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Periodically, I experience a sinking sensation roughly verbalized as, “The person who wrote what I’m reading isn’t a writer by trade, but does what I do better than I do. Damn his eyes.” When I had such a reaction to the memoirs of Alec Guinness and Bob Dylan, and the diaries of Richard Burton, I could at least comfort myself with the fact that they are, or were, creative types.

But not so with my most recent sinking feeling. It came a couple of weeks ago, while I was reading Warren Buffett’s annual state-of-Berkshire Hathaway letter to shareholders. The text had “clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech”—to quote Mark Twain on the memoirs of another nonprofessional writer, Ulysses S. Grant. Twain was happy to offer those encomiums. He apparently was...

After completing a crossword in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, I turned to the page with a review of your new book.. The book review at the top of this page is titled 'A N.J. town fights cancer." Excuse me, but shouldn't it read "An N.J. Town ..."?--Naomi Sussman

It's a great question. Not that the editors necessarily had this in mind, but I think the idea is how you imagine someone reading the headline aloud. That is, the whole a/an distinction is based on sound, not letters--we write "a unique" and "an unusual."  So the logic goes, if someone were reciting the headline, would he or she  say (after the first word) "Enn Jay town fights cancer" or "New Jersey town fights cancer"? I guess on some level the editors thought it was the latter. I would probably go the other way, but I see their logic.



(In his heyday, Mr. Arbuthnot, the Cliché Expert, regularly graced the pages of The New Yorker, offering his two cents on the Silver Screen, the Great White Way, the National Pastime, and other arenas where catchphrases and bromides rule the roost. Although his wingman, Frank Sullivan, met his maker in 1976, Mr. Arbuthnot has improbably reappeared from time to time, including in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher EducationWith the NCAA men's basketball tournament set to begin, Mr. Arbuthnot is baaa-aaack.)

Q. Ah, Mr. Arbuthnot, long time, no talk. Can I get you a coffee, or maybe a Red Bull?

A. Naw, I'm good.

Q. Selection Sunday is just two days away. How do you break down the brackets?

A. No question, a lot of programs are on the bubble. If you come from a midmajor or minimajor and you want to punch your ticket to the big dance, your résumé, or should...

I wish you'd write something about the common error of using the word "that" instead of "who" when referring to people. For example, "Ben is the one that wrote the article" or "the people that read Ben's article will be enlightened."--W.G. Moss

That kind of bugs me, too, W.G., and has since I started noticing it popping up in my students' writing about six or seven years ago. I wrote about it in an essay called "The Elements of Clunk"--I took it as one example of an odd long-term trend of people wanting to elongate their writing, even if only by one letter. (Other examples are "one-year anniversary" instead of "first anniversary"; the comma after sentence-starting "But" or "And"; "amongst" instead of "among"; and the expression "not too big of a deal" instead of "not too big a deal.")

But no matter how much it annoys you and me, it's not wrong. "That" has been used to...


I'm going to speaking at the Free Library of Philadelphia a week from today--that's Monday, March 18--at 7:30 PM. You can get all the details here, but it's a free event, so all you really need to do is show up.

There's one little fun wrinkle. I have agreed to give a constructive critique of some samples of audience members' writing from the stage. If you'd like to be considered for this, please send submissions (three pages maximum) to If you're chosen, you'll get a free copy of How To Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Errors and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.

Hope to see you at the library.