Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Plain English: Responding to "Thank You"

The most annoying language pattern going around these days is the use of “No problem” to mean “You’re welcome.” Is there an insidious employee training program out there that is instructing store clerks to abandon “you’re welcome?” Or is it a youth-driven attempt to destroy formal speech in favor of casual speech? Typically, no one knows how these trends get started. What we do know about the spread of language patterns is that they are untraceable and uncontrollable. We all pick up expressions and slang without thinking about what we’re doing. Here’s the problem with “No problem.”

“No problem” implies that there was or could be a problem with your “Thank you.” Instead of acknowledging your polite expression of gratitude, “No problem” changes the tone and the subject. The phrase responds to gratitude with rudeness, as if whatever the person did to make you say “Thank you” was or could have been an inconvenience. “No problem” is an appropriate response to “I’m sorry.” There has to be some kind of problem, annoyance, breaking of rules or protocol for someone to acknowledge an apology with “No problem.” It’s what a clerk should respond with when you bring 10 different items to the Returns Counter at Target. “I’m sorry,” you say. “My husband didn’t like purple in the kitchen.” The clerk says, “No problem,” and proceeds to process the return. After the clerk has spent 10 minutes crediting your Visa card and you have signed the final paperwork, you may want to say “Thank you,” an expression of gratitude that deserves a dignified and pleasant acknowledgment. The clerk politely responds, “You’re welcome.”

Other generations have attempted to break with tradition on “You’re welcome,” without success. Two examples are “Don’t mention it,” and “Anytime.” I have also run across regional responses. In Alabama and Georgia, in particular, when you say “Thank you,” people often respond, “My pleasure.” “My pleasure” at least is polite, pleasant, and conforms to the appropriate tone that “Thank you” deserves.

Perhaps the strongest argument for sticking to “You’re welcome” is that the response is universal. “You’re welcome” translates into every language on the planet. “You’re welcome” is the appropriate response worldwide when someone says “Thank you.”

In the new global economy, conforming to tradition and protocol has become a top priority. American corporations have had to rein in casual language in the business setting. Companies are spending time and money training employees in basic etiquette so they can perform well at a simple business lunch with international clients and colleagues. A lot of money is riding on polite conduct and speech when it comes to closing deals in a global environment.

Among the first speech lessons taught to Americans doing business overseas is the greeting: “Good morning. How are you?” Response: “Good morning. Very well, thank you. And you?” It may sound stilted compared to how Americans have come to greet each other, but the formal exchange is universal. Lesson number two is the use of “Pardon me,” “Please,” “Thank you,” and “You’re welcome.”

American culture is driven by youth compelled to alter the status quo. Language has always been one of their prime targets. Change for the sake of change in fundamental language patterns often meets with disaster. Remember how suddenly in the 1970s the phrase “ya know” spread like a disease across the country? It took a conscious effort by teachers and the business community to stamp out people’s habit of inserting “ya know” into every sentence. I’d like to see the use of “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome” dealt with in the same way.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

Check out for the full line of Grammardog Products and Grammardog Downloadable Products.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tueday Trivia

  1. Which author stood trial in Mexico in 1951 for shooting his wife?
  2. Which author was constantly in trouble at school — for an atheistic pamphlet at Oxford and for stabbing a fellow student at Eton?
  3. Which author received a branding on his thumb as a reprimand for killing an actor in a bar brawl?
  4. The epitaph“And alien tears will fill for him pity's long, unbroken urn” belongs to whom?
  5. James Ellroy, the author of L.A. Confidential and American Tabloid had a father who worked as an accountant for which Hollywood celebrity?

Last Week’s Answers

What do novelist and film critic James Agee, poet Robert Lowell, and comedian and “stooge” Shemp Howard have in common?

All three men died in taxicabs due to heart attacks.

Who sent the stand up comedian, Irwin Corey, to accept the National Book Award prize on his behalf?

Thomas Pynchon. The reclusive Pynchon won the 1973 award for his baffling, brilliant novel, Gravity's Rainbow.

Which English-language author did not learned to speak English until the age of 19?

Joseph Conrad.

Whose epitaph reads: 'The stone the builders rejected'?

Jack London

Which author created a batch of top quality novels only to suddenly switch to poetry because of all the criticism from Victorian readers?

