November 6:  Punctuation Day

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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.

 

November 5:  Guy Fawkes Day

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Today is the anniversary of a foiled plot to blow up the British Parliament. On the night before the ceremonial opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605, 36 barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the basement of the House of Lords. The perpetrators of the plot, 13 Catholics who hoped to topple the Protestant King, James I, were arrested, prosecuted, and hanged.

A monochrome engraving of eight men, in 17th-century dress. All have beards, and appear to be engaged in discussionAlthough he was not the ringleader of the plot, Guy Fawkes became the “face” of the Gunpowder Plot.  This is probably because he was the one man caught red handed, with matches in his pocket, skulking in the basement of the House of Lords waiting to light the fuse.  Once capture, Fawkes was tortured and signed a confession.  He also implicated his fellow conspirators who were hanged with him on January 31, 1606.

Ever since that fateful night in 1605, November 5th has been a night of thanksgiving and revelry. Celebrants of the failed coup light bonfires, set off fireworks, and burn effigies, called “guys,” of the notorious rebel Guy Fawkes (1, 2).

On Guy Fawkes Night, or as it is also known “Bonfire Night,” British children collect wood for their fires or solicit money for their “guys” as they chant or sing:

   Remember, remember!

   The fifth of November,

   The Gunpowder treason and plot;

   I know of no reason

   Why the Gunpowder treason

   Should ever be forgot!

   Guy Fawkes and his companions

   Did the scheme contrive,

   To blow the King and Parliament

   All up alive.

   Threescore barrels, laid below,

   To prove old England’s overthrow.

   But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

   With a dark lantern, lighting a match! (3)

Frequently in English the famous and infamous become enshrined in the language when their last names become common, lower case nouns or verbs (called eponyms). In rare cases, however, a first name becomes a part of the lexicon.  Guy Fawkes not only became the subject of burned effigies, but also his first name became synonymous with anyone of odd appearance. Across the Atlantic, the name is used in American English to refer to any male, either bad or good. It is also a handy word used in its plural form to refer to any group of people (2).

Guy Fawkes, himself, has undergone a makeover, transforming from villain to rebel hero and freedom fighter.  This is due mainly to the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta.  Set in a dystopian Britain, the book and film feature a hero who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and who battles the future fascist government of Britain.

Today’s Challenge:  Remember, Remember the Date

What hero or villain, who is not already honored with a day on the calendar, should be recognized with his or her own specific day? What makes this person influential or notorious enough to rate having a dedicated day on the calendar, and what kind of activities would you suggest to appropriately mark the day? Brainstorm a list of important figures and events from history. Select the one person you would honor, and write a proclamation which explains who the person is and what specific date will be set aside to recognize the person.  Include some background on what the person did and why the person is important.  Finally, include some details on the kinds of activities that will accompany the person’s special day. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1 – Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night. Bonfirenight.net 2011. http://www.bonfirenight.net/gunpowder.php.

2 – Word History and Mysteries. (by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

3-The Fifth of November. English Folk Verse (c.1870).

November 4:  Fumblerules Day

On this day in 1979, New York Times columnist William Safire (1929-2009) published an article on the “Fumblerules of Grammar.”  Each of Safire’s fumblerules states a rule while at the same time breaking it, such as:

Never use prepositions to end sentences with.

Several years after Safire’s column appeared, he wrote a book based on his collection of fumblerules called How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar.  In the book Safire includes 50 chapters, one for each of his fumblerules.  After stating each “misrule,” he provides a brief essay with examples and explanations of the right way to write.

In the first ten chapters of the book, Safire features the following essential fumblerules:

  1. No sentence fragments.
  2. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.
  3. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  4. Do not put statements in the negative form.
  5. Don’t use contractions in formal writing.
  6. The adverb always follows the verb.
  7. Make an all-out effort to hyphenate when necessary but not when un-necessary.
  8. Don’t use Capital letters without good REASON.
  9. It behooves us to avoid archaisms.
  10. Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Recover the Fumblerule

What is your favorite fumblerule — a writing or grammar rule that states a rule while at the same time breaking it?  Select your single favorite fumblerule, and write an explanation of how it relates to effective writing.  Use the fumblerule as your title, followed by a paragraph where you explain how the rule relates to legitimate writing.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Safire, William.  How Not to Write:  The Essential Misrules of Grammar.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.

November 3:  Dogs in Space Day

On this day in 1957, the USSR launched the satellite Sputnik 2 into orbit.  Aboard the spacecraft was the first ever living being launched into space, a female terrier named Laika.  Just four weeks earlier the Russians had shocked the world by launching the first-ever satellite, Sputnik I on October 3, 1957.

Laika went from obscurity to fame as the first cosmonaut; just a week before the launch she was a stray living on the streets of Moscow.  Unfortunately, there never was a plan to return Laika to earth, so the Russian canine was forced to sacrifice her life for the benefit of humanity.  Laika most likely died from overheating within hours of takeoff.  Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the Earth for several months before it burned up in April 1958 upon reentering the atmosphere.

A Chicago newspaper tried to lighten Laika’s passing with a pun:

The Russian sputpup isn’t the first dog in the sky. That honor belongs to the dog star. But we’re getting too Sirius (1).

The launches of the two Sputnik satellites led to a crisis in the United States as leaders feared Soviet domination of space.  In July 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and in September 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which poured billions of dollars into the U.S. education system.

Russia was successful in launching the first human, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961; however, the United States proclaimed victory in the Space Race when NASA’s Apollo program landed a man on the Moon on July 20, 1969 (See July 20:  Antithesis Day).

Going to the Dogs

English is replete with idioms (expressions that don’t make sense when taken literally) related to dogs. And it is interesting to note that despite the dog’s reputation for being “man’s best friend,” most of the expressions use “dog” in the negative sense. For example, they are used as scapegoats for missing homework: “My dog ate my homework.” They are associated with sickness: “Sick as a dog.” And they are even used to characterize life in general as harsh and cut throat: “It’s a dog eat dog world.”

Use the clues below to identify the eight dog-related idioms. For each idiom you are given the number of words in the expression and a brief literal translation of the meaning of the idiom as it might be used in everyday speech.

  1. Five words: Don’t make something unimportant the most important thing.
  2. Five words: You’re searching in the wrong place.
  3. Four words: My feet are very tired.
  4. Four words: My wife is very mad at me.
  5. Seven words: He’s not really as mean as he seems.
  6. Eight words: Some people will never change.
  7. Four words: Don’t remind him of your past conflicts.
  8. Five words: Every person is successful at something at some point in his/her life.

Today’s Challenge:  Giving the Dog His Day

What words, phrases, or titles come to mind when you hear the word “dog”?  What is your favorite dog-based writing topic, either literal or figurative?  Brainstorm a list of words, phrases, or titles that you associate with dogs.  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 “dog” in your title. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3 – Expository and Narrative)

Answers: 1. The tail wagging the dog 2. Barking up the wrong tree. 3. My dogs are barking  4. In the dog house 5. His bark is worse than his bite 6. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. 7. Let sleeping dogs lie. 8. Every dog has its day

1-Latson, Jennifer.  “The Sad Story of Laika, the First Dog Launched Into Orbit.”  Time 3 Nov. 2014.   http://time.com/3546215/laika-1957/.

November 2:  Cheerleading Day

On this day in 1898, a medical student at the University of Minnesota became the first cheerleader.  College teams had pep clubs and fight songs prior to 1898, but after his school’s football team had suffered a three-game losing streak, Johnny Campbell took the radical step of grabbing a megaphone and running down onto the field.  Once there, he turned to the crowd and led them in a rousing cheer: “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-ta!” Minnesota won the game, and thus began the tradition of on-field cheerleading.

Interestingly, cheerleading remained primarily a male endeavor until the 1940s. As college students, U.S. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush led cheers at their respective schools.  Only when the male student body became depleted because of World War II did cheerleading squads become primarily female (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Pep Talk

What single motivational quotation do you find the most uplifting and encouraging?  Why is the quotation so motivating? Just as cheerleaders use pre-packaged cheers to motivate the crowd, writers often integrate quotations from other writers into their work.  Write a brief pep talk based on the motivational quotation that you find the most uplifting and encouraging.  Go beyond just the writer’s quotation by explaining why you find it so motivational and how you are encouraged by the quotation. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Being a Cheerleader – History of Cheerleading. Varsity.com. 20 Oct. 2014. http://www.varsity.com/event/1261/being-a-cheerleader-history.

November 1:  Art Imitates Life Day

On this day in 1866, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky met a very important deadline.  Based on the terms of his contract with his publisher, Dostoyevsky would either deliver his completed novel on November 1, 1866 or his publisher would be given complete rights to his works, without compensation, for the next nine years.  Clearly entering into such a contract was a gamble, but then Dostoyevsky had a reputation as a gambler.  After all, the reason he agreed to a contract with such stark terms was because he was desperate for money to pay off his gambling debts.

When Dostoyevsky began work on his novel on October 4, 1866, he had just 26 days to finish.  To assist him, he hired a stenographer, a woman named Anna Grigorievna whom he would later marry.  They met daily.  Dostoyevsky dictated the story to Grigorievna, and on November 1st, two hours before the deadline, the complete manuscript was delivered to the publisher.

The title of Dostoyevsky’s novel is appropriately The Gambler, and its plot revolves around several desperate characters winning and losing at the roulette table.  In the novel, art imitates life as the author’s addiction to roulette is the focus of his novel’s plot.

Today’s Challenge:  From Fact to Fiction

What anecdote from your life would be worthy of adapting to fiction?  Just as Dostoyevsky used his life experiences, his passions, and his misfortunes for his fiction, the challenge here is to take something from your life and adapt it into a fictional anecdote.  Once you have an actual incident, transform it into fiction by creating a character in a specific setting.  Decide also on a point of view – 1st person or 3rd person (limited or omniscient).  Then, write your anecdote.  Base the plot of your anecdote on the facts of your experience, but also use your poetic license as a fiction writer to embellish the facts. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Nissley, Tom.  Reader’s Book of Days.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 2014:  315.