Jean Reynolds holds a Ph.D. in English and is an internationally recognized Shaw scholar. She has published 12 books and numerous articles. She is Professor Emerita of English at Polk State College in Florida, where her teaching experience also includes classes at a police academy and a prison school. She has been married to Charlie Reynolds, garden writer for the Ledger, since 1973. Jean is an avid ballroom dancer.
Contact Jean at jreynoldswrite @ aol.com.
Jean’s books include:
Language and Metadrama in Major Barbara and Pygmalion (Palgrave)
Sentence Power (Holt, Rinehart & Winston)
Introduction to College Writing (Pearson)
Pygmalion’s Wordplay: The Postmodern Shaw (University Press of Florida)
Succeeding in College (Pearson)
Police Talk – with the late Mary Mariani (Pearson)
What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You (Maple Leaf Press) (sponsored link)
Five Minutes a Day: Time Management for People Who Put Things Off (Maple Leaf Press)
Gretel’s Story: Finding the Way Home (Maple Leaf Press)
Criminal Justice Report Writing (Maple Leaf Press)
Shaw and Feminisms: Onstage and Off (co-edited with D.A. Hadfield, University Press of Florida)
I have just come across your website, and it has lots of great content. Thanks for sharing your insights on writing with the rest of us!
One thing I notice is that there is no option to “follow” this blog. Have you intentionally disabled this feature? (Or am I missing it?)
Normally, all WordPress blogs have a “Follow” button that individuals can choose to press. If they do so, every time the blog author publishes a new post, the followers receive an email notification with a link to the new post.
Thanks for the feedback, Tom! (I’ve been on vacation – finally have a chance to catch up on messages.) I’m having tech support check into the “Follow” issue. I really appreciate your letting me know about the issue.
I discovered your site this morning. It will be a good day.
Hi Jean! Great work! Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this interesting blog! I am having the same concern about the “follow” button! Take care.
You need to check your july 18 quiz entry it makes no sense the way it is written.
Can you explain what’s confusing? Salted caramel ice cream really is my favorite. I can’t figure out what’s confusing – please help!
How awesome, all your works. Truly inspirational. However, can you write your next book a bit more personal, so that we can learn what makes you an expert; and what drove you to write . Starting after the English class at the prison and the forgiveness you must endure as you led a young life ….. # no bullies, tell these people the real story all faults including you are not the perfect one, you too have ghost in your closet.
Hi, Jade – I’m pleased you found my books inspirational! I hope you’re doing well.
I’m good , thanks to your books and there guide. Anyway do a shout out to your followers, maybe an autograph signing. I want one. 1081 Palm Ave., N. Ft. Myers , FL.#218B,33903.
Thanks for the feedback,
I selected three books and had copies sent to you from my publisher.
Hi, just wanted to make sure you both are doing well with this covid going on. Let me know that you are ok.
Hi, Jade – thanks for checking in with us! We’re both fine. We know several people who have had COVID. All have recovered with no lasting effects.
Hi Jean: Have just started reading the two articles you referenced to be interrupted in a moment by a trip to the farmers’ market but just had to say Shriver’s first sentence is badly written. As a reminder, she wrote “[r]egarding the purported rules of English syntax, we tend to divide into mutually hostile camps.”
Divide whom or what? Ourselves? Writers? The rules? She needs only one word, “them,” to refer back to the “rules” for clarity, as in “. . . we tend to divide them into mutually hostile camps.” But, still, inanimate, inorganic “rules” can’t be hostile, so even that correction doesn’t work very well. Does she mean “we tend to be divided into hostile camps” or “writers tend to be divided,” inasmuch as the rules themselves can’t logically be in opposing camps and hostile to each other?
Isn’t one of the latter two what she probably meant? Your thoughts?
P.S. Is “Lionel” really a female? : – )
Wow. I hope you’ve willed your brain to science! I didn’t read that first sentence as carefully as you did. I probably would have used “sort themselves” or “can be sorted.”
I hope the farmers’ market trip went well!
My email is ballroom16 at aol.com. (I used spaces to prevent spammers from finding it.) You’re welcome to use that email – we would have more privacy there.
