Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm a retired teacher turned writer. Ferradiddledumday (my Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story) and Stuck (my middle grade paranormal novel) are available from Cedar Creek Publishing.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Ask Ms. Writer Lady

A few years ago, to address grammatical issues that baffled my freshman English 101 students, I invented Ms. Writer Lady, and posted her advice on my faculty website. Since I'm leaving Ferrum College, my faculty site will soon be dismantled. I hated to lose Ms. Writer Lady, so I moved her here. After all, this blog is about writing (among other things).

The cat picture?—that's Dylan, one of my six cats. I originally used his picture with one of the letters below.

Ask Ms. Writer Lady
Advice for the Grammatically & Syntactically Challenged

Installment I

Because of a plethora of misinformation regarding the writing process, Ms. Writer Lady has graciously agreed to answer questions from those who suffer writing impairments of various sorts. Should one wish to pose a question to Ms. Writer Lady, one is instructed to pen one’s question in black ink on crisp off-white parchment and slip it under Ms. Writer Lady’s office door in Britt Hall. Should one lack either the proper shade of ink or a properly sharpened quill, one may resort to a computer-generated missive. Be warned that Ms. Writer Lady expects her questioners to have mastered the basics of spell-check. Questioners should not expect a prompt answer. Owing to various social and professional obligations, Ms. Writer Lady will post answers only on Tuesday afternoons, and then only if she is in the mood. A lady of somewhat advanced years, Ms. Writer Lady reserves the right to be frivolous or whimsical—and quite possibly both.

Ms. Writer Lady now turns her attention to questions from the misinformed:

hey, yo, miz wrt. lady--izzit true when you write a descriptive essay that you gotta use a lot of adjectives and appeal to all the senses—stu dent

Dear Writing-impaired Individual who has not mastered spell-check as per Ms. Writer Lady’s explicit instructions, who hasn’t a clue about the inappropriateness of using the second person point of view when one clearly needs the first person, and who has even less of a clue regarding the conventions of capitalization and punctuation:

Ms. Writer Lady avoids writing descriptive essays whenever possible. However, should you write such an essay, please note that an abundance of adjectives, however tantalizing they may be, will not insure success. Indeed, adjectival overkill will result in verbal flatulence of such proportions that your essay’s grade will fall as low as—No! Ms. Writer Lady will not stoop to using an inappropriate analogy! Do the words “academic probation” have meaning for you? Perhaps you should scrutinize the following examples. Which choice do you think is more effective?
1. the really clear and awesome bright blue sky that was so close to the really neat color of the University of North Carolina
2. the azure sky
If you picked #1, slap yourself hard with The Little, Brown Handbook (ninth edition). If you picked #2, you might pass freshman English.

Try again:
1. He hit me because I took his rectangular piece of delicious-looking, yummy-smelling milk chocolate candy with crisp almonds and ate it.
2. He slapped me with The Little, Brown Handbook (ninth edition) because I ate his Hershey Bar.
Again, if you picked #2, there is hope for you. Note that #2 uses a more specific verb, adds a necessary detail, and replaces all the burdensome adjectives with a specific noun.

Keep in mind this rule of writing (and, often, of life—with the exception of finances, fine art, and/or real estate in desirable locations ): “More is not better.” Indeed, the more words one uses, the sooner one’s reader will drop off to sleep. Keep in mind the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.” Although Mr. Thoreau could have made his point in 50% fewer words, his message is clear (though repetitive).

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: Should you always hand in a rough draft with your essay so your professor won’t think you’ve been visiting one of the free essay sites and maybe like getting some ideas there?—Trying for a good grade

Dear One tempted by the evils that lurk on the Internet and who—like the previous questioner—hasn’t a clue about the inappropriateness of using the second person point of view when one clearly should use the first person:

Thanks to the invention of computers, rough drafts have ceased to exist (though Ms. Writer Lady quite often peruses some essays that, while her students claim they are final drafts, have certain characteristics one might find in first drafts). Ms. Writer Lady also finds the term “rough draft” a bit coarse for her refined taste. Nonetheless, in the interests of academic enlightenment, she will force herself to use the distasteful expression.

