September 28:  Spelling Reform Day

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

On this day in 1768, Benjamin Franklin — founding father, diplomat, printer, scientist, writer, and civic reformer — wrote a letter making his case for spelling reform.

Many know about his inventions, such as the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, but not many know about his attempt to eliminate six letters of the English alphabet and replace them with six of his own invention.

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis 1778.jpgFranklin’s chief concern, like many who came both before and after him, was the confusing discrepancy in English between its sounds and its alphabet:  “The difficulty of learning to spell well . . .  is so great, that few attain it, thousands and thousands writing on to old age without ever being able to acquire it” (1).

To correct the imperfections in the English alphabet, Franklin proposed throwing out the six letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y and replacing them with six new letters of his own, letters which would represent the six sounds found in the following words:

  1. law, caught
  2. run, enough
  3. this, breathe
  4. singer, ring
  5. she, sure, emotion, leash
  6. thing, breath (2)

In his letter Franklin addresses objections to his spelling reform scheme.  One was that books published before the reforms were implemented would become useless.  To rebut this Franklin asked his reader to consider a similar case in Italy:  “Formerly, its inhabitants all spoke and wrote in Latin; as the language changed, the spelling followed it.”  Another objection addressed by Franklin was that of etymology – or word history –, particularly the historic roots of words that are preserved in their orthography (the way they are spelled).  To this objection, Franklin responded with the following apt example:

If I should call a man a knave and a villain, he would hardly be satisfied with my telling him that one of the words originally signified only a lad or servant; and the other an under-ploughman, or the inhabitant of a village. It is from present usage only, that the meaning of words is to be determined (3).

Although Franklin’s arguments are convincing, his reform plan never came to fruition.  Perhaps he was sidetracked by his other possibly more important role as midwife to the birth of the world’s first great democracy.  Not until Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, did spelling in the United States see much reform (See October 16: Dictionary Day).

Today’s Challenge:  The Case for X Reform

Great people like Benjamin Franklin demonstrate the power of ideas, ideas for making their town, state, country, or world a better place.  What do you see in your world that should be reformed, and how specifically would you propose to make it better?  Argue your case by addressing the current problem, followed by a specific vision of how your reforms would improve the situation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Stamp, Jimmy. Ben Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet. Smithsonianmag.com 10 May 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/benjamin-franklins-phonetic-alphabet-58078802/.

2-Twilly, Nicola. Six New Letters for a Reformed Alphabet. http://www.benfranklin300.org/_etc_pdf/Six_New_Letters_Nicola_Twilly.pdf.

3-Ibid.

September 27:  Capital Day

On this day in 1777, the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, became the nation’s capital for a single day.  With the Revolutionary War still raging, George Washington’s Continental Army was outflanked at the Battle of Brandywine, causing them to retreat.  Victory by the British allowed them to capture Philadelphia, the capital of the young nation, with little resistance.

The arrival of the British caused the Second Continental Congress to pack up and move 60 miles west to new headquarters in the Lancaster County Courthouse.  Lancaster’s time as capital city was short-lived, however.  The next day the Continental Congress packed up and moved again, this time to a more strategic position on the west side of the Susquehanna River, 20 miles away in York, Pennsylvania.

Residents of Lancaster have not forgotten their moment in the sun.  In 2011 the Lancaster City Council officially designated each September 27 as Capital Day.

On a usage note, one of most common mistakes in English is confusing the words “capital” and “capitol.”  The only time you should use “capitol” with an “o” is when you are referring to buildings, such as “the capitol buildings” or “the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.  “Capital” with an “a” is used for all other meanings of the word, including capital letters, capital punishment, capital finances, and capital city, meaning the name of the city on the map, rather than a reference to its governmental buildings (2).  For example, “We visited the capitol building in Olympia, the capital of Washington state.”

Today’s Challenge:  Make It a Capital Day

What makes your hometown worthy of being designated “The Nation’s Capital for a Day”?  You’ve been appointed to argue the case for your hometown, and if successful, your town will be awarded the 24-hour honor plus five million dollars.  Promote your town or city for this honor by describing its virtues Chamber of Commerce-style, identifying what makes it a special, one-of-a-king place, worthy of being named capital for a day. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Trex, Ethan. Glory Day: Lancaster’s Brief Stint as Our Nation’s Capital. Mental Floss.com 27 Sep. 2017. http://mentalfloss.com/article/31494/glory-day-lancasters-brief-stint-our-nations-capital.

