This chapter comes from the 33rd edition of the "Secret Guide to Computers & Tricky Living," copyright by Russ Walter. To read the rest of the book, look at


Artsy-fartsy, let’s get smartsy.


Monk-Penn art

Thelonious Monk (the jazz pianist & composer) said:

A genius is the one most like himself.

Penn Jillette (the talkative half of the “Penn & Teller” magic show) elaborated:

Here’s the quote I always use, an important quote, kind of lost to history: Thelonious Monk (the great jazz pianist) said “genius is the one most like himself.” That sums up all art.

Art includes Picasso. It also includes reality shows. It also includes porno. Anything you’re doing after the chores are done is art.

In art, what you want to give is a little glimpse of your heart.

He said so at the beginning of this Fox Business News interview:


Picasso’s advice

Pablo Picasso, the greatest modern painter, gave great advice about art & life.

To become a great artist, you should look at the works of others, learn from them, incorporate their ideas into your own thinking, grow, and never stop growing. Picasso said:

Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.

To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.

I’m always doing what I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.

The idea of the top quote (“Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”) is itself stolen from Lionel Trilling, who said:

Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.

George Balanchine (the dance choreographer) elaborated:

God creates, I don’t. I assemble and steal everywhere — from what I see, from what the dancers can do, from what others do.”

Art can be superficial or deep. Picasso asked:

Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?

Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?

Art doesn’t have to be literal. He said:

Art is a lie that enables us to realize the truth.

The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?

Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot. Others transform a yellow spot into the sun.

Art should begin with reality, then go beyond it. He said:

There’s no abstract art. You must always start with something. Later you can remove all traces of reality.

When you start a painting, plan it but don’t over-plan: jump in, start creating it, and then let it take on a life of its own and grow by itself. He said:

You must have an idea of what you’re going to do, but it should be a vague idea.

One never knows what one’s going to do. One starts a painting and then it becomes something quite different.

Get abstract, but not too abstract. He warned:

When you try to find a portrait’s true form by abstracting more and more, you must end up with an egg.

A painting should have a grand purpose. He said:

Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It’s an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.

He admitted:

I don’t own any of my own paintings, because a Picasso original costs several thousand dollars — it’s a luxury I can’t afford.

He also admitted:

The “refined,” the “rich, professional do-nothing,” and the “distiller of quintessence” desire just the peculiar, sensational, eccentric, and scandalous: that’s today’s art.

Since the advent of cubism, I’ve fed those fellows what they wanted and satisfied those critics with all the ridiculous ideas that passed through my head. The less they understood, the more they admired me!

Now I’m celebrated and rich; but when I’m alone, I don’t have the effrontery to consider myself an artist at all, not in the grand meaning of the word. I’m just a public clown. I’ve understood my time and exploited the imbecility, vanity, and greed of my contemporaries.

That’s a bitter confession, more painful than it may seem; but at least — and at last — it’s honest.

I hope you liked Picasso’s advice & confessions, but his wife said:

If my husband ever met a woman on the street who looked like the women in his paintings, he’d faint.


Stoppard’s rebuke

Tom Stoppard is a British playwright who pokes fun at modern art.

He said:

It’s not hard to understand modern art. If it hangs on a wall, it’s a painting; and if you can walk around it, it’s a sculpture.

In his play Artist Descending a Staircase, a character (Donner) says:

Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects, such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.

In his play Travesties, a character (Carr) says to an artist:

When I was at school, on certain afternoons we all had to do what was called Labor: weeding, sweeping, sawing logs for the boiler-room, that sort of thing; but if you had a chit from Matron, you were let off to spend the afternoon messing about in the Art Room. Labor or Art.

And you’ve got a chit for life? Where did you get it?

What’s an artist? For every thousand people, there’s 900 doing the work, 90 doing well, 9 doing good, and 1 lucky bastard who’s the artist.

But Stoppard admitted:

I write plays because dialogue’s the most respectable way to contradict myself.



Many people spend lots of time trying to create music. Like basketball, music is fun & healthy but rarely leads to a successful career.

Music versus art

Americans treat music differently from art. The typical art class encourages kids to create their own art by using crayons, paint, and other media. The typical music class does not encourage kids to compose their own music; instead, the class encourages kids to imitate (perform) music composed by others. Kids are taught to slavishly “play the right notes,” not invent their own.

This miseducation affects our adult lives. While we’re chatting on the phone, we let ourselves do creative artwork, called “doodling,” but not creative music. In the shower, we try to sing correctly, not creatively.

Indian philosophy

At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, I heard a musician explain how to improvise on the sitar (a guitar from India). He said that if you play a “wrong” note, don’t get embarrassed: instead, consider that the sitar is talking to you. Play off the error. Play the wrong note again and again, on purpose, as if you meant it, as if you were purposely trying to surprise the audience and shockingly lead the audience into a new theme.

To be more sophisticated, repeat not just the wrong note but also the entire phrase that contained it, then make that phrase lead up to a climactic phrase that’s even more bizarre and exciting.

Famous music

Would you like to become a famous composer? Would you like to become like Beethoven or the Beatles?

If so, here’s something humbling to remember.…

What’s the most popular piece of music in the whole world, the piece of music that more people around the world know than any other?

No, it’s not by Beethoven, it’s not by the Beatles, and it’s not by Britney Spears (thank God).

The next time you’re at a party, ask your friends to answer that question. Then reveal the answer (“The Happy Birthday Song”) and sing it to the daily victim!

That song is known all over the world. Yes, even in strange countries — like France and China — they sing that song, with the same notes, in their own languages!

The song was invented in 1893 in Louisville Kentucky. The melody was by a kindergarten teacher, Mildred Hill. The original words were by her sister, Patty, the principal, and went like this:

Good morning to you.

Good morning to you.

Good morning, dear children.

Good morning to all.

They were to be sung by teachers (and were published in a songbook called “Song Stories for the Kindergarten”), but soon the kids started singing it back to the teachers and changed the words to:

Good morning to you.

Good morning to you.

Good morning, dear teacher.

Good morning to you.

Much later, some wiseguy changed the words to:

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday, dear _____.

Happy birthday to you.

Those “Happy birthday” words were finally published in a songbook edited by Robert Coleman in 1924. Afterwards, the song spread by word of mouth, radio, movies, Western Union’s singing telegrams, and other crazed comedians.

Eventually, the Hill family sued for copyright infringement. The copyright was eventually sold to bigger publishers.

It was legal to sing the song at family birthday parties privately; but you were supposed to pay royalties if you performed the song publicly, such as in a restaurant or sports arena or movie —according to lawyers — at the following:

anyplace “open to the public” or where gather a substantial number of people outside a normal circle of “a family and its social acquaintances”

The eventual copyright owner (Time Warner) collected 2 million dollars per year in royalties, which it split with a foundation established by the sister’s family.

But in 2015, a judge finally declared the copyright was invalid.

Moral: if you want big fame and big bucks, write happy songs, for kids! I wonder how much money Barney generates by singing:

I love you. You love me.

We’re a happy family.

I prefer the popular parody:

I hate you. You hate me.

We’re a dysfunctional family.

Sing it whenever mom yells at you. Then you’ll really piss her off!

Beautiful simplicity

If you teach a class in music composition, play this trick on the students.

Tell them you want them to write a musical composition that’s hauntingly beautiful, also relaxing, yet so sad it can make even the toughest men cry.

Give them a few minutes to start working on the project, then say:

Oh, by the way, I want the composition to be short: no more than 25 notes.

Watch them rethink.

Then say:

And I want no lyrics and no harmony. The melody alone must be the whole composition. Remember it must be “hauntingly beautiful, relaxing, and so sad it makes even the toughest men cry.”

A few minutes later, say:

Oh, by the way, one more restriction: you’re not allowed to use any sharps or flats. The whole composition must be playable on the piano’s white notes, without using any black notes.

At this point, some of the students will start cursing you as they rewrite again.

A few minutes later, add:

Oh, by the way, one more restriction: you can’t use the notes D, F, A, or B. The only notes you can use are C, E, and G.

At this point, the students will probably start saying “You’re nuts,” “You’re crazy,” “Why didn’t you tell us that before,” and “It’s impossible.”

A few minutes later add:

Now I’m going to impose a further restriction: the only notes you can use are middle C, the G just below it, and the E & G just above it.

You’ll hear more cursing, but some of the students will start wondering what the point of all this is, what game you’re trying to play.


A few minutes later, if the students have enough patience, add this command:

Now here’s a final restriction: after each note (except the last note), you must write a note that’s the same, or adjacent, or starts repeating a phrase. For example, after E, you must put E again or the G above it or the C below it or start repeating a phrase that’s been heard already.

Now everybody wonders how you can make a song that’s “hauntingly beautiful, relaxing, and tearfully sad” even though it’s so restricted (shorter than 25 notes, without lyrics, without harmony, restricted to the notes of a C chord around middle C, and without jumps except for repetitions).

Say this:

Millions of Americans know a piece of music that has all those properties and restrictions. Do you know which piece of music that is?

If nobody guesses, start giving hints.

Here’s a hint: what musical instrument plays only a C chord?

If still no answer, give further help.

What’s the saddest thing that can happen to somebody?

If still no answer, give further help.

What’s the most relaxing thing that can happen to somebody?

If still no answer, give further help.

What government organization dominates the lives (and therefore the music) of millions of Americans?

If they still have no clue, just give up and say, “Now I’m going to play the music that meets all those criteria.” Then play “Taps” on a bugle.

To end the lesson, give the class this moral:

The art of writing music is to put restrictions on yourself, then successfully maneuver within those restrictions.

How to improvise

Try this experiment.…

Make the piano cry Walk up to the piano. Press a key near the middle of the keyboard. Then remove your finger from that key. Press the key that’s immediately left of the key you pressed before, regardless of color. (For example, if you pressed E before, press E flat; if you pressed C before, press B.) Notice that this second key sounds slightly lower than the first. Keep doing that: keep moving down to the left, pressing each key, regardless of color. (For example, if you started at E, press E flat, then D, then D flat, then C, then B, then B flat, then A.) That’s called
going down the chromatic scale (or chromatic decline). Keep doing that, until you’ve played 8 notes altogether.

Now start at some other key on the keyboard and go down the chromatic scale from that new key, so you’ve played 8 new notes. (Now you’ve played 16 notes altogether!)

Hop to a third key on the keyboard and go down the chromatic scale from that key, so you’ve play 8 further notes. (Now you’ve played 24 notes altogether!)

Going down the chromatic scale makes the piano sound like it’s crying: oh, such a mournful melody!

To increase the effect, get several friends to join you at the piano: all of you play simultaneously, so each of you goes down the chromatic scale simultaneously. (If you don’t have any friends with you at the moment, try making your two hands pretend to be two people.)

The person who’s farthest left is called the bass. For best results, have the bass player play twice as slowly, so he goes down one note while the other players go down two notes. Those long notes in the bass create a steady, sticky “glue” that holds the composition together.

Break free To avoid monotony, let each player be free to “break the rules” occasionally. For example, instead of taking an 8-note run, try taking a 4-note run or a 2-note run. Try letting the bass player play even slower — while the other players play even faster.

To avoid making the composition sound too depressing, let each player occasionally go up the scale instead of down, to create a glimmer of hope — before resuming the doom of descending into darkness.

Let each player be free to occasionally play any note or pattern. For example, instead of going down in boring scales, let your fingers wander in both directions (up and down), like a staggering drunk who’s indecisive about which direction to walk in. (That’s called a random walk.)

Add teamwork Let each player occasionally stop to listen to the other players (silence is golden!) and then imitate their patterns (so the group sounds like an attentive ensemble doing teamwork, instead of a disorganized mess).

Folk music To create folk music, play just on the black keys (that’s called the pentatonic scale) while doing a random walk.

Chinese music To make that folk music sound Chinese, make each non-bass player do this: instead of pressing one black key at a time, press two black keys that are fairly close together (so just one black key is between them). That’s called
pentatonic parallel thirds.

Mozart To create Mozart music, do Chinese music but play on the white notes instead of the black (that’s called
diatonic parallel thirds), so each non-bass player is playing a pair of white notes that are fairly close together (and just one white note is between them). Then try this improvement: when playing a pair of notes, if the top note is a C, make the pair’s bottom note be E instead of A.

Warning: when producing Mozart music, use fewer players than with other types of music, so you keep your composition as simple as a music box and avoid clashes.

Debussy On the keyboard, the black notes come in clumps. Some clumps contain 3 black notes. Other clumps contain 2 black notes. Try this restriction: let yourself play the 3 black notes that come in a 3-black-note clump, and also let yourself play the 3 white notes that are near the 2-black-note clump. Restricting yourself to those notes is called the whole-tone scale, which sounds like the impressionist harp music composed by the French composer Debussy. For best results, go up that scale instead of down (except for variety).

Was Dr. Seuss the first rapper?

I wonder whether rap music was influenced by Dr. Seuss. The beat’s the same:

As I think about the music that is driving me insane,

And I wonder if I blunder when I call it such a name,

And the oink-oink little piggy blew the house down — such as shame! —

I’m a rapper and a crapper playing Seuss’s little game.

Da-da-da-da! Da-da-da-da! Da-da-da-da! Da-da-da!

I hate rap music. The rap version of “Silent Night! Holy Night!” would be:

Night of silence! Night of holes!

Kick some butt and grab your goals!

Snatch fine “gifts” from ev’ry shop.

Do not pay! Run! Do not stop!

Christ almighty, beat them cop!

Yeah, become a famous whammer!

Braggin’ time in ev’ry slammer!


Nasty musician jokes

Musicians make cynical comments about each other.

Most think the drummers should be paid less, since they don’t have to think about pitch and tend to be immature.

What do you call a drummer with half a brain?


What does the average drummer get on an IQ test?


A store sells brains, each in a glass jar. The sign on the scientist’s brain says $100, electrician’s brain says $1000, and drummer’s brain says $10,000. A customer asks, “Why should I buy a drummer’s brain for $10,000 when I can buy a scientist’s brain for $100?” The shopkeeper replies, “Because the drummer’s brain has never been used.”

