Tuesday, July 31, 2007

SLANT -- and how to be the Prof's pet

You may have noticed a New York Times Magazine story (or David Brooks' reference to it in his column) about successful inner-city charter schools whose pupils are required to SLANT -- Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the teacher with their eyes.

This behavior, say educators, is intuitively understood by middle-class kids but must be specifically itemized for those from less advantaged backgrounds. At one point in the Times' story, the teacher asked the kids to affect the "normal school look." They immediately slouched in their seats and started talking, goofing off and staring into space. The kids, wrote Paul Tough, "seem to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke."

On a similar theme, the Key Club magazine, Keynotes, ran a feature "Professor's Pet: High school rules won't cut it. Here are eight tips for making the grade in college." Here again, these tips aren't the Secrets of Dendur, but they can be valuable for kids getting ready for the new expectations of college.

To be the Prof's Pet --
1. Show up!
2. Make sure the professor knows you
3. Be at the head of the class
4. Prepare
5. Participate
6. Take advantage of office hours **(my favorite, learned a couple of years late)
7. Keep you attitude in check
8. Be polite

Monday, July 30, 2007

Jimi Hendrix could have sung "Vulpine Lady!"

In a New Yorker story about a counseling program for desperately poor teenage mothers in the bayou country of Louisiana, Katherine Boo describes one girl as "having a lisp, with straight bangs that tend to hang over her vulpine face."

The word vulpine (VUHL-pine) comes from the Latin vulpinus, meaning fox, and, reasonably enough, means 1: "of, relating to, or resembling a fox 2: foxy, crafty.

Strangely, the dictionary says vulpinus is "akin"to the Greek word for fox, alopex, which comes down to us as the word alopecia, for loss of hair, wool or feathers: baldness.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Story about University of Tennessee Quarterback Erik Ainge

Here's hoping our GTOTD audience might enjoy reading a story about Erik Ainge of the UT Vols in Knoxville Cityview Magazine.

Click here to view the article.

Even more tips on the college application essay -- this time from the Times

A story (linked below) in today's New York Times continues our never-ending discussion about how to write a great college application essay.

After reading this story, a student might be tempted to emulate Steve Martin's wonderful movie The Jerk, which Martin begins with the words, "I was born a poor black child in Mississippi."

July 27, 2007
Making a Hard-Life Story Open a Door to College
A workshop for low-income students teaches them that their life experiences can be as powerful as stellar grades.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Subject-verb agreement when words intervene between them

Harbrace 6a(2): Make the subject and verb agree when words intervene between them.

The rhythm of the pounding waves is calming.
All of the dogs in the neighborhood were barking.

The grammatical number of the subject does not change with the addition of expressions beginning with such words as accompanied by, along with, as well as, in addition to, including, no less than, not to mention, together with.

The economy as well as taxes influences votes.
Taxes, not to mention unemployment, influence votes.

Things get peskier in different kinds of contructions. For example, here is a photo caption from a News Sentinel article about Mintha Roach, the Knoxville Utility Board's president and chief executive officer: "Roach is one of three women in the nation who heads a public utility."

In this case, the "who" clause modifies "three women," so the verb should be the plural "head." There are many other times that a prepositional phrase simply modifies the subject of a sentence, as in the cases from Harbrace above.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A word that's not what you think it is -- apian

(from wordsmith.org)

apian (AY-pee-uhn) adjective
Of or relating to bees. [From Latin apis (bee).]

No monkey business here. To bee or not to bee, that's the question. This word has nothing to do with apes -- their equivalent word is simian.

An apiary is a beehive.

"There are many kinds of awakenings to be had in Nepal - usually spiritual, often pharmacological - but mine was apian. I stood entranced as my guide, opened up a log hive to reveal some 60,000 bees."
--Gerard Baker; Honey - I'm Hooked; The Times (London, UK); Jul 17, 2004.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

How to Ace the College Alumni Interview

For many colleges (especially ones hundreds of miles away), the admissions process includes an "alumni interview." In an area like Knoxville, an applicant will meet with one or a panel of local alumni, as many high school seniors are doing in the coming months.

This process makes alumni feel involved and connected with their alma maters (and more inclined to pony up for the Alumni Fund). More importantly, it gives admissions officers -- sorting through, say, 17,000 applications for the 695 spots remaining after Early Acceptances -- "a face to an application and a story to the face." The rates of acceptance are the same for candidates who had alumni interviews as they are for ones who didn't; nevertheless, the Admissions Office says it helps.

