Engineers with Feathers

Instant Quiz

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

Because the carton was so heavy, I asked Bob to help me drug it into the kitchen.

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I just read a surprising article about – of all things – birds’ nests. In “The Marvel in a Bird’s Nest,” Norman Roberts describes recent studies that explore the reasons why nests are so strong and durable. It turns out that birds are marvelous engineers! Click here to read the article: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/science/why-birds-are-the-worlds-best-engineers.html

The real surprise, though, was this sentence, describing how manmade “nests” were subjected to tests in an plexiglass cylinder: “Then the experimenters shmushed the sticks some more, with additional cycles.”

Good for the New York Times! It’s a New York paper, so why not include some authentic New York words once in a while?

But is shmushed a word? Yes. If a group of sounds has a consistent meaning, it’s a word. If you make up a word right now, and give it a meaning, it instantly becomes a word.

But it won’t be a standard word until it starts showing up in formal writing – articles in the New York Times, for example.

Maybe shmushed is on its way! Plenty of New Yorkers already use it.

Photo by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/)

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Don’t confuse drug (a pharmaceutical substance) with drag (a verb). Incidentally, the past tense of drag is dragged.

Because the carton was so heavy, I asked Bob to help me drag it into the kitchen.  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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Noah Webster

Instant Quiz

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

We’ve invited Reverend Costner to join the Community Safety Committee.

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If you’re an American, you probably know that “Webster’s” is a synonym for “dictionary.” The first important American dictionary was published in 1828 by Noah Webster, an avid student of language. His name is still used by some publishers today even though their dictionaries have no connection to Noah Webster.

But Webster is more interesting than I expected! I was surprised to learn that Webster was a friend of Alexander Hamilton (the subject of the popular Broadway play Hamilton).  In 1793, Hamilton and and other Federalists persuaded Webster to start a  journal – The American Minerva – in New York City. (My source is Rosemarie Ostler’s marvelous book Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language.)

Of course I knew that Webster persuaded Americans to drop the “u” in colour, honour, and flavour. (Thank you, Noah!). What I didn’t know is that he was a grammar reformer as well – or at least he tried to reform our grammar.

Webster’s reform project is just a footnote in the history of the English language – but I think it’s worth noting. For many years I believed that English was as strong as an iron-clad ship. The rules are the rules, and no one dared to challenge them.

The truth is that many people – including Webster – have tried to tinker with our grammar. Some (Lindley Murray, for example) were successful. But most – including Noah Webster – failed in their attempts to change the rules of English.

Here’s the story, according to Rosemarie Ostler (page 65):

He insists that when you refers to only one person, the following verb should be was. Referring to the trend toward replacing thee and thou with you, he argues, “If a word, once exclusively plural, becomes by universal use the sign of individuality, it must take its place singular number.” Webster backs up his argument with example from print sources, including contemporary court transcripts—”Was you there when the gun was fired?”

In Webster’s opinion, it’s only a matter of time before this use becomes completely acceptable. He says, “The compilers of grammar condemn the use of was with you—but in vain. The practice is universal, except among men who learn the language by books.”

Webster was wrong about you was. It was fairly common in his day, but became increasingly unacceptable as time went on. Standard grammar books continued to reject it, with Webster’s other pet usages.  

As I said, this is just a footnote in the history of English. But I think it matters. How often do you hear someone say “You was”? I hear it all the time. (I once had a former student excitedly greet me with “You was my English teacher!”)

Webster heard “you was” so often that he thought the rule should be changed – and he had a point. “Was” is the correct verb when you’re talking about a single person or thing – “Mr. Paulson was my English teacher.” Our you were rule is an anomaly.

But I think there’s an important takeaway from all this. Everyone knows how hard it is to break a habit. You was (and other usages that have been around for hundreds of years) are here to stay, whether we like them or not.

There’s no need to panic when someone says ain’t or uses the singular they. The sky isn’t falling. The language isn’t dying. It ain’t going nowhere.

Dictionary with an magnifying glass on top

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

“Reverend Costner” is fine when you’re speaking or writing informally. But in professional writing you should use the and the person’s first name: the Reverend Sally Costner.

We’ve invited the Reverend Sally Costner to join the Community Safety Committee.  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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More Writing Rules

Last month I wrote a post about five useful writing rules. I received a lot of positive feedback, so here are five more! I hope you’ll find them useful.

