Archive for October, 2009

A Pair of Problems

October 31, 2009

This is not one of the “Pair” alluded to:  I am lobbying for a change (thanks in good part to “Lolly”) to the title of this Site from what it’s been, most of the time, to “Getting a Better Grip on  Speaking and Writing.”

This is not one of the “Pair” either:  let’s plan to break our fast this upcoming Friday at Zorba’s Gyros on Raeford Road,  across the street from and not too far from,  the renowned “Harris-Teeter”  grocery story.  8:30 approx.

This is also not part of the “Pair,” but it is a preface.  Today I read Tamara Netzel’s (Ms. Netzel is a National Board Certified teacher at Albritton Junior High School on Fort Bragg) column,  part of her Tips for Parents series.  It is titled “We’re dropping the ball on youth literacy,”  and it makes some pretty strong arguments that young scholars need to read and be read to.  Much ground is being lost in the literacy effort because our children are gaming, watching, texting, and tweeting and being increasingly careless about the necessary tools and tactics to be a “literate” person.   Ms. Netzel attests to the decline in literacy in recent years.  She believes adult literates in Cumberland County are approaching a 25% rate.

Now for a “Pair of Problems” that appeared in today’s newspaper (October 31).  As a Blog reader noted recently,  copy editing is no longer practiced as much or as well as it once was.  Here are two problems to you to study and then seek to fix up:

(1)  In a sports column:  “What is missing [from the Davey O’Brien Award for the nation’s top quarterback] are some ACC quarterbacks whose credentials could, and in many minds,  should have qualified them for that list.”  [Hint: the solution is simple, but helpful.]

(2) In a “Coming Sunday”  advert [that is a word now, no?] headed “Discontent at the VA hospital”:  “Workers and patients at the Fayetteville Veterans  Affairs Medical Center rate the hospital lower than their counterparts throughout the region.”

Enjoy.  Suffer.



A Homily on the Homely “Preposition”

October 27, 2009

Two fellows are walking down a city street.  One says to the other,

“Did you see that magician?”                                                                                                             “No,  why,  what happened?”                                                                                                             “He just turned into a jewelry store.”

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”–Attributed to Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

In our two previous postings,  we have meditated a bit on the traditional eight classifications (or “parts of speech”) of the words used in discourse in the English language.

One of the interesting–and also confusing–facts about the class “preposition” is that what we often identify as a preposition is really the second part of a two-part verb,  the part I have come to refer to as a “particle.”

What we often object to, in fact, is what “Churchill” made fun of in the quotation above:  the “rule”  from Miss Grundy or Sister Mary that we should not end a sentence with a preposition.   In truth and in practice,  however,  it is usually the case that what we are calling a “preposition” is actually a verb particle.

In the sentence about the magician’s disappearance,  “into” is functioning as a true preposition.  And we would find it strange if somebody did write or say,  “He turned a jewelry store into.”  That is unless we extended it like this,  “He turned a jewelry store into a shoe store.”

Here are three verb particle constructions that most of us probably will recognize (popular stuff from the 1960s):  “Turn on,  tune in,  drop out.”  This is Timothy Leary with his mantra to the youth of the day.  We can test the difference here between the preposition (which requires a noun or pronoun object) and the particle.

Note how easy, at least with the first and last phrases to turn the two-part verb into a noun as in (1)  “That LSD was a real turn-on,”  or (2)  “It’s better to be a drop-out than accept indoctrination by the public school system.”   “Tune in” doesn’t sound natural when converted to a noun.  But it doesn’t sound too unnatural like this:   “Better tune your parents out and tune me in.”  In these two instances “out” and “in” seem closer to the adverb than to the pure preposition, and ending the sentence with the avowed preposition “in” works well.

So the rule of thumb is this:   if the two-word phrase we’re considering can be converted readily to either a blended noun or too something like a verb + adverb,  we are not really talking about a “preposition.”  Here is a brief list of two-part verbs that have been converted in the English language to nouns in popular use:

tune up >  tune-up    sit in > sit-in   put down >  put-down    drive in >  drive-in  sit up  >   sit-up   beat up   >  beat-up   wash out  >  wash-out    spin off  > spin-0ff

The second part of testing for whether a two-part verb is really such is to construct an example sentence in which the two-part verb will require a direct object:  even though the particle might follow that object.  Witness:  “Jon turned up the volume”  still works fine as “Jon turned the volume up.”   “Up” is therefore a verb particle and not a preposition.

During my active teaching career,  I don’t recall a thorough study of the different uses of the “preposition” having been done.  Maybe I will try to find out.

In the meantime:  perhaps each of you can come up with at least one other example of the two-part verb’s being converted to a hyphenated noun.

Hope you will have a “hallowed” rather than a “hollow”  weekend!  TRICK OR TREAT!


You Have A Favorite “Part Of Speech”?

October 26, 2009

How would you classify the words in the English language?  We usually learn one system in the Middle School or Senior High classrooms.  And this will suffice for most of us: (1) nouns, (2) verbs, (3) adverbs, (4) adjectives, (5) pronouns, (6) conjunctions, (7) prepositions , and (8) interjections.

There would be pretty well universal agreement that the first four “parts” listed are the most likely to change,  and to accept or accommodate new words, or perhaps to blend with words already in the language.

The categories most resistant to change would be, I believe,  pronouns and conjunctions.  They’re pretty much the galley slaves in the progress down the rivers of time.

The category with individual variants that make it least likely to be described in a dictionary would be the interjection.  “Gee whillikers,”  “dadgum, and “goldarn” would be some examples, the latter two variations or substitutions for the imprecation “Godammit!”   Bobby Bowden,  Florida State football coach, and Roy Williams,  North Carolina basketball coach, would be hard put if these words were taken from them.

A story I heard many years ago illustrates the dominance of censorship put on us by wanting not to “take the Lord’s  name in vain” after having been warned of the consequences to our immortal souls.

Seems as if a churchgoing lad of ten or so was riding his bicycle back home from a visit to the corner store/gas station to get a few snacks.  Its having rained pretty heavily the previous night, his bike slipped out from under him as he tried to negotiate a turn.  What was said on that occasion was overheard by the pastor of the church, who lived just across the road.  When Johnny got home,  his mother confronted him by saying that he had cursed badly and taken the Lord’s name in vain.  Johnny protested:  “Did no such thing!  All I said was,  ‘cheese and crackers, got all muddy.'”

Having been brought up in a pretty strict Protestant/Puritan/Presbyterian culture,  I have also been reluctant to use much in the way of such imprecations.   Mark Twain would probably be ashamed to admit he knew me.

What has helped bail me out in part is a knowledge of German words or expressions that can sound very bad but are relatively harmless.  My favorite in this category is probably “Schweinhund!”  It sounds bad but only means “pigdog.” Even “Gesundheit!” can be made to sound like a grand curse.

Last of all I have left the workhorse of our language, and that is the preposition.  I will soon write another entry on this Site and try to explain why the lowly preposition, in its flirtations with the audacious verb,  has become such an interesting little scamp in our remarkably adaptable and exuberant language.


“Car 54, Where You At?”

October 26, 2009

Quite often,  in this ongoing discussion about “Getting a Better Grip on Speaking and Writing,”  we deal with situations where speakers seem to have lost their grips or perhaps never had a grip on some matter that required careful structuring and adequate clarity of expression:   i. e., both “correct”  grammar and good usage.

It is somewhat gratifying to know and to recognize that not all speakers nor all writers boast a complete and polished style.  Otherwise,  how else could we feel so easily superior?  What else could we do to occupy so agreeably our time and our energy?

One example of grubby and easily despised usage/grammar has to do, as in my title, with the ending unnecessarily of a sentence with what we have come to term a “preposition.”  (In a separate posting I will seek to clarify the application of the term “preposition”;   in their best moments,  these little scamps offer speakers and writers  a  variety and a kind of high and tight smartness that no other part of speech can match.)

Back now, then,  to those who abuse the preposition by deploying it to serve,  like the vermiform appendix, as simply a useless appendage.  Especially is this so with the use of  “at.”  I may have posted the following story previously.  If so, most of you that have may not still recall it:

It seems that a country lad had come to the Harvard University campus to meet a girl who was a freshman there.  As he strolled,  rather lost, about the campus,   he encountered a well-dressed young man whose demeanor suggested confidence and familiarity with the campus.   Country lad:  “Say,  fella,  can you tell me where the library is at?”        Replied the young man,   “We at Hahvuhd do not end a sentence with a preposition.”   Country lad,  “Well, let me rephrase my question.  Where is the library at, jackass?”

Some folks do not like to be corrected in their use of the English language.

Police officers and criminals both tend to use in their speech some rather casual, even irritating,  language.  Here are a few examples I jotted down recently as I watched and listened to one of the perpetual “Cops”  programs on TruTV:    “He’s laying in the street.”   “Why are them fighting anyway?”  “I haven’t ate in forever.”  And a whole bucket of examples of the kind of language the Harvard senior had come to abhor:   “Where were you at tonight?”  “Where’s my wallet at?”  “Where is the gun at?”      Ad nauseam.

Comments and questions,  please


“Dear Abby I” vs. “Dear Abby II”

October 19, 2009

Hey you, you with the stars in your eyes!

While exploring more of my substantial files on different aspects of the topic of  “Language” (collected over nearly thirty years of teaching at what is now UNC-Pembroke),   I came across a column from the present Dear Abby’s mother,  dated October 28, 1992,  nearly seventeen years ago now.

It is interesting that a columnist like “Dear Abby” or “Ann Landers” or others can gain enough exposure and confidence from their probably millions of readers (compared to my average of, say,  14) that these readers will have confidence that the columnist will understand their dilemma, sympathize with it,  and offer some comforting and maybe even useful advice.

The 1992 column I ran across brought forward “Speechless in Minnesota,”  who had wagered $100 with his/her boss that “irregardless” is a word.  Dear Abby I replies that “irregardless” is a word,  a blend of “irrespective”  and “regardless” and also notes that “it is not used by those who are meticulous about their grammar.”

“Speechless” brings up a second dilemma with the “boss”–he vows that “ain’t” is not a word while “Speechless”  takes the position that people use it and it communicates a meaning and therefore is also a word.

Dear Abby I agrees again, in similar fashion to Dear Abby II’s agreement with “Grammar Grandma from North Carolina,” that “ain’t” is widely used, at least orally,  across the United States and is a contraction of “are not,”  “is not,” and “am not.”  (She probably also should have mentioned “has not” and “have not.”)

And, finally, in similar manner to what I pointed out,  she observes that “for metrical reasons”  that word is fixed firmly in the pattern of a number of popular songs,  such as “It Ain’t Necessarily So,”  “Ain’t She Sweet,”  “The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used To Be,”  and “lest we forget,”  “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More,”  and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”

Feel free to add your own comments.  I go back now to the several comments that some have made in response to my latest challenge to the blog reader on the “Tom Swiftly” level.


“Fun With English”: File Found!

October 16, 2009

How could it hide for so long?  This morning while looking in my large plastic tub of a box for another file,  up popped my “Fun With English” file which had been AWOL for several months.  (I should have kept it together with my “Metalinguistics” folder p’raps.)

What I wanted from it was the “Tom Swiftly” collection that I had concocted sometime in 1998.  I had been running these in groups of ten sentences on my “Blog” but had come to believe that ten of these had never seen the light of the blogosphere.  And now,  if they had,  my notations are incomplete.  Furthermore,  I doubt any of us still living and sentient remember much about the earlier sets.  I think I ran the last ten on Independence Day 2008 but skipped over the previous ten.

SO:  here are sentences 21-30 with the adverbs missing.  Following will be the list of ten adverbs in random order.  Your task, if you decide to accept it,  is to match the sentence number with the letter of the best choice so as to demonstrate that,  yes indeed,  you do have a funny/punny bone.   Here goes:

21.  “You can have your ‘Black Beauty,’  but I’ll never get tired of watching ‘National Velvet,’  said Tom __________ .

