Category Archives: Writing Skills

Five Writing Rules

Today I’m offering you a grab-bag of writing rules for every situation.

 1. Break up long paragraphs. Ideally each paragraph should explore a different idea. But there’s nothing to stop you from simply breaking a paragraph in half if it’s starting to get long. Readers prefer shorter paragraphs and are more likely to read them all the way through.

 2. In dialogue, keep identifying the person who’s speaking. It’s frustrating to read a whole page of dialogue, lose track of who’s speaking, and have to waste time backtracking. Since you’re the author, of course you know who said what. But does your reader?

 3. Don’t overuse would. Reserve it for talking about a wish, a repeated action, or something unreal. When you’re talking about the past, use normal past-tense forms of verbs: walked, sang, drank (not would walk, would sing, would drink).

 4. Be careful with he, she, him, and her when you’re writing about two or more people of the same sex. “Betty was expecting a phone call from Anne to talk about her tax return” is confusing: Whose tax return?

 5. Keep the subject and verb together, especially when a sentence is long. Don’t ask your readers (who probably have many demands on their time) to read a sentence two or three times in order to figure it out. Many times the solution is to rewrite it as two sentences:

The reason for my poor grade in Algebra 1 last semester – when I finally had a chance to talk to Professor Brown about it – turned out to be a clerical mistake.  CONFUSING

I finally had a chance to talk to Professor Brown about my poor grade in Algebra 1 last semester. It turned out to be a clerical mistake.  BETTER

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I Don’t Respect the Word “Respective”

I hate the words “respective” and “respectively.” They are, I insist, unnecessary, clumsy, and clankingly old-fashioned words.

I’m going to begin today’s post by conceding that it’s possible to use respectively effectively. Here’s an example from an item about a Stravinsky festival in the May 3, 2010 New Yorker:

This week’s performances of “Oedipus Rex” and “The Soldier’s Tale” are narrated by Jeremy Irons and Alex Baldwin, respectively.  CORRECT

“Respective” and “respectively” are useful sorting words. That sentence in The New Yorker helps us figure out what’s going on: Jeremy Irons will narrate “Oedipus Rex,” and Alec Baldwin will narrate “The Soldier’s Tale.”

But few writers seem to use these words so precisely and elegantly. I keep coming across sentences in which respective adds nothing at all (except, perhaps, a flavor of bygone pomposity). Here are three examples:

1.  The bride and groom, followed by their respective parents, led the guests into the reception hall.

I would delete “respective.” It’s obvious that the bride and groom were followed by their own parents.

2.  After saying good-bye to their respective friends, Mary and Jo put their suitcases into the car and drove off to college.

I would delete “respective.” It’s obvious that Mary and Jo said good-bye to their own friends.

The candidates set aside their respective views and sat down to hammer out a bipartisan plan.

I would change “respective views” to “differences.”

Professional writers strive to make every word matter. Let’s make a resolution to follow their example!

Sign with word unnecessary turned into necessary

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‘Whom’ and ‘Whomever’

Recently I wrote a couple of posts about the Apostrophe Protection Society. I’m thinking of starting my own organization, tentatively called the “Down with Whom and Whomever Club.” Our charter will state two foundational principles:

  • Whom and whomever don’t add anything useful to a sentence
  • If you come across whom or whomever in a sentence, they’re probably wrong – even if the author is a professional writer

Here’s an example from my files. This is from an article about a teacher who was stealing from students’ lockers:

The student placed his black Samsung slider cell phone in an empty locker inside the boys’ locker room to catch whomever might be stealing the money.

It should have read “whoever might be stealing the money.” Here’s how you figure it out: “he was stealing the money” – “whoever might be stealing the money. When in doubt, substitute he for who and him for whom. It sounds like “Tea for Two,” doesn’t it?

He for who
And him for whom

Give the book to whoever wants it.  CORRECT  (“he wants it” – “who wants it”)

Give the book to whomever you like.  CORRECT  (“you like him” – “you like whomever”)

You can feel that m (him, whom) in your mouth. But why are we fussing with this? Just use who and whoever. So simple!

whom

                                      Whooom?

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Learning Something New about Little Women

I don’t remember the first time I read Little Women. It’s a book I know so well that I’m using it to learn Spanish. I’m up to page 56 in Mujercitas (a Spanish translation of Alcott’s classic novel). I’ve read every biography of Alcott I could get my hands on, and I just ordered a new one. (If you’re going to read just one, I recommend Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen –https://www.amazon.com/dp/0312658877/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_ik6iEb0G6WPEB.)

