Friday, February 29, 2008

Pandora's Box -- don't open it!


Pandora's Box (pan-DOR-uhz boks) noun
A source of many unforeseen troubles.

[In Greek mythology Pandora received a "gift" of a jar which she was told never to open. Her curiosity got the better of her. She opened the lid, and out came its contents: all the evils of human life.]

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus.

"Many midwives avoid asking difficult questions, says Stanley, 'because they know that if they open the Pandora's box, they simply will not have the resources to offer the support that the woman will need.'"
-- Lucy Atkins; I Felt Completely Out of Control; The Guardian (London, UK); Jan 29, 2008.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Profligate, prodigal, and a bit of Vermont humor

The words defined below bring to mind UVM professor Francis Colburn's "The Parable of the 600 Gold Pieces," about the young man from Eden Mills, Vermont, who inherited 600 gold pieces from his maiden aunt Lettie.
He headed off for that modern Sodom -- Burlington, Vermont -- then returned two weeks later, stony broke and hung over. The young man sat and took a reckoning -- where did Aunt Lettie's 600 gold pieces go?
"Well," he thought, "I spent 150 of them on alcoholic beverages, 150 on sightly women, 150 on games of chance." But what of those last 150 gold pieces, where did they go? "Them,' concluded the young man, 'I must have squandered."
(from the LP A Graduation Address, by Francis Colburn, (c) 1962)

profligate (PROF-li-git, -gayt) [From Latin profligatus, past participle of profligare (to strike down, to ruin), from pro- (forth, down) + fligere (to strike).] adj. 1. Recklessly extravagant; wasteful. 2. Given over to dissipation; dissolute. n. -- A profligate person.
Despite Bank Markazi's tsunami of petrodollars, the IMF has warned that profligate state spending spells future budget deficits.
-- Matein Khalid; Iran: Sanctions, Geopolitics and the Economy; Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates); Jan 7, 2007.

prodigal [from Latin prodigere --to drive away -- pro- forth and agere to drive ] adj. recklessly extravagant; n. a spendthrift

Then there were the New York State counterfeiters who got tired of printing tens and 20s and made up some $18 bills. They drove up to Eden Mills, Vermont, walked into the General Store.
"You got any of those smoking cigareetes?" asked a counterfeiter.
"I believe I do," said the storekeeper.
"Could you change an $18 dollar bill?" asked the counterfeiter.
"I believe I could," replied the storekeeper. "Would you like three sixes or two nines?"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Thoreau might have been writing about good grammar!

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."
~Henry David Thoreau

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject

In perusing The Elements of Style (the delightful, recent illustrated edition), I was reminded how elegantly Strunk and White express their 11 Elementary Rules of Usage. For example:

11) A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.

The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. To make it refer to the woman, the writer must recast the sentence.

He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.

Participial phrases preceded by a conjuction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases comes under the same rule if they begin the sentence.

On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.
On arriving in Chicago, he was met at the station by his friends.

A soldier of proved valor, they entrusted him with the defense of the city.
A soldier of proved valor, he was entrusted with the defense of the city.

Young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me.
Young and inexperienced, I thought the task easy.

Without a friend to counsel him, the temptation proved irresistible.
Without a friend to counsel him, he found the temptation irresistible.

Sentences violating Rule 11 are often ludicrous:

Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.

Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Powers behind the throne -- eminences grises

From Dana Milbank's column in today's Washington Post:

"The Christian Science Monitor had assembled the éminences grises of the Washington press corps -- among them David Broder of the Post, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and columnist Mark Shields -- for what turned out to be a fascinating tour of an alternate universe."

from Wikipedia:

An éminence grise (French for "grey eminence") is a powerful advisor or decision-maker who operates secretly or unofficially.
This phrase originally referred to François Leclerc du Tremblay, the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. Leclerc was a Capuchin friar who wore grey robes. The phrase "His Eminence" is used to describe a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, although Leclerc du Tremblay never achieved that rank.
Aldous Huxley wrote an English biography of Leclerc entitled Grey Eminence, and there is also an 1873 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, "L'Éminence Grise," which depicts him descending the grand staircase of the Palais Cardinal.

