Seek to Serve

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If you want to…

  • write joyfully and efficiently, and
  • write in a way that is readable, informative, and engaging, and that supports your brand

…you do not need mastery of the English language and its mechanics. You don’t even have to know how to spell. (If you are, however, hopeless when it comes to spelling, punctuation, grammar, and such, you probably need a good editor.)

Write for a better world

To write well requires five things:

  1. a clear purpose
  2. an honest message
  3. respect for the reader or audience
  4. respect for the language
  5. enjoyment of the task

Writing becomes an act of war…

  • when writing is an ordeal, a burden, or a bore
  • when the writing distances readers and hearers—through boredom, obfuscation, or intimidation

Obfuscation is not a well-known word, but it is the best term for “lack of clarity” when the murkiness is deliberate. Dictionary.com defines obfuscation as “making something obscure, dark, or difficult to understand.” Wikipedia takes it a bit deeper: “the willful obscuring of the intended meaning of communication by making the message difficult to understand, usually with confusing and ambiguous language.” Think Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and “It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.”

Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory.

When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees. Hostility in the air has social costs.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous.* “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.

You will hate writing it you make it about “the rules”—grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling. Instead, first communicate with respect; then enjoy the motion—rhythm, flow, and cadence. The best way to learn these traits is by reading good writing and experimenting with them in your own writing.

The habit of helping

All writers would do well to cultivate the habit of curiosity, particularly when the object is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or energize a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”

Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 do unto you.”

And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you need to use your turn signal if yours is the only car in the intersection or if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. Is it really necessary to signal a turn if nobody’s watching, or if it’s obvious that you’re turning? On the other hand, it’s not exactly a hardship to press down on the turn-signal lever. Making a habit of something sets you free from the need to make a decision. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might or might not be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?

Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.

Studies consistently show that human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings. —fastcompany.com

When smart people can’t write

In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.

Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and distancing, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.

Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.

Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify

  • lack of focus or disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message.
  • lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled.

There’s little I can do for the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:

Writers who don’t like to write

Many unskillful writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves “harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.”

The sort of unwieldy writing we’re talking about—the basic flaw being too many words—is said to have originated back in the day when lawyers were paid by the word. Legal documents do tend to be long-winded, often as an attempt to leave no loopholes unplugged—the CYA excuse. But this sort of overexplaining has splashed over into everyday writing, where it’s really not necessary unless you think that everyone is out to sue you. They’re not. If you believe that they are, you have a bigger problem than poor writing skills.

The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber

Can you speak?

One of the great fallacies about writing is that it is essentially different from talking. Perhaps you sit at the computer, hands poised above the keyboard, and your mind signals, “I am writing,” as if you are wearing the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. Your brain goes into overdrive. Gears and pulleys clank into place, lumber into motion, and produce ponderous phrases and paragraphs you have no memory of composing:

The state-of-the-art virtuosity of Jumbo-Omni Systems’ advance-intelligence meta-solution integrative strategies reconfigure the clients’ multidimensional objective into positions compatible with fixed and liquid assets, human-resources skill sets, machine autonomy….

I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus—which doesn’t mean that their colleagues or readers haven’t wanted to poison them. In any case, writing to serve is a remarkably effective cure.

What are you waiting for?

If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:

  1. Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.
  2. Lighten up. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Unless you’re writing to communicate genuinely terrible news, don’t take your topic too seriously either.
  3. For every writing assignment, define your role; that is, ask yourself how you can serve your audience.
  4. Clarify your purpose. You can make an outline if you want, although it’s easy to get bogged down in an outline and sabotage your own progress.
  5. Have fun writing your first draft. Let loose. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases that occur to you, but don’t force them. Do not edit as you go. Just write what you want to say, then set it aside for a while.
  6. With a fresh eye, edit for content and style. Is your message clear? Crystal?
  7. Proofread for mechanical errors—grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth.
  8. If there’s time, ask someone else to read your draft for content as well as correctness.
  9. Write final copy and distribute.

