Archive

Tag Archives: english

At various times in my career as someone who got paid for writing, I have been asked to speak to groups of students or the curious about my craft. It hasn’t always gone well. 

I remember one time I managed to annoy a community college teacher no end by telling her students to ignore everything she had been hammering into their heads. I didn’t know I was doing that; I was just talking about what I knew through experience. But she had been filling their minds with ugly formulae and what to my mind are tired old saws: Make an outline; use a topic sentence; the rule of threes. As if you could interest readers by rote. 

Part of the problem is that I believe that writers are born, not made. Of course, you can improve anyone’s ability to put down comprehensible sentences, but good spelling and decent grammar do not make a writer. Just as anyone can be taught to draw and sketch, but that won’t make them an artist, anyone can be instructed how to fashion a paragraph or two without embarrassing themselves, but that don’t make’em into Roger Angell. 

One of the things that caused the teacher no end of bother was my insistence that the single most important and defining part of writing was “having something to say.” Without it, no rhetorical device, no repetition of authoritative quotations, no using active rather than passive voice, would suffice. And the truth is, few people have anything to say. 

Of course, everyone thinks they do, but what passes for thought is most often merely the forms of thought, the words that have previously been used to frame the ideas, and hence, someone else’s thoughts. Having something to say is genuinely a rare gift. 

This hardly serves to help the composition-class student or the teacher hoping to form them into perfect little Ciceros. Having something to say requires having had a living experience to draw upon, something original to the writer — a back yard with skunk cabbage, or a two-month deployment with a platoon, or the betrayal of a spouse — and an idiosyncratic reaction to it, something personal and distinct. Instead, most people are just not used to finding words to describe such things and fall back on words they have heard before. Easily understood words and phrases and therefore the mere ghosts of real expression. 

When you use someone else’s words, to that extent you don’t know what you are talking about. 

Being born a writer means being consciously or unconsciously unwilling to accept approximation, to be unsatisfied with the easily understood, to search for the word that more exactly matches the experience. 

One of the consequences is that to be a writer means to re-write. As you read back over what you have just put on paper — or on the computer screen — you slap your forehead over this bit or that. How could I have let that through? And you find something more exact, more telling, more memorable. It is only the third or fourth go-round that feels acceptable. (Each time I come back to a piece I’m working on, I begin again from the beginning and work my way through what I’ve already finished and change things as I go to make myself clearer or my expression more vivid. This means that the top of any piece is usually better written than the end. Sorry.) 

Having something to say and sweating over saying it in a way that doesn’t falsify it — this is what writing is all about. 

But is there anything I can say to those who just want to be a little bit better when turning in a school paper, or writing a letter to the editor, or publishing a novel about your life so far? Here are a few suggestions.

First and most important: Read. Read, read, read. Not so much to imitate what you have found, but to absorb what it is to use language. Just as one doesn’t “learn” English as a youngster, but rather you absorb it. When you are grown, you may have to learn a second language, but as an infant, you simply soak up what you hear and gradually figure it out. And likewise, reading lots of good writing isn’t to give you tricks to follow, but to immerse you in the medium so that it becomes your mother tongue. 

Second: Write. Write, write, write. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously made the claim that it took 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. He later explained he only meant that as an average, but the issue remains: You can’t become a writer without writing. Over and over, until it becomes second nature and all the amateur’s kinks are driven out. Write letters, journals, blogs — it doesn’t matter what, but writing and doing it constantly makes you a better writer. 

Third: Fill the well you draw from. Nothing will come of nothing. Everything you see, feel and do is who you are and is the substance of your writing. If you know nothing, feel nothing deeply, do nothing interesting, then you have nothing to bring to the sentences you write. Good writing is not about writing, despite all the reflexive gibberish of Postmodern philosophers. 

Even when you want to write about abstract ideas, you had better do it through touch, feeling, color, smell, sound. Nothing is worse than reading academic prose, because it is upholstered with “isms” and “ologies.” 

“The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol.”

Thank you. I no longer need to count sheep. 

Through the Middle Ages, all educated people communicated in Latin. In a strange way, that doesn’t seem to have changed. Words of Latin origin predominate in academic prose. Sometimes reading a peer-reviewed paper is like translating Virgil. 

Language and experience are parallel universes. We try to get language closer to the life we live, but it is always at least slightly apart. When we speak or write in abstractions, we are manipulating language without reference to the world of things we live in. Language about language. Good writing is the attempt to bring these two streams closer to each other, so that one may refresh the other. We do that primarily through image and metaphor. An idea is clearer if we can see it or feel it. Flushing it through Latin only obscures it. 

“Show, don’t tell” works best even when you are “telling,” i.e., writing. 

