Archives For Grammar

capital key

Today’s lesson will be . . . wait a second, we don’t post “lessons” here at Mere Inkling. We hope many of our columns are thought-provoking, and it would be nice to think a moderate share of them are entertaining.

However, if there’s any learning to be done, it’s incidental.

This post, though, verges on being educational. It addresses a subject readers and writers encounter every day. A subject about which there is frequent disagreement.

The question of which words should be capitalized is a major inspiration for writing Style Guides. (Oh no, I probably shouldn’t have capitalized that genre title.)

I am not alluding here to the style guides that major companies invest big bucks in designing to present their preferred image to the world. You can see some stunning examples of those here.

I’m interested in literary style guides. If you’ve ever written for publication, you’re likely familiar with the type of single sheet guidelines magazines create for prospective writers. The last thing you want, after wetting the manuscript’s pages with sweat and tears, is to have it discarded without review because you violated some editor’s pet peeves.

A standard stylebook that was required knowledge back in my college Journalism* days is the AP Stylebook. AP, of course, stands for “Associated Press.” And, where would the world of Academia be without the Chicago Manual of Style?

An even older stylebook that continues to play an important role is The Elements of Style written by William Strunk, Jr. Modern editions are attributed to “Strunk and White,” since it was revised and enlarged in 1959 by E.B. White. (Yes, that E.B. White, who authored Charlotte’s Web and other children’s classics.)

You can download a free copy of The Elements of Style at the Internet Archives, but it might be a tad risky to rely on the style described in Strunk’s first edition, since it was penned during the First World War.

It should be noted that not everyone is quite as enamored with the book as Mr. and Mrs. William Strunk, Sr. probably were. The author of one particularly haughty essay alleges that “the book’s contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don’t apply to them.”

Christians & Capitalization

Religious writers vary in their capitalization of particular words. This variation crosses faith boundaries and is sometimes referred to as “reverential capitalization.”

The most obvious example in English literature is the question of whether or not the divine pronoun should be capitalized. This issue is encountered when a pronoun refers to God. The New American Standard Bible translation, for example, follows the traditional practice.

Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His face continually. Remember His wonders which He has done, His marvels and the judgments uttered by His mouth . . . (Psalm 105:4-5)

My own practice of not capitalizing divine pronouns has occasionally scandalized members of critique groups to which I have belonged.*** A very few appear incapable of recognizing it’s a grammatical consideration, rather than a spiritual one. (Sadly, this sort of reaction often presages an individual’s departure from the writing support community, even when they are precisely the type of person who could best benefit from joining in.)

It should come as no surprise to learn that C.S. Lewis capitalized divine pronouns. Typical of his writing is this profound excerpt from Weight of Glory.

I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.

Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.

To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style acknowledges that “The capitalization of pronouns referring to persons of the Trinity has been a matter of debate for many decades.” They go so far as to state that doing so can impede our ability to communicate with “modern readers.”

Because capitalizing the deity pronoun, as well as a vast number of other religious terms, was the predominant style in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publishing, it gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of complete irrelevance to modern readers.

Capitonyms are a subgroup of homonyms. Their meaning changes on the basis of whether or not they are capitalized. A simple example would be distinguishing between a farmer’s concern for the quality of the earth in his fields and his regard for the planet on which he resides. Speaking of the Earth, we talk about the moons circling Jupiter, but all recognize that the Moon is the satellite that orbits 1.28 light-seconds above the surface of our planet.

In some Christian traditions, certain doctrines and events are capitalized while the very same words are not capitalized in a different sense. For example, many Christians would consider the following sentence correct.

It was the Resurrection of the only begotten Son of God that prepares the way for the resurrection of all those who take up their own cross and follow him.

The obvious difference is that the first use of the word refers to the singular miraculous event that transpired on Easter, while the latter points to its generalized definition.

In my most recent post I referred to the Gospels, as a genre unique to the writings about the life and significance of Jesus of Nazareth. As literary works, individually or collectively, the Gospels are capitalized, even when they do not include their full title [e.g. the Gospel According to Luke]. Most writers do not, however, capitalize gospel when used in a general sense, such as “every modern-day guru claims to possess a gospel of their own.” Just to make matters more interesting, some traditions capitalize Gospel when it refers to God’s love as embodied in the sacrificial death of Christ for the forgiveness of humanity’s sin.

One witty blogger chides the Church*** for over-capitalization.

I may just be cynical, and I’m definitely a literary snob, but it seems sometimes as though American Christians capitalize words related to Christianity just to make them seem holier.

