The maraschino cherry that rested (Was it really resting? I mean, does a maraschino cherry get enough exercise that it needs to take a break before it can continue being a maraschino cherry?) on top of a dollop of whipped cream, capping a bowl of rich, decadent chocolate pudding, was what I was looking forward to most.
Aunt Ruth, I knew, would try once again to find a way to gain possession of said maraschino cherry and devour it before I realized what was happening. She could fool me once; she could fool me twice; well, okay, she had fooled me five times in a row, on our regular Sunday afternoon picnics at the park, but I wasn’t about to let it happen a sixth time.
I had finished my celery, carrots, and bologna sandwich while she was still working on her celery. My goal was to finish my food so quickly that she didn’t have time to form a plan to get the maraschino cherry. I was eating my banana — the last step before going for the pudding — when suddenly she blurted out, “Look, it’s Halcyon’s Comet!”
She pointed upward at some location in the sky behind me. What? Halcyon’s Comet? I had never heard of such a thing. Always enamored with events astronomical, I turned and looked. I didn’t see a comet.
“Aunt Ruth,” I said, still looking up and behind me, “did you say you saw Halcyon’s Comet?”
“Hmmm mmm, hmmm mmm,” she mumbled, for some reason not speaking in her usually articulate way.
I turned back and proceeded to finish the banana. It is possible that I wouldn’t have noticed anything was awry for another, oh, thirty seconds or so, except that Aunt Ruth had a smudge of whipped cream on the corner of her mouth.
My maraschino cherry was gone!
“You savage beast!” I exclaimed.
“No, my naive nephew, just clever.”
“Clever indeed. Halcyon’s Comet? Where did you come up with that?”
“Well, that’s the famous comet, right? Isn’t that the comet that came the day Mark Twain was born and came again the day he died?”
“Something like that, I guess. But the name of that comet was Haley’s, not Halcyon’s.
“Really. If you had said Haley’s Comet, I wouldn’t have turned.”
“Just lucky I guess.”
“So do you know what Halcyon means?”
“Well, sort of. Halcyon is that mineral that you need to keep your bones strong; you get it from drinking milk and spending time in the sun.”
“Um, no, wrong answer. Thank you for playing and have a nice day.”
“Oh wait — halcyon is when you imagine you are seeing things that aren’t there.”
“Nope, that’s also incorrect.”
“Okay, my dear nephew, when did you become the vocabulary expert? I thought you were a grammar sort of guy.”
“So it’s like this, Aunt Ruth. The word halcyon now means peaceful and calm; it’s also meant to imply a kind of happy nostalgia for days gone by.”
“Do you mean like the golden years?”
“Mmm, I guess so, though maybe it’s more like golden days. There’s an expression — halcyon days — that reminds me of something Ray Bradbury might have written.”
“He’s one of my favorite writers. I’ve heard that expression before, but I always thought it meant something about comets. He did write about space things — Martian Chronicles, for example.”
“Yes he did — and I love his writing — but he also wrote stories of youth and growing up. Dandelion Wine is one of my favorites. Stories like that remind me of halcyon days.”
“And it’s not about comets.”
“It’s not about comets.”
“Where did halcyon come from?”
“I’m glad you asked. It’s a long story, but the Nauseating Nephew Notes version of the story is that a halcyon is a type of bird, related or similar to a kingfisher, and it would build its nest out on the calm sea, where it would lay its eggs. The sea was peaceful for one or two weeks out of the year, and those were the halcyon days because that was when the bird could safely lay and hatch the eggs.”
“Is this for real or is it mythical?”
“There’s more to it in a mythological sense, but I’ll stop here. The bottom line is that halcyon is used these days to mean calm, peaceful, and golden.”
“Thanks for explaining this. Did a halcyon bird look like the bird over there in the jujube tree?”
I glanced behind my shoulder. I didn’t see any bird; nor did I see any jujube tree.
“What jujube tree, Aunt Ruth?”
“Hmm mmmm, mmm mmm hmmm hmmm.”
I quickly turned around. Aunt Ruth was gone, and so was the rest of my chocolate pudding. In its place was a half eaten piece of celery and a carrot, along with a note that read, “You need to eat more vegetables and less dessert. You’ll be in better shape and thus happier. Someday, when you look back on these times, you’ll find yourself thinking about halcyon days.”
Pam Nelson, the grammar expert and book reviewer at the News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) has graciously reviewed the book!
Thank you Pam!
The firing ceased suddenly, and the last of the ricochets faded into a distant memory. All eyes, on both sides of the battle front, were focused on one and only one thing. From a distance, it appeared to be a large blob of lime jello moving slowly along the ground. I, of course, knew that we had no lime jello in the food supply. Was this a trick by the enemy, sending a veritable Trojan Blob into the camp, if you will? Or was this some alien from outer space, at long last revealing to us our innermost fear, that (just as Rod Serling always claimed) we really were in the Twilight Zone? Myriad thoughts ran through my mind (not unlike the myriad buffalo that used to roam across the western plains of Nebraska), and this could indeed be some act of treachery. Still, I suspected — and one glance through the binoculars confirmed it — that said blob was none other than Aunt Ruth, crawling along with rifle in hand as she approached me with an observation.
“Captain Nauseating Nephew, the troops are restless. You’ve had us in battle for three days straight now, and we need a break! This troop, for one, needs some sleep.”
There was a marked hush that spread through both camps like wildfire. The captain on the other side of the line shouted something that sounded like, * “Hala prava uvey drau, beeden gethen migstir vau,” which, when translated, meant “The nauseating nephew and his Great Aunt Ruth may be winning the battle, but their grammar is detestable.”
Ouch. That hurt. I hurled an epithet or two and did all I could to refrain from launching a barrage of dangling participles. He was right, though, and Aunt Ruth was wrong. The word troop is not an individual soldier or person. Yes, troops refers to multiple soldiers, but a troop — one troop — is still a group of soldiers, perhaps a cavalry unit (not a Calvary unit, though that will be another blog post someday).
Well, perhaps Aunt Ruth was right — the troops were tired. It was time for a much needed rest. I pulled out my whistle and, while blowing it, made the standard time-out signal with my hands. The captain on the other side nodded in acknowledgment, and the troops withdrew for the day. If we were participating in an old Warner Brothers cartoon, we would have punched out our time cards in the time clock for the day’s battle.
Later that night, at one of the local restaurants, both sides of the battle were sharing stories. The opposing captain was there, and he was quoted (and translated) as saying, “Nothing caught my ear the way Aunt Ruth did when she mentioned that she was a troop. I knew if I didn’t take action at that point, my troops would have erupted in laughter, thus losing their focus. All would have been lost.”
It turns out that this man was a busy guy. This same captain was interviewed on an American talk show the next morning, and then he wrote a book about the subject and had it published in less than a the week. Within days, he was selected for the Nobel Prize, and when he finally responded to inquiries about his background, the fact surfaced that he was merely a character in this story — only that, and nothing more.
Aunt Ruth, going incognito after this incident, managed to avoid appearing on the front of National Interrogation, but eventually she was caught by the paparazzi, who mistakenly thought she was Barney when she ventured out in public in a purple polyester jump suit.
She laughed at herself more than anyone else had laughed at her, and she took her blunder all in good stride. I’ll say this — Aunt Ruth is not a troop, but she’s a real trooper.
* Giving credit where credit is due, the quote: Hala prava uvey drau, etc., is from friend and former colleague Doug Politi, who enjoys words and word play as much as anyone I know. Doug, if you’re reading this … “une grestle brestle nestle shau.”
Hot off the press — and FREE — is the Aunt Ruth Grammar Police Violation Form ! I can hear you saying, “Oh boy oh boy oh boy!” I can picture you salivating (not a pretty sight, actually). I can hear you lickin’ your chops, ready to go out and issue a citation to the first person who is bodacious enough to use the word “hopefully” incorrectly right in front of you.
Aunt Ruth Grammar Police Violation Form
Not so fast, Aunt Ruth Grammar Police Deputy, not so fast.
Don’t forget, you were once there yourself, just a kid in the grammar world, barely knowing the difference between a dangling participle and a ripe persimmon. Perhaps you’ve known how to use “hopefully” correctly since you were the age of five; or perhaps the knowledge of how to use hopefully didn’t cross your transom until you were in your forties.
Therefore, let it be said here that while the Aunt Ruth Grammar Police must be vigilant and steadfast concerning matters of the English tongue and pen, it must be done in a kind and forgiving manner. The LAST thing you want to do is to turn people off of correct grammar. Remember that the way most people speak or write is merely a reflection of where the people grew up. If you grew up saying “poinsettia” as a three syllable word, then you most likely say it as a three syllable word today. If you grew up saying it as a four syllable word, then you probably still say it as a syllabic quartet today.
Keep in mind, too, that people come to the English speaking countries from all over the world. Do you realize how difficult the English language is? It’s hard enough to learn it by immersion, growing up with it from birth to present day; can you imagine growing up in a culture that doesn’t do verb conjugation (e.g., China) and then trying to learn a language that has such an amazingly hideous (well, hideous in a lovable sort of way) set of irregular verbs?
So … kids (or adults, wherever you are) … as you don the Aunt Ruth Grammar Police (imaginary) uniform, don’t forget to be kind and gentle. Be encouraging, just as you want others to be encouraging to you.
Remember the old Coke commercial that featured the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing?” Well, let’s try to get the world to sing in harmony, grammatically correct.
That being said, here is a form that may tickle your interest. This is the first draft of the Aunt Ruth Grammar Police Violation form. What else would you like to see on it?
Feel free to download and use to your heart’s content.
And be gentle out there.
The worksheets are here! As of today, the Aunt Ruth Grammar Drills for Excellence are available on CD. They can be ordered from this site (www.AuntRuthGrammar.com). I’m excited about these worksheets, and I believe they will add tremendous value in the classroom or family setting.
Here is the Preface to the book. Enjoy!
Communication is a funny thing, and it is important enough that we ought to take care to ensure that we get it right. Nearly every day, though, I find that I have made some blunder, and that reminds me of the fact that none of us is perfect. As one of my editors was reading the chapter on split infinitives in I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head, he found an unintentional split infinitive. Even when I try to be careful, I am capable of getting it wrong.
Mastering grammar is a lifelong process. For those of us who enjoy playing with words and writing as succinctly as possible, it is an enjoyable journey. For others it is no doubt dreary (at best) and perhaps embarrassingly cumbersome – the albatross that refuses to fly away.
Just as some will shout with glee when presented a math puzzle, and others will shriek and faint if they spy a fraction from a hundred yards away, so it is with anything that smells of an English grammar lesson. There are those of us in life who perk up when we sense a pun in the air or when we observe the turn of a phrase in a favorite piece of literature. We laugh; we weep; we rejoice; we despair. There are also those of us in life who could not care less that the proper phrase is “could not care less” and not “could care less.”
It is important to learn multiplication tables. Having an argument with the cashier at a grocery store when you are purchasing eight items at twelve cents each, because he or she says the total is ninety-six cents and you think the total should only be ninety-four cents, is not good for anybody.
So it is with grammar. Speaking or writing clearly is not a luxury. It is a responsibility. Granted, most of us learn to speak in a way similar to the rest of the inhabitants of the household where we were raised, for better or for worse. All of us, though, can improve from that point going forward. Sure, it can be tough trying to resolve dangling participles or catching the split infinitives, but we all should be able to learn how to match verbs with subjects and pronouns with verbs. This is he, not this is him. Each of us is capable, not each of us are capable. Its color is green and its back is scaly, not it’s color is green and it’s back is scaly. By the way, it’s sitting on your shoulder.
Lessons (in nearly anything) can be fun and interesting, and that is the goal of these worksheets. It is my hope that these worksheets are useful to the student and teacher alike, and that the valuable lessons in I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head will become even more accessible through the effort to produce these drills.
There are many who deserve thanks for their efforts in helping me review and edit this book. My wife, Michelle, and my children – Alex, Nathan, Laura, and Aaron (the four charter members of the Grammar Police) – have offered correction, insight, and encouragement when I needed it most. My sister-in-law, Anita, and my sister, Jen, also found mistakes and saved me from embarrassment. And finally, a huge thanks goes to my friend and grammatical conscience, Mr. Scot Hahn, for his herculean effort in helping me hone this document into a work of art.
Well, whether it is a masterpiece or not, I promise that it will be a boatload of fun. Teachers will love me; students will curse me; and the earth may be a better place because of it. At any rate, it sure beats shoving bamboo chutes underneath your fingernails.
December 9, 2009
“Aunt Ruth, could you pass the pesto pasta, pronto?”
“Nauseating Nephew, why talkest thee like this? The pesto pasta has been past!”
“The pesto pasta has been past what? Past it’s prime?”
“What do you mean, past what? I past it to you a few minutes ago.”
“You cannot have ‘past’ it to me. That makes no sense, English wise.”
“Certainly it does. Is not the past tense of pass past?”
“Past what? Past the end of its life?”
“There you go with the ‘past what’ thing again. Listen, at one point I told myself that I will pass you the pesto pasta. Then, presto, I past you the pesto pasta. Now you’re asking for the pesto pasta, pronto.”
“No, you did nothing of the sort, my dear feminine avuncular one. You passed me the pesto pasta. You cannot say that you past it to me.”
“How can you tell the difference? Past and passed sound the same.”
“Homonymically, they …”
“Wait, that’s not a word. Caught you.”
“Oh, right. Okay, those words – past and passed – do indeed sound the same, but they look remarkably different.”
“But you and I are having a conversation. Who possibly can tell the difference.”
“The audience can. This dialog is being written down for all to see.”
“Oh I knew I should have washed and combed my hare.”
“You mean your hair, naturally.”
“No, I mean my rabbit-like pet, Bruno.”
“You have a rabbit named Bruno?”
“That’s another story. Now listen, tell me about past and passed.”
“All right. It’s simple. Today you pass something. Yesterday you passed it. Today is in the present. Yesterday was in the past.”
“Okay, nefarious nephew, let me try. The football was passed. The age of trying to get the United States to go with the metric system is past. I passed my final exam. My pastor passed me in the pasture. Finally, this past week, I passed around a pastoral print, produced with pastels, of pasteurized milk in a pastoral place.”
“Wow, I think you’ve got it.”
“Uh, Aunt Ruth, we need to talk about spelling …”
The question has been asked regarding the word intuitive – does intuitive describe the act of knowing or perceiving by intuition (i.e., the person who perceives is intuitive), or is it the object being perceived that is intuitive (e.g., MS Word 2007 is not intuitive to me)?
It appears that the first definition that appears in most online dictionaries is that intuitive describes the being who is doing the perceiving, i.e., I had an intuitive sense how to drive to some particular location. The second definition in most dictionaries is that intuitive describes the object being perceived; that is, the thing that becomes known or perceived is known or perceived because it is intuitive.
It’s interesting that Merriam Webster lists the latter first, while the other dictionaries list it second. Still, in the 1913 Webster dictionary, both definitions are listed. This usage of intuitive has been around for a little while.
In the various texts that I consult when looking at word misusage, discussions on intuitive do not occur. Perhaps it used to be an issue, but it appears that it is no longer the case.
My suggestion: some wars are worth fighting; others are not. I’d give up on this one and go fight something that still matters, like enormity or hopelessly or each/his instead of each/their.
Is that the right thing to do? The intuitive side of me says yes.