards notwithstanding.

A grammarian could say that ladies is functioning as an adjective – and that would mean no apostrophe. That’s already used as an argument for omitting the apostrophe in Teachers Lounge.

And consider the word newsroom. It originally was news-room or news room – without an apostrophe. Newsroom (one word) didn’t appear until 1984. 

So why would we insist that news room (“room of news”) doesn’t need an apostrophe, but ladies’ room (“room of ladies”) absolutely requires it? I’d say it doesn’t. There’s no grammatical difference.

The Kellogg Company, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and a number of other companies still use the term news room – without an apostrophe.

I hope I’ve shaken your faith in the notion that the rules of English are always logical and consistent. And I hope you’ll return to this blog when I post Part II. I promise some surprises!

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Tell Me Something Different – Please!

 

I’ve been a huge Peanuts fan ever since the strip first appeared. Of course I know all about Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown’s baseball hero – a minor league player with few baseball skills.

But there’s one thing that Joe Shlabotnik has mastered: showboating. As Charlie Brown explains, Joe is famous for his “spectacular catches of routine fly balls.”

Joe Shlabotnik often pops into my head when I read an article or book that does a spectacular job of discussing routine and familiar ideas. Here, for example, is a paragraph from a November 22, 2019 issue of Parade magazine: “Harry Connick Jr. Already Knows What He’ll Be Most Grateful For This Thanksgiving.”

A few months ago, Harry Connick Jr. gave one of his daughters a life lesson that can only be gleaned through years of tried-and-true experience. “She was telling me that her workload can be overwhelming,” he says. His advice: Take it one small piece at a time. “If you don’t look at what you have to do in its entirety, it keeps you from feeling stressed and defeated.”

It’s good – even essential – advice. But I don’t believe that Connick’s hard-working daughter needed to hear it. Is there any successful person who hasn’t already learned to break big tasks into small ones?

How many Parade readers gasped when they read that paragraph? “Wow – what a great idea! I never thought of that. I’ve always believed you’re supposed to write a term paper/clean the basement/fill out your tax return/ in one non-stop session.”

My answer: None.

But if you thumb through some popular magazines, you’ll often come across similar bits of conventional, I’ve-heard-it-all-before wisdom:

  • Are you a parent? “Love your kids – but make sure you set limits.”
  • Did you just have a baby? “If she cries, see if she’s hungry.”
  • Are you trying to sell your house? “Make sure the lawn is mowed and the rooms are clean.”

Again, good advice – but haven’t most readers already figured these things out for themselves?

Let’s go back to Harry Connick. He’s a smart, talented, hard-working guy. His three daughters are doing great, and he and his wife have been married for 25 years. I’m sure he has some amazing ideas about marriage, parenting, and success. There are probably some quirky stories. Why not talk about who he really is and what his life is really like?

Now let’s talk about you. What lessons has life taught you – and how? Do you have some unusual advice to share and some offbeat stories to tell?

Or are you going to settle for making yourself sound like everyone else – and telling us what we already know?

To put it another way: Are you a Joe Shlabotnik?

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When Is a Rule Not a Rule?

I often answer language questions on Quora.com. Here’s a question that comes up again and again: What are some rules that hardly anybody obeys anymore?

I have a nomination – a rule I think we should just get rid of altogether: having to know the difference between who and whom and whoever and whomever.

You should just use who and whoever – even if you’re an English teacher or a professional writer. The pros seem to struggle with this one just as much as high school students do. Begone!

Here’s an example from a September 3, 2019 article about Marianne Williamson in the New York Times Magazine:

“She ministered to whomever was listening – her readers, her congregants, the people who traveled to listen to her, people who live streamed her – in the language of self-help, which is the language we are mostly all fluent in right now.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Here’s the correct sentence:

“She ministered to whoever was listening – her readers, her congregants, the people who traveled to listen to her, people who live streamed her – in the language of self-help, which is the language we are mostly all fluent in right now.”

Here’s a quick way to figure it out: “he was listening” – “who was listening” – “whoever was listening.” Or, if you want to get all grammatical about it, you can say that “whoever” is the subject of a noun clause. But you don’t need that gobbledygook.

Still doubting me? Compare this sentence, which uses whomever correctly:

“She ministered to whomever he persuaded to enter the shelter.”

Now you really do need whomever: “he persuaded him” – “he persuaded whom” – “he persuaded whomever.” You can feel that m (him, whom, whomever) in your mouth. Or, if you want to get all grammatical about it, “whomever” is the object of a noun clause.

But – again – you don’t need that gobbledygook. Just use who and whoever 100% of the time.

What if you’re sure you know how to use whom and whomever correctly? Well, Taffy Brodesser-Akner – who wrote that article for the New York Times Magazine – was sure she got it right, wasn’t she? And the editor at the magazine who approved the article thought that sentence was right too. But it wasn’t.

If you need another reason for ignoring that useless rule, here it is: you’ll never make mistakes like “the editor whom approved the article” and “I didn’t know whom was coming to the party.” Gack!

