Dialect in Print
nature, art, travel, teaching, parenting,
Animal Nuisances 1
March 7, 2015
Several years ago my wife was talking to a man at Greenleaf Nursery in Sequin about what plants deer didn't eat. She told him that she had seen a list of plants that deer wouldn’t eat. He replied, "Deer can't read, Ma'am." The same applies to squirrels and bird feeders. I have bought three different kinds of "squirrel proof" feeders. None are. I began by trying to feed birds with homemade feeders. I just made flat trays for the birds to feed on. I had never seen squirrels around my house until then. But soon squirrel after squirrel came to the feeder and lived there, keeping the birds away. And they started trying to get into my attic. They chewed up a plastic exhaust vent and then chewed a hole in the redwood siding. With great difficulty, I managed to get them out, repair the vent pipe, and cover the entrance hole.
So I decided that I would stop feeding squirrels. I bought a feeder with a plastic cover to keep them from coming down from the top. But I live in a house surrounded by trees, so the squirrels jumped from nearby trees onto it. I still have it, and it works when I put it farther away from the house, but I can't see and identify the birds from that distance.
The next feeder we bought was one that had a mechanism to close the feeding holes when something heavy landed on the support rod. The squirrels soon learned how it worked and avoided the support rod by holding onto the bottom of the feeder and reaching their paw into the feeding area. At least, they grew tired after a while, and this worked pretty well.
Our most recent attempt at a squirrel proof feeder is one with a cage completely surrounding the feeder allowing only small birds to enter. A Cardinal can't even get in although one can hold onto the grid and reach its beak in in order to feed. I thought we had finally foiled the squirrels. I had seen the squirrels sizing up the feeder, but I hadn't seen any on the feeder. This morning that changed. One hung precariously from the bottom and managed to reach up and pull seed into its mouth. It too grew tired or full after a while and left. Maybe these contraptions should be described as "squirrel resistant" rather than "squirrel proof." But "Ma'am, squirrels can't read.
Spanish Poetics: Probing again
March 2, 2015
According to a study of Spanish syllables done in 1983, almost 69% of all Spanish syllables end in vowels: ConsonantVowel 55.81%, V 9.91%, CCV 3.14%. The remaining 31% end with a single consonant, CVC 21.61% VC 8.39% CCVC 0.98%, and much less than one percent a double: VCC 0.13% CVCC 0.02% CCVCC 0.01%. There are no syllables ending in more than two consonants, unlike English with many ending in three.
A different study may yield slightly different results, but basically that represents how much more vowel dominated is the Spanish syllable than the English. But English vowels have more variability in weight, being often both longer and, to the other extreme, less emphatic with its characteristic schwa for unaccented sylables.
What I would have liked to learn from such studies is what percentage of those syllables were ended by what vowel. I am sure that the vowels /o/ and /a/ are much more common. This must be true considering the typical masculine and feminine endings of nouns and the conjugations of verbs particularly in the present tense, first and third person. The phonemes /o/ and /a/ are much more open than /e/, /i/ and /u/, which are higher and tighter and provide less sonority. In English /a/ and /o/ occur with much less frequency.
I would also like to know what percentage of those ending in consonants were not the /s/ of the plural articles, los or las, or of the second-person-singular verb and the first-person-plural verb and not the /n/ of the third-person-plural verb, all of which are usually in unemphazsized syllables. One of the joys of writing poetry in Spanish is employing the unusual emphatic syllable ending in a consonant to end a line. I can set it off against those ending in /s/ or /n/ or a vowel, and thereby get emphasis on it and bring sharp focus to the word. In my poem,"Un son," I had only five lines end in syllables with emphasis, the others ending in /o, a, s, and n/. Of those five, one ends in /n/ two end in /r/ and two in /s/, <z>. I was able to bring more focus to a key word with one of the <z>s:
un son como las campanas
de las iglesias
con algunas campanadas,
viniendo juntamente desde lejos
Whether I pronounce the coda consonant of Luz as /θ/ or /s/, the stress is on the final syllable. Maybe I'm imposing an uncharacteristic English technique of drawing focus in a Spanish poem, but writing is about using what works best in a particular phrase, not passing up the opportunity to use the best word or technique available to us right there in that line. Luz has more focus than it ever could get in an English poem, where primary stress falls at the end of almost all of the phrases we write.
March 1, 2015
called to pay heed
to the muse
called to paint
with a small brush
called to rip
called to grind
called to striate
to cut deep
to make meaning matter
of us wishers
needing to be
sightless of the marvelous
old dad is
for his muse
Not smoke nor mirrors
cape nor cane
it’s all about
in her abode,
she would not have it.
all must be
Poetics 3 Codas—English and Spanish, a probe
February 23, 2015
In order to talk about the differences in Spanish and English poetics, I am going to break my posts down into several segments, beginning with a look at the differences in syllable weight. I will start with the differences in the consonants following the vowel in a syllable—the codas. English can have syllables with no codas. Some of our vowel phonemes never are used without codas— /?, ?, æ, ?, ?/. Others often are— <be> /bi/, <bay> /be/, <Ma> /m?/, <law> /l?/, <hoe> /ho/, <who> /hu/, <by> /b??/, <cow> /k??/, <few> /fyu/, <boy> /b??/. These are called open syllables. They can be stressed and have some degree of weight, e. g. now in “I’m coming right now.”
Much more common in English are closed syllables, those with codas of a single consonants and those with clusters up to four, e. g. sixths /s?ksθs/ and twelfths /twelfθs/. The weight of the syllable for poetic consideration depends not just on how many consonants there are, but which of the consonants are clustered, e. g. lost is less long and heavy than buzzed, each with codas of two consonants. The consonants in the coda of lost are unvoiced, those of buzzed are voiced.
Most English consonants can close syllables, but only five can in Spanish — /l/, /?/, /d/, /n/, and /s/. So more syllables are open in Spanish, particularly because of the many vowel endings on nouns and verbs. Unlike in English, all but one of the Spanish vowels can end words, the one exception: /eu/. Since stress adds to the weight of a syllable and in English the high point of pitch and stress is most often on the last syllable, English phonology allows a writer to put great emphasis on the end of sentence. Spanish, on the other hand, with it rule of placing stress on the next to last syllable of words ending in a vowel or /n/ and /s/, leave only two consonants for Spanish writers to be able to close phonological phrases with, /l/ and /?/. So opportunities for emphasis or fewer in Spanish than English, but the regularity of syllables ending with /n/ and /s/ and vowels allows much greater opportunity for a writer to attain a sonority in unmetered poetry through assonance and consonance, particularly when writers have only to place close by the few vowels of Spanish. Poetry which is metered and rhymed depends on identity from the stressed syllable to the end of the line. The Spanish rules of stress and limited codas yields a metric line based on trochaic feet and to a lesser extent dactylic and pyrrhic. The pitch and stress of English with its many variations of codas yields more frequently lines with feet which are iambic and to a lesser extent anapestic and spondaic.
