Book of Genesis

From The Bible and Its Influence:

The Book of Genesis is peopled with fascinating figures, but no portrayal is more striking or memorable than that of God. Whether the reader sees the Bible as divinely inspired or as the work of human ingenuity (or both), the power of this text is undeniable. The God of Genesis is deeply etched into the culture and history of Europe and the Americas.

Where many creation stories from other cultures show the forces of order and chaos, or good and evil, locked in equal combat, Genesis 1 describes a God whose goodness alone is the source of all life and all form. The abyss – the primal chaos that is “formless and void”—before creation is not depicted as an evil force that must be overcome. Rather, the abyss needs to be ordered to reach its full potential.

Other origin stories tell of many different gods who themselves are created, and who work together or fight against one another, to create out of the remnants of previous creations. In contrast, the first part of Genesis describes one God who is self-sufficient, powerful, and benevolent. The God of Genesis, who needs nothing, chooses to create anyway. God creates not from leftovers but out of that chaos, or as the contemporary scholar Robert Alter translates it, “out of welter and waste.”

The description of God continues to expand throughout the Book of Genesis, gradually revealing a God who loves zealously, who chooses favorites, who inflicts terrible punishments, and shows mercy beyond measure—but who is never distant or detached. Genesis is the account of this very personal God’s powerful relationship with humanity.

Schippe, Cullen and Stetson, Chuck. The Bible and Its Influence. New York: BLP Publishing, 2006. Print. (29.)

Readings and web sites for fairy tales

Laura Gibbs on Aesop

Passage from:  Aesop’s Fables. Trans. Laura Gibbs. London: Oxford University Press, 2002.

In fifth-century Athens, however, there were no books of Aesop to be thumbed through, since the first written collections of Aesop did not yet exist. It is very hard for us as modern readers to appreciate the fact that Aesop could still be an authority whom you had to consult, even if he were not an author of books to be kept on the shelf. To ‘go over’ or ‘run through’ Aesop meant to bring to mind all the many occasions on which you had heard the stories of Aesop told at public assemblies, at dinner parties, and in private conversation. Aesop’s fables and the anecdotes about Aesop’s famous exploits were clearly a familiar way of speaking in classical Greece, a body of popular knowledge that was meant to be regularly ‘gone over’ and brought to mind as needed.

The rules

Jack Lynch, Associate Professor of English at Rutgers, author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, and creator of the website Getting an A on an English Paper:

When linguists — professional scholars of the language — talk about “rules,” they mean the principles that inform the way the majority of people actually speak. These rules are acquired by native speakers more or less unconsciously, and every native speaker knows them, even if they can’t express them. In fact every speaker follows remarkably sophisticated rules without even being aware of it. I like to give my students two examples of rules they know, but don’t know they know. The first is to say, “Both my and mine mean ‘belonging to me.’ So what’s the difference between them?” Most can’t answer, or can answer only after several minutes of thinking about examples — and yet none of them ever uses my or mine incorrectly. (Bonus points to any reader who can explain the actual rule in the comments.) The second is to say, “The ball is red; the ball is big. What is it?” They always answer “a big red ball” — no one has ever said “a red big ball,” even though I gave them the adjectives in that order. No one ever taught my students those rules, and none of my students had given the subjects a moment’s thought in their entire lives. But they all knew the rules perfectly.

These are examples of what linguists consider the real rules.

The “Rules”: Prescription, Description, and the Quest for a Middle Ground

Talking vs. writing, part 2

Linguist John McWhorter on talking versus writing:

Writing was only invented roughly 5,500 years ago with the emergence of cuneiform picture writing in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey, whereas humanity arose a good 200,000 years ago, with language probably tracing back at least 50,000 years and most likely much further. According to one estimate, if Homo sapiens had existed for 24 hours, writing only came along after 11 p.m.

Thus spoken language is fundamental, while written language is an artifice. Not surprisingly, then, the earliest writing was based on the way people talk, and that meant short sentences with a direct logical throughline. Researchers have found that even educated people today speak in word packets of 7 to 10 words a pop.

Talking with Your Fingertips
April 23, 2012

Talking is old, writing is new.

(comma splice intentional)

Bird by bird

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Coherent paragraphs & the bride on her wedding day

Excellent advice from the Dartmouth Writing Program:

While coherence is a complicated and difficult matter to address, we do have a couple of tricks for you that will help your sentences to “flow.” Silly as it sounds, you should “dress” your sentences the way a bride might – wearing, as the saying goes, something old and something new. In other words, each sentence you write should begin with the old – that is, with something that looks back to the previous sentence. Then your sentence should move on to telling the reader something new. If you do this, your line of reasoning will be easier for your reader to follow.

While this advice sounds simple enough, it is in fact not always easy to follow.

Read the rest…(scroll down to page 3)

3 methods of creating a cohesive paragraph

Rapunzel: 1812 vs 1857

Wilhelm Grimm was the principal editor of the Children’s and Household Tales following their inititial publication. The most significant changes were made already in the second edition (1819), although Wilhelm continued to revise the stories until their final edition (1857).

The first substantive alteration in the text of “Rapunzel” is transformation of the fairy into a more sinister sorceress. Further, Wilhelm made the tale more dramatic and gave it a more literary style by adding colorful adjectives and adverbs and supplementary supporting details. Indirect discourse was replaced by direct quotations.

More significant than Wilhelm’s additions are his deletions. The sexual nature of the prince’s and Rapunzel’s trysts was disguised. Alterations range from the subtle to the obvious.

At the subtle end of the scale, the sentence “He … was pulled up,” with its potentially offensive double meaning was changed to “The prince climbed up.” The simple and direct statement “Thus they lived in joy and pleasure for a long time” was replaced by a long, flowery passage that reveals but little about the couple’s intimate relationship.

At the obvious end of the scale, the naive Rapunzel’s revelation to her guardian that her clothes no longer fit (because she is pregnant) was deleted, as was the statement that “she gave birth to twins,” although the revised version does mention the twins at the story’s end.
– D.L. Ashliman

A comparison of the versions of 1812 and 1857
Rapunzel translated by Margaret Hunt

Jim Miller on talking vs. writing

Teaching English 109, I’m often struck by the fact that talking is easy, but writing is hard.* Why is that?

Here is linguist Jim Miller on the subject:

Many kinds of spoken language … have a syntax that is very different from the syntax of formal writing….[T]he differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users – clerics, administrators, lawyers and literary people. The process involves the development of complex syntactic constructions and complex vocabulary.


The syntax of spontaneous spoken language has been ‘designed’ or ‘developed’ to suit the conditions of speech – little planning time, the possibility of transmitting information by loudness, pitch and general voice quality, and support from hand gestures, facial expressions and so on (what is known as ‘non-verbal communication’). …[T]he syntax of spontaneous speech overlaps with the syntax of formal writing; there is a common core of constructions. For instance, “The instructions are useless” could be spoken or written. However, many constructions occur in speech but not in writing, and vice versa. “She doesn’t say much – knows a lot though” is typical of speech, but typical of writing is “Although she does not say much, she knows a lot.”

The special syntax of spontaneous spoken language is not produced just by speakers with the minimum of formal education. One of the most detailed investigations of spoken syntax was carried out in Russia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The speakers recorded on tape in all sorts of informal situations were doctors, lawyers and academics, but their speech turned out to be very different in syntax from written Russian. Moreover, their syntax had general properties which have turned up in bodies of spontaneous spoken English, French and German.


People learn the syntax and vocabulary of formal writing from books and in school in a process that lasts into the early twenties for university graduates and can continue much longer. In general, the more exposure speakers have to formal schooling, the more easily and frequently they use in speech the syntax and vocabulary that are typical of formal writing.

Miller, Jim. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xii-xiv. Print.

And see: a transcript of a conversation.

*Obviously, talking isn’t easy for everyone. People with autism have trouble talking; people who’ve had strokes may have trouble speaking; etc. And talking in a foreign language takes years of practice to do well.

How Winston Churchill learned English

I continued in this unpretentious situation for nearly a year. However, by being so long in the lowest form [at Harrow – see below] I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell–a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great–was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing–namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence–which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favor of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English, I would whip them hard for that.
(My Early Life: A Roving Commission, Thornton Butterworth [UK] and Charles Scribner’s Sons [US], 1930)

The first five years of English secondary schooling were previously known as forms. Pupils started their first year of secondary school in the first form or first year, and this was the year in which pupils would normally become 12 years of age. Pupils would move up a form each year before entering the fifth form in the year in which they would have their sixteenth birthday. Those who stayed on at school to study for A-levels moved up into the sixth form, which was divided into the Lower Sixth and the Upper Sixth.
Sixth Form

Richard Nordquist on parsing sentences

How Ben Franklin taught himself to write

There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh.

A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words, and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons. As we parted without settling the point, and were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my arguments in writing, which I copied fair and sent to him. He answered, and I replied. Three or four letters of a side had passed, when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I owed to the printing-house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method, and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned then into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Sentence fragments: pro and con

AND SEE: Very short post on sentence fragments

Generally speaking, you should use only complete sentences in formal writing, which includes the writing you do in college. However, writers often use sentence fragments intentionally. (I often use the fragment “Like so” on this blog.) Here is a short discussion, con and pro, of sentence fragments that appeared on the New York Times web site:

For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in.

I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate): The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.


When a sentence lacks one of its two essential parts, it is called asentence fragment. Like the flotsam I mentioned earlier, fragments are adrift, without clear direction or purpose.

