Year 2007 Writing/Communication Tips
by Lucy Paine Kezar

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Tip #74
January, 2007

Getting Started: Writing when “blocked”

Since 2003, I’ve offered a January tip, each year, about getting started in writing. A list of former Tips on this subject appears at the end of this message.

If you feel “blocked” or at a loss for material, here’s a technique that is sometimes called freewriting, for breaking through the barrier and getting started:

Just start to write, quickly and without pause. You can also dictate your material into a tape recorder or digital recording device.

Do not edit in any way. Just let the ideas flow. If all else fails, write about the difficulty of the task. You’ll probably discover that in this process you will in fact have written something useful, and that a quantity of useful material now appears amid the freewriting that you’ve done.

A variation of this is called speedwriting. Here one writes in the same quick and unedited way, without pause, but with a time limit and an actual set timer.

Remember, don’t rewrite, don’t reread, don’t edit, and don’t pass judgment on the material. Let it flow!

Previous tips on getting started, appearing on the website:

Tip #3, December, 2000: Can't get started?
Tip #6, March, 2001: Daunted by the blank page?
Tip #21, August, 2002: A style tip: Varied Beginnings
Tip #26, January, 2003: The opening sentence
Tip #38, January, 2004: Opening lines
Tip #50, January, 2005: Getting Started, Looking Back
Tip #62, January, 2006: Getting Started: Organizing Material

Happy New Year,



Tip #75

Colloquialisms, 1.

The October tip ,#71, discussed slang and mentioned future tips about colloquialisms. This is the first of two colloquialism tips.

What is the difference between slang and colloquialisms?

They overlap, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, “slang” commonly refers to specially-created words and phrases, such as “freebie,” “bonkers,” and “Yuck!” Slang may be specific to a region, age group, or culture.

Colloquialisms, on the other hand, usually employ standard words in new meanings. Colloquialisms originate in spoken language; the word itself comes from a Latin word for speak.

“Over the top”
“Go for,” as in “I could go for a burrito.”

Colloquialisms are used primarily in conversation. Although they add color and vigor to our language, they are generally considered unacceptable in formal writing.

Whether or not they are acceptable in public speaking depends upon the nature of the speech and of the occasion. For speakers as well as writers, the important skill is to know the difference; that is, to recognize colloquialisms and to know when we are using them.

This requires a certain level of language awareness. A colloquial expression that we hear constantly can begin to sound normal. For instance, a person who works with youth may hear “I’m like,” meaning “I said,” so often that this terminology begins to sound like standard American English!

Example of this currently popular colloquialism:
“My friend came in carrying a unicycle and I’m like, ‘What are you gonna do with that?’”

A related example: “go” or “goes” meaning “said.”
“I said to my boyfriend, ‘Let’s go skiing,’ and he goes, ‘In this weather? It’ll be fifteen below!’”)

Further examples of colloquialisms:

1. The word “thing” used in place of more precise word.
Example: “There are several things that I ask you to remember.”
(More precise alternatives include “principles,” “points,” and “procedures.”)

2. Popular metaphor such as “raining cats and dogs.”

3. Informal use of ordinary words.
Example: “kind of,” as in “Those decorations are kind of garish.”

In next month’s tip we’ll continue to examine colloquialisms. I’ll close with one:

Here’s lookin’ at you!



Tip #76

Colloquialisms, 2: Deliberate grammatical errors!

As mentioned in the previous two tips, on slang and colloquialisms, these speech-based forms add color and vigor to our language and we needn’t avoid them altogether. We benefit, however, from recognizing colloquialisms. We can then decide when and when not to use them.

A type of colloquialism that we occasionally read, hear, and use is the deliberate use of a grammatically incorrect sentence. Examples:

--“It’s me!”

--“Who do you know?”

We often deliberately choose these incorrect versions in order to avoid appearing stilted or pedantic. That’s a justifiable motive; on the other hand, some readers or listeners are annoyed by any grammatical error.

How do we balance this?

A suggestion:
In informal texts we can use such expressions occasionally, when they are unusually appropriate, but sparingly, NOT EMPHASIZING NOR NEEDLESSLY REPEATING them. (In formal writing we should of course avoid these incorrect forms altogether.)

