Archive for the ‘grammar’ Category


If Confusion Is The First Step To Knowledge, I Must Be A Genius* Or Mournful Teacherish Whinges About The Ambiguity Of Unclear Reference

November 13, 2010

I pretty much try to stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face.
• Johnny Depp

Pronouns are extremely handy. They protect a writer from endless repetition of nouns: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny Lorac’s crayons so Mij and Lenny could color” is much less cumbersome when it’s “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color.” Unfortunately, this kind of sentence can drift into ambiguity: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny their crayons so they could color” is an altogether different box of crayons indeed. And a level of complexity is added to the whole thing because, after all, we are probably wondering if generous Lorac is going to color with M and L. If so, this probably should read “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color with her.” Sentences are tangled webs just waiting to wrap writers in the sticky web of confusion.

For clarity when you’re writing, you need to be certain that it’s evident from the progression of your sentence to whom–or what or where or other-noun-wise–your pronoun makes reference. Here’s an example taken from The Big Book of Confusing, Vague, and Uncertain Tales Desperately in Need of Clarification Created for the Edification of Children Everywhere (Algernon P. & Merrypat E. Prindlesnap, 1884)**.

Once upon a time there were three little pigs named Oink, Grunt, and Squeal, and a big bad wolf named Gotcha. They had an even littler brother too and he called him Scaredyhoof for he was afraid of just about everything and often ran away at the first hint of danger. He was particularly afraid of him. This is their story:

Houses needed to be built. Immediately. He didn’t know what he was going to do. They didn’t know what he was going to do. None of them knew what they were going to do. Even the people in the town knew that something had to be done about the situation, and fast, but they didn’t know what they were going to do either. He was uncertain too. And everybody was frightfully scared of what loomed ahead.

Certainly there was danger and they had reason to be afraid. They knew it would soon be winter and they needed shelter from the cold as well as food to eat once the endless snows of winter descended on the valley where they lived. There were other dangers too. So they separated and each went their own way, looking for what was needed. One of them took their most recent acquisitions down to the meadow to the woodchopper’s shed where they often stored such things. He often used it for storage too.

He wasn’t happy with this hiding place. They didn’t want any of them to find the bricks and sticks and straw and stones and didn’t know what to do with them so they couldn’t find them. And they needed to hide him too.  So he took them instead to a cave in the woods. There, he thought, they would be safe, and if he were careful, he wouldn’t be able to find them.

He decided to build a house for them and asked him to help, but they couldn’t find the materials. They weren’t around to tell him where to look, so he asked him to help find them. They weren’t anywhere they looked and while they were looking, he came looking for them.

Well, that’s aplenty. You get the picture, I’m sure, but just in case, answer the following questions:

Who hid the materials?

Who was looking for the materials?

Who came looking for whom?

Always check your writing to make sure that pronouns such as he, she, it, they, that, which, and who that you’re using to replace another word refer clearly to the word they are meant to replace. This word is known as the pronoun’s antecedent. The antecedent should precede the pronoun in the current or previous sentence. Once other nouns intervene and too much distance develops between the pronoun and its antecedent, the waters of clarity become muddied (or the web becomes stickier–take your pick). Beware as well of creating problems because you are referring to a word that is implied rather than explicitly stated. (You likely know what you’re talking about, but your reader may not.)

In an effort to avoid the awkwardness engendered (pun intended) by non-sexist language, some speakers and writers replace constructions like she and he or hers and his with them and they and theirs. This can lead to ambiguity. “The student turned in their fundraising money,” for example, is unclear. Whose money did the student turn in? There’s no way to be certain from this sentence whether the student was handing in her or his contribution or was in charge of the contributions of the entire class.

When you’re done writing something—emails to essays to everything else—what are your strategies for making sure you’ve said what you intended to say?

There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.
• Thomas Reid

* Thanks to Larry Leissner for the title quotation.

** The Prindlesnaps were a brother and sister whose works were well-known in the schoolrooms of late nineteenth century England. Their opus, Commas, Periods, Semi-Colons, and the Odious Exclamation Point: A Study of Punctuation Abuses in Fairy Tales (1897), is no longer in print, although almost any reader would benefit from its study. Should you locate a copy of this rare tome, consider yourself fortunate indeed!


