Monthly Archives: December 2018

the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)

 

 

Last winter, I emailed a relative with the following comment: “Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets.”

A few months later, we were having a discussion about various matters, including my blog. I came from a very literate family and have three siblings, all of them gifted writers (as were my parents). I emailed my relative again, saying: “I am ahead of the rest of our family in one key respect: I have had professional writing experience (plus a journalism degree) and have written for publication in scholarly journals, reference books, major newspapers.”

My relative seemed to think I was bragging, was guilty of puffery, for no reason, and, besides, what was the point of making the comparison, which it appeared to my relative was an invidious one, but which I thought was worth mentioning. “I am not questioning your writing credentials, which are very strong and give you more knowledge of and experience in writing than anyone in our family,” the relative wrote back. “But I do not understand why you are comparing yourself to your family in this regard. There is no family writing competition.”

 

 

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I did not intend, did not mean, to disparage anyone, or to exalt myself. I merely wished to make a point. To wit: that professional experience is crucial for anyone who wants to master a craft.

I was thinking when I made the observation to my relative, and have often thought in the past, about my father in this regard. My father was professional musician: a pianist, church organist, and piano teacher. He was born with musical talent. His mother was a church organist and attended a music school in Boston for a couple of years (of which she was very proud). It was said that her mother (my father’s maternal grandmother) played and/or conducted choir music in a church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where my grandmother grew up.

My grandmother recognized my father’s talent and encouraged him. He began piano lessons at a very early age. By the time he was a teenager, he was moonlighting as a musician with bands in the Boston area. At a young age, he was hired as a piano teacher in a studio in Boston, where he worked for several years before becoming an independent piano teacher. He appeared on radio programs in the 1930’s, playing and discussing music.

His experience was extensive. After serving in the Army in World War II, he went back to college and got an A.B. degree from Harvard College in music. In his senior year, he took five music courses. One was a course in composition with the renowned composer Irving Fine. He told us children that on the final exam, Fine said: “You have been studying composition all semester. Your requirement for the final is to write a four-part piece.”

My former therapist, discussing my versatility in writing, once brought up the actor James Cagney during a session with me. He quoted Cagney as once having said, “I could always play any part, any type of character, they asked me to.” He said that this was a significant statement. My father was the same way. He played in nightclubs, on a pleasure boat making daily cruises, at ice skating shows, briefly in a burlesque house orchestra, with back up Big Bands, as an accompanist to singers such as Dinah Shore (who was making a demo record early in her career), at functions such as wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, as a church organist, and for many years as the entertainment in a restaurant/lounge. He played the accordion when required (e.g., on the excursion boat) and the organ in a Unitarian church. He told me, “I never mastered the organ,” explaining that to really do so required mastering the pedals and stops. This admission by him was not a sign of weakness. It showed the kind of awareness that professionals have of what their true strengths are, as well as their limitations. Similarly to my father’s case, I know that I excel as an essayist and writer of scholarly articles, and have reportorial and research skills. At the same time, I know that I can’t write fiction or poetry.

 

 

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My father once had a revealing talk with me, which I never forgot, about his technical skills and expertise as a pianist. It wasn’t braggadocio, it was a matter of actual fact.

For years, my father was the pianist at the Chart Room, a restaurant bar in Cataumet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He would play there six nights a week for around six hours each night. People came to hear him play.

My father told me something that might have seemed trivial or not worth noting, but that I found quite significant for what it said about him, and his self-awareness when it came to professional capabilities. He would take a 15 to 20 minute break after a set. During the break (when he was probably enjoying a drink at the bar and would be chatting with customers), someone, it seemed, would always get up, sit down on the empty piano stool, and start playing. My father had no problem with this.

As my father told me, they would play simple tunes and enjoy emulating him, encouraging customers to sing along. My father pointed out to me — this was significant — that they would always play in the key of C. To my father, this distinguished the amateurs from him. He could play in any key that was required and was proficient at accompanying vocalists and singers because of this. And, by the way, my father had perfect pitch. One of my siblings would be practicing piano in the living room when my father was in the dining room. If they hit a wrong key, he would say, without leaving his chair, “E flat!” or “G sharp!”

 

 

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Like my father with the advantages of not only being born with musical talent but also of having had professional experience — where he honed his skills and kept developing and refining them — professional experience in writing has been invaluable to me. One learns certain lessons as a professional that are crucial to one’s development. And, then, as was true in my father’s case, and was also true in mine, there is formal education.

What seems to be the case with most people (athletes are a good example) is that there has to be inborn talent — one has to have the “genes,” endowment, or makeup for achieving the highest levels of excellence in writing/verbal expression, music, or sports — but then one will never reach that level without rigorous training and professional experience. This often means formal training, such as a good writing instructor(s) or education in general, or a professional level coach. Some writers and athletes seem to be naturals who do not get that much formal training. But think of all those who do. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell come to mind. They started out as writers in college and graduate school. Similarly, my writing instruction began in the “writing workshop” (writers’ boot camp?) of my high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe — where we wrote almost every day, and were trained to do so “on demand,” on any given topic, in class — and continued with a superb education in the humanities in college and as a postgraduate special student taking college courses in languages, editing, and translation.

