Tag Archives: writing advice

Pablo Picasso

Instant Quiz

Can you correct the error in the sentence below? Scroll to the bottom of today’s post for the answer.

“Slow down,” he told me, “and breath deeply.”


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


Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

The word you need today is breathe.

“Slow down,” he told me, “and breathe deeply.”

What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go


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