A WORD, PLEASE:

In the first feature article I ever sold, I spelled the word “kowtow” with a C.

When the article came out in the paper, I saw the spelling had been changed.

That's when I realized my mistake — and was mortified.

Here I was trying to pass myself off as a professional writer, and I had accidentally exposed the truth. I was a fraud.

Writers know how to use words. I, clearly, did not. The jig was up.

Now I know better. To say that “writers know how to use words” is kind of like saying “AIG knows how to manage risk.” Laughably naïve.

Consider the following sentence — a real excerpt from an article I recently copy edited.

I changed the details to disguise it. This sentence came in the middle of a feature article about Lisa and Bob — two young people in love who had been separated by geography.

“After finishing school at Northern Idaho University where she majored in sociology, Bob's 'budget spreadsheets' sealed Lisa's parents' approval of her joining him in Florida to pursue her masters at Florida State University.”

Suddenly, a new writer's “cow-towing” doesn't seem so bad.

For those of you who see the problems in this sentence, don't start chanting “fire the writer” just yet.

I see this stuff all the time. You'd be amazed at how often paid professionals write clunkers like this.

In fairness to the writer, I should say that it's easier to identify such abominations of communication when you're editing than when you're writing.

Sometimes clunkers come of out me, too. I'm shocked when I look back over my work and see them. But, for everyone in the world who assumes that they're somehow “beneath” professional writers in their grasp of the language, this a good example of why they're not.

This sentence has a number of problems, most of them stemming from bad organization of information.

One particularly annoying problem is that this sentence contains the first and only reference in the whole article to the “budget spreadsheets.”

The reader can infer that, apparently, Bob had been crunching budget numbers to demonstrate to Lisa's parents that she could afford to come to Florida.

But, in my opinion, it's downright rude to foist that burden onto the reader. The writer should have taken a moment to explain the situation: “Lisa's parents thought they couldn't afford to send their daughter to Florida. But Bob, determined and in love, drew up an elaborate financial analysis to convince them otherwise.”

But that's not the biggest problem with this sentence. Far from it. There are plenty of others, but the biggest, arguably, is the colossal dangler created by the introductory phrase. “After finishing school at Northern Idaho University where she majored in sociology?.?.?.” Who finished school? Lisa. We know this because of the word “she.” Yet look at what comes next: “Bob's budget spreadsheets.”

The introductory phrase contains an action with no subject. “Finishing school.” Yes, there's a “she” in that sentence, but it's not positioned as the subject of that action. Look at a simpler example: “After eating the pie, Mike washed his plate.” Before the comma, there's no doer of the action. That's why the very next word should identify the subject. Who ate the pie? Mike did. Piece of cake.

But what if we wrote: “After eating the pie, Mike's plate was washed.” In this sentence, we are saying that it was not Mike who ate the pie. It was Mike's plate.

So in our original sentence, it was not Lisa who attended Idaho State. It was not Lisa who majored in sociology. Spreadsheets did all that.

So what's the moral of this story? You may not be a professional writer, but that doesn't mean you should cow-tow to someone who is.


?JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She may be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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