Posts Tagged ‘Grammar’

What Brand R U?

(updated April 4)

If you write for a living—if you make a penny from your writing, or hope to—you have a brand.  Maybe you have a logo, maybe you don’t. Either way, you can’t help but have a brand: a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature [my italics] that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”[1]

You have a brand because no one else writes the way you do.

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You Don’t Know From Prepositions

Quick! What kind of word is from?

Bet you said, “Ha! Must be a trap. Better not say preposition.”

We all learned it in grade school: from is a preposition. When I sat down to draft this post, I never intended to overturn this teaching. I set out to write a brief notice that, yes, sentences can end with prepositions. I ended up unlearning some “facts”—laboriously, by way of confusion and resistance—and expanding my perspective. I came to see that prepositions are not necessarily prepositions, that easy labels—who knew?—can obscure deeper truths.

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Running On About Run-Ons

running guyBefore: I didn’t plan to write about run-on sentences, a much-hyped book by a respected author shocked me into it, run-on sentences, the kind formed by comma splices, litter the pages, it ain’t pretty.

After: I didn’t plan to write about run-on sentences[;] a much-hyped book by a respected author shocked me into it[.] Run-on sentences, the kind formed by comma splices, litter the pages[—]it ain’t pretty.

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To each their own

One of my favorite bloggers, Tom Johnson (whose blog is called I’d Rather Be Writing), published a guest post from me today. Check it out here: To each their own.


“It’s hard to keep all the rules in mind while I’m writing,” writes fellow blogger Elizabeth.

It’s not hard. It’s impossible.

Well then what should be happening in your mind as you write? My answer involves seeing and seeing and seeing again. But before I can answer, I have to address a bigger question…

How does the creative mind work?

One way to explore this question is to observe designers as they sketch. Gabriela Goldschmidt, who wrote the 1991 article The Dialectics of Sketching, did just that.[1]

Goldschmidt analyzed the comments that architects made as they sketched during the early stages of designing. She discovered that the sketchers’ thoughts followed a “pendulum pattern,” a “swaying movement” between two kinds of seeing: “seeing as” and “seeing that.”

She developed a way of depicting this mental cycle, this “ping-pong pattern” between “as” and “that” modes of seeing. Her depictions look something like this:


Seeing as, seeing that, seeing as, seeing that.

When the architect is “seeing as,” something in the sketch reminds him of another thing. For example, as he sketches a library, he might see a group of shapes as a puzzle, or a series of aligned items as an axis, or a certain spot as a dome.

In “seeing that” mode, the architect uses a “nonfigural” eye. He sees in terms of “generic architectural rules” or “design values and beliefs.” He might see that a building needs a strong relationship to its site, or that trees are important because they provide shade, or that an atrium would be appropriate.

Each kind of seeing — as and that — informs the other. Back and forth.

All the while, the architect sketches. He erases. He adds squiggles. He pauses. Insight by insight, the architect ushers his rendering of library and grounds to a point of satisfaction.

What does all that have to do with writing?

Goldschmidt makes no claims about what goes on in writers’ minds, but she acknowledges that “‘seeing as’ and ‘seeing that’ are not unique to sketching.” I believe that words (which came into the world as squiggles) can stimulate what Goldschmidt calls “visual thinking” or “design reasoning” as much as any picture can.

Do words do this for you? Do the “dialectics of sketching” resonate with the way you write?

I’ve been told that most people would say No. Maybe you wonder why I’m bothering with this topic.

I’ll tell you why. This back-and-forth process — my own kind of “sketch-thinking”  — drives my best, most satisfying writing. It’s here, between ping and pong, that the good stuff happens. When people talk about craft, this is what they’re talking about.

How does the dialectic (as-that) process apply to words?

As I experience it, “seeing as” amounts to seeing a particular word or group of words as another thing. That thing might not be visual (“figural” as Goldschmidt would say), but when you’re in this mode, your mind, like a sketcher’s, generates an equation. Your brain equates something you’re looking at with something else. In the instant that your eye lands on a word or group of words, you involuntarily make the connection — so fast that you don’t even realize you’re thinking, “Hey, this reminds me of… [fill in the blank].”

For example, you might look at the word t-r-e-e and see it as a noun (a grammatical equivalent). You might see the same word, tree, as a family (a metaphorical equivalent). You might see a paragraph as an introduction (a functional equivalent).

In other words, the “as” is an equal sign. That fill-in-the-blank thing on the other side of the equation carries with it unavoidable fresh knowledge. Everything you know about nouns or families or metaphors or introductions suddenly comes to bear on what you’re writing. New possibilities emerge.

In this way, each flash of “seeing as” insight moves your writing forward.

