Q&A #2: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Press clueless as to “whom” should take over . . .


Calling Extra_NY Times

Recently I received this cry of outrage and a request for clarity from a fellow book lover and avid reader of magazines and newspapers who is dismayed at the state of English usage in the media. A summary of her complaint, and my thoughts, follow. Comments are welcome.


Hi, Pam.

Tell me if I’m wrong to object to the state of English usage in print and online media. I realize that I am either getting old or that I have read so much grammatically incorrect material that I don’t trust my own judgment anymore.

Case in point: I recently read this headline on the front page of the Star-Ledger: “Poll: Clueless as to whom should take over after Christie.”

My reaction when I read this was that when the paper reorganized they must have fired every editor. Did I overreact? I never thought I had trouble with “who” and “whom,” and my gut says “who” is correct because it’s the subject of “should take over.” But, again, the errors that make it into the media these days have become so prevalent that I’m no longer confident.

Obviously, I’m turning into a grump when I read, but I have found a few examples of sentences that are so bad they are incomprehensible. Here is another marvelous example, also from the Star-Ledger: “…the conviction should be reversed because the trial was wrought with errors.” This is a case of a “big word” heard somewhere that was not distinguished from the correct one it sounds like. I have been keeping little notes of these. In yet another example, it seems as if the CNN anchors have a particular predilection for trying to sound educated without knowing what the words they use mean.

Yes, I have become a curmudgeon, and I “hone” right in on the mistakes! (This error is so common it’s hardly worth mentioning—or is it?) Publications today are not only poorly edited, but they may not be edited at all. It seems the Star-Ledger is copying articles from its NJ.com site verbatim to the next day’s print edition—it’s fun to see first thing in the morning that there was flooding in North Jersey this afternoon. No editing is done for the transition to print, and since the material was first hastily prepared for online news, probably none then either. Increasingly, I wonder why should I waste my time reading what these uncaring journalists produce.

At some future date I plan to write a blog rant about examples of why it is no longer a rational idea to tell young readers to peruse news, printed or online, in order to improve vocabulary and grammar. When I went to school and they told us to read newspapers and magazines to improve our English usage, the teachers could never have foreseen that this would become disastrous advice.

But before I make a fool of myself in my own rant, tell me if I’m wrong. Sometimes I am afraid I may be out of touch with the times.

Thanks for your help!

~ M

Leonard Cohen_New Skin for the Old Ceremony
In “Who by Fire,” Leonard Cohen got it right on 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony


Dear ~ M,

Oh, my. You address so many worthwhile examples of deteriorating language usage that it’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with your first example: “who” versus “whom.” You are correct: “who” is the subject of the sentence, the one that “should take over.” Kudos (which, by the way, is a singular noun, not a plural—but I’m sure you knew that) to Leonard Cohen, who got it right in his lyrics to “Who by Fire” from the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony: “And who shall I say is calling?”

The use of the objective pronoun “whom” in place of the subjective “who” is a case of overrefinement, or the incorrect use of grammar or terminology because it seems to “sound better” or “sound right” to the uninformed writer. This is somewhat surprising in the case of “whom,” which sounds almost hopelessly archaic and stilted in most contexts. Yet we have Tony Soprano’s Jersey paper trying (albeit not succeeding) to sound refined!

Another example of misguided overrefinement is, “I feel badly whenever I read a sentence with incorrect grammar or word usage.” No, I don’t—I feel “bad” because “feel” is a statement-of condition-verb and therefore takes an adjective, not an adverb.

You may be interested in reading the lengthy discussion of “who” and “whom” in Garner’s Modern American Usage (which is available online via subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries). Similarly, reading Leonard Cohen’s explanation of his “Who by Fire” lyrics should drive the point home that “who” is subjective. But, briefly, “who” is equivalent to the nominative pronouns “I, he, she,” whereas “whom” is equivalent to the objective pronouns “me, him, her.” But “you” can never go wrong (at least in English grammar) by resorting to “who” in contemporary usage. It’s much better than making an “arse out of oneself” by sounding archaic and overrefined.

