And Who Decided That?

spelling error sign

Maybe it tastes better that way

You’ve probably heard the phrase “the King’s English” and perhaps wondered which king. As I’m writing this now, it occurs to me that there may be people who think it means King James and has something to do with the King James’ Bible. Which it doesn’t. Back in the history of England, the power and prestige of the king were such that, when the king spoke, whatever grammatical dumbassity came out of the king’s mouth, it was—by definition—perfect English.

Because, you know, who was going to say to the king, “Hey, you used a double negative, buddy. Where did you go to school?” There surely were people who thought the king spoke badly, but if those people wanted a piece of that big pie the king had, they imitated the speech of the king. It was about power. Thus, the King’s English.

In countries with a literary history and a widespread educational system, there is an strong belief in a proper form of the language. In every case and with no exceptions, the “proper” language is the one used by people with power. “Good English” spoken by people with power is the modern version of the King’s English. If you want some of that power, you will learn to use the language the way powerful people use it. We don’t talk about it that way, however. We just call it “good” English.

“Good” is a sort of moral quality, and a language does not actually have a moral component; it either works to communicate or it doesn’t. Every dialect of a language can be used to communicate. But if you don’t speak like a lawyer, banker, politician, or doctor—if you don’t sound like you went to school and learned that way of speaking, then we will call your English bad, no matter how well you communicate.

If we are going to continue to have “proper” English (i.e., a language of power), then someone must work on the barricades to keep out the hillbilly hordes with their drawling accents, varied grammar, and alternative past participles (as in “I ain’t never went nowhere”). Most of the language guardians are professors and editors, watching with the rapacious ferocity of eagles for any slight offense.

A cosmic irony is that the people who do this guardian work to protect the language of the wealthy and powerful are themselves working jobs where they generally earn shit salaries (if they even get a salary and don’t just put together a little work here and there). Many of those gatekeepers are college adjunct professors without full-time jobs, unable to even afford health insurance, but they are adamant about protecting the language of power, of which they have so little.

I have been and still am one of those people. I spent twenty years teaching college writing, like Moses come down from the mountain with a grammar book to declare what is correct and what is incorrect: thou shalt not drop the ending from third person singular. Now I continue this holy mission from a different vantage point, as an editor. Because I edit a medical journal, however, and because our articles come from around the world, I’m not as picky as I would be if I had more time.

Here is an example of a phrase describing the results from a study, and whether those results might apply to types of people who were not in the study: “…their [the results’] extrapolation to other populations is strongly precluded.”

I would say that in general, a thing either is precluded, or it is not. It if it precluded, then it will not happen. Otherwise, it will. The adverb “strongly” does not make sense in such an either/or case. When I was looking at this phrase, I thought it really should read “strongly discouraged”, which would make more sense. Do not try to use these results with other populations.

But I let it go. Maybe I got lazy. Maybe I thought “Oh, it’s only medical writing, what the hell.” Maybe I let another hillbilly climb over the wall. Maybe linguistic standards have been abandoned, and the language has gone to hell. If anybody asks me, though, I’m going to say, “I ain’t never done nothing like that.”


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Start With This

The Master and Margarita book cover

The Master and Margarita

Being, as I be, in the bedeviled state of beginning to write a new novel, I must decide how to start the book. I heard on the radio that you should begin by commencing, though I’ve also heard contradictory advice on that. My long centuries of writing experience, which include many words splattered onto otherwise innocent sheets of paper, followed by the reactions of some readers and the occasional flicker of bemused interest from a literary agent, followed by the inevitable curled lip of negation, have given me much cause to ponder book openings.

From talking to literary agents and reading their blogs, advice, and appalled emails of rejection, I have come to realize that the ideal book opening contains these elements:

  • time travel
  • a car chase
  • oblique references to something godawful in the past
  • a mysterious young man with a pistol, looking for the meaning of life

The best books, of course, will contain these things in the first paragraph. If you’re a writer of secondary capacity, such as myself, it may take as long as two pages to mention all these things.

Of course the beginning of a novel should make the reader want to read more. That’s a basic fact of psychology and biology—we try things briefly to see if we’re interested, like tasting food, but we aren’t going to live for hundreds of years, damn it, so we need to pick and choose. What is the magical opening that will pull a reader in? There are people who will tell you how to write fiction, but usually such people do not say just who they are writing for, which makes all the difference in the world.

