On this day in 1984, J. Ruth Gendler
published The Book of Qualities. In Gendler’s unique book she writes
individual profiles of over 50 human emotions, using personification to bring
each to life. In Gendler’s book we’re reintroduced to familiar emotions,
like joy, innocence, and discipline — not just as abstract
ideas, but as living, breathing individuals.
Each of the profiles is an excellent
reminder of the power of personification to enliven writing. In our
normal life we don’t have the power to breathe life into inanimate objects.
When we write, however, he can wield this rhetorical superpower by
employing personification. With personification, it’s as if we’re putting
arms and legs on an idea, allowing it to walk around the room. We can
even teach it to talk.
In the following examples, Gendler employs
personification to introduce us to “Despair,” “Stillness,” and “Confidence.”
Notice how she employs specific action verbs and concrete nouns:
Despair papered her bathroom walls with
newspaper articles on acid rain.
Stillness will meet you for tea or a walk
by the ocean.
Confidence ignores “No Trespassing” signs.
It is as if he doesn’t see them. He is an explorer, committed to
following his own direction.
Today’s Challenge: Abstractions in
How would you bring an abstract human
emotion to life using personification? Write a profile of at least 60 words on one specific human
emotion. Use your imagination to explore what the emotion would look
like, what kinds of things it would be doing, and what it might say if it could
talk. Select one of the qualities below from The Book of Qualities,
or come up with one of your own.
Before you write your profile, read the
following example. It’s on humor; one quality that Gendler doesn’t write
about in The Book of Qualities:
Humor is unpredictable. He hides
around corners and jumps out when you least expect him. He’s optimistic,
healthy, and smart. Never depressing or anxious, he thrives on the unsuspected
and spontaneous. He’s a great companion, constantly reminding you to
loosen up, look at the bright side, and smile more often. He loves to
break up fights — when he’s around no one has the strength to make a fist.
Quotation of the Day: There is no armor against fate;
death lays his icy hands on kings. -Jane Shirley
1-Gendler, J. Ruth. The
Book of Qualities. New York: HarperPerennial, 1984.
Today is the anniversary of the publication
of the first novel in America, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of
Nature. When the book was first released in 1789, it was published
anonymously. Later, however, William Hill Brown, a 24 year-old Bostonian,
came forward to claim authorship.
Although the novel is not remembered today
for its literary excellence, it is characteristic of it time. Reflecting
a popular 18th century literary device, the novel was epistolary, that is, its
story is told via letters between characters. The novel involves an
illicit love triangle and is written as a cautionary tale. Some speculate
that Brown published his novel anonymously because the details of his plot were
based on actual events in the lives of his Boston neighbors.
Although there are certainly examples of
long fiction that might be called novels before the 1700s, it was the 18th
century that launched the popularity of this “new form” of extended narrative,
best exemplified by the works of English writers Daniel Defoe, Samuel
Richardson, and Henry Fielding.
Today’s Challenge: Blackjack
How can you captivate a reader by writing a
21-word opening sentence of a short story or novel? To celebrate America’s first novel
on 1/21, your task is to craft a novel first line for a story that is exactly
21 words. Think about a narrative hook that will grab your reader.
Here’s an example:
At 7:10 am that Monday morning, Bill awoke
to the choking sound of his cat, Hamlet, vomiting violently on his pillow.
There is nothing magical about 21 words,
but writing to an exact word count will force you to pay attention to the
impact of each word you write. It will also force you to pay careful attention
as you revise and edit. When you write the first draft of your sentence,
don’t worry about word count. Get some ideas and details down on paper
first. Then go back and revise, making every word count — up to exactly
21 (no more, no fewer).
The sentences below are some examples of
opening sentences from American novels. They are not 21 words, but they
will give you a flavor for the ways different novelists have opened their
You may now felicitate me — I have had an
interview with the charmer I informed you of. -William Hill Brown, The Power of
Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. (1789)
I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various
people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different
story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: It is only a novel… or, in short,
only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which
the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its
varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world
in the best-chosen language. -Jane
Erin. 7 Fascinating Facts About the First
American Novel. Mental Floss.com. 21 Jan. 2016. http://mentalfloss.com/article/74019/7-fascinating-facts-about-first-american-novel.
