Shaping Sentences, Choosing Words

Decades ago, I learned to delight in that staple of elementary school education, the vocabulary quiz.  As kindergarten students, we were exempted from its discipline, but once we entered first grade it was expected that we would learn twenty new words each week — not only their meanings, but also their spelling, correct pronunciation, and proper use in a sentence.

As far as I was concerned, forty weekly words would have been acceptable.  Every word turned on my tongue like a key, unlocking a new and unexpected world.  Sometimes, pushing against inexplicable spellings or mysterious definitions, I found words to be like windows, opening to reveal a variety of intriguing vistas.

Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling through sentences like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed they could go on forever.  Walking to school in the morning, I’d rehearse them in my mind.  Perspicacity.  Archetype.  Lacuna.  Paraphernalia.  Abnegate. Chrysanthemums.

The learning process never varied. Each evening after supper, we’d linger at the table and flip through my flashcards, white rectangles of cardboard with a red word printed on one side and its black definition on the other.  Always, it was a family affair. My mother would give me a definition, and I’d tell her the word.  Then, we’d reverse the process.   Dad would give me a word. I’d spell it back to him, and use it in a sentence.

Sometimes, we made the drill even more of a game by using each word in the funniest sentence possible.  If we were feeling creative, we’d indulge my pun-loving dad and punish each other with terrible wordplay.

Occasionally, I helped myself remember a spelling by using a sentence as a clue.  It seemed impossible to learn how to spell chrysanthemum, until I thought of my friend Chris, and used her name to help me spell the name of the flower. Chrys an the mums went to town for lunch,” I thought to myselfI still use that crutch today.

Even the best vocabulary doesn’t guarantee good writing, of course, so our teachers provided other tools, encouraging us to put them to use as we shaped and molded our words into stories and essays. By third grade, we were diagramming sentences. Easy enough in the beginning, the exercise became increasingly difficult. Once we’d identified and properly placed subjects, predicates, articles and prepositions, we moved on to independent and dependent clauses. Adjectives and adverbs began to appear. Before long, little stems, platforms, and divisions reached out to the very edge of meaning.

“The dog chased the cat” was where we began, but it wasn’t long before we were attempting to pull apart sentences like, “The brown, mischievous dog chased the cat around the house until he caught her behind the blackberry bushes.” Eventually, “The brown, mischievous dog, in a frenzy of doggie attitude, decided to chase the cat, but gave up the effort after his frustrated and irritated owner came after him with a broom, threatening banishment.”

We diagrammed it all. One by one, each class member was called to the blackboard to demonstrate proficiency. By the time she finished working, or he gave up and stepped back, the blackboard was covered with lines, slashes, dashes, and arrows. Breathless classmates collapsed into giggles as everyone awaited the teacher’s verdict. And then, we began again.

(Click on the image for an explanation of this famous sentence.)

Two assumptions about language seem to have underlain those early exercises — that a more expansive vocabulary is better than one which is limited, and that the structure of a sentence needs to remain clear even as it’s being loaded down with adjectives, prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions until it bows like a picnic table piled high with fried chicken and pie.

Those days of learning to serve up appetizing words and sentences came to mind when a friend mentioned he’d been attending class to learn how to write shorter sentences.  At the time, I suspected he was joking. As it turned out, he wasn’t — at least, not entirely. Still, his remark brought to mind assorted bits of advice I received after beginning to write.

Short sentences are good. Shorter sentences are better.
Don’t overwhelm your reader with complexity.
Never use words that might require a dictionary.
Remember that readers have short attention spans.
Write so that a sixth grader can understand what you have to say.
Limit yourself to one or two syllable words whenever possible.
Never write a piece exceeding 300 words.

Gathered up into one place and committed to the page, the admonitions appear to be variations on one further bit of advice.

Remember that you are writing for dunces.

If the same advice were offered in other fields, the absurdity would become obvious.

Advise an artist to limit herself to primary colors, with brush strokes no longer than one inch in length, and it’s a turpentine bath for you.  Tell a master gardener to keep his plants below six inches in height or use only annuals, and you’ll be tossed onto the compost heap.  Suggest to a chef that she restrict herself to recipes using five ingredients or fewer, or dishes which take no longer than ten minutes to prepare, and you’ll be eating frozen dinners — alone.

Even if you manage to obtain a painting for your wall, a few blooms for your patio and dinner for your table, the look and taste of life will be diminished immeasurably.

Of course I’m no more fond of incomprehensible paragraphs, misused words, or sloppy grammatical constructions than the next person. But seeking out new words, and using those words in ever more complex sentences, doesn’t have to feel pretentious. It can make every sort of writing more enjoyable for the reader.

Common words and declarative sentences have a legitimate role to play in everything from daily journalism to great literature. But there are times when reality itself pushes the boundaries of language. When that happens, there’s no good reason that less-common words and more-complex sentences can’t be chosen and structured in such a way that they communicate meaning clearly and memorably.

A writer isn’t meant to be limited to one-syllable words, or to live in a world dominated by flat, colorless sentences.  The writer is called to search out the best word, the most evocative sentence, and the most resonant image possible as language is shaped to discover and communicate meaning.

There is a time for this sort of simple, understated prose.

As a youth, he rarely had given the weather much thought. He became a forecaster rather than a reporter almost by accident and now, after years of earning a living in the field, had tired of its incessant demands. The urge to quit, to simply walk away, seemed overwhelming. Still, a sense of responsibility, combined with his memory of the storm, held him at his desk…

But there also is a time for a slightly different approach.

 Once a simple flirtation, a matter of coy glances directed to passing clouds, weather had grown to become his passion — perhaps even an obsession. For years the shining land, steaming and shimmering after rain, had consumed his life in ways he never could have predicted, reshaping it as surely as the forces working their will across the land itself.
That prediction should have grown to be a habit, little more than a means of maintaining life and funding its strange necessities, seemed inexplicable. He dreamed of leaving, turning from the constraints of time and deadline to the deliciousness of impulse, the effortless enjoyment of the day common enough in youth, but now seemingly denied to the years-weary toiler he had become…

For any of us, White seems to suggest, there is a multitude of writing choices. Perhaps having faith in our ability to choose wisely is the trick.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment, please click below.

113 thoughts on “Shaping Sentences, Choosing Words

  1. Alas, those days of weekly vocabulary quizzes, diagramming sentences, and teacher-corrected essays are over.

    Oh sure, pockets of excellence lie hidden in every school, but for the most part, teachers are an unhappy bunch.( I realize the rule is to use bunch for things that actually come in bunches, like bananas or grapes…)

    Why can’t so many people in their teens, 20’s, and 30’s write? Because they went through a public school system where the proverbial “Good Job!!!” and the perfunctory check mark were the only hieroglyphics found at the top of their papers. (Notice the overuse of exclamation points.)

    Natural writers rarely need training, but the bulk of students need practice, teacher feedback and correction (not peer editing).

    Today’s young adults are stuck on “Awesome” and “Amazing” to characterize things like salads and flip-flops.

    Until the public school system rids itself of tenure and adds true accountability, our children and grandchildren will need outside tutoring if they are to write as well as you do.

    1. Cheri,

      I’m not sure I agree that “natural writers rarely need training.”

      It’s true that some take to language more easily than others, cruising through school without diction, spelling, or grammar being flagged on every paper they submit. I was one of those kids.

      But what I’ll call technical accuracy, for want of a better term, does not a writer make. I knew that intuitively, and began this blog as a way of learning to write. There have been some surprising lessons along the way, especially my discovery that I’m not nearly as good as I thought. There still are things I can’t do, and until I learn to do them, some of the stories I have to tell will have to wait.

      In the meantime, I can’t think of a better way to practice and gain writing skills than blogging. Comments reveal a good bit about what’s being communicated, and readers who are kind enough to point out misspellings, errors of fact, awkward constructions and changes in voice are invaluable. In fact, my comment section is a source of that outside tutoring you reference.

      Recently, I read a delightful and useful article on writing. It focused on the tendency of writers to procrastinate, but much of what the author says is relevant here. I had to smile at this, particularly. It’s just so true.

      “Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.”

      Isn’t that awesome!?!


      1. Hi Linda,
        In my 40 years of teaching composition and as Virginia Woolf said,”Write from your experience,” I found that natural writers write. The next tier of writers needs coaching, practice, encouragement, and strategies. How to combine sentences? How to select just the right word? How to have confidence in the image and the skill to bring it to life?

        Awesome? No.
        Awesome I reserve for the ethereal, the sublime waterfall, the burst of creativity that produces the dew on the lime leaf or a sentence that meanders on for nine pages, in perfect subordination.

        1. That “awesome” I left you was, of course, entirely tongue-in-cheek, an acknowledgement of your distaste. I’d add a smiley face here, except I have my own distaste for those.

  2. Hello Linda:

    I’ve always known English was a tough cookie. After reading your blog post, I know the English language is way out of my reach. Won’t sleep well tonight thinking about the complexities of the language of Shakespeare. Yet, you make it look so easy.

    Congrats for your superb way of mastering the language. I can’t even write that well in my own language—Spanish.



    1. Omar,

      Don’t be too hard on yourself. The fact that we’re reading each other’s blogs, and commenting on them with enjoyment, is evidence enough that English isn’t out of your reach.

