Monday, July 01, 2013

July 1: Strunk and White Day

July 1:  Strunk and White Day

Today is the birthday of William Strunk, Jr.(1869-1946), the principal author of The Elements of Style.  This book, also known as Strunk and White, is without a doubt one of the most influential style guides of all time, selling over ten million copies.  Strunk originally published the book as an instructional pamphlet for his students at Cornell University in 1918.  The book gained its great notoriety after it was revised and published by Strunk’s former student E. B. White in 1959.

The 11 Principles of Composition below are just a sample of the advice for writers found in The Elements of Style.

1.      Choose a suitable design and stick to it.

2.      Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

3.      Use the active voice.

4.      Put statements in positive form.

5.      Use definite, specific, concrete language.

6.      Omit needless words.

7.      Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

8.      Express coordinate ideas in similar form.

9.      Keep related words together.

10.  In summaries, keep to one tense.

11.  Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

Assignment 1:  Select one of the principles in the list above and explain why it is either good advice or bad advice for writers.  

Assignment 2:  What is your single most important Principle of Composition?  In other words what do you think is the most important piece of advice that a writer can follow?  State your advice as a rule; then, explain it in detail with showing examples where appropriate.
Quote of the Day:  Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.  –William Strunk, Jr.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

June 30: One Book Author Day

On this date in 1936, the novel Gone with the Wind was published by Margaret Mitchell.  The website Goodreads has a list of over 60 authors who wrote a single novel.  Notable titles include To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye.

For a fascinating examination of this topic, check out the documentary The Stone Reader.  The film traces one man's quest to find one book author Dow Mossman who published The Stones of Summer in 1976.

Today's Quote:  After all, tomorrow is another day.  --Last line of Gone with the Wind

Saturday, June 29, 2013

June 29: Blended Words Day

On this date in 1995, Diane White, writing in The Boston Globe, coined the blended word bridezilla (bride + Godzilla) to describe "brides who are particularly difficult and obnoxious."  White's neologism follows a trend that began in the 20th century of combining two words to form a single new word.   Blends are also called portmanteau words, portmanteau being the French term for a suitcase with two compartments.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

June 27: The Lottery Day

The short story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson takes place on June 27th.  The story was published in the New Yorker on June 26, 1948.

June 27th on the Roman calendar is Initium Aestasis, the beginning of summer.

Listen to the story and a brief discussion of the story on the New Yorker Podcast.

Or watch a brief film version:

William Brennan, a writer for Slate's culture blog provides some insights on Jackson's writing process.

Today's Challenge:  Today in Fiction
If you were to write a story set on a single day, what specific date would you choose?  Why?

Quote of the Day:  I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?  --Miriam Friend in a letter to the editor of The New Yorker.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

June 26: Personal Pronoun Day

On this date in 1963, John Lennon and Paul McCartney began composing the song "She Loves You."  They began on their tour bus, continued work in their hotel room in Newcastle, and finished the following day at the home of Paul's father in Liverpool.

When they finished the song, John and Paul played it for Paul's father Jim McCartney.  His response was:  "That's very nice son, but there's enough of these Americanisms around. Couldn't you sing 'She loves you, yes, yes, yes!'?"  (1).

In his biography of Paul McCartney entitled Many Years From Now, Barry Miles quotes Paul, discussing the song's grammar:

"It was again a she, you, me, I, personal preposition song. I suppose the most interesting thing about it was that it was a message song, it was someone bringing a message. It wasn't us any more, it was moving off the 'I love you, girl' or 'Love me do', it was a third person, which was a shift away. 'I saw her, and she said to me, to tell you, that she loves you, so there's a little distance we managed to put in it which was quite interesting."

Of course, Paul should have said personal pronoun, not preposition.

For more on the Beatles and Pronouns, check out the following article:  I Me Mine:  The Beatles and Their Pronouns.

When it comes to rock songs and pronouns, who can forget the Grammar Rock Pronoun song?  It tells just about everything you need to know about pronouns and why we use them:

Today's Challenge:  The Beatles Pronoun Challenge
Can you name twenty titles of Beatles songs that contain at least one pronoun?  For extra-credit include some that have more than one.  True Beatles fans should be able to identify one song title consisting entirely of pronouns.