In any case, alumni interviewers get a charge out of meeting the young, vibrant applicants
and hearing the exciting things they're doing and the great plans they have, which is a pretty good segue into the following tips on how to ace the alumni interview: Come prepared to tell about the exciting things you're doing and the great plans you have. Give the interviewers a reason to write to the admissions office, "Of the dozen applicants we've interviewed, this is one of the outstanding candidates. He or she will contribute a), b), and c) to _________."

As in any interview, it's not so much "getting the right answer" but the way you answer that gives interviewers an idea of what makes you as a person special. Are you excited about your courses or marching band? Have your experiences meant something to you and developed you as a person? Do you have an agenda for your college years? "We want to know who the applicant is," said Dartmouth admissions officer Karen Sagall when she came through Knoxville some years ago.

Bring your resume -- including board scores, GPA, APs, and extracurriculars -- so the interviewers can have it in front of them. This way they don't have to ask your scores and grades, and they can see extracurriculars and other items that interest them and ask you about them. This will also help you if your mind happens to go blank, which happens to everyone from time to time.

Be ready to take the basic questions and tell your story:

Why do you want to go to ____? "Because it's a good school" is not the most persuasive answer. Give a reason that shows you know something about the school and how it fits into your plans. Hint: the alumni love their alma mater or they wouldn't be doing these interviews, so this is a good opportunity to talk about some things you know the school excels at (or claims to).

What do you want to do at ____? Show that you have an agenda, both in your academics and extra-curriculars, want to rise to a challenging environment, and contribute to the college community. ("Leadership" is a big word these days in college admissions, the way "well-rounded" was in the 70s.)

Tell us about your activities. Rather than just list them (they're on the resume anyway) show some passion as you say what they mean to you and what they actually did in them. (Try to avoid complaining about how badly you were treated or saying how you hated every minute of it. My group heard this twice last year. "Character" is another big word in college admissions these days. Apparently, Ken Lay, Tyco, WorldCom and Congressman Foley have got everyone thinking!)

Tell me about a book you read recently that meant something to you. Many of us draw a blank when we're asked this question in an interview. Think about this beforehand and try not to list the ones from the 9th grade reading list. There's no wrong answer: you can discuss The Autobiography of Paris Hilton, just try to express some intelligent thoughts about it. Again, we're learning about who you are. Tip: it's OK to say Harry Potter, especially if you went to the bookstore at midnight for the release.

What were your favorite courses? Again, show some enthusiasm. We want to hear what you learned and how it has jazzed you up, because the whole idea is that you'll have the same experience with the incredible professors at ________.

What did you write your essay about? This should be a hanging curve you can knock out of the park. Presumably, applicants have put a great deal of effort into making their essays surprising and delightful expressions of their complete originality as human beings. We want to hear how you took a concept and treated it in an original way to make and original point. To quote a University of Chicago admissions officer, "It's about how you handle ideas." If one's parent actually wrote the essay, this question is more difficult.

Do you have any questions? This is where the interview draws to a close, and probably the only question you really want answered is, "Can I possibly get in?" But as you're looking over the college materials, it doesn't hurt to think of a practical question or two that show you've done your homework. "What's the 'Jan Plan'?" "How do most people fulfil the language requirement?" "What is the 'sophomore summer term'?"

Monday, July 23, 2007

Even better tips on writing the college application essay

To complement the posting below this one, we borrow from the genius of our great friend Figaro, who authors the rhetorical blog, Figarospeech.

How To Write a Winning College Essay

Figaro tells how to make admissions officers fall in love with you.

As someone who writes a lot about persuasion, I frequently get asked by high school juniors and their parents how to write a successful college essay. My own son, George, sought my advice, and he was glad he did. His essay about a headache (yes, a headache), helped get him into his highly selective first-choice school, Middlebury College. His work was among 10 (out of a class of 850) read in front of the campus at Convocation. "The one they read before mine was by a Palestinian who wrote about shielding his little brother as an Israeli bomb hit their house," George told me later. "Oh, great," I thought. "Now they're going to read about my headache." It did the job, though. George wrote the essay himself, but he followed my advice. Here's what I told him, and what I tell everyone who asks me.

