St. Patrick, Snakes, and Split Infinitives

Even if you’re not of Irish ancestry, I’m sure you’ve heard the legend that there are no snakes in Ireland because St. Patrick drove them out. Although my husband swears that his great-great-great-grandfather helped the saint with this chore, the story is just that—a story. There have been no snakes in Ireland since the last Ice Age. 

Legends and myths abound in all aspects of life, including grammar, so last time around we set out on a mission to explode some of the most common ones. You might remember “rules” that you learned in school but maybe haven’t thought about in years. Turns out a lot of them aren’t hard and fast laws; they’re more like guidelines. Today let’s look at the spurious prohibition against splitting infinitives.

First of all, what’s an infinitive? It’s simply the word to plus a verb (action word): to love; to write; to play, etc. In grammatical terms, it is the uninflected form of the verb—that is, it describes the action itself. In these examples, I’ve underlined it:

I’d like to go to the pub for green beer tonight.  

St. Patrick used a shamrock to illustrate the theological concept of the Holy Trinity.

So far, so good. The problem can come up when we want to add some sort of descriptor to the infinitive. If you put that description word or words between the to and the verb, that is a split infinitive:

The attendance at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is expected to more than double.

Some scholars continue to adamantly maintain that St. Patrick had no role in the conversion of Ireland.

There is no way to rewrite the first example to unsplit the infinitive without it sounding strange: The attendance at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is expected more than to double.

In the second example, you could move adamantly: Some scholars continue adamantly to maintain–but that could make it unclear whether adamantly goes with continue or maintain. Or you could go with Some scholars continue to maintain adamantly… That’s not bad, but adamantly has a lot more punch when it comes right before maintain, doesn’t it?

So these are some cases in which you might want to preserve a split infinitive—and again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that.

But getting back to legends and myths: one of the reasons they stand the test of time is that they usually contain at least a kernel of truth. In the case of St. Patrick and the snakes, many historians agree that the story is likely an allegory for the saint’s success in removing what was considered an evil—paganism, represented by the snakes—from Ireland.

The kernel of truth in the “rule” about infinitives is that, even though you can split them, it’s not always a good idea. As with many other topics we’ve covered, such as the use of adjectives and adverbs, you should think carefully about exactly what you want to say, as well as the style and tone of your writing. In more formal writing, it’s generally better to not split infinitives if possible. (See what I just did there? 😊 )

Fortunately, in some cases keeping the infinitive unsplit turns out to be the better option. Here’s a sentence with a split infinitive:

Some people of Irish ancestry are searching for ways to more authentically celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

And with the infinitive unsplit:

Some people of Irish ancestry are searching for ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day more authentically.

Fixing this split infinitive makes for a better sentence because in the original there’s a lot of distance between to and celebrate. Moving more authentically to the end also highlights it more, because the end of a sentence is the position that gets the most emphasis.

Sometimes it just comes down to a matter of which way sounds more natural. Imagine a mother saying this to her teenage daughter on the morning of March 18th, after the latter discovered that some drugstore hair color was not quite as temporary as she had thought:

I told you not to dye your hair green.

That just sounds better than I told you to not dye your hair green, doesn’t it?

So be on the lookout for split infinitives in the wild, and please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on whether they were used effectively!

And no matter your ancestry, happy St. Patrick’s Day! (But no green hair for me, thanks.)

Busting Grammar Myths

When our twin sons were growing up, they loved the TV show MythBusters. If you never had a chance to see it, the show tested popular urban legends, such as claims that pirates wore eye patches in order to keep their night vision, or that two colliding bullets could fuse together. The other resident guy in our house, my husband, also became an immediate fan. I have to admit, though, that after just an episode or two, I too was hooked. I don’t know if it was due to my latent tomboy tendencies, or just the reality of being the only female awash in a sea of testosterone. At any rate, the show was educational but also very entertaining, and of course all three of my guys particularly enjoyed the experiments involving explosions. 

Regrettably, MythBusters is no longer producing new episodes, at least not as far as I can tell from my research. (If anyone has information to the contrary, I’d love to know!) But I’d like to offer a tribute with a series of articles dedicated to grammatical mythbusting: exploding so-called “rules” that in fact . . . are not.

