Friday, December 02, 2016

A Bath and Bolo

A bath.  As a new mum I was going to give my firstborn a bath before church one Sunday.  I had his bathtub set up and was filling it with water when I felt the water coming out the bottom of the tub.  Uh huh--I forgot to put in the plug.  I gave up on the bath plan.


  1. New parents are often sleep deprived.  This decreases their mental acuity and (for some)mental stability.  Writers should not intentionally deprive themselves of sleep, or their performance may suffer.  Plus they may drool on their keyboards.
  2. Writers must remember to put the parenthetical reference at the end of all borrowed material.  If they don't, there's no clear stop (plug) to the citation.  The cited material will spill into theirs, and readers will not know for sure whose ideas are whose.

And Bolo. Long ago I took care of my landlord's horses, one of whom was named Bolo. The barn had a gated opening at both ends.  If I wanted to make sure Bolo stayed put in the hall of the barn, I needed to be sure both gates were closed.


  1. If writers set the opening and closing boundaries of borrowed material, there's no question where the borrowed material is, just like there would be no question where Bolo was if he was between the two gates.
  2. If writers start borrowed material with a signal phrase such as "According to Andreas Ekeland," and end with a parenthetical reference, the gates are closed.  Left off, the borrowed material can run into the essay writer's material.

Now, let's note something.  Sometimes that blending of borrowed material with the writer's material is detected because, sadly, the writer's  sentences are not that super and suddenly the writing becomes much better because it's borrowed--without proper boundaries (or quotation marks).

On a happier but true note, writers should set the boundaries clearly so their good ideas are not mistakenly attributed to the author of borrowed material that comes right after those ideas without a proper opening boundary.  (This happened in a lit class a few years ago when a gifted student of mine shared his own good idea, and I thought it was from the next source he cited.)

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Grammar is the Greatest?

Fig. 1.  Is expression more important than content?  Is it more noticeable?  When and how is it appropriate to point out writing errors  (Wulff and Morganthaler)?

I've often thought that good content is more important than good expression.  I also read once a comment about writing TED Talks (you've probably seeing these captivating and somewhat charming monologues in which people who have done great things stand on a stage and tell what they did); the basic idea was that if someone had something important to say, it was relatively easy to help them compose the words with which to say it.

Of course the best combination is a winning idea with painless expression (you may hurt to write it, but your readers should not hurt to read it).

Work Cited

Wulff, Mikael and Anders Morganthaler.  Wumo.  16 Apr. 2016.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

they, their, them, ahem . . . (or very well, consider this . . .)

Singular/plural mismatches between subject and pronoun can be avoided, and in most cases, effortlessly and naturally.

Here are some examples:

When a teacher gives timely feedback, their students benefit.
Ask everyone what toppings they want on their ice cream sundaes.
If your child asks for a present from Santa, you will you try your hardest to get it for them.

Notice that teacher, everyone, and child are singular subjects.  Notice that their, they, and them are plural pronouns.

This phenomenon is ubiquitous.  I don't consider it correct because it is common any more than yelling at kids is correct because it is common.  I also consider it inoffensive (unlike yelling at kids), so why bring it up?  Because at the technical  but not arcane level, this is not a logical match and some people will be distracted by it.  When we write, we want our message and writing to flow without interruptions for maximum impact. (You may question:  what if I don't care about the impact of my writing?  Well, that's a discussion for another day.)

So here's an easy variation:  make the subject plural:

When teachers give timely feedback, their students benefit.
Ask all the guests what toppings they want on their ice cream sundaes.
If children ask for presents from Santa, adults try their hardest to get them for them.

Now a final word about writing rules.  The British essayist and novelist George Orwell said, after giving a list of five writing rules, gave a sixth rule which I apply to all writing rules I share with you:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

I'm reaching out to you to say you were always there for me and thanks so much!

To simplify and freshen up your writing, consider becoming more aware of and then revising away from stock phrases and clichés.

Now, cliché is almost as much an epithet as plagiarism, with the happy difference that you won't get in trouble for writing clichés .  Stock phrase is less judgmental in my opinion, but the idea is the same:  a cliché or stock phrase is a common phrase, expression, or possibly even word that is automatically defaulted to without consideration for whether it's appropriate to the writing situation.

Here are some examples:

  • In today's society.

  • You were always there for me.

  • Lovingly prepared food.

  • I reached out to him to see if . . .

  • Taste sensation.

  • I'm not going to lie to you.

  • In any way, shape, or form.

  • It was well below zero when we took the Christmas gifts to the poor family.  After seeing the look on their faces, I didn't feel so cold anymore.

When you write something that includes ready-made phrases or the writing comes too easily and sounds like something you've read before, take notice.  Experiment with one of the following, or another method of your own:

Say it more simply.  Rather than She was always there for me try She was loyal.  That will require more explanation, but so did the cliché.

Say it in more accurate detail.  Clichés sometimes cut off thought.  We say X is Y cliché and rumble along to the next idea.  Take the time to explain what a taste sensation is like in the case of the particular food you're describing.
Should we never use stock phrases and clichés?  Should we never eat chips and drink soda?  You can decide those questions for yourself, but I invite you to be more mindful of your writing choices, and make choices that will strengthen your thinking and your writing.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Humor, Truth, and Accurate Language

When someone says something followed by "just kidding," I take notice: truth, or at least that person's perception of the truth, is wrapped up in the joke.  Whether this is a good delivery method for delicate news or not, I am not sure (what do you think?).
Here's a humorous link that points out a perceived language error:  the inaccurate use of the word literally.

What do you think of the humorous critique? Is there truth in it?  What is the issue, if any, with using an otherwise harmless word incorrectly?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

O for a muse to inspire!

 You've heard the joke:  If you're in a group being chased by a bear, you only need to not be the slowest runner. A similarly negative witticism was on a bumper sticker I saw earlier this year; it essentially said:  " . . .  if I can't be skinny, at least let my friends be fat."

Don't ask me why negative humor seems to come more naturally than positive humor (if you have any encouraging jokes, please share them with me), or why comparative goodness should have much moral traction (share your thoughts with me there, too).

I would urge you in writing to take the high road without being on a high horse about it.

A  friend of mine, the poet-activist Emma Lou Thayne (I did nothing to deserve her friendship; she was just a generous spirit who gifted me with her friendship), aspired  "to make the light" believable; in other words, to write about  affirming things in a way that is full of integrity and can be accepted by believers and skeptics alike because it rings true and doesn't resort to stock phrases and sappiness.

It's hard.  It's a high goal to write to affirm.  Hide your aspirations if you must to guard them against those who would mock you, pity you, or hold them against you if you failed, and as William Zinsser would urge, "write as well as you can."

Friday, November 25, 2016

Consumer Friday Deals!

Today, with plastic cards like these, you can get LOTS of books, movies, and digital services for absolutely free.

                                                                        (Get two cards in case you max out one!)

Spend time, not money--your public library is waiting for you.