Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ms. Smith’s Writing Pet Peeves Part I

Some words and sentence constructions just drive me crazy in writing. I mean, they bug me a lot. So, whatever you do, avoid these like the plague. I really, really mean it!

A lot—Yes, it’s two words. And a lot is a place where you park your car, or where you park your trailer, or where you build a house. A lot is a vague and imprecise way to indicate number: “I have a lot of friends.” Well, exactly how many friends do you have? It’s more precise to write, “I can count my true friends on one hand.” That construction is clichéd, but it gives me a more precise idea. Try using many, a few, several—while still imprecise, those aren’t as annoying. And think of how impressed your boss will be if you walk into his/her office and say, “I have 27 reasons why you should give me a raise today.”

Trash words—Words such as really, truly, actually, both, very (and many others) don’t add anything to your writing. If you write, for example, “Tony and I both went to the concert,” you’re being redundant. If you and Tony went, then both of you went. Say one or the other, whichever is appropriate. Words such as really, truly, actually and very just take up space and don’t add anything.

Very, truly or really unique—Something cannot be really, truly or very unique. The definition of unique is “unlike anything else.” Something cannot be “very/truly/really unlike anything else.” “Unique” does not have degrees of “uniqueness.” Either it is or it isn’t unique.

Clichés—A cliché is a phrase that is commonplace and overused. For example, ”I avoid him like the plague.” Sometimes, you can use a cliché to provide comedy or irony in writing, but too many clichés gum up the works. If you’ve heard it in the last month or two, don’t use it, even if you are “head over heels in love.”

Due to the fact that—Bills are “due to” your creditors, and, if something is a fact, just state it. You don’t have to tell us it’s a fact. This phrase is a trash phrase. It just takes up space. Instead of “due to,” use “because of” or “because.” “I failed the class because I did not study” instead of “I failed the class due to the fact that I did not study.” Yuck!

Passive voice, or “the cart before the horse” sentence construction—Sentences should be dynamic. Dynamic sentences place the subject of the sentence as close to the beginning as possible. For example, “The dog chased the cat,” is active voice. The dog is performing the action of the verb. Passive voice would be, “The cat was chased by the dog.” The dog is still chasing the cat, but the reader has to work harder to understand that. A more common sentence is, “My mother was rushed to the hospital by the ambulance.” This should look familiar. But the sentence should read, “The ambulance rushed my mother to the hospital.” The ambulance is doing the rushing. Many business writers use passive voice because it delays the “bad news.” Be direct and active. It’s less frustrating for the reader. Frequently, you can tell a sentence is passive voice because it uses a form of “to be” as a helper (usually “was”), but not always. For example, “I was thinking about the fall” is not passive voice because the subject, “I,” is doing the thinking.

There is, there are—You can rewrite “There are 50 ways to pass this course” as “I can give you 50 ways to pass this course.” “There are” and “There is” delay the true subject of the sentence and take up space. “There are a number of reasons why I should be promoted” is more directly written “You should promote me for a number of reasons.” Be direct. Besides, there indicates place (see below).

Pronoun agreement—This may be harder to recognize. Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns in a sentence (pro = for). Pronouns need to refer back to nouns or equivalent pronouns. For example, “My mother has petunias growing in her flower bed.” That’s an easy one. This one is more difficult: “Someone said they saw my boyfriend with another woman.” “They” is the wrong pronoun. Why? Because it refers to “someone,” which is singular. Singular nouns take singular pronouns; plural nouns take plural pronouns. Pronouns need to agree with their antecedents (the words they refer back to) in person (1st (I, we), 2nd (you, you), 3rd (he, she, it, they)) and number (singular (I, you, he, she, it) or plural (we, you, they)).

Pronoun Confusion—Avoid switching pronouns, especially in a sentence: “I couldn’t think of how to solve this problem; you just can’t think when you’re under pressure.” If you begin in 1st person, and you are still writing about yourself, stick with 1st person: “I couldn’t think of how to solve this problem; I just can’t think when I’m under pressure.” And always make sure the pronoun has a clear antecedent: “Mary and her mother went with me to the mall; she told her mother that she needed to buy herself a new dress.” Huh? Who needs the new dress, Mary or her mother?

That and who—People are who; things are that. Not “The people that bought my car,” but “The people who bought my car.” “The dog that ate my periwinkles should be feeling sick.”

That and which—If you use which, you usually need to use a comma before it: “I took calculus this semester, which isn’t difficult when I study for it.” If you use that as a conjunction, you don’t need a comma: “The trip to Ireland was the vacation that I always wanted.”

Apostrophes—Use apostrophes to show possession with nouns: John’s house, Mary’s car, the Jones’ boat. Do not use apostrophes for years: not ‘30’s, but ‘30s (as in 1930s), or “She is in her 30s.” Use an apostrophe for contractions—it’s (it is), that’s (that is), doesn’t (does not)—but make sure you are using the correct word. Its is a third-person possessive pronoun (“Its outer shell is polished steel.”); it’s is a contraction (“It’s too late to take the test.”) It’s easy to get confused. Possessive pronouns do not use apostrophes: hers, his, its, ours, theirs, yours.

There, their, they’reThere indicates place: “I am going there after work.” Their is a possessive pronoun: “Their car is wrecked beyond repair.” They’re is a contraction: “They’re going to the market on their way to the mall.”

I have a number of pet peeves that I haven’t listed here because they don’t manifest that frequently. I deal with them as I find them. And, you’ll notice, I haven’t listed all of the problems with punctuation—I think I’ll save that for another list.

You will not remember all of these, and I don’t expect you to stop writing a draft every time you use one of these. However, when you revise and edit anything you write, I expect you to eliminate and correct as many of these as possible.

William Strunk and E. B. White, in The Elements of Style, provide this rule for writing (along with others): Omit needless words. You can’t get more precise or concise than that. Remember: be specific, eliminate clutter. If you excise or avoid one overused or inappropriate word or phrase per sentence, your writing will be less cluttered and easier to read. It takes practice. So practice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


and it's time for summer school! I last taught summer school in 2005; last year, I had most of the summer to procrastinate, work in the yard, work at the bookstore, and just generally goof off!

I'm teaching the long session--fifty minutes a day for two months. For some reason, trying to condense a daily lecture into an hour seems difficult, though it shouldn't be! In my regular semester courses, I usually have an hour-and-a-half, twice a week. Same amount of time, really, so why does this seem more difficult?

Oh, it's probably just me! Trying to break down information into fifty-minute segments just seems weird! Probably my need for precision.

But I do like teaching this class. New approaches to the essay--what an eye-opener for students. You mean all essays aren't written the same way? What a concept!

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Words of Wisdom

I came across two quotes this weekend that I really like:

"Countless unseen details are often the only difference between mediocre and magnificent."--Anonymous

"Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped." --Lillian Hellman

Now, if my students would just believe me!

I'm constantly telling them that "the devil is in the details." And, of course, I try to make them understand that a piece of writing will go where it needs to if they let it.

But I think they think I'm making all of this up.

I'm not!

Monday, March 5, 2007

Writing Your Life

I've generally noticed that students either like my Advanced Comp class or they don't. I seldom find a student who waffles on this. While some students revel in the freedom of writing whatever they want, others want that "safety" net of proscribed assignments. They still want someone to "tell" them what to write about.

In this class, the most guidance I give students is to tell them what kind of essay I want--a personal essay, a memoir, a journalistic, or segmented essay. That's it. I'm more interested in the approach a student takes to these types of essays; I want to see which of my students will take off in an unexpected direction or which student will reach down and pull out the tough subject. I like surprises. I like for students to fly out on their own, to dredge through memory for the small, amazing, sad, uplifting and present it to us as a gift. I don't want students to feel restricted--but I don't want them to be lost or depressed. I want them to write about those parts of their lives that have meaning to them--if they feel strongly about the subject, they will communicate that importance to us, their readers.

I usually get somewhat predictable essays--they aren't awful and, sometimes, they are technically proficient. I usually have a handful of students whose essays make the hair stand up on the back of my neck because the essay shines like a jewel--the language is crisp and precise, the subject wrenches my heart, the insight is painful and/or profound. I appreciate all of my students' work, but I look for the diamonds. They encourage me to keep doing this.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Don't Bring Me Down...

"In life, three things are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind." --Gil Grissom, CSI, sort of quoting Henry James.

My student's will begin critiquing their classmates' writings soon, and, I want them to be aware of this one thing: it is more important to tell someone what he/she is doing well than to find a multitude of faults with an essay.

That's not to say that criticism shouldn't point out areas that need work, but students (or anyone, really) who are providing feedback need to remember that it's the WRITING that needs the help, not the WRITER (well, the writer might need help, too, but is that your job?).

With writing, the focus should always be on how to make the writing better--what can be added, what should be removed, how can the writer pull us further into the essay? You don't have to agree with what the writer has written; you just have to help the writer say it the best way. That's all. He/she doesn't need to write the way you do, or consider the same topics, or draw the same conclusions. The writer needs to find the best way to say what needs to be said. Period.

I always caution my students to temper critisicm with praise. Start with the good stuff to make the "negative" stuff easier to take. Don't say "You need to clarify this"; say, instead, "This paragraph would benefit from more detail. What color was her dress? Her hair?" Point out places where the essay would benefit from a bit more effort. Praise fairly and truthfully.

We all benefit from serious, helpful advice. This is one time that the truth needs to be told, but it needs to be told with kindness.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Elements of Style

Many, many years ago (in a galaxy far, far away...wait, that's from a movie, isn't it?), I came across a slim volume entitled The Elements of Style. The primary author, William Strunk, Jr., compiled the book from the lectures in his English classes at Cornell University. Legend has it that his "rules" were so specific that he had to repeat them three times each in order to fill up his course time.

After Strunk's death, his former student, E. B. White (the beloved author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little) was asked to revise and update Strunk's book. The agents asked him to add a section on style and usage. This little book is so well known that all you have to say is "Strunk and White," and writers know exactly what you are talking about.

Now, forty years after I first came across that book, I want to emphasize how important it still is. In it's 100 or so pages, it distills the rules of grammar, punctuation and usage to their essences. It's not a racy read; in fact, it is rather dry. But, if studied carefully, it will provide its reader with the basics of good writing. I mean, how can you improve on the admonishment to "Omit needless words"? That pretty much covers good writing!

This book is seldom revised since White's death, and, after all, why should it be? The rules that apply to writing on paper still apply to writing on the computer screen, whether we are discussing emails or essays. Good writing is good writing, however you do it.

If you buy only one "grammar book" in your lifetime, I'd recommend this one.