Category Archives: grammar

Our Night Out

woman-in-hatA little apropos of nothing… If maturity means disillusionment, acceptance, a “realistic” outlook, or modest expectations, then we are prepubescent.[1] Even so, we’ve made some progress in the past few years. Facts are facts. We no longer leap to the defense of erstwhile idols Simpson (O.J., not Jessica), Cosby, and Gibson. We’ve stopped believing that, in this life at least, we will time-travel to King Arthur’s Court, flatten our stomach, or remove Internet Explorer from our computer once and for all.

We deserve nothing

When we meet a self-proclaimed feminist—we have no idea why this happens—we feel as if we’ve done something wrong and look around to see if anybody noticed… as if we were the one who installed the glass ceiling so you couldn’t get the promotion you so richly deserved and we made it difficult if not impossible for you to be elected president… and, as we are writing this in September 2016, we would advise you, private citizen H. Clinton, against claiming any merit whatever in the result of the November 8 election. You will win, but it will not be a victory, any more than if you had competed against a species of invasive but nondescript dryland shrub. It will not be a tribute to you, or a testimony to the dogged determination of the American woman, or even the inexorable result of human evolution. An outcome in your favor will mean nothing more than that the citizens of our great nation chose you over Cheez-Its. Remember this when you’re drafting your acceptance speech.

panorama-simpson-gibson-cosby

Simpson, Gibson, and Cosby undisgraced

The feminists we like and respect are outnumbered by those who make us want to cut and run, or to curl our lip if we thought we could pull it off. Has it escaped your notice that some of the most vociferous protesters are often women bemoaning the paucity of female directors of high-budget Hollywood films—women, it must be said, who have individually made more money in a single day’s work than we have made since the Eisenhower administration? Is it any wonder that we lack sympathy for such celebrities, when once upon a time they defined career success as being cast as the younger of the two women in a Dove-cleansing-bar commercial?

This is not to say that women, as a category, have no legitimate grievances. But golly, if it’s not one thing it’s twenty. We must be very careful when claiming rights. If we got what we deserved—any of us, male or female, infant or octogenarian—we’d all be living in daub-and-wattle huts competing with rodents for wedges of moldy cheese.

We have a memory of a Saturday afternoon when we were not yet thirty, waking from a brief nap and lying very still because a ray of sun illuminating a few strands of hair that had fallen across our eyes had made a tiny miracle of rainbow, and we had never seen anything so beautiful, not in any mountain meadow or marble palace, not even at our favorite scenic outlook, a knoll in the wooded bluffs above a bend in the Missouri River. Our small, personal rainbow should have served as a reminder to wash our hair, since it was almost certainly a layer of oil that had dispersed the sunlight so gloriously. But at the time we could only be grateful for color and light and stillness, and the feeling has never entirely gone away.

lewis-and-clark-scenic-byway

The Missouri River separates Nebraska and Iowa at the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway

And by the way, what’s with the suffix –ist, a half-second’s sibilance that makes you a monster or a devotee? If you’re a sexist, racist, or ageist, you’re to be deplored. If you’re a narcissist or hedonist, you’re self-absorbed. Botanists, philologists, and philatelists are specialists. But if you call yourself a feminist, then you are… what? An admirer of or champion for women? Nothing wrong with that. We’d still rather be a cowgirl.

The suffix –ist … is a word-forming element meaning “one who does or makes,” also used to indicate adherence to a certain doctrine or custom, from French -iste and directly from Latin -ista (source also of Spanish, Portuguese, wetalian -ista), from Greek agent-noun ending -istes, which is from -is-, ending of the stem of verbs in -izein, + agential suffix -tes.  —dictionary.com

Solecisms by the dozen

So this evening we went to hear the novelist Geraldine Brooks talk about writing books. Her voice skritched, as one’s voice might when it is put to overuse on a lecture tour, but she was articulate and funny and we minded only a little that she is considered a “women’s author” and that among the thousand people in the audience there were maybe four men. We settled into our seat, anticipating a pleasant and informative ninety minutes—not that we deserved to enjoy ourself, or deserved not to, but we did indeed expect to be happily entertained, and we guess it’s fair to say that we got what we deserved.

She gave a concise, amusing account of her journalism career and the horrors, dangers, conquests, and rejoicings she experienced on five continents. She turned to fiction as a way of lending her voice to women who lived in times and places that denied them self-expression. It was as Ms. Brooks was relating the experience of one such woman—a character in her third or fourth novel—that the fall from grace occurred, with, we would almost say (were literal precision not essential here), an audible thud. The woman was, Ms. Brooks said—these were her exact words—waxing eloquently.

woman-waxing

To wax or not to wax—that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer….

If you are not a well-known author or a serious student of the English language, you may be excused for not grasping the enormity of the phrase waxing eloquently. My mother detested polishing our hardwood floors—something virtually required of all middle-class women of her generation—and she could be quite eloquent on the subject, to the point where my father felt the need to close the door to prevent her eloquence from alarming her young children.

But Geraldine Brooks’s character was not engaged in polishing the floors, the furniture, or the family car.

Often, people who speak of waxing eloquently have heard the phrase “wax eloquent” and mentally added –ly because verbs are modified by adverbs, right? But in this case, wax is what is sometimes called a linking verb, which means that the verb is joining two things that are more or less equal:

My word is my bond. Word = Bond
The song was an anthem. Song = Anthem
The sun appears unusually bright. Sun = Bright
You look nice today. You (that is, your appearance) = Nice
The night was becoming stormy. Night = Stormy
Uncle Steve is feeling poorly. Steve = Poorly. Not all modifiers ending in –ly are adverbs. Poorly, wily, owly—all adjectives.
The speaker waxed eloquent. Speaker = Eloquent

A modifier used with a linking verb is not an adverb describing a verb, it’s an adjective describing the subject.

Wax means grow or become when we’re talking about the moon. A waxing moon is “growing,” getting plumper every night until it’s full. After that, it starts to narrow, or wane. Likewise, when a speaker “waxes eloquent,” he or she is gradually becoming more and more articulate.

Writers know this. It’s taught in How Not to Write Stupid 101, where they also learn to not say “Hopefully, it won’t rain” or “The year is comprised of four seasons.” So at first we thought that our speaker was making a little joke. But she had been funny and clever to that point, and “waxing eloquently” fell short as humor. She didn’t deliver it jokily, and no one laughed. It’s hard to believe that she doesn’t know the idiom or that no one has ever pointed out her error, but that seems to be the case.

In any event, she plummeted in our esteem. That’s on us. Why should one mistake sink her past redemption? And who are we—writer of little note and less fortune, probably committing solecisms daily by the dozen[2]—to judge a famous, rich, and talented novelist for flawed diction, when Shakespeare can write, with impunity, “This was the most unkindest cut of all”?

kingfong

Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald

Woman of mystery wannabe

We are not proud of it, but after ten minutes we gave in to our pique and slipped out of the lecture. Feeling peevish, and peckish (certainly not peckishly) as well, we walked downtown, hoping to find a coffee shop still open at 8:30. We’d almost given up after eight blocks, having passed but one open establishment—a steak house—and the venerable King Fong, closed for renovation.

