August 7:  Syntax Day

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Today is the anniversary of the Whiskey Rebellion.

On this date in 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania rebelled against a federal tax on liquor by tarring and feathering tax collectors and torching their homes. It was one of the first tests of federal authority for the young United States. In response to the uprising, President George Washington called in more than 12,000 Federal troops. The rebels put up little residence, fleeing to hide in the woods. Twenty were captured, and one man died while in prison. Only two of the rebels were convicted of treason, and both of these men were eventually pardoned by Washington (1).

File:Whiskey Insurrection.JPGThere is a long tradition of sin taxes in America, and it may be a bad pun, but on what other day can you celebrate the syntax of English sentences?

Syntax is simply the way writers put together phrases and clauses to make sentences. Knowledge of syntax helps writers create more varied sentences. For example, variety in sentence openings is an important feature of good writing. Starting with the subject is a natural feature of English sentences, and there is nothing wrong with it. However, if every one of your sentences begins with the subject, your writing will sound monotonous and lifeless.

Three effective methods for adding variety to sentence openings are using prepositional phrases, participial phrases, and absolute phrases. Let’s look at how you can manipulate a sentence’s syntax to open in a variety of ways.

I. Open with a Prepositional Phrase: These phrases begin with a preposition and end with a noun, such as: on the roof, over the rainbow, in the garden, from the city, out the window.

Original Sentence: The students gathered in the cafeteria to watch the multimedia presentation on dental hygiene.

Revised sentence, opening with a prepositional phrase: In the cafeteria, the students gathered to watch the multimedia presentation on dental hygiene.

II. Open with a Participial Phrase: These phrases begin with a verb (often in the -ing form) that works like an adjective to modify a noun, such as, eating a sandwich, mailing a letter, or singing a song.

Original Sentence: Bill killed time waiting for his dentist appointment by reading a magazine article on effective flossing techniques.

Revised Sentence, opening with a participial phrase: Reading a magazine article on effective flossing techniques, Bill killed time waiting for his dentist appointment.

III.  Open with an Absolute Phrase:  These phrases begin with a noun or pronoun followed by a participial phrase, such as her arms folded, her voice soaring, or eyes focused.

Original Sentence:  The boxer jumped rope.

Revised Sentence, opening with an absolute phrase:  His feet barely grazing the ground, the boxer jumped rope.

Today’s Challenge: No Sin Syntax Super Sentence
Can you craft a sentence that has at least one prepositional phrase, one participial phrase, and one absolute phrase?  Look at the example sentences below and see if you can identify the prepositional phrase, participial phrase, and absolute phrase in each.  Then, write the opening sentence of a short story that contains at least one prepositional phrase, one participial phrase, and one absolute phrase.

Her melodic voice singing out loud and strong, Mary astonished the concert goers in the opera house, bringing the entire audience to tears.

Sitting in the chair, Max, a handsome young man with blond hair, read the book, his mind captivated by the unfolding mystery.

Quote of the Day: Those who prefer their English sloppy have only themselves to thank if the advertisement writer uses his mastery of the vocabulary and syntax to mislead their weak minds. –Dorothy L. Sayers

1 – U.S. Department of the Treasury. “The Whiskey Rebellion.”

2 – Backman, Brian. Thinking in Threes: The Power of Three in Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: Cottonwood Press, Inc., 2005.

 

 

December 30: Subordinating Conjunction Day 

Today is the birthday of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), England’s master storyteller and poet.  Kipling was British, but he lived many years in India where he was born.  Known especially for his short stories and his popular work of fiction The Jungle Book (1894), Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 when he was just 42 years old.  He was the first English language writer to win the prize, and he was also the youngest ever to win the prize

In addition to his well-known fiction, Kipling was also a poet. In 1910, he published the poem “If,” which remains today one of the best known poems ever written in English.  

Written in the voice of a father giving advice to his son, the four-stanzas of the poem make up a single 283-word sentence. More specifically, the single sentence is a complex sentence, constructed in the form of a periodic sentence, a sentence that begins with subordinate phrases or clauses, and ends with the main clause.  In the case of Kipling’s poem “If,” he crafts twelve subordinate clauses, each beginning with the subordinating conjunction “if,” and ends with an independent clause.  Each of the “if” clauses provides conditions or prerequisites for manhood.  The speaker in the poem, the father, concludes with a statement, saying in effect, by making the choice to do these things, you will be a man and the world will be yours.

If

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The structure of Kipling’s poem demonstrates the power of the periodic sentence.  Certainly no one is writing 200-word sentences these days; however, using a periodic structure that begins with a string of subordinate ideas is a nice technique for drawing your reader in and building dramatic tension.  The periodic structure also allows a writer to capitalize on the rhythm created by parallel structure and the anticipation created by compounding details (1).

Subordination is a fundamental aspect of writing that is used for more than just periodic sentences.  Subordination in syntax relates to a method of constructing sentences where some of the ideas in a sentence are dependent on other parts.

For example, take the following two sentences:

Bill loves to read.  Bill is always carrying a book.

To show a logical relationship between these two ideas and combine them into a single sentence, we can use a subordinating conjunction (because) to make one idea subordinate to the other:

Because he loves to read, Bill is always carrying a book.

Instead of two simple sentences, we now have a single complex sentence, a sentence with one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.  In the sentence about Bill, the clause “Because he loves to read” is dependent because it cannot stand alone; it needs the independent clause “Bill is always carrying a book” in order to form a complete thought.

Because subordination is such an effective method for logically combining ideas, it makes sense for writers to recognize subordinating conjunctions, the words that signal the logical connections between ideas.

The following are the most frequently used subordinating conjunctions:

after, although, as, before, because, even though, if, since, so that, unless, until, when, while

These words signal four basic logical relationships.  Read the examples below to see the different ways that subordinating conjunctions connect ideas:

Cause and Effect (or Reasons): because, since, so that

Because he loves to read, Bill is always carrying a book.

Contrast (or Concession): although, even though, though, while, whereas

Although he loves to write, Bill’s favorite pastime is reading.

Time:before, after, as, once, since, while, when, whenever

After Bill gets home from school, he sits down and reads the newspaper.

Condition:  if, once, unless

If Bill gets money for his birthday, he plans to buy some new books.

Today’s Challenge:  WIIFM

What is a specific skill you have or an activity you participate in that you would be willing to promote for the general public? What makes this skill or activity so worthwhile?  Use subordination to write the introduction to a “how to” speech that provides direction on how to achieve something desirable. Begin with “if” clauses that give your audience the WIIFM, or “What’s in it for me.”  Structure your subordinate clauses using parallel structure to give your sentence clarity and rhythm. Crafting a periodic sentences using this structure will build your audience’s interest and anticipation to learn more about your topic.

Possible Topics:

-Join a specific organization or club

-Learn a specific skill or enhance a talent, such as singing, dancing, or barbecuing

-Take a specific class or course of study

-Participate in a new type of pastime, such as hang gliding, stamp collecting, or origami

-Achieve a lifelong goal, such as graduating college, climbing a mountain, or running a marathon

-Practice a good habit that will improve your life, such as avoiding procrastination, practicing meditation, or eating right

Notice how the 83-word sentence below uses parallelism and the “if-then” structure to build audience anticipation:

If you want to be the life of the party, if you want to impress strangers on the street and make money while you’re doing it, if you want to learn a life-long skill that will keep you active and provide you with mental stimulation, if you want to improve both your ability to persevere and your hand-eye coordination, and if you want a form of mediation that won’t allow you to fall asleep, then learning to juggle is the way to go.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Forsyth, Mark.  The Elements of Eloquence.  London:  Icon Books, 2013:  47.

December 11: Predicate Adjective Day


On this day in 1987, the film Wall Street opened in theaters. The film follows an ambitious young Wall Street broker named Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, and a rich corporate raider named Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, who won the Oscar for best actor in the role.  

In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, Gordon addresses a stockholders’ meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over.  In the speech, Gordon attempts to change the audience’s perception of him from corporate raider to company savior by targeting the wastefulness of the company’s management.  The core of his message is that“greed is good,” and that he is a liberator rather than a destroyer of companies (1).

