Category Archives: Writing Skills

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 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!


Which Is Correct: As or Like?

Because my field of study is English, I rely on the Modern Language Association (usually abbreviated to MLA) for help with research citations.

I also use their Style Guide to keep up with changes in writing rules. So I was very interested when the MLA sent me an article about the difference between as and like. That’s a word pair that sometimes befuddles me, and I was looking forward to some enlightenment.

Here’s the kind of sentence I find confusing:

I wish I could dance like she does.

I know that most grammarians (Strunk and White, for example) would disapprove. But why?

This is the explanation I found in the MLA email:

Wilson Follett has a handy rule: “as tells in what role or capacity the deed is done; like introduces a comparison.”

The sentence I just typed for you is a comparison, right? I don’t see a “role or capacity.” But I have enough of a grammar background to know that most grammarians would still say that it’s wrong. What to do?

After tying myself in knots for a few minutes, I came up with a solution: just rewrite the sentence.  Here’s my new version:  “I wish I could dance the way she does.” Problem solved!

You won’t find this advice in most grammar books, but every professional writer I know swears by it: When you run into a grammar problem you can’t solve, rewrite the sentence. Done!

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



Joan Rivers, One More Time

In my previous post, I wrote about the word slunk, which showed up in a recent New Yorker article even though it’s nonstandard.

Today I’m inviting you to read a paragraph from the article about Joan Rivers. It is stunningly well written!

Many professionals do what author Emily Nussbaum did: end some of their paragraphs with a climax or a restatement sentence. (Don’t get nervous about the fancy term “restatement”! All it means is that you say pretty much the same thing you just said – in a different way.)

Putting this extra little polish at the end of a paragraph is a practice we should imitate. (But don’t overdo it! Notice that I said “some of their paragraphs.”)

Here’s the paragraph about Joan Rivers, with the restatement sentence in blue.

For half a century, this dark comedy of scarce resources had been her forte: many hands grasping, but only one golden ring. Rivers herself had fought hard for the token slot allotted to a female comic, yet she seemed thrown by a world in which that might no longer be necessary. Like Moses and the Promised Land, she couldn’t cross over.

You can read the entire article here. Joan Rivers

Portrait of Joan Rivers courtesy of Underbelly Limited


A Past-Tense Verb

Today I’m going to talk about a blind spot in my brain – one of many, I’m sure!

Lately I’ve been going through some New Yorker magazines that piled up while I was working on my book about Shaw.  I came across a wonderfully written article about comedian Joan Rivers that you can read here. (I’m going to add something admirable about Rivers that wasn’t mentioned in the article. She used to donate all her nightclub fees to a charity that provides nutritious food to patients in New York.)

There’s something odd in that article, however. Take a look at this sentence:

Eventually, exhausted, she slunk back to her teen-age bedroom.

Slunk? Obviously that was wrong. But then what was the right verb? Slank? I – Jean Reynolds, your self-appointed language expert – couldn’t come up with an answer to that question.

I did the obvious thing and went to the American Heritage Dictionary website to look up the past tense of slink. Guess what: it’s slinked. Slunk isn’t listed.

But doesn’t it sound right? Turns out I’m not the only person who feels that way.  Novelist Ursula Le Guin used slunk in an article also published in the New Yorker:

On a banquet night in Berkeley once, when somebody jogged my arm and my beer went straight down the back of Mrs. Robert Heinlein’s dress, I slunk away into the crowd.

I did some sleuthing (don’t you love these -sl words?) and discovered that Oxford University has already admitted slunk into its dictionary. (Did you know that lexicographers from one dictionary might disagree with lexicographers at another dictionary?)

Isn’t language interesting?

Joan Rivers

Portrait of Joan Rivers courtesy of Underbelly Limited


Good Writing from the New York Times

I just opened the New York Times for Saturday, April 9, and found an article about why the Russians weren’t able to take Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The writing is wonderful! Here’s an example:

But fighting for a major city like Kyiv is notoriously difficult, bloody and time-consuming. There are plenty of places to hide. Opposing forces can camp out in tall buildings. Rubble hides fighters as well as standing structures do.

There’s sophistication (the parallel construction in the first sentence) followed by short, punchy, active-voice sentences that let you see what happened in Kyiv. Opposing forces camp out. Rubble hides fighters.

You don’t need fancy words to impress readers. You do need interesting information and vivid examples! (Good writing helps too.)

Anti-war demonstration

                               Photo courtesy of GoToVan



A Proofreading Tip that Works!

The April 2022 issue of Psychology Today includes a provocative article about – of all things – proofreading! It makes sense when you think about it: language is a brain function. (My thanks to Margaret Swanson for sending me the link.) 

I have one gripe, though. Here’s author Holly Parker’s advice: “Try rereading what you’ve jotted down while verbalizing it.”

I would change verbalizing into normal English: “reading it aloud.” Never use a fancy word when there’s an easier way to say something.

Click here to read “A Simple and Effective Cognitive Method to Catch Typos and Other Errors.”



Trooping Along

Today I’m going to give you a glimpse into what lexicographers do. (They’re the professionals who add, delete, and edit dictionary definitions.)

One recent Saturday morning before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I heard a startling remark during an MSNBC conversation between host Ali Velshi and journalist Erin Laughlin. Laughlin was saying that “So far, not a single Russian troop has been seen.”

I heard English change, right there on my TV. For some years now the word troop has been acquiring a new meaning and usage. I’m sure that lexicographers were very interested in that MSNBC broadcast!

Here’s what I mean. When I was growing up, troop always referred to a group of soldiers or Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. I belonged to Girl Scout Troop 4 in Bethpage, New York. Sometimes several troops would get together for an activity. Five troops might include 50 or 60 Girl Scouts.

Nowadays, though, troops means “soldiers.” For example, here’s an excerpt from the December 15 New York Times. The subject is the American military withdrawal from Iraq:

Although Thursday’s ceremony represented the official end of the war, the military still has two bases in Iraq and roughly 4,000 troops, including several hundred who attended the ceremony. At the height of the war in 2007, there were 505 bases and more than 170,000 troops.

That 170,000 troops means 170,000 soldiers.

What’s so exciting (or disturbing, depending on your point of view) is that Erin Laughlin used troop as a singular word to mean “one soldier”: “not a single Russian troop has been seen.” That’s new! I haven’t heard anyone else use “one troop” that way. (Back in 1955, we would have thought she meant “not a single Russian military unit has been seen.”)

I can guarantee that Erin Laughlin’s remark was recorded and noted in a vocabulary log. If many more people start using troop that way, eventually we’ll get a new dictionary entry.

And that, folks, is how dictionaries are updated.

Dictionary with an magnifying glass on top