In pondering how a novel might begin, I went looking for some examples that I could quote here (without being sued). I’ll quote the opening sentences of three books, to give a feeling of the writing, and then I’ll summarize what happens in the first few pages of the book

Return of the Native

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.”

[Several pages of description of the landscape follow: by Thomas Hardy, published in 1878]

Alice in Wonderland

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversation?”

[Suddenly a white rabbit runs by and Alice follows it down a hole: by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865]

The Master and Margarita (I’m doing my own translation here from the Russian)

“On a hot spring evening at Patriarch’s Ponds two persons appeared. The first was around forty, dark-haired, chubby and balding, and he was dressed in a light summer outfit. In his hand he carried an elegant hat, while unnaturally large glasses in black horn frames graced his face.”

[Someone falls onto the tracks in front of a streetcar, and his head is cut off: by Mikhail Bulgakov, written between 1928 and 1940, but because he lived in the Soviet Union, writing about society under Stalin, the book was not published until the 60s]

What can we see from these openings? One thing we learn is that in 1878 you could write a book that began with landscape, then did more landscape, and was only getting warmed up in describing the landscape. Could you publish a book today that began that way? The literary agents would hurt their hands in the speed with which they would throw that back at you.

Alice in Wonderland was intended mostly for children, so of course it was going to do something more immediately entertaining than a novel by Hardy. It has almost no description, but goes immediately to action. It occurs to me as I sit here that since a requirement of modern novels is to immediately grab the reader’s attention with action, does that mean that modern readers are being addressed as children? A difference between the two books above is that Hardy was comfortable spending a long time setting the scene, while Lewis dropped the reader into the middle of the action.

Bulgakov’s novel opens with a famous scene that certainly grabs the reader’s attention. This 20th century novel seems to do the kind of thing that is demanded of novels here in the early 21st century, jump in there with something exciting. It doesn’t have a car chase, but later in the book, it does have a witch fly across Moscow.

For the book I’m starting to write (so far called Moonapple Pie, here are the first three sentences (until I change them sometime in the next few years):

The village of Mule Camp Springs sat silent below the lake. In the middle of the street, down in the dark waters, lay a boat that had tragically gone down one Fourth of July, drowning two brothers who were drinking beer and fishing. The sunken boat had come to rest next to the disintegrating remains of the Mule Camp Methodist church.

I’m still working on the obligatory car chase, which I guess will have to end up in the lake.


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What You Know Can’t Hurt You

FrankensteinLast weekend I was driving home from Florida and on the radio I heard some talk about the novel Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818. The next day, I heard someone else on the radio read from Shelley’s notes on how she came to write the book. Because this year is the 200th anniversary of her thinking up the idea for the novel, perhaps it’s no great coincidence that I’d hear these radio reports.

The following day, however, I was reading a modern novel that out of the blue made a reference to Frankenstein, and still the day after that I was listening to some language exercises while studying Spanish, when a speaker used the sentence (in Spanish), “Oh, it’s the Frankenstein monster! Run!” I think using the word “run” was the actual point of the exercise.

The cultural impact of Mary Shelley’s novel is so enormous that it’s impossible to calculate. I pause for a moment to note that she was 18 years old when she thought of it and began writing it. Are there novels by any men at that age that have had such an impact?

Shelley tells us that her purpose was just to write a horror story, some entertainment during a rainy summer for her husband, herself, Lord Byron, and another friend. We can now see the book in two very different ways, however. There is the “Grrrrrr!!!” monster way, which she was after, and in the 20th century we have certainly pursued this line, with movies and pop culture that celebrated the “monstrousness” and nothing else, leading in fact to parodies like the song “Monster Mash” and Mel Brook’s utterly wonderful movie “Young Frankenstein”.

Whether Shelley intended to make a cultural statement or not, I don’t know. Maybe she did intend it. Both of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were influential thinkers and writers, concerned with the state of society (you can look them both up on Wikipedia), so Mary Shelley was probably influenced by this background. And there is obviously a second way to look at her book.

In Frankenstein, she picked up on trends happening in her time, including current scientific knowledge, such as electricity (remember, the year was 1818), and captured a growing cultural uneasiness with how that knowledge and technology were affecting people. At the same time that Shelley was close to writing Frankenstein, for instance, textile workers in England were destroying weaving machines from fear that the machines would take away their jobs (does that fear of being replaced by machines sound somewhat familiar?).

Clearly, in the early 1800s some people were beginning to feel that knowledge and technology were moving beyond human control. It was at that moment that Mary Shelley produced this novel, which embodied those fears. The book is actually about a man who creates a living creature that he is then afraid of. The creature of the novel, by the way, is not the cartoon character of our movies (in Shelley’s book the monster reads John Milton’s Paradise Lost).

Of course, after Shelley, both our knowledge and our technology have increased astronomically, and our fear of them has continued. A very good example of fearing our own creations came exactly 100 years later, with the Czech play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920, where the word “robot” was first created. In that play, the artificial creatures eventually turn on their human masters and kill them.

In the late 20th century, I’d cite two movie examples of this same theme. In “Blade Runner” artificially created people come into conflict with the humans who made them, and in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the anthropomorphic ship computer turns on the humans who are supposed to control the space ship.

From our vantage point 200 years later, the time of Mary Shelley seems quaint and bucolic. Most people then lived in villages. Everyone rode horses. Not one thing on the earth ran on electricity. And yet part of the reason for the success of Shelley’s novel is that is wasn’t just a horror story. Other people have written horror stories, but we don’t hear about them.

Even 200 years ago, people were beginning to worry about whether humans were acquiring knowledge beyond our capacity to use it. And look at us now. We have nuclear weapons. We have cell phones that tell people where we are, even when we don’t realize it. We are developing the capacity to change the very DNA that makes us who we are. Writers struggle now to deal with such changes and threats to our humanity. A teen-aged girl 200 years ago captured the anxiety of her own time, something we still understand.

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Hitz Egin Euskara

Basque girl

Let her speak

(A, А) In Tampa, Florida, in the section of town called Ybor City, there is a newspaper named La Gaceta. In the most recent issue of the paper is an article that says, “One of the Ybor City tour companies tells us it is still getting calls from people who are canceling their travel to Tampa because of the hurricane.” I am not one of those people, and I’m in Tampa now as I write this.

(B, Б) In the newspaper La Gaceta, above the title, a line reads “English ● Español ● Italiano”. Ybor City was once home to 300 cigar companies (I find that hard to believe, but that’s what they say in the history museum). In the past, Ybor City had a heavy influx of immigrants from Spain, Cuba, and Italy, and many of those immigrants sat at desks rolling cigars by hand.

(C, В) These immigrants continued to use their native languages, as every human being obviously would. The language we learn from our parents with no effort, if we speak it long enough, is the language, our native tongue, one that we not only communicate with, but one that helps to create our sense of ourself as a human being.

(D, Г) Reflecting the history of the people who came to Ybor City, La Gaceta has articles in all three languages (very little Italian, but it’s there). This newspaper is a good representation of the phenomenon of people wanting to hold onto their language for cultural reasons.

(E, Д) Last week I read an article on the BBC website about the Basque language, which is not known to be related to any other language on earth. Basque is spoken in northern Spain and a little bit in southern France. As with so many small languages (such as Irish), Basque is used much more in the small villages and towns away from the big cities.

(F, Е) Like all people, the Basques wanted to use their language, first, because their mama spoke it, and who needs more of a reason than that? Secondly, the language preserved their cultural identity as a people. During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, however, it was illegal to speak Basque, and they were required to speak only Spanish. In the cities, in particular, people were afraid to speak their own language because someone might turn them in to the police. Can you imagine being arrested because of the language you speak? Surely only grim, dark barbarians would do that.

(G, Ё) Trying to destroy the language people speak is an attempt to destroy the culture of that group, so that they cease to exist separately. It is not genocide as literal killing, but it is cultural genocide. Here in the United States, I used to know a woman from Alaska, a member of a native tribe who said that in the American school she attended as a girl, they were forced to use English and were punished for speaking their home language. Can you imagine being punished for the language you speak? Surely only grim, dark barbarians would do that.

(H, Ж) Trying to destroy the cultural identity of a group by taking away their language is not rare. Dictatorships understand the power of language, and they not only censor it, but they standardize and control it. Control is obviously important to a dictatorship, but in addition, another language creates a sense of foreignness. Fear and hatred of foreignness must be basic human nature, as it exists all over the earth. There are many people right now in the United States who hate the idea of any language other than English in this country. Some of them, I am so sorry to say, are in my family.

(I, З) How would you feel to have your language taken away?

(J, И) I can say from a lot of personal experience that struggling to learn a foreign language makes you feel like a child, and you assume that you must sound actually stupid to other people. At the beginning of every paragraph for this blog post I’ve listed the first letters of both the English and Russian alphabets. What if suddenly all those English letters were illegal and you could only use the Russian letters? Would you hate the people who did that to you?

(K, Й) The title for this post, Hitz Egin Euskara, means “Speak Basque” in the Basque language.

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Don’t Just Me

man with tape on mouth

An improved programmer

In the last few days I’ve been eyeing one of my peeves. I try not to make pets of them, knowing how they can mess up the furniture. My non-pet peeve is a linguistic issue, which of course it would be, given my hyperattentive language-nerd mania.

We’ve been updating our technology at work, maybe a good thing, I guess. I mean the old stuff was working perfectly for me, and in terms of what I have to do, it’s difficult to think of any possible way the new computer could improve what I do, but at least the disruption to my work has been considerable. So there’s that. And of course any change of computers is likely to come with new software, because . . . who knows why the fuck software changes every seventeen minutes. At the sound of the dire phrase “new version of a Microsoft program” the very dead in their graves begin to weep.

Anyhow, that’s not what I was going to say, and I am getting around to the language thing. I’m just coming in the back door. At work we’re also getting new copier/printers, also vastly updated, and based on the training session I attended this week, these copiers are only a few years away from being able to colonize Mars by themselves. They can also staple, fax, scan, squinch the edges of the paper together (I’m not kidding, because maybe there’s one person on earth who would want that), call your cellphone to send you Mongolian emojis, and slice tomatoes thin enough to read through.

So like I said, we had training, and since none of us already knew how to fly the Space Shuttle, some of it went over our heads. In going through the eye-glazing instruction on how to change which email to send a scanned document to, or whatever it was, at one point the woman doing the training began a sentence with the phrase, “You just . . . ”

Now wait. You know what “just” means when it’s used like this? It means something like “simply”, already wildly out of place in a technical discussion, but for me “just” has a deeper connotation. It implies that a thing is SO simple it hardly bears mentioning, yet since you insist on mentioning it, you just press this button.

Back when I was raising a teenager, I became sensitized to this word “just”, and maybe that’s why I notice it now. Back then, it was used to mean something like “The thing you are asking me, Stupid Adult Unit, clearly does not require this interrogation, but since you’re asking, I’m just going to be out until midnight.”

Within the last few years I’ve encountered another example of someone telling me how to use sophisticated technology, in that case a cell phone, by telling me how you “just use this pull-down screen” or “just swipe over”. He may as well have looked up and said, “And what about you, simple drone with blank eyes, are you sure you can handle these childishly easy things that I shouldn’t even have to explain to you?”

In regards to technology, the complexity of complex material is not diminished by using language that pretends it is simple. The ideal situation would be for people who are familiar with the technology to learn how to actually communicate and then explain it. But what are the chances of that? Seriously, people, what are the chances of that?

Years ago when I was teaching various forms of business or technical writing, I would collect examples of writing that was badly done to show my classes. Some samples were almost too easy to find, like insurance letters, but another reliable source of gob-smacking communication incompetence came from people who were involved with modern technology. I finally decided that rather than teach computer programmers how to write, it would be easier to pass a law making it illegal for them to write at all. And maybe they shouldn’t speak, either.

We should just do that.

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Books About Philosophical Dogs Who Solve Crimes

dog smoking pipeWith Hurricane Irma getting close (still several hundred miles away), with rain falling and trees outside my window whipping back and forth all day Monday, the office where I work was closed for two days. Having so much extra time, I decided to spend some of it doing something I need to do, but don’t normally want to, investigating literary agency websites.

The three people who I talked to at the last conference, who agreed to look at samples of the novel The Invention of Colors, have all said no. Therefore, the next step for me is to follow the common route of sending a query letter to agents. I have a list of agencies or agents that I made up a few years ago, so now I’m going through that list and sending out letters.

These days, such contacts can mostly be done by email. The old way, still used in some cases, was to print and mail the letters, and, if you knew what you were doing, to absolutely be sure to include a stamped self-addressed envelop if you wanted to hear back. While the current process is still tedious and numbing, it is also a hundred times easier than it was, as well as cheaper.

I realized years ago that it’s utterly foolish to spend time contacting agents without checking to verify exactly what they want, whether they are even still in business, who works where, and how to submit. I found one agency, for instance, where every agent appeared to be focused on science fiction and fantsy, or agencies that appear to work only with black writers or with Christian writers. There are also agents who only handle romances or cookbooks or children’s books, etc. Now I could send these people a query letter, because who knows, maybe they changed their mind, but I don’t fit any of those categories, so I won’t bother them or waste my own time and energy.

