Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ye Olde Historie of Quotation Marks

My paternal grandmother (heretofore called "Gran") ran a bookstore in Dalkey, Ireland, for many years. It was called the Exchange. Unfortunately, the Exchange closed down several years ago, but not before becoming an important part of my linguistic development.

Every package I received from Gran contained at least one book. All of these books were published in England and Ireland, which meant they followed the British system of spelling and punctuation. Therefore, as a young reader, the spelling and punctuation I most often encountered was British. Consequently, I spent much of my youth "incorrectly" spelling words and using "incorrect" punctuation as a student in the American system. I was roundly mocked by my fifth grade classmates for spelling "color" C-O-L-O-U-R in a spelling bee. I was favored to win said spelling bee prior to my embarrassing exit. 

It should be noted that the British, in stereotypical arrogance, refer to words like "labor," "color," and "theater" as "American misspells." 

Largely because I have not recovered from the horrific lexical scars of my childhood, I recently delved into the history of quotation marks in order to discover why Americans use a different system from the Brits. How did these systems develop? Why did they develop? Did one, simple standard that could have spared the mortification of a young, confused, Irish-American boy ever exist? 

To set the scope of the study, here are some quotations from Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: A Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. The sentences in bold are found in the book, and the sentences in italics are translations into the American system.

And then came Samuel Johnson, 'the Great Cham of Literature', and with him, the turning point.

And then came Samuel Johnson, "the Great Cham of Literature," and with him, the turning point. 

Or, as another writer has it, 'whoever takes the credit for inspiring the Dictionary as a piece of scholarship, it is he who should receive it for maintaining the book as a business proposition'.

Or, as another writer has it, "whoever takes the credit for inspiring the Dictionary as a piece of scholarship, it is he who should receive it for maintaining the book as a business proposition."

Notice that the British use single quotation marks, and also place the punctuation outside of the quotation marks. It should be noted that I have found examples of the British putting punctuation within the quotation marks. I should also say that I have encountered British books that use double quotation marks. However, these books continue to place the punctuation outside of the quotation marks. 

Thus far, it all seems utterly, hopelessly random. 

As of right now, I have several resources at my disposal: an encyclopedia on the English language, a book titled Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, and I recently ordered through Interlibrary Loan a book entitled Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West by M.B. Parkes. 

This is the project, dear reader: to uncover the hidden history of quotation marks in order to assuage my inner child's bafflement. More to come.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview With Professor Jenny Chi

This is the second in our series of interviews across the campus and across disciplines. We take our questions about writing to the Art Department and Professor Jenny Chi.

Can you address the role of writing in your field?

I wrote earlier in life, but at some point, I made a conscious choice to move toward the visual.

For the artist, because the artwork is the point, and it is for the art that their labors should be focused, and have been focused, a written work is, by definition, the creation of yet another piece. It is not the art.

Such a document forces the artist to over-analyze their work, or perhaps, over-represent or over-explain it. Unless writing is part of an artist's personal repertoire, this added piece can be an intense weight on the artist (to create two different works). The written in this case must de-centered in favor of the visual elements.

What kinds of writing do artists do?

99% of artists must create a written thesis as part of their graduate programs. They usually offer the written along with one specially chosen piece of art work, from among the many they have created.

Especially in a graduate program, when there is only so much time, and the demands on one are so overwhelming, something has to give. Writing is that thing for artists. 

I attended the New York Academy of Art. When I proposed my final project to my professors, I said, "I want to do a 72 x 72 painting of Adam & Eve. What do you want me to write?" I was surprised to be told: "You're a painter. You paint." The work one does as an artist must stand on its own merits. 

How important is it for artists to write well as members of a community that uses the visual to communicate ideas?

The most important for me is my artwork. Because of the language barrier, writing in English is not easy for me. The ideas embedded within my art work are complex. I would not choose to express those ideas in writing, either in my native tongue, which is, unfortunately fading, or in English.  I don't speak for all artists when I say this. Some artists incorporate writing into their work, or even write as a creative endeavor. 

Do you see written responses to art works by students as beneficial? If so, how?

I assign a research paper because every student artist must know about the past. If they don't know the art movements that went before, they can't really understand or know the present movements within art. Routinely, I ask for one and a half pages. What I want from students is a broad swath about an art period, one that shows that they understand the particular time or art movement they are investigating. Mostly, however, I want to know how this impacts the student. I want to know their thoughts and feelings about their finds. This is the most important part. Art is centered in the emotions as well as the intellect. It connects with us at a core level. I want students to write about this connection.

How does one describe, through writing, artistic methods, means, movements and ideologies?

Every artist, if they want to enter the professional realm, must create an “Artist's Statement.” This defines one's philosophy and tells what the artist is trying to accomplish in their artwork. However, this statement has no standard format. Every artist approaches this statement differently. Some write 2-3 pages and fill it with quotes from artists of the past. My statement is about 2-3 paragraphs. I get to the point. I tell just enough to entice my readers to view my artwork. 

What are some of the key differences between the way a visual artist articulates a complicated idea and the way a writer would approach the same communicative task?

A writer has an entire book, an essay, a story or a play with which to tell their story. Poetry is perhaps a bit more dense. Generally, writers can divide the work into chapters, or sections, or scenes and acts. Conversely, a painter has only one surface with which to tell the story. They work on a two-dimensional surface to create an entire scene, say for instance, in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, I must choose the scene I want to portray, the time of loving or of dying. I must therefore choose carefully the symbols I embed into the painting.

What are the characteristics of “good writing” about art?

Good writing about art holds mystery. It tells just enough to get attention and cause the reader to want to see the artwork, to become a viewer of the art. Good writing doesn't over explain. In fact, it speaks from somewhere other than a descriptive narrative.

What can we do to become more informed about Art and better able to understand and appreciate what artists have to say?

Become literate about the history of Art. Inform yourself about the past. These art movements accompanied social and literary movements of the time. Art is a part of the whole culture. It is a particularly rich form of representation.

Could you demonstrate or explain how we might approach and “read” one of your own works or another work presently on display at EIU?

As a representational artist who focuses on the human body, I ask that viewers respect the beauty of the human form. This is much different from the voyeuristic/ pornographic images in popular media. Take time to talk with artists as well. This is where you will learn most about the art they create. 

*Many thanks to Professor Chi for the use of her work for this interview.  Her work, entitled The Voyage of Odysseus, is copyrighted and cannot be reprinted without her express permission. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Interview with Dr. Jay Bickford

The EIU Writes staff has begun a new project. This project will force us to leave the Writing Center's safe confines and venture out from Coleman Hall's maze-like corridors into Panther Country.

Our plan is to interview faculty and staff members from all over Eastern's campus. We will ask them questions about the importance of writing in their field, their own writing, and their teaching of writing. Our goal is to encourage a campus-wide conversation about writing.

The blog's first victim is Dr. Jay Bickford of the School of Education, whom I had the pleasure to interview. Snippets of the conversation are found below.

I've always heard that strong readers make strong writers. What do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

Man, I could talk about that all day. As far as my own work goes, I try to read authors that disagree on the same event or historical figure. I try to read all the biographies I can about a historical figure.  

Do you have any personal writing quirks? A certain place to write, time of day, anything like that?

I have all sorts of little quirks. I have to sit so I’m laying way back, almost like I’m in a lawn chair. I try to drink a lot of water so I have to get up and go to the bathroom. I try to get up and take quick breaks. 

What were your best and worst writing experiences?

My worst writing experience was my dissertation. It was very complicated. It started out as a real interest, and then it became a real labor. I burned myself out from it. After I did my dissertation, I did the book, and I was done.

As for my best writing experiences,  I really enjoy stumbling across something that others have not found. It's great to make a significant contribution to the field.

How is writing in the field of education research different from writing in the humanities?

In education you’re looking for precision. You want to be explicit and precise. Also, in education research you want your comments to be empirically grounded.

Do you have any grammatical or syntactical miscues you often make? The kind that you are a little embarrassed to find in your writing?

Writing as an education researcher, all of the writing should be in the active voice. You have to avoid the passive voice, euphemisms, idioms and colloquial expressions. When I edit I find lots of little errors when it comes to subject-verb agreement. But, my biggest mistakes are when I unintentionally choose complexity to impress my readers over clarity to facilitate my readers comprehension. That’s my biggest struggle. 

How important is clarity in writing in your field?

It’s incredibly important and it is very much undervalued. Like in any field, clear writing indicates clear thinking. Something I tell my students all the time is "stupid doesn’t teach." You have to think things through. So if you write something clearly, you show that you have thought it out. 


Monday, September 9, 2013

Mixed up with Metaphors?

President Obama’s 2009 inaugural address was certainly composed by some of the brightest rhetoricians in the country.  But one slip-up in particular…

“As we consider the road that unfolds before us…”

…reminds us that even the best mix their metaphors.  Political speeches make easy pickings when it comes to the harvesting of linguistic sour apples, because metaphorical imagery is frequently used to help a listener visualize the talking point.  Elsewhere in the speech, the president effectively used images of the perseverance of American revolutionaries by relating their militaristic circumstance to our economic circumstance:

"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but home and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it

 So where did President Obama stumble?

We recall that metaphors are a form of figurative language that allows us to describe an abstract concept with a dissimilar, often concrete, image.  In the line from the address, two concrete images are intended to describe the abstract concept of the future of our country:

1. Our country’s future is like a road that we will follow.
2. Our country’s future is like a map that is unfolding.

The problem is that metaphors work by creating images in our mind, and the President’s mixed metaphor evokes two dissimilar images.  A road cannot unfold like a map, so what image can we form? 

Don’t worry if the example is just clicking now.  Mixed-metaphors can be tricky, because we get so used to using concrete images (like road or book) that we transform them into abstractions (like journey or story.)  We call these dead metaphors, which is a kind of clich√©.  Last week I talked about the clich√© impact and how it sneaked into our language.  

Since mixed metaphors are sneaky, I can give a technique for spotting them.  As you read, imagine each subject and verb in its most literal sense.  Doodle the scene if necessary.  If the runner gets to fly down the track (like a bird,) then, for the purposes of that sentence, that is his one and only super power.  He doesn’t also get to shoot past the crowd (like a bullet) or climb through the pack (like a monkey). 

When we find them, how do we fix our mixed metaphors?

There are many solutions, but basically one of the images has to go.  Using President Obama’s speech as an example:

1. As we consider the road  that we must travel...
2. As we consider the map that unfolds before us…

Metaphorical images can make great speeches as well as great papers, but we have to be sure that— in keeping with the law of comic book characters— each subject gets only one super power.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Inspiration & Connection

Clustering Exercise

Clustering is similar to another process called Brainstorming. Clustering is something that you can do on your own, or with friends or classmates to find inspiration in the connection between ideas. The process is similar to free-writing. Jot down ideas on a piece of paper or on the blackboard. Don't allow that ugly self-censor to intrude and say that your idea (or anyone else's) is dumb or useless. Write it down anyway.

In Clustering, you jot down only words or very short phrases.

  • After you've generated some ideas, use linking lines as connections suggest themselves.
  • Use different colored pens as ideas seem to suggest themselves in groups or subgroups.
  • Don't cross anything out because you can't tell where an idea will lead you. When you get a few ideas written down, you can start to group them, using colored circles or whatever.
  • One strategy that may also work for you is to suggest ideas that are main thoughts or supportive ideas by using printing or longhand script. This is only an organizational tool. You can also use asterisks, stars, smily faces, high-lighting pens or whatever system appeals to you. So long as you know what it means, the symbols will work to cue you about main ideas and the ones that act as support. 
  • Don't bother to organize too neatly, though, because that can impede the flow of great ideas. This is an idea building strategy and not a finished paper.

Figure 1: example of a clustering exercise

Points to Ponder:

Can you draw additional links between concepts?

Are there ideas listed above that you'd reject as irrelevant or too much to deal with?

Can you think of some ideas (or a whole set of ideas) that should have been included but weren't? 

Should they be included in your essay?

Do you think you could write an essay using the ideas clustered from group discussion?

'Twerk' it up

I did not watch the MTV Video Music Awards. In fact, the only part of the VMAs I have witnessed is Miley Cyrus 'twerking' in front of (or on?) Robin Thicke, which I have watched on Youtube countless times. With each viewing, I only become more confused. 

A little lost in the Miley Cyrus noise was this article on The New York Times: "Oxford Dictionary Decides 'to Twerk.'" Several other major news sources also picked up the story, with similar headlines. Of course, this caused countless grammarians, English graduate assistants and people who regularly wear tweed jackets to bemoan the English language's precipitous decline.

However, as Forest Wickman from Slate pointed out, "twerk" is not on its way into the Oxford English Dictionary's hallowed halls. Instead, twerk, along with the word "selfie," is going into the Oxford Dictionary Online, which is a totally different beast. The ODO focuses on modern English usage, while the OED concentrates on the history of the English language. Words are never removed from the OED. The ODO is to the OED as a dog's memory is to Gandalf's.

Although I was pleased to know that in 300 years no one will come across twerk in the OED next to a photo of Miley Cyrus' deranged face (at least for now), I did wonder how words made the cut into the OED. For those interested, here is a video produced by the University of Oxford that explains the process.

This clip lead me to further investigate the OED, which brought me to the book The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. Although I have only made it partway through the book, I find it both entertaining and informative. For example, did you know that Samuel Johnson's dictionary outsold the Bible for several years? Or that Johnson's dictionary also included profanities? Or that George Orwell (among others) wanted to purge the language of all its Latin-based words and phrases, returning English to its Anglo-Saxon roots and forcing all of us to speak like the characters in Beowulf? 

Most importantly, does anyone else think that twerk has an Anglo-Saxon ring? Would it make it into Orwell's lexicon, I wonder?

Here is the link to the NYT article, and here is the link to the Slate article


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Impact Epidemic

Impact your world proclaims a CNN member website.  Is their astronomy news associate identifying an interstellar collision?  Is a military affiliate recounting the tremors of war?  Perhaps some hard-hitting football coverage follows the headline?  No, the popular news outlet has misused the verb “impact” to identify their philanthropic branch.  CNN is not alone, though.  The verb has infected term papers and pop songs, lab reports and presidential speeches.

So what do we know about this word that has quietly invaded and conquered our lexicon?

Impact is a verb which describes an instance of forceful contact, but in the specific form that interests us, it is figurative.  This means that it is used to describe something other than, say, a collision of a pumpkin with the street.  The pumpkin literally impacts the ground, whereas a poignant speech figuratively impacts a person (unless, of course, they are seated too near to a slavering orator.)

Sometimes figurative language can add variety or give a new perspective on a well worn image.  The starlight danced across the surface of the pond.  Here “danced” surprises us, because starlight has no body with which to dance, but its reflection shifting from ripple to ripple may resemble the movement.  It has special power to say what the more literal verb, reflected, could not.

However, “impact” has lost that special power.  The impact of “impact” is diminished, because our brains no longer connect its figurative form to its literal form, as in: the grandmother’s love impacted the boy’s life the way a meteor impacts and redirects another.  Instead, “impact” has been worn out by overuse, and we only perceive that the grandmother’s love vaguely changed the boy. 

So how do we know when to use impact and when to toss it out?

Here is an easy check:

Are you describing a boxing match?
A meteor shower?
A car crash?
Sammy Sosa?

No?  Then it may be a good idea to replace those “impacts.”  Fowler’s Modern English Usage condemns figurative use of the verb, because it has become technical jargon.  Remember, a physical collision is an impact, but for anything else there is probably a better word.

But what is that better word?

What probably fits best is either the verb “affect” or the noun “effect.”  That pair is the true one-size-fits-all.  If you go cross-eyed over a and e, there is still hope.  There are many more words at your disposal that will do just as well.  Instead try, change, sway, touch, influence, or move.

For the science majors— whose grumbles I can already hear rising from the verb-shaped voids in your lab reports— I will beat you to the question:

“Why do I have to worry about the “English details?”  All the data, charts, and graphs give me enough trouble.”

I answer by sharing an instance in which English and the use of “impact” is a big deal:

Previous crash test results were disastrous, but recently the airbag made a big impact on the dummy.

Would you ride in that car or not?  Was the test dummy cushioned or crushed?  We see that it is not the poets who have more to lose through careless language.  At worst their poems are banal, while those in scientific fields must be clear or jeopardize the safety of their coworkers and customers.  It is for clarity that the English language has such great variety, and each word we choose affects our audience.