Weekend Photo: You Get WHAT With That?

Okay, you’re just going to have to take my word for it, ’cause by the time I went back with a real camera (my smartphone camera just couldn’t get the shot), the sign had been corrected, which really surprised me. I was under the impression that management didn’t care enough to fix the sign; I mean, management certainly didn’t care enough to PROOFREAD it the first time!

diners

What you are having difficulty reading on this menu is the phrase Rice w/Fruitcake, which appears on nearly every line. In Hawaii, most of our meals come with rice. The menu is trying to explain that you get rice, and that on this rice is a Japanese seasoning called furikake. What undoubtedly happened is that someone ran a spell-checker on the text of this sign, and approved of the change from furikake to fruitcake.

Now, we eat a lot of weird food here in Hawaii, but FRUITCAKE IS NOT AN EXAMPLE.

So kudos to New Diners Drive-In for correcting what was an embarrassing sign, and a slap on the wrist for ever allowing the mistake in the first place!

Usage Tuesday: Comparing and Contrasting

When you were in high school, someone taught you that the difference between comparing two things and contrasting two things was that a comparison focused on similarities while a contrast focused on differences. You were then assigned one of the classic expository writing assignments, the comparison/contrast paper.

While it is true that to contrast something is to look for differences, there is nothing about the word compare that implies similarities only. Otherwise, a sentence such as Compared to you, I’m an early riser wouldn’t make sense. Our trusty Merriam-Webster Online confirms this, saying that we compare things in order to “discover resemblances or differences.”

I therefore declare the phrase compare and contrast a redundancy. About ten years ago, I assigned my ninth-grade composition class a comparison paper, refusing to use that redundant phrase. What do you think I got? Yes, I read one hundred essays that focused entirely on similarities and completely ignored differences.

There is really no reason to use compare and contrast, I explained to my students. Let us all focus on good writing, which is (first) clear and (second) elegant. One word to replace three words sounds pretty elegant to me!

It Was Super-Duper-Mega-Maxi-Ultra-Omni-Uber Awesome!

In a capitalist society such as America’s, marketing is an inescapable fact of life. We are forever bombarded by messages asking us to consider some product that is better, faster, stronger, and less expensive than every other product available. In an effort to get our attention, marketers are forced to find new words with which to communicate the awesomeness of whatever they are selling.

A product cannot be merely good if it hopes to grab our dollars; it must be wonderful. The next product cannot simply be wonderful; it must be fantastic! with an exclamation point.

This wouldn’t bother me so much—since I do love good capitalism—if the linguistic trend toward more exciting words (I call it superlative inflation) were limited to advertising. However, since so much of the language we are exposed to is delivered by advertising, it is affecting our own language, and this must stop.

I heard someone mention a book the other day, and the person to whom she was speaking said, “I hear that’s a phenomenal book.” Less than thirty minutes later, she was talking about a phenomenal sandwich she had for lunch.

I haven’t read the book and I didn’t taste the sandwich, so for all I know, both the book and sandwich were phenomenal, but I sincerely doubt it! This need we have to keep reaching for more and more powerful words, while admirable on one level, is annoying on another. Yes, I love it when people seek new, descriptive language, but yes, I also find it annoying when people latch onto certain words and use them so much that they lose their meaning.

There is nothing wrong with saying a sandwich was very good. Or delicious, even. A book can also be very good. Can we please save words like phenomenal for those books and sandwiches that truly deserve the description? Watch your own writing very carefully for this kind of superlative inflation. Do you have pet words you use too often, when other, less infomercial-sounding language would be sufficient?

If you’re remembering your high-school English teacher’s telling you to avoid words like good and bad in your formal writing, she and I are both proud of you. It is probably best if you use a stronger, more specific word. My suggestion, then, is to be specific in your descriptions. If you’ve heard that a book is very good, what specifically have you heard? You could write something like, “I hear that book is engrossing,” or “I hear the characters are instantly likable.” If you had a yummy sandwich, you could write something about how fresh the ingredients tasted, or how the flavor combination was just what you were hoping for.

A word like awesome, which really means inspiring fear, dread, or wonder, should be powerful enough when used correctly. However, it has been cheapened so that it just means good. Now, when someone means to say that something really was awesome, he or she is forced to say something like, “It was literally awesome.” This should not be happening. Let’s keep an eye on our excited language and do our best to communicate what we really mean.

It’s National Poetry Month!

In case you didn’t know, April is National Poetry Month. I don’t know if it has anything to do with Shakespeare’s birthday being on the 23rd of April or not, but I’m still happy about it.

I have spent most of my career teaching composition, but I do get to indulge once in a while and teach some creative writing, and my first advice to students about writing poetry is this:

Nothing matters more than the sound of the language. English is a beautiful language that, like a roller coaster, can swoop and dive, twist and turn, spiral like crazy, and then coast to a lazy stop. Or it can do all that in the reverse order. The point is that what makes poetry poetry is that it makes use of the music of language.

One exercise I have my students do every week is to submit a list of five cool words. These are just words the students like the sounds of, for whatever reason. The five words I shared with them in our first week were

  1. avocado
  2. guacamole
  3. racecar
  4. teriyaki
  5. Swede

The students don’t know it, but I collect the words all year, and in April, I give each of them a gigantic sheet of paper with their words and their classmates’ words (and my words) listed for all to see. Then I tell them to write a poem, paying absolutely no attention to the MEANING of the language and only to the SOUND of it.

I threw together these lines of meaningless verse:

Avocado guacamole transient frost
Lipstick pedicure angioplasty Swede

Have I written poetry here? No, I wouldn’t call it that. Randomly spraying different colors of paint does not make a painting, but it can give you new ideas, and it can be lots of fun. If you’re interested in writing poetry but don’t know where to start, I say start HERE, because by playing with the language you can often develop a great sense of what you want your poetry to sound like. What I love most about this is that my cool words are going to be different from yours; you might not think lipstick is a very nice-sounding word at all, so your own meaningless cool-words poetry will sound different. That’s okay!

The next step might be to write a poem ABOUT something, but focusing on the sounds of the words. Give it a try; I think you’ll be pleased with the results, even if it’s just for fun or for practice.

Usage Tuesday: A Train Wreck Wreaking Havoc on the Language

Take a look at these search results, please.

What’s going on here? Basically, only 3% of the writers who show up in Google News favor wreck havoc while about 11% of the blog writers favor that phrase. These are encouraging numbers, because the correct phrase is to wreak havoc. To wreak is to cause, so wreaking havoc makes more sense. Wrecking havoc would seem to mean to put stuff back in order, which is definitely not what these writers mean.

Let us follow the leads of 97% of the writers who show up in Google News and not wreak havoc upon the language.

Friday Quiz: John Mellencamp’s “Small Town”

I need to say first that John Mellencamp is one of my idols. He is in my top five favorite musicians of all time (with Bruce Cockburn, T Bone Burnett, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan) and the main reason I ever learned to play guitar. This song, “Small Town,” is one of the first things I learned to play in its entirety on my guitar, and this is one of the great music videos.

However, as with several other songs in my rep, I have to alter the lyrics slightly because there’s a ridiculous grammatical error in them! There’s a lesson about idolatry here, but we’ll save that for another time and place.

Take a step back in time with me to 1985 (I was sixteen!) and see if you can spot the glaring error in grammar. Click continue reading to see if your answer matches mine!

Continue reading Friday Quiz: John Mellencamp’s “Small Town”