When we say that something is ambiguous, we mean that it can be understood in more than one way. The word is built from Latin pieces that mean to move around, and so what we call ambiguous is something that won’t stay put long enough, so to speak, to make a commitment. Take, for example, this brief sentence: He watched her play with pride. Imagine that the statement is referring to a father watching his daughter playing baseball. Can we say with certainty which of the two people involved, father or daughter, is acting with pride? We could conjecture, of
You will know immediately, as I did, what this sentence posted at the entrance of a store means to say: Help stop the spread of Covid and stand six feet apart. We are being told to do two things, help and stand, and we understand, without being told anything more, that those two actions are closely related. Revising what we write is not always about correcting errors. It can also be about hunting for hidden meaning, so that by looking closely at the words we’ve composed, trying alternatives and seeing what new meaning results, we might decide that the revised
The second Writing Smartly seminar, Writing a Good Sentence, will be held on October 13, at 7:00 p.m. This one-hour discussion will review the fundamental structure of every well-written sentence and explain how to sharpen the focus of a statement by examining its subject and verb: an exact noun, a strong verb, and fewer prepositions make for clear and compelling sentences. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation and includes exercises and answers for private study. A few minutes will be set aside at the end of the discussion to answer questions. If you wish to enroll, please
I was reading an opinion piece in one of the major newspapers online recently and I came upon a sentence whose grammatical construction is curious, but correct. The subject was medical treatment for the coronavirus, and the author wrote that in medicine transparency, candor and humility is paramount. So why is paramount instead of are paramount? The subject of a clause may be simple or compound. Simple subjects refer to one thing only, and require accordingly a singular verb in their predicate; so, for example, transparency is paramount. Compound subjects, on the other hand, refer to more than one thing,
It is often said that writing is rewriting, that our first draft is rarely the final one. And if that’s true (and it is), then understanding the structure of the sentences we’ve managed to put down in the first draft can help us in finding the final best expression of our thoughts and ideas for the reader we are addressing. English grammar organizes the many different styles of sentences that are possible into three (sometimes four, but three suffices) basic types: simple, compound, and complex. Which of these categories any particular sentence falls into is determined by the number and
Nouns and Adjectives Tuesday, October 20 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. On October 20, again from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., the next Writing Smartly seminar, Nouns and Adjectives, will clarify the difference between count and collective nouns, and explain how that knowledge can keep your ideas exact and clear. Adjectives make nouns more specific, and using them skillfully depends on where they are placed and how they are punctuated. We will also discuss how best to use a comma in listing a series of nouns and adjectives, and highlight the misunderstanding that can result in not punctuating accurately. Participants will receive
I would venture to say that the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ Nobody’s Story will bring most anybody’s attention to a halt: He lived on the bank of a mighty river, broad and deep, which was always silently rolling on to a vast undiscovered ocean. The sentence opens a very short story (only six pages), and it glistens with a symbolism that sparkles meaning through the entire first paragraph. Sentences like this which are so well drawn are worth looking at more closely; their power lies in their structure, and it can be instructive to understand what at first appears
Reading Closely to Write Wednesdays, November 11 & 18 and December 2 & 9 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. It’s an open secret that we learn to write by reading. On Wednesday, November 11, I will begin a course of four one-hour sessions called Reading Closely to Write, each of which will examine the sentence structure and design of a well-written story by an acclaimed writer. Discussions will focus on the language of a short work of fiction (averaging only eight pages). We will analyze the grammar and composition of certain significant sentences, and consider how other designs the author could
The stunning technology all around (and sometimes even inside) us has brought with it the suggestion that speed and ease are always better, that getting where we want to go with as few impediments as possible is the standard of work and living we should aspire to achieve, always. To argue the opposite—let’s try to live in deep and plodding frustration with few hopes and infinite obstacles—would be absurd, of course, but what about an argument for slowing down a bit, for taking a longer (not the longest) way home sometimes? There is no writing without a dictionary and usage
Verbs and Adverbs Tuesday, October 27 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. Verbs are at the heart of our sentences, and understanding a few basic ideas about them—what is meant by the principal parts of a verb, a direct object, and tense—can go far in helping us to revise our drafts. Adverbs work with verbs, but they are often misplaced; and if we don’t know exactly where to position an adverb, we can unintentionally change the meaning of a sentence. This one-hour seminar will discuss these points, along with some basic observations about using the comma accurately. Participants will receive a handout
Observing the language around us can teach us more than just the rules of grammar. Putting words together inevitably involves what is called diction, the choice and arrangement of words that determines our relationship to our readers. The vocabulary and phrasing we organize can establish a pleasant geniality or a distant authority, each with its own real consequences for the way we are regarded. A high school, for example, recently posted this sign in its cafeteria: Please put your face covering/mask back on when finished eating. What confronts us first is the slash, or virgule, a stand-in for the conjunction
Writing Smartly’s first seminar, Teaching Grammar, will be offered again on Saturday morning, October 31, from 10:00 to 11:00. I am hoping this new time will prove convenient for a number of people who have expressed an interest in this and other seminars but have been unable to attend the regular Tuesday evening section. Tuition is $25, and you may enroll now through this registration link. A description is below. Teaching Grammar Our dramatic change of circumstances over the last few months has suddenly pressed many into the role of teacher, either to supplement the online education that is taking