August 2015

Word Smarts
(Ouch! Did I use that word the wrong way again?)

The past tense of irregular verbs* can cause writers trouble.
*Verbs whose past tense is not formed by just adding“–ed.”

                                      Regular                       Irregular
simple past tense           He jumped.               He sang.
present perfect tense     He has jumped.         He has sung.
past perfect tense          He had jumped.         He had sung.

Choose the correct past tense verb form.

  1. He’d swum/swam the lake before we got there.
  2. The population shrank/shrunk considerably.
  3. She was shook/shaken up by the accident.
  4. You already drunk/drank all the wine!
  5. Mary said she’s rang/rung the doorbell twice.
  6. Which one have you chose/chosen?

See answers at the bottom of this newsletter.

Grammar To Go
Takeout tips for better writing

What’s the correct way to write this?

The man who sat next to me was named James.
The man who sat next to me is named James.

Garner’s Modern American Usage advises us to use the present tense because of what Garner calls an “ongoing truth.” (The man is still named James.)

On the other hand, Grammar Girl, says it’s fine to use the past tense because we naturally assume that he’s still called James. Context and implication fill in the facts.

This makes sense to me. However, we could get into trouble with a sentence like this:

Yesterday you mentioned Clara ate too much.

Does this mean that it was a single occurrence or does she always eat too much—an ongoing truth?

The bottom line needs to be clarity. If we understand from context, without any doubt, we could get away with the past tense. But if we applied Garner’s ongoing truth rule, we would avoid murky communication, as in the case of Clara’s eating habits. 

Writing Tips
Be the Boss of Your Writing!
—making verbs work

Verbs give direction to a sentence. They carry meaning, intention and action. Make verbs work for you! Here are some tips for improving your writing.

Don’t overuse to be
This is the most common and useful verb in English, but it is overworked. When editing your writing, look for ways to recast sentences with stronger verbs.

There is support for the homeless through county programs.
County programs support the homeless.

I was responsible for managing eight employees.
I managed eight employees.

Choose when you use passive voice
Passive voice describes sentences where the doer of the verb is not the subject of the sentence. This type of construction comes in very handy when you don’t want to focus on the doer of the action. For example, “Your keys got lost—whoops!” Sometimes we may not want to say who did it.

Your writing will have more impact if you use active voice instead.

The chairman was appointed by the board.
The board appointed the chairman.

The child was accused by the teacher.
The teacher accused the child.

Choose descriptive verbs
Careful word choice improves writing, and this is especially true when it comes to verbs. To make your writing more vibrant, use verbs that paint a clearer picture.

You can say Sandra went across the street. It’s perfectly fine. But if instead you say Sandra dashed across the street, we’d have a clearer image in our minds. Maybe Sandra skipped, zigzagged or limped— this extra information can be packed into the verb you choose.

Can’t think of another word to use? Refer to your thesaurus to find synonyms. There’s one in your dictionary on your computer!

Word Smarts—answers

  1. He’d swum the lake before we got there.
  2. The population shrank considerably.
  3. She was shaken up by the accident.
  4. You already drank all the wine!
  5. Mary said she’s rung the doorbell twice.
  6. Which one have you chosen?

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2009
A go-to resource on grammar and style with plenty of examples

Grammar Girl
Practical advice on contemporary American English grammar