Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Over-use of the hyphenated-adjective rule?

Sunday's New York Times Magazine included the following sentence:
"[Bill] Hybels, founder of the Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, is very possibly the single-most-influential pastor in America . . ."

Are those hyphens necessary or correct per the hyphenated-adjective rule?
They are probably not necessary, since there would be no confusion if they were left out.
But do those three words truly comprise a single adjective? Rather, they are three adjectives modifying one another on their way to the noun.
We saw an example of this in a News Sentinel story about the faithful renovation of a 19th-century home: "John Roske lays brick using a special but expensive mortar most like the mortar found in the 1840s." No hyphens needed.
In the paragraph above, do we really need that hyphen between 19th and century?
In this case we would note the exception to the hyphenated-adjective rule, in which the hyphen is superfluous if the two or more words used before the noun as a single adjective are commonly used together, as in "major league baseball."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The river hardened into rock? Back to Rule No. 1 -- Every sentence gotta make sense!

A year ago we looked at the following sentence from the National Geographic with a portrait of the 3.3-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis baby girl on its cover:

"He doesn't know how the Dikika baby died, but the river must have rapidly buried the body in pebbles and sand, protecting it from scavengers and weather before gradually hardening into rock."

Yes, yes -- we know what the sentence meant to say. But it didn't say it!

We could put another "it" between "hardening" and "into," but that would make the sentence say that the river hardened the body of the Australopithecus afarensis into rock.

It would be better to say, "before it gradually hardened into rock."
But even with that fix, we're saying that the body hardened into rock.. It was just her bones and skull that were fossilized into rock. So why not say, ". . . before her bones were gradually fossilized into rock."?

Harbrace Chapter 1: Sentence Sense, begins with the rule: To think more clearly and write more effectively, understand how sentences work.
Writing a clear, precise sentence is an art, says Harbrace, and you can master that art by developing your awareness of what makes sentences work.

In Ruge Rules, Ferdinand E. Ruge states this as, "Every sentence must lend itself to logical analysis. In other words, every sentence gotta make sense!"

Finally, don't you think the A. afarensis baby looks like aerobics guru Richard (Sweatin' to the Oldies) Simmons?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pasha -- of rank most high

pasha (PA-shuh, PASH-uh, puh-SHAH) noun
A person of high rank or importance.
[From Turkish pasa, from Persian padshah, from pati (master) + shah (king). Pasha was used as a title of high-ranking officials in the Ottoman Empire.]

Click here to see "pasha" in the Visual Thesaurus.

"The rise and rise of Ajay Bijli as the pasha of Indian multiplexes is born out of his passion for motion pictures."
-- Moinak Mitra & Shubham Mukherjee; Sundowner with Ajay Bijli; The Economic Times (New Delhi, India); Oct 6, 2007.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Only second? C'mon! It's second only!

Headline and subhed in today's Knoxville News Sentinel:

Regal CEO says it's only second to cinema at Turkey Creek

What is it about the placement of "only" that trips up so many decent, hard-working Americans?

As fully discussed in our Oct. 4 GTOTD, the placement of "only" can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

The subhed above says that our lovely new Riviera 8 downtown cineplex is only second to the Pinnacle Stadium 18 at Turkey Creek -- that is, with a little effort it could be something loftier.

What the headline means to say is that the Riviera is second only to the Pinnacle Stadium -- that is, the Riviera has defied the odds and beaten out two mall-based cineplexes and the "artsy" Downtown West 8.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Heard lately -- Bronx cheer and raspberry


Bronx cheer (brongks cheer) noun
1. A rude sound indicating disapproval, made by sticking the tongue partly out between the lips and blowing air out in a simulation of flatulence.
2. Any expression of derision or contempt.
[Probably after the Bronx, a borough of New York City, the home of Yankee Stadium, where Yankees fans often expressed their opinion of the umpire's decision or an unfavorable play that way.]

