Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

The Death of Democracy

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶Last Friday (January 20), I published a post which I titled “A Morning for Mourning”. I did not write anything beneath the title but rather posted a photo of three funeral wreaths hanging on a door, and a quote from our nation’s second president John Adams’ inaugural speech.
¶I had been reading Adams’ turgid prose in preparation for a possible article about how the varying tenor of American society can be sensed by studying the inaugural speeches from George Washington to the present and how most of the subsequent addresses had followed the outline of Washington’s first. I was struck by four sentences in which Adams warned Americans about the possibility that the “purity” of our elections might be infected by a political party or by a foreign power. His remarks seemed prescient to me.
¶I drafted that post on January 19, but I postponed publishing it until a few minutes past 12 a.m. on January 20. Later, I watched that day’s episode of PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff, and I was surprised (and a bit annoyed) by one of Ms. Woodruff’s guest’s remarks — a comment that seemed to me to be a reverse spin on my own.
¶Ms. Woodruff  had several guests that evening: New York Times columnist David Brooks; syndicated columnist Mark Shields; Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report; Barry Bennett, who had been an adviser for Ben Carson and, later, Donald Trump; political scientist Lara Brown of George Washington University; Karine Jean-Pierre, who had been a senior adviser to during the 2016 elections; and Mark Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union. (Don’t worry: I do not intend to quote all of these people, only a few briefly, particularly Mr. Schlapp.)
¶Ms. Woodruff  began the colloquium by asking “What is the main take-away from this day?”
¶Mr. Brooks said he had been wondering “How big is this nationalist moment?”
¶Mr. Shields remarked, “I just stand in the midnight in America, American carnage, which is, I think, soon to be a cancelled TV series, but I just have never heard language quite like it or a tone quite like it in an inaugural address.”
¶Mr. Schlapp, saying he wanted to respond to Mr. Shields’ remarks, commented, “I think the demonstration of the economic pain and the unrest and unease about what’s happening overseas is high. And, really, what struck me about the address — about the speech — is that he is connecting to the political moment. The political moment is not about morning. It’s about —a little bit about — M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G, and the fact that there is nothing wrong with a Republican connecting to the fact that a lot of Americans are hurting.”
¶I underlined some terms relating to “time” or, in this context, an “event in time”. Some people might think of it as a “trend” or even a “phenomenon”; Mr. Brooks went on to say that that was what he was trying to figure out.
¶Significant as that question is, however, my immediate interest in the time words is how Mr. Schlapp views the “moment” as a period of “mourning”. Now contrast his description of mourning the pain and unease with my implied reference to the impending death of democracy in America and, by extension, the rest of the globe.
¶I hope my readers can discern the reason I was surprised and a bit irritated upon hearing Mr. Schlapp’s comments. Certainly I am ready to acknowledge that a lot of people in the U.S. are unhappy with their lot, although I also believe that many of them are unhappy for the wrong reasons. For example, the shift away from coal to renewable energy sources has been apparent for decades now, yet many of the coal miners, instead of learning some new trade, keep holding onto the dream that their industry can be revived and sustained for decades more; they remind me of the buggy whip makers. But Mr. Schlapp primarily irritated me by his application of “mourning”; for, while he was suggesting that we should be mourning the loss of jobs, my intent had been that we should be mourning the day democracy died in America.
¶Thus, this post needed to be published.
Those of you who wish to see the video of the January 20 PBS broadcast can find it at this URL:


Shop Talk: Our Changing Language

© 2016 By Bob Litton > All Rights Reserved (except for quoted passages).

All right, I admit: I am consistent only in my inconsistency. That might explain why I am back into my blog, at least for this post about my native language. I consider it to be that important.

This morning I listened to’s Tom Ashbrook — the regular host of the weekday “On Point” program — interview linguist John McWhorter, of Columbia University, about how the English language is constantly “morphing” (not “evolving”) and how we should accept the sometimes disconcerting changes as natural. I tried about half a dozen times to phone in and offer my input but each time got a busy signal, so I gave up. As an alternative approach, I am resuming the chair in front of my dormant blog.

As a former working journalist and sometime teacher of English composition, I have feelings about English grammar and expression just as fervid as my feelings about democracy. Discussions about either one cause me to grab my sword and buckler, figuratively speaking.

One of the offerings I had in store for Ashbrook and McWhorter was to assert that while it is true that, as McWhorter said, our grammar and spelling became crystallized in the 18th Century through such efforts as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, most of the subsequent deviations from the “rules” were actually sensible gestations attributable to easier pronunciation and reading comprehension. Former crimes like the use of such terms as “ain’t” as a contraction for “am not” (have you ever tried to say “amn’t”?), the beginning of sentences with “But”, and the ending of sentences with a preposition have now become established as acceptable in general communication, although they are still considered Nonstandard (U.S.) or Informal (U.K.) in academic, professional and business papers.

Another influence on the development of our language was the employment of Latin grammatical structure and definitions by our pioneering grammarians. Unlike McWhorter and his cohorts, I appreciate the historical efforts to maintain the rules of Latin grammar, even though those rules are not entirely symbiotic to English. In its early centuries, English was just as inflected as Latin:the uses of its words were determined by orthography, not by position in the sentence as they are now. The result of our language’s pupation is that now we have to be taught explicitly not only the case names but how and where they are to be used in sentences.

Most of us literary types, regardless of how tolerant we might consider ourselves, still retain, I believe, prejudices toward grammatical infractions. One fault which McWhorter dwelt upon that particularly irritates me, but which he finds perfectly acceptable, is the confusion of cases in pronouns. His example was the use of “me” (the objective case) as the subject of a sentence, a role normally reserved for nominative case pronouns, in this instance “I”. A typical erroneous sentence would be “Me and her went to the show.” For anybody who doesn’t see the problem, that should be “She and I went to the show.” Actually there are two problems here: one is the grammatical issue already noted; the other is a matter of etiquette — politeness dictates that we mention other people prior to ourselves. When “I” and “me” become legitimized as identical twins, then our language will indeed become chaotic.

Another modern infraction which McWhorter and Ashbrook discussed was the term “like”, used principally by teenagers as a meaningless interpolation during their jabbering, as, for example, “So my mom was, like, going ballistic because I didn’t get home before eleven last night!” I would add to that grievously ubiquitous error the phrase “you know”, which I constantly hear even educated guests repeating on Ashbrook’s show (and elsewhere); it seems to serve as a substitute for “uh”, the old-timey pause syllable many of us utter when we haven’t quite got our phrasing organized in the brain. Those terms wouldn’t be so annoying if they were used less, but many people employ them repeatedly within a single comment.

One caller, a teacher, astutely remarked that we need to try and inculcate Standard English into children’s minds if they are to cope well in society and business. McWhorter acknowledged as much but maintained that children are very capable of handling two and even more languages adeptly; they can readily use Formal English in their school papers and Informal, even slang, at home and among their friends on the street.

Another aspect of our changing tongue which McWhorter mentioned and which always fascinates me is the more glaring differences between the English of the Beowulf saga, Chaucer’s Tales, and Shakespeare’s plays; we need defining footnotes — in the cases of the first two, even facing page “translations” — to comprehend those works now.

I might add that we can include much 19th Century literature among the works that require footnote definitions or good guessing. Among these latter I can list George Eliot’s 1860 novel Mill on the Floss, which I have almost finished reading. In particular, there are some terms the less-educated characters frequently use which in my first encounters I had to read twice to glean what was meant. The heroine’s father, Edward Tulliver, for instance, has a habit of proclaiming his confusion with life, as in Chapter IX of Book III, where he says to his employee, Luke:

 ‘The old mill ’ud miss me, I think, Luke. There’s a story as when the mill changes hands, the river’s angry — I’ve heard my father say it many a time. There’s no telling whether there mayn’t be summat in the story, for this is a puzzling world, and Old Harry’s got a finger in it — it’s been too many for me, I know.’