On this day in 1779, Peter Mark Roget was born in London. Roget is best known for his groundbreaking work, Roget’s Thesaurus, originally published in 1852. Roget’s work is a pioneer achievement in lexicography — the practice of compiling dictionaries. Instead of listing words alphabetically, as in a traditional dictionary, Roget classified words in groups based on six large classes of words: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. Each of these categories is then divided into subcategories, making up a total of 1,000 semantic categories under which synonyms are listed. Like a biologist creating a taxonomy of animal species, Roget attempted to bring a coherent organization to the English word-hoard.
In order to make the categories more
accessible, Roget’s son, John Lewis Roget developed an extensive index that was
published with the thesaurus in 1879. Roget’s grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget,
also worked to edit the thesaurus until 1952.
No one knows for certain how many words
there are in the English language, but because of its liberal tradition of
borrowing and adopting words from any language it rubs up against, there are
more words in English than in any other language. In fact, there are so many
more words in English that it is unlikely that the idea of a thesaurus would
even be conceived of for a language other than English.
Roget continued the English tradition of
borrowing words when he selected a Greek word for the title of his collection: thesauros
which means treasury or storehouse. Roget’s original title
for his work was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and
Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary
Like the association of Webster with
dictionaries, Roget’s name has become synonymous with thesauri (the
irregular plural of thesaurus). Also like Webster, the name Roget is no longer
under trademark; therefore, just because a thesaurus is called Roget’s does not
mean it has any affiliation with the original work of the Roget family (1).
Generations of writers have turned to
Roget’s work to assist their writing. One example is American writer
Garrison Keillor, who praised Roget in a 2009 article called, “The Book That
Changed My Life”:
The book was Roget’s International
Thesaurus. It not only changed my life, but also transformed,
diversified, and modulated it by opening up the lavish treasure trove of
English, enabling me to dip my pen into glittering pools of vernacular, idiom,
lingo, jargon, argot, blather, colloquialisms, officialese, patois, and
phraseology of all sorts. I discovered Roget’s as a callow youth grazing
in the reference books. I opened it, and it became my guru, master,
oracle, mahatma, rabbi, mentor, and also my bible, and I clung to it and
consulted it constantly, feverishly, ever in search of the precise color and
gradation of words. Its effect on me was to transformed me from a plain
little nerd from Minnesota to a raconteur and swashbuckling boulevardier, sporting
man, pilgrim, loafer, sometimes a roughneck, sometimes a fire-eating visionary
. . . . Thank you, Peter Roget. Gracias and merci (2).
Not all writers or English teachers are
fans of the Thesaurus, however. Sometimes it’s a little too easy for a
student grab a thesaurus and insert a synonym that doesn’t quite work in
context. For example, a student once wrote the sentence:
Today I ate a really good donut.
Searching for a synonym for the word “good”
in his thesaurus, he revised, as follows:
Today I ate a really benevolent
It’s because of mishaps like this that the
Irish novelist Roddy Doyle gives the following advice:
Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the
back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or
effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.
Because there are so many synonyms in
English, it’s important for writers to become students of the subtleties of
language. The best way to do this is to look at both the denotation of a
word and the connotation of a word. A word’s denotation is the
literal dictionary meaning of a word; connotation is the implied meaning of a
word along with the feelings associated with that word. Denotations can
be found easily in a dictionary, but connotations are bit harder to find.
The best way to learn about connotations is to study words in their
natural habitat — that is in the writing of professional writers.
Notice, for example, how the writer Charles
S. Brooks (1878-1934) explores the subtle differences between the words “wit”
and “humor” in the following excerpt:
Wit is a lean creature with sharp inquiring
nose, whereas humor has a kindly eye and comfortable girth. Wit, if it be
necessary, uses malice to score a point–like a cat it is quick to jump–but
humor keeps the peace in an easy chair. Wit has a better voice in a solo, but
humor comes into the chorus best. Wit is as sharp as a stroke of lightning,
whereas humor is diffuse like sunlight. Wit keeps the season’s fashions and is
precise in the phrases and judgments of the day, but humor is concerned with
homely eternal things. Wit wears silk, but humor in homespun endures the wind.
Wit sets a snare, whereas humor goes off whistling without a victim in its
mind. Wit is sharper company at table, but humor serves better in mischance and
in the rain. When it tumbles, wit is sour, but humor goes uncomplaining without
its dinner. Humor laughs at another’s jest and holds its sides, while wit sits
wrapped in study for a lively answer (3).
Today’s Challenge: Is a Rant the
Same as a Diatribe?
What are two words that — even though they
are synonyms — do not mean exactly the same thing? What are the subtle
differences in the words’ denotations and connotations? Using Charles S. Brooks’ paragraph as a
model, write a paragraph comparing the differences between one of the word
On this day in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote. Cervantes’ novel, originally written in Spanish, remains one of the most influential, most reprinted, and most translated books ever written.
The novel’s plot begins with an ordinary
man named Alonso Quijano who voraciously reads romantic tales of chivalry. Alonso
becomes so obsessed with the stories of knights errant that he decides to
become one himself. Taking the new name Don Quixote de La Mancha, he
mounts his horse Rocinante and joins forces with his sidekick Sancho Panza to
battle the forces of evil and to defend the weak.
Deluded and clearly insane, Don Quixote attacks
windmills, thinking they are hulking giants. Ordinary inns to Quixote
become castles, and peasant girls become beautiful princesses.
Literary critics call Don Quixote the
first modern novel, and the critic Harold Bloom argued that only Shakespeare
approached the genius of Cervantes’ writing. William Faulkner read Don
Quixote every year, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaimed Don
Quixote his favorite literary character (1).
Often when an idea or a style originates
from a specific person, that idea or style takes on new meaning, not just as a
noun but as an adjective. There are many examples of these proper nouns
that become eponymous adjectives (sometimes called proper adjectives), such as:
Darwinian, Epicurean, or Kafkaesque. When proper
adjectives spring from literature, it’s usually the author’s name that
transforms from noun to adjective (as in Orwellian, Shakespearean, or Byronic),
but occasionally a character comes along who is so distinct and so unique that
the character’s name takes on a more general adjectival meaning.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote is such a character. Check any dictionary
and you will see that the adjective quixotic refers not just to
Cervantes’ famous knight, but also to anyone who is “exceedingly idealistic,
unrealistic, or impractical.”
Today’s Challenge: Autobiography
of an Adjective
What are some examples of adjectives that
derive from the name of a specific person, real or imaginary? Select one of the eponymous
adjectives below and research the etymology of the word, including the
biography of the person behind the word. Then, imagine the person behind
the word is telling the story of how he or she became so well known that his or
her name became an adjective. Also, have the person explain the meaning
of their adjective as it is used today and also what ideas or styles it
embodies? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: It is one thing to write
as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about
things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must
write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding
or subtracting anything from the truth. –Miguel de Cervantes
On this day in 1703, the winds of one of the fiercest storms in British history began to blow. They would continue blowing for an entire week, resulting in 123 deaths on land and 8,000 drowned at sea. More than 800 houses were destroyed along with over 400 windmills.
Almost as notable as the storm itself was the publication of an account of the storm that was published by Daniel Defoe just a few months after the storm. At the time, Defoe had not yet published his best known work, the novel Robinson Crusoe (See February 1: From News to Novel Day). Defoe had just been released from prison after serving several months for seditious libel after publishing a satirical tract on the religious intolerance of the Church of English. His sentence included being put in the pillory in the center of London for one hour on three successive days.
Desperate for money after his legal troubles, Defoe hatched the idea of writing about the great storm. He didn’t just write his own account, however. Instead, he placed newspaper ads requesting individuals to send him their stories from the storm. Although there were newspapers at the time, the type of objective news reporting we associate with journalism today was non-existent. Defoe’s book The Storm is seen today as a pioneering work of journalism, containing approximately 60 separate first-hand accounts of England’s great tempest (1).
