Learning from the Amish

Instant Quiz

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

The tiny winsome kitten captured our hearts.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Today’s post is about the Amish – a Christian religious group that strives to separate itself from mainstream society. The Amish dress in black and don’t use cars or electrical appliances. Many Amish families still own family farms.

Amish communities are popular vacation spots for American tourists. Amish bicycles and horse-driven buggies are a welcome escape from the stress and materialism that dominate our American lifestyles.

I just wrote that paragraph myself. And here’s what I want to say about it: it’s boring.

Americans are materialistic. The Amish aren’t. You knew that already! There was no point in even saying that.

I would define good writing as telling your readers something they didn’t know – finding a different angle, for example. Today I have an example for you. It’s from a 2020 Washington Post article, and here’s a paragraph that impressed me:

An Amish family wanted to run propane gas pipes for lights to every room of their home instead of running them only to the kitchen and living room. (The Amish choose not to tap the electrical grid.) Church members discussed how the change would affect the family. If the family members could separate into bedrooms to read at night, instead of gathering in the living room, would their ties fray? Of course they would.

The Amish said no to the additional gas lights – but not because they’re against materialism. That’s a big, empty, meaningless word. What the Amish worry about are the ways that modern devices can weaken family ties, friendships, and communities.

Here’s another example. An Amish farmer wanted to buy a machine that could bale hay. The Amish use modern machinery all the time. The hay baler would save a lot of time and energy. That’s a no-brainer, right?

But the community leaders talked it over and – again – said no. If farm labor became easier, Amish farmers wouldn’t have to depend on each other as much. That would weaken community ties.

Feeling guilty about materialism is (in my opinion, anyway) – stupid. Of course we’re materialists. We have to eat, we need comfortable places to live, and cell phones can be lifesaving in emergencies. (Many Amish families have cell phones.) We need material things – lots of them.

The real question is whether our material things are contributing to the kind of life we want to lead – a point the article drives home perfectly. That’s good writing, in my opinion!

Always – always – strive to make a point your readers aren’t expecting – and tell a story or two if you can. (If you’re looking for the secrets of good writing, I’ve just given you two of them!)

An Amish buggy

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Often you need a comma when a sentence has two adjectives: 

The tiny, winsome kitten captured our hearts.  BETTER


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

Share

Semicolons!

If you love semicolons as much as I do, you’ll enjoy reading “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?”

You might enjoy the article even if you hate semicolons! It’s not really about killing them. The article is a survey about the way attitudes have changed about the semicolon over the years. (For example, Kurt Vonnegut thought semicolons were useless. All they did was prove you’d been to college!)

I’m going to jump in with some thoughts of my own about this quirky punctuation mark.

1.  Semicolons are easy to use. Just change a period to a semicolon and lower-case the next word – unless it needs a capital letter.

We just got back from a trip to Lowe’s. My husband and I are going to paint the guest room this weekend.
We just got back from a trip to Lowe’s; my husband and I are going to paint the guest room this weekend.

I just had an excited phone call from Linda. Harvard accepted her college application.
I just had an excited phone call from Linda; Harvard accepted her college application.

2. Kurt Vonnegut is right about semicolons – they do show that you’ve been to college. That’s a  good reason for using them! What’s wrong with showing off a little?

3.  Michael Kinsley argues that semicolons are often abused. He says they can “imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is.” I don’t see that as a problem. Our brains can supply the missing connection.

4. You should use semicolons sparingly. If you’re writing something short, one or two semicolons should be the limit. On a longer piece, or or two per page are enough.

5. You never have to use a semicolon. (Well, semicolons are necessary if you’re writing a particularly fancy kind of list. That hardly ever comes up. I use that list rule only two or three times a year – and I’m a professional writer.)

6. English teachers love to make semicolons difficult. Here’s a typical explanation:

Use a semicolon to join two related independent clauses in place of a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet). Make sure when you use the semicolon that the connection between the two independent clauses is clear without the coordinating conjunction.

Gak. Ignore that nonsense! Try my way. It always works – and it saves brainpower for other, more important writing tasks.

Share

A Clumsy Sentence

For several years I’ve been studying Welsh on Duolingo, hoping I’ll be able to speak Welsh when I travel to Wales on a future trip.

So I enjoyed reading a New York Times article suggesting that Stonehenge (a prehistoric site I’ve visited) may have been erected in Wales and then moved to England.

Most of the article was engaging and well written. But one sentence was awkward and confusing: “The entrance to both circles were aligned toward the midsummer solstice sunrise.”

The person who wrote that sentence seems to have been confused about an important subject-verb agreement rule. I’m going to review the rule for you, and then I’ll point out a recent wrinkle.

Let’s take a simple sentence:

Misuse of prescription drugs often is/are dangerous.

What’s dangerous – the prescription drugs, or the misuse of them? Obviously the problem is misuse. (Antibiotics save lives!) So: misuse is.

Misuse of prescription drugs often is dangerous.  CORRECT

English teachers sometimes say that you need to be aware of the loud and soft parts of sentences. I think that’s a great way to explain why you need to think about misuse is in our example.

