Category Archives: Sense and Nonsense

Dead Words

I just read an article with some advice for writers about avoiding “dead words” – words empty of meaning including very, funa lotsaid, nice, cool, and really.

As so often happens when someone pontificates about writing, the article features a mixture of good advice and absolute nonsense. Here’s a response I posted after I read the article:

“Said” is hardly a dead word. “Said” is the only word journalists use to introduce direct quotations. You’ll rarely see “replied,” “commented,” “noted,” or similar words in a newspaper article. Do readers object to the repeated use of “said” – sometimes a hundred or more times – when they read a newspaper? Few of them even notice. (I never did until someone told me about the practice.)

I could also have pointed out that alot is a common misspelling, not a “dead word.” And I use fun all the time. (The author probably meant that we should avoid using fun as an adjective – “We had a fun time at the party” – but I would call that a colloquialism, not a dead word.)

On the other hand, I agree with the advice about avoiding very, really, and nice. (“Cool” I would classify as another colloquialism.) Etiquette columnist Miss Manners recommends substituting charming whenever you’re tempted to use the word nice, and I think that’s an excellent suggestion (although I’ve never tried it).

I would have added rather and respective to the list of dead words. Every time my husband uses rather in one of his gardening columns, I wage a fierce battle to convince him to take it out. I’m happy to say that I usually get my way. Using respective in a sentence is grounds for divorce in our home.

There’s another, less obvious angle to consider when you start thinking about dead words: Even splendid words (like splendid!) lose their punch when you overuse them. If you come up with a powerful word that you’re dying (ha!) to use, limit it to one appearance in your writing task.

And you should think seriously about whether you want to use it at all. No one would call splendid a dead word. But wouldn’t you be better off writing about the specific qualities that evoked your admiration? 

Dead Words


Two Negatives Don’t Make a Positive

Here’s an oft-repeated bit of wisdom about English grammar: Double negatives are wrong because two negatives make a positive. So if you say “I don’t have no money,” you’re actually saying you do have money. Right?

Wrong, for reasons that I’ll explain in a moment. But first I want to pull back the curtain on our system for classifying some English usages as mistakes. I’m going to call on two other languages to help us: French and Flemish.

The Nun’s Story, by Kathryn Hulme, is one of my favorite novels, and – I would argue – an extraordinary literary work. Its understated irony makes it one of the rare books that can be read on multiple levels. Hulme’s novel combines the gentle story of a compassionate nun with a stirring account of WWII Belgium, and – hidden beneath the story – an unsparing look at religious principles that have lost their relevance.

 Sister Luke, the central character, is a brilliant nurse who grapples with medical emergencies, an occupying foreign army, and archaic convent rules. But today I want to look at some minor characters: the nuns who do the cooking and cleaning. Unlike Sister Luke, who comes from a prominent Belgian family and speaks French, the servant nuns are farm girls who speak Flemish and do the heavy work of scrubbing and washing. Even though the nuns dress alike, their speech instantly identifies their social class.

Fast forward to 2016, and that linkage has disappeared. People who live in the northern half of Belgium proudly speak Flemish not only on farms, but in universities and government buildings.

Of course English-speaking countries have never faced that kind of linguistic divide. There never was a time when educated people spoke French and farm workers spoke English.

Except that there was.

After the Norman Conquest, French became England’s predominant language. Members of the royal family spoke little or no English, even writing their wills in French.

Only uneducated rural workers spoke English, and a simplified version at that. Most verb conjugations and noun declensions were forgotten. For example, plural nouns in Old English used to be a complicated affair, with six possible endings related to gender and grammatical case: -as, -a, -e, -an, -ena, or –um. Over time most of those were simplified to -s and -es. Only a few plural nouns retained a form of their original –ena ending: men, women, children, and oxen. Clearly these were not aristocrats.

