Myths We Learned in Grade School English: The Book!

On The Writer’s Toolbox, I had written a series of blog articles on a matter that I called the Myths We Learned in Grade School English. As its title implies, this series of blog articles attempted to introduce, explain, and debunk writing myths that many people are taught as children by well meaning teachers.

For example, the prohibition “Do not use contractions in serious writing” is one such rule that most “serious” writers ignore completely. Consider other writing myths learned in the classrooms of childhood–myths such as “Don’t begin sentences with conjunctions like and or but” or “Never use the first-person pronoun I in serious writing.” Or how about this one: “Never begin a sentence with because“? How do skilled writers manage to violate these rules, while most average writers feel bound by them?

The Myths blog series answered that question as it delved into a number of grade school writing myths. My readers were definitely interested–and they still are. While glancing at the traffic on my WordPress account, I have noticed that many visitors to my (still) humble blog have been reading the Myths articles. Nothing could please me more.

Well, I have good news and bad news for my dear readers. I’ll start with the bad news: I have removed the Myths series from the blog.

The good news is the reason I have removed the Myths blog articles: I am publishing Myths We Learned in Grade School English as a book!

Myths We Learned in Grade School English will be available for purchase through Kona Publishing and Media Group in August, 2013. Although Myths is being marketed as a college composition textbook, it will be available for individual purchase on Kona’s website. If you are interested in purchasing this book now (whether for your own reading or for teaching a course), then feel free to order a copy using the directions posted at the end of this article. In the meantime, I thought my readers might want a small taste of this book, so I have included the book’s introduction and table of contents below. (Go on–check it out!)

I appreciate your support, your feedback, and–most of all–your readership.

–Chris

Myths We Learned in Grade School English: Contents

Introduction

Myth 1: The Myth of the Run-on Sentence—“Don’t write long sentences.”

Myth 2: “Never begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like and or but.Altman

Myth 3: “Do not begin sentences with because.”

Myth 4: “Never use the pronoun you in serious writing.”

Myth 5: “Never Refer to Yourself Using the Pronoun I.”

Myth 6: “Never write sentence fragments.”

Myth 7: “Don’t—um . . . Do not use contractions in formal writing.”

Myth 8: “The Five-Paragraph Essay: Training Wheels for Young Essayists”

“Honorable Mentions”

Conclusion: “The Real Rules Practices of Effective Writing”

Appendix

Further Reading

 

Introduction

Does this sound familiar?—

You sit down to write a cover letter for a job application. Your plan is to write a detailed yet convincing interpretation of your work experience and education. But in a sad twist of irony, your education is the very experience that is halting your progress on this cover letter. You pause at the third sentence, unsure how to proceed. As the cursor sits there blinking at you, all you can hear in your mind is the voice of your fourth-grade English teacher, telling you what never to do when you write:

  • “Do not write long sentences. Those are run-on sentences.”
  • “Never begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like but or and.”
  • “Never begin sentences with because.”
  • “Do not use the personal pronoun you in serious writing.”
  • Do not use contractions like don’t in your writing.
  • “Never write sentence fragments. You must always write complete sentences.”

You’re paralyzed. Your train of thought has derailed completely, and all you can think about is whether you’re being “grammatically correct” when you write. (And you still feel that you are just as much of an outsider to the Grammatically Correct Club as you were in the fourth grade, staring blankly at the comments scribbled on your essay.)  It’s enough just to worry about one concern—like run-on sentences—but since your fourth-grade teacher demanded that you obey all of these rules, you wonder how on earth you can obey all of them and still manage to say what you want to say in this letter. After all, if you were judged as a fourth grader for making these errors, how much more severely will you be judged as an adult? What will this employer think of you when they see these mistakes? How could you make such mistakes anyway? Who taught you how to write? How can you expect to call yourself a professional with improper, illiterate writing like this? The end of the second sentence still sits there, the cursor sitting in front of it like a wall, taunting you, daring you to write further without embarrassing yourself.

You do manage to move on with the letter, but you move on in defeat. You write only short, choppy, but safe sentences. You think to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction to create transition—in the same way that you would pose a sentence in spoken conversation: naturally. But you kill your natural writing for a sentence that has no transition and flow, one that you hope that the reader will simply grasp as stemming from the previous sentence. You are playing it safe, and instead of really expressing your passion for this position, you end up writing just like you always have: you write a letter that is dull and formulaic—and, even then, you are still afraid you made mistakes you could not detect.

Most children begin their development as writers by being given lists of rules. If you learned these rules, you probably learned them from trusted teachers, most likely during grade school or middle school, but perhaps you learned them as late as high school. If you are still trying to follow these rules, you probably get the sense that following them is often unrealistic—and even damaging—for your writing. You feel a profound sense of relief whenever you write informal, personal prose, if only for the reason that you are able to ignore these rules and write like yourself. You get the sense that journalists and award winning authors have found some secret way around these rules, for such expert writers break these writing taboos quite frequently—and to great effect. You have an overwhelming sense that there is a bigger, better world of writing, but you have an equally large sense that you can never enter that world.

Fret no more, dear reader. I write this book to free your writing process of these rules, learned from those who are trained to teach writing to children—not to adults.

You might think, then, that I have written this book to make these rules simple—to teach you easy ways to follow all of these rules. But what if I told you that these so-called rules aren’t really rules at all—that most of them are false rules that no longer apply to our writing as adults? What if I told you that most of these rules that hijack your writing process are false, and that the best step you can take to improve your writing is to drop those rules completely?

At this point you might be thinking, “Are you saying that these rules—taught to me by trained, trusted educators—are lies?”

Not quite. I call these rules myths (and not lies or untruths) because, like myths of old, they contain some truth, although they are not to be considered wholly or absolutely true. Consider the ancient myths of Western culture—for example, the myth of Achilles. Of course we know that Achilles is a fiction: that there was never a man who was invincible with the exception of his heel. That said, we do find some truths within this fiction. Achilles’ story teaches, among other things, that overestimation of oneself leads to loss, and that everyone—no matter how great—has some weakness. This same lesson persists today, in other narratives. Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite is a modern retelling of Achilles, while Samson losing his strength with the loss of his long hair is a Judeo-Christian telling. Speaking of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the oft-told tale of the Garden of Eden expresses a truth about humans’ desire to seek knowledge, even (or perhaps especially) when it is forbidden. The myth of Icarus communicates the devastating consequences of arrogance and overreaching ambition. While none of these stories is true, they do express truths.

Similarly, the myths we learn about effective writing in grade school English class contain some kernel of truth. However, these myths are too often considered absolutes, and instead of being instructive, they become stumbling blocks to effective writing. Although perfectly acceptable for eight-year-old children, many of the writing practices we learn from the teachers of childhood should change—or perhaps disappear altogether—as we develop, both as writers and as people. To stay in the confines of these pseudo-rules is the equivalent of a thirty-four-year-old man entering the Tour de France on a pink kiddy bike with training wheels and handle tassels (white-and-pink-striped handle tassels, no less!). Like the hindered (and somewhat curious looking) cyclist, you will not go very far in your writing if you continue to practice the conventions of childhood.

Are you interested in knowing the truths to be found in these rules and why so many grade school teachers express these rules as absolutes? Would you like to drop these myths from your writing process so that you can write with a liberated, unfettered mind?

If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes,” then this book is for you.

Interested in ordering Myths We Learned in Grade School English?

Here’s what to do:

1. Send an e-mail to Kona at this address: orders@konapublishing.com

2. Include the book’s ISBN number: 978-1-935987-44-4

3. Specify the number of copies you are ordering. Multiple purchases (for classes) and individual purchases are both welcomed.

(I will post a link to the book’s page when Kona makes one available. Stay tuned. . . .)

Click below to return to “All about Commas”:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. Mr. Altman writes a blog entitled The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox, and he also produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York.

Mr. Altman is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York.

Other Comma Placement Errors

So far, we have explored two comma errors:

The comma splice: trying to connect two complete sentences with only a comma

The subject-predicate comma: placing a comma between the subject and predicate when there should be no punctuation

The third type of comma misplacement is simply screwing up and placing a comma in some random place where there should be no comma. This odd comma creates an awkward, disruptive pause—one that leaves readers confused and annoyed. Unlike the subject-predicate comma, this error has no method to its madness. It is random and unexplainable.

Well, to be fair, there is one other case of comma misplacement that has some method to its madness. In the course of my time teaching, I often encounter this odd comma placement practice:

Bob worked hard to learn comma placement which, paid off in his writing.

Now read that sentence aloud. Pause briefly and naturally at the precise spot where the comma occurs. This is what you would hear:

Bob worked hard to learn comma placement which [pause] paid off in his writing.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? The reason it doesn’t sound right is simple: it isn’t right! Still, you may have noticed that there should indeed be a comma-pause in this sentence. Where would you place that comma?

