All posts by Phil W

James Thurber’s Guide to English Usage

[first posted October 22, 2004] In an earlier post, I referred to this collection of useful usage articles by James Thurber. On the question of using “bad” or “badly” within a sentence like “I feel bad(ly),” Thurber advises not to use either word.

There is, of course, a special problem presented by the type of person who looks well even when he doesn’t feel well, and who is not likely to be believed if he says he doesn’t feel well. In such cases, the sufferer should say, “I look well, but I don’t feel well.” While this usage has the merit of avoiding the troublesome words “bad” and “badly,” it also has the disadvantage of being a negative statement. If a person is actually ill, the important thing is to find out not how he doesn’t feel, but how he does feel. He should state his symptoms more specifically—“I have a gnawing pain here, that comes and goes,” or something of the sort. There is always the danger, of course, that one’s listeners will cut in with a long description of how they feel; this can usually be avoided by screaming.

Tell It Like It Is

I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

This spring I finally got around to reading Moby Dick. (I told you I was a bad reader.) Its opening sentence is one of the most famous in English fiction. “Call me Ishmael”—this is something strange. This is something beyond myself. And yet I’m then plunged into a story that is lavishly involved with the real world of whaling and the anatomy of whales, of ships and the anatomy of ships, of the ocean, and not least of the human heart.

And this is the most basic test for quality in fiction, it seems to me: is it absolutely faithful to the real, and absolutely faithful to what is strange and extraordinary within the real? For the Christian this is another way of saying, is it about grace? Because grace is the interruption of the unexpected in the real. Cheap stories barely touch reality—they present a simplified simulacrum of reality, a version that is easier for the storyteller and for the reader alike. And cheap stories are never really surprising. No one was ever surprised by a game of solitaire.

From Andy Crouch’s address at the 2005 Christy Awards.

2006 Christy Awards

The Christy Awards winners were announced last Saturday. Editor Terry Whalin says the event was fun and gives a list of the winners, which aren’t on The Christy Awards site or in the news sources I’ve searched. FaithfulReader.com has the list and some reviews. Editor David Long has kicked up some discussion.

According the website, “the Christy Award is designed to:

  1. Nurture and encourage creativity and quality in the writing and publishing of fiction written from a Christian worldview.
  2. Bring a new awareness of the breadth and depth of fiction choices available, helping to broaden the readership.
  3. Provide opportunity to recognize novelists whose work may not have reached bestseller status.

Book Meme

Sherry’s daughter Rachael is blogging for her next week. Her first post this afternoon is an interesting book meme which I refuse to answer at this time but will pass on to you.

  1. A book that made you cry
  2. A book that scared you
  3. A book that made you laugh
  4. A book that disgusted you
  5. A book you loved in elementary school
  6. A book you loved in middle school
  7. A book you loved in high school
  8. A book you loved in college
  9. A book that challenged your identity or your faith
  10. A series that you love
  11. Your favorite horror book
  12. Your favorite science-fiction book
  13. Your favorite fantasy book
  14. Your favorite mystery book
  15. Your favorite biography
  16. Your favorite coming-of-age book
  17. Your favorite book not on this list

Why God Couldn’t Get Tenure at a University

I found this in the Brandywine Books archives. Erin O’Connor passes on a list of reasons why God couldn’t get tenure, and reader Kris at Berkley offers up an opposite list for why He could. From the first list:

  1. He’s authored only one paper
  2. That paper was in Hebrew
  3. His work appeared in an obscure, unimportant publication
  4. He never references other authors
  5. Workers in the field can’t replicate His results.

From the second list:

  1. The one publication was a Citation Classic.
  2. The Hebrew original was widely translated courtesy of the author.
  3. Being written before journals existed, references were hard to come by.

Read on

Longest English Words

[first posted May 29, 2004] According to Ask Oxford, from the Oxford U.P., “Most of the words which are given as ‘the longest word’ are merely inventions, and when they occur it is almost always as examples of long words, rather than as genuine examples of use” i.e. ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,’ which is supposed to be a lung disease. Of course, there are real words of extreme length. A couple good examples of these superduperlong words are ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ and ‘pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism.’ They just roll off the tongue, what?

