The infinitve is infinite.

 

 

 

In a text I bought for my German course, Basic German: A Grammar and Workbook, 2nd Edition, by Heiner Schenke, Anna Miell, and Karen Seago, pg. 7, it says:

A verb with a personal ending — e.g., Woher kommst du? Ich wohne in Frankfurt, Woher kommst du? — is called a finite verb. This is in contrast to the infinitive form of verbs.

 

I never knew.

 
In other words, a verb when used with a subject and tense — we speak, they spoke, English is spoken — is finite, determinate; there is definite action, occurrence.

But, yes, Shakespeare can write to be or not to be, but to be is timeless, so to speak. But, I was satisfied — this refers to the past and an actual point on time, whether specified or not.

 

 

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I love learning new things. In the category of learning “I never knew that.” Something simple that should have been obvious, but that for me represents a discovery.

When you learn it, some fundamental that increases overall understanding is now part of your mental repertoire.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    February 2020

“a red cord thing”

 

 

Waiting for an elevator with me at 826 Broadway on February 13 last week there were two women who were chatting.

We were all going to a concert of medieval music in the Strand Bookstore’s rare book room. I had entered at the Strand’s main entrance next door, at 826 Broadway. I had bought a book that looked very interesting: Wordsworth’s Classical Undersong: Education, Rhetoric and Poetic Truth by Richard W. Clancey. The subject matter fits right in with the focus of this blog. I often find interesting books at the Strand by serendipity.

One of the women said to the other that (as I had experienced) she could not get to the Strand rare book room by entering at the store’s main entrance and walking up or taking the elevator from there to the third floor, as I had tried to do. (The nonfiction books on literature are in the basement, a usual first stop form  me.) She said to her interlocutor: “They have a red cord thing” blocking passage to the rare book room from the main store and that therefore she had recognized you had to take the elevator (as we were doing at that moment) next door.

That’s a redundancy, I thought to myself. I am always “proofreading” and “editing” people’s speech (including broadcasters’ and newspaper reporters’) whenever I detect what I am sure is a grammar error or infelicity of style.

Or is it redundant? I thought.

She could have said, as an English teacher would probably so correct a student’s sentence to: There was a red cord blocking the door. Or, A red cord was blocking the door.

But “red cord thing” actually conveys her meaning very well. For she wasn’t certain whether it was a cord (a piece of rope), a string, tape, or whatever. But something resembling a cord such as one sees in a rope line or tape blocking access to accident and crime scenes, something red, was blocking access.

Young women whom one constantly hears chatting on their cell phones often get made fun of by grammar snobs such as myself for using like constantly as an intensifier or qualifier. He seemed like about to go crazy; or, I saw a guy who was like riding a bike with no hands.

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with. Such as the use (perhaps overuse) of the all-purpose like as an adverb, and many expressions that convey the meaning exactly, but who would of thought of them before they were invented, e.g., couch potato and soccer mom.

 

 

–Roger W. Smith

  February 2020

The mind yearns for completion.

 
A reader of one of my posts wrote to me that the essays of Johnson, Addison, and Steele “are well worth reading, … but their style is clearly dated.”

I wonder.

 

Reading some of Samuel Johnson’s miscellaneous writings today, I was thinking to myself (as I often do) how clearly written they are and how they provide models for good writing.

Yes, there are anachronisms in usage — certainly in spelling (as well as conventions in capitalization and hyphenation) — as well as vocabulary in Johnson’s writings, and in those of Addison and Steele, whose essays provided a model for Johnson’s.
Here is an example from one of Steele’s essays:

 

An Author, when he first appears in the World, is very apt to believe it has nothing to think of but his Performances. With a good Share of this Vanity in my Heart, I made it my Business these three Days to listen after my own Fame; and, as I have sometimes met with Circumstances which did not displease me, I have been encountered by others which gave me much Mortification. It is incredible to think how empty I have in this time observed some Part of the Species to be, what mere Blanks they are when they first come abroad in the Morning, how utterly they are at a Stand, until they are set a going by some Paragraph in a News-Paper: Such Persons are very acceptable to a young Author, for they desire no more (in anything) but to be new, to be agreeable. If I found Consolation among such, I was as much disquieted by the Incapacity of others. These are Mortals who have a certain Curiosity without Power of Reflection, and perused my Papers like Spectators rather than Readers.

