Thursday, May 29, 2014

Grammar errors in the Times – an editorial

Only a few decades ago, The New York Times could produce a near-perfect newspaper every day. No longer, unfortunately. Let me illustrate with a brief personal anecdote:

During the mid-1970s, I supervised an editing staff at Honeywell. In our downtime, my editors and I often looked for grammar errors in the newspapers. Whenever one of us spotted an error in the Times, we stared at it in disbelief. Then I clipped it out and dropped the clip into a file folder labeled “Errors in NYT.”

Years later, when I was tidying up my office before leaving for a new job within Honeywell, I noticed that the “Errors in NYT” folder contained only four clips.

Nowadays, you could probably spot four errors every day. In fact, I recently spotted six errors in a single paragraph of a Times blog. Here’s the paragraph:
“Girls enter school with a lead on boys, and schools then fail to close the gaps. Instead, they increase. The behavioral advantage that girls have over boys in kindergarten, based on teachers’ assessments of their students, are even larger in fifth grade.” (Source)

In the first sentence, the writer uses the noun lead; later in the same sentence he uses the noun gap for (presumably) the same thing. (Elegant variation.)

Also, he confusingly switches from a singular lead to a plural gaps.

In the second sentence, the pronoun they could plausibly have any of four antecedents: girls, lead, schools, or gaps.

Also in the second sentence, it is not completely clear whether the verb increase means that the gap between the average girl and the average boy has widened.

In the third sentence, the writer adds another elegant variation, advantage. Now we have, within one brief paragraph, three words for the same thing.

Also in the third sentence, the singular subject, advantage, is followed by a plural verb, are.

The Takeaway: The New York Times, once legendarily fastidious, has become careless. If you want to read the Times as a way to improve your knowledge of English (many students and foreigners do this), I suggest you read only articles published before 1970. However, that usually requires fees, so I prefer to check pre-1970 books out of my local library at no cost, or download them from Project Gutenberg at no cost.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Grammatical parallelism, parallel structure, parallel construction, parallel form (6)

Grammatical parallelism is also called parallel structureparallel construction, and parallel form. It is the use of equivalent syntax to array equivalent ideas. One place we occasionally violate parallelism is in a series of direct objects.


“Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.” (Source)


The terms racismcolonialismreligious persecution, and violence all denote actions that (1) happen to a person and (2) are not necessarily fatal. The term suicide is non-parallel to those terms because it denotes an action that (1) a person does to himself and (2) is necessarily (by definition) fatal.

So, in the author’s unintentional non-parallelism, the reader senses an unintentional, macabre joke: the suicide, being dead, can neither read Mr. Achebe’s book nor suffer any emotional distress triggered by triggers in the book.

The Takeaway: When you write a series of direct objects, check to make sure they are all parallel. Correcting faulty parallelism is one of the quickest fixes you can make during a copy-edit. Parallelism helps make your copy easier to read. Your readers will notice and appreciate it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The "worst of all possible novels"

I just saw the 2014 results of the Lyttle Lytton Contest. In this annual contest, which is run by the multitalented writer Adam Cadre (pictured), each entrant tries to “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

It is a contest of, in Mr. Cadre’s words, “intentional unintentional comedy.” He explains that “an entry is ridiculous, yet plausible enough that we can laugh at the imaginary author who wasn’t trying to be funny, while simultaneously laughing with the real author who was clever enough to invent that imaginary author.” 

The winning entry for 2014 was:
“Together, we will beat them all,” she whispered, caressing the circlet-girt fontanelles of her #royalbaby.
And here’s one of the runners-up:
As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Colin moved the front bits of my hair off my face and put them with my other hair.
And one more:
It was 1995 the year the soccer teams came, kicking their balls, to town.
The Takeaway: If you enjoy this sort of thing, read the 2014 results. They include not only the best entries but also Mr. Cadre’s witty comments about how he chose them.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Simplifying: making technical information easy to read

If you are a beginning writer, you are probably learning that it is surprisingly difficult to simplify technical information. In other words, it’s hard to make technical information easy to read.

Unfortunately, the ability to simplify technical information usually takes many years to acquire. I don’t say this to discourage you; it’s just a fact.

Fortunately, there is a bright side: You eventually will become really good at simplifying. It doesn’t require any special gifts. Just practice and feedback.