My point is that some would be athletes, musicians, writers, and so forth never progress beyond the amateur stage. In the playgrounds and parks of New York, there is a plethora of amateur athletes who exhibit great talent — basketball players, say — but who, at some point, never progressed beyond achieving distinction on sandlots and in playgrounds.

 

 

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From professional experience, which means writing for pay and actual publication, I have learned:

— to become less fearful of criticism and failure as a writer

— to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and how to “shoehorn” in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space

— becoming hyper attuned to the actual editor who you turn your work into, and to the “editor in the sky,” and thereby to become more vigilant and careful in trying to avoid errors, having the final, published piece and how it will look always very much in one’s consciousness (a rule of thumb I learned when working as a freelancer for a daily newspaper: if your pieces go into the paper virtually unedited, that means you are meeting expectations and can consider yourself a success)

— continually engaging in fact checking as one writes (the way a copy editor does) and not relying on someone else to do it for you — in short, having a hyper sense of responsibility when it comes to accuracy. (A good writer knows that when one is sloppy about facts — as well as about grammar, for that matter — the whole piece is likely to be called into question.)

— being very alert to one’s audience — that is, readers — and cautious about making assertions or stating facts that might be ambiguous or questionable.

Regarding the “inner editor,” I notice that nonprofessional writers — good ones, well-educated ones — frequently make the same mistakes repeatedly because they lack professional experience. For example, a professional writer working in a newsroom or for a publishing firm knows where a period or comma goes: inside or outside closing quotation marks. Some basic style points have never been learned by amateurs who are otherwise excellent writers. The same thing with spelling. I never really learned to spell until I wrote professionally. An instructor I had in journalism school (a longtime New York Times reporter) told the class that there was zero tolerance in the newsroom for stories submitted with any errors whatsoever, including typos. Another way of putting this is that any professional (including writers) learns at the outset of his or her career some common mistakes to avoid. But you can spot the amateurs because of the obvious errors (small but nevertheless “impermissible” ones) they make.

 

 

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I worked for four years in the publishing industry before getting my first freelance writing assignments. My job was writing advertising copy for scholarly/technical books and textbooks. The job and subsequent ones enabled me to acquire an essential skill: how to process and digest information for rendering, so to speak, in publishable form.

Someone hands you a prospectus — often no more — of a book about to be published. One of the first I ever wrote advertising copy for was a textbook on neurology. From a professor’s dry summary of a few paragraphs (often leaving out key points that would be relevant from a sales point of view), I would come up with a cogent, readable advertising brochure. I faced similar challenges early on as a freelance writer for reference book publishers and as a freelance reporter for a daily metropolitan newspaper and a business magazine. One has to dig for information and quotes, weigh them, verify them, then do the best one can with what one has by way of facts/information and quotes. Until one has worked for a daily newspaper, I doubt anyone realizes how difficult it can be to get good quotes. To get an interview. To dig out information and verify its accuracy. I once wrote a routine article having to do with an elementary school. I was at my cubicle in the newsroom for a good part of the evening calling a source again and again to make sure I had all of the school personnel’s names spelled correctly and got other facts about the school (from the picayune to what some of the major issues were) right.

The editor of the business magazine liked my writing and had me writing a couple of stories every month, including cover stories. When you are a beginning writer, you are thrilled to get any sort of assignment.

The editor asked me to write an article about cooling systems (e.g., fans) used in commercial buildings, which ones were most cost and energy efficient and so on. It was not a topic of interest to me, but it was to businesspeople in the area, and that was what mattered to the editor. Needless to say, I had zero knowledge, but I interviewed building managers, asking them not only which systems they preferred but also to educate and bring me up to speed on the subject.

I pulled it off a la James Cagney.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

 

 

‘vocabulary building’ – updated December 2018

 

 

The following are some exchanges about VOCABULARY (no less) that I have had recently, via email, with friends and relatives, with persons who share my interests, and with readers of my blog.

 

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to a relative (to whom I was writing about my habit of walking):

 

I just Googled peregrinations. It was absolutely right. I’m impressed with my own vocabulary! I rarely seem to use the wrong word. And you thought Muhammed Ali was boastful!

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, a Theodore Dreiser scholar:

 

I love to learn new words. There is one in the article you sent me: mite. [The article was about a late nineteenth century chaplain who used to solicit money for the homeless in New York City.] It usually means an arachnid (a small one). But it also has another connotation, and is just the right word for the context in the article you sent me — it’s the perfect word here. Among the meanings of the word mite are a very small contribution or amount of money. I love when words are used with such precision, and when a writer nails it. It demonstrates the power a good vocabulary can invest in a writer.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Clare Bruyère, a scholar and friend who lives in France:

 

I have always been assiduous about vocabulary. People tell me I have an excellent one.

I was reading a 1971 article in The New York Times Book Review by Edward Dahlberg (d. 1977), an American novelist, essayist and autobiographer, the other day. He uses a slew of words unknown to me.