The essence of Gordon’s claim in his speech is the sentence, “Greed is good.”  Syntactically speaking, this sentence is a classic example of a predicate adjective, a type of sentence in which a subject is linked with an adjective.  With predicate adjectives, a linking verb acts as a kind of equal sign to connect the subject and the adjective, as in Greed = good. Most of the time linking verbs are forms of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were, will be); however, there are other verbs that also serve to link the subject and the adjective, such as the verbs appear, become, feel, look, sound, and taste.

Here are some other examples of predicate adjectives:

Life is not fair.

Love is blind.

The students were angry.

The students look confused.

Infanticide is rampant among prairie dogs.

Today’s Challenge: Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, Predicate Adjectives Are Nothing New

One caveat for using predicate adjectives is to watch out for making unsupported subjective claims.  For example, notice that in addition to stating his claim that “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko also varies his syntax and supplies additional evidence and explanation to support his claim.  Sometimes writers or speakers think that stating something with authority, such as “This is boring,” makes it true.  On the contrary, the validity of any stated claim rests on its backing, its support, and its explanation.

What is a claim that you could state in the form of a predicate adjective, and how would you support it?

Use the list of subjective adjectives below to construct a claim about a topic you feel strongly about:

good, bad, boring, exciting, beautiful, ugly, awesome, awful, nice

Make sure that your claim is a predicate adjective and that it is an opinion, not a fact.  For example, if you say,“The house is red,” you would be stating a fact.  In contrast, if you say, “The house is ugly,” that’s an opinion.  Follow up your claim with specific details that support your claim.  Make sure to vary your syntax and go beyond just linking verbs that state what “is.” (Common Core Writing 1 -Argument)  

1-American Rhetoric. Movie Speech Wall Street (1987). http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechwallstreet.html.

December 6:  Passive Voice Day

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On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented a radio address to the nation.  His subject was a political scandal called the Iran-Contra Affair, where members of Reagan’s administration engaged in a secret arms deal in an attempt to obtain the release of American hostages.  Without approval or even the knowledge of the U.S. Congress, Reagan administration officials sold weapons to Iran and then used the profits from the sale to fund rebel forces in Nicaragua.

When a Lebanese newspaper published a report detailing the secret deal in November 1986, President Reagan was forced to address the matter publicly:

In the process of providing his explanation to the American people, Reagan used a classic framing device, the evasive maneuver known as passive voice:

And while we are still seeking all the facts, it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made [emphasis added] (1).

Use of the passive voice puts the object of the sentence “mistakes” up front and makes the doer of the action magically disappear.  Use of the passive voice allows the speaker to subtly evade admitting direct responsibility.  Notice the difference in the two sentences below:

Active Voice:  I made a mistake.

Passive Voice:  Mistakes were made.

Reagan was certainly not the first president to make this kind of unapologetic apology.  Use of this artful dodge dates back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration.  In a report to Congress in 1876, Grant acknowledged his administration’s scandals, saying “mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit it” (2).

For most writers, understanding the difference between active and passive voice has nothing to do with political rhetoric. Instead, the difference relates to making sure that your sentences are as clear, concise, and active as possible.

Just as the key to keeping your car running well is taking care of its engine, the key to successful sentences is taking care of the engine of the sentence:  the verb.  Notice the difference in the following two sentences:

Passive Sentence:  The book was read by Mary.

Active Sentence:  Mary read the book.

Both sentences say the same thing.  The active sentence, however, says it in fewer words.  Also, the active sentence makes Mary the doer of the action.  In contrast, the passive sentence puts the object up front which requires the addition of two weak and unnecessary words:  “was” and “by.”

Passive voice is technically not a grammar error; instead, it is a style choice.  There are times when you might want to focus on the object rather than the doer of the action.  Be aware, however, that in most cases putting the doer up front and eliminating unnecessary words will make your writing more clear and concise.

As exemplified by the sentence about Mary above, be on the lookout for forms of “to be.”  We use this verb more than any other verb in English, but don’t overuse it.  “To be” is a state of being verb.  When you use forms of “to be” as the engine of your sentence, the sentence doesn’t get very far:

Bill was happy.

In contrast, when you employ active verbs, your sentences have more motion, which creates a better picture for the reader:

Bill smiled broadly and threw his head back as he laughed.

Today’s Challenge:  Mistakes Were Corrected

What is the best way to begin a story?  Select one of the passive sentences below.  Transform the sentence from passive voice to active voice, and expand the sentence into an opening paragraph of a short story.  As you revise, consider the subject of your sentence. Whenever possible make people the subjects of your sentences, the doers of the action; this will add more life and human interest to your writing.

The groceries were purchased.

The cake was eaten.

The sun was watched.

The test was taken.

The book was thrown.

The poem was written.

The team was booed.

The birthday was celebrated.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-  Reagan, Ronald. Radio Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy. 6 Dec. 1986. The American Presidency Project.  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36788.

2-Safire, William.  Safire’s Political Dictionary.  Oxford University Press, 2008:  431.

November 15:  Balanced Sentence Day

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On this day in 1859, the final installment of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities was published.  As with most of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities was published in serial form.  Weekly installments of the novel began in April 1859 and the final installment was issued on November 15, 1859.

Dickens (1812-1870), the author of such classic works at Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol, was the most popular novelist of his time, and A Tale of Two Cities is the single greatest selling book of any genre with more than 200 million copies sold (1).

The book is a historical novel, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.  It’s appropriate that in a novel with two settings, the author would use the scheme called “balance.”  When writing about two or more similar ideas, writers balance the ideas by stating them in the same grammatical form using parallel structure, as in “United we stand, divided we fall.”  You can see and hear this balance in the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities.  Notice that although Dickens is introducing contrasting ideas (best and worst, wisdom and foolishness), the clauses of the sentence follow the same grammatical structure to create balance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .  

Using parallelism, anaphora, and antithesis, Dicken’s creates a long sentence that is nevertheless easy to follow because of its balanced structure.  The asymmetry of the contrasting ideas (antithesis) is brought back into balance by the symmetry of the parallel structure.

Just as Dickens opened his novel with a balanced sentence, he comes full circle in the final sentence of his novel, using a perfectly balanced sentence to express the final thoughts of one the story’s major characters, Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known (2).

Noticed how the two sides of the sentence, separated by the semicolon, are balanced by repetition and parallel structure.

Just as with all rhetorical or stylistic devices, you don’t want to overuse balanced sentences; however, it is a powerful club to have in your rhetorical golf bag.

Today’s Challenge:  Claim A Contrast

What claim would you make using two contrasting ideas, such as love/hate or success/failure, in the same sentence? Brainstorm a list of some contrasting ideas, such as, joy/sorrow, freedom/slavery, war/peace.  Then, write a balanced sentence that makes a claim based on the differences in the two topics.

For example, the following balanced sentence makes a claim about the contrasting ideas logic and creativity:

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

Notice how the two independent clauses of the compound sentence are balanced by parallelism.

Once you have your own balanced sentence, use it as your topic sentence for a paragraph that supports your claim using contrast, details, examples, evidence, and explanation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Mitchell, David. David Mitchell on Historical Fiction. The Telegraph 8 May 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-Historical-Fiction.html.

2-Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 1859. Public Domain.

November 14:  Sentence Variety Day

On this day in 1944, writing instructor Gary Provost was born. Provost earned his living as a freelance writer, authoring over 1,000 stories and articles.  He also wrote books in a variety of genres, including young adult novels, true crime books, and books about writing.

In 1985, Provost published a comprehensive guide for writers called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  In the book Provost covered a range of topics, from overcoming writer’s block to avoiding punctuation errors.  But one specific area he emphasizes is sentence variety (1).

Read the following paragraph out loud to both see and hear the point:

Sentences shouldn’t all be the same length. Seven-word sentences will surely bore your reader.  Here is another super soporific seven-word sentence. Stringing them one after another is monotonous.  Things change, however, when you start writing sentences that vary in length.  Listen up.  Can you hear the difference?  When you write with sentences of varied length, your writing will sound more like natural spoken language.  Try it yourself.  Write some long sentences, some medium, and some short.  Combine clauses. Rearrange phrases.  Most importantly, read your sentences out loud.  Use your ears as well as your eyes to read, listening for pleasing rhythms.  Make your sentences sing.

