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This afternoon my friend Sana who writes the blog FriendtoYourself, asked,

“can u tell me more about this:

” Keeping the infinitive verb together “

She was wondering about one of the notes I made on a recent post. As I hunkered down to write her back, I was thrilled with a happy disbelief: she wants to know more about the infinitive! Thank goodness for learners who want to know more, more, more….for learners who take the step to search out the answers. No doubt this is why she was so successful in college as well as in her whole professional life. My mind began swirling with all of the ways to describe our friends, the verbs. E-mails and blogs need to be as short and as skimmable as possible, in my opinion, so I tried to reign myself in a bit.

Still, she did ask for it. 😉

Hey Sana,

THE INFINITIVE:

The infinitive verb is constructed like this:

TO + SIMPLE VERB

For example: to sleep, to eat, to be, to dance, to write, to sing, to jump, to play (there are a few exceptions, but we don’t need to get into that now because those exceptions cannot be “split”)

The important thing here is that there is a “to” that introduces it.

“Splitting the inifinitive verb” means putting a word in between the “to” and whatever the simple verb is. I will give examples of that later in this e-mail.

Properties of the infinitive verb:

1) Cannot have -s, -es, -ed, -ing added to the end (such as “to writes” or “to played”)
2) Really important: it looks like two words (to + simple verb) but operates as one word.
3) They don’t really have a tense or a mood.
4) The infinitive is the verb from you can conjugate other forms of the verb.

For example: “to be” is the infinitive verb from which we get “am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being”

Have you by any chance studied Spanish, French, or another romance language? If so, here is a analogy that might be very helpful.

In Spanish, let us take the verb “dormir.” Dormir means “to sleep” in English. Dormir is actually the INFINITIVE VERB in Spanish. Spanish is nice to us, because in Spanish, infinitives are one word. From dormir we get duermo, duermes, duerme, etc. Those are the “conjugations.”

In English, infinitive verbs look like two words but function as one.

In English, if we split the infinitive verb, we might accidentally write: “to happily dance the whole afternoon.” We have split the “to” and the “simple verb” into two parts by putting an adverb (“happily”) in between them.

What I am going to say next may be helpful, but if it is not, just skip it. It is just a silly example that may or may not resonate with you to make this idea of the infinitive imprint on you. If it doesn’t make sense or complicates the issue, pretend it isn’t here.

Let us pretend we have this sentence: “Sana danced happily the whole afternoon.” “Danced” is a past tense verb, not the infinitive. But imagine how strange it would be to write your sentence like this: “Sana da-happily-nced the whole afternoon. Splitting an infinitive verb would be like writing “da-happily-nced.” Grammatically, this is essentially what we are doing when we write “to happily dance.” Again, “to dance” looks like it has a space between two words to insert another word, but English is known for being unnecessarily tricky like that. The space between “to” and “dance” isn’t really there. It would be better if English infinitives were written like todance, tosleep, tojump, etc., like in Spanish or French or Italian.

Of course, there are people who may want to argue the point as a matter of style… BUT.  One way to think about it:  we have to look at how infinitive verbs in other languages operate, for one thing. English may translate infinitive verbs strangely, but they still operate as one entity.

I think of this as “doing the Star Trek.” I love, love, love Star Trek… Do you know their line, “To boldly go where no one has gone before”? Okay, well… Unfortunately that is technically an error. I know, sigh sigh. What is the infinitive?  “To go.” What is the adverb that describes HOW we go? “Boldly.” This really should be written as “to go boldly” or even “boldly to go” (this latter version sounds too antiquated to use, to me, but that’s just my opinion).

One of my biggest grammatical temptations is to split my infinitives. There is just something appealing about putting that adverb right slap in between the “to” and the “verb.” I often have to edit myself for this, so I am hyper-aware of it.

Who wants exercises?? I DOOOOOOOO! How could you rewrite these sentences so the infinitive does not get split?

1. Richard knew that he had to patiently tend to his garden everyday in order to grow a good crop.

2. Sana hopes to quickly finish her biology homework so that she can go out to dinner with her friends.

3. Ringo decided to softly practice his drums so as not to wake up his sleeping family.

4. My friend Lauren stopped by to graciously lend me a book.

POSSIBLE CORRECTIONS: (Infinitives are in bold)

1. Richard knew that he had to tend patiently to his garden everyday in order to grow a good crop.
2. Sana hopes to finish her biology homework quickly so that she can go out to dinner with her friends.
3. Ringo decided to practice his drums softly so as not to wake up his sleeping family.
4. My friend Lauren graciously stopped by to lend me a book. OR My gracious friend Lauren stopped by to lend me a book. (Changing the adverb graciously to an adjective gracious might work even better here….something to think about).

There are multiple possibilities, of course, for changing all of these…. But these answers are probably the most direct and straightforward way to change them, and the changes I would probably make to my own writing.

Hope you are still glad that you decided to ask! (To ask…hmmmm)

🙂
Sarah

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A reader and a longtime friend (and also a colleague) of mine, LB, commented on yesterday’s post:

I am sure you cringe every time I write. I was never formally trained in college-level English …I break many rules and don’t even know it….I just write so it sounds good to me.

Thinking about you editing my writing sends chills down my spine!

LB is not alone: thinking about anyone editing my writing sends chills down my spine, too! Asking someone to be your second set of eyes is not easy; it is an act of faith and trust. We make ourselves vulnerable when we do that.

I truly believe that it is not ever very probable that anyone—myself included—will write a perfect draft of anything the first time. Is it possible? Sure. Likely? No. There is always something to fix, hone, improve, reword. The craft of writing never ends.

And just when we think we have it, there are new ways to push ourselves, new writing games we can play. A favorite teacher of mine in high school, Mrs. A, gave us a list of words we were not to use in some of our compositions. This list included common verbs such as “is” and “was” and “were”….plus several “helping words” like “there” and so forth. At first it took hours and hours to compose an essay around these rules. How do you write without the “to be” verbs?? Some students grumbled. Yet it remained our challenge, and we had to blossom creatively. I could feel myself stretching, and I loved that feeling as a student. Mrs. A will always be one of the truly great teachers in my life.

Our age of technology and quick written communication—blogs, e-mails, Facebook comments, text messages—seems to coincide with favoring efficiency and developing a more colloquial language. We do not read over our Facebook comments a dozen times before we post them, and we do not use our finest eye on our text messages. If we put these forms of writing through a rigorous and time-consuming editing/proofreading process every time we set out to communicate in this age, we might as well get out the ol’ fountain pen and stationery and make a trip to the post office. Sure, I am an advocate for writing as cleanly as possible so that you will be understood, but we must also understand that most blogs, for example, are first drafts, perhaps revised as we go.

That’s what editors are for: we can be the second eyes that take the piece through a clean-up time.

It is funny: ever since I declared English as my major at Stanford, and especially since I became an English teacher, many people—even my family! especially my family!—imagine that I am in “English teacher edit mode” all the time. I wish I could explain how much that is not the case. I majored in English because I love to read—to read others’ thoughts and to interface with those thoughts, to analyze and to learn from those thoughts, to have conversations across centuries. So most of the time, I read to savor and enjoy, to relax, to ponder. I read blogs and Facebook comments for these reasons…and also because I am just a plain old busybody. It takes an extra effort in my mind to switch into “edit mode.” Most of the time, I don’t push that switch because when we start pulling apart writing, we are looking at it in a mechanical way. Good writing often needs to be enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake.

I like what LB says about writing “so it sounds good to [her].” YES! An editor is no editor (and a teacher no teacher) if, at the end of instruction, the writer has lost her voice. And LB is right even further: we must begin writing by listening to the poetry and rhythms in our inner ear. Our own personal cadence. Grammar concerns arrive on the scene when a writer realizes that adhering to certain rules makes it more likely that readers will better understand her.

