Jan 29

Not the greatest of e’s

It puzzles me to hear the odd way people sometimes pronounce the word “processes.” They say “processees,” as if it were the name of a Greek hero, mighty Processes, friend of Hercules and Achilles, slayer of Parentheses and Apostrophes.

There are, of course, words that come from Greek and do make their plurals with “ees” sounds, “Parenthesis” is actually one of them; one parenthesis, two parentheses; one axis, two axes; one crisis, two crises.

But “process” isn’t from Greek. It’s from Latin. The singular isn’t “processis,” so there’s no earthly reason to pronounce the plural “processees,” any more than you’d pronounce the plural of “box” “boxees,” or the plural of “dress” “dressees.”

People do the same thing to the word “biases” sometimes, pronouncing the plural “biasees.” “Bias” isn’t Greek either, so don’t try to give it ouzo. There are enough weird plural formations in our magpie fusion language–remind me to straighten out the whole criterion/criteria issue sometime–without making a simple one all fancy and exotic.

Jan 22

Learn from others’ mistakes

It’s not difficult to find online examples of spelling, grammar and usage fails that have been run up the flagpole for mockery like somebody’s polka-dot underpants. To some, this seems mean; let’s face it, even the most verbally careful and precise of us has hastily, furiously or drunkenly dashed off a note or blog post that would have been much more impressive if it had been proofread. Let him who is without sin cast teh first stone, yeah?

But if you’re not a grammar gold-medalist, don’t sheepishly avoid those notable fails; you should be seeking them out so you can learn from them. Know your enemy! Understanding how people get things wrong helps in understanding how to get them right. Plus, some of the really spectacular blunders change the intended meaning in hilarious ways. It’s the “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” syndrome. (Shout-out to any zombies reading this.)

Twitter fans may be interested in this roundup of 5 Twitter Accounts That Make English Grammar Interesting. I happen to think grammar is already interesting, but I live a sheltered life.

Jan 15

To learn how something works, take it apart

As an adolescent, I learned to diagram sentences. People that age rarely know what that means anymore.

When you diagram a sentence, you create a kind of map of it, like a wiring diagram or a flow chart, that illustrates exactly how all the words in that sentence relate to each other and what roles they play. I guess you could also say it’s like a family tree, with lines connecting related people so that you can see that Jennifer is William’s sister, and Deborah is Jenny and Will’s mom, and she’s married to Roger, who has six brothers named after the planets (so Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Pluto, and Roger), so Jenny and Will are the cousins of Pluto’s daughters Saskia and Eunice. Family relationships can be confusing when verbally described, especially when people of different generations have the same names (how many Neptune Nesbits must there be before someone admits to a mistake?), but a diagram makes the relationships clearer.

And this is exactly what diagramming a sentence does. It flags the noun that is the subject of the sentence, the verb that is the predicate, and hangs all the modifiers off them like ornaments on a Christmas tree so that you see immediately that the subject-verb agreement in this dependent clause has gone awry and needs to be fixed, or that this adjective has wandered too close to something it doesn’t modify, or Eunice and Will Nesbit should not be permitted to date.

This excellent piece from Newsday makes the case for reimposing this tedious and aggravating but immensely instructive exercise on the nation’s young people, not instead of encouraging creativity but along with it.

Not every child is going to become a creative writer, but all of them will become adults who probably will need to write a cover letter, a memo, an essay, a love note or a legal argument. They will need to know how to express their thoughts in understandable ways, and to do that, they’ll need to know where to place commas.

Hear, hear! Whether or not you write novels, essays, or poetry, pretty much everyone is called upon to write a cover letter, a performance review, an online dating profile, or an email to a stranger. A few years’ hard labor diagramming sentences when you are young and resilient and likely to survive the experience gives you a lot more confidence in your written communication skills for the rest of your life. So … it’s a life sentence. OK, I’ll stop.

Jul 04

A new revolution: The singular they

One of the active fronts in grammar currently is the growing acceptance–or even requirement, in some cases–of the word “they” to refer to a person of unknown or possibly nonbinary gender. Newspapers and other publishers are struggling to come up with a policy or style about this, while strict-constructionist grammarians shriek with horror and fumble for their smelling salts. Merriam-Webster has recently gone a few rounds on Twitter about it.

