Friday, May 30, 2008

Not what you think -- a vomitorium


vomitorium (vom-i-TOR-ee-uhm) noun, plural vomitoria .
A passageway to the rows of seats in a theater.
[From Latin vomitorium, from vomere (to discharge).]

Vomitoria in ancient amphitheaters helped the audience reach their seats quickly and then, at the end of the performance, leave at an equal speed (hence the name). Thousands of seats could be filled in minutes. The suggestion that a vomitorium was the place for the ancient Romans to vomit during a feast has no basis.

"Sarah Walters, 21, a university student, said: 'I love the fact that the exit sign at the station is now tagged as the vomitorium, it's very descriptive.'"
-- Paul Stokes; Metro Passengers Find Their Way to the Vomitorium; Daily Telegraph (London, UK); Mar 13, 2003.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"The latter" with two, "the last" with three or more examples

From an editorial in today's New York Times:
"There are several kinds of Washington memoirs: “I Reveal the Honest Truth,” a kiss-up-and-tell designed to settle scores (nod to honesty optional). “I Was There at the Start,” designed to make the author appear to be the linchpin of history. And, most tedious: “I Knew It Was a Terrible Mistake, but I Didn’t Mention It Until I Got a Book Contract.” Scott McClellan’s memoir is the latest entry in the latter genre."

Oops! That should be "the last genre."

Rule No. 198 from Guide to Composition (1919) by Royster and Thompson:
In speaking of more than two persons or things, prefer any [one] and the last to either and the latter.

(Possible) She was smaller that either of her three sisters.

(Preferable) She was smaller than any [one] of her three sisters.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Choose a specific and concrete word rather than a general and abstract one.

Harbrace Chapter 20: Exactness begins with the heading, "Choose words that are exact, idiomatic and fresh."

Rule 20a (3) reads:Choose a specific and concrete word rather than a general and abstract one.

General // Specific / More Specific / Even More Specific

food // fast food // pizza // //Papa John's

prose // fiction // short stories // The O Henry Reader

place // city // Knoxville // on Bearden Hill

The two pages under Rule 20a(3) are well worth reviewing, and they will serve any writer well as he or she strives to liven up and hone a story, article or paper.

In a daily newspaper, many stories are written on such tight deadlines that reporters may not have time to fill in many specific facts. Nevertheless, if you are reporting a story, make it a habit to ask for specifics, even when they seem unimportant.

Often your editor will ask these same questions, and it's best to know the answers.

An athlete was injured. What injury? Which knee, left or right?

A person was driving a car-- what model? year? what color?

Someone played in a band. What was the name of the band? Why? Who else was in it? What songs/type of music did they play?

If you're writing a feature or profile, these specifics often lead to revealing or illuminating information or anecdotes.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sic semper grammatis -- [Sic]

sic (sik) verb tr.
To incite to attack, especially as a command to dog: "Sic 'em!" [Variant of seek.]

sic (sik) adverb
Thus; so. (From Latin sic, meaning "thus") Used, usually in brackets, after an incorrect or unusual word or phrase to indicate that it has been quoted verbatim, or, in plain English, to say, "We know it's wrong."
"Sic semper tyrannis," proclaimed John Wilkes Booth from the stage of Ford's Theatre after shooting Abraham Lincoln. [Booth's words mean "Thus always to tyrants." They are also the state motto of Virginia. While we're "sempering," the Marine motto semper fidelis, as most of us probably know, means "always faithful."]

Friday, May 23, 2008

Use a comma to mark the omission of important words

From Guide to Composition (1919) by James Finch Royster (UNC) and Stith Thompson (Colorado College)

Ellipses [omitted words]

25. Use a comma to mark the omission of important words

1) Johnson's strength as a lawyer lay in his persuasive eloquence; Carter's, in his keen mind.
2) Mary was pretty; Jane, the opposite.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

a jeremiah -- one who warns of a disastrous future


jeremiah (jer-uh-MY-uh) noun
A person who complains continually, has a gloomy attitude, or one who warns about a disastrous future.
[After Jeremiah, a Hebrew prophet during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE who prophesied the fall of the kingdom of Judah and whose writings are collected in the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations.]

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus.