What’s the best way to confuse a drummer?

Put a sheet of music in front of him.

Little Johnny tells his mom, “When I grow up, I want to be a drummer.”

Mommy says, “I’m sorry, Johnny, but you can’t do both.”

How does a savings bond differ from a drummer?

The bond eventually matures and makes money.

Why is a drum machine better than a drummer?

It keeps better time and won’t sleep with your girlfriend.

What do you call a drummer that breaks up with his girlfriend?


If a hundred dollar bill was laying on the floor and Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, a drummer with good time, and a drummer with bad time were standing nearby, who’d get the hundred dollars?

The drummer with bad time, because the other 3 don’t exist.

What do a sneeze and a drummer have in common?

You know when they’re coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But the conductor should be paid even less, since he doesn’t have to play anything himself:

If a musician can’t handle his instrument, they take it away, give him 2 sticks, and make him a drummer. If he can’t even handle 2 sticks, they take 1 away and make him a conductor.

How’s a moose the opposite of an orchestra?

The moose has his horns in the front and the asshole in the back.

Some drummers are proud, especially in jazz bands, because the drummer’s beat holds the whole band together. Drummer Panama Francis said:

The drummer drives. Everybody else rides!

In a band, musicians wish the saxophonists would get fewer solos and go away:

What’s the range of a soprano saxophone?

The world’s record is 57 yards.

What do you call 600 saxophones at the bottom of the ocean?

A good start.

How can you tell if it’s a sax player at the door?

He doesn’t know which key to use or when to come in, and the door drags.

But saxophonists, in turn, wish accordions would go away. Saxophonist Al Cohn said:

A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordion, and doesn’t.

Trumpet players are too loud & proud, especially when they’re practicing.

What do lawyers and trumpet players have in common?

People are happiest when their cases are closed.

What’s the difference between a trumpet player and God?

God knows he’s not a trumpet player.

Trombone players are disliked also.

What do you call a beautiful woman on a trombone player’s arm?

A tattoo.

In a band, the tubas often play just oompah music, alternating between the notes C and G.

A young kid returned from his first lesson on how to play the tuba. His dad asked him, “How did it go?” He replied, “Great! I learned how to play a C.”

The next week, the kid took another lesson. His dad asked how it went. He replied, “Terrific! I learned how to play a G.”

The third week, the kid didn’t come home until 2AM. His dad screamed, “Where in hell were you?” He replied, “Out gigging.”

In a string quartet, the viola is the least useful instrument.

What’s the difference between a chainsaw and a viola?

If you absolutely had to, you could use a chainsaw in a string quartet.

Musicians are often told to use the back door:

Saint Peter is checking ID’s at the pearly gates.

He asks the first soul in line, “What did you do on Earth?” The soul replies, “I was a doctor.” Peter says, “Okay, go through the gates then turn left.”

He asks the next soul, “What did you do on Earth?” “I was a teacher.” “Okay, go through the gates then turn left.”

He asks the third soul, “What did you do on Earth” “I was a musician.” “All right, go around to the back door, up the freight elevator, and through the kitchen.”

The typical musician gets paid little:

Saint Peter, at the pearly gates, asks the first soul in line, “What was your last job and annual salary?” The soul replies, “$200,000. I was a trial lawyer.”

The second soul replies, “$95,000. I was a realtor.”

The third soul replies, “$10,000.” Saint Peter says, “Cool! What instrument did you play?”

But musicians don’t mind. Trumpeter Jack Daney said:

To be a musician is a curse.

To not be one is even worse.

He also said being an unemployed musician is not so bad:

One of the perks of being an unemployed musician is that you get to play much less bad music.

But playing pop music has its advantages. Bandleader Xavier Cugat said:

I’d rather play Chiquita Banana and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.

If you know musical scales & chords, you’ll understand this:

C, E-flat, and G go into a bar.

The bartender says “Sorry, we don’t serve minors,” so E-flat leaves, and C & G have an open fifth between them. After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished; G is out flat.

F comes in and tries to augment the situation but isn’t sharp enough.

D comes in but heads straight for the bathroom, saying “Excuse me. I'll just be a second.”

A comes in, but the bartender thinks this relative of C is a minor. Then the bartender notices B-flat hiding at the end of the bar and yells, “Get out! You’re the seventh minor I've found in this bar tonight.”

The next night, E-flat comes to the bar in a 3-piece suit. The bartender says, “You’re looking sharp tonight! Come in. This could be a major development.” That proves to be the case, as E-flat takes off the suit and is now au naturel.

Eventually, C sobers up and realizes in horror that he’s under a rest. He’s guilty of contributing to the diminution of a minor and sentenced to 10 years of DS without Coda at an upscale correctional facility; but, on appeal, he’s found innocent of any wrongdoing, even accidental, and all accusations to the contrary are bassless.

The bartender decides he needs a rest — and closes the bar.

You can find more musician jokes at:

Best classical music

Many musicians feel that the best classical music is chamber music (music for a small group of instruments). It tends to be purer and cleverer than orchestral music and opera, which often get too bombastic. To taste the finest classical music, treat yourself to these examples of chamber music and beyond (listed by the year composed):

1791, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A (K. 622), as performed by Benny Goodman (humorously!)

1794, Haydn’s Piano Trio #1 in G (including the “Gypsy Rondo”)

1809, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 in E Flat (Opus 73, nicknamed “the Emperor Concerto”)

1810, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B Flat (Opus 97, nicknamed “the Archduke Trio”)

1887, Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A (Opus 81, romantic)

1899, Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (this composition made jazz become popular)

1924, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (jazz), as performed by Leonard Bernstein (who can control tempo!)

1940, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet (Opus 57), as performed by Shostakovich himself (authentic!)

1944, Bartok’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, as performed by Ivry Gitlis (who’s intense!)

For 1960’s fun music based on classical feelings, listen to collections of music sung by The Beatles (great melodies), The Supremes (rich harmonies),
The Mamas & The Papas (fun harmonies), and Tom Lehrer (fun words).



Movies affect and distort our sense of reality. Here are some bizarre examples.

