Category Archives: Sense and Nonsense

Is “Pre” Necessary?

Now that there’s been a shift in power in Congress, we can expect a lot of debate about the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as “Obamacare”). It’s going to be a difficult time for me because there’s going to be a lot of talk about pre-existing conditions.

Gack. Can anyone tell me the difference between an “existing” condition and a “pre-existing condition”?

Recently I came across a newspaper article about “premade” lunches that parents can purchase for their children to take to school. What, pray tell, is the difference between a “made” lunch and a “premade” lunch?

What about “prearrange,” “preplan,” and “preregister”?

Sometimes “pre” is useful (“prepay” and “preorder” emphasize that you’re shelling out your money ahead of time). And not all repetition is bad. Because the human brain is easily distracted, it’s sometimes helpful to say things more than once: “I will not – repeat not – vote for this bill.”

But do we really need words like “precooked,” “prepackaged,” and “precut”?

question marks on each side of a cube


Alleged Assaults on the English Language

Please note that I’m not talking politics today. Note too that I’m all for pointing out a politician’s grammar and usage mistakes. But you need to make sure you know what you’re talking about.

I was interested in a couple of recent articles about President Trump’s allegedly bad English. And I came down on the side of…the President. Let’s look at three of the complaints.

#1: “No matter how good I do on something, they’ll never write good. I mean, they don’t write good. They have people over there, like Maggie Haberman, and others, they don’t write good. They don’t know how to write good.”

Of course all those repetitions of write good should be changed to write well. But here’s the thing: Donald Trump is a New Yorker (like me – well, I’m an ex-New Yorker). New Yorkers often use good instead of well. I still fall into that old habit. When someone is talking informally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame them for slipping into regional word patterns. 

#2: Commenting on the DNC email hack during the first presidential debate, Trump said that the culprit “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

A commentator I read found two mistakes: a dangling modifier (weighs 400 pounds should be placed next to somebody) and an agreement error (their bed should be his or her bed).

I agree about the dangling modifier. But I have sworn off “his or her” (after teaching that usage – I’m ashamed to admit – for some 30 years). Did you notice that I used “unfair to blame them” in my response to #2? I have become an advocate for the singular they. (Incidentally, I would have made a change that the commentator overlooked – changing “that” to “who.”)

Here’s my version:

“...the culprit “could be somebody weighing 400 pounds who’s sitting on their bed , OK?”

#3 is a Tweet that offended somebody because a sentence has five commas.

An edited Tweet by President Trump

It’s true that I have a private rule of thumb that limits me to three commas. But here’s the thing: it’s a rule of thumb – a guide – rather than a RULE. It’s a handy warning that a sentence might be too complicated or pompous – or just plain unreadable.

I would never criticize someone for using five commas. Actually Trump’s sentence is a sophisticated one that’s correctly written.

Before you correct someone else’s English, make sure you know what you’re talking about!


My Fair Lady

I’m in New York! A couple of nights ago, a friend and I went to see a lavish production of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center. (They had a two-story house onstage – and it revolved!) My Fair Lady is based, of course, on Shaw’s wonderful play Pygmalion.

Shaw scholars sometimes gnash their teeth when My Fair Lady is mentioned. Shaw hated the idea of turning his play into a musical, and the Shaw estate had to wait until he died to bring My Fair Lady to Broadway. Along the way, Shaw’s edgy and provocative play became tamer and more conventional.

I’m a Shaw scholar myself, but I have a much more friendly attitude towards My Fair Lady. It was, after all, my first introduction to Shaw – and it’s a wonderful play with a glorious score.

But it’s not Shaw. Friday night I noticed something for the first time in “Why Can’t the English,” a song from the show. Henry Higgins is bewailing the sad state of the English language, and he sings, “In America, they haven’t used it for years.”

No linguistics expert would ever say that, and neither would Shaw himself. I’m an American, and I don’t think there’s anything in this post that’s inferior to British English – or even significantly different.

Yes, there are differences in spelling and pronunciation when you cross the Atlantic Ocean. But that doesn’t mean one side of that body of water is right and the other side is wrong. Shaw would never have taken that snobbish position.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Here’s one of many reasons I adore Shaw: he thought New York accents were “elegant.” Yikes! I’ve always been ashamed of mine, and I’ve struggled – in vain – to erase it. My accent is a dead giveaway that I grew up on Long Island and attended public schools. I do not (sigh) have a classy accent.

But here’s what’s funny. If you didn’t grow up in New York, an accent like mine is extremely difficult to imitate. (Ask any actor!)