In our last installment, we talked about avoiding the overuse of prepositional phrases, so looking at another issue involving prepositions seems like a good place to start. Our grammar myth to bust today is the injunction against ending a sentence with a preposition (at, by, of, on, to, about, before, after, behind, during, for, from, in, over, under, with, etc.). So, supposedly, you shouldn’t say, and especially not write, sentences such as:

What are you looking at?

John is the person I came with.

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill allegedly dismissed this spurious rule as “nonsense up with which I will not put.” Alas, Churchill’s quote is also a myth, but it effectively demonstrates why there is no solid basis for this rule: slavish adherence to it results in sentences that don’t reflect how English is actually used.

There are two situations that can result in a preposition at the end of a sentence. One is the use of what is sometimes called a phrasal verb–one that combines with another word or two, usually prepositions, to create a meaning different from that of the verb alone. Some common examples are: ask out; add up to; back up; break down; check in; come across; pull off…you get the idea, and I’m sure you could come up with many more of your own. Churchill’s quote-that-wasn’t contains one of these: put up with, meaning “to tolerate”—and the rearrangement of this phrasal verb is what gives the quip its humorous twist.

Consider the following. If you wanted to rewrite these so that they didn’t end with prepositions, you’d have to do a bit of reworking, which could affect a nuance you might want to express: 

While you’re on the way, could you please pick me up?

You can always count on Jane to back you up.

Sharon is hoping that David will ask her out.

In the other situation, however, a preposition has indeed been separated from the word that would ordinarily come after it (its object). Our first examples above fall into this category:

What are you looking at?

John is the person (whom) I came with.

These could be rewritten, putting the preposition and its object back together—notice how in the second sentence we have to add whom to serve as the object, which is why I added it to the original in parentheses:

At what are you looking?

John is the person with whom I came.

How do those rewrites sound compared to the originals? Don’t they sound more formal? So this is something to consider. Yes, you can end sentences with prepositions—but always give them a second look to be sure that it’s appropriate to the style and tone of your writing. When in doubt, it’s always better to err on the side of being too formal. And if you’re not sure whether you have a phrasal verb, here’s a list of 200 of them! 

So, aren’t you relieved that this is one “rule” that you don’t have to worry much about anymore? Please feel free to comment below about any other grammar myths that you think need busting!

 

Don’t Get Stuck in a Pile-up

February is upon us, and in most of the U.S., the month brings with it the worst weather of the year. The combination of snow, ice, and fog unfortunately often result in major traffic accidents, such as a 200-vehicle pile-up in Michigan in January, 2005–one of the worst in recent U.S. history. Incidents of this scope obviously cause major disruptions; highways are usually closed for hours, if not days, depending on the extent of the damage.

Although not nearly as disastrous, pile-ups in your writing can also obstruct your reader’s way through your message. What am I talking about?–a phenomenon sometimes called prepositional pile-up.

First of all, let’s look at what a preposition is: one of those little words such as at, by, of, on, to, about, before, after, behind, during, for, from, in, over, under, and with that are followed by at least one other word, usually more. These prepositional phrases describe location, time, how the actor performs the action described in the sentence (i.e., an adverbial phrase), and so on.

Some examples:

On the highway, behind a truck (location); in the morning, during a snowstorm (time); with great care, in a hurry (adverb, describing how an action was done).

So prepositional phrases can be useful in rounding out a complete picture of what’s going on. The problem comes in when there are too many of them too close together, like cars in a pile-up:

All of the trucks on the highway during the storm pulled off the road due to high winds from the east.

That’s six prepositional phrases in one sentence! Contrast that with the advice given in the Chicago Manual of Style (my favorite style manual!), which recommends using just one preposition per every 10-15 words. Why? Because too many prepositional phrases can obscure the main idea of the sentence. Come to think of it, what was the point of that example again? Oh, yeah, trucks pulled off the road because the weather was bad.

Additionally, when you read a sentence with many prepositional phrases aloud, it can take on a sing-songy quality that distracts listeners from the point. Read the above out loud to try it out. Didn’t your voice fall into a kind of rhythm, something like DA-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da…?

So how could we rewrite this sentence? Take the main idea:

Trucks pulled off the road because the weather was bad.

