January 19: Poe Toaster Day


Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Born into a family of traveling actors, Poe was orphaned when he was just three years old.  He was taken in and raised by a Virginia family, the Allans.  

Although Poe was an editor, literary critic, poet, novelist, and writer of short stories, he constantly struggled financially — a struggle that was no doubt fueled by his habits of drinking and gambling.  Not until after his death, at just forty years of age, was his work recognized for its genius.  His short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” have become classics, and his poem “The Raven” is one of the most recognized and recited poems in the English language.  In fact, the poem is so well recognized that when the city of Baltimore, the site of Poe’s death in 1849, acquired its NFL franchise in 1996, they chose the Ravens as their name.  (The team’s three costumed raven mascots are named “Edgar,” “Allen,” and “Poe.”).

Known for the tales of macabre and mystery he wrote during his life, one specific mystery became associated with Poe after his death.

For sixty years, beginning in 1949 (the centennial of his death), an anonymous admirer visited Poe’s cenotaph — a monument erected at the site of Poe’s original grave at Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore, Maryland.  To commemorate Poe’s birthday each January 19th, this mysterious individual — known as the “Poe Toaster” — left three roses, a bottle of French cognac, and occasionally a note.  The clandestine visits ended in 2009, the bicentennial of Poe’s birth (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Gone but “Nevermore” Forgotten

What object would you leave at the grave of an author or other famous person you admire, and what would you write in a note to that person?  Write an explanation of what you would leave at the grave of a person you admire along with an explanation of the object’s significance.  Also, include the contents of a note you would leave along with the object. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”— Arthur Conan Doyle, at a Poe Centennial Celebration Dinner in 1909

1-Judkis, Maura.  Edgar Allan Poe Toaster Tradition Is No More. Washington Post 19 Jan. 2012.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/edgar-allan-poe-toaster-tradition-is-no-more/2012/01/19/gIQAOQUBBQ_blog.html.

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

January 18: Thesaurus Day

Print of a portrait of Peter Mark Roget, from Medical Portrait Gallery by Thomas Pettigrew
Peter Mark Roget

On this day in 1779, Peter Mark Roget was born in London. Roget is best known for his groundbreaking work, Roget’s Thesaurus, originally published in 1852.  Roget’s work is a pioneer achievement in lexicography — the practice of compiling dictionaries. Instead of listing words alphabetically, as in a traditional dictionary, Roget classified words in groups based on six large classes of words: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. Each of these categories is then divided into subcategories, making up a total of 1,000 semantic categories under which synonyms are listed. Like a biologist creating a taxonomy of animal species, Roget attempted to bring a coherent organization to the English word-hoard.

In order to make the categories more accessible, Roget’s son, John Lewis Roget developed an extensive index that was published with the thesaurus in 1879. Roget’s grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget, also worked to edit the thesaurus until 1952.

No one knows for certain how many words there are in the English language, but because of its liberal tradition of borrowing and adopting words from any language it rubs up against, there are more words in English than in any other language. In fact, there are so many more words in English that it is unlikely that the idea of a thesaurus would even be conceived of for a language other than English.

Roget continued the English tradition of borrowing words when he selected a Greek word for the title of his collection: thesauros which means treasury or storehouse.  Roget’s original title for his work was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition.

Like the association of Webster with dictionaries, Roget’s name has become synonymous with thesauri (the irregular plural of thesaurus). Also like Webster, the name Roget is no longer under trademark; therefore, just because a thesaurus is called Roget’s does not mean it has any affiliation with the original work of the Roget family (1).

Generations of writers have turned to Roget’s work to assist their writing.  One example is American writer Garrison Keillor, who praised Roget in a 2009 article called, “The Book That Changed My Life”:

The book was Roget’s International Thesaurus.  It not only changed my life, but also transformed, diversified, and modulated it by opening up the lavish treasure trove of English, enabling me to dip my pen into glittering pools of vernacular, idiom, lingo, jargon, argot, blather, colloquialisms, officialese, patois, and phraseology of all sorts.  I discovered Roget’s as a callow youth grazing in the reference books.  I opened it, and it became my guru, master, oracle, mahatma, rabbi, mentor, and also my bible, and I clung to it and consulted it constantly, feverishly, ever in search of the precise color and gradation of words.  Its effect on me was to transformed me from a plain little nerd from Minnesota to a raconteur and swashbuckling boulevardier, sporting man, pilgrim, loafer, sometimes a roughneck, sometimes a fire-eating visionary . . . . Thank you, Peter Roget.  Gracias and merci (2).

