Word Weirdness: Hey, Lady!

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There are lots of things you can yell at a guy to let him know he’s getting a flat tire. “Hey, buddy,” “Hey, bro,” “Hey, dude,” “Hey, mister,” “Hey, Mac,” “Hey, man,” and the ever-popular “Hey, you!”

But there is only one thing you can reasonably yell to a woman in the same situation: “Hey, lady!” “Hey, you” or “Hey, woman!” just seems rude. You can’t even call her “miss” or “ma’am” without kicking in the instant, if insincere, politeness of “Excuse me.” And you can’t put casual terms for women after “Hey!” (sis, sister (unless she’s a nun), girl, gal, doll (unless you’re a trucker), or chick (unless you’re stuck in the 60s)). I suppose you could yell, “Hey, person of the female gender!” but by then you’d be past her and unable to get your message across.

There’s a similar problem referring to women in a group. “Ladies” is virtually the only choice. (“Here are your appetizers, ladies.”) Women can sometimes get away with calling other women “girls” or “gals” if they’re being informal, but if men try this, it sounds patronizing, because it is.

And mixed groups! What is one to do then? Once I was teaching a college class. One student called me out – and rightly so – because I referred to them as “guys.”

But what were the alternatives? “Guys and gals”? (Too casual.) “You-all” or “Y’all”? (This was in Ohio, not Texas.) “You folks”? (Too folksy.) “Dudes and dudettes”? (Really?) “Ladies and gentlemen”? (I was a teacher, not a ringmaster, though it felt like it at times.) “Class”? (Too Sister Mary Elephant.) “Students”? (Too juvenile to my ears.) “People”? (Well, maybe. I think that’s what I ended up with.)

Of course, I could have just used “you,” meaning the second person plural, but it being the first semester, I hadn’t taught them that yet.

I had solved the levels of address problem by referring to the class members as Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith, since I wished to be addressed as “Ms. Coburn.” (I briefly considered asking to be called “sensei,” but that would still have left me with the problem of what to call them.) The students were amused because they didn’t learn each other’s first names and had to use Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith when they crossed paths in the library or cafeteria.

I just looked up what the collective nouns are for men and women, to see whether they’d be any help. (Collective nouns are those oddball phrases like “a murder of crows” or “a brood of hens.” Many people I know are disappointed that there is no “squad of squids.”)

Boringly enough, the collective nouns for persons are “a band of men” and “a bond of women,” both of which imply that they stick together. Other groups have much more evocative names like “a neverthriving of jugglers,” “a threatening of courtiers,” and “a fixie of hipsters.”

I’m jealous.

At the least we could be “a confusion of people” or “a division of citizens” or “a passel of persons.” A “brawl of men.” A “nest of women.” But then we’d need collective nouns for LGBTQIA+ people and there would be no end to it, what with the proliferation of new terms for sexual identities that seem to crop up every day. (I still don’t get the difference between gender-fluid and pansexual.)

Let’s just stick with “a commonality of humans.”

 

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A Brief Guide to Gaslighting

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane.) The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.

Back when I was in college and extremely depressed, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couples sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. This will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to who can tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

With help, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

 

A version of this post appeared earlier in my “Bipolar Me” blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com). It proved so popular that I thought I’d share it here.

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

Ring! Ring! Banana-Gram!

When I was a teen, I once said to my mother, “I think I’ll put a banana in my ear.”

“Why?” she asked, incredulous.

“Because if anyone says ‘Why do you have a banana in your ear?’ I can say, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t hear you. I’ve got a banana in my ear.'”

Mom laughed and said I had my father’s sense of humor. I don’t know what she meant by that, because Dad never told those kinds of jokes.

Later in life I learned that there is such a thing as a “hearing banana.” It’s what results when you have a hearing test that produces an “audiogram.” If your hearing is good, the chart is shaped like a recognizable banana. If your hearing is wonky, so is the banana.

I think the hearing banana must be involved in what are called “mondegreens,” though hardly anyone knows that’s the name for them or where it comes from. A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric that produces an unexpectedly comical result. The term was coined by a woman who misheard the words in a Scottish ballad. The song really said, “and laid him on the green,” but she heard “Lady Mondegreen.”

Perhaps the two best known of these hearing mishaps are “There’s a Bathroom on the Right” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy,” by Jimi Hendrix. Well, and all the little children who sing, “Stand beside her/and guide her/through the night with the light from a bulb,” which might be better than the original anyway.

It was a running gag on the TV sitcom Dharma and Greg that the character Greg misheard (and mis-sang) various song lyrics. Two of my favorites were “Got a black magic woman/and she’s tryin’ to take a pebble outta me” and “I can see clearly now, the rain has gone/I can see all the popsicles in my way.”

Working in a place where there is canned music playing can spawn mondegreens like crazy. A friend of mine who works in a retail establishment swore he heard a song that went, “I want the royal gravy. I want the royal gravy. I want the royal gravy. Give it to me.” There was another one that he heard as, “Do you want an egg?”

Being a brave sort, he asked his coworkers what the song lyrics really were. They were, respectively, “I want the good news, baby” and “Do you want to dance?”

I suppose I shouldn’t make fun of this guy. When you’re working in a large store filled with bustling customers, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what someone right next to you is saying, much less something that’s coming over the loudspeaker.

And it may be that my friend just gets hungry at work and that’s why he hears songs about gravy and eggs. Or maybe he goes to work with a banana in his ear.

But the most likely explanation is that his hearing banana looks more like a kumquat or a coconut or something.

Or it could be there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

After all, “egg” does sound a lot like “dance.” Anyone could make that mistake.

 

The Nature of Terrorism

According to the definition of “terrorism,” we have some pretty half-assed terrorists out there.

Merriam Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Another definition says: “a surprise attack involving the deliberate use of violence against civilians in the hope of attaining political or religious aims.”

And the word terrorist is defined as “a person, group, or organization that uses violent action, or the threat of violent action, to further political goals….”

What’s missing from terrorism as spoken of by the media, politicians, and the general public? The goal. The coercion. Especially when discussing “domestic terrorism,” most of the examples have no goal. When no goal can be accomplished or even named, what you have is crime, not terrorism.

Oh, certainly some of them have goals – pointless, ineffective ones. The 9/11 attacks had a goal of destabilizing U.S. political, military, and financial structures. In that sense, it was terrorism. But as a goal, it was poorly thought-out. Political, military, and financial power in the U.S. are simply too complex and decentralized to be destroyed or even much hindered by destroying a symbol of that power.

Destroy the Pentagon and military power remains (not that the bombers succeeded in destroying the Pentagon). Destroy the World Trade Center and American capitalism carries on. Eliminate the White House and structures exist for the government to continue. While those events were powerful as symbols, as attempted coercion, they had the opposite of the effect intended. They did not weaken U.S. power; if anything, they increased it.

Goals of more “successful” terrorist actions have been more precise, and more effective. The terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army resulted in the release from prison of members of their organizations. The domestic Islamic terrorism of the Taliban caused women in Afghanistan to abandon jobs and other freedoms for fear of violence against them. The violence and threat of more violence coerced them into altering their behavior.

Compare the lack of effectiveness of “Islamic terrorism” in the U.S. Any Sharia law enacted? No. Any convicted prisoners freed? Any populations so terrorized that they abandon former freedoms and daily routines? These shootings and bombings have been crimes, but not actual terrorism. Or at least not terrorism successful in its objectives.

And what of “lone-wolf” terrorism in the U.S.? (Let’s remember that Timothy McVeigh was not a lone wolf. He had accomplices. And they caused terrible death and destruction, but not terror in the sense of attempted coercion.) David Koresh’s Branch Davidians did not have an apparent goal. They caused fear for the people held hostage and for the lives of the government representatives trying to remove them from their compound. But they posed no real threat to the ATF, the U.S. government, or the population of Waco, TX – only to themselves and their children. The Unabomber’s schizophrenic efforts seemed random to anyone who could not follow his demented logic, because they were, indeed, random and unhinged.

The anthrax scare was perhaps the most ineffective of all. While ostensibly targeting the media and the Congress (again, to what supposed effect?), they primarily caused terror among tabloid mailroom employees and assistants who open mail for higher-ups. Fear, maybe. Terror, no. There were no demands, no goals, no proposed change in potential victim behavior.

In the U.S., the most “successful” terrorist actions have been those against abortion clinics and gay meeting places. Abortion clinics have not been eliminated (at least by bombings and shootings), but employees have in response to the death and destruction quit their jobs or instituted complex and expensive security measures. Bombings and shootings at gay night clubs and hate crimes against individuals, for example, have not eliminated the gay population, of course, but they may have had a chilling effect on the gay community and their willingness to speak up, gather in public, and feel secure in public spaces.

And what of other “terrorist” attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing? Did that event have its desired effect of bringing attention to the situation in Chechnya? No. What does the citizen-on-the-street know about Chechnya? Any more than before? That bombing and other attacks have been expressions of impotent rage, futile protests, and deadly crimes, but they have not been terrorism.

Calling these actions “terrorism” gives them a power they do not have. Terrorism is meant to alter the everyday behavior of people or institutions. To some small extent, they have done that. Americans are more vigilant, more suspicious, more angry, but not more ready to give in to the goals (if any) of the terrorists. That suspicion and anger are in many cases too widespread and likewise devoid of specific achievable goals, but they are certainly not effects that supposed terrorists intended.

The terrorists have not won. Yes, they’ve killed and maimed and destroyed property and lives, strained our resources, and made us unreasonably fearful. But they’ve hardly accomplished anything.

 

 

 

Who Is a Lady?

 

Lately there have been a lot of memes portraying Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. Among the many questions raised, along with personal style, charitable activity, physical grace, and styles of dress, is this: Which one is a true lady? If I remember correctly, one specific meme asked about “showing skin” vs. “class.”)

Since this is a problem of definition and I am a former English major, I felt compelled to jump right in. Here are some definitions I’ve heard for the term “lady.”

“A lady never wears white after Labor Day.” As far as I can tell, all prohibitions regarding fashion have, praise be, flown out the window. Here’s what wisegeek.org has to say about the white/Labor Day rule:

In many parts of the United States, a rule about not wearing white after Labor Day . . . is heavily ingrained. The roots of the idea . . . appear to be shrouded in mystery, and the rule has been greatly relaxed since the 1950s and 1960s, when it was more heavily enforced. People who choose to wear white into the fall are no longer heavily criticized for the choice, and are sometimes embraced as fashion forward trendsetters.

Originally, the restriction applied only to white dress shoes and pumps, which are typically unsuitable for winter weather anyway.

“A lady is never unintentionally vulgar.” My friend Doreen said this, though she was paraphrasing Lillian Day, who said, “A lady is one who never shows her underwear unintentionally.” (The gender-flipped equivalent of this is Oscar Wilde’s “A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.” I have also been informed that there is a version that goes “A gentleman is one who, when he pisses in the sink, removes the dishes first.”)

“A lady only accepts countertop appliances.” This idiosyncratic rule was voiced by my friend Karen upon learning that a male acquaintance had offered to buy a mutual friend a dishwasher. I’m sure there must be a rule somewhere about gifts of jewelry (“A lady only accepts semi-precious stones”), and if there isn’t, I’m inventing it now. One has to be more than just good friends with a man to accept diamonds.

“A lady has modest and maidenly airs and virtue a blind man could see that I lack.” Uh-oh. Now I’m quoting from Man of La Mancha. Someone stop me. It takes us into Madonna/whore territory, where I suppose this discussion has been heading all along. Or Lady/Tramp. No wait, that’s Disney.

Notice that in all but the first and last instances, the qualities of a lady can be seen only by her actions and not by her appearance. A lady is as a lady does, as it were. That’s one reason that Michelle/Melania memes are ridiculous. You can’t tell whether either woman is a lady simply by her appearance. It is her actions (not showing underwear, not accepting large appliances) that are better at separating ladies from women.

And after all, isn’t that what we’re talking about here? Having rules that separate women from other women and making a judgment on who is the better person? This dichotomy has assorted male versions as well (sperm donor/daddy, gentleman/jerk, redneck/anyone else), but it’s the woman/lady rules that carry a real bite. Ladies are worthy of respect; mere women are not, is the implication. There are even further distinctions: lady/slut is the most common and most invidious.

It’s my belief that these comparisons are frivolous and ridiculous, meant to divide (and conquer) women by pitting them against one another instead of paying attention to issues and distinctions that really matter. Then another person is entitled to hoist his (yes, his) nose in the air and say,”Women will never be able to hold power when they’re always sniping at each other and obsessing about shoes.”

Apologies to Doreen and Karen, who I think were being ironic rather than sniping, but if we want other people to stop judging us, we should give ourselves a break too. “Lady” is a term with little meaning. It essentially says only, “I like and approve of this woman but not that one.” It’s not worth mud-slinging about. Or wasting our time on insulting memes.

What’s With All the Crazies? Are They Crazy?

Yes. Yes, they are.

And no, they’re not.

I say yes, because so many political extremists out there are acting, well, crazy.

And you can define  “crazies” any way you want – alt-right, alt-left (two handy meaning-free terms), in-office, out-of-office, politicians, your Facebook friends, your Uncle Ned, whatever. We’ll just leave out for the moment the tin-foil hat squad.

Whoever your opponents are, there’s more than a fair chance that some of them are acting irrational, delusional – some variety of crazy. Is it crazy to run down peaceful protestors? Yes. Is it crazy to still be battling over the outcome of an election that happened close to a year ago? Yes. Is it crazy to carry rifles in Walmart? Yes. Is it crazy to spend news air time on the First Lady’s shoes? Yes.

Most of all, though, people are acting paranoid. Everyone on the “other” side is out to get us, destroy America, or at least scare the pants off us. Conspiracy theories abound. And nearly all of them are crazy. (I wrote about this a short while ago: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-AH).

And paranoid means crazy, right? (Unless, as the saying goes, “they” are out to get you.)

Well, not actually. “Paranoid” is a clinical term from psychology, and it has a specific meaning: Paranoid Personality Disorder is an actual psychiatric condition, manifested by, among other things, “generally unfounded beliefs, as well as … habits of blame and distrust, [which] might interfere with their ability to form close relationships,” as WebMD says.

Those traits your political or social opponents may have, but most of them don’t also:

  • Read hidden meanings in the innocent remarks or casual looks of others
  • Perceive attacks on their character that are not apparent to others; they generally react with anger and are quick to retaliate
  • Have recurrent suspicions, without reason, that their spouses or lovers are being unfaithful

The fact is that none of us (except perhaps psychiatrists) can diagnose a person as paranoid or any other variety of mentally ill without having met the person and performing detailed interviews and tests (I’ve written about this too: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6F).

So, if by “crazy” we mean “mentally ill,” then no, the political and social “crazies” are not “crazy” as a group. Their tweets and posts and dinner table conversation are simply not enough to declare them mentally ill.

This is also true of public figures. We can say that Donald Trump, to choose an example not entirely at random, has narcissistic traits, or is a narcissist in the garden-variety meaning of the word, but we cannot say that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, an actual clinical diagnosis. We may think he’s crazy, but we can’t say whether he’s mentally ill.

Our readiness to label people, both our acquaintances and public figures, with loose pseudo-psychiatric terms raises a number of problems, particularly stigma.

Labeling is a convenient way to dismiss a person who disagrees with you without listening to what he or she has to say, or considering the possible validity of an argument or even a statement of fact. He’s a Southerner; of course he’s a racist. She’s a liberal; of course she’s a snowflake. If we can apply a label, we can make an assumption about a person that may or may not be true. (It can also lead us into “Not all X are Y” arguments, which are seldom productive.)