One writer who is very good at simplifying is Andrew Beyer (pictured), a journalist for the Washington Post. He has been writing articles and books about horse race betting for decades. A few days before the 2014 Kentucky Derby, he wrote an article on the role of pace:

He takes one paragraph to introduce the topic of pace:
The best horse doesn’t necessarily win the Kentucky Derby. Sometimes the best horse is trounced, because the outcome of the race can be dramatically affected by the early pace. Even though California Chrome is the most accomplished horse in 140th Derby, his chances may hinge on the way the first half mile of the race is run.
Then he takes a paragraph to describe pace generally:
All horseplayers know the axioms of pace handicapping: When a horse takes the early lead without much pressure, setting a slow pace, he will have strength in reserve to fend off the challenges of stretch runners. Conversely, when the early leaders battle each other and run too fast, they are apt to weaken and set the stage for stretch runners.
Then he explains why pace is especially important in the Derby:
These truths apply at every level of the sport, but they are especially important in the Derby. With its now-customary 20-horse fields, more front-running types are apt to be in the Derby than in a normal race. Because of the oversize fields, jockeys may have to hustle their horses early to secure a decent tactical position.
It is easy to follow what he is saying, even if you’ve never handicapped a race.

The Takeaway: The ability to simplify is one of those abilities that you acquire slowly and steadily. If you are a beginning writer, have patience. Keep seeking feedback from editors and readers. Over time, you will become highly skilled at simplifying.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing out the article.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

If your introduction is long, it had better be good

When you’re writing a piece of nonfiction – such as an article or a blog post – you should keep your introduction brief: less than 20 percent of the whole. Why? Because the reader wants to quickly get to the topic that your headline promises.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes. One major exception is entertainment value. If your introduction (1) is entertaining and (2) is relevant to the topic and (3) is not narcissistic, readers will be willing to put up with it for longer.

Theodore Dalrymple (pictured above) gave us a great example recently, in his book review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Thomas Piketty (pictured below).

In the introduction, Mr. Dalrymple is self-deprecatory, cynical and witty. Here’s a sample:
“The success of others breeds resentment, especially success in a field in which one would like to succeed oneself. Whenever I read a wonderful passage of prose I experience pleasure, of course, but before long it is commingled with irritation and finally resentment. Why should this fellow be able to put something more elegantly, more wittily, more poetically, more concisely, than I ever could? What did he ever do to deserve his talent? Fortunate it is indeed for writers in English that Dickens, for example, was possessed of so many and such serious faults, for otherwise the self-evident and transcendent genius of some passages would paralyze the writers and sap their will to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard.”
He continues like this for 299 words, approximately 24 percent of the whole. But most readers will be pleased to be entertained for that long.

Later, in the main text, Mr. Dalrymple treats us to a wonderful morsel of concentrated cynicism: After explaining that the economics book is so hot that it’s out of stock everywhere, he writes,
“This is truly astonishing, for Thomas Piketty is no Dan Brown, purveying overtly superstitious twaddle in execrable prose to the post-religiously credulous.”
The Takeaway: Limit the length of your introduction to less than 20 percent of the whole, unless you have a specific, conscious reason why you should run longer. For example, you may wish to entertain your readers or you may need to give them context, definitions, or technical background.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Placement of modifiers (26)

Hubble Space Telescope

Careless placement of a modifier can make a sentence unclear.


“Don’t buy anything new until you’ve considered whether or not you need it for 48 hours.” (Source)

The reader may, at first glance, think the phrase “for 48 hours” modifies the nearest verb, “need.” But then the reader recognizes that that meaning is unlikely, looks farther back in the sentence, and sees that “for 48 hours” more likely modifies the next-nearest verb, “considered.”

A clearer placement would be:

“Don’t buy anything new until you’ve considered for 48 hours whether or not you need it.” 


“Astronomers from the University of Chicago have used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the weather on a ‘super-Earth’ planet orbiting a distant star for the first time.” (Source) (A link in the original is omitted here.)

The reader may, at first glance, think the phrase “for the first time” modifies “orbiting.” But then the reader recognizes that that meaning is absurd, looks farther back in the sentence, and sees that “for the first time” more likely modifies “observe.”

A clearer placement would be:

“Astronomers from the University of Chicago have used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe, for the first time, the weather on a ‘super-Earth’ planet orbiting a distant star.”


