I have measured out my life in sentences: composing, reading, revising and discarding them; talking to students about how to write, interpret, and edit them. I have dreaded the sentence that doesn’t come easily. I have learned at times to play with words that feel like nonsense in order to discover and organize thoughts, teasing words to make clarity appear.

There are sentences with gaps and missing pieces. Redundant sentences. Muscular sentences. Transitional sentences. Sentences that sing. Then: stylistic fragments. Intentional run-ons. Does the reader trust your sentences? If you break the rules, will the reader follow? Sentences that capture complicated feelings or thoughts by uniting verbs with precise subjects and prepositional direction. I’m lost in this sentence. Is this the best place for this sentence? Could these sentences be combined?


It’s common among the literati to carry around a bunch of grammar gurus, like¹ Erykah Badu’s Bag Lady. Usually you’ll find some mix of H. G. Fowler, E. B. White and Quiller-Couch, and perhaps some volume-by-committee such as The Chicago Manual of Style or Hart’s Rules.  I personally used to follow Fowler.  I would read from his The King’s English almost every day.  I enjoyed it only moderately, but I assumed it was a mandatory part of the writer’s daily diet and exercise.  I boxed like a fiend with Fowler in my corner.  I’d beat you down for any latent coordination of relative clauses, or any fused participle.

A funny thing happened early this decade. I realized I was in a quagmire and became disillusioned.  I’ve learned to make linguistic love, not war.  My attitude towards prescriptive grammarians has become “kiss my that-which-abusing, colon-and-semicolon-using, passive-voice-embracing arse, bitches!”

In my role as a Very Nice Person, I think many things I never say. Oh, I think about saying them. I think them loudly. I say them with my posture. I glare at my computer screen through the most long-winded and pointless stories. But even when I’m seething, I cannot stop myself from uttering the occasional polite “mmhmm.”

It’s actually embarrassing how often I have to fight the urge to say cruel things. For example:

Truthfully, I don’t like you very much. You aren’t very interesting. You aren’t really funny. Your jokes are tired and the bulk of your contributions to conversations consist of lines from movies and books. Movies and books are great, but they are no substitute for having actual thoughts of your own.

Yes, actually, that dress does make you look fat. The tights don’t fit either. Those shoes are entirely too young for you. You have no sense of style, do you? Your taste is the definition of poshlust.

You are misusing that word. Stop correcting people if you can’t correct them correctly. I would explain it to you, but I actually think the explanation of how to properly use that word is beyond your grammatical grasp. Just please stick with using words you actually understand. Hint: If you’re using a word because you think it sounds smart, there’s a very high probability that you’re misusing it.

You know what? Maybe you should just stop talking. Don’t just stop talking to me, but stop talking in my vicinity. You can only speak when more than 50 feat away. It’s not just the things you say but the sound of your voice that I can’t stand. You sound like a stopped up nose. You sound like nails on a chalkboard. I hate the way you hesitate meaningfully before saying something worthless.

I need another beer before I can continue to think about you.

I am not a Very Nice Person, as I suspect most other VNPs are not. What I am is a southern girl who has learned very well what not to say. I’ve learned not to make fun of the ugly shoes in the department store because nearby there is very likely someone eyeing those same shoes for their office Christmas party or prom or what have you.

My coworkers foolishly believe that I am extraordinarily kind. They say so to my face. I’m not kind, but I’m a bit of an expert in the Golden Rule. I know that if I were in an office with no hand towels for a week, one day I’d come storming out of the bathroom with wet hands and wipe them on the shirt of whoever was responsible for buying said hand towels. So, I buy the hand towels strictly for the safety of my clothing. They also forget that I am paid to be nice to them. I’m paid to solve their problems, reserve their vehicles, facilitate their communication, arrange their flights, etc. And when they ask me “What’s for lunch?” and I tell them “Ask your mom,” they think I’m joking.