So no, I don’t cringe. Not unless I am asked to. 😉 The times I am most aware of cringing with respect to Facebook or blogs, for example, is when a poster uses words to spread negativity or discordance. Words are powerful, and my emotional responses to them tend to be permanent. Words should be used for the Good. I am a big believer in that.

And I am willing to receive the feedback in return. Another friend and reader of mine, Miss M, mentioned the other day that perhaps joy should not be “gathered” but rather something one “feels.” I have been pondering the difference in those verbs for days…and I thank her for drawing my attention to the nuance of it. Not only does it mean we are communicating in a purposeful way, but also it means that she is letting my writing take both of us to new places in our philosophical outlook. Isn’t that what writing is for?

Finally, one of the greatest challenges of my life (as a person who is often concerned about earning respect from my colleagues and fearing my weaknesses) also turned out to be one of the biggest blessings. Still a young teacher, I was surprised when a colleague of mine, SH, (now a dear dear friend) asked me to team-teach with her a couple sections of 9th graders in classes that would combine GATE clusters with the special ed clusters and still meet the old rule of 20:1 students with a 9th grade teacher. Those clusters never would have intersected otherwise in 9th grade English at the time. We had a total vision for the double class, and the school gave us a double room and an extra adult. We were able to do some mind-blowing, amazing things together with our students. It was a time of great learning for me, for all of us.

That first year, I had to learn to trust the feeling of my colleagues watching me hone my pedagogy, watching me in both glorious moments and red-faced moments. I had several single classes of my own, too, and I know well how much revision goes on in a single lesson plan from period to period. Imagine revising lesson plans and teaching strategies with another teacher, being honest about what worked and didn’t, where I did well and where I didn’t. It was the same for SH. We could see and hear everything about each other as professionals. We even got to the point where we could revise together by just a glance or few words in the middle of a period, in a split second. We got to know each others’ teaching rhythms. We helped each other reflect. There was no room for anything but total trust.

That experience, combined with how I tend to think about life generally, opened me to whole new ways of sharing and gathering knowledge, on reflecting with someone else about what goes well and what doesn’t. There is not a place for critique (good or bad) of others without a supportive, open-hearted attitude. We can’t go into it feeling that knowledge is a zero-sum game, or that it is anything less than a true sharing without judgment. If two people are really communicating, the learning is always bi-directional.

Joy in the sharing…

I very much enjoy reading my friend Sana’s blog. Working as her editor, I think especially carefully about her use of language, looking for not just the little corrections here and there but moreso looking for the beautiful tools that come naturally to her. As with my students, my goal is to point out everything well that she does and to teach her the pattern of her natural style, her own voice. As a teacher I believe it is much more important for a student to be able to explain what they know and what they are doing right—than it is for a student to see red marks and corrections all over the paper.

Only by knowing what we are doing right—and why—can we hope to build our skills. Sure, people who write do need to internalize grammar rules, and they would do equally well to learn the conventions, too— if only to know when to break them.

(By the way, one distinction: grammar rules are hard and fast, based on logic; conventions are aspects of style to which people have agreed but that may be broken with poetic license. For example: it will always be illogical to pair a singular noun with a plural pronoun—i.e. “Everyone needs their daily chocolate.” “Everyone” is singular, while “their” is plural. Never may one person suddenly BA-ZING! become two or more in a sentence—this will always be wrong, by logic. Conventions, on the other hand, might include the old English teacher mottoes “Never begin a sentence with and!” or “Don’t use colloquialisms!” or “No sentence fragments!” Well, we know of writers who break conventions all the time and do it with panache. Grammar vs. conventions).

So Sana hears quite a bit from me with respect to all that she does right. By now she knows that her strengths include her use of imagery and metaphor, as well as her precise use of diction to characterize the people she describes. She has a friendly, authoritative tone which she intersperses with wry humor. She has a natural ear for parallel structure (both within a single sentence and within paragraphs as a whole). Her organization of her writing never falters. She is structured and logical as well as empathetic and descriptive—everything you could want as a reader when looking to connect to a writer.

The other day she suggested that some of my positive feedback sometimes comes as a surprise to her. If I fulfill my job as a teacher, then there should come a joyful day when she is no longer surprised. Now, yes, some writers by their very nature will always be a bit surprised—it is hard to break a student totally of authentic humility, and who would want to? It is pleasing when a writer is not over-confident and still has a thrill at discovering her own ability to connect with people, as if by magic. But by “no longer surprised” what I really mean is this: there will come a day when she will be able to talk with me about the intention of her crafting and she will know that what she does is effective…and, most importantly (drum roll please) WHY.

Last night, Sana wrote a blog discussing some of the signs of domestic abuse. She wrote in the first paragraph:

Alexandria (Alex) was crying a lot.  She was trying to divorce her husband but he wouldn’t leave.  He wouldn’t speak.  He only yelled.  He yelled at her, alone, in front of their kids, in the morning, when he came home from work, he yelled.  And he never spoke to her any more.  It’s been weeks since they spoke. When I asked her if she thought she was abused, she said, “No.  He’s never hit me.”

Check out the fifth sentence:

He yelled at her, alone, in front of their kids, in the morning, when he came home from work, he yelled.

This sentence is all Sana, and it is all good. Her syntax is brilliant—look how she bookends the sentence with “he yelled” to represent the constant presence of the husband’s loud berating. The structure of this sentence parallels Alexandria’s life: surrounded by yelling—whether alone, with her kids, in the morning, or when her husband comes home. In fact, it gets even better. If we were adhering to strict conventions, one imagines a period going in after “work.” The verb “yelled” has already been used in the first clause; the sentence does not require a second verb; it is not a compound sentence. The fact that Sana uses another verb (the power, the action of any sentence) at the end of the sentence—making it almost stream-of-consciousness or a run-on—achieves something amazing. She quite literally weighs the sentence down with the second verb, giving the sentence additional weight when we definitely expect it to have no more. By heavy-handedly giving us this second verb, Sana represents through syntax (sentence structure) the weight of the yelling on Alexandria, the crushing feeling, the heavy boxed-in-ness.

Yes, I love everything about this sentence. Did Sana craft it with this intention? Well, that is for her as the writer to know. Did Fitzgerald know the every possible interpretation of all his sentences when he wrote them? Did Hawthorne? Dickinson? The point is that she now knows for sure now how well that sentence works. It is one to write down and keep in a notebook where one writes down and keeps the best of the best for later use or as models or as inspirations for another day.

It is often helpful to have a second set of eyes on one’s writing…not just for the picky grammar stuff, but to tell you what you are doing well and why.

Gather joy in your strengths, and let others help you to know what those are.

I love my job. Thinking about words, writing, teaching, helping others to find their voice and make it shine—these are some of my true passions in life. I am passionate, too, about having a flexible schedule with my children and being their primary teacher—and being available to take them to music class, for example, or to visit family members during the week. I have had to relinquish my classroom in order to do this, yet I am thankful that everywhere can be a classroom.

I am thankful, too, that my friend Sana Johnson-Quijada thought of me when she was searching for an editor for her writing at friendtoyourself.com . I am thankful that my dad brought me to Toastmasters and that I met her, that Toastmasters has a weekly “grammarian” role that suits my skills, and that she trusts me to give her feedback that is sincere, experienced, and thoughtful. I love that, through communicating with her about her writing, I am able to teach again. I feel a renewed spark in myself, remembering what I am good at and what my mind feels satisfied doing. So often in motherhood I feel like I am making up solutions as I go along and reckoning constantly with my mistakes—but when I sit down to work on editing and writing, I feel assured. It turns out that is an important feeling to remember to have…and it ripples throughout my life.

I am thankful, too, that I am able to bring a little financial contribution into our home, earned by my effort. I give my every effort with our children, of course, but to commit to an external job is a different kind of discipline. It feels good to give that to my family, too.

I love that I can edit in the evenings, after my children are asleep, or in the mornings with a cup of tea and my jammies on. Even during the day I can set my own timing. I would, in fact, greatly enjoy additional editing projects.

Sana wrote to me last night with a question about her recent post on autism:

here’s a question for my editor.
all of these
i knew u would put that there but i left it out because i thought it was superfluous.  is it a rule i’ve forgotten, Princeton?
I replied:

Hey Sana,

I love that the nerdy grammar bug has infected you and that you are asking that! You ain’t seen nuthin’ until you’ve seen English majors debate the finer points of MLA citation and rules, but you are getting closer to that nirvana. 😉

In most cases, the “of” is superfluous… I learned that when the “all” is followed by a pronoun (these, this, them) that we put the “of” in. When it is followed by a noun (“all the books,” “all the fruit”), then we can leave the “of” out.

Truth be told, the trend of language now is that we see the “of” less and less—in either construction. Formal writing will use it, but it isn’t necessary for the writer to be understood. Case in point: I knew very well what you were saying without the “of.”

I am usually giving you the formal edits…

But one of the conversations I used to have with my students (Advanced Placement certainly, but I also would discuss it with 9th graders because, hey, why underestimate them?) was about the modernization of our language. Language evolves, is alive, breathes. We don’t talk like the characters in The Canterbury Tales anymore (thank GOODNESS!) and we don’t talk like Romeo and Juliet either (I say with more of a sigh).

We have more technology now, and our language is responding. We all are learning “texting language” and there are even unstated rules of language etiquette for e-mails and Facebook and the like.

Grammarians like me are often caught twixt and tween. On the one hand, we are nostalgic when conventions we’ve held dear begin to change; on the other, we are eager to quantify and learn the new “rules.”

Sooooooo… To “of”, or not to “of”?  Officially,there is a case that it goes there this time….but there is also much to be said for the fact that it is probably on its way out of usage. Go with your inner ear on that one. 🙂

Yay for questions about grammar! I love them!

 

I am not sure why, when I was made, I was made to love languages and their rules. Not really party topics, I know… However, the amount of joy I derive from looking at grammar texts and convention rules and then teaching that knowledge seems unbounded. If anyone else out there would like to hire an editor for a project, I promise I won’t make you diagram sentences—that’s a little treat I save only for special occasions. 😉

Gather joy in the details!

Okay, I am keeping it short for today. 🙂 A combination of teething and moderate reaction to his vaccinations yesterday meant that Eric and I were up for most of the night. Katie never reacted to her immunizations, but the past two times Eric has developed a low-grade fever to accompany them. It’s not too big a deal, because I would much rather comfort him through a little warmth (which means he is developing his antibodies) than to take the risk that he might contract an illness that is many magnitudes more serious. However, it meant a wakeful night for us, because he was restless. Even though his fever was never extreme, he was much more comfortable with palliative care so I used cold washcloths to bring his temperature down for him so we could both get a couple hours sleep in between. With changing, feeding, and the cold compresses, we were awake for about an hour each of the three times he woke up… But, that’s how it is a mom. It’s just that he has spoiled me, because he sleeps like a champ—I am not used to waking up so, so, so much anymore!

I am sleepy today.

Yet this morning when I finally had to peel my eyeballs open, when both kiddos were as awake as could be, I really had to have a talk with myself for one minute…and I made the decision to CHOOSE thankfulness. Thank you, for my children. Thank you for letting them be safe and healthy with me. A night of wakefulness? That’s part of my job. I really can’t complain, except that at 6:00 this morning, I really felt for a split second like grumbling…a lot.