The “’ud” and the “summat” most of us readers would easily enough interpret as “would” and “somewhat”. Also, nowadays even an uneducated character would say “many times” instead of “many a time”, but we get it. One might suppose that the “as” is a typo, but really it is an antique way of saying “that”.  A reader unacquainted with English folklore might wonder who “Old Harry” is, but the rest of us would recognize him as the Devil. The phrase that really caused me to pause, however, was that last one: “too many”: what I finally discerned Tulliver to be saying is “too much for me”.

Further in on their conversation, Luke says to Tulliver:

‘Ay, sir, you’d be a deal better here nor in some new place….’

In our age, we would say “a good deal” or “a great deal”, but Luke’s meaning there is clear enough. The term that confused me (and it actually occurs several times earlier in the novel) was “nor”; after a little head-scratching, I deduced that it stands for “than”. Wow, I said to myself, I wonder how that came about!

Finally, and on the same page again, Tulliver says:

‘But I doubt, Luke, they’ll be for getting rid o’ Ben, and making you do with a lad — and I must help a bit with the mill. You’ll have a worse place.’

Now, this one really stumped me! Nonetheless, I figured it out. Old Tulliver and other characters in the novel are actually using “doubt” for “believe”! You explain that one to me!

In spite of its confusing and frustrating aspects, my native tongue — and other languages, too, (I’m studying classical Greek right now) — fascinate me. Maybe I should have been a philologist.



Thank you for visiting my blog, which I am dropping for art and health’s sake. I will leave it in cyberspace for anyone who might want to browse through the 43 months of archives.



More Shop Talk: Some Pet Peeves

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

It has been slightly more than a year (March 2015) since I wrote my last blog post about language and writing. The writing below differs from that earlier one in that it can be described as simply a column of pet peeves, while the older was an essay concerning problems I have with the nature of my native tongue. Of course, reading an essay is usually more fun than reading a list of gripes, but I hope you readers will continue on and gain something at least enlightening if not entertaining from your perusal.

— BL

* * * * * *

Last Tuesday I joined our “lame-duck” mayor at breakfast in the local diner. (For those who don’t know what “lame-duck” means, the term describes an elected official whose term is approaching its end and who will not be returning to office next term.) During our conversation the mayor mentioned how annoyed he is when someone uses the term “Obamacare” instead of “Affordable Care Act” or its abbreviation “ACA”.
“What are they thinking?” he asked. “Do they see it as a medical benefit set up especially for Obama?”
“I understand your point,” I replied. “Another problem with their phrasing is that it can appear like an edict establishing a healthcare program by fiat instead of a legislative act passed by Congress.”

That conversation got me to reflecting—for the umpteenth time—on all the irritating malapropisms, misplaced words, and nonsensical interpolations I hear over and over again.

One of the chief malapropisms that has become so ingrained in our common discourse that even top echelon journalists run afoul of it is the use of “bathroom” where “restroom” is the accurate term. If it is not already obvious to you, “bathroom” literally refers to a room where a bath can be performed, such as in a tub or in a shower stall. A “restroom” is a place, often hardly larger than a closet (thus the British preference for saying “water closet”) where one can relieve oneself of urine and feces.

One misuse of terms which is not quite as objectionable as those is the substitution of “less” for “fewer”. “‘Fewer’ refers only to number and things that are counted: Fewer cars on the road. There were fewer than sixty present. In Formal usage ‘less’ refers only to amount or quantity and things measured: There was a good less tardiness in the second semester. There was even less hay than the summer before.  ‘Fewer’ seems to be declining in use and ‘less’ often takes its place.” Still, I am among those purists who find the substitution of “less” for “fewer” offensive because it reduces the exactitude and therefore clarity. (I should credit late Professor Porter G. Perrin for much of the above paragraph, including the examples, from whose Writer’s Guide and Index to English I borrowed it.)