The answer is to place it precisely where you hear the pause: before which—not after it:

Bob worked hard to learn comma placement, which paid off in his writing.

Here’s how it sounds:

Bob worked hard to learn comma placement [pause] which paid off in his writing.

Do you see what caused the student to make the error in the original sentence? The student, hearing a pause directly before the word which, attempted to show that pause by placing the comma after which. For some reason, logic failed, and the writer did not place the comma where the pause actually occurs (in the space between the words placement and which). Although I do not know for sure, some cases of this error could be a symptom of dyslexia or some similar learning or cognitive disability, but oftentimes it is simply caused from a lack of good old-fashioned common sense. New freshman writers too often consider the arts of writing to be some encoded, esoteric practice, so they fail to see the common sense that governs most good writing practices.

 

Comma Misplacement: Sometimes We Just Mess Up!

Sometimes, comma errors are completely random. Perhaps the, comma was a slip of the finger, as seen in this sentence’s first comma. (When typing that sentence, my finger actually slipped and tapped the comma key. I thought this delightfully well timed error would serve as a perfect example of how even knowledgeable writers can suffer the occasional slip of the finger.) This issue is resolved by practicing effective proofreading methods, which I will share in a later article. (Why don’t I just share those methods with you now? Two words: job security!) Still, even the most attentive proofreader with the most effective methods commits an occasional typo and never catches it. Such is life: typos are sneaky bastards.

Most comma-placement decisions are remarkably simple: just place a comma where you hear a pause. So, why do people make them so difficult? And what reasoning do people give to account for their odd comma practices? Perhaps the writer, completely uninformed regarding the functions of commas, is simply trying to meet some imagined comma quota. Believe it or not, I have encountered this approach.

I recall teaching a college freshman who, somewhere along the way, had picked up the notion that he needed to have at least one comma per sentence. So, even if a sentence did not warrant a comma, this fellow would simply throw one into the mix, wherever it “looked right.” Faced with the utter outlandishness of this student’s comma philosophy, I did not know whether to laugh or to cry (so I simply chose to stare blankly into space for a moment before assisting the unfortunate fellow with his writing).

I think part of the reason for such counterintuitive writing practices is that people do not view punctuation and grammar as serving any purpose beyond looking right or sounding proper. It is also due to a misperception that effective writing is a matter of following a mathematical formula (as in, “To have a good sentence, include X number of commas per Y number of words”). Nonsense!

Although it follows no such formulas, punctuation does have applicable purposes. This is especially true of the comma, which serves more roles in writing than any other mark of punctuation. (Consider, for example, the two roles the comma plays in that last sentence. Consider also how I used the comma in that first parenthetical sentence. The comma is a hard worker indeed.)

Next Up: Different Comma Functions

So far, we have explored the comma in terms of what not to do. We have applied the comma rule of thumb to develop a sense of the comma in prose. We have examined comma splices and other comma errors. But we still haven’t explored the individual functions of commas: the many ways that they enhance our sentences. Commas represent pauses in writing—fair enough—but what exactly do those pauses do?

That, dear reader, is the subject of the articles that follow. To read the first of those articles, click the link below:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Error Number Two: The Subject-Predicate Comma

As we have seen with comma splices (the topic of the previous article), people often misplace commas when they should use some other form of punctuation or sentence combining device. Another common error is simply to place a comma where there should be no punctuation. Logically enough, I call this error comma misplacement or comma overuse. (I should win a gold medal in originality, don’t you think?)

One of the most frequent forms of comma overuse that I encounter in student writing is an error I call the subject-predicate comma.

I name this error according to the location of the misplaced comma: between the subject and the predicate. Paradoxically, the subject-predicate comma is caused by an observation that is usually productive to writing: it occurs when a writer makes the distinction between the subject and predicate of a given sentence. Recognizing that these are distinct parts that serve two different roles in the sentence, the writer wants to show that separation. So, in a failed attempt to guide his reader, the novice writer mistakenly places a comma between the subject and predicate, creating an awkward, disruptive pause between subject and predicate. This error occurs most often in sentences that have long subjects.

What is a “Subject” and a “Predicate,” Anyway?

First I should mention what I mean by subject and predicate–two terms that, for many, are little more than empty echoes from early elementary education.

The term subject here may be confusing, since it has two grammatical meanings. One meaning is the precise word that acts as the performer of the verb. This is a single, identifiable word, usually a noun. The sentence below has such a subject (S), which I have labeled for you, along with the verb (V):

                   S          V

A good writer knows her commas.