Monday, February 25, 2008

He was a detective and he looked it -- a gumshoe


gumshoe (GUM-shoo) noun
1. A detective.
2. A rubber overshoe.

[The word is an allusion to the quiet snooping that a detective is supposed to do. Wearing rubber shoes, one can move around without making much noise.]

The word is an example of the figure of speech called synecdoche, in which a part is used for the whole or vice versa. Other examples are the use of the word crown to refer to a king or a hand to refer to a farm worker.

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus.

"So far, the entertainment industry's approach to peer-to-peer file sharing has been to hire gumshoes to bang on teenagers' doors at midnight and haul them off to court -- an act akin to trying to beat back a tsunami with a tennis racquet."
-- Staunching a Tide of Piracy; Sydney Morning Herald (Australia); May 18, 2006.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rocky Top -- UT Vols are No. 1!

On the heels of Tennessee's wonderful basketball victory in Memphis last night -- with Priscilla Presley watching! -- we'll revisit our review of the great college 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 (and some for Elvis).

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.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Ways to avoid wordiness

From Hamilton College's seven deadly sins of bad writing:

The Third Deadly Sin: Wordiness

Concise writing is the key to clear communication. Wordiness obscures your ideas and frustrates your reader. Make your points as succinctly as possible, and move on. As Strunk and White tell us in Elements of Style:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.... This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (23)

Once you start searching for unnecessary words, you will find you can cut many without any loss of meaning. In fact, your writing will be crisper and more appealing. Remember: make "every word tell."

Strategies for eliminating wordiness:

Use action verbs rather than forms of the verb to be (is, are, was, were).

The reason that General Lee invaded Pennsylvania in June, 1863, was to draw the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond.

revised (replace was with action verb invaded)
General Lee invaded Pennsylvania in June, 1863, to draw the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond.

Tip: As a first step in reducing wordiness, identify instances of this is, there are, and it is at the beginning of your sentences, and ask yourself whether you can eliminate them.
Make the real subject the actual subject of the sentence; make the real verb the actual verb.

In Crew's argument there are many indications of her misunderstanding of natural selection.

revised (replace subject there with argument; replace verb are with demonstrates.)
Crew's argument repeatedly demonstrates misunderstanding of natural selection.

Common sources of wordiness:

My personal opinion, at the present time, by means of, the basic essentials, connect together, for the purpose of, in close proximity

Unnecessary phrases/clauses
The reason why is that
in the event that
This is a subject that
because of the fact that
In spite of the fact that
until such time as
Due to the fact that
by means of

Passive voice
In most instances, it is better to put verbs in the active voice. Passive voice produces unclear, wordy sentences, whereas active voice produces clearer, more concise sentences.

In 1935 Ethiopia was invaded by Italy.

In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia. (more concise and vigorous)

For more on Hamilton's Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing, click here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Waxing eloquent about the word "wax"


wax (wax) verb intr.
To increase, to grow, or to become.
[From Old English weaxan. Ultimately from the Indo-European root aug- (increase), which is also the source of auction, authorize, inaugurate, augment, august, auxiliary, and nickname ("a nickname" is a splitting of the earlier "an ekename", literally, an additional name).]

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus:

"The stars are out as we stand on Seven Mile Beach strapping on flippers while Adrian waxes enthusiastic."
-- Carol Perehudoff; It's a Dogfish-eat-dogfish World at the bottom of the Sea; Toronto Star (Canada); Feb 16, 2008.


Note--- Waxing eloquent about the Vols
On Saturday evening (9 pm, ESPN) the University of Tennessee men's basketball team, ranked No. 2 in the nation, journeys 450 miles west on I-40 to play the Memphis Tigers, ranked No. 1 in the nation. How did the UT men go from the outhouse to the penthouse in 2 1/2 short years? Here is a
link to a profile of UT coach Bruce Pearl, written when he first arrived in Knoxville in 2005.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Use the comparative degree with 2, superlative with 3 or more

Harbrace 4c (1) Use the comparative to denote a greater degree or to refer to two in a comparison.