1. What's your hook? While the top schools look for good writing, they're more interested in character. Your Board scores will tell them how smart you are, and your grades let them know you study hard. Admissions officers also look for a student who will add something to the campus. Ask them about the most recent crop of first-year students, and you'll see what I mean: "Our class includes a published novelist, an Olympic luger, and an artist who made a monumental sculpture out of Gummi Bears." That's what I mean by "hook." Don't stress out if you don't really have one. (Remember George's headache?) But it helps. My friend Alex, who's about to enter her senior year in high school, has a second-degree black belt in judo. She was thinking about doing an essay on her beloved "Calvin & Hobbes." Can you guess what my advice was? If you have a hook, write about the hook.

2. Don't express yourself. A college essay is an act of persuasion. Your job is to talk the admissions office into accepting you. So the essay isn't your opportunity to get feelings off your chest, or amuse yourself, or imitate your favorite writer. Your teachers have spent far too much time telling you to express yourself. To persuade someone, you should express your reader's thoughts and desires, and show how you embody them. Think: If you were an admissions officer, what would you be looking for in, say, you? Oh, and another thing:

3. Relieve their boredom. Admissions officers read thousands of essays every year. Yours doesn't have to be the most creative; it just has to be a good read. And how do you write such a marvel? By telling a story.

4. A winning essay isn't an essay. I probably sound like a Zen master here (The essay must write itself, Grasshopper), but my point is pretty simple: the college essay is mislabeled. It's really a story. It should have a main character (you, presumably), a setting, some sort of conflict, and suspense. George wrote about how he developed Chronic Headache Syndrome at the beginning of seventh grade, when the family moved from New Mexico to an urban high school in Connecticut. The syndrome is triggered by a virus, and in a type-A person it creates a sort of negative feedback loop: the headache causes stress, which makes the headache worse. George's mother and I took him from one doctor to another. All of them prescribed drugs that would have turned him into a zombie. Finally, we found a psychiatrist who was an expert in biofeedback techniques. The doctor hooked George up to a machine that measured his brain waves. It had a monitor that showed an array of red bars. "If you relax your brain," the doc said, "you create Alpha waves that will help make your headache go away. If you can turn all the bars green, I'll give you a prize." Being the goal-oriented type, George sits down at the machine and PUSHES his brain. UUUUGGGGH! He'll make those bars turn green. (Note how I switched to the present tense. It makes the story seem more immediate. If you think you can handle this tricky text, consider using it for your essay.) As George stares at the red bars, he thinks about himself -- about the 50-something merit badges he earned on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, about his love of competitive Nordic skiing, how he climbed the 48 tallest peak in New Hampshire before he turned 10, about how his whole identity has to do with meeting goals. But he comes to realize that the single-minded pursuit of things doesn't always get you what you want. Still the bars won't turn green. He realizes he has to do more than just relax: he must allow himself to trust that some things work themselves out on their own. "Is this what faith is?" he asks. And then comes the last line in his essay: "All the bars turn green."That essay had all the elements of a story: a character, a conflict (type-A kid struggling against his type-A-ness in type-A fashion), suspense (will he make his headache go away?), and an epiphany (the nature of faith). He told the story with grace and humor, revealing just the kind of intelligent, maturing soul admissions officers love. (Hey, cut me some slack. I'm his dad.)

5. It's all about epiphany. Admissions people look for students who learn and grow, so your essay should show you learning and growing. Whether you write about your hook or your headache, don't just brag or describe. Your essay should have a moment of revelation: what did you learn from your experience? How did it make you the thoughtful, sensitive, brave, strong person you are (or would like an admissions person to think you are) today? Show a process of learning, and a moment of revelation.

6. Make yourself good and miserable. George did more than 30 drafts, spending a summer writing whenever he wasn't working at his job or hiking outdoors. It was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, and it made him miserable. In other words, he felt just like a writer! With any luck, he'll avoid following in his dad's footsteps (I'm a writer) and go on to earn an honest living. Maybe he'll advise students on their college essays, grow rich, and support me in my dotage. And to think a college essay started it all.

Figaro is the author of the popular rhetoric blog, Figarospeech, and author of the bestselling Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. He worked at Dartmouth College for ten years as an administrator -- not in the admissions office, but he saw the process up close.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tips on Writing the College Application Essay

To me, the biggest hurdle in writing a unique, interesting essay is that it looms as such a BIG deal.