Feel free also to comment about my writing. I have a raft of friends (and a husband) who are generous with feedback. Your eyes are sharper than mine. (Hmmm. Can an eye be sharp? Of course not.)
I’m glad you found my website! I have done very few posts since the pandemic hit. I decided this was a golden opportunity to work on the book about Shaw I’d mentioned in my comment on Quora.
Lionel Shriver is a famous novelist. (I have to admit that I’d never heard of her before I read the Harper’s article.) She hates being female and gave herself a new name. She is…odd. You can read about her in this article from The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/01/lionel-shriver-is-looking-for-trouble
Hi again, Jean: I’ve returned from buying ½ bushel of pear tomatoes, as if I actually have the time to turn them into sauce. What was I thinking? Anyway, I’ve returned to Lionel Shriver’s article, “Semantic Drift,” published in Harper’s Magazine, an event that I would find shocking, were it not for all the mediocre and poor writing I’ve become accustomed to reading on the Internet over the last 10 years or so.
For me, her writing is neither pleasant nor easy to read. It doesn’t flow. It’s missing examples that could matter depending on the education and interest of Harper’s audience (I’ve been a subscriber). Some of her sentence structure doesn’t work, and one or two sentences don’t really say what she intends. Speaking of which, she spells intention as “i-n-t-e-n-s-i-o-n.” And sometimes the article reads as if she’s trying a bit too hard to be clever, but, to be fair, I don’t have the most extensive vocabulary, so maybe that’s part of it.
BUT, I’m not the expert you are and don’t pretend to be. My degrees are business education (not my choice) and law and, though always confident about being a decent, technically proficient, though certainly not clever, writer, I didn’t know until law school at 40 that I have a passion for writing and language. Were it not for a friend coming by to cook dinner most nights, I’d rarely stop writing long enough to eat anything more than what’s easiest and quickest to prepare . . . lol
What ability I have, though, is more about instinct and having a feel for sentence structure that works best in a particular instance. When I have the time, I’ll edit a piece endlessly until it flows smoothly and has a certain rhythm so to speak. This means that, when I need technical info to answer a Quora question, I have to look it up or I turn to a handbook to confirm the correctness of my answer.
Golly, you wouldn’t believe how much time I’ve spent editing what little I’ve written thus far. With your experience and expertise, I find i’m unusually self-conscious about how each sentence is constructed lest it not meet your standards or be as correct as it should be . . . LOL
Anyway, that’s why I find Ms. Shriver’s writing difficult to read. I’ll give some examples. If you have time, let me know what you think. She misses a few commas that are needed and adds some that are not. Some sentence structure is awkward. Some references go over my head or are certain to go over the heads of most readers, especially without examples.
“Last year, in Iowa,” instead of “Last year in Iowa,”
“the em-dash effective has no rules, and is therefore horribly suited to . . .” when the comma preceding “and” doesn’t belong because it’s not followed by a complete sentence
“a direct object will hence take the accusative . . . ” instead of “object will, hence, take . . .”
“and meantime you’ve. . .” instead of “and, meantime, you’ve. . .”
There are others. Shouldn’t “thus,” “yet” and “so” be followed by a comma when beginning a sentence?
The “horribly suited” doesn’t work very well, though the reason it doesn’t hasn’t surfaced in my brain yet. Maybe aging is beginning to take its toll.
Since she states that “the restrictive and nonrestrictive uses of ‘that’ and ‘which’ . . . can have huge implications for the meaning of a sentence,” I would think readers would appreciate an example. I mean “huge implications” is a big deal.
I ran into “accusative” for the first time just last week, so I don’t know how it’s used. The dictionary isn’t clear enough, i.e. no examples, and my favorite source, Bryan Garner, only states that it’s “the case that marks the direct object of a verb or the object of certain prepositions.” But, even after reading Garner on “case,” I’m still not sure whether it means “the instance” when a pronoun is the object or means when a pronoun should be used instead of the noun. In any case, Ms. Shriver’s reference to it seems pointless in part because, if I haven’t run across it as a teacher or researcher, we can be certain the typical reader of Harper’s hasn’t either.
