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The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them

by Ben Yagoda

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59448-848-1
Publisher: Riverhead

A forgiving—a purist might say overly forgiving—handbook for those in need of remedial grammar lessons, a category that includes most college students.

Yagoda (Journalism/Univ. of Delaware; Memoir: A History, 2010, etc.) appreciates the Anne Lamotts, William Zinssers and E.B. Whites of the world, but he fears that their entreaties to add beauty to the language are misplaced. “Most students, I’ve found, can’t handle writing ‘well.’ At this point in their writing lives,” he writes, “that goal is simply too ambitious.” He later elaborates: The chief task is to rid students of such bad habits as stacked prepositional phrases and dysparallelism. Thus this handbook and its grating title: The goal is not to write well, but not to write badly—or, now that we don’t have to worry about split infinitives, to not write badly. Yagoda strives a little too hard for laughs at times, but showmanship is part of the game. Much of what he has to say is the stuff of every other writing handbook, especially the admonition that every good writer—every not-bad writer, that is—is a good reader. But Yagoda occasionally turns in a truly fresh take on a problem, and this dictum alone is worth the price of admission: “When possible, make the subject of a sentence a person, a collection of persons, or a thing.” Pair that with the injunction to avoid two spaces after a period, and you’ve got the makings of improved writing already, even allowing for Yagoda’s liberal take on split infinitives and the use of “they” as the pronoun for a singular subject.

It won’t take the place of Strunk and White, but a useful addition to any writer’s bookshelf.