Similar to those terms’ confusion is the phrase “one or two” and similar constructions. Particularly surprising instances of this fault are in Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady. In Chapter 22, Gilbert Osmond, while nervous in the company of his visitor Madame Merle, “…without looking at Madame Merle, pushed one or two chairs back into their places.” And in Chapter 28, I read where Lord Warburton goes to an opera house to find the “heroine”, Isabel Archer, and her friends; there, “(a)fter scanning two or three tiers of boxes, he perceived in one of the largest of these receptacles a lady whom he easily recognized.” When I see such phrasing in an article or a story or a novel, I almost pull my hair out in exasperation and utter aloud, “Can’t you count even to three, you numbskull?!”  I must be upfront here and acknowledge that I cannot stand Henry James; I think he is one of the most overrated authors and insufferable snobs in American literary history. And Portrait of a Lady is a ridiculously absurd novel filled with other types of flaws which I might elucidate some other time.

In the class of misplaced words I particularly note the word “only”. I remind you that English has evolved (or devolved?) into a mostly uninflected language. That is, we do not use multiple case endings on our nouns and adjectives to indicate their functions in a sentence; our pronouns alone retain that characteristic. Consequently, we determine and infer a word’s function by its place in the sentence; that includes the term “only”. I frequently see this word misplaced in a sentence and its intended meaning thus jeopardized. Disgusting! I could write some sentences to further explain the problem with “only”, but I found in the online Free Dictionary by Farlex as good or probably even better an explanation than I might render, so I copied part of it for use here. Hope they don’t mind; if they do, I will withdraw it and struggle through with my own examples:

Usage Note: The adverb only is notorious for its ability to change the meaning of
a sentence depending on its placement. Consider the difference in meaning in
the following examples: Dictators respect only force; they are not moved by words.  Dictators only respect force; they do not worship it. She picked up the phone only when he entered, not before. She only picked up the phone when he entered; she didn’t dial the number. The surest way to prevent readers from misinterpreting only is to place it next to the word or words it modifies.

The Free Dictionary’s entry for “only” has a few more interesting remarks which I recommend aspiring writers peruse.

Finally, under the heading nonsensical interpolations I include “you know”, the latest substitution for “uh” as a pause gap filler. I hear it frequently on one of my favorite NPR talk shows, On Point, with Tom Ashbrook. I believe it would be safe to claim that at least half of the people Ashbrook talks with on that program—special guests and call-in listeners alike—use “you know” in many of their sentences. It is irritating for three reasons: (1) No, Tom might not know it (whatever it is); (2) if he does know it, then why are they saying it? and (3) the constant repetition of “you know” soon begins to grate.

Well, gentle readers, I hope your eyes have not glazed over from reading this blog post about the more horrific writing…and speaking…crimes.





Goodbye, Tooth Fairy!

Tooth Fairy

©2004, 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS: The article below was written back in 2004.  At that time, I submitted it to one of our local weeklies. The publisher/editor never printed it. I did not ask him why, but I supposed, with substantial grounds, that his reason was that it was “soft news”; i.e. material that had no immediate relevance for the populace but was a rather small matter that yet could in fact disturb them— they might avoid their local barbers and dentists. Also, while he puts out the best chronicle in the three-county area in the sense that his reporters cover ”hard news” (governmental, political and social events) more fully and accurately, he doesn’t have much appreciation for feature articles or what used to be called “familiar essays” (a common element in the “Talk of the Town” section of New Yorker magazine), which are my forte. So, this article has been stuck in my files all those years, yet I believe it still makes engrossing matter for the intellectually curious reader.

     I have altered the names somewhat, reducing them to initials, because I did not have permission from the subjects to include their full names, although they knew I would publish the article sometime, somewhere. Also, the barber retired half a dozen years ago.


◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

There’s new news and there’s old news—but they are not always so simply distinguishable.

Take for example a recent trip to the barbershop for my monthly trim. I went to K. N.’s barbershop. Usually, one of the other barbers cuts my hair, but on this day I had the honor of K. N. himself shearing my mane. After he had done the basic work, he pressed out a palmful of lather and smeared it on my neck. It had been I don’t know how many years since anyone had done that.

“Since when did you start shaving the neck?” I asked. “I thought shaving was out ever since the AIDS scare happened.”

“Oh, we’ve got these stainless steel razors now,” he said. “I used to use Solingen steel blades from Germany. Other barbers used Sheffield steel from England. But they both had pores in them that retained blood. Now I use stainless steel. And I use it only one time.” The stainless steel blades, we discovered after looking at a box, are made in the U.S.

The State of Texas Barber Board, K.N. told me, sent out new regulations about ten years ago ordering barbers to quit using the porous razor blades. They also had to get rid of their strops and hones.

K.N. said he doesn’t offer shaves, even though they would be allowable with the stainless steel blade. He quit shaving years ago, he said, “because people have skin blemishes—like moles. And when you lather a customer up you can’t see the moles.”

About ten years ago was also when the Center for Disease Control, or CDC, sent out regulations telling dentists to modify their practices in the interest of reducing the potential for transmission of HIV, according to local dentist J.F.

The regulations were a response to the case of a dentist in Florida who a decade ago allegedly infected five patients with the AIDS virus, J.F. told me. However, he said, all five cases involved different strains of the virus.

My conversation with the doctor about AIDS developed when I went to see him about tender gums. As I sat in the chair I noticed that the ordinary chairside spittoon was missing.

“Where’s the spittoon?” I asked the dentist’s hygienist as she was sticking a tube in my mouth.

“Oh, we can’t use those anymore,” she said, “because of AIDS.”

What she had stuck in my mouth, J.F. later told me, is called a high-speed suction tube. It removes all that saliva and blood we used to spit into the spittoon. Also, J.F. said he has a line separator in his alley so that there is no possibility of backflow.

The doctor told me the amount of regulations controlling dental practice these days is voluminous. And some of them are ridiculous, he added.  “The virus lives only minutes—some people say less than a minute—out of its moist environment,” he said. “But the regulations are so stringent; we can’t even give a kid his tooth to leave for the Tooth Fairy*. That tooth has to be treated as ‘medical waste’.”

While I was still there, J.F. called up the CDC to get a more definite fix on how long the HIV can live outside its fluid environment. However, they refused to give him a specific time period and said only that when the virus dries out it dies. They added that the hepatitis A virus could live several weeks in the open air before dying. (They obviously didn’t want to give the Tooth Fairy any wiggle room.)

So you see how a news story that began back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, continues to ripple into the 21st century. And how our daily lives are continually and probably forever changed in the minutest of ways by the event that created the story.

*Fairy: I don’t know how widely the folklore of the “Tooth Fairy” extends, so perhaps I should relate it briefly here. Children’s “baby teeth” begin to drop out at about age six. Generous, loving parents sometimes tell their child to put a dropped tooth under their pillow so that the Tooth Fairy can remove it and replace it with a small coin, such as a dime.


The Doldrums

Dear Reader,
I don’t know if this message is relevant to you or not. If you are a WordPress blogger who has boarded my blog as a “Follower”, then it most likely does not relate because you receive an email flag every time I publish a new post. And, if you are a new visitor to my site and do not expect to return, then it does not relate in your case either. However, if you visit me occasionally and intend to return for more reading pleasure but have not signed on as a “Follower”, then this message is definitely addressed to you.

All that wind is the preface to my admitting to a lack of wind in my sails right now, so I have been merely tossing on the waves here on the pond of “The Vanity Mirror”. I will continue to be idle at least for a little while longer, for I am in “the doldrums”. I looked that word up in an online dictionary to be sure I was using it appropriately, and I certainly was:
  (dōl′drəmz′, dôl′-, dŏl′-)
pl.n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)
A period of stagnation or slump.
b. A period of depression or unhappy listlessness.
A region of the ocean near the equator, characterized by calms, light winds, or squalls
b. The weather conditions characteristic of these regions of the ocean.

All the above definitions are at least poetically pertinent, but the highlighted one fits my present condition best. I have had to contend with several enervating problems lately: a plumbing problem that resulted in a squishy carpet in my living room, tugs of war with so-called medical providers, and a next door neighbor who is dying of lung cancer. (As a former journalist, I have seen several dead bodies; and I visited my mother in the ICU ward when she was dying from heart failure; but this is the first time I have seen the outward evidences of a body attacked in various ways by a vicious, ugly disease.)

