10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

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 sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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10/15/13

1927: Ads, Layout and Typography


As promised, here are the first 20 scans of the ads from the 1927 North American Almanac I recently mentioned. If there is interest, I’ll do another set later this week. There are probably another 40 or 50 pages of ads in the book.

I think these ads give us a wonderful window into the daily, household life of the time, into cultural views and medical thinking. As well, they show the state of advertising, layout and typography. It’s fascinating to look at the mix of typefaces and their placement.

Click on the image to load a larger version and see the ads in greater detail.

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page
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10/11/13

1927, a Year to Remember


The Jazz Singer1927. It was the year America sent troops to Nicaragua, forcing a US-supervised election. The year Alfred Hitchcock released his first movie. And the year when Fritz Lang released his masterpiece, Metropolis. Buster Keaton released The General that year, although it bombed at the box office. Clara Bow starred in Wings. Sergei Eisenstein released October: Ten Days That Shook the World.

Silent films, all, although the Movietone sound system came out that year at Fox Studios, presaging a new world of talkies in another few months when The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, premiered in New York City. That same year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded.

While most films were shot in monochrome, color films were also released including Abel Gance’s great bio-flick, Napoleon (which was restored in 1981 and played in Toronto around 1983, when I saw it).

It was a time of excitement, of exploration and optimism. The Great Depression was hiding two years away,  but in the meantime the world sang and danced. It was a time of inventiveness and creativity. Ingenuity. And also imperialism,

In 1927 polystyrene was invented. Edwin Perkins invented Kool-Aid. Garnet Carter built the first public miniature golf course, Tom Thumb Golf, on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. The jukebox was invented by The Automatic Music Instrument Company. John Hammes invented the first under-the-sink garbage disposal unit. Frank Ofeldt invented the power washer. The pop-up toaster was invented.

Capablanca was the darling of the chess world, holding the title of world chess champion since 1921. But he lost the 1927 World Chess Championship to Alexander Alekhine. Alekhine would hold that title until 1935.

Charles Lindbergh, 25, flew the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic, a 33-hour trip, landing in Paris. He would become Time Magazine’s first, and the youngest, person to be named “man of the year” for 1927, on the cover of the first issue of 1928.

The first commercial airline service to Hawaii opened.

Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) launched a network of 18 radio stations, soon to be 47. The BBC was given a Royal Charter.

Adolph Hitler was making speeches in Germany whiles Nazis and Communists clashed on the streets and the German economy collapsed.

Chiang Kai-Shek formed an alternative government (the Kuomintang  or Nationalist Chinese) in China during its long civil war. America and Great Britain sent troops to China to protect their interests and property.  The Communist Chinese People’s Liberation Army was formed in 1927 during the Nanchang Uprising.

Telephone service  between the USA and Mexico was launched. The first transatlantic telephone call was made via radio connection from New York City and London. A diamond rush started in South Africa.

The U.S. Bureau of Prohibition was founded under the Department of the Treasury. Determined to eradicate the misuse of industrial alcohol (designed for antifreeze, embalming, and so forth), the state added strychnine to it. As a result, 11,700 citizens died that year, poisoned by their  own government.

Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first electronic TV motion pictures. Gutzon Borglum began sculpting the Mt. Rushmore monument. The first automatic traffic lights were installed in Wolverhampton, England.

Leon Trotsky, one of the original Communist leaders, was expelled from the Communist Party (at the 15th Congress) and and sent into internal exile.  Joseph Stalin became the party’s undisputed  ruler. Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. Stalin had him murdered in Mexico, in 1940. Along with Trotsky, Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were also expelled from the Communist Party. They would reappear at the Show trials of 1934, to be executed shortly after.

The Great Syrian Revolt against French imperialism ended with a defeat of the rebels:  during the two-year conflict least 6,000 rebels were killed, and over 100,000 were left homeless.

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09/29/13

Why Spelling Matters


Bad spellingSometimes I despair when I surf through the social media. Technology has empowered everyone to be able to comment, to post their stories, to share their opinion. Yet it has not enabled their ability to compose a sentence, or to spell the words correctly. It has not made us better grammarians, better spellers.

And in my despair, I’m not alone. Others take exception to the general dumbing down and its accelerating spread online.

It’s not just the easily-confused homophones like they’re, their and there, board and bored, your and you’re. What’s heartbreaking about those mistakes is that the differences are simple, easy to understand, and taught at at early age. How do people forget them so easily when they get older and more educated?

And not simply the rather common typos of dropped or accidental letters. You can’t always blame the results of a flaky keyboard on the writer, and few of us have been educated as touch typists or stenographers, so our skills may be lacking. And of course we have to be tolerant of the millions for whom English is not their native tongue, and laud rather than criticize their efforts.

Because I often stump about on the keyboard and hit errant keys while typing or don’t press a key hard enough to register, I can understand how too becomes to, care becomes car, waiter becomes water, quiote becomes quite (and sometimes vice versa).

But  tre for tree? Mony for money? Hosue for house?

We all have spellcheck in pretty much every app, which, if not perfect, at least identifies most common problems. They show up as little angry red underscores as I write this piece; hard to avoid. I must resist the temptation to obey them and correct my examples.

Are we not bright enough to use this ubiquitous technology? Is the problem that we are technologically illiterate? No.

I’ve read these examples from Facebook on one site:

“take it for granite” instead of granted, petafile for pedophine, raping for wrapping, prosentation for presentation, perthetic for pathetic, conceded for conceited, then for than (and vice versa – very common mistake), majic for magic, grammer for grammar, commen for common, loose for loose, forchen for fortune, mourning for morning, preasure for pressure, pea for pee, affense for offence, dose for does, rite for write, colladge for college, homosidal for homicidal, sense for cents, hungary for hungry, intelligense for intelligence, witch for which, waist for waste, wounder for wonder, sewing for suing, logged for lodged, speel for spell, boarders for borders, died for dyed, rite for right, past for passed, beet for beat, go’s for goes, Labia for Libya, colon for cologne…”

Many of which make for humorous reading, but poor communication. Plus…

retarted, inforcing, teecher, recponcibility, sementary, peppol, exhaugstion, decisons, tomarrow, gardian, unfare, unniversity, ludacris, litarecy, commet, tipe, cought, frusterated, driveing, rideing, teecher, blak, tares, beutiful, asain, spint, huunnies, gratest, huray … and then plurals written as possessives – truth’s for truths, musician’s for musicians, or misplaced apostrophes like your’s, and so on…

The list seems endless.

What’s most annoying is that so many of these errors are easily caught by spellcheckers – technology on every device and available for or integral to every browser – that the posters routinely ignore or refuse to acknowledge. But perhaps even if a word is identified by the spell-checker as incorrect, the poster doesn’t know the correct form, and rather than search for it, ignores the warning.

Stopping to proofread, stopping to correct takes too much time and thought in an era of snap judgments and immediate, off-the-cuff answers. It’s a self-inflicted wound.

Where is the pride we used to take in being able to spell, to write well? Have we lost our literary self respect?

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09/28/13

A Cup of Pu-Erh


Pu-Erh teaIt’s dark in the cup, but in the glass pot for brewing, it’s a deep copper. It smells of earth and age, a hint of horses and leather. A rich, slightly sweet and crisp taste.

Black, no milk. With milk, it changes to a hot-chocolate light brown, and the flavour mellows. I prefer the slightly sharper black taste. *

“For hundreds of years,” reads the Whittard’s package, “mule loads of precious Pu-Erh tea travelled the Ancient Tea Horse Road from China, risking the dangers of Tiger Leaping Gorge to reach the towering mountains of Tibet.”

