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 confident writers know the importance of vivid verbs: “More than any other part of speech, it is the verb that determines whether the writer is a wimp or a wizard.“ Hale believes so strongly about verbs, in fact, that she wrote on 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:
Did the writer rely on wimp verbs? Or did he craft sentences with dynamic verbs — ‘linger,’ maybe, or ‘melt,’ or ‘throttle’? If ‘is,’ ‘was,’ or ‘were’ filled most of the circles, the story idea was declined. If the writer relied on dynamic verbs, and in doing so made every sentence jump, he got a phone call (2).
Put Hale’s “Verb Check” to the test by examining the two sentences below. Notice how 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 (3).
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)
Quotation of the Day: Verbs act. Verbs move. Verbs do. Verbs strike, soothe, grin, cry, exasperate, decline, fly, hurt, and heal. Verbs make writing go, and they matter more to our language than any other part of speech. -Donald Hall
On this date 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 travelled 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 travelling 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)
Quotation of the Day: Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate. -Hubert H. Humphrey
On this date 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 on 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: 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)
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 Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
On this date in the year 1297, the Scottish defeated the English in The Battle of Stirling Bridge. Heavily outnumbered by English infantry and cavalry, the Scottish army led by William Wallace and Andrew de Moray nevertheless won the battle (1).
In the film Braveheart, William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson, gives a rousing speech to the Scottish troops. With the odds clearly against them, the Scottish troops are at first reluctant to fight. After listening to Wallace’s succinct, clear, and forceful speech, however, they storm into battle:
Fight and you may die. Run and you will live at least a while. And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!
Although the film is based on actual historical events surrounding the battle, the speech itself is fictional.
Today’s Challenge: Get Them Moving with a Moving Monologue How do you motivate people to do something they may not want to do? Write your own rousing fictional monologue based on a character who is in a situation where he or she needs to motivate an audience to act. Begin by brainstorming some speakers and some situations, such as a son trying to persuade his father to raise his allowance, a door to door salesperson trying to persuade a homeowner to buy a security system, or a teacher trying to persuade her students to do their homework. Then, write your speech from the point of view of the speaker you have chose, combining logic and passion to move the audience to action. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quote of the Day: You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live. Now. -Joan Baez
On this day in 1998, two Ph.D. students from Stanford University, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, formally incorporated their new company Google. Page and Brin’s search engine began as a research project in 1995. Today, Google is the world’s most popular search engine.
The story of the word Google, however, long pre-dates the internet. In 1938, while on a walk with his nephew in the New Jersey Palisades, mathematician Edward Kasner challenged the nine-year-old, Milton Sirotta, to come up with a name for a 1 followed by 100 zeroes. Milton’s ready response was “googol.” Kasner liked the word so much he introduced it to the world in 1940 in his book Mathematics and the Imagination (1).
The change of the word’s spelling from googol to Google happened more than fifty years later. Page and Brin originally called their search technology “BackRub”; however, in September 1997 they had a meeting to brainstorm ideas for a new name. The story goes that at that meeting the name googol came up, but when it was typed into a computer to search for available domain names, it was misspelled as google. The name was available and was purchased before the misspelling was discovered, so Google stuck.
Another change happened on June 15, 2006 when the Oxford English Dictionary added the lower-case word “google” as a verb, meaning “To use any search engine.”
Today’s Challenge: Brand Name Hall of Fame The paradox of the trademarked names of companies, products, and services is that the most successful ones become generic, losing their distinctiveness as an exclusive brand name. For example, the words aspirin, band-aid, cornflakes, escalator, and zipper were at one time capitalized, legally protected brand names. What currently capitalized trademarked brand name of a company, product, or service would nominate for the Brand Name Hall of Fame? Make your case based on the name’s distinctive sound, its clever derivation, its metaphoric meaning, and/or its memorability. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: The deeper power of the name Apple comes from our everyday experiences with actual apples. They are, in a sense, the perfect consumer commodity: they’re ubiquitous and inexpensive, you grasp them in your hand and literally consume them, and they’re delicious. For almost everyone, they’re old childhood friends: cut into little pieces and cooked into sauce for babies, put into school lunch boxes and toted around, and baked into pies. It’s these deeply rooted sensory memories of apples that make Apple a great name. Nothing is more familiar, more accessible, or less intimidating than an apple. –Christopher Johnson in Microstyle (2)
On this date 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 would soon become 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)
Quotation of the Day: No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. -John Adams
Today marks the DVD release of the film Akeelah and the Bee. This 2006 film is a drama about 11 year-old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) who overcomes personal struggles to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Directed by Doug Atchison, the film stars Laurence Fishburn as Dr. Larabee, an English professor who coaches Akeelah.