But for writers of unmetered poetry Spanish is glorious, providing opportunities for a sonority difficult to attain in English. But English with its many variations in codas offers its writers greater flexibility and opportunity for much greater emphasis.
I have written poems in Spanish which cannot be translated into English without losing much of their sonority. For example bell sounds cannot compare in musicality to las campanadas. But bell sounds carries more weight and emphasis. Similarly the poem I wrote about my Aunt Sally Dunaway would lose its effect in Spanish without its many plosives to emphasize her toughness and her repetitive activity. Here is the poem.
Las Cruces, 1964
In a sandyard
in a desert
Aunt Sally Dunaway
whose calloused hands
force the earth tight
about juniper post
a bob of printed bonnet
post to post so slow
under fine sky
sent her away
to time of
to damp hot morning
to buttermilk blackeyes
first and last light
a small force in the cottonfield
tinier now bent
yet the posts
in the desert
And the effect of the weight and syllables of the last line of the following poem of mine can’t be duplicated in Spanish.
Possessing in the Present Perfect
on November days
we two beings have sat
in our red chairs
have felt the rub
of our cat
black along our legs
have felt our sun
warm on our faces
have seen our sun rub
on spikes of our grass
sprinkling them widely
across our meadow
our sun run
and more gold
across our clouds
above our trees
have heard lines
of our geese ankhing
to the south
and we beings have gone in
to our warm house
when black as our cat
night’s cold came.
Poetics 2—A probe about the poetics of English
Written February 9, 2015, edited February 22.
I woke up thinking about this topic. I’ve been writing poetry in English and Spanish since the 1980’s, and I’ve been intrigued about how each language allows a writer different opportunities. Even before that I worked enthusiastically at applying what I learned in my linguistics classes to my study of poetry. I took a course in phonotactics from A. A. Hill, one in which we studied much more than that. In fact we studied whatever interested him on any given day. And we studied his text book in its entirety. I was hooked on it and set out to applying its principals to the poetry in my modern poetry course with Ambrose Gordon. I took a goodly portion of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I charted it with care employing phonemic transcription including every suprasegmental phoneme—pitch, stress, and juncture. I made the transcription based on how I would have read the poem. I made an A on the paper, but I was deflated by his comment, “I wouldn’t have read it that way.” I still have that paper somewhere in my file cabinet. I need to look at it again. I wonder how I transcribed fog, window.
I never tried that again, but I still carried linquistic awareness into my reading and writing of poetry and prose.
My basic belief about poetry is that the meaning of the poem derives not only from the words selected—their denotation, their connotation, their allusions—but also to syntactic and sound choices. The poem is the spoken entity. The lines and stanzas are important aids to readers, guides to how the poem should sound, to its phonological phrases.
All that is preamble. What about the syntax of English? I’m not going to look into that now although it is of prime importance. I wrote in another post about the flexibility of English, about how useful passive voice is in enabling us to place various kinds of information in the absolutely best arrangement possible.
But now I want to think about the sounds of English. First of all what about the term verse? Something can be in verse and not be poetry. In the 16th century geography books were written in metered rhymed lines to aid students in their learning. It’s not difficult to write a line of iambic feet in English. Traditional scansion deals only with two degrees of loudness. Dr. Hill points out in his book that there are four as illustrated by the phrase, “the secondary stress.” I am not going to go into this here. You can find it in one of Dr. Hill’s book. Hardcover copies of Introduction to linguistic structures; From sound to sentence in English areavailable for $3.93 used from Amazon.
The term free verse is a misnomer. Poetry can be unmetered and unrhymed, but verse can’t be. And if it’s poetry it can’t be completely free. There has to be some combination of sounds contributing to the meaning if it’s a poem. Rather than free verse, I prefer to call it unmetered poetry. Writers of unmetered poetry can employ rhymes and almost always make use of assonance and consonance. I love playing with assonance and consonance. I will write more about it later—and more about Spanish verse and its unmetered poetry.
Poems 2—Pop Culture Presentation
February 15, 2015
Here are the translations of my Spanish poems and then the poems. I read these at the Southwest Popular Culture Conference in Albuquerque on February 12. I have a post I’m working on about the differences between English and Spanish phonology and how the differences affect how you can write poetry in each language.
I would like to make a sound of dawn
like the birds that chatter
in the trees,
maybe the parrots
with their chattering colors—
turquoise, yellow, red, blue—
sending out lightning bolts of color
or a sound like the roosters
that always shout
full of pride
in red plumage
or a sound
like the bells of the churches
that ring out
with other bells
and then more bells
finally coming together
in order to proclaim
I would like to ring out,
a sound alive
in the tranquillity
Quisiera hacer un son de la madrugada
como los pájaros que charlan
en los árboles
tal vez los loros
con sus colores
aun charlando—turquesa, amarillo,
—hallándose relámpagos de color
o un son como los gallos
que siempre gritan,
rellenos de orgullo,
en plumaje rojo
o un son como las campanas
de las iglesias
con algunas campanadas,
viniendo juntamente desde lejos
un son vivo
un son en la llaneza
de la madrugada.
Glimpses without end
How fleeting is,
in the mirror,
the form I see.
How fleeting is
the moment when
fear enters me—
a fear of whatever I am.
a fear of whatever
I can no longer be,
the being I was,
the being I will not be again.
I am flown.
Las vislumbres sin cesar
Tan fugaz es,
en el espejo,
la forma que
es el momento
cuando me entra
un miedo de
un miedo de
El ser que estuve,
que no estaré de nuevo.
A Time of Relaxation
here in San Miguel.
Whatever we do
here in San Miguel
Everything pleases us
while we live
under the sun,
while we live united,
Andrea and I
here in San Miguel.
En un tiempo de la llaneza
cualquiera flor vemos
aqui en San Miguel.
aqui en San Miguel.
