Can ‘It’ Solve the Pronoun Conflict?

Pronouns in handcuffsThe squad room was packed with third person plural pronouns hauled in after the Usage Unit’s raid.

“It ain’t fair!” Them protested. “Somebody has to step in and take care of things.”

“Yeah,” They chimed in. “You think He and She are gonna step in, those weaklings?”

“Don’t you have something better to do with your time than constantly hounding me about something?” Their complained.

Dis Connect shook his head sadly.

“You’d think they would learn and not hook up with singular antecedents,” Dis said.

“Well, it’s not entirely their fault,” Grammar Smith said. “Unlike many other languages, English doesn’t have a gender neutral, singular, third person pronoun. So, to avoid sounding sexist, many writers (and most speakers) put in the plural. This is likely when you see pronouns like anyone, someone, each, or somebody as the antecedent.”

In English, when the gender of the antecedent is unknown, the singular third person pronoun traditionally used is masculine:

Every student must make up his mind about things.

“Of course, that makes about half the population (like me) unhappy,” Grammar said.

One solution is to use both singular third person pronouns:

Every student must make up his or her mind about things.

“Very clumsy, and I especially detest the artificial s/he construction,” she continued.

“What about it?” Dis asked. “That’s a singular, gender neutral, third person pronoun.”

“That’s a funny thing,” Grammar replied. “You would think, with all the fluidity of the English language, that would be a logical choice. Then again, who said proper usage was always logical?”

It is only used when referring to things or animals, never people.

“Lots of people use they with singular antecedents, but it tends to get confusing,” Grammar said. “There are some people who think gender is not binary, so just he and she are not enough to reflect that.”

“I’ve heard some people use ze as a neutral pronoun,” Dis offered.

“Yes, that may be the wave of the future,” Grammar mused. “Or maybe people will just use it. No matter what, it looks like the rules are going to change.”

Vote and tell us what you think!



A Militant Grammarian’s Dilemma

“Ten hut!”

“You! Exclamation mark, straighten up!”

“Subject, verb, get yourselves agreeing NOW!’

“Conjunction, pull it together!”

“Is that Oxford comma AWOL again?”

A lot of times I feel like a grammar drill sergeant. I’m a militant vulture circling others’ writing waiting to pounce on their errors. It’s bad when people who send me letters apologize for making writing mistakes. I’ve earned a reputation I’m not always happy with.

To me it is really important to follow The Rules of writing. But how far do I need to take it? When should I just let it go?

I’m going to fall back on a favorite reply of one of my grad school professors, “It depends.”

Sticking to the rules is important in formal, academic, and business writing. Mistakes made in these situations will reflect poorly on the writer and whoever the writer represents.

Advertising content and some web content doesn’t need to be quite so formal. In fact, they are more effective if they reflect a conversational tone.

Fiction writing often breaks the rules, especially in dialogue. Poetry is in a class of its own when it comes to grammar and punctuation.

Personal notes, e-mails, and texts don’t need to be strictly correct.

It’s important to know the rules in order to know when we can break or ignore them. Writing rules are there to guide us. The trick is to make sure what we write is clear and understandable. When we break or ignore the rules, we should be aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Writing for success includes many elements: connecting with the audience, making the information clear, and avoiding making the reader work too hard.

Knowing this doesn’t stop me from correcting television ads when they make verbs out of nouns or use adjectives instead of adverbs. It doesn’t stop me from tweaking in my head news items on the Internet. In the end, does it really make a difference?

Tomorrow, I’ll put aside my sergeant’s stripes and relax. (Hmmm. Maybe not…)

Semicolons — Powerful and Simple

Lots of people have trouble with semicolons; they over think them. semicolonSemicolons are one of the brawniest punctuation marks, but they’re not all that complicated. There are really only two ways to use a semicolon: to join two closely related independent clauses together (thus avoiding a comma splice or other run-on sentence) and in a series where there are internal commas. Semicolons show their muscle when they hold together two independent clauses. People are always trying to load this job onto commas, but it is the semicolons that have the umph to be successful. Incorrect: Many people don’t think it’s important to properly use semicolons, they figure commas are good enough. Correct: Many people don’t think it’s important to properly use semicolons; they figure commas are good enough. “What’s the big deal?” Well, we sometimes want people to slow down but not stop completely as they would with a period. On the other hand, a comma doesn’t really slow the reader down enough. Commas also do so many other things that using it to join independent clauses, too, can get confusing. Which leads to my next point – using semicolons to separate elements in a series that have internal commas. Incorrect: Santa’s sleigh is pulled by eight reindeer: Dasher, the speedy one, Dancer, the tap expert, Prancer, the one filled with pride, Vixen, the sexy one, Comet, the one with its head in the clouds, Cupid, the love guru, Donner, the snazzy dresser, and Blitzen, the drunk. Correct: Santa’s sleigh is pulled by eight reindeer: Dasher, the speedy one; Dancer, the tap expert; Prancer, the one filled with pride; Vixen, the sexy one; Comet, the one with its head in the clouds; Cupid, the love guru; Donner, the snazzy dresser; and Blitzen, the drunk. By containing each description with the thing it is describing, the reader doesn’t have to do the work of figuring what is connected to what. That’s the semicolon’s job. Give the semicolon its due; don’t try to replace it with a comma.

