Category Archives: Writing Skills

Happy Independence Day!

Instant Quiz

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

Every schoolchild should memorize this famous American quote from Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

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Independence Day – the Fourth of July (well, the third of July!) is a good opportunity to review two English usage rules that don’t quite make sense. We’re going to declare our independence from them.

My friend Evelyn Elwell Uyemura has expertise that I can only envy, including a master’s degree in linguistics. One day recently I came across her answer to a question someone had posted online:

When and why did “very unique” become acceptable?

Here’s Evelyn’s terrific answer:

It all started when some ragamuffins wrote that they hoped to create “a more perfect union,” and it’s been downhill ever since.

English teachers will tell you that it’s illogical to say “more perfect” and “more unique.” A thing is either perfect (or unique), or it’s not.

But “a more perfect union” looks wonderful when you read it – and sounds wonderful when you hear it. Logic isn’t everything! Great writing (and the US Constitution contains a lot of great writing) is what matters.

Those “ragamuffins” Evelyn mentioned were – of course – our Founding Fathers. Evelyn’s sentence reminds us what a daring group our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were. They weren’t just the wise and serious old men we learned about in school.

(In case you’re wondering, “more unique” was first recorded in 1782 in a book by Thomas Burgess, an English author, philosopher, and bishop. “Very unique” was first recorded in 1794 in a book by an English writer and soldier named Edward Moor. There are many other recorded uses of unique with a qualifier in the late 18th century. It’s nothing new.)

Let’s use our patriotism to challenge another rule: you can’t use a possessive with an inanimate object. For example, you’re not supposed to talk about a “home’s electrical system.” It has to be a person: “Mary’s book.”

Nonsense! To prove it, here are some phrases from a famous song that you’re certainly familiar with: “The Star Spangled Banner,” by Francis Scott Key:

“the dawn’s early light”

“the twilight’s last gleaming”

“the rocket’s red glare”

There are more possessives in the subsequent verses: “the morning’s first beam,” “the war’s desolation,” and “their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

Enjoy the Independence Day weekend!

The Spirit of 1776 by Archibald Willard

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

In formal writing, quote is a verb: “I quoted Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in my research paper.” A better choice for today’s sentence would be quotation.

Every schoolchild should memorize this famous American quotation from Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”  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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Henry W. Fowler

Instant Quiz

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

When I’m struggling with an upsetting problem, I always call one of my trusted confidents.

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When I was in college and graduate school, a professor would sometimes stray from the  lesson plan to talk about a learning experience, writing task, or research project they’d done. Those impromptu reminiscences turned out to be some of my most cherished memories.

Professional writers sometimes forget that the things they do routinely are a deep mystery to students. It really helps to know that those towering figures sometimes bumbled around like the rest of us!

I vividly remember my own fears that I didn’t have what it takes to be a scholar. It was comforting to think about a former professor wandering around the library, trying to solve some knotty academic problem.

* * * * *

In that spirit, I’m going to talk about this morning. I had a tiring day yesterday. I managed to get through a dance lesson, and I wrote a pretty good newsletter for one of my books. That was about it.

Apparently my psyche thought I needed that day to shut down. Today – whether I liked it or not – was going to be a work day.

And so it came to pass. At three-thirty this morning I decided it was pointless to try to go back to sleep. I played with our cat for a few minutes and then settled down at the computer.

The book I’m writing about Shaw includes several chapters about language. The one I’m working on now – my favorite – is largely about grammar. I’m sure that sounds boring as hell, but I’m having tremendous fun with it.

This morning’s topic was possessives with gerunds. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but all kinds of issues have come tumbling out, and I’ve been running around crazily trying to chase them down.

This morning I was playing with an idea about possessives with gerunds. Although that grammatical construction was already fading away by the time Shaw wrote Pygmalion, he was doing something interesting with it.

But here’s the rub: how would I prove that a grammatical construction was going out of style in 1914? Was I going to have to do a tedious search through a mountain of reference material? I couldn’t think of a single resource that tracks the comings and goings of grammar rules.

Might as well start with Fowler. Some years ago the library at the college where I worked discarded their copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage–the best reference book about English rules – and replaced it with the new edition. I snagged the discarded copy.

After some fumbling, I found Fowler’s entry about possessives with gerunds. (Thank you, Henry Fowler!) And – get this – the editor had decided that Henry’s 1906 comments about this obscure rule were worth including in my 1996 copy.

There – on page 609 – was Henry’s complaint that the London Times had stopped bothering with possessives with gerunds – including his examples.

Not only that – some anonymous bibliophile had digitized the entire book. I didn’t even have to retype Fowler’s discussion: I found it online and pasted it into my draft of that chapter. (Later today I’ll paraphrase and shorten it.)

I often think about the researchers who do this kind of work. They must wonder if all that tedious effort is ever going to be useful to anyone.

The answer is yes. Thank you, researchers!

The front cover of Fowler's classic book

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Don’t confuse confident (“secure,” “optimistic”) with confidante – a person you can confide in.