Extreme movies

To make your life more bizarre, watch these extreme movies:

Movie                                            What it’s best at                                          Year Award

Romance movies

      The Philadelphia Story             best wedding movie about choosing the groom   1940  8

      Casablanca                               best movie about a past love                               1942  9 A

      The Seven Year Itch                 best movie about being seduced by a neighbor   1955  7

      The Bridges of Madison County best movie about a fling                                     1995  8

Lost-soul movies

      It’s a Wonderful Life                best movie about avoiding suicide                      1946  9

      Cast Away                                best movie about being lost on an island             2000  8

      The Artist                                 best movie about being jazzily silent                   2011  8 A

Coming-of-age movies

      The Last Picture Show             best movie about growing up in Texas                1971  8

      American Graffiti                     best movie about growing up in California         1973  8

      Big                                           best movie about finding your inner child           1988  7

Gross-comedy movies

      Animal House                          best movie about college pranks                         1978  8

      There’s Something About Mary  best movie about peeking at women                   1998  7

Sinister movies

      Citizen Kane                            best movie about losing your principles              1941  8

      A Clockwork Orange               best movie about British thugs                           1971  8

      The Truman Show                    best movie about having your privacy invaded   1998  8

Horror movies

      Jaws                                         best horror movie about teeth, water, sharks       1975  8

      The Shining                             best horror movie about the effects of snow        1980  8

      The Cook, Thief, Wife, Lover   best horror movie about a restaurant                   1989  8

Popular-music movies

      Gold Diggers of 1933              only musical where the star sings in Pig Latin     1933  8

      42nd Street                                best musical about impossible stage shows         1933  8

      The Wizard of Oz                     best musical about escaping from Kansas            1939  8

      Holiday Inn                              best musical about falling in love on holidays     1942  8

      South Pacific                            best musical about falling in love with foreigners 1958  7

      The Music Man                        best musical about salesmanship                         1962  8

      My Fair Lady                           best musical about how to speak properly          1964  8 A

      Cabaret                                    best musical about Nazi Germany                      1972  8

      Chicago                                   best musical about daydreaming                        2002  7 A

Classical-music movies

      The Competition                      best movie about a piano contest                        1980  7

      Amadeus                                  best movie about how Mozart was crazy            1984  8 A

Crazy-Jew movies

      Annie Hall                               best Jewish movie about being in love                1977  8 A

      Deconstructing Harry               best Jewish movie about being old and confused 1997  7

      Life is Beautiful                       best Jewish movie about laughing at death          1997  9

Illustrated-issue movies

      The Long Walk Home              best tale about desegregating Alabama               1990  7

      Not One Less                           best tale about school in rural China                   1999  8

The best way to learn about movies is to visit the Internet Movie Database ( That Web site lets people rate how much they liked movies they saw, on a scale of 1 to 10. In the Award column, I show the movie’s weighted-average score (which is computed by the Web site in a way to avoid vote stuffing). In the Award column, an “A” means “won the Academy Award’s Oscar for Best Picture that year.”

If you try to get one of those movies, make sure you get the correct year. Other movies with similar titles from other years are worse.

Popularity contests

On the Internet Movie Database (, no movie’s average score is 10. (That’s because, no matter how great a movie is, there are still some people who hate it.) Here are the 53 movies whose average score is 9; voters consider these the best movies to watch:

Year Movies that are still rated 9

1931  City Lights

1936  Modern Times

1942  Casablanca

1946  It’s a Wonderful Life

1954  7 Samurai, Rear Window

1957  12 Angry Men

1960  Psycho

1966  The Good the Bad and the Ugly

1968  Once Upon a Time in the West

1972  The Godfather

1974  The Godfather part 2

1975  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1977  Star Wars a New Hope

1979  Apocalypse Now

1980  Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back

1981  Raiders of the Lost Ark

1985  Back to the Future

1990  Goodfellas

1991  The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2

1993  Schindler’s List

1994  Lion King, Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Shawshank, Léon Professional

1995  Se7en, The Usual Suspects

1997  Life is Beautiful

1998  Saving Private Ryan, American History X

1999  The Matrix, Fight Club, The Green Mile

2000  Gladiator, Memento

2001  Spirited Away, Lord of Rings Fellowship

2002  City of God, Pianist, Lord of Rings 2 Towers

2003  Lord of Rings the Return of the King

2006  The Departed, The Prestige

2008  The Dark Knight

2010  Inception

2011  The Intouchables

2014  Whiplash, Interstellar

Some of those movies are old. Some are lowbrow. Some are immoral. Some are confusing. All are memorable. Most are American (because most of the voters are American). 1994 was the best year: it produced 5 top-rated movies! 2015 and 2016 produced no winners at all.

In 2012, the British Film Institute asked 358 famous movie directors, from around the world, to each list the 10 greatest movies of all time. The directors tended to pick old classic movies that inspired their own work. These 10 movies were mentioned the most often:

Year Movie                     Director    Country

1941  Citizen Kane            Welles         USA

1948  The Bicycle Thief    De Sica       Italy

1953  Tokyo Story             Yasujiro      Japan

1958  Vertigo                     Hitchcock   USA

1963  8½                           Fellini         Italy

1968  2001 Space Odyssey Kubrick      USA

1972  The Godfather          Coppola   USA

1974  Mirror                      Tarkovsky   Russia

1976  Taxi Driver              Scorsese      USA

1979  Apocalypse Now      Coppola   USA

The British Film Institute also asked 846 movie deciders (critics, academics, distributors, and programmers), from around the world, to each list the 10 greatest movies of all time. The deciders tended to pick old classic movies that performed bold experiments. These 20 movies were mentioned the most often:

Year Movie                     Director    Country

1925  Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein    Russia

1927  Sunrise                     Murnau       USA

1928  Passion of Joan of Arc  Dreyer         France

1929  Man with Movie Camera Vertov         Russia

1934  L’Atalante             Vigo            France

1939  Rules of the Game    Renoir         France

1941  Citizen Kane            Welles         USA

1949  Late Spring              Yasujiro      Japan

1951  Singin’ in the Rain    Donen/Kelly USA

1953  Tokyo Story             Yasujiro       Japan

1954  Seven Samurai         Kurosawa    Japan

1956  The Searchers          Ford            USA

1958  Vertigo                     Hitchcock   USA

1960  Breathless                Godard       France

1963  8½                           Fellini         Italy

1966  Au Hasard Balthazar Bresson       France

1966  Persona                    Bergman     Sweden

1968  2001 Space Odyssey Kubrick      USA

1974  Mirror                     Tarkovsky   Russia

1979  Apocalypse Now      Coppola    USA

Movie clichés

Americans learn about life by watching TV and movies. Many movies distort reality by containing these clichés:


A bad guy’s first shot always misses. It just announces that a fight will begin.

A hero always gets shot in the shoulder.

Evil men are too stupid to shoot heroes in the face. Instead, they aim for the bulletproof vest.

Even the thinnest piece of wood will shield you from all bullets.

When one man shoots at 20 men, he’s more likely to kill them all than when 20 men shoot at one.

In a swordfight, you must find stairs to fight on, so the loser can roll down them to die at the bottom.

In a swordfight, jump up on a table. When the villain swipes at your legs, just hop over his blade.

When women fight, they pull hair, fall to the ground together, and roll over twice.

In a martial-arts fight, enemies surrounding you will wait patiently for you to kill them one-by-one.

A hero becomes invulnerable when he takes his shirt off.

When a villain captures you to kill, he kindly pauses for 5 minutes to tell you his life’s plans.


Every army platoon includes a black guy who can play the harmonica.

You’ll survive the battle unless you show someone a photo of your sweetheart back home.

The person with the most plans, prospects, and hopes will die.

During an artillery barrage, a kid or dog can safely wander around, but half the soldiers will die.


Every time bomb has a big red readout that shows how many seconds remain.

While a bad guy chases you, he kindly pauses to throw objects you can jump over.

