Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Feel. And think.

Holiday tears

If you want to read a little Christmas tear jerker, check out Rick Reilly's column "There are some games where cheering for the other side feels better than winning" on ESPN.com.

Even if you're not a high school football fan, this story will leave you a little choked up.

It's not great writing, to be honest. Reilly begins his headline with the word "There," a real no-no.

But even if you're as nitpicky as I, you'll quickly stop noticing the flaws because of the compelling story. It IS a compelling story, and Reilly tells it well. That's more important than mechanics.

Critical reading

A Metropolis reader took me to task for an editorial on global warming. He writes: "(L)et me see if I've got your thinking straight: the world is only about 4,000 years old, the planet earth is flat, and global warming really isn't. Oh yes, and we're not in hell and it ain't hot."

The editorial in question was itself taking an AP writer to task for editorializing in a scientific article. I pointed out that the consensus Al Gore and Barack Obama insist exists among scientists — that global warming is caused by human activity — is eroding and a growing number of scientists are publicly questioning the flawed models. But you wouldn't know that from reporting in the major media, where journalists have taken up the cause.

The Metropolis reader sent a series of articles on the subject from The Southern Illinoisan as a means of enlightening me. In the articles a couple of SIU profs insist the debate is over, even while a couple of their colleagues, in the same series, question the popular view. The debate is not even settled at SIU, much less in the scientific community worldwide.

But this blog is about writing, not science or politics. I bring this up because the reader employs a technique debaters use when they've already lost the argument: erecting a straw man. The straw man was accusing me of believing that "global warming really isn't." I didn't assert that global temperatures haven't risen. I merely questioned the anthropogenic causes of climate change — or more precisely, pointed out the shrinking scientific consensus on the matter.

The articles the reader sent confirmed that point. But he missed it. I suspect most readers of the package missed it.

Interestingly, the headline over the series was "America's energy savvy backsliding?" — a classic example of editorializing (injecting opinion into a news article). The first story in the news package, headlined "Activists strive to re-educate public about climate change," begins: "When a passion exists for a cause, those who fight for it don't view any hurdles encountered along the way as being too much of a challenge." Passion? Cause? Fight? Weren't these articles supposed to be about science?

I guess we shouldn't be surprised that readers like the guy in Metropolis have lost the ability to think critically when so many reporters have lost the ability to write objectively.

At one time universities and news agencies were filled with iconoclasts who took pride in questioning conventional wisdom. Those days are gone in both arenas, which are now mired in group-think. Indoctrination has replaced rigorous debate. That's not healthy for a free society.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Punch the keys

They Should No Better
A local school district posted a message on their Web site informing students that, because of inclement weather, "THERE WILL BE KNOW SEMSETTER TESTS ON FRIDAY DECEMBER 18!!!"


Ah, it's easy to pick on schools. I guess the fact that they're, you no, the ones who are teaching English makes us expect them to no better.
I confess I was more bugged by the all caps and the triple exclamation points than the spelling errors.

Feed the need

A reader e-mailed me the following:
"I am enjoying reading your thoughts. I particularly enjoyed your post of Oct 24, titled 'Inspiration.' I am one of those poor gonifs who has long wished I could write, in a readable, interesting way, but, barring a few papers and dissertations while I was in college, my wishes have lain, decomposing.
"I am a bit long (73) in the tooth to hope to write for public consumption but have been jotting down a few things, as I recall the somewhat tattered landscape of what has been my life, in case any of our three children should someday be interested in what the Old Man (literally) had been up to in his youth and beyond. In this exercise I have discovered I have absolutely no talent as a writer, barring the odd silliness in e-mails to the editor (Remember?) It would be nice if I could take a course in creative writing but that's not likely to happen. So I'll content myself in reading the output of professionals, such as yourself. Keep up the good writing and ignore the comments from asses such as I."

The reader is wrong about his talent. And he needs to start writing. I sent him this reply:
"I'm still miffed that my own dad never got around to writing his story, or
all the stories that made up his story. He was a talented wordsmith, as are you.
I would have treasured it, and I have no doubt your kids will treasure it.
"The only advantage to writing for publication is the paycheck that makes it
possible to write every day. If you are retired, nothing stands in your way.
"I find the secret to finding your voice is to write, write and write some more.
Write, don't think. Just get the words on the paper (or the screen). Worry
about the editing later."

The fictional author William Forrester, portrayed by Sean Connery in the film "Finding Forrester," said to the young prodigy Jamal Wallace: "No thinking — that comes later. You must write the first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing ... is to write, not to think."
Putting it more succinctly, Forrester said: "Punch the keys, for god's sake!"

Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas letters

I'm one of those weirdos who actually enjoys reading family Christmas letters. I don't mind the boasting, and I'm not above embarrassing my kids by doing a little boasting myself about their achievements. And if it makes the recipients roll their eyes or poke fun, I really don't care.

Christmas letters serve to keep us up-to-date with family and friends in other places. I might not remember which of your kids plays basketball and which the French horn, I can't recall whether your family vacation was to Yellowstone or Glacier, don't quiz me on whether it was your mother or hers who moved into an assisted living center, but I still like to read the letters. I'm disappointed if I don't receive a letter from someone who usually composes one.

A Christmas letter is a place marker, a snapshot in time. Today's letters often include actual snapshots, printed on the copy paper letter on a home printer.

We don't write letters to loved ones anymore. When Professor Marxhausen told us in college this would happen, I didn't believe him. But then, I didn't anticipate e-mail and the ease with which we can communicate without the bother of paper and envelopes and stamps. Marxhausen recommended preserving the practice by raising it to an art form, and his own letters (and envelopes) were suitable for framing.

Christmas letters are a suitable way to preserve the art of letter writing, even if slightly impersonal since the same letters are sent out to everyone on the list. Just a little handwritten note personalizes it.

I hope you'll send me yours, even if we barely know each other. I promise I'll read every word.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reader Bill Osborne writes:
"I've been meaning to send you a thank you note for the excellent piece captioned 'Clout' that appeared in your blog November 12. ...
"While watching the news on WPSD TV this morning, I saw the mother of the slain Little Rock TV anchor being interviewed. She generously referred to the man arrested for that murder as a 'gentleman.' This is certainly not the first time I heard someone, who is so obviously NOT a gentleman, called a gentleman. Please consider writing a piece about the word gentleman.
"You might also consider taking issue with the term 'sleeping with someone' as an appropriate way of saying 'having sex with someone' when anyone knows said couple was certainly NOT 'sleeping.'
"Finally, I think it is way past time for someone who is a respected wordsmith taking issue with TV anchors and others constantly saying, 'You know what?' One particular TV anchor woman must say, 'You know what?' at least four or five times every time she does a newscast. However, this is certainly not a local issue. All kinds of intelligent people nationally have added that meaningless phrase to their vocabulary.
"Here are three ideas for your consideration:
"1) Eliminate calling a man who does not deserve it, a 'gentleman.'
"2) Eliminate calling 'having sex with someone,' 'sleeping with them.'
"3) Eliminate the phrase 'You know what?' from everyone's vocabulary.
"You are one of those folks who definitely have CLOUT and can influence people to change, just as Mike Royko did."

Good points, Bill.
A few thoughts: The term "gentleman" has evolved over the centuries, never more rapidly than in the past generation. The title once meant a warrior trained in arms. Later it defined a man, usually of noble birth, who adhered to a code of conduct. Later it meant a man who used good manners and showed respect for others, regardless of his social position. The term "ladies" evolved similarly.

Today "gentleman" can refer simply to any man and may reflect the speaker's courtesy rather than the subject's character.

I knew a Baptist minister who inserted the word "gentleman" in a racist figure of speech in a way that was humorous, but wrong on so many levels. He referred to suspicious circumstances by saying, "Sounds like there's a colored gentleman in the woodpile." Well, whatever color he was colored, he was no gentleman if he was hiding out in the woodpile. He was obviously sleeping where he shouldn't have been sleeping, and I don't mean sleeping sleeping.

"Sleeping with" as a euphemism for "having sex with" has honest origins: the Bible. It is used frequently, as in Deut. 22:22: "If a man is found sleeping with another's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die."
If their sleep were literal sleep, that penalty would be a bit severe.

"You know what?" is annoying but not nearly as much as "Guess what?" One of my students used to precede everything he said with it. "Guess what? I have to go to the bathroom!" (That one I might have actually guessed, given the way he was hopping about.)

My son and I count the words or phrases TV news people repeat. A Jonesboro, Ark., meteorologist used to end five or six sentences with "as well" in every forecast ("It will be rainy this weekend as well"). Another weather guy managed to work in "meantime" three or four times (he meant "Meanwhile" ; "meantime" should be preceded with "In the," but "Meanwhile" can stand alone). Another news team is afflicted with "Now." One started using it to begin sentences, and it spread like contagion to the rest of the news crew ("Now, the suspect was apprehended but police are still investigating ...").

Friday, November 21, 2008


An essay in The Masthead, the quarterly journal of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, of which I am a fringe member, begins:
"Growing up in a small town in Arkansas in the '50s and '60s, the Arkansas Gazette was one of the few institutions that earned any credit for our poor state."
Having lived in Arkansas 18 years myself, I learned that the Arkansas Gazette did not grow up in the '50s and '60s. It was already old by then.
But of course, the writer was referring to herself. The only word that should follow the comma after "'60s" is "I," as in "I knew the Arkansas Gazette was ..."
And I have no idea what credit it earned; only its banker knows that. She probably means the Gazette was one of the few institutions that "was a credit to" Arkansas in an era when racism tarnished the state's image.

The author, an editorial writer with the (Lexington) Herald-Leader continues:
"When I was five, that paper and the national news were full of images of ugly people screaming at teenagers who wanted to go to school."
Certainly the actions of the screamers were ugly, but the people were rather average looking. To avoid adding too many words, the modifier "ugly" could be moved in front of "images." That wouldn't mean the photos were of poor quality. Although the photographs were well-framed and clear, they were "ugly" because of the horrible history they recorded — white students taunting and yelling at black students attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

"I grew up thinking that Orval Faubus, the governor who stood in their way, was wrong, and the newspaper, the Gazette, that called him out was right."
But did Faubus stand in the way of the ugly people or the teenagers who wanted to go to school? The readers might, for a moment, think that Faubus stood in the screamers' way since they are the subject of the preceding sentence. They must surmise from the context that he stood instead in the teenagers' way.
By the way, in the most famous of those photos, the "people screaming" are also teenagers, fellow students at Central, adding to the potential confusion.

Point 1: Most readers would figure what the writer meant in this essay, even though it is not written clearly.
Point 2: Write clearly anyway. Don't force readers to pause to decipher your meaning. That's when you lose them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Sen. Mitch McConnell said repeatedly during the campaign that his position as minority leader in the Senate gave him "clout." He may have chosen that word because the word he really means, "power," has such a negative connotation.

But it reminded me of an old Mike Royko column in which he poked fun of the use of the word "clout" in this fashion.

Royko, the late Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, quoted a Vogue story:
"'People are talking about ... the rise of the word "clout." Among those with "clout" are President Johnson, the Pope, and Ho Chi Minh of Hanoi.' (Vogue does not want us to confuse him with the Ho Chi Minh of Burlington, Iowa.)"

Royko tells of calling a Vogue editor to ask what the article meant by the word. "She shrieked, 'My God! Everybody knows what it means.'" The editor went on to explain that clout means "the ability and the means and the power to return a blow when somebody has attacked you." Royko was happy to set the smug New Yorker straight.

Clout has several definitions, but the one closest to the meaning in the Vogue article — and in Sen. McConnell's use — is "influence." Some of the senator's supporters might have clout, if they can influence him, but he doesn't have clout any more than Lyndon Johnson or Ho Chi Minh. When you have power, you don't need influence.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


A Wall Street Journal editorial today quotes George Orwell:
"The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

The context for the WSJ is the shifting vocabulary surrounding the 9/11 attacks, which is now frequently referred to as a "tragedy," like an earthquake, with "no villainy or evil ... no blame ... no remedy." It was instead an act of war, an organized, unprovoked attack on a civilian population from an enemy that intended to continue causing us harm. That's not a tragedy. The tragedy is allowing ourselves to minimize or even forget how that event forever changed our lives.

Slovenliness of language characterizes lazy thinking people who want to keep things simple, who don't want their assumptions or world views challenged.

People judge one another in many ways — appearance, speech, associations, bank accounts. I find people's writing as a way to judge them. Not necessarily the spelling and grammar but their clarity of thought. As one who can't always express myself in speech but who tries to write precisely, I generally assume that anyone with muddled writing suffers from muddled thinking. I admire articulate people, and I'm disappointed when I discover that someone who speaks well cannot collect his thoughts on paper. I want to suggest, "Just write down what you've just said, and it will make more sense than the jumbled words you've just put together."

We all live under the limitations of our individual abilities to express ourselves. The greater our collective limitations, the more our entire culture suffers. And boy is it suffering.

But look at the bright side. At least you can add "slovenliness" to your vocabulary.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Duke's Tips

From Paducah Sun Managing Editor Duke Conover, a list of words that make writing sluggish. You can add these to the "evil words" list.

and/or — It's either "and" or "or." If it is both, tell the reader why. Also, avoid using a forward slash (/).

by — passive and unnecessary: The congressman was defeated by the newcomer; The newcomer defeated the congressman

community — What is a community? If you are writing about people in a club, school, business, town, city, state, nation, then describe it to the reader, who almost always thirsts for more information but with a compact use of words. "Community" doesn't say anything when the reporter uses it other than "I don't know either."

country — Never use "country" to describe people. People make up a nation; boundaries form a country where a nation lives. Many dictionaries in second and third reference indicate that "nation" and "country" are interchangeable. But actually, they are not.

issue — tell the reader what this is: a concept, problem, matter for (insert name) to handle, etc.

myself — Never use "myself" unless "I" also is in the phrase.

process — Almost everything is a process: the process of opening a business, opening a business; the process of writing a grant proposal, applying for a grant.

there or here — Both words, in any usage, are absolute wastes of space. My recent favorite (from another newspaper): "There are items there that cannot be found here." I knew I had to be in some editor's nightmare. I pinched myself. It hurt. And I was sitting in front of a computer reading a newspaper online.

David here: I'm not absolutist about these rules, but in most cases these words will weaken your writing, and in most cases you can find a way to write it better.

Friday, October 24, 2008


You say you want to be a writer but you're waiting for the right inspiration? I hope you're comfortable; it could be a long wait.

Or maybe you could take a tip from published writer.

Orson Scott Card, author and columnist, writes:
"Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any."

Willa Cather:
"Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen."

My sister's favorite western writer, Louis L'Amour wrote:
"If you're going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write. Do not wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow."

Jack London:
"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis:
"Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise, you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."

Point well taken. But I would amend it to say don't use "very" ever. Choose a precise modifier and a precise noun. "Very" seldom adds any meaning. What is the difference between "She is gorgeous" and "She is very gorgeous"? And, not to quibble, but can something be "really" infinite? Infinite is that which cannot be measured in degrees.

It goes without saying that my critiquing the writing of the 20th century's greatest author is the equivalent of the beer-swilling loudmouth behind home plate calling Albert Pujols a bum.

Here's a C.S. Lewis quote I have no quibble with whatsoever:
"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Four times the fun

Does "times as many as" mean the same thing as "times more than"?
In other words, is it the same to say "200 is four times as many as 50" and "200 is four times more than 50"?
Not in my book. The first one is correct. But 250, not 200, is four times more than 50.
Use the first construction to avoid confusion.

Maddeningly common mistake

People frequently say they want to be "far from the maddening crowd." They mean instead the "madding" crowd, but because they're unfamiliar with the term, they substitute.
"Madding" means "frenzied."
"Far from the Madding Crowd" is the title of an 1874 work by the English novelist Thomas Hardy.

But what is more maddening than Madden himself?
And here's another John Madden prize: "The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Local what?

A story on FoxNews.com today includes a paragraph that begins: "Tattered and crumpled on the ground, the Mammoth Lakes local found what appears to be two FAA cards that listed the name Steve Fossett."

You've gotta admire the local who had the presence of mind to notice and identify the cards as he lay tattered and crumpled on the ground. But what I really want to know is what happened to the local that left him like that?

Apostrophes for plurals, an unnatural phenomenon

Our reporter Bill Bartleman provides another exception to the rule that apostrophes aren't used to show plural. In today's story on the Executive Inn, he includes this quote from hotel buyer Bill Parsons: "Everything is agreed to with Mr. Singh and the only work is for the attorneys to dot the i's and cross the t's." Writers should use apostrophes in plurals that would otherwise be confusing: "dot the is and cross the ts."

The sentence also illustrates an example of when it is not necessary to use a comma before a conjunction separating two independent clauses. Leaving it out does not alter the meaning. No one would read it to mean: "everything is agreed to with Mr. Singh, and everything is agreed to with the only work." I would still have included the comma, however, to prevent even a momentary bit of confusion, the sort that can slow a reader.

Apostrophe its

A letter writer, apparently aware that "it's" is the contraction for "it is" but also certain that a possessive calls for an apostrophe, just tagged one on the end in a construction like this: "The board made its' decision."

Remember, English is a language of exceptions. "Its" is an exception to the rule that a possessive requires an apostrophe.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Speaking of sports quotes, here's some from the master, Yogi Berra (with comments):

"A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."
(It ain't even even worth a nickel.)

"Even Napoleon had his Watergate."
(But at least he didn't to cover it up.)

"Half the lies they tell about me aren't true."
(That means you're batting .500.)

"He hits from both sides of the plate. He's amphibious."
(Uh, that would be "ambivalent.")

"I always thought that record would stand until it was broken."
(I never expected someone to come along to prove me right.)

"I never said most of the things I said."
(But I said a few things I didn't say, so it's a wash.)

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."
(Practice makes perfect — in theory.)

"The future ain't what it used to be."
(Wonder what the past will be like.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Coach Talk

Heard on the radio: "We're here to assist people with assistance of every kind."
What better assistance is there than assistance?

Sports Talk
Does it ever bug you how coaches and sports commentators speak of past events in future tense?
In the post-game interview, coaches invariably say something like: "If we make that pass we're within a touchdown and we've got a game."
Too late, coach. You DIDN'T make that pass. And it wasn't a game. You were blown out 35-7.
Who started that? And why did everyone else have to follow his lead? Why is it so hard to say: "If we had completed that pass we would have been within a touchdown. But we still would have lost"?

Murray State Coach Matt Griffin has been suspended for this week for comments he made in his postgame press conference following last weekend's loss to Illinois State. He was not suspended for mangling the English language but for criticizing the officiating.

His comments included: "The one hold I'll give the stripes some credit. They called that one right on us. But nothing else, though." Anyone want to translate? How did the Ohio Valley Conference office even know Griffin was criticizing the officiating?

It must have been the other comments: "A couple of these guys are 2-year-olds. They shouldn't be at this level. That's that."
That is, indeed, that. And perfectly clear.

Any chance of getting the OVC — or the NCAA, NAIA, NFL or NBA, for that matter — to start suspending coaches whose comments don't make any sense? No, on second thought, maybe they should get bonuses. Their comments are pure entertainment.

Take this one from John Madden: "Hey, the offensive lineman are the biggest guys on the field. They're bigger than everybody else. And that's what makes them the biggest guys on the field."
Ah. Mystery solved.

And I leave you to contemplate this Madden prize, delivered at a rare introspective moment: "Real frontier-busting math explores new worlds. ... If you can communicate that experience, somewhere between math and uncertainty, life experience provides the balance."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Two Fears

I don't know Beryl Pfizer's work, but I can identify with this quote:
"I write down everything I want to remember. That way, instead of spending a lot of time trying to remember what it is I wrote down, I spend a lot of time looking for the paper I wrote it down on."

I have two big fears in my published writing. The first is that I will make a mistake. That fear is realized on a regular basis. But the fear does at least serve to reduce the number of errors. (Having a couple of other editors look it over helps even more.)

The second fear is that I will repeat myself. This happens too, but not as often. Yet, anyway.

I am much too vain to plagiarize (I always think I can say it better than someone else), but I never know where something that pops into my mind comes from. I have not yet found that a phrase or passage that I wrote was first used by someone else, but I have found that a passage I wrote on a given day was the same thing I had written earlier. It might not matter, except that a few readers out there actually hold on to the columns and editorials so they can point out contradictions. And they've been known to note the repeats too.

Having my contradictions pointed out is not nearly as painful as my retreads. The former challenges me to reconcile the two. The latter is just, well, boring.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Write for Free

I've heard many writers and editors echo this thought from Mark Twain:
"Write without pay until somebody offers to pay."

I was always astounded when aspiring writers would bring their work — short stories, feature stories, poems — to the newspaper to "give" me the opportunity to publish them for some outrageous fee. Often they left angry and insulted when I told them I might consider their work as space was available, but I would not pay anything for it. I tried to explain that this was not a comment on the value of their work, which is entirely subjective, it was just dealing with reality. Their work, no matter how clever or enlightened or entertaining, wasn't worth anything to the newspaper, which is a business. And the business of every business is to make money. With the possible exception of their parents, who might spend a couple of bucks buying extra copies of the paper, it wouldn't benefit the paper in any way. But the writers could benefit just by getting a published byline. Many writers stand in the way of their own success by making unrealistic demands. If you want to get published, follow Mark Twain's advice.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Abe, Bill and the Brit

No takers on the last quiz. The answer: C.S. Lewis.

Perhaps echoing the thought in that first quote from Lewis is this statement from Abraham Lincoln:
"Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all."

Will Rogers on his craft: "There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you."

And J.K. Rowling on hers: "I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It's totally for myself."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Name the Author

Here are four quotes on the topic of literature by the same author. Each provides an insight into the author's personality and therefore a clue. Without cheating by using a Google search, do you want to venture a guess what author it is?

"In literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."

"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."

"A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."

"You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Regional Language

I look for phrases unique to regions of the U.S. Having lived in seven states, I found one phrase unique to north Arkansas (I may have written about this before). When someone in the rest of the country says he wouldn't "care to" do something it means he doesn't want to do it. In fact, it is a polite way of refusing to do it. "I wouldn't care to attend the lecture" means "I won't attend the lecture."

But in north Arkansas "care to" means you're happy to do something. "I don't care to carry you to the Wal-Marts" means "I'd be happy to drive you to Wal-Mart."
The "carry" part sounds odd to many ears as well. But in rural areas the word "carry" is common for "drive." I've heard it from Minnesota to Texas. And "the Wal-Marts" is common, if incorrect, in many places.

Another phrase I've heard only in Arkansas: "That was so good (speaking of someone's cooking) it makes me slap my grandma." Has anyone heard that one elsewhere?

"Fixin'" for "preparing" is common in the South. "I'm fixin' to fry me up a mess of turnip greens." I think "fixin'" is actually growing in popularity and moving into the mainstream.

Know of any other words or phrases unique to a small geographic area? Do you find any regional words or phrases particularly charming? Or grating?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Writing Adventure

Do any of these describe your writing?

Robert Louis Stevenson:
"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean."

Winston Churchill:
"Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him out to the public."

Saul Bellow:
"You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write."

Henry David Thoreau:
"Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience."

Friday, August 15, 2008


The late New Yorker writer Abbot Joseph Liebling had this claim to fame:
"I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better."
So there.

Another journalists, H.L. Mencken, wrote:
"Why authors write I do not know. As well ask why a hen lays an egg or a cow stands patiently while a farmer burglarizes her."

Speaking of journalism, Oscar Wilde penned this jewel:
"The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read."

And if that's not too close to home, here's one from an unknown source published Robert Byrnes' "The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Every Said":
"All editorial writers ever do is come down from the hills after the battle is over and shoot the wounded."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lousy Writers

Another author's view on one of his own:
The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.
— Robert Graves

The late author and Harper's magazine editor Russell Lynes wrote:
Every journalist has a novel in him, which is an excellent place for it.

Mark Twain:
The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.

Got a favorite author quote? How about a non-author quote?

A while back I asked readers to submit a statement that summarized their approach to writing. Here's one from Peyton Place author Grace Metalious:
I'm a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have got lousy taste.

Something's appealing about such stark honesty and brevity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


A company advertises on the radio that its product can "prevent identity theft BEFORE it happens."
As opposed to after?
Now that would be some product.
"Prevent accidents after they happen with the Time Machine from Sharper Image!"

Should we give up on "hopefully"? It is used so often to mean "I hope" and so seldom as its dictionary definition "full of hope" that maybe it's time to surrender. Hopefully, it won't lead to the disintegration of the entire English language.

If something is destroyed the destruction is complete. "Completely" is unnecessary. "Partially destroyed" is an oxymoron. The correct word is "damaged."

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

European view

Which 20th century American author called Mark Twain "... a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven 'sure fire' literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy."

Answer: William Faulkner.
Who else would be so arrogant? Was he unaware of Twain's immense popularity in Europe?

I wrote today on Aleksanr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who died Sunday. I recommend that you read his speech "A World Split Apart," delivered in June 1978 at Harvard, creating quite a stir. Just do a Google search. The speech is an insightful look at American culture, just as applicable today as 30 years ago. He brings the objectivity of a non-native born observer, in much the same was as the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville did a century and a half earlier.

It has been years since I tackled Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," the book that did more than any other to expose the brutality of communism. In this time when idealists talk about "saving the world," this Russian writer might actually have done it.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Answers to Friday's quiz.

Here's what five famous writers had to say about five other famous authors.

1. Leo Tolstoy wrote: The undisputed fame enjoyed by Shakespeare as a writer ... is, like every other lie, a great evil.
2. Edgar Allan Poe wrote this about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His didactics are all out of place. He has written brilliant poems, by accident; that is to say, when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking.
3. Virginia Woolf wrote this about James Joyce: The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.
4. George Orwell wrote this about Aldous Huxley: Huxley's book ... is awful. And do you notice that the more holy he gets, the more his books stink with sex? he cannot get off the subject of flagellating women.
5. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this: Nathaniel Hawthorne's reputation as a writer is a very pleasing fact, because his writing is not good for anything, and this is a tribute to the man.

And here's a bonus. Which 20th century American author called Mark Twain "... a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven 'sure fire' literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy."

Confession time.
I awoke at 3 a.m. Saturday and sat bolt upright. I suddenly remembered misspelling a word in Sunday's column. I used "bare arms" for "bear arms." I got up and put the dictionary on my dresser next to my keys as a reminder to drive down to the office and correct it later in the morning. That was so I could go back to sleep. Unfortunately, I was stewing and couldn't sleep, so I read for a couple of hours before finally nodding off. When I got to the office at about 9 a.m. I found that one of the editors had already found and corrected the error. Whew.

That's one of the curses of this business, at least for me. Many times when I was publishing my own weekly newspaper I awoke in the middle of the night on deadline day and realized I had made an error. Back then I would drive to the office and correct it right away, since a courier would be driving the grids — the pasted-up pages — to the printer early in the morning.

Why did I make the error to start with? And why did it not enter my consciousness until the middle of the night? Your guess is as good as mine.

Here's Sunday's column for that immense audience of readers who both want to read it and missed it in the paper.

Football is the only sport; all other contests are games

How can Barack Obama claim to care about the serious problems facing this country but do nothing to solve America's most immediate crisis — getting Brett Favre back onto the playing field? All Obama talks about is ending the war, solving the energy crisis, getting free health care to the poor, blah, blah, blah.

Uh, heLLO! Training camp has started!

OK, I admit I get a little obsessed every year at this time. I'm worried that the preseason games won't be televised because of that little, you know, whaddayacallit track meet in China. Priorities, please.

I'm not saying football is the only sport. I enjoy some of the other games myself. In the off-season. There's nothing more relaxing than sitting in the bleachers at a ball park with a dog and brew on a warm summer evening watching a game of baseball. Once in awhile something mildly interesting happens on the field.

And basketball's not all bad. A close game, with the crowd on its feet, can really get the heart pumping. Except at the end when it's all free throws and timeouts, stretching 10 seconds into an excruciating hour and a half. Snore.

Even hockey can be exciting — until they break from punching each other's brains out to skate around with that ridiculous little puck.

I've been told there's even a sport where the players try to kick a ball down the field and into a big net, and they never use their hands. I'm not sure I believe it. Why would anyone make up a game like that? And if they did, who would watch it? The players would probably score, like, one point in a whole game. You might get distracted by watching the grass grow, which would be more exciting.

But not football. Football is more than just a sport. It is the essence of being. Football is to other sports what Elvis is to other singers. What the great white shark is to other fish. What the Grand Canyon is to other gullies.

In what other sport can you see one guy make a bone-jarring hit on another, drive him into the dirt and send his helmet flying, and not get a penalty? He might even get a sticker on his helmet for "lick of the week." And the reverse, in what other game would the coach bench you for failing to hit somebody?

Nothing in baseball compares to that. You've got a guy sliding into third who then stands up and brushes off the dirt. Brushes it off! While everyone else on the field waits. Did you ever see a 290-pound defensive tackle brush the mud off his jersey? Or the blood?

In basketball, a defensive player tries to draw a charge by falling backwards after a little bump by some guy driving to the basket. What the heck is that? If it were a real sport the guy on defense would body slam the guy on offense and then jump on the ball.

Track and field, which in some Third World countries is actually considered sport, is worse. You've got people running around on a soft rubber track in their underwear. First one across the line wins. Real captivating. The runners have to stay in their own lanes, and no elbowing. At least in roller derby you get to jostle the other players. What kind of sport makes you keep you hands to yourself? If we weren't supposed to bump others we wouldn't be born with forearms.

The only track and field event that doesn't have people snoring after five minutes is the pole vault, and that's only because there's a chance something might go wrong when the vaulter is 18 feet in the air. I mean, you've got some guy whose entire goal is to run a few yards with a pole to vault over a bar and land on a soft cushion. Nobody is even trying to stop him.

Hey, put some pads on him and let him break through a couple of lines of defenders on the way to the vault. Better yet, put another pole vaulter out there going the opposite way at the same time. And sharpen the ends of the poles. Call it the lance vault. Only one guy survives to reach his bar.

Oh, and get rid of those cushions. In football, does the receiver leaping into the air at the back of the end zone need a cushion to land on? Of course not. And he's about to get hit.

As for that that alleged game where they kick the ball down the field, at least put some boxing gloves on the players. If they can't touch the ball anyway, you might as well give them something to do with their hands — like punch the opposing players. People might actually come out for a game like that.

Football doesn't have to be the only sport worth watching. But it will be until they take a lesson from the gridiron and spice up the other games with a little contact.

Yeah. I'm ready for some football.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Writers on Writers

Name the writer who made each of these statements about another writer:

1. The undisputed fame enjoyed by Shakespeare as a writer ... is, like every other lie, a great evil.
2. (On Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) His didactics are all out of place. He has written brilliant poems, by accident; that is to say, when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking.
3. (On James Joyce) The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.
4. (On Aldous Huxley) Huxley's book ... is awful. And do you notice that the more holy he gets, the more his books stink with sex? he cannot get off the subject of flagellating women.
5. Nathaniel Hawthorne's reputation as a writer is a very pleasing fact, because his writing is not good for anything, and this is a tribute to the man.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Southern Literature

The author of the quote: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write" is Stephen King.

On Southern literature:

I was particularly intrigued by Flannery O'Connor's quote on Southern writers from the last post:
"I doubt if the texture of Southern life is any more grotesque than that of the rest of the nation, but it does seem evident that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognizing the grotesque; and to recognize the grotesque, you have to have some notion of what is not grotesque and why."

I have never cared for William Faulkner because his writing is a coarse caricature of the South I know, a stereotype that confirmed the prejudices of the Hollywood crowd he schmoozed with. But the rich eccentricities of southerners is undeniable, as O'Connor recognizes.

I have always preferred Eudora Welty's portrayal of the South, which to me is more authentic and more rooted in real — but still eccentric — people. O'Connor captures the essence of Southern literature and defines why Faulkner misses the mark while Welty succeeds.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Authors on their craft

Match the quote with the American author:

1. The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate. — D. Faulkner

2. I doubt if the texture of Southern life is any more grotesque than that of the rest of the nation, but it does seem evident that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognizing the grotesque; and to recognize the grotesque, you have to have some notion of what is not grotesque and why. — A. Flannery O'Connor

3. I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story. — C. Ernest Hemingway

4. Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story. — B. F. Scott Fitzgerald

Bonus question:

What living author wrote: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write."

Friday, July 25, 2008

Match Quotes

Amercian authors on the subject of writing

Match the quote with the author:

1. The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate.

2. I doubt if the texture of Southern life is any more grotesque than that of the rest of the nation, but it does seem evident that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognizing the grotesque; and to recognize the grotesque, you have to have some notion of what is not grotesque and why.

3. I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

4. Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story.

A. Flannery O'Connor
B. F. Scott Fitzgerald
C. Ernest Hemingway
D. William Faulkner

Do any of the quotes reflect your own thoughts on writing?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Antidote for Errors

1. He joined the Marine Corp because he wanted to ensure he would see action.
The correct spelling is Marine Corps. I am amazed at how often we see Marine Corp — the abbreviation of corporation without the period. Even former Marines, when submitting letters or news copy, often spell it Corp.

2. The cheesecake was fantastic, but she preferred the barbecued mutton.
Fantastic comes from the same root as fantasy. It means fanciful, bizarre or unreal. Using it to mean wonderful or terrific became a fad in the 1970s, and it still lingers. It used to annoy my mother when the singer Roy Clark misused the term.

3. Officers called off the search, believing the suspect had fled the state.
The officers thought, not believed, the suspect had fled the state. Belief has to do with faith or truth or opinions. "I believe what you said." "I believe in God." Using believe as a synonym for think is imprecise and can confuse the reader.

4. He was confident he could hurl the football further than anyone on the team.
Farther. Further means to a greater degree. Farther means a longer distance.

Any of you error spotters who happened to see the editorial page Sunday no doubt caught a whopper — right in a headline.
I had "Obama offers right anecdote for nation's ills." Of course, I meant "antidote."

I was obviously asleep at the wheel. How embarrassing. But it did remind me of the joke about the guy who said his friend's death taught him the importance of a good vocabulary. When his buddy fell sick, the guy tried to cure him by telling him amusing little stories.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Entrepreneur

Sunday's column (feel free to critique content or style)

Summer's carefree days: fertile ground for entrepreneurs

I was a kid at a time when parenting was sort of a hands-off process. Kids were left with lots of free time to do as they wished — ride bikes, play ball, build bombs, whatever.

Our parents had moved to the city from farms, where they had grown up butchering chickens and slaughtering hogs and other activities that would bring social services to the door today. But once in the city, no one had chores. It didn't occur to parents that their kids might need guidance since they had never needed any. Unless you count getting their backsides tanned when they neglected their chores.

Besides, these newly urbanized parents were preoccupied learning to be mod, which for men meant growing pork chop sideburns and for women meant growing beehives on their heads — which by the way, was the strangest of all the strange fashions America has suffered through in two centuries. In fact, it was their parents' weird hairdos, not Vietnam, that inspired teenagers to rebel in the '60s.

If parents felt a twinge of guilt for failing to deliberately parent, Dr. Spock was there to reassure them that the happiest kids are the ones left to do as they pleased. And so in the summertime parents would leave for work and stay gone all day with no worries about what their kids might get into during the day. That strategy might actually work today, since today's kids, when left to themselves, choose to sit for hours at a time cramming junk food down their throats in front of the latest electronic device until they fade into a sugar-induced trance that lasts until supper time.

But in those days, with no computers, no electronic games and nothing interesting on TV, we kids went outside looking for something to do. That meant getting together with other boys in the neighborhood, where we proved the long-established social science theorem: the wisdom of a young man's decision making is inversely proportionate to the number of boys in the pack.

The nearest thing we learned to responsibility was to set aside the last hour before the parents came home to erase all the evidence.

In truth, the mischief we got into was pretty tame by today's standards — climbing the neighbor's fence to steal green apples off his tree, blowing up our sisters' Barbies with firecrackers, tossing cats into the swimming pool. You know, the usual stuff.

But occasionally we unsupervised kids actually channeled our energy into something useful, something entrepreneurial even. Of course, a fine line separates the entrepreneur from the scam artist.

It started with fake Kool-Aid. Desperate for cash to spend at Pennington's Ice Cream Parlor, we decided to set up a Kool-Aid stand. Unfortunately, we had no Kool-Aid mix.

So we invented "Cool-Aid: a refreshing new taste." Cool-Aid consisted of water, ice, sugar and food coloring. Note the absence of any actual flavoring.

We sold pitchers of it, one paper cup at a time. No one ever suspected a thing. Even after we could afford the real thing, we didn't bother. Why alter a winning formula? If customers asked what flavor they were drinking, we would ask them what it tasted like. Whatever their answers — cherry, strawberry, raspberry — we confirmed it with "good guess," which was not exactly a lie.

The Cool-Aid stand expanded to include frozen Cool-Aid treats made in ice trays, then popcorn, and eventually hot dogs, slices of watermelon, pickles, freshly butchered rabbits (that was actually an attempt to salvage another little business venture that was not working out too well; I'll save that story for another day) and whatever was on the 10-cent table at the neighborhood market, which we would mark up 200 percent.

My job — sort of unofficially — was food tester. Left to my own, I must confess, I would have eaten up all our profits. Fortunately for our shareholders, my older brother assumed the task of inventory control, which consisted of pounding my head when the product disappeared faster than the cash box filled.

It was nice to have a few coins in our pockets. But I admit I always hoped we wouldn't sell out. Disposing of the unsold merchandise was my favorite perk of business ownership.

When the parents came home and saw what we were up to, they all beamed with pride at their little geniuses. They would even drop a few coins as customers before retreating into the house. That gave us just enough time to disappear before they found the remains of Barbie and Ken.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Test yourself

Correct the errors (or identify the wrong word choices):

1. He joined the Marine Corp because he wanted to ensure he would see action.

2. The cheesecake was fantastic, but she preferred the barbecued mutton.

3. Officers called off the search, believing the suspect had fled the state.

4. He was confident he could hurl the football further than anyone on the team.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Puzzle answers

1. Driving all the way to Denver, Carol's car got great mileage.
(Carol's car didn't drive to Denver, Carol did.)
Driving all the way to Denver, Carol got great mileage in her Hummer.
Carol got great mileage on her drive to Denver.

2. To increase your chances of getting published, your manuscript should be error-free.
(Your manuscript can't do anything to help you get published, even if it had the will to do so.)
To increase your chances of getting published, make sure your manuscript is error-free.
Your manuscript should be error-free to increase your chances of getting published.

3. Repeat it again for everyone to hear.
Repeat it for everyone to hear. ("again" is superfluous)

4. Buy your special someone a diamond from Mo's Jewelry; they have the widest selection.
(Mo's is a business, an "it," not a "they")
Buy your special someone a diamond from Mo's Jewelry; it has the widest selection.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fix It

Correct the following:

1. Driving all the way to Denver, Carol's car got great mileage.

2. To increase your chances of getting published, your manuscript should be error-free.

3. Repeat it again for everyone to hear.

4. Buy your special someone a diamond from Mo's Jewelry; they have the widest selection.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Word Choice Answers

Answers to yesterday's word choice puzzlers:

1. I can empathize with those starving children in Ethiopia with their distended bellies.
Actually, the best I can do is sympathize. Although my belly might be distended, it is not from starvation. I could only empathize if I had experienced the same thing. Empathy is the ability to understand another's suffering as if it were one's own. To sympathize is to feel sympathy or concern for another's misfortunes.

2. Tempers flared as fans of the opposing teams streamed from the stadium, but the presence of peace officers diffused the tension.
The police officers may have diffused (disperse in every direction) the crowd, but they defused (reduce or eliminate tension or antagonism) the tension.

3. She adopted to the new schedule adapted in the office where she works.
Switch adopted and adapted. To adopt is to choose or make one's own. Adapt is to adjust to changing circumstances. The adopted child had to adapt to her new home.

4. The new office schedule was more conducive to her party habits.
The schedule may have been convenient, but it was not conducive, which means contributive, tending to cause or likely to produce.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Word Choice

Spot the errors:

1. I can empathize with those starving children in Ethiopia with their distended bellies.

2. Tempers flared as fans of the opposing teams streamed from the stadium, but the presence of peace officers diffused the tension.

3. She adopted to the new schedule adapted in the office where she works.

4. The new office schedule was more conducive to her party habits.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Hyphens and Dashes

When should you use a hyphen? What's the difference between a hyphen and a dash? When should you use a dash?
The most effective way I could find to explain the uses to new reporters was this: a hyphen joins, a dash separates.

A hyphen (-) joins. It has no space before or after it. It is used with compound nouns and with two-word adjectives preceding nouns as well as other uses.
Dec. 12-17
the big-headed writer
the score was 28-14
a 2-year-old filly
All of the 3- and 4-year-olds

A dash (—) separates. It has a space at both ends. It can show an abrupt change. It can function like a hard comma. Some editors use dashes only in pairs.
The reporters — Bill, Shelley and Matt — turned in their stories.
The commission raised the mayor's salary — his first since assuming office 10 years ago — over the objections of the city manager.

An ellipsis (...) is NOT interchangeable with a dash. It is used in place of words deleted from a quote or document, usually to eliminate unnecessary verbage. It has a space before and after.
I pledge allegiance to the flag ... and to the Republic for which it stands ...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Disc Golf

Sunday's column.

Superman's got nothing on disc golfers

Warning: Disc golf is addictive and is a leading cause of embarrassment, envy and sudden outbursts of anger.

Too bad they don't post that label on golf discs.

The warning summarizes all I had learned about the game I played three or four times a week for the past five months.

Readers might remember my account of playing the disc golf course last winter at Stuart Nelson Park — using Frisbees. Not only did I suffer severe frostbite requiring the removal of several previously functioning fingers and toes, but I also played so badly that, had I been sensible, I would have given up immediately to avoid humiliating myself in front of others.

But I am not sensible. Besides, a bunch of guys from an organization called the West Kentucky Disc Golf Club, after reading the column, e-mailed some helpful tips. Of course, if they really wanted to be helpful they would have advised "Quit now." Instead they said, "Ditch the Frisbees."

Good advice. Playing disc golf with a Frisbee is like playing real golf with a ping pong ball.

We quickly learned that disc golf is played with discs that bear only slight resemblance to the popular flying discs of the '70s and '80s. Golf discs are harder, thinner, smaller in diameter and more aerodynamic than Frisbees. They fly twice as far when you release them — unless, of course, you are me, in which case they only go about 15 feet before they hit a tree. The rows of dents in the trees near the tee boxes at Paducah's course tell me I'm not the only one.

I had noticed that serious players carry around big bags full of discs. This is not, as I had presumed, because they lose so many in a typical round that they want to make sure they can get through all 18 holes. It is because every disc has a different flight pattern and is made for a specific purpose. You have distance drivers, fairway drivers, mid-range and approach discs, putters and, of course, discs to hurl into the woods in a fit of fury when you blow an easy shot.

Despite the frustration of seeing discs go somewhere other than where I intend, which happens only every hole, I actually thought I was starting to get the hang of it. That was before I played in the Red Cross Disc Toss last weekend alongside members of the club — that is, REAL disc golfers.

We're talking hard core. These people are not normal. They are machines. They go to the gym and lift weights, isolating the muscles they use in throwing. They study disc golf video. They travel around the country competing. They set up holes in their backyards. Those who have enough land set up entire courses on their property.

For months I had been hearing about a player named Richard, the club's best player, the only guy with a hole-in-one on the Paducah course — and he has three. On one throw. Richard can toss a disc from the Kentucky end of the Irvin Cobb bridge and hit the "Welcome to Brookport" sign at the other end, sailing past tractor-trailer rigs along the way. He can toss a disc from the foot of Kentucky Avenue and land it smack-dab in the center of the helipad at Western Baptist Hospital, even with the helicopter blades spinning overhead. He once tossed a disc from the George Rogers Clark statue at Fort Massac, bounced it off the forehead of Big John the 20-foot sack boy and knocked out the front teeth of the giant Superman in the Metropolis square, causing it to cry — not because of pain but because of its obvious inferiority to Richard.

I'm telling you, he's a robot or an alien or something.

Anyway, the Red Cross Disc Toss ended with a random draw best toss scramble on Sunday. As luck — and a $20 bribe — would have it, organizers paired me with Richard. The bad news is, we never used any of my throws. For that matter, we never FOUND my throws. The good news is, Richard didn't need my help to crush the competition like mosquitoes on the windshield. And I still got to share in the cash prize.

Well, OK, we actually finished third. But that was only because Richard forgot which hole we were throwing at a few times and hit the NEXT hole instead, necessitating an extra stroke to get back. And we still finished only two strokes up.

I picked up a few more tips at the tournament. But none more valuable than this: Make Richard your partner.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Singular or plural

An editor friend and former co-worker e-mailed the following question:

We are having a problem with this sentence. Can you help?
"But he was just fascinating, one of those really intense and rare men who listen as well as they talk, and we had a great time."
I think it should be "... one of those really intense and rare men who listens as well as he talks ..."

