My 50-Cent Masters Degree in English Language

Earning your Masters Degree in English Language takes intense concentration, five years of dedicated study, social-avoidant application, and plain old hard work. It also takes considerable funding—around $117,421.65. Mine cost 50 cents.

Now, I’m not knocking formal education from a reputable and prestigious institute of higher learning. No. Not at all. Nothing compares to personal exposure from profs and peers. But the end result, knowing linguistic principles and how to find/use English writing resources to polish your prose, is what an English language degree is all about.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from.

I’m a cheap SOB. I rarely pay full pop for anything, including books. The other week, I was snooping in a thrift shop and checking their used book section. There it was. This behemoth titled The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

It was on an upper shelf and darn near took out my rotator cuff lifting it down. Whoa! This thing is like new! It was hard covered, bound in faux leather with faux gold-gilded page ends, and—I swear to God—had nearly two thousand of them chocked-full of every detail on the English language you can imagine.

I set it on a display counter and browsed. The copyright page said 1988, but that didn’t worry me none about being outa date. We’re talkin’ English here. Surely the words and structures haven’t changed much in thirty-three years except for some new-fangled lingo like “smartphone”, “pumpkin spice”, and “Covid19”. Let’s look at the good stuff—timeless stuff—like gerunds, compound predicates, interjections, inverted orders, irregular comparison of adjectives, prepositional phrases, and that elusive eunuch called a dangling modifier.

There’s something about a book of quality. You know. The paper book that’s perfectly typeset—bound so you can lay its front cover-spine-back cover on a surface and each page, as you turn, lies perfectly flat without having to weight one side and the other with a cordless drill and a ceramic garden gnome.

This is exquisite. The table of contents aroused me. Preface. Staff. History of the English Language. Languages of the World. Guide and Use of the Dictionary. Editorial Abbreviations. Pronunciation Key. English Handbook. An 1144 page dictionary?  If I knew everything in here, it’d be like having a masters degree in the English language.

With both hands that should’ve been in white gloves, I carried this treasure to the till. “I don’t see any price marked,” I said to the till-lady who looked like a hard-core, 50’s librarian crossed with an inked biker-chick, reluctantly volunteering at the hospital auxiliary store or maybe completing a plea-bargained, community work service program.

Anxiously, I awaited her answer.

Over cat-eye glasses, she read a corrugated poster board suspended from the ceiling by thick butcher twine. It stated their general price assignments. “Let’s see… looks like all our books are fifty cents apiece.” She cat-eyed at me. “No dickering, though.”

My vitals reacted. “You… you… you only want fifty cents for this?”

“Says fifty cents for all books.” She looked at something below the cat eyes. “Looks like you found yourself a bargain.”

Start The Car!  I did. I got the equivalent of a Masters Degree in English Language for a half-buck. Call it two quarters or a fifty-cent piece. Far, far less than a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte or the ridiculous rate for the parking ticket pinned to my windshield.

I took her home, this big book of English language. I call her “her” because I think English gets the Germanic short schtick from romance languages like French which is my wife, Rita’s, first language and I try to be romantic with Rita because being romantic with Rita usually pays off even though I don’t speak more than five words of proper French nor does Rita want me to.

I poured two fingers of Scotch and sat down to enjoy her. Her title somewhat perplexed me—The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Now, everybody’s heard of Noah Webster, and everyone’s got his dictionary. Encyclopedia? Duh. Remember back in grade school when you were either on Team Britannica or Team World Book?

Hmmm… I see what they’re doing here. They’re blending an all-encompassing dictionary in with an encyclopedia strictly dedicated to English language structure. Right on! But, what’s a Lexicon?

I was tempted to Google it. However, the answer was right in the preface. “Lexicon can be a book containing an alphabetical arrangement of the words in a language and their definitions; the vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject; or the total stock of morphemes in a language.”

Morphemes? I had to Google that one, and I suppose that anyone with a Masters Degree in English Language would know that “a morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. A morpheme is not necessarily the same as a word. The main difference between a morpheme and a word is that a morpheme sometimes does not stand alone, but a word, by definition, always stands alone.”

I didn’t know that. I found out there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the English language as I paged through her, The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. There was a short history lesson that clearly documented our language’s evolution from Old English through Middle English and on to Early Modern English. I especially got a kick out of the spelling and sound of the West Saxon version of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6 of the Bible’s King James Version. It’s impossible to reproduce on my modern keyboard so I’ve attached a photo/screen shot.