When you’re “seeing that,” you see instead in terms of rules, values, and beliefs about what constitutes good writing. You might see that singular nouns need singular pronouns, or that all metaphors involve both similarities and differences, or that an introductory paragraph should snare the reader’s interest.

Each “seeing that” flash moves you forward too, prompting you to correct an error, to expand an idea, to add what you hope will be an irresistible opening line, or perhaps to see another word as something else… and on and on.

When I’m “in the zone,” I oscillate between “as” and “that” a lot. A whole lot.

Should everyone write everything in this sketch-y way?

Neeeeeeeeew. Sometimes it’s appropriate to jot down words as they come to mind and leave them pretty much alone. Minimal tampering. Get ‘er done. You’re wasting time if you belabor transitory messages — emails, for example (not counting the ones asking for a raise).

The same is true for sketching. Outside of the design context, people often simply “represent images held in the mind,” as Goldschmidt puts it. They stop there. Even a master architect grabs a paper napkin and tosses off a map to his (painstakingly designed) house without a single as-that blip. No design thinking is required.

At its extreme, that kind of nondialectic sketching or writing looks like this:


It takes discernment to determine how flat or bumpy your line should be for the job at hand. For some of us, it also takes self-control (sometimes more than I possess) to revise — as in re-vise, see again differently — only as much as is warranted.

How do I get in the game?

You’re ready to ask for that raise. You’re in the ping-pong game. How do you play it?

It’s not like you can flip from one kind of writerly seeing to another at will or in strict alternating order. “Time to put on your seeing that glasses, everyone!” Uh… no. But you do want to be adept, and keep getting adepter, at using different kinds of eyes.

How? By looking. Look at words. Look and look and look again. Play with them. Swat them with your left hand, swat them with your right. Bone up on your bdelygmia skills.[2] Get your Garner on.[3] Embrace your inner word nerd. Whatever you’re reading, watch for what works and what doesn’t. Figure out for yourself why or why not.

And keep reading my blog. Subscribe even. (See that little white “Sign me up!” button? Over there, at the top right.)

Before long, you’ll be lobbing away with the best of them. Now, you notice a grammatical problem that needs fixing. Now, a metaphor suggests itself. Now, you’re hearing the voice of Mr. Fitz, your eighth-grade English teacher, telling you that your ending should hark back to your beginning.

So, Elizabeth, the pressure’s off. All you need to keep in mind when you write is one thing at a time. The trick is to keep looking. There is always more to see.

[1] The Dialectics of Sketching appears in the Creativity Research Journal, 4: 2, 123–143.

[2] Bdelygmia: The Perfect Rant

[3] Sign up for Bryan Garner’s Tip of the Day. Buy Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Touching words


Sentences are like those puzzles with numbered tiles. You have to slide the words around to get the right ones next to each other.

Here are some places where you might want your words to meet up.

Meet me at the comma

Consider this gem of a botched sentence (found in certain pre-gender-neutralized editions of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style).

As a mother of five, with another on the way, my ironing board is always up.

The poor mother modifies the far-away board. This pairing calls to mind a pregnant ironing board and five little ironing boards running around. The glitch in this sentence is caused, at least in part, by the separation of the key words. If we slide the modifier and the modified together, mentally placing mother of five and my ironing board side by side, the mismatch glares.

As an expectant mother of five, my ironing board is always up.

Moving these key phrases together helps expose the sentence’s grammatical flaw: mother of five is a dangling modifier (a word or group of words that’s intended to describe a noun or pronoun that isn’t there). Now that we’ve scootched the mismatched phrases smack up against each other, we can’t help but see the need for the true subject: I.

As an expectant mother of five, am always at my ironing board.

In this corrected sentence (which you might find more laughable than the original), it’s no accident that modifier and modified meet at a comma. If you want to win the word-order game, use the comma as a meeting place. Think of it as a curved version of that slim space between numbered tiles.

If you use the comma this way, you’ll avoid both the notoriously dangling modifier and the less colorfully named but equally incorrect misplaced modifier (a word or group of words whose position makes it seem to describe the wrong noun or pronoun).

Notice how word-matching at a comma fixes the following misplaced modifiers.

As a nature lover, I’m sure you would agree that this land is worth preserving.
As a nature lover, you would surely agree that this land is worth preserving.

Wrapped in foil, Bob ate the hamburger.
Wrapped in foil, the hamburger was delicious.

This morning I shot an elephant wearing my pajamas. (Groucho Marx.)
This morning, while wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant.

Tile 1, Tile 2.

Meet me at the colon

Similarly, proximity breeds readability at another punctuation mark: the colon. At its best, this double-dot symbol, this squished equal sign, serves, in fact, as a meeting place for equivalent items. The word touching the colon on the left ideally matches whatever touches it on the right.