When terrified, a woman always sticks her fist in her mouth.

Every woman who tries to flee insists on wearing high heels.

When being chased by an evil man, a woman always stumbles to the ground, even if the terrain is level.

To help a woman flee, a man hugs his arm around her, though hugging slows both of them down.

A person chased to a staircase is always stupid enough to run upstairs, not down to exit the building.


A hero shows no pain when beaten but winces when a woman tries to clean his wounds.

When you’re hit on the head and become unconscious, you never get a concussion or brain damage.

During a fight, a hero’s only facial injuries are on his right cheekbone and his mouth’s right corner.

A hero wipes blood from his mouth’s right corner with the back of his hand, then looks at it.

If a hero’s cheek gets injured, just put a Band-Aid on it, and it will heal completely by the next day.

Bibles, religious medals, and photos of loved ones stop bullets better than a bulletproof vest.


A good person dies only while friends are watching.

If a good person dies with eyes open, a friend will close them; but a villain’s eyes stay open forever.

If you’re dying, friends whisper lovingly to you or kiss you, instead of calling an ambulance.

If your friend is dying, try this cure: yell “You can’t do this to me — I love you!” and “Fight!”

Bedroom antics

Whenever strangers have sex, they reach intense, simultaneous orgasms on the first try.

During sex, all women leave their underwear on, and they moan but don’t sweat.

After sex, you never need Kleenex.

Every bed has a crooked sheet that covers up to a woman’s armpit but just to a man’s waist.

Whenever you wake up from a nightmare, you sit bolt upright and pant.

Every teenager’s bedroom window comes with a drainpipe strengthened to hold the kid’s weight.


You can eat as much as you want and never need to go to the toilet.

When women wake up, they don’t need to go to the toilet, but women must shower frequently.

The best way to tell when a woman is pregnant is to wait for her to vomit.

Women never menstruate.

If several people are in a bathroom, one of them must tell a secret while they all face the mirror.

Kitchen antics

Kitchens have no light switches. At night, you must open the fridge door and use that light instead.

All shopping bags are paper, topped off with French bread & carrots, which spill onto the kitchen floor.

Families are too rushed to ever finish breakfast, so dad and the kids always dash out, upsetting mom.


In Paris, all the windows face the Eiffel Tower.

In New York, nice people getting low-paying jobs all live in luxury apartments.

You can pick any lock with a credit card or paper clip, except when a kid behind the door is trapped in a fire.

All elevator shafts are clean and well-lit, to make sure heroes won’t get dirty or need flashlights.

Whenever you want an elevator, it’s already at your floor, unless you’re chased by an evil person.


When you drive to any building, you’ll always find a parking space in front.

When you try to cross the street, you’re delayed by traffic just if you’re in a rush.

In New York, you can safely leave your car unlocked. Even convertibles with tops down don’t get stolen.

Whenever you flee a villain, your car won’t start — at least not on the first try.

While driving, you can dodge bullets by ducking your head.

When hitting a parked car, a speeding car goes up in the air, but the parked car won’t even wiggle.

Every car chase through town will smash a fruit cart owned by a Greek, who’ll curse but stay unhurt.

When you want a taxi, you’ll get one immediately, except when you’re in danger.

To pay for a taxi, don’t bother looking at your wallet: the first bill you grab will be the exact amount.


Planes always depart on time and never require a boarding pass: just hop on.

If your plane contains a nun, it will crash.

You can land any plane easily if somebody in the control tower just tells you what to do.


You never need to look up phone numbers: you’ve memorized your whole city’s phone book.

Whenever the phone wakes you up, you must knock it to the floor before answering.

When you phone friends, you never need to say “hello” or “goodbye”: those courtesies take too long.


Whatever you decide to sing, everyone around you already knows the tune & words and joins in.

If you start dancing in the street, everyone you bump into already knows all the steps.

You can play wind instruments and accordions without moving your fingers.


Since bars are never busy, bartenders just relax, chat, wash glasses, and flip bottles in the air.

Whenever a bar plays country music, a fight will break out.

At a bar, don’t bother saying which brand of beer you want: the bartender can always read your mind.

At the home of a friend who asks you “Want a drink?” say just “Yes”: don’t bother saying which type.

Strong whiskey makes a hero wince, wipe his mouth on his sleeve, then flash clenched teeth.

One swig of booze is enough to numb pain before the girl jabs a knife in your arm to remove a bullet.

When you have a hangover, putting an icepack on your head makes you become fun and not vomit.

Whenever you throw cold water or black coffee at a drunk, he’ll immediately get sober.


In any pair of identical twins, one of them is evil — or both are evil.

During emotional confrontations, people always talk back-to-back instead of face-to-face.

A feminist spurns a macho hero until he rescues her from death. Then she becomes his docile slave.

After a feminist becomes docile, a macho hero always softens up and tells her his tragic past.


High-powered female executives always wear miniskirts and 5-inch heels to work.

Women always apply makeup before going to bed. It stays intact all night and while scuba diving.

Even in prehistoric times, women always shaved their legs and armpits.

Medieval peasants all had filthy faces, tangled hair, ragged clothes, and perfect teeth.

Whenever you knock out someone and steal the person’s clothes, they fit you perfectly.

At night, everything turns blue.

When lightning appears, you hear its thunder instantly, and the rain starts then too.

Mexicans speak perfect English except they say Señor and Gracias instead of “Sir” and “Thank you.”


Action heroes never wear glasses.

Your glasses will never fog, even when you come in from the cold.

Little girls wearing glasses always tell the truth. Little boys wearing glasses always lie.


If you’re a woman hearing a noise at night, you must investigate while wearing revealing underwear.

If you’re a woman hearing noises at home, your cat will jump at you before you get strangled.

If a killer lurks in your home, you can find him easily: just take a bath.

A light bulb burns out (or flickers) just if someone hides in that room and waits to jump on you.

Every police investigation requires a visit to a strip club.

A police detective can’t solve a tough case until he’s suspended from duty.

Dogs know which people are bad and bark at them.

Incriminating evidence will always be in the next-to-bottom drawer or in photo #4 of a stack.

To access a computer’s secret files, just type “ACCESS ALL THE SECRET FILES.”

If a hero kills lots of bad guys, police won’t question him about those murders.

For more info about movie clichés, see The Movie Clichés List (put onto the Internet by Giancarlo Cairella at and watch a video called
CineMassacre’s Top 10 Worst Movie Clichés. That video is at:

When you watch a TV broadcast of the news, you’re actually watching a video that’s full of clichés, illustrated at Charlie Brooker’s How to Report the News ( and The Onion’s Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere (

How to be an actor

George Burns said:

Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Edward G. Robinson said:

The sitting around on the set is awful. But I always figure that's what they pay me for. The acting I do for free.

Alfred Hitchcock said:

When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say “It’s in the script.” If he says “But what’s my motivation?” I say “Your salary.”

Stage names

If you don’t like the name your mom gave you at birth (your birth name), replace it with a stage name that’s more appealing, as done by these actors —

Stage name      His birth name

Boris Karloff         William Henry Pratt

Buddy Hackett      Leonard Hacker

Cary Grant            Archibald Alexander Leach

Charles Bronson   Charles Buchinsky

Charlie Sheen       Carlos Irwin Estévez

Chico Marx          Leonard Marx

Chuck Norris        Carlos Ray

Douglas Fairbanks Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman

Edward G. Robinson Emanuel Goldenberg

Fred Astaire          Frederick Austerlitz II

Gene Wilder          Jerome Silberman

George Burns        Nat Birnbaum

Groucho Marx      Julius Henry Marx

Harpo Marx          Adolf Marx

Jack Benny           Benjamin Kubelsky

Jerry Lewis           Joseph Levitch

John Wayne          Marion Robert Morrison

Kirk Douglas        Issur Danielovitch

Louis C.K.            Louis Székely

Martin Sheen        Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez

Mel Brooks           Melvin Kaminsky

Michael Caine       Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr.

Nicolas Cage         Nicolas Kim Coppola

Omar Sharif          Michel Demitri Shalhoub

Peter Lorre           László Löwenstein

Phil Silvers           Philip Silversmith

Red Buttons          Aaron Chwatt

Redd Fox              John Elroy Sanford

Rock Hudson        Leroy Harold Scherer, Jr.

Rodney Dangerfield Jacob Rodney Cohen

Roy Rogers           Leonard Franklin Slye

Stan Laurel           Arthur Stanley Jefferson

Tim Allen             Timothy Alan Dick

Tom Cruise           Thomas Cruise Mapother IV

Tony Curtis           Bernard Herschel Schwartz

Vin Diesel             Mark Sinclair

W.C. Fields           William Claude Dukenfield

Woody Allen        Allan Stewart Konigsberg

Yves Montand      Ivo Livi

and these actresses —

Stage name      Her birth name

Anne Bancroft      Anne Italiano

Diane Keaton        Diane Hall

Doris Day             Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff

Greta Garbo          Greta Lovisa Gustafsson

Helen Mirren        Helen Lydia Mironoff

Judy Garland        Frances Ethel Gumm

Joan Crawford      Lucille Fay LeSueur

Lauren Bacall        Betty Joan Perski

Marilyn Monroe    Norma Jean Mortensen

Miley Cyrus          Destiny Hope Cyrus

Natalie Portman    Natalie Hershlag

Natalie Wood        Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko

Raquel Welch       Jo Raquel Tejada

Shelly Winters       Shirley Schrift

Sophia Loren        Sofia Villani Scicolone

Tina Fey               Elizabeth Stamatina Fey

Whoopi Goldberg Caryn Elaine Johnson

and these singers —

Stage name      Birth name

Bing Crosby         Harry Lillis Crosby

Bob Dylan            Robert Allen Zimmerman

Bruno Mars           Peter Gene Hernandez

Cher                     Cherilyn Sarkisian

Dean Martin         Dino Paul Crocetti

Elton John            Reginald Kenneth Dwight

Eminem                Marshall Bruce Mathers III

Ethel Merman       Ethel Agnes Zimmermann

Fergie                   Stacy Ann Ferguson

Iggy Pop               James Newell Osterberg, Jr.

Jamie Foxx           Eric Marlon Bishop

John Denver            Henry John Deutschendorf

Katy Perry            Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson

Lady Gaga            Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta

Madonna              Madonna Louise Ciccone

Meat Loaf             Marvin Lee Aday

Miley Cyrus          Destiny Hope Cyrus

Nicki Minaj          Onika Tanya Maraj

Patti Page             Clara Ann Fowler

Pink                      Alecia Beth Moore

Psy                       Park Jae-sang

Queen Latifa         Dana Elaine Owens

Ringo Starr           Richard Starkey

Rihanna                Robyn Rihanna Fenty

Snoop Dogg         Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr.

Stevie Wonder      Stevland Hardaway Judkins

Tina Turner           Anna Mae Bullock

50 Cent                 Curtis James Jackson III

and this gunslinger —

Stage name      Birth name

Annie Oakley       Phoebe Ann Moses

And this golfer —

Stage name      Birth name

Tiger Woods         Eldrick Tont Woods

and these authors —

Pen name          Birth name

Ayn Rand             Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum

Dr. Seuss              Theodor Seuss Geisel

George Eliot         Mary Anne Evans

George Orwell      Eric Arthur Blair

George Sand         Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin

Joseph Conrad       Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski

Lemony Snicket    Daniel Handler

Lewis Carroll       Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

Mark Twain          Samuel Langhorne Clemens

Mimi Coucher      Todd Lyon

O. Henry              William Sydney Porter

Voltaire                François-Marie Arouet

and these U.S. presidents (whose names changed when their moms remarried) —

Political name  Birth name

Bill Clinton           William Jefferson Blyth III

Gerald Ford          Leslie Lynch King, Jr.

and this First Lady (whose name changed when her mom remarried and changed again when she herself remarried):

Political name  Birth name

Nancy Reagan       Anne Frances Robbins

Those lists of birth names are correct. (The second edition of Tricky Living accidentally contained birth names that turned out to be false rumors.)

A long list of stage names is at:

Advice about how to invent a stage name for yourself is at:

If you had to pick a stage name for yourself, what would it be?


How to write

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.

Authors say they’re “writing” but forget to put an “h” after the “t”: they’re writhing, in pain.


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.

It’s fun to add a few extra paragraphs to your writing. It’s less fun to edit what you’ve written and remove what’s bad, but you must! Antoine de Saint Exupéry said:

Perfection’s attained not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing more to remove.

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.


Quick wits

Here are 3 masters of quick wit.

Dorothy Parker said:

I hate writing. I love having written.

Tell him I was too fucking busy — or vice versa.

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.

It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.

All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends.

You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

I don’t care what is written about me, so long as it isn’t true.

Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both.

Ducking for apples — change one letter and it's the story of my life.

Friends come and go, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d be one of them.

What's the difference between an enzyme and a hormone?

You can’t hear an enzyme.

If all the girls attending the Yale prom were laid end to end,

I wouldn’t be surprised.

Love is like quicksilver in the hand:

leave the fingers open and it stays; clutch it and it darts away.

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,

A medley of extemporanea;

And love is a thing that can never go wrong;

And I am Marie of Romania.

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of
The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

If you try to be as witty as her, don’t just wisecrack. She warned:

Wit has truth to it. Wisecracking is just calisthenics with words.

Steven Wright said:

Hermits have no peer pressure.

What a nice night for an evening!

What’s another word for thesaurus?

I intend to live forever. So far, so good.

I bought batteries, but they weren’t included.

I got powdered water. I don’t know what to add.

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?

I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.

Many people are afraid of heights. Not me. I’m afraid of widths.

I think it’s wrong that just one company makes the game Monopoly.

There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore like an idiot.

A friend sent me a picture postcard of the earth. The back said, “Wish you were here.”

If it’s a penny for your thoughts and you put in your 2 cents worth, then someone somewhere is making a penny.

Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach. That pisses me off. I’ll go over to a little baby and ask, “What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!”

