Here's part of "Tricky Living," copyright by Russ Walter, second edition. For newer info, read the 33rd edition of the "Secret Guide to Computers & Tricky Living" at


The written word can be artistic.

Writing can be frustratingly easy. Gene Fowler (a sportswriter, newspaper manager, and screenwriter) said:

Writing is easy: just sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

A similar thought was expressed by Walter “Red” Smith, who won a Pulitzer Prize (for writing comments about baseball):

There’s nothing to writing. Just sit down at a keyboard and open a vein.


To become a successful writer, you must learn many secrets. But here’s the first and most important secret:


The main reason why good books don’t get written is:

They were never begun.

If you’ve said to yourself, “I could write a book,” do it! Take a pen and paper (or a word processor) and start writing your thoughts, even if they’re still muddled. Once you’ve started writing your ideas, even if they’re still half-baked or disorganized, you’ve overcome the major barrier to success: not having started.

If you have trouble writing the book’s beginning, write the middle instead. You can write the “beginning” afterwards.

Too many writers think the beginning should be profound. They get hung up in a fruitless attempt to create profundity and atmosphere.

Scott Meredith, a famous literary agent, said he followed this rule when reading a manuscript from a new author: skip the first 100 pages! The first 100 pages are usually boring crap, such as “She looked in the mirror while she combed her auburn hair.” After page 100, the dialogue finally gets worthwhile; that’s when characters start arguing with each other about love and beyond, and you get sentences such as:

She spat at him and pulled the trigger.

If you’re writing a technical manual that contains lots of charts and examples, begin by writing the charts and examples. Later, you can go back and add the introductory sentences that bind them together.

If you’re a school kid writing one of those boring compositions about “What I did last summer” (or a more inspiring composition about “What I wish I’d done last summer”), start by describing the most exciting moment. Fill in the boring stuff later.


Assume your reader is busy and rushed. Don’t waste the reader’s time.

After writing your first draft and making minor edits (for spelling and grammar), ask yourself:

Is this crap I wrote worth reading?

Probably some part of it is worth reading. If you find that part and cut away the rest, you’ve mined your gem.

Then your reader will praise you for being a fascinating writer instead of a time-wasting hack.

Get emotional

When writing on a technical topic, get emotional about it. Tell the reader how you feel. If something you’re writing about fascinates you, explain why. If you’re forced to write about a topic that’s yucky, gripe about its yuckiness and tell the reader how to deyuckify it.

Showing your emotions will humanize the topic, help the reader relate, and make the topic and you both memorable.

Scared to be a poet?

If you’re writing poetry, don’t worry so much about exposing your privacy. Many of your friends probably wouldn’t recognize your private parts anyway.

I recommend you be brave and use your own name.

But if you’re super-worried about privacy, go be a chicken-head: publish under a pseudonym. For example, you can call yourself “Lo-ann Li,” so you’ll be known as the Lo-ann Li poet.

Nothing’s stopping you from using two pseudonyms, for two kinds of poems. For example, you could do lighter verse under the name “Ha-pi,” so you’d also be known as the Ha-pi poet.

But the best choice is to merge the two. Cry, then step back and giggle. For example, Robert Frost’s poem called “New Hampshire” goes on for 10 pages about how beautiful New Hampshire is, but then comes his last line: “I live in Vermont.” You could write a poem full of pathos and bathos then end with, “On the other hand....”

The challenge is to put a mix of emotions into a poem, to make a poem rich, without making the poem seem accidentally disjointed.

The typical inventor (or poet) makes the mistake of hiding the invention (out of fear of being copied). That deprives him of the opportunity to get feedback on how the invention could be improved. Show your writing to friends and poets, ask what they dislike about your poems, and use that feedback to improve your work. To grow, you must learn to be hard on yourself.

Which words to use

Since your reader’s in a rush and frowning, make each sentence be quick, punchy, fun. To be brief, use words that are short:

Too long, too formal, too stuffy     Shorter, cheerier, better

I will                                                           I’ll

I am                                                            I’m

I have                                                            I’ve

I would                                                        I’d

large                                                           big

utilize                                                         use

somebody                                                   someone

everybody                                                   everyone

upper-left corner                                            top-left corner

the beginning of the book                           the book’s beginning

Jack, president of the club, said                   The club’s president, Jack, said

This report’s purpose is to explain taxes.    This report explains taxes.

The following examples show how:             These examples show how:

, as shown in the following examples:         . Here are examples:

The reader should press the Enter key.    Press the Enter key.

You should press the Enter key.                  Press the Enter key.

To improve the word “only,” change it to “just” (which is shorter to say) and move it after the verb (to clarify that it modifies the object, not the verb):

Bad:       I only drink tea.

Better:   I just drink tea.

Best:      I drink just tea.

Don’t use the word “very”: it’s boring, much more boring than the adjective it modifies. Delete “very.” Mark Twain gave this advice:

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

Hey, you! Don’t say “the reader”; instead say “you,” which is more direct and avoids the problem of whether “the reader” is a “he” or a “she.”

So to avoid any “he”-versus-“she” problems, say “you.”

Wrong because sexist:   a policeman should keep his ID in his pocket.

Wrong because stuffy:   a police officer should keep his/her ID in his/her pocket.

Right:                           if you’re a police officer, keep your ID in your pocket.

Short paragraphs

Keep your paragraphs short. The ideal paragraph has 2, 3, or 4 sentences. If a paragraph has more than 4 sentences, the reader will get tired, lost, and bored: divide the paragraph into shorter ones.

A one-sentence paragraph is okay if the neighboring paragraphs are longer. But if a one-sentence paragraph comes after another one-sentence paragraph, your writing is too choppy: combine paragraphs to form longer ones.


Don’t begin a sentence with a list. Instead, put the list at the sentence’s end, after you’ve explained the list’s purpose.

Wrong:  Red, blue, and yellow are the primary colors.

Right:    The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow.

Wrong:  Jack Smith, Jean Jones, and Tina Turner are the leaders.

Right:    The leaders are Jack Smith, Jean Jones, and Tina Turner.

How to write “real good”

At Dartmouth College during the 1960’s and 1970’s, students and faculty passed around a cynical list of rules about how to write. Each rule was purposely written badly, so it violates itself. The list was particularly popular among science students, who love to ponder self-contradictions. The list gradually grew, as many people added their own rules.

