Saturday, October 19, 2019

Favorite Books of 2018

These books stood out for me in 2018. Here are the notes I wrote after finishing each one.

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos (memoir)
Haunting in a deep and loving way. The author reveals things about herself that are hidden in us all. What a generous book, written from the heart and mind. An original voice and great American book.

All in the Family by Courtney LeBlanc (poetry)
The metaphors of family bonds and family strife are heartfelt and utterly relatable.

The Amoeba Game by Tara Skurtu (poetry)
I felt an immediate connection to these lovingly written poems about family, religion, and homeland. I look forward to more from this poet!

Autumn by Ali Smith (novel)
A quiet story of a twenty-year friendship between an elderly gay man and his young female neighbor, considered the first Brexit novel. Written in an idiosyncratic style that works magic. Inspired and touching.

Brass by Xenet Aliu (novel)
A mother-daughter novel written from both perspectives in two time periods. Loved the wry sarcasm and the women’s stubborn willfulness. The solo birthing scene made my heart race.

City of Night by John Rechy (novel)
Written in 1963, this novel broke ground in its frank depiction of hustlers and drag queens, and trans people across the country. Philosophical at times with sublime language. I loved every word, many of which are still slung by queers today.

Dirty Work by Larry Brown (novel)
Two men, disfigured in a VA hospital, share stories of their hard lives. Not all maudlin, though. Powerfully told through both their points of view, in dialect. The ending is hallucinatory and haunting.

The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis (novel)
A frank, short novel about a young gay man escaping his oppressive heteronormative life in Picardy, northern France. Stellar storytelling.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (novel)
Metafictional novel about the nature of friendship and suicide amid the writing milieu and a big dog. The author examines every aspect of her life, talking to her dead friend and the Great Dane he left to her. So satisfying.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast (memoir comic)
A love letter to NYC, the greatest city in the world. Wry, shrewd. Loved it!

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara (novel)
A lovingly told tale of friendship and family among the denizens of the House of Xtravaganza. The characters are fully fleshed and you can’t help but feel for them at every moment. The injected Spanglish was perfect for authenticity.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (essays)
These essays force you to face your demons and kill the golem that has been keeping you from being the writer you were meant to be, Very inspiring.

IRL by Tome Pico (poetry)
The poem straggles between the worlds of the poet’s ancestry/life on the res and as a gay man with an iPhone in NYC. It’s a beautiful struggle both linguistically and culturally.

Jelly Roll by Kevin Young (poetry)
Musical poems that truly sing: the musicality of the lines of love and loss had me making up tunes in my head. The short poems speak volumes; the longer ones, lifetimes.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (novel)
Beautiful, shrewd, and funny. A fifty-year-old gay novelist traverses the globe to avoid the wedding of his ex. Echoes of The Odyssey throughout. The final usage: love.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (novel)
Everything about this novel—the exceptional storytelling of intertwines lives, the indelible prortraits of characters going through major internal changes, the expert plotting and backstories and future revelations—left me breathless,

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (short stories)
Every story vibrates with humanity; the author writes lifetimes in each tale, and the characters resonate beyond the stories. One of the best collections.

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson (novel)
What a trip! The slave trade is the background to this novel about an ex-slave unwittingly boarding an illegal slave trade ship in New Orleans. High-seas high jinks ensues. At times philosophical, other times revolting and metaphysical. This novel defies genre. Loved it.

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (short stories)
One of my favorite collections of all time. These are dark tales. The stories’ intimacies and characters’ inner lives made me gasp and sigh and smile and cry. It will haunt me (in a good way) forever.

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim (novel)
One of the best novels I’ve ever read. The author’s use of simile and metaphor is perfection, every word and image relating to the accretion of dread the story projects. No tears, no mea culpas. Refreshing in its frankness, but not sensational. A great American novel.

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt (statistics)
A fun read. The author, through statistics, proves that -ly adverb use diminishes a novel on several levels.

Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution by Stephen S. Mills (poetry)
This book is in two parts, in two centuries, about two redheads: a devout eighteenth-century woman’s dalliance with suicide by proxy and a twentieth-century unabashedly sexual gay man’s brush with vandalism and the law. Powerful stuff about those who question societal norms.

Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen (poetry)
Upsetting. Pulls no punches, but not brutal. The poet deals with issues related to his mother, body size, creativity, and immigrants. Fascinating.

Now I Sit Me Down by Witold Rybczynski (design)
Reading this history of the chair and its designs throughout the ages has changed me forever. I will never look at or experience one so casually anymore. Love the author’s writing and erudition.

Orphic Paris by Henri Cole (memoir)
A loving paean to Paris, the city of poets, and beauty and flowers. A slim book overflowing with a master’s insight in to the tangible and he intangible, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, friendship and solitude. And, ultimately, love.

Paul by Howard Brenton (play)
The story of Saul’s conversion told as a spin-doctor tale. I loved this. The playwright is a great writer. He knows how to write from both sides while still maintaining his liberal stance.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor (novel)
Paul can change himself into a woman in the Gen-X nineties picaresque bildungsroman. Wry, insightful—a fascinating distillation of gender and fucking. So relatable to queers of my generation.

The Pencil Perfect by Caroline Weaver (history)
The author organizes the book thoughtfully—by pencil brand/family history, then by a pencil’s aspects. A fun read. I learned so much! The illustrations by Oriana Fenwick are gorgeous—nonpareil.

The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco (memoir)
The poet laureate writes about his childhood and teen years in Miami. I felt a strong kinship: never feeling like you fit in because of the Closet. The last two pages made me weep.

Razzle Dazzle by Kevin Boyd Grubb (biography)
The life of Bob Fosse, with many words from his friends and colleagues. Reading it makes you want to watch all his movies and wish you had seen the stage work. I’ve always felt an affinity for his work, especially his choreography.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (novel)
A chilling tale that takes place in the near future of America, when women no longer have reproductive rights. The narratives of these indomitable women are a balm of hope during this fucked-up time.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (novel)
An unabashedly, unapologetically told coming-of-age romp. Loved it!

Severance by Ling Ma (novel)
This zombie apocalypse reads as a satire and indictment of American consumerism and capitalism (the death of NYC) and how everything is tainted to the point of lifeless monotony. Scary and funny, sharp and unsettling. Wry. A page-turner.

Shady Characters by Keith Houston (nonfiction)
The grammar geek in me loved this thoroughly researched and fun, well-written guide to the history of obscure or strange punctuation, like the pilcrow and interrobang.

Some Hell by Patrick Nathan (novel)
Redoubtable and stunning debut novel of a teenage boy coming to grips (or not) with his dad’s suicide. A harrowing tale of Eros and Thanatos dancing a dangerous and breathtaking pas de deux. I did not foresee that ending! I will never forget this book.

The Songs of Trees by David George Haskell (nature and science)
The author is a poet and scientist, a lover of trees. The central thesis revolves around the connectivity of all organisms. Profound, liberal, moving. I’ve always loved trees. Now I understand more of my own connection to all living things.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (novel)
A modern tragedy, and what an indictment of our times. Slim yet packs powerful punches. Beckettian in that we must go on, even after we are ravaged by the horrors of injustice and heartbreak. The deliberate bad punctuation drove me a little batty. But, then again, reading Pride and Prejudice did the same.

All Strangers Are Kin by Zora O’Neill (travel memoir and language)
What a treat. As the author travels through disparate Arabic, Muslim countries to learn the various dialects and connect with the real people, she discovers how universal humanity is, despite out differences. I relished her love of Arabic and her constant battle between her Apollonian and Dionysian sides.

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard (essays)
The author grew up an only child with parents who always seemed to be searching for something, resulting in Christian Science faith and Amway. Very personal and well researched. Excellent long essays that read quickly.

Sweet and Low by Nick White (short stories)
Provocative characters fill these Mississippi tales with unexpected outcomes. The gay characters woven into them fit perfectly among its denizens: Queers act funny and are a part of the social fabric. Just don’t talk directly about them. I can’t wait to read more from this writer!

Tango by Justin Vivian Bond (memoir)
A short but honest memoir of the author’s childhood sex life, growing up closeted and confused, learning to hide and be hypervigilant. Slightly scattered, which mimic’s their ADD, but effective. I wish I were their friend growing up.

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins (essays)
The author is unabashedly frank but never vulgar or trendy. Here is an intellectual’s foray into the intersectionality of being black, a feminist, and female. Her letter to Michelle Obama is golden. I have been taught and learned so much.

Twentieth-Century Boy by Duncan Hannah (memoir)
A wild and name-dropping ride through the seventies and early-eighties New York art, music, and literary scenes. The author is very literate and engaging. I read this so quickly, devouring his language. I like his figurative art too.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (essays)
The author is a true curmudgeon, and I laughed my ass off while reading it on the subway. I also felt for her, as she comes from quite a broken family. One of those books that should be required reading. I also love her pet cat as an antagonistic character.

We’ve Already Gone This Far by Patrick Dacey (short stories)
Excellent collection that explores in thirteen interrelated stories vivid characters mired by their sad and sometimes humorous existential crises. The last story, ending the collection in full circle, gutted me.

World’s End by T. Coraghessan Boyle (novel)
A page-turner about the battle between generations of capitalists and patriots versus communists and the underdog laborer. No one wins. The perniciousness of patriotism is exposed. Timely.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (memoir and poetry)
A masterful storyteller relates moments from his past on the reservation as he tries to understand and mourn his mother’s death. She was a quilt maker and story teller as well, but was a chronic liar. The 160 chapters are both prose and poetry and woven together like one of her patchwork quilts.

You Must Remember This by Michael Bazzett (poetry)
Loved the wordplay! These poems take unexpected, slightly macabre turns and forced me to interact with them on not just an intellectual but a visceral level.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017 (you can see the list in the right-hand column if you view in web version). I like to vary the genre, so I have developed a list and usually read books in the following order:

  • short stories
  • grammar/writing/books about books
  • novel
  • general nonfiction
  • play/theatre
  • classic (at least forty years old)
  • queer
  • journal
  • memoir
  • new release
  • poetry
  • random (I let the computer decide)

(Yes, I am a like that. It’s a constant battle between my Apollonian and Dionysian natures.)