"Having been a Jeremiah for so many years, mainly through the pages of the Guardian but also via his own immensely popular website, Monbiot has now turned his mind to what, precisely, can be done to halt global warming."
-- Stephen Price; A Wake-up Call For the Human Race; The Sunday Business Post (Dublin, Ireland); Oct 8, 2006.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

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

The Fifth Deadly Sin: Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
Misplaced and dangling modifiers create illogical, even comical, sentences. We confuse our readers if we fail to connect modifiers (words that describe or limit other words) to the words they modify; be sure to place modifiers next to the words they modify.

See the illogic in this example:
Walking back from the village, my wallet was lost. (Does your wallet walk?)
revised Walking back from the village, I lost my wallet. (Your wallet doesn't walk, but you do.)

A misplaced modifier is a word or phrase that due to its placement mistakenly refers to the wrong word. The modifier truly is misplaced.

To correct a misplaced modifier, move it next to or near the word it modifies.

A fine athlete and student, the coach honored the captain of the tennis team. (The coach was not the fine athlete and student.)
revised The coach honored the captain of the tennis team, a fine athlete and student.

Limiting modifiers (only, almost, nearly, just) are commonly misplaced. To avoid ambiguity, place them in front of the word they modify.

Marsh's evidence reinforces the view that the artist only intended the images for a local audience.
revised Marsh's evidence reinforces the view that the artist intended the images only for a local audience.
A dangling modifier is a (usually introductory) word or phrase that the writer intends to use as a modifier of a following word, but the following word is missing. The result is an illogical statement.

To fix a dangling modifier, add the missing word and place the modifier next to it.
Acting on numerous complaints from students, a fox was found near Root. (The fox did not act on the complaint.)
revised Acting on numerous complaints from students, security found a fox near Root.

After reading the original study, the flaws in Lee's argument are obvious.
revised Reading the original study reveals obvious flaws in Lee's argument.

Dangling modifiers go hand-in-hand with wordiness and passive voice. Correct one and you correct them all!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Please Vote for the Unity Slate in the Dartmouth Association of Alumni Executive Committee Election

There are two slates of nominees running for the executive committee.

In the most simplistic terms, you can vote for the slate headed by John Mathias '69 that would end the suit, or for the slate led by Michael Murphy '61 that would keep the lawsuit going.

To me, the deciding factor between the two slates is whether or not you think the lawsuit serves the best interests of the College. Will it help or hinder the ability of the administration and faculty to focus on continuing to provide the best undergraduate experience in the country to the students of today and tomorrow?

I can understand the point of view, held by some alumni, who disagree with the board’s recent decision regarding parity. Of course, there are members of both slates who opposed the Board’s decision – the difference between the slates is whether they support suing the College or working within the Dartmouth family to address their concerns.

Nonetheless, I am firmly of the opinion that the suit has been detrimental to the College.

It has cost the College money and forced the administration to shift some of its focus away from educating students. It has raised questions in the minds of potential applicants, donors, and parents as to whether such a controversy will become a hallmark of the school. It has caused potential faculty members to question the type of work environment Dartmouth would offer. It has the potential to undermine the search for Dartmouth’s next president.

This is not to suggest that debate about important issues should be subjugated for public relations purposes. Dartmouth alumni are passionate about Dartmouth, and we should foster vigorous debate, but not in the courtroom. I hope you'll vote for the slate of candidates that will end the lawsuit and pursue effective and constructive change at Dartmouth.

I'm recommending that you vote for the following candidates:

John Mathias, Jr. '69
Cheryl Bascomb '82
Douglas Keare '56
David Spalding '76
Marian Zischke Baldauf '84
Veree Hawkins Brown '93
John Engelman '68
Ron Harris '71
Kaitlin Jaxheimer '05
Otho Kerr III '79
Ronald Schram '64

Once again, if you haven't received voting information via email or postal mail please contact Blunt ( or 603.646.2258).

If you need more info, or want to discuss this further, feel free to email or call me - if nothing else, let this be a good reason for us to catch up. But, please take a moment to cast your vote by June 5th, and ask other alums you know to do the same.

Brooks Clark '78

Additional note in support of the Unity Slate, from Sherri Oberg '82

Dear Dartmouth and Tuck Friends,

Dartmouth and Tuck alumni should care about the Association of Alumni election because it involves the lawsuit by a handful of extremist alumni, in the name of all alumni, against Dartmouth.

