Category Archives: language

Hyphens and Help

So, I was an editor, but I was not the editor. There were editors over me – way too many of them. The company I worked for published several magazines and each one had an editor. I worked on all the publications and for all the editors. Sometimes I felt like I was a bone, with a pack of dogs fighting over me.

Then there was the executive editor, nominally in charge of all the other editors and a really great boss. He was a pleasure to work for.

There were other employees that I had to please as well – art directors, production managers, the Big Boss, and any number of others. It was a balancing act, or more likely, a juggling act. But I thought I had mastered it.

One day, one of the publication editors decided to take a completely new approach to the hyphenation of adjectives. She was a little old lady, well known for sending in manuscripts hand-written on cash register receipts and soap wrappers. Still, she was the founding editor of that particular magazine and she knew the content, the authors, and the industry better than anyone alive.

But there was the hyphenation. It was idiosyncratic and defied all rules of grammar and punctuation that I knew. Nor was it the first time that this editor had gone off on a stylistic tangent. I had memories of the times she had insisted that her odd notions of punctuation and grammar be adhered to.

The first person I saw after the hyphenation edict came down was the production manager. I ranted. I explained exactly how weird her system of hyphenation was. I told him what was wrong with it and why the way we had been doing it was perfectly fine.

“Well, you’ve got to consider that she’s 100 years old,” he said. (She wasn’t quite, but close.) “She’s set in her ways. She’s used to being in charge.” With every word, he expressed how unreasonable it was for me to be upset and how I ought to give in to her notions of proper punctuation. “Let her have her way,” he advised.

I left his desk deeply unsatisfied. Then I went to the executive editor. I went through the same spiel – the magazine editor, the “novel” method of hyphenation, what a hassle it would be, and how ridiculous it would look.

“Tch, tch,” he said.  “Isn’t that awful?” He said it without a trace of irony or condescension. I truly felt that he had heard me and sympathized.

And that was all I really wanted. I didn’t need explanations of why the batty editor had come up with this idea. I didn’t need ways to cope with her insane notions. I didn’t need to learn how to acquiesce gracefully to her punctuation regime.

What I needed was someone to understand.

It’s like that sometimes. There are times when you need advice and there are times when you just need to vent. It is the wise boss – or friend or spouse – who can recognize which time is which.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise,” and that’s the truth. Sometimes advice is unwanted; sometimes it’s unneeded; sometimes it’s intrusive.

I’ve noticed that men often have an immediate response that when something is complained about, it needs to be fixed, so they offer advice. (This is not always true. The executive boss who listened to my rant was male and he never proffered a single suggestion. But my husband, who has a “fix-it” complex, took time to learn this lesson.)

So did I, when it comes right down to it. I have friends who have lots of problems (and who doesn’t). Many times I tried to give advice to one of them or offer solutions to her problems, but they always met with stubborn explanations of why they couldn’t possibly work. Now I simply offer sympathy and a willing ear and I think we are both more content. She has a sounding board and I don’t sound like a know-it-all.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially for those of us raised on Ann Landers and Dear Abby. Sometimes advice is not what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just a little understanding.

 

 

Who’s the Bully Here?

You know why kids bully? Because adults bully. But no one wants to have that conversation.  — Lauryn Mummah McGaster

I saw this pass-along on Facebook the other day and decided that I did want to have the conversation. When we think about bullies, we usually think about kids bullying other kids – classically, stealing their lunch money or more recently, tormenting them for being perceived as gay, or any kind of different, really.

And what do we say when that happens? Kids can be mean. Kids can be cruel. Kids have no respect. In other words, the problem arises in the kids themselves. They shape the victimization of others, presumably out of thin air.

But stop a minute. We know that kids learn what they see adults do. They learn to talk and walk. They learn to swear and belittle. The walking and talking may be hardwired into humans, but the rest is clearly learning by imitation.

But adults aren’t bullies, really. They don’t go around stealing lunch money and certainly not in front of their kids.