      Besides, no one is perfect. Just yesterday I happened across a letter written to a class of students by the author Kurt Vonnegut. You can see the entire letter and the backstory here.

      What really caught my attention was one sentence in the letter, where Vonnegut writes,”Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals.”

      “Recepticals”? It didn’t look right, but I couldn’t believe it was misspelled. Surely, I was wrong. But a trip to the dictionary confirmed my suspicions. It should have been “receptacles”.

      None of us gets it right, every time, but we don’t have to. What’s important is to learn from the errors that we do make, and keep on. That’s how I see it, anyway.


      1. Thanks for the morale booster, but sometimes the struggle becomes a burden too uncomfortable carry. Been trying to understand English for more than 61 years and sometimes I think I’m sliding back to square one. Still I stubbornly continue forward. Is the correct word “masochism”? :-)

  3. Oh, splendid! I think of the grace and ease of Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea, written in mostly 2 and 3 syllable words, very plain, simple, yet moving and highly descriptive.

    My 5th grade spelling bee: disqualified for spelling “menstruation” wrong. Instead I spelled “administration” because surely, surely I wasn’t being asked to spell THAT word (I will never forget my embarrassment).

    1. Monica, what memories you’ve evoked. We were so awkward in those years, and so easily embarassed. Times certainly have changed, though whether for the better or the worse isn’t always clear. I do know that when Melissa Harris-Perry showed up on MSNBC with her tampon earrings, I really wished she’d found a different way to express her opinion. To each her own, I suppose.

      “The Old Man and the Sea” was an early favorite. You’re right about its simplicity and grace. I’ve not re-read it in years. I need to do that. Thanks for reminding me of it.


  4. Do you remember the Reader’s Digest vocabulary quizzes, Linda? I always took them. Wonder if they are still offered. As for diagramming, the last time I used it was teaching English to Liberian students. Not sure I would want to try now.

    Like you, I have always loved words. Spelling is something else. Spell check is my friend.


    1. Curt, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I don’t know what the magazine offers these days, but Reader’s Digest online has vocabulary flash cards. There are other challenges under their “Word Power” category which nearly sidetracked me. They’re really fun.

      I’ve been trying to imagine diagramming in a Liberian classroom. Did you work only in English, or did you diagram in Kpelle or other tribal languages? It never had occured to me that diagramming might be used in other language instruction, but I found people who had learned diagramming for Spanish, Latin, Chinese and French. It’s very interesting.

      Something else that occurred to me is that the visual thesaurus has become popular. Perhaps tools like that will bring diagramming back into favor. (No breath-holding here, however.)


      1. The Americo-Liberians didn’t allow Kpelle or any other languages to be taught or spoken in classrooms at the time, Linda. It was all about learning English and de-emphasizing tribes.

        Peggy tells me that diagramming was reintroduced for English Language learners in California schools when she was an elementary school principal a few years back. She said it was very effective.


  5. I always hated diagramming sentences. Seemed such a stupid thing to do then and it does today, too. One of the biggest problems I have with learning proper Spanish (a real necessity living in Panama) is that I never learned English grammar. When that was being taught I was spending a LOT of time at the principal’s office. Let’s just say Mrs. Lowell and I had our differences and let it go at that.

    Just because I don’t know the difference between a past participle and a gerund doesn’t mean I don’t know what good writing is. My maternal grandfather use to read to me every night before I went to bed while my father was in the Pacific in WWII. I whizzed through Dick and Jane in a week. Pretty dull stuff even for a first grader, and I was reading at a college level when I was in junior high.

    Having been exposed to good writing as a child (we weren’t allowed to have comic books) I grew up reading good literature at an early age and absorbed it by osmosis, I think. I even made a living for several years putting words on paper as a newspaper reporter, hospital public relations director and freelance magazine writer.

    If there’s one single book that can be used to teach someone who to write well it would be that thin, tiny volume by Strunk & White, ‘The Elements of Style.’ That’s all one needs.

    1. OldSalt,

      Well, we’ve certainly shared some of the same experiences when it comes to grammar. Gerunds? I’ve heard of them. Past participle? I used to know what that is. I think I have the subjunctive down pat, but that’s more thanks to James Thurber than to my English teachers.

      Like you, I absorbed a good bit through my own reading, and the reading my parents did with me when I was a child. I generally know what’s right or acceptable, but questions pop up. When they do, I stop and take time to track down the answer. Sometimes, it can be the simplest thing. Is it “lay” or “lie”? Is it “commited” or “committed”?
      Does it have to be a semi-colon, or can I use a dash? And so on.

      Today, things are complicated by different guidelines becoming accepted for online work, and there are differences I didn’t know about between the AP style sheet and the MLA or Chicago manuals. I’ve been lucky to be directed toward some good online resources by people who really know their stuff. As I learned to my chagrin, googling rules for grammar can turn up some remarkable – and remarkably wrong – advice.

      On the other hand, even some of the time-tested sources, like Strunk & White, have their detractors. I happened across this critique of “The Elements of Style” recently. I’m not saying I agree with everything the author says, let alone his conclusion, but I think you’ll enjoy it, as I did. There’s nothing like a catfight among grammar geeks for pure entertainment.


  6. Linda, this post is great. I swear lady that your knowledge knows no bounds and you were born a teacher with a proclivity for writing with exceptional flair. I learn something each and every time I read one of you posts. I hated dissecting sentences and did not have a good teacher. But at some point I learned new words each week.

    1. Yvonne, you surely do give me more credit than I deserve. Every day I walk this earth I find something new I didn’t know — but I’ve become pretty good at ferreting out information about things that interest me. And believe me — I learn something every time I write one of these posts.

      It sounds like you and I had the same experience. I hated dissecting frogs and earthworms in biology, and our teacher wasn’t the best. I wonder now if she might have been a frustrated researcher who landed in the classroom. She didn’t seem to like us very much.

      But we got through it. You got your new words every week, and I managed to skin my frog all in one piece. Actually, one of my most vivid high school memories involves that frog. I dried the skin flat, took it home and tucked it on my mom’s pillow, under the bed spread. I never saw my dad laugh harder in his life.


      1. Now that is what I call a “rich” prank on your mother. You were a slick and a quick one for sure. That is one memory that you will forever cherish. I bet you have not topped that prank.

  7. Your comment about short sentences reminds me once again of what Pascal wrote in the 16th of his Provincial Letters:

    “Mes Révérends Pères, mes lettres n’avaient pas accoutumé de se suivre de si près, ni d’être si étendues. Le peu de temps que j’ai eu a été cause de l’un et de l’autre. Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que
    parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”

    “My Reverend Fathers, my letters didn’t customarily follow one after the other so quickly, nor were they so drawn out. My lack of time was the cause of both of those things. I’ve made this letter longer only because I haven’t had the leisure time to make it shorter.”

    1. Steve, the estimable Quote Investigator has written an entry for this quotation from Pascal. It’s really quite amazing how many people have made use of the general theme, from Cicero to Luther to Ben Franklin. I found this reference to President Wilson amusing.

      “According to an anecdote published in 1918, Woodrow Wilson was asked about the amount of time he spent preparing speeches, and his response was illuminating:

      ‘That depends on the length of the speech,’ answered the President. ‘If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.’”

      And of course there was the usual attribution to Mark Twain, which QI debunked. There’s a related Spanish saying in the comments.


      1. Wilson’s remarks in turn remind me of this scene from the movie Animal Crackers, featuring the Marx Brothers:

        Mrs. Rittenhouse: You are one of the musicians? But you were not due until tomorrow.

        Ravelli [Chico Marx]: Couldn’t come tomorrow, that’s too quick.

        Spaulding [Groucho Marx]: Say, you’re lucky they didn’t come yesterday!

        Ravelli: We were busy yesterday, but we charge just the same.

        Spaulding: This is better than exploring! What do you fellows get an hour?

        Ravelli: Oh, for playing we getta ten dollars an hour.

        Spaulding: I see…What do you get for not playing?

        Ravelli: Twelve dollars an hour.

        Spaulding: Well, clip me off a piece of that.

        Ravelli: Now, for rehearsing we make special rate. Thatsa fifteen dollars an hour.

        Spaulding: That’s for rehearsing?

        Ravelli: Thatsa for rehearsing.

        Spaulding: And what do you get for not rehearsing?

        Ravelli: You couldn’t afford it…Heh…you see, if we don’t rehearse, we don’t play…And, if we don’t play…That runs into money.

        Spaulding: How much would you want to run into an open manhole?

        Ravelli: Just the cover charge. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha…

      2. The Spanish saying you referred to on the QI site is “Lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno” (Baltasar Gracián: Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia, Huesca 1647, #105. We could translate it as: “Something good, if brief, is twice as good.”

  8. I think there is certainly a generational thing going on when it comes to writing and language. Also, technology is probably forcing a lot of change. Personally, I am usually very loose with my grammar and sentence structure… I like using “…” a lot… I use parentheses way too much (way, way too often). I like exclamation points. I intentionally use all lower-case in many situations (including my blog post titles. I began doing so and now I can’t stop for sake of consistency). But! I love language… I love linguistics! The most fascinating and interesting college course I’ve ever taken was a linguistics course about speech, thought, and culture. Wow. When you realize how language and the written word has evolved through time, and is constantly changing, you can sort of relax and laugh off those that are stuffy about grammar. I like to focus on style and expression. Because that is the essence of language: to communicate! But, in all seriousness, I could work on taking my grammar skills more seriously. I enjoyed your blog post and I admire your very clean writing.