A few years ago a college classmate confessed that she felt the assignment of writing an essay for our 25th Reunion book was too daunting a task -- and she is a former editor of The Paris Review! I think that maybe, in that case, being a former protégé of an endlessly creative person like George Plimpton was a handicap when it came to writing something creative of one's own and fearing that maybe it wouldn't be up to what everyone expected.

Another classmate, a New York lawyer, also said he couldn't think of anything to write about for the 25th Reunion book. I asked, "How about the Friday morning you walked out of the subway a few minutes late for work and saw a jet plane slam into your building?" He hadn't thought of that. He sat down and wrote a riveting account of that pivotal day in history. The lesson there: sometimes a good topic for an essay is right in front of you!

When the pressure is off -- like now, in July -- look around you and see what's going on in your world.

A few years ago, my niece was preparing her college application when my father's very rich life came to an end. Our large extended family gathered for several days to mourn our loss and, it turned out, celebrate the loving family that he and my mother had created. When my niece wondered what she could write about for her essay, I looked around the house full of people talking and having a great time being together and suggested, "How about this?" She wrote about her memories of the family dinner table, with her Grandpa presiding.

Pick a small topic. Find the meaning in something no one else has even noticed.

Try this -- with the pressure off -- if you were about to write a letter to a friend about what is important to you, what would you write?

Don't try to make it sound the way you think a good essay should sound. Those poor folks in admissions offices get 10,000 of those. As any one of them will tell you, nothing makes them happier than a surprising essay, on a surprising topic with a surprising point of view.

They want to get to know you a little, and they want to see that you know how to handle ideas. That's all the assignment is. I think that's what the following story pretty much ends up saying.

Here is a very good Washington Post article about the daunting task of composing 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 resume, 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."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"Everybody is on their toes." Please kill me now.

From The New York Times: “At this point, everybody is on their toes,” said Stanley L. Johnson, a spokesman for the North American Electric Reliability Council, an industry group in Princeton, N.J.

Harbrace Chapter 6: Agreement says (in part): Make a pronoun agree in number with its antecedent [the word coming before the pronoun that the pronoun signifies].

Antecedents like "everyone, " "someone, " "everybody," "each," "either" are singular.

In the sentence above, Mr. Johnson could have replaced "their" with "his or her," or he could have said, "At this point, all control room engineers are on their toes."

Note: "None" used to be treated strictly as singular, because it is a contraction of "not one," but these days, says Harbrace 6a(7), "When used as subjects, "all," "any," "some," and "none" may take either a singular or a plural verb, generally depending on the context.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Conditions favorable -- propitious

from wordsmith.org

propitious (pruh-PISH-uhs) adjective
1. Presenting favorable conditions.
2. Favorably inclined; kindly.

[From Middle English propicius, from Latin propitius, ultimately from Indo-European root pet- (to rush, fly). Other words from this root are feather, pin, impetus, and pinnacle.]

"[Foreign] aid had a propitious effect on growth in poorer developing countries in the 1960s and on middle-income countries in the 1970s."
-- Girish P Pant; Aid and Growth; Kathmandu Post (Nepal); July 15, 2005.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Look out for those sneaky "omitted word" questions on the SAT

In Harbrace's 12th and later editions, Chapter 22 is entitled "Clarity and Completeness -- Include all the words or phrases necessary to complete the meaning of the sentence."

In previous editions, at least through the 8th, the Chapter heading was "Omission of Necessary Words -- Do not omit a word or phrase necessary to the meaning of the sentence."
Isn't it uplifting to be positive in our grammarianism? In this case, I prefer the old heading: I think it expresses the problem and the solution better, even though it's -- gasp! -- negative.

Anyway, various dropped words have come up in SAT Questions of the Day, including --
-- the need for a "the" to complete a parallel construction [rule 22a(1)];
-- the need for different prepositions after two different verbs [22a(2)] -- "I neither believe in nor approve of those attitudes.";
-- the need for necessary auxiliary verbs [22b] -- "Dieting has never been and will never be a complete solution to obesity.";
-- and the need to complete comparisons [22c]-- "Most people think television is better than it used to be."

A visit to the five pages of Harbrace Chapter 22 will alert SAT-takers to several sneaky "omitted word" questions, which are otherwise very easy to miss.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Adjective for a mendacious one -- inveterate

from wordsmith.org

inveterate (in-VET-ehr-it) adjective
Firmly established; habitual.

