Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed by Lane Greene

It’s not really true that if you boil a frog slowly it won’t notice and will never try to escape. But if a lot of speakers very gradually inch a vowel forward or back, up or down in the space in the mouth, without even knowing, then over time a major change can set in without anyone acting in time to stop it. That is because vowel-boiling, unlike frog-boiling, is painless and victimless.

Another winner from Liz! I loved this book. It has just the right mix of expert, researched history and linguistics information, and irreverent, populist sense of fun and utility. In fact, utility is part of the central lesson of this book. Using English should be about effective communication; one can be correct, eloquent, elegant, without being snooty about it; correctness is relative and subject to context; the language is tough and durable, and doesn’t fall apart just because we slip up on the distinction between ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ (‘Whom’ plays a large-ish role in the book, to great effect.)

Lane Greene is an editor, a linguist, and a columnist on language. He’s originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but now lives in England with his Danish wife, and speaks nine languages. He has a deeply impressive grasp of the history and trends of the English language and of linguistics; he is an expert in these areas and easily wins my trust. And it’s refreshing to meet an expert who is not purist or snobbish about his field – although as Greene points out, the more expert the linguist, the less purist they’ll be.

He begins with the basics: the difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist linguistics. Descriptivism observes how language is used and has been used, and makes recommendations for how we use language based on how it’s been and is being used. Prescriptivism tries to make rules based on some sense of what is correct – it tries to prescribe, rather than observe. Prescriptivists believe there is what Greene calls One Right Way to do things, which is an inherently problematic concept. Greene knows how to set and follow rules; in one of his roles, he works as an editor, so he knows about the application of standards. (Particularly for a certain publication, for example, a “house style” sets rules.) But he is at heart a descriptivist. “To sum up: language is not so much logical as it is useful. It is not composed; it is improvised. It is not well behaved; it is resourceful. It is not delicate; it is hardy. It is not always efficient, buts redundancy makes it robust. It is not threatened; it is self-renewing. It is not perfect. But it is amazing.”

The book-length metaphor at work here is evident in the title. Language is wild, not to be tamed, and doesn’t take to prescriptivism’s puritanical tendencies. It is always changing, and it takes care of itself; it doesn’t actually need guarding or protecting. Greene proves this via a number of case studies and fascinating histories, including the Great Vowel Shift and shifts in the meanings of individual words: “In the Middle English era, manners dictated that a girl was expected to be silly and buxom, but never nice” (because each of those words meant something very different then than they do now). He relates humanity’s adventures in language, including the design of purely logical languages (never caught on) and attempts to teach computers natural language, which doesn’t work because “the rules are too many, the exceptions too manifold.” He studies language as a political tool (less powerful than some think).

And in my favorite chapter (six), “Whom in a biker bar,” he handles questions about register and the limited necessity for ‘proper’ English. “The choice of [register] allows a speaker or writer a valuable second channel of communication, alongside the literal meaning of the words and grammar that (hopefully) add up to a clear proposition, command, question or request. … To restrict yourself only to Formal – to buy into the One Right Way fallacy – is to leave a valuable and versatile tool lying on the ground.” I had been wondering, throughout this spirited and convincing defense of descriptivism over prescriptivism, why indeed I am teaching my students to avoid comma splices (etc.), and chapter six answered it for me. There is still a utility for a ‘proper’ English in certain settings, but the grammar police of the world (and those whom Greene calls ‘language tamers’) take undue pleasure in correcting us when in fact we could stand to relax in most settings – especially in spoken language. “Insisting that speech – a live activity, always changing, a biological behavior – must imitate writing – which is fixed – is a bit like insisting that people should continue to look like an old photo of themselves.”

This book is a joy for anyone who loves language, its niceties and nuances and finer points, its ever-changing, exciting, shape-shifting utility and its fascinating history. It’s certainly for anyone who is still hung up on correcting other people’s grammar, and it is certainly for anyone (like an editor or an English teacher) whose job it is to do so. If you’re unconvinced that prescriptivism doesn’t serve us, please read this book. If you love words, read Lane Greene. I think I know of some students who will be assigned excerpts this coming fall semester!


