Wednesday, November 2, 2016


Mark Twain wrote a beautiful essay about “Two Ways to See a River.” He complained that by becoming an expert at something and while you gain knowledge, it’s at the sacrifice of wonder. It’s a beautiful piece of writing because it happens to be true.

Becoming a writer with hundreds of thousands of words in your portfolio is like that. It gets harder and harder to read a book riddled with examples of author intrusion (See! What I’m telling you in this part of the story is that this is the bad guy because he eats kittens! I mean it!) or an excessive use of attributes and adverbs, she interjected snidely, moistly, and urgently.

But it gets worse. You start hearing the flaws in the speechifying of regular people you’ve been married to for decades—namely spouse types.

For example:

My husband of thirty-eight years, the world-renowned computer analyst, has an expression he uses over and over again when he’s losing an argument with me. 

He likes to say, “Oh, get off it!” 

All I can think when he says this is that the subject ‘you’ is implied and vague. So vague that I assume he’s talking to himself and not me, and I imagine him saying it like this, “Oh, Sherwood, get off it!”

Yeah, how about that, Sherwood?

And the verb “get,” it’s extremely weak in this sentence. Get is one of the weakest of the verbs. My advice to my husband to jazz up his prickly command is to strengthen that puny verb by turning the word get into an action verb of the rip roaring kind.

“Oh, Sherwood, drive off it!”
“Oh, Sherwood, flip off it!”
“Oh, Sherwood, soar off it!”
“Oh, Sherwood, shove off it!”

And what about that pronoun? It? What it? Whose it?

Concrete nouns are the building blocks of a rude, sharp sentence, so I’d suggest replacing that pronoun with something sharp-edged and hard—something like a chunk of word cement. 

Maybe something like this:

“Oh, Sherwood, shove off that Saguaro cactus.” Or “Oh, Sherwood shove off that red hot poker.” But this takes us into the land of adjectives and advanced description—and that’s a tightrope I’d rather not walk right now.

So, like the Twain, I’ve lost the wonder and awe in my husband’s forceful, manly instructions to me during an argument, and I can only register the grammar funk of his dopey sentence. Thank you, Mr. Twain, for helping me understand the price of knowledge, and helping me appreciate the irony of loss and gain. 

“Since those days [as a riverboat captain] I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?” [Mark Twain, “Two Ways to See a River”]

Ahhh . . . Mr. Twain . . . those poor doctors and, let's not forget, the computer systems analysts . . .

Linda (Grammar Matron) Zern

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