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A Welsh Lesson

Chances are you don’t speak Welsh! I hope you’ll read today’s post anyway. I think it raises an interesting point. (Here’s something you can look forward to: an English teacher is going to fall on the floor.)

I’m studying Welsh via Duolingo and slowly learning how to construct complicated sentences. This week’s challenge is sentences like this one:

I went out after I had coffee.

Here’s the Welsh version (with “after I had coffee” in bold):

Es i allan ar õl i fi gael coffi.

Here’s what’s interesting (to me, anyway). After I have coffee uses exactly the same words as after I had coffee.

People who speak Welsh can’t make a distinction between “had” and “have” in some complex sentences. Their grammar won’t let them do it. The result is sentences like this: “I went out after I have coffee.” And guess what? Everybody understands anyway!

English teachers love to tell you that if the grammar of a sentence isn’t perfect, people won’t understand you. But today’s Welsh sentence proves (to me, anyway) that your brain will probably figure out the meaning even if there’s a mistake.

(That thunk you just heard was an English teacher falling on the floor.)

So let’s not belittle people who make mistakes. A student who struggles with a sentence isn’t stupid or confused. They made a mistake. That’s all! And we’ll probably figure out the meaning anyway.

the Welsh flag

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Happy New Year!

Even if you don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, I think they’re a good idea for writers. It’s useful to take stock of your writing practices at least once a year to see if there’s something new you should be doing.

Here are some suggestions. (If these sound overwhelming, take heart. At the end of this post I’ll be encouraging you to choose only one.)

1.  Set a daily writing goal. You’ll be following in the footsteps of many famous writers who challenged themselves to write a set number of pages every day. When Bernard Shaw was starting his writing career, he forced himself to write four pages a day. If he skipped a day, he wrote eight pages the next day.

2.  Spend five minutes a day exploring the features in your word-processing software. I’m endlessly shocked (“appalled” is probably more accurate) by the writers I meet who don’t have basic word-processing skills such as find & replace, save as, and autocorrect. It’s fine (and fun!) to play with the pull-down menus, and you’ll learn a lot.

3.  Resolve to start adopting the working habits of professional writers. If you’re using open-source software, save up and install Word on your computer. Learn how to use the Styles feature in your word-processing software.
Stop underlining for emphasis (professionals don’t do it, and neither should you). Learn how to punctuate direct quotations (in the US, the commas and periods always go inside). If you’re still
spacing twice after a period, STOP IT!

4.  Learn about formatting manuscripts and books. Smashwords.com has a free ebook that will teach you how to do this (that’s how I learned): https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52. You can read it on any e-reader or just download it to your desktop as a .pdf.

5.  Read at least one good book about writing or language. Start with (of course) The Elements of Style. Other recommendations include anything by Theodore Bernstein or John McWhorter; Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing; and Mary Norris’s Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

6.  Join a writing group. Your library may have information about local groups you can join. If there’s no group in your community, start one. Your public library probably has a meeting room that you can use free, and it will help you publicize your group.

7.  Learn about online resources available through your library card. You may be able to access ebooks, newspapers, magazines, and reference books at home, free. Good writers are good fact-checkers and researchers.

8.  Set up a free Google Alert for a topic that interests you (especially if it’s related to a writing project). Because I’ve published a book about writing better police reports, every day I receive a free list of links to news stories that involve police reports. Some of those stories provide useful fodder for my blog and help me sell books.

9.  Join LinkedIn. Set up your profile, upload a photo, and get involved in at least one group (listed under the Interests tab). LinkedIn puts you in touch with other professionals, provides opportunities for you to post your writing, and helps you keep up with trends in your field. Most important, it gives you credibility as a writer.

10.  Set up an appointment with a professional photographer for a head shot that you can use online.

11.  Subscribe to a magazine for writers, or stop by the library every couple of weeks to read one of their magazines.

12. Build connections to other writers. Be generous about sharing what you know. If a friend publishes a book, post a review on Amazon.com

My advice is to pick one resolution, get it under your belt, and then select another one. Keep pushing ahead and growing. You’ll have an exciting time, and your new skills will amaze you.

Best wishes for success and happiness in 2020!

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Jean Revises a Sentence

Here’s something I revised right before I posted it last week:

During last week’s Pilates session, my trainer had a phone call from his son: their Netflix account wasn’t working. My trainer told him that the credit card had expired, and he hadn’t gotten around to updating it.

The problem was a little word that most of us don’t think about very often: he. My trainer was talking to his son. This is what I originally wrote:

My trainer told him that the credit card had expired, and he hadn’t gotten around to updating it.

There are two males in that sentence my trainer and his son. Sohe hadn’t gotten around to updating it” is confusing. 

Of course most people would quickly figure it out: my trainer did the explaining. But good writers try to avoid these hiccups. Your brain should have a smooth and enjoyable ride when you’re reading.

I revised it so that there was just one male in the sentence:

My trainer explained that the credit card had expired, and he hadn’t gotten around to updating it.

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