Shitty first drafts

It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. The right-brain/left-brain theory has fallen out of favor, but, for whatever reason, stopping often to analyze your work interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.

Author Anne Lamott, a novelist and Christian writer who is celebrated for her irreverence, is a proponent of “shitty first drafts…. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” (Bird by Bird, 1994)

The point here is not that you try to write badly but rather that you write freely, without evaluating as you go. Stay focused on your purpose. When you’ve finished your shitty first draft, you can pretty it up and make it more palatable.

Exercise

Write a brief biological sketch for yourself.


from Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

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Hyphenatic

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Eloquence is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Forty years ago, I signed on as a part-time editorial assistant at the University of Arizona. The mother of three, I preferred short workdays and made a little money on the side writing poems, stories, and essays. Literary journals usually paid in copies, but I won contests now and then, earning as much as a hundred dollars for a sonnet or story. Still, even with my husband’s income as a country-club golf pro, money was tight, so when I was offered a full-time-editor job, I jumped on it.

At the U of A, I was responsible for production of the general catalog. I spent about half my time processing new academic programs and trimming the fat from hundreds of bloated course descriptions that landed in my IN box—unofficial carbon copies followed weeks later by the “originals.” The process gobbled up paper and time, requiring arbitrary and redundant levels of approval befitting the secession of four or five states from the union. The truth is, nobody ever read the stuff before it reached my desk, arriving in pristine condition except for assorted stamps and signatures… no bite marks, no sign of having been stapled, mutilated, or spindled.

I tried and failed to eliminate the carbon-copy component of the process. The carbons were supposed to hurry things along, on the assumption that we could do the editing and data entry while waiting for the official approvals. Our doing so, however, only brought battalions of outraged department heads and deans to our office, miffed that we were undercutting their authority… even though most of the documents dealt with minor changes to course descriptions, not counting a protracted debate over the heady issue of ground water versus groundwater, with the “ground water” proponents arguing for consistency with the parallel phrase surface water.

The work could have been tedious, especially in certain abstruse disciplines where a hot topic might involve “Backus normal form and metalanguages of metalinguistic formulas.”  Even basic proofreading can be troublesome when you’re not familiar with a subject’s quirky vocabulary. Sometimes I suspected that it was all a joke and “Backus Normal Form” was an overcoat outlet for Big & Tall Men.

On the other hand, a few of the biggest bigwigs in U of A administration were committed to Catalog Excellence. These men (there being no female V.I.P.s at that time) weren’t satisfied with mere accuracy, clarity, and consistency. They wanted the catalog to sing. Every program description should flow with lyrical prose. Ours should be the King Lear of university catalogs, elegant throughout in style and tone. Until you’ve tried it, you can’t know how difficult it is to apply the same degree of authenticity and cadence to courses on (a) Emily Dickinson, (b) Materials Science of Art and Archaeological Objects, and (c) the Honeybee.

Eventually I mastered the art of creating small literary masterpieces, lucid yet scholarly-sounding enough to satisfy sensitive egos, out of academic raw material, whether it came to me dry and sparse and bullet-pointed or lavishly embellished with strings of modifiers derived from French and Latin. A stem or leaf that you and I might describe as “green” was rendered “verdant” in course-descriptionese. My colleague Mary Lindley or I promptly made it green again. If anyone complained, we could always cite the inflated cost of printers’ ink.

Mary was cheerful, capable, dependable, and ludicrously overqualified. She and I ended up rewriting most of the course descriptions and offending half of the faculty, who tended to express themselves like this:

History of the English Language (3) I II The student will be required to present evidence of a mastery of knowledge and understanding of the introduction, expansion, progression, transformation, and, where relevant, decline of English-identified sounds, English inflections, and English vocabulary. The time period studied by the student will encompass the era of the earliest identification of a meta-dialect which was spontaneously organizing itself into a distinctive language group, through the intervening iterations of the language, until the present day. The student will be responsible for full and complete comprehension of the influence of cultural, sociological, and historical events and conditions upon the evolution of the language in its original regions and specific locales as well as in its export to English-controlled colonies and other areas of influence.

