Category Archives: English Writing Instruction

Writing well takes study and practice.

Neopronouns–what are they?

Today I heard a grammar term I have never heard before:  neopronoun.  If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might want to continue reading, because you will be hearing the term “neopronoun” in the future.student thinking about what to write

A neopronoun is a word created to serve as a pronoun without disclosing the gender of the person identified by the pronoun.

Take this sentence, for example.  “Chris ate dinner.”  Now suppose Chris is male.  To replace Chris with a pronoun, you could say, “He ate dinner.”  Or if Chris is female, “She ate dinner.”  But if Chris doesn’t want you to identify Chris as male or female, you could say, “They ate dinner,” or “It ate dinner.”  Or you could use a made-up word to mean a non-gender pronoun such as “Ze ate dinner,” or “Xe ate dinner,” or “Ey ate dinner.”  These made-up words—ze, xe, and ey, for example—are neopronouns.

Ze, Xe and Ey are subject pronouns.  But these and other neopronouns have object forms such as ze/zir/zirself, fae/faer/faerself, and innit/innits/innitself.  If you are wondering how to pronounce these new words, anything goes, at least for now.  With time, some of these neopronouns will stick and become part of our language while others will be quaint relics of our past.  Those that stick will develop standard pronunciations. 

These pronouns are being used by some transgender people (especially young people) to refer to themselves.  If I understand correctly, one transgender person might use one set of pronouns, and another transgender person might use a different set of pronouns. 

Related to neopronouns is the title Mx. (with or without the period and pronounced as “mix”).  You use it as a title for a person who does not want to be identified as male or female, or for a person who considers itself/themselves/xeself? non-binary.  This term dates back to the 1970s and has been included in some recently published dictionaries.

And what is non-binary?  People who identify as not exclusively male or female refer to zirselves as nonbinary.

If all this seems strange to you, I can remember when the title “Ms” was introduced in the 1970s.  What a hullaballoo it created.  Now, it’s as accepted as Mr., Mrs., and Miss.  Soon, perhaps ze or innit will be that acceptable, too.

Rules Hemingway wrote by

Did you watch the new PBS documentary on Ernest Hemingway which premiered on Monday?  If so, you heard Hemingway say “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing” came from the Kansas City Star stylebook. He reported for the Star 1917 to 1918.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Here are some of those rules:

  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short first paragraphs.
  • Use vigorous English.  [Use active verbs.]
  • Be positive, not negative.
  • Never use old slang.  Slang, to be enjoyable, must be fresh.
  • Watch your sequence of tenses.  [Be consistent.]
  • Don’t split verbs.  [Put adverbs before a verb phrase.]
  • Be careful of the word “also.”  “Also” modifies the word it follows, not the word it precedes.
  • Be careful of the word “only.”  “He only had $10” means that he alone had $10.  “He had only $10” means $10 was all the cash he had.
  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Avoid using adjectives, especially extravagant ones.
  • Use “none is,” not “none are.”
  • Animals should be referred to with the neuter gender unless the animal is a pet with a name.
  • Break into a long direct quote early in the quote to identify the speaker.
  • Avoid expressions from a foreign language.
  • Collective nouns take singular verbs.

Jane Austen’s naming style

We writers can learn to compose better by reading the work of recognized authors.  One of my favorites is Jane Austen.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the names Austen uses, and what I can learn about naming my own fictional characters from her novels.

Austen (1775-1816), chooses names from common English first names for her main male characters such as Charles Bingley (Pride and Prejudice), Charles Musgrove Sr. and Jr. and Charles Hayter (Persuasion); John Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, and John Willoughby (Sense and Sensibility) and John Knightly (Emma); William Collins, Sir William Lucas, and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and William Elliot (Persuasion); and George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice) and George Knightly (Emma).

Similarly, Austen reuses common names of women for important characters:  Elizabeth Elliot (Persuasion) and Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Mary Elliot Musgrove (Persuasion), Mary Parker (Sanditon), Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), and Mary Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Kitty Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice); Jane Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) and Jane Fairfax (Emma); Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice) and Charlotte Heywood (Sanditon); Georgiana Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Georgiana Lamb (Sanditon); Anne Taylor Weston (Emma) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion).

Why does Austen repeat the same names when so many others exist?  Tradition is one reason.  Austen writes about “three or four families in a country village” where traditional values are shown by fathers passing down names to their sons and mothers to their daughters.  Names hold communities together. 

(I am reminded of the naming tradition in the Irish hamlets my grandparents came from.  Children would be known by their own first name as well as their father’s and grandfather’s names.  I would have been known as Kathy Tommy Johnny.)

Love of family is another reason Austen repeats names of characters within a family.  Isabella Knightly (Emma) names her children Henry (after her father), John (after her husband), Bella (perhaps after her mother), Emma (after her sister), and George (after her brother-in-law).  Characters’ respect for the royal family is another reason for choosing names.  Many men in Austen’s books are named George. (George I, George II, and George III all served as kings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Austen was writing.)

Sometimes Austen shows who the outliers are in her books by giving them unusual names, such as Augusta Elton.  Women of fashion are named newer names such as Louisa, Caroline and Lydia.

Almost none of Austen’s characters are known by nicknames.  Elizabeth Bennett (Lizzy, Eliza) and her sister, Kitty, are exceptions.  The novels come from a time when people addressed each other by their family names (Mr. Collins, Mrs. Dashwood) or by their titles (Sir William, Lady Catherine).  In a culture of such formality, nicknames were used only at home, and not always then.

In the months before her death in 1816, Austen began Sanditon, a novel set in a fictitious seaside resort which was literally financed and built by characters who come from elsewhere and are not bound by tradition.  For this book, Austen breaks with the traditional names she uses in her earlier books and gives many of her characters names she hasn’t used before such as Clara, Esther, Arthur, and Sidney.  The names seem to say change.

What worked for Austen might not work for us.  But what we can learn is that none of her characters are named randomly.  The name of each character serves a purpose.

For more information see http://www.JASNA for an article in issue 19 of Persuasions by Susannah Fullerton as well as several online articles.

Coherence, the most important element in writing

Writing well requires following certain steps in sequence:

  • Narrowing your topic
  • Organizing your information, including writing an overarching topic sentence or thesis and subtopic sentences or plot lines
  • Writing a first draft
  • Revising, revising, revising
  • Editing

Once your first draft is complete, revising becomes most important.  So many tasks comprise revising—checking for complete sentences, tightening wordiness, analyzing ideas for logic, honing vocabulary, fixing grammar errors, adding figures of speech and style.  Students wonder where to begin.

Begin with coherence, the most important element of writing.  Coherence means making sure all your sentences make sense and flow from one to another.  Coherence means making sure your readers understand what you mean—easily, at first read, without an interpreter.

How do you do that?  Some ways include:

  • Make sure every sentence in the body paragraphs supports the thesis. If you use an anecdote, make sure it is an example of the ideas in the thesis.  If you use a simile or metaphor, make sure it fits with the topic.  If the topic is igneous rock, for example, the simile “as hot as the steam from a steam boat” is off topic, whereas “as hot as a lava lake” is on topic.
  • If you use numbers (three kinds of rocks, five members of my family, one favorite memory), check that you have named all the numbers and no more.
  • Use logical transitions. “Because” means something causes something else.  Make sure you have named a cause and an effect if you use “because.”  “Finally” means the last one in a series or the last point.  If you have only two or three points, you shouldn’t use “finally.” You should use “secondly,” or “next,” or “third.”
  • If you use a pronoun, make sure you have named the noun the pronoun refers back to. And make sure you have named that noun before you use the pronoun (not “When she fell, Mary broke her arm,” but “When Mary fell, she broke her arm.”  If you use “this,” make sure your reader can know in a word or phrase what “this” refers to.  If “this” is vague or complicated, add a noun after “this” (this situation, this erosion, this loss of interest).  If you have two women talking, make sure if you use “she,” the reader knows which one you are referring to.  Otherwise, use her name or title or position.
  • Check that your sentences are complete thoughts–not fragments or run-ons.  Make sure your complex sentences contain no more than two dependent clauses so readers needn’t hold multiple ideas in their minds at once.  Check that your sentences vary in length, with most more than ten and fewer than 20 words.
  • Change your weak, vapid verbs to active, dynamic verbs.  Eliminate the verb “to be” and passive voice verbs.

If what you write lacks coherence, no matter how specific the vocabulary, no matter how beautiful the description, no matter how lofty your aim, your writing will flop.  Your writing must make sense to a reader without you standing at her elbow explaining, “Well, what I mean is. . .”

What is a strong verb?

The surest way to improve writing is to write strong verbs.  But what are they?

  • verbs which show specific actions
  • verbs with one unambiguous meaning
  • verbs of Anglo-Saxon origin
  • verbs of one or two syllables
  • verbs stated in the active voice

The surest way to weaken writing is to write weak verbs.  What are they?

  • linking verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”
  • verbs with multiple meanings
  • verbs with general, nonspecific meanings
  • three-, four-, and five-syllable verbs of Latin origin
  • verbs stated in the passive voice

Take the quiz to see if you can spot the strong verb.

1a.  The Senator waited for the election returns.
1b.  The Senator sweated out the election returns.
1c.  The Senator listened for the election returns.

2a.  Grandma looked peaceful sleeping in her rocker.
2b.  Grandma slept in her rocker.
2c.  Grandma giggled while sleeping in her rocker.

3a.  The toddler squealed while opening his gift.
3b.  The toddler was excited while opening his gift.
3c.  The toddler cried out while opening his gift.

4a.  The coffee burned my tongue.
4b.  The coffee scalded my tongue.
4c.  The coffee hurt my tongue.

5a.  I was startled when the cat appeared.
5b.  I was surprised when the cat appeared.
5c.  I leapt when the cat appeared.

Answers:

1b.  “Sweated out” is more specific.

2c.  “Giggled” is an action.

3c.  “Squealed” is more specific.

4b.  “Scalded is more specific.

5c.  “Leapt” is an active voice verb.