Cyborgs. Spies. Overly Correct Grammar.

A few weeks ago I got an excellent question from a Habit Weekly reader named Todd Thurston. His question came in response to my discussion of subordinating conjunctions during a three-week series on clauses. I had been talking about the fact that subordinating conjunctions (like when or because) are one way of joining one clause to another:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder, I am sad.
  • I am sad because the squirrel raids my bird feeder. 

Those subordinating conjunctions when and because turn the independent clause “The squirrel raids my bird feeder” into a dependent clause that can’t stand alone as a sentence. These are now sentence fragments:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
  • Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
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“You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her.” On concrete specifics.

The Turnpike Troubadours, a (possibly defunct?) country band, have a song called “Unrung” in which the narrator admonishes an older friend about a relationship with a much younger woman. The song begins,

I could tell you she’s a bad idea,
For all the good it would do.
You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her–
Hell, you bought it new.

I want to look at those four lines for a minute in order to point out a few things about the use of concrete specifics, both in storytelling and in persuasive writing.

Good persuasive writing typically moves from claims (or opinions) to facts. It is helpful to know the difference, especially in a cultural climate that seems to be post-factual. Some things actually are verifiable facts whether you like them or not–also, whether you wish to believe them or not. Not everything is an opinion. It seems bizarre to be living in a world where one has to point these things out, but there we are.

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On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen

I once sat next to a writer at a school concert. I knew she was a writer because she had her notebook and pen and was actually writing during the concert. She looked to be about ten or eleven, and she was essentially live-blogging the event, writing down everything she noticed. I could hardly watch the concert for looking over to see what my neighbor was writing. It was this kind of thing:

  • After the violin players are finished, some singers come up and sing a song about the red river valley.
  • Then a band comes and sings a rock and roll song. They all have glasses except for the drummer.
  • Two boys come up to play a song, but one of them forgets his guitar and has to go back to his seat and get it. Everybody laughs, but not in a mean way.

I love the fact that this young writer wasn’t waiting for something fabulous to happen before she started writing. She just gave an account of what she saw. There’s a whole worldview there: she believed that the things she saw in the world around her were sufficiently meaningful to be worth writing about. And in writing about them, she dignified those seemingly mundane events.

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Notes for Writers of Alma Maters

I graduated from Warner Robins High School (Go Demons!). Our alma mater probably looked a lot like your alma mater:
 On the city’s eastern border,
Led by God’s great hand,
Proudly stands our alma mater,
Dearest in the land.
We will ever sing thee praises,
Striving without fail.
Here’s to thee, our alma mater–
Robins High all hail!

 I’ve always felt that Warner Robins High School, the institution of learning where I first encountered Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales, and polynomials, deserved a better alma mater–though I suspect it’s close to the median for this sort of thing. Literary standards for alma maters are pretty low.

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On Love Letters: Start With Memory, Not Emotion

In August of 1988 I went to a watermelon social on the back porch of Furman University’s dining hall. I was more or less minding my own business when across the way I saw a girl who was so beautiful I could hardly believe she existed in the same world where I lived and moved and had my being. I don’t even know how to talk about this without sounding like the worst sort of Hallmark card, so I’ll spare you.

I didn’t speak to the aforementioned girl at the watermelon social, but I spoke to her eventually, and eventually we got married and raised six children together. That face that was such a marvel to me in August of 1988 is now more familiar to me than my own face.

But every now and then, when we arrive separately at a party or a school event or church, I’ll catch a glimpse of my wife from across the room, and I’m astonished all over again. I’m that nineteen-year-old boy, and she’s that eighteen-year-old girl. The amazement that such a creature exists at all is compounded by the amazement that she’s the most familiar thing in the world to me.

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What’s so very bad about “very”?

Yesterday I saw a listicle/infographic piece entitled “Replace the Word Very with One of These 128 Modifiers.” The intensifier very is “lazy and imprecise,” says the author, so she provides the reader with a convenient list of replacement words as a means toward less laziness and more precision.

When you are tempted to write “very cute,” for instance, you can consult the chart and see that you should plug in the word “adorable” instead. Before you write “very fast,” you can look at the chart and see that you really mean “swift.” Instead of “very loud,” what you want to say is “thunderous.” 

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Liars, Con-Men, and Writers: On Specificity and Believability

There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 in which Falstaff explains why he and three of his fellows ran away from a fight. They were ambushed, he tells Prince Hal, by a hundred armed men. His account is harrowing:

                 I am eight times thrust through the
doublet, four through the hose; my buckler cut
through and through; my sword hacked like a
hand-saw…

Notice the specificity of the detail he offers. Falstaff invites his listener into the scene, makes his story believable by providing these details that add texture. Eight sword-thrusts through his doublet and four through his hose! Those telling details speak not only of the violence of the encounter, but also the nearness of the danger.

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What Love Sees Is True

My wife Lou Alice and I got married twenty-five years ago today. I won’t say we were children, but we were barely not-children, and we hardly knew what we were promising to do, but we promised anyway. Then we went home and started trying to figure out how to make a life together. I have often heard that marriage is hard work. I don’t disagree. To borrow a phrase from the philosophers, however, hard work is necessary but not sufficient. In any creative endeavor (and a marriage is a greater creative endeavor than War and Peace and the Sistine Chapel combined), the real work is to make room for grace to intervene, to have eyes to see see the deeper truth, to stay alive to the fact that a reality we didn’t make will triumph every time over the shriveled and shriveling narratives of self-absorption.

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On the Impracticality of Beauty

A cynic remarked that last week’s fire at Notre Dame has turned out to be an excellent excuse for social media users to post pictures of their vacations in Paris. A less cynical interpretation is that the fire at Notre Dame prompted social media users to memorialize an encounter with a work of art and beauty that reminded them that they were living in a bigger story than they typically thought.

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