Strunk and White Were Wrong This Time

Can you find the error in this sentence?

Although we thought we had every detail covered, three people’s invitations didn’t arrive in time.

I can’t either. But according to Strunk and White’s classic book The Elements of Style, this sentence is wrong. It should be “three persons’ invitations didn’t arrive in time.”

It’s simple math: “The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five left went away, how many would be left? Answer: One people.

Who makes the rules of English? The answer is that we do. Not English teachers. Not lexicographers (the people who research words for dictionaries). Not editors.

The people who use English every day are the ones who make the rules. Of course it’s hard to track changes! That’s why you’ll see teenager in one magazine and teen-ager in another one. Or catalogue in one book and catalog in another book.

Strunk and White’s book is a wonderful guide to good writing. But it’s not infallible. And they were wrong about people. Just about every publisher in the world allows usages like “a hundred people” and “fifteen people.”

Strunk and White were free to make up their own rule, of course. But we are just as free to ignore it.

(And – just for the record – I think Strunk and White’s sentence is clumsy. “If of ‘six people,’ five left the room….Gack. Here’s my version: “If there were ‘five people,’ and one left the room….” And I don’t like “is best not used” either. Listen: nobody’s perfect. Not even Strunk and White.)

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Two Online Tools

Many things drive me crazy. Here’s one of them: people with an “ewwww!” attitude about Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia – so much, in fact, that I contribute to every fundraiser.

“But you can’t cite it!” Of course not. You don’t cite dictionaries either. But does that ever stop anyone from checking a dictionary?

Five minutes ago I went to Wikipedia to look up Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century epic poem The Faerie Queen. I wanted to read about Britomart, the namesake for a character in Shaw’s play Major Barbara.

I quickly found out that Spenser’s Britomart was a lady knight. Thank you, Wikipedia!

I went back to Google Docs, where I’m writing a book about Major Barbara. I started typing: Britomart, Faerie Queen, lady knight.

And then something magical happened. (I am still freaking over this.)

Here’s the paragraph I was working on:

Shaw was a masterful giver of names (a skill he probably began to develop when he devoured the novels of Dickens in his youth). “Undershaft” hints at underworld and underhanded, “Barbara” evokes a warrior-saint, and “Britomart” is the lady knight in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen.

Google Docs noticed that I’d mistyped The Faerie Queen – and fixed it. It needs another “e”: The Faerie Queene

Google Docs keeps an eye out for 16th-century literature just in case some poor schlep (me) didn’t notice that Spenser spells it Queene. It doesn’t want me to suffer the embarrassment of having an editor find that mistake when I submit my book to a publisher next year.

Can I send Google Docs money? Flowers? Something?

Microsoft Word (the word processor I’ve used forever) never catches these things.

Take my word for it: this is a good time to be a writer.

        Britomart, the Lady Knight in The Faerie Queene

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The Outer Circle

Last week I talked on the phone with a good friend who’s an excellent writer. She brought up something that we’ve often talked about – the importance of thinking.

Fresh, interesting ideas are probably the most important requirement for effective writing. But how do you find them?

Something relevant popped up while she and I were talking about our favorite shows.

Mine are Doc Martin (PBS) and (I’ll give you a moment to roll your eyes for this one) Sister Wives (TLC) – a reality show about a man with four wives. (I know it’s an odd choice!) I really enjoy sharing the roller-coaster ride of their four marriages rolled into one.

As I said, my writer friend and I were talking about TV…and then an idea hit. First, though, I’m going to backpedal for a moment. If you asked me what was wrong with Doc Martin’s marriage, I could tell you in a second: he was emotionally damaged by a troubled childhood.

And if you asked me what was wrong with Meri Brown’s marriage (she’s Wife #1 in Sister Wives), I’d tell you that it’s the stress from sharing your husband with three other women.

Recently both Doc Martin and Meri Brown from Sister Wives went into therapy. Both marriage counselors told both couples that one of their biggest problems is control issues. All four spouses (Martin and his wife Louisa, and Meri and her husband Kody) think they need to be in control – all the time.