I know I have published posts in the past that I composed as I wrote — “off the top of my head”, as the image goes —; and the problem is not that I do not have topics at hand (even a significant amount of research done on a couple); but I don’t have the emotional energy right now to produce. Hopefully, by the end of this month I will be ready to move forward.

The above sentences might strike a few of you as arrogant, as if I were imagining a line of people waiting at the ticket window and being told that the show has been cancelled tonight. Well, although that is not really the case, it isn’t far from the truth either. I always look at my “stats page”, and I regularly see small flags from certain countries which I have begun to perceive as frequent visitors who, for whatever reasons, do not wish to click the “Follow” button. So, you see, this post is essentially my apology and explanation to them. Please be patient and come back. In the meantime, there are many prior posts in the “archives” to peruse — three years’ worth — and they don’t die just because the ink is dry.

Best regards and thanks to all of you!

On Words

©2016 By Bob Litton
There were periods in my life when I earned a living employing words. And I have read many more words through a lifetime, a lot of which I never have used in my own compositions. I had to look too many of them up in a dictionary or guess their meanings from the contexts; one such term is “fascicle”, which I came upon yesterday in a book about the poems disguised as prose in Emily Dickinson’s letters. That word was used in this sentence: The poem follows a progression found in some of Dickinson’s other nature poems of the fascicle years: first a simple description of nature and then, in a later stanza, the leap to the transcendental level.” And that is followed by an ambiguous use of the word transitive in one of her briefer poems:
         That a pansy is transitive,
          is its only pang.
          This, precluding that,
          is indeed divine.

Like most English words, the above two terms have more than one meaning. Looking them both up in my dictionary, I inferred that fascicle, as intended by the critic, refers to Dickinson’s habit of bundling several poems together, punching a couple of holes through the pages, and running strings through them—making her own books; for, one of the meanings of fascicle is “one of the divisions of a book published in parts.”

As for transitive, I sensed while reading Emily’s poem that she was using that word in the same sense I would have used transitory or transient, meaning “of brief duration/temporary.” I wondered if her choice had been dictated by a concern for meter and connotation, since transitory contains one syllable more than transitive, and transient summons an image of physical movement, particularly of hoboes, as much as it does of time passing. That poem, a virtual brain-teaser, is difficult enough in its composition and content without adding ambiguous acceptation to the puzzle.

It is not just in academic and poetical works that I find words that halt my reading pace. Recently I was escape-reading in an omnibus volume of Nero Wolfe novels and novellas by Rex Stout. Twice in a single day up popped a word that I had seen before, but long ago, and I could not recall its exact meaning. No dictionary was at hand. I thought I would remember the word and look it up later; I kept on reading; I didn’t remember the word. Such occurrences have  happened too many times.

Before I leave Rex Stout’s works, I want to mention an example of how Stout never passed up an opportunity, even in his Nero Wolfe novels, to castigate organizations such as the FBI and even the G. & C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s New International Dictionary, whenever they breached his principles. The first chapter of Gambit (1962) opens with a scene of Wolfe sitting in front of his fireplace, tearing out pages of the new dictionary, and tossing them into the fire. He explains his activity to a new client, who has just entered the room, thus:
          ‘Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”
          She did fine, She said simply, “No.”
          “This book says you may. Pfui. I prefer not to interrupt this auto-da-fe. You wish
           to consult me?”
I agree with Nero Wolfe’s, i.e. Rex Stout’s, judgment about infer and imply absolutely.

Another problem I have with words, and even proper names, is that I often forget the most common ones — not just the rarely used or more difficult ones — the frequently used ones. And worse still, often I have thought of the word I needed within the previous hour. Naturally, this problem is directly related to my transformation into an old man. If  I were not a compulsive writer, perhaps such a weakness would not be as exasperating as it is; but when I have to pause  in my typing several minutes — perhaps even pull up an Internet dictionary or call a friend — to recover the desired word, well, that’s just maddening.

And that is one of the reasons I don’t produce as much for this blog as I would like.



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