Category Archives: Writing Skills

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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Actually….

 

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

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Two Problems in One Sentence

Before I talk about today’s topic, I’m going to gripe for a moment. I just picked up this morning’s paper. The front page featured an excellent article about – sadly – the large number of coronavirus patients in local nursing homes.

What set me off, though, was the picture that was featured with the article. It showed the door of a nursing home with a paper notice:

Please be advised that we have a coronavirus case in this building.

BAD writing. “Please be advised” is old-fashioned and unnecessary. If you’re a professional who prides yourself on staying up-to-date in your field, your writing should be up-to-date as well.

Here’s my version:

We have a coronavirus patient.

Clear – efficient – professional.

And now we can turn to that problem sentence I was planning to talk about.

*  *  *  *  *

A sentence in the April 1 New York Times has not one but two problems! One is a grammar mistake, and the other is…just bad writing:

After hearing President Trump say, without scientific evidence, that the antimalarial drug chloroquine could be a “game changer” in the fight against Covid-19, an Arizona man died and his wife was left in critical condition after they swallowed a form of the chemical used to clean fish tanks called chloroquine phosphate.

The grammar mistake is a misplaced modifier (in ordinary English, a description in the wrong place). See if you can figure out what’s wrong:

…a form of the chemical used to clean fish tanks called chloroquine phosphate.

The sentence seems to be saying that the fish tanks are called chloroquine phosphate. Nope! Here’s better wording:

…chloroquine phosphate, a form of the chemical used to clean fish tanks.  BETTER

How did a writer for the New York Times – for heaven’s sake – make such a clumsy mistake? I don’t have a definitive answer, of course. But I suspect that this writer has a habit of writing long sentences, and that opens the door to mistakes.

This sentence is 51 words – far too long, and that’s problem #2.

The sentence is telling a story. Let it unfold, step-by-step. There’s no reason to cram the whole story into one sentence. Here’s my version:

An Arizona couple heard President Trump recommend chloroquine phosphate, an antimalarial drug, for Covid-19 – even though it hasn’t been tested. Chloroquine phosphate is a form of a chemical used to clean fish tanks. The couple dosed themselves with the fish tank version. The results were devastating: the man died, and his wife is seriously ill.

You can read the entire article by clicking the link: Covid-19 Has Closed Stores, but Snake Oil Is Still for Sale https://nyti.ms/39zKfrk

A fish tank

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Writing Advice from C.S. Lewis

I spent my college years thinking about Hamlet, thinking about Richard Burton, listening to the Beatles, and standing in line for tickets to the Royal Ballet.

There were hours and days spent hanging out with my friends – wonderful women (the college wasn’t co-ed back then) who patiently put up with my manias (and loved the Royal Ballet and the Beatles as much as I did).

Somehow I earned a degree, so I must have squeezed in some college work along the way. But my mind and heart were elsewhere. 

Obsessing about Hamlet meant that I eventually stumbled across a magnificent essay by C.S. Lewis, the British novelist, theologian, and literary critic: The Prince or the Poem? I remember reading it – my head reeling – and feeling the book slip out of my fingers and drop to the floor.

(A side note: Lewis belonged to the Church of England, and my college was Roman Catholic. Lewis’s very orthodox theological writings were listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (The Index of Prohibited Books). To their credit, the college library owned all of them, but they had to be kept in a locked bookcase. I found them in my hometown library and read them anyway.)

I’ve read just about everything Lewis ever wrote.

C.S. Lewis and James Hillman (I discovered him twenty years later) are the two men who – more than anyone else – shaped my thinking. (I’ve read just about everything Hillman ever wrote too.)

There are probably long neural highways in my brain with signposts on them like LEWIS I-42 North and HILLMAN K-16 East. For better or worse, I wouldn’t be the person I am without them – and, of course, Burton. ♥

But today’s topic is writing. I just came across a wonderful little online article about Lewis: “Five Powerful Writing Tips from C. S. Lewis” by Nicole J. Bianchi. Click here: https://link.medium.com/FtpgAappw5

Here’s my favorite tip:

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

I only wish I could write as well as Lewis did.

British novelist and literary critic C.S. Lewis

                         C.S. Lewis

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Hopefully This Is Correct

There’s a dubious rule in English that you’re not supposed to use an adverb (usually a word ending in –ly) to set up the attitude or meaning of a sentence. Here’s an example of what you supposedly shouldn’t do:

Hopefully, tomorrow’s weather will be perfect for our picnic.

Tomorrow’s weather can’t do anything hopefully, and that makes the sentence wrong. So say the grammarians.

But James Harbeck (a linguistics expert I like very much) convincingly argues against this nonsense in his Sesquiotica blog: https://sesquiotic.com/2014/09/09/seriously-whats-the-problem-with-sentence-adverbs/

His blog offers three examples of sentences that break the rule about adverbs – without a single peep of protest from the grammarians:

Seriously, it will be very amusing.

Frankly, you’re being evasive.

Clearly, someone has muddied the water.

This tempest-in-a-grammatical teapot reminds me of the people who say that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. Five minutes later they’re happily talking about putting their shoes on, turning the TV off, inviting the neighbors over, and letting the dog out.

And then there are avid readers who think you can’t start a sentence with but, even though every book they’ve ever read has sentences starting with but on almost every page.

Years ago I heard an authority on English say that our language doesn’t have any grammar. I wondered then (and still do) what he meant and whether he was right. I still haven’t come up with satisfactory answers.

But (ha!) what I have decided is that grammar is always secondary. Experts study the language, watch what it does, and then extrapolate grammar rules. So far, so good.

But there are always a couple of experts who want to flip this sensible system around. They insist on making the rules first and then forcing the language to fit – even if it’s a tight squeeze.

Not every self-proclaimed expert knows what they’re talking about. Beware! Watch what the language does, not what someone thinks it should do.

awkward fit

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Were They Spit On – or Spat On?

Chinese visitors to the US are experiencing some ugly treatment as the result of COV-19. Here’s a recent headline from the New York Times: “Spit on, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese in U.S. Fear for Safety.” You can read the entire story here:
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/us/chinese-coronavirus-racist-attacks.html

Even the Times makes mistakes! The past tense of spit is spat. Here’s the correct headline: “Spat on, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese in U.S. Fear for Safety.”

Movie cinema billboard with three basic rules to avoid the coronavirus or Covid-19 epidemic of wash hands, maintain social distance and clean surfaces

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