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Dec 13 10

UNDERSTANDING THE PASSIVE VOICE

by Paula LaRocque

Part 1 of 2

Years ago, the managing editor of a Midwest newspaper for which I was conducting a writing workshop confided that he’d recently banned a certain usage in his newspaper and that the newsroom staff had met the ban with resistance and hostility.

“It would be a great help if you supported the ban,” he said.

“What did you ban?” I asked warily. I’ve seldom met a language ban I liked.

“The verb ‘to be.’ ”

That stopped me.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“All of them?”

“Yes.”

Am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been?”

“Yes.”

At first I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. I was considering the implications—and whether anyone could write at all, let alone well, under the strictures of such a ban. Then I asked the obvious question.

“Why?”

“To get rid of the passive voice.”

Now, the active voice and passive voice are matters of structure. Active voice: subject/verb/object (or stated another way: actor/action/acted upon). Passive voice: object/verb/subject—or merely object/verb:

Active: The pitcher threw the ball.

Passive: The ball was thrown by the pitcher.

Passive: The ball was thrown.

It’s true that the passive voice uses an auxiliary verb plus a past participle of another verb, and that the auxiliary is usually a form of the verb “to be.” (Notice the “was thrown” in the passive examples above.) But the active voice also uses plenty of “be” verbs.  Banning “be” verbs to get rid of the passive voice is like blasting away on a blunderbuss to wipe out a gnat.

The bottom line is that this editor had banned something without understanding what he’d banned. Not that he’s the first to misunderstand the passive voice. Nor is he the first to suggest there’s something inherently wrong with “be” verbs. Apparently, some people—and some software designers—think that any sentence containing an auxiliary or “be” verb is in the passive voice. But that’s absurd. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is in the active voice—despite the “to be.” Subject (we), verb (hold) and object (truths) are in their active and most logical positions. Again, the passive voice identifies a certain structure—the subject of the verb, if present, is in the object’s position. To be passive, this passage might read: “These truths are held to be self-evident.” Or: “These truths are held by us to be self-evident.”

This celebrated passage does go on to use the passive voice, however: “that all men are created equal . . . that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To be active, that passage might read: “The Creator made human beings equal and endowed them with certain unalienable rights . . . among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But is that version more effective than the original?

The misunderstanding of the narrow terms “active voice” and “passive voice”—and the terms’ unwarranted broadening—has also led to the mistaken belief that any weak, static, or unassertive expression is “passive.” Or that hiding behind the language—refusing to be accountable—involves the passive voice. That may be (“mistakes were made!”), but not always and not necessarily.

Grammar checker software adds to the problem. Those programs hunt for auxiliary verbs and when they find one, announce that the sentence may be passive. In many cases, it isn’t, but the grammar checker’s caution further muddies already murky waters.

The result of all this confusion is a good deal of blather about the “passive” in writing—and avoiding it. Look at the opening line of the column you’re reading. It contains the words “for which I was conducting a writing workshop.” The editor’s ban of “to be” verbs would cause that clause to be rewritten, ostensibly because it is “passive.” But is it? No. Is it vague or flat or flabby by virtue of its “be” verb? To the contrary, I bet you didn’t even notice that was. That’s because, properly employed, “be” verbs are both indispensable and invisible.  (Yes, I could have written “for which I conducted a writing workshop.” That version loses was as well as the “ing” suffix on conduct—and in many constructs, it would be preferred as cleaner and more concise. But the simple past tense “conducted” makes the workshop seem an event in the past whereas I wanted to capture the sense of something ongoing: This thing happened while this other thing was happening. Such writing concerns are subtle but well understood by both writer and reader, if only in a tacit and subterranean way.)

How might one meet the editor’s ban, and would it be worth the trouble? I could write: “a newspaper for which I’d agreed to conduct a workshop.” That’s a bit different to be sure, but is it better?

Let me add that there’s good reason to be wary of the passive voice – it can be vague and withhold vital information. And when the subject/actor is absent, it can be spineless, even cowardly. And it can be awkward, abstract, or wordy. Who would prefer the clunky “this column was written by me” to “I wrote this column”?

Rather than try to avoid the passive voice, however—which cannot sensibly be accomplished—we should spend our efforts not only on understanding its virtues and shortcomings, but also discerning when the passive voice is more effective than the active.

We’ll discuss some of the more complex aspects of the passive and active voice in the second part of this blog.

Meantime, a postscript: During our workshop, the managing editor lifted his ban on “be” verbs—to the great relief of his staff.

# # #

[Parts of this blog originally appeared in Quill magazine.]

Nov 21 10

GOOD FOR OUR GRAY MATTER

by Paula LaRocque

I recently attended a fascinating talk given by Dr. Sandi Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas.  She spoke in part about brain “conditioning”—exercising and strengthening the brain.  Dr. Chapman said that we neglect our brains, in part because our whole idea of fitness stops at the neck.

The talk was interesting throughout, but the most important take-home message for me was the negative effects of multitasking.  Contrary to what we might suppose, doing several things at the same time does not present a healthy challenge to the brain, nor does it exercise and strengthen it.  We might pride ourselves on our ability to simultaneously set a meeting agenda, field a phone call, and send an e-mail.  And our young might train themselves to do homework and text their friends to the background clamor of loud and distracting music.  But the fact is that because none of those activities gets our full attention, each is necessarily superficial, fragmenting our focus. In terms of exercise, it’s like lifting weights without the weight.

If multitasking doesn’t exercise and strengthen the brain, what does?  Deep, fully focused concentration on one subject or activity.

During the Q&A portion of the presentation, a man in the audience asked: Should I do crossword puzzles? And the ensuing dialogue went like this:

Dr. Chapman:  If you do lots of crossword puzzles, you’ll get better and better at working crossword puzzles. But it won’t be of generalized benefit to your brain.

Man:  What should I do if I want to keep my brain pliable and healthy into old age?

Dr. Chapman: You should practice your passion.

Man: How do I know what my passion is?

Dr. Chapman [after the laughter subsided]:  Anything you do that’s so engrossing that you lose track of time—that’s a passion.  It could be any number of creative or intellectual pursuits.

She went on to elaborate—suggesting that when we concentrate fully and our brains are chugging away to the point that we lose track of time and surroundings, that’s deep focus.  And that’s that kind of exercise that strengthens and conditions the brain.

It strikes me as a paradox.  When we focus deeply, we lose time, but because of the benefit of the effort, we aren’t wasting time.  On the other hand, when we try to save time by multitasking, that’s when we in fact waste time.

This emphasis on practicing one’s passion reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  That book posits in part that even geniuses, even seeming child prodigies and overnight successes, must intensively practice their passion before achieving mastery.  Gladwell writes that along with talent and ambition, we must also have the opportunity to cultivate our special skill before we become masters, and that this is so whether we are Mozart, the Beatles, or Bill Gates.  Gladwell and others have even calculated about how long we must practice to achieve mastery: ten thousand hours.  If my math is right, that’s about three hours a day for ten years—with only an occasional day off.

We’d better get to work.

# # #

Nov 8 10

GOOD WRITING: MUSIC TO THE EAR

by Paula LaRocque

Flannery O’Connor was once asked if our university writing programs were squelching young writers, and she responded that they were not squelching enough of them.

A foray into media writing is bound to recall O’Connor’s quip. Not that there isn’t wonderful writing in the media. There is. But there’s also a lot of tin-ear writing—a jarring ugliness that goes beyond mechanical error and yet is written by professional wordsmiths. Take the following examples (please!):

“The man who blew away half of a woman’s face last week was released from a mental hospital several weeks earlier.”

He blew away half a woman’s face? What, he just huffed and he puffed and he blew her face in? Why write in such shoddy idiom? Also, considering the sequence of tenses, “was released” should be “had been released”—since that action precedes the sentence’s main action. More sensible: The man who shot a woman in the face last week had been released from a mental hospital several weeks earlier.

On the subject of being blown away, check this out: “She said that when she saw who it was, she was literally blown away.”

Really. Literally blown away?  Surely not.  Literally means . . . oh, never mind.

Read the following passage aloud, and you’ll hear what’s wrong immediately: “A 13-year-old girl was kidnapped by a group of youths and raped in a vacant apartment in East Hills complex on Friday—the latest reported attack in a series of sexual assaults in the neighborhood by teenaged boys since June.”

A plethora of prepositions leads to a sing-songy fuzziness. Most sentences can support only several prepositions—and the fewer the better. The following revision reduces nine prepositions to just two and improves clarity and rhythm: Teenaged boys kidnapped and raped a 13-year-old girl in a vacant East Hills complex apartment Friday. Police said it was the fourth such attack reported in that neighborhood since June.

More tin-ear: “A final deal hinges on ongoing talks. Company executives said they expect upcoming products to sell well in coming months.”

The echoes of “on/ongoing” and “upcoming/coming” are easily corrected: They will work out the final deal in ongoing talks. Company executives said they expected upcoming products to sell well.

Tin Ear: “Let’s take stock of those NFL aristocrats who have got one foot out the door and one eye on the waiver wire.  They have got themselves a new . . . .”

“Got” is an ugly word and doubly so when redundantly paired with “have.”  If you’ve got it, it’s better to just have it: Let’s take stock of those NFL aristocrats who have one foot out the door and one eye on the waiver wire.  They have a new . . . .

Tin Ear: “Not only did she have her friend murdered, but she also had to cope with three other tragedies at the same time.”

She had her friend murdered? Wow. Serves her right.  Better: Not only was her friend murdered, but she also had to cope with several other tragedies at the same time.

As that sentence shows, “had” structures can suggest the subject caused the action:  He had his car stolen. She had her leg broken. They had their house burned down.

You want to say: Why would they do this—for the insurance?

Here’s another example: “A laborer sentenced to the electric chair for the murder of a Portsmouth store manager in May 1985 had his death sentence overturned yesterday.”

He had his sentence overturned?  Bully for him.  Wonder why he didn’t do it sooner.  Better: A federal judge overturned the death sentence yesterday of George Wayne Thomas, convicted in . . . .

Tin Ear: “When they returned, they looked in the box and found the necklace gone.” They found the necklace gone? No. They didn’t find the necklace at all—gone or missing or otherwise. What did they find? They found the box empty.

What we learn from such examples as those above is that graceful prose comes from writing for the ear as well as for the eye—and that reading our writing aloud to ourselves will catch many graceless words and phrases the eye may miss.

# # #

(Parts of this blog appeared in another form in LaRocque’s Quill magazine column.)

Oct 7 10

LADY MONDEGREEN

by Paula LaRocque

Mistakes of the ear—such as in misheard song lyrics—are often called mondegreens, a curious word coined in the 1950s by author Sylvia Wright.  She recalled how she once misunderstood a line from a Scottish ballad titled “The Bonny Earl O’ Morey.”  She thought the line went: “They have slain the Earl Amurray/ and Lady Mondegreen.”  Her romantic notion was that the Earl and his true love, the Lady Mondegreen, died together heroically in the same cause.  Only much later did she discover that the ballad really said that after they killed the Earl, they laid him on the green.

The word “mondegreen” stuck.

Many mondegreens come from songs and recitations, and children specialize in them.  One of the best known is “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear,” from a hymn’s “Gladly the cross I’d bear.”  For many children, “round yon virgin” will always be “round John Virgin.”  The national anthem’s Jose is well known: Jose, can you see?  Richard Stans is famous, too, among children who pledge allegiance: “and to the republic for Richard Stans.”  Children also salute Shirley Murphy in the 23rd Psalm: “Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy, shall follow me all the days of my life.”

Some young recite a passage of the Lord’s Prayer as “lead us not into Penn Station,” while others say: “lead a snot into temptation.”  Modern youth more familiar with plumbing problems than with witchcraft hear the line “double double toil and trouble” in Shakespeare’s MacBeth as “double double toilet trouble.”

That mondegreens sometimes make no sense seems to bother no one—although who could assail the logic of “through the night with a light from a bulb?”

