Use Your Words

You know those lists that ping-pong around the internet every few months, those “If You Don’t Use These Words Correctly, You’re An Idiot” lists? You know the ones: “My head literally exploded when I heard Anthony Weiner was caught sexting AGAIN.” Wow. Did you call the Sunshine Cleaning girls to deal with the mess?


I hate those lists.


Yes, yes, all right. It’s like fingernails raking down a chalkboard, sticky jam between my fingers, creeping underwear I can’t adjust to see it’s/its, you’re/your, their/they’re/there, I/me, fewer/less than, etc., and so on, misused and abused. I like my punctuation neat, my spelling correct, my homonyms sorted and selected with care. I could care less about usage. I’m a descriptivist with a moon in prescriptivism.


What chaps my hide about the lists is their cheap SNOOTiness (you’ll have to click the link to read all about SNOOTs. I’m trying to keep my word count down). They are the syntactical equivalent of the No Child Left Behind approach to education, with all the constancy social media can bestow (like, three seconds’ worth): Here, memorize a list of rules, never attempt to use nonplussed in a sentence, and off you go into the wonderful world of language.


These smarmy compilations often self-identify as lists of grammatical mistakes, when in fact they are spelling, punctuation or word choice errors. Grammar is the structure we use to create meaning from the piles of words at our disposal. But I’ll acknowledge the broader definition of grammar, which spills beyond the classic meaning to include spelling, punctuation, and usage.


Grammar is Greek in derivation, meaning the art of letters. Isn’t that lovely? The Art of Letters.


These punctilious lists would be unnecessary if we placed a higher value on the learning of language, and the reading and writing of beautiful and thoughtful texts. If we just read and wrote more. But that’s a rant for another place and time.


I want to celebrate the Art of Letters, not rap across someone’s knuckles for ending a sentence with a preposition. Which is perfectly legit, thank you very much.


Grammar Police, wielding these lists like rulers, clamp on the blinders instead of opening readers’ eyes. They favor pedantry over playfulness. They ignore that language lives, breathes, expands. It’s rough, rowdy, and ridiculous. It grabs at and sinks its teeth into words, masticates chews grinds them up, and spews great spitballs of meaning. Some stick, some don’t.


And if you snigger when bemusement is used to express wry or tolerant amusement instead of puzzlement, or peruse to mean scan instead of delve into, snigger to yourself. It might make you nauseous (yup, ‘nother one, whether you like it or not). Those “incorrect” definitions are on their way to becoming accepted usage. Not yet in the O.E.D., but Watch This Space.


I’ve studied French for many years. I love its graceful precision, how there seems to be one correct way to say something–and it’s the perfect way, the only expression or construction you need to say exactly what you mean. French is clean, crystalline, harmonic. Like Fauré. Like Chopin.


English is jazz. It’s hip hop. It riffs, it borrows, stakes its claim, then runs off with the secretary. It’s irreverent and innovative.


Studying languages–French, Italian, and Spanish–and teaching English to speakers of other languages has allowed me to appreciate and use English grammar with greater care. And I am so very grateful to be a native speaker of English. I wouldn’t want the hassle of making sense of our gumbo tongue.


To become a better grammarian and editor, as any writer should aspire to be, arm yourself with great writing guides, dictionaries, a thesaurus or two. My current favorite guide is Ben Yagoda’s sparkling, concise, and spot-on How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. Stephen King still rocks my writing world with On Writing. I did a “Find” of -ly words in a 50-page portion of my novel that I’m entering in a contest, scrubbing 70 percent of  the -ly adverbs this search uncovered, replacing them with verbs and nouns. Thanks, Steve. I recently snagged a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Best Friend by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I carry it with me wherever I go to write.


But I believe the best way to become a better writer is to read. Read well-written everything: articles and poetry, essays and novels. Friday Fiction tweets, where writers craft stories in 140 characters. Lyrics.


