Monthly Archives: April 2013

“On Writing Well”

I have recommended this book by William Zinsser, a retired Yale English professor, for decades; it is as pertinent today as when it first was published in 1976.

The book extolls clear, concise writing.  Zinsser wrote, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

Those critical words describe much of what we read today, most especially what is churned out in the corporate world in an effort to appear “professional.”

Today Zinsser is 90 and blind from glaucoma, but he still coaches others by listening to them read their works in progress in his Manhattan apartment.  Accurately, Zinsser says, “People read with their ears, whether they know it or not.”

Yes!  I have always encouraged people to read their writing out loud. When we read silently, we read what we think we wrote, not what we actually did write. Hearing our voices provides an entirely different experience: we are much more likely to discover not only typos but also infelicitous phrases and parts that simply do not work.

If you can’t schedule a session with William Zinsser, book one with yourself and read your writing out loud (a quiet voice is all you need) and see if it doesn’t help you.

Now excuse me while I read this post out loud.

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The World Is My Oyster

Dumont Dunes, California. Rider (author) is on...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I started this blog in September 2012, I wondered if I would be able to find sufficient topics to write about.  Silly me.  Every day the world gives me something juicy.  Here is today’s offering.

I was in my orthopedist’s waiting room for my new knee’s one-year checkup. The only available magazine was Dirt Bike, about a vehicle I do not own and have no interest in. However, I did see the reason the magazine was in an orthopedist’s office; he certainly must deal with the results of some dirt bike wipeouts.

A letter to the editor contained the following sentence:

“If you meet one of these guys, start talking about [certain roads and trails] and you’ll see that grin on their face and a glean in their eye.”

Mr. Dirt Biker has two problems: he’s writing about “guys” (plural) but he allows them only one “face” and one “eye.” He needed to eliminate “one of” and just go with “these guys.” Then he would have to make “face” and “eye” plural.  One problem solved.

The second problem is that he used “glean” for “gleam.”  “Glean” means “to gather.”  I hope Mr. Dirt Biker is a better rider than writer.

My knee is great.  It was a very productive appointment.

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April 29, 2013 · 6:04 PM


Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

Cover via Amazon

If you’re not familiar with those initials, they stand for the Oxford English Dictionary, undoubtedly the most revered dictionary in the English-speaking world.  Not your typical dictionary, it gives not only etymology and spelling but examples of word usage from the first example to more recent ones, including dates of those instances. Researchers began working on it in 1857.

Today on “All Things Considered,” the about-to-retire Chief Editor of the OED, John Simpson, was interviewed. He has been delving into words at the OED for 37 years now and thought it was time to spend his time in areas less apt to change than is language.  In the interview, he was asked if the next revision of the OED would include words that first appeared not on paper but in cyberspace, and the answer was a definitive yes.

In case you think the OED would be a nifty dictionary for your bookshelf, it currently runs to

Cover of "The Professor and the Madman: A...

Cover via Amazon

20 volumes.  Years ago I joined the Book of the Month Club because as a bonus for signing up I could get the OED in two volumes, with four pages of the larger edition on each page. The slipcase contains a drawer with a necessary magnifying glass included.  You can get the OED online, but it is quite pricey.

A wonderful book about the OED and one of its most diligent and fruitful researchers is The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester.  Here is a brief Amazon synopsis:

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857; it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Tell me that doesn’t grab you!  The Professor and the Madman is a compelling book I recommend without reservation.

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April 27, 2013 · 12:55 AM

Yo! Yo?

You know I’m a grammar nut, right?  Grammatical errors are like fingernails on a blackboard to my delicate ears. Therefore, I was surprised to hear a story on today’s edition of “All Things Considered” dealing with gender-neutral pronouns and how some kids in Baltimore may ( repeat, may) have solved the problem.

Here’s the problem:  The masculine pronoun used to be acceptable in all cases until some uppity women (I was one of them) objected to sentences such as, “Everyone brought his outline to the meeting,” when some of the people at the meeting were female.

In the late 19th century, a concocted word, “thon,” was floated to solve the problem; supposedly it stood for “that one.”  Since “thon” didn’t fly, sentences like, “Everyone brought his or her outline to the meeting” started being substituted. However, although grammatically correct, it’s very awkward,

Back to the kids in Baltimore:  Teachers noticed them using the word “yo” to take the place of pronouns, both masculine and feminine.  “Yo moved my backpack!”  “Don’t go near yo backpack!”  “Yo lives in the building next to me.”

This word certainly eliminates having to using gender-specific pronouns. To my ear, it sounds awful, but some linguists think it may spread from Baltimore, particularly if celebrities start using it.

Here’s my prediction: Although “everyone/their” is still technically ungrammatical by 2013 standards, it is such a commonplace construction that it very well may become standard before too long. It eliminates gender and avoids having to invent some new pronoun to take the place of “he/she” and “his/her.”

What’s your take on “yo”? Do you think it is the gender-neutral pronoun of the future?





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Lie and Lay Redux

I’ve had a request to explain the difference between these two frequently confused words. I did post this last December, but for those of you who missed it or need a refresher, here you go:

LIE means to rest or recline.

LAY means to put or place.

When you go to the beach, you LAY your towel on the sand and then LIE on the towel.

Much of the confusion arises because the past tense of LIE is LAY:  Yesterday I LAY down after work.  

For the present tense (used for something we do regularly, habitually) we say, I always LIE down after work.  

And for something you have done in the past and continue to do now, we use the present participle (the verb along with HAS, HAD or HAVE):  I always HAVE LAIN down after work.  You hate that word, LAIN, don’t you?  But it’s correct.

As for LAY, I always LAY the mail on the kitchen table.  Yesterday I LAID it there.  I always HAVE LAID it on that table.

Now we can lay this topic to rest.

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“Myself” Is Almost Always Wrong

Somehow, I seem to know a few people who are lovers of  “myself.”  No, they are not in love with me.  They love the word–and unfortunately use it gratingly and incorrectly:

1. “Brenda and myself visited my cousin in Tucson.”

2. “John invited Brenda and myself for dinner this Saturday.”

Please, no!  Stop it, or I will be bald by Memorial Day!

“Myself” is NOT some elegant variation of “I” or “me.”  It never takes the place of either of those words. The  time to use “myself” is for emphasis at the end of a sentence when you have already mentioned yourself:

“I drove to Tucson myself.”  See that”I”?  That makes “myself” kosher.  I mentioned myself and then used “myself” at the end to emphasize the fact that no one else did any of the driving. I did it all myself.

In sentences 1 and 2, just leave out the other person temporarily and you will instantly know whether you need “I” or “me.”  You’d never say or write, “Myself visited my cousin in Tucson.” You know you would use “I.” Adding Brenda back into the sentence changes nothing.  It is “Brenda and I visited….”

In the second sentence, you’d never say or write, “John invited myself for dinner.”  You know the right word is “me.” Adding Brenda back to the sentence changes nothing: “John invited Brenda and me for dinner this Saturday.”

Have I made myself clear?

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Despite or In Spite Of?

A very smart person who reads my tips wrote recently to ask if a difference exists between “despite” and “in spite of.”  I figured if this V.S.P. was wondering, others might be as well.

The simple answer is that there is no difference.  You can say, “We held the meeting despite six people being away on a business trip,” or “We held the meeting in spite of six people being away on a business trip.”

But next time, plan your meeting for a time when everyone can attend.


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