The Write Stuff Too, Or As Nathaniel Hawthorne Said, Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing

November 6, 2010

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
• Gene Fowler

I’ve just finished more than ten hours of reading over the last few days and I’ve been keeping track of some hints for writers based on things I’ve been seeing over and over in papers.

The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish.
• Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare (1827), Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers

Edit. Edit. Edit. This is hard work and requires you to read what you’ve written with a critical and thoughtful eye. I read many essays that are compilations of ideas from several essays that are stewing in the writer’s mind. It is not the editor or reader’s job to tell you what to include. It’s your job to determine a direction so that the editor/reader will be able to help instead of becoming lost in a forest of words.

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
• Elmore Leonard

Lengthy, repetitive paragraphs that include the same information said in several ways generally need sentence-combining and serious deletions. And lengthy paragraphs need to be broken up. Any time there’s a paragraph of a page or more, it’s probably too long.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.
• Truman Capote, McCall’s, November 1967

Read what you’ve written out loud to someone else. You’ll likely catch awkward sentences this way. When someone says that your writing is “awkward,” it generally means that something is poorly worded and stops the reader who has to try and figure out what it means or who is struck by something that just doesn’t sound right.

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.
• Enrique Jardiel Poncela

Please, I beg of you, do not rely on the thesaurus provided in your word processing program’s “toolbox.” It doesn’t necessarily provide you with the correct word when you’re seeking a substitute. When you look up the definition of a word online, be sure to read all the meanings to be certain that you aren’t accidentally saying something you don’t really mean. This is a particular problem with words that may have negative connotations.

A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.
• Baltasar Gracián

Sometimes the writing I read, particularly when it’s related to personal beliefs, is platitudinous, filled with worthy aspirations and high-minded concepts, but devoid of personality because no personal connections are made with the content. Simply using first person does not assure that your words will connect the writer with your meaning. You must use stories, anecdotes, and other concrete examples that bring your beliefs to life and that make for interesting reading. Is your writing compelling, enthralling, infused with your experiences, and written in a way that only you could write it? Or could your work have been written by anyone?

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
• Anton Chekhov

Read what you’ve written after letting it sit overnight, or at least for several hours. Sometimes what’s on the page seems to be the opposite of what you mean. Getting distance from your work is useful.

No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.
• Henry Brooks Adams (1907), The Education of Henry Adams

Most unique. Peak pinnacle. Canine dog. Beware redundancy. Beware the use of clichés as well.

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.
• James Michener

Regardless of how creative you’d like to be, when you’re writing something that will be read quickly by someone (an application letter or essay, for example), your writing should have a clear organizational structure that allows the reader to readily understand the point(s) you are making. This includes having a clear introduction with some kind of statement of purpose, an organized body, and a definite conclusion that returns in some way to the introduction, reminding the reader of your purpose.

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.
• Sholem Asch

There’s almost never a time when an exclamation point is really needed in formal writing. When you’re tempted to use one, think about it and unless you can truly justify its use, remove it.

An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
• F. Scott Fitzgerald

Then/than, choose/chose, loose/lose, and other personal challenges need to be identified and given special attention each time you write.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
• Mark Twain (Zinn’s corollary: And lightening is yet another thing!)

Write out the word and; don’t substitute the ampersand (&). This goes for words like 4th and 5th as well. Use fourth and fifth. I won’t list all the substitutions that reflect the drift of textspeak into writing, but each of them is inappropriate for formal writing.

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.
• Mark Twain

Reading what other people have written and trying to help them improve their work is time-consuming. Few people who do so want to annoy the writers they’re hoping to assist. Still, this sometimes happens since many papers are hard-birthed and no one wants to be told that their baby is ugly in any way. Be grateful for feedback and realize that in the end, you can do as you wish with it (unless, of course, there’s a scoring guide or some other kind of guidelines you have to meet).

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper.
• Isaac Bashevis Singer

See “The Write Stuff “ (Zinnfull, October 25, 2009) for additional hints, including the correct use of myself, agreement issues, and the need for interesting titles.

What’s the first step you could take to improve your writing?

