How can I follow such a bold claim with an equally bold introduction? Perhaps a general hook sentence will do me well: schools have often taught children bad habits. Now I follow that excellent hook with some bla-bla, then, finishing the introduction, I present my thesis: primary and secondary schools (in America) teach, to some extent, essay-writing incorrectly. The methods I specifically refer to are the inverse pyramid, the five-paragraph, and the hamburger methods to essay-writing.
The inverse pyramid refers to an introductory form where the first sentence—the hook—is general and catchy, and the last sentence—the thesis or whatever’s left—is the most essay-specific. You might hold this method dear to your heart; I did for a while. Well, it’s shit. It’s utter garbage and an excuse to weaken forceful writing. Why? Because it teaches kids to start with vague nonsense like “throughout history, governments have often spurned people toward mistrust and violence,” when the writer really wants to argue that “British administrative methods in Palestine following the 1920 riots and 1929 Arab revolts in Jerusalem spurned Zionist mistrust and, in turn, the formation of an independent Israel in 1947.” One is petty and boring, the other forceful and direct. The first shows nothing of an argument, a setting, or I dare say a voice. The second gives a setting, a timeframe, and an argument (this being the most important element of all three). Arguments interest people. Continuing the theme from my previous example, if I shout “different nationalities claim rights to the same land,” nobody will care. But if I shout, “Israel belongs to the Palestinians,” quite a few people will care; arguments matter. Start with the thesis, then give us the bla-bla needed in the introductory section. This does not mean tipping the inverse pyramid right-side-up: don’t start specific and end vague. Start specific and elaborate on the topics you wish to discuss. If this seems too difficult to do—years of incorrect education drilled into your head—try this trick: write your introduction as you normally would, then highlight the first sentence and delete it. Don’t bother re-reading it. Chances are it’s meaningless dribble you would be better without.
After being asked the proper rules and not having a concrete answer, I decided to write a short reference on italicizing, underlining, and quoting in formal writing. It's all a matter of deciding what is important enough to tilt and what isn't.
The simplest rule to grasp is that, in handwriting, you underline where in formal writing (the stuff you type on a computer) you italicize. Nothing that comes out of your or anyone else's printer should have words or phrases underlined (I haven't checked a style book recently, but not even your titles should sit atop a horizontal line). More complicated is the decision between quoting and italicizing. Generalized, any work of larger stature earns italics. Short works or sections of larger works deserve only quotations. And since that explains nothing more than what you already knew, here is a simple-to-use reference list:
How do we punctuate properly around parentheses or quotation marks? This question arises often, and the answer contains enough variables that it deserves its own article. Without further ado, the rules:
If part of a sentence within parentheses falls within a larger sentence, punctuate outside the closing parenthesis. When the movie came out (starring Tom Hanks, Alice May, and Tim Curry), we all went to see it. I used to think that anything inside parentheses was optional. Let's pretend that's true (it sort of is); a sentence must still flow correctly if you delete everything within the open and close parentheses. We could then rewrite the example as When the movie came out, we all went to see it. If the last comma were inside the parentheses, it would read, When the movie came out we all went to see it. That is grammatically incorrect and fails my test.
If parentheses surround a full sentence, the period must be within the parentheses. The game was late. (But of course we all attended.) It was a good game. The parentheses mark off an entire sentence, which deserves its own period. Applying my test again, we get The game was late. It was a good game.
Good language isn't simply about picking words that work, it's about picking the right words and understanding why they work. Our language, thanks to finance, business, and government jargon, has diluted into a muddle of close-enoughs, complex words of meaningless dribble, bad synonyms, and a general laziness when it comes to the particulars of words. If you're working with math, you simplify—you won't write an integral function where a simpler equation suits better; language is no different.
I can't nitpick every word and mistake and misspelling here—if you want a reference book for most uncertainties, get Garner's Modern English Usage (highly recommended). Let's begin with something basic: The government utilizes taxes to support itself and its people. At this current moment in time I am hungry, but the unfavorable weather that has set in keeps me from running to the deli. Grammatically, those sentences are fine, but stylistically they are agonizing. Utilize is a bad word that we use because use doesn't sound smart enough. At this current moment in time or any of its variants are wordy and weak synonyms for now (most of the time it can be cut out altogether). Unfavorable weather sounds like a student attempting intelligence by dodging the simpler alternative: rain. Here are the revisions: The government uses taxes to support itself and its people. I am hungry, but the rain keeps me from running to the deli.
It is no fault of our progressive society that, despite trying for political correctness and proper treatment of all humans, we still fall to the deeply objective treatment of any man or woman who does something—anything!—whatsoever. Is it because, deep down, we all harbor unsettling misanthropy? Or are we just lazy? Whether referring to ol' Brenda down the street, Uncle Charles, or even Steve, they are all human, and all deserve to be treated as such.
