Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
When is an acceptance speech not an acceptance speech?
When the speaker didn’t win the award!
Hard to imagine that would ever be the rhetorical situation, but it happened last night at the Academy Awards—as you’ve surely heard, even if you don’t follow entertainment news and didn’t watch or didn’t stick around to the end of the show. (I did; I love movies, and I love the Oscars.)
Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner of Best Picture, and the producers, director, cast, and crew rushed to the stage and started giving acceptance speeches. Three producers had given speeches and they seemed to be nearing the end when the stage manager and others came on stage and asked to see the envelope. It said:
Best Female Actor in a Lead Role: Emma Stone in La La Land.
Beatty and Dunaway had been given the wrong envelope, and Dunaway read the name of the wrong movie for the wrong category.
The real winner was the film Moonlight.
That changed everything—including the acceptance speeches.
What a difference one change in the situation can make to the entire event.
Yes, the producers of Moonlight still gave their own acceptance speeches, and they really did win the award. But they didn’t receive the award from the Academy or even from Faye Dunaway. They received it from Jordan Horowitz, a producer of La La Land. He’s the one who announced into the microphone, “There’s a mistake — ‘Moonlight,’ you guys won best picture.”
Mr. Horowitz earned a lot of attention for how graciously he handled the mistake and handed over the award, including the trophy. But that mistake seriously changed the situation for the producers, director, cast, and crew of Moonlight. Mr. Horowitz captured it:
“I got to give a speech and then give you an award,” Mr. Horowitz said.
Instead of the usual buildup of suspense relieved by the act of awarding an Oscar, the moment for excited acceptance speeches was dulled by waiting until after an explanation from co-presenter Warren Beatty and more talk and even a joke from the host, Jimmy Kimmel.
Instead of that winning moment focusing all attention on the makers of Moonlight, their win was overshadowed by a more immediate exigence, a more pressing need to hear: How did such a terrible mistake happen?
Instead of an audience celebrating riotously Moonlight’s big upset, the audience was largely confused and shocked into relative silence.
Instead of getting an Academy Award from the Academy, they got a trophy from a rival producer.
No wonder the makers of Moonlight were slow to come to the stage and slow to give their acceptance speeches. Mahershala Ali, an actor from the film who won Best Supporting Actor earlier, also caught the moment well:
“I just didn’t want to go up there and take anything from somebody, you know?” Mahershala Ali
They weren’t getting an award; they were taking it away from someone else.
Wow. They were ripped off.
And I have to note what some news media are ignoring in their reporting of the event, the unfortunate identities of the two films—this screw-up led to a white producer of an expensive frothy musical about LA and the history of jazz with no starring black actors magnanimously bestowing the Oscar on an African-American producer, director and screenwriter, and cast of a low-budget film about a gay African-American boy growing up in poverty (and, not to generate fake news, also some white producers). Instead of a revolutionary upset from below, a gracious gift from above.
Wow. They were ripped off, at least in that moment.
But everybody was doing the best they could in the surprise situation. The producers of Moonlight valiantly powered through, giving their own acceptance speeches, and they did receive applause and joy in the end. And they did win the Academy Award for Best Picture. A stunning upset made even more stunning, perhaps, by the circumstances.
Hey, mistakes happen. Or as Price Waterhouse Cooper so dodgingly tweeted, in full passive voice,
The apology starts well, but the "error that was made" and "mistakenly had been given" hardly accepts full responsibility (and once again the qualities of a good or bad apology make a difference in my blog).
I had been ready to write this morning about acceptance speeches and how politics was changing some of the nature of that genre. Some of last night’s speeches referenced current politics directly or obliquely—one of the best versions, I think, was winners and presenters from other countries calling themselves “migrant workers.” Winners thanked the usual family members, with some emphasis on Mom this year. I noted especially that winners thanked their teachers more often than I remember from the past.
I doubt anyone remembers much about the acceptance speeches for Moonlight. Instead, I imagine history will remember the two upsets—one that comes from the small picture beating out the big production; the other that comes from the biggest screw-up in Academy Award history.
In fact, I couldn't find any publicly viewable video of Barry Jenkins' acceptance speech for Moonlight. So let's end with appreciation for the incredible actual Best Picture of 2017.
Another holiday already. The third Monday of February is Presidents’ Day.
Or is it Presidents Day?
Or is it President’s Day?
I started out researching this holiday and its history. And I’ll include a bit of that. But I quickly got distracted by the different ways different sources punctuated the name of the day. Does it take an apostrophe or not? And if so, where does it go?
That apostrophe actually makes a difference in the meaning, at least a little bit. So allow me to nerd out a little bit.
