Friday, September 28, 2007

Whether versus if

On the subject of whether to use "whether" or "if," the Glossary of Usage in the Harbrace 12th Edition says: "Use if in a state of condition [huh?] ; use whether as condition: I can't go if you drive; whether or not I go depends on who is driving.

In previous editions (I'm looking at the 6th and 4th), Harbrace said: "Some writers prefer whether to if after such verbs as say, learn, know, understand, doubt, especially when followed by or. As in, 'I did not know whether he would ride or walk.' "

Ruge Rules says flatly:

After such verbs as see, ask, doubt, wonder, question, use whether, not if.

Some rhetoricians offer a choice, but I [Ferdinand E. Ruge] do not think the use of whether instead of if is a matter of preference or desirability at all. You do not wonder a condition (if) but alternatives (whether); e.g., I wonder whether he is coming (or whether he is not coming).

There are much more important matters for you to be concerned with than the use of whether instead of if ; at the same time, I want you to observe the practice stated above.

I doubt whether the time is right to make a second attempt.

He asked me whether I had ever been there before.

I want to know whether you are ready.

Please see whether the water has been turned off.

I question whether the proposed course of action is desirable.


I will not try if the time is not right.

Anne Bagamery, business editor of the International Herald Tribune, adds the following words of common sense:

The journalists' shortcut is this: What makes the sentence clear?

"I didn't know whether he would walk or drive" is clear. (You knew he'd get there, but you didn't know which mode of transportation he would use.)

"I didn't know if he would walk or drive" is ambiguous. (What didn't you know? Whether he'd get there, or which mode of transportation?)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Well, well -- here's the source of the word artesian


artesian (ahr-TEE-zhuhn) adjective
Pertaining to a well that has water rising to the surface under natural pressure, without the need of a pump.
[After Artois, a former province in France, where many such wells were drilled.]

"When settlers first came to Pullman, they found artesian water bubbling out of the ground. A hundred years later, those springs are gone, and the source of this hydrological abundance continues to drop 1.5 feet per year. Water mining is just that -- and sooner or later, someone's going to have to pay the piper."
-- Chuck Pezeshki; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; WSU, Enviros Teeing Off Over Water Rights; Sep 5, 2007.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Use a hyphen with two or more words used as a single adjective before the noun

West is an all-for-one-and-one-for-all school!

The rule: Hyphenate two or more words serving as a single adjective preceding the noun, but do not join an adverb ending in -ly with the word it modifies.

As in: We live in a well-built house.

BUT The house is well built.

And: a clearly conceived plan (no hyphen--- "clearly" is an adverb ending in -ly).

This is Harbrace Rule 18f (1)

Why does it matter?

It can help a reader understand the sense of a sentence and sometimes actually change the meaning. Our octogenarian high school English teacher, Ferdinand Ruge, loved to use the following example:

Mr. Jones has cast-off clothing and invites inspection.
Mr. Jones has cast off clothing and invites inspection.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bombast -- cotton padding becomes inflated rhetoric. Who knew?

bombast (BOM-bast) noun
Pompous speech or writing.
[From Old French bombace (cotton padding), from Latin bombax (cotton).]

"The much-unloved advertising slogan proclaiming Scotland as 'The Best Small Country in the World' is ... seen to combine the worst of both bombast and cringe."
-- Robbie Dinwoodie; Best Small Country in the World; The Herald (Glasgow, Scotland); Sep 10, 2007.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The principal is my pal -- that's the principle we live by

Principal and Principle

The first, easiest mnemonic device to keep these two words straight is, "The principal is my pal." In other words, the head of a school or a key person at a firm is spelled "-pal." This is also the spelling of "a capital sum placed at interest," the principal of a loan. So as a mnemonic, let's try, "You can't have either a 'loan' or the 'principal' of a loan without an 'a' near the end."
This spelling can also be an adjective, as in "The principal reason for the jury's decision was the testimony of the eyewitness."

"Principle" can only be used as a noun. It refers to a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption, as in a principle of law, a principle of good business, a person of principle. (The adjectival form would refer to a "principled person.")

