Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: language

How to Diagram a Simple Sentence

Like all forms of torture, diagramming should only be used when it is absolutely critical that you obtain a speedy confession from the sentence at hand and after all other attempts to determine a sentence’s meaning have failed.

1. Isolate the sentence from its peers and prepare a hard, flat line on which to work. Stainless steel is best because it is easy to clean.

2. Place the sentence on the line and sever the subject from the verb with a quick downstroke of your blade. Surgical scalpels, X-Acto knives, and machetes are all suitable for this procedure. This can be extremely painful for the subject as it will now have nothing to do or be, but with the two isolated, your work may end here if the sentence is especially simple.

3. Should you need to chop off a direct object, you’ll make another cut, but not as deep as the one used to sever subject from verb. Be aware that some verbs require direct objects and so you may find this takes a little extra effort. Use a saw if you must. Predicate adjectives are handled in a similar manner, but you’ll need to make an angled incision. Remember to cut with the grain and consider a reciprocating saw for this.

4. Indirect objects must be handled separately, and you’ll need a second line with a tether to the severed verb. You can use a hammer to break the indirect object away from the verb and then then pull it away from the main sentence onto a separate line. The value of this is primarily psychological as it allows the rest of the sentence to see itself stretched across the page in a most horrific way.

5. Prepositional phrases will be broken off like indirect objects, but you’ll use the preposition itself to create the tether between the main line and the line on which you place the object of the preposition. Again, the effect here is mainly psychological, but your sentence should be singing by now.

6. Adjectives and adverbs, like fingers and toes, are not truly necessary to a sentence’s survival,  and they can be removed easily, a procedure that will sometimes help the sentence reveal its secrets. Use a bolt cutter to remove the modifiers one at a time and place them on angled lines slanting off from the words they once modified. Placing them on the angle will allow the lifeblood of the sentence to drain away with a minimum of effort of your part.

Once the sentence is taken apart, you should have your confession. Remember, it is not usually necessary to torture a sentence. If you find yourself doing this for fun, rather than of necessity, please seek help from a certified dark language arts teacher.

The Story of English

Last week when I was asked about hanged and hung, I started wondering more about the history and development of the English language. I knew generally about the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes and 1066 and all that, but I wanted to go deeper. Sitting in the library at home, a book caught my eye: The Story of English. I don’t know where it came from, but I’ve had it for years and had never read it.

The book is a companion to a PBS mini-series circa 1985 and so some of the modern examples are a bit dated, but it traces the development and history of the language from it’s origins as the language of the Anglo-Saxons up through its many manifestations.

The book highlights the importance of Scots, Irish and American English to what we might now call standard international English. Additionally it covers the development of Australian, New Zealand, and South African English.

Most interesting is the treatment given to so-called third world Englishes, those of India, Jamaica, West Africa and Singapore, places where nations once owned (as opposed to settled) by the British are attempting to develop their own unique voice.

Combination history and current events (again circa ’85), The Story of English is a fascinating read that constantly surprised me with how much I didn’t already know. There is a revised and updated version available. Perhaps I’ll have to check it out to see what’s changed since ’85.

As an interesting aside, The New York Times reports this week that nearly half of the world’s languages are likely to be extinct by the end of the century. Part of this is due to the increasing adoption of English as the international language, although I wonder how many new languages will be born as people around the world localize English and evolve it to suit their own purposes.

Well, I’ll Be Hanged. Or is it Hung?

This week we’ve been reading Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the tale of an imaginative spy’s hanging. At one point in the discussion, a student asked an interesting question: “Why do they say, ‘they hanged a man’ instead of ‘they hung a man?'”Rather than just make something up, I decided to go off the lesson plan (winging it is really where the best teaching happens anyway) and help them figure it out. Besides, I wanted to know.

We went online to look for an etymological dictionary and found this. Looking up “hanged” produces this result:

a fusion of O.E. hon “suspend” (transitive, class VII strong verb; past tense heng, pp. hangen), and O.E. hangian (weak, intransitive, past tense hangode) “be suspended;” also probably influenced by O.N. hengja “suspend,” and hanga “be suspended.” All from P.Gmc. *khang-, from PIE *keng– “to waver, be in suspense” (cf. Goth. hahan, Hittite gang– “to hang,” Skt. sankate “wavers,” L. cunctari “to delay;” see also second element in Stonehenge). Hung emerged as pp. 16c. in northern England dial., and hanged endured only in legal language (which tends to be conservative) and metaphors extended from it (I’ll be hanged).

Fascinating for me and also for my kids, many of whom never thought about the fact that each word we use actually has a history and a story about why it is spelled and pronounced the way it is.

Being smart researchers, we decided to check a second source,, which had this:

Hang has two forms for the past tense and past participle, hanged and hung. The historically older form hanged is now used exclusively in the sense of causing or putting to death: He was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. In the sense of legal execution, hung is also quite common and is standard in all types of speech and writing except in legal documents. When legal execution is not meant, hung has become the more frequent form: The prisoner hung himself in his cell.

So, we decided, the correct answer to the original question, as it is for so many is: Lawyers.

The kids enjoyed the exercise, though after having improvised my lesson for the day, I was left to wonder if I had winged it or wung it.

Friday Random Ten

Sometimes the ‘pod spits out a track that makes me turn it off and get out a CD to listen to the whole album. Today it was Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” What’s Going On? is one of the great albums of all time. Elegant and searching as it chronicles a litany of social ills, it somehow manages to be hopeful.

It’s also depressingly relevant and timely today. I guess not much has changed since 1971 when Gaye looked at the state of the world and asked the album’s titular question.

Mercy Mercy Me.

Thinking about albums makes me think about the language that we use to describe recordings – words like track, album and record. I wonder what will happen to that language as digital replaces the tangible. I imagine a future music junkie conversation running like this:

“Yeah, What’s Going On? is a great folder.”

“Totally. What’s your favorite file in that folder?”

“‘Mercy Mercy Me’, dude.”

“Yeah. That’s an incredible file.”

“Totally, but what does he mean by ‘fish full of mercury?’ What are fish?”

Or something like that.

Oh, and here’s the ten…

  1. “Chasin Another Trane” – John Coltrane – Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
  2. “Glamour Girl” – T-Bone Walker – Complete Imperial Recordings
  3. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) – Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On?
  4. “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” – Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only in It for the Money
  5. “His N.D. World” – Mary Lou Lord – KGSR Broadcasts Vol. 6
  6. “Antigua” – Antônio Carlos Jobim – Wave
  7. “Plowed” – Sponge – Rotting Pinata
  8. “Culver City Park” – Dave Douglas – Freak In
  9. “Can’t Find a Way” – Endochine* – Day Two
  10. “Careering” – Public Image, Ltd. – The Greatest Hits So Far 
  11. “Mexican Blackbird” – ZZ Top – Fandango!

Okay, so that’s 11, but there is a star by the one I saw live.

Cellar Door

Last night when we were re-watching Donnie Darko, I was struck by a scene in which Donnie’s English teacher tells the class that a famous linguist once described ‘cellar door’ as the most beautiful combination of words in the English language.

What struck me is that one of the two books I’m currently reading (Stephen King’s On Writing) has a picture of a cellar door on its cover. It’s a nice picture, bright and sunny, all fresh paint and flowers, probably meant to suggest the secrets of the craft that he meditates upon in the book or perhaps the way in which writers draw upon the contents of their own personal cellars in their writing. Either way, a cellar door.

In the introduction to the book, King relates a story about a conversation with Amy Tan in which she says no one ever asks her about the language in author Q & A’s. It made me wonder if the cover isn’t a nod to that famous linguist’s notion about the most beautiful combination of words in English. I’m only a few pages in, so maybe he makes the choice of cover image clear later on, but I can’t help but wonder if this is a nod to that famous linguist.

