Category Archives: Writing Skills

Maybe It Doesn’t Matter!

Instant Quiz

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

I saw two shoe stores walking down the street.


I was taught not to capitalize prepositions (in, by, for, with, to) in a title. Here’s how I would write the title of Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel: Gone with the Wind.

But I just found out that the Chicago Manual of Style has an exception. If you’re using a phrasal verb, you can capitalize the preposition (which -the experts say – might actually be an adverb. Don’t you just love grammar?).

A phrasal verb has two words that go together: fall down and pick up are examples. Gone with is not a phrasal verb. That’s why you don’t capitalize with in Gone with the Wind.

The two words in hang on really do go together. So we have this song title: “Let’s Hang On to What We’ve Got.”

Watch out is another phrasal verb. Eric Clapton has a song called “Watch Out for Lucy.” You should capitalize out.

But what about watch over? I don’t think those two words go together. They don’t sound like a unit to me.

There’s a gorgeous Gershwin song called “Someone to Watch over Me.” Technically you shouldn’t capitalize “over.” And there’s another old song called “Moon over Miami.” Same thing: don’t capitalize “over.” Moon over isn’t a common expression.

But I’m struggling here – for several reasons. First, I think the rule is shaky.

Go on is obviously a phrasal verb. But what about Go forth, as in “Go forth and multiply?” If you’re familiar with the Bible, it sounds like a phrasal verb. But if you didn’t grow up in a Bible-reading household, you might not think those two words together.

Another issue (for me, anyway) is that I hate grammar gobbledygook like “phrasal verb.” Gack.

It gets worse. Recently The Chicago Manual of Style decided to lower-case out in the title of a recent book: Getting out of Saigon. They didn’t think getting and out went together.

But several people wrote in to say that they think getting out is a phrasal verb after all. The Chicago Manual of Style backed down (sort of). You can read more about it here.

That means some very smart people are voting for Getting Out of Saigon. Other equally smart people are sticking with Getting out of Saigon.

And I am getting out of this argument.

Language is slippery. When I was in school, I had beloved teachers who insisted that language questions always have a right answer if you search hard enough.

But experience has taught me that language is a human invention, not a divine one. Often there isn’t a right answer. Mistakes are built in.

In future posts I’m going to be showcasing some inconsistencies – usages that sound right but blatantly break the rules.

Let’s go back to those capital letters. What should we do?

You’re reading this post because you’re curious about language. I would bet serious money that you’re a busy person with many interests.

Do not – please – waste your precious time worrying about putting a capital letter on a preposition (which – it turns out – could also be an adverb) in a title. Go eeny-meeny if you have to. Nobody is even going to notice – honest!



Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Today’s mistake is a dangling modifier. (Another name for it is “misplaced modifier.” What you’re actually saying is that a couple of shoe stores were walking down the street.

While I was walking down the street, I saw two shoe stores. CORRECT

What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from 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


Writing That First Sentence

I’m reading a brief but intriguing book: How to Write a Sentence – and How to Read One by Stanley Fish. The first chapter includes this excellent advice: “Just get the first sentence right, everything else will follow.”

Here’s Fish’s explanation:

If my first sentence were written with a full comprehension of all the twists and turns it introduced…following its lead would guide me to the right order of my arguments and examples. 

The advice originally came from one of Fish’s college professors. Fish added this comment: “He was right, of course.”

Ummm…no, he wasn’t. That’s not why your first sentence is so important. And that advice won’t help you write your first sentence. At that point in the writing process, many writers don’t even know which “arguments and examples” they’re going to use. 

But Fish is on to something important. I like to compare it to throwing a ball. The more energy you use to launch that ball, the farther it will go.

Sentences work the same way. If there’s a lot of energy packed into your first sentence, your writing won’t sputter later on. The energy will be there for you.

* * * * *

I have another point to make. I think Stanley Fish made a grammatical mistake when he wrote this: “If my first sentence were written with a full comprehension….”