Of course I watched Greta Gerwig’s new filmed version! And I was excited to learn something new about Alcott – or at least something that had never hit me before. Alcott insisted on keeping the copyright to Little Women – and it made her wealthy. Way to go, Louisa!

* * * * * *

Can you name another famous American who made history – and a fortune – by holding on to a copyright? It was Scott Joplin, an African-American composer (and son of a former slave) who was lucky enough to have the Maple Leaf Rag published by a businessman of incomparable integrity: John Stark.

Instead of buying the rights outright – common practice when dealing with a black composer – Stark paid Joplin a penny for each copy sold. That doesn’t sound like much – but it allowed Joplin to retire.

Every writer should have a basic understanding of how copyrights work! Click here to learn more.

The covers of Little Women and the Maple Leaf Rag

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Thumb Rule

It’s time to talk about…thumbs!

I hear endless questions about whether it should be “him and me” or “him and I” – or is “he and I” better?

English teachers like to show you a handy little pronoun chart that will supposedly solve everything:

Pronoun chart

Easy as pie, isn’t it? Just stop yourself in mid-sentence, visualize the chart, and decide which case ending you need.

Hah. If I did that every time I started to talk, I’d never say anything.

So let’s do it the easy way: by using the Thumb Rule. You just use your thumb to make the sentence shorter. You’ll instantly hear the correct pronoun. No need for grammar gobbledygook!

  1. Every Saturday afternoon, Jamie and I/me go to the mall. (Use your thumb to cover up “Jamie and”)
    Every Saturday afternoon, I go to the mall.  CORRECT
    Every Saturday afternoon, Jamie and I go to the mall.  CORRECT
  2. Sometimes Mrs. Brown asks Clara and I/me to help with the bulletin boards.  (Use your thumb to cover up “Clara and”)
    Sometimes Mrs. Brown asks me to help with the bulletin boards.  CORRECT
    Sometimes Mrs. Brown asks Clara and me to help with the bulletin boards.  CORRECT

If you can figure out the correct pronoun for the short sentence, you automatically know the correct pronoun for the longer sentence! It never changes.

Click here to watch a short video (it’s free!) about the Thumb Rule.

a thumb

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Parallel Construction – or Not

Is it still a rule if professional writers ignore it? Today we’re going to talk about parallel construction. In theory, sentences have to be parallel, so that all parts of the sentence match. Here’s an example: “Jenny served pink cupcakes, raspberry tea, and strawberry scones.” Everything matches the beginning of the sentence: things that Jenny served.

But sometimes the third item in a sentence doesn’t match the first two. Here’s an example:

For two hours we packed boxes, scrubbed floors, and Dennis fixed a squeaky door.  NOT PARALLEL

The items don’t match the beginning of the sentence! The first two are things we did, but the third is what Dennis did. To fix it, I would break it into two sentences:

For two hours we packed boxes and scrubbed floors. Meanwhile Dennis fixed a squeaky door.  BETTER

* * * * * *

So far, so good. If you aspire to be a professional writer, your sentences should be parallel. But here comes a moment of truth: this parallelism principle is ignored so often – even by the pros – that you could argue there’s no point in bothering with it.

Here are three recent examples. I will leave it up to you whether you want to be fussy about parallelism (as I expect to be till my dying day) or take a more relaxed approach. If you decide in favor of parallelism, you can get some good practice figuring out what’s wrong with these sentences!

  1. From “Like a Virgo” in the New York Times 9/1/19: “The sign is known for clear communication, a command of language, and is sometimes described as a staid librarian.”
  2. From Gene Weingarten’s “Below the Beltway” column in the Washington Post 11/11/19: “Andrew Jackson had fought in more than 100 duels, killed a man over a gambling debt, and as president, he placed a 1,4000-pound block of cheese in the White House lobby, just for the hell of it.”
  3. Another one from the New York Times 11/1/19: “Uber Fights to Get Edge Back as Shares Suffer.” “In recent emails to employees, he has said Uber’s teams are ‘too big,’ are producing ‘mediocre results’ and that the company ‘needs to get its edge back.'”

