Thinking Without Words


Can you think without words? Of course you can. You don’t use words to guide yourself from work to home on the same familiar path, or, for that matter, to operate your vehicle, any more than laboratory rats successfully navigate a maze by thinking, “Left, six inches, then a quick right.”

Infants have rudimentary reasoning skills before they have language. One of the first things they discover is who has the good stuff. Early in life, they cry automatically when they’re hungry, but pretty soon they figure out that Mom or Dad is the bringer of food, warmth, and comfort, so, at some point, babies learn to cry strategically. Mom or Dad walks in the door and they beam like a summer sunrise. “There she is!” they think wordlessly. “Here comes lunch!”

‘Fetch, Monica!’

According to Russell T Hurlburt, Ph.D., in the article “Thinking Without Words” (Psychology Today, Nov. 11, 2011), this phenomenon is called “unsymbolized thinking,” defined as “the experience of an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include… words, images, or any other symbols.” Many psychologists believe that unsymbolized thinking is impossible, but Hurlburt and his colleagues claim that their research validates its operation. My own research—consisting of throwing a stick in the yard and calling, “Fetch, Monica!” and then, when Monica brings me the stick, scratching her ears and giving her a treat—led to the same conclusion.

Language, however, is necessary for abstract thinking and flights of fancy that are among the writer’s greatest joys. This morning I heard a radio personality ask, “What does it mean to be human?” I applied about five minutes of very conscious thought to the matter and came up with a provisional hypothesis: being human is choosing to love. It’s not that other creatures are unable to love, Monica being a living, breathing, slobbering demonstration of doggie love. But only humans, I suggest, can make a decision to cultivate that emotion and exercise acts of love that don’t arise spontaneously. We can choose to love the planet, the frantic waitress, the elderly and infirm next-door neighbor, and even the spouse who cheated on us. I’m not talking about pretending to be kind when we are seething inside, although sometimes that’s the only way to start. I’m talking about reaching deep into the spirit and opening the valves that keep love from flowing… about giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable and genuine.

Writes Arika Okrent in the article “Is It Possible to Think Without Language?” (, May 23, 2013),

While it appears that we can indeed think without language, it is also the case that there are certain kinds of thinking that are made possible by language. Language gives us symbols we can use to fix ideas, reflect on them and hold them up for observation. It allows for a level of abstract reasoning we wouldn’t have otherwise. The philosopher Peter Carruthers has argued that there is a type of inner, explicitly linguistic thinking that allows us to bring our own thoughts into conscious awareness. We may be able to think without language, but language lets us know that we are thinking.

Inner conversations

Some scientists speculate about why humans think in words at all. Durham University psychologist Charles Fernyhough, author of The Voices Within, writes that we talk to ourselves for motivation and focusing, to change our behavior (“Stop fidgeting!”), and—perhaps most important—to engage in inner dialogue, by which we bring multiple perspectives to our thinking. “Language is particularly powerful at representing different perspectives and bringing them into contact with each other,” writes Fernyhough.

Writing marvelous worlds

The thinking that devised the hypothesis “being human is choosing to love” altered my mood. It was hopeful and uplifting. If I had addressed the question differently and had decided that “being human is choosing to win,” it probably would have depressed me. I can always love, and authentic love usually has good outcomes. Winning, on the other hand, entails luck, cunning, skill, strategizing, and often a certain amount of capital.

People who study happiness—Michael Neill and Robert Holden, to name a few—claim that your emotions proceed from your thoughts. If this is true, then can’t it also be said that the way one arranges words in one’s mind or on a blank page can determine how one feels? Speaking from a writer’s perspective, can we “write ourselves happy”?

I believe we can. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a “to-do” list and checking off the items as we accomplish them. There’s a great deal of power in that. But I have, from time to time, written worlds I’d like to inhabit—children’s stories of green, blooming, magical places where fairies grant wishes and all good things are possible. These worlds are in the realm of fiction, but who can deny that there are elements of truth in the fictional universes of Narnia, the Land of Oz, and Middle Earth?


Pop Quiz


Which of the following abbreviations are acronyms?

  1. BBC
  2. CIA
  3. FBI
  4. inc.
  5. LASER
  6. NASA
  7. OPEC
  8. radar
  9. RAM
  10. scuba
  11. snafu
  12. USA

Clue: Seven of the abbreviations are acronyms, four are initialisms, and one is just a plain old abbreviation. To be classified as an acronym, a word—usually made up of the initial letters of a sequence of words—must be pronounceable, as in UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). If the letters are said individually, as in DOJ (Department of Justice), the word is an initialism.

Answers: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

  1. An initialism for British Broadcasting Corporation
  2. An initialism for Central Intelligence Agency
  3. An initialism for Federal Bureau of Investigation
  4. An abbreviation for Incorporated
  5. An acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
  6. An acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  7. An acronym for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
  8. An acronym for Radio Direction and Ranging
  9. An acronym for Random-Access Memory
  10. An acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
  11. An acronym for Situation Normal—All F***ed Up
  12. An initialism for United States of America

NOTE: If you like number 11—snafu, said to have been coined by GI’s during World War II—you’ll love fubar (F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition), tarfu (Totally and Royally F***ed Up), and the like.


‘Homage’ Rhymes with ‘Bondage,’ Sort Of


When I began editing the course catalog at the University of Arizona, the biennial catalog had just been printed. That meant that for the next two years, I had to confront, on a regular basis, the following solecism at the top of the first page of text:

            An Historical Sketch

In American English, a few words—generally of French origin—begin with a silent H. They include hour, honor, honest, heir, and herb (but not herbicide). In most words beginning with H, however, the H is pronounced, as in handkerchief, her, him harass, height, heinous, helicopter, history, homage, house, hospital, hostile, house, huge, human, and hysteria.

Would you say “an house” or “an hat?” I hope not. No more would you say “an history.” When an indefinite article—a or an—is called for before historical, use a, as follows:

            A Historical Sketch

In a heading, you might as well omit the indefinite article altogether:

            Historical Sketch

* * *

Fairly recently, educated people who are otherwise well spoken have begun pronouncing the word homage as if they are writing a poem and they are desperate to find a word to rhyme, sort of, with garage, so they choose


An alternative but also less-than-ideal pronunciation is…


“Careful” speakers—generally people like me who spend far too many hours squinting at dictionaries and style manuals—say homage like this:


In fact, the New York Times published an entire article on the topic, in which the author, Ben Zimmer, goes to bat for HOM-ij.

In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster calls [oh-MAZH]... a “preposterous de-Anglicization” that is “becoming fashionable among the literati.” Elster had previously complained that good old HOM-ij was losing out to OM-ij “in havens for the better-educated like National Public Radio,” and for defenders of the “h” pronunciation oh-MAZH just adds insult to injury…. A check of NPR’s audio archives corroborates Elster’s hunch.

I have a sneaking suspicion that people who Frenchify their vocabulary—seizing every opportunity to revert to the French pronunciations of English words that may have been in our language for hundreds of years—are putting on a little show. They want us to think they speak French, so they wrinkle their noses and elongate their vowels when saying French-based words and phrases such as hors d’oeuvre, entrepreneur, ambience, en route, and, yes, homage. Oh, well. It’s a harmless affectation. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?







Amuna Go Now


According to, “Fasting can be a preventative and therapeutic approach against obesity and metabolic disorders.” This is probably good news for people who find it possible to abstain from eating for hours or days on end. It’s bad news for those of us who dislike the word preventative used as an adjective. Fastidious users of the English language prefer preventive.

It’s a bit surprising when people add unnecessary syllables to common words, as in orientate and cohabitate. Orient and cohabit are better choices and require less effort to say or write, and we commonly slip into language shortcuts without even giving it a thought.

For a while I thought it was just me, but I’ve noticed that many, if not most, English-speakers are lazy about diction. I may WRITE a sentence such as the following:

I am going to walk to the pharmacy

…but when I SAY it, it comes out like this:

Amuna walk to the pharmacy.

Probably, at some point in the evolution of the shorter form, I said

I’m gonna walk to the pharmacy

…but “I’m gonna” collapsed into “Amuna” —during my forties, I suspect, at about the same time my arches collapsed. Pure laziness.

Preventive, orient, and cohabit don’t represent phonological laziness, however. They’re neater, cleaner, and more nearly “correct.”

Color My World


Following is the introduction to my book Annagrammatica’s Children’s Dictionary of Invisible Things. You can get a PDF of the entire book for free or you can purchase the book on my website.