Here’s an example:
Imagine that you are writing an article or speech about elections. You write, “Whom are you going to vote for?” Then you balk at the ”whom” because you think it sounds stuffy. You change it to “Who are you going to vote for?” Then you worry that a percentage of readers or listeners will label this as bad grammar. Since this is your theme, it recurs at various points in your text.

A compromise:
Avoid using that sentence more than once in your piece. Further, you can acknowledge its colloquial origin by using a sentence like, “As they say, ‘Who are you going to vote for?’” Then, when you restate the theme, you can easily reword it, as in “Which candidate will you choose?”

Another way of showing awareness that you are using a grammatically-incorrect popular saying is to put it into a direct quotation. Example: “As my three-year-old says when he sees his face in a photo, ‘IT’S ME!’”

On the who/whom question, mentioned above:

Some language experts consider the who/whom distinction nearly obsolete.  Conversely, many readers and listeners continue to honor the difference and cringe slightly at a “who” used where traditional grammar rules require “whom.” In the May Writing Tip we’ll take a look at the who/whom question.



Tip #77

The who/whom question – 1.

As mentioned in last month’s tip, some language experts consider the who/whom distinction nearly obsolete. However, many others continue to honor the difference. Let’s take a look at it.

1. WHO

“Who” is always the grammatical SUBJECT of its own clause. (A subject and a verb constitute a clause.)

--Who came through the door?
--Who made the coffee?

“Who” is also the correct form for a “predicate pronoun”; that is, a pronoun following a form of the verb “to be.” Example: --Your fiancé is who?


“Whom” is always the OBJECT of a verb or preposition. Examples:
--Whom did you choose as soloist?
--With whom is she talking?
--“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne, 1572-1631)

In our next tip we’ll look at “who” and “whom” in subordinate clauses.  That’s where the greatest confusion arises regarding these two similar pronouns.



Tip #78

The who/whom question – 2.

A little self-test: please fill in the blanks with “who” or “whom”:

1. We know______arrived at the theater first.

2. We know _____ you chose.

3. It’s all in _____you know!

Most of us know immediately that in sentence #1 “who” is correct.

The second two are trickier. For each we might choose “who” because we often hear it said that way. However, “whom” is correct in both #2 and #3.

The rule:
Use the form of the who/whom pronoun that is correct IN ITS OWN CLAUSE.
For example, “its own clause” in sentence #2 is “whom you choose.” There the pronoun is the direct OBJECT of the verb “choose,” so it is in the objective case (whom).

In sentence #1, its own clause is “who arrived at the theater first.”
There, “who” is the grammatical SUBJECT of the verb “arrived” and is thus in the nominative case (who).

The same rule applies, of course to “whoever” and “whomever.”

Deviations in conversation:
In order to avoid sounding stilted or pedantic we sometimes intentionally use a grammatically incorrect “who” instead of “whom,” as in the popular saying, “It’s all in who you know.”

That’s fine, but it’s beneficial to recognize when we’re doing this, and make a choice. If we know grammatical rules, we can decide when and when not to break them.

For more on the subject of deliberate errors see the Tip of March, 2007, entitled “Colloquialisms, 2: Deliberate grammatical errors!”

Lucy Paine Kezar
Communicate for Results!


Tip #79

Keep a vacation journal

We can improve our writing simply by writing a few lines each day.
Keeping a journal is a way of doing this.

Suggestion: Keep a journal while on vacation. A few lines each day will suffice. If you usually write on a keyboard but one isn’t available, write in longhand, perhaps in a small notebook. Benefits include the following:

1. New ideas often come to mind when we have more time than usual to think and imagine. Ideas for inventions, career-change plans, and other new directions are often born in leisure moments.

2. Our travel notes may prove useful for future travel.

3. In writing about thoughts and plans we gain clarity.

4. As mentioned, this process, even done for a few minutes a day, improves both our ease and our effectiveness in writing

A previous Writing Tip on benefits of daily writing is the following (it appears, with all of the other Tips, on the website):

Tip #17, April, 2002: No day without a line

(“Nulla dies sine linea” is a famous Latin quotation attributed to writer, politician, and military leader Pliny the Elder, AD 23-79.)

Lucy Paine Kezar
Communicate for Results!

Tip #80

Reading and writing

We improve our writing simply by reading. This is true in all creative disciplines; for example, artists view others’ art, photographers study great photography, and dancers observe other dancers.

