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Home > Publications > Quill > A handful of hard lessons for every writer


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Friday, June 30, 2006
A handful of hard lessons for every writer

By Paula LaRocque

The sentences below contain a handful of tricky errors that are frequently missed and misunderstood by even skilled writers and editors. Can you identify the problem in each sentence and state the governing rule or principle?

1. He is one of those people who believes the earth is flat.

2. Grief turns out to be a place none of us knows until we reach it.

3. She said she’d attend the banquet with whomever won the competition.

4. This is an historic occasion for people who live in Southfork.

5. The things you must have for the class are:

- large sketchbook

- drawing pencils, charcoal, pastels

- gum eraser

• He is one of those people who believes the earth is flat.“One” often signals that the following verb will be singular (“One of the members is absent”). But not always. The principle: The verb agrees with its subject (“people who believe”), not just any subject. Unravel this sentence to reveal its intent, and you’ll see that it demands a plural verb: Of those people who believe the earth is flat, he is one.

Therefore: He is one of those people who believe the earth is flat.

• Grief turns out to be a place none of us knows until we reach it. None is one of the trickiest of the words that can be both singular and plural, largely because many of us were wrongly taught that the word means “no one” or “not one” and is therefore always singular. Experts agree, however, that none more often means “not any” (the pronoun any is both singular and plural), and is usually plural.

If none were always singular, “none of the guests is here” would be correct, and it obviously is not.

The principle: None is singular when it means “none of it” or “not one”:

- None of the dessert was eaten.

- Of the many jobs I’ve been offered, none is inviting.

None is plural, however, when the stress is on “none of them” or “not any”:

- None of the department heads, managers, or executives have received bonuses.

- None were more pleased with his failure than his alleged friends.

Also, if the noun following none is plural and cannot be construed as singular, none is plural: “None of her clothes were suitable.” But: “None of her clothing was suitable.”

Sentence No. 2 appears in its correct form in The Year of Magical Thinking, by the impeccable Joan Didion: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”

• She said she’d attend the banquet with whomever won the competition. The correct choice is whoever. Such sentences are confusing because we need an object for the preposition with and a subject for the verb won, yet a word cannot be both subject and object.

The rule: When a “who” form is between something that needs a subject and something that needs an object, the subjective case takes precedence. The “who” or “whoever” is singly the subject for the verb (in this case, won), and the whole clause beginning with “who” or “whoever” is the object (in this case, of the preposition with).

Therefore: “She said she’d attend the banquet with whoever won the competition.”

• This is an historic occasion for people who live in Southfork. “An historic” is incorrect because we sound the h-. The principle: When the h- is silent, it’s preceded by “an”: an heir. But when the h- is sounded, it’s preceded by “a”: a hair.

The problem with h- is more common when the stress falls on the second syllable—thus such incorrect phrasing as an habitual criminal, an hypothesis, or an heroic. The h- may be weaker in such structures, but it is not silent — no one says abitual or ypothesis or eroic — and that settles the question.

Therefore: This is a historic occasion for people who live in Southfork.

• The things you must have for the class are: large sketchbook, etc. It is an error, even in a bulleted list, to place a colon after a “be” verb (am, is, are, was, were, been, being, be). The principle: “Be” verbs are linking verbs and must connect to nominal or adjectival structures that “complement” the subject (they are voters, and they are disgusted — not they are: voters, and they are: disgusted).

Also, a complete statement usually precedes a colon. (I say “usually” because certain fragments with “understood” elements are permissible before a colon — for example, the words “the principle,” followed by a colon, above. In such structures, the colon functions like the words “is/are as follows.”)

Therefore: Here are the things you must have for the class:

- large sketchbook

- drawing pencils, charcoal, pastels

- gum eraser


Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and Championship Writing, available at www.marionstreetpress.com, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble. E-mail plarocque@sbcglobal.net.

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