Tag Archives: parts of speech

Person, Place, or Thing

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 17
Chapter 7: Metaphorically Speaking
Part 1: Things That Don’t Go Bump in the Night

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)

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

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

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

The untidiness of nouns

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

Jane Is Generous

Figure 1: Jane Is Generous

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

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

Jane was gripped by excruciating fear.

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

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

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

Jane Is Afraid

Figure 2: Jane Is Afraid

Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

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

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

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

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

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

      Jane found a cat

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

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

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

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

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

The five senses: their usefulness and their limitations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Table 1: Yuck

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

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

Lesson 17.1 Assignment

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


In Defense of Profanity

Sample blogs on a wide range of topics at Alpha Inventions

The F-Word: A User’s Guide

It’s been my observation that the F-word is much more frequently used for emphasis—typically in adverbial form—than in its literal sense, which alludes to sexual intercourse. In some circles, it seems to be the only intensifying modifier its users can call to mind, as in, “That effing chick is effing gorgeous.” Such immoderation weakens the word’s impact—rendering it less effective on those occasions when it is indispensable. I am about to describe one such occasion—substituting the euphemism frog for the F-word itself.

My house. Really.

My house. Really.

Any word that a speaker uses habitually and indiscriminately quickly loses its power. My piano teacher always said, “That was lovely, dear,” no matter how badly I played, and I soon developed immunity to the word lovely as a compliment. I urge all English-speaking people to avail themselves of the rich, nuanced vocabulary of our language and to save the F-word for Special Situations, such as the one recounted herein.


The crime scene


To visualize this particular Special Situation, it might be helpful for you to know that I live in an old church, as its caretaker. My apartment is partially below ground level and has a separate entrance, though it is also accessible through the boiler room of the church proper. I have lived in the apartment for five years without incident. Attached to the screen door is an ersatz “alarm”—really just a very shrill buzzer that is activated when the switch is on and the door is opened. (There is also a genuine alarm, which I have recently begun setting at night.) Usually, when people open the screen door and hear the buzzer, they retreat. The retreaters, however, are not, typically, in…


Altered states of consciousness


Tuesday, June 3, 3 a.m. Am standing in bedroom of apartment. Am working late, facing manuscript deadline, and have gotten up from computer preparatory to moving load of laundry from washer to dryer, with intention of visiting powder room on the way.


Front door of apartment is wide open, screen door is ineffectually latched. Obnoxious shrieking buzzer sounds. I wait for intruder to retreat in panic or else announce, “Mom, it’s me” (my son lives in house next door to church). Buzzer continues to shriek, son does not announce self, am considering other possibilities as intruder enters bedroom, grips my wrist in unfriendly manner, says, “Okay, where’s the money? I want the money,” as if we had appointment or I owed gambling debt to Cosa Nostra.


Is not son. Is not retreater. Is not disoriented dementia patient seeking late-night snack. Must be dream. No, pain in wrist is genuine. Must be joke. Intruder is wearing odd mask that covers all of head except eyes, though his words are not muffled. He tightens grip on my wrist. Is not joke. Is real deal.


Oh, shit.


3:03 a.m.  Have displayed contents of wallet, purse, in response to repeated demands for money on the part of intruder (hereinafter referred to as “perp”).


Have impression perp is armed, though do not actually see weapon. In retrospect, think of classic Mae West comment: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”


Perp glances hastily around, as if expecting to see emerald necklace dangling from bedside lamp, then turns his attention to my person. Mutters something unprintable, tugs at my shorts. I tug back. Tussle ensues. Perp exerts strength. I experience moment of panic, immediately succeeded by fury. Am enraged lioness. Have extreme aversion to being constrained, perhaps originating in early childhood when neighborhood bully, called Carol, twice corners me on way home from school, has one of her thugs hold my arms while she punches me in stomach, pulls down my underwear, laughs and goes away. Sick, pointless.



3:05 a.m. Decide would rather take chance on being shot or stabbed than raped, which would be tedious. Have low tedium tolerance. Extricate self from perp, who makes a few unseemly but largely ineffectual jabs without courtesy of washing hands, which will later necessitate tedious examination of my personal self in search of DNA not my own; also tetanus shot.


3:06 a.m. Notice that perp is unfocused, without clear objective. Asks again where money is. I infer, belatedly, that he is impaired. He is standing between me and bedroom door. I start to push, bellow: “Get the frog out of my house! What the frog are you doing here? You don’t belong here! Get the frog out of here!”


Perp pushes back, but I push harder. Cannot think of fresh, articulate monologue to paraphrase original tirade, so reiterate, “Get the frog out of here,” and so forth— estimated 437 repetitions. Am shrill, enraged broken record.


3:12 a.m. or 5:30 a.m., have no idea. Have pushed perp to screen door. Am about to make final, supreme effort to expel perp, but we both pause to take a breath. Perp looks at me in dismay, announces he is going to get his gun. I express approval of his intention, use left arm to push him against unlatched screen door, swing heavy front door with entire strength of right arm. Perp pushes back, but I have momentum, am not impaired; succeed in closing, locking door.


Run through boiler room to church, knowing alarms will sound. Go to nearest phone, call 911. Much tedium ensues—questioning at “crime scene,” more questioning at police headquarters, being transported to hospital, waiting for specially trained nurses who are on call, undergoing invasive examination, which is, inexplicably, legal. Meanwhile, am not allowed to pee, which, as you will recall, was my intention at 3 a.m. when perp entered premises. Is to my credit, don’t you think, that I did not, at that time, pee in shorts?


9:30 a.m. Transported home by kind, patient police officers. Slept rest of day.


Key points

  •  Security measures too lax; should keep heavy door locked, use alarm system.
  • Am enraged lioness when threatened by lightweight impaired weenie.
  • Dominant residual emotion: annoyance.
  • F-word, used forcefully and repeatedly by grandmother of eight, can catch perp off guard.
  • In sentence “Get the frog out of my house,” “the frog” is adverbial phrase.