Friday, December 26, 2008

Parvum Opus ~ Cultivating Commas

Yes, Virginia

Worth reading again is the famous “Yes, Virginia” piece written by Francis Pharcellus Church in the New York Sun in 1897:

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little.

Note that whoever posted the text of Church’s piece inserted [what]; the original read “They do not believe except they see” (They do not believe anything unless they see it); “what” changes the emphasis to the thing seen. The editor could also have inserted [that] for a different read (They do not believe unless they see or They do not believe without seeing), which is closer to the original, with emphasis on the verb. The original usage is correct although not common today.

The photo image of the original paper shows Virginia’s complete name and address:

Virginia Hanlon

115 W. 95th St.

New York, NY

I found it interesting to look up this address on Google maps. You can’t see the house numbers but the brownstone houses are perhaps the same houses that were there more than a century ago.


Bill R. sent “So You Want to be an English Teacher” by Evanthia O. Rosati. No, Bill, I don’t. Well, not so much.

I have “created memories” (to use a particularly irritating phrase ~ if you’re creating memories you’re not paying enough attention right now) all semester which I can now consign to my memory bank because I quit the university job. Creating memories in this way is a fine thing to do. I may be able to mine these four months for more ruminations on the state of education, free speech, and political correctness. But a job that frequently woke me up at three in the morning, which F. Scott Fitzgerald told us is always the time in the dark night of the soul, is best made into a memory.

One trivial example of the many irritants built into the academic bureaucracy (though all the irritants were not bureaucratic) was the modern way of entering final semester grades: online. But I couldn’t figure out how to log on. I was asked to sign in with two numbers, a faculty ID and a PIN. I tried various combinations of: the number on my campus ID card; the employee number on my pay stub; my Social Security number, with and without dashes; my university e-mail sign-on and password. The solution turned out to be the SS#, no dashes (which was the faculty ID) and my birthdate (the mysterious PIN). When I e-mailed the IT department for help, they wrote back that security concerns prevented them from explaining it, although I wasn’t asking for the numbers themselves. I had to ask another faculty member to explain it to me.

I ought to start my own school, along the lines of the boarding school described by Jane Austen in Emma:

Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School -- not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems -- and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity -- but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.

What could the inimitable Jane have meant by “elegant morality”?

Bill’s signature tag is:

If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. -- Zhongni, Analects

Using language in accordance with the truth of things actually caused me problems in that teaching job.

Also thanks to Bill, I sometimes read a blog, Neptunus Lex, which has a pretty good Christmas Eve entry. A commenter on the blog got all tangled up in too many negatives and came out the wrong end:

After reading your post, I can’t imagine anyone denigrating your ability to author a book that wouldn’t sell.

Can’t, denigrating, wouldn’t: parse it out, or do the math, and you’ll see the problem. It sounds like an insult but that was not the intention.

I myself have the ability to author books that won’t sell, and I do not denigrate that ability because it takes a lot of work. Can’t you imagine me selling, not selling, denigrating, or not denigrating? (By the way, if you think it should be “imagine my selling” etc., not so, because I want you to imagine me, plus appositives, rather than imagine the selling that is mine, etc.)

Cool Christmas

I got some exceptionally cool Christmas gifts this year.

Son Jude and his bride Kate sent a notebook made from a recycled hardback called The English Workshop (1945) that used the cover and a few pages plus acid-free paper in a spiral binding (from Ex Libris Anonymous, The original owner’s penciled notes remain in the inside cover; can’t quite make out the name ~ Molly Bliefermick? Sounds like a character from Mad magazine. It looks like it was an excellent little English textbook. Here’s a punctuation poem from page 11:

Comma Caution

by Harold Willard Gleason

Be gentle to the comma with its curly little tail

Though dainty and diminutive its power turns one pale

It causes much confusion when neglected or misplaced

So slur it not through ignorance nor hobble it through haste

Expressions parenthetical however or said he

All nominatives of address appositives aussi

Inverted order clauses which come before the main

The members of a series Lizzie Annabel and Jane

Long phrases introductory containing verbal parts

All nonrestrictive elements His hobby which is arts

Dates address in detail 10 Broadway Hartford Conn

Or Saturday June 26 and last to ponder on

The parts of compound sentences Ike hops but Willie flees

All these require commas tucked in their interstices

One may not move a mountain but one may preserve a state

By cultivating commas And tomorrow is too late

“Are you able to punctuate it?” the writer asks. “Is the advice valid?” Of course it is. In other words, for want of a comma a meaning was lost, and for want of a meaning a nation was lost.

Also, because of a tip from reader and Fred’s friend Herb H., I got a great little Gretsch guitar in the discontinued Americana series, all the better because it has writing and pictures on it. I have the Sundown Serenade model. I’m slow about learning music but I’m going to play with this adorable, non-threatening instrument, thanks to Fred (and Herb).

Next Year

This will probably be the last PO of the year unless I manage to shift my schedule back to Wednesdays, as was my original intention. In either case, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas or anything else, and I wish you a very healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year. (Don’t believe all the news. There’s more than meets our uncomprehending eyes.)


Read The Wish Book, a novella by Rhonda Keith, free online.

New interview with bluesman Sonny Robertson.


Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2008. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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