[From Middle English, from Latin inveteratus, past participle of inveterare (to grow old), in-, + vetus, stem of veter- (old). Ultimately from Indo-European root wet- (year) that is also the source of such words as veteran, veal (in the sense of yearling), and veterinary (relating to the beasts of burden, perhaps alluding to old cattle).]

"Men met each other with erected look,
The steps were higher that they took;
Friends to congratulate their friends made haste,
And long inveterate foes saluted as they pass'd."
-- John Dryden; Threnodia Augustalis; 1685.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Do not mix metaphors

Harbrace 23c(1): Do not mix metaphors.

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which two persons or things unlike in most respects are compared by implication; i.e., without the use of "like" or "as."
As in: He is the black sheep of the family.
A mixed metaphor combines different images, creating an illogical comparison.
As in: You've started up the rocky road of algebra. Now you must wade through it.
(If the comparison uses "like" or "as," then it's a simile.)

The Dilbert Newsletter collects mixed metaphors and other malapropisms from office life for our enjoyment. Here are a bunch:

"Sometimes you shoot your foot off to spite your face."
"If it can't be done today, don't wait until tomorrow."
"I'm sweating like a bullet."
"Monday morning the fan is going to hit the roof."
"We're having this meeting to make sure all our ducks are on the same page."
"Yeah, I've got a lot of black sheep in my closet."
"You don't want to put all your legs under one blanket."
"Call me back at your least convenience."
"It's six of one and one of the other."
"I can't do it in the spur of a hat."
"I don’t want to run any flags up the telephone pole."
"You know I’m just pulling your lamb?"
"I've been running around like a chicken with my legs cut off."
"This has been a red herring around our necks."
"Like water through a duck's ass."
"We're treading on thin water here."
"Knock it off before I beat you with a dead horse!!!"
"I don't want to go out on a limb and shoot myself in the foot."
"I've just got my feet in too many pies right now."
"Gee, we haven't been here since the last time."
"'I see,' said the blind man to the fly."
"You can argue until your eyeteeth turn blue in the face."
"I swear on my dog's breakfast!"
"This library attracts deaf patrons like a siren's song!"
"Don't bite the mouth that feeds you."
"I keep telling you these things, but you keep turning a blind cheek to it."
"Screaming like a chicken with its head cut off."
"I hope I haven't used a sledgehammer to teach my grandmother to suck eggs."
"She was born with a silver spoon up her ass."
"This guy's sharp as a cookie."
"I beat it like a red-headed mule!!"
"Now, I do not want to toot my own wagon."
"I think you hit the nose right on the head."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Detente -- and that Indo-European root "ten-"

from wordsmith.org

detente (day-TANT) noun An easing of tension between rivals.
[From French détente (loosening, relaxation). Ultimately from the Indo-European root ten- (to stretch) that's also the source of tense, tendon, tenor, pretend, extend, tenure, tetanus, tenterhook, and hypotenuse.]
--"Threats won't ease anyone's fears. Perhaps it's time to give detente a chance. " Mr. Lieberman's Rash Rhetoric; The Hartford Courant (Connecticut); Jun 13, 2007.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How writing bland prose is like pulling a London horse cab

The filmmaker was known for choosing ------- projects, so many critics were surprised that her latest effort was uncharacteristically ------- .

a) innovative . . hackneyed
b) risky . . controversial
c) unusual . . refreshing
d) cerebral . . complex
e) rewarding . . suspenseful

The SAT Question of the Day above turns on a word we find in Harbrace Rule 20c: Choose fresh expressions instead of trite, worn-out ones:
Trite, or hackneyed phrases are those so worn by constant use that they have lost whatever picturesqueness they once possessed. For this reason, we must avoid them.

Trite, or hackneyed expressions:

  • red-blooded youth
  • busy as a bee
  • to point with pride
  • last but not least
  • it goes without saying
  • bite the dust
  • breath of fresh air
  • smooth as silk

The etymology of the word "hackneyed" is interesting. It probably comes from Hackney in East London, where carriage horses were raised. The word "hack," as in a taxi cab or a banal writer, is a short form of "hackney."