Here’s my version: “If my first sentence was written with a full comprehension….”

I use were constructions only when I’m talking about something that couldn’t possibly be true: If I were younger, I would study law.

If something might be true, I use was: If your payment was late, you will have to pay a penalty.

And there’s one more thing: Fish used a comma to join two sentences. Wrong! He should have used a period or a semicolon instead:

Just get the first sentence right. Everything else will follow.

Just get the first sentence right; everything else will follow.

Heck, he could even have used a colon!

Just get the first sentence right: everything else will follow.

But it’s still good advice.

A baseball player throwing a ball


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)


A Panda Goes Home

Ya Ya is a female panda who’s been living at the Memphis Zoo for 20 years. Some animal activists say that she should have been sent back to China many years ago. You can read  about Ya Ya at this link:

I’m glad Ya Ya is going home! But my subject today is something else – this headline from the print edition of the New York Times:

A Panda Homecoming Said to Be Long Overdue by Worried Activists

A grammarian would say that “by worried activists” is a misplaced modifier. In plain English, it’s awkwardly placed, sounding as if the worried activists are supposed to be the ones sending Ya Ya home to China.

A conventional editor would have changed it to this: Activists Are Worried about a Long-overdue Panda Homecoming.

But that’s not the solution I would have chosen. I think I know why the headline writer chose that awkward wording, and I would be inclined to leave it alone.

Here’s why: it’s a story about a panda, not a group of worried activists. The most important element of a sentence should usually go first in a sentence. (That’s an important writing principle called “emphasis.”)

If it were up to me, I would leave “A Panda Homecoming” at the beginning.

But there’s an even better solution, and that’s exactly what the Times did in their online edition. They rewrote the headline so that it made sense – while leaving the panda at the beginning. Here’s their revised headline:

A Panda Is Coming Home, and Her Chinese Fans Say It’s About Time

Welcome home, Ya Ya!

Ya Ya, a Chinese panda who lived at the Memphis Zoo for 20 years

                Ya Ya at the Memphis Zoo

Photo courtesy of Frank/Flickr  CC License


Making Writing Choices

Recently my friend Mike Goronsky and I had an interesting discussion about the term expletive. I’ve always thought that an expletive was a swear word or vulgar expression. In 1974, when the Watergate story broke, President Richard Nixon released transcripts of taped conversations in the White House. Nixon often used swear words, and the transcription was full of notations like “expletive deleted.”

But thanks to Mike, I learned that expletive can also mean “an unnecessary word or phrase”: there is, it is, indeed, and so on. Getting rid of those lazy words can make your writing stronger:

There are going to be hundreds of people attending the party.  WEAK

Hundreds of people will attend the party.  STRONG

I’m sure many writing instructors routinely tell their students not to start sentences with there is and there are. It sounds like a sensible rule, doesn’t it?

But writing “by the rules” is risky. You’re relinquishing your power – letting a rule make the decisions instead of using your own eyes, ears, and brain.

Compare the two versions below. Which sounds stronger to you?

1. There are many opportunities for promotion.

2. Many opportunities exist for promotion.

I would choose #1. “Many opportunities exist…” turns me off. Exist is a weak verb.

You might disagree, and that’s fine. The point is that you’re processing the sentence yourself – listening to it carefully and making up your own mind. That’s what good writers do.

Rules are only guidelines.

I have another example. Some time ago my friend Jane Brumbaugh wrote a marvelous article about a community that came together to start their own library. Here’s her first sentence:

There was no library in Lake Alfred in 1961.

A writing textbook might tell you that this version is better:

Lake Alfred didn’t have a library in 1961.

Nope. I like Jane’s original sentence.

Who’s right? I don’t claim to be infallible. But here’s my reasoning: the most important word in that sentence is library. Starting the sentence with “Lake Alfred” sends the wrong message: this is going to be about a small town in Central Florida.