What am I getting at: equality, progressive ideals, liberalism, some form of humanism? Hell no. I'm getting at this: when referring to a person (no matter the stature), use who and whom, not that or which. Don't say The man that shot the rooster is bad, but The man who shot the rooster is bad. Same goes for women, kids, grandparents, and whoever identifies as human. And for anything else, use that. The fine lady, who was dressed in all black, wrote with a pen that stuck painfully to her fist.
For the few who write fiction, allow me some tips that will improve your prose. If people have told you that your fiction stinks, follow these rules and write with good grammar. Even if your story is shit, your prose will be clean.
Vague words: Very, actually, just, really, quite, all speak loud but say little. I have written about these words before, but I'll repeat it again: use concrete descriptions. If I say The hall was very long, how is that different from saying The hall was long? Vague qualifiers attempt detail, but fail to add anything other than pulp, fattening fiction as greasy food fattens the body.
Proper quotations: "Hey, babe." The man said. If you append dialogue with he said, she said, or any variant thereof, it must be part of the same sentence; the dialogue must end with a comma, exclamation point, or question mark. In proper form: "Hey, babe," the man said or "What's up?" she said. Do not use a comma if you do not follow with a speaker attribution: "Hey, babe," the man drove alongside the girl.
Immediate dialogue: Keep dialogue real, curt, and honest. Avoid words such as so and now because they, like vague words, only fatten the useless meat of conversation. "So how are you?" becomes "How are you?" in cleaner writing.
I have a few brief thoughts on punctuation.
The Period. As William Zinsser said, most people don't reach the period soon enough. Don't think of the period as something to tack on at the end of a thought, but rather a tool to kill a winding sentence. There's no rule that dictates the length of a sentence, and while you should strive for variety, shorter is usually better. A long sentence allows for loss of focus, punctuation, and control. Short sentences are good.
The Question Mark. This mark causes few problems. If dialogue ends with a question mark, and the sentence continues, the sentence should follow in lower case: "How are you?" she said. This also holds true for exclamation points.
The Exclamation Point. Writers overuse it. Just look at any advertisement in a magazine, newspaper, or billboard. The exclamation point reveals a gushy author, too excited by his own writing. Instead of forcing excitement at the end of a sentence, rephrase the sentence to emphasize what you want (not the punctuation mark), and let the readers understand the excitement themselves. The same applies to humor—an exclamation point kills the joke, ruins the surprise, and forces itself onto the reader. If the sentence ain't funny, I ain't laughing, no matter how many exclamation points you tack on. Use this mark in these two situations: dialogue that reflects shouting, and exclamations. Alas! That is it.
Sounds like a formal art style, but unfortunately it's another term teachers throw at you for bad writing. Parallelism, in short, requires everything in a sentence to match, from tense to number. If I wrote, I will go shopping and made dinner, it doesn't take a trained eye to notice the mistake. To see it clearly, we can split the sentence apart: I will go shopping and I will made dinner. The correct form follows: I will go shopping and make dinner or I went shopping and made dinner. Both work, but imply different actions due to tense alterations.
Parallelism creeps into any kind of sentence, but there are warning signs to look for if prone to breaking parallel structure. Sentences constructed with the following are prone to nonparallel writing: Either . . . or, neither . . . nor, not only . . . but also, anything with both, lists, gerundives and infinitives, tense, and count. This about covers every English sentence. You want every part of your sentence to agree in number (Spaghetti and meatballs is a good dinner option), tense (They will see and conquer), and the many other things I listed above, which are easier taught through example.
Split infinitives are, after passive voice, a grammatical construct that calls for the most pissed off responses from either side of the argument. A split infinitive means to literally split the infinitive (the verb form preceded with to) and stuff another word or phrase inside. Take to triple. That's an infinitive verb. Now let's murder that son of a bitch: Apple stocks are expected to more than triple in profits. Doesn't that feel fine? And, since every article that discusses split infinitives uses the next example, so will I: To boldly go where no man has gone before.
The craze against split infinitives started when someone decided that English should follow Latin grammar; Latin infinitives are one word (e.g. videre = to see). It would be stupid to split a word in two and stuff something else inside, wouldn't it? But if you do, call it tmesis, and it becomes a literary device. I leave it to the reader to decide whether it makes sense to place the grammar of an old language upon a modern language. But if you say yes we better also love passive voice, because Vergil and those poetic Latin authors used it every chance they had. (When it comes to passive voice, English classes teach bugger all, but Latin clears it up good.)
Whether to capitalize north or south or northern or southern can seem complicated. Why do we say north of the lake but meet me in the North, or northern winds but Southern Hospitality? As with most things in the world of grammar, there are a few rules to help us out.
Rule 1: Capitalize north, south, east, west, and their derivatives when belonging to proper names or when used to signify specific regions: I live in the North, North Pole, Southern Hospitality, West Coast, down South.
Rule 2: If the words indicate a direction, do not capitalize them: I lived in the south of Germany, drive west on this road until you hit the stop sign.