January 22:  Knowledge is Power Day

Today is the birthday of English philosopher, statesman, and scientist, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), known for the famous pronouncement, “Knowledge is power.”  In science, Bacon challenged the established deductive method of thinking, which was based on the classical writings of Aristotle and Plato. Unlike deduction, which is based on the syllogism, Bacon’s inductive method is based on empirical evidence.  In Bacon’s method, the five senses become the basis of how we make sense of our world, by observation, data gathering, analysis, and experimentation.

While Bacon is known today for the development of the scientific method, his devotion to that method might have also led to his own demise.  The story goes that one snowy day in 1626 Bacon was travelling with a friend in his carriage.  The two men began arguing about Bacon’s recent hypothesis that fresh meat could be preserved if frozen.  Seeing an opportunity to do some on-the-spot experimentation, Bacon stopped his carriage and purchased a chicken from a peasant woman.  After having the woman gut the chicken, Bacon proceeded to pack snow into the chicken’s carcass. He then put the chicken in a bag, packed more snow around the outside of its body, and buried it.  Unfortunately, in the process of gathering his empirical evidence, Bacon caught a severe chill which led to his death by pneumonia.

In addition to his important work in science, Bacon is also known today for his writing, principally the English essay.  Influence by Montaigne, the French writer who pioneered the essay, Bacon adopted and popularized the form in English as a method for exploring ideas in writing.

Bacon wrote on a wide range of topics, but preceded each of his essays’ titles with the preposition “of,” as in Of Truth, Of Death, Of Revenge, Of Love, Of Boldness, Of Ambition.  His essays are eminently quotable, for Bacon crafted his sentences carefully, making each one a profound package of pithiness — you might go so far as to call them “Bacon bits.”  As Bacon explained in his own words, aphorisms, those concise statements of general truth, were essential to his thinking:

Aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorisms but some good quantity of observation; and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt, to write aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Everything is Better With Bacon

Why should an individual devote him or herself to study?  Is time put in toward the pursuit of knowledge worth it?  Read Bacon’s famous essay “Of Studies.”  Then, write a response to his ideas.  Do you agree or disagree with Bacon?  What do you think is the purpose of study? (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Of Studies by Francis Bacon

STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study 197 the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt. (2)

Quotation of the Day:  The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will. -Francis Bacon





January 20:  Chiasmus Day

On this day in 1961 John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the Unites States’ 34th president.  From the text of his inaugural address, Kennedy uttered what has become probably the most famous sentences in political history:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy, who at 42 years of age was the youngest president ever elected, exuded youth, enthusiasm, and idealism as he proclaimed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . .”  The skillful use of rhythm, repetition, alliteration, antithesis and parallelism make Kennedy’s inaugural address a rhetorical masterpiece.  The speech’s most memorable line, however, features a distinctive rhetorical device called chiasmus.

Chiasmus, which is also known as antimetabole, is the “all for one, one for all” device.  It is a special brand of parallel structure that involves a rhetorical criss-cross or flip-flop.  What makes chiasmus distinctive is that the words are not just repeated, rather they are repeated in reverse order, as in, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

In order to see the power of Kennedy’s chiasmus, contrast what Kennedy might have said with what he actually said:

Without chiasmus:  “Do not be self-centered, thinking only of yourself; instead; think of what you can do to contribute to your country.”

With chiasmus:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Notice how with chiasmus the reversal of the words “you” and “country” causes the reader to reevaluate the relationship between the two ideas.  More than just a rhetorical flourish, this is one of the central themes of Kennedy’s message.

Also notice that not only does chiasmus make the sentence more memorable, but also the sentence’s simple, clear words pack a punch.  Of the sentence’s 17 words, all but two are single syllable words.  The only word of more than a single syllable is the key word “country,” which is repeated twice for emphasis.  Like Lincoln and Churchill before him, Kennedy knew the power of clear, concise language.

Today’s Challenge:  What Chiasmus Can Do For You

As seen in Kennedy’s use of chiasmus, it is an especially useful device for reversing an audience’s attitude or attempting to correct or flip an audience’s thinking.  What are some general beliefs or attitudes held by many people that you think should be changed?  How might you employ chiasmus to state the change in belief or attitude that you want to see?

Create a sentence using chiasmus that states a change in a belief or attitude that you would like to see.  For example:   

“You don’t own your cellphone, your cellphone owns you.”

Then write a short speech using that sentence as your title.  In your speech explain specifically the change you would like to see and why you think this change would be an improvement.

If you can’t think of an original sentence, create a spin-off chiasmus using Kennedy’s sentence or some of the other examples below:

Quitters never win and winners never quit.

If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.

Do things right, and do the right things.

One should work to live, not live to work.

Example spin-off:  Don’t ask what your English teacher can do for you, ask what you can do for your English teacher.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. –Thomas Henry Huxley



January 17: Virtues Day

Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), writer, inventor, printer, and founding father.

BenFranklinDuplessis.jpgFranklin was a Renaissance man in every sense of the term.  He aided Jefferson in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, persuaded the French to aid the rebel colonies in their fight with England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.

Perhaps Franklin is best known for his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1758. Full of proverbs, wit, and advice, Poor Richard’s Almanack made Franklin an eminently quotable figure even though Franklin freely admitted that fewer than 10 percent of the sayings were original.

In his autobiography, which was published in 1791, Franklin recounts one particularly interesting project he undertook when he was only 20 years old.  It was what he called a “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” 

Franklin’s project began first as a writing project, a list of the virtues that he felt were necessary to practice in order to achieve his goal of moral perfection.  As he explains,

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.

The names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

  1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin arranged his list of virtues in strategic order from one to thirteen and created a calendar devoted to mastering one virtue each week.  Practicing each virtue, he hoped, would lead to making each a habit, and his thirteen-week plan would culminate in his moral perfection.

Today’s Challenge:  Tale of a Trait

What is the single most important virtue or commendable trait  that a person can practice, and what specific story would you tell to illustrate its importance?  The idea of identifying virtues and practicing virtuous behavior did not begin with Franklin.  Dating back to the fourth century B.C., Plato identified in his Republic the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.  The noun virtue comes from the Latin virtus, which was derived from the Latin vir, meaning “man” (the same root that’s in the word virile).  Thus, the original sense of virtue related to manliness, and the qualities that were associated with men of strong character, such as moral strength, goodness, valor, bravery, and courage (1).

As Plato says in his Republic, youth is a vital time for the forming of character, and the stories that are told to youth should be chosen carefully based on the virtues they teach:

Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

Write an argument for the one virtue you would identify as the most important — one of Franklin’s virtues or another of your choice.  Present your case for why this virtue is so important, along with a specific story or anecdote that illustrates the virtue’s benefits. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. –Aristotle

1-Online Etymology – “Virtue”



January 9:  Pamphlet Day

On this date in 1776 one of the most influential pamphlets every written was published, a pamphlet that convinced the American colonists to fight for their independence from Britain.  The pamphlet was Common Sense, and although it was originally published anonymously, today we know its author was Thomas Paine (1737-1809).

Commonsense.jpgBorn in England, Paine spent his early years struggling to make ends meet in a number of jobs:  corset maker, sailor, English teacher and tax collector.  Paine’s fortunes changed, however, when he met Benjamin Franklin in London in 1774.  With a letter of recommendation from Franklin, Paine travelled to Philadelphia where he began work as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine.

Even though the colonists fired in anger at the British at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, full fledged rebellion was not inevitable.  Many favored reconciliation with mother England.  Paine, however, called for full on rebellion.   Paine’s pamphlet published on January 9, 1776 presented his argument for independence, not in the legal or philosophical language of previous treatises, but in the plain, forceful language of the common man:

For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is (1).

Paine ends his argument by asking his readers to stand up to tyranny and to fight for freedom:

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind (1).

Common Sense was a publishing sensation, going through 25 printings in just its first year of publication.  It sold at least 75,000 copies, making it America’s first best seller (2).