Ms. Shriver adamantly insists that two complete sentences “MUST NOT” (caps = emphasis only) be joined “with a comma,” but, without clarifying that she means absent a conjunction between them, the statement is wrong.
Can one be “imported from a previous century” or would the person be “reincarnated” from it?
She states that “In the analog world, then, official changes . . . were subject to,” but the analog world still exists, so “official changes to meaning and usage [are stil]l subject to . . . scrutiny.”
What is a “subeditor”? Also, in that same sentence, doesn’t the comma after “words” need a “companion” comma between “that” and “when,” as in: “Many a subeditor suffers under the misguided impression that, when the subject comprises a fair number of words, it is not only acceptable but mandatory . . . ”
I wonder if, in being facetious in such a commanding way, Ms. Shriver is giving readers the impression that these incorrect uses are now okay for real. Instead of qualifying statements with references like “people want to use X even though” or “despite the truth of A, people think X,” her statements about incorrect usage make such usage sound accurate and acceptable.
For instance, by the time readers read that “it is not only acceptable but mandatory to put a single comma between the subject and the verb,” they’ve forgotten her reference to it being a “misguided impression.” She wrote that her “students have proved too creative” without making it clear that it’s a joke.
I read somewhere that using comma(s) with “therefore” is no longer being done. But, I find the comma(s) to be necessary sometimes. What’s the deal with that?
In the 6th paragraph, Ms. Shriver wrote “I could hear when a usage was incorrect without resort to ‘Fowler’s.'” How did she miss “without resorting to” or “without having to resort to.”
Shouldn’t “Though what they want is tips on. . .” be “Though what they want are tips on . . .”?
The noun “lowdown” is thought as a singular thing that needs “the” not “a,” as in “Give me the lowdown on the game.” Ms. Shriver wrote “a five-minute lowdown on the semicolon,” but isn’t one of the following more accurate: “a five-minute monologue” or “a five-minute diatribe” or “a five-minute discourse” or “a five-minute soliloquy”? Even plain ol’ “lecture” sounds better.
Regarding the following sentence, which appears after the “language is a living tree” metaphor, a failed attempt to be clever with “a poorly cultivated plant can readily gnarl from lush foliage to unsightly sticks,” and a statement about the Internet turbocharging “grammatical decay”: “Rather than infuse English with a new vitality, this degeneration spreads the blight of sheer ignorance” ——– my problem with it is that degeneration, by definition, cannot “infuse [anything] with a new vitality.”
That is, with the words placed where they are in the sentence in combination with the use of “rather than,” the implication is that “degeneration” can and should “infuse English with a new vitality,” but it spread ignorance instead.
For a split second, the “At last mass confusion,” without a comma after “At last,” is read as a reference to the “last Catholic mass.” Besides, the comma also provides the emphasis needed and expected.
Ms. Shriver writes the awkward-to-read “Education’s having turned its back on teaching the technical aspects of composition is partially responsible for deteriorating standards . . .” What about “Education, having turned its back . . ., is partially responsible. . .” or “That education turned its back on . . . is partially responsible . . .” or “When education turned its back on . . ., it became partially responsible . . .”?
Do readers of Harper’s know what “linguistic rubrics” are? And which authoritarians are muttering about “the unreal conditional” (1st paragraph) that I’ve never heard about. What does it reference?
In reading “Utter grammatical dereliction in English,” the notion of “to utter” is what first came to mind. There’s a better way to say what she means of course. As to the rest of the sentence, not knowing the “rudiments of one’s language” is “incorrect English, so isn’t she saying the same thing twice? Also, it’s not really “grammatical dereliction” but a “dereliction of duty” in English departments. Yes?
As a reader who’s reading the article because I appreciate language, I’d like to see an example of newspapers using “quicker” instead of “more quickly” to modify a verb. Examples of other issues would facilitate understanding by the general public.
Ms. Shriver wrote “These days, what were once authoritative and inherently conservative reference sources easily acquiesce to mob rule.” Consider: “These days, authoritative and inherently conservative sources of correct English acquiesce far too easily to mob rule” or “of what’s correct grammatically” or “authoritative and inherently (isn’t ‘traditionally’ more logical?) conservative experts on correct English acquiesce too [easily[ [quickly] [soon]” or how about “mindlessly acquiesce to mob rule.”
Ms. Shriver wrote “What I thought meant ‘unruffled’ pretty much meant ‘ruffled.'” What? It meant “ruffled” then but not now? It should read “pretty much means ‘ruffled.'”
Because of the use of “so,” the paragraph that begins “So, given the pervasive misunderstanding of ‘enervated,’ any day now online dictionaries are bound to . . . ” is connecting what follows to the preceding paragraph. However, there is no such connection, as neither the term “enervated” nor any reference to anything about it is mentioned at all.
In saying a word has “slithered into the modern O.E.D., if the words represented by OED haven’t been spelled out previously in the article, then OED shouldn’t be referenced without those words. Traditionally, secretarial students were taught to do it like this: “As to Parental Alienation (“PA”), we think . . .” That tells the reader that, henceforth, PA will be used in place of the longer “Parental Alienation.” So what is the “modern OED” and are the periods necessary?
Near the end, Ms. Shriver wrote: “Yet all terrifying taskmasters bashing me over the head with Strunk and White appear to have died off.” Well, if they’re [currently] bashing her over the head, how can they have “died off”? Consider: Yet, the many terrifying taskmasters who always stood ready to bash me over the head . . . appear to have died off” or “Yet, the many terrifying taskmasters I depend on to bash me over the head with Strunk and White appear to have died off.”
Readers who’ve been to law school know all about Strunk and White because it’s a tradition for law students to rely on their book, which they’ve been doing since its publication (also true of English majors?); others may be clueless as to what that reference means.
Shouldn’t “all of” usually be just “all,” as in “recognize all my bugbears as losing battles” in the last paragraph?
Also in the last paragraph, Ms. Shriver wrote “since pedants like nothing more than to catch out other pedants.” “Catch out”? Seriously? Surely, that’s a typo, and she meant to write “call out,” right?
Inasmuch as the “Internet” is a specific entity unto itself and there is only one and, for now, it’s unlikely there will be another one, I consider it a proper noun that should be capitalized. What do you think?
She references that “one misappropriation,” use of performative verbs, “has spread like knotweed,” but, unless she is talking about how language is used on social media, which she doesn’t clarify, I haven’t a clue as to what her point is. Yet, she says that “‘performative’ in the sense of ‘posturing and insincere’ (should that be posturing and insincerity?) is everywhere,(sic) now that ‘virtue signaling’ appears to have exhausted itself.” What is “virtue signaling”? She then refers to there being “a brisk market for descriptions of left-wingers vaunting their ethical credentials with self-serving theatricality.” Also, that “the linguistic meaning of the now-fetishized word,” ‘performatory,’ has been lost.” Huh?
Clearly, the discussion in that paragraph needs examples of virtue signaling, moral flamboyance, etcetera . . . etcetera . . . etcetera, said the King. Maybe, it’s my age, but she sure lost me despite all the time I’ve spent working with language over the years.
Despite not liking all the incorrect English, she seems to agree with the use of “than me,” or maybe she’s just given up contesting it. But, in the end, all we have to do is teach and encourage people to say the whole sentence: He is taller than I am, She works harder than he does, and so on.
There’s more, but you get the picture. I feel I need to read it again to learn how she actually feels or thinks about the whole matter at this point. At the beginning, she says she’s “with the pedants.” She later calls it “a loss,” then suggests there’s a chance to “valiantly” fight the “wars.” But, in saying “for me the erosion of style, clarity, and precision . . . is a loss,” is she saying it’s a lost cause or is she saying said erosion is a loss to be mourned? She also says that “tak-tsking over sloppy grammar amounts to a haughty and rather geriatric form of entertainment,” as if to say either we (and she) shouldn’t do it or we shouldn’t expect more or better of people.
And no where does she suggest a cause for the mess, except for the reference to education being partially (is it partly or partially?) responsible, and any indication as to why it’s a lost cause is buried in and around and a part of the facetious comments.
