Maybe If We Tried Writing Well

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Bath’s Prior Park in England’s West Country features a rare Palladian bridge in a landscape garden devised in the 18th century by Alexander Pope and Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Photo: iStockphoto / Eric2x


I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.

— Marshall McLuhan


I’ve been putting together some thoughts recently on our collective readership.

Not us when we read. Not our delegation here of Unboxed Writers.

And not even the wider community of writers, local and offshore, national and intergalactic, the diaspora-digital, and where it stops, nobody knows. That’s still us. We who read wee bits of each other and say we loved it. That’s just us chickens.

No, I mean the real readership. The end user. He who hurls your book across the room. She who reads fanny fiction and imagines she’s having a literary experience. The reader.

As writers, what do we ask of that reader? Literacy. That’s what we need. We need someone who is literate — per Merriam-Webster Unabridged:

Characterized or possessed of learning…able to read and write…versed or immersed in literature or creative writing…dealing with literature or belles lettres.

We ask that our customer, our consumer, our windsurfer, come to our creations with a few drachmas in hand. The currency we accept is literacy. The reader must not leave home without it.

But that reader is not expected to be in the business, as we are. We who do the writing. We who build the bridges and the mansions. We who want them to like us, to really, really like us.

The reader, while literate, can expect to be served by us with a greater level of literacy than she or he must attain. This is the unspoken covenant.

If everyone in 16th-century Venice had been Andrea Palladio, then Palladio would be nobody. Instead, that small, exquisite bridge at the foot of Prior Park in Bath, England, means something — it’s a prized architectural example of Palladian genius, one of only four such bridges left in the world, according to the National Trust. Prior Park, itself, was designed with the help of the poet Alexander Pope and a then-famous landscape-garden designer called “Capability” Brown.

Today, we’re the “Capabilities,” the ones who can bring Palladian order to human nature. We’re the ones who design with words for a living. We’re the experts, the snazzy guys.

So why don’t we use the language correctly for our readers? Why do we have our characters say such things as these?

  • “I’m going to lay out in the sun”
  • “The news media is untrustworthy.”
  • “I may literally eat a horse.”
  • “I could care less.”
  • “There are over fourteen of them.”
  • “That group was comprised of lots of folks.”
  • “You can read this book for free.”
  • “None of them are coming with me.”

In your speech and, worse, in your writing, are you using such formulations? If so, do you necessarily agree with what you write? If no, what’s your favorite excuse?

Excuse #1: It’s conversational

At television news networks, anchors and correspondents complain when corrected by the control room that the wrongly worded phrases they’ve just uttered on-air were “conversational.”

This is always rubbish. It’s completely possible to speak the language correctly and still be conversational. And here’s how to test this yourself:

Say to the largest gathering of people you can find, “I’m now going to lie out in the sun.” Then report to me how many of those people rise up and accuse you of being non-conversational because you used the correct form of the verb.

Excuse #2: It’s accepted usage nowadays

By whom? I do not accept “the media is.”

But let’s say it is accepted, by everybody, even that boorish Porter.

So what? Why not be better than mall-speak?

Let’s get very specific with this one: Why do we need to make a plural word singular? What possible good does this do us? We have the singular form, ready and waiting: medium. And that’s my message. Or massage if the famous McLuhan typo strikes me silly as I write this.

Are you genuinely unable to spare enough mental space and linguistic grace to offer your readers one medium and two media? Are you so poor of intellect and miserly of vocabulary that you can’t summon up the simple distinction between one phenomenon and two phenomena? If a painter doesn’t know his amparo blue from his gentian blue, that painter is a fraud, don’t buy a canvas from him. And if you can’t find it in your heart to distinguish one bacterium from two bacteria, why should anyone pay for your work?

Excuse #3: My characters talk that way

Then your characters are as lazy as you are.

If you’re working in genuine dialect or accent (they are not the same, do you know the difference?), then there may be a reason to utilize some substandard English. But if your reader at any point is unsure that substandard speech was put there deliberately — if she wonders whether you just didn’t know what you were doing — then you’ve screwed up.

Excuse #4: The reader doesn’t know the difference

Oh, yes, he does. One of the most compelling things about the readership is that it tends to be peopled by folks who are surprisingly good at the tools of our trade. Sometimes I think this is because they don’t write: these lessons in school were harder for them to grasp, thus they retain more vivid memories of them than we do.

Liz Bureman recently wrote a bit of guidance titled Stop Saying “Literally.” She led with a few lines about Rob Lowe’s character in the NBC show Parks and Recreation, no relation whatever to Prior Park. Lowe’s character misuses “literally” in the popular way, using it as a general intensifier. He means “figuratively.” This is a running gag on the show, set up with ridiculous clarity by the way Lowe delivers it. The audience-at-large knows it’s wrong. They’re laughing at him, not with him.

Your readers know you’re wrong. They’re not laughing with you.

Excuse #5: Language is supposed to serve us, not hobble us

Great. So why have your work edited? It’s just language. Lets throw out all the rules every one of them and maybe in fact I won’t even use periods or commas or any other punctuation to divide this drivel I’m writing into sentences I might just keep going with it like this for as long as I damned well please because the language serves me sweet cheeks and whatever I need it to do is more important than some old maids rules and regulations from the 1920s when they still had time to sit around and make up inane grammar laws that now are like OMG just too much trouble you know to fool with and they cramp the development of my personal form of expression

Excuse #6: I don’t know the language well enough

Ah. Thank you. And that’s not an excuse, that’s a reason, a very valid and respectable one as soon as you admit it. If you’re not sure you can tell correct usage from the Bieber-fed babble of the moment — and if you’re willing to learn — then you’re the one kind of badly spoken writer I like.

There are books. There are podcasts. There are courses. There are tutors. There are many ways to get the training you need to handle this essential aspect of being an authentic writer. If you’re sincere about writing, this is a step you can’t skip. I’m using the term “essential” deliberately, as in indispensable.

We don’t necessarily agree with ourselves

I believe that one of the reasons we’re seeing so much badly written material these days is that honesty is not considered agreeable. So we don’t say, “You know, you’ve got five gaffes in that first chapter, my friend, you may need to get some more eyes on that thing.” Instead, we say, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever read.”

Have you noticed how rarely the term “talent” comes up when we discuss writing? It’s not considered nice to talk about talent, “Capability.” Same as intelligence. Someone who doesn’t have as much talent or intelligence might be hurt, right? We act as if everybody’s at the same level, although we know they aren’t.

Look, I want you to forget that stuff your mother taught you about “If you can’t say anything nice…” Chances are your mother wasn’t in the business, either, and it was fine for her to speak as if she were a fad on legs.

We need to honor each other with truthful exchanges of corrective information. It’s possible to be both forthright and supportive, truthful and kind, firm and gentle.

Such collegial friendship exists only among those who are working to be the real things. To build bridges, raise villas, design piazzas that will make people, 500 years later, say our names, Palladio, and admire our “Capability.” Our work won’t be revered because we used language as if we were skateboarders.

So happy holidays, and you tell me: Why don’t we have more emphasis these days on writing the language well? Have you found yourself over time accepting less rigorous standards — either in your own writing or others’ — than you’d have agreed to before?


About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in publishing. Anderson is The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook in London, a sister site focused on developments in digital publishing. He is also a featured writer with Thought Catalog in New York, writing on publishing and on #MusicForWriters in association with Q2 Music. In 2015, Anderson has programmed the IDPF Digital Book Conference that opened BookExpo America (BEA) and is programming the First Word event at the Novelists Inc. (NINC) conference later in the year. And he is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair on special programming for its new Business Club suite of events and facilities, now in its second year, 13-16 October, in the 2015 Buchmesse. More on his consultancy, which includes Library Journal's and BiblioBoard's SELF-e among its clients in 2015: | Google+


  1. says

    I will *never* accept less rigorous standards! As an editor I have influence on a small circle of folks, as a blogger I influence (maybe!) a slightly larger circle. The first group listens, but among the second I’ve heard every excuse you list. :) Great article, Porter! Thank you!

    • says

      You know, I think it’s great that your clients listen to you on standards — some editors don’t even have that much impact on the folks they edit. So I can congratulate you on that. And keep at it in the blogging work, too. I do think some of this will swing back at some point when everything simply becomes too “casual” to bear. But it’s going to be a while.

      Thanks for reading and for tweeting the column, as well. Happy holidays!

  2. says

    Porter, I be in total agreement and couldn’t have said them things better. : )
    Seriously, you’ve made some good points. I have learned to ignore such errors, the way I skip over bad language and sex scenes in a novel that is otherwise worth reading. Nevertheless, there’s a small voice within me that protests each time I read such material.
    Merry Christmas.

    • says

      Hey, Richard,

      Thanks for them good comments, lol, and for reading the post, too.

      While I applaud your ability to hop over the offensive bits (and I’m sorry to hear they include the sex scenes!), I’d suggest only that this is a great talent of smart people — ignoring the tripe — which unfortunately does little to eradicate bad practices. The more we shut our eyes to it, the more it proliferates because we don’t respond with the correct criticism.

      So I’d suggest the next time you’re getting into something that’s not what it should be, consider plowing through and then getting in touch with the writer or his or her publisher to announce your displeasure. Only complaints can change these things.

      Thanks again for reading and responding, and bests for the season.

  3. Ann Vitale says

    Why “He was gifted with” when “He was given” is correct and shorter? Why “It was a good read” when “It is a good book, or article, or essay” is more precise?
    Yesterday a news article commenting on the holiday decorations of a nearby town stated, “They twinkled the town with lights.”
    Language evolves, but must its new generations be bastardized?

    • says

      Wonderful examples of what’s happening, Ann!

      “Gifted” and “gifting” are really irritating, I gripe about them constantly.

      And another of the bad usages news anchors are deeply into these days is tossing to a report or SOT (“sound on tape”) by saying, “Take a listen.” Makes me crazy. Why not just just tell the viewers to listen? No, we have to tell them to “take a listen.” I say take a walk, take a break, take a powder, but don’t ask me to “take a listen.”

      And “a read!” Exactly.