Basically, the history of this word tells us that, if we use our words all day, every day -- the way Londoners used their carriage horses -- our words get worn out and lose their vigor and freshness.

hackney (HAK-nee)


  1. Trite.
  2. Let out for hire.

verb tr.

  1. To make banal or common by frequent use.
  2. To hire out.


  1. A breed of horses developed in England, having a high-stepping gait.
  2. A horse suitable for routine riding or driving.
  3. A carriage or coach for hire.

Monday, July 9, 2007

From Robert Pinsky's Poet's Choice in The Washington Post, July 1, 2007.

Pundits and politicians sometimes call on ancient, partly forgotten echoes in order to sound wise or authoritative. Instead of saying an outcome might be good or bad, they say it "augurs well" or "augurs ill." The word "augur" harks back to both religion and empire : the Roman augur was a religious official who determined divine favor or disfavor by making a faith-based survey of the number, direction and location of birds in the sky.
Rhetoric deploys such ghostly, buried roots and invisible shadows of meaning for effect.

Augurs well or augurs ill -- the augur asked the birds

Friday, July 6, 2007

Commas after introductory words containing a verb form

from Ruge Rules

The Rule: Place a comma after any purely introductory group of words containing a verb form.

As in: Instead of forgetting about the incident, he sought out the culprits.

Or: After working the problem, he sat down.

Or (with an understood, or elliptical, "I am"): Once in bed, I go right to sleep.

BUT: be careful about words at the start of a sentence with a verb among them that are actually the subject of the sentence.

As in: To expect every student to do his or her reasonable best is not to expect too much. (No comma.)

This is in the Harbrace College Handbook, under 12b (1).

Rule 12b(2) pertains to Introductory phrases before independent clauses.
It says, "Omit the comma after introductory prepositional phrases when no misreading would result:

As in: In a crisis we chose Lincoln and FDR. In between we choose what's-his-name.

Compare: Because of this, beauty differs radically from truth and goodness in one very important aspect.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Handy for sportswriters and cabinet makers -- shellac

shellac (shuh-LAK) verb tr.
1. To coat or treat with varnish. 2. To defeat easily or decisively. 3. To strike repeatedly; batter.

1. Purified lac (a resinous substance secreted by the female of the lac insect) in the form of thin sheets. 2. Varnish made by dissolving this material in alcohol or other solvent. 3. A phonograph record made of this substance, played at 78 rpm.

[From shell + lac (translation of French laque en ecailles: lac in thin plates).] "The wife and daughter-in-law have grown exceptionally shellaced over the bitching and moaning about my old clunker."
-- Ron Meyer; Computer Has Whirred Its Last; Benton Courier (Arkansas); May 13, 2005.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

"Less" for value, degree or amount; "fewer" for number

The Rule: Informally, "less" and "fewer" are interchangeable.
But formal English makes this distinction: "less" refers to value, degree, amount, or to abstract nouns; "fewer" refers to number, or the countable.

Informal: Less children are born during a depression.
Formal: Fewer children are born during a depression.

Harbrace's excellent Glossary of Usage doesn't note a comparable distinction between "above" and "more than," but in my mind there are cases (like dollar figures) in which "more than" seems more exact and other cases (as in percentages) in which "above" seems better.

The city allotted more than $15 million to the new park.
Participation in voting was above 55 percent.

Monday, July 2, 2007

What Sqt. Pepper was to the Beatles -- a magnum opus

magnum opus (MAG-num OH-puhs) noun (plural magnum opuses or magna opera)
A great work of literature, music, art, etc., especially the finest work of an individual.

[From Latin magnum, neuter of magnus (large), opus (work).]

"Bespectacled, bearded and balding, Mr. Chkhartishvili is faintly ill at ease about fame. For years, he earned his living translating Japanese literature and working on what he still considers his magnum opus, a gloomy book entitled The Writer and Suicide. His idea of a goodtime is to stroll around a cemetery."
-- Guy Chazan; Roll Over, Dostoyevsky: Serious Russian Writers Reinvent the Thriller; The Wall Street Journal (New York); Feb 25, 2002.

Of course, it was 50 years ago today-- actually yesterday--that Paul met John at the St. Peter's Church fair in Liverpool. Click here for a story about Liverpool marking the day. Quiz: what song did Paul play for John to show him that me might be a good addition to the Quarrymen?

A: Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" (last line-- "Get to the top, I'm too tired to rock.")