Category Archive: Reading & Writing

Mar 23

The Ellipsis and Clarity

EllipsisThe ellipsis is probably the most troublesome punctuation mark in the English language. It is made up of three periods. And it means… Let me see now… Well, mostly it means that something is missing. But is it something concrete or just implied. When it’s used in dialog, it generally indicates that someone trails off, not finishing their sentence. It is implied that there is more to say but the speaker doesn’t say it because they are distracted or confused or…

In nonfiction writing, it is normally used when quoting material. Take, for example, the classic line from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This is usually misquoted, because no one cares about Horatio, whose only real claim to fame is being the only principle character in the play who doesn’t die in it. So if you wanted to quote accurately but get rid of Horatio, you could write, “There are more things in heaven and Earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And this has been the way that I have used it my entire life.

Unclear Ellipsis

There’s just one problem: it isn’t clear. People add ellipses to their writing all the time. So if you didn’t know the original quote, you wouldn’t know if that was what Shakespeare actually wrote, as thought Hamlet were pausing because he thought he saw his father’s ghost. A better solution then, would be, “There are more things in heaven and Earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Then there is no question that the ellipsis is used to indicate that the quote is missing text.

Now this is a pretty banal and obvious point. I normally wouldn’t take the time to write about it. But until just a few days ago, I always connected the ellipsis to the preceding word. Obviously I didn’t when the preceding text ended with a question or exclamation or quotation mark. This added inconsistency to my lack of clarity.

Bad Reasons for Bad Punctuation

The reason I did this was the same reason behind so many bad punctuation practices (eg, the lack of the serial comma): I liked the way it looked. And that’s so embarrassing!

As much as possible, I like to quote full sections of text, and not have to cut little pieces out of it. It looks bad, but it’s also harder to read. This is why I usually cut out starting conjunctions without using square brackets to capitalize the new first word.

Suppose I had a sentence like this, “But images look great.” If I wanted to get rid of the first word, I would quote it as, “Images look great” and not, “[I]mages look great.”

I believe I got this from Fowler. There’s no loss of clarity, I’m not changing the meaning of what the original writer is saying, it is easier to read, and it looks better. And I always used that justification for attaching the ellipsis to the preceding word. But it came to me suddenly that this practice did reduce clarity. And worse still: it did it in a way in which the reader wouldn’t even know.

So from now, the ellipsis will always have a space in front of it.


There are, of course, front ellipses: indicating that we are picking up the text already in progress. I never use them. They’re awful. It is even better to add text inside square brackets, although neither is usually necessary.

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Mar 17

Serial Comma Goes to Court

CommaI am proud that my opinions change over time. Often this is because I get more information, but it is just as often because I start thinking about something differently. In fact, I’ll soon write an article about my changed thinking regarding the ellipsis. But there are issues on which I am rigid. And regular readers will know that one of those is the serial comma.

The serial comma is the comma that comes right before the “and” (and “or”) in a list. For example, “This, this, and this.” Many people don’t use the serial comma. So, “This, this and this.” The Associated Press Stylebook goes along with this. But it adds, “Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.”

The very idea of this makes me shake. Why?! Since you have to use the serial comma sometimes, why not use it all the time? The problem is that it is often not clear when you need a serial comma and when you don’t. If you always use it, you won’t have to worry about it.

When Bad Grammar Leads You to Court

A great example of the importance of the serial common can be found in a recent court case in Maine, Kevin OConnor v Oakhurst Dairy. In this case, delivery drivers were suing the dairy for overtime pay. The dairy claimed that the drivers did not qualify for overtime.

The issue all comes down to Maine law which says that the following kinds of work do not qualify for overtime: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”[1]

The question before the court was whether the last item in the list of work was “packing for shipment or distribution” or “distribution.” The style guide for Maine legislation is the same as it is for The Associated Press: no serial comma. And that means, we really don’t know. If the style guide said that the serial comma was always used, we would know that it was the former.

If “distribution” is meant to be the last item, then the drivers do not qualify for overtime pay. The first court ruled that this was the correct reading and so found for the dairy. The case was appealed, and the drivers won. It didn’t all come down to the serial comma. (How could it? It’s a mess with the missing “and”/”or.”) But if the Maine style guide simply required the serial comma, there would have been no question.

The Case on Grammar Grounds

To me, the appellate court is right for purely grammatical reasons. The way that the dairy wanted to read the legislation was clearly motivated by what they wanted it to say. Here is the list as the dairy saw it:

  1. Canning
  2. Processing
  3. Preserving
  4. Freezing
  5. Drying
  6. Marketing
  7. Storing
  8. Packing
  9. Distribution

Items 1 through 8 are all gerunds: verbs ending in “ing” that are used as nouns. And then we have the plain old noun “distribution.” Why not “distributing”? Now I know that people write lists that are all mixed up. I have complained about this before, Illiterate Filmmakers: Last Man Standing Edition. But it is usually the case (as it is in that article) that the list is screwed up randomly. In this case, the list is perfect — except for that one item that happens to make the dairy’s case.

