Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

Elmore Leonard offered a much quoted dictum about the use of exclamation points ( or exclamation marks) in his book  10 Rules of Writing : “ You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” For most of my life, I had no problem adhering to this rule because I rarely used a punctuation mark. It seemed artificial and I was well able to manage without it.

The purpose of an exclamation point is to ” indicate strong feelings or high volume” and it often marks the end of a sentence.  Initially used to convey joy, wonderment ( ” Eureka!”) or other positive feelings its use was later expanded to communicate  astonishment in a negative sense ( ” Alas!”). Since I never used such interjections, it was easy to avoid using the exclamation point.

All that changed with the advent of e-mails and, more particularly, text messaging. The use of exclamation points exploded and it is not unusual nowadays to see them used in bunches, three or four of them one after another. I must confess that I too am now an inveterate user of exclamation points in my text messages( though only one at a time) and, to a lesser extent, my e-mail.

Why this sudden change?

There are two reasons that are advanced to explain this phenomenon. Eliot Hannon writing in Slate calls exclamation points ” a tonic in the grayness of electronic communication.” He adds” the more insignificant the message, the more the exclamation points.”  Others have put forth the idea that exclamation points are a sign of ” the general exaggeration, aggressiveness and extremism of our culture.”

I subscribe to the first explanation. Often, after I have tapped out a text message and am reading it prior to sending it, I find it sounds abrupt and unfeeling, somehow incomplete. The solution: Add an exclamation point. A text message is not so much a written communication as a written conversation and, because it has to be brief, it is well nigh impossible to convey tone and emphasis without resorting to exclamation points. Twitter  demands even more brevity and Twitterers use exclamation points even more freely. I also suspect that many writers on social media are poor communicators and don’t have the language skills to convey what they want to say without devices such as exclamation points.

Not that Elmore Leonard followed his own rule. In his 45 novels, he used an average of 45 exclamation points per 100,000 words, about 16 times as many as he recommended.  However, he is still better than most others. Salman Rushdie used 204 ( per 100,000), Tom Wolfe  929 and James Joyce 1,105.*

Ultimately, it is up to individuals to use as few ( or as many) exclamation points as they want. Elmore Leonard notwithstanding, there are no hard and fast rules for the use of exclamation points. Let it also be said, however, that an abundance of exclamation points is visually unappealing and causes the discerning reader to have a poor opinion of the writer.

P.S I didn’t use a single exclamation point in this post ( except to give an example) and it wasn’t really difficult to do so.

  • Figures are from Nabakov’s Favorite Word Was Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers and Our Own Writing  by Ben Blatt.

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Some years ago, I was very impressed with a piece written by a journalist friend of mine. It flowed smoothly and was both interesting and humorous. I asked him how long it had taken him to write. ” Twenty, twenty five minutes”, he told me. I was floored by his answer and not a little envious. Writing doesn’t come easy to me. To write a polished 700 word article like his would have taken me the better part of a day.

Later, I thought about this incident. Granted my friend was a trained journalist and could be expected to write fast ; still, he couldn’t be that fast. Then, the answer came to me. Before he wrote the article, my friend must have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about it, gathering his thoughts, refining them and preparing to write. The twenty or twenty-five minutes represented only the time he spent in the mechanical task of getting the words down on paper.It did not include the time he had spent getting ready to write. I don’t think my friend intentionally tried to steer me wrong; it’s just that he answered my question too narrowly.

On the other hand, there are some people who try to mislead you about the time it takes them to write something. One such was John O’Hara, author of From the Terrace, Ten North Frederick and other novels set in the mythical town of Gibbsville. Pennsylvania. He was one of  my favorite authors when I was in college and I tried to read up on him whenever I could. There is a delicious story  about O’Hara that Brendan Gill tells us  in his marvelous book Here at the New Yorker.

