Travel Writing Blog Three

I have never given much thought to the concept of regional identity until reading Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. Of course, I have joked about my Southern hospitality, but I have always thought this was my most ‘southern’ trait – aside from my hatred of snow. Still, in reading about the interactions that Least Heat-Moon has as he traverses the nation, the concept of regional identity becomes more and more apparent in the differences he describes in the people he meets. While in the South, almost everyone invited him in for a meal and shared their story in great detail (no one loves food and stories more than Southerners). Yet as he makes his way steadily northward, Least Heat-Moon is continually met with increasingly less friendly people. Not as many people invite him in for meals; the exception to this is Arthur Bakke who offers to share his food but there were religious motivations behind that, not an extension of Southern hospitality. Least Heat-Moon even remarks himself how, while in the northern part of the country, “conversations had been difficult to strike up. The people were polite but reserved; often they seemed afraid of appearing too inquisitive, while at other times they were simply too taciturn to exchange the banalities and clichés necessary to find a base for conversation” (289). This is where the regional identity and differences become apparent: in the south, people are overtly friendly and will chat your ear off over a table covered with fried food while in the north, people are still polite but will not overshare. There is no one regional identity that is better than another. In fact, the common link between almost everyone Least Heat-Moon meets is that they all share a common pride in their regional identity.

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Travel Writing Blog Two

The second section of Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways continues in the same manner as the first: an exploration into the people, the mentality, and the spirit of the small, backroads towns that Least Heat-Moon visits. He also attempts to venture into the regional identity of the geographic areas through which he roams and briefly mentions the beginnings of his writing process. Least Heat-Moon mentions that after he had settled in for the night with the murmuring Cave Creek for company – at first – that he “played a tape recording of the last few days and made notes. After a while [he] gave up on words and tried diagrams in hopes an image might shake free an idea” (162). This seems to be a prelude to the later writing process; Least Heat-Moon states in the video that it took roughly two weeks to write about one day on the road. Given the complexity of all that he encounters, both internal and external factors, it does not surprise me that it took a long time to write Blue Highways. The fact that the initial manuscript was eight hundred pages was shocking until I realized all that Least Heat-Moon was trying to tackle and capture in words: the subtle nuances of the people, the understated pride of small towns, the complexity of regional identities, the painstaking process of crafting a technicolor masterpiece with black and white words. As someone raised in the South, I both identify and rail against his depiction of Southern regional identity. Perhaps I have the fortune of experiencing the South thirty years after Least Heat-Moon, but I have never experienced or seen the blatant, rampant racism he describes in Alabama. Still, the tables piled high with fried food is a Southern staple and that he nailed perfectly.

Travel Writing Blog One

William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways describes Heat-Moon’s backroads journey across America after his life largely falls apart. After losing his wife and job, he takes to the traveling the roads in the hopes that in essentially getting lost, he might find himself. He is not a ‘professional’ traveler or travel writer, he nonetheless tells the story of his travels with a certain degree of authority and authenticity. By laying his life bare for the reader, Heat-Moon leaves himself vulnerable; he does not put on a front or façade for the reader and this element of unabashed truthfulness allows the reader to trust him implicitly to tell his tale truly. Still, his journey almost begins from a point of delusion. Heat-Moon states that “ghost dances, desperate resurrection rituals, were the dying rattles of a people whose last defense was delusion – about all that remained to them in their futility” (5). This cross-continental journey is Heat-Moon’s ghost dance to resurrect what is left of his life and in this resurrection, potentially reinvent himself into a new life. Again, his candor with the reader allows them to trust Heat-Moon despite his lack of experience in travel writing. Thompson posits that “scholarly commentators over the years have attacked the modern, more literary travel book for the ease with which it enables writers to claim an often unwarranted authority in their pronouncements on other peoples and places” (90). But Heat-Moon does not write with inappropriate authority; he writes much as if he is relaying the story to a companion, another tactic that gives his tale veracity. The average reader is more likely to read a travel book written in friendly, unscholarly prose (a more relatable read) than read one in which they feel the scholar is speaking down to them. Through maintaining a relatable, candid, ‘everyman’ nature, Heat-Moon simply tells his story; it is the readers that give him his authority.