For those who don’t have to think about such things, a word is a fixed rock in the moving stream, set there by the dictionary. But for a writer, each idea and each word is a cloud of meaning, a network of inter-reference. To narrow down those possibilities, a picture helps — a metaphor. Not added on at the end, but born with the idea, co-nascent. 

Take almost any line of Shakespeare and you find image piled on image. “Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” says Prospero. Donalbain fears “the daggers in men’s smiles.” “If music be the food of love, play on.” “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” Shakespeare is nothing if not a cataract of sense imagery. 

How different if Prospero had simply said, “Life is short and then you die.” 

There are a whole host of injunctions and directives that are given to wanna-be writers, and all of them are worthy. Don’t use passive voice; always have antecedents to your pronouns; avoid pleonasm; edit and revise; dump adverbs and, damn it, learn how to use a semicolon. 

But none of them is as important as the primary directive: Have something to say. 

Oh, and yes, it’s always fun to annoy community college teachers. 

I recently wrote a piece about grammar and vocabulary peeves. And I mean “peeves.” It’s too common to take such language infractions as if federal law had been broken. For me, such things are merely irritants. Others may take such examples as I gave as bad grammar, or mistaken grammar, but I meant to show the personal reaction some of us get when the way we were trained to use language gets trampled on by those not similarly trained. 

Sometimes, there is truly a misuse of language and creates misunderstanding or even gobbledegook, but at other times, it is merely a failure to recognize how language changes and grows through time, or a refusal to understand idiom or regionalism. 

The war between descriptionists and prescriptionists is never-ending. As for me, I have matured from being a mild prescriptionist to a rather forgiving descriptionist, with some few hard rules added. I feel that to be either all one way or all the other is a kind of blind stupidity. 

For instance, I would never use the word “irregardless.” It is unnecessary. But neither will I claim it is not a word. Maybe it didn’t used to be, but it is now, even if it is an ugly word. If someone wants to sound coarse and unlettered, he or she is free to use “irregardless,” regardless of its gaucheness. 

There was a notepad full of examples that I did not fit into the previous blog post, and some newer ones sent me by friends or readers. So, I thought a followup might be due. Some of these are clearly mistakes and misusage, but others are just rules I or we learned at an early age and now flinch at whenever we hear or read them flouted (the confusion of “flouted” and “flaunted” being one of the mistakes that make us flinch). 

I am at a particular disadvantage because I was horsewhipped into shape by the Associated Press Stylebook. I never use an abbreviation for “road” when writing an address, while I have no problem with “St.” for “street.” Why the AP chose this path, I have no clue, but they did and now I am stuck with it. It was driven into me by a rap on the knuckles during my first week working on the copy desk. I am also stuck with “baby sitter” as two words, while “babysitting” is one. 

(Sometimes the stylebook is brutally ignorant. When I began as a copy editor, it told us to spell the little hot pepper as a “chili” and the dinner made with it and meat and/or beans as “chilli,” but we were in Arizona, where Spanish and Spanglish are common, and would have looked like idiots to our readers if we had followed that rule, so we were allowed to transgress and spell the word for both as “chile.” I believe that the Associated Press has finally caught up. I am retired now, and no longer have the most recent copy of the book.)

Of course, the AP Stylebook wasn’t designed to decide once and for all what is correct usage, but rather only to standardize usage in the newspaper, so different reporters didn’t spell “gray” in one story and “grey” in another. But the result of this standardization is the implication that what’s in that book is “right and true.” As a result, I almost always avoid saying “last year,” or “the last time so-and-so did this,” but rather contort the sentence so I can use “past” instead of “last,” the logic of which is that last year wasn’t the last one — at least not yet. Yes, I know that is stupid and that everyone says “last year” and no one is confused, but the AP has rewired my neurons through constant brainwashing. 

It also has me aware of distinguishing jail from prison. People are held in jail awaiting trial; after conviction, they serve their sentence in prison (yes, some convicts serve their time in jails, but that doesn’t change things. Jails tend to be run by counties; prisons by state or federal governments.)

And so, here is my list of additional words and phrases that get under my skin when used or misused. 

For me, the worst, is the common use of “enormity” to describe anything large. I twitch each time it sails past me. An enormity is a moral evil of immense proportions. The Shoah was an enormity; the vastness of the ocean is not. 

Then, there is the confusion between “imply” and “infer.” To imply is to slip a clue into the flow; to infer is to pick up on the clue. 

One hears constantly “literally” used instead of “figuratively.” Ouch. It debases the strength of the literal. 

There are rhetorical figures that are misapplied over and over. Something isn’t ironic simply by being coincidental, nor is oxymoron the same as paradox — the latter is possible through reinterpretation, the former must be linguistically impossible. To be uninterested is not the same as being disinterested. It causes me minor physical pain each time I hear some bored SOB called “disinterested.” 