Rough drafts became extinct about the time typewriters went out of general use. (Note: If one is unfamiliar with the term “typewriter,” one might ask one’s grandparents about it. However, if one’s grandparents came of age in the 1960s, they probably remember nothing about the entire decade and, thus, have no recollection of typewriters.) Suffice to say that entire forests were depleted and the hole in the ozone layer increased substantially because students wasted vast quantities of paper as they wrote rough drafts. Thanks to the invention of the delete key—as well as the ease of cutting and pasting as one electronically composes, one need never leave evidence of a rough draft.

However, if one’s professor requires roughness in composition from his or her students, one might be tempted to reconstruct a “rough draft” from one’s otherwise acceptable final draft. Does one require an example? No? Ms. Writer Lady will provide a hypothetical example anyway. Please indulge her:
Suppose that little Billy Shakespeare is quite satisfied with his passage: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” His schoolmaster, however, demands a rough draft. Knowing that he will not be able to improve upon his work, little Billy hastily roughens up his work so it reads, “Being here or not being here in today’s society, that is the problem I’m currently having trouble with, in my opinion, not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The school master awards little Billy a D for his “rough draft,” but is so impressed with the “corrected” version that he awards little Billy an A for his final draft. Quite possibly the schoolmaster, after affixing a smiley face sticker and writing “Greatly improved!” on little Billy’s paper, posts it in a public place for all to admire.
As for the free essay sites (known among some professors as “the fast track to suspension”), most of the work posted thereon is below even “rough draft” quality. Indeed, Ms. Writer Lady sometimes plucks an essay or two from those sites to show her own students what bad writing really is. If one should be tempted to appropriate a “free essay” and turn it in as one’s own work, one deserves the suspension (and subsequent forfeiture of tuition) that one receives.

Ms. Writer Lady is still cringing at your expression, “maybe like.”

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: What do you think of free writing? My high school English teacher used to have us do this all the time. She said it would help us get ideas.—Trying hard

Dear Hardly Trying: What does Ms. Writer Lady think of free writing? Ms. Writer Lady always expects to get paid for anything she writes.

Oh, you meant the process of writing frantically for a predetermined period of time when one has no ideas in one’s head but tries to form this lack of ideas into some sort of coherent thesis while distracting oneself by pushing one’s pen across one’s paper at top speed while one’s teacher sits back and silently snickers at how hard her students seem to be working, did you not?

Your teacher had you free write all the time? Pray tell, what was that teacher doing while her students were frantically writing—and thus depleting forests and increasing the hole in the ozone layer? Ms. Writer Lady thinks that your use of the word “all” implies that you are perhaps indulging in over-exaggeration. However, on the off chance that you are not, Ms. Writer Lady wishes you to know that she thinks very little of the practice.

If one has no idea of what to write, how does one’s writing profusely about nothing give one an idea, pray tell? The rule for writing (and, often, for life in general) is “Doing more of what doesn’t work, won’t make it work any better.” One generates ideas by thinking before one writes. Ms. Writer Lady will phrase that idea more succinctly: “Think before you write.”

Hi, Ms. W. L. Due to the fact that I wrote my essay in pencil, my prof won’t accept it. I worked all night on that paper. I ask you, is this fair!—In Dig Nant

Dear Digging In: No, it is not fair that you attempted to hand in a messy graphite-smeared excuse for an essay when computers are so readily available! Ms. Writer Lady suspects you also probably dog-eared the page and failed to properly head your paper which you no doubt wrote at 3:00 a.m. (when it was due at 8:00 a.m.). Ms. Writer Lady was not born yesterday (or even the day before) and thus knows that you probably did not work “all night.” She suspects that you spent a goodly portion of the night in less than scholarly pursuits.