O’Hara, later in his career, was a staff writer for the New Yorker. When he sat down to write an article, he would do it in one sitting, writing steadily and non-stop until the article was complete. There were no pauses, no hesitation. At the New Yorker, the walls between cubicles were very thin; the measured clacking of typewriter keys could easily be heard in adjoining cubicles. Consequently, O’Hara’s fellow writers were in awe of his seemingly effortless writing and not a few were envious of him. What they did not know was that O’Hara prepared meticulously at home, polishing each sentence, each word until all that remained was to get the words down on paper. Then he came to the office and knocked out his article in no time at all.

In my own case, I have great difficulty coming up with ideas and writing about them. However, I have developed a method that works for me. It’s like this.

As is common with many of us at this stage of our lives, I can’t sleep through the night the way I used to. No matter what time I go to bed, I wake up around 4 or 4:30 AM and just lie in bed for an hour or more until I doze off again. What I now do is to use that time to think about what I want to write. I consider various ideas until I settle on one I like; then I virtually compose it in my head. When I later sit down at the computer, all that remains is to transfer my draft to paper.

The method has several advantages. Firstly, it enables me to work faster. Less time spent writing and revising. Secondly, it reduces the time I spend sitting at the computer. As my wife reminds me, long hours sitting in one place are bad for health and can result in DVT, Deep Vein Thrombosis. Thirdly, less time at the computer frees me to do other things. And , finally, I sleep better after one of these sessions.

It took me only thirty-five minutes to write this article … but this does not include the hours I spent in the course of two nights thinking about it. If anyone tells you that writing is easy for him (or her) , don’t believe it. If it were really that easy, there would be more of us doing it.





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Almost as soon as we moved into our development,I had known there was a writing club , Writing Our Stories, but I’d resisted the idea of joining. At first, we were busy settling down and  had no time for it. Later, we got busy with our other activities and clubs and , once again, I put off it off. At heart, also, I may have been a little nervous about reading what I wrote to a bunch of new acquaintances. Last month, finally, I decided to take the plunge and join.

I called up the club’s organizer and said I would like to attend. She was very welcoming and said that was happy I’d decided to. Then she added something that floored me : she said that I would be the first male member of the club and that it would be interesting to members to hear a different point of view, get a different perspective. This made me nervous all over again but I’d said that I would attend and I didn’t want to chicken out. I’m glad I did.

I went to my first meeting two weeks ago and the ladies couldn’t have been nicer. There were eight of them ( four others were out of town or otherwise unable to attend). The previous week’s assignment was : “What is the first thing you experience in the morning when you get up? Describe it; remember it can be something you see, hear, smell or otherwise feel.”  Each member read out what she had written and it was well received. I read out one of my old posts from this blog and the feedback was very appreciative. The week after, the assignment was: “The door opened and what a surprise… Expand upon the sentence. ”

I quickly discovered something about myself when it comes to writing. I am pretty good with words but I have no imagination at all ! My imagination gene is missing! As the others read out their efforts, I was amazed at how many different directions they took even though they started with the same sentence. It has been an education and I think I will learn a lot trying to keep up with them.

What I really love most about the club is the social aspect. Thanks to the club I’ve been able to get in touch with a new group of people, different from the ones I usually associate with. They are very open in the way they talk and already feel I’ve known them a long time, certainly longer than two weeks. So many different experiences they’ve had, such a multiplicity of perspectives and so many new things for me to think about. Yes, I’m very glad I joined Writing Our Stories.

At the last meeting, one of the ladies handed out copies of this poem. The author, Chanie Gorkin, is not a member of this club and none of us knows who she is. What we all agree is that this a wonderful poem, very clever and with a message too. I feel it deserves a larger audience, which is why I’m reproducing it below. I think you’ll agree with me that it is terrific.

 Make sure you read it slowly, all the way through and follow directions.

Worst Day Ever ?

by Chanie Gorkin

Today was the absolute worst day ever

And don’t try to convince me that

There’s something good in every day

Because, when you take a closer look,

The world is a pretty evil place.

