Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Birthplace of McGuffey's Reader

The GTOTD staff recently took a field trip to Oxford, Ohio, and the former home of William Holmes McGuffey.

In 1833, in that federal-style red brick home, McGuffey, then a Miami University professor, started teaching graded lessons to informal gatherings of neighborhood school children.

As decribed in an article by former Miami President Phillip R. Schriver, "These lessons incorporated new educational ideas McGuffey had already begun to formulate -- ideas that would benefit the children not only of Oxford and Ohio but of the entire nation.

"Disturbed by the overwhelming pessimism of the schoolbooks then in use in America, and by their preoccupation with death, McGuffey planned to infuse his lessons with the optimism of the frontier, with the belief that a good life could be earned in the here and now as well as in the years to come, and with a code of honor and morality stressing the rewards of honesty, virtue, and industry."

Between 1834 and and 1836, McGuffey wrote his series of readers (six in all) that would eventually sell some 130 million copies. In some rural school districts, they are still used today.

Vox populi -- the voice of the people


vox populi (VOKS POP-yuh-ly) noun
Popular opinion; general sentiment.
[From Latin, literally "voice of the people."]

"Dedman's piece got barely a whisper from the vox populi. 'We received just one e-mail, but no one complained,' said Globe Ombudsman Christine Chinlund."
--Allan Wolper; The Credibility Gap; Editor & Publisher (New York); Aug 12, 2002.

Related expressions are
1) "Vox populi vox Dei" meaning the voice of the people is the voice of God. It refers to the idea that the kingor the government ought to pay attention to the voice of the people. Vox populi vox Dei certainly works when it comes to the growth of alanguage.
2) "Vox clamantis in deserto," a voice crying out in the wilderness. It is the motto of Dartmouth College and originally referred to John the Baptist in Judea and Galilee.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

To capitalize or not to capitalize

From the Knoxville News Sentinel Grammar Gremlins column
Sunday, August 26, 2007

If the pronoun “everyone” is used in the salutation of a letter or memo, should it be capitalized?
Example: “Hi, Everyone.”
A greeting such as this is casual, so capitalization is not necessary.
Other examples: “Good morning, friends.” “Hello, fellow campers.”
Note the comma in the salutation. Handbooks have long specified this comma, but there is a tendency by many to omit it today. However, you will never be wrong in inserting it.
In formal letters or memos, nouns in salutations should be capitalized, according to EditPros, a California writing and editing group.
Examples: “Dear Friends” and “Dear Parents.”

Monday, August 27, 2007

Between a reign and a new place -- interregnum


interregnum (in-tuhr-REG-nuhm) noun
The period between the end of a reign and the beginning of the next; a time when there is no government. [From Latin, from inter- (between) + regnum (reign).]
"In this unprecedented interregnum Tony Blair has no authority to do anything that attempts to tie the hands of his successor."
-- Melanie Phillips; Brown's First Great Test; Daily Mail (London, UK); June 10, 2007.

Interviewing Tips for Writing Profiles

Writing profiles can be the most fun of all journalistic tasks, because 1) everyone has a story, and 2) almost everyone will surprise you by being much more interesting than you might imagine at the outset, if you ask the right questions.
For some reason, most people will not volunteer or even think of the interesting things about their lives.
The first rule is to do your homework. If it's a regular person, ask for a resume. If it's a public figure, read the previous profiles. (I watched reporters interview Bear Bryant about his life when they plainly hadn't read his autobiography. Very embarrassing.) You never know when a resume will include, "Speaks fluent Japanese" or a similar tidbit, along with basic biographical data.
The second rule is to ask the basic questions: ask about childhoods, parents, brothers and sisters, where they grew up, where they went to school, formative influences, first jobs, summer jobs, turning points in their lives, did they know anybody famous? (Almost everyone did. Dr. Robert Ivy, the Knoxville hand surgeon, roomed at Stanford with the trombone player you see on ESPN ads getting smashed at the end of "The Play" at the end of the 1982 Stanford-Cal game. Could there be a better story than that?)
Don't forget to ask about spouses---and how your subject met his or her spouse. There is always a story to be told.
The third rule is, when appropriate, to remember to ask, "Why?" There is often a reason that is more interesting than the fact itself. "We moved to Missouri when I was 5." Why? Then I switched schools. Why?
The fourth rule is to ask those "hobby" questions: Favorite book? Why? Musical instruments? Many baby boomers play or played in garage bands. Favorite sports? (Golf, tennis, rock climbing.) Other pastimes or hobbies? (Kim Hansard of Mark and Kim In the Morning on Star 102.1 collects toy camels. Why? She has always been a softball 1st baseman -- living in the sand and dust of the infield, so she identified with other creatures of the sand.)
The fifth rule is, when appropriate and possible, call the subject's mother. One of the things that set a New Yorker profile of John McCain apart from many other McCain profiles were the comments from McCain's mother. (The family decided he was going to the Naval Academy just minutes after he was born.) Parents love to talk about their kids, and they'll often tell it like it is.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Rein and reign

