November 15:  Balanced Sentence Day

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On this day in 1859, the final installment of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities was published.  As with most of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities was published in serial form.  Weekly installments of the novel began in April 1859 and the final installment was issued on November 15, 1859.

Dickens (1812-1870), the author of such classic works at Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol, was the most popular novelist of his time, and A Tale of Two Cities is the single greatest selling book of any genre with more than 200 million copies sold (1).

The book is a historical novel, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.  It’s appropriate that in a novel with two settings, the author would use the scheme called “balance.”  When writing about two or more similar ideas, writers balance the ideas by stating them in the same grammatical form using parallel structure, as in “United we stand, divided we fall.”  You can see and hear this balance in the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities.  Notice that although Dickens is introducing contrasting ideas (best and worst, wisdom and foolishness), the clauses of the sentence follow the same grammatical structure to create balance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .  

Using parallelism, anaphora, and antithesis, Dicken’s creates a long sentence that is nevertheless easy to follow because of its balanced structure.  The asymmetry of the contrasting ideas (antithesis) is brought back into balance by the symmetry of the parallel structure.

Just as Dickens opened his novel with a balanced sentence, he comes full circle in the final sentence of his novel, using a perfectly balanced sentence to express the final thoughts of one the story’s major characters, Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known (2).

Noticed how the two sides of the sentence, separated by the semicolon, are balanced by repetition and parallel structure.

Just as with all rhetorical or stylistic devices, you don’t want to overuse balanced sentences; however, it is a powerful club to have in your rhetorical golf bag.

Today’s Challenge:  Claim A Contrast

What claim would you make using two contrasting ideas, such as love/hate or success/failure, in the same sentence? Brainstorm a list of some contrasting ideas, such as, joy/sorrow, freedom/slavery, war/peace.  Then, write a balanced sentence that makes a claim based on the differences in the two topics.

For example, the following balanced sentence makes a claim about the contrasting ideas logic and creativity:

Logic teaches us about the world; creativity teaches us about ourselves.

Notice how the two independent clauses of the compound sentence are balanced by parallelism.

Once you have your own balanced sentence, use it as your topic sentence for a paragraph that supports your claim using contrast, details, examples, evidence, and explanation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Mitchell, David. David Mitchell on Historical Fiction. The Telegraph 8 May 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-Historical-Fiction.html.

2-Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 1859. Public Domain.

November 14:  Sentence Variety Day

On this day in 1944, writing instructor Gary Provost was born. Provost earned his living as a freelance writer, authoring over 1,000 stories and articles.  He also wrote books in a variety of genres, including young adult novels, true crime books, and books about writing.

In 1985, Provost published a comprehensive guide for writers called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  In the book Provost covered a range of topics, from overcoming writer’s block to avoiding punctuation errors.  But one specific area he emphasizes is sentence variety (1).

Read the following paragraph out loud to both see and hear the point:

Sentences shouldn’t all be the same length. Seven-word sentences will surely bore your reader.  Here is another super soporific seven-word sentence. Stringing them one after another is monotonous.  Things change, however, when you start writing sentences that vary in length.  Listen up.  Can you hear the difference?  When you write with sentences of varied length, your writing will sound more like natural spoken language.  Try it yourself.  Write some long sentences, some medium, and some short.  Combine clauses. Rearrange phrases.  Most importantly, read your sentences out loud.  Use your ears as well as your eyes to read, listening for pleasing rhythms.  Make your sentences sing.

Good writing has the rhythm and resonance of spoken language.  Writers can’t write exactly like they talk.  After all, much of our spoken language relies on nonverbal cues. Writers can, however, imitate one universal trait of spoken language: variety in sentence length – some long, some medium, and some short.  As you revise your writing, read it aloud.  When your sentences begin to sound monotonous, check for variety in the length of your sentences, as well as for variety in the type of sentences you write.

