Their way—not my way—with words

They have a way with words

They have a way with words


A few days ago Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, hosts and stars of NPR’s “A Way with Words,” were in town. A crowd of us “grammar nerds,” packed the iconic 1938 art deco Lakewood Theater to hear them have fun with words. The program was—from any objective viewpoint—wonderfully odd. Martha and Grant emceed word games in the style of “Jeopardy” with three Dallas personages (including the Mayor) competing. And Martha and Grant each gave fascinating twenty-minute talks about their lives with words.

The event was a fund-raiser for the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas. (Please click the link and learn about the Center.)

If you know the NPR show, you know these two are quick-witted, smart, and funny. Their banter about the origins of words is for “grammar nerds” both entertaining and informative.

Grant Barrett’s lecture/talk/slideshow was about his new understanding of how we use words, based on his observations of his six-year-old son’s evolving use of language.

Martha Barnett told us about her seduction into the love of words through her private tutoring with an retired professor from the University of Tennessee when she was studying ancient Greek. Yes, ancient Greek—which became her college major. Her description of his teaching—throwing away all the grammar books and simply looking at words and asking questions—is my “take-away” for the evening.


This semester the students in the classes I planned wrote essays about three speeches by U.S. Presidents: Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Reagan’s “Challenger Address,” and Roosevelt’s “A Date that Will Live in Infamy” speech. My “Goal” (a sacred word in education) was to accomplish the “Learning Outcomes” (an even more sacred term) of understanding the rhetoric of the speeches themselves and beginning to think about the role of Presidential rhetoric in our nation’s life.

The unstated goal—the education specialists who decide which words are sacred this year would not like to see this in my course description—was, as always, to help students to think well enough to put two ideas together (almost any two ideas will do) and write an essay explaining how the ideas go together, an essay that doesn’t sound as if either a fourth-grader or an academic wrote it.

The only textbook I had the students buy is a (tiny by college standards) book, Slipping the Surly Bonds, by Mary E. Stuckey, a study of Reagan’s “Challenger Address.” I chose the book for Stuckey’s discussion of “epideictic” versus “deliberative” rhetoric. Most presidential speaking these days is, by Stuckey’s definition, “epideictic,” that is, ceremonial and (perhaps) eloquent, rather than “deliberative,” that is, explanatory and (perhaps) logical.

He had a way with Peggy Noonan's words

He had a way with Peggy Noonan’s words

For three months we talked about epideictic oratory (Stuckey takes her definition from Aristotle). The  ceremonial occasions for it. The writing that makes it eloquent (sic) as opposed to thought-provoking. We found epideictic passages in the three speeches. We talked about how Reagan (more precisely, Peggy Noonan, his speech writer) wove epideictic speech together with deliberative speech in the “Challenger Address” in order to remember and praise the astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster and at the same time to defend and promote the nation’s space program.

I design classes so the students talk among themselves, write for themselves and each other, and critique each other’s ideas. I pretty much stay out of the process except to discuss their ideas and their proposals for presenting their ideas after they have struggled with them. Last week I discovered the failure of my approach.

The final assignment this semester was to write a personal statement why it’s important that Americans discern what’s going on in presidential rhetoric, a statement without my input, their only “solo flight” of the semester. One student’s essay included the following sentences:
Because presidential speeches all have a purpose, whether it is an epidemic or deliberative, the speech is not effective if the audience does not distinguish between the two. . . An epidemic is a way to affect or tend to affect a large number of individuals within a nation all at once. . . When you connect with the American people, then an epidemic starts to go in effect. Once an epidemic of a speech has started, you can tell. The attitude, the audience, and atmosphere change rapidly.

Stay away from Greek words

Stay away from Greek words

When you stop laughing and cringe (as I am, still), answer for me a couple of questions. How on earth does one teach? Is it possible to teach? How did Martha’s tutor do it—throw away the textbooks and inspire her? What is education anyway, a process, an outcome, something else that I haven’t even thought of yet? Forty years I’ve been doing this, and I don’t know.

About Harold Knight
Retired English prof, Southern Methodist University. Old man. Musician. Organist. Passionate about justice, equality, freedom. I have some outdated ideas about our country. One person, one vote - not one PAC thousands of votes or a neighbor with no vote. You know, other strange ideas such as freedom of speech and assembly. And it seems to me trying to kill members of Congress and destroy the capitol are the kinds of treason outlined in the Constituion. But what do I know?

One Response to Their way—not my way—with words

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! Glad you were able to join us last Thursday.

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