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The Write Way

11 March  2005

No, No ... Well, Maybe ... Oh, OK ...


In my Other Life as a teacher, we frequently found ourselves missing out on lessons because the Admin team, in their infinite wisdom, had booked a speaker to Provide Inspiration for the kids ... They trotted out the usual suspects ... past students who'd played in national sporting teams, young people in wheelchairs who'd dived into water without checking for hidden obstacles and business people hoping for recruits. But occasionally they hit the jackpot, as far as I was concerned anyway, and found someone whose words have echoed through the years.

One particular speaker, who's earned a prominent spot in my memory banks, told a story about a millionaire who decided he wanted to give something back to the world. He set out to collect the wisdom of the ages and present it to readers around the world, so he advertised for researchers and writers and sent them off to every country to interview the sages, the wise women and the elders and told them to report back in 12 months.

A year later they came to him, full of importance and presented him with a 20-volume set of books that encapsulated the wisdom of the ages. "I don't have time to read 20 books," the millionaire said, "and neither does anyone else. Go away and come back in 12 months with something I can read!"

So off they went, and this time they engaged the world's best writers to pore over their research material and try to find a way to reduce it to something that would please the millionaire.

Twelve months later, they walked into their meeting with the millionaire, smiling broadly as they entered, confident that they'd succeeded in condensing the wisdom of the world.

"Well," said the millionaire, "show me what you've achieved in the past year."

They handed him a 5-volume set of books, and the spokesman said, "This is it! The wisdom of the world ... everything anyone needs to know to be happy and successful." 

The millionaire cast a disdainful look at the pile of books in the man's arms and said, "I don't have time to read 5 books! There's so much I have to do and so little time ... Go away and come back with something I can read." Then he felt sorry because they had done their best, so he added, "I'll give a million-dollar bonus to the person who can bring me the wisdom of the world in a form I can read quickly."

The next day, there was a knock at his door and one of the junior office workers who'd been ferrying cups of coffee and tea in and out of the meeting, said, "Did you mean what you said yesterday, Sir (you always call millionaires "Sir"), about the bonus?"

"Of course I meant it," said the millionaire. "If you can summarise the wisdom of the world for me, I'll give you a million dollars."

The young office worker handed the millionaire an envelope with a small card inside it. The millionaire took out the card, read the 5 words on it, smiled, then wrote out a cheque for a million dollars and handed it across to the young worker. "Thank you," he said, as the worker left the room.

So, was that a good story or what?

Oh ... you want to know what was written on the card?


OK ...

The millionaire got up from his desk, walked across to the window that overlooked the city and bent his head to read the words that expressed the wisdom of the ages ... the words that would guide everyone ... the words that were the secret to success and happiness. He read, "There ain't no free lunch."

Think about it ... True, isn't it?

And before you chastise me for using a double negative, may I just point out that this usage is acceptable in colloquial speech. But don't try this in a letter to your boss, boys and girls. 

Those with a mathematical bent will approve of the logic behind the traditional teaching that two negatives make a positive. 

e.g. "He couldn't see nothing." 

Now, when you think logically about this, the rule makes sense. If you can't see "nothing," you must, by definition, see something. Right?

So in formal, written work follow the rule. However, as I said, the double negative is quite widely used in colloquial speech, and for positive reinforcement of this we can turn to

“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” said Al Jolson in 1927 in The Jazz Singer, the first talking motion picture. He meant, of course, “You haven’t heard anything yet.” Some 60 years later President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” These famous examples of double negatives that reinforce (rather than nullify) a negative meaning show clearly that this construction is alive and well in spoken English. In fact, multiple negatives have been used to convey negative meaning in English since the tenth century, and throughout most of this history, this form of the double negative was wholly acceptable. Thus Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales could say of the Friar, “Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous,” meaning “There was no man so virtuous anywhere,” and Shakespeare could allow Viola in Twelfth Night to say of her heart, “Nor never none/Shall mistress of it be, save I alone,” by which she meant that no one except herself would ever be mistress of her heart. 

As long as the meaning is clear, you can toss in the odd double negative for effect. I mean, the worker's note wouldn't have had nearly as much impact if it had read, "There is no such thing as a free lunch," would it?

And this is the perfect place to drag out this old timer ...

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his English class one day. "In English," he said, "A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative."

A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, right."

Don't forget you can show off your grasp of grammar by adding your tuppence worth to the Never-Ending Story: (Use the Comments button at the end of the entry to add your contribution.)

This week's quiz:

Match up these terms about grammar and language with their meanings below:

syntax, acronym, mood, gerund, dyad, acrostic, clause, antecedent, phrase, diachronic

1. a group of words containing a subject and verb which forms part of a sentence 

2. two items of the same kind e.g. two people speaking 

3. word which the pronoun stands for 

4. the study of the rules of the way words are arranged in sentences 

5. used of the study of a phenomenon (especially language) as it changes through time 

6. a noun formed from a verb (such as the `-ing' form of an English verb when used as a noun) 

7. a word formed from the initial letters of a multi-word name 

8. the manner in which the action or condition (of a verb) is conceived or intended 

9. verse in which certain letters such as the first in each line form a word or message 

10. a group of words acting as a single part of speech that does not contain a finite verb; a part of a sentence, but does not express a complete thought

And thanks to fellow Chalkie, Deb, for finding this in cyberspace and passing it along .. 

Are You a TRUE Primary School Teacher?

Let's find out:

1. Do you ask guests if they have remembered their scarves and gloves as they leave your home?

2. Do you move your dinner partner's glass away from the edge of the table?

3. Do you ask if anyone needs to go to the bathroom as you enter a theatre with a group of friends?

4. Do you hand a tissue to anyone who sneezes?

5. Do you ask a quiet person at a party if he has something to share with the group?

6. Do you say, "I like the way you did that," to the mechanic who repairs your car?

7. Do you ask, "Are you sure you did your best?" to the mechanic who fails to repair your car to your satisfaction?

8. Do you sing the "Alphabet Song" to yourself as you look up a number in the phone book?

9. Do you say everything twice? I mean, do you repeat everything?

10. Do you fold your spouse's fingers over the coins as you hand him/her the money at a toll booth?

Chuckle ... you can take the teacher out of the classroom but ...

Last week's quiz:

lintel, balusters, joist, flue, dado, dormer, flashing, grout, jamb, lath

1. mortar made of such consistency (by adding water) that it will just flow into the joints and cavities of the masonry work and fill them solid - GROUT

2. a gabled extension built out from a sloping roof to accommodate a vertical window - DORMER

3. one of a series of parallel beams used to support floor and ceiling loads and supported in turn by larger beams, girders or bearing walls - JOIST

4. a railing at the side of a staircase or balcony to prevent people from falling - BALUSTERS

5. a horizontal structural member that supports the load over an opening such as a door or window - LINTEL

6. the space or passage in a chimney through which smoke, gas, or fumes ascend - FLUE

7. a rectangular groove across the width of a board or plank. In interior decoration, a special type of wall treatment - DADO

8. sheet metal or other material used in roof and wall construction to protect a building from water seepage - FLASHING

9. a building material of wood, metal, gypsum, or insulating board that is fastened to the frame of a building to act as a plaster base - LATH

10. the side and head lining of a doorway, window, or other opening - JAMB

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A Little Something Extra

This week, I want to tell you about my latest toy! It's a natty software program to help you organise and write that novel that's been lurking within all these years ... 

It guides you through the process of creating your characters and your fictional world. I don't know about you, but on the few occasions I've sat down to pen the Great Novel, what's always defeated me has been trying to keep track of all my ideas. I start writing a description of one character, then get a flash of inspiration for a plot twist or a perfect setting for my chief characters to meet or ... And by the time I've found my bit of paper (or page in my notebook or file in My Documents) where I've been keeping similar notes, I've forgotten what it was I was going to add!

But this program has a Global Notes section where you can create dozens (hundreds or thousands) of neat folders to store all these ideas - and then they're all there at your fingertips, just a click away.

So while I was playing with this and jotting down some ideas for a novel, it occurred to me that with just a teensy bit of juggling you could also use it to write non-fiction. So I saved my novel and started another file ... only this time I modified the program to suit my purposes, bypassing the character creation section and concentrating on the World section. I then used the Global Notes to organise all the parts of my non-fiction book. 

Each chapter now has a main folder and a number of sub-folders and I can add to any of these as I think of things I want to include. Once I've entered all the information, the book is practically done!

This is a ripper - you can write fiction (and follow the suggestions the program was designed to help with) or, with a bit of judicious omission, non-fiction! Read more about it here: 

Word of the week: Idiolect (n) the language or speech of one individual at a particular period in life; a person's own personal language, the words they choose and any other features that characterise their speech and writing

See? It's nothing to do with being silly ... just being "you!"

Oxymoron of the week: patient teacher

And this week's Latin phrase is one we can all relate to ... 

Proximo satis pro administratio (Close enough for government work)

[proh-KSEE-moh SAH-tees PROH ahd-meen-ees-TRAH-tee-oh]

Kind regards,


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