People think “boyd” is the New York pronunciation for bird. Nope! What we actually say sounds something like “buh-eed.” There are all kinds of subtleties like this embedded in our accent. Another feature of a New York accent is that we turn most of our vowels into diphthongs. And – famously – we often drop the r in words.

I suspect that all regional accents have these subtleties – and they all carry a linguistic history. I’ve been told that my New York accent originated in – of all places – Ireland and was brought here by immigrants.

If you’re a Beatles fan, you probably know that people from Liverpool tend to make the word book rhyme with Luke. (The boo– sounds like a Halloween boo.) That pronunciation proves they’re not educated, right?

Wrong. Book-rhymes-with-Luke is actually the original pronunciation. It died out in most places in England but lived on in Liverpool. So our Liverpudlian friends can snobbishly claim that they’re more authentic than the rest of us.

So – yes, I have a stubborn New York accent. But I also have an enlightened and respectful attitude towards other people’s speech habits, and that is something I can be proud of. Besides, Shaw thought my accent was “elegant.” So there!

                             My Fair Lady



That “Engfish” is not a typo.

A new semester will be starting this week in countless high schools and colleges. I’ve been thinking about the years I spent teaching English in a business school, a prison school, and a two-year college. Those were wonderful years, but it’s also true that I often felt frustrated about my students’ writing.

Those memories triggered thoughts about Ken Macrorie, a professor of English at Western Michigan University who despaired over the lifeless writing (he called it Engfish) that his students submitted every semester.

In a remarkable display of humility and honesty, he wrote a wonderful book (Uptaught, Hayden, 1970) that roundly placed the blame on…his teaching methods. Uptaught should be required reading for everyone who teaches English.

Or Engfish.

I’ve read more than my share of lifeless writing (and, alas, probably produced a good bit of it myself). The problem is not (surprisingly) weak language skills. I know that sounds crazy, but here’s what I’ve discovered again and again: Students produce wonderful papers if they have something to say.

And there’s the rub. What can an 18-year-old say that a middle-aged English instructor will find interesting?

My own solution was to create some controversy in my classrooms. My lower-level developmental classes studied scientific evidence about the Loch Ness Monster. Upper-level developmental students studied the Fall River Axe Murders (of Lizzie Borden fame). Sophisticated ideas, I learned, automatically generate sophisticated writing.

On the other hand, if you give students a weak topic, you’ll get weak writing back. It’s that simple.

What I really want to write about today, however, is Engfish: Expressions and ideas that immediately tip me off that I’m reading a weak paper.

#1: I would put in today’s society at the top of the list.

If this phrase has crept into something you’ve written, crumple it up, find a new topic, and start over. In today’s society is a dead giveaway that you don’t have anything provocative to say.

#2: ____________ (fill in a name) was born in ___________________.

If that’s the most interesting thing you can come up with to kick off your paper, you too need to start over.

#3: Any generalization about most people or everyone or all of us. (Everyone knows what love feels like. Money is important to all of us. Most people like to travel.) If the idea, experience, or emotion you’re discussing is that commonplace, it’s unlikely to be interesting.

What are some solutions to the Engfish problem?

Macrorie is a big fan of freewriting – allowing students to write honestly and freely in order to find a topic that’s fresh and real. I’ve already mentioned another approach: Bringing stimulating materials to class – a case study, for example, that challenges students to dig deeper into a subject.

I once attended an English teachers’ workshop that offered a different strategy that has worked beautifully for my students: Ask them to write about their jobs. We English professors are often a pampered lot who forget what minimum-wage workplaces are really like. If you want to see some amazing papers, ask your students to describe a typical day at work. Or tell you about their boss.

But remind them first that you won’t be accepting any Engfish.



Dead Leaves Become a News Story

My friend Mary Dague told me about this headline from last Sunday’s newspaper: “Couple found dead leaves behind young boys.” Sadly, the story isn’t about dead leaves that were found behind some young boys. It’s about three small boys who lost their parents to an opioid overdose.

The obvious problem is the nature of headlines, which often omit words to save space and catch readers’ attention. The expanded sentence is perfectly clear:

A couple that was found dead has left behind young boys.

There are two points worth making today:

  1.  If you’re writing for anyone but yourself (a diary, for example), always have another person check what you’ve written.
  2. The postmodernists are right: language is a slippery business, full of booby traps for unsuspecting writers.

And I’m going to make an additional point: Today’s sentence might benefit from passive voice. It’s clear that the real concern is the young boys who have lost their parents. Passive voice allows you to put the boys in the position of importance: the front of the sentence.

Young boys were left behind when their parents were found dead.  PASSIVE VOICE

I sometimes encounter self-proclaimed language experts who insist that passive voice is always wrong. Don’t believe them!