Stigma comes with the label “crazy” or mentally ill. People with diagnosed mental disorders are too often assumed to be violent, out-of-control, homicidal (or suicidal) maniacs – and therefore not worth listening to, despite the fact that their cognitive abilities are generally not impaired.

As for terrorists, they are in common understanding automatically mentally ill, so anyone you label as a terrorist is automatically insane. And we’re far from agreeing who is and is not a terrorist. (Antifa? Greenpeace? The NRA? The DAR?)

So, bottom line. “Those” people may be crazies, may act crazy, talk crazy, believe crazy things, but it is not accurate or helpful to call them crazies. I know I’ll catch hell for this. But I’m not being an apologist for reprehensible behavior.  I just think that how we talk about people affects how we treat them. And that matters.

Now, as for the tin foil hat squad, they’re mostly harmless. Let’s leave them alone.

 

 

 

 

Grammar Rules I’ve Given Up

For my entire life, I’ve been known as a Grammar Nazi. The Punctuation Czar. Now, not so much. I’ve written about that before: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6z

In that post I said:

I used to take delight in knowing all the rules and enforcing them ruthlessly. Gradually I have gotten away from that practice. I felt it was impolite to go around correcting people unless they had asked for my help. I still corrected my family because – hey – it was mentally painful to be around people who misused “hopefully” or split infinitives. Or who mispronounced “nuclear” or “foliage,” for that matter.

Gradually, I changed. Here are some of the rules I am no longer an enforcement officer for.

Split infinitives

I admit that my desire to throw this rule overboard was influenced by my hope that I might find a way to approve of the phrase “to boldly go.” (Okay. I was a grammar geek, but the other kind as well.) Then, one day, I found my “out.” The rule was not only wrong; it was stupid.

The old bugaboo about not splitting an infinitive, to which I was passionately devoted, has its source in the fact that in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive. Latin infinitives are all one word. It makes no sense to transfer that rule to English.

I breathed much easier the next time I watched Star Trek.

Impact 

I hate the use of “impact” except as a way of referring to one thing crashing into another thing – an asteroid into a planet, for example. I still much prefer that to its metaphorical usage, in which it means “has an effect on.” There’s already a perfectly good word for that – “affect.”

My co-workers, however, ridiculed me mercilessly on this one. They showed me examples of “impact” used to mean “affect” in other pieces of writing. They counted the number of times I made the change. They never let up.

And eventually I caved. It still sounds awful to me, but I have given up defending the usage. I have not, however, given up the rule that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun 99% of the time, with the one percent being so seldom used as to be negligible.

Not starting sentences with “and” or “but”

Or “so.” Or “or,” for that matter. I know that conjunctions don’t belong at the beginning of sentences in Standard (Formal) Written English. But what I write is usually informal, colloquial English. If I followed the aforementioned rule, that last sentence would have had to have been, “What I write, however, is usually informal.” I use “however” enough as it is. And phrases like “would have had to have been.” (I suppose since I am writing informally here, I should have written “would have had to be,” but there you are, it’s hard to break these habits after so many years.)

There are some grammar and punctuation rules that I have not given up, however.

The semicolon

Noted author David Gerrold recently declared the semicolon obsolete and ugly. I disagree, and not just because I have one tattooed on my left wrist (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9G). To me, the semicolon is both elegant and useful; it implies a connection between two independent clauses. In that sentence, the semicolon means that the semicolon, by implying a connection between the two halves of the sentence, is therefore both elegant and useful. If I had said, “The semicolon is both elegant and useful. It implies a connection between two independent clauses,” those would have been true, simple statements. But they would not have emphasized the connection between the function of the semicolon and its beauty and elegance.

Okay. I’ll shut up about the semicolon now. David Gerrold and I will just have to agree to disagree.