Your professor should have ripped the paper from your hand and stomped it (the paper, not your hand. Ms. Writer Lady regrets the ambiguous antecedent of “it,” but she is in a hurry.), snatched your pencil from your hand, and snapped it (the pencil, not your hand. Again, Ms. Writer Lady regrets the ambiguous antecedent of “it,” but she has now worked herself into quit a snit.)

Unless one is a confirmed Luddite, one ought never to touch a pencil, with the exception of possibly using it as a surgical implement to dig out the portion of one’s brain that would cause one to use the expression “due to the fact that.” Merciful heavens! When did the word “because” drop from general usage?

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: If someone forgot to turn in their essay on time, could they do extra credit———.

Acckkk! Gasp! Note that Ms. Writer Lady did not allow the questioner to finish his or her sentence. Ms. Writer Lady is so appalled by the use of the plural pronouns “their” and “they” to refer to a singular antecedent that she is likely to succumb to the vapors. Let her catch her breath and explain:

“Someone” means one. “Someone” does not mean two, four dozen or six thousand. “Their” and “they,” on the other hand, could indeed refer to two, four dozen or even six thousand people. “They” and “their” are plural; “they” and “their” do not equal “one,” unless perhaps the one in question suffers from multiple personality disorder. Other singular indefinite pronouns are some, one, everyone, everybody, no one, and nobody.

Granted, in speaking one does occasionally use “they” or “their” to refer to a singular indefinite pronoun, but spoken English is several notches below written English on the formality scale.

What the grammatically-impaired writer of the above question probably meant to write was, “If some people forgot to turn in their essays on time, could they do extra credit work to salvage their poor grades?” Ms. Writer Lady’s succinct answer: No.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: My essay had been written by me and handed in on time by me, too, but when the paper was returned to me by my instructor, “Avoid passive verbs!” was written beside every paragraph. Have any thoughts been had by you as to whether this remark should have been written so much on my paper?—Diligent student

Dear Dilly-dallier: Ms. Writer Lady has trouble imagining the depths of your passiveness. She suggests you seek some action before you drown in the pools of passivity that surround you. (or, as you might passively phrase it, “The pool of passivity is being drowned in by me.”) Ms. Writer Lady would like to comment more about how active verbs are preferable to passive verbs, but she must run out and purchase a suitable sympathy card for your instructor.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: I’ve been reading all these questions and I think your answers show that you’ve got bats in your belfry.—Anonymous

Dear Anon: Ms. Writer Lady might have cats on her computer, but she does not have bats in her belfry. She does not own a belfry. Furthermore, she has no immediate plans to acquire one. Unlike you, however, she does know that one puts a comma after the first main clause (and before the conjunction) in a compound sentence.

Ms. Writer Lady, her patience having been exhausted by the above questions, finds that she must leave her computer to brew herself a strong cup of chamomile tea in order to brace her nerves and gather her wits.

Installment II

Ms. Writer Lady, her nerves braced and her wits gathered, is ready to answer more questions.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: After writing my paper working all night, my prof says that it is full of dangling modifiers receiving a D hurting my feelings. Written in the margin in red ink, he says I need to correct this problem. Having no idea what a dangling modifier is, my paper is pretty good in my opinion without any other errors. So—do you think this grade is fair knowing how hard I worked? How can I stop dangling?—Confused

Dear Dangling One: Miss Writer Lady thinks your grade is rather generous. Ms. Writer Lady was educated before students were encouraged to “let it all hang out” (i.e. dangle), so she is reluctant to even give an example. However, in the interests of better writing, she will try. Note the following example:
Dangling from the highest limb on the tree, Granny spotted my kite.
Now, unless Granny is unusually agile for her age, she is unlikely to be out on a limb, much less dangling from one. The kite is dangling. Put the participial phrase near the word it modifies:
Granny spotted my kite dangling from the highest tree.
See how much better sense that makes? As for how you can stop dangling, restrain yourself, my dear. Restrain yourself.