What’s more, “shipment” and “distribution” go together. So the obvious reading of this sentence is the way the drivers read it. You can get into other aspects of it. It just so happens that “packing for distribution” makes sense. And why would it be packing only for shipping that was exempt for overtime? (I doubt seriously if the dairy paid overtime for people packing for delivery.) It bothers me that the lower court found for the dairy. It doesn’t speak well for the objectivity of our legal system.

Just Use the Serial Comma, Dammit!

I suspect that on my deathbed I will be reminding people about this. “Okay, so my will’s in order. Good. Now promise me that you’ll always use the serial comma…” I find it shocking that we still have to talk about this. But even the writer of the article I linked to above seems confused on the matter. She wrote, “Opponents say that it’s redundant, aesthetically displeasing, and potentially more ambiguous.” I have yet to see a sentence in which the serial comma makes a sentence more ambiguous.

What’s more, I personally find the serial comma aesthetically pleasing; its symmetry pleases me. But in the link she provides for “aesthetically displeasing,” there is no discussion of aesthetics; the writer of that article talks exclusively about ambiguity, even quoting Bryan Garner that “its omission may cause ambiguities, whereas its inclusion never will.”

I’ll yield the point on redundancy. But a tiny amount of redundancy is more than offset by occasional ambiguity — some of which lands people in court!

[1] Note that when using semicolons instead of commas, one would never not use the “serial semicolon.” The truth is that the reason people don’t use the serial comma is the same reason that Americans use quotation marks stupidly: because typographers decided it. And typographers care about how things look, not about how clear they are.

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Mar 11

Let’s Get Rid of Onto

Let's Get Rid of OntoThere are a lot of words that bug me. Take, for example, “anyway.” On online Oxford Dictionary has a bit of a problem with this word, providing definitions like “Used to confirm or support a point or idea just mentioned.” The word itself is more of an interjection than anything. You wouldn’t, for example, write, “There isn’t anyway to get this done in time.” “Anyway” does not mean “any way.” That’s all pretty easy to understand in the case of this word. Things get much more difficult with the word “onto.” Oh, how I hate that word!

The word “onto” indicates that two objects meet. “They placed a cup onto a table.” (These is the less common construct, “I’m onto you!” But let us leave that aside.) We use “on to” when “on” is part of a verbal phrase. “After drinking the tea, they moved on to placing the cup onto the kitchen counter.” As you can see, in this form, the “on” really belongs to “moved.” So it would make much more sense to write “movedon to” than “moved onto.” (Obviously, there are cases where this ins’t true, “The cup was moved onto the table.”)

“On to” Is as Good as “Onto”

The problem with all of this is that there is no need for it. It is only fairly recently that “onto” was considered a word. And in England, it is still common for people to use “on to” where we Yankees use “onto.” And since I am always in favor of making writing easier when it comes to these annoying little matters, I see no reason for us not to jettison “onto,” use “on to” all the time, and never again give it a thought. Note that it absolutely doesn’t work the other way around: we can’t always use “onto.”

Back in 1926, Fowler made a great point:

Writers and printers should make up their minds whether there is such a preposition as onto or not; if there is not, they should omit the to

Why Not Get Rid of the “to”?

For example, why not, “They placed a cup on a table.” Is the “to” necessary? No. And there aren’t that many cases where it is. The “to” is kind of a linguistic tic. I doubt if I stopped using it that anyone would notice. But by now, it’s a habit. So I’m just going to get rid of “onto” and leave it at that. I’ll see if I can train myself to get rid of the “to.” One thing’s certain: it will be easier to get rid of the “to” if it isn’t attached to the “on.”

Note that everything I’ve said about “onto” applies to “into.” The problem is that “into” is so much better established that one would end up looking foolish if they wrote, “He slipped it in to his pack.” At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with that. And again, we could instead write, “He slipped it in his pack.” I’ll leave this fight to the more courageous among us. My fight ends (at least for now) with “onto.”

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Mar 09

Semicolon: Story of a Subtle Punctuation Mark

SemicolonElizabeth posted a cartoon on my Facebook time line. It is by Loren Fishman, and it features a teacher at a chalkboard with “grammar/punctuation” written, and then the winking smiley emoticon — ;) — below it. The teacher says, “Yes, a winky face is correct… But in ancient times, the semicolon was actually used to separate archaic written devices known as ‘complete sentences.’” It got me thinking about the semicolon.