His vocabulary is impressive, to put it mildly. He used quite a few words I had never seen before, and others that I was only faintly acquainted with. And, he used them all absolutely correctly.

Words used by Dahlberg, all in the same article: “mulligrubs” (ill temper; colic; grumpiness); “slubbered” (performed in a slipshod fashion); “scatophagous” (said here of Rabelais; means habitually feeding on dung, e.g., a scatophagous beetle); “musky” (of or like musk, i.e., the odor of same; a musky perfume; connotation: pungent); “exsanguinous” (adjective; means destitute of blood or apparently so; synonym: bloodless); “the sherds in the Mount Sinai Desert” (a sherd, or more precisely, potsherd, is commonly a historic or prehistoric fragment of pottery, although the term is occasionally used to refer to fragments of stone and glass vessels, as well; occasionally, a piece of broken pottery may be referred to as a shard); “scribble addle words” (addle: adjective, archaic; means rotten; said of an egg); “scullion reviewers” (noun, archaic: a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks); “Shakespeare scholiasts” (a scholiast is a commentator on ancient or classical literature); “cully” (noun; British; archaic, informal: a man, friend); “our wormy, desiccated subway” (wormy: adjective; said of organic tissue; means infested with or eaten into by worms; or of wood or a wooden object, full of holes made by woodworm; when said of a person, means weak, abject, or revolting).

 

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to the Tim Robinson, editor of Penguin edition of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands:

 

Your introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words and expressions such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth.

 
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email from a reader of this blog:
Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in your email of yesterday. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?

 
my reply:

 

“Sans” was used playfully (as you realize). Using another word unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep the reader awake, and sometimes help to nail a point. Foreign words can often be used for effect, variation, to amuse the reader, or to keep him on his toes.

For example, “trottoir,” as you know, is the French word for sidewalk. Walt Whitman, who was not actually well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words on occasion, mostly French ones. (“Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway” is a line from Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta”.) He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language. The other day in a blog post, I asked, “are big words verboten in writing?” Obviously, I could have used prohibited. I was using the German equivalent playfully, with irony.

 
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email from a reader of this blog:

As for vocabulary, I don’t question your accuracy and knowledge, but sometimes question your choice. Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in your Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

 

my reply:

I see your point, but one often strains to find the mot juste. Autochthonous was the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Edward Dahlberg challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. Simplicity is a virtue, but simplification because many or most readers haven’t encountered a word before is not necessarily required. William F. Buckley, Jr. could be pedantic and a showoff, but I actually liked the way he used big, arcane words. He used them well (as did Samuel Johnson two centuries earlier). Big words and arcane or archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided; it depends on the context. Autochthonous was the perfect word to describe Dreiser. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able to use such not commonly used words when appropriate.
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email from a reader of this blog:

You often try to use inflated vocabulary words in your quest to dazzle.

 

 

My hypothetical response (I didn’t actually send it):

I do have an impressive vocabulary, now that you mention it. I use it well: a big word when called for, often a simple one.

 

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to two close acquaintances:

 

I ran across the word “portentous” in a book this evening.

 

portentous

adjective

1. of or like a portent

“portentous signs”

synonyms: ominous, warning, premonitory, threatening, menacing, ill-omened, foreboding, inauspicious, unfavorable

2. done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.

“portentous moralizings; portentous dialogue”

synonyms: pompous, bombastic, self-important, pontifical, solemn, sonorous, grandiloquent

 

pretentious

adjective

1. attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.

“a pretentious literary device”

synonyms: affected, ostentatious, showy

 

Portentous is more or less a new word for me. It’s hard to keep the two (portentous vs. pretentious) straight.

 

 
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How I Built a Good Vocabulary

 

Any language expert or English teacher will tell you: A good vocabulary is developed only by reading, not from conversation.

There is another obvious factor, which certainly pertains in my case: I have always assiduously looked up words. I began to cultivate the habit early and have never stopped, so that if I don’t look up a word, I feel a sense of something being neglected. My high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, used to repeat the mantra: look up a word three times and it’s yours.

I still look up words conscientiously, including ones of which I may have a prior idea as to their meaning and those whose meaning I may be able to guess from the context. I want to nail their meaning down, be precise. (For a writer, this is invaluable.) And, then, I am interested in etymologies. I like to learn the origins of words. Doing so can help one remember what they mean. An example is juggernaut, meaning a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution — it’s a word I learned long ago. An example of its use might be “The Trump juggernaut swept him into office.” The origin of juggernaut is fascinating. From an online etymological dictionary:

juggernaut: An idea, custom, fashion, etc., that demands either blind devotion or merciless sacrifice. A figurative use of Juggernaut, “a huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna,” especially that at the town of Puri, drawn annually in procession during which (apocryphally) devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. [The word comes from Sanskrit.]

 

 

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Argot and Foreign Words; the King’s English

 

An ear for slang helps when it comes to vocabulary acquisition — it helps, say, to know what wannabe or gladhandler means — as well as a readiness to converse with others from different backgrounds, cultures, and of different ethnicities (including foreigners). Foreign languages have their own words that don’t translate (ennui, bête noir). And, of course, there are the fabulous Yiddish words, which I never heard in my native New England, words such as klutz, kvetsh, mentsh, meshuga, shlep, shlemiel, tchotchke, and yenta.

Foreign language study and knowledge, of course, help greatly, especially a knowledge of Greek and Latin. It was a commonplace when I was in high school that Latin would provide a good foundation for learning English words and their meanings, as well as a basis for the study of other languages (and of grammar). I found this to be true. I have always wished that I could have learned Greek.

It goes without saying that being a native English speaker (born, as was my case, to native English speakers) is a huge advantage. I grew up imbibing the King’s English like my mother’s milk.

 

 

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Vocabulary as a Tool on the Writer’s Workbench

 

Having an excellent vocabulary increases — exponentially as more and more new words are acquired — one’s mastery as a writer.

Vocabulary gives a writer power. Words assist and go along with complexity of thought.

It’s something akin to a composer mastering different modes and tonalities or scales, or, say, tone color, so that a piece can be scored for different instruments used for maximum effect at various places in the score. When is a particular chord appropriate? Which key? Considerations of timbre, pitch, tonality, resonance all require prior knowledge, familiarity. In the same manner, a writer has to be familiar with words beforehand and to have a store he or she can draw upon. It’s too late to start looking them up in a thesaurus; if one doesn’t already know them, one won’t feel comfortable using them.

As vocabulary increases, precision of thought increases. More subtle distinctions can be made. There are a zillion ways, for example, to say that someone is shifty and manipulative. Which is the right one? To repeat: vocabulary permits ever more subtle distinctions to be made. In describing people, situations, emotions, ideas, and so forth.

When writing, I don’t like to use words that I don’t already know. They have to already be in my quiver, my “word silo” (to mix metaphors). I do not make it a practice to seek, look up, a new (for me) word and then use it so as to (among other things) impress others with my vocabulary. But, I will admit that, lately, when I am searching for a word, I will look for synonyms on the internet. What’s the best way to say desperate? I may know that there’s a better word for my purposes, but I can’t think of it. It helps to see a list of alternative choices. But I won’t use a word that I don’t already know. I have to have a “comfort level” with the word in question.

In the case of autochthonous, which I used to describe Theodore Dreiser, the word came to mind, somehow. It was lodged in my brain. I wasn’t sure if I had used it correctly. I looked it up, and sure enough, it seemed like just the right word. Do you think before a composer sits down to write a piece, that, at that moment, he opens a music theory text or songbook to look for melodies, chords, or styles? Of course not. They’ve got to already be in his brain, so to speak. This requires extensive experience on the part of the composer with music as a listener (as a student, so to speak; as an active listener to the works of composers from various periods representing a wide variety of styles). The same thing is crucial in writing, namely, extensive reading on the part of the writer, and what goes with it: the assimilation not only of styles but also of words.

What I find is that, if the word is there somewhere, which is to say in my mental “word silo,” then fortuitous choices get made. You often chose words almost by instinct or gut feeling; you have the option of going back and checking later to (which I often do) to make sure you have used the word correctly. But, having words already there in your mental storehouse makes it a lot of fun to write, feeling very pleased with yourself when the right one pops into your head, and you, think, “Got it! That’s perfect.” It’s mentally pleasurable. It’s actually a matter of ear, just as is the case with composers. People think vocabulary is drudgery, something you have to learn by rote to get a good SAT score. Actually, words are very much part of the creative process — the writing process, that is — an essential ingredient.

We have all had the experience in conversation of sort of reaching for a word. It’s there somewhere; we want to grab it out of thin air. So we can nail a thought.

When one does so, there is a palpable sense of satisfaction; the opposite, frustration, is the case when the word eludes us. When it comes to colloquy, arguments, political debate, rejoinders, irony, sarcasm, and the like, vocabulary is a definite factor and can make or break the speaker or writer. If the expression rapier wit connotes sharpness, then a good vocabulary will sharpen the blade while a limited vocabulary will blunt it.

 

 

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Dictionaries

 

I have to have a dictionary at hand when I read. For years, I have kept replacing my dictionary due to its being battered, the spine broken and the cover torn from use. I would always buy the same one: Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It has clear, lucid, well written definitions and good etymologies. There are a lot of Americanisms. The dictionary provides sensitive guidance on usage, unlike the infamous Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961).

My Webster’s New World contains entries for all the words I ever need to look up; there has hardly ever been an exception. I never cared for unabridged dictionaries or found them useful. I purchased one, The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, from a book club once and found that I almost never used it. It seemed to me that the dictionary’s bulk was a product of having all sorts of variant forms of the same word listed as separate entries and including entries for lots of technical and specialized vocabulary used in fields such as aeronautics or organic chemistry, say, that the ordinary reader would never need to look up. And, anyway, I much prefer the clear, well written definitions in Webster’s New World.

 

 
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Newspeak

 

 

Is a writer is obliged to always use the most common, simplest word?

No. Thank God such a rule isn’t enforced.