For example, hymns and worship songs never refer to God and his mercy. It’s evidently more holy to capitalize the divine pronoun and refer to God and His mercy.

And if we capitalize mercy, which is a divine attribute, it makes the hymn or worship song even holier. I mean, God and His Mercy is clearly holier than God and his mercy, isn’t it?

So sermons are full of Grace, Goodness, Predestination, Prophecy, Agape, Apostles, Epistles, Pre-Millennialism, Mid-Millennialism, Post-Millennialism and the Millennium Falcon. All right, maybe not that last one.

Additional Insights from Lewis

One online writer offers a curious contrast between Lewis and e.e. cummings.

The writers who taught me the exponential value of capitalization: C.S Lewis and e.e. cummings. You know the rules of capitalization . . . Lewis and Cummings allow the capital letter to go deeper in its responsibility in communicating to the reader. . . .

For Lewis, capitalization often serves as a signpost of spiritual realities. He uses it to name a reality [as in The Screwtape Letters:] “We of course see the connecting link, which is Hatred.”

The most disorienting example of capitalization by Screwtape is his reference to God as the “Enemy.” It is a startling reversal of the true enemy, whose various names are commonly capitalized: Lucifer, Satan, Adversary, the Beast, Father of Lies and Evil One. Not to mention devils, which is sometimes used to refer to evil spirits (also known as demons or fallen angels), in contrast to the Devil himself who is also known by the aforementioned titles.

With so many alternatives when it comes to capitalization, the key is to follow the example of C.S. Lewis. It’s two-fold. First, have a reason why you select the option you do. Then, be consistent. Most readers readily adapt to different usages. What they can’t forgive, is inconsistency and literary chaos.

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* “Journalism” is capitalized here because it refers specifically to an academic college and degree program in many universities.

** The conservative Lutheran denomination to which I belong includes in its Stylebook for Authors and Editors the following guidance.

Gospel   Uppercase when referring to the Gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Also uppercase when referring to one of the four New Testament Gospels.

The second rule indicates that one would use lowercase to refer to pseudepigraphical or heretical gospels. However, if the entire title of the text is used—precisely because it is a text, it would be capitalized (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas).

*** My wife occasionally finds time in her hectic schedule to proofread my posts before publication. (These would be the ones that appear without mistakes.) Well, Delores kindly pointed out just now that she too is scandalized by my irreverent failure to capitalize divine pronouns. After forty years of mostly-blissful marriage you would think she might have overlooked saying that… but, then again, when they’re truly scandalized how could someone be expected to remain silent?

**** I prefer to capitalize “Church” when it refers to the whole Body of Christ, but not when it references a congregation, denomination or a building . . . unless it’s part of a formal name such as the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem.

C.S. Lewis and Metaphors

October 26, 2016 — 9 Comments

hobbit-quoteLearn how to effectively wield metaphors, and you will be powerful indeed. They are one of the most creative and intrinsically rewarding tools used by communicators.

Metaphors are not simply ornamental. Nor are they limited to abstracts subjects. The following description comes from C.S. Lewis’ book, Miracles.

It is a serious mistake to think that metaphor is an optional thing which poets and orators may put into their work as a decoration and plain speakers can do without. The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically.

Books on psychology or economics or politics are as continuously metaphorical as books of poetry or devotion. There is no other way of talking, as every philologist is aware. . . . All speech about supersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree.

To effectively communicate—especially about deep or profound subjects—metaphors need to be part of a readers’ or speakers’ core vocabulary. That’s what Lewis meant by saying “we are forced to use language metaphorically” when speaking about things that transcend our senses.

Former Time editor James Geary has echoed Lewis’ description of the universality of metaphors.

Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology. . . .

There is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. (I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World)

Without being conscious of it, we all use metaphors more frequently than we realize it. Geary claims “We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minute.” Granted, most of these are routine like the four appearing in this sentence he quotes from an economic report.

“Britain’s recovery from the worst recession in decades is gaining traction but confused economic data and the high risk of a hung parliament could yet snuff out its momentum.”

Metaphors Versus Similes

Envisioning fresh metaphors may seem challenging, but it is a skill which can be practiced. One need not feel embarrassed if they find the subject of metaphors confusing. In their simplest form, they are like especially meaningful similes.

In a simile we compare two distinctly different things and declare that they are similar. For example, someone might say about the sleek new stealth destroyer, “the USS Zumwalt is like a Porsche.” This simile suggests a number of attributes and the statement contains the familiar phrase “is like.”

