October 8: Rebuttal Day

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On this day in 1917, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), an English soldier recovering from shell shock, composed the first draft of the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”  The poem is one of the most vivid, realistic depictions of the horrific trench warfare of World War I and is one of most powerful rebuttals every made to the argument that it is valorous to die for one’s country.

A plate from his 1920 Poems by Wilfred Owen, depicting him.Owen joined the army in 1915, and after he was wounded in combat in France in 1917, he was evacuated to a military hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland.  It is there that he penned the first draft of his poem and sent it to his mother with a note: “Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final)” (1).

The poem begins with an image of the exhausting drudgery of life on the front lines:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Drudgery and exhaustion turn to nightmare as Owen describes a gas attack and the horror of watching one of his comrades in arms die before his eyes:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.  

The words that end the poem, as well as the words in the poem’s title, are Latin, written by the Roman poet Horace.  The first four words, which also serve as the poem’s title, translate: “It is sweet and glorious.”  The final three words of the poem that complete the exhortation translate: “to die for one’s country.”

The words from Horace that Owen calls “The old Lie” would have been familiar to Owen’s readers since they were often quoted during the frenzy of recruiting at the beginning of World War I.  These Latin words are also inscribed on the wall of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Berkshire, England.  In the United States, the words are etched in stone above the rear entrance to the Memorial Amphitheater, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at Arlington National Cemetery.

After his recovery, Owen rejoined his regiment and returned to the trenches of France.  He was killed in battle on November 4, 1918, one week before the war ended on November 11, Armistice Day.

Owen’s poem is a rebuttal — the presentation of contradictory evidence — to an ancient expression of conventional wisdom, as seen in Horace’s Latin exhortation (here translated into English):  How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.

To make his rebuttal, Owen structures his poem inductively, with details that move from the specific to the general.  Instead of stating his point at the beginning of the poem in a deductive structure, he, instead, begins with detailed imagery to show rather than tell.  Owen’s use of such powerful figurative language and sensory imagery create such a horrific picture that Owen hardly needs to state his point. The vivid details allow readers to infer the point for themselves; even a reader who does not know Latin would be able to make a logical inference regarding the “old Lie.”

Today’s Challenge:  Rebut With Reality

The practice of questioning conventional wisdom is a tradition that dates back to Socrates.  It’s an excellent way to discover ways in which common sense is not always perfectly logical and to explore counterintuitive insights.  It’s also an excellent way to avoid poor decisions.  In 1962, for example, executives at the Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles because conventional wisdom led them to conclude that guitar music was on the way out. What are some examples of conventional wisdom (widely accepted truisms) that you have encountered, and how might you challenge conventional wisdom with a detailed, evidence-based rebuttal?  Write a rebuttal in either prose or poetry of a single statement of conventional wisdom, such as, “If you work hard, you will succeed” or “Pride goeth before the fall.”  Organize your writing inductively, using specific imagery and figurative language to show your point rather than tell it.  If you are successful, you may not even need to state the central claim of your rebuttal at the end. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Poets.org. Wilfred Owen. http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/wilfred-owen.

2- Owen, Wilfred. Dulce et Decorum Est. 1921. Poetry Foundation.org. Public Domain. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46560/dulce-et-decorum-est.

October 7: Gender-neutral Pronoun Day

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

Today is the birthday of C.C. Converse (1832-1918), an American attorney and composer of church music who is perhaps best known for his attempt to fix a glitch in the English language:  its absence of a gender-neutral singular pronoun (1).

The glitch that Converse was attempting to repair can be seen in the following sentences.  Which one sentence would you select as correct?

  1. When a person arrives at work, he should check his phone messages.
  2. When a person arrives at work, she should check her phone messages.
  3. When a person arrives at work, he or she should check his or her phone messages
  4. When a person arrives at work, s/he should check his/er phone messages.
  5. When a person arrives at work, they should check their phone messages.

This is a bit of trick question because each sentence has its own problems.

Sentence A uses the pronoun he, assuming the gender of a person is male.  Although some in the past have argued that the masculine pronoun should become the default generic pronoun, most people today see this as an unacceptably sexist usage.

Sentence B has the same problem as Sentence A.  Some writers will randomly alternate the use of the masculine and feminine pronouns to avoid charges of sexism, but this can be confusing and distracting to the reader.

Sentence C, while attempting to avoid exclusive use of either one or the other pronoun, adds an element of clunkiness by adding the conjunction “or,” especially when used repeatedly.

Sentence D is just plain awkward.

Sentence E creates an ungrammatical situation in which the antecedent of the singular noun person is the plural they and their.

In an attempt to solve the problem, Converse coined the word thon in 1858, blending the two words “that one.”   If we apply Converse’s coinage to our sentence it becomes:

When a person arrives at work, thon should check thons phone messages.

Obviously Converse’s new pronoun didn’t stick; instead, it joined the pool of other pathetic, failed pronouns of the past, such as:  ne, co, xie, per, en, hi, le, hiser, ip.  However, credit is due Converse in that thon is the most successful attempt at a solution to date.  Thon made it into two dictionaries and was actually adopted by some writers, as we can see by this example from a psychology textbook published in 1895 by Henry Graham Williams:

Every student should acquaint thonself with some method by which thon can positively correlate the facts of thons knowledge (1).

As of today we are still stuck without a solution to our pronoun glitch. So, when a person comes upon this thorny thicket in his/her/his or her/their writing, he/she/he or she/they remain without many good options.

Today’s Challenge: Playing with Pronouns & Points of View

When creating a fictional narrative, authors must consider point of view, the lens through which the reader sees and hears the story.  Point of view in fiction correlates to the grammatical point of view of pronouns:

First Person – I:  In the first person point of view, a character in the story is the narrator, which allows the reader to see and experience the plot intimately.  However, just as in our own lives, this can be limiting since we are only privy to the thoughts, experience, and perspective of that single character.

Second Person – You:  In the second person point of view, a character directly addresses “you” the reader, as if the story is a letter.  Like a letter, the effect is a feeling of intimacy, of being talked to directly by the narrator.  The limitation, however, is that you only see and hear what that narrator reveals.

Third Person – He or She:  The third person point of view involves a narrator outside the story who reveals either the thoughts of a single character (3rd person limited) or the thoughts of more than one character (3rd person omniscient). With third person, the voice of the narrator becomes a vital element of revealing a story’s setting and the thoughts of its characters.

If you were to write a story, from what narrative point of view would you tell the story?

Read the Aesop Fable below called “The Cat and the Fox”; then, rewrite it from three different points of view:

1:  First Person – The Cat as narrator.

2:  Second Person – The Cat speaking to the Fox’s family

3:  Third Person Omniscient – A narrator that reveals both the thoughts of the Cat and the Fox.

The Cat and the Fox

A Fox was boasting to a Cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.”

“I have only one,” said the Cat; “but I can generally manage with that.” Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs. “This is my plan,” said the Cat. “What are you going to do?” The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said:

“Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.” (2)

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1- Dickson, Paul.  Authorisms:  Words Wrought by Writers.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014:  166.

2-Aesop Fables. The Harvard Classics 1909-14. Bartleby.com.  Public Domain. https://www.bartleby.com/17/1/38.html.