This is one of dozens of examples of words that came to the English language from the same root but arrived at different times with different spellings and slightly different meanings ("skirt" "shirt"; "chef" "chief"; "hotel" "hostel").
Both these words (and the word "prince") come originally from the Latin word "princeps," meaning "the one who takes the first part" (primus first + capere to take).
Principal came down from Old French and then to Middle English from the Latin word "principalis" meaning "most important."
Principle came down from Middle French and then to Middle English from "principium," meaning "beginning."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Grog -- from a coarse fabric worn by an admiral


grog (grog) noun
1. An alcoholic drink, especially rum diluted with water.
2. Any strong alcoholic drink.

[After Old Grog, nickname of Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757), who ordered diluted rum to be served to his sailors. The admiral earned the nickname from his habit of wearing a grogram cloak. Grogram is a coarse fabric of silk, wool, mohair, or a blend of them. The word grogram is from French gros grain (large grain or texture).]

"Knowing the value of terse composition and wordplay, Mr. Paisley scored a country hit a couple of years ago with 'Alcohol': A droll defense of grog from the drink's point of view ('I've been known to cause a few breakups/And I've been known to cause a few births.')"
--Movies, Performing Arts; The New York Times; Jul 27, 2007.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Comma Before An Infinitive Phrase Indicates Result, Not Purpose

The following rules may be archaic. (They come from Ruge Rules, assembled by GTOTD recipient Paul Piazza. They comprise the grammar wisdom of Ferdinand E. Ruge, who was in his 70s or 80s when he taught me and several GTOTD subscribers in 1972.)

In contemporary usage, these rules have probably been superseded by Harbrace Rule 12e, "Occasionally a comma may be needed for ease in reading." Nevertheless, it's edifying to know the fine distinction below, even if it doesn't come into practice much.

The Rules: Place a comma before an infinitive phrase that expresses result or an unplanned/unanticipated fact.

Do not use a comma before an infinitive phrase that expresses purpose.

With the bases loaded, he hit a home run, to make the score 12-0. (The infinitive phrase expresses result.)

They returned early from vacation to ready their house for the arrival of important guests. (Expressing purpose.)

They returned from vacation on June 4, to find their house in ruins. (Unplanned/unanticipated fact.)

He intercepted a pass and zigzagged down the field for 43 yards, only to be downed on the 4-yard line. (Same as above.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Loya Jirga -- Who knew?

University of Chicago-educated New York Times columnist David Brooks has once again sent us diving for our dictionaries.
From his column in today's Times:
"The word [Hillary Clinton] kept coming back to was 'partnerships.' She described an array of different social entities — individuals, the federal government, insurance companies, doctors and hospitals — coming together and exercising shared responsibility for creating a better system.
"It began to sound like a health care loya jirga — indicative of the political vision that has marked so much of her thinking over the years."

Loya jirga, occasionally loya jirgah, is a large meeting held in Afrghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and even in Mongolia. In Afghanistan originally attended by Pashtun groups but later including other ethnic groups without really considering them.
The words loya (great/grand) and jirga ("council", "assembly", "dispute" or "meeting") are of Turco-Mongolian origin and originally it means in the Mongolian and Turkic language "great tent" (Ger, meaning tent).

Make Sure Those Pesky Introductory Phrases and Clauses Agree With the Subjects They Modify

Wrong: While riding a bus, the tornado ripped through our town.

The Rule: Make sure introductory phrases or clauses agree with the subjects they modify.

If you can read, mark and inwardly digest this rule and the related Harbrace rule below, it will add many points to your score in the grammar section of the PSAT and the SAT. They both have lots of questions requiring you to correct sentences with imprecise antecedents and dangling modifiers. (See the SAT Question of the Day below for a good "imprecise antecedent" example.)

There are two ways to fix the sentence above:
1) While I was riding a bus, the tornado ripped through our town.
2) While riding a bus, I saw the tornado rip through our town.

This is covered in Harbrace 25b: Revise Dangling Modifiers

Although any misplaced word, phrase, or clause can be said to dangle, the term dangling modifier applies primarily to incoherent verbal phrases and elliptical clauses (that is, clauses with implied subjects and verbs) that do not refer clearly and logically to other words in the sentence.

To correct a dangling modifier, rearrange the words in the sentence to make the modifier clearly refer to the right word, or add words to make the meaning clear and logical.

When verbal phrases or elliptical clauses come at the beginning of a sentence, the normal English word order requires that they immediately precede and clearly refer to the subject of the sentence.

