Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Write As You Speak?

Question: Should you write as you speak?

Answer: Yes and no. Writing as you speak has certain advantages, including starting when you’re stuck. A conversational tone also draws the audience in. But recognize that certain characteristics of speaking will make your writing wordy and repetitious. Of course, people don’t use the frequent “uh’s” and “y’knows” and, in young people, “like” that one hears in conversation. However, other conversational habits often carry over into writing when people write as they speak: the overuse of “there,” “it,” “get” and its variations, “thing,” and words needlessly repeated. In other words, “speakwrite.”

For me, when I taught writing, the real enemy of good written expression was not the dangling participle and use of passive voice that are fairly easy to teach, but “speakwrite,” the habit of carrying over into writing the bad habits of conversation, especially repetitiveness. “Speakwrite” works against producing thoughtful, precise and concise expression.

What to do? When you repeat words unnecessarily, try one of three solutions.
1. Drop it out. Try eliminating one of the repeated expressions. That technique sometimes works. I tend to repeat the word “that” unnecessarily and simply dropping one “that” often solves the problem.

2. Use a synonym. Occasionally works.

3. The third solution is probably the best, but it takes a little work. Rearrange your expression to eliminate the repeated word.

One other piece of advice: Try avoiding the use of “there,” “get” and “thing” altogether. Not only will you avoid repeating these expressions, but you will eliminate some dead language, and your expression will be more precise.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

20 Ideas from Writers on Writing

Review: 20 Ideas from Writers on Writing
The last six blogs have answered questions about writing by writers. Some of their ideas are summarized below:

1. Writer's block is caused by lack of confidence.

2. Writing a book takes years.

3. People have different ways of preparing to write. Loren Eiseley jotted a short list of words as a kind of outline.

4. Many writers compose in their minds before writing on screen or paper.

5. People inflate their language in order to sound important.

6. The only way to learn to write is to spend a period of time each day writing.

7. Unity is essential in writing.

8. Short paragraphs cause the reader to want to read. People won't even begin to read long paragraphs.

9. Why Write? Clarify what you're thinking. Brings closure to experiences you are describing. Sum up complex problems. Preserve portions of our lives. To learn something you did not know.

10. You need to spend time thinking about your topic before you write.

11. Don't talk to people about what you're writing. That act of communication takes away the desire to write.

12. Most professional writers have piles of rejection notices.

13. Dictated writing tends to be pompous, sloppy and redundant.

14. Stop writing when you know what you want to say next. Gives you momentum when you start again the next day. Hemingway.

15. A good writing style requires the least effort to understand. Rewrite to make your writing seem effortless.

16. Always put your writing away for a period of time before attempting to publish. When you read it again, you will see many needed changes.

17. If you're stuck in writing, put your manuscript away for awhile. When you come back to it, you will have many new ideas.

18. Avoid using worn-out expressions like "toe the mark." State the idea clearly: "Be prepared for challenges." Or, simply, "Be ready."

19. If you write as you speak, you will write badly.

20. Be wary of advice by writers on writing: they will often contradict their own advice.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Writers on Writing 06

Why write? "Scores of articles were written for the New Yorker because he himself [Editor William Shawn] was curious about something; he wanted to find out about a particular situation or person or event. Gill, Here at the New Yorker.

What are some characteristics of poor writing? "Dying metaphors...worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples: "Take up the cudgels," "toe the line," etc. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning. Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," A Collection of Essays.

What are some characteristics of poor writing? "[In poor writing] the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining)." Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," A Collection of Essays. [Note that, in contrast to Orwell's advice, his sentence is a passive construction. In the active voice, the sentence would read: "Poor writers use the passive voice wherever possible, etc., etc."] [Active voice: "The boy hit the ball." Passive voice: "The ball was hit by the boy."]

What are some characteristics of poor writing? "It is easier--even quicker, once you have the habit--to say "In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that...." than to say, "I think." Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," A collection of Essays.

Should you write as you speak? "Those who write as they speak, even though they speak well, write badly." Comte De Buffon. Gross, ed., Oxford Book of Aphorisms..

