The redhead’s red pen: What leads you to write?

I write this blog because I believe life should be flourishing. Life should be about encouraging ourselves and others to excel. Whatever path we follow in life, we should offer hope, give love and grace, and inspire courage.

One of the reasons for my red pen series is to help make writing a little easier for us all with some tips and tricks that, when we use them well in our writing, make our messages clearer for our readers. Today’s post marks the final installment for this round of the series, but I may bring it back in the future.

I can’t jump into today’s red pen lesson, though, without first acknowledging my heavy heart and perhaps your heavy heart in these past few days. A young man’s shooting death has sparked riots just outside of St. Louis. A beloved comic genius exits life too soon, at his own hands. Children are beheaded and whole families trapped on a dry, dusty mountaintop because we live in a broken world where religious extremists sometimes believe they please God by torturing and killing those who don’t believe as they do.

The night of 9/11, I had to go to class. It was my final semester of graduate school, and I had one final class designed to help us students complete our projects to graduate. We sat in the room stunned. And one of us asked, “What’s the point of our projects? What does it even matter if we go on?” Our professor (ever wise and gentle) told us that life for the living goes on, and so we had to complete our class that night and complete the tasks ahead. In that spirit of living on, I offer you this final red pen lesson.

Today brings up homophones, homographs and homonyms and how to tell the difference between two tricky words: lead and led.


Despite not leading most of the race, Lagat led Rupp and Lomong at the finish. I wonder if their legs felt like lead at the end of the race.


Emma Coburn, shown leading the race here in 2012, has led the U.S. women’s steeplechase field for 2014, too. I hope she’ll lead our team to the podium in 2016.

Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently: write and right; peak, peek and pique; wait and weight. When the word lead means the noun that is a metal (and a heavy one at that), it is pronounced as a homophone for led, the past tense and past participle form of the verb to lead.

The verb lead (to go at the front, to be ahead) and the noun lead (heavy metal) are homographs of one another, spelled the same but pronounced differently. There’s also a lead that’s an adjective form of the verb lead, pronounced the same way, meaning prime or top: Robin Williams played the lead character in some of my favorite films.

Then there’s the noun lead that means a leash (i.e., I had the dog on a lead, but it still managed to get loose to chase the UPS driver). It is a homonym—same pronunciation and spelling but different meaning—to the verb lead.

The trickiest problem with lead/led is getting the past tense form of to lead written correctly. It’s easy enough to say led correctly, but perhaps subconsciously because the other forms of lead are spelled with an -a, writers sometimes forget how to spell led.

Perhaps this trick will help you:

  • Lead is heavy, and so it needs an extra letter for its weight.
  • Led happened in the past and so has left something behind. So leave its letter -a behind, too.

That’s it for today’s red pen lesson. If this is a tricky set of words for you, I hope this post helped clarify when to write lead and when to write led.

The role that led me to teaching
Dead Poets Society came out the summer before my senior year of high school, a summer I spent weighing options and deciding what my college major would be. After seeing Robin Williams play the role of teacher John Keating, I’m not sure other careers had a chance. There were plenty of influences that led me to teaching, but Williams’ role in that movie tipped the scales in favor of teaching English.

So for today—to honor Robin Williams’ work and life—I’ll leave you with the words of the Walt Whitman poem he made so famous in that movie and again more recently in an Apple ad. Watch the scene from the movie, if you like. Here’s the complete poem:

O ME! O Life!
O ME! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit. I’ll see you here next week with a new verse.

The redhead’s red pen: Furthering your back-to-school readiness

One of my faithful readers responded to last week’s call for grammar questions with this challenge: farther vs. further. That can be deceptively tough to answer.


Some sticky grammar problems lead me to the OED.

After consulting the Web and two of the trustiest dictionaries I could get my hands on (OED and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary), I’m not surprised this one stumps many of us.

Popular usage rules dictate that you would use farther for measurable distances and further for anything else. Notice I say popular usage rules. You see, as with many English grammar rules, further vs. farther is more—or possibly less—complicated than I realized.

Here are some examples of the correct way to use these two words in popular usage:

Barbara ran farther than she did yesterday, while Hope did not run far at all.

Further, Barbara runs every day, while Hope takes some days off.

Barbara’s running is further aided by good genes and no injuries.

I’ll note that as I type this post, WordPress’ spell checker has flagged farther in the example above.

