December 8:  Sesquipedalian Day

Today is the birthday in 65 BC of Roman lyrical poet and satirist Horace.  On this day we express our gratitude to Horace for a single word — sesquipedalian, which means “a long word” or “a person known for using long words.”

Quintus Horatius Flaccus.jpgHorace penned his verse in Latin.  In his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) he wrote the following:  Proicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba, which translates, “He throws aside his paint pots and his words that are a foot and a half long.”  Combining the Latin roots sesqu- (one and a half) and ped (a foot), this adjective provides the perfect slightly exaggerated image for words that are wide.  Like many English words derived from Latin, especially many of the longer ones, sesquipedalian was borrowed in the seventeenth century (1).

George Orwell gave good advice to writers in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” when he said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.”  However, sometimes a long word is the best word, especially when it has precise meaning.  Polysyllabic words may be long, but they also can pack a lot of meaning into a small space.  In his book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Gary Provost calls these polysyllabic words “dense words”(2).  Dense words allow a writer to say in one word what would normally require many words.  For example, notice how in the sentence below, ten words can be swapped out for a single word:

Original:  The politician was guilty of being evasive, using many words when fewer were called for.

Revision:  The politician was guilty of circumlocution.

Today’s Challenge:  World of Wide and Weighty Words

What are some examples of words that are at least 10 letters long, words that pack a lot meaning into a single word?  Using a good dictionary, identify at least 8 words that are each at least 10 letters long.  Record your list of words along with a definition of each one.  Also record the number of words in the definition.  Then, write your verdict of whether or not each word is a dense word.  To judge each word, ask and answer the following questions:  Does the word crowd enough meaning into a small enough space to be declared dense?  Is it truly a heavyweight word?

Below are some examples of dense words:

Anthropomorphic

Bacchanalian

Circumlocution

Doctrinaire

Extemporaneous

Hemidemisemiquaver

Infrastructure

Jurisprudence

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.

-Horace

1- http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-ses1.htm

2-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

12/8 TAGS:  sesquipedalian, Horace, Ars Poetica, Orwell, George, Provost, Gary, dense words, definition,

 

December 7:  Colorless Green Ideas Day

Today is the birthday of linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who was born in Philadelphia in 1928.  Chomsky spent more than 50 years as a professor at MIT and has authored over 100 books.  Chomsky has been called “the father of modern linguistics” and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.  Despite all of his accomplishments, Chomsky is perhaps best known for a single sentence:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Published in his 1957 book Semantic Structures, Chomsky’s famous sentence illustrates the difference between two essential elements of language:  syntax and semantics.  Syntax relates to the grammar of a language or the order in which words are combined.  Semantics, in contrast, relates to the meaning of individual words.  Chomsky’s sentence illustrates the difference between syntax and semantics, showing that a grammatically or syntactically correct sentence can be constructed that is semantically nonsensical.

Today’s Challenge:  Strange Semantic-less Syntax Sings Soporifically

What are some adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet? Try your hand at constructing a syntactically correct, yet semantically nonsensical sentence.  For an added layer of interest, use alliteration by selecting words that begin with the same letter.

Begin by brainstorming as many adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs as you can.  Then, select randomly from your list, filling in words in the following order:

Adjective + adjective + noun + verb + adverb

For example:

Raging red rainbows read raucously.

OR

Soggy superfluous sunflowers swim softly.

Generate a number of sentences until you create one that’s so outrageous that it belongs on a T-shirt. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation. –Noam Chomsky

12/7 TAGS:  Chomsky, Noam, colorless green ideas, semantics, syntax

December 6:  Passive Voice Day

On this date in 1986 President Ronald Reagan presented a radio address to the nation.  His subject was a political scandal called the Iran-Contra Affair, where members of Reagan’s administration engaged in a secret arms deal in an attempt to obtain the release of American hostages.  Without approval or even the knowledge of the U.S. Congress, Reagan administration officials sold weapons to Iran and then used the profits from the sale to fund rebel forces in Nicaragua.

Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981.jpgWhen a Lebanese newspaper published a report detailing the secret deal in November 1986, President Reagan was forced to address the matter publicly:

I realize you must be disappointed and probably confused with all the furor of the last couple of weeks. You must be asking: What were we doing in the Middle East? What was our policy? Where was it wrong? Were we engaged in some kind of shenanigans that blew up in our face? I can understand if these are the questions you’re asking, and I’d like to provide some answers.

In the process of providing his explanation to the American people, Reagan used a classic framing device, the evasive maneuver known as passive voice:

And while we are still seeking all the facts, it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made [emphasis added] (1).

Use of the passive voice puts the object of the sentence “mistakes” up front and makes the doer of the action magically disappear.  Use of the passive voice allows the speaker to subtly evade admitting direct responsibility.  Notice the difference in the two sentences below:

Active Voice:  I made a mistake.

Passive Voice:  Mistakes were made.

Reagan was certainly not the first president to make this kind of unapologetic apology.  Use of this artful dodge dates back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration.  In a report to Congress in 1876, Grant acknowledged his administration’s scandals, saying “mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit it” (2).

For most writers, understanding the difference between active and passive voice has nothing to do with political rhetoric.  Instead the difference relates to making sure that your sentences are as clear, concise and active as possible.  

Just as the key to keeping your car running well is taking care of its engine,  the key to successful sentences is taking care of the engine of the sentence:  the verb.  Notice the difference in the following two sentences:

Passive Sentence:  The book was read by Mary.

Active Sentence:  Mary read the book.

Both sentences say the same thing.  The active sentence, however,  says it in fewer words.  Also, the active sentence makes Mary the doer of the action.  In contrast, the passive sentence puts the object up front which requires the addition of two weak and unnecessary words:  “was” and “by.”  

Passive voice is technically not a grammar error; instead, it is a style choice.  There are times when you might want to focus on the object rather than the doer of the action.  Be aware, however, that in most cases putting the doer up front and eliminating unnecessary words will make your writing more clear and concise.  

As exemplified by the sentence about Mary above, be on the lookout for forms of “to be.”  We use this verb more than any other verb in English, but don’t overuse it.  “To be” is a state of being verb.  When you use forms of “to be” as the engine of your sentence, the sentence doesn’t get very far:

Bill was happy.

In contrast, when you employ active verbs, your sentence have more motion, which creates a better picture for the reader:

Bill smiled broadly and threw his head back as he laughed.

Today’s Challenge:  Mistakes Were Corrected

What is the best way to begin a story?  Select one of the passive sentences below.  Transform the sentence from passive voice to active voice, and expand the sentence into an opening paragraph of a short story.  As you revise, consider the subject of your sentence.  Whenever possible make people the subjects of your sentences, the doers of the action; this will add more life and human interest to your writing.

The groceries were purchased.

The cake was eaten.

The sun was watched.

The test was taken.

The book was thrown.

The poem was written.

The team was booed.

The birthday was celebrated.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Writing with “be” verbs is like eating cookies:  one cookie is no problem, but 10 in a row is a different matter.  -John Maguire

1-  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36788

2-Safire, William.  Safire’s Political Dictionary.  Oxford University Press, 2008:  431.

12/6 TAGS Reagan, Ronald, Iran-Contra, voice (active and passive), Grant, Ulysses S., opening sentence, narrative

December 5:  Disney Day

Today is the birthday of Walt Disney, who was born in Chicago in 1901.  In 1928 he introduced the world to Mickey Mouse in the animated feature Steamboat Willie.  Disney revolutionized animation, mixing sound and color to produce full-length feature films based on classic children’s stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  For Disney, fantasy on the big screen was not enough.  He also pioneered the fantasy-themed family vacation when he opened Disneyland in California in 1955 (1).

Walt Disney 1946.JPGDisney was a man who paid attention to details, and he knew that the appearance of his characters as well as their names mattered.  In the 1930s, for example, when Disney was adapting the Brothers Grimm’s  Snow White, he made a list of 47 potential names for the dwarfs, which included Awful, Baldy, Dirty, and Hoppy (2).  In case you can’t remember the names that made the final cut, they are Bashful, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, and Doc.

As a film producer, Disney won 22 Academy Awards, far more than anyone else.  Disney died in 1966, but his name lives on.  The Walt Disney Company, the small animation company he founded on October 16, 1923, has grown into the world’s second largest media conglomerate.

Today’s Challenge:   Escape to Cartoon Mountain
Who would you argue should be on the Mount Rushmore of Cartoon Characters?  Brainstorm a list of cartoon characters.  Don’t limit yourself to just Disney characters.  Select your final four, the four that that you think are the most influential, most important, or just most entertaining.  List the names of each character along with a rationale for each character’s selection.  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  First, think. Second, believe.  Third, dream.  And finally, dream. -Walt Disney

1-Gottlieb, Agnes Hooper, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, and Brent Bowers. 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium. New York: Kodansha International, 1998.

2-http://www.listsofnote.com/2012/03/47-dwarfs.html

12/5 TAGS Disney, Walt, Steamboat Willie, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Mount Rushmore

December 4:  Pascal’s Apology Day

On this date in 1656, French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote a letter in which he expressed one of the central paradoxes of writing:  it’s faster and easier to write a long composition than to write a short one.  

Blaise Pascal Versailles.JPGPascal expressed the paradox as an apology to his reader:  “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter” (1).

According to Ralph Keyes in his book The Quote Verifier, Pascal’s quotation has been falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Voltaire (2).  The popularity of Pascal’s sentiment reveals both how much writers value brevity and how difficult it can be to obtain.  Being clear, concise, and cogent is hard work.

Another illustration of the “less is more” writing philosophy comes from an anecdote about Mark Twain, who received the following telegram from his publisher:

NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.

He responded:

NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES

Perhaps the best explanation of the value of concision in writing is by William Strunk in Elements of Style.  Instead of an anecdote, Struck uses an analogy:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

When you write, consider another analogy:  

Imagine each word you write is an employee of the company you own.  Each word needs a job to do.  You can’t afford to pay a salary to words or employees who do nothing.  Your job, therefore, as the writer is to keep your workforce — your “wordforce” — at a size no larger than what it takes to get the job done.

Today’s Challenge:   Exactly 25 Words – No More, No Fewer
How would you summarize an article in just 25 words? One excellent way to practice revision and to practice economy in writing is to write 25-word summaries.  Select an article of at least 200 words, and read it carefully to determine the writer’s main point.  Then, write a brief summary that captures the main point in your own words.  Don’t waste words saying things like:  “This article is about . . .” or “The author argues that . . .”  Instead, just state the article’s main ideas.  Don’t worry about the number of words until you have finished your first draft.  Next, count the number of words and revise as necessary to write the most clear, concise, and correct summary of EXACTLY 25 words.  Read your revised draft aloud to make sure that it is clear, that the sentences are complete, and that there are no wasted words.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination. -Louise Brooks

1-http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pascal/provincial.xviii.html

2-Keyes, Ralph. The Quote Verifier, 120

12/4 TAGS: Pascal, Blaise, paradox, The Quote Verifier, Twain, Mark, Strunk, William, Elements of Style, analogy, summary, 25-word summary

December 3:  Words on Words Day

Today is the birthday of the Polish writer Joseph Conrad.  Born in 1857, Conrad did not learn to speak and write English until he was in his twenties.  Despite the fact that English was his second language, Conrad is considered one of the greatest novelists in the English language.  A master prose stylist, Conrad influenced numerous writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and D.H. Lawrence.

Head shot with moustache and beardIn his autobiography, published in 1912, Conrad talked about the importance of diction in writing.  In the following words on words, he reminds us that words make their strongest impression on a reader when they are selected not only for their sense, but also for their sound:

He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense. I don’t say this by way of disparagement. It is better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective. Nothing humanely great—great, I mean, as affecting a whole mass of lives—has come from reflection. On the other hand, you cannot fail to see the power of mere words; such words as Glory, for instance, or Pity. I won’t mention any more. They are not far to seek. Shouted with perseverance, with ardor, with conviction, these two by their sound alone have set whole nations in motion and upheaved the dry, hard ground on which rests our whole social fabric . . . . Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world (1).

Today’s Challenge:  A Day to Be Dazed by Words

What is the best thing that anyone ever said about words?  What is an insightful quotation about words and language that you can use to inspire your writing?  Your task is to write about your favorite quotation about words.  Select from the examples below, or research your own.  Write out your quotation; then, explain why you find the quotation so insightful and how it inspires you to be a better writer. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.  Rudyard Kipling

Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes; and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of the demons. Aldous Huxley

Words are as recalcitrant as circus animals, and the unskilled trainer can crack his whip at them in vain.  –Gerald Brenan

Words are the legs of the mind; they bear it about, carry it from point to point, bed it down at night, and keep it off the ground and out of the marsh and mists. –Richard Eder

Quotation of the Day:  Some people have a way with words, and other people…oh, uh, not have way.Steve Martin

1-http://www.bartleby.com/237/8.html

12/3 TAGS: Conrad, Joseph, novel, autobiography, quotation, words on words

December 2:  Two-Word Allusion Day

Two speeches given by American presidents on this date in the 1800s launched key ideas that would influence the growth and influence of the United States.

James Monroe White House portrait 1819.gifThe first speech, given on December 2, 1823 by President James Monroe, launched the Monroe Doctrine. In his State of the Union Address, Monroe announced that the United States would frown upon any further interference or colonization of the Americas by foreign powers (1).

The second speech, given on December 2, 1845 by President James Polk, launched the term Manifest Destiny. In his State of the Union Address, Polk made it clear that he was committed to the expansion of the United States through the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of the Oregon territory, and the purchase of California from Mexico. Although he did not use the term Manifest Destiny in his speech, the term, originally coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan, became the operative term to describe the expansion of the young nation, which happened to be the primary subject of Polk’s speech (2).

Today’s Challenge: Two Words – American History

Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine are just two examples of several two-word appellations for key events or ideas in American history.  Below are several examples of two-word allusions from American history.  Each of these references represents a key story involving real people and real events that influenced the course of American history:

Boston Massacre

Burr-Hamilton Duel

Constitutional Convention

Dred Scott

Emancipation Proclamation

First Amendment

Great Society

Homestead Act

Mason-Dixon Line

Mayflower Compact

Mexican War

Missouri Compromise

New Deal

Northwest Passage

Oregon Trail

Plymouth Rock

Stamp Act

Teapot Dome

Underground Railroad

Whiskey Rebellion

Wounded Knee

Scopes Trial

XYZ Affair

Select one of the two-word allusions above, and research the story behind it.  Write a brief report explaining what happened, who was involved, and why these two words are an important part of the story of the Unites States.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: The whole enterprise of this nation, which is not an upward, but a westward one, toward Oregon, California, Japan, etc., is totally devoid of interest to me, whether performed on foot, or by a Pacific railroad…. It is perfectly heathenish,—a filibustering toward heaven by the great western route. No; they may go their way to their manifest destiny, which I trust is not mine…. I would rather be a captive knight, and let them all pass by, than be free only to go whither they are bound. What end do they propose to themselves beyond Japan? What aims more lofty have they than the prairie dogs? -Henry David Thoreau

1 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monroe_doctrine

2 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_Destiny

12/2 TAGS:  allusion, speech, Monroe, James, Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, O’Sullivan, John L., Polk, James

December 1: Most Influential Person Who Never Lived Day  

On this date in 1976, Leo Burnett (1891-1971) gave a speech to the gathered executives of his advertising agency, Leo Burnett Worldwide.  In his talk, which has become known as “The When to Take My Name Off the Door Speech,” Burnett challenged his employees to never forget that advertising is not just about making a buck; it’s about the creative process:

Leo Burnett.jpgBut let me tell you when I might demand that you take my name off the door. That will be the day when you spend more time trying to make money and less time making advertising – our kind of advertising.

When you forget that the sheer fun of ad making and the lift you get out of it – the creative climate of the place – should be as important as money to the very special breed of writers and artists and business professionals who compose this company of ours – and make it tick.

When you lose that restless feeling that nothing you do is ever quite good enough.

When you lose your itch to do the job well for its sake – regardless of the client, or money, or the effort it takes. (1)

In his illustrious career, Burnett created some of the most influential characters in the history of advertising, including the Marlboro Man, Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, and the Maytag Repairman.

