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 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?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Twain and Hemingway

Answer to the movie line:
William Forester, the author portrayed by Sean Connery in Finding Forester, to high school writing prodigy Jamal Wallace, portrayed by Rob Brown.

The new quote is by Mike Royko. Anonymous nailed it.

jim-w came pretty close on the other seven. Although he got only three, he made logical switches for the remaining four: Dave Barry for Lewis Grizzard, George Will for Michael Kelly.
The correct answers are:
1. Will Rogers
2. Erma Bombeck
3. George Will
4. Dave Barry
5. Mark Twain
6. Lewis Grizzard
7. Michael Kelly

Only two of the seven (eight if you count Royko) columnists are still living, George Will and Dave Barry. Lewis Grizzard died in 1994. He steadfastly refused to use a computer for his column, continuing to use his old typewriter until his death. Erma Bombeck died in 1996. Michael Kelly was killed in 2003 in Iraq, where he was an embedded reporter.

Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, two of America's most famous novelists, got their start in newspapers. I thought you might enjoy reading some of their comments on writing.


Mark Twain:
The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.

In twenty-one years, with all my time at my free disposal, I have written and completed only eleven books, whereas with half the labor that a journalist does I could have written sixty in that time.

Ernest Hemingway:
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.

It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. ... .


So now, fellow wordsmiths, I'm putting you on the spot. Sum up your own philosophy of writing in one or two sentences. Not to put the pressure on, but this statement will be quoted by English professors teaching your work long after you are gone.

By the way, I agree with Ernest on Faulkner. In my opinion, no other American writer's fame so eclipsed his talent.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Quote Quiz Clues

Our managing editor, Duke Conover, got six out of seven from yesterday's quiz. Pretty impressive. But no one posted any answers to the blog. So today I'll give a clue. Here, in alphabetical order, are the seven newspaper writers who wrote the seven quotes. All you have to do is match the names to the quotes. Anyone game?

Dave Barry
Erma Bombeck
Lewis Grizzard
Michael Kelly
Will Rogers
Mark Twain
George Will

And here's a new one. What famous newspaper columnist wrote this:
I can modestly say that I've been compared with Hemingway. Well, sort of. Readers sometimes tell me that I'm a real pain in the whatchamacallit.

Movie quote: "Punch the keys, for God's sake!"
Who said it and in what film?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Quote quiz

Quotes from famous newspaper writers. How many can you identify?

1. My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat when it landed.

2. I respect history as much as the next person, but to climb eight hundred forty steps to lie on your back and kiss a stone that doesn't kiss you back is not a must-see on my itenerary.

3. Bill Clinton's truth-shading and hairsplitting rhetoric of crafty precision is calculated to produce purrs from the maximum number of factions.

4. If there's one ideal that unites all Americans, it's the belief that every single one of us, regardless of ethnic background, is fat.

5. The devil's aversion to holy water is light compared with a despot's dread of a newspaper that laughs.

6. The only thing that ever got into my typewriter was a large roach, which I promptly typed to an uppercase death with the dollar and ampersand keys.

And the bonus challenge:
7. In a rare moment of irritation with the American Civil Liberties Union, (Sen. Ted Kennedy) once said, "the ACLU thinks that it defines liberalism in this country. I define liberalism in this country." He was exaggerating only a little.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The editor gets edited

No, Jeff Wilkinson, I'm not tired of your comments. Keep 'em comin'.

You have proven that one does not have to look far to find errors. By my count you've found four in my writing, including one in an editorial in the print edition. Darn it. Yes, it should be "whoever is higher than HE." Boy, do I feel stupid.

You were correct the first time on the quote. Blondie (Clint Eastwood) says it to Tuco (Eli Wallach) in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Related trivia tidbit: Wallach is "the ugly" in the movie but "the bad" in the trailer. Trivia question: Who portrays Angel Eyes, "the bad" in the movie and "the ugly" in the trailer?

A favorite line of mine from a book is the ending of Great Expectations, which so impressed me when I first read it 35 years ago that it has stuck in my mind ever since (or at least a close approximation): "...the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her." I actually remembered it "... was not a shadow of her parting," but I can't find that version.

Of course, this was the revised ending. In the original ending (is that anything like a final beginning?), Pip and Estella do part, only to meet once more on the street when they are old.

Movie lines

Three people e-mailed yesterday to say the comments they posted never showed up. Sorry. I think we've fixed the settings so that anyone, whether a registered Google user or not, can post comments.

Pronunciation pet peeves:
I can't figure out how it's possible that the president of the United States, even after comedians have lampooned him over it for eight years, still can't say the word "nuclear." It consists of two, simple, one-syllable words, neither of which he has any trouble pronouncing. If you can say "new" and "clear" you can say "nuclear." Maybe the president does it in defiance.

Another thing that really gets me is when businesses mispronounce their own names or products in broadcast advertising. A local jewelry store advertises its name and product as "jew-lery." And I've heard several Realtors (two syllables) refer to themselves in advertising as "realators" (three syllables).

Movie lines:
One of my favorite movie lines is from Chariots of Fire: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure."

Of course, that one is only slightly ahead of this jewel: "There are two kinds of people in the world — those with loaded guns and those who dig." Can you name the movie?