January 14: Curmudgeon Day 


On this day in 1919, writer and commentator Andy Rooney was born in Albany, New York.  Rooney worked for decades as a journalist and writer-producer for television, but he is best known for his weekly commentaries on the television show “60 Minutes.”  Between 1978 and 2011, Rooney presented over 1,000 mini-essays sharing his unique and slightly cranky insights on everyday topics, such as almanacs, eyebrows, jaywalking, paint, and the English language.  For 33 years, “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” was must-see television.

The appeal of Rooney’s three-minute monologues was his homespun insights on the mundane.  But another part of his appeal was his consistent curmudgeonly tone, like that of a cantankerous uncle who is bothered by just about everything.

On Apostrophes

Because I write my scripts to read myself, I dont spell “don’t” with an apostrophe.  I spell it “dont.” We all know the word and it seems foolish to put in an extraneous apostrophe.

On Birthdays

Age is a defect which we never get over.  The only thing worse than having another birthday is not having another one.

On Progress

I keep buying things that seem like the answer to all my problems, but Im never any better off . . . . And this is universal. Edison invented the lightbulb, but people dont read any more than our grandparents did by candlelight.

On The Moon

Remember when the astronauts brought those rocks back?  They said it might be weeks before the scientists could analyze them and give us their results.  Do you ever remember hearing that rock report?  I think the scientists are embarrassed to tell us those rocks are just like the ones we have on Earth.

On Dictionaries

The argument in the dictionary business is whether to explain the proper use of English or whether to tell you how it’s being used by the most people — often inaccurately.  For instance, I never say “If I were smart.”  I always say “If I was smart.”  I dont like the subjunctive no matter what the dictionary likes. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Mini-Monologue on a Mundane Matter

What are some pet peeves you have about everyday objects, events, or ideas?  What and why do these things frustrate you? Write a Rooney-esque monologue that expresses the reasoning behind one specific pet peeve or frustration.  Go beyond the obvious, by providing your unique insights on what makes this thing so bad and how either it should be changed or what it tells us about society. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: I don’t like food that’s too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.  -Andy Rooney

1-Rooney, Andy.  Years of Minutes: The Best of Rooney from 60 Minutes.  New York:  Public Affairs, 2003.

January 6: Personification Day

Photograph of Sandburg
Carl Sandburg

Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Carl Sandburg, who was born on this day in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.

Image result for word days book

The son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg left school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs to help support his family.  In 1898, he volunteered to travel to Puerto Rico where he served with the 6th Illinois Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  After the war, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point but dropped out after just two weeks after failing a mathematics and grammar exam (1).  Returning to his hometown in Illinois, Sandburg enrolled in Lombard College.  At Lombard, he honed his skills as a writer of both prose and poetry, and after college, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he worked as an advertising writer and a journalist.

Sandburg achieved unprecedented success as a writer of both biography and poetry.  His great work of prose was his biography of Abraham Lincoln, an exhaustively detailed six-volume work that took him 30 years to research and complete. Not only did he win the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his stellar writing, he was also invited to address a joint session of Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 1959.  This was the first time a private citizen was allowed to make such an address (2).

Before he began his biography of Lincoln, Sandburg established himself as a great poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1919.  Writing in free verse, Sandburg’s poems captured the essence of industrial America.  

Perhaps his best-known poem Chicago begins:

HOG Butcher for the World,

              Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

              Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

              Stormy, husky, brawling,

              City of the Big Shoulders . . .

One of the primary rhetorical devices at work here is personification.  Sandburg does not just describe the city, he brings it to life, giving it job titles, such as “Tool Maker,” and human characteristics, such as “brawling,” and even human anatomy, such as “Big Shoulders.”

Personification is figurative language used in either poetry or prose that describes a non-human thing or idea using human characteristics.  As Sandburg demonstrates, the simple secret of personification is selecting the right words to animate the inanimate.  The key parts of speech for personification are adjectives, nouns, verbs, and pronouns:

-Adjectives like thoughtful or honest or sneaky

-Verbs like smile or sings or snores

-Nouns like nose or hands or feet

-Pronouns like I, she, or they.

In the following poem, Sandburg personifies the grass.  Notice how he makes the grass human by giving it not just a first person voice, but also a job to do:

GRASS

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work–

         I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:

         What place is this?

         Where are we now?

         I am the grass.

         Let me work.

Today’s Challenge:  I Am the Homework, I Make You Sweat

What are some everyday objects that you might bring to life using personification?  If these things had a voice, what would they say?  Using “Grass” as a model, select your own everyday non-human topic and use personification to give it a first person voice, writing at least 100 words of either poetry or prose.  Imagine what it would say and what it would say about its job.  Your tone may be serious or silly.

Possible Topics: alarm clock, coffee cup, textbook, guitar, bicycle, paper clip, pencil, car, microwave, baseball

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America. -President Lyndon B. Johnson

1- Wikipedia Carl Sandburg. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sandburg.

2-Poetry Foundation. Carl Sandburg.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/carl-sandburg.

January 5: List Day

Today is the birthday of Umberto Eco (1932-2016), the Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher and semiotician (one who studies signs and symbols).  Although he is best known for his historical mystery novel The Name of the Rose, Eco’s most interesting work might just be a work of nonfiction that he published in 2009 called The Infinity of Lists.  In his book, Eco collects and catalogs examples of lists from literature, music, and art, showing over and over how people have turned to lists in an attempt to bring order to chaos (1).

Some people are critical of lists as a writing form.  They see the ubiquitous internet listicles as a sign of the apocalypse (See March 19:  Listicle Day).  Eco, however, views lists differently:

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists (2).

The following are some of the lists from literature that Eco includes in his book:

-A list of the residents of Hades from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI.

-A list of conditions for manhood from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”

-A list of items that Tom obtained from his friends as payment for the privilege of whitewashing his fence, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

-A list of book categories from the bookstore in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

Lists fascinate us because they appeal to our inherent need for organization.  A list’s title gives the reader immediate and easily categorized information, such as “The Ten Commandments” or “Thirteen Signs You’re Addicted to Lip Balm.”

Lists are an essential tool that assist writers to shovel up heaping helpings of savory details for the reader to enjoy.  Too often writers dwell too much on abstractions and generalities. Lists remind the writer that the reader is hungry for concrete details.  Readers can be told things for only so long; they prefer, instead, to be shown things, things that they can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel.

Today’s Challenge:  Your Personal Parade of Particulars

What are some titles of lists that you would find interesting to enumerate and catalogue your life experiences?  Generating your own lists is a great way to practice generating specific, concrete details in your writing.  Generate at least three list titles of your own, or use some of the examples below.  Then, based on the three titles, generate three separate lists, each containing at least seven items.

Things I’ve Found

Songs on My iPod

Jobs I’d Hate to Have

Things I Love to Hate

Things I Hope to Do by the Time I’m Fifty

Reasons I Get Up in the Morning

Important Numbers in My Life

Things I Can Rant About?

Things I Can Rave About?

Places I’d Like to Go Before I Die

Nicknames I’ve Had in My Life

Most Memorable People I’ve Met

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with . . . . We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.  -Umbeto Eco

1-Eco, Umberto.  The Infinity of Lists.  New York:  Rizzoli, 2009.

2-Beyer, Susanne and Lothar Gorris. We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to DieSpiegal.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/spiegel-interview-with-umberto-eco-we-like-lists-because-we-don-t-want-to-die-a-659577.html.

January 4: Grimm’s Fairy Tales Day

Today is the birthday of Jacob Grimm, who was born in Hanau, Germany on this day in 1785.  Grimm, along with his brother Wilhelm, is the author of one of the best-known works of German literature, Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

While in college at the University of Marburg, the Brothers Grimm developed an interest in German folklore and began a lifelong process of collecting and recording folk tales.  The first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published in 1812 and contained 86 stories.  The book was revised and expanded several times, until 1857 when the 7th edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published with over 200 stories.  Published in more than 100 languages, the fairy tales became known throughout the world, and even today the name Grimm remains synonymous with children’s literature (1).  