Thomas Hardy.

Plain English: Verbing Nouns

copyright 1987 Bill Watterson

“Thank you” is no longer enough. Some Americans are switching to the phrase “preciate it.” On TV I hear “preciate it” from newscasters, sportscasters, and award show hosts at the conclusion of interviews. Instead of saying “thanks” or “thank you,” or “I appreciate it,” they say “preciate it.” The trend is notable because it changes a core cultural response (thank you) and lops a syllable off of a traditional verb (appreciate).

Americans like to play with both traditional etiquette and verbs. We like to see things happen, change, move. Thirty years ago the word impact was strictly a noun. Today, a sentence like “The sub-prime mortgage crisis has impacted the entire U.S. economy” sounds normal. Other nouns that have been “verbed” include task (She was tasked with writing the report) and transition (He transitioned from head of sales to Chief Financial Officer). Americans have added “ize” to nouns like priority to form prioritize and dollar to form dollarize (converting foreign currency into dollars). The rest of the world frowns on this custom. The British Broadcasting Company forbids the use of “hospitalize” on the air. Writers must say that someone was “sent to hospital.”

“Preciate it” may or may not catch on. When I was a little girl “much oblige” or “much obliged” was widely used by men of my parents’ generation. I don’t remember women using it at all. Women stuck to “thank you.” “Much obliged” is still widely used in Great Britain and its former colonies, but not as a substitute for “thank you.” “Much obliged” can be traced as far back as 1548. It means “to be bound to a person by ties of gratitude, to be indebted to a person” (Oxford English Dictionary). The novels of Charles Dickens are full of characters who are “much obliged” to other characters.

Another word Americans are playing with is “streets.” A typical usage would be “The video game streets in October.” “Streets” is a shortening of the slang expression “hits the streets,” used to mean “becomes available to the public.” Back when the music industry created albums, the verb “drop” was used to mean “publish,” the date when a performer’s album would be available in stores. Example: “The new Elvis album will drop in time for Christmas.” The use of “drop” comes from the old vinyl records played on a phonograph when the needle arm would “drop” in the record groove. Today the verb drop is also used to indicate when catalogs, magazine issues, and other printed material will be for sale to the public. Calendars for the coming year usually drop in the fall.

My favorite noun-to-verb word is “morph,” the verb coined from “metamorphosis,” meaning to change from one form or shape to another. “Morph” has been used since 1947 by scientists to describe physical alterations in a species. The word was quickly adopted by science fiction writers to describe super powers of extra-terrestrial beings that “morphed” into other forms.

As America becomes more and more diverse, both customs and language will continue to morph. Slang is a cultural bridge that redefines the linguistic status quo. In order to meld cultures together, some changes in core customs may also take place. “Preciate it” for now suits our national need for something new and different. I don’t think “thank you” will die out, and I don’t plan to use “preciate it” myself, but I do understand how and why it came into usage. As the melting pot bubbles with more immigrants, we can expect both customs and slang to evolve. “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” may ultimately be replaced with expressions stranger than “preciate it.”


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

Check out for the full line of Grammardog Products and Grammardog Downloadable Products.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Letters to Santa from Shakespeare Characters

This week, McSweeney's Internet Tendency is featuring some stellar letters to Santa written by Shakespeare characters. Authors Caroline Bicks and Michelle Ephraim have really outdone themselves with these great pieces that could be a great guessing game to use with your classes!

Dear Santa:

How does my lord? I am fine. I believe 'tis possible you did not receive my wish list last year, or that it fell into unsavory hands and was rudely tampered with before reaching you, as all you brought me was a chastity belt and some granny underpants. I pray that this one flies to you untainted since this year hath really sucked. I wish for the following:

He's Just Not That Into You (book and DVD)

— "All About Me" Lock and Key Diary

National Geographic Flower and Leaf Pressing Kit

— Coastal Deluxe Automatic Inflatable Life Vest

Fingers crossed,

- - - -

Dear Santa, sweet, sweet Santa:

This Christmas, we wish for nothing more than peace, love, and understanding (LOL). We pray that you will fly like a nimble-pinioned dove to bring our parents copies of Chicken Soup for the Vengeful Soul. And perchance a little Valium for Lady Capulet?

Should Time slow her swift-footed pace, and night's cloak agree to hide you, do you think maybe you could bring us some stuff too?