Grammar Gremlins: 'Rein' and 'reign' can be tricky
By Don Ferguson of the Knoxville News Sentinel
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Is it “free rein” or “free reign”?
In the expression “free rein,” the “allusion is to horses, not to kings and queens,” according to Garner’s Modern American Dictionary.
“But some writers have apparently forgotten this allusion,” the author writes.
Among the many words that sound alike, “rein” and “reign” perhaps head the list of those most often confused.
“Rein” is the correct form for “to restrain,” as in pulling on the reins of a horse to slow it down.
Therefore, a person with “free rein” has no restraints on him.
“Reign” means the period of rule or dominance, usually of a monarch.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Nothing to do with Yogi -- we beg your forbearance


forbearance (for-BAIR-uhns) noun
1. Refraining from enforcing something, such as a right or a debt.
2. Tolerance, patience, restraint, or leniency.
[From forbear, from Old English forberan (to endure), from for- (away) + beran (to bear).]

"Now the Buddhists are fighting back -- with good thoughts, forbearance and chanting."
-- Tim Elliott; Chant of the Scrub Turkey; Sydney Morning Herald (Australia); June 19, 2007.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Avoid "I think" in op-ed columns

The "op-ed" (opinion-editorial) pages of newspapers are just that. They are where we turn to read the opinions of columnists, with whom we are free to agree or disagree.
So it strikes me as strange when an op-ed writer uses the words, "I think...."
For example, Bob Herbert in The New York Times wrote, "I think an increase in the minimum wage is a good idea...."
An op-ed writer is supposed to state his or her opinion, so -- for starters -- the words "I think" are redundant. We know it's what he thinks. It's his column!
But more than that, writing "I think" weakens the statement. Why shouldn't Herbert just say "An increase in the minimum wage is good idea." Or better, ". . .is good for America." Period. If you disagree, go read Cal Thomas, who's still angry that they enacted those pesky child labor laws!
Speechwriters are taught that "I think" weakens a speech, especially when it's a CEO leading a huge corporation. It makes the speaker sound as if he or she is not sure.
Scout out some columns for "I think"s. Then imagine if the column would be better without them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Up until the first day of school -- insouciant


insouciant (in-SOO-see-uhnt) adjective
Happily unconcerned; carefree; nonchalant.
[From French insouciant, from in- (not) + souciant, present participle of soucier (to care), from Vulgar Latin sollicitare (to vex), from Latin sollicitus (anxious), from sollus (entire) + citus, past participle of ciere (to move).]

"[John] Brisker also voiced a strong loyalty to Seattle, the likes of which are rare among many of today's pro athletes who are insouciant about where they play."
-- Robert L. Jamieson Jr.; Former Sonic Forever Shrouded in Mystery; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; July 2, 2004.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rely on the active voice and forceful verbs

A goal was scored. Janie scored a goal.
A shot was blocked. Bobby blocked a shot.

Which do you think sounds better? When you see a sentence written in the "passive voice," it's usually fairly easy to turn it into the active voice. It's usually much clearer, stronger, and easier to read.

Rule 29d in Harbrace is Rely on the active voice and forceful verbs.

(1) Use the active voice rather than the passive voice to gain emphasis
The active voice emphasizes the doer of the action and presents ideas strongly and directly. The passive voice emphasizes the receiver of the action, minimizes the role of the doer, and creates wordier sentences.

Exception: If the receiver of the action is more important than the doer, the passive voice is more effective.
-- His only son was killed in Vietnam.
-- Any driver who exceeds the speed limit will be fined.

(2) Prefer an action verb or a forceful linking verb to a form of have or be.
Forms of have or be, when used without an action verb, rob your writing of energy and forcefulness. The real action often lies in a verbal phrase or in an object or complement.

Food for Thought (not quoting from Harbrace): Why is this so? One reason goes back to our goal of creating images when we write. Action verbs create images in readers' minds. (Recall Peggy Noonan's words, spoken by Ronald Reagan, on an anniversary of D-Day, describing the soldiers clawing their way, inch by inch, up the Normandy sand dune.) When you read those words, you can "see" those soldiers.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Great for describing tough backgrounds -- hardscrabble


hardscrabble (HARD-skrab-uhl) adjective
1. Yielding little for much effort.
2. Relating to a place that provides for bare subsistence.
[From English hard + Dutch schrabbelen (to scrape). Ultimately from the Indo-European root sker- (to cut) that's also the source of words such as skirt, sharp, scrape, screw, shard, shears, carnage, curt, and carnivorous.]

"How did young Mildred, a homely, chubby, fatherless kid, reared on
a hardscrabble Iowa farm during the Great Depression manage to work
up the genius to relish every minute of her life?"
-- Elizabeth Gilbert; The Home Place; The New York Times; Jul 1, 2007.

Comma Splice and Fused Sentence

Harbrace Chapter 3: Comma Splice and Fused Sentence:

Join independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon to prevent misreading and to show relationships clearly.
A comma splice consists of two (or more) independent clauses joined simply by a comma. It is an error in punctuation that occurs only in compound or compound-complex sentences. A fused sentence (also called a comma fault or run-on sentence) occurs when neither a conjunction nor appropriate punctuation joins two independent clauses.

Comma splice: The wind was cold, they decided not to walk.
Fused sentence: The wind was cold they decided not to walk.

To separate:
1) Separate independent clauses by placing a period after each clause.
2) Separate independent clauses with a semicolon.

To link and relate:
3) Insert a comma before the appropriate coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet).
4) Make one clause subordinate to the other. (Because the wind was cold, they decided not to walk.)
5) Reduce one of the clauses to an introductory phrase. (Because of the cold wind, they decided not to walk.)

Note: a comma splice is an error you can expect to find on the SAT.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Useful when studying The Merchant of Venice -- rialto


rialto (re-AL-to) noun
1. A theatre district.
2. An exchange or marketplace.
[After Rialto, an island of Venice which was the commercial center of the city. The Rialto bridge was the first bridge on the Grand Canal.]

Click here for a picture of the Rialto Bridge.

"It was this... that made it some forty or fifty years ago the rialto of the West Indian islands." Daily Chronicle; Sep 23, 1901.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Make those pronouns agree with their antecedents!

From The New York Times Sunday Magazine story "Our Town":

"The American taxpayer," Sigwalt told me, "is becoming secondary in their own country."

C'mon! Would it kill an editor to change that quote to "American taxpayers," ... ?

Friday, August 10, 2007

One who does harm -- a malefactor


malefactor (MAL-uh-fak-tuhr) noun
One who does harm. [From Latin male- (evil) + facere (to do).]

"True, most malefactors do get some sort of a break on their jail time in Orange County."
-- Gordon Dillow; No Break for Hilton in OC; The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, California); Jun 10, 2007.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Make Sure Those Pesky Pronomial Expressions Have Clear Antecedents

The Ruge Rule: Do not use a pronomial expression without an expressed and clearly recognizable antecedent.

A pronomial expression (PE) is an expression that partakes of the nature of a pronoun in that it refers to an antecedent. The most common consist of a demonstrative adjective (e.g.*, this, that, these, those, such) and a following noun.

So, here's a PE w/o an antecedent: Mink skins are valuable because these animals are now scarce.

Corrected: Mink skins are valuable because minks are now scarce.

Another PE w/o an antecedent: He is an expert violinist, having studied that instrument since boyhood.

Corrected: He is an expert violinist, having studied the violin since boyhood.

This is covered in the Harbrace College Handbook Rule 28c (2): Make the antecedent explicit rather than implicit.

This general problem will appear in various forms in every grammar-type test you take, from the "new" PSAT and SAT through the AP English Grammar test. Just make sure, when you see a that .. , this.. , these.. or those.., to ask yourself, "What is this referring to?"

* "e.g.," meaning "for example," is an abbreviation of the Latin exempli gratia;
Other handy abbreviations are "i.e.," short for the Latin id est and meaning "that is," and et al. short for et alii , meaning "and others." It's a little like etc., which is short for et cetera and means "and so forth."

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Oo la la! A double entendre can be so risque!


double entendre (DUB-uhl ahn-TAHN-druh) noun

A word or phrase used in a manner that it can be interpreted in two ways, especially when one of the meanings is risque. [From obsolete French, literally double meaning.]

