MM's Fundamentals of English

A student in one of my workshops asked about using the and a. I had written four lessons on articles and noun determiners–yes, we all know I tend to be wordy–for a forum almost two years ago. If the writer has questions, I assume others might to, so I’m posting them here as one article.

Yes, the post is long, but you don’t have to click on three more posts to get the whole picture of articles.


You’re welcome :-)



Lesson 1 The Three Articles — A, An, and The

We’ll start with an easy one — the articles — a, an, the. When you see one of these words in a sentence, you can bet (safely) that a noun is nearby. We’ll talk about nouns in the later lesson.

How to use the articles correctly:

A and an are indefinite articles, meaning they point out any noun, not a specific noun. They are both singular in number, meaning one. Examples: I am reading a good book. (one book) I love having a new car. (one car) This is an honorable gesture. (one event)

Use a before words that do NOT begin with a vowel SOUND. Examples: I am reading a good book. I love having a new car. This is a historic event. Bradbury’s story is about a utopian society.

Use an before words that begin with a vowel SOUND. I am reading an interesting book. I love having an antique car. This is an exciting time of year.

The is a definite article, meaning it points out a specific noun. The may be singular or plural, may point out singular and plural nouns.


Read the story for homework. (Not just any story, but the one I gave you to read.)

I heard the baby cry at 3 p.m. (Not just any baby, but the one that was crying at 3 p.m. I know this crying baby.)

I saw the girls in the library. (Not just any girls, but the ones I have mentioned earlier.)


Let’s look at the next three sentences and compare their meanings with the examples above.

Read a story for homework. (You choose the story. I don’t care.)

I heard a baby cry at 3 p.m. (I don’t know this baby.)

I saw girls in the library. (Usually, only boys go the library. I don’t know these girls.)


In case you are wondering, there is no indefinite article to use with plural nouns.

That’s lesson 1 — questions? Post as a reply. MM

December 23, 2012


Lesson 2: Articles — The Fine Print

Here’s the first rule: When two or more nouns joined by AND refer to different people, places, or things, use an article before each noun.


The surgeon and the nurses were super during her stay in the hospital.

The dog and the cat fight like brothers and sisters.

The professor and the leader of the dig crew argue over where to dig.

He found a coat and a scarf left in the church pew after mass.

Each example gives you two nouns. In each example, the two nouns refer to different people, animals or things. (Sorry, I just can’t call animals “things.”) If the nouns joined by AND are the subjects of the sentence, make sure that the verb agrees with your subjects.

Here’s the second rule: When two or more nouns joined by AND refer to the same person, place, or thing, use an article before the first noun only.


The lead surgeon and head of Barnes’s neurosurgery department offers her valuable advice before the surgery.

The mini Australian shepherd and love of my life is named Foster.

A student and aspiring surgeon has visited her room after her surgery to check on her.

MM is a workshop presenter and editor of Black Velvet Seductions.

Each example here also gives you two nouns. But here, both nouns refer to the same person or animal. Since student and head, for example, refer to the same person, use a singular verb to agree with the subject.

Any questions?


January 8, 2013


Lesson 3: Noun Determiners

Noun determiners go by many different names: articles — a, an, the demonstrative adjectives — this, that, these, those (as opposed to demonstrative pronouns this, that, these, those. Pronouns take the place of nouns.) possessive pronouns — my, our, your, his, her, its, their

If you see any of these words in a sentence, you can bet that a noun closely follows, in a grammatically correct sentence, that is!

A cat adopted my husband and me. A — what? — cat my — what? — husband

Not such an easy one this time!

The adorable, fluffy little fur ball purred its way into our soft hearts. The — what? — fur ball — adorable, fluffy, little are adjectives that describe fur ball. Adjectives are also noun determiners WHEN they precede the noun they describe. I avoid calling them noun determiners in this lesson because sometimes adjectives come after the noun they modify, after a linking verb. Start including verbs in the mix and you are asking for trouble. Grammar is hard enough. Why make it harder?

Its — what? — way

our — what? — hearts — soft is an adjective that describes hearts

Before I close, I want to address the issue of demonstrative pronouns vs. demonstrative adjectives. This story is really funny. What is really funny? Story — Which story? This story. This describes story — demonstrative adjective

That tasted very good. What tasted very good? That — whatever THAT is. Be careful using demonstrative pronouns as the subjects of sentences. Beginning vaguely is not a good beginning. BETTER: That seafood gumbo tasted very good.

