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.

 

November 26:  Abecedarian of Awesome Day

On this day in 1789, Thanksgiving was celebrated for the first time under the new U.S. Constitution based on a proclamation signed by President George Washington.  However, it took over 150 years for Thanksgiving to be recognized as an official Federal holiday.  On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Congressional resolution establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.

In June 200, Neil Pasricha started a blog called 1000 Awesome Things as a reminder that although there is plenty of bad news everyday, there are also a lot of things to be thankful for, things that Pasricha characterizes as “the free, easy little joys that make life sweet.”  At Pasricha’s blog each “Awesome Thing” is numbered.  Below is a small sample of numbers 498 to 492:

#498 Long comfortable silences between really close friends

#497 The moment after the show ends and before the applause begins

#496 Seeing way worse weather on TV somewhere else

#495 When it suddenly just clicks

#494 Cutting your sandwich into triangles

#493 When that zit growing on your forehead suddenly just disappears

#492 The first text message between new friends

Each numbered item is linked to a detailed entry, describing in vivid detail what makes the thing truly awesome.  For example, #477 is “Starting the Lawnmower on the First Pull”:

Time for a trim.

Yes, step into those grass-stained workboots, toss on a faded ballcap, and roll the rusty mower out of the wobbly tin shed. You’re about to spend an hour mindlessly chopping lawn so stare at those grass-covered wheels, duct-taped wires, and chippy paint patches before getting down to business.

Now, if you’re like me then before pulling that cord you sort of get it in your mind that you’re in for three or four full-body yanks before that machine starts purring. I don’t know about you, but since I’m a limp, wimpy noodle of a man I find pulling that cord about as physically draining as bench pressing a full keg of beer, building a house out of boulders, or dragging an 18-wheeler up a steep hill with a rope.

See,I put my whole body into it and just get some slow sputtering. Wheeze, wheeze, die, you feel me?

But hey, that’s what makes it great when us noodles  pull those cords and they start up on the first pull. Now when the motor starts up and the gas fumes float up we suddenly get to feel like the World’s Strongest Human.

Yes, pass the black spandex shorts, tattoo a skull on our neck, and toss us some barbells, baby.

We’re going in.

AWESOME!

Today’s Challenge:  Twenty-six Awesome Things to be Thankful For

What are 26 things you are thankful for?  Brainstorm a list of at least 26 awesome things to be thankful for, one for each letter of the alphabet, such as, Accordions, The Beatles, Canned Food, Donuts, etc.  Once you have your A to Z list, select one item on your list and write a detailed description that shows and tells why that one item is so awesome.

Quotation of the Day:  The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself. -Henry Miller

 

November 25:  Fable Day

On this day in 1998 the computer-animated film A Bug’s Life was released. The film was produced by Pixar Animation Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios.  The film, which was directed by John Lasseter and co-directed by Andrew Stanton, featured the music of Randy Newman and the voices of Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, and Julia Louis-Dryfus (1).

A Bug's Life.jpgThe plot of the film is based on a retelling of one of Aesop’s fables:  The Ant and the Grasshopper:

One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.

“What!” cried the Ants in surprise, “haven’t you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?”

“I didn’t have time to store up any food,” whined the Grasshopper; “I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone.”

The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.

“Making music, were you?” they cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

There’s a time for work and a time for play.

No one knows for certain if Aesop actually lived, but some ancient historians report that he was a slave who lived either in the 5th or 6th-century B.C.  Whether he actually lived or not, today we have over 300 fables, each with a plot the centers on animals and a moral that applies to the human reader (2).

Walt Disney made a cartoon-short of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” in the 1930s, but when Pixar got ahold of the the story in the 1990s, they turned the short fable into a full fledged film, featuring a full colony of ants and a rowdy gang of grasshoppers.

Today’s Challenge:  An Awesome Aesop Adaptation

Which of Aesop’s Fables is your favorite, and how would you adapt the story to create a feature animated film?  Write an explanation of which of Aesop’s Fables you would adapt and how you would transform it from a brief fable into a full length feature film.  If you want, you may use the Pixar Pitch template from November 22:  Pixar Pitch Day.

Quotation of the Day:  Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder. -Thomas Aquinas

 

1-http://www.pixar.com/features_films/A-BUG’S-LIFE

 

2-Aesop’s Fables

https://www.umass.edu/aesop/history.php

November 21:  Invention Day

On this day in 1877, Thomas Edison announced his latest invention, the tinfoil phonograph.  Edison, who held over 1,000 patents, came up with the idea of the phonograph while working on his telephone transmitter.

Working with his machinist John Kruesi, he constructed a machine with a grooved cylinder which was mounted on a long shaft.  Tin foil was wrapped around the cylinder.  Using a hand crank to record on the tin foil, Edison’s first recording was a nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  After playing the recording back and realizing that it worked perfectly, Edison was amazed but cautious.  He said, “I never was so taken back in my life.  Everybody was astonished.  I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”  Today we know Edison for the lightbulb, which came about in 1879; however, it was the phonograph that boosted Edison’s reputations as a great inventor.  Edison continued working on improving his phonograph, and in 1887 he produced a more satisfactory commercial model using wax cylinders for recording (1).

Creating the name of a new invention can be almost as important as the invention itself.  Based one of Edison’s notebooks from his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory, we have evidence that Edison gave careful thought to naming his invention before its launch, making a list of possible names, most using roots from Greek or Latin.  Before settling on the Greek phonograph (“phono” = sound + “graph” = writing or recording), Edison considered more than 50 possible names; the six listed below are some examples:

Brontophone = Thunder sounder

Phemegraph = speech writer

Orcheograph = vibration record

Bittako-phone = Parrot speaker

Hemerologophone = Speaking almanac (2)

Invention For Writers

Like Edison, Ancient rhetoricians were devoted to invention; to them, however, invention was the name of the first phase of generating ideas for speaking and writing. Two of the three books of Aristotle’s Rhetoric are devoted to invention, and the Roman orator Cicero made invention the first of his five canons of rhetoric: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery.

Sometimes called prewriting, invention is a deliberate process for discovering the best way to approach a writing task, and the best method is to ask yourself some key questions before putting together a first draft:

PURPOSE:  What is the purpose of your writing; in other words, what is the goal you are trying to accomplish by writing?

ARGUMENT:  What are the arguments on both sides of the issue you are addressing?  Imagine and anticipate what your opponent will say so that you can construct the most cogent argument.

AUDIENCE:  What do you know about your audience?  What do you want from them, and what do they value and care about that is relevant to your case?

EVIDENCE:  What kinds of evidence do you have to support your argument? Do you have enough, and does it forcefully support your argument?

APPEALS:  How will you employ logos, pathos, and ethos to make your argument compelling?

Today’s Challenge:

What would you say is the most overrated and the most underrated inventions of all time?  Your task is to convince an audience of your peers that one invention is either the most overrated or most underrated invention of all time. Begin by brainstorming two columns, listing both overrated and underrated inventions.  Then, use the questions regarding purpose, argument, audience, evidence, and appeals to generate the best approach to putting together the text of a successful persuasive speech.

Quotation of the Day:  Instead of just sitting down and writing a speech, I walk outside, scuffle my feet through the dead leaves, and figure out what everybody wants, starting with me.  That’s the first part of invention:  What do I want?  Is my goal to change the audience’s mood, its mind, or its willingness to do something?  -Jay Heinrichs, in Thank You for Arguing

1-http://edison.rutgers.edu/tinfoil.htm

2- Usher, Shaun.  Lists of Note:  An Eclectic Collection Deserving of a Wider Audience.  San Francisco:  Chronicle Books, 2015: 242.