As to your other examples, and more significantly your general complaint about the sad state of English-language usage, I can but sigh in commiseration. I understand very well through my brief study of linguistics (and by just being alive) that language does and must change. But “change” is not a synonym for “deteriorate.”

As amazing and wonderful as electronic media are, they make it so easy to create errors and to not care that you’re doing so. Even our smart phones auto-correct—or at least auto-retype, and not always correctly. (And we won’t even mention spellcheck. My spellchecker wanted to change “whom” to “who” in the title of this post, which is good; but later it wanted to change Leonard Cohen’s song to “Whom by Fire”—although maybe this is understandable out of context because of the use of “by.”) But the print media are not off the hook. For example, I just started reading a contemporary mystery book that was gorgeously produced to be a visual treat, designed with lovely typography and even printed on fancy patterned and deckled paper. Yet I found this on pages 17–18:

“. . . what is the matter?”


Why on earth would they have capped everything but the last word? All you need to do is read this aloud to hear how the emphasis is totally lost in the error. I found other mistakes as well, and even though they were likely proofreading oversights, they marred what otherwise is an enjoyable book. These things distract me terribly, and just about every book I pick up is fraught with errors.

The one thing slovenly writers and careless editors don’t get is that their work loses credibility when they degrade language instead of elevating it. I try to be careful in any medium in which I write, including texts and emails—and of course this blog. Yet I recognize that the sheer speed that is available to us electronically is contributing to haste and sloppiness. Back in the day when you and I were in school, we were taught handwriting with fountain pens and typewriting on manual machines, both techniques requiring care and precision. Say “cursive” to kids in school today and they’ll likely think you’re swearing because your touch screen has you writing “Love to my little duster” when your phone attempts to “correct” your mistyping of “sister.” (To this day, my sister calls me “Big Duster.”)

The last bastion of good writing in print and online may be the remaining premier newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and certain high-level magazines, such as National Geographic, The New Yorker, and The Economist.

Let’s home in on this in a future post. I hope you will contribute further examples not only of mistakes, but of excellence in writing. I know it’s out there somewhere. And we can at least set a good example in here.

Q&A #1: Pride or Preference – Is It OK to Lowercase a proper name on Request?

Who are youToday I received this cry for help from a fellow writer and editor who is so conscientious that he did his research before knocking on my virtual door this morning. A summary of his plight, and my opinion, follow (with his permission). Comments are welcome.



Here’s another thorny question for my editorial guru.

I woke up at about 2:50 this morning with this lowercasing question rattling around my brain.

With one colleague’s opinion in mind, I remain reluctant to immediately comply with a request from two of our other colleagues to lowercase their names in our school’s publications.

Editorial conventions exist in order to ease communication, enhance consistency, and avoid confusion. That’s why it’s been our standard practice to initial-cap first and last names. And these days, when so much content is derived from databases and other online sources, it’s very difficult to make exceptions because of technical limitations that make it harder to comply with these requests—for example, LinkedIn and other social sites automatically put members’ names in initial caps in profiles. Even if this can be changed, the nonstandard request may be difficult for some sites to grant.

Two respected and reliable sources, however, differ somewhat in their advice about this matter:

— The NY Times and most other publications choose to go with convention.

— However, Chicago supports the opinion that we should respect people’s wishes and lowercase names if they wish. They advise rewriting so that such names don’t begin sentences.

Pen names, such as bell hooks, and stage names, such as k.d. lang, are usually immediately recognizable. But I’m not sure that what our colleagues are asking falls into either category . . . and maybe it doesn’t matter. However, I still see our problem as maintaining consistency and avoiding confusion in our publications. Suppose, for example, a recording engineer named Mike or Mic insisted on lowercasing his name—we would have a hard time keeping things straight when writing about his approach to setting up sound equipment.

I think we can encourage people to present their names as they wish in all personal communications, but I think we should abide by our decision to continue initial-capping in our institutional publications. But when I suggested this to one colleague, she responded:

Is it that my name cannot be lowercased because technology won’t allow it, or is it an editorial decision? If it’s the former, I understand. If it’s the latter, I think our preferences for how we represent ourselves should trump editing.

