Monday, December 31, 2007

Invigorate your prose -- find hidden verbs

From "A Plain English Handbook," put out by the Securities and Exchange Commission to encourage Wall Street denizens to make their stock and bond offerings halfway intelligible to the public:

Find Hidden Verbs
Does a sentence use any form of the verbs "to be," "to have," or another weak verb, with a noun that could be turned into a strong verb? In the sentences below, the strong verb lies hidden in a nominalization, a noun derived from a verb that usually ends in -tion. As you change nouns to verbs, your writing becomes more vigorous and less abstract.

before ................................ after
We made an application... . . . . . . We applied...
We made a determination... . . . . . We determined...
We will make a distribution... .. . . . We will distribute...

We will provide appropriate information to shareholders concerning ....

We will inform shareholders about ...

We will have no stock ownership of the company.

We will own no company stock.

There is the possibility of prior Board approval of these investments.

The Board might approve these investments in advance.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Football argot -- a bowl season primer

The Bowl season is upon us. I've gone through life knowing truly nothing about golf and being happily oblivious to the endless tales of bogies, birdies and eagles that are the currency of the business world. The words below are strictly for those who are as oblivious to the terminology of football as I am to that of golf.

For example, we hear of the ominous "5-2 Monster" defense. This means there are five down linemen and two linebackers (defenders who stand in back of the line) who are complemented by a "Monster" back. The Monster -- or Rover, or Eagle, or Strong Safety -- is a person fast enough to be a defensive back and strong enough to come up and knock the crap out of running backs if they get past the line.
If you've ever seen the infrequent moments when UT junior Camille Chandler's dad, Jack, is vexed, you might gain some insight into his success as a strong safety at Vanderbilt. Why is he called a "strong safety"? Because he generally lines up opposite the "strong" side of the offensive line-- i.e., the side where the tight end lines up.

A blitz (from German Blitzkrieg, or "Lighting War") is the tactic of sending an extra person -- a linebacker or a safety -- charging into the backfield to sack the quarterback.

West Coast Offense: Basically, this is an offense based on short, quick passes that keep possession of the ball more than trying for longer gains on a regular basis. Its West Coast roots are partly the result of weather---when it's sunny and dry, you can throw and catch a ball reliably. One of its main avatars was the late Bill Walsh of Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, where quarterback Joe Montana made it all look so easy. Lately, Walsh proteges have transplanted the West Coast offense in Green Bay and Minnesota. Go figure.

The Wishbone Offense: In less balmy parts of the county, howling winds and raging sleet make it important to keep the ball on the ground more, which is why the wishbone "option" offenses were developed on the plains of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.
In the wishbone, the quarterback runs more, and there are three running backs behind him. On each play, the quarterback has several options:
1) to hand off the ball to a fullback running through the center of the line,
2) hand off to a halfback running off tackle,
3) keep the ball and run around the end, or
4) pitch the ball to the other halfback heading wide around the end.
[And, once in a blue moon, he can throw a pass!]
At each decision point, the quarterback "keys" on certain defensive players--that is, sees where they're going and sending the ball to the most undefended area. The wishbone was adopted by Alabama, except in years when Bama had great passers like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. Troy Aikman first went to Oklahoma because coach Barry Switzer promised to switch from a wishbone to a West Coast offense. When Switzer changed his mind, Aikman tranferred to pass-happy UCLA.
Canadian football, with its frequent snowy conditions, tends to like running quarterbacks.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A big cheese, top dog -- big kahuna


kahuna (kuh-HOO-nuh) noun
1. A priest or a medicine man.
2. An important person (usually in the phrase: big kahuna).

[From Hawaiian kahuna. Hawaiian is a Polynesian language spoken in the Hawaiian islands in the Pacific. The number of native speakers of the language has decreased to just a few hundreds.]

"It's tough being yesterday's man. At a briefing introducing investors to the new AMP boss Craig Dunn, outgoing kahuna Andrew Mohl appeared a little left out."
-- Michael Evans; Marginbet Takes Even Bigger Bet; The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia); Nov 27, 2007.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Going with a hunch on a "hard" SAT Question

Sometimes, intuition is an important tool for SAT takers, especially with "hard" questions like the SAT Question of the Day below.
Wily students can probably look at the word "prefatory,"figure it has something to do with a "preface," and get the right answer, eliminating "orthographic" as having something to do with spelling or handwriting and "conjunctive" as having something to do with "and" and "but" (or pink-eye).
In fact, it might even be confusing if you know that "proleptic" means anticipating and "redacted" means edited, since these might possibly fit in the sentence. So this is an example of when it's better to go with your first hunch on an SAT question rather than to "overthink" it.

The professor asked the students to make sure they read the entire novel, both the twelve regular chapters and the extensive ___________ materials that the author included at the beginning of the book.

a) proleptic
b) redacted
c) prefatory
d) orthographic
e) conjunctive

P.s., If you'd like to sign up to receive the SAT Question of the Day, click here. You'll have to open up an account, but that's easy to do.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

You might be a grammarian.

With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy . . .

If, when you talk about "The Good Book," you mean the dictionary, you might be a grammarian.

If your car has a bumper sticker that reads "split atoms, not infinitives," you might be a grammarian.

If you write letters to your local newspaper about spelling errors in headlines, you may indeed be a grammarian.

If you've ever said the words aloud, "You can't be 'very unique,' something is either unique or not!" Then you are probably a grammarian.

If you find yourself editing shopping lists, you might be a grammarian.

If you stop your car on highways and curse grammatical errors on billboards, you might be a grammarian.

If you've ever taken out a Sharpie at a diner and crossed out those apostrophes around "Tips Welcome," you're probably a grammarian.

If you've ever corrected a letter from your company CEO in revisions mode and sent it back, then you might be a full-time grammarian.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A small, extra gift -- lagniappe


lagniappe n., ((lan-YAP, LAN-yap) [From Louisiana French, from American Spanish la ñapa (the gift), from Quechua yapa (something added).]

a small gift given a customer by a merchant at the time of purchase (e.g., a 13th doughnut added in with a purchase of a dozen);
broadly: an unexpected benefit, something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.

"Of little consequence, a tiny lagniappe and a green salad came compliments of the house."
-- M.H. Reed; In Ossining, a Restaurant With a Past; The New York Times; Sep 23, 2001.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

BC's advice on writing the "perfect" college application essay

The nice advice below comes from the Boston College admissions office website:

Writing the "Perfect" Essay

First of all, let us debunk the myth. There is no such thing as a perfect essay. There, we've said it. Now you can clear your mind of the anxiety that typically accompanies students as you sit down to write. Instead, you can focus on using the essay as a tool to let the Committee on Admission learn more about you as an individual.

Many of us feel that in the fall of your senior year, the college essay is the only portion of your application remaining on which you can still have a significant influence. Granted, you will need to continue working hard in your classes, but you have already met people who will speak highly of you in a recommendation, you have already been involved in various extra-curricular activities, and you have likely completed your standardized examinations. The one remaining portion is the college essay. We realize how hectic your senior year is, but take advantage of this opportunity.

The best essays that we read are ones that tell us not only about a specific event, mentor, excursion, or accomplishment, but also tell us how the writer has been affected by their experiences. For example, a typical essay might inform the reader of a trip to France that the student took the previous summer. It might focus on the challenges faced in getting to their destination, the French culture, or even the people that the student met. The better essay, however, takes it to the next level. It makes the experience personal. The student might choose to explain what surprised, frustrated, or inspired them about the trip. The student might choose to focus on how they now view the world a little bit differently after this newfound international perspective.

Another common example is students' essays on a person who influenced their lives. Frequently, we read essays about applicants' grandparents, for example. Many essays simply focus on the attributes that a grandmother has that make her special to the applicant. They may focus on the challenges that a grandmother has overcome or the successes she has enjoyed. They leave the reader knowing that the student loves his grandmother, but not knowing anything more about the student. The better essay, however, might also focus on the way the writer has attempted to emulate these admired qualities. The student might choose to share how learning of his grandmother's life experiences has helped him better understand the world. This allows us to learn more about the student and what makes the student special.

As you can see, in both of these examples, the first essay simply tells us of an experience, but the second essay shows us more about the individual. We walk away from it knowing a bit more about the qualities the applicant possesses and how he or she might fit into our campus community.

We hope that you will not view the college essay as a roadblock between you and your college choice, but as a unique opportunity to be in the driver's seat in the college process. Let your qualities, characteristics, and personality shine through. Best wishes as you begin your journey.

bc home > admission > admission process > tips > essay >

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Like waking up as a cockroach -- Kafkaesque


Kafkaesque (kaf-ka-ESK) adjective

Complex or illogical in a bizarre, surreal, or nightmarish manner.

