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Gaining Insights into

Personal Biases about Writing

 

By Dana Wall

We all spent years in English classes listening to similar lessons over the eight parts of speech. It only seems as if there were more!  Each year we were also drilled over the four kinds of sentences, the few different phrases and clauses, and a dozen or so punctuation rules. Various adults, both in school and out, indoctrinated us concerning usage standards and violations. We didn’t all learn and remember the same things about written and spoken language standards, however. The result is that nearly everyone has an individual, internal list of grammar/usage/punctuation pet peeves that seem to jump from the page or assault the ears when read or heard. It seems true that one person’s usage can be another person’s error. 

Consider a few examples. Some refuse to acknowledge a split infinitive as legitimate. It has existed in formal written English at least since the time of Chaucer. Other sensibilities are confounded by the sound of “nuculer” instead of “nuclear.” Yet many who call that mispronunciation an error blithely say, “Warshington,” not “Washington,” and see no problem with their own “error” in that case. “Irregardless” brings sneers from many who remember that the standard word is “regardless.” Some of them, however, say “Alls I know…” instead of, “All I know.” There are writers who insist on a comma before the “and” preceding the final item in a series.  Others omit it.  Some habitually join independent clauses with a comma while those remembering that lesson call the construction a “run on sentence.” As I said, one person’s usage is another person’s error. 

Members of workshop groups critiquing one another’s drafts are no doubt influenced by their internalized list of personal pet peeves.  Examining that list may provide insights into one’s writing style and biases regarding revision.  The following is such a list done as a Letterman Show “Top Ten.”  It whispers secrets about the list maker while presenting items for critiquing and revising writing.   

A Top Ten List for Revising Writing

10. Remove clichés unless they purposely reveal language/thinking traits of those spouting them.

9. Remove redundancies:  “Right now the current temperatures at this hour include…”

8. Avoid repeating words or phrases close together: “She did the work herself.  She asked herself why no one else had helped, and she told herself they were less sensitive than she was herself.”

7. In general, use active voice. It is stronger than passive:  “The tickets to the game were given to me by Bob,” is weaker (and longer) than, “Bob gave me tickets to the game.” Or, “Bob gave me game tickets.”

6. “All right” is preferable to the non-standard “alright.”  (“All right” is the opposite of “all wrong.”)

5. Chop “would.”  Avoid the overuse of “would” plus a present tense verb to form past tense.  Not, “We would always sing loudly in church,” but, “We always sang loudly in church.” 

4. Consider “I” drops. “In my opinion, I always thought that I was being picked on by my teacher whenever I recited in my history class.”  The author is the focus to an egotistical extent compared with, “ I believed the history teacher picked on my recitations.”  The teacher is more nearly the focus of the revision.

3. Join two sentences (independent clauses) with more than a comma.  Not, “They began to scream at the referee, he blew his whistle too often.”  Use a semicolon or a comma with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, yet, for), or rewrite the clauses as two sentences. “They screamed at the referee; he blew his whistle too often.”  “They screamed at the referee, for he blew his whistle too often.”  (“They screamed at the referee because he blew his whistle too often,” needs no comma. Inverting the normal order requires a comma, however.  “Because he blew his whistle too often, they screamed at the referee.” See next item.)

2. Avoid overuse of inverted word order or dependent elements as introductory words in sentences.  “Normal word order” is so called because it is used “normally.”    Not: “Driving down the street, I admired the way my car handled.  Steering carefully through traffic, I smiled at the response. Breaking at a stop sign, I noticed other drivers watching me in amazement.  Accelerating quickly from the intersection, I left the others in my dust.”    But: “I admired the car and, steering through traffic, smiled at the response.  Other drivers watched amazed as I braked for a stop sign, then accelerated, leaving them behind.”  The second example is twenty-eight words compared to forty-five in the first. A happy side effect of normal word order is that it is shorter and more vigorous than inverted order.

And the number one item to consider when revising writing:

1. Omit needless words.  (A) Not: “I was really amazed by the fact that he was actually listening.”  But, “I was amazed that he was listening.”  Or, “I was amazed he was listening.”  Or “I was amazed he listened.”   (B) Not: “Seeing a sign on Camelback Road informing us that apartments were available for rent, we pulled in and parked the car.” [21 words] Instead, for one example: “We parked before an ‘Apartment For Rent’ sign on Camelback Road.”  [11 words] (C) Not: “As he walked back and forth in the apartment imagining himself outside wearing his vest, he caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror.  He paused for a moment to look at himself more closely.” [36 words]   Instead: “He paced, imagining being outside wearing the vest, and caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. He paused to look more closely.”  [24 words]

That is my current list. I may revise it next year.  

As an exercise, make your personal top ten list of pet peeves.  Then step back and listen to the secrets the list whispers about the English lessons you remember and your attitudes about writing.

 

About the Author

Dana Wall is a native Iowan, an educator, writer, and speaker living with his wife in Surprise, Arizona. Wall is the author of numerous education articles, four booklets celebrating the sounds of four different Midwestern states, and the humorous, book-length celebration of major American accents, Mare Kin: The Language We Speak Instead of English.

He facilitated summer institutes of the Iowa Writing Project for more than fifteen years and now teaches classes in memoir writing for senior citizens as part of Arizona State University West’s “Lifelong Learning Academy.” 

Among his other publication credits is a “My Turn” article in NEWSWEEK and “Turning Point” in Readers Digest magazine. Wall is a member of The Writers Round Table Phoenix and has an excerpt form a novel-in-progress published in that group’s anthology, Sonoran Mirage.
 

 

Sonoran Mirage Anthology

Sonoran Mirage

with contributing author

Dana Wall

 

 

Mare Kin: The Language We Speak Instead of English

Mare Kin:

The Language We Speak

Instead of English

 

 

 

 

 

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