Today’s Challenge:  Hold Your Ear Up to This Paragraph

What would you say is the secret to making written sentences sound as natural as spoken sentences?  The paragraph below does not have much variety in sentence lengths.  Read the paragraph aloud, and listen to where it could be improved. Then, revise the paragraph by breaking up or combining sentences as needed.  You may eliminate any unnecessary words, but try not to eliminate any of the paragraph’s key ideas:

The words in a sentence are like Lego building blocks.  The English sentence is made up of various parts.  These parts snap together like Legos of logic.  You can construct solid, syntactical structures to make sentences.  English words, phrases, and clauses come in multiple colors and forms.  The sentence builder can use them to construct many creations. Some of these creations are small, some are medium, and some are large. There’s no end to the fun you can have building sentences.

As you complete your revision, read it aloud.  When you have finished, write down the number of words in each sentence. Check the range of the number of words in each of your sentences.  Do you have some that are long, some that are medium, and some that are short?  Use this strategy on your own paragraphs as a method of revision.  Read aloud.  Revise. And try to capture the magic of the spoken word in your sentences. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  New York:  New American Library, 1985:  60-61.

November 13:  TED Talks Day

On this day in 2012, TED.com presentations reached one billion views.  TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) was created by Richard Saul Wurman, who hosted the first TED conference in Monterey, California in 1984.  Attendees paid $475 to watch a variety of 18-minute presentations.  In 2009, TED began to depart from its once a year model by granting licenses to third parties for community-level TEDx events.  The TED.com website was launched in 2006, and today there are TED events in more than 130 countries.

While the number of TED talks has increased over the years, the basic template of each talk remains the same as the first talks in 1984.  Each presentation is crafted to be emotional, novel, and memorable.

In his book Talk Like TED, communication coach Carmine Gallo acknowledges that the success of any TED presentation relies on a communication theory that goes back to an era long before TED talks.

It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who invented rhetoric – the art of persuasion.  All modern communication theory owes a debt to the three rhetorical appeals that Aristotle called logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos means grounding your ideas with reasoning and evidence.  Pathos acknowledges the fact that humans have a heart as well as a head; therefore, it is not enough to merely make your audience think; you should also make them feel.  Finally, ethos is about the relationship between the audience and the speaker.  In order to keep an audience’s interested and persuade it effectively, a speaker must be both credible and trustworthy.

Gallo suggests that speakers analyze their presentations by assigning each sentence of the speech to one of the three appeals. The best presentations, Gallo says, will contain a high percentage of pathos.  Persuasion is defined as “influencing someone to act by appealing to reason”; however, reason alone will not win the day. We’ve been telling stories much longer than we have been arranging formal arguments or writing our ideas down on paper. Great speakers know the power of story and imagery to inject emotion and meaning into a speech (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Make a Persuasion Pie

What are the key qualities that make an effective oral presentation?  Watch a TED talk of your choice, and as you watch, take notes on where the speaker uses logos, ethos, and pathos.  After you’ve watched the speech, create a pie chart in which you assign each of the three appeals a percentage.  Write an analysis of the presentation in which you explain the percentages and the impact of each appeal.  For the full effect, watch a second TED Talk and compare your second pie to the first to decide which talk was more effective. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Gallow, Carmine.  Talk Like TED:  The 9 Public-speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2014:  47-48.

November 12:  Greatest Single Thing Day

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On this day in 1926, Branch Rickey gave a speech entitled “The Greatest Single Thing a Man Can Have” to the Executives Club of Chicago. Rickey is best known as the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Rickey was fired as the manager of the St Louis Cardinals in 1925; however, the owner of the team, recognizing Rickey’s talent for player development, offered Rickey a position as an executive for the team.  In this new position, Rickey began to invest in several minor league baseball clubs, using them to develop future talent for the Cardinals.  By doing this Rickey invented what is now a staple of Major League Baseball, the minor-league farm system.

In his speech to the Executives Club, Rickey began with an anecdote from his time as the Cardinals’ manager.  It involved an amazing feat of athleticism, not by one of his players, but by an opposing player for the Detroit Tigers, Ty Cobb.  In the play, Cobb stole two straight bases to score the winning run in extra innings.  In describing the play, Rickey expressed his amazement at Cobb’s audacity; Cobb did not rely on luck to win the game; instead, “he made his own breaks.”

