Monday, December 31, 2007

Invigorate your prose -- find hidden verbs

From "A Plain English Handbook," put out by the Securities and Exchange Commission to encourage Wall Street denizens to make their stock and bond offerings halfway intelligible to the public:

Find Hidden Verbs
Does a sentence use any form of the verbs "to be," "to have," or another weak verb, with a noun that could be turned into a strong verb? In the sentences below, the strong verb lies hidden in a nominalization, a noun derived from a verb that usually ends in -tion. As you change nouns to verbs, your writing becomes more vigorous and less abstract.

before ................................ after
We made an application... . . . . . . We applied...
We made a determination... . . . . . We determined...
We will make a distribution... .. . . . We will distribute...

We will provide appropriate information to shareholders concerning ....

We will inform shareholders about ...

We will have no stock ownership of the company.

We will own no company stock.

There is the possibility of prior Board approval of these investments.

The Board might approve these investments in advance.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Football argot -- a bowl season primer

The Bowl season is upon us. I've gone through life knowing truly nothing about golf and being happily oblivious to the endless tales of bogies, birdies and eagles that are the currency of the business world. The words below are strictly for those who are as oblivious to the terminology of football as I am to that of golf.

For example, we hear of the ominous "5-2 Monster" defense. This means there are five down linemen and two linebackers (defenders who stand in back of the line) who are complemented by a "Monster" back. The Monster -- or Rover, or Eagle, or Strong Safety -- is a person fast enough to be a defensive back and strong enough to come up and knock the crap out of running backs if they get past the line.
If you've ever seen the infrequent moments when UT junior Camille Chandler's dad, Jack, is vexed, you might gain some insight into his success as a strong safety at Vanderbilt. Why is he called a "strong safety"? Because he generally lines up opposite the "strong" side of the offensive line-- i.e., the side where the tight end lines up.

A blitz (from German Blitzkrieg, or "Lighting War") is the tactic of sending an extra person -- a linebacker or a safety -- charging into the backfield to sack the quarterback.

West Coast Offense: Basically, this is an offense based on short, quick passes that keep possession of the ball more than trying for longer gains on a regular basis. Its West Coast roots are partly the result of weather---when it's sunny and dry, you can throw and catch a ball reliably. One of its main avatars was the late Bill Walsh of Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, where quarterback Joe Montana made it all look so easy. Lately, Walsh proteges have transplanted the West Coast offense in Green Bay and Minnesota. Go figure.

The Wishbone Offense: In less balmy parts of the county, howling winds and raging sleet make it important to keep the ball on the ground more, which is why the wishbone "option" offenses were developed on the plains of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.
In the wishbone, the quarterback runs more, and there are three running backs behind him. On each play, the quarterback has several options:
1) to hand off the ball to a fullback running through the center of the line,
2) hand off to a halfback running off tackle,
3) keep the ball and run around the end, or
4) pitch the ball to the other halfback heading wide around the end.
[And, once in a blue moon, he can throw a pass!]
At each decision point, the quarterback "keys" on certain defensive players--that is, sees where they're going and sending the ball to the most undefended area. The wishbone was adopted by Alabama, except in years when Bama had great passers like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. Troy Aikman first went to Oklahoma because coach Barry Switzer promised to switch from a wishbone to a West Coast offense. When Switzer changed his mind, Aikman tranferred to pass-happy UCLA.
Canadian football, with its frequent snowy conditions, tends to like running quarterbacks.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A big cheese, top dog -- big kahuna


kahuna (kuh-HOO-nuh) noun
1. A priest or a medicine man.
2. An important person (usually in the phrase: big kahuna).

[From Hawaiian kahuna. Hawaiian is a Polynesian language spoken in the Hawaiian islands in the Pacific. The number of native speakers of the language has decreased to just a few hundreds.]

"It's tough being yesterday's man. At a briefing introducing investors to the new AMP boss Craig Dunn, outgoing kahuna Andrew Mohl appeared a little left out."
-- Michael Evans; Marginbet Takes Even Bigger Bet; The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia); Nov 27, 2007.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Going with a hunch on a "hard" SAT Question

Sometimes, intuition is an important tool for SAT takers, especially with "hard" questions like the SAT Question of the Day below.
Wily students can probably look at the word "prefatory,"figure it has something to do with a "preface," and get the right answer, eliminating "orthographic" as having something to do with spelling or handwriting and "conjunctive" as having something to do with "and" and "but" (or pink-eye).
In fact, it might even be confusing if you know that "proleptic" means anticipating and "redacted" means edited, since these might possibly fit in the sentence. So this is an example of when it's better to go with your first hunch on an SAT question rather than to "overthink" it.

The professor asked the students to make sure they read the entire novel, both the twelve regular chapters and the extensive ___________ materials that the author included at the beginning of the book.

a) proleptic
b) redacted
c) prefatory
d) orthographic
e) conjunctive

P.s., If you'd like to sign up to receive the SAT Question of the Day, click here. You'll have to open up an account, but that's easy to do.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

You might be a grammarian.

With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy . . .

If, when you talk about "The Good Book," you mean the dictionary, you might be a grammarian.

If your car has a bumper sticker that reads "split atoms, not infinitives," you might be a grammarian.

If you write letters to your local newspaper about spelling errors in headlines, you may indeed be a grammarian.

If you've ever said the words aloud, "You can't be 'very unique,' something is either unique or not!" Then you are probably a grammarian.

If you find yourself editing shopping lists, you might be a grammarian.

If you stop your car on highways and curse grammatical errors on billboards, you might be a grammarian.

If you've ever taken out a Sharpie at a diner and crossed out those apostrophes around "Tips Welcome," you're probably a grammarian.

If you've ever corrected a letter from your company CEO in revisions mode and sent it back, then you might be a full-time grammarian.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A small, extra gift -- lagniappe


lagniappe n., ((lan-YAP, LAN-yap) [From Louisiana French, from American Spanish la ñapa (the gift), from Quechua yapa (something added).]

a small gift given a customer by a merchant at the time of purchase (e.g., a 13th doughnut added in with a purchase of a dozen);
broadly: an unexpected benefit, something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.

"Of little consequence, a tiny lagniappe and a green salad came compliments of the house."
-- M.H. Reed; In Ossining, a Restaurant With a Past; The New York Times; Sep 23, 2001.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

BC's advice on writing the "perfect" college application essay

The nice advice below comes from the Boston College admissions office website:

Writing the "Perfect" Essay

First of all, let us debunk the myth. There is no such thing as a perfect essay. There, we've said it. Now you can clear your mind of the anxiety that typically accompanies students as you sit down to write. Instead, you can focus on using the essay as a tool to let the Committee on Admission learn more about you as an individual.

Many of us feel that in the fall of your senior year, the college essay is the only portion of your application remaining on which you can still have a significant influence. Granted, you will need to continue working hard in your classes, but you have already met people who will speak highly of you in a recommendation, you have already been involved in various extra-curricular activities, and you have likely completed your standardized examinations. The one remaining portion is the college essay. We realize how hectic your senior year is, but take advantage of this opportunity.

The best essays that we read are ones that tell us not only about a specific event, mentor, excursion, or accomplishment, but also tell us how the writer has been affected by their experiences. For example, a typical essay might inform the reader of a trip to France that the student took the previous summer. It might focus on the challenges faced in getting to their destination, the French culture, or even the people that the student met. The better essay, however, takes it to the next level. It makes the experience personal. The student might choose to explain what surprised, frustrated, or inspired them about the trip. The student might choose to focus on how they now view the world a little bit differently after this newfound international perspective.

Another common example is students' essays on a person who influenced their lives. Frequently, we read essays about applicants' grandparents, for example. Many essays simply focus on the attributes that a grandmother has that make her special to the applicant. They may focus on the challenges that a grandmother has overcome or the successes she has enjoyed. They leave the reader knowing that the student loves his grandmother, but not knowing anything more about the student. The better essay, however, might also focus on the way the writer has attempted to emulate these admired qualities. The student might choose to share how learning of his grandmother's life experiences has helped him better understand the world. This allows us to learn more about the student and what makes the student special.

As you can see, in both of these examples, the first essay simply tells us of an experience, but the second essay shows us more about the individual. We walk away from it knowing a bit more about the qualities the applicant possesses and how he or she might fit into our campus community.

We hope that you will not view the college essay as a roadblock between you and your college choice, but as a unique opportunity to be in the driver's seat in the college process. Let your qualities, characteristics, and personality shine through. Best wishes as you begin your journey.

bc home > admission > admission process > tips > essay >

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Like waking up as a cockroach -- Kafkaesque


Kafkaesque (kaf-ka-ESK) adjective

Complex or illogical in a bizarre, surreal, or nightmarish manner.