[After the Czech author Franz Kafka (1883-1924), who depicted such fictional worlds in his novels as in the novel Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa, awakens one morning to find himself spontaneously "transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin," i.e., a cockroach.]

"In a Kafkaesque touch, [Dr. Andrej Holm's] lack of a cellphone -- hindering the efforts of German authorities to track him -- is deemed 'conspiratorial behavior'."
-- Neil Smith; German GWOT Misfire; The Nation (New York); Sep 24, 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

First come, first served

Not a big thing, but why do folks render incorrectly one of the few expressions in our language that actually says what it means?

It should be, "First come, first served."

But so much of the time it appears as, "First come, first serve," which seems to say that if you're the first to arrive, you will be the waiter!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Anthropomorphize -- attribute human qualities to things not-human


anthropomorphize (an-thruh-puh-MOR-fyz) verb tr., intr.
To attribute human qualities to things not human.
[From Greek anthropo- (human) + morph (form).]

"Yes, we love our pets and anthropomorphize them to the point where we think our cat might enjoy wearing the mouse hat Halloween costume."
--Natalie Angier; The Ambivalent Bond With a Ball of Fur; The New York Times; Oct. 2, 2007.

I've always been struck by the [almost silly] anthropomorphizations in the Paul McCartney tune, Bad to Me, that was a hit for Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas in 1963.

The birds in the sky would be sad and lonely
if they knew that I'd lost my one and only.
They'd be sad, if you're bad to me.

The leaves on the trees would be softly sighin'
If they heard from the breeze that you left me cryin'
They'd be sad, don't be bad to me

Which Christmas carol was penned on a bet?

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) has been called the greatest American preacher of the 19th Century.

During the Christmas season of 1867, Brooks was looking for a special carol for the children of Philadelphia's Holy Trinity Church to sing in their Christmas program, but he wasn't satisfied with the choices available. He bet his his organist, Lewis R. Redner, that he could write a better one.

He retired to his study, where he wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem in a single evening.

Brooks gave Redner a copy of the words and asked him to compose a melody that would be easy for the children to sing. On the evening just before the program was to be given, Redner awakened suddenly from his sleep with the melody in his mind and quickly wrote it out.

Though Brooks set down the lyrics in an evening, the ideas and images had been planted two years earlier. During a trip to the Holy Land in 1865, Brooks had ridden on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. As he neared Bethlehem, Brooks had stopped among the shepherds on a hillside and looked down on the town, which lay still and peaceful below.

Later, Brooks assisted with the midnight Christmas Eve service at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, an experience that moved him deeply. "I re­mem­ber stand­ing in the old church in Beth­le­hem," he wrote, "close to the spot where Je­sus was born, when the whole church was ring­ing hour after hour with splen­did hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voic­es I knew well, tell­ing each other of the Won­der­ful Night of the Sav­ior’s birth."

O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love

O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today

We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More on 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 rsum, 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."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Yogi Berra could have said, "It's déjà vu, redux."


redux (ri-DUKS) adjective
Brought back; revisited.
[From Latin re- (again) + dux (leader), from ducere (to lead). Ultimately from Indo-European root deuk- (to lead) that led to other words such asduke, conduct, educate, duct, wanton, and tug.]

"The nightmare, redux. Once again Eddie Guardado was an out away from a save. Once again, he couldn't get it done."
-- John Hickey; M's Can't Finish Sox; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; May 4, 2006.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Commas and the Second Amendment

In today's New York Times, Adam Freedman, who writes the Legal Lingo column for New York Law Journal Magazine, takes up the issue of those pesky commas in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To read the column, please click here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Congratulations to Coach David Cutcliffe!

The University of Tennessee Volunteers offensive coordinator, assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe will become the head coach at Duke.
To read a profile of Cutcliffe from the September 2006 Knoxville CityView magazine, click here.

To go to a story from the August 2007 CityView about Cutcliffe's latest pupil, UT quarterback Erik Ainge, click here.

