Why is it that in the word "nihil", the "ni" is pronounced "nee", but in the words "nihilism" and "nihilistic", the "ni" is pronounced "ny"? And why is it that in the word "nihilist", the "ni" can be pronounced either "nee" or "ny"?
The English language is a beautiful, strange, and confusing thing.
We do a lot of peer editing of our work in my Creative Writing class, and it is appalling just how many of my classmates' stories are written with poor grammar, sentence structure, or a complete lack of coherency, as far as being consistent goes.
As a proofreader for the university's newspaper, one of my jobs is to look for consistency. There are many ways to spell the same word- these are usually recognized as the "Canadian" spelling or the "American" spelling- and although we prefer to use the Canadian spelling (because we are, after all, a Canadian university, and thus use Canadian Press Style), the main thing really is to stay consistent. Ideally we stay consistent throughout the entire newspaper, but sometimes changes in spelling slip through the cracks. What should not slip through the cracks is when the spelling varies from the Canadian to the American version within the same article (and I am happy to say that it is very rare that inconsistent spelling occurs in the newspaper by the time that I'm looking at it).
Inconsistency indicates a sloppy writer and a sloppier editor. I cringe when I see final drafts in my Creative Writing class that have a multitude of inconsistencies. My professor is most concerned with getting a "literary feel", and doesn't seem to be as worried about glaring editorial errors, but I believe that everyone's writing could vastly improve if they simply understood the importance of, for example, not switching from the past to the present tense within the same paragraph. Those are lessons that should be drilled into our heads in elementary school, and they are lessons that should be repeatedly taught in junior high, high school, and university to ensure that we really understand them.
Regardless of whether it is fair or not, we cannot get very far in life if we are careless with consistency in our writing. Resumes and cover letters, academic theses, and even speeches and presentations are all highly dependent on good writing style. We receive letters from associations and boards of directors at the vet clinic that I work at, and sometimes their writing and sentence structure is so fragmented and poorly worded that it barely passes as readable. Being unable to understand someone because they cannot express themselves in a clear manner immediately brings down their ethos. Our respect for a person is diminished if they cannot convey their meaning. Poor grammar and an inconsistent writing style also suggests that the writer hasn't put a lot of thought into their work, in which case the reader isn't going to put much effort into trying to understand it or take it seriously.
When you write anything, be it a letter, resume, university paper, fictional story, or newspaper article, read it over to check for consistency. Is the tense the same all the way through? Is the structure orderly (for example, are the same kinds of bullets or indentations used throughout)? If there is more than one way to spell a word, have you changed the spelling partway through? Checking for these common mistakes could prevent your writing from being dismissively glanced at and shoved aside by the next person who reads it.
"Assonance is when you get the rhyme wrong"
- Educating Rita
If you know anything about literature, or if you are interested in plays about social class differences, or if you are intrigued about the meaning of "culture", be sure to check out this fantastic play at Winnipeg's MTC.
We are currently reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlein in my Revolutions in Communication class. It's an excellent book, even though a) I spend hours each day blogging and thus using the very technologies that Bauerlein despises, and b) I am most definitely under the age of 30. I don't agree with everything that he says, but his arguments are clearly articulated and I am of a similar mind with much of what he discusses. Bauerlein writes in a controversial manner and isn't at all apologetic in his biases, which makes for an intriguing read. He is also well-educated, writes beautifully, and refers to research studies and countless academic journals.
Now that we have established his ethos, I would like to discuss something particular in his book that inspired me to create a new section of posts here at Living Rhetorically in the Real World. Under the category The Practical Guide, this new sub-category is Random Rare Word. Every so often I'll share a word with its definition, looked up at random in my beloved Canadian Oxford Dictionary, so that we might have a new word to add to our lexicon.
Bauerlein says that rare words are those words which we do not encounter on a daily basis. He fears that our ability to learn new rare words is rapidly decreasing, because we spend less time reading and more time in front of a computer reading "dumbed-down" articles or watching the TV (in which the characters all use common words). Rare words are words that aren't frequently used, but they are important to learn because they challenge our brains.
Interestingly, Bauerlein found that there are 68 rare words per 1,000 words found in newspapers; 23 rare words per 1,000 words found in primetime adult television, 17 rare words per 1,000 words found in college graduate conversation, and only 2 rare words per 1,000 words in the popular Sesame Street (or Sesame Park, as I suppose we must now refer to it).
Parents, take heed: Sesame Street is a form of entertainment, not a substitute for a learning environment!
Although we best learn words when we encounter them informally (that is, within contextual basis rather than looking them up in a dictionary), I still think that we can benefit from looking words up in a dictionary on occasion. Hence, the Random Rare Words posts.
Today's Random Rare Word
1. distressing, painful; doleful, dismal.
2. distressed, sad.
See also dolorously (adverb) and dolour (noun).
Dolour is Old French and comes from the Latin word for pain or grief.
