Verb Review #1: May and Might

The auxiliaries may and might are often used interchangeably. Most of the time, interchanging them doesn’t seem to matter.

Strictly speaking, might is the past form of may, but may often occurs in past tense constructions, and might is used in sentences about the present or future.

Both may and might are used when the speaker is not sure about something:

I may watch a movie tonight.

I might watch a movie tonight.

The use of may in the first sentence implies a stronger possibility than might, but for many listeners, the choice between may and might barely registers in this context.

May and might are used to show that something has possibly happened in the recent or distant past.

They’re late. They may have forgotten our address.

They never arrived last night. They might have forgotten our address.

The may in the first sentence suggests that the people are still in transit, their arrival remains imminent, and there’s still a possibility that they have not forgotten the address.

The might in the second sentence places the expected arrival in a more distant past and the forgetting of the address is more likely to be past as well.

Again, most speakers would probably not notice if may and might were interchanged in these contexts.

There is, however, a context in which the use of may in place of might leaps out as glaringly incorrect. Here are examples, with corrections.

INCORRECT: His letter from New York may have been too late to prevent a dissection, but Kroeber had been passionate about respecting Ishi’s wishes for a proper burial.—Ishi’s Brain, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
CORRECT : His letter from New York might have been too late to prevent a dissection, but Kroeber had been passionate about respecting Ishi’s wishes for a proper burial.

The letter was too late. The dissection was performed. The only correct choice is the past tense form, might.

INCORRECT: Seattle school shooting killed one — but it may have been much worse if not for ‘hero’ guard with pepper-spray—Headline, National Post.
CORRECT : Seattle school shooting killed one — but it might have been much worse if not for ‘hero’ guard with pepper-spray.

The attacker was in fact prevented from killing another person.

INCORRECT: If not for Joseph’s bravery and quick actions, his brother may have been killed.—Do The Right Thing site.
CORRECT : If not for Joseph’s bravery and quick actions, his brother might have been killed.

Thanks to Joseph’s actions, the brother was not killed. May suggests that the brother was perhaps killed.

INCORRECT: Another child may have been the next victim if it hadn’t been for a woman [who alerted police].—Announcer on Inside Edition.
CORRECT : Another child might have been the next victim if it hadn’t been for a woman who alerted police.

The perpetrator was apprehended before he could attack another child.

Distinctions between may and might continue to weaken, but for the present, careful speakers may wish to pay attention to their use with constructions relating to the past.

Verb Mistakes #1: Heard on Television

Quite apart from stylistic errors involving redundancy and inapt word choice, television can be a rich source of grammatical errors. Here are four examples.

INCORRECT: Gin was drunken out of necessity, not choice.—Documentary narrator
CORRECT: Gin was drunk out of necessity, not choice.

The forms of the verb drink are:
Present: drink/drinks
Simple past: drank
Past participle: (has/have) drunk

Drunken is an adjective: “He has a reputation as a drunken, lazy lay-about.”

Drunk is also used an adjective: “He was drunk as a lord.”

INCORRECT: [She] has announced she wasrunning for Senate yesterday. —News reporter
CORRECT: [She] announced yesterday she isrunning for Senate.
CORRECT: [She] has announced she is running for Senate.

“Has announced” is a verb in the present perfect tense. Adverbs of time like yesterday are not used with this tense. Even if the announcement was made in the past, the fact of the candidate’s campaign for the Senate exists in the present.

INCORRECT: [Context: Three meat inspectors were murdered at a sausage factory.] Each of them were shot several times.”—Radio announcer
CORRECT: Each of them was shot several times.”

Each is singular and requires a singular verb.

INCORRECT: What kind of things would they bein the market of buying?
CORRECT: What kind of things would they be in the market to buy?

There is no hard and fast rule that would guide an ESL speaker to choose an infinitive over a participle in this construction. There are, however, certain abstract nouns that are always followed by an infinitive. For example: ability,desireneedwishattemptfailureopportunity,chance, and intention. In the expression “to be in the market,” market is abstract.