Failure, My BFF

“Failure is not an option!”

That’s a phrase bandied about everywhere, especially in business. Why are we so failure-averse?

Sure, there are times when failing can be a very, very bad thing: brain surgery, parachute folding, bungee jumping. But trying to eliminate it altogether is counter-productive.

The consequences of failure can be painful. At the very least, when we fail, we lose confidence in ourselves. Failure can be expensive, frustrating, and embarrassing. We tend to hide away our failures like crazy relatives. They exist, but we don’t talk about them.

“I failed my way to success.” – Thomas A. Edison

 The only calamity is not learning from our failures. Writers know this only too well. For writers, failure is an old friend.

The relationship starts out rocky. Failure is annoying and ever present. It’s there in the red marks on our school essays. It’s there when we send out the products of our heart and soul only to receive letters back that essentially say, “Sorry, it’s not good enough.” It’s there every time we turn around, sticking to us like bubblegum on our shoes.

Once we start to accept failure and all its warts, we understand how it can help us. Like a friend, it points out where we’ve gone wrong and what doesn’t work giving us a chance to improve. Like any good friend, failure then makes us better.

When we change our perspective of failure, when we look at it as opportunity instead of misfortune, then we establish a relationship that can lead us to success.

So, you failed. Join the club. If you want to be successful, get over it!


Hey! I’m Working Here!

Joe Warnimont starts out his recent post, “A Day in the Life of a Writer: Temptations ThrouLion-writer workingghout” with a Pearls Before Swine cartoon that resonates with the wordsmith in me.

Procrastination is a writer’s greatest enemy. Why does it plague us so? Writing is such a personal, internal process. It is difficult, and we all try to avoid difficulty if we can.

A friend and I often joke that, when we are staring off into space, we’re writing. It’s true, though. When I started out in newspapers (lo! those many years ago), we used typewriters. To rearrange paragraphs, I had to literally cut and paste the paper the copy was written on. I hated that! I think it was because the rubber cement always got all over my hands and reminded me of boogers.

Anyway, to avoid that, I would sit and compose my stories in my head before I ever started typing. Anyone who saw me would assume I was goofing off. I’d look like I was procrastinating, but I really was working.

The real procrastination usually hits when I don’t know how to begin or when I get stuck and can’t continue. Then I’m like Dug in Disney’s Up. (Squirrel?!) I have to force myself to push through.

How? Well, sometimes I do get that cup of coffee. Sometimes I take a walk, pay bills, wash a load of clothes, play with the dog, or (if I’m desperately avoiding writing) vacuum. More often than not, I’m working something out in my head — or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Yes, there are those times when I really am avoiding writing. My problem is that I am constantly editing as I write (a bad habit I picked up as a reporter). If it’s not just right, I go back and fix it before I’m finished. All that stuff floating around in my head is not going to be perfect, but I want it to be before I type it out.

The blessed invention of word processing allows me to write garbage then go back and revise it without getting slime on my hands. When I am faced with a big, white computer screen, or when my sentence just stops and I’m not sure what the next word should be, I take a breath and press on with whatever garbage comes out of my fingertips.

I’m going to go back and revise it anyway.

(P.S. Joe has some great tips on avoiding procrastination. One thing I do is screen my calls through the answering machine. If I’m writing, I don’t pick up unless it’s an emergency – a real one!)

Hi ho! Hi ho! It’s Off to Write We Go!

Just like a carpenter, a writer needs a toolbox.

toolboxEven someone as successful and prolific as Stephen King recognizes the need. He talks about it in On Writing. Throughout my writing career, I’ve usually just thought of tools as reference books, but they’re more than that.

Different types of writers will have different things in their toolbox just as a framing carpenter and a finishing carpenter will have some different tools. These days, many writing tools can be electronic.