I have other peeves, lesser ones. “My oldest brother,” when there are only one other brother. “Between” three people rather than “among.” Using “that” instead of “who” when referring to a person: “He was the person that sent me the letter.” Pfui. 

There is a particular personal proscription list for anyone who uses “which” instead of “that” in a sentence with a defining adjectival phrase, as in: “It was the dog on the left which bit me.” It’s OK in: “It was the dog on the left, which bit me, that I came to despise.” 

Some of us still make a distinction between “anxious” and “eager.” The virus makes me anxious. I am eager to get past the threat. There are other pairs that get confused. I try to ensure that I never use “insure” when I’m not talking about an insurance policy; the wrong use of “effect” can affect the meaning of a sentence; further, I never confuse “farther” with something other than physical distance. “Floundered” and “foundered” mean different things, please. 

From other people and from comments to the blog, I have heard complaint of “bringing something with me when I go” or “taking something home with me.” “Bring” comes home; “Take” goes away. 

Another hates seeing “a lot” as one word, unless, of course, it has two “Ls” and means to portion something out. Yet another yells at the TV screen every time someone says “nucular” for “nuclear.” I share that complaint, although I remember many decades ago, Walter Cronkite making a reasoned case for pronouncing “February” without the first “R.” “It is an acceptable pronunciation,” he said, “It is listed as a secondary pronunciation in the Webster’s Dictionary.” I’m afraid “nucular” has become so widespread that it is in the process of becoming, like “Febuary” an accepted alternate. But it hurts my ear. 

Trump give “free rein” to his son-in-law, but perhaps it really is “free reign.” Confusion abounds. 

All this can reek of pedantry. I’m sorry; I don’t mean it to. There are many times you might very well subvert any of these grammatical conventions. I have heard complaints about sentences that start off as “I and Matilda took a vacation” as ugly and wrong, (really, the grammatically worse “Me and Matilda” is idiomatically better, like “Me and Bobby McGee”) but I remember with literary fondness the opening of Herman Melville’s “I and My Chimney:”

I and my chimney, two gray-headed old smokers, reside in the country. … Though I always say, I and my chimney, as Cardinal Wolsey used to say, I and my King, yet this egotistic way of speaking, wherein I take precedence of my chimney, is hardly borne out by the facts; in everything, except the above phrase, my chimney taking precedence of me.

And there are presidential precedents. “Normalcy” wasn’t a word until Warren G. Harding used it to describe a vision of life after World War I (there are examples from earlier, but he popularized its use and was ridiculed for it — “normality” being the normal word). 

I would hate to have to do without George W. Bush’s word: “misunderestimate.” If that hasn’t made it into Webster’s, it should. I think it’s a perfectly good word. Language sometimes goes awry. We don’t always hear right and sometimes new words and phrases emerge. I knew someone who planned to cook dinner for a friend. “Is there anything I should know about your diet? Anything you don’t eat?” “I don’t eat sentient beans,” she said. He had never heard of that sort of bean. It was only much later that he smiled at his own misunderstanding. Since then, I have always kept a bin of dried sentient beans to make “chilli” with. At least, that’s how I label the tub. 

Language shifts like tides. Words come and words go; rules pop up and dissipate; ugly constructions are normalized and no longer noticed, even by grammarians. I have listed here some of the formulations that still rankle me, but I am old and wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. I’m curious, though, what bothers you? Let me know in the comments. 

I began life as a copy editor, which means, I had to know my commas and em-dashes. My spelling had to be impeccable and I memorized the Associated Press Style Book, which taught me that the color was spelled g-r-a-y, not g-r-e-y. Except in “greyhound,” that is. 

It is a line of work I fell into quite naturally, because from the second grade on, I have had a talent for words. I diagrammed sentences on the blackboard that had the visual complexity of the physics formulae written on his whiteboard by Sheldon Cooper. I managed to use my 10 weekly vocabulary words, tasked with writing sentences for each, by writing one sentence using all ten. I did OK with math, but it was never anything that much interested me, but words were another thing. I ate them up like chocolate cake. 

The upshot is that I am a prime candidate for the position as “Grammar Cop,” bugging those around me for making mistakes in spelling, punctuation and usage. And, admittedly, in the past, I have been guilty. But as age softens me, I have largely given up correcting the mistaken world. And I have a different, more complex relationship with language, less strict and more forgiving. 

The cause for this growing laxness are multiple. Certainly age and exhaustion are part of it. But there is also the awareness that language is a living, growing, changing thing and that any attempt to capture it in amber is a futile endeavor. 

But although I have come to accept many changes in speech that I once cringed at — I can now take “their” in the singular (“Everyone should wash their hands”) and have long given up on “hopefully” — there are still a handful of tics that I cannot get over. I try, but when I hear them uttered by a news anchor or starlet on a talk show, I jump a little, as if a sharp electric shock were applied to my ear. 

