Monday, November 21, 2011

Many More Bar Jokes Involving Grammar and Punctuation

McSweeney's recently published "Seven Bar Jokes Involving Grammar and Punctuation"—and those jokes launched a joke exchange (on Facebook) between me and my brilliant sister Sarah. We came up with more grammar- and punctuation-related (and usage-related) jokes. I think ours are far better than McSweeney's, but you be the judge:

Sarah: An ellipsis walks into a bar ...

Sarah: The past perfect had walked into a bar.

Sarah: A priest, a rabbi, and a serial comma walked into a bar.

Charles: This guy who had a relative clause walked into a bar.

Sarah: A mysterious woman—overly fond of em dashes—walked into a bar.

Charles: A copy editor walked into a bar and sat down next to a preposition he wanted to end a sentence with.

Sarah: A bleary-eyed copy editor walked into a bar and refused to leave until properly hyphenated.

Charles: A subject walked into a bar and demanded a compound predicate!

Charles: How many writers does it take to stet a light bulb that has been changed?

Charles: A simile walked into a bar like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn.

Sarah: Into a bar walked one line of blank verse.

Sarah: A parallel construction walked into a bar, sat on a stool, and spat at a stranger.

Charles: A superfluous comma walked, into a bar.

Sarah: An unnecessarily capitalized Man walked into a bar.

Sarah: Now that's just pathetic; a semicolon walking into a bar as though he were a full-fledged colon.

Charles: Apostrophes are not welcome in the bar's around here.

Sarah: Your not kidding about that.

Now add your jokes in the Comments section!

Monday, October 24, 2011

On Emoticons

I resisted emoticons for years—all those cute little smiley graphics and punctuation-mark approximations seemed sort of ... immature. But the older I get, the less "maturity" seems to matter. And in recent years, emoticons have made their way into frequent rotation in my social correspondence. At work, I use them less often, but I expect they will continue to make inroads there, in time.

So I read with interest this story in The New York Times: "If You're Happy and You Know It, Must I Know Too?"

It's one of those "end of human intelligence" stories in which experts bemoan the fact that a new technology will spell doom for literacy (if not civilization itself). As Bill Lancaster, a lecturer in communications at Northeastern University in Boston, puts it in the story, "[Emoticons are] part of the degradation of writing skills—grammar, syntax, sentence structure, even penmanship—that come with digital technology."

I disagree with Lancaster on this point. Technology is changing language, yes. But language is always changing. It's supposed to. I imagine 15th-century Lancaster types bemoaning the fact that Gutenberg's newfangled printing press would spell the end of our ability to remember and recount long stories (and perhaps it did, but I think we're better off for the bargain).

Sure, emoticons can be a crutch. But as a shorthand, they're effective and suited to the medium of texting and email. Elsewhere in the Times story, emoticons are called "lazy," and we're invited to imagine The Great Gatsby's final sentence followed by a frowny face: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past :-("

That's funny, but I don't think it's fair. Fitzgerald had access to illustrations but didn't use them—and isn't that what emoticons are? Just because a writer uses emoticons in his emails doesn't mean he's going to use them in everything he writes. I think most of us know the difference between a tiny picture of a cartoon tomato and the word tomato.

Looking at work emails that I've used smileys in, I feel that they've returned a dimension to interpersonal communication that we took for granted at the height of the telephone era: the helpful clues offered by facial expression and tone of voice. (The anti-emoticon language purists surely wouldn't insist that I speak in a monotone and avoid facial expressions when I'm communicating face to face.) A smile can buffer a request, soften a criticism, or indicate irony, whether it's personal or digital. Emoticons are rudimentary, sure, and many of us are still figuring out how frequently to use them—but I can look at them as a step forward for clarity in communication, not a step back.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Do Writers Need to Know Grammar Terminology?

They need to have a grasp of basic grammar, yes. But do they need to know terms—the names of verb tenses, the names of the parts of speech, and so on?

This question was recently posed by a blogger at PR Builder, and I'm quoted in the resulting post.

It's an interesting question, and I think the answer is usually yes.
Writing by instinct may often lead to great writing, but instinct isn't always reliable. (In the PR Builder post, writing by instinct is compared to playing music by ear. I think this is an interesting analogy, but most musicians earn their skill through study and talent. The same goes for writers.)

Grammar is the logic (as variable and capricious as it may be) of written language, and understanding that logic means knowing its terms. The rules of even simple things like comma placement require that a writer be able to say to himself or herself, "This is a subordinate clause" or "This phrase is nonrestrictive." Knowing how language works (and being able to make smart choices based on that knowledge) is, I think, what makes a writer a writer.

You may decide to break grammar rules, but you will break them much more effectively if you do so knowingly and with purpose.

And here's another, more self-serving reason: A professional writer will often come up against editors and copy editors who want to alter the writer's work. Often, the copy editors and editors are professionals who are making the right choices and helping the writer say what he or she means to say. But sometimes (rarely!), those copy editors and editors are less helpful and will damage a writer's prose. Either way, it pays to speak the language of editing, so you can communicate with them if it comes to a grammar "smack down."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Secret Tips for Public Speaking

I've recently been doing a lot of public speaking at work; my role at Monster has developed into one where I represent the company not only to media and on speaker panels, but also in customer presentations (at which I discuss trends in recruiting and so on). At these presentations, it's just me, some slides, and between 50 and 100 people ready to listen to me for an hour or more.

Among my friends, I've been calling these presentations "The Charles Purdy Show." In August, the Charles Purdy show has run in Austin, Texas; Davenport, Iowa; and Santa Clara, California—next week, the show goes on the road again, and I'll be appearing in Lincoln, Nebraska.

There's lots of advice on public speaking out there on the Web, and I've read some of it. (Public speaking didn't come naturally to me
—I'm actually very shy.) But I've come up with some "secrets" of my own in the past few months. I thought I'd share them.

1. Show up early and meet attendees.
The more audience members I meet before the presentation, the better the presentation goes. I like to stand by the registration table or just walk around and introduce myself as the speaker. If you want people to ask questions or otherwise participate, telling them this, individually when you introduce yourself, is very helpful.

2. Find a friend. This is something standup comics do all the time, and I find that it really warms up an audience
comics often single out someone in the audience and talk to him or her directly throughout a performance.

Here's an example of how I do it: One of my presentations is on attracting and retaining Generation Y workers. At the start of the presentation, I ask people to raise their hands if they were born in 1989 or 1990 (and I widen the range until at least one person has raised a hand). When I have one or two people, I ask their names and nominate them as "Gen Y representatives." Throughout the rest of the presentation, I either reference them or ask them direct questions. (For instance, after I find a Gen Y-er named Lauren, when I then mention a negative stereotype of this generation, I say "No offense, Lauren." And when I show a slide that talks about Gen Y's values, I ask, "Would you agree with this, Lauren?") Don't overdo it
—but connecting with one audience member can help you connect to the whole audience.

3. Flub your lines.
Just once or twice, near the beginning of your presentation but after you feel you've established yourself as an authority, make a minor mistake
—something you can laugh about. I swear this works! People don't like presenters that are too polished and perfect, and bouncing back from a flub shows that you are not just a "presenting automaton" but rather are in the moment and responsive to your environment. (And being in the moment is key to great presenting!)

You may not be able to make misspeaking seem genuine (and if you feel you can't, then don't try it), but what about, say, "accidentally" repeating a slide and making a self-deprecating joke? I did this for real once
—and discovered that it works.

(Along these lines, you should never be reading during a presentation if you can avoid it. Use an outline for notes, but reading makes eye contact impossible.)

4. Give people your contact information first. I always begin presentations with my email address
—and tell people that I will send them a copy of the slides (if I can) and that I'll answer questions. This releases people from the bondage of note-taking and also lets me represent myself in a friendly way.

5. Don't picture the audience in their underwea
r. I don't know how this became a touchstone of public-speaking advice—I think it's terrible. I, instead, concentrate on why they came to hear me speak. I think of how my presentation will help them in their jobs. And I picture them happy (and fully dressed). I consciously repeat to myself, "I like these people"—I find that this makes me smile more and remain more open-minded.

Image: Idea go /

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review of "Tales of the City: A New Musical"

As much as it pains me to say so, the new musical version of Tales of the City is not as wonderful as it might be. I say this with love and a desire to help—the show is currently in previews; one assumes they’re still tinkering.

Like everyone I know, I adore the books—not only as gems of popular American literature, but also on a deeply personal level: the books are about my city and my friends. They are about me.

I also adore musicals. So I expected this to be a giddily delightful theater-going experience.

There were a few moments that approached this: When the show is funny, it is at its best. Dissatisfied society wife DeDe Halcyon-Day has, I think, two of the best songs (her musical seduction of a Chinese-food delivery guy was one of the highlights of the first act). Among the dramatic numbers, Michael Tolliver’s musical delivery of the coming-out letter he wrote for his mother was moving. (All credit for that lyric is of course due Armistead Maupin.)

All the major players in the show did well in their parts. But here’s the thing, maybe: At their heart, the Tales books (at least the first couple of them) are very, very, very sweet. The good people at 28 Barbary Lane are very good. Even the messed-up, confused ones have hearts of pure gold. (Bad people are punished. Love conquers all. Society’s misfits prevail. We are all cosmically connected. And so on.) Then, the traditional musical relies on this sort of simple sweetness and morality. So the sweetness of the tale and the sweetness of the format combine to make this musical cloying. I wondered whether the writers could have cut some of the treacle by pumping up the raunchiness factor. The show’s “raunchiness” has a cartoonish quality (as do the books’—but putting cartoonish raunchiness to song amplifies that quality in a cringe-y way). I wished for a bit of grit. Mona’s drug use is too adorable. Michael’s romantic heartbreak is too wistful. (Or maybe I’m just too cynical and awful.) The scene with the jockey-shorts contest was entirely too PG. I’m thinking of the film version of the musical Cabaret when I think of cartoonish raunchiness that had a good gritty quality.

And that’s enough of the word raunchy, I think.

The adaptation of the book was quite literal, mood-wise (some plot elements were shifted a teensy bit). We have the benefit, now, of hindsight—of knowing what comes after the freewheeling 1970s; I don’t think it would have been out of place to drop a little bit of foreshadowing into this version of the story.

I was most surprised by how forgettable the music was. The talent involved in creating the music is formidable: Jake Shears and John Garden of the group Scissor Sisters are credited. But I wondered whether they felt oppressed by this unfamiliar genre. All the songs were generically “musical-esque”—and the show was heavy on ballads. I wanted a few catchier tunes. This show didn't feel like a musical journey to the 1970s—I (and all the other old queens in the audience) should have felt like getting up and dancing! I didn't. I wanted Mrs. Madrigal to have an "I Am What I Am" moment instead of quite so much maternal concern. The songs in this musical should be headed right for remixes and modern discos. … They should end up at The Endup. I don't see that happening.

Adapting such a well-loved book series must have been daunting. Fitting the complex story into three hours must’ve been very difficult (the plot might perhaps be simplified). I hope the show gets a little bit of retooling, because I want to love it and I think I could!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Here a Blog, There a Blog, Everywhere a Blog-Blog

I'm blogging (occasionally) about LGBT stuff again, on Queerty. This week's post is about whether we should boycott mixed-sex weddings. And, you know, I continue to blog it up over at!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Illogical Punctuation

Slate columnist Ben Yagoda recently wrote about a standard punctuation rule in American English: the placement of commas and periods inside quotation marks when those quotation marks enclose a title or some kinds of quoted material.

For example, we would write:

I love the song "Bad Romance,"
don't you?


I love the song "Bad Romance", don't you?

There are a few reasons for this preference. A primary one is that, long ago, American typesetters agreed that text looked better this way (putting below-the-baseline punctuation marks inside quotation marks prevents unsightly gaps in blocks of text). Another reason is mere tradition. This is just the way we do it.

In his well-reasoned post, Yagoda argues that this rule is illogical; he would rather that our periods and commas not intrude on titles like this. And his argument makes sense.

He also argues that a lot of people are already ignoring the rule when writing online. In the continuing language debate between prescriptivism and descriptivism, Yagoda is on, in this case, the side of descriptivism: that is, the "right" way to write is the way that enough people are doing it. (The definition of the word enough is a whole 'nother conversation; I'm not sure if enough people use its and it's interchangeably for a descriptivist argument that we should do away with the distinction, but I hope not.)

But "everyone else is doing it" is not a persuasive argument, and I know your momma taught you that. In the end, we, sadly, can't always let logic dictate how we write. By extension of the logic argument, we would spell words phonetically—English spelling is notoriously illogical and dependent on tradition, and this causes all sorts of problems and misunderstandings.

Here's the best reason to use standard punctuation as it's outlined by the major style guides, such as our dear Chicago: Punctuation shouldn't call attention to itself—it shouldn't get in the way of what a writer is trying to say. If a reader notices your punctuation, you're probably doing it wrong. If you often have to explain to people that the way you're punctuating something is not, in fact, an error, your punctuation isn't working for you.

I'd guess that the typical general-interest online reader doesn't know (or doesn't care about) where commas go in relation to a closing quotation mark. Seeing a comma in either place won't bother her. But people who know the rule will be momentarily jolted out of their reading every time they come across a period in the "wrong" place. Like them, I'll be happily reading along and suddenly interrupted by the thought "Typo?" flitting across my consciousness.

The purpose of grammar rules isn't to allow the people who know them to feel superior. (Most people get by just fine without knowing them.) Their purpose is to help writers express themselves clearly by using mutually understood guidelines.

Having standards (even arbitrary ones, like some punctuation rules and the spelling of a great many English words) allows writers and editors to concentrate on getting meanings across, without having to waste time wondering and debating about where the comma goes. The answer is right there, in Chicago. We don't have to worry about it.

Shut Up

Sixteen hours? Sixteen hours of being subjected to someone else's nonstop high-volume cell-phone conversation? I'm amazed it took that long for someone to tell the yakker to shut up.

Of course, I wouldn't recommend those words. But I have some thoughts about the story of Lakeysha Beard, the Amtrak passenger whom police recently removed from a train's "quiet car" after she reportedly talked on her cell phone for 16 hours. ... Again: 16 hours! Who has that much to talk about?

And why didn't Amtrak staff intervene? Why was it left to the passengers? When I used to write a manners-advice column, I was often asked what to do about someone who was breaking the laws or rules of a public space and thereby annoying other people. My response was generally along the lines of this: "If you can, find an authority figure—someone in a uniform of some sort. Bullies (and that's who these people usually are) are cowards, and cowards are cowed by authority figures."

Plus, taking care of these sorts of problems is in authority figures' job descriptions.

Failing that, you can try speaking to someone like this as if she were simply unaware of the problem and would surely be happy to correct it. But as we see in Beard's case, approaching people who are clearly flouting well-understood rules is a losing proposition. (Beard got violent—of course she did!) Such a person is not only a bully but also (at least slightly or perhaps temporarily) a sociopath: She knows the rules but breaks them anyway. She knows she's bothering or endangering other people, and she knows that this makes her frightening. She is probably not a person you can have a productive conversation with.

I probably would've been one of the passengers who sat silently fuming for 16 hours. There's just something so teeth-grindingly, eye-rollingly annoying about being subjected to these one-sided cell-phone conversations. It's visceral. And I think that's because of the aforementioned sociopathy, or narcissism, of the speakers. It's not simply that they don't care about annoying other people. It usually seems to me that they're enjoying their stolen spotlight. They think their conversations are impressive, that we're somehow wowed by the glimpse we're getting into their lives.


With notable and infrequent exceptions, other people's private conversations are beyond banal. I try to remember that when my phone rings while I'm on Muni. And I always travel with ear plugs.

In related news: Lakeysha Beard's blathering killed an unknown number of bees.

Image: Christian Meyn /

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Looking at a Neighborhood Bookstore's Closing in a Different Light

A Different Light, the Castro's LGBT bookstore and an important cultural institution (and purportedly the last LGBT bookstore in California) is closing.

And I don't think that's entirely a bad thing.

I've been thinking a lot about this closing, because I am a book lover (of actual books—with paper inside), a longtime Castro denizen, and someone who believes in supporting local businesses. I have a history with A Different Light (ADL): The store hosted me for an author reading when my book was published in 2004. (I also participated in a group reading there when a short story of mine was published in Modern Words, a literary journal, in 1999.) And, of course, I've been shopping there since I arrived in the Bay Area, more than 20 years ago.

But recently I've also been thinking a lot about change, and about how difficult it can be to accept change as one gets (ahem!) older. That's why, at first, I found myself agreeing with the lamentations of some people in the Castro (and the wider LGBT community): ADL's closing is a sign of the "Decline of Reading," the "Decline of Community Involvement" and the "Decline of the Castro."

And I hate change! I hate it when the businesses I frequent close. When I found out that the Eagle was closing, I mourned. I wished I could go back in time and spend more Sunday afternoons there—an eternity of warm Sunday afternoons on the Eagle patio, drinking my second beer. ... Maybe that's what Paradise will be like.

But back to the Castro. I know that ADL's closing negatively affects the livelihoods of many people, and for that I am very sorry. But looking past that, I think that this closing is probably happening at the right time, and that, although I love nostalgia (I wallow in nostalgia), lamentations are out of order.

The Decline of Reading
When we moan about the "Decline of Reading," what we're saying is, basically, "We are the last intelligent generation. Society is getting dumber. Learning is over. Civilization is doomed!" And people (mostly old people like me) have been saying that since history began. Yes, sure, sometimes a generation does stupider things than its predecessors, but when you take a broad view of history, education trends in a decidedly positive way. Studies that "prove" reading's decline are usually skewed, heavily favoring the printed page. People aren't reading less. They're reading differently. People aren't getting stupider. They're smart in different ways. That's how civilization progresses. We old folks have to deal with it.

Computers and the Internet are changing how we read and how we interact with books and the written word. My last visit to ADL was a few months ago. I was looking for a copy of Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, to give as a gift. The store didn't have it. It didn't have anything by Isherwood, even a copy of the story on which a very popular film had just been based, A Single Man. So I had given ADL a chance to sell me something, and the store didn't have it. (The store did have lots of homoerotic calendars, but every store in the Castro has homoerotic calendars, even Walgreen's.)

Twenty years ago, a youth looking to educate himself about this important writer could have ordered the book, gone to a library, or maybe taken a class somewhere. Now, he can go home and get online. And he'll find Isherwood galore: histories, quotations, essays, and so on—a curious young mind with limited resources is in much better shape today than 20 years ago, even without ADL. There's a lot to read on the Web.

People aren't reading less; they're reading (and buying books) differently.

And I read a lot on the Web: articles and essays in far-off or minuscule publications that ADL could never have exposed me to. And then I am able, with a few clicks, to share what I've read with other people. This is what ADL was all about: sharing ideas. The Web is, I think, doing that better.

The Decline of Community Involvement
The Internet may have doomed the neighborhood bookstore, but I think it has been a boon for our community—whether you define community as LGBT people in general, those in the Castro area, or a smaller subset. From my point of view, it seems that a bookstore (as lovely as a bookstore is) is available to too few people: that is its problem. A desperate, lonely gay youth in a small Minnesota town in the 1980s had no way to get to ADL. Now, he doesn't have to. He can find like minds on the Web, in online communities large and small—so the Web is where he stays involved.

I have no way to prove this, but it seems to me that there is always a certain percentage of people who "get involved" in their communities (the rest just live there). Whether they do it by putting up a poster or by sending an email, I'd say the number is about the same.

Twitter has proved to be a far better way to mobilize a community than a flyer in a bookstore. Through my online community, I'm exposed to new ideas and new causes (and new books) in a way I never was before. The Internet has made me a better, more active member of my community.

The Decline of the Castro
The Castro was here before us, and it will be here after us. From Irish neighborhood to gay enclave to ... maybe something else. And that's how neighborhoods tend to work. As a center for gay culture and social life in San Francisco, the Castro replaced Polk Street when Polk Street's "seediness" no longer aligned with our mainstream aspirations. And now those mainstream aspirations are poised to take us out of the Castro—out of all our gay neighborhoods—and into mainstream society, into a world where we can live in any neighborhood and feel that the men and women (gay, straight, or whatever) who live on our street can be our neighbors and friends, and even our brothers and sisters.

I think that's what we wanted.

I'm being a bit facetious when I say that, because I'm not not at all sure it's what I want. I often opine that I liked some parts of being gay 20 years ago: the feeling that my affectional desires gave me instant counterculture credibility, for instance. Then again, there was also a lot more open discrimination and violence against gay men and women 20 years ago. It's hardly worth the thrill of feeling "a little bit naughty."

I'm talking myself through this (sort of thinking aloud here) because, as I said earlier, I hate change at a gut level. I miss the Castro of my younger days. I miss the Detour. I miss Pozolé and its gorgeous tank-topped staff. I miss that used bookstore on Castro between 18th and 19th, where I bought my first vintage etiquette book.

And I'll miss ADL. And the Eagle! Fond farewell to thee. I heard that they are going to put condos where you once stood, and I groaned ... before looking around and realizing that I live in a condo, and that something was here before I was, and that someone probably misses it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


This post is a bit off-topic for me, but I'm trying to cook at home more, and I've been experimenting with kale.

So, kale has recently been touted as a superfood (joining all those other superfoods they've been throwing at us in recent years: blue-green algae, broccoli, blueberries, açaí, and on and on they come). I don't pay exceptionally close attention to counting calories or measuring nutrients in my diet—I just try to eat healthily in a general way and hope things work out all right (despite my predilection for fatty cheeses and other bad-for-me things).

I'm training for a half-marathon (for charity), so I've added glucosamine supplements to my diet (for my old knees), and I've been eating a bit more, both proteins and carbs. But I think my higher consumption of kale is really making a difference in my energy levels.

OK, so here's what I've been doing with it:

I've been making Bobby Flay's sautéed kale.

I've been doing my own "quick kale": I fill a frying pan with hand-shredded kale (stems removed), sprinkle the leaves with olive oil and low-sodium soy sauce, and add a couple of tablespoons of water. Then I just sauté until the water evaporates and the kale is tender (a few minutes). It's a great side dish.

I've also been pulverizing a mixture of kale and lime juice in my food processor (a couple of loosely packed cups of leaves without stems, and the juice of about half a lime), mashing that mixture into an avocado, and adding some cumin and a bit of sriracha (which deserves its own blog post) to make a sort of guacamole that I use on burritos. All you really need is that and some beans to make a delicious burrito.

And I've been supercharging pesto by food-processing kale, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a little bit of olive oil, and then adding one part that mixture and one part pesto sauce to pasta. It's so good!

I like raw vegetables, but kale is a little tough and stringy unless you grind it up or wilt it a little bit.

Kale. It's what's for dinner.

Part 2
After I'd sent out this post, my father's wife, Maureen, was kind enough to share a photo of the "incipient kale" in her garden.

