Friday, March 25, 2011

Careful What You Say Lest You Be Quoted

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Johnny Carson and his protégé, Jay Leno, occasionally stopped talking to guests to present the silly, laughable misprints and unintended messages posted on billboards and in the print media. I regret the days when I made a similar mistake and will be eternally grateful that no one let Johnny or Jay know when I did.

The humiliation that accompanies these mistakes should instruct us to develop our editing skills by paying close attention to the messages that we construct. That is the lesson of this post: Editing 101, also known as Editing According to Common Sense.

Consider the lack of common sense in the quotations below, each taken from Foolish Words: The Most Stupid Words Ever Spoken, compiled and organized by Laura Ward.

• How frustrating to labor over a complicated jigsaw puzzle, only to find that essential pieces have been misplaced! The picture will never become whole without them and remain an enigma, yet General Westmoreland, during the Vietnam War, once said, “Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind” (50). I wonder if the General regrets these words for they suggest that pieces of the puzzle should be withheld intentionally so that the complete picture will never emerge in order to protect civilians from (gasp!) the truth.

• When British troops asked how command-level officers planned to protect them against the devastating power of the atom bomb, they received little consolation when in The British Army Journal, February 1949, they read: “The best defense against the atom bomb is not to be there when it goes off” (51). The troops could hardly have been reassured by those words.

• After an incident that General Westmoreland apparently could not censor, an anonymous U. S. officer explained that “To save the town, it became necessary to destroy it” (53). Well, if that is the officer’s opinion, I hasten to ask that he never attempt to save me.

• “I have opinions of my own—strong opinions—but I don’t always agree with them” (74), President George W. Bush once said, and his words require no further comment, do they?

• Quoting President George W. Bush reminds me of Vice-President (to President George H. W. Bush) Dan Quayle who said, “Rural Americans are real Americans. There’s no doubt about that. You can’t always be sure with other Americans. Not all of them are real” (78). So, Mr. Quayle, what are they? Pure figments of America’s imagination?

• Finally, when trying to avoid confessing, I suggest that you avoid an actual confession, something that David Dinkins, former mayor of New York City, failed to do when he declared, “I haven’t committed a crime. What I did was fail to comply with the law” (79).

Language is often messy, especially when speaking extemporaneously. My tongue freezes, words stall, and others fly freely whether they fit correctly or not. Forgive me this day my daily sound-byte.

The written word, however, must be carefully, doggedly, laboriously edited so that what we write will be clear. May I be so lucky every time out.

Reading Challenge:

Read political speech, the carefully crafted and rehearsed kind as well as the unrehearsed, impassioned kind. Online you will find 100 of the greatest speeches of all time. You might also consider a collection of speeches in print, including the one shown hereon. The best speeches will not show a dearth of common sense, however.

Writing Challenge:

Record the confusing and sometimes comical passages that lack “common sense.” Enjoy them in moments of sorrow. In addition, use the speech writers' gems as patterns for your own messages.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

A very common error made by my student writers involved the spelling rule that reads: I before E as in those words listed below.

• Believe
• Grieve
• Reprieve
• Thief
• Niece
• Achieve

The spelling rule continues: I before E except after C as in the words below.

• Receive
• Deceive
• Perceive

The complete spelling rule reads: I before E except after C and when the vowels sound like A. Thus, the correct spellings for words in which the vowels E and I combine to sound like A are

• Neighbor
• Weigh
• Rein
• Reign

Friday, March 18, 2011

Yin and Yang for Style

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

A Chinese belief holds that two opposing, yet complementary forces exist. Yin is a negative and feminine force whereas Yang is positive, masculine. Both are essential to obtain balance, and neither is better than the other. Think of Yin as one end of a continuum with Yang at the other end. The middle point on the continuum is the ideal place to be.

Consider this additional example about the cognitive domain, comparable to the Yang, and affective domain, comparable to Yin. If we divorce ourselves completely from emotion and intuition, making decisions based solely upon facts and logic, the world could become a cold, stark place. It was for poor Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Valjean, in an effort to provide food for himself and his sister’s family, steals a single loaf of bread. In eighteenth century France, a thief is a thief, a crime is a crime, and crime is an evil requiring Draconian punishment to deter its spread. The boy Valjean must serve five years, performing hard labor. His sentence grows longer with each attempt at escape, and thus, he comes to maturity, a man without hope, with scars upon his back and bitterness in his heart.

Once Valjean succeeds, changing his state from leg irons to hunted prey, he steals once more, but the priest from whom he steals shows Valjean that mercy does exist in the world. The priest not only forgives Valjean but also inspires him to become a civic leader, humanitarian, foster parent, and benefactor.

Still, Valjean is a convict who did not serve his full term. If caught, reason and the law would demand that he return to prison. A man owes a debt to society if he transgresses. For every action, such as theft or attempts to flee, there is a reaction; each time we take, we also must give. Those are truths by which we live, but are logic and law the only determinants?

Hugo, of course, invokes the Yin of existence. He demonstrates Valjean’s transformation from basic being bent upon survival to evolved man capable of love and sacrifice for a greater good. In telling the story of his character’s evolution, Hugo stirs our emotions and balances the two forces, Yin and Yang, within one man.

Hugo also introduces Javert to judge the merits of Valjean’s transformation from a relentless vigilante, determined to uphold reason as represented by law, as he understands it, the law that prohibits mercy and discretion in sentencing. Yet when poised to return Valjean to prison, the hunter cannot do it. Valjean’s kindness and good intentions compete with Javert’s sense of duty, with his understanding of a man’s true purpose and nature. Unable to reconcile his life’s work with the changed Valjean, Javert commits suicide, perhaps suggesting that the law devoid of mercy is an impossible state. Humans simply cannot thrive unless both the masculine and feminine forces balance.

Hugo, of course, did not have Chinese philosophy in mind when he wrote Les Misérables, and, so far as I know, Chinese philosophy does not govern the art and craft of writing. Nevertheless, the lesson of Yin and Yang--of the importance of balancing negative and positive--applies to sentences as well as philosophies and novels. William Strunk and E. B. White, in The Elements of Style, 3rd edition, declare that “Placing negative and positive in opposition makes for a stronger structure” (20); i.e., the Yin and Yang of language juxtaposed create a more powerful, effective message.

Strunk and White offer the following excellent examples:

• Not charity, but simple justice.
• Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 3.2)
• Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country (John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Speech, 1960)

Here are two more examples, both about the concept of justice.

• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).
• This is not about charity, it's about justice... The war against terror is bound up in the war against poverty - I didn't say that, Colin Powell said that . . . In these disturbing and distressing times, surely it's cheaper, and smarter, to make friends out of potential enemies than it is to defend yourself against them. Justice is the surest way to get peace (Bono).

Reading Challenge:

If you do not own a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (any edition), buy one for your personal library and read it.

Writing Challenge:

Choose one or more of the following opposites such as selfishness and selflessness, honesty and dishonesty, fidelity and adultery, generosity and greed or select your own pair of words with opposite meanings. Then imitate the patterns shown above to create your own, unique messages.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

Certain transitional words emphasize opposition, contrast, and juxtaposition. These include:

• whereas
• in contrast to
• dissimilarly
• not…but
• not only…but also
• on the other hand
• on the contrary
• conversely

The examples used in this post employ not…but as transitions to emphasize the difference or contrast. Other examples could have employed transitions, but the authors opted for semi-colons and parallel construction to reveal the juxtaposition of ideas. Consider adding a transition to Wendell Berry’s remark:

• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; [on the other hand,] it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).
• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand whereas it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).
• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; [on the contrary,] it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).
• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; [conversely] it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).

Note that inserting on the other hand, on the contrary, and conversely do not change the need for a semi-colon to punctuate two independent clauses correctly. Only whereas alters the construction, changing the second clause from independent to dependent; thus, a semi-colon is incorrect.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Short and Simple Personification

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

One literary device that my students recognize easily is personification, the trick of endowing non-human objects with human qualities. For example:

• “It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the peaceful woods, & smiling fields” (Darwin, 1839)
• “At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring” (Frazier, Cold Mountain 1).
• “Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight.. . . .a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, suckling life out of death. The forest eats itself and lives forever” (Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible 5).
• “Sap rises from the sodden ditch / glues two green ears to the dead / birch twig” (Louise Gluck, “For Jane Meyers,” ll. 1-3).
• “The glass has been falling all the afternoon, / And knowing better than the instrument / What winds are walking overhead, what zone / Of gray unrest is moving across the land, / I leave the book on a pillowed chair” (Adrienne Rich, “Storm Warnings,” ll. 1-5).

Prose and poetry become more vivid and effective when writers employ personification so imitating the art and craft of personification will help each of us become better writers.

Reading Challenge:

Choose any of the writers whose sentences were used as illustrations. Read more from these novelists and poets. Identify personification as you read.

Writing Challenge:

Take up the challenge of imitation that is, as they say, a sincere form of flattery. For example, Darwin personifies the fields by describing them as smiling. What can you invent to describe and personify fields?

Frazier suggests that morning gestures. What else might gesture, nudge, or urge?

Kingsolver portrays vines as murderous, strangling their brethren in a life and death contest for sunlight. Little seedlings arch their necks and find sustenance in rotted tree stumps; the entire forest is cannibalistic, feeding upon itself in order to thrive. Try to employ powerful, ominous personification for things non-human.

In Gluck’s poem, sticky sap glues new growth to old, dead twigs, another natural image for life in the presence of death, life emerging from apparent death. Create your own natural image for this concept, using personification.

For Rich, an approaching storm resembles winds walking overhead. What other forces of nature might walk, run, strut, or stumble?

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

For the last two bulleted illustrations from poetry, you will notice a slash mark and unusual use of capital letters in the quoted passage. These are required to quote poetry correctly (first presented and explained in the August 27, 2010 post).

The slashes separate one line of poetry from another so that the reader will be aware of line length, meter, and rhyme. The writer quoting the lines also honors the original line by capitalizing and punctuating it exactly as the poet did.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Power of Short, Simple, and Surprising

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Let us settle our indifferences (Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Well-Tempered Sentence 15).

The Well-Tempered Sentence

What a delightful sentence! It is exceedingly short, the sort of sentence celebrated with the February 11, 2011 post. Its brevity is part of its punch.

Let us settle our indifferences is also a fresh, new spin on an oft used expression that may be as old as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (5th century B. C.). In that text, Thucydides reports that an Athenian said, “let us settle our differences by arbitration.” When Gordon turns the phrase on its head by suggesting we should settle our indifferences, she jars our imaginations and guarantees that we will consider her meaning rather than take it for granted. Trying to do the same can produce clever, even funny declarations.

Consider the old English saying, now being used for a Geico ad: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. When an English teacher asked her elementary school children to re-imagine the proverb, she gave them just the beginning, A bird in the hand is . . . . Her literal-minded students completed the old saying with:

• messy.
• hard to hold on to.
• mean. Let it go.

Try your hand at re-inventing classic and sometimes cliché expressions. Several appear below.

• Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
• Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
• Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
• There’s no place like home.
• An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Gordon’s sentence also packs a punch because the pay-off is the last word. This pattern is very effective in delivering messages. For example, “’You are always late and unwelcome . . . .” (Gordon 16). At first, the complaint seems petulant, but the speaker’s lament turns nasty when the speaker makes it clear that being late is not the real issue.

Try writing sentences in which the key word, the real point, appears at the end

Reading Challenge:

Read Ernest Hemingway, well known for short, spare prose. Two of my favorite Hemingway stories are “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” in a 1933 collection entitled Winner Take Nothing and “Hills Like White Elephants,” first published in 1917 in Men Without Women. As you read these, examine the sentence constructions and imitate those that inspire you.

Writing Challenge:

The post is a writing challenge, especially if your follow through with the Reading Challenge above.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Short simple sentences like the ones used as illustrations in this post require a capital letter for the word that begins the sentence and a period to close the sentence.