Category Archives: Writing Skills

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.



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.)


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


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


I Love These Two Rules

I love this quotation, attributed to both Gustave Flaubert and Oscar Wilde (take your pick): “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”

Guys, I hear you. I’ve been there. Sometimes the rules aren’t much help. Back and forth I go.

Luckily some rules seem to work every time. Here are two of them:

1. Don’t put a comma in front of a parenthesis.

2. Don’t let a comma touch the word “that.”

Rule #1 is infallible. There are no exceptions. Rule #2 is a little slippery, but it works maybe 99% of the time. Those odds are good enough for me.

Do you want examples? Sure!

1. That pygmy date palm (Phoenix robellinii), which we installed two years ago, is the focal point of our front yard.

2. It took me a long time to convince her that we should switch to term life insurance.


Jean Chickened Out

The other day someone asked me if the rule about predicate nominatives still holds. I told her that it didn’t.

But later that day – when I had a chance to stand up for my position – I backed down. Or chickened out.

Call me a coward if you must. Sometimes our complicated language gives us no choice.

Here’s what I’m talking about. There’s a rule in English that you have to use the subjective case with the verb to be. In plain English, you’re supposed to write sentences like these:

It was he. This is she. The person you want is I.

To which I say: Phooey. I refuse to do it. Those sentences sound weird. Here are my versions:

It was him. This is her. The person you want is me.

The French (sticklers about grammar) say “It’s me” (C’est moi). If it’s good enough for the French, it’s good enough for me.

But later that same day I sent an email that needed an “It was she” sentence. I was afraid to write “It was her.” (Maybe the person reading my email was educated by nuns and would notice that I’d broken the rule about predicate nominatives. Couldn’t take that chance!)

I rewrote the sentence to bypass the whole issue: “She, not Harry, is the one who can help you.”

If you’re looking for someone who consistently stands up for what she believes, it’s not me. Sorry about that!

A brown hen isolated on white background.


I Like “Like”

Which is correct – as or like?

There’s a lot of controversy about like. English teachers used to have fits over a famous cigarette ad: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” They clamored for “as a cigarette should.”

Over the years there has been so much uproar about like that some writers are afraid to use it.

I think we should use like confidently – and often. I’m perfectly happy with sentences like (ha!) “The report looks like it’s ready” and “The process is working like it should.”

Many sticklers prefer as in that last sentence:  “The process is working as it should.” I’ll concede that I would use as myself in formal writing. But for most writing, I like like.

"I Like Ike" campaign button from 1952

Image Provided by Tyrol5


Jean Is Writing

Some of us never learn.

Monday morning I slept late. Charlie and I took a walk. We went out for a snack. I took a nap. I moped around all day and went to bed early.

Tuesday morning I slept late. Charlie and I took a walk. We went out for a snack. I took a nap. I moped around all day and went to bed early.

I started thinking that I needed to get some bloodwork done. There was no reason for me to be so exhausted. Tomorrow is Wednesday, and I’ll make an appointment at the lab.

* * * * *

Today is Wednesday. I woke up at 4:30 this morning. I turned on my Chromebook and started typing away on the Shaw book I’m writing.

I found a couple of quotations that I was so excited about that I almost woke Charlie up to tell him about them. (“You’ll never believe what Richard Lanham said about R. D. Laing!” “That’s great, Jean! I’m going back to sleep.” I decided against it.)

Here’s the kicker. Last August I wrote a post about how tired I was, even though I was getting plenty of sleep. I got worried and started thinking about bloodwork. After two days of that I woke up bright and early and started writing like a house on fire.

As I said, some people never learn.

* * * * *

At around five-thirty I got Richard Lanham’s The Motives of Eloquence off the shelf. Somewhere in there I knew he had a wonderful quotation that would be perfect for my chapter. I’ve thought about it a hundred times over the years.

(For those of you who think that academic writing has to be pompous and swollen, the quotation is exactly five words long: “Cast him in another play.”)

I had plenty of ideas for Chapter Three, but I wasn’t able to work my keywords in: drama, theater, acting. “Cast him in another play” would help. I thumbed through the book looking for it. Did I have the sense to highlight it the last time I read Lanham’s book?