The first site I went to, Calendar-365.com lists the dates of a holiday and gives a bit of background. The heading on the page for this holiday was
"Presidents Day and Washington's Birthday 2017, 2018 and further"
The first sentences are consistent:
"View below the dates for (among others) Presidents Day and Washington's Birthday 2017 and Presidents Day and Washington's Birthday 2018."
But then the subheadings are
"Significance of President's Day 2017"
And so on for all the other subheading and most of the text.
Notice that the main heading includes no apostrophe for Presidents, but Washington’s Birthday does deserve an apostrophe.
What’s the difference?
What fun for us language nerds to consider!
Before we can interpret the different potential meanings, we need to know a bit of the history of this day and its changing name. The history lesson will be brief.
Presidents Day (I’ll use this form while talking about its origins) replaced Washington’s Birthday as a holiday. Washington’s Birthday, February 22, had been recognized since 1800, the year after George Washington’s death, and anointed a federal holiday for the entire country in 1885. Later, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was also celebrated in some states, and, since his birthday was somewhere around February 12, the celebration of the two revered presidents’ birthdays was also combined.
When I was a child in the 1960s, I distinctly remember celebrating Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday together. Of course, it was also around my birthday, and readers of last week’s column already know how resentful I can be of anyone horning in on my birthday. I wonder if George Washington is ticked that he has to share his birthday celebration with that Lincoln upstart and now all the other presidents? Or maybe I’m projecting, since he is dead, after all.
It wasn’t until 1971 that a law (passed in 1968) went into effect making the third Monday in February Presidents Day. Here’s how the Calendar-365 site summarizes it:
"Initially, President's Day was called Washington's Birthday. The shift from Washington's Birthday to Presidents' Day began in the late 1960s when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays."
And we’re back to apostrophes. You may have noticed that this one paragraph shifts from “President’s Day” to “Presidents’ Day,” without comment. So we have three versions of Presidents/Presidents’/President’s Day and one apostrophed Washington’s Birthday.
I love thinking about the rhetorical effects of even small linguistic choices, so let’s play a moment with the choice of an apostrophe or not.
I know my readers know the meaning of a possessive apostrophe, so you recognize that the birthday belongs to Washington; it’s his day, so he gets an apostrophe. But which president is being given the day of President’s Day?
Notice when it’s punctuated that way it’s singular, just one president. By all rights, that one president should be George Washington since President’s Day stole his birthday celebration. If not Washington, it surely can’t refer to a single president. Maybe it stands for any president. It could be some sort of generalized category—the day that belongs to “president,” that executive of the United States.
That’s where “Presidents’ Day” comes in. Shifting that apostrophe to come after the plural “Presidents” makes the day belong to all the presidents of the past. It’s their day, not his day (yep, all those presidents have been male—still are). So there was the holiday that belonged to Washington, his birthday, and now the holiday that belongs to all past presidents, their day. Like Veterans’ Day, perhaps, belonging to all the veterans.
But does it belong to those presidents (or those veterans) at all? What different meaning did the heading writers give us with “Presidents Day”? The official USA government site calls it “Veterans Day,” no apostrophe. What does taking away an apostrophe do?
Presidents Day becomes like Independence Day, Labor Day, Christmas Day—the day the country celebrates presidents/independence/labor/Christmas, and veterans on Veterans Day.
(I’ve got to point out again that some of our holidays in the US are different. Thanksgiving is the only one that includes a verb, giving thanks, as I wrote about in a post last November. Memorial Day seems different, too. It’s not the day we celebrate memorial. More like Thanksgiving, without the verb, it’s the day to memorialize, or to remember.)
Oh wait! There’s “New Year’s Day”! That is one where, like Independence Day, we celebrate the new year, but it has an apostrophe! So the day belongs to the New Year? No, but it works with another apostrophe rephrasing—it’s the day of the new year.
Here are examples of the apostrophe to “show possession” from Cambridge dictionaries. Most of them could be “of” rather than “belonging to”:
We spent Christmas Day with Ben's parents.
This book is the fruit of 15 years' research.
Simon has a clear-sighted vision of the company's future.
Our neighbour's baby cries morning, noon and night.
I'm sure my views on marriage are coloured by my parents' divorce.
Notice how many of those sentences make more sense rephrased with “of” instead of “belong to.”
Parents of Ben (they don’t belong to Ben)
Research of 15 years (the years don’t possess the research)
Future of the company (but I can imagine the future belonging to the company, like the birthday belongs to Washington)
The baby does belong to the neighbours
Divorce of my parents (I’m sure the parents don’t want to own the divorce)
Presidents’ Day, then, can be the day of presidents, like New Year’s Day is the day of the new year.