    1. everyonecanmontessori,

      I’m in complete agreement that stuffiness doesn’t serve anyone, unless it might be people who love to point out the errors of others because it makes them feel superior.

      On the other hand, if the point is to communicate, there are situations where a too casual approach to the basic rules of grammar, poorly chosen words, rampant misspellings or an absence of punctuation truly can harm the person trying to present themselves well. Job and school applications come to mind, as well as grant proposals, entries for writing contests, school assignments — it could be quite a list.

      I do think that the influence of technology is real, and I don’t think it’s wholly good. That’s a larger and a different discussion, but it’s a fact that anyone who limits themselves to text-and-tweet language is limiting their ability to communicate. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for such things.There is. But knowing how to make use of old-fashioned words in old-fashioned ways is important, too.

      Speaking more practically, I know someone who’s involved in hiring for a large Houston firm. A lot of unsolicited applications come in over the electronic transom, and anything filled with emoticons, jargon, internet abbreviations and such can expect to be discarded immediately.

      Speaking of language, thought and culture, one of my favorite quotations is from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. You’re always welcome!


      1. Yes, I definitely agree that there is a place for less casual writing. Actually, after taking a few online college courses I was quite surprised at how many people didn’t write in an academic fashion. One of my papers for a course specifically focused on what I see as a new dialect emerging — the social media/internet/texting dialect (even though it’s typically not spoken aloud I hear people all the time voicing the acronyms “omg” and “lol”). Anyway, I find it fascinating how people are eschewing punctuation and grammar for stylistic purposes (or maybe laziness). I also think it has to do with wanting to “sound” casual, as opposed to formal, in online speech. I actually think that by now there’s a pretty complex online etiquette. Anyway, I loved the quote you mentioned. Have a great evening!

  9. Ha! I remember those days of vocabulary/spelling tests. I looked forward to them.

    I also remember diagraming sentences. We had to write essays and book reports. They were tools to teach us to write. I don’t believe they diagram sentences these days. I’m not even sure they make kids write book reports and deliver them to the class anymore, but I’m sure vocabulary lists still exist.

    I don’t remember my parents helping me with my vocabulary list, but I do remember my sister’s very handsome boyfriend helping me. I had such a crush, but I was only eight and he was eighteen. Sigh.

    1. Bella Rum,

      You may have been better off, vocabularly-wise. There’s nothing like a crush to focus the attention of a young girl.

      We always were reading and writing. There was a weekly book report to be completed (we got to choose our own book, of course), and lots of essays. Every time I watch the essay-writing scene in “A Christmas Story”, it all comes back. They handed theirs directly to the teacher, though. We had to read ours aloud and then we handed it in.

      We had some kids in our elementary school who seemed not to want to be there. Nevertheless, every one of them took part in it all. I still remember a boy named Rocky Illingworth sitting in the library in his black leather jacket with silver chains, writing his essay or report. We thought he was a tough kid, but he still did his work.

      I just was wondering whatever happened to him. Well, now I know. He went to Viet Nam. Here’s an award-winning photo of him with another of my home town veterans. You can click to open the caption on the photo, and learn all you need to know.

      The internet is an amazement.


  10. In French and German that sort of learning is simply called ‘Grammar’. It’s not a matter of choice or preference but part of the curriculum, like spelling and handwriting.

    I have often bemoaned the fact that in my children’s schooling in England grammar was irrelevant, something you didn’t need in order to ‘express’ yourself.

    There was a school of thought – now discarded again to a certain extent, I believe – which demanded nothing more from communication than that you understood what the other person meant.

    It is my belief that you absolutely need the basics in any trade before you master it.

    1. friko,

      And now, I’m sorry to report, there’s even a move in this country to eliminate any instruction in cursive handwriting. Why would a child need to learn cursive when they have their little smart phones and tablets? (My tongue is firmly in my cheek, of course. I have great admiration for a cousin who still insists his students learn to use the slide rule, despite the easy availability of US$9.95 calculators.)

      I’ve never thought about it before, but we call schools for young children “elementary schools”, rather than “grammar schools.” There may be more of a difference than I’ve previously thought.

      Interesting that you bring up the trades. Occasionally someone will say to me, “You really should hire a couple of young fellows to do your prep work for you on the boats. They could do the scraping and sanding, and you could come behind and do the varnishing.”
      What they don’t understand is that, if the prep work isn’t done well, even the best varnisher in the world won’t be able to produce a beautiful finished product.

      Perhaps it’s not a perfect analogy to diagramming sentences and learning proper spelling, but it’s close enough to support your point.

      As I like to say, after we’ve learned the rules and learned how to apply the rules, then we’re free to break the rules. But only then!


  11. I think your experience with your parents and first teachers was tremendous. When parents and teachers engage kids with learning, great things happen. Kids are ravenous to learn. They need attention and challenge to guide that learning. You gave the reason in the ending paragraph. It gives children the tools they need to choose wisely in communicating with others.

    We all have a bag of tools and tricks we use in communicating. WWe learn which ones are correct for different situations. We switch between one and another. In chats and text messaging, I skip caps, abbreviate, and use stuff like lol, btw, wtf, etc.

    Interesting stuff. I don’t think kids diagram these days, btw.

    1. Jim,

      As so often happens, a little time and distance has allowed me to appreciate my parents and teachers in a way I couldn’t when I was growing up. At the end of her life, my mother certainly knew how important she’d been to me, but I was still young when my dad died — too young to understand what a good father he’d been.

      As for teachers, one of the most difficult experiences of my life was calling a favorite professor after a couple of years of not being in touch, and finding he had died that very day. That’s a hard lesson to learn. Now? I try to remember to tell people when I appreciate something specific they’ve done, or simply their personal qualities, without procrastinating.

      And you’re exactly right about honing a variety of tools. As the saying goes, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

      You’ve brought to mind a favorite song by the Heptones I never would have connected to this topic, but it certainly fits. I first heard it in 1973, in London, and it’s as good today as it was then. The chorus goes:

      “…common people like you and me,
      we’ll be builders for eternity,
      each is given a bag of tools,
      a shapeless mass and the book of rules.”


      1. It has been a long time since I heard them. Their music is very early Reggae. Nice. I like it.

        ‘I try to remember to tell people ……. without procrastinating.’ … it is such good advice.

        Thank you for sharing your writing, your thoughts, and the music. You do it well.

  12. I loved diagramming sentences and when Mrs. Foreman, my sixth grade teacher, encouraged the use of colored pencils, I was definitely sold. With the precision of a computer programmer, she carefully and gradually introduced sentence challenges so the whole process seemed logical to me. I was so fortunate to have her as a teacher.

    This use of “inventor” in the Wikipedia reference you mentioned is intriguing: ” …Annie Senghas, … the inventor of the sentence.” Your mastery of verb conjugation shines through in this sentence, “Two assumptions about language seem to have underlain those early exercises.” I always learn something new here.

    btw I snapped a souvenir for you while at the American History Museum. I do not know how to link you to the photo in this comment box, so I will e-mail it to you.

    1. Georgette,

      Since dropping you a note about the plate, I’ve done some looking through the Rutherford B. Hayes pages, and I’m convinced that the bison was part of their china. If you look on this page, you’ll see a plate decorated with what appears to be a bighorn sheep. I’m just sure this and the bison both were part of the so-called Game Set that was a part of the service.

      At that period of history, it was common to have decorated plates for each course. I had an entire fish set at one point. It’s long gone, but it was absolutely impressive. I’ve also seen partial game sets, but nothing as marvelous as the Hayes’ design. The last thing I need to do is get back in the china collecting business, but this certainly got my juices flowing!

      Isn’t that funny, about a sentence having an “inventor”? Still, it’s appropriate in the sense that no one (I assume) would ever utter such a sentence in normal conversation. It’s a pure construction.
      Your colored pencils would help in diagramming that one, for sure. Mrs. Foreman was smart to introduce that little variation in the program. We were limited to blackboards and white chalk – too bad someone didn’t think to pull out the colored chalk.

      One thing I’ve wondered from time to time is whether being required to take two years of Latin in Junior High didn’t complement our English studies in ways we never realized. I know this – Miss Wilcox was the most diminuitive teacher I ever had, and probably the oldest. But she put us through our paces from day one. Disconnected facts still pop up now and then, like the fact that there’s no ablative case in English. Given enough time, I might still be able to name the seven cases in Latin without peeking. What a teacher that woman was!


  13. Goodness. I didn’t master “lacuna” until Barbara Kingsolver used it for a title.

    My parents once had an argument over whether something in the newspaper made sense. “It doesn’t even have a verb,” huffed my mother. A moment of silence. “What’s a verb?” my father inquired.

    Nevertheless Dad was a great reader and brought me up to be another. Neither of us could ever diagram a sentence.