Todos nos gusta
mientras que vivimos
bajo del sol
mientras que vivimos
Andrea y yo,
aqui en San Miguel.
Now in San Marcos
It’s again the time
of the juniper berries,
of the fat, ripe berries
So it’s the time
of the drunkards
of the sky,
of the gluttons with wings,
those Robins, those many Robins,
spreading the seed
of the junipers.
Ahora en San Marcos
una vez mas
de las bayas de los enebros
de las bayas gordas,
de los borrachónes del cielo
de los glotónes con alas
estos muchos petirrojos,
estos petirrojos, al parecer,
en todos partes
esparciendo las semillas
de los enebros.
"La Fiesta" was written several years ago, And sadly the robins no longer come to our land to feed.
The poems in these next images were written in July of 2013 when I was studying the imperfect subjunctive mood.
This last poem was one I wrote just last month.
Two persons singular
I’m alone in this body
There’s no one else.
who is the being saying to me
you should get up,
you should wash up,
and you should go to school,
saying to me search for God?
Dos personas del singular
Soy solo en este cuerpo.
No hay otro.
¿Quien sea el ser que me está diciendo
que te levantes,
que te laves,
que te vayas a la escuela,
diciendo que busques Dios?
Epitaph of a grammarian
I strong verbed.
I led, fed, bled—
taught, sought, fought, brought, wrought
rung, sung, swung.
And I weak verbed—
burnt, learnt, spent, lent.
Lived life livelily,
English Poetics 1—Syllable weight
February 12, 2015
Some syllables are heavier than others. In English, the syllable of the word it is about as light as you can get. Strengths is about as heavy. Each is a single syllable. It has a vowel as a nucleus which is short and lax. Its coda is an unvoiced stop /t/, the lightest possible. Linguist use the term coda, a tail, to talk about the consonant or consonants which end a syllable. A syllable may have an onset of multiple consonants as represented by /str/ in strengths and may have a coda of several consonants represented by the graphemes <ngths>. Linguists use the term onset to describe the consonant or consonant cluster preceding the nucleus. The word it has no onset, of course, and is less heavy than kit, which has one. But kit, in turn, is not as heavy as kid, which has a voiced stop for its coda. And kid is less heavy than bid because bid has voiced stops on both sides. And bid is less heavy than bead because bead’s nuclear vowel is higher, tighter and longer than the short relaxed vowel in bid. And fricatives and nasals and sonorant make the syllable heavier than do stops—miss, sneeze, tease, breeze, sheath.
Unlike in Old English, vowel length does not make a meaning difference in Present Day English, but it is important in evaluating the sonorous quality of a line of poetry. Diphthongs are obviously longer, thus heavier, than monothongs, so lead is less heavy than loud. And consonant clusters make the syllable heavier—plowed is heavier than loud. And spliced is heavier than sliced.
And how sliced is used in the sentence and in its phonological phrase makes a difference in its weight, too. If I say, “I want it sliced,” sliced is getting primary stress and the highest pitch, so it’s heavier than it would be as a modifier, ”I want sliced bread.” These two sentences are typical of English where the last word in a phonological phrase or sentence gets the highest pitch and most stress. Notice that even without a coda, a final word can be remarkably heavy, “I want it now.”
In Spanish, stressed syllables have less weight than those in English, and those unstressed have more. No syllable in Spanish is as light as the first in about. None are as heavy as strength in “I like his strength.”
I plan to write more about weight in Spanish syllables in a post soon.
Cooking and Eating 5—Pancakes from scratch
February 8, 2015
Making pancakes from scratch is so easy, and they are so good that you will probably never use a mix again. I heat my electric grill to 350º. If using a skillet, you will want a low medium fire or about 4 on an electric range.
I mix together one cup of flour, a tablespoon of baking powder, a pinch of soda, and a teaspoon of salt. I add an egg, four tablespoons of cooking oil or melted butter, and a little more than a cup of buttermilk. If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use milk and a tablespoon of lemon juice or white wine. In a pinch, I’ve used beer. I try to just mix the batter a little, leaving small lumps. At this time, I often toast pecans, chop them up and add them. And I add unfrozen blueberries sometimes.
Next, I take a stick of butter and cover the center of the grill with butter. Then, I spoon out two tablespoons of batter onto the grill for each of eight pancakes. I let the batter cook until I see many bubbles in the top of the new pancakes before I flip them. I then check them to see if they are firm before taking them up. I don’t like doughy pancakes or those overcooked and hard. It usually takes only a minute or two after they are turned before they are ready to eat.
I often serve them with frozen berries sautéed in a saucepan while the pancakes are cooking. I tried putting frozen blueberries in the batter, but the blueberries keep the area around them from cooking properly.
I eat them with ribbon cane syrup or honey. Andrea prefers maple syrup.
Try it, and let me know how they come out.
Texas Beer 2—Franconia and Pedernales
February 7, 2015
I talked yesterday about how stout the Shiner 106 Stout was, the birthday and desert beer. I said it was exceedingly chocolaty. But I guess I do like a little chocolate flavor because I like Franconia Dunkel, which the brewery describes as having a mocha flavor. I saw it on the shelf at HEB and decided to compare it to the Shiner 106 Stout and to Guinness. It’s much less sweet and chocolaty than the 106. With my unsophisticated beer palate, I would not be able to tell it from Guinness. And that’s good because Guinness is one of my favorites. The Franconia brewery is in McKinny just northeast of Dallas. It has a good website describing its various beers. I’ll probably test taste some of the others, not the hefeweizen.
Another new beer from Central Texas that I found yesterday was Lobo Texas Premium Lager. I don’t have the language to describe beers beyond saying whether it is sweet, fruity, or chocolaty. But the web author of the Pedernales Brewing company site writes that it is “crisp and clear,” whatever that means. He also says its brewed from Central Texas well water. That echoes the Pearl add, that it was “From the country of 1100 springs.” I always wondered how they came up with that count and whether it was done in a drought year or not. Actually it was brewed, as is the Lobo, from well water under the brewery, but in San Antonio. Pearl is now brewed by Pabst Brewing in Fort Worth. I always considered Pearl Lite a diet beer because of its purported 86 calories. Also I wouldn’t drink many because of its taste.
Whatever water is used to brew the Lobo lager and whether or not it is described as clear and crisp, I liked it. The Pedernales Brewery has several other brews, and the web author valiantly describes them, too. For later posts I think I’ll steal some of his adjectives.