By contrast, a metaphor is not merely “like” something else. Using a metaphor implies that the two different things share, in a true sense, some common nature or element. So, a person might write, “the current election season is a nightmare.” Certainly, a less confident writer might weaken the power of this sentence, by diluting it into a simile, it’s “like” a nightmare.

But the bold speaker or writer recognizes how much more sharply the metaphor communicates their message. They want to state that the experience is not just nightmarish. It is a nightmare. It is (to many) horrific, frightening, and something from which we wish we could awaken to resume our lives in a world that still makes sense.

Like any rhetorical or literary tool, metaphors can be misused. They can be stretched so far that they don’t make sense, or they only appeal to individuals who share some narrow interpretation of existence.

While metaphors can be used in an ostentatious or overdone way, that simply weakens their effect. The judicious application of metaphors is a skill well worth practicing.

The Scriptures as a Treasure Trove

The subtitle above can itself be viewed as a similar or a metaphor. But that’s beside the point, since it simply introduces our discussion of the fact that the Bible is filled to overflowing with metaphors.

This is unsurprising, since almost the entire text deals with the story of an infinite Creator’s love for his fallen creation.

Put another way, our God, whose nature is utterly incomprehensible to the beings he fashioned from the earth (adamah), longs to communicate his love for we whose lives in this world are so very brief. How could the Lord accomplish this without metaphors? Thus he describes himself in this fashion:

“I am the alpha and the omega.”

“I am the bread of life.”

“I am the light of the world.”

“I am the vine; you are the branches.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

Metaphors are not reserved for God in the Scriptures. On the contrary, they abound, like radiant dandelions in the early days of summer.

“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life . . .”

“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”

“O Lord . . . we are the clay, and you are our potter . . .”

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”

All of us, “new creations” in particular, have much to learn from C.S. Lewis about metaphors. A good place to start is the brief essay “C.S. Lewis and the Apt Metaphor.”

After reflection, you may want to try your hand at creating a novel metaphor. After all, a thought-provoking metaphor is a refreshing breath in any conversation.

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I’ve written about metaphors in the past posts, including this one. I also wrote a a column which includes George Orwell’s advice for writers: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

adjectivesMark Twain was a fount of wit and wisdom.* I recently encountered this astute maxim attributed to him.

A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.

While the statement rings true, it turns out that Mark Twain is not the person who coined it.

That honor belongs to Henry Theodore Tuckerman (1813-71). The confusion is apparently due to the fact that Twain’s future bride, Olivia Langdon, began compiling a commonplace book while a teenager, in which she included this paraphrase of one of Tuckerman’s observations.

The actual quotation comes from an 1850 volume in which he wrote:

It is amusing to detect character in the vocabulary of each person. The adjectives habitually used, like the inscriptions on a thermometer, indicate the temperament. (The Optimist, “Conversation”)**

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of the excessive use of adjectives, as I have written about in the past.

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

Despite Lewis’ warning, I have to confess that I love adjectives. When they are creatively chosen, I find them illuminating, provocative and welcome. In fact, the ideal adjective accomplishes Lewis’ goal of conveying an emotion, not simply describing it.

And, as we have been reminded today, adjectives have the additional benefit of giving us glimpses into the personality of the authors themselves. “It is amusing to detect character in the vocabulary of each person. The adjectives habitually used, like the inscriptions on a thermometer, indicate the temperament.”

Meeting a New Author

Researching this subject I encountered an interesting quote from a popular Chilean-American writer, Isabel Allende.

I want to have an epic life. I want to tell my life with big adjectives. I want to forget all the grays in between, and remember the highlights and the dark moments.

While I can understand her desire to live an epic life, and applaud the accompany image of living one’s life with “big adjectives,” I have to say I am a bit disappointed in her choice of adjective itself. “Big” adjectives? “Vast,” “immense,” “deep,” and “complex” are just a handful of the substitutes that might convey different aspects of the concept “big.”

Perhaps she originally penned this in Spanish, and chose just such a “bigger” word? But then again, I assume she would do all of her own translation work. So it could be she was striving for irony? Not having read her work, I cannot say with any confidence.

Still, if I do expose myself to a greater quantity of her “adjectives habitually used” . . . I have no doubt I can gain some insight into her literary temperament.

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* If you are curious as to whether Twain was a “fount” or a “font,” check this out.

** You can find more of his wisdom by downloading a free copy of Selections from the Writings of Henry Theodore Tuckerman.

Similes & Metaphors

December 16, 2014 — 11 Comments

agdeiSimiles are wonderful literary tools. Being able to compare two dissimilar things in a way that brings out subtle nuances and insights is quite enjoyable.

Here are a couple of examples off the top of my head. (I don’t pretend others haven’t written these things, but I didn’t plagiarize them.).

A politician is like a weathervane.

Arguing theology is like having indigestion.

Disliking Narnia is like hating a feast.

Metaphors, of course, are far more powerful than similes. When we consider a metaphor we are pondering how two different things actually share some fundamental quality.

Comprehending metaphors requires the ability to think abstractly. A child—confined to a world of concrete concepts—cannot begin to think of their nation as a “motherland” or “fatherland,” as the case may be. Yet, those are powerful nurturing and bonding words that countless patriots have embraced throughout the centuries.

A simile might say “our country is like a family.” A metaphor suggests far more. In this case, it might convey that one’s allegiance to their nation should exceed their loyalty to their biological kin.

Nowhere is the magnificence of metaphors more manifest than in the way we talk about God. One of the most famous biblical passages is a straight forward example. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Jesus the Christ said of himself, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He also called himself the “Light of the world. Whoever follows me,” he added, “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

It is a sad thing when a symbol loses its meaning. There is a prime example of that phenomenon in Oxford. And you can see it in the sign that hangs above a pub frequented by the Inklings.

No, not the Eagle and Child, which they affectionately referred to as the Bird and Baby.

After renovations to the Eagle and Child eliminated their privacy, the writers transitioned across the street to the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs trace their history back to the seventeenth century, and the latter is actually owned by St. John’s College. (It’s profits fund student scholarships.) In a 1963 letter, Lewis colorfully described the move thusly:

Mon 11 March it is. But note that our causeries de lundi are now permanently transferred to the Lamb & Flag. We were sorry to break with tradition, but the B & B had become too intolerably cold, dark, noisy, and child-pestered.

Sadly, when many people look at the Lamb on the pub’s sign, they fail to recognize it’s significance. The lamb carrying a cross-emblazoned banner is nothing other than the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.

What, some may wonder, is the Lamb of God? The better question is “who” is the lamb. The symbol represents Jesus Christ himself. It hearkens to the declaration of John the Baptizer as Jesus approached the Jordan: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

To understand what it means to say “Jesus is the Lamb,” requires two things. First, a recognition that it is more than a simile; it is not simply that he possesses some of the attributes we would naturally associate with a lamb, such as gentleness. The second requisite is that we understand something about the Jewish sacrificial system.

For, Jesus being the Lamb of God means nothing less than that he is the true, complete, ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

And that is a wonder definitely worth pondering during this Christmas season.

Free C.S. Lewis Book

October 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

bookshelvesC.S. Lewis has encouraged innumerable prominent individuals in their own faith and writing journeys. I know of no others who offer at no cost a book about his influence.

John Piper is a pleasant exception to that. In a moment I’ll provide the link where you can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C.S. Lewis.

The volume includes a number of extended excerpts from Piper’s fifty-plus books . . . passages where Lewis’ imprint is particularly vivid. For example:

The synthesis of mind and heart was embodied in C.S. Lewis. Lewis became for me in my college days what Jonathan Edwards became in my seminary days. He was a “romantic rationalist”—that was the name of a small book about Lewis that got me very excited because it summed up what I thought I was (which may be very akin to “pastor-scholar”). Lewis has had a tremendous influence on me in several ways.

Lewis embodied the fact that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not inimical to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively—even playful—imagination. He combined what almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive terms: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and to compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and to hug a friend, to demand a definition and to use a metaphor.

The author is chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. It was founded by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where Piper served as pastor for several decades.

The writer’s desiringGod website actually offers free PDF copies of many of his books and articles, even though most remain in print and available for regular purchase.

As delightful as Alive to Wonder is, most students of Lewis will find the materials from the 2013 desiringGod National Conference even more welcome. This year’s theme was “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.”

Piper’s website includes ten keynote presentations plus an informative panel discussion, all of which are available for download in audio files. Best of all, the lineup of speakers is first-class, featuring a number of familiar names.

And, since we’re on the subject of “free books,” allow me to share another interesting website.

Forgotten Books offers approximately a million volumes, to which “subscribers” have unlimited access. What sets them apart from other “public domain aggregates,” is that they (unlike books.google.com) provide a searchable text, in a variety of epub formats.

For those who are not interested in purchasing a subscription, they offer a Free Book of the Day option in which you receive the link to one of their texts which is good for twenty-four hours.

I recently used it to add Pure English: A Treatise on Words and Phrases, or Practical Lessons in the Use of Language to my kindle library. I find the reading of dated literary books to be:

Entertaining

Educational

and, occasionally, even

Inspiring

Here are a few sample passages from Pure English. The first sounds remarkably contemporary:

The abuse to which the English language is so generally subjected must be a source of sincere regret to all who appreciate its beauties. Ours is an age of progress and civilization, and it ought to be remembered that language, is also progressive.

