Weird Metaphors

Throughout this first semester of American Literature, a pair of bizarre metaphors have stuck with me for their singular strangeness.  Good figures of speech work because they connect a new experience with a familiar one.  “Walking through the fetid jungle was like trying to swim through a soaking wet wool blanket,” for example.  Never been to the jungle?  That’s OK, because we can all imagine being swamped by a wet blanket.  It’s like that. 

In a famous scene in Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab admits that the white whale had bitten off his leg; Ahab savagely wails and screams the fact, “with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” 

So, how exactly did Ahab sound when he crazily lamented the loss of his leg to the whale?  Well, he sounded like a moose when his girlfriend trots away, or something.  You know.  That sound.

Oh.  Because we’ve all spent time in Alaska with lovelorn wildlife. 

Melville’s contemporary Edgar Allan Poe was even more esoteric.  Continue reading


The Use and Abuse of Parts of Speech, or, Why Basics Are Important

Finished reading example sentences my classes made up for a current unit of vocabulary words today.  As usual, many of these sentences are complete nonsense. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’d say that more than 80% of them were just fine, and even though each class had done plenty of exercises with these words and researched published examples, I still have come to realize that awkward sentences like these are a natural part of the learning process.  They’ll be revised next week, with guided practice. 

By far the biggest thing that strikes me about these, though, is the consistency of the most common error, and what a fundamental error it is: students don’t know how to use parts of speech.  We have nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and the rest drilled into us from elementary school, and here are high school students who, when shown that a word is a noun, will still try to use it as a verb in their own efforts: “He impetussed at me.”  Actually, the most frequent mistake–one that seems to come automatically when trying out an unfamilar word–is to make it an adjective: “He was a really impetus guy.”

So even in honors classes, I spend more time than I ever thought I would reviewing the difference between parts of speech and how to use them. 

I jotted down the “best” examples I saw of mistaken usages in this week’s papers.  Though some concern verb tense, confusing a word with a similar word, or attaching the wrong meaning to a word, the vast majority of these are matters of switched parts of spech. 

The vocabulary words are in italics.


Our army is nostalgia.

Apple juice has a great quintessence.

This wind is impetus.

I was impetus and willing to talk again.

Lawyers tend to be duplicity people. 

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The Worst Word in the English Language

The words that we consider vulgar and obscene in English mostly deal with products or functions of the human body.  Some others focus on certain undesirable aspects of the human condition, or blasphemous uses of sacred terms.  However, there is one word which eclipses all of these, in that it does not refer to a bodily function or waste, nor is it irreverent, nor is it an insult focused on a single aspect of a person. 

That word is the N-word.  But isn’t that an example of what I just said, an insult focused on a single aspect–skin color?  Not at all.  Rather than to merely label a person by something the speaker judges wrong, this word carries with it a connotation of not merely being impure or second class, but actually less than human.  Especially when we consider the historical context of the word, its use clearly is meant to imply that someone is little more than an animal.

That’s why it’s the worst word in the English language.  Nothing else carries such a damning indictment–a clear conviction that a person is not just flawed but entirely worthless.  Nothing could be more offensive, and the seriousness of that definition should give us all pause that in recent years this word has made such a strong comeback in our culture.

How To Use a Colon

The punctuation mark, that is, not the part of human anatomy.  A post on that would be all kinds of gross. 

Specifically, here’s how I teach the use of the colon: I made up a formula that defines its function.

Did you see that?  I demonstrated it in that last sentence.  What exactly does the colon do?  It points to the rest of the sentence; it says, “And now, here’s the exciting conclusion to the situation set up in the first half of the sentence!”

The formula that I present to students is below.

: = →

Colon equals arrow.  Bonus: it looks like an emoticon.  That dude has warped nostrils, but at least he seems happy. 

Consider this: The answer is this four.  How would you punctuate that?  By putting a colon after the word “this,” of course.  The answer is this: four. 

How can you know that’s right?  Picture the colon’s equal in its place: The answer is this → four.  Makes perfect sense.

Shakespeare Is Not “Old English”

A pet peeve: people constantly complain–students and adults alike–that they can’t understand Shakespeare because he wrote in “old English.”

No, he didn’t.  Shakespeare wrote in exactly the same modern English we still speak and write today.  He used a much larger vocabulary, tons of poetic phrasings and figures of speech, a lot of specialized references, and often simply waxed eloquent in his singularly elegant style, but his language was no different from ours.

I realize that when people call it “old English,” they mean precisely the aspects of Shakespeare’s language which I just mentioned, but still, the inaccuracy bugs me.  A little effort, time, and homework makes Shakespeare comprehensible and enjoyable, but actual old English is, practically, a foreign language.

Really.  Quick English lesson summary: The defining work of modern English is that of one of its earliest practitioners: Shakespeare.  Middle English (which could be dated very roughly from about 1000 AD to 1500 AD) is best exemplified by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Old English is illustrated best by the epic poem Beowulf

Shakespeare, as I said, can be read with a little effort.  In fact, most of us could understand most of his work right now with practically no assistance.

Chaucer, however, is usually “translated” into modern English when printed, as his vocabulary and spelling are so different from what we use today that much of it is very difficult to read.  A sample of the middle English text is below, with a modern equivalent to help. 

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Sentence Diagramming: Huston For The Defense

Yesterday, a reader named Vicki posted the following comment under an old post of mine called, “On The Joy Of Sentence Diagramming:”

“I’m still not convinced that sentence diagramming is profitable. If the goal it communication, why does the student have to know that what he is saying is a noun or verb, etc… If a student can properly write a sentence, why does he have to know all of the parts of that sentence?? I just don’t get it. I think Grammar is old school, and is taught because it always has been taught. We need to think outside the box, and open our mind to teaching important things in schools, not just busy work. He says it makes him a better reader and writer? How?? How can knowing sentence structure in that depth do that? I am an engineer and a teacher. I just have never understood it all.”

My reply ran to several paragraphs, so I’m giving it its own space here.  I had more fun writing this than anything in quite a while, and I truly hope Vicki finds it to be useful:

Vicki, thank you so much for the honest, important questions; you bring up four thoughtful and valuable, but very different, issues here, so I’ll try to touch just briefly on each of them.

“why does the student have to know that what he is saying is a noun or verb, etc… If a student can properly write a sentence, why does he have to know all of the parts of that sentence??”   The best answer here has to do with learning things in depth, not just to the shallow “good enough” level that we can get away with it. The drastic simplification of all communication over the last century, even formal writing, should concern us. If we don’t even have the capacity to comprehend the deeper nuts and bolts of language, we’ll be short-changing our children and ourselves by a deprivation of the true power and beauty of one of humanity’s most fundamental and crucial skills. By your logic above, a grunt or belch is good enough if it gets a point across. This complaint is slightly related to the frequent question English teachers get about excessive “detail” in literature, which I recently discussed here.

“I think Grammar is old school, and is taught because it always has been taught.”  Why would you assume that? And why would that be a bad thing? Isn’t transmitting tradition a legitimate function of education? Hasn’t our heritage been good to us? Might it be a mistake to just chuck out anything that we no longer find easy to enjoy?

“We need to think outside the box, and open our mind to teaching important things in schools, not just busy work.” Aren’t these just clichés? Continue reading

Required Reading For Pedantic Sticklers

You must, must, must immediately check out this scorching bit of grammatical derring do by humorist Eric D. Snider.  Not only that, but you must then read all of the comments under it.  Next year, this will be required reading in all of my classes.  All good education more or less happens this way.

American Lit Review

A group of students working on a review assignment for my American Literature class this week got creative and decided to write a mash-up of all our major novels from throughout the year.  I think I’ll end up reading a silly story about Atticus Finch defending Hester Prynne on charges of witchcraft (said case to be financed by Jay Gatsby), all to be done as they float down the Mississippi River on a raft as they all look for work as farm hands in California.  That is, of course, if they can kill the white whale first.

Pun Good Turn…

Thanks again to the good folks over at Arts & Letters Daily for linking to this delightful piece where an African immigrant opines on the surprising animosity America has towards puns.  The essay is not only a worthy appreciation of punning, but a lucid work of style in its own right.  (Local note: author Teju Cole makes heavy use of Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinak, a Nobel laureate and apparently an inveterate punster.  Soyinka has been associated with UNLV for several years.  Strangely, though, there’s not a single reference to James Joyce.) 

I don’t know that Americans hate puns, though.  Drive through your town and look at the independent store names.  For some reason, especially the beauty salons.  In Las Vegas alone, some popular spots that pop into mind are: Curl Up and Dye, Clip Joint, and Scissor’s Palace.  All locally appropriate, those.  There’s also an “exotic” barber shop called…wait for it…A Little Off the Top. 

And while we’re on the subject, let’s bring on a few more groans with my personal list of terrible puns:

  1. Mildly humorous country in Eastern Europe: Chuckleslovakia
  2. Inspires people to appreciate motor vehicles: automotivational
  3. Sensibly applied care for the spine: chiropractical
  4. Very impressive technical innovation: scienterrific
  5. If U2 and Shakespeare collaborated: “Now is the winter of our discotheque.”
  6. Nepalese monster with strong stomach muscles: Abdominal Snowman
  7. Excellent Spanish speaking man: Juanderful
  8. Excellent Spanish desert: flantastic
  9. Bones of professional academics: scholartons
  10. A leisurely-perambulating homeless artist from a swanky part of New York: A slo-mo boho hobo from Soho
  11. A Celtic person lamenting a dearth of fortunate females: “Alas!  A lack o’ lucky lasses!”
  12. When I say something pretentious or tacky: Hustontatious

Alternative Acronyms

Family friendly web sites like this one have long labored under the baneful curse of catchy Internet acronyms, those cheesy shorthand abbreviations that allow us to communicate shallow, generic, vague profanities in a convenient manner.  What are we to do, to avoid picturing unsavory phrases in our mind’s eye when these ubiquitous initials (dis)grace our screens?