Let’s look at some tools I think every writer should have.


This is a must-have whether it be hard-copy or electronic, but make sure it is a good one. I find it more convenient to have a printed Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary close at hand when I’m writing since I often write offline. Online dictionaries include Merriam-Webster and the Cambridge Free Dictionaries. (I avoid online dictionaries because they have diversions, such as word quizzes, that I find hard to avoid.) These also offer a thesaurus and even audio pronunciation. Microsoft Word has a “lookup” function which is pretty good, too.

Dictionaries make sure you understand what a word means so you use it correctly, and they help with spelling. (Spellcheck can only take you so far.) Dictionaries help make sure you are using a word as the correct part of speech. Is it an adverb or an adjective? They also provide proper forms for irregular verbs. (To me, “I seen” is like someone running their nails across a chalkboard!)


A thesaurus can save the character of your work because it helps you find just the right word to express what you want to say. Again, there are hard copy and electronic versions available. Roget’s Thesaurus is the most popular.

But beware! You can get yourself into a lot of trouble if you don’t understand the connotation – the “flavor” – of a word. Words like house, home, and abode mean the same thing, but evoke different emotions. Someone reading a heartwarming story will react badly when she reads, “Fifi had finally made it back to her abode.” It’s like a sour note.

Usage and Style Manuals

English usage manuals solve those pesky grammar and punctuation questions. They explain when to use “who” and “whom” or if you should use a comma or a semicolon. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White is the leading reference for American English.

Another word of caution – English is an ever-evolving language and sticking strictly to “proper” English can get you into trouble. (“To whom are you speaking?” vs. “Who are you speaking to?”) Sometimes common use overrides the “rules.”

Style manuals – AP, MLA, Chicago, or APA – are used for different types of writing. Each is designed to keep the writing style and format consistent. Inconsistent mechanics slow down readers we want to keep focused on meaning.

Word-Processing Software

Even if you do most of your writing longhand, you’re going to need to type it in order to submit it. The age of electronic communication pretty much dictates that content be in an electronic format, too.

There are lots of software out there; some specialize in specific outcomes like Windows Live Writer for blogs. Microsoft Word is one of the most widely popular general use programs. It provides functions to accommodate specific formats such as PDF, web, and blogs. Check to make sure things like hyperlinks still work after you convert content.

For those on a tight budget, Apache Open Office provides a free, downloadable software suite that includes a good word-processing offering.

These are my must-haves for any writer, but there are tools that are nice to have to make a writer’s life easier:

· Templates, useful for formatting writing done repeatedly.

· Subject-specific reference materials, such as funding lists for grant writers.

· A writing group or writing buddy. (I’m not fond of listing people as tools, but it’s always nice to have at least one other set of eyes to look over your writing.)

I’ve outlined some writing tools I think are important, but I’m sure there are lots more. Let me know what tools you use to make your writing life easier!

Social Networking’s Promise for Marketing

Social networking  – the latest marketing frontier! There is no doubt that social networking is revolutionizing mKerpen bookarketing strategies, but how do companies and organizations tap into the power of cyber communities?

Dave Kerpen does a very good job of outlining the “dos” and “don’ts” of social network marketing in Likeable Social Media: How to Delight Your Customers, Create an Irresistible Brand, and Be Generally Amazing on Facebook (and Other Social Networks).

A New Paradigm

Kerpen, and many other cyber marketing gurus, stress that the old marketing paradigm of pushing the brand on consumers is not only ineffective in social networking, but is actually harmful. The new marketing paradigm focuses on interaction with the customer. People use social networks to socialize and that means interacting, not just talking.

Some of the basic tenets of marketing –listening to the consumer, prompt customer service, and providing value – still apply to social networks. Now they are vital to new media marketing, and they are immediate. Marketing on networks means engagement with the consumer, a give-and-take relationship.

Another huge difference Kerpen stresses in his book is that, with social networks, the marketing function is no longer limited to one department. Because complaints (as well as compliments) can be broadcast quickly on Facebook and Twitter, other departments in an organization such as customer service or even the legal department need to be able to follow and be aware of the conversations going on about a product or service. Then the appropriate person needs to act quickly and appropriately.

Social networks allow organizations to have a reciprocal relationship with their customers and provide a huge reservoir of potential customers.

The Consumer Conversation

One of the first things to do is to listen to what people are saying about a company or organization on a network like Facebook. In a Wordstream interview,  Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, also emphasizes that the first thing to do is to “listen” to what consumers are posting on social networks. (Gabbert) Both men stress that this helps to provide insight into the characteristics of consumers as well as provide feedback for new product development.