    E.B. White also wrote “Vigorous writing is concise.” I believe that’s true, and that it’s difficult to do.

    1. Gerry,

      That’s a good point you make. There are people who go on endlessly about the finer points of grammar and diagram sentences perfectly, but couldn’t engage a reader if their life depended on it. And then, there are those who don’t know a participle from a popsicle, but do just fine when it’s time to communicate.

      Your father and my mother provided us with one of the greatest gifts possible — an appreciation for reading. Now and then I skim through the quotations on writing at Goodreads, and I’m always amazed by how many good authors over the years have offered the same advice: if we want to write, we have to read.

      And we shouldn’t limit ourselves only to the “classics.” Wide-ranging reading leads to preferences and sorting. Once we’ve begun to say, “I think this is good,” or “I think this is bad,” we’re ready to take the next step and ask, “Why?” There’s a tremendous amount of learning to be had in that sort of exercise, and we don’t even have to pay tuition.


  14. OMG -I had to use that ;^)

    “Amazing” and “Awesome” are peeves of mine. I’m far from perfect, but there are some glaring and pitiful things going on in the language. And don’t get me started on the poor apostrophe!

    Wonderful post. What a great upbringing you had. Chrys an the mums- charming.

    I have to take comfort in Mr. White’s quote. It’s the best I can do.

    1. Martha,

      That poor apostrophe seems to be having a hard time of it recently. Every time I turn around, I see it misused — sometimes in new and creative ways. On the other hand, every discipline seems to be having some problems. I recently saw a sign from WalMart that said, “BIG SAVINGS! Was $12. Now Get 4 for $3!”

      It’s become a favorite technique, so it must work.

      My folks weren’t perfect, and neither was I. But we had a lot of fun together, and they gave me a lot of freedom, particularly in my reading. Best of all, they gave me opportunities to practice my writing. We’d do something on the weekend, and then they’d encourage me to write about it in a letter to Grandma and Grandpa. The line between home and school wasn’t very clear sometimes, and I realize now that was a good thing.

      Isn’t that quotation wonderful? Both Whites were much admired when I was in school: both EB and William Allen, that fine Kansas journalist. More about him later.


  15. Bravo! No matter the subject, your pieces flow with ease, interest and gems of truth. I remember loving the exercise of “diagramming sentences”. Now, I often write as I think – without structure or form. (My bad!) However, when I need to write “professionally” or edit/proofread for my husband, I am able to do so and sound educated. (I hope) :D

    1. Becca,

      And that’s just the point. Being able to write in different ways for different purposes is a good thing. An instruction manual needs to be written differently than a true crime story, which needs to be written differently than an essay on an historical event, which shouldn’t sound at all like a letter written to Mom or Dad.

      Sometimes I laugh and say the mark of a good varnisher is knowing what you can get away with. There are rules for varnishing, too — like, “Don’t varnish in fog.” But I once laid a final coat of varnish in blowing sea fog, knowing that I could get away with it, as long as the wind stayed up.

      Increasingly, I’m finding part of the fun of writing is pushing the limits a bit, seeing what I can get away with. One of these days I’ll publish a clunker, and it will be as clear to me as everyone else that I missed the mark. So what? There’s always tomorrow!


  16. What a wonderful and nostalgic lesson from a superb writer. I too loved the spelling bees and school in general, though I must admit to my shame that I loved the competitiveness of the spelling bees the most. How very fortunate you were to have good teachers and caring parents to guide you along your way.

    Writing is a difficult though pleasurable career choice. We all have favorite writers, and I have been so delighted to find you on the internet. I’m waiting for a book from you.

    1. kayti,

      Your love of competition was/is a good thing. In my (very strong) opinion, not allowing children to experience failure is a grand dereliction of responsibility on the part of parents and teachers. I just read an article that I thought addressed some of the issues very well. You can find it here.

      I still remember my first grade school track meet. I was running in one of the short dashes. I fell down right out of the blocks and ground cinders into my knees. I was as embarassed as hurt, but what happened? I got dusted off, looked at, and then calmly told I could run in the next race, with the kids from the class ahead of me. I ran, didn’t come in dead last, and had my knees decorated with mercurochrome. Later, I told the whole story over the dinner table with great pride.

      I suppose it’s good that cinder tracks have disappeared, and mercurochrome’s off the market, but if we raise a generation unable to tolerate failure, and build on it, we do so at our peril. The more I become convinced of that, the more possible a book becomes. But first, I need to do some stories, I think.


  17. I took an editing class once, and was taught that real editors will edit the death out of your piece, so you should do it for them. What I wrote that breathed life now sat lifeless and pale in comparison.

    I always find myself struggling between the two like a juggler walking on a tight-rope; what to include, what to cast out? To me, I think it’s like a good soup, with more of the right ingredients a better flavor can be had.

    1. Homestead Ramblings,

      One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there are good editors and bad editors — not to mention the fact that good editing is hard work.

      The most extensive editing I’ve had to do on my own work taught me another lesson — just pulling things out doesn’t always do the trick. We can end up with a pale, lifeless piece if we just keep eliminating words. So, re-writing often is important, especially if a certain word count or time limit is involved.

      As for what to put in and what to leave out, I’ve always enjoyed Flannery O’Connor’s take on the issue. She said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

      All we have to do is figure out which words belong in the story!


  18. I don’t remember vocabulary quizes. I have a vague recollection of having a set of flash cards, though.

    I do remember diagramming sentences and in-class spelling bees.

    Grammar gave me fits, though. I could always tell what sounded right but had a hard time telling you why or what part of speech things were. Nouns and verbs were easy but when we’d venture into things like dangling participles, I’d go blank.

    I suppose the main purpose of a class in shorter sentence writing would be to keep the world from filling up with too many Bulwer Lyttons.

    “It was a dark and stormy night……”

    1. Gué,

      Guess who was enrolled in that class in shorter sentence writing? Ken Kaye, from the “Sun Sentinel.” I tend not to look at his blog outside of hurricane season, but I need to stop by and say hello.

      As I recall, he was both amused and just slightly irritated by the requirement that he enroll. Everything’s relative, of course. Today’s texts and tweets can make any complete sentence seem pretty meaty, no matter how short.

      I was roaming around and found this neat page about sentence length that I think you’ll enjoy. The dialogue between Falstaff and Prince Hal is really quite amazing, and a terrific illustration. I also pulled this out, to keep it handy:

      “The trouble is that many writers, unsure of themselves, are leery of long sentences because they fear the run-on, that troll under the bridge, forgetting that it is often better to risk imperfection than boredom.”

      As for right or wrong, I have the same issue you do. Sometimes thing just sound right, but if I’m putting words to page, that’s not good enough. You’d be surprised how much time I spend trying to figure out right from wrong from writers’ choice. When even the experts disagree, it can get interesting.


  19. I’m an English major, so I love all wordy things, and today’s topic pulled me in, as usual with your writing. I don’t remember diagramming sentences, but I do remember learning parts of speech and grammar. I always appreciate the apt phrase, the exactness, and that mysterious sense of rightness when a writer succeeds in matching the most fitting word with what she is trying to convey.

    I don’t wonder that a large vocabulary enhances the richness of your writing. Do you find that it affects you speech as well? Do you think that good writers are naturally gifted speakers? Or are the two uses of language quite separate? (I think I write differently than I talk. And yet, when I put pen to paper, I feel like I am having a conversation.)

    1. Rosemary,

      Your questions reminded me of the most recent offering from Gwarlingo, where Don Colburn ponders the differences — and similarities — between poetry and prose. In the same way, written and spoken language both involve words, but they differ in interesting ways.

      Does a larger vocabulary affect my speech? It depends. In daily life, probably not. On the dock or in the grocery store checkout line, certainly not. Sitting around in a café, telling stories, there’s more of a chance that I’d draw on different words.

      Grammar’s a different matter. Even in daily life, I’m aware of resisting certain pressures — toward trite phrases, for example, or the kind of casualness that drops the “g” at the end of words. And context makes a difference. I can be “fixin’ to” do this or that when I’m back in the country, and don’t think a thing about it. When I come back to town, it’s gone. It’s not an affectation, it’s simply a different way of speaking I picked up when I lived there, and it returns when I go back.

      The relationship between writing and speech is more complex. When I was in high school, I competed in original oratory, extemporaneous speaking, and debate. Each has its own requirements, and in each the role of research and writing prior to speaking differs.

      There was a time when I did various sorts of public speaking, and one thing I learned pretty quickly was that speaking from a complete draft was counterproductive. Even if a full text was required, the presentation rarely followed it exactly. I can remember a few times when I tried that (even in my high school days) and the result was far more leaden.

      I love these questions. I’ve never thought much about them. What occurs to me is that these issues of speech and writing may intersect at the very point that’s of so much interest to most writers: the development of an individual “voice”.


  20. You know, Linda, English teachers “back in the day” did a better job of making words come alive for us. I, too, used to love vocabulary lessons and still spend an inordinate amount of time browsing through a dictionary! And while I didn’t particularly enjoy diagramming sentences, it did make sense in a way that merely talking about the parts of speech didn’t. Pity my son, who never had to diagram.

    I love your counter to the “advice” we all receive when we start to write more seriously. Short sentences, shorter words, writing for dunces — all might make “sense,” but how much richer our language is for those who refuse to kowtow to such rules!

