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.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

don't eat to much pecan pie

Please don't eat

too much pecan pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Composition and the Four-Way Test

Have you heard of Rotary?  It's an international service organization that does great things with polio vaccination, water and sanitation projects, international youth exchanges, and many local projects.  Rotary has a 4-way test that also works well with writing:

Of the things we think, say or do
  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

From <>

We can be intentional and mindful about our writing, going beyond merely filling a content or word count requirement or meeting an assignment deadline.   Writing can make good things happen for you and your readers.  Enhance the chances that it will by applying the four-way test or a test of your own choosing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Belated Best Wishes

If you send me a birthday card with twenty dollars in it two weeks late, I will still happily accept the card and the gift.

If you send me a great essay two weeks late, I will still happily accept the gift. (But fie on the syllabus policy that says a deduction applies!)

Unless a professor specifically tells you a paper may not be turned in late or after a certain point, assume you can turn it in, double check that you can, and if the teacher still advises that you turn it in, do it!
(Don't succumb to the fatal bliss of "Oh well, there's no making that up now!")

Monday, November 21, 2016

Really. Really? Really! Reeeallllyyy?

My nine-year-old daughter was angsting recently on the fact that one of her school friends says her grandpa can swim across the Mississippi with his hands tied behind his back.  My daughter and I talked a bit on how one should respond to such to such claims that are most likely untrue.

I don't think we came to a consensus, and I am left with questions:  Is a socially polite answer like "Really!" or "You must admire your grandfather" make one complicit in nonsense?  Is it ok to just not say anything?  Should one resist the urge to argue against something that's not true?  Is there harm in playing along?  

And moving into larger issues, what to say when someone shares a statement on  immigrant status, national origin, sports team or religious affiliation or politics that can't be accurate or might even be harmful.  How does one respond then?  And  how can one be a safe listener to help people work through thoughts while not contributing to the growth of potentially harmful thought and speech patterns?

What are your thoughts on any of these things?  And is that a rhetorical question?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

should of? could of?

Sort of, but not really.

That's how they sound when we speak the phrases, but written out, should of and could  of should look like this:

should have

could have

Friday, November 18, 2016

King Dedede

This post is in praise of remembering to put  a d at the end of some common words that are commonly not pronounced with the d but should be written with a d.

NO:  I'm not prejudice.
YES:  I'm not prejudiced. 

NO:  It's not suppose to happen that way.
YES:  It's not supposed to happen that way.

NO:  I'm not use to cold weather.
YES:  I'm not used to cold weather.

Can you think of other examples?  Please share them with me.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

toujours travailler

 Whenever you receive a writing task,  look at it right away even if you can't get started right away.  Read instructions carefully and make sure you have a good sense of what is expected of you and how long it might take you.  Be aware of due dates, both intermediate and final.  Ask questions.

The advantage of knowing what you need to do far in advance is that your mind can be working on the project.  You can even intentionally walk around with an ear and eye to find things in your daily living that can help you complete the project.  These ideas are not original with me--I have heard them in teacher training and from poets, and they make sense.

A final advantage of being aware early (even if not starting early, though that is better yet) is that you are less likely two hours before the deadline to be caught by surprise when you read instructions that might say something like "After keeping a journal for three weeks, write a three page summary of . . ." 

And a final thought about procrastination.  Sometimes you willfully or carelessly put off doing something.  That is a problem.  If, however, you are simply a very busy person whose schedule is possibly overloaded, you don't have time to procrastinate; doing something last minute may not be a poor choice but simply a reality.  That said, be aware early of what needs to be done, get started as you can, and let your mind help you work on your work always so the little time you have will be much better spent.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Dash Away All!

Lance Larsen,  a great poet and one of my old professors, once commented in our workshop that "there's no passion in a semicolon."

Do punctuation marks in fact have personalities or at least reputations?  What do you think? (Is that a rhetorical question?)

I think they do.  The semicolon is formal.  Exclamation points are heavy handed.  A period suggests unarguable finality (more so in metaphorical speech than on paper).  Dashes are poetic and informal.

Here's a tip on creating a dash.  There isn't a dash key on the keyboard, so you'll need to use the hyphen key, but don't just type a hyphen.  Type two hyphens in a row without spaces before between or after them.

Like so:

I like--and I always will--Nutella straight out of the jar.

A neat thing is that if you do the hyphens as explained above, Word magically merges them for you.  Watch and see!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

an everyday occurrence that happens every day

Is it everyday or every day?

Both, depending.

  • As an adjective, it's everyday, as in These are my everyday shoes.  I wear them all the time.
  • As an adverb, it's every day, as in I go to the gym every day except Sunday.

There is a lovely Latinate word that means everyday.  Do you know what it is?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Grammar Grumps

When the six-year-old brother comes in from playing croquet to ask for--what was it, the yellow mallet?--because "Devrah and me" need it, the grammar grumps (ages 11 and 48) stall communication when they keep keep correcting "Devrah and I . . ." and the six-year-old restarts "Devrah and me . . ." This back-and-forth repeats itself a few times with the little brother not choosing to take the hint ends with the 11 year old saying where to find what he wanted.  The little brother concludes, "Don't fight over that, because that doesn't sound good."

What's at stake here?  Why did the grammar grumps waste the little boy's time?   Or did they waste his time? Why did they break down communication by smartly attempting to teach the little boy?  Why does me as a subject feel and sound right to us?  And are these rhetorical questions, or would I love to hear your thoughts?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

No Pun Intended

Quite literally, I don't intend to put puns in this post. I do wish, though, to talk about intentionality. 

In writing, good things can happen without our intending them to (I do believe in inspiration), and good things are more likely to happen, perhaps, if we intentionally set out to make them happen (as in intentionally doing good research, intentionally proofreading, intentionally seeking feedback from others).  One intentionality I would advise against in college writing is the intentional fragment. 

To refresh your memory, a fragments are, as stated in the Purdue OWL, "incomplete sentences."   Often times they are written on accident, and sometimes a writer will write one on purpose (intentionally) for effect.  Examples of fragments include

You can stay at  my house.  Always.
Never having been there.
After reaching the conclusion that Andreas was one of the best filmmakers in Norway.


Which of the three is most likely to be intentional?  Why?  How effective is its effect?  Why?
Why do you think I advise against intentional fragments in college writing?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Honoring the Audience

Today being Veterans Day, I'm thinking of some strong, pro-soldier pieces of writing that I like:  "Hero of War" performed by the band Rise Against and "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," a poem by Wilfred Owen.  These, however, I would probably not perform or recite as part of a public Veteran's Day program despite the fact that they are deeply empathetic toward the sacrifices of soldiers.  If you want to look them up, you can (and give me your feedback about how well they would be received at a public honoring ceremony).  Suffice it to say writers should be mindful of the needs and expectations of the audience and the communication situation.

If we write only to satisfy ourselves, we may get lucky and serve  our readers collaterally.  If we write only to satisfy our audience, we may lose our sense of integrity.  If we write with no thought of pleasing anyone including ourselves, it will not be a surprise if no one is pleased. Every day of the year, what we write needs to work for two parties:  ourselves  and our audience.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Speaking of Breakfast Surreal

In the domestic setting we meet curious things, like toilet paper put on the roll backwards (which way do you think the paper should come down--over the top front or down the back of the roll?), and starting a new container before finishing another (think ketchup bottles, honey bears, and cereal boxes--like these).

So all things seem to lead to writing even as writing seems to lead to all things.  The lesson in the cereal boxes is that it's nice to complete one item before going on to another, and in the writing task that can mean fully completing one thought or discussion before opening another one.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Squiggles Should Induce Squirming

Spellcheck squiggles are your friend.  If the spellchecker says you have a potential issue, check it out.  It's nice when the spellchecker will catch plagarism for you so you can change it to plagiarism.

But what if you type the name of an author in your works cited list and the spellcheck does not recognize the name?  An example would be Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi, the famous psychologist who promotes the idea of flow.  The spellchecker is most likely going to squiggle that.  So what should you do?  Here are the steps:
  1. Double check to make sure you spelled the name correctly (this is important).
  2. If you are sure you are right, right click and choose "ignore"--or "add to dictionary"--if that's an option.
The idea here is to not leave squiggles on your document, especially if it's going to be submitted electronically so that your teacher/reader doesn't think,  "Oh!  Look at that messy paper."  Now, let me tell you that I think sometimes you may remove the squiggles, but they will reappear when someone else opens the document.  Be that as it may, but at least make your document clean.

Does all this really matter?  Maybe, maybe not.  But you won't do wrong by being more careful than less careful in this case.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election Day

If you are a registered voter and you haven't voted already, please vote today if the polls are still open.

Now for a happy election day tip:  If you type

It's election day!  Please veto today.

The spellchecker will not catch that, because veto is a perfectly good word.  Sometimes such missed words can be even more distracting, as when my student once wrote about 9/11 and the "Twin Towels," or the more common use of defiantly for definitely.  (That's a mistake you definitely don't want to make!)  

Please proofread, and if the work is really critical, find a competent friend to help you proofread.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Buon Appetito!

Did you ever notice how quickly people can eat a meal or treats that took you disproportionately much more time to prepare?  It almost seems wrong somehow.  And the more complex the cooking project, the more possessive you may become about who eats it and how they respond to it--as in I'm not going to waste my time making that for people who don't care.  There is the cliché of food that has been "lovingly prepared," but at some point cooks have to balance their investment between  the needs and realities of the eaters (I tend to make homemade bread to go along with homemade soup because I know hardly anyone will eat the soup but they all love the bread), and their own level of pleasure and sense of duty in making the food.

Food can be very emotional.  And so can writing.  What you take hours to write can be read and evaluated very quickly (unless your teacher is giving extensive feedback).  Even long reads like a Brandon Sanderson or Tolstoy novel may take you hours to read, but it took them even longer to craft, I assure you.

I really don't know where I'm going with this, except to urge us to be cautious of our time in the kitchen and at the computer, and to try to cook and compose things that work for us and for our audience, and maybe even bring satisfaction to both.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Two Fun Writing Repairs

Was it my sixth grade teacher,  Skip Kulle, or my seventh grade teacher, Tim McElroy, who gave me this rhyme to deal with uncertain comma situations?

When in doubt, leave it out.

The idea of not doing something can be helpful in writing.  If a sentence or paragraph isn't going right, consider just dropping it rather than revising it. Or if you've made an outline for a paper and one part of the outline isn't as developed or essential and you're running out of time (but have met your word requirement), cut that part out of the outline.

The second nice writing repair is from one of my creative writing professors, Angela Ball:

Try the opposite.

If something doesn't seem quite right in a piece of writing, or if you just want to experiment to see what happens, consider trying the opposite.    A simple example from Dr. Ball would be

You're never going to believe this.

Revised to the opposite:

Believe this.

My happy memory is when she helped me revise one of my poems that did have a good insight in it but was needlessly depressing.  She took my main thought and wrote it the opposite way, and the poem became powerful and uplifting.  Similarly, I heard a leadership speaker once encourage the audience to frame things in the positive.  That's an idea I frequently remember.  While some things probably should be expressed sternly (think of the ten commandments and thou shalt not), the positive changes the tone of things for both the writer and reader.

Negative:  You will lose points if you turn this in late.
Positive:  To ensure full points, turn your work in on time.

You can be mindful and deliberate when you write.  Words can be experimented with--have fun and prepare to be amazed.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Two Mindsets (Relevant for All)

Students who take classes online can be all over the physical map, age map, and college level map.  Wherever you are at, here are some words of advice.  They seem obvious, but some obvious things are easier to observe than to act upon in a good way.

My daughter is a college freshman, and she shares a parent newsletter with me.  In one of the articles, the author writes about the fixed mindset and the growth mindset model promoted by Carol Dweck.  It's basically this:  people can see themselves as naturally good at something or as able to become good at something.  The people in the first camp are less resilient when they fall upon difficulties; the second group are more rational and positive about the situation--they can see themselves as capable of improvement.  The article argues that having the growth mindset helps college freshman be more successful than those who rely on their self-perceptions of intelligence and past successes.  (Go ahead and read the article if you like:  Dweck also gives a TED Talk on the subject:

Which brings us back to those of us who live in composition classes.  Ideally college writing classes are not just places to show off what you can already do or put out shaky work and add the disclaimer, "I hope this is what you were looking for." (Please never put that in a submission note to a professor when turning in a major writing project.  If  you are unsure your work is sufficient,  share a draft and ask for feedback before the deadline.)  Ideally, college writing classes are where you bring your talents and seek and apply feedback to make your writing even better.

At all ages, we can use the power of our thoughts to see better and do better.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Member Supported Public Writing (Thank You for Your Support)

My local public radio station doesn't come in clearly all the time.  Either it's my poor old van radio/antenna, or where I live, or both, but the audio quality isn't great or consistent.  What I like, though, is the quality of the programming.  I like Morning Edition,  Weekend Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, BBC News Hour, Performance Today and This American Life.

I don't like every program on the station so I don't listen all the time, and most often I can live with the static because I really like much of the content.  So here's the analogy to writing.  Be a writer of good content!  You will not always give your audience what they'd like to read, but try to give your best, and the audience will bear with your grammatical or stylistic imperfections because they like the quality of your content.

(And of course, the audience will be even happier if the static is gone.  To use the words of William Zinsser, "Write as well as you can.")