August 8:  Dollar and Cents Day

Today is the anniversary of the Continental Congress’ establishment of the monetary system of the United States. The year was 1786, and the ordinance called for U.S. coins with the following names: mill, cent, dime, dollar, and eagle.

According to Bill Bryson in Made in America, bankers and businessmen wished to maintain the English system based on pounds and shillings, but Thomas Jefferson devised a distinctly new system based on dollars and cents.

File:US $2 obverse-high.jpgThe name dollar comes from a town in Bohemia called Joachimstal. A coin made there in the 1500s, the Joachimstaler, spread throughout Europe evolving from the taler, to the thaler, to the daler, and finally into the dollar.

The name dime comes from the French dixieme which means tenth. It was originally spelled disme and pronounced as deem.

The name cent comes from the Latin centum which means one hundred. The unofficial name penny comes from the Latin term pannus, which means “a piece of cloth”; at one time these pieces of cloth were used for money.

The name mill comes from the Latin millesimus which means thousandth. A mill would have represented 1/1000 of a dollar; however, the federal government never minted the mill coin. The lowest denomination of coin ever created was a 1/2 cent piece.

The eagle was a $10 coin.

The missing coin from the 1786 ordinance, common today, is the denomination that represents 1/20 of a dollar: the nickel, named for the metal from which is was made (nickels never were made of wood) (1).

Dollars and cents are certainly important in America, so important that many expressions contain references to money, such as fast buck, more bang for the buck, and pass the buck. The term buck has been slang for dollar since the mid-1800s, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. See if you can find the English idioms that fit in the sentences below; they all have to do with dollars, dimes, or cents. The literal definition of each expression is also given as a clue.

  1. A virtual certainty: It’s _____ _____ _____ that the team will make the playoffs.
  1. To be absolutely sure: You can _____ _____ _____ _____ that he will be at the party.
  1. Unexpected good fortune. I didn’t think I would get a $500 rebate on my new car. When I got the check, it was _____ _____ _____.
  1. Stingy about small expenditures and extravagant with large ones. Dean clips all the coupons for supermarket bargains but insists on going to the best restaurants; he’s ______ _____ _____ _____ _____.
  1. So plentiful as to be valueless. Don’t bother to buy one of these — they’re a _____ _____ _____.
  1. To inform on or betray someone. No one can cheat in this class — someone’s bound to _____ _____ _____ and tell the teacher.
  1. Take action and end delay. It’s time this administration _____ _____ _____ _____ and came up with a viable budget (2)

Today’s Challenge: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
What is a story that you could tell that relates to the theme “money”?  Below are ten idioms containing the word money.  Using a money-related idiom as your title and as a spark for your memory or your imagination, tell a money-related anecdote. (Common Core Writing 3)

Money is no object

Money talks

Hush money

A run for your money

Time is money

A fool and his money are soon parted

Money to burn

Pocket money

Easy money

Not for love or money

Quote of the Day: There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either. ~Robert Graves

Answers: 1. dollars to doughnuts 2. bet your bottom dollar 3. pennies from heaven 4. penny wise and pound foolish 5. dime a dozen 6. drop a dime 7. got off the dime

 

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

2 – Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997

 

January 4: Grimm’s Fairy Tales Day

Today is the birthday of Jacob Grimm, who was born in Hanau, Germany on this day in 1785.  Grimm, along with his brother Wilhelm, is know as the author of one of the best known works of German literature, Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

While in college at the University of Marburg, the Brothers Grimm developed an interest in German folklore and began a lifelong process of collecting and recording folk tales  The first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published in 1812 and contained 86 stories.  The book was revised and expanded several times, until 1857 when the 7th edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published with over 200 stories.  Published in more than 100 languages, the fairy tales became known throughout the world, and even today the name Grimm remains synonymous with children’s literature (1).  