In a section entitled “Objectionable and Obsolete Words” we read:

Banister is a common barbarism. The proper word is baluster, or balustrade.

— Noted. In the future I will alternate between baluster and balustrade.

“Disremember,” often employed in the sense of do not remember, although given in Webster, is condemned by the critics as a low vulgarism.

— Apparently so vulgar as to have fallen out of usage completely.

Hence, authoress and poetess are superfluous. So, also, are such words as conductress, directress, inspectress, waitress, etc., all of which have recently come into current use. Perhaps the next edition of our dictionaries will, if the custom continues, be enriched by the addition of such words as writeress, officeress, carpenteress, manageress, secretaryess, treasureress, singeress, walkeress, talkeress, etc.

— How did “waitress” survive, especially in the wake of such witty sarcasm?

It is questionable taste to call a coffin a casket. The pleasing name applicable to a case for jewels does not lessen the dread of death and burial.

— I hadn’t known before the sentiment behind the adoption of the word “casket,” since it’s become so thoroughly associated with this usage that was apparently at one time novel.

If you are interested in the books I’ve mentioned above, you You can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder here, and you can sign up for the free book of the day here.

Ending ALL CAPS

September 18, 2013 — 10 Comments

gilliganThe United States Navy finally realized what everyone else long ago recognized—writing in ALL CAPS is obsolete.

Only the most novice users of the internet type in all caps. After all, people quickly learn that it is tantamount to “shouting,” and considered rude behavior.

The occasional word or phrase may properly be rendered in CAPS, in order to emphasize it when italics are not available, BUT WRITING EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS IS SURELY TO BE AVOIDED.

The advent of the computer has freed us from the limited conventions forced upon us by typewriters. For emphasis, we lacked boldface and italic fonts (unless one had access to an IBM Selectric or one of its clones).

Back in the “olden days,” we had to be satisfied with unsightly underlining. Surprisingly, many people today seem unaware that underlining is obsolete . . . but that’s a subject for another day.

Returning to the use of all capital letters. Earlier this year, the Navy caught up with the rest of the universe’s practice and changed their official policies which required CAPITALIZATION in internal, official messages.

It was wonderfully fitting that the official memorandum read:

AUTHORIZED TO USE STANDARD, MIXED-CASE CHARACTERS IN THE BODY OF ORGANIZATIONAL MESSAGES.

However, lest any sailors get carried away with this modern fad, the message continued:

RECOMMEND CONTINUE TO USE UPPER CASE IN LINES BEFORE REMARKS.

As a retired military chaplain I love the following (unattributed) quotation from an article on the subject.

“If an ancillary benefit is that sailors reading message traffic no longer feel they’re being screamed at . . . that is a good thing too,” said a Navy official. The official insisted the move was not an example of the service going soft.

Well, we certainly couldn’t have that!

I’m not aware of any places where C.S. Lewis resorts to the use of capital letters to emphasize anything. But in searching for just such a thing, I came across a fascinating passage in the introduction to his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

Lewis’ descriptions are always vivid and his description of “ruthless emphasis” does not disappoint.

The rough outline of our literary history in the sixteenth century is not very difficult to grasp. At the beginning we find a literature still medieval in form and spirit. . . . Their prose is clumsy, monotonous, garrulous; their verse either astonishingly tame and cold or, if it attempts to rise, the coarsest fustian. In both mediums we come to dread a certain ruthless emphasis; bludgeon-work. Nothing is light, or tender, or fresh. All the authors write like elderly men. The mid-century is an earnest, heavy-handed, commonplace age: a drab age.*

The use of all caps strikes me as akin to “bludgeon-work.” Not nearly so graceful as occasional italics or the even more skillful manipulation of the English language itself in order to emphasize its message.

At least we can take some small comfort in the fact that the Navy has joined the “mixed-case” twenty-first century. I assume there remain a handful of holdouts in the Admiralty, but eventually these old salts will retire, and the new day of “upper and lower case diversity” will have fully dawned.

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* If you are interested in seeing the rest of Lewis’ thoughts about “the rough outline of our literary history in the sixteenth century,” read on.

