Grammar and Punctuation

Book Club: Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue"

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson

History is fascinating, and language is fascinating…but the history of a language? Before I read Bill Bryson’s book, this felt like a bridge too far; I imagined page after page of medieval arguments about grammatical trivia.

In Bryson’s hands, though, the story of English becomes the story of England – and of much of the rest of the world. We watch as waves of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Jutes, and others crash onto English shores and leave their linguistic legacy. Later, it goes the other way, when England colonizes a third of the world and blends its language with a hundred others. The result: the largest, wildest, and perhaps most incorrigibly inconsistent language on Earth.

Bryson’s a wonderful storyteller – the kind of guy I’d sit and listen to for hours in a pub. He’s got a pocketful of storyteller’s gems, too:

  • The distinctive British pronunciations of words like “path” (pahth) and “bath” (bahth) are only a couple hundred years old. Back in Shakespeare’s day, Brits pronounced these words like Americans do today.
  • Many words have changed their meanings drastically over time – sometimes coming to signify the opposite of what they meant just a few centuries before. (This is part of what makes it hard to read old literature.) One surprising example: the word nice, which used to mean…well, not so nice.

I’ve read a lot of style guides recently, and most of them have strong views about how English should look and sound. Bill Bryson isn’t worried about most of these debates. Instead, he gets a kick out of the many magnificently weird ways people have put our language to use - and he knows that many more changes are on the way.

Book Club: Roy Peter Clark's "Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer"

Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark

Clark builds each of his chapters around a single idea. Some of these ideas are familiar but easy to forget. (“In short works, don’t waste a syllable.” “Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.”) Others feel fresh and exciting. (“Play with words, even in serious stories.” “Put odd and interesting things next to each other.”) Usually, Clark develops his ideas so that they truly sink in – but not so much that the reader gets bored.

Clark also addresses some key questions about writerly psychology. The popular image of the writer – tortured, alone, feeling alternately blocked and inspired by an ethereal Muse – is both wrong and unhelpful, he says. Most writers depend on a “support group” – people who can provide feedback, encouragement, and (when the time is right) criticism. (“Limit self-criticism in early drafts.”)

For me, Clark’s most bracing advice has to do with purpose. “Build your work around a key question,” he says. “Draft a mission statement for your work.” For a lot of writers, this will feel anathema – like watching bureaucracy murder romance.

It shouldn’t. In fact, for non-fiction writers, it’s often essential. I read a lot of student writing, and when it goes bad, it’s often because the writer hasn’t figured out what he’s trying to say. Instead, he just sorta started writing stuff, kind of realized that it was scattered, and then tried to shovel it into passable shape. There’s nothing romantic about this process; by the end, whatever real inspiration or clarity the student had is usually buried under the mud.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Book Club: Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style"

William Strunk taught writing to Cornell students for 46 years, and he used an early version of Elements as a classroom handbook. One of his students, E.B. White, later edited the volume; it was published in 1959, and it’s still one of the best style guides we have.

 Strunk.

Strunk.

The book is divided into several short sections – one on usage, another on principles of composition, and then a few guidelines on form and style. Strunk corrects for common writerly mistakes, but he also explains the consequences of those mistakes. Strunk’s famous admonitions – “Use definite, specific, concrete language” and “Omit needless words” – are the kinds of advice that most writers never stop needing to hear.

 White.

White.

Book Club: Janis Bell’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences”

Janis Bell's Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences: A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation is a resource for solving writerly problems. It's meant to sit alongside your computer, ready for action.

Sometimes, Bell's book plays this role perfectly. Her explanation of how tenses change in the subjunctive mood, for example, is incredibly useful. She also breaks down the uses of the primary punctuation marks into helpful categories.

Unfortunately, though, Bell’s guidelines sometimes simplify to the point of distortion. She insists on a firm distinction between “if” and “whether,” for example, even though we sometimes use both to mean the same thing (and nobody gets confused). She also declares: “Periods and commas belong inside closing quotation marks, no matter what. Don’t even think of placing them outside – just tuck them in.”

Many of her readers will be curious: why shouldn’t I place periods and commas outside closing quotes, especially if the punctuation isn’t part of the quote? And wait – don’t they write that way in England? And hang on - don't we put other punctuation marks (colons, semicolons, dashes) outside the quotes?

But these are minor complaints from a grammar-obsessed dude. For the most part, the book does just what it says it will do, offering readers a flashlight and a helping hand when they're lost in dark grammatical woods.