The first is “I” used in the objective case. It gives me the shivers. “He gave the award to Joan and I.” It gets caught in my throat like a cat’s fur ball. 

The second is using “few” for “less.” I know that the usage has largely changed, but it still assaults my ear when I hear, “There will be less pumpkins this Halloween, due to the drought.” Ugh. 

A third is the qualified “unique,” as in, “His hairstyle is very unique.” It’s either unique or it isn’t. 

Then there are common mispronunciations. “Ek-setera” is just awful. Although, I did once know someone who always gave it its original Latin sounding: “Et Caetera” or “Et Kye-ter-a.” Yes, that was annoying, too. 

The last I’ll mention here is the locution, “centered around.” Gets my goat every time. Something may be “centered on” a focus point, or “situated around” something, but “centered around” is geometrically obtuse unless you’re discussing Nicholas of Cusa’s definition of the deity, whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. 

Others have their own bugaboos. One friend cannot get past the confusion between “lay” and “lie.” She also jumps every time someone uses “begging the question,” which is misused 100 times for every once it is understood. 

Of course, she may be more strict than I am. “There have been errors so egregious that I’ve stopped reading a book,” she says. “I just stomp my foot and throw the book away.” 

Her excuse: “I was an English major.” 

There are many other issues that bother me, but not quite so instantly. I notice when the subjunctive is misused, or rather, not used when it should be. If I were still an editor, I would have fixed that every time. 

I am not sure I will ever get used to “like” used for “said.” And I’m like, whoever started that linguistic monstrosity? I also notice split infinitives as they sail past, but I recognize that the prohibition against them is a relic of Victorian grammarians. It is too easy to lazily give in to those ancient strictures. 

So far, I’ve only been talking about catches in speech, although they show up in print just as often (you can actually come across “ect.” for “etc.”) But reading a book, or a newspaper or a road sign and seeing the common errors there can be even more annoying. There is probably nothing worse, or more common, than the apostrophe plural. You don’t make something plural by adding an apostrophe and an “S.” “Nail’s” is not the plural for “nails.” This is encountered endlessly on shop signs. 

And digital communication is fraught with homophone confusion. “They’re,” “there,” and “their,” for instance, or “you’re,” and “your.” I admit that occasionally this is just a mental hiccup as you are typing. We all make mistakes. I have sometimes put a double “O” after a “T” when I mean a preposition. That’s just a typo. But there are genuinely people who don’t seem to notice the difference with “to,” “too,” and “two.” (I have great tolerance, however, for the ideogrammatic usage of “2” for “to” in electronic messaging. I find it kind of amusing to see the innovation in space-saving for Twitter and e-mail. I may even have been guilty myself of such things. Indeed, there is a long history of this sort in handwritten letters in the 15th to 18th centuries, when “William” was often “Wm,” and “through” was often “thro.” Paper was expensive and abbreviations saved space.)

Some frequent typological absurdities make me twitch each time. I really hate seeing a single open-quote used instead of an apostrophe when a word is abbreviated from the front end. You almost never see “rock ’n’ roll” done correctly. 

There are lesser offenses, too, that I usually let pass. “Impact” as a verb, for instance. It bothers me, but the only people who use it tend to write such boring text that I couldn’t wade through it anyway. (I wrote about the management class mangling of the language in what I call “Manglish.”) “Different than” has become so normalized for “different from” that I’m afraid it has become standard English. Of course, the English themselves tend to say “different to.” So there. 

There are distinctions that have been mostly lost in usage. “Can I” now means the same as “May I” in most circumstances, and almost no one still makes a distinction between “shall” and “will.” 

Many of us have idiosyncratic complaints. I knew someone who complained that “laundermat” was not a word. We saw such a one on Vancouver Island when visiting. “It should be ‘laundromat,’” she said, arguing the parallel with “automat.” 

Another cringes at “would of,” “should of,” and “could of” in place of “would have,” “should have,” and “could have.” But this is merely a mishearing of the contractions “would’ve,” “should’ve,” and “could’ve” and turning them into print. Yes, it should be corrected, but it doesn’t get under my skin when I hear it. 

And there are regionalisms that bother some, although I glory in the variety of language. One person I know complains about such phrases as “had went,” but that is a long-standing Southernism and gets a pass, as far as I’m concerned. 

And much else is merely idiom. If you get too exercised about “I could care less,” please relax. It means the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” Merely idiomatic. Lots of grammatical nonsense is now just idiomatic English. Like when the doorbell rings and you ask “Who’s there?” and the answer comes back, “It’s me.” If you hear “It is I,” you probably don’t want to open the door. No one talks like that. It could be a spy whose first language is not English. Better ask if they know who plays second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers (old movie reference). 

