Sunday, February 15, 2009

Find Out Where to Stickle Your Adverb

Dolly Parton sings: “I will always love you. Captain Kirk tells his crew in Star Trek “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Steven Pinker, an op-ed contributor to the New York Times, quotes these classic American refrains as the broken rules of grammar which Chief Justice John Roberts “corrected” in giving Obama his oath of office. He titles the piece 'Oaf ofOffice”

“Split infinitives are bad. “ “You're not supposed to stick an adverb between the Subject and the Verb. Those, presumably, are the rules.

Instead of the traditional words “I solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States,” `Faithfully' appears between the helping verb `will' and thebasic verb, `execue'. Chief Justice John Robertsevidently disapproved. He tried to make Obama say: “I will solemnly swear that I will execute the office of the president of the United States faithfully.” Obama knew the traditional words. He stopped and flashed a rock star smile at Chief Justice Roberts whom he'd voted against in the Senate, and waited to give Roberts the chance to correct his feckless `correction'.. It was a little power-dance and ended up in having to be repeated the next day in the White House .

The old rules on where and when not to stick adverbs are based on Latin Grammar, The Council of English Teachers dumped these rules in the 1960s, an act which made sense but led to virtual disappearance of teaching grammar in the schools. Such good intentions led to the present cliché in thinking about grammar.

Now Sticklers are considered Grammar Nazis. Ninety-nine and nine tenths per cent of us are Grammar Ignorami. The other One Tenth are writers and singers.

The trouble comes because English is not an inflected language. We do not have one-word infinitives like Indo-European and Romance languages. `To love,' in English is two words; the infinitive in Latin is one word. In English we use `helping verbs to show time, condition, voice and mood. When we say “will go ” “shall see”, “would like”, `could have (sex), `is putting” “are fooling” `may be drooling”, `might burst' and `have done (it)' we know what we mean.

According to Sticklers,: You're not supposed to stick an adverb between the Subject and Verb, Dolly Parton should have sung: “I will love you always”. Captain Kirk should have told his crew “ to go boldly where no man has gone before,” because you're not supposed to split an infinitive. But anybody who knows anything, gets it: these lines would have wrecked the Hesperus if we followed these rules.

“Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style,” says Steven Pinker. Such rules have been disputed by every `thoughtful usage manual' and been defied by great writers for centuries”.

Sure, he's right. But ignorami don't know why he's right.

Since rule-breakers are more numerous and popular than great writers and great readers, try this exercise.

  1. Write down five examples of great writers' and singers' lines which split an infinitive. Find five adverbs or adjectives which interrupt subject and verb to advantage.

2. Make up your own five examples of great writing or song-writing breaking the same rules.


Monday, August 25, 2008

An Embarrassing Word

Name the most embarrassing word you can think of.

Now write a fictional piece, no more than a page, using the word so that the reader feels the embarrassment and know what the word is without your spelling it out.

Of if you want to write a non-fiction piece, do, but with the same caveats as the fictional piece, do. No more than a page. The reader should know the word without your having to spell it out. The reader should also feel the embarrassment.

Have fun

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


In this article (click above for access), Joseph Bottum talks about the idea of "good" words: words that have some kind of extra power in their own architecture. The essay is an excellent expression of an important idea and, for obvious reasons, we Utterers implore you to read it. We hope you find it as splendiferous as we did.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where's the Bald Soprano When You Need Her?

Hi-ho fellow Grammarchists! Today we've got an exercise for those of you who've had it up to HERE with clichés.

A cliché is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point that it has lost its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel. The term is most likely to be used in a negative context.

THE ASSIGNMENT: Write a dialogue that consists entirely of clichés. Don’t readily identify the topic of your discussion, but let the clichés reveal the nature of the interaction between the people.

Example: About money and lying

1. Hey, I’ve got a deal that’s as good as gold.

2. Well, your last one just about broke the bank.

3. I’m not made of money.

1. Well, if you build a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door.

2. So, could I give you a penny for your thoughts?

1. You always were a penny pincher.

2. A penny saved is a penny earned.

3. A fool and his money are soon parted.

1. This will be a cash cow.

2. Well, you put your money where your mouth is.

1. This is a sweet deal, a real sweetheart deal.

2. I don’t want to be taken for a ride.

1. I told you this is worth its weight in gold.

2. Well, sometimes there’s no gold in them thar hills.

1. You’re both tightwads. You want to buy something for a song.

2. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

1. This won’t cost a kings ransom.

2. I don’t want to lose my shirt.

1. Sometimes your both a pennywise and a pound foolish. I’m going to be rolling in the dough for there’s a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. See ya. Gotta go. Time is money.

2. He’s blowing smoke, and you know where…

3. So he tried to pull the wool over your eyes to.

2. His story is hard to swallow.

3. Yeah, he lies like a rug.

2. It’s just another one of his snow jobs.

3. He always loves to pull your leg.

2. Just another tall tell of his.

3. He’s just yanking our chains.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Body Language

In this video, Sid Ceaser (from old-timey television program Your Show of Shows) duels it out with Nanette Fabray, entirely through body language, to Beethoven's 5th Symphony. The video is a testimony to how much can be said with music and body: how much we can communicate without words:

Friday, May 9, 2008

Double Negatives

Good day language-lovers! Today we've got an exercise for you that we're not sure you won't love:

Create a conversation moving through a sea of double, triple, and quadruple negatives.

Person 1: Heyyy!
Person 2: Oh..hey, how are you…
Person 1: I'm doing great, I'm doing great, wow great party huh?
Person 2: Yeah…yeah….look, Its not that I didn't want you to come or anything…but I didn't really mean for you to come.
Person 1: What, you didn't not want me to come?
Person 2: No, I didn't didn't not want you to come, I didn't want you to come.
Person 1: Right so you didn't not want me to come did you. Like you didn't not not want me to come.
Person 2: No…I didn't not not want you to come. No, wait, no…wait…no! I didn't want you to not come.
Person 1: Great, yeah, I didn't not want me to not come either…and I did bring chips and salsa so it's a great thing that I didn't not come!
Person 2: I don't care about whether you did or didn't bring chips and salsa, I did not want you to come in the first place!
Person 1: I did bring salsa though, its right over there. By the chips. Which I did bring.
Person 2: I don't care! I don't care! I didn't not want you not bring chips and not bring salsa and not bring yourself, I DIDN'T!
Person 1: You don't like Chips and salsa?
Person 2: NO! I didn't want YOU to bring them!
Person 1: Would you rather I brought something else…or if I didn't bring something else?
Person 2: I wish you didn't bring you!
Person 1: I didn't not bring me!
Person 2: Yes you did!!
Person 1: No! Your mom brought me! I met her when I wasn't not buying salsa and I wasn't not getting chips to not NOT bring to your party and not not have a good time!
Person 2: GO HOME!
Person 1: Oh…I didn't know you felt that way.
Person 2:….sigh…you didn't?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Playing with Punctuation

Good Afternoon Fellow-Utterers-- today we've, got a brand-new, exercise which, requires, you to experiment with punctuation:

Write a paragraph that, when punctuation is varied in a second version of the paragraph, has a distinctly different tone/meaning than the original. The words and sentence order should be exactly the same in both paragraphs; the only difference is in the placement of punctuation. This exercise demonstrates the powerful influence of punctuation upon meaning. It also conveys the importance of proper punctuation and the dangers of careless or haphazard use of punctuation.


Dear John, I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours? ----Gloria

Dear John, I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria

(Example from Ohio State University's English Department website. Originally from Games Magazine, 1984.)