Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.


After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.


Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.




Difficult books, iterum

After some readings on metaphor and language, I tackled A Grammar of Metaphor (1958) by Christine Brooke-Rose. Admittedly, I was hampered in my reading by my lack of facility in the jargon and structure of what used to be, but is no longer, “basic” English grammar. It did help that I have read The Trivium and could refer to it now and again; and of course it helps to have a background in poetry and literature, though not one nearly as thorough as Brooke-Rose’s. I definitely can add this one to the “difficult books” I have enjoyed, and benefited from, reading.

The grammar part of metaphor was not something I took into much account when I studied poetry. Certainly, when I read for pleasure, I do not analyze for grammar. Poets often experiment with grammar–altering syntax purposefully, creating sentence fragments, run-on sentences, new compound words, jarring phrases, all in an effort to make something happen in the poem. That “something” may be sound, dream, argument, exhortation, emotion, surprise, pattern, recognition, or a matter of perspective on outlooks, worldviews, culture, tasks, the personal. I do not read for such insights until I want to return to the poem and find out how the poet managed to make the amazing process of language work upon me.

If I were to try parsing a contemporary poem using the Reed-Kellogg system I learned in elementary school, some poems would buck and kick and refuse to reveal their structures. It would depend upon the poem and upon how one interprets such things as line breaks and stanza breaks. I am not convinced the process would really assist most readers in developing an understanding of the poem.

diagram Juana Summers [read here]

Then again, it might. Analytical scholars have taught me many things I would never have thought to investigate on my own.


Here’s a post from the 2018 blogroll journey: Marilyn McCabe on mindset–in writing and other things. Also a matter of perspective.

Back to metaphor

I recently read James Geary’s entertaining book I Is an Other–The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. Geary takes his title from one of Rimbaud‘s letters, calling this phrase metaphor’s “principal equation”:

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things–jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike–and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.

I like this definition because it feels more complete than the typical definition of metaphor as a comparison without the use of the adverbial comparative (i.e., no “like” or “as”). Indeed, metaphor probably forms the basis of language itself; while that conclusion’s much debated in semiotics, linguistics, and other scholarly disciplines, common sense and common usage strongly suggest that even thought itself–in terms of how we think internally about the world–employs metaphor as an underpinning.

Maybe I believe so because I’m a poet. Geary, as it turns out, has written some poetry, though he’s best known for his books about words, word origins, wordplay, aphorisms, witticisms, and the like. (He’s also got a TED talk…everybody’s got a TED talk…)

As to poetry, and how metaphor behaves in the poem’s context, I like what Geary says here (although in this excerpt it’s not actually poetry he’s discussing, but rhetoric):

Readers actively retrieve a metaphor’s meaning, just as a punch line requires listeners to resolve a joke’s incongruities for themselves…though the speaker may make the metaphor, the hearer makes its meaning. Hearer and speaker are accomplices; the one unpacks what the other presents. In terms of creativity, producing a metaphor and penetrating one are almost the same act.

I think the above lines go far to explaining why I love to read poetry and also provide implications as to why poems can be so damned difficult to compose. The poet endeavors to create a context and container for an often-unknown audience who will nonetheless need to invest, one hopes willingly, in the process of reorganizing the surprising (metaphor) into the recognizable.

And what a fine task that is!



The landscape’s brought colors and pollinators and all the juiciness of reproduction cycles into the season’s height. Time to take walks and breathe.

And say nothing.

And let the words subside for awhile, and percolate the way the rains percolate through the wet, warm soil and into the waiting earth.






Jargon & rhetoric

This is a kind of continuation of my last post, in which I alluded to euphemism and jargon and the weightiness of words. Herein, I take the unpopular stance and argue that the Centers for Disease Control‘s suggestion that proposals avoid certain words is not entirely about censorship but about rhetoric and persuasion and in this case–given the makeup of the current Congress–was actually appropriate. This is a situation in which jargon–wording–makes all the difference in the persuasiveness of an argument.