I’m fascinated. I didn’t see that coming! And it started me thinking about my own marriage. Do Charlie and I have control issues? I thought about my parents, and friends, and other family members. Have I ever spotted control issues with them?

How do you even know if you have control issues? It’s something I haven’t thought much about.

Back to writing. When something startles you, and it challenges you to think in new ways, you’ve been given a gift. That’s were good (and sometimes great) writing comes from.

Most good writers I know keep journals where they write down new ideas that come out of the blue. Not all of them will be useful. But even an off-the-wall idea might stimulate another idea that turns out to be solid gold.

The trick is to learn how to watch yourself thinking (crazy as that sounds). What is my brain doing now? Is it lazy? Spinning around in the same old loop? Nothing wrong with that! We all do it.

But if you aspire to be a writer, there should be plenty of moments when you’re chasing down an idea that hit you for the first time. Write it down, go back to it several times, and see where it takes you. You may be surprised – and you may come up with a terrific piece of writing.

The cast of the Sister Wives TV reality show

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I Love These Two Rules

I love this quotation, attributed to both Gustave Flaubert and Oscar Wilde (take your pick): “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”

Guys, I hear you. I’ve been there. Sometimes the rules aren’t much help. Back and forth I go.

Luckily some rules seem to work every time. Here are two of them:

1. Don’t put a comma in front of a parenthesis.

2. Don’t let a comma touch the word “that.”

Rule #1 is infallible. There are no exceptions. Rule #2 is a little slippery, but it works maybe 99% of the time. Those odds are good enough for me.

Do you want examples? Sure!

1. That pygmy date palm (Phoenix robellinii), which we installed two years ago, is the focal point of our front yard.

2. It took me a long time to convince her that we should switch to term life insurance.

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Jean Chickened Out

The other day someone asked me if the rule about predicate nominatives still holds. I told her that it didn’t.

But later that day – when I had a chance to stand up for my position – I backed down. Or chickened out.

Call me a coward if you must. Sometimes our complicated language gives us no choice.

Here’s what I’m talking about. There’s a rule in English that you have to use the subjective case with the verb to be. In plain English, you’re supposed to write sentences like these:

It was he. This is she. The person you want is I.

To which I say: Phooey. I refuse to do it. Those sentences sound weird. Here are my versions:

It was him. This is her. The person you want is me.

The French (sticklers about grammar) say “It’s me” (C’est moi). If it’s good enough for the French, it’s good enough for me.

But later that same day I sent an email that needed an “It was she” sentence. I was afraid to write “It was her.” (Maybe the person reading my email was educated by nuns and would notice that I’d broken the rule about predicate nominatives. Couldn’t take that chance!)

I rewrote the sentence to bypass the whole issue: “She, not Harry, is the one who can help you.”

If you’re looking for someone who consistently stands up for what she believes, it’s not me. Sorry about that!

A brown hen isolated on white background.

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I Like “Like”

Which is correct – as or like?

There’s a lot of controversy about like. English teachers used to have fits over a famous cigarette ad: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” They clamored for “as a cigarette should.”

Over the years there has been so much uproar about like that some writers are afraid to use it.

I think we should use like confidently – and often. I’m perfectly happy with sentences like (ha!) “The report looks like it’s ready” and “The process is working like it should.”

Many sticklers prefer as in that last sentence:  “The process is working as it should.” I’ll concede that I would use as myself in formal writing. But for most writing, I like like.

"I Like Ike" campaign button from 1952

Image Provided by Tyrol5

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Jean Is Writing

Some of us never learn.

Monday morning I slept late. Charlie and I took a walk. We went out for a snack. I took a nap. I moped around all day and went to bed early.

Tuesday morning I slept late. Charlie and I took a walk. We went out for a snack. I took a nap. I moped around all day and went to bed early.

I started thinking that I needed to get some bloodwork done. There was no reason for me to be so exhausted. Tomorrow is Wednesday, and I’ll make an appointment at the lab.