Burnett opened his ad agency in the middle of the Great Depression, and on the day it opened he famously put a bowl of apples in the reception area.  His brash move of opening a business in the middle of the Depression caused some to say that it wouldn’t be long before he was selling those apples on the street.  Instead, the company thrived, and by the end of the 1950s it was earning over 100 million dollars annually.

The book The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived ranks fictional characters from literature, fable, myth, and popular culture.  The writers, Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter, got the idea to write the book after reading Michael Hart’s book The 100:  A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History.  

The fictional character ranked as the number one most influential is Leo Burnett’s creation, The Marlboro Man.  The burly cowboy was the symbol of Marlboro Cigarettes beginning in 1955.  By 1972, Marlboro was the top cigarette brand in the world, and by 2000 it owned a 35 percent market share of U.S. cigarette sales (2).

The following are other influential characters, each born in the imagination of a creative individual and brought to life on a page or a screen:

Hamlet

Oedipus

Dracula

Atticus Finch

Hester Prynne

Mickey Mouse

Barbie

Big Brother

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock

Prometheus

King Arthur

Sherlock Holmes

Uncle Sam

Ebenezer Scrooge

Today’s Challenge:  Unforgettable Favorite from Fiction

What fictional characters would make your list of the most influential?  What makes them so special?  Write a short speech making your case for the single character that you think should receive the award for most influential.  Make sure to provide enough detailed evidence to show what makes this character so important, not just to you, but to society at large. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either. -Leo Burnett

1-http://www.brandingstrategyinsider.com/2007/10/great-moments-3-2.html#.V3xid-srLnB

2-Lazar, Allan, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter.  The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Society, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

12/1 TAGS:  Burnett, Leo, fictional character, Marlboro Man, speech

November 29:  Compulsory Education Day

On this day in 1870, the British government announced its plan to make education compulsory.  The Elementary Education Act of 1870 required that education be provided to children up to age 10.  The act was also commonly known as the Forster’s Education Act, named for William Edward Forster, a member of the House of Commons who crusaded for universal education and who drew up the act.

One nation that adopted compulsory education before Britain was Prussia.  A decree by Frederick the Great in 1763 provided an education for all girls and boys until age 13.  Under this plan teachers were paid by the citizens of the municipalities in which they taught; however, the teachers – many of whom were former soldiers — were asked to supplement their income by cultivating silk worms.  (wiki)

In the United States, Mississippi became that last state to pass a compulsory education law in 1918.

In 2012, best-selling young adult fiction author John Green published a YouTube post on compulsory education entitled “An Open Letter to Students Returning to School.”  In his letter Green challenged students to not take their education for granted and to see “compulsory” schooling as an opportunity to contribute something to society:

School doesn’t exist for your benefit or for the benefit of your parents. Schools exist for the benefit of me. The reason I pay taxes for schools even though I don’t have a kid in school is that I am better off in a well-educated world. Public education isn’t a charity project; I pay for your schools because I want you to grow up and make my life better. I want you to make me beautiful books that will bring me pleasure and consolation. I want you to make me cooler cars for me to drive, and drugs so that I can live a longer, healthier life. I’m paying for your education in the hopes that you will invent a microwave pizza with actually crispy crust and that you’ll spread the availability of the internet so I can get more YouTube views in Zambia.

Your education isn’t just about you, your nation is making an investment in you because they believe that you are worth it. So the next that you’re like half asleep fantasizing about being a kid chosen for a special mission or wizard school, or whatever, please remember something: you are special, and you’ve chosen for a special mission that was denied to 99.9% of all humans ever. We need you, we believe in you, and we’re counting on you.

Today’s Challenge:  

If you were the Secretary of Education, what class would you make mandatory for all students?  Why?  Imagine that you have been appointed to design a specific class that will be required by all students before they graduate high school.  What would you call your class, and what would be the make-up of the class’s curriculum.  In addition to describing the class, provide a rationale for why the content of the class is essential for students. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  But yes, your teachers may be stupid. So are you, so am I, so are everyone . Except Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The whole pleasure in being a human is in being stupid but learning to be less stupid together. -John Green