But we were in luck.[3] We found not just a coffee shop but a Jamaican coffee shop, owned and operated by a Jamaican individual who had a charming manner—eager to please but not obsequious—and whose very speech was song. We wanted to adore his coffee; if only goodwill could have infused the éclair with moistness. No matter. It was the sort of place we would have loved dress up for—in floppy hat and flowing skirt—to waltz into, a bit mysteriously, as if we had an assignation, but perhaps not… to bide a wee and read the Christian Science Monitor, make longhand notes in a lovely parchment journal about our fellow javaphiles[4]… and why, indeed should we not? As Kurt Vonnegut confides in Mother Night, “You are what you pretend to be.”

joan-hickson-miss-marple

Mysterious lady in hat

[1] An editor of a respected business journal warns against starting sentences with “I”—not the letter but rather the word. Evidently it smacks of narcissism. We are testing an alternative herein.

[2] We might adopt that as our campaign slogan when we run for public office: Mary Campbell, Committing Solecisms Daily by the Dozen, for president. Some will vote for us; others will wonder how a self-confessed grammar predator expects to garner a single vote. (We just broke another compositional rule: No footnote numbers midsentence.)

[3] Paragraphs are not to be commenced with But, according to the same editor. Goodness me! The number of words with which it is permissible to begin paragraphs has shrunk to 171,476. We should establish a committee to advocate for the preservation of freedom with regard to paragraph-starters.

[4] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Javaphile

An Exclamation Point

THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING WHAT’S IMPORTANT

exclamationpoint-GIANT-LEECHES-POSTERA WORD ABOUT USING EXCLAMATION POINTS: Don’t. At least, not often. Let your narrative convey excitement, even in dialogue, when the speaker is saying something terribly important, such as, “The Giant Leeches from Space have landed.”

Why? Because if you use an exclamation point at the end of an important sentence— “The Giant Leeches from Space have landed!”—and then something even more important happens—”They are entering the Schmerdlings’ house, which is next door!!”—you’ll have to use two exclamation points; and by the time the Giant Leeches from Space have drained the blood from all five Schmerdlings and their housekeeper and their Great Dane, have munched on a cluster of field mice, and have started dismantling the window of the nursery where your 18-month-old triplets just fell asleep, the exclamation points alone will have consumed two black-ink cartridges—unless you’re using a different color, maybe “Merlot,” but somehow I don’t see you fiddling with color schemes during emergencies, especially the critically important ones.

Punctuation with Friends

exclamationpoint-wwf-valid-wwf-word

THE POPULAR GAME WORDS WITH FRIENDS has a dictionary all its own. For some reason, it includes quite a few Scots and Welsh words. In any case, success is largely trial and error. When I accidentally spell an actual word—GLED, in this case—I look it up in the WWF dictionary; I might want to use it again. I am informed that GLED “is a valid Words with Friends word.”

This happens all the time in WWF. It’s okay. I got my 48 points, so to my mind the subject is closed—unless I really want to know the meaning, in which case I Google the word. I sometimes pause to imagine a place where only “valid Words with Friends words” are spoken—”AARRGH! GLED HOOKME, AAL! TEUGH WHEEP. TREX?”—but then I let it go and move on.

But Words with Friends isn’t finished. After defining GLED as “a valid Words with Friends word,” it apologizes:

Sorry, no definition is available at this time!

Really! You don’t say! What a curious spot for an exclamation point! Might want to save your excitement till you’re ready to announce that, yes, at last, a definition has become available!

Superheroes!
henry

Henry

AS SOON AS I LEARNED TO READ, I started devouring the comic strips in the evening and Sunday newspapers, including the lame ones (Henry, Nancy) and the ones that went way over my head (Pogo, the Katzenjammer Kids). I never understood why, in many of the strips, all the characters seemed to be shouting, all the time. Every sentence ended with an exclamation point, even if it was a question. “Hello!” “How are you?!” “Not so good!” “Oh!” “What’s up with you?!” “Not much!” “I see!”

maryworth

In one vintage comic strip, Mary Worth—a kindly widow who was at least 50 when she was born, which puts her somewhere in her 130s—is wearing a dowdy hat and white cotton gloves, her brow furrowed in what I take to be a worried expression. Clearly, she is getting ready to go somewhere on a matter of grave importance.

The doorbell rings. Mary opens the door, and there, weeping, looking wretched but perfectly coiffed, is her attractive but despondent young friend Elaine, or Jeannine, or Delilah, who suspects that her husband is cheating on her but who has been in denial since 1955. (I was only 8 years old when I started reading Mary Worth, but it was pretty clear to me that Elaine, Jeannine, and Delilah were all married to the same worthless piece-of-shit traveling salesman.)

ELAINE: Mrs. Worth! You’re wearing your white gloves and goofy hat with a black net veil that makes it look like spiders are crawling on your forehead! You must be going out!

MARY: Yes, Elaine! I have an appointment with Dr. Edgemont!

ELAINE: Dr. Edgemont! The distinguished and handsome heart surgeon with a mysterious past! Mrs. Worth, are you all right?! Is something wrong with your heart?!

MARY: I’m fine, Elaine! Never better! As you can see, I have plenty of money though I’ve never worked a day in my life! I’m seeing a heart surgeon merely to pass the time! But I don’t have to leave right this minute! Do you have news about your faithless husband, Trent, who was seen trysting at L’Intimité with Delilah?! Please come in!

The people who wrote the Mary Worth comic strip evidently wanted us to think that what Mary and her friend were saying was critically important—more important than what Dr. Rex Morgan and his attractive nurse, June Gale, were discussing in the adjacent comic strip. In retaliation, Rex and June had to start exclaiming everything, too. The last time I read Li’l Abner, I noticed that every sentence ended with two exclamation points.

rex

Rex Morgan, M.D.

Of course, they were all competing with real adventure comics—Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, and others, in which stuff actually happened—kidnappings, plane crashes, bank robberies—whereas, in Mary Worth, it took an entire week to get Elaine from the doorstep to the living-room sofa and another week to find out if she took cream in her coffee. The only actual plot movement in Mary WorthRex Morgan, M.D.Winnie Winkleand other soap-opera-type series occurred in the Sunday funnies, when the strips were in color and occupied a third of a page instead of a few inches next to the crossword puzzle. With all that color and activity and dialogue, the shouting rose to a din!!!!

winnie-sundayAct now! Operators are standing by!      

I HAVE IN FRONT OF ME A POSTCARD from the University of Arizona Alumni Association. It contains numerous sentences but no exclamation points. Nevertheless, I know that this is One Frigging Important Postcard. For one thing, it’s bright yellow. But besides that, just above my address there is a box with a wide black border surrounding the words—which are in bold capital letters—IMPORTANT ALUMNI VERIFICATION NOW DUE. On the other side is another box containing the words CONFIRMATION NECESSARY.

Dear Mrs. Campbell [the postcard reads], More than 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni we’ve spoken with in regard to the verification project have made important revisions to their alumni data. This is the reason I urge you to call 1-866-555-5555 today.

