Oddball Grammar

Grammar gems from the oddball category:

1. Compound possession…

Mike’s and Pam’s phones were stolen. (Each owned a phone; both were stolen.)

Mike and Pam’s phones were stolen. (The phones they owned together were stolen.)

But if one of the two owners is expressed as a possessive pronoun, we do this:

Mike’s and my house was robbed last night.

Otherwise, you’d have this:

Mike and my house were robbed last night. (Poor Mike. I hope he’s ok.)

 

2. Compound subjects of differing number…

Subjects and verbs should agree in number. But what do you do when the two subjects in an EITHER/OR construction are of different numbers? As in…

The players or the coach are/is at fault for the loss. (Only one of the two is/are at a loss.)

There’s no English verb form that accounts for a combination of singular and plural, so we let whichever is closer to the verb determine number. In this case, it’s coach, so we go with the singular verb is. It’s a compromise rule.

 

3. Offsetting parentheticals…

Sometimes the context determines the method of offsetting a parenthetical expression. Sometimes it’s a matter of preference…

a. commas (if the parenthetical is not too abrupt or digressive):  The bowling ball, a gift from my sister, fell onto my foot.

b. parentheses (for added information): The bowling ball (a gift from my sister) fell onto my foot. 

c. dashes (to emphasize a break in the flow):  The bowling ball—a gift from my sister—fell onto my foot.

 

4. The pronoun EACH…

There’s nothing weird about the word each, but we screw up so often in how we use it you’d think there was some weird exception to the agreement rules. There’s not. Each is singular. Always. So it should always take a singular verb or be the antecedent to a singular pronoun.

The following are correct:

Each of the girls brought her books to school. (not their books)

Each of the umbrellas closes with the push of a button.

If neither sounds weird to you, then your grammar is standard-issue. Congratulations.

 

SUMMER SESSION is about to start!

Summer writing classes…

High School Writing I ($250) introduces students to the four modes of discourse for essay writing–description, narration, persuasion, and exposition. Students will write 8 essays throughout the term (see course outline below). In each unit (except unit 1 which deals with the basics of paragraph form) students will work with models in that essay style, and draft, revise, and publish original essays. While there will be direct instruction for each essay, as well as lessons on grammar, mechanics, and usage, most of the instruction will happen through feedback and revision of the essays themselves. (1/2 credit)

High School Writing II ($250) is the next step for students who have completed HSWI. In this course students will draft, revise, edit, and publish essays that analyze poetry (short and long form), a novel, short stories, a Greek play, and film. (1/2 credit)

ACT English Prep Module ($125) focuses on the writing, grammar, usage, mechanics and rhetoric assessed in the ACT English and Writing tests. This is a 5-week course and NOT accelerated (one post per week). It is not intended as an earned credit but as preparation for the ACT. Payment for this course will be due by June 10 as I need to put together coursepacks for each student.

 

The summer version of the two writing courses are doubled up — we’ll squeeze twelve weeks into six. I’ll post work every Monday and Thursday from June 16 to Aug 1 (we’ll take July 4th week off).  The ACT Prep Module is only 5 weeks long (no need to accelerate it), so I’ll post only on those Mondays.

 

  • I provide all materials.
  • Courses are entirely on-line.
  • HSWI and HSWII are 1/2 credit English courses.

 

Email me at bradbeals@gmail.com for more information or to sign your student up.

 

Save the WORDS!

This is sadictionaryd. Every day and all around us perfectly healthy words are falling ill.  Words that were once strong and big shouldered, words that were athletic and could carry enormous weight are being slowly eaten up by a quiet but deadly disease.

Let’s meet one of these brave victims. He goes by…

DISCRIMINATE

This once proud word could claim such definitions as

  • to distinguish by discerning or exposing differences
  • to make a distinction between one object and another
  • to use good judgment
  • (and it’s primary definition from Webster’s Seventh Collegiate) to mark or perceive the distinguishing or peculiar features of

It even enjoyed the company of synonyms like DISTINGUISH, DISCERN, EVALUATE, and DIFFERENTIATE.

But the word we once knew is unrecognizable today. Its definition has been reduced to one, narrow application that goes like this: to unfairly treat a person or group of people differently from other people or groups.

That’s it.

That’s all the meaning it can carry now.

It suffers from what linguists are calling Single Situational Usage Disorder, or SSUD. And the really sad thing about SSUD is that it’s avoidable.

Here are a few preventatives:

1. In the case of discriminate, adverbs might have prevented SSUD; simple, household words like superficially, unfairly, unwisely, or prematurely, when correctly used as modifiers, would have helped it retain its wide range of meaning.

2. Meaningful context might have had the same effect: “The employer was fined for making gender-based distinctions in employee pay.” Here the word discriminate was not even necessary. The context said it all.

3. Finally, a new word could have been coined for the situation; in fact, I’ll propose one now:  malabrigate;  from the latin malus, meaning bad; arbitratus, meaning will or decision; and genus, meaning race or people group; noun form – malabrigation. You make a bad decision based on ethnicity, you’ve just malabrigated. If someone of another race doesn’t like the way you look at them, they can point and say, malabrigation! The situation would be served accurately with a precise word, and discriminate could go on and live a full and healthy life.

I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if we could say to our kids when they eat paste or buy a Bieber downloadDon’t you ever DISCRIMINATE!?” without them thinking we’ve called them a bad name?

If you care at all about words, you’ll do your part and use the whole range of definitions.

“Your discrimination in blog material is superb!”

6 places where FAT likes to hide: OR the hardest thing about writing

Extra words don’t make better writers any more than extra fat makes better people. But as my students and clients can attest, the hardest thing about writing is the cutting.

