Mr. Gradgrind's
Literal Answers to Rhetorical Questions

People commonly ask empty rhetorical questions that rarely receive any sort of sensible answer. When you have had your surfeit of poetical whimsy and are ready for some good, hard facts, come here to be set straight.

The world would be much improved if those engaging in windy musings were more often brought up short by a nice, sharp definition or a pointed rebuke. Even the fantastical William Shakespeare, asking himself "Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?" goes on (admittedly at excessive length) to list a number of reasons for answering in the negative.

Of course, some questions are so ill-framed as to admit of no sensible answer. Example: Where have you been all my life? It so happens that this question has never been addressed to me; but if it were I should be at a loss to detail the many addresses at which I have resided and worked during the span of existence of some other person, even if I knew that person's precise date of birth. Such idle musings are best ignored.

However, one can learn much by discovering facts that provide satisfactory answers to questions one might suppose at first glance to be pointless. This page is devoted to the pursuit of such answers.


What is so rare as a day in June?

June having 30 days, it is clear that days in April, September, and November are precisely as "rare,"or as common, though they are slightly less common than days in January, March, May, July, August, October, and December. Days in February are the least common, of course, so it is nonsensical to consider June days as particularly rare.


Where are the snows of yesteryear?

If the question refers to the melted product of last winter's snowfall, the answer can sometimes be derived by analyzing the volume of water in the catch basins of dams located on streams downhill from the point of original snowfall. More precise measures may be taken of those snows that contribute to glaciers which move at regular rates ranging from a few centimeters to a hundred meters per year. The easiest place to locate such snow, however, is in the extreme arctic and antarctic regions, where, although snow is very rare and sparse, it remains satisfactorily frozen and fixed in place indefinitely.


How high the moon?

It varies between 356,000 and 407,000 km in distance from the surface of the earth, its average distance being 384,400 km.


What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

D. Kolb and E.K.E. Gunderson's study, "Alcoholism in the United States Navy" reports that attempts to prevent, diagnose and rehabilitate sailors suffering from alcohol-related problems are to a measurable degree superior to the older approach of simple hospitalization (published in Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 183-194).


Who wrote the Book of Love?

René of Anjou, King of Naples 1435-1480, wrote and illustrated his Book of Love (Le cueur d'amours espris) some time after 1473 while living idly in Provence.


Tell me why the ivy twines.

Not all ivies do twine, of course: some are mere creeping vines. However, climbing ivies such as are commonly seen covering academic buildings maximize their exposure to light by using twining tendrils to affix themselves to other plants and objects in order to gain altitude and escape their shade.


Would you like to swing on a star?

There has been a good deal of research into the use of long tethers linking space probes which could use the gravitational differential between linked units closer to and farther from a massive object to generate both electrical and kinetic energy (see L. Johnson, B. Gilchrist, R. D. Estes and E. Lorenzini: Advances in Space Research, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 1055-1063 (1999). However, problems of scale and temperature make it unlikely that this technique will be applied to interstellar navigation any time in the near future; so you would be wise to limit your wishes to swinging from a planet.


How long has this been going on?

Data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe produce an estimated age for the universe of 13.7 billion years, plus or minus a 1% margin of error.


What is to be done?

I find that the Filofax A5 System Organizer efficiently tracks my appointments with a minimum of fuss and is generally superior to the personal information management software products so widely touted by computer enthusiasts.


What's up, Doc?

Presuming that the doctor addressed is a physician, one must assume that the question refers to the identity of the topmost parts of the human body, in which case the short answer is the frontal lobe of the brain, the skull, the scalp, and--if any--the hair.


How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris?

Administered commodity prices resulting in an average profit per farmer of no more than $50,000 per annum should be adequate to discourage profligate trips to France.


Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?

No one well informed, of course, since the writer in question died in 1941; but during her lifetime she was known to have a sharp tongue, and many persons had reason to fear her wit.


Where have all the flowers gone?

Generally the petals of the flowering parts of plants wither and fall off to decay in the surrounding soil while the remainder is converted into fruiting bodies. However, the blossoms of early-flowering fruit trees such as plums and cherries are particularly subject to the destructive effects of spring rains.


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Though the poet neglects to enumerate them, providing instead a mere list, a simple inventory establishes that--if we omit the purely hypothetical posthumous final one--Elizabeth Barrett loved Robert Browning in precisely seven ways.


Mr. Gradgrind recommends to those seeking guidance in matters of language the fine book by Dr. Paul Brians: Common Errors in English Usage, illustrated with excellent engravings and published by the firm of William, James & Co.

Common Errors in English Usage


Write to Mr. Gradgrind

Paul Brians' home page

This page has been accessed times since June 6, 1997.

Last revised July 7, 2007.