22.  “Don’t tell me we’ve run out of Jim Beam again!”  exclaimed Tom ______________.

23.  “Give me that other banana, or I’ll poke your eye out,” Tom threatened ________________.

24.  “Sorry!  It must have been that last bowl of chili,” apologized Tom ______________.

25.  “Lucky you’re a girl, or it’d be ‘POW!’ right in the kisser!”  asserted Tom __________.

26.  “You know blessed well that apple beats cherry seven days a week,”  said Tom ________________.

27.  “I’m afraid it’s my pinky–or maybe my pointer that was hit–or even my ring finger,”  explained Tom ________________________.

28.  “If we’re going camping in the Rockies,  I think we’re going to need some new gear,”  suggested Tom ________________.

29.  “Dad, when you gonna gas up?  I can’t wait forever,”  complained Tom ____________.

30.  “Lucille, you’re singing off-key again,”  said Tom _________________.

And here are the possible adverb choices:   A. tentatively   B. piously C. flatly    D. hoarsely E. indistinctly F. disjointedly G. piouslyH.unabashedlyI.pointedly

Match ’em up!


The Rhetoric of Intention in Writing

October 15, 2009

One of the favorite hobbyhorses I rode in my teaching of introductory literature or courses involving genre issues was to advocate the rethinking of literary theory by moving from “genre” classifications to classification by intention of the writer as found in the forms of his or her literary efforts.

As I developed this theory, I postulated that there were in the rhetoric of writing six possible “intentions” (given here in somewhat of a historical and familiar order):  (1) narrative,  (2)  descriptive (3) lyric, (4) dramatic, (5) didactic,  and (6) metalinguistic.  You probably have some understanding of the ways in which the first five of these work in our written (or spoken) expressions.  The last,  however, may need some explanation and/or illustration. I would characterize it as  expression which seeks out the semantics or the meanings of other expressions:  in short, literary interpretation and  criticism itself.

From a workshop I taught while a UNCP,  here is part of an exercise in understanding the “rhetoric of intentions.”

Each of the six of following “texts” is meant to be an example of one of the six classes of intentions identified above.  Put what you believe to be the correct label on each of these six “texts”:

1.  “Lycidas” . . . is an elegy in the pastoral convention, written to commemorate a young man named Edward King who was drowned at sea.  The origins of the pastoral are partly classical, the tradition that runs through Theocritus and Virgil, and partly Biblical, the imagery of the twenty-third Psalm, of Christ as the Good Shepherd, of the metaphors of “pastor” and “flock” in the Church.  The chief connecting lines between the traditions in Milton’s Day was the Fourth or Messianic Eclogue of Virgil.

2.  Loveliest of trees,  the cherry now                                                 Is hung with bloom along the bough,                                             And stands along the woodland ride,                                             Wearing white for Eastertide.

3.   O western wind, when wilt thou blow,                                                  The small rain down can rain?                                                 Christ, if my love were in my arms                                                       And I in my bed again!

4.   “Why duis your brand sae drap wi’ bluid,                                                                                             Edward, Edward,                        Why duis your brand sae drap wi’ bluid,                                            And why sae sad gang yee O?”                                                “O I hae killed my hauke sae guid,                                                                                                      Mither, mither,                              O I hae killed my hauke sae guid,                                                         And I had nae mair but hee O.”

5.   I like to see it lap the miles                                                              and lick the valleys up                                                                      And stop to feed itself at tanks;                                                      And then,  prodigious leap

Around a pile of mountains,                                                             And,  supercilious peer                                                                      In shanties by the sides of roads;

6.    If once right reason drives that cloud away,                                 Truth breaks upon us with resistless day.                                  Trust not yourself;  but your defects to know.                             Make use of every friend – and every foe.

Take your best shot and call me (no, write) me in the morning–or even sooner!


Fun With the Rhymed Couplet

October 15, 2009

On this blog we have occasionally had a bit of fun and learned something at the same time perhaps about the mechanics of certain poetry forms.

The rhymed couplet was the dominant form of the Neoclassical Period in British literature and was predominant in the works of John Dryden,  Alexander Pope,  Jonathan Swift and most every other poet of that period.

The form lends itself well to aphoristic comments and playful observations.  The use of one such in the film “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) was echoed a bit later by a convicted murderer,  Robert Alton Harris,  as he was saying his “last words” on the way to the California gas chamber:  “You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper.”

In March of this year one of my most devoted blog readers,  Frank B. Maness,  passed on to me via E-mail the results of a “Washington Post” contest involving the rhyming couplet.  The contestants were asked to compose a two-line rhymed couplet in which the most romantic first line was to paired with the least romantic second line.  Here are some of the finalists, as conveyed to Frank by his clever Aunt Louise:

1.  My darling, my lover, my beautiful wife:                                       Marrying you has screwed up my life.

2.  I see your face when I am dreaming.                                             That’s why I always wake up screaming.

3.  Kind, intelligent, loving and hot;                                                    That describes everything you are not.

4.  I thought that I could love no other–                                             That is, until I met your brother.

5.   Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.  But the roses are wilting, the violets are dead, the sugar bowl’s empty and so is your head.

6.  I want to feel your sweet embrace;                                                 But don’t take that paper bag off your face.

7.   I love your smile, your face and your eyes;                                 Damn, I’m good at telling lies!

8.   My love, you take my breath away.                                                What have you stepped in to smell this way?

9.    My feeling for you no words can tell,                                            Except for maybe, ‘Go to Hell.’

10.  What inspired this amorous rhyme?                                             Two parts vodka,  one part lime.

Can you do as well,  or maybe better?


Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

October 14, 2009

Yesterday afternoon, as we drove into the city limits of Spring Lake on our return from Tanglewood Park and golf competition in the North Carolina Senior Games (aka “Senior Olympics”),  it was heartening to see the “Tammy Stephens for Alderman” campaign signs greeting us.

It would be a great thing,  I believe, for Spring Lake if Tammy is elected by its citizens.  She is campaigning out of a genuine desire to make her home community better.  She will serve all of Spring Lakes’s citizens well.  My Blog Compadres,  I am quite certain, are proud of Tammy and support her enthusiastically.

So here we are back at the ranch,  ready maybe to dehorn some steers,  brand some calves,  and poke some  cows.  Or maybe not.

The first day,  Monday,  of play at the “Champions Course” of Tanglewood Park was more challenging than usual.  Quite cool and then becoming rainy and even cooler meant that some of the players retired for the day and thus for the two-day event.  I convinced my fellow-competitors to strive on for the last two holes, as we needed to complete these if we were to qualify to play the next day.  And, in spite of one of our players’ having to take oxygen for the last few holes, we did so.  And all of us,  save for Glenn,  a representative of the Cherokee Nation, did turn out to play on Tuesday,  when the rain had ceased, the temperature had moderated, and the sun eventually emerged about halfway through our round.

I regret to say that I played miserably on Monday.  A good many of my lapses I attributed to a severe allergy attack on Sunday night (curse that accursed seafood dinner),  which got me up perhaps five times.   So I was not at the peak of my potential.  In fact, it is my considered judgment that I played the worst round of golf in my adult life. . . .  I think I three-putted at least five times and lost at least as many balls.  But I had a better score than the majority of the men’s 75-79 field that day.  We played the “Middle Tees” (about 6100 yards)  of a course with a multitude of bunkers (one of my Tuesday foursome reported that he had played  on ten holes, he was in11 bunkers).   A number of miscellaneous other hazards also intrude.   This is a course that for a number of years had hosted the “Vantage Championship.”

It was no country for old men.  A fellow from Lexington, with whom I played on Monday, informed me as we were getting ready to depart on Tuesday,  “This is my first time playing in these games.  And it is also my last.”  If you ever do qualify to play and sign up,  you must be prepared for around a five-and-a-half-hour round.  There are no “gimmes,” there are no “treeline-to-treeline” fairways,  and there are no mulligans or “do overs.”  It is, therefore,  what is sometimes described as “real golf.”  The only exception from USGA rules granted is allowing players to improve their lies in the fairways one club length no nearer the hole.  Given the course conditions on Tuesday morning,  this was a good thing.