Try pronouncing this gibberish after a few triple whiskeys. Reminds me of a guy named Rod Tubbs who was in our police poker club. Tubbs spoke like this halfway and worse through every evening.

Enough sidetrack. English study is a serious business and, if I wanted to get my money’s worth, I needed to keep paging. I’ll save you from regurgitating the 1144 page dictionary, but I do say the Practical English Handbook part was fascinating. I didn’t think it could happen, but it blows Elements Of Style out of the water. Here’s the prelude to the most concise, 45-page guide I’ve ever read:

The purpose of this Handbook is to provide a quick, easy-to-use guide to grammar, correct usage, and punctuation. It is intended for use in the business office, in the home, and in school. Secretaries, writers, teachers, and students will find it especially useful. The Handbook is divided into 25 sections or chapters each covering an important aspect or problem in English. The book is designed so that it may be used as a step-by-step complete self-study English review. But, in addition, it is a complete reference handbook for day-to-day use whenever a question arises concerning English useage or punctuation.”

I’m not going to list each chapter, as I don’t want to write an encyclopedic post full of lexiconal morphemes. But I do want to highlight the Parts Of Speech chapter, the Sentence Patterns chapter, and the Punctuation Review chapter. There were more goods packed in short spaces than I could ever imagine. Just the information on commas alone was worth my price of tuition.

Speaking of the price of tuition, you’re probably wondering how I came up with the Masters Degree in English Language figure of $117,421.65. Well, I went to the University of British Columbia’s website and looked up the details of their Masters of Arts — English Language program. Here’s a snippet from the UBC MAEL page:

The UBC English Graduate Program, one of the most vibrant and wide-ranging in Canada, has been awarding the M.A. degree since 1919. Students may earn the degree in each of two areas: English Literature and English Language. Indeed, the UBC English Department is one of the few departments in North America to offer a language program in addition to its literary programs.

The English Language program includes specializations in history and structure of language, discourse and genre analysis, and history and theory of rhetoric. Faculty members in the Language program teach and supervise research in descriptive linguistics, historical linguistics, cognitive linguistics, functional grammar, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, stylistics, genre studies, and history and theory of rhetoric. Students in the English Literature program can take advantage of Language graduate courses; recent offerings include courses on reported speech and its rhetorical versatility across genres; the uses of classical rhetoric for contemporary critical practice; and cognitive approaches to the language of literature. By the same token, Language students can take advantage of the wide variety of Literature courses our department offers.”

Below this pitch is their rates. Basic tuition is $6,358.13 per year and their living-within costs are starting at $17,126.20 per year. That adds to a total yearly amount of $23,484.13. Seeing as it takes five years to earn an MA, that means getting a Masters Degree of English Language will set you back $117,421.65.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think I really can get the equivalent of an expensive, five-year university program by reading my fifty-cent book. I have a high regard for education and highly educated people, and I truly respect their degrees. But what I did buy with my half dollar was access to a wealth of knowledge in The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

I don’t know if you can stumble upon this language beauty in a used book store. If you can, by all means grab it. I do know, however, that you can get copies on Amazon. They list a used hardcover for a very reasonable $15.68.

Okay, Kill Zoners. Have any of you got a copy of The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language? And what English language resources do you recommend? The University of Kill Zone floor’s mic is now open.


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner in the Province of British Columbia. Now, he’s an indie writer with an eight-part series of based-on-true-crime stories as well as many stand alones.

Garry also hosts a popular blog on his website at You can follow GarryRodgers1 on Twitter or follow him around in his boat floating on the Pacific saltwater at Vancouver Island.

What MasterClass Can Do For A Writer

Most writers constantly try to improve their craft. Whether you write thrillers, mystery, romance, sci-fi, dystopian, non-fiction, web content, blogs or whatever, you always feel your work can be better. At least that’s what goes on in my mind.

I like to say I’m a life-long learner. I’ve gone to school for sixty-four years and still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up. Maybe that’s why I’m hooked on watching MasterClass.

What’s MasterClass, you ask? Well, it’s “an American online education platform on which students can access tutorials and lectures pre-recorded by experts in various fields’. (I didn’t write that line. I copied and pasted it from Wikipedia.)

No underhanded plagiarism intended, though, as I believe MasterClass is the most helpful and professional resource that’s hit the net. It started as an idea floated between David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen in 2014. They formed Yanka Industries Inc. and published their first MasterClass on May 12, 2015. Within the first few months, they signed over 30,000 subscribers,

MasterClass snagged a big fish for their first day in the derby. James Patterson, one of the world’s top-selling thriller writers, opened the show. I was among the first with a front-row seat, popcorn, and a drink. Since then, I’ve taken 21 MasterClasses in subjects ranging from writing to film production to cooking to motivation to science. You could say I’m a master class junkie.

