Tag Archives: Joseph Williams

3 Ways The Verb “To Be” Is Your Friend

Ball of letters tangled, like grammar rules

I came across this in a blog post on “Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing“:

“Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it’s likely useless.”

And this:

“Students need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays.”

Now, in both cases, the authors don’t mean that all “to be” verbs should be eliminated. But for writers trying to develop their skills, such well-meant exhortations all too easily become sacrosanct rules.

Wearing three hats (at least)—as a writer, as a member of critique groups, and as a student of language both as a teacher and writer—I have an ambivalent relationship with “rules” like this that I encounter in my groups, in Facebook posts, and in conversations where my identity an a “English teacher” apparently defines me irrevocably as a language crab.

Police officer woman

On the one hand, I believe that anyone who aspires to be a “writer” should make him- or herself an expert in the conventions and usage of Standard Written English, if only to be able to make sound judgments as to when the rules should or should not apply. If you’re going to set yourself up as a writer, you’re claiming to practice a craft, and you should know your tools.

At the same time, I know from long study of language that many of the supposed rules are actually judgment calls (I’ve posted about this issue several times).

And some of them aren’t rules at all. They’re myths passed down and around because they give the impression of expertise when they’re really evidence of hearsay, or of history at work. How many times have you been told you can’t use adverbs because Stephen King said so? Or that you can’t say “hopefully” because Strunk & White say you can’t? (You can’t chair, host, or debut, either, if you worship at that fount—though I must say I do wish that people who cite Strunk & White would actually follow it more often than they do).

The trouble is that too much reverence for rules can banish perfectly good writing strategies. And approaching  “to be” with a silver cross brandished before you is one way to kill off some useful and even necessary tools. Beware of writing contest scams!

I have always been among the first to argue that strong, precise verbs are the crux of good writing, and that a sentence built around an active verb is more compelling and often clearer than one built around “is” or “was.” But fearing “to be” can result in some painful sentence contortions. More to the point, here are three things you can’t do without “to be”:

1) The progressive tenses

Fear of “to be” means that all actions have to take place in the simple past or one of the perfect tenses (the ones with “have” or “had” as auxiliaries). Nothing can be in process, ongoing, when another action occurs or interrupts. Intolerantly striking every instance of “is” or “was” leads to absurdities like “She read the newspaper when he entered.” The sentence says either that his entering caused her to start reading the newspaper or that the two actions occurred simultaneously. The natural layering of time and events in narration inherent in “She was reading the newspaper when he entered” disappears. (Yes, I see people doing this all the time.)

2) The “it cleft”

I refer you to Martha Kolln’s discussion of this device for controlling rhythm and emphasis if you would like more examples. In short, read these two sentences aloud:

a) It was Thursday that I fell off my horse.

b) I fell off my horse on Thursday.

Same information, but different meanings. In a), it emphatically wasn’t Monday or Friday when I fell; it was Thursday. We can hear in this simple arrangement the implication of doubt or disagreement as to what day it was. And while falling off a horse matters in both sentences, in b), it’s far more foregrounded, a simpler assertion bereft of the undercurrents in the first. Which you choose should be dictated by your needs in that particular language situation. Fear of a word removes the first option from your repertoire.

Try these two:

a) It was on my fiftieth birthday that I fell in love.

b) I fell in love on my fiftieth birthday.

I leave you to unpack the subtle, but potentially important differences, in these two ways of saying the same thing.

3) The Passive Voice

Out, dreaded fiend. Let me get my silver cross.

I am well aware of the ways that careless reliance on the passive voice can lead to disaster, and certainly to a gush of red ink from an editor’s pen.

But the passive voice, used with deliberation, can serve many functions, among them the same function as the “it cleft.” It allows you to manage where emphasis falls in your sentence.

For example:

a) Maggie had long been traumatized by flying insects.

b) Flying insects had long traumatized Maggie.

(By the way, before continuing, it might be a good idea to make sure we all agree on what the “passive voice” actually is.)

I submit that the next sentence after sentence a) is likely to begin with “She.” We will immediately learn more about Maggie. She will be focus of our attention–the why of her terror.

In contrast, the sentence following example b) will begin either with “They” or some synonym for “Flying insects.” The nature of these insects, including how they acted on her, will take precedence. We may end up with the same information. But if we want Maggie front and center, sentence a) puts her there.

