September 28, 2012, 12:01 am
Last week I delved into the gnarly problem of verbs in students’ critical papers. This week, cracking my knuckles and stepping onto my own turf, I’m tackling fiction.
At the start of each semester of teaching fiction writing, I’m astonished by the cacophony of verb tense. Apparently there are languages that do not indicate past, present, and future the way English does. But we have these tenses and others, all of which most native speakers use competently in conversation. It’s only when students start crafting stories that they time-travel in loop-de-loops: “Karen was sitting on the floor while her mom makes dinner. She wants to know if she was supposed to help her clean up later.” And so on. We’re in search not just of lost time but of time itself.
The core of the problem, I think, is two-fold. First, there’s the storyteller’s habitual use of what we call the…
September 27, 2012, 12:01 am
Early in my life I learned some things about geography—by which I mean here where places such as cities and countries are and where border-lines are drawn—from unlikely sources: stamp collecting, an obsession with railway schedules, and popular songs and rhymes. Years later I’m still interested by the ways places appear in song and how the language of songs—and poetry—documents place.
Last summer I found myself in Budapest with my daughter. I had earned some extra money that year so we were taking a series of trains “to the end of Europe,” Istanbul, certainly one of the great border towns. In Budapest, on the city tour, from the castle in Buda I saw the beautiful river, the Danube, and into my head, unbidden, came a rhyme I had learned as a child—
Now a tomb rises up where the blue Danube flows,
And engraved there in characters clear
Is “Stranger, when passing, …
September 26, 2012, 12:01 am
As I recently confessed, I found it strangely moving to visit the haunts of cult horrormeister H. P. Lovecraft in his beloved Providence. But why would I care about this man’s erstwhile lodgings? Unmentioned last week was that in much of his life, having drunk deeply from the well of early 20th-century political and anthropological pseudo-science, Lovecraft was a raving foreigner-hating racist nutball. I’m not exaggerating. Read this passage from a 1926 letter he wrote to a young friend:
The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague…
September 25, 2012, 12:01 am
Three years ago, I wrote a short essay for NPR’s Web site about the pronunciation of Iraq. Each of the two syllables offers choices. The second can rhyme with track or flock. The first can have a long i (to rhyme with eye); a short one, as in mirror; or it can rhyme with see. (In my piece, for the sake of simplicity, I put the second and third first-syllable options in a single category; I’m pleased to see that a subsequent academic study of the issue has followed suit. I will also note, while in parenthesis, that in this post I render pronunciation in layman’s, rather than linguist’s, terms so that the Lingua Franca readers, largely generalists, will comprehend.)
That yields four ways to pronounce Iraq. My 2009 observations? First of all, no one says Eye-rahk. Of the other possibilities, I wrote that Eye-rack is “the pronunciation of choice for members of U.S. military below the…
September 24, 2012, 12:01 am
One of the least successful movies of 2012 is Darling Companion, featuring high-caliber actors and a pedestrian script centered around a dog. The dog is found, and then lost, and then found again. You can imagine the excitement.
At the start of the movie, the dog is spotted by Diane Keaton and Elizabeth Moss, as mother and daughter, as they drive along an interstate highway in Colorado. They stop and rescue it. And since they found it by the highway, they name it “Interstate.”
Oops! Rewind! They name it “Highway.”
Rewind again! In this movie, they actually name the dog “Freeway.”
Aside from everything else that’s wrong with the movie, which isn’t quite sure whether it’s a comedy, an action adventure, or a love story, “Freeway” is the wrong name. In Colorado, you’d be likely to name the dog “Interstate.”
Not that the word “freeway” is unknown…
September 21, 2012, 12:01 am
Red lines have been all over the news in the past couple of weeks. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on CNN, “I think it’s important to place a red line before Iran, and I think that actually reduces the chance of a military conflict because, if they know there’s a point, a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross because they’ll face consequences, I think they’ll actually not cross it.” That same day, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Iranians, “You have to place that red line before them now, before it’s too late.”
Netanhayu is hardly alone in using that metaphor to refer to is a particular point of progress in Iran’s presumed development of nuclear weapons, with the implication that the United States would under no circumstances permit the country to go past it. Mitt Romney has invoked the image…
September 20, 2012, 12:01 am
What do Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Neil Diamond, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Joseph Mascis Jr. have in common?
A nasal drawl.
Or so they say.
From a Boy’s Life of Mark Twain:
By and by there was another report–this time that Mark Twain was dead. A reporter found his way to Tedworth Square, and, being received by Mark Twain himself, asked what he should say. Clemens regarded him gravely, then, in his slow, nasal drawl, “Say–that the report of my death–has been grossly–exaggerated.”
From a biography of Fields:
Because of his special comedic persona, his slow, nasal drawl in particular, Fields became one of the most mimicked and impersonated of performers in 20th-century American comedy.
From the Manila (Philippines) Bulletin:
Another proof why we think he is cool? Six words: “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (remember “Pulp Fiction?” And all this time we…
September 19, 2012, 12:01 am
Our man Kant
Nothing says “start of academic year” better than early student papers that get snarled in verbs. Is it “Eliot writes” or “Eliot wrote”? “ “I lived in Vermont, which is always frigid in March” or “I lived in Vermont, which was always frigid in March”? Or, as Neal Whitman discussed last month, is it “The girl who was next to me was named Stephanie,” or “The girl who was next to me is named Stephanie”?
Each discipline probably has its own style guide on verb usage; at the very least, I know that MLA style and APA style differ on their approach to verb tense in referencing research. Whole books could be—and have been—written on the question of tense alone. I’m going to unpack only a small handful of verb usage, and I’ll stick to verbs present and past … and even …
September 18, 2012, 12:01 am
Travel is a chance to read. I don’ t have in mind the novel you’ve been saving, much less the stack of papers you foolishly thought you’d get to on that family vacation. I’m thinking of something much simpler—just the fact that part of the fun of traveling anywhere is the encounter with signage. (“Wait—I get it! That’s the word for toilet!” or “Look! They have a Cleveland here, too!”)
Reading signage in England, especially for an American academic, is a linguistically overdetermined event. A simple sign can evoke literary curiosity, charm, mystery, or terror. On a narrow country lane in Essex a pretty wooden sign (categories: literary curiosity, charm, mystery) points to Duddenhoe. I’m sure it’s a lovely place, but “Duddenhoe” sounds like the title of a novel Walter Scott thought better about writing.
Signs, of course, are supposed to help us, but we have to know now to read …
September 17, 2012, 12:01 am
As a 14-year-old budding collector of supernatural horror fiction, browsing a bookstore in England, I happened upon a paperback collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. I opened it and read the first sentence of “The Lurking Fear”:
There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.
That must be one of the worst opening lines in all of horror fiction, I now realize. It reads like an entry in San Jose State’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, inspired by the ludicrous opening of the novel Paul Clifford by Edward “It was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton.
And when I tell you that the last words of Lovecraft’s tale are “They were never heard of again,” you may find it hard to believe that even a 14-year-old would not be sophisticated enough to laugh out loud.
Yet somehow, for a boy craving escape from the…