2-Fogarty, Mignon.  The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2009.

September 26:  Debate Day

On this day in 1960, the first-ever televised presidential debate was held in Chicago.  Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon squared off before an audience of more than 65 million viewers.

This debate revealed the power of television as a modern medium for politics.  Radio listeners awarded the debate to Nixon, but the much larger television audience gave the prize to Kennedy.  In contrast to Kennedy’s relaxed, confident appearance, Nixon looked glum and sweaty.  In addition to a more youthful, vigorous appearance, Kennedy also seemed more at ease with the new medium, looking at the TV camera to address the American viewers.  Nixon, however, instead of looking into the TV camera, turned to Kennedy, addressing his comments solely to his opponent.

It’s these small factors that probably gave Kennedy the edge, not only in the debates but also in the election.  He won the presidency in November 1960 by one of the smallest margins in U.S. presidential history (1).  Nixon ran for president again, winning the 1968 and 1972 elections for president.  In both of these winning campaigns, Nixon declined all invitations to debate his opponent.

Today’s Challenge:   Abecedarian Debate Topics

Abecedarian is an adjective meaning “of or related to the alphabet.”  On this 26th day of the month, it’s appropriate to turn to the alphabet, covering your subject from A to Z.  What are the best topics for a debate — timely or timeless topics that are controversial enough to spark a two-sided argument?  Your challenge is to generate at least 26 different possible debate topics, one topic for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Safire, William.  Lend Me Your Ears:  Great Speeches in History.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

September 24:  Vivid Verb Day

Today is the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), known for his novel The Great Gatsby as well as numerous other short stories and novels.

In a 1938 letter to his daughter, Fitzgerald presented his powerful case for what he felt was the English language’s most potent part of speech:

. . . all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ “Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement–the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes. (1)

Verbs are the engines of every sentence.  They create movement and action as well as images that your reader can see and hear.  Because verbs are so important, you should learn to select your verbs with care and learn to differentiate between imprecise, passive verbs that suck the life out of your sentences and precise, action verbs that enliven your sentences.

Like Fitzgerald, writer Constance Hale argues that confident writers know the importance of vivid verbs.  Hale believes so strongly in verbs, in fact, that she wrote an entire book on them called, Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch.

In her book, Hale talks about a “cheat” she employed as a magazine editor to determine whether or not a writer was up to snuff.  She would begin by circling every verb in the first two or three paragraphs of a submitted story.  Then she would study each verb (2).

Put Hale’s “Verb Check” to the test by examining the two sentences below.  Notice how a wimpy verb only tells, while a vivid verb shows, providing both sight and sound:

Sentence 1:  Mary was angry.

Sentence 2:  Mary slammed her fist on the desk, lowered her eyebrows into an indignant glare, and stomped out of the room.

Today’s Challenge:  Parts of Speech on Parade

What would you say is the most important single part of speech in the English language, and why should writers pay careful attention to how they use it?  Make your case using sentences from great writers as examples. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Seven Tips From F. Scott Fitzgerald on How to Write Fiction. Open Culture.com. 26 Feb. 2013. .

2- Hale, Constance.  Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch:  Let Verbs Power Your Writing.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

September 19:  Balloon Debate Day

On this day in 1783, the first hot air balloon was sent aloft in Annonay, France.  The balloon was engineered by two brothers, Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier. This first flight, however, was not a manned flight.  Because of the unknown effects of high altitude on humans, the brothers decided to experiment with animals.  The first passengers in the basket suspended below the balloon, therefore, were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster.  The 8-minute flight traveled about two miles and was witnessed by a crowd of 130,000, which included King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (1).

Today’s Challenge:  More Than Just Hot Air

Today is the perfect day to hold a balloon debate, a debate where at the end of each round, the audience votes on one or more speakers to eliminate.  In this debate, the audience is asked to imagine that the speakers are traveling in a hot air balloon.  The balloon is sinking, so in order to save everyone, one or more of the speakers must be “thrown out.”