Then, in the last quarter of the century, the unpredictable happens. With startling suddenness we ascend. Fantasy, conceit, paradox, colour, incantation return. Youth returns. The fine frenzies of ideal love and ideal war are readmitted. Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Hooker—even, in a way, Lyly—display what is almost a new culture: that culture which was to last through most of the seventeenth century and to enrich the very meanings of the words England and Aristocracy. Nothing in the earlier history of our period would have enabled the sharpest observer to foresee this transformation.

punctuation personalitiesWordsmiths love wordplay.

In fact, they love to toy with everything related to language, including punctuation. The entertaining illustration to the left was created by Carrie Keplinger and inspired me to produce my own supplement to her study.

The idea behind the graphic is to play on the meaning of different punctuation symbols and describe the type of personality they represent.

I took the notion a step further, and based some of my psychological diagnoses on the appearance of the images themselves. I also fudged a bit and included a couple that are common symbols, albeit not punctuation.

In the past I’ve shared here my fascination with fonts. This extends to pictographic languages like Egypt’s hieroglyphs. Consider this example:

horus

One may not know this particular image is associated with the Egyptian god Horus, but it’s immediately apparent it represents a familiar part of human anatomy.*

If you find the subject of hieroglyphics interesting, you may enjoy reading this article I recently discovered. The author briefly compares the thought of C.S. Lewis with that of the ancient philosopher Plotinus. He writes:

The Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts.

For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

Returning to the Subject of Punctuation

Punctuation is a fundamental tool of writers. And, like the broader subject of grammar, it is incumbent on us to do our best to use it properly.

“Improper” usage is not necessarily wrong, however. On numerous occasions we may intentionally make an “error” to achieve a specific purpose. Or, we may object to certain conventions and challenge the ever-evolving status quo. For example, I avoided unnecessarily capitalizing “internet” long before it became acceptable. I also dropped the hyphen from email, etc. prior to that becoming fashionable.**

Naturally, when we are seeking publication of our work, we need to conform to whatever stylistic standards the venue follows. However, in our “personal” writing, I long ago learned there is no value in being enslaved to “official” literary conventions. After all, these seemingly rigid rules themselves are fluid, shifting with ever more frequent speed.

I began with the declaration that lovers of words inherently enjoy wordplay. I certainly do. One evidence of that is found below, in my supplemental list to the chart at the top of this column.

Immediately upon reading “punctuation social personalities,” my own mind, unbidden, began to consider additions. A moment later I had pen in hand, and the rest is history.

Belated Warning: You may experience a similar irresistible response. 

punctuation personalities 2

_____

* A variation of the eye of Horus is actually found on American currency . . . at the peak of the pyramid that adorns the one dollar bill. (It’s officially called the “Eye of Providence,” but its association with the pyramid makes that title rather unconvincing.) It is actually reproduced on America’s money because it is found on the reverse of Great Seal of the United States. Yes, it’s portrayed on the hidden side of the extremely familiar eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows that we see all of the time.

** I’m not suggesting I am a trendsetter . . . merely that I anticipated the eventual elimination of these superfluous elements early on. Well, it’s due to that prediction combined with my own typographical prejudices, such as disliking the over-hyphenation of the English language.

A Narnian Madlib

July 23, 2013 — 9 Comments

EVO-WWI-064-01060I got to savor one of the joys of being a grandpa today, watching over two of my five lovely granddaughters while their parents traveled to an important business meeting.

Naturally, we had fun playing, drawing, tossing a ball for their German shepherd, building things, cleaning up their room (not quite so “fun”) and—since it’s summer—playing with water balloons (extremely fun, even though I got drenched).

We also did a madlib, one of those “phrasal templates” popularized by Roger Price and Leonard Stern in the 1950s. These simple word games are entertaining and educational. And, even for novice writers, they’re not too challenging to compose. After all, the stories themselves are by nature brief and rather superficial.

Today I even set my granddaughters in front of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls so I could write a short scene from Narnia for them. You’ll find it below.

I had forgotten how much fun we had with madlibs when our own children were young. We made many up on the spur of the moment, and laughed at the silly combinations of word that resulted. The process, as most readers know, involves randomly selecting a series of words for inclusion in the narrative. With a lack of imagination, the readings can fall a bit flat, but typically you end up with some (accidentally) witty wordplay.

One of the benefits of madlibs is how they can be used more than once. While the outline of the story remains the same, of course, the choices made by readers generate amazing diversity.

Most madlibs are admittedly rather juvenile. That’s because they are written for juveniles. They rely on providing specific types of words, such as nouns or adjectives. Theoretically, you could devise a madlib as complex or sophisticated as you desire. For example, an entertaining tale certainly could doubtless be woven by including random selections for the following word choices.

____________ prime number

____________ copular verb

____________ Napoleonic regimental commander

____________ homograph

____________ life stage of a butterfly (other than larva or pupa)

____________ ditransitive verb

____________ type of psychosis

____________ infielder for 1874 Chicago White Stockings

____________ gerund

____________ rare earth mineral

____________ monotransitive verb

____________ early kabbalist (other than Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa)

____________ type of arachnid with blue coloration

____________ free predictive

____________ reciprocal pronoun

____________ chemical process (other than esterification)

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write the story accompanying this worthy list, but if you should write it, I’d love to read it.

There are a number of fan sites online that generate madlibs. I won’t recommend any since the ones I’ve glanced at today are merely advertising collections for sale. (I also found the examples I experimented with to be rather feeble . . . even weaker than the story I wrote today in a single hour.)

You will search in vain if you’re seeking a C.S. Lewis reference to madlibs. However, he was a master wordsmith, who recognized well their power, and greatly loved humor. The following passage, from “Prudery and Philology,”
refers to the versatility and weight of language, and includes a valuable caution.

We are sometimes told that everything in the world can come into literature. This is perhaps true in some sense. But it is a dangerous truth unless we balance it with the statement that nothing can go into literature except words, or (if you prefer) that nothing can go in except by becoming words. And words, like every other medium, have their own
proper powers and limitations.

The brief tale below is not pretentious, so you need not fear it exceeding its limitation. It simply is what it is . . . one grandfather’s passing literary adventure with his grandchildren.

It you like “Sharpbeak’s Narnian Adventure,” you’re welcome to download a PDF copy of the story I’ve appended to the end of the column. It’s 100% free, and I’m not trying to sell a collection of madlibs after hooking you. Besides, if I was trying to make a profit off of anything including the word “Narnian,” I have no doubt lawyers would be descending upon me in droves.

The Words You Will Need

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ something  you drink

____________ color

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ meal time

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ plural noun

____________ plural noun

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ food

____________ food

____________ food

____________ place

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ place

____________ number

____________ plural relative

____________ verb

____________ adjective

____________ plural monster

The Story Into Which You Insert Your Words

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a/an ____________, young eagle named Sharpbeak decided to set out for an adventure. A wise ____________ climbed his ____________ tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s ____________ nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of ____________?”

As the two friends watched the sun set over the ____________ mountains, the eagle said ____________, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His ____________ companion warned him, “Beware of the ____________ giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for ____________ or even for a snack. Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also ____________ dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate ____________ visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a ____________ burst of their ___________ flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of ____________ and ____________.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my ____________ adventure.”

“Oh,” added Sharpbeak’s friend, “I wouldn’t advise you to fly over the ____________ ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a/an ____________ island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid ____________ to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said Sharpbeak, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the ____________ stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. All I have to offer you to eat is ____________ and ____________.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this ____________ for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my ____________, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing ____________ and ___________ rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a ____________ with my ____________ ____________. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and ____________.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the ____________ eagle soared off to begin his adventure. Sharpbeak would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and ____________ along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Epilogue

Those of you curious about how my granddaughters’ story turned out, should read on.

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a big, young eagle decided to go off for an adventure. A wise deer climbed his pink tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s fuzzy nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of juice?

As the two friends watched the sun set over the blue mountains, the eagle said roughly, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His wide companion warned him, “Beware of the cold giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for breakfast or even for a snack.” Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also hairy dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate old visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a soft burst of their speedy flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of trash cans and flowers.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my fun adventure.”

“Oh,” added his friend, “and I wouldn’t advise you to fly out over the heavy ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a dark island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid bunny to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said the eagle, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the watery stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. “All I have to offer you to eat is noodles and cheese.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this snack bar for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my fairgrounds, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing bravely and messy rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a playground with my ten sisters. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and dance.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the brown eagle soared off to begin his adventure. He would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and dinosaurs along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Downloadable Version

Here’s the story. On the PDF, it is preceded by a list of the type of words required to fill in the various blanks.

Narnian Madlib

Skillful Turns of Phrase

January 3, 2013 — 12 Comments

frank burnsEveryone loves an exquisite turn of phrase. Those of us who dabble in writing are particularly susceptible to their numinous power.

I’ve been doing some research on the Father Mulcahy character from M*A*S*H. William Christopher transformed the fictional character from a caricature of military chaplaincy, into a compassionate and respected representative of the Holy. During my research, I’ve been reviewing episodes of the series in which he was featured.

In “Alcoholics Unanimous,” which originally aired in 1974, Mulcahy has been tasked with delivering a lecture on temperance. In an interesting twist he wears full clerical garb and prepares what is essentially a sermon. Since the lecture is a “mandatory formation,” the mess tent (which doubles as the chapel) is filled to capacity.