But – as I said – there’s a wrinkle: the rule is disappearing. Even the meticulously edited New Yorker magazine sometimes publishes sentences like this one:

A group of German tourists are camping here for three nights.

It should be a group is. But nowadays you don’t have to make a fuss about it.

On the other hand, let’s not abandon common sense! The journalist who wrote our Stonehenge sentence ended up writing grammatical nonsense (the circle are). Here’s my version:

The entrances to both circles were aligned toward the midsummer solstice sunrise.  CORRECT

Not difficult!  You can read more about Wales and Stonehenge at this link.

 

Share

The Singular “They”

A few weeks ago, linguistics expert John McWhorter wrote a lively article for the New York Times in favor of a change that’s coming to the English language. The singular “they” is increasingly being accepted, even by professional writers.

Here’s an example: “If anyone lost a brown leather wallet, they can claim it in Mr. Nichols’ office.” When I was in high school, I was taught that “they” is wrong. The sentence has to be written this way: “If anyone lost a brown leather wallet, he or she can claim it in Mr. Nichols’ office.”

I’m glad McWhorter is supporting the singular “they.” It’s easy, it’s natural, and it makes sense. But his article prompted a torrent of panicky letters to the Times, and I think this whole controversy is unnecessary. Below is a letter I just sent to McWhorter:

Dear John McWhorter,

I love your columns (and everything you write!). But why – oh why – are you presenting the singular “they” as something new?

It’s been around since 1375. It was standard English until the late 1700s. That’s when Lindley Murray (who didn’t even have a linguistics background) took it upon himself to try to make English more mathematical.

Jane Austen used the singular “they” 75 times in Pride and Prejudice. Henry Higgins (a stickler if there ever was one) used it in Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion: “To do someone in means to kill them” (Act III).

Shakespeare used the singular “they” in A Comedy of Errors:

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend (Act IV, Scene III)

I was disheartened reading the letters in Sunday’s Times. The sky is falling! No, it isn’t. We’re losing clarity! No, we’re not.

Here’s an analogy. Numerous grammarians (Robert Lowth, George Fox, and later our friend Lindley Murray) predicted the death of English in the 17th century when the singular you are began to take hold: “Joe, you are a wonderful friend.” (Correct grammar back then was “Thou art a wonderful friend.)

What’s unclear about “you are a wonderful friend”? Beats me! Nobody – not even the strictest grammarian – worries about using “are” (instead of “is” or “art) to speak to one person today. English survived – despite dire warnings from the grammarians.

The history of English has been thoroughly documented. It can help lay to rest many of our anxieties about linguistic change. Let’s not get hysterical about a change that happened more than 700 years ago.

Sincerely,
Jean Reynolds

(To read McWhorter’s column about the singular “they,” click here. To read the letters to the Times, click here.)

John McWhorter Wikipedia

                               John McWhorter

Share

Do We Need That Apostrophe?

Monday’s post prompted an exchange with a long-time friend who’s interested in language issues. He was surprised that I proposed omitting the apostrophe in National Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

He wants to keep the apostrophe, for two reasons. First, it adds clarity. Second, he feels that we need to keep a firm hold on our grammatical traditions. When they start slipping away, we open the door to sloppy writing and – inevitably – sloppy thinking.

My position is that the apostrophe doesn’t add anything useful. Anyone can understand “National Indigenous Peoples Day,” even though the apostrophe is missing. And I can prove it: we don’t use apostrophes when we’re talking – and yet everybody understands spoken sentences like this one:

I wish I had a recipe for my grandmother’s delicious potato pancakes.

I’m a stickler myself. I’m careful with apostrophes, and I even know how to use its and it’s correctly (rare nowadays!). But there are lots of non-sticklers out there, and they have no trouble making themselves understood.

We can admire professionalism without making false claims about it. Precise punctuation demonstrates that you take pride in your writing. You’re willing to make an extra effort to get the job done correctly. Bravo!

But that doesn’t entitle you to claim that nobody will understand a sentence if an apostrophe is missing or misplaced. Sloppy punctuation isn’t the same as sloppy thinking.

The famous playwright Bernard Shaw hated apostrophes and  left them out of most contractions. In his writings, don’t became dont, couldn’t became couldnt, and so on. But nobody has ever claimed that he was a sloppy thinker!

You might enjoy reading this: “Have We Murdered the Apostrophe?”

Punctuation marks

Share

Indigenous Peoples’ Day

When I was growing up, October 12 was a school holiday – Columbus Day, celebrating Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. In recent years the holiday was shifted to the second Monday in October.

Starting this year, we’ll be celebrating National Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. Or is it Peoples Day? Or People’s Day?

If you’re into grammar, the word people creates some thorny problems. Like men, group, team, and similar words, people refers to more than one person – but it doesn’t end in “s.” Yikes! Where does the apostrophe go?

The good news is that you never have to mess with that complicated singular/plural rule they taught you in school. There’s a much simpler way that works 100% of the time: spell the word, find the last letter, and put the apostrophe there.

men‘s shirts

our group‘s neeting

the team‘s captain

people‘s votes

But there’s another complication. (Ain’t English fun?) The word people can also refer to an ethnic group, a community, or a nation:

We’re studying the peoples of the South Pacific.  CORRECT

Notice that now the last letter is s: peoples.

