Enuf Is Enuf

Some of us have been waiting a long time for spelling reform…and we’re still waiting. We’ve won a few victories – “catalog” instead of “catalogue,” for example. But many thorny spelling issues remain.

Ten years ago the American Literacy Council and London-based Spelling Society staged a protest at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.  “Enuf is enuf” was their motto: “Enough is too much.”

The standardized spelling we use today is a relatively recent development. In Shakespeare’s day, nobody worried much about spelling. Shakespeare, in fact, used several spellings of his own name.

In the 18th century, however, writers began to use uniform spelling, and calls for reform began to appear almost immediately. Famous advocates of spelling reform included Noah Webster, who convinced Americans to drop the “u” in honour and colour, and George Bernard Shaw, who left money for spelling reform in his will.

I’m all for spelling reform (I’m a Shaw scholar, after all). But there are two reasons why I think the spelling reform movement is futile.

First, the reformers haven’t had much effect so far (even Noah Webster accomplished very little).

Second (and this is much more important), the English language has a long history of simplifying itself, without the help of any organized movement. I expect spelling reform will take the same course, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

People who speak and write English have always adopted shortcuts. The conjugations and declensions that characterized Old English have largely disappeared. With the exception of words like “men,” “women,” “children,” and a few others, we almost universally use “s” for plural nouns. We no longer have masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns. (Did you know that “wife” was a neuter word in Old English?)

We get a little fancier with verbs, which usually have two endings (“s” and “ed”). But that’s about it. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you quickly saw that English has a much simpler system for its verbs and nouns.

The rate of change dramatically slowed down when the printing press was invented, and electronic communication has slowed the pace even more. Experts say that we will not see the kinds of changes that used to be so common in English. (For example, the “Our Father” of the Lord’s Prayer used to be written “Faeder Ure.”)

But I think spelling reform is coming, and I can sum up my argument in one word: texting. The simplified spellings that the American Literacy Council yearned for are already standard for texters. What’s more, they’re rapidly moving into formal English. I often had to remind students that “you” has three letters, not just one (u) – and that “love” has four letters, not just three (luv).

The young people who spend so much time texting are the future of our language. They’ll be the ones to decide whether it’s really necessary to spell “enough” with all those unnecessary and confusing letters.

Nobody can predict exactly what course the future will take. My bets, however, are on the texters. I think it will happen soon enuf, whether we like it or not.

                                                             Courtesy of Adobe


A French Pedophile in the News

Gabriel Matzneff, 83, is an award-winning French writer who has many influential friends and admirers. He’s also a pedophile who has published books describing his sexual crimes against children. For many years, Matzneff’s popularity and connections protected him for the police.

But last year one of his victims published a book describing Matzneff’s criminal behavior, and he has been charged with pedophilia.

The New York Times sent a reporter to track down Matzneff, who had retreated to the Italian Riviera to avoid the firestorm brewing around him. The Times has a well-deserved reputation for excellent writing. I often pause in the middle of an article to admire a sentence that is dancing on the page.

But ghastly writing sometimes slips through as well. The interview with Matzneff is lively and informative, but I also came across this:

And Christian Giudicelli, a writer who traveled with Matzneff to the Philippines and to whom Matzneff had entrusted incriminating photos and letters of the 14-year-old Springora, helped secure his friend the prestigious Renaudot prize, after studiously confiding Matzneff’s cancer diagnosis to his fellow jurors.

That’s 44 words – too much for most sentences. And that’s just one of the problems.  Twenty-three words separate the subject and verb – “Christian Giudicelli…helped secure.” And look at all the information crammed into this sentence!

  • Christian Giudicelli was a writer
  • he and Matzneff traveled to the Philippines
  • Matzneff had incriminating photos and letters of the 14-year-old Springora
  • he entrusted them to Giudicelli
  • Giudicelli helped his friend obtain the prestigious Renaudot prize
  • Matzneff had cancer
  • Giudicelli  told his fellow jurors about the diagnosis

Whew. And then there’s this awkward wording: “after studiously confiding Matzneff’s cancer diagnosis to his fellow jurors.” How do you “confide a diagnosis?” I confide in people. I don’t confide information.

And if you’re going to grant that it’s possible to confide a diagnosis, how do you do that studiously?

There’s also an indefinite pronoun reference in that wording – “after studiously confiding Matzneff’s cancer diagnosis to his fellow jurors.” There are two males in the sentence – Giudicelli and Matzneff. Whose “fellow jurors” were they?

Sentences should be short, crisp, and readable.  Don’t ask readers to stumble through a long sentence – and don’t use awkward wording to make it sound fancy.  (To read the entire New York Times article, click here.)


Gabriel Matzneff in 1983

                         Gabriel Matzneff in 1983


Happy Valentine’s Day!

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re going to talk about…kissing! Take a look at these sentences:

I kissed only her.

Only I kissed her.

I only kissed her.