If the postcard said, “Last year, more than 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni ate mayonnaise. This is the reason I urge you to call…” it would make the same amount of sense. I can almost hear my dear mother’s voice: “Mary, if 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff?”

But wait! There’s more!! “It’s critically important [the paragraph continues] to talk with each University of Arizona graduate.”

toxic-cleaningCritically important for me to talk with each U of A graduate? Or for Melinda B—, the Alumni Association president, whose name appears at the bottom of the postcard? Either way, I’m sort of busy. My toddler is spraying toilet-bowl cleaner on the cat, and a glop of the foam is on the finger she’s about to stick into her own nose. Is it okay if I take care of that before I call 1-866-555-5555? Although… Wow! I don’t know…. There’s another box around some bold type—upper and lower case, but the letters are HUGE—asking me nicely to “Please call 1-866-555-5555 (toll-free) to take care of this important matter today.” Still no exclamation point, but those letters are pretty big, and Melinda does say it’s important, and… Oh! Toll-free. Well, then. I’ll call 911 right now, and by the time the EMTs get here I’ll have finished talking to Melinda.

What’s in it for me?

ACTUALLY, I WON’T BE TALKING TO MELINDA but to someone at a company called Publishing Concepts, “a trusted partner of the University of Arizona Alumni Association.” This means that the Alumni Association has paid an obscene sum to an outside firm to compose this ill-judged attempt to coerce me into making a donation—ill-judged because (a) in 20 years I’ve never given the U of A Alumni Association a dime, and (b) the postcard is worse than a waste of time, ink, and yellow card stock; it’s offensive, and I’m not easily offended.

Ten years have passed since my last mammogram, and this yellow postcard that pretends to be from the University of Arizona Alumni Association but is mailed from Dallas, Texas, is telling me what’s critically important? No.

  • “Critically important” is cleaning up the water supply in Flint, Michigan.
  • “Critically important” is talking someone down from a suicide attempt.
  • My mammogram is important, but I’d hardly say it’s critical.

Calling 1-866-555-5555 doesn’t even make my list of “things to do after I’ve read every book in the library, painted my house, sterilized the switch-plate covers, ironed all my clothes and hung them in the closet sorted by color, and achieved world peace.”

Even if you allow that vulgar marketing instruments have their uses and you judge the yellow postcard against similar solicitations rather than the Bible or Macbeth, the yellow postcard violates the first rule of marketing:

Tell me what’s in it for me.

Melissa, or whoever, gives me no incentive to comply. Do I care that 80 percent of my fellow alums have updated their information? Is it in my interest to “ensure that the upcoming University of Arizona alumni directory project is completely accurate and up to date”?

roman-numeral-converter

Roman-numeral converter at Google Play

Even if such perfection were possible, for all I care the upcoming University of Arizona alumni directory can be printed entirely in classical Latin. If it were, I’d buy it, just to see the phone numbers. Mine would be CDXXII-DCCXIX-MMCXXXIII.

The marketing drones who wrote my yellow postcard aren’t completely stupid, because they know that so many things are clamoring for our attention, claiming to be important, that if we have no clear purpose we might not rely on our own judgment. If they can convince us, even for a minute, that calling 1-866-555-5555 is more important than locking up the toxic household chemicals or taking our kids to the park or meditating or whatever it is that we know we should do but feel we don’t have time for, then they’ve got a good shot at getting our annual donation, which is what they really want. And if they’d just say so, I might cooperate. When I feel that they’re trying to deceive me, it just puts my back up.

VI; ILI; DI; Magnum, PI; mud in your eye; etc.

WE HAVE A SITUATION—I won’t even call it a problem—with language that I call verbal inflation or, when I want it to sound important, inflated linguistic importance (ILI). ILI occurs when words, phrases, and, yes, punctuation marks (often in combination with type styles) are overused and lose their shape, like old shoes, or lose their sharpness, like my mother’s expensive sewing shears that my brother and I always “borrowed” for cutting paper, which (according to my mother) dulled the blades, making the scissors unusable for sewing.

There really was a time when, to indicate that something was important, we simply said it was important. Now we add modifying words and phrases (“critically,” “extremely,” “beyond the reach of human understanding”), set the words in bold-face capital letters, italicized for good measure, and wrap them in a box.

Any more, to call a woman “pretty” is almost an insult. So, what did you think of my new girlfriend? She’s pretty. Pretty? Just pretty? Okay, she’s gorgeous. How gorgeous? Really gorgeous. Really, really, seriously, downright frigging, drop-dead, hose-me-down-and-hang-me-out-to-dry gorgeous.

The flip side of ILI, which I call disastrous insinuation [DI], is exemplified by the following:

Dear Ms. Campbell: Your recent MRI showed a small mass, called an incidentaloma, above your right kidney. The radiologist who read the MRI described the mass as “anomalous” and commented, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I wonder what it is.” If you’re wondering the same thing, you could try calling our office at your convenience to get on a waiting list to make an appointment for follow-up with one of our physicians or nurse practitioners. Good luck with that.

This sort of communication never arrives on a yellow postcard. Usually it comes in a plain white envelope. Half of these letters probably get mistaken for bills or solicitations and tossed in the recycling. You do recycle, right? Because you should. It’s critically important.

Do what you love

MY SISTER HAS ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. She still recognizes me, and we have conversations that might appear normal to others, until they notice that it’s really just one conversation over and over, but my sister and I have a good time. She used to be a professional organizer. She wrote a book called Ready, Set, Organize. (I was coauthor of the second edition. That’s how important I am.)

ready-set-organizeIn Ready, Set, Organize, she describes the technique she used with consistent success. Briefly, it works like this:

Before you can organize your schedule and your stuff, you have to define your values. When you figure out what’s important to you, and you develop goals and objectives around those values, only then can you make sensible, productive decisions about your time and your space. Without that structure, everything seems important, and the loudest and most persistent demands get the greatest share of attention. Whatever you’re doing, you have this nagging feeling that you should be doing something else, and you never really relax. You might even find yourself calling 1-866-555-5555 and giving money to a total stranger in Dallas, Texas, while your child eats toilet-bowl cleaner and Giant Leeches from Space devour your next-door neighbors.

So if you want take control of your life and gain mastery of your schedule, I suggest that you start by eliminating exclamation points. Just don’t use them. If nothing else, you’ll save on ink.

tumblr_miaakgKGu21r358q4o8_250EDDIE IZZARD ON IMPORTANT COMMUNICATIONS (from “Wikipedia and iTunes,” Live at Madison Square Garden (2011), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1ug9-rhSs4)

You’re tip-tapping away and the thing comes up and it says Would you like a software update?  And you go Yeah! I don’t see why not.

Would you like to know details of the software update? And you go No! Or sometimes you go Yeah! … But before you can get the update, it says Sign a new agreement with iTunes.

… I have signed many agreements with iTunes. I don’t know what they want from us any more. Don’t they know we agree with them? They must be paranoid at iTunes, going We must ask them again, one more time, if they really, truly… we’ve asked them thirty-eight times, but one more time, just to make sure that they agree with us.

