Old English and a New Cuss Word--On Word Choice

Think of every barnyard animal you know. Cow. Pig. Chicken. Sheep. Horse. Duck. Goose. Every one of those words derives from Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). if you were to kick around the farm with the poet who wrote Beowulf, the two of you would use the same words (or, in any case, very similar words) for all the animals you saw (except turkeys; turkeys didn't come to England until five or eight centuries after the Beowulf poet died). And, by the way, you would even use all the same words for the male and female variations for each animal. Bull, boar, sow, rooster, hen, ram, ewe, mare, drake, and gander are all Old English words. The one exception is stallion, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

But when the farmer calls you in for dinner, your easy communication with the Beowulf poet will quickly break down. When farm animals move from the barnyard to the dinner table, they drop their Old English names. The cow is now beef. The pig is pork. The sheep is mutton. The chicken, duck, and gooseare now poultry.

If you've ever taken a class in the history of the English language, you already know why all the names for barnyard animals derive from Anglo-Saxon and all the names for meat are of Latin origin. In 1066 AD the Norman French, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. King Harold II took an arrow through the eyeball, and that was the end of the Anglo-Saxons' rule over the island that was named for them (England=Angle-Land). 

The Anglo-Saxons didn't go anywhere. The population of Britain was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon; but the ruling families were all French. The guy out in the barnyard or pasture taking care of the chickens and sheep and pigs and cows and ducks and geese was Anglo-Saxon; there was no reason for him to change the names he called the animals. But when those same animals were slaughtered and cooked for the French landowner and his family, they thoroughly enjoyed their boeuf or porc or moton or poulterie. (That Anglo-Saxon farmhand, by the way, wasn't getting a lot of meat. He was eating a lot of beansand peas--both Old English words.)

Though the French ousted the Anglo-Saxon nobility in England, the French language never ousted the Anglo-Saxon language. Instead, Anglo-Saxon (Old English) absorbed thousands and thousands of French (that is to say, Latinate) words. For the most part, those new French words didn't replace the English words. They were simply added to the English lexicon. So our language has countless word-pairs in which a word of Old English origin and a word of Latinate origin mean the same thing.

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Spontaneous Human Combustion--What a Stroke of Luck!

When I was a boy, I read a comic book about which I remember only one scene: the protagonists are being menaced by a bad guy with a gun. They get backed into a corner (literally, if memory serves, not figuratively), and just when it is obvious that there is no way they could possibly escape, the bad guy bursts into flames right before their eyes. One protagonist turns to the other and says, "Spontaneous human combustion: what a stroke of luck!"

This is an extreme case of a storytelling offense known as deus ex machina--literally, the god out of the machinery. The term derives from the Roman theater; as Roman theatergoers' appetite grew for novelty and plot twists (not to mention mistaken identities and twins separated at birth), the plots of Roman plays grew increasingly complex. In fact, they sometimes grew so convoluted that the playwrights gave up on actually resolving the complications in a narratively believable way. Instead, they would write a scene in which a god would appear and resolve all the characters' problems with the wave of a wand. That way, everybody could get home at a reasonable hour. The actor playing the god would often be lowered on a rope from machinery installed in the rafters for this purpose. Hence the phrase, the god out of the machinery, deus ex machina.

While many of us believe that there actually is a God who is fully able to reach out of the machinery of the universe to resolve problems of human making--a God who often does just that (and, indeed, who made the machinery)--few of us are interested in stories in which a human writer invents problems which he then resolves by inventing a divine intervention, or a happy coincidence or a timely case of spontaneous human combustion.

The deus ex machina highlights a tension that exists in almost all storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction. When we tell stories, we are balancing goals that are often at odds with one another. On the one hand, the storyteller is always trying to depict events that feel true to the way things actually happen in the world God made. On the other hand, the writer has other goals as well: he wants to communicate information that the reader needs to know in order to make sense of the story--information about characters and their relations to one another, information about setting, perhaps information about events that have led up to the events of the story at hand. He wants to create tension, then resolve that tension.* It isn't always easy to harmonize these goals with the goal of writing stories that feel true to real life.

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Good Grammar v. Proper Usage--And a Word About Grammar Bullies

Good grammar is one of the most important ways that you love your readers. 

Grammar instruction usually focuses on proper usage. This approach is writer-centric, not reader-centric. You learn correct usage so that your reader will know that you are intelligent, educated, and part of the club. You know the difference between its and it’s. You know the difference between their and there and they’re.

I’m not opposed to correct usage, of course. I strive for it myself. But I strive for correct usage because I love myself, not because I love my reader. I want people to think I’m intelligent, educated, and part of the club.

So what might a reader-centric view of grammar look like? For one thing, it focuses on the truth that good grammar guides a reader from idea to idea to idea; grammar is a way of managing a reader’s expectations for receiving new information. 

Good grammar, then, isn’t a way of demonstrating a writer’s expertise, but a way of reaching out to the reader. It says, “Look here, dear reader, I want to show you something.” Grammar is the rules of the road for verbal clarity. And clarity is one of the most important ways you demonstrate a love for your material and a love for your reader. 

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When You Can't Get No Satisfaction: Double Negatives

President Trump has always been a practitioner of idiosyncratic grammar and syntax. “I have the best words,” he once announced. But if you write much, you know that having the best words is only half the battle—actually, less than half the battle. More important is arranging words in a meaningful order. Also, it is important to use words in a way that corresponds to reality. 

Last week, President Trump drew attention to that much-maligned grammatical construction, the double negative. There are two quite distinct uses of the double negative: one is socially acceptable, and one is less socially acceptable. 

In school you were taught not to say things like “I don’t have no money” or “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Your English teacher probably got a very prim look on his or her face and said something along these lines: “Two negatives make a positive, so ‘I don’t have no money’ means you DO have money.”

Well, maybe. But I don’t think anybody in the history of the world ever heard Mick Jagger sing, “I can’t get no satisfaction” and thought, “Sounds like Mick Jagger is able to get some satisfaction.”

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The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment

I often tell people that Flannery O'Connor once wrote "the eye is an organ of judgment." Turns out, she never wrote that. When I typed "the eye is an organ of judgment" into the Google machine, the only thing that came back was a picture of me, from a previous issue of The Habit in which I had misquoted Flannery O'Connor. Sorry about that.

In my defense, however, I will say that my misquotation is a pretty good distillation of something that Flannery O'Connor actually did write, in her essay "Writing Short Stories," which you can find in Mystery and Manners

For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be gotten into it. It involves judgment.

She goes on to say that the student-writer is often so interested in thoughts and emotions that he neglects the concrete and sensory details where storytelling actually happens: 

He thinks that judgment exists in once place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

The eye is an organ of judgment. O'Connor is specifically talking about fiction-writing in these passages, but she could be talking about any kind of writing. In fact, she could just as easily be talking about everyday life.

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Beauty that Goes Beyond Taste

When I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, a friend got to telling about the neighbors along her block, just off Magazine Street. One of the more memorable characters was a woman who invited the whole street to her sixtieth birthday party--a party that started at 11pm. Another of her neighbors was a young woman who had late-stage cancer. When she was finally done with hospitals and went home to die, her family came down from whatever northern state they lived in and painted her house for her--blue and purple and white with gold trim. "It was so beautiful," my friend said. "There is a beauty that goes beyond taste."

That phrase stuck with me--"a beauty that goes beyond taste." For one thing, the phrase exposed me utterly. My first reaction to the purple paint and gold trim on one of those lovely old New Orleans houses was, "How tacky." But if a dying woman wants purple walls and gold trim, and the people who love her most give them to her, tacky is an odd judgment indeed. I've been doing some soul-searching, I don't mind telling you.

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The Creative Cave Man

How did it come to be a foregone conclusion that cave men spent their days clubbing one another and dragging women around by the hair? As GK Chesterton remarked, "I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded." 

In truth, cave men and women left precious little documentary evidence to show what they were doing in their caves. The documentary evidence they did leave, however, reveals that, whatever else early people might have been, they were definitely artists.

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Actors and Actions, Subjects and Verbs

A recurring theme in my teaching is the importance of aligning the grammar of a sentence with the action that the sentence depicts. I am forever trying to get writers to stay in the habit of expressing action in the form of a verb, with the actor as the subject of that verb. Your reader burns to know the answer to the question "Who did what?" and her eyes and her brain are wired to seek first the subject position (who) and the verb position (did what) in every sentence she reads.

If this idea of expressing actions as verbs and actors as subjects seems self-evident, it's not. Language is exceedingly flexible, and it provides a multitude of ways to express action in ways other than a good old-fashioned Subject-Verb-Object main clause. The following list is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • The passive voice places somebody besides the actor in the subject slot: I took the bull by the horns becomes The bull was taken by the horns by me.

  • Nominalization turns the verb into a noun: I failed completely becomes My failure was complete.

  • A gerund also converts a verb into a noun: I swim constantly because I love it becomes Constant swimming is my passion or I love swimming.

  • Once you have turned the verb into a noun, you can make it the object of a preposition, so turning it into a modifier: My love of swimming keeps me in the water constantly (In this example, note that both actions I swim and I love get turned into nouns). The completeness of my failure became obvious to all.

  • A participle also turns a verb into a modifier: I went upstairs and sulkedbecomes Having gone upstairs, I sulked.

  • A subordinate clause pulls action out of the main through-line of a sentence and makes it a modifier: I went upstairs and sulked becomes I went upstairs, where I sulked.

The astute reader will notice that in some of these examples, the sentence actually works better when you move the action out of the subject-verb nexus. "I love swimming" turns the subject-verb I swim into a gerund, but it's at least as good a sentence as "I swim because I love it."

As I often say, every "problematic" construction in the English language exists because there are situations in which it's not problematic but exactly what you need.

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In Which I Analyze Two Lovely Sentences to Within an Inch of their Lives

My friend April Pickle encouraged me to write an issue of The Habit in which I pick a couple of sentences I like and tell what I like about them. This shall be that issue. And the sentences I shall write about come from Christian Wiman's memoir, My Bright Abyss:

They do not happen now, the sandstorms of my childhood, when the western distance ochred and the square emptied, and long before the big wind hit, you could taste the dust on your tongue, could feel the earth under you--and even something in you--seem to loosen slightly. Soon tumbleweeds began to skip and nimble by, a dust devil flickered firelessly in the vacant lot across the street from our house, and birds began rocketing past with their wings shut as if they'd been flung.

I have never experienced a sandstorm. Dust devils never flicker firelessly in my leafy neighborhood here in Nashville, Tennessee. So, to use a phrase I used a couple of weeks ago, these evocative sentences do something for me that I can't do for myself. They invite me into a scene that I don't otherwise have access to.

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On Receiving (and Ignoring) Criticism

Every time I start a new online class, I send my students an introductory email that includes the following "Word About Feedback": 

I am working on the assumption that you signed up for this course because you genuinely want to improve as a writer. And if you really want to improve as a writer, you need criticism. You need encouragement too, but you need criticism a lot more. I used to put a lot of time and energy into softening my criticism so that my writing students wouldn't get discouraged. I have decided that this not a good use of my time and not a service to my students. My critique of your writing will be direct and blunt--and, I'm quite confident, on-target. I should also say that if you're farther along the path as a writer, you can expect my critique to be even more direct and more blunt. I criticize because I care. I'm not joking. I trust that you care enough to take my critique in the spirit in which it's given. If that's not what you want from this course, please let me know.

I realize that it can be hard to receive criticism. Offering up a piece of writing feels a lot like offering up a piece of yourself, so "There are a few things wrong with this piece" can sound like "There are a few things wrong with you." 

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