Variety is key. We learn from reading diverse books and articles, occasionally reexamining portions that we consider well-written.

Have fun with it, too! Treat yourself to some enjoyable summer reading.

Lucy Paine Kezar
Communicate for Results!

Tip #81

The Misplaced Modifier Revisited
--a revision of Tip #16, of March, 2002.--

What is wrong with this sentence?

"Reading in a lawn chair on the beach, a duck waddled toward me on the sand."

Here, the misplacement of a modifier (descriptive word or words) creates unintended humor. The humor reveals the mistake.

We frequently hear less obvious examples of this error, known as the dangling or misplaced modifier. We may not notice subtler though often-heard examples such as:
"As a coach, it's my responsibility to teach team play."

Here are two correct versions of that sentence:
“As a coach, I have the responsibility to teach team play.”
“As a coach, I have learned that it’s my responsibility to teach team play.”

What’s the difference?

In each correct sentence, the word “I” immediately follows “As a coach.”  In correct sentence structure we place a noun or pronoun designating a PERSON immediately after a phrase such as “As a coach.” The word “it” does not designate a person and thus does not link with “coach.”

Can you correct the following sentence?
"While doing my algebra homework, my three-year-old sister started crying."

Wishing you a delightful Labor Day weekend,


Communicate for Results!

Tip #82

Parallel construction
This is a slight revision of Tip #29, of April, 2003.

When we combine items in a list or within a sentence, we ideally put all of them into the same grammatical form. For example, if the first item is a noun, the following items in that list should be nouns. Example:
This orchard yields apples, peaches, and pears.
This is called parallel construction, or parallelism.

When construction is NOT parallel we may see something like this:
"Tatiana enjoys hiking, sailing, and to ski."

Made parallel, this sentence becomes any one of the following:
--"Tatiana enjoys hiking ,sailing, and skiing,"
--“Tatiana likes to hike, to sail, and to ski.”
--"Tatiana likes to hike, sail, and ski."

A résumé is most effective when lists of accomplishments appear in parallel construction.

Here's an imaginary résumé excerpt. Is something wrong here?

Director of Marketing Division, X Corporation
--Managed twenty accounts...
--Supervised fifteen staff members...
--Developed new areas of....
--Coordinator of... .

As you see, the first three items are parallel. They lead off with verbs: Managed, Supervised, Developed. However, the last one starts with a noun, Coordinator. We can make these four items parallel by starting the fourth with a verb, Coordinated.

We could also write them all as nouns: "Manager of... / Supervisor of... . "

Parallel structure is correct, balanced, and easy to read.

Lucy Paine Kezar
Communicate for Results!

Tip #83

A frequently-heard error, explained and corrected

What's wrong with this sentence?
   "If you'd like to work on this project, speak with Dana or I."

If a line doesn't sound right, but you don't know much about grammar, you can sometimes use shortcuts to figure out what's wrong.

Here, you can delete something.  Then the error will emerge.

Simply delete, "Dana or." That leaves you with a sentence ending, "speak with I."  That  doesn't sound correct, does it?

Changing one small word rectifies it to:
"...speak with Dana or me."

For a grammatical explanation of this, along with a comment on psychological origins of the often-heard  incorrect usage, see Tip #8, of May of 2001 (What's wrong with ". . . speak with Dana or I"?)  in the WritingTips section of the website.

Happy Halloween!

Lucy Paine Kezar
Communicate for Results!


Tip #84

Writing in holiday letters – 6.

How does the writing of holiday letters resemble ALL writing and speaking?

In a December, 2000, magazine article, St. Olaf College faculty member and writer Jim Heynen offered detailed advice on the topic of mass-mailing holiday letters. He included the following statement:

“We should think as much about our audience as ourselves while writing.  This will lead us in the direction of the good wishes we really want to convey.”

This principle applies to all effective writing and public speaking; don’t you agree?

Five previous November WritingTips addressed holiday-letter writing. The November, 2004, tip summarized Jim Heynen’s comprehensive and often-entertaining advice on this subject.

All former tips appear in the WritingTips section of the website, accessible from the home page.

Happy Thanksgiving,


Lucy Paine Kezar
Communicate for Results!

Tip #85

I offer a quotation at year's end:

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Happy New Year,


Lucy Paine Kezar
Communicate for Results!

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