Not all writers or English teachers are fans of the Thesaurus, however.  Sometimes it’s a little too easy for a student grab a thesaurus and insert a synonym that doesn’t quite work in context.  For example, a student once wrote the sentence:

Today I ate a really good donut.  

Searching for a synonym for the word “good” in his thesaurus, he revised, as follows:

Today I ate a really benevolent donut.

It’s because of mishaps like this that the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle gives the following advice:

Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.

Because there are so many synonyms in English, it’s important for writers to become students of the subtleties of language. The best way to do this is to look at both the denotation of a word and the connotation of a word.  A word’s denotation is the literal dictionary meaning of a word; connotation is the implied meaning of a word along with the feelings associated with that word.  Denotations can be found easily in a dictionary, but connotations are bit harder to find.  The best way to learn about connotations is to study words in their natural habitat — that is in the writing of professional writers.

Notice, for example, how the writer Charles S. Brooks (1878-1934) explores the subtle differences between the words “wit” and “humor” in the following excerpt:

Wit is a lean creature with sharp inquiring nose, whereas humor has a kindly eye and comfortable girth. Wit, if it be necessary, uses malice to score a point–like a cat it is quick to jump–but humor keeps the peace in an easy chair. Wit has a better voice in a solo, but humor comes into the chorus best. Wit is as sharp as a stroke of lightning, whereas humor is diffuse like sunlight. Wit keeps the season’s fashions and is precise in the phrases and judgments of the day, but humor is concerned with homely eternal things. Wit wears silk, but humor in homespun endures the wind. Wit sets a snare, whereas humor goes off whistling without a victim in its mind. Wit is sharper company at table, but humor serves better in mischance and in the rain. When it tumbles, wit is sour, but humor goes uncomplaining without its dinner. Humor laughs at another’s jest and holds its sides, while wit sits wrapped in study for a lively answer (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Is a Rant the Same as a Diatribe?

What are two words that — even though they are synonyms — do not mean exactly the same thing?  What are the subtle differences in the words’ denotations and connotations?  Using Charles S. Brooks’ paragraph as a model, write a paragraph comparing the differences between one of the word pairs below:

mob/crowd, laugh/giggle, student/scholar, teen/juvenile, old/ancient, wealthy/rich, gregarious/social, frugal/cheap, watch/gaze, bright/smart, late/tardy, sleep/slumber, transform/change, proud/arrogant, wisdom/intelligence, confident/cocky, jail/prison

As you write, consider both the denotations and especially the connotations of the two words.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Today’s Quotation: Words too are known by the company they keep. -Joseph Shipley

1 – Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

2- Keillor, Garrison.  “The Book That Changed My Life.”  Best Life. March 2009: 46.

3-Brooks, Charles.  “On the Difference Between Wit and Humor.”

http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/brookswithumor.htm.

January 16: Eponymous Adjective Day

El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.jpg
Title Page of the First Edition

On this day in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote. Cervantes’ novel, originally written in Spanish, remains one of the most influential, most reprinted, and most translated books ever written.

The novel’s plot begins with an ordinary man named Alonso Quijano who voraciously reads romantic tales of chivalry. Alonso becomes so obsessed with the stories of knights errant that he decides to become one himself.  Taking the new name Don Quixote de La Mancha, he mounts his horse Rocinante and joins forces with his sidekick Sancho Panza to battle the forces of evil and to defend the weak.

Deluded and clearly insane, Don Quixote attacks windmills, thinking they are hulking giants.  Ordinary inns to Quixote become castles, and peasant girls become beautiful princesses.

Literary critics call Don Quixote the first modern novel, and the critic Harold Bloom argued that only Shakespeare approached the genius of Cervantes’ writing.   William Faulkner read Don Quixote every year, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaimed Don Quixote his favorite literary character (1).

Often when an idea or a style originates from a specific person, that idea or style takes on new meaning, not just as a noun but as an adjective.  There are many examples of these proper nouns that become eponymous adjectives (sometimes called proper adjectives), such as:  Darwinian, Epicurean, or Kafkaesque.  When proper adjectives spring from literature, it’s usually the author’s name that transforms from noun to adjective (as in Orwellian, Shakespearean, or Byronic), but occasionally a character comes along who is so distinct and so unique that the character’s name takes on a more general adjectival meaning.  Cervantes’ Don Quixote is such a character.  Check any dictionary and you will see that the adjective quixotic refers not just to Cervantes’ famous knight, but also to anyone who is “exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic, or impractical.”

