Archive | March, 2011

All Hail the Queen?

9 Mar

Great Britain has given many things to America: the Fab Four, the less funny version of The Office, and the overwhelming confidence that, at the very least, our teeth could be doing much worse.

Some Americans, though, become carried away.  I think we have forgiven our British brothers and sisters too quickly: after all, was it not just a few centuries ago that that whole Boston Tea Party thing happened?  You know, the one where a gang of rogue Brits stole the cans of Arizona Iced Tea from the Celtics and threw them in the harbor, and then we had six more weeks of winter?

But to Americans, the Brits are adorable (as smaller and weaker things with bulging eyes often are), and in general, I wouldn’t care.  However, America’s fascination with the Brits has started to leak into its collective writing skills, and that, my fellow patriots (as you know, Tom Brady is a subscriber to this blog), is a problem.

First, a disclaimer: it’s not that the Brits aren’t good writers.  After all, they gave us Shakespeare, and without Shakespeare, Gnomeo and Juliet would never have been made, and that’s just something I wouldn’t wish upon cinema.

No, it’s not that British English is WRONG; it’s that Americans do not–and should not–write in it.  There are marked differences between British and American English in terms of phraseology, spelling, and even grammar, and if you’re an American writing an American paper, gosh darn it, it is your baseball and apple pie duty to WRITE LIKE IT.

1. Spell words like an American.

No, not like an American texting (*emoticon grimace*), but the way words appear in American dictionaries.  Town is not spelled towne.  Center is not spelled centre.  Color is not spelled colour.  Sometimes these crop up in business names, because Americans just think they’re cute (again, with the smallness and the weakness and the bulging of the eyes) but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to use them in your writing.  If you ever open your own business, I give you permission to call it “Ye Olde Umbrella Shoppe” if you want to.  Until thenne, thoughe, ye must stoppe it.

2. Avoid British irregular verbs.

In British English, the irregular past particle is acceptable.  In America, it’s generally not used.  For example, the following verb conjugations are acceptable in British English, but much less common (or allowed) in America:

Lean —> leant

Learn –> learnt

Smell –> smelt

Spoil –> spoilt

3. Collective nouns.

Even in American English, depending on which publication manual you subscribe to (I only read them for the articles — “a” and “the”), there are disagreements over when collective nouns take the plural form and when they take the singular.

Collective nouns name groups composed of members.  Examples of collective nouns include: team, army, family, data, company, and jury.  Writers often have a difficult time deciding whether to use a singular or a plural verb with a collective noun. (Is it “The team are ready” or “The team is ready”?)  In general, the rule is that if the sentence’s emphasis is on the group as one whole, the verb should be singular, and if on all the individual members of the group simultaneously, then plural.

This is one area where the Englishes of Britain and America differ.  American English leans towards making most collective nouns singular (“The jury is ready.”), while the Brits tend to make more of their collective nouns plural (“The jury are ready.”).

Again, there is a gradient here: arguments can sometimes be made for choosing a plural verb over a singular oneand vice-versa.  However, if you find yourself saying, “The Clash are the greatest band of all time,” then know this: London’s calling, and it wants its collective nouns back.

There are plenty of other differences between American and British English, and most of us are able to keep these slight nuances of language separate.  The examples above are simply three slip-ups that I see American writers making more and more commonly.  The problem isn’t that American English is necessarily better than British English: it’s that stylistic inconsistencies can make your writing seem amateurish.

Honestly, the way to solve this is probably to just tell Americans to stop reading so much Harry Potter.  So put The Deathly Hallows, down, folks.  Here’s how it ends:

Harry Potter is Tyler Durden, and together, they both shoot Old Yeller

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Sentence Variety/Food Poisoning

2 Mar

I have been food poisoned.

I’ve also decided against the typical innocuous “I have food poisoning” line.  No.  I have a cat.  I have a heated blanket.  I have the need to surreptitiously type in the air while people are talking.  I don’t HAVE food poisoning.

I have BEEN food poisoned.  I don’t know who did this to me, so I don’t want to make any hasty accusations, but I do know that whoever did this to me was trying to kill me.