So what about Tuesday?  Still feeling my oats from that miserable Monday adventure,  I came out of the chute on # 16 with a triple bogey seven.  I steadied down quite a bit after that but still a bit spasmodically.  A 15′ birdie on the par three umpteenth helped.  Nonetheless, after reaching the green in regulation on 10, 11,  and 12,  I still managed to  three-putt each of them.  I did have a better score than my three fellow-competitors and improved by 13 strokes but to little avail re getting a medal.

What was the story of the tournament was the play of my friend and Cypress Lakes neighbor Howard Youmans.  He played on Monday the equivalent of somebody on the PGA Tour setting a course record or perhaps a golfer with a legitimate ten handicap shooting an even par round on a challenging course.

More about Howard and his great round will appear in next Wednesday’s column in “The Sandspur.”

Hope that all of you are having a good week.  The weather forecast is not good for outdoor activities for the next several days.


You Go, Grammar Girl(s)!

October 9, 2009

Howdy,  y’all out there,

I direct your attention first to the six comments posted by “Fayettenamhoe”  and (?) his wife in reply to comments already made (most noticeably by Jeff Thompson) in reply to my “Accentuate the Positive” posting.  It appears that the couple involved here are not (to put it mildly) on the same page when it comes to the responsible and effective use of the English language. . . .

Here is another example of family disagreements about correct language that I wrote about in this week’s “Sandspur,” a community newspaper now in its fourth year as an extension of the “Observer.”

Here appeared in Dear Abby’s column an appeal from “Grammar Grandma in North Carolina”–and then my observations.  She was concerned greatly about her four-year-old grandson’s improper use of the English language.  She discovered that the boy was (here continues from “The Sandspur” and in brackets):

[using “ain’t” liberally.

And when she expressed her concern to the child’s mother, a college graduate and also a North Carolina resident, she became defensive, saying “ain’t” was accepted in the South: “… he will continue to use that word.”

Abigail Van Buren was forthright in writing that “Grandma” should continue to “model English grammar when he’s with you, encourage him to use it, and remind him when he forgets.”

In a supporting comment on my blog site, “Donna” wrote in support of Grandma, saying in part,

“There is a difference between regional sayings and bad grammar. The first can be charming while the latter makes the speaker appear ignorant or worse yet, too lazy to care about getting it right.”

I have another suggestion for “Grammar Grandma,” that she address her concerns to “Grammar Girl,” the cyber ego of Mignon Fogarty, whose podcast on iTunes became its No. 1 attraction and earned Fogarty attention from Oprah Winfrey, The Wall Street Journal, and, among others.

As her 2008 publication, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing,” suggests, Fogarty has a charming style, a revelation of a personality that seeks insight but also revels in clever teaching: thus her animated characters, a blue aardvark known as Aardvark and a yellow snail named Squiggly.

Fogarty professes that “learning about language should be fun.” She also is astute in pointing out that people are writing much more than they were 20 years ago and thus there are increased concerns about doing it clearly and correctly.

I recommend highly Grammar Girl’s book, and I plan soon to check out her podcast.]

Note:  I did mention “Grammar Girl” very briefly in a previous column with subtitle “Ain’t It the Truth!”

After you’ve heard some more of Mignon Fogarty’s observations on her podcast,  let me know what you think about the uses of “ain’t” by a young child or about anything else that “Grammar Girl” comments on.

I would have liked to have found in her book discussions about “ain’t,”  about the double negative, and about the proper forms of nouns and pronouns preceding and modifying gerunds.  Maybe in her second edition.

I am leaving the friendly confines on Sunday and taking my irons, woods, putter, golf balls, golf bag, and the delusion that I am talented to Tanglewood Golf Course near Clemmons, NC, for the NC Senior Games.  Will be back “on duty” on Wednesday,  let’s hope.

Hope you will have a great week!