* * * * *

Today is Wednesday. I woke up at 4:30 this morning. I turned on my Chromebook and started typing away on the Shaw book I’m writing.

I found a couple of quotations that I was so excited about that I almost woke Charlie up to tell him about them. (“You’ll never believe what Richard Lanham said about R. D. Laing!” “That’s great, Jean! I’m going back to sleep.” I decided against it.)

Here’s the kicker. Last August I wrote a post about how tired I was, even though I was getting plenty of sleep. I got worried and started thinking about bloodwork. After two days of that I woke up bright and early and started writing like a house on fire.

As I said, some people never learn.

* * * * *

At around five-thirty I got Richard Lanham’s The Motives of Eloquence off the shelf. Somewhere in there I knew he had a wonderful quotation that would be perfect for my chapter. I’ve thought about it a hundred times over the years.

(For those of you who think that academic writing has to be pompous and swollen, the quotation is exactly five words long: “Cast him in another play.”)

I had plenty of ideas for Chapter Three, but I wasn’t able to work my keywords in: drama, theater, acting. “Cast him in another play” would help. I thumbed through the book looking for it. Did I have the sense to highlight it the last time I read Lanham’s book?

Yes! There it was, streaked in pink on page 14! (I’m sticking my tongue out at the teachers who told me I should never mark up a book. Do you have any idea how much time that pink highlighter has saved me over the years?)

But here’s what’s freaky. (Stop reading now. The only person who could ever be even remotely interested in the rest of this is me.)

R. D. Laing was a Scottish psychiatrist who was…different. I’ve read tons of his stuff. He was brilliant, offbeat, erratic, and wonderful.

I wanted to work his book Marriage, Sanity, and the Family into my chapter. Barbara Undershaft (the central character in one of the plays I’m writing about) was being driven mad by her family.

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a famous Scottish psychiatrist weigh in on the craziness in Barbara’s family? But how would I make the connection between real, clinical madness and a fictional character?

And there, streaked in pink on page 14, was the rest of Lanham’s paragraph, including these words: “…R. D. Laing’s analysis of bad domestic drama.”

Keyword! Keyword!

At some point I will finish this chapter. I will finish this book. I will dance again and travel again. There will be other writing projects. And I will be tired, and I’ll think that maybe I should get some bloodwork done….

Some people never learn.

Tired Sleepy Cat

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Is It Spit or Spat?

Twice recently the New York Times has made mistakes with the word “spit.” Or maybe they haven’t made mistakes with “spit.”

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about this headline from the March 23 Times: “Spit on, Yelled at, Attacked: Chinese in U.S. Fear for Safety.” Here’s how I would have written it:

Spat on, Yelled at, Attacked: Chinese in U.S. Fear for Safety.”

Last week’s Times included a sad story about five retired nuns who died of COV-19. In a paragraph about COV-19 tests performed at the convent, I found this sentence:

“Other methods, using a sample of saliva that is spit into a vial, are being introduced in a small number of states but are not widely available yet.”

I would have changed it to this:

“using a sample of saliva that is spat into a vial….”

I checked a couple of dictionaries. One gave the preferred past tense and past participle as…spitted. Really? I’ve never heard anyone say “spitted.”

The other two said that both spit or spat could be used in the past tense.

A grammar website agreed with me that spat is the correct choice for the past tense. It didn’t even mention spitted or spit for the past tense.

What’s a writer to do?

My policy is to stick with whatever sounds right to me. Of course that’s a very subjective approach – but sometimes it’s the only choice we have.

English is always changing, and words are always sliding in and out of our language. Often you have to make your best guess.

I’m sticking with spat.

Young man spits out alcohol in the park

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What’s Your Role? Part II

In my last post, I pointed out that some writing problems have underlying business issues. Here’s an example. (I’ve altered some of the details.)

I was working with a client who wanted to update the writing practices in his office. He was right: the memos and letters I looked at were wordy and old-fashioned.

