G-H-O-T-I Spells “Fish”

droutIt’s been a long time since I’ve listened to an entire series of recorded lectures, but last week I picked up Michael Drout’s A Way With Words III: Understanding Grammar at the library, and I was immediately enraptured.  I haven’t listened to anything else since, burning straight through the seven discs during my drive times this week, absorbing the whole eight hour extravaganza. 

Drout is one of the most personable speakers I’ve ever heard lecture; his humor, pop references, voices, and casual approach were always perfect: he could have been sitting right next to me.  The lectures were substantive, too.  Not only does he review the basics, with some twists, but he clearly explained some things that I’ve seen other teachers clumsily belabor. 

For example, when the sticky issue of the pronoun of indeterminate gender came up (using “he” or “she” when you don’t know if the subject being referenced is actually male or female, as in, “Any student who wants to get a good education should read his little heart out”), instead of resigning himself to the lame stand by of using an inappropriate “their” (it’s singular, not plural), and decisively rejecting such politically correct constructs as “s/he,” he announces a policy so catchy and utilitarian that I’ve wanted to shout it as a battle cry ever since: Pluralize the antecedent!  (Which would make my example from before into, “Any students who want to get a good education should read their little hearts out.”) 

Ah, glorious.  I want that on T-shirts and posters.  I want to put on a mask and fight crime, with that as my rallying cry as I dash into a violent fray: Pluralize the antecedent!  Mel Gibson could paint half his face blue and ride in with that declaration ringing across the field. 

The best thing about these lectures is Drout’s penetrating mastery of English history.  Though it’s only of tangential importance in these lectures, he often made passing references to Old English, Beowulf, Chaucer, and the history of wars and migrations that shaped the language.  That’s something I love about studying language: it encompasses all other study, including the whole fascinating story of history.  Drout even has a stimulating rant at the end of the course about how grammar is ultimately the study of how we think and, for that matter, everything else in the universe.  Yeah! 

In fact, Drout also has a series of lectures just about the history of the English language.  Is it already on my request list at the library?  Boy howdy, is it ever.  In factlier (now I’m just giddy), looking up the history of the English language tapes showed me that Drout was also the author of a series of lectures I listened to and loved last year: Rings, Swords, and Monsters, a history of modern fantasy literature that taught me more about Tolkien than I ever knew from anywhere else. 

Besides the useful instruction and engaging presentation, Drout also peppers his lectures with keen trivia that just thrills a word nerd like me.  Best example: g-h-o-t-i spells fish.  How?  What sound does the “gh” at the end of “cough” make?  How about the “o” in “women?”  And the “ti” in “motion?”  Put those sounds together and you get “fish.”  You know you think that’s cool.  And what a great example of how weird holdovers from older language sources survive today and make English a crazy mash up of confusing disorder.  But it sure is fun.

A lot of Drout’s material on transformational grammar was new to me, and I want to review his notes in the course guide before taking it back.  So this wasn’t all just preaching to the choir: I really learned more about my field from it (staff development!  This should count for graduate credit for licensure!).  (Although, despite Drout’s munificent dispensation, I still want to avoid prepositions at the ends of sentences: they need objects, dang it!) 

Highly, highly recommended!

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7 comments on “G-H-O-T-I Spells “Fish”

  1. Is this the reason why you haven’t fired up “No Line On The Horizon” yet? Or at least the reason you haven’t talked to me about it? Phooey, I say!

  2. Steve, yes, though I’ve now heard the first three tracks, once each. My first impression is that they’re certainly not the straight forward stuff of the last several years’ revival, but also not nearly as experimental as the mid-90’s stuff. Hmm, U2 trying something new…shocking! At any rate, I’ll suspend major judgments for a while, as I still remember the first couple of times I listened to Achtung Baby in school–I hated it. Needless to say, my opinion was modified pretty quickly.

    Eric, gender in English is another one of those things that’s confusing because we have some parts left over from our parent languages, but not enough to be consistent. Sadly, a neutral second person pronoun is missing. Until one of your suggestions catches on, I’ll recommend this: remember those old Saturday Night Live skits with Julia Sweeney as “Pat?” Works for me: “If one wants to be a good student, Pat should study often,” or “Each boy and girl hoped that Santa would bring Pat a new toy.”

  3. “Any students” is flawed to the extent that “any” means any “one” student, so therefore the noun, “students,” must be used in its singular form following “any.” To use “any student,” the writer/speaker is using the short form of “any one of the students,” so, in all cases, it must be singular.

    The solution to the problem is to simply say “All students who want to get good educations should read their little hearts out.”

  4. Fred, you’re right, of course; my example for “pluralizing the antecedent” was hasty and ungrammatical. Yours is better. Readers take note.

  5. I have listened to some of Drout’s other lecture series and agree that his lectures are enlightening as well as entertaining. He’s not afraid to be opinionated but backs up his opinions with careful arguments and research. Look forward to hearing this series too!

  6. Chris, this summer I’ve been listening to his Anglo-Saxon history lectures, and they’re just as good as the rest. I sent him a fan email once, and he kindly replied wth his gratitude. I’d love to take a class from him someday.

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