Quote of the Day:  I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.  --Lyrics from I Am the Walrus

1 -

Sample Titles:  I Me Mine, From Me to You, I Saw Her Standing There, I Want to Hold Your Hand

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

June 25: George Orwell Day

Today is the birthday of British journalist, essayist, and novelist George Orwell (1903-1950). His birth name was Eric Arthur Blair, and he was born in Motihari, India, where his father was serving as an official in the British colonial government. Orwell left India to get his education in British schools, but he returned to Asia in 1922 to work with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He decided to devote himself to writing full time in 1928, and in 1933 he published his first novel Down and Out in Paris and London and adopted his pen name, George Orwell.

Orwell's best known and most widely read novels are Animal Farm and 1984. Both novels are potent warnings against big government, totalitarianism, and fascism.

In Animal Farm, a political allegory, Mr. Jones' animals take over his farm, and in events that parallel the Russian Revolution, they learn that "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of a future dystopia called Oceania. The one-party government is in a perpetual state of war and is led by the all-seeing but unseen leader called Big Brother. From the very beginning of the book, the novel's main character, a party work named Winston Smith, is doing something that is both radical and unlawful: he is questioning his government, and he is writing his thoughts in a journal.

Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 (reversing the numbers 4 and 8), but he probably should have called it 2084 since questions about big government, privacy, and the role of technology make this novel even more relevant in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

Two words created by Orwell in 1984, doublethink and newspeak have been melded in our modern lexicon to become doublespeak, meaning language that is deliberately constructed to disguise rather than clarify meaning. William Lunz, author of the 1989 book Doublespeak, keeps Orwell's memory alive in his annual Doublespeak Awards, which call attention to language from government, business, and the military that is "grossly deceptive, evasive and euphemistic."

Orwell's use of the suffix -speak in 1984, for words such as newspeak, duckspeak, and oldspeak, popularized the use of the suffix -speak to refer to any particular variety of spoken English, such as Haigspeak, Bushspeak, or soccer-speak.

The 1946 essay Politics and the English Language is George Orwell's plea for writing that is clear, concise, and thoughtful. In a famous example, he presents the following passage from Ecclesiastes as a model of clarity:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

He then translates the passage into modern gobbledygook:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Also in Politics and the English Language, Orwell practices what he preaches when he presents the following concise list of rules for writers:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

7. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Today's Challenge: Big Brother Is Not Eschewing Obfuscation
Below are several examples of doublespeak from William Lunz. See if you can wipe the fog off the language window and translate each phrase into its plain English equivalent:

1. genuine imitation leather
2. collateral damage
3. water landing
4. radiation enhancement devices
5. predawn vertical insertion
6. human remains pouches
7. previously thawed poultry
8. involuntarily terminated
9. immediate permanent incapacitation
10. high-velocity, multipurpose air circulators (1)

Quote of the Day: Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. Nathaniel Hawthorne Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. --Nathaniel Hawthorne

Answers: 1. fake leather 2. civilian casualties 3. airplane crash in the ocean 4. nuclear weapons
5. attack by paratroopers 6. body bags 7. frozen chicken 8. fired 9. death 10. electric fan

1 - Lunz, William. Doublespeak. New York: Random House, 1989.

Monday, June 24, 2013

June 24: Devil's Dictionary Day

Today is the birthday of Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and short-story writer. He was born in Ohio in 1842, and after serving in the Civil War he travelled west. He rose to prominence as a journalist in San Francisco. His best known work of fiction is a short story called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a war story about the last thoughts of man before his execution.

Bierce's best know work though is his Devil's Dictionary, a satirical work featuring definitions that display Bierce's sardonic, piercing wit. Bierce began publishing his definitions as a part of his newspaper column in 1875 and continued until 1906. A complete collection of words and definitions was first published in 1911.

Here are some samples of the definitions:

Bigot: n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

Cynic: n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.

Dictionary: n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work (1).

Today's Challenge: The Devil Made Me Define It
Given the definitions below from Bierces' Devil's Dictionary, see if you can come up with the appropriate word.

1. n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.

2. Adj. Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.

3. n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.

4. n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage . . . .

5. n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

6. n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.

7. n. A rich thief.

8. n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

9. n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.

10. n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey (1).

Quote of the Day: Year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments. --Ambrose Bierce

Answers: 1. telephone 2. ambidextrous 3. wit 4. love 5. patriot 6. heaven 7. kleptomaniac 8. peace 9. dentist 10. fashion

1 - Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil's Dictionary. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.