Who would you argue is the most important or influential person in history?  You may hold a balloon debate on any topic, but traditionally a balloon debate revolves around each speaker arguing the case of a famous person from history.  Each speaker, then, attempts to persuade the audience why his or her individual is the most important and, therefore, the least likely candidate for elimination.  Precede the debate by holding a draft, where each participant selects an individual to research and to argue for.  Their task then is to write a speech that answers the following question:  Why is this person the most important and influential person in history? (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Sharp, Tim. The First Hot-Air Balloon. Space.com 16 Jul. 2012. http://m.space.com/16595-montgolfiers-first-balloon-flight.html.

September 15:  Opposing Argument Day

On this day in 1982, USA Today, the American daily newspaper, was first published.  Besides the fact that it was launched to be the newspaper for the entire nation — not just one city — several other characteristics made it unique.  Its news stories were written to be short and easy-to-read.  Each section featured extensive use of color, including an eye-catching infographic in the lower left-hand corner called a “Snapshot.” Critics derided the paper, dubbing it “McPaper.” Today, however, USA Today is still published five days a week and has one of the widest circulations of any newspaper in the United States.

Another unique feature pioneered by USA Today is its “Our View”/”Opposing View” editorials.  In addition to presenting the USA Today Editorial Board’s position on an issue (“Our View”), the paper presents an additional editorial on the same issue that argues an alternative point of view, written by a guest writer and expert in the field.  One example of this is the issue of Testing for U.S. Citizenship.  The Our View editorial headline read, “Make Schoolkids Pass the Same Test As New Citizens,” while the “Opposing View” headline read, “Good Citizenship Transcends a Test.”

Today’s Challenge:  Seeing Both Sides

What are the opposing arguments on an issue that you care about?  One of the best ways to truly understand an issue is to look at it from the opposing point of view and consider the arguments made from the other side.  Doing this will help you see the issue from a broader perspective and will help you avoid narrow mindedness or groupthink.  Looking at contrary arguments will also help you solidify your own thinking, equipping you to anticipate objections, counter with strong rebuttals, and even concede certain arguments if necessary. This does not come naturally to most people, but if you practice, it will help you craft arguments that are more forceful, more cogent, and more credible.

Write an editorial that summaries the opposing argument on an issue you care about.  Begin by thinking about your actual position on the issue; then, anticipate the strongest objections to your argument that would be made by the opposing side. Make a real effort to climb into the shoes of your opposition and to argue the issue fairly and respectfully from that point of view. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

September 14: Anthem Day

On this day, “by the dawn’s light,” Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to the United States’ national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  The inspiration for Key’s great words was the British fleet’s shelling of Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor of Baltimore, Maryland.  The year was 1814, and the war was the War of 1812.  Key watched the bombardment from an odd perspective.  An American lawyer, Key had boarded a British ship prior to the battle to negotiate the release of another American being held by the British.  Once on the ship, Key was detained by the British until the battle ended the next morning. Key’s vantage point was from the enemy’s side, where the British fleet aimed its guns at the flag flying over the American fort, a flag that at that time had 15 stars and 15 stripes.

A few days after Key wrote his poem, it was published in American newspapers.  Soon people began singing the poem’s words to the tune of an English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”  The song did not become the national anthem immediately, however.  More than one hundred years later, in 1931, the U.S. Congress made it the official anthem (1).

Key’s words are so familiar that we seldom examine the remarkable picture he illuminates with his imagery.  Read them again, paying special attention to how he evokes both pictures and sounds:

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? (2)

Today’s Challenge:  An A+ Alternative Anthem

An anthem is a rousing, reverential song of devotion or loyalty to a group, a school, or a nation.  While the “Star-Spangled Banner” is certainly reverential, many have criticized it as a song that is too difficult to sing. What would you argue would be a good alternative national anthem?  Identify the specific song, its composer, and your specific reasoning for making this song the alternative national anthem. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Bennet, William and John Cribb.  The American Patriot’s Almanac. New York:  Thomas Nelson, 2008: 350.

2- Key, Francis Scott, 1779-1843. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Public Domain.

September 8:  International Literacy Day

Today is International Literacy Day sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). First observed in 1966, International Literacy Day calls attention to the need to promote literacy and education around the world as an antidote to poverty and as an agent for empowerment and global progress (1).

Education and literacy are central to the stability, prosperity, and well-being of any country. As explained by Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General:

Literacy is not merely a cognitive skill of reading, writing and arithmetic, for literacy helps in the acquisition of learning and life skills that, when strengthened by usage and application throughout people’s lives, lead to forms of individual, community and societal development that are sustainable.