Dr. Ms. W. L.: My friends are confused as to when to use who and when to use whom I tell them that they should use who for everyday usage and whom when they want to sound classy. Is this too cool or what? —Miss Classy Lassie

Dear Sadly Misinformed: What? Ms. Writer Lady is not sure what you mean by “classy.” However, she does need to point out that one uses the subjective case who for a subject or subject complement and the objective case whom for an object. For example:
Who are you to give grammar advice?
To whom did you give such misinformation?
However, when one uses a noun clause as an object—and a form of who (in this case whoever) is the subject of the clause, one would correctly use the subjective case. Confused? Good! Let Ms. Writer Lady give another example:
Write the thank-you note to whoever gave you the diamond earrings.
In the above sentence, the subject is you (understood), the verb is write, the direct object is note, and the object of the preposition to is the entire subordinate clause. Whoever is the subject of the clause, the verb is gave, and the direct object is earrings. Now consider this sentence:
You may write notes to whomever you choose.
Again one has a noun clause that is the object of the preposition to. This time, however, the subject of the clause is you and the verb is choose. Whomever is indeed a direct object.

Confused? Ms. Writer Lady sincerely hopes you are! Your attempts at “class” have so flustered Ms. Writer Lady that she must cease giving advice for the day. She needs to calm her nerves and soothe her mind with a glass of imported sherry.

Installment III

The sherry having done an admirable job in calming her nerves, Ms. Writer Lady is ready to answer more questions:

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: It all started when my Brit lit professor assigned the class to read Romeo and Juliet and write about it. I think he wanted it to be a critical analysis. Anyway, I wrote it and handed it in, and he handed it back and said it wasn’t a critical analysis, and I said it was because I said I didn’t like it because I felt it ended badly and that certainly sounds like criticism to me. He said that it wasn’t enough, and I said OK, I feel it’s a shame how badly Juliet’s father treated her and he should have cut her some slack, which it seems to me is critical. I still got an F on it. What is it you professors want?—Don’t Get It.

Quite the contrary, my dear. You have gotten more than your share of its. What you lack is a clue. Ms. Writer Lady, who is feeling more than usually generous, will give you two clues:
Clue #1: You are overusing the third person singular personal pronoun for a genderless object. Unless you have an actual antecedent in mind (and Ms. Writer Lady suspects you haven’t a clue about antecedents), avoid using it. True, an expletive it does exist, but the best writers try to avoid using it. (Astute readers will note Ms. Writer Lady‘s double meaning of the third person singular genderless personal pronoun at the end of the previous sentence. Ms. Writer Lady is unusually clever today.)

Clue #2: You have mistaken “sharing your feelings” for genuine (or even fake) literary criticism. No one above the high school level wants to know your feelings, though Ms. Writer Lady suspects your high school English teacher pretended she did. (Note to astute readers: Ms. Writer Lady did not use the politically correct “pretended he or she did” because males would be so uninterested in how another person feels that they would not even pretend. In fact, Ms. Writer Lady remembers one of her former suitors who—Oh, dear! Ms. Writer Lady is getting quite far off the subject, isn’t she?)
Critical analysis requires actual thought based upon—Oh, why does Ms. Writer Lady bother? She knows that if you haven’t had an original thought by now, you are unlikely to suddenly have one.

What do we professors want? Perfection, my dear, perfection. Please do not assume that we will “cut you some slack,” whatever that expression means, for surely none of us are slack-cutters.

Hey Miz Writer Lady! In Installment II of your advice, you mentioned a participial phrase. How is that like a participle? And what the heck is a participle?—Not that I care

Dear Uncaring Person: Ms. Writer Lady will attempt to enlighten you, though she certainly has her work cut out for her. You do know what a verb is, do you not? Verbs, being the most active of the eight parts of speech, sometimes transform themselves into one of those other parts of speech. For example, if the verb “to sing” wanted to become a noun, it would become the gerund “singing.”
Verb: He is singing badly.
Gerund: His singing was abysmal.
Now, a participle is a verb which decides to become an adjective:
The singing boy annoyed all of us.
If a participle joins a group of other parts of speech, the result is a participial phrase:
The boy, singing loudly and off-key, so annoyed us that we thrashed him soundly.
Ms. Writer Lady, normally a gentle sort, apologizes for the violence in the above example, but she did want you to get the idea. Now, Ms. Writer Lady, having been unnerved by the effort required to answer this installment’s questions, finds that she must mix herself a martini to regain a semblance of composure. Perhaps Ms. Writer Lady will add extra gin. . . .

