A little apropos of nothing… If maturity means disillusionment, acceptance, a “realistic” outlook, or modest expectations, then we are prepubescent. 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.
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.
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.
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—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”?
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. 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… and why, indeed should we not? As Kurt Vonnegut confides in Mother Night, “You are what you pretend to be.”
 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.
 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.)
 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.
From a February 20 story on Newsmax.com:
[A Reuters/Zogby poll]… showed [Barack] Obama, who would be the first black president, with a 14-point edge over [Hillary] Clinton, 52 percent to 38 percent, after being in a statistical tie with the New York senator last month. [emphasis mine]
I got out my 1956 World Book Encyclopedia and looked up “presidents of the United States,” found a portrait or a photo for each president, and observed that none of them, sure enough, appeared to be black. I can name, and give a fairly good physical description of, all the presidents since 1956, and I am quite certain that none of them was (or is) black.
By “black,” I mean “African American.” Ulysses S. Grant, of course, had a fine, robust black beard, but we are speaking of ethnicity here.
It appears, based on my limited research, that the official U.S. definition of an African American is “a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.” Wikipedia’s “African American” entry begins, “African Americans or Black Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.”
Wikipedia points out that the “vast majority” of African Americans now have “varying degrees of admixture” with people of Native American and European ancestry. Various courts in various states at various times have adopted other criteria: In Virginia, you were black if you had “one-sixteenth black ancestry,” elsewhere if you possessed “a single drop of ‘black blood.’”
Why it matters
In one sense, it seems anachronistic to call attention to a person’s ethnicity (even if that person is running for president), especially in the courtroom, since it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of his or her race, color, creed, sexual orientation, and so forth.
In the real world, ethnic background still matters, for several reasons:
(1) Freed black slaves—largely uneducated, ill prepared to compete for lucrative jobs, essentially powerless—were objects of pity, scorn, or hatred. All the civil rights legislation in the world cannot erase that legacy, which is with us still in many forms—poverty, educational inequity, and antagonism are just a few.
(2) Many African Americans, especially those whose ancestors were slaves, share a unique and fascinating culture, idiom, and solidarity—which is not to say that they have uniform ideals and beliefs. “Blackness” is more than skin-deep.
(3) In June 1998, three white men chained a 39-year-old black man, James Byrd, Jr., by his ankles to the back of their truck and went for a joy ride. Racism, subtle or overt, is not dead. James Byrd is.
Is Barack Obama ‘black’?
Last week, a caller to one of the conservative radio talk shows—the caller was an African American—contended that Barack Obama (who would be the first black president) wasn’t, technically, black. The caller’s rationale was that Obama’s ancestors were not slaves. His father, in fact, was a native of Kenya who had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, and his mother was a Kansas-born white woman. Thus, though Barack Obama’s skin is dark(ish), he doesn’t share the legacy or the culture of most African Americans—or, strictly speaking, the ethnicity, since most slaves were West Africans and Kenya is in East Africa.
It would be accurate to refer to Obama as a mulatto—the offspring of a white person and a black person or, more generally, a person of mixed black-and-white ancestry. The origin of the word mulatto is Spanish; it means “small mule”—a mule being the offspring of a horse and a donkey—making the appellation anything but complimentary.
“Mulatto,” according to Wikipedia, was “an official census category until 1930.” In parts of the Old South, mulattos had different, and often more favorable, legal status than blacks—which illustrates my point (and I do have one, in case you were wondering): Race is not a black-and-white issue, and the single label black hardly suffices to describe such a rich assortment of people.
I and Thou
I recommend to you the book I and Thou, by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher who urged human beings to always “meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another” (Wikipedia).
“The ones who count,” Buber writes, “are those persons who—though they may be of little renown—respond to and are responsible for the continuation of the living spirit.”
I was shocked, not too long ago, to hear a friend refer to a particular black person as “a n—-r.” (I can’t write the actual word. My parents would rise from the grave to wash my mouth out with soap. In their home, profanity might be ignored but the N-word was never said more than once; the mouth-washing was that ferocious.)
When I chastised my friend, the N-word-user, he said, “Mary, there are blacks and there are n—-rs.” I disagree with the word choice, and with the logic behind it, but I got the point. Our vocabulary is insufficient. In any case, the “particular black person” at issue was a scoundrel, and would have been a scoundrel regardless of his origin.
I would not like to see all references to diversity disappear. I do not long for a color-blind society (except in the courts), any more than I would enjoy the banishment of celebrations of Irish, Hawaiian, or Jamaican heritage. Diversity is fascinating, as are the remnants of almost-forgotten dialects throughout the country.
Still, in all human interaction, including the current lead-up to November’s presidential election, I hope and pray that each person will be assessed “not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”
Small talk about a May 19 Reuters story by Ellen Wulfhorst…
1. “None of us is going to have the number of delegates we’re going to need to get to the nomination, although I understand [that] my opponent and his supporters are going to claim that,” Clinton, a New York senator, said in Maysville.