Possible responses to the question “What are you in the market to buy?” might be “I’m in the market to buy a house” OR “I’m in the market for a house.


Usage Mistakes #1

The sentences below illustrate various types of mistakes in wording born from (not “borne out of”) ignorance or carelessness.

1. All the progress we have made to educate people about the hazards of smoking may be for not.

The writer, perhaps unfamiliar with the termnaught, assumed that the last word of the sentence is intended to denote negation rather than futility: “All the progress we have made to educate people about the hazards of smoking may be for naught.”

2. President Obama traveled to Cuba for a historical visit.

A historical visit is one that occurs in history, though one should not refer to a visit this way;historical is superfluous. The writer meant to state that the visit is historic; that word means “of significance to history” (though it sometimes refers simply to something established or existing from the past): “President Obama traveled to Cuba for a historic visit.”

(But shouldn’t it be “an historic visit”? No, because the correct pronunciation of historic is to sound the h, though many people, including me, believe it is easier to use an and treat the first letter of the following word as silent.)

3. His speech was a load of dribble.

Some people seem to think that references such as the one here are to someone’s writing or utterance being worth no more than drool, but the correct word for foolish or silly talk (which can refer to slavering but is etymologically unrelated) is drivel: “His speech was a load of drivel.”

4. The list is virtually a whose-who of prominent community members.

The pronoun whose has no place in this sentence. The phrase “who’s who” (the contraction is of “who is”) refers to a roster of notable people or things or summaries about them, or to such a group collectively: “The list is virtually a who’s who of prominent community members.” This usage—without a connecting hyphen—stems from publications with titles modeled on the phrase, such as Who’s Who in American Art.

5. Where does the US Jewish population predominately live?

Predominate is a verb; the correct adjectival and adverbial forms are predominant andpredominantly: “Where does the US Jewish population predominantly live?”


3 Cases of Too Many Commas

This post illustrates several types of sentences that incorporate excessive punctuation. Each example is followed by a discussion and a revision.

1. Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and killed him, has been the subject of contentious debate.

A verb is preceded by a comma only when that comma is one of a pair that frames a parenthetical phrase: “Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and killed him has been the subject of contentious debate.” (An example of the type of exception noted is “Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and kill him, and why the police reacted the way they did, has been the subject of contentious debate.”)

2. The stakes are high because, without effective management of regulatory risks, organizations are reactive, at best, and noncompliant, at worst, with all of the attendant consequences.

The punctuation bracketing the phrases “at best” and “at worst” is optional, but because they, in combination with the required commas that set off the sentence’s parenthetical phrase and its subordinate clause, create a cluttered effect, it’s best to omit the discretionary ones: “The stakes are high because, without effective management of regulatory risks, organizations are reactive at best and noncompliant at worst, with all of the attendant consequences.” (Note that in the case of “at worst,” only the preceding comma can be deleted, because the one that follows it serves double duty, setting off the subordinate clause as well.)

3. He would replace conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.

This sentence is punctuated as if “Justice Antonin Scalia” is an appositive of conservative—that is, as if the phrase and the word are equivalent to each other—meaning that the parenthetical phrase could be omitted without affecting the validity of the sentence’s grammatical structure. However, the result would be the flawed statement “He would replace conservative, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.”

Conservative is simply part of a descriptor providing additional information about the person named; therefore, no intervening punctuation is necessary: “He would replace conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.” (Note that because the descriptor is “conservative justice,” not simply conservative, justice is not a job title and is therefore not capitalized.)

A revision of the sentence that incorporates an appositive and thus validates the parenthetical punctuation, is “He would replace a conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.” (Here, “Antonin Scalia” —and the framing punctuation—could be omitted without damage to the sentence.)


How Long Should a Sentence Be?

