Bloody Well Write

May 1, 2009

Palindromes: Yo, banana boy!

Grammar gets a bad wrap. It’s not a subject that the general public thinks of as interesting. That’s too bad, really, because being a good communicator gets the point across better. Yes, you could argue that you don’t have to be able to write perfectly in order to have your agenda accepted, but I would say that a flawless document (or a speech) gives the author (or speaker) more credibility, which in theory presents a greater return on investment.

OK, off subject. My point is that grammar isn’t all hard work and drudgery. It has its fun aspects, just like every other topic out there. Take, for example, palindromes: words, phrases, numbers or other sequences of units that can be read the same way in either direction. Punctuation and spaces between words are a nonissue in palindromes.

Palindromes date back to the wee A.D.s (as in 79 A.D.); the Latin word square “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas” was found in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum. It may It be read top to bottom, bottom to top, left to right and right to left. Some have attributed a variety of magical properties to the word square, considering it one of the broadest magical formulas in the occident. It has been credited as a spell against fire, a cure for animal bites, a cipher to prove whether or not someone was a witch and a curative against poisonous air, pestilence and sorcery. It is also thought to be a powerful charm to protect the bearer from evil spirits. I need to pick me up one of them there word squares.

“Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas”

“Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas”

What else — how about some examples? How about words:
• Eye
• Nun
• Noon
• Poop
• Tot
• Civic
• Level
• Madam
• Racecar
• Otto
• Bob
•Redivider (the longest single English word in common usage)

Phrases, you say? Yes, indeed:
• Step on no pets.
• Dammit, I’m mad!
• Never odd or even.
• If I had a hi-fi.
• Yo, banana boy! (See? Now I make sense!)
• No devil lived on.
• Ah, Satan sees Natasha.
• Was it a car or a cat I saw?
• Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?
• No lemon, no melon.
• Nurse, I spy gypsies—run! (Yeah, like this is gonna happen.)
• Was it Eliot’s toilet I saw?
• No, sir, away! A papaya war is on!
• Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog.
• I, madam, I made radio! So I dared! Am I mad? Am I? (This is fantastic.)
• So many dynamos!
• Red rum, sir, is murder.

Numbers, you ask? But of course:
• 101
• 10101
• 2002
• 47974

Other sequences of units? Let’s look at words that form phrases, but instead of each letter being specific to the achievement of a palindrome, it’s the sequence of words:
• Fall leaves after leaves fall.
• First Ladies rule the State and state the rule: ladies first.
• Women understand men; few men understand women. (Remember that punctuation doesn’t play a part in palindromes.)

Palindromes also occur in music. Take Hüsker Dü, for example. The band’s concept album “Zen Arcade” has the songs “Reoccurring Dreams” and “Dreams Reoccurring.” Even though “Dreams Reoccurring” appears earlier on the album, is actually the intro of “Reoccurring Dreams” played in reverse. The title track of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ “UFO Tofu” is a palindrome. In classical music, a crab canon has one line of the melody reversed in time and pitch from the other. And Joseph Haydn’s “Symphony No. 47 in G” is known as The Palindrome; the third movement, minuet and trio is a musical palindrome, going forward twice and backward twice and arriving back at the same place. Now that’s some tricky stuff.

There are also examples of palindromes in biological structures and computation theory but, lucky for you, those definitions vary slightly from the palindromes of written language, so you don’t have to read the gory details here. No matter that genomes and the automata theory ain’t my thing (so really, lucky for me).

Happy trails!



April 30, 2009

Pluperfect joke: Grammar is funny

G’day, lovers and loathers of the English language. This is just a quick something-something to help you while away your last afternoon of April 2009. I’d never heard this joke before and was impressed that an Aussie had made the cut as the lead. So, without further ado:

An Australian man wins a trip to Boston. His mates have been telling him how good the seafood is in Boston, and he can’t wait to hit some restaurants. He arrives and, after freshening up at the hotel, wanders out to catch a taxi and hopefully be directed to a decent seafood place. Unbeknownst to him, his cabdriver is a post-grad student going for his doctorate in linguistics and grammatical syntax. The Aussie says, “Hey, mate, where can I get scrod?”

The cabdriver turns to him with a look of intellectual curiosity and replies, “Sir, I have heard it asked for in many ways, shapes and forms, but I’ve never heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive before.”

That’s ace!

Lest you think that this is all just fun and games over here at, here’s some info on what the heck pluperfect is:

The pluperfect tense is a perfect tense that exists in most Indo-European languages; it is used to refer to an event that has been completed before another past action.