"It wasn't a unanimous Bronx cheer. Many fans stood and applauded for Martinez. Years of excellence outweigh one bad game. Still, it was an out-of-body experience to hear any boos for Pedro on Opening Night at Fenway Park."
-- Dan Shaughnessy; Voices of Fans Are Heard; Boston Globe; Apr 13, 2003.

Bronx cheer has a rather unusual synonym:

raspberry (also razzberry, often shortened to razz).
How in the world could a sound like that come to be known as a raspberry?
To learn this we take a peek at the fascinating working of rhyming slang. "Raspberry tart" was used as a code for "fart" and then the rhyming part was dropped. Other examples of rhyming slang are "butchers" for "look," as in "Take a butchers at this!" (from butcher's hook); "apples" for "stairs" (from apples and pears); china for mate (from china plate). Best-known rhyming slang was used by generations of London Cockneys, but similar rhyming slang is found in many other parts of the world.

Some believe the reference to raspberry is from the appearance of the tongue while "cheering".

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Her has won .. Me went .. Tarzan go get Jane.

A quote in the Knoxville News Sentinel, from a Karns High student's letter (absolving a teacher for allegedly offending her): "Him and I have always joked around."

In a story in the sports section, a student was quoted as saying, "Me and Zach try our best not to talk about football..."

Someday the English language may make no distinction between the subjective and objective case in personal pronouns. But for now we're stuck with trying to keep things straight.

Once, at halftime of a Lady Vols' victory over Georgia, the poised and articulate Lisa Leslie began a sentence about two great coaches in women's basketball with, "Her and Pat Summitt have won more games than anyone."

Many of our kids say, "Me and Janie went to the Mall." Would anyone (other than Johnny Weissmuller) ever say, "Me went to the Mall"?

Another frequently heard Grammar Accident is, "...between you and I." No one would say, "...between I and you," because it sounds wrong. In all the case cases above, the speaker has to switch the order to reveal the error.

A Jeff Foxworthy Moment

Harbrace Section 5: Case charts the cases of pronouns, then adds, "Pronouns my, our, your, him her, it, and them combine with -self or -selves become intensive/reflexive pronouns. [Basically, these are objective pronouns that have gotten somewhat big for their britches and are used for emphasis to refer to a noun or pronoun in the same sentence.] Formal English does not accept myself as a substitute for I or me." [I myself don't care.]

Then there's a "Note: Hisself and theirselves, although the logical forms for the reflexive pronouns [durn tootin'!], are not accepted in formal English [dang it!]; use himself and themselves.

Bill lives by himself [NOT hisself].

They live by themselves [NOT theirselves]." [We might add: and certainly not "theyselves."]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vizier -- How does it work? Just ask a Turk.


vizier (vi-ZEER, VIZ-yuhr) noun
A high official.
[From Turkish vezir, from Arabic wazir (minister).]

"In fact, poor Jeff Immelt [right, flanked by Delaware Sen. Tom Carper and Lt. Gov. John Carney], the grand vizier of all General Electric, gets only $15 million, plus perks."
-- Mark Drought; Love of Money is the Root of All Evil; East Texas Review; Oct 9, 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007


It's that time of year, when World Series fans forever learn anew the wisdom of Yogi Berra's words, "It ain't over 'till it's over."

Here is a fairly complete list of sayings attributed to Yogi Berra. (Although, as Yogi himself once said, "I didn't really say everything I said.")

"This is like deja vu all over again."