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Writers on Writing 05

How did some writers learn to write? "...I began to be fascinated by the problems each play brought with it; the mechanism and construction of a play began to hold far more interest for me than the actual staging of it, and all through the winter I read every published play I could get my hands on; when my neighborhood library in the Bronx ran out of published plays, I went down to the main branch at 42nd Street and sat in the reading room all day long, completely and utterly absorbed.... I could not tear myself away from my obsession with the mechanics of play-writing." Moss Hart, Act One.

What is one method for evaluating objectively your writing? "I finished the play in mid-February on a note of triumph and with exultant admiration for my own rare gifts as a playwright; but I made myself keep, not without some difficulty, my promise to put the manuscript away for a week and not look at it. On a bright February morning, a week after I had written The Curtain Slowly Falls... I opened the closely written pages; the plays' awfulness did not dawn on me slowly--the full impact of its hackneyed dreariness hit me by the sixth page." Moss Hart, Act One.

How do writers write? "I have had the good fortune to work almost anywhere.... I have written in subways, on shipboard with the people chattering away in deck chairs on either side of me, in theater lounges with actors rehearsing on the stage above, in kitchens, in automobiles, and on beaches or beside swimming pools with children cavorting about in the water---a lucky or accidental gift of concentration...." Moss Hart, Act One.

How do writers overcome writer's block? Mark Twain: "It was by accident that I found out that a book is pretty sure to get tired along about the middle and refuse to go on with its work until its powers and its interest should have been refreshed by a rest and its depleted stock of raw materials reinforced by lapse of time." Twain, Autobiography.

How do writers overcome writer's block? Mark Twain: "When the manuscript [of Tom Sawyer] had lain in a pigeonhole two years I took it out one day and read the last chapter that I had written; it was then that I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry, you've only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time, while you are asleep--also while you are at work at other things and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on; there was plenty of material now and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble." Twain, Autobiography.

How do some writers write? "His [Wallace Stevens'] solitary walking had a purpose: he composed as he walked." Gill, Here at the New Yorker.

What are some of the ironies of writing? "If one is able at last to finish a story, it is never the story that one began." Gill, Here at the New Yorker.

How do some writers write? "[John O'Hara] would then proceed to rattle off at top speed a story that would need not a single correction. The fact was that he had worked the story out in his head, over no telling how many hours or days; and what he was setting down with such fiendish ease was simply a fair copy." Gill, Here at the New Yorker.

How do some writers write? "Sally Benson...would lie in bed in the dark, putting her stories together sentence by sentence and memorizing them as an actor might memorize...a considerable part. The act of finally setting a story down on paper amounted to a delicious reward, which, like a child with a sweet, she would delay indulging herself for as along as possible." Gill, Here at the New Yorker.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Writers on Writing 04

How do professional writers write? Henry Miller: "After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk...occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you're walking or shaving or playing a game...your mind is working on this problem in the back of your head." Plimpton, ed., The Writer's Chapbook.

Why write? EM Forster: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" Plimpton, ed., The Writer's Chapbook.

What is writing style? Spencer...defined [writing] style as "that which requires the least effort of understanding." Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy,Herbert Spencer.

How do writers deal with rejection from editors and publishers? F. Scott Fitzgerald: "I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room. F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing.

What is the purpose of rewriting? Thurber: "Rewriting [is] ... a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless." Cowley, ed., Writers at Work.

Why write? "A TV interviewer once asked me what my purpose was in writing my books.... I would have to say that the first purpose was to preserve...portions of our lives that seem especially precious to us." Teale, American Seasons.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Writers on Writing 03

What can we learn from writers about writing?

Should you talk to people about books or articles you are writing? Angus Wilson: "So many people have talked out to me books they would otherwise have written; once you have talked, the act of communication has been made." Cowley, ed., Writers at Work.

Why write? John Hersey: "Writing is a 'search for understanding.' " Hull, ed., The Writer's Book.

How should you react to rejection notices? Ann Petry: "I have collected enough rejection slips for my short stories to paper four or five good-sized rooms." Hull, ed., The Writer's Book.

Why write? "That statement only is fit to be made public, which you have come at in attempting to satisfy your own curiosity." Emerson, Spiritual Laws.