Blessed Be the Grammar Fascists

In this time of giving, it is fitting to give thanks to the grammar fascists in our classrooms and rejoice in the resurgent of "direct grammar instruction," described so well by Daniel DeVise in The Washington Post. Of course the question in the headline below is rhetorical. Direct grammar instruction will sweep our land like a mighty wind, lay low the mountains, fill the valleys, cause great shouting and tumult, and, perhaps, bring an end to pronomial expressions without clear and stated antecedents!

Will more direct instruction continue to gain ground?
By DANIEL DE VISE, Washington Post October 25, 2006
WASHINGTON - Mike Greiner teaches grammar to high school sophomores in half-hour lessons, inserted between Shakespeare and Italian sonnets. He is an old-school grammarian, one of a defiant few in the Washington region who believe in spending large blocks of class time teaching how sentences are built.

For this he has earned the alliterative nickname "Grammar Greiner," along with a reputation as one of the tougher draws in the Westfield High School English department.

Or, as one student opined in a sonnet he wrote, "Mr. Greiner, I think you're torturing us."
Greiner, 43, teaches future Advanced Placement students at the Chantilly, Va., school. Left on their own to decide where to place a comma, "they'll get it right about half of the time," he said. "But half is an F."

Ten or 20 years ago, Greiner might have been ostracized for his views or at least counseled to keep them to himself. Grammar lessons vanished from public schools in the 1970s, supplanted by a more holistic view of English instruction. A generation of teachers and students learned grammar through the act of writing, not in isolated drills and diagrams.

Today, Greiner is encouraged, even sought out. Direct grammar instruction, long thought to do more harm than good, is welcome once more.

Several factors - most notably, the addition of a writing section to the SAT college entrance exam in 2005 - have reawakened interest in Greiner's methods.

Nationwide, the class of 2006 posted the lowest verbal SAT scores since 1996. That was the year the test was recalibrated to correct for a half-century decline in verbal performance.
Gaston Caperton, the College Board president, has lamented the scarcity of grammar and composition course work in public schools. In surveys, not quite two-thirds of students said they had studied grammar by the time they took the 2005 SAT.

Those concerns, and a growing consensus among scholars that many high school graduates "can't write well enough to get a passing grade from a professor on a paper," drove the addition of a third section to the SAT, upending decades of balance between reading and math, said Ed Hardin, a content specialist at the College Board.

The new section introduced a long-form essay and - less publicized - a series of multiple-choice responses that test how well students can assemble and disassemble sentences.
"We're interested in writing at the sentence level, at the phrase level, at the word level," Hardin said.

The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as "a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing."
Now, even the sentence diagram, long the symbol of abandoned methodology, is allowed, if not quite endorsed, in the classrooms of high-performing school systems.

"Our time has come," said Amy Benjamin, who presides over a council committee that concerns itself with grammar. In 17 years, her Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar has evolved from "kind of a revolutionary cell" into standard-bearers.

The nascent movement to restore overt grammar instruction began subtly. A 2002 council publication reasserted the importance of "knowing about grammar" and encouraged teachers to "experiment with different approaches," including traditional drills and diagrams.
Greiner, it should be noted, does not diagram; he prefers livelier methods.

For a half-hour one recent morning, students repaired broken sentences, one after another, an exercise with all the glamour of a linguistic assembly line. When one young woman read right past the proper noun "southwest" without stopping to capitalize, Greiner politely reminded the class: This very word, or something like it, is bound to show up on Virginia's Standards of Learning exams in spring.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Incorrect Punctuation of Two Independent Clauses

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

The Second Deadly Sin: Incorrect Punctuation of Two Independent Clauses

(An independent clause has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence.)

Good writers know that correct punctuation is important to writing clear sentences. If you misuse a mark of punctuation, you risk confusing your reader and appearing careless. Notice how the placement of commas significantly affects the meaning of these sentences:

Mr. Jones, says Ms. Moore, is a boring old fool.

Mr. Jones says Ms. Moore is a boring old fool.

Writers often combine independent clauses in a single compound sentence to emphasize the relationship between ideas. The punctuation of compound sentences varies depending upon how you connect the clauses.

The rules are

(a) Separate independent clauses with a comma when using a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet).
(b) Separate independent clauses with a semi-colon when no coordinating conjunction is used.
(c) Separate independent clauses with a semi-colon when using a conjunctive adverb (e.g., however, therefore, thus, consequently, finally, nevertheless).

