Category Archives: Language

Don’t let your subjects be dummies

Dummy subjects and smothered verbs are usually "couch potato words"--just sitting there taking up space.

Dummy subjects and smothered verbs are usually “couch potato words”–just sitting there taking up space.

“Omit needless words” is one piece of stellar, timeless advice from the oft-maligned (with good reason) Strunk and White. Nonetheless, I see a lot writing filled with what I call “couch potato words” – words that just sit there, doing nothing and eating your chips.

Two constructions that are good examples of “couch potato words” are dummy subjects and smothered verbs. Continue reading

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With grammar, practice makes perfect

grammar-code-copyThere’s a poster in my office that says, “Grammar is not a secret code.” It is a code, sort of, but it’s certainly not a secret. Grammar is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel confident using it. Plenty of resources exist to help people improve their grammar and language skills if they are so inclined.

"The Perfect English Grammar Workbook" comes out Jan. 10, 2017, and is available for pre-order online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

“The Perfect English Grammar Workbook” comes out Jan. 10, 2017.

The point here is that I wrote a book, “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook,” which is coming out in January, to support anyone wanting to learn more about language and how to use it according to current professional standards. It has explanations and practice exercises, and chapter-end quizzes so you can check your mastery. Continue reading

‘Bleaching’ the vibrancy out of words

English has a whole category of words called “contronyms” — words that have opposing definitions, such as “cleave” meaning both join and cut apart,”sanction” meaning both allow and prohibit, and, to the consternation of many of us, “literally” meaning both actually and figuratively. (See more contronyms at Mental Floss and Daily Writing Tips.)

But English also has descriptive phrases that consist of seemingly opposite adverbs + adjectives, such as:

  • This cake is awfully good.
  • Her sister is terribly nice.
  • This hugely insignificant change won’t affect anything.
  • These immensely small subatomic particles were discovered only recently.
  • The blue shirt is a little big on you.
  • That couch the Bundys bought at the flea market is pretty ugly.
"Disaster Cake" by An Italian Cooking in the Midwest.

Awfully good or just awful? “Disaster Cake” by An Italian Cooking in the Midwest.

I’m thinking here about phrases used without irony, sarcasm or poetic license. I wondered whether this phenomenon has a name, so I went digging (figuratively) to find out. I looked in books, I looked online, I asked around. Continue reading

3 reasons to use the singular “they”

Deuteronomy 17:5 in the original printing of the 1611 King James Version includes one of several instances of singular "they" in the KJV. (Image from kingjamesbibleonline.org)

Deuteronomy 17:5 in the original 1611 printing of the King James Version of the Bible is one of several examples of singular “they” in the KJV. (Image from kingjamesbibleonline.org)

One: We need it.

Two: We use it.

Three: We understand it.

Explanation:

We need a gender-nonspecific third-person singular pronoun to ensure inclusive writing that isn’t awkward. Generic “he” just doesn’t cut it anymore; extended use of “he/she” and “his/her” in writing is clunky; random switching between “he” and “she” is distracting at best, confusing at worst. Additionally, having the option of “they” accommodates people who don’t identify as either “he” or “she.”

English speakers and writers don’t just use singular “they” now, we’ve been using it for centuries. We’re talking pillars of English literature here, too: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, and so on. Even the King James Bible uses it (and frankly, if it’s good enough for God, shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest of us?).

That leaves the issue of clarity: If a usage choice introduces ambiguity or confusion, it’s generally not a good choice. But singular “they” is always clear (unlike singular “you,” which has led us to y’all, youse, yinz, you’uns, you lot, etc., to specify singular or plural – and which is also an example of a plural pronoun shifting into the singular, so unless you complain about singular “you” being ungrammatical, the “singular they is ungrammatical” argument holds no water). We understand when “they” refers to a group of people, and we understand when it refers to an unknown or unspecified singular person. Clarity is also the advantage “they” has over pronouns such as “ze,” “hir” and “em” (and dozens of other failed pronouns over the past 150-plus years): People know exactly what it means.

We all use singular “they” without even thinking and read right over it with total comprehension. The time has come for it to be considered standard.

Further reading:

Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they” (The Stroppy Editor)

Choosing the Singular “They” (Explorations of Style)

There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There (Lingua Franca)

Everybody Has Their Own Opinion About the Singular They (by John Lawler)

Singular “they”: everyone has their own opinion (The Economist)

They: A singular pronoun (American Heritage Dictionary)

Reflecting on the reflexive pronoun ‘themself’ (Sentence First)

If someone tells you singular ‘they’ is wrong, please do tell them to get stuffed (The Telegraph)

Singular “their” in Jane Austen (Pemberley.com)

Punctuation: It’s not just for emoticons

PunctuationToday is National Punctuation Day, on which we celebrate the useful tools around the edges of our keyboards. Some — such as , and . —  we use all the time so they are closest at hand and do not even require using “shift.” Some, such as ; , have enjoyed a renaissance through emoticons. And some, such as , are so rare that a writer must consciously choose to use them and jump through some typing hoops (or creatively copy-and-paste) to get them.

But all of the marks have their functions, and good writers know how and when to use them. Punctuation guides the reader and provides clarity. It doesn’t do all the work in terms of making writing clear, but it certainly helps.

5 things every writer should remember

On the heels of 5 things every editor should remember, here are a few things for writers to keep in mind. These tips are intended for writers of news and professional communication, so if you are writing creatively, feel free to ignore Nos. 2-5.

1. People will judge your content on the quality of your writing. You may be brilliant, have done superb research or have an innovative new idea, but if you can’t communicate it clearly and cleanly, you’ll lose your readers. If you’re asking for their time and attention, don’t waste it with sloppy, convoluted or error-riddled writing.

2. Readers do not know what’s going on inside your head — all they know is what your words say. Your thought process may be clear to you, but your writing needs to make it clear to the readers.

3. It’s not about you. It’s about the information. If you can render it in a particularly engaging and interesting fashion, all the better. But the line between lively prose and eye-rollingly over-the-top prose is fine, so be careful.

4. Get to the point. Don’t make readers slog through a bunch of background or detail before they find out what you’re actually talking about.

5. For that matter, make sure you have a point.

HAVE A POINT

Let’s try not to be disagreeable

disagreement-floodThis is not a post about immigration — grammarians have no power over politics. It is a post about some of the more complicated aspects of subject-verb agreement, and it’s something I hope everyone can agree on.

The basics: Subjects and verbs must agree, that is, singular subjects get singular verbs, and plural subjects get plural verbs. With straight subject-verb-object constructions, this is easy and everyone gets it right.

A wrinkle: When more elements — such as a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause — are added to a sentence, it can end up that a plural noun is right before the verb, but is not the subject of the verb. Only the subject gets to “govern” the verb, that is, determine its number.

Example: The headline pictured above, “Flood of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.”

To check agreement, take out the phrase or clause temporarily and look at the sentence. With no intervening words, it will be obvious what the verb needs to be.

Fix: “Flood of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.” “Flood” is singular, so the verb should be “rushes.”

And the really tricky type: “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct/corrects other people’s grammar.”

Should the verb be singular or plural? Let’s examine this sentence closely to find out.

  • “She” is not the subject of the verb “correct” – “she” is the subject of the verb “is.”
  • The subject of the verb “correct” is the relative pronoun “who,” which is referring to “people,” which is plural.
  • So “correct” is correct.

Think of it this way: There are annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar. She is one of them.

Thus, “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar.” But if someone says “corrects,” don’t correct them — it’s a common mistake and not one that sticks out.