Archive for July, 2009

The 100 Essential Books You Should Have Read in College

July 31, 2009

Follow the link below for a very interesting guide to the subject indicated in my title.  The classifications are also valuable to follow.  And the range of works covers from “The Iliad” to Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.”

When you complete your reading, let me know, and I will post your reports on this blog site. . . .




Who’s to Blame Here?

July 31, 2009

This blog site writer and many of his devoted readers keep striving  to be alert to errors made in writing,  especially when they appear in the print media and even more especially when they appear in the most respected of the print media.

A prime example (I’ve misplaced the exact context for this linguistic booboo) was the time several years ago when “The New Yorker” referred to (or maybe it was in a letter to the revered magazine) Camilla Bowles as Prince Charles’s “powermower.”  Another that really rankled my academic skin and raised some goose flesh occurred when a national teachers’ magazine referred to a story by Eudora Welty as “The Warm Path.”  In making an apology and a correction in a subsequent issue,  the editors offered its title as “The Warn Path.” (I may have the sequence reversed.)  For those who have read or at least know of this fine short story by one of our nation’s most gifted writers, it is “The Worn Path.”Maybe the editors of the magazine should have been asked to sit in the corner until they completed a reading of Welty’s story.

Some stuffy academics might characterize such errors as “egregious”; that is, very bad.

The revered “News & Observer”  covering Raleigh and regions nearby (note that its proper name is not “Raleigh News and Observer”–the ampersand is part of the title) and that it is often familiarly referred to as the “N&O”) was brought to the forefront in the current (August) issue of “Carolina Country,”  the official publication of the electric membership cooperatives in the state of North Carolina,  which every subscriber to South River EMC (such as yours truly) in our area receives free each month.

In a column titled “And then I read,”  the magazine brings to bay a paragraph apparently submitted by a reader.  Now whether the mistake in approxinyms should have been corrected by the editors is a matter of some interest.  Actually, there is also a fairly serious grammatical error in the letter.  You can likely find both and make the needed/desirable corrections.  After presenting this paragraph,  the editors of “Carolina Country” offer the witty remark, “Is it spreading?” With no further ado,   here is the complete paragraph of the letter to the N&O as it appeared in the magazine:

“Here’s just two examples of what’s happened  with potential  mixed use property appraisals in Chapel Hill.  In October of 2005 and February of 2006 Walgreen’s purchased four contagious parcels at the intersection of Weaver Dairy and MLK for $3 million.  The 2009 assessed tax values for these parcels was $1,530,826–a reduction of nearly 50 percent from the recent sales price . . .”

Have some fun stirring around in this gumbo of communications. We don’t want it to spread either, I suppose.


Two Piddling Comments

July 24, 2009

First comment:  this has to do with the word “blogger” and to whom it ought refer.  I know: the convention is, as the Babylon translation site has it, to define the word as “the person who keeps a blog.”  I personally believe,  however, that at least loyal participants in/contributors to a particular site should also be referred to as “bloggers.”  Some established “officially” as “bloggers” do indeed (such as Tammy Stephens on this site) tend to their own sites also.

Do you prefer the term “reader,”  or “commenter,”  or “contributor” perhaps?   Or perhaps “accomplice”?

Second Comment:  “Lolly” and “Jeff Thompson” have in particular kept alive a discussion about the merits of the “AP Stylebook” as a guardian of the writer’s workplace and the public’s interests.

My concern about the standards is that I find errors of usage and diction in AP-sanctioned stories about as often as I find them in reports by “Observer” staffers.   Here’s another example that appeared in Thursday’s story from the AP about the pit bulls rescued in a huge raid on dogfighters in the Midwest:  “About half were found to be shoe-ins for adoption, such as Jet, a scarred male who’s social and friendly with cats and other dogs.”

Seen anything questionable?


Bloggers Go Nuts Over Caps

July 20, 2009

37 comments about when and when not to capitalize!  What’s going on?  Must be something like the swine flu going around in cyberspace here.

