Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A Prophet Already?

Dear friends —

Apparently, I have indeed become a prophet!

Just compare this report from the New York Daily News with my blog post of November 17, “What Price Glory?”

Merry Christmas and have a fun and Progressive New Year!


Shade and Shadow

Green park

A scene where both shade and shadow are equally illustrated.
Photo Credit: Bing Images/

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS:  Formerly, as an instructor in rhetoric at a community college, I assigned the students a weekly essay topic.  Each subject was intended to be an exercise in some aspect of communicating through the written word, e.g. describing a house or a room, interviewing someone about their vocation and then writing about it, explaining how to perform some fairly complex task. The first exercise I imposed on them was to describe the differences between shade and shadow; the point of this one was to acquaint them with an exam type they were likely to encounter in other humanities courses: “compare and contrast”.  I eventually developed a slight guilt complex about this assignment, since I had never written about shade and shadow myself.  The following essay is an attempt to assuage that guilty feeling.  I believe it is timely to publish it on my blog today because Halloween is just a few days away. While there is nothing “spooky” in the essay, I am sure most of you can recall or imagine times in your past when some shadow made you shiver. So, happy Halloween!

¶Shade and shadow, although at first glance apparent synonyms for each other, are in fact nothing of the sort. They differ not only denotatively but connotatively.
¶Shade and shadow are alike only in one particular: they are created by the obstruction of light in its journey toward a final destination. The first and most definitive differences, indeed, derive from those light sources. For shade results only from sunlight, despite what one might suppose from such a misnomer as “lampshade”; while shadow results from artificial light as well as sunlight (including that reflection of the sun we call “moonlight”).
¶Shade and shadow also differ in that the former can serve as an aid, as is implied by its name: It can protect something from the annoyance or even harm which too much sunlight might inflict. Here we also note that shade moves—or rather changes position—as the light source moves; while shadow moves according as the interfering object, such as a person walking at night under a lamp-post or a plane flying overhead on a sunny day, moves. Nor is shade as sharply delineated as a shadow; the shade created by a tree in full leafage is a diaphanous phenomenon with bits of faint sunlight jostling with the spots made by the leaves on the ground. Shadow, on the other hand, occupies a more outlined area, which might be exemplified by the tree’s trunk as opposed to its leaves. While I suppose it is comprehensible to speak of a tree’s canopy at night as providing “shady protection” for a pair of lovers on a park bench, who have sat there in pursuit of privacy, actually at that time even the leaves are creating shadows, because lamplight does not move around or even penetrate a leaf the way sunlight does.
¶Again unlike shade, shadow is not limited to the daylight hours. In fact, with “shadow” the connotative contrast becomes primary. We have invested that word with mystery; I won’t insult your intelligence by specifying the ways we have done that. Suffice it to say that while, when we hear of a shadow during the daytime, we imagine the darker grayness left by an object, such as a building, on the sidewalk or of the undulating gray trail left by a plane as it passes over some hilly landscape; and when we hear the word “shadow” at night the image that passes before our mind’s eye is that of a skulking figure with a dagger in its hand moving against a wall. Obviously there is nothing inherently sinister about the word “shadow”; the connotation which has become attached to it is just another example of how our language is impacted by our emotions.
¶Shade, then, is a comparatively static phenomenon that is often thought of as beneficial. It is a product of sunlight and some interfering non-mobile object. Shadow is a denser darkness which may appear either during the day or during the night, and is created by either the natural lights of the sun and moon or by artificial light. Also, shadow is not restricted to static objects; it accompanies mobile objects just as frequently as does shade and, perhaps for that reason, has developed a slightly sinister reputation.


A Child’s Song

©2016 By Bob Litton

¶Can you play this? I’m serious, because I composed it and yet can’t play it. 



