Category Archives: Language and Linguistics

Why smart women read romance novels

Originally posted: 07/12/2012 1:09 pm on the Huffington Post by Anne Browning Walker.

When I first started reading romance novels as a teenager, I squirreled them away. I hid the covers behind book jackets or splayed my hands artfully across them so that no one would know what I was reading. I felt ashamed. But why?

Smart girls don’t read romance novels, I heard.

Well, I grew up and discovered that someone lied. This stereotype may have resulted from the enduring misconceptions about romance novels thanks to tropes that went out of style nearly 30 years ago. In these “bodice-rippers,” heroes captured heroines against their will. The women succumbed to heroes in barely-disguised rape scenes. But just as the role of women in society has changed over the past 30 years, so have romance novels. These types of romances went out of fashion along with leisure suits and acid-washed jeans. Now, I’ll admit this trope sometimes creeps back in (ahem, 50 Shades of Grey), but most romances today feature strong, smart, savvy women. And smart romance characters attract smart romance readers.

Take The Cinderella Deal by one of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie. In this novel, based on the well-known marriage-of-convenience plot, Daisy initially conforms to Linc’s rigid expectations; however, she breaks free and grows as an artist as the two resolve their problems. Meanwhile, Linc, too, opens up to the world around him and learns how to compromise. It pulls from the classic fairy tale, but Daisy acts as her own fairy godmother, transforming herself into someone more beautiful on the inside. And, like the glass slipper, the things she leaves behind (her paintings, her warmth, her neighborliness) make Linc realize her talent and how she has changed his life for the better. Ultimately, the love Daisy and Linc attain comes as a result of personal achievement and growth.

In Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, which takes place in 1821, hieroglyphics expert Daphne comes into her own and learns that female intelligence and sexual desire are, in fact, normal–not wrong. Daphne does not fall in love with Rupert because of his looks (that’s why she lusts after him), but rather because of his acceptance of and enthusiasm for her prodigious intellect and healthy sexuality.

In JD Robb’s futuristic In Death series, murder cop Eve Dallas and reformed criminal now owner of the world Roarke battle personal demons from the past; however, each helps the other heal the emotional scars of childhood (while teaming up to solve murders).

In my new book The Booby Trap, both Bambi Benson and Trip Whitley make rash assumptions about each other. Yet when forces compel them to spend time together, not only do they discover these first impressions were wrong, but they also advance professionally thanks to their growing love and respect for each other.

Rather than ignoring the existence of love in our lives, these romances celebrate how the best love helps us to grow. Modern romance novels (for the most part) insist that the love between two people be to both of their benefit. In my own relationships, I don’t want to gain my power at the expense of my partner. Working together ought to enhance our power. I see this paradigm echoed back to me in high-profile relationships: celebrity couples like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, seem to choose work schedules that balance family and career duties between partners. Bill Clinton, after his presidency, has vociferously supported his wife’s run for the Senate, President, and her tenure as Secretary of State. Closer to home, friends have alternated years doing legal clerkships or pursuing advanced degrees. And I see that paradigm echoed back to me in the modern romance novels that I read and write.
Another reason given to avoid the genre is that they don’t challenge your brain. Romance novels feature archetypal characters, occasionally contrived plots, and predictable endings. But, wait…bookstores are full of sci-fi novels, fantasy novels, and mystery novels that check each one of these boxes. Yet other genre fiction readers, instead of being characterized as simpleminded or unwilling to challenge themselves, are often stereotyped as smart. So what gives?

Oh yeah! It’s the sex.

A talk radio show host essentially called women who use birth control “sluts.” State Legislatures suspended people for saying “vagina” on the floor. Current legislation proposes to deny expectant mothers access to testing that would help ensure their health and the health of their fetuses. Our society feels threatened by women having sex.

Romance novels present the opposite view. Authors use sex scenes to present a healthy activity shared by two consenting adults who (in the end, if not at the moment) fall in love with each other. Heroines are sexually satisfied during each encounter. There’s a safe space to explore your fantasies and figure out what turns you on. Nothing dumb about that.

By the way, smart girls not only read romance novels, they write them! Two of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie and Lauren Willig, hold PhDs. Carly Phillips practiced law. They’ve attended the best schools in the world, including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and Duke (that’s me!).