The tenaciousness displayed by Cobb on the base paths — his unwillingness “to alibi his own failures” and his singular desire to be the best — is what Cobb argues is the single greatest thing a ball player or any person can have (1).

Rickey’s speech is made memorable by its inductive organization.  Beginning with a specific incident by a specific person in a specific place, Rickey first shows his point to his audience before he tells it.  As he continues, he broadens the focus from Cobb, to baseball players in general, and finally to people in general.  Rickey’s audience expected him to talk about baseball, but Rickey knew he was talking to a group of business executives.  The genius of his speech is that he was able to combine the details about Cobb with a universally applicable principle of success.

Today’s Challenge:  What’s Your SGT?

What would you argue is the single greatest thing a person can have?  Brainstorm a list of ideas, and try for a variety of ideas that range from general qualities to concrete objects.  Once you have your best idea, write a speech that is organized inductively — that is, one that begins with an example or anecdote to show rather than tell.  After your specific example or anecdote, broaden your point to make it universally applicable to a general audience. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Safire, William.  Lend Me Your Ears:  Great Speeches in History.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1997: 521-523.

November 11:  Words from War Day

Today is the anniversary of the end of fighting in World War I. The “war to end all wars” had begun in Europe in 1914, and it raged on until November 11, 1918, when the fighting ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The official end of the war came seven months later on June 28, 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

The first official Armistice Day was proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I, but the day didn’t become a legal holiday in the Unites States until 1938.  After World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a proclamation that changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day, making it a day to honor all veterans (1).

The war in Europe popularized a number of words and expressions, many of which we use today without realizing that they emerged from the muddy trenches of Belgium and France.

Today’s Challenge:  Them’s Fighin’ Words!

What are some English words that you think might trace their origin to warfare?  World War I was not the only war to contribute significantly to the English lexicon. In her book Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers, lexicographer Christine Ammer traces a huge number of words and phrases that have their origins in warfare.  The ten words below are just a small sample of the many words and phrases that entered the language from warfare.  Select one of the words, or one of your own, and do a bit of research to trace its etymology.  Write an explanation of the word’s history, including how its origin relates to warfare as well as the modern meaning of the word.

antebellum, brainwashing, Catch-22, deadline, echelon, flak, gung-ho, hawks and doves, incommunicado, Jingoism, khaki, logistics, magazine, no man’s land, old guard, panoply, quisling, rendezvous, sabotage, trophy, underground, vandalism, zealot (2) (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Office of Public Affairs – “History of Veterans Day”

http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp.

2-Ammer, Christine.  Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers.  New York:  Paragon House, 1989.

 

November 10:  From Headlines to Lyrics Day

On this day in 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a bulk freighter, sank in a storm on Lake Superior.  The entire crew of the Fitzgerald, 29 men, were lost.  Approximately two weeks after the tragedy, singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot read a short Newsweek magazine article on the ship’s sinking.  The first lines of the article read:

According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’ (1)

Inspired by the article and the plight of the Fitzgerald and its crew, Lightfoot began writing what was to become one of popular music’s most recognizable ballads, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”  The opening lines of the song’s lyrics, clearly show the influence of the Newsweek article:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy

Almost one year to the day of the appearance of the article in Newsweek, the song became a number one hit in Lightfoot’s native Canada; the song peaked at number 2 on the U.S. Billboard charts (2).

Gordon Lightfoot is certainly not the only songwriter to mine newspapers and magazines for ideas:

-The lyrics of 1967 Beatles song “A Day in the Life” were inspired by two separate stories that John Lennon read in London newspapers: One about a fatal car accident and the second about a road survey that revealed 4,000 pot holes in the roads of Blackburn, Lancashire.  The song’s opening line is: “I read the news today, oh boy.”

-Janis Ian’s 1975 song “At Seventeen” was inspired by a New York Times article about a debutante.  The article’s opening line was “I learned the truth at 18”; the opening line of Ian’s song is “I learned the truth at 17.”  She changed the number because 18 didn’t scan.