Then the Matics and Yoder farm values kicked in. Get up. Do the actions. The heart will follow. Make the oatmeal. Cut up grapefruit. Dress the children. Dress yourself. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps…and get going. Do I really think my ancestors had time to complain? And look how much easier I really have it. A microwave. Gas burning stove to make tea. A heater to keep the house warm.

Yes, readers, it was that basic this morning. Get back to the fundamentals of gratitude. Be glad I don’t have to walk ten miles in the snow. I had to remind myself of my basic thanks. That’s how tired I was. Tired, but not too tired to forget that I have so much to celebrate everyday. I am lucky.

So we ate, dressed, and went for a walk. It is almost counter-intuitive, but when I am most tired, I try to exercise. Exercise gives me energy when I feel I have none. We went to a park and played. I pretended that my eyes and head and back did not hurt, chose not to dwell, and eventually I tricked myself into feeling more awake.

The morning got better. Dad and I went to our Toastmasters meeting. I was a little tired there, but managed to win Best Table Topics (despite truly believing that it should have been someone else). When I am tired, I guess I worry less about what I will say and so I am not as nervous as I normally am.

The best part? I got to watch my dad win Most Valuable Member of 2010 for our club. I thought that honor was well-deserved. I know it might seem biased, but my main criteria for the Most Valuable Member includes attendance (as there would be no club if people didn’t attend regularly). Record showed that my dad had the best attendance of the year. He also completed his CC, to help the club meet one of its goals. Too, he has been serving  as an officer and has done some extra little things, like make new name cards, purchase materials to share without reimbursement, etc. He really loves being a part of Toast of the Valley.

Also, I know he would never vote for himself or even think he would ever be considered—that kind of humility is also appealing to me when it comes to awards like this.

So the tiredness is catching up with me this afternoon, but I am truly thankful for the joys I got to witness today, even with only one eye open. My children laughed and played and learned, and I got to watch my dad win an award that is meaningful to him, one that he did not expect.

Gather your joy by celebrating the triumphs of your family, of those you love. When we are really glad for others, and to have them in our lives, then we have all the heart-energy in the world, even if our bodies are begging for our beds.

Bill gave me a beautiful gift: The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II (published 2008). Many of you probably know that I am an absolute nut over musicals, especially those from Rodgers and Hammerstein (although several others, as well). Just today we filled the house with the score from Oklahoma! (“Oh what a beautiful morning/Oh what a beautiful day…”). In fact, my life is often a musical. I am happier when I sing, the children too, so I tend to sing all the time. I don’t claim to be a really great singer or anything like that, but I can hold a tune—and I sure love it. In my fantasy life, I am always a singer, sometimes on Broadway or sometimes I imagine being Stevie Nicks.

It is difficult not to sing. I find myself singing before I even realize that I ought probably to be talking. I sing to Eric about the snaps on his onesies; I sing to Katie about putting on her shoes. It helps to keep the mood calm if we are trying to get out of the house to go somewhere, and it is fun to sing when we cook, play, or dance. Most of the time, I fear that my children will think we live in an operetta. I am not comfortable singing around everybody, but Bill has always made me feel that he loves my singing and that he isn’t judging it. I figure Katie and Eric are too little to judge it and just soak up the mommy-love it represents. The music class that the children and I take has helped me to feel more comfortable singing (especially to or with my children) in public, but if I really could get away with it, I probably would sing everything instead of talk…at the grocery store, in the bank, at Starbucks ordering lattes. Singing feels like an absence of stress, to me.

So I love Rodgers and Hammerstein, naturally. Friends who have been reading my blogs for awhile, you know already that one of my favorite musicals ever is The Sound of Music. I have a dream someday to take the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg. The first song I ever sang to Katie the night she was born was “My Favorite Things.” We sing it daily, and her first birthday had a “My Favorite Things” theme. (For example, both of us wore “white dresses with blue satin sashes”). I love, love, love the lyrics to that song because we are reminded to look for the blessings “when the dog bites/when the bee stings,” and when we feel sad. If there is one message I hope to impart to my children in life it is to look for the good even when it is hard to find.

I pondered Eric’s special song for most of my pregnancy. What to choose? There were many options, but in the end I wanted to connect it as much as possible to Katie’s special song, and I chose “The Sound of Music.”I sing it to Eric every night as I tuck him in, just as I still sing Katie’s to her when I tuck her in.

The hills are alive/With the sound of music,/With songs they have sung/For a thousand years./The hills fill my heart/With the sound of music—/My heart wants to sing/Ev’ry song it hears/My heart wants to beat/Like the wings of the birds that rise/From the lake to the trees./My heart wants to sigh/Like a chime that flies/From the church on a breeze,/To laugh like a brook/When it trips and falls/Over stones on its way/To sing through the night/Like a lark who is learning to pray!/I go to the hills/When my heart is lonely;/I know I will hear/What I’ve heard before—/My heart will be blessed/With the sound of music,/And I’ll sing once more.

Reading my book about Hammerstein’s lyrics, though, I learned something interesting. The actual lyrics are still officially written in the published libretto as “To laugh like a brook/When it trips and falls/Over stones in its way/…”

Julie Andrews, in the movie soundtrack, was the one to sing it as “Over stones on its way.”

One slight preposition of a difference. In vs. on.

It probably doesn’t really matter too much, but I’ve given it some thought—being a total fan and absolutely gaga over word choice in any case.

I prefer Julie Andrews’ way. In her version, the brook (representing the spirit of a person) is still the primary agent; the stones merely are there, doing nothing of notice, or, if they are impeding the flow of water, it is implied that the symbolic mirth of the brook is much more powerful and superseding. Obstacles may be on our path, but they are never totally in the way.

If the stones are “in the way” it is implied that the impediments have much more power and potential to divert the happiness of the brook, of the singer, of the ability to find goodness.

At least, that is how I read it. A lyrical Rorschach.

I am reminded of how much perception influences how we view the obstacles we face. Do we acknowledge and pass by them on our own way, on our own terms? Or do they sometimes stand in our way, head on? What is the role of our joy? The sound of our music that we sing to shore up our hearts?

A little bit to ponder!

A good friend of mine (and my former 10th grade English teacher) Donna Dutton, another lovely spirit full of light, posed an thoughtful question to me in an e-mail this morning: What do I think of the revisions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

To catch up, an Alabama publisher, NewSouth Books, is going to publish a new version of Huck Finn (as we call it in English-teacher shorthand) with all instances of the n-word replaced. NPR reports that there are other words that will be changed, as well. For example, “half-breed” will be revised to read “half-blood” and so on.

It is fair to say that, as I have grown older, my views with respect to censorship have grown more complex. As a young student, a young scholar of English at a liberal arts university, and a new first-year teacher I was loud with my trumpet that no literature or art should be off limits, censored, or banned. Yet with experience and motherhood has come the understanding that not all “art” has inherent value, simply because it was produced. There are a great many films, for example, that I would never allow to come into our home. There are several I have turned off mid-watch (even before children) because the language offends me. Why should my criteria be different with written material?

Few would dispute that Twain is one of the greatest American novelists and artists of his age, or of any age. I do think that both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer constitute valuable, worthwhile, thought-provoking artistry. Even more to my personal liking is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I wrote about on the day last year of Salinger’s passing. Catcher is filled with cursing, and yet I do believe they have a purpose. I believe that Twain’s use of extremely culturally charged words also had a purpose—a purpose that is still relevant today.