Ouch. Now I feel as if I’m in a power struggle. It’s not as if I don’t agree that people should present themselves as they wish, but, if they represent an institution or organization, I believe they should do so outside of office hours, so to speak.

Thoughts, dear colleague?

– r

Cary, Ralph, & Roz
Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, & Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” 1940.


Dear – r,

I have always believed that, friend to authors though editors may be, an editor’s primary responsibility is to the reader. Clarity is one of the BIG C’s of Expository Writing (which I will discuss at a later date).

Therefore, I tend to agree with you. The famous can stylize their names however they like with relative impunity. But for the not-so-famous, or just for the rest of us, this is harder to get away with—not only editorially, but technically, as you’ve already eloquently pointed out.

In personal use, such as invitations, correspondence, email addresses, signature lines, and whichever social media will let them, people should be permitted to style their names however they wish. In professional use, those who fly solo can also do whatever they like, especially in logos. But when employees are beholden to an organization, certain rules need to apply so that the institutional choir sings with one voice/One Voice/or ONE VOICE, as house style dictates.

If too much fur or too many feathers fly around your office as a result of imposing well-considered style guidelines, compromises can be sought. For example, in bylines, which stand apart from the text and are unlikely to cause confusion (perhaps just a momentary pause as readers decide whether the author is famous enough to lowercase his or her name), lowercasing might be generously permitted.

Or, using your earlier example, it might be an easy matter just to tell people what’s up, as in this entry from Wikipedia: “Kathryn Dawn Lang, known by her stage name ‘k.d. lang,’ is a Canadian pop and country singer-songwriter and occasional actress.” In your publication, you might consent to say: “Jane Peters, known professionally and personally as ‘janie peters,’ is one of our most successful alumnae.” However, if you have to notify HR that mic the guest speaker tripped over the mic during his talk and wants to file for workers’ comp or else sue sue the ceo for damages, this may present problems. . . .

Simpler still, you could just put the stylized name in parentheses and quotation marks, which is commonly done for nicknames: “In examining the issue at hand, Tobias Larkin (“tobias larkin”), director of Public Relations, says the goal was to dedicate the week to the matter of gender and racial equity, civil rights, socioeconomic class, environmental justice, and so forth.”

Such a compromise may or may not satisfy your colleagues, but a moderate approach ensures readability and allows readers to recognize a stylized name as a preference without actually stating it as such—which might start to sound like pride. If you simply acceded to your colleagues’ personal preferences without using an editorial device, such as one of the examples above, you would be doing your readers a disservice.

As far as the comment that technology limitations are understandable but that editorial decisions should give way to personal preferences, I would have to draw the line there. Flexibility is one thing; anarchy is another. Also, colleagues should not denigrate what you do for a living any more than you could (or would) deride their choice of how they stylize their names.

In brief, I would recommend retaining house style in most cases. But leave a little room for creative negotiation—as long as it doesn’t interfere with readability. If you get push-back, gently but firmly remind your colleagues that, no, personal preference does not trump editorial decision-making and that the latter is an essential part of your job—and your responsibility to your institution. Then chime in with a reminder about singing in one voice, which is part of institutional branding.

Hold firm to house rule, but consider a compromise that doesn’t interfere with what you offer your readership. Again, an editor is the reader’s advocate. That’s your job, and it needs to be respected.

Reading & Writing as Therapy

Magic Book_27%   The Magic Book…A True Treasure

 The Silver Pen Pin…A Lovely Gift Silver Pen Pin

As you recover from a serious illness, all things therapeutic become achingly important. One of the most vital is reconnecting with who you feel yourself to be, beyond the reaches of cells gone bad.

Reposted from The Patient Path March 14, 2014

The question of identity arises for each of us at some time, or times, in our lives. Soon, I will be writing the story of what happened to my once fascinating and lucrative career. It was a terrible loss, one that, almost more than any other life event, has affected my sense of who I am.

But before I explore my working girl story, I think I need to ground myself in my life girl story. Although these stories seem to intertwine like yin and yang symbols, one thing I’ve learned is that this is an illusion. What is real is what you love; if you’re fortunate, your yin-yang endeavors will blend beautifully.

Book & Pen Composite

You’ve probably heard many people say they’ve always aspired to be a writer. I have always aspired to be a reader. In fact, one of my main regrets in life is that I haven’t read more.

But, in truth, like so many others, I want to write. Why? Because expressing myself this way just seems a whole lot safer than being a live performance artist. Writers can express thoughts, notions, inspirations, intuitions, feelings, impressions, insights, experiences, and maybe even profundities from the other side of the stage or screen. Sometimes, releasing your ideas will be good self-therapy. Other times, your efforts may resonate with others and do some good in the wider world.

My point is that whereas I said above that the yin-yang intertwining of career and life is an illusion, the interconnection of reading and writing is not. I know many people read who do not write. I have even heard of writers who do not read. But my sense of it is that these two things that are so dear to me are two halves of a whole.

In the December 19 and December 24, 2013 posts, I mentioned “the coin of life”:

. . . every challenge is one side of the coin of life, the one imprinted with the mask of tragedy (unhappiness and pain); but, of course, the mask of comedy (happiness and good) lies on the other side. No matter what transpires in our lives, that coin is always going to flip to the other side in the continual motion of happenstance. Lucky is the one who can direct some of this motion in his or her favor; blessed is the one who can accept and work with whatever flips his or her way. Coins roll, and so should we.

Similarly, I cannot imagine writing without reading, as if they were two sides of a postcard from the universe. And for some of us, it isn’t possible to read without also writing. I myself am always flipping that card in an effort to see the beauty of both sides as often as possible.

Book & Pen Composite_Flipped

Although I’d been an editor and technical/medical writer for many years, as well as an English major in college, I am ashamed to say that I never seemed to have the energy or focus to read very much. Oh, I dabbled. I would take armloads of books from the library each week, buy books from bygone bookstores (sigh), order books online. . . . But I rarely did more than browse them or, worse, let them sit around me in piles as if I could absorb their magic by some sort of psychic osmosis. They did make my rooms look inviting, lived in, and important somehow. But using books as decoration is good only if this inspires you to actually read them.

After I lost my career back in 2011, I was very fortunate to have found a reading group at a local bookstore in Flemington, NJ—Twice Told Tales–Moonstone Mystery. Our group met yesterday to discuss The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. And, yes, we did discuss it. I’ve heard others say they’d given up on book clubs because people did almost everything but talk about the books. I’m not saying we don’t talk about other topics. I’m also not saying we don’t eat and drink. And I’m certainly not saying we haven’t formed friendships. (In fact, the ladies from this group have stepped up to help me during my health crisis almost more than anyone else in my world. And one of them, Susan, gave me the pen pin pictured above.) I am saying that we talk about the books. And, lucky me, I’ve read books I wouldn’t otherwise have been inspired to read, many I’d never even heard of. And, double lucky me, we have not one but two groups—a general-interest group and a mystery group. Heaven.*

Book & Pen Composite

Another serendipitous event occurred in 2012, when I stumbled into a writing group.† I’d never intended to join a writing group, but I wandered in on someone’s invitation and decided to stay a while. After participating in some presentations, writing exercises, and administrative activities, I ended up in two small offshoot groups. It was in the smaller groups that I actually started writing. Since then I have remained in only one of the groups, and it’s been such a delight. All of it was a learning experience. But in our small biweekly group, we’ve experimented, explored, and exploded with ideas, and it is a great pleasure to see the creativity blossom in my fellow members. Although I really have barely started despite several efforts, since my health setback I have found renewed interest in the writing side of the card. Currently, I am writing a story about identity.

I began this blog in November 2013, just days after discovering my diagnosis of uterine (endometrial) cancer. Initially, my intention was to let others know what was going on and also to encourage people to be their own best advocates as they negotiated the healthcare system. The blog has gone in a few tangential directions since then, although the primary goal is still to reach out to “patient patients” as they embark on healing journeys of their own. Lots of topics remain to be explored, and as my energy increases I will be getting to them. But it has been my happy discovery to find a way to communicate and connect with others through writing—this blog, other blogs (more on those later), stories for the writing group, and professional material (in the near future, I hope).