¶Of course those two sentences above require some explanation. You see, I was ten years old when I submitted the lyrics to a poetry contest jointly sponsored by the Dallas Independent School District and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. At the time, 1951, Walter Hendl was music director of the DSO; and he was an enthusiastic promoter of children’s music programs.
¶Our music teacher, a young woman whose name I don’t recall, announced the opening of the contest and gave us the rules for it. The competition was divided into two parts. The first was to write a poem about one of five subjects: homeland, school, play…and I forget the remaining two. The second contest was to compose music for the winning poem.
¶Now is the time for a bit of full disclosure. I couldn’t read music; nor could I play an instrument, even though I had a guitar my father had bought for me, and took a couple of lessons from a man who tried to switch me to the violin. I did enjoy listening to the popular music of the day, but my only acquaintance with classical music came from listening to the themes of radio shows such as “The Lone Ranger”, “The Shadow”, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”, etc. And I wasn’t even aware that those themes were not composed for the radio shows but were instead segments from famous classical music compositions. I didn’t even know what classical music as a “genre” was.
¶However, I often wrote little two-page stories which I also illustrated, so writing and drawing were already “in my blood”. I still find it odd then that one or two days after I heard the announcement for the contest, I busied myself in art class not with drawing anything but with writing a poem on a large sheet of manila paper, with crayons. I think now that I actually believed that the variety of colors would give me an edge in the contest.
¶Several weeks later, the music teacher informed me that I had won the poetry contest. Now I was faced with the ordeal, for me, of trying to contrive some music for it. At the end of the school day, the teacher sat at the piano, with my poem and a sheet of music paper before her, while I stood by a corner of the piano feeling like an idiot. I don’t recall how she managed to lure some tune out of me, but she did and scored it; and the result is what you see above.
¶After a few weeks had passed, my music teacher informed me that the contest judges had considered my music as “too jazzy”. That surprised me because, although I too viewed the music as too lively, in places, for its theme, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could see it as “jazzy”. However, I wasn’t crestfallen, for I hadn’t been very fond of my melodic result either.
¶ Fortunately, a fifth grade class at a school clear across town, in Oak Cliff, won the music composition part of the contest. When I heard their music set to my lyrics I was very much pleased with it. Although that class was credited with composing the music as a group, I supposed that the actual composer was the little girl who waited in a stage wing with me; we walked out on the stage together at Maestro Hendl’s invitation. That was a big day in my life, at Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin auditorium, hearing the DSO play the music and children from schools all over Dallas sing my lyrics.
¶I carried that music among all my other belongings for most of my adult life. Three times I asked friends who were adepts on the piano to play my version of the song for me. They tried but gave up. Too easily? I don’t feel qualified to say. Once, I called the DSO office and asked if they might have the “Oak Cliff version” in their archive, but the woman on the other end of the line acted as though she thought I must be some kind of a nut and said they don’t retain stuff like that.
¶One day a couple of years ago, I got disgusted because the music is way below par and apparently unplayable. I tore up the sheet music; but I keyed the lyrics into my computer, so it was not lost entirely. (Well, actually they  were pretty much embedded in my memory, but at my age memory is not a very reliable repository.) Recently, an acquaintance of mine in Dallas informed me that, while reorganizing her files she had noticed a photocopy of “In My Sleep”, and asked me if I wanted it. “Certainly!” I said, and she sent it to me.
¶Now, since the lyrics are slightly difficult to read in the photos above, I will present them here:

When the clouds have hurried by,
And the evening moon is nigh,
To my bed I fairly fly,
And there I sleepy lie.
Castles of dreams come into sight,
Lands of wonder every night.
To the many lands I go,
To bold deeds long ago.
Dreams of battles and marching soldiers,
Story books and picture folders,
Dreams of cowboys and painted Indians,
Pirates and sailors and Mounted Canadians.
I never fuss; I never weep
When I must go to bed to and sleep.

¶Obviously, the song is more descriptive of a boy’s day-dream than of something he is likely to experience in his sleep. Let’s just grant it the excuse of “poetic license”.


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.



Spammers disguised as “Referrers”

Dear “Followers” and any other interested readers —

I had planned to interrupt my “sabbatical” next Sunday for a special “Mothers Day” piece. However, a recent problem with my blog stats page, and the steps a friend took to help me solve it, has engendered in me the impulse to share this solution with those who visit and read my posts.

The problem involves Search Engine Optimizations (SEOs). These are computer geeks around the world who seek to bring search engine entries up to earlier pages in a search engine. They can do this by pretending to be “referrers” on bloggers’ sites. When the blogger, curious about the strange referrer, clicks on the referrer to find out more about him/her, that click bounces back to the spammer’s site and counts as a “hit”, thus multiplying the spammer’s site’s activity record–thus edging it up closer to the search engine’s top page.

This problem occurred on my site a couple of years ago with a spammer called “Semalt”. I wrote a blog post condemning the SEO practice, and shortly thereafter the false referring by Semalt stopped.  Now, however, the wickedness has begun again; only, this time, the name “Semalt” is not used directly; rather, the new names are “key-words-monitoring” and “free-video-tool”. But from what I have learned through reading a few informative sites on Google, I sense that both are really just aliases for Semalt. The blocking methods I found either were too advanced for my blog program and/or were too technical for me to employ, so I called my friend Chris and asked for his help. As usual, he graciously complied.

Then, acting on the supposition that some of my “Followers” might be experiencing the same problem, I decided it might be helpful to forward Chris’ response to them. Here it is:

Hi Bob,

I’m sorry this upsets you so much, but unfortunately neither of these options are relevant for sites like yours.
You are getting your analytics directly through and not Google Analytics, so those instructions won’t help you.
And sites do not allow custom plugins like the one in the other link. Those only work if you have a custom installation of WordPress (often referred to in contrast to, where you have to pay for web hosting and a domain name.
I found these instructions specifically for, telling you how to mark spammy referrers as such:
That’s the only recourse I’ve been able to discover for your situation.



As I stated above, I will return briefly next Sunday, Mothers Day in the USA.
For now, have a good week.

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.





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