6 places in your writing where the fat might be hiding:

1. Deadwood:  In view of the fact that the class is filled, we sincerely regret to inform you that we simply cannot admit you to Microbiology 202. A phrase like “in view of the fact” instead of “because” is deadwood. It’s grammatically correct, but it’s dead–it adds no meaning. And adverbs are often deadwood (I almost just modified often with very and would have illustrated my point); Sincerely and simply, in this context anyway, simply have to go.

2. Redundancy: Repeated words and phrases in the same passage are often opportunities for combining sentences.

BEFORE: Piggy’s “specs” act as a symbol for logical, rational thought. Logical, rational thought was one thing the boys lacked, but as much as they needed it, they still treated Piggy’s specs carelessly.

AFTER: Though they lacked logical, rational thought, the boys treated its symbol, Piggy’s “specs”, carelessly.  

3. Superfluity in diction. Don’t use a big word when a small one does the same job. Don’t say “superfluity in diction” when “unnecessary words” will work.

4. Assumed ignorance in your audience. This is one ditch along the know-your-audience road. The other would be leaving them in the dark with too few words.

Re-telling the plot in a literary analysis piece or explaning common knowledge as though it weren’t common are two examples. In business copy, telling prospective clients or customers what their business or industry’s value propositions are might be unecessary. It might be patronizing too. Tell them what YOUR value propositions are, and if they match those of your target, great.  Just know your audience.

5. Stock language. Certain writing formats have their own pitfalls. The literary analysis essay, for example, presents this one:  “Another example of how Ralph follows Jack into savagery is when…” In this case, the entire essay is on Ralph following Jack into savagery (do you know the book?), so there’s no reason to repeat the thesis at every new example.

6. The passive voice, which I discuss here. It’s a post on writing website copy, but you’ll get the idea.

Bottom line: Be ruthless with your words.

On-line Writing Classes

This winter (first week of Feb.), I’ll be offering three writing classes: 

ACT Prep – We’ll focus on grammar, usage, mechanics, and persuasive writing. The “ACT” part refers to the English, writing, and reading portions of the ACT test. No math or science, I’m afraid. You’ll need another teacher for those. Here’s a course description.

 

High School Writing 1 — This is an introductory essay course. We’ll do 8 essays in each of the 4 modes of discourse: narration, description, persuasion, and exposition. Here’s a course description.
 

High School Writing 2 — This is a new course that builds on the essay-writing skills from HSW1. We’ll still hit each of the 4 modes of discourse, but with more of a focus on literary analysis (we’ll read a novel!) and research (problem/solution essay). No course description yet; I’m still working on it.

 

All classes will begin Monday, February 3, and run through May 5. Plenty of room now, but I will try to keep it to ten students total, so you may want to let me know if you’re interested sooner rather than later.

 

Have a wonderful Christmas season!

 

My contact info:
Brad Beals
bradbeals@gmail.com
517.242.7884

To be a better writer, become a better reader

To get better at writing, a writer needs to read, and read a lot.

slow sign 2

But not just anything.

And not just in any way.

There’s a way to read that lets the act itself become formative work for the writer rather than a passive somnolence or thoughtless automation.

Reading can be good work and add value to your writing if you read like this:

1. Read at a conversational pace. That page-turner that everyone’s burning through won’t help you. You may as well be watching a movie for all the benefit it has on your brain’s language center. When you read fast, your brain tends to glean meaning at the surface. Page turners tend to be surfacy and encourage a break-neck pace, and that’s fine in so far as you crave it. But reading text at the same pace you would read it aloud to someone else does something more. It allows you to hear sentence structure, variety, and sequence. It allows you to appreciate — in a writing-as-craft kind of way — what the author is doing at the sentence level.

2. Read good stuff at a conversational pace. Immerse yourself in the kind of writing you want to emulate. Stretch. And by stretch I also mean don’t break. Choose those writers that are on your frontier but not over the horizon. The text should be reachable, so it’s important to know your own abilities.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t read books that are over your head. Making your brain hurt by thinking is good for you. But when reading to specifically improve writing, keep things in front of you, in arms’ reach. Watching a world-class athlete perform is great fun. Trying to keep up with him in the gym can be fatal.

3. Read good stuff that echoes your own sensibilities at a conversational pace. You know this intuitively when you “click” with a particular writer. Your own skills and abilities get warmed up when they’re being demonstrated in what you’re reading. When rhythm between narration and dialogue, for example, fits your own senses, you can better imitate that skill and better use that writing muscle. And here’s a bonus — your other writing muscles will be in better posture for working out. Choosing books that fit well is like strengthening your core.

4. Don’t limit yourself to points 1-3. I read some books at a frenetic pace. And I have to read some books so slowly I get a headache. There should be a regular place in our reading lives for both kinds. But when I find myself saying If only I could write like this, when I’ve got a good book by an author whose craft makes sense to me, I make sure to read at a pace that lets me see how to write like this. For writers, this kind of reading should occupy most of our nose-in-book time.

So slow it down, Writer. Work those muscles.

A Special Guest Blogger…I’ve always wanted to say that

I teach a few on-line classes to area home-school kids. It’s a privilege and a joy. The Lansing-area home-school community should be proud at the quality of students we’re turning out.

For the next half dozen or so posts I’m going to feature student work from the High School Writing I course that finished up in June. I looked for pieces in their portfolios that 1) represent high-quality writing and 2) feature topics that you’d actually want to read about.

I found plenty.

Beginning tomorrow, I’ll be posting two essays a week for the rest of the summer. Please support these hard-working writers (you may recognize their names!). Comment, converse, dialog with them, let them know they have an audience.

Thanks!