And the Associated Press hammered into me the habit of writing “past week” instead of “last week,” on the principle that the previous seven days had not, indeed, been terminal. You can take these things too far — but I am so far brainwashed not to have given in. “Past week,” it will always be. 

I may have become lax on certain spelling and grammar guidelines, but one should still try one’s best to be clear, make sense, include antecedents for one’s pronouns and be clear about certain common mistakes. “Discreet” and “discrete” are discrete words. And someone I know who used to transcribe her boss’s dictated letters once corrected him when he said a client should be “appraised” of the situation and typed instead, “apprised.” He brought her the letter back and complained that she had misspelled “appraised.” Being a man and being in management, he could not be persuaded he was wrong. She had to retype the letter with the wrong word. There’s just nothing you can do with some people. 

Language is just usage at the moment. It shifts like the sands at the beach, what was “eke” to Chaucer is “also” to us. What was “conscience” to Shakespeare is “consciousness” to us. Thus does conscience make grammar cops of us all. We don’t learn our mother tongue, we acquire it and what we hear as babes becomes normal usage. Ain’t it the truth?

When I was in second or third grade, we had weekly lists of vocabulary words to learn, lists of ten or a dozen new words. And we were assigned to write sentences using these words. And me, being a smartass even back then, I worked hard each week to write a single sentence using all ten words. Even now I’m not sure if I did it to be clever or because I was lazy and didn’t want to write ten sentences.

But when I look back on it, I realize it was a dead give-away clue that I would later earn my crust by becoming a writer. I loved words, and I loved using words.

Other kidlings might groan when the teacher picked up the chalk to diagram sentences, but I loved those underlines and slants, those networks of adjectives and conjunctions. It was fun, like doing a crossword puzzle or connecting the dots.

When I was young enough, before the cutoff date for it, I didn’t learn words so much as acquire them. But even when it later took the effort, I still did my best to expand my word trove.

And as I grew into adolescence and I read constantly — everything from Lew Wallace to the backs of cereal boxes — I continued to absorb words. I would sometimes pore over a dictionary, picking out new and intriguing words. They were not merely signifiers of semantic meaning, but entities in and of themselves. Others might go “ooh” and “aww” over a puddle of newborn kittens, I did the same thing over bits of verbal amber and gleam.

It did not seem at all odd when the ailing pulp writer Philip Marlow in The Singing Detective asked his nurse, “What’s the loveliest word in the English language? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page?” His answer was “elbow.” That would not have been mine, but I’m not sure I could have chosen. Words have a taste in the mouth, and however much one might like foie gras, one cannot do without ripe peaches or buttered asparagus. I loved all words, fair and foul. And I loved the mouth-feel of them, like a perfect custard.

British polymath Stephen Fry often tells the story (perhaps too often) of how when he was a wee bairn, he saw on the small black-and-white TV in his home the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest. He was struck by a line spoken by Algernon: “I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.”

“How unbelievably beautiful,” Fry says. “The swing, balance and rhythm. I’d known you could use language to say, ‘May I please be excused to go to the washroom,’ or ‘I want some more,’ but the idea that it could be used to dance, to delight, to enthrall — it was new to me.”

And Fry became what he called “a celebrant and worshipper at the altar of language.”

For me, it wasn’t Wilde, but James Joyce, first reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was in high school and being swept along in a tidal current of language. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo …”

We had been taught in grade school to speed read, along with a dreadful little machine that mechanically drew a rod down along a page, drawing one to move line by line in a forced march through the text; we would then be tested on our comprehension. Day by day, the guide rod was moved more and more speedily down the page, making us read faster and faster, until we could skim and recall very well, thank you.

But that wasn’t the kind of reading that gave me physical, bodily pleasure. And when I came across books like Joyce’s, I slowed down. I could not read them without hearing the words in my head. Without feeling them on my tongue and teeth.

A sentence such as our introduction to our hero in Ulysses cannot be read merely for sense. It has to be understood for its music, almost ecstatic, like Handel’s Zadok the Priest or Beethoven’s Great Fugue: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” Your tongue creates phonic choreography in your mouth as you form those words.

I remember when I was perhaps 24 or 25, reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and stumbling on so many odd and eccentric words, that I kept a notepad next to my desk to write down such words as I underlined in my copies of the books (yes, I write in my books. If you don’t write in the margins or underline passages, you haven’t really read the book). “Pegamoid,” “ululation,” “usufruct,” “exiguous,” chthonic,” “etiolation,” “boustrophedon,” “tenebrous,” “crepitating,” “cachinnation,” “comminatory,” and, apropos our current resident of the White House, “troglodyte.” (Another great word to remember in this regard is the title of a satiric philippic by Seneca the Younger — “apocalocyntosis” the “Pumpkinification,” in the original of the emperor Claudius, but our case of the Great Orange Boor.)

