My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, an archive list can be found at the bottom of this page.
My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Monday, September 30

Obituaries & Dust of Autumn

As I approach the BIG EIGHT-OH, I find myself sifting through the obituaries in the West Valley Independent, The Arizona Republic, even in my hometown paper, The Mobridge Tribune. I’m not indulging in that old joke about checking to see if I’m listed. I’m checking to see how old the deceased were when they bought the farm—how many were older than me, how many younger. It’s like some morbid scoreboard. I’m twelve years older than my father when he died, but fourteen years younger than my mother. Good genes on one side anyway. I’ll keep doing this death watch tally until someday I actually find my name listed. But I’ll be reading about it from some position overhead, or maybe from aboard that skiff heading across the river Styx.

Fall is in the air. Where did summer go? It just vanished, seemingly overnight. The air is chilly at night, the shadows lengthen to the north as the sun slips southward, that "certain slant of light" that Dickinson described. Falls in the past were always about the start of school, that awful annual chore of raking maple leaves, the nervousness of the club championship at South Hills or Jackson Valley, Halloween lurking just ahead. Dust of autumn, the title I chose for my second novel because of the portentousness of this time of year. I could always smell fall in the air, that scent of burning leaves from my youth when such burning was still allowed, the acrid odor of the sports balm we used by the buckets in the football or basketball dressing rooms. And here it is again, with its renewal of tv shows, its debuting of newbies, some stinkers and some eau de cologne. Blue Bloods returned with a contentious screenplay that had the Reagans all barking at each other like a pack of mad dogs. I’m not sure if it’s a bunch of new writers or if the success of some popular series causes complacency. But too often bad writing happens, and then the series goes down in flames. I hope it doesn’t happen to Blue Bloods. The Good Wife doesn’t seem as relevant as it used to be, especially now that Alicia is about to join Cary in abandoning Lockhart/Gardner. Will she or won’t she (pun intended)? And Kalinda has almost disappeared from sight. Come back, Archie Punjabi. Person of Interest is almost too complicated now. The Mentalist is still fiddling around with Red John and after five seasons, that’s too much Red John. At the end of the Mentalist premiere, we see either a dead Lisbon or a still alive Lisbon. God, I and Patrick Jane hope she’s not dead. NCIS still uses too much background music, and now Ziva is leaving. I and Tony “the nose” are really going to miss her. As for the new shows, The Michael J. Fox Show just isn’t funny enough, so we’re going to pass on that one. The same for Mom. Sorry, Allison Janney, you just aren’t funny enough. Sleepy Hollow has creepiness going for it, but it’s just too far-fetched to hook us. Hostages and The Black List look like keepers. We’ll see. There’s a bunch we haven’t yet seen, so we’ll see about them at another time.

Thursday, September 26

Losers & Winners

Last weekend was a lost weekend for most Arizona sports teams. Remember Ray Milland, the alcoholic in Lost Weekend from a long time ago? Well, that’s what I’ll probably become from watching all these losers in the Valley. The ASU Sun Devils looked more like moon angels in their game against the Stanford Cardinal. This was supposed to be ASU’s chance to show the nation that they deserved to be a ranked team. Didn’t happen. If they’d been a chunk of meat, they’d have been chopped liver, and plenty rank at that. Then there are those rank Arizona Cardinals who not only didn’t give the Saints any kind of battle, they also lost three linebackers for the season, and Calais Campbell is questionable for the game against the Buccaneers next Sunday, as is all-star receiver Larry Fitzgerald and mainstay running back Rashard Mendenhall. And although safety Rashad Johnson had his middle finger tip torn off in that stinky loss to the Saints, he’ll probably play against the Buccaneers, just won’t be able to give anybody the bird. This is going to be another season just like last year when they wound up 5-11. Possibly even worse. I look at their schedule and don’t see many teams they have a chance to beat, maybe the Buccaneers this weekend and the Jaguars in six weeks. We’ll see. And the Diamondbacks just coast along at fifty percent, just like last year when they posted that really boring 81-81 record. They may better that by a game or two, but that still isn’t good enough. Our WNBA Mercury ladies were the only bright spot in the weekend, winning their first playoff series against the LA Sparks. Go like lightning, you Mercurites.

Quick comment about the Emmys last Sunday. Neil Patrick Harris should simply resign himself to doing every Oscar, Emmy, and Tony show. Nobody can do it better. Winners and losers. We regret that so many winners come from the premium channels like HBO and Showtime, channels we don’t want to pay for because we already have too many things to watch. Losers: that So You Think You Can Dance should lose out to Dancing with the Stars in the choreography category is just stupid. There’s no comparison between the choreography on SYTYCD and Stars. Maybe it was because SYTYCD had five nominees and Stars only one. Ditto the winning of The Voice over SYTYCD. No comparison. We were happy that funny man Jim Parsons won for best lead in a comedy. That’s one big bang of a show.

Wednesday, September 25

The Family

I thought black humor was a thing of the past, like Theatre of the Absurd. But I just saw a film that was as absurd as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, two absurdly funny plays from over sixty years ago. And it was as black as the dark humor of Heller’s Catch 22. I’m talking about The Family, a flick with a family as unfamilial as it could get. It's a loving family unit on the surface, with a wife who cooks like a French chef, or maybe that should be an Italian chef, a daughter and son who are bright and good looking (you may know the beauty of Dianna Agron from her role on Glee), and a father who loves his wife and kids, just as they love him. But under the surface is the underbelly of the beast. It’s a sort of comic put down of that larger family from our past, the Mafia. Giovanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) is an ex-mob boss now on the run in the witness protection program after he ratted out his Brooklyn compares. The film begins as Manzoni, now known as Fred Blake, and his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) move into a seedy house in a French village somewhere in Normandy. We learn early on that it isn’t wise to wise off to this family of wise guys. When a grocery store owner and his clerks make snide remarks, in French, about Maggie, the stupid American, she gets back by dousing a small natural gas container with lighter fluid, then dropping a match on it. Goodbye grocery store. When four of Belle’s male high school classmates pick her up after school and drive her to a park for a romp in the grass, she beats the leader bloody with a tennis racket, then drives off in their car. Maggie has called a plumber to fix a problem they have with brown water spewing from their faucets. The plumber doesn’t show up for two scheduled appointments. Deniro finally gets him there, but when the plumber insists that they need all new pipes, DeNiro beats him nearly to death with a baseball bat, then drives him to the hospital, telling the physician that the guy had had an accident on his motorcycle. Funny, right? But the smile on my face was sort of frozen, very similar to my reaction to the humorous brutality in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The family’s CIA handler is Robert Stansfield, played by a droopy-faced Tommy Lee Jones, but he can’t seem to control the family he’s supposed to protect. The godfather Manzoni sent away accidentally learns where they’re located and sends out about a dozen of his goons to take out the entire family. The body count goes up and up and up. And my smile remained frozen throughout.

Thursday, September 19

We're the Millers

In the old old days, Hollywood might have given us a plot in which a group of disparate characters forms a false family to solve a mutual problem, like a fake Brady Bunch on a tv families-only scavenger hunt, the winner to receive a million bucks. Lots of bickering about who does what, who gets what, lots of hilarious complications in the search. But the audience knew which family would win and how the bonding would result in romantic ties among the familial-fakers. But the language would be Fifties or Sixties acceptable and the banana skin flops wouldn’t reveal Marsha’s bare bottom. Not so with the Millers in We’re the Millers. No scavenger hunt here. Instead, a trip to Mexico to smuggle back into the U.S. a “smidge-and-a-half” of prime Mexican weed. David Clark (Jason Sudeikis), a small-time pot dealer, has to find a family group to take with him as cover for the smuggle. He has to take on this hazardous task to pay off a debt to his drug dealer. Jennifer Anniston plays Rose O’Reilly, a down-on-her-luck, pole-dancing, lap-dancing stripper, a role that’s about as jarringly wrong for this girl-next-door Friend as one could imagine. At least Anniston refused to do any nude scenes, although she comes pretty-woman close. She’s lost all her money to a boyfriend who cleaned her out before he took off, and she’s locked out of her apartment. Kenny (Will Poulter), an eighteen-year-old virgin, is alone after his mother leaves on an extended date, so he agrees to be David’s son. And Casey (Emma Roberts), a street-wise, body-pierced, Adams family lookalike, for $1,000, agrees to play his daughter. Clean them all up and they become the nerd-worthy Millers, all set to drive a huge rental RV to pick up what turns out to be two tons of pot. There were some genuinely funny bits along the way, but maybe not enough to make it worth your while to see this movie. Sort of like The Heat with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, sort of funny but really forgettable. One funny bit found David and Rose sneaking into Don Fitzgerald’s tent to steal his RV keys, only to have both Don and wife Edie wake up and assume they’re there for a little swinging couples stuff. Edie (Katharyn Hahn) wants only to stroke Rose’s breasts (through her shirt, naturally) while Don (Nick Offerman) ogles, giving David a suggestive wet willy. The Fitzgeralds are fellow Mexican travelers who help the Millers when their RV blows a gasket. Don is a vacationing DEA agent, and provides the tension between the law and the Millers' drug smuggling. Another funny moment involved Casey and Rose's teaching son Kenny how to kiss. I’m pretty sure Will Poulter might have been willing to give up his salary in exchange for that lesson with Anniston, maybe even pay a bit of his own money. Is this movie worth seeing? Yeah, as long as you don’t expect fall-down, belly-laugh shtick.

Wednesday, September 18

21st Century Trends

Life in the 21st century is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up with the trends. We’re on the brink of seeing the end of or dramatic change to some institutions, almost entirely because of the electronic age. Hard copy libraries will soon be gone, replaced, temporarily, by rooms filled with computer screens, places which will then become obsolete when everyone can do the same reading and research at home. Actually, we can do that sort of thing now. I’m an old schooler who still loves the feel of a real book in my hands, but I can see the convenience of e-books. Hard copy newspapers delivered to your door will vanish in the blink of an eye with all news agencies going on-line. Postal deliveries of hard copy mail—gone. Photo shops that develop film and turn out hard copy photos—gone. Video stores—gone. Travel agencies—gone. Grocery stores and supermarkets will soon give way to on-line purchasing and home delivery. Some professional umpires and referees will be replaced by video cams, leaving only a few humans to interpret what the cameras saw, with the next step having the electronic eye doing the interpreting, reporting its findings to the spectators in an electronic voice copied from Vin Scully or Jim Nantz. All corporate tech service and billing questions will be resolved by another electronic voice sounding eerily like Oprah Winfrey or Julia Roberts , or a voice chosen from a list of famous folk.

Even the Roman Catholic Church may step out of the eleventh century and into the 21st by dropping the celibacy requirements for priesthood. Nah, that may happen somewhere down the road, but not any time soon. I wonder if the church considers pedophiles as being celibate. Or homosexuals. Or masturbators. It’s all so confusing. Forgive me if I’ve offended anyone. I’m just naturally offensive.

Tuesday, September 17

Olive Garden Gusto

The spelling of “gusto” might more accurately be “gutso” when you consider the fat-friendly menu at Olive Garden. Since we hadn’t been there for over a year, we thought we’d like to try it again. We arrived ahead of the evening crowd and were seated at the far end of a totally non-descript room near the back of the restaurant—off white walls, west windows blinded from the setting sun, no paintings, no sculpture, not much of anything to entertain the eye while waiting to be served. There was seating for almost twenty people in this back room, which gave us a chance to watch the later diners enter and be seated—a family of five at the other end, a couple behind us, another couple ahead of them, and another family of six to our left. Both Rosalie and I are overweight, not fat or obese, but definitely heavier than we used to be or should be now. But we’re featherweights compared to those we watched come into Olive Garden. The motto of the family of five might have been “The family that eats a lot together can gain a lot of weight together.” The father and mother, with backs to us, were mountainous, with butt cheeks dripping off the sides of their chairs, a twentyish daughter across from them with a full-moon face and pendulous arms, a teenage son and a pre-teen son alongside, both apparently living up to their parents’ gustatory expectations. The two couples were more of the same, ditto the family of six. In that room, then, there were seventeen of us, and my wife and I were the two closest to an acceptable weight. Let’s now examine the menu item that may have attracted all us generous eaters to the OG. For $9.99 they have a “never ending” pasta bowl, which is restaurantese for “all you can eat.” That’s a flashing sign to all those hefties who go out on Fridays for “all you can eat” fish fries, putting a large dent in the ocean’s cod and halibut populations. At OG it’s the never ending soup and salad and breadsticks and pasta with never ending choice of six sauces. And if that doesn’t fill you up, they have a never ending extra of chicken fritta, Italian sausage, or meatballs for just $2.99. So, for $12.98 one could go to OG and consume prodigious amounts of those items listed above, staying there from noon to closing, until the wait staff finally had to roll you out on a flatbed to your car, where you would ooze your way behind the wheel, dreaming of the next day or two when you might return and do it all again.

Sunday, September 15

Sands of Time II

Sands of time again, this time at the Kia dealership. I’d made a 9:30 appointment but got there just after 9:00 because I had to make sure my car would start, and if not, I’d need time for the road assistance guys to arrive to jump the car. It started . . . just barely. So I got to Kia just under thirty minutes early. But they took my car in and I went into the customer waiting area for coffee and a complimentary Danish. I joined some eight or ten others waiting for whatever service their cars required. I had a book with me (I go nowhere without a book), Lee Child’s newest Reacher, so I read and tuned out the overhead television and the endless cell phone conversations and the chats between service people and customers. I read for nearly an hour. An hour to check my car’s electrical system? That seemed unnecessarily long. But then, maybe my car was queued up behind other cars, waiting for someone to look at it. I sighed and put away my Reacher, and sat and watched the circus around me. I was surprised by the number of employees who didn’t seem to have anything to do—men and women in different colored shirts, red and white and blue, the colors of which seemed to have something to do with their Kia duties. There were three men in blue sitting behind a raised desk near the front, all intent on computer screens. A red shirt approached, taking orders for a MacDonald’s run he was making. Three or four women in white sat at desks, not doing much of anything I could see. Five salesmen lounged out in front of the building, waiting to spring on anyone who approached with a buyer’s gleam in the eye. I wondered how they determined which of them got the potential buyer. Whoever was quickest or did they have a first to last order they observed? I thought what an awful job that would be, selling new and used automobiles at an auto dealership, your income determined mainly by how many cars you could sell . . . or not sell. It reminded me of that summer in my youth when four of us traveled around the country, visiting various military bases, trying to sell encyclopedia sets to unwilling and unwitting military personnel. Oh, what an awful summer that was. All I learned was that I never ever wanted to be in sales of any kind—not encyclopedias, not women’s lingerie, not MacDonald’s big or little macs, and certainly not cars. After thirty minutes of people-watching, red-shirted Paula, my service connection, found me to inform me that it was a dead battery, which had been replaced. I went to the back window and saw my car parked in the customer pick up area. Good. It was finished. But another thirty minutes passed before I was called to the counter to sign completion papers. It took at least half an hour to get the paperwork from the service area to the checkout area? That’s unacceptable snail delivery. The counter woman, wearing a white shirt, told me my bill was $228. I said, what, that much for a battery that was under warranty? She said she’d go back to service and check with Paula. So I stood there and waited for her return, ten minutes later. It seems that Paula had punched the wrong number into a computer system that still had some bugs and that there was no charge for any of the service I’d received. I got my keys from Paula, climbed into my Optima, and drove away at 11:30, two and a half hours after my arrival, two and a half hours of my life I’ll never get back. I held up my hand and waved my moving finger in farewell to Kia.