So which is it, "listen ... talk" or "listens ... talks"?

Answer: Writer's choice.

The antecedent of "who" can be either "one" or "men."

This is from Bartleby.com:

1. When constructions headed by one appear as the subject of a sentence or relative clause, there may be a question as to whether the verb should be singular or plural. The sentence "One of every ten rotors was found defective" is perfectly grammatical, but sometimes people use plural verbs in such situations, as in "One of every ten rotors have defects." In an earlier survey, 92 percent of the Usage Panel preferred the singular verb in such sentences.

2. Constructions such as "one of those people who" pose a different problem. Many people argue that "who" should be followed by a plural verb in these sentences, as in "He is one of those people who just don’t take 'no' for an answer." Their thinking is that the relative pronoun who refers to the plural noun people, not to one. They would extend the rule to constructions with inanimate nouns, as in "The sports car turned out to be one of the most successful products that were ever manufactured in this country."

3. But the use of the singular verb in these constructions is common, even among the best writers. In an earlier survey, 42 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the use of the singular verb in such constructions. It’s really a matter of which word you feel is most appropriate as the antecedent of the relative pronoun—one or the plural noun in the "of" phrase that follows it. Note also that when the phrase containing one is introduced by the definite article, the verb in the relative clause must be singular: "He is the only one of the students who has (not have) already taken Latin."

Also, I forgot that I promised earlier to post the column on a particularly eventful week in early June. Below is the column:

Celebrating Thanksgiving on Father's Day

The topic is "Favorite Memory of Dad," a spontaneous Father's Day dinner discussion on the order of Thanksgiving's "What I'm Most Thankful for ... ." It would be more accurate to call this discussion "Dad's Weirdest Behavior," since it quickly devolves into an oral catalog of those past behaviors of mine the kids find most amusing.

Their stories don't quite match my recollections. But on this Father's Day, I don't mind the embellishments. Watching the faces of my wife and children, laughing at one another's remembrances of me, I silently compile my own list, more suited to Thanksgiving.

First, there is Erin, my oldest, sitting across the table, who recounts the day I got the family geared up for hiking a long, rugged trail in Missouri that turned out to be only a half mile long — and partially paved. With enough drinks, jerky and trail mix for a weekend trek, we were finished in 20 minutes.

Whatever tale she might tell, I give thanks that she is even at the table this night. It was exactly a week earlier when I had answered the phone and could barely make out her faint words, "I'm in a hospital ... I was hit ... the car didn't stop." A social worker in ER took the phone from her and explained that Erin had been struck by an SUV crossing the street in a crosswalk.

I threw some clothes into a bag and headed for Chicago, taking my son Sam along to keep me awake for the all-night drive. We arrived early the next morning at a Chicago trauma center to find Erin in the surgery ICU wing, pale and sporting a neck brace, surrounded by monitors, with all kinds of IV tubes and lines connected to her bruised and scraped body. She could not talk but managed a weak smile when we entered. Peg, her friend and co-worker who had spent the night at her side, gave us a progress report: fractured skull, brain hemorrhages, other injuries not yet known. Despite Erin's agony, the trauma team could not allow her any pain meds during the first 24 hours after the accident, during which they also had to keep her awake. She would undergo four CT scans in the first 36 hours to monitor changes in two subdural hematomas.

With people praying for her across the country, she left ICU on the third day and the hospital a day later as I drove her to Paducah to convalesce surrounded by family.

We tease her about picking an inconvenient time to fracture her skull. Had Sam and I not been in Chicago, we would have been with my wife at the airport in Nashville two days after the accident to welcome home my son Pete from Iraq for his mid-deployment leave.

Fortunately, she didn't have to greet him alone. Jay was there. "Jay" — for Janelle — is now his bride; they were married in a brief, intimate ceremony at our church a week ago. Erin, whose recovery is slow but steady, was able to attend.

Pete and Jay are also sitting at that table this Father's Day, and poor Jay is forced to endure an endless string of Dad stories that are, frankly, even starting to bore me. But I am thankful for my son's safe return and proud of Pete and Jay, both lieutenants in the United States Army, for their willing service to their country. I am especially thankful after hearing his stories and seeing photos of his outpost near Baghdad, which is apparently more of a hot spot than he had led his parents to believe.

While in Kentucky they plan to visit a Fort Campbell widow whose late husband, a member of Pete's unit, was killed in Iraq. Pete and Jay, who met at a West Point Sunday school teachers' retreat, knew their fallen comrade first as a fellow Sunday school teacher.

My middle son, Will, home from college, is at the table too. He shares a funny story (with only the thinnest connection to actual events), then a serious and touching memory that momentarily breaks the mood before the "Weird Dad" tales resume.

And Sam, the only one still living at home, has some fresh stories to share. He has the most vivid imagination and the most embellished stories.

The only one missing is Maggie, who is studying in Italy. The family Eeyore, she calls from across the pond to wish me happy Father's Day and complain about how touristy Florence is — on her first day there. It is classic Maggie, and we all get a chuckle. As the conversation shifts to Maggie stories, I give thanks that she could join us, even if only by cell phone, for this special day.

At the other end of the table, my wife smiles, knowing my heart is full. I think of the words she has spoken to me often when surrounded by our healthy and happy and capable children: my cup runneth over.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Steak and Pie

Answers to quiz

1. "I feel bad" or "I feel badly"
To say "I feel badly about your accident" is to say something is wrong with your ability to feel. "Bad" modifies "I," not "feel" in this case, making it an adjective rather than an adverb.

2. "Eat a healthy diet" or "Eat a healthful diet"
Eating a healthful diet makes one healthy. Eating a healthy diet means your steak is still walking around wearing its skin and horns. If "healthful" is too archaic for your tastes, use "nutritious."

3. "I can't help but notice" or "I can't help noticing"
"But" adds nothing except a double negative. "I can't help noticing" is correct.

4. "In behalf" or "On behalf"
This one depends on the context.
"In behalf" means "for the benefit of." Example: We raised $2,000 in behalf of crippled children.
"On behalf" means "in place of." Example: On behalf of pie lovers everywhere, thank you, Sara Lee.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beyond repair

If any blog readers are left, I can only assume you didn't attempt an answer because you are wise to my ways and knew the last post was a trick question. None of the four is written correctly. Incidentally, all the examples came from actual examples of copy submitted to my former newspaper or written by one of our reporters, with only the names changed.

The topic is parallel construction. When you include a list of objects after a verb, they must all fit the verb. Break the first one apart to see what I mean:

1. The festival will include craft booths, concessions and children can enjoy pony rides while parents shop.
The festival will include craft booths.
The festival will include concessions.
The festival will include and children can enjoy pony rides ... (see what I mean?)
The corrected sentence should read:
The festival will include craft booths, concessions and ponies for children to enjoy while their parents shop.

Sentence 2:
Incorrect: Officers include Claire Weston, president; Bobbie Hogwarts, vice president; Lucy Lickovich, secretary and Ben Gunn will serve as sergeant at arms.
Correct: Officer include Claire Weston, president; Bobbie Hogwarts, vice president; Lucy Lickovich, secretary; and Ben Gunn, sergeant at arms.
(Note: The word "include" should be used only with an incomplete list. If this is a complete list of officers the word "include" should be replaced with "are.")

Sentence 3:
Incorrect: The committee's goals include improving delivery of services, recruiting volunteers, consuming more pork dinners and repair the outside of the the building where Rufus Goforth drove his truck through the wall.
Correct: The committee's goals include ... repairing the outside ...

Sentence 4:
Incorrect: Pageant contestants will be judged on their poise, beauty and they will give an on-stage answer and their evening gown and the swimsuit competition will be judged privately.
Correct: Forget it. This sentence is hopeless. The pageant director who submitted it was charged, tried and convicted of languacide.

New Quiz
Which is correct?
1. "I feel bad" or "I feel badly"
2. "Eat a healthy diet" or "Eat a healthful diet"
3. "I can't help but notice" or "I can't help noticing"
4. "In behalf" or "On behalf"

Come on, don't be a chicken. Venture a guess.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Parallel construction

Which of the following sentences is correctly written? How should the others be corrected?

1. The festival will include craft booths, concessions and children can enjoy pony rides while parents shop.
2. Officers include Claire Weston, president; Bobbie Hogwars, vice president; Lucy Lickovich, secretary and Ben Gunn will serve as sergeant at arms.
3. The committee's goals include improving delivery of services, recruiting volunteers, consuming more pork dinners and repair the outside of the the building where Rufus Goforth drove his truck through the wall.
4. Pageant contestants will be judged on their poise, beauty and they will give an on-stage answer and their evening gown and the swimsuit competition will be judged privately.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Writing "for" EMPHASIS!

Sorry I didn't blog last week. I was unexpectedly and unavoidably out of the office. If I get around to writing a column about it I'll post it here.

Today's topic:
We frequently get letters with lots of exclamation points, all caps, quotation marks and underlining, mostly used arbitrarily. At first glace the letters look like those fundraising appeals from public policy and charity groups. The difference is, those groups at least use the punctuation in ways that make sense.

