Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: grammar

Writng tips #2: 10 tips for writing more simply

[I have borrowed, translated and adapted these tips from a French website. That explains the references to French authors, in case you were wondering. These tips are intended for use in writing for the web, but would be useful in many other types of writing as well.]


1. Thou shalt write short sentences.

You are not Proust! So do not write sentences of more than one or two lines. If you hesitate between several constructions, always choose the one with the fewest words. Your texts will be more rhythmic.

Tip: exchange semicolons for periods.

2. Thou shalt limit thyself to subject, verb and object.

The subject + verb + object scheme is the simplest grammatically. It is instantly recognizable and understandable to the reader. So avoid complex grammatical constructions, subordinate clauses, interpolations and parentheses within the same sentence.

Tip: turn most subordinate clauses into independent sentences.

3. Thou shalt write one idea per sentence.

One idea per sentence, one point per paragraph, one subject per article. Don’t try to say everything at once, at the risk of drowning your reader. Prioritize your ideas and start with the most important.

Tip: If your article is too long, divide it into several articles grouped by folder or series.

4. Thou shalt simplify thy vocabulary.

You do not write to amuse yourself but to make yourself understood. Don’t try to dazzle your readers with exotic words or literary style. Favour simple words known to all.

Tip: use only words that you know how to spell.

5. Thous shalt translate jargon.

You don’t need to eliminate all trade or professional jargon, but ensure the first occurrence of such a word is translated into plain English, including all acronyms and words from other languages. Not only will your readers thank you, but it will be easier for search engines to find your page because you will broaden your semantic field.

Tip: imagine you are writing for your grandmother.

6. Thou shalt avoid negations.

It is forbidden to forbid! It is not always easy (as in this article which intends to be educational), but avoid negative terms as much as possible. Opt instead for positive constructions, more involving and more direct. Flee double negatives that need to be read twice to get the meaning.

Tip: always replace “do not hesitate to do this” with “do this”!

7. Thou shalt avoid the passive voice.

Better to write “The cat eats the mouse” than “the mouse is eaten by the cat.” Not only does the passive use more words than the active form (7 words against 5), but it is also more complex to analyse. Therefore reverse passive sentences, transforming the object into subject.

Tip: choose action verbs like create, produce, decide, etc.

8. Thou shalt avoid adjectives and adverbs.

“Journalists (…) who want to use an adjective come see me in my office. Those who will use an adverb will be shown out the door,”wrote Georges Clemenceau in a memo while he was editor of L’Aurore. Years have passed, the media have changed, but the counsel remains valid.

Tip: first remove all useless instances of “true” and “genuine” from your texts.

9. Thou shalt avoid the subjunctive.

Avoid the subjunctive: limit yourself to the indicative. Also avoid the tenses we learned at school like the pluperfect, future anterior, etc. Try to stick to the present, the past, the imperfect, the future and the imperative.

Tip: use the infinitive as much as possible.

10. Thou shalt read thy article out loud.

Proofread your text carefully before publishing it. Locate the long sentences, overly complex constructions, etc. Check that you have applied all the above rules.

Tip: re-read aloud to identify difficult to read sentences. Flaubert called it the gueuloir test, you will see, it works!

(I presume Gueuloir was Flaubert’s invention; it’s not found in any dictionary. Gueuler means to speak very loudly, to yell.)

If you read French, the original article is found at:

Writing tips #1: Say what you mean

Writing carries a message by telling something to someone who isn’t handy for conversation. That seems simple enough, but the simplicity is deceptive. Start putting the message on paper, and trouble is looking over your shoulder with every word. You know what you want to say; you could say it in conversation with little difficulty. But sit down to write and a shade seems to descend over the brain. Nothing comes out. Or, if something does come out, it’s in a peculiar form which bears little resemblance to what you would say if you were speaking to someone.

Most of us, when we write, want to be stiff and formal, to use bigger words than are necessary, or even desirable. Somewhere in our education and upbringing we got the idea that writing must be formal. Given that unnatural starting point, we take it a step further and don’t settle for mere formality. We become unclear and ambiguous. All sorts of strange things come out of the typewriter, almost as though some other personality had taken over.

There’s no magic rule that will solve the problem. Rules and formulas aren’t the answer. That isn’t to say there are no rules. The ones that tell us what’s good grammar and what isn’t are still around. But if your approach to writing is to look for rules that will save you the trouble of thinking your way out of a corner, you won’t get far. There is, however, one “rule”that you should always keep in mind. Say what you mean. And say it in the most direct, natural way you can.

