Category Archives: Language

A Whole New Kind of Politically Incorrect

Sometimes I speak to men and women just as a little girl speaks to her doll. She knows of course that the doll doesn’t understand her but she creates for herself the joy of communication through a pleasant and conscious self-deception. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

In these times of poverty, foreclosures, fear, and anger, most people are somehow able to afford Smartphones and Kindles. I understand that Kindles come with a dictionary, with larger downloadable versions available should the default not be adequate. I envy those with Smartphones and the ability to quickly research any question on their mind no matter where they are. When I am reading a book I am never far from a dictionary, but what a joy it must be to have a Smartphone handy instead of a cumbersome tome.

Yet we are not smarter. Our vocabularies dwindle as abbreviated text and computer-driven writing advice increases. Error-ridden blogs, newspapers, and even books are now acceptable. I just read a post that began: So here’s some info about a blogging workshop I’ll be facicilitating next week. With a facicilitator like this, would you sign up?

We fear appearing intelligent. In a world of flamers, trolls, and Wall Street Occupiers, we don’t want to stand out. Eloquence has become politically incorrect. We’re afraid we’ll be seen as arrogant if we use any more than the several thousand words used by teenagers, if we publish works that we proofread first, or if we dare use a word that the least articulate reader may not know. We’re uneasy asking readers to learn something new. What a drag.

We need not pen periphrastic phrases or long-winded circumlocutions, recondite riddles or abstruse analogies, bombastic observations or cryptic correspondence. But I say, writers (and speakers): mutiny against the mundane. Not by making a spectacle of your composition with specious synonyms that have strayed from the concept you are trying to convey, but by choosing from the powerful array of options available to us all. Our language is the richest in the world. Lexicographers are reluctant to report a number, but with derivatives and inflections it is estimated to be around a million words.

We are free to describe our thoughts with unimaginable ardor, animation, and artistry. If readers are insulted by this, you have no need to apologize. Instead, instruct them how to use their Smartphones for something productive.

Smoke, Mirrors, and Grammar Software

Grammar software is like taking a photograph, clicking watercolor rendering in Adobe Photoshop, and calling it artwork. Never mind all those years of practice, study, endless sketching, classes, books, museums—and most of all the longing and passion to improve your art.

Grammar software will not make you a better writer because it doesn’t know how. It’s a robot. I recently tried to read a work of fiction by a self-published author but was so wearied I could not finish the book. No matter how intriguing the theme, four hundred pages of stilted excess that should have been two hundred pages will exhaust the reader. How many times does a writer have to say the same thing using slightly different wording in each sentence? And after the third or fourth “her and Steven hadn’t taken a movie in years…” I could take no more. It felt like homework.

How many times do you need to say “that”? I have changed names and words in the following example but have left the verbose structure. It is not my intent to single out any writer—lack of restraint is a common trend.

“He knew that the more hurtful that something was the more someone felt driven to act as though it wasn’t, but he had thought that Sarah might be different. He had always believed that his wife had arrived at some highly evolved approach to life which had made her immune to the usual humiliations of the world, but now he saw that the differences between them…”

How can software recognize bloat? Only the writer has the power to make his or her work interesting, and it’s done by editing.

I looked up a tutorial for a popular grammar software program called Whitesmoke. The video guides you through a sample text and explains why you really need these computer-generated revisions. Whitesmoke is a good name for this program, because that’s what it is—expensive smoke.

Useless grammar software example 1

The text in this tutorial reminds me of the poorly translated assembly instructions that come with your new TV cabinet made in China. The grammar software suggests inserting a comma after “air strip,” but completely misses much more obvious and urgent mistakes in the last sentence: “If you are not interest in flying, we’ll arrange for something else exciting for you.”

Useless grammar software example 2

Here the software is asking if the user wants to add the placenames to the spellcheck dictionary. Big woot. But look at the last sentence in the first paragraph, “This night is on your own in Marlborough.” The robot apparently has no way of knowing what a very bad sentence this is.

The second paragraph begins with “After breakfast, we’ll drive to Heathrow airport for those who need that.” Um, Mr. Robot, you don’t sense a problem here? First, Heathrow Airport should be capitalized, and second, “for those who need that” is just awful. Just about anything would be better. Whether you understand why isn’t as important as simply feeling it.

In the second paragraph, the robot suggests changing “Or we can take you to the train” to “Alternatively we can take you to the train.” Do writers think changing plain English to a longer word randomly selected from the robot’s thesaurus makes it better?

Algorithms cannot replace imagination, knowledge, experience, and intuition. Software will never be a substitute for learning how to construct a sentence.

I wonder what would happen if you ran Ernest Hemingway through grammar software. Would it “fix” it?

The Week in My World 9-23-11

The gnawing of homesickness abrades—not for my native home, but for someplace that feels like home. But whether inspiration to act is born of ecstasy or sorrow, the result is the same—you are moved to discover resourcefulness you didn’t know you had.

Finding Love in Arizona

The two dogs rescued from my neighbors have been adopted into wonderful homes. I continue to keep a close watch on the yard, which right now is blissfully empty. But there are thousands more animals hanging on to life in similar hells. All mammals have an instinctive will to live. I am researching how to approach schools to talk about how to care for animals. There are scripts to be learned and protocols to follow.

A Story to Share with My Victims

I promise never to use the word share unless it’s to share buried treasure, my bed with dogs and cats, or pizza with a friend. I promise to never share news, an absurd encounter, or personal confessions. Those, I’ll just flat out tell you. Leave the word share for something tangible, like your meal or your toys. You may not notice the almost imperceptible cringe of a polite person when you say you have a story to share, but it’s there.

The Trials of Tag Surfing

A good way to show disrespect to your readers is frequent use of the following phrases:

As I said  •  as I said before  •  like I said    as many of you know    as I mentioned before    I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while    I haven’t posted in a while and for this I deeply apologize    now I know a lot of people will be surprised about this revelation  •  everyone who reads my blog knows how I feel about  •  if you know me then you know that when I  •  it’s a well-known fact that I do not like…

All these phrases do is highlight your ego.

Was it a Girl Shad or a Boy Shad?

Before personal computers existed, I ran a typesetting shop for 12 years. My job was not to edit, but to set the type for a variety of businesses—but naturally I corrected errors. One of my clients was the Griswold Inn, a historic restaurant and inn in Essex, Connecticut. The inn changed its menus frequently and was a steady customer.

The owner at the time was a wealthy businessman from New York who used pompous phrases such as “I’ll see you in a fortnight” or “ring me up” or “it’s frightfully good.” Brochures outlining the inn’s history were available in the lobby, typeset and printed long before I came on board. The owner wanted to make some revisions and asked me to re-typeset the brochure. As I was typing it and fixing the usual errors made by careless typesetters (and careless business owners who sign off on proofs before printing), I came across a howler I will never forget. The copy explained how the inn was situated at the mouth of the Connecticut River where it meets Long Island Sound, and it read:

In the spring, when the androgynous shad swim upstream to spawn…

There, in a haughty Connecticut town full of extravagant homes, luxury cars, sumptuous sailboats, and trust-fund kids, not one person had ever reported the fact that shad are anadromous. I fixed the ridiculous blunder and never said a word.

The Awkward Alsatian

Before restaurants started creating their own menus with computers, they were a primary source of work for typesetters. Owners were often difficult to work with, and would insist I set the copy exactly as they had written it. One testy man from Alsace, France, was not a native speaker. His menu read: I welcome you to sample the flavors of my region. This struck me as both distasteful and hilarious, but there it stood.

It’s Not About the Acting—Four Boxes Review

Movies are a form of therapy that help distract us from the constant assault of negativity in the world, and I love them for it.  A small luxury in life is Netflix, and my plan allows unlimited streaming. The selection of movies available for streaming is meager compared to regular-delivery DVDs, it’s only the gratification of an immediate need for escape that supports its appeal. I often scan the instant movie list looking for something that isn’t awful. Many of them are either Independent or “B” movies, but you can sometimes find a sparkler among them. I don’t read professional reviews because they often pan my favorite movies but praise convoluted hipster crap.  So it’s helpful to read customer reviews, but not for reasons you might think.

One common complaint by amateur reviewers is the quality of acting and/or graphics. You should hear them go on. Even low-budget movies I really loved such as Four Boxes continue to get terrible reviews full of much worse clichés than the movies they complain about. It’s as if the reviewers see this venue as a legitimate invitation to flame something that displeases them. Many of the reviewers are semi-literate and out of 78 reviews for Four Boxes, a few people loved it and nearly everyone else complained about the bad acting. The reviews basically read like these:

stupid, the acting is bad, and im glad they all die.

i got to say this was the worst movie ive got from u it absolutly sucked never quite got the plot and far as acting VERY POOR.

whoever wrote the dialog for this steaming pile of feces should do the world a favor and never write again. words cannot desrcibe how much I detested this aweful, aweful abomintion before god.

And here I thought the characters in this movie were acting like real-life 20-somethings. I had no idea that made them “bad actors.” I was finally compelled to join about three other people and write my own favorable review.

How do they know the acting was bad? Is it because they found the characters annoying? Then what difference would it make if they cast Shia or Leo or Keira? Why does the acting matter so much if a movie is original and intriguing? It’s all about the writing. I would watch a school play if the story was good and I could hear it. Half-billion-dollar budgets featuring gorgeous Hollywood clones are no guarantee of a good movie—just witness the heap of boring clunkers starring highly paid actors. My biggest complaint is the trend toward non-articulate speech, and that’s why subtitles are indispensable. In streaming, subtitles are rarely available, so if the music is overpowering, the actors mumble, or the script ridiculous, they lose me. Subtitles would have greatly enhanced Four Boxes, but despite the fact they weren’t available I was completely absorbed.

I don’t care how primitive the production or how unskilled the actors. Movies are all about the script, and that’s what smaller production companies should strive for.

Life’s Rich Knots

Your Friend’s Problems

A friend of mine allowed a 35-year-old man to park his RV on her property and hook up to her facilities in return for the completion of an agreed-upon punch list of work. The man had broken up with his wife and lost his job and blah blah boo hoo.

Six months later he has yet to fulfill his obligations and my friend claims she has asked him to leave. Since his truck is in a thousand pieces in her garage, I don’t see this happening without a sheriff.

I disliked him from the first day I met him. He’s a pathological know-it-all with the personality of a blister. He talks about himself obsessively, borrows my friend’s car, and walks into her house anytime he pleases. As he’s sucking up her electricity and hot water using her washer and dryer, he’s complaining about her cigarette smoke. I was curt with him until, in respect to my friend’s wishes, she asked for my cooperation.

A month ago he reconciled with his wife and moved her in without first asking permission. The wife does nothing but sleep and assist her husband in relating pathetic tales of woe. They are accomplished con artists.

I have since stopped speaking to him and his self-aggrandizing logorrhea is met only by my cold glare. My friend does not want to provoke them, so I must seethe quietly. At times I must get up and leave or I will explode in fury.

Our role in a friendship is often difficult to define. Is a friend’s job to empathize, yet remain a detached third party? Isn’t it natural to feel outrage when a friend reports exploitation or abuse? But at whom—the abuser or the victim? Maybe some people have a subconscious desire to be a doormat, or maybe I do not know how to be a friend.

Subscriber Button Drama

WordPress keeps trying to social-mediatize us. They took the Subscribe by email button off and replaced it with Follow at the top of the page. So many people complained that they returned the subscribe button, but with an obnoxious update—it announced to the world how many subscribers you have. Blogging is not Facebook. We are not here to play Farmville or Mafia Wars or endure the anxiety of publicly accumulating “followers.” Many blogs are specialized, personal outlets, and discussion is our goal. How many subscribers we have is nobody’s business but our own. I just now noticed that the number of subscribers information is gone, so thank you WordPress for listening to your flock.

A Little Antidote

I once worked for two Connecticut veterinarians. They were specialists in conditions other vets were stumped by, and charged usurious fees for consultations. One day as I was assisting one of the doctors in a poisoning case, he said to the client, “don’t worry, we’ll find the right anecdote.” I didn’t understand how relating a clever account of a humorous incident would help the dog one bit.

The Acceptance of Degrading Lyrics

Rap singers have the potential to change the world but many just sell out for the sake of sales. I love the song Yeah by Usher, who doesn’t? (Here’s the video: “Yeah” by Usher) It has a great beat. Usher is adorable and talented and his lyrics aren’t generally sexist or violent, but this song, which is about meeting girls in a club and leaving with them, has some cringeworthy bits. Another rap singer, Ludacris, sings the bridge, and every time I hear these lyrics I flinch. Yeah is considered a tame song and was (and still is) a huge success, selling a bajillion copies and remaining a radio staple. I have numbered the lines for easier translation.

Bridge to song Yeah by Usher and Ludacris:

1.  My outfit’s ridiculous, in the club lookin’ so conspicuous.
2.  And rowl! These women all on the prowl, if you hold the head steady I’m a milk the cow.
3.  Forget about the game, I’m a spit the truth, I won’t stop till I get ’em in they birthday suits.
4.  So gimmie the rhythm and it’ll be off with their clothes, then bend over to the front and touch your toes.
5.  I left the Jag and I took the Rolls, if they ain’t cuttin’ then I put ’em on foot patrol.
6.  How you like me now, when my pinky’s valued over three hundred thousand.
7.  Let’s drank you the one to please, Ludacris fill cups like double D’s.
8.  Me and Ush once more and we leave ’em dead, we want a lady in the street but a freak in the bed.

Translation:

1.  I’m dressed like a pimp and everyone is looking at me.

2.  Growl! The women in the club want to mate with a guy with lots of cash and I take advantage of this. If you hold the head steady I’m a milk the cow means that after the woman I have chosen for the night performs fellatio, she is to hold her head steady so I can ejaculate in either her face or mouth.

3.  I am not interested in talking. My only goal is to get them naked.

4.  She must take her clothes off and bend over.

5.  I own two luxury cars. If the woman does not comply with my sexual demands, she must get out and walk.

6.  You should be extremely impressed that the ring on my little finger is worth $300,000.

7.  I’m not sure exactly what this means, but obviously it has to do with enormous breasts, the number-one focus of millions of people both old and young.

8.  Usher and I only want women who are polite in public but wild in the bedroom (or vehicle).

Rap singers have enormous influence. By constantly inferring that women are nothing but whores and that flashy jewelry, cars, and double D size breasts hold the highest priority, they set the worst example possible for young listeners.

New Word Rants—Don’t Kill the Messenger

Oxford University Press periodically publishes new words, and they recently announced a small sampling from the list of 400 new words that appear in the now-available twelfth edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. These words will not appear in print for a while in OUP’s flagship American dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, as the 3rd edition was just released last fall (with the addition of about 2,000 new words and senses), but updates are available online. As I browse blogs, I encounter indignant rants from folks who just don’t get it.

I am proud to be part of the New Words Program. Each month, a group of readers submit 20 new words. Our job is to read, read, read—and though we are all assigned specific subjects, any new submissions are accepted. Sometimes we find older words that slipped through the cracks, sometimes new senses of old words emerge. OUP in no way inserts as actual entries all the submissions they receive—after the group submits them, the lexicographers further research them to determine the number of times they are used in everyday language.

So you’re mad that “sexting” went in. Lexicographers don’t create new words or make judgments on their suitability, unless they are considered too obscene. The lexicographer’s job is to record the language. If they don’t define new words, the dictionary becomes stagnant and unhelpful to a person needing a definition. Without new words, we’d still be speaking like we did hundreds of years ago. Many words become dated or archaic as new words dominate our culture. That’s progress.

If millions of idiots are sexting every day, it has to be in the dictionary. I’ve read angry posts calling for a stop to this—this is the downfall of English! They’re ruining our language! No, they’re not—our culture is. What they don’t realize is hundreds of new words are defined each year from the fields of technology, science, medicine, computers, government, cosmetics, mental diseases, weather catastrophes, fashion, architecture, culture, and a host of other subjects. Note that not long ago, even “blog” was a new word, and someone had to research it and make a decision whether to insert it as an entry. I wonder if the people who are now fuming about “retweet” were also mad about “blog” ten years ago.

Yes, some new words are a sad reflection of our times, but a dictionary has no need to apologize. If you don’t want to see sexting in the dictionary, then make it obsolete. If you don’t want to see jeggings, stop wearing them. If you can put an end to cyberbullying, then we won’t have to record it. If you don’t want to see social media terms in, then check your obsession with Facebook and Twitter. Because this is what people do, it must be documented. If these words bother you, there are still hundreds of thousands of other exquisite words in our beautiful language you can use to express yourself.

Handbooks to Make Your Life Harder Available Now

An article popped up on my homepage yesterday entitled What Not to Say to Someone with Rheumatoid Arthritis.  Several people close to me have RA so I clicked on it. It was ridiculous. Curious why someone would write such a stupid list, I googled “what not to say…” and the results were unbelievable. Not two million, but two billion seven hundred and seventy million helpful hits on how not to offend just about anyone.

What not to say to someone who is grieving, to someone who is unemployed, to your boss, to a woman, man, boyfriend, girlfriend, child, parent, or co-worker. To a military wife, a veteran, a parent of a Down syndrome baby. To a pregnant woman, a woman in labor, a woman who just had a miscarriage, a woman who had a C-section, a stay-at-home mom, or to “someone who is struggling with infertility.” To a childless couple, whatever that means. To an immigration officer, your insurer, a person with a non-visable disability, a victim of sexual assault, a thyroid patient, a blind person. What not to say in text messages, to someone trying to quit smoking, a marathoner, a Marine. To people in distress, with eating disorders, with diabetes. To veterans, new college graduates, lesbians, or an Amish farmer. The list is endless and covers just about any situation where you might make the massive mistake of opening your mouth. It’s bad enough that political correctness has taken over the western world, now we have to worry about what not to say to someone with allergies.

Every interaction starts with a sentence, and yes, it might be the wrong sentence. That’s how we learn new stuff, and choose who we’d like to get to know—or not. Are we all that clueless that we need two billion articles to tell us what not to say? Are we that hypersensitive that we can’t endure an awkward but curious or well-meaning remark? Do people who consistently say insensitive things ever read articles on what not to say, or do thin-skinned people read these articles to find out how they too can be offended? I better check to see if I have some affliction I can be indignant about. Hmm, how about migraines? My first husband once told me I got migraines on purpose just to ruin his day. There. Don’t say that. Thirty years later I’m still annoyed.

These articles are not intended for flamers, trolls, or miserable shitheads who provoke you deliberately online or in life. They’re for regular folks who are deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing, and I find that pathetic. Why not use some common sense, and have a conversation?

Abstract Expressionism—in Writing

There has been an explosion of flash fiction in recent years. Flash fiction has been around a long time, parables and fables go back to ancient times. Some writers berate it by claiming that modern readers have attention deficit disorder, hence the popularity of Twitter, but I don’t believe this is entirely true.

If I want to read a book, I’ll read a book. I don’t have Kindle or any kind of e-reader, can’t afford to keep up, and seem to survive just fine without them. So, when I’m at my computer, which is often, there’s just no way I can sit here and read 1000 word stories, posts, or articles unless it’s part of research for work, writing, or my own curiosity. It would have to draw me in immediately, and there are a few who do, but they usually pertain to a subject I’m interested in.

I believe in the principles of flash fiction and wish all writers would apply these to their work. There are so many longwinded posts, articles, and bestselling fiction, full of superfluous text or boring or irrelevant details that I want to bleed a red pen over them.

But there’s something else in flash fiction that is just as cumbersome, and that is fiction so surreal it defies explanation. Reading a short story ten times trying to figure it out takes just as long as reading a long story once. I keep getting told it’s all about the reader’s interpretation, but stories aren’t dreams nor should they resemble a Jackson Pollock painting. Even a very short story should give you some basic facts and have a beginning, middle and end, even if it’s just 100 words. That’s what a story is. This is done by choosing each word carefully and not assuming the reader knows what’s inside your head. A page from an imaginary novel is not a story. By leaving out important pieces of information, writers think they are being profound but they are simply leaving many readers asking “huh?”

Bloggers can write whatever they want, it’s no one’s business but their own. But I would like to see writers of surreal fiction ask their readers what they think it means. I would like to see the commenters who write “awesome post” explain why they think it’s awesome. I love puzzles—cryptograms, crossword puzzles, Scrabble, jumbles, and hangman. I don’t get the same enjoyment from a puzzling piece of fiction. You can be just as profound without leaving the reader bewildered.

My Alleged Life and Loves

My father owned a hotdog stand—but he had a footlong chip on his shoulder. At Christmas we would garnish the house with mustard greens, something us kids didn’t relish. Sometimes he would lock me out of the house—he was a deadbolt dad. One day he hurt his back coming out of a record shop, turned out he had a slipped disk—every time he moved Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood would play. It didn’t help that he also had digestive problems and ended up with a semicolon.

Only my parents could make a spectator sport out of a card game, they played contact bridge. Whenever my father won a hand, my mother would deck him.

I needed work so I took a position as an artist’s model, but the arrangement was very tiring. I tried to tell the artist I was just a prototype. I cleaned the large homes of wealthy people, even the toilets were commodious. I worked in a butcher shop for a while but had a visceral reaction. Trying to stay employed was frutal, even the car I drove was a lemon but at least it smelled good.

I’ve always had trouble sleeping. When I finally fall asleep the dream team of Ayatollah Khomeini and Satan are nightly visitors. Another dream I have involves a three-eyed monster who demands a pair of trifocals. I try to exorcise but realized I was on a treadmill to hell. Why go through the hassle of body-building when you can just stay home and masticate? I’m a terrible cook though, my deviled eggs are evil, which may explain a lot. I stay powered by transgressed fats and Miracle Whip.

I like to get dolled up now and then but never should have let that hairdresser talk me into the salmon mousse, now every cat in the neighborhood is after me. She lent me a book on skincare and pockmarked the page she wanted me to read. My boyfriend has male pattern baldness, I think it’s argyle.

I had a string of boyfriends in my younger days but could never get the knots out. One eggbeater who was part of the illiterati once decomposed a sonnet for me which I had to throw out. He got mad and left. I scoured the earth for him and went through a lot of sponges which I think he should reimburse me for. He still harbored a grudge, but mooring me with the OED was uncalled for. I said thanks for dredging up the same old shit. He said muck you, I said my sediments exactly. Later he sent me a bouquet of listeria from which I’ve never fully recovered.

An accountant I dated made a killing by filing fraudulent IRS returns for wealthy clients. He was sentenced to life in prison where he gave taxonomy lessons to other classless crooks. I was an accessory, they suspected my velvet choker. When the cops came to arrest him at his office, he tried to pretend he was on the phone, but they insisted on just the fax. We tried to keep the whole thing quiet, but everyone had just returned from a liquid lunch so there were a lot of media leaks. Everything went wrong—figures I’d end up a fugitive from Murphy’s Law.

I dated a black guy back in the ’70s. I loved his hair, it was a real afrodisiac.

In high school I went out with this dyslexic guy. One day he reached for his gnu and got expelled, I think it was through a third floor window.

Another chump who was religious asked me if I was an atheist, I said I’m really more of a diagnostic. He also liked guns—it wasn’t easy to come to grips with the fact that he was a smoothbore skinflint.

I’m done with men, though I still enjoy boys…and raw recruits, when properly prepared, are pretty tasty.