I love posting on a blog. I feel free to get off the subject, to chase rabbits. I wonder if the brewing company uses the correct pronunciation of its name, the metathesized one. It has to be pronounced “Perdenales.”
Texas Beers 1
February 6, 2015
I wrote about my standards for breakfast foods the other day. Now I think I will try my hand at beer. One day someone asked me about my fondness for various beers. Of each one he asked about, I said that I liked it. After awhile, he said, “Why am I talking to you, you don’t have any taste. You like them all.” That’s not quite true. There are lots of beers that I dislike. I don’t like hefe-weise, IPA, and several other kinds. I’m not fond of Belgian beers, Japanese beers, or Italian ones. And there are even a few German beers I don’t like. As for Mexican cervesas, I don’t like Dos Equis, Tecate, Sol, Indio, or Corona. I don’t like lime with my beer, but how could anyone drink Tecate without it. And in Pozos in the state of Queretaro, even good beers are served with salt on the glass. I don’t even want salt on a Margarita, always sin sal.
On to beers I like, first in Mexico, I like Negra Modelo and Bohemia Obscuro best. The nondark Bohemia is excellent, too. Of German ones, I like Becks, the dark best. Of Irish, I like Murphy’s Stout and Guinness, not the canned pub draught. From the East Coast, I like GrittyMcDuff's Brewery in Portland, Maine, and Samuel Adams London Porter from Boston.
From these preferences, you can probably guess what Texas beers I prefer. My favorite is the Brewhouse Brown Ale from the Real Ale Brewery in Blanco , and their Fireman’s 4 is a good one, too.
I have a student who is starting a blog about the wines and spirits of Central Texas. I told him that was like Brer Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch. It’s a tough job, but he thinks somebody needs to do it. I took the hint and decided to post on my blog some information about new beers that I had not tried before.
I’ve been drinking beers from the Shiner brewery in Shiner for years, back to the time when it was the cheap beer. We were told it was unpasteurized and that was the reason people who drank it sometimes had stomach distress. I’ve not heard any such tales recently, nor have I heard of anyone having such problems. I have watched the bock beer from Shiner have its distribution enlarged to cover the country. I like the bock and the black. They are my house beers.
This week I saw at HEB a twelve pack of Shiner 106, the beer brewed to celebrate Shiner’s one hundred and six years of brewing, a birthday beer. Normally I don’t like beers that are excessively chocolaty, but thinking about writing a beer post, I invested the special price of thirteen dollars for the twelve. It’s rich. Cloyingly so! It’s not a beer to eat with food, and I don’t see why anyone would drink two consecutively. What it is is a desert beer. I didn’t know there was a category like that. I drank another yesterday after eating, and It was not bad. It may take me awhile to finish the twelve pack. I guess readers of my blog know from my discussion of my breakfast standards that just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean that I won’t drink or eat it. When I buy bad coffee at a restaurant, I have to drink more of it in order to get my money’s worth.
Passive Voice in Subordinate Structures
February 4, 2015
I received an email with the following information this week.
Please remember that Academic Affairs PPS 4.10, Faculty Authored Teaching Materials, requires approval to prescribe any textbook, notebook, manual, or other materials written or prepared by a member of the faculty for which a charge is required. The approval process which is described in PPS 4.10, involves the Department Chair/School Director, Dean, and Provost and VPAA. A copy of PPS 4.10 can be found at this cite. The deadlines for the submission of requests for materials to be used are soon.
The Microsoft Word editing program did not underline any of these passive voice constructions in green. Why? Maybe it’s because they are all in dependent constructions and the editing program can’t recognize them there. Whoever wrote this message was right. Passive voice was the appropriate form of the verb in every case.
This member of the faculty doesn’t have to worry about the deadline because I provide my guidebooks free as PDFs on Tracs.
Cooking and Eating 4—Standards at Breakfast?
February 4, 2015
When it comes to eating most people who know me say that I have no standards—that I like everything. And they are partially right. There are very few foods I don’t like. But when it comes to some items for breakfast, I have standards. Just as I don’t like overcooked mushy oatmeal, I don’t like overcooked scrambled eggs. That’s why I never order them at a restaurant. I usually don’t order omelets at a restaurant either because they are almost always overcooked. I don’t like fried eggs that have hard yellows or runny whites. And I absolutely abhor eggs with crispy whites. And over or under cooking bacon is a sin, too. Bacon needs to be cooked slowly out of its grease. And some restaurants put sugar in biscuits and corn meal in pancakes—both sins.
But it’s not that I won’t eat malcooked breakfast foods. It’s just that I will complain all the time I am. Standards? It’s questionable.
Cooking and Eating 3—Oatmeal
February 2, 2015
I hate overcooked oatmeal. I can take it if it’s a little undercooked. I see no good reason to buy quick-cooking oats or even the specialty kind that takes longer. Good old old-fashioned oats are just right. If cooking just for me, I bring a cup of water to a boil. I add a pinch of salt and a sliver of butter. Sometimes I add raisins or other dried fruit at this stage. Then I put in ½ of a cup of oats. I cook it only about thirty seconds before I take the pan off the fire and cover it and let the oats finish cooking.
During the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, Andrea makes great cranberry chutney and cranberry sauce. Either can be added to the oatmeal to make an extraordinarily delicious dish. This morning, not having those, I tried canned whole-berry cranberry sauce. It’s passable. But it’s nowhere nearly as good as the homemade variety.
I nearly always add chopped nuts to the oatmeal, too. I prefer local pecans, but almonds and walnuts will do.
If I have no cranberry sauce, I often add fresh berries. If I have no fresh berries, I sometimes put butter in a skillet and cook some frozen blueberries or cherries to add to the oatmeal. They need to be cooked. Raw and thawed, they are mushy and unpleasant.
And I always have buttered toast with it.
It’s 35° out this morning. These are the mornings for oatmeal.
The Prejudice Against the Passive.
February 1, 2015
In my post to this blog last week I wrote: “Hold Autumn In Your Hand is the story of one year in the life of a poverty-stricken family in Texas during the great depression. The family is headed by Sam Tucker, who works to overcome many difficulties to enable his family to survive.” Microsoft Words grammar checker underlined the last sentence in green and suggested that the sentence should be changed to active voice and should read, “Sam Tucker, who works to overcome many difficulties to enable his family to survive, heads the family.” That’s bad advice. I fear too many beginning writers, lacking confidence in their writing ability, will listen and make such changes.
