Stan of Sentence first has a post about “an admirable new website, The Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery, that stores and classifies examples of ‘interesting sentence- and paragraph-level patterns, including figures of speech, grammatical-syntactic structures, and other rhetorical devices’. It was created by David Clark, an English teacher who sees the educational value of collecting and systematically arranging sentences that exemplify these literary-linguistic structures and devices.” Clark himself says:

My career involves trying to teach young people to write well: if I want them to write great sentences, they must be exposed to great sentences, again and again; and if I want them to understand, identify, and use a grammatical construction or figure of speech or literary device, they must be exposed to examples of it, again and again and again. The effects of their exposure will be magnified if those examples are amassed, analyzed, grouped—presented systematically—especially if I am careful to include each relevant variation and apparent exception in my example-set.

As Stan says, “If you’re into language and literature, you’re likely to find it fun and edifying,” and you can contribute your own examples if you like. Another good use of the internet.


  1. When did Americans start using “great” to mean acceptable, adequate, fit for purpose, OK?

  2. Do Americans use “great” to mean acceptable, adequate, fit for purpose, OK?

  3. Sometimes, but not always. It happened under the radar, but what it reflects is our positive-politeness and solidarity-based culture.

  4. By the way, I just found a Good Trick for bypassing Hat’s content filters: introduce <b></b> (seven characters, no spaces) into the heart of the bad content. I just tried to post a comment containing the word Somalia and got a complaint about the word Soma; I changed it to So<b></b>malia and all was well.

  5. Is soma a naughty word? I only remember coming across it in Brave New World, though I see from Google that it’s the name of a company that sells intimate garments.

  6. John C: I just found a Good Trick for bypassing Hat’s content filters
    Cool !! That’s the kind of thing that makes one think “why didn’t I think of that ?” Probably <i></i> works as well.

  7. Also suggested by David Marjanović several years ago.

  8. That’s the kind of thing that makes one think “why didn’t I think of that ?”
    It depends who the ‘one’ is.

  9. Good grief, when did I add “soma” to the blacklist? I must have been really irritated (and probably sleep-deprived). Anyway, it’s gone now, and we can all discuss Somalia without recourse to work-arounds.

  10. Not to mention Somaliland. Everybody ignores Somaliland, but it deserves to be talked about too.

  11. It depends who the ‘one’ is.
    The general principle I had in mind, one that everybody applies at various times, is “fighting fire with fire”. In the present case, it’s using software to defeat software – in particular using HTML “markup signs” to prevent something happening (having your comment rejected by a spam filter), instead of making something happen (display formatted text in your browser).
    Other examples: using a car motor to brake the car, applying “reverse psychology” to outwit a recalcitrant person, (a precursor of vaccination) taking small amounts of arsenic over a long time to defeat attempts to poison you later, dosing the truth to conceal the truth …

  12. John Emerson says

    Well fuck me then.

  13. Heh ! Good example.

  14. No, no, no: it’s a great example.

  15. “what it reflects is our positive-politeness and solidarity-based culture”: when did Americans start using “positive” to mean really awfully nice?

  16. Grumbly: <i></i> does indeed work as well, unless you happen to be in the middle of an italic word, which on this blog I often am, in which case some browsers will prematurely terminate the italics. (This may no longer be true as browsers become more standards-conformant.)
    Bold, not so much, though I did just leave a comment where I needed bold italic words, fortunately not banned ones. It’s a matter of finding markup that WordPress will not remove and which has no affect on appearance.

  17. @John Cowan: If you’re in the middle of an italic word, how about </i><i>?

  18. I draw the line at taking arsenic. Its unpleasant side effects include severe and prolonged diarrhea, which is believed by some to be the origin of the ‘arse’ name.
    By the way, both George III and Napoleon were poisoned by arsenic and died within eighteen months of one another. Who wanted them dead? President Monroe, of course, and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams! 1817-23 was the time when the Monroe doctrine was being created, they were obsessed with the Europeans. Monroe had earlier been minister to France and though he was a big fan of the Revolution he was less keen on Bonaparte. Anyway, Monroe & Adams persuaded Lafayette to kill his nemesis, Napoleon, and George Canning to poison the king. Canning, an early proponent of what became the Monroe Doctrine, had a history of violence: he had fought a duel with Castlereagh in 1809 (Canning resented George III for not having appointed him prime minister when Lord Portland resigned shortly after the duel). I’m planning a book about this.

  19. when did Americans start using “positive” to mean really awfully nice?
    When did Britons start using “nice” to mean “good”, and using “really” and “awfully” to mean “extremely”?
    When did Britons start using “super” to mean “great”?

  20. using “great” to mean acceptable, adequate, fit for purpose, OK
    It seems reasonable that when Mr. Clark writes of “trying to teach young people to write well” he means not much more than trying to teach them to write prose that is acceptable, adequate, fit for the purpose: he cannot really be aiming higher than that.
    But it does not follow, and I do not believe, that when he writes “if I want them to write great sentences, they must be exposed to great sentences” he means “if I want them to write adequate sentences, they must be exposed to adequate sentences”.

  21. empty: it may not follow, but I’m not sure what you “don’t believe” here. Since you think the claim “when he writes A he means B” (for the specific A and B in question) is untenable, of course you don’t believe it – so I wonder why you would bother to add that you don’t believe it.
    So maybe you mean you don’t believe B: that people exposed to “adequate” sentences will learn to write “adequate” sentences (by imitation and emulation). But that is an innocuous claim, surely, in some sense of “adequate” ? I suppose it depends on what you mean by “adequate”: “socially acceptable” or “gramatically acceptable”, perhaps, or maybe even “descriptively adequate” (describing reality in a more or less satisfactory way).

  22. Having just looked it up, I now know what a “cow-creamer” is. I didn’t when I read The Code of the Woosters. I had imagined it was a euphemism for butter-churn, or rather a euphemistic silver imitation of same.

  23. I meant:
    Even if, as suggested in my first paragraph,
    X: adequate writing is what he is really to teach
    it does not follow from X that in the sentence quoted in my second paragraph he is using “great” to mean “adequate”.
    I also meant:
    Of course, even it does not follow from X, it still might be true. But I don’t believe that it is.

  24. The cow-creamer thread is down the hall.

  25. When did Britons start using “nice” to mean “good”, and using “really” and “awfully” to mean “extremely”?
    When did Britons start using “super” to mean “great”?
    Oh, just before they started referring to sarcasm as irony.

  26. I question the name “cow creamer”, especially the hyphenated version. It’s a cow-shaped creamer, not a machine for creaming cows.
    just before they started referring to sarcasm as irony.
    Though she’s no pedant, calling things that weren’t “irony” used to drive my first wife mad.

  27. John Emerson says

    “Positive politeness” is effusive or expressed politeness,I would guess, where it’s impolite to be silent, whereas British politeness is the politeness of restraint, minding your own business, not making a fuss, etc., and could be called negative politeness.

  28. I myself would not hyphenate “cow creamer”, and I agree that even when unhyphenated it jars because of the thought that somebody is in some sense creaming cows. But I would have no problem with “cow pitcher” for “cow-shaped pitcher”, or — oh, no wait, now I’m thinking of the catapult in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — bad example. I would have no problem with “cat clock” for “cat-shaped clock”, or — oh no, you could be timing your cat’s activities with a dedicated cat-timer, couldn’t you? OK, I would have no problem with “fish bowl”. Oh, hell. How about “ewe ewer”?

  29. Fowler’s neat account of sarcasm versus irony and much more.

  30. There’s also cow bell, cuckoo clock and cat à meringue. Cow pitcher sounds to me like a baseball term.

  31. Fowler’s neat account of sarcasm versus irony and much more.
    Sardonic talk is characterized there as self-relief under conditions of adversity, accompanied by pessimism as to its effects on self. That also describes trying to take a crap in a cramped ship’s head in a storm – without imperiling your shoes.
    “Sardonic” has never been promoted to a noun form. I guess the terminal “ick” is an impediment.

  32. Sardoniclasm ? Sardonicry ?

  33. The onletydic fellow made a couple of changes, at least one of which Fowler would not have approved of: his chart has “The sardonic” rather than “Sardonic”, and “Self” rather than “The self”.

  34. Wikipedia’s sardonicism is a bit of a train wreck.

  35. As far as I know, baseball has neither cow pitchers nor cow catchers. But (speaking of train wrecks) a locomotive may have a cow catcher.

  36. Is “cow catcher” a euphemism ? That is, does a cow effectively get creamed when it is swept aside by a cow catcher ? When Wodehouse writes of “cow creamers”, perhaps there is something more gory and sinister there than we had imagined.

  37. I have always been uncomfortable with the thought of what a “cow catcher” must do to a cow.
    As for the creamer, Wodehouse actually uses the word “sinister”, but it doesn’t seem to be about gore.
    “It was a silver cow. But when I say ‘cow’, don’t go running away with the idea of some decent, self-respecting cudster such as you might find loading grass into itself in the nearest meadow. This was a sinister, leering, Underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out of the side of its mouth for twopence. It wss about four inches high and six long. Its back opened on a hinge. Its tail was arched, so that the tip touched the spine–thus I suppose affording a handle for the cream-lover to grasp. The sight of it seemed to take me into a different and a dreadful world.”

  38. Aw look, Ø, I poured scorn on pahsitive while gently mocking really, awfully and nice. You missed the thrust of the second bit: would it have helped if I’d spelled really as “reelly”?

  39. Sorry I missed your irony, dearie, and got a little sarcastic. Yeah, prolly “reelly” woulda helped.

  40. rootlesscosmo says

    Cow catchers as seen in movies about the Old West, when locomotives were light enough that hitting a cow could cause derailment, haven’t existed for a long time. Locomotives got much heavier, and in addition the front end is equipped with a coupler so that cars can be shoved as well as pulled. There’s a structure called a “pilot” whose function is to deflect obstacles on the track, but the first thing that hits the cow (with pretty much the effect Empty mentions) will be the front coupler.

  41. The Sentence Discovery Portal doesn’t do a lot for me. Frankly, I’m much more interested in that no-man’s land between low-level syntax and full-blown written expression. There is an amazing disconnect that not many people seem to have tackled. Grammarians seem more concerned with discussing a very limited variety of quite simple examples, while stylists, like Sentence Discovery Portal, seem to rely more on ‘intuition’ and ‘unconscious learning’ than explicit rules. There is surely an area in between that is amenable of description, and could be profitably studied by both sides.

Speak Your Mind