Monday, March 31, 2008

Avoid "rocking-horse" and "house-that-Jack-built" sentences

From Ways of Thinking and Writing by Frank W. Cushwa and Robert N. Cunningham (1936):

[Rule] 37. Avoid the "and" sentence; that is, a sentence in which and is used when there is no real coordination. Such sentences are sometimes called rocking-horse sentences. A good rule to remember is The fewer and's, the more effective the sentence. The remedy for the and fault is generally subordination.

Slipshod. My mother could not keep out the persistent rain, and I was thoroughly soaked before I reached my destination.

Much better. Since my slicker could not keep out the persistent rain, I was thoroughly soaked before I reached my destination.

[Rule] 39. Avoid what may be called the house-that-Jack-built sentences. They wander from one idea to another without purpose or plan. Sometimes the remedy is subordination; at other times the original sentence should be split up into shorter sentences. Sometimes both methods may be profitably employed.

Slovenly. Rawdon was the favorite of his Aunt Crawley, an old lady with immense fortune, the whole of which seemed destined to fall into his clutches, a fact which, in my opinion, was answerable for his singularly dissolute ways.

Better. Rawdon was the favorite of his Aunt Crawley, an old lady with immense fortune, the whole of which seemed destined to fall into his clutches. This fact, in my opinion, was answerable for his singularly dissolute ways.

Note -- Excessively enthusiastic GTOTD subscribers might like to invest $10 on Amazon for a used copy of Ways of Thinking and Writing, which seems to be a parallel gospel to the hallowed works of William Strunk of Cornell and John Hodges of UT.
Reading the 550 pages of Ways of Thinking and Writing may be as close as we can get in today's world to experiencing what it was like in one of those classrooms in the 1930s.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Stubborn, obtuse, sullen -- are the SAT folks hinting at something?

Are there times, perhaps, when the SAT Question of the Day seems to have a bit of an attitude about young folks?

Mrs. Williams found it ironic that her twelve-year-old son, who made all A’s on his report card, was so ------- at home, apparently unable to follow her most basic instructions concerning such commonsense matters as tidiness.

a) stubborn
b) astute
c) candid
d) obtuse
e) sullen

Thursday, March 27, 2008

In the Mood . . . for the Subjunctive

From the Knoxville News Sentinel a year ago: "A photo from Tuesday's game showed [Pat Summitt] with her hand on [Shannon] Bobbitt's shoulder, delivering instructions as if she was whispering a secret in Bobbitt's left ear.

Harbrace (14th edition) Rule 7d(2): The mood of a verb expresses the writer's attitude toward the factuality of what he or she is saying. The indicative mood makes statements--a definite attitude; the imperative mood issues commands or requests--an insistent attitude; and the subjunctive mood expresses situations that are hypothetical or conditional--a tentative attitude.

Indicative Dannice calls me every day.

Imperative Call me every day, Dannice

Subjunctive It is important that Dannice call me every day.

What the heck do we do with the subjunctive mood? Even between the 14th and 15th editions of the Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, the editors made some changes to the section on mood.
Neither one of those sections is much of an improvement over what University of Tennessee Professor John C. Hodges had in his 2nd edition, back in 1946.
"Only a few distinctive forms of the subjunctive remain," wrote Hodges, who went on to describe the top two, the --

Required Subjunctive -- chiefly in 'that' clauses of motions, resolutions, recommendations, order or demands." [e.g., "I demand that he see a physician."]

Preferred or Optional Subjunctive -- especially in contrary-to-fact conditions and in expressions of doubts, wishes, or regrets. [e.g., "If the apple were ripe, it would be delicious."]

Hodges also made the distinction between formal and colloquial expression, giving four examples of colloquialisms we hear all the time -- e.g., "I wish that he was here."