William Safire’s language column once took up the subject of big-name mondegreens.  He mentioned that he once thought Guy Lombardo’s name was Guylum Bardo, and his readers donated their own celebrity mondegreens: “Victor Moan” for Vic Damone, “Gorvey Doll” for Gore Vidal, “Big Spider Beck” for Bix Beiderbeck, “Sophie Aloran” for . . . you know.

I once wrote a column on mondegreens for The Dallas Morning News, and readers responded with their own.  One thought there was a famous woman singer named “Elephants Gerald.”  Another thought the “Londonderry Air” was the “London Derrière.”  Another wrote that when he was in high school, he thought a line in his school song was “we’re loyal through the weedy parts,” and found out only much later that the lyric was actually “we’re loyal and true though we depart.”

Misheard song lyrics show that we’ll tolerate all kinds of bafflement in music.  A reader said that he sang Patti Page’s “leave your fickle past behind you” as “leave your pickle patch behind you.”  A second wrote that he thought for years that a line from “Groovin’ on a Sunday Afternoon”—”you and me endlessly”—was “you and me and Leslie.”  He said he never could figure out how Leslie fit in, but that maybe it was some sort of ménage à trois.

A unique mondegreen was one reader’s understanding of “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”  He thought those lines read “The ants are our friends. They’re blowin’ in the wind. The ant, sir, is blowin’ in the wind.”  He said he thought it was some sort of environmental protest song.

The best mondegreen in my own experience was created by a hotel clerk in 1989—when I was out of town on business. The clerk had taken a message from my secretary at The Dallas Morning News, who had called to say we’d just won a Pulitzer Prize. But the slip of paper the clerk handed me seemed at first to have something to do with a chicken casserole.  It read: “We want a pullet surprise.”

# # #

[Portions of this blog appear in LaRocque’s book, On Words.]

Oct 2 10

ON WRITING

by Paula LaRocque

[I was pleased to be asked to write something for the back page of the 2010 Mayborn Conference’s magazine. The acclaimed Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference celebrates narrative journalism and has showcased such speakers as Ira Glass, Paul Theroux, Joyce Carol Oates, Gay Talese, Susan Orlean, Mary Karr, Mark Bowden, Gary Smith—to name a handful. The conference is the creation of the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, University of North Texas.  Below is my piece, reproduced with permission from Mayborn, and URLs for further information about the conference.]

# # #

EXPERT ADVICE/PAULA LaROCQUE


When Paula was introduced recently at a speaking engagement as “America’s

foremost writing coach,” she  responded, “Who says?”

The guy answered, “Everybody.”

Paula was one of the country’s first  newspaper writing coaches, serving as coach at The  Dallas Morning  News from 1981 to 2001.  As a columnist,  author,  educator and communications consultant, she  has  worked at bettering  the written word for decades.

Here’s some practical counsel from the woman who—literally—wrote The Book on Writing.

# # #

In a few words, what constitutes good writing?

Accuracy. Clarity. Brevity.

It’s that simple?

It’s that complex. Accuracy is simple enough. No decent writer questions the need for accuracy; one just commits to truth in content and standard English in form. Nor do folks balk at the need for clarity and brevity – in someone else’s work.

Not in their own?

The weaker the writer, the more willful the resistance. We can liken it to the ol’ granny who cried Amen! to the preacher’s censure of others’ sins. But when he touched on her sins, she spat in disgust: “Now he done stopped his preachin’ and gone to meddlin’!”

Why would anyone resist such worthy ideals as clarity and brevity?

Those ideals often take hard, slogging work. As educator Jacques Barzun said: “Simple English is no one’s mother tongue.” And when was Blather 101 part of the curriculum? Consider the CEO who wrote: “Financial exigencies made it necessary for the company to implement budgetary measures to minimize expenditures.” I suggested this phrasing instead: “We had to cut costs,” and he accused me of changing his style. Is mumbo-jumbo a “style?” If so, I think it’s a style we needn’t cultivate.

Let’s have a crash course in Blather 101.

Trying to impress rather than to communicate. Wordiness. Empty, showy, pretentious, abstract, timid, tentative, uncertain, overqualified, euphemistic phrasing. Hiding one’s slippery grasp of the subject in gobbledygook . . . I’m remembering a thoughtful reporter who remarked when we’d rewritten some of his stories: “If I’m going to be that clear, I’d better also be that right.”

How about Writing Tips 101?

Write as you speak when you speak well. Know there’s a difference between simplicity and the simple, and put away forever the notion that clarity dumbs anything down. Write below the tenth-grade reading level as calculated by your computer’s software (studies show that even the most highly educated readers prefer to read at or below that level). And remember that the more difficult the subject, the lower the grade level should be. Prefer short sentences and short words. Prune prepositions and numbers. Lose qualifiers such as very, really, completely, rather, quite, etc., and use instead precise words that need no qualification. Oh, and have no faith in your computer’s grammar checker.

So we’ve gone full circle—back to accuracy.

Yep. Done stopped my meddlin’ now and gone to preachin’.

# # #

More about Mayborn magazine:

http://www.themayborn.com/

More about the conference:

http://www.themayborn.unt.edu/conferences.htm


Sep 25 10

DOG BLOG: Pompi’s Photo Shoot

by Paula LaRocque

by Pompidou LaRocque

[Note from Paula:  I’m going to let Pompi do a dog-blog from time to time.  He’s a toy poodle who doesn’t know he’s a dog and likes to have his say.  Below is his debut blog.  Feel free to comment—but mark your comment: “To Pompi.”  Otherwise, your references to my wet nose or sharp toenails might land you in the Spam.]

# # #

I’m always thrilled to have company—any company at all—and yesterday morning, right after my breakfast of diced chicken breast followed by a chewy treat, I had another treat: The doorbell rang!

Now, when the doorbell rings, something great happens.  It’s magic.  The bell rings, the door opens, and there’s company!  Sometimes it’s someone I know and sometimes it’s someone new.  But whichever, I of course know they’ve come to see me—well, they make it clear, don’t they.  I mean, they don’t hug and pet and pat and scratch and talk baby talk to my folks!  That’s why I get so excited when the doorbell rings.  I try to keep it down, but hey!  I have company!

So there was Mei-Chun, with her camera.  Mom  has this idea you might want to borrow:  She wants to do a calendar for Dad—a surprise for Christmas, so don’t say anything.  Her idea is to have twelve different shots of me, separated by monthly calendars, in a spiral-bound notebook. The calendar pages can be removed at the end of the year, leaving a souvenir book of keepsake photos.  She says it will be “adorable.”   Whatever!  Main thing, I had company!

And what great company.   For at least an hour, Mei-Chun stayed with me, following me wherever I went—which was easy, because of course I was trying to stay with her and follow her wherever she went.  We could’ve both stood still looking at each other, but she didn’t let that happen. She got me moving, and she photographed everything I did. She photographed me from across the room and up close and up real close—took pictures of my nose and feet and pompon tail!   She said she wanted to shoot the details. Fine with me. She petted me and played with me, and—the best—let me lick her!  Mom warned her: If you let him, he’ll lick the eyeballs right out of your head.   As if!   But Mei-Chun knew that for the exaggeration it was and said: We’re fine.

To die for!

Mom says Mei-Chun is a genius behind the camera whose skills include a talent for shooting people’s pets.

By “shooting,”  I mean . . . well, you know what I mean. Anyway—ta da!—here I am!

# # #

Pompi the Texan

Mei-Chun Jau is an Emmy Award-winning journalist working in video and photography who has won many awards over her 14-year career—including multiple Katies from the Press Club of Dallas. In 1998, she garnered the Vivian Castleberry Award for Photography for her documentary work, and in 2001, the Barbara Jordan Award for photojournalism. Her acclaimed series of photographs, “For a Moment, Family,” increased awareness of Chinese orphans with disabilities seeking adoption in the United States. She and fellow photojournalist Kim Ritzenthaler chronicled the life of conjoined Egyptian twins, an effort that won a Society of News Design award, and in 2008, she collaborated on a multimedia documentary, a team effort that received a regional Emmy Award for Interactivity.

Taiwan-born, Mei-Chun was naturalized to the United States when she was three. She lives and works in the Dallas-fort Worth area. Among her specialties are editorial, fashion, corporate, advertising, portraiture and photojournalism. And, now, dogs! To see more of her work and for information/contact numbers:
http://www.jaufoto.com
http://web.me.com/mjau/video

And if you want to see Mei-Chun herself, here she is!

Sep 21 10

A CIVIL TONGUE

by Paula LaRocque

Recently, a TV commentator referred to a politician as a “barbarian” – not because of his behavior but because of his misuse of the language.  That word barbarian reminded me how passionate we are about our mother tongue and how visceral our response to its use.  We don’t say: My, his grammar is off-putting, or Her pronunciation is a bit quaint. No.  We say:  If he says ‘irregardless’ again, I’m going to shoot him.  Or:  The next time she says ‘ax’ instead of ‘ask,’ I’m going to strangle her.

We adopt violent metaphor for language misuse:  People “maim,” “abuse,” “massacre,” “brutalize,” or “butcher” the language.  Our native tongue is vital to us, so we’re sensitive to its use even if we ourselves are not expert users.  We wish to protect it.  Some countries even have ministries meant to preserve the “purity” of the language.

Maybe that’s why we feel bound to correct others’ grammar or usage.   Even if we don’t correct, the temptation to do so is strong – sometimes almost a reflex.   Let someone say “this is between you and I,” and someone else will blurt – almost without thinking: “between you and me.”

And most of us have linguistic pet peeves – sometimes baseless but peeves nonetheless.  That’s the case with the supposed “errors” of the split infinitive, ending sentences with prepositions, or beginning sentences with and or but.  Not one of those practices is wrong, according to language experts, but folks who think so are no less peeved for being mistaken.  Instead, they say: “OK, it may not be a mistake, but I still hate it!”

It’s hard to give up a peeve, especially a pet one.

We have peeves in speech as well as in writing.  Many can’t bear to hear the word nuclear pronounced “nucular,” or Realtor pronounced “realator.” Others are made crazy by double negatives: can’t hardly, don’t have no, can’t do nothing.  Still others tear their hair over the repeated use of you know or totally.  I once saw a roomful of editors flinch (I was one of them) when someone said “antidote” instead of anecdote.   A friend says that when he hears literally and figuratively confused, he stops in his figurative tracks and grits his literal teeth. On my own list of teeth grinders are “ekcetera” instead of etcetera and “asterick” instead of asterisk.

Many hate the suffixes “-wise” and “-ize,” and they have loads of opportunity to exercise their peeve – we hear those suffixes everywhere.  I arrived at a hotel to give a banquet speech, and the host greeted me with the news that they’d had some trouble “microphonewise.”  A story on a slain police officer said he would be “funeralized” Tuesday. “Utilize” and “incentivize” also are outcasts in the land of the peeved.

Back to barbarian. Long ago, the Latin balbus meant one who stammered or spoke haltingly.  Balbus passed into Spanish as bobo and elsewhere spawned booby or boob.  And just as we today greet gobbledygook with the words blah blah, the Greeks met it with bar-bar.  Eventually, bar-bar came to mean foreign or savage and in time transmuted to barbaros and the related barbarous, barbarism, and barbarian.  Thus we link what we consider uncivilized to a lack of fluency.  That’s because our inherent understanding of being civilized means, in part, the ability to communicate well – not only with grace and accuracy but also without offense.

# # #

Sep 5 10

THOSE PESKY PRONOUNS

by Paula LaRocque

I received this e-mail this morning:

I may have talked with you about this before, but I am confused about the current usage of the pronouns “I” and “me.”
Do I remember incorrectly that I was taught that if you said/wrote about you and another person, the pronoun should be able to “stand alone,” i.e., without the other person? Such as: “The sunset was so beautiful that it stunned Susie and me.” (“The sunset was so beautiful it stunned me.”) Or: “Susie and I were stunned by the beautiful sunset.” (“I was stunned by the beautiful sunset.”)
Now I commonly read things like the example below. Would they speak this way?
“For Heather and I, two sisters desperate not to miss a second of quality time together, Santa Fe assuages us.”
Shouldn’t the written word and the spoken word be interchangeable?

JD

I responded to JD’s note, and she wrote back: “You should do a blog post on this. You can use my e-mail. I’m serious.”

OK. I’m serious, too.

Few gaffes generate as much heat as confusing the subjective pronouns I, he, she, we, or they with the objective pronouns me, him, her, us, or them. Here are pronoun mistakes from university professors to television anchors to newspaper reporters:

• It bothers people inside the beltway like you and I more than it does regular folks.
• The only faculty members in this department who care about grammar are two other instructors and myself.
• I notice that you and her have the same last name.
• The new office makes a wonderful workplace for Sherry and I.
• This is between you and I.
• They introduced the new director to him and I.
• She’s at least 15 years older than him.
• My wife has a better memory than me.

Each of those examples is ungrammatical. It seems we all remember that it’s wrong to say, “Johnny and me are going” – just as wrong as “me is going.” The reason it’s wrong is that we need a subject and me is an object. We say, “I am going,” but “Call me.” We’re so wary of “Johnny and me,” however, that we may avoid it even when it’s right. For example, we might say (incorrectly): Call Johnny and I. Give it to Johnny and I. Tell Johnny and I. If we take Johnny out of those sentences, though, we see how wrong they are – as wrong as: call I, give it to I, tell I.

The pronoun errors in the examples above are just variations on the same theme. The pronoun we choose depends upon whether it should be subjective or objective. If it’s the actor (a subject), it should be I, he, she, they, we, who. If it’s acted upon (an object), it should be me, him, her, them, us, whom.

“Self” pronouns are different from other pronouns because they are neither subjects nor objects, but reflexives (I hurt myself) or intensifiers (they are going, but I myself am staying home). Again, if we would not say, “Myself is going,” we likewise must not say, “John and myself are going.” If we would not say, “Let myself know,” we likewise must not say, “Let John or myself know.”

Removing other people from the sentence and letting the pronoun stand alone quickly reveals which role the pronoun is playing – subject or object. Substituting other pronouns also can help in certain sentences. For example, if we know that it’s right to say, “This is between us,” then we also know it’s right to say, “This is between you and me” – because us is objective, and any pronoun we choose for this particular sentence would also have to be objective. “This is between you and I” is as incorrect as “this is between we.”

Pronouns in “than “ sentences are easy. If you can place a verb after the pronoun, choose the subjective pronoun: He’s older than I [am]; I’ve worked here longer than she [has]. We would not say older than me [am], worked here longer than her [has].

That’s not all there is to say about pronouns, but it’s a good start. In short, JD is right in her assumptions about pronouns, and her “stand alone” trick is great. She’s also right in her assumption that grammar is grammar – its rules apply equally to speech and writing. But does it matter? Yes. It does.

###

Jul 4 10

A GARDEN RETREAT

by Paula LaRocque

During a charity raffle last Christmas, my husband, Paul, and I won a private tour and wine reception for twelve people at the Chandor Gardens in Weatherford, Texas – a prize we redeemed Sunday, June 27.

Our tour of the gardens and party in the estate’s mansion was a memorable experience.  Before our visit, none of our party of twelve had any notion of Chandor Gardens’ existence.  That’s a shame.  The gardens are an easy half-hour’s drive from Fort Worth, and they have everything for a unique and special outing – nearly four acres of gardens that almost give you sensory overload, an elegant old 5,600-square-foot mansion, and the romantic history of an acclaimed British portrait artist and a girl from Weatherford.

The picturesque grounds, originally called “White Shadows” and inspired by Chinese and English gardens, were designed and built more than 70 years ago by artist Douglas Chandor.  The estate boasts hundreds of flowers, plants, and trees as well as a wealth of outdoor “rooms,” grottos, and water features such as waterfalls and fountains. One man-made waterfall is more than 30 feet high.  All of the areas are connected by meandering walkways – perfect for a self-guided tour.  And some of the niches or “rooms” offer vistas conceived by an artist’s eye – in which you watch one area meld graphically into another to make a new design.