So go ahead. If you’re still feeling a little embarrassed, download a romance onto your e-reader. Aside from your blushing, you might discover a passion for a whole new genre. As it turns out, smart women read romance, too.

Anne Browning Walker is the author of the upcoming romance novel, The Booby Trap[Pixel Entertainment, September 2012].


Vanity Fair’s “In Memoriam of Christopher Hitchens” Slideshow

Vanity Fair’s collection of poignant Hitch photos offers a great tribute to my most favorite contrarian…

Tagged , , ,

Active vs. Passive Voice : Great advice from the Grammar Girl!!

In many of my adult years, I’ve longed to find a soapbox and a speakers’ corner where I could make impassioned speeches about APPROPRIATELY using Active or Passive Voice!  My passion for language and grammar, in matters such as this “A vs P voice”  may sound dull/unimportant/weird to some, but this and other lessons are critically important to anyone desirous of improving their English!!

Former students of mine from Sulzer Turbo AG in Zurich will remember my particular passion for this subject in the  Pre-Int Courses (Murphys Blue Book) : Hans Baumgartner, Daniela Ferrari,  Hansueli Bruderer, Helen Ronner, Heinz Zehnder, to name but a few – you and so many of your colleagues were wonderful and patient students in this subject!!

So I was thrilled to find Grammar Girl’s explanation on this subject – it’s precise and tightly explained in the matter of Active vs. Passive Voice and I would like to share it with the rest of the students, US, Europe, Far East and beyond!

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

Episode 232: July 22, 2010

by Mignon Fogarty

Today’s topic is active voice versus passive voice.

The podcast edition of this article was sponsored by GoToMeeting. With this meeting service, you can hold your meetings over the Internet and give presentations, product demos and training sessions right from your PC. For a free, 45 day trial, visit

Here’s a question from Brian in Iowa. He writes, “It drives me crazy when people write in passive voice. How can I teach people how to tell the difference between passive and active voice and to stay away from passive voice?”

Well, Brian is right, the first step is to help people understand the difference between active and passive voice, because many people believe they should avoid the passive voice, but fewer people can define it or recognize it.

What Is Active Voice?

I’ll start with active voice because it’s simpler. In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the sentence “Steve loves Amy.” Steve is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Amy, the object of the sentence.

Another example is the title of the Marvin Gaye song “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” “I” is the subject, the one who is doing the action. “I” is hearing “it,” the object of the sentence.

What Is Passive Voice?

In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, “Steve loves Amy,” I would say, “Amy is loved by Steve.” The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn’t doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve’s love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy.

If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say “It was heard by me through the grapevine,” not such a catchy title anymore.

Is “To Be” a Sign of a Passive Sentence?

A lot of people think all sentences that contain a form of the verb “to be” are in passive voice, but that isn’t true. For example, the sentence “I am holding a pen” is in active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is “The pen is being held by me.”

Notice that the subject, the pen, isn’t doing anything in that sentence. It’s not taking an action; it’s passive. One clue that your sentence is passive is that the subject isn’t taking a direct action.

Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?

Passive voice isn’t wrong, but it’s often a poor way to present your thoughts.

Another important point is that passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.

When you put sentences in passive voice, it’s easy to leave out the person or thing doing the action. For example, “Amy is loved,” is passive. The problem with that sentence is that you don’t know who loves Amy.

Politicians often use passive voice to intentionally obscure the idea of who is taking the action. Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mistakes were made,” when referring to the Iran-Contra scandal. Other examples of passive voice for political reasons could include “Bombs were dropped,” and “Shots were fired.” Pay attention to the news and listen for examples of passive voice.

Also, a reader named Matthew commented that businesses sometimes use passive voice. He notes that it sounds better to write, “Your electricity will be shut off,” than “We, the electric company, will be shutting off your power.”

Is Passive Voice Hard to Understand?

A recent study suggests that less educated people–those who dropped out of school when they were 16–have a harder time understanding sentences written in the passive voice than those written in active voice. I only had access to the press release, not the original study, but the results made it seem as if you should stick with active voice if you’re writing for the general population.

Is Passive Voice OK in Crime Reports?

On the other hand, sometimes passive voice does have advantages. For example, if you truly don’t know who is taking the action, then you can’t name the person. This is especially common with crime reports. For example, a security guard might write “The store was robbed,” because nobody knows who the robber was.

Can Passive Voice Work in Fiction Writing?