In the excerpt below, Defoe recounts a grim anecdote of a double suicide by a ship’s captain and his surgeon:
One unhappy Accident I cannot omit, and which is brought us from good Hands, and happen’d in a Ship homeward bound from the West-Indies. The Ship was in the utmost Danger of Foundring; and when the Master saw all, as he thought, lost, his Masts gone, the Ship leaky, and expecting her every moment to sink under him, fill’d with Despair, he calls to him the Surgeon of the Ship, and by a fatal Contract, as soon made as hastily executed, they resolv’d to prevent the Death they fear’d by one more certain; and going into the Cabbin, they both shot themselves with their Pistols. It pleas’d God the Ship recover’d the Distress, was driven safe into —— and the Captain just liv’d to see the desperate Course he took might have been spar’d; the Surgeon died immediately. (2)
Defoe’s legacy remains alive today in the form of six basic words that form the essential toolkit for journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Known commonly as the 5 Ws and H, these six words are excellent reminders of the basic questions we should use to investigate any topic, whether writing a news story or an investigative report:
Who was involved?
When did it happen?
Where did it happen?
Why did it happen?
How did it happen?
Today’s Challenge: Searching for Sense with Six Question
What are some examples of the most important events in world history? Brainstorm a list of significant events from world history. Then, select one specific event and begin researching the event by asking and answering the 5 Ws and H. Put together a brief report that includes answers to all six questions. Write for an audience who knows little about the event. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
1-Miller, John J. “Writing Up a Storm” Wall Street Journal 13 August 2011.
2-Defoe, Daniel. The Storm. Project Gutenberg. Public Domain. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42234/42234-h/42234-h.htm.
On this day in 1989, Robert Fulghum published his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The book, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years, is a collection of short essays, subtitled “Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things.”
Fulghum grew up in Waco, Texas, and before he began writing full time, he was a Unitarian minister and an art and philosophy teacher.
The first essay in Fulghum’s book, called “Credo,” explains the origin of his book’s title. Fulghum explains that each spring throughout his life he would sit down and write a personal credo, a list of statements of personal belief. This list evolved over the years with statements that were sometimes comical, sometimes bland, sometimes cynical, and sometimes over-complicated. The final version of his credo came to him, however, when he realized that true meaning in life did not need to be complicated. In fact, he already knew what he needed to know; he had learned it a long time ago in kindergarten. The basic rules he learned like “Share everything,” “Play fair,” and “Clear up your own mess” served him throughout life (1).
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has spawned numerous imitations, spinoffs, and parodies based on television shows, movies, books, etc. These imitations adopt Fulghum’s title and list as their template, beginning with “All I Really Need to Know I Learned From ______,” followed by a list of principles based on the source of inspiration.
All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek
All I Really Need to Know I Learned from My Dog
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Fairy Tales
A further adaptation narrows the learning a bit to a single specific area, as in:
All I Really Need to Know about ___________ I Learned from ___________
One example of this kind of spinoff is a book, published in 2014 by Paul Oyer, Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating.
Today’s Challenge: Create Your Credo
How would you finish the following titles, and what principles would you include in your personal credo? “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in/from ______.” And “All I Really Need to Know about ___________ I Learned in/from ___________.”
Create your own spin-off of Fulghum’s credo. Brainstorm some ideas based on books, movies, television shows, the internet, or some other aspect of life that you know well. Once you have selected a single focus, generate a list of principles that spring from your selected area. Your list may contain serious insights or humorous insights. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
1-Fulghum, Robert. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.
WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
On this day in 1899, L. Frank Baum (1856-1918) finished the manuscript of his finest work called The Emerald City, a work that would later bear a more familiar title: The Wonderful World of Oz. To commemorate the occasion, Baum framed his pencil with the following note: “With this pencil I wrote the manuscript of The Emerald City.”
For the name of his imaginary setting, Baum claimed his inspiration came from the label on the third drawer of his filing cabinet which read O-Z. Other inspiration came from his boyhood home of Peerskill, New York, which had roads paved with bright yellow bricks imported from Holland.
Unfortunately, Baum’s book was not the Harry Potter of its day, and although he wrote 13 sequels, he never earned a lot of money. When he died of heart disease in 1918, he left just $1,072.96 in his will.
Even the film version of the book, The Wizard of Oz, lost money when it was released in 1939, 21 years after Baum’s death. The film did not begin its journey to becoming an iconic classic until the 1950s when it was shown on television. Forty-five million people watched it the first time is was broadcasted on November 3, 1956 (1).