Here are my revisions:

  1. “The sign is known for clear communication and a command of language; it’s sometimes described as a staid librarian.”
  2. “Andrew Jackson had fought in more than 100 duels and killed a man over a gambling debt. As president, he placed a 1,4000-pound block of cheese in the White House lobby, just for the hell of it.”
  3. “In recent emails to employees, he has said Uber’s teams are ‘too big’ and are producing ‘mediocre results.’ He said that the company ‘needs to get its edge back.'”

sticky notes that say "right" or "wrong"

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Make Every Word Matter!

Some time ago, a friend who teaches fiction writing showed me some samples of her students’ work. Here’s an excerpt:

Joe heard a strange noise outside, whereupon he furtively pulled back the curtain a bit to look. Because it was dark, he couldn’t see anything. A few minutes later he heard the noise again.

And here’s the revision her group came up with:

Three soft taps – and then silence. Joe twitched the curtain and peered outside, but nothing was moving in the darkness. He heard three more taps.

I think the revision is much better! It moves – and one big reason is that the transitions are gone (whereupon, because, a few minutes later).

Often those transitions are useful. But if a story is marching along, you may be able to omit them. In today’s excerpt, your readers will instantly know why Joe twitched the curtain and why he didn’t see anything.

Our brains process language very rapidly. Avoid empty words that clog sentences. Make every word count!

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Don’t Think about the Beginning (for Once!)

There’s a good chance that you were exposed to formal grammar at some point in your schooling. You might have underlined subjects and verbs, labeled independent and dependent clauses, or tried to memorize pronoun and verb charts.

Many English teachers believe that grammatical terminology is one of the keys to better writing. I strongly disagree. Learning how to rebuild an automobile doesn’t ensure that you’ll know what to do at a flashing red light. And circling an adverbial clause doesn’t guarantee that you can organize and present information effectively.

But don’t you need to understand the parts of sentences? My answer is a strong no. If you grew up speaking English, you quickly discovered that the doer almost always comes first in a sentence. Even small children know that “Jane fed the cat” means something quite different from “The cat fed Jane.”

When you’re working on a writing task, it’s usually safe to assume that the important stuff is going to appear at the beginning of the sentence. Take a look at this example:

Misuse of prescription drugs cause/causes many serious medical problems.

Which is right – cause or causes? If you know the “go to the beginning” rule, you’ll make the right choice: Misuse…causes.

Misuse of prescription drugs causes many serious medical problems.  CORRECT

Prescription drugs can be lifesavers. They’re not the problem: misuse is.

But there’s an exception you should know about. In either/or, neither/or sentences, you need to skip the beginning of the sentence. Jump over the either/neither part, and go straight to the or/nor part.

Either the teachers or the dean is/are going to present the award.

Either the teachers or the dean is/are going to present the award.

Either the teachers or the dean is going to present the award.  CORRECT

You can learn more about this rule (and other subject-verb rules) at this link.

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

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The Apostrophe Protection Society Part II

In my previous post, I told you about the Apostrophe Protection Society. It was founded by a former copy editor who’s fighting against apostrophe mistakes. I applaud the effort, but I want to note that sometimes John Richards (the Society’s founder) makes mistakes.

Today I want to take a broad look at how and why we use apostrophes. (If you’d like to review the traditional rules for using apostrophes, click here.)

1.  Why do we need apostrophes?

We probably don’t. The English language got along perfectly well without them for hundreds of years. Even when apostrophes finally made their way into English in the 16th century, there was a lot of confusion about them.

At first apostrophes stood only for missing letters (the missing “o” in don’t, for example). Soon, though, they began to be used with some plurals (comma’s). Today that’s considered a serious error, but it used to be accepted usage.

In the 18th century, apostrophes began to be used in “of” expressions: “Tom’s car.” Gradually the rules were standardized.

Many people (including me!) think apostrophes should be part of every writer’s toolbox. But let’s remember that apostrophes are relative newcomers – they’re not essential. You can read more here: https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/05/apostrophes-and-when-to-use-them-punctuation-necessary-at-all-not-really.html

2.  Does everyone agree about apostrophe rules?

Would that it were so! No, they don’t. For example, I often see mistakes with the apostrophe in  people’s. (“The people’s wishes” is correct). Even some professional writers make mistakes with its and it’s.