I will try to address the issue in just a bit.  But I wanted to deal with a point raised by one of the Guest Bloggers:  that perhaps the AP Stylebook was no longer in wide use and that the local newspaper did notperhaps have a real stylebook.  I can’t say much about the first part of this as I have no connection, and never have had,  to the Associated Press or its longtime chief rival (what was that one’s name?),  the latter of which no longer exists.  I do know that an international association,  Reuters, is still active and influential.  I do wonder whether our “Fayetteville Observer” has a full-fledged stylebook.  I don’t recall ever seeing or possessing one. When I took on both the tasks of doing a “Sandspur” column and also simultaneously beginning (June 2006) a “Blog Site” for the newspaper, I was offered some general guidelines and suggestions, which I read quite carefully.

But, aside from that,  I have sometimes learned of guidelines in place that were not earlier offered to me in any communications, (or it may be that I forgot to remember them).  Two examples:  (1)  I was told early on that ALL CAPS was a practice not permitted in the titles of my postings, and (2) in a quite odd and awkward juxtaposition,  I learned that the “N-word” could not be used when I was discussing that quite infamous or notorious word to which the N-word refers.

Now back to two questions or issues affecting how we use the (esp. written and printed) English language in our country: (1)  usage and diction (meaning word forms [also syntax] and word choices)  and (2) capitalization–or not–of proper nouns and their verb adjuncts.

Regarding the first:  I have already recommended William Safire as a preeminent authority.  Sometimes regarded as the most significant English lexicographer in our country,  he has had published a good number of books that collect relevant information from the columns he has written for “The New York Times.”

I would also strongly recommend the 2006 “Deluxe Edition” of Robert Hartwell Fiske’s (Fiske is sometimes called “The Grumbling Grammarian”and that is a pretty accurate nickname) “The Dictionary of Disagreeable English” (2006:  Writer’s Digest Books).


Getting to the main point: when do we capitalize?  And when do we not?  Some outside guidance (maybe bucket loads of it) seems needed here.

I have already mention two very helpful authorities in this matter, and neither is the (mythical or not) “AP Stylebook.”

Henry Watson Fowler’s “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” was published in 1926.  In spite of the fact that two other revised editions have been since published (the Second appeared in 1965 as “Revised by Sir Ernest Gowers” (this is the copy I have at hand) and the Third in two imprints (1996 and 2004) with revisions and editions by the formidable Robert W. Burchfield.

Fowler’s wit and wisdom inform his book on every page.  Harold Ross, Founding Editor of “The New Yorker” and its Editor from its founding in 1925 until his death in 1951,  regarded “Fowler” as his Bible and that also for editors and writers, and he consulted it and waved it about at every opportunity.

So what does Fowler have to say about the complex issue of capitalization?  More than I could offer here.  But a couple of points.  He did realize that American writers were in general less scrupulous about established usages here than were his peers.  He also recognized that the purpose of capitals in general (they had numerous other applications, of course) were to distinguish the particular (person, place, “thing”) from the general.

After two double-column pages of examples and advice,  he ends with this conclusion:

“If there is a method here, it is hard to discern it. Let it be repeated:  the employment of capitals is matter not of rules but of taste; but consistency is at least not a mark of bad taste.”

Finally,  I recommend very highly “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  Founded 103 years ago, it has gone through numerous editions. I have the 1982 Fourteenth Edition and have had it for about five years.  It was recommended to me by George Core,  the longtime and highly respected Editor of “The Sewanee Review.”  It is,  at 921 pages, some two hundred pages longer than the Thirteenth.

There are perhaps ninety separate listings in the Index guiding the scholar to topics related to “capitalization,”  “capitals, full,”  and “caps and small caps.”  Seventeen languages are referenced. If you want the most respected and complete authority, then, I would say that “this is your guide.” No more to be said at present.


More “Burps” in the Print Media?

July 16, 2009

I have found that the longer a post I post,  the fewer the repliers reply.  So: let me keep this short but sweet.  Here are three questionable statements that I have run across–or found again–lately.  And I believe I could be wrong about one of these;  research in a dictionary might clear things up, Gillespie Street Irregulars!

(1) From a freshman student’s journal:  “Children now and days know what sex is at an earlier age than you could ever phantom.”

(2)  Reading in “Closed Captioning” what President Obama supposedly said in a casual interview at the very recent MLB “All-Star Game.”  The President,  who had correctly picked the UNC team to win the NCAA Division I basketball championship and the Steelers to win the Super Bowl, was asked to pick a World Series champion.  This White Sox fan demurred, saying it was far too early and (in Captions now), “There is a great deal of parody among teams right now.  And I think that is a good thing.”

(3)  And finally this in a “Washington Post” story based on an interview with the Cardinals’  All-Star first baseman,  Albert Pujols:  “The unofficial host of all-star week, Pujols seems to be followed everywhere he goes by an ever-growing entourage of flaks, agents, security goons and, of course, dozens if not hundreds of fans . . . .”

Keep in mind that your interest here should be in the realm of diction; that is, the choice of words used in crafting these sentences.



The Story Teller

July 13, 2009

Story tellers today tell stories in a variety of modes:  biographical and autobiographical forms (from brief sketches to lengthy–published or not–tomes),  fictional pieces (from simple made-up jokes to tales of ghosts and goblins to massive novels, published or not) to the oral presentation of  stories of past experiences involving oneself or others.

Stories are narratives, requiring a narrator or narrators, a plot with a character or characters, some kind of purpose or theme(s), and a setting or settings in time and place.  Literature as we know it began with stories being told to one’s peers even before there was–in these “pre-literate” times– any kind of writing.  Some stories, though, had visual accompaniment, as we see with the ancient cave paintings found in recent times in France and Spain.

When we think about stories and story telling,  we are often subject to a fallacy: believing that more recent forms and species of narratives are inherently superior to earlier,  especially much earlier, works.  This may be because we have become accustomed to having access to,  and often ownership of, high speed and “high-tech” means of everyday communication.  And these, so say their manufacturers and testimonial users, are always “better.”

In the case of literary works,  this is a risky assumption.

The greatest story teller of all time is the author called “Homer,”  the putative composer of (and as well perhaps the reciter of) of the two great masterpieces of Hellenic and Western and World literatures,  “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”  Homer is thought to have flourished in the mid-ninth century B.C. ; the texts most often used for the translations into English in our time are usually dated as being extant from the sixth century B.C.

Oral story-telling today is not a dead art, but it is certainly less prominent than in times past.  And there are accomplished story tellers who bring their craft and art to children in libraries and sometimes to adults in cultural enclaves that continue to persist in recalling and celebrating the listeners’ origins and their histories.  (One example here would be Alex Haley’s monumental “Roots,”  a combination of fictional and factual material which he termed “faction,” and which culminates is his sitting down to listen to the “griot” in African Gambia, who, in an oral retelling of tribal history, relates the story of the slavers’  taking Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte by force  away from his–and now Haley’s also–homeland.)

One of our great contemporary story tellers uses a weekly radio program as his primary medium.  But Garrison Keillor also writes a weekly column for “The Chicago Tribune,” which is built upon the success of “A Prairie Home Companion.”  (You might wish to find and read my column this week in “The Sandspur,”  which primarily focuses on Keillor as a living treasure in our country,  an “American Master.”)

In a recent newspaper column,  Mr. Keillor responds to a query from Stella Ragsdale of rural Edgartown,  Massachusetts.  Ms. Ragsdale,  having recently moved from New York City to the farm,   thinks that she has so far learned more as a writer on the farm about “the more difficult and humble art of story telling.”  She asks Keillor how he started out and “do you think of yourself as a story teller?”

