A Cranky Old Teacher’s Rules of Engagement for the Writing life

Oh, just give a cranky old English teacher a forum, and she’ll expound on all the things that people do to mangle her precious language–you know, that language that she, old biddy that she is, thinks is her personal domain.  You can see her, can’t you, in your mental movie theater, strutting up on stage, her long skirts twitching, brandishing a big pointer stick, peering out over her thick, smudgy glasses? Let’s indulge her by sharing her favorite rules of English engagement today.

Take heed to her very sound list of reminders here…but then push her out the back door of your mind, and don’t let her interfere when you’re actively writing!  (Once your thoughts are down on the paper or the screen, you can let them cool down and then go back to edit.)

1. Have a sense of sentence.  Every sentence needs a subject and a verb.  Some have objects.  In general, the subject is the doer, and the object is the done TO.

If you are a visual and/or kinesthetic type person, and you feel a bit muddled, sentence-component-wise, you might actually enjoy diagramming sentences.  Diagramming forces you to decide which part of the sentence is which.  If you are using something incorrectly, or missing an essential part, that pops right to the surface when you sketch out the diagram.

Here’s a link to a nice tutorial: www.wikihow.com/Diagram_Sentences

Note though: just do this for fun and practice–don’t stop and diagram every sentence you write.  The practice will give you the sense, and that will flow into your writing. Over-thinking can dam up your words!

2.  If you have a sense of sentence, and you know your subject from your object, you’ll have an easier time knowing when to use ‘I’ and when to use ‘me.’  I think many of us had a teacher  who drilled into us that we put the other person first, and we need to use I.  That teacher was talking about things like this:

Me and my mother [I might have said, way back then] went shopping for costumes.

NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!  howled the teacher.  Put your mother first!  And then use I!

So I would obligingly switch the sentence.

My mother and I went shopping for costumes.

Very good, nodded the teacher, folding her hands across her ample tummy and smiling.

I learned the lesson so well I used it all the time, not even thinking about the ‘why’ of it–or the subject and the object of it.

So I’d say, The dentist gave toothbrushes to my brother and I. 

I put my brother first.  I used ‘I’.  It sounded fine.  The world of my sentence seemed, indeed, all right.

But I is the subject pronoun and me is the object pronoun, and putting those other people first was messing me up.  So I learned that, to check my usage, I needed [just momentarily] to ditch my companions.

So drop the mama from the first sentence: I went shopping for costumes. (I=subject; I was the doer.)

Sounds GREAT!  Mama can come back.

Drop the brother from the second sentence: The dentist gave toothbrushes to I.
CLANG! WRONG!  It should be, The dentist gave toothbrushes to ME.  I have to fix it before I bring my brother back.

(Me=object; I was the ‘done TO.’)

3.  Don’t use a three syllable word when a one syllable word says exactly what you mean.  Somewhere along the line, a teacher–probably the same “My mother and I” teacher,–went crazy over repetition.  Find synonyms, she said.  Don’t use the same word over and over. In fact, if you use it once, find another word with a similar meaning to use the next time.

This pops up especially in writing conversation.  So–following the no-repetition dictates,–one might write something like this:

“I like apples,” I said.
“You are an apple-lover,” he chortled.
“I don’t like your tone,” I snapped.
“You are overly sensitive,” he sneered.
“Get out of my car,” I demanded.
“Nah nah boo boo. You can’t make me!” he prattled.

Ack! Erg!

If only he hadn’t chortled in the second line, all might have been well.  It’s okay to use ‘said’ over again, if what the speakers are doing is simply saying the words.  (Try chortling a word, by the way; it’s kind of tough.) And–if you have two speakers, once we’ve established whose turn it is to talk, the indenting and the quotation marks tell us who’s talking.  No need to attribute every single line.

The conversation might have been different without the chortling:

“I like apples,” I said.
“You’re an apple-lover,” he said.
“I know a great place for apple pie not far from here.”
“Let’s stop; we have 45 minutes before the meeting.”

SO much more civilized! And they got pie, too.

Likewise, don’t feel obligated to use ‘inhabit’ when ‘live in’ works better, or ‘communicate’ when ‘tell’ is what you mean.

This is not to say you should dumb your writing down or underestimate your audience.  I had a teacher in my undergrad days who said, “Always use the BEST word.  Often (maybe usually) that’s a simple, short, direct word.  But sometimes it’s a 14-syllable scientific term.  If you use it correctly, your reader will reach out and learn the meaning.  But never use a lofty, long word just to sound smart.  You’ll lose your reader.”

4. If at all possible, use active voice.

In the ACTIVE voice, the subject performs the action.  In the passive voice, the subject is the VICTIM of the action.  The only good time to use passive voice is when you’re trying to avoid assigning blame.

So, say, the clerk, Esme, left the shop and forgot to lock the door.  Active voice would be this:

Esme left the door unlocked.

The subject is the clerk, Esme; the action was leaving. (The action SHOULD have been locking, but Esme, poor dumb bunny, forgot.)

If I was a kind boss writing a police report after the discovery of missing items–the thieves walking in and helping themselves, thanks to the unlocked door–I might write:

The door was left unlocked.

Here, the door is the subject; it is the victim of the clerk’s forgetfulness. Notice Esme does not appear anywhere in the sentence. This is passive.  In a passive sentence, if it’s not stated, you always have to ask yourself: by whom? Or–by what?

In 99 per cent of cases, it’s better writing to be active–let your subject be the doer.


So there you have them–our cranky old English teacher’s dictates for the week.  Are they helpful?  Can you incorporate them?  Please feel free to respond to the cranky old teacher and I.

Errr…make that “…cranky old teacher and ME.”

Happy blogging, my friends!