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 3, 2009

The affect effect

Filed under: grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 3:50 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I am lucky. I’m surrounded by really smart people. At work, at home, in my personal life — it’s really fantastic. And yet those two words manage to cause serious confusion. Which is correct, affect or effect? Heck, should I use affect or effect? I sometimes have to think about it; it’s not something that necessarily comes naturally to me. So what gives?

Both words are grammatical over-achievers, acting as verbs and nouns. That complicates things. But really, they boil down pretty well. Here’s the lowdown on their meanings:

Affect (noun) = something to avoid in layman’s terms. If you’re a psychologist who understands the following description, by all means, go to town using affect in the noun form (this is directly from Merriam-Webster): the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes. Also: a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion: The patient showed incredibly unusual affects.

Affect (verb) = to influence: The tasty pasta meal she just ate will positively affect her performance in the half-marathon tomorrow.

Effect (noun) = the result: The effect was spectacular. Also: an impression. He screamed just for effect. Also: a symptom: The effects of the sleeping pills hadn’t worn off by lunch. Also: having legal validity: The seat belt law is still in effect.

Effect (verb) = to cause: He will effect several changes throughout the company.

If you don’t want to memorize definitions, here’s an easy way to remember:

Affect is the action word (the verb). You’re doing something, affecting something. I am cooking chili, affecting the outcome by stirring in cilantro.

Effect is the result of what happens after the thing that you did. The effect of serving the chili for dinner was that my kids had full tummies and slept like babies that night — and that’s a terrific effect!

I hope that the effect of this blog entry is to affect your grammar usage in a most positive way.

Happy trails!


March 3, 2009

Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon

Man. If ever a piece of punctuation brought out the über-moxie in people (usually wordsmiths of some sort, but frankly, all sorts of folks fit in this ire-inspiring category), the comma is it. It’s complicated. It follows several rules and then breaks them with a wink and a smile. It’s the top dog in the you’re-crazy-if-you-think-you-can-get-away-with-putting-that-THERE contest.

All sorts of stylebooks and writing guides have their own (slightly different) version of the comma rules. Since journalists tend to follow the AP Stylebook, and since most “ordinary” folks are familiar with journalistic writing (via newspapers and magazines), here’s the skinny on how to use the comma according to AP regulations.

Generally, commas correspond to the pauses we use in our speech to separate ideas and to help avoid ambiguity. Place a comma:

• Before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet) that joins two independent clauses, unless the clauses are short or have no internal punctuation: John would have gone to the store, but he couldn’t find his pants. John would have gone to the store if he had his pants, for he was completely out of strawberry milk, but his car keys were in his pocket, and his boxers were a little too shabby to wear in public.

• Around a nonrestrictive phrase — a phrase that can be deleted w/o changing the meaning of the sentence: The power of any vampire, whether practiced or inexperienced in blood-sucking, depends upon an invitation into the victim’s home.

• To separate members of a coordinate series of words, phrases or clauses if all the elements are not joined by coordinating conjunctions*: To make a proper mud pie, you need water, mud, a bowl and a stick.

*Notice that there is NOT a comma directly before the “and.” This is in accordance with AP Stylebook regulations. If you ask me, though, I think the AP folks are out of their grammatical minds. MLA’s version (comma before the and in a series) is the right and obviously morally correct way to do things, in my not-so-humble and loudly typed opinion; always using the comma before the and clears up every ambiguous instance. But AP rules the proverbial roost, so I enforce the lack of the comma in my work. I’ve even stopped cursing the AP gods under my breath every time I see the situation in copy. Apparently, time is the ultimate healer.

• Before the concluding conjunction in a series if an element in that series includes a conjunction: Sue ordered a greyhound, a whiskey sour, a wheat beer, and a gin and tonic that night. (Some would argue that the second and, joining gin and tonic, should be changed to an ampersand (&). AP, and thus I, argues against it; the ampersand should only be used if it’s officially in the name of something, such as a company (e.g., Johnson & Johnson).

My parting gift to you: One way to tell whether or not you need a comma between adjectives is to consider the weight of each adjective. Try to add an and between the adjectives. If it works and still makes sense, the comma is necessary: a small, red dog = a small and red dog. If it doesn’t, the comma doesn’t belong: He went to a large public school (no comma after large).

And one last thing: Please don’t give me too much grief about the title of this entry. It is quite obvious, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. I grew up, in part, in the ’80s, so please don’t taunt me too much about my silly, nostalgic pun. My inner child will thank you for it.

Happy trails!


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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