This Quarantine Is Brought to You by the Letter S

S is for the Sense I got at the grocery store on the first night that something had shifted in the way we all saw the stripped shelves.

S is for last Sunday, when I stood in a church with nearly empty pews and led the psalm from the choir loft, just me and the music director, staying six feet apart even though we’re usually both huggers.

S is for Six feet apart, which sounded like a straight-to-streaming knockoff movie until it became the way we live.

S is for Social distancing, which sounds like how a pretentious lifestyle guru would describe a breakup.

S is for the Schools many parents started at home on Monday, our informal attempts to give structure to our children and ourselves. In our family’s school, we choose a letter of the day. One day last week, which might actually have been a month, we chose S in honor of the coming new season.

S is for Spring, which officially began last Thursday, coming sort of a day early because of Leap Year, but also feeling way later than when we’d asked it to show up.

S is for all the Silly ways we try to cope: Frozen II, day pajamas and night pajamas, virtual happy hours, Frozen II, facetimes with family members, Frozen II, and the endless sharing of memes. Memes might seem shallow, and maybe they are, but for many of us, they’ve evolved into a shared language that gives us the quick, heartening laugh of being in on a joke, even when we’re stuck in isolation. #QuarantineLife, right?

S is for Sabbath in sanctuaries and synagogues, for all sacred spaces now silent.

S is for this Scary time that sneaked into our lives and stole our normal.

S is for Shame that we weren’t better prepared. That our livelihoods are suddenly shaky or just plain gone. That the professions our society has looked down on are now the ones keeping us afloat. That the people prepared to save our lives lack basic protections for themselves. That the social safety net that would have caught us has been shrewdly shredded.

S is for Sadness, bone-deep sadness at what we’ve lost already and at what losses still lie ahead.

S is for the Solution—a treatment, a vaccine, a policy, a flattened curve—that is sometime in the secret future. We don’t know when the solution might arrive, or how bad this all might get before it does.

S is for the Shock that a few weeks ago now feels like Before, and we really have no idea when we’ll reach After.

So, for now,

S is for Supporting each other.

S is for Seeing who needs help and Stepping up.

S is for Sharing what we have: ideas, supplies, free school lunches, dropped-off dinners, memes, encouraging words, and perhaps even (if it comes to it) spare toilet paper.

S is for Shedding tears whenever we need to. We all need to.

S is for Sunshine and the restorative vitamin D it provides.

S is for living more Simply than we have in a long time, and for seeing that maybe that’s not all bad.

S is for Sticking to commitments that provide stability for others.

S is for Saying “thank you” and really meaning it.

S is for finding Sanity in small moments—as small as seeing something bloom that wasn’t blooming yesterday and reminding yourself that the earth is still alive and trying.

S is for Singing, even if you think you can’t. In the shower, in the kitchen, in the streets and on the sidewalks with a socially distanced chorus.

S is for Sustaining ourselves, our families, our neighbors, in a Spirit of hope.

S is for all the ways we’re going to Survive.

Which Witch? (Adventures in Grammar #6)

Orange leaves danced through the crisp air, and the harvest moon peeked over the horizon. Witches, warlocks, cats, frogs, and all sorts of creatures gathered in the glen, which was lit by a crackling bonfire. A hush fell over the glen as their judge emerged from his tree and flew to his perch.

The sage owl preened his feathers and peered down. “Who? Who? Who brings a case before me tonight?”

A ginger-haired witch stepped forward. “I do, your Honor. This trollop has stolen my new black cat!”

“How dare you?” spat the black-haired witch behind her. “She lies without shame, your Honor. It is she who has stolen my new cat!”

The sage owl looked from one witch to the other. He laid the tips of his wings together. “I see. And where is the cat now?”

“I’ve got him,” a warlock piped up. He pointed at the cat that was nuzzling his ankles. “Cute little fella, too.”

“Very well,” the sage owl proclaimed. “The plaintiff shall speak first. How was your cat stolen?”

The ginger-haired witch squared her shoulders. “I had just hopped on my broomstick for my nightly ride, which I usually take right after supper. The hat that I prefer to wear needed repairs, so I took it to the Mad Hatter for mending. I was only gone a few minutes more than usual, but when I returned, my little Snowball had vanished from his scratching post!”

The sage owl glanced at the black cat. “Snowball, you say?”

“Yes. And the next morning, I saw her carrying him through the bog in her grimy, thieving hands.”

“Liar!” snapped the black-haired witch. The two witches pointed their wands at each other.

The crowd, which had kept silent thus far, gasped.

“Order, order.” The sage owl swiveled his head to the black-haired witch, who grudgingly lowered her wand. “Now, what is your testimony?”

She shook her head. “I was just minding my own business, preparing a special potion that I make each year for All Hallows Eve. My little Marshmallow was helping me gather herbs.”

The sage owl glanced once more at the black cat. “Marshmallow?”

“Yes, Marshmallow. I sent him off to gather wolfbane, which he has fetched for me many times before, but he didn’t return home all day. I was sick with worry, but then I found him in the bog the next morning, as good as new. Then, out of nowhere, she ran up, accused me of stealing her cat, and snatched him from me!”

The sage owl laid his wingtips together again. “Very well… So, is it Snowball or Marshmallow? Which witch owns that cat?”

“Marshmallow,” called the black-haired witch. “Here, Marshmallow!”

“Come here, Snowball,” the ginger-haired witch coaxed.

The cat, being a cat, ignored both of them.

The owl looked from the cat to each witch in turn. Finally, he spread his wings wide with satisfaction. “I am prepared to make my wise judgment.”

The witches leaned forward. The crowd hushed.

“The cat,” proclaimed the sage owl, “shall be cut in two, with half given to each witch.”

“What?” shrieked the ginger-haired witch. “Never!”

“Are you out of your mind?” demanded the black-haired witch. “Cut Marshmallow in two? Egads, why don’t we just share him?”

“Now, there’s an idea,” said the ginger-haired witch.

“Wait,” the owl spluttered. “My wise judgment is a test! The true owner is supposed to be willing to give up the cat rather than see it harmed.”

“Your judgment’s hogwash,” said the black-haired witch.

“Really bad decision,” added the ginger-haired witch. As the owl ruffled his feathers, she turned to the other witch. “Do you still need help finishing your potion for All Hallows Eve?”

The black-haired witch smiled. “That would be lovely. Come, Marshmallow!”

“Come, Snowball,” called the ginger-haired witch. “I’ll fetch you some tuna.”

“We’ll have to agree on a name,” the other said.

The cat meowed at the mention of tuna and followed the witches from the glen. He had been looking for a witch who would take care of him, and living a double life as Snowball and Marshmallow, even for a brief time, had taken its toll. Maybe if they worked together, the witches would give him a more sensible name.

Happy Halloween! I hope you enjoyed this seasonal tale. It seemed like the perfect way to highlight a commonly misused word (“which”) with the added treat of its autumnal homophone (“witch”). The biggest point of confusion for many people is our grammar topic of the hour: when to use “which” versus “that.”

“Which” versus “that” is especially tricky because each of those words has multiple uses in the English language.

“Which” is often used as a pronoun to ask a question or follow a preposition:

  • Which witch owns that cat? [interrogative pronoun]
  • She tightly gripped the broomstick on which she flew.

It is also considered an adjective in some cases:

  • The graveyard was quiet until midnight, at which time the dead awoke.

“Which” is used as a relative pronoun for nonrestrictive clauses, meaning that the clause it leads could be removed without impacting the sentence’s meaning:

  • The crowd, which had kept silent thus far, gasped. [The crowd gasped.]

“That” could fill up its own blog series. “That” can serve as a pronoun, adjective, adverb, or conjunction. You might say it’s the hardest-working word in show business!

As an adjective, “that” is frequently used to clarify or compare:

  • Which witch owns that cat?
  • This broom flies higher than that

However, if we leave off the second “broom” in the previous sentence—i.e., “This broom flies higher than that”—then “that” becomes a demonstrative pronoun because it fully replaces the broom. Weird, right?

“That” is used as a relative pronoun for restrictive clauses, meaning that the clause it leads is necessary to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, it restricts the explanation that follows it. If you remove a correct clause beginning with “that,” it will alter the meaning:

  • He pointed at the cat that was nuzzling his ankles. [There are multiple cats in this scene, so we need the clause to clarify which one.]
  • The hat that I prefer to wear needed repairs. [The witch owns more than one hat.]

So, if you’re unsure whether to use “which” or “that” in a sentence, ask yourself whether the clause it begins is essential to the sentence’s meaning. Consider these examples:

  • They gathered in the glen, which was lit by a crackling bonfire. [This refers to a specific glen.]
  • They gathered in a glen that was lit by a crackling bonfire. [This indicates a number of glens, so we need the clause to narrow it down.]

There’s one more relative pronoun to discuss briefly here. “Who” can do the same job as “which” and “that” when discussing a person or people. If the clause is restrictive (same as for “that”), then you do not place a comma before “who.” If the clause is nonrestrictive (same as for “which”), then you do use a comma. Here are two examples:

  • The sage owl swiveled his head to the black-haired witch, who grudgingly lowered her wand. [Nonrestrictive, so it gets a comma.]
  • The cat had been hoping for a witch who would take care of him. [Restrictive, so it doesn’t get a comma.]

Here are some great additional resources that explain “which” and “that” usage: Daily Writing Tips, Grammarly, Grammar Monster.

I hope this  post lays out the devilish topic of relative pronouns more clearly for you. What other questions about pronouns lurk in the depths of your grammatical minds? Let me know in the comments, and we’ll figure them out!

In the meantime, Happy Reading, Happy Writing, and Happy Halloween!



Raising Voices and Rising Up: A Tale of Verbs and Freedom (Adventures in Grammar #5)

Two brothers, Dash and Dormi, once lived together in Obdura, a peaceful nation where each day passed like every other.

Every morning, Dash and Dormi woke at sunrise. They and their neighbors reported to their jobs via assigned buses and security checkpoints. By dusk, everyone went into their homes and slept all night with the help of a pill, just as the law required.

Dash, Dormi, and their neighbors acted only in accordance with the rulers’ laws, for the rulers maintained Obdura’s prized sameness. The people never feasted, but they never went hungry. They were never overwhelmingly happy, but they were never desperately sad. For decades, the rulers had carefully, firmly kept Obdura just as it was.

Like all their neighbors, the brothers obeyed. They never resisted, questioned, or wondered.

And they never dreamed.

One warm night, though, Dash couldn’t sleep. His pill simply didn’t work. This had never happened before. Tossing and turning didn’t help. Neither did a cup of tea. Dash counted, stretched, and breathed deeply, but nothing worked.

Dash considered. “I can’t lie awake all night. Maybe…”

It wasn’t allowed, but maybe a short, quiet walk would help. Just this once. Hesitantly, Dash rose, dressed, and left. The front door softly shut.

In his own room, Dormi slept on.


The street sign was difficult to read in the dark, but it was familiar. As Dash passed by, though, something occurred to him.

“I wonder why there’s a curfew.”

A few houses later, watching out for patrolling Peacekeepers, he looked around the quiet, tree-lined street. He was alone. The outlines of all the silent homes were identical.

“I wonder why they’re all the same.”

At the end of the street, Dash looked up into the clear, moonless sky, at all the uncountable flecks of light. His feet stopped. His jaw dropped.

For the first time in his life, Dash saw the stars. And he whispered:

“I wonder what’s out there.”

He had never broken curfew. He had never asked questions. And all his life, this beautiful sight had awaited him, right outside his door. Why had it been hidden?

Dash slowly returned home, sifting more questions in his mind. As he laid himself down, Dash considered everything he knew of Obdura: the rigid rules, the nightly pills, the Peacekeepers on already-peaceful streets, the unabating sameness… He spent the whole night thinking thoughts he had never thought before.

When the sun rose, Dash shook Dormi awake.

“Brother! I saw the stars last night. I’ve never seen anything like them. Will you come with me tonight?”

“What are you saying?” Dormi sputtered. “You went out after curfew? That’s against the law!”

“Yes, but why? Why do we have a curfew? Why are our houses identical? Why does every day look like every other day? Why do the rulers order us to work the same jobs and eat the same food and take the same pills at bedtime? Don’t you wonder?”

Dormi stiffened where he sat. “No, I don’t. Neither should you. Wondering isn’t safe.”


“Don’t talk like this to anyone else, brother. You’ll only be unhappy—or worse, get into trouble.”

Dash heard his brother’s warning, but he couldn’t contain the new thoughts. After so many years of being stifled and pressed down, they confronted him at every turn. Why were they scanned and searched upon arrival at the factory? Why was everything, from the meals on their lunch trays to the assigned buses to and from work, so tightly regulated? Why were they required to take pills at bedtime?

Why weren’t they allowed to see the stars?

Dash quietly told his friends at work what he had seen.

“Are you going out again?” asked one.

“Can we come?” whispered two others. They lived on the next block.

Dash considered Dormi’s words of caution. But between wondering and safety, he had already chosen wondering. “Very well. But keep it quiet.”

That night, Dash didn’t take his pill. He retired to bed right after supper, just as he had told his friends to do, and woke near midnight. When he slipped out the front door, he found a half-dozen neighbors waiting in the shadows. Tears sparkled on their faces in the starlight.

“Why?” they demanded. “Why have we never been allowed to see this?”

On that night, as they crept to the dark end of the street to watch the stars and dove into bushes when a Peacekeeper vehicle rolled past, Dash and his neighbors realized what they needed, what they had been missing—the reason they were never overwhelmingly happy.

“We want freedom,” they whispered to each other. “We need freedom.”

In the days that followed, that whisper of freedom slipped through neighborhoods, along noisy factory floors, and across bus aisles. Word spread of the stars, and Obdurans everywhere began throwing away their nightly pills so they, too, could slip out their doors and catch glimpses of the night sky.

Dash invited his brother every night, and every night Dormi refused. He lay in his bed, captive to sleep. Upon waking every sunrise, though, Dormi hurried to his brother’s bedside to be sure he had returned safely.

Dash’s followers grew bolder. In the moonlight, a few teenagers pushed through the cracked window of an abandoned building and found it full of ancient texts. They had never seen books before. They took as many as they could carry and began to share them.

The rulers of Obdura, unfortunately, were not ignorant of these happenings—far from it. They gathered in secret and demanded reports from their Peacekeepers. They increased their patrols and began arresting anyone suspected of breaking curfew or other laws. Anyone caught disposing of their nightly pill was imprisoned and forced to take it under guard. Anyone caught with a book disappeared.

Dash and his fellow citizens began to raise their voices. They joined marches and waved signs. They demanded change. They set new expectations. They asked more questions by the day, even though the only answer ever given was, “You’re not permitted to ask.”

Sometimes, saying goodnight to Dormi, Dash felt a desperate sadness. However, when he watched someone open their first book or see their first stars, a taste of overwhelming happiness gripped him. Wherever he went, that hope was written on his face.

And the rulers could see it.

That hope could not be quashed by threatening Dash, they realized—not even by threatening his life. That threat would not stop him, and if they martyred Dash, the people would rise. The rulers could see only one way to break him:

Threaten his brother.

Dash was detained and brought into the Hall of Governance, a stoic building at the center of Obdura. The leaders told him plainly: Cease his protests, or Dormi would disappear.

Dash stopped.

When the Peacekeepers deposited Dash at his house, he went in without a word. That night, he slept under the influence of his pill until sunrise. He went quietly to work, ate quietly at lunchtime, and returned quietly to his home.

For days, Dash stayed silent and obedient. His followers were puzzled, discouraged. The leaders were pleased.

One night before bedtime, Dormi finally asked, “What’s happened, Dash? I thought that you were a leader with… Why have you stopped—stopped wondering?”

Dash shrugged. “The leaders threatened what I cannot lose.”

“Your life?”

“I wish,” Dash whispered. “Freedom isn’t worth losing my family.”

Dormi’s eyes went wide. For the first time, he truly saw his brother: the desperate sadness in his face, the yearning, the fear. Dormi saw what the rulers had taken from Dash, and what he saw angered him more deeply than he had ever thought possible.

“Don’t.” Dormi stopped Dash’s hand. “Don’t take that pill. Take me to see the stars.”

Dash blinked. “But—”

“I’ve been silent too long,” said Dormi. “I should have joined you long ago. Please, brother, forgive me. Let me fight them alongside you.”

That night, Dash took Dormi to see the stars. Side-by-side, hand-in-hand, the brothers finally saw the world not only as it was, but as it could be.

When the sun rose the next morning, the brothers left their house with signs in their hands. As they traversed the neighborhood, they raised their voices and signs.

Street by street, their friends and followers, parents and children, old and young, grabbed signs and joined Dash and Dormi. The growing army fairly shook the ground. Obdurans left their assigned buses mired in the clogged streets and joined the march. By the thousands, they pushed back the Peacekeepers, all the way to the doors of the Hall of Governance.

Inside the Hall, the rulers huddled. Their grasp on power was slipping.

Outside, the crowds chanted mantras of freedom and dignity. They demanded justice. They rejected feigned attempts to placate them. They scorned threats of retaliation.

After all that had happened, the people had realized the cost of losing. They had lost much and many already. They would risk their lives rather than give up hope.

And they would keep up the fight for as long as it took.

Surrounded, disgraced, and reviled, the rulers finally surrendered. The outnumbered Peacekeepers laid down their weapons.

The people won.

As their last act of leadership, the rulers transferred power to the people.

Together, the people built a new system of government. They granted equal rights and ended unjust systems. They restored dignity and freedom.

They changed their world.

Alongside their neighbors, Dash and Dormi began to build new, freer lives. They chose new careers and found opportunities that brought them overwhelming happiness. They found hope in the future.

And on every clear night, they took a long, peaceful walk to admire the stars.


I hope you enjoyed this story of intransigence and resistance! It was a challenging story to write on a structural level because I constrained a key component of composition: my verb choices. That brings me to our current grammar topic: transitive and intransitive verbs.

hocus pocus shock

First, what is a verb? It is a word that describes an action, occurrence, or state of being. Verbs comprise a fundamental, nearly universal part of human language because they tell us what “is” or what “happens.”

A verb is conjugated, or shaped, into different tenses (such as past, present, and future) to give it context. A verb also varies depending on whether its subject (the noun doing the action) is singular or plural.

In short, verbs are complicated! For today, we’re just going to focus on two specific types of verbs that are commonly misunderstood: transitive and intransitive verbs.


Transitive verbs are verbs that act upon direct objects (these are different than subjects). A direct object does not follow a preposition; rather, the action directly impacts it. Consider this sentence: “Dash invited his brother every night.”

  • The verb is invited.
  • Who did the inviting? Dash, which makes him the subject.
  • Whom did Dash invite? His brother, the direct object.


Here are a few more examples of transitive verbs in the story (verbs bold, objects underlined):

  • For the first time in his life, Dash saw the stars.
  • They joined marches and waved signs. They demanded change.
  • They would risk their lives rather than give up hope.

A good way to check whether a verb is transitive is to see if you can reverse the order of the sentence into passive voice. For example, “The stars were seen by Dash.” If you can, it’s transitive!

Also, note that verbs tied to emotions or states, like “Dash stayed silent” or “Dormi was frightened,” are not transitive verbs. You wouldn’t say, “Silent was stayed by Dash.”


Next, let’s talk about intransitive verbs. These are… all the verbs that aren’t transitive! If it doesn’t have a direct object, it’s an intransitive verb. Examples from the story (verbs bold):

  • Every morning, Dash and Dormi woke with the rising sun.
  • The people never feasted, but they never went hungry.
  • He went quietly to work, ate quietly at lunchtime, and returned quietly to his home.

No problem, right? Besides, this is the kind of esoteric grammar gobbledygook that isn’t super useful in real life…



There are three pairs of very commonly confused verbs, and the primary reason for this confusion is that one verb in each pair is transitive, and the other is intransitive—kind of like the brothers in the story. Here are the mixed-up verbs and how to use them properly:

Lay: transitive (needs a direct object)

  • Now I lay me down to sleep. (“me” is like “myself” here—a direct object)
  • The Peacekeepers laid down their weapons.

Lie: intransitive (no object needed)

  • I can’t lie awake all night.
  • He lay in his bed, captive to sleep.

Raise: transitive

  • Dash and his fellow citizens began to raise their voices.

Rise: intransitive

  • If they martyred Dash, the people would rise.

Set: transitive

  • They set new expectations.

Sit: intransitive

  • Dormi stiffened where he sat.

Exception alert! “Set” can be intransitive when referring to the sun: “The sun set at eight o’clock.”


Weird, right?

The common confusion between these transitive and intransitive verbs inspired this story, including its title: “Raising Voices and Rising Up.” Voices can be raised, but up cannot.

But what made this story particularly fun (and frustrating) to write is that I got the bright (ridiculous) idea to align my transitive and intransitive verbs to the plot!

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If you read back through, you might notice that I use only intransitive verbs at the beginning to describe the citizens of Obdura, indicating their lack of action or impact on the world around them; the rulers are the only ones with transitive verbs to describe them.

As Dash, his fellow Obdurans, and finally Dormi begin to rise up, their choices and actions are described with transitive verbs (except, of course, when Dash backs off to protect Dormi).

One laborious heck of an Easter Egg, but when you’re writing a grammar blog, you either go big or go home, right?

“Go big” is intransitive, by the way; “go home” is transitive. These verbs are everywhere!


I hope today’s story and explanation have provided some clarity about transitive and intransitive verbs. Remember, the key difference between them is a “transfer” of action. If you’re unsure whether a verb is transitive, look for a direct object!

What other questions about verbs do you have? Let me know in the comments section, and check back in late September for our next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!



Persons Unknown (Adventures in Grammar #4)

Raindrops pelted Elysia’s cloche hat and dark curls as she alighted from the cab, luggage in hand. Nightfall was an hour off, but the dreary March weather had felt like twilight all day, and a broken engagement hadn’t helped.

Elysia was supposed to board a late train for her wedding trip tonight, but her would-be husband’s cheating had turned it into a solo holiday. She should have known better than to trust a bootlegger.

The cabbie leaned out, and rain pecked his flat cap. “You sure this is the place, miss?”

“It is.” Elysia held out her fare. “Thank you.”

“Suit yourself.” The cab rolled off with a smoky backfire, leaving Elysia to the company of a few city rats and ne’er-do-wells. She gripped her beaded purse with one hand and the pistol in her coat pocket with the other. A female private eye had to have the confidence of Al Jolson and the stealth of Eliot Ness.

Keeping her gaze straight ahead, she strode through the tobacco-scented alley, up to an unmarked door, and knocked on it. The door cracked open.

A small voice slipped out: “A book whose sale’s forbidden all will rush to see.”

Elysia leaned in. “And prohibition turns one reader into three.”

The door opened, revealing Elysia’s mousy cousin Maisie.

“Thanks for coming right away. We open in an hour. If you can’t solve this robbery, I’m done for.”

Elysia stepped through the blank doorway into the Blind Tiger, one of the finest speakeasies in town and Maisie’s thankless place of employment. Patrons knew the Blind Tiger for its high-quality liquor, but few of them knew Maisie as its woman-of-all-work. Now, as always, the place was spotless, from the sparkling glassware behind the bar to the gleaming wood floors. Elysia set her valise next to a shabby case that had been left on the rack by the door.

Maisie twisted her apron in her hands. “I know you’ve got a train to catch, cousin… I’m sorry about how things ended up with Tommy.”

His name stung, but Elysia waved a dismissive hand. “It’s for the best. And my train doesn’t leave for a while yet.” She perched on a stool, set her purse on the bar, and pulled out a notepad and pencil. She wrote Theft by Persons Unknown at the top. “Just tell me what happened.”

Maisie nodded. “I had just given the floors and the bar a once-over, like always, when two men with guns burst through the door and demanded our latest liquor shipment. They must’ve known our schedule—the bootleggers had just delivered the liquor. We haven’t even paid for it yet.”

“Hmm…” Elysia frowned and jotted a few more notes. Their motive? Their opportunity?

Maisie’s voice shook. “Carl will have my hide. He owes the mob already, and now with this shipment gone…”

“Don’t worry about him.” Elysia added Talk to Carl to her notes. He was the Blind Tiger’s boozy, boorish owner, and he deserved to be robbed for all he had put Maisie through. “What happened next?”

“The short one carried out our crates as the tall one kept his gun on me. He moved so quickly that I thought—”

“Sorry, which one moved quickly?”

“Oh—the short one. I thought he could have been some kind of wrestler or athlete. He hustled back and forth out the door until he’d taken everything. And they were heavy—”


“The crates. Heavy as anything. I can’t even push one, let alone lift it. As soon as they left—the men, I mean, not the crates—I rang you up.”

“Who else was here?”

“No one.”

“Are you usually in here alone?”

Maisie looked around. “Yes, I’m here alone from noon until Carl decides to show up with the barkeeps, about twenty minutes before opening. We close at midnight, and I usually make it home by two.”

Maisie’s eyes were already weary. The night, full of sloppy, handsy patrons, hadn’t even started yet. And Carl would lay into her like an absolute beast for the lost liquor.

It was all so unfair. While Elysia’s father had saved and carefully invested in automobiles over the years, his cousin, Maisie’s father, had played ponies by the dozen. With his inheritance squandered but his self-absorption intact, Maisie’s father had sent her to work at the Blind Tiger and kept himself afloat by skimming off her wages.

Elysia slid a thoughtful hand around her lacy collar, along the fine beading of her purse, and over her newly vacated ring finger. Then, she looked over her paper—Their motive? Their opportunity? —and rose from her seat.

Elysia embraced Maisie. “My dear cousin,” she whispered. “I know what happened. And I know why you called me here.”

Maisie stiffened. “You do?”

Letting her go, Elysia nodded. “It was so you could steal my train ticket for tonight, right? After selling off the liquor shipment, you need to skip town before Carl or his creditors catch up?”

Maisie wobbled where she stood, as if her legs might give way under her. “I… How—”

“The floors, to start,” Elysia said gently. “Maisie, you keep this place pristine, and you rang me up not half an hour ago. If two men had just stomped through tonight’s weather, in and out with crates of liquor, there would still be mud and rainwater dripped all over. And if you were alone in the bar all afternoon, you would have had the best opportunity of anyone to undercut Carl and sell off his contraband to, say… a rival club?”

Maisie’s eyes darted around. Elysia stepped forward and gently laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Then, of course, there’s motive, and, well, I think even a nun would be desperate enough to steal to get away from Carl. Who could fault you for that?”

“Cousin, please…”

Elysia shook her head. “All this does leave one question, though: why would you call for me to solve a crime you had committed?”

Elysia pointed to the luggage by the door—her own fine valise and the dingy suitcase that looked forgotten. “Because you’re already packed to leave town. Leaving under someone else’s reserved ticket would keep the mob from tracing you.”

“I didn’t want to steal, especially not from you,” Maisie pleaded, “but you don’t understand—”

“I do.” Elysia picked up her purse. “It’s a good thing I still have Tommy’s train ticket, too. I wasn’t too keen on solo travel, anyway. Shall we?”

Maisie’s eyes spilled over. “What? Really?”

“Yes,” Elysia said firmly. “I’m all for justice, but you’ve put up with far more than your share from Carl and all the scoundrels that crawl in here. Whom are you harming by running? Him? Them? Sounds like justice to me.”

Maisie’s face darkened. She threw her arms around Elysia. “They deserve it. They really do.”

Elysia nodded. “And if anyone’s going to come after you, they’ll have to come after you and me.”

“Thank you,” Maisie whispered.

Elysia untied Maisie’s apron and helped her into her coat and hat. Then, she glanced back at the bar. “Say, is Carl’s bootlegger who I think it is?”

“Sure is,” Maisie said. “That louse Tommy’s going to have bigger problems than a cancelled wedding tonight.”

Elysia laughed. It wasn’t justice, but it was something close. She held the door open for Maisie. “Let’s get out of this town, doll. You and I have a train to catch.”

I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into a Roaring Twenties speakeasy as much as I! This decade provides so many scenic and stylish details that it is very fun to write about, and I’ve been looking forward to writing a mystery-themed post. That brings me to our next grammar topic: clarity in pronouns.

You might ask, what is a pronoun? It is a word that replaces something else.

You might also ask, why do we use them? Here’s why:

The desire to write a mystery-themed post brings the author to the grammar topic presently shared between the author and the readership.

Does that sentence sound more confusing, wordy, and clunky? You bet your gin and tonic! And it’s because it lacks the pronouns of, “That brings me to our next grammar topic.” Each pronoun stands in for another word, phrase, or concept to simplify the sentence.

Used correctly, pronouns allow language to flow more clearly and easily, like a well-made cocktail. However, when you use them incorrectly or ambiguously, they can muddle your meaning worse than an overly minty julep!

Pronouns comprise such a broad and deep topic that they could be the subject of a dozen blog posts. To spare us all, I’ve selected a few, commonly misunderstood topics to review here:

Subjective and objective case confusion, who versus whom, and ambiguity.

First, let’s talk about cases (of pronouns, not private detectives). The subjective case is used to replace subjects: the nouns taking action or direction through verbs. Subjective pronouns include I, you, he, she, they, it, one, and we. Here are a few examples:

  • “If you (Elysia) can’t solve this robbery, I (Maisie) am done for.”
  • She (Elysia) perched on a stool.
  • They (fictional robbers) must’ve known our schedule.”


Next, let’s deal with the objective case, which includes pronouns that take the place of objects: the nouns that are directly or indirectly acted upon. Objective pronouns include me, you, him, her, them, it, one, and us. Objective pronouns often follow prepositions. Examples:

  • “We haven’t even paid for it (the liquor) yet.”
  • “The tall one kept his gun on me (Maisie).”
  • “Who could fault you (Maisie) for that?”


Two issues often cause case confusion. The first is that several of the pronouns (you, it, and one) are the same in either case, which means our eyes and ears are less trained to catch errors in case when those pronouns are used. The other, more prevalent issue is compound subjects and objects. Do these sentences sound wrong?

  • Me and you have a train to catch.”
  • Her and Maisie have a train to catch.

The cases are mixed up! You can tell by reading each noun or pronoun on its own. “You have a train to catch” or “Maisie has a train to catch” is fine, but “Her has a train to catch” is a nonstarter, and “Me have a train to catch” only works for the Cookie Monster. This sentence requires “You and I” or “She and Maisie.”


The compound subject issue is one many of us learned to correct early on, with parents and teachers chastising our, “Can me and Katie go swimming?” with “Katie and I.” However, at some point this self-correction may have crossed into new error territory. Do these sound wrong?

  • “They’ll have to come after you and I.”
  • They’ll have to come after she and Maisie.

You wouldn’t say, “They’ll have to come after I,” or “They’ll have to come after she.” Even though we’ve been conditioned to auto-correct with “and I” or “she and,” these are compound objects that require objective pronouns, like “me” and “her.”


Savvy readers might see what looks like an error at the beginning of this explanation: “I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into a Roaring Twenties speakeasy as much as I!” This sentence is, in fact, correct because the comparison is between how much you enjoyed the jaunt and how much I enjoyed the jaunt. Here’s why this distinction is important:

  • Carl’s wife loves gin more than he. [more than Carl does.]
  • Carl’s wife loves gin more than him. [this is very sad for Carl: his wife loves gin more than she loves him!]


Whew! That was a lot about cases. Here’s a quick explanation of who versus whom. Some people think that “whom” is simply the more formal version of “who,” but it isn’t.

“Who” behaves like a subjective pronoun, and “whom” acts like an objective pronoun. Note how they were used in the story:

  • Who could fault you for that?” [what person could]
  • Whom are you harming by running? Him? Them?” [harm occurring to someone]

I phrased that last quote so that “him” and “them” were used alongside “whom” for a reason: I think it helps to remember that the pronouns ending in -m do the same job of replacing objects. If you would fill in “them” in a sentence, then it’s time to use “whom.”


Finally, watch out for ambiguity in pronouns. Misuse of pronouns can create confusion instead of clarity. I tried to work in a few examples in the dialogue:

  • He moved so quickly” could refer to either of the men mentioned, which is why Elysia questions the statement.
  • Likewise, “They were heavy” could refer to men or crates until a clarification is made.

In Elysia’s notes, “their motive” and “their opportunity” are intentionally ambiguous. If I had said “her” from the outset, the reader would have known that Elysia suspected Maisie from the beginning, and our mystery would have been spoiled!

You were probably taught in school that “they/them/their” are third-person pronouns to be used in the plural only—when referring to two or more nouns, and that a singular person should be referred to as “he or she.” Historically, at least over the past few centuries, reserving “they” for plurals was largely considered correct.

However, numerous bastions of the English language, including the Oxford English Dictionary, have recently revised their official standards to accept “they/them/their” as singular third-person pronouns. The use of the singular “they” is seen as a practical modern adaptation, as well as a respectful way to ensure that people of all genders are included in our collective use of language. If you would like to learn more about the history and meaning of “they,” I suggest checking out this great, detailed article!


I hope today’s mystery and explanation have provided some food for thought about how we use pronouns. Remember, the goal in using them is clarity! If you’re unsure of which word to use, consider what it’s replacing.

What other questions about pronouns do you have? Let me know in the comments section, and check back on May 27 for our next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!





A Tense Process (Adventures in Grammar #3)

Almost nine years ago, my husband David and I bought our first house. A sturdy, brick “kit house,” built in the 1920s in a quiet, blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood, our new place had decrepit bathrooms and a semi-finished attic with camouflage-print shag carpeting.

We loved it.

To be fair, our first house wasn’t the first house we had tried to buy. Other buyers had outbid us on two different Victorian four-squares across town, and another deal on a fixer-upper had fallen through after a failed plumbing inspection. When we finally found our house, we looked at it with weary eyes (I can only imagine how our unbelievably patient realtor’s eyes felt).

As we looked around at the original glass doorknobs and worn-out hardwoods and plastered walls, though, our excitement for the house hunt returned. This was a diamond in the rough, and we felt ready to give it all the TLC we could muster.

We really had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into—we merely had the confidence and energy of mid-twenty-somethings in love, access to do-it-yourself tutorials on Youtube, and just enough money to keep going. If necessity isn’t the mother of invention, then it is certainly the mother of learning. It’s incredible what you can learn to do when you can’t pay someone else to do it.

When our contractor vanished after move-in day and left us with a half-finished bathroom and piles of tiles, David and I hung plastic sheeting around the bathtub for a week or two while we learned from the Internet how to tile a tub surround.

Once we had finished, we tiled the bathroom floor, too.

When we realized, as new parents, that hiring a contractor to remodel the powder room was beyond our budget, my Eagle Scout husband ripped the tiny bathroom down to its studs and built it back up again. I ventured into a herringbone pattern for the powder room floor, then I got bold and replaced the entryway’s chipping linoleum with a mosaic.

When a subcontractor replaced one of the old radiators with a newer wall-mount variety and left behind big square holes in the hardwood floor, David took the salvaged floorboards from under the old linoleum and asked, “OK, Google, how do you patch tongue-in-groove flooring?”

David learned to build radiator covers. I sewed curtains. He installed baseboards. I learned to mow the lawn. And together we learned, again and again, how generous and helpful our family and friends were. Inside and around the brick walls of our beloved kit house, we kept learning and learning until we had our home exactly the way we wanted it. We poured ourselves into its nooks and crannies with every new project.

That’s where we are now. We have loved this house for nearly a decade.

We love it.

And now, it’s time to move.

The babies we brought home to this house are now ages six and almost-three. We want to give them (and our dog) more space to run around. We are getting ready to start our older son in kindergarten. And as much as we love our house, we are ready for a new adventure.

After massively de-cluttering, touching up paint, and finishing a few final projects, we signed the listing paperwork. Last Saturday, while camped out with our kids and dog following a scheduled showing, we agreed to a contract with an expecting couple who fell in love with our house. In two months, it will be their house.

I hope that they will love it, too.

Even so, as I guided our six-year-old up our refinished stairs last Saturday night, after we had accepted the offer and returned to our house, the words slipped out of my mouth automatically:

“Let’s brush teeth and put on jammies. Isn’t it good to be home?”

As he continued up the stairs, I stopped halfway and burst into tears.

Were we doing the right thing? Was it too soon to leave this house behind? Would we regret letting it go so quickly? Even with everything we had learned so far, about houses and about ourselves, was this too great a leap to take?

I took a deep breath and wiped my eyes. When I lurched into our bathroom, our son was pushing his stepstool across the tiles I had laid. He climbed up to reach his toothbrush. I wiggled his loose tooth for him when he was done brushing, and we walked hand-in-hand into his light-green bedroom. As I tucked him in, recited our bedtime prayer, and sang him a Mister Rogers ditty, I wiped my eyes again.

We love this house. We love our home. And we are utterly privileged that, for almost nine years, they have been the same place.

It was good to be home. It is good to be home.

And when we move, wherever we move, it will be good to be home.

Homebuying is a tense process almost by definition. Buyers have to balance their needs and wants for a home with their budgets, commutes, taxes, and other prosaic details; sellers have to balance their future plans and wishes with their financial and logistical obligations. There are contingencies and allowances, clauses and deposits. All these things remain in tension with one another.

Alongside that meaning of “tense,” I thought I could lay out a quick definition of common verb tenses from this personal reflection. Past, present, and future are central to my thoughts of home, so they emerged as natural guideposts for me as I wrote about my feelings and memories of our first house.

With that in mind, here is the grammar topic for the day:

How do you use simple and perfect tenses to describe past, present, and future?


Verb tenses are used to clarify and give context to our actions. “I went,” for instance, has a very different meaning from, “I will have gone.” There are many verb tenses in English, but today we’ll quickly review two of the most common: simple tenses and perfect tenses.


Simple tenses are used to show things like completed actions in the past, regular or scheduled activities in the present or future, facts and theories, and feelings.

The past simple changes the predicate (verb), usually by adding “-ed,” so that it describes a completed action:

  • We learned from the Internet how to tile a tub surround.
  • He climbed up to reach his toothbrush.


The present simple conjugates based on whether the subject is singular or plural, and it shows a fact, feeling, or scheduled/habitual event:

  • We are ready for a new adventure.
  • It is good to be home.


The future simple uses an auxiliary, or helping, verb (“will”) to bump the action into the future:

  • I hope that they will love it, too.
  • It will be good to be home.


Perfect tenses use auxiliary verbs as well—sometimes more than one. Perfect tenses are used to place actions or states in time relative to other things.

The past perfect illustrates a past action that was completed prior to something else. It uses the auxiliary verb “had” along with the past participle, a different verb form:

  • Other buyers had outbid us on two different Victorian four-squares across town.
  • We really had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into.

(That second one is tricky! The first “had” is simple past. You can tell because it’s not followed by a participle.)


The present perfect shows an action that began in the past and continues into the present. It uses the auxiliary verb “have/has” along with the past participle:

  • We have loved this house for nearly a decade.
  • For almost nine years, they have been the same place.


The future perfect illustrates a future action that will be completed in the future. It uses two auxiliary verbs, “will” and “have,” with the past participle to place it in time:

  • By the time we move, we will have packed countless boxes.
  • The buyers will have requested their home inspection by the end of the month.


I hope these examples have helped to clarify how the simple and perfect tenses are used. When you’re sorting out your verb tenses, think about the chronological order of your actions or states, as well as whether they are completed or continuing.

What other questions about verb tenses do you have? Let me know in the comments section, and check back on April 30 for our next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!



Samson and the Mountain (Adventures in Grammar #2)

This is the story of Samson, a very independent boy. Samson does everything by himself. Even when he really needs the help, he insists on doing everything on his own.

“I’ll do it by myself!” he declares, with bright eyes and little fists.

Samson loves to climb. He climbs trees, rocks, the doghouse in his yard, jungle gyms, monkey bars, everything. Even when the things he climbs are high, intimidating, and even scary, he climbs everything on his own.

“I’ll do it by myself!” he declares, hoisting himself skyward, swinging upside-down by his knees, reaching for the next branch.

One day, Samson decides to make his biggest climb yet: The Mountain. It is a very long climb, and Samson is still a very small boy.

“You might need some help on this one,” says Samson’s big brother Josiah.

“What if we come along just in case you need us?” says their papa.

“Rouf-rouf-rahoo,” says Woody, their dog.

(Ruff translation: You don’t have to do this alone!)

But Samson shakes his head. “I’ll do it by myself!”

One sunny summer morning, Samson fills his backpack with the things he’ll need for his climb: plenty of snacks, a canteen full of water, a flashlight, and a raincoat just in case.

“Are you sure you don’t want any help?” asks Josiah.

“Or any company?” asks their papa.

Samson shakes his head. “I’ll do it by myself. I’ll climb the Mountain all by myself!”

“Raou-ruh-raou,” says Woody.

(Ruff translation: Good luck!)

Samson carries his backpack to the base of the Mountain. He looks up at the summit. “I’ll do it by myself,” he whispers.

Not too far behind Samson sneak Papa, Josiah, and Woody. They know that Samson wants to do it by himself, and they don’t want to stop him. They just want to stay quietly close by, just in case he needs them.

Samson starts his climb. He hikes all the way to a small stream and stops for a snack.

When Samson opens the backpack, though, the bag of snacks spills out into the stream. “Oh, no!”

The package of snacks floats down the stream, where Josiah fishes it out. “I’ll hold onto this in case Samson needs it,” he says.

Upstream, Samson shakes off the loss. “I’ll keep going,” he says. “I can still do it by myself.”

Samson, followed by Josiah, continues up the mountain.

The sun beats through the trees of the mountainside as the morning passes. A little farther up, Samson stops to rest on a rock. He pulls out his canteen of water for a drink.

No sooner does Samson take a few swigs from his canteen than a snake slithers out from under the rock and hisses at him. Samson yelps and drops the canteen, which rolls away down the hill. “Oh, no!”

Amid the trees below, Samson’s papa catches the rolling canteen. “I’ll hold onto this in case he needs it,” he says.

Samson shimmies away from the rock, watching for snakes. Even though his voice wobbles a little, he says, “I can still do it by myself.”

Samson, along with Josiah and their papa, persists in his hike up the mountain.

As the day slides into afternoon, heavy clouds roll along in the sky. Samson grits his teeth and opens his backpack again. “I’m not that far from the top now. I’ll just put on my raincoat—”

But a sudden gust of stormy wind pulls the raincoat right out of his hands. “Oh, no!”

The raincoat ripples along down the trail. Woody leaps and carefully catches a sleeve in his teeth. “Ruh-roh,” he growls around the fabric.

(Ruff translation: Well, this is quite an unfortunate setback! I’ll bring this coat along in case he needs it.)

Samson shivers as a raindrop pelts his nose, but then he scowls. “I’m going to do it by myself!”

Samson, as well as his papa, his brother, and Woody, keeps going.

A rainstorm wets Samson as he climbs, but he doesn’t stop. The rain passes, and the sun is just beginning to sink in the sky when he finally steps onto the summit of the mountain.

Samson looks out over the sunset, squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath, and smiles. “I did it! I did it by myself!”

He looks around.

He’s alone.

There’s nobody to celebrate with. Nobody is there to keep him company. Nobody is there to join him for the hike home.

Samson rifles through his backpack. All that’s left is his flashlight to guide him back down the wet, snaky mountain path in the darkness. His legs and arms are very, very tired. His stomach grumbles. His throat is scratchy. His shoulders are still quite damp.

And he is lonely at the top.

Samson’s chin trembles. He turns on the flashlight and blinks it through the twilit trees. “I wish—I really wish I hadn’t done this by myself.”

Then, Samson’s family emerges onto the summit. “You didn’t,” Papa says, handing him the canteen.

Josiah holds out the package of snacks. “Here, I saved these for you.”

Woody steps forward, wagging his tail, and drops the raincoat at Samson’s feet.

Samson looks at his papa, brother, and dog as they gather around him. “Thank you.”

Together, they eat the snacks and drink the water. Samson bundles up in his raincoat to stay warm for the climb down. Then, Papa hoists Samson onto his back and takes Josiah’s hand. Woody sidles close beside them.

Then, Samson and his family hike down the mountain together, grateful for each other and thankful that none of them had to climb the mountain alone.

Thanks for reading this story of Samson the Independent! I thought I could illustrate the impact of singular-versus-plural verbs through a character who insists on being separate and independent at every turn. Subjects and verbs must agree in sentences, meaning that they must both be singular (“he says”) or plural (“we say”).

You might have also noticed that this whole story is told in present tense (says/climbs/is, rather than past-tense said/climbed/was). I chose to tell the story this way because singular and plural verbs often look the same in past tense—“he climbed” versus “they all climbed,” for example—but they are clearly different in present tense: “he climbs” versus “they all climb.”

That brings us to today’s topic…


In tricky sentence structures, how can you tell whether to use singular or plural verbs?

A singular noun is a person, place, thing, or concept. It can also be a mass of something uncountable, like “coffee” or “clothing.” A singular subject—the active noun in a sentence—requires a singular verb. Examples:

  • Samson does everything by himself.
  • The sun beats through the trees of the mountainside as the morning passes.
  • Woody leaps and carefully catches a sleeve in his teeth.


A plural noun contains more than one person, place, thing, or concept. It is often countable, like “cups of coffee” or “shirts.” A plural subject requires a plural verb. Examples:

  • They know that Samson wants to do it by himself.
  • Heavy clouds roll along in the sky.


Now, there are some trickier structures that tend to throw people off. First, the subject typically comes before the verb in a sentence, but you can also invert a sentence so that the verb comes first. It still has to match the subject, though. Examples:

  • Not too far behind Samson sneak Papa, Josiah, and Woody.
  • “Are you sure you don’t want any help?” asks
  • No sooner does Samson take a few swigs from his canteen than a snake slithers out.


And here’s the really tricky thing: The subject of a sentence also might not be the closest noun to the verb. If you’re unsure, find the verb and ask, “Who or what is doing this action or holding this state?” Example:

  • The package of snacks floats down the stream, where Josiah fishes it out.

Even though “snacks” is closest to the verb, “package” is the subject, and “of snacks” just describes the package. My rule-of-thumb to find the subject is that if a noun follows a preposition (like “of snacks”), it’s almost never the subject. It’s describing the subject.


Furthermore, and is the only conjunction that forms a compound (plural) subject and requires a plural verb. Other conjunctions and phrases—or, nor, along with, as well as, joined by—remain singular. Whatever noun comes first is the subject, and anything that follows only modifies it. Examples:

  • Samson, followed by Josiah, continues up the mountain.
  • Samson, along with Josiah and their papa, persists in his hike up the mountain.
  • Then, Samson and his family hike down the mountain together.

Only the “and” in this last sentence creates a plural.


I hope that this story helps you remember a few common rules for singular and plural subjects and verbs. Ask yourself if your subject is independent like Samson or joined by “and” to something else.

Thanks for reading! Check back on March 26 for our next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!




A Tale of Three Sisters (Adventures in Grammar #1)

In a faraway land, there once lived three sisters, each quite lovely and quite contrary. They were always arguing—with passersby and with each other.

The youngest sister was called But. Her name was a sore spot; it often made her the rump of jokes. She always crafted quick, clear arguments, but she interjected a lot.

The middle sister was named Although. She loved poetry, the way the words washed into each other. She liked the sound of flowery arguments, although their logic was sometimes harder to follow.

However was the eldest. She was pensive in her arguments and preferred to think through her words before speaking. Her younger sisters tended to bubble over; she, however, loved the power of a good dramatic pause.

One warm spring afternoon, the sisters sat in the shade of a yew tree outside their home, weaving blankets and words.

Although eyed But’s blanket. “Although your pattern is pretty, I think my style of weaving is faster.”

But shook her head. “I’ve nothing against yours, but mine is definitely the fastest.”

However smiled while she listened to her sisters’ squabbling. Her fingers wove quickest of all; she wouldn’t bother jumping into the argument just to say so, however.

At that moment three travelers rode past. So taken were they with the lovely sisters that they dismounted their horses and bowed deeply. The sisters were pleased, and they invited the travelers to tea.

In the sisters’ parlor, conversations wove around the room. The youngest of the travelers, a charming man with ink on his cuffs, gazed into But’s eyes. “Milady, has anyone asked permission for your hand in marriage?”

But stared back. “No one has, but whom would they ask? My hands are my own.”

“Of course,” the young man stammered. “Well… Would your hands have any interest in becoming a lawyer’s wife?”

But eyed his ink-stained sleeves and his kind face. “They would not,” she said, “but they would have great interest in becoming a lawyer… and perhaps, one day, a wife.”

The first traveler’s face lit up. “I can help you learn if you like,” he offered. The other sisters were so happy for But that they invited the travelers to stay for dinner.

Inside the dining room, laughter rippled through the air. The second traveler, a stormy-eyed lady with a fine ruffled collar and swords at her waist, knelt at the table beside Although. “Milady, your poetic words and ways fill my heart like the sea fills my soul. Would you consent to travel the world with me?”

Although smiled. “Although I have never desired to sail the wild ocean, I feel I would always find safe harbor with you. I shall.”

The second traveler’s face brimmed with delight. The other sisters were so glad for Although that they invited the travelers to stay for stargazing.

Outside in the mild evening, a comfortable quiet settled over everyone. The oldest of the travelers, a man with gentle eyes, leaned closer to However. “I have loved and lost before,” he began. “I am older and sadder than I used to be, yet my heart still yearns to love. If I gave it to you… would you give me yours in return?”

A shooting star whistled across the sky above them. However cast her eyes down. “I cannot make such a weighty decision so quickly.”

The third traveler’s face fell. The others looked soberly at each other.

However,” she added, “you may ask me again at another time.”

He looked up hopefully. Another shooting star whisked past overhead.

The fragrant days of spring passed around the sisters’ home. But left for the city with her suitor to earn her letters as a lawyer, but she returned home every so often, always with ink smudges, heavy books, and a content smile.

However’s suitor visited frequently, bringing her gifts of lilacs and daisies and lilies and roses to set upon her table. However was always happy to see him. When he asked for her heart, however, she always deferred. “Another time,” said she.

The days warmed into the gleam of summer. Although sailed out of the harbor with her love to travel the world and fill it with poetry. Although the seafaring life pleased her greatly, she returned home every so often with sea glass and shanties and stories.

However’s patient suitor still visited often, bearing baskets of berries and sweet summer fruits to share on stargazing picnics. However was always elated to see him. When he asked for her heart, however, she continued to put him off.

Finally, the air began to blow cool, and the leaves turned to fiery shades. The summer was surrendering to the dreariness of autumn. However’s suitor knocked once more on her door, this time empty-handed.

“I have nothing left to offer you,” he said sadly. “I have brought you the most beautiful offerings that spring and summer can tender, and now cold autumn comes. If you have no further interest in my heart, I would ask that you return it.”

However stepped out. “I could never give my heart to someone so fast and all at once,” she said.

Her suitor turned away.

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “However… I have given you a piece of my heart with every kind word and every thoughtful act. My patient, gentle love, you now possess it all.”

His eyes lit up like stars at her words. The brightness of autumn bloomed around them, no longer dreary in the slightest with their hearts to kindle and warm each other. They were married as soon as But and Although could be summoned home.

However, who loved the power of a good dramatic pause, had found something she loved much more.

And they all lived happily, merrily, and still a bit contrarily, ever after.

I hope you liked this little tale of three sisters! The word nerd and folktale fan in me really enjoyed writing it. I wanted to start this blog series with a commonly confused topic; I always review the but/although/however conundrum when I’m tutoring. In conversation, we tend to use them interchangeably, but they each have a distinct grammatical job to do.

So… (rubs hands together—here we go!)


How are “but,” “although,” and “however” actually different?


But is a coordinating conjunction. Some English teachers call these “FANBOYS” conjunctions (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So) to help students remember them.

Coordinating conjunctions are used to join two independent clauses (complete thoughts) when the thoughts have equal weight in the sentence. Examples:

  •    She always crafted clear arguments, but she interjected a lot.
  •    The sisters were pleased, and they invited the travelers to tea.
  •    “I’m older and sadder than I used to be, yet my heart still yearns to love.”


Although is a subordinating conjunction. There are many, many subordinating conjunctions! Common ones include although, because, since, if, when, while, and so on.

Subordinating conjunctions are also used to join independent clauses, but they do so by making one clause subordinate (dependent)—meaning it’s no longer a complete thought on its own. Commas are placed after subordinate clauses but typically not before them.* Examples:

  •    I can help you learn if you like.
  •    She smiled while she listened to her sisters’ squabbling.
  •    “Although your pattern is pretty, I think my style of weaving is faster.”

*There are, of course, exceptions! An exception even appears in the story: “She liked the sound of flowery arguments, although their logic was sometimes harder to follow.”

This is an example of an adverb of concession. When an independent clause is followed by a contrasting clause, it does receive a comma to support the logical turn in the sentence. English, amirite?


However is a conjunctive adverb. What does that mean? Well, adverbs are modifiers: they change how another word (usually a verb) is used in a sentence. A conjunctive adverb modifies the meaning of a whole sentence. They are standalone words and phrases like however, on the other hand, as a matter of fact, thus, therefore, first of all, and so on.

Conjunctive adverbs are used to fill in the logic between two complete thoughts. They can be placed anywhere in a sentence. Since they stand alone, conjunctive adverbs are set apart from the rest of the sentence with commas. Examples:

  •    She, however, loved the power of a good dramatic pause.
  •    She wouldn’t bother jumping into the argument just to say so, however.
  •    Finally, the air began to blow cool.


I hope that the characterizations I’ve given to these words throughout the three sisters’ story—But as a quick-minded interrupter, Although as a poet, and However as a lover of dramatic pauses—will make it easier to remember their various purposes.

Thanks for reading! Check back on February 19 for the next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!




Adventure Time!

Happy New Year, reader-friends!

It has been quite a while since I posted on this blog, but I had a busy year of writing in 2018: started some new projects, attended some fabulous conferences, won a couple of lovely awards, and completed a lot of editing and proofreading work. I’m glad to be back here now, and I have an exciting new blog series planned to share with you in 2019:


What, that’s not exciting?

Wait, where are you going?

snow white

Let me explain. As a writer, a proofreader, and a language arts tutor, I know that grammar is not the sexiest topic out there. It doesn’t even crack the Chalkboard Hot 100. However, that is exactly why I think it’s important to write about.

In my work, I review several common grammar and style issues with almost every high school student I tutor. I often catch the same errors when I’m proofreading the work of adults. These are components of the English language that native speakers often “know” but seldom understand on a structural level.

sleepy baby

Uh-oh. Stay with me. We’re getting there!

I’m putting together a monthly blog series for 2019 and calling it “Adventures in Grammar” because I’m going to discuss commonly misunderstood or misused bits of grammar—through creative storytelling.

I’ll use surprising, exciting, humorous, and perhaps even heartwarming examples to make those grammar topics clearer. I’ll probably also use a fair number of .GIFs (since this elder millennial finally learned how to embed them!). My goal will be to provide useful long-term information that sticks in an entertaining way.

Sound good?

If you’re intrigued, check back next Tuesday (January 22) for our first Adventure!




Sixteen Things to Tell My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

Today is my 32nd birthday, or as I’ve been thinking of it, my “double-sweet-sixteen.” And that’s gotten me thinking about my first sweet sixteen: who I was (and wasn’t), what I knew (and didn’t), and what I would tell myself if I could go back to February 2002.

With that as inspiration, I’d like to share the following list. Here are the sixteen things I would like to go back and tell my sixteen-year-old self:

  1. Be kind to your siblings. You will develop stronger bonds with each of them, especially when you just let go of the need to be “right.” And you will always need each other.


  1. This summer, you are going to have the experience of a lifetime: a month studying in France. Your mother is letting you fly around the world by yourself at age sixteen. If you ever doubt that you have a cool mom, just remind yourself of that.


  1. You won’t have weird white spots on your teeth when they take off your braces. Stop worrying about it.


  1. Try not to be discouraged when you don’t get the high school choir solo or role you had hoped for. There is so much wonderful, heartening music ahead of you, and you will learn the beauty of collaboration.


  1. Hold onto all those good friends in your birthday photo. Through living in different towns, different states, different seasons of life, you’ll stay close in different ways—but you have a fortunate habit of finding good, kind people.


  1. Appreciate the heck out of your exceptionally well-funded, well-staffed, safe school.


  1. The Columbine school shooting happened less than three years ago. 9/11 was six months ago. There will continue to be times when the world seems irreparably darkened, like cruelty and division will win. Keep looking to those who are helping others, who are giving of themselves, who are fighting hatred with love to make the world brighter. You will always be able to find those people, and you can always keep trying to be one of them.


  1. Treasure this time of living with your wise, gentle grandma. She is one of the best friends you’ll ever have. And you’ll keep wishing you could ask more questions of your grandpa, but even when you can’t literally “ask” them, they’ll keep getting answered.


  1. You will become a parent. It will be so, so different than you think it will be. It will be ten times harder, but a hundred times more joyful. It will make you think differently and more deeply about your own mother and what she means to you. It will make you a better person.


  1. You think those “going into labor/OMG, can we even make it to the hospital?” scenes in movies and sitcoms are humorous? Oh, just wait.


  1. Anxiety will happen to you. It will fold you up like a sheet of paper, and you’ll think it’s going to tear you in half, but you will remain whole. And as you learn to appreciate being whole, you will grow stronger.


  1. Don’t limit your beliefs. Study them. Ask questions of them. Grow in them.


  1. Keep writing. Keep reading. Most importantly, get better at listening to those who are different from you. If you’re going to be a storyteller, you must be a sincere listener first.


  1. Don’t worry; Hanson will keep making records. You maybe won’t keep chatting about their music on AOL Instant Messenger, Mmmbop5916, but you’ll keep on loving it—on CDs, on mp3finder, on iTunes, on Youtube, on Spotify… and on whatever comes next.


  1. You’re not going to find “the one” in high school like every single millennial teen movie insists you are. Calm down. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. (And P.S., in about two-and-a-half years, you’re going to meet “the one,” at a college you’ve never even heard of that will end up being one of the best places you’ve ever been.) Be patient with fate and true love and all of it, and don’t settle for anything less.


  1. Be patient with yourself. It will take at least another sixteen years before you really start to get better at this, but try. Keep going. You are not yet the person you are meant to be. And that’s good, isn’t it?




The Importance of “Show, Don’t Tell”

Three Sundays ago, I had the pleasure of attending a writers’ retreat. One of the workshops there focused on the concept of “show, don’t tell,” one of the bedrock principles of effective writing. “Show, don’t tell” means that a writer should describe characters and actions in ways that draw readers into the moment. A writer should avoid giving the reader information in ways that feel distant or list-y. For instance…


Lucy stared up at the top of the mountain. It was the tallest mountain she’d ever seen. She was doubtful that she’d ever make it to the top. But she had to. Trevor needed her to.


A cool mountain wind stung Lucy’s eyes. The fiercest mountain in the territory hulked in front of her, just daring her to try climbing it. That hazy, snow-capped summit might as well have been the moon. But if she didn’t make the climb, Trevor was as good as dead.

See the difference? The first version is clinical, distancing, and choppy: “Lucy stared,” “It was,” “She was doubtful,” etc. There’s no connection that pulls the reader into the scene.

The second version incorporates sensations and emotions without spelling them out for the reader. We don’t need to be told that Lucy’s staring up at a mountain if we get the sensation of the wind coming down and stinging her eyes. We don’t need to be told it’s the tallest mountain she’s ever seen if we picture it “daring her to try climbing it.” Is she doubting herself? Heck yes, she is! And we know it because we can picture it as she does, so far above her that it’s practically the moon.

“Show, don’t tell” is so central to learning to write stories that entire books have been devoted to the subject. All writers, of all abilities, backgrounds, and paychecks, are still continually honing this skill.

(Except maybe Stephen King. He seems to have it down pretty well.)

The reason I’ve had the importance of “show, don’t tell” spinning around in my brain lately, however, is not purely fictional.

Because truth is stranger than fiction.

Two Sundays ago, I enjoyed a special occasion at my church: an outdoor service. The unseasonably warm late September weather was a nice bonus. I sat on the dewy ground, Saturday’s grass-clippings stuck to my sandals, while we all sang and prayed our way through an hour of worship.

The thing about our church is that it’s a beautiful, centenarian stone building smack in the middle of an urban bus route. It’s noisy all around us in the neighborhood, and parking is a weekly source of frustration. During a typical service, the taupe-painted plaster walls dampen the intrusive sounds of buses, car horns, and sirens. The traditional altar, the arched woodwork, and the stained-glass windows depicting Jesus—reigning in heavenly glory in one frame and affectionately gathering a group of children in the other—all serve to frame our minds for worship. They tell us that we are in a church.

And personally, I love that setting. I love the quietness it brings into my lungs, the reverb of the music, the thrum of the old, gleaming organ, the soft cushions and hard backs of the pews, the peaceful feeling of my own smallness.

But last Sunday was different.

There were no cushions or pews, no thrumming organ. There were no thick plaster walls to hold our music in—or to hold the noise of the world out. No roof to block the noise of the life-flight helicopter on its way to the nearest hospital. The construction work down the alley proceeded as usual; plywood scraps dropping into a dumpster punctuated the verses of our hymns. There were bugs and sunglasses and kids on blankets. When my toddler got fidgety during the sermon, I walked with him under the trees and admired the crabapples.

Most of the signs that told us we were in a church had been left inside.

The teen members of our congregation led several “campfire”-style songs, accompanied on guitar. Our custom of kneeling at a prayer rail was replaced by filing to the center of the grass and standing to receive communion. Our pastor knelt on the ground with the children for their special message at the end.

The Biblical lesson discussed with the children (and all of us) was Jesus’ story of the master who, at the end of the day, paid his laborers equally for their work whether they had worked the full day or arrived halfway through. It was a lesson that by our world’s standards seems to advance bold unfairness—why should someone who came late receive the same?

The point made in the Gospel is that it shouldn’t matter to us whether our labor is equal to that of our neighbors, but that each of us receives what we need to live. And that it should not be up to our world’s flawed concept of fairness to decide what our neighbors should receive. And that grace isn’t meant to be doled out based on what we think we or others have “earned.”

For the record, it made perfect sense to the kids.

The past year has been a turbulent one in our world, particularly within the borders of the United States. There are questions of fairness, of fundamental rights, of safety, and of painful, inescapable history that we are grappling with as a nation. There seem to be shortages everywhere:

  • Shortages of patience and the willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt
  • Shortages of compassion towards those who are suffering
  • Shortages of clean drinking water (see Flint, Michigan and Puerto Rico)
  • Shortages of generosity by those who have more than they could ever need
  • Shortages of time and money by parents working extra shifts to give their children a better life
  • Shortages of respect for refugees and immigrants, who have fled Hell on earth and still somehow find the strength to hope for the promise of America
  • Shortages of welcoming for LGBTQ+ individuals within churches, the places where they should feel the fullness and wideness of God’s love more than any other
  • Shortages of trust in our neighbors, our friends, and our families

One thing there seems to be no shortage of, however, is fingers capable of pointing blame. There are literally billions of glibly derisive Facebook posts (“Stay triggered, snowflakes”), angry press conferences and viral videos, and ill-advised tweets to choose from. It is so easy to blame, so easy to get angry, that we spend hours in “flame wars,” sometimes stewing days later over what we should have said. There’s no room to show kindness amid that much telling of anger.

We have allowed ourselves to become a nation of Tellers.

We try to tell others why we are right. We try to tell others why they are wrong. We try to make sure our facts are correct. We try to point out when their facts aren’t. We do all this because we believe in what we have to say. We try so hard, and we tell all day, and at the end of it our voices are worn out and no one has actually heard anything.

Since my out-of-church experience two Sundays ago, one of the hymns we sang has been stuck in my head. “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”

It’s a song of unity, about reaching out and spreading the Gospel not through words, but through actions. The refrain is simple, and it’s been stuck in my head for days. And the more I think about “show, don’t tell,” the more I see how it applies to much more than my writing.

There are a whole lot of well-meaning ways that Christians tell people who they are. Some self-identify with a smile and automatically say things like “thoughts and prayers.” Some quote Scripture and share “type AMEN if you agree!” statuses on social media. Some wear crosses and WWJD bracelets and put bumper stickers on our cars.

Now, you might read those last few items and thought, “But wait, aren’t those things showing Christianity?” I would say that they are not. They’re just… labels. They’re visible telling. They are not actively engaging with and showing love for the world in ways that the Gospel instructs.

That’s not to say that these forms of telling are not valuable—they are! But I would say that visible telling like the examples I listed should be the starting point for living one’s faith, not the destination.

Furthermore, these contemporary symbols of Christianity run a very real risk of doing the opposite of what they intend. If a Christian wearing a cross treats someone cruelly or dismissively—especially someone who is homeless, cast out, or vulnerable—they misrepresent the central kindness of Christianity. If a wealthy Christian announces that they are “praying for the people of ___” after a tragedy but takes no worldly action to help, then they are behaving not like Jesus and his disciples, but like the Pharisees who persecuted them. If a Christian types “AMEN” for sentiments like “People who don’t work for their living shouldn’t get handouts!” then they are tragically misinterpreting the teachings of Jesus.

And the trouble with using those symbols is that if a person professes to be “of Christ” but does the opposite of what Christ taught, they’re not just telling their faith instead of showing it. They’re showing the world around them exactly what Jesus rejected: hypocrisy.

Last Sunday, a cowardly act of mass murder was committed in Las Vegas, Nevada. The killer, by all previous accounts an unremarkable, older white man, managed to murder almost 60 people and wound over 500 more, thanks to the incomprehensible weaponry that he was able to purchase legally, before fatally shooting himself.

There are a whole lot of potential threads for discussion from the circumstances of this tragedy, some more charged than others, and I don’t want to pull on any of them right now. I don’t want to be just another teller in the face of endless sequel-fatigue surrounding mass shootings in America.

What I want is change.

Another lesson from the writers’ retreat: Know what your main character wants and then make sure they take decisive actions to get it. Don’t make your character wish and hope really hard for something that subsequently falls in their lap. Don’t make convenient sidekicks and plot twists do the hard work for your character. Don’t let others solve the problem.

Don’t wait for others to solve the problem.

I am learning, now more than ever, to take that lesson to heart for my writing and for myself.

And that takes me back to a common expression, now being heard in the face of natural disaster in Puerto Rico and unnatural disaster in Nevada: “thoughts and prayers.”

There are tellers who use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” and tellers who criticize the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” Unfortunately, the climate for discussion on the internet means that tellers on either side may instinctively deride the tellers on the other for their disrespect and godlessness, or their sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy… and on and on and on.

But as a praying, thinking Christian, I believe that neither side is wrong. Here’s why:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:27

The lesson of that verse is that followers of Christ are called to be his body on Earth—to engage fully and compassionately with the world around them—so that Christ’s love may be visible to all even if his body is not. This is echoed in St. Teresa of Avila’s 16th-century poem (“Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours”) and in the modern idiom “be Christ’s hands and feet” to describe the work of Christian churches.

So, if a person’s “thoughts and prayers” are the starting line for acting with kindness and courage in the face of a conflict or tragedy, then that’s walking the walk. That’s showing.

But when individuals professing to be Christian throw out a phrase like “thoughts and prayers” in a tweet or a prepared statement and then fail to follow it up with action, there is no showing to go with their telling. They are waiting for someone else, Divine or worldly, to solve the problem. They don’t acknowledge that their own actions might be the intended instruments of solution.

They’re letting their mouths do the work of their hands and feet.

Worse than that, if the most powerful of those individuals act in ways that contradict their words, such as accepting vast donations from gun lobbyists while offering “thoughts and prayers” and taking no action to prevent future tragedies, then they aren’t just telling instead of showing. They’re disrespecting their own faith and allowing countless people to be harmed, even killed, in the process.

If this triptych of unusual Sundays has shown me anything, it’s that I need to act the way I would try to write a main character to act: through decisive words and actions that demonstrate kindness and courage.

I have tried to remember that feeling of church without walls and show grace to others regardless of what my worldly mind might argue they have “earned.”

I have tried—continually—not to give in to anger and despair.

I have tried to shift my telling into showing, to do hard work, to find small ways to solve small problems and support the solving of bigger ones. I have found ways to donate and volunteer. And dozens of generous, kind people have guided me through all of it.

There are nights when I fall into bed with a smile thinking of a good thing that got done that day, and there are nights when I know I need to rest and try harder tomorrow. But I think (I hope) that means that my hands and feet are moving, at least.

Whether you are a writer, a Christian, an American, or all or none of the above, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this far. And I want to encourage you, regardless of what you believe or do for a living, wherever you live, whatever you have or lack, that you have something to show this world. You have a way to help heal it, if you will find the strength to act, day after day, with kindness and courage.

Well, I think I’ve probably done enough telling here. It’s time for me to click “publish,” then get up and get going. My hands and feet need to get to work, and I hope that in some small way, this post has heartened you to do the same. Let’s walk the walk together.

The world sometimes needs to be told what we think. But for the world to change, it needs to be shown what we believe.

Thank you again for reading! If you are interested in finding ways to take positive actions in your community, here are some suggestions:

  • Donate supplies or money to natural disaster relief. If you have the resources to donate funds, then the Red Cross, UNICEF, United for Puerto Rico, Save the Children, and One America are some examples of reputable, impactful organizations. You can also look for emergency supply collection drives in your own community. Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente Museum ran a huge drive last weekend, and it only cost me a brief, cheap trip to Aldi and a quick jaunt to the drop-off to contribute some diapers and bottled water. Alternately (if you’re less squeamish than I am), you can donate blood to the Red Cross like my husband does.
  • Volunteer through a church or neighborhood organization. No matter your beliefs, you can find a group doing good and start doing good with them. Start with an email or two to groups like Habitat for Humanity or Big Brothers, Big Sisters and see what their needs are. If you want to work through a church, see if yours supports a local food pantry or serves a monthly dinner at a homeless shelter. At my church, we’re also looking into starting a weekly “homework help” program for the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Help a refugee in your community. Refugees from war-ravaged countries have gone through destitute camps and multiple years of vetting to arrive in the United States, and they need help settling into life in America. Start with a Google search for “How can I help refugees in [your city]?” Last November I found Pittsburgh’s Jewish Family and Children’s Service; JF&CS provides a range of invaluable community services including a volunteer program for working directly with refugee families. Thanks to that program, I’ve spent six months meeting with an amazing young family of five from Syria; we practice English and watch our children play together.
  • Join a local chapter of an advocacy group. This can be a great way to stay plugged in to ways you can actively help a cause that is important to you. For instance, I just joined Everytown for Gun Safety and found out that there is a local chapter that meets monthly.
  • Build community where you are. Random acts of kindness can go a long way. Every Christmas Eve, my mother leaves a bin of blankets, water bottles, ready-to-eat foods, and other necessities outside an urban church with a simple, small sign: “Please take what you need.” It’s not through any larger organization or program; she just decided one year that it was a tradition she wanted to start. And remember, no act of kindness is too small to make a difference to someone else.
  • Use your own skill set. You don’t have to single-handedly build a house or put out a forest fire to make an impact! I have friends at church who knit and crochet shawls and blankets to give to families in need. If you like to cook or bake, take meals to families in a tough time. If you’re looking to get some exercise in, see if you can take a neighbor’s dog for a walk or a jog with you. If you’re an extrovert, head out to local events to participate. If you’re an introvert, think about what you like to do or make at home and then think about who could benefit from it. If you have expertise in a subject or field, see if you can tutor in an after-school program in your neighborhood. You can write letters to elderly friends, or veterans, or inmates, or your elected representatives, or all of the above. Write them with kindness and courage!

I firmly believe that persistent actions of kindness and courage like these can change this world for the better. Let’s get to work.