      To keep our sanity, I think we have to realize that we bookish people can’t get whole herds of horses in the popular media back into their barns. (Meaning, I really have to let go of bad anchor speak on newscasts!) But perhaps if we focus on the world of publishing we can at least flag these problems and make some of our fellow writers aware.

      If no other place — certainly not in film, TV, radio — surely books should be the last refuge for someone who wants to see some language handled well. I have to hope I’m right. :)

      Thanks for reading and commenting and good holidays –

  4. says

    Thank you, Porter.

    If I hear “I want to thank you and the construction crew from Susie and myself” on one more home improvement show, I might cry.

    I’m not sure why the football gets spotted on the “45 yard line of Green Bay” instead of the “Green Bay 45”.

    When my daughter was in elementary school, another student drew a sign for the girls’ lavatory to remind the children to “Wash Your Hand’s” and the TEACHER laminated it and hung it on the wall without correcting it.

    I saw it in the lavatory and went to the principal, sputtering, “Really?” The principal’s secretary put a bit of White-Out over the misplaced apostrophe on the sign, but the correction didn’t last long. The little artist scratched it off with her fingernail and complained that someone had defaced her artwork.

    In the wake of this incident, I told my daughter I was a member of the GES (Grammar Enforcement Squad) and it was my sworn duty to correct things like misplaced apostrophes. She began to notice them herself–on the marquee at the local theater. (Horrors!) At a locally owned craft store, we got the giggles over handwritten signs that marked the aisles for “Ribbon’s” and “Bead’s” and “Floral’s”.

    I’m pleased to report my daughter’s passion for correct grammar survived our three-year stint in the Deep South, where a harried teacher at the junior high admonished the class with, “Y’all ain’t got no more manners than a passel of Yankees!”

    As Andy Griffith once said, “Ain’t nothin’ easy.”

    And to which my girl whispered to herself, “Grammar trumps manners, ma’am.”

    • says

      Lovely work with the daughter, Tracy, so glad you’re proactive on these issues.

      The misuse of apostrophes — so many times it’s purely overuse — is mystifying. To my fevered view, the concept of an apostrophe indicating that something is being left out was easy to grasp when I was growing up, and so was its use for possessives. But this can really trip up so many folks.

      Much of the time, I think we’re seeing the application of incorrect blanket responses to things. (“All plurals take apostrophes” must be floating around in some of these heads. No doubt as “All plural’s take apostrophe’s.”)

      As a native Charlestonian, I can tell you that there are elements of Deeply Southern culture that are ferociously good with grammar and intensely tough on those who aren’t. Anyone south of Broad Street in the “Holy City” knows what to do with an apostrophe. But the wider Southern communities are, of course, behind much of the rest of the country in many aspects of educational work and contemporary cultural development. At times, they can be be shockingly purposeful about their general disdain for addressing the problems. Resistance is still worn as a badge of honor in some Southern societies, perpetuating both the perception and reality of backwardness.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and best wishes for your holiday’s. JUST KIDDING. Your holidays.

  5. Larry Wilson says

    At last, here is someone with the courage to speak the truth about bad writing! Why do we who stand up for linguistic integrity have to endure being called nerds, grammar police, or even Nazis?

    When I began critiquing the stories of other writings hoping to get published, I was surprised to find so many who seemed never to have passed basic freshman composition. Well, not everyone had Mr. Hesse for seventh-grade English, so I guess that isn’t fair. Why does my daughter with her PhD call me with her grammar questions? I think grammar is not being taught any longer.

    Thanks for demolishing the excuses that we hear everywhere for poor writing and hideous grammar. Let’s have more apologies for demanding good writing.

    Question: Are Google, Skype and text now accepted verbs?

    • says

      Hey, Larry,

      Yes, alas, “Google” is a verb, “Skype” is a verb, per “accepted usage,” which is normally in the ear of the beholder, of course — all to the commercial benefit of those companies, needless to say, the executives of which love nothing better than hearing their corporate names become household terms. But these formulations only encourage people to create more verbs out of thin air (or skinny nouns and proper names).

      Sometimes this is quite specialized, as in a newsroom’s use of the term “effort” as a verb — “We’re efforting a response from the White House on so-and-so.” At least in those cases, because these are correspondents talking with each other, there’s normally an almost playful and knowing aspect to such chatter. Reuters workers are famous, for example, inside the business, for having developed something of their own lexicon, and many of Variety’s special usages are delightful, as when a play closes and is “shuttered” or an actor “ankles” a production because he didn’t like the director.

      Such conscious manipulation, though, is rare and has a bad tendency to spread to wider usage among folks who don’t realize they’re overhearing conscious jokes. Soon, you hear appalling gaffes wrapped in “constitutional freedom” (the right to be embarrassingly incorrect, one assumes) and the flightier “creative expression” excuse.

      My congratulations to your Mr. Hesse, he clearly got many things right. Keep the faith and never be afraid to request better of people in this — call you what they will, they know you’re right.


  6. says

    I agree. I don’t plan to have a proof reader check every blog entry I make but I’m getting comfortable with holding myself accountable. It will be a long row to hoe for me- I slept through most of my English classes. ~TH~

    • says

      Many of us come late to it, Tom, you’re not alone.

