Tag Archives: English language


It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

–Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

The Bulwer-Lytton Prize, named for the author of the torrential sentence above,  is just one of those wonderfully equalizing, wide-reaching internet-things enjoyed both by those who watch cute cat videos at work and those who read The Paris Review for fun.

Case in point, the 2007 Winner:

Gerald began—but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them “permanently” meant the next ten minutes or so until they were buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash—to pee.

–Jim Gleeson, Madison, Wisconsin

Are you laughing? I am. But why? Why is this sentence funny? Because it’s bad? Why is this type of bad funny? Writing can be considered bad for countless reasons. A run-on sentence, my specialty, is bad. A phony sentence is bad. A sentence with too many commas, or not enough, or one with words that should really be different ones, is bad. A sentence that makes no sense is a bad sentence. Maybe worst of them is the sentence that plainly tells you what its writer was trying to  emulate and how badly it all went astray. But what’s so funny about bad?

In the case of Gleeson’s sentence, it may be that in the span of one whole, real-time second, (between “Gerald began” and “to pee”,) we learn that Gerald begins to pee but does not finish and that he won’t be alive much longer, nor will anyone around him. Also, that they’re all deaf. That’s a lot of absolutely crucial information delivered in the most trivial context possible. Why is that funny, though?

Had the sentence started with “Gerald began to pee, but was interrupted by…” would it still be funny? I think so, yes. Look at it like this:

Gerald began to pee. Suddenly, he was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them “permanently” meant the next ten minutes or so until they were buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash.

a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing


not that it mattered much

“permanently” meant the next ten minutes

until they were buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash

Though not all of them are this funny, bad sentences are the most common thing in the English language. Sentences that have the appearance of bad ones but are, in fact, pure genius, however, are rarer.

Second case in point (the sentence immediately preceding this one doesn’t count):

“By rights, Jack should have headed west when his wife, Alex, left him, but they lived in California so he drove east, folding down the visor each morning against the sun.”

–Amy Hempel, “Sportsman”

Why is this a genius sentence? Because of the visor part, of course. So, in the end, its got little to do with mechanics. Little to do with grammar. To know why the Gleeson sentence is bad and unintentionally funny, all you need is to figure out why the Hempel sentence is good, graphic and funny in that you-can’t-help-but-smile-except-really-your-eyes-are-wet-and-there’s-not-much-you-can-do-about-it kind of way.

And so it goes.



Filed under Bits and Bobs

“Wolf! Wolf!” cried the little boy.

We at the bookstore like to think we have a light-heartedness about us, a jollyness reflected sometimes in the unusual, whimsical gifts that we offer.  At any given time you might find a small duck that quacks six different tunes, a pewter wishbone, a tiny snowglobe with a frog in it or a fake spilled cup of coffee (mentioned here, as well. Apparently, this is all we can talk about!).  Of all the gift items we carry it is the fake spilled coffee (and wine and milk and ice cream spoon) that draw the most comments in a day.  Our owner, Julie, who does most of the buying for the store, is truly creative and original in her outlook about everything, including what would be fun to have in the store to charm our customers.  Julie likes to leave the spoons with the fake melted ice cream sitting atop a stack of books.  Yes, it works every time.   Someone walks by, spies out of the corner of their eye what looks like a real disaster happening, and exclaims:
“Oh my gosh, someone just left a spoon on one of your books…who would do a thing like that???!!!”
To which we have various replies:
“Don’t worry, it’s fake”.
“Thank you for being concerned about our books.”
“What slobs. Who would do such a thing!”

Everyone, hopefully, laughs and we go on to talk about our other gifts or books or life in general.

Day after day, month after month, the same scenario, laughter and explanations over the fake spilled food items.  Our regular customers have become savvier (though some keep falling for them over and over no matter how many times they’ve seen them,) but we get many new customers everyday, some from continents away. One evening,  such a customer was shopping at the store and purchased her items at the counter as we chatted about her home country of Thailand, which I had the privilege of visiting years ago.  Her English was certainly better than my complete lack of Thai but it was difficult to understand some of her words.  As she said goodbye and was leaving the store she suddenly rushed back to the counter and exclaimed, “Quick coffee spill, quick quick!!!”  I gave the usual reply: “Fake….plastic…etc…”  She would have none of it.  She shook her head emphatically and said, “Come see, quick!”  To humor her I stepped from behind the counter to show her our fake coffee cup on the floor, but to my horror and amazement there was a real cup of coffee spilled all over the floor puddling in little rivers, headed for our gifts.  I jumped to clean up the mess, but was laughing at the absurdity of the situation and trying to explain to this lovely Thai woman how I had misjudged what she was telling me and still trying to explain about the fake coffee spills that we carry.  She laughed but I don’t think she really understood. I think she returned to her country thinking that some American women are very hard to communicate with in an emergency.

And I ended up thinking of the little boy who cried wolf until no one believed him when the real wolf appeared.



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Filed under The Other Day at Portrait...

Kevin Makes Another List

Authors that Should Have Received The Nobel Prize for Literature (But Didn’t)

Like the Academy Awards, the Nobel Prize for literature is the highest honor an author can receive, with the added distinction of being an award for a lifetime of work, which comes with a cash prize of a cool million.  And like the Oscars, the decision-making process when it comes to picking the recipient can seem capricious, petty, or downright bizarre, and many of the best authors of the last century lost that prize to inferior (in my view) contemporaries, or were simply ignored.  Why don’t you make this list longer, as surely it can go on forever, by adding your own in comments!


1. Jorge Luis Borges

A fairly notorious case of the Swedish Academy ignoring an author for their political beliefs, Borges was turned down time and time again for the prize, for his conservative political views and support of South American dictatorships the fervor of which, perhaps over-exaggerated by his critics.  A list of those authors influenced by Borges would include all South American writers, all science-fiction and fantasy writers (including, arguably, Tolkien), all postmodern writers and some modern ones, and perhaps any authors whose fiction contains a tiger, a mirror, a maze, or any combination of the three. Generally, the decision to pass over Borges for the award is reason numero uno that many consider the Academy to be out of touch with prevailing literary opinion, and a quarter century after his death the omission still raises hackles.


2. W.H. Auden

Auden, who was one of the best poets in the English language and one of the few Modernists to actually deal with modernity instead of treating it as some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, was allegedly passed over because he made some rather scandalous remarks about Dag Hammarskjold.  Since the Academy is comprised entirely of Swedes, you can see where this might have been a miscalculation on Auden’s part if he’d really desired the prize.


3. Vladimir Nabokov

Best known for a novel that inspired a song by The Police, Nabokov was hugely influential among high-minded writers everywhere, and wrote in a style that expressed both a great deal of wit and playfulness while still being dense and rigorous as anyone could imagine.  While Borges was perhaps more influential in terms of style and theme, Nabokov set the high-water mark  for four generations of authors after him.  He was nominated once but two Swedish authors took it home that year instead.  Both those authors were on the deciding committee.


4. Graham Greene

Another also-ran, Greene probably confused the political-minded Academy with his eclectic beliefs, which combined strident (even if often laissez-faire,) Catholicism with secular humanism and a flirtation with Socialism.  Greene, who wrote about ugly characters in ugly situations, grappled with the problems of suffering and unhappiness and, although he depicted many characters that wanted badly to be good and just, his books are filled with ambivalence and confusion in the face of evil.  The effect of all this is that his world is rather bleak and unlikable, but that’s the point.


5. Mark Twain

Mark Twain was passed over for the prize not once, not twice, but ten times.  From my understanding, he really could have used the money.


6. Joan Didion

Didion’s work, whether fiction or truth, sheds more light on the trends, culture, aspirations, and interior life of 20th Century America than practically anyone else I care to name.  Her prose is lucid, clear, and spare, and at times it touches a rare perfection in her prosody.  And, as anyone who has read her knows, she is unbelievably brutal; painful, heartbreaking disenchanting and sometimes just plain mean.  The Academy probably has no plans to offer her the award any time soon.


7. Haruki Murakami

An author who has blossomed into an international superstar of mind-boggling proportions, and one that has become an icon for the protean, conflicted, deeply imaginative character of modern Japanese culture.  He’s still young(ish) so he might get it some day, but his serious-minded contemporary Kenzaburo Oe already scored the award a little while ago, so don’t count on it.


8. Thomas Hardy

What do the works of Henry James and E.M. Forster have that Thomas Hardy’s don’t? Answer: brief glimmers of happiness.  Thomas Hardy is best remembered as a Naturalist writer, but I think his work contains elements of the Gothic as well as a sense of transcendentalism that is often overlooked.  Life is tough in a Hardy novel, but that’s because it’s tough in real life too. Hardy never pulled his punches and endured scandal for it.  He deserved the award doubly, since his career as a poet was as fruitful as his career as a novelist.


9. Robert Graves

Though he was, in my opinion, a second-rate scholar, Graves defined the genre of the historical novel and wrote some of the best of them, when not writing otherwise on every subject under the sun, and some, like his quasi-fictitious White Goddess, under the moon.  Graves’ status as a polymath, as well as his fearless unconventionality, honesty, and the evocation of the wonder and mystery of the human experience should have won him the prize. But didn’t.


10. Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon is one of my favorite authors, perhaps the greatest American author of all time, even if his books are impossible to figure out, frequently obscene and loaded to the gills with lame jokes, shaggy dog stories, and esoteric minutiae so lovingly detailed it takes several Ph.D’s to know what is going on.  But, even if that doesn’t win accolades, he’s gotten a lot more lucid with his later novels and people are actually starting to figure out what he’s talking about.  Plus, he wrote ‘A Journey in to the Mind of Watts’, which is regarded as one of the best essays written on race in 1960’s America.  If he ever did get the award, it would mean he would have to leave his Salingeresque seclusion and actually make a public appearance, something he has never done in his career.  Here’s hoping.


[Unsolicited, Somewhat Related Editor’s Note: The only writer since 1901 who refused to accept the prize for Literature was Jean-Paul Sartre. You’re probably not surprised. Good. I hate to break it to Kevin, but Pynchon, if he were to win, would probably follow suit. Which would be appropriate. In lieu of the cash prize, however, (which would be the real pity to waste,) all he’d have to do is sell his toilet on ebay. ]


Filed under Curious Lists