Today’s Challenge:  No Paine, No Pamphlet

What are some examples of revolutionary ideas from the past or present,  ideas that either have changed the world or possibly may change the world in the future?  In the era in which Thomas Paine was writing — the 18th century — challenging the divine right of kings was a revolutionary idea.  Research other revolutionary ideas from the past or present, and create a pamphlet making your argument for or against one of these ideas.  Like Paine, make your argument in clear, forceful language. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  No pamphlet, no book, ever kindled such a sudden conflagration, a purifying flame, in which the prejudices and fears of millions were consumed.  To read it now, after the lapse of more than a hundred years, hastens the blood.  It is but the meagre truth to say that Thomas Paine did more for the cause of separation, to sow the seeds of independence, than any other man of his time. –Robert Ingersoll on Paine’s Common Sense in 1892


2- Prothero, Stephen.  The American Bible:  How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2012.




January 8:   Rogerian Argument Day

Today is the birthday of American psychologist Carl R. Rogers (1902-1987) who was born in Oak Park, Illinois.

Carlrogers.jpgAs a psychologist and therapist, Rogers was interested in improving human relationships.  For Rogers, the major factor in healthy relationships was clear communication, which is often hindered by the tendency of people to judge each other.  Roger’s mission was to help people set aside their evaluations of one another and to instead truly listen to each other.  For Rogers, truly listening was more than just trying to understand another person’s point of view; instead, it involved climbing into that person’s skin and trying to not only see the world from that person’s perspective, but also to achieve an understanding of what it feels like to hold that person’s point of view.

Roger’s work in psychology and communication spilled over into the field of rhetoric and argument in 1970 with publication of the book Rhetoric: Discovery and Change by Richard Young, Alton Becker, and Kenneth Pike. This book introduced the Rogerian model for argument.  

Unlike the long tradition of adversarial argument dating back to Aristotle, Rogerian argumentation is about finding the truth and about finding common ground.  Instead of combative debate, the goal of a Rogerian argument is to acknowledge the validity of the opposing side’s position, setting aside emotional appeals and instead working to reach agreement (1).

While there is no specific structure that must be following in a Rogerian argument, the following basic moves should be included:

  • State the issue or problem using neutral, nonjudgmental language, including the impact of the issue on both sides.
  • Describe the opposing side of the argument as objectively and fairly as possible, acknowledging the validity of its support and evidence.
  • Present your argument, support, and evidence in dispassionate language, striving for a fair and balanced tone.
  • Find common ground between the opposing sides, considering alternative solutions and achieving a beneficial compromise  (2).

Today’s Challenge:  I See Your Point
What is a current issue or contemporary problem that you could present in a Rogerian argument?  How would you in a fair and balanced way summarize the side of the argument that is opposite to yours?  Select an issue that you feel strongly about.  Instead of writing your side of the argument, attempt to summarize the opposing side of the argument as fairly and objectively as you can.  As you write, maintain a tone that is fair and balanced.  Strive to truly capture the arguments that run counter to yours. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.  -Atticus to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

1-Brent, Douglas “Rogerian Rhetoric” 

2-Rogerian Rhoetoric – Writing Commons





December 27:  Editorial Day

On this date in 1845 an editorial appeared in the New York Morning News by John L. O’Sullivan (1813 – 1895).  In the editorial, Sullivan, a newspaper editor and proponent of U.S. expansion, argued for the United States’ claim to the Oregon Country, a large region in the West for which England and the U.S. had rival claims.  To Sullivan, expansion of the U.S. across all of North America to the Pacific coast was more than just a hope for the young nation; instead, it was its duty and its fate:

John O'Sullivan.jpgAway, away with all these cobweb issues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, continuity, etc.… our claim to Oregon would still be best and strongest. And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us.

Sullivan’s editorial popularized the motto: manifest destiny, giving proponents of expansion a rally cry.  By the end of 1846, Oregon became a U.S. Territory after negotiations with Britain established the border at the 49th parallel.  At the time of Sullivan’s editorial, the United States had just 27 states.  By the end of the 19th century that number would expand to 45.

Sullivan’s editorial and the motto that it popularized are just one of many examples of how newspaper editorials have influenced American history.  