(Just so you know, a big black hole lies behind the history, meanings, and uses of apostrophes. You could get lost in John R. Taylor's 384-page book from 1976 on Possessives in English: An Exploration in Cognitive Grammar. Or if you have access to scholarly journals, you could read an old, delightful history of "The Possessive Apostrophe: The Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark" from Elizabeth Sklar in 1976.)
OK, so we’ve got holidays that belong to individuals they’re named after—Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday, (Saint) Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and maybe even April Fool’s Day, named after all us fools. (Uh oh, why isn’t that plural? April Fools’ Day? Start looking and you’ll find the same three possibilities for April Fools—some call it April Fool’s, others April Fools’, and some April Fools.)
I need some other sources.
Timeanddate.com calls it Presidents’ Day but Veterans Day.
Holidays.net also calls it Presidents’ Day and Veterans Day.
The US Postal Service calls it Presidents' Day and Veterans Day.
Searching newspaper databases and search engines just proved to me that all three forms are common.
I need some other, authoritative sources.
The hive mind of Wikipedia calls the holidays Veterans Day and . . . “Washington’s Birthday.”
It turns out that the United States government avoids the problem altogether by calling the day “Washington’s Birthday.” Not trusting Wikipedia alone, I had to follow a thread from the US government’s website to the official list of federal holidays on the Office of Personnel Management page of Snow and Dismissal Procedures to learn why, in a tiny footnote below the official list of federal holidays:
"This holiday is designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law."
So there. In fact, that Uniform Monday Holiday Act never changed the name of the day to any version of Presidents Day. We could all just avoid the problem if we went back to the original and called it Washington’s Birthday. To be factual, we’d have to return the holiday to February 22, too. Let’s give the man back his birthday!!
Short of a revolution of the masses whose birthdays have been stolen by other holidays (and it turns out, as I discovered last week, there are many, many of us), we probably have to live with Presidents Day. In that case, I vote for Presidents Day, no apostrophe. It fits the pattern of other holidays that honor a concept or group—Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day. The day we honor all past presidents, who need to own nothing but a title.
What a difference a little punctuation mark makes!
If you’re still reading, thanks for nerding along with me. Feel free to let me know if you’d vote for President’s or Presidents’ or if you want to lead the revolution. I’m with you.
Today is Valentine’s Day—a fact you can’t miss if you have been in any store or seen any ad in the past gazillion weeks. Some people love V Day, others hate it. It’s a fake day, some say, created to sell stuff, and we should express our love for others every day of the year. What’s wrong with making a point of showing your love on a particular day, others ask? It reminds us to celebrate love, and it doesn’t have to be for a lover. We can celebrate with friends and family.
Yeah, yeah. I’ve never decided which side of V-Day I fall on because I have my own reason for disliking it: It falls on my birthday.
So I’m going to whine for a while, but I hope it comes out in the end with a bigger look at how Valentine’s Day and birthdays use similar genres to celebrate—and maybe they could be different.
When I was a child, having my birthday on Valentine’s Day made me special. It didn’t get me any more valentines at school (I’m from the days when teachers didn’t make every child bring a valentine for every other child, so I was often a little bit crushed by the paltry few cards deposited in my lovingly decorated Valentine’s Day shoebox.) But it made me special at home. Only I, of the four children, got a two-layer birthday cake made in the shape of a big heart and decorated with pink frosting. Only I received a box of Brach's chocolate-covered cherries from my dad every year on my birthday. All of us kids got presents on our birthdays and got to choose what we had for dinner that night. But I got extras.
Then I grew up. And Valentine’s Day became a conflict between the traditions of Valentine’s Day and the traditions of celebrating adults’ birthdays. They are surprisingly similar—hence the conflict.
How do you celebrate Valentine’s Day? You go out to dinner to a nice restaurant.
How do you celebrate your birthday? You go out to dinner to a nice restaurant.
Unless your birthday is on Valentine’s Day, when the whole word has reservations ahead of you, the restaurants have all shifted to prix fixe menus that keep you from ordering your favorite dishes, and the servers are all rushing you through dinner to make room for the next seating.
What does your romantic partner give you for V Day? A card, flowers, chocolates, and perhaps a gift.
What does your partner give you for your B Day? A card, flowers and a gift (not usually chocolates in my experience, so there’s a difference).
Unless your birthday is on Valentine’s Day, when you’re expected to give a card, flowers, and a gift to someone else. There’s no reveling in receiving on your birthday. It’s not all about you.
I warned you—whining. If this is the worst thing that happens to me in my life, I am a lucky, lucky woman. And having people to celebrate either day with makes me fortunate. My nephew was born on Christmas, so the situation could be much, much worse. But still . . . Couldn’t I be able to celebrate my birthday like everybody else can?
