Friday, June 29, 2007

The Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences

Click here to go to The Guide to Grammar and Writing (sponsored by the CCC Foundation of Hartford, Conn.) section on diagramming sentences.

There are examples of diagrammed sentences that go on for pages, including an amusing explication of diagramming by Dave Barry.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

What a donnybrook it was!


donnybrook (DON-ee-brook) noun A brawl, a free-for-all.

[After Donnybrook, a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, where an annual fair was held until 1855. This Donnybrook Fair was known for its alcohol-fueled brawls.]

For more about the Donnybrook Fair, click here.

"For a split second, you had to wonder if a donnybrook were about to break loose."
--Phillip M. Bowman; Lexington Reaction Was As Ugly As It Was Inappropriate; The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina); May 19, 2007.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Not only . . . but also

from Ruge Rules

The Rule: In the not only . . . but also construction, the two items connected must be similar in kind.


Wrong: He not only painted the "Annunciation" but also [painted] the "Mona Lisa."
Right: He painted not only the "Annunciation" but also the "Mona Lisa."

Wrong: He not only played for Washington but also for Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Right: He played not only for Washington but also for Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Wrong: He not only coached soccer but also tennis.
Right: He coached not only soccer but also tennis.

Right: He taught not only physics and chemistry but also algebra and geometry.

Right: He not only taught five periods a day but also coached three sports.

(This falls under Harbrace's hugely important Chapter 26: Parallelism)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Roll out those lazy, crazy, halcyon days of summer...

halcyon (HAL-see-uhn)

adjective 1. Peaceful; tranquil. 2. Carefree; joyful. 3. Golden; prosperous.

noun Any of various kingfishers of the genus Halcyon. (See the woodland kingfisher at right).

[From Greek halkyon (kingfisher) via Latin and Middle English. Halcyon was a mythical bird, identified with the kingfisher, that was said to breed around the winter solstice. It nested at sea and had the power to charm the wind and waves so that they became calm.]

In Greek mythology, Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus and wife of Ceyx. When Ceyx drowned in a shipwreck, she threw herself into the sea. Out of compassion, the gods transformed them into a pair of kingfishers. To protect their nest, the winds were forbidden to blow for a week before and after the winter solstice.

"In the halcyon days, the company's total workforce between the two plants topped 3,300 but the decline in those numbers has been ongoing for some considerable time."

-- John Murphy; Concern Over Future of Plant; The Irish Examiner (Cork, Ireland); Mar 15, 2005.

Monday, June 25, 2007

An Oxymoronic Paradox -- the Wisdom of Yogi-isms

Oxymoron is the juxtaposition of the incongruent---that is, the combination of contradictory or incongruous words for effect; e.g., cruel kindness / jumbo shrimp / benign neglect. We all have fun making lists of what we humorously call oxymorons, like business ethics, military intelligence, and so on.

A paradox is a statement that at first seems false and/or absurd but upon closer examination is found to be true and significant. "You can't set a slave free: You can only set a free man free." "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage."

In today's American parlance, there is a new kind of aphorism, called a "Yogi-ism," derived from the many apparently paradoxical yet unexpectedly wise sayings of Yogi Berra, longtime catcher and manager with the New York Yankees, who once said of fall sun conditions in Yankee Stadium's left field, "It gets late awful early out there."
"I never said alot of the things I said," Yogi has explained. In his 2001 book, When You Reach a Fork in the Road, Take It, Yogi expounds on his underlying philosophies of life reflected in memorable quotes like "It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future," and "90 percent of this game is half-mental." A few more samples: about a New York restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." About a friend's large home: "What a house! Nothing but rooms!" And, of course, about the vagaries of the last minutes of sports contests: "It ain't over till it's over!"

(For a fairly complete list of Yogi-sms, , click here.)

Fun Fact: Yogi Berra got his nickname from the way he used to sit with his legs crossed, like a yogi. (He may or may not have gotten this nickname from his boyhood friend, fellow major league catcher and longtime TV announcer Joe Garagiola.) The Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Yogi Bear, with a squat body and a tendency for witty aphorisms, was not exactly patterned after Yogi Berra. (For a while, the character's name was going to be Yucca Bear, among a list of 50 or so possibilities.) But Bill Hanna and New York City native Joe Barbera "were definitely aware of Yogi Berra" when they created Yogi Bear, and certainly it was natural to give the cartoon character some commonalities with the famous ballplayer.

Friday, June 22, 2007

So full of . . . blarney


blarney (BLAHR-nee) noun
1. Flattery.
2. Misleading talk.
[After the Blarney stone, a stone in Blarney Castle in Blarney village, near Cork, Ireland, which, according to legend, gives the gift of the gab to anyone who kisses it.]

