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 Don’t let your subjects be dummies

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 With grammar, practice makes perfect

‘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 ‘Bleaching’ the vibrancy out of words

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.

In defense of plain English

Sir Humphrey in "Yes, Minister" was skilled at talking a lot but saying nothing.
Sir Humphrey in “Yes, Minister” was skilled at talking a lot but saying nothing.

Last year I revisited the classic BBC show “Yes, Minister,” which is about a hapless British cabinet minister trying to get things done and the Civil Service employees who seek to thwart him. Much of the show’s humor lies in the dense, rambling speeches of Sir Humphrey, the minister’s permanent secretary, who can turn a single sentence into several jargon-laden, empty-phrased-stuffed minutes while saying next to nothing. Did I say the show was a comedy?

(Interestingly enough, the British government has made efforts to reduce jargon in government communication.)

Jargon has its place in language: it’s a shorthand for members of a particular group that allows them to communicate specific concepts quickly to other members, who don’t require definitions or explanations.

Problems arise when jargon bleeds into everyday speech or writing and ends up impeding communication instead of making it clearer. The same can be said for buzzwords, unnecessarily long words* and needlessly wordy sentences. This is not to say that every sentence has to be subject-verb-object only — we don’t want to sound like a second-grade reading textbook — but that separating individual ideas into their own sentences generally increases clarity.

In my experience, people who use too much jargon or construct overly dense sentences outside of professional discourse generally have three reasons for doing so:

  • They want to hide something. Government “bureaucratese” is the best example of this: if you really don’t want people to find out about something, bury it under an avalanche of convoluted sentences, jargon and endless prepositional phrases.
  • They want to seem smart. The old saying goes, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Lots of people think using big words makes them appear intelligent, but the reality is that making a point clearly and concisely requires a lot more thought and smarts.
  • They want you to think they know something that they don’t. People don’t like to say “I don’t know,” especially when it’s something they think they should know. If you’ve ever watched an unprepared student get called on in class and try to muddle through an answer, you’ve seen this.

Because people can see through the use of jargon, a bunch of satirical websites have popped up to make fun of it. If you are so inclined, check out the educational jargon generator, the postmodernism generator and the business gobbledygook generator, or print off a B.S. Bingo card to make those long, boring business meetings more interesting.

All kidding aside, we do need to strive for clear, informative writing. If there’s a chance that something might be confusing, ditch the jargon in favor of straightforward language. Take a machete to overgrown sentences to clear a path for the reader. And if you don’t understand something, you can bet your readers won’t, so don’t be afraid to ask “What does this mean?” or “What are we trying to say here?” and adjust the writing accordingly.

Remember, no one will ever complain that something is too clear.

* I’m not one to shy away from sending people to the dictionary from time to time, but only when the word that will require looking-up is the best word for the situation and lacks a less-obscure synonym.

“Playing” English: Grammar rules and when to break them

One of last year's free National Grammar Day wallpapers from WinePress of Words.
One of last year’s free National Grammar Day wallpapers from WinePress of Words.

Writing can be like playing the piano. To get good at the piano, first you need to learn scales and chords and technique. Then you learn how notes fit together and form compositions. Then you can experiment and play and create — and break the rules if you need to in order to get a good sound.

To get good at writing, first you need to learn what words do and how they work. Then you put them into sentences and put the sentences into paragraphs. Then you can experiment and play and create — and break the rules if you need to in order to make a point, convey an idea or just make the language sing.

But those first steps are crucial for both writing and music. Just as a jazz pianist improvising (usually) sounds a lot different from a child banging on a piano, a careful writer throwing out a grammatical rule for a reason “reads” a lot different from a novice writer who never learned grammar to begin with. One is effective, interesting, uplifting; the other is noise. For one, every note — every word — has a purpose, a reason to be there; for the other, notes — words — are used sloppily, randomly.

A good writer knows the rules and understands why they’re there. A good writer also knows when breaking them is effective, and when it’s just sloppy.

Happy National Grammar Day! And may all your rules be broken for a reason.

Let’s stop perpetuating grammar myths

grammar mythsI’ll admit, I’m an easy target for “grammar mistakes you need to stop making” lists, but they’re starting to get on my nerves.

The latest one I saw — 15 Common Grammatical Errors That Drive You Completely Insane (on Buzzfeed, of course) — started strong, with “your/you’re” and subject-verb disagreement. But then, at No. 3, was split infinitives — and what drives me “completely insane” is not split infinitives, but people saying that split infinitives are wrong. They’ve never been against the grammar of English; someone just decided that they shouldn’t be split and dictated that as a Law of English (Grammar Girl has a great summary of this).

In at No. 6 is punctuation outside of quotation marks, which is a style matter, not a grammar rule. People in other countries put periods outside of quotation marks and I’d guess our putting them inside drives them “completely insane.” Or not.

Nos. 11 and 12 are matters of grammar, but ones that are in transition: “who/whom” and “they” as a gender-neutral singular. I’ve said before that I wish “whom” would just go ahead and make its graceful exit from English, and that “they” is as good an epicene pronoun as any, probably better because we all say it already anyway. Since so few of us use “whom” in every object position (Who unironically says “With whom are you going to the movies?”) and most of us use “they” as a singular, do these two items really drive anyone “completely insane”? (And yes, “since” can be used to mean “because” and has for hundreds of years.)

Now, I’m an editor, and I teach editing, so I’m not saying let’s throw caution to the wind and just write whatever, however. There are conventions for professional English, and most of them are there for a reason: clarity, precision, accuracy, or all three. But lots of “rules” have crept in that have a) nothing to do with English grammar, and b) nothing to do with making writing clear, precise or accurate. (See over/more than, due to/because of and not using “that” for people as a few examples.) They’re shibboleths, or they’re outdated, or they’re simply misguided attempts at clarity that don’t, in fact, make writing clearer.

These need to go, and we need to stop putting them in lists — and stop sharing lists that include them.

Writing is hard enough without worrying about manufactured distinctions that add nothing to a sentence. Writers and editors, and teachers of writing and editing, need to focus on the grammar problems — and there are plenty — that can impede understanding, mislead readers, or simply make a writer look sloppy and unprofessional, instead of sending more grammar myths around the Internet.