The Elephants of Style and The Cardboard Lady

By | November 3, 2016
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The Elephants of Style and The Cardboard Lady

So, I’m writing a short story and it is turning into a novel. And I begin to realize I should have not paid as much attention in English class. I find myself groaning over what is proper English, whether my verbs agree, whether my sentences are complete, or not – and wondering who are these people that make up the silly rules of grammar that we’re all supposed to follow.

I’ll tell you who. There are three ninety-two year-old, white-haired (or bald) men and seven elderly women – who are not only older than the three men, but have been working with them as the editors of the so-called writer’s Bible – otherwise known as “The Elephants of Style”. It’s not really called that, but that’s what I call it. It’s about as familiar to me as the mating ritual of the Blue Baliko Ulalume of Borneo.

Anyway, the other day, I’m browsing through the local bookstore, drooling over a cardboard manikin of the best-selling and extremely hot and voluptuous author, Lindsey Blueburn, when I look up and I see a young lady – a real one, not cardboard – who is actually  browsing through “The Elephants of Style” ON PURPOSE! See was entranced. Actually she was shocked. She looked as shocked as if her pantyhose had fallen down around her ankles while she was walking down a busy city street. And like everyone else who’s ever dared to open the pages of that mighty tome, she realized that she don’t know jack about English neither!

I’m still trying not to look at that scantily-clad, cardboard manikin of Lindsey Blueburn – it’s distracting!  Out of the the corner of my eye I’m watching the real girl flipping through the pages of the “Elephants of Style”. She grew pale and looked as if she was about to spill the contents of her stomach on the industrial carpeting. I didn’t know whether to keep looking at the cardboard vixen or offer the real girl my Spencer’s Gift bag, which had nothing in it but some smutty stuff. And while I really wanted to go over there and console her (the real girl, not the cardboard one) but I did not. In this PC era, that could be construed as sexual harassment. I really like my life and really don’t need a sexual harassment lawsuit on my hands.

That’s the one good think about Lindsey Blueburn – the cardboard cutout – she’ll never sue me for sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, back in book aisle, the real girl was probably a hopeful, budding romance novelist – or perhaps she was penning several dozen poems for inclusion in one of the many Anthologies of American Poetry. The ones you have to pay before they’ll include your poem.

Twice the ice was broken,
Twice did I fall through.
My smile will be a token,
But I’ll not skate with you.

That should have been included in “The Best of Little American Poetry”, but alas, I didn’t submit it.

However, I would like to give you some savvy advice about those Anthologies of American Poetry. These are books which generate a lot of money for their publishers. These gurus have invented legal money mills. These folks seduce innocent people into thinking they are Frostian poets. In other words these are nothing less than ruthless capitalists who charge people to put their poems in their books.

You might think I know this because I was one of the suckers. That, my friend, you’ll never know. However, I will tell you a story about  how I know about these bloodsuckers who run the Anthology of American Poetry scams. I know because when I was in college, I was a cynical cad and I was determined to prove a point to a creative writing professor I had at the time. See, I suspected he was in cahoots with one of these money-driven anthology publishers, and I suspected he was getting kickbacks from them. He would always tell us we should submit our drivel to these houses of literary prostitution. What made me think he was in cahoots with one of those anthology publishers?

He had way too many nice sweaters.

In order to prove a point, I submitted the following poem (along with $50 of my hard-earned money) to Boyten’s Anthology of American Poetry Volume LIIII – the one my professor was promoting that particular year:

If I were a worm – I’d be slimy
If I were a peach – I’d be fuzzy
If I were a peanut butter cup –  I’d be yummy
If I were a bee – I’d be buzzy
If I were a beer – I’d make you happy
And I’d be gurgling around in your tummy.

The shysters at Boyten’s Anthology wrote back telling me they accepted my poem for publication – and that I was a one of the most talented young poets they’d ever seen. Really! But I already knew this. Further, they wanted me to know they were including my poem in their forthcoming “Anthology of American Poetry, Volume LIIII”. After getting this letter from them, I rushed down to Chink’s and Stone’s bar and guzzled two $2 pitchers of beer, which I gladly shared with two amazing real – not cardboard – young ladies who were drooling over me – THE POET. Yes, I showed them the letter. And I was wearing a fine leather vest along with a corduroy jacket with arm patches.