Installment IV

Her jangled nerves quieted and her composure restored, Ms. Writer Lady finds herself ready to tackle (in the metaphorical sense—Ms. Writer Lady does not play football) yet more problems that baffle undergraduates. Most of this installment’s questions involve punctuation.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady, I always thought that brackets were interchangeable with parentheses since both enclose added info. My prof says it ain’t so. Is he being hard to get along with, or what?—Curious

Dear Curio: What? Ms. Writer Lady wasn’t paying attention. If “[I]t ain’t so” are his exact words, he is certainly being ungrammatical. Were this the case, Ms. Writer Lady would certainly find him difficult (though if he is unusually tall, sports a well-trimmed moustache, and can quote Shakespeare extensively, Ms. Writer Lady might find him somewhat attractive). Nonetheless, he is right. While both marks of punctuation (which always come in pairs) do indeed enclose extra information, brackets enclose that which one has added to otherwise quoted material. Parentheses enclose extra information. If one will but look at the opening sentence of this installment and the fourth sentence of this answer, one will note that Ms. Writer Lady used parentheses correctly. If one will look at the professor’s alleged quote, one will note that Ms. Writer Lady also used brackets correctly to enclose her added capital letter

Dear Ms. Writer Lady; If one exclamation point shows surprise, can I show more surprise by adding several? I feel a need to express really strong feelings!!—Often Excited!!!!

Dear Over-Excitable: Of course you can, but you may not! Please note that one exclamation point is sufficient for whatever strong feeling one may have. Ms. Writer Lady, for example, currently needs to express a strong feeling of revulsion that one confuses can and may, but she exhibits admirable restraint. Indeed, she does! (Can, for those abysmally ignorant in the meanings of verbs, implies ability. May, on the other hand, implies permission. Again, Ms. Writer Lady demonstrates she can use parentheses correctly!)

Hey Miz Writer Lady, I got a paper back with “Misuse of apostrophe!” marked all over it! What’s so important about apostrophes’s, huh? Are little squiggly thing’s that important? It’s not like those mark’s mean thing’s. I just stick one in every time a noun end’s in s. That work’s doesn’t it?— Know’s It

Dear Knows Very Little: One does not just “stick in” (or type in) an apostrophe before an s in nouns (or, as you have done in your letter, before an s in verbs ).

An apostrophe is used before the s to show possession by a singular noun:
I heard a sound not unlike a cat’s meow.
An apostrophe goes after the s to show possession by a plural noun:
I distinctly heard several cats’ meows and occasional hisses beneath my open window during the last full moon.
If a plural noun does not end in s, then add an apostrophe and an s to show possession:
The children’s attempts to capture the cats resulted in many scratches.
One only uses an apostrophe in verbs to show where the omitted letters were in a contraction:
Children shouldn’t hold cats which don’t want to be held.
There now, that wasn’t difficult was it? Another use of the apostrophe is to show plurals of numerals, letters, and words used as words, but those who are truly up-to-date (as Ms. Writer Lady always is) use italics instead.
Old way: Mind your p’s and q’s.
New way: Mind your ps and qs.

Old way: No if’s, and’s or but’s about it, you are a dolt.
New way: No ifs, ands or buts about it, you are a dolt.
If you still don’t get it, Ms. Writer Lady suggests you study the cartoon on http://

Ms. Writer Lady, having become too exhausted by this installment’s questions and having been inspired by the examples she used in the previous answer, has decided to curl up for a cat-nap.

First, however, she will quaff a rather large glass of blended bourbon over ice to soothe herself. Perhaps she will have more than one glass. Perhaps she will dispense with the ice in the second glass. Perhaps she will dispense with the glass….