Even if

Some goodness does shine through once in a while

Satisfaction and happiness don’t last.

And it’s not true that

It’s all in the mind and heart


True happiness can be attained

Only if one’s surroundings are good

It’s not true that good exists

I’m sure that you can agree that

The reality


My attitude

It’s all beyond my control

And you’ll never in a million years hear me say

Today was a very good day.

Now read it from bottom to top, the other way, and see what I really feel about my day.






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My last post ” The Journey Inward” was based on a passage from Pico Iyer’s book ” The Art of Stillness”. Iyer’s book was a TED publication, and it surprised me to know that TED is more just than short talks. Apparently, some of the talks have companion books which, like the talks, are short and pithy and meant to be read at one sitting. The Art of Stillness is a pocket-sized book, only 64 pages long, actually even shorter when you consider that it has several atmospheric photographs of sunrises and desolate Icelandic landscapes. It can be read in 45 minutes to an hour.

After I read the book, I discovered it was an extended version of Iyer’s TED talk, so I went to YouTube and listened to the talk.I enjoyed it, perhaps a little more than the book. Iyer is a fluent speaker and I admired his presentation and the way he seemed to use just the right word every time. The book was more detailed but not as seamless.

Afterwards, I got to musing about the ways in which we absorb information. It seems to me that we are moving away from reading  and towards watching videos. Perhaps it is only to be expected since so many of us are gravitating towards watching TV in lieu of reading books or magazines or newspapers. We get our news from TV , we watch sports on TV  and even the online newspapers we dip into have an ever-increasing amount of video content. In education, the runaway success of the Khan Academy is an illustration of this trend; MOOCS and online college courses are another. In my library, too, I see increasing amounts of shelf space given over to videos at the expense of books.

There is nothing wrong with getting information from videos and, in any case, it is impossible to arrest the relentless march of technology. If people feel they can assimilate better by watching a video , they will do so. However, when they do this exclusively or when they stop reading I feel it takes away from their critical thinking ability,and their writing skills. Videos are fine for quick assimilation of basic skills and information but there is a tendency among viewers to accept what they see as gospel. For more complicated subjects, the printed word is a must. Reading slows down the process of assimilation but, in doing so, it also makes the reader think more deeply, more critically. In addition, the reader subconsciously learns to appreciate good writing and to incorporate what he learns into his own writing… if he is a thoughtful reader, that is.

When I was still working, ten , fifteen, twenty years ago I was struck by the poor quality of the memos I came across daily. These memos were written by people whose mother tongue was English, almost all of them college graduates. It was sad to note how the writers, who were perfectly competent in their professional capacity, could not compose even a short paragraph without mistakes in grammar as well as composition. In the years since then, the standard of writing has fallen, if anything. People in this country are very good at expressing themselves verbally, but in writing …unfortunately, no.

I had thought that the fault lay in our education system where the quality of instruction leaves much to be desired, particularly in the subjects of math and science. The teaching of English is better but not by much. That is a whole different subject and I don’t want to get into it here. What I’ve come to realize is the pernicious effect of watching videos instead of reading. Just as calculators and computers have eroded math skills, TV and the social media are harming the way our youngsters think and write.

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The phrase ” Less is more” was coined by the poet Robert Browning over a hundred and fifty years ago, but it is usually attributed to the architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe  who used it to convey the idea that simplicity and clarity are the hallmarks of good design. Recently , however, I came across another situation in which this seemingly contradictory statement makes perfect sense.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that those who exercised for thirty minutes daily lost more weight than those who exercised for sixty minutes every day. On the face of it , this doesn’t make sense since those who exercised more would be expected to shed weight faster. This is the explanation: Those who exercised for sixty minutes were so tired that they did not do much else the rest of the day. They just sat around the house and, because of their increased appetite, wound up eating more. On the other hand, those who had exercised for only thirty minutes were not as tired, were more active the rest of the day and also ate less. Ergo, they lost more weight.