The language evolves and changes in response to what its speakers need it to do, and frankly, the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun other than “it,” which is unacceptable to apply to a human being, has always been a design flaw. As a longtime copy editor, I did a lot of surgery on prose over the decades to write around writers’ singular theys, resorting to the cumbersome “he or she” or “him or her” when absolutely necessary. But in a society rapidly moving being the confines of binary gender categories, the language really needs to be able to embrace such developments more efficiently.

Back when “they” was laziness, I fought it tooth and nail. But when a real need arises, words must be created or repurposed to meet it. (And let’s face it, as odd as “If any student wishes to be excused from the field trip to the box factory, they may ask Mr. Walters” sounds to sticklers like me, entirely made-up new words like “hem” or “hir” or “blerg,” or whatever, sound a whole lot weirder.)

Jun 12

Online daters: Grammar is even sexier than your smile!

It’s official, according to a survey by Match.com: Online daters judge potential partners most by their hygiene (and, let’s face it, rightly so) and second by their grammar.

…good grammar rated more important than a partner’s confidence or their teeth.

This is huge. Whitening costs money; diagramming sentences is a free and delightful hobby. OK, it’s free. But if you’re looking for a partner and have already washed behind your ears, maybe your next step should be polishing your grammar rather than your pearlies. I can help.


Jun 14

The wrap-up on THREAD

Emily Bazelon at Mory's

THREAD coordinator Mark Oppenheimer interviews Emily Bazelon at Mory’s.

So much was packed into the four days of THREAD at Yale, I feel like I’m still processing it even though it started a week ago tonight. I came home with a head full of ideas and pages and pages of notes—notes I’m actually going to refer back to, unlike most of the notes I’ve taken at conferences. Writing about it is slightly complicated by the pledge we took not to quote anyone, lest someone’s offhand joking remark end up getting flung around the interwebs like … well, like a cringeworthy remark about girls in labs. Or, for dog lovers, Labs in science. Or whatever it was.

I’m pretty sure the presenters would be OK with my quoting their presentations, because those were considered remarks made on purpose to a large audience, but ultimately, these are people I respect a great deal and I don’t want no trouble. The last thing I want to do is piss off somebody at NPR or wherever. So I’ll talk in a paraphrasey way about some of the presentations. Which seems slightly weird but is one way to share nuggets of wisdom without breaking the pledge.

Glynn Washington, “Snap Judgment”

As a guy who kind of fought his way in through a window at NPR with his show, he talked about the standard story structure Ira Glass (a giant, rightfully, who casts a very long shadow) has instituted at “This American Life” and how he has chosen to deviate from it. The typical “TAL” story tends to start with some exposition, then take a step back for a little analysis, then get to the meat of the story, then pause for more analysis, then bring the story to its climax, then wrap up with the story’s resolution and final analysis.

But Washington doesn’t like to see a story broken up with analysis or expert opinion. His approach is less journalistic (we’ve all seen the journo story style where you meet Jane Doe, poster girl for Trend X, sample her life, then hear that “According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Research, from 2010 to 2014 there was a 54% increase in the number of people like Jane Doe participating in Trend X”), more intuitive (the way you tell stories in real life, without access to expert analysis), and possibly more viscerally engaging as a result.

Human beings are meaning machines—we look for meaning in everything. And we like to find ourselves in stories told by other people. As a storyteller, you capture your audience not by being clever and cinematic but by investing yourself in the emotional core of the story. Why bother telling a story that doesn’t have emotional impact for YOU—how can you possibly expect your audience to care if you don’t? If the story isn’t powerful, isn’t working, isn’t going for the gut, the solution is to dig deeper. Be more honest about what you felt, and what truly motivated you. When you confess that stuff, unflattering as it may be, your audience recognizes themselves.

And a way to reward their investment in your story (and yours, amazingly) is to choose your ending wisely. When telling a real-life personal story, obviously, you can’t rewrite history and pick the “best” ending. You have no control now about how things happened. But what you do have control over is where on the story’s timeline you choose to cut the thread. Most stories contain a moment of trauma, physical or emotional, severe and serious or minor and comic. The top tip here is this: DON’T END WITH THE TRAUMA. Choose an ending that shows what you became (how you grew, what you learned, how you moved on) after the trauma; cut the thread somewhere beyond that terrible knot. When you do that, you take control of that story and change the meaning of it, for both your listeners and yourself.