If you’re not familiar with the MasterClass format, let me give you a brief introduction before we take a close look at how James Patterson’s thriller writing MasterClass unfolds. I truly believe subscribing to MasterClass and getting a wide exposure to A-List resources can do a lot for you as a writer. You’ll take your craft to the next level as well as increase your confidence, amplify your motivation, and create satisfaction (i.e. happiness).

Nothing in a MasterClass production is amateurish or cheesy. Their course material is audience appropriate and their film works rival anything you’ll see on Netflix. From the instructor’s poise to the perfect setting, you’ll fall under the MasterClass spell and stick to it through each session. Qualification—that’s as long as you’re passionate about the subject.

A typical MasterClass runs between 15 and 25 sessions. The segments range in time from 3-minute intros to more than 20-minute lessons. That makes for a class series of blocks at around 3 to 5 hours of total film time. It depends on the subject and the presenter.

There are three parts to a MasterClass production. One is the on-camera time where the presenter lectures and/or demonstrates. Two is a PDF workbook that acts as a script guide and notebook. Three is behind-the-scene access to material that adds value to your purchase.

Speaking of purchase, MasterClass has two fees. One is $90 for a single class. Two is $180 annually for an “All Pass”. For under two hundred bucks, you can buy an unlimited subscription that gives you access to all classes. Given there are well over 50 classes, that’s an exceptional value.

To say MasterClass recruits knowledgeable instructors is an understatement. These are the best-of-the-best in their field, and the MasterClass producers know that success sells. Like the promise in Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, MasterClass delivers on the logic that successful people have it figured out, so be more like them.

I’ve swallowed the MasterClass KoolAid as you can tell from the tone of this piece. I make no apologies that I believe watching a MasterClass can do one thing for you, as a writer, above all else. I’ll tell you at the end, but first I want to list some MasterClasses I’ve watched and highly recommend to other writers.

James Patterson — Thriller Writing
Dan Brown — Thriller Writing
David Baldacci — Thriller Writing
Neil Gaiman — Storytelling
Malcolm Gladwell — General Writing
Joyce Carol Oates — Fiction Writing
Margaret Atwood — Fiction Writing
R.L. Stine — Children’s Writing
Judy Blume — Fiction Writing
David Mamet — Plot Writing
Aaron Sorkin — Screen Writing
Shondra Rimes — TV Writing
Ron Howard — Film Directing
Martin Scorsese — Film Producing
Bob Woodward — Journalism

My MasterClass interests go outside of what information I can glean on writing. Chris Hadfield’s class on space exploration is out of this world and Gordon Ramsey taught me how to make the best scrambled eggs without swearing at the stove. Wolfgang Puck? Excellent show. So was Annie Leibowitz on photography.

I’ll stop with name-naming. I want to take you inside an actual MasterClass, and I can think of no more applicable class for the Kill Zone bunch than James Patterson’s. Here’s his MasterClass curriculum taken from the show’s PDF.

01 Introduction: Your instructor, James Patterson—currently the best-selling author in the world—lets you know what he has planned for your class and what you’ll need to learn to start writing your own best-sellers.

02 Passion + Habit: Getting into the proper mindset is an essential first step to writing a best-seller. This lesson explores James’s secrets for staying focused, productive, and motivated.

03 Raw Ideas: How do you recognize a great idea? How do you figure out if it’s worthy of your effort? James spells out the techniques he uses to generate his ideas and then separate the good ones from the less compelling ones.

04 Plot: With the right plot, your reader won’t be able to stop turning the pages. In this lesson, James measures out his unique approach to developing plot lines that keep readers wanting more.

05 Research: For James, conducting in-depth research not only makes his writing better, it also boosts his credibility with his readers. Find out when and how James conducts his research and how he incorporates it into his writing in a thoughtful way.

06 Outlines — Part 1: James’ secret weapon is a comprehensive outline. Learn how he sets himself up for a fast and successful first draft. No matter what, don’t skip this lesson!

 07 Outlines — Part 2: James has never shown the outline for his best-seller Honeymoon to anyone (not even his publisher) until now. Follow along with the outline provided in your Class Workbook as James further explains his process.

08 Writer’s Block: Even when you’ve written as many books as James has (76 best sellers and counting), there’s still nothing scarier than staring at the blank page. Here’s how to conquer those fears.