Then add the ideas in the prepositional phrases back in, but using other words:

Every truck traveling the highway pulled off the road because of the storm’s strong easterly winds.

So now we have:

  • Every truck, instead of (All) of the trucks;
  • traveling the highway, instead of on the highway;
  • the storm’s, instead of during the storm;
  • easterly winds, instead of (winds) from the east.

We still have two prepositional phrases–off the road and because of the storm’s strong easterly winds–over the course of 18 words, so we haven’t quite met Chicago’s ideal, but I think you’ll agree that it’s much easier to quickly grasp the main idea in this version.

So this time around I have a challenge for you! Be on the lookout for prepositional pile-ups, and see if you can top my example with six in one sentence. If you can’t find any “in the wild,” try making some up. After finding or inventing your pile-ups, try rewriting them – can you reach the goal of just one preposition in 10-15 words? Please comment below and let me know how you do!

Leave Abstracts to the Artists

Even if you don’t know much about art (it’s OK, I don’t either), you probably have an opinion of abstract art. Some people love it, some hate it, and still others are just plain bewildered, wondering what the point of it is.

Abstraction generally means distancing an idea from the thing in objective reality that it refers to. So in art, an abstract depiction doesn’t correspond to all (or in some cases, any) points of reference that we can see out there in the world. Perhaps it’s this characteristic of abstract art that turns some people off.

But abstraction isn’t just for art; you can find it in writing too.  Abstract nouns name concepts, beliefs, qualities, attributes, and ideas—that is, things we can’t touch. Examples include words such as perspective, concept, condition, issue, process, role, strategy, and tendency.

Some abstract nouns are called nominalizations because they are derived from verbs that have been turned into nouns. You can easily recognize many of these by their endings, such as ance, -ment, -tion, or -ing: prevention, avoidance, assertion, presentation, assessment, comprehension, and exclusion.

What do those sorts of words remind you of? Maybe a legal document, a government website, or an academic research paper? That’s precisely why those types of writing are often difficult to read and understand—because they’re filled with abstract nouns.

Let’s look at an example:

Local government is currently operating in a climate of expectation to constrain expenditure, increase productivity, and improve the level of service to the community.

Where are the abstract nouns, the intangibles?

Local government is currently operating in a climate of expectation to constrain expenditure, increase productivity, and improve the level of service to the community.

For our purposes today, let’s zero in on the underlined words. (Note that “government” and “community” are also abstract nouns, but we’ll leave them alone since we don’t have much context here.) You can begin to see the problem of using so many abstract nouns—namely, what exactly does this sentence mean? My best guess is something like this:

Local government currently expects to cut spending, produce more [what?], and provide better services to the community.

Much clearer, isn’t it? (But we still don’t know what the local government is supposed to produce more of, nor what services they are to provide.)

Notice how we’ve reversed the nominalizations back to verbs: “expects” instead of “climate of expectation” and “produce more…” instead of “increase productivity.” Remember that verbs describe action, which makes for clearer, more active, and more interesting sentences.

The word “spending” is also an abstract noun like “expenditure,” but it’s clearer because it’s a simpler word. It also comes more directly from a verb, since it’s a verbal noun, also known as a gerund.

Finally, “provide better services” wins over “improve level of service” because it is more concrete (the opposite of abstract). Think about it: just what is a “level” anyway, and how do you “improve” one? This points up another hallmark of abstract nouns: they are often paired with a relatively empty verb, such as make, do, have, bring, put, and take. We had another example of such a verb plus abstract noun in this example: “increase productivity” instead of “produce more…”

Did you notice anything else about our example? Did you get the feeling while reading it that maybe the writer was trying to hide something? Of course, we can’t tell for sure in this case, but now you can see another danger of writing this way. Do you want your readers to think you are keeping something from them?

If you’d like to dive down a very deep rabbit hole, there’s plenty of great information out there on abstraction in writing and the ways it’s used to evade or conceal the truth. The example above comes from a somewhat dated but still interesting book called Doublespeak by William Lutz. (I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not make any money from this endorsement.) For more good bad examples you can also check out this link as well as this one (scroll down to get to the article). 