The Golden Age of Illustration 1880s-1940s

About 140 years ago, an amazing transformation took place on the pages of magazines and children’s books. Where there had been few if any pictures, and these in black and white, suddenly glorious color illustrations appeared. Some of the finest artists in the world began illustrating familiar tales—such as the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales—and new books as well. For over 50 years, the outpouring of color art flooded so many pages that the time is called the Golden Age of Illustration. One of the first children’s picture books to appear was Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children (1880).

kate greenaways birthday book

Kate Greenaway’s style influenced dozens of artists, including Millicent Sowerby, an English illustrator whose pictures for the book Childhood (1907) fill every page with rich, warm color—very different from Arthur Rackham’s dark, broody illustrations. If I had owned an Arthur Rackham picture book when I was a child, I would never have read it at bedtime for fear of nightmares!

Arthur Rackham Alices Adventures in Wonderland

by Arthur Rackham, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Turn back a page to see my very favorite illustration. The artist—Jessie Willcox Smith—depicts a boy with his arm around his sister, or perhaps his cousin or his best friend. The way his hand covers hers, you know that he would do anything to make her happy. Another artist whose pictures are full of love is Bessie Pease Gutmann. Clearly she adored children… and dogs as well. I’ve used many of her illustrations in the pages of this book.

Jessie Willcox Smith brother and sister

My favorite illustration, by Jessie Willcox Smith

Before the Golden Age, few women could earn money as artists. Suddenly, women’s art decorated millions of book and magazine covers and inside pages. Almost all the pictures in this book were created by women.

Millicent Sowerby from Childhood 1907

by Millicent Sowerby, from Childhood, 1907

Can you imagine a universe without color picture books? Yet through many thousands of years of human history, we’ve had color picture books for only a little over a century. The Golden Age changed the way we see the world. Isn’t this a wonderful time to be alive?

Bessie Pease Gutmann Rocking the Baby

by Bessie Pease Gutmann


Don’t Let It Rankle

bird preening

The other day I heard a sports journalist make a case on the radio for paying salaries to student athletes. He admitted that the issue is controversial and it might “rankle people’s feathers.”

I’m not sure what it would look like to “rankle” someone’s feathers. In fact, I don’t do well imagining people with feathers at all, unless they’re nine feet tall, bright yellow, and birdlike.

The idiom this journalist was reaching for, I believe, was “ruffling feathers.” Birds, evidently, don’t like to have their feathers tousled. Some species spend a great deal of time preening, perhaps for the purpose of attracting members of the opposite sex. If something or someone interferes with the birds’ careful grooming, they become understandably cross. Human beings, likewise, resent others’ attempts to disarrange things—their plans, their ideas, their preconceptions, and their feathers, I suppose, if they are wearing any. So, yes, paying salaries to student athletes would certainly ruffle a lot of metaphorical feathers.

Feathers can be ruffled but they can’t be rankled. This is due in part to the fact that rankle is an intransitive verb; it doesn’t take an object. If something doesn’t sit well with me, it rankles. It doesn’t rankle me. It doesn’t rankle anybody else. It just rankles. Period.

“To rankle” is to cause annoyance or unease. Let’s say you get caught jaywalking and you’re assessed a $25 fine. You admit you broke the law; you grit your teeth and pay the fine; but still… it rankles.

Rankle comes to us through Middle English from an Old French word that meant “festering sore,” from an even older Latin word—draco, meaning “serpent.” So I suggest that, if something rankles in your universe, you do whatever is necessary to get it out of your system before it festers and turns venomous. Herpetophobics everywhere will thank you.

Emoji Whiz


My iPhone came with a vast library of emojis. Besides the obligatory faces portraying various skin colors and moods, there were tiny pictures of libraries, hospitals, cars, boats, doctors, nurses, fruits and vegetables, flags, even little piles of poop.

Now I have an Android, and it is emoji-deficient. Not only does it offer far fewer emojis, I’m not always sure what they signify, especially the faces. Maybe you can help me out. Here are a few I find most perplexing, along with my best guess as to their meanings:

Two noses I have two noses

Two noses embarrassed about itI have two noses and I’m embarrassed about it

trying to eat a zipperTrying to eat a zipper

too much makeupWearing too much makeup

too cool for schoolToo cool for school

suffering from head traumaSuffering from head trauma

snoring and droolingSnoring and drooling

have lost circulation to top of headHave lost circulation to the top of my head

oh my have lost circulation to top of headOh, my! Have lost circulation to the top of my head


in high dudgeonIn high dudgeon



Blinded by love embarrassed about itBlinded by love / embarrassed / too much makeup

A few of my emojis, not pictured here, I think are supposed to indicate “kissing.” Sometimes I’d like to send someone a kissing emoji, but I don’t want to engage in inappropriate kissing. Some of the kissing emojis seem to suggest passionate kisses. There’s no one in the world right now I’d send a passionate kiss to without knowing whether the person is interested in exchanging passionate kisses with me. I don’t want a reputation as the type of girl who sends passionate-kiss emojis to guys she barely knows. Maybe there should be a kissing-with-a-question-mark emoji. I’m just not clear on the protocol.