Writing Well in a Crazy Language: Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style"

I've spent the last few weeks burying myself in English style guides. Most of them tell what you have to do, what you can't do, and what’s up to you. This can feel arbitrary: if you’re curious about language, you don’t just want to follow the rules. You want to understand where they come from - and whether they help or hurt the cause of clear communication.

In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker takes on these questions directly, drawing on his psycho-linguistic expertise to show how some principles of grammar and usage reflect basic facts about how our brains work. (In a list of three or more items, for example, we typically put the most powerful item at the end – because it’s too taxing on our short-term memory to put it anywhere else.)

But Pinker also explains how some of our grammar rules are just the arbitrary pronouncements of snobby grammarians. (The “no split infinitive” rule is one; another is the taboo on placing a preposition at the end of a sentence.) Following these rules proves that you’re familiar with the conventions of the English language, but it doesn't reflect anything deeper – and sometimes, you might need to break them.

Five Tips for Clarity and Power in Academic Writing

This weekend, Real Clear English hosted a workshop for the faculty of Foreign Trade University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Our presentation was simple.

First, participants read the abstract of Professor Tâm Trần Thanh’s master’s thesis on bid-rigging in Vietnam.

Then, we focused on Professor Tâm’s first sentence, cutting and shaping until his key idea emerged. By the end of the conversation, participants had five new tools at their disposal – techniques for writing with more clarity and punch.

*     *     *

Here is Professor Tâm’s original abstract:

"Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money. While public procurers are advised to be vigilant as to bid rigging collusion in public markets, administrative practices of public procurement authorities as well as public procurement rules, are integral contributors to the formation and stability of bid rigging. By looking at factors facilitating bid rigging in public procurement, this paper determines the extent to which current regulations and administrative practices of Vietnamese public procurers facilitate bid rigging. The findings reveal that Vietnamese public procurement legislation as well as administrative practices of public procurers do unintentionally facilitate the formation and stability of bid rigging. Of particular concern are unnecessary and excessive selection criteria leading to limited participation of bidders, regulation of joint-bidding, information disclosure and frequent communication between bidders. These findings provide valuable lessons for both Vietnamese and international policy-makers by emphasising the need for assessing the practical impact of public procurement rules and practices on bid rigging practices."

*     *     *

Professor Tâm’s abstract would look right at home in a professional journal. Nonetheless, some of his colleagues – trained scholars themselves – had difficulty understanding what he was trying to say. Each of the following sections names a problem with Professor Tâm’s first sentence and suggests a solution.

 

Inconsistent Levels of Detail

An abstract should focus on high-level claims. Mixing the general and the specific can interrupt the flow and cause confusion.

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money.

“Public procurers” suggests that the problem affects all levels of government. Adding “either local or central" might be appropriate during a detailed discussion later in the paper, but it’s not necessary here.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

 

Relying Too Much on Modifying Phrases

We’ve shortened Professor Tâm’s sentence, but it’s still wordy. Why? Because it stacks modifying phrases like Jenga blocks: “in the tendering process under public procurement rules which…”

Try turning a prepositional phrase into a single adjective:

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

 

Redundancy

Sound the alarm! The word “public” appears twice in our sentence. Since the sentence tells us that we’re considering “public tendering processes,” we don’t need the second “public.”

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

 

Vagueness 

Professor Tâm tells us that bid rigging “is an irregularity.” That’s true – but it’s not particularly helpful. What is it, exactly? Is it an accounting error, or is it more like cheating? Is it accidental, or do people do it deliberately?

As we learn later, bid rigging isn’t really one thing – it’s several different things, and some are more troublesome than others. “Irregularity” doesn’t convey any of this detail, so let’s delete it.

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

But wait – if we cut “an irregularity,” our sentence no longer makes sense. Bid rigging is… what?

Now, we could try to fill in a word here. (“Bid rigging is a problem”? “Bid rigging is a challenge”?) But there’s a simpler way to improve this sentence, and it requires us to notice the…

 

Multiple Verbs (Including One Weak Verb)

Right now, our sentence reads:

Bid rigging is [a something] in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

More concisely, we have

            Bid rigging is an X which prevents Y.

Do we really need both “is” and “prevents”? How about:

Bid rigging prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

 

Recap

Here was our original sentence:

Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money.

And here’s our revised version:

Bid rigging prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

We’ve reduced our sentence from 28 words to 12!

Now for the real test: is our revised sentence better than the original version?

Professor Tâm agreed that it was. He told us that when he wrote his abstract, he had focused on condensing hundreds of pages of research into a few hundred words. He’d concentrated on including information – not on communicating that information effectively. As we wrapped up our discussion, Professor Tâm was excited to revise his work – to find simpler, clearer ways to share his expertise and help address an important challenge for his country.