In March 1979, George Trigg published the list in a physics journal.

In October 1979, William Safire wrote a New York Times column saying he was making his own list and thanking Philip Henderson for contributing some rules. In November 1979, he wrote a longer list. In 1990, he wrote a whole book based on those rules, which he called “Fumble Rules.”

Later, improved versions were posted on the Internet at many Web sites, such as sites run by PBS and the National Institute of Health.

Here’s my improved collection:


Don’t overuse “quotation marks.”

Don’t overuse exclamation points!!!

Don’t use commas, that aren’t necessary.

Just Proper Nouns should be capitalized.

Don’t use question marks inappropriately?

Its important to use apostrophe’s in the right places.

Don’t write a run-on sentence you’ve got to punctuate it.

Use hyphens in compound-words, not just where two-words are related.

In letters compositions reports and things like that use commas to keep a string of items apart.


Don’t abbrev.

Profanity sucks.

Avoid mispellings.

Puns are for children, not groan readers.

Don’t use contractions in formal writing.

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

A writer must avoid sexist pronouns in his writing.

No sentence fragments! Complete sentences: important!

Never use totally cool, radically groovy, outdated slang.

Always avoid annoying, affected, awkward alliteration.

Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.

The bottom line is to bag trendy locutions that sound flaky.

Never use a big word where you can utilize a diminutive one.

In the case of a report, check to see that jargonwise, it’s A-OK.

Foreign words and phrases are the reader’s bete noir and not apropos.

Eschew obfuscation. Employ the vernacular. It behooves us all to avoid archaic expressions.


Don’t verb nouns.

One-word sentences? Never!

The passive voice is to be avoided.

Remember to never split an infinitive.

Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.

If any word is improper at a sentence’s end, a linking verb is.

Watch out for irregular verbs that have creeped into our language.

Lay down and die before using a transitive verb without an object.


The adverb always follows the verb.

Hopefully, you won’t float your adverbs.

Be carefully to use adjectives and adverbs correct.

By observing distinctions between adjectives and adverbs, you’ll treat readers real good.


Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.

And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.


Make sure your verb and subject is in agreement.

Each pronoun should agree with their antecedent.

Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.


Just between you and I, case is important.

Don’t be a person whom people realize confuses who and whom.


Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be weeded out.


Don’t use no double negatives.

Don’t make negative statements.

Never contradict yourself always.

Don’t put sentences in the negative form.


Be more or less specific.

One should never generalize.

Who needs rhetorical questions?

Generalizations must always be eliminated.

Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

Lengthy sentences

A writer must not shift your point of view.

A preposition isn’t a good thing to end a sentence with.

Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are superfluous.

Parallel structure will help you in writing more effective sentences and to express yourself more gracefully.

Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.

Don’t string together too many prepositional phrases, unless you’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Stamp out and eliminate redundancies. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies. If you reread your work, you’ll find, on rereading, lots of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.

Never go off on tangents, which are lines that intersect a curve at just one point and were analyzed by Euclid, who lived before Christ in Greece, which got conquered by the Romans but later hosted the 2004 Olympics.

Avoid those run-on sentences that just go on, and on, and on; they never stop, they just keep rambling, and you really wish the person would just shut up, but no, they just keep going; they’re worse than the Energizer Bunny; they babble incessantly; and these sentences, they just never stop: they go on forever, if you get my drift.


Always pick on the correct idiom.

As far as incomplete constructions, they are wrong.

Go out of your way to avoid colloquialisms, ya’ know? Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

Last but not least, even if you have to bend over backward, lay off clichés like the plague: they’re old hat, so seek viable alternatives.

Are you smart enough to find the error in each of those sentences? After you’ve found the error, how would you correct it?

Try correcting those sentences! Afterwards, look at these corrected (and boring) versions of those sentences:


Don’t overuse quotation marks.

Don’t overuse exclamation points.

Don’t use commas that aren’t necessary.

Just proper nouns should be capitalized.

Don’t use question marks inappropriately.

Its important to use apostrophes in the right places.

Don’t write a run-on sentence: you’ve got to punctuate it.

Use hyphens in compound words, not just where two words are related.

In letters, compositions, reports, and things like that, use commas to keep a string of items apart.


Don’t abbreviate.

Profanity is disgusting.

Avoid misspellings.

Puns are for children, not adults.

Do not use contractions in formal writing.

Proofread carefully to see if you left any words out.

A writer must avoid sexist pronouns.

Don’t write sentence fragments! Completing sentences is important!

Never use outdated slang.

Don’t use awkward alliteration.

Use words correctly, regardless of how others use them.

Don’t use faddish expressions.

Never use a big word where you can use a small one.

In the case of a report, check to see that it’s free of jargon.

Foreign words and phrases are the reader’s nightmare and not appropriate.

Don’t complicate. Use colloquial speech. Avoid archaic expressions.


Don’t turn nouns into verbs.

Never have one-word sentences.

Avoid the passive voice.

Remember: never split an infinitive.

To write carefully, avoid dangling participles.

Don’t end a sentence with a linking verb.

Watch out for irregular verbs that have crept into our language.

Lie down and die before using a transitive verb without an object.


The adverb follows the verb, always.

I hope you won’t float your adverbs.

Be careful to use adjectives and adverbs correctly.

By observing distinctions between adjectives and adverbs, you’ll treat readers really well.


Join clauses well, as a conjunction should.

Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.


Make sure your verb and subject are in agreement.

Each pronoun should agree with its antecedent.

Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns
in writing.


Just between you and me, case is important.

Don’t be a person who people realize confuses who and whom.


Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be shushed.

Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be massaged out.


Don’t use double negatives.

Avoid negative statements.

Never contradict yourself.

Avoid putting sentences in the negative form.


Be specific.

Avoid generalizing.

Rhetorical questions are unnecessary.

Generalizations should usually be eliminated.

Eliminate quotations: tell me what you know.

As I’ve said before, exaggeration is much worse than understatement.

Lengthy sentences

As a writer, you must not shift your point of view.

A preposition isn’t a good thing with which to end a sentence.

Parenthetical remarks are superfluous.

Parallel structure will help you write more effective sentences and express yourself more gracefully.

Place pronouns as close as possible to their antecedents, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words.

Don’t string together too many prepositional phrases, unless you’re walking through the valley of death’s shadow.