Thursday, September 12

The Sands of Time

The moving finger writes. Time is precious, especially for old people. Like me. Some people and some institutions don’t seem to understand that premise, assuming that everyone has all the time in the world to wait for their attention. Do I sound pissed? I am. Let me explain.
Yesterday morning I noticed the car, our eighteen-month-old Kia, wasn’t springing to life at each key turn, each time responding a little slower than the time before. And, bad sign, each time the dashboard clock would reset to 1:00. The battery is only that same eighteen months old, so how could it be the battery? I also assumed that all new cars had lights on the dashboard to warn owners if something was wrong with the electrical system. I mean, the damn things are almost human and will, like chastising parents, shake scolding dashboard fingers whenever you’ve misbehaved by leaving a door ajar or leaving keys in the ignition or not fastening a seat belt. My wife had a pre-colonoscopy interview with her doctor at 3:00, but since we were no longer sure the car had much life left, at 2:45 I dropped her off at the clinic door and then parked nearby, motor idling until she came out. And I waited. And the car idled. And we waited and idled some more. The minutes ticked off metronomically. At 4:15, mouth pursed, head shaking slowly, she got in the car. They hadn’t called her into the office until 3:40, forty minutes after her appointed time. That is simply unacceptable. She’s old. I’m old. Our time is precious. I don’t know how many more years, months, weeks, days, or even minutes I have left, and I certainly don’t want to spend forty gold coin minutes waiting for some doctor to finally get around to granting me or my wife a hearing at the foot of his throne. I told Rosalie that I’d have walked out after thirty minutes. Half an hour has always been my medical limit, as a young man, middle aged, or now old. My time is as valuable as any doctor’s. The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.

Wednesday, September 11

9/11 2001

Hard to believe that twelve years have gone by since that horrific day in New York when the towers went down and over three thousand people were killed. Twelve years. I wouldn't be surprised if every U.S. citizen doesn't have some sort of connection with one or more of the victims. One of my students, Amy King, and her husband were flight attendants for United that awful day. I remember her as a beautiful, joyful girl/woman. How senseless were the deaths of her and her husband and the thousands of others. Why can't the peoples of the world stop killing each other? Not wealth, power, or religious beliefs should be motives for such acts. Maybe one day we'll see the end of it.


Last night we watched the finale of the tenth season of So You Think You Can Dance, with Fik-shun and Amy named as America’s favorite male and female dancers. Notice that they were favorite dancers, not necessarily best dancers. It didn’t really matter who won. The four finalists—Amy Yakima, Jasmine Harper, Aaron Turner, and Du Shaunt Stegall (Fik-Shun) were equally good. In fact, any of the top ten could have won. That’s how good the dancers were this year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Anyone who thinks they’re watching dancing on Dancing with the Stars doesn’t know dancing from a mid-winter shiver. Even St. Vitus would agree with that. Both Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy thought that this year’s top twenty dancers were better than any of the top twenties from the first nine seasons. And this finale topped all previous finales, with the top twenty joining Nigel, Mary, Twitch, Adam Shankman, and some of the choreographers in a three-minute routine to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” If you didn’t get to see it, check it out on this YouTube video.

The four judges—Nigel, Mary, Paula Abdul, and Twitch—and Cat Deeley each chose their favorite routine for the dancers to reprise. And the four finalists each chose one of their routines to do again. Those nine routines plus two other group dances filled out the two-hour show. Whoa! Was it ever good. If you aren’t already a faithful viewer as my wife and I are, make it a point to watch Season Eleven. You won’t be disappointed. And you probably won’t care to watch any more of Dancing with the Stars.