A point made by one of my readers to this effect — i.e., that the simpler, more common alternative should be chosen (see above) — has gotten me to think about the analogy with Newspeak. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania.

Syme, who is working on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston Smith:

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?

(See fuller excerpt below.)

Note: I am not against the use of plain, simple, and common words a priori. The important thing, in my opinion, is that words be used correctly, and that they be used well. The key determinant is context. Variety, meaning that sometimes big words are used and at other times short, simple, and pithy ones, can enliven a piece of writing.

There’s another determinative factor here. What kind of writing are we talking about? An evocative piece about a walk in the woods? A prose poem? A piece of literary criticism? A philosophical tract? Vocabulary will vary accordingly. And, yes, a highfallutin word might spoil that descriptive piece about your nature walk.

 

 

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Vocabulary Is Built by Reading

 

I wish to note that I am not trying to emulate Noah Webster or compile a vocabulary primer. Almost all of the words and expressions I have learned over the past year or so were encountered in my recent reading. If you are inclined to say, that’s impressive, I would be inclined to respond by saying: proves my point: vocabulary is built by reading.

 

 
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Acquiring Vocab from the Greats

 

Different writers, ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens and from Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, have their favorite words — often arcane ones –which they will use repeatedly, and this will augment one’s vocabulary. (Plus, in the case of a great writer such as Shakespeare, their coinages.) It goes without saying that literature will broaden one’s vocabulary, from pithy, evocative words to high-flown abstract ones. Usually, these words will be used wisely and well, effectively.

And, then, different disciplines have their own vocabulary and buzzwords. An avid reader with wide ranging interests will pick up many words this way. This could include specialized words used in various professions and industries and in technical fields which often have a wider use. And, the reader who is not limited to deep reading in just one field (e.g., literature) but ranges far abroad (to, say, history or the social sciences, philosophy, the pure sciences, and so on) will acquire vocabulary which, needless to say, has a wide applicability and, in itself, can broaden knowledge.

 

 

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Concrete vs. Abstract

 

Many of the words I have looked up denote very specific things that one can visualize, e.g., berm, cladding, scantling. These words, because they are so specific, I find harder to remember, if, as is often the case, they refer to some observation I would not be inclined to make, for example, carpentry, a beach, building materials, and the like. Yet, they still intrigue me, especially their etymologies.

Maureen Dowd in a New York Times op ed piece used the word cratering to characterize Richard Nixon’s downfall. One would ordinarily think of crater, a concrete noun (a crater on the moon). But here she was using a verb which denotes a concept. I find it easier to remember the meaning of abstract words.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    August 2017

 

 

 
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Appendix:

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; an excerpt from Part One, Chapter 5

 

 

“How is the Dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,” he said almost sadly. “Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in ‘The Times’ occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

overwriting

 

The following is the text of an email of mine to a relative, dated February 17, 2000.  It was buried in one of my file cabinets:

 

From today’s New York Post

“Lake Placid: My Winter Blunder-Land,” feature article by Gersh Kuntzman:

At 22, [Oksana] Baiul still looks like the day she won the Olympic gold in Lillehammer in 1994. Her face is the classic Russian mix of Dostoevskian brashness, Tokstoyan grace and Chekhovian petulance.

Would you not agree that this verbally gifted writer has — with dashing brio and a wonderful mélange of ingredients comprised of piquancy, élan, brio, and mellifluence, admixed with a dollop of not un-Russian tartar sauce and relish — brilliantly grasped the essence of the Slav “mystique”? [RWS comment]

 

*****************************************************

 

Addendum:

 

Taking another look at this over the top sentence (the second one from the Post article, above), it strikes me how some writers, in their eagerness to dazzle, have scant regard for anything approaching accuracy. The mot juste, the phrase which nails an impression or idea are desiderata — nicht wahr? The writer no doubt thought calling Oksana Baiul the epitome of “Dostoevskian brashness” would impress readers. But, are Dostoevsky’s characters known for brashness? And, what is “Chekhovian petulance,” I would like to know? Is it different from Dostoevskian petulance?

Goes to show that, proves the point: the first responsibility of a writer to his readers is accuracy.  Once the reader can trust you on that score, you can go ahead and try to be clever. But even that might blow up in your face.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 
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COMMENTS:

 

Neha Sharma August 4, 2018:

I agree so much with this. You don’t ever want to make your reader feel cheated. What a writer wants with their reader is a long-term bond, not a one-time hustle, and that only comes with building trust.

 

Roger W. Smith, August 4, 2018:

Thank you, Neha. These are very insightful comments on your part.

Saul Bellow on writing

 

 

“I think … that the insistence on neatness and correctness [in writing] is one of the signs of a modern nervousness and irritability. When has clumsiness in composition been felt as so annoying, so enraging? The “good” writing of the New Yorker is such that one experiences a furious anxiety, in reading it, about errors and lapses from taste; finally, what emerges is a terrible hunger for conformity and uniformity. The smoothness of the surface and its high polish must not be marred. One has a similar anxiety in reading a novelist like Hemingway and comes to feel in the end that Hemingway wants to be praised for the offenses he does not commit. He is dependable; he never names certain emotions or ideas, and he takes pride in that—it is a form of honor. In it, really, there is submissiveness, acceptance of restriction.”