Here is Keillor’s reply (this guy can say more in a couple of sentences than some writers can in an entire chapter):  “I am not a storyteller, Stella, but I impersonate one and that is almost as good.  Storytelling is an intimate art, practiced between people who know each other well, and I’ve known some great ones, a sculptor named Joe O’Connell and my great-uncle Lew Powell and the late Chet Atkins.  Chet was a true storyteller.  He blanched at the thought of doing it onstage, but when he drove you around in his pickup truck, he’d tell a whole string of stories, some them ribald, about Nashville stars and he’d imitated their voices beautifully and he embroidered the stories beautifully and,  listening to him, I just sat and laughed and wished he’d drive forever.  I don’t have that gift.  What I do have is chutzpah, to stand up in front of an audience and take them into my confidence and try to tell a story, which often as not turns into an essay instead.  But sometimes it hits on all two cylinders.  I started out, as you did, writing lofty things and then, out of curiosity, got started as a performer, and that, as you know, is a whole other game.  The difference between high lit and performance is that high-lit writers can imagine that their readers are as fascinated as they are. In performance,  you can see the audience and that is a sobering sight.  There is nothing as scary as seeing an audience look off toward the wings, hoping that some one else comes out soon and does something interesting.”

Comments and questions always welcome!


Another Remarkable Idea: Get School Kids off the Buses!

July 6, 2009

I have a remarkable idea from time to time.  Sadly, it often seems as if no one else recognizes it as remarkable.

These ideas that I have tend to be “twofers.”  That is,  like a “BOGO” bargain at the the local grocery store,  adopting the two policies or practices supposedly manages to get rid of at least two difficult problems.

Last time out in this kind of intellectual venture, a good number of months ago, I explained how the problems of panhandling and of promoting our fair community (keeping in mind our motto is “History, Heroes, and a Hometown Feeling”) could simultaneously and quite readily be enhanced if (1) the panhandlers in our midst were given actual pans to handle as they sought funds needed to buy their “daily bread” and perhaps some nightly shelter as well; otherwise, without using such pans, they would be breaking an ordinance and be subject to arrest;  (2) each pan would be nicely decorated with emblems and images that would serve as  mobile advertisements for the area’s attractions;  (3) each panhandler would be licensed and would pick up his locked pan each day from the convenience store assigned to him; and (4) at the end of his workday, he would return his pan to the store where it would be unlocked,  a record made of the proceeds, and his fair share of the collections would be paid to him.  Two other percentages would go to the convenience store and to city government. All would profit.

Now here is my new idea, which would simultaneously solve the problems of school budget shortages (in particular as they threaten reductions in valuable professional staff and in the size of classes)  and the increasing rates of obesity and diabetes among our student population.

First step:  Eliminate all transportation for students that is now paid for by the school system,  the only exceptions being for field trips,  for athletic travel, and for conveyance of disabled children. If parents wanted their physically able children transported to school,  they would need to pay fees to private bus companies to take care of that need, or else arrange for car pooling with other parents.  Most would likely choose to have their children either walk or ride a bicycle.

Because this radical change would necessitate safe passage for children from home to school and back,  sidewalks and bike paths would need to be built or greatly improved,  and school passage guards would be asked to accompany groups of children or individuals in areas considered risky.  How much would be saved in costs of vehicles and fuels and maintenance?    Numbers ought to be easy to find.

A side benefit here would be that these paths and walkways would be also there for overweight or poorly fit adults to use for their exercise regimen.

The second advantage of this change would be that, by riding their own bikes (or perhaps by using school-provided two-wheelers) or by walking to and fro,  physical fitness of our children would soon be visibly and vastly much improved and,  again,  great savings would be achieved via much less outlay for medical care. (Safety, of course, must be a preeminent concern.)

I don’t know the history of how school systems got in the business of providing free transportation for students.  I never rode a school bus throughout my years attending school from first grade through graduation from high school.  When I look at photos of the classes in my small Kansas high school, I don’t see a single obese child.  If going to and from high school required me to walk the three miles either way, that was just what was done.

Don’t tell me that this proposal can’t be implemented.  My 45-year-old second son can ride his bike seven miles to or from–or to and from–his place of work (in the Seattle area).  If he chooses to catch the metro bus or go via light rail,  he can affix his bike to the bus or walk it on board the monorail and retrieve it as he wants.

It will be easy to fire pot shots at this remarkable proposal.  But it deserves a close and comprehensive study.  Our new Cumberland County Superintendent of Schools, Mr. Till, would be a visionary and a model for change were he to initiate and bring to pass such a remarkable change.