You might be surprised, but adult bullying happens a lot at work.  Belittling and humiliation seem to go with business just as much as board meetings and yearly reviews. Not all workplaces are toxic, of course, but almost every one contains a group of gossips or a clique that excludes others just like children do in the cafeteria. They yell at underlings. They sexually harass others. They steal credit for others’ accomplishments and boast about it.

But wait, you say, children seldom if ever come to where their parents work and see them behave this way. How can they be learning bullying from them?

Bullying behavior starts with an attitude, a sentiment that there are winners and losers in life and the winners have the right (or even the duty) to lord it over the losers. Think about how many people were influenced by the “look out for #1” philosophy.

Adults carry these attitudes home with them. Children pick up on them. Think about what adults do and say in front of their kids, even – or maybe especially – when they don’t know the kids are within earshot. They bitch about their neighbors and their bosses. They use words like “bitch” and “bastard” and worse. They talk about their day and how “stupid” some co-worker was or how they “felt like smacking” the customer service representative.

And think about what adults say when their children are being bullied. Often the response is, “If he hits you, hit him right back. Show him you’re the boss.” This perpetuates the “winners and losers” scenario and sometimes leaves the “loser” with a desire to victimize someone even “lesser.”

Worst of all, think about how often adults bully children. There are too many children who are badly abused, hit and kicked and belittled by their parents. These cases sometimes get reported to Children’s Services.

Those are the extreme cases, however. Seldom does a single slap or two get reported. Telling a child that he or she is “no good” or “stupid” or even “a big disappointment” never gets reported at all. Some adults use humiliation, name-calling, and fear, all in the name of discipline and good behavior. Some pit one child against another, praising the “good” child and condemning the other. Some blame and shame ruthlessly.

They may think they are raising obedient children, but they are showing them through actions, words, and even tone of voice what it is to be a bully or a victim and how often bullying succeeds. The essence of bullying is that one person has actual or perceived power over another and uses that power in toxic ways. Think about how much power adults have over children and how seldom they consider how to use that power wisely.

This is certainly not to say that all adults abuse their power or their children. But when you look at children’s behavior, it’s hard not to see a reflection of the environment in which they were raised.

Bullies don’t just happen. They learn.

What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Crankier

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There are certain sayings I hate. Many of them are affirmations. Others are platitudes. Some are just nonsense.

Affirmations, for example. The one in the picture, for example, is provably untrue. There’s a lot in my average day that I don’t choose – whether I oversleep, whether that package from Amazon arrives when I need it to, whether I’ll trip over my cat and break my arm. There are some who say that I can choose how I feel about any of that, but I don’t believe it. Human beings are wired to feel annoyed when they trip over the cat and in pain when they break their arm. Right after that, they may choose to forgive the cat or feel lucky that they didn’t break both arms, but feelings, at the moment they happen, are not chosen. We may be able to choose how we react afterward and what we do about it, but even that is iffy.

Or take the expression “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” There are lots of things that don’t kill me: ice cream, paintings, spatulas. None of them will make me stronger.

And if you tell me (as I’m sure you will) that the saying really means that adverse events that don’t kill me will make me stronger, I have to disagree. Think about someone who is fortunate enough to survive a train wreck. Is he stronger? No. More likely he is considerably weaker, owing to assorted broken bones and ruptured internal organs.

Ah, you say, but he is spiritually stronger, thankful that he survived. Maybe not. Not all people with catastrophic injuries are content with their fate. Some are even bitter and resentful. But we don’t like to think about those cases, so we say something that makes us feel better, even if it bears absolutely no relation to what the person it happened to actually feels.

I feel the same way about “Everything happens for a reason.” One day I heard about a news helicopter that crashed, killing everyone on board. Someone contended that it happened for a reason. “Sure,” I said. “The mechanic failed to tighten the thingamabob on the rotor. Or the pilot had the shakes. Or the passenger distracted the pilot. Of course, there was a reason.”