That might be something to remember for ALL your stories, even the ones you only tell your close friends, and even the ones you only tell yourself. Maybe it’s most important for the ones you only tell yourself.

Washington left us with a valuable piece of career advice: Don’t bother trying to get yourself on the radio. Do what he did: podcast. Find a tribe. Go on transom.org, produce it with Garage Band or some other off-the-shelf software, and just focus on drawing your tribe to you with your content. That’s how he started, and listen to what he does now.

Steven Brill, author, teacher, überjournalist

Brill went old-school on us, reminding us to do our homework. As an old newsie, I can tell you it’s true. When you do serious writing about the world, you have to do the work. The research. You have to amass a lot of background information that may never make it into the story to give it texture. If you’re making a movie, you shoot zillions of takes that will never see the light of day, whole scenes that will end up getting cut. Reporting a story works the same way, and there are no shortcuts if you want to maintain quality and not make an ass of yourself or get sued. Bob Woodward apparently tells journalism students that when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts shoeleather reporting, “You gotta do that shit.” And, you know, he would know.

Nebulous attributions like “sources say” or “the mayor’s office announced” are lazy and detract from the story. Don’t quote buildings or ascribe actions to faceless groups. Stories are about people. People. And when you interview people, ON THE RECORD, the best way to do it is in person. Always. Failing that, the next-best way is by phone. Avoid email interviews. The more distanced you are from your sources, the more distanced you are from the story, and that’s bad at best and dangerous at worst. Because you need to be on top of it to feel and convey that the story has a point, and what that point is. If you’re putting that much work into it, it damn well better have a point—one that you can get across to your audience and that they will care about.

Brill’s career advice: Be curious. The best thing you can be is curious. It finds stories, pulls you through the work, and keeps your audience.

Steve Brodner, cartoonist, illustrator, historian

I’m not a visual storyteller, myself, but Brodner was a tremendously engaging speaker, his artwork is brilliant, and he did say some kind of universal things about finding the essence of the story you’re telling and the point you’re making, the “single beautiful line” that takes your audience economically and elegantly to your meaning. Writers shouldn’t clutter their pages any more than artists should.

As an illustration of this point, he cited Norman Rockwell. Now, say what you will about Norman Rockwell, and whatever you think of him, he was a master of not wasting space. Absolutely every element in his illustrations—every teacup, bird, furrowed brow, crumpled paper—serves a purpose and is part of the story. Every word, every bit of dialogue, every description in a written story should be doing a job also. Nothing should be an empty flourish. Your audience’s time is valuable.


May 18

The kicking and screaming will subside soon. Yeah, I’m on Twitter.

If you follow me, I promise I won’t barrage your feed with a lot of nonsense. Just a little bit of nonsense. Seriously, I have one follower and bless her, I don’t know who she is. (I am creeped out by having to say I have followers. Follower. I am not running a cult.) @4sambennett

May 17

I’m going back to Yale for THREAD!

THREAD at Yale is a gathering of writers to explore narrative journalism (a k a storytelling) in all its various, evolving modern forms and media–and I’ve been accepted to attend! I couldn’t be more excited to be part of the inaugural group, and I hope there will be many more over the coming years, because it sounds really fascinating.

Jan 26

A new place to find everything Sam

Hi, I’m humorist and former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Samantha Bennett, and this is my website.

While it’s still got that new-website smell, I may be a bit cautious and irregular about posting to it. I beg your patience. I am an advocate for good grammar, punctuation and usage — as long as none of that gets in the way of clear communication — and I’m still learning how to fly this thing.

The one promise I can make is that there will be worthwhile stuff here, appearing and growing over the coming weeks and months. By, say, the end of the summer, it will be full of content-y goodness. Think of it as a garden, with verbiage instead of foliage, and right now it’s spring. I’ll build some beds, buy a few bags of stuff at the garden center, wear heavy gloves and clogs and a big hat, complain about aphids … I don’t really know what I’m talking about with this metaphor. I have a black thumb. I promise I won’t post anything about gardening. That’s two promises.

I’ll post about writing and grammar and telling stories. I do know about those things.

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