And then a strange thing happened: The English language came roaring back, and that truncated grammar became the medium of Milton and Shakespeare. It’s similar to what happened in Belgium, where people in the Flanders region decided that Flemish – once dismissed as coarse and clumsy – was a perfectly suitable language for business transactions, academic work, and government affairs.

Here’s a sobering truth: All our judgments about elegant or coarse language are the result of social conditioning. The posh accents of the British royal family are the result of a geographic accident: As the population of London grew, the language habits of its wealthiest inhabitants became the gold standard for language. If Cornwall had been an important commercial and government center, we would all think that the Cornish version of English (“Where you to?”) was absolutely gorgeous.

Now let’s return to double negatives. (If you’re an English teacher, prepare for a shock.) The usual explanation about two-negatives-make-a-positive is nonsense, for three reasons: English isn’t math, nobody uses double negatives as a positive, and…most important…double negatives are perfectly respectable constructions in many languages (such as Spanish, Persian, and Russian).

So why doesn’t English have a double negative? Surprisingly, it once did. Double negatives (like those long-forgotten conjugations and declensions) used to be standard in Old English.

And now you have the tools to figure out why we cringe when we hear someone use a double negative: Social conditioning. An all-but-forgotten grammatical construction lived on in low-income areas, and it became a sign of limited schooling.

As Eliza Doolittle would say, “Garn!” And – trust me – if the Cockney neighborhood of London had been a high-income neighborhood when the present Queen was born, you and I would be saying “Garn” too. Or – to put it another way – “Location, location, location” is as important to language as it is to the real-estate business.

Nun's Story


Is the Period Disappearing?

A recent article in the New York Times noted a distressing trend in social media: Many people are omitting periods (called “full stops” in the UK) from their text messages. According to David Crystal, author of more than 100 books on language,“We are at a momentous moment.” Instant messaging doesn’t require end punctuation, he says: It’s perfectly obvious where the sentence ends, even if there’s no period. “So why use it?” he asks.

Well, I can give you one pretty convincing argument for using it: If you don’t use punctuation conventions, no reputable publisher will touch your manuscript.

So I’m not fretting over the alleged disappearance of the period (or full stop). But I’m intrigued by something that Crystal mentioned in his interview with the Times: In instant messaging, periods are sometimes used to show irony or annoyance. 

For example, picture this scenario: A husband tells his wife that he’s skipping tonight’s school conference because he has too much to do at the office. She immediately suspects the real reason: He wants to avoid a standoff with their daughter’s teacher, who’s been complaining about Janey’s behavior in class. Here’s a snippet of their back-and-forth texts:

She: you just dont want 2 be there

He: hell no i hate these conferences

She: fine.

Can you hear the cold, flat, ok-you-win anger in her response? That period nails it (and nails him for trying to shirk his duties as a father).


Several things are going on here that I think are worth noting. Because Twitter imposes a 140-character limit, it makes sense to omit anything unnecessary – including end punctuation. That doesn’t mean everyone will follow suit. Newspapers have long used space-saving lower-case letters for titles like Queen, Pope, and President. That hasn’t stopped the rest of us from capitalizing those words. So I don’t see a slippery-slope happening here.

But I do see something else: People who send instant messages are learning how to make their texts replicate the human voice. That is an astounding development.

When I’m working with a student writer, I often hear protests when I delete an unnecessary comma: “That’s supposed to indicate a dramatic pause.” “The comma is showing hesitation and uncertainty.”

Nope. It just shows that you don’t know how to use commas.

Writers have only one tool to insert a space into a sentence…the ellipsis. If you’re a strict grammarian, you use an ellipsis only for omitted words (a shortened quotation in a research paper, for example). Despite my general conservatism and crankiness about punctuation, I think it’s ok to use an ellipsis for a dramatic pause – in fact I rather like it.

But – truth to tell – that practice isn’t very useful, for two reasons. One is that an ellipsis looks formal and out of place in a folksy conversation. Another is that those three dots quickly become wearisome. If you’re writing a conversation with many pauses for hesitations and dramatic effect, your finished product is going to look odd.