Each sentence has the same four words. But when you move only around, the entire meaning changes. (Isn’t English amazing?) Good writers are careful when they use only in a sentence.

I hope you’ll take this post to ♥!


Make Your Sentences Sound Natural

Today’s post is about a sentence I saw in an advertisement recently. Which is correct: is or are?

A delicious chicken dish as well as meatless options is/are available from the rooftop restaurant.

If you think “as well as” is just like and (as I do!) this version is correct:

A delicious chicken dish as well as meatless options are available from the restaurant.

But you could also decide to change your voice in the middle of the sentence. In that case, is would be correct. (Note that you’ll need a pair of commas.)

A delicious chicken dish, as well as meatless options, is available from the restaurant.

But why not make the sentence simpler – and better? “Are available” is static. Let’s make the sentence more lively (and eliminate the confusion about is/are while we’re at it):

The restaurant offers both a delicious chicken dish and meatless options.  BETTER

A vegetarian meal


FAQ’s about Writing

Do you have questions about writing? Here are some answers!

Can I start a sentence with but?

Yes. The oft-heard rule against it is an urban legend. I would bet serious money that you can’t name a single famous writer in English who doesn’t start sentences with but. Read more here.

Can you settle – once and for all – the controversy the Oxford comma? (That’s the optional last comma in a list: “We brought wine, sandwiches, and cookies for the picnic.”)

Gladly. That’s another urban legend. There is no controversy. Newspapers never use the Oxford comma; book publishers insist on it.
If your company has a policy about that comma, you should follow their preference. If you’re writing for yourself, the decision about using (or not using) the Oxford comma is up to you.

Will texting be the death of English?

No. The only way to kill a language is to stop using it in your everyday life. Languages always have many variations – and people have always had fun with them.
The version of English you use with close friends is probably different from the version you use with your boss. Linguistics experts call those shifts “code switching.”
Texting is another form of “code switching,” and it doesn’t hurt English at all. (I’m assuming that you remember to make the necessary switch when you’re writing a report at work!)

When should you use a semicolon?

When you want to show off. You can live your entire life without ever using a semicolon. It’s always correct to end a sentence with a period. But if you want to impress your readers, it’s easy to change a period to a semicolon and lower-case the next letter:

You can live your entire life without ever using a semicolon; it’s always correct to end a sentence with a period.  CORRECT

Is there another way to use a semicolon?

Yes – but most people never have to bother with it. You use a semicolon with lists when an item has a comma. Learn more here

We invited Pamela, a youth minister; Karen, a kindergarten teacher; and Jerry, a social worker.  CORRECT


For and Against Brevity

Here’s some standard writing advice: “Keep it simple.” “Brevity is the soul of wit.” 

Elegant, isn’t it?

But that advice could also be dangerous. The truth is that simplicity and brevity aren’t appropriate for every situation.

 Imagine that you have to disappoint a customer, a child, or a friend. You need to stretch out the explanation to reassure your listener that you really did consider the request and really wanted to fulfill it – but circumstances (or policies, or economics, or something else) got in the way.

Life isn’t always simple. I once had a professor who liked to remind us that complex ideas require sophisticated vocabulary and elaborate sentences. He was right on target.

While sorting through some old magazines, I came across a 2003 news report about the Columbia shuttle disaster. Part of the problem, according to NASA, was the agency’s reliance on…PowerPoint.

Hmmm. Think about it for a moment.

A good PowerPoint slide can have only a small amount of information. Often it will display just a short list of three or four bullet points. A good PowerPoint presentation is easy to follow!

But what if you’re talking about a complicated subject – and all you have to work with is a short list of ideas? Bang, bang, bang – here they come, one right after another. There’s no opportunity for sophisticated cause-and-effect reasoning or back-and-forth debate.

If you want a complex argument to unfold for your audience, I think you should consider another format.

Let me give you an everyday situation that might call for extra time and more explanation. Imagine someone who’s getting panicky as Valentine’s Day approaches. The romance is over, and clearly it’s time for a breakup.

My advice would be not to rely on a brief statement that you want to break up. You’d better be prepared to list some specifics – and you need complex sentence patterns. Trust me: it’s going to be a while before you’re through!


It’s or Its?

Many writers struggle with it’s and its. Here’s how I keep them straight: the apostrophe is like a little “i.” So it’s means it is.

Let’s apply this to a sentence. Is it’s correct?

Puerto Rico is reconsidering it’s status.

[Hmm. “Puerto Rico is reconsidering it is status.” Nope. Got to fix that!]

You need the word its (no apostrophe).

Puerto Rico is reconsidering its status. CORRECT

But that doesn’t make sense! How can you have a possessive word without an apostrophe?

Answer: Lots of possessive words don’t have apostrophes. Do you put an apostrophe in his? (Please tell me you don’t!) 

None of the possessive pronouns get apostrophes: hers, ours, yours, theirs, its. Just think about his, and you’ll be right every time.