Dash it all!

I’m not proud of the person I became during my four years as catalog Nazi. My predecessor had marked up the documents with a discreet blue pencil. I, on the other hand, acquired Big Red, the William Howard Taft of markers. I wielded it with glee, drunk with power (or high on marker fumes), eager to find innocuous typos, sentence fragments, pronouns with dubious antecedents, and call attention to them with obscene circles and accusatory arrows, praying that someone would invent sticky tape with flashing red lights. Sirens would have been helpful, too. I’d forgotten the purpose of language—to communicate, solecisms be damned.

Over time I learned to pick my battles on the principle that sometimes it’s better to be happy than right. Meanwhile, my work was useful not only in humiliating the most pompous assistant professors but also in taming runaway clauses. To my credit, I was almost always right—tediously so.

I was particularly obsessed with the correct placement of hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and commas. I could and did cite chapter and verse from no fewer than four authoritative style manuals.

Early on, I had identified two types of hyphen abusers: PAG (point-and-guess) and EOW (every other word). When writing anything at all, PAG-type abusers have an inner monologue like a broken record: “Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time…,” although people who are clueless about hyphens usually call them “dashes.”

(For you youngsters: Once upon a time, “broken record” was a metaphor for saying the same thing over and over. Vinyl records, when chipped or scratched, often snagged the phonograph needle, causing a little section of the record to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until someone lifted the needle arm and advanced it past the scratch, often creating another scratch in the process.)

Very special education

Once I accidentally renamed a special-education course via the substitution of a D for an F, so that the course title became “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead.” Mary, who was proofreading my document, laughed so violently that she concussed. A week later, fully recovered, she resumed proofing with the same course, and I thought she was going to require medical attention again, but she calmed down, and the two of us contemplated “overlooking” the mistake, reasoning that as typos go it was pretty cute and might improve employee morale.

Instead we decided to be grownups. It was a matter of catalog integrity. Besides, the special-education folks wouldn’t have been amused. Some of the newer faculty were already insecure in their academic stature and became noisily defensive if they suspected they were being made fun of.

For the most part, though, I wielded Big Red with a heavy hand. It didn’t make me any friends, but I had the consolation of feeling superior to people who made gobs more money than I did.

The new rules

I no longer believe that “bad writing” breaks the rules of grammar and syntax. Bad writing disturbs the peace. Its opposite is eloquence, which—according to Ralph Waldo Emerson—”is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak.”

Written materials produced by organizations are too often not intelligible. The “truth” they purport to convey gets lost in a jumble of jargon and a labyrinth of verbosity. I have come to see these shortcomings as going beyond communication failures. They reflect self-importance, intimidation, even outright hostility. I can fix spelling; I can’t fix a snarky attitude… but I hope I can prove that it damages your writing.

Expressions that confuse and distance readers have infiltrated business, professional, and academic writing so thoroughly that plain writing can seem gaunt and awkward. Even the humblest message has a chip on its shoulder, as illustrated by this classified ad placed by a large medical center in search of a building mechanic:

Position description: Under general supervision, the Building Mechanic II position exists to maintain and address the air quality needs of our customer base as it pertains to air filtration and preventative maintenance of major and minor air handling and building mechanical systems. Our customer base includes but is not limited to patients, visitors, staff, researchers, administrators, and coworkers. Areas of responsibility include all building mechanical systems (AHU’s, pumps, exhaust fans, med gas, etc.). Building Mechanic I responsibilities are inclusive to this position. Position is dedicated to achieving excellence through the accomplishment of the medical center’s mission/goals & objectives especially as they relate to customer service. Refer to Required Education and Experience. Refer to Preferred Education and Experience.