Whether we were read adapted versions as bedtime stories or whether we watched filmed versions adapted by Walt Disney, the stories originally collected by the Brothers Grimm remain some of the most familiar stories of our youth:

Snow White

Sleeping Beauty

Rapunzel

Hansel and Grethel

Little Red Riding Hood

Rumpelstiltskin

The Pied Piper of Hamlin

Today’s Challenge:  Your Fairy Tales and Fables Final Four
What children’s stories would you enshrine in the Children’s Literature Hall of Fame?  What makes them so memorable and enduring?  Select four separate children’s stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales or from other children’s literature.  Write an explanation of why you would enshrine each of your chosen stories into the Children’s Literature Hall of Fame.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.  –Albert Einstein

1- http://englit.org/eiland_shared/critical/grimm.htm

 

 

 

January 2:  55 Fiction Day

On this day in 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act which established a 55 mile per hour speed limit on the nation’s highways.  Nixon’s effort to conserve gasoline was spurred by the 1973 oil crisis where Arab countries declared an oil embargo, dramatically increasing U.S. gas prices (1).

Just as reducing your speed when driving increases fuel efficiency, reducing your word count when writing increases your communication efficiency, making every word count.  One excellent way to practice limiting your word count is by trying your hand at an exciting new genre of writing called 55 Fiction.  In these short, short stories, you must not exceed the 55-word limit.

Since 1987, Steve Moss, the editor of New Times, a California newspaper, has held a Fifty-Five Fiction Story Contest. The contest has spawned two books of 55 Fiction:  The World’s Shortest Stories and The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death.

As Moss explains in his introduction, 55-Fiction is a little like a one-minute episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or “what O. Henry might have conjured up if he’d had only the back of a business card to write upon . . . .” Shakespeare said it best: “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and in the 21st century, where sound bites compete for our limited attention span, 55-Fiction is the perfect form (2).

The keys to 55-Fiction are a good story, concise — yet clear — writing, and a denouement with a payoff. Surprise, irony, and/or humor are the hallmarks of the truly great short, short stories.

While 55-fiction is fun to read and write, these are not just frivolous throwaways. The writer of a good 55-Fiction piece must practice many of the key techniques of any good writer: clear diction, vivid detail, concise language, careful revision, and thoughtful editing.

Here are a couple of examples:

Last Call
It’s a dark summer evening. Lightning strikes in the distance. Two young lovers rendezvous. She lies sleeping. He kisses her soft, yet strangely warm lips. He makes a toast to his love and drinks. As he swallows, his cell phone rings. He grabs it with a trembling hand. “Romeo! Stop! Listen! Juliet’s not really dead!!”

Alone
He shivered in the darkness. Long ago, there had been 12 in his pack, disappearing over time. Only he remained. Suddenly, a change; the light at the end of the tunnel was coming nearer. Giant hands grabbed him, pulling him towards the light. God, perhaps? Then, a voice: “Mom, we’re down to the last soda!”

Today’s Challenge:  Fifty-Five Test Drive
What is an anecdote that you can tell in no more than 55 words?  Write your own 55-word short story. Use the guidelines below. If you can’t think of an original story, consider adapting something from classic literature, as in “Last Call.”

Five Guidelines for Writing Fifty-Five Fiction:

  1. Like any good story, these stories need a setting, characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.
  1. Stories may be any genre: sci-fi, romance, detective, horror, parody, etc.
  1. Don’t try to write exactly 55 words on your first draft; instead, try to write a short short story on the first draft. Then, go back to revise and edit until you’re down to 55.
  1. Humor, puns, suspense, or parody are encouraged.
  1. For more examples of 55 Fiction, go to the New Times web site.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Less is more. -Andrea del Sarto

1-http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=4332

2-http://www.newtimesslo.com/special-issue/8/55-fiction/how-to-enter/

 

 

December 10:  Declarative Sentence Day

On this day in 1954, Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Because of illness, Hemingway was unable to attend the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, Sweden to receive his award in person.  He did, however, prepare a brief speech which was read by John C. Cabot, United States Ambassador to Sweden.