Book & Pen Composite_Flipped

It is my love of reading and writing that is helping me (re)discover some of the most important facets of myself. No disease, job loss, or other trauma can separate me from them. What a powerful lesson this has been, and I’ve found no better therapy. At its best, reading lets the whole world—the whole universe—in. At its best, writing lets your whole world—your whole universe—out.

P.S. For those who have trouble reading print books, I highly recommend unabridged audio books, especially by single narrators. They’re marvelous. Sometimes I both read and listen to a book, alternating chapters, which lets me continue with a story while walking or driving—or even while trying to fall asleep in the dark.

*One genre of book I have always managed to read more than others is mysteries, and I will also be writing more about them in the near future. I have have written about two authors previously: Anne Perry and Tana French.
†I’ve written about the writing group previously here.

The (L)On(e)ly Editor: A “Rewriter” Among Writers


It started in May 2012 with a tap on my shoulder after an author talk at the local library. At the end of the session, I raised my hand and boldly mentioned to the new author, a local fiction writer, that I was an “out of work editor.” She wasn’t particularly interested, but the man sitting behind me apparently was.

Something about the word “editor” must have resonated with the shoulder tapper, who explained that his creative writing group met every Friday afternoon at the library. Would I be interested in joining them? He didn’t exactly say why he’d invited me, but now that the world of academic editing didn’t seem to want me to rewrite (I use the term very loosely) anymore, an invitation to actually write caught my attention. At first, I was only mildly interested in being the token editor in a group of adult nonprofessional (unpublished) creative writers and wasn’t sure  I was ready to join their ranks as a writer. But I decided to try it and find out.

What had begun a year or so earlier as a fiction and memoir-writing group, the project of a creative writing student who had since moved on after graduation, had become a spinoff in which a few people were writing, but many were not. We continued to meet and tried various ways to inspire ourselves to write through DVD courses, in-person exercises, rotating facilitator-led sessions, and the like. I occasionally presented some editor-type input. But except for a few people who submitted writings now and then (at least since the time I joined), this was more a gathering than a group.

Some months later, at a time when most members apparently felt the need for change, we elected a steering committee (of which I found myself chair for a while) and split into subgroups according to writing form: long fiction, short fiction, and memoir/anything goes. Suddenly, these smaller groups—four or five members in each—were actually and enthusiastically writing. And now I faced a double challenge. Wanting to seamlessly transform myself from academic editor to creative writer, I was eager to start writing fiction. But finally finding myself one among other writers, here I was with my purple editing pen ready, but my own writer’s fingers suspended over the keyboard—I was fearful of making the transition. Being the only editor in a group of writers was confusing, creating a dilemma born of the ability to see the value and potential in the work of others combined with the humility—and fear—of finding out what others might see in the work I would do when I finally found the courage to start.

Despite my identity crisis, I began to write and turned in a couple of chapters from my new historical mystery novel and a few sections of a historical mystery novella, seeds planted in unfertilized soil. But unable to remove my tight-fitting editor’s hat, I stumbled over my  efforts, getting in my own way as I wavered between fact-finding and free-flowing thought. Roughly mashing together hasty research and stories with no clear direction because I couldn’t decide on the genre or what I wanted to happen in the worlds I was creating, I realized my yarns were actually twisted balls of threads—but, judging from reactions, evidently yarns with merit, and maybe even a little magic. So much to write, but so much to learn. . . .

As if teetering on the razor’s edge between editor and writer hasn’t been difficult enough, I am still learning the subtle differences between editing in a professional environment and critiquing in a nonprofessional peer setting. Beyond that, I need to understand how critiquing induces good writing. But as an editor-cum-critiquer, how could I possibly stop being authoritarian? Even though I know creative writing has somewhat fluid rules, I can’t not see things that editors are taught to home in on. Yet I know this isn’t exactly what beginning authors are looking for from peer reviewers—they want to create good stories and interesting characters. They seek critiques more than tweaks, impressions more than prescriptions.