There’s no shortage of highlights:  the Dragon Fountain with its base of Coca-Cola bottles (you have to look closely); the Labyrinth, a new feature designed and built by the gardens’ chief horticulturist, Steve Chamblee; the Buddha niche; the fabulous Moon Gate; the Silver Garden; ponds and streams dotted with pacers that allow you to stand amid waters alive with huge, thriving, and beautifully colored koi – including a show-stopping snow-white koi.

Douglas Granvil Chandor was born in Surrey, England, in 1897.  He came to the United States in 1926, and his artwork was exhibited in New York City in 1927.  He married Ina Kuteman Hill of Weatherford in the mid-1930s and undertook construction of his gardens thereafter – an artistic project he labored at for 16 years.

Chandor was already an international name in portraiture before he came to the states.  He’d painted numerous British notables including the Prince of Wales – a portrait he completed when he was only 24 – and went on to portray Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II.  During his career, he painted hundreds of portraits – among them such luminaries as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Sam Rayburn, and Cuban President Gerardo Machado y Morales.

A poignant feature stands on an easel inside the Chandor Mansion.  It’s an unfinished canvas portraying the head of a man – the portrait Douglas Chandor was working on when he was felled by the stroke that caused his death.  He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953 – having recently returned from London where he’d completed his second portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

Widowed, Ina Chandor opened the gardens to the public and renamed them in tribute to her husband.  The couple had no heirs and, after Ina’s death in the late 1970s, the gardens fell into disrepair until they were purchased in 1994 and laboriously restored by local residents Charles and Melody Bradford.  Thereafter, the city of Weatherford purchased the estate and now maintains it.

Today, the gardens are a favored site for weddings and other such functions.  Certainly they offer wonderful opportunities for a photographer.  (The photos on this page are by one of our party, Julie Delio, and I’ll include a “Chandor” scrapbook in my website gallery as soon as I figure out how to do it.)

We found Chandor Gardens much more than just a beautiful setting for special celebrations, however.  The gardens offered us a lovely retreat from our hectic lives – a lush, restorative place to delight the eye and quiet the mind.  It seems Douglas Chandor realized his 16-year dream – to build a “living artwork.”

If you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, you should go.

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Here are a couple of URLs for further information. Or Google “Chandor Gardens.”

http://www.ci.weatherford.tx.us/index.aspx?NID=170

http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/fch17.html/

Jun 7 10

MY FIRST BLOG

by Paula LaRocque

CONSIDER THE LILIES

June 2010, No.1

My first-ever blog.

“What shall I write?” I asked Paul.

He didn’t hesitate a second.  “Passive voice.”

Passive voice?”

“Yep.”

OK, piece o’ cake.  But first I wandered out-of-doors for my summer morning turn around our gardens.  I visited the front beds, the courtyard, the lush growth along the brick wall enclosing the house on three sides, and – especially – I visited the day lilies.

When I first learned that these flowers were called day lilies because they live only one day, I cried.  I was hardly a child, by the way – this was just a couple of years ago, when Raul, our yardman, planted the largest, tallest, showiest day lilies I’ve ever seen.  They were a medley of color: a violet as dark as night, buttery yellow, splashy scarlet.  But my favorites were the clusters of huge, stately blooms the color of fresh cream – so perfect they looked carved in wax or ivory.

“One day?” I asked Raul.  “One day?”

Then I dashed into the house to blot my eyes and blow my nose.

The French say everything passes, everything perishes, everything palls: “Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse.”  That seems an unnecessarily hard aphorism.  But to extract the lesson of the day lily, we can come to only one conclusion: Whatever lives, dies.

OK, fine.  I knew that.

But one day?  It’s an outrage.  It’s too much.  By writing it’s too much, I mean of course that it’s too little.  Say no one shows up to salute this bloom in its startling, impossible beauty.  It stands at attention all day, the only day it has, its perfect petals unfurled . . . and no one stops by, not even to say hey, hi, well done! And then it’s over?

No.  It’s too much.  Like the human condition – being mortal in an immortal setting – sometimes it’s just too much.

The human condition.  Can you believe I chose the Number One, overriding, heavy-duty universal to write about in my first-ever blog?  Next time I’ll consider something less lofty, more practical.

Passive voice, maybe.

Meantime, for just this moment, just this day, let’s consider the lilies.

Hey.  Hi.

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