Less is more. Makes sense , doesn’t it ?

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Being a short order cook in a diner is an unenviable profession. A short order cook  has to work fast even as he fields a never ending stream of orders. Any opportunity for levity is welcome, anything to lessen the pressure of putting out the food quickly without making any mistakes that might result in the order sent back. As a result, cooks and servers have developed their own lingo , one that makes the orders easy to remember and sometimes injects an element of fun.

Some of these terms are easy to figure out. For instance , The Twins obviously stands for Salt and Pepper. Another term for the same is Mike and Ike. Other terms are more obscure. What do you think Gentleman will take a Chance stands for? The answer is at the end of this post.

Here are some other terms you might hear being tossed about if you were to go into the kitchen of a diner:

Adam and Eve on a Raft … Two poached eggs on toast.

.. And a Slice of Noah’s Boy.. .  with a slice of Ham. ( Noah’s son was Ham).

Shipwreck … Scrambled eggs.

Burn One … Put a burger on the griddle. 

Take it through the Garden and put a Rose on it …  Add lettuce , tomato and Onion.

Coney Island Chicken … Hot Dog.

Bun Pup … Hot Dog.

First Lady … Barbecued Ribs. ( Eve was fashioned from Adam’s Rib ).

If you haven’t figured it out , and I’d be very surprised if you did, Gentleman will Take a Chance means Corned Beef Hash.

I’ll let you work out the reason why.  

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When someone’s words are quoted I expect them to be profound and insightful or, failing that, witty and memorable. There are some authors, La Rochefoucald is one, who are quoted so often that one wonders whether their entire output consists of quotations. On the other hand, there are some quotations which impress initially but, upon closer examination, turn out to be underwhelming.
One such is by noted film director Pedro Almodovar and appears in Paul Theroux’s travel book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. Almodovar is quoted as saying ” Anything that is not autobiography is plagiarism.” When I first read it, I immediately thought of John Steinbeck who was of the opinion that a writer could not write about anything that he had not personally experienced, a stricture that he himself observed for the most part. Then I thought about the quote a little more and began to revise my opinion.
To begin with , plagiarism is a strong word to use in this context. There is very little that is truly original. No matter whether it is films, plays, books or any other artistic endeavor, it is usually influenced by what has already been done, sometimes strongly , other times not. For instance, Hunger Games undoubtedly has its roots in Shirley Jackson’s short story masterpiece ” The Lottery”, but it has completely transformed the original premise.( There are other discernible influences too, but I won’t go into that here.)
Also, many of today’s blockbusters are set in the future or the distant past, and often feature superheroes. Obviously, they have nothing to do with autobiography; just as obviously, they are not plagiarism. If writers and other artistes were to confine themselves to what they have experienced first hand, theirs would a very limited palette and it would soon become very boring. In my opinion, only something that is reproduced exactly can be termed as plagiarism.
On this topic of quotes, I couldn’t help thinking about Ashleigh Brilliant( born 1933), the author, syndicated cartoonist and sometime professor of history who has been dubbed the world’s ” only full time professional epigrammist.” Brilliant ( he says that his real name) conceived the idea of putting down his thoughts in short, pithy sayings of seventeen words or less, copyrighting them and charging a fee for those who wanted to use them. He was not shy about claiming copyright infringement and taking his case to the courts; a judge sided with him on the grounds that his sayings were epigrams and could therefore be copyright restricted. David Brinkley once paid him $ 1,000 because he had unknowingly used one of Brilliant’s epigrams in the title of a book. Brilliant hawks his epigrams in a variety of forms including T-shirts, postcards, caps, card-sets, mugs , magnets etc. You can get a fuller list of his products from his website. For myself, I am impressed by Brilliant’s chutzpah but not by his epigrams. Very, very few of his sayings are profound and most of them exhibit a cynicism and brittle sense of humor that leave me cold. In my opinion, Brilliant is not brilliant.

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