I weigh this idea, though, with how I feel about more and more expletives being permitted on TV. It has become so rampant and permissive that watching prime time TV with Katie present (even recorded, since she goes to bed near 8:00 PM) is out of the question. Bill and I have a personal philosophy that cursing or, obviously, using hurtful names to disparage others is never okay. We do not teach our children those words, and if they ever hear them elsewhere and start using them, they will be corrected. Yes, intellectually we understand that words are just words—human beings give them arbitrary values and emotional tones. We have both read Stephen Pinker’s work on the subject. Intellectualism, however, is only one facet of our experience as human beings. Whether we like it or not, the words we choose to use do define us. For better or worse, I always wince when I hear someone use a curse word (just as I cringe when one comes into my head in frustration), and I always wonder why that person has chosen not to express himself or herself in a more positive and polite way. Often, I can’t help being offended by those words, depending a little on context. That’s just…me. For better or worse. Perhaps I am a little too subject to my upbringing and cannot look enough outside my own box, it may be argued, but I was raised to use more polite word choice. It’s that Mennonite blood in me, I think.

For me the words I use or don’t use are a way to honor my family, my husband and children now, and my parents and extended family, my elders. We would never dream about using such words in front of my Nana or my grandfathers, so why should I use them any other time?

I step away from myself, though, and I realize that sometimes, the artful use of curse words can be amusing. Satire, farce, social commentary: wielded with skill, even the most powerfully negative words in our culture can be illuminating. I think there must be some part of me that distinguishes between using a curse word simply because we stub our toes and using a curse word to elucidate the human condition as a call for edifying, positive change. Intent?

We can see why this issue is so complicated. My intellectual side pulls me one direction, but my experience with the world and human nature guides me in another.

It would be easier to take an entirely intellectual approach and argue that anything should be permitted in art or expression at any time, and everyone should just “get over it.” I’ve been down that road of thinking before…but then, what about “art” that exploits women, or even children? What happens in a world where there are no boundaries of taste—whatever taste is? Or parameters of right and wrong? It often seems like one of our more logical choices is to choose to celebrate a language, and an art, that revolves around goodness and love. Sure, words may be just words, but they are powerful and impossible to divorce from sociocultural baggage…so why not choose to fill our minds and hearts with good ones?

But back to Twain. Ultimately, do I think he should be bowdlerized? No. Absolutely not. The choice to read his words or not must remain with the individual. Do I think that he would be an easy read for a less mature or experienced reader? No. His humor is sometimes subtle, his writing complex. It might be tempting for some readers to take him at face value—and there is one of the problems. I also taught To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite novels of all time. Harper Lee used the n-word, too, but she was more straightforward about her message: it is easier for young students to see that the only characters who use that word are utterly uneducated buffoons, including the antagonist of the novel. It is easier to teach students the context, for them to see how she uses the word in the mouths of the villains to make a point about racism. Twain is not always as clear, even though his point is similar. With my own children, I will teach them these novels when I am convinced that their reading comprehension is sophisticated enough to deal with the cultural weight of it.

Other films and novels they will have to choose on their own, when they are adults—and that is the point of all that Bill and I seek to teach them. How to make good choices… What to put in their minds and hearts, and above all, why.

I think much would be lost if, in the revision of Twain’s works, we lose the ability as Americans, as people, to have this discussion.

When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM), I often read certain passages aloud to my students. We would have a discussion about the n-word. I told them that my choice, as a human being, was that I would not be saying the word when we read. I know that probably offended a handful, and rightfully—it was my own form of personal censorship I guess. Except: they could still read and see the word as it was printed on the page. Each of us has to make her own choices. I supported my colleagues who would read those words aloud, and I respected the logic that led them to do so. It came from a caring, loving place, just as my choices did. Those colleagues were just as important to the freedom of our literature, if not moreso, than I was to the cause of individual choice. All American high school English teachers deal with this issue, and many of us fret about it late at night. I will always maintain that students needed to see how all of us dealt with those words, to know that one day they would have to choose, and that there were good arguments on both sides.

One of the joys of our glorious freedom in this country is that we can still debate this subject in a meaningful way. Gather your joy in thoughtful freedom today!