And they have made us liars. You cannot reprimand your children. No, Johnny, you said you didn’t have a biscuit but there’s crumbs all over your face and you did have a biscuit. You have lied.

[Johnny replies] But you said you had read the terms and conditions when you clicked that box, but it’s too quick for you to have read the terms and conditions.

The truth is, no one in this room has read the terms and conditions. No one in New York has read the terms and conditions. No one in the universe… even God has not read the terms and conditions. That’s probably the big gap between the beginning of the earth and when we effing turned up. He was reading the terms and conditions of the thing he just made.

Anything could be in the terms and conditions. We will take your buttocks and sell them to the Chinese…. We’re going to rearrange your toes and number them…. We’re going to put your underpants in hedges around the… and you get to the point where you want the update. You didn’t know what it was, but now you want the…  Now give me the effing update! And then you get the update.

And nothing has changed.

My Obituary

How Oxford Online Brought About My Demise

Five fewer ways to be a know-it-all. It’s lonely being right. I discussed this existential isolation recently with my articulate friend Eric Somers, an internationally respected sound designer and an expert in a number of other fields as well. (See Eric’s useful and entertaining blog at theaudiopenguin.com.)

camille-saint-saens

Camille Saint-Saëns

 

We were talking about the pronunciation of music vocabulary and composers’ names, which challenges classical-music lovers in general and public-radio hosts in particular. We made cruel fun of people who say chy-KOW-skee for Tchaikovsky—”a rather easy word if you know Russian” according to violinist.com, but “the second syllable can be… tricky because there is a literal orchestra of grammar going on in these 3 short letters.” A literal orchestra, you ask? Seriously? Read on.

We expressed equal contempt for those who omit the final consonant in the surname of the French composer Saint-Saëns, an error committed by those who have enough French to know that, in general, the ess sound at the end of a word is pronounced only when immediately followed by a vowel sound: thus, Je suis [swee] française but Je suis [sweez] anglaise. For reasons that I don’t quite grasp, even after reading two entire blogs on this esoteric matter, the final in Saint-Saëns is supposed to be given light sibilant attention. For a full discussion and a link to the spoken name, see the contemporary-music blog icareifyoulisten.com.

Inflammatory words. This morning, seeking confirmation of my view on the choice of that or which to introduce a relative clause, I happened on the blog post that would literally spell my doom: “5 Language Arguments You Can Stop Having.” It seems that nothing is certain in the rough-and-tumble progress of our language through time and space. Here is what I learned:

  • Biweekly can properly mean “every other week” or “twice a week.”
  • Nauseous can correctly describe the feeling of nausea in addition to “causing nausea.”
  • Flammable is preferable to inflammable when referring to something that is easily set aflame. (This was not news to me, although I still fail to understand why anyone would interpret inflammable as “not flammable.” If a truck contains material that’s not likely to catch fire, why say so?)
  • Further is acceptable when describing physical distance—that is, as a synonym for farther, although I will need to think further about whether to use it in an other-than-metaphorical context.
  • Here’s the killer: It’s just fine to say literally when you mean “figuratively.” After all, “literary luminaries such as Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have used the word in this sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word has been used figuratively since the mid-18th century.”

Recalling all the manuscripts in which I have gleefully (and possibly literally) pounced upon this last misuse, I literally died of chagrin. Thus I will be unavailable for further comment.

For more on these no-longer-controversial usages, see the full story here. I’m going to go pound another nail in my coffin.

 

 

Test Your Pronunciation

colorbarSO ANYWAYS, HOW GOOD DO YOU PRONOUNCIATE THESE WORDS?

I often err (which rhymes with her).
I’ve said re-PRIZE and re-OCCUR
and of-TEN and ho-MOG-en-us.
I’ve even been a CHAUVINIST.
So ANYWAYS, I’m over it.

detritus (n)—waste material or rubbish, especially left after a particular event (Cambridge Dictionary)

A few months ago I discovered that I’d been pronouncing detritus incorrectly all my life. That’s a small exaggeration; I probably didn’t use the word at all before high school. I doubt that I ever complained to Mom that my brother had ransacked my dresser drawers and left detritus in the wake of his illegal search. If he had done so, I wouldn’t have noticed. My bedroom was a monument to detritus. My mom dealt cleverly with the pile of rubbish that was my room; she closed the door. Mom was detritus-prone herself.

I listen to numerous podcasts, and I had heard a podcaster pronounce detritus as DET-rit-us, rhyming more or less with “rest of us.” I’ve always said duh-TRY-tuss, as if it were an inflammatory disease: appendicitis, colitis, detritus. I’ve even written poems in which I rhymed detritus with something, as in

“The light is bright on my de-TRY-tritus.”

Was I going to have to change it to “…upset about my DET-rit-us”?

Today I googled detritus, and it turns out I was right all along. Duh-TRY-tuss it is. I’ll sleep better tonight.

TO AIR IS HUMAN

English-speakers are forever mispronouncing things, especially if they (the English-speakers) read a lot. It’s bad enough that British and American pronunciations often differ for no good reason. But the notoriously complex English-language pronunciation issue is rooted in the history of English and its many borrowings from other languages. I treasure English for its eclectic origins, but they leave us with spellings that bear little relationship to pronunciation, as in through. Consider height and weight, chattel (pronounced CHAT-tle) and Mattel. If you encounter a printed word but never hear it spoken, you’re likely to pronounce it phonetically, or as nearly so as you can manage.

When my daughter, Marian, was nine or ten years old, we were discussing her newest Nancy Drew book, The Clue of the Broken Locket (1934), and the characters therein—Nancy herself, of course, as well as Nancy’s father (eminent attorney Carson Drew), her chums (Bess Marvin and George Fayne), her sweetie pie (Ned Nickerson), the Drew family housekeeper (Hannah Gruen), and, in this book, someone called Gladys—which, as Marian pronounced it, rhymed with ladies. Of course it did. We’d all pronounce it that way if we’d never met a Gladys or watched an episode of the television show Bewitched featuring Samantha’s nosy neighbor, Gladys Kravitz. Coming across the name in a book, you’re not likely to “hear” GLAD-iss in your mind, but rather GLADE-eez or, at best, GLAD-eez.

NANCYDREW-BROKENLOCKET-1934I don’t speak of “correct” pronunciation, since the English language is fluid and “correctness” changes from day to day. Moreover, most dictionaries no longer judge the speaking habits of their users, preferring to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.* Twenty or thirty years ago, dictionaries gave the “correct” pronunciation first, followed by less-respectable alternatives. Now they offer pronunciation possibilities nonjudgmentally, although the standard (read “correct”) pronunciation usually appears first.

If you want prescriptive advice on pronunciation, the best source I know of is Charles Harrington Elster’s delightful book There Is No Zoo in Zoology (which has been incorporated into The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations—The Complete Opinionated Guide). From the title alone, you learn that (a) zoo-OLL-uh-jee is just plain wrong and (b) Elster’s book will tell you how and why to say it (and hundreds of other words) right. (It’s zoe-OLL-uh-jee, with a long O in the first syllable.) As useful as the book is, you’ll be dismayed to find that you’ve been mispronouncing two-thirds of your vocabulary for your entire adult life. Still, I heartily recommend Mr. Elster’s books and website.