— Taylor Swift's "Love Story" video and poster.

— DVD of The Secret Life of the American Teenager (Season 3)

— Quick-Escape Portable Ladder

— Motorola IMfree Personal Instant Messenger

— Plethysmograph Pulse Recognition Processor

Romeo and Juliet

- - - -

Dear Santa,

Everyone says you don't exist, but I believe in you. We share many a talent, my jolly friend: I, too, am a merry wanderer of the night, and sometime fit I into tiny spaces to break into people's homes. I don't leave gifts (unless you count that turd I left in Mistress Quickly's ale pot Monday last). I can steal most of the stuff I desire, but I need you, O round sprite of the night, to gather me these two things:

— An Indian boy (Not for me, it's a present for my boss. Must be authentic, and not a cheap Chinese knock-off.)

— A meeting with a TV executive. I have a rollicking idea for a show: "2 1/2 Pucks." It's about me, Wolfgang Puck, and that elfin young man from Real World: San Francisco. We would all live together in a loft in the Meat Packing District. Hilarity ensues.

In return for these gifts, I will happily humiliate your wife (if that type of thing amuseth you).

— Puck

- - - -


I had this crazy dream that I ate your reindeer. But then this morning your face appeared in a puddle of maple syrup. So I licked you up.

— Falstaff

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Prestwick House to Expand Through Purchase of Fellow Educational Publisher, Teacher’s Pet Publications

Smyrna, DE, 22 December 2009 – This week, Prestwick House will sign an agreement to purchase fellow educational publisher, Teacher’s Pet Publications. As a result of this acquisition, in the coming months, educators will be able to purchase the full line of Teacher’s Pet products directly from Prestwick House catalogues and website.

Like Prestwick House, Teacher’s Pet Publications began as a home business founded by a high school English teacher. Both companies specialize in practical products based in sound educational methods, have spent the last few years adding a technological aspect to their products, and are ultimately dedicated to helping teachers of all levels of English and language arts.

Over the past five years, Prestwick House has worked with other publishers to expand its offerings, and this acquisition will add over 1,600 new titles in both hard copy and PDF format to the website.

“With the acquisition of Teacher’s Pet, we are working to give teachers even more options to explore when purchasing teaching materials. In the immediate future, our customers will be able to choose from over a thousand new products,” says Prestwick House CEO, Jason Scott. “Down the road, new options like customizing teaching guides to fit customers’ specific needs, online test generators, and unique subscription options will give the thousands of educators visiting our site each year an unprecedented edge when it comes to teaching literature effectively.”

The acquisition of Teachers Pets’ innovative technology will further enhance Prestwick House’s ability to create and produce high-quality, effective teaching materials. With features like “Choose Your Own”-type products, online test and study guide generators, and subscriptions to fill a variety of needs, Prestwick House will be positioned to aid teachers even more effectively than it has over the past 25 years.

“In addition to the wide range of benefits for existing customers, Prestwick House will get a chance to introduce Teacher’s Pet customers to our efficient and friendly customer service staff and some of the best prices on paperbacks and title-specific teachings guides nationwide,” says Prestwick House General Manager, Keith Bergstrom.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Trivia Tuesday

  1. What do novelist and film critic James Agee, poet Robert Lowell, and comedian and “stooge” Shemp Howard have in common?
  2. Who sent the stand up comedian, Irwin Corey, to accept the National Book Award prize on his behalf?
  3. Which English-language author did not learned to speak English until the age of 19?
  4. Whose epitaph reads: 'The stone the builders rejected'?
  5. Which author created a batch of top quality novels only to suddenly switch to poetry because of all the criticism from Victorian readers?
Last Week’s Answers

Which author is sports a black eye in the dust jacket photo of his 1967 novel?

Norman Mailer appears on the inside cover of his novel Why Are We in Vietnam? with a spectacular shiner. Also odd is the fact that in the book, the word "Vietnam" occurs only one time — the last page.

Poet named Ernest Dowson wrote “To Cynara,” a work that contains a line which was used as the title of which world famous novel?

Gone With The Wind. The line is, 'I have forgot much, Cynara, gone with the wind, flung roses riotously to the throng,'

Which famous author held the position of Governor General of Canada in 1935?

Thirty-Nine Steps author John Buchan. He was also a barrister, a Member of Parliament, soldier, and publisher.

The epitaph 'Blest be the man that spares these stones, and curst be he that moves my bones,' was written by whom?


Which English Romantic poet was born with a clubfoot?

Lord Byron

A Parent/Guardian Homework Checklist

_____ I understand my child’s assignment.

_____ I know how much time my child spent on this assignment.

_____ I know where and when my child did this assignment.

_____ I have looked over my child’s work.

_____ I have discussed my child’s work with him/her.

_____ I believe this represents good work on my child’s part.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Free Indirect Discourse and Jane Austen

by Stephanie Polukis

Jane Austen, while she has always been a favorite writer of literature enthusiasts and hopeless romantics, seems to have grown in popularity this past decade. With comic spoofs like Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, modern-day interpretations like Bridget Jones' Diary, sequels like Emma & Knightley and The Pemberley Chronicles, month-long PBS specials, and even a book entitled Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating, people are being exposed to Austen’s work that otherwise would not be.

Each avid reader of Austen, whether she (or he) is a veteran Austenite or a newcomer, has a unique reason for falling in love with the novels. It could be for Austen’s charismatic heroines, her wit and use of satire, or even the way all of her stories have happy endings, albeit with several surprising plot twists. My personal love of Jane Austen, however, comes from the beautiful way Austen uses language, particularly free indirect discourse.

What is free indirect discourse?

Free indirect discourse (FID) is a form of third person omniscient point of view in which the narrator’s and a character’s thoughts are indistinguishable from one other. While the narrator commonly uses a traditional, formal voice and writes about events in the past tense, he or she occasionally assumes the mind of the character, and as a result, takes on the character’s ideas, diction, syntax, and language idiosyncrasies. In some forms of FID, the author’s language may even shift into the present tense when the character’s thoughts are presented, responding to events in the story as if they were currently happening.

The form is easier to understand in exemplar, and many readers will immediately recognize the style as one that is distinctly Austen-esque:

“Her astonishment, as she reflected on what had passed, was increased by every review of it. That she should receive an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy! that he should have been in love with her for so many months! so much in love as to wish to marry her in spite of all the objections which had made him prevent his friend’s marrying her sister, and which must appear at least with equal force in his own case, was almost incredible!”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter XXXIV

The first part of the passage is given from the point of view of a regular third person omniscient narrator, who is keenly aware that the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, is shocked by the marriage proposal. However, the rest of the passage is from Lizzy’s perspective, but filtered through the narrator. The opinions expressed are not the narrator’s own; the proposal is not a shock to him or her, for the narrator has long since been aware of Mr. Darcy’s thoughts, opinions, and motivations. Additionally, since the narrator knows how the story ends, it is most likely that the underlying feelings of contempt are Lizzy’s own, since she is oblivious to the misunderstanding between them.

The following is an additional example of FID:

This apartment, to which she had given a date so ancient, a position so awful, proved to be one end of what the general's father had built. There were two other doors in the chamber, leading probably into dressing-closets; but she had no inclination to open either. Would the veil in which Mrs. Tilney had last walked, or the volume in which she had last read, remain to tell what nothing else was allowed to whisper? No: whatever might have been the general's crimes, he had certainly too much wit to let them sue for detection.

Northanger Abbey, Chapter IX

Catherine has been so influenced by Gothic fiction that she expects the late Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom to be dark, gloomy, and haunted, just like a setting in an Ann Radcliffe novel. However, she is disappointed (and a bit relieved) to discover that the room is ordinary and uninteresting. The phrase “leading probably into dressing-closets” is an assumption of Catherine’s, for the omniscient narrator knows to where it leads. Furthermore, the question asking whether Mrs. Tilney’s belongings would reveal the mystery of her death—which disappointedly, no spirits could disclose—is Catherine’s, in addition to the conclusion that the general would lead nothing behind as evidence of the suspected crime.

If you would like to find more examples of free indirect discourse, check out other Jane Austen novels and teaching guides from

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Broadband: Changing the Face of Education

This post is a guest spot from Broadband for America's Kate Drazner. Visit their website to find out more about their initiative to make broadband access to the internet available to every household in the nation; to provide data transfer speeds to make that broadband experience valuable to users; and to provide the bandwidth necessary for content providers to continue to make the internet a cultural, societal, and economic engine for growth.


In today's changing educational environment, children will need access to high-speed Internet in order to get a complete schooling experience that is on par with their fellow classmates across the country. To that end, Broadband for America's goal is to bring high-speed Internet access to every home, business and individual across the nation.

Statistics show that students, especially those in the minority and rural communities, have alarmingly high dropout rates in high-school when those students do not have access to a computer or broadband.

Conversely, those same students who do have access are amongst the nation's top academic performers.

While publishers of educational material in the United States like Prestwick House have long excelled in providing more traditional offerings of paperback books, teaching guides and vocabulary programs, they have also seen firsthand the increasing benefits to education through technology. Implementing the benefits of broadband will take those resources to the next level.

The options for students of all ages are nearly limitless: streaming educational videos, online textbooks, conferencing with guest instructors, online tutoring, or even viewing priceless artwork over the web.

Prestwick House is already a part of the broadband educational revolution, offering "PowerPresentations," which run on PowerPoint and SMARTBoard. With their goal of aiding teachers of all levels of English and Language Arts, they have also taken on the initiative of providing teaching resources that work well in a 21st century classroom and have extended their reach through social networking and blogging.

However, putting those tools to work requires not only access to high-speed Internet, but adoption by nearly half of all Americans who rely on slower connections or cannot access the Internet at all. The challenge of today, and tomorrow, is ensuring that all students have access to the same educational tools, including high-speed Internet, which will allow them to succeed in the academic sector and to later compete in the global economy.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. Which author sports a black eye in the dust jacket photo of his 1967 novel?
  2. Poet named Ernest Dowson wrote “To Cynara,” a work that contains a line which was used as the title of which world famous novel?
  3. Which famous author held the position of Governor General of Canada in 1935?
  4. The epitaph "Blest be the man that spares these stones, and curst be he that moves my bones," was written by whom?
  5. Which English Romantic poet was born with a clubfoot?
Last Week's Answers

The infamous phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” featured in The Shining is also found in which work of Irish literature?

It is featured in Joyce’s The Dubliners, but the phrase actually originated as a proverb first recorded around 2400 B.C. by the Egyptian sage, Ptahhotep.

What do the initials stand for in the following author’s names: A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, J.D. Salinger

Alan Alexander Milne
James Matthew Barrie Clive Staples Lewis John Ronald Reuel Tolkien David Herbert Lawrence Herbert George Wells Jerome David Salinger

What child movie actress brought a libel suit against British author Graham Greene?

Shirley Temple brought a lawsuit against Greene after he wrote a review of one of her films accusing her of indecency.

From Here To Eternity
author James Jones' wife, Gloria, once worked in Hollywood as a stand-in for what actress?

Marilyn Monroe.

Which author kept a bear in his dorm room at Cambridge?

Lord Byron.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Plain English: How Yoda Helps Students Master Shakespeare

Star Wars may be the best thing that ever happened to Shakespeare. The speech patterns of Yoda the Jedi Master can help students get past the biggest obstacle in studying Shakespeare: the syntax. Yoda speaks “Galactic Basic” in his own peculiar dialect – sort of the Bible meets King Lear. The ancient Jedi plays around with the usual position of adjectives, adverbs, phrases, verbs, and complements.

In English, the most common word order is subject-verb followed by an adjective, adverb, complement, or phrase. Examples: She is pretty (predicate adjective). We drove slowly (adverb). They play tennis (direct object). She is the supervisor (predicate nominative). We sailed across the lake (prepositional phrase). Yoda inverts the familiar syntax, saying things like “Strong you are, Luke,” or ”Into the mist sadly go I.” The speech pattern has proved to be contagious. Young children who see the Star Wars films pick up on Yoda-speak immediately, saying things like “Stupid you are,” or “Fun it is not.”

nverted syntax is part of a grand literary tradition that need not be a stumbling block to modern readers. Reading comprehension boils down to recognizing speech patterns. Pointing out the parallels between Yodish (the official name) and other written patterns will give students the confidence to tackle classical literature. Here are some examples of inverted syntax from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

► “Doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers, that do cling together and choke there are.”
“Round about the caldron go: in the poisoned entrails throw.”
“The castle of Macduff I will surprise.”
“Near the Birnam Wood shall we meet them; that way are they coming.”