Installment V

Ms. Writer Lady, having awakened from a rather long nap induced by two or three the sips of bourbon, finds that her exasperation has been replaced by a throbbing headache. However, fully aware of how her advice is sorely needed, she is once again ready to enlighten those dim in the ways of writing. If only she didn’t have such a dreadful headache…. Ah, well! Duty beckons.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady: My favorite punctuation mark is: the colon. I think that using colons really jazz up what I’m writing: they make my stuff look more business-like. Plus: they really emphasize stuff. However, my profs don’t see it that way: because they think I over-use the colon. How can I convince them: I’m right? —Colon Power

Dear Misguided One: One can’t convince others that one is right when one is wrong. Ms. Writer Lady cannot condone your blatant punctuation misuse. The colon, not unlike an antimacassar, has limited but definite conventional uses. The colon, which never comes between a linking verb and a subject complement, is used to introduce a list, a formal quotation, or sometimes an appositive. One may also use a colon between two main clauses if the second clause explains the first. A colon does not come between a preposition and its object.

Lest you fail to understand the rules, Ms. Writer Lady will provide examples:
Wrong: An educated person is well-versed in the works of: Shakespeare, Poe, and Frost.
Correct: An educated person is well-versed in the works of the following authors: Shakespeare, Poe, and Frost.

Wrong: Ms. Writer Lady assumed: you are a dolt.
Correct: Ms. Writer Lady’s assumption is correct: you are a dolt.

Dear Miz W. L. My prof said I’m not using the subjunctive mood correctly. I know good moods and bad moods, but what the heck is the subjunctive? If I was a teacher, I’d let my students use any mood they wanted.—Moody

Dear Moody: One suits one's mood to the occasion. For instance, the indicative mood is used when one wishes to state one’s opinion, to relate facts, and to ask questions.
Ms. Writer Lady knows that some people haven’t a clue, doesn’t she?
One uses the imperative mood to give advice or issue orders.
Get a clue!
The subjunctive mood is used when one wishes that something were true or when one expresses a condition contrary to fact. (Hint: Look for the word if.) When one uses the subjunctive, one uses the plural verb were instead of was, even for singular subjects.

Ms. Writer Lady wishes that everyone were more literate.
If Ms. Writer Lady were in charge of the world, students would not say, “If I was. . . ."

There, now. That wasn’t difficult, was it?

Dear Ms. Writer Lady,
What if one desires to consult another online grammar reference besides this one? Do you have any recommendations?—Wants to look elsewhere

Dear Wanting: Ms. Writer Lady cannot understand why anyone would want to look elsewhere. However, should one be so inclined as to stray from Ms. Writer Lady's advice, one might look at Grammar Grabbers . Ms. Writer Lady finds Mr. Cutler's web site to be what one might call "a hoot" if one is being less than formal in one's terminology.

Dear Ms. Writer Lady,
My high school typing teacher told me to always put two spaces after a period. However, my English instructor says this is wrong. Who is right? I favor two spaces since putting in one space is so hard to learn. Also it makes for a longer pause. —Space Conscious

Dear Spaced Out and Semi-Conscious: Forget what your typing teacher told you. If you will consult your Little, Brown Handbook (9th edition), you will clearly see on the top of page 206: "Leave one space after all punctuation with these exceptions. . . ." The exceptions, you will note, all have no spaces at all after them. Many of the principles of typing have become as extinct as the dodo, which is what you are if you continue to use two spaces. A longer pause indeed! Two spaces puts holes in your document which, Ms. Writer Lady is quite sure, probably reflect the holes in your thinking.

Ms. Writer Lady, having worked herself into an agitated state, finds that she is too befuddled to continue dispensing advice. Having recently received from a rural admirer a Mason jar filled with a clear liquid, Ms. Writer Lady thinks that perhaps a sip from this jar—which no doubt contains the purest of spring water—will soothe her agitation and clear her befuddled mind.



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