The plays and the books of poetry usually take a day to read (for instance, poet Major Jackson’s excellent book Roll Deep), but there are some thick books which take a little longer, such as one of my favorite novels, Tim Murphy’s Christodora. I keep a record of every book I read, including the date on which I finish it and a few musings regarding my overall impressions. Here are ones that stood out for me over the year, in alphabetical order by title. (Note that not all of these books were published in 2017.)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (essays)
She tells it real. Trenchant. Better to be a “bad” feminist, says she, than no feminist at all. Recommended reading for everyone.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (essays)
Musings that are abstract and philosophical, honest and personal, and corporeal and spiritual about the color blue. Each paragraph is numbered and, even if it’s one sentence, states its case. Lots of through lines held together deftly, as characters appear and reappear, challenging her, loving her, and bringing her closer to her understanding blue.

Boy Erased by Garrard Conley (memoir)
A young evangelical man grapples with his homosexuality, family, and the ex-gay movement insanity. Sensual writing. A loving memoir about self-loathing. Conley does not play the blame game; he made the decision to go into therapy and the decision to leave.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking (science)
I understood about 70 percent; a few equations, which he eschewed, could have helped. Nevertheless, it blew my mind. I finally understand time as a fourth dimension. The book is twenty-nine years old, so a lot has changed. I’ll have to do some research.

The Business of Fancydancing by Sherman Alexie (poetry and stories)
Alexie’s poetry is relatable, funny, and magical. He feels that the reservation is no longer his home, but he always returns. Lots of seeds planted here that sprout in his later work.

Christodora by Tim Murphy (novel)
Indelible characters, multigenerational and multi-socioeconomic, spanning thirty years in this story of New Yorkers. Drugs of all kinds and activism, both political and personal, tie all the story lines together. A page-turner.

Dubliners by James Joyce (short stories)
Mostly sad slices of life about people who feel trapped. Written over a hundred years ago, but feels very modern. I liked it much more than I thought: I remember having read some of them when I was much younger, but they did not affect me as much then. Joyce wrote this before writing his stream-of-consciousness fiction.

The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich (poetry)
The land, the heavens, the animals—all interwoven in gorgeous litanies.

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick (memoir)
One of the best memoirs I have read. A mother’s ruinous notion of romantic love versus her daughter’s struggle not to turn into her mother. Poetic but precise, loving and scolding, it is what it is (said with a Yiddish accent).

Fitting Ends and Other Stories by Dan Chaon (short stories)
Pre-Internet stories about young men who are lost in the world. I felt a certain kinship with many of them.

The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell (nature and science)
Learned so much about forest ecology and human beings’ relationship to nature. Thoughtful and insightful. A model book. Loved it all.

Founding Grammars by Rosemarie Ostler (history)
An in-depth look at the history of grammar books in America. Intriguing because their writers were often so bitchy to one another. Ostler’s research is impeccable and easy to follow.

God in Pink by Hasan Namir
The Islam-gay struggle is explored. This at times brutal short novel reads a little like a screenplay. But the story, characters, and otherworldliness elevate it. The reversal is done really well.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (short stories)
Masterful, sensual, haunting stories, with dollops of magical realism. Frightening, at times. “The Husband Stitch” ends with one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever read. A punch to the gut.

How They Were Found by Matt Bell (short stories)
These are disturbing tales—retellings of fables with otherworldly modern-day twists. Haunting.

The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris (novel)
Truly memorable characters help shape this story of musicians and club owners in Jazz Age Chicago. Sad lives of Jewish and Black habitués that find redemption in the end. The five senses get fully rolled out, which made me feel as if I were part of its fabric. The first and last paragraphs should be taught in writing class. The first ten pages are unforgettable, showing how peace can turn to tragedy in a heartbeat.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (short stories)
Johnson blends reality and drug reality seamlessly—a master of this. Redemption is hinted at, in the last story. I really like his style.

Kid Champion by Thomas Babe (play)
The fleeting fuckedupedness of fame. Babe was a great playwright. Meaty roles. An American tragedy.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (poetry)
Relatable and topical: Bowie, father's death (he worked on Hubble), space, God, the future planet. All interwoven. I will return to some of these again.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (novel)
A truly original novel. Existential, touching, funny, heartbreaking.

Miss Lonleyhearts & The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
The character descriptions are beyond vivid. Actions are a little mysterious at times, but ultimately I was okay with that because West is capturing the human condition in all of its mercurial emotional zigs and zags. Extremely frank for its time (1930s).

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul (memoir)
I felt like the author was writing about my life and thoughts, at times. Moving on many levels. I like reading about people who love books as much as I do. And she’s an atheist!

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal (novel)
I fell in love with all the characters. Great novel, mixing humor with pathos. I love how all the disparate stories come together—and (spoiler alert) the happy ending.

The One You Get by Jason Tougaw (memoir)
Lovingly written memoir interweaving a frank coming-of-age story amid hippie dysfunction, with neuroscience mixed in (for the layperson). I felt a rush and blush of so much recognition.