"'[Ronan Keating] is really down to earth and cares about issues like cancer and poverty. Also, he really cares about his fans,' said Yang, who said she had met the singer and evidently fell for his blarney."
--Jules Quartly; Ronan Keating Shays It Bescht; Taipei Times (Taiwan); May 11, 2007.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"While" -- a comma makes it mean "whereas"

from Ruge Rules

The Rule: "While" can be used to mean "during the time that," and it can be used to mean "whereas."

In the former case, while is not preceded by a comma.
In the latter case, while must be preceded by a comma.

So: I can't study while my little brother is beating on his drum.
And: The Blue Ridge mountains are beautiful, while the Rockies are grand.

Purists and copyeditors tend to frown on the use of "while" to mean "whereas," because the meaning depends upon the comma and points of punctuation have a perverse way of not being where they should be.
If you choose to use "while" to mean "whereas," it's important to be assiduous in your punctuation.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

There was an old man from Nantucket...

limerick (LIM-uhr-ik) noun A humorous, often risque, verse of five lines with the rhyme scheme aabba.
[After Limerick, a borough in Ireland. The origin of the name of the verse is said to be from the refrain "Will you come up to Limerick?" sung after each set of extemporized verses popular at gatherings.]

There was an old man from Nantucket,
Who kept all his dough in a bucket.
His daughter, Nan,
ran off with a man.
And as for the bucket, Nantucket

The following, by Dan Barker, of Madison, Wisc., seems to be a critique of columnist George Hesselberg, of the Wisconsin State Journal:

There once was a parrot named 'Colonel,'
Who read all the papers diurnal.
But his favorite page
On the floor of his cage
Was the Hesselberg page from the Journal."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Place prepositional phrases near the words they modify

Harbrace 25a (2) : Place a modifying prepositional phrase to indicate clearly what the phrase modifies

From the News Sentinel:
"...Vineyard Productions previously made a film called The Witness for the Pequot Indian Nation in East Tennessee, so the area was already was on the company's radar when locations were being scouted...."

In the sentence above, the prepositional phrase "in East Tennessee" modifies "film," and not the Pequot Indian Nation, which is, of course, based in Massachusetts and Connecticut. This is a misplaced modifying prepositional phrase.

Examples in Harbrace:

MISPLACED Arne says that he means to leave the country in the first stanza.
BETTER Arne says in the first stanza that he means to leave the country.

MISPLACED Heated arguments had often occurred over technicalities in the middle of a game.
BETTER Heated arguments over technicalities had often occurred in the middle of a game.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Taken aback -- nonplussed


nonplus (non-PLUS, NON-plus)
verb tr. To put at a loss for what to do, think, or say; perplex.
noun A state of perplexity or bewilderment. [From Latin non plus (no more).]

"Until this encounter, my only knowledge of codes was the Navajo Code Talkers, the World War II Native American group who used their native language to nonplus the enemy."
-- Jane Greig; Higshmrk E Qcwxivc (No, That's Not A Typo); Austin American Statesman; Sep 14, 2003.

"Larger seeds, such as corn, peas, beans and squash, may be planted the usual way, then immediately covered with a loose hay mulch, 1 or 2inches thick. Covering the corn seeds nonpluses the crows."
-- Ruth Stout; The Couch I Live On; Organic Gardening (New York); July 17, 1996.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Misuse of the Apostrophe

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

The Fourth Deadly Sin: Misuse of the Apostrophe

Use the apostrophe to indicate possession and to mark omitted letters incontractions. Writers often misuse apostrophes when forming plurals and possessives.

The basic rule is quite simple: use the apostrophe to indicate possession, not a plural.

Yes, the exceptions to the rule may seem confusing: hers has no apostrophe, and it's is not possessive. Nevertheless, with a small amount of attention, you can learn the rules and the exceptions of apostrophe use.

Form the possessive case of a singular noun by adding 's (even if the word ends in s).
Hammurabi's code, Dickens's last novel, James's cello

Form the possessive case of a plural noun by adding an apostrophe after the final letter if it is an s or by adding 's if the final letter is not an s.
the students' disks, the children's toys

Remember: the apostrophe never designates the plural form of a noun. A common error is the use of the apostrophe to form a non-possessive plural.
Compare the following correct sentences:
The student's disk was missing.
Several students' disks were missing.
The students searched for their missing disks.

Possessive pronouns, such as yours, hers, its, and ours, take no apostrophe.
The decision is yours.

Indefinite pronouns, such as anyone, everybody, no one, somebody, use the singular possessive form.
Somebody's dog stayed in our suite last night.

The apostrophe is used to mark omitted letters in contractions. (Note that contractions are often considered too informal for academic writing.)
Avoid the dreadful it's/its confusion. It's is a contraction for it is. It's is never a possessive. Its is the possessive for it.

As Professor Strunk and E.B. White remind us in The Elements of Style, “It's a wise dog that scratches its own fleas” (1).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

'Tis possible, peradventure


peradventure (pur-ad-VEN-chur) adverb Maybe; possibly. noun Uncertainty; doubt.
[From Middle English per aventure, via French, from Latin per- (through) + adventurus, future participle of advenire (to arrive).]

"[Philip Coyle, former director of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon] reckons America's chances of shooting down an enemy missile next year, if peradventure it needed to, are 'practically zero'."
-- Warding Off Missiles; The Economist (London, UK); Dec 6, 2003.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Avoid the awkward use of "it" near another "it" with a different meaning

Old editions of Harbrace had a note under Rule 28D that read as follows: Avoid the confusion arising from the repetition in the same sentence of a pronoun referring to different antecedents.

CONFUSING Although it is very hot by the lake, it looks inviting. [The first it is an idiomatic pronoun; the second it refers to lake.]

CLEAR Although it is very hot by the lake, the water looks inviting.

Newer editions state it [this note] a little more specifically: Avoid the awkward placement of it near another it with a different meaning.

AWKWARD It would be unwise to buy the new model now, but it is a superior machine. [The first it is an expletive. The second it refers to model.]

REVISED Buying the new model now would be unwise, but it is a superior machine.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Dag nab it! Mind yer informal and regional English!

Some time ago, a "Grammar Gremlins" column in our Sunday paper asked the question, "Is the expression 'put up,' as in 'Put up your toys, it's time for bed, ' grammatical?"

Grammar Vizier Don K. Ferguson described "put up" as a "phrasal verb" -- i.e., a verb made up of more than one word, often a verb and a preposition, as in "deal with," "work out," "phase out," "get rid of."

"Some experts advise against using such phrases because they often appear wordy," wrote Ferguson. "For example, some suggest using "handle" instead of "deal with" and "resolve" instead of "work out." Ferguson then noted that other experts feel that these expressions are fine, as long as they sound natural in the sentence. Fair enough.

The particular example of "put up" also leads us to two other Harbrace rules, addressing "informal" and "regional" words, respectively:

19b Use informal words only when appropriate to the audience, the purpose and the occasion.
Words or expressions labeled informal or colloquial (meaning "characteristic of speech") in college dictionaries are used by writers every day, particularly in informal writing, especially dialogue. On occasion, informal words can be used effectively in formal writing, for example to add emphasis, but they are usually inappropriate. Unless an informal expression is specifically called for, use the unlabeled words in your dictionary.

INFORMAL dopey gypped* bellybutton (*also offensive to gypsies)
FORMAL stupid swindled navel

Contractions are common in informal English, especially in dialogue. But contracted forms (like won't or there's) are usually avoided in college writing, which is not as casual as conversational English is.

19d Use regional words only when appropriate to the audience.
Regional or dialectal usages should normally be avoided in writing outside the region where they are current, since their meanings may not be widely known. Speakers and writers, however, may safely use regional words known to the audience they are addressing.

REGIONAL We were fixing to swim in Joe's tank.
FORMAL We were ready to swim in Joe's pond. [OR lake]

This last item leads to many different observations about our favorite East Tennesseeisms, as documented regularly by News Sentinel humor columnist Sam Venable.

It also brings to mind not only the good fortune available to political candidates who can speak in a facile and genuine manner in the Scots-Irish dialect of the Southeast, Texas and much of the Midwest, but also the embarrassments awaiting those who have a tin ear when it comes to NASCAR patois.

(Note that, in deference to U.S. Senator James Webb (D-VA), author of Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, the previous sentence did not employ a derogatory term that Webb dislikes but has neverthless made a great career for comedian Jeff Foxworthy.)

Friday, June 1, 2007

A word out of time -- anachronism


Of course we all remember the clock chiming in Julius Caesar.

And then there are those rotating-number timekeepers aboard the Starship Enterprise -- of course (we assume) they would have digital displays in the 25th Century!!! But will mini-skirts and 60s hair-dos be back in inter-gallactic fashion?

anachronism (uh-NAK-ruh-niz-uhm) noun
1. The error of placing a person, object, custom, or event in the wrong historical period.
2. A person, thing, or practice that does not belong in a time period.
[From French anachronisme, from Latin anachronismus, from Greek anakhronismos, from ana-, (backwards) + khronos (time).]

"The show starts off with a video presentation showing Wakagi, playing a news anchor, reporting on 'recent' events in Japan such as Commodore Perry's visit to the country. This kind of anachronism is repeated halfway through the show."
-- Zal Sethna; 'Cha Cha Cha' From Osaka's Lilliput Army II Makes Audience Go 'Ha ha ha'; Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo, Japan); March 6, 2004.

"GSLP/Liberals expressed support for the remarks made by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan that colonialism is an anachronism inthe 21st century and the administering powers should work with the Committee of 24."
-- Gibraltar News; MercoPress (Montevideo, Uruguay); Feb 22, 2004.