      The initiative to write doesn’t always turn up early and even if you were wide awake and staring at the blackboard in your youth, a lot of usage rules can become fuzzy over time in your memory. I’m still having to check things I should know.

      The trick is simply consciousness. I’ve found that an annual subscription to (I have no partnership or affiliate relation with them, but I probably should) is worth the $30 or so it costs. I keep one browser window open to their look up page whenever I’m online so it’s amazingly easy to flip over and find something I think I might not know (and usually I’m right — I don’t know it!).

      The fact that you’re thinking about it is all it takes. Good for you. Keeping it in mind will prompt you to look around for what you need when you need it.

      Bests with the work and good wishes for the season,

  7. says

    I have (upon occasion) sent an email to authors in which I have corrected grammatical errors I have found on blog posts or in ebooks — because these errors can be easily fixed. It’s harder when I read a hardcover book and catch an error (or ten), or I catch something worse: an inconsistency or a tic of some sort. I mean, how would my words be helpful? I think the blogosphere is small. A lot of us are “friends,” and I’m pretty sure that a lot of people would take offense to concrit that wasn’t requested.

    • says

      Hi, Renee,

      Good comment, I know what you’re saying — although if you think a hardback or paperback may be headed for later editions, it’s thoughtful to let an author or publisher know of gaffes you’re seeing. You’re right that the electronic work is the happiest hunting ground for these things because it can be fixed easily.

      I’m lucky to have a couple of great writer friends who will shoot me a direct message on Twitter when they spot one of my howlers in a post. As long as you make the writer aware privately rather than airing that dirty linen in public, it’s really the nicest thing you can do. I’m always very appreciative of the help.

      Regular, systemic errors are the hardest to address with someone. One key blogger I follow has fallen into this odd thing of starting a sentence incorrectly with “that.” I’ll give you an example of how it comes across: “That you know it’s not what he means to do but you don’t know how to tell him without having to get into a very long, complex explanation of how he could simply leave “that” off the sentence and be fine.” It’s a strange construction I’m seeing and hearing more and more, unfortunately.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, good to have you!

    • says

      So funny, Roz. I went back to smash out that correct apostrophe in my attempt at punctuation-free writing, only to find I had TWO such correctly-incorrectly used apostrophes! Apparently when I try to suppress my natural punctuation drives, the apostrophe is the last to go. I actually found those few lines quite hard to write, the habits kept trying to assert themselves.

      Thanks for the tip off and the kind words. I used to study up in the park there above Bath below Prior Manor at the bridge when I was in school at the university. Recent pictures show cows in the meadow. There were sheep when I was there (shortly after Pope and Capability, lol).

      We’ll never win this whole thing, but I couldn’t cross another Palladian bridge in good conscience without trying. :)

  8. says

    It is about time somebody wrote a piece on bad grammar. The error that bothers me the most is the common habit of using nouns as verbs. Ugh! Thanks for your thoughtful posts and best wishes for a happy holiday season.

    • says

      And verbs as nouns, CG!

      I was writing in a comment above about tearing my hair at the networks over our on-air folks instructing viewers, “Let’s take a listen” to a report from the field. Maddening!

      The more I learn about the writing community, the less I think I understand people who go into this work and yet truly don’t seem to care about slovenly use of the language. The very medium on which we all depend is trashed in work from literary to romance to mystery to sci-fi and even in academic work.

      It seems to help to occasionally just complain about it a bit. So thanks for being receptive to the complaint!

      All the best to you for the holidays, and thanks for all your grand comments during the year here at Writer Unboxed.

  9. says

    Porter, you know I’d agree with you on this any time, but especially right now as I’ve just been listening to a podcast by two writing gurus – pretty famous guys at that – in which they said, “It’s one of those words made up from two other words. They’re called bowdlerizations.” Huh? I’m exasperated at the thought that this is the world we live in now, where ignorance begets ignorance, and if we point out the mistakes we’re accused of stifling creative freedom. Still, as they say: when all else fails, raise your standards!

    • says

      Scientific proof that your guys are no better with the language than we are, Dave!

      We Yanks do love hearing of Bad Moments With English Among the Brits, LOL. Makes us feel better for pulverizing, if not bowdlerizing, the Queen’s You Know What. :)

      And poor Thomas Bowdler. Must be flipping in his grave to hear the term so badly misused. This is one of the most interesting types of mistakes, really, the use of something one believes means one thing without checking first. We’ve probably all had it happen, but for the serious, it normally takes just one time to make you learn to check any term you’re about to use but on which you feel the slightest bit foggy.

      I’m frequently grateful for “Merriam and her husband Webster,” lol, for keeping me from using something that simply doesn’t exist. I’ve headed toward some completely fabricated verbiage a few times, only to want to genuflect to for stopping me just in time.

      And yes, this thing of trying to tie lowered standards into creative freedom is really depressing. It’s epidemic in both our cultures right now, of course, hardly limited to writing and publishing, but somehow related to the political correctness drive, too — it’s never nice to suggest that someone might want to actually adhere to a rule or two, even for simple comprehension.

      Oh, these Moderns. One day they’ll come around and we’ll be waving to them from our Palladian bridges of yore, shouting “We told you so!”

      Thanks for reading and commenting, sir, and the happiest of holidays!