Yes! There it was, streaked in pink on page 14! (I’m sticking my tongue out at the teachers who told me I should never mark up a book. Do you have any idea how much time that pink highlighter has saved me over the years?)

But here’s what’s freaky. (Stop reading now. The only person who could ever be even remotely interested in the rest of this is me.)

R. D. Laing was a Scottish psychiatrist who was…different. I’ve read tons of his stuff. He was brilliant, offbeat, erratic, and wonderful.

I wanted to work his book Marriage, Sanity, and the Family into my chapter. Barbara Undershaft (the central character in one of the plays I’m writing about) was being driven mad by her family.

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a famous Scottish psychiatrist weigh in on the craziness in Barbara’s family? But how would I make the connection between real, clinical madness and a fictional character?

And there, streaked in pink on page 14, was the rest of Lanham’s paragraph, including these words: “…R. D. Laing’s analysis of bad domestic drama.”

Keyword! Keyword!

At some point I will finish this chapter. I will finish this book. I will dance again and travel again. There will be other writing projects. And I will be tired, and I’ll think that maybe I should get some bloodwork done….

Some people never learn.

Tired Sleepy Cat


Is It Spit or Spat?

Twice recently the New York Times has made mistakes with the word “spit.” Or maybe they haven’t made mistakes with “spit.”

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about this headline from the March 23 Times: “Spit on, Yelled at, Attacked: Chinese in U.S. Fear for Safety.” Here’s how I would have written it:

Spat on, Yelled at, Attacked: Chinese in U.S. Fear for Safety.”

Last week’s Times included a sad story about five retired nuns who died of COV-19. In a paragraph about COV-19 tests performed at the convent, I found this sentence:

“Other methods, using a sample of saliva that is spit into a vial, are being introduced in a small number of states but are not widely available yet.”

I would have changed it to this:

“using a sample of saliva that is spat into a vial….”

I checked a couple of dictionaries. One gave the preferred past tense and past participle as…spitted. Really? I’ve never heard anyone say “spitted.”

The other two said that both spit or spat could be used in the past tense.

A grammar website agreed with me that spat is the correct choice for the past tense. It didn’t even mention spitted or spit for the past tense.

What’s a writer to do?

My policy is to stick with whatever sounds right to me. Of course that’s a very subjective approach – but sometimes it’s the only choice we have.

English is always changing, and words are always sliding in and out of our language. Often you have to make your best guess.

I’m sticking with spat.

Young man spits out alcohol in the park




Like all married couples, Charlie and I have our moments. I’ve published a couple of college English textbooks, so I feel entitled to claim that I’m always right when we’re talking about writing. (It’s something that happens a lot, because I type all of the columns he writes for our newspaper).

Alas, last week I was wrong.

I hate the word actually. I despise it. Do not say actually in my presence: I will go berserk. 

So there I was, typing away while Charlie dictated his latest column, and I heard this:

A chemical that actually repels mosquitoes….

I did not go berserk. I stayed calm. But I stopped typing, and I told him he needed to come up with something better. He’s supposed to know that the overuse of actually drives me nuts.

We spent a few minutes casting around for a better word. Nothing worked. And then I realized that the word we needed was…actually.

He was making the point that some botanical chemicals have an undeserved reputation for repelling insects. But there’s one that actually does the job: citronellal.

I apologized, and he had the grace not to smirk.

So I will admit that there’s a time and place to use actually, just as there’s a time and place to use respective (another word that sets me off).

Please, though, don’t throw those words around to make whatever you’re saying sound more important: “Joey actually turns four next month.” “I actually saved four dollars by switching laundry detergents.” “My grandmother is actually an avid gardener.”

Similarly, please don’t tell me that your guests went to their respective cars after the wedding ceremony. (Whose cars would they have gone to, for heaven’s sake?) And don’t mention that you and your cousin Abigail compared the mileage on your respective cars. (Isn’t it obvious which car you drive?)

I actually cherish my friends, and it’s silly to let an unwise word choice get in the way of our respective friendships. Thanks!

Woman who's crazy, angry, and berserk