What to do? Most writers end up either a) taking up drinking or b) doing lots of rewrites until they get the effect they want.

Those are the best answers I can give you…but perhaps all those people who are tapping away on their devices are going to come up with some fresh possibilities for the rest of us.

Are periods disappearing?

                                                             Is the period disappearing?


Guidelines for Underlining

Back in the 60s I learned how to type on a manual typewriter. Businesses were just beginning the transition to electric typewriters, and of course there weren’t any computers.

Typewriters had limited options for style and emphasis. My typing class learned to center titles by pressing the space bar over and over. Boldface was accomplished through patience and backspacing.

There was an underline key, but it was supposed to be used only to indicate italics (although high-school students like me used it recklessly to add emphasis and variety to whatever we were writing).

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Word-processing programs come with built-in styles that automatically format titles and headings. Our options are dazzling: Color, serif and sans-serif typefaces, and a whole range of font sizes. Boldface and italics are available by pressing a key.

So what do many writers do? They underline. @#$%&!

I’m going to list, calmly and rationally, the guidelines for underlining. Here they are:

  1. Never underline anything.
  2. Pretend there’s no underline key on your keyboard.
  3. Repeat this mantra as often as necessary: “Underlining is ugly, and professionals never use it.”
  4. Make use of the other formatting options in your word-processing program.

So why is the underlining key there if we’re not supposed to use it? That’s a legitimate question, and a few years ago I finally found the answer.

A few years ago a friend and I put together a book for a university press. We had to follow a complex set of formatting guidelines to ensure that our manuscript was compatible with the company’s publishing system. Everything had to be set up in a courier typeface, and we were forbidden to use any special keys except – gasp! – the underline key. No boldface, no italics, no colors. We couldn’t switch typefaces or font sizes. Our instructions were that any time we saw something that needed italics, we should underline it.

We duly followed the directions, and lo and behold: When our book was published, the ugly courier typeface had been magically converted into something snazzy and professional, and all the underlined words were transformed into italics.

And that, my friend, is the only time you’re allowed to use underlining. No, wait: There are two more. You can underline when you’re writing by hand, since you don’t have other formatting options. And if by chance you still own a manual or electric typewriter, you can underline to your heart’s content. Be my guest!

Typewriter Keys


The Cat in the Monastery

A monastery was having a problem with the abbot’s pet cat. Felines are nocturnal, and this cat – true to form – became more active at night. When the monks gathered in the chapel to say their evening prayers, the cat distracted them by running, leaping, and meowing.

A monk was appointed to tie up the cat just before evening prayers every night and release it afterward. Problem solved!

Time went by, and the abbot died, and so did the cat. The monks promptly adopted another cat so that they could tie it up before evening prayers.

Question: How often do we forget the original reason for doing something – and keep up the practice even though conditions have changed?

When I conduct writing workshops, I’m often asked whether it’s one or two spaces after a period. I know right away that my answer – only one space, please! – is going to be met with howls of dismay: “But my typing teacher told me TWO spaces!”

Here’s a question I use to shake up those people: How is your typing teacher doing it now – one space or two?


My bet is that most of those teachers have switched to using only one space. Professionals know that computers are sophisticated typography machines with capabilities that the typewriters of old didn’t have.

Look at a capital I and a capital W: Their widths are very different. Typists used to be taught to insert an extra space after a period so that the differences in capital letters wouldn’t be so noticeable. But computers automatically adjust that space themselves. If you insert a second space, you’re announcing that you’re stuck in the past. (I also ask those skeptics if they still use a carriage return at the end of a line. Of course they don’t!)

I often encounter writers who are trapped in something a long-ago teacher (who wasn’t a professional writer) told them. The superstition (that’s all it is) about not starting a sentence with but, or and, or because is one of them, but there are others. For example, English teachers want sophisticated sentence patterns and vocabulary choices, but criminal justice reports require short, objective sentences and everyday language. I’ve seen many cops try to make a report about a stolen bicycle sound like critical treatise on Hamlet. It doesn’t work!