        • says

          Oh, WELL, Californians, that explains it. :)

          No way, I’m crushed these weren’t errant Brits in that podcast. (I assure you I’ve heard some really wacko lingo come out of some of your countrymen, and not the stuff you can pass off as being charmingly Manchester or adorably Liverpool, either.)

          But it’s all too believable that you were hearing some of our guys. Stop listening to Americans try to say “bowdlerization,” you’ll never come away satisfied, I assure you.

          I’m holding out for “junkie pork” as one phrase worthy of official commendation, myself. ;)

    • says

      Hi, Tim –

      Thanks for reading and for asking about more.

      I suggest you start with Mignon Fogarty’s GrammarGirl material at Fogarty (who is @GrammarGirl on Twitter) has been at it for years and has lots of resources online you can check out in a searchable format. Some of her best material comes in short videos and or audio podcasts you can go through quickly.

      There’s a spring class being offered by Joshua Fields Millburn, starting at the end of March, runs a month, might be interesting.

      And our friends at Writer’s Digest have a wealth of material, certainly in books and also in other forms. Here’s Mignon Fogarty again, in fact, in an extensive blog post, The 13 Trickiest Grammar Hang-Ups, and you can search out lots more on the site there.

      If you have a college or university nearby, see if they do “lifetime learning” courses in grammar and writing, many of them offer these now.

      And back online, one of the nicest, quickest resources is, which lets you click right into fast rules and usage examples on specific questions you might have. When you hit a snag, you just click on “‘All of’
      or ‘All,'” for example, and you get a fast, helpful explainer on whether you want to say “all the soldiers” or “all of the soldiers.” it’s quite handy.

      Hope these help, thanks again!

      • says

        Thank you Porter. My inclination is to go to a local class to force me to relearn the grammar rules I never committed to memory. Having reference material online is great, but in many cases, I don’t know that I need to check. Unknown unknowns :)

  10. says

    I get what you’re saying. I’m a stickler for grammar myself; I even enrolled in a copyediting program instead of an MFA. But I don’t like the insinuation that writers who make the innocent mistake of letting colloquial language bleed into their written prose are “poor of intellect and miserly of vocabulary.”

    Just perusing this post, I found at least two comma splices, several fragments, some colons where you ought to have used semicolons, and an application of the past perfect where the simple past is more appropriate (“If everyone in 16th-century Venice were Andrea Palladio…”). I don’t assume you let these slip because you’re talentless, stupid, and lazy. You’re just not perfect. Nobody is.

    It’s true that writers tend to treat other writers with kid gloves. Just look at the gushing comments on this article. I’m the first to offer the tiniest hint of dissent, and I’ll probably be very unpopular for it. But writers should not be responsible for proofreading the work of other writers. I highlighted some errors in this post to make a point, but it’s really not my place to do so…any more than it’s yours to judge any writer who treats the indefinite pronoun “none” as plural.

    • says

      Not to be a pedant, T.K., but “If everyone in 16th-century Venice were Andrea Palladio…” is the normal form these days of the present subjunctive. So for clarity, seeing as the 16th century is long over, I’d say “had been” is probably a better choice.

      • says

        Thanks, Dave, I agree with you, of course, on this, and have commented on it — exhaustively! — in a note back to T.K. just now. How grand to have a bit of a debate! This is just the sort of cordial jousting we need in the business and get so rarely.

        Good going, both of you.

    • says

      Hey, T.K.,

      I’m happy to see your comments here, no problem whatever, and I certainly hope you don’t get any negative input from someone for making them. If you do, send those bullies to me. :)

      You’re quite right in your list of departures I make in this post (and in most of my writing). There are many fragments, yes. I use them deliberately for pacing and energy and to create at times a sort of staccato rhythm in the mind to break up longer, legato lines and phrases. Comma splicing is another tactic I use fairly frequently. I like to make the reader’s perception turn quickly. It can be like throwing a right angle onto a curve at times. It helps keep folks awake, in other words. Maybe. There’s another fragment for you.

      These points and your good question about the past perfect on the Palladio line add up to elements of the voice I use in my blogging persona. I’m conscious of them. In the case of the past perfect, I’m comfortable with its effect, for example. As Dave Morris is pointing out in the comment below, I’m interested here in using a contemporary construction especially since I’m throwing some Old World terms and concepts at the reader, including Palladio, Venice, the 16th century. The more comfortable I can make the verb form there, the more easily the reader can trundle along through what might be new or unusual territory. Some of our readers, for example, may never have heard of a landscape garden, although it’s a major historical aesthetic movement in landscaping, of course. And soggy territory, Venice, always. Another fragment.

      My style, then, is idiosyncratic, you bet. I hope yours is, too. The writers I most appreciate, Andrew Miller probably chief among these, are artists of voice. They selectively turn various grammatical components to their advantage in a way I can tell is thoughtful, purposeful, and considered. I rarely feel that these writers are “goofing up.” They have good ears that tell them when to sidestep a normal protocol and when to get right back on track.

      For my money, it’s almost always possible to tell when a writer is working with the language this way, meaning in a conscious development of the sound she or he wants to trigger in the mind’s ear. Again, in my perception, these phrasings and constructions are different from the types of problems I’m listing in this post today — using plurals as singular, beating us over the head with cliché and degraded cliché (as in “I could care less,” a double offense, to my mind), and so on.