"Half this game is 90% mental."
"If I didn't wake up, I'd still be sleeping."
"Slump ? I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hittin'."
"Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical."
"You can observe a lot just by watching."
"He must have made that before he died." -- Referring to a Steve McQueen movie.
"I want to thank you for making this day necessary." -- On Yogi Berra Appreciation Day in St. Louis in 1947.
"I'd find the fellow who lost it, and, if he was poor, I'd return it." -- When asked what he would do if he found a million dollars.
"Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?"
"It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future."
"You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."
"I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early."
"If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else."
"If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."
"You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six."
"It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much."
"A nickel isn't worth a dime today."
"Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."
"It gets late early out there." -- Referring to the bad sun conditions in left field at the stadium.
"Glen Cove." -- Referring to Glenn Close on a movie review television show.
Once, Yogi's wife Carmen asked, "Yogi, you are from St. Louis, we live in New Jersey, and you played ball in New York. If you go before I do, where would you like me to have you buried?" Yogi replied, "Surprise me."
"Do you mean now?" -- When asked for the time.
"I take a two hour nap, from one o'clock to four."
"If you come to a fork in the road, take it."
"You give 100 percent in the first half of the game, and if that isn't enough in the second half you give what's left."
"90% of the putts that are short don't go in."
"I made a wrong mistake."
"Texas has a lot of electrical votes." -- During an election campaign, after George Bush stated that Texas was important to the election.
"Thanks, you don't look so hot yourself." -- After being told he looked cool.
"I always thought that record would stand until it was broken."
"Yeah, but we're making great time!" -- In reply to "Hey Yogi, I think we're lost."
"If the fans don't come out to the ball park, you can't stop them."
"Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel."
"It's never happened in the World Series competition, and it still hasn't."
"How long have you known me, Jack? And you still don't know how to spell my name." -- Upon
receiving a check from Jack Buck made out to "bearer."
"I'd say he's done more than that." -- When asked if first baseman Don Mattingly had exceeded expectations for the current season.
"The other teams could make trouble for us if they win."
"He can run anytime he wants. I'm giving him the red light." -- On the acquisition of fleet-footed Rickey Henderson.
"I never blame myself when I'm not hitting. I just blame the bat, and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn't my fault that I'm not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?"
"It ain't the heat; it's the humility."
"The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase."
"You should always go to other people's funerals; otherwise, they won't come to yours."
"I didn't really say everything I said."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Overly sad -- lugubrious


lugubrious (lu-GOO-bree-uhs) adjective
Mournful, dismal, especially in an exaggerated or affected manner.
[From Latin lugere (to mourn).]

"Although the program notes characterize the piece as dark and lugubrious, it's actually rather playful and matter-of-fact, a reflection of Russian acceptance of life's inequalities and perils."
-- Roy C. Dicks; Russian Reality (dance review); The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina); Jun 16, 2007.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing

The Hamilton College Writing Center Wants YOU to Avoid
The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing

If you click here, you can access the website for the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center at Hamilton College.

Hamilton is a small liberal arts college in upstate New York known for teaching great writing. [John Nichols' novel The Sterile Cuckoo is set there, and the 1969 movie version starring Liza Minnelli was filmed on its very pretty campus.]
The Writing Center website is full of great tips and teaching ideas, including the list of seven deadly sins of bad writing above. Each sin links to a full explanation of why the flames await those who practice that particular transgression.
Enjoy! (Or risk damnation!)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Deleterious -- harmful; injurious


deleterious (del-i-TEER-ee-uhs) adjective
Harmful; injurious.

[From Greek deleterios (destructive), from deleisthai (to harm).]

"Petroleum and its products will continue to fetch escalating prices with new and deleterious effects on the world's economies and politics."
--Mary King; No Business as Usual in Energy; Trinidad and Tobago Express; Jun 25, 2007.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Imply and Infer -- our local paper got it right!

Ainge plans to be Vols' QB next season
Infers that Cutcliffe will return as UT's offensive coordinator

The headline and subhed above were from a Knoxville News Sentinel a year ago. UT Quarterback Erik Ainge (right) had, in fact, inferred that his brilliant coach, David Cutcliffe, was not planning on taking a head coaching job.
"I know that things happen," said Ainge in the story. "Several million dollars to coach a football team . . . I understand that. But he's not throwing his name out trying to find a job like that."

Right: "I implied but did not state openly that school would be called off after the snowstorm."
Right: "The students inferred from my statement that school would be called off after the snowstorm."

The writer or speaker implies; the reader or listener infers.

Imply means "to suggest without stating."
Infer means "to reach a conclusion based upon evidence."

