Monday, November 23, 2009

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

From yesterday's Parade magazine: "[Hugh] Grant grew up in London, the youngest of two brothers."

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.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lost Chapters of "A Death in the Family" and the Agee centennial celebrations

This fall the University of Tennessee has been celebrating the James Agee Centennial.
This coming weekend includes lectures by two prominent UT professors -- Paul Ashdown on Agee’s lost writings by and Michael A. Lofaro on his five years of editing work on A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text (UT Press).
As Knoxvillians know, James Agee's original manuscript had been reworked by a friend of Agee's after Agee's sudden death in 1955. Four of many "lost chapters" appeared in Harper's under the headline "Enter the Ford."
Knoxvillians will delight in many descriptions of 1913 Knoxville, such as that of riding the open streetcar from Gay Street downtown out to Chilhowee Park for the fair, where Agee's father takes offense at an imagined slight by a carnie, which initiates a long, priceless series of whupass-type exchanges like the following: "If you're lookin for trouble," the man said, "just say the word, cause there's plenty here that's paid to find it."
"Just if you want it," daddy said. "If you want it I'll give you all I got. You and them too. Way you talked tother Satdy you was looking for it."
The lost chapters present a new element to the novel -- that of "daddy's" new Ford as an alluring, yet ominous addition to the idyllic world of Agee's childhood. At one point Laura, the mother says, "... something dreadful is going to happen, Jay. Something irreparable. To our family. In that auto."
We also see an early example of road rage, as a speeding, honking, begoggled driver on Highland Avenue roars by a horse and buggy and then Jay's Ford, toppling the family to the side of the street, then looks back with a grin. "Why you crazy God damn son of a bitch I like to bust yer f---- God damn jaw!" And his door was already wrenched open and one foot was out before he realized the uselessness. "I swear to God I could kill a man like that," he said. "I mean it. I could kill him and it'd be a pleasure to."
Some things haven't changed too much on Knoxville's roadways.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Who's your Daddy" redux: the New York Post taunts Pedro Martinez

The New York Post strives each day to equal the greatest tabloid headline of all time: Headless body found in topless bar.

Yesterday, perhaps testing the bounds of objective journalism, the Post's ran the front page above.

The "Daddy" reference goes back four years, to Martinez's memorable words after a tough outing against the Yankees.

To honor the Bronx Bombers, we reprise the discussion of who's vs. whose and other pesky contractions vs. possessives.

Right: "Who's interested in finding out whose books these are?"
Right: "Who's your Daddy?" chanted the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Pedro Martinez, then with the Red Sox, came on in relief.
Right: Whose team won the ACLS?

Like "your" and "you're" and "its and it's," "whose" and "who's" are misused every day, I guess because the apostrophe makes you think "possessive."

Anyway --

"Who's" is a contraction of "who is."
"Whose" is the possessive pronoun.

"You're" is a contraction of "you are."
"Your" is the possessive pronoun.

"It's" is a contraction of "it is."
"Its" is the possessive pronoun.

Click here for a full discussion of the expression "Who's your daddy?"

Click here for photos of Yankees fans taunting Pedro back in 2005.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Praise for Chuck Berry, the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll

As John Lennon once said, "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry." Berry's advice (much like that of Strunk & White): "When you're writing a song, nouns and verbs will carry you right through."

November 02, 2009
Editorial Notebook: Memphis
Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee" has been haunting me - the metrical precision of the lyrics, its emotional realism and, of course, the revelation in the penultimate line.

In the Times op-ed piece linked above, Klinkenborg mentions that "Memphis" reminds us how much country was in Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll. Yes, Berry's first hit was a country parody, Maybellene. But he also wrote lyrics like ---

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass,
had the world in the palm of her hand.
She lost both her arms in a wrasslin' match,
to meet a brown-eyed handsome man.

And of course --

Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Odious -- one of the most fun words in our language




adjective: Highly offensive; inspiring and deserving hatred.

From Latin odium (hatred), from odisse (to hate). Ultimately from the Indo-European root od- (to hate) that is also the source of the words annoy, noisome, and ennui.

USAGE: "All over the US there are people whose lives are being destroyed for lack of proper health care provision, and there is no sight more odious than the rich, powerful, and arrogant trying to keep it that way."Simon Hoggart; Why the American Right Make Me Sick; The Guardian (London, UK); Aug 15, 2009.

College Advice, From Nine Perspectives

From Sunday's New York Times
September 06, 2009
Op-Ed Contributors:

College Advice, From People Who Have Been There Awhile
Educators give some helpful advice to young adults entering school this fall.

The Hunt for a Good Teacher
Find the best teachers and take a writing class.

An Argument Worth Having
Cut through the jargon, analyze and debate.

Get Lost. In Books.
Read the authors that are difficult and demand rereading.

Don’t Alienate Your Professor
Once in class, participate.

Play Politics
Have passion for learning and for your beliefs.

Go the Wrong Way
Think about life, not just a job.

Off-Campus Life
Read a good newspaper; it will be your path to the world at large.

My Crush on DNA
Fall in love with your vision of the future.

Change Course
College is never what one expects.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Losing ground on the "like" vs. "as" front

"Everybody is talking about health care - but they don't understand it like Ted Kennedy did."

The use of "like" before an expression with a verb in it is basically accepted now in newspapers, including the N.Y. Times, even though it is not AP Style. It has always been accepted in conversation, in quotes in stories, for veracity ("We didn't play like we wanted to"), and in Peter Frampton songs such as "Do you feel like we do?"
But students need to know that such usage can burn them big time in serious writing. And would it kill anyone to say "as" or "the way"?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Defenestrate -- toss out a window



PRONUNCIATION: (dee-FEN-uh-strayt)

MEANING: verb tr.: To throw someone or something out of a window.

ETYMOLOGY: From Latin de- (out of) + fenestra (window).

There have been many defenestrations over the course of history, but the most famous, and the one that inspired the word defenestration, was the Defenestration of Prague on May 23, 1618 . Two imperial regents and their secretary were thrown out of a window of the Prague Castle in a fight over religion. The men landed on a dung heap and survived. The Defenestration of Prague was a prelude to the Thirty Years' War.

See a Lego sculpture of the Defenestration of Prague. Also, check out the defenestration of various articles of furniture in this unique San Francisco sculpture.