How long does it take to write a book? Albert Schweitzer: "Some of my thoughts I had to carry for years in my head before I found time to put them on paper." Anderson, The Schweitzer Album.

What about dictating your writing? "Dictated sentences tend to be pompous, sloppy and redundant." Zinsser, On Writing Well.

What problems face the modern writer? "The reader is a person with an attention span of about twenty seconds...assailed on every side by forces competing for his time by newspapers and magazines, by television and radio and stereo, by his wife and children and pets, by his house and yard and all the gadgets that he has bought to keep them spruce, and by that most potent of competitors, sleep." Zinsser, On Writing Well.

How important is word choice? Thomas Paine's "These are the times that try men's souls": "Times like these try men's souls; how trying it is to live in these times; these are trying times for men's souls; soulwise, these are trying times." Zinsser, On Writing Well.

How do you know when to stop your writing for the day? Hemingway: "You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again." Plimpton, ed., The Writer's Chapbook.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Writers on Writing 02

What is the basis of good writing? "Unity is the anchor of good writing." Zinsser, On Writing Well. [Unity in expository writing consists of a thesis sentence or main idea expressed early in the composition, topic sentences that clearly relate to the thesis sentence and a summary paragraph.]

How long should your paragraphs be? "Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas one long chunk of type can discourage the reader from even starting to read." Zinsser, On Writing Well. [One of the common problems made by inexperienced writers is unbroken paragraphs that are nearly a page long. Short or medium-sized paragraphs invite reading. Long, unbroken paragraphs deter readers from reading.]

Why write? "The act of writing has always been a method of clarification for me, a way of getting down to how I really feel about an issue, a decision, a place, a person. Bradley, Time Present, Time Past. ["How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"]

Why write? "Thinking about events you have experienced, and developing perspective about them, in some ways completes them, and finding the words to express that perspective brings about a sense of closure." Bradley, Time Present, Time Past.

How do professional writers write? "One thing I found out early in the game was that there was no way I could simply walk up to that room after breakfast, think of something to write about and then just spit it out in four or five hours.... I had to settle on an idea a week or so in advance and let it stew for a while. Browning, Notes from Turtle Creek. [We often prepare for writing by walking or engaging in some activity other than writing.]

Why write? Joyce Cary: "To sum up complex problems for action is an act of creative imagination." Cowley, ed., Writers at Work.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Writers on Writing 01

Question: What can you learn from writers about writing?


What causes writer's block? William Maxwell: "I don't think writer's block is anything more than a loss of confidence." Plimpton, ed., The Writer's Chapbook.

How much time does it take to write a book? "The writing of this book has consumed much of the last ten years...." Blum, V Was for Victory.

How prepare to write? "His [Loren Eiseley's] outlines usually consisted of nothing more than a short list of words jotted in the left-hand margin, a habit acquired during his student days when timed examinations dictated an economy of style." Christianson. Fox at the Wood's Edge: Loren Eiseley.

How do professional writers write? "...[sometimes] you ask an author how his new book is coming along, and he tells you: 'It's finished--all I have to do now is write it.' " Gross, ed., Editors on Editing.

What are some problems in writing clearly? "Clutter is the disease of American writing...a society strangling on unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon." Zinsser, On Writing Well.

What is the biggest problem with business writing? "Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important." Zinsser, On Writing Well."

What is the most wishy-washy sentence of the decade? Elliot Richardson: " 'And yet, on balance, affirmative action has, I think, been a qualified success.' ...a thirteen-word sentence with five hedging words.... Give it first prize as the most wishy-washy sentence of the decade." Zinsser, On Writing Well.

How can you learn to write? "The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis." Zinsser, On Writing Well.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Essential Punctuation 03

Question: What are the most frequent and important uses of the comma?

Answer: After introductory expressions; around “interrupters”; before “afterthoughts.”

After introductory Expressions:
Mr. Jones, will you please answer my question?
Yes, I would be glad to attend.
At the end of July, I was able to arrange….
Rapping her gavel loudly, Shirley called…..
Frightened by the sudden jolt, the child…..
To take good snapshots, you must….
Although he accepted the guilty plea, Judge Smith….