The film is an off-shoot 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.
In 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.
Prize Winning Bees
Below are eight of winning word 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, 2)
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)
Quotation of the Day:Spelling Bees are useless and unnecessary competitions. Before Microsoft Word and Google, Spelling Bees had value, but now they are all superflewus. -Jarod Kintz
Today is the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his unforgettable I Have a Dream speech to the crowd of roughly 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial.
Early in his speech King invokes Lincoln and the unfulfilled promise of the Emancipation Proclamation:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free (2).
King went on to cite two other vital American documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Using the metaphor of a bad check, King argued that the United States would not be a truly free nation until it fulfilled these promissory notes for all of its citizens, ending segregation, “withering injustice,” and the persecution of black Americans.
An ordained Baptist minister and a doctor of theology, King knew how to craft a sermon and how to deliver a speech. His choice of nonviolent protest meant that his words and his rhetoric would determine the success or failure of his civil rights mission. King was up to the task. There is probably no more telling example of the power of words to persuade, motivate, and change the course of history than the speech King delivered on August 28, 1963.
Rhetoric is the use of language to persuade. Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Martin Luther King, Jr. used many of these “means of persuasion” (also known as rhetorical devices) to persuade his audience. He used metaphor: beacon of hope and manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. He used alliteration:dark and desolate, sweltering summer, and Jews and Gentiles. He used antithesis: will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
But more than any other device, King used repetition and anaphora, the repetition of one or more words at the beginning of a phrase or clause.
Certain words echo throughout his speech. Unlike redundancy, this repetition is intentional. These words ring like abell, repeatedly reminding the listener of key themes. In the I Have a Dream speech the words justice and dream both ring out eleven times. But one word is repeated far more than any other; the word freedom tolls 20 times. In King’s dream there is no crack in the Liberty Bell; instead, it rings out loudly and clearly, a triumphant declaration that America has finally lived up to its potential.
Anaphora comes from the Greek meaning “I repeat.” It’s the kind of repetition at the beginning of a line or a sentence that you see in the Psalms or in the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
(Matthew 3:3-6 King James Version)
King uses anaphora for six different phrases that echo throughout his speech:
One hundred years later . . .
We refuse to believe . . .
Now is the time . . .
With this faith . . .
I have a dream . . .
Let freedom ring . . .
King also chose one of these examples of anaphora as the title of his speech. The repeated clause I have a dream comes at the climactic moment in the speech which is probably why it is the most frequently quoted part:
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together(1).
Today’s Challenge: What is something that you think is underrated? What makes this topic so underrated, and why should people hold the topic in higher esteem? Certainly the purpose of Martin Luther King’s speech was to help the nation to not overlook the importance of civil rights for black Americans. His speech succeeded in changing the course of the movement, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Brainstorm some topics that you think are underrated? Try for a variety of topics, some on serious topics like civil rights and others on not so serious topics. Select the one topic you feel is most underrated and construct an argument where you explain why the topic should be held in higher esteem. In addition to specific evidence and commentary, use anaphora to make your case. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Walking is underrated. It benefits the body, the mind, and the pocketbook. If everyone in the U.S. were to walk briskly for just thirty minutes per day, we would cut the incidences of chronic diseases dramatically. Walking reduces the risk of heart disease, the risk of diabetes, the risk of arthritis, and the risk of cancer. It’s also good for the mind since studies show that walking reduces the likelihood of clinical depression. Smart seniors know the psychological value of staying active, breathing fresh air, and saving their hard-earned dollars by paying less for gas. Instead of venerating our motor vehicle obsessed society, we should celebrate citizens who stroll along the sidewalks of suburbia. More walkers mean less traffic, less pollution, and less wasted gas money. With so many potential positives, no one should view walking as a pain anymore.
Quotation of the Day:Have no unreasonable fear of repetition. . . . The story is told of a feature writer who was doing a piece on the United Fruit Company. He spoke of bananas once; he spoke of bananas twice; he spoke of bananas yet a third time, and now he was desperate. “The world’s leading shippers of the elongated yellow fruit,” he wrote. A fourth banana would have been better. -James J. Kilpatrick
On this date in 1955, the first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records was published in the United Kingdom.
The idea for the book began on November 10, 1951 when Sir Hugh Beaver, Chairman of the Guinness Brewery, was bird hunting in Ireland. After missing a shot at a golden plover, Beaver wondered if the plover was the fastest game bird in Europe. Sir Hugh was unable to get his answer, however, because he could not find a reference book that answered his question.