(My old iPhone had green hearts, blue hearts, and yellow hearts. I stayed away from those for fear that a green heart, say, might be code for “I want to marry you and bear your children” or “Seeking a passionate relationship with a shrub.”)

The emojis pictured above rarely if ever express my actual status, and if they did, I wouldn’t want to use most of them. Do I really want the world to know that I’m constipated or trying to eat a zipper? So I’m forced to conclude that the people who created these emojis are either suffering from head trauma or have lost circulation to the top of the head. But there’s an off chance that I’m just not translating the emojis correctly. I’d really like to be emoji-literate, so if you have better definitions than I do, please send them along, okay? Thanks! ;>)

Let’s Hear It for ‘Ain’t’


From Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain, 1883

To a question on Quora about the “difference between ‘I am’ and ‘am I,’ I submitted this answer:

Inflections in a language are changes within words that indicate attributes such as tense, case, number, gender, and so forth. For example, the English-language suffix -ed to show past tense is an inflection.

English uses few inflections compared with, say, German, which is said to be “highly inflected.” Instead, English relies upon word order. The statement “I do play the trombone” has a meaning quite different from the question “Do I play the trombone?”

Thus, “I’m” (or “I am”) is understood in English to begin a statement, whereas “Am I” usually introduces a question. Interestingly, you will rarely hear English-speakers say “Am I not?” Someone arriving tardily to a meeting will rush into the room, panting, “I’m late, aren’t I?” It’s ungrammatical, strictly speaking, but the logical contraction “amn’t” does not exist in English. “Aren’t I” is acceptable in virtually every context.

What I did not say, because it wasn’t germane to the question, is that the much-maligned word ain’t could slip neatly into the first-person-singular negative interrogative form of the verb to be. I would go so far as to say that “ain’t I” is better, grammatically speaking, than “aren’t I.”

When I was learning the language, ain’t was the grammatical scarlet A. It scorched the air like a cussword in a deacons’ meeting. A person who said “ain’t” was not only linguistically inept but also considered intellectually backward and socially inferior, one of the great unwashed, fortunate to have shoes and clean underwear, probably living in a rusted-out trailer, three kids to a room. Ain’t is probably the most stigmatized word in the English language.

No one is sure why this is so, as, indeed, ain’t was standard for centuries among cultured speakers in literature, particularly in Britain. “For most of its history, ain’t was acceptable across many social and regional contexts. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, ain’t and its predecessors were part of normal usage for both educated and uneducated English speakers, and was found in the correspondence and fiction of, among others, Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, Henry Fielding, and George Eliot.” (Wikipedia)

Logically, we might as well say, “I amn’t.” It would be consistent with the second and third persons, as in, “You aren’t,” and “he isn’t.” But the issue doesn’t arise in the declarative form because we contract I with am and say, “I’m not.” Only in the interrogative do we come up against the lack of a contraction that makes grammatical sense, and so, rather than say, “I’m late, am I not?” which is just too, too prissy for us plainspoken Americans, we blurt, “I’m late, aren’t I?”

And we’ll keep on committing this same solecism, as long as the grass is green and the skies are blue, because, thankfully, language is not math and there are quirky inconsistencies at every turn. Are there not? And would we truly have it any other way?

What’s Your Type?


In 1964 I took a typing course at my high school, Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska. Go, Eagles.

It was my mom’s idea. I was doing fine with the hunt-and-peck method, I thought, and anyway, I didn’t want to be a secretary when I grew up. I wanted to be a minister or a Rockette or something. But my practical mom said that, regardless of my career choice, being a good typist would come in handy. She was right, as usual, and by the end of the semester I was typing more than a hundred words a minute. My speed was aided by ten years of piano lessons, no doubt.

Of course, I was typing on a manual typewriter. It was important to be accurate because, if you made a mistake, you had to erase it. We didn’t have correction tape or Wite-Out in 1964.

