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How Many Chaplains?

Our friend, the English teacher in Iran, asked another good question. Unlike his questions about the singular or plural use of “any,” this one has a straightforward answer. (Fortunately!) Here’s his question.

The Question

I have just bought a novel, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. 

There is a page about Jonathan Swift’s life. There, I found a sentence which I cannot analyze grammatically, no matter how much I am scratching my head to come up with an answer. The sentence is: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as chaplain to a lord justice.” 

To me, this sentence is 100% wrong grammatically. It should be: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as A chaplain to a lord justice.” 

Here is my reason: “chaplain” cannot be used without an “A” in front of it because it is in singular and an “A” is needed in front of it.

What do you think? Do you agree with me?  Continue reading


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No Problems

Our new friend, an English teacher from Iran, poses another complicated question about the use of “any.”

Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.

“English is not my mother tongue language. But I don’t have any ………… when I speak with native speakers of English. I can understand them very well.”

a) problems
b) problem

Short answer

This is a good question, but one without a clear answer. The short answer is that “any problems” is the more common way to say this. (Another common way to say this is “I don’t have a problem.”)

See here for a comparison of usage: http://bit.ly/WnAsbR

But this is sneaky. Let’s look at the long answer.

Long answer

If I say, “I don’t have any problems,” then I admit the possibility that I may have one problem. If someone asks me, “Do you have any problems,” I can correctly answer “no” if I have a single problem. I don’t have problems, but I do have a problem. Then, when the problem occurs, a person may say, “Hey, you said you didn’t have problems,” and I can answer, “That’s right. I don’t have more than one problem, but I do have one problem.” As I said, this is a sneaky way to answer.

On the other hand, if I say, “I don’t have any problem,” then I allow the possibility that I have more than one problem. If someone asks me, “Do you have any problem,” I can correctly answer “no” if I have several problems. I don’t have just one problem, but I have several problems. Then, when problems occur, the person can say, “Hey, you said you didn’t have a problem,” and I can answer “That’s right. I don’t have a single problem, but I do have more than one problem.” This, too, is a sneaky way to answer.

The answers are sneaky because the literal meanings may conflict with the implied meanings. I say one thing, and the listener thinks I mean something else. I answer that I don’t have one problem, or don’t have multiple problems, but the listener will assume I mean zero problems.

To get back to the original question, you have two options.

1. Most common way to say this: “any problems.”

2. Literal answer: Choose “I don’t have any problem” to indicate you don’t have a single problem or choose “I don’t have any problems” to indicate you don’t have multiple problems.

My recommendation: use “any problems.” If you have one problem, you are likely to have other problems, too. If you use “any problems,” the message you send is that not even one problem will occur, thus covering all possibilities.

Perhaps our friend will ask a question about “that” and “which.” By comparison, the answer is much simpler.

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Use concluding words to state your main point.

When you are writing a document to persuade your reader about an idea, you present your supporting ideas or evidence leading up to the main point. If you do this well, your reader will come to the same conclusion that you are trying to make.

To show that you have finished making your argument (i.e., completed writing about the reasons for your idea) and are about to state the main idea, you use a concluding word. A concluding word tells the reader, “Based on this information, I conclude that . . . .” Sample concluding words and phrases are thus, therefore, in conclusion, and as a consequence.

These concluding words provide a signpost for the reader. They say, “I’m done giving the evidence, and now I’m going to tell you the idea that I want you to believe.”

You may be able to make your main point without them. However, they are very effective for helping the reader identify what it is you want them to understand.

This is the strategy for day 81 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

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Irony and Poetic Justice

Situational irony – A picnic gone terribly wrong

Is It Ironic? Case 1. You’re walking down the street with a friend. Ahead of you, you see a man stumble on a crack in the sidewalk. Your friend laughs at the man. A moment later, your friend trips on the same crack. “Oh,” you say, “that’s so ironic!” No, it isn’t. That’s not ironic.

Case 2. Later, you go home and turn on the television. You see a news story about a politician getting hauled into court for lying under oath. That same politician had recently accused fellow politicians of being deceitful. “Oh, that’s ironic,” you say, laughing. No, that isn’t irony either.

Case 3. Finally, just before going to bed, you walk through your house, turning off the lights and complaining about your family members who left them on. However, when you turn off the last light, you realize that you have to walk back through the house in the dark. While doing so, you knock your shins on a chair. You rub your shins and say “It’s so ironic that I turned off the lights and made myself walk in the dark!” No, that isn’t ironic either.

In fact, the only thing ironic about these three events is the fact that you thought they were ironic!  Continue reading


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Those doggoned sentences.

Peanut the elephant from Spencer Quinn's "To Fetch a Thief".

I love dogs, and I love a good mystery. So when I came across the Chet and Bernie mystery series, I was ecstatic. The books are narrated from the perspective of Chet, the dog. I really enjoyed this as too many times in books and movies, animals are overly anthropomorphized.

I cuddled up at night with books one and two, Dog on It and Thereby Hangs a Tail. I couldn’t wait to get book three, To Fetch a Thief. In this book, Chet and Bernie, Bernie being a private detective and Chet’s owner, set out to find a missing elephant, Peanut. Peanut was the main attraction in a small, family-owned traveling circus that happened by Chet and Bernie’s town. The more they learned about Peanut and her trainer, the more they found that she just wasn’t missing. She may have been kidnapped.

As I delved into To Fetch a Thief, I was really into the mystery like I was with the previous two books. Then, I got around to the middle of the book, and something strange was happening. At first, I didn’t want to believe what was happening, couldn’t believe it. Sentences were becoming a blur, often times not making any sense at all. I just kept shaking it off thinking these were minor errors that had been overlooked. But it kept happening.

I started noticing misspelled words, run-ons, overly hyphenated statements, and other writing blights. It was true; this book had taken a turn for the worse. I soon felt that I was missing the great story of Chet and Bernie’s adventure in the search for Peanut. Poor Peanut. Poor beloved dog mystery series!  Continue reading

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8 Sentence Patterns for Academic and Technical Writing

(From Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing.)

An expert academic or technical writer needs only a few basic sentence patterns to produce easy-to-understand writing. Each of the sentence patterns below will result in clear academic or technical writing. However, do not use any one pattern more than twice in a row to prevent the writing from sounding repetitive and boring. Also, use the more complex sentence patterns less frequently. They are more challenging for the reader and may make the writing overall more complex than necessary.

All effective sentence patterns start with the Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O) sentence structure. Optional components are additional S-V-O structures and descriptive words, phrases, and clauses (D), which can be placed in various locations.

In the samples below, the subjects are underlined, and the main verbs are in italics.

1. Simple sentence (S-V-O): A simple sentence has one subject–verb pair. It starts with the subject (or an adjective and the subject). The subject is immediately followed by the verb (or an adverb and the verb). A simple sentence may contain an object.

Example 1: The computer desktop provides access to your files. Continue reading


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Three Strategies for Writing to Your Reader

Here are three tips from 300 Days of Better Writing about how to understand your readers and give them what they need.

Day 110: Be prepared to work hard at your writing.

Easy reading is damned hard writing.

(Nathaniel Hawthorne)

(Please excuse the curse word. It may indicate Hawthorne’s
frustration with the work necessary to produce good writing, or it
may indicate the strength with which Hawthorne believes this.)

The point of this quote is that clear, easy-to-read writing is not easy
to produce. Instead, it is the result of writing, analyzing what you
write, and re-writing—perhaps many times.

When you write, you are attempting to communicate. The more work
you put into writing, the better you will be able to communicate.
Hard work by you leads to easy understanding by your reader.

People have told me, “Writing is so easy for you.” This isn’t true. I
have practiced writing, studied writing, and analyzed what makes
writing clear. The documents they read are the result of much work:
writing, criticizing, and rewriting until they are “easy reading.”
That’s what great writers aim for: not easy writing but easy reading. Continue reading


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