Jean Cleans Out a Folder

The folder where I store ideas about writing is starting to fill up! Here are some recent items:

1.  We often hear that complaints that language skills are deteriorating. I just came across some evidence that writing mistakes are nothing new. On September 5, 1819, poet John Keats sent a letter with a “should of” mistake. (“Should have” is the correct verb.)

“Had I known of your illness I should not of written in such sorry phrase in my first letter.”

What’s interesting is that elsewhere in the letter, Keats used “should have” correctly. So what happened? He made a careless mistake. That is not a sign that the sky is falling!

(I found the John Keats letter in Making Sense, a wonderful book about writing by David Crystal.)

2. Here’s a problematic sentence that Crystal talks about in his book. Can you figure out what’s wrong?

He had a large collection of illustrated magazines and books.

The grammar is fine, but the sentence is confusing. It could mean that the books are illustrated too – or maybe they’re not. Here’s a better version:

He had a large collection of books and illustrated magazines.

3.  Speaking of confusing sentences, here’s one I found on Quora:

Why are shop owners careless to leave the cash register unattended?

The sentence could have two meanings. That’s always bad when you’re trying to communicate with your readers. Here are two suggested rewrites:

Why do we think that shop owners are careless when they leave the cash register unattended?

Why do careless shop owners leave the cash register unattended?

4. If you read my blog often, you know that I despise the word respective. It’s empty and pompous, and you shouldn’t use it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Here’s a gack-worthy sentence from the New Yorker – which is usually meticulous about editing:

In their respective starring roles, Aidy Bryant and Pamela Adlon play messy, interesting characters who refuse to make nice.

Get rid of respective, and the sentence is fine. And that deletion doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

5. Good writers try to make most sentences active. That’s easy to say, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to apply that principle! Here’s an example (again, from David Crystal’s Making Sense):

The opportunities for advancement were an important factor in my decision to take the job.

“The opportunities were” is too static. Here’s a more lively version:

I took the job because it offered opportunities for advancement.


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