I am allowed to eat two things right now: rice and applesauce.  I can’t express how boring this is.  I’m working on ways to make this diet seem more exciting, though.  One strategy that’s proven effective has been giving my rice or applesauce different names and then saying them aloud to myself as I eat.  As in, “Here it comes, Riane, that filet min-rice you’ve been dreaming of!”

I’ve also tinkered with lending a tribute to childhood by pretending that my spoon is an airplane, but then I realized that all that will accomplish is making it so my food is moving really fast, and quite honestly, that’s sort of already the problem.

So what does this have to do with sentence variety?  Well, everything.

Most of us aren’t still stuck in the “See Spot.  See Spot run” rut, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t guilty of repetitive and ineffective sentence structuring.  First of all, thanks to the influence of celebrities, I would die before naming my dog something as normal as Spot.  Now that I think about it, though, I do like the name “Spot” for a girl.  And then, as she got older, she could change it to “Splotch,” because that’s a bit more grown up sounding.

Writers make two primary mistakes when it comes to sentence variety: either they rely too much on the subject + verb sentence structure, or they’re afraid to use it at all.

I’ll say it here: if you take nothing else from this post, it should be that for sentence length and structure, VARIETY is the key.

At the most basic level, you should be using long, medium, and short sentences.  Too many short sentences can make your paper seem choppy and aggressive.  “These are facts.  Facts are great.  Read my facts.”  I picture you as a red-faced robot when I read sentences like that, and I don’t trust robots ever since I saw that terrifying robot movie, The Stepford Wives.

But if you use long sentence after long sentence, it doesn’t make you look smart, like you may think.  It makes you look like you’re afraid of a period.  You’re not a 14-year old boy, so don’t act like it.  (Unless you are a 14-year old boy.  Justin Bieber sure is annoying, huh?  Also, Gatorade and Cheetos and sports!)  Not only will your sentences trail on for too long, but an endless barrage of long sentences is also difficult to wade through, and important ideas can be lost in that mess of words.

So mix it up with short and long sentences.  If you have a powerful idea, build up to it with long and medium sentences, and then–bam!  Hit the reader with one short, straightforward sentence.  Contrast is your friend.

However, you can’t vary just sentence lengths.  You also need to vary sentence style.  One way to check for this in your own writing is to look at the beginnings of your sentences.  Do all of your sentences start with words like “I” or “It” or “The”?  If so, you’re probably writing most of your sentences in a very repetitive subject + verb pattern; on the one hand, this pattern is perfectly acceptable (in fact, the majority of your sentences may be structured this way).  However, if all of your sentences are structured that way, your writing will likely become redundant.

You can vary the structure of these sentences by opening them differently.  Try incorporating some introductory clauses, as the examples below show.

Original Sentence

I like to go to school when it is raining outside.

Restructured

When it is raining outside, I like to go to school.

Keep in mind, the first sentence is not WRONG.  The restructured example is simply to show you a way to change the order of the words in your sentences.  Here’s another example:

Original

We ended up going to the restaurant, even though I had heard that the food was awful.

Restructured

Even though I had heard that the food was awful, we ended up going to the restaurant.

By forcing yourself to edit the beginning of a few sentences, you are, in essence, forcing yourself to create new sentence patterns.  And there are plenty of other ways to restructure sentences: look for pieces in the middle you can move to the beginning, parts in the beginning you can move to the end, parts you can split into different sentences, parts that you can add or remove.  But don’t rely on fancy, twisty sentences either: this can get confusing.  Like I said before, the key is variety.

And don’t change the order of the words in your sentences just for kicks: make sure that, above all, the word order you choose conveys your point the most strongly.  Never sacrifice the meaning of your sentence for … well, anything.  On the one hand, you don’t want your sentences to be boring and repetitive spoonfuls of rice and applesauce after rice and applesauce.  On the other hand, there’s no sense in spicing up your rice and applesauce with, uh … bad spices.

I think that analogy may just have gotten out of control, which is okay, because I’m about to go eat some applesauce while pretending that my spoon is an airplane.  Sorry applesauce — this is going to be a crash landing, and Sully Sullenberger is nowhere in sight.

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