Category Archives: writing rules

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.

Nine tips I’ve learned from teaching the writing parts of the SAT and ACT

  1. A rewritten phrase or clause with the word “being” in it is almost always wrong. Perplexed student writing
  2. Shorter versions of rewritten grammar are usually the correct answers.  If in doubt, choose the shortest or second shortest answer.
  3. Hard to spot run-on sentences often have a comma in the middle of the sentence followed by a subject pronoun.   The comma needs to be  a period, or a semicolon.  Or you need to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma.
  4. If you have one dash, you need two dashes unless the sentence ends where the second dash would be.
  5. In lists or series, the important words must be the same part of speech such as all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, or all gerunds.
  6. “It’s” means it is. “Its” means something belongs to it.  Its’ is not a word.
  7. “They’re” means they are. “Their” means something belongs to them.  “There” means over there or that something exists.  All three begin with “the.”  Thier is not a word.
  8. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions, not after unless what follows the conjunction is nonessential information.
  9. Third person singular verbs (the kind you use with “he,” “she,” or “it” as the subject) in the present tense end in an “s.”

Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.

What is a weak thesis?

Many students don’t know the difference between a weak thesis and a strong thesis.  Here are some clues that show that an essay’s thesis is weak:

A thesis is weak if it is already known to be true, so there is nothing new to be explored.  For example,

  • Smoking is bad for human health.
  • Benjamin Franklin was an 18th century inventor.
  • The New England Patriots are a great football team.

A thesis is weak if it is a personal belief, not something to be investigated.  For example,

  • Summer is the best season.
  • Middle school is harder than elementary school.
  • Abraham Lincoln ranks number one among US Presidents.

The thesis is weak if it is too broad to be thoroughly investigated.

  • Hurricanes are dangerous storms.
  • Nancy drew books appeal to girls.
  • Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy.

The thesis is weak if it does not make a claim needing to be proven.  For example,

  • Dr. Seuss wrote popular children’s books.
  • Being a police officer is both good and bad.
  • In chess, each piece moves in particular ways.

The thesis is weak if it is not controversial, not a statement over which people can disagree.

  • Barak Obama was the 44th President of the US.
  • No human being has lived for 130 years.
  • Alex Fleming’s discovery of penicillin mold was one the greatest medical discoveries of the 20th century.

To comma, or not to comma? That is the question.

Which way would you write this phrase:  “red, white, and blue” or “red, white and blue”?

In Maine, a court case involving around $10 million in back overtime pay came down to just this:  Is the comma before the word “and” needed in a series?

If you are thinking, “You gotta be kidding,” no I’m not.  The case of O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, settled this month in a US Appeals Court in Maine, focused on whether some drivers deserved overtime.  That decision—yes, they do deserve overtime– came down to the lack of a comma in one of Maine’s overtime laws.

Here is the Maine law stating which workers don’t deserve overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The problem is the lack of a comma after the word shipment.  Is the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of” to be taken as a whole?  Or are the shipment and distribution two separate categories, neither of which deserves overtime?  If the law had a comma after the word shipment, distribution would not require overtime pay.

The court ruled that the lack of a comma after “shipment” made the law ambiguous even though it follows the written guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual.  The court sided with the drivers distributing milk, saying they were entitled to overtime.

The AP Stylebook, which most reporters consult for grammar issues, says the final comma before “and” is not needed in most cases any more than is a comma needed for a two item series (bread and butter; not bread, and butter).  However, the style manuals used in colleges and universities do require the comma, and public schools where I live, in Georgia, teach that the comma is required.

There is a name for the comma before the word “and.”  It is called the Oxford comma.  I haven’t heard of a word for the lack of a comma, but for this discussion we might call it the AP comma rule.

Which practice do you use?  The Oxford comma?  The AP comma rule?  Usually I use the AP comma rule unless doing so leads to confusion.  Sometimes the AP comma rule can lead to what seems like an appositive rather than a continuation of a series, such as in “I want to thank my two political science teachers, President Obama and Hillary Clinton.”  If omitting the comma could lead to confusion, I include the comma.

The tendency in US writing is to leave out commas when the sentence is clear without punctuation.  For example, years ago I was taught that introductory adverbs like “now,” “later” and “then” need to be followed by a comma.  Yet the comma in “Then, I went home” seems silly.  I was also taught that compound sentences should use a comma after the first clause, but in the short sentence, “I fell and I hurt my leg,” a comma after “fell” seems ridiculous.

The first rule in writing anything is “Be clear.”  If leaving out a comma leads to ambiguity, use a comma. Otherwise, unless you are following a particular style book, the choice is yours.

By the way, when Shakespeare wrote “To be, or not to be,” in Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet, he used the Oxford comma.