Do I Use Singular or Plural Verbs with Collective Nouns?

Recently, one of my students got tripped up on this question (#34) from an SAT practice test: 

SAT.png

He knew that A, B, and D were wrong, because each changes the verb tense for no reason. But he didn't like C, either; he thought there might be a subject-verb agreement error.

My student saw:

"There ARE a number of steps..."

and thought it should be:

"There IS a number of steps..."

After all, "a number" is clearly singular. Shouldn't it take a singular verb?

Not in this case! My student had unwittingly stumbled onto an example of that two-headed beast - the collective noun.

Sesame Street.jpg

Collective nouns (group, faculty, team, staff) can function either as singulars OR plurals, depending on what's being emphasized:

The team has survived the playoffs, but the World Series will be the real test.

Here, "the team" functions as a single unit, so we use a singular verb.

The team members have agreed to treatment after a drug-fueled Las Vegas blowout.

Here, "the team members" are acting individually, so we use a plural verb.

In my student's example above, "steps" are clearly individual elements of a career journey, so we consider them separately and use the plural "are."

American vs. British English

If you read authors from both sides of the Atlantic, you may have noticed that Americans and Brits treat collective nouns somewhat differently. American writers are more likely to use singular verbs for collective nouns; British writers favor plural verbs more often.

American: The staff has agreed to a pay cut. 

British: The staff have agreed to a pay cut.

"Is This Really Good Enough?" A Conversation About Dangerous Thinking and Dangerous Writing

Mike Bybee has been teaching critical thinking and writing for 40 years. Since 1996, he's been a tutor at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Matt:

My students face a lot of unhealthy pressure in school, on standardized tests, and on college application essays. Much of the time, they feel they're being asked to look and sound a certain way, regardless of whether their writing is honest or true. (I think you'd call this sophistry - trying to look good without thinking clearly.)

To make things more challenging, many of my students have few alternatives at their disposal. They've been encouraged to echo their teachers' or parents' views, and they haven’t received training in critical thinking (what you'd call dialectic, I believe). 

I'm curious: how do you introduce the study of dialectic? Why do you start where you start, and not somewhere else?

Mike:

You recognize that students are encouraged to regurgitate thoughts. You then asked, “How do you introduce the study of dialectic?” 

Well, it depends. 

If I have a rather older, more sophisticated group, then I can ask them to read a story and ask, “Do you believe this?” But that rarely works (for some reason) with younger people, so here’s what I do instead: On the very first day, after we learn one another’s names, I have a “canned” story that I tell. Then I ask a question that can be answered five or six different ways. [That prevents the students from regurgitating an “accepted” answer.] “How many of you think that the answer is this?” I ask. And some people “vote” for that one. And some people “vote” for another, and so on. 

If I’m clever enough to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut, a conversation starts with people defending their points of view against points made by other people. 

Then I can say something like this: “Okay. Well, write an essay giving your answer to this question and the reasons you think your answer is the best answer.” 

Since these students are just starting out, they write generally coherent (albeit unsophisticated) papers. If I have the budget, then I get photocopies of all the papers to all the students, and we have a chance to read and respond to them. (If we can’t physically duplicate them, then I ask students to read their essays aloud to the rest of the class.) 

After we have all had a chance to read all the essays, I then ask the class as a whole (not the author, who only gets to listen), “Does this essay have a question at issue? If so, what is it?” You can see that for these early papers, of course they have a question at issue—I gave it to them! So this early on, it’s hard to go wrong. 

I then ask, “Does this essay have an answer to that question? If so, what is it?” Sometimes the author tries to butt into the conversation, and I have to say, “You already gave us your BEST attempt to do this, so your job is to sit and listen and determine to what extent you properly addressed your audience. If you listen to your audience respond to you, you can see how well you’ve done and what you can do better next time.” 

I then ask, “Does this essay have evidence for that answer?” For early papers, this is only sometimes not the case, but occasionally someone tries to “get by” without presenting evidence for their position. This gives me a chance to emphasize Plato’s Meno: True belief is not enough. We need true JUSTIFIED belief. Writing is not expressing a bunch of THOUGHTS. Writing is expressing THINKING, and expressing it on a page so you can tinker with it.  

And THEN I ask the killer question: “Does the evidence provide the structure for this essay?” 

For earlier essays, the answer is almost always, “No.” Their evidence (if and when presented) is just a confused mélange of goofy expressions, usually each of which demands evidence itself. 

So.

Anyway.

That’s how I begin. . . .  And that’s how I proceed. Every time we read an “outside” essay, those are the questions I ask. (If we read Rousseau’s “prize-winning essay," [Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts] we see why he’s hugely embarrassed by it. It’s terrible! If we read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we get to see all those points in action.) 

Every time we read one another’s papers, those are the questions I ask. 

Sometimes I get to say, “See how this author used her thinking to structure her writing?” And sometimes the students get it—and more frequently, towards the end of the course, the students get it. 

But it’s a slow process, developing a habit, a habit of thinking of writing as thinking, and thinking of evaluating writing as evaluating thinking. 

And that’s what I would call “dialectic,” if someone pressed me. 

Matt:

At the beginning of this process, what kinds of stories do you have your students read? And if you don't mind sharing, what's the "canned" story you tell, and what question do you ask afterward?

I also like the sequence of questions you ask. My students can usually see whether an essay includes a question, an answer, and evidence for that answer. 

Where they struggle, however, is in figuring out how to structure their thinking. There are lots of compelling ways to write an essay - you can think clearly and still be uncertain about how to sequence your thoughts for rhetorical effect. 

I don't offer comprehensive responses to these concerns. Instead, I suggest some models, and we read lots of essays and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each. This works - the students get exposed to a wider and wider range of approaches to writing - but I'm wondering whether you have something more direct and powerful up your sleeve.

Mike:

The “canned” story I tell is Alligator River from a book on values clarification. It narrates these events about five people, and at the end of it, I ask, “Who’s the least moral person in this story?” It’s like “Lifeboat,” a more famous story in the same vein. 

From there we get increasingly more sophisticated things to read. In a college (or advanced high school) setting, I use the anthology A World of Ideas. We read. We discuss. In discussions I try to focus on places where the students disagree. And then I have students write essays that each other would read about those disagreements. (That way everyone had a horse in the race, so to speak.) 

Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. The most difficult thing for a student to recognize (or to produce) is a well-structured essay. Often that’s because students (and we teachers, too) have little idea about how evidence itself is structured. Just because we can think (and some of us can think well), that doesn’t (necessarily) mean that we can think well about thinking well. 

Moreover, it almost always requires writers to rethink an essay after they’ve written it, and having rethought it, they then have to rewrite it. That process is not without significant effort, and it requires some time, too—and both these are at a premium in today’s world. 

Matt:

Most students - most people, I think - resist that re-thinking and re-writing process. They've built half a building, and they feel disheartened at the idea that they have to tear part of it down. When your students express those feelings - or when they don't express them, but you know they're feeling them - how do you respond? And how do you structure your classes so that students have the time, space, and motivation to do that rebuilding?

Mike:

Here is one of the exercises I use to emphasize the importance of structure or order in an essay. 

With shopping lists and sentences, we can easily identify which is the best structured—and we can also identify pretty easily the principle of organization for each. (At least, so far all of my classes have been able to see which is the better structured shopping list and why, and they’ve also been able to see which is the better structured sentence and why—although a few students here and there individually are puzzled.) 

The problem is, what’s the principle of organization for an essay? How do you know when the paragraphs are in the “right” order? What makes for a well-structured essay? Is the “principle of organization” for an essay just “whatever I think of next?” Here classes have a great deal more trouble—which is, of course, the point of a composition course. 

You ask, “What do you do when students don’t want to rewrite or revise or rethink their essays?” 

Well, you’ve put your finger on a difficult problem, one that has a couple different layers. 

First,

Some students don’t see the need to revise. They think their writing is pellucid and, in fact, obviously-well-expressed. 

That’s one reason I circulate students’ papers to one another and then have the OTHER students in the class give the writer feedback. I ask the whole class these questions: What’s the question at issue, do you think? If you think this essay has a question at issue, what do you think is the answer it provides? If you think this essay has an answer to its question-at-issue (a thesis), what is the evidence this essay provides for that thesis? If you think this essay provides evidence for its thesis, does the evidence provide the essay’s structure? 

This is obviously a grading template. If there’s no question at issue, the paper is an F. If there’s a question at issue but no answer / thesis, the paper is a D. If there’s a thesis but no evidence, the paper is a C. . . .  Of course, often the answer is not very easily found to any of these questions. It takes thinking to evaluate thinking. Thus, sometimes the class disagrees about whether the essay has evidence (and if so, what it is). Sometimes the class disagrees even about whether the essay has a question at issue. 

During this discussion, the essay writer just sits there and listens to the answers—and often realizes he or she has not written carefully enough. They’re almost always incensed. “Look! See! I wrote this right here!” But I always say to the author, “Just listen to them discuss your essay. This essay was your BEST attempt to express all this. And yet, see how confused your audience is? You can write better than this. Honest.” 

So feedback from peers is important. 

Second,

Some students just don’t want to take the time or put in the effort. They get good grades on their writing in their other classes. That’s “good enough,” they think. 

This is a more intractable problem. For the most part, the best you can do is raise the question. You get to ask, “Is this really good enough?” Composition (in the sense we’ve been discussing it) is an exercise in examining one’s own thinking clearly and carefully. It’s a way to pin one’s own thinking to a picnic table with a thumb tack and hold it still long enough to evaluate it yourself. You cannot do composition (in the sense we’ve been discussing) without that “last” step. And doing that last step often discloses that one’s thinking is NOT “good enough.” 

That’s where your response to their writing is important—and “dangerous.” It’s important because your comments to them should raise questions in their minds about their own thinking. You’re not challenging their thoughts. You’re challenging their thinking. In the margins of their papers, you’re writing questions, question like, “What evidence do you have for this?” and so on. 

And this is dangerous because you have to expose YOUR thinking when you challenge their thinking. You’re reading their thinking—and they’re reading your thinking and evaluating it! They wrote an essay you read, and you’re (in effect) writing them back an essay that they’re reading. And your thinking is addressing their thinking. Whoa! That feels pretty naked there. Their thinking might be BETTER than your thinking. In fact, if you’re doing your job correctly, you’re hoping for that outcome.  

Third,

Some students mistake the whole project. They think they’ve managed to get a full and complete essay written when actually they have only the rough draft—or, more often, only a zero-th draft. 

What’s that like? It’s like framing a house and not putting up interior drywall and exterior siding and roofing. Doing the next drafts of an essay is a finishing project, not a demolition project. Yes, yes, yes, I know that this FEELS as though we’re tearing stuff up, but it’s really going on to the next part of the project that would have been impossible without having done this first part, the rough draft. Without revision, the rough draft is, well, “unfinished.” 

Thus, seeing a difference in their own writing between the rough draft and their finished product is important. If they can’t see a difference, and see what the difference is, then yeah, what the hell. Why bother?    

Well. . . .         

I’ve been over-long again. Sorry. 

Good luck with this! There’s nothing more frustrating than teaching Aristotelian-like rhetoric and Plato-like dialectic in a society of sophistry—in a society that thinks that “composition” is nothing more than eloquence and style. Sigh. 

And in the end, when you do a “good” job, the students all think, “I’ve done this all by myself!” And that’s true, too. You didn’t do their weightlifting for them. 

One last thing. I tried a new tactic this year for the first time. This may also address the last concern you expressed. 

I had my composition students rewrite an essay that they had written and submitted to another class. And I asked them to submit to me both the essay that they had already submitted (and gotten a grade on and an oral) AND the rewrite. 

On the essay that they had submitted, I asked them to write between each paragraph a word like “thus,” or “because,” or “and” or “but” and so on, to indicate how each paragraph related to the preceding paragraph. (You’ll recognize this as right out of Aristotle and his emphasis on the enthymeme and the use in classical Greek of such words in each and every sentence.) 

And then I asked them to do the same thing for their rewrite. 

This exercise was remarkably successful for many students. They were able to see clearly and concretely, “Oops. I didn’t write nearly as clearly as I thought I did when you made me do this concrete exercise. And that’s because I didn’t think nearly as clearly as I had to think in performing this exercise.” 

They're vs. Their vs. There vs. Thar

These words can be tough to tell apart. It gets a lot easier, though, if you can remember what each word does in a sentence.

They’re: replaces "they are"

They’re a really good group of friends.

They’re always inviting me out to expensive restaurants.

Their: possessive form of "they"

Their faces revealed no fear.

Their departure for Antigua went smoothly.

If you’re ever confused, try substituting “they’re” for “their”: They are faces revealed no fear. (This makes no sense.) They are departure for Antigua went smoothly. (Neither does this!)

Theirs: possessive pronoun; replaces "their + noun"

The Yankees think the championship is already theirs.

Is that lasagna yours or theirs?

Resist the temptation to add an apostrophe before the ‘s'! It’s incorrect.

There: a location, in or at that place

I’m over here, and you’re over there.

There can also be used as a pronoun to introduce a sentence.

There is a good chance I’ll apply early to Duke.

Contractions are fine, too:

There's also a chance I'll apply to Penn State.

Test Yourself!

Read the passage below and consider which of the bolded words are correct. In the spaces below, mark “C” for “correct” and “I” for “incorrect." Then check your answers using our key.

1. Theirs a man named Willie McCudd. Old Willie stops by my parents’ house sometimes, but 2. they’re never happy to see him: he’s always stealing 3. their stuff. If 4. their not willing to call the police, though, 5. they’re’s not a lot they can do about it.

1. _____  

2. _____  

3. _____  

4. _____  

5. _____

Answer Key

1.     I: “Theirs” is used as a pronoun to replace a noun. In this case, though, no word is being replaced. We want “There is” instead: "There is a man named Willie McCudd." ("There's" would also work.)

2.     C: They are never happy to see him.

3.     C: "Their" is the possessive form of "they."

4.     I: “Their” is possessive. Their what? In this case, nobody is possessing anything. However, they're unwilling to call the police.

5.     I: “They’re’s” is never correct. If we undo the contractions, we get

a) “They are is" or

b) "they're" as a possessive.

Neither of these options makes sense. We want “There’s not a lot they can do about it.”

Bonus Round

Thar: for gold prospectors and pirates only

There’s gold in them thar hills!

Arrrrgh, I spy the beach! Thar's the place we make our fortunes.

Murderous Crows and “Great” Britain: How to Make Yourself Sound Tough

Let's face it: when it comes to projecting toughness, some animals have better PR than others. 

A Herd of Elephants: Elephants can run fast, and those tusks are a little scary, but their name isn’t exactly intimidating. “Herd” suggests a group that can be easily supervised or controlled; cowboys “ride herd” on cattle.)

A Flock of Geese: A goose on his own is just a plain old goose. A group of geese, though? That’s a flock. (When they’re flying, they’re a skein. On the ground, they’re a gaggle.)

Cute names, sure – but they're not scaring me. When I hear “flock,” I think about people flocking to the mall for a Thanksgiving Day sale. And gaggle? Sounds like “giggle.” 

A Pride of Lions: Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Pride suggests confidence, strength. I'm buying it.

A Murder of Crows: Yup. Really. That’s what it's called. And the crazy part is, it’s pure propaganda: crows are actually quite social creatures. But wait - how could they be, with a name like that?

And it's not just animals. Humans - even whole countries - have pulled off this same trick:

Great Britain: This has to be one of the most incredible naming coups of all time: a small island nation decides to slap the word “Great” into its name – and everyone lets them get away with it! And they go on to dominate the high seas for two centuries!

Imagine trying this with your friends: “Hey guys, I’d like you to call me Badass Bieber from now on.” You’d be mocked forever. But somehow, Britain pulled it off. Which makes me wonder - what other plucky underdogs could benefit from this kind of rebranding?

Freaks and Geeks? No sir. You're looking at the Gangster Death Posse (Middle School Version).

Adjective Endings: Bored vs. Boring, Interested vs. Interesting, Confused vs. Confusing

In my three years of teaching in Vietnam and Thailand, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern of mistakes. I often hear things like:

I didn’t like that movie; I felt boring.         

I’m very interesting in that topic.

This test was hard. I was really confusing.

In each case, the student is using an adjective, but he’s mixing up the endings. (In these examples, the adjectives should take the –ed ending, not the –ing ending.) Why?

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Generally, when we describe our feelings or state of mind, we use the –ed (“participle”) ending.

I’m bored.

I’m interested.

I’m confused.

We can add detail about why we feel this way, but we’re still describing the feeling we have, so the –ed ending remains the same.

            I’m bored by this novel.

            I’m interested in Roman history.

            I’m confused by physics.

When we switch from describing our state of mind to describing the thing that’s affecting us, however - novels, history, physics - we use the –ing ending.

            I find anthropology class boring.

            Futurama is an interesting show.

            Quantum mechanics is so confusing!

In each of these cases, we’re no longer talking about how we feel (not exactly, anyway). We’re talking about something that’s out there in the world (a class, a TV show, a topic), and we’re saying that that thing does something to us. 

The lecture was boring; I felt bored.

But Wait! That’s Not All...

Okay, so here’s the really confusing part. It’s also possible to describe yourself using adjectives with –ing endings:

            I’m boring.

            I’m such an interesting guy!

            My mind is so confusing.

The key here is that in these cases, you’re no longer describing a feeling. You’re describing yourself as a thing (a person, a guy, a mind) that has effects (just like the classes, TV shows, and topics above). So, back to the –ing ending.

            I’m an interesting dude! I make other people feel interested in me.

Quick Summary

When you’re talking about your own feelings, use –ed. When you’re talking about something that has an effect on something else, use –ing.

            I was confused for two straight hours. Why? Because the play was confusing!

Bonus Round

One more wrinkle: You can also describe things in the world as “confused”:

            That episode of The Sopranos was confused.

In this case, you’re not describing the show's effect on you. Rather, you’re describing the show’s state of mind - its 'feelings,' so to speak. (To be precise, you're personifying or anthropomorphizing.) You’re saying that the show was all over the place – that it didn’t know what it was trying to say.

Farther vs. Further (As Explained by David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly)

We use “farther” and “further” in slightly different situations.

Farther: physical distances

Hartford is close; New York is farther.

Further: figurative or metaphorical distances

I want to think about this question further.

Occasionally, though, it gets a little confusing. Check out this scene from the movie Labyrinth:

Here's the actual text: 

Jareth: Do you still want to look for him?

Sarah: Is that... the castle beyond the Goblin City?

Jareth: Turn back, Sarah. Turn back before it's too late.

Sarah: I can't. Don't you understand that I can't?

Jareth: What a pity.

Sarah: It doesn't look that far.

Jareth: It's further than you think... and time is short. You have thirteen hours in which to solve the Labyrinth, before your baby brother becomes one of us...forever. Such a pity....

Now wait a second. Sarah says “[i]t doesn’t look that far” to the castle, (physical distance) but Jareth says, “It’s further than you think” (metaphorical distance). What’s going on here?

Two possibilities:

  1. The moviemakers messed up.
  2. Jareth is suggesting that the journey to the castle can’t be measured in miles alone. It’s also a metaphorical quest that will require Sarah to explore new places within herself.

So which is it, Jareth? And what should you do in your own writing?

In situations like this - in which the speaker's meaning is ambiguous - it doesn't matter. If you’re uncertain, use “further” – but don’t worry about it too much. People have been mixing these words up for hundreds of years, and these days, grammarians emphasize the distinction less than they used to. (Plus, the Brits use “farther” and “further” for physical distance. So maybe that’s what was going on in the movie.)

Affect vs. Effect

These words are tough for two reasons:

  1. Each can be a noun or a verb.
  2. Some of their uses are much more familiar than others.

Let’s break it down:

Nouns

Affect: the experience of emotional states, or the manifestation of those states

I looked into the killer’s face, but he was stone cold: I couldn’t discern any affect at all.

He didn’t look happy; he had a depressive affect.

Effect: impact, result or outcome

            Did Trump’s election have an effect on you?

Verbs

 Affect: influence

How did David Bowie’s music affect you?

Affect (secondary definitions): pretend to think or feel something, do something to try to earn admiration

Sergey Kovalev was his next-door neighbor, but he affected indifference.           

In his later years, my father affected an aristocratic accent.

Effect: make happen, bring about

            I’m running for office because I hope to effect change.*

*In this case, it wouldn’t make sense to say, “I hope to affect change.” You don’t want to influence change. (“Change” is doing fine without your influence.) You want to make change happen.

To vs. Too

These little buggers can catch you if you're not watching. If you remember the following guidelines, though, you'll be fine in most situations.

To

With Infinitive Verbs (An infinitive is the non-conjugated form of a verb.)

I need to walk the dog.

To consider new proposals, we require at least half of our membership to be present.

Preposition

As a preposition, “to” means “in the direction of”:

            How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Take a left on 7th Ave.

Too

Also

Conor is fighting Pacquiao, too?

Measure of Intensity

            Oh, this chocolate cake is too much!*

*A good way to remember this usage: "too" feels like it has too many o's.

 What’s the best way to eat this cake? With one hand – and the other hand, too!

What’s the best way to eat this cake? With one hand – and the other hand, too!

Who vs. Whom

This confuses lots of people, but it doesn’t have to. Here’s the simple way to tell who and whom apart:

Who is the person taking action (the subject of the sentence):

Who put Addy’s pacifier in the freezer? Nhung did.

Nhung took action. (She put Addy’s pacifier in the freezer.) “Who” indicates that we don’t know which person took action, but that we know somebody did.

Whom is the person being acted upon (the object of the sentence):

Whom should we invite to our party?

In this case, “we” is the subject – “we” are taking action (inviting people to our party). “Whom” refers to the people that we are about to act upon (by inviting them).

Whom can also be the object of a preposition:

To whom did you give your collection of pogs?

         For whom did you buy these pogs?

