Category Archives: Writing Skills

Appositives

Instant Quiz

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

Yesterday we interviewed a women who seems perfect for the new position we’re advertising.

_____________________________________________________

My friend Mike Goronsky sent me an intriguing Boston Globe article about appositives – The Pause That Annoys: When a Comma Makes Life Needlessly Hard by Jan Freeman. 

Here are three examples (the appositives are in bold):

The berries, which were moldy, went straight into the compost.
My older sister, Betty, taught me the alphabet.
My sister Enid lets me hold her doll.

An appositive is an explanation or a description. Sometimes it’s set off in a pair of commas. but sometimes it’s not. How do you know when to use the commas?

There are two ways to do it. Both are correct. The first way is to learn a lot of grammar gobbledygook about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

The second way is for someone (me) to remind you that you already know all about appositives – you’ve been using them all your life. You speak English, remember? So you read the sentence aloud and listen to your voice. If it goes down and back up, use the commas.

My friend Jean knows a lot about English.

My friend Jean who knows a lot about English is writing a book.

Did you read them aloud? (Don’t cheat!) If you did, you know that the first sentence doesn’t need commas. The second one does.

My friend Jean knows a lot about English.

My friend Jean, who knows a lot about English, is writing a book.

Start listening to conversations (including yours). You’ll hear this down-and-up pattern all the time. Everyone knows how to do it!

Now I’m going to give you permission to stop reading this post. The Boston Globe article raises an interesting point that I want to talk about. But it’s not a big issue, and you’re welcome to skip this discussion.

* * * * *

Still with me? Good! English is a versatile language that can do amazing things. Take a look at these sentences:

My cousin Jill works in a shop.
My cousin, Bill, works in a hotel.

The first sentence says that you have at least two cousins. The second sentence says that you have only one cousin. There’s no need to say: “I have only one cousin. His name is Bill, and he works in a hotel.” Our amazing language conveys all of that information in just seven words.

Let’s try another pair:

Jane’s cat Geraldine was named for Flip Wilson.
Jane’s dog, Woofer, likes to bark at squirrels.

How many pets does Jane have? One dog, and at least two cats. The brains of native speakers do this all the time, automatically. Nobody taught it to us. We listened and learned.

The Boston Globe article goes on to make an interesting point: sometimes this gets to be a pain. I often travel with my sister. Do you always have to know whether I have one or two sisters? No. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But the language insists that we include that information.

Jan Freeman says that these commas are “a recent fetish,” and she suggests that sometimes we shouldn’t worry about them.

She gives a useful example. John McPhee was writing a book about fishing. He told a story about a man who went fishing with his daughter. Her name was Margaret. So:

Penn’s daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware.

But now there’s a problem. That sentence makes it seem like Penn had several daughters. What if Margaret was the only girl? You’d have to write the sentence like this:

Penn’s daughter, Margaret, fished in the Delaware.

John McPhee had to spend several hours trying to find out whether there was one daughter – or several. He finally discovered that Margaret indeed had a sister, so version #1 was correct. But is this nitpicking necessary?

I say that we should use our common sense. Sometimes when I talk about those trips with my sister, I don’t have to indicate that there’s another sister! But if I talk about a family get-together, of course it’s relevant that there are three of us.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse woman (singular) and women (plural).

Yesterday we interviewed a woman who seems perfect for the new position we’re advertising.


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

Share

Jean Is Writing

Here’s a familiar truth about writing that has become fresh and new for me: writers are always learning how to write.

When the shelter-in-place orders were issued, I decided this was an opportunity to work on my long-delayed book about my favorite Shaw plays: Pygmalion and Major Barbara. My goal was to write two chapters by September 1. (I’d already written one chapter and lots of fragments of chapters. Lots and lots of them.)

It’s August 26, and I’m happy to report that I doubled my output: I’ve written four chapters. Well, I’m not that happy about it!

Here’s what happened: I’d planned to write a chapter about drama theory and another one about language theory. The language chapter was so long that I decided it had to be two chapters. And then it became three chapters.

There were many 3 AM writing sessions when an idea couldn’t wait for sunrise for me to start exploring it on paper. This has been a tiring summer. But it’s also been exhilarating! I’ve had tremendous fun playing with all the new ideas.

What I really want to do today, though, is to talk about something I learned  from all this. Here it is: every time you sit down to write, go back to the beginning and read what you’ve already written.

I don’t know where that idea came from. It seemed like a huge waste of time. As a chapter got longer, I kept going back to the first paragraph – 10 times, 20 times, 30 times. But there were some huge payoffs. First, those early paragraphs kept getting better. All that fine tuning really helped!

More important: I stayed focused on the big idea that was driving the chapter. I had very little trouble with detours and non sequiturs. My writing had the energy that I always aim for – and don’t always get.

There’s something else I learned. I stumbled onto some writing advice from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Guess what Hemingway said to do? Always go back to the beginning before you start the day’s writing.

It’s great advice: try it!

Share

An Editor at Work

Here’s a sentence from one of Charlie’s columns that we decided to revise:

A separate category of plants are what might best be described as stealth vines.

I like strong, punchy sentences. For example, I wouldn’t write “The shrub is spectacular.” I would write “The spectacular shrub”…and then finish the sentence:  “delights visitors to our home.”

Here’s our first attempt to strengthen his sentence:

A separate category of plants comprises what might best be described as stealth vines. BETTER

Now the sentence is more active. But our revision still wasn’t punchy enough for me. Comprise isn’t a lively word. Here’s our next revision.

A separate category of plants might best be described as stealth vines.  EVEN BETTER

I like it! But it’s passive voice (“might best be described”). Let’s make it active voice:

There’s another category of plants you might describe as stealth vines.  BEST

You might be wondering what a “stealth vine” is. It’s a shrub that turns into a vine if there’s something nearby to climb. Ganges primrose, plumbago, and yellow allamanda are sometimes called “stealth vines.” That term is another example of good writing – using an intriguing word (“stealth”) to make your subject (vines) more interesting!

                                                                           Photo courtesy of Calvin Teo

Share

Happy Independence Day!

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. I agree, and I do not use those expressions. But you can’t push the point too far.

“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

Share

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.

_________________________________________________________

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

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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)

* * * * *

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

Share

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.

 

Share