Today’s Challenge: Go to Your Imaginary Happy Place
What imaginary place would you rate as the greatest of all, either from books, television, or movies? What makes this place so special? Brainstorm a list of all the imaginary places you can think of. If you’re having trouble remembering, use the list of imaginary places below to get you started. Then, select one and explain what makes it your top fictional setting.
WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
On this day in 1901, Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim was published. The novel is an adventure story set in 19th century India, a time of British colonial rule. The adventure in the book, however, pales when compared to the adventure surrounding what happened when a soldier in the French Foreign Legion acquired a French edition of the novel.
The soldier’s name was Maurice Hamonneau, and his decision to take Kipling’s book into combat during World War I saved his life. Shot in battle near Verdun, Hamonneu lay unconscious for hours. When he regained consciousness, he realized that the book which he was carrying in his breast pocket had shielded him from the bullet. Piercing the book, the bullet left a hole that stopped 330 pages into the book, leaving only 20 intact pages between the bullet and Hamonneu’s heart.
In gratitude, Hamonneu sent the bullet-pierced book to Kipling along with the medal he had been awarded in the battle. Kipling was moved by the gesture, but later when he learned that Hamonneu had become a father, he returned the book and the medal with a note to Hamonneu’s son, advising him to always carry a book of at least 350 pages in his breast pocket.
Today the book and Hamonneu’s medal are preserved in the rare book section of the United States Library of Congress (1).
Today’s Challenge: Books Not Bullets
What one book is so good that it’s worth taking into battle — a book that everyone should read as if his or her life depended on it? What makes the book so special, so inspirational? Explain your choice, and assume you are writing to an audience who has not read the book. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
On this day in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published. Tolkien began the book in a rather unexpected way. As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, Tolkien would augment his salary in the summers by marking School Certificate exams, a test taken by 16 year-olds in the United Kingdom. In a 1955 letter to the poet W.H. Auden, Tolkien recounted the moment that launched what was to become a classic in fantasy and children’s literature. Taking a small break from correcting student papers, he scribbled the following sentence on a blank sheet of paper:
‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ (1).
The opening line that Tolkien scribbled on a blank page that fateful day remained intact in the published final draft.
Today’s Challenge: From Blank Page to Page Turner
What character and setting would you introduce in the first two sentences of a story? Grab your own blank piece of paper, and draft at least two sentences that introduce a character and a setting for a story. Hold a contest to see whose novel first lines resonate the most with readers. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson (1708-1784), the writer of the first scholarly researched English dictionary. His work A Dictionary of the English Language was published in two volumes on April 15, 1755. Johnson’s dictionary was not the first dictionary in English, but what made it special was its use of illustrative quotations by the best writers in English.
A lexicographer is a writer of dictionaries, and Johnson set the standard for the basic principle that lexicographers use even today, that is deducing the meaning of a word based on how it is used by accomplished, published writers. Instead of creating meanings of words, the lexicographer reads prodigiously, gathering examples of words used in context in published works. Only after gathering these examples does the lexicographer write a definition of a word. Thus, instead of prescribing the definitions of words, the work of a lexicographer is descriptive. Working objectively, like a scientist, a lexicographer observes (describes) the way words are actually used in the real world by real writers, rather than declaring by fiat (prescribing) what words mean.
In Johnson’s Dictionary he defines his job as follows:
Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
In his preface to his dictionary, Johnson stated his purpose: not to fix the language by defining its words in print, but to display its power by arranging it for easy alphabetical access:
When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. (1)
Today’s Challenge: Lexicographer for a Day
What are the key elements of writing a definition? The act of writing the definitions of words allows you to see the many facets of language that often go unnoticed. Begin your definition with your word and its part of speech. Then, identify a general category or class that the word fits into. Finally, provide details that show what differentiates the word from the other words in its class — in other words, details that show how it is distinct from other words in its general category.
Here’s an example:
Pencil (Noun): a type of writing or drawing instrument that consists of a thin stick of graphite enclosed in a thin piece of wood or fixed in a case made of metal or plastic.
Open a dictionary to a random page, and write down the first four words you find. Then, without looking at the definitions, write your own. Then, compare your definitions to the ones published in the dictionary. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)