Good writing has the rhythm and resonance of spoken language.  Writers can’t write exactly like they talk.  After all, much of our spoken language relies on nonverbal cues. Writers can, however, imitate one universal trait of spoken language: variety in sentence length – some long, some medium, and some short.  As you revise your writing, read it aloud.  When your sentences begin to sound monotonous, check for variety in the length of your sentences, as well as for variety in the type of sentences you write.

Today’s Challenge:  Hold Your Ear Up to This Paragraph

What would you say is the secret to making written sentences sound as natural as spoken sentences?  The paragraph below does not have much variety in sentence lengths.  Read the paragraph aloud, and listen to where it could be improved. Then, revise the paragraph by breaking up or combining sentences as needed.  You may eliminate any unnecessary words, but try not to eliminate any of the paragraph’s key ideas:

The words in a sentence are like Lego building blocks.  The English sentence is made up of various parts.  These parts snap together like Legos of logic.  You can construct solid, syntactical structures to make sentences.  English words, phrases, and clauses come in multiple colors and forms.  The sentence builder can use them to construct many creations. Some of these creations are small, some are medium, and some are large. There’s no end to the fun you can have building sentences.

As you complete your revision, read it aloud.  When you have finished, write down the number of words in each sentence. Check the range of the number of words in each of your sentences.  Do you have some that are long, some that are medium, and some that are short?  Use this strategy on your own paragraphs as a method of revision.  Read aloud.  Revise. And try to capture the magic of the spoken word in your sentences. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  New York:  New American Library, 1985:  60-61.

July 22:  Syntax Sorcery Day

Today is the birthday of author Tom Robbins.  Born in North Carolina in 1932, Robbins attended college at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Washington.  Including service in the U. S. Air Force as a meteorologist, he also worked as a journalist, radio host, and art critic. Robbins moved to La Conner, Washington, in 1970 and since that time has written eight novels.

Robbins’ best known novel is his first, Another Roadside Attraction (1971).  As explained by reviewer and Robbins fan Mike Stone, this novel, and just about everything Robbins writes, defies easy description:

Most of the people I know who are now avid Robbins readers began that life baffled and confused by his prose. I include myself in that group. But after trying and giving up and trying and giving up several times, all of the sudden something clicks and you realize that he is a literary samurai (1).

Tom Robbins.jpgProbably Robbins’ most admired gift is his ability to craft sentences.  As critic Jason Sheehan put it, other writers look up to Robbins, both literally and metaphorically:  “He’s the mountain every working writer surveys when they’re trying to put a sentence together that’s more complicated than subject-verb-predicate” (2).

As Robbins explained in an interview in 2012, when combined with care, words, phrases, and clauses can create something magical:

Certain individual words do possess more pitch, more radiance, more shazam! than others, but it’s the way words are juxtaposed with other words in a phrase or sentence that can create magic.  Perhaps literally.  The word “grammar,” like its sister word “glamour,” is actually derived from an old Scottish word that meant “sorcery.”  When we were made to diagram sentences in high school, we were unwittingly being instructed in syntax sorcery, in wizardry.  We were all enrolled at Hogwarts.  Who knew? (3)

Special insight into Robbins’ sorcery is provided by Michael Dare:

When he starts a novel, it works like this. First he writes a sentence. Then he rewrites it again and again, examining each word, making sure of its perfection, finely honing each phrase until it reverberates with the subtle texture of the infinite. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes an entire day is devoted to one sentence, which gets marked on and expanded upon in every possible direction until he is satisfied. Then, and only then, does he add a period (4).

Today’s Challenge:  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
What are some examples of three-word combinations that form complete simple sentences, such as “The sun rose”?  How might you expand such a kernel sentence to make it exactly twenty words long?  Try your hand at some syntax sorcery by taking a three-word kernel sentence and expanding it in a variety of ways so that it has exactly twenty words.  Working within these constraints will force you, like Robbins, to pay careful attention to every word, phrase, and clause.  In Robbins’ words, “Challenge every single sentence for lucidity, accuracy, originality, and cadence. If it doesn’t meet the challenge, work on it until it does.”  Write at least three different 20-word expansions of your three-word kernel.

Example:

Three-word kernel:  The sun rose.

Twenty-word Sentences:

The sun, a blazing ball of fire in the sky, rose triumphantly into the welcoming arms of the patient morning.

As a single ripple glided across the lake, the run rose, bathing the scenery in hues of pink and orange.

Even though yesterday Mary dumped him and he failed both his English and math tests, today the sun still rose.

For an added challenge, try to write using some rhetorical flourishes, such as metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, parallelism, adjectives out of order, or hyphenated modifiers.  Also try a variety of phrases, clauses, and sentence forms.  Here’s a menu from which to mix and match:

Appositive Phrase

Participial Phrase

Absolute Phrase

Adverb Clause

Adjective Clause

Periodic Sentence

Cumulative Sentence

Quotation of the day:  I love mayonnaise! I eat so much they’re gonna send me to the Mayo Clinic. I think it’s definitely a watershed food. People who don’t go for it are destined for a Miracle Whip. They don’t know what they’re missing. Actually, people ought to be aware that Miracle Whip, which isn’t real mayonnaise at all, is a crutch for people who aren’t strong enough to handle the real thing. Mayonnaise is the one product that’s better than homemade. This is an unsolicited testimonial. I always thought Cinco de Mayo was for mayonnaise. I celebrate it every year. -Tom Robbins

 

1-Stone, Mike.  Review of “Another Roadside Attraction

2-http://www.npr.org/2014/05/27/314614799/tom-robbins-takes-a-bite-out-of-life-in-peach-pie

3-http://realitysandwich.com/150587/syntax_sorcery_interview_tom_robbins/

4- Michael Dare, in “How to Write Like Tom Robbins” in The Spirit Of Writing : Classic and Contemporary Essays Celebrating the Writing Life (2001) edited by Mark Robert Waldman, p. 41.

 

June15:  Parallelism Day

On this day in 1846, the United States and Britain signed the Treaty of Oregon, which established the 49th parallel as the international boundary separating British North America and the United States’ Pacific Northwest.  Beginning in 1818, the Oregon Territory — the region which today covers British Columbia and the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho — was jointly occupied by the United States and Britain. In 1844, little known Democratic candidate for president James J. Polk ran a campaign based on the expansion of the United States and the fulfillment of the nation’s manifest destiny.  Polk’s slogan was “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” based on his campaign promise of expanding U.S. territory to the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory at latitude 54 degrees, 40 minutes.

Once Polk won the presidency, however, he became less bellicose.  Facing the prospect of a war with Mexico in the south, Polk sought to avoid a potential war with Great Britain by agreeing to a compromise that extended the 49th parallel border from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.  

On a day where we remember how the 49th parallel helped establish harmony between two nations, we should also remember how the concept of parallelism can bring harmony to writing.

Parallelism is a big word for a simple concept:  It simply refers to the repetition of structure within a sentence or paragraph.  Notice, for example, how the following words from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural address are coherently packed into a single sentence using parallel verb phrases:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival of the success of liberty.

Notice how each three-word phrase follows the same pattern of VERB – ADJECTIVE – NOUN.  Notice also how the repeated structure creates balance and rhythm and clarity.

The following two famous sentences employ parallelism. The first from Lincoln employs parallel participial phrases, and the second from F.D.R. features parallel adjectives:

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.  -Abraham Lincoln

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.  -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Even a simple park sign can demonstrate how parallelism can communicate ideas more clearly.  Notice which part of the list below breaks the parallel pattern:

ATHLETIC FIELD

-NO DOGS

-NO GOLFING

-PICK-UP LITTER

-NO DIGGING

By changing “PICK-UP LITTER” to “NO LITTERING” we now have a more balanced and clear list:

ATHLETIC FIELD

-NO DOGS

-NO GOLFING

-NO LITTERING

-NO DIGGING

Writing a sentence is like packing a suitcase.  There is an art to getting everything in the bag — not just getting it in, but keeping it all organized and accessible.  Parallelism is the secret weapon for writers who pack sentences, not suitcases. It helps them to pack a lot of ideas into a sentence in an orderly, logical way.