  1.  Don’t apologize for an opinion. Many writers overuse “in my opinion,” “I think,” and “I feel.” You’re allowed to have opinions! Just say what you think: “We should approve Carole’s plan at the next meeting.” “Professor Brown gave a terrific lecture yesterday.” “The proposal for the new road is a mistake.”
  2. Explain abbreviations the first time. Yesterday I had to track down INRA (which turned out to be an agricultural research organization in France) for something my husband was writing. It should have been spelled out in the article he was reading.
  3. Get rid of empty and unnecessary words. I personally feel is the same as I feel. A personal friend is the same as a friend. Three different times is the same as three times. Seven individual members are seven members.
    Very, rather, and respective take up space while adding nothing to your meaning. Etc. is another bit of writing clutter that tells your readers nothing. Use “as the rest” instead. Or – better yet – finish the list.
  4. In general, don’t use more than three commas in a sentence (unless you’re making a list). That fourth comma should warn you that your sentence might be too complicated. Your readers may be having a hard time deciphering your meaning.
  5. Impress with your ideas, not big words and fancy syntax. Pomposity never fooled anyone.

Know the Rules

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The End of World War II

Last weekend our local newspaper included a special supplement marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. I started reading and couldn’t stop: the writing is that good. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of one article – “The Siege of Berlin”

The dawning of the year 1945 saw Hitler’s Third Reich tottering and ready to fall….But as anyone who has ever swung an axe on a big tree can tell you, you just have to keep hacking away….And even the strongest lumberjack finds out that it almost always takes longer than he thought it would. That is a good way to think about the situation the Allies faced in 1945.

The next paragraph promised that the article would cover “a sustained series of Allied blows that chopped down the Germany arm and killed it.” That prepares you to read the rest of the article: you know what’s coming. [English teachers would probably call it a thesis statement.]

This is great writing. The word choices are strong and vigorous: tottering, swung, hacking, chopped, killed. Sentences are clear and straightforward, and readability scores range from the fifth to the eighth grade.

Most important, there’s solid content here. Even though I’ve been interested in World War II for many years (and spent some time at the Normandy invasion beaches), a lot of the information was new and intriguing.

To my astonishment, the writing in every article in the supplement is just as good.

Rob Citino – author of “The Siege of Berlin” is from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and so are the other writers. (I’m wondering: do you have to pass a writing test to work there?)

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A Sentence Problem in the New York Times

In my previous post, I discussed some dubious questions that appear in an online grammar test. Today I’m going to focus on a particularly messy issue that showed up both the quiz and a recent New York Times article.

The Times sentence is about a new filmed version of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma:

It’s one of those instances that turns everything around, for a story and for a character.

It’s an elegant sentence, but I would argue that the verb is wrong. Here’s my version:

It’s one of those instances that turn everything around, for a story and for a character.

Even the experts argue about this construction. I (of course!) insist that I’m right. If you compare the two sentences below, I think you’ll see my point:

It’s an instance that turns everything around.  (an instance…turns)

It’s one of those instances that turn everything around.  (those instances…turn)

Here’s another example:

She is a Girl Scout who loves camping.  (a Girl Scout…loves)

She is one of those Girl Scouts who love camping.  (those Girl Scouts…love)

 *  *  *  *  *

I want to make one more point today. The verb controversy we’ve been considering is a true grammar question. Many people mistakenly apply the word grammar to any language issue:  diction, punctuation, capital letters, word choice.

I think grammar should be reserved for issues that affect the structure of a sentence: subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, parallelism, and so on. Most writing problems fall into the category of usage – “ain’t,” for example.

Why does the distinction matter? Too many people mistakenly believe that grammar study is the way to solve writing problems. I strongly disagree: you can diagram a million sentences without ever discovering that ain’t is incorrect. Sentence diagramming won’t help you eliminate diction, spelling, and capital letter problems – and it’s no help with many punctuation issues.

Writing instruction needs to cover both grammar and usage.

Poster for the 2020 Emma movie

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The Grammar Quiz

This morning I (ahem!) scored 100% on an online grammar test. But hold your bravos! I had some quarrels with the test. Some of the questions had two correct answers, some weren’t about grammar at all, and some weren’t worth asking.

For example, you were supposed to know the difference between may and might. I happen to know that may is present tense and might is past. But who cares? I use may and might interchangeably, and you have my permission to do the same.