“That’s not what I meant,” my friend replied. I knew what she did mean – that there was a reason unknown to us and ultimately unknowable. That the passenger was secretly a child molester and now would never molest another child. That the pilot’s wife was about to poison him and this death saved him from a worse one. That if the helicopter hadn’t crashed when and where it did, an innocent child on the ground would have been squashed by it. Something like that. Cosmic justice prevailed.

In all these excuses, blame is never involved. Neither is chance. (The part on the rotor just failed. No one is to blame.) It’s too frightening to think that the actions of another person, our own actions, or the randomness of the universe is “responsible” for a tragedy. So we say there must be a reason, but we can’t – or aren’t able to – know it.

This is a lot like what is meant when someone says, “It was all part of God’s plan.” If you can’t pin the blame on a single person and you’re not willing to admit it “just happened that way,” there’s always God. If I were God (and thank God I’m not), I would be more than a little miffed at being held responsible for all these accidents, not to mention the plagues and disasters that are considered “acts of God.” (Did God send the tornado that destroyed my house because I’m sinful? We’re all sinners, but not all of us get tornados.)

To me, the worst saying is, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” To begin with, it pins the blame on God for all the things that go wrong in our lives. And ultimately, it simply isn’t true. Plenty of people can’t handle the things that happen in their lives. Those with serious mental illness, for example, sometimes can handle it, but sometimes they can’t – for example, a woman who drowns her children obviously can’t handle post-partum depression. The mass shooter can’t handle the stress, hatred, fear, or disappointment in his life. (Not to mention that I don’t believe God hands out these trials.)

That’s when talk of God’s plan gives way to the workings of Satan, or abstract Evil in general. We call people who do things that seem inexplicable to us “monsters.” This is another easy saying that simply isn’t so. Whatever motivated such heinous acts, the people who committed them are still human beings. Making them “The Other” – a monster, a minion of Satan, an animal – is more comfortable, because it negates the fact that human people (and that includes all of us) have the potential to do cruel things. That most of us don’t doesn’t negate the fact that we share a species with those who do.

And then there’s death. I won’t argue with the saying “At least he’s in a better place,” because my father’s death was excruciatingly painful and long, and release from that surely was better than continuing in it. But then there’s “It was his time.” Again, this assumes that God has a plan that’s so detailed that He has appointed a time for each of us to die. Or Fate has, if you prefer. Someone or something, anyway, that controls the minutiae of our lives so completely that every instant of it is out of our hands.

If any of those ideas bring you comfort, good. But they make me more than a little uncomfortable.

Battles Not To Fight

There are some battles you shouldn’t fight because you have no hope of winning them. Others you shouldn’t fight because you have no chance of losing them. And there are some you shouldn’t fight because hey, who cares who wins them anyway?

I’ve recently become aware of a practice called “Sealioning.” (No, I don’t know how it got that name.) Evidently, it’s used by online trolls when they see a meme they don’t like. They challenge the poster to prove it – every statistic, every quote, every comma. One meme I passed along recently said, “If the free market works so well…why do corporations need $93 billion in annual government subsidies?”

Apparently, that provoked a friend of mine. “IF the statement is true, it may be a decent question,” he replied. “Without the meme providing a citing as its source, it’s difficult to evaluate the actual accuracy of what this meme is saying.”

When I replied that memes aren’t news articles and he could go look up the statistics if he wanted to, he informed me, “The burden of proof resides with the one originating the post, who’s attempting to assert or deny something.”

We went a few more rounds and then I went to bed. It wasn’t a fight I could win. There would always be another “if” or “prove it” or other quibble. The argument is futile, unwinnable. No use wasting brain cells on it.

The thing is, I probably shouldn’t respond. But I don’t block him because he is a friend who loves to debate. I love to debate too and don’t mind spending a few minutes engaging in it with a friend. After I’ve reached my limit for the day, I retreat to bed, neither of us having swayed the other.

(I still post political and social memes occasionally. I don’t post them to try to convert the sealions, but to let other people know where I stand.)

However, there are battles that I almost always win, because I’m on solid ground. Battles to do with language, usually. Back in the day, I was known as the “Punctuation Czar” (this was during the time when the government had a czar for every department). I cringed at split infinitives, corrected those who mispronounced words, and generally acted snobbish toward anyone who broke the rules. I would even offer to bet paychecks on points of grammar. No one ever took me up on it.