If you want a dictionary that guides rather than merely informs you about pronunciation, you’ll appreciate online audio guides. Google the word and hear the disembodied official internet voice, which offers only one pronunciation. Not all the online guides agree, however, as in the case of err.

IF YOU CAN BE ENVELOPED, CAN YOU BE MAILED?
Abused, misused, misunderstood

ERR—It rhymes with fur, not hair, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, the Macmillan Dictionary, Charles Harrington Elster, and most (but not all) of the other sources I consulted.

SHORT-LIVED (LONG-LIVED)The I is long; lived rhymes with hived.

The pronunciation (-laɪvd) is etymologically correct since the compound is derived from the noun life, rather than from the verb live. But the pronunciation (-lɪvd) is by now so common that it cannot be considered an error. In the most recent survey 43 percent of the Usage Panel preferred (-lɪvd), 39 percent preferred (-laɪvd), and 18 percent found both pronunciations equally acceptable.  English Language & Usage Stack Exchange

KUDOS—This much-abused word has strayed a great distance from its original pronunciation and usage. Usually pronounced KOO-doze and treated as plural in the U.S.—though there’s no such thing as one KOO-doe—It means “the praise and respect that you get from other people because of something that you achieved” (Cambridge Dictionary).  Some Americans, most Brits, and Charles Harrington Elster say KYOO-doss.

The noun kudos was originally a mass noun, but it is now sometimes treated as a plural noun,… contrary to the original Greek κῦδος ‎(kûdos), which is a singular noun. The American pronunciation implies this plural usage, which many authorities nevertheless consider erroneous. Wiktionary

CLOTHES—The items that hang in my closet are cobwebs. The stuff behind them is what I refer to as my close—shirts, pants, dresses, and so forth. Clothes, with the th combination pronounced, is difficult to say. I suspect that one day soon, CLOZE will be the standard pronunciation. That day, sadly, has not yet arrived.

ARCTIC—Even experienced network news announcers say ARTIC and ANTARTIC, and they’re wrong, wrong, wrong. It seems to me there’s even a beverage called something like ARTIC BLAST. Let’s agree to get this one right and unite behind ARCTIC.

HISTORY, HISTORICAL, preceded by A or AN—It’s a mystery to me that so many people drop the H when saying historical and precede it with the article AN, as in “an historical account.” There’s no accounting for what the British do, but in the U.S., the H in history (and historic, historical, and so forth) is sounded, not silent as in honor and heir, and the construction “an historical” is incorrect.

ENVELOP, ENVELOPED—Letters placed in envelopes are not thereby enveloped. The verb envelop (enn-VELL-up) means to wrap, enclose, or shroud: “The landscape was enveloped in fog.” In the past few weeks, I’ve heard two Hay House authors on hayhouseradio.com talk about being enveloped in a sense of peace, which might have been worth hearing about had they not said ENN-vuh-loped.

chaise-longue

SO YOU THINK HE’S A CHAUVINIST? Here, so and chauvinist are usage issues, not pronunciation ones, but they bug me so I’m slipping them into this discussion. Why, over the last six or eight months, have I begun hearing so many people introduce a sentence with the superfluous word so? It’s common in radio interviews:

INTERVIEWER: Dr. Mathers, why did you resign from your position at the university?

MATHERS: So… my department head was a chauvinist S.O.B. who treated women like the lower orders of rodents… worse, even… like fleas on rodents.

INTERVIEWER: Dr. Mathers, are you saying that your department head was aggressively and blindly patriotic, especially devoted to military glory, as the word chauvinist suggests? Or do you mean that he was a male chauvinist, aggressively and blindly sexist in his dealings with woman faculty members?

MATHERS: So… yeah, that. What you said.

phone_1896

OFTEN-MISPRONOUNCED WORDS

anyway not anyways

cardsharp not card shark

cavalry not Calvary

champ (not chomp) at the bit

cohabit not cohabitate

diphtheria not diptheria

espresso not expresso

February not Febuary

for all intents and (not intensive) purposes

forte not fort

herbal not erbal

homogeneous (5 syllables) not homogenous

lambaste not lambast

mauve (rhymes with rove)

mischievous (3 syllables) not mischevious (4 syllables)

often (rhymes with soften; the T is silent)

orient not orientate

potable (rhymes with notable)

recur not reoccur

reprise (second syllable rhymes with ease), not reprize

spayed not spaded

spit and (not spitting) image

suite not suit

supposedly not supposably

utmost not upmost

verbiage (3 syllables) not verbage (2 syllables)

______________

*The truth of the matter is that today virtually all English language dictionaries are descriptive. The editors will usually say that they are simply recording the language and how its words are used and spelled. True, there may be some guidance. For example, most Merriam-Webster dictionaries will note if certain words are deemed nonstandard or offensive by most users; however, the words are still included. Of modern dictionaries, only the Funk and Wagnall’s contains a certain amount of prescriptive advice. All the major dictionary publishers – Merriam-Webster, Times-Mirror, World Book, and Funk and Wagnall’s – will tell you that they are primarily descriptive. Englishplus.com

 

Standing Firm on ‘Podium’

colorbar

A podium is something you stand on

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE NEVER STOPS EVOLVING. Since I’ve learned to accept change as an inevitable and even beautiful quality of our language, I’ve become more flexible, less rigid, and more adventurous about choosing and arranging words on a page. Right. When pigs fly and hell freezes over. I hate change. If it were up to me, the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn.

Change is sometimes necessary, even beneficial. I get that. Pantyhose had to go. Lard in the cupboard, lead in the gasoline… I don’t miss them. But the English language is, for the most part, nontoxic and fat-free, so let’s not mess with it more than we have to.

There must be a better way to write respectfully than this:

Someone’s at the door. I wonder what they want.

…or this:

Someone’s at the door. I wonder what he or she wants.

The latter is “correct,” but neither is going to win a prize for dialogue. No one talks like that, just as no one answers the question “Who’s there?” by saying—correctly“It is I.” We can be forgiven for colloquial speech that breaks the rules… until it descends into grunts and snarls. I’ve been embarrased by my own mumbles lately during the half-block stroll to the grocery store. I usually pass other pedestrians, and one of us says something on the order of

“How ya’ doin’?”

Understanding that this isn’t a request for an organ-by-organ medical status report, I used to answer…

I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?

…but lately what comes out of my mouth sounds more like this:

Doin’ gud. H’boucherself?

Speaking is work…

…a highly complex motor task that involves approximately 100 orofacial, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and respiratory muscles… [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_science]

and we sometimes take short cuts. Over time, our sloppy speech becomes formalized in the language. What’s a contraction, after all, except sanctioned laziness? It’s easier to say “didn’t” than “did not,” and even easier to say “di’n’t,” dropping that second pesky plosive altogether.

