Friday, October 23, 2009

Bless This House with Death: Uniforms, Patriots, & False Cognates

What I'm reading right now: Literary Journals Your Future Agent is Reading by Zachary Petit, Writer's Digest * November/December 2009

Stay with me on this one. It will start with baseball but end with logophilia.

Change of Venue

DISCLAIMER: I have no scientific data to support the following claim, but it's kinda fun.

All of my examples are anecdotal. I can't cite the numbers, but it's widely accepted in the sports universe that building a new stadium will generate revenue for your team and somehow imbue the players with talent. Let's take the New York Yankees for example. In 2008 the Yankees played their last season in the house that Ruth built and how did they fare? It was the first season since 1993 that the Yankees failed to make the post season.

In 2009, the NY Yankees moved into their new Yankee stadium

and as I write this, they have a 3-2 game lead on the Angels for the ALCS and the right to play the Phillies in the World Series. All this from a simple change of venue?

New Uniforms

How about football? Let's talk New England Patriots

A brief history, beginning with the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, the New England Patriots were largely unremarkable until 1985 when the Pats won the AFC and made it to their first Super Bowl, SB XX; then got smoked by Jim McMahon and the Chicago Bears 46 - 10. Following their loss, the Pats immediately settled into a decade of mediocrity.

After the first uniform/logo change in 1996, the Pats returned to the Super Bowl, SB XXXI, where they posted a better showing, but still lost to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers 35 - 21.

The third, and current uniform/logo change, for the 2000-2001 season was only a slight change, but all that was necessary given that the Pats were so near greatness, to catapult Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to their run of Super Bowl titles: 2001, 2003, & 2004.

SIDE NOTE: Interesting that the first Super Bowl victory for the Patriots was the Super Bowl following 9/11 and coinciding with the most recent uniform change.

Notable interest: Which team won
The 2007-2008 season the Patriots flirted with a perfect season, returning to the Super Bowl and losing their one and only game, the Super Bowl, to the New York Giants.

Well, thanks for that stroll down sports lane, but how is this at all related to a love of words?  Cognates. (Admitedly, it's a bit of a stretch) In language we have cognates and false cognates. Again, I will turn to

cog nate: of the same or similar nature : generically alike

For example, let's talk France

Paiement par carte de crédit -- Facturation mensuelle automatique
Payment by credit card -- Monthly automatic billing
Paiement and Payment are cognates. I also find it interesting that monthly and mensuelle are not cognates but their meanings are similar.

As there are cognates there are also false cognates:

Bless and Blesser: The French verb blesser means harm or hurt, a far cry from a blessing. The French verb to bless is actually benir. There's nothing life or death about false cognates, however they can lead to humorous and awkward scenarios. Take the new English speaking missionary struggling to learn the language but wants to participate and connect with a family and offers a pray saying, 

"On te demande de blesser ce masion avec la mort." (We ask that ye hurt this house with death.) Instead of:

"On te demande de benir ce masion avec l'amour." (We ask that ye bless this house with love.)
A Final Thought

Is a logo/uniform change a cognate or a false cognate? Do clothes make the man? Does a new venue make that much of a difference?

I was thinking about how this might apply to writing. When you've got a piece that you've gone over again and again stick in the drawer for a few weeks, let it sit, then look at it with fresh eyes, like a new uniform on an old body of work. It just may do the trick.

What about a change of venue? Well, sometimes there's nothing better than a different set of eyes to give you a new perspective on a tired piece. Next time I'll talk about those new eyes and how they can effectively help us revise our work.

Monday, October 19, 2009

10 Sure Signs Your Character is Doomed

What I'm reading right now: Understand the difference between an idea, a concept, a premise, and a story. by Larry Brooks (

I find it difficult to read while folding laundry (yes, I do laundry--there's a confession for you.) Occasionally, I’ll listen to an audio book but they're all on my Nano and the headphone wires get in the way, so I put in a DVD to distract me from the monotony. I’m a little behind on the mainstream-vampire genre (aka Twilight or True Blood) so I rented a True Blood disc from Netflix (love the red envelope.)
I’ve been an Anna Paquin fan since I saw her signing in The Piano with Holly Hunter. You’ll recall I have a degree in American Sign Language. So I was eager to see how she would portray Sookie Stackhouse, the mindreading-on-again-off-again-girlfriend of a vampire named Bill.

In one scene, Anna walks into a room, crosses the threshold and says…

I don’t remember what she said. What I do remember is I said the exact same thing, verbatim. I hadn’t seen this episode (there are several on a disc) but somehow, in the given context, I knew exactly what the writer intended she say.

In 2007, I attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. As part of his course he talked about the cliché shelf. These are the ideas that first come to us as writers: what should our characters say? Or do? Or behave? He teaches that we instinctively pull from our cliché shelf—things we’ve seen and heard people or characters do in similar situations—and what we need to do is learn to reach past the cliché shelf. He uses the phrase, “Else your way through the story.”

When you pull from that cliché shelf say to yourself, “Okay, that could happen, but what else could happen? How else might she respond? What else might he say? This helps you come up with a fresh take on tired ideas.

Speaking of tired ideas, a friend of mine recently shared a list of 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed. It’s from a book of the same name written by Richard Roeper, co-host of Ebert & Roeper. As a movie critic, Roeper has seen thousands of movies. He compiled this book of observations he extracted from his endless hours of movie watching, things he’s seen over and over again.

Some of his observations are less relevant than others, such as Bad Films Featuring Seinfeld Cast Members but the 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed is a great example of the cliché shelf. These things have been done to death. You will recognize most of these because you’ve seen them too. If you’re writing characters or scenes similar to the ones on the list, stop and ask yourself, “What else could he do?”

1. The researcher who is working late in the police lab and calls up the lead cop and says, “I know who did it! Meet me at the crime scene at 11 tonight.” After hanging up the phone, the researcher will be greeted by a visitor who is not shown on camera and will say, “Hey, what are YOU doing here?” And then the researcher will get whacked.

2. The spunky little kid or the wizened old soul who befriends a main character in a hospital has no chance. We’ll find out the kid (or the old-timer) has died when the main character stops in to pay a visit, only to see a nurse’s aid stripping the bed. Nothing says death in a hospital scene like a nurse’s aide stripping the bed.

3. The fresh-faced soldier who talks endlessly about his girlfriend, looks longingly at her photo every night, and fells everyone, “We’re going to have a baby!” will be coming home in a body bag.

4. The pregnant young wife who looks at her husband with pure love and says, “I’ve never been happier in my entire life,” has no chance of making it out of the movie alive.

5. Another type who has no chance of surviving the movie: The anonymous henchman who exists only to fight the superhero and never realizes that it would be better to team up with his fellow anonymous henchmen for a group attack rather than waiting his turn to be defeated by the hero (well docu-mocked in the Austin Powers movies.)

6. Of course, all lusty teenagers in the Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street movies will be sliced and diced to pieces, usually after they’ve just made love or gone skinny-dipping.

7. The popular veteran cop who has travel brochures on his desk and is a week away from retirement—he’s never going to see that condo in Arizona, is he?

8. If a team of criminals or investigators has one black guy played by an actor who’s not as famous as anyone else, that guy has no chance. (As explained in Undercover Brother.)

9. The bad guy is locked in a life-and-death clinch with the good guy, when suddenly a gun goes off. We see the look of shock on the good guy’s face as he falls away—but of course it’s the bad guy who’s been shot n the gut.

10. Wise old-timers in the form of janitors, next-door neighbors, retired athletes, or inmates who have been locked up for 50 years—they’re bound to croak, usually in the arms of their young protégé, who says, “Don’t you die on me!” as if it’s up to the old guy.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

What I'm reading right now: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

A word on The Maze Runner. I'm only in the first chapters, but I can already see influences from Lord of the Flies and Ender's Game--hey, as far as influences go, them ain't bad. I heard James speak at the book launch and he admits that the book has been spoken of in the same sentences as Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. I've picked up that one too, but I'm only a couple of chapters into it. From what others have told me, she's pretty good company to be in. I've seen some reviews where people feel that The Maze Runner is in the same genre but not as good. Then I've heard reviews from people who I actually know who can't speak highly enough of The Maze Runner. I guess we'll all just have to read them both and then discuss. I don't think either author will object to that course of action.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

You know how there are grammar snobs out there? Those who claim to know all of the rules of structure and usage and syntax and could go on about it ad nauseam? Interestingly enough, even they will often trip up on "who" & "whom." Well, I'm not one of them. I do pursue accuracy with language but I try not to judge or preach to others and how they choose to manipulate les bon mots.

SIDE NOTE: For an sensible take on who vs. whom, check out Orson Scott Card's essay here. It's about 2/3rds of the way down.

One of the charms of language is evolution. Language continues to change, grow, and adapt, lest it dies. How a language evolves can tell us a lot about a community, for instance a public forum used to be a place where people gathered to discuss a given topic--face to face. Now, you can chime in at a public forum completely anonymously and a chat room was the receiving room in a home where you could sit and entertain your guests.

First, let's give some definitions so we're all playing by the same rules. The first two I pulled from and the last

Prescriptive or Prescription:

serving to prescribe : laying down rules or directions : giving precise instructions

Descriptive or Description

referring to, constituting, or grounded in matters of observation or experience

Such as descriptive linguistics: the branch of linguistics which describes the structure of a language or languages as they exist, without reference to their histories or to comparison with other languages

What this all amounts to is prescriptive grammar is text book grammar. Grammar that follows the rules as laid out by Strunk and White, if you will.

Descriptive grammar is the way people actually use the language, which may be contrary to the prescriptive guidelines, but is far more interesting.

I tend to fall on the side of descriptive. I do have my pet peeves, which will be voiced on a later posts, but tend to keep them to myself and not berate the user directly. I will however vent my peeves in this forum. And just because you may commit a prescriptive error and I choose to vent about it, by all means, don't change your ways on my account. If that were the case, we'd all be stoned to death.

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