But who is this linguist? Was it a made up bit for Donnie Darko or is it an actual claim? According to Wikipedia, the linguist is none other than JRR Tolkein. This is interesting because the other book I’m reading now is Tolkein’s Unfinished Tales.

This kind of synchronicity occurs frequently with the books I read and the movies I see. I often feel that I’m reading certain books at the right time, the moment in my life in which they’ll have the greatest impact on me. Sometimes I get a yen to read some book that’s sat on my shelf for years and it always seems good that I didn’t read it earlier or later.

Whatever it is, it never ceases to fascinate me, and I find it interesting that there should be these layers of connections between the two books I’m reading and the movie I saw last night.

I’m waiting for my ipod to play something from Miles’ Cellar Door Sessions before the day is out.

As to the most beautiful combination of English words? I don’t know what I’d choose. I never thought about it until today, but something keeps creeping into my head when I think of it: Ever since my first astronomy classes I’ve loved event horizon which evokes feelings of secrets and darkness, mystery and light, distance and time, and the terrible beauty of nature. At least for me.

Englishes, Olde and Nu

It’s not uncommon for students to protest that they aren’t used to “old English,” that it’s too hard. I frequently hear this while teaching Shakespeare, Poe, Lord of the Flies, or anything else written prior to 1985. I try to explain that everything I’ve taught is modern English, but today, I thought it would be fun to show them.

When I was student teaching, I learned how to read the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and I had an overhead with some side-by-side comparisons, but I thought it would more powerful to use something the students would likely be familiar with. While browsing Wikipedia, I found the Lord’s Prayer in Old English:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,
Si þin nama gehalgod.
To becume þin rice,
gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,
and forgyf us ure gyltas,
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele. soþlice.

I figured most of them would be familiar with the modern version of this, so I hunted it down in Middle English to show the transition, first finding a version here, and then discovering Words in English, which had already done my work for me:

Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name;
thi kyndoom come to;
be thi wille don in erthe as in heuene:
gyue to us this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce;
and forgyue to us oure dettis, as we forgyuen to oure gettouris;
and lede us not in to temptacioun, but delyuere us fro yuel. Amen.

The modern version comes from my memory:

Our Father, who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
They Kingdom come.
Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

I spent a lot of time staring at this, comparing words and lines, fascinated by the evolution of this wonderful living language and wondering where it would go next. I often joke that I’m teaching a dying language, but it’s probably just evolving. Though, hopefully, not into something as utilitarian and artless as this:

ur spshl.
we want wot u want
&urth2b like hvn
giv us food
&4giv us
lyk we 4giv uvaz.
don’t test us! save us! ok

I shared all this with my kids, attempting to pronounce the Middle English as best I could based on what I learned from Canterbury Tales, and they thought that was cool. They enjoyed seeing the Old English, and sadly, the text message version made perfect sense.

And, now that I think about it, I realize I’ve written about the texting of literature and its effect on language before.

The Longest Word?

Years ago a friend of mine amazed people at parties with his ability to say and spell the longest word in the English language: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

These days, I use it at school as a way to practice dealing with unfamiliar words since it seems so intimidating to the kids, but when broken down is really easy to understand. Via Wikipedia:

  • pneumono = related to lungs (Latin, from Greek)
  • ultra = beyond (Latin, as in “ultraviolet”)
  • microscopic = extremely small (Latin/Old English, from Greek mikron, small, and skopos, view)
  • silico = silica (Latin)
  • volcano = volcano (Latin)
  • coni = related to dust (Greek: konis, dust)
  • osis = disease / condition (Greek)

So basically, a lung disease caused by breathing the silica dust from volcanoes.

Though the word has been included in dictionaries, it is considered a ‘fake’ word that has never actually been used in medical literature. Apparently the only purpose for this word is to answer the question, “What’s the longest English word?”