Now we need to work on very good — another lesson!

More tidbits about this, that, these and those before I go — this and that before singular nouns This book, that cat

these and those before plural nouns These books, those cats

This and these — use with nouns near the speaker We found this cat in the alley. (Cat is the one with me now.)

That and those — use with nouns away from the speaker Those cars get the best mileage. (The cars I’m talking about aren’t in my driveway, for instance.)

Any questions? MM

21 January 2013 09:31 PM


Lesson 4: The Absolute Last Lesson on Articles, Promise

This lesson on articles — the last one on these tiny but mighty words, I promise — deals with WHEN TO USE AND WHEN NOT TO USE ARTICLES and THE DIFFERENCES IN MEANING WHEN YOU DON’T USE THEM.

RULE: Do not use articles with non-count nouns that refer to all of something or something in general. Non-count nouns are nouns that can’t be made plural. (Be careful: Many nouns can be both count — one or many — and non-count — no specific number.)

CORRECT EXAMPLE WITHOUT ARTICLE: Kindness is a virtue. No article before kindness. Kindness in general.

CORRECT EXAMPLE WITH ARTICLE: The kindness of strangers was a blessing to us. Use THE because the prepositional phrase “of strangers” makes kindness specific — the kindness of strangers, not kindness in general.

CORRECT EXAMPLE WITHOUT ARTICLE: In some parts of the world, rice is the preferred grain. No article before rice. Rice is a general term here, not referring to a specific type or serving of rice.

RULE: When you use a count noun to represent a general category, make the noun plural and do not use the. CORRECT EXAMPLE WITHOUT ARTICLE: Fountains add a focal point to landscape design.

EXCEPTION TO THIS RULE: When the noun is singular and refers to a scientific class or category of items, most often animals, musical instruments, and inventions, use the.

CORRECT EXAMPLE OF EXCEPTION: The assembly line modernized manufacturing. “The assembly line” is an invention here. INCORRECT EXAMPLE OF EXCEPTION: A assembly line or Assembly line . . . .

CORRECT EXAMPLE OF EXCEPTION: The American alligator is no longer listed as an endangered species. “The American alligator” is a category of animals.

RULE: Do not use articles with most singular proper nouns. There are exceptions to this rule.

CORRECT EXAMPLE: France, Lake Erie, Mount St. Helens

CORRECT EXAMPLE OF EXCEPTION: most are made up of a common noun and modifiers. We visited the Great Wall of China last year. Robert wants to work for the FBI.

RULE: Use the with most plural proper nouns. CORRECT EXAMPLE: the Smiths, the Great Lakes, the United States of America, the Rocky Mountains, the Hawaiian Islands

That does it for articles! Any questions? MM

30 January 2013 05:56 PM



Two images that prove punctuation is important!

from Pleated Jeans

Some of the images on the website might be objectionable to some people. These were funny and very telling!  Enjoy.  MM

squirrel eating pumpkinjfk and strippers

 ‘s or just ‘ — That is the Question

A student in one of my recent workshops asked me if there was consensus on forming the singular possessive of nouns ending in s like Marcus.

I looked up the question in The Chicago Manual of Style and posted the manual’s answer for her and others.

I’m including the answer here because I’m sure others face the same dilemma  —  ‘s or ‘?

There is no consensus concerning the apostrophe rule for making singular nouns ending in s possessive. Any publishing firm can decide how it wants to handle apostrophes in this instance and call it house STYLE.

Most do follow The Chicago Manual of Style, though, so I let this book be the authority for me on any subject related to questions of style.

From edition 16, Chicago says

“7.15: The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s.” One of the examples is a bass’s stripes.

“The possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals, like children, that do not end in s) is formed by adding an apostrophe only.” One of the examples is puppies’ paws.

“7.16: Possessive of proper nouns, letters, and numbers. The general rule extends to proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z, to both their singular and plural forms, as well as letters and numbers.”

Some examples:

Singular forms: Kansas’s legislature, Dickens’s novels, Jesus’s adherents

Plural forms: the Lincolns’ marriage, dinner at the Browns’ home

This is where it gets interesting:

“7.17: Possessive of words and names ending in unpronounced “s.” In a return to Chicago’s earlier practice, words and names ending in an unpronounced s form the possessive in the usual way (with the addition of an apostrophe and an s). This practice not only recognizes that the additional s is often pronounced but adds to the appearance of consistency with the possessive forms of other types of proper nouns.”

Some examples:

the marquis’s mother

Albert Camus’s novels

Exceptions to the General Rule – you knew there had to be exceptions, right?

“7.19: Possessive of nouns plural in form, singular in meaning. When the singular form of a noun ending in s is the same as the plural (i.e. the plural is uninflected), the possessives of both are formed by the addition of an apostrophe only. If ambiguity threatens, use of to avoid the possessive.”


politics’ true meaning

this species’ first record (or better, the first record of this species)

7:20: “For…sake” expressions. For goodness’ sake, for righteousness’ sake – no s after apostrophe

for expedience’s sake, for Jesus’s sake – add s after apostrophe

Chicago’s final words on the subject

“7:21: An alternative practice for words ending in “s.” Some writers and publishers prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s – hence “Dylan Thomas’ poetry…. ” “Though easy to apply and economical, such usage disregards pronunciation and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”

BTW, I’m presenting a workshop on apostrophes and commas in September sponsored by Outreach International RW. For details, click on the link here. If you think apostrophes are a mess, just wait to you see all the comma rules!


Guess what? I’m going to speak at the Florida RW Fun in the Sun Conference, February, 2015. The conference will be held on the Royal Caribbean ship Liberty of the Seas — yes, a cruising conference in the Western Caribbean with a stop at Cozumel, Mexico.

When I started giving workshops, I dreamed of giving them in person, so this opportunity is the first step in making that dream come true. I’ll present a one-hour talk on either commas or genre clichés — the conference committee hasn’t let me know which topic yet.

Even though presenting in person was a dream when I first began giving workshops, I admit I’ve become comfortable with giving online workshops. I have grown accustomed to the privacy of this format. I stepped out my comfort zone big time when I sent FRW two proposals for its conference. I got my husband to promise that if the chapter invited me to speak, he would go with me so that I wouldn’t have to go alone.

Well, FRW invited, and now we are looking forward to leaving Illinois next February, going south, and visiting Mayan ruins. March, 2015, is our 30th anniversary. The cruise will be special for that reason even if I’m so nervous I tell jokes that no one thinks is funny — I tend to do that when I’m nervous — and people walk out on me — my greatest fear! Wish me luck.

Have any of you cruised on Royal Caribbean? On Liberty of the Seas? Been to Cozumel? What did you enjoy and what would you skip if you go again? We’ll only have a day in Cozumel, so I want to make the most of that short time.



I have sent March’s newsletter to subscribers. If you aren’t a subscriber, you can subscribe by clicking on the subscribe button to the right. If you would like to view March’s email, click on newsletter archives.


Happy viewing,



Workshops with MM – April – June, 2014

Here’s is a list of workshops I will present in April. If you would like more information on May and June workshops, click on the heading Workshops with MM: April – June above.

Editing with a Machete is a great short workshop on writing tighter stories by making big cuts. I think every writer should sign up for Write in Passive Voice and Be Passed over by a Publisher — yes, there is a passive verb in the title. Do you know what it is? Flashbacks covers the do’s, the don’ts, and the how of writing flashbacks. Engage Your Reader with Attention-Grabbing Prose is a fabulous workshop for anyone who wants to work on varying the sentence structure to create more interesting sentences in manuscripts.

I hope to see you in class in April. MM


Workshop: Editing with a Machete

Instructor: MM Pollard, editor, Black Velvet Seductions

When: April 7-20, 2014 with Workshops with MM

Workshop description:

You’ve decided to play surgeon and cut the fat (scenes that go nowhere, minor characters that add nothing, plot twists that add words but not much plot) from your baby (your manuscript). In this two-week workshop (5 lessons), MM Pollard will show you where and how to cut the excess without too much pain and agony.

In lessons titled Hacking Away with a Machete, Using Pruning Shears, and Triage for Your Wounded Story you’ll learn how to cut large portions of your manuscript and how to repair the holes left by the massive cutting.

No writer likes to cut, but your characters and your editor will thank you. Will it hurt? Only a little, but you’ll be happy with your new slim and trim manuscript. Promise.

Reward for doing your homework: MM will offer feedback on every assignment posted when due. Think of homework as opportunities for mini-edits by MM.