Take a look at this: “The blind man, who knew that he had risen, motioned him to sit down again.” He had risen is an example of the pluperfect tense.* It refers to an event (someone rises from his seat), which takes place before another event (the blind man notices the fact that the other has risen). Because that second event is a past event and the past tense is used to refer to it (the blind man knew), the pluperfect tense is needed to make it obvious that the first event has taken place even earlier in the past.

Bloody oath!

Does anyone else have a hankering for a coldie?

Happy trails!


*From Charles Dickens’ “Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ’Eighty.”

April 28, 2009

Articles: a and an

Filed under: grammar,Uncategorized — bloodywellwrite @ 8:10 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Most English grammar rules are governed by spelling. As you might have noticed throughout your formative years, though, the English language is not one to be harnessed in by a few pesky rules. No — rules be cursed! Patooey on grammar rules!

Thus it is with the two articles a and an. A and an are not followers, people. They don’t follow the flock of rules. They follow rules of sound instead of spelling. (OK, so they are followers, but they follow the edgy, nonconformist rules, so there.) And really, that’s perfectly OK with me. The sound makes it easier to figure out which one is correct for a particular sentence. Here’s the gist:

A: Use a before consonant sounds (a frog, a home, a historic event, a unique plan, a one-time offer, a 4-3 split). Note that just because the following word begins with a vowel or numeral doesn’t mean that an is the correct choice. That h in historic is a sounded h. Remember: It’s the sound of that first letter, not the first letter itself.

An: Use an before vowel sounds (an apple, an ergonomic chair, an honorable mention, an NBC affiliate, an 85-year-old turtle). Note that just because the following word begins with a consonant or numeral doesn’t mean that a is the correct choice. That h in honor is a silent h. Remember: It’s the sound of that first letter, not the first letter itself.

An 85-year-old turtle is still a spring chicken (life expectancy 200 years).

An 85-year-old turtle is still a spring chicken (life expectancy 200 years).

Happy trails!


April 27, 2009

Italics for words as words — say what?

Italicizing words is fun, if you ask me. It lets me, as a writer, pretend I’m a designer (or at least that’s what I tell myself when no one’s around). It lets me put a visual emphasis on a word or group of words that I really want to stand out. Italicizing is empowering.

Like all those in positions of power, though, I have to be monitored.* Without checks and balances, I might italicize every fifth word — and I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, how that would undermine the grammatical potency of my beloved italics.

Enter the AP Stylebook’s rules and regulations on the very restrictive use of italics (cymbals clash) in the English language.

Italic typeface cannot be sent through AP computers. Why? Because the typeface doesn’t transmit through all computers. In these times, it’s confounding, really. The AP folks are, therefore, especially strict about not allowing italics in print. Instead of italics, they surround the word or phrase with quotation marks. However, they do make concessions for those who have italics available to them.

So here’s the lowdown on when to use italics, keeping in mind that strategically placed italics work best when used very, very sparingly:

• Italicize words, letters and numbers used as such.
(NOTE: This is the only example of italics that the AP Stylebook gives as kosher.) This includes words used a words. What exactly does that mean? Words as words means that you’re writing a word down strictly as a word; you want the reader to see the word itself and not its meaning. You’re not trying to use it for what the word represents:

• The words handbag and purse are not perfectly interchangeable.
• Always remember that there’s a rat in separate.
• His 6s and 7s were below his expected scores.

• Italicize words for emphasis. Doing this is pretty much a no-no in AP Stylebook terms, but as a writer who likes to add a bit of visual drama to the page, I’d say it’s OK in very limited quantities: And when I say very limited quantities, I mean very limited quantities.

"Yes, well, life is not all shoot-shoot, bang-bang, you know." —Chief Inspector Clouseau

"Yes, well, life is not all shoot-shoot, bang-bang, you know." —Chief Inspector Clouseau

It’s slightly interesting to note that even though the AP Stylebook demands no italics, it uses italics throughout the stylebook; its key states, “Examples of correct and incorrect usage are in italics.” Looks like a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t it? Hmph. Sort of makes me feel like Chief Inspector Clouseau — Aha! Coght ewe, shiftee EhPee Styealebouk, wit yur  craftee words-as-words trickeree!

And — that’s it. No more bullets, just the two (really, just the one if you want to be an AP stickler.) I’m holding myself back so that I don’t italicize the entire entry. I have a will of iron today, so all’s good.

*Oh, the power that I have at my beck and call — it’s enthralling how powerful I really am. So, so powerful. Can’t even count the ways in which my power is the best power around. Crazy-powerful. It’s almost unreal, all that power.

Happy trails!


April 16, 2009

The en dash and em dash or How two goldfish came into — and quickly exited — my pre-wedding life

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love fish (as pets) and those who, uh, don’t really get it. The same might be said for dashes; some people love ’em like mad, and some people, uh, don’t really get ’em.

Me? I fall into opposite camps. I don’t really get the whole fish-as-pets thing. They’re sort of cool to watch for a while, but fish can’t snuggle. Fish can’t cheer you up by nuzzling your cheek when you’ve had a bad day. Fish can’t wake you up by walking up and down, up and down your legs.

On the other hand, I totally get dashes. I think they are fabulous. They clarify. They add visual interest. They inadvertently amuse by infuriating the designers you work with. They give your brain a tweak while you’re writing.

What’s the fuss? Heck, what’s the real story? (There is a story here, but I’ll get to the fish later.)

There are two kinds of dashes: en dashes and em dashes. (Hyphens are not really dashes and are thus relegated to a separate entry.) The em dash began as the length of a “typical” m and the en dash began as the length of a “typical” n. These length conventions are not necessarily followed in these days of a gazillion font styles. When using an em dash, though, almost always include a space on each side of the dash. (Attributions are exempt.)

The em dash is used to set off parenthetical statements. Although commas and parentheses can be used for the same function, the em dash is — by far — the most emphatic separator of the three. It can also indicate a sharp transition: The coyote must attempt to catch the roadrunner — but at what cost?
The em dash can also be used for a series within a phrase: His menu listed the pies — pumpkin, blueberry and mud — that he made weekly.

Use the em dash in attributions, without a space: Oh, I don’t think I’m a lot dumber than you think that I thought I was once. —Ben Stiller as White Goodman in “Dodgeball”

The en dash is used in ranges:
• 45–50 clowns
• 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
• Ages 2–3
• November–December 1967

The en dash is also used in relationships, including compound adjective situations. These usages, however, can depend on your level of comfort in deviating from AP Stylebook guidelines. AP does not recognize en dashes as valid. So in the following instances, a plain, ol’ hyphen will suffice, but the more adventurous writers (and designers) can use the en dash for a slightly more fine-tuned approach:

• KU beat Nebraska 76–39 (whoomp!)
• New York–London flight
• A 5–4 vote

As far as I know — and that’s not very far when a PC’s concerned — there are no shortcuts to create an en or em dash on a PC. Here’s how to create the dashes via computer longhand for both a PC and a Mac:

• Go to Insert in the program menu and open up Symbol.
• Highlight the appropriate dash located there.
• Click on Insert.

Macs do have shortcuts, so you don’t have to move your mouse around through various windows.
Here’s how to create the dashes on a Mac:

En: Option+hyphen
Em: Shift+option+hyphen

Gee, I almost feel as if I could pass for IT support sometimes. Lasts for about three seconds before my head starts to implode.

So — what’s my big fish story?

Well, I was working at another ad agency in town when I became engaged (to one of the agency IT guys — OK, you got me). Our co-workers threw us a shower, and one gal — the one we all fondly referred to as Martha Stewart because she was crazy-creative in all creative endeavors — gave us a pair of goldfish. She had already named them En Dash and Em Dash, in my honor as the agency editor-proofreader. Cool, funky gift, not to be forgotten.

En Dash and Em Dash

En Dash and Em Dash in better days

I took them home in their baggies and put them into a small bowl. The next morning, I thought it would be a good idea to give them some fresh water. Fresh water is good, right? Right, I thought. I went to work and came home. My roommate told me to look at the fish, because they were “hanging out” at the bottom of the bowl. Well, they couldn’t be dead, I thought, because dead means floating, right? Right.

I looked at the bowl. Those fish weren’t floating, that’s for sure. But they were sideways. At the bottom of the bowl. Not swimming. Just … sideways. Ugh. I had killed En Dash and Em Dash, in less than 24 hours.

Imagine my horror at finding out that you can’t just use tap water for fish. How the heck was I supposed to know that, the fish virgin that I was? I felt horrible. So burial was my responsibility for these two unlucky souls. I took them to my roommate’s bathroom and — whoosh — they were gone. Just couldn’t bring myself to flush them down my own toilet. Isn’t that nuts?