As a baby boomer who learned sentence construction via diagramming, her writing should be better, but I’ve been suggesting that the youngest ⅛-¼ of boomers may exhibit some or many of the same adverse consequences of our post-1970 inadequate education system that burden our youngest three generations. Maybe she’s in that group, i.e. born after around 1958 (all dates are educated guesses as it’s impossible to know when each school district implemented the K-6 reforms that have failed so miserably).
It was a very disappointing article. That respected magazines like Harper’s and respected online news sources like the Washington Post and Huffington Post are publishing such mediocre writing is becoming more and more offensive and insulting. I’d like to learn more about the management-level employees who approve articles like this one. Are they unable to distinguish good writing from bad? Do they not care? Or, do they actually think or believe that readers won’t notice?
Hi, Martha! I loved your comments. I’m working on my book today – will respond soon. Jean
I really enjoyed your take on Lionel Shriver’s article! I suspect that Harper’s was dazzled by Shriver’s fame and thought the sticklers who subscribe to their magazine would appreciate her acerbic tone. (I didn’t.)
I did not read it with the editorial eye that you have! I approached it as an English professor: Is her advice consistent with the way good writers think? (No.) Does it stand up to scrutiny? (No.)
Here are some responses to your points:
Intension is a term from logic that means “the internal content of a concept.” My practice is to avoid words that are unusual or distracting. I would never allow intension unless you’re writing a logic textbook.
Some issues are (in my mind anyway!) a matter of personal taste. I dislike commas that are placed right after the beginning of a sentence. I never put a comma after but – most professional writers don’t – but it certainly isn’t wrong.
I avoid thus. I always have a debate with myself if I put a comma after yet or so. But there’s no hard-and-fast rule about those commas.
I’ve been hearing for years that some writers are omitting the comma after however and therefore. I still use those commas.
You made a great point here: For a split second, the “At last mass confusion,” without a comma after “At last,” is read as a reference to the “last Catholic mass.” Besides, the comma also provides the emphasis needed and expected.
Great points about Strunk and White and the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). I’m surprised the Harper’s editor didn’t catch these. Shriver forgets that not everyone is an English professor. (She isn’t either!)
I’m confused about “performative verbs” too. I hate grammar gobbledygook!
Great point here: Clearly, the discussion in that paragraph needs examples of virtue signaling, moral flamboyance, etcetera . . . etcetera . . . etcetera, said the King. (I saw a wonderful revival of The King and I in New York a couple of years ago.)
I would allow the commas in these even if I didn’t use them myself:
“Last year, in Iowa,” instead of “Last year in Iowa,” I think commas can interrupt the flow of a sentence, and I often have a debate with myself about using them. But many good writers think those commas are elegant.
“a direct object will hence take the accusative . . . ” instead of “object will, hence, take . . .” (Grammar gobbledygook – Shriver apparently studied Latin in high school. Accusative is the Latin term for objective case.)
“and meantime you’ve. . .” instead of “and, meantime, you’ve. . .”
“the em-dash effective has no rules, and is therefore horribly suited to . . .” when the comma preceding “and” doesn’t belong because it’s not followed by a complete sentence. (I might allow the comma if the writer is hearing a pause there, even though I wouldn’t use it myself.)
I absolutely agree with you when you write: Since she states that “the restrictive and nonrestrictive uses of ‘that’ and ‘which’ . . . can have huge implications for the meaning of a sentence,” I would think readers would appreciate an example. I mean “huge implications” is a big deal.
-One of my rare gripes with Between You and Me (Mary Norris’s wonderful book) is that she doesn’t provide enough examples.
-I hate grammar gobbledygook and despise the terms restrictive and nonrestrictive. If I were an absolute dictator, I’d make it a capital offense to use those terms. Independent clause is another term that should be banned. Do students know what an independent clause is? (I can answer that: they don’t.) What’s wrong with “sentence”?
Most style manuals today lower-case Internet. I think the AP Stylebook was the first, and others followed suit. I now lower-case it too.
There are a few ways to approach the “than me” issue. My go-to sources for grammar controversies are:
1. The OED. Many supposedly recent controversies go back much further than we think. For example, literally/figuratively confusion dates back to 1769. “Than” as a pronoun goes back to 1257 — it was a common usage in Middle English.
