Hot Off the Press: Janis Bell, English professor, editor, author ("Clean, Well-lighted Sentences")
After reading the interview, contact Janis here:
“I taught expository and business writing – in universities, government agencies, and private businesses – for four decades. I also wrote a book, published in 2008, called Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences, which discusses the most typical problems that native English speakers run into when dealing with grammar and punctuation. Now I edit various documents sent by people who seek my service via my website: www.janisbell.com.” – Janis Bell
1. As an editor, you see a lot of grammatical errors. What are some of the most common?
I could write a book about that (in fact, I did). What shall I tell you — about I vs. me, who vs. whom, i.e. vs. e.g., that vs. which, items in a series that don’t match each other, adjectives that people don’t recognize as adjectives, but vs. however and the punctuation options that apply to each? There are so many common errors, enough to fill 141 pages in my book. Let me give you examples for each of the problem areas I just named:
Between you and I …
Who did you vote for?
Some vegetables, i.e., carrots, …
The book which won the prize …
Hiking in the springtime, skiing in the winter, and to bake cookies in any season …
As your instructor, you should listen …
A little coffee is good for you. But, you shouldn’t overdo your caffeine intake.
A little coffee is good for you, however, you shouldn’t overdo your caffeine intake.
Each of those examples contains a common error. And those are only a few of the many that typically show up in people’s writing. I’m talking about the writing of native speakers, although non-native speakers also make these mistakes because they copy the natives.
2. Your book, Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences, emphasizes building on retained grammar knowledge and not acquiring new knowledge. Can you explain this philosophy in more detail?
At the beginning of my book I tell readers that they already know a great deal about grammar – intuitively, instinctively. They handle most of it well, without thinking. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no new knowledge to be gained. My book offers explanations that readers may never have encountered before, no matter how many English classes they’ve taken. So of course there’s new knowledge to be gained. Let’s consider the abbreviation “i.e.” Many people use it as if it means “for example,” which it doesn’t. It means “that is” (the two letters stand for “id est,” Latin for “that is”). If you didn’t know that before reading my book, you’ll certainly gain new knowledge right there. This doesn’t mean that you don’t know English; it means that you can always be learning something new that strengthens your use of it.
3. What is one good piece of advice that you can give our readers?
Read, read, read – and stop, from time to time, to consider the mechanics of what you’re reading. Reading lots of well-constructed sentences, like those in The New Yorker, for example, can have a very positive effect on the sentences you wind up building. If you’ve read a passage you admire, go back and look at what the author did to create that passage. A few moments of conscious looking can add to your own writing technique.
4. Where do you see communication trends going in the future?
I don’t expect they’ll be much different from those of the present or the past. There will always be writers who have fun with short-cuts and vernacular, and there will always be writers who feel more comfortable with formality. The mix provides something for everyone – reader and writer, alike. And some of our best writers shake up the formal with the casual, which gives us solid structure with a twist. Despite what some people say about the Internet ruining our ability to communicate, I think we’re communicating as ably as we always did; it’s just a lot more visible now.
5. How are youth integral to your work?
As a teacher of writing, I have been exposed mainly to young people in university classrooms. But I’ve also encountered people of all ages in the seminars I’ve led for government agencies and private businesses. Everyone can benefit from strengthening their writing skills: the better we communicate, the smarter we seem and the more believable our ideas. Of course, it’s great to teach writers when they’re young so that they can become really good writers early and benefit from that skill for a long time to come. There’s a lovely power that comes from using our language well: it increases the confidence we have in ourselves, as well as the confidence that others have in us. The sooner we can gather that confidence – i.e., the younger we are when we gain it — the better. ( Now, I seem to have answered your question backwards, telling how my work is integral to youth, rather than how youth are integral to my work. That’s what you get for interviewing an English professor 🙂 )