Kudos is due to Senator Clinton. Most people, speaking off the cuff, would have said, “None of us are going to have….” Most people would have erred. None, as a contraction of no one, takes a singular verb, as does kudos, which means “praise.” Erred, by the way, rhymes with “bird,” not “bared.”
2. “I’m going to make my case and I’m going to make it until we have a nominee, but we’re not going to have one today and we’re not going to have one tomorrow and we’re not going to have one the next day,” said Clinton, a former first lady.
All right. I can accept the parenthetical “a New York senator” in paragraph 1. I suppose there might be a reader who needs that vital information, perhaps someone who has just returned from a stint as an anchorite on one of the Outer Hebrides. But is it really necessary to add that Senator Clinton is “a former first lady” in paragraph 2, given that the aside isn’t even relevant to the context?
If so, then let’s be thorough: “If Kentucky turns out tomorrow, I will be closer [to the nomination],” said Clinton, a former child.
3. “Premature victory laps and false declarations of victory are unwarranted. Declaring
[‘]mission accomplished[‘] does not make it so,” Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said.
Ah, but so often it does. If it walks like a candidate, if it talks like a candidate, if it looks like a candidate….
The Democrat presidential candidates seem to be for it. Not Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate. Republicans, some Democrats like to suggest, are uninterested in children’s health. One critic mistakenly said that Republicans are disinterested in children’s health. Disinterested means “unbiased,” as in, “To sort this thing out we need a mediator—a disinterested third party.”
What, exactly, is “universal health care”?
Universal is problematic. The United States is not the universe. It’s not even the center of the universe. But we’ll let that one go for now.
When senators Clinton and Obama talk about universal health care, they really mean universal health insurance. According to the New York Times election guide,
Senator Clinton “[would] require everyone to get health insurance, subsidized by employers and the government; pay for it by rolling back tax cuts for households earning over $250,000 and savings in the existing system.”
Senator Obama “[would] require that all children have health insurance; pay for it by rolling back President Bush’s tax cuts for households earning over $250,000; aims for universal coverage.”
Senator McCain “[is] for free-market, consumer-based system; has pledged affordable health care for every American without a mandate; says universal health care is possible without a tax increase.”
Universal health care is available today
Apart from Medicaid, there are thousands of free or sliding-scale clinics in the U.S. Some are operated by religious and other nonprofit organizations, others by municipalities, counties, states, and, of course, the Veterans’ Administration. The federal Health Resources and Services Administration subsidizes more than a thousand nonprofit health-care facilities for the poor and the uninsured.
I have gone to the same HRSA-subsidized clinic for five years, first when I was broke and uninsured, and then when I had a well-paying job with health insurance. A pharmacy attached to the clinic gives huge discounts on prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but only to the uninsured. With insurance, I paid about twice as much for each doctor visit and prescription.
Universal coverage isn’t the answer
America’s “health-care crisis” has a lot less to do with access than it does with the managed-care “delivery” model. Strictly speaking, the term managed care describes any health-care system that, by placing intermediaries between providers and patients, controls services and costs. At the same time, Medicare and private insurance companies impose tremendous burdens on hospitals and clinics in the form of convoluted reporting and coding requirements. One estimate of the annual cost of coding errors, accidental or deliberate, is just under $200 billion.
I’m not an expert on health care or public policy, but I do know a thing or two about manipulating language in order to mislead. What’s more, I can add. Once upon a time, when patients paid their own medical bills, the doctors got their money. Now patients are paying insurance companies, and the doctors are still getting their money. Do the math.
Got a grammar question? Leave a comment.
The leading presidential candidates are well served by their speechwriters. In the three senators’ speeches, among those I’ve read, most of the text is pretty tight. I’ve been surprised by the amount of actual substance they manage to pack in, when they’re not poking at each other. Fresh content abounds—or the talented speechwriters make it seem fresh.
There are many ways to manipulate an audience’s emotions. The best way is to paint sharp word pictures that evoke clear images in the minds of the audience. The worst way is to talk about emotions.
If you want your audience to feel as you feel about the beauty of a mountain meadow, you don’t say, “The mountain meadow is beautiful. I feel very emotional about it.” You say, “In the crisp, clean air, you can almost see the needles of a pine tree on a distant peak. The colors vibrate like neon—velvety green grass, lanky coral poppies with blooms like bobbleheads in the breeze—and fat bees swim in a hazy honeysuckle scent…,” and so forth.
It’s unusual, among the candidates’ speeches I’ve read, to find what I call emotional flatulence. The following, from Senator Clinton’s speech at Hunter College, is a rare example of the bloated rhetoric that is symptomatic of verbal flatulence. I wish there were verbal Tums. We could all send her some.
(Note: This is reproduced as it appeared on the senator’s website, mechanical missteps and all.)