She says, "This is a bit blurry but you can see that the stems are very white and the little leaves are sweet and round. Kale at this stage looks a lot like kohlrabi, which is growing on either side of the kale row. We really like kale. It grows well, looks pretty, and can be eaten as you have pointed out in many ways. I like to make pesto with it because if you add enough garlic, parm cheese, and walnuts, you don't really miss the basil. And because the kale has been steamed a bit first it whirs up nicely without adding much oil at all, so is lower in fat."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I read with interest a recent review (from a New Yorker blog) of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible. In this new version, the translators and editors have tried to use gender-neutral language—for instance, replacing the word forefathers with the word ancestors.

And they've tried to tackle English's pronoun problem. Although it's a wordy language, English lacks one word that would be very useful: a gender-neutral single-person pronoun.

As our society has moved toward gender equality, we've found many ways to express those changes in our language. For instance, writers sensitive to the issue might use the word humanity instead of mankind. Or when a person's gender is unknown, we use mail carrier instead of mailman, businessperson instead of businessman, and police officer instead of policeman. Some language purists (and some sexists) mock a few of these new terms. Fisher (for fisherman) is a good example of a word that sounds, to many, farcically "politically correct"—even though it is, in fact, not a new word but an old word recently revived.

But we haven't found a new word to fill this gap: "Whenever you see a soldier, smile at _____."

If we were speaking casually, we might say say, "... them." That's how we get around having to say "him or her" and "he or she" every time this happens when we're talking. But many grammarians (and I) don't like using they this way in print. One reason is that they takes a plural verb, so antecedents get fuzzy—and this, in writing, makes for odd sentences: "When I see a soldier, I smile at them, and they smile back."

Many reputable usage guides—such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Usage, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage—recommend the "he or she" solution if you're unable to rewrite your way out of the problem.

But I find that, if I put some thought into it, I'm almost always able to rewrite my way to a gender-neutral solution that doesn't call too much attention to itself—and that's good, because "he or she" can seem clunky when it's repeated a lot (I decline to discuss "he/she").

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, "'[H]e or she' may be used as a last resort to avoid an unwanted assumption of maleness or femaleness in a general reference," adding, however, that "preferred solutions are those that spare the reader all traces of a writer's struggle." It suggests plural constructions ("A good soldier always does his duty," for example, may be changed to "Good soldiers always do their duty"). Alternatively, you might rewrite the sentence so that no pronoun is required. ("A good soldier always does what's required.")

The second example is an intrusive edit, and the first, too, changes meaning slightly (it may suggest more of "a singleness of mind in the group," according to A Dictionary of Modern Usage). In longer writing, when I have multiple gender-unknown single-person pronouns, I sometimes switch back and forth between male and female pronouns: "The hiring manager may think she's being helpful. ... And when you speak to the HR person, ask when you can expect to hear from him."

More from A Dictionary of Modern Usage: "The traditional view, now widely assailed as sexist, was that the masculine pronouns are generic, comprehending both male and female." Some wordsmiths do still see this as true, but "he or she" as a construction is not new; it appears in English as far back as the early 1800s.

So why bother with this? Well, there's the whole clarity-in-writing thing. Also, I think it's important for readers (and therefore for writers and the the publications or brands they represent) to see themselves in writing and the media. Inclusiveness is the right way to write.

Hungarian, just as a side note, is one of the languages that doesn't have this problem. It has one singular-person pronoun,
ő, which means both "he" and "she." If you're at all familiar with Hungarian, you know that its speakers have earned this small simplicity in their beautifully complicated language.

Part 2
In a new blog post on, I continue our conversation about pronouns.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Self-Editing Tips

Writing and editing are, I think, very different activities—the first involves creativity, and the second is more about applying logic and making sure you're following "rules" (not only simple rules of grammar but also complex rules of style and readability).

That's why, in an ideal editorial situation, one person writes and another person edits. But I don't live in that perfect world. So with important documents, if I have time (and especially if I'm writing something long), I try to write and edit separately. This is my self-editing process:
  1. I write: trying not to self-edit, I finish a draft.
  2. I let some time pass: even a few hours can allow me to read with fresh eyes.
  3. I print the text and review it with a colored pencil: I'll often find things on paper that I won't find on screen, and removing myself from the writing environment prevents me from slipping too far back into "creative mode."
  4. I implement my revisions (and repeat steps 2 and 3 if I did heavy rewriting).
  5. I read the document aloud: even if I just whisper, this helps me ensure readability—and I often uncover sneaky typos at this stage.
  6. I run a spelling checker: I leave the spelling checker off while I'm writing; I find that it fades into the background if it's on throughout the process.
When I was the managing editor of Macworld magazine (where several editors and copy editors worked with the writer or writers of each piece), we employed some further tips that might help self-editors:
  1. Read the first and last lines of each paragraph to check transitions.
  2. Turn the document upside-down to check formatting: this allows you to see the document without reading it.
Are you a self-editor? I'd love to see your tips in the comments section.