Today’s Challenge:  Autobiography of an Adjective

What are some examples of adjectives that derive from the name of a specific person, real or imaginary?  Select one of the eponymous adjectives below and research the etymology of the word, including the biography of the person behind the word.  Then, imagine the person behind the word is telling the story of how he or she became so well known that his or her name became an adjective.  Also, have the person explain the meaning of their adjective as it is used today and also what ideas or styles it embodies? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Arthurian, Byronic, Chauvinistic, Darwinian, Dickensian, Epicurean, Faustian, Hippocratic, Jeffersonian, Kafkaesque, Leninist, Lutheran, Marxist, Newtonian, Oedipal, Orwellian, Platonic, Pyrrhic, Reaganesque, Sisyphean, Stentorian, Trepsicordian, Victorian, Wilsonian, Zoroastrian

Quotation of the Day:  It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth. –Miguel de Cervantes

1- Bloom, Harold. The Knight in the MirrorThe Guardian. 12 Dec. 2003.

January 15: Snowclone Day

Today we celebrate the birth of the word snowclone, which happened precisely at 10:57 pm on this day in 2004.  The creator of the neologism, or new word, was Glen Whitman, an economics professor at California State University, Northridge. Writing in his blog, Whitman was looking for a snappy term to describe the increasingly popular practice, especially in journalism, of adapting or slightly altering a cliché.  For example, folklore tells us that Eskimos have a large number words for snow.  This oft repeated factoid spawns spinoff phrases that fit the following formula:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X have Y words for Z.

A quick Google search reveals the following snowclones:

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, fibromyalgics should have them for pain.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, the Nicaraguans have a hundred related to the machete.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, Floridians should have at least as many for rain now.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, we have let bloom a thousand words for fear.

Glen Whitman exudes pride when talking about his lexicographical invention, the bouncing baby “snowclone”:  “If I can claim no other accomplishment when I die, at least I’ll have one neologism to my name!” (1).

The word that was born in a blog is now being catalogued by blogger Erin Stevenson O’Connor at his website snowclones.org.  The following are some of the additional members of the snowclone species which have grown out of a variety of popular culture sources:

In X, no one can hear you Y from the tagline for the movie Alien:  “In Space, no one can hear you scream.”

I’m not an X, but I play one on TV from a 1986 cough syrup commercial:  “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

X is the new Y from the world of fashion:  “Pink is the new black.”

X and Y and Z, oh my! from The Wizard of Oz movie line:  “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

I X therefore I am from philosopher Rene Descartes’ famous quotation:  “I think, therefore I am.”

This is your brain on X from a famous anti-drug public service announcement:  “This is your brain on drugs.”

My kingdom for a(n) X! from a famous line from Shakespeare’s play Richard III:  “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Today’s Challenge:  Send in the Snowclones

What familiar proverbs might you adapt into your own snowclones?  Use the proverbs below along with the Snowclone Formulas to generate your own ideas.  Select your best snowclone, using it as the title of a paragraph.  In your paragraph, explain the wisdom behind your snowclone proverb.

Familiar Proverb                                                              

Snowclone Formula

The bigger they are the harder they fall.                   

-The Xer they are the Yer they Z

Actions speak louder than words.                                

-Xs speak louder than Ys

The pen is mightier than the sword.                           

-The X is mightier than the Y.

Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.                         

-Don’t count your X before they are Yed.                                                             

Don’t judge a book by its cover.                                    

-Don’t judge a X by its Y.

Necessity is the mother of invention.                         

-X is the mother of Y.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.                                  

-Too many Xs spoil the Y.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Snowclone: “A multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers” -Geoffre Pullman

1-McFedries, Paul.  Snowclone is the New Cliché.  Spectrum.ieee.org. 1 Feb. 2008. http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/education/snowclone-is-the-new-clich.

January 14: Curmudgeon Day 


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

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

On Apostrophes

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

On Birthdays

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

On Progress

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

On The Moon

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

On Dictionaries

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

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

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

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

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

January 13: Language Myth Day

Legend has it that on this day in 1795, the U.S. Congress voted on a bill that would have established German as the official language of the United States.  The legend continues by claiming that the bill failed by only a single vote, a vote surprisingly cast by a man of German heritage, the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg.

As is usually the case, the truth behind the legend is much less astonishing.  There was in fact a language bill considered by Congress on January 13, 1795, but instead of giving the German language any official status, it would have merely mandated the printing of federal laws in both German and English.  In the course of debating the bill on January 13th there was a casting of ballots that failed by a single vote, but that was merely a motion to adjourn, and there is no evidence that even that vote was cast by Muhlenberg.  The final vote on the translation of the federal laws was rejected by Congress one month later, and there is no record of the final vote numbers (1).

The whole truth is that the German language never came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the official language of the United States.  Furthermore, although there have been attempts to make English the official language of the United States, the truth is that the United States has never had an official language.

Today’s Challenge:  What’s the Verdict?

What are some examples of language or writing rules that you have been taught in school?  Are the rules valid, or are they merely myths?  Like the myth of the German Language Bill, various myths have been perpetuated through the years regarding the use of the English language.  Although there may be some kernels of truth in each of these rules, a true investigation will reveal that the rules themselves are fallacious.  Investigate one of the English language rules below, or one you have encountered from your own experience, and research the validity of the rule.  Write up your verdict using evidence and examples that reveal the rule’s validity or falsehood.

Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.

Never use the passive voice.

Never split an infinitive.

Use the article “a” before words that begin with consonants; use the article “an” before words that begin with vowels.

Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Only words in the dictionary are real words.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. -Joseph Campbell

1-Do You Speak American?  Official American.  English Only.  Pbs.org. http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly/#baron.

January 11: Worst-case Scenario Day


On this day in 1964, the Surgeon General of the United States released the first report linking cigarette smoking with cancer. The report was based on over 7,000 articles that correlated smoking with disease.  Acting on the report’s findings, Congress acted, passing The Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 which required cigarette packages to carry the following Surgeon General’s Warning:  “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health” (1).

Just as that first Surgeon General’s report on smoking caused Americans to consider the dangerous consequences of smoking, another event that happened on this day in 1918 led generations of people to apply prudent forethought when putting together a plan of action.

On January 11, 1918, Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr. was born, the man behind Murphy’s Law, which reminds us that, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong!”  

A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Murphy served as a pilot in World War II.  After the war, Murphy became an aerospace engineer, and in 1951 he was assisting U.S. Air Force scientists in California’s Mojave Desert where they were conducting tests to study the effects of the force of gravity on pilots.  To simulate the force of an airplane crash, the project team mounted a rocket sled on a half-mile track.  At first the tests were conducted using a dummy, which was later replaced with a chimpanzee.  Then a physician named Colonel John Paul Stapp volunteered to ride the sled, nicknamed “Gee Whiz,” as it raced over 200 miles per hour across the desert floor and suddenly came to an abrupt stop.  

Murphy’s contribution to the experiment were sensors that were attached to Dr. Stapp to measure the G-force as the rocket sled braked.

Although Murphy’s name became attached to the law, the person credited with first uttering the law and spreading it was Dr. Stapp.  During a press conference after the tests, Stapp was asked how the team avoided any serious injuries during its experiments.  The doctor responded by saying that they were able to anticipate mistakes by applying Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Contingency Plans & Cautionary Notes

What are some mistakes you have made, some failures you have experienced, or some accidents you have been the victim of in your life so far? What specific advice would you give others to help them avoid these mistakes or accidents?  Write the text of a public service announcement (PSA) that focuses on a specific danger that might be avoided by exercising caution or by applying Murphy’s Law.  Give details on what specifically might go wrong as well as detailed steps on how to avoid it. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  A thousand people will stop smoking today. Their funerals will be held sometime in the next three or four days.  -Surgeon General C. Everett Koop

1-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. History of the Surgeon General’s Reports on Smoking and Health.http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/history/.

2-Hluchy, Patricia. The Man Behind Murphy’s Law.  Toronto Star. 11 Jan. 2009.

https://www.thestar.com/news/2009/01/11/the_man_behind_murphys_law.html.

January 10: Rubicon Day


On this day in 49 BC, Julius Caesar made a momentous decision that transformed a small Italian river into a powerful metaphor.  

Prior to 49 BC, Caesar served as conquering Roman general, expanding the Roman Empire as far north as Britain.  His most notable conquest came in Gaul, the area of Europe that today includes France, Belgium and Switzerland.  By winning the Gallic wars, Caesar made Gaul a Roman province and established himself as its governor.  