Party of One by Dave Holmes (memoir)
An extremely funny (wry), honest, and at times touching, sad-sack memoir by the gay Gen Xer MTV VJ. He slept through most of 9/11 (as I had done) and doesn’t suffer fools. The title did not become completely apparent until the very end after he realizes he only has to be himself and not feel like he needs to belong to a group that in all honesty doesn’t deserve him as a member.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (novel)
The sheer breadth of the tale telling is a marvel. The plotting was operatic as were the characters. Rich in period details. The lack of emotion evinced by the main character is intentional: she has no real speaking voice for she is a woman trapped in a man’s society. She does not want to be defined that way. She is no crybaby.

Roll Deep by Major Jackson (poetry)
I was overwhelmed by the beauty and scope of the language. So many riches, like “Aubade,” a poem of love and companionship. “Reverse Voyage”—Wow.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (novel)
The plot is told out of time from multiple third-person points of view, spanning decades. A pandemic wipes out most of humanity. Probing questions about life and death, our responsibilities as human beings, how art can transform us. The first few chapters are thrilling.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (novel)
I read this in six days, which truly is a record. Such a page-turner!

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (memoir)
She has always been a great writer, and her memoir of her early years proves delectable. With recipes!

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (novel)
A short novel l that ends with a visceral punch. Achebe shows how a native man's life can be reduced to a mere paragraph in the mind of a colonialist. Powerful.

Transitory by Tobias Carroll (short stories)
The Shadows of ghosts darken these characters’ lives as they ruminate their places in the world: I’m a middle-aged misfit; how do I fit in, or does it really matter? Existential, musings, alcoholism.

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (novel)
Very deep. Explores the relationship between the self and the perception of the self; human v. simulation; what is real? I learned so much about myself (and about the science of space, too).

The Welcome Home Diner by Peggy Lampman (novel with recipes)
I loved copyediting this. Polish-American cousins, racial strife, gentrification, human trafficking—a lot, but Peggy pulls it off. Great recipes too!

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (novel)
The world-weary landscape of Bulgaria is seen through the eyes of an American teacher. I learned how to write a novel by reading this and did not realize that till I was finished. It broke my heart and should be required reading.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (short stories)
These stories blew me away. Fierce young women, mostly at sea, trying to find their identities in a patriarchal world. Magical, original, and, most important, entertaining.

Word by Word by Kory Stamper (nonfiction and grammar)
Stamper comes across as erudite, wry, obdurate, yet always fair and in a way moral. I would love to be in her shoes, at her job with Merriam-Webster.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Afraid of Apostrophes? Fear No More!

I admit it: I’ve always been a grammar geek. In the second grade, I had missed a few days of school for whatever reason. When I came back to the fold, the teacher was going over the proper way to use apostrophes to show possession and told us that there would be a quiz following the recap. Was I not exempt from this quiz because of my absence? No. “It’s easy to learn, Paul.” Okay. I understood the concept of adding an apostrophe-s to words and names, but my young mind could not grasp the s-apostrophe, or plural possessive. I had a mini panic attack. I was a smart kid; why could I not figure this out? I realized that missing a few days of school could change your life and make you a dunce (I vowed never to be sick again). The knot in my stomach tightened, and it felt like the time during recess when Lee Ann Nolan punched me in the gut after I took a cookie from her. I remember taking it from her because I liked her and wanted her to notice me. (I was “straight” back then.) Maybe this is why as a middle-aged adult I don’t like to be noticed too much. (Psychologists, any input?)

Back to the quiz. Because I did not like feeling like a little dummy, I vowed to figure this stuff out ASAP. So, I asked Sheri, the girl next to me, to explain it. (I didn’t want to ask the teacher because I felt she was a little mean that day, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of the entire reading group.) So Sheri told me in a sweet whisper that whenever a word is plural, you just add an apostrophe. Of course I tried to analyze her simple instruction, which made me panic even more when I was confronted with the word “children.” Christ, if I was a child who couldn’t even figure out how to show possession to the word that represented my peers, what kind of a child was I? So I took a deep breath (I knew breath control could make or break you), turned to her again, and she saw me about to cry. Trying to ameliorate my addled temperament, she quickly added, “If the word ends in an s, just add the apostrophe.

Okay, I could grasp that quick and efficient dictum. So, when it was time for the quiz, every time I saw an s, I added the little apostrophe. Phew.

For the remainder of the school day, whenever I had a free moment, I looked at all the examples of possession in my workbook, and finally my brain was able to grasp the concept.

Why am I telling you this tale? Because if a six-year-old can figure out how to use a damn apostrophe in less than four hours, so can you.

If you don’t know this already, the British are notorious for not understanding how to use apostrophes. Lynne Truss wrote extensively about this in her cute book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, excoriating green grocers for adding apostrophes to, well, just about everything. Says Truss, “I don’t know how bad things are in America, but in the UK I cannot emphasize it enough: standards of punctuation are abysmal.” She goes on to list some funny examples of improperly apostrophized signs, my favorite being “XMA’S TREES.” (That one defies logic.)

British author Simon Griffin, a man after my own heart, believes that you can learn the proper way to use apostrophes. He recently wrote a wee book called Fucking Apostrophes. From the get-go, Griffin tries to understand why the British populace cannot understand the difference between its and it’s. (Here’s a little quiz: can you use both properly in the same sentence?)