But there is so little Pleasure in Enquiries that so nearly concern our selves (it being the worst Way in the World to Fame, to be too anxious about it), that upon the whole I resolv’d for the future to go on in my ordinary Way; and without too much Fear or Hope about the Business of Reputation, to be very careful of the Design of my Actions, but very negligent of the Consequences of them.

— Richard Steele, The Spectator No. 4, Monday, March 5, 1711

 

 

This seems to be a specimen of clear, straightforward, and plain good writing. Does such writing go out of fashion?

 
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In a different vein — but also, to provide a specimen from Johnson — here is a brief passage from a book review by Samuel Johnson from my reading today:

He [Arthur Murphy] mentions, with great regard, [Alexander] Pope’s ode on solitude, written when he was but twelve years old, but omits to mention the poem on silence, composed, I think, as early, with much greater elegance of diction, music of numbers, extent of observation, and force of thought. [italics added]

— Samuel Johnson, review of Arthur Murphy, The Gray’s-Inn Journal, Literary Magazine (1756)

 

The concluding sequence of four phrases is an example of why Johnson’s writings merit study on stylistic grounds. On account — in this example — of excellence of phrasing, parallelism, and how pleasing to the ear, how euphonious, such wording is.

One phrase follows another, forming an integrated whole. A thought or concept clearly and forcefully expressed. The words strike home.

The mind yearns for completion. In Johnson, this is usually achieved.

It is very much like a cluster of notes in music, when notes follow and build on those before, when they not only fit together, cohere, but provide a sense of resolution.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 9, 2020

how to make things admirably clear

 

 

Re:

 

“A Deal That Has Two Elections, Rather Than Mideast Peace, as Its Focus; The Israeli-Palestinian peace plan unveiled by President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounds more like a road map for their own futures than for the Middle East.”

by David E. Sanger

The New York Times. January 28, 2020

 

 

 

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My English teacher, Mr. Tighe, would be proud of a paper as well written as this. It exhibits masterful observance of the three core principles of expository writing: unity, coherence, and emphasis (meaning that the key points emerge clearly).

The details and quotes are stitched together with consummate skill. The organization and logic are impeccable, and the thrust of the piece is admirably clear.

I once wrote a reference book article on the British historian A. J. P. Taylor. It was approximately 2,600 words long. My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., who was always eager to read my writings (he was a writer himself), said that there was not “a single wasted word” in the article. Without comparing myself to Mr. Sanger, I would say that the same is true of his piece.

This may seem like a routine job of reporting. It was written on the spot–at the moment. It could serve as a model for students of journalism and in English classes as well.

 

Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

I am continually instructed in writing by the example as well as the writings of Samuel Johnson.

 

 

THE TELLING EXAMPLE

 

The kind partiality with which every man looks upon his own fraternity, is generally discovered in his acts of munificence. The merchant seldom founds hospitals for the soldier; nor the sailor endow colleges for the student. [italics added] Every man has had most opportunities of knowing the calamities incident to his own course of life: And who can blame him for pitying those miseries which he has most observed?

It is with the same kind of propension that I have always rejoiced to see the theatres made instrumental to the relief of literature in distress; and though I would not willingly oppose any act of charity, I cannot but confess a higher degree of pleasure, in contributing to the support of those, who have themselves contributed to the advancement of learning; and therefore take, with uncommon satisfaction, this opportunity of informing the town, that next Tuesday will be acted, at Covent Garden, The Way of the World, for the benefit of an unfortunate bookseller [James Crokatt]; a person, who, in his happier state, was little guilty of refusing his assistance to men of letters; whose purse often relieved them, and whose fertility of schemes often supplied them with opportunities of relieving themselves.