Whoever wrote the grammar checker has, like many others, a prejudice against the use of the passive voice. This arrangement of the sentence called passive voice is no less active than the arrangement called active voice. Both contain the same amount of action whether “Sam Tucker heads the family” or “the family is headed by him.”
The Hidden Agent
The problem with writing sentences in the passive voice is not related to the amount of action described, but to the flexibility of the passive voice, allowing the writer to omit the one doing the action, usually called the agent (rather than actor because of the usual reference of that word to the stage). Omitting the agent can be a serious error in judgment for a writer, but passive voice is only one of the grammatical structures of English where the agent can be left out (See Lesson 11 of my Connecting For Coherence). On the other hand, the flexibility of passive voice is a benefit to a writer because it allows the agent to be omitted when neither the writer nor reader cares about who the agent is. Unless we are writing a history of publishing, we will omit the publisher when reporting when Shakespeare’s first folio was published.
Placement of Old and New Information
Many people writing about writing believe that the first of the sentence is the place of greatest emphasis in a sentence. But that’s probably true in only the first sentence of a composition. The subsequent sentences typically have subject with information that is old. It is often a personal pronoun showing a continuation of the context of the previous sentence. The place of greatest emphasis in the sentence, where the new information is presented, is at the end.
Another confusion leading to less skillful writing is the belief that subordination grammatically is the same as subordination informationally. It’s not. For example, you don’t have to have adverbs in most sentences. They are considered modifiers of the verb—optional. But if writer decides that important information is in the adverb and places some of them toward the end of her sentences, they are not subordinate information, providing them is the primary purpose of the sentence. Earlier this week I wrote a post about how to bake biscuits. In one sentence I wrote something like, “I bake them for about twelve minutes at 450º.” From the previous sentences, readers knew the old information in “I bake them,” but until then they didn’t know about the temperature or the length of time of the baking, crucial pieces of information.
Sentence Arrangements and Case
In Latin, German, and Old English, the various cases are shown by endings on a noun or by the articles preceding them. The agent/subject didn’t have to precede the verb even though it usually did. The ending and articles told the reader who was doing what to whom so the sentence could begin with the patient, the one done to, in the accusative case and be followed by the verb or the agent in the nominative as the subject. Thus the reader could put the agent last if it was the new information thus focusing on it. There was a passive voice in Old English, but the flexibility of it was little called for because of the flexibility of syntax by case rather than a fixed word order. I'll find some examples from old English and put them in another post.
The Flexibility of Modern English Syntax
Because we have passive voice available, we writers in English can be even more flexible than those writing with the case arrangement. In modern High German in independent clauses, the verb has to be second and in dependent clauses some of the verb forms last. Looking only at transitive structures, active and passive, we have many options. Lets look at a few present day English sentences and see what information is placed at the end of a subsequent sentence.
1a> Bill Jones is an excellent hunter. He killed a wild hog.
1b> A wild hog was rooting up my garden. Thankfully, it was killed.
1c> A wild hog was rooting up my garden. It was killed by Bill Jones. He is my good friend and an excellent hunter.
These of course are not the only variations, but they are the three most common. In 1a> he in the second sentence is old information and pulls no focus. What is important here is providing information to show Bill’s qualification, so what he killed is focused on. In 1b> the problem of the hogs gets the emphasis. The subsequent sentence emphasizes the solution by the action in the passive verb. Who killed the wild hog is appropriately not in the sentence. In 1c> because I have more to say about Bill Jones, the by prepositional phrase of agency is included.
So why did I use the passive voice in my sentence about the book Hold Autumn In Your Hand? It was, “Hold Autumn In Your Hand is the story of one year in the life of a poverty-stricken family in Texas during the great depression. The family is headed by Sam Tucker, who works to overcome many difficulties to enable his family to survive.” The old information is the subject the family in reference to a poverty-stricken family of the previous sentence. Sam Tucker and what he did is the new information and is appropriately placed last in the by phrase of agency.
Passive Voice or Active Voice?
One cannot say which is to be preferred outside of the context of a composition. Active voice allows us to deemphasize the agent because it is old information and emphasize the object because it is the new. Passive voice allows us to deemphasize the patient because it is the old information and emphasize the agent or verb. Either allows us to emphasize the adverbs.
I have lots more to say about this and will in future posts. I’ve exceeded my 1,000 word quota for today, but I needed to get this recorded so that I could think of something else.
Cooking and Eating 2—Test Kitchen
January 31, 2015
Yesterday I wrote instructions for making biscuits. This morning I made some. And I took pictures as I went to illustrate the steps. This first image shows the oil and buttermilk placed in the middle of the dry ingredients.
Here I am mixing the flour into the buttermilk and oil.
After mixing with a tablespoon, I begin to ball up the flour. This morning it was humid and the mixture didn’t come to gather easily, so I had to knead it more, so I didn’t get the lighter biscuits that I prefer.
Next I press out the ball, reducing it to about 3/8th of an inch.
Then I take my cookie cutter and make individual biscuits.
Then I dredge them in oil or butter so that the outside will brown properly.
After putting them all in, this time I have fourteen biscuits. I place them in the oven. It took me over twenty minutes to preheat. I made the biscuits in fifteen. Impatient, I put them in early at 10:10 and they were done by 10:23.
And here they are out of the oven and ready to eat.
My wife, Andrea, made an omelet to go with them. She doesn't make omelets often, but she had roasted some red peppers for another dish and had some left over. She also had arugulas and some mozzarella.
Cooking and Eating 1
I bake biscuits, from scratch, not the canned kind. It’s easy. You can, too. I’m going to explain step by step how I do it. I start by setting the oven to preheat to 450°. I take out a large mixing bowl, and I sift two cups of white flour into it. I buy White Wing, milled in San Antonio, but Gold Medal or HEB flour will do fine. I have used whole-wheat flour and still do at times, but Andrea and I both prefer the lightness of those with white flour. I add a tablespoon of baking powder, a pinch of baking soda, and a teaspoon of salt. I stir this all together.
Then I add four tablespoons of cooking oil. I use Canola oil, but I’ve used all kinds. I’ve even made them with melted butter. I think that makes them tastier, but it’s more trouble and is probably less healthy. I add just slightly less than one cup of buttermilk. This is the critical measurement. I can add more flour or buttermilk later to make the batter have the correct consistency, but the biscuits never seem as good when I have to do that. When I have discovered that I have no buttermilk, I’ve substituted regular milk with some lemon juice or white wine added to it in order to activate the baking powder and make the biscuits rise. I’ve also used beer when I had neither milks. I could hardly tell the difference.