The medical-center maintenance managers are  looking for someone who can maintain air-handling equipment. Why don’t they just say so? Because “Wanted: Someone to maintain air-handling equipment” sounds flat and unimpressive. But bare-bones writing is easily mended when writers learn to replace obfuscation with grace and courtesy.

Social intelligence

Over time, this ad and its brothers, sisters, cousins, and sundry other relatives online, in print, and in broadcast media got under my skin and wouldn’t crawl back out and skitter away. I sensed that I was dealing with something more malevolent than sloppy writing.

After years of research and reading weighty, lifeless prose, I began preparing a revised edition of my 2007 business-writer’s manual emphasizing clarity versus jargon in writing and public speaking. My research indicated that the biggest problem in what I refer to as “communication with a public audience” (any form of public speaking, business writing, journalism, and so forth) goes beyond lack of clarity to subtle hostility, an almost feral show of power, with ramifications at every level and in every sector of society.

My new book addresses writing as a form of personal interaction to which the principles of “social intelligence” (as set forth in Daniel Goleman’s excellent book by that title) should apply, as well as the ideals in Martin Buber’s 1923 book I and Thou. A key principle in social intelligence is to increase the number of people you categorize as “us” and decrease the number you regard as “them.”

Of particular concern to me are memes that slide into public consciousness due to the prevalence of “sweeping generalizations” and the abandonment of other journalism standards. But rather than wagging a finger at communicators and invoking their “responsibility,” I suggest that the public interest and their own would be better served by an inoculation of truth and clarity, which might also allay the antagonism and polarity between groups who disagree so violently that they’ve given up even trying to reach consensus.

Grammarwise, you’re safe with me

This book will not scold you about grammar, syntax, pronunciation, spelling, and so forth. This book might gently suggest—if, say, the word adventuresome is part of your vocabulary—that “careful speakers or writers prefer adventurous or venturesome.” This book will whisper such admonitions so as to convey sensitivity to your inalienable right to use adventuresome just for a lark or, alternatively, having given the matter a great deal of consideration and possibly prayer and contemplation, to be a whimsical, spontaneous, devil-may-care sort of speaker or writer… indeed, to be flat-out wrong if that’s what you want and it’s been one of those days and you might just drink a glass of strong ale and begin spewing double negatives in clauses containing the word ain’t and even do something shocking with fricatives if you can recall what they are and isn’t it something to do with Flanders, or are you thinking of frangibles or Frigidaire? …because I now view other people’s writing and public speaking as methods of communicating—not as canvases where I can show off my own writing-and-editing virtuosity—and I evaluate writing according to how well it communicates rather than by its adherence to the old rules of writing that I once took such pains to learn.

Welcome to the new rules of writing:

  1. honesty
  2. purpose
  3. respect
  4. clarity
  5. enjoyment

How may I serve you?

To be continued….


decsystem-10-Joe-Mabel

Mary and I entered catalog data on CRT terminals connected with a computer like this DECsystem 10. Since the entire University of Arizona shared time on the computer, during busy weeks such as registration we arrived at work before 7 a.m. to avoid horrific login queues.

The DEC 10’s original processor, the KA10, had a maximum main memory capacity of 256 kilowords, equivalent to 1152 kilobytes. Today’s Galaxy C8 phone has memory capacity expandable to 256 gigabytes—more than 220,000 times greater than the KA10’s.

Photo: Joe Mabel


From Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

 

 

Thinking Without Words

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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?” (mentalfloss.com, 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

Private_SNAFU

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

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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

            oh-MAZH

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

            OM-ij

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

            HOM-ij

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

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According to Treehugger.com, “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

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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

12-emoji

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

meltingMelting

in high dudgeonIn high dudgeon

constipatedConstipated

bonkersHypnotized

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’

MARK_TWAIN(1883)_p366_-_AIN'T_THAT_SO,_THOMPSON

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?