Sitting in the front row are the hypocritical Majors Burns and Houlihan. (For those unfamiliar with the show, they constantly call for the most rigid of military standards, even as they are all the while breaking the military’s Uniform Code that prohibits adultery.) Major Houlihan’s nickname, in fact, is “Hotlips.”

In the aforementioned episode they have a delightful little exchange that illustrates through its witty banter the skill of the Hollywood writers at their best. As the hospital’s temporary commander, Burns has banned all alcohol and mandated attendance at the lecture. The tent is filled to its limits as Houlihan turns adoring towards her paramour and says:

Houlihan: Frank, what a turnout!

Burns: Lemmings must be directed to the sea.

Houlihan: You’re magic with a phrase!

It requires skill to create a well-crafted turn of phrase. Well, even a fool like Frank Burns can stumble across a clever phrase, but only a master can repeatedly coax them from their ethereal realms.

C.S. Lewis was just such a master. His works abound with profound and captivating language. And he recognized it in the works of others. In “Dante’s Similes,” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he wrote:

[Dante] is the most translatable of the poets—not, probably, that he entrusts less wealth than others to the music of the words and the nuance of the phrase but that he entrusts more than others to the “plain sense.”

In The Four Loves, Lewis reveals just how impoverished much of our language is . . . even when it relates to the most inspiring of matters. Describing the difference between carnal “love” and genuine love, he shows that even impoverished phrases can begin to grasp the truth behind the dynamics of affection and commitment.

We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. This all good lovers know, though those who are not reflective or articulate must be able to express it only in a few conventional phrases about “taking the rough along with the smooth,” not “expecting too much,” having “a little common sense,” and the like. And all good Christian lovers know that this programme, modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle.

Surely those who are more articulate can more expressively communicate our love for our spouse. Yet, even in so-called matters of the heart, we frequently utter phrases that are utterly mundane.

The History of the Phrase “Turn of Phrase”

One online dictionary uses these definitions:

a turn of phrase

1. a way of saying something “Significant other,” meaning “partner,” now that’s an interesting turn of phrase.

2. the ability to express yourself well She has a nice turn of phrase which should serve her well in journalism.

The Phrase Finder website provides excellent information about numerous phrases. And, in discussing this idiomatic phrase about phrases, they do not disappoint.

So, a phrase was a style of speaking or writing, and style meant beauty of expression. We can now interpret a fine “turn of phrase” as analogous to a skillfully crafted piece of wood turned on a lathe. John Dryden referred to the “turning” of words in this sense in The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 1693: “Had I time, I cou’d enlarge on the Beautiful Turns of Words and Thoughts; which are as requisite in this, as in Heroique Poetry.”

Check out their entire article about turns of phrase at the link above. And, may your own writing be filled with impressive verbal ballets, replete with inspiring leaps and unforgettable pirouettes.

Allow me to once again display my grammatical ignorance. I was reading an online book review and the author used lots of multisyllabic words. (That’s something I actually enjoy.) But then he went and threw in one of those words I had to rush to dictionary.com to define. (That’s another thing I love—learning new words.)

Naturally, I could partially decipher the definition from the context. However, whenever I have a dictionary within reach, that shortcut doesn’t satisfy me.

In this case, the word was anacolutha, the plural form of anacoluthon. It is defined as “a construction involving a break in grammatical sequence, as ‘It makes me so—I just get angry.’” Well, we can all agree that is not a good sentence; it’s a fine example of what a writer should avoid.

Not all grammar rules make sense. Take for example the notion that one cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Some of us literally had our knuckles rapped for scribbling such grammatical “obscenities.” While it’s true that you can avoid using prepositions in this manner, it’s not the great sin we were taught it was. In his Letters to an American Lady, C.S. Lewis writes:

[Regarding] a sentence ending with a preposition. The silly “rule” against it was invented by Dryden. I think he disliked it only because you can’t do it in either French or Latin which he thought more “polite” languages than English.

Well, isn’t that an interesting historical note to become aware of?

But, back to anacolutha . . . let’s see if it’s difficult for a trained pen to sever the ties of logic, and compose this sort of literary construction.

Reepicheep was a great swordsman who, “a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse” was his creed.

Frodo pondered his options while—the Nazgûl loathed bathing more than once each fortnight.

Wow, that’s a lot harder than it looks. If you can think of better examples (not difficult, I’m sure), feel free to share them in a comment! But only write them here, and don’t allow any anacolutha to slip into your real writing!