So Indigenous Peoples’ Day is correct.

But wait, there’s more! You can decide that Indigenous Peoples is an adjective, not a noun. (Hey – it’s a free country!) Then you can just forget about the apostrophe.

When President Biden decided that we would celebrate our Native Americans every October, I wish he’d taken that extra step and banished the apostrophe. We don’t need it, and life is simpler without it.

A celebration for Indigenous Peoples Day

Share

“In a Persian Market”

In 1920 British composer Albert Ketèlbey (1875-1959) composed a wonderful piece of music that’s probably familiar to you: “In a Persian Market.” (You can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/pY9rHa75UHs.)

Charlie and I always enjoy the classical music channel provided by our cable TV company. We also get a kick out of seeing pictures of the composers and reading tidbits about their lives.

But sometimes the writing isn’t very good. Here’s what we read on our TV screen while we were listening to “In a Persian Market” today:

Ketèlbey received a scholarship to Trinity College, where he attended.

That is a weak sentence. It sputters to the end – exactly what you don’t want a sentence to do.

How do you fix it? I have two pieces of advice for you:

  1. Don’t try tweaking a bad sentence. That never helps.
  2. Start over with a new sentence.

Here’s my revision:

Ketèlbey attended Trinity College as a scholarship student.  BETTER

Problem solved!

Sheet music for Ketelby's "In a Persian Market"

Share

Is Grammar Useful?

Recently a frustrated English teacher posted this question online: What’s the difference between a direct and an indirect object?

I know the answer, of course – and I was tempted to explain the difference. But then I decided it would be better to ask a question of my own: Who cares?

Grammar gobbledygook (like “direct” and “indirect object”) is a leftover from a long-ago time when Latin was considered the perfect language. English teachers back then figured that if you learned the fine points of Latin grammar, you would be able to write as brilliantly as Cicero, Herodotus, and Virgil did.

What happened instead was that confused students memorized heaps of language concepts that had nothing whatsoever to do with English.

Take a look at these sentence pairs:

I gave him a dog.

I gave a dog a bone.

Now look at these sentence pairs (in Latin):

Canem ei dedi. (I gave him a dog.)

Cani os dedi. (I gave a dog a bone.)

The word dog is different in both Latin sentences: canem (direct object) and cani (indirect object). But in English, a dog is always…a dog.

If you’re not learning Latin, why do you need Latin grammar? I say you don’t.

But I have English teacher friends who sincerely believe that students should know these terms. I’ve gently asked them to explain why they matter. The response from them is always bewildered silence. They had teachers who thought grammar was really important, and they’re determined to keep that tradition alive.

That’s not a good enough answer.

Please, please – spend your time learning the skills that will help you write better. If you’re not sure where to start, go to your library and find a good book about writing – something with advice you can use right away.

Or (another suggestion) read up on something that interests you. That’s a great way to improve your vocabulary and sharpen your sentence skills. (Just make sure it’s not a book about grammar!)

Share

“Preterite”?

I spend a lot of time reading and answering questions about writing online. A while ago someone asked whether this sentence was correct: “I am writing to notify you that we decided not to renew our lease.”

Share

What I Learned This Year

Charlie and I are vaccinated, and we rarely wear masks any more (though we still carry them with us). I’m hoping that the frequent-hand-washing habit we developed this year will stay with us.

We know a number of people who had COVID, and I’m happy to report that all of them pulled through.

When the sheltering-in-place orders were first announced in 2020, I made two important decisions. The first was to do everything I could to avoid getting infected with COVID.

The second was to make some serious progress on the Shaw book I was writing. I set a goal of two completed chapters.

It’s now more than a year since everything shut down. (Who knew it would be that long?) The Shaw book is…finished! (Ta-da!) A publisher is looking at it right now.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about some of the lessons I learned while writing the book. Or – in some cases – relearned.

Here’s the most important one: I need to acknowledge my limitations.

I consider myself an excellent time manager. (In fact I’ve written a book about my quirky time-management system: Five Minutes a Day.) The first chapter is about the Hercules myth (also called the “All-or-Nothing-Myth”). It’s the fallacy that we can – and should – be able to get everything done.

Before the pandemic, I’d spent months and months writing a book about Bernard Shaw in my spare time. All I had to show for all that time and effort was one completed chapter and lots of abandoned attempts at other chapters.

It looked as if I’d never finish it. In fact it looked as if I’d never finish Chapter Two.

Hunkering down for the pandemic (no socializing, no dancing, no traveling, minimal housework) gave me the time and space to think deeply about the book I was writing

A year has gone by, and I’ve written a book I’m proud of. Ironically, however, I’m also somewhat more humble than I was a year ago. I discovered (for the umpteenth time!) that I’m not Superwoman.

I’m not the kind of person who can wrestle difficult content into a book while keeping a spotless house, dancing at every opportunity, and whizzing around with my friends.

One Thing at a Time. If you’re facing a difficult challenge, it’s a good rule to follow!

Superman comic book cover

Share