If you reread your work, you’ll find lots of repetition to edit out.

Never go off on tangents.

Avoid sentences that ramble.


Always pick the correct idiom.

As far as incomplete constructions go, they are wrong.

Make an effort to avoid colloquialisms.

Avoid clichés: they’re stale, so seek fresh alternatives.

Advice from famous writers

Robert Louis Stevenson said:

It takes hard writing to make easy reading.

E.L. Doctorow said:

Writing’s an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.

James Michener said:

I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.

Ernest Hemingway (a novelist famous for simple sentences) said this about William Faulkner (a novelist famous for complex sentences):

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

Jack Maxson said:

When writing, pause after each paragraph and read aloud. Do you keep stumbling over certain words or phrases? If so, it needs rewriting. Does it flow smoothly and easily? If not, rewrite. After all, if you can’t read your own stuff, who can?

William Saroyan said:

The most solid advice for a writer is: try to breathe deeply, really taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really sleep. Try to be wholly alive with all your might. When you laugh, laugh like hell. When you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You’ll be dead soon enough.

Warring editors

When you take a course about how to write, your teacher will probably give you rules about how to write correctly. The typical teacher neglects to mention that different editors believe in different rules.

A set of writing rules is called a style. Let’s look these 7 different styles for writing American English:

Many newspapers belong to a collective called The Associated Press (AP), whose style is explained in The Associated Press Stylebook and called AP style. When newspapers submit articles to AP, the articles must be written in AP style.

Many newspapers dislike some details of AP style. For example, The New York Times uses its own style, explained in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and called New York style. Articles that appear in The New York Times are written in New York style. (Afterwards, when The New York Times offers those articles to AP for other newspapers to use, the articles must be rewritten into AP style.)

Many book publishers use the style invented at the University of Chicago Press, explained in The Chicago Manual of Style, and called Chicago style.

Many colleges make students write research papers in a style invented by the Modern Language Association (MLA), explained in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and called MLA style.

All those styles were invented by modern committees, but many editors instead prefer using styles that are more personal, such as Margaret style (explained by Margaret Nicholson in her 1957 book American English Usage, which updates Fowler’s 1926 book Modern English Usage) or Theodore style (explained by Theodore Bernstein in his 1965 book The Careful Writer) or Russ style (explained here by me, Russ Walter, and used in my books, The Secret Guide to Computers and Tricky Living).

Here are examples of how those 7 styles differ.…

Comma before “and” When a sentence includes a list of at least 3 items, should you put a comma before “and”? Which of the following is better?

I saw Joe, Mary, and Sue.                                   (comma before “and”)

I saw Joe, Mary and Sue.                                       (no comma before “and”)

Russ, Margaret, MLA, and Chicago put a comma before “and.”

AP and New York omit that comma, unless the omission would cause confusion. For example, it would be confusing to omit the comma from this sentence:

I admire my parents, Mother Teresa, and God.

If you omit that comma, the reader will think your parents are Mother Teresa and God. It would also be confusing to omit the comma from this sentence:

For breakfast I ate sausage, ham, and eggs.

If you omit that comma, the reader will think you ate two things (“sausage” and “ham and eggs”); then the reader will wonder why you didn’t put “and” before “ham.”

Theodore gives no advice about that comma.

Quotation marks At the end of a quotation, should the quotation mark come before or after other punctuation (such as a period, comma, colon, semicolon, question mark, or exclamation point)? Which of the following is better?

He called her “wonderful”.                       (period after the quotation mark)

He called her “wonderful.”                       (period before the quotation mark)

AP, New York, Chicago, MLA, and Margaret say:

Put a period or comma before the quotation mark.

Put a colon or semicolon after the quotation mark.

Put a question mark before the quotation mark just if what’s quoted is a question. Put an exclamation point before the quotation mark just if what’s quoted was exclaimed.

Russ says:

Put a colon or semicolon after the quotation mark.

Put a question mark before the quotation mark just if what’s quoted is a question. Put an exclamation point before the quotation mark just if what’s quoted was exclaimed.

If you’re typing a typical document, follow this rule: put a period or comma before the quotation mark (to look pretty). But if your document is about “how to punctuate” or “how to type” or “how to write a computer program,” put a period after the quotation mark (to make sure the reader doesn’t think you want a period typed).

Theodore gives no advice about quotation marks.

Numbers spelled out In the middle of a sentence, should numbers be written as digits (such as “12”) or spelled out (such as “twelve”)? Which of the following is better?

I have 12 friends.                                              (number as digits)

I have twelve friends.                                        (number spelled out)

Here’s the general rule (though there are many exceptions when writing about math, science, numbered lists, etc.):

Russ spells out just the numbers zero, one, and two.

AP and New York spell out the numbers up through nine, except that the age of a person or animal is never spelled out.

MLA spells out the numbers up through one hundred, plus any other number that can be expressed in two words (such as “fifteen hundred”).

Chicago spells out all the numbers up through one hundred, plus any big number that looks rounded because it can be expressed in hundreds, thousands, hundred thousands, or millions (such as “forty-seven thousand” and “two hundred thousand”).

Margaret and Theodore give no advice about which numbers to spell out.

Those rules are for a number in the sentence’s middle or end. But what about a number at the sentence’s beginning? Which of the following is better?

12 friends came here.                                        (number as digits)

Twelve friends came here.                                 (number spelled out)

Some editors think “Twelve” looks better than 12, because “Twelve” begins with a capital letter, showing the reader that a new sentence is starting. Other editors disagree. Here’s the general rule about a number at a sentence’s beginning:

At a sentence’s beginning, New York, Chicago, and MLA spell out any number. At a sentence’s beginning, AP spells out any number except a year (such as 2006). But instead of putting a big number at a sentence’s beginning, all those editors (at New York, Chicago, MLA, and AP) recommend rearranging the sentence, to put the big number elsewhere.

At a sentence’s beginning, Russ normally spells out just the numbers zero, one, and two; but if the preceding sentence (in the same paragraph) ends in digits, Russ spells out any number up through twelve.

Percent sign Instead of writing the word “percent,” should you write the symbol “%”? Which is best?

He got 99.8 percent of the money.                    (the word “percent”)

He got 99.8 per cent of the money.                   (the words “per cent”)

He got 99.8% of the money.                             (the symbol “%”)

Here are the rules:

MLA and Russ write the symbol “%.”