Yoda’s speech pattern also appears in the English translation of Homer’s The Iliad (“Proud is the spirit of Zeus-fostered kings”), and the King James Version of the Bible (“Of their flesh shall ye not eat,” “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither,” Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.”)

George Lucas uses the poetic pattern to characterize Yoda as both ancient and wise. That a whole new audience exposed to reverse syntax finds it interesting and worthy of imitation, attests to the power of poetic language. Here are some memorable Yoda quotes:

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
“Agree with you, the council does. Your apprentice, Skywalker will be.”
“Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.”
“Need that, you do not.”

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
“Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.”
“Around the survivors, a perimeter create.”
“Lost a planet Master Obi-Wan has.”
“Begun the Clone War has.”
“Much to learn you still have.”

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
“To question, no time there is.”
“Twisted by the Dark Side, young Skywalker has become.”
“The boy you trained, gone he is, consumed by Darth Vader.”
“Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not.
“The shadow of greed that is.”
“If into the security recordings you go, only pain you will find.”
“Not if anything to say about it, I have.”
“ If so powerful you are . . . why leave?”

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
“ Always in motion is the future.”
“Reckless he is.”

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
“ Strong am I in the Force.”
“When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good, you will not.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

Check out for the full line of Grammardog Products and Grammardog Downloadable Products.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Prestwick House Title to Appear in New Clint Eastwood Film Starring Matt Damon

This morning, Warner Brothers Studios sent a fax to our CEO, Jason Scott, asking permission to use one of our titles as a prop.

The Clint Eastwood film is called
Hereafter and stars Matt Damon. Plot details are not being discussed by the studio, but according to IMDB, "Hereafter, penned by Peter Morgan, tells the story of three people — a blue-collar American, a French journalist and a London school boy — who are touched by death in different ways. Hereafter is produced by Eastwood, Kathleen Kennedy and Robert Lorenz. Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Peter Morgan and Tim Moore are the exec producers." It has been likened to The Sixth Sense by critics.

The book they are requesting to use is the
Prestwick House Literary Touchstone edition of The Call of the Wild by Jack London. No word as to what the book would be used for, but we are thrilled at the prospect of seeing the artwork of Prestwick House Art Director, Larry Knox, on the big screen!

Click on the image below to view it full size.

November's Top Ten Best-Selling eBooks

  1. The Crucible Teaching Unit
  2. The Scarlet Letter AP Teaching Unit
  3. Beowulf Teaching Unit
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird Teaching Unit
  5. Ender's Game Teaching Unit
  6. Oedipus Rex AP Teaching Unit
  7. Hamlet AP Teaching Unit
  8. The Crucible Activity Pack
  9. The Crucible AP Teaching Unit
  10. Night Teaching Unit

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Host Your Own Dickens of a Christmas Party!

by Douglas Grudzina

(Pardon the cliché, but … )

Now You Can Host Your Own Dickens of a Christmas Party!

As everyone knows (and if you don’t, you should be boiled in your own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through your heart, you should!), when Charles Dickens’s most notorious Christmas villain-hero encounters the Ghost of Christmas Past (we’re talking, of course, about Dickens’s A Christmas Carol if you haven’t guessed), one of the visits he makes is to a Christmas Eve party hosted by a former employer, “Old Fezziwig.”

Dickens’s account of the party reads like this:

The Ghost stopped at a certain wareho
use door, and asked Scrooge if he knew it.

“Know it!” said Scrooge. “Was I apprenticed here?”

They went in. At sight of an old gentleman in a Welsh wig, sitting behind such a high desk, that if he had been two inches taller he must have
knocked his head against the ceiling, Scrooge cried in great excitement:

“Why, it’s old Fezziwig! Bless his heart; it’s Fezziwig alive again!”

Old Fezziwig laid down his pen, and lo
oked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:

“Yo ho, there! Ebenezer! Dick!”

Scrooge’s former self, now gro
wn a young man, came briskly in, accompanied by his fellow-prentice.

“Dick Wilkins, to be sure.” said Scrooge to the Ghost. “Bless me, yes. There he is. He was very much attached to me, was Dick. Poor Dick. Dear, dear.”