A few years ago, I wrote a post titled “How Long Should a Paragraph Be?” which argued that various pronouncements that dictate paragraph length (expounded for the benefit of beginning writers, who presumably are aided by the introduction of a circumscribed formula for success in composition) should be ignored in favor of a commonsense approach to organizing paragraphs according to the ideas expressed within; the correct answer, I argued, is that a paragraph has to be long enough to reach its end, meaning that a paragraph can be as short or as long as is required for a writer to express an idea.

Did the preceding paragraph seem too long? It’s not especially lengthy, but if it exhausted you to read it, that’s because it consists of a single sentence that is more than a hundred words long. Although I am known to write long, complex sentences, that one, which I deliberately stretched out to an excessive extent, is an example of a statement that could use some reorganization.

How long should a sentence be? Like a paragraph, it should be long enough to reach its end, but, as with a paragraph, that objective should be balanced with aesthetic considerations. A sentence can consist of one word or be infinitely long, but what will serve the reader while expressing a complete thought?

Generally, it’s more productive to provide a sequence of sentences of naturally varied length than to dictate how many words one is permitted to use in a given sentence; a succession of sentences of equal or similar length will distract readers, as will a series with wildly divergent word counts. Take care not to repeatedly overwhelm sentences with multiple forms of parenthesis (interjecting words or phrases—or entire sentences, for that matter, using commas, parentheses, or dashes). The previous sentence includes the three basic forms, but note that, aside from a single semicolon, I have refrained from introducing anything more complicated into this paragraph.

Don’t overthink the issue, of course. Write naturally, but when revising your work, attend to sentence length and combine or separate sentences that seem too abrupt or unwieldy (unless that is the effect you want to create). If you want a ballpark figure, go with a range of twenty to twenty-five words as a benchmark, though average length will vary depending on the literacy of your readership.


How to Get Your Writing on the Road to Being Read and Spread

Know your audience. Know your product cold. Research. Nail the headline. Write plainly, in the language of your audience. Research more. Write great bullets. Craft a great offer. Include a strong call to action. Et cetera.

These elements are the standard. They get the job done.

But this little truth I’m about to tell you is the foundation that makes all the rest of it work, and it’s the answer to getting you on the road to getting your writing read and shared.

So, try this on for size …

Every sentence you write should make them want to read the next sentence you write.

Simple, huh?

Yes, this entire business of creating content in order to build an audience (people who will potentially buy from you) can be boiled down to that stupidly simple statement.

The headline only exists to get the first sentence read.

The first sentence only exists to get the second sentence read. And so on, pulling your reader right on down through your page, story, bullets, and call to action.

It’s that simple. And it’s that difficult.

The secret is in the line.

A great headline is followed by a single, compelling sentence that engages the reader’s interest. And then another, followed by another, and another.

You won’t be able to pull this off all the time. Hell, you won’t even pull it off most of the time.

But if you keep the raw horsepower of The Single Line in your mind as you work, you might make something good enough to be read and shared … maybe even shared widely.

This is foundational because even if you employ every bullshit “content distribution” trick and tip in the book, and your writing is bad, it won’t get you anywhere.

Write well. Line by line.

If you’re able to work in this way, all of those lines will begin to add up, and then they’ll go to work for you, day and night, for a long, long time on this thing we call the internet.

So yes, write urgent, unique, ultra-specific, and useful headlines.

Yes, demonstrate the benefits, not the features.

Yes, make them an offer they can’t refuse.

But do it all by deliberately crafting each sentence to honestly, accurately, and entertainingly tell the story you want to tell.

Difficult? Sure.

But, to quote someone that I could not confirm the identity of … that’s why they call it work.

Image source: Mathias Herheim via Unsplash.




As they say, “garbage in, garbage out.” You can’t write good stories if your information gathering is flawed.


Good writers are avid readers. Making time to read every day will improve your writing, whether what you read is well written or not. You’ll have more ideas and model positive examples while avoiding negative ones.