There wasn’t much choice when it came to fonts. Most typewriters had Times Roman or something similar in one of two sizes: pica or elite. With pica you got ten characters per inch; elite gave you twelve.

When I went away to college, most of the girls in my dorm had typewriters, almost all with elite type. Mine had pica, making it the most popular typewriter on my corridor. That’s because writing assignments typically specified the number of pages required, not the number of words. If you were writing a three-page paper using a pica font, you didn’t have to write as many words. A hundred and twenty characters and spaces ate up twelve inches in pica type but only ten inches in elite.

You should know that all characters were the same width, so an M took up the same amount of space as an I. By contrast, most computer fonts today have proportional spacing, so an M is noticeably wider than an I. The font called “Courier,” with fixed spacing, is an exception.

In my typing class, we were taught to place two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence. This made sense when all characters and spaces were the same width but became unnecessary with proportional spacing. For some arcane reason, the American Psychological Association stylebook still stipulates two spaces between sentences. Evidently the APA believes it makes text more readable, but someone has actually performed a study on the matter that refutes the APA’s claim. In any case, if you ever happen to come across a document in which periods are followed by two spaces, the writer learned to type on a manual typewriter and is probably well over 40 years of age.

To my way of thinking, the strongest argument for placing just one space after the period at the end of a sentence is this: If you type two spaces, there’s a chance that one of the spaces will end up at a line break and you’ll have a space floating at the beginning of the next line. That would be ugly. You want a nice, even look on your left margin, don’t you?

The most remarkable thing about all this, as I see it, is that somebody actually did a formal study on the matter. It got me thinking about silly research topics, so I googled “ridiculous research” and came up with a few wowzers:

  • A study that showed the beneficial effect of electric fans in extreme heat and humidity
  • A study that revealed a difference between the sexes in human beings
  • A study showing that conservatives like to use nouns more than liberals
  • A study concluding that Spiderman doesn’t exist
  • A study suggesting that a healthy diet will help you live longer
  • A study demonstrating that being homeless is bad for your health

Your research dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen!

kittensThe saddest study of all came from the Centers for Disease Control, which warns that “cuddling with kittens can kill you.” Apparently cat-scratch fever is actually a thing. I did a little research of my own, because I happen to love kittens and enjoy cuddling with them. It turns out that 0.007 percent of the U.S. population is infected with cat-scratch fever every year and hardly anybody dies from it. Clearly there’s a researcher at the CDC who harbors an antipathy to cats and just wants to make trouble for them.

Fortunately, according to, there’s a countervailing study showing that “owning any pet is good for your heart. Cats in particular lower your stress level—possibly since they don’t require as much effort as dogs—and lower the amount of anxiety in your life. Petting a cat has a positive calming effect.”

Global Communication Today

Khrushchev banging shoe

Reported today in the Times of Israel (

In a series of tweets, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accuses the US of creating instability in the Middle East and warns it will “certainly suffer from defeat” if it confronts the Islamic Republic.

Is it just me, or is there irony and even humor in the fact that the Ayatollah has a Twitter account? There’s something about saber-rattling via Twitter—a medium originally designed to inform your friends where you were enjoying happy hour and with whom—that takes some of the sting out of the warning.

What if Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had tweeted “We will bury you!” in 1956 instead of making the threat in person to a group of ambassadors and striking fear in the hearts of parents everywhere? The world may little note nor long remember everything Khrushchev said, but the world is still talking about his scarily banging his shoe on the table at a U. N. meeting in 1960—even though there’s a distinct possibility that the Soviet leader never did such a thing at all.

The Ayatollah’s tweet, by the way, garnered a measly 679 likes.


Donald Trump, at an April 28 rally in Michigan:

All of these [Hispanics} pouring across [the border] are gonna vote Democrat. They do it for a lot of reasons. A lot of times they don’t even know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, but we have to have borders and we need it fast.

Where to start? For one thing, does the president really believe that the first act of undocumented workers once they cross the border is to register to vote—assuming that the possibility is even available to them? Moreover, I would suppose that those fleeing all manner of ills in their countries of origin know exactly what they’re doing and why.

Finally, allow me to remind the president that a pronoun must agree with its antecedent. “We have to have borders and we need it fast”? Mr. President, you need to learn English, and you need it fast.

A tiny capitalization lesson

  • Donald Trump, president of the United States
  • The president
  • Mr. President
  • President Donald Trump