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Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

A Staggering Array of Folk Art, and Other News

June 14, 2016 | by

An elephant pull toy from 1830–80, on display now at the New-York Historical Society. Image via The New York Review of Books.

  • When I’m on the job, I use periods in my writing all the time. They’re part of the buttoned-up, G-rated approachability that makes me such an asset to office culture. But when I’m off duty, you better believe the periods are the first thing to go, am I right? As Jeff Guo has noticed, “The period is no longer how we finish our sentences. In texts and online chats, it has been replaced by the simple line break … The modern line break is like the medieval punctus—an all-purpose piece of punctuation that inserts pauses wherever we’re feeling it. And the period has gained expressive powers after it was laid off from its job marking the ends of sentences. Now it’s an icy flourish we deploy against frenemies and exes. We should celebrate these developments. Writing is becoming richer. This is an exciting time. Period.”
  • And in German-Turkish relations, grammar is playing a pivotal diplomatic role: “With impressive courage, a hip-hop band called Einshoch6 left their native Munich to keep a longstanding date on June 4 and, as one of them modestly put it, ‘set Ankara on fire’ with a concert and teach-in. Young Turkish German-learners took lessons in how to turn tongue-twisting Teutonic sounds into the verbal pyrotechnics of rap. Their trademark is combining rap vocals with classical instruments (or electronic versions of those instruments) and strong percussion … Along with their own exuberant, random ravings they have experimented with rap versions of the poetry of Goethe, and their whole output is an unlikely by-product of the intense classical-music culture of south Germany. But they send out a message that mastering compound verbs and case-endings needn’t be done with a long, studious face.”
  • Hey, kid. Wanna get into the picture business? Don’t go to Tinseltown. It’s for chumps and floozies. Get yourself a one-way ticket to Marrakesh: “Morocco shares many of the advantages that first drew filmmakers to California: year-round sunshine, diverse landscapes, great old architecture and abundant available extras. Just recently Morocco and Britain signed a treaty giving each other reciprocal tax subsidies for film and television production. And since the UK and Morocco are in the same time zone, they keep the same business hours. My fascination with film was kindled in the New York editorial offices of a literary magazine, The Paris Review. My then boss, George Plimpton, recounted over lunch one day an adventure he had had long before—one of his stunts in participatory journalism—when he shipped off to Morocco to play a Bedouin extra on the set of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.”
  • Because your year in the arts isn’t truly complete until you’ve seen an old elephant pull toy in the same building as a roach motel, visit the New-York Historical Society, where a new exhibition features folk art from the collection of Elie Nadelman: “The more than two hundred objects on display range from clipper ship figureheads (‘It was not just a sailor who carved this but an artist,’ Nadelman remarked of a ravishing gilded eagle with detachable wings) to miniature carved animals, amid a trove of carefully selected pottery, exquisitely detailed needle-cases, and an early, ingenious earthenware roach motel—the glazed, funnel-shaped opening of which traps roaches lured inside by molasses. This staggering array of material is complemented by a dozen or so of Nadelman’s wondrous figurative sculptures, fashioned in weathered cherry or mahogany and often given an overlay of seemingly aging paint.”
  • In writing a book about indentured servitude in British Guiana, Gaiutra Bahadur faced a major research dilemma: no firsthand accounts existed by women. “Since indentured women were, for the most part, illiterate, they didn’t leave behind written traces of themselves. Just as there isn’t a single existing narrative from a woman or girl who survived the Middle Passage, the rare first-person accounts of indenture—there are three—are all by men. The stealing of the voices of indentured women, born into the wrong class, race and gender to write themselves into history, was structural. How could I write about women whose very existence the official sources barely acknowledged? To enter their unknown and to some extent unknowable history, I had to turn to alternative, unofficial sources. I looked for clues in visual traces and the oral tradition: folk songs, oral histories, photographs and colonial-era postcards, even a traditional tattoo on the forearms of elderly Indo-Caribbean women.”

The Nostalgia of Constipation, and Other News

May 23, 2016 | by

From a vintage Dulcolax ad.

  • On the streets of English, adverbs are the knockoff Rolex salesmen lurking in the shadows, always ready to sell you something shiny and fake. Christian Lorentzen urges you to stay away: “The adverbs easiest to hate are the so-called sentence adverbs—also known as conjunctive adverbs. Writers who lean on the crutches of moreover, accordingly, consequently, and likewise are declaring a lack of confidence in the sequence of their own logic or a lack of faith in their readers’ ability to follow it. Deploying indeed is tantamount to saying, ‘I’ve just had a thought and, indeed, I’ve just had another.’ Next time you come across the word meanwhile, ask yourself when else all this could have been happening. What is the adverbial phrase of course but a smug duo dropped in to congratulate writer and reader for already agreeing with each other. Nevertheless, nonetheless, and the atrocious however are symptoms of an anxiety over a proliferation of the word but. But you can never have too many helpings of but, and sound thinking will make hay of contradictions.”
  • Today in bowel movements: they’re never as good as they used to be. As Maggie Koerth-Baker writes, “Since at least the Renaissance, Western cultures have fretted about their own bowels while looking back to an imagined past where mankind pooped in peace and harmony. According to James Whorton, professor emeritus of medical history and ethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, modern life has long been considered the ultimate cause of constipation. Take, for instance, a bit of doggerel poetry from mid-1600s England: ‘And for to make us emulate, / The good old Father doth relate / The vigour of our Ancestors, / Whose shiting far exceeded ours’ … More than just nostalgia, though, the belief that modern lifestyles caused constipation was viewed as a medical emergency, on the scale of what we think of the obesity epidemic today.”