For the trivia nerd or engineer in your family, Ask Oxford explains, “The formal names of chemical compounds are almost unlimited in length (for example, ‘aminoheptafluorocyclotetraphosphonitrile,’ 40 letters), but longer ones tend to be sprinkled with numerals, Roman and Greek letters, and other arcane symbols. Dictionary writers tend to regard such names as `verbal formulae’, rather than as English words.”

Nicer Children If Possible

I love these lines from an Aline Kilmer poem:

When people inquire I always just state:

“I have four nice children and hope to have eight.

Though the first four are pretty and certain to please,

Who knows but the rest may be nicer than these?”

Even if they aren’t nicer, they will be my children, and I will love them better, I hope, than I have in the past.

Mormons Complain: “We’re Christians Too.”

A ticket agent says the movie States of Grace is “being advertised as a Christian film, but it’s really a Mormon film,” and Mormons are shocked, claiming to be Christians. Ted Olson, Christianity Today’s online managing editor, reports on other complaints Mormons have had in the news and concludes with this:

Even more [evangelicals] see Mormons as non-Christians—-or worse—-while seeing liberal Protestants as “bad Christians”—-though both groups equally deny classical Christian doctrine on revelation, the full divinity of Christ, the nature of man, and other key points.

With their strong family values, constant Jesus talk, and passion for evangelism, Mormons seem almost like evangelicals’ cultural twins. In some ways, they represent our ideal. Maybe that’s one reason why so many evangelicals are more comfortable with liberal Protestantism than with Mormonism. We like our differences stark, with red-and-blue color coding.

Is Ted being snarky here? I suggest the real difference b/w Mormons and liberals when evangelicals want to label them is a desire to avoid generalizations. Mormon doctrine is not Biblically sound, so a faithful Mormon can be safely label non-Christian, whereas Methodist or Episcopal doctrine may be sound despite what individual churches teach or what certain bishops say to reporters. You can’t broadbrush all Episcopals by calling them non-Christians. They aren’t, no matter how liberal their denomination appears to be. And you can’t call Mormons Christians no matter how much they talk about Jesus. They aren’t talking about the God/Man who words are recording in Scripture, and He never spoke to Joseph Smith either. [seen on Open Book]

Is One Writer Really Better than Another? Isn’t It All Personal Taste?

J. Mark Bertrand points out a couple podcasts he participated in during this summer’s Worldview Academy. (part 1, part 2)They are the two parts of an interesting discussion on why we should care about literature.

In the second part, I believe Mark makes a great point about the instincts of his students. Though they may question how someone can say one writer is better than another, they fully understand how someone can say one band is better than another. Personal taste does come into play a bit, but an experienced listener can make a good case that one band, even a band he doesn’t enjoy, is more skilled than another. The same with writers. There’s more to be said, but I’ll leave it there.

Substandard Spelling

The Chicago Tribune aulso got into th act, uezing simpler spelingz in th nuezpaeper for about 40 years, ending in 1975. Plae-riet George Bernard Shaw, hoo roet moest of his mateerial in shorthand, left muny in his wil for th development of a nue English alfabet. . . . But for aul th hi-proefiel and skolarly eforts, the iedeea of funy-luuking but simpler spelingz didn’t captivaet the masez then — or now.

From the article, “Push for Simpler Spelling Persists,” by AP Writer Darlene Superville. She says the idea of overhauling English spelling has not captured “th publix imajinaeshun.”

I Don’t Care If We Lose

Alan of Thinklings is talking about an article in which Peter Leithart argues that Modern Protestants can’t write. He says it has something to do with Zwingli. Maybe I’m in a mood tonight, but I find that I don’t care. I don’t care why we haven’t written well in the past. Some write now, and no light-weight, commercially successful novel from an evangelical author takes away from their artist effort. God will raise up artwork to glorify himself. I don’t care who complains about, heh, mere entertainment.

The Thinklings carry on part of the discussion in relation to movies.

On John McGahern

Erin O’Connor is talking about John McGahern:

There were many other things I should have been doing in my little garret in my remote, undisclosed Irish location, and morning tends to be my best time for getting things I should be doing done. But this novel was too terrible to be deferred. It needed to be dispatched with as much speed as several cups of strong milky tea could make me read. By “terrible” I should clarify that I don’t refer in any way to the quality of McGahern’s writing–quite the opposite. McGahern has an awesome ability to conjure up the minute but powerful tensions and pleasures of daily life in mid-twentieth century rural Ireland. His fiction is quiet and unassuming . . .