    A good read, as usual, and a fascinating topic, to boot!

    1. Debbie,

      Many of my friends and acquaintances, and even strangers online, talk about the fact that the entire educational process seemed better “back then.” I’m not close enough to the system today to judge with any certainty, but it does seem a primary difference is that teachers in my day had far more freedom and flexibility in the classroom.

      I don’t think teachers, as a group, are any less knowledgeable or dedicated today, but I think they’re hamstrung by the bureaucracy, particularly by the abomination known as “teaching to the test” and by a demand for uniformity that cripples teachers’ creativity and doesn’t allow students to strive for excellence, let alone achieve it.

      Beyond that, as a student I knew that my parents and teachers were natural allies. Today, it seems parents and students gang up against the teacher far too often.

      In the end, I don’t think it’s a matter of short sentences vs. long, or simple words vs. complex. I think it’s a matter of gathering up every tool we can lay our hands on, honing them well, and then picking the right ones for the job before us. Of course, when there’s no forumula, it puts much more responsibility on the writer.


      1. You make some excellent points, Linda. The bureaucracy is one reason I’m glad I didn’t go into education (though my first instinct was to be a teacher). I wonder how many presumably qualified people all that red-tape has chased away!

  21. The quote from EB White says it all to me. The Elements of Style is such an intelligent, elegant book on basic writing rules, too. I really don’t think anything else is needed as a reference.

    1. Just for grins, Susan, I’m going to commend an article from “The Chronicle of Higher Education” to you. It’s titled “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” . Written on the 50th anniversary of “The Elements of Style”, it’s quite a different take on a beloved guide.

      I’ve not had the time to really work my way through the article with the book at hand, to see what I think about it all, but I do love the contrarian view from time to time. Besides, as I mentioned above, what’s more fun than watching a slightly prissy grammarian throw a hissy fit?


  22. “Write for dunces” is sound advice for a newspaper reporter (or are they all newsbloggers for the Huff Post now?) Plain, declarative text can be easily scanned for keywords, which is what most newspaper or newsblog readers do. But the whole point of writing “prose” is the unspoken agreement that the point of the exercise is to read the text in depth, word by word, and read for meaning at the same time. My personal yardstick for good prose is that reading it makes movies happen in my head. It melts in your mind, not on your glasses.

    A saving grace most e-readers have, apart from taking up way less space than the equivalent of its contents in books, not to mention the trees they spare, is some provision that allows you to quickly and easily look up the meaning of a word as you encounter it in the text. Writing on a computer offers the same advantage. I keep a browser window open and check to make sure the word I’m using means what I think it does.

    Abraham Lincoln learned to read using that miraculous monument to translation by committee, the King James version of the Bible, which is purported to be written at the 8th to 10th grade level using a 6000 word vocabulary (versus the almost contemporary prose of Shakespeare which uses around a 21,000 words, a sizable percentage of which are now obsolete).

    Hemingway is one I think of as writing lean, muscular, no-frills prose On the opposite end of the spectrum there is that (in)famous 1300+ word sentence in Faulkner’s novel, “Absalom, Absalom” which is, as sentences go, a ringed-tail doozy.

    1. WOL,

      First of all, I have to commend this page to you. There may be other linked pages inside it worth exploring. I just haven’t had the time to dig into it myself. But there are some real treasures there, some of which were brought to mind by your mention of Hemingway and Faulkner.

      There’s also a quotation from William Zinsser that seems appropriate:

      “Unlike medicine or the other sciences, writing has no new discoveries to spring on us. We’re in no danger of reading in our morning newspaper that a breakthrough has been made in how to write a clear English sentence—that information has been around since the King James Bible.”

      I like Zinsser — a lot. All of his books are pleasures to read, and certainly dole out a lot of useful advice in the process.

      As it happens, it was a newspaperman sent off to learn how to write short sentences. He did some other writing, too, and was a great fan of certain sorts of sun-baked Florida fiction, so it may be that he was mixing genres rather than metaphors.

      Just for grins, I clicked over and read the first couple of pages of “Absalom.” It certainly didn’t take Faulkner long to get rolling — anyone who makes it to that 1300 word sentence won’t be surprised. Now I want to dig out the book and re-read the whole thing.


      1. The Faulkner sentence in question is about halfway through Chapter 4. I must confess, I’ve never been able to “get with” Faulkner. The furthest I’ve ever gotten in one of his books is page 2, before I mentally throw up my hands and walk away.

        A book I wanted to pass along to you is one I just finished earlier today, “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson. Another one is “The Tenth Gift: A Novel” by Jane Johnson.

  23. Thanks for this. Although we studied grammar in grade school, it never truly took until I began studying other languages. This is but one of the many benefits of broadening our linguistic horizons, and seems to be of a piece with the gift of scurrying to dictionaries now and then. I agree with you, we do our readers a disservice when we don’t push them along from time to time.

    1. Allen,

      And we do ourselves the same disservice if we don’t push ourselves along from time to time. It can be hard to get out of a nice, comfortable rut — sometimes a little effort’s called for. That’s one reason I enjoy having a poem show up, asking to be worked. It’s a different sort of challenge, and enlivening.

      I know you’re jet-lagged and busy, so you don’t have to respond, but I thought I’d point you to Rosemary’s questions in her comment, up above. She got me thinking about the relationship of the spoken and written word, and this is where I ended up:

      “…issues of speech and writing may intersect at the very point that’s of so much interest to most writers: the development of an individual “voice”.”

      It just now occurred to me that you may ponder some of the same issues, especially given your blog title. ;)


      1. Hi, thanks for the invitation. I suppose that different people have different experiences around written and spoken communication and their intersection. The parish was the first place where I began to write regularly and with the intent to persuade and provoke and ponder.

        I soon found that I could use two methods: either speak from the barest of notes, or from a text. Eventually the former became more comfortable, so I worked more at the latter, while still doing the former. As time went on my writing became more real. In my estimation it ceased to be … I’m not sure what it was, but it wasn’t me in the beginning. I suspect I was parroting other pastors. But I came into my own voice by working sermons from both angles, quasi-spontaneous and tight rhetorically shaped texts.

        Now when I preach in that mode, people accuse me of being poetic! At this point I feel as if my voice in text approximates my oral voice, although each has its own nuances. I’m not poetic when I order a coffee at the restaurant, although its not impossible that I might write a poem about it. My voice – oral and written – is still developing, and perhaps even developing a stillness. Satis est!

        1. You’ve confirmed something I’ve felt. When I began this blog, I said I did so in order to learn to write. People often said, “What’s that about? You write well.” But I wasn’t talking about sentence structure or vocabulary. I was talking about finding a way to move away from academic writing to — well, to story-telling, I suppose. Poetry. Creative non-fiction. Whatever.

          As one of my profs one said, “Truth is the whale, and you (all) are Ahab. Get cracking.” I don’t think a single one of us understood what he was saying.

          Strangely enough, about three years ago I was standing in Starbucks on a Saturday evening, and began talking with the fellow in front of me about cowboys, the West, and so on. He looked at me and said, out of the blue, “Are you a poet?” I laughed and said, “No, not really.” He told me I sounded like one. The trick for us, I suppose, is to hear what others hear, and begin to develop it.


    1. nikkipolani,

      As a matter of fact, I hadn’t seen that marvel of diagramming. I sat and pondered it with some amazement — a puzzle in reverse is a perfect description. Thanks so much for adding the link.

      I was lucky to have parents who were willing to put up with and encourage my love of reading. One of my favorite photos shows me reading with my dad. I suspect I was about three at the time. By the time I started kindergarten at age four, I was reading pretty well — as were many of my little friends.


  24. Linda, what a great essay. I wrote something along a similar vein two years ago (“The Geography of Sentences,” in which I discuss–among other things–my fright at the very concept of diagramming, although I concede it has its uses). I’ll never forget the first time I heard words like asinine and banal and liminal. We are the richer for our intentional and intricate sentences and word choice, indeed!

    1. Emily,

      We all have our frights. Mine involves sentences that begin, “If a train leaves Indianapolis at 8:03 a.m., and travels…) Apparently my arithmetic and math flashcards weren’t quite as effective as those for vocabulary.

      I love to think of words as tools. I have a whole variety of little tools I use for woodworking — everything from proper scrapers to sharpened wooden dowels to crochet hooks. I carry them around with me, and rarely use them. But when the need arises, there they are.

      I find far more use for asinine and banal than I do for liminal, but when I needed liminal some time back, there it was, ready to be used. Our word-tools don’t even cost us anything. Why wouldn’t we want to collect as many as possible?


  25. While I personally cannot profess to knowing whether the crisp writing or the lush writing is the best, I can say I gravitate towards the lush. So your second example was most pleasing to me. Popular novels today tend towards the crisp, quick read..but that’s ok it works for those kinds of books. While not overly lush, but not crisp either is someone like Dean Koontz whose sentences, word choices and penchant for simile and metaphor, I often marvel at.

    Great essay on writing and the personal use of the tools…love the comparison with a painting too as both create an artists vision whether sparse splashes of paint or luxurious detail.

