A Little Shop Talk, or A Meditation on My Native Language

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

And then Elise—certainly that was her name—told us, merrily, that the brown spot on her waist was caused by her landlady knocking at the door while she (the girl—confound the English language) was heating an iron over the gas jet, and she hid the iron under the bedclothes until the coast was clear, and there was a piece of chewing gum stuck to it when she began to iron the waist and—well, I wondered how the chewing gum came to be there—don’t they ever stop chewing it?
 — From O. Henry’s story, “The Fool Killer”                                       


Now, I realize that looks like clumsy prose, dear readers; but it is not; it is just O. Henry getting settled into a character who is also the narrator in one of his tales. William Henry Porter—a.k.a. “O. Henry”—was in fact a gifted writer, with a vast, exact, concise vocabulary and a vibrantly rhythmic sentence flow. It is just that not all of his characters were similarly gifted.

But the reason I have quoted such a long sentence from one of O. Henry’s less successful stories is to bring to your attention the phrase I have underlined, for it frequently fits my own perspective on my native tongue, both when I try to compose in prose and in poetry. The rest of this essay will be a somewhat wandering description of the trials and tribulations I encounter in writing, sometimes reaching the point—as currently—of wanting to ditch the whole effort. I have not yet figured out why I cannot do so.

The problem with which the narrator quoted above is wrestling concerns the grammatical issue of pronoun reference. The poor fellow is faced with a sentence in which he is discussing two women and wants to limit referring to them more particularly as much as possible. He wants to employ the feminine pronouns, but that puts him in the uncomfortable predicament of needing to clarify to which “she” or “her” he is referring. Okay, it is not a major issue, but it is that very minimal value that is most frustrating for any writer because of the time it takes to rectify; if the troublesome question had been grander, then he would not have minded toiling with it so much. I find myself in similar grammatical choke-holds way too often.

A similar problem involves repetition of words in adjoining sentences. (Note as an example the word “similar” in the last sentence of the previous paragraph and in the first sentence of this paragraph.) The irritation is not due to any inappropriateness in a particular word—the term might be perfectly exact. No, rather than a lexicographical or grammatical problem, it is an aesthetic issue. Boy howdy! I discover much too frequently that I have repeated the same word in two adjacent sentences, and very often the discovery occurs after I have already published the blog post or sent the email: after the fact, it jumps right out at me as with a protruding tongue. Part of the annoyance results from the fact that I cannot quickly think of a synonym with which to replace the second use.

We also have some words the replicative forms of which I cannot explain. The only ones I can think of are “filibuster” and “cataract”, although a few others could probably be located by a really diligent searcher. I looked up both terms in an online dictionary and found these definitions:

Filibuster: (1) the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority. (2) an irregular military adventurer, especially one who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.((Aaron Burr is a good example of that sort of fellow, I think.)) Now those two words are spelled the same, but for the life of me I cannot perceive any similarity between them other than the adjective “irregular”.

Cataract:  (1) a descent of water over a steep surface; waterfall, especially one of considerable size. (2) an abnormality of the eye, characterized by opacity of the lens.

Now, we have many shorter words—such as “lie”—which are laden with unrelated meanings; and that is natural, I think, because there are only so many syllables available to us; but “filibuster” and “cataract” are not at all short: what is the connection?

Then there is the matter of orthography—or, as it is more commonly known—spelling. Do not take this pronouncement as authoritative, for my acquaintance with languages is limited to English, Spanish, French, and Chinese (in none of them, except perhaps English, am I fluent); but I have heard and I believe that English is the most difficult of all modern languages to learn. Even the Asian languages come in second in terms of difficulty, despite the complexity of Chinese characters. But that comparison topic is fodder for another essay. In this place I want to note some of the spelling hurdles learners of our language face. There are two basic ones: (1) the descent of much of our vocabulary from classical Greek and Latin (e.g., psychology, February) as well as borrowings from more modern languages such as French and Spanish (e.g., boulevard, rodeo); and (2) the effect of nationalistic pride that caused us Americans to alter the forms of some words from their Franco/British originals (e.g., theatre to theater, savour to savor).

The same nationalism affected American punctuation rather stupidly, as I noted in the “Preface” to my CD-ROM book A West Texas Journalist, (several articles from which are included on this blog site): our use of quotation marks in the United States differs significantly from that in the United Kingdom, and not in any positive way.

Anyway, all these factors have impacted on English writing. In some aspects I prefer the American mode; in others, the British. Of course, there are other hazards related to prose-writing, but I will leave those for some possible later essay.

As for poetry, it presents its own problems. I haven’t written what I classify as “poetry” in more than a year. I think that probably my poetry-composing days are over. Here are a few of the reasons why. Rhyme is out-of-style right now. In fact, even meter is ignored often enough, gauging by what I have seen in the New Yorker magazine the past few years. Many of our modern “poets” appear to favor what has been defined as “prose poems”. They are prosaic pieces that often enough do not say anything, and when they do say something it might be vulgar (like two lovers caressing each other’s tongues) or it might be almost as vapid as “the wind and sun have dried our clothes, you see”. (That is not a direct quote; it’s just something I threw out for you to note the way even iambic pentameter can be employed to dramatize the dully mundane.)

When poets using English do venture into composing something with rhyme, they are almost always forced into at least one weak, forced rhyme match. It’s a wonder I still have as much hair on my head as I do, because, so many times, I have faced that intransigent line that has no perfectly fitting word to even approximately sound like the end word of a previous line. Of course, a perfectly acceptable way to avoid this issue is to write in blank verse, which Robert Browning employed quite marvelously. However, even when I have done that, I have encountered the ironical situation when the exact word that fits also rhymes with some word in the previous line; I rhymed when I had not intended to do so. For the purist, I tell you, poetry is a pool of quicksand!!!

There is much more I could say about the tribulations of prose and poetry, but I will save them for, perhaps, another day.


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL


2 responses to this post.

  1. My most dreaded pronoun predicament is dealing with unspecified gender. “The traveler must pack (his/her or their or the traveler’s) suitcase carefully or (he/she or they or the traveler) will be overloaded.” Ugh.

  2. I suspected I was not alone in my toils with grammar, etc., and it is a delightful feeling to read your confirmation of that. Thanks for commenting.

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