This is nothing new. The word lord, for example, comes from the Old English hlāfweard with a meaning similar to “breadwinner.” I learned this from Kevin Stroud on his excellent History of English Podcast (mandatory listening for anyone who’s interested in English-language and British history). Kevin explains how our language evolves to reflect the way we actually speak. A word’s journey from its earliest appearance—quite possibly among the ancient Indo-European people long before there was an alphabet—to its current spelling, pronunciation, and usage, can be a fascinating tale. When you know the word’s story, you don’t like to see it misused.

podium-lectern

Illustrations from “What Is a Lectern or a Podium?” Message Masters Toastmasters

Consider, for example, the beleaguered podium. If ever a word deserved mercy, surely podium is that word. It’s expected to do not only its own job—that is, to be the word associated with a low platform of the type shown in Fig. B (above right)—but also the job of another word, which was assigned hundreds of years ago to objects such as that shown in Fig. A (above left); and that word is lectern. 

  • A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands.
  • A lectern is the tall desk or stand, usually with a slanted top, that holds the speaker’s books, notes, sermons, and so forth.
  • You stand on a podium and behind a lectern.

As a rule, using the wrong word interferes with communication, but that’s not the case here. If I ask, say, the Scratchnsniff triplets to come on stage by summoning them “to the podium,” and there is no podium—only a lectern like the one shown in Fig. A— the siblings will cope. They won’t get lost or wander around looking for the podium that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Why? Like 58.17 percent of the English-speaking population, they think that podium and lectern are synonymous.

I stand by podium for a different reason—its etymology. Podium is related to the Greek word pous “foot.” Octopus has the same root. Did you know that the plural of octopus is octopodes (if you are Greek)? Pous evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ped– “foot” c. 2000-4000 BCE.

Thus, podium has something like five or six thousand years of history to its credit, as summarized below:

The Life & Times of Podium

  1. Starts out as ped- with the Indo-Europeans, c. 2000-4000 BCE.
  2. Evolves as pous among the Greeks, arty souls who refined it as podion, meaning “foot of a vase.”
  3. Borrowed into Latin, where the Romans fiddled with it and came up with podium “raised platform.”
  4. Word and meaning arrived intact in English, late 17th or early 18th century—not the typical way for Latin words to enter the language. Most of our Latin vocabulary came through the French language after the Norman French invaded England in 1066. The army—led by the Duke of Normandy (soon to be King William I of England)—mopped the floor with weary English foot soldiers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the aftermath, Normans and their families arrived in great waves, bringing their culture, their customs, and their language. Obviously, podium wasn’t part of the initial onslaught.

What, precisely, do a podium and a foot have in common? I guess I had assumed, without giving it much thought, that the podium got its name because people stand on it. You know, with their feet. No; that’s not it at all—though it can be a useful memory trick. The “foot” in this equation isn’t a human foot but an architectural or artistic one, as illustrated in the photo labeled “foot of a vase” below. As the Romans apparently saw it, a podium was analogous to the foot of a vase (Greek podion).

Got an extra podium? Maybe you should take out an ad: Podiums for sale. You could use podia instead, but trust me, people will smirk when your back is turned. Me, I’m a Nebraska girl. I don’t say celli or concerti or podia or gymnasia, I don’t eat raw fish, and I buy my jewelry on eBay.

foot-of-a-vase

Where do you stand?

Unlike podium, the word lectern—which originally meant a reading desk in a medieval church—came into Middle English “through channels,” you might say, if you don’t mind perpetrating a vicious pun that relies on a clumsy reference to the English Channel , which separates France and England. In any case, lectern came through Old French letrun, from medieval Latin lectrum, from legere “to read.”

Now, if you can remember that we read at a lectern and stand on a podium, my work here is done.

Is lectern lost forever?

I was a fan of Allison Janney in the role of C. J. Cregg on NBC television’s The West WingShe was spectacular, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to stomp on my heart every time she spoke of the “podium” in the White House press-briefing room, night after night, week after week, for seven agonizing years. As White House press secretary, C. J. spent a great deal of time at, behind, beside, or otherwise in the aura of the miscalled “podium.”

During 155 episodes in seven seasons, certainly hundreds of people, if not thousands, had to have noticed the solecism: There’s a lectern on your television screen for all the world to see, and a star of the show is calling it a podium. No doubt many viewers contacted the show. But the lectern remained a “podium” throughout the program’s run, and that means one of two things:
(a) Nobody in the real White House ever referred to the thing as a lectern, or
(b) lectern is yesterday’s soggy Rice Krispies. It’s been written out of The West Wing and drop-kicked out of our lives. If it were a lame horse it would be taken out and shot, and We the Righteous are going to have to suck it up… unless…

Hey! You guys wouldn’t want to join me in putting our collective foot down and making a stand for standing on (not at  or behind) a podium, would you? Because if you would, send me an email (mary@annagrammatica.com) for a list of public officials and prominent educators to contact, starting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The man conducts his entire life behind a lectern.

 

lecterns-galore

A plethora of lecterns

Okay, maybe it’s not a global hot button, but the podium | lectern controversy isn’t just about little me with a bug in my brassiere. The experts and scholars are unanimous in their assent: A lectern isn’t a podium and it’s not okay to call it one. Here’s a heartening comment from a Toastmaster, followed by another from an authority on public speaking:

A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands while speaking. If that sounds like a stage, you are correct. It is like a stage. A podium can have a lectern on it, [as]… can a stage. You could have a lectern on a podium on a stage. A speaker stands on a podium. —Message Masters Toastmasters
http://messagemasters.squarespace.com/articles/what-is-a-lectern-or-podium.html

Many people confuse the words lectern, podium, rostrum, and dais. A lectern is the slant-topped high desk that you as the speaker stand behind and use when reading your presentation notes. It can be placed in the middle of the stage or off to one side. To remember lectern, think lecture.

A podium is a raised platform on which a speaker stands during a presentation. To remember podium think podiatrist – which is a foot doctor. You will want to use a podium, especially if you are short or there are more than three rows of chairs, to ensure everyone in the back of the room can see you. Standing on a platform will also dramatically increase your vocal projection. A rostrum or dais is a larger platform or stage on which a head table might be placed during a formal dinner.

Source: http://questionsaboutpublicspeaking.com/whats-the-difference-between-a-podium-and-a-lectern/

More voices for the good and the true

The Daily Chronicle, “Never again confuse lectern for a podium”
http://www.daily-chronicle.com/2013/05/06/never-again-confuse-lectern-for-a-podium/b57qunb/

Mannerofspeaking.org, “Podium vs. Lectern”
https://mannerofspeaking.org/2012/03/10/podium-vs-lectern/

Dailywritingtips.com, “Podium vs. Lectern”
www.dailywritingtips.com/podium-vs-lectern/

…and here’s the megasite for all things presentation-related:

Podium-vs-lectern-megasite

Does it really matter?

No and yes. If it were only a matter of clarity, using podium instead of lectern might actually be the better choice. If you ask for a podium, you’ll probably get a lectern. If you ask for a lectern, you’ll probably get a blank stare.