The problems go beyond occasional slip-ups. Sometimes even the experts can’t settle on a rule that satisfies everyone. I confess that I’m one of the offenders: I refuse to add an extra “s” in expressions like “Carl Jones’ car” and “Lois’ job.” (The sticklers insist on “Carl Jones’s car” and “Lois’s job.” Nope. I’m stubborn.)

Then there are the debates about whether the apostrophes in “of” expressions are always necessary. Last week Dave Norman – a regular visitor to my blog – told me something I didn’t know: The US Board on Geographic Names discourages the use of apostrophes in place names.

If you’re thinking that’s a sign of the deterioration of English, think again: that stance goes all the way back to 1890.

Some exceptions are allowed, so that there are apostrophes in Martha’s Vineyard and Clark’s Mountain, but none in Pikes Peak and Harpers Ferry.

3. Do apostrophes serve a useful purpose?

My answer used to be “Of course!” – but now I’m not so sure. Getting every picky little apostrophe right takes time and concentration – and I’m not sure all that effort makes any difference.

A moment ago I realized that my Jones example was wrong earlier in this post. Of course I fixed it immediately. But would you have figured out the meaning anyway? I’m sure you would.

And there’s another problem that’s worth thinking about: some people think apostrophes are ugly. Playwright Bernard Shaw hated the apostrophes in contractions like can’t and don’t, and he had enough clout to get his way much of the time.

4.  If you’re smart about apostrophes, does that make you a good writer?

Not necessarily. (Sigh.) I started this column by talking about John Richards, the founder of The Apostrophe Protection Society. Recently he announced that he’d given up on apostrophes, and was going to turn his attention elsewhere. “The use of the comma is appalling,” he said. “When I read some newspaper websites they just don’t understand what it is used for.”

Notice anything?

There should have been a comma after websites: “When I read some newspaper websites, they just don’t understand what it is used for.”

My advice: beware of setting yourself up as the last defense post against bad English!

Defender

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The Apostrophe Protection Society – Part I

For twenty years, a former copy editor named John Richards fought for the correct usage of apostrophes. But recently he has admitted defeat, declaring that “The ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

Richards (who’s 96 years old, incidentally) isn’t taking down the website for the Apostrophe Protection Society he founded. But he will no longer be posting content. You can read more here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/12/02/apostrophe-protection-society-john-richards-england/

I’m a stickler about apostrophes (of course!), but I’m not one of Richards’ fans. My position is that before you start railing against a punctuation mistake, you need to know what you’re talking about. I appreciate his passion for good English, but – truth to tell – sometimes Richards is wrong.

This is the first of two posts discussing some offbeat and interesting points about apostrophes. (But if you’d like to work on the conventional rules for apostrophes, good for you! Go to this link.)

I had fun writing this post today. Even if you’re not as fascinated by grammatical pickiness as I am, I hope you’ll enjoy watching some supposedly hallowed usage rules crumble and fall apart.

Here’s an example. Richards said that his sole victory (in 20 years!) was getting a local library to correct its sign for “CD’s.” Well, good for him! But the sign didn’t need correcting.

Plurals of numerals, letters, and acronyms always used to have apostrophes: 1990’s, ABC’s, GMO’s, RSVP’s, SEO’s. Recently they’ve begun to disappear (the AP no longer uses them, for example). But some professional writers still use them. And take a look at the logo for the Oakland A’s:

Let’s look at another issue. Richards is infuriated by signs advertising “ladies fashions”  or claiming that “Diamond’s are forever.” I’m with him 100% on that unnecessary apostrophe in diamonds. I see those unnecessary apostrophes everywhere, and I too wish we could get rid of them.

But what about that omitted apostrophe in ladies?  I’m not sure that a sign for the Ladies Room (“room of the ladies”) absolutely has to include an apostrophe – Richards notwithstanding.

A grammarian could say that ladies is functioning as an adjective – and that would mean no apostrophe. That’s already used as an argument for omitting the apostrophe in Teachers Lounge.

And consider the word newsroom. It originally was news-room or news room – without an apostrophe. Newsroom (one word) didn’t appear until 1984. 

So why would we insist that news room (“room of news”) doesn’t need an apostrophe, but ladies’ room (“room of ladies”) absolutely requires it? I’d say it doesn’t. There’s no grammatical difference.

The Kellogg Company, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and a number of other companies still use the term news room – without an apostrophe.

I hope I’ve shaken your faith in the notion that the rules of English are always logical and consistent. And I hope you’ll return to this blog when I post Part II. I promise some surprises!

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