Examples of Correct Punctuation, Rule a:

1. We all looked worse than usual, for we had stayed up studying for the exam.

2. This room is unbelievably hot, and I think that I am going to pass out.

3. Monday is a difficult day for me, so I try to prepare as much as possible on Sunday.

Examples of Correct Punctuation, Rule b:

1. We all looked worse than usual; we had stayed up all night studying for the exam.

2. This room is unbelievably hot; I think I am going to pass out.

3. Monday is a difficult day for me; I have three classes and two other commitments.

Examples of Correct Punctuation, Rule c:

1. We all looked worse than usual; however, we were relieved we had studied.

2. The discussion is really interesting; nevertheless, I think I am going to pass out.

3. Monday is a difficult day for me; however, I have figured out how to prepare for it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Articles included -- alchemy, albatross, algorithm, hoi polloi

Borrowed from

When English borrows a word from another language, it sometimes takes its definite article too. We imported the word alligator from the Spanish el lagarto (the lizard). Alcohol came from the Arabic al-kul (the powdered antimony, and by association, substances obtained by sublimation or distillation). Many, such as alkali, algebra, lacrosse (from French: the cross), and others, are among the words bringing their own definite article, but it's not always so obvious. An extreme example of this inadvertent duplication of definite articles is in the name of the Los Angeles site of prehistoric fossils of animals, the La Brea Tar Pits, which would literally translate as the The Tar Tar Pits.

alchemy (AL-kuh-mee) noun [Via Old French and Medieval Latin from Arabic al-kimiya (the chemistry), from Greek khemeia (transmutation).]
  1. A medieval predecessor of chemistry devoted to things such as converting common metals into precious metals, finding a universal solvent (alkahest), and finding a universal remedy for diseases.
  2. A mysterious or magical process of transformation.

albatross (AL-buh-tros) noun, plural albatross or albatrosses [Apparently an alteration of Portuguese or Spanish alcatraz, from Arabic al-gattas (the diver, name for a kind of sea eagle).]

  1. Any of the Diomedeidae family of large, web-footed seabirds.
  2. A persistent wearisome burden, as of guilt, for example. The name of the Alcatraz Island near San Francisco, the site of a former maximum security prison, has the same origin.

algorithm (AL-guh-rith-uhm) noun A finite sequence of well-defined steps for solving a problem. [After al Khwarizmi (the [man] of Khwarizm), a nickname of the 9th century Persian astronomer and mathematician Abu Jafar Muhammand ibn Musa, who authored many texts on arithmetic and algebra. He worked in Baghdad and his nickname alludes to his place of origin Khwarizm (Khiva), in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.]

hoi polloi (hoi puh-LOI) noun The common people, the masses. [From Greek hoi polloi (the many).] The phrase is often mistakenly used to refer to the elite or the snobbish, quite opposite of what it really means. That usage arises probably from the first part sounding similar to "high" or from confusion with the term hoity toity. The term often appears as "the hoi polloi." Some pedants object to that construction, claiming "the" is already part of the term. If you find such people, tell them to go study gebra and drink cohol.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Harbrace 21 -- Conciseness: Avoiding Wordiness and Needless Repetition

Be concise. Repeat a word or phrase only when it is needed for emphasis, clarity, or coherence.
Conciseness---using words economically---is fundamental to clear writing.

WORDY In the early part of the month of August, a hurricane was moving threateningly toward Houston.

CONCISE In early August, a hurricane threatened Houston.

Needless repetition of words or phrases distracts the reader and blurs meaning.

REPETITIOUS This interesting instructor makes an uninteresting subject interesting.

CONCISE This instructor makes a dull subject interesting.

REPETITIOUS I am a 17-year-old high schooler who is a junior at West High, and I play soccer on the high school soccer team.

CONCISE I am a 17-year-old junior at West High, where I play on the soccer team. (If you were tight for space, you could probably cut "17-year-old," since 80 percent of juniors are 17, and the rest are within a year of that age.)

When you are really looking closely at letters or articles for newspapers or magazines, you can usually find redundancies even after several rounds of editing. This is especially handy when you need to cut pieces or letters to fit onto a page. For example, you might find a sentence like, "We visited a farm out in the country." Or, "We went to a NASCAR race at a racetrack." Where else would these things be found?

I've noticed some common redundancies like, "You can e-mail me at my e-mail address," This is plainly an e-mail address, so it is just as informative to say, "You can e-mail me at" Or you could even say, "You can contact me at" It's not a telephone number or a post office address. Given this information, how else could someone contact you but by e-mail?

Rules 21a(1-3), 21b and 21c offer lots of handy tips for avoiding wordiness, redundancy, tautology (the use of different words to say the same thing).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A 25-cent word for "too much"

superfluous -- unnecessary; exceeding what is sufficient or necessary (from the Latin words super (over) + fluere (to flow) = overflow).

SAT Question of the Day
Alice Walker’s prize-winning novel exemplifies the strength of first-person narratives; the protagonist tells her own story so effectively that any additional commentary would be ------- .
a) subjective
b) eloquent
c) superfluous
d) incontrovertible
e) imperious

Monday, December 10, 2007

When to use commas between adjectives

Chuck Berry sang, "I've got a 1963 cherry red Mustang Ford."
We've got a small black house cat.


Your Dad is a kindly, amiable, lovable man.

The rule: use commas between coordinate adjectives. These are adjectives that have roughly equal rank, kind or order of importance.

You can tell if they are coordinate if --
1) you could logically put "and" between them
2) their order can be changed around
3) in normal reading a pause comes between them

The two sentences at the top have adjectives that are not coordinate (they refer to size, year, color, make); therefore, there are no commas.

The comma occupies the sacred section 12 of Harbrace. The item above is Rule No. 12c(2)

(Section 13, deals with, superfluous, commas.) :-)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Throws versus throes

From this weekend's Wall Street Journal opinion page: "Some have said that Detroit is in the throws [sic.] of committing cultural suicide."

The word Henry Payne of The Detroit News was looking for is throes.

throe noun [from Old English thrawu, threa threat, pang; akin to Old High German drawa threat]
1. pang, spasm [as in "death throes" or "the throes of childbirth"]
2. plural: a hard or painfuls struggle [as in "the throes of revolutionary social change" --M.D. Geismar]

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Lambent -- marked by lightness or brilliance

From a New Yorker review:
"...Any viewer of Catherine Keener’s lambent performance in “Capote” is prepared to believe that she possesses all these traits [composure, dignity, maturity of spirit, morality, sober-mindedness], but they would not naturally recommend her for an authentic portrayal of the plain and sometimes stubborn Harper Lee, the subject of Charles J. Shields’s biography, Mockingbird (Holt; $25)."

Although I myself had never, ever heard or read this word before, I am proud to report that it means "marked by lightness or brilliance, especially of expression."

It comes from the Latin verb lambere , to lick, and has alternate definitions of
1. playing lightly on or above a surface: flickering
2. softly bright or radiant."

Of course we must also note that, if this were a question on the SAT, we would realize that the singular "viewer" in the sentence above does not agree with the plural pronoun "they." Tsk Tsk Tsk.

Peaked and piqued and other pesky homonyms

Harbrace 18b: Distinguish between words of similar sound; use the spelling required by the meaning.

Section 18b includes nice list of the Top 100 sets of Words Whose Spellings Are Frequently Confused. It also refers us to the excellent Glossary of Usage in the back (pages G-1 through G-11 marked usgl in the upper right corner).

But here are four particularly pesky homonym/homophones:

Right: "The Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked at 12,500."
Right: "The story piqued my interest."

The word pique comes from the French word piquer, to prick. Pique has several meanings: 1) to arouse anger or resentment in, or offend by slighting, 2) to excite or arouse by provocation, 3) to stir up the pride in an accomplishment.

Other homonyms (or near homonyms) that trip almost everyone up:

"I am the Marquis de Sade." (a nobleman below a duke and above an earl)
"The theater marquee said the show started at 7:00 pm." (a permanent canopy projecting over an entrance to a theater or a hotel)

"Because of the court's ruling, the lawyer's point is rendered moot." (deprived of practical significance; a great Old English word)
"After his traumas in the holocaust, the young Jerzy Kozinzki was rendered mute." (unable to speak)

"The speech was filled with wonderful anecdotes." (short, amusing stories or biographical incidents)
"After he was bitten by the snake, the adventurer called out for the antidote." (a remedy to counteract the effects of a poison)

"Ronald Reagan charmed the nation with his self-deprecating humor." (effacing; expressing mild or regretful disapproval)
"The house had somehow depreciated over the past decade." (decreased in value)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Like Dorothy Parker's wit -- caustic

caustic (KAW-stik) adjective
1. Capable of burning or corroding.
2. Highly critical; sarcastic.

[From Latin causticus, from Greek kaustikos, from kaustos (combustible), from kaiein, (to burn).] Caustic soda (Sodium hydroxide) is a highly corrosive substance used in the manufacture of soap, paper, and textiles.

"Some were outright sarcastic, others clearly caustic."
-- Vijay Mruthyunjaya; ICC's Hairobics Baffle; Gulf Daily News (Bahrain); Aug 28, 2006.

An example of caustic wit:
"She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."
-- Dorothy Parker, speaking of Katharine Hepburn

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

How to structure the SAT essay

The essay section of the SAT presents an opportunity to excel for those who are prepared. A while ago my high school alumni bulletin ran a story about its month-long SAT-prep program, directed by math teacher Linda DeBord.

In preparation for the SAT essay section, students compose two to five essays under test conditions, which Mrs. DeBord then assesses and scores.

"Learning to outline and write an essay under pressure was invaluable," said one student. "The corrected essays were also helpful, as we learned from our mistakes." (This is the same preparation done by West High teachers like Shannon Jackson, who so effectively help their students earn nice AP scores and -- as Isabel Clark attested in the August 2006 Cityview magazine -- do well in college, where almost all the tests are timed essays.)

I asked Mrs. DeBord for some tips, and she kindly replied.

Of course a student should briefly outline the essay before writing. "In the brief 25 minutes, the up-front planning is critical," says Mrs. DeBord, "but the students need to keep a careful eye on the time. I suggest that in the opening paragraph, after they state their thesis, they should mention two examples they will use. The examples should be clear in their relationship in supporting the thesis. The conclusion should restate, in an interesting way (if possible), the thesis and then re-tie in the examples."

So, the structure of the essay goes pretty much --

I. State thesis
II. Preview two supporting examples
III. Elaborate thesis
IV. Flesh out examples
V. Conclusion
a) restate thesis (interesting way)
b) re-tie in the examples

Monday, December 3, 2007

Lost Chapters of "A Death in the Family"

The other day in the Post Office I ran into U.T. English professor Michael Lofaro.

Renowned as a Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett scholar, Michael mentioned that he has recently culminated five years of editing work with the publication of A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text (UT Press).

[Click here for a story on how Lofaro came to piece together the original manuscript.]

As Knoxvillians know, James Agee's original manuscript had been reworked by a friend of Agee's after Agee's sudden death in 1955. Four of many "lost chapters" appear in this month's Harper's under the headline "Enter the Ford."

Knoxvillians will delight in many descriptions of 1913 Knoxville, such as that of riding the open streetcar from Gay Street downtown out to Chilhowee Park for the fair, where Agee's father takes offense at an imagined slight by a carnie, which initiates a long, priceless series of whupass-type exchanges like the following:

"If you're lookin for trouble," the man said, "just say the word, cause there's plenty here that's paid to find it."
"Just if you want it," daddy said. "If you want it I'll give you all I got. You and them too. Way you talked tother Satdy you was looking for it."

The lost chapters present a new element to the novel -- that of "daddy's" new Ford as an alluring, yet ominous addition to the idyllic world of Agee's childhood. At one point Laura, the mother says, "... something dreadful is going to happen, Jay. Something irreparable. To our family. In that auto."

We also see an early example of road rage, as a speeding, honking, begoggled driver on Highland Avenue roars by a horse and buggy and then Jay's Ford, toppling the family to the side of the street, then looking back with a grin.

"Why you crazy God damn son of a bitch I like to bust yer f---- God damn jaw!" And his door was already wrenched open and one foot was out before he realized the uselessness. "I swear to God I could kill a man like that," he said. "I mean it. I could kill him and it'd be a pleasure to."

Some things haven't changed too much on Knoxville's roadways.

That "you're in trouble" stance -- arms akimbo


akimbo (uh-KIM-bo) adjective With hands on hips and elbows turned outwards.
[Of uncertain origin, probably from Old Norse.]

"The goal also sent goalkeeper Bakalo Silumbu into tears, who was seen with arms akimbo and mouth agape between the goal posts."
-- Francis Tayanjah-Phiri; Chess Boss Sponsors Football Tourney; The Daily Times (Blantyre, Malawi); Nov 22