Vintage miniature: Hobo clown…
[Apologies in advance. These issues may seem unrelated to some of you, but the dots connect perfectly in my head. I’ll let you know when the big leap is about to happen.]
Jim and I have been chatting offline. I hope you’ve been reading his recent work, especially the McDonaldization series and his outstanding tribute to Tom Petty, which goes way past Petty’s career and into some deeper questions about the genre we know as “Rock.” He concluded a recent email with this: Read more
I’ve been a writer since the ’70s. I’ve written poetry, fiction, academic, business, political and entertainment pieces. I’ve written for print, broadcast, online, social and mobile. I’ve been responsible for ~2,300 posts at S&R alone (although not all of those were writing – there has been some photography along the way, as well).
I have an undergrad minor in English, an MA in English and a PhD in Communications. I’ve studied lit – lots of lit – composition, creative writing and historical linguistics.
I’ve taught writing at the undergrad and graduate levels – English, comp, marketing and business, you name it.
Malcolm Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours to become an expert at a given thing, and my best guess is that I’ve probably spent twice that amount of time writing.
My point? I know a bit about writing and the English language. Not everything by a long shot, but I do feel I have, at the least, a moderately educated opinion. I’m not a lock-down grammarian like some I know, but I have an ear for things and a deeply informed understanding of what works, what’s efficient, what’s fluid, and what the rules are.
And I stand before you today to offer a modest proposal: Resolved – that we keepers of the sanctity of the language need to let go of some of our most deeply cherished pet peeves. You probably have some peeves of your own and when people violate them it drives you buggy. We all do. But let’s breathe deeply for a moment and ponder the actual value these technicalities have in our lives.
I don’t have time to address all the cases I can think of, but let me use three examples to illustrate my point:
Specifically, I propose that the three former cases be replaced by “ther,” to be used interchangeably in all instances. Also, that we kill off “it’s” and use “its” in all instances. Finally, I don’t care how we spell it – I’m good with “yor” – but we need to stop making a big deal about that last one, as well.
Why? You know how your mom would occasionally misspeak and you’d call her on it and she’d say “you know what I meant”? Right. You might write “the dog chased it’s ball,” and I might correct you, but I know what you meant. And that’s the purpose of language: to convey meaning and information, not technicalia arising from ancient rules in proto-languages nobody has ever heard of.
In short: language serves us, not the other way around.
Some linguistic history explains what I’m on about. Sorta.
English, and most of the languages spoken in the Western world today, evolved from a couple branches on the Indo-European tree. German and English, for instance, derived from Old High Germanic, while Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese come to us courtesy of ancient Latin. Along the way English got hijacked by French (courtesy of William the Conqueror), which explains why we have so much Romantic influence on modern English.
Those ancient forebears of our current languages were highly inflected. That is, you’d have root forms of words and a number of endings for tense, singular/plural and the like. If you had all the forms correct, word order probably didn’t matter. In Latin, for instance, you can jumble the words up but the sentence is still comprehensible.
We still have remnants of this functionality in English today. Think about how we conjugate verbs. I run, you ran. I think, you think, he thinks. Arise, arose, arisen. See what I mean?
The thing is, modern English isn’t an inflected language, it’s a synthetic one. This means that while we may still have inflections, our ability to understand meaning relies instead on context and word order. If I write “John run to the house,” you’d know I was saying “John ran to he house” (a lot of people speak this way as it is).
Have a look at this and see if you can sort it out.
Everything direct winter way the to superlative its the good the far was going going authorities darkness before it nothing foolishness belief degree so the us spring only being the before or was age like epoch hope despair all we of epoch of of season was of the for direct the worst for was it light incredulity short of was period it was times comparison its of season it the us period we had was of Heaven it were was of best it in it the we the of we had the some of was were of the present wisdom it all on other in it of evil times insisted was the was age noisiest the it received that.
Literature students might recognize the opening sentence of Tale of Two Cities, but if you didn’t know the passage enough to maybe tweak on a couple specific words, you’d be lost.
The upshot is that our language today incorporates all kinds of artifacts from earlier incarnations of English when the forms were necessary to convey meaning clearly. Now, though, they’re useless appendages
we have evolved beyond beyond which we have evolved. These sentences are perfectly comprehensible:
It isn’t like we don’t do this sort of thing every day already. For instance, in this sentence:
Bob and Sally tried to teach the puppy not to bark.
Did you see that last word and get confused about whether it meant the outer layer of a tree trunk?
Is “read” present tense or plural and how do you know?
The tailor is hairy but the furrier is furrier.
Hopefully you get the idea by now. If not, I can go on all day. English is probably the biggest mutt of a language in the world, and many of our forms, usage strictures, punctuation and spelling rules serve no practical purpose.
Beyond, perhaps, allowing that the actual value of an English teacher is nothing more than grammar nazi, or perhaps as a marker of social status?
Think about. Let me know what you conclude.
At some point tonight millions and millions of us will find ourselves sitting in a stadium or a park or maybe on a city rooftop or a grassy hill in the country, staring at the sky, celebrating our country’s anniversary by watching the annual fireworks show. I won’t lie – I love fireworks. They’re spectacular to watch, but beyond that I’m fascinated by how they work. How do you get one to look like a flower? How do you get multiple colors in one burst? I assume I could learn these things if I spent the time, but regardless, it’s a pretty cool exercise in artistry.
But I don’t love everything about fireworks shows. If you’re at an official civic event you’ll certainly get to hear Lee Greenwood belting out his famous “God Bless the USA.” This is a massively famous and popular song, having reached #7 on the Billboard Country charts. It’s sold over a million copies and there’s no telling how much it has earned Greenwood in royalties.
It’s also perhaps the greatest lie ever set to music. Bear with me.
America is a wonderful idea. Read more
It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. – Jonathan Swift
Since the moment of Campaign 2016 when it became clear that Donald Trump actually had a chance, a lot of people have done a lot of thinking and pontificating and punditofying and writing and hand-wringing about the reasons for his viability. On one end of the spectrum: Donald gave the drooling, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, ignorant, anti-intellectual, hillbillies a cynical, smirking, dog-whistling charlatan they could line up behind. On the other, we’ve had all manner of thoughtful, complex analyses about how economic anxiety (and utter despair) fueled the rise of a non-partisan populist backlash against a political establishment that has spent decades betraying those it represents.
Both versions are compelling because each was built on a measure of observable truth. Read more
My girlfriend’s great-great grandparents. Maybe Civil War era, roughly?
For the past several months a lot of us have been saying we can’t wait for this damned year to be over.
2016 gave us the worst election season I can remember, and every ten minutes or so another beloved artist would die, it seemed. Any year that gives us Donald Trump and takes Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Prince in return has done more damage than some decades.
No, people aren’t going to stop dying at the stroke of midnight tomorrow. Read more
The third and final “debate” between presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is now mercifully in the rearview mirror, but like a direct hit from an aggrieved skunk, it might take weeks for the stink to fully die down. This trifecta of vitriolic spew has held a mirror up before the face of the American system of political discourse, and what we’re seeing is utterly wretched.
And for what? What have we learned? Did the debates make us smarter? Did it leave us more capable of rendering an informed decision? Did it shed light on the election and the best interests of the Republic?
The sad truth is that the truth is pretty sad. These charades, these lowest common denominator spectacles, these premeditated travesties of dishonesty and rhetorical misdirection, we call them debates but they are no such thing. A real debate between candidates would be a wonderful thing, though. Read more
Many of you probably read Andrew Sullivan’s New York Magazine piece back in April. If not, you should do so as soon as possible – it’s among the most important and insightful political essays we have seen in a generation and will reward your time. I won’t even try to summarize his message, because no paraphrase I could provide would do it justice. Short version: the US is in trouble, and democracy is perhaps the reason.
Sullivan got me to thinking, in some depth, about where I am politically and how I got here. More importantly, where do I go now? Read more
With the 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle asserted itself as the city that invented the future. Seattle Center, home to the Space Needle, Key Arena, the Pacific Science Center and other Jetsonesque architectural wonders, gave us a stunning Mid-Century Modern vision of our presumed technotopian future. In 2000 the EMP Museum opened, inserting a postmodern generational overlay in the form of Frank Gehry’s gripping postmodern architectural style. Ever upward, ever forward.
For #HopeTuesday today, I offer you a metaphor. Let’s rekindle our dream of a clean, sustainable, prosperous future with opportunity for all – a true and attainable American dream. I took this shot of the World’s Fair monorail, which connects the EMP and Seattle Center with downtown, in November of 2013. What could possibly be more optimistic, more hopeful, for Americans than a train destined for a technological Utopia?