"Many writers don't know what that subjunctive case is, using 'was' when 'were' is correct," observes David Burns of Knoxville, who had Hodges for freshman English in 1950 and still has his copy of that 1946 edition of the Harbrace College Handbook, inscribed by Hodges himself.
"He was a grammarian through and through," says Burns. "I think of him when I read even magazines that have good writers and see one grammatical error after another." Burns remembers Hodges' particular insistence about the use of the gerund: "It is a noun, not a verb. I appreciate your coming not you coming."
"He was an imposing presence," Burns remembers. "There was no mistaking that he was around. I never heard the first critical comment about him, and I don't think you could find anyone who would have. He was simply one of the finest gentlemen I ever knew."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March Madness Malaprops

At NCAA tournament time, we celebrate "student-athaletes" (the extra "a" seems to sound more scholarly, so announcers add it).
No one wants to be "lacksadaisical" on defense. Network announcers who say this may assume that the word refers to someone who lacks "adaisicality," which sounds like something akin to "gumption." Actually, the word "lackadaisical" comes from "lackaday," an alteration and shortening of the archaic interjection "alack the day," used to express regret.

Of course we all get "flustrated" with the officiating -- something between flustered and frustrated -- but in the end it's always a "mute" point. (It should be "moot" [deprived of practical relevance; no longer at issue], not "mute" [unable to speak].)

And we all enjoy the interesting "antidotes" gathered by courtside reporters, especially when they include "self-depreciating" comments from the coaches. (Should be "anecdotes" and "self-deprecating.")

Lackaday! It all makes us yearn for the days of the St. Louis Cardinal pitcher and radio announcer Dizzy Dean, who once described a base runner, having "slud" into a base, as standing there "cool and confidential."

Malapropisms, or malaprops (both are correct) are the misapplications of words, usually humorous, specifically, the use of words sounding somewhat like the ones intended but ludicrously wrong in their contexts. The words come from a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in a 1775 R.B. Sheridan comedy.

Yogi-isms are apparently-nonsensical-but-often-sagacious malapropisms created by longtime Yankee catcher and manager Yogi Berra, who once received an honorarium check for a speech made out to "Bearer" and asked of his host, "You've known me all these years and still don't know how to spell my name?"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Shall and will -- more recent rules

Several days ago we revisited a long list of rules from the 1930s about the use of "shall" and "will" that are basically no longer observed in our language.

Some GTOTD subscribers asked what the current rules are.

In current editions of Harbrace, there are hardly any mentions of "shall" and "will" at all. In section 7c (2) on the subjunctive mood, there is a small note that reads, "The indicative is displacing the use of the subjunctive, just as will is displacing shall -- except in questions such as "Shall we go?"

If we go back to the first edition of Harbrace, from 1941, Professor Hodges followed up his section on the subjunctive (then 7e) with the following page-long section on Shall and Will:

7f. Use the correct form for shall (should) and will (would).
Informal English is rapidly dropping the distinctions between shall and will, should and would. Except for the use of should to express an obligation (see below), the tendency is to use everywhere will and would.

But careful usage still observes the following rules:

(1) To express the simple future tense use shall (should) in the first person and will (would) in the second and third.
RIGHT . . . I shall stay. He will go. You will find me at home. We shall expect you.

(2) To express determination (or in making a promise) use will (would) in the first person and shall (should) in the second and third.
RIGHT . . . I will help. You shall have your reward. He shall not obstruct our passage.

(3) In questions, use the form expected in the answer.
RIGHT . . . Shall you remain longer in the country? [Answer expected: I shall, or I shall not.]
RIGHT . . . Will you go in spite of all the dangers? [Answer expected: I will; I am determined to go.]

(4) Use should in all persons to express an obligation.
RIGHT . . . I (you, he, we they) should help the needy.

(5) Use would in all persons to express customary or habitual action.

RIGHT . . . I (you, he, we they) would take a vacation at the end of the summer.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Laissez-faire -- not so good when it comes to subprime mortgages

From the Financial Times: "Dubai has long positioned itself as a regional business hub, with a laisser faire attitude to business regulations."

I thought "laisser faire" was a mistake, until I looked in the dictionary and saw that "laisser faire" is a "chiefly British variation of laissez-faire."

Laissez-faire noun [laissez-faire is the imperative of laisser faire to let (people) do (as they choose)]
a doctrine opposing government interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights [and unlimited subprime mortgages] -- adj. laissez-faire

Friday, March 21, 2008

Shall and will -- a distinction lost to the ages, but interesting

The rules below are from a "Concise Handbook of Composition," 33 pages at the end of Ways of Thinking and Writing by Phillips Exeter Academy professors Frank W. Cushwa and Robert N. Cunningham (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936).
The distinction between "shall"and "will" is pretty much lost to the ages -- but it can be interesting to us as grammar historians.

III. Usage
22. Remember the rules for shall and will.
(a) To indicate merely that action will take place in future time, use
I shall . . . . . . we shall
thou wilt (you will) . . . . . . you will
he (she, it) will . . . . . . they will

(b) To indicate that the speaker is determined to do a thing or to have it done, is willing to do it, or is making a promise, use

I will . . . . . . we will
thou shalt (you shall) . . . . . . you shall
he (she, it) will . . . . . . they shall

(c) In questions, use shall in the first person in the first person except when the speaker is repeating verbatim a question which has just been asked him. In the second and third persons, use the auxiliary which, in accordance with rules (a) and (b), would naturally be used in the answer. The person of the question will often differ from that of the answer.

  • Where shall I leave your books? [Not Where will I?]
  • Will I go? I certainly will. [The speaker echoes the original question.]
  • Shall you be in Boston on Saturday? If all goes well, I shall. [The answer indicates simply that the speaker expects to be in Boston on Saturday.]

Will you meet us in town? Yes, I will. [That is, I promise to.]

(d) In an indirect statement, use the auxiliary which would be required if the statement were direct. The person of the original verb changes to suit the indirect discourse.


  • He says that he will attend to my case at once. [The speaker said, "I will (that is, I promise to) attend to your case at once."]
  • He says that hirhday next month. [The direct statement was, "I shall have a birthday next month."]

    NOTE 1. Should and would follow the same rules as shall and will except when should expresses obligation [No man should forget his duty to his country], or when would indicates customary or habitual action [I would sit by the hour playing my flute].
    To express obligation, use should in all three persons. To espress customary action use would in all three persons.

    NOTE 2. I would like, a common error, is always wrong. In would and like the idea of volition is expressed twice. Say always, "I should like."

    Here in the 21st Century, we can all ask, "Who knew?"

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"I should live so long" -- three more handy Yiddish words

A New York Times quote of the day from last year:
"There used to be a saying in New York, 'I should live so long.' "
-- William J. Ronan, the first chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, discussing the on-and-off plans for a Second Avenue subway, first announced in 1929.

The Joys of Yiddish (from

Yiddish, a language full of wit and charm, embodies a deep appreciation of human behavior in all its colorful manifestations. Here are three more Yiddish words that have enriched the English language.
Here's a link to a glossary of Yiddish.
Become a maven of Yiddish in your schmoozing, and oy! how the yentas' tongues will wag!

yenta (YEN-tuh) noun A busybody or a gossip. [From Yiddish yente, originally a female name.]
"Q. How do you describe what you do? A. I'm a yenta. I can't wait to learn new things. And then to tell people about them."
-- Claudia Dreifus; Latter-Day Mr. Wizard Expounds on the Joy of Science; The New York Times; Apr 4, 2000.

schmooze (shmooz) verb intr. To chat, especially in order to gain an advantage or to make a social or business connection with an influential person.
noun A gossipy or ingratiating chat. [From Yiddish shmues (chat, gossip), from Hebrew shemuah (reports, rumor).
"Of course, there are exclusives in all newspapers that are genuinely a result of hard work by reporters, either through digging or just schmoozing with politicians."
-- Anne Davies; Truth Loses When Only Half the Story Will Do; The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia); Jul 3, 2006.

maven (MAY-vuhn) noun An expert, connoisseur, or enthusiast. [From Yiddish meyvn, from Hebrew mebhin (one who understands).]
"The panelists are a who's who of television and film mavens."
-- James Adams; TV Networks Can Relax; The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada); Jun 12, 2006.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Web Requires Better, Different Writing

The following sensible words come from "Writing That Works," an e-newsletter --

Attracting readers to narrative nonfiction online is even harder on the Web than in print, according to Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom.

Readers go online expecting to find information and move on. To hold their attention, we have to write even better than we do for print, and we have to be right on target. Web publications have niches, and they present opportunities for writers who can write for those niches.

Writers must make some adjustments, Bloom says. The tone must be much more informal, conversational, colloquial. Often we should write in the first person rather than the third person and provide links to additional information.

What you can't do is dump print online.

Other web tips (from writing guru Ann Wylie) --
  • Web headlines should communicate the big idea. Witty double meanings don't work the way they do in print.
  • Include "scannable content," such as summarizing blurbs or decks, subheads, lists and links.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

No need to noodge (nag)! A little Yiddish couldn't hurt!

A headline from today's Washington Post: "The Audacity of Chutzpah"

"It took a bit of chutzpah [for Princeton professor Dan Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel] to play the anti-Semite for Obama -- but these are tense times for the senator from Audacity."

Please forgive such chutzpah (nerve, gall, supreme self-confidence) from a goy (gentile) like me, but here are some Yiddish words that are now pretty much a part of the English language -- we should be so lucky!

schlub (shlub) noun (also spelled as zhlub or zhlob) A clumsy oaf. [From Polish zhlob (blockhead, trough, manger).]
"This is ... the comedy of the schlub on the barstool who wonders when it all went wrong." Allan Brown; The Joke's Wearing a Bit Thin; The Sunday Times (London, UK) Jun 18, 2006.

All this schmagoogle (big to do) over Yiddish reminds us of the difference between a schlemiel (an unlucky bungler) and a shlemazl (an even more unlucky bungler). A schlemiel jumps out a window. He lands on the shlemazl.

Other Yiddishisms in the "sch" part of the dictionary: A schmo is a fool or a jerk, as is a schmuck. (Both actually refer to a certain body part.)

Schlock is low-quality merchandise, which some poor schnook (a stupid or unimportant person) has to schlepp (drag or haul) because some schnorrer (a beggar, or someone who wheedles others into supplying his wants) got him to do it.

A comedian does his shtick (entertainment routine). A salesmen has his spiel. A shiksa (a non-Jewish girl) might be referred to as "a stick with eyes" in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story.

Albert Einstein sailed a small boat on the north shore of Long Island called Tinif, which is Yiddish for "junk." (He often got hit on the head by the boom when he came about.)

Then there are the "k-" Yiddishisms, like kvell (swell with pride) or kvetch (complain). Whatever you do, don't kibitz (offer unwanted advice) at a chess game. Enough already!

This mishigas (craziness) is giving me shpilkes (nervous energy) and may turn me into a meshugine (a crazy person). For a list of common Yiddish words, click here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Pet peeves of Hamilton College professors

From Hamilton College's Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing:
The Seventh Deadly Sin: Committing Pet Peeves

Learning to write clearly and effectively is a central part of your education. As the Hamilton College Catalogue notes, "The college expects its students to think, write and speak with clarity, understanding and precision."

Below are some Hamilton professors' pet peeves that students should bear in mind as they aim for "clarity, understanding and precision" in their writing.


JANACK . . . . . . utilize vs. use . . . . . . "Descartes utilizes the wax argument to show that we know physical objects with the mind, not the senses."

GRANT . . . . . . singular/plural disagreement . . . . . . "The student finished the essay, only to discover that their printer did not work."

MARTIN . . . . . . bloated diction . . . . . . "Once liberty is actualized, justice will burgeon."

RUBINO . . . . . . "inflated, imprecise words" . . . . . . The lifestyles of many individuals were difficult due to what society utilized against them.

YEE . . . . . . misuse of prove/proof . . . . . . "The results prove that our hypothesis was correct. (A study supports a hypothesis, not proves it.)"

THICKSTUN . . . . . . general sloppiness . . . . . .The English department cares to much about grammer and speling.

TEWKSBURY . . . . . . burying the subject . . . . . . The significance of the study is that there is....

DORAN . . . . . . unnecessary subordinate clause and passive voice . . . . . . There was one factor that was ignored by the "con" side: ....

GOLD . . . . . . use of I as object of verb or prep. . . . . . .They went with Dido and I to tour the Colosseum.

KOLB . . . . . . The family came to see David and I perform.

ISSERMAN . . . . . . indefinite antecedent . . . . . . President Johnson's ignoring of George Ball's Vietnam memo proved disastrous for him. (for whom?)

WU . . . . . . loose vs. lose . . . . . . Forecasters fear that stocks will loose value next year.

MCKEE . . . . . . treating data as singular . . . . . .The data shows that medication affects ADHD symptoms.

JENSEN . . . . . . than vs. then . . . . . .The data indicate that Americans work more hours then Europeans.

E. WILLIAMS . . . . . . vacuous first sentences . . . . . .Scientists have studied DNA for years.

SILVERSMITH . . . . . . affect vs. effect . . . . . . We studied the affect of the angle on acceleration.

VAUGHAN . . . . . . less vs. fewer . . . . . . Bush got less votes than Gore in 2000.

FRIEND . . . . . . who vs. that . . . . . .Anyone that disagrees please speak up.

KINNEL . . . . . . use of impact as a verb . . . . . .Logging heavily impacted the Adirondacks.

J. O'NEILL . . . . . . use of impact when violent implications are inappropriate . . . . . . "The poem had a quiet, gentle impact on me."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Gravitas -- except in the movie version of Camelot and singing MacArthur Park

The SAT Question of the Day below is plainly aimed at the Harry Potter crowd, not those who saw the movie version of Camelot or remember the 1968 song MacArthur Park. *

A veteran of both stage and screen, Richard Harris brought a certain level of ------- to his roles, lending ------- to each character that he played.

a) candor . . . . uncertainty
b) insouciance . . . . experience
c) whimsy . . . . depth
d) gravitas . . . . dignity
e) animosity . . . . warmth

* Did you know that the famous line from MacArthur Park came from English poet W. H. Auden, who once said, "My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain."?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Write in the positive

From the Security and Exchange Commission's "A Plain English Handbook":

Positive sentences are shorter and easier to understand than their negative counterparts.

For example:

before Persons other than the primary beneficiaries may not receive these dividends.

after Only the primary beneficiary may receive these dividends.

Also, your sentences will be shorter and easier to understand if you replace a negative phrase with a single word that means the same thing.

For example:

negative compound . . . . . single word
not able . . . . . . unable
not accept . . . . . . reject
not certain . . . . . . . uncertain
not unlike . . . . . . . . similar, alike
does not have . . . . . . lacks
does not include . . . . . . . excludes, omits
not many . . . . . . few
not often . . . . . rarely
not the same . . . . . different
not ... unless . . . . . only if
not ... until . . . . . . only when

In that most sacred of texts, The Elements of Style, Elementary Principle of Composition No. 15: Put statements in positive form offers some elegant examples of how "going positive" can enhance one's prose.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hubris -- like Client No. 9

hubris noun [from the Greek hybris]
exaggerated self pride, arrogance or self-confidence, often resulting in fatal retribution.

In ancient Greece, "hubris" referred to actions taken to shame and humiliate a victim, thereby making oneself seem superior. It was considered the greatest sin of the ancient Greek world. The meaning was further generalized in its modern English usage to apply to any outrageous act or exhibition of pride or disregard for basic moral law.

"During his long tenure in the financial world, Friedman has watched dozens of his competitors' businesses killed by hubris born of success rather than by unsound business decisions or adverse market conditions."
-- Lisa Endlich, Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Etiology -- the science of causes

From "Secret Skin," Michael Chabon's "essay in unitard theory" in the March 10 New Yorker:

"To suit my purpose here, I might construct a similar etiology of the superhero costume, making due reference, say, to professional-wrestling and circus attire of the early twentieth century, to the boots-cloak-and-tights ensembles worn by swashbucklers and cavaliers in stage plays and Hollywood films, to contemporary men’s athletic wear, with its unitard construction and belted trunks, to the designs of Alex Raymond and Hal Foster and the amazing pulp-magazine cover artist Frank R. Paul."

etiology noun [from the Greek aitologia]
1. cause, origin; specif: all of the causes of a disease or abnormal condition,
2. a branch of knowledge dealing with causes

Monday, March 10, 2008

Keep related parts of a sentence together

From Maureen Dowd's column in Sunday's Times: "Hillary’s kneecapper Howard Wolfson compares the goo-goo Obama campaign to Ken Starr with a straight face."

We believe Dowd meant to describe Howard Wolfson as keeping a straight face while drawing a silly comparison, not comparing the Obama campaign to a straight-faced Ken Starr. (What other kind is there?)

So, the sentence would be clearer as follows: "With a straight face, Hillary’s kneecapper Howard Wolfson compares the goo-goo Obama campaign to Ken Starr."

Harbrace 25a: Keep Related Parts of a Sentence Together.
To make your meaning clear to readers, place modifiers near the words they modify. Note how the meaning of the following sentences changes according to the position of the modifiers.

  • Natasha went out with just her coat on.

  • Natasha just went out with her coat on.

  • Just Natasha went out with her coat on.

  • The man who drowned had tried to help the child.

  • The man had tried to help the child who drowned.

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

  • The truck costs only $450. [not only costs]

  • He works even during his vacation. [not even works]

25a(2): Place a modifying prepositional phrase to indicate clearly what the phrase modifies.

MISPLACED: Arne says that he means to leave the country in the first stanza.

BETTER: Arne says in the first stanza that he means to leave the country .

MISPLACED: Heated arguments had often occurred over technicalities in the middle of the game.

BETTER: Heated arguments over technicalities had often occurred in the middle of the game.

From The Knoxville News Sentinel:
"...Vineyard Productions previously made a film called 'The Witness' for the Pequot Indian Nation in East Tennessee, so the area was already was on the company's radar when locations were being scouted...."

In the sentence above, the prepositional phrase "in East Tennessee" modifies "film," and not the Pequot Indian Nation, which is, of course, based in Massachusetts. This is a misplaced modifying prepositional phrase.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The "literally" cliche -- literally driving us crazy

Ordinarily, GTOTD wants to keep government out of our lives, but the Department of Homeland Cliches (DHC) must put an end once and for all to the gratuitous and witless use of "literally" that has been literally hackneyed to death like a London cab horse and is literally driving us crazy.

In a delightful excerpt in ESPN: The Magazine from Man in the Middle, John Amaechi's memoir of being a gay man in the NBA, Amaechi and co-writer John Bull can't resist the inevitable, predictable line, "Since I was reluctant to venture out too far, everyone came to my closet -- literally." Bud-a-dum. (That's a rimshot, as in the drum sound that follows Henny Youngman saying, "Take my wife, please.")

Think how much wittier, more thoughtful -- and fresher! -- that line would be without the "literally."

Because this story has so many gems in it, the DHC will not banish Amaechi to our Cliche Guantanamo. Amaechi deflected those who suspected he was gay by explaining that he is English, which of course satisfied everyone. His cover was blown for sure when a friend noticed that Amaechi had a) a rainbow towel in his bathroom, b) fresh-cut flowers in his hall, and c) Karen Carpenter on his CD player. "Ryan said I must be the only jock in history to towel off with multiple colors singing along to "We've Only Just Begun." (Maybe Amaechi could have claimed at that point to be French!)

The DHC will bring in snarling dogs to post-hurricane newscasters reporting that a storm "literally blew this town off the map." Actually, those Mississippi towns are still on the map. It's in reality that Katrina blew so many towns into oblivion.

We have some grammatical electrodes for hoops hagiographers who laud basketball centers as "literally standing head and shoulders above the rest." Well, yes, that's why they're centers--they're taller than everyone else!

The DHC will also give a Holy Man pass to Bishop T.D. Jakes for his quote in a wonderful Atlantic Monthly profile, in which he recalls the hard times after his job at a Union Carbine plant disappeared: "I was literally cutting grass and digging ditches, trying to get diapers for my kids." Well, yes, people do those jobs, especially if they're laid off from the sole employer in a small West Virginia town.

The idea of using the word "literally" is that it is a highly unlikely figurative expression that had somehow come to life -- like, say, a cow literally jumping over the moon.

But even when this expression is used in a way that makes sense and could be considered clever, we must be resolute and stand firm in declaring it a danger to the freshness of our language -- as in the lede of a New York Times feature about wind energy: "It's hard to be in a business where you literally---as well as figuratively---are tilting at windmills."

Bring on the water boards! Literally!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Taciturn, prepossessing, umbrage -- three from the Latin


taciturn (TAS-i-tuhrn) adjective
Temperamentally untalkative. [From Latin taciturnus (quiet), from tacitus (silent), past participle of tacere (to be silent).]
"The voiceover may be the best way to express the taciturn main character's ideas and desires, no matter how awkward it seems."
-- Daniel Neman; Review: Perfume; Richmond, Va. Times-Dispatch, Jan 5, 2007.

prepossessing (pree-puh-ZES-ing) adjective
Creating a favorable impression; attractive. [From pre- + possess, from Latin possidere (to occupy, dominate, seize), from potis (able) + sedere (to sit).]
"A prepossessing performer with a beautiful baritone, Murray is tall, blond and Midwestern-looking."
-- F. Kathleen Foley; Not Quite the Last Word on Irving Berlin; Los Angeles Times; Jun 27, 2005.

umbrage (UHM-brij) noun
1. Offense or annoyance arising from some insult.
2. Shade, as from a tree.
3. A vague suggestion or a feeling of suspicion.
[From Latin umbra (shade, shadow), which also gave us the words umbrella, adumbrate, and somber.]
"A number of judges clearly took umbrage at McDowell's comments; Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman implicitly criticised him from the bench."
-- Pat Leahy; Judiciary Considers McDowell's Watchdog Proposal; The Sunday Business Post (Dublin, Ireland); Jan 7, 2007.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How to structure a magazine story (and a blues song)

Structure can be a secret key to success in many kinds of writing.

Everyone who picks up a guitar quickly learns that most blues and many rock-and-roll songs are played in 4/4 time and arranged in a 12-bar, three-chord structure, based on the first (written as I), fourth (IV), and fifth (V) notes of an eight-note scale.

The I chord dominates the first four bars; the IV chord typically appears in the second four bars, and the V chord is played in the third four bars. [A common 12-bar structure is I-I-I-I // IV-IV-I-I // V-IV-I-I/V.

In classic newspaper writing, everyone is taught the "inverted pyramid," in which you tell it all in the opening sentences, then add paragraphs in descending order of importance, so that the person laying out the paper can cut from the bottom and use as much or little of the story as space allows.

Magazine writing is structurally the opposite of newspaper writing. You try to grab and keep the reader by telling as little as possible with an intriguing lede, you develop a narrative that builds as it goes, and you pay it off with a killer ending that wraps it all up and suddenly lends greater meaning to all that's come before. If there's cutting to be done, it comes from the middle.

The reporters, writers and editors at People magazine do an unbelievable job of packaging huge amounts of information in a witty, catchy, clear and generally concise way. The general structure of a People story is [please forgive me if I'm wrong on a detail or two]:

I- The opening sentence, which summarizes whole story in witty, catchy way

II - The Billboard, or nut graph -- Explanatory sentences that hint at the story, tell you what's coming and why you should care.

III -- A quote from the subject introducing or commenting on the story at hand.

IV -- You launch into the narrative of what the story is about and then ....

V -- Bio history; 2/3rds or 3/5ths the way through the story, there's a transition sentence along the lines of, "But it wasn't always glitz and glamor for Dolly Parton growing up one of 12 children in the hardscrabble Smoky Mountains...."
a) At this point you give the standard biographical information that we want to know about all subjects -- where they grew up, what their parents did, how many siblings they had, what they were good at, where they went to high school, how they got into show business, how they hit it big ... and then ..

VI -- Catch up to the present and finish telling the current story at hand, with its details and implications, leading inexorably to ..

VII -- A killer concluding quote from the subject summarizing the whole business and what it means to him or her.

Like a 12-bar blues progression, the structure is familiar, but each song or story is different.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Inventory of links to recent stories by Brooks Clark





More Than The Game (2002), copy accompanying photographs by UT Prof. Robert Heller


A quintet of pomposity sure to be on the SAT

Re: the SAT Question of the Day™ below: I'm chary [hesitant; wary of danger] to say it, but, being candid [frank, honest] about it, I'm precipitated [abruptly moved to action] to state with fervor [passion; urgency] that today's quintet of "25-cent" vocabulary words borders on the scurrilous [vulgar and evil, or marked by obscenity].

SAT Question of the Day™
Choose the word or set of words that, when inserted in the sentence, best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole.

Because he felt intimidated in his new position, he was _______ divulging his frank opinions of company proposals.
a) scurrilous about
b) candid in
c) chary of
d) fervid about
e) precipitate in

Monday, March 3, 2008

Don't make mass nouns plural

(from Don Ferguson's Grammar Gremlins column in the Knoxville News Sentinel )

There is a strange tendency by some to pluralize nouns that should not be used in a plural form. Here are a few examples:
  • "Ethics legislations were put on the back burner."
  • "We don't know very much about it, but there are speculations."
  • "Research has shown the potential impacts of long-term radiation."
  • "They were studying the behaviors of the child."

The italicized words are mass nouns -- things that cannot be broken down into separate, countable units and, therefore, should not be used in a plural form.

In truth, this discussion can be a Pandora's box. But we must do the best we can. The rule is covered in Harbrace rule 6a(8): Collective nouns and phrases denoting a fixe quantity take a singluar verb when they refer to the group as a unit and take a plural verb when they refer to individuals or parts of the group.

Singular (regarded as unit):

  • The committee is meeting today.
  • Ten million gallons of oil is a lot of oil.
  • The jury convenes today.
  • The number is very small.

Plural (regarded as individuals or parts):

  • A number were absent.
  • Ten million gallons of oil were spilled.
  • The majority of us are in favor.

The corresponding rule for pronouns is 6b(3): Collective nouns are referred to by singular or plural pronouns, depending on whether the collective noun has a singular or plural sense [as described above].

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Coruscate -- to sparkle in technique or style

From Honor Moore's remarkable remembrace of her father, the late Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, in this week's New Yorker: "When I was a child, I accepted my father as a force of imagination that flared and coruscated, and instrument of transformation."

coruscate verb [from the Latin coruscare to flash]
1: to give off or reflect light in bright beams or flashes: sparkle
2: to be brilliant or showy in technique or style

Ms. Moore's story is powerful reading for the dozen or so Grammar Tip of the Day recipients who remember Bishop Moore so well and so fondly from our years growing up on the Washington Cathedral Close.
Among many other facets of Honor Moore's incredible piece of writing is a reminder of her father's vision of and commitment to an urban ministry, as described so well in Mrs. Moore's memoir, The People of Second Street, about their years, starting in 1949, at a parish in lower Jersey City, as Honor Moore describes it, "a gritty neighborhood blocks from where On the Waterfront was filmed, four years later."