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
• William Wordsworth

Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.
• Theodore Dreiser, 1900


My Favorite Punctuation Mark Is the Catastrophe ‘Cause No Matter Where I Put It, It’s Always in the Right Place

January 8, 2010

I am agog. Nay, I am flabbergasted and thunderstruck. I actually heard the words who and whom used correctly on a television promo for The Secret Life of the American Teenager. It happened on January 2, 2010. I have no idea who said it because I wasn’t paying attention. She—I’m pretty sure it was a she—said, “You can never tell who will fall in love with whom.”

Such correctness is rare. The who/whom conundrum is one that students often ask me about, although in everyday conversation you probably don’t need to worry about which one to use because most people won’t know the difference and those who are bothered by such mistakes should know better than to say anything to you unless of course you are in some kind of classroom situation where this sort of thing matters.

For example, I am a former high school English teacher and although you might think that I would take pleasure in correcting other people’s grammatical errors, you would be wrong. There is no joy to be found in undangling (the computer tells me that this not a word and I’d like to know why not since it certainly should be) other people’s participles since if I do, I am likely to be drawn into conversations like the one that follows.

Basically, the who/whom difference is this: use the pronoun who when it’s the subject of a sentence and the pronoun whom when it’s an object as in a prepositional phrase. Who is a subjective pronoun, meaning that it is used as a subject (which combines with a verb, necessary to make a complete sentence). Whom is an objective pronoun and gets used when it is the object of a prepositional phrase and in other instances as well. A preposition—words like by, over, under, before, and oh, so many more—combines with a noun or pronoun to make a prepositional phrase. Oh, my.

Yes indeedy, as you can probably imagine, it’s much more complicated than this, fraught with words like “linking verb complements” and “infinitives” and “direct objects.” I would explain it all to you, except that they do it so much better at Just search for “who/whom.”

Meanwhile, you can read this: Okay now, confess. Who gave the swine flu to whom? Tell me quick! Who is it? Was it you? To whom did you give it? Speak up. Whom did you give the swine flu to? Whom should I give this medicine to? What? It wasn’t you? Well, then, who was given the swine flu by whom? Who knows and who can tell me? I am determined to find the person to whom I must deliver these pills, the person who has the swine flu.

Egad. I am delighted that I did not set out to write blogs about this kind of stuff. I would have long ago quit. This is exactly why I am always vague at parties about what my college major (English) was or that I once taught high school English.

I overuse the double dash, known as an em dash, to set off phrases. I love it. I can’t write without it. How about you? What’s your favorite—or most overused—punctuation mark?

An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.
• F. Scott Fitzgerald


The Write Stuff

October 25, 2009

Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education: dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add, that one must also be able to dance with the pen?
• Friedrich Nietzsche

What should schools teach? I believe that being able to write with clarity and correctness about meaningful content is crucial, even if all you will ever need to write after you leave school is an email or a memo or a letter of complaint. For almost a decade, I’ve been collecting data about common errors my students make in their writing. Sometimes, these things are simple: spelling and punctuation and other mechanical glitches that can be corrected by editing and minimal rewriting. Those errors are easy to work with. The difficult ones are content-related. If a writer doesn’t have anything to say, there’s not much that can be done to improve her or his writing until significant additional work is done.

In no particular order, here are some of the writing challenges I see most often:

• Proofreading. This takes time. A paper is not done just because it has been printed. Do not rely on on-screen reading. Proofing would catch many of the problems listed here. I always read my writing aloud, and I catch many errors I would have missed otherwise.

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out. • Unknown

• Dullness. The reader should want to turn the page, drawn in by interesting things said in interesting ways. Writing should have a voice. Writers should have something to say.

• Editorializing. There is a danger of editorializing when other perspectives or “sides” of an issue are not considered. Be sure that you have considered multiple aspects of any issue you are writing about and that your writing makes it clear that you understand the “big picture.”

• Lack of support/evidence/research. Assertions need support, and evidence should be provided when appropriate. Phrases such as “experts say” or “research proves” or “the facts indicate” are not adequate. Which experts? What research? What facts? You must cite sources. Details and clarity help here also.

• Unnecessary words and phrases. These are things that sound good, but are meaningless like “I believe that I think” or “in my opinion, I am sure that I know” or, you get the picture. When you make a statement in your paper, you can make it without these qualifiers.