Who Is the Black Flâneur? and Other News

March 30, 2016 | by

William Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street, 2001–2009. Photo: William Pope.L, Pruznick/Grey.

  • All hail Zardulu! She appears in ceremonial robes around Gotham, begging mortals to serve as “tools” in her “grand architectural designs.” And these designs … they may seem, from the outside, like they’re just viral videos. But they’re a new body of myths. Andy Newman reports: “The artist calls herself Zardulu. Her medium is the elaborately staged viral video. As to her own identity, Zardulu will say only that she was born in Manhattan in 1971 … She has been revealed as the force behind the Selfie Rat, who achieved world fame for appearing to take a self-portrait with a passed-out man’s phone on a subway platform. She has been suspected as the creator of the even more famous Pizza Rat, caught dragging a slice down subway stairs in September, though another man claims credit for that video … She does, however, have plenty to say in a more general way about the enduring power of mystery. Like: ‘I think creation and perpetuation of modern myths is a tragically underappreciated art form. It upsets me when I hear people refer to them as lies.’ ”
  • Let’s face it, the flâneur is a white guy. He strolls, he gazes, he observes—he takes these luxuries as his due. What would black flânerie look like? Doreen St. Félix starts with the artist William Pope.L, who “prostrated himself on New York City’s Broadway Avenue for nine years, intermittently. He called the performances ‘crawls.’ Dressed in a Superman suit with a skateboard strapped to his back, the tall, thin, statistically average-looking black American man would crawl on the sidewalk as long as weather and upper body strength allowed, which never exceeded six blocks. Known as The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001–2009), Pope.L’s drama featuring varyingly proscribed cosmopolitan movements—those of the disabled, of the homeless, of commuting black Americans—attracted dramatics from his unwitting public as well. A cameraman documented most of the odd sojourn and the reactions, which ranged in horror, boredom, disgust, delight, and confusion. One passing black pedestrian stopped, so incensed by Pope.L’s state that he nearly kicked the artist in the face.”
  • The grammar handbook is a hard sell. How to get people to care about the serial comma? How to reinvigorate the art of the nonrestrictive which? Frank L. Cioffi’s book goes all Solzhenitsyn on the problem; it’s called One Day in the Life of the English Language, and it shows us the horrors of the labor camp called usage: “It illustrates points about grammar and punctuation using examples drawn from newspapers and magazines all published—online or in print—on December 29, 2008 (hence talk of the financial crisis, the election of Barack Obama, strife between Israel and Palestine). And its author, Frank L. Cioffi, who teaches writing at Baruch College in New York City, is humble. His aim is not so much to enforce rules as to provoke debate. He wants you to look beyond the meaning of the sentence to the choices made by the writer and the editor.”
  • Today in libraries and the delicate art of assertion: “The San Jose Public Library wants its books back. And its CDs and DVDs. Taken altogether, library patrons are holding onto or have damaged 97,000 items and owe the city $6.8 million in fines and fees. The situation is so out of control that about 40 percent of the city’s library cardholders can no longer borrow anything until they return their library holdings and pay what they owe. For a library, this is a DEFCON moment. Maybe not DEFCON 1, but at least DEFCON 3 … Over the years, libraries have fined patrons for not bringing back books and offered no-questions-asked return periods. They’ve published the names of book scofflaws in local newspapers. They’ve paid personal calls on people who hold onto books past their due dates, and even sicced the police on particularly recalcitrant readers. And they still don’t really know how to get their books back.”
  • Remember King Philip’s War? Not firsthand—it happened in the seventeenth century. But it’s a grisly and oft-forgotten chapter in American colonial history: “In terms of percentages, King Philip’s War is the most violent in our national history, and ignoring the per capita numbers, it was in its ferocity and almost gothic horror perhaps the most genuinely violent event in the whole American narrative … We have never really recovered from the trauma … King Phillips War has more than a whiff of the allegorical about it, it is a typological example of a recurring event in American history, a chapter in the dubious sacred scripture of our civil religion, and we witness its continuing battles every day.”

The Full Complement

March 22, 2016 | by

A misadventure in pedantry.

A 1919 illustration of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” by Milo Winter.

One goes to the right, the other to the left; both are wrong, but in different directions.
—Horace, Satires

There is no mistake; there has been no mistake; and there shall be no mistake.
—Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington

For fifteen years, I had scrupulously avoided reading the Novelist’s work, except maybe for a few short pieces in major magazines, which I’d scan for a bit and then set aside. Don’t ask me why I refused to read the Novelist—I had my reasons. I sincerely believed I would not enjoy The Novelist’s work, based on what I’d heard about it. But I was also afraid I might like the Novelist’s work. If it should turn out that The Novelist, who is the same age as me, were truly the voice of his/her generation, that would make it harder for me to claim that mantle at some undisclosed future date. And at our age, that window is rapidly closing, if not already shut, sealed, and winterized.