Here’s a question that had me guessing. Is this sentence right? “This dress would fit if I lost weight.” I think you can stick “had” (one of the choices) in there without changing the meaning. In other words, both answers are right: “This dress would fit if I had lost weight.”

Another question dealt with a severe storm that had affected a region. I would have scratched that question on the grounds that affect is almost always a useless word.

I hear it all the time: Severe storms affect regions. Smoking affects your health. Studying hard  affects your grades. No, they don’t!

Severe storms devastate regions. Smoking harms your health. Studying hard improves your grades. Good writers never settle for a weak word. They immediately start casting around for a strong one.

There were several questions about whom. It’s a pronoun that’s disappearing from the language, for two excellent reasons: few people can use it confidently, and it doesn’t add anything useful to a sentence. Begone!

And there was one additional question that shouldn’t have been there because even the experts can’t agree on the answer.

Funny thing – an hour ago I came across a similar sentence while I was reading the New York Times. Guess what? The Times got it wrong (at least that’s what I say). If the Times can’t get it right, nobody can.

I’ll talk about this thorny grammatical issue in my next post – and I’ll also explain the difference between grammar and usage.

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A Bad Example – and a Good One

Today’s topic is the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Let’s start with bad and ugly. I just saw an ad that proclaims, “This is why we science.” (Click here to view it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fq6hpigoTc.) The ad is touting Bayer’s Complete Insect Killer, which contains imidacloprid (an insecticide that has been associated with the deaths of many bees). 

Science isn’t a verb. It’s a noun (a thing). You can’t say that you’re planning to “science” tomorrow – no matter what the Bayer company thinks. (And I wish they’d stop endangering our bees!)

On to the good. I just read a marvelous sentence in a New York Times article about presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg’s problems with debate prep: “He is prone more often to groaners than zingers.”

Great writing!

I will admit that the sentence doesn’t meet all the requirements for formal writing. Groaners (“corny jokes”) and zingers (“witty remarks that sting”) aren’t Standard English words. But the sentence is fun to read, and – to my mind – that’s a big plus.

Compare this sentence: “He is prone to use overdone jokes in a misguided attempt to win his audience, and he doesn’t often surprise opponents with his wit.”

Which version would make you want to keep reading? I hope you answered that question the way I did – and you’ve learned something important about good writing. It’s not enough to know where to put the commas and how to stack up your ideas. You have to make readers want to read what you’ve written.

                  Michael Bloomberg

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The Problem with “Impacted”

I just came across this sentence in a news article: “Recent polls impacted her decision to support the president.”

Writing that sentence would be grounds for divorce in our house. Charlie and I have pledged never to put -ed on “impact” unless we’re referring to a tooth.

I hate impacted. Why not say affected, which sounds much more normal? (Actually there’s a good reason not to write “affected” either, but I’ll get to that later.)

A Detective Enters the Scene

There’s a delightful moment in one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories when Wolfe silently adds $100 to a bill because the client used the word “contact” as a verb. I’m not that picky (to tell you the truth, I use contact as a verb myself), but I applaud Wolfe’s (and Stout’s) passion for language.

As I said, impacted is grounds for divorce in our household. I always get rid of it when I’m editing, and of course I don’t use it myself (why wreck a perfectly good marriage?). Many people agree with me. In 2015, the American Heritage Dictionary noted that 78% of its prestigious Usage Panel voted it down. 

In case you’re wondering, almost all the members of the Usage Panel now accept contact as a verb – but it took a while to get there. Time marches on, and so does language.

It’s very likely that 50 or 100 years from now, all the setting-my-teeth-on-edge things I hate in the English language will probably become standard. Everyone will put the -ed on “impact” and write “all right” as one word, as the British do. (Recently a former student sent me an email with all right written as one word, testimony to my lack of success as an English professor.)

Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe lost the battle against contact as a verb, and I know that my campaigns against impacted and alright are hopeless causes.

Losing the Battle

I’ve already lost the battle against affected (in the sense of “changed” or – grrrrrrr – “impacted”). Hear me out, though. I think there’s an important point to be made.

Language is supposed to be powerful. Affected is a meaningless word. Let’s go back to my earlier sentence: “Recent polls impacted her decision to support the president.” Did the polls increase her support – or weaken it? The sentence doesn’t make that clear. That’s bad writing.

I always used to circle affected on students’ papers and ask them to substitute a more specific word. What they all did, of course, was to go to an online thesaurus and come back with “altered” or “changed.” Sigh.

I like to think that I’ve impacted the students who’ve attended my classes, but evidence suggests otherwise. (Is that the rustle of divorce papers I’m hearing?)

Front cover of a Nero Wolfe myser

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The Singular “They”

In a moment I’m going to make two confessions. First, some background: I used to co-sponsor a club that elected new officers every year. In February, members received a nomination form in the mail, along with a set of instructions. A few years ago I revised the instructions.

But (confession #1) I deliberately ignored a grammatical rule in my revision. Can you find the mistake?

If you want to nominate someone for an office, make sure to get their consent. They need to print and sign their name in the spaces below.

What I did was to ignore (gasp!) the rule that pronouns have to be consistent. Someone is singular. They and their are plural. You can’t mix them.

Here’s the grammatical version of the sentence:

If you want to nominate someone for an office, make sure to get his or her consent. He or she needs to print and sign his or her name in the spaces below.

Gack. I refuse to write anything that clumsy.

I hope you agree with me that the pronouns-must-be-consistent rule is…stupid. But (here comes confession #2) I taught that nonsensical rule for years, and I included it in both the college textbooks I wrote. (I omitted it from my latest book.)

Perhaps you’re surprised by all this. After all, English teachers are supposed to stick to the rules of English…aren’t they?

Yes, of course. But which rules?

If you’ve been taught (as I was) that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a complete set of grammar rules, you might be surprised to learn that the his or her rule is relatively new. It was the brainchild of an 18th-century lawyer who had no English language credentials.

Lindley Murray, the bestselling author of English Grammar, soon became the supreme authority on language for millions of people. Yep – he made up his own rule!

Before Murray came along, the singular “they” was standard English. It has been traced all the way back to the 14th century. Many respected writers – such as Shakespeare, Caxton, and Austen – used the singular they. Nobody wasted a second worrying about it.

That’s one reason why so many people continue to use it, even after the rule changed. How do you get rid of a usage with such a long history? (Incidentally, that’s why we continue to hear ain’t so often: it was a respectable word for hundreds of years before the rule changed. It ain’t going nowhere.) 

Back to Lindley Murray. His solution was to use his instead of they. The switch to his or her didn’t happen until the 1960s, when feminists started calling attention to sexism in language.

I’m a feminist myself, and I was glad to see the ubiquitous he go. But his or her always drove me crazy, and I used all kinds of dodges to avoid it. You can see why if you read this grammatically perfect but absurd sentence:

Every student must be diligent about his or her documentation when he or she is researching his or her senior writing project.

That’s just the way you and your friends talk, right?

The truth is that even self-proclaimed experts use the singular “they,” often without realizing it. (“If someone needs a ticket, they should come to the office.”)

Mary Norris, former copyeditor for the New Yorker magazine and a wonderful writer, insists that the singular they is “just wrong” in her bestselling book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. But she uses it herself in her book: “Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.”

And I was startled to find this sentence on p. xxiii of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (a cranky bestseller about English that I really disliked):

I tend to feel that if a person genuinely wants to know how to spell Connecticut, you see, they will make efforts to look it up.

Back to that nomination letter I talked about at the beginning of this post. A few years ago I said “Enough!” and switched to the singular they. It hasn’t always been easy for me. When I submitted that nomination letter, I was afraid someone was going to insist that I change “their name” to “his or her name.”

Happily, though, nobody made a peep, and I got away with it.

A victory for sensible English!

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Murder

My friend Cindy Horvath sent me an example of strong writing from a favorite novelist of hers – Irish author Tana French. The speaker is Stephen Moran,  a detective in The Secret Space who’s assigned to cold cases but wants to be on the murder squad:

Murder is the thoroughbred stable. Murder is a shine and a dazzle, a smooth ripple like honed muscle, take your breath away. Murder is a brand on your arm, like an elite army unit’s, like a gladiator’s saying for all your life: One of us. The finest.

I want Murder.

Although Moran is a fictional character, he sounds alive. The sentence is rough (an English teacher would be whipping out that red pencil). But that rough quality – words tumbling out too quickly for Moran to control them – makes him sound real.

I urge you to aim for that quality in all your writing. If you’re working on an academic task, you’re not going to go for the rough-and-tumble feeling in Moran’s thirst for murder. But you can still have a voice, and you can still make your sentences move.

A novel by Tana French

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