Turn to Section 25 of Harbrace for excellent illustrations of the many kinds of dangling modifiers.

SAT Question of the Day™
NOVEMBER 30, 2005

Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.

Although less important to the early development of jazz than New Orleans and Chicago, New York City's contributions were important toward transforming jazz out of a quaint, little-known folk music into an international genre of great significance.

a) New York City's contributions were important toward transforming jazz out of
b) New York City's contributions were important as they transformed jazz from
c) the contributions made by New York City were important in transforming jazz out of
d) New York City made important contributions toward transforming jazz from
e) New York City made important contributions, they transformed jazz out of

Monday, September 17, 2007

Retired but still honored --emeritus


emeritus (i-MER-i-tuhs) adjective, plural emeriti, feminine emerita

Retired but retaining an honorary title.

[From Latin emeritus (one who has served his time), past participle of emerere (to serve out one's term), from merere (to deserve, serve,earn).]

"[Pete] Seeger has been singing out like this since the Great Depression. The earnest troubadour who either co-wrote or popularized canonical songs like 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone,' 'If I Had a Hammer' and 'JohnHenry' has become something like America's folkie emeritus."

-- Michael Hill; Pete Seeger Still Singing at 87; Associated Press; May 17, 2006.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Use parallel structures with correlatives

Perhaps the sneakiest questions in the SAT and ACT grammar sections (see the SAT example below) pertain to parallelism. Some questions turn on a missing "the." There are lots of rules about parallelism, but the following is as good as any for a pre-test snack:

Harbrace Rule 26c: Use parallel structures with correlatives (both ... and; either ... or; neither ... nor; not only ... but also; whether ... or).

In other words, the two items connected by "not only . . . but also" and other constructions showing "co-relativity," must be similar in kind.


Faulty: Either they work or are fired.
Parallel: Either they work or they are fired.

Faulty: Whether at home or when at work he was always busy.
Parallel: Whether at home or at work, he was always busy.

Faulty: Not only practicing at 6 a.m. during the week, but the team also scrimmages on Sunday afternoons.
Parallel: The team not only practices at 6 a.m. during the week but also scrimmages on Sunday afternoons.

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.

SAT Question of the Day™
FEBRUARY 3, 2005

Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.

With the 1977 publication of Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison both received popular and critical acclaim.

a) both received popular and
b) both received popular and also
c) received popular, along with
d) received popular as well as
e) received both popular and also

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bubbling over with ebullience and other social words sure to be on SATs

An SAT Question of the Day:
Dahntay’s ------- over winning the prestigious prize was ------- only by the fact that his father was unable to attend the ceremony.

incredulity . . . misconstrued
ebullience . . . tempered
bashfulness . . . extended
satisfaction . . . confirmed
relief . . .conveyed

The Eskimos supposedly have 50 different words for snow. In our society, we have an infinite number of words to describe social proclivities, many of which are sure bets to pop up on the SAT.

On the extraverted (or extroverted) side, there's garrulous (talkative, chatty); gregarious (friendly), ebullient (bubbling over with enthusiasm).

On the introverted (no alternate spelling on this one) side, there's diffident (shy, lacking self-confidence), reticent (quiet, shy, withdrawn), stoic (one who so represses his emotions that he is indifferent to pleasure or pain.

On the positive side, there's aplomb (self-assurance, self-possession, especially in difficult or embarrassing situations), panache (literally, a plume in a helmet; swagger, flamboyance, as in "She does everything with panache."), elan (ardor, eagerness, spirit).

On the negative side, there's fractious (extremely irritable, unruly), mendacious (lying), pusillanimous (a mean-spirited and contemptible lack of courage; a stronger word than cowardly), bibulous (addicted to drink), inebriated (drunk), a pariah (an outcast -- a Hindu word).

