Tag Archives: writing advice

Improving a Sentence

Here’s a practice question from the SAT. How would you fix the underlined sentence?

There are over 50,000 therapy dogs in the United States, and they’re becoming more popular in countries from Norway to Brazil. Trained and certified by a variety of organizations, hospitals and other facilities welcome these dogs and their handlers, who interact with patients.

According to the SAT, this is a better version:

Trained and certified by a variety of organizations, these dogs and their handlers interact with patients and are welcomed by hospitals and other facilities.

The SAT is right, of course. But their sentence isn’t much of an improvement, for two reasons. There’s too much information, and it’s weak.  “Interact with patients” is the most important idea. Put it first.

Standardized tests are full of test questions like this one. No professional writer would write such a dull sentence! It’s a string of facts that aren’t connected. For example, we don’t learn why the dogs are trained and certified.

Here’s my version: 

Hospital patients enjoy playing with these dogs, which are trained to be comfortable in hospitals and other health facilities.

A therapy dog

Photo courtesy of Jami430 (CC License)


Two Sentences to Think About

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I think formal grammar is a waste of time.

There’s a widespread belief that if you know grammar well, you’ll be able to solve every writing problem. I think that’s wrong, and I have an example for you today.

Take a look at these two sentences:

1.  We need to inventory the bikes, scooters, and wagons stored in the annex.

2.  We need to inventory the bikes, the scooters, and the wagons stored in the annex.

In #1, you know that everything – bikes, scooters, and wagons – is stored in the annex. But in #2 maybe only the wagons are stored in the annex – there’s no way to know.

I often hear from writers who are looking for an easy trick that will unravel a sentence problem. “If I move the comma, will that fix it?”

Usually my answer is sorryno. Most of the time you’ll need to rewrite the sentence. Here’s my version of today’s sentence:

We need to inventory the bikes and scooters in the showroom and the wagons stored in the annex.  BETTER

A child's red wagon


Roy Peter Clark Writing Tools

Roy Peter Clark has made a list of 50 Writing Tools that’s worth reading. If you’re serious about writing, you can learn a lot by reading (and pondering) one or two of his tools every day. Here’s the link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1JaNiIY3FL4rjVGhbwn3K_jQpHRM6DYWe/view?usp=sharing

I have two reasons for liking Clark’s tools so much. First, he knows what he’s talking about. Second, his crisp, concise style challenges you to think about what he’s telling you. You have to figure it out yourself – and that’s one of the best ways to learn about writing.

A cup of coffee with a message "Unlock your confidence"


The Oxford Comma

What’s an Oxford comma? It’s the comma before and in a list. In the sentence below, there’s an Oxford comma after tea:

We served coffee, tea, and cake to our guests.

Students are sometimes told that God (or Moses, or someone) made a rule that the Oxford comma is wrong. (That happens to journalism students all the time.)

No, it isn’t. The Oxford comma is a choice.

That comma is wrong if you’re writing for a newspaper or magazine. (If omitting that comma messes up the sentence, you put it back in.)

Here are some rules:

  • If you’re a journalist, you omit it.
  • If you’re an academic, you use it.
  • If someone’s paying you to write, you ask them their policy about that comma, and you follow it.
  • If that comma (or the lack of it) causes a problem with a sentence, you fix it.
  • If you’re writing on your own, you make your own decision.
  • What you never (ever!) do is argue about it.


What’s an “Indefinite Pronoun Reference”?

Here’s a excerpt from the New York Times that caught my eye recently. It’s from an article about what to wear to a wedding:

No matter what, “avoid predictability,” said Donnell Baldwin, a stylist in New York City. This may mean gowns with funky patterns, art-printed dinner jackets and eye-catching accessories like velvet purses or patterned pocket squares. 

It’s a confusing sentence because “predictability” could have two meanings. Baldwin could be saying that funky patterns and the rest are the answer to predictability – or that they’re examples of predictability.

The problem is the word this. This is one of the trickiest words in the English language. (Who knew?)

When you were reading “This may mean,” your eyes automatically started backtracking to find out what “this” meant. Aha! Predictability. So Donnell Baldwin was telling you that funky patterns are too predictable.