Read sentences such as these:


“She moved between them as a chaise between carts, was heard after them as a romance after sermons, and was felt among them like a breeze among furnaces.” Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd


“She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.” Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine


“It’s a clear October day. The wind scatters bright leaves against the blue opalescence of air.” Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces.


Halfway through your life, death turns up
and takes your pertinent measurements. We forget
the visit. Life goes on. But someone is sewing
the suit in silence. 
Tomas Tranströmer, Black Postcards


‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp, I turned my collar to the cold and damp. When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, split the night, and touched the sound of silence. Paul Simon, Sounds of Silence


Jesus wept. John 11:35, The Bible, King James version


Now, go outside and play.

Writing with Porpoise. Port Townsend, August 2013

Writing with Porpoise. Port Townsend, August 2013

Book Review: Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels

Fugitive PiecesFugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I did not witness the most important events of my life. My deepest story must be told by a blind man, a prisoner of sound. From behind a wall, from underground. From the corner of a small house on a small island that juts like a bone from the skin of sea.”

Early in her brooding, shadowy, aching novel, Anne Michaels sets out the central conflict of her principal character, Jakob Beer. Jakob’s family is slaughtered one winter night in 1940; the seven-year-old boy hides in a hollow of the wall, then escapes into his Polish city, burying himself in the mud of an archeological dig. He is saved by Athos, a Greek geologist, who spirits Jakob away to a remote island in the Greek archipelago. During the years in Greece, when Jakob is forced to hide within his savior’s home, Athos fills the long hours with millennia of history, geology, geography, and literature. Four years later, as the German army fled Greece, Jakob is allowed to emerge from the protection and seclusion of Athos’s home into a world broken by war.

As Jakob rejoins the world and grows into adolescence, the horror of the Holocaust is revealed to him. These are the events which he has survived but to which he did not bear witness. Athos and Jakob immigrate to Toronto, where a geology professorship awaits Athos. Jakob adapts once again, adding English to his linguistic library of Polish, Yiddish, and Greek. He becomes a poet, a husband, but he never settles comfortably into the leafy ravines and changeable climate of his Canadian home. For nearly the whole of his life he is haunted by guilt and crippled by depression.

Yet Jakob is also redeemed by pure, profound love. The bond between Athos and Jakob is beyond father and son, it is deeper than brothers. It is of two souls intertwining in a search for salvation, in a quest for meaning that can be found only by loving another so much that their needs and desires become indistinguishable from your own, that the story of your life would be unimaginable without their own role playing out.

This is a lyrical novel, where tangents on Antarctic exploration and palindromes, explications on the nature of history, irony, language, music, are woven into an atmospheric narrative. I felt dull and morose in the cold, hard cement and steel of Toronto, uplifted when released into the warm, lemon-scented air of Greece. Michaels does not follow a traditional plot structure — the narrative flow jumps and twists, characters fall in and out, subplots are left on paths unpursued. She is a poet, first and foremost, and surrenders willingly her pen to the force of the story and the power of language.

Michaels adores stringing together sets of words that shimmer with polar magic:

“The winter street is a salt cave. The snow has stopped falling and it’s very cold. The cold is spectacular, penetrating. The street has been silenced, a theatre of whiteness, drifts like frozen waves. Crystals glisten under the streetlights.”

Or autumnal splendor:

“It’s a clear October day. The wind scatters bright leaves against the blue opalescence of air.”

But just as you are lulled by the grace of her metaphors and the energy of her phrases, she wrenches your gut with the brutality of fact:

“I think of the Lodz ghetto, where infants were thrown by soldiers from hospital windows to soldiers below, who “caught” them on their bayonets. When the sport became too messy, the soldiers complained loudly, shouting about the blood running down their long sleeves, staining their uniforms, while the Jews on the street screamed in horror, their throats parched with screaming.”

Michaels’s supreme skill is using passionate language to reveal the gross burden borne by survivors of genocide: to relive the nightmare and to retell its details so that the slaughtered will not be forgotten.

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