CLASSICAL TRIVIA! Lost in Generation


Do you text? Have you even heard  “to text’ used as a verb?  I confess that I find this emerging language both undecipherable and unpleasing.

A typical text exchange:



“Just wondering how you are.”
“ Bored and tired.”
“I wonder whether you would like to get together.”
“Get a life.”

If you are over 50, you are more likely familiar with the recent buzz about Stanley Fish’s new book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. For Fish, language is logic. He stresses how the sentence, regardless of length-whether declarative or embroidered with qualifiers-is a structure of logical relationships. He discusses the all-important opening sentence and closing sentence, especially as the latter can be isolated from its dramatic context to convey full rhetorical effect.

Here is a little quiz. Below you will find the first sentences of the books (or a selection from a book) we will be discussing at Toronto Pursuits this July. You will, no doubt, recognize some.

1.  “Idle reader: Without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine.” Click here.

2. “In fact, I’m well prepared to answer your question.” Click here.

3. “It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea front: a lady with a little dog.” Click here.

4. “Cola Pesce was always playing in the sea and one day his mother said in exasperation she hoped he’d turn into a fish.” Click here.

5. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Click here.

6. “The Michaelerplatz is not the most beautiful square in Vienna, but it is one that most poignantly evokes the restless spirits of the past.” Click here.

7. “Every good story is of course both a picture and an idea, and the more they are interfused, the better the problem is solved.” Click here.

8. “On a spring afternoon in 19__, a year that for months glowered threateningly over our continent, Gustav Aschenbach—or von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday—set off alone from his dwelling in Prinzregentenstrasse in Munich on a rather long walk.” Click here.

9.  “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.” Click here.

10. “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—God said: Let there be light!” Click here.

11. “I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close,
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.”
Click here.

Kathleen, Tim and Lyndsay in 2008

If you are partial to any of the above sentences, you will love the books they come from. Choose one of the 11 seminar options at Toronto Pursuits this July and savor the satisfaction of deep reading and convivial conversation over five mornings. Each afternoon and evening, enjoy a diverse array of cultural, recreational and social activities both on and off the campus. View the 2011 Toronto Pursuits Schedule.

We request the pleasure of your company. (And leave your comments about your own favourite opening sentence.)


  1. Lizabeth

    Instant messaging grammatical shortcuts drive me crazy too!

  2. Looks like a wonderful event. Now I yearn for the Alberto Manguel book (I read his book on reading) and the Fish book on the sentence, not to mention all the others. Hmmm, have given up buying books for Lent. This will be hard!

  3. Within a generation, I’m afraid those who can write normal grammatical sentences will be the monks of the new Dark Ages, with everyone else who writes in texting the uneducated peasants.

  4. In writing this piece, I was unsure whether to use “compared to” or “compared with.” Much written on the subject. Seems both are right, in different circumstances. This from the Penguin Writers Manual. Do you think anyone under 50 would care?

    Both prepositions, to and with, can be used following compare. Neither is more correct than the other, but a slight distinction can be made in meaning.

    To has traditionally been preferred when the similarity between two things is the point of the comparison and compare means ‘liken’: I hesitate to compare my own works to those of someone like Dickens.

    With, on the other hand, suggests that the differences between two things are as important as, if not more important than, the similarities: We compared the facilities available to most city-dwellers with those available to people living in the country; to compare like with like.

    When compare is used intransitively it should be followed by with: Our output simply cannot compare with theirs.

  5. Rosemary Gould

    Just read this update from a friend on Facebook:

    So yesterday my mom texts me and asked “what does IDK mean” so i said “i don’t know”
    my mom texts me back and say “OMG no one knows!”.

    It’s funny but also illustrates Ann’s point. We were once a largely textual society and then we turned visual and auditory: television and the telephone replaced letters and newspapers. Now we seem to be returning to participatory textuality, but the intervening years, as well as the new technologies, have wrought havoc with the traditional courtesies and nuances of written language. It will be interesting to see what happens.

  6. I have one friend who is the absolute arbiter of good grammar. Seems I am guilty of letting my participles dangling. I wonder whether any others wince at my error.

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