Passive voice is also sometimes useful in fiction writing. For example, if you were writing a mystery novel and you wanted to highlight missing cookies because they are central to the story, passive voice is the best option. It would make more sense to write, “The cookies were stolen,” instead of “Somebody stole the cookies.”

The difference is subtle, but in the passive sentence “The cookies were stolen,” the focus is on the cookies. In “Somebody stole the cookies,” the focus would be on the unknown somebody.

Passive voice can be helpful if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence, which is also a reason that it’s not usually a good choice when you’re writing nonfiction and you want your writing to be clear.

Why Is Passive Voice Recommended for Science Writing?


An exception is that scientists are often encouraged to write in passive voice to lend their writing a sense of objectivity–to take themselves and their actions and opinions out of the experimental results. I used to be a scientist and I always found that odd. It felt as if we were trying to hide that real people did the experiments.

Some scientific style guides do allow for a limited use of active voice (1). For example, it may be OK to write, “We sequenced the DNA,” instead of “The DNA was sequenced,” but it’s still considered bad for scientists to insert themselves into conclusions. For example, it would be bad scientific form to write “We believe the mutation causes cancer.” But you still don’t need passive voice to achieve your goals. For example, the active sentence “We believe the mutation causes cancer,” could be changed to “The data suggests that the mutation causes cancer.” That’s still active, but it eliminates the sense of subjectivity.

Did Strunk & White Get Passive Voice Wrong?

Finally, I have to include a note about Strunk & White’s treatment of passive voice. In their classic book, The Elements of Style, three of their four examples of passive voice aren’t actually passive voice sentences. I’ve included two links below that explain the problems, but if you rely on The Elements of Style, as so many people do, be aware that this is a problem with that book.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
English Passive Voice (Wikipedia)

Web Bonus: Watson & Crick

Watson and Crick’s famous paper about the discovery of the structure of DNA, written in 1953, contains both active and passive sentences;

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). (active)

We have made the usual chemical assumptions, namely, that each chain consists of phosphate diester groups joining beta-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3′,5′ linkages. (active)

If it is assumed that the bases only occur in the structure in the most plausible tautomeric forms (that is, with the keto rather than the enol configurations) it is found that only specific pairs of bases can bond together. (passive)

It has been found experimentally that the ratio of the amounts of adenine to thymine, and the ratio of guanine to cytosine, are always very close to unity for deoxyribose nucleic acid. (passive)


1. “Writing in the Sciences,” The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (accessed July 23, 2010)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Personal Letter From Steve Martin

From Letters of Note (thanks, Shaun Usher!): “Until very recently I’d heard numerous tales of Steve Martin‘s humorous responses to fan mail, but frustratingly had never seen such a letter; thankfully that situation was remedied the other week when I chanced upon the following note, apparently sent by Martin in the early-80s, post-Jerk (ahem), when he was at the top of his game. Written on his production company‘s letterhead to a fan named Jerry, this personalised form letter – in particular the post-script – is further confirmation that almost everything Steve Martin produced during that era was incredibly funny.

Transcript follows. Discovered via Letters of Note at Chattering Teeth.


The Aspen Companies
Aspen Film Society
Aspen Recording Society
Aspen Merchandising
Aspen Artist Management


DEAR Jerry ,




(Signed, ‘Steve Martin’)



A Personal Letter From Steve Martin.”

Tagged , ,

Pioneering Presentations: Creating Art Through Technology

On the subject of public speaking and innovations to the mediums of presentation, a lot of focus has been given to David Byrne’s creative genius and artistry with the Microsoft application, PowerPoint. Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, as he calls it, has been featured in many art exhibits since its debut several years ago and has now been reproduced in a DVD and companion book for purchase. His PowerPoint creations are particularly inventive for creating, in Jungian terms, a new neural pathway for our collective conscious…contriving a liaison between creating pure, specious art executed through a rational Microsoft application.  It’s so brilliant and unexpected, it’s almost an oxymoron in and of itself — creating abstruse, ethereal concepts within the boundaries of a defined executable script!!


Wow, breaking barriers in conceptual thought…I hope he rewarded himself with an afternoon off for having single-handedly reset the thresholds of Cartesian philosophy!  This is, of course, above and beyond his tremendous musical legacy, mind you. [In sharp contrast, sometimes I feel pleased with myself just if I make it over to Costco…or finish all of my laundry!]