You probably have to be young to read Durrell, when you still hold idealistic and romantic expectations, and to put up with the prose pourpre, but my word-hoard grew. It became something of a joke when I wrote for my newspaper, where I’m sure the copy editors were laughing at me for using six-dollar words like chocolate sprinkles on a donut. I used them because I loved them, and because they were precise: When you develop a ripe vocabulary, you learn there are no synonyms in the English language: Each word carries with it a nimbus of connotation, a flavoring or a shade that makes it the right or wrong word for the context. No matter how close their dictionary definitions, words are not simply interchangeable.

Anyway, I had my little joke back on the copy editors. For a period of about six months back in the 1990s, every story I wrote had in it a word I plain made up. My game was to see if I could sneak them past the copy desk. Some were onomatopoeic, some were Latinate or Hellenic portmanteaus, some were little more than dripping streams of morphemes. And, to my utter delight, every one of them made it through the editors. A few were questioned, but when I explained them, they were permitted. Looking back, I regret this persistent joke, because it was aimed at that little-praised but admirable set of forgotten heroes, who have many times saved my butt when I wrote something stupid. Let me express my gratitude for them; everyone needs a copy editor.

Occasionally, when I have an empty moment, and I don’t have access to a crossword puzzle, I will sit and write lists of words as they come to my brain. Each word has its own cosmos of meaning, an electron-cloud of ambiguity and precision, its emotional scent, its sound and its fury. As I write them down, I savor each one, like an hors d’oeuvre. Such lists, in their way, are my billets doux to my native tongue, which has fed me both spiritually and financially over many decades.

cigarette butts

There is a creeping locution that turns my teeth inside out: When one says ”Thank you,” and the answer comes back, ”Uh-huh.”

I first began noticing this a few years ago when a local TV reporter habitually responded ”Uh-huh” when the anchor thanked her at the end of a report. Every time. ”Uh-huh.” All I could think was, ”You slack-jawed cow.”

”Uh-huh” is a dismissive response, one that says, ”I don’t think enough of you to take the time and effort to form actual words in answer.”

I understand that etiquette is a fluid thing, that it changes over time and that Americans by nature tend to be somewhat informal. There is a sort of casual affability that marks us as a people; this is especially true since the end of World War II.

We are Joe and Willie in the trenches, Pogo in the swamp. We are Hemingway and Fitzgerald, not Trollope and Thackeray.

And our sense of manners is rooted not in superannuated ritual but in the democratic ease we feel with one another. So I am comfortable with the easy swagger of American speech, with its energy and its drive to the short, concise, pithy and colloquial. In a sense, American etiquette is an attempt to share that ease, to make others feel as comfortable as we do.

Manners, whether formal or casual, are a cultural means of granting the other person respect, of recognizing his existence. As such, they lubricate the engine of social intercourse.

But ”uh-huh” does no such a thing. It is a barnyard snort, an insulting spit from the back of the throat.

Certainly there are times when a formal ”you’re welcome” seems artificial. You hold a door for someone and he says ”Thanks.” ”You’re welcome” makes too big a deal out of it.

But any number of other responses can acknowledge the word and the person who spoke it. Comment on the weather or ask after his health. The exchange isn’t a real conversation, but it is recognition of someone’s right to exist on the planet.

”Uh-huh” is the verbal equivalent of crushing the person out like a cigarette butt in a grimy ashtray.

leo gorcey

Americans have always had a cultural inferiority complex. In other areas, we may walk with a swagger of a bully, but from our earliest years, when the colonists imported all their music and tea, to the 20th century, when we looked to France for our avant garde, Americans have not had the self-confidence to be who they are.

And so, we often try our hardest to climb the social ladder by imitating others.

Certainly this impulse is behind the current epidemic of saying ”you and I” when we mean ”you and me.” As in, ”He left a message for Harry and I.” The hair twitches on the back of my neck every time I hear it.

I know where this ugly solecism comes from: We have been told not to say, ”Me and Harry are going down to the shop to work on the carburetor,” but rather, ”Harry and I are going.”

”It’s a question of breeding,” our matronly third-grade teachers told us, lorgnette over nose.

Henry Thoreau noticed that when a cat jumps on a hot stove and is burned, it will never jump on a hot stove again. But then, it will never jump on a cold one, either.

And we transfer this delicacy to the wrong place, saying ”you and I” whether as subject or object.

It’s like holding up our pinkie when we pick up our teacup.

In the process, we often make ourselves look foolish, as we attempt to be more French than the French or more English than the queen. Only this attempt to borrow class can explain the success of such monumental bores as Masterpiece Theatre.

But America ain’t Cole Porter; America is Leo Gorcey.

This has been brought back to me hearing local TV news anchors attempt to stuff self-consciously correct Spanish pronunciations into the middle of middle-brow English sentences.

”In the latest news from ‘Nee-hah-RAH-wah’ . . .,” the anchor will say, and I am embarrassed for him. Not because he’s trying to be politically correct, but because he doesn’t seem to know that ”Nicaragua” is an English word. Sure, it is spelled just like the Spanish word, but like so many formerly foreign words, it has become naturalized.

The American pronunciation falls off the tongue better, certainly, than the British pronunciation: Nick-uh-RAG-yoo-wa.

”But we need to show respect for Hispanic culture,” he says.

And I agree. Americans are miserable when it comes to learning second languages. I am all for a bilingual America; we should not be so provincial as we are. But my simple answer is a question:

What is the capital of France?

Are we showing disrespect for the French when we blithely mispronounce ”Paris”? Why should it not be ”Par-ee?”

Well, because it sounds pretentious, that’s why. Pronunciation is guided by usage. We say ”Paris” in English and ”Par-ee” when we speak French.

Which is why the same news anchor isn’t consistent and doesn’t bring us news from ”Meh-hee-ko,” our neighbor to the south. It would sound silly. Long usage in English makes us pronounce the ”X” in Mexico as a ”ks” sound, its habitual sound in English.

Are we dissing Russia when we say ”Moscow” instead of ”Moosk-vah?” And after all, what do the Chinese call their country? Certainly it isn’t ”China.”

Are you suggesting we should say ”Nihon” instead of ”Japan”?

This isn’t really about respect but about communication: Usage allows our hearer to understand our words.

And conversely, is the Puerto Rican immigrant showing disrespect for American when he calls our largest city ”Noo Jork?” Of course not, but certainly respect has to be a two-way street. Those who demand we show respect for other cultures often share the familiar lack of ”cultural self-esteem” for their American roots.

If it is a moral question to give up our American pronunciation of familiar foreign words, why is it not also a moral question for others to give up their accents when they speak English?

Put that way, the silliness of it all becomes clear.

English is a wonderfully rich and adaptable language, and it has borrowed from almost every other language on the planet over the years. But it changes the words it borrows and makes them fit comfortably on the English-speaking tongue.

Certain words and names through long usage have developed idiomatic English pronunciations. We listen to the mazurkas of ”Show-pan” and look at the canvases of ”Van-go.”  It puts people off — and certainly puts me off — when people attempt to be more correct than necessary. In essence, they are merely showing off.

It is that unattractive element of social climbing.

When there is not a habitual English idiomatic usage, I’m all for pronouncing words as accurately as possible in their original language. But some things have become English.

I remember an object lesson listening to classical music radio in North Carolina many years ago.

The station was traditionally run by engineering students who were more interested in radio than in music. They couldn’t pronounce anything right. They mangled composers’ names. Bach was ”Baytch,” Chopin was a phonetical ”Chop-in,” as in ”there’s a pork chop in the freezer.”

We suffered for years, until they went the exact opposite way. One day they got an announcer who was more French than De Gaulle, or thought he was.

All of a sudden, Chopin’s name was ”Fray-der-EEK France-WAH Show-(something swallowed in the back of the throat and simultaneously sneezed out the nose after wrapping around the adenoids).”

It was a pretentious-sounding rectitude.

That same announcer later gave away the game, demonstrating what level of sophistication he’d actually achieved, when he played a Mahler symphony and he called out the name ”Goose-TAHV Mah-LAY.”

Shakespeare is the 900-pound gorilla of culture. He’s the Big Boy to whom others are compared, and never the other way around.

He is the premier poet of the English language, acknowledged by even those who don’t read poetry or go to plays.

Author of Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is the oldest English writer whose works are still regularly staged in the theater. The best plays — and yes, he wrote a few clunkers — are wise, witty, deep and profoundly moving. No one tells us more about being human.

Shakespeare is also the source for the largest single section of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

You can hardly get through a day without encountering some echo of the Bard’s pen: If something is a “foregone conclusion,” or has come “full circle,” or is a “sorry sight,” you can thank Shakespeare. Or thousands of other phrase-habits, such as when something is “in the wind,” or if you speak the “naked truth,” or have a “heart of gold.”

It all flows from the great fountain of the English tongue.

Can you imagine modern life without these words coined by him: addiction, admirable, anchovy, aerial, arouse, auspicious — and we haven’t even left the “A” section.

In fact, Shakespeare is so pervasive, he’s more often misquoted than anyone else is quoted at all.

And he didn’t get that way by accident: He really is the best.

“Shakespeare to me is like the Bible,” says Mike Elliott, 58, of Mesa, who goes regularly to Shakespeare performances with his wife, Debby. “He is always relevant, always speaks to us, reaches out to us and still connects with all the issues that face human beings no matter where or when they live.”

He enjoys reading the plays and poetry, but, he says, “they really come alive when we see them.”

And the plays provide an antidote to what Elliott calls the “entertainment bottom-feeding” that clogs our TVs and movie screens.

“It’s really simple,” says Jared Sakren, artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare, whose production of Hamlet opens this week at the Mesa Arts Center. “His writing touches on the universal, so that his characters, what they say and what they feel, is understandable to any audience.

“He touches on experience we, as human beings, all understand, except he says it just a little better than we can say it.

“Perhaps more than just a little better.”

The problem is that sometimes the great Shakespeare plays scare off potential theatergoers. Perhaps it’s that Shakespeare is too revered and not enough enjoyed — too much like going to cultural church.

And that’s a shame, because that isn’t what Shakespeare is about: If any great author ever aimed at the broadest possible audience, it was the Bard. He was no snob: His fart jokes prove that.

Then there’s the problem of Shakespeare’s language, so dense, and to our ears, so often archaic, with those “sirruhs” and “prithees.” His language is not ours.

But language is the heart of Shakespeare, and to get to know his language is to understand his theater — because Elizabethan theater was different from theater today.

We live in a visual culture, and we expect certain things from our plays, such as costumes and stage sets. We expect our actors to show us what is happening rather than telling us about what is happening.

It was different in 1600: Elizabethan culture was a verbal culture. There’s a reason there are so few great — or even good — English paintings from the time: Their genius was not visual. They ate, drank, dressed and lived words.

“A rhapsody of words,” as Shakespeare has it in Hamlet.

Even the least educated audience member — one of the “groundlings” standing in the bottom of the theater in the cheap-ticket area — would have come expecting to hear great rhetoric and great poetry.

And Shakespeare delivered.

To us, used to text messaging and the grunts of teenage children telling us where they’re going when they leave the house, Shakespearean language seems flowery and elaborate. But that’s the very glory of the work.

“Zounds! I was never so bethumped with words since I first called my brother’s father dad,” as he wrote in King John.

And being “bethumped with words” is what going to Shakespeare is all about.

* “If music be the food of love, play on.”

* “Put up your swords, for the dew will rust them.”

* “O! For a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!”

Shakespeare’s audiences attended the theater with their ears, just as we go with our eyes. It takes a little readjustment to absorb all the Bard has to give us.

“His audiences expected poetry — even more, they expected rhetoric,” Sakren says.

“Elevated language and the uses of language they understood better than we understand now. So poetry does become a game played with language.

“They understood the rhetorical forms, they were taught them even in elementary school.”

So in As You Like It, when Rosalind says, “No sooner met, but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy.” It’s a sentence that uses classical rhetoric rather than naturalistic speech. These are the patterns of language that keep us attentive to the climax: We are hooked on the sentence just as we might be hooked by a plot — to find what comes next.

There are other things that make Elizabethan theater different: The plays weren’t divided into acts and scenes, as plays are now, but played through more like movies do.

And because Elizabethan theater didn’t use scenery — which would have been needed to change between scenes — the plays could, and often did jump from place to place with the alacrity of film. If a scene was needed with just three lines, so be it; it was done, then on to the next. Just like movies.

This makes for a fleetness of storytelling that more equipped theater cannot match. Shakespeare moves at the speed of his own imagination, unhindered by props and curtains.

But the lack of scenery also helps explain the words: If he can’t up-curtain on a drawing room or battlefield, Shakespeare will instead describe his setting in words, painting verbal pictures of what his audience needed to imagine.

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here or there; jumping o’er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass,” as the narrator exhorts in the prologue to Henry V.

But the point of all these words is the illumination of human life and character.

The great literary critic Harold Bloom goes so far as to say Shakespeare invented modern human beings.

What Bloom means is that Shakespeare provided a model for reflexive thought. Before him, people acted and reacted. After him, they had a vocabulary for discussing their inner lives.

“This is the first time onstage that you get the full interior of the human psyche and psychology,” Sakren says. “He takes us on a journey inside the human mind and elevates what we know of humanity instead of reducing humanity to simple actions or plot points.”

So, in Hamlet, we don’t just see the revenge acted out, we hear the revenger’s thoughts and second thoughts, his weighings and balancings, his fears and rationalizations.

“We get a view of the inner workings of the human soul,” Sakren says.

Shakespeare’s characters are so multidimensional that we can never fully understand them — any more than we can fully understand any real person. There is always something deeper and more complex, even contradictory.

Emerson said of Shakespeare, “His mind is the horizon beyond which at present we do not see.”

In other words, we can’t explain Shakespeare, but he can explain us.

****

Jared Sakren’s  Top 5 Shakespeare plays

* Hamlet.

* The Tempest.

* Othello.

* As You Like It.

* The Merchant of Venice.