The King’s English Is Dead: Long Live the King’s English!

I think if I hear one more highly educated, highly paid news anchor say “him and I,” I’m going to throw something big at the TV. The same is true for celebrities and print and online media. Misuse of the English language as I learned it is rampant, and the media spreads it like a plague. I’m being overly dramatic, you say? Maybe, but what’s a little hyperbole (a great word!) in order to make a point?

It’s inevitable that language evolves over time. We only have to look at the works of Shakespeare to see what’s happened to the English language over the past 400 years:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

What day is day, night night, and time is time,

Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 86–92

Or we can go back farther to the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour; . . .

—from the Prologue

And there’s Beowulf. The words of that epic poem look foreign to us:

Hwæt! We Gardena        in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,        þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum, . . .

A hundred years from now, will students of language—if any still exist—look back on the turn of this century and marvel at our archaic English language? Will the pronoun be erased from common usage? Will all spelling be reduced to text-speak? Will books become chips slipped into a tiny pocket embedded in the skin? I hope not.

I’m keenly aware at the moment of the history of language because the novel I’m working on is set around the time of World War I. It’s essential that I capture the vocabulary and the cadences of spoken English at that time. The book is also set in the deep South, which raises the problem of dialect: how much variation is enough to suggest speech patterns of that time and place and also variations of class and race? I want to be true to the language of the time without the language itself becoming a distraction, like that news anchor on TV whose point I miss because I’m fuming over his usage error.

A long time ago, I had a teaching colleague (English) who came to be known locally as the Grammar Police. She wrote scathing letters to the newspaper and called out columnists and editors alike on their errors. The newspaper was our primary source back then. I wonder if she’s now trying to keep up with Twitter. I doubt it. I wonder if she shuts off her TV in dismay.

I’ve noticed that several of my MNIMB platform challenge colleagues are teachers. Not all of you are English teachers, I’m sure, but some of you are; I’ve noticed your paper-grading comments. What problems do you encounter with your students? Do you find that the casual language of the spoken word spills over into their writing? What standards do you apply to their writing? To your own? If you’d like to weigh in, please comment!

Consider the Two-headed Coneflower: Character and Oddity

There’s a two-headed coneflower in our garden. A hardy perennial, the coneflower grows abundantly around here. It withstands the heat and drought of long Mississippi summers, withstands neglect (I am proof of that), and practically grows itself.

The coneflowers and their little rudbeckia cousins (black-eyed susans) all surfaced early this year because of the mild winter, but this particular plant outgrew all the others. It’s a bit of a freak. For weeks I watched it grow taller and taller and waited for it to flower. Even its foliage looked different, and I decided maybe it wasn’t a coneflower at all but a weed. At one point it looked suspiciously like a thistle, and I almost pulled it up. When it finally bloomed early in April, it bore these two conjoined flowers on one stem.

So here’s the metaphor; I bet you were expecting one, weren’t you?

The flower’s oddity, its two-headedness, reminds me of how I develop fictional characters. Right now, I’m dealing with a character who’s very hard to like. He’s deceitful, cruel, and violent. He’s a drunk. He’s a racist. He’s a dastardly fellow if ever there was one. As I revise the novel, though, I find myself looking for reasons why this man is the way he is. What caused him to turn out this way? If I asked him, what would his excuses be? I’m looking for his secrets, his oddities, his other side, his vulnerability, his soft underbelly. Surely he must have one. When I find it, the character and the book will be richer for it.

Even after heavy rain over the last few days, that odd coneflower is still there. A bit bedraggled, but hanging on. The other plants, about a third its size, aren’t even close to blooming yet. That’s how I feel some days when the writing doesn’t go so well or there’s no time to work. Maybe that strange, tenacious flower is a gift; it’s here to teach me to look for what sets a character apart. To persevere, no matter what.

What are your favorite tricks for getting to know your characters? I’d love to know. Please post your comments!

A Platform Is Something You Stand On

writing notes

I’m writing this post as an assignment after being away from the blog for too long. Every time I’ve logged on lately and have seen the dates of my last posts, I’ve felt embarrassed and a little panicky. Should I give up the blog entirely? How will I carve out the time to write frequently, or at least regularly, without neglecting what I feel I really ought to be about, and that’s revising the novel and working on short stories?

Seeking answers, I’ve been participating in Robert Lee Brewer’s Platform Challenge during the month of April. Robert has created a series of exercises intended to help writers wrangle their online presence into shape. In the process I’ve done more Facebooking and tweeting and read more blogs than I could have imagined. It seems a “platform”—significant interaction with others (on the Internet and otherwise) with the purpose of building a following—is necessary these days, even before you publish a book.

The challenge has been fun and revealing. Here’s what I’ve learned about myself: I’m afraid I’m something of an Internet junkie; I don’t know when to quit or how to protect my writing time. That’s an important discovery. Along with learning how to connect with others, I need some self-discipline!

Robert’s post yesterday on how he handles social media helps. He makes a “task list” for his day and sticks with it. He allows himself social media time in 15 minute increments scattered throughout his day, and only when he’s completed a task. That sounds reasonable to me. I’ll give that a try.

Meanwhile, a new short story swirls in my brain and won’t leave me alone. The novel-in-progress nags for attention. My other lives—as wife, grandmother, chief cook, housekeeper, gardener (not to mention reader)—call me away from the writing work. And it’s spring, about the only time of the year when it’s pleasant to sit outside and read a book or daydream or let that story idea take shape. I live in Mississippi. Another six weeks, and you won’t be able to breathe when you step outside.

So here’s my resolve: I plan to return to the blog on a regular basis. I’ll try to make my posts more relevant to the writing life I live. But I will also try to accomplish this on a schedule, along with generally managing my online time better.

Visit Robert Lee Brewer’s blog, My Name Is Not Bob. You’ll find his April challenges— creating a platform and also a poetry challenge for the month of April (April is poetry month, after all)—and lots of other interesting information for the writing life there.

If any of you who read this have comments or suggestions regarding time management, I welcome the conversation! Now let’s get off the ‘net and go to work. Cheers.