    Oh, I subscribe to Dr. Goodword because I love new and old words too. If I could only remember the ones I like when times comes to use them. Your particular gift is wonderful.

    1. Judy,

      I don’t think it’s a matter of which is best. There are different sorts of writing, and they’re meant for different purposes. Personally, I’d be happy if the instructions I get with certain assemble-it-yourself projects read less like “Finnegan’s Wake” and more like a Betty Crocker recipe.

      What’s also interesting is the way all of us seem to have at least a hint of a preference for one writing style over another. I suppose in a sense it’s like a photographer who’s able to capture wonderful images in both color and black and white, but who prefers one over the other, or who is able to make a conscious decision that this subject, in this setting, requires one of the other. Your birds come to mind. I never would have thought that black and white could be so effective in photographing egrets, for example, but it certainly can be.

      As for remembering those new words — one thing I do is keep a little file just for words. When I run across a new one, I put it in the file, but when I do, I write five sentences using it. It helps to embed it in my mind. Now, I’ve started taking a look at the etymology, too. We have histories, and so do our words. Knowing a word’s “story”, so to speak, helps me remember it when I want to use it in a story.


      1. I am definitely supportive of the concept of mental reinforcement such as writing those five sentences. When I was a kid doing spelling lessons I would look at the word while pronouncing it, pronounce it while visualizing the word, spell it out loud, write it down etc. I found helping my kids that some needed the visual reinforcement and some needed the sound. But, a great point to use it and put it some sort of word assets folder. I tend to do that with backgrounds and photoshop brushes.

        You are right about ‘best’ because that is still in the writer’s view..even breaking a rule or two.

  26. Well, this is a pretty darned brilliant post with outstanding use of language in its various forms! I remember those diagramming times. I still can’t remember some of the words for what we learned but I knew what they were and why they were used in the way that they were.

    Interesting about short. No one ever told me to write short so I never learned how to do that as a first bit. Where I really cut my teeth was in editing — learning how to cut down a paragraph or two by any number of words to fit the space allotted. Sometimes it lost something; most of the time it was better. I chose better words, they fit together more clearly. Now that I’m not working I don’t do that so much…. hmmm… maybe I should!

    I do love rich, good writing. Right now I’m reading “The Goldfinch.” Nearly 800 pages and so far, every word is quite perfect. I’m told Donna Tartt takes 10 years to write a book. I can see why! But worth it, I think. Of course, then you can turn to a thin volume of beautiful writing and it’s just as remarkable.

    You know, if you hadn’t told me you diagrammed sentences and had vocabulary emphasis at the start, I would have guessed it — just from your own writing!

    1. Jeanie,

      It occurs to me that some of the writing advice I was getting when I started “The Task at Hand” had to do with writing online. There were people around who were considered gurus who swore no one would pay attention to a page that didn’t catch their attention in two seconds, or which required more than three minutes to read.

      I said phooey to that, although I took pretty seriously the need to catch people’s attention when they were browsing. Now, after five years, it’s clear that the internet has changed. Not only that, the ubiquity of e-readers like Kindle have accustomed people to reading from a screen, and that’s made a difference, too.

      The most interesting editing job I’ve undertaken was one of my own pieces for NPR’s “This I Believe” series. That’s where I learned that just cutting words wasn’t going to cut it. It was such an interesting experience. Getting rid of the first fifty words was easy. The last five? Oh, so difficult!

      One of the most memorable books I’ve read is Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift From the Sea”. There couldn’t be a simpler, more accessible book, and yet that very simplicity of structure supports her message and makes it memorable. That’s worth remembering, too.


  27. I loved this post as it released a flood of memories of early school days. Yes, we diagrammed sentences too and by golly, we learned grammar. Spelling lists, vocabulary games, all of it provided me with a strong floor to stand on as I began to write seriously in later life. So its on with it, and into a future of exciting writing ahead.

    1. Mary,

      Your mention of that strong floor reminds me again of house-building as a wonderful analogy for writing. You don’t bring drapes and dinnerware over to the job site before the framing is done. Build first, decorate second seems a pretty good rule.

      Have you read Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life”? Her first chapter has some construction imagery that knocked my socks off when I first read it. And I’ve learned the truth of something else she has to say — sometimes we have to discard precisely what we assumed was the best part, the part that was to be the entire point of the story.

      On with it, indeed. There are a lot of words out there, eager to be used!


  28. your posts are always soothing tonics, and they coax me away from worrisome details in my life (like today’s visit to the police dpt!) and i bask in your stories. it’s a bit like sitting with you on a porch swing and sipping lemonades – or mint juleps – and swapping remember-when stories.

    reading the comment section of your posts is equally entertaining; i stumbled a bit about the possibility of not teaching handwriting — oh my goodness, that is almost enough to make me fire up the magic carpet and sail up there garbed in cape while handing out lined paper and sharp pencils! how can one NOT treasure the discipline of learning to master a pen and pencil?

    what a lucky young gal you were to bask in the collective glow of both parents who made vocabulary and spelling into a fun game! how i loved those weekly vocabulary words, and i rejoiced in the challenge of scribbling creative sentences with those words! my least-favorite subject was history – oh my, the young artist gazed out the window and soared away via daydreams!

    thanks so much for your feedback today; i loaded the link and read while traveling by bus. i look forward to learning more!

    you’re THE BEST! z

    1. Zeebra,

      I surely do hope you’re getting (or have gotten) some satisfaction as far as your little situation goes. The process sounds cumbersome, but results make “cumbersome” worthwhile.

      One of the great excitements of back-to-school time in my day was the supplies — the new pencil box, the ream of paper, the copy books. I wonder if they still use paper with lines that guide small letters and capital letters? Of course we had a display of proper cursive letters around the top of the blackboards to inspire us.

      Handwriting’s so personal and interesting. It’s more than just what people did before computers. In the past year or two, I’ve watched my own handwriting changed a bit. Two letters in particular suddenly have begun to look like my dad’s handwriting. It doesn’t happen every time I form the letter — only now and then. Heredity? Physical changes in my hand? Who knows? The only thing I’m sure of is that when it happens and I see it, it’s as though he’s alive again. You don’t get that with a computer!


  29. “Two assumptions about language seem to have underlain those early exercises — that a more expansive vocabulary is better than one which is limited, and that the structure of a sentence needs to remain clear even as it’s being loaded down with adjectives, prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions until it bows like a picnic table piled high with fried chicken and pie…..”

    How I agree with this! I was fortunate to attend a secondary school on a small island off the West Coast of Scotland which then had the reputation of sending more pupils to university per head of population than any other school in Scotland. We were given a good, solid, conventional grounding in how to write well (even although I had never heard of diagramming until I came across a reference to this practice last week in a blog!) which I have subsequently built upon and continued to appreciate in all kinds of ways.

    Hopefully one develops and improves as a writer with time and practice. But that grounding is a wonderful gift. I don’t know how much I appreciated it at the time; I certainly do now!

    1. Anne,

      The list of things I didn’t fully appreciate at the time but now cherish seems to grow every year. Certainly my parents and teachers are on that list, not to mention the librarians I knew. All of them understood that, however different their goals for me, education, including a solid ability to read and write, was essential. I think this might be one of the best illustrations of the dynamic I’ve ever seen. How appropriate that it was posted by a librarian.

      To be honest, I’m not sure how our teachers managed to do as much as they did, especially in the elementary grades. We weren’t just bent over our desks like little Dickensian students, drudging away. There was recess twice a day, and art class, and field trips. There was a rhythm band in kindergarten, but by 3rd grade there was a chance to be in a real band, and take real music classes (I was a clarinet player. My mother lived through a few months of horror while I learned to stop squeaking.)

      In short, curiosity was nurtured and learning was fun. Some of that was beaten out of me in college, but during graduate studies I had one professor who did for forty-year-olds what Miss Hudepole did for me as a four-year-old. Now, curiosity and love of learning is part of my life again, and a good bit of the reason I write!


  30. So very interesting once again Linda. I cannot ever recall any mention of diagramming and for that, I’m quite pleased as somehow I think it may have taken away my then love for words. As I grew up, I gathered a few uncommon words to throw into the conversation but didn’t take it terribly seriously.

    Many years ago I had a very funny book called “When words fail”, which had examples – often taken from newspapers – of the meaning being quite obscured by the wrong placement of verbs etc. Sadly, I parted with the book when doing one of my many house moves – something I now regret – yes, both the moves and losing the book.

    An author who had me frequently reaching for the dictionary is Jack Hass. These days, I’m grateful when I can remember the simplest of writing tasks without too much effort, thanks to an aquired brain injury. The love of reading, and of words, however, has stayed with me.
    I’ll leave you with a little favourite of mine, discovered when I gave a new friend, a retired English teacher then aged 94 yo, a little book called Star Cats. In it was a reference to an edacious cat, and it took quite a search through her dictionaries to find the meaning. A wonderful bonding exercise :-) Of course, it’s a word that really belongs to my little Fred, wouldn’t you agree?

    1. eremophila,

      I had to look up “edacious.” If you pair it with “audacious”, I’d say you have essence of Fred. Let’s just hope his audacity doesn’t leave him tangling with a particularly edacious snake!