Hello, Singular “They”!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

I’m celebrating a recent story from the Associated Press. Last week the AP announced that it has started allowing journalists to use “they” as a singular pronoun. (You can read more about their decision here.)

You might be surprised that I – one of the crankiest grammar curmudgeons on this planet – am happy about the change. If so, I have another surprise for you: I switched over to the singular “they” several months ago.

Before I go any further, I probably need to explain what all the fuss is about. English teachers (including me) have long railed against sentences like this one:

Does each member know that they’re supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  SINGULAR “THEY”

Here’s the corrected version:

Does each member know that he or she is supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  BETTER

The reasoning is that “each member” is singular, so you need a singular pronoun: he or she. I used to be a believer, and some years ago I published not one but two English textbooks that came out sternly against the singular “they.”

Like many writers, I found that “he or she” clumsy and annoying, and I’ve always refused to use it. But there are workarounds, and I included them in my textbooks. My personal favorite has always been to make a problematic sentence plural:

Do members know that they’re supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  BETTER

Last year, though, I finally started to rebel. I was writing an article for a police blog about strategies to help keep cops safe when they’re working alone during a traffic stop. One popular trick is for an officer to open and close a door on the police car twice to make it seem that there are two cops at the scene, not just one.

Another trick is for an  officer working alone to use “we” instead of “I.” So the officer might walk over to a waiting car and ask, “Do you know why we pulled you over today?”

So there I was, tapping away on my keyboard, writing “cops” and “officers” so that I could avoid that @#$%! “he or she”: But wait a minute! I wanted to emphasize that the cop was alone on the highway and dealing with a potentially dangerous driver. So I didn’t want to write “cops” or “officers.”

On the other hand, if I wrote “a cop,” I was obliged to write “he or she” and “him or her” throughout my article. The final piece would be wordy and clumsy.

And so – with trembling fingers – I used the singular “they” and “their” throughout my article. Here’s a sample:

An officer who’s working alone should always be aware of their surroundings.  SINGULAR THEY

When I finished writing my article, I nervously submitted it to the website. Guess what – the editor accepted my post and paid my fee!

Yes, I felt a few tremors under my feet. But I also thought regretfully about all the time I’ve wasted over the years revising sentences to avoid that damned “he or she” construction.

There’s another reason – and this one might surprise you – why I’ve decided to go with the singular “they”: It’s actually more correct than our clumsy “he or she” practice, at least from a historical perspective.

Grammatically speaking, our modern English language is a stripped-down and diminished version of what it once was. We’ve lost most of our verb conjugations and noun declensions. Many of the word endings that once denoted case, tense, and number are gone, and instead we rely heavily on word order.

Somewhere along the way, English also lost its gender-neutral singular pronoun. Our English-speaking forefathers and foremothers never noticed its disappearance. They happily used “they” – until Lindley Murray (an 18th-century attorney who’s the villain of this piece) declared that “they” was wrong.

Everyone caved in. Well, not everyone. Writers and teachers went along with Murray under the mistaken belief that he knew what he was talking about. (He didn’t). Meanwhile everybody else kept using “they” as they always had.

And so it is that centuries later, students walk into English classrooms and are surprised to learn that a language pattern they’ve always used in conversation – and heard their parents and grandparents and, well, almost everyone else using – is wrong.

That abuse of the English language is coming to an end, and I’m doing my bit to help the movement along. Last week I deleted the “no-singular-they” rule from a pronoun handout I’d been using for years.

It’s a new era! And guess what – life still seems pretty normal, despite the change. We will survive this…and so will the English language.

By the way – did you notice that I slipped a singular “they” into today’s post?

Meanwhile everybody else kept using “they” as they always had.



More about Self-Publishing

I’m a big fan of self-publishing. So today I want to add a few thoughts to my previous post about an article that condemns self-publishing and the people who do it: Self-Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word.

The writer, Laurie Gough, makes two serious errors. First, she believes that commercial publishing is a process that ensures quality, while self-publishing does not.

I can speak from experience here because I’ve published books both ways, and I’m also an avid reader. Most commercial books no longer go through a quality-control process. Editors – the unsung heroes who turn imperfect manuscripts into excellent books – are disappearing. Fast. If you do get to work with a professional editor, it will frequently be for one chapter only. (Want an example? Read my comments about a memoir written by Dylan Thomas’s daughter.) Simon & Schuster still hooks up its writers with superb editors – but it is an exceptional company.

Gough’s second error is believing that you can’t be a writer unless you’re a very special person. In fact Gough is offended by people who self-publish instead of taking the commercial route. That’s insulting.