Keep reading for more examples—complete with pretty pictures—and a brief tour of the rabbit hole I fell into when I cracked open my parents’ OED (the version that fits into two volumes of microscopic text and comes with its own magnifying glass.) Continue reading

The redhead’s red pen: It’s back-to-school time

Have you started seeing signs of the season? It’s definitely nearing the start of a new school year. Mall store fronts are swapping out summer neons for autumn’s more subdued colors. Shoe stores have tucked sandals away in the sale section and put kids’ sneakers right up front. Even my inbox is showing signs of school just around the corner.

I know this is not my usual kind of post, but as I’m editing my first book, I’m thinking way too much about my days as a teacher and some of the common grammar and spelling mistakes I corrected time and again on students’ papers.

I know those of you who read my blog are already smarty pants (and I mean that in a good way), but we can all benefit from a review of some common rules occasionally. When I was teaching, I saw some mistakes so often that I still have to stop and think about certain words before I write them, words that used to come to me with ease. So don’t feel too badly about yourself if you make mistakes every now and then. You have probably seen them wrong in plenty enough places to make you question what you thought you knew.

So let’s get ready for school together over the next few weeks and review some common writing mistakes. Today’s lesson focuses on it’s and its.

It’s = It is, as in It’s hot and humid today.

Its = possessive, as in Even the dog gave up its usual spot in the sun because its brown fur made it too warm.

If you’re a texter, you may fight this one daily, as Apple has decided to try to wipe out its from the face of the earth by auto-correcting all cases of it to it’s. In the case of these two words, Apple chose the more common way texters would mean it: the contraction of it is. You’ve got it made if you’re texting a friend about a new restaurant and want to say, “It’s on the corner.” But you have to go on the defensive if you want to text, “Its vegan coconut pie is 2 die 4.” Apple will make you go out of your way to be correct with that one. And then you’ve lost all the time you saved by typing 2 and 4 instead of their words.

Contractions take out a letter or letters and combine two words, and the apostrophe’s job with contractions is to mark where the missing letter(s) would go. In a sense, the apostrophe bandages the two combined words together. That’s why the contraction of it is needs an apostrophe. It might otherwise fall apart.

Trouble enters into the equation, though, because the apostrophe does double duty, also denoting possession: the redhead’s red pen, the dog’s tennis ball, the store’s back-to-school sale. So using it’s to show a possessive may seem to make sense. But a long, long time ago some committee somewhere had to decide whether the contraction or the possessive had a stronger case for claiming the apostrophe. The possessive its can hold together as a word on its own without the apostrophe, but the contraction for it is needed that bandage or it might fall apart. Thus:

It is → it’s had a greater need for the apostrophe to bandage it together, and therefore it’s > its.

If it helps, think of it this way: the possessive its is so busy possessing whatever word follows it that it can let go of the need to have an apostrophe. So it’s can have the apostrophe to hold itself together.

Now, I’m not one to go around in the world with a red pen (well, maybe inside my head) or a black sharpie or even a bottle of white-out, but I know some word lovers who do. When I saw this card in the bathroom of my very lovely hotel room on a recent stay, I confess. I contemplated getting out a pen to cross out the rogue apostrophe:


This inn gets kudos for its conservation efforts but earns a demerit for its abuse of the apostrophe. It’s an easy mistake, but it’s worth correcting.

In Lynne Truss’ preface to her fabulous book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she writes:

I discovered to my horror that most British people do not know their apostrophe from their elbow. “I’m an Oxbridge intellectual,” slurred a chap in Brighton, where we were asking passers-by to “pin the apostrophe on the sentence” for a harmless afternoon chat show. He immediately placed the apostrophe (oh no!) in a possessive “its”. The high-profile editor of a national newspaper made the same mistake on a morning show …

My American correspondents, however, have made it pretty clear that the US is not immune to similar levels of public illiteracy. Carved in stone (in stone, mind you) in a Florida shopping mall one may see the splendidly apt quotation from Euripides, “Judge a tree from it’s fruit: not the leaves”—and it is all too easy to imagine the stone-mason dithering momentarily over that monumental apostrophe, mallet in hand, chisel poised. Can an apostrophe ever be wrong, he asks himself, as he answers “Nah!” and decisively strikes home and the chips fly out. (xx, xxv)

We all make mistakes. Fortunately, most of our mistakes aren’t ones we’ve carved in stone. So go out there armed with knowledge of when to use it’s and when to leave out the apostrophe. Because, yes, sometimes an apostrophe can be wrong.

Is it’s vs. its a word struggle of yours? Do you have another spelling or grammar puzzle you’d like the redhead with the red pen to weigh in on? Please add it to the comments below. It’s the section right below here. You can see its comment box outlined. (Smiles)