      I’ve been thinking about the usefulness of diagramming, particularly in light of your comment that you suspect it might have diminished your love of words. This is what came to mind. When I began cooking, I used recipes and learned how different ingredients work together, but doing so certainly didn’t diminish my love of food. And, as I became a better cook, I became less dependent on following recipes word for word – I began to improvise, or substitute, and sometimes worked without a recipe at all. That’s not a perfect analogy for the writing process, I suppose, but it does point to the truth that knowing how words work actually increases our freedom in using them.

      I took at look at Haas’ page, and can well imagine you might need a dictionary when reading his work. Do you happen to have a link for the Star Cats book? I went searching for it, but landed by chance on an educational resources page that had some games, and I made it up to Level 9 before I pulled myself loose to get back on track. I’m not a gamer, but if my little experience is any indication, it’s easy to see how people can get sucked in and psent hours playing them. ;)


      1. I wish I could find a link, but no sorry, and sadly once again no longer have my own copy of this book. If I remember correctly, it had a picture of a cat on roller skates on the cover. It covered each Zodiac sign, and pictures of cats(Not real ones) that best illustrated those particular characteristics. Very humourous.

  31. Here again I can see how much the ESL learner misses (myself included). I didn’t learn to draw sentence trees until my linguistic course in college. The Buffalo sentence is most interesting indeed, and I admit too, this is the first time I’ve come across it. One must be born into a language to be fully proficient in it. But I know, the reverse doesn’t apply to all, i.e., those who are born into the language are not necessarily good language users. You have very ‘verbal’ parents to thank for your excellent mastery, Linda. Nature and nurture, there’s your silver spoon. Hats off to you all. ;)

    1. Arti,

      I didn’t come across the “buffalo” sentence until I was writing my posts on buffalo. As a matter of fact, I was trying to figure out how Buffalo, New York got its name when I came across the sentence. Start prowling the internet and you just never know where you’ll end up.

      The whole notion of proficiency interests me. It means so much more than knowing the rules, or following them. I did well in high school and college French, and got high marks in my classes. For that matter, I was able to get along in places like Chartres and Besançon. But in Paris? Oh, my. That didn’t work out so well.

      Dialects and idioms, formal and non-formal language, slang, vocabulary choice — all of those make language more difficult as well as more interesting. Even for English speakers, being able to communicate at a bar on Saturday night can be quite a different proposition than getting along in an office. You’d be surprised how often I have to resort to the urban dictionary or other slang dictionaries to figure out what people are talking about — generational differences can be huge.

      I am so grateful to my parents — and grandparents — for making language a delight for me. After all, when my dad’s parents arrived in this country in the early 1900s, they spoke only Swedish. It’s no wonder they appreciated the importance of learning another language. Of course, they kept their Swedish, too, for times when they didn’t want the grandchildren or others to know what they were talking about!


  32. We never had vocab. flash cards – but we played lots of scrabble and did puns and word games in the car. Words became available tools, even weapons against the annoying ones or bullies (kids used to be able to settle their own problems)
    I’m a fan of diagramming – first you can be artistic. HA. And second is it provides a framework for understanding sentence construction and sentence meaning can be distilled down. Makes punctuating easier.

    But it doesn’t help everyone – phonics doesn’t either. Wish they hadn’t abandoned diagramming in schools – it was a fun break – you could do races and use the blackboards. Suspect some teachers don’t understand the process.

    Another thing that needs to be reinstated is morning recess and afternoon recess – other countries still use them and know the benefits…the brain needs time to internalize, eyes need time to rest, and kids need time to burn off energy and problem solve among themselves…but some teachers didn’t like going outside…schools are for whom and for what purpose?
    Oh rambling on, but vocabulary building and use is so important – abandoned for what?
    Write for audience. Some are lucky they can write for the audience and themselves at the same time.
    Great post

    1. phil,

      I could go on for a while about the importance of recess. Like you, I think twice daily is good. I don’t suppose that’s ever going to come around again, but it I do wonder from time to time if any of those who are concerned about childhood obesity ever think about the constraints they’ve put on kids. When we weren’t diagramming sentences for all we were worth, or learning the capitols of Europe, or practicing long division, we were out on the monkey bars, playing dodgeball, choosing up sides for Red Rover or chasing one another just for the heck of it.

      We walked to and from school, or rode bikes, and when we got home we rode our bikes some more. People tell me kids can’t be allowed to do such things any more — that it’s not safe. Be that as it may, only one of my classmates was killed while I was in school, and he drowned in a lake over summer vacation. I suppose there are more dangers today than there were in those days of unlocked doors, but it may also be that we’re not teaching children how to cope with the world.

      Going to the blackboard was such an event. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was terrifying. But it did more than just give us a chance to demonstrate knowledge to a teacher. I didn’t realize until I began prowling one-room schools that the recitation bench and the blackboard were so closely related. Another reason not to consider individual electronic devices the be-all and end-all.

      One thing’s for sure. Phonics may come and diagramming may go, but there’s no substitute for a good teacher or attentive parents.


  33. Trust you, dear Linda, to understand exactly what I meant on my post about being obsolete. The ludicrousness of using only simple words and a sixth grade comprehension is so aptly pointed out when you compare it to the painter only using primary colors. Why is education/literacy so quick to be put down these days? There seems to be little honor in knowledge of the valuable kind; the kind which comes without a device’s help, but instead from the heart. Oh, and one’s own head.

    I think another point I was feeling in my post was my own personal obsoleteness; with my retirement coming in a few years I’m questioning my place. Wondering if what I’ve contributed at school will amount to anything more than dipping my hand in a bucket of water and taking it out again.

    But, that’s a whole other post is it not?

    1. Bellezza,

      Of course you already know the expanding literature regarding the effect on students of social media, gaming, and other such online diversions. Shortened attention spans is only one.

      Even worse, the easy availability of sites such as Google encourage search rather than thought. I can see it on my own site from time to time. A few weeks ago, I was innundated with my annual wave of searches centered around “a mob has many heads but no brain” and the word “essay”. I have no idea which post they’re landing on, but when hundreds of people begin searching for the same term, it’s impossible not to think it’s embedded somewhere in the curriuculum. It’s happened for at least three years now. That’s no coincidence. Who knows how many times one of my posts has been fiddled with and turned in to an unsuspecting teacher?

      As for what you’ve contributed, consider this. Mrs. DeCamp, who read to us from the “Little House” series; Miss Johnson, who took us to a dairy farm and then helped us churn butter in Mason jars; Miss Hudepole, who sent every child in class a thank-you note for the Corning Ware mixing bowls we gave as a wedding present; the teacher whose name I’ve forgotten but who discovered I needed glasses — all of these still are a vivid part of my life. Because of them, I’m writing posts like this, and yet they were part of my life as much as 60+ years ago.

      Who knows what you’re accomplishing now, or who will be telling the tale sixty years hence?


  34. This post brings back goods memories of my elementary school days. I’m probably one of those rare people who love those diagramming exercises and vocabulary quizzes! I can still picture myself happy when called by the teacher to diagram sentences on the blackboard!

    I’m just glad that in our schools here in the Phiippines the primary medium for instruction was and is still English. At an early age I developed a love for the English language, especially through almost constant and incessant reading. Favorite subjects in my elementary years, aside of course from English grammar and English literature, were History, Geography, Greek mythology (yes, we had classes on Greek mythology when I was in the 2nd grade!) and the Arts (painting, architecture, and sculpture). (I was fortunate enough to be enrolled by my parents in a somewhat progressive, liberal arts school when I was in my elementary schooling days, and I’m really grateful for that).

    I’m just wondering if our students are still being taught these diagramming exercises, as well as being taught to build their vocabulary? I’m also wondering if our students are still reading books?
    I hope they still are.

    My love for the English language has put me in good stead throughout my life. It has given me countless hours of reading pleasure. And, although I’m not much of a writer, it has really helped me appreciate what others have written…

    — Matt

    1. Matt,

      It sounds as though our early education was very much the same. The old-fashioned “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic” were the basics, but art and music began in kindergarten, and by third grade we had special classes in art, history, science and geography.

      Summer was the best, because there were day camps galore, and the bookmobile came twice a week. Kids who were too young to go uptown to the big library could check out a pile of books, and then exchange them for new ones when the bookmobile came back. I really can’t remember now how many we could check out, but I’m sure it was at least five per visit. It was wonderful.

      We didn’t get to the Greeks and Romans until 7th grade. I made a dynamite model of the Parthenon, and some really great models of the various columns – Doric, Corinthian, etc. We divided up into groups and wrote our own dramas in the style of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides. Nobody seemed to think a thing about it. There was a lot to learn before we got out of school!

      Here and there, a return to some of the basics seems to be taking place. I know that, in the schools around here, reading is taken pretty seriously. Last year, all of the schools in our district allowed community members to sign up to be reading tutors for kids who were having trouble. The point wasn’t to teach, in any formal sense, but only to share the joy of reading with the students. In other words, people were invited to do what our parents did for us.


  35. You always illustrate the beauty of the written word, and for that I always thank you. Among other things, it fills a void in today’s world that has wandered so far away from effective and gracious communication.

    I wonder if it will ever return.