• Impoverished vocabulary. Do not rely on the thesaurus feature of your computer. It may suggest words that are not correct in the context of your writing. Work on improving your vocabulary and making sure you understand the full meaning of words you use. Awesome, cool, amazing, and similar overused words meant to be compelling modifers are not.

• Lack of context. Issues have histories and are situated in larger contexts. There should be evidence that you are aware of this. Related to this issue is the use of outdated sources. Some research can be used to provide historical context, but you should also find out what’s being said recently about an issue.

• Lack of thoughtfulness. Gaps in reasoning and a “whatever” attitude waste a reader’s time. When it is clear that you hope to create a blizzard of words that hides your lack of information, most readers will not be fooled. Vague generalities are sometimes used to mask a lack of thought and/or research: “We have read many wonderful essays this year, and I learned so much from the authors that I will be able to apply in the future.”

• Repetitiveness. When a writer says the same thing over and over, it appears that she or he doesn’t have much to say. This can also be related to a lack of organization.

• Spellcheck reliance. Awful example (also proofreading-related): an application for further graduate studies that said the person was getting a Master o Farts in Teaching.

• Grammar checker reliance. GCs do not always give correct advice. I tested this for a research project. Have a friend or relative or other trusted person read your work.

• Word choice. Again, be careful with the thesaurus feature on the computer. English has many shades of meaning, and sometimes the suggested substitutions don’t work in the context of the sentence.

• Apostrophes. Student’s grades (the grades of one). Students’ grades (the grades of many). Also: It’s = it is. Its = possessive pronoun.

• Colloquialisms, slang, and other choices related to audience. “I did it in the fact that,” for example, instead of “I did it because.” Learn to “codeswitch” and understand that the kind of writing that’s appropriate when texting your friends isn’t appropriate for other contexts, whether it’s a formal paper or an email to a professor. This includes things like using the ampersand (&) instead of the word and, as well as other abbreviations and acronyms (OMG, tht ws 1 awsum lectur!). In addition, etc. (etcetera, meaning “and other things” or “and so forth”) while handy for abbreviated thoughts should be avoided in formal writing–finish your thought instead).

• Parallel construction. “I like swimming, biking, and reading.” NOT, “I like swimming, biking, and to read.”

• Subject-pronoun agreement. The teacher/he or she/his or her. Teachers/they/their. Rewording can address possible awkwardness.

• Subject-verb agreement. The men go. The man goes.

• Unclear reference. Be sure the reader can tell to what or to whom your pronouns refer.

• Sexist language. No, please. Men/man is not representative of everyone, nor is he a universal pronoun.

• Incorrect use of myself. “Jim and myself are going” should be “Jim and I are going” (I am going) subject. “She gave it to Jim and myself” should be “She gave it to Jim and me” (She gave it to me) object.

• Sentence variety. Check the beginnings of sentences, and be sure that there are not too many that begin the same way (although sometimes you may do this deliberately for effect). Also, watch overuse of pet phrases or words.

• Unnecessary/inconsistent capitalization and exclamation points. And be consistent when you use capitalization (Don’t say Executive Director in one sentence and executive director in the next.)

• Semi-colon and colon use. I rarely see these used correctly. Be sure you know what you’re doing. Commas? Often reading aloud will help you see where to pause with a punctuation mark.

• Creative titles. Yes, please.

• Paragraphing. Question your writing if it is one long paragraph. This may also be related to lack of organization.

• Introductions, conclusions, transitions, clear purpose (thesis, topic, controlling thought, etc.). These things are necessary.

• Absolutes. Think carefully about the use of words like never, always, and everyone. When you use an absolute, you may send the reader off on a mindchase for exceptions. Consider using words like some, many, almost, and other qualifiers that indicate that your awareness of other possibilities.

• Other things that make me tired. Careless misuse of there/their/they’re, to/two/too, and all the others from long lists that I’m pretty sure were taught in elementary school. I suspect that you could catch these by proofreading. My hand hurts just thinking about how many of these I have to circle.

What three goals could you set to help improve your writing?

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
 great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.
• William Safire, “Great Rules of Writing”