In standard usage, the semicolon does indeed link complete sentences. This raises the question of why one would use the semicolon at all. When used in this way, one could instead use a period. The point of using a semicolon is to connect the sentences more closely. So the following is perfectly correct, “He had a gun. It was pointed right at me.” But it works better to write, “He had a gun; it was pointed right at me.”

At the same time, this would be wrong: “He had a gun; pointed right at me.” That’s where our good friend the em-dash comes in, “He had a gun — pointed right at me.” What’s wonderful about the em-dash is that it is the Swiss Army Knife of punctuation; you can use it for almost anything. One of my favorites — This should come as no surprise! — is to stick an entire sentence in the middle of a sentence.

The Semicolon Meets the Modern Sentence

The idea of “complete sentences” has become vague in recent years. Is this a complete sentence: “Because he couldn’t help himself”? Strictly speaking, it isn’t; it is a dependent clause. Yet few people would have a problem with it in the right context, “He kissed her. Because he couldn’t help himself.” And if that’s okay, isn’t, “He kissed her; because he couldn’t help himself”?

Oh, it gets murky here! Why not just, “He kissed her, because he couldn’t help himself”? If you want to use the semicolon, why use “because”? This works a whole lot better: “He kissed her; he couldn’t help himself.”

Is the Semicolon Necessary?

I think it is best to stick with the standard definition of a complete sentence when it comes to the semicolon. The reason is that the semicolon implies a conjunction. But exactly what it implies depends upon the context. In the last example, I wouldn’t say that it implies “because”; it implies something more, and “because” gets in the way.

For those who just want to make their lives easier, avoid the semicolon. And if you do want to use it, stick to linking two complete sentences. But for most people, the semicolon is more subtle than necessary. Most people don’t write precisely enough for there to be a distinction between a semicolon and a period.

But Wait! There’s More!

There is another use of the semicolon that people don’t talk much about: as a list separator. In general, it should be avoided. But when you are listing complicated things — especially ones that include “and” in their titles — semicolons are very useful. For example, “There was a Johnny Depp triple-feature that night: Benny & Joon; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Admittedly, the italics of the film titles make using a comma much easier. But you get the idea.

Here’s a great example of a place were a semicolon really helps. Consider the following sentence, “This articles deals with topics such as expanding your introduction, tightening your education, skills, and experience sections, and typesetting and printing.” Now that’s a perfectly good sentence. But it’s also complex and hard to grok in one read-through.

Semicolons for Clarity!

But the sentence can be made much clearer with the semicolon. Consider it now, “This articles deals with topics such as expanding your introduction; tightening your education, skills, and experience sections; and typesetting and printing.” Now it’s clear that we are talking about three items, even if the items themselves are somewhat complex.

So when you find yourself writing a list that might be confusing, remember that your friendly semicolon is there to help out. The standard use of semicolons to connect sentences could be eliminated from the language without much concern. But this less common use of the semicolon really is an important tool for writers. Because it can be used to improve clarity. And clarity is all.

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Feb 28

Ideas Versus Products

Frank MoraesA guy I work with a lot wrote an article years ago with a title something like, “Nobody Cares About Your Great Website Idea.” I remember liking it, but I can’t find it now. It doesn’t matter. It just occurred to me because I was thinking of the difference between having an idea and producing a product. In my case, a blog post.

Every profession has its little annoyances. In writing, it is having to listen to people tell you their idea for a novel or a screenplay. It doesn’t even matter if you are a writer. You might just want to be a writer and people will offer you ideas. It’s annoying for a couple of reasons.

Why Ideas Don’t Matter

First, there’s kind of an implied insult that you need ideas. I’ve never known a writer to not have vastly more ideas than time. I remember reading an interview with Charles Schulz where he said, if you couldn’t just sit down at your desk and think of something funny to draw, you weren’t a cartoonist. I think he overstated, but there is much to that.

The second problem with being offered ideas is related to the first. People think they are giving you something valuable, but they aren’t. If you took their idea, they would be giving you (almost certainly unpaid) work. Because it is taking an idea and turning it into a story or whatever that matters, not the idea itself. Usually, the final product has little relationship to the starting idea.

Think of the great film Chinatown. What scene does everyone remember? “She’s my sister and my daughter!” But Robert Towne’s original idea was to write about water rights in southern California. Now, that is ultimately what the story is about. But it’s not what people take away from the film.

Blog Post Ideas

Anyway, this is all about fiction. Blog posts are rather a different thing. And I do remember when I was writing a lot more, it could be difficult to come up with stuff to write about — at least when I had other writing work. Now I have the opposite problem.

Recently, I’ve had all these ideas for articles that I find hard to get entered into the computer. It’s mostly other work that is getting in the way — but not as you might think. I’ve been so stressed out that the idea of sitting down to write for pleasure has been impossible.

That’s true of the work here and Psychotronic Review, as well as my plays. In fact, I think I have had a breakthrough with my folklore play. But I don’t know if its going to work. Most ideas turn to ashes when presented with the stark sunlight of implementation.

(For the record, the new idea is to have two choruses who gradually disagree on how the play should be performed dividing the cast and crew into full-scale war. I know I can use that somewhere, but not necessarily in this play. Note that I don’t care that someone is going to steal this idea. Anyone good enough will have their own ideas on how to rip off Luigi Pirandello.)

But right now, I’m keen to sit in front of the screen and write for fun. So I hope that continues and I can maintain my minimal output on the consistent schedule I used to have. That is: the new consistent schedule, not the old one. I don’t have anything close to the amount of time to do six posts per day!


I would like to say in my defense that for a personal blog, this one still grinds out an enormous amount of content. What I’m more bothered by is not being very active with the comments. I’ll work on that too. But now I’m going to write an article for tomorrow that I’ve been meaning to write for at least a week. It should be fun: I get to go after libertarians again. That’s what passes for fun around here. That and the serial comma.

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Feb 27

Grammar Bullies and Their Justifications

Stephen Fry - Grammar BulliesThe following video by Matthew Rogers and Stephen Fry rather sums up my approach to writing and grammar. It reminded me of a time long ago when I allowed my father to read the first five chapters of my first novel. He gave it to his girlfriend who considered herself quite erudite. She also hated me for reasons that were never really clear to me.

While having dinner with them one time, I was shocked to learn that she had read the chapters. This was not acceptable to me because I am very cautious about who I allow to read my fiction. Be that as it may, I was eager to find out what she had thought. But she did not think anything of the story. She was focused on the grammar errors that she had found. I say “errors” but the truth was that she was only able to find one thing that was sort of an error: a sentence fragment.

Given that it was some 20,000 words and a draft that had never been copy edited, I thought that was pretty good. But she held onto her criticisms with a barely disguised glee as though somehow she had vanquished me. I got the impression that in her mind she had proved that I was no writer as if all of my writing in various forms over the previous 20 years didn’t count. All that counted was that a real writer never made a grammar error. Or something. There really was something wrong with that woman.

Clear Communication

Regardless, one part of this video that I really like is where Fry says that grammar conservatives’ claims that they are just trying to keep communication clear never holds water. The issue actually is clarity. But the rigid application of grammar rules normally gets in the way of this. It doesn’t help that most people only know about this or that rule because they were told it at an impressionable age. I used to yield to these grammar bullies, until I realized that they generally understood relatively little about grammar and almost nothing about communicating.

The Sad State of “Importantly”

Many years ago, I stopped using the word “importantly” altogether. I got tired of people complaining about sentences like, “And most importantly, the blah blah blah.” The argument is that it should be “important.” But that’s not true. For one thing, if that is what one wanted to say, it would be, “And most important the blah blah blah.” There would be no comma. The original construct is a shortened version of, “And in the most important way, the blah blah blah.” The second construct just isn’t very natural; it sounds like someone writing for Kung Fu, “And most important father led the family out of danger.”

I’ve thought about bringing “importantly” back into my writing. Unfortunately, I’ve also come to dislike adding “ly” to words to make them adverbs. I would like to see a lot less of that. But it is a personal, aesthetic thing; not grammar dogma originating in Mrs Johnston’s 7th grade English class.

Fun With Grammar

None of this means that I don’t delight in funny or interesting errors. I love things like, “Beat red.” They are charming. Hell, they’re poetry. And I can appreciate constructs like, “The dog caught the Frisbee as it flew through the air.” But it is exactly that kind of ambiguity that writers normally try to avoid. It isn’t wrong; it is just unclear. And in the end, clarity is the only thing that matters in writing. All is clarity.

Grammar is not a weapon.


At the very end, Fry mentions how it bugs him when people aspirate the letter “h.” I’m not sure what he’s talking about because it fades out. But I have an issue with this. It is fine if you want to say “a historian” or “an historian.” But if you aspirate the “h” then it is “a historian.” If you are going to use “an” you don’t aspirate the “h.” To do so is pretentious in the extreme.

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Feb 26

Observe the Writer in Its Unnatural Habitat

Mall of America

Anybody out there want a free vacation? Plane tickets, hotel room, and $80 per diem included? Plus a nice $2,500 check?!

Well, all you have to do is win the Mall Of America’s “Writer-in-Residence” contest.

The Mall of America — pride of Bloomington, Minnesota — is turning 25 this year, and they’re looking for writers to capture that undefinable “Mall atmosphere.” (Um, it’s a mall.)

Submit your 150-word proposal at contest page before 10 March 2017. No previous publishing experience is required. And be creative! As the entry page says, “Heck, if you can make the assignment work as a musical-comedy screenplay, by all means make it so!”

Selected semifinalists will advance to an elimination round, amping their proposal up to a daunting 500-800 words. That’s around 50 Tweets, but life is full of challenges. Be brave.

The Mall of America Gig

So what, exactly, is the “in residence” part? I’m glad you asked. That’s where the real fun begins. You get five eight-hour days hanging around the Mall, and you are supposed to write about it. Not in some corner office! Oh, no. Here’s how it works — from the Official Contest Rules page (PDF):

Winner’s workspace will be located in a common area space within Mall of America. The core daily work hours will be 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. While the Winner will be encouraged to take breaks from writing to explore the Mall, post on social media, eat and find inspiration, the Winner will need to be physically present at the writer’s desk for no fewer than four (4) hours per day. The Winner’s ongoing work may be displayed in almost-real time on a large monitor at the workspace.

The work product may scroll continuously throughout the day for passersby to view. Content will not be displayed on the monitor until it has been submitted by the Winner and approved by a Mall of America Marketing representative. The Winner must submit new content of no less than 150 words, to be displayed on the monitor at three (3) mutually agreed upon times each day. Winner’s written work must not be inaccurate, derogatory, incompatible with, inconsistent with, or otherwise contradictory to the Mall of America’s desired presentation of the Mall or the patrons, tenants, licensees, invitees, or employees of the Mall.

Essentially, it’s a zoo with one animal: the lone ad copy writer in its unnatural habitat. Parents can bring their children to observe the writer as it types, stares blankly, types, stares blankly. “Look, Billie, it’s going to forage for food!” I’m tempted to apply for this, but unlike a zoo chimpanzee, I would not be allowed to fling poo.

What Would Be a Good Mall Story?

If you didn’t have to write ad copy, there’s lots of interesting people at malls. The workers, for one: security guards, janitorial staff, those unfortunate young women working at Hot Dog on a Stick. Obvious tourists (although the Mall isn’t as big a draw for them as it was back when). Teenagers with nothing else to do.

There are also old folks, in almost every large shopping mall, who go walking in the morning before stores open. I don’t know which mall started this, but it’s pretty common. It’s a way for the seniors to get some exercise on a surface which is smooth, under climate controlled conditions, and without crowds knocking them over. They’ll usually finish their walk at some little store where they can get coffee and doughnuts. Those are interesting people; I’ve met a few.

Where Have All the (Ad Copy) Writers Gone?

But ad copy? Are ad writers so lousy now you need an open contest to find any new ideas? Malls are surrealistically creepy, and always were — that was their appeal, once they spread like gangrene. Ooh, check out the pus, it’s so strange! Capitalism made blatant, with only the feeblest attempts to resemble anything human — a sad tree here, some soothing music there.

To go biblical, these contest runners are desperately trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. Reanimating an abomination that never should have existed at all.

My Personal Mall Story

Naturally, being a Minnesotan, I have been to the Mall many times. One time, I went to go see a movie. Mall of America has got movie theaters, kiddie rides, bars, the whole deal — just like most mega-malls.

A while before, a friend had given me some marijuana brownies he’d made from homegrown weed. On my movie trip, I was riding the bus, planning on munching popcorn, and I thought this was the perfect time to eat those brownies.

I got to the Mall a bit earlier than planned, and the brownies were kicking in. Very strongly. So I decided to hang out in a sporting-goods shop. I like sports uniforms; they freak me out less than the garish stuff sold in most stores.

I saw a Minnesota Twins jersey I suddenly, really, wanted. I almost bought it. Then I remembered — there was another, competing sporting goods store about 300 feet away. I thought I should comparison shop. So I noted the price and headed for the other store.

The other store had a similar jersey, and I almost bought that one. Until I remembered I’d come there to comparison shop. What was the price in that other store? I’d forgotten.

You can see where this is going. I wandered between those stores — perhaps five times each. Finally I realized it was time for the movie, I was way too high to comparison shop, and I should just buy the damn jersey. Which I still have. Consumerism!

Think Outside The Box, While Inside a Box!

Come up with a musical-comedy screenplay. Or why not a comedy routine? A sarcastic, hipster slag on anyone insufficiently cool to realize how cool the Mall is? Everything is permitted. Nothing is forbidden. Assuming approval from Mall of America Marketing, of course.

I remember, during our high school graduation ceremony, the outgoing principal giving a speech about creativity. Don’t be afraid to dare new ideas, he said. Think different. Be a rebel. This contradicted every authoritarian ruling he’d decreed during my years at school, in a way. But in another way, it didn’t.

Think differently — for money. Be creative, dare to dream — for money. Change the world — for money.

So, have at the contest, folks! Be the zoo writer! Be innovative and new! Just keep in mind:

Contestant acknowledges and agrees that Sponsor may use Submission without the approval of Contestant throughout the world, an unlimited number of times, in perpetuity in any and all media, now known or hereafter invented.

That’s true even if you don’t win. But hey, you get a chance to write in your cage for five days.

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Feb 23

Gerald Burns Society

Shorter Poems - Gerald BurnsBack in the mid-1990s, at the end of my career as a graduate student and beginning of my career as college professor, I moved into a big house with three poet friends of mine: Rebecca Davis, James “Jim” Haining (the founder and editor of Salt Lick), Gerald Burns. It was a very lively environment to live in. I learned a lot about literature and writing from the experience, although Jim and Gerald were absolutely vicious when it came to literary merit. All that time, Jim was getting weaker and weaker from multiple sclerosis. But it was Gerald who managed to die first. As I recall (and by that time I was not in constant contact with him), his mother had died and he went back home to help his father. Shortly after arriving, he had a heart attack and died. He was just 57 years old.

Jim used to say that reading a lot of poets was like chewing rocks, and that Gerald was such a poet — but it was worth the effort. It was true. Gerald’s poetry was very difficult. He wore his erudition on his sleeve. But I learned something really powerful from him: it isn’t necessary that a reader understand all the finer points of your writing. Sometimes the mystery has a poetry of its own. And it certainly freed me up to indulge in my own rarefied knowledge. In fact, I am doing that quite explicitly in my most recent (abandoned) novel. But if you want a better example, look no further than Moby Dick. I think the details about sailing and whaling are what make the novel great.

Recently, I found a website of the Gerald Burns Society. It is not the only website preserving his memory. And it isn’t surprising. The first time I met Gerald, he came to a party I was giving, and managed to pretty much single handedly destroy the party. He could be a distinctly difficult person. Yet he was the one thing that we should all strive to be: constantly interesting. And once you got to know him, he was the sweetest man in the world who would do anything for you.

At that time, I was very much involved in my education and thus science. Gerald pushed me to write about that. Of course, he also tried to train my mind regarding literary matters. Now how I wish he were around so we could discuss Ulysses. I remember back with some regret talking about how much I liked the Inferno and he tried to convince me that it was too easy and that I needed to learn to appreciate Paradiso. I wish I had tried at the time. I have tried since, and still don’t really enjoy it. I could really use his help.

Anyway, the Gerald Burns Society has a nice introduction to him. It is a little light on his writing, but it is filled with his drawings, which I must admit to having forgotten about. And it has this wonderful quote from David Searcy (one of the Salt Lick bunch), under the heading, The Earliest Published Burns?

One new thing about Gerald — a little stapled journal, GADFLY (bi-monthly, Cambridge MA, 35 cents) from December, 1959, contains what I believe to be the earliest published Burns. Some professor friend of Ben Fountain’s gave it to him since it contained some Ezra Pound (Ben being something of a Pound scholar) whereupon Ben showed it to me, wondering if a small elitist essay called “Man in the Street” by Gerald Burns were by the genuine article. A glance at the first line was enough: “Reading Heidegger the other day…”

Yep, that’s Gerald!

Anyway, check out the website. It is great to see people keeping Gerald’s work alive.

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Feb 21

Dark and Silent

Dark and SilentThis is a prose poem I wrote back in 2010. It is the last poem that I’ve written. What I find shocking about it is that it isn’t bad. It isn’t great. I’m not a poet.

I don’t have the patience for it. Every poem I’ve ever written contains parts that don’t quite work. I think the change in tone of “It allows me” is too abrupt. But I could work days on that problem and never solve it. People think writing poetry is easy because there aren’t many words. It’s quite the opposite.

What I doubtless most like about this poem is how it sums up my intellectual loneliness. The people of my intellectual caliber are not interested in the things I am interested in, and the people who are interested in what I am interested in are so far beyond me that I can learn from them but not share with them.

On the plus side, I feel infinitely more cheerful than I did when I wrote this. But the questions do remain.

It is dark here. The moon but a sliver sharp enough to sew. I see it reflected clearly on the lake — its surface calmer than stretched linen. And silent. Even, it seems, the raccoons are gone. Field mice a distant memory. My only light — shining down on The Passionate Shepherd to His Love from page 18 of The English Reader — escaping my windows into the vacuum of night. It allows me to notice the missing sixth stanza; the different, inferior source; the modernized language. And I wonder: did I travel so long to get here? To reread poems I have memorized? To quibble dumb with editors over what every literate person needs to know? To accept the dark — the silence? This is where my long journey has led? My greatest hopes that wildlife return to scratching and the new moon to full?

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Feb 18

Parentheses and Periods: Getting Them Right

Parentheses and PeriodsThis morning I was shocked to read something that Paul Krugman wrote, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives.)” Krugman knows better, of course. I’ve long been impressed with just how few typos creep into his work — even when he’s writing a lot. So much the better to use him as an example. I don’t want to put him or anyone down for this mistake. And he didn’t make this mistake out of ignorance, I’m sure. But this construct of misplacing a period in relationship to a closing parenthesis mark drives me crazy!

The truth is, this is easy. I really don’t understand why so many people have trouble with it. But trust me: I work with a lot of writers and a lot of them have trouble with it. I wonder if it is an American thing. Last year, I wrote, My Job Description Requires I Be Wrong About Quotation Marks. In England, periods go before or after an ending quotation mark based upon whether the period belongs to quoted material. In American English, we always throw the period before the quotation mark. (I hate this too, but I’ve given up the fight.)

Quotation Marks

Here’s an example from Kristen McHenry’s poem “Museum[1] in her book, The Goatfish Alphabet. Since I don’t want to deal with quotes within quotes, I’ll put this in boxes. Here is the sentence as we would typeset it in America:

My favorite line from “Museum” is, “Feeling their blind way through the drenched black pines.”

But that’s wrong. The line does not end with a period. Here is how it would be typeset in Britain:

My favorite line from “Museum” is, “Feeling their blind way through the drenched black pines”.

So this madness with periods and quotation marks rubs off and apparently makes people think the same is true of parentheses marks. But it isn’t! For whatever reason, we here in America care about this. And like I said: it is easy. It is, in fact, easier than with quotation marks because the intent is clearer.

Sentences Must Stop

Sentences need a stop: usually a period. This is what defines them as sentences. So in Krugman’s example above, he needs a period after the final parenthesis. He could have written it this way, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives.).” But that parenthetical comment hardly needs its own stop. So better would have been, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives).”

Personally, I would have rendered it, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton. (Shhh; don’t tell conservatives!)” And having read Krugman for a decade, I suspect that’s what he meant to write.

Dealing With Parentheses and Punctuation

Here are my rules for dealing with parentheses:

  1. If a parenthetical comment is not a full sentence, treat it as you would a comment between commas.
  2. If a parenthetical comment is a full sentence, treat it as such:
    • Capitalize the first word
    • End it with a stop (period, question mark, or exclamation mark).
  3. If a full sentence parenthetical comment appears at the end of a sentence, it probably belongs outside the sentence.

But if you ever get confused about whether you need a period or other stop outside a parenthesis, ask yourself, “Is this the end of the sentence?” Remove the parenthetical comment if necessary. It should be obvious then. After you properly end your sentence, then you can put your parenthetical comment back with or without its own stop.

[1] I read a lot of poetry and this is one of my all time favorite poems. It just happens to be written by a long-time friend. When I first read it, I wrote her a thousand-word email message gushing about it. There’s more meaning and beauty in it than in the vast majority of novels.

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Feb 12

Why Is It Grateful and Not Greatful?

Grateful vs GreatfulWhen I was young, I was terrible at spelling. I’m still not a great speller, but I’m okay. Technology has been very good for people like me. I don’t make many meaning mistakes like mixing up “beat” and “beet.” Generally, if I make a mistake it’s a big one. One that still drives me create is “knowledgeable.” It’s only been quite recently that I’ve managed to consistently throw in that final “e.” The truth is that it still doesn’t make a lot of sense of to me. Why not knowledgable? Anyway, I tell you this only so that you won’t think too lowly of me when I admit that I was 19 years old when I learned how to spell “grateful.”

I’m pretty sure it was because I saw a poster for The Grateful Dead. But it might also have been that I noticed a sign for The Grateful Bagel. Regardless, I thought, “That’s got to be wrong.” So I did what I’ve found to be very unusual in our culture: I got out a dictionary and I looked it up. And sure enough, grateful was the right spelling: “appreciative of benefits received.” It turns out that “greatful” isn’t even in the dictionary.

But that’s as far as I took it. In those days, it didn’t occur to be to dig deeper. It didn’t even occur to me that it was odd that it was spelled that way. In those days, English spelling was a mystery. There was no sense to it, so it could have been spelled ghoti, and I wouldn’t have given it any more thought.

Why Grateful?

Today, however, the question did occur to me. And this is the first time that I really gave the word’s meaning any thought. It couldn’t be “greatful.” The “ful” suffix indicates, more or less, “filled with.” And “grateful” doesn’t mean “filled with great.” If you want to put it that way, you would say, “filled with gratitude.” And that gets us pretty close to the reason that we spell the word “grateful.”

Latin: It’s Always the Latin

Of course, in that case, it would just be a synonym for “great.” And we hardly need “greatful,” much less “greatnessful,” when “great” would do.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “grateful” from the middle of the 16th century. That was when we had long gone version of the word “grate.” It meant pleasing or thankful. And, as usual, it came from a Latin word, gratus. According to my Latin dictionary, it means “beloved, dear, acceptable, pleasing, agreeable.” It gives as an example, “O! Diva gratum quæ regis Antium.” It is by Horace (so much Latin that is quoted is by him), in his Odes, Volume 1, Poem 35. And it means, “Oh! Goddess who reigns over your own loved Antrium.” Maybe.

The main thing is that the word sounds like “great” but that doesn’t mean anything. “Gateful” also sounds like “grate,” which has two modern definitions, First is: “to have an irritating effect.” And second is: “to break into small pieces by rubbing against something rough.” Both of those words come to use via Germany. It is from the word kratzen, which means “to scratch.”

From Youtube: Grateful Dead – Casey Jones 1971.

Why Not Greatful?

But there is a possible use of the word “greatful.” Maybe this is just another example of how Trump is torturing me. But in that construction, the meaning would be “filled with great.” Now that doesn’t quite work. The –ful suffix is normally attached to a noun. But we could stretch it to mean, “filled with greatness.” So we might say, “In his mind, Trump is greatful.” Of course, in that case, it would just be a synonym for “great.” We hardly need “greatful,” much less “greatnessful.” “Great” does a perfectly good job.

I’m certain that Trump sees himself a John Galt type. He did it all on his own. (What rich father?!) Thus Trump isn’t in any true sense grateful. It would be nice to have a homophone just for him. It’s nice to think that the President of the US is grateful, even if just in spoken English.

English Makes Sense

Regardless of Trump, this does clarify why we have the word grateful and not the word greatful. Contrary to what I thought when I was younger, the English language — even its spelling — makes a lot of sense. It isn’t perfect. (What is?!) But if you learn it well enough, you will find that it is pretty accommodating to your personal sense of logic and structure. And I’m grateful for that.

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Feb 12

The Terrible Characters of Atlas Shrugged

Robert Nielsen - Atlas ShruggedThe greatest and most obvious flaw with the book is how terrible the characters are. They are all one dimensional cartoons that are either perfect in every way or horrible in every way. If a character agrees with Rand’s ideology, then they are smart, beautiful, strong, noble, and rich. If a character disagrees with her ideology, Rand makes them fat, ugly, stupid, lazy, and hysterical (most of the villains of the book speak in exclamation marks). Even when villains have sex, it is made clear that they are not attracted to each other and gain no pleasure from the action. Because if you’re not a fanatical libertarian, you are wrong in literally every way.

The descriptions of the heroes are so over the top absurd it’s almost funny. Hank recalls his first day working at the age of 14 in an iron mine and how he cursed himself for being tired and feeling pain, but kept going because “he decided that pain was not a valid reason for stopping.” He then ends up running a series of steel mills and then inventing an entirely new form of steel. I don’t know how Rand thought it was credible that the CEO of a major corporation could also spend years working in a lab on research or that those skills crossed over. As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, he causally invents an entirely new way of building bridges one evening as if that were the kind of thing that happens all the time.

Francisco has to be the most ridiculous/funny. As a child he instantly becomes an expert in everything he does. He sits in a boat and automatically knows how to drive it. When he was 12 he snuck off and got a job working on the railroads, which was nothing because the year before he ran away and worked on a cargo steamer for the summer. Also while he was 12 he single-handedly discovers differential equations. When he was 16 he went to college but also worked in a copper factory. By the time he was 20, he owned the factory. How? By speculating on the stock market, because it is so easy to see which stocks will go up and down. It is weird that none of the heroes have time in their lives when they were fun-loving children; in childhood they were merely miniature adults.

All of the heroes have this absurd element to them. They don’t stop to eat or rest a single time in the book and it is casually thrown in that they haven’t slept for two or three days as though that would have no effect on them. They have no hobbies or interested outside work. Even when they are bleeding they don’t feel any pain. In other words, they are soulless robots, machines good for working and nothing else.

Atlas Shrugged bears a strong resemblance to fascist propaganda in its treatment of heroes. There is a strong emphasis on the cult of personality, of worshipping men of action in contrast to the masses who are too stupid and cowardly to achieve greatness. Democracy destroys accountability whereas dictatorship is the only system where anyone is responsible. All of the best firms in the book are named after their owner and collapse without them.

Atlas Shrugged is less of a novel and more of an excuse for Rand to promote her ideology. The characters are prone to burst out in long-winded speeches at the drop of the hat. The climax of the book is a 60 page speech in which remarkably little is said. However, I noticed that Rand completely avoided debates. The moochers give speeches in isolation as do the heroes; at no point do their paths cross…

–Robert Nielsen
Atlas Shrugged Is A Ridiculous Book

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