-Alicia Keys’ 2012 song “Girl on Fire” was inspired by a magazine article that Keys read about herself.  The article’s writer Jeannine Amber used the phrase “girl on fire” to describe the singer.  The phrase had such an impact on Keys that she used it not only for inspiration for a song, but also as the title of her fifth studio album.

-The 1956 Elvis song “Heartbreak Hotel” was inspired by a newspaper story about a suicide note.  The man who killed himself left a note that said, “I walk a lonely street.”  This inspired the song’s opening lines, written by Tommy Durden: Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell.  It’s down at the end of lonely street at Heartbreak Hotel.

-The 1973 Tony Orlando and Dawn hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round That Old Oak Tree” was inspired by a 1971 story in the The New York Post about a convict returning from prison.  In the story a white handkerchief was tied around the tree. Songwriters Irwin Levine and Larry Brown made the change to a yellow ribbon because they felt it made for a better song. Interestingly, the song went on to inspire a national movement in the 1980s when yellow ribbons became the symbol of American hostages held in Iran.  Fifty-two hostages were held captive for 444 days. (3)

Today’s Challenge:  I Read the News Today

What recent news story might serve as inspiration for a song or a poem?  Look through a recent newspaper or magazine for stories — local, national, or international — that might serve as inspiration for the lyrics of a song or poem.  Use your poetic license as needed to transform the people, places, and events in the news into your own creative work. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1- Gains, James R. and Jon Lowell.  “Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month.”  Newsweek magazine 24 Nov. 1975.

2-Gordon Lightfoot.com. Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. http://gordonlightfoot.com/wreckoftheedmundfitzgerald.shtml.

3-Songfacts.com. Songs Inspired by Newspaper or Magazine Articles. http://www.songfacts.com/category songs_inspired_by_newspaper_or_magazine_articles.php.

 

November 9:  Cold War Day

On this day in 1989, the East German Communist Party opened the Berlin Wall, allowing citizens of East Berlin to freely cross the border that had separated East and West Berlin since the wall went up in 1961.  That night, crowds swarmed the wall and some, armed with picks and hammers, began to dismantle the wall, which had stood as the most powerful symbol of the Cold War.

In 1989 several eastern European nations of the Soviet Union carried out successful anti-Communist revolutions, winning greater autonomy and the right to hold multiparty elections. By December 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Cold War was officially over (1).

The term “Cold War” was coined on April 16, 1947, when Bernard Baruch, advisor to presidents on economic and foreign policy, used the term in an address he gave to the South Carolina House of Representatives. Invited to speak in his home state, Baruch selected the topic of the struggle between the two post-World War II superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union:

Let us not be deceived, we are today in the midst of a cold war. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: Our unrest is the heart of their success. The peace of the world is the hope and the goal of our political system.; it is the despair and defeat of those who stand against us. We can depend only on ourselves. (2)

Baruch’s term stuck as an apt description of the hostilities between the West and the East that spawned a nuclear arms race but fell short of armed conflict. Below are other words and terms that became a part of the Cold War lexicon, according to the book Twentieth Century Words (3):

Atom Bomb (1945)

fall out (1950)

N.A.T.O. (1950)

deterrent (1954)

conventional weapons (1955)

ICBM (1955)

unilateralism (1955)

Warsaw Pact (1955)

mushroom cloud (1958)

nuke (1959)

Hot and Cold Running Idioms

Below are descriptions of expressions that contain either the word hot or cold. Given the number of words in each expression along with a description, see if you can name the phrase:

  1. Four words: Newly printed; sensational and exciting.
  2. Two words: Immediate, complete withdrawal from something, especially an addictive substance.
  3. Two words: Trouble or difficulty.
  4. Two words: Retreat from an undertaking; lose one’s nerve.
  5. Two words: Deliberate disregard, slight, or snub.
  6. Four words: Extremely angry.
  7. Four words: In a position of extreme stress, as when subjected to harsh criticism.
  8. Five words: To cause one to shiver from fright or horror. (4)

Today’s Challenge:  Hot Potatoes and Cold Turkey

What words, phrases, or titles come to mind when you hear the word “hot” or “cold”?  Brainstorm a list of words, phrases, or titles (songs, movies, or books) that you associate with either “hot” or “cold.” Try to generate at least 20 ideas.  Then, select the one idea that sparks a writing idea, and write a poem, story, or essay on your idea.  Use the word “hot” or “cold” in your title. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)

Answers: 1. Hot off the presses 2. Cold turkey 3. Hot water 4. Cold feet 5. cold shoulder 6. Hot under the collar 7. In the hot seat 8. Make one’s blood run cold.

1-Atomic Archive.com. Cold War: A Brief History 2015. http://www.atomicarchive.com/History/coldwar/page22.shtml.

2-History.com. Bernard Baruch Coins the Term ‘Cold War.’ http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bernard-baruch-coins-the-term-cold-war.

3- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

4 – Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

 

November 8:  Backronym Day

On this day in 1983, retired Navy commander Meredith G. Williams (1924-2012) won a “create a new word” contest run by the Washington Post.  Williams’ winning neologism was “backronym” which he defined as the “same as an acronym, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters.”

An example of a backronym is the Apgar score, a rating scale used to evaluate the health of newborn babies.  The test was named for its creator, Virginia Apgar.  Then, years later it became the backronym APGAR, a mnemonic device to help its users remember the test’s key variables:  Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration (APGAR) (1).

So instead of beginning with the letters of already-existing words and phrases and making them into a word, as in the acronym RADAR (“Radio Detection and Ranging”), the creator of a backronym begins with a word and then creates a phrase to match the word’s letters.  For example, the backronym AMBER from the AMBER alert system was named for Amber Hagerman, who was abducted in Texas in 1996.  The official translation for AMBER was invented to fit the name: “America’s Missing:  Broadcast Emergency Response.”

Another example is the USA PATRIOT Act which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. The complete translation of the act is  Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct  Terrorism Act of 2001.

Often backronyms are generated for humorous purposes, such as the Microsoft search engine Bing which some called the backronym “Because It’s Not Google,” or the automobile company Ford, which some claimed stood for “Fix Or Repair Daily.”

In 2010 NASA, an acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, created a backronym for the treadmill it uses on the International Space Station.  In honor of comedian Stephen Colbert, the T-2 treadmill became the COLBERT: Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Bring Home the Backronyms

What backronym would you create for a proper noun — the name of a company, a geographic place name, or the last name of a person?  Just as Meredith G. Williams participated in a neologism contest, hold your own backronym contest.  Use existing names of people, places, or companies to create backronyms that are funny or serious. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1- Dickson, Paul.  Authorisms:  Words Wrought by Writers.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014:  26.

2-NASA. Colbert Ready for Serious Exercise. 5 May 2009. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/behindscenes/colberttreadmill.html.

November 7:  Meaning in Myth Day

Today is the birthday of the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960).  Camus was born in Algeria, a French colony, and was active in the French resistance in World War II, writing for an underground newspaper.  Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 for his fiction, specifically his novels:  The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Rebel (1951).

Though he never called himself an existentialist, Camus is often associated with the post-World War II philosophical movement which places the individual struggle for meaning above any other meaning that might be found in religion or society.  The major theme of Camus’ writing was the absurd — or the paradox of the absurd:  the idea that individuals have an innate desire to live a life that has meaning while at the same time realizing that ultimately life has no meaning (1).

To help his readers understand these somewhat abstract ideas, Camus wrote a philosophical essay in 1942 entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” where he retells the ancient Greek myth as a way of making meaning of the plight of modern man.

Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a huge rock to the top of a mountain. Once the rock reached the top, it would then roll back down to the bottom, where once again Sisyphus would commence the fruitless and futile task of rolling it back to the top.  Camus calls Sisyphus “the absurd hero” because, although he knows he must forever push his rock up the hill and then watch it roll back down the mountain, he embraces his fate.  By doing this “he is superior to his fate.”  In this way Sisyphus exemplifies the nobility and courage of the individual who even in the face of a hostile universe, strives for his own purpose.  Camus parallels Sisyphus’ labor with that of the modern worker (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Modern Meaning in Myth

What characters from mythology would you say tap most clearly into a universal theme of human existence, such as love, hate, change, evil, or freedom?  How do the characters’ stories relate to the themes, and how do the characters’ stories parallel the plight of modern humans?  Brainstorm some names of characters from mythology.  To get you started, here are a few characters from Greek mythology:

Odysseus

Tantalus

Prometheus

Pandora

Persephone

Oedipus

Narcissus

Select one character from your list, and identify a universal theme which can be extracted from the character’s story. Then, like Camus did with Sisyphus, give meaning to your myth by retelling the character’s story in your own words, explaining the universal theme that is found in the story, and paralleling the character’s experience to the lives of modern humans. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)         

1-Albert Camus – BiographicalNobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 8 Aug 2018. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1957/camus-bio.html.

2-Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus. http://dbanach.com/sisyphus.htm.

 

November 6:  Punctuation Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 2003, one of the all-time bestselling books on writing was published by British columnist and radio personality Lynne Truss. The book was entitled Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

As her book’s title indicates, Truss takes punctuation quite seriously.  After all, in the old joke about the panda, one comma made all the difference:

ES&L.pngA panda walks into a cafe, sits down, and orders a sandwich. After he finishes eating the sandwich, the panda pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter, and then stands up to go.

“Hey!” shouts the manager. “Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich!”

The panda yells back at the manager, “Hey man, I am a PANDA! Look it up!”

The manager opens his dictionary and sees the following definition: “Panda. A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterized by distinct black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.”

For Truss and other sticklers like her, one missing or one misplaced comma, semicolon, or apostrophe can be a matter of life or death.

Clearly Truss is serious about punctuation.  In the course of the 200-plus pages of her book, she reviews the history and the rules of punctuation.  She also provides egregious examples of the errors she has found in ads, signs, and newspapers.

Two of the heroes of Eats, Shoots & Leaves are the historical figures Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515).

Aristophanes, a librarian at Alexandria around 200 BC, is the father of punctuation.  He was the first to use a three-part system of dots to assist actors in the recitation of verse. Aristophanes’ dots are the ancestors of our modern commas, periods, colons, and semicolons.

With the advent of printing in the 14th and 15th century, a more standard system of punctuation was required.  Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer, was the man of the hour, inventing not only the italic typeface but also the semicolon.

Although the history of punctuation is interesting, Truss’s real concern is punctuation use and misuse today.  For writers, words matter.  But, as Truss argues, punctuation is just as important.  She draws an analogy between musical notation and punctuation; just as musical notes show musicians how to play, punctuation shows readers how to read (1).

A Love Letter to Punctuation

To illustrate just how important punctuation is, Truss presents two “Dear Jack” letters with the exact same words but with different punctuation.  One of the letters reveals Jill’s undying love for Jack, while the second letter, with different punctuation but the exact same words, reveals Jill’s disdain for Jack.  Given the two letters below, see if you can, by adding only punctuation (commas and periods) and without changing any of the words, make the first letter a love letter and the second a break-up letter:

Version A:  Jill Loves Jack

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind and thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours

Jill

Version B:  Jill Dislikes Jack

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind and thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours

Jill

Today’s Challenge:  Abused or Confused

What is a punctuation rule that you either hate to see abused or that you are continually confused by?  Brainstorm some of the different rules for using different punctuation marks.  Then, select one error that you think is significant, either because you hate to see it broken, or because you are unclear about how to apply it.  Do a bit of research to specify the rule and to gather examples of its correct and incorrect application.  Then, write a brief Public Service Announcement (PSA) that states the rule along with correct and incorrect examples.  To give your rule added relevance, find actual examples/pictures of where you have seen it used correctly and incorrectly on signs or advertisements. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Answers:

Version A:  Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about.  You are generous, kind, and thoughtful.  People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me for other men.  I yearn for you.  I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart.  I can be forever happy.  Will you let me be yours?

Jill

Version B:  Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what live is.  All about you are generous, kind, and thoughtful people, who are not like you.  Admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me.  For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever.  When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Yours,

Jill

1-Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2003.