I put the milk and oil in the center of the flour and spoon the dry ingredients into it. After I get it pretty well mixed, I wash and oil my fingers and push the flour mixture from the spoon. I integrate the flour still in the bottom of the bowl into the ball I’m forming. I knead the ball a few times and then push it out on some waxed paper until it’s about 3/8th of an inch thick. I use a cookie cutter to make relatively small biscuits providing about ten to dredge on both sides in the thin coating of oil. I use the same pan all of the time. It’s nine inches square. I roll the dough remaining into another ball and pinch and roll to finish wiih about twelve biscuits.
I put them in the preheated oven and bake them until brown, usually about ten minutes. I often serve them with fresh or frozen fruit I have sautéed while the biscuits bake.
Try it and let me know how you did.
Southwestern Literature: An almost Forgotten Book of an Almost Forgotten Author
In the fall semester, I taught a graduate Southwestern Literature class, and my students and I read novels and then watched movies based on them. One the students voted as their favorite was Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry. It’s the story of one year in the life of a poverty-stricken farm family in Texas during the great depression. The family is headed by Sam Tucker, who works to overcome many difficulties to enable his family to survive. The novel won the Texas Institute of Letters Award in 1941 and a National Book Award. It’s available used from Amazon for $3.99 plus shipping.
The movie based on it, The Southerners, was directed by Jean Renoir from a film script written by him, Nunnaly Johnson, and William Faulkner. Renoir, the son of the French artist Auguste Renoir, was nominated for an academy award for his direction of it.
Zachary Scott, a Texan for whom the theater in Austin is named, plays Sam Tucker. Neither my students nor I thought the movie did the book justice. In fact, they voted it their least favorite of the nine movies we watched. You can watch the full movie on Youtube at
But you may not want to after my comments.
Your can learn about George Sessions Perry from the Handbook of Texas Online.
This is a good article written by Maxine Harrison, former University of Texas professor, known for her excellent writing textbooks. She also wrote the first biography of Perry. It no longer seems available to buy. A newer biography with much more information is available at Amazon.com: George Sessions Perry: The Man and His Words by Garna L. Christian (2009).
You can read the preface and first chapter for free there. Both have excellent information about Perry. The Kindle edition is only $3.99.
This is the first of my posts about little known writers of Southwestern Literature.
The prejudice against coordinating conjunctions at the first of a sentence.
January 26, 2015
There are writing teachers who are telling their students not to begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions, particularly and. That’s just wrong. But I have a theory about how the ban on them began. Because every sentence is added on to another, we could begin every sentence with an and. An elementary school writer somewhere sometime was reporting what he did during the summer and wrote something like, “I visited my grandparents, and I went into the back yard. And I saw the chickens. And I took the eggs into the house. And I gave them to my granny. And she said thank you. Etc, etc. etc.” The child’s teacher made the assessment that the child would not be able to judge when and how often to begin a sentence with and, so she told the student never to use and to begin a sentence. The child grew up, became a teacher, and told his students to “Never begin a sentence with and!” Somehow by analogy this command was extended to other coordinating conjunctions.
Obviously that first teacher was correct in not wanting her student to begin most sentences with and because it’s uneconomical and unnecessary. In the Episcopal Lectionary for last Sunday in a passage from Jonah, I noticed how often sentences began with coordinating conjunctions. I’m interested in comparing translations of the Hebrew texts into English in various periods of English history, so I searched on the web to find out how the connections were handled. So far I haven’t found the passage in Old English, but I found one of the versions of John Wycliff’s translation from Latin. It dates from the 1380s. It begins,
1And the word of the Lord was made to Jonah, the son of Amittai, and said, 2Rise thou, and go into Nineveh, the great city, and preach thou therein, for the malice thereof goeth up before me. 3And Jonah rose for to flee into Tarshish, from the face of the Lord. And he came down to Joppa, and found a ship going into Tarshish, and he gave ship-hire to them; and he went down into it, for to go with them into Tarshish, from the face of the Lord. 4Forsooth the Lord sent a great wind into the sea, and a great tempest was made in the sea, and the ship was in peril for to be all-broken. 5And shipmen dreaded, and men cried to their god; and sent vessels, that were in the ship, into the sea, that it were made lighter of them. And Jonah went down. 6And the governor came to him, and said to him, Why art thou cast down in sleep? rise thou, call thy God to help, if peradventure God again-think of us, and we perish not. 7And a man said to his fellows, Come ye, and cast we lots, and know we, why this evil is to us. And they cast lots, and lot fell on Jonah. 8And they said to him, Show thou to us, for cause of what thing this evil is to us; what is thy work, which is thy land, and whither goest thou, either of what people art thou? 9And he said to them, I am an Hebrew, and I dread the Lord God of heaven, that made the sea and the dry land. 10And the men dreaded with great dread, and said to him, Why didest thou this thing? for the men knew that he flew from the face of the Lord, for Jonah had showed to them. 11And they said to him, What shall we do to thee, and the sea shall cease from us? for the sea went, and waxed great on them. 12And he said to them, Take ye me, and throw, or send me, into the sea, and the sea shall cease from you; for I know, that for me this great tempest is on you. 13And the men rowed, for to turn again to the dry land, and they might not, for the sea went, and waxed great on them. 14And they cried to the Lord, and said, Lord, we beseech, that we perish not in the life of this man, and that thou give not on us innocent blood; for thou, Lord, didest as thou wouldest. 15And they took Jonah, and threw into the sea; and the sea stood of his boiling. 16And the men dreaded the Lord with great dread, and offered hosts to the Lord, and vowed avows. 17And the Lord made ready a great fish, that he should swallow Jonah; and Jonah was in the womb of the fish three days and three nights. (The spelling in this passage has obviously been modernized.)
Even without reading the passages, just by observing the ands in bold and those in italics, most of us would agree that Wycliff has an excessive number of ands both at the first of his sentences and within them. Not finding Tyndale’s translation easily, I moved on to the Authorized Version of the Church of England, compiled during the reign of King James. The same passage has fewer ands,
1 Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. 3 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. 4 But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. 6 So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not. 7 And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. 8 Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou? 9 And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. 10 Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him. Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. 11 Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous. 12 And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you. 13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them. 14 Wherefore they cried unto the Lord, and said, We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee. 15 So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows. 17 Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
But there are still some initial ands. The KJV compilers showed other logical connections to replace that of addition. They showed the contrast relationships mostly with but. In verse 13 probably because there was a but later in the sentence, they began with the conjunctive adverb nevertheless. The causal connection is made initially with so. The time connection is made initially with the conjunctive adverb then.