This campaign is not about a campaign, this campaign is not about a personality, this campaign is about hundreds of millions of Americans who are yearning for leadership again. People who across this country do the hard work that makes America work. I’ve spent most of my life helping people who are trying to make it…. The results that I’ve been part of producing for the last 35 years are rooted in my dreams for a better future. We all carry dreams in our hearts and we need to keep dreaming. Dreaming keeps us hopeful, it lifts our spirits, it sets our sights high. Without dreams you can’t aspire to be great but without action, we cannot turn those dreams into reality. I want you to fulfill your dreams and I want America to fulfill ours. It will take hard work and resolve and determination but there isn’t anything we can’t do once we set our minds to it. I intend, as your president, to make sure that America does fulfill all of our dreams.
This evening I examined one speech from each of the three leading presidential candidates’ websites. I compared the three documents for style, readability, substance, and other, more subtle, characteristics.
The evaluation was far from scientific or conclusive. For one thing, the speeches were presented to different types of audiences for different purposes. For another, my judgment is clouded by my strong preference for one of the candidates. And plucking one speech, more or less at random, off each candidate’s website can hardly be considered a fair basis for comparison.
Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s my assessment:
And to those who think that the decline in American manufacturing is inevitable; or that manufacturing has no place in a 21st century economy; we say right here and right now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future. And that’s why we’ll modernize our steel industry, strengthen our entire domestic manufacturing base, and open as many markets as we can to American manufactured goods when I’m President.
Grade for substance: B
Grade for style: A
Grade for readability: A (2,760 words, 5% passive voice, 63 Flesch reading ease, 9th-grade reading level)
Overall, Senator Obama’s speech is the best of the three, hands down—and my approval doesn’t reflect my bias. Senator Obama is not my candidate of choice. Even so, there’s no denying that the speech is articulate, energetic, and upbeat. It’s well structured, with plenty of meat on its bones, and it contains very little opponent-bashing.
In fact, philosophy and politics aside, I have only one criticism of Senator Obama as a speaker. I had originally chosen another of the senator’s speeches to critique. In that speech, and to a lesser extent in the one selected, he refers to himself in the plural: “We say right here and now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future.”
Richard Nixon used to refer to himself as “Richard Nixon” and as “we” or “us,” as though there were several of him. Why do public figures do that? Inflated ego? Reluctance to assume individual responsibility? I don’t know, but I don’t quite trust the arrogance that use of the “royal we” suggests.
On the other hand, I have to give Senator Obama points for minimal use of the passive voice. Not only do passive-voice constructions lack clarity, they also imply evasion of responsibility, as in “Mistakes were made.”
If that authority is entrusted to me, I will use the veto as needed, and as the Founders intended. I will veto every bill with earmarks, until the Congress stops sending bills with earmarks. I will seek a constitutionally valid line-item veto to end the practice once and for all. I will lead across-the-board reforms in the federal tax code, removing myriad corporate tax loopholes that are costly, unfair, and inconsistent with a free-market economy.
Grade for substance: A
Grade for style: B
Grade for readability: B (4,137 words, 17% passive voice, 53 Flesch reading ease, 11th-grade reading level)
I chose the excerpt above because it illustrates the specificity of Senator McCain’s positions on the issues. Although the excerpt is a litany of “I wills,” the speech as a whole is not egocentric. (Senator Clinton actually wins the “me, me, me” championship, referring to herself more often than do either of her opponents.) Senator McCain mentions his opponents numerous times, generally to show how their views differ from his, not to chew them up and spit them out.
I believe in the power of the presidency to set big goals for America and to solve the problems of Americans, to ensure that our people have the tools they need to turn challenges into opportunities, to fulfill their God-given potential, and to build better lives for themselves and their children. That’s the kind of president I will be every day in the White House, whether the issue is health care or child care, foreign policy, or the future of our economy…. I am running for president because I believe in the promise of America and I believe in the power of the presidency to help fulfill that promise…. It’s what I have learned, experienced and intended, as best I could, throughout my life. I’ve had many opportunities. I’ve been blessed. And I understand that those blessings came from the hard work of my parents, my teachers, others in the village that surrounded and helped to nurture and raise me; my church, which helped to guide me; and, of course, the positive actions of my government that directly affected my life.
Grade for substance: B-
Grade for style: B-
Grade for readability: B- (4,013 words, 8% passive voice, 49 Flesch reading ease, 12th-grade reading level)
Senator Clinton’s speech has an off-the-cuff feel to it, and, if it was indeed extemporaneous, the senator deserves higher grades. I doubt, however, that there is much left to chance at this point in her campaign.
To her credit, Senator Clinton doesn’t even mention her opponents. Of course, that might be because she’s too busy talking about herself.
Strategically, Senator Clinton being the media-designated Nanny-State Candidate, it might be injudicious for her to make such a point of using “the power of the presidency… to solve the problems of Americans.” Just a few sentences later, she again refers to “the power of the presidency.” Unfortunately, she has just finished berating George W. Bush for abusing the power of the presidency, which raises doubts about her grasp of such nuances and their implications.
Senator Obama’s is the best speech, followed by Senator McCain’s and then by Senator Clinton’s. I’d rank their websites in the same order. Visiting Senator Clinton’s site, in particular, is a bit like going through an obstacle course where you have to jump through, climb over, and veer around all the solicitations for funds before you can get any actual information.
GOT A QUESTION? Enter it as a comment, or e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net