      As long as I feel that a writer has a knowledgeable agenda in what she or he is doing with the language — the creation of a voice, which I value, through knowing selections of grammatical signals — then I’m happy enough to see what the writer is able to make of it. I don’t need to leave the room when Yoda turns up in a Star Wars film. I get it. Everyone gets it. Nobody thinks that’s bad or negligent writing.

      If I see someone’s work as miserly or lazy, it’s normally a case in which I don’t see anything to indicate that their departures from the norm are deliberate and informed. It actually takes effort, not laziness, to make a good detour. And it takes generosity, not miserliness, to explicate a literary voice through structural and tonal adjustments of the routine.

      So, to be much briefer, I readily plead guilty to the points you make about this post, and I’m confident they’re what I want.

      What’s probably more to the point is that I don’t mind you questioning me about them. In fact, I like that. it gives me a chance to test whether I know what I’m doing, because I’m hearing back from you about what you “hear” when you read me. How rare is that? Thank you!

      The good news is that I like what you find here. I’m OK with your input.

      But even if it’s not always such happy feedback, it’s exactly the function I wish writers felt more comfortable in performing for each other. I’d rather be told you’d found some awful linguistic crater in the middle of the post, smoking away and pulling guffaws, than to think I’d delivered myself of a perfect round of text.

      So I differ with you only in terms of attitude about all this.

      As complex as our language’s apparatus can be, the chance to discuss and debate it seems, to me, refreshing and invigorating. It’s nice to find someone so well-schooled in what she’s reading, too. I’m with you in that I think that there’s too much praise-and-hosanna in response not just to this post but to almost everything online in the writing community. That “best ever” business makes me crazy, and I’ve written about it more than once. We’d be rich on no more than a dime for every “fabulous,” “wonderful,” “great” and “terrific” thrown our way, wouldn’t we?

      Maybe where we might be least comfortable together is in your last bit — I believe we *should* judge, as readers, the writer behind the words before us. I apologize because I think this makes you uncomfortable, and I have no reason to want you to feel uneasy. I’m not sure we’ve been in touch before, and so I’ll just mention quickly that I am a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, and a long (so long!) journalistic critic (Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, CNN, etc.). Critics learn very early that they’re judges. And they learn that this IS appropriate, although many laypeople say otherwise. Unless some judgments are offered, precious little change or progress can be considered.

      Anyone who reads my work is my judge. I expect that and invite it. You do a good job of it, you’re a smart and personable judge. I’d urge you not to shy away from that role. It’s just fine to judge each other. This is how we learn and follow what we like, how we spot what’s useful and inspiring and worthwhile. Folks who fear judging are normally rather flat, I find. They may even be the gushers you correctly point out in your comment. “If you can’t say anything nice…” Right? Wrong. Discernment is good.

      Avoidance of judgment is that politically correct impulse coming at us in yet another form, leaving nonsense unchallenged and bias untested.

      And this may help you: if someone’s lackluster writing makes it appear the author is, my terms again, miserly or lazy, that is, after all, only the appearance. Can I say for sure that this writer is lazy or miserly? No, of course not. I can say, however, that the job of writing in front of me makes me suspect this. And that is, for me, a valid, appropriate, and useful assessment. The judgment is not, actually, of the person. It’s a judgment of what the text has made me suspect about the person. It’s the difference in saying “you are stupid” and saying “you are acting as if you’re stupid.”

      So, I’m happy to disagree with you on these points and/or others, and I take no displeasure in your comments. You gave me a bit of a run for my money, in fact, that’s good for me and I appreciate the time and thought that required of you.

      Thanks again and I hope your own work is going well!

  11. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says


    I love your posts and I understand your rant. I take a course in grammar every year to hone my skills, which are still horrible. I agree with Steven King on that bit about writing being human, editing divine.

    HOWEVER, there is a fine line between a literary soul and a literary snob. The worst thing an artist can do is take themselves or their art too seriously. It destroys the rebel. And the rebel is the reason for the art. Shakespeare was the ultimate rebel, and that is why he wrote in part for the pit—that and the fact that they had rotten tomatoes.

    • says

      Hey, Bernadette,

      I’m with you on how hard it is to handle the grammar — it’s great you take an annual course, I’m sure I need the same.

      It’s good to hear your view on seriousness, too. I think I know what you mean, but I also think I differ with you a bit.

      Some of the most effectively rebellious artists I’ve known (as as a longtime critic I’ve been lucky to know may very well) have been deadly serious in their work. Deadly serious. Probably to the degree that from the outside they might appear to be “too serious” in the way you’re describing it. In fact, though, it’s been their seriousness that defined them as the outliers they were. In each case, they’ve had plenty of humor about their work but it only made them more serious about its value and their intent.

      Snobbishness is, in my experience, not the same as seriousness about one’s work. The snobs I’ve known, in fact, were normally the least informed, least experienced, least practiced folk. I’ve suspected that guilt about this helped fuel their snobbery. They’ve often harbored jealousy of others’ success and seemed to become snobbish as a defense against their own unhappiness. The last thing they seemed to do was take themselves and their work too seriously. In fact, they didn’t take it seriously enough.