The article was about creating a library with practically no resources. I want the word library to be close to the beginning of the sentence. 

It’s easy to forget how precisely our brains work. Tiny shifts in a sentence – even if they break a rule or two – can add power to your writing. Trust yourself!


A Rule about Apostrophes

I just read an article that clears up some confusing points about apostrophes.  I wish I could say I’m pleased, but I’m not. I have a feeling I’m going to be cranky all day.

Here’s what’s bothering me: The author wants us to use the term pronomial pronouns. That’s supposed to help us remember a group of words that never get apostrophes: his, hers, yours, ours, theirs and its.

Why make apostrophes so complicated? I have a Ph.D. in English, and I can’t remember ever seeing the word pronomial before.

I’m going to suggest a much simpler way to learn how to use these pronouns. Here it is: Think about the word his. No apostrophe, right?

All these pronouns (his, hers, yours, ours, theirs and its) work the same way: no apostrophe.

These examples are correct:

That book is his, not hers. 

The dog buried his bone.

The dog buried its bone.

His is the blue Subaru.

Ours is the blue Subaru.

If the wallet is his, he can claim it in the office.

If the wallet is yours, you can claim it in the office.

No apostrophes! Easy, isn’t it?


Do You Need to be a Grammar Stickler?

New College is an innovative learning institution in Sarasota, Florida that’s suddenly become controversial. Here’s a headline from a recent edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

How does Richard Corcoran’s New College salary compare to other Florida universities?

I like the headline. But there’s a problem! A grammar stickler might say that the headline is wrong. You can’t compare a salary to a university.

Here’s the supposedly correct version: “How does Richard Corcoran’s salary compare to that of other Florida universities?”

My response is…bosh. I hate that of, and I refuse to use it. It’s clumsy, unnatural and unnecessary. Nobody who reads that headline about New College is going to be confused.

Grammar sticklers sometimes forget that our brains are superbly wired to process language. Sentences don’t need to be carefully balanced (despite what an overenthusiastic English teacher might have told us). Our brains happily figure out what’s going on.

Mary Norris – former copyeditor for The New Yorker magazine – discovered that some dangling modifiers make more sense and read better if you don’t fix them.

A wise woman! We would do well to follow her lead.

                           Photo courtesy of Lawrence G. Miller


Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?

Here’s a sentence I found on Grammarly (a platform where you can improve your language skills). I like it!

He is totally beguiling, and I’m bewitched.

But Grammarly says it’s a bad sentence: you’re supposed to avoid passive voice. I’m bewitched is passive because the sentence doesn’t tell you who did the bewitching.

Here’s Grammarly’s version:

He is totally beguiling, and he has bewitched me.

My reaction is…pfffft. I’ll agree that it’s a good sentence. But so was the original! “I’m bewitched” is strong. I can feel the witchcraft!

Sometimes grammar doesn’t matter. The sentence feels alive – and isn’t that what we want from our writing?

My oft-repeated advice still stands: be wary when someone throws a rule at you. Rules are only guidelines.

You have a lifetime of language experience.  (So does everyone else!) You know – instantly – whether a sentence works or not. Trust yourself!


Prepare to Be Shocked

A few days ago I stopped by my local library to drop off some books. When I was getting ready, I remembered that we had some pencils that needed sharpening.

I put a rubber band around them and headed for the library – which, it turns out, does not have a pencil sharpener. Those pencils are still in my purse. @#$*%&!

Did that little anecdote offend you?  Probably not. Pencil is such an innocent word that even kindergarten children use it. 

But if you look up the etymology (origin) of pencil,  you might be shocked. (The picture below might help you figure it out!)

Many lovers of English believe that we should avoid words that have an uncomfortable history.