The second part of the conversation is to respond authentically and quickly. Information posted to sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn need to be relevant to the reader and timely. In the book, Kerpen uses real-life examples and stresses the mantra: Think like the consumer.

Quick and Cheap Feedback

Many of the “analytics” of social networking sites give valuable information on how many people are following an organization, how many are interacting, and how many are buying. These indicate what things are working and what things are not. (Seymour) It is cheap and easy to set up surveys – public or private – on a social networking site. The main expense seems to be the need to monitor. Employees need to monitor social networking traffic or the company needs to outsource it. The organization needs to keep up its side of the conversation.

Which Community for What Function

Throughout the book, Kerpen tries to match each social network offering with its best marketing features. He is geared most heavily to Facebook  but outlines uses for Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and LinkedIn. He includes an appendix that does a fairly thorough job of explaining the best uses for each social networking site.

Making Fans into Promoters

One thing many social media marketing experts agree on is that an organization’s social networking fans are its best promoters.  Kerpen points out in his book that the like function in Facebook is basically one person’s endorsement to all his friends. Most Facebook users average 130 friends, so each like is a recommendation to 130 potential customers. The strength is in the connection with a known friend.

Kerpen cautions that any supporting post has to be authentic, and the poster’s relationship with the organization needs to be transparent. If a poster is receiving gifts or discounts for the post, that needs to be plainly stated. Deception is difficult to maintain on a social network and, if revealed, can do immediate and devastating damage to an organization’s reputation.

A Good Primer

Likeable Social Media is a good primer for anyone looking to enter the social networking marketing game.  However, Kerpen gives the impression that social networking is the ultimate path for marketing. He even states once or twice in the book that standard web sites no longer meet the needs of consumers.  I disagree with this (especially since Kerpen has a web site). I believe that social networking is a huge and important networking tool, but Kerpen doesn’t address some of its pitfalls. Although he does discuss complaints and negative comments in the book, he doesn’t really address privacy concerns.  When a person likes a site, does that make the user’s Facebook page open to the public? Are strict privacy settings bypassed?

While Kerpen stresses that social networking links need to be included in more conventional marketing instruments such as print brochures and television ads, he seems to dismiss these as outdated and facing extinction.  However, these often may be the introduction to a brand or product (or social networking site).

This book is a valuable tool giving  solid examples and outlining`essential processes for using social media for effective marketing.


Works Cited

Gabbert, Elisa. Interview with Social Media Expert Chris Brogan . The Wordstream Blog, 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 01 June 2013.

Seymour, Terri. Top 10 Social Media Marketing Tips for 2013. SiteProNews, 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 31 May 2013.

The Waves of Change

Underwood No. 5, in the collection of The Chil...
Underwood No. 5, in the collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Technology — it always seems to make our lives easier. We throw ourselves into new technologies without really thinking about their ramifications.

I have been around long enough to have seen a radical change in publication technology. Typewriters have been replaced by tablets; printing presses by servers. The internet has revolutionized almost every aspect of our lives. Most of these changes are for the good.

However, people often think that technology permits them to take shortcuts, to bypass the hard work needed to create excellence. This is most blatantly seen in writing. Ask any writer, and he will tell you that writing is tough. Excellent writing requires hard thinking, clear organization, careful revision, and leaps of faith. A good writer knows that, when he publishes something he wrote, he is making himself vulnerable.

Electronic media provides a wonderful outlet for expression. Unfortunately, many people equate the ease of expression with permission to print any thought. All anyone has to do is to read some of the Facebook posts of his 300 or so “friends.” There is such a thing a too much sharing. And real friendship takes time and effort, not just a few hastily written sentences on a social networking site.

The internet lets people participate in news stories by commenting. Yet so many of those comments show poor judgement and poor manners (not to mention poor language skills). There are rules to good reporting that electronic media tempt people to bypass. So many fall prey to this temptation. Rushing to get the story in a world of immediate information leads to mistakes in accuracy. (Can you say “Newtown”?) Skipping revision and copy editing of stories leads to confused readers and poor communication.

The worst pitfall of modern technology is our tendency to let the technology think for us. It’s so easy to just cut and paste something from some obscure web site and pass it off as something we wrote. It is easy to let bloggers and “news” sites tell us what we should think about an event. It’s too easy to just throw something together quickly without properly thinking it through. How many of us press that “post” button without first looking over what we have written?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to go back to the days of the typewriter. But back then, a writer had to really think about what he was saying before he started to type. At least the typewriter gave the writer time for proper thought and reflection.