From the Daily Chronicle story cited above…

Just before a speaking engagement at a hotel several years ago, Mose asked a hotel staff member for a lectern, describing its intended use: to hold notes for the presentation. “You mean a podium?” the young man asked. “No, a lectern,” Mose insisted, though he should have known better. The man came back a few minutes later with a lectern, which he continued to refer to as a “podium.”

I won’t give up, but I’m not optimistic. When the White House falls, can the entire free world be far behind? Maybe I’ll reach out to the Lectern people, see if they’re interested in a combination fundraiser | podium/lectern-awareness event: Pennies for Podiums… in the U. K., maybe Pounds for Podiums and, um, Lbs. for Lecterns? Meanwhile, if you’re looking for me, I shouldn’t be hard to spot; I’ll be (sigh) the Last Man Standing.

 

Mary Campbell
July 23, 2016

 

 

 

Put a Stamp on Me, I’m Done

WRONG, WRONGER, WRONGEST

POSTAGEstamp-first-PennyBlack

Penny Black, the first postage stamp

Many of us studied English grammar and usage in the black-and-white school of language-learning favored by the textbooks and teachers of my childhood. To say ain’t, for example, as in “I ain’t got time,” was just plain wrong, only slightly more benign than shoplifting. “He don’t have no lunch” and “me and her already ate” were equally undesirable.

Experience has taught me that a wise and compassionate response to “he don’t have no lunch” might be to give the guy something to eat rather than to correct the speaker’s way of speaking. Assuming that the fellow is indeed lacking a midday meal, “He don’t have no lunch” describes the situation clearly and succinctly.

Further (about which see below), If you set yourself up as an authority on any aspect of the English language, fastidious and vigilant defenders of the opposing point of view will rise up to prove you wrong, throwing nasty clots of evidence like yellow snowballs in your face.

GREENlightFord’s “Go Further” slogan irritates purists who insist that further and farther aren’t synonymous. Further, they argue, means “in addition” as an adjective and “advance” as a verb (“He used the stolen money to further his aims”). Farther is defined as “at or to a greater distance.” In any case, that ship has sailed. The horse is out of the barn. Further and farther are in practice interchangeable and likely to stay that way.

YELLOWlightThe same is true for nauseous as a synonym for nauseated. This, to my way of thinking, is a bit unfortunate, in that nauseous, with the meaning “causing nausea or disgust,” was a yeomanly alternative to nauseating. In that sense, to say “I feel nauseous” would be to declare oneself repulsive. Again… horse, barn.

However nauseous is defined, the preferred pronunciation (according to some authorities) is NAW-see-us rather than NAW-shus. I suspect that this preference is sailing away on the same ship as long-LIVED (rhyming with the second syllable of arrived), now usually heard with a short I, like the in gift.

REDlightTwice in the past year I have heard authors during radio interviews mispronounce enveloped, saying EN-vuh-loped — as in “the travelers were EN-vuh-loped in a dense fog” — rather than en-VEL-upt. In each case, until the solecism occurred, I found the writer interesting and credible. Afterward — post-solecism, if you will — I switched stations. Even the most forgiving commentators on language draw the line somewhere.

Truth in Advertising?

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The Risk-Free Trial? Guilty

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Vintage Garden, by Xx_rebeldiamonds_xX

Last summer I bit on a “risk-free trial” for an açaí-berry formula and a colon-cleanse detox product, both in capsule form. I was aware of the risks of a “risk-free trial.” The strategy is similar to that used by publishers such as Bottom Line Books and Rodale Books, which let you “examine a book free for thirty days,” during which you could doubtless read the book and send it back, keeping the bonus gift, usually a small but useful guide to Growing Healing Herbs in a Sunny Window, or perhaps Homemade Garden-Pest Repellents.

(At least I suppose that reading a book doesn’t violate the rules for examining it. Or are you just supposed to check the binding, count the pages to make sure they’re all there, and verify that the book is printed on recycled paper and that no animals were harmed in the research, writing, printing, or distribution?)

I lost 12 pounds

In any event, I was quick to read the fine print on my “risk-free trial” of açaí-berry formula and colon-cleanse detox product. I needed to return the bottles containing the “unused product” to an address in Florida within ten days of my receiving them, which the company estimated at three days after shipping. Otherwise, my credit card would be charged $89.95 per month until cancellation.

Usually, it’s a miracle if my mail gets opened within ten days of receipt, but the phrase risk-free trial sets off warning bells. So… an unprecedented TWO days after receiving the product, I extracted my ten-day supply from each bottle and sent the remainder via USPS Priority Mail to the Florida address. Even so, my credit card was charged $89.95.

Astonishingly, the charge was removed without my having to make so much as a phone call. I’ve heard from other victims, however, that such charges can be very sticky.

You are actually at risk the minute you divulge your credit-card information, which is required for the “minimal shipping charge” of $1.95 or whatever.  If you must take the risk-free-trial risk, consider using a temporary (prepaid) credit card and keep the balance very low or cancel it altogether. Or not. Consult your legal professional.

By the way (and DO consult your healthcare professional before trying this regimen), I lost 12 pounds in two months on the colon-cleanse detox capsules.

Next: Truth in Advertising, Your Just Deserts — “Get the Smooth, Flawless, Young-Looking Skin You Deserve”

Below: I thought there was missing text, but it’s just Silly Syntax

From an Arizona Department of Health Services Report…

Neurological Effects [of exposure to hydrogen sulfide in sewer gas]:
Ataxia, choreoathetosis, dystonia, inability to stand in one 20-month-old child


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Speaking of Homophones

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Sidebar: Sound-Alikes

Charlie Chan (http://www.impawards.com/1934/posters/charlie_chan_in_london_xlg.jpg)

Charlie Chan

I read this afternoon — in a novel, by a usually careful or at least painstakingly edited author (Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb) — about how the heroine’s strategy wasn’t succeeding so she decided to try a different tact.

I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Pretending she is British, perhaps? Or emulating Charlie Chan?

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    Sidebar: Pore Me

    pp_sadman

    Pore Me

    Homophones are words that sound alike but that have different meanings and origins — poor, pour, and pore, for example. (Depending on where you were raised, you might pronounce these words slightly differently from one another. Poor might sound a bit like POO-er, and the O sound in pore might be more rounded than that in pour.)

    Pouring Over the Bible

    Pouring Over the Bible

    In a sentence on studying the Bible, in the book Prayer, Faith, and Healing: Cure Your Body, Heal Your Mind, and Restore Your Soul, the authorsKenneth Winston Caine and Brian Paul Kaufman—recommend that we “ponder …[the Bible], study it, and really pour over it [emphasis added].”

    It’s easy to use the wrong member of a set of homophones because sometimes the incorrect word seems to make more sense than the correct one. I thought for years that a sound bite was a sound byte.

    * * *

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    Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)

    [A National Public Radio reporter] said that for some people “Medicare was literally their lifeline.” That is a shocking misuse of literal…. The correct thing to say would be, “Medicare is their virtual lifeline.” [A literal lifeline is]… a rope or a cord on a boat to which sailors can cling to prevent them from falling into the water. [The reporter meant that] Medicare is like a lifeline; it is a figurative lifeline. —From a listener’s letter to NPR.org, published March 29, 2005

    Baby boomers’ almost comic fear of aging reminds me of that silent movie scene in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from the hand of a giant clock, literally pulling time from its moorings [emphasis added by the editor].  —New York Timessyndicated columnist Maureen Dowd, “Recline Yourself, Resign Yourself, You’re Through,” April 13, 2005

    Let us focus for a moment on the difference between literal expressions and nonliteral expressions. By so doing, we will begin to understand how the truth of poetry is genuine and necessary, and we will perhaps not embarrass ourselves by having our grammatical lapses called to the attention of the entire English-speaking public.

    The untidiness of nouns

    How well I remember sitting in Miss McCluskey’s cozy classroom at Dundee Elementary School, wrapped in the schoolroom scents of floor polish, eraser dust, books and paper and Miss McCluskey’s talcum powder, and mesmerized by her passion for parsing sentences. How wonderful to have such power over words, assigning the parts of speech to their proper places in sentences such as “Jane gave the ball to Jim” and “Jane gave Jim the ball.”

    Jane Is Generous

    Figure 1: Jane Is Generous

    It was all so easy then, learning that a noun is “a person, place, or thing,” and the things were always stuff you could handle or eat or touch or see or at least wrap your mind around, like marshmallow, cow, apple, Cincinnati, and Mother.

    Just when you thought you’d mastered the concept, you got promoted to the next grade and they threw stuff at you like this:

    Jane was gripped by excruciating fear.

    Some of my fellow pupils in Miss Rubelman’s class, the future social scientists, actually spared a thought or two for poor Jane and her terror. Why was she so afraid? Was she in an airplane plummeting toward a shark-infested sea? Had her boyfriend, Ned, found out that she was really at the amusement park with Victor when she’d told Ned she was visiting Monique at the hospital? Or was it existential angst wrought by the uncertainties of contemporary society?

    A majority of the class cared nothing about Jane and her problems or about the meaning of excruciating. It was almost time for recess.

    But a few of us had already diagrammed the sentence, as follows: 

    Jane Is Afraid

    Figure 2: Jane Is Afraid

    Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

    Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

    It was as easy to identify the noun — the object of the preposition by (In this case, fear) — as it would have been if Jane had been gripped by a gorilla. Even so, a noun such as fear — not a person, not a place, not exactly a thing — didn’t fit neatly into the little noun-world we had learned about. Suddenly nouns weren’t so tidy. In fact, the whole noun business got out of hand in a hurry. Nouns could be collective, concrete, countable, uncountable, animate, inanimate, mass, proper, and any number of other things — gerunds, infinitives, and on and on and on.

    This, I believe, is where the entire population of the world separates itself into two groups: (1) people who care about nouns, in any form, as well as verbs and conjunctions and subordinate clauses, and (2) people who realize that it’s just going to get more complicated from here on out and it’s probably time to become interested in the opposite sex. I, alas, was One who Cared.

    The people who want to know more about the subjunctive mood, and why “if he were at the party” is different from “if he was at the party”; the people to whom it matters whether to use which or that, as in “It was the pollen that made my eyes water, not the mold, which makes me sneeze” — these people study Latin because verb conjugations aren’t enough for them, they want noun declensions too. These people are doomed to forever probe the Nature of Things, if for no other reason than to line them up in sentence diagrams.

    These people eventually become English majors. You read about them in the newspapers, running their cars off the road while proofreading billboards: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette shou—!” And as the EMTs carry the crash victim’s mangled body to the ambulance, he or she moans, “As a cigarette should. Not like a cigarette should….”

    But this would come later. In elementary school, the future English majors/car-crash survivors were reveling in our discoveries about nouns. A noun could actually be not just a single word —

          Jane found a cat

    — but a whole bunch of words: clauses, clauses within clauses, entire sentences containing three or four prepositional phrases

    Jane found a haunted house in which lived a family of lizards that could speak in Cantonese

    Better yet, nouns could be things that weren’t items but were instead ideas, feelings, concepts, and other intangibles — “things” that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, tasted, or heard. Instead of thinking about her cat, Jane might be thinking about…

    …the dichotomy of good and evil
    …a method of separating egg whites and yolks
    …her future as a thoracic surgeon
    …her desire to throttle her little brother

    The nouns dichotomy, good, evil, separating (here, a gerund), method, future, and desire describe “things” — real, actual, important things — that cannot be discerned by the five physical senses.

    The five senses: their usefulness and their limitations

    We depend so keenly on the five physical senses that the absence of any one of them is tragic. We pity the blind and the deaf, and those whose sense of touch is lost through paralysis.

    The senses of taste and smell are less important; we don’t depend on them for survival, as our primitive ancestors might have. Most of us buy our mushrooms at the grocery store and get our drinking water out of a tap or a bottle. We trust that the grocery-store people don’t stock poisonous mushrooms and that Evian water is pure and clean. Most of the time, our assumptions are justified.

    There are people in this world who have virtually lost the use of all five senses and have yet managed to convey the rich, internal, spiritual life they are experiencing. Such people are rare, and few of us would voluntarily surrender any of our five senses as a path to spiritual purification. Certain individuals do, however, practice sensory deprivation — on purpose — by spending days or weeks in caves. Sometimes the reason for this isolation is to develop what the practitioners consider “spiritual senses” — ways of perceiving that are independent of the five physical senses.

    I hope that you’ll be able to grasp this concept in the comfort of your home. Cave-dwelling isn’t for everyone. There are inconveniences, such as, for example, the proximity of bats.

    My apartment is in an active ninety-year-old church, which is clean and well kept, with modern offices and classrooms and a magnificent sanctuary. But all of us here deal with the occasional bat. People will be chatting in hallways or gathering in their classes when — inexplicably to the clueless observer — everyone screams and runs in some random direction, inevitably smashing into each other in their panic. Bats can be very startling.

    This is especially true if a couple of them fly out from behind your shower while you are showering in it. It’s even worse if the bathroom door is closed and they keep flying around in that erratic sonar-guided way they have, so that you have no idea where they’ll end up or which way to dodge. I speak from experience. One minute I was showering, the next I was naked in the living room, having gotten there without traversing the distance in between, making me the only human being who has ever, literally, made a quantum leap.

    As useful and necessary as the physical senses may be for informing you of the presence of bats, they (the senses, and no doubt the bats as well) are incapable of perceiving abstractions — intangible things — ideas, beliefs, and emotions such as fear, love, happiness, and disgust, as illustrated in Table 1.

    Yuck

    Table 1: Yuck

    Sometimes people make the mistake of classifying tangible things as real and intangibles as unreal. A parent will comfort a child who wakes up in the night, frightened by a dream or an unexplained noise, by saying, “It’s all right. It was only a dream,” or, “It was only your imagination.” Yet it is these intangibles — imagination, dreams, and others, such as love and vengeance — that propel us through life.

    All language is, of course, metaphor. A word is only a symbol of the thing or action it represents. And, as we shall discover, virtually every word in every language — even conjunctions and prepositions — originates in metaphor.

    Lesson 17.1 Assignment

    Find at least ten examples of metaphors in this lesson. E-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.