Workshop is $15 without an edit. For $25 and completion of all homework, MM will edit 1000 words of your writing. See details at Workshops with MM.

Workshop: Write in Passive Voice and Be Passed Over by a Publisher, sponsored by NEORWA

Instructor: MM Pollard

When: April 1 – April 28, 2014

Workshop description:

In Write in Passive Voice and Be Passed Over by a Publisher, you will receive the equivalent of a master’s degree in passive voice, one of the writing errors that spell rejection by agents, editors, and publishers. We will cover what active voice and passive voice mean, how to form the passive voice, including a verb lesson, and how to form the active from the passive. We will cover the reasons not to use passive voice verbs and the few instances where passive voice is the best choice. By the end of this workshop, you will have everything you need to identify and correct passive voice writing in your writing.


Cost for the workshop is $15 for NEORWA members, $20 for all others. You do not have to be an RWA member to take our workshops!

Flashbacks that Please Your Editor and Don’t Confuse Your Reader – 4 weeks, sponsored by From the Heart RWA

Instructor: MM Pollard

When: April 7 – May 2, 2014

Workshop description:

Flashbacks are a device that a writer must use with care, or she might lose her reader in the distant past, never to see that reader again. Eight lessons will cover kinds of flashbacks, uses for flashbacks as well reasons not to use flashbacks, and the mechanics involved in writing flashbacks.


Fees and How to register:

FTHRW Non-Members: $25.00 before March 31, 2014

Workshop: Engage Your Reader with Attention-Grabbing Prose, sponsored by LowCountry RWA

Instructor: MM Pollard, editor, Black Velvet Seductions

When: April 1-24, 2014 Workshop Description:

Your story lives or dies on the sentences you write to tell it. Do your sentences give your story life and breath, or do they strangle the life out of your story with boring, same-old, same-old sentence structure?

Remember, variety is the spice of life — for your story. In this workshop, MM Pollard will cover basic sentence structure and give you concrete ways to vary that structure to engage your reader’s interest. She will share what a writer needs to know to write spectacular sentences that make the reader want to continue reading.

You’ll have plenty of chances to practice the many ways to vary sentence structure; in other words, you’ll have homework. MM will give you feedback on every homework assignment you post.

Reward for doing your homework: MM’s personal feedback on every assignment. Think of homework as an opportunity for mini-edits by MM.

Workshop fee is $20.00.

Click on Black Velvet Seductions when you Register for this Workshop.

Here is my article, The Perfect Pitch. I wrote this article for HTH RWA Cabin Fever Online Conference for its members. I’m here for everyone else. Comment if you liked it. Thanks, MM



The Perfect Pitch

MM Pollard

Editor with Black Velvet Seductions

The MM in Workshops with MM


Hi, everyone. I’m here today to give you some tips on writing the perfect pitch. What is the perfect pitch? The pitch that interests an editor so much that she asks to see your manuscript.


Writers aren’t the only professionals that give pitches. Advertising and marketing people live or die by their pitches. I could say the same thing about your novel – with the perfect pitch, your novel sees the light of day on Amazon. With a bad pitch, it dies in your desk drawer.


I like to show my students a bad example before I give them rules, tips, advice on writing a good example. I think the bad example teaches as much as good examples.


Bad, terrible, horrible pitch

My book is about a woman who returns home to be the librarian in town and all of her old friends have moved away except of this guy whom she had a crush on in high school. One day he comes into the library for a book on taking care of geckos because he just got one from his sister who breeds them and sells them to pet stores. Well, ….


Sorry, but the editor has zoned out by now and doesn’t hear a word you’re saying, so you might as well stop pitching.


What’s wrong with this pitch?

Oh my, where do I start?


Let’s start with form. A pitch has a recognizable form just like a query letter or a summary or an outline has its own form.

A pitch should include

The title of your novel

The genre

The name of the main character and the character’s problem, desire, or goal

The bad guy, obstacle, or situation that stands in the way of your main character getting what she wants


The bad pitch is 69 words long, but doesn’t tell us any of the information a pitch should tell us. See why it’s a “bad pitch”?



Let’s look at some perfect pitches, shall we? I found these in an online article by writer Hallie Ephron.