Each day the editorial boards of American newspapers produce written pieces that reflect the opinions of their newspaper and its publisher.  By definition an editorial is a subjective expression of opinion, distinct from news articles which are objective.  Another term closely associated with editorials is “Op-Ed,” an abbreviation of “opposite the editorial page.”  Like editorials, Op-Ed’s are opinion pieces; however, unlike editorials, they are written by outside contributors or columnists.

The basic structure of editorials and op-eds is similar in that both present arguments supporting a central claim, and each has a fundamental three-part organization:

Introduction:  State what the issue is, along with its history.  Explain who is affected by the issue and why it is relevant today.  Clearly state your claim regarding the issue and the reasoning behind your position.

Body:  Support your argument with reasoning, evidence, and counterarguments.  Use specific facts, statistics, examples, and quotations from authorities to support your position.  Provide clear explanations of your proof along with your vision of what the final outcome related to the issue should be.

Conclusion:  Consider an appeal to pathos, revealing the emotions around the issue or showing your passionate concern for the issue.  End with a call to action or by restating your position.

Today’s Challenge:  Make Your Opinion Manifest

What is a current issue that is relevant today, an issue that you would have an opinion about?  Write an editorial expressing and supporting your opinion on a specific relevant issue.  If you’re not sure what to write about, look at the news in today’s newspaper, and respond to what you see there.  Or read editorials or op-eds, and respond to those. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine. -Walter Cronkite



December 25:  Call to Action Day

On this date in 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware, leading the soldiers of the Continental Army in a surprise attack on a Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey.  

After suffering defeat in the Battle of Long Island and losing New York City to the British, the Patriot forces were in danger of losing the Revolutionary War. Hoping to mount a comeback and surprise the Hessians who were celebrating Christmas, Washington planned a night crossing of the half-frozen waters of the Delaware River.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.jpgWashington had an unconventional attack planned, but another key element of his strategy was to employ some especially motivational words, words that would light a fire under an army that was freezing on the shores of the Delaware. On Christmas Eve, the day before the crossing, Washington ordered that Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis be read aloud to troops of the Continental Army.

In words that he had written just one day before, Paine frames the situation with stirring words that challenge the Patriots to move forward with courage and to seize this opportunity to transform the trials they face into a triumph:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God. . . .

Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.

After successfully crossing the Delaware, Washington and his men arrived at Trenton the next day.  Catching the Hessians off guard and hung over from their Christmas Day celebrations, the Americans won an easy victory.  

Victory in the Revolutionary War would not come for five more years, but the success of the Colonial Army at Trenton revived the spirits of the American colonists, showing them that victory was possible.

Today’s Challenge:  Say It So You Can Make It So

What is something you feel so strongly about that you would advise everyone to do it?  As Paine’s writing demonstrates, words have the power to move people to action, the kind of action that can change the course of history.  Write a speech in which you argue for a specific call to action on the part of your audience.  As the title of your speech, finish the following:  Why everyone should . . .

The following are some examples of possible topics:

Why everyone should learn a second language.

Why everyone should meditate.

Why everyone should study abroad.

Why everyone should take a self-defense class.

Why everyone should sing in the shower.

Why everyone should read more fiction.

Why everyone should vote.

Why everyone should use the Oxford comma.

Provide clear reasons, evidence, and explanation.  In addition to logic, move your audience with emotion by showing how important your suggested activity is and how it will bring fulfillment to their lives.  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. -Albert Camus



December 16:  Spelling Reform Day

On this day in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter wrote a letter to a friend explaining a recent political defeat.  Roosevelt, who won fame as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War and served two terms as president from 1901-1909, was not used to defeat.  He broke up monopolies, championed federal regulation of railroads, spurred conservation of natural resources, and began the construction of the Panama Canal.  As the leader of the Progressive Movement, however, there was one reform that Roosevelt could not make happen:  spelling reform.

President Roosevelt - Pach Bros.tifIn addition to being an age of reform, the 19th century was also a time when public education was being expanded and democratized in America.  Roosevelt, along with other education advocates, viewed spelling reform as a practical and economical way to improve education.  After all, English orthography is plagued with words that have more letters than necessary as well as inconsistent and capricious spelling rules.

In March 1906 the Simplified Spelling Board was founded and funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie.  It’s mission was to reform and simplify English spelling.  