2. The American Heritage Dictionary, which polls their Usage Panel of prominent writers on various issues and tracks the percentages over the years. They have a long Usage Note on “than me,” but—oddly—they haven’t asked their Usage Panel to weigh in on it. No help there! (My practice is to transfer a controversial usage to the “accepted” category in my head when the approval rating from the Panel reaches around 80%.)
3. The New Yorker Magazine. Their editors are meticulous. When a controversial usage shows up in The New Yorker, I take that as a divine sign that it has moved into the “accepted” category.
4. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. This is the most sensible and credible reference book on English rules. Fowler says that “than I” is formal, and “than me” is informal. I would never use “than me” in a scholarly article, but I’m perfectly comfortable with it in conversation. “Than I” can be distracting in an informal setting – sort of like wearing a fancy dress to a picnic.
5. Research. Often I can track a rule to find out whether it’s longstanding or made up by someone who wasn’t qualified to be a grammar expert.
So what does all this add up to?
The OED says that using than as a preposition (“than me”) is “obscure.” Nowadays it’s used only as a conjunction (“than I”). My reaction is: Huh? Maybe it’s just Long Island, where I grew up, but I’ve been hearing “than” used as a preposition (“than me”) all my life. (I’m having an anxiety attack here. How dare I disagree with the OED?)
Research shows that the Robert Lowth invented the “than me” prohibition in the 18th century. I class him with Lindley Murray (also from the 18th century – he was the self-appointed grammarian who took it upon himself to ban the singular “they”). I do not go to either one for grammatical advice. You don’t get to make up your own grammar rules, guys.
When I saw a “than me” in a New Yorker article, that clinched the deal for me. I immediately deleted the “than me” rule from a pronoun handout I created many years ago. It’s dustbin time, as far as I’m concerned.
Thanks for your thoughtful response to Shriver’s article! If you get a chance to read my take on it, I’ll be very interested in your reaction.
Jean – Hi there. I feel I should be paying you for your expertise and the opportunity to “pick your brain,” as it were.
I’ve always used lots of comma, but I’ve been re-evaluating that the past six months. As I read more good writing that uses fewer commas. I think, hmm, maybe I don’t need to use quite so many. I’ve never accepted “pausing” as a reason to use a comma, but, in my pursuit of flow, I now wonder whether I apply it unconsciously. Whenever I have the opportunity on Quora, I advise people to never use it as a reason to use a comma because the general public can’t apply such a vague concept without ending up with commas in the most ridiculous places.
Here’s a question I’ve been dying to ask an expert: why doesn’t anyone use the comma I used after “but” above in “as a reason to use a comma, but, in my pursuit of flow, I now wonder whether”? It’s so not used by writers that, if you ever do see it, I’m the one who put it there. The reason is that the sentence is “but I now wonder” that’s interrupted by “in my pursuit of flow.” If the comma is omitted, the phrase “but in my pursuit of flow” becomes the (nonrestrictive ha!) interruption that can be removed without affecting the rest of the sentence, except that isn’t true.
In other words, I can’t find a reason not to add it, but you won’t see anyone else doing it. In fact, even I wasn’t adding it in my own writing until about 2-3 years ago when, out of the blue, I read a sentence more critically and realized the need for a pair of commas rather than just one.
More later. Where’s the best place to continue the discussion? Do your followers read this area and would it be of interest to them? Maybe we could turn the discourse into a book . . . LOL . . . as if you were looking for another project before finishing your current one. My big thing is the thought process used to work through these confusing issues. More on that later, too, after my medical appt.
P.S. I love that you’re a ballroom dancer. If you see the username “dancinggirl,” that’s moi. The friend who drops by to cook dinner every night is someone I met when applyng for a job to teach ballroom in Western New York (I was licensed to practice only in OH . . . long story), but I was considered too old at 47. He, on the other hand, was hired at a grey-haired 50. Hmmm. And the beat goes on. I’m not professionally trained, anyway. I learned at age 10 and 11 by watching the upper-body movements of the dancers (the camera was rarely focused on their feet) on the original American Bandstand, and they didn’t do most dances in the ballroom genre, so the studio owner was probably right not to hire me. : – )