AP writes the word “percent.”

New York usually writes the word “percent” but writes the symbol “%” instead in tables, graphs, and headlines.

Chicago usually writes the word “percent” but writes the symbol “%” instead if the page is mainly about science or statistics.

In their old books, Margaret and Theodore wrote the words “per cent,” but if they were writing today they’d probably switch to “percent,” since
“per cent” has become rare.

United States Should you shorten “United States of America” to “United States” or “U.S.A.” or “U.S.” or “US”?

Here are the rules:

Russ writes “U.S.”

Margaret writes “U.S.” (but writes “US” in reference books where there’s not enough room to include the periods).

AP writes “United States” (but writes “U.S.” if used as an adjective).

MLA writes “United States” (but writes “US” in citations, such as footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies, and parenthetical comments).

Chicago writes “United States” (but writes “U.S.” if used as an adjective or citation in a normal book, “US” if used as an adjective or citation in a science book).

New York writes “United States” (but writes “U.S.” in headlines, tables, charts, picture captions, names of interstate highways, and where “U.S.” is part of an organization’s official name).

Theodore gives no advice about the United States.

State abbreviations When you mention a city with its state (but no street), should you abbreviate the state’s name? How? Which of the following is best?

He came from Oakland, California, by bus.     (full name)

He came from Oakland, Cal., by bus.              (traditional abbreviation)

He came from Oakland CA by bus.                    (2-letter abbreviation)

Here are the rules:

MLA and Chicago write the state’s full name (such as “California”).

Russ writes the state’s 2-letter abbreviation (such as “CA”).

New York writes the full name for Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Ohio, and Utah but writes traditional abbreviations for all other states (such as “Cal.”).

AP writes the full name for Alaska, Hawaii, and states whose names are short (Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas, and Utah) but writes traditional abbreviations for all other states (such as “Cal.”).

Margaret and Theodore give no advice about states.

Famous American cities When you write a sentence about Cleveland, must you remind the reader that Cleveland is in Ohio, by writing “Cleveland, Ohio,” or can you write just “Cleveland” and assume the reader knows where Cleveland is?

AP omits the state for these 30 famous American cities:

Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Houston, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Washington

When describing events at the United Nations headquarters, AP says just “United Nations” (without mentioning that the headquarters is in New York).

Russ agrees with AP.

New York style (used by The New York Times) omits the state for those same 30 cities (and the United Nations) and for these 18 extra cities —

Albuquerque, Anchorage, Colorado Springs, Des Moines, El Paso, Fort Worth, Hartford, Hollywood, Iowa City, Memphis, Miami Beach, Nashville, New Haven, Omaha, Sacramento, St. Paul, Tucson, Virginia Beach

and for these 6 cities (which are in New York state) —

Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, White Plains, Yonkers

and for these 4 cities (which are in New Jersey):

Atlantic City, Jersey City, Newark, Trenton

MLA, Chicago, Margaret, and Theodore give no rules about cities.

Famous foreign cities When you write a sentence about Beijing, must you remind the reader that Beijing is in China, by writing “Beijing, China,” or can you write just “Beijing” and assume the reader knows where Beijing is?

AP omits the country for these 27 famous foreign cities:

Beijing, Berlin, Djibouti, Geneva, Gibraltar, Guatemala City, Havana, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Kuwait City, London, Luxembourg, Macau, Mexico City, Monaco, Montreal, Moscow, New Delhi, Ottawa, Paris, Quebec City, Rome, San Marino, Singapore, Tokyo, Toronto, Vatican City

Russ agrees with AP.

New York style omits the country for those same 27 cities and these 39 extra cities:

Algiers, Amsterdam, Athens, Bangkok, Bombay, Bonn, Brasília, Brussels, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Calcutta, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Dublin, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Glasgow, The Hague, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Lisbon, Madrid, Manila, Milan, Oslo, Panama, Prague, Rio De Janeiro, San Salvador, Shanghai, Stockholm, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Tunis, Venice, Vienna, Warsaw, Zurich

(Since Baghdad’s been in the news a lot recently and most Americans know it’s in Iraq, I expect the New York stylebook’s next edition will include Baghdad in that list.)

Capital after colon After a colon, should you capitalize the next word? Which of the following is better?

Here’s what I think: Love conquers all.              (capital after colon)

Here’s what I think: love conquers all.            (no capital after colon)

Here are the rules about capitalizing the word after a colon:

AP and Theodore capitalize if the word begins a sentence (such as “Love conquers all”).

MLA capitalizes just if the word begins a sentence that’s a rule or principle (such as “Love conquers all”).

Chicago capitalizes just if the word begins a list of sentences (at least two sentences).

Russ capitalizes just if the word begins a new paragraph (so it’s on a new line); and in that case, Russ draws a box around the new paragraph (like the paragraph you’re reading now).

New York capitalizes just if the phrase before the colon (“Here’s what I think”) just introduces the sentence after the colon.

Margaret gives no advice about capitalizing that word.

Capitalizing a.m. Which of the following is best?

9:30AM                                                      (capitals, no periods, no spaces)

9:30 a.m.                                                    (a space and periods, no capitals)

AP, New York, Chicago, and MLA say “9:30 a.m.” Russ says “9:30AM.” Margaret and Theodore give no advice about time.

“An” before “historic” Before the word “historic,” should you put “a” or “an”? Which of the following is better?

It’s an historic event.                                            (“an” before “historic”)

It’s a historic event.                                          (“a” before “historic”)

AP, New York, Chicago, Margaret, and Theodore put “a” before “historic” (because “h” has a consonant sound). Russ puts “an” before “historic” (because that “h” is nearly silent, if your accent is British or sophisticated American). MLA gives no advice about “historic.”

Writing as a career

Here are surprising truths about trying to write for a living.

Copyright You don’t have to “copyright” what you write, since modern copyright law says that anything you write is copyrighted automatically. To prove you wrote it before somebody else, you can use many techniques, such as sending a copy to the Library of Congress or sending a copy to yourself by registered mail. On your manuscript’s first page, it’s helpful to put your city, year, copyright policy (“Don’t copy without author’s permission”), and a way for the reader to reach you (your street address, phone number, e-mail address, or Website).