2 babies were born on the same day at the same hospital. They lay there and looked at each other. Their families came and took them away. 80 years later, by bizarre coincidence, they lay in the same hospital, on their deathbeds, next to each other. One looked at the other and said, “So, what did you think?”

Here’s how Pauline Phillips, who wrote under the pen name “Abigail Van Buren” and called herself “Dear Abby,” answered questions about love:

Q:   Which is better: to go a school dance with a creep or sit home?

A:   Go with the creep, and look over the crop.

Q:   My boyfriend’s going to be 20 next month. I'd like to give him something nice for his birthday. What do you think he'd like?

A:   Never mind what he’d like. Give him a tie.

Q:   I've been going with a girl for a year. How can I get her to say yes?

A:   What’s the question?

Q:   I've been going steady with a man for 6 years. We see each other every night. He says he loves me, and I know I love him; but he never mentions marriage. Do you think he’s going out with me just for what he can get?

A:   I don’t know. What's he getting?

Q:   What's the difference between a wife and a mistress?

A:   Night and day.

Q:   I know boys will be boys, but my “boy” is 73 and still chasing women. Any suggestions?

A:   Don't worry. My dog’s been chasing cars for years; but if he ever caught one, he wouldn't know what to do with it.

Here’s how she answered other questions:

Q:   I want to have my family history traced but can't afford to pay for it. Any suggestions?

A:   Run for public office.

Q:   About 4 months ago, the house across the street was sold to a “father and son” — or so we thought. Later we learned it was an older man about 50 and a young fellow about 24. This was a respectable neighborhood before this “odd couple” moved in. They have all sorts of strange-looking company: men who look like women, women who look like men, blacks, whites, Indians. Yesterday I even saw 2 nuns go in there! These weirdoes are wrecking our property values! How can we improve the quality of this once-respectable neighborhood?

A:   You could move.

The top-rated witty poem is The Rich Man, written by Dorothy Parker’s mentor (Franklin Pierce Adams) in 1909, when just the rich had cars & fancy cigars. The main verses are:

The rich man has his motor car,

His country and his town estate.

He smokes a 50-cent cigar

And jeers at fate.

But though my lamp burns low and dim,

Though I must slave for livelihood,

Think you that I would trade with him?

You bet I would!

For youngsters who can’t understand him, here’s my updated version (inspired by Lindsay Lohan and other actresses spiraling downhill toward their deaths):

The actress has her in-car bar,

Her L.A. and New York estates.

She snorts coke from a 10-pound jar

And jeers at fates.

Yet though I’m but an unknown blur,

Though I must slave for livelihood,

Think you that I would trade with her?

You bet I would!

— Except my doctor said I should

Not kill myself as that girl would.

When Lindsay complains she snorts less than 10 pounds, I reply:

Coming soon to the theater that’s you!


Weird writing

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

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 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”

“the epitome of femininity”

“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.”

“Mrs. Smith’s fish-sauce shop seldom sells shellfish.”

“Give papa a proper cup of coffee in a copper coffee cup.”

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 don’t 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,” said she, “This butter’s bitter.

If I bake it in my batter,

It’ll make my batter bitter;

But a bit of better butter’s

Bound to make 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!

Naughty twisters Try to say this poem fast:

I slit a sheet. A sheet I slit.

Upon the slitted sheet I sit.

Can you say it fast — without accidentally saying the naughty word “shit”?

Try to say this poem fast:

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.

Can you say it fast — without accidentally saying “pleasant fucker”?


Just for fun (heh, heh), try to write “personal” ads that summarize your real-or-imaginary life & desires in a single sentence, like this:

Men seeking women

Man with big nose on swelled head seeks swelled woman.

Man with doctored passport seeks nurse.

Women seeking men

Woman hating men seeks sorcerer to change her mind.

Woman having period seeks man knowing how to comma.

Woman with child seeks man who isn’t latter.

Looking for a guy with a sense of humor, to laugh at.


Brain without body seeks both.

Idiot seeks savant.

Smart seeks dumb for fun times in sign language.

Want a partner who’s normal, ’cause I’m not.

If you’re square, I’ll be your square root.

My life’s a mess so you can play in my mud.

Tired of my ex: seek XXX.

My pie is fulfilling but needs your spice.

Let’s study each other to hit high marks on exam.

My spirit is willing when the flesh is in the oven.

Former woman seeks former man for transgendered marriage.

I promise a wonderful time if you don’t tell my parents you saw this ad.

But be careful! A woman in Zurich sent this proposal letter to the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw:

You have the greatest brain in the world, and I have the most beautiful body, so we ought to produce the most perfect child!

He wrote back:

What if the child inherits my body and your brains?

6-word stories

Ernest Hemingway wrote famous stories that are short. Here’s a legend about him: when lunching with other authors, he bet he could write a complete story (with a logical beginning, middle, and end) that was just 6 words long. He won the bet by writing this story on a napkin.…

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Inspired by that legend (whose truth is unknown), many authors have tried to write complete stories — and even complete life memoirs — that are very short: just 6 words long. Can you use just 6 words to tell a complete tale — or summarize your whole life? English teachers tell their students to try.

Thousands of 6-word stories are collected at and Many other Websites have further examples: to find them, do a Google search for “six words.”

Lizzie Widdicombe, in The New Yorker magazine, wrote an article about 6-word stories. To be ironic, every sentence in her article is 6 words long. You can read her article at:

Here are some famous attempts:

6-word thought                                                     Author

I loved. I lost. I’m sorry.                                              “SlashChick”

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.                                    Margaret Atwood

Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.             William Shatner

Womb. Bloom. Groom. Gloom. Rheum. Tomb.            Blake Morrison

Started small. Grew. Peaked. Shrunk. Vanished.           George Saunders

Found true love. Married someone else.                       Dave Eggers

Great sex. Broken heart. Worth it?                                “Dec C.”

Revenge is living well, without you.                            Joyce Carol Oates

Without thinking, I made 2 cups.                                 Alistair Daniel

After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.                     Robin Templeton

Gave commencement address, became sex columnist.  Amy Sohn

He was home. He was lost.                                          Gore Vidal

For sale: halves of a bed.                                             “Dennis”

Across the street, the generations repeat.                      Carol Smith

Vibrator found! Roommate’s. Mike’s my roommate.    “JM”

Mom snorted our child-support money.                       Parker Lanting

Magician’s saw table: used just once.                           “Matilda”

Canoe guide, only got lost once.                                  Taylor Stump

I lost my virginity on 9/11.                                           Laura Garcia

Liars, hysterectomy didn’t improve sex life!                 Joan Rivers

I’m hopelessly romantic and equally unwanted.           “JulieD”

Woman seeks men — high pain threshold.                   Yin Shih

Never made it to med school.                                       “Jeannie”

Older now, I draw myself better.                                  Peter Arkle

Tequila made her clothes fall off.                                 Susanne Broderick

They danced alone in her room.                                   “Gaurav”

Walking home, she regained her virginity.                    Jim Lyon

Boys liked her. She preferred books.                            Anneliese Cuttle

Bang postponed. Not big enough. Reboot.                   David Brin

Easy. Just touch the match to                                       Ursula K. Le Guin

Well, I thought it was funny.                                        Stephen Colbert

Not quite what I was planning…                                  Summer Grimes

Everything I touch turns to mold.                                 Lisa Anne Auerbach

Bipolar, no two ways about it.                                      Jason Owen

Alzheimer’s: meeting new people every day.                Phil Skversky

Craves intelligent conversation with someone kissable.  Olena DeLeeuw

Felt dorky with my thick-rimmed glasses.                    “DanceNerd 2013”

Acting is not all I am.                                                  Molly Ringwald

Fix a toilet, get paid crap.                                            Jennifer James

Hope is stronger than dope, kids!                                 Lizzie Widdicombe

Brevity: a good thing in writing.                                  Lizzie Widdicombe

Me see world! Me write stories!                                   Elizabeth Gilbert

Told you I’d be published someday!                            Kacie Adams

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!