“Yo ho, my boys!” said Fezzi
wig. “No more work to-night. Christmas Eve, Dick. Christmas, Ebenezer! Let’s have the shutters up,” cried old Fezziwig, with a sharp clap of his hands, “before a man can say Jack Robinson!”

You wouldn’t believe how those two fellows went at it. They charged into the street with the shutters—one, two, three—had them up in their places—four, five, six—barred them and pinned then—seven, eight, nine—and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.

“Hilli-ho!” cried old Fezziwig, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. “Clear away, my lads, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Dick! Chirrup, Ebenezer!”

Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after nother; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them. When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done.” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind. The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him.) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

But if they had been twice as many—ah, four times—old Fezziwig would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs Fezziwig. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If thats not high praise, tell me higher, and I’ll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn’t have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next. And when old Fezziwig and Mrs Fezziwig had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, both hands to your partner, bow and curtsey, corkscrew, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Fezziwig “cut”—cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr and Mrs Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back-shop.

During the whole of this time, Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. It was not until now, when the bright faces of his former self and Dick were turned from them, that he remembered the Ghost, and became conscious that it was looking full upon him, while the light upon its head burnt very clear.

It does sound like fun, doesn’t it? And to think that, according to the Ghost of Christmas Past, the entire party (including the cost of the fiddler) came to a mere three or four pounds of mortal money. Even adjusting for inflation, it was not an exetravagant expense.

So, you’re coming up on the last days of school before the holiday vacation. Are your students really thinking about mid-term exams coming up in a few weeks or that research paper that’s due on January 5?

They’re probably nodding off from all those late nights performing in their band and chorus holiday concerts or earning extra cash during the mall’s extended holiday shopping hours!

So here’s how to keep them awake and engaged: Give a party!

Scrooge’s favorite part of Fezziwig’s ball seems to have been the dancing, especially the “Sir Roger de Coverly,” during which the host and hostess really showed off their terpsichorean skill.

Here’s the music they danced to—all you need is a keyboard or a recorder or a comb and a piece of tissue paper:

Sir Roger de Coverly

(slip jig)

Source: The Session (

The Sir Roger de Coverly was, by the way, what they called a “finishing dance.” It was a relatively simple dance with a lively tune that everyone could dance to. Reserved for the last dance of the ball, it gave everyone an opportunity to finish the party in high spirits and work up some body heat before venturing out into the cold. You’ll notice that it is indeed the last dance of the evening at the Fezziwigs’ Ball.

Now, knowing the music isn’t worth much if you don’t know the steps, so … here they are! Clear away your desks and get your students romping …

It is danced like all country dances, the gentlemen in a line, and the ladies in another opposite to their partners. The first gentleman at the top and the lady at the bottom of the line have to begin each figure, and then the other gentleman and lady at the opposite corner have to repeat the figure immediately.

  • First lady and gentleman meet in the center of the line, give right hands, turn once round, and retire to their corners, the same for the other two at the top and bottom.

  • First couple cross again and give left hands and turn once; back to places. To be repeated by the others.

  • First couple give both hands, the others the same.

  • First couple back to back, and retire to places; the other corners the same.

  • The first couple advance, bow to each other, and retire; the same repeated by the other couples.

  • The top gentleman then turns to the left, and the top lady (his partner) turns to the right; all the other ladies and gentlemen turn and follow the leaders who run outside of the line, and meet at the bottom of the room, giving right hands, and raising their arms so as to form a kind of arch under which all the following couples must pass, joining hands, and running forwards when they have all passed under the arch. The first lady and gentleman remain the last at the end of the two lines, and the figures of right hands, left hands, both hands, back to back, bow, and running outside the lines are repeated by all, when the first couple will have arrived at their original place.

Excerpted from Coulon’s Handbook of 1873

Source: (

As for the food … well, negus is a hot, spiced red wine (your principal and some parents might object) … and Dickens says that the celebrants were drinking beer (again, there are laws against that sort of thing in school) … so we’ll have to improvise a bit.

Dickens does say “there was cake,” so here’s a tasty possibility:

Christmas Cake

  • 3 lb butter
  • 3 lb (6 3/4 C) Sugar
  • 32 Large Eggs
  • 3 1/2 lb (12 1/2 c) Flour
  • 3/4 lb (2 3/4 c) Patent Flour
  • 10 LB Currents
  • 1 1/2 lb Cut Almonds
  • 5 lb Candied Peel, Chopped
  • a little Apple Pie Spice

Cream up the butter and sugar, and beat in the eggs in the usual way. Stir in the flours, fruit, etc., and thoroughly mix. Fill into papered cake hoops which are placed on well covered baking sheets. Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees).