For example, if you’re a Roman Catholic, you’re supposed  to get angry when someone says “hocus pocus.” The reason? It’s believed to be a mocking reference to the holiest words in a Latin Mass. (But there are other possible origins of “hocus-pocus.” You can learn more here:

Similarly gee, gosh, and golly may have started out as references to Jesus and God: if you use them to express dismay, you’re guilty of blasphemy.

It sounds like a valid academic argument. Shouldn’t we stick to the original meanings of words?

My answer is no – and many linguistics experts agree. It’s what the word means today that counts. (Yes, you can talk about a pencil!)

I have a favorite rebuttal when someone argues for the original meanings of words. Manuscript means “written by hand” in Latin. If you’re a professional writer, do you write your manuscripts by hand? Of course not! You use today’s meaning.

What’s most important is reminding ourselves that language is slippery. A word that bothers one person may seem perfectly okay to someone else. For example, I’ve been told that we shouldn’t say “master bedroom” because it evokes slavery. But it doesn’t have that association for me, and I have no problem with “master bedroom.”

On the other hand, there’s a church in my neighborhood that uses the term “overseer” instead of “pastor.” Umm – no. It’s not a word I would ever use. (Maybe I’ve read Gone with the Wind too many times!)

But many people are perfectly okay with “overseer.” For years I’ve been driving past a sign that announces the name of the “overseer” of that church. Nobody seems to have complained about it.

And that takes us to a larger point I want to make today. Language belongs to everybody. We need to be wary of anyone who lays down the law about a word, expression, or rule.

For many people, that’s an uncomfortable truth. Wouldn’t life be easier if we had one set of language rules? Yes, it would. 

But the easy route isn’t always the best route. In the end, I’m grateful that we have the right to make up our own minds about how we’re going to use our wonderful language.

Of course problems are going to arise, and mistakes will happen. But I’ll gladly accept that risk (even though I’ve stumbled myself numerous times!). I’m proud to be an owner of the English language. I hope you are too.

English reference books on a shelf

                                                                                                                          Courtesy of John Keogh, CC License


Robert Caro

Robert Caro is one of our greatest nonfiction writers. For many years he’s been working on a multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Below is a sentence from Caro’s account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson (Kennedy’s vice-president) immediately became the US President. It’s a dramatic story, climaxing when Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One, the official Presidential airplane.

It’s great writing, but that’s not why I’m posting it here. There’s something else that excited me: two words that I don’t think any other writer would have bothered with.

Can you figure out what they are? 

Taking his wife, Lady Bird, by the arm to bring her along, Lyndon
Johnson walked over to the fence and started to follow the Kennedys, but
the faces remained turned, and the arms remained stretched, toward the
Kennedys, even after they had passed, and Johnson quickly moved back to
the gray convertible that had been rented for him.

Here are the two words: Lady Bird. (I don’t mind if you think I’m nuts!)

Almost anybody interested in reading Caro’s book would already know the name of Johnson’s wife. She was an amazing woman who was in the news all the time.

But Caro is an exceptional writer. You can almost hear his thoughts clicking: Lyndon died in 1973. Lady Bird died in 2007. Some readers today might not know who they were! Caro didn’t want anyone to be confused – not even for  a second.

There’s a reason I’m so excited about this. (In case you’re wondering, I lived through the Kennedy and Johnson years. Yes, I knew her name was Lady Bird!)

The New Yorker (where this chapter was published) is my favorite magazine.  But its writers have the annoying habit of mentioning a name and repeating it later – with no clue about who “Greg” or “Sam Smith” was. A brother? Childhood friend? Politician?

 I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to backtrack to figure out who’s being talked about.

Great writers think about their readers, making tiny changes that most people wouldn’t even notice. The goal? Creating a pleasurable experience for their future readers.

Do you edit your work with your audience in mind? Do you look for opportunities to make reading easier for them?

[Source: “The Day L.B. J. Took Charge” by Robert A. Caro from The New Yorker, April 2, 2012.]

Robert A. Caro

Robert Caro