Says Griffin: “The basic rules of fucking apostrophes are, as you’d expect, quite basic, but as the English language has evolved, so the use of fucking apostrophes has become more and more complex.” (Every time the word “apostrophe” appears, it is preceded by the word “fucking.” Trust me, it works.)

He goes on to state: “The fact is that the rules for using fucking apostrophes have changed massively over time, and different people have adopted different versions. Just look at King’s Cross, which is written both with and without a fucking apostrophe; or Waterstones, which dropped its fucking apostrophe; or Hear’Say, who used a fucking apostrophe to make them look groovy.” (This reminds of the time when Barney’s dropped its apostrophe because Ivan Chermayeff, its adman, thought it would look better in its logo, hovering above “New York.” It does.)

All of these misplaced apostrophes suggest that as English was changing from an oral to a written language, writers and scholars and printers all had different ideas for how to use an apostrophe. As the language progressed, and grammar rules became more rigid, the general literate population became confused. I imagine the frustration of those who truly gave a crap: “When do I add that squiggly, arrogant little bugger?”

Here are a few of my favorite examples from Fucking Apostrophes. They are cheeky, irreverent, and tossed off in a manner so nonchalant that I can’t help but love this man.
  • “You’re an idiot = You are an idiot.”
  • “He’d like you to buy him some cocaine. = “He would like you to buy him some cocaine.”
  • “The children’s wage was low. (Not ‘The childrens/childrens’ wage…’)”
Alas, Mr. Griffin and his editors are not perfect: At the end of the book, we read the following two examples explaining the difference between your and you’re:
  • “Your test results are back Mr. Armstrong.”
  • “You’re next Mr. Wiggins.”
Can you spot the errors? Someone should write a book called Fucking Commas.

Oh, as we enter the holiday season, please don’t add a fucking apostrophe to your last name on your family’s holiday card. If your last name is Smith, you are not the Smith’s; you are the Smiths. If your last name is Griffiths, you are not the Griffiths’ or the Griffiths’s; you are the Griffithses. Heck, if your last name is Papadopoulos, you are not the Papadopoulos’s; you are the Papadopouloses. Yes, it looks weird, but that’s the way it is. Better right than looking like a fucking idiot.

Have you thought of a sentence using it’s/its? Here’s my example: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and its celebrants can’t wait for the holiday season to be over. 


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Grammatically Speaking, Is It Possible to Care Less?

When I was a young man, my friend Kristen corrected me after hearing me say “I could care less.” I don’t remember the context, but I do remember being slightly mortified but also grateful that it was she who corrected me before I went out into world to embarrass myself again.

The proper phrase, “I couldn’t care less,” has been around for over a hundred years. It simply means, “I have no interest in what you are saying. I could not possibly care any less than I do right now.” Its import is literal. When we utter this phrase, we generally emphasize the contraction couldn’t, which makes sense, since that is the most important word in this utterance.

Now say “I could care less” out loud. You most likely emphasized the word less, not the word could. When we missay “I could care less,” we are literally saying, “Yes, it is possible that I could care less than I do right now.” This means that you actually do care a wee bit. But we really don’t care a wee bit, do we, or any size bit for that matter. Therefore, unless you are trying to be intentionally ironic—which I assure you, you’re not—it is incorrect to say “I could care less.”

If you find it impossible to stop saying “I could care less” because you have missaid it this way for aeons, you might be better off (and closer to what you really mean to say) if you emphasize the word could instead of emphasizing less. By doing so, you leave the listener with a lingering anticipation that there’s more to come. We can represent this as such: “I could care less . . . .” (The ellipsis (“. . .”) represents the lingering anticipation.) If we choose to fill in the blank—to finish the sentence—it may sound something like “I could care less . . . but I really don’t.” Which is really the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” But, because we’ve missaid the phrase so often, and it’s become part of the American patois, we don’t even have to fill in the blank. Even though it’s wrong, we know exactly what is being said: “I don’t give a shit.”

I have a theory how “I couldn’t care less” has devolved to the troublesome “I could care less.” Although I like some theories that suggest that New Yorkers in the 1960s, influenced by the inflections and irony of Yiddish (such as “I should be so lucky”), had a hand in all this, I think it’s much simpler. We like to garble our words, especially when we are around like-minded individuals, those who share the same patois. It is this garbling that has led me to speculate why this wrong phrasing popped up. Follow me, if you will:

“I could not care less” gets contracted to:
“I couldn’t care less,” which gets garbled to sound like:
“I coulda care less,” which is shortened to:
“I could care less.”

But because that makes no sense, and we like to make sense of things, we switch the stress to

“I could care less.”

Voilà!