– Bill Cameron, A Way With Words, © 1979 by Bill Cameron, published by Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon, Sask.

It takes a village to raise a book

The difference between a bad writer and a good writer is that a good writer knows he needs help. Publishers used to have people on staff to provide that help. Not anymore. We are on our own. Yet we dare not trust to our own evaluation of how good our writing is.

There are three stages of editing and we need other people’s eyes and brains at each step.The first stage is substantive editing. Definitions vary somewhat, but you need someone to do a thorough review and give an honest evaluation of the whole story, whether its fiction, history, devotional, doctrinal or whatever. Are there holes in the story line? Is there missing information? Is there information that does not belong in this story? Is it interesting? Do you lose your way half way through and wind up going in a different direction? Word usage, sentence structure, grammar should all be analyzed.

After we get over the shock of this first evaluation and get up enough courage to make the changes needed, we then need copy editing. This will include things like checking grammar and spelling and may involve rearranging some text, finding overused words, eliminating unnecessary words, suggesting stronger or clearer words. It is a good idea to check that your characters’ names are spelled the same way throughout the book.

The final stage is proofreading. This is the last run through the proofs before the book is printed, to ensure that all needed changes have been made and no new errors have inadvertently crept in.

A professional editor can make the difference between a book that seems like it could have been rally interesting, and one that really is interesting. Gathering a circle of friends ho are knowledgeable and honest enough to tell you what needs to be done will make the job of a professional editor much easier, and hopefully less costly.

This is where the village idea comes in. You need first readers who will read your raw manuscript, tell you whether it has possibilities and suggest what they think needs to be improved. Ask as many people as you can and consider what they are seeing in your book and what you want people who buy your book to see.

After rewriting and polishing your manuscript to the best of your ability, you need beta readers. Not just your close family and friends who will tell you what a lovely book it is. You want people who will point out every last flaw that they can find. Trust me, you do. Better those things should be found now than when the book is in print and being sold.

Finally, you need final readers. People who have not read the manuscript before, so that those pesky little mistakes that you and all the others have missed will pop out at them.

And then when the book is being sold, some reader will notice an obvious mistake that slipped by everyone else. It’s embarrassing, but it happens to the best of writers. The more people you have helping you along the way, and truly trying to help, the more confidence you can have that you have done your best.

The Editorial Burden That Weighs on the Author

This is the title of an excellent article on the need for editing, posted today by C.S. Lakin.  Every aspiring writer should take this seriously, including myself.  We have a natural tendency to be blind to the flaws in our own writing. You will find the article here.

Peace and joy in the subjunctive mood

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, is one of the oldest English Christmas carols, going back at least 500 years.  Not many people sing it today because of scruples about “Ye Merry Gentlemen.”  Those words conjure up a picture of old English gentlemen at their ease, their merriment fuelled by great flagons of wine.

Except that is not what the words mean.  For starters, there should be a comma between “Merry” and “Gentlemen.”  I left it out in the first paragraph for the sake of making the point that most people are not aware that it is there.

One of the gifts my wife received this Christmas was a book recounting the histories of popular English Christmas songs.  In telling the history of God Rest Ye Merry, the writer spends much time expounding on the original meanings of rest and merry (peace and joy), he even mentions the comma, yet completely misses the fact that these words are in the subjunctive mood.  The writer is American, I would like to think that an English writer (i.e., one from England) would have done better, but I’m not sure if they teach grammar any better than Americans do.

Finding a grammar book that has much to say about the subjunctive mood is difficult.  Mostly they say that it doesn’t really exist in English anymore.  Yet it does; the text book writers are just trying to weasel out of trying to explain it.

So I am going to bravely attempt to go where the text book writers dare not go.  First off, let’s deal with that word “mood.”  It has nothing to do with a person’s emotional state; if it were written “mode,” as it is in French, and should be in English, we wouldn’t have nearly as much trouble understanding it.  The indicative mood describes actions that are really happening, have happened or will happen.  The subjunctive mood describes actions that one wishes would happen.  It deals with possibility and non-reality – not in the sense of fantasy, but in the sense that we don’t know if the thing spoken of is happening or will happen.

Phrases in the subjunctive mood usually begin with “may” or “let,” though sometimes these words are omitted.  When we say to someone, “(May) God bless you,” we are not stating that we know it to be a fact that God is blessing, or will bless, the person to whom we are speaking, we are saying that we wish for it to be so.  Likewise, all the common greetings in English are in the subjunctive mood: Happy Birthday; Merry Christmas; Happy New Year; hello; good-bye.  Good-bye is a contraction of “(May) God be with ye,” in which the subjunctive construction is clear.

The subjunctive mood is often used in prayers.  Commanding God to do what we wish is not proper, but expressing our desires for our own needs and the needs of others is entirely appropriate.  The Lord’s Prayer begins with three subjunctive phrases: “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Another way of detecting the subjunctive mood is the use of an unexpected form of the verb.  “Be” and “were” are often found in subjunctive phrases: “It is required that applicants be over eighteen,” “If I were in your shoes. . . .”
The subjunctive is used in formal forms of speech: “I move that nominations cease.”  Some common expressions use the subjunctive: “Come what may;” “Be that as it may;” “As it were;” “If only he were here.”

We can misunderstand some Bible verses if we do not recognize the subjunctive.  The apostle Paul told Timothy, “Let no man despise thy youth” (1 Timothy 4:12).  He is not telling Timothy to take forcible measures against anyone who would not show him proper respect, but expressing his desire that Timothy would not encounter any opposition because of his young age.

James 6:14 is another: “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”  The “let” in this verse is not an expression of permission but an urgent wish that the sick person would ask the elders to pray for him.  The preceding verses echo this form of speech: “let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay” (verse 12, this is pretty much a command); and “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (verse 13).

A recent Sunday School lesson ended with these words: “May we find life in believing God’s plan for our salvation, sustenance, and security.”  I’m not sure if the person writing this knew it was subjunctive, yet the form is familiar enough that he used it correctly.

Going back to “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “rest” could be replaced by “peace” and “merry” by “joy” and the words rephrased to “May peace and joy be unto ye, gentlemen.”  That is still subjunctive, though much less poetic, but perhaps more understandable to modern ears.  Perhaps if we better understood the words we could sing the song next Christmas.

Things they didn’t teach us in school: W is a vowel

Most of the time w is used as a vowel.  They didn’t teach me this in school; I’m not sure it’s being taught in school even now.  Consider the following:

Fawn / faun:  aw has exactly the same sound as au.  Can you think of any words in which aw is not a vowel sound?

Blew / blueew has exactly the same sound as ue.  I can’t think of many words in which ew does not have this sound.  Ewe (pronounced you) would be one exception.

Flow / floe: same thing, ow in this and many other words has the same sound as oe, or oa.

Town / mound: in another group of  words ow has the same sound as ou.

In all of these instances, w functions as a vowel.  But what about when w is used at the beginning of a word?

In French, the w sound at the beginning of a word is represented by ou, as in ouest, the French form of west, pronounced the same way.  W is not found in any native French words, but is used in words imported from other languages.  This w or ou sound at the beginning of a word is called a semi-consonant in French.  In English it is called a semi-vowel.

In some cases the w at the beginning of words imported into French  is sounded like a w in English, in other words it is given a v sound.  Wagon is the word used in French for a rail car and is pronounced vagon.

You see, in English we call W a double-u and use it as a vowel or semi-vowel.  In French it is called a double-v and is considered to be a consonant or a semi-consonant.

One of the first things I was taught in school was that the vowels are a e i o u and sometimes y.  This is correct, as far as it goes.  Why didn’t they tell me that w is used as a vowel as least as often as y?

Why didn’t I figure it out for myself before I got into my sixties?

Public Schools: mediocrity is the goal

There was a time, about 120 years ago, when almost everyone in Canada could read and write well, could do the math calculations needed in their daily life and work, often without pencil and paper, knew a good bit about world history and understood how governments worked.  It is not that way today.  It is said that a student finishing Grade 5 then knew as much, or more, than a student finishing Grade 8  today; a Grade 8 graduate then knew as much as a high school graduate today and a high school graduate then as much as a university graduate today.  How did this happen?

When I started school 65 years ago, the schools had already made the switch from teaching phonics to teaching sight reading – the Dick and Jane books.  i had been reading for a couple of years already, so this didn’t hold me back, but many others struggled.  My first few years were in a one room school, where a young single lady taught a group of 30 children in 8 grades – and she taught us well; those were the best years of my school life.

We moved to a larger town and now there were two grades to a classroom.  The teachers, most of them at least, were still very capable and maintained order in the classroom.  There was very thorough teaching in math, spelling and grammar, we were exposed to samples of the great English literature of the past, both prose and poetry.  I had skipped forward a grade at the beginning and could have gone faster, but my parents didn’t think that was wise.  So I read every book in the school library.

My parents were from an earlier era and believed that education meant that I should actually learn something.  My mother was always involved, helping me memorize math facts and encouraging me in any way she could.  She always got to know my teachers and invited each one over for at least one meal during the school term.   I understood that she wanted the teacher to feel free to talk to her if I was having any trouble in school – or making trouble!

The idea was already being circulated back then that parents didn’t know how to properly teach their children and should just leave education to the experts: the teachers.  It appeared to me that my mother was pretty much immune to that kind of thinking.

In the ensuing years, textbooks and teaching methods have been changed many times, following each new wind of doctrine about how children learn.  None of this works as well as the old-fashioned methods, but it has the great advantage, from the school’s vantage point, of cutting parents out of the picture.  They just don’t understand the new methods of teaching.  The children don’t either, but that’s beside the point.

Schools have become bigger and bigger and children have to travel further and further to get to school.   Many parents have little idea who is teaching their children.  This also serves to insulate the schools from parental influence.

Martin L Gross, in The Conspiracy of Ignorance – The Failure of American Public Schools, explains that a Bachelor of Education degree is the easiest of all degrees to obtain.  It consists of nothing but a bunch of pop psychology courses.  Aspiring teachers are  taught nothing about the subjects they are to teach, or how to teach them.

When one studies the origins of public schools, it becomes evident that the present situation is what was envisioned from the beginning.  The goal is not to educate children to think for themselves, but to indoctrinate them in the anti-family, anti-Christian agenda of those who consider themselves the elite thinkers.  Back in the days when most parents thought like mine did, they had to advance their program very slowly behind the scenes.  It is all much more open today.

I will return to this topic in future posts, but I want to mention two anti-family teachings that have become pretty much ingrained in the national culture.

One is that parents aren’t competent to teach.  Yet a national study a few years ago showed that home-schooled children scored much higher on standardized tests than children in public schools.  And it didn’t make any difference if the parents hadn’t completed high school or if they had a university degree or two.

The other is that children have to go to school with children their own age to learn how to get along with others.  Can’t parents see the evidence all around them that this is not working?  Children in years past had much better social skills when they learned them from their parents.

No-fault schooling

A friend told me how he had applied for a job as a technician at a chemical plant, claiming diplomas that he did not have.  When he got the job, he spent the weekend cramming with chemical textbooks, started work on Monday and quickly became an expert technician.  After a number of months, he told his boss what he had done and the boss said, “You did the right thing.”  This incident happened in Europe, but I’m sure the same thing happens here in North America.

What!  Don’t credentials matter?  Well, a recent news story out of Toronto indicates that credentials may not mean as much as we thought.  I knew that there were people out there who would write essays for students, for a fee.  One such person, who has an MBA, has even done entire online degree courses for some students.  They give him their online password and he does everything for them.  The student winds up with a degree without having learned anything.  I’m not sure what the point is.

Kate Tennier, writing in the National Post a couple of years ago, made this observation:

“What the system promises is not an education, but a product — a graduation certificate or academic credential — which is then mistakenly taken as proof of actual education.  Only when we remove the emphasis on this scholastic “exit token” will real and sustained learning occur.” *

About twenty years ago, I was taking a part-time French as a Second Language course at Concordia University in Montreal.  Another student in the class was a young man with a university degree in archeology.  When our teacher taught about direct objects and indirect objects, he could not grasp what she was talking about.  English was his mother tongue, he had gone all the way through elementary school, secondary school and university and he still had no real comprehension of English grammar.  Therefore he was unable to get very far in learning French and eventually dropped out.

My friend in the example cited at the beginning, lacked the credentials but was willing to apply himself to learning everything he needed to do the job he was hired for.  That was more valuable to his employer than a piece of paper of doubtful value.

*  Kate Tennier: Stop obsessing over credentials
Posted: November 19, 2009, 9:00 AM by NP Editor
Kate Tennier, No-Fault Schooling

Illiteracy in Elementary and Secondary Schools

[The decline in the public education system did not begin yesterday. These paragraphs are excerpted from a book published almost 60 years ago. The difference today is that most people accept this as normal – they don’t remember a time when things were different.]