Whether we were read adapted versions as bedtime stories or whether we watched filmed versions adapted by Walt Disney, the stories originally collected by the Brothers Grimm remain some of the most familiar stories of our youth:

Snow White

Sleeping Beauty

Rapunzel

Hansel and Gretel

Little Red Riding Hood

Rumpelstiltskin

The Pied Piper of Hamlin

Today’s Challenge:  Your Fairy Tales and Fables Final Four

What children’s stories would you enshrine in the Children’s Literature Hall of Fame?  What makes them so memorable and enduring?  Select four separate children’s stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales or from other children’s literature.  Write an explanation of why you would enshrine each of your chosen stories into the Children’s Literature Hall of Fame.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.  –Albert Einstein

1 –Eiland’s Online English Materials.  A Brief History:  The Brothers Grimm. http://englit.org/eiland_shared/critical/grimm.htm.

December 28: Great Ideas Day

Today is the birthday of philosopher and author Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001).  As a teen, Adler dropped out of high school and worked as a copyboy for the New York Sun, but he later resumed his education at Columbia University.  After he finished the academic requirements for his bachelor’s degree, Adler was not allowed to graduate because he had refused to participate in physical education.  Nevertheless, Adler continued at Columbia as a teacher and a graduate student until he earned his Ph. D. in experimental psychology.  When he finally walked across the stage to collect his doctorate, he was the only Ph.D. in the country without a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a high-school diploma.

Soon Adler moved to the Midwest to teach philosophy at the University of Chicago.  At Chicago, he worked closely with his university’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, to develop a new liberal arts curriculum based on a core collection of outstanding works that constitute the foundation of the literature of Western culture.  Together Adler and Hutchins initiated the Great Books Foundation, a non-profit organization founded to promote continuing liberal education among the general public.

In 1952, Adler compiled a 54-volume collection called Great Books of the Western World.  This collection included the works that Adler considered the canon of Western culture, the best writing from fiction, history, poetry, science, philosophy, drama, politics, religion, economics, and ethics.

In addition to the writings of the canon, the Great Books of the Western World included a two-volume index to the 102 “Great Ideas.” Compiled by Adler, this index is called the Syntopicon and contains all references to each of the Great Ideas in the Great Books.   

By Great Ideas, Adler means the “vocabulary of everyone’s thought.”  The ideas are not technical terms or specialized jargon of different branches of learning; instead, the Great Ideas are “the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live (1).  For Adler, philosophy is not just an academic pursuit; instead, philosophical thought is the business of everyone, and inquiring and conversing about big ideas is a core part of what it means to be human.

Below is an A to W listing of some of the Great Ideas. Each of these ideas is universal in the sense that each is a “common object of thought,” meaning these are ideas which any two human beings should be able discuss.  Unlike the tangible, common objects we interact with, these are ideas — intangible, abstract objects that live in the mind.

Art, Beauty, Change, Democracy, Emotion, Fate, Government, Happiness, Induction, Justice, Knowledge, Language, Mind, Nature, Opinion, Progress, Quality, Rhetoric, Science, Truth, Universal and Particular, Vice and Virtue, Wisdom

Today’s Challenge:  One Great Idea, Two Great Works

What is a single universal idea or theme that appears in the work of two separate authors?  Identify a single universal idea, such as truth, wisdom, or democracy, and explain how that idea appears in two different written works. The works may be fiction, drama, poetry, or non-fiction.  In the course of explaining your idea, relate your interpretation of what you think each author is saying about this idea, along with specific evidence from the text that supports your interpretation. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Adler, Mortimer.  How to Think About the Great Ideas.  Open Court, 2000.

December 17: Page 99 Test Day


Today is the birthday of British novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939).

Ford is best known for his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, a novel which routinely turns up on lists of the greatest novels ever written.  The novel chronicles the lives of two seemingly perfect couples, one American and one British, who become acquainted at a German spa.  

The novel’s famous opening line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” is a more accurate indicator of its plot than is its title.  As events unfold, the reader discovers that the lives of these couples are not as happy as they appear.  Ford’s original title was The Saddest Story, but Ford’s publisher John Lane thought the title was a bit too dour, especially since World War I was raging in Europe at the time.  Ford, who himself had enlisted in the army, was too preoccupied to concern himself with the title.  He later recounted how his novel came to have a somewhat incongruous title:

One day, when I was on parade, I received a final wire of appeal from Mr Lane, and the telegraph being reply-paid I seized the reply form and wrote in hasty irony: ‘Dear Lane, Why not The Good Soldier?’

In addition to being a novelist, Ford was a well-known critic, and he left us with a handy method for judging a book.  The method is not to judge the book by its cover or by its opening line; instead, Ford suggested to judge a book by the quality of its writing on one specific page:

Open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Putting Ford’s Test to the Test

What are the qualities you look for when judging a book?  Select a book that you have not read, and open it to page 99.  Read the page carefully, and then write a Page 99 Review based on what you have read on that page.  What do you notice about the quality of the writing?  Based on what you see on page 99, explain your verdict as to whether or not you think the book is worth reading. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-The 100 Best Novels: No. 41 – The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. The Guardian 30 Jun. 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/30/good-soldier-ford-madox-ford-100-best-novels.

December 10: Declarative Sentence Day


On this day in 1954, Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Because of illness, Hemingway was unable to attend the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, Sweden, to receive his award in person.  He did, however, prepare a brief speech which was read by John C. Cabot, United States Ambassador to Sweden.

In addition to expressing his appreciation to the Nobel administrators, Hemingway’s speech provided some insights on the writer’s life:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if theyimprove his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness andoften his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a goodenough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. (1).

Characteristic of Hemingway’s writing, all four sentences in the paragraph above are declarative, that is they are sentences in which the subject precedes the verb, and they are sentences that make direct statements.  Unlike interrogative sentences, they donot ask questions (Why is writing a lonely life?).  Unlike imperative sentences, they do not make commands (Write every day no matter what.) And unlike exclamatory sentences, they do not express strongemotion (Writing is hard work!).

Today’s Challenge:  The Title is Also Declarative

What is a declarative sentence that would serve as a good title for a personal anecdote?  As Hemingway did with his novel The Sun Also Rises, try coming up with a good title in the form of one complete declarative sentence.  Then write an anecdote, either fact or fiction, that matches the title. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-The Nobel Prizes in Literature. Ernest Hemingway – Banquet Speech. Nobel Prize.org. 

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.”

Horace 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 thelonger 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 atleast 8 words that are each at least 10 letters long.  Record your list ofwords along with a definition of each one.  Also record the number ofwords in the definition.  Then, write your verdict of whether or not eachword is a dense word.  To judge each word, ask and answer the followingquestions:  Does the word crowd enough meaning into a small enoughspace 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)

1-World Wide Words. Sesquipedalian. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-ses1.htm.

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

December 4:  Pascal’s Apology Day

On this day 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, Strunk 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. (3)

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)

1-Pascal, Blaise. Letter XVI To the Reverend Fathers, the Jesuits. 4 Dec. 1656. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pascal/provincial.xviii.html.

2-Keyes, Ralph. The Quote Verifier. New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006: 120.

3- Struck, William Elements of Style. York, PA: 1920. Public Domain. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/37134/37134-h/37134-h.htm.

 

December 3:  Words on Words Day

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

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.

In 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

Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality. –Edgar Allan Poe

Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. –Nathaniel Hawthorne

1-Conrad, Joseph. A Familiar Preface 1921 Public Domain. Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com/237/8.html.