This is found in Harbrace 's "Glossary of Usage" (pages G-1 through G-11 near the back, marked "usgl" in the upper right-hand corner of the right-hand pages), which lists the most commonly confused or misused words in our language.
If you haven't thumbed through these pages, it is a very good idea to do so. There are lots of questions in the new PSAT and SAT in which you must pick out words that are inexact, not quite right, or totally incorrect.

In the realm of "unspoken understanding," where the words above definitely reside, two good words to know are --

tacit -- unstated but understood. "We had a tacit understanding that I would clean up the house after our party."
acquiesce -- to accept or comply tacitly or passively; that is, without words or action. "By saying nothing, I acquiesced to the group's plan of going to the movie."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Brigadoon -- oh what a rare place it is!


brigadoon (BRIG-uh-doon) noun
An idyllic place that is out of touch with reality or one that makes its appearance for a brief period in a long time.

[From Brigadoon, a village in the musical of the same name, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, based on the story Germelshausen by Friedrich Gerstacker. Brigadoon is under a spell that makes it invisible to outsiders except on one day every 100 years.]

"There is a feel of Brigadoon to Cooperstown, the lush village of baseball and opera tucked into the middle of an idyllic nowhere in upstate New York."
--Elisabeth Bumiller, Cooperstown, The New York Times, Jul 1, 2001.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Great Fight Songs -- Today, Rocky Top!

On the heels of Tennessee's wonderful victory over Georgia this weekend, we'll take up our review of the great college football fight songs with the youngest of them all, Rocky Top.

Rocky Top was written in 1967 for the Osborne Brothers by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who also wrote most of the Everly Brothers' hits. It was added to the UT band repertoire in 1976 and quickly became a Volunteer addiction. "You can play it 50 times, and they'll want to hear it again," said band director Harold Julian.

Rocky Top
Wish that I was on ol' Rocky Top,
Down in the Tennessee hills;
Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top,
Ain't no telephone bills.

Rocky Top, you'll always be
Home sweet home to me;
Good ol' Rocky Top--Rocky Top Tennessee,
Rocky Top Tennessee.

Once I had a girl on Rocky Top,
Half bear, other half cat;
Wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop,
I still dream about that.


Once two strangers climbed ol' Rocky Top
Lookin' for a moonshine still;
Strangers ain't come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will.


Corn won't grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt's too rocky by far;
That's why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar.


I've had years of cramped-up city life
Trapped like a duck in a pen
All I know is it's a pity life
Can't be simple again.



Note from Knoxville historian Jack Neely:

In a recent talk at Maryville College about the concept of Appalachia as an American fiction, I brought up the irony that Felice Bryant, co-author of Rocky Top, and Pee Wee King, co-author of the Tennessee Waltz, two of the most emblematically Tennessee songs, were raised in Milwaukee -- she Italian, he Polish. They may even have met each other as kids, maybe at a Schlitz picnic, and plotted their dominance of Tennessee’s musical iconography.

The other irony of the song I may have mentioned before: that the ominous ‘two strangers,’ presuming they were revenuers, were likely UT grads from the IRS or ATF office in Knoxville.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Hessian -- a mercenary from Hesse


hessian (HESH-uhn) adjective
1. A mercenary soldier or a ruffian.
2. Burlap.

[After Hesse, a state in central Germany. Sense 1 derives from the fact that Hessian mercenaries served in the British army in America during the American Revolution.]

"If he waits long enough to get into the race, all the usual-suspect-consultants will be booked -- which would be a boon for Mr. Gore, since his hessian strategists in 2000 made him soft-pedal the environment, the very issue that makes him seem most passionate and authentic."
-- Maureen Dowd; Ozone Man Sequel; The New York Times; Feb 28, 2007.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The challenge of putting "only" where it belongs

Before the college football bowl season a year ago, the Knoxville News Sentinel explained how UT fans had been asked to send in ticket requests for two bowl games, so the ticketing process would be further along when bowl selections were announced. In the story, an otherwise carefully worded sentence reads, "Fans are only obligated to purchase tickets for the bowl in which Tennessee plays."
With the word "only" placed as it is, the meaning of the sentence is that fans are only obligated to purchase tickets, they are not required or bound in some stricter way. To achieve the meaning intended, it should read, "Fans are obligated to purchase tickets only for the bowl in which Tennessee plays."