There are many translations of the passage into present day English. The one used by the Episcopal Church of America is the New Revised Standard Version. And here is how that version translates the same passage:
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. 4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6 The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” 7 The sailors[a] said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so. 11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 17 [b] But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Interestingly in this version there is only one initial and. Otherwise the connectives are made in much the same way as in the KJV, even to using nevertheless in v. 13.
I go along with the desire to eliminate unnecessary initial ands, but I am strongly in favor of using them to signal a conclusion of a series of sentences with similar structures: “He worked hard all morning. He posted his writing on time. And now he is resting, happy about have done such good work.” I have lots more to say about coordinating conjunctions. I’ll get to it later. Meanwhile, check out my poem about Jonah.
Exceeding the Quota?
Jan 24, 2015 5:33 PM
I’m trying to get ahead on my quota of words for my 5000 words per week because I get really busy in the middle of the week, and I want to set a good example and show that it can be easily done, maybe not so easily, but done.
I had planned to do a potpourri of topics for the posts this weekend, but I’ve discovered I’m writing about what I would have said in lectures—about subjects to write about, about using models, about writing style. I fear that I have exceeded my 1000 words a day limit, so I will stop now and find something else to write about tomorrow.
Jan 24, 2015 5:18 PM
Back more than fifty ago when I was taking a journalism class, I was told to get the five W and an H into my stories. One possible subject for something to write about in a post is one of those—who.
I just came from an art sale. The daughter of my friend Eric Weller was selling his photographs. Eric died last year quickly after a bout with cancer. Eric was a remarkable artist and teacher of art. I participated in his photography classes at Texas State and was absolutely delighted with what I learned from him. I was so taken with his work that I bought several pieces of his and gave two of them to my wife for Christmas one year.
But this post is about what to write about not about my friend. If it were about him, I would tell stories about what he said and did, about softball games and parties. I would talk about what he said about degrees of black and white in a photograph.
If I wanted to be particularly good at this kind of biographical writing, I would use great biographers as my models. The first and greatest biographer was James Boswell, who described Samuel Johnson in great detail. Anyone wishing to write about “who” would do well to employ his techniques, those drawn from The Life of Johnson. It’s available to be downloaded for free.
And there are many other good models. In my first year English composition class I teach an essay by Scott Sanders, “Under the Influence,” where he describes the excessive drinking of his father and how it affected him.
So why follow models? Because it is a way of priming our writing pump, providing ideas and techniques to be modified to fit our own purposes.
Starting with a question
Jan 24, 2015 2:49 PM
I just wrote a post in which I considered what I thought about the connection between style and content. I asked the question of myself and then tried to find out what I thought about it. Now I’m asking myself about using writing to make such discoveries. One new question is “Did I come up with a different answer because I was writing about the subject than I would have if I had just thought about it. Maybe more basic is “Would I have even been considering the question and whether there was an answer if I had not been writing?” And another good question is “Am I more likely to proceed to another good question by having a record of the earlier thinking?”
As in the previous paragraph sometimes when I am trying to answer a question, I come up with another good question, one which diverts me from the path I’m following. It just doesn’t belong there, but it’s worth thinking about. And that’s a good thing about the probing process. I can make a record of it and come back to it later if I’m doing a probing post.
One of the good things about doing a post for a blog is that I feel less responsible to stay on task than I do when writing a textbook, an academic article, or a book review.
That last one sentence paragraph may seem off topic for a post about the value of using questions to stimulate the writing of posts. But is it? In a post I can ask one question which may lead to another, and still another.
According to my reading of books about blogging and my little experience with reading blogs, some bloggers stay focused on a single subject area, but even these areas could have a myriad of relevant questions to attempt to answer.
Do people read posts to get answers, to be entertained, or to confront questions that they or the blogger want to puzzle over and seek answers to, difficult and interesting questions. Some post obviously will raise questions which are more contentious and ones which have no easy answers, or maybe ones which had been previously considered easy and are now seen as difficult or maybe impossible to answer.
I hope students in my class will indulge in attempting to answer questions. Sometimes they will find that they are changing their mind about what they think about the subject as they write, just as I did when I wrote the earlier post on content and style.
The authors of Bloggers Boot Camp are concerned about writers changing their copy after they have posted, particularly if readers have commented negatively to the post. If the post is changed, the negative comment may seem no longer relevant, leaving the one commenting looking foolish. Maybe the original should be left to stand and the blogger should add a footnote to reveal his new thinking. (506 words)
Style and Content, a probe
Jan 24, 2015 12:00 PM
I can write sentences which have essentially the same words but have different structures.
<1a> Tim Todd has successfully completed his work.
<1b> The completion of Tim Todd’s work was successful.
<1c> The work of Tim Todd was successfully completed.
<1d> The work was completed successfully by Tim Todd.
The question I have is “Have I made only stylistic changes or have I changed content?”
I have puzzled over this question often and have considered various answers to it. Obviously there is a difference in emphasis. In <1a> what is completed gets most emphasis, in <1b> that it was successful, in <1c> that it was finished and <1d> who did it. The change in emphasis shows what value the writer puts on each part of the statement. So the reader learns something different with each. So the content of each is different. And they are all relatively generic sentences. None are what a reader would notice as distinctive of an author’s particular way of presenting the subject. When we think of style, often we think of someone choosing an extraordinary way of phrasing something, maybe writing something like <2>“Completed, yes, his work, Tim Todd did it, and successfully!” The tone has obviously changed here and a change of tone is a change of content. ( or “The writer has obviously changed his tone”). But obviously this is not a generic way of going about presenting this information.
The changes in emphasis in the variations in <1> and that of <2> all reflect the values of the writer. All reveal his attitude about what is important in the material he is presenting. Any of the four in <1> show something of his attitude, but such is true of every sentence one of us constructs—stylistically generic and not noticed by the reader. But writing generically is a stylistic choice—primarily a decision of the writer to keep the reader focused on what is being said rather than how it is being said or by whom it is being said. It is a style.