[After the Czech author Franz Kafka (1883-1924), who depicted such fictional worlds in his novels as in the novel Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa, awakens one morning to find himself spontaneously "transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin," i.e., a cockroach.]

"In a Kafkaesque touch, [Dr. Andrej Holm's] lack of a cellphone -- hindering the efforts of German authorities to track him -- is deemed 'conspiratorial behavior'."
-- Neil Smith; German GWOT Misfire; The Nation (New York); Sep 24, 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

First come, first served

Not a big thing, but why do folks render incorrectly one of the few expressions in our language that actually says what it means?

It should be, "First come, first served."

But so much of the time it appears as, "First come, first serve," which seems to say that if you're the first to arrive, you will be the waiter!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Anthropomorphize -- attribute human qualities to things not-human


anthropomorphize (an-thruh-puh-MOR-fyz) verb tr., intr.
To attribute human qualities to things not human.
[From Greek anthropo- (human) + morph (form).]

"Yes, we love our pets and anthropomorphize them to the point where we think our cat might enjoy wearing the mouse hat Halloween costume."
--Natalie Angier; The Ambivalent Bond With a Ball of Fur; The New York Times; Oct. 2, 2007.

I've always been struck by the [almost silly] anthropomorphizations in the Paul McCartney tune, Bad to Me, that was a hit for Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas in 1963.

The birds in the sky would be sad and lonely
if they knew that I'd lost my one and only.
They'd be sad, if you're bad to me.

The leaves on the trees would be softly sighin'
If they heard from the breeze that you left me cryin'
They'd be sad, don't be bad to me

Which Christmas carol was penned on a bet?

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) has been called the greatest American preacher of the 19th Century.

During the Christmas season of 1867, Brooks was looking for a special carol for the children of Philadelphia's Holy Trinity Church to sing in their Christmas program, but he wasn't satisfied with the choices available. He bet his his organist, Lewis R. Redner, that he could write a better one.

He retired to his study, where he wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem in a single evening.

Brooks gave Redner a copy of the words and asked him to compose a melody that would be easy for the children to sing. On the evening just before the program was to be given, Redner awakened suddenly from his sleep with the melody in his mind and quickly wrote it out.

Though Brooks set down the lyrics in an evening, the ideas and images had been planted two years earlier. During a trip to the Holy Land in 1865, Brooks had ridden on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. As he neared Bethlehem, Brooks had stopped among the shepherds on a hillside and looked down on the town, which lay still and peaceful below.

Later, Brooks assisted with the midnight Christmas Eve service at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, an experience that moved him deeply. "I re­mem­ber stand­ing in the old church in Beth­le­hem," he wrote, "close to the spot where Je­sus was born, when the whole church was ring­ing hour after hour with splen­did hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voic­es I knew well, tell­ing each other of the Won­der­ful Night of the Sav­ior’s birth."

O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love

O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today

We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More on the College Application Essay

To Thine Self Be True, but Not Overly So:
Crafting College Admissions Essays Has Become Fine Art
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

It's a dark month for high school seniors. College admissions deadlines lurk just after the holidays, and the essay could be the one chance students have to show something more memorable than test scores and band camp -- something to make them stand out from the pile.

George Washington University gets about 20,000 applications a year; the University of Maryland gets a few thousand more. Parke Muth, director of international admission at the University of Virginia, estimates he has read well over 60,000 essays over the years. "That's why I'm nearly blind," he said.

Muth said he doesn't see many laughably bad essays anymore. There's too much at stake. College admissions are more competitive than ever. Most applicants get coached by parents, counselors and teachers; many spend the fall semester planning and rewriting essays in English class.

Yes, computer spell checking still creates the odd correction gone awry that can crack up admissions essay readers. But they say many essays now are grammatically perfect, structurally sound and painfully earnest. Eighteen years of stress and expectations packed onto one or two laser-printed pages -- but not usually anything that would grab a reader from the first line.

That's where Nate Patten and fellow U-Va. students come in. Each year, they sift through tons of essays from incoming freshmen to put on sketches for the public to show the kaleidoscope of students on campus. "Voices of the Class" gives a funny, illuminating and occasionally sad picture of each fall's freshmen -- and some inspiration for all the high school seniors trying to bang out essays.

Patten got a stack of admissions essays more than a foot high to read for the play he was directing this fall. To get through them, he'd pick one up, read the first line and -- unless it grabbed him -- toss it aside immediately.

"It was really painful," said fellow cast member Scottie Caldwell. "I would read an essay and think, 'This is terrible!' And . . . it was exactly like mine."

After all that reading, the cast members sounded like experts on what works: The best essays read like vivid, entertaining dramas led by a compelling main character. More script than rsum, and not a complicated life story -- just a sketch.

Cast members reading through essays laughed about the repetition. Lots of sob stories, lots of big, obscure words, lots of "Here I sit, musing about how difficult it is to write my essay."

They wrote a scene for the play with a girl at a laptop moaning, "All of my college applications are due tomorrow, and I haven't written my essay. I haven't got a role model . . . I haven't been depressed . . . and my family is obscenely functional." Then she brightens up. "I've got it! It's perfect: I'll write an essay about my essay. No one has ever thought of this. It's self-conscious, yet communal."

One U-Va. question asks applicants to look out their front window and describe the view and what they would change. "That gives you a whole lot of socially conscious, 'damn the Man' kind of essays," said senior Walt McGough. "One kid wrote about the state of youth of America -- it read like a 50-year-old man wrote it."

They went back to read their own essays and shuddered. "Mine were much worse," McGough said. "I wrote about running the light board for a high school performance and how everything went wrong and what it meant for me to triumph over adversity." He laughed. "If not that phrase, then something really, really close."
Now his advice is succinct: Be true to yourself. Take some risks.

His first year at U-Va., he heard a story: The Harvard admissions essay question asked, "What is the bravest thing you've ever done?" and one guy wrote -- well, a two-word phrase that is best described, in a family newspaper, as both vulgar and hostile.

"I would let that guy in with honors," McGough said wistfully. "I would love to think that happened; it gives me hope for the future."

For the record, the Harvard application has never asked that question.

Also for the record, more than one admissions officer specifically mentioned being offended by overly graphic use of cuss words. Once, U-Va. got a response to "What is your favorite word and why?" featuring the same four-letter word.

"He took a risk," Muth said. And, with the finality of a U-Va. education lost forever, "that risk was not successful."

The essay didn't fail because of the word itself, Muth said, but because it was chosen just for shock value. The essay was lousy.

So the corollary advice: Take a chance, but a calculated one. It's good to stand out, but not in a way that makes admissions staff members recoil.

Someone once sent the University of Maryland a worn flip-flop along with the application, said Shannon R. Gundy, associate director of undergraduate admissions. She doesn't remember the essay, just the attachment, which grossed her out.

"My least favorite," said Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University, "is the one cut out into a puzzle. It says, 'Your school is where I fit in.' Every couple years, someone sends that."

One of Muth's favorite essays was about driving really fast, listening to Radiohead. "She wasn't afraid to say, 'This is who I am. . . . I'm not trying to impress you with how much community service I'm doing. But I'm smart.' " It was the writing that carried it, Muth said, poetic and beautiful.

"Be true to yourself" is good advice, he said -- to a point. It's not the best recommendation for ditzes, stoners, sullen teens. He took on a high school senior voice and lilted, " 'Does he like, like you -- or just like, like you like you?'

"You don't want to be true to that," he said. "You want to be false to that."

As U-Va. cast members read through the essays, some caught and held them with glimpses of real life: One about a 4-year-old brother with a brain tumor, making the family laugh and cry when he darted from the hospital elevator saying, "I'm busting out of here!"

One about waking up in the night to the strains of a religious song and creeping downstairs to the basement, sleepy and confused, to find his father high on cocaine, singing and beating his little brother to the cadences of the hymn.

There was one that began: I have always had really big feet.

"Some of these essays are just amazing," Patten said. "Some are very, very funny. Some are so sad, I could cry reading them."

In the end, he was disappointed that the admissions office took the names off the essays used in the play. "I thought, this sounds like such a cool person that I would love to get to know better."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Yogi Berra could have said, "It's déjà vu, redux."


redux (ri-DUKS) adjective
Brought back; revisited.
[From Latin re- (again) + dux (leader), from ducere (to lead). Ultimately from Indo-European root deuk- (to lead) that led to other words such asduke, conduct, educate, duct, wanton, and tug.]

"The nightmare, redux. Once again Eddie Guardado was an out away from a save. Once again, he couldn't get it done."
-- John Hickey; M's Can't Finish Sox; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; May 4, 2006.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Commas and the Second Amendment

In today's New York Times, Adam Freedman, who writes the Legal Lingo column for New York Law Journal Magazine, takes up the issue of those pesky commas in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To read the column, please click here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Congratulations to Coach David Cutcliffe!

