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Language Geek

March 16, 2013

That’s what I am: a language geek, the language being English.

I learned to read at an extremely early age. Before I entered first grade of Good Shepherd School in Chicago, I’d spend my day reading the Encyclopedia Britannica while waiting for my brother and sisters to come home from classes. During summer vacation after third grade I finished the lsssons in my phonics workbook that we didn’t have time to complete during the school year.  I read the Dialogues of Plato when I was in sixth grade, just for kicks.

Don’t mistake this for bragging. I’m merely trying to illustrate that my love of language and reading (and of course, writing) goes back to my childhood. And just for the record, I was a spelling bee champion throughout grade school. Yep, I was a regular little Poindexter.

So why didn’t I know that such coined words as Octomom, ginormous, and blog are technically known as “portmanteau” words, the blending of two words to form a new one? Because I don’t know everything and never will. I learned the term portmanteau in The Glamour of Grammar, by Roy Peter Clark, which I’m reading now. I haven’t finished it, so when I do I’ll have to post an update reporting on everything else I never knew.

Although I’ve been a professional writer for 40 years, the section in the book about sentence structure made me wonder whether I was varying the lengths of sentences properly and ending sentences with as strong a word as possible. I have just begun to rewrite the first draft of The Coffin Haulers, noticing that sentences and paragraphs I believed were well-crafted could use a little work.

I’ve read dozens of books on language, dipping into them from time to time as others might relax by reading recipe books. Here are a few of my favorites. I’m sure they’re still available somewhere, probably on an online used-book site.

  • Strictly Speaking, by Edwin Newman.
  • Handbook of Good English, by Edward D. Johnson.
  • The Writer’s Art and Fine Print, both by James J. Kilpatrick.
  • The Careful Writer, by Theodore M. Bernstein.
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