Is it possible that this timidity, this excessive appeal to “interest”, this consequent concern with the modern, the familiar and the simple in theory, combined with a multiplication of methods and techniques, is responsible for the well-known fact that up to the end of the intermediate or junior high school stage many Canadian pupils cannot read?  This is not a wild accusation.  It is based on statements in the programmes of study, all of which deal with the problem of remedial reading at every stage, some of them at considerable length.  Moreover, teachers in social studies and mathematics are warned that difficulties may arise from their pupils being unable to read.  One high school mathematics teacher asserts that this is literally true, and that pupils need help in deriving any meaning from problems expressed in perfectly grammatical and unambiguous English.  Programmes of study warn teachers to beware of this, to adopt remedial measures, and to guard pupils (aged thirteen to sixteen) against perils like “absolute owner” and “toll bridge” – children, by the way, who have received years of instruction in “dictionary skills.”  It is not suggested that if they can derive no meaning, either from the context or from the dictionary, they should not be in even a junior high school.  It is never suggested that there should be a pons asinorum over which non-readers may not pass.  It is simply assumed that many secondary school boys and girls cannot read.

To this frank admission of the schools that many of their senior pupils cannot read must be added the very frank accusations of universities and other institutions that too many secondary school “graduates” cannot write.  The matter has been much discussed, particularly in those universities which are compelled to introduce remedial English courses – from which it must be admitted students emerge still with a very feeble paragraph sense.  It is not easy to begin to teach things that should have been learned ten years earlier, and the student who has spent the years in poised if not polished oral composition undoubtedly lacks motivation for wrestling with the written word.  A recent comment on this matter comes from the University of Toronto, where, it is reported, the president, deans and professors join with becoming modesty that when the students fail in engineering and other examinations because they cannot write English, the fault undoubtedly rests with the university.  There is, in fact, just the faintest hint that some professors at this university cannot speak English.  Can these professors be the products of Ontario’s progressive schools?

– from So little for the Mind, by Hilda Neatby, Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan,  copyright 1953.

What is this world coming to?

In the home where I grew up there was a marvellous old gramophone and a hundred or more cylinders with recorded music.  The gramophone consisted of a well crafted wooden case with a crank on the side that provided the power to turn a spindle under the lid.  To play, I would first wind it up, then put one of the cylinders on the spindle, turn on the switch and set the head with the needle at the beginning of the grooves on the cylinder.  That was it, no electricity or batteries needed.  After playing a few recorded cylinders, the music would start to slow down and I had to wind it up again.

I think the gramophone must have originally belonged to my grandparents.  The music was all from an earlier era, but somehow it was more interesting to play music on this old machine than to play modern 78’s on my modern record player.  One of my favourite cylinders wasn’t music at all.  It was entitled “Uncle Josh buys an automobile” and told the story of how Uncle Josh had finally decided to buy one of these newfangled contraptions called an automobile.  He got the motor started and the automobile started to move, but Uncle Josh didn’t know how to control it without reins and it didn’t respond to Gee or Haw or Whoa.  The automobile left the road, went through the ditch, then a fence and finally came to rest in a pasture.  I haven’t heard it for 50 years and it was a lot funnier than I can tell it.

I wonder how many of my readers even remember 78 rpm records?  The recording industry progressed from those cylinders to 78 rpm, 45 rpm and 33 rpm LP records, then to tape and CD’s and then to mp3.

In the meantime, the written language seems to have regressed back to an era just after the phonetic alphabet first came into use and before the invention of the dictionary.  Even newspapers often use a word that sounds something like the word they want to use, but means something entirely different.  They appear to believe that real human proofreaders are no longer needed now that they have spell check software, except that spell check software empowers the confusion I just described.

Then there is texting.  In my mind, texting is just as tinny sounding as that old Edison gramophone.  I emailed a business recently to enquire about one of their products.  The business emailed back in text language.  Do I really want to do business with someone who can’t write real words in complete sentences?

A young acquaintance told of trying to help her nine-year-old niece with an essay for school.  She discovered that her niece did not have a clue about spelling.  She apparently had never seen you and are spelled in their normal English form.  All she knew was u r.

This raises a whole bunch of worrying questions.  Why does a nine-year-old girl have her own cell phone in the first place?  What were her parents thinking when they bought her that phone?  What are they actually teaching in schools these days?  Is there any hope for this generation of children?

I guess there have always been old fogeys like me worrying what the younger generation is coming to.  My parents did, too.  I realized later that I could have learned some useful things a lot sooner if I had listened to my parents.  But they were just too old-fashioned.

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