The Wizard of Oz is a young adult fantasy novel in which a cyclone transports Dorothy Gale, a Kansas farm girl, to a magical land of Oz where she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.  46 words


Title – check

Genre – check

Main character and her problem – Dorothy Gale wants to go home

Obstacle – that “dangerous journey” and the fact that she’s in another world



What if dinosaurs could be cloned? In Jurassic Park, a sci-fi adult novel, renowned paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant journeys to a new theme park whose creators have claimed to have done just that, and gets stranded among raptors that turn out to be as intelligent and dangerous as his theories predicted.  51 words


Title – check

Genre – check

Main character and his problem – Dr. Alan Grant is stranded in a theme park with dinosaurs

Obstacle – raptors and other dinosaurs want to eat him



Some Tips for Writing the Perfect Pitch

KISS – keep it short, Sweetie, roughly 100-200 words, about a minute’s worth of words. That’s about all the time you have to pitch to an editor on a six-floor elevator ride. The examples above show that your pitches can be even shorter, but around 150 words is a good goal.  Make every word count.


The bad pitch – 69 words that tells us the main character is a librarian and the setting is her hometown. Can we say general?


HIE – highlight intriguing elements, what makes your novel special, different from others. Maybe your novel is set in on an exotic island. Maybe your character has a special talent. Maybe your novel is a reworking of a classic theme, like a marriage of convenience where the guy is looking for a wife.


The bad pitch – nothing intriguing, except for the mention of a gecko. A gecko? Not intriguing enough to make me want to know more.

LOD – leave out most of the details, and concentrate on the main story. Include details that make your story unique and intriguing, like vampires during the French Revolution.


The bad pitch: the sister who raises geckos and sells them to pet stores – whom is this book about? The bad pitch mentions three characters, that’s one too many in a pitch for a romance novel.


TOAL – tell only a little of your story. Don’t tell the end or how the characters overcome their obstacles. You want to leave something for the editor to ask about. You want to interest him enough to ask to see the manuscript.


The bad pitch: mercifully cut short before it gave away the ending


HIC – hold immodest comparisons. Don’t say that your novel will be the next Harry Potter or that you are the next Nora Roberts.


The bad pitch: at least it isn’t guilty of boasting the book is the next best seller.


PPP – practice, practice, practice writing your pitch. Share your practice pitches with friends who are writers and get their input.


The bad pitch: let’s hope that the writer’s friends didn’t see it.



That’s not all!!!! Make sure you are prepared to go on.

The worst thing that can happen when you pitch to an editor live:

No, it’s not that he’s not interested.

The worst thing is that you stumble over your words when he asks you questions about your novel.


Be ready for these questions:

Is the novel ready for submission? Is it finished and edited?  If not, when will it be ready for submission? Soon, right!?!


What happens at the end? Don’t say, “They live happily ever after.” Tell how the character resolves the conflict or overcomes the obstacle. Be as brief as you can be. An editor wants to know that the character overcomes the obstacle in a plausible way. If something farfetched and out of the blue happens to resolve the conflict, rewrite your story.


Fans of which books and authors will like your novel? With this question, you are invited to make comparisons to popular books and authors. Be specific in your comparison. Don’t say, “Nora Roberts.” Say, “This book is much like Nora Roberts’ books on family dynamics among brothers.” “This book is like Harry Potter in that it tells the story of a boy who must overcome horrendous obstacles and live his destiny to defeat the evil that killed his parents.”


Have you given your book to a critique group, beta readers, a professional editor? Of course, you have, haven’t you?

Any questions? I’ll be here all day to answer any questions you have about pitching and pitches. I wish you the best of luck in the days ahead as you step out of your comfort zone and pitch your baby to a stranger.


MM Pollard



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5 Star Reviews of Workshops with MM — Find More in Testimonials

Hi MM,
This was without doubt the most constructive workshop I've ever taken. It has helped me tighten and improve my writing. I've done many workshops in the past decade, and this one is right at the top of my list. It was tough compared to most. Your expectation that we participate regularly and do homework is what made the difference. It helped me absorb the work instead of glancing over it and *thinking* I got it. Not to say I'm a pro now by any means, but as I wrote a few paragraphs last night my mind was tweaking as I went. Editing will be much easier!

You've become my favorite English teacher of all time. I had a rather stern one in Irish boarding school. You reminded me of her, but in one month you taught me much more than that poor woman managed to teach me in two years.

Thanks very much for everything. I'll be looking into your upcoming classes in 2013. Happy Holidays.

Best Wishes,

August 2015
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