Category Archives: Postmodernism

“The Ink Stains That Have Dried upon Some Line”

This is the last of three posts about deconstruction. (Click here to go back to the first post.) We’ve been looking at a picture (below) of my parents at a Roman Catholic dinner honoring couples who had been married for 50 years.

In my last post I’d asked you to listen to John Hartford sing “Gentle on My Mind” and look for a reference to writing. (I hope you listened to it and melted the way I always do! Incidentally, I once heard Hartford – who composed the song and wrote the lyrics – perform it in person.)

OK, back to work. Here are the lines from the song that I’m going to talk about today:

And it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line

Written vows – according to Hartford’s song – are dry and lifeless. They hark back to a feeling in the past that was once alive and vibrant but may have faded with the passage of time. Hartford’s song is about the difference between marriage vows – “forgotten words and bonds” – and real  love, which has no need for promises and obligations.

What Hartford has tapped into here is a bias against writing that goes back to Plato and has found its way into every aspect of our Western culture. According to Jacques Derrida, we tend to dismiss writing as a stale and lifeless imitation of what’s real and alive: the warm breath of natural speech.

One of Derrida’s goals as a philosopher was to challenge Plato’s value system. Sometimes what’s unnatural and artificial is more expressive of who we really are than what’s natural, inborn, and spontaneous.

I’m thinking of myself after 25 years of ballroom lessons. I can feel and respond to a piece of music in ways that the untrained, “natural” Jean couldn’t have attempted. So who’s the real me? A postmodernist might say that all my “unnatural” training has uncovered parts of me that otherwise would have stayed hidden.

And what about those “ink stains that have dried upon some line”? I’m as much of a romantic as anyone else, and I love the idea of being swept away in a passionate swoon.

But I also have enough life experience to know that keeping a promise – even when it was made long ago, and things aren’t going well, and you really don’t feel like it today – has deep and lasting value. (But don’t think for a minute that my common-sense attitude towards life and love keeps me from appreciating Hartford’s song!)

If you’d like to learn more about these natural vs artificial and writing vs speech issues, I’ve published an article arguing that Bernard Shaw anticipated Derrida’s critique of Platonism in – of all things – Pygmalion (AKA My Fair Lady). You can read my article here. (If you’re thinking that Shaw was on the side of Derrida and the postmoderns – that’s what I think too. It doesn’t seem to have mattered that Derrida wasn’t even born when Shaw wrote Pygmalion!)

 *  *  *  *  *

If you’ve stayed with me this far, you might be thinking that I’ve loaded an awful lot of really heavy stuff into this simple picture of my parents. That’s right – and that’s my point.

In the end, writing is all about thinking. Because we want more, more, more out of life, we seek out writers who can add depth and breadth to our everyday experiences.

In the first of these three posts about the anniversary dinner, I talked about my mother in a personal way. Was there anything else to say about this picture?

My answer to that question is yes. I think we can “deconstruct” the picture – take apart its apparently simple and straightforward message to find unintended meanings underneath. Here’s my list:

  • Because the Catholic Church is so large, it sometimes loses touch with the individuality and diversity of its members
  • The Catholic bias against sex can complicate its support for marriage
  • No matter how hard an institution tries to send a simple, unified message, other truths will find a way to be heard

Do you have a picture you can “deconstruct”? Are there any accidental details that challenge the intended message? Or is there a “before” or “after” story that adds complexity to the picture?

My Mother and Father with the Bishop

  My Parents and the Bishop


Deconstructing a Picture of My Parents

In my last post I asked you to “deconstruct” a picture of my parents (below). The event was a dinner hosted by the Roman Catholic Church to honor couples who had been married for 50 years.

Following in the footsteps of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, I suggested that you look for accidental details that might put the picture into a broader context. I also encouraged you to think about what was going on before and after the picture was taken.

Here’s my list:

  • Before the picture was taken, my parents stood in line with other couples as they waited to be photographed.
  • My parents are wearing name tags.
  • Because the Roman Catholic church requires its clergy to be celibate, the bishop has never been married.
  • My parents and the bishop are holding a scroll of paper that records the wedding vows they renewed at the dinner.

* * * * *

Now I’m going to ask a very Derridean question: did that moment with my parents and the bishop actually happen? Critics of postmodernism (I’m thinking of Steven Pinker) love to make fun of Derrida and his followers for their denial of obvious realities.

So let me reassure you: The photo is real. (I’m not a nut, even though I’m a postmodern thinker!) Of course that dinner happened, and that moment with the bishop, and the picture.

But there’s also a sense in which the photo is not real. All photos are edited. The photographer makes decisions about what to include, what to exclude, and what to emphasize. So that photo is both real and a misrepresentation of that moment.

For example – think about how different the picture would look if the photographer had stepped back a few paces before he clicked the camera. We would see right away that there was no intimate connection between the bishop and my parents: they were one of many couples at that dinner.

The name tags my parents are wearing drive home the point. Who wears name tags to a get-together with a special friend?

But the dinner really did honor the sacrament of marriage, right? Umm…sort of. The Catholic Church considers celibacy a higher state than matrimony. So smack in the middle of the picture, where you can’t miss him, is a man who’s considered holier than my parents because he never married.

So…I would say that the picture did and didn’t happen. The bishop was delighted to meet a couple who were celebrating their 50th anniversary – but not enough to spend time with them or even learn their names. There were just too many people at that dinner! The immense size of Catholicism inevitably gives rise to impersonal policies and practices that may not work for some of its members.

And then there’s that ambivalence about marriage, which the Church honors on the one hand but also considers an obstacle to a fully lived spiritual life. It’s good to marry but even better to avoid sex altogether.

*  *  *  *  *  *

There’s something else noteworthy in that picture (and this is very Derridean) – that scroll of paper. I’m going to ask you to listen to a familiar (and wonderful) song: “Gentle on My Mind.” Look for what the song says about writing. (It’s there!)

There will be more about all of this in my next (and final) post about this picture. (Meanwhile, please listen to “Gentle on My Mind” even if you’re not interested in deconstruction. It’s great poetry and one of the best songs ever. Your day will be better!)

One more thing: you may be wondering why anyone would even bother with these ideas. I can give you two reasons. First, postmodern thinking is all around us – and has been for a long time. (Bernard Shaw was thinking about these ideas in 1914, when he wrote Pygmalion.) Second, this kind of “deconstruction” – digging beneath surface appearances for deeper meanings – is an excellent critical thinking tool.

My Mother and Father with the Bishop

                     My Parents with the Bishop



A Picture of My Parents

Today I’m going to challenge you to “deconstruct” a picture of my parents (below). The event was a dinner hosted by the Catholic diocese on Long Island (where my parents lived) to honor couples who had been married for 50 years.

That dinner – part of the Church’s ongoing struggle against the secular trends of casual sex and easy divorce – had an additional, unexpected effect. My mother was a lifelong Lutheran; my father was Roman Catholic. When they married, Catholicism took a dim view of what were then called “mixed marriages.” My parents weren’t even allowed to have a church ceremony – they were married in the priests’ residence. My mother always felt hurt and demeaned by the Church’s attitude towards her.

The anniversary dinner astounded her. She felt honored by the photograph with the bishop (below) – but what really astounded her was having the priests in the diocese serve the dinners and fill the coffee cups For the first time in 50 years, my mother felt recognized and respected by the Church. It was the healing experience she’d been waiting for.

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Now let’s start our deconstruction project. I’ve already given you an up-close-and-personal look at that anniversary dinner. Now I want you to figure out what this picture says about the Roman Catholic Church (and possibly about similar institutions). To do this, I invite you to think about these two questions:

  • What details in the picture (below) reveal the challenges that Roman Catholicism is facing?
  • What contradictions do you see? (I hope you’re already latching on to something important about deconstruction: it’s a form of critical thinking, and not just the word game that some critics take it to be.)

Here’s a hint to get you started. Imagine that you’re watching the photographer snap the picture of my parents. What happened before the click of the camera – and after?

Go ahead and make your list. You can compare it to mine in my next post, two days from now.

My Mother and Father with the Bishop

                                                                My Parents with the Bishop


Deconstructing Lady Gaga

The New Yorker recently posted a review of a new documentary about pop sensation Lady Gaga. A sentence from that review jumped out at me when I read it:

The accidental tells here – when Gaga stops steering her own story or suggests a version that seems to be at odds with the facts – are the most compelling.

Whew. Two unrelated ideas immediately popped into my head. So – hold onto your hat, because we’re going to be traveling in two directions today.

1.   I was immediately reminded of a principle from Steven Pinker’s wonderful book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century:”Good writing takes advantage of a reader’s expectations of where to go next.”

I expected the New Yorker article to provide examples of “accidental tells” – slippages in the image Lady Gaga is trying to present to us – and incidents “at odds with the facts” – contradictory details. But the article didn’t include a single example.

I wish, I wish author Amanda Petrusich had told us what she was thinking! For example, she mentions drug use – Lady Gaga lists all the medications she’s taking, and at one point she’s shown swallowing a pill. But those moments from the document are hardly “accidental” – the producer and director must have known they were there.

Here’s a takeaway for aspiring writers: tell readers where your writing will be taking them – and be sure to give readers what you promised. 

2. My other thought was about Jacques Derrida. Derridean deconstruction is all about “accidental tells” – omissions and marginal statements that can point us to useful truths if we’re patient enough to ferret them out.

When I read the Lady Gaga review, I was expecting something truly marginal (a favorite Derridean term) – perhaps something an alert audience member might overhear in a conversation or glimpse in a mirror while watching the documentary.

There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about deconstruction: it’s an everyday activity for us. We’re always reading “between the lines” and listening for gaps in what we’re told. (Parents automatically do this with their teenagers!)

Jesse M. Hellman, a Shaw scholar and friend who’s also a psychiatrist, says that he’s always looking for omissions in what his patients tell him: “You’ve talked about everyone in your family except your older brother. So what do you think is going on there?”

I hope I’ve aroused your curiosity about deconstruction – and given you something to think about! Stay tuned: next month I’m going to post a photo of my parents – and ask you to “deconstruct” it.

Lady Gaga

                                Lady Gaga


Words with Shadows

I do a lot of traveling and really enjoy it. Often, when I tell friends that I’m heading for the airport, they offer a send-off like “Be careful!” or “Have a safe trip, Jean.”

I know I’m supposed to feel reassured, as if a wish for safety could protect me from harm. But I always feel a shudder of nervousness instead. The word “safe” summons up all the things that can go wrong on a trip: kidnapping, a downed plane, a false arrest. My own preferred sendoff when friends are traveling is “Have fun!”

Many words come equipped with shadows. “There’s nothing to worry about” is something that people say only when a situation really is worrisome. “You can count on me” is a reminder that the person I’m depending on might bail out.

I’m remembering the look of panic on my husband’s face one time when we were leaving for a trip and I mentioned a phone call I’d made to our credit card company. “There won’t be any problem paying for our room,” I blithely told him. Big  mistake. He couldn’t relax until the desk clerk gave us our room key many hours later.

Shadows tend to make their appearance when we least expect them. Think of a parent who’s trying to warn a teenager about the perils of experimenting with drugs and sex. Hidden within your warnings is an ominous message: Doing these things is a possibility for you.

The same goes for religious parents trying to share their faith: implicit in their testimony is the possibility of not believing. And the same principle applies to atheists explaining why they don’t believe in a deity: their words are creating the very concept they’re trying to inoculate their children against.

 *  *  *  *  *

Today I’m going to talk about two words that can cast dark shadows: renewal and community. My point is not – of course – that you should avoid these useful words. What I’m hoping is to raise your awareness of the subtle and mysterious ways that words can complicate our lives.

Many years ago I was a member of a spiritual group that astounded me with its warmth and fervor…until things started to go wrong. No matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t fit in. It was mystifying: I’d never had trouble making friends before, and no one seemed to know what was wrong.

I finally decided that this particular group of people needed to rethink the way they practiced their faith, and I didn’t last long there. But there was always a nagging feeling that I had missed something important.

Much later I realized that shadow words were causing many of the problems.

Many members had attended a three-day spiritual workshop that had an amazing impact on the participants: people positively glowed when they came back. But here’s the thing: the words that shaped those workshops – renewal and community – had shadows that undermined the spiritual goals of love and unity.

Think about renewal. You renew library books and insurance policies because they’re expiring or going out of date. So a group that emphasizes renewal risks sorting its members into two categories. One contingent is refreshed, restored, and renewed. The other contingent (people like me – sigh) is stale, out of date, and expiring.

Another word that defined those workshops was community, and it too had a dark shadow: isolation, alienation, and loneliness. A workshop that creates its own community risks leaving everyone else shivering in the cold.

* * * * *

You may be wondering if there’s a way to avoid those splits. I think the answer is yes – if you’re aware of the shadows lurking nearby. Those workshop participants could have been reminded that renewal and community are flexible terms. Everyone feels spiritually stale sometimes, and we all know the how it feels to be cut off and disconnected from other people.

Another possibility is to search for a word with a less threatening shadow.  Instead of a renewal weekend, you could plan a retreat. Now your workshop is offering a respite for anyone who’s busy, preoccupied, distracted, rushed, or overworked. Who today doesn’t fall into that category?

My larger point, of course, is that we all need to pay close attention to our word choices. Language (as I never tire of explaining!) is not the inert, lifeless tool we often take it to be. Words have mysterious powers and hidden messages. Start listening for the shadows  that travel with expressions we use every day: “Be safe.” “No problem!” “Don’t worry.” “Trust me.” “My feelings for you will never change.” Uh-oh….


Diction Mistakes and Gobbledygook

Many people think of language as kind of a label maker. The more labels (words) you know, the more successful you’re likely to be. I’ve known people who always carried a dictionary with them.

Certainly those people were on to something important. A friend of mine who was a career counselor told me that a high score on a vocabulary test is one of the most reliable predictors of future success.

But language is much more than a label maker. It’s a critical thinking tool that sorts and classifies everything we know, think about, and experience. A person with a large vocabulary can make subtle distinctions that lead to a more precise understanding of the world around us. The results are better thinking habits and wiser decisions.

Great writers (of course I’m thinking about Bernard Shaw!) are masters at using language to challenge readers and theatergoers to think more deeply about concepts we assume we understand – but probably don’t.

Think for a moment about the difference between grammar and diction. Many people (even some English teachers I’ve known) always lump them together. But diction (defined as “word choice”) has nothing to do with grammar (the deep structure of language).

What do you call the hot caffeinated beverage that many people drink with their breakfast? Answers might include “java,” “joe,” “cuppa,” and “coffee.” You probably use one word from that list most of the time. The same is true of children’s games (“hopscotch” or “potsy”?), money (“currency” or “bucks”?), sleep (“catch some Z’s” or “crash”?) – and countless other everyday words.

Those preferences have nothing to do with grammar. In fact many of the writing problems that English instructors and editors shake their heads over have nothing to do with grammar. Examples include clumsy sentences (“He expressed that he had a hope for a continuing friendship of a non-romantic nature”) and colloquialisms (“ain’t,” “cuss”).

If an instructor or editor returns your work heavily marked with a red pen, don’t assume that you need a course in formal grammar. The real problem could be diction errors – and diagramming sentences and doing workbook exercises won’t solve it.

Here’s some advice for you:

  • Take that feedback seriously: study it, ask for explanations, and learn as much as you can from it
  • Read, read, read – you’ll effortlessly absorb some of the writing practices of great authors
  • Ask a trusted friend to help you identify and correct diction problems in your conversation 
  • Aim for an easy and natural style in your writing

I’m going to take a minute or two to expand that last point (and this is especially for high school and college students). I’m often asked to help young people with homework and college application essays. These are students who study hard and do well in their academic studies.

But at least half the time what I’m asked to read is pretentious gobbledygook. Mind you, these are young men and women who speak with perfect clarity and impressive intelligence. But put a pen in their hands, or put them in front of a computer, and – OMG!

If you have an instructor who berates you endlessly about your writing, try putting your ideas into simple, straightforward sentences. Then show the result to your instructor and ask for suggestions about the next step. Very likely you’ll discover that using your own voice and choosing everyday words (not, of course, slang!) will work perfectly well.

Do me the favor of experimenting with my exhortations. (Translation: please try it!)label maker



In my previous post, I used a funeral from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to make a point about language: sometimes conciseness isn’t the answer.

Today I want to focus your attention on something else – an apparently unimportant detail about that funeral. Ashley Wilkes was able to recite the Episcopal graveside service from memory because it was used at the funerals of deceased slaves. I’m going to use that detail to make a point about deconstruction.

Few Americans – alas – have the patience to work their way through the dense and difficult writings of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who coined that term. In the US, deconstruction is often dismissed as a silly verbal pastime.

Admirers of Derrida (I’m one) have a different view. We’re interested in “deconstructing” (taking apart) a written work to uncover its gaps and contradictions. In Derrida’s view, seemingly minor details can lead us to new depths of meaning.

 *  *  *  *  *

Gone with the Wind never actually shows us a slave’s funeral – 0r, for that matter, any details about the everyday lives of Tara’s slaves. We never get to see where the slaves live, what they eat, or how they rear their children. The slaves in Gone with the Wind always play supporting roles in the lives of Scarlett O’Hara and her family, friends, and suitors.

So: were slaves given a funeral similar to Gerald’s? Who made the decision to use an Episcopal graveside service – and why? Who planned those funerals and presided over them? How did mourners position themselves at the graveside?

Answering those questions will help us see – vividly and powerfully – how cruelly the institution of slavery robbed African-Americans of even the simplest kind of human dignity: the right to choose how you bury your dead. Even though Mitchell was careful to shield readers from reminders about the realities of slavery, hints found their way into her novel – if we take the time to look for them and think about them.

 *  *  *  *  *

Despite its gaps and bias, Gone with the Wind is a fascinating novel. (You can probably tell I’ve been through all 960 pages many times.) No novel – or any other written work, for that matter – can depict life in all its complexity. The surprise is that the truths we try to suppress will always find their way into a written work – if we have the patience to look for them.

Careful attention to details will help us find answers to some essential questions: Is there a constituency that has been denied a voice? (Think of all the writers from the past who treated women, servants, workers, and minorities as if they were invisible.) Have any important incidents or events been omitted? (Gone with the Wind glosses over the first three years of Reconstruction, when the South missed its chance to right some of its past wrongs.)

Up to now I’ve been talking about a more attentive way to read a novel or nonfiction book. Is there a takeaway for us writers? Yes. We need to keep a lookout for our own gaps and omissions. The questions I just raised about constituencies that have been silenced and events that have been omitted can be good starting points, especially for writers interested in memoirs and fiction.

Perhaps the most important question for writers is whether “thoughtful and intelligent” has to mean “heavy-handed and boring.” If (as I believe) the answer is no, then we have to ask another question: what are the best strategies for writers to attain their goals?

More about all of this in my next post.


Problem Sentences

Think about a paintbrush. It’s a tool, like a screwdriver – a lifeless object that gets its power from the person holding it. In gifted hands, a paintbrush can create amazing works of art. But without a human hand, the paintbrush just lies there, powerless and inert.

Artist's paintbrush

Language is a different kind of tool. Words can take on a life of their own hours, days, months – even years after they were spoken or written down.

Someone unearths an old speech or memo, and a promising career comes to an end. An overheard conversation wrecks a long friendship. A clumsy sentence destroys a promising business proposal. A typo on a resume aborts a job offer. Or…to give you an everyday example…someone orders a pizza with peppers and gets a pepperoni pizza instead. (That has happened to Charlie and me more than once.)

People tend to underestimate the power of language. When something goes wrong, we call it human error, carelessness, or incompetence. We mistakenly believe that language is completely logical and rational. If you memorize the parts of speech, learn how to diagram a sentence, and master the rules of syntax, you can exercise total control over language.

The truth is that language often finds a way to escape from our curbs, restraints, and intentions. At least that’s what postmodern language experts tell us, and I think they’re right.

Today I’m going to talk about several sentences that seem slippery to me. Somehow they’ve managed to escape the conventional language principles you and I were taught in school.

Let’s start with this pair of sentences. They seem innocent enough, but….

  1. If you want to take the lower bunk, I’ll sleep in the upper one.

2. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, we have a spare bedroom.

A grammarian might say these are conditional sentences. The first half of the first sentence – your choice of a lower or upper bunk – determines what happens in the second half – the place where I’ll be sleeping tonight. Clear and simple, right?

But take a look at the second sentence. It’s similar to the first one (an adverbial clause starting with if, followed by an independent clause). But the first half of the sentence doesn’t determine the second half. That spare bedroom will be there even if you’re not looking for a place to spend the night.

Can we still call it a conditional sentence? And if put it into a different category, how can we justify that? There’s no syntactical difference between Sentence #2 and Sentence #1.

And what about this sentence?

If you need a ride home, I’ll be at the train station at 6:15.

Talk about slippery! The sentence could mean I’ll come to the station only if you need a ride. That would fit the definition of a conditional sentence.

But the sentence could also mean I’ll be at the station whether you need a ride or not. For example, maybe I’m planning to pick up another passenger at 6:15. In that case, it wouldn’t be a conditional sentence any more. But then what would we call it? And how can we justify placing it in a different grammatical category when none of the words and punctuation have changed?

 *  *  *  *  *

When my husband was writing one of his gardening columns last week, he came up with something like this:

We’ve had five straight days of heavy rain. But the water level in Lake Howard hasn’t risen, at least to a degree the average person would notice.

I thought the second sentence might confuse some readers. After some discussion, Charlie and I came up with this revision:

We’ve had five straight days of heavy rain. But the water level in Lake Howard hasn’t risen, at least not to a degree the average person would notice.

Now the meaning is perfectly clear. But did you notice what happened? We added the word not – yet the meaning of the sentence stayed the same. That can’t be, can it? Shouldn’t adding not completely change the meaning?

I do like apple pie.

I do not like apple pie.

OK, one more example – and this one is just for fun. I can’t resist including this delightful sentence pair I saw on a chalkboard one day:

Time flies like an eagle.

Fruit flies like a banana.

Ah, language!



Etaoin Shrdlu

Today I learned something new about journalism. According to a recent article in the New York Times, reporters sometimes use nonsense words and expressions to mark unfinished parts of articles they’re writing. For example, a busy reporter might realize that he needs a fact or statistic for an article he’s writing. Instead of stopping to look up the information, he decides to finish drafting the article. He types in TK – meaning “to come” – as a reminder to himself, and then he keeps writing.

Or – something that used to happen before newspapers modernized their typesetting practices – a reporter discovers a mistake in a piece she’s been writing. Because of the peculiar way newspaper type used to be set, she can’t fix it herself. She types in the nonsense words Etaoin shrdlu as a signal that the printer needs to look for the problem and fix it.

But sometimes those signals are overlooked and find their way into a printed article. Readers who come across a TK or Etaoin shrdlu are – obviously – going to be confused. Huh? What’s that about?

I’ve made similar boo-boos myself – for example, putting a reminder to myself into the subject line of a blog post, and then forgetting to remove it before I clicked PUBLISH.

And now you’re probably expecting a reminder from me about the importance of slowing down and carefully proofreading what you’ve written.

Or maybe – if you’re a regular visitor to my blog – you know that I try to avoid posting obvious advice, and I’m going to swerve off in an unexpected direction. (Good for you – you’ve hit the jackpot!)

What I want to tell you today is that language has an unlimited supply of tricks and pitfalls for sabotaging your earnest efforts to do quality writing.

After I read the New York Times article about TK and Etaoin shrdlu, I remembered something that happened to a close friend (now deceased, sadly) who wrote religious books for young readers. Joan wanted to write a book about Teresa of Avila, a dynamic 16th-century woman whose spiritual writings are still popular today.

Joan sent a letter to her publisher to see if they were interested in a young people’s biography of St. Teresa. But Joan (a notoriously bad speller) made an error in her letter, asking if the publisher was interested in a book about St. Theresa. Back came a letter saying the company would be delighted to have a book for young people about Therese of Lisieux, a saint Joan was not even slightly interested in.

Common sense (and the opportunity to write another book and make some money) won the day, and Joan really did write that book about St. Therese. (It’s a fine book and still in print!) But Joan never got a shot at the book she really wanted to write.


How many writing instructors have you heard droning on and on about the importance of checking your work for errors? How many literature instructors have lectured endlessly about trying to uncover the theme in a novel, or short story, or poem – or analyzing the structure – or explicating the historical context?

All of those activities are useful and important. But wouldn’t English be a far more exciting subject if we sometimes approached it from the perspective of language – that untamed force that resists our mightiest attempts to control it?

My life changed – that is no exaggeration – when one of my professors casually mentioned that he saw Bernard Shaw as a writer “struggling with language.” Those three words have kept my brain busy for years, and there’s no end in sight.

How about you? Do you ever struggle with language – or ponder how a particular writer battled against this wonderfully slippery communication tool of ours? It’s a project I heartily recommend to you!



What’s a “Species”?

Sometimes when the topic of postmodernism comes up, I get a disdainful look. “It’s a fad.” “It’s just a word game.” “Isn’t it time you moved on?”


Postmodernism – I insist – is important, useful, and here to stay. I am happy to report – hooray! – that I just came across an article that backs me up. It never mentions postmodernism – the article is actually about science. But the language principles are right there, if you look for them.

The article is from the Washington Post: “Our biological concept of a ‘species’ is a mess.”  Taxonomy – the scientific system for classifying living things – is much more arbitrary and prone to errors than we might expect: it’s a “mushy, complicated concept.”

If you – like me – weren’t terribly good at science in school, you probably assume that the way we classify plants and animals is based on fact. A dog is different from a cat. A daisy is different from a potato.

But classifications aren’t always so obvious. Taxonomy is based on thinking – and because humans are doing the classifications, disagreements and errors are inevitable. Some living things have odd quirks that make them difficult to sort: do they belong in this category – or that one?

This Washington Post article explains that “Science is rarely the rigid discipline we often think it is. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re defining the way we talk about these things as we go.”

The article is fun to read (here’s the link again:…and it mirrors exactly what language theorists have been saying: The way we name things is – like taxonomy – arbitrary, confusing, and sometimes based on errors.

Here’s an everyday example: the word “upset,” as in “I was upset all day after I talked to Jimmy’s teacher.” Naming your feeling upset won’t be helpful when you’re trying to deal with Jimmy’s problem. You’re putting your feeling into such a broad category that you can’t do much with it.

Suppose, though, you changed upset to something more specific: indignant (with Jimmy, or the teacher, or the school), guilty (because you haven’t been dealing with some important issues with Jimmy), worried (because the problems might affect his future), scared (because the school intimidates you)…you get the idea. Once you’ve named the feeling, you have something to work with.

Right now I’m working on an article about Shaw’s play Major Barbara. One of Shaw’s goals was to prod audiences to have a different reaction to the word “poverty.” You could say he was trying to reclassify it – to move it from the categories of “social problems” and “human weaknesses” to a new category: “crimes.”

I often think about a professor of mine who used to say that the act of naming is one of the most important things that we do. Over the years I have gradually begun to understand what he was talking about – and to agree with him.