Image: dan /

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pigs in Space

When I was a child, my family and I lived for a brief time near Washington, D.C.—in a Maryland suburb. My parents divorced when I was 9; my mother, sisters, and I moved away from Maryland, and I hadn't been back to D.C. until last weekend, when I visited for a conference.

I have a very distinct memory of being in Washington D.C. as a child. It is of being on the D.C. Metro with my family. I don't remember where we were going, but being on a subway was a novel experience, so my sister Sarah and I were in high spirits. (If Emily was there, she was an infant.)

At the back of D.C. Metro cars is a little glass partition in front of two "semi-private" seats. So here is my distinct and vivid memory: sitting in those seats, in the last car, with my sister Sarah, and playing "Pigs in Space" while watching the track recede behind us. Playing "Pigs in Space" entailed shouting, "Pigs ... in ... Spaaaaaace!" whenever the train accelerated.

You're familiar with "Pigs in Space," right? It was a recurring sketch on The Muppet Show.

This memory makes me happy. Isn't memory strange—the little bits and flashes that get recorded deep in your psyche? This long-ago outing is surely part of the reason I have such a fondness for public transportation. Thanks, Jim Henson, Miss Piggy, Link Hogthrob, and Dr. Strangepork.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pee-wee's Big Career

I'm at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference this week— (my employer) has a big presence at the event; we're the official Hiring Hub, we're showcasing a lot of our digital and mobile products, we're getting in front of influential bloggers, and we're covering news of interest to job seekers.

It's going to be a busy few days, and my schedule is packed. But of course when I saw that Paul Reubens was speaking, I made time for that in my schedule.

Paul Reubens (also—if not better—known as Pee-wee Herman) presented a funny, enlightening, and encouraging discussion of his long career.

One of the more encouraging elements was his discussion of writing the screenplay for his film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Reubens says that he dislikes writing and felt, then, that he didn't know how. So when it came time to write the screenplay, he read—and then followed the instructions in—a how-to-write-a-screenplay book. The result is (I believe) a timeless and very entertaining movie, and, Reubens says, the screenplay is now taught in some film-theory classes as a perfect example of a well-paced and classic sort of hero's-journey plot, with all the right elements in the right places.

Reubens says, "The film is 90 minutes long, and 90 pages. On page 30, the bike gets stolen—a classic MacGuffin—and on page 60, Pee-wee finds it again."

Here are that story's encouraging takeaways, for me: First, not knowing how to do something doesn't mean you can't learn how to do it (and then do it well). Reubens followed the rules and learned as he went. Second, you don't need to start from scratch when you create something. Putting your own spin on, or bringing your own viewpoint to, a well-tested formula can be a great place to start and can perhaps even help you spur your creativity.

I thought this was interesting, too: Reubens says he originally started by trying to write an unauthorized remake of the classic film Pollyanna—in part because he was obsessed with Hayley Mills, and in part because he loved the idea of Pee-wee in the Pollyanna role. And don't you love that idea? If you're not sure, view these clips and then answer the question.

Another good Hollywood tidbit from this era of his career: Reubens was introduced to the director of Pee-wee's Big Adventure by a mutual friend, the actress Shelley Duvall, whom I adore. Reubens says that after watching the first seconds of Burton's Frankenweenie, he just knew that Burton would be perfect. (Apparently, the movie studio had been trying to get him to go with another director, whose work Reubens didn't like. So here's another good lesson, and a piece of career advice I give all the time: A great network of contacts is indispensable!)

Reubens talked a bit about the iconic nature of the character he has created, and the difficulty of continuing to play the childlike Pee-wee (though Pee-wee's age remains a mystery) as he (Reubens) ages. He jokes, "You'll be seeing Pee-wee in a turtleneck real soon."

Reubens also touched on a notion that is appropriate to SXSWi, at which people are discussing all things related to social media—the difficulty of maintaining a work persona that is separate from your personal persona. For many years, Reubens was photographed and interviewed only as Pee-wee; it was an extended and complex piece of performance art (though Reubens is too modest to call it that).

That is, Reubens was photographed only as Pee-wee until, as he says, this one day. ... And because, perhaps, Reubens kept his true identity so private and appeared only to the world as Pee-wee, this photo seemed even more shocking, amplifying the resulting scandal (which was blown so out of proportion as to approach the level of farce). We live in a different era, and nowadays it's even harder to separate one's "work persona" from one's "private persona." It's a good caution: Your private life is likely to find its way into the public eye.

For the first movie role he took after this scandal (in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Reubens asked that his character look as much like his mugshot as possible. Now that's facing negative press head-on and turning it into a positive.