On August 27, 1906, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that 300 words from the Simplified Spelling Board’s list of revised spellings be used in all official communications of the executive department.  Some of the examples of changes are as follows:

blessed  to blest

kissed to kist

passed to past

purr to pur

though to tho

through to thru

On December  3, 1906, Roosevelt wrote his annual message to Congress using the new spelling.  He became an easy target for criticism, however, as can be seen in the following sentence from a newspaper editorial:

[Roosevelt] now assales the English langgwidg, constitutes himself as a sort of French academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot himself.

On December 13, 1906, soon after it received Roosevelt’s annual message, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution rejecting the new spellings and urging that government documents be written using “the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”

At this point Roosevelt decided to surrender.  He withdrew his executive order, and wrote a letter to his friend Brander Matthews, who was also the chairman of the Simplified Spelling Board, admitting defeat:

I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in, and it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten.

Today’s Challenge:  Spelling Bee or Spelling De-bate

What are the arguments for and against spelling reform?  Should schools hold spelling bees?  Should correct spelling be a major criteria in evaluating writing?  Debates about spelling did not end in the 19th century.  Today people are still arguing about issues of spelling.  Select one of the resolutions listed below and take a side, yes or no.  Write your argument using reasons, evidence, and explanation to defend your position.

Resolved:  English spelling should be reformed

Resolved:  All students grades 1 to 7 should participate in an annual spelling bee.

Resolved:  Spelling should be weighted as a significant element in the evaluation of student writing.

(Common Core Writing 1:  Argument)

Quotation of the Day: The story of English spelling is the story of thousands of people – some well-known, most totally unknown – who left a permanent linguistic fingerprint on our orthography. –David Crystal

1-Thomas V.  Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Ride Over Spelling Rules. The Wall Street Journal 16 April 2015.

12/16 TAGS:  Roosevelt, Theodore, spelling, spelling reform, Simplified Spelling

December 13:  Concession Day

On this day in 2000 one of the closest and most contentious presidential elections in U. S. history ended when Vice President Al Gore gave a speech conceding the presidency to George W. Bush.  The day before, the United States Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore ended voting recounts in the state of Florida and effectively awarded the election to Bush.  Although Gore won the plurality of the popular vote, he lost the election when Florida’s 25 electoral votes were awarded to Bush.

Thus, on December 13, 2000, more than a month after Americans had cast their votes, Gore gave his concession speech:

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession (1).

As Gore demonstrated in his speech, sometimes a politician has to admit defeat.  That does not mean, however, that the person is a failure.  After leaving public service, Gore gained prominence as an author and an environmental activist, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work in combating climate change.

In argumentation, instead of being an admission of defeat, a concession is an admission that a portion of an opposing argument is true.  Inexperienced writers often see concession as a weakness, but experienced writers know it is a powerful method for establishing common ground.

When a concession is carefully and clearly framed, it shows the audience that you have carefully considered both sides of the argument.  By clearly addressing the opposing views and showing that you understand them fully, you can better neutralize them by combining them with arguments that support your thesis.

Imagine for example that a police officer pulls over two drivers for speeding.  The first driver argues as follows:

“Officer, I wasn’t speeding and should not get a ticket.”

In contrast, the second driver states the following:

“Officer, I probably was going too fast, but if you look at my driving record, you’ll see that I’m a safe driver.”  

Which of the two drivers do think has the best chance of getting off with a warning?  If this were a bet, you probably would put your money on the second driver.  He understands that making a concession is not admitting defeat; instead, a concession is a valuable move, requiring that you give a little ground to gain a lot.

Today’s Challenge:  Comparison, Contrast, and Concession

Given two items in a category to debate, how might you include a concession in your argument?  Write a comparison and contrast paragraph in which you argue for the merits of one thing over the other.  Include a concession in your argument, acknowledging at least one of the merits of the opposition side.  Select one of the topics below, or come up with your own:

Seasons:  Summer or Winter?

Pets:  Cat or Dog?

Sports to watch:  Football or Baseball?

Sports to play:  Team or Individual?

Continents to Visit:  Europe or Australia?

Sci-Fi:  Star Wars or Star Trek?

Movie Genres:  Action or Comedy?

Political Parties:  Republican or Democrat?

Political Philosophies:  Capitalism or Socialism?

Books:  Fiction or Nonfiction?

Bands:  Beatles or Rolling Stones

Presidents:  Lincoln or F.D.R?

NBA Franchises:  Celtics or Lakers?

Fast Food Franchises:  McDonalds or KFC?

As you write make sure that you make a strong claim for your side of the argument while at the same time conceding a strength of the opposition’s side.  Use the templates below to help you frame your concession:

People who argue X are correct when they say that _______________; however, a more important point is _________________________________.

Admittedly it is true that _____________________________________, but it does not necessarily follow that _______________________________________.

Although it is true that _____________________, I believe __________________ because __________________________________________.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . one way to get people to agree with you is to agree with them — tactically, that is.  Agreeing up front does not mean giving up the argument.  Instead, use your opponent’s points to get what you want.  Practice rhetorical jujitsu by using your opponent’s own moves to throw him off balance.  -Jay Heinrichs



December 12:  Doublespeak Day

Today is the birthday of linguist William D. Lutz, who was born in Wisconsin in 1940.  Lutz has dedicated his life to combating doublespeak, language that is ambiguous or intentionally obscure or distorted.  Lutz defines doublespeak as,

. . . language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t.  It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. . . . It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it. . . .

In his 1989 book Doublespeak, Lutz defines four categories of doublespeak, to illustrate how it is “designed to alter our perception of reality and corrupt our thinking.”

The first kind is euphemism, where “an inoffensive or positive word or phrase [is] used to avoid a harsh, unpleasant, or distasteful reality.”  Certainly we use euphemisms appropriately when we are sensitive to the connotations of words and to the sensitivity of others.  For example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry your father is dead,” we say, “I’m sorry your father passed away.”  When euphemisms are used to intentionally mislead, however, they are classified as doublespeak.  For example, in 1984 the U.S. State Department wanted to avoid any discussion of government-sanctioned “killings” in its annual report on human rights, so it substituted the euphemistic phrase “unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life.”

The second kind of doublespeak is jargon, “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, such as doctors, lawyers [or] engineers . . .“  Jargon is useful and appropriate as a kind of verbal shorthand when used among the members of a profession.  However, it is inappropriate when it is “used not to express but impress”  or when it is used to hide rather than reveal the truth.  For example, when a National Airlines 727 crashed in 1978, killing three passengers, the airline covered up the tragedy with jargon, calling it an “involuntary conversion of a 727.”

The third kind of doublespeak is gobbledygook or bureaucratese, “piling on words, or overwhelming the audience with words, the bigger the words and the longer the sentences the better.”  One example of this comes from Jesse Moore, a NASA official, who said the following when he was asked to assess the shuttle program after the Challenger disaster in 1986:  

I think our performance in terms of the liftoff performance and in terms of the orbital performance, we knew more about the envelope we were operating under, and we have been pretty accurately staying in that.  And so I would say the performance has not by design drastically improved.  I think we have been able to characterize the performance more as a function of our launch experience as opposed to it improving as a function of time.

The fourth kind of doublespeak is inflated language, using words “to make the ordinary seem extraordinary; to make everyday things seem impressive . . . .”  Inflated language is especially prevalent in the language of advertising.  At Starbucks, for example, you can’t buy a small, medium, or large coffee; instead, to  make these common categories sound more impressive they are called tall, grande, venti, and trenta.  Likewise car dealerships do not sell “used cars”; instead, these cars are called “certified pre-owned automobiles” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Add Some Air to Your Ad

How do companies use language to inflate claims about the value of their products?  Sometimes products contain disclaimers, warning consumers about the dangers of using them improperly.  More and more, however, companies are writing “claimers,” using inflated language and hyperbole to tout the amazing ways in which their product will transform the life of the purchaser.  Have some fun with doublespeak by writing an advertisement for a product using exaggerated, inflated language to make the product seem too good to be true. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. . . . Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. -George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”

1-Lutz, William.  Doublespeak.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1989.