The answer to a previous SAT Question of the Day turned on the word "salutary" (beneficial, promoting health, ). "Salubrious" means basically the same thing, with more emphasis on bodily health. Both come from the Latin salus, meaning health (or general welfare).
Before you sip the table wine in France, you might raise your glass and say, "Salu." Since "health" has always been a greeting of sorts, we get "salute" as a greeting and the "salutatorian" (usually the No. 2 student in a class) delivering the greeting speech at a commencement exercise. (Note, as every salutatorian must, that the word "Commencement" tells us that graduation is a beginning, not an end. Wow!)
A saluki is an Arabian or Egyptian dog, from Saluq, an ancient city in Arabia, which may have been a healthy place. :-)

The expression mens sana in corpore sano, which you don't hear that much these days,
described the Classical ideal of "a sound mind in a sound body." Perhaps the motto of Major League Baseball, or at least Barry Bonds, should be corpus maximum steroidiis plurimis (the largest body by means of the most steroids).

Select the specific word instead of the vague one

Since it was first published in 1941, the Harbrace College Handbook has gone into 15 editions, plus a CD version. Throughout the Depression, University of Tennessee Professor John C. Hodges kept files of writing errors made in his rigorous freshman English classes, eventually leading him to assemble his logically numbered set of rules. Though Hodges died in 1967, Harbrace has lived on. With input from English professors all over the nation, it has grown and improved with each edition, (and its royalties helped build the UT library, opened in 1969, that bears Hodges' name).
Still, in some cases, from one edition to the next, tiny gems of Hodges' teachings have been lost as they've been superseded by slightly different discussions. One example is from the 4th edition (1956), Rule 20a(2) Concreteness. Select the specific word instead of the vague word. The equivalent section in later editions, now numbered 20a(3), is very good. In fact, I sent it in an earlier Grammar Tip. But here, sounding the way I imagine Professor Hodges might have sounded in a classroom, is the section that was replaced:

Concreteness. Select the specific word instead of the vague word.
Avoid vague generalities. Be as specific as you can.
Instead of writing went consider the possibility of rode, walked, trudged, slouched, hobbled, sprinted. When you are tempted to say a fine young man, ask yourself whether brave, daring, plucky, vigorous, energetic, spirited, or loyal would be more appropriate. Do not be satisfied with the colorless ask when you can choose among beg, pray, entreat, beseech, implore. The word try is ineffective in most situations when struggle, fight, battle, strive are available.
The test for the specific word is contained in six words--who, what, when, where, how, why. Notice how the following sentences are improved by asking the questions Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? about one or more elements in the sentence.

VAGUE The Dean spoke about student life and that sort of thing. [Who spoke about what?]
IMPROVED Dean Jones spoke about the social advantages of the student union.

VAGUE Mr brother is going away to have a good time. [Where is he going? How will he have a good time?]
IMPROVED My brother is going to Gatlinburg in the Smoky Mountains, where he plans to fish and hunt for a few weeks.

VAGUE All the columnists are commenting on the high cost of living. [Who are commenting? Where did comment appear?]
IMPROVED In the July 12 issue of the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Lippman, George Sokolsky, and Robert Roark discussed the recent advance in food prices.

VAGUE The Army team finally advanced the ball. [How did they do it?]
IMPROVED Adams, the Army quarterback, received the ball from center Jim Hawkins, retreated to his twn-yard line, and threw a pass to left-end Smith, who was tackled on the Army thirty-five yard line.

VAGUE I think the speech was biased. [Why?]
IMPROVED Mr. Jones began his speech without any attempt to support his statement that the policies of the Republican administration were a "total denial of the American way of life."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Puissant, so much potential from one potent Indo-European root


puissant (PYOO-uh-suhnt) adjective Potent.
[Via French from Latin posse (to be able), ultimately from the Indo-European root poti- (powerful, lord) that is also the source of power, potent, possess, possible, posse, Italian podesta, and Turkish pasha (via Persian).]
"The full-race Evo is about 557 pounds lighter and 30 horsepower more puissant."
Dan Neil; A Beast in the 'burbs; Los Angeles Times; Jun 16, 2004.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Semicolon with 25-cent connecting words

Harbrace Rule 14a: Use a semicolon to connect independent clauses not linked by a coordinating conjuction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).

Another fairly handy semicolon construction is the following:

Use a semi-colon before such 25-cent connecting words as "hence," "however," "moreover," "nevertheless," and "therefore" if the connect two complete thoughts and if they are the first word in the second

Right: Duke is a good dog; however, he has a serious problem with his Milk Bone habit.

A comma follows these words if they cause a pause in the reading. You have to play it by ear. "Therefore," for example, often doesn't need a comma after it.
As in --
I think; therefore I am. (Cogito; ergo sum.)