In 1954 Sir Hugh commissioned twin brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter to make his idea a reality. Today the Guinness World Records reference book is published annually in 20 different languages in over 100 countries. In fact, the book holds a world record of its own, being the best-selling copyrighted book of all time (1).
A Superlative Achievement
The Guinness Book of World Records could not have been written without superlative adjectives. When using adjectives to make comparisons, think of three forms: positive adjectives, comparative adjectives, and superlative adjectives.
Positive: I am tall.
Comparative: Sam is taller than I am.
Superlative: Bill is the tallest one in the class.
As you can see by the examples above, the superlative form is the highest degree of comparison, as in tallest, greatest, fastest, richest, or highest.
When an adjective is three syllables or more, add the word more to the comparative form and the word most to the superlative form.
Comparative: more beautiful or more memorable
Superlative: most beautiful or most memorable
Today’s Challenge: Speaking in Superlatives Write a review of something, some place, or someone you consider to be the worthy of superlatives. Explain what makes your topic the greatest. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day:It’s very important that people know that I really enjoy everything that has happened to me. And I tell my kids… you’re not going to be the tallest, fastest, prettiest, the best track runner, but you can be the nicest human being that someone has ever met in their life. And I just want to leave that legacy that being nice is a true treasure. –George Foreman
Today is the anniversary of an editorial by Charles Dudley Warner published in the Hartford Courant in 1897. The subject of the editorial is long forgotten, but one line from the article lives on as a famous quote: Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
Although many credit Warner with the funny line, some argue that it really should be credited to Mark Twain, who was a friend and collaborator with Charles Dudley Warner. Ralph Keyes, the author of The Quote Verifier, comes down on Twain’s side, saying that the wording of the editorial reveals that Warner got the quote from Twain: “A well known American writer said once that, while everybody talked about the weather, nobody seemed to do anything about it” (1).
Weather or not Twain said it (pun intended), there is no doubt that weather has rained down on the English lexicon. Many of our everyday idioms are weather related, and some of our common words have meteorological origins:
Astonish: Being struck by thunder would certainly be an astonishing experience. This word comes to English via the French estoner which in turn was derived from Latin ex = out + tonare = to thunder. Thus the literal translation of astonish is thunderstruck.
Window: This word comes from the Norse vindauge which comes from vindr = wind + auga = eye. Thus a window is the “wind’s eye.”
Lunatic: For centuries people have considered the effects of the moon on the weather and the varying moods of earthlings. Because the moon does affect ocean tides, it does have an indirect impact on the weather. There is less evidence, however, to prove the moon’s relationship to the human psyche. Nevertheless the word lunatic is derived from Luna the moon goddess, who in myth would sometimes toy with the sanity of mortals.
Here are a few example of weather idioms, where weather is used as a metaphor for some aspect of human experience:
A port in storm
Cloud of suspicion
Head in the clouds
Shoot the breeze
A snow job
Steal someone’s thunder
Tempest in a teapot
Under the weather
Forecast Calls for Neologisms The nouns below probably do not look familiar. They are all neologisms, new words that have appeared in print but that are not yet in the dictionary. See if you can match up the words with their definitions below. For more details on each word visit Word Spy, a site devoted to neologisms.
Earlier spring weather and other gradual seasonal shifts, particularly those caused by global climate change.
A person whose vacation consists of tracking down and observing tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe weather phenomena.
A massive and powerful storm that develops quickly and without warning.
One or more mobile homes or trailers, especially when located in or near a tornado zone.
A massive lightning flash that extends from the top of a thundercloud up to the ionosphere.
Electrical storms generated when the solar wind emitted by the sun interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field.
A large chunk of ice that forms in the atmosphere and falls to the ground.
The study of past earthquakes, volcanoes, and other geological events that combines the analysis of both physical evidence and the myths and legends related to the events.
Today’s Challenge: “Over the Rainbow” What are some songs that talk about weather either literally or figuratively? What would you argue is the single best weather-related song? Brainstorm a list of songs that deal with weather, and select your favorite. Make your argument by explaining what makes the song great and by explaining how the lyrics reflect the weather, either literally or figuratively. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
For example, in the Beatles song “Good Day Sunshine” the sunny weather parallels the sunny disposition of the singer who is happily in love:
Good day sunshine, good day sunshine, good day sunshine
I need to laugh and when the sun is out
I’ve got something I can laugh about
I feel good in a special way
I’m in love and it’s a sunny day
Quotation of the Day: Weather forecast for tonight: dark. -George Carlin