(Top photo: Pee-wee Herman at the Academy Awards in 1988; photographer, Alan Light [courtesy of Wikipedia Commons].)

Friday, February 4, 2011


It seems that computers can do just about anything these days. A fan of the television show Jeopardy, I've been watching with interest the show's commercials for the upcoming contest between two former champions and an IBM supercomputer. (In test runs, the computer has beaten its human opponents—just barely.)

Maybe that computer could serve as a copy editor. But the software grammar checkers now available to us still cause more problems than they solve.

Take Grammarly, which bills itself as the "world's most accurate grammar checker" and charges a small monthly fee for unlimited use. This is an attractive notion for me—I often serve as my own copy editor, and it can be difficult to proof and edit one's own writing.

So, expecting to be humbled, I ran an article I'd recently written—"Selling Yourself in the Job Interview"—through Grammarly.

I was disappointed with its first suggestion. Grammarly believes the persistent grammar myth about not ending a sentence with a preposition. Yes, you should avoid ending sentences with unnecessary prepositions, as in "Where is the car at?" But any copy editor who suggests replacing the perfectly acceptable sentence "I have no idea what the professor is talking about" with the sentence "I have no idea about that which the professor is talking" (as Grammarly did) should be fired immediately.

Grammarly incorrectly identified the subject of this sentence: "Offering solutions to these problems is a great way to overcome a lack of directly applicable experience." It suggested that the subject of this sentence was plural, and that "is" was incorrect. It is not. (This inability to correctly handle subject-verb agreement is common to computer grammar checkers.)

Grammarly didn't like this sentence either: "Prepare three or four effective sound bites that highlight your past successes and your skills." It suggested, instead: "Prepare three or for effective, sound bites that highlight your past successes and your skills."

That suggested comma is especially problematic—because comma usage is difficult to master, and many writers might not know that it would be incorrect here. (Grammarly thought that "sound" was an adjective, not part of the compound noun "sound bites.")

Grammarly suggests removing all contractions from your writing. This is a good suggestion for a lot of formal and academic writing. It also made a potentially helpful suggestion about removing the word "specific" (a word that is often redundant). But all in all, this grammar checker wanted to insert too many errors. I can't recommend it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Beaver Can Have It

Some of you may remember me as an etiquette-advice columnist—and although I've put that work (mostly) behind me, I do follow developments in the world of manners.

So I read a recent Huffington Post article, "Rudeness Is a Neurotoxin," with interest—and, then, disappointment.

I don't (and really couldn't) dispute the notion that early experiences shape a person's brain, and that a child who is physically or verbally abused is likelier to grow into a person who is abusive (or, one could say, "rude")—not only because he learns the behavior, but also because the abuse has measurable physical effects.

I do take issue with the article's frame, though—the notion that the United States in the 1950s (as modeled by the characters on the TV show Leave It to Beaver) was, or modern-day Japan is, somehow "more polite" than modern-day American culture.

Here's the thing: You can't always measure politeness in a relative way. What is polite to one culture may be impolite to another (consider belching, which is improper in some dining rooms but an appropriate expression of enjoyment in others). This doesn't make one culture more impolite than the other—the two merely have different norms.

Japan has a culture very different from ours, and, yes, the beautiful, courtly deferential behavior a tourist enjoys in nice hotels and restaurants can be a delightful change. But scraping and bowing doesn't define good manners. American plainspokenness can be considered a virtue, and plenty of accepted Japanese behavior (blithely reading soft-core porn while riding the subway, just for instance) is unacceptable by American standards of politeness.

If we could go back to 1950s America, we would surely find that suburban children behaved in a generally more deferential way toward elders, and that women addressed their husbands in a generally more docile manner. But we'd also find broadly institutionalized racism and sexism among people considered paragons of "politeness." People like the Cleavers would not have been surprised to hear their neighbors say that black Americans and white Americans should not live in the same neighborhood, or that a woman's place is in the home, or that homosexuals should be imprisoned. By that measure, modern American suburbanites are far more polite than suburbanites of the 1950s: if they think these things, they are much likelier to keep those thoughts to themselves.

And think of the smell! If Mr. Cleaver and Mrs. Cleaver bathed once or twice a week, I'm sure they considered that quite sufficient. When you look at personal hygiene, our requirements of the people we share society with have become much stricter very recently.

Yes, modern society can be jarring, and loud, and unpleasant, but I'll take it and its personal freedoms (which etiquette rules help define for us) over the world of Leave It to Beaver.

Obviously, it's a meme that bugs me: "Things were so polite back then, in the mythical past." Don't believe it. We Americans haven't gotten less polite. We simply have different (and, I would say, better) standards to uphold.