Can you start a sentence with 'he,' 'she' or 'they'?
Posted by June on May 25, 2020
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“Good sentences don’t start with He/She/They.”

That’s a lesson that, according to a Twitter post, a teacher recently passed on to a child.

In context, the lesson seems a little less atrocious: The teacher was talking about the first sentence in a child’s answer to an essay question, meaning the child’s own writing hadn’t yet named an antecedent for the pronoun. In that case, maybe it’s a good idea to teach kids to use a full noun, like Joe, before you start referring to that noun with a pronoun, like “he.”

But that’s not what the teacher said, so the lesson a child would walk away with, carrying it with him for his lifetime, is that it’s bad to start a sentence with one of those pronouns.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that’s ridiculous. But to illustrate, I thought I’d take a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel off my bookshelf and see how well it lives up to this teacher’s high standards. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” which won the prize for fiction, has on its first page a sentence starting with “he.” On page two, four sentences start with “he.” On page three, seven sentences start with “he.” Another Pulitzer winner, Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys,” has its first sentence-commencing “he” on page one of chapter one, with lots more on subsequent pages.

So, no. It’s not true that good sentences can’t start with “he,” “she” or “they," as I explain fully in this recent column.

Navigating the gray areas in punctuation rules
Posted by June on May 18, 2020

Consider the following two sentences.

“Days are usually great, but, when they aren’t great, they still pass in 24 hours.”

“Every word should bring something to the table and, if it doesn’t, it should be chopped out.”

In both examples, a conjunction is connecting independent clauses. In the first, that conjunction is “but.” In the second, it’s “and.” But the “but” has a comma before it and the “and” does not. What, Liz wants to know, is the right way to handle these?

The rules for commas seem, at first glance, to be pretty clear. They state that when any of the coordinating conjunctions “and,” “but” or “so” connects two clauses that could stand alone as sentences, put a comma before the conjunction unless the whole sentence is short, simple and poses no danger of confusion. In other words, use a comma before the conjunction — or don’t.

That’s why both these sentences are punctuated correctly. It’s also why you could change your mind about both — removing the comma after “great” and inserting one after “table” — and still be correct.

Punctuation rules are full of gray areas where you can call the shots. Here are some more thoughts on navigating these gray areas.

Coronavirus Slang
Posted by June on May 11, 2020
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Are you enjoying your coronacation? Or is it making you coronalusional? Are you surrounded by covidiots? Do you go to the opposite extreme by hamsterkaufing every scrap of food you get your hands on?

Either way, your experience is being captured by a slew of new coronavirus slang terms. The U.K.'s Daily Mail newspaper recently published a list of Covid-inspired expressions popping up in the language. Like a lot of reporting about language, take this with a grain of salt. It may have more to do with a news outlet eager to publish a fun story about new words than having a meaningful impact on the language. But who knows whether any or all of them could catch on?

Here they are.

Coronacation — forced time off work due to the virus

Coronalusional — having delusional or strange thoughts due to pandemic

Covidiot — someone disobeying lockdown or self-isolation rules

Covid-19(lbs) — weight gained during lockdown

Corona Bae — the partner you are quarantining with

Drivecation — holiday in parked motorhome

Hamsterkaufing — stockpiling food like a hamster (German)

Iso — isolation (Australian)

Isobar — fridge well-stocked with alcohol to get through the pandemic

Isodesk — home workplace

Miley Cyrus — coronavirus

Morona — person behaving moronically during the pandemic

Post-rona - when the pandemic is over

The rona - another word for coronavirus (Australian)

Quarantine and chill - chilling at home during the pandemic

Em and Em: Dashes Two Ways
Posted by June on May 4, 2020


I've been seeing a lot of double-hyphens used as em dashes lately -- like this. That's okay in a pinch, but a real computer-generated em dash — like this — looks more professional. On a Mac computer, make one by holding down the Shift and Option keys they hitting the minus sign. On a PC, hold down Control and Alt then hit the minus sign. You can also set your computer's autocorrect to change double hyphens to em dashes, too.

If you want to emulate the style used by most news media, Associated Press style, put a space on either side of the dash — like this. If you want your writing to look more like it was published in a book, follow the Chicago Manual of Style and omit the spaces—like this.