Archive for October, 2008

The Greatest Invention of the Human Mind?

October 15, 2008

         What do you think is the greatest invention of the human mind?

The wheel?

The internal combustion engine?

The telephone?

The silicone chip?

All of these would have strong supporters, no doubt.  However, what I would consider the greatest invention of the human mind would be, in short, the sentence.  Without language, how would it have been possible to invent the others?  Or, at the least,  to make them work as cultural necessities?


#1.  What is the shortest sentence in the English language?

Answer to # 1: “Go!”  Sanctified by former “Observer” columnist Larry Cheek.

#2.  What is the longest sentence in the English language?  

Answer:  There is none as a sentence can extend into what we term “infinity.”  That is, new words and phrases can always be tacked on.

#3.   Can the word “sentence” be used as a verb?  If you think so, give an example of its use.

Answer:  Marshall Faircloth gave a good example in his comment:  “I sentence you to ridicule for jumping into my trap.”  (My follow-up:  is there any lexical/meaning connection between the word’s use as a noun and its use as a verb?

#4.  What, from a structural viewpoint, are the three basic kinds of sentences, keeping in mind that a sentence must have at least once subject-verb relationship?

Answer: Marshall was correct in supplying the traditional classification:  simple, compound, and complex.

#5. What are the usually identified four types of sentences, rhetorically;  that is,  in terms of the different effects on his or her audience that the speaker or writer intends?

Answer:  This would be the usual classification:  declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory.

#6.  In relation to aesthetic or stylistic values, what are three common types of sentences?  Can you write an example of each?

Answer:  Here we’re getting into a rather more abstract sphere, but certainly not entirely.  The “usual suspects” are periodic, balanced, and loose.  In a “periodic” sentence, the emphasis of meaning is greatest toward the end of the sentence; that is, close to the “period.”  In a “loose” sentence, the most important emphasis of meaning occurs at or near the beginning of the sentence, with less essential matter near the end.  In a balanced sentence, the parts of roughly equal, as in Pope’s famous dictum,  “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”  (Well, this is technically not a complete sentence, but you get the point.)

#7.  Who in modern times has been described as”the greatest . . . master of the English declarative sentence”?

Answer:  Calvin Trill suggested the source of the statement that Joseph Mitchell was “the greatest living master of the English declarative sentence” as a teacher at CCNY.  I submit that that person was his wife Alice Trillin, who often handed out copies of Mitchell’s writing for her students to admire and emulate. 

Halloween Greetings.  And thanks for “listening.”


Keep ’em coming!  By the way,  I was fortunate enough to get two of the new Alaska quarters in change while I was in the Triad area over the weekend.  I tell you, Sarah Palin looks great riding a grizzly bear!



A Tipping Point for the Blogosphere?

October 1, 2008

          My title for this post reflects the intensifying struggle between those who seek to maintain and even expand the role and the practice of print media (especially reading and writing in the traditional sense) and those who are finding that cyberspace and a variety of websites provide an exhilarating freedom to think, emote, vent, connect, and perhaps even hook up.

Recently I have begun to wonder more and more.   Is the end of conventional literacy near? Will texting, E-mail communications, chat rooms, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and such, along with blogging, completely or nearly completely supplant print or “handwritten” communications?  How long can the printed newspaper, other print periodicals, and perhaps even the book survive? And will this be on the whole a “good thing”?

This quotation from Peter Cochrane (who is a media scientist), cited in a children’s books advertisement, caught my attention:   “Imagine a school with children that can read or write, but with teachers who cannot, and you have a metaphor of the Information Age in which we live.” Hmmm and much deep reflection indeed: how can this be?

Then a very literate friend of mind, who has published hundreds of articles and several books and who herself maintained a blog for several years, brought a most interesting but perhaps alarming article to my attention.  It appeared in an online publication, “Media/ \ Shift” originally and can be found here: or at

In this article a junior at New York University, Alana Taylor, is forthright in saying that she is “deeply involved in social media, new media, technology, ‘the move to digital’—whatever you want to call it.

She expresses her disappointment with her professors, her classes (in a class of fourteen girls and two boys, she soon discovers that she is only “blogger”), and the program in Journalism.  She outlines her dissatisfaction convincingly, observing that “What is so fascinating about the move from print to digital is the freedom to be your own publisher, editor, marketer, and brand.  But, surprisingly, NYU does not offer the kinds of classes I want.  It continues to focus its core requirements around learning how to work your way up the traditional journalism ladder.”  She goes on to illustrate in rich detail the “kind of thinking” that she finds that controls the curriculum and the career expectations for students: print media, of course, being the focus.

Ms. Taylor’s provocative article spawned, as you might suppose, a great many replies, and you can access these at either of the above links.

A viewpoint mostly contrary to Alana Taylor’s can be found in the September 15, 2008, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, This essay,   by Mark Bauerlein, is titled “Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind: Slow reading counterbalances Web skimming.”

Relying considerably on the findings of cognitive scientists Jakob Nielsen and Donald A. Norman and findings brought forward by several education entities, Bauerlein argues that a distinction between the kind of cognitive processes in “screen reading” and in “print reading” is genuine, that online readers and researchers tend to value information over ideas and opinions, clarity over effectiveness via stylistic variations and the interaction of human beings, that print reading proficiency among students continues to decline, and perhaps, most tellingly, that for all the billions of dollars that have been spent in schools to improve the access of their students to up-to-date online technology, there have been only “meager returns.”

There is much more of interest and value in Bauerlein’s article.  It can be found in full, as I’ve indicated earlier, in the September 15 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The primary questions I am left with are,  “Where do we go from here?  Is it possible that print and screen literacy can survive or perhaps even both thrive in some kind of unusual merging?   Or are we involved in a conflict between cyberspace and the conventional page that must end with one side in the battle destroying the other?”