And then there are writers who studied journalism and think that the Associated Press Stylebook is an infallible guide to writing practices. It’s not. The AP is much more concerned with saving space and ink than other forms of publishing – hence the requirement to delete the last serial comma in a series and to lower-case words like president and pope. Other forms of publishing want greater length. Books, for example, need to be long enough to justify the selling price, so punctuation and capitalization practices are different.

Writers are (or should be) lifelong learners. Every writing situation is different. Start thinking about strategies for adjusting your habits as situations change. It’s a great way to grow as a writer, and it’s a requirement if you aim to be taken seriously in the professional world.




Should You Use Correct Grammar When You’re Texting?

You might expect me to answer that question with an emphatic yes, but I’m not going to do that today. I’m not going to say no either. Instead I’m going to argue that it’s the wrong question.

Some background first. The Huffington Post recently published the results of a YouGuv poll showing that most people aren’t bothered at all by grammar mistakes in texts. (According to the poll, there was slightly more concern about grammar mistakes in emails.)

I’m a stickler about the rules of English. Shouldn’t I be concerned? The answer is no, for several reasons.

First, texts and emails are closer to conversation than formal writing, so looser rules apply. I suspect that if you could do a brain scan of someone typing on a laptop or a smartphone, you’d see neurological activity that’s quite different from – say – writing a business report.

Here’s why I think that’s true: I’ve noticed the difference in my own behavior. I’m endlessly chagrined by the mistakes that slip past me when I send an email. Egad! Who wrote that? Gulp – I did.

I’ve noticed too that I don’t pick up mistakes in emails sent to me. Someone apologizes later for a garbled email, and I realize that I didn’t see any of the mistakes. Mind you, I’m a maniac who can spot a typo in a book or student essay from 10 feet away.

I have another gripe about the poll. (If you visit this blog often, you aleady know what I’m going to say.) What we’re talking about are usage – not grammar – mistakes. Grammar is the structure of a language. I rarely hear anyone make a mistake with word order, which is where you find the fundamental grammar of our language.

Problems with capital letters, apostrophes, and the like are usage problems, and (as I said a moment ago), the rules aren’t as strict for informal situations. In fact many usage rules (such as the aforementioned capital letters and apostrophes) don’t come into play at all when we’re talking. Perhaps our brains transition to talking mode when we’re texting, and that’s why we’re more casual about punctuation and spelling.

I’m not losing any sleep about it. 




My friend Lois Smith had some interesting responses to two recent blog posts.

You may remember that I asked my husband to rescue a lizard that turned out to be a carpet stain in a hallway. I was impressed that Charlie made a connection to military camouflage, which often tries to make something flat look three dimensional.

Lois made another connection – to facial recognition, which she says “is why we see things in the dark, and in ink blots – see two women in hats, facing each other in that famous illustration, etc.  So I’m thinking our facial recognition slips over to other recognitions, like lizard stains.”

Intriguing! Thanks, Lois.

Lois also had some thoughts about a grammar issue I discussed in a recent post. I was comparing these two sentences:

The arena is big.

The arena is west of here.

In the first sentence, big is an adjective modifying a noun – arena. But in the second sentence, west is an adverb. Adverbs don’t modify nouns. What’s going on here?

Lois dug into her memory bank and came up with the term predicate adverb from grammar lessons in elementary school.

I looked it up, and Lois is right – but it seems to be a questionable term. Most grammar websites don’t mention it.

Here’s what I think happened: At some point a grammarian noticed this anomaly – an adverb with a copulative verb. Aughhh! Formal grammar doesn’t allow anomalies. And so the term “predicate adverb” was invented to cover this situation.

To put it another way: Language – not grammar – is primary. I suspect that many hallowed grammar rules were invented by grammarians trying to cover gaps in their theories.

