Episode 8 of Word Shots is up.

In this episode, I discuss how badly a sentence can go awry if the subject is a non-entity, and the object is, too, and the verb is either implausible or contains no action. If it sounds like such sentences must be rare, you haven’t read much American academic writing.


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Stephanie Silverman, speech coach

Stephanie Silverman, public speaking guru.

I discovered speech coach Stephanie Silverman by hearing her on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me. She’ll be my guest on the March 19 episode of Word Shots, the Maximum-Strength Writing podcast.

We had a great conversation over Skype to record that episode. Until that gets published, here’s Stephanie all by herself.

In this video, she discusses:

  • voice dynamics
  • what to do with your hands
  • what to do with the rest of your body
  • how to manage eye contact
  • how to practice effectively

As you’ll find again on next week’s podcast, Stephanie is delightful to listen to. She also knows her stuff. Enjoy!



What's another word for thesaurus - Steven Wright

Ray MacLean – Flickr

Episode 3 of the Word Shots podcast is up. I look at how two non-native English speakers damaged their writing by using perfectly “legal” English words that no English speaker ever heard. Go back to episode 2 to learn the method I recommend for staying out of that kind of trouble.

In this episode, I also mentioned fellow podcaster Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl. As an adjunct to the episode, I wrote a small page on why I listen to her podcast every week. Since I advise people to “graduate from grammar”, and GG wears the word grammar proudly on her sleeve, why I would listen to her is a question worth asking.

Hangman's noose

Better to be an editor. – photo by Snap® – Flickr

I was catching up reading the Arrant Pedantry blog yesterday and found this very erudite post on the distinction between hung and hanged.

Jonathon Owen neglected to mention the importance of this distinction in translating Kierkegaard.

I’m pretty sure the melancholy Dane meant to say “Better well hanged than badly married.”

Get that one wrong and it’s really, really wrong.


In honor of National Grammar Day, here’s my list of the five worst grammar errors I see made too often.

5. “Give your papers to Tom and I…”

cartoon boy handing in homework

Teacher Tom wants you to share this with he.

If I’m receiving something from your hand, you’re giving it to me, not to I. It doesn’t matter that Tom is also involved. So if you’re having trouble with grammar (which is indeed difficult), tell Mignon and me. If I’d said “Tell Mignon and I”, then I wouldn’t be someone you should turn to for grammar advice.

4. Login and signup as verbs

Log in is a verb phrase. So is sign up. When you run either of those phrases together, making login or signup, you’re creating an adjective. Login page is legitimate. So is signup form. But “go to our website to signup” is not. This error is closely related to the common confusion between every day and everyday.

3. Insisting that only grammar can determine usage

There are too many instances of this to count. A prominent one rears its head in the debate over what pronoun to use for a person of unknown sex.

I’ve heard it said, “No, you can’t say they to refer to one person. They is plural.” The person making this argument is insisting that language should be governed by grammar. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of language.

I’m all for good grammar. And I stand up for grammar being the court of first resort in decisions. (I still use media and data as plurals, for example, and I say whom when it fits.) But sometimes grammar is trumped by other good things, such as logic.

Example 1: I respect the opinions of those who insist that sometimes media and data are mass nouns, no more countable than water. Thus I respect their decision to treat these words, like water, as grammatically singular, even though I choose otherwise.

D. Wade and Chris Bosh

We are more than LeBron. Are. Not is.

Example 2: It’s perfectly natural for the British to use a plural verb with a singular noun. This is when that singular noun is referring to an entity that comprises multiple persons, such as a corporation or sports team. (And note that the British often refer to a team not by its team name but by its city.) Thus my English friends who care about basketball might very naturally say, “How are Miami doing in the NBA finals?”

Yes, it sounds strange to me. But it would be foolish to insist that grammar should trump logic. In this case, Americans choose grammar, Brits choose logic. Only gross chauvinism can believe in some cosmic law decreeing that one nation is (or are) idiots.

2. Correcting the language of someone who hasn’t asked to be corrected.

If we English speakers had a single, universally accepted set of rules and laws, then it might make sense to go around correcting people who violate those rules. But we don’t, and it doesn’t. All too often I hear people correcting the grammar of others and, in doing so, displaying only their own ignorance.

Pikes Peak sign.

Pike is dead so it’s no longer his. Get over it.

And this brings us to the champion of all ways of using grammar to make a fool of oneself:

1. Correcting the language of someone who hasn’t asked to be corrected, when they’re right and you’re wrong. And then being corrected and arguing about it.

First of all, I dare you to get me started on people who don’t know what grammar is.

blue ribbon

O lad I don’t know where you been but I see you won first prize.

Second, I know what a sentence fragment is, and I’m aware that I just used one (in the header an inch or so above here.) And I used it for effect, and I know what I’m doing. I know that I’m writing a blog, not a dissertation.

But, ahem, to my real point…

Number 2 covers the matter of correcting the grammar of someone who’s right when you’re wrong. If the game were hockey, this would be a hat trick, the scoring of three goals in a single game. Persons committing this sin have

  1. displayed their poor grasp of etiquette,
  2. alienated a specific human being, and
  3. displayed their ignorance of the language.

    Babe Ruth home run.

    It’s outa here!

But some carry their folly even further. Sometimes the receiver of such misguided correction accepts the unstated ground rule that arguments over grammar are fair play. They correct the corrector. And a little (or a large) spat ensues.

If correcting someone who wasn’t wrong is a hat trick, this added folly requires we turn to another sport for our metaphor. Turning one’s wrongness into a fight is a four-base hit. To the three bits of damage listed above, you’ve now added

4. demonstrating that you are positively in love with your ignorance.

To those who commit this worst of grammatical sins, congratulations. You just might have hit a friendship out of the park.

Best Teacher Award

… but then maybe the bar is higher than I think.



Max says writers, not dictionaries, are the arbiters of language.

Episode 2 of Word Shots discusses who has the authority to determine whether something is a word. Getting the answer right can be the difference between weak writing and strong.

And, no, the answer isn’t always “Tammy at Chi Delt”.

The writers in the picture on that page are (clockwise from top left):

Mary Shelley

C. S. Lewis

Saul Bellow

Eight Greats. Click for larger size.

Eight Greats. Click for larger size.

Carson McCullers

Christopher Hitchens

James Baldwin

George Orwell

H. L. Mencken

Barrons Grammar in Plain English cover 450x744

Cover of Barron’s Grammar in Plain English, showing a number of errors, one of which is actually grammatical. Click image to expand.


Episode 1 of Word Shots defines grammar as:

All the ways you can mess up when you write or open your mouth

Apparently the Barron’s publishing empire agrees. Here’s the cover of one of their titles. The errors and the markup of the errors are theirs.

A truly useful definition of grammar would outlaw “Twenty-one lessons builds…”. Everything else marked in red on that cover is some other kind of error. But Barron’s doesn’t want to burden its students with useful definitions, which would be “technical jargon”.

This is not to denigrate this book, or even the folk definition of grammar, which is the one given above and expanded upon in the podcast. Resources like the Barron’s book are very useful. All the ways you can mess up are indeed to be avoided, and books like this, which help you avoid them, serve an important purpose. But to graduate from grammar, when grammar is defined in such a negative way, is a very desirable thing.

Episode #1 of the Word Shots podcast explains what it means to graduate from grammar.


Word Shots Header 250x250

Every week I meet someone who wants to improve as a speaker or writer.

To respond to this need, I’ve launched a new podcast.

Word Shots is designed to convey lessons I’ve learned in over 20 years of work as a writer, editor, and reader.

In the first episode, “Graduate from Grammar“, I discuss the limitations of grammar as an approach to learning language.

Future episodes of the podcast will explain the complexities of the English language, but will also cover essential aspects of effective communication regardless of language. These include:

  • understanding an audience
  • optimizing writing to enhance flow
  • structuring arguments and presentations of facts
  • effective use of humor
  • the links between written and spoken language
  • and probably enough other topics to keep going for decades.

I’ve learned about communication from a number of excellent teachers, and I’ve found that the subject is best learned in a community of eager students. So I’m avidly seeking reactions to the podcast, and hope to build a community of lovers of language. If you listen to the podcast, please comment! I’ve created several ways to give feedback, and would be delighted to hear from you.



Why Blog?

Now that blogging is old enough to apply to college, it’s no longer easy—hasn’t been for a long time—to break into the Technorati 100 (if such a thing still exists). So, is blogging still worthwhile? I’ve been asking myself that question, and a few people have supplied answers

I started blogging in 2002. This means I was, if not exactly bleeding edge, pretty early into the blogosphere. Most of my blogs have never been officially discontinued, but all have certainly fallen into neglect. Now, more than a decade after my first post, I’m trying to talk myself into blogging again.

Here are some of the folks who are helping me:

Christie Aschwanden wrote about why she blogs. Her post is a month old, but it’s almost timeless. Every writer would do well to read it once then then re-read it about once a year. The elevator version:

Here at LWON, we have a saying that we share with one another when our software gets buggy or we’re feeling mortified by a glaring typo we just discovered in a post. IJAB—it’s just a blog. I think it’s that attitude, that permission to not be perfect, that makes LWON so good.

And yes, The Last Word On Nothing is very good.

Then there’s Christopher Penn on why he blogs every day. Almost daunting, but then “almost daunting” pretty much captures Penn in a nutshell. His three reasons:

  1. Forced Learning
  2. Forced Creativity
  3. Forced Discipline

Finally, there’s Ira Glass:

“Do A Lot Of Work

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.  But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

 A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase…

You gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.

It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.”

Three voices worth heeding.

Have you been tasked with creating a survey? Are you wondering where to start?

Well, this post won’t give you the answer (although of course you could phone us…). But over the next month, we’ll be undertaking a survey of survey tools. And when it’s published you’ll have a bit of genuine help you can hold in your hand.

What we can give you today is a list of some questions we’ll be asking the survey tools we test. (I list the most important questions first):

Hey you survey tool…

  1. Will you let my data be mine, and not waste away in some dungeon you’ve built?
  2. Do you enable and encourage good research methods?
  3. Do you make it easy to check skip logic?
  4. Do you come from a viable company that understands research?
  5. Are you inexpensive to use, when learning and deployment time are taken into account?
  6. Do you enable mixed-mode research?
  7. Do you enable and track variants on my survey (such as order and wording of questions, subsets, etc.) without costing me extra?
  8. Do you enable multi-platform deployment (since some folks will only take my survey on a tablet or smartphone)?

Hey you valued reader…

I’m done talking to the survey tool. Your turn now.

Over the next week or so, I’ll write some new posts, expanding on these questions and explaining why each one matters.

In the meantime, I do welcome phone calls!

And I’d be delighted to see comments telling me what you look for in a survey tool.