[Note: Introductory expressions have several grammatical names, including “direct address,” “prepositional phrases,” “verbal/gerundial/participial phrases,” “infinitive phrases,” “subordinate clauses,” etc. I have found that the term “introductory expressions” helps to simplify this use of the comma. Grammatical terminology would only add clutter and confusion to the procedure for separating the introductory expression from the rest of the sentence.]

[However, the use of commas after introductory expressions is inconsistent at best in real-world publications. The purpose of the comma after introductory expressions is to prevent confusion with the words that follow, forcing the reader to double-take and re-read the start of the sentence.]

Around “interrupters”:
Will you please, Mr. Jones, answer my question?
John Brown, the new captain, spoke to the team…..
He took Mary, who was home from college, to the movies that night.

BUT: "All drivers who go over 55 m.p.h. will be arrested immediately." “…who go over 55 m.p.h.” is not surrounded by commas because it is essential to the meaning. It is not “all drivers” who will be arrested, only “all drivers who go over 55 m.p.h.” That Mary is home from college is not essential, a kind of “by-the-way-did-you-know?” statement. Nonessential clauses and phrases are set off by commas.

[Note: For the same reason—avoiding clutter and confusion—that I included many grammatical terms under the label “introductory expressions” and did not teach the terminology in this context, I include “direct address,” “the appositive” and “relative” or “parenthetical” clauses under the label “interrupting expressions.”

Actually, the biggest problem with “interrupting expressions” is the failure of even experienced writers to use commas both before and after the interrupting expression.]

Before “Afterthoughts”:
He lived in Mendham, a town west of New York City.
One’s own judgment is superior to advice, whether it is good or bad.
The vote in America is a substitute for violence, to be defended as one defends civilization.
And somewhere along the line there was a vice-president named Throttlebottom, a good one, too.

[Note: The technical grammatical term for an “afterthought” is an “absolute,” an isolated construction. Many years ago, when people in English worried about defining a “mature” writing style, I read an article suggesting that the outstanding trait of mature writing was the frequent use of absolutes or “afterthoughts.” Absolutes or “afterthoughts” do seem to be plentiful in sophisticated and scholarly materials. ]

In general, these three uses of the comma are most helpful to readers, guiding them in the flow of thought. However, the use of the comma after introductory expressions is inconsistent in real-world publications and the problem with commas around interrupters is to be sure to include commas both before and after the interrupter. The comma before the “afterthought” is consistently used in real-world publications and a possible indicator of mature or sophisticated writing.

I found the expressions “introductory expressions,” “interrupters” and “afterthoughts” in a brief “fill-in” in an old copy of College Composition and Communication. The college, Susquehanna, coined the terms in describing what students had discovered to be the most frequent uses of the comma.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Essential Punctuation 02

Question: Can you simplify all those rules for the comma?

Answer: I can try. Although you might find it difficult to believe, punctuating with commas is NOT an exact science. People often ignore commas and no one is the wiser.

A couple of uses that you might forget are as follows:

Dates: “April 18, 1908, was the date of….” [Most people forget the comma after the year.]

Addresses: “She has lived at 33 Sycamore Street, Havertown, Pennsylvania, since ….” [Most people forget the comma after the state.]

Commas in series of three or more: “He ordered fishing tackle, bait and ammunition.” [You can put a comma before the “and” or not. Most people don’t. Just be consistent throughout. If you put the comma before the “and,” do the same throughout. If you do not put the comma before the “and” do the same throughout. The “Purists” will get you if you put a comma before the “and” in one case, but not in another.]

Commas in two-item series: “He was a tall, portly man.”[If you can substitute an “and” for the comma, then the comma is needed “He was a tall, (and) portly man." You can also test the two-item series by mentally adding a third item in the series, which tells you that you need the comma in the two-item series: “He was a tall, portly (and well-dressed) man.”]

Compound sentences. The rule says that you should put a comma before the coordinate conjunction in a long compound sentence, but it is not necessary in a short compound sentence.

The coordinate conjunctions are “and,” “or,” “nor,” “for,” “but,” “yet” and “so.” An example of a compound sentence is the following:“He arrived at the station early, and he had to wait for the train.” [The arbitrary nature of this use of the comma is in the length of the sentence. You don’t need a comma in a short compound sentence. You should use a comma before the coordinate conjunction in a long compound sentence. What’s long and short? Matter of judgment. If the compound sentence is that long, putting the comma before the coordinate conjunction will give the reader a break before plowing through the last part of the sentence. Put the comma in or leave it out. Unless the compound sentence is very long, readers will never notice.]

[Don’t use the comma if the subject of the second sentence is missing: “He arrived at the station early and had to wait for the train.” No “…he had to wait.” ]


“April 18, 1908, was the date of….”

“She has lived at 33 Sycamore Street, Havertown, Pennsylvania, since ….”

“He ordered fishing tackle, bait and ammunition” or “He ordered fishing tackle, bait, and ammunition.”

“He was a tall, [and] portly man.” or “He was a tall, portly [and well-dressed] man.”

“He arrived at the station early, and he had to wait for the train.” or “He arrived at the station early and he had to wait for the train.” Whether a compound sentence is long or short is a matter of judgment.

“He arrived at the station early and had to wait for the train.”

Next: Tomorrow, I will cover the three most frequent uses of the comma: after introductory expressions, around interrupters and before afterthoughts.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Essential Punctaution 01

One of my readers said she was surprised that “its” was the most common mistake in writing. She said she had more problems with punctuation. I’m sure many others would agree.

Question: What is one mistake in punctuation that no one in America should make? Answer: In America, periods and commas are placed INSIDE closing quotation marks. ALWAYS. NO EXCEPTIONS.

I read the short story, “Most Dangerous Game.” In America, the period is placed INSIDE the closing quotation marks, even though the quotation is only part of the sentence. Britons and Canadians would put the period outside of the closing quotation marks because it is only part of the sentence. NOT IN AMERICA.

The short story, “Most Dangerous Game,” is one of the most exciting I have ever read. In America, the comma is placed INSIDE the closing quotation marks, even though the quotation is only part of the sentence. Britons and Canadians would put the comma outside the closing quotation marks because the quotation is only a part of the sentence. NOT IN AMERICA.

The question mark (?) and the exclamation point (!) in America are the same as the practice of the British and Canadians. They are placed outside a quotation that is part of the sentence and inside when the quotation is a complete sentence. Did you read “Most Dangerous Game”? [part of sentence, outside] She asked, “Wasn’t that the best story you ever read?” [whole sentence, inside].

The semicolon and colon are ALWAYS placed outside the closing quotation marks.


1. Commas and periods, in America, are ALWAYS placed inside closing quotation marks.

2. Question marks and exclamation points are placed outside closing quotation marks when the quotation is part of the sentence, and inside the closing quotation marks when the whole sentence is a quotation.

3. Semicolons and colons are always placed outside the closing quotation marks.

I can still remember our professor at Villanova University exploding one day about the illiteracy of English majors. “You’re supposed to be English majors,” he said, “but you don’t even know that commas and periods go inside closing quotation marks.” I didn’t know that. And I never forgot it.


Friday, February 8, 2008

Avoiding Sexist Language

Probably the most persistent question on sexist language I have been asked is how to deal with sentences like this one:“Everyone returned to their homes.”

Ungrammatical solution: “Everyone” is singular and “their” is plural. Grammatically, they don’t agree. The purist says, “No way.”

The traditional solution, “Everyone returned to his home” is grammatically correct. “Everyone” is singular; “his” is singular. But the sentence is sexist, implying that the whole human race is male. Not acceptable.

Another solution popular in my professional journals is, “ Everyone returned to his or her home.” Awkward. And once you begin the string of “his and her” in following sentences, the language becomes repetitious and ugly.

The best solution is to begin in the plural and to stay there.“ The party goers returned to their homes.” The subject, “party goers,” is plural and “their” is plural. Grammatically, they agree. Besides “party goers” is more precise than “Everyone.” Believe me, it will be easier to switch from the singular subjects, “The student,” and “The child,” to the plural “Students” and “Children” than to have to deal with all the “his and her” phrases that the use of the singular will require.

By the way, one other solution to “Everyone returned to their homes” would be, “Everyone went home.” That solution has the advantage of conciseness.

But if you find yourself starting with the singular and wondering what to do about the awkward use of “his and her,” just change from singular to plural and everything will follow smoothly.

Also by the way, some people have criticized my use of “And” and “But” to begin sentences. English teachers tell you that you can’t do it. Professional writers in the real world do it all the time. I happen to like beginning sentences with “And” and “But,” but I do need to use the practice sparingly or it loses its effect. RayS.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Writer's Block

Topic: Writer's Block

Question: I’m a college student. The other day in English class the instructor walked into the room, gave the assignment, sat down at her desk and began to mark papers. The assignment: write a composition on the topic of “Autumn” and complete it during the class period. Wow! I had no idea how to even begin. I sat there during the class period staring at a blank sheet of paper and, of course, I never turned anything in. And I earned a zero. How on earth could I complete that assignment in one period? (This is a real experience with a real person whose initials are B.A.)

Answer: You experienced a form of writer’s block in which you can’t start to write because you don’t know how to begin. Here’s what you do the next time you are hit with a surprise composition.

You have approximately 50 minutes to complete the assignment.

Brainstorming: 10 minutes. Spend the first ten minutes brainstorming the topic. Quickly list as many ideas on the topic as you can think of. Don’t try to put them in order. Don’t pay any attention to grammar or spelling. Don’t even try to write in sentences. Just list your ideas in words and phrases. I guarantee you that your ideas will come.

Review your brainstorm and write a main idea and three sub-topics. 5 minutes. Quickly go over the ideas in your brainstorm and try to write a main idea with three sub-topics based on the main idea. Suggested main idea: “Autumn is a beautiful season.” Suggested sub-topics: weather, color and harvest moon.

Write the first draft, ( 15 minutes) beginning with the main idea or thesis sentence. Write quickly. Don't let spelling, sentence structure hold you up. You'll have another ten minutes to revise and edit. Turn the three sub-topics (weather, color, harvest moon) into paragraphs, with each sub-topic turned into the topic sentence: ("The weather in autumn is usually warm and sunny in the day with a touch of frost at night.") Include a summary, final paragraph.

Introduce the first paragraph with a description or incident to catch the reader's interest. The main idea or thesis sentence should follow the introduction. (5 minutes)

Edit: 10 minutes.Check your spelling. Spelling mistakes are most obvious and irk English teachers. Begin reading from the last word in the last paragraph back to the first word in the first paragraph. You’ll be better able to see the details of the words.

Then re-read the composition from first word to last, checking for any obvious mistakes. In that time you’ll only be able to correct really obvious problems like incomplete sentences or run-ons (two sentences run-together). (5 minutes)


Handwriting. By the way, such an assignment will most likely be handwritten. If your cursive writing is as illegible as mine, you’ll probably want to use manuscript (print) writing. Don’t worry about speed. Research shows that writers who use manuscript write just as quickly as writers who use cursive.

Note: Writer’s block comes from many different causes, and many different solutions are available. You tell me your experience with writer’s block and I will suggest solutions. RayS.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Capitalizing Family Relationhips

I’ll organize this one like Jeopardy: first the answer and then the question, which was asked by a friend who was editing a book.

Answer: When my uncle.... When her mother.... Then my pop.... When Uncle Don.... When Mother came down.... Then Pop would take us....

Question: When do you capitalize references to relatives?

You don’t capitalize the statement of relationship (“my uncle….” “her mother….” “Then, my pop took us….”

You do capitalize your relatives when you are referring directly to the person as a substitute for the actual name. “When Mother (Mrs. Sue Gibbon) came down stairs….” “Then Pop (Mr. George Gibbon) would take us….” And, of course, “When Uncle Don…..”

To be practical, if you put a word like “my” (possessive adjcectives--my, your, their, her, his, etc.) before the relative (“I called my mother”), you don’t capitalize. When you refer directly to the relative, without “my” or “her” or “his,” you do capitalize. “I called Mother.”

Tip: Keep a record of examples for quick reference. For example: Capitalization: "I called my dad to come in a hurry." "I called Dad to come in a hurry." The example is probably all you will need to remind yourself about how to solve this problem. Rays.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Spelling: -sede; -ceed; -cede.

The “-sede,” “-ceed” and “-cede” words.

No one asked me this question. The copy or headline editor for the West Chester Daily Local News should have asked it.There it was. Right in the headline: “Supercede.” An unforgivable spelling error right in the middle of the headline. I rubbed my hands in glee. Was I ever going to let the editor of the Daily Local hear about this one!

Why, the kids in my 9th-grade class knew that ONLY ONE word ends in “-SEDE” and that word is “superSEDE.” Only THREE words end in“-CEED” and they are “PROceed,” “SUCceed” and “EXceed.” All the other “-CEDE” words end in “-CEDE” (except for the SEED that you plant in the ground): “intercede,” “secede,” “precede,” "recede," etc.

And then I got to thinking. I didn’t know that spelling “rule” until I read Harry Shefter’s Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling. And that was when I was teaching my first ninth-grade class. I never learned it or knew it in grade school, high school or college. The editor had probably never been taught that spelling rule either. So I sat down and wrote a diplomatic letter to the editor, telling him the “–sede, -ceed, and –cede” “rule.”

I began the letter by saying “You probably never knew this, but there is a rule about words ending in “–sede, -ceed and –cede.” I mailed the letter and didn’t think of it again until the phone rang on a Saturday night. Would you believe it? It was the editor of the Daily Local. He thanked me for the letter, admitted he did not know the rule and said that he appreciated my not blasting him for the mistake. Most people, he said, would have called me an idiot and other less printable words.

That's one reason I try to be tactful when correcting other people's English. I hope you, too, will be tactful when you find my inevitable mistakes. RayS.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Most Frequent Mistake in Writing

Q & A on Writing. Introduction.
First, a trivia question: What is the most frequent mistake in writing? Answer at the end.

I have spent 35 years in teaching and supervising English, and I have learned to anticipate the problems, mistakes and questions most people have in writing, grammar, usage, spelling and punctuation.

So this Web site is for you, your children and your grandchildren—and great-grandchildren—or anyone you know who has a question about writing. Just send me your question(s) on writing, grammar, usage, spelling and punctuation to The answer will appear in my blog. The questioner will be anonymous. The service is absolutely free.

If you need a quick reply, before the answer is published in the blog, I will send it as soon as I can by e-mail.You will find the blog at

Now for the answer to my trivia question. A study in the English education journal College Composition and Communication says that the most frequent mistake in grammar in student writing is the possessive pronoun, “its.”People confuse “it’s,” which is a contraction for “it is,” with the possessive “its”: “the dog ran with its tail between its legs,” etc.

It might help you to remember that there is no apostrophe in the possessive form of “it,” “its,” by noting that NO possessive pronoun uses an apostrophe: “his,” “hers,” “yours,” “theirs” and “its.”The mistake comes from relating the possessive pronoun, “its,” to the normal possessive of singular nouns: “the dog’s coat,” “the horse’s bridle,” etc.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Review of Questions on Writing by RayS in 2007

Directions: Continuing the list of questions I have already answered about writing in 2007. The date at the end of the question is the date on which I have published my answer. Just go to the “Blog Archive” on the right of the blog. Click on "2007." Click on the month and find the date and my answer.

How do I learn to write something with which I am unfamiliar? Tuesday, October 2, 2007.

Are writing standards slipping? Thursday, October 4, 2007.

What annoys professional editors about writers? Monday, October 8, 2007.

How can I find ideas to write about? Tuesday, October 9, 2007.

How do I write for a scientific journal? Wednesday, October 10, 2007.

How can I help high school and college students practice their writing? Thursday, October 11, 2007.

What can I learn on the Internet about Writing? Powerpoint Presentations. Monday, October 15, 2007.

What are some myths about writing and teaching writing? Tuesday, October 16, 2007.

What should I look for when I revise? Wednesday, October 17, 2007.

Where can you find good information on business writing? Thursday, October 18, 2007.

How should I organize a business letter? Friday, October 19, 2007.