"Without double-entendre British comedy would be bereft. A short selection from a week's viewing: 'You should have heard the gasps when I showed my marrow to the Women's Institute'."
-- Thomas Sutcliffe; In Search of Intelligent Life on Planet Sitcom; The Independent (London, UK); Mar 8, 1996.

How to get the most out of your high school education

Special first-day-of-school bonus:

To link to a story from on "how to get the most out of your high school education," click here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Nail those easy pronomial-expression-antecedent SAT questions

Ted Williams always said that, to get the good pitches he needed to hit .400, he had to have the discipline to leave the lousy pitches alone, earning many bases on balls when he'd rather have been swinging away. When pitchers realized the Splendid Splinter wouldn't swing at the bad balls, they gave him good balls to hit.

It's not an exact analogy, but this fall, when sophomores and juniors sit down for the SAT, it's just as important to be disciplined about nailing the easy questions so it matters when you get the hard ones.

The SAT generally has lots of pesky pronomial expressions without expressed and clearly recognizable antecedents. Two examples:

1) An extraordinary pianist, Arthur Rubenstein's performance was enthusiastically applauded by his audiences, who always demanded encores.

Those crafty College Board people put one red herring answer that eliminates the initial problem but creates another pronoun without an antecedent (and also a missing comma and a little passive voice thrown in). Arthur Rubernstein's audience enthusiastically applauded his performance with encores always being demanded.

Corrected: Arthur Rubenstein was enthusiastically applauded by his audiences, who always demanded encores.

2) Attracted by the colorful banners, booths featuring various ethnic foods tempted the fair-goers.

Corrected: Attracted by the colorful banners, the fair-goers found the various ethnic foods featured in the booths tempting.

More on pesky pronomials tomorrow.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Doppelganger -- the ghostly counterpart


doppelganger (DOP-uhl-gang-er) noun
A ghostly counterpart or double of a living person.
[From German, literally a double goer.]

"The classic doppelganger experience is a common theme in fiction where the appearance of the double often announces the hero's death by suicide. Probably the most dramatic illustration is Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson, who in an attempt to stab his double, kills himself."
-- Raj Persaud; How You Could Meet Yourself; The Daily Telegraph (London); July 19, 2000.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Set off non-restrictive phrases or clauses in commas

This is a big one---perhaps the most important rule of commas.

The Rule: Set off "non-restrictive" phrases or clauses in commas.
"Non-restrictive" means basically that the phrase or clause is not necessary to the meaning of the sentence. (That is, the clause does not "restrict" the meaning of the sentence.)

The most common application of this rule is with "who" and "which" clauses:

Our dog Duke, who is the sweetest dog in the world, is addicted to Milk Bones. (The clause is not necessary to the sense of the sentence. That is, the meaning is the same without the clause.)

All dogs who are addicted to Milk Bones need to be vigilant about whining at the pantry door. (The clause is necessary to the sense of the sentence, because the meaning changes completely without the "who" clause.)

Here is the most basic illustration of this idea:

Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations did not interest me.

Charles Dickens wrote many novels. You are referring to a particular one of them; therefore Great Expectations is not set off in commas, because it is necessary to the meaning of the sentence to know that we are talking about this novel and not another of Dickens' novel.

On the other hand:

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, did not interest me.

We end up using this rule quite often when it comes to appositives about siblings---and it always requires you to look at exactly how the sentence is phrased and how many brothers or sisters a person has or had.

John F. Kennedy's brother Robert served as his attorney general. (JFK had several brothers.)

BUT: John F. Kennedy's older brother, Joe, was killed in World War II. (JFK had only one older brother.)

This is a sacred section in Harbrace, 12d. It behooves every student to spend some time perusing these pages.

Addendum from one of the educators who gets GTOTD:

"One of the most common mistakes in young writers' work is to get half this rule right. They put the first comma in for the non-restrictive clause, but then they leave the second comma out.
Thus, we see an error such as this:

Smith, who plans to apply to Harvard and Johns Hopkins wants to study astrophysics.

Also, it's important to know the difference between "which" and "that" when introducing dependent or independent clauses. In American English (but not British), "which" is generally preceded by a comma; "that" is not."

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A blissful word from Sanskrit -- nirvana

nirvana (nir-VAH-nuh) noun
1. Freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death and related suffering.
2. An idealized state or place free of pain, worries, etc.

[From Sanskrit nirvana (blowing out, extinguishing, extinction), from nis- (out) + vati (it blows). Ultimately from Indo-European root we- (to blow) that is also the source of wind, weather, ventilate, window and wing.]