Christmas Wishes

Certainly, no one needs reminding that this holiday season is going to be quite a departure from the norm. If you ordinarily enjoy large gatherings of family or friends but will be unable to this year, my heart goes out to you. Our celebrations in recent years have usually been pretty quiet, but I have fond childhood memories of big Christmas dinners with a house full of relatives.

But fortunately, here in the virtual world I can still send my holiday wishes for you, as well as some ideas for presents you can give yourself or the writer in your life!

I wish for you to be curious about English and the way it works. It’s a fascinating language that has some unusual features—but if you’re a native speaker, I would bet that you’re so accustomed to them that you’ve never given them any thought. For example:

Why do we use the word do so often in questions and negative sentences, although it really doesn’t have any meaning? (And there’s proof—I just used it twice in that sentence: in Why do we use and really doesn’t.)

Why does English use what’s called the progressive tense so much? This is the verb tense made of a form of the verb to be plus a main verb ending in -ing: I am going; you were reading; they will be coming. You can find the answers to both these questions in a fascinating book with a very interesting name: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

Why do we sometimes say I see a man, but in other contexts I see the man? This one is covered in a book I’ve recommended here several times: The Sense of Style. (By the way, I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for any of these endorsements.)


I wish for you to stop thinking of grammar as iron-clad laws that cramp your style because they must always be obeyed to the letter. It’s actually a set of guidelines that can help you produce your best writing ever. Despite the fact that we are often casual with grammar rules these days in settings such as social media, grammatically correct writing is still important. Employers usually do not have a favorable opinion of resumes with grammatical mistakes, and a study in the UK proved that consumers are less likely to patronize a business whose website contains grammar and spelling errors.

A good basic grammar that lays out the rules in a very accessible and enjoyable way is—believe it or not—The Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style. After covering all the basic rules well, it goes on to the next steps of putting good sentences together and developing a writing style.  

If you have a decent grasp of the basics, a great book to take you to the next level is The Sense of Style (the same one mentioned above). As with all the books listed here, this is not a dry, stuffy grammar—it’s engaging and even laugh-out-loud funny at times. This is the book for you if you’ve ever found yourself in this situation: you read a sentence and recognize quickly that it’s not written well, but you can’t figure out exactly what’s wrong with it.  


I wish for you to read, read, and READ—it’s one of the best ways to become a better writer. And when you read, try at least occasionally to read analytically: why did the writer choose those particular words, or why did he or she construct a sentence a particular way. One device we’ve examined briefly in this blog is placing a word at the end of a sentence for maximum impact. But even if you get drawn into the story or the subject matter and find yourself reading just for enjoyment, don’t worry—you’ll still subconsciously absorb what’s going on in the writing.

And most of all, I wish for you to have a holiday season that’s as enjoyable as possible under COVID-19 circumstances. I hope that you will be able to spend quality time with family and friends, virtually or live. I wish you peace, health, and happiness—and let’s all hope that the new year brings better days.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Tight Prose!

Image by Simon Steinberger from Pixabay

Don’t Be So Negative

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

As any parent will tell you, negation is not a difficult concept for children to learn. Two-year-olds are particularly fond of it, using that powerful word “NO!” at every opportunity. Maybe it’s because we learn negation so easily that we usually don’t give it much thought. It’s simple, right? You have no and not to use with nouns and verbs, respectively:

We have no milk today.

We do not have milk today. (usually contracted in colloquial speech into We don’t have milk today.)

And of course there are a whole bunch of other clearly negative words: neither, never, no one, nobody, none, nor, nothing, nowhere. When we talk, it’s not usually too difficult to figure out which part of a sentence is being negated: we have the context of the conversation and can add emphasis to the word or words in question. But since we can’t do that in writing, it can sometimes get difficult to figure out what exactly is being negated. Consider this example:

I didn’t see a man in a blue T-shirt.

This could mean any of the following!

I didn’t see the man, but everyone else did.

I didn’t see him, but you thought I did.

I didn’t see him; I was looking away.

I did’t see him; I saw another man.

I didn’t see a man in a blue T-shirt; it was a woman.

I didn’t see a man in a blue T-shirt; it was red.

I didn’t see a man in a blue T-shirt; it was a polo shirt.

Whew! This is an extreme example, but it points out the importance of placing negatives carefully in your writing. Usually it’s best to put the negative as close as possible to the part of the sentence that you want to negate. Take, for example, this sentence:

All dogs don’t like cheese.

This certainly isn’t true—I’ve owned many dogs, and cheese has been a favorite treat of every one of them. What the author probably meant was:

Not all dogs like cheese. 

If moving the negative is not possible, then consider adding more to the sentence to clarify it:

I don’t play tennis.

Does this mean something like I don’t play tennis because I never learned, but I like to watch it? Or is it more along the lines of I don’t play tennis; I play soccer (emphasizing which sport the speaker plays). Whichever variant you intend, the fuller version of the sentence will be clearer.


In addition to the clearly negative words listed above, there are others that, while not overtly negative on the surface, in practice carry a negative connotation: few, hardly, little, least, rarely, scarcely, seldom, and verbs such as doubt, deny, refute, avoid, and ignore. Be wary of using any of these or similar words in connection with a negative—the end result can be confusing:

Few people would not deny that they like tripe.

There’s a lot to sort out here! We have two of the negative connotation words: few and deny, as well as a clear negative, not. It’s much clearer to use a positive verb:

Few people would admit that they like tripe.

(And my apologies, by the way, to anyone who does like tripe. I’m a pretty adventurous eater, but that’s one food I just can’t do.)


In my opinion, the absolute worst examples of sentences overloaded with negative connotation words that cause confusion are those describing legal decisions:

The appeals court struck down the town’s restrictions banning giant inflatable Santa lawn decorations.

Wait, what?! What the heck does this mean? Do I have to run outside and take mine down right now? Let’s start at the end of the sentence and work backwards to pick this one apart. First, we have the restrictions banning the decorations. Makes sense—restrictions often ban something—but to help keep things clearer, let’s change it to a more neutral word: regulations. So, the town had regulations in place saying that you can’t have them—but now a higher court has struck down those regulations—they are no longer in force. So we’re in the clear, and we can keep Santa on the lawn, hooray!  

So keep a sharp eye on your negatives and on those words with negative connotations. And be on the lookout for confusing examples in the wild—please feel free to share them below!