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 famous palindrome sentences.…

The pet-store owner warned customers:

Step on no pets!

Adam told Eve when he met her:

Madam, I’m Adam.

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

Able was I, ere I saw Elba.

The engineer who invented the Panama Canal bragged:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Jon Agee wrote books of palindromes, illustrated with his cartoons. The titles of his first 3 books are these palindromes:

Go hang a salami! I’m a lasagna hog!

Sit on a potato pan, Otis!

So many dynamos!

Samples in his books include:

Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.

Lee has a racecar as a heel.

No way a papaya won!

No, son.

His 4th book adds shorter palindromes, such as:

Pull up!

Tip it!




Critics praising him said —


and if you disagree:

Sue us!

He invented a new word, meaning fear of palindromes:


Pig Latin

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

To convert English to Pig Latin, do this:

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.

Political correctness

Instead of using simple words that are emotional, governments encourage people to use long-winded phrases that are less offensive. Those long phrases are called circumlocutions or euphemisms or evasive language or obfuscations or politically correct speech. George Carlin complains they take “the life out of life.” He mentions these:

Candid term  Euphemism

deaf                   hearing-impaired

blind                  visually impaired

crippled             physically challenged

poor                  economically disadvantaged

stupid                has a learning disorder

ugly                   has a severe appearance deficit

old                     a senior citizen

false teeth          dental appliances

toilet paper        bathroom tissue

constipated        has occasional irregularity

your medicine    your medication

doctor                healthcare-delivery professional

hospital              wellness center

car crash            automobile accident

die                     pass away

motel                 motor lodge

room service      guest-room dining

call information call directory assistance

slum                  inner-city substandard housing

the dump           the landfill

used car             pre-owned transportation

sneakers             running shoes

lie to the enemy engage in disinformation

kill the enemy    depopulate the area

He expects these to come soon:

Candid term  Euphemism

rape victim         unwilling sperm recipient

vomit                 involuntary personal-protein spill

What do you call freaked-out veterans? He noticed the term kept lengthening and getting less personal, though the disability was the same:

War               Name for the disability

World War 1   shell shock

World War 2   battle fatigue

Korean War    operational exhaustion

Vietnam War  post-traumatic stress disorder

To see his complete list of euphemisms and sadly funny rave about it, go to:

Going beyond him, here’s how to criticize people politely:

He’s not a criminal, just ethically deprived.

He’s not irresponsible, just a free spirit.

He’s not violent, just assertively animated.

He’s not greedy, just dollar-addicted.

He’s not procrastinating, just delay-seeking.

He’s not slow, just unaccelerated.

He’s not useless, just unpurposed.

He’s not lecherous, just drooling.

He’s not an asshole, just rear-ended in front.

He’s not evil, just challenging.

He’s not unkempt, just natural.

He’s not bald, just follicularly impaired.

She’s not ugly, just of bounded beauty.

If you’re a student, the Internet recommends you use these politically correct terms to describe your situation:

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: pause at each “…” to let the listeners imagine what the missing word should be:

I wish my best friend lots of luck,

Doing things that end in “uck,”

Like holding hands while trying to…

Take out trash and other muck.

I’m sure his wife will get a kick

When looking at his great big…

Sick face agreeing to give the thermometer a lick.

But after wedding and “I love you,”

They’ll honeymoon and want to…

Murmur, “You’re the one for me. I knew.”


Through woods

Robert Frost wrote these poems about being confused when traveling through the woods:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


Stopping By Woods

on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound's the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Those poems are pretty but not realistic. To be realistic, they should reveal this sad choice —

Walking through 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 woods on a snowy evening.

or this conservative choice —

Walking through 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 woods on a snowy evening,

Two paths diverged,

So I grabbed my iPhone

And got directions.

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


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 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. 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, so they lit a fire in the kayak, but 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 begged the friars to close down, but they refused, so he hired Hugh, 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

Death 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 (found on 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?

Ready for a different riddle? Figure out what 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!

Here’s another puzzle about death:

A woman shoots her husband, then holds him under water for over 5 minutes, then hangs him. But 5 minutes later, they go out together and enjoy a wonderful dinner together. How can that be?


She’s a photographer. She shot a picture of her husband, developed it, and hung it up to dry.

Try this death choice:

You’re condemned to death and must choose from 3 rooms. The first is full of raging fires; the second is full off assassins with loaded guns; the third is full of lions that haven’t eaten in 3 years. Which room is safest for you?


The third. Lions that haven’t eaten in 3 years are dead.

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 loved the jalapeño peppers so much that he wrote a choral work where the singers would loudly sing 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 Christmas, he changed each “Jalapeño” to “Hallelujah” (which sounds almost the same) and pretended the song was just about Christ, not 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:

Ludwig van Beethoven spent most of his life in Germany. Many encyclopedias say he was born there, but researchers recently discovered he was 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 Jewish Russian immigrants, who loved to drink borscht (beet soup). He developed a knack for making great borscht — and also roasting the beets. When he was 7 years old, he was already out on the streets to hawk his soup “of 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 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?

Alphabetical sentences

Try to write a sentence whose first word begins with A, second word begins with B, third word begins with C, and so on.

Here’s my first attempt, which starts nicely but runs downhill:

A better child does everything for God, happy in just knowing love may now offer prayers quite rich, so that upon vowing, weird xylophones yank zombies.

Donna tried her hand, which after my editing became this:

A boy can do every fraudulent gangster hobby if judges kill lonely maidens near ocean ports, quickly recording sins to used vehicles while x-raying your zipper.

Lili Timmons tried this:

Any bear can dance every favored gavotte, having it just kept lively, maintaining natural oblong patter quickly round, stepping to ultimate victory, weaving X’s, yielding zeal.

The Internet offers attempts by others. At, “Unsu” contributed this:

After being completely drugged eating frozen, gelatinous hemp (including jelly), Karen listed many notes (on paper) questioning reality states, tempting uninvited visitors, worrying xenophobic young zookeepers.

Unfortunately, “Karen” isn’t a word.

Can you write a better alphabetical sentence? The ideal sentence would be grammatically correct, sound natural, and make sense. It should avoid hyphens, capitals, dangling phrases, and lists of adjectives. Maybe I should award a prize.…