The Lexicographer’s Dilemma shows us English is a beautiful mess

What I read

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

What it’s about

This book examines how the English-speaking world has arrived at an idea of what “correct” English looks like. Lynch demonstrates that we shouldn’t be so concerned about using English correctly but rather we should be concerned about using English appropriately. And what’s appropriate can change depending on circumstances.

As Lynch takes us through the history of modern English, he provides lots of fascinating information on key figures (Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Peter Mark Roget, to name a few). Central to the book is the question of whether dictionaries should be prescriptive or descriptive, and Lynch explains the different views some of these key figures had regarding this.

How I got my hands on it

This Christmas I received some nice books and bookish gifts. This book was one of those gifts, and it was tucked neatly into my stocking. I can’t say for sure who it put it there, but I have a strong suspicion (Santa, of course).

A bit that I really liked

As much as I enjoyed reading about Johnson and the story of how this unlikely character created one of the most famous English dictionaries—I mean, I visited the house in London where he worked on A Dictionary of the English Language, so I’m a bit of a fan—the section on John Dryden stands out just a bit more for me. I’ve finally figured out who I can blame for this nonsense about not ending a sentence with a preposition and this BS about it being wrong to split an infinitive! Dryden was trying to make English follow the rules of Latin, but English isn’t Latin, guys.

Bonus bit: I got a real kick out of Lynch talking about people having issues with abbreviations in texts or social media. Don’t like it when people use “IMHO” or “obvs”? Well, then surely you must never say “AKA” or “fridge” or “exam” or “phone,” right? Thank you, Mr. Lynch, for pointing out this hypocrisy. It made me smile.

You’ll want to read it if…

You’ll probably like this book if you are any kind of word nerd. Proofreaders, editors, writers, people who read the dictionary for fun—you will love this book. But if you’re looking for a book that’s going to back up your rigid views on how the English language should work, you might not enjoy reading this. It will probably show you how silly you are being. I mean, I think it would be good for you to read it, but you might not want to.

Recommended refreshments

Any reading session is more enjoyable with snacks and drinks. For The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, I recommend consuming copious amounts of tea, and not just because tea and books always go well together. Rather, I suggest you drink this tea in honour of Samuel Johnson, as he was known to consume several cups a day. Imagine how many pots he must have gone through working on that dictionary! So, yes, tea is appropriate. And also maybe a bowl of alphabet soup?

 

Five of Toronto’s best literary events in 2014

This post is specifically about Toronto events, but if you’d like to read about the literary aspects of my trip to England earlier this year, visit my posts Lured back to London and Following the path of a poet.

Toronto hosts a lot of literary events. I don’t attend them all, of course, but I do get out to a few. In no particular order, here are five of my favourite literary events that I attended in 2014 in this city.

The Poem/The Song

To me, nothing goes better with a fall evening than listening to poetry being recited. This harkens back to my university days, when I spent some of my evenings inside classrooms studying poetry. One of the friends I attended many of those classes with invited me to The Poem/The Song held in Harbourfront Centre Theatre back in November. I don’t think I would have heard about it if she hadn’t mentioned it, as I hadn’t seen or read anything about it before or after. But I’m so glad we went. It wasn’t solely a literary event. As the title suggests, the evening largely focused on music. The Art of Time Ensemble performed musical works that are inspired by poems or poetry. There were pieces inspired by T. S. Eliot, Leonard Cohen, Walt Whitman and Petrarch. Margaret Atwood was also there to recite some of her own work. It was a unique way to honour two of my favourite art forms.

45 Books in 45 Minutes at Ben McNally Books

Ben McNally and Lynn Thomson host this event twice a year in their store in the financial district. The first for 2014 was held in the summer, and the second was in December, a few weeks before Christmas. During these evenings, Ben and Lynn provide a brief overview of 45 books that are new for the season (they also provide some delicious refreshments). They discuss some titles that are getting a lot of buzz, but one of the best reasons to go is that Ben and Lynn also discuss books you wouldn’t hear about it unless they told you about them. What’s better than partaking in some wine and cheese and hearing your favourite booksellers talk about books?

Tom Rachman reading at IFOA Weekly

This year, I went to many of the readings that were part of IFOA’s Weekly Series at Harbourfront Centre. But I’ve specifically included Tom Rachman in this list because of all of the readings I went to, his stands out the most in my mind. That’s partly because I was in the middle of reading Rachman’s latest book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, which he’d be reading from that June evening. Rachman began by talking a bit about his process of writing the book, discussing the various drafts he went through until he finally got the story right. He also inserted a sense of humour into his reading. When he signed my book afterwards, we had a short conversation about our affinity for independent bookstores…and also about the never-ending construction in this city.

It was raining that night. I remember the rain because it had started to fall so heavily by the time I left, that even though I had a bag to put my book in and an umbrella to hold above me, I had to tuck the book under my arm, and hug it close to my body, in an effort to protect it. (The book remained dry, but 85-90% of my body did not.)

Open Book Toronto literary salon: Advice for Myself

On a freezing cold February evening, I headed over to the Spoke Club for Open Book Toronto‘s literary salon, Advice for Myself. A panel of three writers—Stacey May Fowles, Brian Francis and Michael Winter—offered advice for both emerging and established writers, and there was the opportunity to mingle before and after. Becky Toyne moderated the event, but in the spirit of a true literary salon, there was also interaction from the audience. It was interesting to hear the different approaches and opinions that Stacey, Brian and Michael have, and I left feeling encouraged about my writing and with a few ideas that helped me improve my work.

The Word on the Street

This might be the most obvious choice on this list. The Word on the Street book festival happens every year and in cities across Canada, not just Toronto. If you’re reading my blog, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it or have attended yourself. But I couldn’t leave it out. The Word on the Street is like Christmas for me, and I don’t mean that in the sense that I come home with an armload of books (I’ve scaled it down over the years). But I get pretty excited in the anticipation in the weeks leading up to that last Sunday in September. Sure, there’s the chance to browse some great books, and maybe even score some deals. But there’s also the opportunity to learn more about some wonderful organizations. This year, I had some nice chats with people from PEN Canada and Literature for Life, among others. There was also some interesting programming offered in many of the tents, including the Humber School for WritersWordshop Marquee, which I spent some time in.

Those are just a few examples of some of the wonderful events I and other Toronto-area readers and writers enjoyed in 2014. Wherever you live (or wherever you visit), there will be more to experience in 2015. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

A soft spot for the semicolon

I bought a pair of glasses last week, and my new frames have punctuation marks on them. Specifically, there is a colon on one side and a semicolon on the other. SAMSUNG I have a bit of a soft spot for the semicolon. It’s misunderstood. A lot of writers are afraid to use it. Other writers do use it but use it incorrectly, often placing a semicolon where a comma should be instead. Even the name “semicolon” makes it sound as if it is a lesser point of punctuation than the colon.

Since semicolons aren’t the most commonly used punctuation mark, readers don’t see much of them. This creates a vicious cycle. I’ve heard that some publishers avoid the semicolon because the punctuation mark can be “distracting” to readers. I’m not sure I believe that, but even if it’s true, readers wouldn’t be distracted by the semicolon if they were more used to seeing it.

I love the semicolon for the sort of outsider persona I’ve imagined it having, but of course I also love it for what it actually does. The semicolon helps avoid confusion by separating listed items that contain commas. For example, “I’ll be going with Carl; Carl’s mother, Sheila; Jennifer; and Pat.” The semicolon tells the reader that Sheila is the name of Carl’s mother and not a separate person. The semicolon has been very helpful here—thank you, semicolon!—but this is not the only way to use this punctuation mark.

I like using a semicolon to connect two independent clauses; that’s my favourite way to use it. In the previous sentence, the two clauses would work fine as two sentences, separated by a period. But the semicolon ties them together so neatly. It offers a pause that’s just long enough—not too long, but not too short—that illustrates the link between the two statements. (Want more information about how to use the semicolon? Check out this post.)

A text can’t be read properly by concentrating only on the words. Just as music notation helps a musician understand how to play the notes, punctuation tells the reader how to read the words. So even though the semicolon might be my favourite punctuation mark, I love them all; they’re all equally important. But I’m happy to help give the semicolon a little more exposure.

Why we need to stop talking about the serial comma

I’ve avoided writing about the serial comma. I hear about it more than I’d like to, so I’ve tried to stay out of the conversation. But I’ve reached my limit. I need to say something: The serial comma doesn’t make your writing any better, and it doesn’t make it worse. If you’re either a strong advocate for it or a fervid critic of it, you’ve missed the point.

There. I said it. Now let me explain.

Choosing to use the serial comma, which is the comma that’s placed in front of “and” before the final item in a list (e.g. “blue, red, and green”), is a style preference. Some people use it; some people don’t. Stylistic decisions should be consistent, but they’re not right or wrong.

However, there are many writers and editors who give the serial comma more credit than it deserves. I’ve seen some people include their opinion on it in their Twitter bios, and I’ve read various blog posts, tweets and articles by defenders of the serial comma.

Recently, this tweet appeared multiple times in my Twitter feed. It includes a link to a page with the headline, “A Case for the Oxford Comma in One Screenshot” and displays a screenshot of a tweet from Sky News.

Image taken from slate.com (http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/12/10/oxford_comma_sky_news_tweet_suggests_that_obama_and_castro_have_set_a_date.html)

Image taken from slate.com (http://slate.me/1bBZXRu)

The assertion was that the tweet could be misinterpreted as saying presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro had set a wedding date. Inserting a serial comma before “and” would show that these are two separate items. This is true. But it’s not the only solution.

In any type of writing, it’s not the lack of a serial comma that creates the confusion; poor writing does. If the headlines listed in the above tweet were rearranged, there would be no misunderstanding.

Here’s another way to illustrate this. When writers explain why the serial comma is necessary, they often use this example: “I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah.” The problem here is that it’s unlikely the author’s parents are actually Bill Clinton and Oprah, as the sentence indicates.

Placing a comma after “Bill Clinton” is one way to fix this, but it’s not the only way. The author can also change the sentence: “I’d like to thank Bill Clinton, Oprah and my parents.” See? No serial comma and yet no confusion.

In fact, sometimes using the serial comma can make things unclear. Take, for example, the sentence “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John, and Mark.” Is the magician named John? Or has Tina gone to dinner with three people? If John is the magician, the author can change the sentence to something like “Tina went to dinner with John, who is a magician, and Mark.”

If John and the magician are different people, the author can remove the serial comma: “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John and Mark.” To keep the serial comma, an alternative is to rearrange the listed items: “Bill went to dinner with John, Ted, and a magician.”

The point is, there are options. In my career, I’ve been requested at various times to use the serial comma and not to use it, and I’ve never had any strong feelings either way, as long as the style was consistent.

It’s nice to see so many people care about punctuation, but don’t miss the point by getting into a frivolous argument. If you want to write better, stop caring about being for or against the serial comma and start caring more about communicating clearly.

What makes a great teacher?

It’s September, which means the neighbourhood children have gone back to school. It also means I’m reminiscing about school more than usual. Actually, it’s a bit odd that I ever reminisce about school. Until I got to university, I hated going to class. Oh, I always loved to learn, but I think it was the forced socialization that wasn’t for me. Since I had to be there, though, I was lucky to have some good teachers. My favourite was Mrs. Sedore.

I was in Mrs. Sedore’s class for grades three and four. Both grades were spent in the same classroom (room 13), so those years sort of blend together in my memory. Mrs. Sedore had a great way of explaining concepts and a sense of humour that I really appreciated. But the real reason Mrs. Sedore made such an impression on me is because she nurtured my love of reading and writing.

Mrs. Sedore encouraged my creative writing, saying I had a wonderful imagination and that my stories deserved to be shared with others. She always said these things in a very believable way.

It was during these years that I remember, as a class, analyzing stories for the first time. In particular, I remember reading and discussing That Scatterbrain Booky.

It’s difficult to know how much Mrs. Sedore influenced me. It’s occurred to me that I simply might’ve been at an age when one learns what they’re interested in and where their aptitudes lie. The fact that Mrs. Sedore was my teacher could have had little to do with how I felt then, and how I feel now, about reading and writing. But I’m not convinced that’s true. I think if I’d had a teacher who didn’t recognize my interests, he or she might have squashed them, however inadvertently.

I recently read a quote from one of my favourite writers, Douglas Coupland. He wrote, “A good teacher is someone who taught you what to love. A bad teacher is someone who taught you what to hate.” And I think that explains why Mrs. Sedore was such an excellent teacher.

As this school year gets underway, I hope all of you teachers will get to know your students, even the quiet ones, and recognize what sparks a flame in each of them. I hope you’ll do your best to encourage that flame to keep burning. Your students will grow up being forever grateful for it.