The key is recognizing that “whom” is still being acted upon. (I gave my collection of pogs to Addy. I bought these pogs for David.)

That’s it! If you’re uncertain about whether to use “who” or “whom,” ask yourself: is this person doing stuff or having stuff done to them? (This rule even applies to those extra-confusing cases involving verbs within dependent clauses. If you're curious, check out Rule 1 here.)

Whoever vs. Whomever

The same principle applies to “whoever” and “whomever”:

Whoever said that is out of his mind.

“Whoever” refers to some unnamed person who took action – in this case, by saying something. On the other hand,

I think Khabib will beat Conor, and I’ll say it to whomever I like.

"Whomever” is the object of a preposition here. I’m saying stuff to “whomever,” so “whomever” is being acted upon. Same as above!

Lies Your Teacher Told You About Punctuation

English punctuation can be maddening for students, and for a couple of related reasons:

1)   Teachers often give the impression that punctuation works like a perfect algorithm - learn the rules, and you’ll know how to punctuate in every situation.

  • Rule: Use a comma to separate clauses in a compound sentence.
  • Example: I think Ryan Reynolds is ultra-hot, but my girlfriend disagrees.

But students, being curious and observant, notice exceptions to most rules. Often, they'll point to famous authors who break them; Hemingway is always a great example.

  • "There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam..." (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 3 - though you can open this book to almost any page and find a similar example).

Inevitably, students want to know: which exceptions are okay, and which ones aren't? And where did these exceptions come from, anyway? 

2)   For teachers who suggest that punctuation rules are Permanent, Proper, and True, these questions are impossible to answer.

But as soon as you learn a bit of the history about how our punctuation marks emerged and changed over time, these questions become much easier to address. Punctuation isn’t a perfect, self-contained system; it’s a mish-mash of rules and practices developed over millennia, for a huge range of purposes, by an enormous cast of peoples and cultures. Punctuation isn’t one thing; it’s a grab-bag of stage directions, actors’ cues, printers’ marks, and – perhaps most importantly for us – whispers from authors to readers.

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I’d never really thought about punctuation before reading Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Like most people, I’d just struggled with it – remembering the rules I learned in elementary school, recognizing situations where those rules didn’t seem to apply, and wondering what to do.

Of course, it wasn’t all struggle. I’d enjoyed trying to solve punctuation problems, because like Truss, I believe that “Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.” But fundamentally, I thought of punctuation problems as problems. There had to be solutions, if I could only find them.

After reading Truss, I no longer feel that way. Punctuation problems aren’t problems – they’re just questions. And often, there are good answers to these questions: we have lots of well-reasoned guidelines for most situations. But occasionally, you find yourself trying to express something just so, and nothing on the current punctuation menu will satisfy. That isn’t a problem – it’s a challenge.

There Are No Grammar Rules – Only Conventions

When students learn English, they master hundreds of grammar rules. Always insert a comma after an introductory phrase. Don’t connect two independent clauses with a comma. No sentence fragments.

But who makes these rules? And should you care about them?

In some areas of life, rules are created and enforced by people with authority. In boxing, it’s the referee. In politics, it’s Congress and the courts. At home, it’s your parents (probably :).

But in language, there is no referee, no final authority with the power to say what’s allowed.

Does this mean, then, that you can ignore all the grammar that you learned in school – that anything goes?

Not exactly. After all, the point of writing isn’t to throw letters on a page (though that can be kind of fun). If you’re writing for other people, you’re probably trying to communicate – to connect, to share, to persuade.

To do those things, you typically need to find common ground with your readers. (You can be a beautiful poet in English, but if you’re audience only reads Chinese, it won’t matter.)

This is where grammar comes in. Grammar is common ground for people who share a language. It’s the set of conventions we use to reduce confusion and ensure that our meaning comes across as smoothly as possible.

And this, ultimately, is why tests like the SAT, ACT, and GRE include so many grammar-related questions. It’s not that the test-makers are trying to be “grammar bullies.” They just want to make sure that students are capable of communicating according to the conventions of English that are in place right now.

Those conventions change, of course. Our most imaginative writers, speakers, and musicians are always inventing new, creative ways to express themselves. (In her most recent novel, Zadie Smith splices commas over and over – and it works.) In other words, grammar rules don’t get written at the cutting edge. As a result, they often feel a little stiff and outdated.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. They are. If you want to express yourself in new and innovative ways, it helps to master the ways that people express themselves right now. Otherwise, you may find yourself talking to an audience of one – yourself. Remember, there’s no judge in the court of language – but there’s also no avoiding the judgment of your readers.