Rating: 9 prepositions at the ends of sentences.

hemingWay of the Day: on the writing tool

It has been too many years now since I reveled in Hemingway who I so love, and therefore since I posted a hemingWay of the Day. I blame graduate school, among other things. Lately I’m trying to read a few short stories here and there, and so of course I’ve got The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway nearby.

In the preface to section 1, “The First Forty-Nine,” Hem writes,

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.

This is such a powerful statement, and one that I’ve thought of often in reference to other aspects of life: money, for example; energy; youth; my degenerating knees. The bicycle one hangs on the wall and keeps pristine and never rides, seems to me a waste. I had not thought about life and experience dulling one’s writing tool; and I had not necessarily thought of that tool being reconditionable in these terms. I needed this thought right now. Thank you, Papa.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs

Where a failing writer, ill-conceived for-profit education and the American political divide come together, the result is both funny and feeling.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs (The Art of Waiting) is a hilarious, pitiable, thoughtful first novel not to be missed. A rare combination of silliness and poignancy, with momentum and compassion, this is a story for every reader, but especially for struggling writers.

Marianne is desperately underemployed and about to lose her apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., and her poetry manuscript has been long stalled. Eric, her best friend and ex-fiancé, has an annoyingly good job teaching overseas, as he works to complete the second novel in his two-book contract. When he calls from the United Arab Emirates with a business offer, Marianne wants to say no, but she has no other option.

Eric has inherited an aging motel on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and wants to realize an old college joke of Marianne’s: a low-residency writing school for Christian writers. Marianne, a liberal atheist, soon finds herself in business with Eric, his venture capitalist brother, Mark, and their silent partner, great-aunt Frances. Ensconced in the crumbling motel with occasional hurricanes passing through, Marianne doesn’t precisely want to fleece the applicants sending in embarrassing manuscripts, but she certainly could use the money.

What follows is part hilarity: Marianne and Eric flub their Bible references and flirt with hooking back up; the earnest students have no idea how a writing workshop is supposed to work; and the down-and-out instructors (all the Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch can attract, or afford) prove eccentrically dysfunctional in various ways. It’s part pathos: as real as Marianne’s struggle to complete her own manuscript is the troubled calling of Janine, poet, home economics teacher, mother of two, who writes about Terri Schiavo. Mark lands a big investor that specializes in for-profit education for the Christian market, but their intervention quickly upsets everyone involved. Marianne finds herself, against all odds, rooting for her students–those right-wing nuts she once laughed at. As the biggest storm of the year approaches the ramshackle Ranch, she’ll have to make a stand.

Boggs’s gifts are many. The Gulf‘s plot is inspired, even accounting for the arguable overabundance of novels about MFA program shenanigans. Perhaps the greatest genius is in her characters: Marianne, Eric, the writing instructor who can’t remember anyone’s name, the hotelier next door, Janine and the former R&B superstar now banking on an autobiographical novel to make his comeback. Each of these is perfectly developed and flawed just enough to be lovable, if hapless. The book hums along with fitting momentum, so that when the storm hits, the reader is entirely invested in this well-meaning but ill-fated crew. Redemption is a risky ambition, especially with inspirational writing, but Boggs pulls it off with The Gulf‘s denouement. This is a novel of keen comedy, insight and empathy.


This review originally ran in the March 8, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 applications.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

Recommended by a few friends. I find this one holds a few solid truths, but maybe didn’t need to be book-length.

Good lessons: Steven Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War, and many more) argues that anyone trying to do a good or great thing, whether it’s art, activism, or entrepreneurship, faces Resistance. (His capitalization.) Resistance can be a guide: when we feel Resistance, it means we should push in that direction; that’s where we’re meant to go, where we want on some level to go. (He points out that where there is Resistance, there is love – meaning our love or passion for the pursuit in question.) Fear is a sign of Resistance. We must undertake that which we fear. That’s Book One.

Book Two covers how to combat Resistance: by Turning Pro. This means treating our art, or whatever it is, as our day job. Treating it as our day job. (He is chiefly concerned with art, as his title suggests, and most chiefly with writing, because that’s what he knows.) In other words: take your work seriously (butt in chair, no excuses, etc.).

Book Three is concerned with what Pressfield calls angels, or we might call the Muse, or inspiration. It argues that certain strategies may be undertaken to make way for the Muse, to invite her in and make her feel comfortable. He quotes that common line from Somerset Maugham (?): “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Actually he quotes this line in Book Two, but I think it fits in Book Three just as well. They build on each other, being, you know, all one book.

These are all good points, but even at just 165 pages and loads of white space, I think they could have been made a bit more succinctly. There are some instructive anecdotes: the Maugham quotation (which is likely misattributed), the winds of Aeolus (lesson about not stopping before the finish line), Henry Fonda’s fear (lesson: we all have it always), and a fun one about how great Lance Armstrong is (this book was published before his accomplishments were so besmirched). But there are also some instances of what I’ll call cuteness. “The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdshit splash down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing.” “If you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Theresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing…” I don’t know. There’s a thin line, perhaps, between useful examples and cutesiness. Personally, I feel it’s crossed here.

If this all sounds a little self-helpy, it did to me too. And the back cover’s a dead giveaway.

In the best self-helpy traditions, Pressfield calls upon God to back him up. “If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.” Again as a purely personal reaction, no thank you to the God stuff.

To be clear, I found myself turning Resistant to this book as early as Book One. Pressfield asks that we banish “trouble” from our lives, which seems to include the troubles of others (there’s a separate heading for self-dramatization, but they are clearly linked), which feels a little like cutting off the loved ones who need our support now and again; he’s against support, too. He allows that depression and anxiety “may” be real, but the other disorders were created by a marketing department. This is not a man you need in your personal life, friends. He “may” be a bit toxic.

There are good points here, to be sure. But the packaging was not precisely to my taste. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 5 troubles to be avoided.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


I read this little collection of poems and essays for Diane Gilliam’s seminar, “As If the Top of My Head Were Taken Off: Getting More Energy Into Our Poems.” Robert Bly offers his own essays on what he believes poetry should be: that poems should leap, not plod, that they should make wild associations, that they should answer to our animal instincts. He argues that in the Christian world and particularly in “America” (by which I surmise he really means the United States), we have gotten too safe, gotten away from the leap. Alongside his own essays, Bly collects poems he admires (including one of his own), to illustrate his points.

I enjoyed many of the poems, and I found Bly’s commentary interesting, but often problematic. (Here’s where I acknowledge that this book was originally published in 1972, so we can choose to make certain allowances, if we’re so inclined.) For one thing, his assessment of contemporary poetry (more than a generation ago now) is very much defined by national borders. French poets are good; Spanish poets are “much greater”; American poets have “faltered” (in the 1940s and 50s), and are now turning to the South Americans (parse that). I can allow that there is such a thing as a national “school” of poetry or of thought, although I suspect that’s less and less true in the age of swift international communication – which is quite a bit different from 1972, of course, and is still limited by language – one of Bly’s great concerns is that not enough fine Spanish-language poetry has been translated into English (when he says “Spanish,” does he mean coming from Spain? or merely Spanish-language? how concerning). But I think to say that Spanish poets are better than French poets are better than American poets is disturbingly close to racism, or nationalism. It caused me to stumble several times. Was this okay in 1972?

Also, I find myself exasperated that Bly has collected 32 poems (and 2 epigraphs) here, and 31 of those poems (and both epigraphs) were written by men. (Thank you, Marguerite Young, for representing half the world.) I assume that I’m to conclude from this that women just about cannot write good poetry at all… I know, 1970s, but still I’m disgruntled.

As a much smaller point, I wondered at the assertion that “the desert contains almost no mammal images.” This is in the course of a very interesting essay about the “three brains” (reptile, mammal, and ‘new’), and meditation, and accessing different parts of ourselves. This essay was the part of the whole book that I most engaged with. He sets up a desired move from reptile brain to new brain, through the mammal brain, necessitating a journey to “the forest” (he uses quotation marks) and finally to the desert, where an absence of “mammal images” lets us then move to the new brain. Well, I’m intrigued, if not sold. With those quotation marks, “the forest” becomes more archetypal than literal, perhaps, and I can permit that a similarly archetypal desert has fewer mammals than an archetypal forest. But as a lover of a very real desert in particular (that has mammals in it), I stumbled, again.

