Zakaria & Writing

Chapter 3 of Fareed Zakaria’s latest book In Defense of a Liberal Education has some important remarks about writing, ones that are worth exploring here. Very often, proponents of Liberal Education say that it teaches students how to think. This is fine, but for Zakaria, thoughts only begin to take shape once pen is put to paper. Or, put slightly differently, thoughts become more shapely and coherent once they are worked out and groomed by the writing process. Zakaria writes about an influential English teacher from his youth. Authoritarian and liberal in his use of the red correcting pencil, he impressed upon Zakaria the importance of concise and well-articulated prose. While many today might object to the methods employed by this teacher, few will take issue with the core belief that’s at stake here, namely that ideas don’t come out of the head fully shaped and ready to go to press. Consider Zakaria reflections on his own writing:   When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-formed ideas strung together, with gaping holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to sort them out. Writing the first draft of a column or essay is an expression of self-knowledge—learning just what I think about a topic, whether there is a logical sequence to my ideas, and whether the conclusion flows from the facts at hand.   A few things should jump out at you after reading this. First, someone as established as Zakaria still produces “jumbles” of “half-formed ideas” when he first sets out to write something. And...

Tricky Plurals (Part 2)

On rare occasions, I get a letter where the attempt to pluralize my surname ends up being a grotesque error: The Yate’s. Though I have never extended my research project in an effort to explain these errors, I’m confident they’re a result of panic taking over when the writer has no confidence in a rule. In general, people tend to get into a swivet when apostrophes are added to nouns that end in ‘s.’ So let’s take the time to review the rule. To get clear, apostrophes are used to form contractions (such as it’s, can’t, or wouldn’t) as well as to show possession (as in “That is my father’s car”). We are dealing with the second use in this post. Let’s start first with nouns that don’t end in ‘s’.’ If the noun is singular, you add ‘s to the end in order to denote possession. If the noun is plural, you need the apostrophe only. For example:   The man’s wallet is on the desk. The ladies’ bridge game is cancelled. (the singular, of course, is ‘lady’)   This is old hat, I suspect. Typically, style guides tell you to use an apostrophe after famous names that end in ‘s,’ such as Jesus or Achilles. But for less exalted names—to show that the car belongs to Chris, for example—the teaching has been, until quite recently, to treat them the same as other nouns, namely to show possession by adding ‘s. A sentence would then read, “Chris’s car broke down on the bridge the other night.” This is the point where, in my experience, most people look upon...

Tricky Plurals

Now that December has arrived, holiday cards are slowly appearing in my mailbox. Well not really, but they’ll be here soon. And every year, I have to laugh a little bit at how some friends, often highly intelligent people, treat my surname in the plural: “The Yates.” I don’t get offended at this. Furthermore, I tend not to think this is an instance of people being sloppy with their writing. So let’s look at the mistake (and what’s potentially at the root of it) as the substance for a potentially productive essay. Imagine yourself a speaker of another language trying to learn English. How do you pluralize a noun? In most cases, you add either an ‘s’ or an ‘es’ to the end. But there are noted irregularities, for example ‘children,’ ‘fish,’ and ‘deer.’ Then, there are loanwords from other languages, such as medium/media (Latin), criterion/criteria (Greek), panino/panini (Italian). Because they are foreign words, they follow different rules for denoting plurality. When most people use these words (pay attention next time when you hear them in everyday speech), they may be ignorant of both the etymology as well as the correct inflection when it comes to singularity and plurality. Often you will hear people say “one solid criteria” or “no lettuce on my panini.” Society is pretty relaxed about this on the whole. Every now and again, an article is published by an acerbic purist making a fuss about all the people ordering one panini. But these tend to be exceptions rather than the norm. Plus, it is easier, I submit, to be relaxed about inflection as it applies...