Let’s Get Serious For a Second

So I’ve tried to keep the last few blog posts kind of fun because a lot of people think that learning about language and grammar is boring and pointless (which it can be, I’ll admit), but it can also be fun and useful! I personally love learning about funny little quirks in the English language and its grammar; I’m also a word nerd so learning about comma rules and when to use who and whom is fun for me. Still, not everything about language is fun – as most people can vouch for – and some parts of language are downright upsetting. I am going to potentially voice an unpopular opinion about current language trends and you are free to disagree with me (if you do, connect with me because I would love to hear your opinion), but here goes nothing: I am not a fan of politically correct language.

Before you (possibly) freak out, hear me out first and if you still disagree then you can totally freak out.

The idea of politically correct language is to create and speak a language that is not offensive to anyone: people of different genders, sexualities, ethnicities, religious affiliations, and basically any person who is different from you. It seeks to be all-inclusive and inoffensive to everyone. This I support. I know the saying goes “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” but words have the potential to be incredibly hurtful and a language that seeks to not be hurtful is fine by me. The problem lies in the execution of this politically correct language.

Minor digression: there is this concept in language change called the euphemism treadmill. The euphemism treadmill describes the ways in which words enter the language as either positive or negative and follows the words’ amelioration or pejoration – how words get better or worsen. For example, a certain racial slur is known by society to be derogatory (think the n-word). In an effort to be able to speak about this person or group of people in a non-derogatory manner, another inoffensive word is ‘created’ to take its place (like Negro). This word is used in a relatively neutral manner for a period of time but eventually, the underlying social conditions turn this previously neutral term into a negative one. This has happened over and over to countless offensive and inoffensive words in the English language which makes it next to impossible to create a truly  ‘politically correct’ language.

How can a language be created and remain pure (that is to say, with no negative underlying connotations) when this euphemism treadmill and sociological ideas continue to persist? I support the idea of politically correct language, as previously stated, but I have serious doubts as to how politically correct our language can be without first addressing the cultural ideas that cause the negative connotations behind certain words. We can seek to create an ever more politically correct language but new words will have to be implemented in the future as the neutral words of today become derogatory tomorrow. The answer in theory is simple, but is much more complicated in execution: we must break the euphemism treadmill to actually create a politically correct language.

Now, I realize that I am voicing an unpopular and possibly radical opinion in stating this and this blog has the potential to offend people. Just know this is not my intention at all. I am not saying that my opinion is right and by default that yours is wrong; I am merely stating my thoughts in the hope that I can make you think about yours. Still, I do know that I am not alone in feeling like this about politically correct language: 60% of people think that political correctness is becoming a problem, according to an article by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (I found this article in my school’s library database and tried to find it again and link it here, but I couldn’t find it. Instead, I found another article by Abdul-Jabbar addressing this issue. Check it out.)

Many, many, many people are frustrated by the “Can I say this or not?” problem which, if we actually had a politically correct language, would not be a problem.

I personally believe that the effort to become politically correct has had more negative effects than positive ones. Instead of creating an all-inclusive language, I feel as though we have in fact created a more divisive language which damages more than it heals. Instead of bringing us closer together, our ‘politically correct’ language has driven us further apart. Additionally, (again, this is just my opinion) I feel as though in an effort to become politically correct, we have conditioned our society to become offended to any word or phrase that is NOT politically correct. I don’t want to say we are a nation of overly-sensitive sissies (because that truly is offensive), but because we try/are expected to always say the ‘right thing’ that when the wrong thing is said, people sometimes go nuts.

I am not saying that we as a nation of speakers are speaking the wrong way or that we need a major language overhaul. However, I do think that the sociological ideals underlying our language and motivations behind wanting a politically correct language need to be looked at and addressed. If we can look at (and potentially fix) these ideas and preconceptions, then I think we will be more on track to creating a more politically correct and kinder language. Do you agree? Disagree? Have something to add? Please let me know! I would love to hear your take on it.

It’s Time to Settle This!

Let’s start with a joke:

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So have you ever heard those hoity-toity people who actually use ‘whom’ in conversation and you think “They must be from the wrong era. No one uses ‘whom’ in conversation anymore.” Well, you are almost correct. Very, very few people use ‘whom’ when speaking nowadays. There used to be more widespread use of the word ‘whom’ but this has shifted as the language has changed. The descriptive view of grammar and language is that all languages change and this change is okay – unless people start jklol-ing irl (but that’s me being a grammar obsessed English major).

The descriptive view of ‘who’ vs ‘whom’ essentially takes the stance that while ‘whom’ might be prescriptively correct, very few people either know the rules well enough to use it correctly or care enough to actually use ‘whom’ and that is just how English works now. But what if I told you that there was a crazy easy way to know when to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’? It really is crazy easy!

Let’s create an example scenario: You’re at home and the phone starts ringing (I know, I know, hardly anyone has home phones anymore, but just go with it). Anyway, the phone is ringing, but you are too busy reading this blog to go pick it up. Someone else in your family picks it up and calls to you, “Dear faithful blog reader, there is a phone call for you!” Annoyed with this interruption, you answer back…

How do you answer back? Do you use ‘who’ or ‘whom’? Are you ready for this easy tip??

Replace ‘who’ with ‘he’ and replace ‘whom’ with ‘him’. (I am personally an advocate for gender-neutral pronouns, but he/him works best in this scenario.)

So if you say “Who is calling?” you could also be saying “He is calling?” This switch still makes the sentence make sense. If you say “Whom is calling?” you really mean “Him is calling?” which just doesn’t make sense at all unless you speak toddler.

Pretty easy, right? Now let’s flip the scenario around. Someone else in your house is reading this blog and the phone rings. Since you’ve already read this blog and marveled at its excellence (or maybe not, but I hope you like it), it is now your turn to answer the phone. Then you call out, “Hey, there’s a phone call for you!” Assuming there is more than one person in the house, this can potentially cause confusion. Someone might shout back, “Phone call for who?” and this works, right?

Wrong. Let’s use the switch: “Phone call for he?” Eh, definitely not the right choice. Prescriptively, the correct response is “Phone call for whom?” because when we switch that, it is “Phone call for him?” and that totally works.

Want to learn more or see more examples? Check this out.

Now, there is a more complex, more grammar-ly reason for why we should sometimes use ‘whom’ instead of ‘who’, but I realize and respect that maybe you don’t want to dive down the rabbit hole of direct and indirect objects and that’s totally fine. I won’t force you to pay attention to that. Still, I know there are those of you out there who will read this and think, “Does this who/whom nonsense really matter? Who cares about being prescriptively correct so long as I can be understood?” This is a fair point, faithful reader, and one I cannot rebut: if you are a descriptivist and want to use ‘who’ all the time, that is your prerogative as an English speaker and odds are you will be understood.

BUT don’t you want to sound extra smart and educated? Of course, you are already smart and educated, but don’t you want to sound even more smart than you already are? Say you’re hanging out with your friends or at a party and you can easily navigate the tricky who/whom waters with aplomb. You will definitely dazzle your company with your savvy knowledge of the English language! Imagine yourself at a job interview and you can use who/whom correctly. That will be sure to make an impression on your potential new boss. You’ll leave after the interview and they’ll think, “I really want to hire that super smart sounding person. They clearly know what they are talking about.” Once you’re sitting behind that new desk, you’ll think back to this blog and send me a mental thank you (or maybe not. I’m more than sure you can land a sick job without my help).

So, yeah, only using ‘who’ is not the end of the world unless you are an 18th century writer, but those people aren’t exactly plentiful these days, are they? But if you want to sound really, really smart: use whom. You may still think that those people who use ‘whom’ (I am one of those people) sound hoity-toity, but you certainly can’t say that they sound stupid. Even if they use it incorrectly – and you will only know that they are using it wrong if you know the who/whom rules – they still sound smart and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Who really cares about commas anyway?

Commas, commas, commas. What’s the big deal?

Hi, my name is Kim and I am obsessed with grammar. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can get down to business: Commas! Commas are great and whether you know the formal rules that go with them or not, everyone (well, almost everyone) uses them. Most people only use them when professors force them to write papers or in other formal writing. Then there are the weirdos – like myself – who use them even in informal writing. Yes, I proudly use commas in my texts, social media posts, and in notes to myself.

WAIT! What was that?? Re-read the last sentence.

À la Crocodile Hunter: “Here we see an Oxford comma in its natural environment, nestled comfortably in between items in a list.” If you know what an Oxford (or serial) comma is, we should be best friends. If not, let me introduce you to the greatest punctuation mark ever.

An Oxford comma is basically just your regular, nothing special comma that you use to set off items in a list (i.e. ‘texts, social media posts, and in notes to myself’). The thing that makes it special is that you must, must, must use it before the ‘and’ in said list. If you leave out the comma before the ‘and’, it is not an Oxford comma.

If you don’t use the Oxford comma, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Its use is simply dictated by writing preference. I, however, grew up being browbeaten into using it and I guess you could say Stockholm Syndrome took over and now I cannot write lists without it.

“But, Kim,” you may ask, “who cares about a silly old comma before the ‘and’ in a list?” The answer? Probably no one. Well, I do, but I realize that I am probably in a shrinking minority when it comes to that. Oxford commas, in the grand scheme that is grammar in writing, are not of critical importance (though I will never admit that to anyone). Commas in writing in general, however, are beyond critical to writing and being clearly understood. Don’t believe me? Check out the picture below.

“But, Kim,” you may still ask, “what does comma placement really matter? As long as my message is understood, who cares about some silly little squiggle?” The answer is everyone! The only one surefire, foolproof way to make sure your written message is understood is to use that silly little squiggle. Readers can never be entirely sure of when you, the writer, pause or seek to break up clauses or items in a list and so you must, must, must use that comma to clear things up for your reader. After all, whatever you write is not just for you, it is for your reader (unless you are writing something that you, and only you, will be reading and even still I would recommend throwing that comma in there, but that’s just me).

Clarity for the reader is of the utmost importance! To further illustrate this point, just look up Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. YES, there are books dedicated entirely to punctuation. Isn’t it wonderful? I think so anyway. Back to the point though: In this book, an adorable panda (who doesn’t love pandas?) shoots up a restaurant because of a misplaced comma. I’ll explain:

“A panda eats, shoots and leaves.”

“A panda eats shoots and leaves.”

There isn’t much to distinguish the two sentences, is there? Just one silly – incredibly significant – little squiggle. A panda, upon reading that it ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ assumes that he should eat in a quaint, little café then pull out his panda gun and shoot! The comma placement in the first sentence describes a list that said little panda is simply following: he eats, then shoots, then leaves. We won’t discuss the fact that an Oxford comma was not used here. I am not saying that adding a comma where it does not belong is going to make pandas start toting guns around cafes (but I’m not saying it won’t either… commas are important). In leaving out the comma in the second sentence, it makes it apparent to reader and panda alike that pandas do not normally pack heat when eating out, but rather that they stick to their normal diet of shoots and leaves.

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So are commas really that important? Yes, yes, yes. Just ask the people at the café the panda in the first sentence visited, assuming they have calmed down enough to speak to you. Commas can make or break clarity in a sentence for any reader and, as previously stated, clarity is of the utmost importance to readers (and pandas). So start throwing some commas in your sentences! Don’t do it willy-nilly as that might lead to further confusion, but start by looking up some basic comma rules or dust off those grammar lessons that you learned earlier in school and use them! It might take some practice to get right – English grammar is notorious for being tricky – but with a little time and patience, you’ll get it and your readers (and any literate pandas) will thank you.