Although Caesar expanded the territory of the Roman republic, his rivals feared his ambition and envied his success.  Caesar’s most notable foe was a rival Roman general named Pompey.  In January 49 BC, Pompey convinced the Roman Senate to send a message to Caesar, commanding him to leave his army and return to Rome.  

This message is what led to Caesar’s faithful decision to cross the Rubicon River.  He knew that returning to Rome alone without his army would surely lead to his demise, but to take his army across the Rubicon and into Italy was against Roman law and was essentially a proclamation of civil war.  Knowing the consequences of his actions and that there would be no turning back, Caesar boldly led his army across the river as he uttered, “The die is cast!” — a gambling metaphor that means once a player throws (casts) the dice (plural form of die), he has reached a point of no return.

Caesar’s bold gamble paid off.  He defeated Pompey, and when Caesar eventually arrived at the gates of Rome, he was proclaimed dictator for life (1).  (For Part Two of Caesar’s story, see March 15:  Ides of March Day.)

Today, “Crossing the Rubicon” has become a metaphor for any courageous commitment to moving in a bold, new direction for which there is no turning back.

Today’s Challenge:  Mapping Metaphors

What are some examples of geographical sites that evoke a universal theme, such as courage, failure, change, or nonconformity?  What is the story or history behind how this place acquired its abstract meaning?  Like the Rubicon, other geographical sites have acquired meaning beyond just a name on a map.  The history of what happened in each of the places listed below has made each site a metaphor for some abstract idea or universal theme.  Select one of the place names below, and research the story behind how it acquired its metaphoric meaning.  Write a paragraph explaining as clearly as possible the location of your selected site and the story behind its meaning.

Waterloo, Watergate, Alcatraz, Agincourt, Alamo, Bedlam Bohemia, Chappaquiddick, Damascus, Dunkirk, Fort Knox, The Bay of Pigs, Siberia, My Lai

(Common Core Writing 2:  Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Language is the Rubicon that divides man from beast.  -Max Muller

1-Eye Witness to History.com. Julius Caesar Crosses the Rubicon. http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/caesar.htm.

January 7: Grammar No-No Day


On this day in 1948, the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was released. Directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, the film is the story of four American men and their desperate quest for gold in 1920s Mexico.

One particular scene in the film features some famous dialogue between one of the Americans, Dobbs, and bandits posing as police officers:

Bandit: “We are Federales… you know, the mounted police.”

Dobbs: “If you’re the police, where are your badges?”

Bandit: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

The last line of dialogue concerning “Badges?” was chosen as number 36 on the American Film Institute’s list of most memorable movie lines.  In addition to being a famous movie quote, the line “We don’t need no badges!” is an example of one of the most infamous of grammar no nos:  the double negative. Using two forms of negation in the same sentence is considered non-standard English, primarily because it confuses the reader, as in the following examples (1):

Double Negative                                       Correct Version

I don’t have no time to eat.                       I don’t have any time to eat.

I can’t find my keys nowhere.                 I can’t find my keys anywhere.

I can’t get no satisfaction.                       I can’t get any satisfaction.

We don’t need no education.                  We don’t need any education.

Since keeping sentences lucid and clear for the reader is a priority of every writer, double negatives should be avoided.

Today’s Challenge:  Turning Wrongs into Rights

If you were to teach a lesson in English grammar, what common grammar mistakes would you consider explaining?  Select one specific grammar faux pas to address.  Then, research and write the text of your lesson, including examples of the error and corrections.  The following are examples of some classic no nos.

Dangling participles, Misplaced modifiers, Run-on sentences, Sentence fragments, Comma splices, Passive voice, Lack of parallelism, Lack of subject verb agreement, Apostrophe errors, Incorrect word choice, Vague pronoun reference, Capitalization errors  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.  –Michel de Montaigne

1-American Film Institute.   AFI’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes. http://www.afi.com/100Years/quotes.aspx.

January 5: List Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Challenge:  Your Personal Parade of Particulars

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

Things I’ve Found

Songs on My iPod

Jobs I’d Hate to Have

Things I Love to Hate

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

Reasons I Get Up in the Morning

Important Numbers in My Life

Things I Can Rant About?

Things I Can Rave About?

Places I’d Like to Go Before I Die

Nicknames I’ve Had in My Life

Most Memorable People I’ve Met

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

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

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

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

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