What interesting rare words have you come across lately? Had you heard of the word "dolorous" before? Is it something you'll be able to "slip in" to conversation or writing?
We have been studying poetry in my Creative Writing class. Several students brought Sylvia Plath's work into the class to analyze. These students were raving about Plath's genius, so I read her poetry with great curiosity.
I didn't like it.
I found it to be simultaneously dull and melodramatic; the diction is simple and the repetition is tedious. The poems we read were boring and whiny, as blasphemous as that might be to speak of Sylvia Plath in such a way. But that's what I felt as I read her poetry.
One of the biggest issues I have with Sylvia Plath's poetry is that many people seem to like it just because it's Sylvia Plath. Before our poetry classes, I had never read any poems written by Plath; I had only read her novel The Bell Jar. I liked the book and thought that she touched on important issues and wrote in a compelling style. But the two poems that we read in class, Daddy and Lady Lazarus, which are spoken of as two of her best pieces of poetry, just fell flat for me.
The rest of her poetry might be amazing (after all, these were only two of her poems that we read), and it could just be that my preference doesn't match her style. I don't claim to know any more about poetry than the next person. But as we read her poetry, I knew that if I hadn't seen her name attached to the poems, I wouldn't have thought much of them anyways. Reading them, I thought that they could have been written by anyone in my Introduction to Creative Writing class. The poetry seemed... amateur. Childish.
We often glorify and romanticize the notion of "the depressed genius". We aren't approaching the poetry objectively because we have preconceived notions and expectations about the author. Another poem we looked at in my class, for example, was a sonnet by William Shakespeare. I have a soft spot for Shakespeare, and the student who brought the poem announced that it was Shakespeare before she read the poem aloud. I was already biased before I even saw the poem. It turned out that I really liked it, and I believe I would have liked the poem even if I hadn't known that it was by Shakespeare, but I do not think that I would have liked it as much had it been written by some other unknown author.
I have a challenge for you: the next time you read a piece of literature or a piece of poetry, don't look at the author's name before you read it. Form your opinion based on knowing nothing about the author. It could be interesting to see how many supposedly fantastic authors truly resonate with you, and how many do not.
I write visual art reviews for The Uniter. Typically I check out the art, ponder it a while, jot down a few notes, and then go home to write up my review. E-mail it to my editor and a week later, it's published. Last week, however, I had the opportunity to attend a visual art reception: the opening night of a visual art show. That meant that not only were a number of artists present, but I also got to meet the artist of this particular show himself.
The boyfriend and I arrived right on time. A few of the artist's friends (who were artists themselves) were already there, and this artist- Adrian Williams- was hard at work on a piece that wasn't quite finished. He was sprawled on the floor in front of a large painting/collage while someone else swept the floor around him, preparing the room for the night's event.
It was fascinating to see the artist at work, and perhaps that was part of the reason why that particular painting captured me so much. It was gorgeous. The boyfriend and I wandered over to examine it almost as soon as it was up on the wall, and one of the other artists approached us. He commented on Williams' skill, and then added that the art really spoke about social issues.
One could look at the art and interpret it as a portrayal of social issues. Then again, anything can be interpreted to mean whatever you want it to mean. The film American Beauty comes to mind; one of the characters videotapes a plastic bag blowing around in the wind and raves about its beauty. The plastic bag is meant to be symbolic. If you can extract meaning from a plastic bag, you can extract meaning from just about anything.
I wondered, however, if Williams had intended on portraying social issues. The particular piece that I so much adored was of a woman getting ready to take a shower, for example. Another piece showed boxcars on tracks. Still another was of a man's shoe. A portrayal of social issues, or just really nice art that I'd want to hang on my wall?
After I'd strolled around the room several times, examining each individual piece and then looking at the collection as a whole, jotting down notes all the while, I decided I was curious enough to interrogate the artist. Luckily he didn't mind my questions and was only too happy to discuss his art. When I asked about the painting of the girl getting ready to take a shower, he began describing how the art could be interpreted as a commentary on industrialization. He pointed to the pencil in one corner and the papers flying out the window; the shower head and the materials he had used to create the collage. Then he paused and said that all of this was coming to him just now, as he was talking about it. He hadn't thought about it before. He had simply created the piece following intuition, doing what felt right at the time.
There was no intention of portraying this issue or that phenomenon. He was just doing what felt right. The result was a masterpiece.
Rhetoric involves a lot of analytical work. There is a reason for everything that we do, regardless of if we are aware of it at the time or not. What we do is emblematic of our knowledge and assumptions about the world. Williams was creating what could be interpreted as a portrayal of social issues because of his own background; the artist who said that it was a portrayal of social issues also interpreted it as such because of his own background. We take what we know and what we expect from what we see and we make connections. Rhetoric allows us to create our own kinds of meanings.
The Superbowl, the Olympics, the Academy Awards: the majority of North Americans flock to these events. The media is full of information on the best recipes to have as snacks while we watch these events, the intense exercise regimes and nutrition plans that athletes use during their training, and the secrets of how celebrities "tone up" in the week leading up to the show. Newspapers include special spreads devoted to these particular events and the hype leading up to them leads consumers into frenzy. Even after the events are over, there are related stories that the media publicizes: How to get back on track after over-indulging during the Superbowl! You can get <insert athlete's name here>'s buff arms too in three easy moves! Steal these fresh fashion looks from the stars!
Maybe it's the excessive hype surrounding these kinds of events, or maybe it's just that they happen so frequently that I'm no longer as interested, but I had no desire to watch any of these events this year. The days passed by normally while in other parts across the continent, people were going wild with excitement.
I didn't completely avoid it, however. The people around me, caught up in the excitement, told me all about the results of these events regardless of if I wanted to hear it. We even discussed the Olympics at length in one of my Rhetoric classes (admittedly, it was fascinating to analyze the rhetoric of the Olympics, but it was equally fascinating to me that I couldn't escape hearing about the Olympics even during class).
And yes: yesterday, the day after the Academy Awards, I absolutely flipped through the newspaper to take a peek at the elaborate gowns that the celebrities were wearing in their desperation to make a fashion statement.
Why is it that we are drawn to these kinds of events? Are we really that interested in the event itself, or are we clamouring to have a reason for us to all get together and watch an event? Is it a way to promote national pride and express our love for celebrities? Are we trying to live vicariously through the athletes and stars that we watch on the television? Do we just really want an excuse to sit in front of a television and eat junk food, because we might otherwise feel guilty? Do we want to watch for the visual aesthetics or do we truly care about the sports, the people, the films? Something tells me that it's partially because these kinds of events are surrounded by such hype that we place so much importance on them, not that we are actually interested in the sport itself or the people involved. What do you think?
I've talked about PETA's extremist advertisements before. Now, after I've read Lesli Pace's excellent article Image Events and PETA's Anti Fur Campaign, I'd like to discuss not just the effectiveness of these advertisements, but also our response to them.
Nikki Craft, a women's rights activist, finds a few issues with the PETA "I'd Rather Go Naked" campaign:
Do they pose nude? No, they're fake nudes. Do they even portray liberating images of women and nudity? No. They work with Playboy Magazine where women are herded like cattle in limiting and stereotypical mass media presentations.
This perspective is fascinating. The notion that these women aren't truly comfortable with their bodies and liberating women makes sense in this context because, if they were "truly" comfortable with their bodies, they would not feel the need to "strategically" hide certain body parts. On the other hand, perhaps that is the very point that PETA is trying to make by working both within and against the system: it may well be that PETA deliberately portrays women in this fashion to reinforce the fact that yes, our society does treat animals cruelly and yes, our society does objectify women.
The outrage that many people feel over the PETA advertisements could be the reason for why they chose to depict women so deliberately; if you are this upset that women are being objectified, then you should be equally upset that animals are treated poorly. PETA might be spreading awareness and protesting against objectification of women by engaging in the objectification themselves.
How do you feel about extreme advertising? Are the PETA advertisements an objectification of women or are they trying to throw that objectification back at society?
In my Revolutions in Communications course at the University of Winnipeg, we have been reading Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid. A fascinating book which discusses "The Story and Science of the Reading Brain", Proust and the Squid delves into a discussion on brain development throughout human history as well as the development of individual humans from birth to adulthood.
Wolf talks a lot about the "expert brain" in her book, which she says is only acquired through reading and being read to. Wolf states that the expert brain is something which is desirable for everyone; when we have an expert brain, we are able to read fluently and with comprehension. Children who are raised with less access to books are more likely to be a less-developed reader. When we watch TV or play video games as children- even if the television is supposedly a "wholesome" and "teaching" show like Sesame Street- we do not develop the expert brain that the children who read more (and who are read to) do.
My professor in this class likes to have students read aloud important chapters from the books that we read. It's more interesting to hear a few different voices during the course of the class period, and it also allows for more class interaction and discussion. While we read this book, however, you could hear the nervousness in peoples' voices as they read from the book. Every time they stumbled over a word, you could tell that they were thinking to themselves, does this prove that I'm not an expert reader? Even if we are normally able to read fluently and without difficulty, it was amazing how often we all stumbled over the words once the pressure was on! Reading about reading really makes you second-guess yourself as to how "expert" of a reader you are.
Or perhaps my generation really is mostly made up of people who do not have what Maryanne Wolf refers to as the expert brain. Susanna Kelley's article in the February 1st issue of the Winnipeg Free Press looks at how social media systems- such as Twitter and cell phone texting- contribute to the current illiteracy epidemic. What do you think? Are these things contributing to a new kind of "language", or are they destroying our ability to effectively communicate and develop the expert brain?