There’s a lesson here for all of us: Language – not grammar categories – should always be our first priority.

And now I want to veer off to another topic: Feedback. Writing posts for this blog has show me again and again how important it is for writers to have a living, responsive audience (and not just a copyeditor or teacher who makes corrections).

Feedback for this blog shows up in the Comments section and in responses from friends in conversations and emails. Even though I have a plugin that gives me detailed statistics about activity on my blog, there’s nothing like a thoughtful response from a real, live reader.

You’re reading this post because you’re a writer. Who regularly gives you feedback? If the answer is “no one,” please find a support group!



Red Flags

I often rail against nonsensical pronouncements about language and writing. Today I’m going to turn the tables and rail a bit against my own nonsense.

There are words and expressions I cannot abide. I just used one of them, and it is taking every bit of willpower I can muster not to go back and delete it.

Here it is: I can’t stand the expression “a bit.” It’s weak. If something is small and insignificant enough to warrant the term “a bit,” why are you even talking about it? (I don’t like “every bit” either – for the same reason.)

Here’s another one I can’t stand: “in today’s society.” Based on my experience with thousands of student essays, there’s roughly a 100% chance that any essay containing the phrase “in today’s society” is going to flounder and sputter without every getting to anything interesting.

I just stopped typing for a moment to try to figure out why “in today’s society” always points to a weak paper, and I think I’ve found the answer. No society is homogeneous. There are always conflicting forces and clashing ideas. When a student writes about “today’s society,” that’s a sure sign that she hasn’t done much research or analytical thinking.

But I said at the beginning of this post that I’m focusing on my own nonsense. Of course it’s possible to use the expressions “a bit” and “in today’s society” thoughtfully and intelligently. Here’s my real point: Words sometimes spew out of us at such a rapid rate that we fail to notice that we don’t have anything to say.

Don’t let that happen to you. Start looking for your own red flags. What verbal habits do you fall into when you don’t have something interesting to say? Learn to recognize them and – more important – start building habits that will help you uncover interesting ideas. Develop your curiosity. Read. Expose yourself to new experiences.

Here’s one practice that I wish I had stumbled on much earlier in my own life: Studying the thinking habits of other people. I read Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington Post every day because – at least half the time – she has a completely different approach to a problem than I would have taken. I’m working on opening my brain up to new and different ways of thinking.

In today’s society we all need to do that a bit more often.

Red_flag_waving Wiki ok


Time Machine

In a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper decided that life in the present was unbearable. His solution was to turn the calendar back to 2003, with hilarious results.

Everyone knows that you can’t turn back the hands of time – well, everyone except English teachers. Ignoring the principles of linguistics and common sense, we stubbornly cling to usages that were current when we were in high school.

That means my verbal preferences are frozen in the 1960s, when I went to high school and college. I will spell all right as two words until my dying day. I never put hopefully at the beginning of a sentence, I avoid using impact as a verb, and I hate the word enthuse.  Time has passed me by, and I don’t mind a bit. I’m one of a handful of people who still use the apostrophe in Hallowe’en.

Turns out, though, that I haven’t been living in a time machine after all. I just read a chapter in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well that made me realize how much my verbal choices have changed over the years. I’ve been part of a language revolution without even knowing it!

Back in the 1960s, Zinsser was a member of the Usage Panel that votes on the acceptability of various words and constructions for The American Heritage Dictionary. I was amazed to find that many words I use all the time were considered controversial back then.

Questionable verbs included trigger, rile, escalate (which was born in the Vietnam era), contact (accepted by only about a third of the panel), outsource, and stonewall (which first became a verb in the Nixon era)

Problematic nouns included blog, laptop, geek, boomer, Google, multi-tasking, slam dunk, trek (rejected by more than half the Usage Panel), senior citizen (rejected by 97% of the Panel), dropout, funky, downer, vibes, rip-off, and bummer

Trendy jargon that earned a thumbs-down from the Usage Panel included TV personality, downsizing, and ongoing.

Most language changes have happened so gradually that nobody noticed them. Words and constructions that were once considered abhorrent seem perfectly normal just a generation later.

The most important principle for all of us to remember is that the process will continue, whether we like it or not. One-word spellings of all right and a lot will soon be widely accepted (sigh). I expect to see binky (colloquial for “pacifier”) in a dictionary any day now. And no one knows what other changes are coming.

It’s a downer and a bummer for many of us senior citizens – but it’s also a testimony to the health and vitality of our wonderful language.

American Heritage Dictionary ok




Donald Trump’s Grammar

You’ve probably seen the news stories about Donald Trump’s grammar and poor language skills. In a Carnegie Mellon study of speeches given by presidential candidates, Donald Trump came in at the fourth or fifth grade level.

I’m no fan of Donald Trump – but if you’re expecting me to criticize his poor language skills, you’re wrong. I think the study was based on some fuzzy thinking.

On the surface, it sounds impressive enough. Carnegie Mellon used a database of school essays to compare the grammar and readability of the candidates’ speeches: “The grammar reading difficulty measure is based on the one-to-three-level depth parse trees of the sentences. This means that the measure is based on typical grammatical constructions in sentences of each grade level.”

A report about the study in the Washington Post explained that “most candidates using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8, though Donald Trump tends to lag behind the others.” It all sounds very scientific.

So what’s the problem? Actually there are two problems. No – make that three.

First, speaking is different from writing. Comparing an impromptu campaign speech to the Gettysburg Address, which Abraham Lincoln labored over before he delivered it, is…nonsense.

Second, the study’s use of “grammar” is misleading. To the average reader, “grammar” refers to fragments, run-on sentences, fragments, and dangling modifiers, as well as mistakes in subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, and parallel construction.

But the Carnegie Mellon report uses “grammar” to refer to the level of sophistication in candidates’ sentences – the use of dependent clauses, for example. So readers are likely to come away with the impression that Trump makes numerous usage mistakes, when the truth is that he tends to speak in simple, straightforward sentences when he’s talking before a live audience.

I’ve read the speech that gave Trump his lowest score – his victory speech in Nevada on February 24. There are some fragments and clumsy constructions, but those sentences are typical of how people speak when they don’t have a prepared script: “All of these people – volunteers and they travel and they – and I say, “what are you doing?” “And representing some very, very wonderful children, Ivanka” [his wife].

The glaring grammar mistake I noticed was the use of an adjective (“terrific”) that should have been an adverb (“terrifically”) – but that’s a verbal habit typical of New Yorkers (as I know very well because I do it myself): “I think we’re going to do terrific.” There’s not a lot of sophistication – but victory speeches don’t require it.

Back to the study. What really bothers me is the implication that plain words and straightforward sentences represent a low level of discourse. I do workshops about business writing, and I spend much of the time pleading with people to use normal English to communicate with one another. Often the resistance is fierce. Why? Because they worry about being thought stupid if they say “now” instead of “at the present time” or “because” instead of “for the reason that.”

Here’s the truth: If you want to impress people, focus on your ideas, knowledge, and experience. You don’t need complicated syntax and fancy words.

And I can prove it!

“The Killers”  by Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite short stories. I’ve taught it many times – it’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship and insight into human nature.

I just ran the first 400 words through some readability software. “The Killers” came in at…first grade level.

Doubt me? Here’s a sample:

The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.

“What’s yours?” George asked them.

“I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to eat, Al?”

“I don’t know,” said Al. “I don’t know what I want to eat.”

Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in….

Hemingway was able to write a brilliant short story without resorting to verbal fireworks – and you can learn from his example. When you have a writing or speaking task in front of you, make sure you have something worth saying. Trust me: The words and sentence structure will take care of themselves.

Donald J. Trump

               Donald J. Trump