Category Archives: Language & Grammar

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.

Continue reading

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
Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

Should Latin Return to Ontario Schools?


Teaching LatinWhen I was a young lad, all I ever wanted to be was a paleontologist. Dinosaurs were the most important thing in my life until around age 14 or 15. That’s when I barely scraped through my high-school Latin course. After that, my interests shifted to other, more attainable career goals.

Basic Latin was, at least back then, required for a career in paleontology. Greek, too*. My ability to learn languages was, as a young teenager, not up to the mark. I barely passed Latin, probably given a pass by a teacher who felt sorry for my linguistic disability (and didn’t want to suffer me through a remedial summer class).

Which is odd, given that today Latin fascinates me and I delight in reading about it and its etymological influence in our language.  I often spend time online looking for Latin phrases or translations. I happily struggled with some phrases from Livy when researching my book on Machiavelli.

But back in high school, it was more a drudgery than a delight.

According to a 2010 story in the Toronto Star, Latin was mandatory in Ontario high schools until 1968. It started falling off curricula after that.

For centuries, Latin and ancient Greek were staples of general education, and working knowledge of authors like Cicero and Virgil was required for university admission. Latin was mandatory in Ontario’s high schools until 1968.
But since 1994, the number of Ontario schools offering Latin has fallen to 60 from 159 — a 62 per cent drop. Classical educators face a battery of pressures: tight student timetables, teacher shortages, and underlying it all, the perennial accusations of irrelevance and Eurocentrism.

Irrelevance? Latin has a firm grip on the English language, a millennium-and-a-half after the Roman Empire collapsed. As Wikipedia notes:

…a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.

Many neologoisms are based in Latin – especially the “classical compounds,” although the word neologism is actually from the Greek (neo-new, logos-word). But that’s just a reinforced argument for teaching at least rudimentary Greek as well.

The Star story goes on to say,

One American study showed that students who learn Latin in high school have average GPA scores of 2.89 in university compared to 2.38 for those who didn’t study any language and 2.80 for those who studied a modern language. Latin students also consistently out-perform on the SAT.

Because SAT scores are paramount for admission at American colleges, in the U.S. “they can’t get enough Latin teachers,” according to Margaret-Anne Gillis, a board member of the Ontario Classical Association and Latin teacher at Barrie Central Collegiate. Two teachers she helped train had their green cards expedited.

Continue reading

Archy and Mehitabel


Archy and MehitabelI can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first cracked open Don Marquis’s book, archy and mehitabel, sitting there among the other books in the basement, black spined, stiff, yellowing pages.  That old book smell.

Perhaps I was 11 or 12, but not much older, because we moved from that house in the summer after my 12th birthday. But I still remember it well.*

The book was one of those oddities on our basement family bookshelf. I ignored it, at first, then looked at the pictures – cartoons by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat . Long after I’d checked out the cartoons, I started reading the text. It was wildly absurd, deeply philosophical, whimsical, silly, obscure, cynical, yet compelling. Way outside my depth. Who was this guy and what was all this nonsense about a cockroach and a typewriter?

Krazy Kat I knew from other books and publications, reprinted strips, and old, faded and brittle  cartoon strips cut out from newspapers and placed in between pages of other books, long since forgotten. Herriman’s wild style of drawing always intrigued me, even as a child.

Perhaps there’s some astrological connection: two months after Herriman’s death, the last of his completed Krazy Kat strips, a full-page Sunday comic, was printed. The date was Sunday, June 25, 1944. That day the British were assaulting Caen, in France, to begin the bloody Operation Epsom. The Allies bombed Toulon. The 8th AF bombers and fighter bombers flew missions to attack bridges and airfields in France as the Allies pushed the Nazis back towards Germany. Ships of the United States Navy and Royal Navy attacked German fortifications at Cherbourg to support American troops taking the city and the entuire Normandy peninsula.

MehitabelI was also born on a Sunday, in June, too. Okay, that’s wild and silly synchronicity and many years later. Just foolin’ with you. Astrology is claptrap. And I digress. Just wanted to put some context around Herriman and throw some misdirection your way. Ignosce mihi, dear reader.

Marquis died years before that, in 1937, after his third or fourth stroke. He was 59. No astrological connection there, I’m afraid. And also long before my time.

The book I opened, back in the early 1960s, seemed impossibly old. Published in 1927. The age of flappers, ukuleles, gin joints. When my father was a boy, not much old than I was when I discovered it. Had he read it then, and kept it ever since? Brought it with him from England after the war, a beloved volume too treasured to part from? Or had he picked up a copy here? I never knew.