Puerto Rico is reconsidering his status. CORRECT

Puerto Rico is reconsidering its status. CORRECT

Try these sentences:

The dog is playing with his ball.
The dog is playing with its ball.
The company doubled his profits.
The company doubled its profits.

So here’s a handy way to get it’s/its right every time:

It’s = it is

Its = possessive (like his)

One more question: When do you put an apostrophe behind its? Answer: NEVER.

Its’ = WRONG

Maybe you can indulge me for just a moment longer. What do you do when you’re working on an important writing task and you suddenly realize you’re not sure what to do with its: Apostrophe? No apostrophe? And if you put it in, where does it go?

Here’s first aid for its (and many other puzzling words):

  • Use your spellchecker. It may not completely solve the problem, but at least it will stop you from putting the apostrophe at the end of its.
  • Take a moment to verify the spelling. Go to www.Dictionary.com, or look up the word in the dictionary.
  • Call the library! Reference librarians are paid to answer these questions.

Explaining the difference between its and it's


Five Writing Rules

Today I’m offering you a grab-bag of writing rules for every situation.

 1. Break up long paragraphs. Ideally each paragraph should explore a different idea. But there’s nothing to stop you from simply breaking a paragraph in half if it’s starting to get long. Readers prefer shorter paragraphs and are more likely to read them all the way through.

 2. In dialogue, keep identifying the person who’s speaking. It’s frustrating to read a whole page of dialogue, lose track of who’s speaking, and have to waste time backtracking. Since you’re the author, of course you know who said what. But does your reader?

 3. Don’t overuse would. Reserve it for talking about a wish, a repeated action, or something unreal. When you’re talking about the past, use normal past-tense forms of verbs: walked, sang, drank (not would walk, would sing, would drink).

 4. Be careful with he, she, him, and her when you’re writing about two or more people of the same sex. “Betty was expecting a phone call from Anne to talk about her tax return” is confusing: Whose tax return?

 5. Keep the subject and verb together, especially when a sentence is long. Don’t ask your readers (who probably have many demands on their time) to read a sentence two or three times in order to figure it out. Many times the solution is to rewrite it as two sentences:

The reason for my poor grade in Algebra 1 last semester – when I finally had a chance to talk to Professor Brown about it – turned out to be a clerical mistake.  CONFUSING

I finally had a chance to talk to Professor Brown about my poor grade in Algebra 1 last semester. It turned out to be a clerical mistake.  BETTER


I Don’t Respect the Word “Respective”

I hate the words “respective” and “respectively.” They are, I insist, unnecessary, clumsy, and clankingly old-fashioned words.

I’m going to begin today’s post by conceding that it’s possible to use respectively effectively. Here’s an example from an item about a Stravinsky festival in the May 3, 2010 New Yorker:

This week’s performances of “Oedipus Rex” and “The Soldier’s Tale” are narrated by Jeremy Irons and Alex Baldwin, respectively.  CORRECT

“Respective” and “respectively” are useful sorting words. That sentence in The New Yorker helps us figure out what’s going on: Jeremy Irons will narrate “Oedipus Rex,” and Alec Baldwin will narrate “The Soldier’s Tale.”

But few writers seem to use these words so precisely and elegantly. I keep coming across sentences in which respective adds nothing at all (except, perhaps, a flavor of bygone pomposity). Here are three examples:

1.  The bride and groom, followed by their respective parents, led the guests into the reception hall.

I would delete “respective.” It’s obvious that the bride and groom were followed by their own parents.

2.  After saying good-bye to their respective friends, Mary and Jo put their suitcases into the car and drove off to college.

I would delete “respective.” It’s obvious that Mary and Jo said good-bye to their own friends.

The candidates set aside their respective views and sat down to hammer out a bipartisan plan.

I would change “respective views” to “differences.”

Professional writers strive to make every word matter. Let’s make a resolution to follow their example!

Sign with word unnecessary turned into necessary


‘Whom’ and ‘Whomever’

Recently I wrote a couple of posts about the Apostrophe Protection Society. I’m thinking of starting my own organization, tentatively called the “Down with Whom and Whomever Club.” Our charter will state two foundational principles:

  • Whom and whomever don’t add anything useful to a sentence
  • If you come across whom or whomever in a sentence, they’re probably wrong – even if the author is a professional writer

Here’s an example from my files. This is from an article about a teacher who was stealing from students’ lockers:

The student placed his black Samsung slider cell phone in an empty locker inside the boys’ locker room to catch whomever might be stealing the money.

It should have read “whoever might be stealing the money.” Here’s how you figure it out: “he was stealing the money” – “whoever might be stealing the money. When in doubt, substitute he for who and him for whom. It sounds like “Tea for Two,” doesn’t it?

He for who
And him for whom

Give the book to whoever wants it.  CORRECT  (“he wants it” – “who wants it”)

Give the book to whomever you like.  CORRECT  (“you like him” – “you like whomever”)

You can feel that m (him, whom) in your mouth. But why are we fussing with this? Just use who and whoever. So simple!