Packaging your poetry If you’re writing poetry, your poems might not be long enough to fill a book. That depends on how long your poems are and how your publisher packages them. If the book’s pages are tiny and the poems are long, you might succeed; otherwise, add bulk by creating some prose (such as comments about the poems) or artwork.

Hard work, low pay To create a good poem, you must spend lots of time thinking, writing, and editing — without much pay.

Good poets are maids,

not burned

It takes a heap o’ writin’

To make a poem come home,

To beautify each little phrase

So critics do not groan.

It takes a heap o’ writin’

To make a poem work out.

Ya gotta keep on tryin’

To clean out all the grout.

Don’t expect to get rich by writing — especially if you’re writing poetry. Poetry pays less than all other forms of writing. If you decide to marry the poetry muse, marry for love, not money. The famous poet Robert Graves said:

There’s no money in poetry,

but there’s no poetry in money either.

Poetry can give you fame (through public readings and lectures) if you’re lucky — though trying to become a “lucky poet” is nearly as hopeless as trying to become a “famous basketball player.”

Low self-esteem Poets usually feel nervous about themselves. The famous poet W.H. Auden made this comment:

A poet can’t say, “Tomorrow I’ll write a poem and, thanks to my training and experience, I know I’ll do a good job.” In the eyes of others, a man’s a poet if he’s written one good poem; but in a poet’s own eyes, he’s a poet just at the moment when he’s making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was just a potential poet; the moment after, he’s a man who’s ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.

When you finish writing a book and you’ve done your final edits on it, you’ll be sad at having to stop the fun of diddling with it. Truman Capote said:

Finishing a book is just like

you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.

Teaching Writers don’t get paid much, but as a writer you might be able to make a living by teaching others how to write, through courses, tutoring, consulting, or speeches.

Beyond fame As a writer, your chance of becoming famous is about the same as your chance of becoming a famous basketball player: a writer’s life is a lottery where the usual result is “You lose.” It’s fun to try playing, though; and the game improves your mind, which is your most important asset. It also lets you express your individuality. Don Delillo said:

Writing’s a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some under-culture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

Strange writing

I’ve explained how to write normally. Here’s how to write strangely.

Tongue twisters Write something that’s hard to pronounce. Here are famous examples; try to say them out loud, fast! They’re good to practice, especially if you have a speech impediment or you’re a foreigner trying to speak English or you’re training to be a news announcer.

The hardest sentence short sentence to say is:

The 6th sick sheik’s 6th sheep’s sick.

If you master that, try this longer version:

The 6th sick sheik’s 6th sheep’s sick,

so 6 slick sheiks sold 6 sick sheep 6 silk sheets.

The hardest phrases to say 10 times fast are:


“toy boat”

“big whip”

“3 free throws”

“mixed biscuits”

“cheap ship trip”

“Peggy Babcock”

“selfish shellfish”

“Irish wristwatch”

“unique New York”

“black bug’s blood”

“inchworms inching”

“red blood, blue blood”

“good blood, bad blood”

“shredded Swiss cheese”

“6 short slow shepherds”

“caution: wide right turns”

“11 benevolent elephants”

“the myth of Miss Muffet”

“quick-witted cricket critic”

“Tim, the thin twin tinsmith”

“Mrs. Smith’s fish-sauce shop”

“9 nice night nurses nursing nicely”

“6 simmering sharks, sharply striking shins”

Try saying these sentences 10 times fast:

“Ed had edited it.”

“Please pay promptly.”

“Chop shops stock chops.”

“Whistle for the thistle sifter.”

“Sure, the ship’s shipshape, sir.”

“A noisy noise annoys an oyster.”

“Betty better butter Brad’s bread.”

“Is this your sister’s 6th zither, sir?”

“Friendly Frank flips fine flapjacks.”

“The 2:22 train tore through the tunnel.”

“Sam’s shop stocks short spotted socks.”

“Can a clam cram in a clean cream can?”

“Which witch wished which wicked wish?”

“Many an anemone sees an enemy anemone.”

“When does the wristwatch-strap shop shut?”

“Fred fed Ted bread, and Ted fed Fred bread.”

“Which wristwatches are Swiss wristwatches?”

“They both, though, have 33 thick thimbles to thaw.”

These poems are fun to try saying:

Don’t pamper damp scamp tramps

That camp under ramp lamps.

6 sick hicks

Nick 6 slick bricks

With picks and sticks.

If 2 witches were watching 2 watches,

Which witch would watch which watch?

She sells seashells on the seashore.

The shells she sells are seashells, she’s sure.

Ruby Rugby’s brother bought and brought her

Back some rubber baby-buggy bumpers.

A skunk sat on a stump

And thunk the stump stunk,

But the stump thunk the skunk stunk.

A flea and a fly, I fear, flew to a flue.

Said the flea to the fly, “Let us flee!”

Said the fly to the flea, “Let us fly!”

So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

If you stick a stock of liquor in your locker,

It’s slick to stick a lock upon your stock.

A stickler who is slicker

Could stick you of your liquor

If you fail to lock your liquor with a lock.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck

If a woodchuck could chuck wood?

He’d chuck, he would, what a woodchuck could

And chuck as much wood as a woodchuck would,

If a woodchuck could chuck wood.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

Did Peter Piper pick a peck of pickled peppers?

If Peter Piper picked a peck of picked peppers,

Where’s the peck of pickled peppers

    Peter Piper picked?

A bitter biting bittern

Bit a better brother bittern,

But the bitter better bittern

Bit the bitter biter back.

The bitter bittern bitten

By the better bitten bittern said,

“I’m bitter, badly bit! Alack!”

You’ve no need to light a nightlight

On a light night like tonight,

For a nightlight’s light a slight light,

And tonight’s a night that’s light.

When a night’s light (like tonight’s light),

It is really not quite right

To light nightlights with their slight lights

On a light night like tonight.

A tree toad loved a she-toad

Who lived up in a tree.

He was a 2-toed tree toad;

A 3-toed toad was she.

The 2-toed tree toad tried to win

The 3-toed she-toad’s heart.

The 2-toed tree toad loved the ground

The 3-toed tree toad trod.

The 2-toed tree toad tried in vain.

He couldn’t please her whim,

For from her tree-toad bower

With finest 3-toed power

The she-toad vetoed him.

Betty Botter bought some butter.

“But,” she said, “This butter’s bitter.

If I bake it in my batter,

It’ll make my batter bitter.

But a bit of better butter?

Betcha makes my batter better!”

So she bought some better butter

(Better than the bitter butter),

And she baked it in her batter,

So her batter was not bitter!

This poem, when you say it fast, tries to make you accidentally say the naughty word “shit”:

I slit a sheet. A sheet I slit.

Upon the slitted sheet I sit.

This poem, when you say it fast, tries to make you accidentally say “pleasant fucker”:

I’m not the pheasant plucker.

    I’m the pheasant plucker’s mate.

I’m only plucking pheasants

    ’cause the pheasant plucker’s late.

I’m not the pheasant plucker.

    I’m a pheasant plucker’s son.

I’m only plucking pheasants

    till the pheasant pluckers come.

Poet laureate Here’s the easy way to become a famous poet: just write nice stuff about your town and become the town’s poet laureate. No pay, but you get to ride in a nice car during the town’s parade. All you need is a humorous, kind eye for the little folks in your little town.

For example, a guy became poet laureate of Passaic NJ by writing poems about the townsfolk, such as the fire chief:

I think his appointment is just ducky.

His boyhood friends all call him lucky.

Lucky he is, and Passaic is too,

To have Chief Willy Jaffe as head of the fire crew.

Though that example is pretty pathetic, the typical poet laureate is somewhat better and a retired English teacher. You can do better: just think about how your town is beautifully fun — or become the town’s poet deploreate by writing about how your town is ridiculously deplorable.

But why stop at “town”? Hey, kiddo, write about your school, or your friends, or your family, or your whole state, or the universe, or all that surrounds it, whatever that might be.

Mystery subjects To have fun, write about a subject but don’t reveal the subject’s identity until the very end. Example:

I’m going to tell you about a drink so amazing that men devoted their lives to finding it and fighting wars about it.

This amazing liquid consists of such pure goodness that doctors worldwide recommend it as a cure for most ills. This refreshing tonic has no bad side effects: the ideal drink, it’s sodium-free, fat-free, alcohol-free, preservative-free, and non-carcinogenic.

One gulp of this stuff can make men scream with delight. Its godly beauty has made this elixir praised by poets and songwriters worldwide. Some towns even dispense this wonderful elixir to their citizens, free, in special parks.

Discovered thousands of years ago by ancient heroes, it’s a mysterious wonder of the universe and analyzed every day by scientists and other public servants trying to decipher its amazing properties. It’s saved many lives and been the subject of sweetest dreams.

Yes, water is truly wonderful.

This example goes further:

I confess: I’m an addict! The drug that’s been sweeping the nation has gotten to me, too!

I can’t resist this powerful drug, which takes over my entire life. Late at night, when my weary body wishes to sleep, this hypnotic drug seduces me into partaking of it for many hours, a late-night turn-on controlling my mind and soul throughout the night. This mind-numbing drug, invented in secret labs, makes visions dance before my eyes (visions far wilder than anything created by primitive drugs such as LSD) and accompanied by sounds giving me the strangest out-of-body experiences.

This drug is so powerful that the U.S. government has declared it a controlled substance and controls its distribution. The biggest companies in America and around the world have all become involved in packaging this drug and changing its nature, but nobody can stop it. It’s been the subject of many congressional hearings.

Each day in offices across America, employees whisper about how they experienced the drug during the previous evening. They even brag about who had the most outrageous experiences with it. Teachers complain that the quality of American education has greatly declined because students do this drug instead of homework.

To prevent impurities, the U.S. government funds the distribution of a “public” version of this drug, but most Americans get a bigger kick from “private” versions.

Unfortunately, advertising this nefarious drug is still permitted in many locales. Billboards lure innocent American adults and kids into partaking of this drug. According to psychologists, people who spend too much time doing this drug turn into vegetables and become “potatoes” or worse.

Yes, television is amazingly addictive.

This example is the most provocative:

I’m going to tell you about a certain feeling a male has, a feeling so strong that the average woman can’t comprehend it.

This male feeling, arising in a certain part of the man’s body, creates such a burning desire to stroke it that it can drive a man nearly insane and make him want to rip off his clothes to satisfy his craving itch. In high schools across the country, health teachers (and even gym teachers!) warn young men about these urges, but the flames of passion are irrepressible.

Yes, athlete’s foot sure is tough.

Elided sentences Here are two boring sentences:

I love you. You are beautiful!

To have more fun, combine them to form this super-sentence:

I love YOU are beautiful!

Here’s an extended example:

I gaze into YOUR EYES pierce MY SOUL is putty in YOUR HANDS caress MY EVERY MUSCLE cries out for YOUR TOUCH can make me MELTing in your arms, I proclaim my love FOR YOU I’ll do ANYTHING is possible IN LOVE with you, I’m DELERIOUSly delicious raspberry sundae!

Palindromes A palindrome is a word or sentence that reads the same backwards as forward.

For example, “eve” is a palindrome word. So is “madam.”

Here are 4 palindrome sentences.…

The pet-store owner warned his customers:

Step on no pets!

Adam told Eve when he met her in the garden:

Madam, I’m Adam.

When Napoleon lost the war and was exiled to the island of Elba, he said:

Able was I, ere I saw Elba.

The engineer who invented the Panama Canal bragged:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Pig Latin Try writing in Pig Latin (English modified to sound like Latin).

Here’s how to convert English to Pig Latin:

If the word begins with a vowel, just add “way” to the end of the word. For example, “art” becomes “artway.”

If the word begins with a consonant or a bunch of consonants, move such stuff to the end, then add “ay.” For example, “fart” becomes “artfay.”

For example, “drink up” becomes “inkdray upway.”

Notice that “ill” and “will” both become “illway.” Yes, “ifelay isway osay ambiguousway.”

Try singing The Star Spangled Banner in Pig Latin. Here’s how it begins:

Oway aysay ancay ouyay eesay

The definition of “vowel” versus “consonant” is phonetic. For example, “yes” becomes “esyay” (since that “y” sounds like a consonant), but “Ypsilanti” becomes “Ypsilantiway” (since that “y” sounds like a vowel).

If you’re studying computer programming, try this challenge: program the computer to translate English to Pig Latin.

Politically correct school terms The Internet recommends students use these politically correct terms:

You’re not too tall, just vertically enhanced.

You’re not too talkative, just abundantly verbal.

You’re not shy, just conversationally selective.

You’re not lazy, just energetically declined.

You’re not failing, just passing-impaired.

You didn’t get detention, just exit-delayed.

You’re not late,

just having a rescheduled arrival time.

You didn’t get grounded,

just hit a social speed-bump.

In class, you weren’t sleeping,

just rationing consciousness.

Your homework isn’t missing,

just having an out-of-notebook experience.

You don’t have smelly gym socks,

just odor-retentive athletic footwear.

Your locker isn’t overflowing,

just closure-prohibitive.

Your bedroom isn’t cluttered,

just passage-restrictive.

You don’t think the cafeteria food is awful,

just digestively challenged.

You’re not having a bad-hair day,

just suffering from rebellious follicle syndrome.

You weren’t gossiping,

just providing speedy transmission of near-factual information.

In class, you weren’t passing notes,

just participating in the discreet exchange of penned meditations.

You weren’t sent to the principal’s office,

just went on a mandatory field trip to the administration sanctum.

Best-man speech At weddings, the “best man” is supposed to give a speech that ribs the groom then wishes him luck. According to The Wall Street Journal, some folks make a living by ghost-writing such speeches. They charge $100 per speech or $5 per line.

That’s ridiculous! If you’re going to give a dangerous speech like that, why not go all the way, like this:

I wish my best friend lots of luck,

Doing things that end in “uck,”

Like holding hands while trying to…

Take out garbage on a rainy day, through the muck.

I’m sure his wife will get a kick

When looking at his great big…

Sick face when she gives the thermometer a lick.

But after wedding and “I love you,”

They’ll honeymoon and want to…

Sleep, while murmuring

    “You’re the one for me. I knew.”

Walking through the woods Robert Frost’s poem called “Walking through the woods on a snowy evening” isn’t realistic. To be realistic, it should reveal this sad choice —

Walking through the woods on a snowy evening,

I tripped,

Bumped my head on a tree,

Got covered with blood,

Broke my leg,

Lay helpless 3 days in snow until was found,

Spent 3 months in the hospital,

And vowed never to again be

Walking through the woods on a snowy evening.

or this conservative choice —

Walking through the woods on a snowy evening,

Two paths diverged.

One had less dung underneath,

And that made all the difference,

Since I’m Republican.

or this practical choice —

While walking through woods

    in the snow, I got tired

From trying to reach

    what my body desired.

I got to a fork.

    Didn’t know what the fuck

To do, so turned round

    and went home. On firm ground,

Got pizza by phone.

    “Let the pizza boy moan.”

His horse knew the way

    to come carry the sleigh

Through white, drifting snow.

    Sure beats “pizza to go!”

I give him a tip.

    Now I’ve pizza on lip.

or this tech choice:

Walking through the woods on a snowy evening,

Two paths diverged,

So I grabbed my cell phone

And got directions.

Can you think of other poems to rewrite to be realistic?

Puns Here are some famous old puns:

1. A trader sailed to an island, met the king, and told him, “I notice you have no throne.” The king asked, “What’s a throne?” The trader replied, “I’ll show you.” On his next trip, the trader brought a throne. The king liked it, bought it, and ordered another. On his next trip, the trader brought the second throne. The king got excited about thrones and started buying more and more of them, until they filled his grass hut, and he had to build a second floor to hold all the thrones. But one day, the second floor collapsed and all the thrones fell, killing the king. Moral: people who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.

2. In a zoo, some dolphins seemed to live forever by dining on dead seagulls. One day, the zookeeper tried to carry seagulls to the dolphins, but a lion sat on the bridge and blocked his way. He stepped over the lion but got arrested for transporting gulls across a staid lion for immortal porpoises.

3. A Frenchman got robbed while visiting Ireland, so he entered an Irish bank to get a loan. The loan officer, Patricia Mack, asked whether he had any collateral. He showed a tiny cute statue of his dad, Mick Jagger. She objected, but her boss said, “It’s a knick-knack, Patty Mack: give the Frog a loan; his old man’s a Rolling Stone.

4. A dentist noticed that in his patient’s mouth, a metal plate was corroding. The dentist asked, “Have you been eating anything unusual?” The patient replied, “My wife learned to make great Hollandaise sauce, so I’ve been putting it on all my food.” The dentist replied, “The lemon in the sauce must be corroding the metal. I’ll replace the metal with chrome.” The patient asked, “Why chrome?” The dentist replied, “There’s no plate like chrome for the Hollandaise.”

Note to foreigners and youngsters: some Americans find those tales funny because the bold words, when pronounced with a foreign accent or speech impediment, sound like these popular American expressions:

1. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

2. transporting girls across a state line for immoral purposes

3. with a knick-knack, paddy-whack, give the dog a bone; this old man is rolling home (“Frog” is offensive disparaging slang for “Frenchman”)

4. There’s no place like home for the holidays.

A friend passed me this list of newer puns:

1. A vulture tried to board an airplane. He carried 2 dead raccoons but was stopped by stewardess who said, “I’m sorry, sir, just one carrion allowed per passenger.

2. Two boll weevils grew up in South Carolina. One went to Hollywood and got a part in a movie. The other stayed behind in the cotton fields, never amounted to much, and became known as the lesser of two weevils.

3. Two Eskimos in a kayak got chilly, but when they lit a fire in the kayak it sank, because you can’t have your kayak and heat it, too.

4. In the Old West, a 3-legged dog walked into the saloon, slid up to the bar, and announced “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.

5. A Buddhist getting a root canal refused Novocain because he wanted to transcend dental medication.

6. In a hotel lobby, chess players were discussing their victories, but the hotel’s manager made them leave because he couldn’t stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.”

7. A woman had twins but gave them up for adoption. One of them went to a Spanish family who named him “Juan.” The other went to an Egyptian family who named him “Amahl.” Years later, Juan sends his photo to his birth mother. She told her husband she wished she had a picture of Amahl too; but he replied, “They’re twins! If you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Amahl.

8. Friars were behind on their belfry payments, so they opened a florist shop to raise funds. Everyone liked to buy flowers from the men of God, but a rival florist thought the competition unfair. He repeatedly begged the friars to close down, but they refused, so he hired Hugh MacTaggart, the roughest thug in town, to “persuade” them to close. Hugh beat up the friars, trashed their store, and said he’d return if they didn’t close. Terrified, they did so, proving that Hugh, and only Hugh, can prevent florist friars.

9. Since Mahatma Gandhi walked barefoot, his feet got big calluses. Since he ate little, he was frail. His odd diet also gave him bad breath. That made him a super-calloused fragile mystic, hexed by halitosis.

10. A person sent ten puns to a friend and hoped at least one pun would generate a laugh. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.

Here are the popular American expressions on which the puns are based:

1. I’m sorry, sir, just one carry-on allowed per passenger.

2. the lesser of two evils

3. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

4. I’m looking for the man who shot my pa.

5. transcendental meditation

6. chestnut roasting in an open fire

7. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.

8. You, and only you, can prevent forest fires.

9. supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

10. no pun intended

Riddles It’s fun to make jokes about death. When I was a kid, the hot topic was “dead baby” riddles, such as these:

What’s blue and jumps up and down? A baby in a cellophane bag.

How do you make a dead baby float? Seltzer water and two scoops of baby.

Here’s the ultimate death riddle (courtesy of the anonymous Internet):

What’s greater than God and more evil than the devil? The rich need it, and the poor have it; but if you eat it, you die!

The answer is the word “nothing,” because:

Nothing is greater than God. Nothing is more evil than the devil.

The rich need nothing. The poor have nothing. If you eat nothing, you die.

Ask your friends that riddle and see whether they can figure out the answer. When they get frustrated, start giving them Zen-like hints, such as these:

If you want the answer, I can tell you nothing.

When you discover the answer, you’ll have discovered nothing.

While you’re seeking the answer, nothing can bother you.

The answer has 7 letters, but it’s nothing.

But the biggest hint of all is:

Most kindergarteners know the answer to the riddle, but most college graduates do not. Focus on the first question: what’s greater than God? Most kindergarteners know the answer to that question. If you ask a kindergartener “What’s greater than God?” what will the kindergartener answer?

Try to figure out what thing fits this description:

It’s of no use to the person who makes it. It’s of no use to the person who buys it. And the person who uses it doesn’t know he’s using it.

The answer:

A coffin!

Fake etymologies I don’t dare tell lies, but dreaming about lying can be fun. For example, I dream about telling people these tall tales of how certain words were invented.
All the following explanations are false.

How Xerox was invented:

In a part of Boston called Roxbury, a woman named Xenia Jones owned a photocopy shop, called “Xenia of Roxbury.” One day, investors bought her business and shortened its name to “Xerox.”

How the Cadillac was invented:

The concept of a luxury car was invented by Stanislaw Jerzy, a Polish immigrant who worked at General Motors in Michigan. When he told his boss about his idea for a dream car, his boss countered, “I’m too busy to analyze your idea now. Join me for golf on Saturday and explain your idea then.” During the golf game, the boss asked, “Do you have a caddie?” but poor Stanislaw replied, in his broken English, “I have no caddie. I caddie lack.” His boss laughed at his English and called him “Mister Caddy-lack.” That nickname stuck, and the car he dreamed up was named the “Cadillac.”

How Connecticut got its name:

During Colonial times, travelers from Boston to New York went by sea or along the shore. Finally, they built a straighter road, which became the shortcut. Since it connected Boston to New York and was a shortcut, it was called the “Connecting Cut” or, more briefly, “Connecticut.”

How Judaism was invented:

Judaism was invented by Judy Finkelstein in 1853. Her revised version of the Hebrew prayer service was called “Judy-ism,” later shortened to “Judaism.”

How dumplings were invented:

Dumplings were invented in China — by a retarded girl named Pu Ling. When tourists from America passed through her town, tasted her concoction (pork scraps wrapped in pasta dough), and asked what they were called, her mom said “dumb Pu Ling’s!” The Americans shortened that to “dumplings,” which they’ve been called ever since.

How Handel invented the Hallelujah Chorus:

As all history books will tell you, Handel was born in Germany but moved to England. He once vacationed in Spain, where the newest “hot stuff” was jalapeño pepper imported from Spain’s colony, Mexico. Handel fell in love with jalapeño pepper so thoroughly that he wrote a choral work where the singers would sing, loudly, the word “Jalapeño!” repeatedly. It was called the “Jalapeño Chorus.” The original words were: “Jalapeño, jalapeño! Jalapeño, jalapeño! Hallelujah!” Later, to make the song more marketable at Christmastime, he changed each “Jalapeño” to “Hallelujah” (which sounds almost the same) and pretended the song was just about Christ, not about jalapeños (which were popular in Spain but antithetical to the English bland diet). If you listen to the modern version, you’ll notice the first syllable (which is now “Ha”) is sung with the same loud breath (almost a scream) as if you just burned your throat by eating a jalapeño pepper. If you listen closely, you might even hear naughty singers still sing “jalapeño” instead of “hallelujah.”

How Beethoven got his name:

Though Ludwig van Beethoven spent most of his life in Germany — and many encyclopedias erroneously say he was born there — researchers have recently discovered he was actually born in England, where birth records show his name was Lou Smith. He showed musical talent at an early age; but his parents felt music was an uncertain career, so they encouraged him to be more gainfully employed, as a cook. He hung around a lot of Jewish Russian immigrants, who loved to drink borscht, which is beet soup. He developed a knack for making great borscht — and also roasting the beets. When he was just 7 years old, he was already out on the streets to hawk his “roasted beets, hot from the oven!” When his parents immigrated to Germany, they felt his career would be helped by giving him a German name, so they translated “Lou” to “Ludwig” and transliterated his sales pitch (“of beets hot from the oven”) to “van Beet H. Oven,” which later got shortened to “van Beethoven,” which is what we call him now!

Try it yourself: find something with a ridiculous name and invent a tale about how it arose.

And now, because I wrote this drivel, people doing Google searches will read my stupid tales and believe that Xerox was named after Xenia of Roxbury, Cadillac arose from a golf game, Connecticut got named by being a connecting shortcut, Judaism was invented by Judy Finkelstein, dumplings were invented by dumb Pu Ling, the Hallelujah chorus was originally about jalapeños, and Beethoven was a British beet cook. Should I feel guilty?