Playing with sentence fragments can be fun — the best copywriters use them for memorable advertising slogans (Alka-Seltzer’s “Plop plop, fizz fizz”). But there are plenty of competing Madison Avenue slogans to convince you that a full sentence registers equally well — from Esso’s “Put a tiger in your tank” to The Heublein Company’s “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?” While sentence fragments can be witty, they are still shards of thoughts, better suited to hawking antacids than to penning the Great American Novel or earnestly attempting to put inchoate thoughts into indelible words.
The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative
March 19, 2012, 9:30 PM

I’d like to make a case for the sentence fragment, though. In all kinds of business writing (reports, proposals, blogs, articles), fragments add punch. After medium to long sentences explaining something complex, a fragment can introduce a twist or wake up the reader with a bold comment sandwiched between white space (which the eye welcomes too). Used sparingly, it’s a dandy addition to the writer’s toolkit.
Linda McDaniel – comment left in reponse

2 tenses in English

from Hunter College:

Most people think of English as having three main verb tenses: Past, Present, and Future, and grammar books identify a total of twelve tenses, including a Perfect, Progressive, and Perfect- Progressive tense to go along with each of the three main tenses. But most linguists agree that English actually has a two-tense system – Present and Past. Looking at the verb system of English this way is both simpler and more suitable to the actual structure of the language. English sentences are framed around a time frame of either THEN (the Past) for actions that are completed or NOW (the Present) for actions that are not completed. All the other verbs, including perfect, progressive, and future forms are expressed in relationship to one of these two time frames; they refer to BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER the main time frame, and they all contain either a past tense or a present tense form.

Read the rest: The Two-Tense Verb System Text

William J. Kerrigan on learning to swim and learning to write

I suspect that what lies behind this [X-1-2-3] method is my experience with swimming. Efforts to teach me to swim, beginning back in my grade school days, had time after time proved utter failures. In crowded municipal pools, in small private pools, and in swimming holes in rural creeks, my friends told me to do this and do that, gave me one piece of advice and then another, held me up as I waved my arms and legs, put water wings on me, demonstrated for me again and again. No use. I couldn’t learn to swim a stroke or to keep myself up in the water for one second.

But one day when I was in my twenties and was paddling my hands in the water in the shallow end of a pool—while other people swam—a friend of mine got out of the water and said, “Walk out there ten or fifteen feet, and turn and face me on the deck of the pool here. OK. Now raise your hands above your head, take a deep breath and hold it, close your eyes if you want to, and just lie face down in the water. You absolutely can’t sink. Then, when you’re out of breath, stand up again.”

I followed his directions and, to my surprise, I didn’t sink.

“Now,” he said, “when you lie down again in the water, just kick your feet up and down. You’ll come right to me at the edge of the pool.”

I did as he told me. When my hands met the side of the pool and I stood up again, I realized that after years of vain effort, I had—in less than five minutes—learned how to swim.

It was the simplest kind of swimming, to be sure; and I need not take you through the steps that followed, in which I moved my arms, lifted my head to breathe, and developed various strokes. Let me say only that today I have an acceptable swimming technique.

When it came to teaching theme writing, then, I wanted a method like that—a method that was going to work for all students, good, fair, and indifferent. What was needed was a set of simple instructions that any and every student could follow, that would lead—like “lie face down in the water”—to automatic success. Other writing textbooks contained plenty of good advice, but not a method of organizing the advice so that it would lead step by step to a successful theme. So I had to figure out the instructions myself. The foolproof method I developed is fully contained in this book.

Kerrigan, William J. and Metcalf, Allen. Writing to the Point. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987. Print. (1-2).

James Thurber’s country mouse

The Mouse Who Went to the Country
By James Thurber

Once upon a Sunday there was a city mouse who went to visit a country mouse. He hid away on a train the country mouse had told him to take, only to find that on Sundays it did not stop at Beddington. Hence the city mouse could not get off at Beddington and catch a bus for Sibert’s Junction, where he was to be met by the country mouse. The city mouse, in fact, was carried on to Middleburg, where he waited three hours for a train to take him back. When he got back to Beddington he found that the last bus for Sibert’s Junction had just left, so he ran and he ran and he ran and he finally caught the bus and crept aboard, only to find that it was not the bus for Sibert’s Junction at all, but was going in the opposite direction through Pell’s Hollow and Grumm to a place called Wimberby. When the bus finally stopped, the city mouse got out into a heavy rain and found that there were no more buses that night going anywhere. “To the hell with it,” said the city mouse, and he walked back to the city.

Moral: Stay where you are, you’re sitting pretty.

Thurber, James. The Mouse Who Went to the Country. In James Thurber, Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated. Garden City, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 1943. Print. (3).

A panda walks into a bar

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

‘Why?’ asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

‘Well, I’m a panda,’ he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. ‘Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.’

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham, 2006. Print ISBN-10: 1592402038 ISBN-13: 978-1592402038

Update 2/22/2012: Visual aid for the “Oxford comma” from Language Log