So, think before you speak. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that saying “I couldn’t care less” is the appropriate response. It’s direct (remember, it’s literal), and it’s snarky. Say it out loud. “I couldn’t care less.” Or better yet, for extra bitchiness, “I could not have cared any less.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I Literally Don’t Care How You Use the Word Literally

photo courtesy NBC

Does your ire fire up when you hear someone use literally in the following context: “She literally chewed my ear off, going on and on about how she met what’s his name from that movie.”* If your face has turned bright red and you’re figuratively blowing off some steam, you just might be a prescriptivist. A prescriptivist is a grammar geek who champions the rules of written language. It doesn’t matter so much to a prescriptivist who invented these rules; the important part is they be followed. Don’t begin a sentence with “And.” Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Disregard for the rules, whether blatant or not, is fuel for the prescriptivist’s fire.
* If you’re not sure what literally truly means, let’s just say the above speaker would be in surgery right know, enshrouded by a team of medical professionals trying to figure out what to do about the gaping hole.
If you found nothing wrong with the sentence, however, you probably align yourselves with the descriptivists. A descriptivist is someone who embraces spoken language. Like a research scientist in the field, the descriptivist records dialogue from her chosen subjects, listening for patterns of usage regardless of the rules and regulations of English. She is much more comfortable defining language by how people use it rather than by the language laws decreed by the twentieth-century English-language gods Fowler, Strunk, and White. So when she hears literally in the above sentence, she knows that the speaker isn’t concerned about the literal meaning of literally, here, but uses the word for effect. (Americans love to use adverbs to gain attention . . . whatever.)

Along the prescriptivism/descriptivism spectrum, I find myself caught in the middle of these two schools of thought, especially when I write for myself. If I’m copyediting someone else’s work, I lean a little towards the prescriptivist camp, since I have to abide by house rules, i.e., the rules the editor wants her copyeditors to follow.

Back in 2011, prescriptivists’ panties were in a much reported bunch over Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to offer an alternative, “informal” definition for literally in 2011. “Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.” (I love how OED uses the word it’s defining in the definition.) Merriam-Webster rolled its new definition out in 2013: “in effect : virtually.”

They both get it right, and M-W is emphatic that figurative, the opposite of literal, is not intended by its speakers. In its Usage Discussion section, the editors clearly pinpoint what we mean when we use literally nonliterally:
Since some people take sense 2 [in effect : virtually] to be the opposite of sense 1 [in a literal sense or manner : actually], it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
If M-W’s Usage Discussion doesn’t convince you, and you still think that people use literally to mean figuratively, try swapping them in a sentence:
I figuratively jumped out of my skin when Dmitri, wearing only a Scream mask, woke me up in the middle of the night. 
You’re so cute, I could eat you alive, figuratively.
Egads. No one in his or her right mind would utter such bizarreness.

One thing is certain: these alternative definitions show how our language evolves. Dictionaries often bend to the vicissitudes of our spoken language when new usage gains traction. And because literally has been used for over a century in its second sense (e.g., Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”; and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “The land literally flowed with milk and honey.”), it seemed only a matter of time for distinguished dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford, to acknowledge this evolution.

My partner Steve’s cousin Amy came to visit this weekend with her brother, Brian, and the four of us argued spiritedly about the putative misuse of this charged word. Brian seems to align himself with the prescriptivists. Amy utters literally quite liberally, much to Brian’s chagrin. But was she misusing the word? According to these ears, no. Plopping herself down on our living room chair after a sixteen-hour car ride from Milwaukee, she exclaimed, “There were literally no flights in the Midwest.” It was this declaration that set off the debate.

Amy continued to say literally throughout the weekend, always using it (in her mind) to mean actually. But in saying the word, she seemed to always put it in italics, which in turn seemed to evoke the second definition, virtually. I could see Brian begin to bristle. Being a fair and balanced grammarian, I pointed out that Amy always seems to combine both meanings into one super-meaning: She intends literally to mean actually, but she also wants the listener to understand that “Yeah, I know what I’m saying sounds crazy, but it’s true. There were literally no flights. For real. No joke.” When Amy says literally, she wants to have her cake and eat it too. And I applaud her for that. She knows that she has to be emphatic when using literally literally, or else no one will believe her.

Does this mean that the word literally has become meaningless? A victim of its own usage and ostensible misapplication? Perhaps a few more decades must pass before we have the answer. But, until then, we can use the word in whichever context we desire, emphatically or otherwise.

Fun facts:

Did you know that literally can be pronounced more than one way? Besides the four-syllable pronunciation of LIT-uh-ruh-lee (or LIT-ur-uh-lee), you can be confident saying it in three syllables—the way Rob Lowe’s character Chris Traeger discharged it literally a million times in his optimistically fast staccato on Parks and Recreation: LIH-truh-lee. I would giggle like a young grammarian every time I heard that word burst from his mouth.

Did you also know that literal is a homonym with littoral, which means, according to M-W, “of or relating to or on or near a shore especially of the sea”? Most people—except sailors, coastal zoologists and botanists, and Cousin Amy, who is in the U.S.N.R (that’s the Navy Reserve, for us civilians)—have never heard this word before and, when they do hear it, naturally think of literal. If you really want to confuse a sailor, coastal zoologist, or Amy, try this sentence on for size: “During ebb tide, the beach was littorally flecked with seaweed and abandoned shells that once housed small critters of the sea.”

Amy informed me that the men and women with whom she bivouacs pronounce littoral Lih-TOR-uhl, rhyming it with the way many men (and misinformed women) pronounce clitoral. This was exciting news to me. I immediately thought, How many years will it take for Oxford and Merriam-Webster to offer an alternative pronunciation?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lay It Down and Lie Low: The Battle Between Two Misunderstood Verbs

Most Americans cannot tell the difference between the verbs lay (to place) and lie (to recline). It’s a sad truth. Actually, most Americans think that lay means both to place and to recline. And that lie means solely to fib. The confusion lies in the past tense of the verb to lie, which is lay.

Oy vey.

{ Flashback. }

I’m in sixth grade class. My teacher Mrs. Centurelli, holding my language arts quiz in her hand, sidles up to my desk. My eyes zoom in on the circled, red-inked grade, with the precision of Luke Skywalker targeting the Death Star. I usually nail these quizzes so when I saw “Use the following words in a sentence” on this one, I was pretty confident I’d get an A. Once a grammar geek . . . .

But, all I see is a big question mark. She hands me my quiz and I stare at that serpentine scarlet marking, well . . . quizzically.

Mrs. Centurelli explains, “I couldn’t grade one of your answers because it was vague.”

Vague? Yikes! I want that A.

“What should I do?”

She grabs the quiz back, turns it over, and points to the problem. “You were asked to use the word lay in a sentence, but your answer avoids using it in a way that makes me think I should just mark it wrong.”

I scan my sentence and read it aloud. “I like the song that Melanie sings called ‘Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).’”

Okay, I see her point. I could also have written, “His last word before he croaked was ‘Lay.’”

So I look up at her stern but somewhat bemused eyes and start singing the song in my best boy soprano (but with a hippie bent, since Melanie was singing about Woodstock, after all).

Lay down, lay down, lay it all down
Let your white birds smile
At the ones who stand and frown

Still frowning, Mrs. Centurelli asks, “So, what are you laying down?”

Isn’t it obvious. Geez. “It! She’s telling us to just lay it all down, you dig?” The Sixties, especially the flower-spreading hippies, taunted me with the promise of freedom, whatever that meant. But I dug the patois.

“Yeah, I dig.” She throws me a little smirk and leans in closely to me.“No more answers like that, okay? You’re better than that.”

“Okay, Mrs. C.” I thought she was hipper than, I don’t know, my mom, but at least my mom knew the lyrics to the Melanie song.

{ Jump forward to now. }

In grammar-geek patois, lay is a transitive verb, meaning that it takes a direct object, i.e., the object being acted upon. In the sentence “I lay kitchen tile for work,” kitchen tile is the direct object of the verb to lay. What are you laying? Kitchen tile.

Lie is an intransitive verb, so it stands alone, needing no direct object. In the sentence “We lie on the waterbed, holding hands,” there is no direct object, since you cannot lie something. If you have trouble understanding that, try substituting the word recline or sit.

Now, for the nitty-gritty. What follows is your guide to choosing the correct verb, based on its tense.



The following sentences show these verbs and their inflections in context:
  • Before we lie down, will you lay the handcuffs at the foot of the bed? (Substitute recline for lie down and set for lay, if you’re at all confused.)
  • I’m trying to entice you with my wiles, but you just lie there like a sleeping bulldog. (An old folk belief still persists that lie refers to people, whereas lay is reserved for animals and objects—not true! Remember the saying “Let sleeping dogs lie.”)
  • Enraptured with the fall foliage, he lay on a pile of maple leaves he had earlier raked into an orange and gold mound. (In this example, lay is the past tense of lie.)
  • After carving the chicken into eight pieces, Marcus laid the knife in the sink to prevent any cross-contamination with the vegetables lying nearby. (Knife is the direct object of laid; the lying vegetables are doing just that, minding their own business.)
  • Had you lain down for a spell before the midnight showing of Rocky Horror, you would not have fallen asleep in the middle of Tim Curry’s “Sweet Transvestite.” (Unforgivable!)
As a copy editor, I close my eyes and hum om every time I see or hear lay and lie used improperly. Hell, I roll my eyes and slap the side of my head every time I catch myself misusing one of these words. Improper use of lay and lie makes the teacher in me cry just a little. Again, if you have trouble differentiating between the two, substitute recline or sit for lie and place or set for lay, until you get the hang of it. Then, you can start using these verbs properly, without having to think about which is correct every time you open your formerly ignorant mouth. Ha ha.

It’s interesting to note that both words derive from the Old English and they are distinguished by one different vowel: lay comes from lecgan; lie comes from licgan. It seems that this scourge—confusing these two seemingly innocuous little verbs— belched out of an Anglo-Saxon’s maw well over a thousand years ago. It’s time for a revolution.

