Category Archives: Writing Skills

Advice to Ignore

Instant Quiz

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

After studing for three hours, I was ready for a break.

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In the last couple of weeks I’ve come across the same bad writing advice twice. What’s really interesting is that the contexts were different.

Here’s the bad advice:

1. You should avoid semicolons because they don’t indicate the relationship between the two ideas. (This is Michael Kinsley’s position) 

2.  You should avoid dashes because they don’t indicate the relationship between the two ideas. (This is Lionel Shriver’s position.)

Bosh! Our brains are perfectly capable of figuring out those relationships. In fact our brains enjoy doing that. It’s more active and interesting than just imbibing information.

Take a look at these two sentences:

We enjoyed our visit; Susan is a wonderful hostess.

Raindrops began to fall – we needed to hurry.

No one could miss the connections between those pairs of ideas. We enjoyed the visit because Susan is such a good hostess. We had to hurry because we didn’t want to get wet.

Why not simply use “because,” then? The answer is sentence variety. You don’t want to keep using the same sentence pattern over and over – a string of because sentences, for example.

A red pencil and the words right and wrong

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Studying requires a “y” at the end:

After studying for three hours, I was ready for a break.  CORRECT


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

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Because I Said So

Instant Quiz

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

Gabe is always in trouble because he insists on flaunting the rules.

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My husband has been the garden writer for a newspaper for 32 years. His first editor was a pleasant young woman who — unfortunately — had some odd ideas about writing. One of them was her belief that because was a bad word.

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

The word you need today is flout. (Flaunt refers to showing off.) 

Gabe is always in trouble because he insists on flouting the rules.  CORRECT


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

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Is It “I” or “Me”?

Instant Quiz

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

Preregistration begins on Tuesday.

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It’s surprising but true – the everyday words I and me cause endless confusion.

Although it’s easy to use these two words correctly, our English grammar insists on making them seem difficult. I just came across this hopelessly complicated explanation from Grammarly:

Use me when you’re talking about an action done totowardforwith, or without you. And use whenever you’re the one doing the action.

Do you find this explanation helpful? I don’t. There’s a better way: just shorten the sentence.

Jill invited Carl and I/me to her party.

Get rid of Carl – just for a minute. He can still come to the party!

Jill invited me to  her party.

It’s obvious, isn’t it? Jill invited me to her party. So: Jill invited Carl and me to  her party.

Let’s try another one:

Carl and I/me enjoyed Jill’s party.

Get rid of Carl for just a moment:

I enjoyed the party.

Again, it’s obvious: I enjoyed Jill’s party. So: Carl and I enjoyed Jill’s party.

Use your language experience to solve these problems – and stay away from the grammar gobbledygook. You can download a free handout about pronouns at .

A dog wearing a party hat

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Here’s a better version of today’s Quiz sentence: Registration begins on Tuesday.

Many times “pre” is unnecessary. There’s no difference between registration and preregistration, planning and preplanning, and ordering and preordering.


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

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Maybe It Doesn’t Matter!

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!

Confusion

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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

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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)

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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: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/12/world/asia/panda-china-memphis-zoo-ya-ya.html

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

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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!

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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?

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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

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