After I finished the beer and hobnobbing with the dazzled (and now inebriated young ladies, who no doubt went back to their sorority house with amazing tales of their evening with ME …THE POET)… I returned to my grim, spartan domicile, where I once again glanced inside the opened envelope from the anthology people. There was a second letter in the envelope which I hadn’t read – and fortunately didn’t take to the bar with me – or those sorority beauties would certainly be speaking of me — but not as “THE POET”.

The second letter was stapled to an order form. The illuminates – those crooks – wrote that they were also VERY pleased to offer me a chance to obtain my very own copy of that volume wherein was my lovely poem —  for the special poet’s price of just $59.95 –plus shipping and handling.

I was broke, so I missed that opportunity. I never did get to see my poem in print.  My college professor gave me an “F” on the poem. Actually, I thought it was cute – not the “F” … the poem. I told my professor that one of his recommended anthologies had published my poem, but he didn’t change my grade. And I never saw those two poet-loving, bedazzled young ladies again either.

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with anything. And may I say, you have a good point. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain how the arcane rules of English can bog down a writer and stifle creativity. And why my short story — called “The Loons on Lemon Lake”, by-the-way — is turning into a very ponderous novel.

If you’ve read this far … and I can’t imagine why you would have… I’m sure you can already tell I’m really good with English. And I know, when English is controlled by a group of old fuddy-duddies, the rules get tedious and arcane – even risible. They like it that way. They don’t want you and I to ever understand the litany of foolish rules of English grammar they concoct out of nothing but thin air. I wish them out of a job…and they should be. They should be sitting on a park bench, drinking Big Macs through a straw

The aging staff of “The Elephants of Style” like to gummy-up the rules because it provides them with endless hours of amusement. They are well aware that fools like me ponder over the most picayune rules of grammar, instead of writing riveting prose like this. But if you’re 97 years-old, you need all the amusement you can find because roller coasters are out of the question. So this illustrious board of editors add more and more ridiculous rules to The Elephants of Style every year – further junking up an already nearly incomprehensible set of rules. By adding more rules they can keep making money by cranking out new versions, full of foolish new rules.

They like to think of us common, ordinary morons trying to finesse our way through paragraph after paragraph, besieged and overwhelmed by their mundane, finicky and outrageously illogical rules. I imagine this provides them with lots of laughs as they imagine the common folk wondering whether to use which or that, who or whom, or…whateva!

It’s not just the crotchety old staff of “The Elephants of Style”, who disdain us common folk. Nope! There are tens of thousands of English teachers who also laugh at me too, chortling at me as I misuse I, me, she, her, he, his and so forth. Not many of us actually misuse “so forth”, I don’t think…

Anyway, I’ve become sort of a grammarian myself over the past few years. But I don’t want to laugh at you, I want to help you. Not with thready, convoluted rules, but with simple examples. Think of me as the Rosetta Stone of Grammar.

For those of you who don’t get the rules of I, me, he, she, he, his…I will clear this up for you by showing you an example: “She and I went to the movie together; her hair got greasy when it fell into my popcorn. After that incident, her and me left the movie separately. I called her but she won’t talk to me, because she don’t like me anymore. I don’t think her and me will ever go no place together again. Period”

See how easy that was?

Another commonly misused pair of words is that and which. I can quickly clear this up for you with by using another example:

“That witch took my shoes which meant I had to walk home that night barefoot – in the snow. Had that witch — which I now dislike since I lost four toes because of her — been considerate, she would have at least allowed me to use a couple of her plastic kitchen bags, which would have prevented the frostbite that took four of my toes.

Or, she could have at least been nice enough to check the weather before tossing me out in the snow without my shoes, which the witch could have done easily enough that night because she has The Weather Channel on her TV. And when she discovered that the temperature was minus 20, and that there was blowing and drifting snow and winds which were howling over 100MPH, she could have let me stay in her  garage, which though not heated, was, at least, free of snow and wind. So it really doesn’t matter whether you choose that or which, that witch made me VERY angry. Because of that night which I spent, at least partly, in the company of that witch, which caused me to have to limp around the rest of my life because I’m missing four toes which I really need but that I don’t have. And that makes getting around a more of a problem than it used to be before the night with that witch. Not to mention which, it’s hard to buy shoes for a foot that is missing four toes – a foot which would have not been missing anything if it had not been for that night with that witch — a night which I will never forget.

Finally, let’s explore the oft-misused verb “lie”. Yes. Lie is a typical English verb that has at least two meanings. I will let you cogitate on that while I provide some illumination for you.

The verb “lie” is one of the most ill-used verbs in the English language. I know you’re dying to learn how to use it properly, so I’m going to show you, in simple, everyday terms, everyone can understand.

Example I:

The private told the sergeant that he was sorry for lying to him. The sergeant, not very compassionate, ruminated for a few minutes and said: “Private, lay down your arms. You lie too often; I’m sure you have some underlying mental issues which (that) need to be addressed. I haven’t got time for counseling right now, I have to lay in some supplies for the new recruits who are coming in the morning. I have no time for you right now. So, in the meantime, why don’t you go back to your barracks and lie down, watch a good soap opera and much on some Lay’s potato chips. While you’re lying there, try to think of the reasons why you’re always lying so much. At first, it was kind of cute but not so much anymore.

After you have lain down for an hour or so, come into my office and I’ll lay it on the line for you. I need to think about this for awhile, and I can only think properly about lying privates when I’m lying down.”

The private, surprised by the sergeant’s compassion concerning his lying replied, “I think I will take your advice and lie down and eat some Lay’s.” He then laid his folder on the sergeant’s desk and headed back to the barracks, wondering which lie it was the sergeant caught him in. He was so tired, he thought that lying down sounded wonderful. Little did he know that while he lay down, his world would change forever. And he had no idea that when he got up, he would wish that he would never have lain down at all. When you lie, you can’t always expect someone to tell you to lie down and sleep it off. Life isn’t always so easy as that.

Example II:

“The lamb should have never lain down with that lion. Now the landscape is cluttered with little pieces of wool. The entire landscape is literally littered with tuft’s of wool lying all over, or drifting through the air. It looks like mother nature laid down a fluffy blanket of snow. The next time that lamb needs to rest, I suggest she lie down with chickens or something else without teeth. The moral of the story? Be careful who you lie down with or you may awaken with your wool lying all over, and wishing you had never lain down in the first place. You might have to even lie about how you lost all your wool.”

OK you really want one more, don’t you? Here you go: Never end a sentence with a preposition says “The Elephants of Style”. I’m going to show you a trick that can help you with this. I learned it by accident.

I have a friend in Georgia, and he always picks on me because in Ohio, it’s common to ask someone, “where are you at?”. Sure a simple, “where are you?” would do. But in Ohio, we say, “where are you at?”. So when I talk to my friend in Georgia, sometimes I’ll hear animals bellowing in the background and it’s obvious that he is not at home. He’s somewhere else. So, I say, “where are you at?”. Nothing wrong with that. Of course, he has to mock my Ohioism – and say “Where am I AT?” His mocking always got to me until I figured out how to silence him. Now I say – “where are you at, you jerk?”

So the next time you say something like, “who are you going with?” (which should be, “with WHOM are you going” but that sounds stupid), say “who are you going with, honey?” Or, “who are you going with, dear?” See? My simple rule can help you from sounding like a uneducated, country bumpkin. Or better yet, it can prevent you from sounding like you were bored and raised in Ohio. You sure don’t want to sound like a pumpkin breeder from Ohio, do you?

And the next time you run into a foreigner, and suspect he or she might be from Ohio, ask them, “where are you from, sweetie?” Be careful! Make sure the person you use this diminutive with is of the opposite sex, or there may be some unexpected consequences.

I think that’s enough for today. By now you should have gleaned some great grammatical diamanté from me. Not only have you learned some swell gems of grammar, you’ve also learned where I’m at, baby.

One thought on “The Elephants of Style and The Cardboard Lady

  1. Anthony Tarr

    Loved this essay! I am a direct descendant of the 1820 British Settlers, around 5000 of them came here after the Napoleonic Wars to get away from the unemployment in England. We were settled in the South Eastern Corner of South Africa, (Google “1820 British Settlers”) and have retained our English heritage which includes the language. It is so pleasant to find an American who writes for his living actually using correct (or nearly correct) English as opposed to the yobs who confuse there, their, and two, too, to and numerous other examples of words that sound the same but are spelled differently (synonyms). Keep it up, you are doing well, and are appreciated by the many English speakers (and writers) who read your stuff.


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