You can’t write if you don’t have a topic to write about.

Organize your ideas by writing them down, clipping them out, etc., and storing them in one location. Having an idea file will ensure that you always have something to write about.


You must make time to write every day because you cannot become a better writer without writing.


Don’t just think about the group of people you’re writing for. Writing for demographics won’t work. Instead, picture one person who is in your targeted audience. Write for/to that person. Doing this will help you find your voice.


Your writing tends to become bogged down when you don’t really understand what you’re writing about. Make sure you understand the topic as well as you can before you start writing.

The other side of this is that you shouldn’t spend so much time researching that you use is as an excuse not to write. Understand the topic, then write.


You won’t do yourself any good by writing three words and deleting one. Write first, then edit afterward. Just let the words flow, don’t worry about whether they’re good. In other words, allow yourself to write the shitty first draft, then move on.


Some writers work best in the morning, while others work better at night. Discover the time and place that creates a flow state for you and stick with it.


We all have friends who can write, read or study with the television on or a bazillion things going on around them. I’m not that person. Find out what you need to write without distraction. Shut down social, turn off your phone, find a quiet room… do whatever you need to do to create a productive writing environment.


Writing really is about plugging information into a formula.


The lead determines whether people will keep reading. You have to make sure those opening sentences interest and entice readers.


Active voice makes your writing stronger. The best way to write in active voice is to use subject-verb-object sentence construction.


Never use a word you don’t understand. Spread truth, not ignorance. If you use a complex term, be sure to explain it to your readers. As soon as you include information you don’t understand in your writing, your editor will ask you what it means and you’ll feel foolish.


Ask every source to spell his/her name and provide his/her official title. Always use those official titles when identifying them on first reference.


You should always have at least two sources for each story. After that, how you organize information from those sources is important. When you’re attributing information, be sure to put the attribution at the end of the sentence whenever possible. For example, Kenna said blah, blah, blah reads so much better when it is Blah, blah, blah, Kenna said.


People don’t explainexclaimreveal, etc. Get comfortable with using said. It lacks bias and is the only word you should use for quote attribution.


Everyone has words they use too much. Determine yours and delete them from your writing. Hot contenders include thatnowcurrentlyliterally, and very.


See how many words you can delete before you hit publish. I like to tell students to pretend every word costs $1 and save your money. Concise writing is clear writing.

Phrases worth cutting include in order to and in the process of.


Write everything in time, date, place order. For example, the meeting is at 10 a.m. Saturday in Room 151.

If the place is a business, always include the address.

Don’t start sentences with days or dates. When it happened rarely is more important than what happened.


There’s no place for cliches in your writing. They’re lazy.


Don’t start sentences with long clauses that only delay the action. If a clause requires a comma, move it to the end of the sentence.


Semicolons are for complex and/or compound sentences. Simple sentences make for the best writing. Break complex or compound sentences into two sentences instead.


Abovebelow and around are states of being. Use them literally and correctly.


Print your story. Circle the verbs. Replace every “to be” verb with an active one.


Give your readers enough details to enhance the story, but not so many details that they get lost in them. Show, don’t tell, but delete any description that doesn’t advance the story.


Never write to a number. Write until you’re done. When the story is told, stop writing.


You all know about how spell check doesn’t catch everything, but you still need to use it. Spell check your work, then proofread it carefully.


Printing your story or reading it out loud helps you find errors. It also helps you better understand how your writing will sound to your readers.


Don’t throw around commas like they don’t matter. Instead, pretend you only have so  many commas to use for the rest of your life. If you run out of commas, you’re destine to a life of run-on sentences. If in doubt, leave it out.


Deadlines are there for a reason. Not only does meeting deadlines make you look more professional, many times it gives you time to make necessary revisions.


Stop talking about or thinking about what you’re going to write. Put your rear in the chair and write.

To become a better writer, you must write. Following these writing tips will move you beyond just putting words on paper and help you write better, faster.