July 18:  Ladder of Abstraction Day

Today is the birthday of S.I. Hayakawa, who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1906.

Professor Hayakawa was best known for his book Language in Thought and Action (1939). This book, now in its fifth edition, is one of the best known works on linguistics and specifically semantics: the study of the meaning of words and language.

Hayakawa taught English and Semantics at the University of Chicago and then at San Francisco State College, where he eventually became president in 1968.  That same year he disrupted a student anti-war demonstration, pulling the plug on an outdoor sound system. He was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1976, and in 1981 he became the first politician to introduce a bill proposing that English become the official language of the United States.

SIHayakawa.jpgAfter leaving office, Hayakawa founded U.S English in 1983. U.S. English, Inc. lives on today. It’s mission, according to its web site, is “preserving the unifying role of the English in the United States” (1).

In his book Language in Thought and Action, Hayakawa popularized an amazing tool for writers.  Not a physical tool that can be bought in a hardware store, but a metaphorical tool to better understand how to use words more effectively.  It’s called the ladder of abstraction (2).

The ladder of abstraction is one way to visualize the range of language from the abstract to the concrete–from the general to the specific. On the top of the ladder are abstract ideas like success, education, or freedom; as we move down each rung of the ladder, the words become more specific and more concrete. When we reach the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction, we should find something concrete that we can see, touch, hear, taste, or smell.

Rung 6:  Education

Rung 5:  High School

Rung 4:  Math Department

Rung 3:  Algebra

Rung 2:  Algebra 2

Rung 1:  Mr. Johnson’s 4th period Algebra 2 class

Notice, for example, the list above. Imagine that each is a rung of the ladder. On the 6th Rung is the abstract idea “Education.”  As we move down each rung, the words become more specific.  When we reach the bottom rung, we find a tangible and concrete phrase to represent the abstract idea.

Writers should use the ladder of abstraction as a mental model to remind themselves that good writing is grounded with a solid, concrete foundation. We certainly write about abstract ideas like love, education, and success all the time, but the best writing doesn’t just tell by remaining at the top or middle rungs of the ladder; instead, it climbs down to the bottom rung, to show the reader, using specific images, details, and examples (3).

A writer, for example, who is unfamiliar with the ladder of abstraction might write the following telling sentence:

My substitute teacher in 4th period today was a bit odd.

“Odd” is a subjective and abstract idea.  Using the ladder of abstraction allows the writer to craft a more showing description:

My substitute teacher in 4th period today began class by playing a medley of Beatles songs on his accordion, he demanded that we submit any questions we had in writing, and when I asked for permission to sharpen my pencil, he shouted, “I’m sick of your insane and insolent demands!!”  At the end of class, he wouldn’t dismiss us until the entire class sang the “Marine Corps Hymn.”

Today’s Challenge:  Lord of the Rungs
What concrete words come to your mind when you think of the abstract word “success”?  Select one of the abstract nouns listed below and brainstorm specific, showing details and examples of what the idea looks like, sounds like, or feels like in the real world.  Then breath life into the abstract idea by describing a specific scene that illustrates the word using concrete nouns at the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction.  For a real challenge, try to not even use the abstract noun in your paragraph.  If you have done an effective job of showing rather than telling, your reader should be able to identify the abstract idea without being told.

curiosity, kindness, freedom, intelligence, stupidity, success, victory, defeat, bravery, diligence, creativity, education, loyalty

Quotation of the Day:  The ladder of abstraction. That name contains two nouns. The first is “ladder,” a specific tool you can see, hold in your hands, and climb. It involves the senses. You can do things with it. Put it against a tree to rescue your cat Voodoo. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. Concrete is hard, which is why when you fall off the ladder from a high place you might break your leg.

The second word is “abstraction.” You can’t eat it or smell it or measure it. It is not easy to use as an example. It appeals not to the senses, but to the intellect. It is an idea that cries out for exemplification. -Roy Peter Clark (4)

1- U.S English, Inc.

2 -Hayakawa, S.I. Language in Thought and Action.

3-Backman, Brian.  Persuasion Points: 82 Strategic Exercises for Writing High-Scoring Persuasive Essays. Maupin House, 2010:  62.

4-Clark, Roy Peter. Writing Tool #13 Show and Tell

July 13:  I Came, I Saw, I Conquered Day

Today is the birth date in 100 BC of Julius Caesar — Roman general, statesman, and dictator.

In his Life of Caesar, Plutarch tells a story that reveals the unique character of Caesar. It relates to an incident where the young Julius was kidnapped by pirates:

To begin with, then, when the pirates demanded twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not knowing who their captive was, and of his own accord agreed to give them fifty . . . . For eight and thirty days, as if the men were not his watchers, but his royal body-guard, he shared in their sports and exercises with great unconcern. He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians, and often laughingly threatened to hang them all. The pirates were delighted at this, and attributed his boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth (1).

Caesar made good on his threat.  After he was released, he pursued the pirates with his fleet, captured them, and executed them.

Julius’ place in history is probably best attributed to his combined powers as a tactician, a statesman, and an orator.  After leading his Roman army to one particularly decisive victory in 46 BC, he famously wrote the Roman Senate to report:

Veni, vidi, vici

or

I came, I saw, I conquered.

A student of rhetoric and oratory, Caesar knew the power of the tricolon, the use of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses to generate sentences with rhythm, clarity, and  panache.

There is something special, perhaps even magical, about the number three, and when combined with the power of rhythm and repetition, what results is an unforgettable recipe for rhetorical resonance.

We see it in the Declaration of Independence:  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  We see it in religion:  “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  We see it in films and television: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”  And we see it advertising:  “The few, the proud, the Marines” (2).

Balance and rhythm with two elements is good.  This is called isocolon, as in “Roses are red, violets are blue.”  And four works too.  It’s called tetracolon, as when Winston Churchill told the British people that he nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”  But you just can’t beat the rule of three; it’s the most ubiquitous, the most memorable, and the most magical of them all.  No wonder newly reelected President Barack Obama used 21 tricolons in his 2008 victory speech (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Tricolon Trailers
What are examples of things that come in threes — familiar phrases, titles, or trios?  Write the text of a voice-over for a movie trailer of your favorite film or book.  Use at least one tricolon to add some rhythm and resonance.  Here’s an example for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Mourning his dead father, berating his clueless mother, and continually contemplating the murder of his remorseless, treacherous, and lecherous uncle, Hamlet is not having a good day!  Something, indeed, is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s not just the fish from last week’s dinner that’s been festering in the corner of the Castle Elsinore’s Kitchen.

Quotation of the Day: Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. -attributed to Benjamin Franklin

1- Plutarch.  “Life of Caesar”

2- Backman, Brian.  Thinking in Threes:  The Power of Three in Writing. Austin, Texas:  Prufrock Press, 2005.

Forsyth, Mark.  The Elements of Eloquence:  How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.  London:  Icon Books, 2013: 84-88.

3- Zelinsky, Aaron.  “What We Will Remember”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/aaron-zelinsky/what-we-will-remember-oba_b_141397.html

 

July 9:  Litany of Questions Day

On this day in 1962, Bob Dylan recorded the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.  Of all the memorable protest songs that came out of the turbulent 1960s, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is the best known.  Its success lies in its anthem-like quality as well as its universal and timeless themes of war, peace, and freedom.  But perhaps its most powerful feature is its presentation of a litany of rhetorical questions, questions which perfectly balance the general and the specific in such a way that the questions remain relevant more than fifty years after they were written:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly

Before they’re forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind

“Blowin’ in the Wind” is Bob Dylan’s most covered song.  The most successful version was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Their cover version reached number two on the Billboard pop chart in April 1963 (1).

As Bob Dylan reminds us, a question is like a magnifying glass that allows us to more closely examine ideas.  They also allow us to expand our thinking broadly, limited only by the size of our own imagination.

Today’s Challenge:  Interrogate a Topic
What is a topic that you care about — a topic that you are curious about?  What are some questions you have about the topic?  Select a topic that you care about.  Use your passion for the topic to generate a list of at least 10 legitimate questions that you do not know the answer to.  Use these questions as springboards for future writing. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  You can hear in this a yearning and a hope and a possibility and a sadness and sometimes a triumphal proclamation of determination. The answer is blowin’ in the wind means we will find the answer. So it’s a matter of interpretation and, frankly, I think Bobby was probably right and legitimate in not giving a specific interpretation. -Peter Yarrow

1-Songfacts.com

 

July 8:  Credo Day

On this day in 1941, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960) gave a radio speech in which he presented ten principles that, according to him, “point the way to usefulness and happiness in life, to courage and peace in death.”  

John D. Rockefeller 1885.jpgRockefeller was the only son of oil baron John D. Rockefeller.  Unlike his father, he became better known for the money he gave away than for the money he made.  His philanthropy included the establishment of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.  John’s son Nelson Rockefeller served as both the governor of New York and the 41st Vice President of the United States under President Gerald Ford (1).

Rockefeller’s 1941 speech is written as a credo, Latin for “I believe.”  As you read each of his ten statements of personal belief below, notice how he organizes each one in parallel fashion, using clear and concise language:

-I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

-I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.

-I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.

-I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.

-I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.

-I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.

-I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character—not wealth or power or position—is of supreme worth.

-I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.

-I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individual’s highest fulfillment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His will.

-I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.

Rockefeller’s credo is etched in granite at the entrance to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City (See September 7:  Words Chiseled in Granite Day).

Today’s Challenge:  Your PSB
What are some examples of the personal beliefs you live by? You have probably heard of a Public Service Announcement or PSA, but have you ever heard of a PSB?  A PSB is a Personal Statement of Beliefs, also known as a credo.  Crafting your own credo and periodically revising it is a nice way to identify and practice the beliefs that you feel are essential to live life to its fullest.  The writer Robert Fulghum, for example, would sit down each spring and write and revise his credo (See October 30: All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Kindergarten Day).  Write your own PSB with at least three statements.  Begin each one with “I believe . . .”  As you write and revise, ask yourself how you would explain and justify the importance of each of your statements. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death. –Robert Fulghum

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

 

 

July 4: Twenty-Seven Reasons Day

Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Thomas Jefferson, only 33 years old at the time, was chosen to write a draft of the Declaration. One of the masterworks of both literary and political prose, the Declaration opens with a 71-word sentence that although long is clearly and precisely worded:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation (1).

United States Declaration of Independence.jpgAlthough the preamble is Jefferson’s, a comparison of his drafts shows that he was influenced by others like English philosopher John Locke and an earlier Declaration of Rights written by the Virginian George Mason. Another clear influence was Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776, used plain language to ignite revolutionary fervor in the colonists. In fact, Paine gave us the modern sense of the word “revolution” as change, as opposed to describing the movements of the planets.

In addition to being influenced by others, Jefferson got help with revisions. His document underwent 40 changes and 630 deleted words as drafts were presented to the Committee of Five and Congress. The date on the Declaration of Independence reads July 4, 1776, but a more accurate date is probably July 2nd when the actual proposal to declare independence was ratified. According to Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, only two of the 57 signers of the Declaration did so on July 4th, Charles Thomson and John Hancock. Hancock’s large signature later became synonymous with signing your name.

The official signing did not take place until August 2nd and the names of the signers, for fear of retaliation, were not released until January 1777. Signing such a document was no small act. It was considered treason, and according to Bryson: “The penalty for treason was to be hanged, cut down while still alive, disemboweled and forced to watch your organs burned before your eyes, then beheaded and quartered” (2).

Stories of the Declaration of Independence being read in Philadelphia on July 4th to the ringing of the Liberty Bell are a myth since the first public reading was on July 8th, and “there is no record of any bells being rung. Indeed, though the Liberty Bell was there, it was not so called until 1847 . . . . “(2).

One year later, however, on July 4, 1777 there is a record of celebrations and parades on the first anniversary of independence. It is also on this date that a new word appeared: fireworks, which previously had been called rockets.

At the core of the Declaration is a list of 27 specific grievances that provide the rationale for revolution. American school children learn mainly about “taxation without representation” (#17), but as you can see by the parallel list below, American colonists had many more reasons to be unhappy with the British monarchy:

-He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
-He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
-He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
-He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
-He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
-He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
-He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
-He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
-He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
-He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
-He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
-He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
-He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
-For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
-For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
-For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
-For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
-For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
-For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
-For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
-For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
-For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
-He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
-He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
-He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
-He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
-He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Today’s Challenge: 27 Reasons to Celebrate
What is something that you love so much that you could write 27 reasons to celebrate it? Select a person, place, or thing you feel passionate about and list your 27 reasons to celebrate it. For example, today might be a day to good day to write “Twenty-seven Reasons to Celebrate American Independence.” (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. –Thomas Jefferson

1 – Declaration of Independence. http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/declaration_transcript.html

2 – Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. New York: William Morrow, 1995.

July 2:  Broadcast Day

Today is the anniversary of the first major sports broadcast. On July 2, 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey met Georges Carpentier in what was billed as “The Battle of the Century.” Nearly one hundred thousand spectators witnessed the fight, and thousands more listened across the nation, including a crowd of ten thousand in New York’s Times Square.

The fight did not live up to its hype, ending in four rounds with Dempsey scoring a knockout, but the people who came to Times Square to listen to a fight, left wanting a radio of their own. According to Bill Bryson in his book Made in America, “The very notion of instant, long-distance verbal communication was so electrifying that soon people everywhere were clamoring to have a radio” (1).

The lone announcer that day was J. Andrew White, who probably never envisioned today’s sports fans who have access to sports broadcasts literally 24-hours a day. Today, in addition to a play-by-play announcer, who reports the who, what, when, and where, there are also color commentators, sometimes called color analysts, who give the listener or viewer the why and the how of what is happening in the ring or on the field. These expert analysts are especially important since the advent of instant replay, first used on December 7, 1963 during the CBS broadcast of the Army-Navy football game.

The relationship between the play-by-play announcer and the color commentator provides an interesting metaphor for writing. The play-by-play person provides what every good piece of writing needs: details, description, examples, facts, and statistics. The color commentator provides something else that good writing needs: the interpretation and analysis of the details. A good writer, therefore, must do both the job of the play-by-play announcer and the color commentator. This balance between the evidence provided to the reader (the proof) and the explanation of that evidence (the warrant) is a key to effective writing, especially argumentation.  So, as you write, ask yourself whether or not you are providing enough of both in your own essays, speeches, or broadcasts.

The word broadcast originated in the 18th century as an agricultural term to describe the wide swing of the hand as it throws, or “casts” seeds over a “broad” area.  With the advent of radio in the 1920s, the term was adopted as a metaphor to describe the dissemination of information over the air waves.

Today’s Challenge:  Broadcast Your Claim
What are some claims that you can make that you can support with detailed evidence and clear explanation?  Write a short editorial where you state a single clear claim.  Then, support your claim with both details and explanation. Use the broadcaster metaphor as a reminder to provide both play by play and color commentary that makes your case. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: Any good broadcast, not just an Olympic broadcast, should have texture to it. It should have information, should have some history, should have something that’s offbeat, quirky, humorous, and where called for it, should have journalism, and judiciously it should also have commentary. That’s my ideal. -Bob Costas

1 – Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. New York: Perennial, 1994.

June 28:  War and Peace Day

On this day we remember two specific dates, one that marked the outbreak of war and the other establishing peace.

The first event took place on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo. On that day Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist.

DC-1914-27-d-Sarajevo-cropped.jpgFerdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina to inspect the imperial armed forces.  The provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina had been annexed by Austria-Hungary a few years earlier to the opposition of neighboring Serbia.

Traveling in a motorcade in a car with its convertible top folded down, the Archduke passed Serbian nationalist Nedjelko Cabrinovic, who tossed a bomb in the direction of Ferdinand’s car.  The bomb did not land in the car, however. Instead, it hit the back of the car and bounced underneath a trailing vehicle. The explosion injured two army officers and several bystanders. Continuing in his motorcade unharmed, Ferdinand arrived at Sarajevo’s city hall where he presented a speech.  After his speech, Ferdinand insisted he be taken to visit the injured officers. As Ferdinand’s car raced through the Sarajevo streets to the hospital, his driver took a wrong turn. While slowing down to turn around, the car, by coincidence, passed near one of Cabrinovic’s co-conspirators, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip.  Seizing this chance meeting, Princip pointed his .38 Browning pistol at Ferdinand, shooting twice at point-blank range and killing both Ferdinand and his wife.

The assassination of Ferdinand was the spark that ignited the powder keg of World War I.  Within one month Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany, declared war on Serbia Soon Russia, France, Belgium, Great Britain, and eventually the United States were drawn into the escalating conflict that eventually claimed the lives of ten million soldiers (1).

While June 28 marks the beginning of World War I, it is also the date that marks the official end of the war five years later in 1919.  While fighting ended in the war with the declared armistice of November 11, 1918, the specific terms of peace had to be written up and signed.   To create the treaty, national leaders met at Versailles, near Paris. The key players — David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States — met behind closed doors to hammer out the terms of what became the Treaty of Versailles.

The treaty laid out brutal terms for Germany, requiring them to pay millions in reparations, to forfeit thousands of acres of their land holdings, to plead guilty for starting the war, and to massively reduce the size and strength of their army.   Reluctantly Germany signed the treaty on June 28, 1919.

Although the Treaty of Versaille brought temporary peace, its harsh terms laid the foundation for future conflicts in the 20th and 21st Centuries, most notable of which was World War II, where a World War I German corporal named Adolf Hitler rose to power, seeking revenge for the unjust terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

Today’s Challenge:  Opposite Day

What are some pairs of antonyms — words that are opposites — that you could use to make a claim that contrasts the two ideas?  Select a topic based on a pair of antonyms, such as:

parents/children, success/failure, truth/falsehood, logic/creativity, speaking/listening, victory/defeat, yesterday/today, reading/writing

Next, write an opening sentence that makes a claim based on differences in the two topics, such as:

Logic teaches us about the world; creativity teaches us about ourselves.

Notice that the sentence above is balanced, meaning both of its independent clauses are parallel.  Also notice that it features the rhetorical device called antithesis, which frames contrasting ideas in a parallel form.  This is a classic device used by speakers and writers to craft memorable lines (See March 20:  Antithesis Day).  For example, you probably remember this famous example by Neil Armstrong:

That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

Once you have crafted your claim, write a paragraph that supports your claim, using contrast, details, examples, and evidence.

Quotation of the Day:  Nobody is mad enough to choose war whilst there is peace. During times of peace, the sons bury their fathers, but in war it is the fathers who send their sons to the grave. -Herodotus

1-http://www.history.com/news/the-assassination-of-archduke-franz-ferdinand-100-years-ago

 

May 18:  Connotations Day

Today is the birthday of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell who was born in Wales in 1872. Russell received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Russell’s writings are eminently quotable. Here are a few examples that demonstrate his genius for language that is both concise and profound:

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.

One particular quotation by Russell has helped a generation of English teachers to illustrate the subtleties of denotation and connotation in the English language. On a BBC radio program called Brain Trust, Russell said the following:

I am firm.

You are obstinate.

He is a pig-headed fool.

With this one quotation, Russell demonstrated how a writer’s word choice is colored by his or her point of view and how the plethora of synonyms in English is a double-edged sword: it allows for an amazing array of possibilities, choices, and variety, but it also requires the writer to be a discriminating student of not just a word’s meaning, but also its associations and appropriate context.

The denotation of a word is its dictionary definition, but its connotation is its implied meaning – the associations and emotions that are attached to the word. For example, when addressing 15-year old, you have a choice of addressing him as a: young adult, a young person, an adolescent, a teenager, a teen, a teeny-bopper, a juvenile, or even a whipper-snapper. Although each of these words has the same basic denotation, they certainly have a range of different connotations on a scale of positive to neutral to negative.

Writing Russellesque triads is an excellent way to exercise your verbal muscles and learn to discriminate between the subtle differences in the connotations of various synonyms. For example, there is a classic example of a student who was looking for a synonym for “good.” He picked up a thesaurus and looked down the list of synonyms. Making a selection of what he thought was an appropriate synonym, the student wrote the following sentence: “Today I ate a benevolent donut.”

Here are some examples of triads:

I am an erudite scholar.

You are an learned instructor.

He is a didactic pedagogue.

 

I’m a patriot.

You are a flag waver.

He is jingoistic.

 

My smoking is a vice.

Your smoking is a transgression.

His smoking is a sin.

 

My story was a fascinating narration.

Your story was an interesting anecdote.

His story was a strange yarn.

 

I am sagacious.

You are astute.

He is crafty.

 

I am a scholar.

You are a student.

He is a pupil.

 

I am a wordsmith.

You are a writer.

He is a hack.

 

I’m resting.

You’re lounging.

He’s a coach potato.

 

I’m frugal.

You’re cheap.

He’s a tightwad.

Today’s Challenge: Connotative Concoctions

What are some examples of words that come in a variety of connotations?  Celebrate Bertrand Russell’s birthday by doing your own triad of synonyms. Use the following guidelines as you write:

-Arrange your concoction in first, second, and third person points of view: I, You, and He.

-Begin in the first person with the word or phrase that has the most positive connotations. Continue by using words and/or phrases with ever-increasing negative connotations.

Example:

My bathroom has a fragrant aroma.

Your bathroom has an odd odor.

His bathroom has a strange stench.

(Common Core Language 4 – Knowledge of Language)

Quote of the Day: The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.-Mark Twain

 

May 1:  Paradox Day

Today is the anniversary of the 1961 publication of the Joseph Heller novel Catch-22. In the novel, the anti-hero Captain Yossarian serves in the United States Air Force on a Mediterranean island near Italy during World War II. In order to survive the war, Yossarian attempts to avoid flying on dangerous bombing missions. His efforts are thwarted, however, by the paradoxical rule called Catch-22:

Catch22.jpgThere was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [Bomber pilot] Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

According to Twentieth Century Words, the expression catch-22 to refer to “a supposed law or regulation containing provisions which are mutually frustrating” began to gain widespread use after the release of a film version of the novel in 1970 (1). The fact that the title of a novel took on a life of its own and developed a generic meaning in the language is a unique occurrence. For example, even a person who has never heard of Yossarian or Heller’s novel might be aware of the expression. After a job interview, for example, a frustrated teenager might return home and tell his mother: “They won’t hire me unless I have experience, but how can I get experience if no one will hire me? I’m caught in a catch-22.”

A catch-22, then, is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ type of situation. It’s a no-win situation; a chicken and egg problem that traps you in a double bind of circular logic wrapped around a conundrum. In other words, it’s a kind of paradox.

A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, yet is true. In a paradox, truth and falsehood collide and synthesize into wisdom. Great quotes, great poetry, and great speeches of all kinds are full of paradox. The etymology of paradox is Greek paradoxon, meaning conflicting with expectation. An excellent anthology of paradoxes, is the book Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. In this book, Dr. Mardy Grothe has collected over one thousand examples of paradoxical quotes, including the following one from Joseph Heller: When I grow up I want to be a little boy.

Today’s Challenge:  True Lies

What are some examples of quotations that express paradoxical truth?  Do some research to find a paradoxical statement that you think shows great insight about a universal idea, such as the examples below.  Record the complete quotation and cite its author; then, explain what specifically you like about the paradox.

-Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance. -Confucius

-When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other. -Eric Hoffer

-We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be free. -Cicero

-The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. -Jean Cocteau

-Success is ninety-nine percent failure. -Soichiro Honda

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:   A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it. -Mark Twain

1- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

2-Grothe, Mardy. Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

April 29: Hyperbole Day

On this day in 1962, President John F. Kennedy hosted a White House dinner honoring 49 Nobel Prize winners.  Addressing the gathered collection of extraordinary minds, Kennedy gave a brief speech, one sentence of which is one of the most memorable of presidential quotations (See September 2:  Presidential Proverb Day):

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House–with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

Kennedy’s remark is a textbook example of hyperbole: a type of figurative language that exaggerates for effect or emphasis.

The etymology of hyperbole is from the Greek huper meaning beyond and ballein meaning to throw. So the image is of a pitcher over-throwing his mark. A modern slang derivative of hyperbole is hype, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “excessive publicity, or exaggerated or extravagant claims made, especially in advertising or promotional material.”

As Kennedy’s quotation demonstrates, the primary effect of hyperbole is humor, and it should be clear to both the writer and to the audience that the exaggeration is intentional.

Today’s Challenge: I’ve Told You a Million Times Not to Exaggerate

What are some examples of situations in which someone might use hyperbole in writing? Select one or more of the topics below, and celebrate Hyperbole Day by writing a short piece.

  1. Write a film review for your favorite movie, exaggerating its excellence.
  2. Write an advertisement exaggerating the fine qualities of a project.
  3. Write a note explaining, excusing, and exaggerating the circumstances surrounding your late homework.
  4. Write a tabloid article exaggerating the who, what, when, and where of a story.
  5. Write a love poem exaggerating your devotion to your significant other.
  6. Write a college essay exaggerating your fine qualities and qualifications for college.
  7. Write a tall tale or fish story, exaggerating the details of what happened.
  8. Write the text of a campaign commercial, exaggerating the qualities of a candidate.
  9. Write a monologue for a telephone solicitor, exaggerating the urgency of buying your product.
  10. Write a nostalgic memory, exaggerating the hardships you faced.

Quotation of the Day:  Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red. -William Shakespeare

1-http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8623