Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I am the Grammar Snob About Whom Your Mother Warned.

I know I've written quite a few blogs on grammar, but hey, I really do love it.

I was talking last night with a friend who is taking a grammar class this coming semester from the same teacher I took it from three years ago. He was rather excited to gain the skills to correct his roommates' grammar. I told him that class really only affected my knowledge of written grammar rather than spoken grammar. It was learning German that corrected my spoken grammar. German is, after all, the initial parent language of English, and our grammar is very similar.

In German, if you don't conjugate your verbs correctly, you may as well be speaking Norwegian ("cave man English", according to the aforementioned friend who happens to speak Norwegian). Verb conjugation is absolutely essential to being understood in German. In German there are clearly three parts to every verb. the verb for "have" is "haben" and the three participles are "haben, hatte, gehabt" while in English we have "have, had, had." The second and third participle are the same because the past and perfect tense are the same...? It's English--it doesn't have to make sense. But because they are the same, people get confused when it comes time to express something is present perfect ("have had") and especially past perfect ("had had") and even future perfect ("will have had"). Many native English speakers have no concept of the perfect tense and how to form it. That is why I frequently feel the need to step in them out.

Another huge consideration is preposition use. Germans don't use prepositions like we do. For example, they use "auf" which can be translated to "upon" for so many uses: "it depends" is "das haengt darauf" which is literally translated to "it hangs upon." I don't consider that to be intuitive for English speakers. But with that lurking in the back of my head, it is so much easier for me choose the correct preposition in English. I always stop to think "What does this preposition really mean?" before I put it in a sentence.

But for those of you lacking the German background, Melissa Donovan of Writing Forward gave some great tips in her latest blog post about incorporating good grammar into your daily life:
1. Stop Being Lazy – When you’re not sure if the way you’ve written a sentence is correct, take a couple of minutes to go look it up instead of either rewriting it or hoping for the best.
2. Invest in Writing Tools – These include reference books that deal with grammar and style. My personal favorite is The Chicago Manual of Style.
3. Make it a Chore – Some chores you do every day, while others can be tackled weekly or monthly. Set a schedule for regular grammar lessons and stick to it. They don’t have to be long. You can learn something valuable in five short minutes!
4. Talk About It – Turn your grammar questions into conversations. Ask others how they use language. Oddly, I find that even non-writers have interest in basic grammar questions. And if you can’t find anyone who wants to discuss good grammar, take your conversation online. Remember you should always use a credible resource, but discussing grammar related issues is an ideal way to learn the nuances, intricacies, and to gain broader understanding.
5. Put it to Practice – Every time you learn something new, incorporate it into your writing until it becomes second nature. When I learned that it wasn’t traditionally correct to end sentences with prepositions, I stopped completely until it was as natural as putting terminal punctuation marks inside of quotation marks.
6. Bonus! Don’t Be OCD – Well, you can be OCD if you want. I like to break the rules sometimes. Eventually, I returned to ending sentences with prepositions, but only when it was the best way to communicate an action or idea.
I've done many of these things without even realizing it (I think that comes from being an English major--I have a wider pool of people who readily engage in grammar discussions). As for the chore, might I suggest that simply reading and paying attention to words the writer uses and where they put them is sometimes enough to improve your own grammar. I am a strong believer in the idea that through reading can nearly all of life's questions be answered.

If you struggle with grammar, don't lose heart. It is a matter of practice and discipline, but it is completely worth it. The truth is, if you can use grammar correctly, you will sound much smarter than you probably actually are, and who doesn't want to sound smarter? I rest my case.

Friday, March 26, 2010

It's Rhetorical

I've had a series of discussions with a friend lately, exploring why it is that we have to suppress our vocabularies to have conversations with certain people, or how certain speeches or books are so thrilling. And of course, it all comes back to a good command of rhetoric.

In rhetoric, there are six factors to consider, three rhetorical appeals, and three rhetorical situations:
  1. Logos: the logical appeal using facts and reasoning
  2. Ethos: the ethical appeal, using the strength of the speaker's character
  3. Pathos: the pathetic appeal, invoking emotion in the audience
  • Audience: who is reading or hearing this?
  • Occasion: where/when is this being written/said?
  • Purpose: why does this need to be written/said?
A good balance of these, with the correct medium (I'll talk about that later) creates a triangle of communication. Only when the triangle is balanced can the message be accurately communicated to the audience.
This is why we sometimes use a different vocabulary to talk to certain people. This is why sometimes, a speaker or a writer will stir you up and make you really believe what they are saying.

