Friday, November 28, 2008

The Comic Language Genius of Victor Borge

I can’t help it: I still laugh whenever I hear Victor Borge’s comedic monologues, phonetic punctuation ( and inflationary language ( How did this guy think up this stuff! Borge (1909-2000), was a brilliantly accomplished Danish classical pianist who dedicated his career to clean, uproarious humor. If you need more than a laugh, check out these monologues. If the links don't work, search "phonetic punctuation" and "inflationary language."

Friday, November 21, 2008

And the Answer Is … Whatever You Say, Boss!

“If I don’t I tell you how to decorate your house, then don’t tell me how to decorate mine!” That statement is appropriate when considering certain “rules” of writing style. A lot of those rules are determined entirely by the writer’s preference, not some grammatical law written in stone. In the corporate world, this preference is often referred to as “house style.” Here are four examples.

1. The serial comma. Although I use the use the comma before and in a series (the first example), it is optional.

I have worked for federal, state, and city agencies.
I have worked for federal, state and city agencies.

2. The superfluous that. Either of the examples below is acceptable, as both are clear. If you were running out of space, I suppose the second would be preferable.

The president said that she would make a good leader.
The president said she would make a good leader.

3. Expressing numbers both ways. As much as this practice bothers me, why argue this minor issue if it’s the house rule? There are many more points worth the fight than this one. I prefer the first example below, but not all of my clients do.

The copper tubing has 12-millimeter holes at 2-meter intervals.
The copper tubing has 12 (twelve)-millimeter holes at 2 (two)-meter intervals.

4. Punctuating a salutation. The standard remains the colon; however, some companies use the comma and others nothing at all. You can find examples of all three below in different organizations.

Dear Mr. Rodriguez:
Dear Mr. Rodriguez,
Dear Mr. Rodriguez

The main thing to remember about house style is this: Give the bosses whatever they ask for since these are such minor matters. Save your debates for the bigger issues, such as directness of style, completeness of content, and organization of ideas.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Go Grammar Now!

Here’s a terrific resource for basic and intermediate users of English: The website makes for an excellent gateway to other resources on writing style, research papers, grammar and usage, proofreading, English as a Second Language, and a host of other helpful references. Don’t be put off by the kindergartenish look of the website; if you explore it, you’re bound to learn something!

Friday, November 07, 2008

100 Best First Sentences from Novels

I conclude my obsessive listmania series with a favorite: The American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels (

The first, predictably, is from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: Call me Ishmael. My all-time favorite, from Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, did not make the list: They're out there.

Among my all-time bests from the list are these:

  • #8: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, 1984
  • #10: I am an invisible man. – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • #12: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. – Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • #15: The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. – Samuel Beckett, Murphy
  • #16: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • #28: Mother died today. Albert Camus, The Stranger, translated by Stuart Gilbert
  • #31: I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael R. Katz
  • #48: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • #94: In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. – Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
  • #100: The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

Reading those sentences makes me want to reread those books! Remember: Read to write, when you can’t write read, and read like a writer!