— Saul Bellow, “Dreiser and the Triumph of Art,” Commentary, May 1951
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I agree with Bellow. I admire good writing, never cease trying to study and learn from it, deplore lapses including those caused by ignorance of style and grammar points. And, yet, a writer must dare to write and be guided by the subject and fidelity to the truth of experience. I have always felt that The New Yorker was overrated, for precisely the reasons Bellow states. Writers writing well, often about not much of anything, with an archness that leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled.

— Roger W. Smith

    July 2018
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COMMENT
I agree with you, Roger.

Writers in the New Yorker never have anything meaningful to say.

Saul Bellow put it well. It’s a matter of writers aiming high, as your writings consistently show.

 

— Janet James, July 16, 2018

My freshman comp instructor would be turning in his grave.

 

 

Re:

 

”Maybe abusive authors don’t belong on my bookshelf. But what about in my classroom?”

by Sandra Beasley

The Washington Post

May 14, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/14/maybe-abusive-authors-dont-belong-on-my-bookshelf-but-what-about-my-classroom/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d649e40e0746
Read this op-ed, if you can bear to — it’s painful to read — and tell me what you think.

 

 

 

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I posted a comment on the Washington Post’s comments page in which I stated:

 

Has anyone noticed that writing instructor Beasley herself can’t write?

“American University, where I often adjunct.” [Adjunct has been ordained as a verb?]

“Most of our craft learning is subsequently channeled through eight to 10 books.”

“I have always emphasized the writer as a fully dimensioned being. What do I do when those dimensional flaws are revealed?”

“That does not make this is a bucolic dawn of justice.”

“These behaviors are not exclusive along heterosexual lines, nor do only cis men commit them, nor have we given proper attention to compounding violence based on class and disability.”

“To put someone on a syllabus is to privilege them with our attention.”

“Are we inviting students into a tall tower from which the world is viewed at a distance? Or are we giving them a compass to navigate toward the horizon?”

“Or choose other authors. To not allow dynamics of our era to inflect how we teach is to gird the argument that literature is a self-contained and impractical pursuit. If your principal hesitation is that you’ll struggle to come up with replacement authors while remaining inclusive, consider that the diversity you’ve congratulated yourself on is merely tokenism in disguise.”

“When you are a writer who learns a beloved author has a dark side, you experience waves of disillusionment. When you teach that author’s work, you feel an additional stab of concern. …”

ENOUGH.

Writing such as this would have horrified my freshman comp instructor. It makes the opaque jargon of sociologists by comparison sound Churchillian.

 

 

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Regarding the content/message of this op-ed, I thoroughly disagree. Several comments (see below) posted on the Washington Post’s site by readers of Ms. Beasley’s op-ed say essentially the same things I would be inclined to. The comments which follow are theirs and not mine, but their views are in agreement with views of my own:

If you follow the highly flawed logic of this, then by all means throw out all of Lincoln’s speeches or maybe mention of Lincoln in schools–I am totally sure that, by today’s standards, Lincoln would be sexist, homophobic, transgender-phobic and racist too. Oh yes, and implode the Lincoln Memorial too. Suppose Kubrick said something sexist or racist 55 years ago–so “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange” should be jettisoned from film and cultural history? This all sounds a little, no a lot, Orwellian here.

Historical revisionism is not a way to teach. Should we stop talking about the Crusades because some people were abused? What about the Roman Empire? We have to look at people according to the mores of their times. Lots of people were anti-Semitic back then, and approved of black slavery, and treated women like servants.

So we should get rid of the classics then? Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, etc. make some very racially insensitive statements in their books. Who knows, maybe Mark Twain slapped his wife around a bit, it is rumored that Emily Bronte had an incestuous relationship with her brother. Every single writer from the 19th century would fail #me too scrutiny … heck, even the bible would fall short!

Am I the only one beginning to worry that when the right has finished burning all the books they find morally objectionable, and the left has finished burning all the books they find morally objectionable, we’ll be left with nothing at all?

Censorship has always been the one thing both sides have been able to agree on, although for completely different reasons.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

     May 2018

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

 

 

The reflections of mine which follow concern a point of grammar that bothers me. The usage which I object to occurred in the following article which I was reading on Monday.

“Casualties of the Cashless Society: Those Who Get Seasonal Tips”

by Douglas Quenqua

The New York Times

December 18, 2017

 

 

 

It is not a unique occurrence or example. The passage in the Times article was as follows:

“It’s a peculiar quirk of modern city life. The stock market is on fire, unemployment is down, and the average price of a Manhattan apartment is now more than $2 million. Yet good luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse.”

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Note “HER purse.”

I have a problem with this.

The reporter, if he wanted to be politically correct, could have used the awkward locution “his or her” (i.e., “his or her purse”), which I don’t particularly care for. (Nevertheless, I myself use it when I feel called upon by context to do so. But, I don’t feel obligated to use it. It depends upon my writerly instincts. In my opinion, that’s the way it should be. My or anyone else’s writing should be based upon personal preferences in matters of style, not a ukase from a language czar.)