Below is an excellent example of rhetoric. This man's speech convinced me on an issue that I had been undecided on. That is what good rhetoric does!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Isn't it about...Time?

Because it's the end of the semester, all I do all day long is read and write. That's what I get for choosing to major in English. Don't misunderstand me, I love reading and writing. I am simply looking forward to the day when I'm not going to be told what I need to read and write.

However, being a slow reader, I find that it is nearly impossible to finish everything I need to do in one day.I just read a classmate's blog on time management and found it very interesting and helpful.

One of the suggestions he gave that I've never thought about before was:

Physically Order Projects
Sitting on my desk is a stack of folder dedicated to each project. After assessing priorities, I physically organize the files accordingly. This ensures that I being working on the project with the next highest priority, without having to consult a to-do list. I simply grab the next folder and begin working.
Benefit: Quickly move from project to project according to priorities.
 For me, I don't think I'd be working with a file folder, but rather a stack of books. Nonetheless, I find this to be a very good tip, considering how much time I waste moving around, gathering up my books that are strewn across four rooms in my apartment.

One suggestion that my classmate did not address that I have found most useful is this:

Treat your classes and homework like a job.

Why so much emphasis?

To treat your schooling like a job, you must get up at the same time every morning, start working at the same time, and end working at the same time. You must take into account what time your classes are at, and work accordingly, but generally, you should be working from 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For example:
I have class from 9-10 a.m. and 11:30-12:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So I work on homework in that break between classes and then I go home or to the library and continue to work until 5 p.m. Within that time, I prioritize my assignments and allow myself an hour for eating.

However, on Tuesdays and Thursday, I have class from 9:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. with only one hour of breaks. During that hour, I eat and relax, or sometimes do more homework. But as you can guess, I don't get much else done on Tuesdays and Thursdays than actually being in class. It sounds scary, but it's actually ok, because if I work consistently on every other day of the week, I don't need to get much done on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The benefit of this is that
  1. I get things accomplished because I don't allow for distractions.
  2. I give myself the evening to use energy and have a social life.
This strategy has changed my undergraduate career and might be the single answer to how I get anything done. I hope you can implement an equally effective plan in your life to manage your time.

To grad school, or not to grad school?

Yesterday I was talking with my psychology professor, and he began asking me about my plans for after graduation (in four months!). He asked about grad school, and I told him I'd thought about it, but hadn't decided on anything, and would most definitely be taking a bit of a break between receiving a bachelor's degree and entering grad school.

This morning, I read a good blog post from the Creative Writing Corner (always a favorite) about the decision to go to grad school for an MFA. She said "it takes a big commitment to go for any kind of higher education."

What are the benefits of going to grad school in creative writing?
  1. You can teach at a university level.
  2. You will become a better writer.
  3. It's easier to be recognized.
Those three reasons alone I think are good enough to stir a desire to go to grad school. So why wouldn't a person choose to go?

I believe it is because of that big "C" word: commitment. A commitment of time, money, energy, and brain power seems quite overwhelming, at least to me. I'm barely making it through school right now, and the thought a tacking couple of years on to that sounds like suicide.

Grad school is most definitely a worthy pursuit. I imagine I will make that pursuit someday. First I have to make sure I will make it through my undergrad.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I'm not a woman to throw words to the wind...

I just read this most useful blog: Words and Writing Ideas by Melissa Donovan. She talks about a book she is reading, which encourages writers to go back to the roots of writing and bulk up their vocabulary.

Melissa gave a lot of good tips (that she got from the book) about collecting words. I'll just quickly go over the main points:

  • Listen for words in every day places: conversation, TV, reading, songs, and even from objects (Melissa gives the example of car parts).
  • Don't just think about words' meanings, but also consider their rhythm and sounds.
  • Carry a pen and notebook around. Write down words as soon as you hear them so you don't forget.
  • Also cut words out of magazines or newspapers. The colors and fonts can enhance the emotion or meaning of the words.
  • Use the words. Use them as soon as you can in conversation or writing. They will stick with you longer.
  • You can also use words to inspire new writing ideas. Pull out a few words and force yourself to write something that makes sense using all those words.
I love words. They are the building blocks of my life. My friends have always made fun of me for using long words in regular conversation...but that's the beauty of words. If I know the right words, I can precisely express my thoughts, so the meaning is clear and simple. It is a beautiful thing when the right word is chosen.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Because I watched the debate and voting on the health care bill last night, this blog post intrigued me this morning: "The yeas have it." It turns out that it had nothing to do with the bill (it was actually written nearly a week ago), but I found it fascinating nonetheless.

This blog was a follow-up to a post the week previous, in which our copyediting friend outlined the differences between "yeah," "yah," "yay," and "yea." The loss of this distinction has become a huge epidemic. I blame texting and instant messaging, where everyone just wants to use as few charaters as possible.

In the second post, she also adds "yea" (as opposed to nay), "yah/ja," and "yeh/ya." I want to comment particularly on the last two.

I grew up confused and frustrated by yah/yeh/ya. The first is a form of yes, the latter two a form of you. But I never knew which spelling to use in informal written messages. I often used "ya" for both, "Ya, I know," and "Don't ya know?" which was confusing to both me and my readers. After living in Germany for a year, I switched the affirmative "ya" to "ja." This still confuses some of my correspondents, but it works for me. And I finally generally abandoned the pronoun "ya," instead using "you" in every instance except "love ya!" in which I think it is clear which "ya" I am using, because the use of the affirmative "ya" would require a comma: "love, ya!"

I believe I am probably alone and old-fashioned in the idea that we should just abandon spellings that express the way we actually say something. When we write, we should always write yes or you. This is far too formal looking and sounding for most people. Is formality too great a cost to pay for the dissolvance of confusion? It isn't for me. Is it for you?

It's too cliche; I won't say it, no, no!

Our advisor on the Scroll recently told us of Randy Michaels, the CEO of Tribune Co. and his list of 119 banned words. Apparently, he decided that these words were too cliche and he was sick of hearing them on his radio station, so now they are no longer allowed to way these words and phrases.

One thing that quite baffles me is how a radio station is to do away with phrases like "after these commercials" and "when we come back." Even though they are used a lot, I don't find them to be cliche because they have a clear meaning that is specifically communicated by the phrase, rather than a lost meaning or image that no one really understands, even though they know what you are saying when you say "from the bottom of my heart."

But I do think that Robert Feder (author of the afore-linked article) has a good point when he wonders why doesn't this CEO have better things to do than come up with a list of words and phrases never to be used again. I've written a few blogs on how journalism and the media are changing and how the structure of newspaper and online news and magazines are being reorganized, and the job market is potentially shrinking or changing in respect to that.

In addition to its effect on media and journalism, this war on cliches is also prevalent in literary writing. I have had several professors dissolve into rants about the inefficiency and overuse of cliches. My beloved George Orwell wrote an article in Tribune in England ranting about cliches as well. Cliches are egregious in journalistic and creative writing.

And understandably. Here are some identifiers of a cliche:

1. You've heard it thousands of times. In some cultures there are certain expressions that get used over and over because everyone knows what you are trying to say when you don't know how to say it or you really don't have anything to say. One of my favorites from the culture I grew up in is "without a shadow of a doubt." I've always tried to picture doubt with a shadow here...but I'm not really getting anywhere with that.

2. No clear image or meaning. Just like "without a shadow of a doubt," most cliches don't really make sense if you think about what the words actually mean.
"Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" was the caption to this picture. I've actually never heard that one before, but it's still a cliche because immediately I picture a baby in a bucket of water being thrown out a window as though it were the contents of a chamberpot. Because it's been a few years since chamberpots were widely used, this image doesn't mean anything to me. I don't get it. What does "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" mean?

3. In combination of the other two, the result of the cliche is that you don't feel any more enlightened after having heard it than you did when you started the conversation (or started listening to the speech or what have you). You never really know what the speaker is on about, and even if they are overcome with emotion, you don't share in this emotion with them, because you're not really sure why/where the emotion is coming from. Cliches are completely inadequate when it comes to expressing anything inside a person's head. I would assume this is because a cliche isn't "your own words."

So was Randy Michaels justified in banning 119 words and phrases?

All I know is that I'd be interested in taking up the challenge of writing or speaking and communicating my ideas clearly with that kind of restriction. That is a purpose of formed poetry after all. It's a matter of being an engineer with words: figuring out what resources you have, using them to form something meaningful, and as your resources diminish, you have to restructure your original layout. And that is half the joy of writing anything.