Finally, if you’re really brave and would like to see what is quite possibly the absolute worst example of abstract writing ever, check out this monster. 

This link is NOT for the faint of heart—you have been warned!  

Please feel free to comment below with your own examples of abstractions. Can you beat that final example? 😊

Expletives Deleted

If you, like me, are of a certain age, you can remember a time when most respectable publications did not print profanity. When it was necessary to acknowledge the presence of one of those forbidden seven words (warning: explicit content), publishers often inserted the phrase [expletive deleted]. Bolder editors would sometimes dare to give the reader a nudge, nudge, wink, wink by printing the first letter of the word in question, then replacing the remaining letters with asterisks.

But there’s another kind of expletive out there.

And as a matter of fact, I just used it, without having to censor anything. Did you catch it?

If your sentence starts with a variation of Here is… There are… It is… – that is a grammatical expletive. Expletives can weaken your writing because the words are empty and don’t add any meaning to the sentence.

Now that we know what the expletive is, how do we fix it? Unlike its racier cousin, we can’t redact this kind with asterisks. Usually you’ll have to rewrite the sentence. Let’s look at my example from above:

But there’s another kind of expletive out there.

This sentence is interesting–but a rewrite could make it even more provocative:

 Not all expletives are four-letter words.

Now you’ve really piqued your reader’s curiosity. He or she is bound to think, hey, I know all those words! What have I missed all these years? (And undoubtedly that reader will be disappointed to find out that we’re talking about grammar here, not some super-secret ultra-dirty language.)

Other possibilities for rewriting a sentence with an expletive include starting with the word “you” and including a verb (an action word). For example: 

Here is a list of the seven forbidden words: …

A possible rewrite with this solution:

You should not use these seven words: …

However, this doesn’t mean that you can never use an expletive. As with other topics we’ve covered, such as the use of adjectives and adverbs, you should carefully consider whether using an expletive is the best vehicle for the nuance you want to express. Used sparingly, expletives can be effective literary devices, as you can see in this article.

Feel free to comment below about expletives you find “in the wild” and whether you think they were used to good effect! And by the way, do you know what the term is for a string of symbols used to replace profanity, like on our upset emoji above? It’s called a grawlix

Blast Off!

Ever since my husband and I moved to Orlando, Florida, at the beginning of December last year, we’d been looking forward to attending space launches, since Cape Canaveral is less than an hour’s drive from our home. A few weeks ago we got to fulfill that lifelong dream not just once, but twice – we saw the launch of Space X Falcon 9 on December 16th – AND the launch of the Atlas V with the Starliner capsule on December 20th!

A launch takes a lot of power and an incredible amount of support work on the ground. Everything is directed to one goal: to get that rocket into the air with no wasted effort.

It got me thinking how writing with maximum impact should be like a rocket launch: blasting off powerfully with no fooling around. We often load up sentences, especially at the beginning, with empty hedge words that could result in a mission abort: 

 It seems that the U.S. still leads the world in space technology.  

This sentence barely makes it off the pad. Starting off with “It seems that…” tells the reader nothing. If you, the writer, are confident of your facts, just say so:

The U.S. still leads the world in space technology.

If there are valid reasons that the statement needs to be qualified, spell them out:

Although the U.S. still seems to lead the world in space technology, China’s recent advances in rocket design may soon threaten American dominance.

(Note that I don’t know if this sentence is accurate; I’m just making up an example to illustrate my editorial point. Any rocket scientists out there are more than welcome to correct my facts.)

So be on the lookout for these hedge words, among many others. Notice that some can have variations:

almost; apparently; comparatively; fairly; in part; it could be argued that…; it seems that…; I/we/most people think that…; I would argue that…; nearly; partially; predominantly; presumably; rather; relatively; seemingly; so to speak; some say that…; somewhat; sort of; to a certain degree; to some extent

Please feel free to comment below on your efforts to jettison hedge words from your writing. For a very long time I struggled with “apparently.” I’m mostly over it now, although sometimes I still come close to having to scrub the mission if I try to write when I’m tired! 

Do You Really Need That “Really”?

An easy yet effective way to tighten your writing and boost its impact is to examine all your adjectives and adverbs with a critical eye. You’ll find that many can be rewritten or even removed without any damage to your message.

