Archive for the ‘words’ Category


If Confusion Is The First Step To Knowledge, I Must Be A Genius* Or Mournful Teacherish Whinges About The Ambiguity Of Unclear Reference

November 13, 2010

I pretty much try to stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face.
• Johnny Depp

Pronouns are extremely handy. They protect a writer from endless repetition of nouns: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny Lorac’s crayons so Mij and Lenny could color” is much less cumbersome when it’s “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color.” Unfortunately, this kind of sentence can drift into ambiguity: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny their crayons so they could color” is an altogether different box of crayons indeed. And a level of complexity is added to the whole thing because, after all, we are probably wondering if generous Lorac is going to color with M and L. If so, this probably should read “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color with her.” Sentences are tangled webs just waiting to wrap writers in the sticky web of confusion.

For clarity when you’re writing, you need to be certain that it’s evident from the progression of your sentence to whom–or what or where or other-noun-wise–your pronoun makes reference. Here’s an example taken from The Big Book of Confusing, Vague, and Uncertain Tales Desperately in Need of Clarification Created for the Edification of Children Everywhere (Algernon P. & Merrypat E. Prindlesnap, 1884)**.

Once upon a time there were three little pigs named Oink, Grunt, and Squeal, and a big bad wolf named Gotcha. They had an even littler brother too and he called him Scaredyhoof for he was afraid of just about everything and often ran away at the first hint of danger. He was particularly afraid of him. This is their story:

Houses needed to be built. Immediately. He didn’t know what he was going to do. They didn’t know what he was going to do. None of them knew what they were going to do. Even the people in the town knew that something had to be done about the situation, and fast, but they didn’t know what they were going to do either. He was uncertain too. And everybody was frightfully scared of what loomed ahead.

Certainly there was danger and they had reason to be afraid. They knew it would soon be winter and they needed shelter from the cold as well as food to eat once the endless snows of winter descended on the valley where they lived. There were other dangers too. So they separated and each went their own way, looking for what was needed. One of them took their most recent acquisitions down to the meadow to the woodchopper’s shed where they often stored such things. He often used it for storage too.

He wasn’t happy with this hiding place. They didn’t want any of them to find the bricks and sticks and straw and stones and didn’t know what to do with them so they couldn’t find them. And they needed to hide him too.  So he took them instead to a cave in the woods. There, he thought, they would be safe, and if he were careful, he wouldn’t be able to find them.

He decided to build a house for them and asked him to help, but they couldn’t find the materials. They weren’t around to tell him where to look, so he asked him to help find them. They weren’t anywhere they looked and while they were looking, he came looking for them.

Well, that’s aplenty. You get the picture, I’m sure, but just in case, answer the following questions:

Who hid the materials?

Who was looking for the materials?

Who came looking for whom?

Always check your writing to make sure that pronouns such as he, she, it, they, that, which, and who that you’re using to replace another word refer clearly to the word they are meant to replace. This word is known as the pronoun’s antecedent. The antecedent should precede the pronoun in the current or previous sentence. Once other nouns intervene and too much distance develops between the pronoun and its antecedent, the waters of clarity become muddied (or the web becomes stickier–take your pick). Beware as well of creating problems because you are referring to a word that is implied rather than explicitly stated. (You likely know what you’re talking about, but your reader may not.)

In an effort to avoid the awkwardness engendered (pun intended) by non-sexist language, some speakers and writers replace constructions like she and he or hers and his with them and they and theirs. This can lead to ambiguity. “The student turned in their fundraising money,” for example, is unclear. Whose money did the student turn in? There’s no way to be certain from this sentence whether the student was handing in her or his contribution or was in charge of the contributions of the entire class.

When you’re done writing something—emails to essays to everything else—what are your strategies for making sure you’ve said what you intended to say?

There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.
• Thomas Reid

* Thanks to Larry Leissner for the title quotation.

** The Prindlesnaps were a brother and sister whose works were well-known in the schoolrooms of late nineteenth century England. Their opus, Commas, Periods, Semi-Colons, and the Odious Exclamation Point: A Study of Punctuation Abuses in Fairy Tales (1897), is no longer in print, although almost any reader would benefit from its study. Should you locate a copy of this rare tome, consider yourself fortunate indeed!


Lady Macbeth: Was She Nuts? *

July 5, 2010

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. • Mark Twain (And lightening provides yet another opportunity for confusion.)

In the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep and I can’t write and I’m hoping to turn off my brain, I read cotton candy books, devouring them quickly, their insubstantial content entertaining me, while seldom provoking thought. Sometimes I don’t want to think. I want to rest.

Last night I read Linwood Barclay’s (2007) No Time for Goodbye, a book that has an intriguing premise and a far-fetched ending. I don’t say this as criticism. Most endings are a bit far-fetched since providing a denouement that ties everything together is required for mindcandy. Life is seldom so neatly packaged.

The protagonist of Barclay’s book is a high school English teacher (note to Barclay and to his editors: high school English teachers generally teach more than three classes and are seldom so casual about absences). On p. 118, this quotation from a student essay caused me to reminisce about wordish teaching encounters: “Mr. Whitman’s most famous writing was ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which some people think is probably about marijuana, but it was not, although it’s hard to believe that a guy who wrote something called, ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ wasn’t stoned at least some of the time.”

I was reminded of being called into the principal’s office (note to my students, yes, even the current ones who will soon be teachers: this is principal—the principal is your pal—not principle, although possibly principles should have offices where one could go to learn the basics of ethical living) and asked why I had been discussing smoking marijuana with ninth graders.

It was my first year of teaching and my freshpeople were immersed in John Steinbeck’s (1937) Of Mice and Men. I couldn’t remember saying anything at all about dope or pot or grass or weed. And then I realized what might have happened. After some trouble, Lennie and George leave Weed, California, and head south. I told the principal this might be it and he asked me to call home to clarify.

Before I could begin to explain, the parent said s/he didn’t know why we’d be teaching a book about Lenny and Squiggy anyway since s/he thought school should be focusing on something besides characters from Laverne & Shirley and was I sure they hadn’t been smoking anything?

I wish I could say that this was an effective call home, but all I managed to do was state my case, listen, and hold my tongue. The only more frustrating call I made that year was when I tried to tell a mother why her son should not call other students a dildo. “His father calls people that a lot. What’s wrong with it?” she said. I asked her if she knew what the word meant. She said no. I suggested she look it up in the dictionary. She must have since her son never used the word in class again.

Other memories resurrected by last night’s reading include these confusions: “She staired into the mirror.” “My father served on a mime sweeper” (okay, this might have just been a typo, but it remains one of my favorites). “Noah’s arc.” “ My Ant Janet.” “She revealed to (oh, dear) much bear skin.” “He dressed with flare.” “I forgot to sight my sources in my research paper.” “I was so embarrassed I thought I would dye.”

FYI, to further muddy the waters and confuse you, especially since there’s category overlap:

Homonyms are words that are pronounced or spelled the same, but have different meanings and origins.

Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different meanings, origins, and sometimes spelling (knight and night). I wrote about roll and role yesterday. I am often amused when students write about using a role sheet in their classroom. I imagine that this is a list that says “Joanie McAloevera, Class Clown; José Montoya-Reyes, Knows All the Answers; Ping Lee, Always Asks If There Is Homework; and on and on.

Homographs are words that are spelled the same, but have different meaning, origin, and sometimes different pronunciation (wind as in “wind a clock” and wind as in “blowin’ in the”).

Although they fit none of the categories listed, further and farther are words I have to think about before using. How about you? What are your word confusions?

How often misused words generate misleading thoughts. • Herbert Spencer

* This is one of my all-time favorite titles. Too often I receive work that is non-titled—“My Philosophy,” “Managing a Classroom,” “Essay on Macbeth”—utilitarian listings of what will follow. Imagine going to a movie theatre and seeing “Vampire Movie,” “Action Flick,” and “Romantic Comedy” on the marquee or visiting a bookstore where all the books in the business section say “Business Book” and all the cookbooks, no matter what kind, say “Cookbook.” Titles should be grabbers, creating an audience eager to see or read what it’s all about. This has nothing to do with word confusion, although I am confused when I wonder why students might think that any teacher would look forward to reading fifty essays entitled “My Philosophy.”


Poets Have Been Mysteriously Silent On The Subject Of Cheese.* Ditto Zamboni Machines.

May 21, 2010

A challenge was given. A gauntlet flung. I’ve been charged with writing a poem about the Zamboni machine. I am not a dare-ing woman, but I made the mistake of saying that poetry could be written about just about anything and thus, this.

The person who issued the challenge said that some words are just inherently funny and that Zamboni is one of them. I agree, although Zamboni isn’t in my top ten. George Carlin once said that kumquats, garbanzos, succotash, and guacamole were foods that, because of their names, were too funny to eat. Garbanzo is on my short list, although I prefer it paired with its natural mate: beans. Garbanzo beans. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun to say. Admit it.