As Kolln and Loretta Gray’s book Rhetorical Grammar and Joe Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace will tell you, the passive voice has other important functions. For example, as Kolln points out, you couldn’t write

Joe was wounded in Vietnam

without it. It also supports the “Known-New Contract” (more about that in a future post).

You can’t benefit from these options without that much-disparaged verb “to be.”

Love for Literary Fiction!Nuances this subtle should matter, and be within the reach, of any writer. They should be choices, made with mindful attention to their effects and whether or not these effects serve a writer’s needs at any given moment. Don’t kick them out of your bag of tools because somebody said they were “weak” or “passive.” They have jobs to do. When you need them, use them.

(You may have noticed that I just love this “grammar” stuff. What about you?)



Filed under correct grammar, Editing, grammar, grammar rules, indie publishing, Learning to write, Myths and Truths, self editing, Self-publishing, style, Writing

“Secret Writing Rules” and Why to Ignore Them…

A great post from Anne R. Allen via Chris the Story-Reading Ape. Thanks, Chris!

Actually, some of my *favorite* rules to ignore! Especially 1, 3, 5, 6–gee, all of them.

But I do have several cents worth of addenda from my own experience in writing groups and classrooms.

Number 1 is among my favorites because so many critiquers in my current online writing group just HATE “echoes” to the point that they are tone-deaf to the power of repetition for emphasis and rhythm. Anne’s examples beautifully illustrate this point.

And I love #3 because of the many times I’ve been scolded for using “passive voice” when in fact I was using a progressive tense, which requires “to be” as an auxiliary. I agree that progressive tenses can be overused, but there’s a big difference between “He ate when she came in” and “He was eating when she came in.” Again, check out Anne’s examples.

As for #5, I’ve often started to write a post on the consequences of cutting “all” adverbs. Idiocy. You could never use a “when” or “before” or “after” clause if you tried to do that. You could never use “often” or “never.” Okay, some adverbs don’t add any information. Cut them. But stay sane. I have discovered in myself a tendency to pile up adjectives, and I appreciate having that lapse pointed out. And I do believe in the power of strong verbs. But just the right adjective, in just the right place, can be magic.

As for the passive voice, the wonderful book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by the late Joe Williams (latest editions co-authored by Greg Colomb) has a terrific discussion of the uses and abuses of the passive voice—and actually clarifies what that critter is! Check it out.

As for point of view, in the comments Anne clarifies that she means using multiple points of view in different scenes, not in the same paragraph or even sentence, as I’ve seen writers do. I’ve become paranoically sensitive to accidental POV slips, almost to the point, I fear, of annoying some of my fellow critiquers. But I’ve been re-reading some Tony Hillerman, and he “head-hops” all the time. So what to do? Make a deliberate decision that head-hopping really serves your text. My guess is that the practice will interfere with the close identification you want to build between reader and character.

Also in the comments, Anne touches on the “that/which” option. In my view, these are clear-cut, with “that” opening an essential modifier and “which” a non-essential one. But as Joe Williams pointed out almost forty years ago in his classic essay, “The Phenomenology of Error,” even the most rabid promoters of the distinction ignore it all the time. So we can, too.

My bottom line (note cliché, rule #7): Writing is about making choices. Knowing why readers sometimes object to style choices helps you make good decisions. But sometimes those decisions are to ignore.



Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

by Anne R. Allen

Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

But pretty much everybody you meet in the publishing business will give you a list of them. (One is “never start a sentence with ‘there are’” —so watch yourself, Mr. Maugham.)

Some of the rules show up in any standard writing book or class, but others only seem to get circulated in critique groups, conference workshops, and forums.

They’re a secret to everybody else.

But you’ll run into them sooner or later. In a forum or workshop, somebody will tell you with schoolmarmish assurance that you MUST follow these secret writing rules to be a successful novelist.

Nobody knows exactly where these rules come from, or why so many great books have become classics without following a single one.

Don’t get me wrong: many “secret writing rules” involve useful tips…

View original post 88 more words


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Why I Quit Reading Your Book

Sad Editing!I just abandoned another indie book.

It always breaks my heart to do this (fortunately, I’ve only done it a very few times). The act sets me to thinking: Was I just being a persnickety grouch, or do I have legitimate things to say about what makes a book work? This question is particularly cogent when I bought this book—two by this author, in fact—on the strength of a glowing review.