Parallelism is more than just a grammatical concept; it’s a rhetorical concept that not only allows the writer to be more clear, but also allows the writer to be more profound.  As Lucile Vaughan Payne says in her book The Lively Art of Writing:

Parallel structure, fully understood and put to use, can bring about such a startling change in composition that student writers sometimes refer to it as “instant style.”  It can add new interest, new tone, new and unexpected grace to even the most pedestrian piece of writing.

Today’s Challenge:  I Came, I Saw, I Conquered Parallelism

What is a movie that you know well enough and like enough to write the text of a movie trailer for?  Write the text of a voice-over for a movie trailer for one of your favorite movies.  Use parallelism to add some rhythm and resonance to your preview. The following example is a movie trailer for Hamlet, the 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 has been festering in the corner of the Castle Elsinore’s kitchen.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  All writers fail, on occasion, to take advantage of parallel structures.  The result for the reader can be the equivalent of driving over a pothole on a freeway.  What if Saint Paul taught us that the three great virtues were faith, hope, and committing ourselves to charitable work? -Roy Peter Clark

1-http://www.historylink.org/File/5247

2- Payne, Lucile Vaughan.  The Lively Art of Writing.  Boston:  Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1970.

May 21:  Yoda-Speak Day

Released on this day in 1980 was the film The Empire Strikes Back.  The second installment of the original Star War trilogy, features the debut of one of the most memorable characters in the history of science fiction: Yoda.  Although small and unimposing in appearance, Yoda is a wise and powerful Jedi master who trains Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force. Just as distinctive as Yoda’s appearance is his manner of speaking.

Yoda Empire Strikes Back.pngFrom the first words out of Yoda’s mouth when he meets Luke Skywalker, we realize something is different in his speech pattern:

Luke: I’m looking for someone.

Yoda: Looking? Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?

Luke: Right…

Yoda: Help you I can. Yes, mmmm.

Luke: I don’t think so. I’m looking for a great warrior. (1)

The reason Yoda’s manner of speaking seems odd to us is because it doesn’t follow the typical pattern of English syntax.  The majority of sentences in English follow the subject-verb-object word order.  In his speech, however, Yoda inverts the typical word order to verb-object-subject.  For example, instead  of saying to Luke, “You still have much to learn,” Yoda says,  “Much to learn, you still have.”

Yoda’s syntax might seem alien, but it’s not. Generations of writers, especially poets, have used the rhetorical device called anastrophe (or inversion) to rearrange the syntactic furniture for effect (Anastrophe in Greek means “turning back or about.”).  Using something other than the usual word order, makes the reader slow down a bit and spend a bit more time pondering a phrase or a clause.  Anastrophe also allows writers to add emphasis to a particular word, just as you might move your sofa to a more prominent position in your living room.

So, for example, Shakespeare might have written:

The question is: to be, or not to be?  

Instead, Shakespeare used anastrophe to alter the typical pattern, kicking off the most famous soliloquy in English with:

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Kennedy might have said, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you”; instead, he inverted his words slightly, saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you . . . .”

Today’s Challenge:  “Try Not. Do…or Do Not.  There Is No Try”

What are some of the most famous quotations in the English language?  Brainstorm some famous quotations.  Then, try your hand at applying anastrophe by changing the word order of at least three separate quotations. You can change the word order any way you like, as long as make sense it does.

For example,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . . -Charles Dickens

Revised with anastrophe:  

The best of times, it was; the worst of times, it was

Here are a few classic quotations:

Give me liberty or give me death. -Patrick Henry

Speak softly and carry a big stick.  -Theodore Roosevelt

Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. -Thomas Edison

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. -Mahatma Gandhi

The unexamined life is not worth living. -Socrates

Necessity is the mother of invention. -Plato

With great power comes great responsibility. -Voltaire

The pen is mightier than the sword. -Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. -John Dalberg-Acton

Quotation of the Day:  Much to learn, you still have. -Yoda

1-http://www.starwars.com/databank/yoda

May 14:  Seven Types of Sentences Day

On this day in 2004, Ronald Reagan died at his home in Bel-Air, California. Certainly much has been written about Reagan’s political career as governor of California and as the 40th president of the United States, but after his career in politics was over, Reagan accomplished something unique. On November 5, 1994, he announced to the world that he had Alzheimer’s disease, the brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills.