Here’s the tricky part: when discussing the two main parts of sentence structure (the subject and the predicate), the word subject indicates not only the subject, but also all of the words that modify or support the subject. Consider the same sentence, labeled according to the subject and the predicate:

Subject                     Predicate

(A good writer) (knows her commas).

Notice how, in the same way that the larger subject includes the subject word and its modifying words (a and good), the predicate includes the verb (knows) and the words that are directly associated with the verb (the possessive pronoun her and the direct object, commas). In this case the terms subject and predicate really mean “subject group” and “predicate group.”

If terms like subject and predicate sound a bit like academic mumbo-jumbo to you, feel free to use whatever terms you prefer. You might choose to label them according to your own logic. For example, you might prefer to call them, subject group and verb group, which might be clearer than subject and predicate. Do whatever works for you. The goal is being able to identify the sentence parts that grammarians call the subject and the predicate. If you can do that, you’re golden.

The Subject-Predicate Comma Error

Now that we have identified the subject and predicate, let’s look at some examples of subject-predicate comma misplacement:

The exhausted car mechanic, told me that he had fixed the engine.

Using commas correctly, can be quite the task for a new writer.

Let’s break the first example sentence down into subject and predicate:

Subject                                                    Predicate

(The exhausted car mechanic) (told me that he had fixed the engine).

Now, notice where the writer has placed the comma:

The exhausted car mechanic, told me that he had fixed the engine.

As we see in the labeled version of the sentence, the writer has placed the comma between the subject and the predicate. Is this a good comma placement?

Let’s return to the tried-and-true comma rule of thumb: commas show slight pauses in the reading of a sentence. Applying the comma rule of thumb, read the following two sentences aloud. (Yes, actually read aloud–vocalize it, even if the people around you think you’re crazy.) Which sentence sounds natural to you?

1. The exhausted car mechanic [pause] told me that he had fixed the engine.

2. The exhausted car mechanic told me that he had fixed the engine.

If your answer is the second sentence, you’re right on the money. Think about it: in spoken English, we do not typically pause between the subject and the predicate. Why pause there in writing?

This error is most easily seen in sentences that have a one-word subject. Read these sentences aloud, making sure to pause wherever you see a comma. Do they sound absurd?

Christopher, loves teaching punctuation.

Trucks, are useful vehicles.

No one speaks like that—or so I hope. (And if you do encounter someone speaking this way, I recommend calling a cab for him.) The same is true for sentences with long subjects: the pause is disruptive and unnatural—two characteristics that make for weak, ineffective writing.

Next Up: More Misplaced Commas

To return to a point we have discussed time and again in this blog,  John R. Trimble defines writing as “the art of creating desired effects” in our readers’ minds. This definition applies as well to the details of writing, like comma placement. We want to make sure that we use commas in places that help our readers–places that tell our reader, “Hey, reader, pause here to ‘hear’ this sentence as it would be spoken.” By the same token, we should avoid placing commas in spots where they cause trouble for our readers.

To learn even more about such comma-placement errors, check out the next article by clicking the link below:

A Word of Thanks–And Another Blog on Writing!

I want to thank Professor Carol Tulpar, who teaches at Vancouver Community College and who writes a great blog on writing, entitled Essay-eh. Professor Tulpar graciously acknowledged my work on the subject-predicate comma, and she cited me in her blog, providing a link to my article (in my old blog). In return for her recognition, I want to provide a link to her blog here. Check it out!

Here’s the link to Essay-eh:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


The Writer’s Toolbox: Introduction

Welcome to The Writer’s Toolbox!

I share these blogs on writing in hopes that they will prove helpful to anyone who might be curious about the nitty-gritty details of writing. I write for those who are unsure of themselves as writers and for who view writing as a chore—a necessary evil of surviving in this Information Age, where we are so often required to take up our pens (or keyboards) to compose memos, essays, e-mails, and letters.

But effective writing goes far beyond the ability to engage in necessary, mundane correspondences. Writing is the stuff democracies are made of. And it’s much more than that: it’s one of the qualities that make us human. The more we develop our writing, the more we develop as people. This knowledge should not be limited to colleges and universities. It’s for everyone. With that thought in mind, I feel that my mission as an English educator extends beyond the four walls of my classroom, where I will reach about twenty-five people per section. My responsibility is to share with anyone who is interested in learning more about the art of writing.

So read, write—and enjoy.

Why Learn the Rules?