 

November 20:  Significant Object Day

On this day in 2009 a fascinating five month anthropological study was completed by two writers, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.  The hypothesis of the study was that storytelling has the power to raise the value a physical object.

To test their hypothesis the researchers acquired 100 objects at garage sales and thrift stores at a cost of no more than two dollars per object.  In phase two of the study, each object was given to a writer who crafted a short, fictional story about the object.  Each object was then listed for auctioned on eBay with the invented story as the item description.  Walker and Glenn carefully identified each item description as a work of fiction.  Based on the results of the study, the average price of an object was raised by 2,700 percent.  The total cost of the purchasing the 100 objects was $128.74; the total sales on eBay reached a total of $3,612.51.  For example, a duck vase purchased for $1.99 sold for $15.75.  A motel room key purchased for $2.00 sold for $45.01.

Walker and Glenn compiled the results of their study, including a photo of each object along with its accompanying story, in the book Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.

In the book the following story by Colson Whitehead yielded $71.00 for a weathered wooden mallet that was originally purchased for 33 cents:

On September 15th, 2031 at 2:35am, a temporal rift — a “tear” in the very fabric of time and space — will appear 16.5 meters above the area currently occupied by Jeffrey’s Bistro, 123 E Ivinson Ave, Laramie, WY.  Only the person wielding this mallet will be able to enter the rift unscathed.  If this person then completes the 8 Labors of Worthiness, he or she will become the supreme ruler of the universe.

To see additional objects and their stories, visit www.significantobjects.com.

Clearly, stories captivate our interest and attention like nothing else.  Packaging both ideas and emotion in a narrative makes a powerful combination, and results of the Significant Objects Study provides us with quantitative evidence of this.  As stated by Walker and Glenn, “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Junk Drawer Stories

What inventive story would you write to give value to a seemingly valueless object?  Go to your junk drawer and find a physical object of little value.  Then, craft a short narrative about the background of the object.  If you are working with a group or class of storytellers, have a Significant Object Contest or a Significant Object Slam (SOS) to share your stories. (Common Core Writing 3 –

Quotation of the Day:  There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story… don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words–the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book. -Stephen King

 

1-Walker, Rob and Joshua Glen.  Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things.  Seattle, WA:  Fantagraphics Books, 2012.

 

November 19:  Gettysburg Address Day

On this day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln presented his Gettysburg Address.  The occasion was the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the Union army’s victory in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1863.  Lincoln was not the main speaker at the dedication; that position was given to the scholar and statesman Edward Everett, the best-known orator of the time.  Everett spoke for approximately two hours; Lincoln, who took the podium at the end of the long ceremony, spoke for three minutes.

Lincoln’s address may have been short, but the words were certainly not short on impact.  His 267-word speech has been called “the best-known monument of American prose” and Carl Sandburg, one of America’s great poets, called the Gettysburg Address “the great American poem.”  

Although Lincoln’s address was a speech, it can be classified as a prose poem, a composition that is a hybrid of prose and poetry.  Written in complete sentences, like prose, a prose poem nevertheless relies heavily on a variety of poetic elements that give the prose the sound and emotional impact of poetry.

Reading the speech aloud, you can hear a variety of poetic sound effects:

Consonance:  for those who gave their lives that this nation might live.

Internal Rhyme:  we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate

Alliteration:  will little note nor long remember

But what makes the most impact in the speech is the harmony between Lincoln’s form and his content.  Skillfully employing the rhetorical strategies he had acquired by reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible, Lincoln presents themes that are antithetical:  birth and death.  To bring balance and harmony to these opposing themes, he employs parallel structure, principally tricolon and anaphora.  

Notice for example the opposites (antithesis) in the following sentence from the middle of the speech:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln was at Gettysburg to honor the dead, but his purpose was also to move the living by reminding them that the war was not just about the victory of the Union, it was rather about the survival of the nation.  This theme of bringing harmony out of the chaos of war is echoed in the parallel syntax of Lincoln’s long final sentence.  Notice for example the anaphora of the “that” clause and tricolon employing three parallel prepositional phrases:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us

—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion

—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain

—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom

—and that government

of the people,

by the people,

for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Today’s Challenge:  Two Voices

How would you break up the words, phrases, and clauses of  “The Gettysburg Address” into a poem for two voices?  Transform Lincoln’s prose poem into a poem for Two Voices.  Paul Fleishman popularized this form in his book Joyful Noise:  Poems for Two Voices (See September 5:  Two Voices Day). Written to be read aloud by two people, poems for two voices are written in two columns.  Each reader is assigned a single column, and the two readers alternate, reading the lines in turn from the top to the bottom of the page.  Reader’s join their voices whenever words are written on the same line in both columns.

Play with the contrasts and the rhythms of Lincoln’s short speech to create your own unique version.  As you write, practice with a partner to create the most dramatic possible performance.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Quotation of the Day:  . . . . Lincoln was a literary artist, trained both by others and by himself.  The textbooks he used as a boy were full of difficult exercises and skillful devices in formal rhetoric, stressing the qualities he practiced in his own speaking:  antithesis, parallelism, and verbal harmony. -Gilbert Highet

November 18:  Idioms from History Day

Today marks the anniversary of a tragic event that gave birth to the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  People use this idiomatic expression today to negatively characterize someone who they feel is blindly and unthinkingly following a person or ideology.  As with many idiomatic expressions or dead metaphors (expressions that mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words), most have forgotten the ghastly historical events that led to the phrase.

On November 18, 1978, 900 members of the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, formerly located in California, committed mass suicide at their Jonestown settlement in Guyana, South America.  Under the direction of their leader Reverend Jim Jones, the congregation, which included 300 children, drank a powdered soft drink laced with cyanide.  This tragic display of blind obedience to a cult leader was sparked by the visit of U.S Congressman Leo Ryan who was investigating allegations of human rights abuses at Jonestown. After ordering his gunmen to kill Ryan and a group of journalists who accompanied the congressman on the trip, Jones embarked on his final desperate act, ordering his followers to ingest the poison. Jones, himself, was found dead the next day of a self-inflicted gun shot shot wound.

Usually the exploration of the history or etymology of an idiomatic expression does not yield a specific known origin, much less a specific date as in “drink the Kool-Aid.”  Often an idiom’s origin derives from myth, folklore, literature, or legend, and often there are a number of competing stories behind the phrase’s origin.  For example, one idiom “the whole nine yards,” has several  possible origins according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:

the amount of cloth required to make a complete suit of clothes; the fully set sails of three-masted ship where each mast carries three yards, that is, spars, to support the sails; or the amount of cement (in cubic yards) contained in a cement mixer . . . . (713).

Today’s Challenge:  What’s the Story?

What origins of idiomatic expressions have you heard about, or what origins have you wondered about?  The list of expressions below all have their origins in a specific historical time period.  Select one, and do some research to find the story behind the idiom.  You may not be able to find a specific date, but you should be able to find a general time period from which the expression came.  Based on your research, write the story behind the expression as well as a brief explanation of meaning of the expression as it is used today.

cross the Rubicon

jump the shark

push the envelope

a Pyrrhic victory

read the riot act

red tape

turn a blind eye

voted off the island

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 squirting out ink. -George Orwell

1-http://mentalfloss.com/article/13015/jonestown-massacre-terrifying-origin-drinking-kool-aid

 

November 17:  Animal Metaphor Day

On this date in 1970 a patent was issued for the first computer mouse.

The invention of the mouse is credited to Douglas Engelbart, who created what he called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system” in 1964 while working for the Stanford Research Institute. His invention, a wooden shell with two metal wheels was called a “mouse” while it was being developed in the lab because its cord resembled a mouse’s tail . In 1970, a decade before personal computers went on the market, there was little application for such a device.  It would be ten more years before someone stepped up to take the mouse to the big time.

In early 1980 Apple co-founder Steve Job visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where he saw a computer called the Alto. The Alto operated with a graphical user interface that used icons and a handheld input device called a mouse.  The problem, however, was that the Alto’s mouse was primitive and would cost $400 to manufacture.  To solve this problem, Jobs turned to an industrial design firm called Hovey-Kelley Design and challenged them to not only improve the durability and efficiency of the Xerox mouse, but also to reduce the cost from $400 to $35.  Hovey-Kelley took the challenge, and miraculously they succeeded.  In 1983, the Apple Lisa, the first personal computer to offer a graphic user interface, appeared on the market.

At a price of almost $10,000, the Lisa was not a commercial success, but Apple rebounded one year later with the Macintosh 128K. Like the Lisa, the Macintosh had a single-button mouse. The Macintosh and its graphic user interface revolutionized personal computing.

With the popularity of Microsoft Windows in the 1990s, the mouse became what it is today: ubiquitous (1).

Something else that is ubiquitous is the use of animals as metaphors in our language, terms like “computer mouse” that feature names but that have no literal connection to the animal that is named.

Today’s Challenge:  Waiter, There’s a Fly in My Dictionary

Can you name some two-word phrases in English that use animals as metaphors?  Brainstorm a list of ideas, and see if you can add to the list below:

black sheep

white elephant

dog days

cash cow

cold turkey

copy cat

crocodile tears

cry wolf

dark horse

eat crow

guinea pig

hornet’s nest

kangaroo court

lame duck

lion’s share

loan shark

monkey business

night owl

paper tiger

play possum

rat race

red herring

road hog

sitting duck

snail male

spring chicken

stool pidgeon

top dog

Select a single two-word metaphor, and write a definition of the phrase, explaining its literal definition as well as the story behind the phrase’s origin.  Imagine you are writing to a reader for whom English is a second language.  Make your explanation clear by using some specific examples to illustrate how and in what contexts the metaphor might be used? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The animal is ignorant of the fact that he knows. The man is aware of the fact that he is ignorant. -Victor Hugo

1-https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=37694

http://listverse.com/2011/08/06/10-origins-of-common-internet-terms/

 

November 4:  Fumblerules Day

On this day in 1979, New York Times columnist William Safire (1929-2009) published an article on the “Fumblerules of Grammar.”  Each of Safire’s fumblerules states a rule while at the same time breaking it, such as:

Never use prepositions to end sentences with.

President Bush presents William Safire the 2006 President Medal of Freedom.jpgSafire never claimed that his list was original, but as he explained in the column’s opening paragraph, he did boast the world’s largest collection of fumblerules:

Not long ago, I advertised for perverse rules of grammar, along the lines of “Remember to never split an infinitive” and “The passive voice should never be used.” The notion of making a mistake while laying down rules (“Thimk,” “We Never Make Misteaks”) is highly unoriginal, and it turns out that English teachers have been circulating lists of fumblerules for years. As owner of the world’s largest collection, and with thanks to scores of readers, let me pass along a bunch of these never-say-neverisms.

Several years after Safire’s column appeared, he wrote a book based on his collection of fumblerules called How Not to Write:  The Essential Misrules of Grammar.  In the book Safire includes 50 chapters, one for each of his fumblerules.  After stating each “misrule,” he provides a brief essay with examples and explanations of the right way to write.  For example, on ending sentences with prepositions, Safire says:

Sometimes invincible idiom dictates the preposition (“That’s what little girls are mad of”); in that case, relax and enjoy it.  Other times, awkwardness can be avoided with a quick fix:  “Bankruptcy, my dear fellow, is what we’re looking at”  can be switched to “We’re looking at bankruptcy, you idiot.”