But just as almost every new conceptual thought is constructed on the shoulders of our philosophical forefathers, David Byrne’s radical art nouveau opened a critical path to re-thinking the presentation of ideas and concepts through the platforms and applications of pc technology.  Enter, founded in 2005, a Swedish organization that has re-engineered the presentation of statistics into beautiful, moving pictures. This powerful translation of statistics into an evolving story – right before your very eyes – not only translates statistics into language-based concepts, but imparts the lay spectator with access and a sense of ownership to the concepts and  – the story!

Let me phrase this in a different way: cast your mind back to high school, the English Literature class in your Senior year…what was the most difficult book you read? The one that was so hard for you to grasp…do you remember? The words, sentences, syntax and chapters were there, but it was just so hard to see the meaning behind it all!  Was is The Stranger by Camus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera or Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky?  Then (Heavenly Father be praised), your teacher let you watch part of the movie adaptation – and all of a sudden, the emotions, the motivations, the sequence of events – i.e. the story – came flooding out of the TV and straight into your brain!  A bolt of lightning blazed through your mind and – presto!  The cerebellum processed all of the details in the novel, linked them to the center of your limbic system and emotional comprehension and…. you finally just GOT it!!

That’s what Gapminder’s proprietary technology does with statistical data, in almost the reverse-but-same method of David Byrne’s art-through-technology creation — the Gapminder group makes technology translate into moving art!  By taking the measured, defined data, inserting it into an executable technological application and revealing the art and story behind the statistics they have found a way to “unveil the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view” !

Here is a paragraph from their mission statement: Gapminder is a non-profit venture promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels. We are a modern “museum” that helps making the world understandable, using the Internet.

This video presentation by co-founder Hans Rosling is a must-see and it will completely transform your thoughts on effectively presenting statistical data.  Set aside several minutes and watch his video, entitled “Debunking Myths About the Third World.” Enjoy!

Vodpod videos no longer available.
more about “Debunking myths about the “third worl…”, posted with vodpod

To Be or Not To Be: Grammar is the Question!

Dr. John Austin was the Chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at Georgia State University during my undergraduate degree program.

Although – on paper – he taught me advanced German language courses, he also taught me to have an infinite appreciation for Linguistics and Grammar. He pointed me towards fantastic books, such as Baugh and Cable’s “History of the English Language”, Noam Chomsky‘s books, and riveting concepts – like understanding the connection between German-English (they share a common predecessor language) through a discussion of the Great Germanic Consonant Shift of (circa) 300AD. He would also give language advice, and once described to me that language acquisition and strategic family relationships could maintain up to 2 separate languages inside the environment of a 3rd language. (i.e. Mother-Child can speak one language, Family nucleus can speak another language…then into the 3rd language of the environment outside the home.)

Cool stuff, right? Way to get my linguistic geek on!!

But apart from his book recommendations, concepts and advice, one particular phrase he stated in class reminded me of the main complaint featured in a recent article I read the other day.

Dr. Austin said, “Grammar should be DEscriptive and not PREscriptive,” meaning that grammar should be sensitive to language trends – and should endeavor to update its rules to match language convention, rather than cling to outdated, obsolete language laws – even when they’re far outside common vernacular.

Just to clarify, his point wasn’t that we should abandon lessons about English grammar, or that we should abort any attempts to standardize phrasing or conjugation! But he felt that grammar rules were often being enforced for their tenure, instead of for their accuracy, relevance and validity.

And rightly so, it seems! Martha Brockenbrough posted an article entitled, “Errors That Aren’t: 12 Grammar Rules You Can Toss Out The Window” wherein she brings to light 12 areas where grammar has failed to keep itself current and relevant.  Please read the article!

You’ll see that she is both correct and amusing in her observations, but alas – if she had studied under Dr. John Austin, this would not have come as such a surprise to her!!  With his great quote, she would have been aware of grammar’s stodgy, change-resistant character and would have investigated this grammar flaw a full decade earlier!!

But this raises an excellent point overall, though – who is going to take charge of grammar and keep it accountable to current verbiage? The French have a designated a special organization to deal with language issues, L’Académie française, – but the US does not have a designated body of learned professionals to deal with these issues. So who are we gonna call?

