Five Cool Things November 28

A very happy and belated Thanksgiving to you and yours. This week’s issue of Five Cool Things visits the world of English usage and grammar and can you imagine this? A great novelist and one of my favorite writers wrote a story titled Fall River. Yes, that Fall River. Homeboy’s hometown. On the grammar and usage front, I fumble around, living on my wits and instincts, rebelling against the nuns and their dastardly rules while feeling my way across a verbal minefield like a man with a blindfold. I pick up what I can wherever I can trying not to break the china. Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, talks about living inside the English language, a notion to which I wholeheartedly aspire. Clark also reveals in his most recent book, The Glamour of Grammar, that glamour and grammar are, historically speaking, the same word. Ever wonder why is it that everyone you know is an expert on grammar? There is no central authority, no governing academy from which wisdom flows down to the commoners. So if there is no central authority, then everyone is their own central authority. I offer you this quote from one of my heroes, Oxford educated author(ity) and copywriter John Simmons: “There is no such thing as correct use of language.” Let the battles begin! I welcome your corrections.

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1. Will This be the End of It? | And or But to Begin a Sentence?

Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with and, and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage). In addition, “many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but. ‘ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it — there is no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change” (William Zinsser qtd. in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage). Using and or but at the beginning of a sentence makes the tone of the writing more informal — like a conversation. Care needs to be taken to ensure a sentence beginning with and or but doesn’t become a sentence fragment (Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing 80).

– from frequently asked questions at Dr. Grammar, a service of the University of Iowa, Department of English Language and Literature

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2. You Don’t Say With a Bow Tie | John E. McIntyre

John McIntyreHis prose is so clean and light, so delightful and learned, you find yourself wanting to read more just for the possibility that his skill with language might find its way into your own life form. John McIntrye is an editor and blogger at You Don’t Say, and is recently retired from the Baltimore Sun, a publication that gave us the great Henry Louis Mencken, David Simon, and many other distinguished writers. Mr. McIntyre’s blog covers all manner of things from an admonition against green bean casseroles, to an argument in favor of the adjective by way of Nabokov. Here’s a brilliant little snippet of advice: “Shunning adjectives and writing with any old nouns and verbs, even if you eschew the passive voice, is not going to result in mastery. What matters is not the parts of speech but rather how much each word contributes to the overall effect. Maxims can only carry you a little way forward. What you need to do is study why low-grade prose (easily found if you subscribe to a daily newspaper or have access to the Internet) never gets aloft, and why first-rate prose soars. That is when you will begin to get somewhere yourself.” {Photo credit: David Hobby}

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3. Laugh Rye It | Fake AP Style

Reason No. 47,010 of “why we love Twitter.” Welcome to the Fake AP Style on Twitter, brainchild of the spit ball throwing crowd at BureauChiefs Blog. Here’s a sampling:


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4. Yep, There’s an App | Grammar Girl

Let’s face it my friends. You’re not going to carry around 1800 + pages of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. But you do want to get things right and you do wish to prevail in arguments with friends. So get yourself this nifty, and apparently beloved app from Grammar Girl. If you don’t know her, Grammar Girl is also known as Mignon Fogarty, a former science writer and entrepreneur who founded the Grammar Girl Blog. She’s appeared on Oprah and CNN and her book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Clean Up Your Writing was one of the best selling audio books in iTunes in 2007. For a lot less than a latte, you can get the app, clean up your writing and defeat the Philistines. Your welcome!

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5. Fall River and Other Uncollected Stories | John Cheever and “the nervous wreckage of a dead race.”

I love John Cheever. Not in that way silly, but as a writer. I loved The Wapshot Chronicle, which if you have not read, you ought get a copy. In the Strange Charms of John Cheever, (NY Review of Books, April 8,2010) Edmund White tackles one complicated Yankee. “Stendhal once said that writing should not be a full-time job, and John Cheever’s unhappy life seems to lend substance to his remark. He had too much free time, too much creative energy, too many hours to feel lonely or to drink or to get up to sexual mischief that he immediately regretted. He was both a reckless hedonist and a starchy puritan, just as he was also a freelancer with pretensions to being a country squire, both unfortunate combinations. Oh—and have I mentioned that he was bisexual? And a self-hating little guy who was always ripping his clothes off at parties and plunging into the pool, then mourning his exhibitionism and small penis in his journals the next morning?” Wow! That sounds like somebody I…ah, never mind. That all may be true, but it’s also true that John Cheever — what a surprise! — wrote a story about my hometown, Fall River, Mass.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is, John Cheever’s short story.  {Amazon link}

Fall River by John Cheever

People had known it for two years but it was obvious in the winter. The mills had stopped and the great wheels were still against the ceilings. The looms blocked off the floor like discarded machinery in an old opera house. On the floors and on the beams and on the brilliant flanks of steel the mist of the web was cove red with dust like old snow.

The house we lived in was on a steep hill and we could look down into the salt marshes and the high gray river moving into the sea. It was winter but there had been no snow and for a whole season the roads were dusty and the sky was heavy and the trees had dropped their leaves for the winter. But the sky remained heavy and the roads were dusty for as long as three weeks and when the spring came it was hard to remember the snow because there had been so little.

The dark city grew up from the river and all winter the spires of the wooden church were held up against the sky like enormous fingers. From our window we could see the piles of the hill out of the river and the dirty houses blown with smoke and blousy with sunlight. We had known it for almost a year now and the people had spoken of a dry winter. It was already spring. The full river moved into the ocean. The great wheels of the machinery were still waiting against the ceiling. The round stacks shot out into the sky vacant without the dark plumes of smoke.

Our room was on the fourth floor of a high brick house. A great many people could not pay their rent and the landlady made the silence miserable with her complaints. There was a man on the third floor who had a job and who earned ten dollars a week. In the evenings we would see him sitting on the edge of his bed looking slowly about the empty room. The landlady would weep when she saw him and tell him that she must eat and that he must pay his rent. That he would have to pay his rent. The man’s face was square and his hair was straight like plain wood. You will have to pay the rent, the landlady shouted on the small landing outside of his door. He looked at her and closed the door gently. I will pay you the rent next week. His mind was confused with the impossibility of his debt. With the broken face of the landlady shouting for her rent.

Fall River Cheever

Fall River, by John Cheever Academy Chicago Publishers

We had not paid our rent for three weeks but it was different when there were two people. We had sent our books away in big boxes a month ago. These were things that we did not want to do but even in this building of steep brick the people were not the same. The landlady would have taken our books and our typewriter and sold them. Cigarettes were not safe if you left them on the table for a minute.

An old man downstairs had been out of the mill for six months now. At first he could not stand the leisure and he was up every morning going across the river to the city looking for work. When he found that there was no work he was still up every morning walking over the city all day and coming back across the great river at night talking to the men who did work. He had been that way for two months and then he fell and hurt his leg. When his leg was better he had lost all his desire to walk. He only left his room to buy food and to return and eat it. You could see that when the wheels began to turn and the long bands quivered with the sharp motion he would not go back. He was living in his room, going out to buy food and coming back again. No one knew what he did in his room all day. You could not hear him move.

People had admitted a dry winter with very little money and no food. It had been this way. The winter had come and gone. The factories were still vacant. The river was moving always but there was no smoke over the city. Half the town was still out of work. The river and the seasons came and went but the machinery was quiet and we did not know when it was going to move again.

In the north there were great empty boats resting in the harbors waiting for a cargo. They were chained away from the docks and they moved back and forth with the currents of the tide. We had seen them in the summer and if we went back in the spring we knew that they would still be there. Enormous piles of steel and glass turning on the tide and waiting for a cargo. It would not be this spring or perhaps it would not be even in the summer. The boats would still wait on the harbor resting with one light in the dark warm evenings.

If people had mentioned and realized a dry winter they did not talk about the spring. There was no reason why they should mention the spring. The factories were still idle. The boats were vacant in the northern harbors and there was still very little money and no food. In the east the workers had complained and the drums and the pickets and the sound of their complaint in the fine rain was like thunder beneath the hills. The church had stopped it. The church had quieted it but it had not stopped the thunder. The workers were still dissatisfied and in the fine rain they remembered their complaint and the sound of their drums. There were few who could forget the sound of the Internationale and although in the east the wheels were moving again they were moving under a stranger master. They were waiting for hands that knew them and the ways to control their levers.From our window we could see the spring come because we had a great deal of time. At first it was the delicate air and the sweet stink of the oil vats from across the river. Then the trees were dusty with new buds and the old gardens were pushed away and the river was carrying sticks of bright wood and waste that had come down in the thaw. The sky was heavy like flesh and there was no doubt about the spring. We could see it clearly in the hills that were thawing and the sore pain of the broken earth. And yet the wheels were not moving and the looms were still like nervous dancers and there were very few people who wanted to talk about the spring because of these things.

In Boston the wealthy people were nervous. It was spring but it would make no difference. They were terrified at the possibility of having to live through another season. Of having struggled through the winter searching for the pleasures of previous winters. In Boston the wealthy people were conditioned like old gentlemen. The nervous wreckage of a dead race. It was wrong to accuse them of injustice. They could not accustom themselves to the new necessities. They were nervously fumbling, handling enormous conditions that had been thrust into their hands. And the other people were waiting for them to drop these things. Perhaps the machines would start again by the summer but they would still be under     foreign control. Perhaps they would go on for a whole year while there was unrest like thunder under the hills. There would be some thing. Nobody who had seen the things come and the things go could doubt that. We were watching the spring pass like a great tide up the river and down over the hills.

On Sunday Paul came in his new shiny car and took us out to the farm. Paul was prosperous and his business was doing well. He showed us the speed of his car and the splendid little wheels that turned beneath the hood. Then we went down the long planes of the country road and circled the enormous gravel driveway. The large white farmhouse with the river on its left and the orchards running to the river was the same. Mani came to the door in a long pale dress and took us out to her flower garden. There were firm yellow sprouts breaking through the hard earth. Mani swore a little and said that it was spring. The sky was heavy. The birds were crossing it like a high dome. At the end of the river the mills    were still and the boats were shifting on the tide waiting for a cargo. Mani said that it was spring again and stamped her cigarette out on the edge of the garden. It is spring again, Mani said.

(Photo credit: Richard Pelletier)

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