According to A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia, the longest non-scientific word other than the nonsense word Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is floccinaucinihilipilification followed by antidisestablishmentarianism.

Ultimately, going back to Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, we wind up begging the question: Is a word a word if it’s only ever used as an example of a word?

Perhaps I could answer by saying, “Bkk-de skinb plewd blerty uloufopoly,” but then I’d just be making up nonsense words.

I’d have to remember that if I were suffering from a case of Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, I could use that term to describe my condition even if my doctors only referred to it as silicosis.

My verdict: if the word can be used to convey accurate meaning, then it is a word, and if you disagree, then bkk-de skinb plewd blerty uloufopoly to you!

Good Old Fashioned…

The phrase good old fashioned butt kicking always brings a smile to my face. I try to imagine the differences between a modern butt kicking and an old fashioned one, especially a good old fashioned one. Were the butt kickers of yesteryear more accomplished in this art? Do we moderns really know how to administer a butt kicking properly?

You never hear someone say, “Yeah, they lost. It was a thoroughly modern butt kicking.”

If someone did say that, it would probably mean there hadn’t been a butt kicking at all. Perhaps it would only be a virtual one.

It’s not only butt kickings that can be old fashioned and therefore better, which is why I hope everyone has a good old fashioned Fourth of July.

The Pimpin’ Post

Pimp. It’s an interesting word that one hears quite often especially around high school students. Of course, they don’t use it to mean “a man who manages women in prostitution, often street prostitution, in order to profit from their earnings”(wikipedia). It’s generally used as a compliment as in: “Mr. Brush is cool. He’s a pimp.” There’s no implication here that I might be managing the business of prostitutes. I’m just a cool guy.

Interestingly it can also be used as an adjective as in “Did you see his pimp ride?” or “That ride was pimpin’.” Both statements essentially mean that he had a cool car.

The most fascinating use that I’ve heard is when it’s used as an adverb as in: “Did you check out his pimp tite ride?” Here, ‘pimp’ is the adverb modifying the adjective ‘tite’ (‘tite’ of course means really cool. One might even say as cool as a pimp).

Most adjectives can be adverbed just by taking the advice of “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” and adding an ‘-ly.’ Unfortunately, this approach would turn the adjective ‘pimp’ into potential adverb ‘pimply’. That would never do.

No pimp should ever be pimply. A potentially pimply pimp wouldn’t ever be pimp much less a pimp pimp even if the pimply pimp was pimping pimply and had a pimp tite ride such as a pimpmobile. The pimply pimp probably would receive a pimp-slapping by a real pimpin’ pimp who can pimp properly without being pimply. (One hopes our pimply pimp wouldn’t be tied to the pimping post.)

by Professor Truth J Brushefeller

A Dying Language

Yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman ran this story:

Loose translation: Get classic literature in text-message form

Ouch. Dot Mobile is selling its service as a new way for students to cheat avoid reading prepare for tests without having to dirty their fingers with Cliffs Notes. The service will initially provide plot summaries and important quotes from the likes of Shakespeare, Austen, and Golding without all the extra words, sentences and subtlety that only confuse students anyway.

Eventually Dot Mobile intends to offer the complete works of Shakespeare and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. CNN also had a story on this including an excerpt from Milton’s Paradise Lost which begins with, “devl kikd outa hevn coz jelus of jesus&strts war.” The various authors can be heard spinning in their graves.

Initially, I was saddened because I knew that the effect of this would not just be another way for students of literature to avoid reading it, but would also continue the ongoing destruction of the English language, but then in the section of the article offering interpretations, I saw and reflected on the advice Nick remembers receiving from his father in the opening of The Great Gatsby:


I read this several times over and remembered that hez rite cuz itz lyk hez sain we all gotta b open n shit cuz who r we 2 judge.

© 2018 Coyote Mercury

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: