New Nav Bar

Home Home

Monday, July 19, 2010

Grammar with R.J. Robertson Part 2 (Plus a Quiz!)

Language Evolves and Grammar Lurches Along:
On Keeping a Toehold on Stampeding Style

Well, enough of excuses and allusions. My discussion is in four parts. In the first I will detail ten of the commonest errors one encounters in everyday speech and writing. It is in the form of a quiz. If you get all or most correct, you might be satisfied to go your way in peace. Or, even if you don’t, you could simply resolve not to do it again, and still go your way in peace.  If you endure to the second part, I will present the rationale for the correct choices in common sense terms. In the third part I will say a bit about the parts of language, and how they require the currently-reigning rules. (Heaven knows I’m no expert at it, but I do have the basics, and we’ll muddle through.) Finally, in the fourth part I will reverse course and propose that, if you hang around long enough, many of the things I criticize (following Strunk and White) will be common practice.  Off we go, then.
Which statement in each of the following pairs is correct?  (Answers below)
1a “Mom came to town this morning, and her and me had breakfast before I came to the studio.”
1b. “Mom came to town this morning, and I and she had breakfast before I came to the studio.”
2 Which of the above statements do you think a young, radio announcer actually said as she started work?
2a (1a.)       2b (1b).
3a. ”I got tired while reading the article and lay down for a short nap.”
3b. “I got tired while reading the article and laid down for a short nap.”
4a. “No sooner had I lain down than I fell sound asleep.”
4b. “No sooner had I laid down than I fell sound asleep.”
5a. “You could see John was trying to impress Nancy. He was laying it on pretty thick.”
5b. “You could see John was trying to impress Nancy. He was lying it on pretty thick.”
6a. “Mary handed the groceries to him and I.”
6b. “Mary handed the groceries to me and him.”
7a. “Its been a long time since I studied grammar – if ever.”
7b. “It’s been a long time since I studied grammar – if ever.”
8a. “I’ts still important for a writer to know a little punctuation.”
8b. “Its’ still important for a writer to know a little punctuation.”
9a. “There was no one to whom I could give my report.”
9b. “There was no one to who I could give my report.”
10a. “Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.”
10b. “I was able to buy the house very cheap, because of its dilapidated condition.”

Answers to the quiz:
 1 - b; 2 - a; 3 - a; 4 - a; 5 - a; 6 - b; 7 - b; 8 - ( a ringer, “E, none of the above.”); 9 - a; 10 - b.

Comments on the quiz items:
On 1) I tried to tempt you by putting the speaker’s partner before the speaker. This would be considered, perhaps, a little more polite, but it is a distraction; a. is grammatically incorrect, polite or not.
2) calls for a guess, of course, and so is not a real test of grammar, but it emphasizes a point. I heard it on a local radio station – driving through Nebraska a few years back. If that is what one hears from a radio announcer, for God’s sake, what’s going on?
3) is straight forward, just a test of which of two wholly different verbs gives the correct meaning
4) again straight forward – each is the past tense of a verb, but which is the correct verb?
5) a test of which of two verbs – having some forms in common – is correct here. The transitive verb, lay, is called for, because John was laying it (the object) on.
6) once more I threw in the “politeness” ambush just to mislead. It might seem more courteous to hand the groceries to him and me, than to me and him, but either statement is grammatically correct while the other is incorrect, because it has the conjunction, and, linking an objective case with a nominative case.
7) For questions about punctuation, see Truss.* It’s (contraction of ‘it” and “is”) true that the word, it, is extra complicated, because grammarians had to find a way to distinguish the contraction of “it is” from the possessive case of it, which has to be it’s to conform to the rule of showing possession by apostrophe (‘s). Example: “After biting the apple I said, “it’s rotten,” meaning it is rotten.
8) What can I say? Am I supposed to follow my own rules? I threw these misused apostrophes into the quiz because Truss fulminates against them as she finds them all over the place: signs in store windows, announcements of various agencies and even newspapers.
9) This one can be quite annoying, as many people have it just backwards.
10) Unintended humor of this sort results from unnoticed ambiguity.
* Truss gives a raft of hilarious examples, worth the price of the book by itself.

A Literary Quiz, or why speech identifies your social status.
1. Who was the English language author referred to in Heinlein’s motto at the top?
2. Name the work from which the reference is taken.
3. What character speaks the line that Heinlein cites?
3. Name the musical comedy based on this work.

Answers to the literary Quiz:
George Bernard Shaw, the playwright.
The play Pygmalion.
Professor Henry Higgins, a linguist who bets he can transform a street girl’s speech so that she can be passed off as a duchess in fashionable circles.
My Fair Lady.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Value of Notebooks...
by Hudson McCann

While most of my night stand is covered with a disparate collection of items -- a chalk-white lamp; a beige cube clock radio, Kleenex box and 3” Super Woman doll -- a two-foot high pile of books covers the northeast corner.  In the past couple of years, as writing wedged itself into my daily life, the height of the books hasn’t changed, but the contents of the pile has. Some of the books are now authored by me.

No, the books aren’t published. The self-authored books are notebooks that contain stories initiated from group prompts, first drafts, revisions of scenes, notes from lectures, character sketches, book recommendations, web pages, trade associations and other writer’s resources.

