We forget sometimes, I think, how changeable we are, how many personalities we present through the day. It may be that we should aspire to concentrate and focus those many dispositions we have, but our daily life is made up of relationships with others who call out from us certain tendencies, and we respond in light of the circumstances we find ourselves in. We speak and act for someone and to a purpose. These two concerns—audience and purpose—are central to writing. Our first question in revising should always be, for whom am I writing? This determines what is called the
If so much of writing is about striking the right relationship between author and subject, then we can’t neglect thinking about how we shape and punctuate our sentences. To be related means to be connected, to be tied in some way to someone or something else in a situation. A relationship has to do with the manner in which we act and exist before someone else. The way we speak to a friend can be very different from the way we speak to someone we’ve never met before, and in writing, that change shows up in the choices we make
To appreciate something means to prize it, to put and hold a value on it. Life is such, thankfully, that we each come to have a range of things we value, some in common with everyone else and some more particularly our own. But whatever we value, we should be able to give a reason why we prize it so. Without a reason, you like what you like, I like what I like, and up go the walls between us. Life is much more wild than that. A reaction, though, is not a reason. React is what we do when
Not-so-fond memories of our school days might remind us that adjectives describe things. That’s true, but like so much of what we learned about grammar in our early days, more could be said, and that more could make the whole subject of language and composition a lot more interesting. I had occasion the other day to look up the word replica in the dictionary. Something I was reading was making the distinction between a replica and a copy, and I wondered about the difference between the two. A replica, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it, is a copy exact in
Let’s look at the language of a casual exchange between two managers about an employee who is regularly late to work. Having been told about the problem, one manager says, I’ll talk with him when he gets in, and the other replies, Yeah, well, when he gets in is just the question. Both sentences work just fine grammatically, and the second statement even exhibits a little sophisticated playfulness with the language. And it’s right there—in what’s happening in the second sentence—that we can learn something grammatical. Straightforward remarks can often be fairly complex in structure, and that is the case
When we begin to look more closely at the sentences we read and write, it can often be more difficult than we might think to identify the subject of a statement. A first course in grammar will explain that the subject is what the sentence is about, but that can be confusing because more often than not, a sentence is talking about a lot of things. The sentence Chicago has many beautiful parks along Lake Michigan has three nouns, Chicago, parks, and Lake Michigan, so we might well ask which of those three things this sentence is about. Here’s where
On your desk (or desktop) you have a dictionary and next to it you have (don’t admit it if you don’t) a style guide. Knowing the definition of a word is one thing; knowing how to use two similar words, or punctuate phrase and clauses, or build more sophisticated sentences accurately is very much another. An excellent modern style guide is Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner (4th edition, Oxford, 2016); older ones, such as A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage by Bergen and Cornelia Evans (Random House, 1957), can be quite instructive as well. One topic probably every
Should I be reluctant or reticent to spend my savings on a new car? Am I reticent or recalcitrant to talk about a friend’s personal problems? The strength of writing what is called expository prose—the kind of writing about facts that most of us do most of the time—lies in making precise distinctions, and that involves choosing the right word with just the right shade of meaning. So what is the difference between being reluctant, reticent, or recalcitrant? To be reluctant means to be hesitant over, to struggle against an action or idea that confronts us. The word luctor in
Someone once told me that he didn’t like reading fiction because it wasn’t true. Now it’s true that fiction isn’t true, but what is imaginary is not necessarily meaningless. Reading fiction can do a lot for us, but one especially great thing it can do for us as writers is exercise our skill in image-making. Here is the opening paragraph of a short story entitled “Eugene” by the American writer Aline Bernstein I quote it from Reading for Pleasure, edited by Bennett Cerf (Harper, 1957), an older anthology of short stories. Notice the clear-cut, unmistakable representations of both sleep and