USAGE: "When someone in a Joe Lansdale novel is defenestrated, you feel like shaking the glass shards out of your lap."Jeff Salamon; The Further Adventures of Hap and Leonard; The Austin American-Statesman (Texas); Jul 4, 2009.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Simpatico -- like-minded, Mediterranean style



(sim-PAH-ti-ko, -PAT-i-)

adjective:1. Like-minded; compatible.2. Congenial; likable.

Via Italian or Spanish from Latin sympathia (sympathy), from Greek sympatheia, from sym- (together with) + pathos (emotion, suffering).

"Basil and tomatoes are simpatico in so many ways. One major trait they share is that neither should ever be refrigerated unless they have been chopped." - Bill Ward; Warm, Flavorful, Fresh Summer Food; The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson); Jul 29, 2009.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Yay! Personality assessments being added to the college-admissions circus!

from The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2009
Adding Personality to the College Admissions Mix
by Robert Tomsho

For years, colleges have asked applicants for their grade-point averages and standardized test scores.

Now, schools like Boston College, DePaul University and Tufts University also want to measure prospective students' personalities.

Using recently developed evaluation systems, these schools and others are aiming to quantify so-called noncognitive traits such as leadership, resilience and creativity. Colleges say such assessments are boosting the admissions chances for some students who might not have qualified based solely on grades and traditional test scores. The noncognitive assessments also are being used to screen out students believed to be at a higher risk of dropping out, and to identify newly admitted students who might need extra tutoring.

For the rest of the story, click here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Equanimity -- evenness of temper



(ee-kwuh-NIM-i-tee, ek-wuh-)

noun: Evenness of temper in all circumstances.

From Latin aequanimitas, from aequus (equal, even) + animus (mind, spirit).

"Even as a young netball star, Tharjini had no inflated opinion about herself nor did she ever take offence at the numerous teasing remarks or stares that her height drew. She met both celebrity status and silly remarks with equanimity."
-- Thulasi Muttulingam; A Player With Many Highs in Her Life; The Sunday Times (Colombo, Sri Lanka); Jul 12, 2009.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lie vs. lay -- Dylan should have sung "Lie, Lady, Lie"

I once heard a lecture on the poetry of Bob Dylan, in which the lecturer described the tension in the lyric "Lay, lady, lay /Lay across my big brass bed" as deriving from the fact that it should be "Lie, lady, lie," but the singer fears that by uttering the word "lie" he might open up the possibility of her lying to him, turning their love into a falsehood.

Sally Alexander -- longtime English teacher at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md. -- offers this perspective on those oft-misused verbs to lie and to lay.

Sally writes:

Principle parts: lie (pres. tense) lay (last tense) lain (participle). This verb is intransitive - i.e., does not take an object. E.g., I lie on my bed, yesterday I lay on my bed, I have lain on my bed all day. (On my bed is an adverbial prepositional phrase, not an object.)

Principle parts: lay (present tense), laid (past tense), laid (participle). This verb is transitive - i.e., must take an object. E.g., I lay the book on the table, yesterday I laid the book on the table, every day this week I have laid the book on the table.

I once had a male teacher in the English department at Holton who, when I pointed out that these two verbs should be taught in the ninth grade, told me, "Teach it somewhere else. I'm not telling fourteen year-old girls that you can lie by yourself, but you have to lay something."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

assiduous -- "all over it" from the root sed "to sit"



adjective: Constant; persistent; industrious.

From Latin assiduus, from assidere (to attend to, to sit down to), from ad- (toward) + sedere (to sit). Ultimately from the Indo-European root sed- (to sit) that is also the source of sit, chair, saddle, assess, sediment, soot, cathedral, and tetrahedron.

"The reason for his presence there [a Donald Duck statue in a temple garden] remains a mystery despite the author's most assiduous inquiries."Jeff Kingston; Chiang Mai: Thailand's beguiling Rose of the North; The Japan Times (Tokyo); Jun 28, 2009.

Don't confuse "your" and "you're"

From Grammar Gremlins, Knoxville News Sentinel 8/9/09
by Don K. Ferguson

The misuse of "your" for "you're" is far too common.
I have seen this error several times recently, mainly in e-mail messages.
It is common enough that several handbooks make note of it. One says the two words are confused surprisingly often.

"Your" is the possessive of the pronoun "you."
"You're" is a contraction of "you are."

Here are examples from the Gregg Reference Manual that show both uses:
1. Your thinking is sound, but we lack the funds to underwrite your proposal.
2. You're thinking of applying for a transfer, I understand.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Should it be "more important" or "more importantly"?

From Garner's Usage Tip of the Day:

more important(ly)

As an introductory phrase, "more important," has historically been considered an elliptical form of "What is more important," and hence the "-ly" form is sometimes thought to be the less desirable. Yet three points militate against this position.

First, if we may begin a sentence "Importantly, the production appeared first off Broadway . . . ," we ought to be able to begin it, "More importantly, . . . ."

Second, the ellipsis does not work with analogous phrases, such as "more notable" and "more interesting." Both of those phrases require an "-ly" adverb -- e.g.: "More interestingly, he earns lots of money." David Beckham, "Why Are They Famous?" Independent, 31 Aug. 1997.

And third, if the position is changed from the beginning of the sentence in any significant way, the usual ellipsis becomes unidiomatic and "-ly" is quite acceptable -- e.g.: "Shrage believes that the strategy should not be to reverse the intermarriage rate, as some activists argue, but to make sure that intermarried couples embrace Judaism and, more importantly, commit to raising their children as Jews." Diego Ribadeneira, "Jewish Community Flourishing, New Report Says," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6 Sept. 1997.

The criticism of "more importantly" and "most importantly" has always been rather muted and obscure, and today it has dwindled to something less than muted and obscure. So writers needn't fear any criticism for using the "-ly" forms; if they encounter any, it's easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Limericks for the day


limerick (LIM-uhr-ik) noun
A humorous, often risque, verse of five lines with the rhyme scheme aabba.

[After Limerick, a borough in Ireland. The origin of the name of the verse is said to be from the refrain "Will you come up to Limerick?" sung after each set of extemporized verses popular at gatherings.]

Several modest topical examples . . .

A pious father of four
Met Maria in Ecuador.
They danced in the air
With the utmost of flair.
And now he’s a teary-eyed bore.

A most sanctimonious gov
Met his soul mate and fell quite in love.
Then his savvy spouse
threw him out of the house,
And the Gov prayed to heaven above.

Maria Belén Chapur,
An exquisite Buenos Arian amour,
Met a Furman grad
Who was awfully glad
For a grand South American tour.