Take the following two sentences. The only difference between them is word position. Two phrases have swapped places like a couple of tiles.

Sal skimmed these bestsellers while at the library: Unbroken, Freedom, and Words Fail Me.
While at the library, Sal skimmed these bestsellers: Unbroken, Freedom, and Words Fail Me.

No one would misread the first sentence. You could get away with it. But the second sentence glides more smoothly into your mind. The words that are snugged up against the colon on the right (the book titles) follow from the left-side word (bestsellers) with the logic and ease of sequential digits.

More examples:

There are three choices in this life: be good, get good, or give up. (Dr. House, House, M.D.)
In this life there are three choices: be good, get good, or give up.

These are the four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so. (Gore Vidal)
In our common language, these are the four most beautiful words: I told you so.

A boy can learn many things from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down. (Robert Benchley)

A dog can teach a boy many thingsobedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.

Tile 3: Tile 4.

Meet me at the verb

Sometimes the would-be-touching words are the subject and verb. If you get the intervening words out of the way (with the help of a hyphen, for example) and enable the subject and verb to sidle up to each other, you create a friendlier sentence.

The coins that are covered with dust have just as much value as the shiny new ones.
The dust-covered coins have just as much value as the shiny new ones.

The plan for doing the marketing via the company’s website is coming together beautifully.
The company’s website-marketing plan is coming together beautifully.

Some fans of romance novels consider Valentine’s Day the biggest holiday of the year.
Some romance-novel fans consider Valentine’s Day the biggest holiday of the year.

Tile 5 and Tile 6, click.

Meet me at the pronoun

How else can you recognize wanna-be adjacents? Check your pronouns. Wherever you use he, she, they, it, or any other noun stand-in, bring the antecedent within whispering distance. Example:

Frank picked up a discarded pizza box. The party had gone on for hours, and he was tired. All of his roommates had gone to bed. What he wanted more than anything was to hit the sack himself. But Frank was neat. It made the apartment look messy.

The party had gone on for hours, and Frank was tired. All of his roommates had gone to bed. What he wanted more than anything was to hit the sack himself. But Frank was neat. He picked up a discarded pizza box. It made the apartment look messy.

Tap go Tiles 7 and 8.

Meet me at… the end

Want your words to reach out and touch people? Get the right words to touch each other. When are you done? When every word is in the right place.

(Thanks, Wendy, for the initial prompt and the feedback that resulted in this post.)

Whom ya gonna call?

Whom. You can’t say the word without sounding snooty. As soon as your lips close on the uncool m, your nose tilts up.

Imagine a group of rockers walking out on stage, announcing themselves as (watch their noses) The Whom. Visualize Dr. Seuss sitting at his typewriter, writing about (again the nose) the Whoms in Whomville. Picture Abbott and Costello standing at their microphones, doing Whom’s on First.

Sure, these examples are grammatically ludicrous. The point is that whom, the word itself — regardless of correctness or incorrectness — offends some people’s sensibilities.

“Who’s she calling offended?” I can practically hear people whispering. It’s as if the word whom is somehow impolite. Presumptuous. Un-American. Dropping the m has become a form of cultural sensitivity, an expression of democratic values, a way of saying, “We’re in this together.” If you and I were created equal, common usage seems to say, why shouldn’t who and whom be equal too?

But who and whom are no more interchangeable than you and I. Ignoring this truth, which is apparently not self-evident, doesn’t make it less true.

How do you know which term is correct? More to the point for the whom-averse, when is it safe to use who?

Here’s a trick. In the split second before you say who, think he. If he works, who works. But if your he needs the m in him, then your who — there’s nothing for it — needs an m too.

Think of it this way:

who = he (Both pronouns are in the nominative case.)
whom = him (Both pronouns are in the objective case.)


1. You want to say this: Who did you walk with?
2. You do the he test: He did you walk with?
3. You flip the words around
into a more natural order:
Did you walk with he? (Ugh.)
4. You swap in him: Did you walk with him?
5. You realize you’re stuck with this: Whom did you walk with? (Nooooo.)
6. You say this instead: Who walked with you? (Yesssss.)

With practice, your brain flies through these steps. You simply know.

Who cares? Often no one. Take Twitter. How many tweeters do you suppose complain about the phrase “Who to Follow” in their menu bar? This gaffe probably bothers only a teeny fraction of… the millions of people who use this site every day.

Hold on. A fraction of millions. That could be a lot of bothered people.

No one says that you have to use the m word. If you don’t want to, don’t. George Thorogood would never have hit the charts with a song called Whom Do You Love. But think before you use who as a substitute. Some people still know the difference. Who knows when one of them will be listening?


For another take on this trick, see Grammar Girl’s Who Versus Whom.

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