Once, in a lecture, when my attention derailed from the topic, I turned to the last page and generated an index for the book on hand. Since the pages weren’t numbered in my blank book, that was the first step in making it a reusable source. Surprised and pleased by the sheer volume of material I had captured, I eventually did the same for the remaining books in the pile. What a treasure trove!

Taking the time to go through and index the notebooks, I found rough gems of ideas that simply needed polishing. Seriously, I think I must have written some of the items while asleep or in a trance. I don’t remember writing them. Not that all of them are immediately useful, and some may never be, but many are complete thoughts that one day might be.

Lexicons are my favorite finds in the notebooks. They are accurate lists of words and phrases about a topic or experience that interests me and, might one day be included in a piece. When I develop a lexicon, I write the topic and underline it at the top of the page. Underneath and for some, several extending pages are lists that accurately describe the topic. All lexicons are works in progress and can be added to at will. Now that I have an index, I know that there are a few that I started on one page, then tapped into a vein of information later and continued the lexicon pages later.

Developing a lexicon is much like a writing prompt without connective words. For example, not long ago I accompanied my niece to a tattoo “parlor.” As the tattoo technician inked her dragonfly, I created a lexicon page to capture the proper names of the items in the shop. I started with the names of the equipment, then the surroundings.  I listed the types of music he offered and the bands and artists he favored; surprised by a single Brittany Spears in the collection among the heavy metal. Turns out a young girl brought it to play during her time in the tattoo chair. 

As a complete novice to the world of tattoos, I listed the names of the various genres evidenced by the books on the shelf next to the CD player.  I added my impressions informed by my senses to the lexicon. In this case it included what I saw, smelled, heard, and later, what I felt when the artist inked my Celtic tat, with the precisely named, 'tattoo gun", that he wrapped in a "baggie.” And, so I learned that sometimes accuracy is mundane. I was imagining the gun with an official name, like the Inkerator Three and the sandwich bag he used to cover it was The Trojan. In asking, I learned a better story. The tattoo artist designed the gun himself using parts from others until he got the effect he wanted. The baggie turned out to be a process improvement that saved him maintenance time. My lexicon include bits of information to add texture to writing sometime in the future.

Last year, when attending a writing conference in Taos, NM, where I learned about Lexicons from my instructor and author, Priscilla Long, I started a lexicon, titled, New Mexico. During the week, I kept a running list of impressions From the veranda off my hotel room I saw trees, cacti and prairie dogs. Later I asked or learned the specific names for each. In the morning, not long out of bed with a hot cup of coffee, I used the time to write phrases and metaphors to describe the scene before me as a writing warm-up. Someday, perhaps I'll want to tap those memories. At that time, I will have words for the subtle differences in the bleached color green found in panoramic views of Taos, rather than the verdant landscape scenes in springtime Chicago.

I always have a notebook with me, and I employ it often. It's not hard to imagine that it will be useful for a scene to be written sometime in the future, about an ophthalmologist's office that will include the ladies' room key attached to eye glass frames or the names of the magazines offered in large print.

Since beginning the collection of lexicons, I have expanded my strategies for creating them. My notebooks include pages torn from magazines and newspaper augmented by my own impressions. A new addition, for example, is a brief article I tore out on how to read clouds from Backpacker Magazine. Someday, when my smart heroine is out hiking, she won’t just see a tall, dense cloud, she’ll know its Cumulonimbus and head for shelter.

Sure, I could go to Wikipedia and get the accurate names of things, but lexicons offer deeper, more personal descriptions of a subject. They allow me to form opinions and ideas at the time and tap them much later when I can no longer access them directly. The present moment of creating a lexicon, offers richness and depth especially in rewrite.

Now that I have a variety of lexicons, I find that they inspire me to write. At my fingertips, like a ready-to-heat meal, I have all the ingredients, to which I simply need to add characters… from another page in one of my notebooks.

Grammar with R.J. Robertson

Language Evolves and Grammar Lurches Along:
On Keeping a Toehold on Stampeding Style
Part 1

by R.J. Robertson

"Many years ago a wise and cynical man 
proved that the way a person talks is 
the most important thing about him."
Robert A. Heinlein (in his, The Cat Who
walks through walls.)

I got this job because – having been educated before the era of “don’t inhibit a child’s self-expression” – I  thrust myself unwittingly into the role of Curmudgeon of Grammar in the Evanston Writers’ Workshop.  

The C of G is not exactly a knightly title, you understand, but it does have one faintly noble perquisite: you get to criticize the work of writers better than yourself. I populated this role, without realizing what I was doing, by complaining about too many liberties being taken with English grammar in otherwise excellent work submitted for critique in the Evanston Writers’ group.            
Unlike with the younger generation – most of whom seem to have learned English in the polyglot culture of popular media, modified by the linguistic license rampant in immigrant cultures thrown together in our large cities – I learned grammar from a gentle, but no-nonsense British lady who taught it in one quarter of my first year at university. It was a sacred mission for her, and it spread to us, her students, as she instilled the rules of English, and convinced us why our language needed its rules.                
The latter point is well put in E B.White’s explanation of why he took up the cause pioneered by Will Strunk in The Elements of Style. White said, “If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game without foul lines.” If you examine Strunk and White on style and Lynne Truss’s, Eats Shoots & Leaves, on punctuation, I think it will not be hard to convince yourself of the aptness of White’s dictum.

To be continued...

Visit R.J. Robertson's website at: RichardJRobertson.Com