But I thought there was a deeper problem. One example was a memo from an employee whose department had a problem with a piece of equipment. The service technician said it was time for a replacement.

He recommended a different machine that he thought made a lot of sense for the business. She’d known him for years, trusted him, and agreed.

The memo was…whew. It explained what the machine did and why the company needed it. It rambled through the whole history of the service and repairs on the malfunctioning machine.

The employee attached an estimate of the repair costs and a brochure about the new machine. At the bottom she wrote, “For your attention and use.”

* * * * *

Cleaning up clumsy sentences and pompous wording is always useful. But this company needs to address some personnel problems. I suspect there’s a lack of trust between the boss and the woman who wrote the memo.

As you move up the organizational ladder of a business, your responsibilities tend to spread out. Instead of knowing one area extremely well, you have a little bit of knowledge about many areas.

You have to trust your employees. They usually know their area better than you do.

The woman – let’s call her Diane – dealing with that malfunctioning machine knew what she was talking about. She wouldn’t be there otherwise. Writing a long history of the machine and what it does shouldn’t be necessary. (If Diane isn’t competent, that needs to be addressed before you start tackling her writing issues.)

Most of the time you should put your main point first. (The exception is when you’re giving bad news. In that case, soften it a bit.)

Readers are confused by a memo that starts with a series of details: “Last week the [name of machine] started shutting down in the middle of a cycle. Since then it’s been displaying a 271 ERROR message.” Where is this going? It’s confusing and wastes time.

Here’s how the memo should begin: “Our [name of machine] is no longer functioning properly. Frank Donaldson from Acme Equipment says that it’s not worth repairing. He recommends replacing it with [name of machine].”

Diane can go on to say that Frank is trustworthy – his recommendations have saved your company a great deal of money over the years. She can attach his estimate for the repairs and a brochure about the new machine.

A friend who read a draft of this post suggested that trust may not be the issue – perhaps Diane just needs to be taught how to write more efficiently. That’s true!

But often it amounts to the same thing – only this time it might be Diane who doesn’t trust her boss. She’s afraid he’ll get angry if she doesn’t provide every tiny fact about the issue at hand – “We purchased the [name of machine] on July 17, 2011.”

Maybe that’s a relevant fact – maybe it’s not. My point is that in a well-run business, you don’t dump everything you know into a memo or letter. You do some critical thinking before you start typing. Efficiency should always be one of your top goals.

Roles and responsibilities

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What’s Your Role?

Yesterday I needed to cancel a routine appointment. I went to the appointments page on the medical office’s website and found a 404 ERROR notice – the same notice I’d seen a month ago when I made the appointment.

I used the phone number posted there and pressed 2 for appointments. A recorded voice gave me some directions and added, “Don’t use this voicemail to cancel an appointment.” Then there was a click.

Now what? (Please bear with me – we’ll get to writing in a moment. I promise there’s an important point coming.) I called the phone number again, pressed 3 to talk to the nurse, and canceled my appointment.

I stayed on the line and told her about the 404 notice and the less-than-helpful recorded message. She clucked sympathetically and said, “I’ll talk to Dr. Smith.”

Ye gods and little fishes. There isn’t anybody on the staff who’s charged with keeping up with the website and the phone settings?

Does someone have to “talk to Dr. Smith” if a @#%! light bulb burns out?

Here’s my point: you can have a head full of grammar, and a wonderful vocabulary, and a knack for style. But writing encompasses much more than the black marks on a piece of paper or computer screen. Most of the time what you’re really writing about is…life.

If the systems at your workplace are badly organized, you can’t write an effective business letter, report, or email.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a consulting job I did last week. An executive asked me to evaluate some emails his employes had written. He wanted to update their writing practices. Bravo!

What I found was a lot of gobbledygook and old-fashioned business terminology. But what really needed fixing was the way things were done in his office. You could see it – or at least I could – right there on those typed pages.

In short, he was the real problem. He’s also a good guy, and he appreciated my recommendations. They will be the topic of my next post.

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