Lumbago (lower back pain) is on my list. My grandma suffered from lumbago and complained about it regularly. It sounds like fun or like a small Eastern European country, but it isn’t either. I like slivovitz and Congoleum® and plethora. Plump is another favorite. It sounds like what it describes. But enough. You can come up with your own faves and I have another point to make.

I’m wandering a bit from the notion of a poem about Zamboni machines, but that’s going to take more thought. Ham boney, macaroni, cologne-y, rigatoni, baloney, groany and moany. Too many possibilities. There is a further point to be made, though, and it’s about conversation.

I’m teaching a course for future high school and middle school teachers called language and literacy and I’ve been doing some eavesdropping on conversations. I hesitate to call it eavesdropping since it’s just listening to what people are saying loudly to one another as though they are performing a play to which the rest of us are a captive audience. If you would like your conversations to be private, lowering your voice is a possible way to accomplish this.

Teaching students how to discuss issues and converse with one another is part of developing their language skills, and since I’ve noticed that conversations can quickly devolve into gossip fests, it’s useful to provide a topic. I don’t think that teachers will be able to completely do away with gossip, but I do think that they can point out that there are other ways to talk with your friends.

Many of the braindances I devise target helping students develop discussion skills without talking trash about someone or something, although I am not opposed to the occasional gripefest since I do love ranting myself. However, complaining about the anonymous people who toss unwanted clothing on the floor at Ross and TJ Maxx is healthy and harmless. Ditto highway litterers. I’ve yet to hear a rational explanation for tossing your Wendy’s or Arby’s or Taco Bell trash by the wayside. Please stay home if you’re too lazy to walk your trash to a receptacle. There you can wallow in mountains of it for all I care.

A simple question like “What words are inherently funny?” can get people talking and also disagreeing amiably. It can also teach them a new word, inherently, or “existing as an essential element of something.” I asked some friends this question last night and they replied with smidgeon, hyperbole, spigot, Fresca, ennui, and moist (a word described not as funny but as one that makes you uncomfortable for some reason).

What’s on your list of funniest words? And, if you dare, write your own poem about a Zamboni.

There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire, and a Zamboni clearing the ice. • Charlie Brown (Charles Schultz)

* Thanks to Gilbert Keith Chesterton for the cheesy quotation.


I Don’t See the World Unless I See It in Ink.*

May 9, 2010

Words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
• Lord Byron**

Although I often wonder where ideas go as they flit through my head and disappear, I think daily about where they come from and how pursuing their shiny snailtrails can lead to something more. Every day these glistening paths lead me to the unexpected. I awaken not knowing what I will say or where I will go. I search the files I keep next to the bed. I look through 3×5 cards filled with quotations. I find something and I begin, but I still do not know where I am going. I have a trail, but I do not know where it leads.

This is how it worked today.

I am working on syllabi for two courses I teach every three years, one on classroom creativity and one on writing. I have crates full of hanging files filled with teaching possibilities: articles, quotations, notes, oddservations. I have tubs filled with materials. I’ve been going through them and I found this note to myself:

March 25, 2009.
We pass a tanker truck full of ink and I think this is odd. I’m not young, I’ve been on many, many miles of roads, and I’ve never seen a truck full of ink before. I wonder how many words could be written with this much ink and what it would be like if words, like miles, were purchased by the tankful or penful. What if our words were limited by the number we could afford to drive across the page. What would I say with a gallon of words?

Today I make notes on the page. This could be an activity, perhaps for creativity or perhaps for the writing class. What if people could only write their way into the world? At birth, each child is given pen and ink and learns to write. S/he can scribble endlessly, learning rules and reason until adolescence when, in an inking rite of passage, s/he is given a lifetime’s ink, the same amount for every person. From that moment on, words must be measured out, chosen carefully. Every word counts against the whole of life. Too many and the voice is silenced; too few and the person’s mark is never fully made. No communication happens unless driven by the pen.

I wonder what I would say. Would truth matter more in such a world or would the limiting simply make the charlatan’s words seem weighty? And I think that perhaps this is the assignment: “A Gallon of Words.” If you had a gallon of ink to last the rest of your life, what would you say? I love you? I care? I’m sorry? Please and thank you? Would you spread hope and kindness? Would you pontificate? Prevaricate? I begin a list:

A cup for griping.
There’s plenty that ticks me off. And I’ll
reserve at least another cup
for writing comments on the papers
sitting patiently awaiting my review.
But wait, shouldn’t these words come from
students’ ink reserves?
No fair to have to use my own.
I won’t need much for grocery lists
perhaps a tablespoon will do since
I’ll improve my memory to save a drop or two.
Letters to my mother, another cup, at least.
And poetry requires I hoard a quart for unexpected
rhymes and fleeting thoughts.
I’ll want a pint for encouragement and even more for
saying all the things that people need to hear,
but mostly I’ll think less of what I want to say
and more of what I don’t.
No unkind words. No harshly critical or
mean remarks. No thoughtless papertalk.

I would not want to live in such a world of limitations and my thoughts take me into the explosion of words that is the internet, virtual ink written across millions of miles, something I sometimes bemoan since so many of them are not worth the ink they’d be printed with. This is another topic and I make a note to revisit it.

I remember something I read about Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, who didn’t dot her i’s in order to save ink. She died in 1744, when ink was likely a luxury. As for me, I don’t have time to dot my i’s and I think of all the time I’ve saved not going back to do so. I-dotting distracts me and slows down my writing process. I move on from this inkish digression and hunt through 3x5s, looking for ink-related quotations. I find several that inspire further blogs and I put them away in a rubber-banded stack with other savings. I find these too:

I act as a sponge. I soak it up and squeeze it out in ink every two weeks.
• Janet Flanner

I think about how this quotation could be used to inspire artmaking. I imagine bringing sponges to class and creating art around them. I’ll think more about this one, but I’ll check the dollar store to see just how much this would cost. If it would be financially feasible, this may become an assignment. I will give each person a sponge and ask them to collect their thoughts in it for a week and squeeze them out. How they do so will be up to them.

Animals outline their territories with their excretions; humans outline their territories by ink excretions on paper.
• Robert Anton Wilson

I do many versions of lifemapping with Collectory projects. I’m saving this quotation to use with them and I’m putting it with my Yuckology materials as well since it is a bit gross, isn’t it?

Some quotations I save simply because I love them, because they capture someone’s passion for life:

If I lose the light of the sun, I will write by candlelight, moonlight, no light. If I lose paper and ink, I will write in blood on forgotten walls. I will write always. I will capture nights all over the world and bring them to you.
• Henry Rollins

And some I know by heart because I’ve used them for years, like this Chinese proverb: The palest ink is better than the sharpest memory. Without my inky notes, there’d be no trails to follow.

What would you say if your inking were limited?

I’ve got a vendetta to destroy the Net, to make everyone go to the library. I love the organic thing of pen and paper, ink on canvas. I love going down to the library, the feel and smell of books.
• Joseph Fiennes

* Thanks to Jewel Kilcher (professionally known as Jewel, poet, singer, actress, and more) for the title quotation.

** Oh, Byron, Byron, Byron. Since you were saying this while you were alive, I can only hope that you weren’t saying it about yourself since I certainly don’t imagine that my words here will make even ten people think, much less a thousand, and never mind millions. And I know you were a popular guy, but still, a bit of humility is always attractive in a man. Thus I would want any reader to know that you–and definitely I–mean that words matter, right?


So Ask Yourself: Are You the Kind of Person Who Got a Weiner Dog Just So You Could Name It Oscar Meyer? More Name Stuff I Can’t Resist.

May 4, 2010

No object is stuck with its name so irrevocably that one cannot find another which suits it better.
• Rene Magritte

You’ve probably noticed my onomatonamia (n. an obsession with particular words or names and a desire to recall or repeat them). Actually, this probably isn’t the right name for my obsession with name stuff, but it’s certainly a name-related vocabulary word, so I’m including it with my namegame brainplay for friends or study groups.

Namegame number one:

If House were one of the seven dwarfs, he’d be Grumpy, not Doc.
• Promo for the television show
House, April 29, 2010

Which of the seven dwarfs (Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, Dopey) would you be? OR If you were the eighth little person in the group, what would your name be? Consider these rejects from the movie naming: Jumpy, Burpey, Shorty, Nifty, Gabby, Tubby, Baldy, Puffy, Lazy, and Wheezy.

Namegame number two:

George Washington Diet Fresca.
Community, April 29, 2010, a porn star name (or a pseudonym for those playing this game with the under seventeen crowd) made by combining the name of your high school and your favorite soft drink

There are many versions of this game. Use this one or use the name of your first pet and the name of the first street you lived on to come up with your stripper name. I become Jitterbug Douglas. I learned this one from high school students, although I wouldn’t recommend initiating it with them. Or devise your own combination of things from your past—your first car and the state–or country or province–you were born in, for example. That’s your cowpoke name, making me Ford Illinois, a hard-ridin’ ‘n’ steer-ropin’ gal! (Actually, it was a Ford Falcon, so I suppose I could choose and possibly become Falcon Illinois, also a dandy option.)

Namegame number three:

Pen names are masks that allow us to unmask ourselves.
• C. Astrid Weber

You can make up your own author’s name or you can generate a nom de plume with the pen name generator at I visit the site and I don’t like the first feature: I have to submit my gender. I choose female and become “Our Lady Bonbons.” I see if I will fare better as a male and get “Sir Pumpkin Longshanks.” I can do better myself, following in the footsteps of other famous folks like Robert Beck who identifies as Iceberg Slim or Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame who parodies pseudonym by using Sue Denim.

Namegame number four:

My name is only an anagram of toilets.
• T.S. Eliot

I’d try making an anagram of my name, but when faced with its letters, I feel like I do when I get a bad draw in Scrabble®. Too many i’s, a z, and a k. I’ve visited anagram-creating sites—there are many—but when I enter the letters of my name, everything begins with lionizer and becomes incomprehensible from there. My favorite anagram: Frito Lay = Oily Fart, but then you know I love fart stuff. Perhaps you’ll have better luck with your name. I do like Nniz Yeliro Snikliw, however.

Namegame number five:

When I was ten we moved and I decided that none of the names I was then called—Reggie, Bobby, Baa—suited me. Somehow I hit on Rex. I must have heard someone calling for their dog and thought it sounded rather nice.
• Rex Harrison

Okay—you have to take the name of a pet as the name your friends will call you. A literal pet name. What’s it gonna be? I quickly discard Jitterbug and Whiskers and Francois and Sitka and Sam and decide I’ll have to think about this one. Clearly, I haven’t had enough pets—and they’ve all been guys. Not that there’s anything wrong with adopting a male name–there’s a long history of that for womenfolk who want to be taken seriously (sigh), but still none of these is something I’d want to hear called across a crowded room.

Namegame number six is up to you.

What’s your namegame?

If I’d given you that freedom at three, your name would be Count Chocula Botwin.
• Mary Louise Parker, in
Weeds, to her son who’s said he thinks you should get to pick your own name


When I Was Having That Alphabet Soup, I Never Thought That It Would Pay Off.*

April 30, 2010

Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song? The guy who wrote that song wrote everything.
• Stephen Wright

I colllect alphabet books. It might seem as though they would be similar, but they are actually extremely varied. Playing with the twenty-six letters that form words in English provides countless brainplay opportunities:


Oh, fudge, these alphabetical things almost always fall apart at xyz, don’t they? But that’s the advantage of doing this sort of thing. I know now, although I cannot currently use it, that xanthous means having yellow or red hair and that a xebec is a small three-masted pirate ship. I am equally fascinated to learn that when I am gracious to my visitors, my hospitality is xenial.

But perhaps my favorite x word is xenodochelonology or the love of hotels. Not one I’d like to encounter in a spelling bee. I’ll be staying at a motel tonight. I wonder if that counts and if I can work this into the conversation when I leave: “Thanks for your graciousness and for the clean sheets and tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner. They have increased my xendochelonology!”

And while I’m thanking people or things, thanks to for their exceedingly thorough lists. This site is a real boon for Scrabble® players too. A phrontistery is a place of learning; I work at one and didn’t even know it.

“lol this isent me cheating on my HomeWork or anything this is me challenging the minds of young Yahoo people” someone on Yahoo Answers claims about a query looking for synonyms to replace boring words. I say good for them and good for you if you use online tools to improve your writing. If I were being really diligent this morning, I’d hunt for replacements for those two goods.

I love dictionaries—it’s relaxing to page through them, but you probably have to be a logophile to want to do this. Hunting for specific words online is more likely to help most folks improve their vocabulary.

And so it goes. I have not nagged about vocabulary for weeks. Weeks! Have you been adding five new words to your vocabulary each week? Five new words a month? One new word since last I wrote about it? It’s never too late to turn over a new leaf—or turn to a new page in the dictionary—and begin.

Come on—make me happy. Learn five new words this week and use them in your everyday conversation. Just imagine the self-satisfaction that will accompany this feat! You’ll feel a humongous sense of pride and accomplishment! Small children will throw rose petals at your feet and a chorus of chanting cartwheelers will follow you about, praising your name! Perhaps.

We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
• Booker T. Washington

* Vanna White is the abecedarian whom we can credit with the title quotation.