The Tenderfoot in Western Fiction
Jan 21, 2015 8:30 PM
In fiction the tenderfoot begins weak and grows strong, becoming toughened by the difficult life of the West. On ranches the tenderfoot has to learned to ride, rope, live in the saddle for long hours, endure the extremes of weather. One novel about a tenderfoot is Sand by Will James. Oddly enough, it’s written in the first person with a tenderfoot from the East who speaks with a Western dialect. This is part of the comments of one reviewer on Amazon: “There's a big distance between an alcoholic dandy from the city, with too much money and too little ambition, and a cowboy that's a good hand on a ranch. But that is the journey that Bert Tilden, nicknamed the Corpse by his decadent city friends, decides to attempt. Accidentally lost on the prairie, Tilden stumbles into a cowboy camp. The skills and values that he finds there awaken him to a whole new world. Tales of a beautiful and uncatchable wild black stallion raise the determination in his mind and heart to be the one to capture the legendary horse.” It’s available at Amazon and worth reading just for the dialect of the narrator.
And there was even a dog that was a tenderfoot. As I remember it, Treve was an Eastern show collie that was thrown from a train in Albert Payson Terhune’s novel Treve. Terhune was famous for his books about collies. I and many of my friends read these stories, most of which were set in the East. After becoming toughened by life in the Southwest, Treve, like all of Terhune’s dog characters accomplishes superdog feats. A reviewer on Amazon said of him: . . . the eponymous canine hero does a lot of the usual dog book stuff, dispatching mountain lions, wolves, and rattlesnakes, as well as heading off a stampeding herd of cattle, bringing in a flock of lost sheep through a winter storm, and tracking down and stopping all manner of bad guys too.” I read all of Terhune’s dog book as a kid, and I loved them.
Of course, there are the tenderfooted characters in City Slickers and similar ones in The Wild Hogs, both good comedies. I still think it funny in City Slickers that the director chose to use for the calf a dairy cow, a Jersey, instead of a beef breed such as Hereford or Angus. Maybe the director was a tenderfoot out West.
Me, a Tenderfoot
January 21, 2015
I’ve been writing for years, but not so regularly recently. Back in the seventies I kept a journal on my electric typewriter, writing hundreds of words every day. Eventually, I fell into writing poetry during this activity and found that I was writing fewer words, but liking the demands of making something precise. Then I bought my first computer, an Osborn about the size of a portable sewing machine. One reason I bought it was to do daily writing, but I never did. In fact I have not written daily since the seventies. I’ve written only when I had something that I needed to write, for teaching or publishing.
Now I’m teaching an advanced composition class where I’m asking my students to write blogs. The authors of the ebook on blogging we are reading online from the library, Blogging Bootcamp, says that serious bloggers should post one-thousand words five days a week. I’m asking my students to do that. And I, perhaps foolishly, said that I would also post that many words in that many days. So here I am beginning with it and, yes, feeling foolish. It’s not that I can’t post that many words, and it’s not that I don’t know many things to write about. It’s that I feel vulnerable in this space, like a greenhorn or a tenderfoot. Even worse, the authors of the book on blogging suggests that bloggers should tweet to lead people to their blogs. I had never wanted to get into tweeting, but I am following their advice. I made my first tweets this week. And I’m feeling insecure about that, too. Normally, I’m not insecure, but I’m not usually feeling like a tenderfoot.
I just stopped the writing on this post in order to go to the Oxford English Dictionary to find when the words tenderfoot and greenhorns were first used. Greenhorn is much older having written citations in the seventeenth century. It seems to have first been used to refer to a new recruit in the army and then in the 18th century to refer to any uninformed inexperienced person. The editors of the OED do not have citations for tenderfoot until the late 19th century, and these were about people new to the west, particularly those in mining and ranching.
I’ve stopped again to look for book titles on Amazon with the words, greenhorn or tenderfoot. There are some with greenhorn: e. g. The Greenhorn’s Guide to Alaska Fishing Jobs and The Greenhorn’s Guide to Chainsaws and Firewood Cutting. (I may order that though I’m no greenhorn about it, having been cutting for more than forty years. I bet there’s still a lot I don’t know.) There are many more book titles with tenderfoot. Max Brand, Rob Leininger and David Thompson and several others have novels with just that word for the title. There are some late 19th century journals with it in the title. One which sounds interesting is A Tenderfoot in Tombstone, the Private Journal of George Whitwell Parksons: The Turbulent Years, 1880-82 (Great West & Indians Series, Vol 65). I might order a copy of that, too. Another is A Tenderfoot in Montana by Francis Thompson. The Amazon description reads, “Frank Thompson’s lively memoir details his experiences in the upper Missouri country at the beginning of the Montana gold rush.” Still another memoir is Trapping the Boundary Waters: A Tenderfoot in the Border Country 1919-1920. Interestingly there is one by a well-known and well-respected nature writer, Dianne Ackerman: Twilight of the Tenderfoot: A Western Memoir (2002). She comments on it, ”I thought ranch life might satisfy my restlessness. It didn’t. But it did satisfy other desires: to live out a childhood fantasy and breathe the life of our frontier past, turn an analytical mind to the welcome demands of physical labor, join a ranch society closer-knit than many families. Neither time nor distance could erase such bounty.” There are numerous other titles, among them references to a tenderfoot in Colorado and the Yukon. Maybe this post could be part of my memoir entitled "A Tenderfoot in the Blogosphere."
I’ve been interested in fictional works with characters who are new to the West. In a relatively little-known short story by Ernest Haycox, entitled “Stage to Lordsburg,” there are two characters having to adjust to the difficulties of living in the West, one a whiskey salesman and the other an army wife. These two have been brought to the silver screen three times, most importantly by John Ford in his Stagecoach. In the short story the salesman dies of heat stroke and in the movie, he is struck by an Apache arrow.
Often in oilfield novels, the tenderfoot becomes hardened and skilled and learns how to be a successful roughneck, then moves on to become a wildcatter and later a tycoon.
Cavalcade of Oilfield Novels
Novels of Ontario, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia
Oilfield Novels of Texas
With the Fox
A Guide to the Grammar of Successful Writers—
Writing Style 1
A Guide to Building Sentences With Syntax And Logic—
Writing Style 2
A Syntactic Guide to English Punctuation—
Writing Style 3
A Guide to Concise Prose
for Writers and Editors—Writing Style 4
Books of Interest
Sites of Interest