    1. montucky,

      What an absolute delight to see you here again. I hope your ability to roam about in the real world isn’t deferred much longer. A couple of my friends have had to recover from knee replacement and a broken knee, and I know what a long process it is.

      I do appreciate your kind words, very much. Just yesterday I was reading an AP article about journalistic access to government officials, and the line that caught me was, “Once we’ve lost it, we’ll never get it back.” That’s true in so many areas of life, from your beloved wilderness areas to communities based on free communication and trust. Maybe keeping wilderness and words alive and vibrant aren’t such different endeavors, in the end.


  36. Every now and again I happen across those studies, showing that the range of vocabulary in TV news broadcasts has been diminishing steadily over the last fifty or so years.

    Hence the more that people watch the TV news, the less the range of words they encounter, so the lesser becomes their everyday vocabulary, leading to the writers of TV news lessening its vocabulary even more to keep its watchers.

    But then, isn’t this what democracy is all about?

    Is there, I wonder, a correlation between a diminished vocabulary and
    the propensity for violence, on the assumption that the less we can express our anger adequately in words, the more we’ll express it through the fist and the gun?

    1. Christopher,

      I presume your tongue’s firmly in cheek when you ask your question about democracy. There are some who presume a quick downward slide toward the lowest common denominator is a good thing — a guaranteed equality of outcome, if you will — but a strong and vibrant democracy is dependent on what once was referred to as “an informed citizenry.”

      I’ve not seen any of those studies you mention, though I don’t doubt for a minute that the vocabulary range has narrowed. When I ponder the gap between the newsmen of my youth and the “news readers” of today, I just shake my head.

      On the other hand, I doubt “watching the news” is much of a tradition these days. I can’t judge, because I haven’t had a tv for some time.

      As for a correlation between diminished vocabulary and violence — it doesn’t take much of a vocabulary to express anger. I hear it expressed nearly every day, usually in words of four, five or six letters. On the other hand, there’s no necessary correlation between an inability to express anger verbally and a willingness to engage in physical violence.

      So nice to have you stop by. Thanks for your interesting comments, too. You’re always welcome.


  37. Such a wonderful article! I love your selection of White’s quote/s…. Your mastery of the language is inspiring.

    I haven’t seen one of those sentence diagrams in decades, so thanks for that flashback, heh! But I agree with some of the former comments — we need to work on our collective vocabulary and how we express ourselves, in this contemporary society of ours. Everyone, play Words with Friends now! :)

    1. FeyGirl,

      White’s well-known because of Strunk & White, of course, but he was far more than some old geezer setting down rules. He seems to have understood that “imperfect grammar” with something to say trumps “perfect grammar” every time.You always can clean up your grammar, but if you don’t have a thought in your head, that’s a little harder to deal with.

      When it comes to vocabulary and diction, I think we’re more influenced by what we surround ourselves with than we might realize. Garbage in, garbage out, as the programmers used to say. Whether they still say it, I don’t know, but it’s still true. “People Magazine” and “The Simpsons” certainly aren’t tools of the devil, but as Annie Dillard says, the writer “is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”

      Good advice for us all!


    1. The very first word intrigued me, Richard. I wonder if Robert Heinlein derived his “grok” from “groak”? And I was suprised to recognize three or four of them from current conversation — hugger-mugger comes to mind, and grumpish. They may have stayed a part of British English, as I think that’s where I’ve heard them.


  38. George Carlin complained about the idiots who drive too slowly and the maniacs who drive too fast. “There’s certainly no one going at my speed,” he said. It seems to be the same with writing. So much of it is either too simpleminded and pedestrian, or too long-winded and complex. But every once in a while, we read something written at our speed, and there’s nothing like it. That happens a lot when I visit your blog.

    1. Charles,

      What a lovely, lovely compliment. I like to think of it as the Three Bears School of Writing — trying, always, for the effect that’s “just right.”

      Your story about Carlin reminds me of something else that was part of my childhood. In those days, in Iowa, we had speed signs along the highway that announced, “Speed Limit: Reasonable and Proper.” That pretty much defined the state — at least, as I remember it. It certainly defined what our parents expected of us.


  39. On Wednesday I informed the school where I’ve been “teaching” that I would not be returning on Thursday or any of the days that follow. Of the many disparaging things that one could say about my character, being labeled “a quitter” is not one that would occur to most, but after six weeks or so of quietly enduring the most vile, profane, threatening behaviors I have ever witnessed in a classroom, with very little time for instruction or planning or grading, I decided there must be a better way to spend my remaining days in the working world.

    Before Wednesday, though, I was happily planning lessons (that never went anywhere) on the distinctions between style, tone, and voice.

    We were, of course, “teaching to the test,” which identified four classifications for writing style: formal, informal, journalistic, and literary. Students were instructed that style can be determined by analyzing word choice, sentence structure, and imagery.

    Tone is the speaker’s (and not necessarily the writer’s) attitude toward the subject and could be identified through word choice as well.

    Voice is the identification of the speaker, through the writer’s style and the speaker’s tone.

    All of this to say that there has been some evolution toward allowing for varying styles.

    I’ve never been able to learn diagramming, although I have a knack for sentence parsing. It’s odd.

    I also am aware of many of the rules of style, which allows me to break them purposefully and for effect. I suppose that’s what our early teachers were aiming for, if you’ll pardon the preposition at the end of the sentence. :)

    1. Oh, gosh. Well, good. You do have your boat in the water, after all. I’m glad you’re out of there. I really wasn’t happy with your situation. No one should have to put up with that kind of behavior. It’s easy to make satirical jokes, or bemoan the state of education, but honestly — your life’s more important than that. Physical and mental, I might add.

      Interesting that one of the phrases I used to hear quite a bit — and not only from my mother — was “don’t speak to me in that tone of voice”. A little conflation going on, there.

      One thing I’ve noticed over the past year or two is an almost complete absence of the old “Who-What-Where-When-and-How” structure in what’s supposed to be passing for journalism. There’s a whole lot of “why”, but I sometimes have to head into paragraphs eleven or twelve to find any of the hard information. Maybe that’s the point.


  40. Before I embarked on my present career, I spent a lot of time teaching or coaching writers in both the college classroom and the newsroom. I often used jazz as an analogy for my students or reporters, pointing out that one should first master the fundamentals of writing and then is free to wander away from the straight and narrow in order to best convey the message.

    With respect to students, for example, I tried to help them understand the difference between complete and incomplete sentences, but also told them that if they decided to use an incomplete sentence for emphasis or effect, they should have at it and just write “deliberate” in the margin.

    1. Charles, I love that instruction to add “deliberate” in the margin. That not only provided a clue to you about the student’s intent, it probably forced the student to be more aware of what he or she was doing.

      Jazz is such a perfect analogy. I once read an interview with a musician (I can’t remember who, at this point) who said improvisation is far more difficult than playing a piece straight, precisely because you have to be far more disciplined and in control.

      I read one of those lists of writing rules that advised never, ever trying dialect. There wasn’t any explanation, but I started thinking about it, and spent some time with Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. What I found was an amazing internal coherence that sounded casual, folksy, idiosyncratic – but it must have been extraordinarily difficult to write. They often broke all the rules, but they did it consistently, and with a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve. Or so it seems to me.


      1. Bo Diddley, at a concert we attended about ten years ago, talked about the fact that he had learned the structure of music when he was in his teens by studying both the trombone and the violin, and he saw that as a necessary foundation for his career as a blues, rock, and R&B guitarist.

  41. Advise an artist to limit herself to primary colors, with brush strokes no longer than one inch in length, and it’s a turpentine bath for you. Tell a master gardener to keep his plants below six inches in height or use only annuals, and you’ll be tossed onto the compost heap. Suggest to a chef that she restrict herself to recipes using five ingredients or fewer, or dishes which take no longer than ten minutes to prepare, and you’ll be eating frozen dinners —

    Splendid writing, Linda, and I feel so much better now.

    1. I’d forgotten how much I like this post, myself.

      I refuse to give in to the forces of mediocrity, or the diminishment of language. The movement we call political correctness is nothing more than censorship: an attempt to control people through control of language. I can’t think of any better way to fight it than by modeling something better — at least to the best of my abilities.

      1. Ahhh, the forces of mediocrity. Where everybody gets an “A” because the professor fears a poor student rating. Where study of literature is deemed pointless because what sort of job will it get you. Where history only matters if it happened after you were born and if it’s too ugly requires one of those “warnings.” Blank stare from nephew who graduated with a BS in history but can’t discuss the impact of WWI on the modern world. Sometimes I want to curl up in a curmudgeonly ball and cry. Thank heavens for the blogosphere where I can find some kindred spirits. Gosh, I’m rereading this and feel sort of apologetic for the rant. I do realize there are bright, inquisitive young people out there – sadly, I haven’t run across many.

        1. Oh, my! Your mention of “curmudgeonly” reminds me I was going to do a post about a self-professed curmudgeon. I’m going to bump that right up. Not for the next post, but maybe the one after.

          There’s no need to apologize. If some of us don’t start identifying the problems, they’ll never get solved.

          And by the way — I gave up my English major in college because I was advised that I needed something more practical: “just in case.” What that meant, of course, was “just in case I didn’t get married to someone who would support me.” Today’s so-called feminists have no idea.

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