I’ve read some marvelous self-published books – and it’s very likely that you have too. The best career guide I’ve ever read is What Color Is Your Parachute? It’s a self-published book that keeps selling in updated editions year after year.

Some self-published books are later acquired by commercial publishers. That happens much more often than you might think. (It happened to my own book Police Talk, which was picked up by Pearson in 2001).

I’ll give Gough credit for some good points. Here’s one: “Good writers only become good because they’ve undertaken an apprenticeship.” She’s right – but there are many ways to complete that apprenticeship besides working with a commercial publisher (who probably won’t want to spend its limited resources on a new author like you). A writing group can help you. You can hire your own editor. You can learn your craft by writing for magazines and newspapers. You can read, read, read, and then read some more.

I know many people who’ve been writing since childhood (something I’ve done myself). Doesn’t that constitute an apprenticeship?

Here’s an anecdote from Laurie Gough that shocked me:

Did you ever hear what Margaret Atwood said at a party to a brain surgeon? When the brain surgeon found out what she did for a living, he said, “Oh, you’re a writer! When I retire I’m going to write a book.” Margaret Atwood said, “Great! When I retire I’m going to be a brain surgeon!”

Gough then goes on to denigrate people who “dash off a ‘book’ in a few months.”

Laurie, I’m going to set you straight about a couple of things. First, not all self-published books are “dashed off.” I spent years (that’s not a typo) writing my reflective book Gretel’s Story, and I’ve received some wonderful feedback about it. (Yes, it’s a self-published book.)

And here’s something else I want to say to you, Laurie. You’re a…snob. That’s not very nice, and it pains me to say it, but it’s true.

Many people (perhaps most people) have something in their hearts and souls that is worth committing to paper, even though it may reach only a small audience. I’ve already talked about my never-to-be-fulfilled yearning to read about my Grandmother Knapp’s childhood and early years in the US after she left Finland.

Think of a child’s thrill on Christmas morning when he unwraps a book that contains the poems or stories he has shyly been sharing with you for the last two years. Or the smile on a little girl’s face when she reads a picture book you’ve written with her as the central character.

Do you think those children will carry those memories with them for life? And that perhaps their future children will one day enjoy reading those books?

Perhaps you’re wondering whether a self-published book can ever match the quality of a commercial book. The answer is yes – if you know what to do. You can find some tips in a post I wrote about a biography of Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset. The book was wonderful – and would have been even better if the author had followed a few simple tips.

Enough ranting. Please, please write your book. Self-publishing is inexpensive and accessible to everyone.

You’ll get a huge feeling of accomplishment when you hold your book in your hands for the first time. And oh, the places you’ll go if it catches on with a wider audience! (Yes, some self-published books do.)

(You can find free advice about self-publishing by clicking here.)



Should You Self-Publish?

On May 12, 1937, King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, were crowned in Westminster Abbey. Their eleven-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, attended the ceremony and later wrote about the experience in a small notebook.

Her account begins when she awoke on “a cold, misty morning” and went down the passage in Buckingham Palace to the bathroom – and ran into her swimming instructor, Miss Dailey, who was one of the guests at the ceremony. After the ceremony, the Princess tied a blue ribbon around the notebook and presented it to her parents as a gift. It went on display years later when the United Kingdom celebrated the anniversary of the coronation.

And that is why you should self-publish. You’re never going to be as famous as the British royal family (and I doubt that you’d want to be). But your life has momentous events as well, and a written account – even an imperfect one – will very likely be treasured by friends and family members in years to come.

What wouldn’t I give for an account of my grandmother’s trip from Finland to Ellis Island? To read about how she fell in love with my grandfather? And what it was like to rear children on limited money in a country that was new to her?

I remember, in my teens, prowling in our attic and finding a notebook that recorded the minutes of a club my mother and her friends had started as children. I was fascinated. That woman I knew so well downstairs washing the dishes – she was once a child. She had friends. They had fun – and it was all so vivid and alive. (Sadly, that notebook has vanished.)

I wish I still had the stories I wrote when I was in sixth grade. They were based on Christmas celebrations around the world, and I’d love to know what kind of writer I was back then.

If you have some basic word-processing skills (or can lean on a friend who does), you can publish an impressive paperback, complete with pictures, for less than five dollars, including postage. (That’s not a typo.) Imagine writing a story for – or about – a family member and presenting it as a birthday or Christmas gift. Imagine…you can probably think of countless possibilities that wouldn’t occur to me.


But what if you’re not writing a personal book for family and friends? Is anyone going to pay money for a book you self-published?