But finally this past summer, with the Novelist’s name and foibles monopolizing the main channels of every social medium, I could no longer bear to remain the only writer in New York without an opinion about the Novelist. I took the plunge and read one of the Novelist’s most iconic works. Read More »

Some Unearthly Master, and Other News

March 10, 2016 | by

William Horton’s illustration in The Savoy No. 7. Via the Public Domain Review.

  • Brad Bigelow thinks of his blog, Neglected Books, as “one little step against entropy.” His reviews of forgotten or obscure books have led, in many cases, to publishers reissuing them, sometimes even in translation: “One of Bigelow’s favorite rediscoveries is Gentleman Overboard, a 1937 novella by Herbert Clyde Lewis, a son of Russian immigrants. Lewis grew up in New York, became a journalist, and eventually wrote Hollywood screenplays. The book’s protagonist is a steamship passenger named Henry Preston Standish, who slips on a spot of oil and tumbles overboard. Gentleman Overboard is a record of his final day and his fading hopes of rescue … The most accessible online edition was scanned from an old library copy, which was last checked out in 1950. That’s the same year that Lewis died, of a heart attack, at the age of forty-one. But Bigelow has saved Gentleman Overboard from going completely underwater: a few years ago, he recommended it to a publisher in Argentina, who decided to release a Spanish translation.”
  • While we’re on forgetting: Yeats wrote that his friend William Horton “has his waking dreams, but more detailed and vivid than mine; and copied them as if they were models posed for him by some unearthly master.” Despite the poet’s praise, few remember Horton’s drawings today—after some early success, his career, as Jon Crabb writes, found him listing toward occultism: “Horton was clearly immersed in the London occult scene during the 1900s, but in 1905 he also finally attracted the attention of The Studio, the era’s foremost journal of design and illustration. The September issue featured several Horton illustrations, which are of a more mature and less ominous style … Sadly, he published little after 1912 and, in 1916, suffered a mental breakdown after the death of his partner Amy Audrey Locke. In 1918, he was hit by a car and further incapacitated. He died in obscurity the following year.”
  • No one does compound words like the Germans do compound works. English speakers can only look on in envy as the Germans chain together nouns—Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, anyone?—with reckless abandon and effortless precision. Bruce Duncan picks some of his favorites and looks at the grammatical back end: “Both German and English can create compound words out of most parts of speech, not just nouns … My own personal favorite [is] Verschlimmbesserung. This construction doesn’t just present contrasting concepts. It also employs a playful use of German’s grammatical structures to tie them together. The word begins with two verbs—verschlimmern (‘to worsen’) and verbessern (‘to improve’). It then conflates their prefixes (ver-), and adds the suffix (-ung) to turn it into a noun. This process compresses an idea that only a wordy English translation can unpack: “an intended improvement that makes things worse.”
  • If you’re fluent in German, you’ll get more out of Paul Klee’s notebooks—thirty-nine hundred pages of which have just been digitized and released online—than I was able to. Klee used these notes “as the source for his Bauhaus teaching between 1921 and 1931 … His extensively detailed textual theorizing on the mechanics of art (especially the use of color, with which he struggled before returning from a 1914 trip to Tunisia declaring, ‘Color and I are one. I am a painter’) [and] … his copious illustrations of all these observations and principles, in their vividness, clarity, and reflection of a truly active mind, can still captivate anybody—just as his paintings do.”
  • Michael Wood on Orson Welles’s adaptation of Kafka: “It’s not that Welles has ‘a stunning visual intelligence and a numbingly banal view of human experience,’ as Joan Didion thought Fellini and Bergman had; but he does get extraordinary suggestions into his images, and he can become sententious in his words and plots. Welles fans are not enthusiastic about The Trial … But we can see Welles doing something new with his visual machinery in the film, reaching for social meanings of a kind he had not sought before. Welles’s Joseph K is a guilty man and proud of it, because he is not half as guilty as the evil system that closes in on him and kills him … In The Trial more than anywhere else we see how much Welles’s imagination has to do with space. A set for him is a location to be explored, and a location is full of stories.”

Who’s Number One?

December 31, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!


Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person.

It can be staggering to realize, suddenly, that something you’ve never thought about—something you’ve always accepted as real—is just an article of faith. Language is often what turns the lightbulb on: someone defines reality afresh with a new word (mansplaining, Rebecca Solnit) or by showing the hidden powers and interconnections of an old word (debt, David Graeber). Rarely is the realization about language itself.

Of all the dogmas of classical antiquity, only grammar has held its ground. Euclidean geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, Roman law, Christian doctrine—the schools have radically demolished them all. But even now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.

The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ’s Birth or God’s Divine Purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: “Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take … Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”) The grammatical dogma he means, though—and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against—is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat. Read More >>