Those were fights I shouldn’t have gotten into, because as an English major, editor, writer, and proofreader, I would likely always win them. Winning them, however, was rude and unworthy. I found myself liking my role as the “Grammar Police” less and less. And there were some rules, such as the one about split infinitives, that I’ve given up because they make no logical sense. These days I only correct people when they ask (or pay) me to. (Except for my husband. I feel he’s fair game and I will not rest until I can get him to stop saying “foilage” when he reads his seed catalogs.)

Most of the time, though, disagreements with my husband fall into the category of arguments that aren’t worth starting, much less winning. Little things annoy everyone, but there’s just no percentage in pursuing them.

Dan, for example, when he needs to wash a single dish or pan, routinely squirts it with enough soap to wash a whole sinkful or two of dishes, plates, glasses, pans, and silverware. It wastes soap, of course, but is it really worth picking a fight over? I can avoid bad feelings simply by buying more dish soap.

(Another time we avoided a fight simply by postponing it until it was no longer an issue. You can read about it here, if you want: https://wp.me/p4e9wS-ct. But I digress.)

The world is full of arguments just waiting to happen. But I don’t have to be part of them if I don’t want to. I’ll save my energy for just the right battle, and when it comes along, I’ll fight to win!

Fun With Dictionaries. No, Really.

When I was a kid, I had one of those small, plastic record players that came with small, plastic records of children’s songs. One yellow plastic disk had a song on it about dictionaries. I still remember it.

“Oh, the dic-dic-dictionary/is very necessary./Any word that you can cook up/you can look up./Pick the book up.” It also included a verse exhorting children to look up the words “dromedary” and “estuary.” Or maybe “actuary.” The sound reproduction was not that great. Neither word is one that I needed to know until much later in life, but I went through childhood with them stuck in my brain.  For that matter, they still are.

Also stuck in my brain is a dictionary adventure from slightly later in my childhood. Like many – perhaps most – of you, I ventured to the fount of all knowledge to look up “dirty” words. I didn’t find them all (I didn’t know them all at that point), but I found one that made a distinct impression on me. To this day, I can quote the definition of “fart” word for word: “an anal emission of intestinal gasses, especially when audible.” In other words, what was called a “poot” in our household, though that was not listed as a synonym.

There was one dictionary in history that caused quite an uproar, and it was largely (though not exclusively) caused by a different four-letter word: ain’t. Webster’s Third was not the first to include “ain’t” – even Webster’s Second did that. But Web3, notorious for downgrading (or I guess upgrading) usage labels, no longer listed the word as “illiterate” or “substandard,” but merely “colloquial,” or usable in regular conversation, though not in formal speech.

Headlines abounded: “Ain’t Ain’t Wrong, Says Webster’s.” Lexicographers were incensed and language mavens had the vapors. Not to mention the grammarians, who really got their undies in a bundle. The only people not freaking out were the linguists, who considered “ain’t” “nonstandard,” which was their nicer way of saying “substandard.”

(Lexicographers, linguists, and grammarians are different species, whose nether garments bunch at different sorts of things. Let me know if you want to know the difference. I’m lots of fun at parties. But I digress.)

Speaking of parties, there is a nifty party game that can be played with a dictionary, if you’re trapped at a party with no drinks, food, or music. It’s called Fictionary and bears no relation to Pictionary, which at least can get raucous.

For Fictionary, one person, acting as moderator, wields the Webster’s and selects a suitably obscure word. Each participant writes an imaginary definition on a slip of paper, while the moderator writes out the actual definition. The papers are then collected and read aloud. Participants vote on which is the correct definition. If a bogus definition wins out over the real one, that player gets a point. Hilarity ensues.

(The secret to winning a point is to start your fake definition with “of or pertaining to.”)

And speaking of word games, there’s Scrabble (aka Words with Friends if you’re among the techno-literate, which if you’re playing Fictionary you’re probably not).