At one meeting, I asked my writing colleagues how they thought critiquing creative writing differed from editing it. Someone said these were right- (critiquing) vs. left- (editing) brain activities. This begins to get at the differences, but distinctions remain somewhat difficult to articulate. The repertoire of editorial skills I’d acquired as an academic editor had left me ill equipped to answer my own question—or even to ask it in the first place.

After further reflection, however, here’s what I think I know: Critiquing is not synonymous with editing, by which I mean the hands-on reworking of text, one eye on the details, the other on the whole picture. Critiquing is reacting—not redacting—by asking questions and suggesting other approaches. Yet the two functions have significant overlap, not the least being their primary purpose—to help authors improve their writing. And the fastest way to learn what critiquing is? Submit your own work for peer review.

As a newcomer in a creative writing group, you need to leave your biases at the door and recognize that—unless you are a published author—the others in the room actually are your peers. You can’t stand apart as an editor, as a teacher, or as a competitor. You’re laying bare part of your soul and inviting virtual strangers and incipient friends to comment on it. Remembering what peer reviews were like in my technical writing classes in graduate school, I feel lucky to be among gifted amateurs who haven’t learned or been exposed to the vitriol of aggressive, cold judgments. Sitting in an intimate group of fellow writers talking story, character, and craft, while sometimes tedious and stressful, has been overwhelmingly some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

An editor in a professional situation stands apart from authors and their brainchildren, coolly observing how well the work has been rendered. Being removed makes this kind of work possible, even if one is passionate about the editorial process. (I am not exploring here the various editorial roles one finds in publishing houses, but generalizing based on common notions of what hands-on editing is.) Critiquing in a nonprofessional peer-to-peer setting is more personal, more interdependent. It is also, to some extent, more subjective than editing—critiquers are often blatantly contradictory. Critiquing is also more emotional, dare I say it, and somewhat less cerebral—but no less thoughtful—than editing. Those who critique, unlike those who edit, have more responsibilities to authors’ dreams and fewer rules about how authors express them.

What do writers want from peer reviews? Accolades, of course, oohs and aahs, hearing that the reviewers couldn’t put the writing down—that it made them cry, or laugh, or relate, or change their lives—or, best of all—write better themselves. Short story, novel chapter, memoir . . . it doesn’t matter. Authors want to wow those who read them. Then real life happens. An author might submit something for group review only to be greeted with silent stares—how deflating!—or serenaded with earnest comments about what could have been better—damn, they’re right!

In a supportive environment, authors may feel a bit chagrined when their reviewers seem bemused rather than bedazzled, but they will go home and write better as a result of insightful reactions to their work. Good editing may achieve a similar result, but it feels very different to be instructed rather than inspired, revised rather than reinvigorated, edited rather than enlightened. Hands-on editing puts the final burnish on good writing. Heart-to-heart critiquing fuels the fire that creates it.

My group members and I are not all that different as writers, so we can nurture one another’s talent, expressed or latent, without class distinction. As students of writing, we are self-taught. Amateurs we may be, but in some cases gifted ones. Who knows? We may even incubate something publishable, although what that means in today’s changing world of publishing-house mergers and self-publishing technologies requires a lot of educated guessing and adventurous exploration to figure out.

Having reviewed my group members’ work and experienced their critiques of mine, I am convinced not only of their evolving talent, but of their good intentions. Undoubtedly, whatever I continue to produce as I learn to translate the inner world of my imagination into shared experience through writing will be flawed in some way or another. But in my group, the review process is handled with kindness, humor, and a sense of mutuality. Gradually, this editor is becoming a writer who critiques and a reviewer who is critiqued.

At this stage of life, moving toward the creative side of the writing world is beginning to feel liberating. And doing it in an environment where people care as much about others’ work as they do their own (well, almost) is truly enjoyable. If any of my stories ever make their way from my head into others’ hands, that will be the ultimate critique—and proof that writing isn’t necessarily a lonely enterprise.