To sculpt your writing masterpiece, it helps to know something about clay.

Replica of the Spanish Dancer sculpture by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), from the online gift shop of The British Museum

From time to time, I come up with an idea I think seems perfectly suited for here. Today, for example, it was to de-mystify and simplify prepositions and pronouns.

Then I get in my own way when I think about the audience who’ll read it. The problem with the concept of this blog is that most of the subscribers to date don’t need it.

As with all rules, for every grammar concept, there are exceptions, “if this, then thats,” and shades of grey.  When I imagine a writing topic developing into a complex conversation, I drop it. It’s a challenge to keep it simple.

Ordinarily, I groove on complex conversations, but it seems to me that where grammar concepts are concerned, that’s the point where people tune out, for fear of being outed by the Grammar Police.

There are “rights,” and “wrongs” and in-betweens. The goal here is to look at the raw materials of the English language (in my case, American), the clay if you will (words, phrases, clauses, sentences),  and the tools that can be used to create your written masterpiece.

The best writers break rules by bending, twisting, sculpting language in ways that influence, entertain, or otherwise interact with their readers. Some writers do so with great skill consciously, whether from formalized training, or from having an extensive reading background that serves as a model, or sometimes from pure talent. It’s that latter lot that I envision to be most likely to find something worthwhile here.

One point that often vexes writers is punctuation. Whether or not a particular piece of punctuation is necessary in a particular spot can depend sometimes on a formal style guide’s rules. Style guides differ and since they do, what’s the point of caring about punctuation? In the grand scheme of things, you just want to get your ideas onto the page (er, screen). Let editors worry about style guides and all those trivial issues.*

The point is knowing when the question is relevant, knowing how the clay bends and twists, and knowing the techniques you can use to sculpt it.

Here’s a very basic example:

In school we’re taught that sentence fragments are bad. We should not use them. No sentence fragments. Ever.

However, in non-academic, informal writing, we use sentence fragments all the time. For effect. Like this.

Sentence fragments provide a disruptive rhythm that can draw emphasis, give the reader a break, add humor, or have any number of intentional effects.

Sentence fragments are a writer’s good friend as a rhetorical or signature-style tool. As a reader, I’m thrilled when a sentence fragment jumps out and grabs me, makes me laugh, hammers home a point, but I am distracted by writing that goes a little too heavy on the fragments or that uses them seemingly unintentionally. Other readers might be perfectly fine with fragment-laden writing. I tried to put one here. But it didn’t work. It did there.

Even fragments follow somewhat of a rule. How do you know what that is?

First, it helps to know what a fragment is. It isn’t. Just. Throwing in. Some periods. And capital letters. But it could be.

It also helps to know what a sentence is. And that’s where things get tricky.

More on that next time.

*(I removed a section, a chunk of clay, from this spot. I liked that chunk of clay. It didn’t work here because it mixed a metaphor and I couldn’t work around it. The tortured artist within hates to see it go.)

How FANBOYS fixed the Ricky Martin run-on.


I’m going through old files looking for writing prompts and other ideas to use with four classes of eighth graders whose journals are practically blank. I don’t understand this, as journal entries are the best source of teaching mini-lessons on grammar and punctuation. It’s time to get them writing, so I can use their own sentences as teachable and entertaining moments.

An aside: One issue of particular alarm is what seems to be a growing movement to eliminate the period at the end of a declarative sentence, as if rampant apostrophe abuse weren’t bad enough. More on that later.

Today I came across an old transparency with a lesson on run-on sentences pulled right from the journal of a high school senior, right around the turn of the century. In her journal, my student was expressing her opinion of Ricky Martin. As you can see, it was not a favorable one. She included two supporting claims in one sentence, both of which contained a subject (what or who the sentence is about) and predicate (what the sentence is telling about the subject), without proper punctuation. This resulted in a run-on sentence, which I used as an example for fixing said grammar goofs.

“Ricky Martin is a one-hit wonder he looks like an iguana.”

Ricky Martin (subject) | is a one-hit wonder (predicate).  <—— complete sentence

He (subject) | looks like an iguana (predicate). <—— complete sentence


1. Use a period (or other end punctuation) and a capital letter.

Ricky Martin is a one-hit wonder. He looks like an iguana.

2. Use a semi-colon (if the two ideas are very closely related).

Ricky Martin is a one-hit wonder; he looks like an iguana.

3. Use a semi-colon and a transition word.

Ricky Martin is a one-hit wonder; moreover, he looks like an iguana.

4. Use a comma and a coordinating conjunction (a FANBOYS or BONAFSY word).

Ricky Martin is a one-hit wonder, and he looks like an iguana.

F = for (in the sense of “because”)

A = and

N = nor

B = but

O = or

Y = yet

S = so

BONAFSY is just a rearranged order of the same mnemonic.

As for Ricky Martin’s amphibious appearance, let’s just say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

ricky-martin   green-iguana

A brief and entertaining history of the “English” language

Shakespeare contributed over 2000 of these to the English language, including 'alligator,' "because he ran out of things to rhyme with crocodile."

Shakespeare contributed over 2000 of these to the English language, including ‘alligator,’ “because he ran out of things to rhyme with crocodile.”

If you are a lover of words or you’re looking to stretch your vocabulary muscles before getting started on today’s writing session, and you have ten minutes or so (the video is a little over eleven minutes in length), Open University’s History of  English is a fun break.

Its brief, animated chapters cover the development and growth of the English language, as influenced by the Angles and Saxons (“but not the Jutes”), the Normans, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, science, the expansion of the British Empire, Dr. Samuel Johnson and other lexicographers, American English (“not English, but somewhere in the ballpark”), and Internet English. One of my favorite lines is a reference to “a system of spelling even Dan Brown couldn’t decipher.”

Note: Teachers and parents might want to preview for a flash of adult humor at the end of Chapter 5.

Brain Pickings ( shared the video, which was created by Open University, accessible via YouTube.

In its post, Brain Pickings included complementary reading links, including a past article by contributor Marla Popova titled ” Words on Words: 5 Timelessly Stimulating Books About Language,” also worth a few minutes of time for word-lovers.

Here is a list of the titles Popova offered as suggested reading:

  • The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker
  • The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition: Comebacks, Taunts, and Effronteries, Lawrence Dorfman
  • Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams
  • In Other Words, C.J. Moore
  • I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, Jag Bhalla

Complementary thoughts for bloggers who write: take two.

It was just about this time last year that I launched this “new” venture. Shortly thereafter it proved too much to keep up with it while tending to other matters. While it just may be the ominous approach of February, the month of doom, that has me thinking I have time for this, I’m ready to give it another try, albeit a less ambitious one.

Today I saw a smart person, a self-described writer with whom I don’t have a close relationship, use the word “compliment” when I knew she meant “complement.” Ordinarily, I disregard affect, effectsuch minor slips as I’m rather prone to making them myself and “we’re all friends here,” but this was in the context of soliciting ideas  for strategies to market her book.

One of the key elements of effective marketing is attention to detail. To me, it was the reader’s equivalent of seeing someone exit the ladies’ room with her skirt caught tucked into her panty hose. How does one discreetly and politely point out the situation without bringing others’ attention to it? I clicked the “like” button and moved on.

Recently I overheard a conversation among 11th grade Advanced Placement students (“the smart kids”) about the difference between “affect” and “effect,” and while the boy explaining the difference was technically correct for general purposes, the true difference is slightly more nuanced. Due to the context of the conversation, I thought 11th grade AP students should not only be capable of understanding the nuances, but might be held accountable affect, effectfor the difference. Their teacher was also within earshot and he said nothing, so I said nothing. It’s still bugging me, though. Obviously.

Last week I read an online interview where a blogger/writer asked another blogger/writer to describe his process in writing a particular piece of fiction. I happen to be a big fan of the interviewee. As has happened with a lot of seemingly off-the-cuff things he writes, his response stuck with me. To paraphrase, he described his writing process as ‘just emptying out [his] head onto the screen.’

Not only does his lack of pretense impress me, it also occurs to me that that works for him for at least two reasons I’ve observed: he’s a prolific reader and his extraordinary life experience gives him a lot to empty.

If only there were a place to write about these things. . . Oh, yes, that’s where I left off about a year ago.

While I’ll be scaling back on the original vision I had this time last year, I’d like to give this a go (again). I have some ideas for new approaches and some things I’ll be putting on the back burner for now.

(If you see anything here that might require that I step back inside the ladies’ room to readjust, feel free to say something in the comments section.)

Mini-lesson #2: Pockshunwashun matters.

At the beginning of each school year, I would give my students a “Writing Inventory” questionnaire that surveyed their own attitudes and interests regarding writing. We stapled these inside their writing folders and we reviewed them together in an end-of-the-year conversation about how far they’d come. My all-time favorite response was to the question, “What are your strengths as a writer?”

The student replied, “Im rel good at pockshunwashun gramer and speling (no period)” . To her credit, she started her sentence with a capital letter!

I’m sure you agree that ‘pockshunwashun’ matters and sometimes. . .

Rate this:

Mini-lesson 1: Is it its or is it it’s?

Its = something belongs to it. 

Notice how the s is all smushed up against the it?  Very possessive. S = “something” and something belongs to it.

It’s = it is or it has

Two words are trying to look like one word. The apostrophe (or flying comma) is standing in for the missing parts of the second word and keeping the s from being possessive.

It’s  (It is)  time for the apostrophe to reclaim its place (the place belongs to it) among reputable punctuation marks.

Do you see where that arrow is pointing? Don't go there.

Do you see where that arrow is pointing? Don’t go there.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers

%d bloggers like this: