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On Words

City Life

“Overrated and abused, underrated and reused, hyperbolized and underused, understated and overstated, restated and retracted, excused and double-downed, drowned and rusticated, nailed to a wall and drawn on a scroll, ignored and explored, welcomed and turned away, painted and scrawled, yelled and whispered, tattooed and erased, written down and written up, spelled out in the bottom of a tea cup.”

The above quote is from the comment stream to a previous post: “Bob Dylan & Clarice Lispector: Bewildering, Transfigured & Redeemed.”

The drawing above I made years ago, the paper now yellowing. I wanted to title the drawing “Leaving the City,” or something like that, “City Life,” but the drawing might somehow be appropriately titled “Words,” for the city is constantly in commute, the exchange made with words; our world is filled with words, sounds rising, mixing in the froths and foams – the city yeasts of ambition and commerce, change and exchange, the city a sea of words that act like yeasts, fermenting. Inside each car a radio no doubt adds to the mix, each car an oven full of baking words.

At night, a bread of crusted quiet rises, the din below softening, words breaking apart and falling like shreds of unintelligible graffiti, night words. From a distance, animals contemplate the city scene.

Walking with another in the country, on a path, words spoken have a pronounced different quality than words spoken walking on a sidewalk on a busy city day.

The characters in the foreground of the drawing might be workers in an urban call center. The fellows in the bottom right might be stumbling or sneaking home from a local pub.

“Words are overrated,” the commenter had said to the Dylan & Lispector post. No doubt, I thought, but more, and replied with the comment quoted above, to which the commenter then replied, “Ja, just so.” And, there you have it. Talk on.

Four Short Statements on the Sentence

3 Sailboats
  1. Entering the sentence, one feels caught in a trap, a cage, punctuation the catches and latches of entrance and exit that clamps down on our heads and tails, our arms or legs, fingers – when we let out an exclamation point, holding swelling finger up.
  2. Returning to the three persons (me, you, and the other: navigator, driver, and passenger), in a race to the finish, around pylons of periods.
  3. Periods around and around we go, how to begin and how to end, and where to dot the nose, punctuation choices a kind of Mr. Potato Head game.
  4. Returning to the sentence, the idea of the sentence as a measure of composition. “Where Are We Going? and What Are We Doing?” John Cage asked in “Silence.” And not sure of the answer, we feel the tension of certain sentences, we feel the intensity of the sentence, like a taut wire, fish on, pencil bent like a deep-sea fishing rod.

Ticker Tape Sentence

A new sentence, ahoy, begins to move along the horizon, words crossing on the horizon like ticker tape, words like ships at sea, ship-sat sea, a sentence a fleet of words, but quiet, so far out, out to sea, but futile, our following them, their passage, so why not just limit the sentence to one word, a single word, stop, for example, stop these ships before it's too late, before we cross the point of no return, but no, I'm not worried about running on, I'm more concerned with running aground, so I'm running with the wind while the wind's in my sails, running with this new sentence, running with the wind, for a spell, a run-on sentence, tilting and lilting with comma splices, funny term, comma splice, like tacks, like sailing tacks, the comma splice, to cut off, pause, we learned in grade grammar elementary school while the period was a full stop pull over go to sleep, compared to the comma, where you had to leave the car running, riding the clutch (but wait, we didn't drive cars in grade school, can't use that comparison - too late), quick breath, come around, though, we got that, just enough time to glance up, look at the teacher, visage, what was she thinking, and did she have hair under her habit, she had thick bushy black eyebrows, like punctuation marks underscoring the white cardboard starched forehead, big black dashes, but that's to digress, to veer from course, deviation from planned course, stay on tack, on tact, too, and on track, for the railroad is like a run-on sentence, too, too, too, but the run-on sentence is like a chase scene, like a chase at the end of a Keystone Cops adventure, a chase that runs on and runs on, like a run-on sentence, sometimes called a comma splice run-on sentence I should caution good reader there is no end in sight to this run-on sentence, so if there's somewhere you need to be, you might want to mark where you are, just grab a piece of tape, or something, a felt marker, and make a mark on your screen, not a period though, a comma, mark your place, where you are in the sentence, mark the word just above where the little blue bubble marker is now located below this run-on sentence, mark it with a caret, like this ^ or with an upside down y or keep going no reason to stop unless you need to be somewhere but still give them a call, call in, and tell them you are in the middle of a run-on sentence you can see that we are in the middle of this run-on sentence by checking the blue bubble, if the blue bubble is in the middle of the ticker line, then we are midway through this run-on sentence you don't need to mark your screen when you get back just slide the blue bubble over to the middle of the ticker tape-like rectangular oval below the sentence nice feature that blue bubble where I got the idea actually for this run-on sentence thinking why bother having to tab down read down always down the page why not just keep moving sideways this is how new things are invented by questioning the status quo and a book could be written like this why not run the sentence to the end of the page, turn the page, continue sentence on the back side, reach the end again, continue the sentence onto the next page, not down, straight across, until you reach the end of the book, then go back to page one before you tab down to the next row, the next line, and off you go again, until the book is full what would each page read like then a complete surprise futile though the perspicacious reader will note the influence of John Cage here, here on this run-on sentence, so maybe this idea of the ticker tape run-on sentence is somewhat Cagean, but then again, maybe not, maybe Cage has nothing to do with this, but Cage embraced the futile and in doing so crossed the horizon of doubt and I keep coming back to Cage even after all these years and new things to look at and read and listen to, and reading Cage's books, "Silence," for example, or "A Year From Monday," might suggest more ideas for new forms of composition of posts, though Cage preferred the mosaic to the linear the ticker tape sentence (I think the name might stick) is certainly an exercise in linearity if nothing else for it resembles a line, a line sliding, a line of words, sliding horizontally, like ships on a horizon, words like a fleet of ships, ships though that never come any closer, and whose purpose remains, at best, ambiguous, or worse, simply silly, but it takes a long time to stop a ship, and still, there they are, out to sea, floating above the blue bubble in the long oval, and they stay on the horizon, sliding across the horizon until they are out of view and we are left to go our own way.

Rows sans end

El Porto, 1969A sentence, this one, for example (though another might do), the one you are now reading, backlit, for some purpose, presumably (your body like a house in disrepair, suit fraying, limbs sagging, glasses missing one temple, pads bent, joints crooked, hair crinkled dry moss, green going grey, a bird’s nest), late summer as the sentence gets started, lolling, dozing, without antecedent, no foreshadowing, no shadows at all, no dashes, noon, then, the beach clear, the water shipless and shapeless, but shiftless still, then suddenly awakening and rising, like a quick second wind, and just as quickly a third wind, the afternoon slop now upon the coast, the water rougher than it looked from the beach, sudden, swell upon swell following the sleepy noon lull, and you are not ready for this, each new wave an and, followed by another and, and another and, until, caught now in a riptide, a rebuttal that has the stylish lifeguards proofreading for drowning readers, and when they find one, they click on the swimmer and go, click and go, click and go, sweeping the sentence down to the water clear of this sort of thing, fragments, wave fragments, ripples from where they sit high in their tower

A row is a row is a row is a row,
a row a row a row a row.
A paddle is a paddle is a paddle is a paddle,
and we are out past the break,
out to sea,
so to speak
is to speak is to speak is to speak.

No matter      what we do (rules)      where we go (directions)
there are margins,                                            edgeswe come up against.
                        The world is flat
after all,
                  the flat earth squaring us in,
switchbacks,               zigzags              away from intuition. 
For the world wants style:
                  8 & ½ x 11, 3 hole punched,
the thin red vertical line creating a margin,    a double edge.

“Sometimes a thing is hard because you are doing it wrong” (Don DeLillo, “Point Omega, p. 27).

Cuff Links, Tie Clips, and Semicolons

Ian Frazier’s “Hungry Minds” concerns three themes: a writer’s workshop, the participants guests of a soup kitchen; the soup kitchen, the largest in the US, intertwined with the history of The Church of the Holy Apostles, in Chelsea, where the article takes place; and three types of hunger: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. The punctuation format for the previous sentence looks like this:

: , ; , , , , ; : , , .

Frazier’s article contains 36 semicolons. One of his paragraphs contains 8 semicolons; another, the one following the 8, contains 14 semicolons. Thus, there’s a fourth theme that might be said to emerge in Frazier’s essay: punctuation.

The two paragraphs containing the 22 semicolons are lists, essentially, and punctuated as items in a series, the semicolon used to separate items that contain commas. Without the semicolons, the items would run together, and reading would be more difficult, clarity lost. Of course, Frazier could have separated the items as sentences, using periods, but in context that solution would have proved monotonous, unnecessarily repeating full subjects and predicates. The remaining 14 semicolons are used for a variety of other purposes throughout Frazier’s essay.

It’s silly to say one does not like semicolons, or any other punctuation mark. It’s like saying one doesn’t like cuff links or tie clips. True, hardly anyone wears cuff links anymore, and business casual attire has rendered ties almost useless, and without a tie, there’s not much need for a tie clip. But if one still wears buttonless cuffs and floppy ties, then cuff links and tie clips are useful. If you don’t like them, fine, don’t wear them; but your not liking them hardly qualifies as a proof that there’s something wrong with their use. This is not to say that Frazier wears either; I don’t know. But his punctuation style invites comment, and “Hungry Minds,” in particular, proves an effective piece for the explication of punctuation and especially of the semicolon.

So, who doesn’t like semicolons? Kurt Vonnegut has been quoted yet again. It’s true that in “A Man Without a Country” (Seven Stories Press, 2005, p. 23), Vonnegut offers a first rule of creative writing: “Do not use semicolons,” followed by a creative description of where semicolons prove a writer to be from. It’s been quoted all over the place, like “Kilroy Was Here,” but what about Vonnegut’s paragraph following? “And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I’m kidding” (p. 23).

So, was he kidding about his advice against the use of semicolons? The half-quote cast adrift from its context seems to have originated with the GuardianDid Vonnegut abhor the semicolon? It seems unlikely, given the use of the semicolon in his own writing; indeed, it’s one curious aspect of the Vonnegut quote supposedly calling out semicolons as a kind of badge of the degreed that he did use semicolons. And if his attitude toward semicolons was, at worst, apathy, then why did he create this straw man position? He must have known he was feeding the pool of farm raised trout. A cursory glance at some Vonnegut books on my shelf spotted semicolons as follows:

“Player Piano,” para. 2;

“Mother Night,” penultimate para., Chapter 1;

“The Sirens of Titan,” para. 19, Chapter 1;

“Breakfast of Champions,” Chapter 1, 7th arrow in;

I didn’t reread all of these books pulled from my shelf, just glanced through the openings, and Vonnegut appears to use colons copiously and dashes – lots of dashes, too – in addition to the few semicolons sprouting like nettles.

Hi ho; so it goes.

Cheese Grilled with Sliced Banana Sandwich; or, A History of the World in 6 Innings

Tom Standage’s “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” begins with beer. Beer “was not invented but discovered.” It’s not clear who found the first can, but according to Standage the ice age was a cold memory, and down in the Fertile Crescent they were building up a spring training thirst. “Hey, take a sip of this…Well, what do you think?” “Not bad; pour me a glass.” Earliest beer, Standage tells us, was not lite, and probably required a straw to get through the head of unfiltered crust of stuff floating on top, something like a bowl of oatmeal forgotten on your counter the week you flew up to Portland for the annual brew fest.

I’ve been thinking of writing a history of my world (not to be confused with the world) in 6 somethings. How about, “A History of my World in 6 Sandwiches”? The first would have to be my cheese grilled. When I was a kid I learned to make a cheese grilled with sliced bananas. Served on a paper plate with a few potato chips next to a glass of milk with a Dodger game on the radio – this is the stuff history is made of.

I mentioned my cheese grilled to some visitors from Arcadia last week, and they and Susan ganged up on me with a correction: grilled cheese, not cheese grilled. “You can also make a cheese grilled with sliced bananas into a tuna melt,” I said, ignoring the prescriptivists. I’m just describing a sandwich here, not wanting to provoke a language war. Use organic tuna, if you can get hold of a can.

I would probably follow my cheese grilled with my southwester burger, made with sliced jalapeno and bell pepper and stuffed with Monterey Pepper Jack cheese. First, douse the burger in olive oil and Worcestershire sauce and beer. Serve on a white ceramic plate with a poured glass of ale or lager of choice – no prescription needed, but you should let it breathe.

Post called on account of rain, but we got about 6 innings in, so no need to replay it. Still, I wonder what the usage panel would have to say about grilled cheese versus cheese grilled. Care to weigh in? What’s your prescription?

A Year From The Use and Misuse of English Grammar

We learn grammar when we learn to speak, we know grammar, we pause where we want, when we want, pulling words like fish from our Pond of Vocabulary and stringing them on the line, one after another, one to a hook, using commas instead of periods when we don’t want to be interrupted, YELLing when someone is so rude as to keep on talking when we are trying to interrupt – we fall silent, dashed, a period of rigour-tunge follows (our tongues rigged with rules), then we bounce awake, trim our sails, for we’re surrounded in the Bay of Prescription, the murky waters of communication, with boats of advice all bopping this way and that (there goes the “Do This,” firing across the bow of the “Don’t Do That”), the pond stormy on a storm swept night if there ever was one.

In Wendell Johnson’s “You Can’t Write Writing,” (The Use and Misuse of Language, 1962, S. I. Hayakawa, ed.), we learn that bad grammar, baby, ain’t our problem: “The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, ‘Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to?’ Mr. Darrow was contending…the effective use of the English language is more important than the ‘correct’ use of it, and that if you can speak English ‘correctly,’ but not effectively, it does not matter very much ‘who you talk it to’” (101).

This has implications for those who would aspire to teach writing, and Johnson continues, “The teacher of English appears to attempt to place the emphasis upon writing, rather than upon writing-about-something-for-someone. From this it follows quite inevitably that the student of English fails in large measure to learn the nature of the significance of clarity or precision and of organization in the written representation of facts” (103).

Grammar is the least of our worries, argues Johnson: “So long as the student’s primary anxieties are made to revolve around the task of learning to spell, punctuate, and observe the rules of syntax, he is not likely to become keenly conscious of the fact that when he writes he is, above all, communicating…his first obligation to his reader is not to be grammatically fashionable but to be clear and coherent” (103).

Hayakawa, in his introduction, has already explained his interest with regard to how people talk: “We are not worrying about the elegance of their pronunciation or the correctness of their grammar. Basically we are concerned with the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii). And, ultimately, for the reader interested in more than mere prescriptions on how to write, emphasis is placed “not only on what the speakers said, but even more importantly on their attitudes towards their own utterances” (vii).

Hayakawa sums up his concerns as follows: “What general semanticists mean by ‘language habits’ is the entire complex of (1) how we talk – whether our language is specific or general, descriptive or inferential or judgmental; and (2) our attitudes toward our own remarks – whether dogmatic or open-minded, rigid or flexible” (vii).

Whenever I hear some self-appointed cop of language (or worse, someone with the badge of a degree), attempting to arrest a speaker’s tongue, putting it in the handcuffs of some prescriptive rule, I think about Hayakawa’s The Use and Misuse of Language.

But, unforlorn, I’m inclined toward and recline with an infuzen of John Cage, who sums the problem up nicely in his A Year From Monday (1969), which begins with “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965

        I.               Continue; I’ll discover where you

                            sweat  (Kierkegaard).            We are getting

rid of ownership, substituting use.

Beginning with ideas.            Which ones can we

take?            Which ones can we give?

Disappearance of power politics.            Non-



“You Can’t Write Writing”
Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major
How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders

How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders

How should introductory college writing be taught to today’s nonreaders? E. B. White said to “make the paragraph the unit of composition.” But the paragraph is made of sentences, so why not start with the sentence? Francis Christensen did, and his original Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 6 Essays for Teachers (1967), is today available as Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 9 Essays for Teachers (3rd Ed., 2007).  A preview of his “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” can be viewed here.

“The teacher of writing must be a judge of what is good and bad in writing,” Christensen said, but “from what sources do they say ‘Do this’ or Don’t do that?’”

Christensen used a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach based on his “…close inductive study of contemporary American prose.” In part, his work was a response to the “many English teachers [who] abide by the prescriptions of the textbooks they were brought up on. This preference is one that I cannot understand,” he said, “since it means taking the word of the amateurs who hack out textbooks that talk about language (fools like me) as against the practice of professionals who live by their skill in using language.”

Christensen’s inductive study resulted in his new method because he realized that, for example, there existed “…no textbook whose treatment of grammar and syntax could cope with more than a small fraction of its [Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man] sentences, but I would venture the claim that there is not a sentence whose syntactic secrets could not be opened by the key fashioned in the first two essays [of his Notes Toward…].”

Christiansen’s descriptive method recognized that grammar knowledge does not necessarily result in good writing. But Christiansen’s descriptive method does not ignore grammar. He said, “…the rhetorical analysis rests squarely on grammar,” but that “it should surprise no one that no experiments…show any correlation between knowledge of grammar and the ability to write. One should not expect a correlation where no relation has been established and made the ground for instruction.”

But neither should that be used, he goes on, to argue “that the only way to learn to write is to read literature [because] what is true over a lifetime is not true of the fifteen weeks of a semester. In practice, this position throws the burden of learning to write on the student. It expects him to divine the elements of style that make literature what it is and apply the relevant ones to writing expository essays about literature – a divination of which the teachers themselves are incapable. If reading literature were the royal road that this argument takes it to be, English teachers would be our best writers and PMLA would year by year take all the prizes for nonfiction.”

But why shouldn’t students be made to take on “the burden of learning to write”? And why does Christensen make the assumption that English teachers are so well-read? They have that reputation, but how much reading, in the midst of a full load and stacks of student papers to get through, are they able to get done “over a lifetime”? Consider, for example, this typical Christensen observation, made from his inductive study: “…our faith in the subordinate clause and the complex sentence is misplaced…we should concentrate instead on the sentence modifiers, or free modifiers.” But how do we know that without making the same inductive study he made? Indeed, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, in sum, while not at all ignoring grammar, recommends taking the inductive study into the classroom, reading literature to teach writing.

“Oh, teachers, are my lessons done? I cannot do another one.
They laughed and laughed, and said, ‘Well child,
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?’”

…from “Teachers,” by Leonard Cohen, 1967.


Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

Notes toward a New Rhetoric
Francis Christensen
College English
Vol. 25, No. 1 (Oct., 1963), pp. 7-18
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
Article Stable URL:

Sentence Fragment Run-on

Go. A sentence fragment. Having one must avoid. All the handbooks say. Danger. Caution. Draw ire. Pounce on error. Incomplete though. I think I thought I was running on. Stop.

Go. Thinking of writing post on sentence fragments, how they irk writer reader argument. Murky sirens fill air writing tinnitis. Word wringing. All writing no end to it antecedent. Stop.

Go frag for short. Correction reading for proof of fragments. A post of sentence fragments, a can of worms, the kind that spring in one’s face when one lifts lid. One who? You, Boing! Laughter. Practical joke fragments not funny not at all good writing. Nothing. Go on about nothing? Stop.

Go. Fizzles. Beckett. Master of sentence fragment, incomplete thought, dead end. Dead end. Deaden. Dud. Duds. Fizzling fragments. Not to mention run-ons. Do not. Stop.

Go. Mention them the run-ons go on get in line in front of the fragment and talk spend some time talking run-on go on run-on running on, wait, the comma splice just one kind of run-on remember fragments connecting commas the runaway the runaway the runaway reader the reader who ran out of the text through the margin and fell off the page. Stop.

Go comma splices stop in tracks fragment tool linearly linear. Early line. Line ear. Listen. To the fragments. Words falling, failing. Green to red. Color of hope to color of despair. Save. Transition. Stop.

Go. Mark it up here mark it up there: frag there, R-O here. Stop.

Go. Exceptions. For fragments or run-ons. Poetic license. Incomplete though. “The great head where he toils is all mockery, he is forth again, he’ll be back again” (Beckett, “fizzle 1”). Stop.

Ere Words Were

Woe were we when once we wooed
wowed with words we would vow
to wed where naught
taught to tie the knot
a language log in front of us saw
how it was on a woeful wordful sea.

To whoo in the waves of a spelling sea
to whit her way through a sea wrack wood
while I too hooed to walk saw
you to a vowel moon owling
out of a wood worded knot
a sentence fraught with naught.

Yet we should not
set sail on too prim a prescriptive sea
wear not too tight the knot we tied for the knot
does not mean our days of wooing
must turn to stone washed vowels
that we might say how we saved how we sawed.

Woe the night full of guttural saws
silver dreams of wordscaped naught
woah the mirror that burns not its own vow
merely reflects what it hears
in a dark forest a bearingless wood
of articulated knot.

Woe to valor that ties a knot
for one side up the other not this seesaw
giddyup and stop of hooah and woah
she loves me she loves me naught
how it was on the woo worn sea
ere we enjoined the corseted vowels.

Whoa the abode that constantly vows
to daily renew a woeful knot
or be chastised to sea
for what we were for what we saw
for what we heard and what we could not
before we verbally wooed.

Now down to the sea words borne of vows
set sail to keel whit to hoo but not
with a saw set wode with naught.