The metropolitan area is much bigger than it was five years ago.
She's the older of his two children.

(2) Use the superlative to denote the greatest degree or to refer to three or more in a comparison.

The interests of the family are best served by open communication.
Bert is the fastest of the three runners.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Making me dizzy -- vertiginous

From Maureen Dowd's Feb. 13 column in the Times --
"We’re not just in the most vertiginous election of our lives. We’re in another national seminar on gender and race that is teaching us about who we are as we figure out what we want America to be."

ver·tig·i·nous adjective
[Etymology: Latin vertiginosus, from vertigin-, vertigo]
1 a: characterized by or suffering from vertigo or dizziness
b: inclined to frequent and often pointless change : inconstant
2: causing or tending to cause dizziness
3: marked by turning : rotary

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location

A fun story from Sunday's New York Times:

Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location By SAM ROBERTS
Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual but Neil Neches, a writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service information department, inserted one on a placard anyway.

Monday, February 18, 2008

What Corporate America Can't Build: A Sentence

The 2004 New York Times story below reminds us how important it is
that the kids in our schools learn to write clear, concise, reasonably graceful English.

What Corporate America Can't Build: A Sentence
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - R. Craig Hogan, a former university
professor who heads an online school for business writing
here, received an anguished e-mail message recently from a
prospective student.
"i need help," said the message, which was devoid of
punctuation. "i am writing a essay on writing i work for
this company and my boss want me to help improve the
workers writing skills can yall help me with some
information thank you".
Hundreds of inquiries from managers and executives seeking
to improve their own or their workers' writing pop into Dr.
Hogan's computer in-basket each month, he says, describing
a number that has surged as e-mail has replaced the phone
for much workplace communication. Millions of employees
must write more frequently on the job than previously. And
many are making a hash of it.
"E-mail is a party to which English teachers have not been
invited," Dr. Hogan said. "It has companies tearing their
hair out."
A recent survey of 120 American corporations reached a
similar conclusion. The study, by the National Commission
on Writing, a panel established by the College Board,
concluded that a third of employees in the nation's
blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were
spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial
The problem shows up not only in e-mail but also in reports
and other texts, the commission said.
"It's not that companies want to hire Tolstoy," said Susan
Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, an
association of leading chief executives whose corporations
were surveyed in the study. "But they need people who can
write clearly, and many employees and applicants fall short
of that standard."
Millions of inscrutable e-mail messages are clogging
corporate computers by setting off requests for
clarification, and many of the requests, in turn, are also
chaotically written, resulting in whole cycles of
Here is one from a systems analyst to her supervisor at a
high-tech corporation based in Palo Alto, Calif.: "I
updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie
forward us via e-mail (they in Barry file).. to make sure
my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with
incorrect information ... However after verifying controls
on JBL - JBL has the indicator as B ???? - I wanted to make
sure with the recent changes - I processed today - before
Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to 'C'."
The incoherence of that message persuaded the analyst's
employers that she needed remedial training.
"The more electronic and global we get, the less important
the spoken word has become, and in e-mail clarity is
critical," said Sean Phillips, recruitment director at
another Silicon Valley corporation, Applera, a supplier of
equipment for life science research, where most employees
have advanced degrees. "Considering how highly educated our
people are, many can't write clearly in their day-to-day
Some $2.9 billion of the $3.1 billion the National
Commission on Writing estimates that corporations spend
each year on remedial training goes to help current
employees, with the rest spent on new hires. The
corporations surveyed were in the mining, construction,
manufacturing, transportation, finance, insurance, real
estate and service industries, but not in wholesale,
retail, agriculture, forestry or fishing, the commission
said. Nor did the estimate include spending by government
agencies to improve the writing of public servants.
An entire educational industry has developed to offer
remedial writing instruction to adults, with hundreds of
public and private universities, for-profit schools and
freelance teachers offering evening classes as well as
workshops, video and online courses in business and
technical writing.
Kathy Keenan, a onetime legal proofreader who teaches
business writing at the University of California Extension,
Santa Cruz, said she sought to dissuade students from
sending business messages in the crude shorthand they
learned to tap out on their pagers as teenagers.
"hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again," one student
wrote to her recently. "i had sent you the assignment
earlier but i didnt get a respond. If u get this assgnment
could u please respond . thanking u for ur cooperation."
Most of her students are midcareer professionals in
high-tech industries, Ms. Keenan said.
The Sharonview Federal Credit Union in Charlotte, N.C.,
asked about 15 employees to take a remedial writing course.
Angela Tate, a mortgage processor, said the course
eventually bolstered her confidence in composing e-mail,
which has replaced much work she previously did by phone,
but it was a daunting experience, since she had been out of
school for years. "It was a challenge all the way through,"
Ms. Tate said.
Even C.E.O.'s need writing help, said Roger S. Peterson, a
freelance writer in Rocklin, Calif., who frequently coaches
executives. "Many of these guys write in inflated language
that desperately needs a laxative," Mr. Peterson said, and
not a few are defensive. "They're in denial, and who's
going to argue with the boss?"
But some realize their shortcomings and pay Mr. Peterson to
help them improve. Don Morrison, a onetime auditor at
Deloitte & Touche who has built a successful consulting
business, is among them.
"I was too wordy," Mr. Morrison said. "I liked long,
convoluted passages rather than simple four-word sentences.
And I had a predilection for underlining words and throwing
in multiple exclamation points. Finally Roger threatened to
rip the exclamation key off my keyboard."
Exclamation points were an issue when Linda Landis Andrews,
who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led a
workshop in May for midcareer executives at an automotive
corporation based in the Midwest. Their exasperated
supervisor had insisted that the men improve their writing.
"I get a memo from them and cannot figure out what they're
trying to say," the supervisor wrote Ms. Andrews.
When at her request the executives produced letters they
had written to a supplier who had failed to deliver parts
on time, she was horrified to see that tone-deaf writing
had turned a minor business snarl into a corporate
confrontation moving toward litigation.
"They had allowed a hostile tone to creep into the
letters," she said. "They didn't seem to understand that
those letters were just toxic."
"People think that throwing multiple exclamation points
into a business letter will make their point forcefully,"
Ms. Andrews said. "I tell them they're allowed two
exclamation points in their whole life."
Not everyone agrees. Kaitlin Duck Sherwood of San
Francisco, author of a popular how-to manual on effective
e-mail, argued in an interview that exclamation points
could help convey intonation, thereby avoiding confusion in
some e-mail.
"If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital
letters and toss in some extra exclamation points," Ms.
Sherwood advises in her guide, available at, where she offers a vivid example:
">Should I boost the power on the thrombo?
"NO!!!! If you
turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat the motors, and IT
Dr. Hogan, who founded his online Business Writing Center a
decade ago after years of teaching composition at Illinois
State University here, says that the use of multiple
exclamation points and other nonstandard punctuation like
the :-) symbol, are fine for personal e-mail but that
companies have erred by allowing experimental writing
devices to flood into business writing.
He scrolled through his computer, calling up examples of
incoherent correspondence sent to him by prospective
"E-mails - that are received from Jim and I are not either
getting open or not being responded to," the purchasing
manager at a construction company in Virginia wrote in one
memorandum that Dr. Hogan called to his screen. "I wanted
to let everyone know that when Jim and I are sending out
e-mails (example- who is to be picking up parcels) I am
wanting for who ever the e-mail goes to to respond back to
the e-mail. Its important that Jim and I knows that the
person, intended, had read the e-mail. This gives an
acknowledgment that the task is being completed. I am
asking for a simple little 2 sec. Note that says "ok", "I
got it", or Alright."
The construction company's human resources director
forwarded the memorandum to Dr. Hogan while enrolling the
purchasing manager in a writing course.
"E-mail has just erupted like a weed, and instead of
considering what to say when they write, people now just
let thoughts drool out onto the screen," Dr. Hogan said.
"It has companies at their wits' end."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A word for dissemblers -- mendacious


mendacious (men-DAY-shuhs) adjective
Telling lies, especially as a habit.
[From Latin mendac-, stem of mendax (lying), from mendum (fault or defect) that also gave us amend, emend, and mendicant.]

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus.

"Forget Disney's cartoon tale of the mendacious marionette whose doweled nose grows longer with every fib."
-- Roger McBain; Ballet Helps 'Pinocchio' Step Out In New Direction; Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana); May 11, 2005.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Way harsh -- invidious


invidious (in-VID-ee-uhs) adjective
Unjust, offensive, or hateful, and likely to arouse resentment, ill will, anger, etc.

[From Latin invidiosus (envious, envied, hostile), from invidia (envy,hostility), from videre (to see). Ultimately from the Indo-European root weid- (to see) that is also the source of words such as guide,wise, vision, advice, idea, story, and history.]

"A small wrinkle of worry crosses Sword Gusmao's brow as she discusses her husband's invidious position."
--Steve Waldon; Kirsty's Crusade; The Age (Melbourne, Australia); Nov. 1, 2006.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Avoid the awkward or ambiguous use of a noun form as an adjective

From Bob Herbert's very good column, "Education, Education, Education," a year ago in The New York Times: "Many have been left behind by the modest economic recovery of the past few years, especially those with limited education credentials." Per the rule below, we think Bob meant to write "educational," just as folks should more properly say "Democratic" when they refer to "Democrat" legislators.

In Harbrace Chapter 4, Adjectives and Adverbs, Rule 4d reads--
Avoid the awkward or ambiguous use of a noun form as an adjective.

Many noun forms effectively modify other nouns (as in reference manual, windfall profits tax, House Ways and Means Committee), especially when appropriate adjectives are not available. Avoid such forms, however, when they are awkward or confusing.

AWKWARD Many candidates entered the president race.

BETTER Many candidates entered the presidential race.

CONFUSING The Representative Landor recess maneuvers led to victory.

BETTER Representative Landor's maneuvers during the recess led to victory.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Guide to propitious properties -- feng shui


feng shui (fung SHWAY) noun
Describing the network of intangible influences, positive and negative, that some believe to operate in a place, knowledge of which is necessary in discovering the most propitious site for putting up a building, staging an event, etc.

[From Chinese feng (wind) and shui (water).]

Like ying and yang, feng shui is a new western import of an old philosophical or mythological idea from the other side of the world. In the East, feng shui may be used in siting graves, but in the West it seems to operate mostly at the home-improvement level. A pretentious term perhaps, but that's part of its marketing appeal.

"Gervais is amused that his workplace has recently been described by one journalist as 'minimalist', as if this was all deliberate, and the product of an expensive feng shui consultation."
-- Matthew D'Ancona; Fact. There is Life After The Office; The Daily Telegraph (London, UK); Nov 22 2004.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Avoid the danglers: Make 'understood' intro-clause subjects and main-clause subjects agree!

From Dan Le Batard's sidebar about John Amaechi a year ago in ESPN: The Magazine: "In two decades of journalism, he's the smartest athlete I've known."

When you're writing about the first openly gay player in the NBA, it's especially important not to dangle. The sentence above features a dangling introductory phrase, easily fixed by adding "my" before "two decades." But it brings up the importance of the rule below, about dangling introductory elliptical clauses (DIEC's).

(Note to high schoolers: There are many dangler questions on the SAT.)

From Ruge Rules:
An elliptical clause is a clause from which one or more parts have been omitted.

The Rule: The understood subject of an introductory elliptical clause (IEC) must be the same person or thing as the subject of the main clause that follows. If it isn't, the elliptical clause is said to dangle.

A dangling introductory elliptical clause (DIEC): While doing my algebra, the telephone rang.

So: There are two ways to correct for a DIEC.
1) Get rid of the ellipsis by inserting the omitted parts: While I was doing my algebra, the telephone rang.
2) Rewrite the main clause so that it's subject is the same person or thing as the understood subject of the IEC. While doing my algebra, I heard the telephone ring.

This is in the Harbrace College Handbook section 25b.

N.B.,* There is nothing wrong with using IEC's; in fact, their occasional use helps achieve variety of sentence pattern.

*N.B., or n.b., is a handy abbreviation of the Latin nota bene, meaning "note well."

Monday, February 11, 2008

A fop, a dandy, a coxcomb, Eustace Tilley -- David Beckham?


coxcomb (KOKS-kom) noun A conceited man excessively interested in his appearance and dress; a fop. [A variant of cock's comb (a rooster's crest).]

Jesters in medieval courts wore a cap with red strips like those in a rooster's crest.

From there the sense of the term extended to a vain, pretentious dandy, (see The New Yorker's Eustace Tilley, at right, adapted for the primary season).

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus:

"At this general assembly of coxcombs, fops and the world's greatest dunces, Theobald, an unsuccessful writer, is crowned 'Chief of the Dunces'."
-- Fame Ndongo's Pyrrhic Victory; Peterkins Manyong; The Post (Buea, Cameroon); Jan 16, 2007.

(Prithee, me hopes "codpiece" will follow anon.)

Friday, February 8, 2008

The colon: not just a body part to be scoped

Harbrace 17d advises us: Use the colon as a formal introducer to call attention to what follows and as a mark of separation in time and scriptural references and between titles and subtitles.
(1) The colon directs attention to what follows: an explanation or summary, a series, or a quotation.

These days, the colon has two problems:
1) In the lines above, in 14-point Garamond type, you just can't see it! In e-mails, everybody uses a dash to introduce things.
2) An epidemic of unnecessary use. "It drives me crazy when folks now use it before any list," writes English teacher-turned-headmaster Jeff Walkington. "But I hate to see it split a verb and its object, a preposition and its object, etc."

This can be fixed by a visit to Harbrace 17d(3): Do not use superfluous colons.
Be especially careful not to use an unnecessary colon between a verb and its complement or object, between a preposition and its object, or after such as.
NOT The winners were: Pat, Lydia, and Jack
USE There were three winners: Pat, Lydia, and Jack
OR The winners were as follows: Pat, Lydia, and Jack.
OR The winners were Pat, Lydia, and Jack.

NOT Many vegetarians do not eat dairy products, such as: butter, cheese, yogurt, or ice cream.
USE Many vegetarians do not eat dairy products, such as butter, cheese, yogurt, or ice cream.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

What barefaced effrontery!


effrontery (i-FRUN-tuh-ree) noun

Shameless boldness; presumptuousness.

From French effronterie, from effronté (shameless), from Latin effrons (barefaced, shameless), from ex- (out of, from) + frons (forehead, brow).]

"The effrontery of such pedestrian politicos to display their appetite for power and authority is stupefying."
-- Uri Dan; Think of Him As 'Last of the Just'; The Jerusalem Post (Israel); Nov 1, 2006.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Make those antecedents and pronouns agree!

1) Everyone needs to pick up their books. (Arg!)
2) All the people in this room are required to submit your birthdays, and that will dictate which bus you ride on.

Sentences about groups of people tend to get complicated and become minefields for disagreement among subjects, verbs and other elements of predicates.

In sentence No. 1 above, a quick fix is to replace "their" with "his or her." Antecedents like "everyone, " "someone, " "everybody," "each," "either" are singular.
We used to treat "none" strictly as singular, because it is a contraction of "not one," but these days Harbrace 6a(7) says, "When used as subjects, "all," "any," "some," and "none" may take either a singular or a plural verb, generally depending on the context. Praise be.

In sentence No. 2, you might replace "that" with "those," to agree with birthdays.

On a different level of grammatical analysis, sentences like No. 2 can open up questions of logic: Is the sentence clear in saying that I am supposed to turn in my birthday, and not someone else's as well?
To achieve that clarity, you need the word "respective," or "respectively" in certain constructions.
For example, George Bush and Dick Cheney are the President and Vice President of the United States. Literally speaking, this says that they serve collectively in both offices. In this case, we might assert that the need for "respectively" is ridiculous---everybody knows that one is the President and other is the VP. But as skilled writers, editors, lawyers, (or SAT test takers), we must be aware that this is not what is actually expressed in the sentence.

One tip for sentences like No. 2--and ones that quickly get even more convoluted than this one--is to simplify the whole business by making the subject singular, if it's at all possible. In this case, that fix would be to turn "All the people in this room" to "Everyone in this room," and then "are required to submit their birthdays" to "is required to submit his or her birthday." This, in turn, makes the last part of the sentence more exact in what it's saying, in that it is actually the respective birthday of each individual that will determine which bus he or she rides on.

If you understand the paragraphs above, you may have a great future as a copy editor.

Note: Harbrace 6b(1) deals with agreements of antecedents and pronouns and has lots of great tips.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Wear the skin off or condemn -- excoriate

From David Brooks' column in today's Times:

On June 15, 1993, [Rep. Jim] Cooper [D-TN] met with [then First Lady Hillary] Clinton to discuss their differences. Clinton was “ice cold” at the meeting, Cooper recalls. “It was the coldest reception of my life. I was excoriated.”

ex·co·ri·ate (ĭk-skôr'ē-āt', -skōr'-) verb
1) To tear or wear off the skin of; abrade. See synonyms at chafe.
2) To censure strongly; denounce: an editorial that excoriated the administration for its inaction. Synonym: condemn

[Middle English excoriaten, from Latin excoriāre, excoriāt- : ex-, ex- + corium, skin.]

Monday, February 4, 2008

A place for Eli as well as Tom Brady -- a pantheon

pantheon (PAN-thee-on) noun

1. A collection of people highly respected in a particular field.

2. A temple dedicated to all the gods.

3. All the gods of a people or religion collectively.

4. A public building containing tombs of illustrious people.

[After Pantheon, a domed circular temple in Rome, built c. 120 AD. From Greek pantheion (temple of all the gods), from pan- (all) + theos (gods).]

See pictures of the Pantheon.

"In historic terms, [Lech Walesa] is held in the same pantheon as Nelson Mandela and Mikael Gorbachev for leading an oppressed nation bloodlessly to freedom."

-- Finian Coghla; Former Polish President Visits Limerick Council; Limerick Post (Ireland); Apr 2, 2004.

Pick up any rock in Rome and you'll find history dripping from it. At the Pantheon I ran my fingers across the gritty mortar connecting the thin bricks on the wall of this ancient temple and found myself connected to thousands of years of mankind. I'd touched the same bricks and mortar that were once held by the sweaty hands of the laborers who built the temple nearly two thousand years ago.---

Friday, February 1, 2008

Allusion, Illusion, and other pesky near-homonyms

More Pesky Near Homonymns from the Harbace Glossary of Usage (usgl) (pp. G-1 through G-37 in the 12th edition)

An allusion is a casual or indirect reference. An illusion is a false idea or an unreal image: The allusion was to Shakespeare. His idea of college is an illusion.

Assure meant to "state with confidence." Ensure and insure are used interchangeably to mean "make certain." Insure has the further meaning of "to protect against loss." Marlon assured me that he would vote for my ticket. I insured (or ensured) that Vincent had his tickets before I left home. Betty insured her car against theft.
So how come there's the Bankers United Life Assurance Company, to name one of many insurance companies with "assurance" in their names? You can be assured that there's a good explanation.

Complement means "to complete" or "to supply needs." Compliment means "to express praise." Complimentary means "given free," as in complimentary tickets: Their personalities complement each other. Betsy complimented Jim on his performance.

Ingenius means "creative or shrewd." Ingenuous means "innocent or unworldly": Terry's ingenious plan worked without complication. The criminal's ingenuous smile was misleading.

N.B., new Harbrace College Handbooks go for $50 or more in bookstores. You can get a used 14th edition for $15 or a 13th for $10 at McKay's Used Bookstore, or a used edition on Amazon for as little as $6.25, including shipping.