But, the Times writer wants to show off his PC credentials with his in your face “her.” It is meant to produce a frisson in male chauvinist types. But, it actually amounts to “incivility,” so to speak, when it comes to conventions of language and audience expectations. By “audience expectations,” I mean those of the Times’s readers. If you think this is an extreme point of view, see discussions of how a writer should always keep his or her audience uppermost in mind as a “first principle” of composition in books such as June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. The unexpected “she,” rather than “he,” or “he or she,” produces a sensation of disorientation — and temporary confusion — in the discriminating reader.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

“[G]ood luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse” annoys me. I quoted the passage to a friend of mine (a male) with an advanced degree who has very liberal views on politics, affirmative action, sexism, homophobia, and other issues and asked him what he thought. He agreed with me. He didn’t like the use of “her” in this instance and said it annoyed him too.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Re pronouns indicating gender, such as Ms.

I consider Ms. to be an abomination.

The abbreviation Mrs. signifies a beautiful honorific pronounced as Missus, and the honorific Miss, which is not abbreviated, has a beautiful sound (unlike the atrocious and downright ugly Ms., which is unpronounceable, but who cares? — we shall not have sexism in the workplace!). We are talking about ancient words embedded in our glorious language.

The French have the abbreviations M., spelled out and pronounced as the elegant Monsieur; and Mme and Mlle, pronounced and spelled out, respectively, as the euphonious Madame and the even more euphonious Mademoiselle. What a beautiful word.

What about the Spanish Srta. for the beautiful sounding honorific Señorita? Have the language police come up with an ugly substitute (one that does not indicate marital status) yet? I fear that they have.

I wonder if “Mademoiselle,” the 1970’s hit by the rock band Styx, will have to be retitled in the name of political correctness.

And what about the hit song “Adios Senorita” by Ivory Joe Hunter, which is still played? Title change? It’s never too late to correct the past sins of a benighted, politically incorrect lyricist.

More ominously, what about the musical Miss Saigon? Should the title be allowed to stand? Should it be changed to “Ms. Saigon”?

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

This is not nitpicking on my part, and it is not a trivial matter. Ask New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris, author of the best seller Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. As she says, “Pronouns run deep.” The PC types are all for conservation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.

If a reader of this blog disagrees with me, she is welcome to post a comment.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 December 20, 2017

 
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COMMENTS

 

Pete Smith, December 20, 2017

While there are silly uses of PC language (such as he/she), I disagree in some respects with this post. The use of the word purse in the NY Times sentence is important here. It might have been different if the phrase were “finding some change in her pocket” (though I’m not sure), but the image conjured is one of a woman fishing in her purse to tip a doorman so the word “her” is unquestionably called for here. (I know that men sometimes use purses too but let’s not go there).

As for Ms., Ms. Saigon would be stupid I agree. But the term Ms. originated when the women’s movement complained legitimately that for females the world was differentiating always between married and unmarried while the word Mr. applies to both married and unmarried males.

I have no problem using the word Ms.; it’s respectful of what many women want. Further, what would you call my wife, Mrs. Marsh? She kept her last name when she married me, and she is no longer married to Mr. Marsh, so in her case she is not Mrs. Marsh and calling her Mrs. Smith would be an insult. But of course, you can call her Marcia. . .

Overall, I like it when writers can word things so that the word “their” replaces “his” or “her” and I dislike it when writers go through contortions trying to be politically correct. I agree with you there. But if in an essay a writer uses his half the time and her the other half when referring to the generic personal possessive, it doesn’t bother me at all.

 

 

Roger W. Smith, December 20, 2017

You make some good points. You do have a point about a woman reaching for change in her purse vs. a man in his wallet. Nevertheless, I think the Times writer was “showing off,” hoping readers and probably his editors would admire his political correctness.

June Casagrande says a writer should always keep the reader and the reader’s expectations in mind. What the Times writer is doing is trying to impress and discombobulate the reader for no good reason.

Ms. is downright ugly.

Mary Norris dislikes — in fact, strongly disapproves of — “their” as the generic pronoun for a person (singular) whose gender is unspecified. I agree. She points out that their is PLURAL. Why should the language police be allowed to fuck up the language to conform to their agenda? I love and respect the intricacy of languages’ grammatical structures. Ralph told me, if I remember correctly, that Icelandic has manifold forms of the definite article. (Russian has no articles.) This fascinated me. Should the language police be authorized to undertake a study of Icelandic definite and indefinite articles with a review to assessing whether they need “retooling” in the name of political correctness? Should the Academie Francaise consider making nouns like “la table” neuter so that no one might, just possibly, be offended?

If a writer used “her” and “his” willy nilly in an essay — with no apparent reason or basis (an exception might be a book about Dick and Jane in which the writer switches constantly between referring to one or the other) — that would be pointless and confusing.

