About This Resource


Prof. Karl Sherlock

This website supplements the instructional resources available on course websites reserved for my remedial level and developmental composition students. Clicking on the upper-most menu of subjects at the right of every page opens a submenu of topics below it, each of which is a separate page of information, advice, and, in some cases, exercises.


While this particular resource is all about words and academic tone, you'll notice that the actual tone of my words in it are a little more relaxed. In short, I don't have to write about usage and academic tone in an academic way to help you understand the concept. After all, my aim is far from wanting to sound sesquipedalian and priggish (bow tie notwithstanding).


If those are unfamiliar words to you, I highly recommend them: they're a joy to turn in one's mouth, and a pleasure to hear. Everyone has words they enjoy saying, not for their meaning, not because of people or experiences they remind you of, and not because they're pet phrases. Rather, some words move through us like free-style dance: they have style, and grace, and personality. And, we "partner" with them when we use them. This may be an attitude about language that is typical of some writers, especially poets. However, at heart we're all poets because, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we recognize something about the languages in which we're fluent that "speaks" to us.


I begin here because so many students have the wrong idea about what an English teacher's relationship is to language. As a group, we're thought to be punctilious and pedantic—always quoting the rules with an air of superiority, as though we own the bloody language and writers should leave their shoes at the door so as not to scuff it up. My students have told me on many occasions, they imagine me at home in an overstuffed chair with a large snifter of cognac, nodding reverentially at the fine and sacred wisdom of some tome from the canon of western literature in my hand, while the flames on my candelabra keep time to the tintinnabulation of Baroque music. To be fair, my students didn't use those exact words, yet you don't need many words to convey an elaborate stereotype.


The reality is that my own language skills emerged on Milwaukee's south side during the 1960s and 1970s, a linguistic environment heavily cratered by multiculturalism and beer. And when the beer in Milwaukee wasn't enough, I moved to Dublin, and then to Warsaw, got even more drunk, and found my tongue. I confess, the clashing accents (yet more genteel attitudes) of my lower-income European parents probably kept me from adopting the regional nasality of Milwaukee's south side, but you can never really forget its colorfully class-distinctive vernacular if you grew up there. And the grammar of that place remains seeded inside me even now: I've not lived in Milwaukee for decades, yet I still must remind myself that "boughten" is not the past-participial form of "buy." The truth is, even though I had mastered Strunk and White's by the fifth grade and my Milwaukee dialect and accent always put me on my guard, I didn't grow up ashamed of these voices inside me. I didn't leave any of them behind thinking that would make me a better or more educated person if I spoke a different way. If anything, I was a more educated person because I could use the variety of voices inside me. One learns to appreciate a finer palette of words, not by the grooming of a prep school education, or with parents who sound like Thurston Howell, III. No, you come to it as an outsider who learns that all styles of vernacular and tone can woo you; they come with their own heart-shaped boxes of idioms and their own scribbles of poetry.


You may feel a little forsaken by your previous education, where verbal skills and love for language were not the priorities they should have been. No matter. If the thrill is gone, or you never had it in the first place, this is your chance to start again and build a relationship with language based on "true love." Whatever your past cultural and educational experiences may have been, and whatever illusion you hold about how those experiences "got you to this point," you are no different from most of the teachers who stand before you and use their gorgeous language for your benefit: you and I are, both, the imperfect sum of our imperfect background in language arts.


Expanding your vocabulary, though, and taking an active role in the rekindling of that relationship with language will be one of the most empowering experiences of your life, surpassed only by that big love affair. Start, then, by noticing one or two words that you love and esteem, and let them know how much you appreciate them by doing something special with them.





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"A Handbook of Usage and Tone" copyright 2015, Karl J. Sherlock. Written and graphical contents of this site may not be used for profit. Unauthorized use, whether whole or in part, is prohibited. Direct inquiries and comments to the author. Thank you.