Is it true you should avoid adverbs?
Posted by June on June 6, 2022
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A lot of people go on and on about why writers should avoid adverbs. A lot of other people go on and on about how stupid the first group’s advice is, citing countless examples of adverbs used by the best writers. Often they cite examples of the anti-adverbs people using adverbs.

Who’s right? They both are. Who’s wrong? They both are. And the whole stupid argument occurs only because the anti-adverbs people overstated their case or the anti-anti-adverbs people took the other guys out of context.

When a writing teacher tells students to avoid adverbs, there’s a good reason. That teacher has seen how adverbs undermine amateur writers' work.

But taken too seriously, the “avoid adverbs” is silly. Adverbs exist for a reason.

Put every manner adverb to the “take it out” test. If, by taking the adverb out of the sentence, you lose nothing, keep it out. If, on the other hand, you lose some important bit of information, then by all means put the adverb back in.

Here are some real examples of one amateur writer’s adverbs that add nothing.

“Relentlessly, people began to pour out of the black mouth of the building.”

“Gus quickly grabbed his flamethrower.”

“Gus looked down at the small creature that had recently tried to end his life.”

“Gus watched the reflections from the city’s streetlights float across the windshield for several blocks before he finally spoke.”

“Jackson is currently president and CEO of Widgets, Inc.”

By deleting “relentlessly,” “quickly,” “recently,” “finally,” and “currently” from the above sentences, you lose nothing. In fact, the streamlined effect you get is actually a gain, giving the remaining words greater impact.

When you apply the "take it out" test, you benefit from the wisdom of both warring parties without falling into a stupid debate.

The couple is or the couple are?
Posted by June on May 30, 2022
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The couple is going to purchase the house? Or the couple are going to purchase the house? Even after all my years of editing, I can still get tripped up trying to make verbs agree with collective nouns like “couple,” “team” and “majority.”

Collective nouns are singular in form, “a team,” but refer to a group of two or more people or things. In other words, they’re singular and plural at the same time. And since verbs are supposed to agree in number with their subjects — one cat is, two cats are — the roughly 200 collective nouns in our language cause a lot of confusion.

Compare:

The family is gathering at the park. The family are all accountants.

The staff is well trained. The staff are experts in customer service.

The choir is excellent. The choir are arguing among themselves.

The majority is powerful. The majority are enrolled full time.

Sometimes collective nouns seem to make more sense as plurals, while other times they make more sense as singulars. When you’re trying to write grammatically, that seems like a problem. But it’s not, because the rule is: If you mean it as a plural, it’s plural. If you mean it as a singular, it’s singular.

In most cases, this hinges on whether the individuals in your collective are acting collectively — the orchestra is playing Tuesday — or they’re acting individually — the orchestra are tuning their instruments.

With collective nouns, consistency counts. Here's my recent column explaining how to master them.

'The couple is' or 'the couple are'? Collective nouns
Posted by June on May 23, 2022
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The couple is going to purchase the house? Or the couple are going to purchase the house? Even after all my years of editing, I can still get tripped up trying to make verbs agree with collective nouns like “couple,” “team” and “majority.”

Collective nouns are singular in form, “a team,” but refer to a group of two or more people or things. In other words, they’re singular and plural at the same time. And since verbs are supposed to agree in number with their subjects — one cat is, two cats are — the roughly 200 collective nouns in our language cause a lot of confusion.

Compare:

The family is gathering at the park.

The family are all accountants.

The staff is well-trained.

The staff are experts in customer service.

The choir is excellent.

The choir are arguing among themselves.

The majority is powerful.

The majority are enrolled full-time.

Sometimes collective nouns seem to make more sense as plurals, while other times they make more sense as singulars. When you’re trying to write grammatically, that seems like a problem. But it’s not, because the rule is: If you mean it as a plural, it’s plural. If you mean it as a singular, it’s singular.

In most cases, this hinges on whether the individuals in your collective are acting collectively — the orchestra is playing Tuesday — or they’re acting individually — the orchestra are tuning their instruments.

With collective nouns, consistency counts. “The main consideration in skillfully handling them is consistency in the use of a singular or plural verb,” writes Garner’s Modern American Usage. “If, in the beginning of an essay, the phrase is ‘the faculty was,’ then every reference to ‘faculty’ as a noun should be singular throughout the whole.”

Good advice in most cases, but this isn’t always practical. Here's everything you need to know in my recent column.

Avoiding clichés is harder than it sounds
Posted by June on May 16, 2022
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Any writing expert will tell you: If you want to get your message across, avoid clichés. The problem is, no one seems to know what, exactly, a cliché is. Is it an overused sentence like “The grass is always greener on the other side”? Is it a two-dimensional rendering like a mobster who wears a fedora or a private investigator who keeps a liquor bottle in his desk? Is it any needless phrase like “It is important to note that”? Can it be a single word, like “synergies”?

The answer isn’t clear, but the lesson is: If your words or descriptions are so overused that they’ve lost their impact, you should look for ways to rephrase them. Sometimes you won’t find a better alternative because that’s the nature of clichés: They get overused because they capture an idea or image exceptionally well. But if you make an effort to replace clichés, sometimes you’ll find a fresh new way of saying something that actually has an impact on your reader.

Every writing genre has its own clichés: fiction, journalism, marketing, business communications. So every list of clichés is different based on the list-maker’s own observations. My recent column looks at the following clichéd words and expressions: first and foremost, burst into tears, sweat profusely, bleed profusely, it’s a win-win, underscores our commitment, a perfect storm, think outside the box, decadent desserts, pop of color, break into a cold sweat, a bucolic setting.