Writing is a lot like chess.

Like novice chess players, inexperienced writers do not know for certain that the decisions they make are the right ones. Unsure how to proceed, they simply guess. A writer, for example, who is unsure whether to use a semicolon or a comma to combine two sentences must end up taking a blind stab at it. It becomes a fifty-fifty guess, a leap of faith, one that will make the writer look either skilled and knowledgeable, or clumsy and ignorant. In the same way that the novice chess player sighs, “Well . . . I guess I’ll move my rook forward and just hope it works out,” so too does the novice writer resign himself to the fickle hand of fate.

Other novices take a different approach to the chess game of writing. They play it safe. This cautious, play-it-safe writer—although she would like to combine the two closely related sentences—is unsure how to do it. So, instead of taking that chance on writing the best sentence, she backs down and sticks with what she knows: she separates the two sentences with a period. The writer is not happy with it, but she knows that it’s “grammatically correct.” The play-it-safe writer settles for less than her best, while the unfortunate reader is left with disconnected, choppy prose.

The experienced writer, though, knows how and when to make even the most complex moves. She knows how to combine sentences—and she does so with full confidence. (In fact, she knows about five or six ways to combine any given set of sentences—and all of these possibilities are at her disposal.) Through mastering the real rules of writing, the experienced writer liberates herself from the chains of those pseudo-rules that are so often forced upon students in grade school English.

Contrary to popular perceptions, those who know the rules of grammar and mechanics are not the ones who are bound by them. The ones who are bound are those who do not know the rules. They are bound by their uncertainty and by the many false rules that they learned about writing at an early age. Perhaps recalling bad experiences in past English courses, these people have been scared, quite literally, out of their wits. I am writing this blog to free such writers so that they can compose the sentences that reflect the dreams, ideas, and assertions that they want—and need—to express.

The first step to liberating your writing is to develop what I call a writer’s toolbox—a set of essential writing techniques that the writer can call upon at any time. In the same way that a carpenter works with many more tools than a hammer and a saw, so too should the writer work with more tools than the period and the question mark. With every technique you add to your toolbox, both your confidence and your eloquence will increase. You will write a memo to your boss with confidence. You will be certain that you used commas in all the right places. You will know when you make your readers laugh. In short, you will know that your writing is effective: that it will achieve your goals. At that point, writing will no longer be a chore; it will be a pleasure—or, at least, an invigorating challenge.

Up to this point, I have been discussing the rules of writing, but really I prefer to talk about practices instead of rules. To find out more about the practices of writing, read on by clicking the link below:

Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

If you are interested in skipping to subject-specific article series, feel free to visit these links to begin reading. (Note: These articles will be added over time. The links may not be available today. Stay tuned.)


Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

 

Welcome (Back) to The Writer’s Toolbox!

Hello friends,

You may remember my old blog, Writer’s Toolbox, which later became known as Words on Words. The blog began when a friend who found value in my ramblings had given me space on his site to begin posting my blogs.

And post I did! I posted on a variety of writing topics, from comma use to effective word choices. My target audience was the everyday non-academic simply looking to improve written communication skills, but who might also be looking to see matters like grammar and punctuation demystified and made applicable. Writer’s Toolbox did just that. Friends were reading–and learning.

But things soon changed for me . . . and for Writer’s Toolbox. A few months after beginning Writer’s Toolbox, I found myself teaching at a new college, living in a new city, and embracing many new patterns in my life, all of which made me very busy. I put Writer’s Toolbox on the shelf, for a time.

That time is over. As I have continued to teach, I have continued to develop more material for the blog. I have decided to step out on my own by creating my own WordPress account so that I can have full control over the blog, the format, the postings, and such other technical matters.

I want to emphasize that I am not stepping out on my own due to any hard feelings. In fact, I want to thank my friend, Will Nesbitt, who gave me my start–and who encouraged me to begin posting this blog in the first place. Will, your encouragement and kindness have made all the difference. Thank you.

To express further gratitude, I would like to share a word (or two) about my friend. Mr. Nesbitt is a realtor in the Northern Virginia area. He owns Nesbitt Realty, LLC, and he has had a hand (or two) in many other successful projects, from real estate to publishing.

Click the link below to learn more about Mr. Nesbitt and his many endeavors.

http://condo-alexandria.com/about/will-nesbitt/

Welcome to The Writer’s Toolbox! Topics covered include comma use, advanced punctuation techniques, writing strategy, word choices, and others still. Stay tuned!

Best,

Chris

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).