First, a quick grammar review: Adjectives are words that describe nouns (persons, places, or things), such as “big,” “little,” color words, characteristics such as “hairy,” “interesting,” “unusual,” and so on.  

Adverbs describe verbs (action words), adjectives, or even other adverbs. Many adverbs are easy to spot because they end in -ly – such as “really,” “quickly,” “carefully”…you get the idea. However, watch out one extremely common adverb that doesn’t end in -ly: “very,” which can almost always be rewritten or cut.

For example:  

Spongebob lives in a really big yellow pineapple, next door to his good friend Patrick’s rock.

First, let’s identify the adjectives: “big” and “yellow” describe “pineapple,” and “good” describes “friend.” We have just one adverb – “really” – which describes the adjective “big.”

In this sentence, you can cut “really.” An even better edit would be to change “really big” to a single word that captures the same idea, such as “huge” or “giant.”

You don’t need “yellow” because pineapples usually are yellow. But if Spongebob someday decides to paint his house blue, that would be worth including, since that’s unusual.

The adjective “good” for “friend” is probably unnecessary, except maybe if you’re drawing a comparison between Patrick and another one of Spongebob’s friends.

So a good rewrite of this sentence might look like:

Spongebob lives in a huge pineapple, next door to his friend Patrick’s rock.

How about another one:

Squidward constantly gets tired of all the very loud noise that Spongebob and Patrick make when they play funny, silly games.

Again, where are the adjectives? “Loud” describes “noise,” and “funny” and “silly” both describe “games.” And the adverbs? “Constantly” describes “gets tired,” and “very” describes “loud.”

Considering “constantly,” this is another case when a rewrite of the whole phrase is a good solution. Instead of “constantly gets tired of,” how about something like “is fed up with”?

Saying that “noise” is “loud” is redundant. And the addition of “very” puts this phrase over the top. Again, look for one precise word that captures the entire idea, such as “ruckus.”

Finally, you don’t need both “funny” and “silly” to describe the games – pick whichever one you want to emphasize more.

So this sentence could be rewritten:

Squidward is fed up with all the ruckus that Spongebob and Patrick make when they play silly games.

These are examples which I made obvious in order to make the point, but if you start giving your adjectives and adverbs a critical eye, you will spot areas where you can hone your wording to make it more precise.

As you find examples “in the wild,” either in your own writing or elsewhere, please share them in the comments. And as always, if you have any questions, please contact me at steph@tightprose.com!  

By Way of Introduction

I love tight prose. Hence the name of this blog, this website, and my business. 

Tight writing is concise, clear, and wastes no time making its point. If you write for busy customers (everyone these days), they will appreciate well crafted messages that quickly give them the information they need.

Despite what you may have heard, writing tight isn’t difficult. All it takes is learning some simple techniques, attention to your message, and practice. This isn’t just for full-time writers, either. Maybe you’re a mid-level manager, for example, and have to write quarterly reports on your section’s performance. You want to make sure your people get the kudos they deserve, and that your higher-ups have a thorough appreciation of how your section has fulfilled its sales goals. You need those messages to come through loud and clear.

But we’re not talking just major writing projects here. Every little scrap of your writing, even those that might seem insignificant, can benefit from careful thought about what you’re saying.  

I received a good example of this today, in a simple email from my credit card company. The only part of the subject line that I could see in my Outlook inbox preview was “Account alert: Your…” Because of the word “alert,” I went into panic mode, because I had paid the bill earlier that day–what was wrong? Turns out, nothing. The email simply acknowledged that the company had received my payment. The word “alert” in the subject line sent the wrong messsage. 

So in this blog we’ll take a look at a wide variety of strategies for tightening your writing to maximize its impact. But don’t worry–we’ll keep it fun, and I promise not to geek out too much on obscure points of grammar. Even better–you, my readers, have my permission to call me out when I get too technical and obscure. I hope for this blog to be like the classes I taught to junior writers in my previous career: interactive discussions where we all (me included) learn something.

My previous career? I wrote for senior executives and policymakers at the top levels of the U.S. government. More in my next blog post! In the meantime, please let me know in the comments what topics you’d like to see me
cover.