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Welcome to The Dean’s English

Often humorous, always educational, this website promotes standard written and spoken American English.

Thanks for stopping by my website! My overarching goal is to celebrate and affirm standard written and spoken English and consequently promote clearer, more effective interpersonal communication. To that end, I’ve written blog posts and included other resources related to writing, language, grammar, words, usage, punctuation, and even pronunciation. For a few chuckles, check out the “Grammar Funnies” tab.

Why do I write this blog and manage this site? I’m an educator by nature and nurture and a lover of the English language. Some folks get a charge out of baking  or fishing or painting wall murals. I get energized by reading English-usage manuals and studying the why-fors and what-have-yous of grammar and punctuation. To use old colloquial expressions, I really dig this stuff. It floats my boat.

Please explore the pages in the menu above to learn about me, my copyediting services, and other resources.

All writers hope that people read and appreciate their writings. So I invite you to become a follower of this blog, to “like” it, to leave comments, and to contact me with English grammar and usage questions or ideas for future blog topics.

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And please share my website and individual blog articles with friends, family, business associates, and schoolmates. It will be the gift that keeps on giving.


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Reading: Is Anything Better Than Nothing?

Does it matter what we read?

When it comes to children and young people reading, should parents/teachers/grandparents say, “I don’t really care what they read, as long as they’re reading”? I’ve heard folks say that many times through the years and never thought much of it. I tended to agree that kids’ reading something is better than reading nothing. And especially in this day of ubiquitous video games and various forms of electronic preoccupation, isn’t it better for a kid to turn off the brain-numbing gadgets occasionally and exercise other intrapersonal proficiencies? And the same applies to adults: isn’t it better to read something than nothing at all? With so many reading options available, from comic books to romance novels, to unlimited online content, what’s the big deal? Just read something! Because reading, no matter what it is, is good for you.

But an article I read recently caused me to stop and reconsider that assertion. The author challenged the reading-something-is-better-than-reading-nothing thesis with the analogous, “I don’t care what they’re eating as long as they’re eating.” Read that clause again: “I don’t care what they’re eating as long as they’re eating.” He is implying, of course, that not all reading choices have equal value for enriching our lives and making us healthier, better people.

A pair of disclaimers are in order. First, I’m not talking about very young children who are just learning to read, where the innate, God-given drive to learn and master one’s world one step at a time brings the child (and his parents) a sense of accomplishment and joy. I do believe that any and every type of reading material that interests little tykes needs to be encouraged. I’m referring to older kids (and, yes, adults) who have gained some mastery of reading fundamentals, yet who, for whatever reason, don’t read much.

Girl reading

Second, I’m excluding online content, including news, weather, sports, articles on various topics, and blogs—including this one. For the most part, that sort of reading is ephemeral, meaning it’s here today and gone tomorrow (or ten minutes from now). And so, while that is technically reading, it isn’t the type of reading I’m talking about. I admit that, as much as I like to read in general, a significant chunk of my reading these days consists of ephemera. And I worry that ephemera is producing an insidious shallowness in me. Reading twenty or thirty snippets of online content in one sitting on a regular basis may fool me into thinking I’m a well-informed person, but it may in fact be turning me into a Mississippi River kind of person: you know, someone who’s a mile wide but an inch deep. That troubles me.

Now, I could go on here, arguing for the reading of books—good, substantial, depth-producing books that take a concerted effort to consume and digest—but I’ll reserve that argument for a subsequent article. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you—from parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults. Let me ask, what do you think of the statement, “I’d rather that people read something instead of nothing”? Do you agree? If so let me know why. If not, why not?

I look forward to hearing from you.

My Mentors: Jesus and Marx

A helpful clarification.

Those who know me even a little know that I enjoy reading books and that virtually anywhere I go—especially if I anticipate having to hang out in a waiting area (appropriately masked and socially distanced, of course![1])—I will have a book with me. An actual book, mind you, not a digital version.[2] I generally prefer nonfiction to fiction, although, in checking my book-reading log (yes, I actually keep one—call me weird), I see that I’ve read five fiction titles so far in 2020.

Not infrequently, someone will notice my public book-reading–which apparently is as peculiar as  public nose-picking–and make a friendly comment. “I see you have a book there. What are you reading?”

Typically, I’ll do a quick show-and-tell. One time, a young medical assistant’s comment was, “Oh, what a pretty book. The cover’s almost entirely white.” It was Rand Paul’s The Case Against Socialism. I was about to give her a 20-second summary of its contents, but at the last second I thought better of it and instead replied, “Oh, yes! I only read pretty books.”

One “pretty book” I’m reading now is The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx. It was a birthday gift from my son, who shares my peculiar sense of humor (sorry, son) and my appreciation of Marx Brothers movies, which I have enjoyed since high school.[3]

I’ve often said through the years, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that my lifelong mentors are Jesus and Marx. That piques the curiosity of some people. Many younger folks, however, respond with a blank stare or a polite chuckle, so I’ll go on to clarify: “That’s Groucho Marx, the one with the big black mustache and eyebrows, the glasses, and the cigar—not Karl, the one with the big bushy hair and beard, who you’ve been taught about in school.” For those who are still confused, I offer this helpful distinction: “In the twentieth century, Groucho Marx was directly responsible for 100 million laughs; Karl Marx was indirectly responsible for 100 million deaths.” That’s it in a nutshell.

Now, about who Jesus is—often equally as unknown as Groucho—well, that’s another story for another post.


[1] Some of my friends seem to care about that sort of thing more than almost anything else, so please be reassured.

[2] I have nothing against digital versions—I’ve read several on my Kindle—they’re just not my cup of reading tea.

[3] I attended high school in the 1970s, when Marx Brothers movies, made between and 1929 and 1949, were enjoying a brief revival. Just clarifying in case you thought I was 98 years old. Close but no cigar.

What’s So “Good” About Good Friday?

My own understanding of this holy day.

I suspect that many people—including the religious and nonreligious among us—are unclear as to why today is called “Good Friday.” Many folks at least vaguely realize it has some connection to Easter, that is has a “religious” meaning. But what makes it “good”? In some minds, it may be similar to Black Friday at Thanksgiving—a time to hit the stores (if they haven’t already done so) and pick up all the last-minute goodies for Easter festivities: food, candy, plastic eggs, new outfits, and so forth. For some (before COVID-19 and forced home-stays) it was “good” because they got the afternoon off from work with pay, or the day off from school. But none of these things has anything to do with its true meaning.

If you google it, you can find a number of interesting explanations about the etymology of Good Friday. Here is the interpretation that I prefer: The church—meaning the collective body of people in the world who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ—has always understood that the greatest possible gift God bestowed upon humanity occurred on the day Christ was crucified on a cross nearly 2,000 years ago, the Friday of Passover week in c. 30 A.D.[1] This event in history, which occurred just outside of Jerusalem, is the sine qua non[2] of the gospel message.

Here is that gospel message in a nutshell, as most Christians understand it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV). The death of Jesus Christ on that day in 30 A.D. effected the forgiveness of and liberation from the enslavement of sin of every person who believes and places their trust in him, repents of (turns away from) sin, and walks by faith in him. And for nearly 2,000 years, that has resulted in the greatest possible “good” for the greatest number of people in the history of the world. It brought hope to the world, the promise of eternal life with God in heaven, and true spiritual freedom.

Freedom

During these fearful and uncertain days, we need this Good Friday message of forgiveness, and the hope we have through Christ’s resurrection three days later on  Easter Sunday, more than ever.

Happy Resurrection Day (Easter) to you and yours! I hope you can attend a church service online this Sunday where you can learn more about and celebrate the true meaning of Easter. Most evangelical churches will be live-streaming services.

May God bless us every one.


[1] Some Bible teachers suggest Christ was crucified on Thursday, an opinion not shared by the majority of Christian scholars.

[2] Sine qua non – literally, without which not. It’s something absolutely essential or indispensable – as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is indispensable to the gospel message, and, in turn, to the Christian faith.

Should Palindrome Day Be a National Holiday?

02022020: A very special day.

Some folks believe that Super Bowl Sunday ought to be a national holiday. Not only should the day itself be a holiday, they argue, but it should be observed on the day after

girl - headache
Oy, my achin’ noggin.

the Super Bowl so that those who indulge in too much revelry on Sunday can get Monday off with pay (if they should be so fortunate) and without guilt. Ha! The arguments go back and forth, pro and con; after a while they sound like so much blah-blah-blah-blah, with a yada-yada-yada thrown in for good measure. Boring. It gives me a headache.

Now, if you want to talk about a different national holiday I can get behind, it would be February 2, 2020, but for a different reason. Continue reading “Should Palindrome Day Be a National Holiday?”

“Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve

What do the famous lyrics mean?

Auld Lang Syne
“We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

As we ring down the curtain on yet another year, many of us will hear, play, or sing what is sometimes dubbed “the most famous song that nobody knows.” With lyrics traditionally butchered by millions at midnight on New Year’s Eve—”Auld Lang Syne” was the title and key phrase of a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788. The phrase itself had been around for 200 years before Burns’s poem popularized it.

“Auld lang syne” (“syne” can be pronounced either “zine” or “sine”)  translates literally into English as “old long since” and means essentially “days gone by” or “long, long ago.” It’s historically a drinking song—the phrase “we’ll take a cup of kindness” isn’t referring to warm milk—but feel free to enjoy it without alcohol. It suggests reminiscing about good times with old friends and loved ones that we promise never to forget. “Should old acquaintance be forgot?” Never! is the implied answer. The song has five verses, but no one sings—or shall I say attempts to sing—anything but the first verse and the chorus, which follow: Continue reading ““Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve”

“You are fortunate because your language is English”

There is almost nothing you can’t do with it.

English

We native speakers of English are often guilty of taking jabs at our mother tongue—whether good-naturedly or otherwise—because of its many oddities and peculiarities. We sometimes forget that English is the international language of trade and commerce for reasons that go beyond the fact of America’s preeminence—and before that, the British Empire’s preeminence—on the world stage. English is an expressive, robust, flexible language that is relatively easy for non-native speakers to acquire and use with facility.

In my reading recently, I came across this quote on the exceptional nature of English. Although written seventy years ago, I believe it’s still relevant and worth sharing with you:

You are fortunate because your language is English. English is a great language; among the world’s languages it is perhaps the one that gives the individual the greatest freedom. It is poetic and practical at the same time; it is tremendously rich; it’s a sort of all-purpose language. One hundred years ago, the German writer Jakob Grimm wrote of English: “In wealth, good sense, and thrifty order no other of the living languages may be put beside it.” He was just one of the many foreigners who envy us our language; there is almost nothing you can’t do with it.[1]

I’m an advocate of learning foreign languages; I’ve formally studied several of them. If you haven’t done so, please do study another language, if for no other reason than to keep your mind nimble or to deepen your appreciation of a different culture. But remember: if you read or speak English, be humbly grateful. It is a great language.

[1] Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Readable Writing (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949), 206. In fairness, there are contrary opinions, such as this one by a noted linguist: “The common idea that English dominates the world because it is ‘flexible’ implies that there have been languages that failed to catch on beyond their tribe because they were mysteriously rigid. I am not aware of any such languages.”  (John McWhorter, “English Is Not Normal,” November 13, 2015, https://aeon.co)

© 2019 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

Ten Christmas Terms Explained

Do you know where all ten of these Christmas terms came from?

The Christmas season is “the most wonderful time of the year” for many of us. Just think of the many words we associate only with Christmas. The following ten words are among them. (This article first appeared in my blog three years ago.)

Advent Candles_31. Advent – Advent is derived from the Latin adventus, meaning “arrival” or “the coming.” By the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I had instituted in the Roman church the practice of conducting a special mass on each of the four Sundays leading up to “the coming” of the Christ-child. Similar to Lent, the season of Advent included fasting and penitence followed by a time of celebration. Eventually, the penitential nature of Advent gave way exclusively to the celebratory nature. Today, Advent is still celebrated in many churches, with each Sunday featuring a different theme, such as the prophecies of Jesus’ birth, the Annunciation to Mary, the visitation of the angels and shepherds, or the gifts of the wise men—with a candle lit for each theme. Continue reading “Ten Christmas Terms Explained”

Five Thanksgiving Words

Origins of common words.

As millions of Americans will be counting their blessings and gathering with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week, I thought it would be fun to investigate the origins of several words commonly associated with the holiday. Please enjoy this post first published on Thanksgiving Day two years ago.

1. Thank

Thank comes from the Old English word thanc, which is derived from the prehistoric Germanic thangk, with a root idea of thoughtfulness. The English word think comes from the samehappy-thanksgiving root. It’s easy to see how our word for expressing gratitude originated from the concept of thinking or giving thoughtful consideration. A twelfth-century translation of Matthew 15:19 reads, “From the heart come evil thanks.” By the early sixteenth century the same verse was rendered, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts” (KJV). To give thanks is to think about and express one’s gratitude for something. And what better way to say “thank you” than by enjoying a big feast. Continue reading “Five Thanksgiving Words”

When to Use Apostrophes to Make Words Plural

It takes 60 seconds. How will you do?

Test yourself on the following use of apostrophes. It will be easy for some, a challenge for others. (Answers are below.)

The Quiz

  1. Which is the correct way to write the photo caption?

  (a) Here we are at the restaurant with our friends the Johnson’s.

  (b) Here we are at the restaurant with our friends the Johnsons.

  1. Which is the correct way to sign the Christmas card?

  (a) Merry Christmas from the Zimbardos.

  (b) Merry Christmas from the Zimbardo’s.

  1. Which is correct?

  (a) We enjoy watching movies about superhero’s.

  (b) We enjoy watching movies about superheroes.

  1. Which is correct?

  (a) We had hamburgers and French fries for dinner.

  (b) We had hamburger’s and French fry’s for dinner.

  1. Which is correct?

  (a) It’s easy to use apostrophes correctly.

  (b) It’s easy to use apostrophe’s correctly.

The Rule

What’s the punctuation rule? Adding apostrophe + s does not make a word or a name plural. Leave the poor apostrophe out of it. Just don’t do it. Leave it!

But there is one exception to the rule: When writing the plural of a letter, it can be helpful—and is acceptable—to use an apostrophe. For example, “Mind your p’s and q’s“; “Mississippi has four s’s, three i’s, and two p’s.”

The Answers

How did you do? Here are the answers:

1: b    2: a    3: b    4: a    5: a

For further reading on the topic, see my article: Apostrophe Use and Misuse.


© 2018 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.