09 Creating Characters: From Alex Cross to Michael Bennett, James has mastered the art of creating complex and memorable characters. Hero to villain, learn how to make your character stay with your reader well beyond the last page.

10 First Lines: Grab your reader’s attention quickly and make them hold on for dear life. James shares his tips for getting your reader hooked from the very first line.

11 Writing Dialogue: Dialogue should always push the story forward. Listen to James explain a few common dialogue pitfalls and easy ways to avoid them.

12 Building A Chapter: James is well known for his numerous short and snappy chapters. Learn how he propels the reader through the book with an outline as his roadmap.

13 Writing Suspense: The secret to suspense is…

14 Ending The Book: We’ve all read great books with terrible endings. Of the infinite possible endings, learn how James chooses the right one.

15 Editing: James is liberal with a red pen; his editing is key to keeping the reader engaged. Learn how to trim the fat with our interactive editing assignment.

16 Working With A Co-Author: When does James decide to use a co-author and is it a true collaboration? In this lesson, we meet two of his most trusted co-authors who share their process for making a collaboration truly successful.

17 Getting Published: Author of 76 best-sellers and holder of the Guinness World Record for the first person to sell over 1 million eBooks, James knows a thing or two about getting published. In this lesson, he shares what he’s learned.

18 Book Titles And Covers: Readers do judge books by their covers. What should they think about yours?

19 Marketing The Patterson Way: Before publishing his first book, James was an executive at a top ad agency in New York. Find out what James learned from his time in advertising and how he used it to change the book marketing game.

20 Hollywood: What happens when Hollywood takes an interest in your story? Sit back and listen as James shares the best and worst moments from his time on the set.

21 Personal Story: Every master begins as a student. James shares his long, winding path to becoming the world’s best-selling author.

22 Closing: You’ve been given the tools to help write your next book. Now what?

It’s hard to say the main takeaway, but I’d have to say it’s how much James Patterson stresses about outlining your work before starting the overall draft. He’s a plotter, through & through. Me? I’m more of a pantster, but I’m not here to argue with James Patterson’s success.

Nor do I dispute the amazing success following the names Brown, Baldacci, Gaiman, Attwood, Blume, Oates, Sorkin, and so on. These are top-caliber craftspeople. But as I watched their personalities unfold on the screen, I got the distinct impression these are not born-on-third-base people. They’re self-made professionals.

This realization made me think. If they can make it, maybe I can, too. So I looked for common denominators running through each class and what their experiences presented in their MasterClasses can do for a writer. Here’s what I found.

All presenters say there’s no set formula for success—no magic bullet.

There are processes to follow and there are principles to follow. However, each success story comes from trying new things and finding what works for the individual.

All presenters find the story.

They intimately understand their craft whether it’s fiction writing, screenwriting, directing and producing films, cooking, or flying a starship. In the spine of every success, there’s a story. A successful story they made happen by improving their craft.

All presenters do the work.

They didn’t slide into home from third. Most, if not all, struck out many times before they got a line-drive to first base never mind cracked it over the Green Monster. These MasterClass writers sat alone with their sore butts in the chair and their blistered fingers on the keys for a long, long time. They did the work.

All presenters have critics.

They get 1-Stars on Amazon and rotten tomatoes thrown at them. It goes with the game, and they grow tough hide. They learn from valid criticism, they trashcan the trolls, and many no longer bother to read their reviews.

All presenters have passion.

Some MasterClass instructors say this directly. With some, passion naturally flows from their style. Their words, their body language, their dress, and their demeanor show it. Everything about them oozes passion—controlled passion—and it infectiously slides onto the student.

Gordon Ramsay says, “Find a passion because everything else falls into place once you’ve got that track set.” Chris Hadfield’s quote is this. “Every single step you take in the direction of your dreams is one that will make you happier and more satisfied with yourself.” I think the space-man sends a universal message.

I’m passionate about writing. I know that improving my craft by watching MasterClass leads to greater satisfaction and happiness. And, I believe that’s what Masterclass can, above all else, do for you as a writer—make you feel happy.

*   *   *

Garry Rodgers is a retired RCMP homicide detective. He went on to a second career as the person no one wants an appointment with — a coroner. Garry’s business card used to say, “When Your Day Ends, My Day Starts”. His boss made him get rid of it.

Since then, Garry Rodgers reinvented himself as a crime writer who constantly strives to improve his craft and find satisfaction through indie-publishing electronic words. Garry also finds happiness by putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s Pacific coast.