4/19/2011

8 Writing/Grammar Rules That Have To Go


As a middle school English teacher, a huge chunk of my curriculum is grammar instruction.  Which places me in the position, every year, of foisting on trusting, naive students grammar rules that even I know to be stilted, antiquated, or just plain silly. 

Below is a list of 10 grammar conventions that I would immediately eliminate if only someone would let me run the Grammar Police.

Consider this my blanket apology to all the students I have necessarily confounded over the years.  Sorry, guys.
  1. Using singular plurals to represent singular/gender unknown antecedents.   Here's what we're supposed to say: "A writer [ANTECEDENT] may edit his or her [PRONOUN] manuscript many times before submittal."  Why the incredibly awkward construct his or her?  Because, technically, the noun writer is singular/gender unknown, which means you're supposed to use a pronoun that is singular/gender unknown: hence, the ridiculously pompous his or her.  Can't we all agree that if we say "A writer may edit their manuscript many times before submittal," we're not automatically assuming more than one writer?  
  2. Given a compound subject joined by the conjunction "or", pronouns must agree with the final noun in the list.   Here's what we're supposed to say: "Either Jim or Susan needs to bring her laptop with her to the meeting."  Why her?  Because grammarians will tell you that when presented with the construct Jim or Susan, the pronoun should match the gender/number of the last item in the list.  Which stinks for Jim, who has now been called her not once, but twice, for no better reason than he happened to come first in the list.  Surely sane people can agree that using a plural pronoun - "Either Jim or Susan needs to bring their laptop with them" - is a lot more natural, and a lot less likely to get you punched in the nose.
  3. Words that end in "one" or "body" should be treated as singular pronouns. Sorry - just can't resist one more rant about pronouns.  Based on the above rule, the sentences "None of them are ready" should be correctly read "None of them is ready"; the sentence "Somebody should claim their cocktail before I dispose of it" should be correctly written: "Somebody should claim his or her cocktail before I dispose of it."  Just when I start feeling a little swollen-headed because we Americans have taken the forefront over other European languages in dropping unnecessary articles and adopting the universal "you" for 1st/2nd/3rd tense possessive, a rule like this comes along and makes me hang my head in dismay.
  4. Who or whom?  Depends on whether you are using the pronoun as a subject or a direct object in the sentence, to which I reply: who or whom cares?  I think it's time we relegate whom to the annals of pronoun forms whose time have passed, alongside thee/thou and one.
  5. Don't split infinitives.  An infinitive is a verb combined with the word "to" - as in, to hunt, to wonder, to spell.  Technically, you're not supposed to insert any words in between the "to" and the verb.  But can you imagine Captain Kirk solemnly intoning, instead of the timeless "To boldly go where no man has gone before," the grammatically correct "Boldly to go where no man has gone before"?  In the first version he sounds like a hero; in the second version, more like the kind of nerd who reads science fiction novels but would never go there himself.  Time for us to accept that sometimes exceptions to this rule are okay.
  6. Don't start sentences with And or But.  But, what if you want to position two sentences in opposition to each other, as I've just done?  (Clever, huh?)  And sometimes you just want to elaborate on a sentence by adding an additional sentence, as I've just done here.  I suspect the reason for this rule is to prevent insecure writers from unwittingly employing sentence fragments.  Having spent years as a middle school English teacher undoing the harm this has done, can't we decided to stop teaching this "non-rule" like it's a rule?
  7. Don't end a sentence with a preposition. Thus, "There's the boy I'm going with" should be correctly written: "There's the boy with whom I'm going." Not only does this sound stilted, but it risks running headlong into rule #6 regarding the use of who/whom. Occassionally ending a sentence with a preposition is not only acceptable, but necessary.
  8. Paragraphs should have 5 sentences.  Speaking of non-rules, here's another one that English teachers consistently foist upon their gullible students.  Meant (I suspect) as a way to force students to elaborate on their main ideas with sufficient detail, what this rule more typically does is encourage writers to invent 1-2 original thoughts, then repeat them using slightly different wording 1-2 more times.  The rule is this, people: paragraphs should contain a main idea and only as much supporting detail as necessary to elaborate on the main idea.  

4/18/2011

Best Performances from Glee


I'm not sure my 3 years in "show choir", our high school's version of glee club,  qualifies me to nominate the best performances from the show Glee to date, but I'm taking a stab at it anyway.  (How well I remember the tension and adrenelin of those regional competitions ...!)  I thoroughly enjoy the show, but you don't have to be a fan to acknowledge that these kids have serious talent.