The answer is a cautious yes.

In 2011 I self-published Criminal Justice Report Writing. After a slow start, I began seeing reviews on Gradually the book began to sell. Academies adopted it for their students. (One huge advantage is that my book is much cheaper than the competing books from big publishers. I don’t have the enormous overhead that corporate publishers have to deal with.) There are now 46 reviews on Amazon, and sales are steady and growing all over the world.

Even better, that book has led to a number of well-paying consultant jobs.

A year ago I self-published another book called What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You. It too is attracting a following. This time I’m more knowledgeable about how the process works, and I’m thrilled with what I’ve accomplished.


I’m telling you all of this because I just read a @#$%! article that derides self-published books. The author, Laurie Gough, has a limited understanding of how commercial publishers operate nowadays, and her ideas about writing are just as limited. I’ll have more to say in my next post.

For the record, I’ve published six books with commercial publishers. I evaluate book submissions for a university press, and I’m a member of the editorial board for a scholarly journal. I know what I’m talking about.

(If you’re thinking about self-publishing, I have some free advice for you! Click here.)

               King George VI and Queen Elizabeth



Philip Larkin

If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you probably remember an episode when the gang plays a drinking game called “Never Have I Ever.”

Here’s how it works: Somebody makes a statement beginning with “Never Have I Ever….” If it’s something you’ve done, you take a shot of whatever beverage everyone is drinking. You can see a clip here:

Let’s play! I’ll start: “Never Have I Ever used ‘that of’ in a sentence.’

Did you take a shot?

Sentences with “that of” are almost always clumsy, and I’ve come to hate that phrase. The “that of” construction is probably a residue of the discredited belief that language is supposed to be logical. (It’s not, in case anyone asks.)

Lately, alas, there seems to be a “that of” epidemic going around.

In fact I just came across a “that of” sentence, and the consequence is that I’m probably going to be cranky for the next 30 minutes. The sentence is about the poet Philip Larkin. Here it is:

Larkin’s day job was that of librarian at the University of Hull.


What’s wrong with “Larkin’s day job was librarian at the University of Hull”? Or – better yet – “Larkin was a librarian at the University of Hull”?

Philip Larkin

       Philip Larkin



An Unexpected Lesson from Sir Winston Churchill

I subscribe to Today in Literature, a free e-newsletter about books, poetry, and authors from around the world. (It’s amazing what I don’t know about literature, in spite of my doctorate!)

A recent edition featured an excerpt from My Early Years, a memoir by Sir Winston Churchill.

See if you notice the same thing I did. Churchill is remembering that the smart boys in his class were taught Latin and Greek. Duller boys – Churchill among them – were relegated to – gasp – an English class:

We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks….It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

Churchill is one of many people over the years who believe that good writing is grounded in a thorough knowledge of English grammar. I think they’re wrong (I still don’t know how to diagram a sentence!).

Obviously I don’t have the stature to argue with Churchill. But here’s what struck me when I read that excerpt: Churchill was arguing against himself. Take a look at these sentences:

He knew how to do it.

It was a kind of drill.

We did it almost daily.

I learned it thoroughly.

Now look at these sentences:

Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English.

Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

Despite those fond memories of Mr. Somervell’s classes, Churchill didn’t learn how to write that way in school. Churchill’s style features many straightforward declarative sentences (“We did it almost daily”) that any fifth grader could write without the instruction in sentence analysis that Churchill was subjected to.

But what about those long, fancy sentences? Here’s the other thing that struck me about Churchill’s writing: He was addicted to dashes. (So am I, by the way.)

I can just about guarantee that Mr. Somervell didn’t allow his students to use dashes, which are spontaneous punctuation marks that don’t work with formal sentence analysis. (Personal testimony: I graduated from a Catholic college in 1967. We weren’t allowed to use dashes.) 

My suspicion is Churchill left out an important feature of Mr. Somervell’s classes: Actual writing. I would bet the farm (if I owned one) that students spent hours and hours writing and revising essays for Mr. Somervell. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you learn to write. You plop into a chair, pick up a pen (or put your fingers on a keyboard), and get to it.


I can’t resist offering one more example to argue my point. Take a look at these sentences from this post and see if you notice anything:

Personal testimony: I graduated from a Catholic college in 1967. We weren’t allowed to use dashes.

There’s an indefinite pronoun reference! If you tried to diagram the second sentence, you’d notice that we has no antecedent. A grammarian would say that the word students has to appear somewhere in the previous sentence.

I say…bosh. Precision is a wonderful thing, but lively writing should always take precedence.

Sir Winston Churchill

            Sir Winston Churchill