“President Barack Obama recently wrote an executive order that established a White House initiative on educational excellence for black Americans that will be housed in the Department of Education.” (Source)

The reader may, at first glance, think the phrase “that will be housed in the Department of Education” modifies “black Americans.” But then the reader recognizes that that meaning is absurd, looks farther back in the sentence, and sees that “that will be housed in the Department of Education” more likely modifies “initiative.”

A clearer placement would be:

“President Barack Obama recently wrote an executive order that established a White House initiative on educational excellence for black Americans. The initiative will be housed in the Department of Education.”

The Takeaway: Place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. Sloppy placement of modifiers forces your readers to guess what you mean. Yes, it’s true that the guessing usually takes only a second or two and usually is successful. However, you should not be forcing your readers to guess at all. If you force them to guess more than a few times, they may become irritated. They may assume you are inconsiderate or stupid or both. They may even become less willing to read anything with your name on it.*

*For example, when a writer keeps forcing me to guess, I never read him again unless he’s a paying client.

Thanks to Christa Sammons for spotting the second example.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A space between words in an expression

A space between words can change the meaning of an expression. Here are three examples:

Every day vs. everyday

In the sentence, “I walk every day,” the expression every day is an adverbial phrase (an adverb that consists of two or more words – in this case an adjective and a noun). The adverbial phrase every day modifies the verb walk. Namely, it tells how often I walk.

In the cookbook title The Old Farmer’s Almanac Everyday Baking, the word everyday is an adjective that modifies the gerund baking. Namely, it tells what kind of baking.

Log on vs. logon

The expression log on is a phrasal verb (a verb that consists of two or more words). In this particular phrasal verb, the word log is a verb and the word on is a particle. This particle functions as an adverb; it modifies the verb log. Namely, it changes the meaning from “to record something” to “to establish communication and initiate interaction with a time-shared computer or network.

The word logon is a noun. It is the act or process of logging on, or the credentials required to log on.

Set up vs. setup

The expression set up, like the expression log on, is a phrasal verb. It has many definitions.

The word setup, like the word logon, is a noun. It has many definitions.

The Takeaway: In many expressions (for example, speech writer or speechwriter), a space does not change the meaning. But in many expressions (like the expressions discussed above) it does. You just have to learn expressions one by one, by reading good writing. Keep in mind: If you don’t learn, you will undermine your credibility. You see, when an intelligent reader notices that a writer frequently uses spaces carelessly, the reader concludes that that writer does not read anything but social media and graphic novels, and therefore that the writer is ignorant, and therefore that the writer is not worth reading. So, read good writing.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 5, 2014

“Dunning-Kruger effect” – an editorial

Somewhere in the mid-1970s, after having spent my first few years as an editor, I noticed an odd pattern: Some of the weakest writers I worked with thought they were strong writers, and some of the strongest writers thought they were just average writers.

Roughly 40 years later – a few weeks ago – I was surprised to learn that psychologists have a name for the pattern: “Dunning-Kruger effect.” In short, the effect is that some low-skilled people have a mental bias that blinds them to the inferiority of their skill; some high-skilled people, because their skill seems to come easily to them, assume (wrongly) that that skill comes easily to most people.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Takeaway: Of course, Messrs. Dunning and Kruger could be wrong. All I am saying here is that I have observed something like Dunning-Kruger effect in the world of writing. I am not a psychologist but I am a veteran editor and as such* I give you this advice: If you are (or would like to become) a professional writer, just keep in mind that you may be substantially overestimating or underestimating your skill. Seek the judgements of experienced writers and editors and take those judgements into consideration.

See disclaimer.

*I’m not showing off, but I just want to point out that this is an example of a correct use of the phrase as such. Most of the time you hear or read this phrase, the speaker or writer is using it incorrectly. For more information, go here.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A teacher corrects a student’s letter

Fox 2 News in St. Louis, Missouri, recently reported that a student wrote his English teacher a profane, semi-literate letter to say he wasn’t going to do any more work, and the teacher responded by correcting the letter. Here’s the story, the student’s letter, and the teacher’s markup.

The Takeaway: For his own sake, I hope the young letter-writer eventually overcomes his arrogance. During a long career working with hundreds of writers, I have noticed that arrogance is a greater obstacle than ignorance. Humble writers go far.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing out the story.

See disclaimer.