“Rigorous Opportunities Throughout”

Today, I attended a teacher orientation at UNLV, prior to English 101 classes starting next week. Department leaders showed some slides, and one of them included the phrase “rigorous opportunities throughout.”

The phrase immediately struck me. Each word has the letter O twice. In the first word, they’re separated by one letter, in the second by two letters, and in the third by three.

That felt noteworthy to me.


Only 51 Years To Go!

Word nerd alert: yesterday it dawned on me that I’ll probably still be alive in 2066, when the world will mark the 1000th anniversary of the Norman invasion of England, which began the transition from Old English to Middle English.

It’s a big date in language history, and I’m genuinely excited to help celebrate it. I’ll only be 89 (and my daughter will have become president just 14 years before).

I’ll commit now to reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that year, in his original Middle English. Who else is in?

Science: Literature Changes Your Brain

Recently, some pioneering work in neuroscience has begun to suggest what English teachers have long known: that the power of literature is the power of alterity, creating the possibility of encountering the other in a form not easily recuperable, not easily assimilable to the self. “Imaginative sympathy,” we used to call it. To read literature well is to be challenged, and to emerge changed.

–“Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities


Teaching Metaphors

I find that most students, at first, want to call any old description a metaphor.  After I give a definition and examples, when I ask for their own examples, they give me things like, “The dog is old.”

“What two things are being compared there?” I ask.  They pause, then say, “Dogs and old.”

To help alleviate the confusion, here’s little graphic:


Basically the Same Trick in Chinese and English

I recently saw this posting online.  Even though the Mandarin Chinese word “shi” is used below with four different tones of pronunciation, the same tone can still have multiple meanings.  Obviously, then, very common syllables in Chinese, like “shi,” can have tons of homonyms.  Thus, this.  I regret to say that the only words I clearly recognize here are the ones for “ten” and the “to be” verbs.


This reminds me of a similar trick in English: the “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” trope.  Actually a perfectly valid sentence, it can be phrased as “THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloED BY buffalo FROM Buffalo, buffalo (verb) OTHER buffalo FROM Buffalo.”  The linked Wikipedia article also includes some other wacky semantic shenanigans.

Scrutiny in Teaching Writing

A post at National Review, and some great follow up comments from readers, offers some great ideas about teaching writing:

The only way to address writing is to give line-by-line feedback. We cannot assume that students know what good writing looks like. Every time students pass a written assignment at any level with subpar writing, such poor performance is reinforced as acceptable and the poor writing ability become the next professor’s problem.

One of many astute reader comments notes:

Absolutely crucial, if we want students to improve, is that they be required to draft and revise. If they only receive comments — no matter how comprehensive and excellent — on already graded work, they simply won’t attend to them. Why bother if it isn’t going to make any difference on that essay? And they don’t always have the understanding to apply comments on one essay to the next; but if they revise *this* essay by the comments given, then it sparks some realization of how to apply those comments to other work.


This is the single most important thing that students need to learn about writing: every word counts.  Continue reading

Professor Huston Performs and Lectures on YouTube

Ever since I started blogging, I’ve wanted to do some kind of podcasting: I’ve always been told I have a pretty good voice, and I try to have an energetic, engaging classroom presence.  Therefore, I thought I’d post some audio of me at work, to see if anyone else out there might like it or find it useful. 

Yesterday, just in time to start the Halloween season, I posted a 23-minute piece on YouTube of me performing and giving my teacherly commentary on Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Masque of the Red Death.”  I’ll put it up on TeacherTube also, so more classrooms might be able to use it.

And, of course, the world finally has a chance to hear just what the magic is like in Huston’s class!




Defending Internal Book of Mormon Evidence: The Lesson of Proto-Indo-European

Critics of the Book of Mormon often deride it for its apparent lack of archaeological corroboration.  Indeed, most of the evidence that bears on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is “internal,” meaning evidence derived from the text of the book itself.  Those given to rejecting an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon often denigrate the value of internal evidence, perhaps considering anything not in the purview of Indiana Jones to not be “real” evidence.  For some, it seems, physical remains are all that counts.

As someone whose interests are primarily linguistic, and as someone who loves and believes in the Book of Mormon, I find this intellectually and spiritually disingenuous.  Frankly, ignoring the importance of linguistic evidence in a study is unscientific. 

Consider the study of the Indo-European language family, and its prehistoric origins among groups of people who spoke a language that we call Proto-Indo-European. 

Continue reading

G-H-O-T-I Spells Fish

It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to an entire series of recorded lectures, but last week I picked up Michael Drout’s A Way With Words III: Understanding Grammar at the library, and I was immediately enraptured.  I haven’t listened to anything else since, burning straight through the seven discs during my drive times this week, absorbing the whole eight hour extravaganza. 

Drout is one of the most personable speakers I’ve ever heard lecture; his humor, pop references, voices, and casual approach were always perfect: he could have been sitting right next to me.  The lectures were substantive, too.  Not only does he review the basics, with some twists, but he clearly explained some things that I’ve seen other teachers clumsily belabor. 

For example, when the sticky issue of the pronoun of indeterminate gender came up (using “he” or “she” when you don’t know if the subject being referenced is actually male or female, as in, “Any student who wants to get a good education should read his little heart out”), instead of resigning himself to the lame stand by of using an inappropriate “their” (it’s singular, not plural), and decisively rejecting such politically correct constructs as “s/he,” he announces a policy so catchy and utilitarian that I’ve wanted to shout it as a battle cry ever since: Pluralize the antecedent!  (Which would make my example from before into, “Any students who want to get a good education should read their little hearts out.”) 

Continue reading

On Teaching Writing Vs. Teaching Literature

A couple of notable essays have appeared recently about focusing on teaching writing, as opposed to literature.  Here are a few money quotes, starting with the original piece in Salon:

It’s hard to blame anyone for not wanting to teach writing, which, while it might not involve manual labor or public floggings, is hard, grueling work. Often it demands maximum effort for minimum payoff, headache-inducing attention to detail, wheelbarrows full of grading, revision after revision, conferences with teary-eyed students. Who wouldn’t prefer to talk about books or stories or poems? Problem is, the hard, grueling work to be done doesn’t go away. Ask any college composition teacher.

 A reaction from another teacher, quoted at Instapundit:

Teenagers, already a cauldron of emotions, rather enjoy boiling over onto paper, as long as authenticity trumps accuracy or analysis. They “reflect” all the time, mostly on their cell phones in indecipherable shorthand. Building, supporting, and defending a thesis – that’s much less fun. Teaching them to how do it, and grading the results, is much harder work as well.

Others have chimed in, but you get the idea: teaching literature is fun and easy, whereas teaching writing is painful. 

It’s absolutely true.  Continue reading

Is Mario A Male Maria?

One aspect of my interest in language is names.  Tonight, as I drove home from work, I saw a restaurant sign that included the name Mario, and it hit me for the first time: this name seems to do the opposite of what I usually notice names do.

Many female names are clearly adapted from older male names: 

  • Stephanie is a female Stephen
  • Paulette is a female Paul
  • Andrea is a female Andrew
  • Roberta is a female Robert
  • Michaela is a female Michael
  • Patricia is a female Patrick
  • Joan is a female John
  • Christina is a female Christopher

Notice that most of these examples are from men in the Bible.  This is important.  As those names are very old and very influential in Western cultures, it’s natural that female versions would evolve.

Mario, however, seems to have gone the other way: if Mari-o and Mari-a are related, the older name is Maria, which in English is Mary.  It makes sense that if names get adapted across genders because of age and cultural influence, especially Biblical names, then the name of the ultimate woman in the Bible would naturally produce a male version. 

This is all just speculation, though–I’m not a linguist.  But I’d like to look into this to see if I’m right.

“I Defiantly Agree!”

As often as students commit the typical errors of writing—the fragments, the missing punctuation, the misspellings—there is one very specific mistake that I see dozens of times every year that nobody else seems to have mentioned: it’s using the word “defiantly” in the wrong place.

Over the years, I’ve had endless students write down and turn in papers with sentences like these:

“I defiantly think that I will go to college.”

“I would defiantly not ever want to read something like this again.”

“Will I read another book like this one? Defiantly!”

The last example makes it sound as if not only will this young person be reading more books in the future, but will be doing so with a stoic, stubborn rebelliousness, directly in the face of antagonistic opposition. “You dare to chain me down and hold back my reading habits? I will rise up and overthrow your anti-literate regime!” You go, girl!

Obviously, what these students meant to write is “definitely.” But how did the one word become the other? And how the heck are dozens—hundreds—of kids making the same weird mistake?

I mean, it’s not like this is a simple typo; no single slip of a finger could do this. The words differ in multiple places, and the pronunciations are hardly similar at all.

My theory is that there must be some common misspelling of “definitely” that Microsoft Word changes to “defiantly.” I tried typing all the incorrect versions of “definitely” that I could think of, but Microsoft didn’t want me to turn any of them into “defiantly,” so maybe I’m wrong.

For their part, most of the students don’t seem to understand the mistake, much less are they able to explain it, but it sure makes for some funny reading for me!