ErnestHemingway.jpgIn addition to expressing his appreciation to the Nobel administrators, Hemingway’s speech provided some insights on the writer’s life:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day (1).

Characteristic of Hemingway’s writing, all four sentences in the paragraph above are declarative, that is they are sentences in which the subject precedes the verb, and they are sentences that make direct statements.  Unlike interrogative sentences, they do not ask questions (Why is writing a lonely life?).  Unlike imperative sentences, they do not make commands (Write everyday no matter what.) And unlike exclamatory sentences, they do not express strong emotion (Writing is hard work!).

Hemingway believed that it was the writer’s job to declare the truth, and as he explained in his memoir A Moveable Feast there’s no better way to declare the truth than in declarative sentences:

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

Today’s Challenge:  The Title is Also Declarative

What is a declarative sentence that would serve as a good title for a personal anecdote?  As Hemingway did with his novel The Sun Also Rises, try coming up with a good title in the form of one complete declarative sentence.  Then write an anecdote, either fact or fiction, that matches the title. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Courage is grace under pressure.  -Ernest Hemingway

1-https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1954/hemingway-speech.html

12/10 TAGS:  declarative sentence, syntax, Hemingway, Ernest, Nobel Prize, Cabot, John C., interrogative sentence, imperative sentence, exclamatory sentence, memoir, title, anecdote, narrative

December 9:  Narrative Poem Day

On this day in 1854, Britain’s Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson published his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  The poem recounts a horrific episode at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.  On October 25, 1854,* the British Light Brigade rode into battle against Russian forces.  Following an ambiguous order to attack, the soldiers of the British cavalry were mowed down by Russian field artillery as they charged across a treeless valley.  Of the 673 British horsemen who made the charge that day only 198 survived (1).

Tennyson is said to have written his famous narrative poem in just a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in the newspaper.  The six-stanza poem immediately became popular, and even today its famous lines capture the plight of common soldiers, nobly and courageously following the orders of their superior:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

Narrative poetry is probably the oldest form of poetry there is.  A narrative poem is a poem with a plot, a plot which centers around characters, conflict, and setting.  

The most common forms of narrative poems are the short form known as a ballad and a long form known as an epic.  According to Edward Hirsch in his book A Poet’s Glossary, these poems are some of our oldest forms of storytelling:  “Both ballads and epics originated in prehistory as forms of oral poetry.  They were sung aloud, created — and re-created — by individuals performing with a participating audience” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Muse Meets the News

What event from today’s news is worthy of immortalizing in verse?  Read Tennyson’s poem carefully, noticing how he tells the story of The Charge of the Light Brigade (3).  Then, like Tennyson, read a story in today’s newspaper, and write a short narrative poem that captures the key elements of the story. (Common Core 3 – Narrative)

*See October 25:  History Into Verse Day

Quotation of the Day:  If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. -Rudyard Kipling

1- March, W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  366: A Leap Year of Great Stories. Cambridge, UK:  Icon Books, 2007: 342.

2-Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary page 397.

3-http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45319

12/9 TAGS:  narrative poem, Tennyson, Alfred Lord, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Hirsch, Edward, news story, narrative,

December 6:  Passive Voice Day

On this date 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.

Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981.jpgWhen a Lebanese newspaper published a report detailing the secret deal in November 1986, President Reagan was forced to address the matter publicly:

I realize you must be disappointed and probably confused with all the furor of the last couple of weeks. You must be asking: What were we doing in the Middle East? What was our policy? Where was it wrong? Were we engaged in some kind of shenanigans that blew up in our face? I can understand if these are the questions you’re asking, and I’d like to provide some answers.

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 sentence 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)

Quotation of the Day:  Writing with “be” verbs is like eating cookies:  one cookie is no problem, but 10 in a row is a different matter.  -John Maguire

1-  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36788

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

12/6 TAGS Reagan, Ronald, Iran-Contra, voice (active and passive), Grant, Ulysses S., opening sentence, narrative