But wait a minute! Funky patterns aren’t predictable. So your brain had to make an adjustment. Oh – Baldwin was saying that funky patterns are a remedy for predictability.

I am not making this up. Your brain (and eyes) automatically start backtracking every time you see the words this or that by themselves. Grammarians call this usage an indefinite pronoun reference.

Happily, they also have a cure for it: never use this or that by itself. Always put a noun after those words: this advice, that idea, and so on. (Did you notice what I wrote in the previous paragraph? “Grammarians call this usage….” I was careful to put a noun after this.)

Here’s my fix for that sentence about “predictability”: 

This problem can be solved by gowns with funky patterns, art-printed dinner jackets and eye-catching accessories like velvet purses or patterned pocket squares.

Professional writers care about our readers. We want you to enjoy reading! So we avoid  sentences that require backtracking.

the word grammar


Pablo Picasso

Today I’m going to talk about a paragraph from the SAT prep website. The subject is Pablo Picasso, a famous twentieth-century artist. The paragraph is an interesting one because the writing is both good and bad.

The world in which Picasso lived was particularly supportive of his developing celebrity. His family cultivated his creative passion, he had clusters of peers who inspired him, and he had the good fortune to be born at a time when new ideas in science, literature, and music energized his work. Moreover, the advent of mass media allowed him to achieve widespread fame.

Here’s what’s good: the paragraph uses moreover to build towards a climax. That’s what professional writers do – and what student writers should practice doing.

Here’s what’s not so good: too much information is crammed into the second sentence. It talks about family, peers, science, literature, and music. Whew!

This is typical textbook writing. Because there’s so much to cover in a semester, information comes at you at lightning speed.

I’m not blaming the College Board for posting this paragraph. But there’s a danger if students imitate these examples. The ideas rush by too quickly.

Instructors can help by spending more time talking about emphasis. Students should work on emphasis too. One suggestion is to simply spend more time thinking about it.

An easy first step when you’re writing is giving each idea its own sentence. An effective second step is developing each idea with something interesting – an anecdote or an intriguing fact.

Try it!

                                             Les Demoiselles_d’Avignon


Semicolons: Easy or Difficult?

I usually enjoy Mary Norris’s articles about language. She’s a former copyeditor for The New Yorker and a terrific writer – funny, readable, and informative.

But…yikes! Sometimes she goes overboard. Here are her thoughts about semicolons:

That is, commas, semicolons, and colons were plugged into a sentence in order to highlight, subordinate, or otherwise conduct its elements, connecting them syntactically. One of the rules is that, unless you are composing a list, a semicolon is supposed to be followed by a complete clause, capable of standing on its own….Sentence length has something to do with it—a long, complex sentence may benefit from a clarifying semicolon—but if a sentence scans without a semicolon it’s best to leave it alone.

Anyone reading that would decide that it’s best not to attempt  to use a semicolon at all – ever.

There’s an easier way. Just write two sentences. Change the first period to a semicolon. Lower-case the next word (unless it needs a capital letter). You’re done!

Tuesday is my birthday. I’m throwing a party.  CORRECT

Tuesday is my birthday; I’m throwing a party.  CORRECT

Some of my writer friends blanch when they hear this. They insist that you have to make semicolons difficult!

No, you don’t. So there!


Carolyn Hax and Passive Voice

A few days ago I discussed a New York Times article that linked grammatical choices to morality. A recent  Carolyn Hax column makes a similar point. (Hax is the advice columnist for the Washington Post.)

In that column, a woman asked how to get an old friendship back on its former footing. Problems erupted during a stressful time when she made an unfortunate remark to a friend. Things got worse when the woman repeated that mistake, and now she feared that she’d lost a friend permanently.

Hax (a columnist who impresses me) pointed out that the woman’s own description of the events hinted at an underlying problem: “it happened again,” passive voice vs. the more accurate “I did it again” (from Hax’s column).

I would label “it happened again” active voice, not passive. (It is the subject, and happened is the verb.) But Hax’s larger point is spot on: The woman’s sentence structure was an attempt to distance herself from her own behavior.

This example underlines what postmodern language theorists have been telling us: Language isn’t neutral. Unintended messages often lie hidden within the choices we make when we write and speak.

The Washington Post building