Category Archives: Sense and Nonsense

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.)


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


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.