The University of Tennessee Volunteers offensive coordinator, assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe will become the head coach at Duke.
To read a profile of Cutcliffe from the September 2006 Knoxville CityView magazine, click here.

To go to a story from the August 2007 CityView about Cutcliffe's latest pupil, UT quarterback Erik Ainge, click here.

Blessed Be the Grammar Fascists

In this time of giving, it is fitting to give thanks to the grammar fascists in our classrooms and rejoice in the resurgent of "direct grammar instruction," described so well by Daniel DeVise in The Washington Post. Of course the question in the headline below is rhetorical. Direct grammar instruction will sweep our land like a mighty wind, lay low the mountains, fill the valleys, cause great shouting and tumult, and, perhaps, bring an end to pronomial expressions without clear and stated antecedents!

Will more direct instruction continue to gain ground?
By DANIEL DE VISE, Washington Post October 25, 2006
WASHINGTON - Mike Greiner teaches grammar to high school sophomores in half-hour lessons, inserted between Shakespeare and Italian sonnets. He is an old-school grammarian, one of a defiant few in the Washington region who believe in spending large blocks of class time teaching how sentences are built.

For this he has earned the alliterative nickname "Grammar Greiner," along with a reputation as one of the tougher draws in the Westfield High School English department.

Or, as one student opined in a sonnet he wrote, "Mr. Greiner, I think you're torturing us."
Greiner, 43, teaches future Advanced Placement students at the Chantilly, Va., school. Left on their own to decide where to place a comma, "they'll get it right about half of the time," he said. "But half is an F."

Ten or 20 years ago, Greiner might have been ostracized for his views or at least counseled to keep them to himself. Grammar lessons vanished from public schools in the 1970s, supplanted by a more holistic view of English instruction. A generation of teachers and students learned grammar through the act of writing, not in isolated drills and diagrams.

Today, Greiner is encouraged, even sought out. Direct grammar instruction, long thought to do more harm than good, is welcome once more.

Several factors - most notably, the addition of a writing section to the SAT college entrance exam in 2005 - have reawakened interest in Greiner's methods.

Nationwide, the class of 2006 posted the lowest verbal SAT scores since 1996. That was the year the test was recalibrated to correct for a half-century decline in verbal performance.
Gaston Caperton, the College Board president, has lamented the scarcity of grammar and composition course work in public schools. In surveys, not quite two-thirds of students said they had studied grammar by the time they took the 2005 SAT.

Those concerns, and a growing consensus among scholars that many high school graduates "can't write well enough to get a passing grade from a professor on a paper," drove the addition of a third section to the SAT, upending decades of balance between reading and math, said Ed Hardin, a content specialist at the College Board.

The new section introduced a long-form essay and - less publicized - a series of multiple-choice responses that test how well students can assemble and disassemble sentences.
"We're interested in writing at the sentence level, at the phrase level, at the word level," Hardin said.

The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as "a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing."
Now, even the sentence diagram, long the symbol of abandoned methodology, is allowed, if not quite endorsed, in the classrooms of high-performing school systems.

"Our time has come," said Amy Benjamin, who presides over a council committee that concerns itself with grammar. In 17 years, her Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar has evolved from "kind of a revolutionary cell" into standard-bearers.

The nascent movement to restore overt grammar instruction began subtly. A 2002 council publication reasserted the importance of "knowing about grammar" and encouraged teachers to "experiment with different approaches," including traditional drills and diagrams.
Greiner, it should be noted, does not diagram; he prefers livelier methods.

For a half-hour one recent morning, students repaired broken sentences, one after another, an exercise with all the glamour of a linguistic assembly line. When one young woman read right past the proper noun "southwest" without stopping to capitalize, Greiner politely reminded the class: This very word, or something like it, is bound to show up on Virginia's Standards of Learning exams in spring.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Incorrect Punctuation of Two Independent Clauses

From Hamilton College's Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing:

The Second Deadly Sin: Incorrect Punctuation of Two Independent Clauses

(An independent clause has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence.)

Good writers know that correct punctuation is important to writing clear sentences. If you misuse a mark of punctuation, you risk confusing your reader and appearing careless. Notice how the placement of commas significantly affects the meaning of these sentences:

Mr. Jones, says Ms. Moore, is a boring old fool.

Mr. Jones says Ms. Moore is a boring old fool.

Writers often combine independent clauses in a single compound sentence to emphasize the relationship between ideas. The punctuation of compound sentences varies depending upon how you connect the clauses.

The rules are

(a) Separate independent clauses with a comma when using a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet).
(b) Separate independent clauses with a semi-colon when no coordinating conjunction is used.
(c) Separate independent clauses with a semi-colon when using a conjunctive adverb (e.g., however, therefore, thus, consequently, finally, nevertheless).

Examples of Correct Punctuation, Rule a:

1. We all looked worse than usual, for we had stayed up studying for the exam.

2. This room is unbelievably hot, and I think that I am going to pass out.

3. Monday is a difficult day for me, so I try to prepare as much as possible on Sunday.

Examples of Correct Punctuation, Rule b:

1. We all looked worse than usual; we had stayed up all night studying for the exam.

2. This room is unbelievably hot; I think I am going to pass out.

3. Monday is a difficult day for me; I have three classes and two other commitments.

Examples of Correct Punctuation, Rule c:

1. We all looked worse than usual; however, we were relieved we had studied.

2. The discussion is really interesting; nevertheless, I think I am going to pass out.

3. Monday is a difficult day for me; however, I have figured out how to prepare for it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Articles included -- alchemy, albatross, algorithm, hoi polloi

Borrowed from

When English borrows a word from another language, it sometimes takes its definite article too. We imported the word alligator from the Spanish el lagarto (the lizard). Alcohol came from the Arabic al-kul (the powdered antimony, and by association, substances obtained by sublimation or distillation). Many, such as alkali, algebra, lacrosse (from French: the cross), and others, are among the words bringing their own definite article, but it's not always so obvious. An extreme example of this inadvertent duplication of definite articles is in the name of the Los Angeles site of prehistoric fossils of animals, the La Brea Tar Pits, which would literally translate as the The Tar Tar Pits.

alchemy (AL-kuh-mee) noun [Via Old French and Medieval Latin from Arabic al-kimiya (the chemistry), from Greek khemeia (transmutation).]
  1. A medieval predecessor of chemistry devoted to things such as converting common metals into precious metals, finding a universal solvent (alkahest), and finding a universal remedy for diseases.
  2. A mysterious or magical process of transformation.

albatross (AL-buh-tros) noun, plural albatross or albatrosses [Apparently an alteration of Portuguese or Spanish alcatraz, from Arabic al-gattas (the diver, name for a kind of sea eagle).]

  1. Any of the Diomedeidae family of large, web-footed seabirds.
  2. A persistent wearisome burden, as of guilt, for example. The name of the Alcatraz Island near San Francisco, the site of a former maximum security prison, has the same origin.

algorithm (AL-guh-rith-uhm) noun A finite sequence of well-defined steps for solving a problem. [After al Khwarizmi (the [man] of Khwarizm), a nickname of the 9th century Persian astronomer and mathematician Abu Jafar Muhammand ibn Musa, who authored many texts on arithmetic and algebra. He worked in Baghdad and his nickname alludes to his place of origin Khwarizm (Khiva), in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.]

hoi polloi (hoi puh-LOI) noun The common people, the masses. [From Greek hoi polloi (the many).] The phrase is often mistakenly used to refer to the elite or the snobbish, quite opposite of what it really means. That usage arises probably from the first part sounding similar to "high" or from confusion with the term hoity toity. The term often appears as "the hoi polloi." Some pedants object to that construction, claiming "the" is already part of the term. If you find such people, tell them to go study gebra and drink cohol.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Harbrace 21 -- Conciseness: Avoiding Wordiness and Needless Repetition

Be concise. Repeat a word or phrase only when it is needed for emphasis, clarity, or coherence.
Conciseness---using words economically---is fundamental to clear writing.

WORDY In the early part of the month of August, a hurricane was moving threateningly toward Houston.

CONCISE In early August, a hurricane threatened Houston.

Needless repetition of words or phrases distracts the reader and blurs meaning.

REPETITIOUS This interesting instructor makes an uninteresting subject interesting.

CONCISE This instructor makes a dull subject interesting.

REPETITIOUS I am a 17-year-old high schooler who is a junior at West High, and I play soccer on the high school soccer team.

CONCISE I am a 17-year-old junior at West High, where I play on the soccer team. (If you were tight for space, you could probably cut "17-year-old," since 80 percent of juniors are 17, and the rest are within a year of that age.)

When you are really looking closely at letters or articles for newspapers or magazines, you can usually find redundancies even after several rounds of editing. This is especially handy when you need to cut pieces or letters to fit onto a page. For example, you might find a sentence like, "We visited a farm out in the country." Or, "We went to a NASCAR race at a racetrack." Where else would these things be found?

I've noticed some common redundancies like, "You can e-mail me at my e-mail address," This is plainly an e-mail address, so it is just as informative to say, "You can e-mail me at" Or you could even say, "You can contact me at" It's not a telephone number or a post office address. Given this information, how else could someone contact you but by e-mail?

Rules 21a(1-3), 21b and 21c offer lots of handy tips for avoiding wordiness, redundancy, tautology (the use of different words to say the same thing).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A 25-cent word for "too much"

superfluous -- unnecessary; exceeding what is sufficient or necessary (from the Latin words super (over) + fluere (to flow) = overflow).

SAT Question of the Day
Alice Walker’s prize-winning novel exemplifies the strength of first-person narratives; the protagonist tells her own story so effectively that any additional commentary would be ------- .
a) subjective
b) eloquent
c) superfluous
d) incontrovertible
e) imperious

Monday, December 10, 2007

When to use commas between adjectives

Chuck Berry sang, "I've got a 1963 cherry red Mustang Ford."
We've got a small black house cat.


Your Dad is a kindly, amiable, lovable man.

The rule: use commas between coordinate adjectives. These are adjectives that have roughly equal rank, kind or order of importance.

You can tell if they are coordinate if --
1) you could logically put "and" between them
2) their order can be changed around
3) in normal reading a pause comes between them

The two sentences at the top have adjectives that are not coordinate (they refer to size, year, color, make); therefore, there are no commas.

The comma occupies the sacred section 12 of Harbrace. The item above is Rule No. 12c(2)

(Section 13, deals with, superfluous, commas.) :-)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Throws versus throes

From this weekend's Wall Street Journal opinion page: "Some have said that Detroit is in the throws [sic.] of committing cultural suicide."

The word Henry Payne of The Detroit News was looking for is throes.

throe noun [from Old English thrawu, threa threat, pang; akin to Old High German drawa threat]
1. pang, spasm [as in "death throes" or "the throes of childbirth"]
2. plural: a hard or painfuls struggle [as in "the throes of revolutionary social change" --M.D. Geismar]

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Lambent -- marked by lightness or brilliance

From a New Yorker review:
"...Any viewer of Catherine Keener’s lambent performance in “Capote” is prepared to believe that she possesses all these traits [composure, dignity, maturity of spirit, morality, sober-mindedness], but they would not naturally recommend her for an authentic portrayal of the plain and sometimes stubborn Harper Lee, the subject of Charles J. Shields’s biography, Mockingbird (Holt; $25)."

Although I myself had never, ever heard or read this word before, I am proud to report that it means "marked by lightness or brilliance, especially of expression."

It comes from the Latin verb lambere , to lick, and has alternate definitions of
1. playing lightly on or above a surface: flickering
2. softly bright or radiant."

Of course we must also note that, if this were a question on the SAT, we would realize that the singular "viewer" in the sentence above does not agree with the plural pronoun "they." Tsk Tsk Tsk.

Peaked and piqued and other pesky homonyms

Harbrace 18b: Distinguish between words of similar sound; use the spelling required by the meaning.

Section 18b includes nice list of the Top 100 sets of Words Whose Spellings Are Frequently Confused. It also refers us to the excellent Glossary of Usage in the back (pages G-1 through G-11 marked usgl in the upper right corner).

But here are four particularly pesky homonym/homophones:

Right: "The Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked at 12,500."
Right: "The story piqued my interest."

The word pique comes from the French word piquer, to prick. Pique has several meanings: 1) to arouse anger or resentment in, or offend by slighting, 2) to excite or arouse by provocation, 3) to stir up the pride in an accomplishment.

Other homonyms (or near homonyms) that trip almost everyone up:

"I am the Marquis de Sade." (a nobleman below a duke and above an earl)
"The theater marquee said the show started at 7:00 pm." (a permanent canopy projecting over an entrance to a theater or a hotel)

"Because of the court's ruling, the lawyer's point is rendered moot." (deprived of practical significance; a great Old English word)
"After his traumas in the holocaust, the young Jerzy Kozinzki was rendered mute." (unable to speak)

"The speech was filled with wonderful anecdotes." (short, amusing stories or biographical incidents)
"After he was bitten by the snake, the adventurer called out for the antidote." (a remedy to counteract the effects of a poison)

"Ronald Reagan charmed the nation with his self-deprecating humor." (effacing; expressing mild or regretful disapproval)
"The house had somehow depreciated over the past decade." (decreased in value)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Like Dorothy Parker's wit -- caustic

caustic (KAW-stik) adjective
1. Capable of burning or corroding.
2. Highly critical; sarcastic.

[From Latin causticus, from Greek kaustikos, from kaustos (combustible), from kaiein, (to burn).] Caustic soda (Sodium hydroxide) is a highly corrosive substance used in the manufacture of soap, paper, and textiles.

"Some were outright sarcastic, others clearly caustic."
-- Vijay Mruthyunjaya; ICC's Hairobics Baffle; Gulf Daily News (Bahrain); Aug 28, 2006.

An example of caustic wit:
"She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."
-- Dorothy Parker, speaking of Katharine Hepburn

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

How to structure the SAT essay

The essay section of the SAT presents an opportunity to excel for those who are prepared. A while ago my high school alumni bulletin ran a story about its month-long SAT-prep program, directed by math teacher Linda DeBord.

In preparation for the SAT essay section, students compose two to five essays under test conditions, which Mrs. DeBord then assesses and scores.

"Learning to outline and write an essay under pressure was invaluable," said one student. "The corrected essays were also helpful, as we learned from our mistakes." (This is the same preparation done by West High teachers like Shannon Jackson, who so effectively help their students earn nice AP scores and -- as Isabel Clark attested in the August 2006 Cityview magazine -- do well in college, where almost all the tests are timed essays.)

I asked Mrs. DeBord for some tips, and she kindly replied.

Of course a student should briefly outline the essay before writing. "In the brief 25 minutes, the up-front planning is critical," says Mrs. DeBord, "but the students need to keep a careful eye on the time. I suggest that in the opening paragraph, after they state their thesis, they should mention two examples they will use. The examples should be clear in their relationship in supporting the thesis. The conclusion should restate, in an interesting way (if possible), the thesis and then re-tie in the examples."

So, the structure of the essay goes pretty much --

I. State thesis
II. Preview two supporting examples
III. Elaborate thesis
IV. Flesh out examples
V. Conclusion
a) restate thesis (interesting way)
b) re-tie in the examples

Monday, December 3, 2007

Lost Chapters of "A Death in the Family"

The other day in the Post Office I ran into U.T. English professor Michael Lofaro.

Renowned as a Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett scholar, Michael mentioned that he has recently culminated five years of editing work with the publication of A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text (UT Press).

[Click here for a story on how Lofaro came to piece together the original manuscript.]

As Knoxvillians know, James Agee's original manuscript had been reworked by a friend of Agee's after Agee's sudden death in 1955. Four of many "lost chapters" appear in this month's Harper's under the headline "Enter the Ford."

Knoxvillians will delight in many descriptions of 1913 Knoxville, such as that of riding the open streetcar from Gay Street downtown out to Chilhowee Park for the fair, where Agee's father takes offense at an imagined slight by a carnie, which initiates a long, priceless series of whupass-type exchanges like the following:

"If you're lookin for trouble," the man said, "just say the word, cause there's plenty here that's paid to find it."
"Just if you want it," daddy said. "If you want it I'll give you all I got. You and them too. Way you talked tother Satdy you was looking for it."

The lost chapters present a new element to the novel -- that of "daddy's" new Ford as an alluring, yet ominous addition to the idyllic world of Agee's childhood. At one point Laura, the mother says, "... something dreadful is going to happen, Jay. Something irreparable. To our family. In that auto."

We also see an early example of road rage, as a speeding, honking, begoggled driver on Highland Avenue roars by a horse and buggy and then Jay's Ford, toppling the family to the side of the street, then looking back with a grin.

"Why you crazy God damn son of a bitch I like to bust yer f---- God damn jaw!" And his door was already wrenched open and one foot was out before he realized the uselessness. "I swear to God I could kill a man like that," he said. "I mean it. I could kill him and it'd be a pleasure to."

Some things haven't changed too much on Knoxville's roadways.

That "you're in trouble" stance -- arms akimbo


akimbo (uh-KIM-bo) adjective With hands on hips and elbows turned outwards.
[Of uncertain origin, probably from Old Norse.]

"The goal also sent goalkeeper Bakalo Silumbu into tears, who was seen with arms akimbo and mouth agape between the goal posts."
-- Francis Tayanjah-Phiri; Chess Boss Sponsors Football Tourney; The Daily Times (Blantyre, Malawi); Nov 22

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I Stick My Neck Out for Nobody (except to sing "La Marseillaise")

Q: What are the specific dates during which the action of Casablanca takes place?

Hint: This is a pretty good time of year to ask this question.

Grammarians seem to love Casablanca. Perhaps it's all the lines and phrases that are part of our daily vocabulary. (Whenever we say we are "shocked, shocked" to learn of some wrongdoing, we are quoting Captain Louis Renault without any need of explanation beyond a certain inflection in our voices echoing the bureaucratic hypocrisy embodied for all time so wonderfully by Claude Rains.)

A: We must be alert near the beginning of the movie, when we first meet American ex-patriot barkeep Rick Blaine as he OK's a check, dated 2 Decembre, 1941.

That evening, Ilsa Lund, the lost love of Rick's life, enters Rick's Cafe Americain with her husband, freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. After the bar closes, Rick drowns his sorrows with Sam the piano player and says, "It's December 1941 in Casablanca. I'll bet they're asleep in New York. I'll be they're asleep all over America."

On December 3, Isla and Victor check the black market for Letters of Transit. That evening at Rick's, Victor counters a group of German soldiers singing "Watch on the Rhine" by leading the band and customers in "La Marseillaise," forcing Major Strasser to close the cafe. (The tears in the customers' eyes were by-and-large real --- most of the extras were refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, overcome by the emotion of the scene.)

Later that night, while Victor attends a meeting of the resistance, Ilsa visits Rick and ... well, the details are left to our imagination.

On Dec. 4 Rick sells his cafe to Signor Ferrari of the Blue Parrot and arranges the scheme to get Ilsa and Victor on the plane to Lisbon, which he does, killing Major Strasser in the process. Arm in arm with the cynical Captain Renault, Rick joins the fight, just three days before the rest of his countrymen do. (Which, of course, is the point of the picture, made in 1942.)

Along with shooting a Nazi major through a trench coat, every Casablanca fan yearns to be able to sing "La Marseillaise" along with Yvonne, the teary-eyed barfly. So, here are the lyrics:

Allons enfants de la patrie, . . . Arise you children of the fatherland,
Le jour de gloire est arrive. . . . The day of glory has arrived.
Contre nous de la tyrannie . . . Against us the bloody flag
L'etendard sanglant est leve. . . . of tyranny is raised.
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes, . . . Do you hear in the fields,
Mugir ces feroces soldats? . . . The howls of these ferocious soldiers?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras . . . They come right up into our arms
Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes: . . . To slit the throats of your sons, your comrades.
Aux armes, Citoyens! . . . To arms, citizens!
Formez vos battailons, . . . Form your battalions.
Marchons, marchons, . . . Let's march! Let's march!
Qu'un sang impur . . . Let impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons! . . . Water our furrows!

Several years ago, Anne Bagamery, business editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, wrote about a political controversy then taking place about the last two lines of "La Marseillaise":

"Most people think they are 'Que sang impur abreuve nos sillons' -- in other words, let the blood of our enemies fill our furrows. Others, including the ultra-right National Front, insist the words are "...n'abreuve nos sillons" -- let the blood of our enemies NOT fill our furrows, in other words, keep the filthy interlopers off our land entirely. Members of that party often sing their own version of the lyrics, despite what everyone else is singing.

"Also BTW, and I did not know this until I had a child in French school: French people do not systematically learn their national anthem! If you watch closely during big ceremonies, you'll see that even high government officials are not singing along. This is not because they fear they will break down with emotion; it is because they don't know the words!"

And they don't watch Casablanca the way we do!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Your and you're; its and it's

"Thank you."
"Your welcome." Aaiiiieeeee! Please kill me now.

This is an error that seems to be an epidemic at all levels of society, especially on e-mails.
  • "You're" is a contraction of "you are."
  • "Your" modifies nouns, and in "your house."
  • "It's" is a contraction of "it is," as in, "It's a beautiful morning."
  • "Its" is used to modify nouns, as in, "The cat uses its litter box."

    These and other common confusions are listed in Harbrace's Glossary of Usage, (G-1 through G-11, near the back, marked usgl on the upper right corner of the right-hand pages.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A waif in tattered clothing -- a ragamuffin


ragamuffin (RAG-uh-muf-in) noun
Someone, especially a child, in ragged, dirty clothes.
[After Ragamoffyn, a demon in William Langland's 14th century poem
Piers Plowman.]

"There were ragamuffins filled with certainties on every streetcorner
and philosophers in every coffeehouse."
-- Earl Shorris; A Nation of Salesmen; Harper's (New York); Oct 1994.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Notre Dame Victory March

When once-mighty Notre Dame plays Stanford today, the Fighting Irish will be trying to avoid their 10th loss of the season, so it's a good time to sing "The Notre Dame Victory March" loud and clear.

First played in 1909, the "Victory March" was written by the Rev. Michael J. Shea and his brother John, classes of '06 and '08, respectively. Michael became a priest in Ossining, N.Y. John lived in Holyoke, Mass. The song's public debut came in the winter of 1908 when Michael played it on the organ of the Second Congregational Church in Holyoke.

The first verse, nobody knows:

Rally sons of Notre Dame
Sing her glory and sound her fame,
Raise the Gold and Blue
And cheer with voices true:
Rah, rah, for Notre Dame.
We will fight in ev-ry game,
Strong of heart and true to her name
We will never forget her
And will cheer her ever
Loyal to Notre Dame

But the second verse, everybody should know:

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name,
Send a volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky.
What though the odds be great or small
Old Notre Dame will win over all,
While her loyal sons are marching
onward to victory.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Vary sentence structure and length

Harbrace Chapter 30 is on Variety: Vary the structure and length of your sentences to maintain the reader's interest.
Seek sentence variety to make your writing livelier. Inexperienced writers tend to rely too heavily--regardless of content or purpose---on a few familiar, comfortable structures.

Among many items for a writer's bag of tricks in Chapter 30, there's Rule 30b(2): Begin with a prepositional phrase or a verbal phrase.
  • Out of necessity, they stitched all of their secret fears and lingering childhood nightmares into their existence. --Gloria Naylor [prepositional phrase]
  • To be really successful, you will have to be trilingual: fluent in English, Spanish, and computer. --John Naisbitt [infinitive phrase]
  • Looking out the window high over the state of Kansas, we see a pattern of a single farmhouse surrounded by fields, followed by another single homestead surrounded by fields. --William Ouchi [participial phrase]

Another very handy tip, No. 30b(4), suggests: Begin with an appositive, an absolute phrase, or an introductory series.

  • A place of refuge, the Mission provides food and shelter for Springfield's homeless. ---Shelley Aley [appositive]
  • His fur bristling, the cat went on the attack. [absolute phrase]
  • Light, water, temperature, minerals---these affect the health of plants. [introductory series]

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A demimonde -- oo la la!

demimonde n. [from the French demi (half, or "partly a part of") + monde (world)]
1 a: a class of women on the fringes of respectable society supported by wealthy lovers b: prostitutes
2: a woman of the demimonde
3: a group engaged in activity of doubtful legality or propriety

"Before Giuliani gets [to the presidency], Americans might want to learn more about the New York demimonde he runs with. In recent years, New York's hothouse of sex and power has sometimes felt like a nuthouse, with the inmates in charge."
---From Jonathan Alter's column in the current Newsweek

The People She Loved
A retired prostitute remembers a downtown Knoxville demimonde
by Jack Neely
--- a coverline from Metro Pulse (Knoxville's Weekly Voice)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

From 1597 -- We Gather Together

From Wikipedia:

We Gather Together is a Christian hymn of Netherlands origin written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius (pka François Valéry) as Wilt Heden Nu Treden to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout.

In the United States, it is popularly associated with Thanksgiving Day and is often sung at family meals and at religious services on that day. Although it appeared in a Dutch hymnal printed in 1626 (after the Pilgrims sailed to Massachusetts), the Pilgrims probably knew the hymn or about it from the period when they lived in Holland.

The hymn is customarily performed to a tune known as "Kremser", from Eduard Kremser's 1877 score arrangement.

The modern English text was written by Theodore Baker in 1894.

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,
Sing praises to His name: He forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side, All glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
And pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Like St. Patrick -- a noble patrician


patrician (puh-TRISH-uhn) noun
A person of high social rank, good background, etc.; an aristocrat.
[From Latin patricius (having a noble father), from pater (father).]

A note from a subscriber:
"Of course, as an Irishman I have to point out that this is the origin of our patron saint's name. He was indeed a Roman patrician by birth, as he and his father were Roman citizens and their family owned a villa in Britain called Bannaventum Tabernae, staffed with both servants and
slaves. A real patrician indeed."

"The exciting new tie width even spawned a musical genre (probably invented by some dull, pipe-smoking patrician at Rolling Stone magazine)."
-- Simon Mills; The Day Ties Went Size Zero; The Guardian (London, UK); Oct 26, 2007.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bo, Woody & Ralph Waldo

"Go forth into the busy world and love it. Interest yourself in its life, mingle kindly with its joys and sorrows."--Ralph Waldo Emerson (right).

The coming weekend's showdown between Ohio State and Michigan brings up memories of the late, longtime Wolverine coach Bo Schembechler and his mentor and coaching rival, Woody Hayes (above), whose long career as coach of the Buckeyes was ended by an intemperate moment in the 1978 Gator Bowl, when he gave a dandy upper cut to Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman, who had intercepted an Art Schlichter pass to seal the game.

In the early 80s, I had a phone interview with a retired Hayes on the subject of pep talks, for which he was famous. He often liked to talk with his players about history. ("I've got two dollars," he said to an Ohio high school audience in the 70s. "Whoever tells me the two most important events of the 20th century, I'll give you a dollar and sign it!." Woody's answers: the Russian Revolution and the explosion of the atomic bomb.)

When Ohio State played at Illinois, Hayes said he liked to look at the portrait of Abe Lincoln in the dining hall and talk about Lincoln -- what kind of a man he was, what kind of an athlete he was (a rail splitter, state champion wrestler) and what kind of a football player he would have been (a defensive tackle, the team decided, "because he could use those rail-splitter's arms to shed blockers") .

Hayes then said he often liked to talk with his players about Emerson's essay on "Compensation." It's a 40-page essay, with many complex themes relating morality to the natural world. But one theme is, roughly, that you receive many kindnesses and benefits in your life (like, say, from teachers and parents) that you can't really pay back to those people. But you can (and should) extend similar kindnesses to others to balance out the give and take of the cosmos (or something like that).

Hayes said many a player had come back to him in later years and said, "Coach, Emerson was right!"
Suffice it to say that the world of college football has changed a little since the days of Woody Hayes -- though Joe Paterno could probably throw a little New England trancendental philosophy around the locker room if he really wanted to get the Nittany Lions up for a tough game!

Art Schlichter, by the way, went on the become one of the most tragic victims of compulsive gambling ever. He threw away his NFL career and his life because of the addiction, for which he was treated in the best gambling addiction facilities in the country, to no avail. Schlichter most recently served a sentence in federal prison for money laundering and fraud. He was released from prison on June 16, 2006. By one estimate, he owes half a million dollars in restitution.
Schlichter has founded a non-profit organization, Gambling Prevention Awareness, to educate others about the perils of compulsive gambling, including college and NFL players. He told ESPN that he started gambling because the pressure of being Ohio State's starting quarterback was too much on him, and he wanted to be just a regular guy.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mnemonic Devices (for spelling)

A mnemonic device is one that assists the memory, from the Greek mnemon--mindful. (Mnemosyne was the Greek goddess of memory and the mother of the Muses by Zeus.)

We all know "I before e, except after c, or when sounded as "a", as in neighbor or weigh."
Fewer people know the mnemonic sentence that can help us remember the major exceptions: "Neither leisure foreigner seized the weird heights."

Try these---

There is a rat in separate.

I have an independent dentist. (We also have an independent superintendent, who sings Do-Wop.)

The principal is my pal. "Principal" can also refer to a matter or thing of primary importance, or the capital sum placed at interest, due as a debt, or used as a fund, as in the principal of a loan.

A principle is a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption. As in, you are always true to your principles.

For the dance, your attendance is requested, just as it will be for you descendants.

A vast area was devastated.

Finally, something definite.

Like the letters you'll write on it, stationery has an "e" in it. (As opposed to stationary, or unmoving, objects.)

We're all all grateful for congratulations.

The U.S. Capitol building has a dome on it -- as do the "o"s in both words. Confusingly, Washington., D.C., is the capital of the United States.
Why? The former word comes from the Capitoleum , the temple of Jupiter at Rome that sat atop the Capitoline hill. The latter comes from the Latin capitalis, meaning chief, or principal, (derived from the Latin word caput, meaning "head"). All you have to remember is the building has a domed "o." All other meanings are with an "a."

How can you learn for sure to spell tough words, like occurrence, or accommodate? Or parallel? One good start is to pay a visit to Harbrace Chapter 18: Spelling and Hyphenation. The first seven pages are invaluable for anyone.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Digging in your heels -- recalcitrant


recalcitrant (ri-KAL-si-truhnt) adjective
Stubbornly resistant to authority.
[From Latin recalcitrare (to kick back, to be disobedient), from re- (again) + calcitrare (to kick), from calx (heel). If you have a dog that has dug his heels in while you're trying to pull him forward, you have a case of an animal that's being recalcitrant, literally.]

Click here to see recalcitrant in the Visual Thesaurus.

"Mount Kelut has been on high alert for more than two weeks but activity escalated dramatically on Friday, triggering fresh rounds of evacuations carried out by troops and local officials. On Saturday, some recalcitrant residents were dragged from their homes."
-- Indonesia's Mount Kelut Erupts; Agence France-Presse; Nov 3, 2007.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Omit superfluous words, SEC style

(from "A Plain English Handbook," put out by the Security and Exchange Commission to coach financiers on making their stock offerings and other disclosure documents more comprehensible.)

Words are superfluous when they can be replaced with fewer words that means the same thing. Sometimes you can use a simpler word for these phrases:

superfluous . . . . . simpler
in order to . . . . . to
in the event that . . . . if
subsequent to . . . . after
prior to . . . before
despite the fact that . . . although
because of the fact that . . . because or since
in light of . . . because or since
owing to the fact that . . . because or since

The following summary is intended only to highlight certain information contained elsewhere in this Prospectus.

This summary highlights some information from this Prospectus.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A comma costs a cable company $1 million

As we know, non-restrictive phrases or clauses -- that is, those that can be dropped out of a sentence without changing its meaning -- are set off in commas.
So, the second comma in the following sentence makes the "and .. " adverbial phrase a non-restrictive element, which means that the contract can be terminated in a year:
“This Agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

Here's the whole story from a year ago:

By Ian Austin of The New York Times

OTTAWA, Oct. 18 - What is the price of an extra comma? For Canada’s largest cable television company, it may be 1 million Canadian dollars.
Rogers Communications of Toronto and a telephone company in Atlantic Canada are locked in an arcane grammar debate that will decide the fate of a contract between the two corporations.
Canada’s telecommunications regulator, citing what it called the “rules of punctuation”, recently ruled that a single comma in a 14 page contract allows Bell Aliant to cancel a five year contract covering use of telephone poles by Rogers at any time with notice.
Rather than accept the regulator’s grammatical parsing, Rogers has now turned to Canada’s official language, French, as well as its own outside grammar expert to appeal the ruling. The case clearly frustrates Kenneth G. Engelhart, its vice president of regulatory affairs.
“Why they feel that a comma should somehow overrule the plain meaning of the words is beyond me,” Mr. Engelhart said. “I don’t think it makes any sense.”
The agreement between the two companies is a standard contract for the use of utility poles that was negotiated between a cable television trade association and an alliance of telephone companies. French and English versions of the contract were approved by the government regulator about six years ago.
Mr. Engelhart said that the cable industry’s has always understood that the pole contracts run for five years. In that industry’s view, the contracts then automatically renew for another five years unless a telephone company cancels the agreement before the start of its final 12 months.
Aliant, which is controlled by Montreal-based BCE, declined to comment on the dispute. However, in a filing with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, it declared the issue “a classic case of where the placement of a comma has great importance.”
Mr. Engelhart said the grammar fight began when Aliant told Rogers in February 2005 it was canceling a pole agreement for the province of New Brunswick one year early. The cancellation was necessary because a local electrical utility was taking direct control of poles that Aliant previously managed on its behalf.
The power company, Mr. Engelhart said, planned to “really crank up rates,” a change that would cost Rogers about 1 million Canadian dollars over that final year.
In the first round, the regulator agreed with Aliant that the second comma in this sentence enables the phone company to escape the contract after as little as one year: “This Agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
Even Aliant allowed in its submissions that there are at least three different ways to interpret the sentence.
But the regulator concluded the second comma means that the part of the sentence describing the one year notice for cancellation applies to both contract’s five year term as well as its renewal.
“The meaning of the clause was clear and unambiguous,” it wrote in a ruling issued in July.
Mr. Engelhart acknowledged that his lawyers may have underestimated the regulator’s interest in grammar.
“We were obviously too confident the first time around,” he said.
To bolster its appeal, Rogers commissioned a 69-page affidavit, mostly about commas, from Kenneth A. Adams, a lawyer from Garden City, N.Y. and the author of two books on contract language. It disputes the regulator’s analysis of what Mr. Adams calls “The Rule of The Last Antecedent.”
Rogers is also banking on the official French version of the pole agreements which has equal status under Canadian law. While differences between the languages means that it will not settle the comma question, Mr. Engelhart said its phrasing removes any ambiguity about the contract’s lifespan.
“It becomes very clear once you read the French version,” he said.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Indisputably true, self-evident -- axiomatic


axiomatic (ak-see-uh-MAT-ik) adjective
1. Indisputably true; self-evident.
2. Aphoristic.

[From Greek axiomatikos, from axioma (honorable). Ultimately from Indo-European root ag- (to drive, draw) that's also the fount of suchwords as act, agent, agitate, litigate, synagogue, and ambassador.]

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The true story behind Thunder Road

The Boys of Thunder Road
Our Best Lead Yet for the Real “Mountain Boy” in Thunder Road
By Brooks Clark

“Let me tell the story, I can tell it all, about the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol….”

So croons Robert Mitchum in his 1958 hit record, The Ballad of Thunder Road, a bi-product of the cult-classic B movie, Thunder Road, that Mitchum wrote, produced and starred in, alongside his son.

Like so many Tennesseans born in the 50s, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know by heart (and sing in our station wagon on those family car trips) that infectious refrain—

“And there was thunder, thunder over thunder road,
Thunder was his engine and white lightning was his load.
And there was moonshine, moonshine quench the devil’s thirst,
The law they swore they’d get him but the devil got him first.”

From its twangy opening guitar run, the song builds to a tragic denouement. In an ominous e-minor key evoking danger and action (used to similar effect in Henry Mancini’s James Bond Theme and Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man) – Mitchum sings,

On the 1st of April, 1954,
the federal man sent word
He’d better make his run no more.
He said 200 agents
were covering the state
Whichever road he tried to take,
they’d get him sure as fate.
Son, his daddy told him,
make this run your last.
The engine’s filled with hundred proof;
you’re all tuned up and gassed.
Now, don’t take any chances,
if you can’t get through.
I’d rather have you back again
than all that mountain dew.

Roarin’ out of Harlan, revvin’ up his mill,
He shot the gap at Cumberland,
and screamed by Maynardville.
With T-men on his tail lights,
roadblocks up ahead,
The mountain boy took roads
that even Angels feared to tread.
Blazin’ right through Knoxville,
out on Kingston Pike,
Then right outside of Bearden,
where they made the fatal strike.
He left the road at 90,
that’s all there is to say,
The devil got the moonshine
and the mountain boy that day.

In the movie, the mountain boy’s 1950 Ford Coupe busts through one Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) roadblock, swerves to avoid a second, careens at full speed off the highway, rolls over three times and lands in a fiery mess on the fence of a electric-utility switching station.

Connoisseurs of Thunder Road know the movie was filmed in Asheville and the action takes place nowhere near Knoxville, and those who’ve looked have never found any record of the crash in Knoxville's newspapers or court records.

Nonetheless, the words of the song and the image from the movie of the hot rod flipping over into an electrical substation are cemented in our collective memory, and they certainly tap into larger truths about this region’s ties to moonshine, fast cars, and running from revenuers.

When I drive on Kingston Pike near Bearden Hill, those lyrics and images push their way into my head. I see the mountain boy roaring from Papermill Drive – the truck by-pass in those days – onto the main drag right where P.F. Chang’s is today. I see that Coupe roaring around a road block and flipping over into that substation, sparks flying and moonshine spilling.

It’s hard to imagine a song that entwines as many East Tennessee cultural strains as “The Ballad of Thunder Road”--- from moonshining, to our cussed aversion to being taxed or told what to do by the law or anyone else, to the gutsy drivers who became the first heroes of NASCAR, to the illogical collection of blind corners, five-way intersections and farm paths-dressed-up-as-parkways we call Knoxville’s road system.

Like the Iliad to the Greeks or King Arthur to the English, Thunder Road is in our DNA – the song, the movie, and a whole culture of legends that almost any Knoxvillian will swear to as fact.

At least one Knoxvillian – John Fitzgerald, a Farragut farmer – went to his grave swearing, absolutely believing, and persuading many others that he saw with his own eyes that car swerve off Kingston Pike and into a Lenoir City Utilities Board switching station.

So where did the story come from?

A few years ago, I gathered all the hints I could find about where Mitchum had gotten that story, and I put them in a Knoxville Cityview magazine article.

The 2001 Mitchum biography, Baby, I Don’t Care, by Lee Server, revealed that Mitchum found the story in the ATF files in Washington, D.C. He got access to the files with the help of the brother of his collaborator on the Thunder Road script, James Atlee Phillips. Mitchum spent days looking through the tales of the war against moonshiners in the Appalachians and came away with nine pages of official documents.

In a painful historical might-have-been, Server notes that Mitchum had noticed Elvis Presley’s respectable acting debut in Love Me Tender and wanted him to play Mitchum’s younger brother. They even had a face-to-face meeting, but the Colonel’s asking price was too high. The role went to Mitchum’s son, and Elvis lost one of the few chances he ever had for an interesting dramatic role.

It’s easy to see how Mitchum could have taken the language from official reports to craft the lyrics of his song. (The tune was that of a Norwegian pavanne that his mother, Ann Gunderson, used to sing to him as a child.)

Phone conversations with ATF agents could have explained how Mitchum, who never visited Knoxville, nailed all the details of the Harlan-to-Knoxville roads – even the pronunciation of “Bearden” – so accurately. But no one ever knew the real basis for either the movie or the crash Mitchum sings about.

The tradition of mountain moonshining has been enshrined in songs from “Good Ole Mountain Dew” and “White Lightnin’” to “Rocky Top.” It was often the only way poor farmers could generate any income, and exorbitant taxes would eat up any margin that existed from the actual selling price. And that was when it was legal.

To get their product to market, moonshiners had to outrun local Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) and federal ATF agents, and they had the hot rods to do it. Sundays through Thursdays the gutsy drivers honed their courage and driving prowess en route to markets in the big cities, then on Friday and Saturday nights they became the heroes of local dirt tracks, which led to the sport of stock car racing.

Legendary drivers like Junior Johnson ran routes around Wilkes County, North Carolina. Knoxville had heroes like “Tootle” Estes, Ralph Burdette “Duck” Moore and “Windy” York. In the magazine story, dirt-track hero Clyde “Breezy” Waddell had been included on that list. Afterward Waddell wrote a letter making it clear that he had never run whiskey.

“Thunder Road was a code name for a particular route that everybody knew,” said Grant McGarity, for years the resident agent in charge of the ATF office in Knoxville. “Someone in a shady part of town would refer to running Thunder Road at 4 o’clock in the morning, and it was often the main thoroughfare.”

The Thunder Road canon included the theories work body of Oak Ridge physicist/writer Alex Gabbard. In his book Return to Thunder Road, Gabbard had celebrated the route described in the song from Harlan, Kentucky, through Maynardville on Highway 33, Broadway and then onto Kingston Pike.

Both Gabbard and writer Kate Clabough had interviewed John Fitzgerald, who swore, with many persuasive details, that as a teenager he saw federal agents at a roadblock and a crash on Kingston Pike.

Fitzgerald couldn’t pin down the year, let alone the exact date. He’d done the first half of his morning chores, and it was still too damp to do the rest, so he rode his bike down to Galyon’s Esso Service Station on what was then the corner of Vanosdale and Kingston Pike, across from what is now West Town Mall.

There he saw a group of ATF agents getting ready to set up two roadblocks—one where Will Walker’s farm was then (and Pet Supplies Plus and First People’s Bank are today), the second near Morrell Road.

“It’s the little stuff John remembered from the wreck that made me really feel like he knew what he was talking about,” says Clabough. “For example, he remembers thinking the agent wasted money, since he purchased a Grapette, even though an RC was twice the size for the same price. He also remembers that another agent must not have liked Galyon’s coffee, since he tossed the coffee from his cup onto the parking lot, and the owner gave him a funny look.”

As the agents pulled two cars bumper to bumper across Kingston Pike, Fitzgerald says he hid in a ditch near Morrell Road, near the second of two roadblocks. He says he could hear the engine roaring long before he came into sight.

The mountain boy would have driven by the Mount Vernon Motel (now World Futon) on a Kingston Pike that was then a two-lane road through farmland. It had dips, rises, curves and blind entrances from farm roads.

As quoted in Gabbard’s book, Fitzgerald says the car swerved off the road, jumped a gully, cut through a bank of dirt, and ended up lodged in the fence of a substation where Mattress Direct and Walker’s Formal Wear are today.

“It was a ’52 Ford, misty green, solid color,” Fitzgerald told Gabbard. “It had gone through the southeast corner of the fencing around the substation and ended up in the air, sort of, still in the fencing. Gas and whiskey spilled out of it, and some of the whiskey had been thrown over into the sub-station and caught fire….

“The trunk lid was knocked open and several cases of moonshine had broken. I remember the smell. … [the driver] was laying facing south, on his right side, in a fetal position, sort of crumpled up. He was all bloody. His hair was dark brown, cut in a typical 50s hair-style. He had on a light-colored shirt….I remember thinking, ‘what a waste.’ …. He gave his life for a trunk load of whiskey.”

Fitzgerald told Gabbard he recalls the Highway Patrol arriving and conducting an investigation, but Gabbard never found any records of the incident in Highway Patrol records or any other corroboration.

Clabough, meanwhile, vowed that someday, somehow, she would find the mountain boy, even as she was writing dozens of stories and keeping up with her blended family of five children.

A relentless historical researcher, Clabough had gotten her training in a Nebraska library that doubled as a newspaper morgue. That was before she moved to Louisville in 1997. Her husband, David is a dairy farm manager turned graphic designer and the one who first piqued Kate’s interest in Thunder Road.

Clabough checked newspaper microfilms, police reports and funeral home records. She interviewed many who called with leads after the magazine story (we listed a phone number), including Knoxvillians with memories of similar crashes of moonshiners or stories they’d heard about some of our area’s great dirt-track drivers, or their grandfathers, or friends of their grandfathers.

One elderly woman called and told about a crash off North Central, where the car turned over and poured whiskey all over the street.

Another caller said the movie was based on moonshine-runner Gus Mathis. Clabough called Mathis’s widow, Grace, at her Cocke County home. Grace said, yes, indeed, Gus ran his car over Swann’s Bridge headlong into a police car, ended up in a full body cast, and got 13 years in prison in Atlanta. But he was not the subject of the movie.

Gabbard had gathered many clues about the mountain boy might have been connected to places near Harlan. Clabough wrote letters to people all over that area. “Not one lead,” says Clabough, “not a glimmer of recognition.”

From the very beginning, agent McGarity had told Clabough “immediately, with no hesitation” that he had always heard the real subject of Mitchum’s movie was from Cocke County. This was logical, since Newport had for many years been the nation’s capital of

Following that lead, Clabough sent a letter to the editor of The Newport Plain Talk. It was a short note, saying she was looking for the identity of the person in the movie Thunder Road.

Within days, Clabough received an unsigned letter, written on two sides of lined notebook paper in a neat script, probably that of an elderly woman. It was postmarked Knoxville. It said that the facts “as told by my mother,” were that “the person in Thunder Road was from Mountain Rest in Upper Cosby, now in the National Park. Pinkney Gunter was a maker of moonshine. His son, Rufus, was the ‘runner’ and delivery man.”

“After Rufus’ death,” the letter continued, “the family was approached by Mitchum’s people about signing a release to make a movie based on their son’s exploits. At first, his father refused, but, eventually, his mother did sign the release.”

Days later, Clabough received a second letter, also postmarked Knoxville but in a different hand and signed. (The writer wishes her name withheld.) “It included a list of names and addresses I could call to verify,” says Clabough. The writer said Gunter went off a bridge into the lake, and she went “to watch when they were dragging the body.”

Then Clabough got a call from Cocke County Circuit Court Judge Ben Hooper. “Thunder Road was based on a man named Rufus Gunter,” Hooper told Clabough. “He didn’t die like Mitchum’s character, but he certainly lived like him. I remember my Uncle George Poe taking me to see him race in Knoxville. He talked him into giving me a ride. He drove a ’37 or ’38 Ford. I remember the car had no passenger seat so I sat down low on the floor. The car bounced all over. I was scared to death. I wouldn’t say it was a good experience.”

Hooper said that in January 1953, Gunter was being chased on the Asheville Highway, heading toward Knoxville, when he got to the J. Will Taylor Bridge.

It turns out that Eddie Harvey, now 86, the recently retired proprietor of Eddie’s Auto Parts on Broadway in North Knoxville, had souped up engines for Rufus Gunter and remembers well the night he died. As Harvey recounted to Fred Brown of the News Sentinel, "It was ice cold and Rufe was red hot from driving that car. He jumped for it. When he hit the water, he took a cramp and went under. It took me a week to find him."

Ronnie Moore, son of racing legend “Duck” Moore, told Clabough that his father knew Rufus Gunter well. They raced against each other in the 40s and early 50s, until Gunter’s death took him off the circuit. And they both ran moonshine.

In the context of Cocke County moonshining, it’s not surprising that it took almost 50 years for outsiders to connect the tale of Rufus Gunter to Mitchum’s movie. Though it’s “colorful regional flavor” to historical researchers, it was dangerous organized crime to those who lived it. Even today there are secrets in Cocke County that prudent souls might not want to ask too many questions about.

For Clabough, the search for Thunder Road led her back in time. Following a lead, Clabough visited the home of an elderly Jean Schilling near Newport. During the Depression, Schilling’s father, Ike Costner, had been the biggest moonshine distributor in East Tennessee. Known in the newspapers as the “Newport Bad Boy” Ike Costner was an inveterate criminal and mobster.

He did time in Leavenworth and, with Al Capone, was on the first trainload of convicts sent to newly opened Alcatraz in the 1930s. Ironically, Costner had learned to make whiskey at a government-run distillery in Cocke County before Prohibition.

Mrs. Schilling gave Clabough a boxful of materials, including several volumes of poems by her aunt, Ella Costner, the Poet Laureate of the Smokies, who also happened to be Ike’s sister.

The volumes included Ella’s memoir, Song of Life in the Smokies, a frank and chilling portrait of desperate poverty, Godliness and violence, good souls and bad, in early 20th Century Cocke County. Ella’s father was a preacher and a good man, but her brother went bad. She became a Navy nurse, saw the world, came back home, and wrote about it.

Ella Costner knew the Gunters. Her book includes the names and genealogy of the families in the Cosby area, including “Pink” Gunter, his wife Susie – called “Ollie,” maiden name Ramsey – and their son Rufus. Born about 1920, Rufus was 33 when he died. Not exactly a boy, but still the beloved son of Pink and Ollie Gunter.

In her search for Rufus Gunter, Clabough has grown to understand the process by which memories mix with family stories, legends, and movies, take on a life of their own, and grow stronger with the years. Cognitive researchers tell us this is the way our brains work: our memories change each time we re-visit them.

The late John Fitzgerald remembered all those details from Kingston Pike in the early 50s, seeing federal agents drink a Grapette, hearing the roar of an engine, smelling the whiskey.

Says Clabough, “In the clippings, I never found a moonshiner’s wreck from those years, but I did find a story about federal agents testing a new fangled technology—radar. John may have seen them testing radar that day, and everything he described may have been exactly as he saw it.”

The images from the movie and song could have filled in the blanks of what he didn’t see. The words of Mitchum’s song are so vivid – and tied to the roads we drive every day – that in our minds many of us have seen that Ford Coupe leave the Kingston Pike at ninety and flip into that switching station a hundred times.

Ultimately, it’s the truth at the heart of Mitchum’s movie that makes it a cult classic for East Tennesseans, who might have heard the stories of grandparents driving dirt tracks and surviving the hard times by turning their corn into moonshine. And there is the pain at the heart of the story -- the daddy who lost his son for a trunkful of Mountain Dew.

The devil got the moonshine and Rufus Gunter that day, but Knoxville got a legend that will live as part of our cultural landscape forever.

Affect and effect -- the peskiest homonyms

From the AP wire (a language fossil, I know) a couple of years ago: "The way Notre Dame went about replacing Tyrone Willingham had a greater affect [sic.] on its minority hiring report card than its decision to fire the school's first black football coach."

The old affect-effect thing can trip anyone up at any time.

Homonyms are words similar or identical in sound but different in spelling and meaning.

Affect and effect are the two most frequently confused homonyms. Each can be used in several different senses, but if you learn only the meanings below, you will obviate (to prevent by anticipatory action) 95 percent of the trouble most people have with these two words.

affect v.
To cause a change to take place in, to influence (to produce an effect upon):

-Smoking affects the health. The mayor's reform will affect the life of every citizen.
-To touch or move emotionally: The play so affected me that I cried.
-To pretend, to imitate: I affect an aire of supercilious disdain. ("Affected" in "He is an affected ass" is the past participle of the verb affect as used in sense 3.)

Note: The word "affect" is never a noun, except in one sense, used by psychologists, who refer to "affective states" and "affect" - with regard to a person's face and the feeling or range of feelings expressed therein. As in: "The patient had an unusual affect that probably traced back to an unhappy childhood."

The word "effect" is a noun or a verb.

effect v.

To bring into being, to bring about, to cause to happen, to accomplish: I effected an honorable solution to a tough problem.

effect n.

A result or consequence (anything produced by an agent or cause): What effect will the mayor's reforms have upon the citizens?

The effect of the win was improved morale