For fun, here are a few song lyrics. Can you tell which are used properly?
  1. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down (Simon and Garfunkel)
  2. Lay down, Sally, and rest you in my arms (Eric Clapton)
  3. You’re gone and I’m lost inside this tangled web in which I’m lain entwined (Sarah McLachlan)
  4. Lying beside you, here in the dark, feeling your heart beat with mine (Journey)
  5. Lay, lady, lay across my big brass bed (Bob Dylan)
  6. And when I laid beside you for the first time (Tegan and Sara)
Answers
  1. Correct. This one is a little tricky, but me is the direct object of lay.
  2. Incorrect. “Lie down, Sally” would be correct.
  3. Incorrect, although in this instance, lain is most likely dialect for laying (she pronounces the word with two syllables), in which case, it’s still incorrect. “In which I’m lying entwined” would be correct, but if she truly meant lain, then “in which I’m laid entwined” would be correct, although it would imply that someone had put her in the metaphorical web, which would be odd.
  4. Correct. Lying is intransitive; grammarians applaud Journey for the proper use of this verb.
  5. Incorrect. “Lie, lady, lie” would be correct.
  6. Incorrect. “And when I lay beside you” would be correct.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Strange Case of He Versus Him, and Other Pronoun (Mis)applications

In Michael Jackson’s classic “The Girl Is Mine,” a duet with Paul McCartney in which a ménage a trois seems to be out of the question, Paul pleads to the unseen, unnamed girl, “I love you more than he.” I smile every time I hear this lyric because, in the context of the song, it is grammatically correct. What Paul is trying to get across to the girl is that there is no way in hell Michael loves her more than he, Paul, loves her. If Paul had sung, “I love you more than him,” a ménage a trois might be a possibility, because what he would actually be saying is that he loves her more than he loves Michael. (So the next time you profess your love in this comparative manor, choose your pronoun — he or him — wisely.) Let me show you what’s really at work here by supplying the “unsung” lyrics in brackets and alternating he and him:
“I love you more than he [loves you].”
“I love you more than [I love] him.”
He is known as a subjective, or nominative (from the Latin nomen, or “name”), pronoun, meaning it acts as the subject of a sentence and, many times, precedes the verb. You can see in the first, true, lyric above that “he” is the subject of the unsung “loves you.”

Him is an objective pronoun. It acts as the object of a verb in a sentence and, many times, follows the verb. In the second, made-up, lyric, you can see that “him” is the direct object of “I love.”

Sometimes proper English sounds strange to us. When we answer the phone and the caller asks for you, you respond, “This is he” or “It is I,” using a nominative pronoun. Why? Because in this instance, “I” really acts as the subject of the sentence. Let me show you by rearranging the sentence a little: “I am the the person to whom you are speaking.” Grammatically, we use nominative pronouns when they follow “to be” verbs because they act as the subject. What follows the “to be” verb is called the subjective complement and the pronouns that are a part of this subjective complement become predicate pronouns. (I’ll admit, it’s not so easy to commit these grammar concepts to memory, but if you are a word nerd as much as I, you’ve already done so.)

I would go out on a limb and state that pronouns have become the most notoriously abused part of speech in the new millennium; I’ve noticed in general conversational speech, and also on television shows, that people are misusing them more and more. This, in turn, infects our minds until we begin to misapply pronouns liberally. So to help you distinguish which pronouns to use in which circumstances, here is a little pronoun chart you may remember from English class. It will help you distinguish between pronouns that act as subjects and those that act as objects:

Nominative (Subjective) Case
Singular
Plural
I
we
you
you
she, he, it, who
they, who

Objective Case
Singular
Plural
me
us
you
you
her, him, it, whom
them, whom

(As you can see from the charts, you, who, and whom can be either singular or plural, depending, of course, on the number of persons involved.)

Steve, my partner, observes keenly that “people try to be too right” when choosing pronouns, and, in their pursuit of the correct pronoun, chose the wrong one. Probably the most common example of misuse involves pronouns that are the object of a preposition. How many times have we heard people start a sentence, “Between you and I.” This, of course, is incorrect. Objective, not nominative, case pronouns are required after the word between, which is a preposition. (Prepositions are words that begin phrases that help further explain, say, temporal or spatial relationships.) For example, in the James Taylor song “Shed a Little Light,” Taylor sings, “Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King and recognize that there are ties between us.” “Us” is the object of the preposition “between”; therefore, it is an objective case pronoun. Now change “us” to its synonym “you and me.” We use me instead of I because me is also an objective pronoun. If you get confused, just remember that you would never say “between we.” So why would you ever say “between you and I”? We are so conditioned to say “you and I” when I acts as a nominative pronoun that we begin to use the phrase “you and I” at all times, even when we shouldn’t. This is what Steve means when he says we try to be too right.

Some of you may be saying, “Relax already, so what if I choose the wrong pronoun every now and then? It’s my right as an American to speak colloquially.” Terrific, speak colloquially with your nonjudgmental friends, but what if you happen to be on a job interview or are trying to impress some clients or a first date? Discussing your love for the culinary arts, you relate a story that begins “Me and him went to the fishmonger for some bottarga to shave over our homemade spaghetti.” In this example, the wrong case, objective, is evoked. It should be the nominative (subjective) case; therefore, your story should begin “I and he,” or better yet, “He and I.” Listen to yourself speak and you’ll be surprised how often you sound like Cookie Monster, who’s always proclaiming, “Me want cookie!” We Americans get too relaxed sometimes and have a difficult time distinguishing between nominative and objective cases, especially when there are two pronouns involved. Remember, sometimes speaking colloquially can make you sound, well, just plain uneducated.

So, to iterate, use a nominative case pronoun when you need a subject for your sentence and the objective case when your pronoun acts as the direct object of a verb or the object of a preposition. You will never be embarrassed on a date or job interview again (unless, of course, you’re with Cookie Monster).