The Oxford comma

First, let me say that one of my main clients does not use the Oxford (or “serial”) comma in the pieces I must edit, and it chips away at my soul each time I have to remove one. The lack of an Oxford comma can make a sentence both confusing and laughable. You’d get book dedications like this: To my parents, my English teacher and Barack Obama. Without the Oxford comma (the one that should go after “teacher”), everything after “parents,” becomes an appositive – equivalent to what came before. In other words, sans Oxford comma, the author is saying that her English teacher and Barack Obama are her parents. All that hilarity and confusion can be avoided with a simple comma.

The subjunctive mood

Don’t get me started on the subjunctive mood. No, I mean really don’t. We’ll be here all day.

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

How My Husband Got Me Hooked on Buffy

Twenty years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show with a target audience of teen girls. My husband, despite not being a teen girl,  turned me (also not a teen girl) on to the show and got me hooked.

I had seen the movie and wasn’t that impressed. It was silly fun, with a classic over-the-top death scene acted by Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). There was also an appearance by a very young Hilary Swank, and Donald Sutherland played the Slayer’s mentor. But not anything I’d ever want to see again.

So when a television series appeared, I ignored it.

But my husband didn’t. He became a fan.

He wasn’t one of those fans who sits people down in front of a TV and says, “Here! You have to watch 15 episodes of this amazing show!” (This would be appropriate for Firefly, another show that, like Buffy, was the brainchild of Joss Whedon, except that it never made it to 15 episodes.)

No, he was more subtle than that. He’d be watching the show and invite me to join him. “I don’t think so,” I would reply. Still, I would see a few minutes of the show as I passed through the living room.

And then one day I caught a scene from an episode in which Buffy was working at a fast-food establishment where employees had been disappearing and the food had a “secret ingredient.”

“Hah!” I thought. “This is so predictable!”

Then the top of a little old lady’s head came off, a monster emerged, and tried to eat Buffy. The secret ingredient in the meat turned out to be meat flavoring, which was being added to non-meat patties.

That sharp left turn caught me. Maybe this show did have some wit and style.

I still didn’t pay a lot of attention until the show went off the air. When it went into reruns, I could watch one episode a day and follow the story arcs (yes, it had them) and found out that Buffy was more than just teen-girl-kills-monster-of-the-week pop fluff.

It had bite. (Sorry.)

Joss Whedon has said that the show was about female empowerment. Instead of being a stereotypical victim-of-a-vampire, Buffy is the strong, capable hero who defeats evil, aided by her “Scooby Gang” of mostly female sidekicks.

Except those sidekicks have story arcs of their own. For example, Willow is a witch who dabbles in black magic in addition to the good kind. But magic, it seems, can become an addiction. Multiple episodes follow Willow as she goes from magic tweaking, to heavy involvement, to jonesing, to a destructive habit that wrecks her relationships with those around her (and almost destroys the earth).

Buffy used the basic vampire/monster plot to comment on common events in a young person’s life – high school, dating, freshman roommates, binge drinking (which turned students into cave people) – as well as topics like the aforementioned addiction, teen suicide, performance-enhancing drugs, and various shades of morality.

And the dialogue! I’m a language junkie. I don’t deny it. And in addition to the then-current teen slang, the show had its own idiom, known as “Buffy Speak.”

TV Tropes describes it thus:

[It] can give the sense of a teenaged group’s special jargon or argot without necessarily imitating anything actually found in the real world. Slang language, especially for the younger set, tends to change at warp speed. Buffy Speak allows a level of timelessness…. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuffySpeak

And here’s a scholarly article about it: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/08/buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

(Speaking of dialogue, Buffy also featured some break-the-mold episodes, including one in which no one can speak and one in which everyone sings their lines, musical-style, with dancing.)

Was it the feminist subtext? The busting of stereotypes and tired plots? The playful language? The hunky vampires? Perhaps the secret to my eventually becoming a fan of Buffy is the fact that, despite my chronological age, I’ve got a 14-year-old living inside my head (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-g1). And maybe my husband knew that.

Although I don’t want to speculate who’s living inside his head.