Nothing tests the preciseness of our writing like the placement of the modifier "only."

Note how the meaning in the following sentences changes according to the position of only:

She said that she loved only him. [She loved no one else.]
She said that she only loved him. [Even love has its limitations.]
She said that only she loved him. [No one else loved him.]
She said only that she loved him. [She said nothing else.]
She only said that she loved him. [She didn't mean it.]
Only she said that she loved him. [No one else said it.]

This is covered in Harbrace Chapter 25, entitled Coherence: Misplaced Parts, Dangling Modifiers, which starts with the straightforward advice, "Keep related parts of a sentence together. Avoid dangling modifiers."

Rule 25a: To make your meaning clear to readers, place modifiers near the words they modify.

Section 25(1) reads, "In formal English, place modifiers such as almost, only, just, even, hardly, nearly and merely immediately before the words they modify."

The placement of "only" and "just" can change the meaning of a sentence in any number of ways.

The example above joins a growing GTOTD library of misplaced "only"s:

From the News Sentinel: "A Parade All-America, [tailback Gerald] Riggs only managed 256 yards before [coach Trooper] Taylor's arrival." The point is that 256 yards were not that many, so the "only" should go next to 256. As the sentence reads now, it implies that Riggs only "managed" 256 yards--that is, he didn't do something else with them.

In another News Sentinel story, the point guard for the Christian Academy of Knoxville hoops team commented on a 6'5" youngster who had recently arrived at his school: "They said he was only playing baseball." [This could mean that he was doing the sport more for fun than for long-term ambition.]
The point guard meant to say, "They said he was playing only baseball,"-- that is, not playing basketball, as a 6'5" youngster should.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Oligarchy -- rule by a few


oligarchy (OLI-gar-kee) noun
A government in which a few people control all power.
[From Greek oligos (few) + archos (ruler).]

"We are dangerously close to creating an oligarchy in this country, whereby we will be governed by a select group of people wearing black robes."
-- Sadie Fields; Candidates' Survey Serves as Helpful Tool; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Georgia); Jul 16, 2004.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Adverbial clauses -- two warnings about

from Ruge Rules

1) An adverbial clause may never be the object of a preposition [*see the pertinent SAT Question of the Day below].

Wrong: I suppose death is like when you go to sleep and don't wake up.

Right: I suppose death is like going to sleep and not waking up.

(Note: in correcting for the used of the adverbial clause as the object of the preposition "like," we are automatically correcting for the used of the indefinite "you.")

2) An adverbial clause may never be used as a predicate nominative.

Wrong: The reason I like my math class is because Doc Arnds keeps me on my toes.
Right: The reason I like my math class is that Doc Arnds keeps me on my toes.

Wrong: Cheating is when you copy someone else's work.
Right: Cheating is copying someone else's work.

SAT Question of the Day™

Part of each sentence is underlined; beneath each 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.

British author Charles Dodgson, best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, is renowned for when he wrote two of the most famous and admired children's books in the world, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass.

a) is renowned for when he wrote
b) renowned in that he wrote
c) received renown, he wrote
d) is renowned for writing
e) was renowned and wrote

Monday, October 1, 2007

Vaudeville -- from a valley in Normandy, home of 15th Century satirical folksongs


vaudeville (VAWD-vil) noun
Theatrical entertainment featuring a variety of acts such as songs, dances, comedy, acrobatics, magic, pantomime, etc.
[From French vaudeville, from Old French vaudevire, a shortening of chanson du Vau de Vire (song of the Valley of Vire), from Vire, a valley of Calvados, Normandy, in France where satirical folksongs were composed by Olivier Basselin in the fifteenth century.]

"The family travelled around Australia with their big tent show, entertaining crowds with vaudeville acts and horse stunts until the 1950s."
-- Eamon Hamilton; A Hundred Years Young; Hawkesbury Gazette (Australia); Jun 2, 2005.