 

 

PARALLELISM

 

Many of the most voluminous and important works, which the industry of learning has lately produced, were projected by his [Crokatt’s] invention, undertaken by his persuasion, and encouraged by his liberality. The time is now come when he calls, in his turn, for assistance; and it is surely the duty of the publick to reward, by uncommon generosity, the benefits which he has conferred upon them, without the usual advantage to himself. (italics added)

— Samuel Johnson, Letter to the Daily Advertiser Concerning James Crokatt (1751), IN Johnson on Demand: Reviews, Prefaces, and Ghost-Writings, edited by O M Brack, Jr., and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume XX; Yale University Press, 2019), pg. 221

 

This letter was written by on behalf of the London book trade entrepreneur James Crokatt, who having experienced business and financial difficulties, was in debtors’ prison.

 

 

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From immersion in the works of a writer of Johnson’s stature, I would be inclined to say that:

Anecdotes from the early chapters of Boswell’s Life of Johnson show that Johnson at a very young age was what we would today call a gifted child and that he was intellectually precocious.

It is also apparent from Johnson’s own accounts (and those of schoolmates) that his grammar school instruction was very rigorous in the area of rhetoric, including instruction in Latin. (I believe that his fluency in Latin along with his mastery of the king’s English contributed to, and in fact resulted in, his knowledge of and proficiency in rhetoric and mastery of the rules of exposition and grammar, whereby the “operating principles,” so to speak, of verbal expression were ingrained in him — at his command.) *

Ergo, Johnson wrote as well as he did because he was a born writer and also because he worked so hard at achieving mastery.
* The following quote is apropos. I can relate it to my own experience of foreign language study.

 

“Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.” (He who is ignorant of foreign languages, knows not his own.)

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,   Maximen und Reflexionen (1833)

 

 

Roger W. Smith

    January 2020

a deft turn of phrase

 
By any modern standard, Kyle Juszczyk shouldn’t be playing in the NFL. He went to Harvard, a school that was important in football about a century ago. And he plays fullback, a position that was important when teams ran the wishbone toward goal posts that were planted at the front of the end zone. (italics added)

 
— “The NFL’s Unlikeliest Millionaire: He Went to Harvard and Plays Fullback,” by Andrew Beaton, The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2020

 

 

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-nfls-unlikeliest-millionaire-he-went-to-harvard-and-plays-fullback-11579178793?mod=mhp

 

 

 

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Sometimes with a deft turn of phrase you can say something economically and tellingly that most writers would need a sentence or two to do.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2020

the danger of fatuous overstatement

 

 

“Every sport has a supreme chronicler,” The Philadelphia Inquirer said in 1994. “Nobody has written about baseball like Roger Angell. Nobody has written about golf like Bernard Darwin. Nobody has written about boxing like A.J. Liebling. Nobody has written about
the outdoors like Nelson Bryant.”

 

— Nelson Bryant, ‘Supreme Chronicler’ of Outdoor Life, Dies at 96, by Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times, January 13, 2020

 

 

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A set of sweeping generalizations. Sounds good. But are they true?

When it comes to baseball writing, about which I know something, Roger Angell is very good. But he is nowhere near to being the best baseball writer, journalistic or otherwise, of all time.

Beware of the fatuous overstatement, designed to knock the reader’s socks off:

No American writer can match Faulkner.

Pop music was never the same after “Yesterday.”

The Nobel Prize is the greatest honor an individual can achieve.

The moon landing was the defining moment of the Sixties.

9/11 was the greatest calamity mankind has ever known.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is the most inspiring music ever written.

The Declaration of Independence is the most profound political statement ever penned.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2020