A fascinating book (for those like me who are fascinated by such things) is Word Freak – not my autobiography, but instead a searing look into the dark underbelly of competitive Scrabble. For those who never thought competitive Scrabble was a thing or that it had a dark underbelly, it is and it does.

Now, of course, dictionaries have been replaced by the computer and particularly the internet. Among the most useful and colorful sites is the Urban Dictionary, where you can find the definition of words like “yeet,” though not its past tense “yote.” (I still don’t know what the past participle is. “Yoten” is what I recommend, though I’ve never written or spoken a sentence where it was needed.)

The Urban Dictionary proved useful to me once when a character on House, M.D. (okay, it was House) used the term “squish mitten.” I pretty much got the meaning from context but felt a need to verify it, just for accuracy’s sake.

Actually, the internet is a good place to get your lexicography. The language changes constantly and rapidly, so the only place you can really keep up with it is online. Although I think it’s fair to say that “fart” hasn’t changed much, is still spelled and pronounced the same way, and still has the definition that made such an impression on me as a kid.

Thanks-Giving

Why am I writing about Thanksgiving when it’s almost Valentine’s Day? Well, I’m not. Not that kind of thanks giving, anyway.

Nor am I going to write about Giving Thanks with capital letters, as one sometimes does around the dinner table or in church.

No, I want to talk about the simple act of saying, “Thank you” to each other.

Someone once observed that whenever my husband or I asked the other for a hug and got one, we said, “Thank you” afterward. It had never occurred to me that this was something unusual or weird, but this woman (a psychiatrist) seemed to think so. Though it happened years ago, I’ve been thinking about it recently.

Where did we ever get the idea that spouses don’t need to be polite to each other? It seems to me that when two people both love each other and live in close proximity to each other, their need for politeness and gratitude is greater rather than lesser. We often see each other at our worst. Surely a little civility is not out of place for the person who shares your life.

Maybe we take thanking others for granted. Sure, we’ll say thank you when someone gives us a present or when they compliment us. But what about all those daily opportunities to thank someone whom we don’t even know?

Admittedly, I probably take it a little too far at times. Servers in restaurants have a largely thankless job. I overcompensate by thanking the person who seats me, brings or takes away a menu or a glass of water, writes down my order, brings my food, and takes away my plate. I even thank the person who brings my check. All told, I can rarely get through a meal without six or seven “thank you’s.” Do I do it because it gets me better service? Well, I believe it does, but that’s not why. I’ve been a waitress.  That’s why.

Customer service is an even more thankless job. We vilify those who are surly or unable to help us. But when someone makes an effort and actually does help, how long does it take to say, “Thanks,” or even “I appreciate your taking the time to help me”? And while we’re at it, the customer service non-bot almost always gives her or his name at the outset of the call. Why not make the tiny mental effort to remember it and say, “Thanks, Chuck”? Imagine yourself getting snarled at all day and the lift it would give you to hear that.

Speaking of service, how many times do we tell veterans, “Thank you for your service” automatically, without thinking about what the words mean? I asked a friend of mine if that ever bothered her. She said that she didn’t care what motivated it and always replies, “It was my honor.”

My husband gives unexpected thank you’s. The last time we voted (in the mid-terms), he thanked the volunteers at the polling place for their time and their commitment in providing such a vital service. He even thanked the volunteer standing out in the rain handing out leaflets because no matter what party she belonged to, she was out there trying. He also thanks the cops who respond to the store where he works for looking out for them.

We teach children that “please” and “thank you” are “magic words,” but we let that sentiment go the way of the Tooth Fairy, as though it’s something we grow out of. Then we complain about young people who have “no respect.”

Of course, we know that “please” isn’t really a magic word. Just saying it will not get us anything we ask for. Even children eventually learn that. But does “thank you” have to fall by the wayside as well?

It’s hard to think of a situation in which saying “thanks” is inappropriate.

 

Word Weirdness: Hey, Lady!

three brown wooden letters wall decor
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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.”

 

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.