      So there’s another thought for you, perhaps of use, perhaps not. I’m grateful for your input, though, and wish you a rich holiday season. Thanks again,

      • Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says


        Thanks as always, for your thoughtful reply. It’s one of the many reasons I enjoy your posts. I think (so this is just my opinion) that what we are talking about as being ‘serious’ is coming from two different places. An artist is ‘serious’ about doing the best work they can. However (in my opinion) an artist can never take the finished (or in some views never completely finished) work too seriously. It isn’t perfect, it is a step toward a higher learning in their personal journey. If someone else learns something from the steps the artist has honed before them, on his/her personal journey, even better. For both the artist and the recipient of the art, there is always more to learn on each’s never-ending journey toward knowing.

        These types of discussions we’re having make my journey all the more enlightened. Blessed be, and Happy Holidays to you, too.

        • says

          Ah, good clarification, Bernadette, thanks.

          Yes, I agree with you. I’m seeing value in seriousness of process and purpose and attack on the part of the artist. But yes, you’re right that if the work itself is allowed to gather the weight of too serious a bearing, then it can, indeed, stunt the efforts to come and weigh that artist down with past accomplishment. So yeah, this is the difference in the work and in the worker, and you’re right, of course. Anyone worth his or her salt will know that each accomplishment is the dive board to the next.

          And I can easily thank you, too, for engaging in such interesting exchanges, it’s always valuable and much appreciated! Good holidays!

  12. says

    My current work in progress includes characters of different educational backgrounds. I’m having the less educated characters speak with poorer English than the more educated characters.

    Is there any reason I shouldn’t do this?

    • says

      Hi, Daniel.

      No, of course, if your characterizations of the less-well-educated people in your book make it clear that their speech patterns are the product of that condition — if that condition “speaks” through their verbal limitations so that the reader understands and “gets” them as you want — then this is just fine and you’re in the good company of many great authors.

      It’s simply a tricky business and your main concern is couching these limitations in the characters so that your reader doesn’t assign those limitations to you. Normally the lighter touch is best, but each case is its own, of course.

      All the best with it, and thanks for responding!

  13. says

    So true, so true, and yet…

    Creation and clean-up are two different activities. If you write the first draft while worrying about your apostrophes, you’re running a marathon wearing hobbles. Some can do it, many cannot.

    One of my loyal clients is a brilliant writer, the bestseller in her field, with an enviable command of language. She makes all kinds of “dumb” errors in her first drafts. She’d know the difference if she slowed down, hey, she’s a busy gal. That’s why she has an editor.

      • says

        Don’t worry, none of us gets away with our dignity intact in comments, lol. I look back sometimes and am floored by some idiotic error I’ve left in a comment. Never re-read them, you’ll drink less. :)

    • says

      Hi, Mary —

      Quite true, some authors work in very, very rough formats at the beginning and then take care of the language in later drafts.

      That’s largely immaterial to our post today, unless your good friend of the untidy first drafts begins publishing them unedited.

      I’m happy for writers to follow the work procedures that suit them best. I do, actually, work very closely with my language from the outset, but that’s no better an approach than anyone else’s. What counts is when it gets to the reader. Whether the linguistic values were put into place early or late? — no matter. As long as they’re put in before I pay money to read them. :)

      Thanks for reading and commenting, good holidays!

      • says

        Unfortunately, said author often publishes her blog without checking first with her trusty editor. Blog feeds out to fans. Oh well, they love her no matter what. Brilliance gets forgiven. Besides, most fans don’t know the difference.

        • says

          Well, said author needs to be careful. :) Sometimes that lover-her-no-matter-what thing gets old even for ardent fans. And as I was saying in my post here, readers frequently are sharper on these issues than we like to think we are.
          Thanks again!

  14. says

    “If a painter doesn’t know his amparo blue from his gentian blue, that painter is a fraud, don’t buy a canvas from him.”

    I’ve been painting for 30 years and had never heard of amparo blue. The main reference I found for that color is that it is used to paint Ford cars. I’ve never painted a car, so that explains my ignorance. Thanks.

    • says

      Well, there you go, Mary, all those canvases, and you could have been painting on the assembly line. :)

      Thanks for the note, and all the best for the holidays,

  15. says

    My week wasn’t challenging enough, Porter?

    I will admit to a lifelong mental block regarding lie/lay/laid/lain. It predates my concussoin by decades so I can’t use that as an excuse. I rely on others to correct me. My ongoing challenge is writing ‘someone who’ rather than ‘someone that’. I’m frequently corrected on that. But I digress…

    I believe many people assume we all learned good grammar in elementary school. Well, you know, for some of us that was a long time ago. That’s why Grammar Girl and others like her are so important.

    While I do believe I write in a conversational style, I hope I don’t distract my readers with grammatical errors. That would not be a good thing, literally or figuratively.


    • says


      If you can get clear on “lying low” instead of “laying low,” I’ll allow you to just lie low on lie-lay-laid-lain. :)

      However, I’ll chase you down the street on “who” rather than “that” for people. (Hell, I even tend to accord pets the “who” — Cooper the Literary Beagle won’t stand for being called a “that.”) Just remember, you’d never in a polite situation point to a person and say, “Look at that.” A “that” is an object. It’s the people around us who talk about this and that.

