Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences

Janis Bell’s Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences is a grammar book for people who don’t like grammar but still must occasionally write. I’ve read it at least two times—and I don’t even own it! I had been planning to write about it; on my first read, I found that I disagreed with her on a few issues. Now I find that there isn’t much to disagree with. (BTW: “Contrary to what a well-meaning teacher may have told you in elementary school, there is nothing wrong with ending a sentence in a preposition.”)

Bell is so wonderful because at the same time that she is grammatically liberal, she doesn’t bog down the reader with endless caveats. In fact, she doesn’t bog down the reader with any caveats at all. To someone like me, this is a problem—undoubtedly the cause of my initial slightly hostile reaction. Instead, she just tells you how you should write.

A good example of this is her discussion of punctuation around quotation marks. I can’t bring up the subject without (like now) bringing up the British and how they deal with this issue far better than we Yankee idiots. Here she is in all her terse beauty, “Note: Periods and commas belong inside closing quotation marks, no matter what. Don’t even think of placing them outside—just tuck them in.”

Towards the end of the book, she seems to lose a bit of her nerve. She notes that we never capitalize a dependent clause following a colon; it is optional for independent clauses. Give me a break! It is a single sentence! You never capitalize after a colon! Never! And when discussing making abbreviations, letters, and numerals plural, she gives up even quicker. She says that we should add an apostrophe-s. But then adds, “The apostrophe may also be omitted.” Again: wrong! Always omit the apostrophe! Always!

But these are minor points. This is an excellent book.

Get on the Bus!

When discussing prepositions, she points out how strange they are. For example, “It’s also not easy to understand why we get on a bus, on a train, on a plane, yet in a car. Or why we are on a team, and on a committee but in a group.” I can’t help out with the second sentence—why is that?—but I think I can with the first.

While it is not as true now, in the past, one always climbed stairs to get on a bus, train, and plane. One simply opened a door and climbed into a car. Now, most new city buses are single-step-on (they’re very cool), airplanes have tunnels or similar, and some cars (more trucks) do have stairs. Trains still have stairs, but these too will likely fade into history. But I don’t think we are going to muddy our language just for these technological changes.

Whew! One less think for Ms. Bell to worry about!

Update

I just realized that people are always on TV but in movies. Off hand, I think this dates back to live TV and our current feeling that TV is happening now. “Hey! Bob Hope is on TV. Right now!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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