In a short handwritten letter, Reagan explained his desire for privacy, but also his desire to raise public awareness for the millions afflicted with Alzheimer’s. With his characteristic candor and optimism, Reagan closed the letter by saying: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead” (1).

The disease is named after a pioneer in brain research, Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor who described the abnormal brain tissues of one of his patients in 1906.

The May 14, 2001 edition of Time magazine contained a cover story tracing the search for the causes and a potential cure for Alzheimer’s. One study of particular interest involved a group of more than 600 nuns. Scientist David Snowdown of the University of Kentucky began studying the nuns’ personal and medical histories looking for clues that might solve the mystery behind why some people get Alzheimer’s and others don’t.

Snowdown became interested in autobiographical essays that the nuns had written when they entered the order in their early 20s. He analyzed each essay for its idea density and grammatical complexity, and the results provided some interesting insights. Snowdown discovered that the nuns whose essays contained grammatically complex sentences were the same nuns who six or more decades later were free of any signs of Alzheimer’s. Conversely, those nuns who used relatively simple sentences were the same nuns who contracted Alzheimer’s. With the nuns’ early writing, Snowden was able to predict with 85% to 90% accuracy which nuns would have the disease 60 years later (2).

There is no evidence yet that teaching students to incorporate complex sentences into their writing will prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s in later years. However, one thing is certain, a healthy menu of intellectual pursuits, including writing, in your younger years doesn’t hurt. Another certainty is that good writers use a variety of sentences, and understanding the difference between simple sentences and complex sentences is a starting point for adding variety to your sentences.

Seven Major Sentence Types

Knowing the major types of sentence types allows writers to revise and edit their sentences, making them more varied and clear.  Below, the following seven types of sentences are explained: simple, complex, compound, compound-complex, balanced, cumulative, and periodic.  Notice that the definition given for each sentence is a Meta-Sentence, that is, the definition is written in the form of the sentence being defined. Each definition is followed by an additional example:

A simple sentence is a sentence with one independent clause — a group of words with a subject (noun), a predicate (verb), and a complete thought.

Example:  Bill completed his homework.

A compound sentence is a sentence with at least two independent clauses; often the two clauses are connected by a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS), a semicolon, or a conjunctive adverb — such as “however,” “therefore,” or “then.”

Example:  Bill completed his homework, and Jane wrote a report on penguins.

A complex sentence is a sentence that contains one independent clause and at least one dependent (adjective) clause.

Example:  Bill, who owns a dog named Huck, sat studying for his math test.

OR

If a sentence has a single independent clause and at least one dependent (adverb) clause, it is a complex sentence.

Example:  Bill was angry because his dog chewed up his homework.

A compound-complex sentence is a sentence that contains two independent clauses, and it also includes at least one dependent clause.

Example:  Although there were a lot of good things to watch on television, Bill, who always gets his work done on time, sat doing his homework.

If a sentence has two parallel independent clauses, it is a balanced sentence; if it does not have two parallel independent clauses, it is not a balanced sentence.

Example: Bill read his math book; Jane wrote her English essay.

A cumulative sentence begins with an independent clause, followed by additional modifying clauses and phrases which elaborate on the main clause.

Example: Jane is a great student even though she works two jobs after school and rarely has time to do homework.

Unlike a cumulative sentence, which has its main clause at the beginning, a sentence with its main clause at the end is a periodic sentence.

Example:  Even though she works two jobs after school and rarely has time to do homework, Jane is a great student.

Today’s Challenge:  Seven Ways to Make Sentences Sing

What are examples of the different types of sentences you can write to create sentence variety?  Write one original example of each of the different sentence types:  Simple, Complex, Compound, Compound-Complex, Balanced, Cumulative, and Periodic. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The maker of a sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight. -Ralph Waldo Emerson