The CDC needs to send its annual proposals for research, for agency budgeting, and more to Congress; and each set of documents requires Congressional Justification. If the Congress does not agree to certain proposals, those which have justification withheld will not be funded. (It is possible that many citizens, myself included, are not fully informed as to how these government-funded agencies operate.) Therefore, the possibly-skeptical audience must be convinced of the value of these proposals.

~ ~

letter I


f this were an essay for my students, I would prompt them to think about the audience for their arguments. A writer can employ jargon effectively to help persuade a skeptical audience. Use the terms of the discipline, I tell them. That usage may seem superficial, but it actually works to prove to the audience that you know what they are seeking; you are a member of that community, you know the lingo, you’re on that side and your research will advance that cause.

It may be that your research is something well beyond the audience’s understanding, but you know how to sound like one of them; so, chances are, they’ll get on board with whatever you are conducting.

Even if they have no idea, really, what it is you’re proposing. Even if what you are proposing in fact runs counter to the audience’s ideology, effective proposal writing can hide the fact.

The CDC, from what I have been reading, has not banned those seven words nor the research or public policies concerning them; instead, the agency is cautioning its researchers and policy proposal writers to avoid language that would ring the wrong bells in the ears of this particular Congress’s majority ideology. I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, as a person who guides others in writing arguments based upon research, I encourage it.

Gotta know your audience, or your proposal will fail no matter how excellent its logic, science, and methodology may be. I hope the resourceful writers at the CDC will find ways to convince our Congress to keep the agency and its research funded. A future Congress may be less sensitive to evidence-based information. In the meantime, use the jargon in proposals–whatever works! But use the best words, and the most clear and accurate words, in other forms of discourse.






Weight of words

Words are making the news again–this time, the list of seven words that the Centers for Disease Control has been told may make the Center’s research proposals less likely to be approved by the government’s budgeting agencies and which should be avoided in reports to Congress.

Futurism and The Washington Post reported on the purported ban, and a CDC official responded to clarify that the words’ negative connotations were discussed as “part of a suggestion to use words and phrases that ‘might be more likely to win support for the CDC’s budget in the current Congress.’ The idea is that favorable word choice could help ease the budget’s passage through Congress.” Watch your words, scientists!

Words matter. Anyone who has ever written a grant proposal has first of all to learn the appropriate jargon and phrases that the funders expect. Job applicants need to suss out the keywords that a potential employer has submitted to its application software.


Then there are euphemisms–a pernicious variety of jargon that obscures, elides, or otherwise weakens meaning--misleading, mostly, euphemisms take the punch out of a sentence. I heard just this morning the term “fatals” in the description of a train accident: “There were three fatals and numerous injuries we haven’t yet accounted for,” said a safety official. Fatals used in this way is a “functional shift” (see Oxford blog). The adjective has become a noun, and the noun has become a euphemism for “deaths.”

Officials may rationalize that language used this way softens the blow somehow. I see it as another method of obfuscating fact and in particular, minimizing or hiding death. Deaths are too real, too weighty; the fact of death is a thing we would rather deny. Just as we might deny that there are vulnerable populations in our citizenry. Or that the scientific method requires evidence.

For some poetry that responds to the use of words, check the cdcpoems blog here.  And Paul E. Nelson’s poem in Rattle, here.



With some encouragement from friends and colleagues, and with some trepidation, I am posting for the next few weeks some unfinished poem drafts and some poems from my Red Queen Hypothesis manuscript. That’s the plan, anyway. Plans, especially creative writing plans, seem often to go awry.

Given that my last two posts concern how we tell stories and what interrupts us from our narratives, I present herewith a draft of a poem concerning just that. I experiment here with gaps in form; I think of erasure poems (see Dave Bonta’s erasure poems on Via Negativa or Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration”) though this is not one–the “erasure” here is internal, a series of neurological gaps and stutters.

I don’t know if the poem works as is, could use more tweaking and re-arrangement, or is so confusing as to be far off-base. Perhaps that depends upon the reader.