From our old friend Jim Lattin:

Along the Appalachian Trail
They looked for Sanford, to no avail.
The news media said
He had gone instead
To chase Argentinian tail!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

SLANT -- and how to be the Professor's Pet

A couple of years ago there was a New York Times Magazine story (and a reference to it in David Brooks' column) about successful inner-city charter schools whose pupils are required to SLANT -- Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the teacher with their eyes.

This behavior, say educators, is intuitively understood by middle-class kids but must be specifically itemized for those from less advantaged backgrounds.

At one point in the Times' story, the teacher asked the kids to affect the "normal school look." They immediately slouched in their seats and started talking, goofing off and staring into space. The kids, wrote Paul Tough, "seem to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke."

On a similar theme, the Key Club magazine, Keynotes, ran a feature "Professor's Pet -- High school rules won't cut it. Here are eight tips for making the grade in college." Here again, these tips aren't the Secrets of Dendur, but they can be valuable for kids getting ready for the new expectations of college.

To be the Prof's Pet --

  1. Show up!
  2. Make sure the professor knows you
  3. Be at the head of the class
  4. Prepare
  5. Participate
  6. Take advantage of office hours **(my favorite, discovered a couple of years late)
  7. Keep you attitude in check
  8. Be polite

Semaphore -- signaling with flags

Last night's Final Jeopardy question was, “Fittingly, the cover of this Beatles album shows the Fab Four engaging in a semaphore message.”

semaphore noun [from the Greek sema (sign, signal) + phore (carrying)]

1. an apparatus for visual signalling (as by the position of one or more movable arms)

2. a system of visual signaling by two flags held one in each hand

Jeopardy host Alex Trebek noted that the Moptops' semaphore letters actually spelled N-V-U-J because H-E-L-P didn't look particularly aesthetically pleasing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sanguine -- bloody cheerful



1. Cheerfully optimistic or confident.
2. Having a healthy reddish color.
3. Blood-red.

ETYMOLOGY: From Old French sanguin, from Latin sanguineus (bloody), from sanguis (blood).

USAGE: "As usual, Phillips is sanguine: Michael is totally focused now, and the insurance wasn't a problem, it was just expensive."Robert Sandall; Will Michael Jackson Survive His Concert Marathon? The Sunday Times (London, UK); May 31, 2009.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Eleemosynary -- charitable



PRONUNCIATION: (el-uh-MOS-uh-ner-ee, el-ee-, -MOZ-)

MEANING: adjective: Relating to charity.

ETYMOLOGY: From Latin eleemosynarius, from eleemosyna (alms), from Greek eleemosyne (pity, charity), from eleemon (pitiful), from eleos (pity).

USAGE: "The Guzmans started their non-profit organization, Path of Hope Foundation, 18 years ago. Their single goal: to care for the poor who live near their corner. The Thanksgiving dinner is one of their eleemosynary events."
-- Lynn Seeden; Free Thanksgiving Dinner Feeds 1,400; Orange County Register (Santa Ana, California); Dec 4, 2003.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Martinet -- one so strict as to earn a fragging




(mar-ti-NET, MAR-ti-net)


noun: A strict disciplinarian.

ETYMOLOGY: After Jean Martinet, an army officer during the reign of Louis XIV in France. He was a tough drill master known for his strict adherence to rules and discipline. He was killed by friendly fire during the siege of Duisburg in 1672 (see photo).


"Many people believe the agency acts like a martinet. They say the agency is hard-headed and hard-hearted. They say it is dictatorial and unyielding."APA Motives Commendable; Press-Republican (Plattsburgh, New York); May 11, 2009.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Atone -- finding the harmony of being "at one"



PRONUNCIATION: (uh-TOHN, rhymes with phone)

MEANING: verb tr., intr.: To make amends for.

ETYMOLOGY: From the contraction of the phrase "at one" meaning "to be in harmony".

USAGE: "While society must be protected from those who might pose it a threat, it is vital we let people get on with their lives once they have atoned."Éamonn Mac Aodha; Minor Offenders Need More Help to Escape Spectre of Past Crime; The Irish Times (Dublin); Apr 28, 2009

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Would it kill you to write "such as"?

From today's New York Times:
"In the months leading up to Judge Sonia Sotomayor's selection this week, the White House methodically labored to apply lessons from years of nomination battles to control the process and avoid the pitfalls of the past, like appearing to respond to pressure from the party’s base or allowing candidates to be chewed up by friendly fire."

Plainly, we are losing the battle against "like" used as a conjunction (that is, with verbs, adverbs, phrases and clauses) in formal writing.

"Although widely used as a conjunction in spoken English," says Harbrace's Glossary of Usage, "as, as if, and as though are preferred for written English."

The Elements of Style weighs in on the issue as follows:

Like. Not to be used for as. Like governs nouns and pronouns; before phrases and clauses the equivalent word is as.

We spent the evening like in the old days. [should be as]

Chloe smells good, like a pretty girl should. [should be as]

The use of like for as has its defenders; they argue that any usage that achieves currency become valid automatically. This, they say, is the way language is formed. It is and it isn't.

An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming.

If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines.

For the student, perhaps the most useful thing to know about like is that most carefully edited publications regard its use before phrases and clauses as simple error.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Charlotte Cheever Cushwa Clark (1917-2009)

Charlotte Cheever Cushwa Clark, 91, of Harwich Port, Mass., an accomplished artist in watercolor, oil, pastel and lithograph prints; mother of six, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of five; died of heart failure, in East Harwich, Mass., May 21.

She was preceded in death by her husband of 54 years, the Rev. Bayard S. Clark, who died in 1994.

She is survived by her brother, William T. Cushwa of Agawam, Mass., and her six children and their spouses, Mr. & Mrs. Tom F. and Katharine C. Lord of Houston, Texas; W. Tucker Clark of Westport, Conn.; Mr. & Mrs. B. Stockton Clark Jr. of Hamden, Conn.; Mr. & Mrs. Franklin Taylor Clark of Washington, D.C.; G. Rockwood Clark and Mary Larkin of Harwich, Mass.; and Mr. & Mrs. N. Brooks Clark of Knoxville, Tenn.

She had 14 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Charlotte Cheever Cushwa was born Sept. 5, 1917, in Exeter, N.H. Her father, Frank W. Cushwa, was the Odlin Professor of English at the Phillips Exeter Academy and the author of An Introduction to Conrad (1933) and, with Robert N. Cunningham, Ways of Thinking and Writing (1936).

Her mother, Elizabeth Tucker Cushwa, was a daughter of Dr. William Jewett Tucker, president of Dartmouth College from 1893 to 1909.