It’s also important to send the agency exactly what they want, and some of them will even tell you they won’t read what you send if you don’t do it exactly like they say. There is always a query letter, sometimes a synopsis, sometimes an implication that these are the same thing, sometimes including a sample of your book (which they specify as five pages…or one chapter…or three chapters…or ten pages…or twenty-five pages..or fifty pages)—or don’t send anything except a query letter.

There are even a few agencies that don’t tell you anything except “Here’s the website to contact us” so you have to guess what to send and hope it’s OK. If you go looking on the internet for advice on writing query letters, or buy books on the subject, you will drown in that whirlpool of advice, and it doesn’t all whirl in the same direction.

My query letter for this book has been crafted over and over, with the advice of friends as well as feedback from several agents, including some from the last conference who I actually paid for a query letter critique. Thus I’ll be goddamned if I’m working on it any more. I’ll send it, and if it doesn’t work, so be it. They all hate me anyway, so what difference does it make?

In my investigations this week, I did come across one unusual thing, when an agency said to be sure to tell them what degrees you have. I wondered what the purpose of that could be, then I thought that if you’re writing a book on military history, for instance, or the benefits of a certain kind of diet, what you studied and got a degree in might be relevant—until I saw that they were asking to know the writer’s degrees only with fiction submissions, where such information is utterly irrelevant. I wonder how many college degrees Charles Dickens had? I bet he didn’t have any, that ignorant bastard.

As you know so well if you do it, writing is extremely difficult. I mentioned to someone this week that I was going to go home and do some writing work, and she said, “But it’s not really work for you, is it?” Oh, yeah, baby, it’s work. But as hard as writing is, it is a labor of creativity that I want to do.

Searching for a literary agent, on the other hand, while necessary, is an utterly horrible activity in every way. After I’ve done it for an hour or so, not only do I want to drink heavily (which I do), but I want to get in bed, curl up in a fetal position, and go to sleep.

I don’t even write books about dogs, much less dogs that solve crimes.

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Still Waiting

birthday cake candlesThere are moments when I live in the future.

I went last Sunday to a birthday party with quite a crowd, including people from the United States, Europe, and China (perhaps other places as well). In our birthday crowd were white and black and Asian, young and old, men and women, and gay and straight. We talked and moved from one little group to another all evening, happy with a table full of food and birthday cake and a watermelon carved into decorative shapes.

This cheerful mix of people is where our country is headed. I know, at the moment, this peaceful interaction of human beings is not where we appear to be going. We are witnessing a remarkable viper’s head of ugliness and intolerance, manifested in the election of Donald Trump. As bad as the situation looks at the moment, that election (to oversimplify somewhat) was part of the last gasp of angry old white people. They have honest grievances, but they are also deeply wrong in some of the expression of those grievances. Nevertheless, the world I experienced at the birthday party is our future.

It is not enough, however, to sit and wait for the future. Harriett Beecher Stowe did not wait for slavery to go away of its own accord, as entrenched and inevitable as slavery seemed in her world. Simone de Beauvoir did not wait for men to gradually realize that women are human beings, as brutish and dim as society was then in recognizing the humanity of women. As a writer, it is my intention to reach toward the future, to help imagine that world where black and white and gay and straight no longer exist as social ideas, a world where we become able to see each other as fellow human beings.

Walking toward the future can be exhausting and demoralizing some days. I don’t deny that. At times I feel the way the Renaissance writer Erasmus might have felt sitting at his desk contemplating whether human beings have free will, then looking out his window and seeing a howling mob passing in the street carrying torches. The most recent howling mob with torches was in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob who our own astonishing president showed sympathy toward.

What can I do? I’m not a politician to write laws or make deals, I’m not a sociologist to analyze social ills, I’m not a spiritual leader to promote higher ideals. I will use what I have, and when everything else I have is gone away, I’m a writer. The day I die, the world will still be filled with injustice and oppression, and then it will be for people in those days to fight it. Right now it’s my turn, and while I’m here, I will fight for a just and decent world with what I have, as a writer.

One person abused anywhere on this planet because of their race or culture or religion is too many.

One person abused anywhere on this planet because of sex or sexual orientation is too many.

One person shamed and limited anywhere on this planet by social rules is too many.

Creating a bright world of people who respect and love one another is difficult, and when I read the news, it sounds impossible. And there is little I can do. I’m only a writer, and I am unknown. But I will go on, because I have lived briefly in the future, and we will like it when we get there.


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