And everyone associates these with the old-fashioned Christmases of long, long ago …

Sugar Plums

  • 1 lb confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 lb cold butter
  • 2 tb heavy cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla or 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • pitted ready-to-eat prunes
  • candied cherries
  • pitted dates
  • walnut or pecan halves
  • granulated sugar for rolling candied cherries
  • silver dragees for garnish

Pour the unsifted confectioners’ sugar into a large bowl. Cut the butter from the stick into small slivers, dropping them into the sugar. Add the cream and vanilla or almond extract. Work with your fingertips until the mixture clings together somewhat.

Turn the mixture onto a sheet of waxed paper. Knead by pushing the mixture against the surface with the heel of your hand, lifting the edges of the waxed paper to add and incorporate any crumbs of dough. Continue kneading in this manner until the mixture is well blended, smooth, and creamy. Wrap in waxed paper and chill just long enough so that the fondant can be handled easily without sticking.

PRUNES— Split the tops of the prunes and spread slightly. Roll a small portion of the chilled fondant into a ball and press into the cavity. Garnish with a sliver of candied cherry.

CHERRIES—Cut a cross in the top of each cherry and spread slightly to form petals. Fill with a small ball of fondant and decorate the tops with a few silver dragees. (NOTE: Candied cherries can be used by splitting them in half and filling with a small ball of fondant. Using the red and green cherries made for fruitcakes works well, and you can make plums that are half red and half green if desired. Allow the fondant to show for more contrast).

DATES—Cut the dates partway through and press a small portion of fondant onto the cavities. Roll the filled dates in granulated sugar.

WALNUTS OR PECANS—Shape the fondant into small balls; place between two walnut or pecan halves; press together lightly.

Store one layer in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. The sugarplums will keep well up to two weeks.

Tiny Tim, in the next Stave of the novel, is the character who most enjoys his family’s goose with its Sage and Onion Stuffing. Just add one goose …

Sage and Onion Stuffing

  • 3 medium onions, peeled
  • 4 large apples, peeled, cored & chopped (use tart apples like Granny Smith)
  • 2 tablespoons loosely packed dried sage leaves, crumbled
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter, cut into tiny bits
  • Garnishes: sliced apples, parsley or watercress

In large bowl, combine onions, chopped apples, sage, pepper and butter. Stuff cavity of goose and sew or skewer the openings and truss in the usual way. (Or wrap in foil if you’re not cooking a goose!) Bake at 450 degrees for one hour.

Finally, since you won’t be serving negus or beer at your party (we’re guessing, anyway), you’ll want to offer some kind of beverage. Winters were cold in Dickens’s day, and beverages were hot. Here’s an old stand-by:

Hot Mulled Cider

  • 1 gal apple cider
  • 2 “knobs” of fresh ginger
  • 2 whole lemons, quartered
  • 2 whole oranges, quartered
  • pinch of allspice (optional)
  • 10 whole cloves
  • enough cinnamon sticks to place one in each cup of cider

Real apple cider from a fruit and vegetable stand is better than the bottled stuff, but the bottled stuff is better than nothing. Mix everything together (except the cinnamon sticks) in a large pan and heat until the cider is almost boiling. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve the hot punch with a ladle in a cup or glass that won’t melt (or burn your students’ fingers). Garnish each with a cinnamon stick.

Now, Bob Cratchit makes his Christmas punch with hot gin and lemon, but you’re probably best serving the cider to your students and saving the wine, beer, and gin for after you get home … or if you want to give a faculty Dickens Christmas Party …

The point is—and here’s why a party might sometimes be a valid classroom activity—Dickens loved life. He loved holidays, and he hoped to teach others how to enjoy them as well. What better way to keep up the spirit (oops, unintended pun) of the holidays and the pass on the liveliness of great literature than to help your students experience the lives of the people on the pages?

Besides, you know you’re not going to get them to review for that vocab quiz, so you may as well have a party.

And have a happy holiday and a richly, richly deserved vacation!