January 20:  Chiasmus Day

On this day in 1961 John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the Unites States’ 34th president.  From the text of his inaugural address, Kennedy uttered what has become probably the most famous sentences in political history:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy, who at 42 years of age was the youngest president ever elected, exuded youth, enthusiasm, and idealism as he proclaimed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . .”  The skillful use of rhythm, repetition, alliteration, antithesis and parallelism make Kennedy’s inaugural address a rhetorical masterpiece.  The speech’s most memorable line, however, features a distinctive rhetorical device called chiasmus.

Chiasmus, which is also known as antimetabole, is the “all for one, one for all” device.  It is a special brand of parallel structure that involves a rhetorical criss-cross or flip-flop.  What makes chiasmus distinctive is that the words are not just repeated, rather they are repeated in reverse order, as in, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

In order to see the power of Kennedy’s chiasmus, contrast what Kennedy might have said with what he actually said:

Without chiasmus:  “Do not be self-centered, thinking only of yourself; instead; think of what you can do to contribute to your country.”

With chiasmus:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Notice how with chiasmus the reversal of the words “you” and “country” causes the reader to reevaluate the relationship between the two ideas.  More than just a rhetorical flourish, this is one of the central themes of Kennedy’s message.

Also notice that not only does chiasmus make the sentence more memorable, but also the sentence’s simple, clear words pack a punch.  Of the sentence’s 17 words, all but two are single syllable words.  The only word of more than a single syllable is the key word “country,” which is repeated twice for emphasis.  Like Lincoln and Churchill before him, Kennedy knew the power of clear, concise language.

Today’s Challenge:  What Chiasmus Can Do For You

As seen in Kennedy’s use of chiasmus, it is an especially useful device for reversing an audience’s attitude or attempting to correct or flip an audience’s thinking.  What are some general beliefs or attitudes held by many people that you think should be changed?  How might you employ chiasmus to state the change in belief or attitude that you want to see?

Create a sentence using chiasmus that states a change in a belief or attitude that you would like to see.  For example:   

“You don’t own your cellphone, your cellphone owns you.”

Then write a short speech using that sentence as your title.  In your speech explain specifically the change you would like to see and why you think this change would be an improvement.

If you can’t think of an original sentence, create a spin-off chiasmus using Kennedy’s sentence or some of the other examples below:

Quitters never win and winners never quit.

If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.

Do things right, and do the right things.

One should work to live, not live to work.

Example spin-off:  Don’t ask what your English teacher can do for you, ask what you can do for your English teacher.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

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

 

 

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 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

Rudyard Kipling (portrait).jpgIn 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.

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.  Use the mnemonic “A WHITE BUS” to remember the major subordinate conjunctions:

A White Bus

After, although, as

WHen, which, who, where, while

If, in order that

That, though

Even though

Before, because

Until, unless

Since, so that

Subordinating conjunctions 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 challenge your ability to persevere and improve 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)

Quotation of the Day:  The trick of the periodic sentence is that, until you’ve got to the end, until you’ve found that clause or verb that completes the syntax, until you’ve finally got the period of the period, you can’t stop. -Mark Forsyth

 

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

2-http://www.americandialect.org/woty

 

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.  

Gordon Gekko.jpgIn 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:

Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you.

I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much (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 of subjective adjectives below to construct a claim about a topic you feel strongly about:

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

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)  

Quotation of the Day:  Music is subjective to everyone’s unique experience. -Jared Leto

1-http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechwallstreet.html

12/11 TAGS:  predicate adjective, syntax, Wall Street, Gordon Gekko, speech, linking verb, claim, Douglas, Michael

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 7:  Colorless Green Ideas Day

Today is the birthday of linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who was born in Philadelphia in 1928.  Chomsky spent more than 50 years as a professor at MIT and has authored over 100 books.  Chomsky has been called “the father of modern linguistics” and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.  Despite all of his accomplishments, Chomsky is perhaps best known for a single sentence:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Published in his 1957 book Semantic Structures, Chomsky’s famous sentence illustrates the difference between two essential elements of language:  syntax and semantics.  Syntax relates to the grammar of a language or the order in which words are combined.  Semantics, in contrast, relates to the meaning of individual words.  Chomsky’s sentence illustrates the difference between syntax and semantics, showing that a grammatically or syntactically correct sentence can be constructed that is semantically nonsensical.

Today’s Challenge:  Strange Semantic-less Syntax Sings Soporifically

What are some adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet? Try your hand at constructing a syntactically correct, yet semantically nonsensical sentence.  For an added layer of interest, use alliteration by selecting words that begin with the same letter.

Begin by brainstorming as many adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs as you can.  Then, select randomly from your list, filling in words in the following order:

Adjective + adjective + noun + verb + adverb

For example:

Raging red rainbows read raucously.

OR

Soggy superfluous sunflowers swim softly.

Generate a number of sentences until you create one that’s so outrageous that it belongs on a T-shirt. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation. –Noam Chomsky

12/7 TAGS:  Chomsky, Noam, colorless green ideas, semantics, syntax

August 7:  Syntax Day

Today is the anniversary of the Whiskey Rebellion.

File:Whiskey Insurrection.JPGOn 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).

There 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.

 

 

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

 

August 25: Prepositional Phrase Day

On this date in 1984, American author, playwright, and screenwriter Truman Capote died of liver cancer at the age of 59.  Born in 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Capote greatest fame came not from his fiction but from his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood published in 1966.  Capote spent four years researching the book, which is based on the murder of a family on their Kansas farm in 1959.  The book essentially pioneered the true crime genre.

For the title of his acclaimed book, Capote chose a prepositional phraseIn Cold Blood.  This type of phrase is an essential element of English syntax, a phrase that begins with a preposition and ends, most often, with a noun, as in these examples from The Gettysburg Address:  “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Of course, Capote is not alone in turning to the prepositional phrase to assist in crafting a title.  Here are a few more examples of titles that contain prepositional phrases:

The Grapes of Wrath

Of Mice and Men

Flowers for Algernon

The Wizard of Oz

The Taming of the Shrew

The House of Seven Gables

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Clan of the Cave Bear

War of the Worlds

Gone With the Wind

The Hunt For Red October

The Red Badge of Courage

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Prince of Tides

The Call of the Wild

The Man in the Iron Mask

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Today’s Challenge:  Propose With a Prepositional Phrase
Generate a title of your own for a book or movie; make sure, however, that your title contains at least one prepositional phrase.

Quotation of the Day:  A preposition is something never to end a sentence with.  –William Safire