This lawsuit is damaging to Dartmouth/Tuck's national reputation and is creating a hostile environment that is not conducive to a successful search for the new College President, who will have overall responsibility for Dartmouth as well as Tuck (Tuck's Board of Overseers does not have governance authority over Tuck).

There are two slates of candidates: the Parity Candidates and the Unity Candidates. This email will summarize my rationale for supporting the Unity Candidates, the key differences between the Parity and Unity candidates, my views on the rhetoric of the Parity Candidates, and my thoughts on the Board of Trustees' decision to expand the board.

Why I am voting for the Unity Candidates listed below. I have worked with most of the candidates listed above in a Dartmouth volunteer capacity and know them to be dedicated alumni, with informed opinions - although not necessarily the same opinions. They will be effective in influencing thought and decisions at Dartmouth via constructive debate without having to resort to lawsuits.

Key Differences Between the Parity and Unity Candidates. The Parity Candidates support the lawsuit to overturn the Board of Trustees' decision to expand the board by adding more charter alumni trustees and thereby disrupting the current parity with elected alumni trustees. The Unity Candidates have varying opinions on the Board's expansion plan but are united in their belief that the lawsuit should be withdrawn and that there are more constructive ways for alumni to communicate disagreement with the Trustees and the College.

Rhetoric of the Parity Candidates. Advocating for parity in the name of democracy is misleading rhetoric. In my opinion there is nothing democratic about the Parity Candidates' position. Democracy is government by the people with a majority rule. All trustees are alumni, whether they are elected or appointed by those we elect. There is no issue regarding whether alumni are adequately represented on the board.
The Parity Candidates seem to miss the irony that:
1) the current Board of Trustees was elected by the people under the very system the Parity Candidates themselves would like to preserve, and
2) a majority of that Board, after careful consideration, determined it was in the best interest of Dartmouth to expand the Board.
In my opinion, the Parity Candidates are for democracy only when it supports their own objectives.

Expansion of the Board of Trustees vs the Status Quo. The Board summarized its rationale for expansion in an extremely thoughtful document that was distributed to all alumni and which I have read in its entirety. It is a forward-looking document on how best to govern Dartmouth in the future, with a strong rationale provided for all recommended changes. Conversely, the best arguments for the status quo are legal ones based on the 1891 Agreement. The courts will decide the merits of the case.

Legal arguments aside, I found the forward-looking thought process articulated in the Trustees' Governance Report more compelling than the backward looking arguments based on an agreement that is more than 100 years old.

Click here to read The Trustees' Governance Report.

Don't forget to vote!!! Let's elect alumni leaders who will work collaboratively with the College and the Board to ensure Dartmouth attracts the best President possible to lead Dartmouth into the future and maintain its tradition of being the best undergraduate liberal arts educational experience.


svengali -- controller of another


svengali (sven-GAH-lee) noun
A person who manipulates and exercises excessive control over another for sinister purposes.

[After Svengali, a musician and hypnotist, in the novel Trilby written by George du Maurier (1834-1896). In the story, Trilby is an artist's model. She's tone-deaf, but Svengali transforms her into a singing sensation under his hypnotic spell. Another eponym to come out of the novel is the word for a man's hat: trilby. A trilby was a soft felt hat with a narrow brim and an indented crown. The word arose because such a hat was won in the stage production of the novel.]

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus.

"'Idol' was created by Simon Fuller, the Spice Girls svengali, and first aired in England in 2001, as 'Pop Idol.'"
-- Sasha Frere-Jones; Idolatry; The New Yorker; May 19, 2008.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Like and as -- one a preposition, the other a conjunction

from Ruge Rules

The Rule: Like is a preposition; as is a conjunction.

If the comparison is between two persons or things, use like.
If the comparison is between two ways of doing something or between two states or conditions, us as, as if, or just as.

Like me, he plays the piano. (We both play the piano.)

He plays the piano just as I do. (He plays the piano in the same manner that I do.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

A word for the supercilious -- to deign

If the Eskimos have 50 words for snow, we have at least as grand a pantheon of words and expressions describing snobbery, putting on airs, and being
1) too big for one's britches,
2) too cool for school,
3) haughty,
4) surly,
5) arrogant, and
6) supercilious.
That last word refers to that which is above (super) the eyelashes (cilia) --namely, the eyebrows, or more specifically the raised variety embodied by The New Yorker's longtime mascot, Eustace Tilly, at right.

Similarly, when the prideful alight from their high horses, our language is ready to spring like a trap. The word "condescend" in Latin means to descend to a less formal level. In colonial times it meant "to waive the privileges of rank" in a positive way. You can read descriptions of George Washington generously condescending to his soldiers. But today the main definition is "to assume an air of superiority."

The SAT Question of the Day below turns on condescend's French cousin, to deign, always said with a sneer and meaning "to condescend reluctantly with a strong sense of the affront to one's superiority." (This comes from the Middle English deignen, the Old French deignier, and the Latin dignare, all meaning "worthy.")

The new faculty member was a world-renowned scholar who, unfortunately, considered teaching undergraduates ------- him; he rarely ------- to speak to students who were not taking advanced post-graduate courses.

a) within . . . presumed
b) above . . . needed
c) beneath . . . deigned
d) beyond . . . neglected
e) like . . prepared

Friday, May 9, 2008

The "historical present" -- a little bit goes a long way

From Ruge Rules:

Historical Present

The historical present is the present tense used to narrate a past event.

In general, avoid the use of the historical present in telling a narrative of any considerable length.

The protracted use of the historical present is deadly monotonous and exposes the writer to the liability of error in tense.

The historical present has certain legitimate uses. Orators frequently employ the historical present to make something more vivid.


The Ruge Rule above should inspire a parodical thought or two of the historical present gone awry, such as, "Oog the cave man surveys the primordial plain, grasping his rough-hewn spear as he begins his search for the mammoth whose meat and hide will sustain his clan through an entire Ice Age winter."

You could see how it might get old. The historical present can often be used effectively in sports stories, to describe an athlete doing something wonderful and get the reader into the scene, along the lines of . . .
"With each blow, Foreman grows more frustrated. Despite the merciless barrage, Ali still stands. 'Is that all you got?' he asks, grinning. For the first time in Foreman's career, there is doubt. Can this man be brought down?"
But it's probably a good idea to switch back pretty quickly into "real time."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rather learn it yourself? Be an autodidact!

These tips attempt to be didactic but not pedantic. (A fine line, sometimes.)

From the Greek didaktikos, to teach, the adjective "didactic" means
1 a: designed or intended to teach, b: intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment
2: making moral observations.
An autobiography is a biography one writes about oneself. An autodidact is a self-taught person. [A terydactyl was a flying lizard, not a dinosaur. Maybe he taught himself to fly.]

For the SAT Question of the Day below, we also need to know that a --

1) "pedant" is a scholarly bore -- that is a: one who parades his learning b: one who is unimaginative or who unduly emphasizes minutiae in the presentation or use of knowledge [It comes from the Italian word pedante, for male schoolteacher.]

2) "demagogue" is a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power [Coming from Greek demos (people) and agogos (leader), in ancient times it meant a leader who championed the the cause of the common people, but nowadays it is exemplified in Marc Antony's funeral speech in Julius Caesar, the tactics of Adolf Hitler, and other leaders who rile up the mobs by using hate and emotion.

SAT Question of the Day:
The CEO of the computer company, who had quit school at the age of 15, was a noted -------, having taught himself everything he needed to know about computers and business, in addition to working to gain proficiency in such subjects as international copyright law.

a) pedant
b) autodidact
c) demagogue
d) ambassador
e) disputant

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

When to capitalize points of the compass

from Ruge Rules

The Rule: When points of the compass refer to specific geographical areas or parts of the country, they become proper nouns and are capitalized.

I'm headed east. (a direction, not capitalized)

I'm headed home to the South, where the cotton blooms and blows.

Welcome to East Tennessee, home of the Vols.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Rasputin -- an evil eponym for the ages


Rasputin (ra-SPYOO-tin) noun
A person who holds great but corrupting influence on another.
[After Rasputin, the nickname of Grigori Yefimovich Novykh (c.1871-1916), a Siberian peasant. Rasputin gained entrance into the court of Russian Czar Nikolai II and his wife, the Czarina Alexandra, by improving the condition of their hemophiliac son. Over the years, Rasputin's influence over the Czarina, and the court, increased tremendously. He was notorious for his debauchery and was later assassinated by Russian noblemen.]

"It was immediately apparent that she (Luisa P. Ejercito-Estrada) had not yet fallen under the spell of a Rasputin or a self-appointed guru with fantastic ideas about holes in the sky and the Philippines being the center of the universe."
-- AdLib: The New First Lady; BusinessWorld (Manila, Philippines); Dec 2, 1998.

"The other major force in Earnhardt's life dominates the second half of the movie. His third wife and widow, Teresa (Elizabeth Mitchell), is almost a benevolent Rasputin."
-- Brant James; Earnhardt's Fans Will Want More; St. Petersburg Times (Florida) Dec 11, 2004.

Monday, May 5, 2008

eponym -- from a person's name


eponym (EH-po-nym), a word made from a person's name. From the Greek, meaning "upon a name." For example --

Rip Van Winkle (rip van WING-kuhl) noun -- One who fails to keep up with the times.
[After Rip Van Winkle, a character in a story by Washington Irving (1783-1859). Rip falls asleep for 20 years in the Catskill mountains and wakes up to discover the world around him has changed. He finds that the American Revolutionary war has taken place and instead of being a subject of His Majesty George the Third, he is now a free citizen of the United States.]

Friday, May 2, 2008

Want points on the SAT? Fix those unclear antecedents!

Want ten easy points on the SAT grammar section? Fix those pronouns with vague antecedents! After the SAT Question of the Day below, you'll find the "Pronoun Problems" section of the Hamilton College Writing Center website's Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing.

Although campaign consultants have long known that scare tactics can win votes, only recently have psychologists and political scientists devised studies to find out whose votes they win and why.
a) they win
b) they can win
c) this wins
d) tactics like this wins
e) such tactics win

From Hamilton College Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing
The Sixth Deadly Sin: Pronoun Problems

Pronouns are useful as substitutes for nouns, but a poorly chosen pronoun can obscure the meaning of a sentence. Common pronoun errors include:

Unclear Pronoun Reference
A pronoun must refer to a specific noun (the antecedent). Ambiguous pronoun reference creates confusing sentences.

Writers should spend time thinking about their arguments to make sure they are not superficial. (Unclear antecedent: who or what are superficial?)

A key difference between banking crises of today and of yesterday is that they have greater global impact. (Which crises have more impact?)

If a whiff of ambiguity exists, use a noun: A key difference between banking crises of today and yesterday is that today’s crises have greater global impact.

Vague Subject Pronoun
Pronouns such as it, there, and this often make weak subjects.

Pope Gregory VII forced Emperor Henry IV to wait three days in the snow at Canossa before granting him an audience. It was a symbolic act.
To what does it refer? Forcing the Emperor to wait? The waiting? The granting of the audience? The audience? The entire sentence?

Use a pronoun as subject only when its antecedent is crystal clear.
Agreement Error
A pronoun must agree in gender and number with its antecedent. A common error is the use of the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular noun.

In the original state constitution, they allowed polygamy. They (plural) refers to constitution (singular).
revised:The original state constitution allowed polygamy.

It is often better to use a plural noun and pronoun than to use a singular noun and pronoun.
Note that indefinite pronouns such as each and everyone are singular. Each student must meet his or her advisor. (correct but awkward)

Each student must meet with their advisor. (incorrect: singular noun, plural pronoun)
Students must meet with their advisors. (correct: plural noun and pronoun)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Senator George Norris tells how he helped create TVA

In the 1930s, Sen. George Norris (R-Nebraska) worked side by side with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make the idea of the Tennessee Valley Authority a reality.

For years David Landis, a former state senator from Nebraska and an accomplished actor, has performed a one-man show as Norris (right). In honor of TVA’s 75th anniversary, a shortened version of Landis’ performance is available on Click here to view the video.

solipsistic -- it's all about me

From Maureen Dowd's column in yesterday's Times:
"In two days worth of solipsistic rants, the man of faith committed at least four of the seven deadly sins — wrath, envy, pride and greed (book and lecture fees?) — while grandiosely claiming he was defending the black church."

solipsistic adj. [from the Latin solus alone + ipse self]
of or pertaining to a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing