Pickle with That Corned Beef

As you might have heard, I am really good at impersonating former presidents. Like Ronald Reagan: “Wellllll.” See what I mean? If I didn’t know it was I, I would ask myself for an autograph.

For Clinton, I have to make my voice sound raspy, a little twangy, and real Southern, which is how my voice sounds anyway: “Ah have grown weary and gray saying this, but ah will say it one more tahm. Ah did not…have pickle…with that corned beef!”

Now, for the first time ever before a live audience, I will attempt to impersonate both presidents at once. The Press Briefing Room: 300 blood-thirsty reporters circle like barracuda over a crisis involving Iran, the People’s Republic of China, arms shipments, drug deals, and illegal contributions to the Democratic Party. The two presidents take the podium. The room goes silent. They speak as one, the Gipper meets Arkansas: “Mistakes were made.”

True stories. You remember. I just melded them for theatrical effect: Two Presidents, two political parties, two crises, one sentence, zero attribution. Which brings me to our topic today.

Over the last two years, mistakes were made by me in writing these Tips. Fortunately, you have been quick to let me know, and I love to make fun of myself, especially publicly. Chagrined, here are three that sent me to the reference books I mentioned a few weeks ago. (See Tip: (See Tip: “Once Upon a Time I Fell, and It Has Made All the Difference.”)

The first came from a Senior Editor with the United Nations. She liked the Tip, but not the title: “6 Sentence Openings That Aggravate Judges.” She gently reminded me:

. . . “aggravate” is not a synonym for “annoy” or “irritate” but means “to make worse.” (You can aggravate a judge’s headache but not the judge.) I’d be interested to know if you considered the above and rejected it, or if this was a slip.

Uhhhh.

Next, Senior Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice in San Francisco read the Tip “One Thing Judges Never Read” and objected to the line “jurists in powdered wigs spent much of their time drafting obtuse rules for pleadings and lying in wait”:

I believe the word you wanted was “abstruse” (“hard to understand”), not “obtuse” (“dull, blunt, stupid”).

He was right, and I felt so obtuse.

And last a corporate IP guy in Ohio who does not like our WordRake signature logo, “Write Simply to the Point”:

I find it odd that you do not follow your own guidance. It is more direct to state, “Write simply,” than to state, “Write to the point.” “To the point” requires interpretation of an abstract geometrical concept, e.g., the point where two lines intersect, to reach an understanding of essential meaning of what is being written. “Simply” is an adverb to the verb “write.” “Simply” encompasses far more meaning than “to the point” ever could and sheds any abstract geometrical baggage.

He signed “Q.E.D.” I had to look it up: an abbreviation of the Latin phrase “quod erat demonstrandum,” which translates literally as “which was to be demonstrated.” It’s a formal way of ending an argument by alerting your opponent that the immediately previous statement was arrived at naturally by an unbroken chain of logic and, voilà, was the original statement requiring proof! In English, Q.E.D. means “Checkmate, Jerk Face.” More people have been shot for writing those three initials than for holding aces and eights.

But for calling these mistakes to my attention, the Senior Editor, the Senior Counsel, and the Corporate IP Guy each will receive a one-year subscription to “Write to the Point” absolutely free. Oh, wait, that’s right; it’s already free.

Kluber’s Head Rolls into Right Field

For weeks, I’ve been trying to think of a way you could dazzle friends with clever comments about pronouns. At first I tried for something oblique and dismissive, but thought-provoking – like standing before a painting at Chicago’s Art Institute, thumb and forefinger caressing your chin, and muttering, “It’s so derivative.”

 

Then it hit me: a parlor game! Like “Charades” or “Jenga!” We’ll call it “Pronopoly!” Just throw out a pronoun and everyone tries to guess its gender, person, number, and case! (Who knew pronouns could have so many properties? Or be so complex?) Someone yells, “Her!” and the room erupts, “Feminine, third person, singular, objective!” You can imagine how quickly this could get out of hand. I’ve tried it in social settings, and the game gets so intense, people faint. I taught it to our WordRake engineers, and now they’re leading conga lines.

 

I thought again: Why not ratchet it up a notch? Let’s see who can come up with the Oscar Wildest play on words using misplaced pronouns, like:

 

Peter’s dog died when he was 42. (“An old dog,” Oscar would say.)

 

Or:

 

After Bryant lined the ball off Kluber’s head, it rolled into right field. (“What happened to the ball,” Oscar would say.)

 

In my experience, such witticism in the parlor usually subsides into thoughtful reflection and leads to enlightened discussion on how pronouns help to curb formality and monotony, so we can communicate better and faster to avoid this:

 

Mr. Leiberman’s membership in the National Guard was not a factor in the partners’ decision to terminate Mr. Leiberman. The partners knew Mr. Leiberman was a member when the partners hired Mr. Leiberman, and the partners were committed to accommodating Mr. Leiberman’s Guard schedule.

 

by writing this:

 

Mr. Leiberman’s membership in the National Guard was not a factor in the partners’ decision to terminate him. They knew he was a member when they hired him, and they were committed to accommodating his Guard schedule.

 

The news of Peter’s 42-year-old dog might not be so serious in the middle-schooler’s neighborhood blog, but if one of us makes a similar mistake in professional life, it can confuse clients and colleagues who don’t know whom we mean by “they”; that’s when we see time and money lost, and patience thinned. To wit:

 

Although supervisors do not receive these reports, they could help us explain the company’s position.

 

We have two antecedents out front, and they could refer to either. Who or what could help us explain: the supervisors or the reports? Our readers don’t know. Until someone does know, no one can act. Do we call the supervisors or gather the reports? Our client’s clock is ticking, and we’ve just lost our kingdom for a pronoun.

 

Wow, who knew we could learn so much from a parlor game? And have so much fun? Wow again. When and where you play is up to you. I’m thinking a round or two between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert. When the guy in the apron asks, “Would you like the pumpkin or the mincemeat?” yell, “You!” and stand back while the place explodes. “Generic! Second person! Singular and plur . . . .”

Whether Pigs Have Wings

I think we left off last time with Tweedledee telling Alice about the Walrus:

“’The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘to talk of many things,
of ins – and ofs – and useless words
and whether pigs have wings.’”

Which is so ironic: just as the mischievous Tweedle twins strut through Alice’s dream, so ins and ofs prance through our writing, dosey doe in and out of our sentences, then duck and hide among gatherings of words that mean nothing. They are drawn to the absurd and unnecessary, and we hardly notice them nestled there.

But let’s separate them just long enough to see how these two tiny English words attach themselves like barnacles to nearly half of the verbiage we write. Here’s a portrait of each, frozen in various poses:

of

This is a tiny amount of our income that could save millions of people.
They want to subscribe, but they don’t like the idea of paying $4.99 a month.
An American will consume 21,000 entire animals in the course of a lifetime.
We even toyed with the notion of setting up our own bottling plant.
The head-to-head conflict between her and McMurphy creates the story and reveals the their essential character of each of them.

in

All of this is just as he had pictured it in his mind.
We have significant tax issues in the event that if we sell it.
It will make you wonder why we even bothered to apply in the first place.
Christian Dior acted quickly in an effort to limit any damage to the brand.
In an attempt to root his food, Brock turned agricultural anthropologist.
Those statements can be as general or as detailed in nature as you desire.

Sometimes, they squish a useless phrase between their little round bodies.

Our literary era has offered little in the way of insight into the workings of the human soul.

I am in the process of reviewing all of our catering accounts.

Other times they separate to frolic randomly in the same sentence:

So it is, in a sense, acting as a kind of “police officer” for the way in which how sentences are constructed.

The sole dispute in this matter is whether the plaintiff is entitled to a rescission of rescind the loan under the Truth in Lending Act.

The problem of describing the ways in which how film and theatre diverge is a lot like trying to define the difference between a cat and a dog.

Why do ins and ofs fraternize with words that have no meaning? I don’t know; I know only that they do. The immortal words of Tweedledee might shed light:

“If it was so, it might be;
and if it were so, it would be.
But as it isn’t, it ain’t.
That’s logic.”

Contrariwise, I can’t explain it any better.

(Tweedledum asked me to remind you that of the 21 edits above, WordRake would have made 19 for us at the push of a button. See you ’round the mulberry bush.)

Ford. Go Figure.

Most of you have seen the commercial; it’s hard to miss: Ford introducing its new line of hybrids. At the end of the commercial, below the Ford logo, this sentence pops onto the screen:

Go further.

We’re talking cars now, especially vehicles that can travel from here to beyond the old there, because of their superior fuel efficiency. So it should be farther. Right? Do all of those smart people at Ford and their ad agency really not know the difference between farther and further, which I can’t imagine, or is this a nefarious plot to undermine the intelligence of the American people? I’ll get to that in a minute.

Back to the hybrids going . . . . At one time, farther and further were the same word. Over a few centuries, their meanings split. Farther mostly referred to “distance,” and  further mostly referred to “quantity or degree.” “How much farther do we have to walk?” And “Upon further reflection, I agree.” But over the past few decades, further has crept back deeper into the domain of farther, even when referring to distance. However.

SUGGESTION #1: Sometimes, generations have to die before one word finally overtakes another as more acceptable. In the meantime, use the one we know is correct; and when we refer to distance, that’s still farther.

But maybe Ford meant that driving one of their hybrids would enhance our station in life, so they’re not measuring distance here but offering us a way to see ourselves in a new light at the wheel of a Ford hybrid. If that’s true, then further would be correct. Except a few years ago, Ford also ran a full-page magazine ad for the Ford Escape Hybrid with the tag line:

That means less trips to the gas station.

The only way I can explain this is that Ford used less instead of fewer (and further rather than farther) on purpose; that their ad agency wired the brains of thousands of focus folk to test their reaction to the correct usage of fewer and farther against the incorrect usage of less and further. Because Ford was chasing the “down” market, they discovered that the incorrect less and further appealed more to that group. (Why they would consider the hybrid shopper part of a “down” market is another issue.) So.

SUGGESTION #2: Yes, come down in your language; use words that average people understand; but whether you’re a huge corporation or an individual, never purposely use a word incorrectly because you fear your audience might resent your using the correct word. That only contributes to the dumbing down of America.

Ford should travel the high road. It might not sell more cars, but neither would it sell fewer.

The Most Important Thing—in Our Professional Lives—We Do Every Day

Every time you try to communicate in writing, you step onto the high wire, risking your reputation. It’s the most important thing you do every day, yet think of the irony: I send a manuscript to my publisher in New York, and two editors analyze every word; you have no one to look at your writing before you send it out for others to read.

Many of you have asked how I came up with the idea for software that would help anyone write more clearly and concisely. Here’s the story:

While teaching lawyers and other professionals how to improve their writing, I had discovered I could spot dull and unnecessary words by looking for certain “signs,” like “of” and “in”:

Employees typically stayed in Georgia during the
pendency of their rotation.

The requested information included, in part, all bank
statements.

I wondered: Could I use these signs to teach a machine? Could I give you a button:

MAKE ME A BETTER WRITER

To create millions of edits, I analyzed the finest writing from professional writers with professional editors in Pulitzer Prize-winning novels and magazines like Esquire, Vanity Fair, and National Geographic. If dull and unnecessary words could find their way through that maze of professional writing and editing, we all needed help.

In the spring of 2003, I filed for a patent on a finite set of these signs, which the U. S. Patent & Trademark Office granted on Christmas Day, 2007. Since then, WordRake has received five more patents for editing methods that improve the kinds of sentences you write every day.

Working with a talented team of former Microsoft engineers, I turned the patents into software. Now, all you have to do is compose in Microsoft Word, open the WordRake ribbon, select the text you want to edit, then push that magic button – we call it the “rake” button – and accept the edits you like:

A lot of the time Often what happens is that the little
impulse that gets me started on a story leads to
something that is more interesting.

Over 1500 law firms, companies, universities, and government agencies now use WordRake software, including the AMLAW100 firm Ogletree Deakins, the City of Seattle, California State University, and Chicago’s elite intellectual property firm, Marshall, Gerstein & Borun. A technology expert speaking at this year’s ABA TechShow in Chicago told his audience that WordRake is, “One of the most exciting technologies to come to the legal world in years.”

After teaching writing to professionals for 25 years, I am convinced they all want an editor to take a second look. But here’s the problem: humans aren’t available; and software would have to be easy to install, fast, accurate, reliable, and cost-effective. Until a year and a half ago, that software did not exist. It does now. So I propose you resolve to do two things in the New Year:

If you don’t already, subscribe to WordRake’s Weekly
Writing Tips. I write every Tip, and the subscription is free.

Subscribe to WordRake. We created it with you in mind.

We designed it to streamline your writing process: no suggestion windows, no tutorials, no tables, no charts, no “writing grade,” no “readability index.” Just discreet, impartial, 90%-accurate, fast editing – 10 pages, an average of 100 edits, in about 30 seconds.

This holiday season, after you’ve donated to your favorite grassroots charity, save a little to buy yourself that safety net, your new best friend – a second set of eyes to give you the confidence your writing is the best it can be.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. We’ll see you again in 2014 with more Writing Tips from WordRake. – Gary Kinder

Face Plants

Once upon a time, I was a ski bum in Sun Valley, carrying bags for the likes of Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand. Before that, I had never seen snow. My first night in town, if someone had snuck up on me in the Pioneer Saloon and slapped a pair of skis on my feet, I would have had to walk home in them, because I did not know how to pop a binding. A few weeks later, I was still figuring out how to untangle myself after I ate it and landed with my skis uphill. During one of these awkward moments, an upright friend posed an interesting question: How do you know if it’s you or your Kmart skis? I already knew the answer to that one, but let’s ponder the question’s deeper meaning: How do we know we are the best writers we can be, if we don’t have the best writing tools?

 

When you and I write as much as we do, we need the best reference books on writing, grammar, punctuation, definition, and usage. I recommend the following five because I’ve used them nearly every day for the past 40 years:

 

Roget’s Thesaurus of Words and Phrases – at gunpoint, the last book I would give up. Published in 1852; I am certain Mark Twain used it to find lightning among the lightning bugs. I have a classic, vintage version from 1941 ($2.95 in a used-book store). I have literally (I mean literally) worn off the book jacket, and the spine has ripped almost to the bottom.

 

Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms – another of my reference books with the cover ripped from the binding. If I find “fabrication” in Roget’s, I often need to distinguish it in Webster’s; do I really mean “fiction,” “figment,” or “fable?” I need to know the nuance.

 

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage – the ultimate usage referee, so I do not embarrass myself by confusing “optimum” with “optimal,” “different from” with “different than.” It’s witty, too.

 

The Chicago Manual of Style – when may an author abbreviate a civil or a military title? Every publisher in New York turns to the 1,000-page Manual to answer such questions. Here’s the answer to that one: If you have only the surname, spell out the title: General Washington; but if you have the full name, abbreviate the title: Gen. George Washington. Only the Manual can answer these arcane questions.

 

The Oxford English Dictionary – Why fool around? Get the biggest and the best. Available in hard copy in a 20-volume set for a mere $850; or a “compact” version (includes a magnifying glass) for only $350.

 

Beyond those five, yes, keep handy: The Elements of Style (Strunk and White), On Writing Well (William Zinsser), and Plain English for Lawyers (Richard Wydick). Also read Joseph Williams’s classic, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, and keep The Handbook of Good English by Edward Johnson handy for grammar’s stickier issues. And if you’re looking for the greatest book ever on how to use words to make true stories come alive, try the one that inspired me to give up the idea of practicing law and become a writer: The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe, 1973, an anthology of great magazine pieces and chapters from books as written by the finest practitioners of go-out-and-talk-to-the-people-who-were-there-or-be-there-yourself-when-it’s-happening-and-get-the-facts-all-the-facts-behind-the-curtain-on-the-rocket-in-the-cell-down-the-street-at-the-march-by-the-still-in-that-foxhole-that-farmhouse-that-squad-car-plane-tank-ship-courtroom-boardroom-locker-room-operating-room-and-use-those-facts-to-tell-us-a-compelling-story-with-carefully-crafted-scenes-and-real-dialogue-to-take-the-rest-of-us-to-places-we’ve-never-been-long-to-be-and-often-never-even-knew-existed-to-let-us-know-what-it-was-like-to-have-been-there;
with Wolfe’s long definition of “the new journalism” and an explanation by Wolfe at the beginning of each piece on why it is so important.

 

As always, I encourage you to buy your books at an independent bookstore. Back on the mountain, I traded in the Kmarts for the K2s, my skiing improved dramatically, and I lived and wrote happily ever after. Amazing what good equipment can do for you. Speaking of good equipment, next week I’ll tell you about the genesis of WordRake, maybe your new best friend. And you won’t have to open anything: Just push a button.

The Neighbor’s Dog Knows Jay Leno?

Psychiatrists don’t have a diagnosis for this in the DSM of Mental Disorders, but somebody ought to be studying why so many of us take so long to get to the point. Even in a sentence. We seem incapable of just saying it. We have to fool around first, holding off our reader. “Paranoid Personality Disorder” made it into the DSM to label those who are suspicious, grudge-bearing, combative, and preoccupied with unsubstantiated “conspiratorial” explanations. Yet “Paranoid Personality Disorder” affects only one percent of our population; the new disorder affects about ninety-five times that many.

 

I propose we call it “Around About Disorder,” because we get  around to our point about three to ten words into the sentence. It afflicts both genders and cuts across all socio-economic classes, from secretaries to CEOs. Borrowing from the DSM, here are the six criteria; to be diagnosed with Around About Disorder, we have to meet only one:

 

We cannot keep from stating the obvious:

 

I am writing to let you know that your advertising staff is not proofing the content of your advertisements.

 

We harbor unwarranted feelings of self-importance and superiority:

 

But I can assure you that as a company, we will remain very, very involved in the dialogue on both Capitol Hill and in Parliament.

 

We can’t say it, only that we want to say it:

 

I want to thank each of you for all you’re doing to help us meet our goals and remain a leader in our businesses.

 

We try to disguise hostile feelings with officious phrases:

 

This letter serves as official confirmation that AmEx does not recognize the coverage you claim.

 

We hesitate to express a thought for fear that someone will turn it against us:

 

I find that I like this program as a first pass copy editor.

 

The neighbor’s dog insists we are Jay Leno, and who are we to argue:

 

That said, techniques of organization can go a long way toward enhancing the effect.

 

Am I the only one who has noticed that the word “that” lurks in five of these six examples? Is this some sort of conspiracy? Is the NSA now tapping into my thoughts before I even send an email? I don’t know, but until I figure this out, I’m not leaving the compound.

“I Can’t Hardly Believe Miami’s Gone!”

I’m quoting President Doe.

With Miami’s condominiums serving as artificial reefs and the Miami Seaquarium now stretching from Loxahatchee to the Bahamas, the President has sought to quell the rising tide of saltwater and public sentiment by noting that the climate on Earth has always been a bit capricious: “Why do you think we have all those fish fossils in Montana?” First Lady Jane Doe urges Americans to support her latest cause: “Adopt a Manatee.”

 

Personally, I am shocked that the President and First Lady waste so much time refuting climate change. Everybody already knows that this alarmist rhetoric comes from nothing but a bunch of scientists, the same ones who stage photo ops by placing people and cars in oak trees after one of our daily tornadoes. These so-called “scientists” are really pseudo-scientists looking for work. We all know that. As President Doe himself has said, “Climate change will not be real in my mind until the saltwater in St. Louis rises two feet above my zories.” Amen.

 

I suggest that the President pay more attention to far greater problems, like Americans’ incessant writing of negative words. This problem is real, it’s now, and it cannot be denied by deniers: Our human brains simply have to work too hard to assimilate negatives. Presidents, like Doe, congressional leaders, like what’s-her-name, and a bunch of lawyers tie themselves in nots every day, and even they trip over sentences like this from a newspaper reporter:

 

The committee found that President Doe did not err in refusing to keep the initiative off the calendar.

 

Encountering negative words forces us to go through a two-step process to sort them out. First, we have to identify the negative words, which sometimes is difficult, but not too bad here:

 

The committee found that President Doe did not err in refusing to keep the initiative off the calendar.

 

With negative words identified, we now have to hark back to eighth-grade algebra–where we first learned that two negatives make a positive–and toss them out or combine them two at a time. As President Doe would say, “They love me; they love me not.”

 

The committee found that President Doe was correct in allowing the initiative to stay on the calendar.

 

Much clearer. No one has to stop and count; everyone understands the first time. For a lawyer, there will be times when did not err and was correct will not perfectly overlap, but remember that the sentence above appeared in a newspaper for the lay public.

 

If you’re wondering about this tip’s title, grammarians call the word hardly (scarcely, barely, seldom, and similar words) “negative in effect.” So when we negate hardly, we have a double negative–like “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” And that’s okay for the leader of the Rolling Stones, but not for the leader of the free world. The quotation should read, “I can hardly believe Miami’s gone!” Otherwise, Mr. President, I am so right there with you in my zories.

 

Sometimes we have to use a negative, but we should avoid three kinds (see Tip “In the Land of Not”):

 

A simple negative made clearer and shorter in the affirmative:

 

This climate thing has not met with much success.

This climate thing has met with little success.

 

A negative followed by the word any:

 

President Doe did not conduct any polls.

President Doe conducted no polls.

And the plain old double (or triple or quadruple) negative:

 

The State Department is barred from disallowing entry.

The State Department must allow entry.

 

Some of you, especially the lawyers, might not agree that the last two sentences say the same thing. But before we stick with the former version, let’s check it closely: Sometimes we prefer it only because we’re used to seeing it that way.

 

Note: At the push of a button, the WordRake editing software would have made the first two edits for you.

 

Your homework: As you drift off to sleep tonight, think about how you would rewrite this statement in the positive:

 

On whether to reelect President Doe, I could not fail to disagree with you less.

 

Sweet dreams, and in the morning, when you have the answer, call Anderson Cooper.

The Million-Dollar Comma

Many years ago, a law firm in Chicago asked me to be an expert witness on the difference between that and which. The issue concerned a selling manufacturer’s non-compete clause. That at the beginning of the clause meant zero dollars for the buyer; a comma followed by which meant millions of dollars for the buyer. But the clause read “which” with no comma.

 

The difference between that and which might be the most confounding piece of grammar in the English language, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s what you need to know: Grammarians call the words following that or which a “relative clause.” That relative clause either “restricts” what it modifies, or it “does not restrict” what it modifies. The writer tells us which it is by the word chosen to introduce the clause.

 

That at the beginning restricts; it means that the writer wants the relative clause to distinguish one thing from a universe of like things. Which at the beginning does not restrict ; it means that the writer addresses only one thing to begin with, so there is nothing to restrict; the relative clause simply adds information.

 

The cabin that sleeps eight people is farther up the mountain.

 

Lots of cabins on that mountain, but only one sleeps eight people, and it’s farther up.

 

The cabin, which sleeps eight people, is farther up the mountain.

 

Only one cabin on this mountain, farther up, and, by the way, it sleeps eight people.

 

The confusion arises when the writer uses which with no comma:

 

The Pioneer Bank which sits at Fifth and Pine has a free ATM.

 

We don’t know if the writer is trying to use which restrictively to tell us that out of the universe of Pioneer Banks, this one has a free ATM; or if the writer just forgot the comma and means there’s only one Pioneer Bank, it has a free ATM, and, oh, by the way, it sits at Fifth and Pine. Either could be correct, but the writer needs to let us know.

 

Here’s the takeaway: Although Hemingway often used which restrictively, we shouldn’t; whenever we want to “restrict” ordistinguish,” we should always use that; if we put which at the beginning of a relative clause, we must precede it with a comma. Otherwise, we confuse our reader.

 

Sorry to keep you hanging. The case in Chicago settled. Smart lawyers. The thought of trying to explain the difference between
that and which to a jury (or a judge) was so daunting, they decided to give-a-little-take-a-little, and go on to other cases with easier issues: like trying to explain the Rule Against Perpetuities.

The Story of Y’all

I have been asked a lot of questions about words, writing, and grammar, but by far the most-asked question I have ever received is: How did people in the South start saying y’all? And why is the word used to refer to only one person? And what is the plural of y’all?

I grew up in the South, and with most things southern, the story of y’all has been passed down from generation to generation, mostly on porches, mostly in rockers, mostly by consummate storytellers, mostly telling a reasonable version of the truth. I remember rocking on the front porch, listening to my pappy tell the story of y’all, while we sipped a hickory daiquiri with the neighbor, Doc.

The sweetest meat comes from hogs fattened on chestnuts. That’s the kind of wisdom Pappy possessed. If I saw a ring circling the moon, said Pappy, I should count the stars inside the ring, and that would tell me how many days would pass before it rained. Pappy knew a lot of stuff. He knew about cooking, too, about how to scald a possum in boiling water with a cup of ashes to get the hair off, then gut it and bake it till it’s golden brown in a skillet surrounded by sweet potatoes. He said, “We et ever’thing ‘cep th’ eyes.” If I had a headache, Pappy’d have me tie a flour sack around my head. The first time it made it worse, but then I took the flour out and it worked grand.

Pappy started the “Story of Y’all” with a wise observation: If you say you all fast enough, over and over and over and over, it just becomes y’all. Like a language blur. You all you all you all you all you all yu all yu all yu all y all y all y all yall yall yall y’all. See.

Right away you can tell the word y’all has only one apostrophe, when clearly it’s missing two letters. Pappy says the correct way to write y’all is y’’all, “But folks been a’writin’ it that way jus’ ‘bout ever since, so why break wit’ 300-year-old treedition!”

Some of the earliest known samples of writing y’all were found in an archaeological dig under an outhouse along with a corncob pipe, a corncob doll, and a lot of corncobs. It appears to be a grocery list, which puzzled folk archaeologists, because there were no grocery stores back then:

“yall git me sum ‘maters ’n wyle yalls at it git me sum ‘possums fat ‘uns”

Another appears to be part of the earliest-known mountain-folk Christmas letter, which never got mailed, because there was no post office either:

anyhows, yall ain’ gonna beleve this ‘un we had a s’i’ty lady up from ‘lanta visitin’ her kinfolk here las’ week, ‘n I ask ‘er, wan’ sum grits she sez t’ me, I ain’ never ate grits before but i’ll try one I culdn’t tel’ if she wuz funnin’ me or jus’ a mean cuss, but I giv’er a grit ‘n she sez its delishus but those s’i’ty folk cain’t never tel’ with them they lie jus’ to keep th’ peace, w’ich never stopped nobody ‘roun’ here.

But Pappy says all that came much later, that we can trace the first use of y’all back to “somewhereabouts 1739, when Beulah Mae got tired.” Beulah Mae’s husband, Grady, made his living out of the offering plate. Grady had okra for brains, but he had the gift of tongue, and he hatched an idea to put a rattlesnake in a box and tell the congregation that the good lord was protecting him from that snake. He would take that reptile out of the box and play with it. The congregation would gasp and drop coins in the offering plate. Then one day, the snake bit Grady, the congregation gasped, and Grady turned blue.

At 28 with 14 kids and a dead preacher-husband, Beulah Mae had to start looking for ways to economize. Her people were always economizing anyway, the first to start marrying cousins to each other, because it saved on preacher fees and they didn’t have to walk so far. And if it worked for cousins, they reasoned, why not do it for words? So they started marrying them, too; like why waste all that time saying do not and we are, when you could say don’t and we’re and people still mostly understood you. It helped your gums last longer. Nobody called them contractions back then; that came later when god created grammarians.

But no one had gotten around to marrying you and all. Then one day, Beulah Mae grabbed one of her boys and gave his ear a little twist, no time to waste, nary a syllable, and out popped, “Y’all forgot to empty the chamber pot this mornin’!” And there it was: a new word-marriage. The rest of the kids heard and told their friends. Word on the word spread up one holler and down another, and pretty soon a local in one holler was saying to a cousin in the next holler, “How y’all doin’?” And Harley Culpepper was saying to his nephew/grandson/brother-in-law Hillard Culpepper, “Y’all butcher that hog yet?”

It seems that everything was flowing along quite nicely with everyone calling each other y’all, when, one day, Beulah Mae’s cousin and half-sister, Prudie, had to call the hounds, but she had more than one, and y’all was singular, as Beulah Mae had used it. Prudie didn’t know what to say. First she tried hollering, “Y’all’uns!” but not one of those hounds so much as lifted an eyelid. Next, she yelled, “Ever’ one ‘a y’all!”, and a few lifted an eyelid, but only to look around to see which one she might be talking to. So Prudie found herself deep in a pickle or a quandary, whichever.

Speculation abounds. Some say Prudie went to her great-great grandmother, Adelaide, who at 37 called her one hound to dinner with a whistle and a shout, “Y’all come runnin’ now, ya hear, we got ‘possums!” But Adelaide, usually full of it, had no advice for people with more than one hound. Thus, flummoxing went on in the backwoods for quite some time, people calling each other “y’all,” but standing tongue-tied when speaking to more than one person.

Well, time went on, as it does. With the kids a little older, Beulah Mae took to sending the seven boys giggin’ frogs and instructed the seven girls on how to fry the legs. She told the girls, “If th’ grease’s to hot w’en y’putcher legs in th’ pan, them legs’ll jump out!” So the girls carefully watched the heat. Then one day she sent the girls a giggin’ and had the boys fry up the legs. ‘Course, the instant she told those boys the legs would jump out of the pan if the grease was too hot, they stoked the fire. That’s when she hollered, “All y’all’s getting’ a whoopin’!” And there it was: the plural of y’all: All y’all.

Word spread up Picken’s Nose over to Generation Gap then around to Holy Holler up yonder. To this day, wherever you go in the South, you will hear southern girls say, “I would love it if y’all would come by the house this evening,” and you can tell right away if the young man she addresses is from the north, because he will be looking around behind himself. But when she says, “I would love it if all y’all would come by the house this evening,” even the boys from the south will be looking around behind themselves. That’s why it’s so important to understand the local idioms in any language.

So there you have it, the story of how y’all and all y’all came to be. And I know it’s true, because Pappy told me. So Happy April Fool’s Day, and Pappy wants me to remind you it’s going to be a bad winter, if you find crickets in the chimney.