Thinking about this blog topic has made me spot just how similar our ways of celebrating occasions are in the US. We buy cards for every occasion (thank you, Hallmark, our much loved Kansas City employer), give gifts, and eat special foods. We utter very similar greetings—“Happy ______Day.” My partner always does a great job of celebrating both my birthday and Valentine's Day. And he's thoughtful enough to have spotted these two cards, pictured below, one for each occasion.
What if we separated those occasions out a bit more? After all, the reason for celebrating Valentine’s Day is different from the reason for a birthday—or it should be.
So maybe I could celebrate my birthday differently. After all, I should probably spend the day with my mother, she who birthed me and created the occasion. Why should a birthday be about the birthed rather than the birther? (I’m already sick of "birth" as a verb.) Maybe an appropriate way to celebrate my birthday would be to take my mother out to dinner, buy her a card, send her flowers.
Oh no, wait. That’s Mother’s Day.
So maybe people could celebrate Valentine’s Day differently. After all, shouldn’t romantic partners celebrate their love for one another privately? What’s with all the PDA? Have a romantic dinner for two—at home. Hey, it works for Thanksgiving, when we cook meals at home to show our love. Share cards and gifts and chocolate—at home. Celebrate your love as it should be celebrated—at home!!! We don’t all need to witness it.
When I think about it in terms of the typical ways of celebrating Valentine’s Day, it does seem odd that it’s all about going out and being public. When I think about the purpose of the occasion (exigence, you fellow genre and rhetoric nerds), how better to fulfill that purpose than in the privacy of your own home, an intimate setting for two.
Meanwhile, that would clear out the restaurants for proper birthday celebrations. To fulfill their purposes, celebrating birthdays should be indulgent and public, not private. A birthday girl is special and should be spoiled—like with a fancy birthday dinner she didn’t have to cook. We’re glad she was born and we want to show the world! Look at her!! She’s still alive!
So Valentine’s Day, step aside. You could show your love in lots of ways that would be more appropriate to the occasion and wouldn’t interfere with my birthday. Do as a friend does and have chicken wings and watch cartoons--at home.
Or you could celebrate in alternative ways—like with the relatively new Galentine’s Day.
Or the old-fashioned way, like Al Capone’s Chicago Valentine’s Day massacre.
Any way that seems to you a fitting response, gunfire or resistance—any way other than taking up my preferred table in my favorite fancy restaurant. If you want to show your love for her, cook for her. That’s my new motto.
And a loving shout-out to my twin nieces, who were brave enough to be born on my birthday. For them, I’ll share.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!
Coming to you still alive from the home infirmary of Lawrence, Kansas, a state in the midst of the big influenza outbreak . . . Or is that epidemic?
According to the Center for Disease Control, Kansas is in the very highest category of “Influenza-Like Illness.” Lucky us.
Yes, I came down with the flu this week. If mine is the milder version you get when you’ve had a flu shot, as I’ve had, then I pity the completely unprotected. At its peak, I had a fever of 103.9. OK, I guess I’m bragging a bit. I’ve never had such a high fever, and I survived. Of course, it took that night’s fever to get me to call the doctor’s office in the morning about my “bad cold.” Nope, flu.
So now I get to use the common metaphor of flu--flu as a battle. I’ve been battling the flu since Wednesday, after fighting it off for a couple of days, but I survived its onslaught and will live to fight another day!
I lack the brain power this week to produce what I had planned—in nonacademic language, a listing and reflection on some of the big ideas about genres that have been built from Carolyn Miller’s originating article on “Genre as Social Action.” Carolyn is coming to my university this coming week to give a major lecture, and we’re very excited here. Fortunately, my flu will be well into recovery by then, my doctor assures me, but not in time for this blog post.
You can read about Carolyn on the NCState site. And some great stuff about genre on the genre across borders website, started by Carolyn and her students at North Carolina State.
So instead of a list of brilliant ideas from Carolyn, about all I’ve got right now is a brief list of the genres of patienthood that have surrounded me the past several days:
Patient information sheets
Pill bottle labels
Credit card receipts from copayments
Piles of used tissues (oh wait, not a genre, and too much information)
Fun stuff, huh? For some more interesting discussions of the rhetoric of medicine, you might take a look at one of many fascinating studies and discussions others have published. Two of my favorites--
Judy Segal, Health and the Rhetoric of Medicine
Carol Berkenkotter, Patient Tales: Case Histories and the Uses of Narrative in Psychiatry
And many more listed, along with lots of information about the rhetoric of medicine, on the website run by Rhetoricians of Health and Medicine.
Until next week, when I will surely be well enough to celebrate Valentine's Day . . . or not.