While literacy rates are on the rise around the world, there are still millions of people who are unable to read and write.  The goal of International Literacy Day is to both celebrate literacy and to promote ideas for stamping out illiteracy.

Today’s Challenge: Read All About It

What can people do to celebrate and promote literacy? Research some quotations on the topic of literacy.  Reflect on these quotations and then, write the text of a Public Service Announcement (PSA) to promote literacy and International Literacy Day.  Incorporate at least one of the quotations you found on literacy into your PSA.  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- UNESCO. International Literacy Day 2017. https://en.unesco.org/themes/literacy-all/literacy-day

September 2:  Presidential Proverb Day

On this day in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech at the Minnesota State Fair where he used a line that was to become famously associated with him:  “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Roosevelt was Vice President at the time, but he became the youngest president ever just eight days later when President William McKinley died from an assassin’s bullet.

In his speech, Roosevelt did not claim that his metaphor was original, but he did extend the metaphor to illustrate how it applied to foreign policy:

A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.” If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible. So it is with the nation. (1)

As President, Roosevelt practiced what he preached, “speaking softly” by negotiating peacefully with other nations while wielding the “big stick” of a strong military.  One clear example of this was “The Great White Fleet,” an armada of sixteen battleships that circumnavigated the globe to demonstrate the Unites States’ military might. More than just a masterful politician, Roosevelt was a historian, biographer, and author of more than 25 books (2).

Roosevelt is not the only president to practice his powers of rhetoric. Below are a few other vivid examples:

Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.

-Abraham Lincoln

What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.  -Dwight D. Eisenhower

Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.  -John Adams

If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress. -Barack Obama

Today’s Challenge:  Wisdom from the Whitehouse

What would you argue is the smartest thing ever said by a United States president?  Argue for one of the quotations on this page, or research another one on your own.  Make your case by explaining your reasoning.  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1- Roosevelt, Theodore. Address at Minnesota State Fair, Sept. 2, 1901. Public Domain.

2-Welter, Ben. Sept. 3, 1901: Roosevelt ‘Big Stick’ Speech at State Fair. Star Tribune 3 Sep. 2014.

August 29:  Akeelah and the Bee Day

Today marks the anniversary of the DVD release of the film Akeelah and the Bee. This 2006 film is a drama about 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson (played by Keke Palmer) who overcomes personal struggles to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Directed by Doug Atchison, the film stars Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Larabee, an English professor who coaches Akeelah.

The film is an offshoot of the 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary and surprise hit Spellbound, which profiled a number of the competitors in the National Spelling Bee. After the success of Spellbound, the Scripps National Spelling Bee was broadcast on network television for the first time in May 2005. The growing popularity of spelling has even entered the adult world with spelling competitions in bars around the country and a senior national spelling bee sponsored by the AARP.

Akeelah and the Bee film.jpgIn addition, in 2005 the film Bee Season was released, and spelling even hit Broadway with the 2005 musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Below are the eight winning words for the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee for the years 1998-2005:

chiaroscurist: 1998 – a painter who cares for and studies light and shade rather than color

logorrhea: 1999 – pathologically excessive (and often incoherent) talking

demarche: 2000 – a move or step or maneuver in political or diplomatic affairs.

succedaneum: 2001 – (medicine) something that can be used as a substitute (especially any medicine that may be taken in place of another.

prospicience: 2002 – prevision: seeing ahead; knowing in advance; foreseeing.

pococurante: 2003 – Indifferent; apathetic.

autochthonous:  2004 – of rocks, deposits, etc.; found where they and their constituents were formed.

appoggiatura: 2005 – grace note: an embellishing note usually written in smaller size.  (1).

Today’s Challenge:  To Bee or Not to Bee

Should schools still hold spelling bees?  What are the arguments for holding bees and for eliminating them?  Imagine that an elementary school in your city or region is considering eliminating the annual elementary school spelling bee; make your argument either against or in support of this action.  In the course of your argument, address the relative importance or unimportance of spelling in the education of young people today. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1 – Simon, Johnny. The Champions and Winning Words from the Last 20 Years of Spelling Bees. Quartz.com. 1 June 2018. https://qz.com/1294814/the-2018-spelling-bee-champion-winning-word-and-winners-from-past-20-years/.