A Government Shutdown?

Instant Quiz:

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

Our school is drafting a new policy for dealing with bulling.

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Today’s post is going to be sort of a roller-coaster ride. I’m going to be talking about a comma, but that’s not my real purpose. I hope you’ll hang in!

Compare these sentences. (It will probably help to read them aloud.)

We’re looking forward to seeing our cousins who live in California.

We’re looking forward to seeing our cousins, who live in California.

In the first version, we have many cousins, but only some of them live in California.

In the second version, all our cousins live in California. A tiny comma changes the meaning of the sentence!

*   *   *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

A topic in the news right now is a possible government shutdown. Some politicians are using the shutdown idea to push Congress into funding a massive wall along our southern border.

While the politicians are arguing, we’re going to look at a sentence in a recent Associated Press article about the proposed shutdown: 

Ryan likely lacks sufficient votes from Republicans who will lose their majority at the end of the month.

*   *   *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

When I read this sentence in our newspaper last week, I immediately went to my husband with a question. (He’s more savvy about politics than I am.) Which Republicans are losing their majority, and what does that mean?

He gave me a blank look and reminded me that the entire House is turning Democratic next month. Republican Senators and Representatives can lose seats, but they don’t lose “their majority.” Only the entire party can do that.

So I showed him the sentence:

Ryan likely lacks sufficient votes from Republicans who will lose their majority at the end of the month.

We finally realized that a missing comma was causing the confusion. The journalist was trying to say that the whole Republican party will be losing their majority:

Ryan likely lacks sufficient votes from Republicans, who will lose their majority at the end of the month.

The sentence would have been perfectly clear if it had included that comma.

*   *   *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

At this point you’re probably expecting a lecture on commas. Amazing, isn’t it – a tiny punctuation mark can change the whole meaning of a sentence!

True. But that’s not the point I want to make today. Instead I want you to think about why the person who wrote this article made that error. Remember – I was so confused that I stopped reading and went to look for my husband and an explanation. Not a good thing!

Of course I can’t definitively say what went wrong. But I’m going to propose that it was a simple human error. We all make them!

My goal today is to challenge the widespread belief that punctuation (or spelling, or sentence diagramming, or any other language practice you want to name) is the only thing separating us from hopelessly muddled thinking. Yikes! It’s the end of the world!

No, it isn’t. The person who wrote that sentence knew exactly what he was thinking and what he wanted to say. He just didn’t get there.

To put it another way: There was nothing wrong with his thinking. There was something wrong with his sentence.

*   *   *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

I’m rattling on about all of this for a reason. I know many people who want to write but are afraid to try. There’s a widespread feeling that if you don’t have a deep and mystical understanding of language, you shouldn’t even try to be a writer.

You don’t know how to punctuate? Shame, shame, shame! Your thinking is sloppy, you have nothing worthwhile to say, and you’d better find something else to do with your spare time.

To which I say: Nonsense. Yes, you need to know how to use commas. But you can learn (or hire an editor!). The important thing is to trust your brain, your experience, and your yearning to express yourself through words. There’s nothing wrong with you. The problem is mechanics, and it’s fixable, my friend!

Government is Closed

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

The word needed in today’s sentence is bullying. Be careful when you add -ing to words like study (“studying”), marry (“marrying”) worry (“worrying”) and fly (“flying”).

If you say bulling and bullying aloud, you’ll hear the difference!

Our school is drafting a new policy for dealing with bullying. CORRECT

________________________________________________________

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“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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I’m Republishing a Book

Today I’m going to talk about my current publishing project. But my sneaky agenda is to review some publishing principles you should know if you’re hoping to publish a book of your own.

In 1998 the University Press of Florida issued a scholarly book I’d written about Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion’s Wordplay: The Postmodern Shaw. Twenty years have gone by, and my book is now out of print. That means the publisher is no longer stocking and selling it.

The contract I signed in 1997 stated that the UPF owned all the rights to my book – until it went out of print. Then I could ask for them to be returned to me. (I had to make the request in a letter.)

While the book was still in print, the copyright belonged to the UPF. That meant nobody – not even me! – could copy significant chunks of the book. So – for example – I couldn’t issue an ebook version of my book, even though I was the author. I had signed those rights over to the UPF.

But now they’ve come back to me, and I am indeed republishing my book as both a paperback and an ebook (two ebooks, actually – one through Kindle and one through Smashwords).

Here are some facts and thoughts about re-publishing:

  • A print book like mine needs to be digitized first (turned into a Word document) so that you have a file to work with. You can pay a service to do this for you. I was fortunate that my friend Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martín did the job for me.
  • When you convert a digitized file, many mistakes can creep in. Allow time to fix them!
  • Because I now own all the rights to my book, I can do anything I want with it.
  • I made a few changes and corrections and added a new preface.
  • I completely reformatted the book. That meant converting the digital file Gustavo sent me into a .txt file to clear the old formatting. Then I converted it again – into a Word file – and chose a different typeface, new headings, and so on.
  • Georgia is my favorite typeface, and I often use Calibri for headings. But because I wanted a more academic look, I chose Century Schoolbook for this book and Baskerville Old Face for the headings. 
  • Most scholarly books use a small typeface. But I like readability, so I chose a larger size.
  • I often quoted word-for-word from plays, essays, and books by Shaw. Many are still in copyright, so I had to get permission from the Shaw Estate to use them. In 1998 I paid a fee to do that. This time the Shaw Estate generously waived the fee. (It helps that Shaw’s works will go out of copyright in 2020!)
  • Books don’t go “out of print” anymore. Publishers use POD (print-on-demand). That means instead of storing physical books in a warehouse, they just print them as needed. The only storage needed is space on a computer for the digital file. So publishers keep books indefinitely.
  • One advantage of digital files is that it’s easy to update them. In the old days, you couldn’t make a single change when you republished a book – changing the plates (as they were called) was too expensive.
  • I’m using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for my paperback. I endlessly tell writers not to pay anyone to publish their work. You can do it free on KDP, and the services are excellent.
  • “Vanity presses” are pay-to-publish companies that will do editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing for you. But you’re better off finding freelancers to do those tasks (or you can do them yourself, as I do).
  • I used a free cover template from KDP.
  • Through Google Images I found a free picture of an Edwardian lady for the cover. (I gave a small cash gift to the artist.)
  • I’ll be issuing the book in two ebook formats. KDP will publish it as a Kindle. Smashwords will publish it in multiple electronic formats so that anyone with a Nook or another device can read it.
  • The book is automatically copyrighted. All I had to do was put a copyright notice in the front of the book: © Jean Reynolds 2018. For extra protection, I can register it with the copyright office – instructions are posted online.

Book cover depicting an Edwardian Lady

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Jean Revises a Sentence

I’ve often wished that writers were more grounded when they bestow advice about writing. We tend to sit high on a hill, looking down with amused benevolence at the amateurs who are struggling to put words to paper.

The truth is that we’re all amateurs. Each new writing task means starting from scratch – figuring out how to engage our readers and choose strategies to organize and present our material.

Time to descend that mountain! I am getting ready to republish a 1998 book I wrote about Shaw: Pygmalion’s Wordplay. In my next post I’m going to talk about what “republish” means (hint: it involves dealing with formatting and copyright issues). Today I’m going to look at a single sentence I decided to revise.

* * * * * * * 

The original 1998 book has a preface where I introduced myself and explained why I’d written the book. Now – 20 years later – it’s time for another preface explaining why I’m reissuing it. Here’s one sentence from that new preface:

I wish I could capture the exhilaration I felt while I was exploring the mysteries of language that Shaw was grappling with.

Not bad! I like “exhilaration,” “mysteries,” and “grappling.” But I don’t like that with at the end. A stickler would probably be annoyed because it ends with a preposition, but that’s not my problem. Or – more accurately – that’s not how I would explain the problem.

I end sentences with words like with, of, for, up and so on all the time. My problem is that the sentence sputters. I’m a big advocate for strong sentences. Pump that iron! It’s a skill that doesn’t get enough emphasis in school.

So here’s the revision I came up with:

My one regret about this book is that it doesn’t convey the exhilaration I felt as I learned more about the mysteries and conundrums of language.

The sputter is gone (yay!). But it’s awfully stodgy for a sentence that’s supposed to be about exhilaration. “I wish I could capture” (my original wording) is much livelier than “My one regret about this book is that….”

Worse, my revised sentence doesn’t mention Shaw. I want readers to see him as often as possible when they’re reading my book.

Here’s the revision that finally found its way into the preface:

I wish I could have captured the exhilaration I felt while I was writing this book – how much fun it was to watch Shaw dive into the mysteries and conundrums of language.

A dash (my favorite punctuation mark!) makes the sentence less stodgy and more human. Short, punchy words (fun, watch, dive) nicely balance the longer, more academic words (exhilaration, conundrum).

I subscribe to Medium, an online resource for articles about a huge range of subjects, including writing. I was dismayed to read this advice recently from a writer who’s published many articles: she never revises more than twice. (I can tell – she rarely gets it’s/its right).

Sheesh. This is an unusual post for me – only 8 revisions before I hit the Publish button. Usually I do between 18 and 30. Mind you, that’s not a rule. I’m always eager to get my posts up there for you to read. But I also want to make them as readable and lively as I possibly can.

I think Shaw would back me up there.

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Verb Tenses, Anyone?

Verb changes from past to present sometimes confuse writers. I often see mistakes like this:

Joan tiptoed to the bedroom window without waking Sam. Or so she thinks. He’s lying there perfectly still, pretending that he was asleep. INCORRECT

“Tiptoed” is past; “he’s lying there perfectly still” is present tense. 

When you’re telling a story, you can’t jump back and forth between present and past. Those sentences should be written like this:

Joan tiptoed to the bedroom window without waking Sam. Or so she thought. He was lying there perfectly still, pretending that he was asleep. CORRECT

But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix tenses (past, present, future) in the same sentence. Here’s an example combining past and future that I would find perfectly acceptable:

Although the dress rehearsal went badly, tonight’s performance will be much better.  CORRECT

It’s true that there are so-called authorities who insist on a one-tense-per-sentence policy. But that’s not how the real world works. This is how that example sentence would look if we let them have their way:

Although the dress rehearsal went badly, tonight’s performance would be much better.  INCORRECT

Would” is the past tense of “will” (isn’t language amazing?), so we now have a perfectly consistent sentence. The problem, though, is that nobody would ever say it that way.

Bottom line: Be cautious about mixing tenses – and remember that real-world English usage trumps every rule.

a sign pointing to the past, the present, and the future

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Semicolons

Semicolons are easy, and I always had fun teaching them.

I always began by handing out strips of paper and asking everyone to write a short, simple sentence. I put one on the board myself as an example: Mary heard the doorbell ring.

Then I asked everyone to write another sentence, equally short, related to the first one. Mine was She went to the door.

Then I put the two sentences together with a semicolon (and changed the capital letter):

Mary heard the doorbell rang; she went to the door.

Students inserted semicolons and shared the sentences they’d written. I summarized what they’d learned: A semicolon is like a period, but it’s followed by a lower-case letter.

And then I told them we were finished with semicolons.

Gasps from all corners of the room. It’s that easy? Well, yes.

Often someone would mumble something about “independent clauses,” and someone else would say that a teacher had told her that a semicolon is a substitute for “because,” and another student would about semicolons in lists. Sometimes a student would ask, with some indignation, why I had not emphasized that the two sentences joined by a semicolon had to be related to each other.

Shucks. Why make something simple sound so difficult?

I never talk about “independent clauses.” If I were teaching English majors, I would fine them a dollar every time they said “independent clause.” Stick to sentence – it’s a user-friendly word that’s much easier to understand.

The students who asked about semicolons in lists were making a good point. (Here’s an example: The following students won awards: Joe Smith, from Boston; Carol Jones, from Miami; and Richard Jenkins, from Chicago.)

But why complicate things while students were learning the basics of punctuation? If I insisted that they learn how to use commas in lists with parenthetical items, many students would be so intimidated that they’d never use a semicolon again.

Here’s what I used to tell students who asked about the requirement that sentences relate to each other. When, I asked, did you ever write a paragraph containing sentences that didn’t relate to each other? And the “because” requirement is just plain silly.

Use semicolons confidently, I would say (but sparingly – one per page is a good rule of thumb). If a teacher ever asked why you chose to put the semicolon in a particular place, say that you had a gut feeling. Or a vision. Or something. 

Semicolons are lovely punctuation marks; they add elegance to your writing. Don’t make them harder than they need to be.

It's that easy?

          It’s that easy?

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Garbled Sentences

Today I’m going to list some garbled sentences I’ve been seeing on social media. Here’s an example of the kinds of sentences that drive me crazy:

Can I revise a sentence interchangeably as a noun or verb?

What on earth is that supposed to mean? 

I see it all the time: people trying so hard to use their vocabulary words and sound smart that they end up writing nonsense.

Here’s a hard truth for you: Vocabulary words (despite what teachers keep telling you) don’t make your writing better. They don’t make you look smart. They don’t do anything for your writing.

Good writers say what they mean. That’s it. They don’t use words to prove they have a college degree, or a fancy job, or some other wonderful qualification.

Here’s the list of appalling sentences I’ve collected from social media. Please read and ponder them – and resolve (New Year’s Day is coming up!) that you will never, never write anything that sounds like these one of these sentences:

How do we reform the English writing system?

What is the best plan to correct the spelling of Wednesday?

Can I revise a sentence interchangeably as a noun or verb?

What is English in terms of academic writing?

How is it different if I combine two sentences by using a relative clause?

Why do so many students contradict the rules of English?

To be successful, do I need to totally dominate the English language?

Who are the top influencers in the science fiction bookspace?

What is a reference when you’re making a thesis statement?

What is the best method for clearing a concept?

A confused smiley face

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Is Passive Voice Better?

In my most recent post, I gave you some tips about using passive voice. Today I’d like to dig deeper by answering two questions. Why do so many professional writers use passive voice – and – is it helpful?

I can answer the second question in just a few words – no, passive voice isn’t usually helpful. Just the opposite: it can be awkward and pompous. “The report was presented by John” (passive) is a clumsy way to say “John presented the report” (active voice).

But if that’s true, why do so many professional writers use it? The reason may surprise you: magical thinking about language.

Many people (perhaps you!) believe that words have magical powers. If a baseball pitcher has a no-hitter going, many announcers won’t talk about what’s going on for fear of jinxing him.

You’ve probably heard the expression “speak of the devil” – you’re talking about a friend, and suddenly there she is, in front of you.

My husband and I sometimes fall into this kind of magical thinking. He’ll casually remark how pleased he is that our car is holding up so well. Then we’ll both look at each other and say “Uh-oh!” We’ve just cast a sinister magic spell that’s going to result in a broken belt or dead battery.

Back to passive voice. Many people (including scientists and police officers) have long been taught that passive voice ensures objectivity and accuracy. So a police officer might write “A man was seen climbing through the window” (passive) rather than “I saw a man climbing through a window” (active voice).

Similarly a scientist might write, “The solution was heated to 100 degrees for approximately five minutes” (passive) rather than “I heated the solution….” (active voice).

If you spend a minute or two thinking about these examples, you can see how ridiculous this reasoning is. A dishonest cop isn’t suddenly going to turn honest because he switches a sentence around. Even if she writes her report in passive voice, she might be lying about that man climbing through the window.

Similarly you can’t have confidence in scientific data just because a scientist is writing in passive voice. Honesty and accuracy are character traits, not writing tricks.

* * * * *

There’s another reason passive voice is so prevalent in professional writing: OJT (on-the-job training). Young scientists do a lot of reading (as – of course – they should!). They read endless articles written in passive voice. Soon they pick up that habit themselves – and so it’s handed down to generation after generation of scientists.

Police reports have the same problem. Police academies endlessly remind cadets to write their reports in active voice. Yay! But then those cadets graduate and get hired by agencies where everyone is still writing in passive voice. Guess what our newbie officer soon starts doing? Using passive voice!

For the same reason, you often see passive voice in business emails, correspondence, and reports.

You can break the chain! Always, always write in active voice unless you have a very good reason not to (you don’t want to call attention to a mistake, or you want to shift the emphasis in a sentence).

business woman braking a chain

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All about Passive Voice

Passive voice can be confusing!

Some editors and teachers will tell you it’s wrong to use passive voice. (Not true.) And I’ve known writers and editors who weren’t sure what passive voice is – they couldn’t always figure out which sentences were active and which were passive. Let’s clear up these issues today.

First: can you identify the passive voice sentences?

  1. Linda is always right.
  2. I was working full time in the city.
  3. The ball was thrown.
  4. There were mistakes in three of the charts.
  5. The game was won by the Jets.

Answer: only #3 and #5 are passive voice. It’s a common misconception that any sentence with the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, be, been) is passive. Not true!

Defining passive voice requires a lot of grammar gobbledygook. So I’m going to offer an easier explanation. Compare these sentences:

Jeff composed three songs.  ACTIVE

Three songs were composed by Jeff.  PASSIVE

Three songs were composed.  PASSIVE

In active voice sentences, the doer (“Jeff”) comes first. In passive voice sentences, the doer comes later – or isn’t mentioned at all. (Still puzzled? Keep reading the examples! And remember that “by” is a useful clue that you might have a passive-voice sentence.)

* * * * *

Now we can deal with the second question: Is passive voice bad? Some teachers and editors will tell you it’s always wrong to use passive voice. 

Not true.

Passive voice is useful in two situations: When you don’t want to embarrass someone, and when you want to shift the emphasis in a sentence. Those are the only situations that call for passive voice.

Many writers overuse passive voice – a bad practice because it complicates and weakens your writing. If you have a passive-voice habit, now is the time to break it!

Let’s look at appropriate ways to use passive voice. Compare these sentence pairs:

Joe and Mary left a mess in the break room.  (Active voice – pointing out wrongdoing)

A mess was left in the break room. (Passive voice – kinder)

The accounting department made some careless mistakes in the Roper report.   (Active voice – pointing out wrongdoing)

Careless mistakes were made in the Roper report.   (Passive voice – kinder)

Doug Gaines presented the Citizenship Award.  (Active voice – emphasis on Doug)

The Citizenship Award was presented by Doug Gaines.  (Passive voice – emphasis on the award)

Please note that these are exceptions to a wise principle: Don’t use passive voice.

There’s one more issue: Many professionals think passive voice ensures accuracy and adds credibility to professional writing. They’re wrong, and I’ll explain why in my next post.

A chalkboard that asks if I'm doing this right.

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A Writing Coach in Your Head

When I was in high school, my best friend – Kathleen – yearned to be a nun. Not just any nun, mind you. She was going to be a hermit nun. And because we were best friends, we did what teenagers do constantly (talk). I learned a lot about some strange religious orders in the Catholic Church – the Carthusians and Camaldolese, who live a hermit life.

And – inevitably – I read Kathleen’s favorite author, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. (She never did become a nun, by the way, and ended up converting to Judaism. Interesting woman. I wish you could have met her! Sadly, she died too young.)

Merton was a beacon for spiritually minded readers in the 1960s (when I was in high school) – and in the 1970s, and the 1980s, and…you get the idea. His most popular book, The Seven Storey Mountain, is still selling well.

I am sorry to tell you that I was bored by The Seven Storey Mountain, and…truth to tell…I’ve always found Merton unreadable. Well, mostly unreadable. When he climbed down from that damn mountain to write about the realities of monastic life, he was wonderful. Sadly, he didn’t do it often enough.

One of his best essays was written to satisfy readers’ curiosity about what a monastery is like. It’s a challenging topic, when you think about it: lots and lots of description – which is usually boring to read. (I often skip the descriptive sentences and paragraphs in books, and I bet you sometimes do that too.)

Merton’s solution was turn the description into a story. (Often the best solution to any writing problem is to turn the task into a story!). Every monk had to take a shift as a night watchman, checking the entire monastery for potential fires. So, one night, Merton took his readers with him.

As he walked through the sleeping monastery, he recorded what he saw – and his thoughts – all in the context of the danger spots for fires (there are lots of candles in a monastery!). You get a feeling for what it’s like to live in a monastery.

Here’s my point. There’s more to writing than thesis statements, transitions, and sentence structure. It’s about being interesting. It’s about life.

And here’s another point. If you’re a voracious reader, you have an expert writing coach living inside your head.

Here’s what I mean. There’s a marvelous book about a female monastery (of nuns): A Right to Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis. I would wager (if it’s okay to make a bet about a nun) that she read Thomas Merton the way my friend Kathleen did – voraciously.

And so she borrowed Merton’s idea of taking her readers on a tour through her monastery – and did it better. You don’t think a book about a monastery can be fun to read? Try A Right to Be Merry.

Her tour is a procession of nuns through the monastery two days before Christmas. So not only do you visit (through words) the various parts of the monastery – you see the nuns happily preparing for Christmas.

Here’s a project for you. Go to the shelves where you store your favorite books. You know them well already, right? I want you to read them again – from a different angle. As you’re reading, ask yourself what problems the authors faced as they were writing. How did they solve them? And – most important – what strategies can you use yourself?

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Do We Need Punctuation?

Do we need punctuation? Silly question. Of course we do…don’t we?

The answer may not be as clear as we think it is. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynn Truss writes about what happens when we don’t use commas and periods: If we think of punctuation as “the stitching of language,” without it “all the buttons fall off.”

Or we can think of punctuation as a set of “traffic signals”: When commas and periods are missing, “words bang into each other and everyone ends up in Minehead.”

It makes sense – until you realize there’s no punctuation in many ancient Greek and Roman textsAnd what about writers in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages, who didn’t start using punctuation until modern times?

I’m as cranky as Lynn Truss is about correct punctuation – perhaps crankier. If I’d been her editor, I would have inserted a comma between the coordinate clauses in her second sentence. (In simple English, I would have put a comma after each other: “words bang into each other, and everyone ends up in Minehead.”).

But I’m irritated by her the-world-is-coming-to-an-end attitude towards punctuation errors.

It’s not just that she sometimes makes mistakes. A bigger problem is that when students discover how idiotic pronouncements like Truss’s are,  they lose faith in everything that we English teachers tell them.

Here’s an example: I often hear people confidently declare that “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary,” a dubious fact they were told in the fourth or fifth grade. Well, ain’t is in there, and I can usually get my hands on a dictionary or two to prove it.

What invariably follows is a “Why should I believe anything?” cynicism about English.

* * * * * * 

Punctuation is a social convention and a convenience. It certainly makes writing easier to read. But readers and writers largely got along without it until the printing press was invented, and even then periods and commas took a while to catch on.

Apostrophes were introduced later; Chaucer and Shakespeare didn’t bother with them.

Many educated people – truth-to-tell – don’t understand punctuation. I once knew a Harvard graduate, the author of several books, who didn’t know the difference between semicolons and commas. (The same is true of math. I once knew a postmaster who couldn’t understand even basic functions with fractions. People learn ways to adapt.)

The English language has tremendous vitality. It will survive ain’t, Lynn Truss’s complaints, and texting.

Let’s remember that English nearly died after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The upper classes and those who did business with them spoke French. (Even today, the menus in Buckingham Palace are written out for Queen Elizabeth II in French.) Only the peasants spoke English.

The English language survived the Norman Conquest, and it will outlast us too.

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