It has that aroma and taste of a well-travelled tea. A tea that has sat on the tables of ship’s captains, and on the floor mats in nomad huts. This Yunnan province tea is “traditionally drunk after a meal,” but I’m breaking with tradition to sip it on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Tea is a complicated product, for all the simplicity we give it when drinking it. Wikipedia’s page on Pu-Erh is long and rambling, and a delight to read, albeit somewhat unfocused. It opens:

Pu-erh or Pu’er tea is a variety of fermented dark tea produced in Yunnan province, China.
Fermentation is a tea production style in which the tea leaves undergo microbial fermentation and oxidation after they are dried and rolled. This process is a Chinese specialty and produces tea known as Hei Cha, commonly translated as dark, or black tea (this type of tea is completely different from what in West is known as “black tea”, which in China is called “red tea” ). The most famous variety of this category of tea is Pu-erh from Yunnan Province, named after the trading post for dark tea during imperial China.

Black tea, red tea, green tea. Each one different, each with its range of flavours and aromas. All teas come from the same tea plant, but the difference is how/when the leaves are picked, processed and dried.**

The box says the production date is Sept. 1, 2011, best before early 2013. Here I am, two years later, still enjoying it. I actually brought this package home from England, from a small tea shop in Richmond. I still have a little left. I’m not concerned that it may be past its prime. It still tastes good to me. Whittard’s website says:

Pu-erh is a special type of tea grown only in the Yunnan Province in China. It develops its flavour through wet-fermentation and long maturity and is said to improve with age. It has been drunk by the people of the Yunnan and Tibet border provinces since the Tang Dynasty (620-907 AD).

My slightly-past-its-before-date cup of Pu-Erh is a quiet seque into tea’s fascinating history and culture.***

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09/20/13

Swimming with Vivaldi


VivaldiToday, for an hour, I swam with Vivaldi. Not the actual composer, of course. He died in 1741 at the age of 63. Would have made a mess of the pool to dig him up and toss him in.

The “red priest,” as he was called (for his red hair), probably couldn’t even swim. Not a lot of people back then could. but he could write music, and play the violin beautifully. Almost 300 years later his music is still as powerful and moving as when he was alive.*

Rather, as you guessed, I swam with his music, the Four Seasons to be exact. Gil Shaham/Orpheus Chamber Orchestra version from 1995, Deutsche Grammophon, my favourite of many versions I own. Crisp, clear and full of life, that version. And almost perfectly timed – not quite an hour long.

Composed in 1723, The Four Seasons remains Vivaldi’s most famous work. Justifiably so, in my estimation. It is instantly recognizable even by those unfamiliar with classical music, and has graced many a Hollywood production. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel over-used. But maybe I’m just a sentimental fool for it.

Vivaldi was born in Venice, a city built on the water, a city of canals and gondoliers, bridges and sweepingly beautiful architecture that towers over the water. The city permeates his music, as does – to my ears – water. The rhythms of waves, of tides. Which seems entirely appropriate for the waves I make as I swim laps.

He actually wrote his masterpiece while working out of town. In 1718, Vivaldi took a position at the court of the governor of Mantua. He moved from there to Milan in 1721, then in 1722 he moved to Rome. He didn’t return to Venice until 1725. During his absence, he wrote the Four Seasons. It wasn’t published until 1725, however.

Vivaldi’s concerto was written the year before another famous Venetian – and one of the historical characters I both admire and delight in reading – Giacomo Casanova was born. Not quite contemporaries, Vivaldi died in Casanova’s 17th year, but no doubt Casanova heard the piece – and many other Vivaldi compositions – when he lived there. The concerto has been used in TV and movie biographies of Casanova, and in my mind they are intrinsically linked.

The Four Seasons, as its name suggests, has four movements, each dedicated to a different season. It’s actually four mini-concertos linked by thematic components. Wikipedia suggests Mantua was his inspiration:

The inspiration for the concertos was probably the countryside around Mantua. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires.

But I can’t help but hear the busy plazas and streets of Venice, see the masks and the palaces when I hear it. I imagine Vivaldi sitting indoors in Mantua, writing out the notes, thinking of his Venice, not the hills outside his window.
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