In the first ten chapters of the book, Safire features the following essential fumblerules:

  1. No sentence fragments.
  2. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.
  3. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  4. Do not put statements in the negative form.
  5. Don’t use contractions in formal writing.
  6. The adverb always follows the verb.
  7. Make an all out effort to hyphenate when necessary but not when un-necessary.
  8. Don’t use Capital letters without good REASON.
  9. It behooves us to avoid archaisms.
  10. Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Recover the Fumblerule
What is your favorite fumblerule — a writing or grammar rule that states a rule while at the same time breaking it?  Select your single favorite fumblerule, and write an explanation of how it relates to effective writing.  Use the fumblerule as your title, followed by a paragraph where you explain how the rule relates to legitimate writing.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  I escape disaster by writing a poem with a joke in it:

The past, present, and future walk into a bar—it was tense. -Kelli Russell

 

1- Safire, William.  How Not to Write:  The Essential Misrules of Grammar.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.

 

October 31:  Thesis Day

Today is Halloween, but the most famous individual to approach a door on this date was not dressed in a costume.  The year was 1517, and the man approaching the door was a 34-year-old Augustinian monk named Martin Luther.  The door he approached was not a residence; rather, it was a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Instead of knocking on the door, Luther nailed a list of 95 theses to the church door.   It was this single act by one man that sparked a religious revolution called the Protestant Reformation.

Lucas Cranach d.Ä. - Martin Luther, 1528 (Veste Coburg) (cropped).jpgIn the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the dominant church in Europe.  Since Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in 325 AD, the church had grown in both political and spiritual power.  In 1513 Leo X became Pope and began plans to rebuild St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the headquarters of the Catholic Church.  To raise funds for this major project, the decision was made to sell indulgences, the church’s promise that an individual would escape God’s judgement in the afterlife by making a monetary donation of a specific amount to the church.

It was the act of selling indulgences as well as other corruption in the church, that sparked Martin Luther’s act of nailing his 95 theses.  As a monk lecturing at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, Luther believed that forgiveness of sins could only come from God, and that unchecked power had caused the church to lose sight of it biblical foundation.

Luther’s 95 theses, written in Latin, challenged the authority the Pope, calling for an end to indulgences, corruption, and decadence — and a return a proper spiritual focus.  

For his act, Luther was charged with heresy and was excommunicated from the church.  Luther’s cause did not die, however.  Aided by the printing press, which had been invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, copies of Luther’s theses were circulated throughout Europe.  The “protest” movement that resulted became the Protestant Reformation, which spawned numerous Christian sects each rejecting the authority of the Roman Church (1).

Just as Martin Luther stated what he believed in his 95 theses, an essay’s thesis must clearly sum up what the essay’s author believes, the writer’s core argument.

Margaret Heffernan, in her 2012 TED Talk entitled “Dare to Disagree,” emphasizes the importance of knowing what you believe and being prepared to defend and debate it.  In her talk Heffernan also alludes to students at the University of Delft, The Netherlands, who must “submit five statements that they’re prepared to defend” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Thesis Under Construction

What is a thesis — a debatable statement of what you believe — that you believe strongly enough to defend?  Brainstorm some topics that you believe in strongly.  Then, craft five thesis statements  that you would be prepared to defend.  To help you craft your theses, read the “Three Things a Thesis Does” below:

Three Things A Thesis Does:

  1. States a debatable claim (an opinion) – “What you believe”
  2. Provides reasoning to support the claim – “Why you believe it”
  3. Combines the “What” and the “Why” into at least one clear, complete sentence.

Examples:  

Gun control laws should be further tightened because guns do not deter crime.

Gun control laws should not be further tightened because gun control laws punish only law-abiding citizens.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

 

Quotation of the Day:  The best movies have one sentence that they’re exploring, a thesis, something that people can argue about over dinner afterward.  -Helen Hunt

1- Marsh, W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  365:  Your Date with History.  Cambridge, UK:  Totem Books, 2004.

2-http://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_dare_to_disagree/transcript?language=en#t-614227