Here are some helpful things to keep in mind when you no doubt come across these uncomfortable cringe-inducers:

“WTF?” could also mean:

  • Where’s the fridge?
  • Who toasted flapjacks?
  • Wonderful turtles, Freddy?
  • Wolverines tickle furiously?
  • Walrus toenail fungus?

“OMG!” may better be read as:

  • Orange mutant gas!
  • Original manufacturer’s guarantee!
  • Ostentatious Malaysian germs!
  • Open, my garage!
  • Old Muppets gargle!

You’re welcome.

The Commonplace Blog

As I finish planning for the fourth quarter of the school year today, I found among my materials from last year my directions for a summative project I made up called “The Commonplace Blog.” 

First, I review with students what a “commonplace” was.  This is especially relevant in American Lit:

“Commonplacing is the act of selecting important phrases, lines, and/or passages from texts and writing them down; the commonplace book is the notebook in which a reader has collected quotations from works s/he has read. Commonplace books can also include comments and notes from the reader; they are frequently indexed so that the reader can classify important themes and locate quotations related to particular topics or authors.”


“Students with literary tastes, in days when books were hard to come by, kept ‘commonplace’ or notebooks into which they copied out verses or prose extracts that particularly appealed to them.” The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, by Samuel Eliot Morison (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965; reprint of the 2nd ed., 1956): p. 49.


“An early practitioner of reflective journaling was Thomas Jefferson. He would synopsize and capture the key points of his readings and add his own reflections, recording them in a journal which he called his ‘commonplace book.’ One of his biographers quoted Jefferson as saying ‘I was in the habit of abridging and commonplacing what I read meriting it, and of sometimes mixing my own reflections on the subject’ (Cunningham, 1987, p. 9). His tutor, James Maury, commended the practice as a means ‘to reflect, and remark on, and digest what you read’ (Wilson, 1989, p. 7).”-Herman W. Hughes, Dialogic Reflection: A New Face on an Old Pedagogy


So, it’s a very old tradition of keeping clips of writing you like in a sort of scrapbook.  For more about commonplace books, and especially to see how important they were in the early American tradition, see this article from Yale.


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Recommended Reading: Madame Bovary

bovary1Short Review: This book is perfect.  It is now one of my favorites.

Longer Review: It always bugs me that when people list forms of art, they never put literature near the top of the list, or often won’t include it at all.  From now on, whenever anyone fails to recognize the artistic merit of literature, I will use this as my first and last proof. 

Madame Bovary is an exquisite masterpiece.  After I’d read the first few chapters, I realized that for the rest of the book, I wouldn’t be looking forward to the further unfolding of the plot (which was deft and well executed, but fairly pedestrian–unhappy housewife seeks satisfaction in adultery–so never really captured me), but rather to seeing more of Flaubert’s composition: his prose is some of the finest poetry I’ve ever seen, a bracing achievement of language crafted into its highest possible power. 

I was never disappointed.  Whenever I found myself daydreaming and not remembering what I’d just read, I went back and read it again, alert, not because I feared that I had missed some important turning point in the story, but because I knew I had missed some elegant phrasing. 

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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. 

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Ave Atque Vale: William F. Buckley, Jr.

200px-william_f_buckley2c_jr_1985Today marks one year since William F. Buckley passed away.  As a conservative and, especially, as a proponent of elegant English, Buckley was an idol of mine.  I remember getting his little book, The Lexicon, when I was in college.  I found joy on every page. 

Since then, I’ve delighted in his many books and articles, though I’ve yet to read one of his spy novels.  In tribute, might I recommend an article of his on a subject near and dear to my heart: follow this link and enter these key words to search: defense use unusual words.  The article with those words in the title will come up for your languorous perusal.  (I couldn’t find a direct link to it.  Sorry.) 

A terrific memorial is up today at National Review, the vanguard political establishment that Buckley founded, and which remains the best print voice for the movement.  Even the New York Times ran a respectful obit when he died, which gave a solid overview of Buckley’s career in commentary and composition.

Recommended Reading: An Instance of the Fingerpost

14266575Two years ago I was waiting in the drive-thru at a Taco Bell, flipping through the newspaper.  I came across a review of a new book called Literacy and Longing In L.A.  It was a romance novel, but with a twist: the damsel in dating distress in this story is a bookworm, and she narrates her lovelorn saga with frequent references to things she’s reading. 

It sounded interesting, so I picked it up and gave it a whirl.  It was, of course, a disaster: every stereotype I’d heard about romance novels was right on the money.  It was Sex and the City with literary allusions. 

However, in its long list of names that were dropped I found two that I’d never heard of before that genuinely intrigued me.  The first was How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, which I quickly read and thoroughly enjoyed.  The other was Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, which looked a little more daunting, so I never dove into it until recently. 

And now 2009 has its first perfect ten. 

An Instance of the Fingerpost is a massive tome, set against the turmoil of 1660’s England as the monarchy is being reestablished, where four narrators argue that they know who really committed a murder, that of Dr. Grove.  Each narrator adds details to that central plot while telling us of his own adventures, each a self-contained novel complete, each in a voice wholly unique and convincing.  Think Rashomon, but with cameos by English philosopher John Locke.

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