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.”
Thom Gunn once wrote of “the dull thunder of approximate words.” And Horace gave us the formula: we should instill profit through pleasure. Joel Schnoor has written an excellent book (not for our shelves but for our desks) that delights and informs and helps us to get the right word in the right place.
On the battlefield or in the courtroom imprecise communication can be disastrous: “CEASE FIRE!” “SAY AGAIN ALL AFTER CEASE!” “FIRE!” “ON THE WAY!”
In ordinary, everyday life the proper use of the English language adds dimensions of clarity and pleasure to both the speaker and the listener.
Joel Schnoor has done us all a favor by writing this excellent book. In fairness I should disclose that I once met his Aunt Ruth, who assisted in the solving of a most perplexing crime, purely by applying the rules of grammar. Perhaps Schnoor will favor us with that story at some time in the future.
In the meantime, I (and the young attorneys and staff who work for me) will become very, very familiar with this modern masterpiece of diction and grammar.
John Stevens Berry, Sr., Fellow, American Board of Criminal Lawyers
Author, Those Gallant Men
Are you in love with the English language and have more than once been tempted to demand the Grammar Police deliver one of your erroneous or felonious friends to our already overcrowded prisons? This is the book for you! In his humorous and irresistible style Joel Schnoor makes lie and lay and its and it’s clear to us in a way too funny to forget.
Joel Schnoor’s “I laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head or Conquering the English Language and its Ruthless Ways” made me laugh and cry and that isn’t because I actually did know the original Aunt Ruth.
After all, Aunt Ruth is “She for whom the Bell tolls” for each and every one of us.
Glenna Luschei, PhD, OFB (Order of the Folies Bergere)
Author, Unexpected Grace
If you are looking for something different to read, this could be just what you need. This book can be read as a collection of amusing stories, or as a way of improving your English grammar.
The author covers many of the common mistakes people make and shows how amusing the results can often be.
So, if you want to be entertained by Aunt Ruth and get educated at the same time, this is the book for you, a well written and organized book for students and adults.
Author, Peter and the Black Dog
“I’m in a query,” she said, mystifying me.
Phone conversations with Aunt Ruth were often difficult.
“So … someone is asking a question about you?”
“No, wait … I don’t mean query. I mean quarry.”
“Ah, that’s better. So you are digging up rocks and gems and things. Pretty cool. Hey, if you find any pieces of obsidian, I’m trying to build up my collection.”
“Okay, I guess I don’t mean quarry either. Oh, I’m in a quarrel.”
“Are … listen, we’re arguing. You are in a quarrel indeed, and I guess I’m part of it.”
“Hm. I guess I’m not in a quarrel either. What am I in?”
“Are you in that yellow polyester pant suit that is five sizes too small, and when you walk it looks like there’s a mountain lion in there trying to escape?”
“Are you in a pickle?”
“Something like that. It begins with ‘q.’”
“You are in a quandary.”
“Yes, precisely. I am in a quandary.”
“About what is your quandary?”
“If only I knew.”
“If only you knew?”
“Aunt Ruth, if only you knew, then no one else would know. You would be the only person to know. Just you would know.”
“Whatever it is that you want me to know.”
“But I do want you to know. That’s why I mentioned it.”
“Right, but then you said ‘if only I knew,’ meaning what it says … if only you knew, not if someone else knew.
“Dear me, I’m getting confused.”
“Me too. Let’s sort through this and lay it out in a way that makes sense.”
“I think what you meant was, ‘if I only knew.’”
“But doesn’t ‘if I only’ mean the same thing as ‘if only I’?”
“No, not quite. The word only generally modifies the word directly after it.”
“Oh great. I think I need some examples.”
“Coming right up, my dear aunt.”
“I only have a dog. That is, you only possess the dog. You don’t love the dog, you don’t feed the dog, you don’t walk the dog, and you don’t tell your dog to attack the neighbor who is having a wild party on his (or her) back deck at two o’clock in the morning.”
“You don’t. Now, if you have only a dog, then you have a dog but you don’t have a cat; nor do you have an elephant, a hippo, or a purebred Guernsey cow.”
“What if I have a dog and a cow?”
“Then you say you have a dog and a cow.”
“Wow, I might be able to handle that. But, I have a question. If I say I have only a dog, then does that imply that I have nothing else at all? I have a dog, but I don’t have an alarm clock; I don’t have a pair of gym shorts; I don’t even have an umbrella.”
“Well, it needs to be in context, doesn’t it? I mean, if you say I have only a dog, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a nose. Everybody knows you have a nose.”
“How would everybody know I have a nose?”
“Everybody knows you have a nose because you smell.”
“No need to get offended. I just meant you smell with your nose.”
“How do I smell?”
“Quite well, I presume.”
“If my nose were cut off, would I still smell?”
“How would I smell?”
Catch the latest Aunt Ruth thriller here! I posted this on Associated Content earlier this week.
It’s Aunt Ruth the Superlative Super Relative
I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head, featuring the adventures of Aunt Ruth as a way to humorously teach English grammar and usage, is available! You can order it directly from me here (sales tax is included for NC residents). If you’re ordering outside the U.S., it’s probably easiest to do it through Authorhouse.
You’ve asked for it, and you’ll be getting it. Coming soon, ready to thrill all students of the English language, young and old, are the Aunt Ruth Grammar Worksheets!
The worksheets correspond with the material in each chapter of I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head and will be the perfect supplement to the book.
Do you want to try examples to make sure you understand the grammar lesson for a particular chapter? Do you want to be entertained and educated at the same time? Do you want a real cool sheet of paper with which to make a paper airplane and throw it out your apartment window while your neighbor (and the perfect target), Mrs. Applethorpe, is working in the garden?
Well then, these worksheets will be perfect for you. Stay tuned and watch this space!
We native English language speakers (and writers) have some bad habits, not the least of which is a general propensity for using adverbs incorrectly.
In particular, I’m thinking this morning about “hopefully” and how it is often (incorrectly) used to actually mean “I hope that.”
Before we look at incorrect usage, let’s demonstrate correct examples. To do something hopefully means to do it in a hopeful manner. That being the case, I think that the following are all correct uses of hopefully.
I hopefully fished in the pond last night. That is, I was hopeful that I would catch a fish.
I hopefully baked a lemon meringue pie this morning. Why was I hopeful? I was hopeful that the meringue topping would not burn.
I hopefully planted the apple seed. That is, when I planted the seed I was hopeful that an apple tree would grow.
Another way of stating this is: Hopefully I planted the apple seed. I planted the seed in a hopeful manner. Note that I am not saying that I hope I planted the apple seed.
Let me state that again in case you missed it. Look at the following:
Hopefully I applied for the new job.
This means that I applied in a hopeful manner for the new job. I was hoping I would get the job.
It does NOT mean that I hope I applied for the job.
So where do we hear incorrect usage of hopefully? We hear it everywhere.
Hopefully the mail will arrive this morning.
What’s wrong with that sentence? Well, first of all, as an inanimate object, mail cannot think or feel, let alone hope. Why would the mail arrive in a hopeful manner? Would the mail be hoping that you might read it? I don’t think so. What the utterer of that sentence would mean is, “I hope the mail will arrive this morning.”
“I hope” and “hopefully” are not the same thing.
Hopefully a tuba will not fall from the sky and land on me today. Again, why would the tuba be hopeful about anything? I should say, “I hope that a tuba will not fall.”
Even with something like this:
Hopefully she will arrive on time.
The word hopefully applies to the manner in which she arrives. Is she arriving in a hopeful manner? If you know that she is hoping that she will arrive on time, then the sentence is fine. But if what you mean is that you hope she will arrive on time, that’s something different.
Got it? Hopefully.