Obviously, my reaction isn’t the only one that matters. So is there anything of worth in trying to lay out what went wrong for me?

Writer with questions

I think so. After all, I’ve raised the question of whether we really serve each other if we don’t at least try to explain why a particular element of a book led not to a mild critique but to abandonment, even if we can do so only in generic terms lest we embarrass a fellow writer. And my thoughts here are not idiosyncratic; practicing writers have heard versions of them before.

So. . . .

It took three strikes to force me to turn off my Kindle this time around. Looking at these three strikes, I realize that I would have probably let two of them slide if the third had been in place.

The first of the two strikes I might have forgiven was a plot twist I didn’t buy into. But I’ve persevered, even if grumpily, past what seemed to me far-fetched plot devices before.

The other strike involved some bizarre inaccuracies in the author’s depiction of the setting, which I happen to know intimately. But I’ve hung in through (and enjoyed!) stories that present that setting in ways that don’t completely jibe with my experience.

In both cases, I could have been seduced into accepting or ignoring these slips. It was the seduction that wasn’t there.Eyeglasses and pen

Because the writer lacked voice.

In other words, had this book had voice, the pleasure of voice could have overridden my complaints.

But what in the world do I mean by “voice”?

Writing teachers talk about voice all the time. They know it when they see it. But ask them to give you a formula for acquiring it? They try. Oh, do they try.

Typewriter with questions marks

Like most people, whether you know it or not, you already have many voices. You know how to sound different when writing a Facebook post and an office memo. No one has to teach you that.

But “literary voice” is a little different. You learn the voice of an office memo by writing the way people write office memos. Literary voice, on the other hand, isn’t something you copy outright. There’s learning involved, what rhetoricians call imitatio. But from this learning, it’s something you create.

Here, I’m offering three dimensions of what was missing in the book I abandoned. These do not constitute the ultimate definition of voice. They’re just my attempts to put into “voice” a few of the qualities that make prose come alive for me enough to carry me past plot glitches and other slips. Typewriter and flowers


Voice is what says you have moved beyond “the rules.”

In the book I’m discussing, I could see the author conscientiously and visibly filling in the various checklists for what a writer ought to do. BUT: The essence of voice is riding those rules down the road where you want to go.

In this book, the rule that ruled the writer was a common one: Bring readers into the scene! Lots of sensory details! Make it come alive! Think of creative ways to say what you want readers to know!

But in this book, too many details, piled up on top of each other, slowed the action to the point that I skimmed ahead in frustration. You don’t want to confuse readers, but you don’t have to race them through every doorway, show them every blow to your hero’s head. Choose the most necessary, the most telling details. Don’t just pile up information because the rules seem to say you should.

Voice serves the story, not the writer. Book with heart for writers

In the books I’ve abandoned, writers often convolute their prose as if they must sound original—be a unique SOMEBODY—at all costs. But these choices may be robbing the English language of the power of its basic formula: Subject-verb-object. Someone doing something to someone. A basic sentence can have a modifying clause before it or an absolute phrase behind it, but English narrative dodges all sorts of pitfalls when it follows this basic pattern. For an excellent discussion of why this pattern works, try Joseph Williams’s classic Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Let people do things. Some of the most powerful prose in the world aspires to no more than this.

Still, voice means surprising the reader—just enough.

Your characters, your settings, your scenes, stand in a line-up with the characters, settings, and scenes from every other book ever written in your genre. When what you’ve put in your book could just as easily pop up in somebody else’s book, you probably lack voice. In the book(s) I’ve abandoned, I felt that I could predict every move, every sentence. I was looking at what we used to call “stock”—characters, settings, and prose off the shelf.

How can you move beyond stock?

What do you know about your character that no one would expect from a generic description of his age, ethnicity, occupation, etc.? What do you see in your setting that tells a whole story but that everyone else would overlook?

Woman writing

To create such vision, try these two steps: 1) Brainstorm. 2) Cull.

Exercises abound in books, workshops, blog posts, to help us generate details we might or might not actually use in our books. Here’s the place to go for the crazy stretch. Don’t censor. Outlandish is okay!

Then cull. Set aside your exercises as long as you can. Come back to them to see which ones jump off the page. Pick one. Maybe two. Be strict! Only the best. Only the ones that nail something readers really need to know but would never suspect.

And if you can, work toward honoring that famous dictum from Mark Twain (here tweaked because my version sounds better): The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Lightning, green field

Prose that captures lightning. not in every line but in carefully chosen moments of flash, has voice.

And I’ll forgive a lot if you give me voice.

What have I left out? What is voice to you? Send along examples of writers whose voice you admire.


Filed under indie publishing, Learning to write, novels, Publishing, self editing, Self-publishing, style, Writing

Which Grammar Rules Do You Ignore?

Typewriter publishAs I noted a few posts ago, in his article “The Phenomenology of Error,” Joseph Williams categorized errors by type. Among his more interesting categories, in my view, were those errors that the experts make even as telling us not to (and nobody notices). He also had a category of grammatically correct constructions that sound so odd when we use them that we generally prefer the error.

These categories change with time, since language and usage do, of course. But his discussion of them made me think about the kinds of errors we can and maybe should ignore and, in fact, the kinds of rules we should ignore.

Here are three of my “rules I can ignore” (if I want to). Do you agree with me on these? What are yours?

Three question marks printed on a typewriter

The “that/which” distinction.

Okay, I don’t ignore it, but from what I’ve seen, a whole lot of people do. It’s the one Jacques Barzun didn’t catch himself ignoring, as Williams documents. It depends on knowing the difference between a restrictive and nonrestrictive (or an essential versus nonessential) adjective clause (which you can read about here), and yes, I’m using “which” correctly here:

The house, which had just been painted and re-roofed, sat on a cozy cul-de-sac. (Nice info but you could lift if out and not miss it.)

The house that had the new paint and new roof was the best deal of the three. (Allows you to distinguish the best deal from the others; take it out and see how much is lost.)

The point is, only a very few termagants (like me) would even notice if you replaced the “that” in the second sentence with “which.”Typewriter and flowers

The “whom” challenge.

I call this a challenge because the error is a lot less noticeable when people commit it than when they try to get it right and get it wrong. Simply speaking, only the above referenced termagant will rage if you just use ‘who” ninety-nine percent of the time.

After all, doesn’t it sound more natural to say, “Who did you give that to?” than “Whom did you give that to?” The “whom” in the second is correct because it’s the object of the preposition “to” and objects have to be in the objective case (like “him,” “her,” “us,” and “me”). But our minds these days just aren’t trained to worry about all such distinctions.

A sign of our downfall? Actually, putting that “m” on “who” is an “inflection,” and English has been discarding inflections when they don’t really add any information for centuries.

Actually, the only time most people will want the “whom” form is when it directly follows its preposition, and that usually happens in a question that’s been re-ordered: “To whom did you give it?” “With whom were you going?” “For whom did you buy that hat?” Do you have to write these particular sentences? In my view, not unless you feel compelled.Happy editing

The problem arises when people assume that because “whom” sounds so much more formal, it is compelled whenever one wants to sound formal. So I’ve actually encountered sentences like “Whom is going with us?” Ouch, that really grates.

The messier­—and understandably more confusing—situation occurs when the who/whom pair has to be sorted out at the beginning of a dependent clause acting as an object. The handbook rule is that you choose “who” or “whom” depending on what it’s doing in its own clause, not in the larger sentence.

“Did you say who is going with us?” (correct) and “Did you say whom the hat is for?” (again correct–note that little preposition “for” controlling the choice). But “hypercorrectness”—going gaga over sounding upmarket—leads to “Did you say whom is going with us?” As a sort of sub-termagant, I submit that more than a few of the erudite people writers hope to impress WILL notice that one (though I’m willing to be corrected).

In my view, you should go ahead and make the “mistake” of the perfectly natural-sounding “Did you say who the hat is for?” and just kick “whom” out of your vocabulary rather than sticking it where it doesn’t belong (here’s a wise soul who agrees!).pile of letters

Singular “they.”

This one is a lost cause. It’s been a lost cause, according to Dennis Baron of the Web of Language, just about forever. English simply has no singular, gender-neutral pronoun—except “it,” of course; just try choosing “it” in this sentence: “Everybody should bring his/her/its lunch to the meeting.”

The conundrum, of course, is that “everybody” wants so badly to be singular; we say “everybody is,” not “everybody are.” Certain people who shall not be named think there’s really no problem. Just pick “his,” and who’ll care? After all, everybody is a “he,” n’est-ce pas?

For quite a while, “he” and “his” were the preferred options among those who got to do the published writing. Because more kinds of people get to do published writing now, the masculine singular won’t do. As Baron points out, efforts to creatively solve this problem of a singular “antecedent” with no acceptable gender-neutral singular pronoun have gone nowhere.

And “his or her” (or “her or his”), the only option that is even remotely close to acceptable, gets old in a hurry (“Everybody should open his or her notebook and take out his or her homework. . . .”). Baron writes that Vanderbilt University has actually declared singular “they” perfectly acceptable in its formal documents. So ignore this baby at will.

letter scatter novel

Those are a few of the rules I think we should ignore a) because people notice them less and less and often never; and b) trying to follow them results in sentences that will offend even people with certified tin ears.

So what are your rules to ignore?Woman writing


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How Much Grammar Do You Need, Part V: Rules I’ve Seen Erudite People Break–

—but that other erudite people will definitely notice!

One of Joe Williams’s categories included errors erudite people make but no one notices. Even the erudite people preaching against the error make it and don’t catch themselves.

Bill, the dog, critiques

He tells me when I’m wrong!

But another category: errors erudite people DO notice, and react negatively to—the implication being that these are errors erudite people scrupulously avoid.


I recently read the following in the New York Times:

The Arlington police had went to the Classic Buick GMC dealership Friday just after 1 a.m. when a caller reported that a man was standing on top of a car in the lot “stamping on the windshield trying to break it,” according to a 911 call.

I’m not posting this here as a statement on the events being described (you can learn about that elsewhere.) I’m providing it because it commits—in the New York Times of all places!—one of those fairly egregious errors an agent or editor or any other “well-educated” reader definitely will notice—and judge.Sad Editing!

(Tip for that NYT writer: if “have” or “had” is part of the verb phrase, go with the past participle. Otherwise choose the simple past.)

So Rule #1 that won’t be overlooked is use the correct verb form!

Rule # 2 on this list: Know the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

Trivial? Absolutely. Will not knowing the difference really matter? In some cases, you bet.

I suspect this one results from writing too quickly and proofing on the screen with a deadline looming. If by some chance keeping these straight plagues you, there’s unfortunately no easy way to remember, unless it’s to go with the one that makes the least sense. You’d think a possessive, like “The dog chased its/it’s ball,” would take an apostrophe, wouldn’t you, since possessives are formed with apostrophes? But “its,” the correct choice, is kin to “her” and “his.” Just fix in your mind how silly “He ate hi’s supper” would look, and you may be able to remember to pick the one without the apostrophe.

While we’re on the subject of apostrophes,

Rule #3 on this list is do not form plurals with apostrophes.

I saw this done in the crawl on Good Morning America! But it’s like announcing that the writer has been reading more roadside veggie stands than novels.

Rule #4? Do not put commas in these two places.

Comma rules can look complicated. Recently I eavesdropped on professional editors trying to decide whether to insert a comma based on whether they heard “a pause” or not. But people hear pauses in different places. There are “rules” for commas. I find that the basic list of uses for commas in handbooks, or on sites like this one, make sense.

I consider commas one of the most important tools for clear writing. They mark off sections of sentences and help me, as a reader, know what’s coming next (are we still in the appositive, or have we returned to the independent clause?). In this post, I just want to emphasize two places where I’ve seen commas sneak in. (And my agent from years back said specifically that she’d stop reading a query the minute she spotted one of these.)

Forbidden place A) Between a subject and its verb. “Gloria, went out to lunch.” I don’t hear a pause there. Do you? Or, more understandably: “One of the reasons I don’t like that play, is. . . .” Here, the length of the subject phrase may make a writer feel as if it’s time for a pause.

The only time a subject should be followed by a comma is when some kind of “interrupting” element comes between the subject and its verb: “Gloria, however, hated the restaurant we’d chosen.” Or “Gloria, who hates Chinese food, went with us to the Chinese buffet because it was cheap.”

Forbidden Place B) After a coordinating conjunction.

The most dangerous place for this interloping comma is after the conjunction between two complete sentences: “I hope you will consider representing my novel but, I know you have many submissions to read.” The comma goes before the “but,” never after, unless there’s an interrupter, and then you need two commas: “I hope you will consider representing my novel, but, like all agents, you have many submissions to read.”

None of these errors directly impacts communication. At worst, they create little hiccups in the flow of the text. Except that, as Williams points out, error is in the eye of the beholder. What’s a hiccup for me might well be a coughing fit for someone else. Agents and editors qualify, at least in general, as erudite readers. Even if the staff of the New York Times didn’t catch that “had went,” they probably will.

Do you have your own candidates for rules you really can’t get away with breaking? Leave a comment and let me know!

Cats as kibbitzers

They have their opinions, too!

Leave a comment

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How Much Grammar Do You Need? Part IV

Here are some “grammar” rules you DON’T need!

That is, rules that aren’t even really rules. And even if they were rules, they’d fall into that category Joe Williams created of “rules” that are more noticeable and disruptive when they are followed than when they aren’t, because they’re alien to the way most of speak and write.Man worrying about his writing

Of course, if you could see into the innermost grammar hearts of all those agents and editors to whom you direct your missives, you would find people who cringe every time you fail to observe one of these mythological rules. My point is that convoluting your prose to avoid them, or obsessing over them to the point that your creativity begins to ice over, is counterproductive. In these cases, let your natural ear as an English speaker rule.

Here they are (I’ll probably come up with others and invite you to submit your candidates):

Beginning a sentence with “because.”

Williams says that there’s no sign of this prohibition in any handbook he ever saw, and I echo that. Yet, even thirty years after Williams debunked it, my students would still cite this “rule” to each other in their peer reviews.

In my view—a pure hypothesis, I admit—this instruction arose from some teacher’s worry that clauses prefaced with “because” all too often were never connected to the necessary independent clause and thus end up as fragments. We do talk this way: “Because I said so.” “Because I don’t want to.” “Because I like it.”

It’s a fact that the minute you put the word “because” in front of a sentence, it becomes “dependent,” in need of a crutch to make sense. In conversation, the missing information is already present in the ongoing conversation. In formal Standard Written English, the missing components should be supplied in an independent clause attached to the “because clause.” “Because I like it, I often swim in the lake in winter.” (Or because I’m a glutton for punishment.)

It’s probably more natural to reverse the clauses: “I often swim in the lake in the winter because. . . .” But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with starting with the “because clause.” It’s a stylistic choice, not a grammar/moral-fiber choice.

Ending a sentence with a preposition.

I was startled years ago when, at my university, the speech communication people presented the writing faculty with a list of the things students ought to be learning in first-year writing, and the list was just a bunch of grammar “rules,” this one prominently among them. Honestly, I thought anyone teaching writing in college would have a more nuanced idea of what “writing” consists of than that list.

In order to follow this supposed rule, you have to become so rigidly formal that your efforts wave and shout from the page. “Who were you talking to?” becomes “To whom were you talking?” Or say you’re synopsizing in a query and you need a sentence like, “His daughter was the only person he’d confessed to.” Is it really better to write, “His daughter was the only person to whom he’d confessed”? It depends entirely on how “formal” you want to sound. Personally, I’d probably find a way to “write around” this conundrum, but I’m making a point. (We’ll get to the who/whom issue soon enough.)

There’s a very famous example of the preposition-at-the-end issue often attributed to Winston Churchill. Supposedly he responded to an editor’s efforts to eliminate terminal prepositions with a note: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” (My dad loved to quote this at me.) For a lively discussion of this supposed quote, see this post by Geoffrey K. Pullum at The Language Log. This post claims, from a reputable source, that the rule that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition “was apparently created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden.” The post gives several other examples of smart choices in which the preposition stays where it wants to, including a discussion of the kind of English verb that includes words generally defined as prepositions, such as “put up with.” Separate these at your peril.

Splitting infinitives

I’m old enough to remember expletives fired at the epithet for Star Trek as it shifted into warp speed: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Eeek! Split infinitive—separating the “to” from its partner, “go,” which together create the “infinitive” form of the verb, which in English is created exactly this way: a main form of the verb plus “to.” To eat. To see. To write. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, say Spanish or French, you also learned about infinitives, the more-or-less “base” form of the verb: estar, hablar, manger, sortir.

You’ll note that these infinitives belonging to “romance languages” (not because they’re sexy but because they come from “Roman” or Latin ancestors) are one-word infinitives, not two-word infinitives as in English. At some point, some upmarket grammarians decided that Latin was a more “advanced” or “noble” language than English; English needed to be elevated by becoming more like Latin. You can’t split an infinitive in Latin, for obvious reasons; so you shouldn’t split one in English either. I guess you’ve noticed how much better English sounds as a result of this rule.

Or does it? Does “To go boldly where no man has gone before” really sound better? Not to my ear. One of the reasons the revised version clunks is that the original, “to boldly go,” is in “iambic pentameter,” the poetic meter most natural to English—in fact, the one used by Shakespeare. Here’s a nice account of the rule and advice about (not) applying it.

The upshot: listen to your sentences. Put the adverb (the “boldly”) and the preposition where they most want to go.

Send me your candidates: Rules we don’t need!

Happy editing!


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How Much “Grammar” Do You Need? Part III . . . .

Questions?I’m picking up on my last post, in which I discussed Joe Williams’s “Phenomenology of Error,” published in College Composition and Communication in 1982, where he ably demonstrates that even the most erudite language mavens only find errors when they are explicitly looking for them, and thus miss bunches, even in their own work.

Williams developed his own rather complicated categories of errors. Of course, he’s an academic writing for other academics, and the essay is more than 30 years old, so his examples may not be the ones we’d pick today if we wanted to duplicate his categories.

But a couple are.

Briefly, his categories are

  • Rules we notice and respond to with a shriek when they’re violated. (“Shriek” is my word, equivalent to the reactions from experts Williams notes in his introduction, people who label such things as “OK,” “hopefully,” and “He invited Mary and myself to dinner” as examples of an “atrocity,” a “detestable vulgarity,” and “garbage.”) In this category of noticeable rules, Williams places basic violations of Standard English structure, such as “I seen” and “He don’t.” Note that these locutions don’t impede understanding. They’re perfectly clear, and perfectly acceptable in many contexts. (In some dialects, such as Black English, ways of talking that violate Standard English are actually rules of that dialect, with their own influence over such matters as time and continuity of action. See the resources here and here to understand this point better.)
  • Rules we really don’t notice even when they’re violated—despite knowing that the rule exists. Williams specifically offers the that/which distinction, which (see, I used it right) even such eminences as Jacques Barzun cheerfully violated within a page of telling us not to. Later I’ll have a little to say about this rule, since it falls clearly into one of my own categories.
  • Rules we notice when they’re observed because they call attention to themselves, a small class. His example is “It is I,” which is indeed “correct” but which jumps off the page at most people. I suspect that “between you and me” is rapidly becoming such a conspicuous instance of correctness (yes, it is correct) for many. I actually heard someone say “between he and I” this morning on a news show. Looks as if the subjective case after a preposition is coming into its own.
  • Rules that, when violated, actually elicit a favorable reaction from individuals. Williams offers an example of a rule he actually prefers to see broken: using “than” rather than “from” after “differently” when what follows is a clause and not a noun. I think there are more rules like this, rules that, if broken, improve prose. I’ve already pointed out one possible candidate: choosing to start a sentence with “but” (assuming you think this violates an actual rule). I’ll propose more soon.

This is possibly the best place to remember that languages change. Effort like those the French have made to freeze the language are flung down and stomped on on every street corner, in every hostel. All you have to do is read something written in the 1700s—oh, say, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal“—to appreciate how punctuation, spelling, and diction have shifted since then. Students required to read such texts complain mightily about how badly written they are. English is, as we speak, in the process of losing the apostrophe (a vagrant and an intruder to start with).

I actually regret this loss; I’ll horrify my college-writing colleagues by siding just a little with Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, agreeing with her that it might sometimes be helpful to know how many people we’re talking about in a sentence like “The travelers bags will fit in the overhead bins.” A simple apostrophe would tell you, and this Wikipedia article gives more examples of useful clarifications an apostrophe can make. But I am not going to emulate the folly of the French.

I’m approaching the task of establishing my own categories of errors. My main concern is to keep things reasonably simple, and not to get tangled up trying to explain things handbooks or sites like the Purdue Owl explain pretty well. I’ll set up the categories here, and then clarify and defend them in upcoming posts:

  • Rules you really don’t need to worry about
  • Rules you absolutely must obey
  • Rules that are actually judgment calls. Breaking one of these rules (like starting a sentence with “but”) is a gamble. If you absolutely hate what following the rule does to your prose—well, you pays your money and you takes your chance.

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