 

 

Luanne, December 20, 2017

Very interesting piece, Roger. I had to look up the word “ukase,” by the way. As a woman, my first thought was “why is the writer zeroing in on women who carry purses to talk about tips?” Don’t men give tips? At least as often (more often in this marriage). And purses can be for men or women or that whole long list of new genders I saw the other day. So I found the focus to be very narrow. It wasn’t even politically correct, if you think about it from that perspective. I’d call it a poor writing choice. I think “wallet” would be more appropriate than “purse.” Maybe we should be relieved that it doesn’t read, “anyone with paper money in their purse.”

 

 

Pete Smith, December 20, 2017

Of course “their” is plural. You missed my point — you can rewrite the subjects to make them plural to make “their” work; I do this often.

The Times isn’t perfect, but you clearly have a bias against them.

Who are the language police? Your blog sounds like you’re one of them.

I am not suggesting that the French change the structure of the language. I am suggesting that your bias is clouding your thinking. A purse is usually “hers,” not “his” and your reaction to a very normal sentence in the NY Times article is revealing.

 

 

Roger W. Smith, December 20, 2017

I belong to the language police? That’s a good one. To get an idea of what I have in mind, read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then read op-ed pieces and manifestos by zealous academics and language mavens on the subject. You might start with

 

 

I’m surprised you don’t know what I’m talking about with respect to the misuse of “their.” An example would be: “An applicant should be mindful of their appearance when preparing for an interview.”

I happen to admire quite a few New York Times writers and have occasionally commented on this in my posts. I think the Times is better written than practically all other newspapers. But, they do look foolish sometimes (in my opinion) when they try to be politically correct. And, it doesn’t help that they fired all their copy editors.

Perhaps I did overreact to one phrase in the Times article. It set me off. But my thinking is not clouded. My points are valid and are clearly and forcefully presented. What’s happening is scary. People are trying to retool the language for ideological reasons. It’s not that far out to suggest that “la table,” Senorita, and God knows what other fact of grammar which we took for granted and enjoyed studying in school will perhaps be subject to the censor’s knife.

 

 

Roger W. Smith, December 20, 2017

Appreciate your feedback, Luanne. Thanks. We’re on the same page. Perhaps that’s because we’re both writers who care about language. (And love learning new words like “ukase.”) We’re an endangered species!

 

 

Pete Smith, December 20, 2017

Again you missed my point. The sentence, if I wrote it, would be “Applicants should be mindful of their appearance when preparing for an interview.”

 

 

Roger W. Smith, December 20, 2017

Yes, you can rewrite it this way. But, there are many examples of misusage where “their” is used for an antecedent which is singular. See the discussion on pp. 69-70 of the Mary Norris book “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.”

 

 

Pete Smith, December 20, 2017

So direct your complaints to people misusing grammar, not to me, OK?

 

 

Luanne, December 21, 2017

We are an endangered species! By the way, I am looking forward to using “ukase” on my family history blog (about my husband’s Jewish Ukrainian ancestors). I suspect that there are many “ukases” in their past!

grammar (again!)

 

 

“A documentary that aired on Britain’s Channel 4 two weeks ago generated news about how much sex — or not so much — Charles and Diana were having as their marriage cratered, mostly because Charles could not get over his one true love, Camilla Parker-Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall, who he later married.”

 

— “Princes William and Harry are all grown up, and their mother would be proud,” by Karla Adam and William Booth, The Washington Post, August 28, 2017

 

 

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These two reporters do not know that it should be WHOM he later married.

If, like me, you were carefully taught the eight parts of speech in elementary school, you would have learned that there are such things as PRONOUNS; for example, the pronoun who and its variant form whom.

This would have enabled you (as it did me) to better understand how language works. A pronoun such as who when it is a subject is who, but when it is an object, it becomes whom. Elementary, my dear Watson! So we were taught by prim fussy schoolmarms eons ago. (Don’t ask me to explain why this type of variation — in spelling — occurs with pronouns and not nouns.)

But now, it’s considered to be too much to ask schoolchildren to be taxed with such lessons. And, it also seems to be considered a waste of time.

I would be willing to bet that a lot of schoolteachers nowadays don’t know the parts of speech themselves, or how they function.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  August 29, 2017

 

 

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COMMENTS

 

 

Carol Hay

August 29, 2017

“Prim fussy schoolmarms”? Rather sexist and stereotyping of teachers. Is that what I was? And how do you know teachers no longer teach grammar? I and my colleagues did! Many students rarely read these days; perhaps their not learning grammar very well is due more to this fact rather than poor teaching.

Very insulting, condescending, and ignorant comments about teachers.

 
Thomas P. Riggio

August 29, 2017

Technically you’re correct, of course. But common usage nowadays has dumped the distinction, at least in the USA. I think because “whom” sounds so British and a bit academic. It’s gone the way of which and that! Language and usage is always evolving.

 

 

Roger W. Smith

August 29, 2017

Tom -– former (?) New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris does a great job of addressing such issues in Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, sensibly. She’s a stickler for correct grammar, but takes great pains to show why it matters and why we should care. She also tackles thorny issues of usage such as when to use which vs. that.