Today’s sentence requires confidante. (It’s a French word that has proved useful enough to enter the English language.)

When I’m struggling with an upsetting problem, I always call one of my trusted confidantes.


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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The MLA Is Accepting the Singular “They”

In March the prestigious Modern Language Association endorsed the singular they: https://style.mla.org/using-singular-they/?utm_source=mlaoutreach&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=sourcemar20non

Here’s an example. Instead of saying “his or her policy,” you can now say “their policy” in this sentence:

This year every driver will receive a discount on their insurance policy.  CORRECT

Here’s the MLA’s explanation for endorsing the singular they:

Because it lacks grammatical agreement, this use of singular they has been considered a less desirable option than revising to use the plural or rephrasing without pronouns. But it has emerged as a tool for making language more inclusive (see “Guidelines”), and the MLA encourages writers to accept its use to avoid making or enabling assumptions about gender.

Good for the MLA! But I’m not completely happy with that explanation, for two reasons.

First, it’s not true that the “singular they has been considered a less desirable option.” That’s too broad a generalization. Some academics have considered it “a less desirable option.”

If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve probably been using the singular they your entire life without even being aware of it. It’s been around since the 14th century, and it didn’t fall out of favor until the 18th century. It’s firmly embedded in our language.

What the MLA is really doing is endorsing something our language already had.

Second, the inclusive issue isn’t the biggest reason for endorsing the singular they. Our primary goal should be getting rid of the clumsy his-or-her construction. Begone!

But let’s not quibble over the reasons. The MLA’s new policy is grounds for celebrating. Let the party begin!

a party

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Read, Read, Read

Here’s a grammar question I can’t answer:

“What are three examples of non-finite clauses that have their own object or complement?”

I have no idea what a “non-finite clause” is. And I’m not going to look it up. I speak, read, and write English perfectly well. I refuse to waste a single second on this grammar nonsense.

* * * * *

If I were an absolute monarch, I would pass a law that every six-year-old has to be given their very own flashlight – along with a book. The purpose? To encourage them to read under the covers when they’re supposed to be sleeping.

That’s how you build writers.

If you spend tons of time reading, you’ll learn all about constructing sentences, building paragraphs, and developing ideas, with very little effort. After you’ve read – say – 50,000 sentences, you won’t need much help getting started on your own writing.

You certainly won’t need anyone to explain what a non-finite clause is.

I’ve discovered that most of the grammar gobbledygook online is supposedly for the benefit of speakers of other languages. Some misguided authority decided that making English sound very, very hard is the way to go.

Here’s my contrary view: every minute spent listening to a teacher babble about non-finite clauses is a minute that could have been spent practicing your English.

a boy reading a book under covers at night

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A Comma Rule You Should Know

I’ve been working on a book while I’ve been sheltering-in-place, and so have several friends who are writers. Because we’ve been seeking feedback from one another, I’ve been reminded of a problem I first noticed years ago.

Here it is: even many professional writers don’t know how to use commas with and and but.

One writer friend sheepishly admitted that her computer kept drawing red lines under sentences with and and but – and she ignored them. She just sprinkled commas into her sentences according to the mood she was in. (Mind you, she’s a professional writer.)

I’m hoping that you – reading this – want to learn the rule for sentences with and or but. It’s easy!

Use a comma if you’re joining two sentences with and or but.

Omit the comma if you don’t have two sentences.

Done! You don’t need grammar gobbledygook about coordinate conjunctions and independent clauses. Think about one sentence/two sentences, and you’ll get it right every time.

I couldn’t get in touch with Jane, but her brother called me back.  CORRECT (two sentences)

I couldn’t get in touch with Jane but kept trying to reach her.  CORRECT (one sentence)

We invited the couple who lives upstairs, and they brought a bottle of nice wine.  CORRECT (two sentences)

The couple who live down the street came over and brought us fresh flowers. CORRECT (one sentence)

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It’s easy – honest! After the word and (or but), check to see if you have a new sentence. If you do, use a comma.

How do you know you have a new sentence? It will start with a person, place or thing.

Let’s try two more:

I knocked on her door at one o’clock and went back at four.  CORRECT (one sentence)

Jeff came to the door, but Linda wasn’t home.  CORRECT (two sentences)

Let’s learn this rule!

Know the Rules

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Less or Fewer: Not So Simple

You probably remember your English teacher telling you to use fewer for things you can count (“fewer apples”) and less for things you can’t count (“less money”).

I heard it from a beloved English teacher in high school, and I just assumed that ’twas ever thus. He knew everything and was always right – or so I thought.

Not true! Using less with countable nouns (“less apples”) goes all the way back to Alfred the Great in 888, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The rule I learned from my English teacher didn’t come along until the 18th century – and then it was only a suggestion, not a rule.

Old habits die hard, and that’s as true of English as any other habit. People have been saying “less apples” for more than a thousand years. That usage isn’t going away any time soon!

But I’m going to warn you against a usage that’s becoming more common: “fewer than one.” No. It’s “less than one.” Please!

A chalkboard that asks if I'm doing this right.

 

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Strunk and White Were Wrong This Time

Can you find the error in this sentence?

Although we thought we had every detail covered, three people’s invitations didn’t arrive in time.

I can’t either. But according to Strunk and White’s classic book The Elements of Style, this sentence is wrong. It should be “three persons’ invitations didn’t arrive in time.”

It’s simple math: “The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five left went away, how many would be left? Answer: One people.

Who makes the rules of English? The answer is that we do. Not English teachers. Not lexicographers (the people who research words for dictionaries). Not editors.

The people who use English every day are the ones who make the rules. Of course it’s hard to track changes! That’s why you’ll see teenager in one magazine and teen-ager in another one. Or catalogue in one book and catalog in another book.

Strunk and White’s book is a wonderful guide to good writing. But it’s not infallible. And they were wrong about people. Just about every publisher in the world allows usages like “a hundred people” and “fifteen people.”

Strunk and White were free to make up their own rule, of course. But we are just as free to ignore it.

(And – just for the record – I think Strunk and White’s sentence is clumsy. “If of ‘six people,’ five left the room….Gack. Here’s my version: “If there were ‘five people,’ and one left the room….” And I don’t like “is best not used” either. Listen: nobody’s perfect. Not even Strunk and White.)

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Two Online Tools

Many things drive me crazy. Here’s one of them: people with an “ewwww!” attitude about Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia – so much, in fact, that I contribute to every fundraiser.

“But you can’t cite it!” Of course not. You don’t cite dictionaries either. But does that ever stop anyone from checking a dictionary?

Five minutes ago I went to Wikipedia to look up Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century epic poem The Faerie Queen. I wanted to read about Britomart, the namesake for a character in Shaw’s play Major Barbara.

I quickly found out that Spenser’s Britomart was a lady knight. Thank you, Wikipedia!

I went back to Google Docs, where I’m writing a book about Major Barbara. I started typing: Britomart, Faerie Queen, lady knight.

And then something magical happened. (I am still freaking over this.)

Here’s the paragraph I was working on:

Shaw was a masterful giver of names (a skill he probably began to develop when he devoured the novels of Dickens in his youth). “Undershaft” hints at underworld and underhanded, “Barbara” evokes a warrior-saint, and “Britomart” is the lady knight in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen.

Google Docs noticed that I’d mistyped The Faerie Queen – and fixed it. It needs another “e”: The Faerie Queene

Google Docs keeps an eye out for 16th-century literature just in case some poor schlep (me) didn’t notice that Spenser spells it Queene. It doesn’t want me to suffer the embarrassment of having an editor find that mistake when I submit my book to a publisher next year.

Can I send Google Docs money? Flowers? Something?

Microsoft Word (the word processor I’ve used forever) never catches these things.

Take my word for it: this is a good time to be a writer.

        Britomart, the Lady Knight in The Faerie Queene

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The Outer Circle

Last week I talked on the phone with a good friend who’s an excellent writer. She brought up something that we’ve often talked about – the importance of thinking.

Fresh, interesting ideas are probably the most important requirement for effective writing. But how do you find them?

Something relevant popped up while she and I were talking about our favorite shows.

Mine are Doc Martin (PBS) and (I’ll give you a moment to roll your eyes for this one) Sister Wives (TLC) – a reality show about a man with four wives. (I know it’s an odd choice!) I really enjoy sharing the roller-coaster ride of their four marriages rolled into one.

As I said, my writer friend and I were talking about TV…and then an idea hit. First, though, I’m going to backpedal for a moment. If you asked me what was wrong with Doc Martin’s marriage, I could tell you in a second: he was emotionally damaged by a troubled childhood.

And if you asked me what was wrong with Meri Brown’s marriage (she’s Wife #1 in Sister Wives), I’d tell you that it’s the stress from sharing your husband with three other women.

Recently both Doc Martin and Meri Brown from Sister Wives went into therapy. Both marriage counselors told both couples that one of their biggest problems is control issues. All four spouses (Martin and his wife Louisa, and Meri and her husband Kody) think they need to be in control – all the time.

I’m fascinated. I didn’t see that coming! And it started me thinking about my own marriage. Do Charlie and I have control issues? I thought about my parents, and friends, and other family members. Have I ever spotted control issues with them?

How do you even know if you have control issues? It’s something I haven’t thought much about.

Back to writing. When something startles you, and it challenges you to think in new ways, you’ve been given a gift. That’s were good (and sometimes great) writing comes from.

Most good writers I know keep journals where they write down new ideas that come out of the blue. Not all of them will be useful. But even an off-the-wall idea might stimulate another idea that turns out to be solid gold.

The trick is to learn how to watch yourself thinking (crazy as that sounds). What is my brain doing now? Is it lazy? Spinning around in the same old loop? Nothing wrong with that! We all do it.

But if you aspire to be a writer, there should be plenty of moments when you’re chasing down an idea that hit you for the first time. Write it down, go back to it several times, and see where it takes you. You may be surprised – and you may come up with a terrific piece of writing.

The cast of the Sister Wives TV reality show

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