The following aren't necessarily my favorite songs from the show, but they definitely my favorite performances, the ones I enjoy watching again and again.
  1. Don't Stop Believing ("original version"), New Directions.  Am starting with this performance because it was the first one to knock my socks off.  Just the original 5 featured cast members when they were at their most young and endearing, singing their heads off, plus a little drama as their song choice inspires their disconsolate director to perservere.  By the end of the song I was definitely a believer, as (I suspect) were any television critics who had not yet boarded the Glee bandwagon.
  2. Journey to Regionals ("Regionals version"), New Directions.  But wait, there's more!  Here's Don't Stop Believing again, this time performed by the whole Glee ensemble at Regionals and paired with two other Journey songs.  I especially love the part where the curtain goes up ... well, see for yourself!  An adrenelin-filled and thoroughly entertaining performance.  If I'd been a judge, no way they would have come in third!
  3. Thriller/Heads Will Roll, New Directions+.  The show doesn't do all-out performance numbers as often as you'd think; this is one of the best.  Zombie football players: who knew what a great fit it would be?
  4. Bills, Bills, Bills, Warblers.  Love all the Warblers songs, which makes it hard to pick the ones that belong on this list.  Not sure this is even one of the best, but it's certainly one of the most fun ... or maybe I'm the only one that's tickled by the idea of a bunch of clean-cut private school boys channeling their inner enraged black girlfriends?
  5. Dream On, Michael Morrison & Neil Patrick Harris.  In my opinion, one of Glee's most successful "special guest star" episodes.  Not only a great reprise of a rock classic, but Doogie's performance blew me away!
  6. When I Get You Alone, Warblers.  Wish I could have been at the Gap the day the Warblers decided to invade the retail outlet in order to serenade an obviously unappreciative salesperson.  The combo of tight harmonies and choreography makes this a keeper.
  7. Say A Little Prayer for You, Glee Cheerleaders.  Love the song but adore the choreography that goes with it.  After watching this, bet Celine Deon wishes the mores of the time would have allowed she and her backup singers to don cheerleader uniforms with those swingy skirts that emphasize every innocent/naughty hip shake! 
  8. Keep Holding On, Glee Cast.  A little melodramatic but undeniably moving.
  9. Total Eclipse of the Heart, Lea Michaels. This one's pure, unapologetic melodrama ... but then, so was the Bonnie Tyler original.  To understand this, helps to know it's meant as a lament after the lead character, Rachel, realizes she's pissed off not one, not two, but three boyfriends.  What I love about this performance is the staging - the way the song moves between the classroom and the ballet studio is wonderful, and all those ballet lifts are such a great metaphor for trust.
  10. Bust Your Windows, Glee Cast.  This one has a Bollywood feel to it - the way the action stops so everyone can burst into song, the unapologetic blending of reality and fantasy, the way over-the-top costuming. (Never have tall athletic socks and tennis shoes been employed to achieve such a joyously slutty effect!)
  11. Lean On Me, New Directions. No one's going to argue that this isn't a fabulous song in its own right, but I love the arrangement of the song they chose, and the simple but sincere choreography. 
  12. It's My Life/Confessions, New Directions (boys only).  Well choreographyed and wholly entertaining cover of a great Bon Jovi tune.
  13. Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy, Lea Michael & Chris Colfer. Okay, so you caught me out.  There's no real performance here - no costumes, no choreography, no "show."  Just two superb performers belting out a ballad the way ballads were meant to be belted.  Babs and Judy would approve.
  14. Marry You, New Directions.  The lyrics of the song are not quite as romantic as one might hope (hey, since we're drunk already, let's get married!), but the cast does such a good job of performing the hell out of this number that it doesn't matter.  Dare you not to feel a little happier life and love after watching this clip.
  15. Loser Like Me, New Directions.  As someone who spent years in glee club, couldn't help but love this anthem to gleeks everywhere.  My favorite line: "Push me up against a locker/And hey, all I do is shake it off/I'll get you back when I'm your boss."  So there!

4/05/2011

Book Look - The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton



An unblinking examination of characters forced to choose between propriety and love, and a time when people still had to choose between the two. What I liked about the novel is that it makes you question both - is propriety worth the price you pay for it? Is love? What constitutes "happiness" - is it passion, or contentment? Can personal happiness ever be achieved if its cost is the happiness of others about whom you care?

Wharton does an excellent job of depicting ~1880s New York society, a construct so brittle that the mere expression of individuality, ambition or temperament threatens to shatter it. Then she creates two fairly empathetic characters, the "restless young man" Newland Archer and the simultaneously worldly/naive Ellen Olenska, sets them against the system and explores - with a brutal honesty that allows for no hope of literary intervention (fate, coincidence or anachronism) - the hypocrisy forced upon them ... and, to be fair, the hypocrisy they force upon themselves.

Had Jane Austen undertaken this tale, she might have told it with more humor but with less honesty. What both authors share, however, is an ability to satirize the often arbitrary, often absurd constraits of "propriety" while simultaneously acknowledging their force and enduring power.

4/02/2011

Best Einstein Quotes Ever


For a man who reputedly didn't start talking until he was 3 years old, Einstein made up for the late start with a dozens of richly insightful observations about science, learning, and life.  Here are some of my favorites, organized (for lack of a better system) alphabetically.   
  1. A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.
  2. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeeded be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
  3. Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction.
  4. "Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves."
  5. "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."
  6. As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
  7. Black holes are where God divided by zero.
  8. Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.
  9. Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.
  10. Creativity is intelligence having fun.
  11. Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
  12. Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.
  13. Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
  14. Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.
  15. God does not play dice with the universe.
  16. God is subtle but he is not malicious.
  17. Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.
  18. I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.
  19. I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
  20. I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.
  21. I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details.
  22. If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?
  23. If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.
  24. If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.
  25. If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.
  26. If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.
  27. If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?
  28. Imagination is more important than knowledge.
  29. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
  30. Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.
  31. Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them
  32. It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.
  33. Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.
  34. Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
  35. Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.
  36. Love is a better master than duty.
  37. Never memorize something that you can look up.
  38. Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.
  39. Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.
  40. Out of clutter, find simplicity.
  41. Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.
  42. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
  43. Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
  44. Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it.
  45. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
  46. The best way to cheer yourself is to cheer somebody else up.
  47. The difference between genius and stupidity is; genius has its limits.
  48. The path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.
  49. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.
  50. The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
  51. The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious - the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.
  52. The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.
  53. The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.
  54. The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.
  55. The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who let evil happen without doing anything.
  56. There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
  57. Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.
  58. Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.
  59. Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth
  60. Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.
  61. What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.
  62. When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.
  63. When you trip over love, it is easy to get up. But when you fall in love, it is impossible to stand again.
  64. Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.
  65. You never fail until you stop trying.
(I've gathered these from various sources, some more reputable than others, so can't/won't vouch for their veracity.  However, they all certainly sound like things Einstein would say!)