Alles in allem, here’s a virtual toast to Dr. John Austin, a professor of exceptional learning and talent. Thank you for having launched me in -what’s become- my most passionate, personal life interest. Vielen Dank, Herr Doktor Austin!!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Crash Course on Crisis Communications

One of my favorite brand communication blogs that I’d like to share with you is Biz Growth Live:  Bringing Your Brand To Life. Krishna De is the owner/author of this blog and she regularly features great print and digital content for best practices in the marketing sphere.

But she also has an internet talk radio feature wherein she posts interviews with top marketing and communications experts – and I wanted to share the recent Crisis Communications radio show from January of this year that she conducted with Jim Walsh of Walsh Public Relations in Ireland.

Mr. Walsh was a contributing author to the recent book, “Crisis Communication: Practical PR Strategies for Reputation Management and Company Survival,” and the interview captures several essential, introductory points on navigating crises.  If you don’t have enough time to listen to the entire interview, I’ve compiled the points into a ‘cliff notes’ summary below for your use.

So, if you’re not already an expert in the area of crisis communications, make this high-points summary (here below) and interview your first stop!


1) As it pertains to brand management, the perception of your brand is very often the reality.  People judge the value of your brand based on their knowledge and experience of it.

2) Not all companies benefit from having an individual head up a company brand. For some of the large firms, the totality of the company has better brand value.

3) Unlike during the course of normal business, crisis dynamics have a very different personality and quickly devolve into an “us vs. them” situation. For that reason, crisis management should be treated as the process above and around crisis communications.  In other words, it’s important not to get caught up in specific phrasing and word choice deliberation to the detriment of operations during a crisis media maelstrom.

4) Every company should perform some crisis risk assessment – what’s likely or unlikely to happen, and then plan accordingly.  But keep it simple: one phone call, step-by-step task outlines and emphasize consistency.  Then put the prevention measures in place. No crisis response effort can surpass the benefit of having great prevention in place.

5) Establish a cross-functional team to head up crisis management and communications. The planning and implementation will benefit from having a full view of the organization’s needs and operations.

6) Avoid any communication vacuums with the media. Move fast and fill in all gaps, even if it’s just a real-time account of what’s happening (or what’s happened) to-date.  Otherwise, media will rush to fill in vacuums with speculation and and that can lead to potentially negative, uncontrolled perceptions of your brand.

7) Given the 24/7, 365-days-a-year aspect of online media, part of crisis communication should be delegated to watchdog, diligence activities. The first thing to do when brand reputation might be in question is to locate the source of the criticism, identify it, create an appropriate message and disseminate the message to your audience.

Condense Your Love Into Six Words

High school English classes have familiarized us with the oft-cited quote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  But when it comes to communicating degrees of emotional intensity and experience in relationships – it can be tough to limit your words.  We can all admit to watching at least a few episodes of Donahue, Geraldo, or Jerry Springer, right? The ENTIRE premise of shows such as these is to encourage people to vent, up to 43mn (+ commercial time), on the disgruntled state of their relationships!  Anytime people probe into potentially emotional subjects (they look more like emotional minefields on those shows), brevity – not to mention wit –  is nowhere near the studio!!

So we can all agree that it’s a challenge to express your relationship in a mere six words.  What could you express about your own love/marriage/relationship in just six words? Think of it as a relationship ‘brand’ that you’re advertising. Would you emphasize…perfection, as in “pure goodness to the last drop” ? Endurance, as in “still going after all these years”? Malcontent, as in “sucks the life out of me”? Or with a hackneyed phrase, such as “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”?

This new book review, Love Boiled Down to Just Six Words, in USA Today amused me to no end with its infinite possibilities for relationship branding, using sincerity and humor! I’ve included it to encourage you, the reader, to contribute your condensed love stories in the comments area below!  And in the spirit of encouraging you to share, I’ll go first:

  • “True love doesn’t depend on drama.”

(And I’ll also share the one my husband wrote about how we first met – an unusual, but extremely memorable gift that he brought to my office: “A couch brought me true love.”)

Happy writing!!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Everyone has a Muse…

Everyone has a Muse, and Erin McKean at the New Oxford English Dictionary is my favorite verbal consultant and inspiration! Her presentation here at Google in 2006, on the subject of “10 Things she wants people to know about Dictionaries” helped remind me how much I love words, dictionaries and thesauri.  If you love this, she can also be found at


Tagged , , , , ,