Category Archives: Writing

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On Writing Well About Passives

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“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.”

 

That is what it says at the beginning of the section headed “VERBS” in William Zinsser’s much respected book On Writing Well. The front cover of the book announces that more than a million copies have been sold (more than 1,000,001 now, because I bought a copy of the 30th-anniversary edition at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore last week). I’m sure much of Zinsser’s 300 pages of advice is ve…

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Iwo Jima Letter

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On Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents on March 22, 1945 — almost precisely 70 years ago. He was a Chicago kid, 20 years old at the time. (The gap in age between him and my wife is explained by the fact that Bob’s mother was the oldest of twelve children, while my mother-in-law was the third youngest and became a mother relatively late in life.) The address is given only as “IN PORT” and the letter begins:

I gue…

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Talking About Grammar Pedantry

Seven hundred and seventeen comments in four days. The readers of The Wall Street Journal have many feelings about grammar.

On March 13, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Oliver Kamm titled “There Is No ‘Proper English.’” In it Kamm makes arguments with which I wholeheartedly agree, including: The English language is not in deep decline; a wide range of variants are all grammatical in the descriptive sense; Standard English is not “correct” and all other dialects are not …

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Must We Mean What We Quote?

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Jonas Tarm, composer; Photo by Elena Snow.

The recent controversy over the young composer Jonas Tarm turns on the eleventh-hour discovery, or recognition, that his “March to Oblivion” (“Marsh u Nebuttya,” in a transliteration from Ukrainian) incorporates unplayable music — unplayable not because of its difficulty but because of its use of musical quotation.

The New York Youth Symphony canceled its performance of the work at Carnegie Hall,  reportedly in response to its quotation of a Nazi tune.

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And Now ‘This’

I came upon this at an online question-and-answer site:

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The most popular answer was this: “There’s nothing grammatically or syntactically wrong with starting a sentence with ‘this.’  It’s essential,  however, that it’s clear what the ‘this’ is referring to.”

This sentiment is widely endorsed by writing authorities. The Penguin Handbook counts “Vague use of this” as a “common error” and counsels: “Always use a noun immediately after this, that, these, those, and some.… Remember: Ask yourself ‘th…

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Coming and Going

GrizzlyThe complexity of language mirrors the complexity of life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the so-called deictic words, those that connect a particular situation in language directly to a situation in life. Consider this and that, for example. This is something closer to the speaker or writer; that  is something more distant.

Similarly, here and there depend on who or what’s closer, whether to the speaker or to something the speaker is discussing. Now and then require decisions about time. 

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Electronic Innovation >>>

600px-Smiley.svg copyMy expertise in the conventions of texting and Twitter and Instagram, compared with the expertise of the undergraduate students I work with, is <.

Actually, it is <<<<<.

A couple of weeks ago,  Carlina Duan, a senior at the University of Michigan, dropped me an email to see if I had heard of a new(ish) bit of language use, which she was suddenly noticing everywhere in social media: to use her words, “the use of ‘>’ or ‘<’ in text as a way to compare an experience or item/mark an experience or …

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The Rules for Essay Exams

bluebksAt my university the time has come (indeed, the deadline has come) for the process of grading the final exams from the fall semester. I started working on my stack of examination books speedily, accurately, and efficiently, deriving great satisfaction and enjoyment from the process of reading what my students have written.

Oh, who the hell am I kidding. I didn’t. For several days I hovered near the stack like a nervous swimmer unwilling to enter the water on a cold day even though it would proba…

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Is That a Real Novel or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself?

ItBNnDhR3tjwAMx0vEwj“Is your novel fiction, or did any of it really happen?”

I’ve started doing readings of my new novel, A Sister to Honor, and sure enough, the question came from one of the attentive listeners waiting in line to buy a signed copy.  I can’t blame her for her confusion. I’d like to blame Truman Capote, who came up with the term nonfiction novel to describe his new-journalism book In Cold Blood:

It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the “nonfict…

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Less Is More Better

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You got a problem with that?

The email came in with the heading “Ben! How could you!?” The message read, in its entirety:

“How Not to Write Bad,” page 26: “As for state names, never abbreviate when they’re four letters or less, or when they’re standing alone.”

Less? You mean fewer, right? Or did the rules change? Please advise.

(Before proceeding to the question, I’ll note that, unsurprisingly, my correspondent misstated the title of my book, which is How to Not Write Bad.)

As virtually everyone…