The letters look something like this:

Dear Editor,
I'm "one" of those PATRIOTS who doesn't "appreciate" the way most "AMERICANS" fly the AMERICAN FLAG!! Sometimes the FLAG is flown in "poor" condition or when it is "NOT" illuminated!!!!!! Why???????? It is "disgraceful"!!! Don't AMERICANS "care" about their FLAG and what it "stands" for???!!!!! I didn't fight in a "war," but I am a "veteran"!! Let's show "pride" in being AMERICANS for a "change"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I've never figured out what the extra exclamation points and question marks accomplish.

I previously belonged to a newspaper association whose director could not write anything without underlining, all caps, bold print and exclamation points. We teased him about it, but he was CONVINCED that the only way to get people's attention was to make it OBVIOUS which words and phrases were MOST IMPORTANT! Mind you, everyone who read the newsletter was a JOURNALIST!

When should you use exclamation points? With an interjection:
Hey! What are you doing? (Hey)
Oh, what a pain you are! (Oh)
When I saw your desk, all I could say was "Wow!" (Wow)

But do not use an exclamation point merely for emphasis:
You start work tomorrow!
I'm stuffed!
John McCain wants to turn over our country to illegal aliens!

People who use exclamation points after every sentence must read the comics every day! That's just what they do!

When should you use all caps? Never in serious writing, but it works in humor writing for emphasis.

Underlining? Underlining on a type-written page means the same as italics in published text. It can used for foreign phrases; book, magazine, album and movie titles; quotes; emphasis; or other purposes, but is best used sparingly. Some advertisers like underlining, even though it clutters their ads and makes them harder to read. It is best avoided.

I think sometimes a writer uses quotation marks to signal that he is not sure he has selected the "correct" word. But use of quotation marks is as specific as use of any other punctuation. The one use that leaves some discretion to the writer is around words that might be preceded by "so-called" or when the connotation is something other than the words literal meaning. Example:
He was a "blue-blood" after all.

Quotation marks are also used for actual quotes and portions of quotes, and book chapters and song titles. In some style books they can also be used for book, magazine, movie and album titles instead of italics.

Some style books call for using italics for the whole (book, magazine, album, movie, play), quotation marks for the part (chapter, article, song, act). Many publications leave it to the writer's discretion.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Word choice

A few word tips:

"Persuade" and "convince" are not synonyms. Convince is to change someone's mind, persuade is to prompt them to act.
I'm convinced Hillary would make a great president. I'm persuaded, then, to vote for her. (Sadly, I reached this conclusion too late.)

"Meanwhile" stands alone, but "meantime" must be preceded by "In the."
Meanwhile, Hillary campaigned in South Dakota ...
In the meantime, Obama was quietly racking up delegates ...

"As far as" requires a "go" or "goes" or something else to complete the thought. "As for" doesn't.
As far as this campaign goes, I've lost interest,
As for McCain, I wish he were a conservative.

"Compare" includes "contrasts," so you don't need both. To compare two things is to show ways they are alike and not alike. But do not use "compare" to mean "liken."
"He compared Bill Clinton to Elvis" does not mean he likened the two, but that he found both similarities and differences.

"Disinterested" is not the same as "uninterested." "Disinterested" means objective or unbiased. "Uninterested" means not interested.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Half century

Following is my column from Sunday. As you read, think about some of the lessons you've learned in your life and feel free to post them under comments.

A half century of observations

I'm 50, darn it. I observed the occasion with a moment of silence, mourning my lost youth. The upside is I can finally be a cantankerous old cuss.

Since this milestone is too painful to celebrate with anything more physically demanding than striking the keyboard, I mark the occasion with a list of 50 things I've learned in my first half century. Yes, I stole the idea from our own Kortney Brand; let's hope she's not the suing type.


1. Life is too short to drink bad coffee.

2. God is there and He is not silent.

3. Conceit is always ugly, regardless of the package it comes in.

4. Kindness is always beautiful, regardless of the package it comes in.

5. Nothing tastes better than a cold beer after hauling hay.

6. No one hauls hay anymore.

7. People who don't like chocolate are abnormal.

8. It's fine to be abnormal. May I have your chocolate?

9. When kids earn their own money for the first time, they display a conservatism you never knew they had.

10. Kids grow up too fast.

11. Kids who never grow up become liberals — that is, liberal with other people's money.

12. A wife who sticks with you is more valuable than anything else you will ever possess.

13. A wuss talks tough only from the safety of his gang — club, union, lodge, team, actual gang. A man has the courage to stand alone.

14. A wuss, usually surrounded by his gang, bullies the weak. A man uses his strength to defend the weak.

15. Airline seats, pants and candy bars always get smaller.

16. Politicians are like insurance companies; they promise much but deliver little.

17. No environment in America is more hostile to free thinking than the university campus.

18. Mothers who fight their sons' battles for them when they are 5 will still be fighting their sons' battles for them when they are 15 and 25 and 35 ...

19. Embarrassing your children is one of life's little pleasures.

20. Psychologists say the basic drivers of human behavior are money, sex and power. But they leave out the most important: respect. Everyone wants to be important.

21. Life is too short to eat beets.

22. Perfect people are an illusion.

23. Something other than dogs should be dubbed "man's best friend." Maybe snakes. They feed themselves, stay out of your way and never chew up your shoes.

24. If you buy all your socks the same color you don't have to look for matches.

25. Two colors of socks cover all occasions: black and white.

26. Ketchup makes everything taste a little better.

27. Except hot dogs.

28. Some of the smartest people are also some of the most gullible.

29. No one was ever made a better person by entering politics, but politics has ruined plenty.

30. Green bean casserole won't ruin your Thanksgiving — unless you eat some.

31. Fashion designers must be practical jokers if they can convince young men to wear their pants hanging down below their crotches so they can barely walk.

32. Newspapers are America's best bargain and best insurance against despotism.

33. "Groundhog Day" is the greatest movie of all time, and it (not "Star Wars") contains the answers to all of life's questions.

34. Weather forecasts are wrong so often that we don't bother to plan any activities based on them, but we watch them anyway.

35. Barry Bonds was this generation's Ty Cobb — a racist, obnoxious cheater who also happened to have more talent than anyone else in the game.

36. "Scientists" who resort to mocking religion do so to hide the fact that they can't produce sufficient evidence to support their theories.

37. No one could ever live up the legacy of Ronald Reagan. Not even Ronald Reagan.

38. Life is too short to eat carrot cake.

39. Americans are dangerously unsuspicious of government.

40. Gun control advocates operate from their hearts, not their heads.

41. Food cooked and eaten outdoors tastes better.

42. Nothing does more to prevent the next war than winning the current war.

43. Nothing invites an attack more than a retreat.

44. George Washington is the one man without whom there would be no United States of America.

45. George Washington Carver is the most under-appreciated man in American history.

46. Text messaging has introduced a new means for teenagers to be rude in public.

47. Doubting the existence of God because there is suffering in the world is like doubting the existence of your parents because you stub your toe on the door frame.

48. People my age sure look old.

49. Fifty is a pretty big number.

50. I can go home now.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Quirky English

I agree with gerry baughman about "each and every." We edit out "and every" in letters to the editor.

Another is "I'd like to thank ..."
If you'd like to, then go ahead and do it.

Then there's: "I'd like to take this opportunity ..." This is common in radio commercials. "Those of us at Cheap Autos would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the class of 2008." You paid for the spot, so it's hardly taking the opportunity. Taking the opportunity is when you're there for a different purpose. "Before I begin this toast to the bride I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you that I've got Amway products for sale in my trunk."

Some parents, teachers, coaches and even sergeants will give an order, followed with "OK?"
So you mean I have choice whether to do those push-ups? I choose — uh — not.

From my son's English teacher:
"English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, neither apple nor pine in pineapple. ... Quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square and Guinea pig is not from Guinea, nor is it a pig. ... If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?"

Are you better off with a fat chance than a slim chance? Do you ever have to tell your kids to sit up when they sit down? If they mess up their rooms they have to clean up their rooms. Why don't they ever mess down or clean down their rooms?

Can you think of any other examples of the quirky nature of our language?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Answers to product descriptions quiz (all from the same catalog):

1. Knit dress
2. Cardigan sweater
3. Sleeveless cotton dress
4. Painted shell necklace
5. Cotton jacket (yeah, who doesn't think of a "Hawaiian lei without the heady perfume" when they slip into a jacket? Sort of like those tube socks remind you of a felt Stetson without the sweat stains.)

That's the annoying thing. If you are actually using the catalog to make purchases you get precious little information about the products because someone somewhere convinced the company brass that all that flowery language helps sell clothing.
What do you think? Does it? It makes me pitch the catalog in the trash.

Speaking of ad copy, I learned in 17 years of running newspapers that sometimes you run with copy you don't think will help sell the products because the owner or ad buyer insists. If the picky real estate company insists the house has a "breathtaking fireplace," that's what you put in the ad. (Even if it were spelled correctly, can a fireplace really be "breathtaking"? The Rocky Mountains are breathtaking. Or a sunset over the ocean. A beautiful woman. But a fireplace? What, does it suck all the air out of the room?) Real estate catalogs are an endless source of creative new ways to butcher English.

A radio ad for an identity theft prevention program states, "It protects you from identity theft BEFORE it happens." Yes, it is always a challenge to prevent something AFTER it happens.

The football official throws the flag for "False start, on the offense, before the play."
As opposed to a false start on the defense after the play?

What's the most annoying use of English you've heard lately?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Catalog copy

Mark Twain penned the second passage in Huckleberry Finn. Cairo was to the two runaways passage to freedom.

Have you noticed the sales catalogs are all written by creative writing students these days? I can stand a little liberty with product descriptions, but some of these reach the point where they actually detract from the product. The worst is one of my wife's catalogs — which I won't name — where the product descriptions barely get around to describing the products but waste lots of ink with the rambling by some ad copy writer who has run out of ideas and is straining to find something new to say.

Care to guess what items are being described below?

1. "Swing your way across the Seven Seas — even when your itinerary takes you just across town. Sketchy and stretchy, this ..."

2. "A little tied up, sure. But never too busy for a little fun. That's the not-too-serious message from this ..."

3. "Breakfast under the banyan? Luncheon on the lanai? BBQ at your place? All options are yours in this ..."

4. "Frivolous and irresistible as a yummy dessert."

5. "Think of it as a Hawaiian lei without the heady perfumes."

Friday, May 23, 2008

English novelist Charles Dickens wrote the piece on Cairo, Ill., in his "American Notes for General Circulation" published in 1843. Cairo was the westernmost stop on his visit to the United States.

Dickens was thoroughly unimpressed with the entire region. Following the passage about Cairo, he wrote this about the Mississippi River:
"But what words shall describe the Mississippi, great father of rivers, who (praise be to Heaven) has no young children like him! An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running liquid mud, six miles an hour: its strong and frothy current choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and whole forest trees: now twining themselves together in great rafts, from the interstices of which a sedgy, lazy foam works up, to float upon the water's top; now rolling past like monstrous bodies, their tangled roots showing like matted hair; now glancing singly by like giant leeches; and now writhing round and round in the vortex of some small whirlpool, like wounded snakes. The banks low, the trees dwarfish, the marshes swarming with frogs, the wretched cabins few and far apart, their inmates hollow-cheeked and pale, the weather very hot, mosquitoes penetrating into every crack and crevice of the boat, mud and slime on everything: nothing pleasant in its aspect, but the harmless lightning which flickers every night upon the dark horizon."

Trivia question:
What author wrote this about Cairo?
"We judged that three nights more would fetch us to Cairo, at the bottom of Illinois, where the Ohio River comes in, and that was what we was after. We would sell the raft and get on a steamboat and go way up the Ohio amongst the free States, and then be out of trouble."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Geronimo and Cairo

Yes, George W. Bush is the one with degrees from both Yale and Harvard.

And yes, Prescott Bush, who served as senator from Connecticut, was among the soldiers stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., who allegedly stole the skull of the Apache chief Geronimo from his gravesite there. Prescott was also a Skull and Bones member.

Trivia question:
What author had this to say about Cairo, Ill., in 1843?
"At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld, that the forlornest places we had passed, were, in comparison with it, full of interest. At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat and low and marshy, that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the house-tops, lies a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death; vaunted in England as a mine of Golden Hope, and speculated in, on the faith of monstrous representations, to many people's ruin. A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming, then, with rank unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Skull and Bones

Yes, gerry baughman, the narrator in Seabiscuit is historian David McCollough, author of 1776, John Adams, Truman and other books on American history. McCollough has won two Pulitzer Prizes for literature (Truman and John Adams). He has also won the National Book Award twice and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Like the last three presidents, McCollough is a Yalie. And like the two Bushes, he was a member of the Skull and Bones, the oldest and most famous university secret society. Conspiracists also believe Bill Clinton was a member.

The past five presidential elections included at least one Yale grad winning his party's nomination, and in two of the elections both candidates were Yalies (Bush I/Clinton in '88 and Bush II/Kerry in '04). Three (John Kerry was the third) were Skull and Bones members. Of the remaining three nominees (Dukakis, Dole and Gore), two held degrees from Harvard (all but Dole).

Trivia question 1: Which presidential candidate held degrees from both Yale and Harvard?

Triva question 2: According to legend, whose skull and bones were disinterred from the original burial site and reburied at the society's headquarters at Yale? (Hint: Oklahoma)

Speaking of great book titles, how about these from Erma Bombeck?
The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank
If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I doing in the Pits?
Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession
When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time To Go Home

Monday, May 19, 2008

Horse race

In honor of Big Brown's victory at the Preakness, here's a horse race-themed literature trivia question:
What author was the narrator in the film Seabiscuit? What are his best-known books? Bonus: What does he have in common with the last three presidents?

If the purpose of a title is to lure you into reading, no one writes a better title than P.J. O'Rourke. His books include "Parliament of Whores" and "Give War a Chance." Chapter titles in the latter include "The Birth, and Some of the Afterbirth, of Freedom," "The Piece of Ireland That Passeth All Understanding," "Return of the Death of Communism," "A Call for a New McCarthysim," "Studying for Our Drug Test" and "Sex With Dr. Ruth." With titles like that, it's hard NOT to pick up the book. (And it doesn't disappoint.)

Got a favorite book title? (or film or album title?)

Reminder: If you have trouble posting your comments, check to make sure you have signed in.

Friday, May 16, 2008


The lax rules of e-mail communication — is it negative because it further degrades the language, or is it positive because it encourages more written communication? Do the many IM acronyms enhance or harm written English?

I know a Pulitzer Prize winner who doesn't bother with capitalization or punctuation in his e-mail correspondence, nor does he take time to correct his typos. Can we, should we, relax a bit when writing online?

What is the impact of this new medium on the English language?

And back to our prior discussion:
My sculpture professor in college took up cello late in life (with late defined as "in his 40s") and performed in the local orchestra. He said it made him a better artist. What did he mean?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fantasy dinner party

A comment from E to Wednesday's post:
"I think the audience's role in writing vs. music/art most obviously separates the mediums.
My dad once called reading the "act of re-creating", implying a tacitly shared creative endeavor between author and audience. meanwhile, with music and art the sensory gratification for a listener/viewer is immediate and effortless. The opportunity for collaboration certainly exists, but a dialogue between creator and recipient can occur without it.
Writing will require some sort of an investment from its audience; music and art don't have to."

Agree? Is that an reasonable distinction?

While writers can only guess how their audience will respond, in the performing arts the creators get immediate response and in some cases may even alter their performance based on that response. Could it be said, then, that the audience shares in the creation of that performance?

Writers are notoriously reclusive. Is there a connection between their chosen vocation and their social anxiety? Do agoraphobics choose to write as a less painful means to connect with others?

A fellow asked an author whom she would invite to her fantasy dinner party.
She replied, "Jane Austen, Adolf Hitler, John the Baptist and Chris Farley."
"Why?" he asked. "What do those four have in common?"
"They're all dead," she said. "So I won't have to think of something to say."

Question: (Thank you, Dwight Shrute)
Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party, and why?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


A caller to Rush Limbaugh's radio program yesterday offered this, the mother of all conspiracy theories:

Nixon and Reagan, both in the pockets of Big Oil, conspired to assassinate John Lennon because he was the only one who had the power to stop the current war in Iraq, which was already in the planning stages in the 1970s and which would give them control of the world oil supply and therefore the world.

Where do they come up with this stuff? This is obviously not true since the world is actually controlled by aliens from their underground laboratory at Area 51. Everybody knows that. Although it is possible that John Lennon is actually alive and an operative working out of Area 51. I mean, we know Elvis is there.

Oops. Sorry to get off track. Back to the subject at hand.

What elements do art, music and writing have in common? Maybe:
Repetition (without monotony)

Agree or disagree?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


My sister, the novelist, sent this:

"For as long as I can remember, I've had fictitious people with their assorted lives banging around in my head like unsettled souls demanding that their truths be told. The only way I know to give them rest is to write their stories; they seem satisfied and leave after that."

I guess if you want your characters to be real you'd better pay attention to their demands. One of my art professors used to speak of creating as a dialogue between the artist and his work, and he constantly urged us to listen to what the piece was saying. When my wife writes, she doesn't know what the characters will say and do next, but she can't wait to find out. We have all heard of writers and artists and composers who say the work takes over at some point and they just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Movie line: "The music is all around you. All you have to do is listen."
Who said it and in what film?

New question: How is writing like music and art? And how is writing unique?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Writing is ...

I have again heard from readers who posted comments that never appeared. You can e-mail your comments directly to me at dcox@paducahsun.com if they don't post from the comments page.

To help you get started on your famous quote on writing that will outlive you, choose one of the following and defend it (or mock all three if they deserve it):

1. Writing is joy. It wells up inside you until it bursts out, connecting your heart to the heart of a kindred spirit you've never met.

2. Writing is work. If you aren't exhausted at the end of a writing session, hit delete before anyone else sees what you've written.

3. Writing is pain. If you write for pleasure, it might be therapeutic for you, but no one else will give a damn what you have to say.

Who said it? "I'm not superstitious. But I am a little stitious."

And from Will Rogers: "Why don't they passs a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth."

What is the (deliberate) error, and does it enhance and detract from the quote?