Tricky Words

  Instant Quiz 

Can you correct the error in the sentence below? Scroll to the bottom of today’s post for the answer.

I’m suppose to bake some cookies for our next meeting.

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Many writers think that ordinary, everyday words are safe. But that kind of thinking can be risky. I’ve often warned writers about the dangers of deceptively simple words like that, there, and I. Today I’m going to give you two more tricky words: by and being.

If you’re a risk-averse person, I have some useful advice for you: never start a sentence with by

Did you notice the qualifier? I said “if you’re a risk-averse person.” Of course you can start sentences with by! I do it all the time. But I see so many “by” mistakes that I’ve started warning writers against starting sentences that way.

Here are a few sample sentences. Can you figure out which ones have errors?

1.  By changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.

2.  By working hard as a volunteer, Joe gained valuable experience and several excellent references.

3.  By offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.

4.  By changing her eating and exercise habits, Linda lost eight pounds in just five weeks.

Sentences 1 and 3 are wrong. Sentences 2 and 4 are right. How do you know? By always introduces an extra idea. You need a complete sentence to go with it. (Think of a garage and a house. A garage is nice to have – but you’d better have a house to go with it!)

Below the extra ideas are in red. The complete sentences are in blue. When you have red and blue together, you’re ok! (The comma after the “by” extra idea is another clue that you’ve done it correctly.)

Here are the answers:

X 1.  By changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.  (Correct version: Changing the oil at recommended intervals helps protect your car’s engine.)  

2.  By working hard as a volunteer, Joe gained valuable experience and several excellent references.

X 3.  By offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.  (Correct version: Offering several practical suggestions was the biggest factor in the success of the project.)

4.  By changing her eating and exercise habits, Linda lost eight pounds in just five weeks.

Let’s go on to being. I’ve never come across a rule for using being – in fact I’ve never heard anyone mention that it’s a problem. Nevertheless, it’s a tricky word.

My personal rule is not to use being unless I’m absolutely, positively sure the sentence is going to sound right. Many times being hopelessly gums up a sentence. Here’s an example of a bad one from the Huffington Post:

It’s hard to believe it’s mid-February with it being a balmy 70 degrees in New York City today.  AWKWARD

The sentence would be more correct if you changed it being to its being – but even then I would have insisted on deleting it if I’d been the editor. Bad sentence! Bad sentence!

I do a lot of writing, and I allow some being sentences to stay – but it doesn’t happen often. I just did a word search for being in my 278-page book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You. I used being 10 times in the entire book. Here’s one of those sentences:

She was tired of being taken for granted.  EFFECTIVE SENTENCE

Trust me – that sentence had to fight to stay in my book. I don’t like the word being!

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be sure to add a final “d” whenever you write supposed to. (And remember that used to also needs that “d”!)

I’m supposed to bake some cookies for our next meeting.  CORRECT

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What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
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“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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Quora

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time (confession: too much time!) on Quora.com. For a language addict like me, the questions and discussions on Quora are so exhilarating that it’s sometimes hard to go back to my (sigh) To Do list.

Luckily there’s a hidden benefit – the insights I’m getting into the ways we think about language. Here are some thoughts, based on the questions I’ve been reading and answering:

  1. Many questions come from speakers of other languages who are eager to learn English. Unfortunately they tend to focus exclusively on grammar – an approach that doesn’t always work well.
    For example, one recent question concerned the. It was answered by an overseas student of English who dutifully wrote a long essay about grammar points related to the. Unfortunately the answer failed to mention that the is often a usage issue. Practices can be arbitrary and regional.
    So, in the US, we say that someone is “in the hospital.” The UK version is “in hospital.” And both nations say that someone is “in school.”
    I’ve seen similar answers again and again on Quora: too much grammar theory, and not enough attention to the living language.
  2. Some questioners have unrealistic (even unreasonable) expectations. I’ve seen questions like “explain would” or “tell me how the future tense works in English.” You should use Google to find some reliable websites or visit a library.
    Anyone who’s ever written an English textbook (I’ve done two of them!) knows that grammar explanations are time-consuming and hard to write. Don’t ask a Quora volunteer to do that work free!
  3. I’m surprised (and dismayed) that Quora is the first choice for many issues that require a credible, professional resource. For example, someone recently asked why so many English speakers continue to use the archaic words amongst and whilst. A reliable dictionary would have explained that a) amongst and whilst aren’t archaic at all, and b) they’re common usages in the United Kingdom.
    Quora is fun, and you can learn a lot from the open discussions you find there. But it’s important to remember that often you’re getting opinions, not the result of careful research done by lexicographers and other experts with many years of training and experience.

 

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Vocabulary Choices

Today’s topic is a writer’s vocabulary. What principles should guide you when you’re choosing words for a writing project?

Here’s a principle many aspiring writers live by: “Never use an ordinary word when a more sophisticated word will do.” You can see where they’re coming from. Isn’t it common sense to make yourself sound smart?

No, it’s not. Professional writers want – more than anything else – to be read. Good writing attracts readers because it’s energetic and exhilarating. The ideas keep coming at you. I always think of sitting on a big, beautiful horse that knows where he’s going and won’t let anything stop him.

But what if you’re an expert who writes about serious subjects? Won’t your readers lose respect for you if you make everyday word choices?

Let’s see if that’s true. I’ve published three articles and two book reviews in the Journal of Bernard Shaw Studies – a scholarly publication from the Penn State Press. (I’m also a member of the editorial board.) Do I practice what I preach?

To find out, I copied the introductory paragraphs (304 words) from my most recent article, “Shaw’s Pygmalion: The Play’s the Thing,” and crunched some numbers. (Did you notice the title I chose? It’s all one-syllable words except for Pygmalion, the title of Shaw’s play.)

The first step was to calculate the reading level: 11th grade, according to a readability website – within the ballpark for a scholarly journal. Two of my sentences came in at seventh-grade level: 

Playwriting was not Shaw’s first career choice.

The passage of time has also deepened our understanding of the play.

Next I counted all the one-syllable words. There are 134 of them – more than a third of the total word count. (Examples include the, in, a, his, plays, still, more, than, has, place, great – nothing unusual.)

What about the longer words? Most of them aren’t difficult either: About, delighted, problems, issues, weren’t, directly, professional, effectively, creation, public, successful, popular, recent, interest, explains. Two words – theatrical and dramatist – might not appear in an ordinary conversation, but they’re not hard to understand.

Now for the hard words. In addition to Pygmalion (three times), and the names of two scholars (Hornby and Gainor), I counted ten words that only educated readers might know: Rapturous, refuted, pantheon, metadrama, inherent, transmitting, generate, persona, collaborative, and reproach. That’s 3% of the 304-word total – only 1 word out of every 33.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

When I tackle a scholarly project, my focus is finding something new and different to say. (In fact that’s how I tackle any writing project.) I’ve been working on a paper about Shaw’s play Village WooingThe early stages have been frustrating – every idea I came up with was something that my listeners might have heard before. Finally I was able to find something that (I hope!) will interest them. If not – the delete key will be there for me.

Once the ideas are in place, I concentrate on that riding-a-big-beautiful-horse feeling. Is my audience going to gallop along with me? If not – you guessed it! – it’s time for that delete key.

Bottom line: Good writing isn’t about your desire to impress. It’s about creating an experience for your readers – a lively and engaging one that they’ll enjoy and remember.

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My Writing Process

I’ve often said that aspiring writers can learn a great deal when pros talk about what really happens when they sit down to write. So – in a nod to the “practice what you preach” principle – I’m going to talk about what’s been going on with me this week.

Right now I’m thinking about not one, not two, but three writing projects: revising an article, preparing a presentation for a drama conference, and researching a new book. Faced with all of this, I’m doing what any sane person would do: procrastinating. There’s no way all these projects are going to get done. Why even try?

Early this month I gave myself a special gift – a get-out-of-jail-free excuse for not writing while I watch the Olympics. I’ve already spent hours watching the figure skating coverage, and I’ve promised to stick with it until the final medals are awarded.

I know I sound facetious about all this, but there’s some common sense here as well. Serious writing involves (at least in my experience) going to live there. Two of my projects are about Shaw’s play Major Barbara, and that means every single person in that play is going to move into our house, drive back and forth to dance lessons with me, and talk to me in my sleep. No way I can retreat into my brain like that and still keep up with what Nathan Chen and the Shibutanis are doing on the ice. So the Olympics it is.

But then I made a fatal mistake – rereading a book that always sets my head spinning. Back in the 1980s, while I was writing my doctoral dissertation, Dick Dietrich (my advisor) recommended a book by Richard Poirier called The Performing Self.

Talk about a shock! I’d never heard anyone talk about literature the way Poirier does. (That’s still true.) The Performing Self fried my brain, and I still don’t understand most of it. It’s like being invited to a party, driving to the house, walking up the sidewalk, and not being able to open the door.

Every few years I take The Performing Self off the shelf and try reading it again. The margins are full of notes I’ve written to myself over the years as first one chunk and then another starts to make sense.

This time a couple of the marginal notes started turning into that a new article about Major Barbara (project #4 – sigh). My writing muscles have been twitching, and the big challenge now is finding time to write. I’ve started working out ideas in my head as I travel back and forth to ballroom lessons. (I can always hear my husband’s disapproving voice: “Keep your mind on your driving.”)

* * * * * *

If you’ve hung in this far (thank you! thank you!), you may be wondering what point I’m trying to make. OK, here it is: Do not think you’re crazy if all sorts of strange and wonderful things start happening in your gut and your brain when you’re writing.

People who don’t write sometimes think what we do is drudgery. Wouldn’t we rather spend our time at something we enjoy?

Answer: We’re already doing it. There’s nothing like watching ideas take shape as you’re tapping away at the keyboard. I often think that I can’t wait to see how the piece turns out! What’s especially exciting is coming up with a twist or a surprise and imagining how your audience will react. I know it doesn’t sound exhilarating – but it is.

If you love to write, be assured that wonderful adventures await you – challenges, thrills, victories. Please, please, hang in there. (And remember to have fun!)

 

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Be Careful with “Then”

Lately I’ve been warning writers to think twice about using then.

One problem is that too many writers try to join sentences with a comma + then. Nope! Only the seven FANBOYS words (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) can be used that way. So…if you’re joining sentences with then, make sure to use a comma + and or but:

Bonnie set the table, then we sat down to eat.  COMMA SPLICE

Bonnie set the table, and then we sat down to eat.  CORRECT

Another problem is that overusing then gives your writing a childish feel:

Cara opened a cabinet and reached for a box of Fig Newtons. Then she paused for a moment, put the box back on the shelf, and closed the cabinet door.

The sentences flow better without then:

Cara opened a cabinet and reached for a box of Fig Newtons. She paused for a moment, put the box back on the shelf, and closed the cabinet door. STRONGER

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

I’ve talked to many writers who have never thought about strong sentences. To them, big words, complicated syntax, and long sentences = strong writing.

It takes time (and some convincing!) for them to appreciate the energy and power you can pack into a short, straightforward sentence – if you know what you’re doing. More about this in a future post!

 

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My Usage Folder Is Filling Up!

I have a desktop folder where I store ideas and examples about writing. It’s starting to fill up again!  Here are a few recent items:

I enjoyed the movie. Though it should have been 30 minutes shorter.  FRAGMENT
I enjoyed the movie, though it should have been 30 minutes shorter.  CORRECT

Well, The New Yorker apparently doesn’t agree with me. Here’s the problematic sentence:

Though I have observed that, whenever a patient on a TV show like “Marcus Welby, M.D.” or “Ben Casey” presents with odd symptoms, my father always makes what proves to be the correct diagnosis long before the first commercial break.

(I can understand that someone might wonder if this long clause really is a fragment. Yes, it is! Here’s how you can tell: Cover up “Though” at the beginning and read it through. It’s a perfect sentence. Put back “Though” at the beginning, and it turns it into a fragment.)

  • Last week I read this weak sentence in an information box on the Light Classics cable-TV station:

“Ketelby received a scholarship to Trinity College, where he attended.”

Talk about a sputtering sentence! Here’s my version: “Ketelby attended Trinity College as a scholarship student.”

  • Unnecessary words can weaken your writing. Often you can (and should!) delete now, presently, currently, available, respective, existing, certain, and given.The word now (and similar words) doesn’t add anything useful. “I now work part-time at Walmart” means the same as “I work part-time at Walmart.”

Similarly, it’s silly to talk about “available” products, funds, dates, and so on. If they’re not available, you couldn’t do anything with them!

Check labels on available products to see which ones are safe for children.  WEAK

Check labels to see which products are safe for children.  BETTER

The same principle often applies to respective, existing, certain, and given. There’s no difference between “their respective offices” and “their offices,” or between “on a given Tuesday” and “on a Tuesday.” 

Existing is another word that drives me crazy. I hear statements like this one: “We need to deal with existing problems.” If they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be worried about them!

 The word certain can be particularly vexing. “Certain foods can cause allergic reactions” tells me…nothing. Which foods? How do I obtain a list?

Bottom line: Careful word choices help give your sentences crispness and clarity.

 

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All about Figure Skating

It’s time for the Winter Olympics! (A message to my friends: Don’t try calling me when  ice dancing is on – I’ll be planted in front of the TV set. Go, Shibutanis!)

I’ve been watching figure skating since high school. (Anybody else out there still remember Scotty Allen?) I can tell you within a few seconds whether a skater or couple really has their act together. But I’ve never tried to learn the names of the jumps.

So I was grateful when our newspaper printed an article explaining some basic terms in figure skating…and not grateful for the lack of copyediting.

So here’s a challenge for you. How would you fix the excerpt below? (Hint: there are no grammar or usage issues – just some practices that professional writers shouldn’t use.) Scroll down for my edits.

There are certain set “elements” required in each skating performance, such as jumps, spins, etc. A given performance is first looked at by a team of technical specialists, aided by video replay, to make sure each required element was indeed included, and whether the elements were done correctly (for example, was a “triple axel” actually more like two and a half?)

 *  *  *  *  *  *

My comments:

  • Delete the quotation marks. Elements and triple axel are proper skating terms. Don’t apologize for them.
  • Avoid etc. in professional writing.
  • There’s no difference between “a given performance” and “a performance.” Delete “given.”
  • The second sentence is too long – 46 words. Break it into several sentences. (I rewrote it as four sentences.)
  • Avoid passive voice: “is first looked at by a team of technical specialists.” Make it active: “First a team of technical specialists looks at the performance.”

Here’s my version:

Each skating performance must include jumps, spins, and other required elements. First a team of technical specialists looks at the performance. Aided by video replay, they  make sure each required element was indeed included. Then they decide whether the elements were done correctly. For example, was a triple axel actually more like two and a half?

How did you do?

 *  *  *  *  *  *

I have one more comment. (This is for everyone who’s afraid that readers will snicker if you write simply and plainly.) I just ran my version through the Gunning Fog Index. The reading level came out as sophomore level in college. Even though I broke the last sentence into four shorter ones, it’s still well above the average person’s reading level.

What about the original version? It came in at the reading level of a college graduate – far too difficult for a newspaper. (Did you know that the USA Today newspaper aims for a 10th grade reading level?)

You can check the reading level of your own writing at http://gunning-fog-index.com/. It might be a worthwhile experiment!

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What’s a Mother?

A recent Carolyn Hax advice column triggered some thoughts about this mysterious, untameable tool called language that we all use every day.

A man asked Carolyn Hax for advice about a thorny family situation. Six years ago, he and his wife adopted a baby boy born to a teenage relative. The little boy, “Jake,” is doing great. He knows he was adopted but isn’t interested in learning more.

Three years ago, the couple’s other adopted child had a visit from her birth mother. Jake couldn’t understand what was going on and was terrified that his sister would be taken away.

Now Jake’s birth mother wants to visit him and start a relationship. The adoptive father doesn’t want to upset Jake – but also doesn’t want to be dishonest with him. The adoptive mother flatly refuses to allow Jake to meet his birth mother until he’s older.

When I read that letter, I was really grateful that I’m not an advice columnist! Carolyn Hax (of course) came through with some excellent advice and suggestions.

But my thoughts took off in a different direction. I started trying to figure out why “Jake” – a happy and secure little boy – had reacted so fearfully to the visit from his sister’s birth mother.

And what I decided is that there might be a hidden language issue here.

What is a mother? Life experience tells us there are many ways to become a mother: birth, adoption, a second marriage, foster care, and so on. But Jake knows only that “mother” means the woman who is the center of his young life. He depends on her for almost everything.

So what does it mean when a second woman appears, also labeled “mother”? To Jake, that experience must have been unfathomable. The only explanation he could come up with was that this new mother wanted to take his sister away. Isn’t that what his own mother would do?

It would help if Jake was old enough to understand the terms “birth mother” and “adoption” – but he’s not.

* * * * * * *

We like to think that language is something we can tame, control, and quantify – but it’s not, and we can’t. Our efforts will ultimately fail, and there’s a single word that explains why: imagination.

Language is not an inert system of symbols and sounds just waiting for us to do what we will. It is inextricably and mysteriously connected to the deepest parts of our brains and our souls. I’m talking – of course – about postmodernism.

While I was thinking about Jake and his fears this weekend, a little exchange from Shaw’s Pygmalion popped into my head. Henry Higgins, a professor of speech, is standing with a small group of theatergoers waiting for the rain to stop so they can go home. Pointing to a dirty young woman who’s selling flowers, Higgins starts a conversation with another man who’s waiting:

THE NOTE TAKER. You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. I could even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English.

THE FLOWER GIRL. What’s that you say?

I don’t know how anyone could quantify and label that little exchange. Higgins isn’t even talking directly to the flower girl – she’s eavesdropping. But his words cause a paradigm shift for her. Suddenly she sees possibilities that never existed for her before.

When Higgins throws a large amount of money into her flower basket, she doesn’t go on the expected spending spree. Instead she decides to return the money to Higgins – in exchange for speech lessons.

(If you’re curious about all this, I’ve written an article linking this exchange in Pygmalion with Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” – a provocative term for Freud’s therapeutic method, is it not?)

Critics of postmodernism think it’s hilariously funny when people like me say that words resist being pinned down. But little Jake’s parents are discovering that “mother” is a far more complex word than they originally thought. In the same way, all of us often have language encounters that shake us up, open new doors, and challenge us in ways we could never have expected. As Jacques Derrida famously said, “the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others.”

 

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Dear Abby

Concerns about proper English show up everywhere – including a recent Dear Abby advice column. A parishioner wrote in to ask what she should do about spelling and punctuation mistakes in her church bulletin. Neither the secretary nor the pastor noticed that anything was wrong, and they turned down her offers to proofread. (You can read the column here – scroll down for the parishioner’s letter.) 

Abby’s advice was to let the mistakes go. But she had an additional piece of advice:

“However, because young children model the behavior of the adults around them, my advice to the parents would be to remove theirs from any program in which the day care personnel are so poorly educated they can’t use proper English.”

I am aghast. Mind you, I’m a maniac about good writing, and I understand what the letter-writer was going through. Many years ago I knew a church secretary who made apostrophe mistakes in the bulletin almost every week. I managed to hold my tongue – but it wasn’t easy.

But. But. But. Mistakes in punctuation and spelling don’t mean that the writer “can’t use proper English.” Here’s what those mistakes mean: the writer is confused about punctuation and spelling. Or is too rushed to fix the mistakes. Or doesn’t realize anything is wrong. Or doesn’t know anyone to ask. Or maybe there’s another reason.

Writing and speaking are different functions. We all learn to speak as children, and most of us do a remarkably good job with it. Yes, I hear “didn’t do nothing” and “I seen it” and “Joe and him are going to tonight’s game” once in a while – even on TV. But most people get most sentences right.

Punctuation mistakes (one of the parishioner’s concerns) are an entirely different matter. Punctuation has to be learned, one piece at a time, at school – and not everyone masters it. I’ve known many people who can construct complicated sentences perfectly in conversation – but they’re lost when they need to write and punctuate what they’ve said. That doesn’t mean they “can’t use proper English.” It means they have difficulty writing it.

I used to know a Harvard graduate who was the author of several wonderful books. He never figured out how to use semicolons. His secretary used to fix all his punctuation for him.

And spelling is a specialized brain function that escapes even some brilliant writers. (President Franklin Roosevelt is one of the most famous examples.)

Please, please. No child is going to catch a language disease from an adult who struggles with the conventions of writing. Most small children don’t even know how to read yet!

Even a person who makes occasional spoken errors is unlikely to damage a child’s language development. My favorite aunt used to say “chimbley” instead of “chimney.” My love for her didn’t block me from getting a doctorate!

Do we really want to suggest that children shouldn’t have relationships with adults from other countries who are still mastering English? (I’m thinking about my Finnish grandmother and her limited English.) Or caregivers who – however – didn’t do well in school?

Most children know many adults who can act as language role models: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, pastors, physicians, neighbors, teachers, shopkeepers…the list goes on and on. And there are more potential role models in the media.

So there’s no reason to panic if a child occasionally hears a garbled sentence or syntax error. Those kids will sort it out. (My sixth-grade teacher – wonderful Miss Callahan, who was also my mother’s teacher! – always said “collyum” for “column.” I survived!)

And think about this: do the other kids speak perfect English? Are you really going to send your children’s friends home if they make a grammar mistake? When I was growing up, all my friends said ax instead of ask (common on Long Island). At some point I realized that ask was a better choice. No problem!

Can we all please just calm down

                   Jeanne Phillips – AKA “Dear Abby”

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Repeating a Word – Good or Bad?

Is repeating a word OK?

Simple answer: Yes, if it’s a common word; no, if it’s an uncommon word.

If you’re writing an essay about your dog, you’re going to need to repeat your dog’s name, or the word dog, or both, many times before you’re through. There just aren’t many useful synonyms for dog. Canine companion? Animal that makes woofing noises?

Just stick to dog.

Are you doubting me? Are you afraid that repeating dog, dog, dog will make you sound trite? OK, let’s try an experiment. Get out today’s newspaper, scan the front page, and count how many times you find the word said. Guess what? Every quotation includes said. It’s repeated over and over. Newspapers never use synonyms for said (such as reply, state, remark, note). It’s said, said, said, said.

You never noticed before, did you? It’s true. Our brains skip over ordinary words (said, the, and, house, money, store and many more), never noticing how often they’re repeated.

The prohibition against repeating a word applies only to conspicuous words. You can say that your trip to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World was wonderful exactly once. After that, you need to find some different words. It was fun, hilarious, pleasurable, fascinating, and so on.

Better yet, be specific about what you did and how you felt. You laughed at the funny tombstones behind the Haunted Mansion. You slurped a milkshake on Main Street. You chatted with Mary Poppins and got her autograph. You applauded when Goofy skipped down the street during the parade.

Yes, it was wonderful! (But only once, right?)

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