I never told our Martha Stewart friend. I couldn’t bare the embarrassment, frankly. Now, almost six years later, I’m hoping that, if and when she reads this entry, she can forgive me for being such a cad. SD, I’m sorry!

OK, that’s it for today. I’m going to go re-mourn the loss of the goldfish while listening to some em dash–free Arlo.

Happy trails!


February 13, 2009

Onomatopoeia: ZOINKS!

Facebook may be a pariah of the Internet to some folks, but I find it a great connector and writing tool. Take, for example, my previous blog entry. I posted a link to it on my Facebook page, and a gal I knew in high school (back in the day, don’t ya know) commented on it and, in doing so, mentioned her great love for onomatopoeia. PRESTO! I had a new blog topic.

Now, onomatopoeia is one of those words that you either cringe at when you see it in print because it means you’ll have to whip out the ol’ dictionary to figure out what the heck it means or you giggle with glee because there’s no way to forget what this enormous word means once you’ve learned it. Or, as is my experience, you giggle because you know you’ve looked it up before and you think you know what it means but you go ahead and look it up again, cringing, just in case your memory has failed you.

Luckily for my ego, my memory was functioning just fine, this time.

So. What exactly is this crazy-looking word?

Read the entire article at Bloody Well Write’s new home.

December 11, 2008

The Americanization of language

Filed under: grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 10:18 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

So here I am, sittin’ on the Group W bench. I mean, I’m just sittin’ here, thinkin’ ’bout writin’ my next blog.

OK, so, I’m not sitting on or anywhere near a Group W bench. Thank the gods for that one, I guess. But I love Arlo Guthrie’s tunes so much, and they enter my mind at random times, and just now was one of those times. Perhaps because the subject of this blog revolves around language changing due to popular usage, and Arlo’s simple yet masterful storytelling style often changes the way I talk or think. So I’m offering that little snippet as homage to Arlo. Gotta love Arlo.

Now the thing is, this is only my second entry on Bloody Well Write and I have already received suggestions for topics, which I’m thinking is pretty cool. So I’m taking one of these suggestions to heart.

I overheard some co-workers lamenting the various spellings of certain words (theater vs. theatre, gray vs. grey, color vs. colour) and I told them — briefly — about Noah Webster’s “Dictionary of the English Language.” One guy said, “Hey, that’s what you should write about. It’s very Cliff Clavin, the sort of offbeat information that people love to hear.” Or, as the case may be, that they love to read. So here’s a little background on Mr. Webster and his effort at cleaning up the American language:

  • Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758. At 16, he went to Yale College (during the American Revolutionary War) and earned his law degree. He practiced for a while and then set up a few schools, which succinctly tanked. He moved to New York City to edit a newspaper; he then started his own paper.
  • Webster wrote “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language,” which consisted of a speller, a grammar and a reader. His intention was to save “our native tongue” from “the clamor of pedantry” that marked English grammar and pronunciation. He also believed that the people must guide the language; the “general custom is the rule of speaking — and every deviation from this must be wrong.” His trifecta, of sorts, was the most popular American book of its time; by 1861, it was selling 1 million copies a year and earning him a royalty of less than a penny per copy — a decent return in those days.
  • Webster is known as “the father of copyright” due to his efforts that led to the federal copyright law of 1790.
  • In 1807, Webster began writing “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” He learned 26 languages, including Sanskrit, in order to substantiate his work. Wanting to standardize and simplify American speech since Americans spelled, pronounced and used words differently throughout the country, he often changed “c” to “s” (“defence” became “defense”) and “re” to “er” (“centre” became “center”); he changed double l’s to single l’s (“traveller” became “traveler”); and in later editions, he dropped the “u” in words such as colour or favour and the “k” in words such as “musick.” He also added distinctly American words, such as “hickory” and “chowder.”
  • Webster completed the dictionary in Paris, which was then published in 1828. It contained 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had never appeared in a published dictionary.
  • Webster died May 28, 1843.

So there’s a little history lesson on the simplification of the English language. Pretty interesting, I think. Who knows how “American” language will transform itself in the future? With all the texting that is going on these days, abbreviations such as DV8 (“deviate”), ENUF (“enough”), PEEPS (“people”) and PLS (“please”) just might make it into the popular lexicon.

And what goes around comes around, right? So since we started with Arlo, our favorite all-American singer who sings it like it is — no complications, just pure and simple words woven for the listening ear — we’ll end with Arlo: “Good morning, America. How are you? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.”

Happy trails!


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