Note: make sure to use commas around these words when they are used "parenthetically" in the middle of a sentence.

As in-- My fear for Duke, however, is that his Milk Bone addiction will affect his ability to love and work.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Gamut -- a word with its roots in do-re-mi


gamut (GAM-uht) noun
The complete range of something.
[From Medieval Latin, contraction of gamma ut, from gamma (third letter of the Greek alphabet), used to represent the lowest tone + ut, from the names of the notes ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si (ut and si later changed to do and ti). Gamma + ut contracted to gamut and the meaning expanded to denote all notes.]

The names ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si are derived from the initial syllables of a Latin hymn. Who knew?

"'Our biggest problem is basic infrastructure strain, and that covers the gamut -- electricity, water, telephone service -- you name it, we have continuous basic problems with all of them,' [Alain Tiphaine] said."
-- Luis Ramos; Caribbean Business; Puerto Rico Herald; July 8, 2004.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Sometimes, a period can help a lengthy sentence gain clarity

Sometimes we all write (or have to edit) sentences -- like those legendary, paragraph-long ones in The New Yorker, with interminable interjections inside dashes, that take a few too many twists and turns, that pile "which clauses" upon "who clauses" and end up making readers forget where they began, or what the point was in the first place, if there was one -- that simply go on too long.

Often, you can put a period before a "who clause" and start a new sentence with "he" or "she." Likewise, "in which" and "where" clauses can easily be turned into their own sentences.

Sometimes, on inspection, you realize a comma followed by an "and" reads better as a period and a new sentence, with no need for the "and" at all.

Sometimes you realize those long appositive clauses and interjections inside dashes can be taken out and made into nice, clear sentences of their own. Often an adverbial clause floating around the middle of a sentence makes a lot more sense at the beginning.

These "sentence-shortening" skills are essential to writing for the ear (radio, TV and speeches), for children 's publications, and for Ernest Hemingway parodies. (The fish was big. He caught it. It took a long time. His hands hurt.)

Harbrace makes especially good reading on the subjects of sentence Subordination and Coordination (Chapter 24), Emphasis (Chapter 29) and Variety (Chapter 30).

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Junta -- gettin' together to rule a country after a coup


junta (HOON-tuh, JUHN-) noun
A group, especially one made of military officers, ruling a country after a coup.
[From Spanish and Portuguese junta (committee, association), from Latin jungere (to join). Ultimately from the Indo-European root yeug- (to join) that also gave us yoke, junction, jugular, adjust, Sanskrit yoga, and Greek zeugma.]
"Burma's military junta has been freeing prisoners from jail and then recruiting them to bolster gangs that have been used to attack pro-democracy activists."
--Daniel Howden; Junta Frees Prisoners For Anti-protest Mobs; The Independent (London, UK); Aug 29, 2007.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Hail! To the victors, valiant ... (Appy State notwithstanding)

The Victors was composed by Michigan student Louis Elbel in 1898 following the last-minute victory over the University of Chicago that clinched a league championship. John Philip Sousa called it "the greatest college fight song ever written."

The last two verses (in bold below) are the ones played all the time. You can hear the Michigan Band play it by clicking here.

Anne Bagamery, senior editor of the International Herald Tribune, doesn't mind life in beautiful Paris. But, says Anne, "Until you've stood in Michigan Stadium on a fall afternoon and heard 104,000 people sing The Victors, you haven't lived." (After its recent expansion, the "Big House" in Ann Arbor now holds 107,501 fans, by far the biggest stadium in the country. No. 2 is Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, with seats for 104,079.)

The Victors

Now for a cheer they are here, triumphant!
Here they come with banners flying.
In stalwart step they're nighing.
With shouts of vict'ry crying.
We hurrah, hurrah, we greet you now, Hail!
Far we their praises sing
For the glory and fame they've bro't us,
Loud let the bells them ring,
For here they come with banners flying
Far we their praises tell
For the glory and fame they've bro't us,
Loud let the bells them ring
For here they come with banners flying
Here they come, Hurrah!
Hail! To the victors, valiant,
Hail! To the conqu'ring heroes
Hail! Hail! To Michigan the leaders and best
Hail! To the victors, valiant,
Hail! To the conqu'ring heroes
Hail! Hail! To Michigan the champions of the West!