      And you have to wonder how good a grammar education some folks get, too, whether it’s a long time in the past or quite recent. I can barely remember a day of specific instruction from my own schooling in the time of the Magna Carta, but something stuck with me.

      Nothing wrong with conversational, by the way. It’s just fully attainable with grammar intact. And rather odd, really, that people seem to feel that “conversational” mandates grammatical license.

      Cheers for the holidays and thanks, as ever!

      • says

        No need to chase me down the street, Porter. It conjures a visual that’s just too disturbing right now. ;)

        I always use “who” when referring to two- or four-legged animals. But I’m constantly corrected – even by my computer – for not using “that”. Can’t do it, unless we’re talking about Daleks or the like.

        Every time I struggle with grammar I can see Sr. Seraphine in the front of the 4th grade class slamming her pointer on the desk. Thanks for the flashback. ;)

        Cheers to you and Cooper as well, Porter!

  16. says

    I don’t dare jump into the mix on grammar. While I did very well in English composition class, I have a comma problem I just can’t shake. However, I wanted to tell you “Thank You” for letting me know that media is the plural of medium. I honestly didn’t know. :)

    Plus, I’m excited about the recommendation for Grammar Monster. Maybe it’ll help me get my commas straightened out.

    • says

      Oh, great, Lara, hope that Grammar-Monster can help with the commas issues and many other elements — it’s quite nice because you can drop in fast on various small issues instead of having to read through a lot of theoretical rationale to find the point you need, do give it a try.

      And yes, “media” and “medium” are very much handled in the same way that (many) “bacteria” and (one) “bacterium” are. These are Latin constructions, of course, many of them (aquarium/aquaria) being overtaken by modern impatience and the cultural tin ear that doesn’t enjoy the sound of these lovely works (I very much like the “-ia” plural endings), nor the requirement to do anything but “add a damned ‘s’ to make it plural.” Our world today — not always for bad reasons — likes a one-way approach to things. So many folks would rather there be one way to make a plural: add an “s.” That gradually is supplanting other pluralizations that some of us are sorry to see go.

      Nevertheless, the original and/or older constructions are not made wrong by modern preference and are still available to us. As writers, we’re the likeliest protectors of this fact.

      If you have a mind, look for a nice desk calendar called 365 New Words a Year 2013, makes a great holiday present for a writer to get for her- or himself this time of year and really does help you widen the vocabulary in an easy, interesting way.

      And thanks for reading and commenting, great to have you!

  17. Marilyn Slagel says

    Lara, comma usage plagues my life! I’m a medical editor/transcriptionist and a fiction writer. A few years ago I went so far as to buy Grammar for Dummies.

    Porter – I see “myself/me” misused every day in my medical editing job. Doctors rarely use correct grammar. Spell Check catches these errors every time.

    Pet peeve: Misuse of “then and than.” Truly sends me over the edge on FB!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  18. says

    Hey, Marilyn,

    Yes, “then” and “than” are irritating, though I think those are usually typos. I may be wrong, but I don’t think many people actually believe there’s only one word, then or than, although on Facebook (the trailer park of social media), I could surely be wrong!

    Great of you to read and comment, thanks, and bests for the holidays!!! :)


  19. says

    I loved this piece and thank you for the list of resources. I live in fear of publishing a piece riddled with errors. I’ve received the occasional grammar corrections by those more knowledgeable and always appreciate it.

  20. Tanis Mallow says

    There are few things in literature more irritating than lazy writing and sloppy editing. Having said that, there are situations where I believe artistic license should be granted to intentionally break grammar rules.

    As you pointed out, sentence fragments are incredibly useful in pacing narrative, particularly in suspense fiction where it is desirable to match the pace of the storytelling to that of the action. Can you write grammatically correct short sentences? Yes. But sometimes a jab is more effective than a swing.

    Where I find intentional grammar flaws most useful, however, is dialogue. Most people do not speak flawless language. Conversations are peppered with colloquialisms and mistakes and curses and, yes, sentence frags. I believe if your narrative writing is pristine but some dialogue is not, most readers will understand it is intentional. I read a book this past year which offered a wonderful premise, fabulously unique characters, funny bits and biting suspense. The calibre of writing and editing was excellent. What I remember most about the book, however, is how much it annoyed me that every character – young and old, local and immigrant, high brow and gritty – spoke like a sixty year old English professor. Off-putting to say the least. Every time a set of quotation marks came along, I was thrown from the story.

    Perhaps, the important word in the above thoughts is: intentional. Learn the rules, dilegently work your craft but don’t become so hung up on proving your knowledge that things like pacing and dialogue and your own voice as a storyteller become stiff. Writing is an art form after all.

    By the way, Porter, your comments regarding “truthful exchanges of corrective information” are bang on. My favourite beta readers are those chock-full of critical comments and suggestions for improvement and I strive to be equally honest (right, Denise?). You are not much use as a beta reader if all you want to do is pass on compliments; that’s your mother’s job.

    Happy New Year, everyone.