Beside it on the shelf was archy’s life of mehitabel, 1933. Both sitting on the bookcase of forgotten volumes, tucked away in the basement, beside bound copies of the Boys’ Own Annual, a first edition of Tarzan, some tattered Mickey Spillane paperbacks, old hardback novels, books on time management, others on handyman skills, a few Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, and odd volumes of an outdated encyclopedia.

All treasures to an inquisitive youngster. But this book hooked me in other ways, a sparked jumped across some subconscious wiring that connected literature, poetry, and writing. And maybe politics, too, although I was too young to realize it then.

Imagine reading these lines from the literary cockroach Archy to his feline friend, Mehitabel, when you were that age:

i suppose the human race
is doing the best it can but hell’s bells that’s only an explanation
it’s not an excuse.

Continue reading

The Thousand and One Nights


Arabian NightsI had no idea it was this sexy. The Thousand Nights and One Nights, aka The Arabian Nights, aka The Thousand and One Nights – it’s really wonderful, steamy stuff. Every tale is a cliffhanger and you keep wanting to read just one more to see how it turns out. Of course, that was the point of the collection.*

The backstory is rather complicated, but to simplify it: the Sultan beds a virgin one night, then kills her the next day. When  Scheherazade’s turn comes, she asks for her sister to be able to say good bye. Then she begins to tell her sister a story. It doesn’t end that night, so the Sultan keeps her alive another night to hear the ending. But that story leads to another, and another, and so on. So for three years she keeps up a series of interwoven, intricate tales. In the end, he lets her live.

It’s like the 10th-century version of the TV series, 24. Sex, violence, evil, cunning, violence, murder, betrayal, seduction, magic, demons… it’s all there. In written form, of course, not video.

Yeah, and it’s violent, misogynistic and full of superstition and the supernatural. But you have to give it some laxity: some of it dates back from the 8th century CE. And it’s from a culture that, even today, is remarkably, embarrassingly misogynist. But then, Shakespeare wrote in an age of similar misogyny – although he managed to soar above it, by creating strong, intelligent and witty female characters. The Arabian nights has a few of them, too, albeit not usually in the forefront (and not like Shakespeare’s women).

You probably think you know some of the stories because you’ve seen a Disney cartoon or some Hollywood movie: Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Aladdin and His Lamp. Sorry, but they were added to the collection by later European translators. They’re good stories, mind you, just not part of the original collection.**

I know, that disappointed me at first, too. But after a few pages into Powys Mather’s four-volume translation, I was hooked. The tales are curious, intriguing and compelling. No wonder the Sultan wanted to hear the next part.

Continue reading

Kill the Apostrophe? Rubbish! Keep it!


Kill the ApostropheA site has popped up with one of the stupidest ideas about English I’ve read in the past decade or two. It’s called Kill the Apostrophe. Subtle.

At first, I thought it was a joke, a spoof. After all, how can one realistically get rid of perhaps the most significant element of punctuation based on the rantings of a website lunatic? And some of the counterpoint sites like Humbleapostrophe seemed created in a sense of camaraderie humour.

But no, on further reading, it’s as real as any of the other wingnut sites, from chemtrails to “psychic” readings to UFOs. Most of which just add to the background noise online, rather than contributing to something useful or encouraging public engagement.

The site’s author writes,

This website is for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language, on the basis that it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.

Well, it may confuse poorly-educated and illiterate people, or even ESL learners new to the task, but that’s really just a minority. Most of us understand that when Fats Waller wrote Ain’t Misbehavin’ he included the apostrophes for a reason (and didn’t mean to have his title changed to “Am Not Misbehaving’ by anti-apostrophe-ites).

We know Bob Dylan didn’t mean to sing, “It is not any use in turning on your lights, babe” or even “It aint no use in turning…” When you drop the apostrophe, you have to replace the missing letters the apostrophe represents, otherwise you’re just making spelling mistakes. Egregious ones at that.

Clearly the author of this website was stung by a rebuke from someone over misuse, and feels pouty.

Kill the Apostrophe claims the punctuation is redundant, wasteful, “one more tool of snobbery,” “timeconsuming” (sic – apparently hyphens are snobbery too),”impede communication and understanding” and “a distraction for otherwise reasonable and intelligent people.

What a load of codswallop. It’s like a four-year old having a tantrum because he doesn’t want to have a nap. He’s not sleepy. We’re being mean to him. He wants to play with his friends. He doesn’t like lima beans. Wah, wah, wah.

Stop whining and educate yourself. English is tough, sure. Suck it up.

Continue reading