Tuesday, September 10


I’m reading the latest Spenser novel, Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland, by Ace Atkins. Atkins is now taking up where Parker left off nearly four years ago, giving us new Spenserian adventures with all the folks in Spenserland—Hawk (the indomitable one), Susan Silverman (the ageless shrink with not a hint of a wrinkle), Henry Cimoli (Spenser’s gym owner friend), Gino Fish (the hoodlum), Vinnie Morris (the hoodlum gunsel that Spenser sometimes calls on to back his play), Frank Belson (the equally ageless Boston cop), and Zebulon Sixkill (the Native American alcoholic whom Spenser befriended in the previous Atkins endeavor, Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby). And just as it was with Parker, these people never seem to age. I’m still trying to figure out where I stand with these faux Parkers. This Spenser adventure is the second by Atkins, and the Jesse Stone sagas are now being written by Michael Brandman. Are they good enough to continue reading or are they just a way to taper off from all the stuff Parker wrote (38 Spensers, 9 Jesse Stones, 6 Sunny Randalls, 4 Cole/Hitch westerns). I don’t think so. Ace Atkins may paint Spenser just a little too cute, too much the wise guy that Parker first created half a century ago. I’ll miss him and his Frostian references, his culinary skills, his admirable attachment to Susan, his duels with the Boston mob. But if I want the real Spenser, I’ll just go back and reread the thirty-eight by Robert B. Parker himself. And what about the Jesse Stones that Brandman is now penning? I think I’d rather just wait for Tom Selleck to reprise the role on television.
And here are the kids again. I’m just like a doting parent who can’t stop talking about his adorable kids, can’t stop taking pictures of them in adorable poses. Can’t stop showing these pics to anyone and everyone I bump into.

Sunday, September 8

Sleepy Sunday

I’m old. I tend to be forgetful. I finally realized that two years ago I had done the whole ES3 bit on this blog. And here I am, beating that some dead horse again. Forgive me, readers. I won’t continue this examination of sentence structure.

It’s Sunday and our skies are overcast with occasional light showers. The humidity is way up but the temps are way down, only upper 80’s for the high today. Only two days ago it was a triple digity 111 and it felt like a furnace. Sunday morning, and I’m here listening to all the talking heads on Fox—Jimmy, Terry, Howie, Michael, and host Curt Menefee—and oh how they all love to talk. They’re almost salivating over the coming season. I guess I am too. Please, Arizona Cardinals, win this first one over the Rams.

We’ve recently been feasting on reruns of The Big Bang Theory. TBS and KUTP are showing as many as six episodes in a row and we’re amazed at how many we hadn’t seen. We dvr them and then watch them one after another. We both thought we’d watched them all from the first season up to now, but we were wrong. It’s a really funny show, and Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper is one of the funniest people ever on the tube. The whole cast is hilarious—Leonard, Howard, Raj, Penny, Bernadette, and Amy Farrah Fowler, even Howard’s never seen but always heard mother. I wonder if we’ll ever get to see her. Probably not.

Saturday, September 7

ES3 - The 1 - o

The easiest way to expand our sentences is to increase some of the main elements, like S-S-S-V-O-O (Charlie, Jim, and Bob each ordered eggs and bacon.) But that’s sort of the way little kids expand their sentences. We can do better than that.

A second way of adding to sentences involves what I call the 1 (traditiionally called a preposition). The 1 is a word that always takes one or more o’s, together forming a word group that, in its frequency of use, is peculiar to English. For example:
The 1’s belong to a relatively small group of words, only about sixty in our language, but we use them over and over again for adding information to our sentences. Sentence #1 is an S-V-O pattern with the S being “Many of our friends.” We instinctively feel that the S breaks into two parts, “Many” and “of our friends.” The word “many” is the key word structurally, leaving us the sentence “Many drive economy cars,” but the S just screams for more information—“Many” what? The words “of our friends” point out what kind of “many” is being talked about. The 1 is the word of, accompanied by its o, “our friends.” We determine the o of the 1 the same way we determine the O of the V—by asking the question “who or what?” directly after the 1. “Of” who or what? “Of our friends.” Sentence #2 contains the S-V-O “He found the note,” and the 1-o “from his girlfriend,” which adds information about the note, pointing out which note. In sentences #1 and #2 the 1-o’s are acting as adjectives describing, respectively, the S and the O. The 1-o, when it works with a noun, will nearly always come immediately after the noun.

The 1-o can also act as an adverb, giving us information about the V. In sentence #3 the 1-o is “after class,” telling when “the students discussed the reading list.” Other kinds of adverbial information answer such questions as where? why? how? under what conditions? to what extent? You should note that, like most adverbs, the 1-o, when it works with the V, can be placed in various positions in the sentence.
The students discussed the reading list after class.
After class, the students discussed the reading list.
The students, after class, discussed the reading list.
The students discussed, after class, the reading list.
The positions in the first two examples, the end position and the front position, are the most normal, and the position between the V and the O is the least normal, the most awkward.

We saw earlier that one possibility for adding ideas to our sentences was simply to add similar units, as with the pattern S-S-S-V-O-O. The same thing is true of the 1-o’s. In fact, our language makes such extensive use of the 1-o that we would find a series of two or more 1 - o word groups more common than a single 1 - o. Sentence #4, for example, contains two 1-o’s working together: (At the back) (of the room) Charlie was reading a book. Together the 1-o’s are working with the V, “was reading,” answering the adverb question “where?” When we look at the second 1-o, “of the room,” we see that it is describing the noun it follows, giving us more information about the word back. We often string together three or four 1-o’s in a row, each one giving more information about the o of the preceding word group. Usually they look like this:

Each of the 1-o’s points back to the word it follows, giving more information about each noun.: Which “some?” Which “shops?” Which “mall?” Which “west side?” But getting back to Charlie and his reading, we see that the 1-o’s, “at the back of the room,” can be moved to other positions in the sentence without seriously changing the meaning. For example, “Charlie, at the back of the room, is reading a book,” or “Charlie is reading a book at the back of the room.” This last example, with the 1-o’s in the final position, can be ambiguous (having more than one possible meaning) depending on the nature of the word the 1-o’s follow. With only a slight change in the sentence, the final position for the 1-o’s produces a double meaning: “Charlie was reading a bulletin at the back of the room.” Was Charlie, , who just happened to be sitting at the back of the room, reading a bulletin that he had brought with him to class, or was he reading a bulletin posted at the back of the room? The position of a 1-o after a noun is so strong that our automatic assumption is that it is describing the noun. We can avoid the double meaning by rearranging the sentence or by adding words which make the meaning clearer. “At the back of the room, Charlie was reading a bulletin.” Here, the meaning is clear: the 1-o’s are giving us information about where Charlie was reading. “Charlie was reading a bulletin posted at the back of the room.” Here also, the meaning is clear:: the 1-o’s are telling us where the bulletin was posted.

Sentence #5, “Charlie is the only man in town for the job,” illustrates 1-o’s not working in sequence, but working separately to describe the noun in front of the first 1-o:
Clearly, “for the job” describes man, and not town, the noun it follows. There is some danger of double meaning when we have 1-o’s separately trying to describe the same noun. For example, by reversing the position of the two 1-o’s, we get “Charlie is the only man for the job in town.” Here the sentence can have two meanings. Most readers will assume that “in town” is describing “the job,” whereas that may not have been what the writer intended. An even more obvious example shows how a writer might fall into an unintentionally ridiculous sentence: “Charlie noticed a girl on the bus with sad eyes.” The reader is more likely to notice the weird bus than the girl. Even reversing the 1-o’s does not help much: “Charlie noticed a girl with sad eyes on the bus.” This kind of ambiguity results from too many word groups trying to describe the same word. We generally try to place adjective and adverb word groups as close as possible to the word they describe, but when several word groups are describing the same word, because close positions are limited, the sentence often results in confused meaning.

One more oddity about the 1 should be noted. Sometimes what looks like a 1 after the V is not a 1 but only an adverb attached to the V, an attachment usually resulting in an informal change in the meaning of the V.
This informal change in the meaning of a V can even result in the curious situation where the same word is repeated, first as part of the V and next as a 1. For example, “The terrorists must be dealt with with caution.” Here, the V “to deal with,” means “to handle.” Just be aware that we often create new V’s by adding various words that are often 1’s, but may also be just attached adverbs.

Friday, September 6

Syria: To Do or Not To Do?

The news is all about Syria. How can any people of one nation indiscriminately kill its own citizens—men, women and children? Do we take punitive action for this inhumane use of nerve gas? Are we sure it was President Assad who ordered its use? Who exactly are the good guys and who the bad guys in Syria? Or are both sides bad? I’m a fairly well-informed person, and I don’t have a clue. What exactly would our punitive action be, and against whom? Would this involve us in another war or would it be just a punishing police action and would that action have the effect we’d want it to have or would it just stir the pot even more than it’s being stirred now? Too many questions, too few answers. The world saw what mustard gas did to people in WWI, and the world voted never again to allow the use of such weapons. And if the chemical warfare in Syria doesn’t fall into that category, then I don’t know a red line from a blue line. I don’t know how the rest of the nations of the world can stand by and leave it to the US to determine what action should be taken. What good is the United Nations as a governing body? We tried isolationism in WW I, when we decided not to get involved in the disputes in Europe. Until we discovered that if we didn’t get involved, we might be fighting the Germans right here in the United States. I think the same logic applies here. We just can’t afford to stand by and let Assad or his henchmen get by with this atrocious act.

Back to ES3. A few more words about V’s. A V can consist of more than one word, with what traditionalists call “helping verbs” because these words “help” to show some aspect of the action of the V. You can think of the whole bunch as being the V, with the last word in the sequence the one that carries the main meaning. For example, “Charlie (should have taken) his job more seriously.” The three words make up the V, with the last word, taken, providing the main meaning. And the pattern for that sentence would be S-V-O. What about the words “more seriously”? Ignore them; they’re just adverbial fluff.

Check out the following sentences and determine the basic pattern of each.
1. That signature looks phony.
2. Cats like milk.
3. Happy at the sight of a new face, Bill greeted Charlie at the door.
4. Charlie often hikes for hours before sunrise.
5. These exercises are insane.
6. We are concerned for his health.
7. Our school systems often forget their obligations to the students.
8. My favorite kind of homemade fudge is made with peanut butter.
9. Helen Jones is a distant cousin of mine.
10. Charlie only seems sincere.
11. Anyone in school knows the agony of required writing.
12. His publishing company specializes in children’s books.
13. Every week brings some new impossible task.
14. Their living room overlooks the whole lake.
15. She always gets mad at me.
16. She always gets her man.
17. The book didn’t include any information about the author.
Answers: 1. S-V-S 2. S-V-O 3. S-V-O 4. S-V 5. S-V-S 6. S-V 7. S-V-O 8. S-V 9. S-V-S 10. S-V-S 11. S-V-O 12. S-V 13. S-V-O 14. S-V-O 15. S-V-S 16. S-V-O 17. S-V-O

Thursday, September 5

ES3 Intro.

I just realized in beginning this study of English sentence structure that I should have included some introductory explanation. If there's anyone out there who's actually reading this, here's the preface I wrote for my book ES3:

"The study of English grammar disgusts some, fascinates some, and befuddles most, yet English teachers at all levels teach it again and again, each year lamenting the fact that most of their students fail to understand what happens grammatically within the English sentence. The teachers might use any of a variety of methods ranging from the traditional to the transformational approach, but their students’ lack of understanding remains the same.

Traditional grammars too often fail to explain linguistic anomalies, labeling them as exceptions to the rules. The traditional approach also lacks coherence, often being parceled out in unrelated sections over long periods of time, the students learning one set of facts about English grammar, only to forget it when they later move on to a new unit of grammar study. The structural and transformational grammars are an improvement, attempting to bring all elements of the English language together as a complete study. And they are, to some extent, succeeding. However, most of what is written on structural and transformational grammar is aimed at professional linguists. Even those few texts that have been simplified for use in elementary and secondary schools are still too difficult for the student who has only an average interest in or ability with language (alas, nearly all of them). They are so complete and complex that the student loses sight of the forest. These grammars fail the average student for the same reason that the traditional grammars failed him: the terminology and rules of the game so overpower him that he can only throw up his hands in despair. Or do I mean, throw up in despair?

I will not try to justify the teaching of grammar or sentence structure as an end in itself. Obviously, grammar study can only be valuable if it helps students to write and speak with some understanding of what they are doing. And, at the very least, our language is interesting, despite (or possibly because of) all the vagaries and contradictions in spelling, phonology, syntax, and usage. To bring students to a point where they can be somewhat comfortable and confident when dealing with sentences, the English teacher needs a system of grammatical shorthand, a system which does not attempt to cover every linguistic detail, a system which eliminates all but the most essential grammatical terms.

In the system I am proposing, seven basic symbols can be used to describe the various relationships that words and word groups have to one another: S, V, O, 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each symbol stands for one of the seven most frequently used units of building the majority of English sentences.
Please do not misunderstand this to be just another method of diagramming, that useful but somewhat limited game we played only a few decades ago in nearly every traditional English classroom in this country (and a game which is probably still being played in quite a few today). This system is much less limited, much quicker, much more visually clear, and a whole lot more fun.

I am not suggesting that we learn to write by following predetermined patterns. That is not how we write. Some people play the piano beautifully and cannot read a note. I greatly admire and envy those lucky ones with that inborn ear for musical expression; I greatly admire and envy those equally lucky ones who can write “by ear.” They do not need to know what is happening structurally in their writing. They feel it. The words flow across the page without a hitch or stumble. Most of us, though, lack that talent. We know when something has gone wrong in our writing, but we do not know how to fix it. We need some mechanical method for analyzing our writing to catch and repair those weak or confusing passages, a method also for analyzing professional writing to see and imitate what we find good in it."

There, end of introduction. I think I should probably avoid writing too much about sentence structure, maybe include only one or two snippets a week, interspersing them with what I normally write.

Wednesday, September 4


We recently saw on 60 Minutes a segment about a young man, Salman Kahn, who’d begun teaching math on the Internet. Teaching with amazing results. His viewers/students expanded from his modest tutorial beginning to over a million adults and young students. And that started me thinking about doing a tutorial on English sentence structure. Would I find anyone interested is what I had to say? Probably not, but I think I’d like to try it and see what happens.

For most of my teaching career I’ve used a system I first learned when I was a student at the University of Northern Colorado. I took the system and for thirty years revised it to fit my needs. It was a little like reverse diagramming, a simple method of examining English sentences without resorting to all those maddening labels from traditional grammar. And unlike diagramming, which can get agonizingly complicated even for the simplest of sentences, this system can visually show how the most complex of sentences are put together.

Let me introduce the symbols. I’ll supply the traditional grammatical names for each, and then never again mention them (Well, almost never). English sentences are built around the V, the verb. The basic form of the V is called the infinitive, or what I’ll be calling a 2. The 2 is a kind of V signaled by “to”—to run, to jump, to go, to think, etc. The number 2 is appropriate because the 2 consists of two words and the signal word to is a homophone for two. There, isn’t that simple so far?

English sentences rely more on word order than on the inflectional endings you find in most other languages, especially Spanish, Italian, French, and German. The V is usually preceded by some noun which is usually the person or thing doing the action of the V, and is traditionally called the subject, what I’ll be calling an S. “Man works, birds fly, bees sting,” etc. You can usually find the S by asking “Who or what is doing the action of the V?” From the preceding examples, Who or what works? Man; Who or what flies? Birds; Who or what stings? Bees. I’ll be saying “usually” about nearly everything because there are exceptions to almost everything in English grammar. Some V’s act on other nouns and some don’t, what traditionalists refer to as transitive and intransitive verbs. Yikes! Who needs it? You don’t. A V is a V is a V. Most V’s can act on a noun, or object, which I’ll simply call an O. You can determine this noun by saying the S and V and then asking “who or what?” Charlie drives a car. Charlie drives who or what? A car. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this discussion has to start with the basics and then move on to the more complicated. The basic patterns for an English sentence, then, are S–V and S–V–O. “Birds fly” and “Charlie flies a plane.”

Some V’s don’t do much, just act as a bridge between the S and some word after the V. The most common bridge V (or linking V) is “to be.” “To be” in all its forms just sits in the middle of the pattern either showing us some noun that’s the same as the S or some adjective that describes the S: “Charlie is a banker. Charlie is rich.” These are both what I’d call an S–V–S pattern.
In summary, the three main patterns around which almost all English sentences are built are S-V, S-V-O, and S-V-S.

End of lesson one. Is there anyone listening? If so, and you have a question, you can reach me by email,, or by posting a comment on one of my posts.

Monday, September 2

Arizona Skies

Arizona skies, especially during our monsoon season, can give us spectacular displays of clouds—huge piles of whipped cream that mushroom up and up and up, with occasional dark bands of rain in all directions on the horizon. Or sometimes we'll have a haboob, a dust cloud that appears overhead, sometimes a double rainbow. I know that sky is sky anywhere in the world and must display the same vistas as I see here, but I don’t remember any skies like these, not in California when we were there in the Mojave Desert, not in New York when we were under all those gray drizzlers of Chautauqua County, and not even in the big sky country of South Dakota where my wife and I grew up. Sunrises and sunsets seem to be more wildly colorful here than elsewhere, and night skies often look too beautiful to be real, like what some wannabe artist might paint on black velvet. Or maybe it’s just that I’m old and don’t remember skies from my youth, from other times and places. Lord knows, there are a good many things I no longer remember from my youth, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The memory is a fickle beast, and we often fill in gaps with details that aren’t necessarily true, details we color to make the memories more palatable. Take any two people and have them describe the same event as they both saw it, and you’ll get two dramatically divergent pictures. Where were you when news of 9/11 hit us in the face? What were you doing? Chances are, most of us won’t remember or we’ll fill in the memory. Back to clouds for a moment. I remember a summer from my twenties when I was helping build small country bridges in South Dakota, riding out and back from the work site in the back of a pickup. One late afternoon on our way home, the sky was filled with dark clouds, clouds with scattered tornadoes, like witches’ brooms extending from the thunderheads down to the South Dakota countryside. Did I really see as many as five or six tornadoes or did I make them up? I don’t know and there’s no way now to verify or discount the memory. The memory is a fickle beast.

Sunday, September 1

Labor Day

Labor Day weekend and here I am, just like on any other Sunday in the year, waiting around for some sports activity to come on the tube. The Diamondbacks play the Giants early this afternoon, but their season is as good as over. They’re too far back of the Dreadful Dodgers to catch them in the last thirty games. But I’ve invested my time in watching them for the first 130 games, so I feel obligated to finish the season with them. And, thankfully, the NFL won’t begin until next weekend. I say “thankfully” because I won’t have to suffer through a Cardinals game today. I say “suffer through” because that’s what I do every year, suffer through the Cardinals’ all too frequent losses. My salvation today will be the third round coverage of the Deutsche Bank golf tournament, the second in the lineup of tournaments leading to the FedEx finals. And Tiger is prowling, so he’ll be fun to watch. And Phil is doing his Phil thing, hitting some just disastrous shots and then recovering in magical, mystical Phil ways.

Then there’s Labor Day tomorrow, my bench mark in the past for the start of another school year. Oh, the pain of that annual beginning. The end of a teacher’s freedom, the anxiety of seeing classloads of new faces, planning new units to teach to mostly unresponsive students. The twenty percent that have always been there and always will be brightened my teaching career, but the other eighty percent finally drove me out of the classroom. I always swore I’d teach into my seventies, but the apathy I confronted during the last ten years made me rethink that retirement date. Other than school start, what does Labor Day mean to me? Summer’s end. A parade or two on tv, a family get-together for a Labor Day meal. That’s about it. Labor Day is my least favorite national holiday. Labor Day, a day to celebrate the working class. Sounds sort of uniony to me. But then, I was part of the New York State Teachers Association, so I can’t really grump about unions. Grover Cleveland signed this day into law in 1894 after a number of demonstrators were killed as they complained of unfair railroad wages in the Pullman Strike. And now, 119 years later, we’re still taking a day off from work to recognize all the laborers in the country. As a happy retiree, I’m no longer a part of that laboring group. But at 4:00 this afternoon, cocktail time, I’ll raise a Scotch and water, toasting all the laborers lucky enough to have jobs, commiserating with all those who don’t.

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