Leaping Poetry is, at least, an interesting book to engage (and possibly argue) with. I haven’t even touched on his theories of poetry, since I always feel underqualified. As I say every semester about the challenging readings I’m assigned for seminars, I’m looking forward to what Diane Gilliam does with this in her class. I’m sure it will be wonderful.


Rating: 5 stains on a handkerchief.

my favorite craft books

As we approach the time of year when I usually do lists, I was inspired to add this one, when a dear friend from my MFA program asked me for craft book recommendations in particular. (Abby is usually a fiction writer but is entering her cross-genre semester in nonfiction, so a special emphasis there.) Another dear friend from my MFA program, Okey, used to enjoy this blog and said he especially looked here for craft recommendations. (We lost Okey after this past summer’s residency, unexpectedly, and we are all still reeling. If you haven’t already, please consider this scholarship in his name. It’s a great cause in the name of diversity and inclusivity.)

So. Here’s a list in two tiers, followed by a link to all the craft books I’ve read. Keep in mind that these are the books that have worked best for me, and your mileage may vary. I put a * next to the ones for nonfiction in particular, for Abby and for anyone else who may be interested.

Very favorites, in no particular order:

Well loved, in no particular order:

And, click here to see all books with this tag, which will include titles not listed here.

Thanks for stopping by, as always. Was this list helpful for you? Is there another list you’d like to see me work on? (In the past I’ve done movies, children’s books, audio favorites, science books, LGBTQ…) Let me know, and maybe I’ll put one together!

The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions by Maud Casey

In Chekhov’s famous letter to a friend, he wrote, “You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.”

I have been looking forward to Maud Casey’s The Art of Mystery, because it sounds like it addresses something I like in the writing I admire, and something I hope to do myself. I have thought of it more as ambiguity, or subtlety, than mystery; but I think we’re talking about the same thing. As in that perfect Chekhov quotation above, it’s about posing interesting questions and exploring them, not about having all the answers. If we provide too many details, we take away the reader’s chance to use her own imagination or her own experiences to fill out the story, to make it her own. It is questions, not answers, that are a part of the universal experience, and that’s what makes really good literature so rewarding.

Casey’s focus is on fiction writing, but I didn’t find that it mattered much. She studies a number of novels and short stories (relatively few of which I’d read, but it was fine) for their mystery. She praises Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters, for example, for its offstage gestures: the protagonist makes reference to a castle, forests, high canopies, a river, none of which are explained. “The gesture toward everything that we don’t know about [that protagonist] doesn’t frustrate; rather, it intrigues.” And I found myself asking the question, why does this work when he does it? The rest of us would be scolded for the same: references to details nowhere in our own stories. But then comes the answer: “In every case… it’s useful to ask, What is the effect of the withholding? Does it yield something generative in relation to character? Or is it an effort to drum up surface-level suspense, whose effect may be experienced as exactly that, effortful, and cosmetic, rather than as true dramatic tension?” Twenty-six pages later, again: “It’s a question of effect. Is a bizarre character, and the mystery surrounding that character, being generated for look-at-me-Ma show, or is it doing something that leads to generative mystery?” (I confess I enjoyed “look-at-me-Ma show.”) See the repeated words: we are looking for effect; our goal is generative mystery. (That last is the phrase Jessie used in recommending this book.) The bulk of The Art of Mystery is devoted to explicating these concepts with lots of good examples (that make me want to read lots of books). For this review, I’m content to have named them.

Like so many significant lightbulb moments in studying the craft of writing, this one seems obvious in hindsight. The writer must know what she’s trying to do; she must work with intention; and she must consider the effect of the choices she makes. Mystery for its own sake is at best a cute trick, liable to frustrate the reader. Generative mystery has a job to do. Know which is which.


Rating: 7 cataracts.
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