Her great grandfather the Rev. Henry T. Cheever of Worcester, Mass., was mentioned and quoted in Moby-Dick as author of the 1849 book The Whale and His Captors. Cheever had journeyed to the South Seas as a missionary in 1840 and written several books about his experiences.

Charlotte graduated from Smith College in 1940, where she majored in painting. She was married to Bayard S. Clark of Philadelphia on June 21, 1941, in Cambridge, Mass.

Their first child, Katharine Conger Clark, was born in Philadelphia Dec. 15, 1942.

Bayard graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1945. His first assignment was to St. Louis, Mo. Over the next two decades, while rearing a growing family, Charlotte was a rector’s wife in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Houston, Tex., Nashville, Tenn., and then Washington, D.C., where Rev. Clark served as a canon at the National Cathedral from 1960 to ’65.

She and Bayard first heard Martin Luther King speak in 1957 at Scarritt College in Nashville, shortly after the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Bayard had attended the first convention, in Montgomery, Ala. In 1960, Bayard introduced Dr. King to a meeting of the Nashville Ministerial Association. He was present at the Lincoln Memorial for the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and marched in Selma in 1965. Charlotte heard the last Sunday sermon of Dr. King’s life, at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968.

Between 1962 and 1970, Charlotte earned her MFA in Painting and the History of Art from American University. In the years thereafter she was a member of and took part in shows with numerous art groups, including the Watercolor Society, the Art Barn, the Art League of Washington, and the Washington Printmakers. She also taught art at John Eaton School and the YWCA, and Art History at the National School of Ballet of Washington.

In 1991, Charlotte and Bayard Clark became year-round residents of Harwich Port, Mass., where Charlotte had spent summers since 1928.

In the 15 years since Bayard’s death, Charlotte had enjoyed keeping up with the births, graduations, and weddings among her extended family and remarkable circle of friends.

She was a member of the Garden Club of Harwich, the Guild of Harwich Artists, the Printmakers of Cape Cod, and a the Chatham Newcomers Club.

She was a loyal member of Christ Church Episcopal, Harwich Port, where she attended services just weeks before her death and where her funeral was held on Sunday, May 24.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Avoid the awkward use of "it" near another "it" with a different meaning

Old editions of Harbrace had a note under Rule 28D that read as follows: Avoid the confusion arising from the repetition in the same sentence of a pronoun referring to different antecedents.

CONFUSING Although it is very hot by the lake, it looks inviting. [The first it is an idiomatic pronoun; the second it refers to lake.]

CLEAR Although it is very hot by the lake, the water looks inviting.

Newer editions state it [this note] a little more specifically: Avoid the awkward placement of it near another it with a different meaning.

AWKWARD It would be unwise to buy the new model now, but it is a superior machine. [The first it is an expletive. The second it refers to model.]

REVISED Buying the new model now would be unwise, but it is a superior machine.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences

Here is a link to The Guide to Grammar and Writing (sponsored by the CCC Foundation of Hartford, Conn.) on diagramming sentences. If you click here , there are examples of diagrammed sentences that go on for pages, including an amusing explication of diagramming by Dave Barry.

Friday, May 8, 2009

While -- a comma makes it mean "whereas"

from Ruge Rules

The Rule: "While" can be used to mean "during the time that," and it can be used to mean "whereas."
In the former case, while is not preceded by a comma.
In the latter case, while must be preceded by a comma.

So: I can't study while my little brother is beating on his drum.
And: The Blue Ridge mountains are beautiful, while the Rockies are grand.

Purists and copyeditors tend to frown on the use of "while" to mean "whereas," because the meaning depends upon the comma and points of punctuation have a perverse way of not being where they should be. If you choose to use "while" to mean "whereas," it's important to be assiduous in your punctuation.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Exorable -- capable of being persuaded




adjective: Capable of being persuaded or moved.

From Latin exorare (to prevail upon), from ex- (out) + orare (to pray, beg).

"Without reform, the result is an exorable middle-class tax increase."Jonathan Rauch; A Bad Tax With Good Timing; National Journal (Washington, DC); Mar 18, 2006.

15 Practical Rules of E-Mail Etiquette

It’s 11 a.m. on an ordinary day at the office. You notice that little yellow envelope in the bottom corner of your screen that means you’ve got e-mail. You click to see what’s come in.

It seems someone in your firm has a problem. With you. He is not happy, and he has e-mailed you and “cc”ed your boss, your co-workers, several other managers---just about everybody but the president of the company. There’s one of those threatening “if/then” sentences near the end, something along the lines of, “…if you are not willing or able to fix this situation, then…”

You’ve been flamed. (“Flaming” is e-mail lingo for venting strong emotion online or sending highly inflammatory messages.) So it’s 11:02 a.m. on that same morning, but now you’re fuming with rage. You’re tempted to bang out a response, hit “reply to all,” and share some ungentle sentiments of your own. But you pause. You resolve to wait until after lunch to frame a considered response, a polite response, one that recognizes not only the unique qualities of e-mail but also its pitfalls.

The fact is that most of us are still figuring out the rules of practical etiquette that enable us to use this medium to best advantage. E-mail can be as personal and revealing as a letter or as impersonal as junk mail. It has limitations in conveying emotions—but it can also convey emotions too well. Especially fiery ones! It’s instantaneous and easy—often too easy. What we need is e-mail etiquette. So here goes:

1. Use that subject line. Take a moment to summarize what your message is truly about, as a newspaper headline does. This helps get your message read. (Key words in the title line also help if you have to search for a message later on.) To avoid “Re: Re: Re:-itis” in multiple replies, summarize your response, as in “12:15 better than noon,” rather than “RE: lunch plans.”

2. Pause for a salutation. We are always grateful to be greeted with politeness and humanity. “I like the classic ‘Dear so-and-so,’ just as in a letter,” says Karen Ramsay, a computer network engineer. Short of “Dear,” it’s more and more common to start with your recipient’s name and a dash or comma. This also signals that it is a personal communication and not spam or a broadcast to the group.

3. Include pleasantries. In the elevator, we say, “Good morning.” At a co-worker’s office door we ask a greeting question. These are the lubricants of daily interaction. Some e-mails are more formal than others, but the vast majority move between two people who might just as easily be saying hello in the hall. In your e-mail, consider the same pleasantry you might employ in a conversation: Before you launch into your three points of action from the previous meeting, consider saying, “It was good to talk with the group today.” Or if it’s an individual, “It was good to hear about your trip to Cancun.” Or, if it’s an acquaintance you haven’t e-mailed in a while, “Hope you are well.” Why? It makes life more pleasant and your reader more apt to enjoy the message.

4. NO SHOUTING! All-caps in e-mails have the same effect as shouting in conversation. It’s considered rude. Even an all-cap word here and there is iffy, since it takes the reader aback.

5. Proof and spell-check. A poorly written message replete with run-on sentences, omitted punctuation, misused or misspelled words is difficult to read, easy to misunderstand---and reflects poorly on the sender. (And no one will ever tell you if you’ve made an embarrassing gaffe.)

6. Use “cc” sparingly. Copy co-workers or bosses only when there’s a reason to do so. Similarly, don’t use “Reply All” as your default. Resort to “Reply All” only when everyone truly needs to see your response.

7. Beware the negative. E-mail is great for conveying information, instructions, and objective facts. But, for some reason, slams slam harder in an e-mail. It is rarely a good idea to send anything negative online. If the news is that bad, it should be delivered face to face, or at least by phone, so your facial expression or the sound of your voice can soothe and explain tough news. “Even if it’s mild criticism,” says Ramsay, “take some extra words to make your tone much gentler than in regular conversation.” Another side to this issue is that everyone is very courageous in e-mail, precisely because they don’t have to face the person. A good rule is, “Never say anything in an e-mail you wouldn’t say to the person’s face.”

8. Remember, it’s public. E-mails are forwarded from person to person, often multiple times, with forwarders often forgetting a nugget of “touchy” or classified information that appeared several messages below. Says Karen Ramsay, “I tell my staff, before you send an e-mail, ask yourself if you’d be willing to post it on your office door.” And e-mails can legitimately be perused by employers and are often subpoenaed in legal cases, sometimes going back years.

9. Be careful about humor. Always a two-edged sword, humor can be extremely touchy in e-mail. Sarcasm is easily misunderstood and may come across as insulting. If you must make a light comment, it’s often a good idea to use a smiley-face or emoticon ---to make sure a recipient knows you’re kidding.

10. Never respond in anger. First, if someone has insulted you, it may well be a miscommunication, a lame attempt to be funny, or it might be a response to a hasty e-mail of yours. Pick up the phone and ask, “What was that about?” A double caution is, “Never ‘Reply to All’ in anger. This is a good way to make an enemy for life.

11. Avoid multiple questions. If you ask a series of questions, most responders will answer only the last question asked. If you are posing a series of questions, number them. This is also a good idea for multiple pieces of information. It simply helps the reader order the information. If you are responding to a series of questions, number them in your reply and use a different color to set your replies off from the questions.

12. The shorter the better. Something about a long e-mail can make a reader say, “Oh, no.” Shorter ones are better read and more quickly responded to. If you find yourself responding to an emotional situation with a three-page, single-spaced rehashing of events, consider the possibility that e-mail is not the best medium for working out the situation.

13. Kick the forwarding habit. Everyone gets too much mail already. If you can’t resist broadcasting jokes, inspirational stories and political diatribes, consider saving them for friends and family—and realize that we’ve all seen most of them already.

14. Sign-off: Consider the same pleasantry and sign off as you would use in a letter. “Please let me know if I can be of any assistance. Best regards, Brooks.”

15. Say “please” and “thank you.” Your grandmother was right: “They’re the three most valuable words in the English language: they don’t cost you a thing, and they pay dividends your whole life long.” In e-mail, as in life, a little courtesy goes a long way.

Monday, May 4, 2009

palliative and hortative

From this week's Time: "Obama is cool where George W. Bush seemed hot . . . palliative rather than hortative."

palliative noun
[from the Latin palliare, to cloak or conceal (a pallium is a cloak)]
to moderate the intensity of

hortative adj.
[from the Latin hortari, to urge. Recall the fellow in Ben-Hur who beat time for the oarsmen with his wooden mallets and the immortal line, "Hortator, ramming speed."]
giving exhortation (language intended to incite and encourage)

Why we need to hyphenate two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun

Mr. Ruge always loved the example of the headline below, in which the hyphen broke off from the printing plate and brought a lawsuit upon the newspaper:

Mr. Jones Has Cast-Off Clothing and Invites Inspection.

Here is a discussion of the issue from Garner's Usage Tip of the Day:

Miscues (7).

Unhyphenated Phrasal Adjectives

Forgetting to put hyphens in phrasal adjectives frequently leads to miscues. For example, does the phrase "popular music critic" refer to a critic in popular music or to a sociable music critic? If it's a critic of popular music, the phrase should be "popular-music critic."

[[Similar example: He went to a small business convention. Was it a small convention? Or was it a convention for small businesses?] ]

The general rule [Harbrace 18f(1), in the subject field above ] is that when a phrase functions as an adjective preceding the noun it modifies -- an increasingly frequent phenomenon in modern English -- the phrase should ordinarily be hyphenated. Hence "the child is six years old" becomes "the six-year-old child."

Most professional writers know this; most nonprofessionals don't.

Some guides might suggest that you should make a case-by-case decision, based on whether a misreading is likely. You're better off with a flat rule (with a few exceptions noted below) because almost all sentences with unhyphenated phrasal adjectives will be misread by someone. The following examples demonstrate the hesitation caused by a missing hyphen:

o "One last pop on this whole question of incivility of discourse, the much argued over issue of whose speech has been more inflammatory and socially destructive than whose." Meg Greenfield, "It's Time for Some Civility," Newsweek, 5 June 1995. (After "much argued," the reader expects a noun; then "over" appears, unsettling the reader for a moment; then, in two milliseconds, the reader adjusts to see that "much-argued-over" is a phrasal adjective modifying "issue.")

o "This English as a second language text presents the different speaking styles for international students." Mary Newton Bruder, The Grammar Lady 243 (2000). (A possible revision: "This English-as-a-second-language text presents the different speaking styles for international students.")

Readability is especially enhanced when the hyphens are properly used in two phrasal adjectives that modify a single noun -- e.g.: "county-approved billboard-siting restriction"; "13-year-old court-ordered busing plan"; "24-hour-a-day doctor-supervised care." Some writers -- those who haven't cultivated an empathy for their readers -- would omit all those hyphens.

Enlightened writers and editors supply those necessary hyphens -- e.g.: "They lived in a first-floor apartment in a six-story rent-controlled, union-subsidized housing development in Flushing, Queens." Ken Auletta, "Beauty and the Beast," New Yorker, 16 Dec. 2002.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy 50th Birthday Elements of Style!

This is a high holy day for grammarians: the 50th birthday of that slender book, The Elements of Style. Let us vow to forever enclose parenthetical expressions between commas, use the active voice, and walk in the ways of Strunk & White's gospel.

From today's New York Times:

By SAM ROBERTS The classic writing guide by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White has just been republished in a 50th-anniversary edition.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A good article about cover letters

The New York Times
JOB MARKET February 15, 2009
Career Couch: A Cover Letter Is Not Expendable
Cover letters are still necessary, and in a competitive market they can give you a serious edge.

Sometimes a period can help a lengthy sentence gain clarity

Sometimes we all write (or have to edit) sentences --- like those legendary, paragraph-long ones in The New Yorker, with interminable interjections inside dashes, that take a few too many twists and turns, that pile "which clauses" upon "who clauses" and end up making readers forget where they began, or what the point was in the first place, if there was one --- that simply go on too long.

Often, you can put a period before a "who clause" and start a new sentence with "he" or "she." Likewise with "in which" and "where" clauses can easily be turned into their own sentences. Sometimes, on inspection, you realize a comma followed by an "and" reads better as a period and a new sentence, with no need for the "and" at all.

Sometimes you realize those long appositive clauses and interjections inside dashes can be taken out and made into nice, clear sentences of their own. Often an adverbial clause floating around the middle of a sentence makes a lot more sense at the beginning.

These "sentence-shortening" skills are essential to writing for the ear (radio, TV and speeches), for children 's publications, and for Ernest Hemingway parodies. (The fish was big. He caught it. It took a long time. His hands hurt.)

Harbrace makes especially good reading on the subjects of sentence Subordination and Coordination (Chapter 24), Emphasis (Chapter 29) and Variety (Chapter 30).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Omit superfluous words, SEC style

(from "A Plain English Handbook," put out by the Security and Exchange Commission to coach financiers on making their stock offerings and other disclosure documents more comprehensible; click here to print your own copy.)

Words are superfluous when they can be replaced with fewer words that means the same thing. Sometimes you can use a simpler word for these phrases:

superfluous . . . simpler
in order to . . . . . to
in the event that . . . . . if
subsequent to . . . . . after
prior to . . . . . before
despite the fact that . . . . . although
because of the fact that . . . . . because or since
in light of . . . . . because or since
owing to the fact that. . . . . because or since

The following summary is intended only to highlight certain information contained elsewhere in this Prospectus.

This summary highlights some information from this Prospectus.

Mischievous -- so spelling and pronounced

from Garner's Usage Tip of the Day


"Mischievous" /MiS-chuh-vuhs/ is so spelled.

"Mischievious" is a common misspelling and mispronunciation /mis-CHEE-vee-uhs/ -- e.g.:

o "I could not imagine them driving, getting mouthy, moody or mischievious [read 'mischievous'], let alone going to drinking parties at the homes of friends whose parents were out of town." Eleanor Mallet, "The Tranquility of School Age," Plain Dealer (Cleveland), 25 Feb. 1995.

o "Mayan Indians considered this place hell's fun house, inhabited by mischievious [read 'mischievous'] gods who had to be soothed with heaping food bowls and the occasional human sacrifice." Judith Wynn, "Lodge Guests Settle In Among Tropical Wildlife," Boston Herald, 26 Dec. 2002.

Place prepositional phrases near the words they modify

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

From the 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 and Connecticut. This is a misplaced modifying prepositional phrase.

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

Friday, April 10, 2009

Minuscule -- so spelled. Who knew?

from Garner's Usage Tip of the Day


So spelled, not "miniscule." The word derives from the word "minus"; it has nothing to do with the prefix "mini-." But the word is commonly misspelled — e.g.:
o "Mouth hanging open, Harry saw that the little square for June thirteenth seemed to have turned into a miniscule [read 'minuscule'] television screen." J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 242 (Am. ed. 1999).
o "Even as some people questioned the practical effect of saving such a miniscule [read 'minuscule'] portion of the state budget, they were mostly willing to forgo cynicism." Kathleen Burge, "Forgoing of Salaries Gets Mixed Reviews," Boston Globe, 2 Jan. 2003, at B5.
o "The deck is a triangle with its center angle flattened, 16 feet long and 5 or 6 feet deep. 'Tiny but useful,' said Schuyler, squeezing between the miniscule [read 'minuscule'] table and one of two chairs." Peter Hotton, "A Skinny Masterpiece Built on a Gorgeous Lot," Chicago Trib., 12 Jan. 2003, at N5.
The counterpart — a rarity — is "majuscule." Today that term is used only in printing, to denote a capital letter.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A comma usually follows introductory words, phrases, and clauses.

Harbrace 12b: A comma usually follows introductory words, phrases, and clauses.

Adverb clause, independent clause.
Introductory phrase, subject + predicate
Introductory word, subject + predicate

(1) Adverb clauses before independent clauses
When you write, you make a sound in the reader's head.
-- Russell Baker

[Rule of thumb: always use a comma with an introductory group of words that has a verb form in it.]

(2) Introductory phrases before independent clauses
Prepositional phrases:
From the deck, I could not see my father, but I could see my mother facing the ship, her eyes searching to pick me out.
-- Jamaica Kincaid

Omit the comma after introductory prepositional phrases when no misreading would result.

[Rule of thumb: use a comma after an introductory phrase of four words or more.]

(3) Introductory transitional expressions, conjunctive adverbs, interjections, and an introductory yes or no.
Furthermore, benefits include maternity leave of eight weeks . . .
Well, move the ball or move the body. -- Allen Jackson
Yes, I bought my tickets yesterday.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

With a wink to the scribe: amanuensis

amanuensis -- from the Latin (servus) a manu, a slave with secretarial duties: meaning one employed to write from dictation or to copy manuscript.

This word often shows up as a euphemism of sorts for a ghost writer -- My Turn at Bat by Ted Williams, as told to John Underwood; Iacocca by Lee Iacocca with Ralph Novak; or Learning to Sing by Clay Aiken and Allison Glock.

The word appears in texts about the Bible in the Middle Ages. For example, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible refers to the men who in 1605 refined, corrected and improved previous translations of the Bible as "Amanuenses of the words of God." (Note the plural.)

By using this word, a skilled writer is usually implying with a wink that there was a lot more than just dictation and pure secretarial work being done ---as there usually is, even in pure secretarial work!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sanguine -- bloody good spirited, eh?


sanguine (SANG-gwin)

1. Cheerfully optimistic or confident.
2. Having a healthy reddish color.
3. Blood-red.

ETYMOLOGY: From Old French sanguin, from Latin sanguineus (bloody), from sanguis (blood).

USAGE: "Still, let us not be over-sanguine of a speedy final triumph. Let us be quite sober."Abraham Lincoln; Letter to James C. Conkling; Aug 26, 1863.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mnemonic devices (for spelling)

A mnemonic device is one that assists the memory, from the Greek mnemon--mindful. (Mnemosyne was the Greek goddess of memory and the mother of the Muses by Zeus.)

We all know "I before e, except after c, or when sounded as "a", as in neighbor or weigh." Fewer people know the mnemonic sentence that can help us remember the major exceptions: "Neither leisure foreigner seized the weird heights."

FedEx executive Shane O'Connor writes, "I remember one class in which [Ferdinand E.] Ruge was teaching us a way to remember how to correctly spell “exhilarate,” since it is often misspelled “exhilerate.” He stood in front of the class in his gray pinstriped three-piece suit and swung his pocket watch fob around as he sang, "La la la la la la la. Exhi-LA-rate exhi-LA-rate."

Try these---

There is a rat in separate. 0A

I have an independent dentist. (We also have an independent superintendent, who comes from Boston.)

The principal is my pal. "Principal" can also refer to a matter or thing of primary importance, or the capital sum placed at interest, due as a debt, or used as a fund, as in the principal of a loan.

A principle is a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption. As in, you are always true to your principles.

For the dance, your attendance is requested, just as it will be for you descendants.

A vast area was devastated.

Finally, something definite.

Like the letters you'll write on it, stationery has an "e" in it. (As opposed to stationary, or unmoving, objects.)

We're all all grateful for congratulations.

The U.S. Capitol building has a dome on it -- as do the "o"s in both words. Confusingly, Washington., D.C., is the capital of the United States.
Why? The former word comes from the Capitoleum , the temple of Jupiter at Rome that sat atop the Capitoline hill. The latter comes from the Latin capitalis, meaning chief, or principal, (derived from the Latin word caput, meaning "head"). All you have to remember is the building has a domed "o." All other meanings are with an "a."

How can you learn for sure to spell tough words, like occurrence, or accommodate? Or parallel? One good start is to pay a visit to Harbrace Chapter 18: Spelling and Hyphenation. The first seven pages are invaluable for anyone.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

How should we pronounce "long-lived"?

from Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

long-lived, adj.

The traditional American English preference, both in this phrase and in "short-lived," has been to pronounce the second syllable /lIvd/, not /livd/. (The sense is "having a long life," and the past-participial form has been made from "life" [/lIf/], not the ordinary verb "live" [/liv/].)

But the predominant practice today -- and the British English preference -- is /livd/. The American tendency to make it a short "-i-" is perhaps explainable on the analogy of the ordinary word "lived"; the British tendency may be influenced additionally by the phrase "long live the Queen."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pied -- the piper wore multicolored attire


pied (rhymes with pride)

adjective: Having patches of two or more colors; multicolored.

ETYMOLOGY: From pie (magpie), referring to a magpie's black and white plumage, from Latin pica (jay or magpie). The Pied Piper of legend owes his moniker to his multicolored attire.

USAGE: "The pair of women came first, one strangely dressed, in pied clothes of three or four eras."Michael Chabon; The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; William Morrow; 1988.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Make Sure Those Pesky Introductory Phrases and Clauses Agree With the Subjects They Modify

From today's NFL: In Brief wire reports -- "Seven months after forgiving teammate Steve Smith for his nose-breaking sucker punch, the Carolina Panthers released starting cornerback Ken Lucas to clear about $2.3 million in salary-cap room." [Hyphen added by me.]
We imagine the wire service means that seven months after forgiving Steve Smith, Ken Lucas was released by the Panthers.

Wrong: While riding a bus, the tornado ripped through our town.

The Rule: make sure introductory phrases or clauses agree with the subjects of the sentences they modify.

There are two ways to fix the sentence above:
1) While I was riding a bus, the tornado ripped through our town.
2) While riding a bus, I saw the tornado rip through our town.

This is covered in Harbrace 25b: Revise Dangling Modifiers

Although any misplaced word, phrase, or clause can be said to dangle, the term dangling modifier applies primarily to incoherent verbal phrases and elliptical clauses (that is, clauses with implied subjects and verbs) that do not refer clearly and logically to other words in the sentence. To correct a dangling modifier, rearrange the words in the sentence to make the modifier clearly refer to the right word, or add words to make the meaning clear and logical.

When verbal phrases or elliptical clauses come at the beginning of a sentence, the normal English word order requires that they immediately precede and clearly refer to the subject of the sentence.

Turn to Section 25 of Harbrace for excellent illustrations of the many kinds of dangling modifiers.

Below is an example of a related problem, a subject with an imprecise or unclear antecedent.

SAT Question of the Day™

Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.

Although less important to the early development of jazz than New Orleans and Chicago, New York City's contributions were important toward transforming jazz out of a quaint, little-known folk music into an international genre of great significance.

a) New York City's contributions were important toward transforming jazz out of
b) New York City's contributions were important as they transformed jazz from
c) the contributions made by New York City were important in transforming jazz out of
d) New York City made important contributions toward transforming jazz from
e) New York City made important contributions, they transformed jazz out of

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Which paper are they talking about?

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

Observing the newspaper’s tradition of ------- attention to accuracy, the reporter ------- every statement made by her informant.

A. scrupulous . . . verified
B. lax . . . challenged
C. sporadic . . . corroborated
D. systematic . . . bungled
E. inordinate . . . exaggerated

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

obstreperous -- noisy or unruly




MEANING: adjective: Noisy or unruly.

ETYMOLOGY: From Latin obstreperus (clamorous), from ob- (against) + strepere (to make a noise).

USAGE: "One email informs me of a friend's trepidation at having to undergo a stress test as recommended by her physician. And she is not referring to the stress associated with the presence of recalcitrant children and an obstreperous spouse." Vanaja Rao; That Sick Feeling; Gulf News (United Arab Emirates); Feb 5, 2009.

Pesky IIism and word choice in one!

Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.

For both his shorter and longer works of fiction, Gabriel García Márquez achieves the rare feat of being accessible to the common reader while satisfying the most demanding of sophisticated critics.

A. For both his shorter and longer
B. For both his shorter, and in his longer,
C. In both his shorter and his longer
D. Both in his shorter and20his longer
E. Both his shorter and longer

Select the specific word instead of the vague one

Since it was first published in 1941, the Harbrace College Handbook has gone into 16 editions, plus a CD version.

Throughout the Depression, University of Tennessee Professor John C. Hodges kept files of writing errors made in his rigorous freshman English classes, eventually leading him to assemble his logically numbered set of rules. Though Hodges died in 1967, Harbrace has lived on.

With input from English professors all over the nation, it has grown and improved with each edition, (and its royalties helped build the UT library, opened in 1969, that bears Hodges' name).
Still, in some cases, from one edition to the next, tiny gems of Hodges' teachings have been lost as they've been superseded by slightly different discussions.

One example is from the 4th edition (1956), Rule 20a(2) Concreteness. Select the specific word instead of the vague word. The equivalent section in later editions, now numbered 20a(3), is very good, and I've included it below.

But first, sounding the way I imagine Professor Hodges might have sounded in a classroom, is the section that was replaced:

Concreteness. Select the specific word instead of the vague word.
Avoid vague generalities. Be as specific as you can.
Instead of writing went, consider the possibility of rode, walked, trudged, slouched, hobbled, sprinted. When you are tempted to say a fine young man, ask yourself whether brave, daring, plucky, vigorous, energetic, spirited, or loyal would be more appropriate. Do not be satisfied with the colorless ask when you can choose among beg, pray, entreat, beseech, implore. The word try is ineffective in most situations when struggle, fight, battle, strive are available.

The test for the specific word is contained in six words--who, what, when, where, how, why.

Notice how the following sentences are improved by asking the questions Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? about one or more elements in the sentence.

VAGUE The Dean spoke about student life and that sort of thing. [Who spoke about what?]
IMPROVED Dean Jones spoke about the social advantages of the student union.

VAGUE Mr brother is going away to have a good time. [Where is he going? How will he have a good time?]
IMPROVED My brother is going to Gatlinburg in the Smoky Mountains, where he plans to fish and hunt for a few weeks.

VAGUE All the columnists are commenting on the high cost of living. [Who are commenting? Where did comment appear?]
IMPROVED In the July 12 issue of the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Lippman, George Sokolsky, and Robert Roark discussed the recent advance in food prices.

VAGUE The Army team finally advanced the ball. [How did they do it?]
IMPROVED Adams, the Army quarterback, received the ball from center Jim Hawkins, retreated to his ten-yard line, and threw a pass to left-end Smith, who was tackled on the Army thirty-five yard line.

VAGUE I think the speech was biased. [Why?]
IMPROVED Mr. Jones began his speech without any attempt to support his statement that the policies of the Republican administration were a "total denial of the American way of life."

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? 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, March 3, 2009

Canard -- quackery, of sorts




MEANING: noun:1. A deliberately misleading story; hoax.2. An airplane with small forward wings mounted in front of the main wings; also such a wing.

ETYMOLOGY: From French, literally a duck. The term is said to have come from the French expression vendre un canard à moitié (to half-sell a duck, or to take in or swindle).

USAGE: "Lyndon Johnson's half-truths about the Gulf of Tonkin, supported by subservient media, embroiled the United States in a nasty war that took the lives of millions of souls. Ultimately, the Vietnam War's distortions and canards prevented him from running for a second term."Mansour El-Kikhia; Realists Conquer Politics With Lies; San Antonio Express-News; Nov 28, 2003.

"Like that old canard that George Harrison's songwriting didn't take off until Something." --Stephen Gibson 2/27/09

Right verb for millions

Grammar Gremlins
By Don K. Ferguson
All the news about the economy has money on the minds of readers.
Here's a recent question posed to "Grammar Gremlins":
"Which is correct, $4.5 million has or have been raised?"
The Associated Press Stylebook says for specified amounts, a singular verb is called for. Therefore, "has" would be correct in the reader's example.
When the money being referred to represents a number of individual units, a plural verb is necessary. Example: Millions of dollars have been spent already.

to the manner born

From Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

to the manner born
This Shakespearean phrase -- meaning "accustomed from birth to a certain habit or custom" -- first occurred in Hamlet (1603), when the melancholy protagonist bemoans the king's drunken revelry:
"Though I am a native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honored in the breach than the observance."
The phrase is sometimes misunderstood as "to the manor born." But confusion in the popular mind was aggravated by a clever pun in the title to the BBC television series, To the Manor Born (1979-1981), which ran frequently on American PBS stations.
The actress Penelope Keith played an heiress who, having lived her entire life on an English manor that has been in the family for generations, is forced, through financial straits, to sell the manor to a supermarket magnate. After she moves into a smaller house on the manor, the heiress and the businessman gradually fall in love and eventually marry.
Yet, as one linguist has observed in reference to similar phrases, "what one generation says in game the next generation takes in earnest." John Algeo, "Editor's Note," 54 Am. Speech 240 (1979).
What begins as a pun can spread into genuine linguistic confusion -- e.g.: "If you were not to the manor [read manner] born, consider staying at a hotel where a guest can feel like a country squire." Barrett J. Brunsman, "Virginia's Vintages," Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 Mar. 2001.

Like, whatever

A good SAT Question of the Day:
Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.

Like machinery was integral to the development of industrial capitalism, so the rapid transfer of information is the force driving modern business.

A. Like
B. Given that
C. Since
D. Just as
E. Although

Thursday, February 26, 2009

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

Following up on the Times column that whistled the President for the grammar foul of saying, "...between you and I," here are some other object object lessons.

In all the case cases below, the speaker has only to switch the order of the people to reveal the error. No one would say, "...between I and you," because it sounds wrong.

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

From John Adams' story in today's Knoxville News Sentinel, quoting Mississippi State hoops coach Rick Stansbury: "They made plays. Him [Bobby Maze] and [Scotty] Hopson made plays."

In an an earlier News Sentinel story, a sentence from a Karns High student's letter (absolving a teacher for allegedly offending her) reads: "Him and I have always joked around."

Another earlier story quotes a student saying, "Me and Zach try our best not to talk about football..."

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

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

A Jeff Foxworthy Harbrace Moment

Harbrace Section 5: Case charts the cases of pronouns, then adds, "Pronouns my, our, your, him her, it, and them combine with -self or -selves become intensive/reflexive pronouns.

[Basically, these are objective pronouns that have gotten somewhat big for their britches and are used for emphasis to refer to a noun or pronoun in the same sentence.] Formal English does not accept myself as a substitute for I or me." [I myself don't care.]

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

Bill lives by himself [NOT hisself].

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

That pesky "I" as the object of a preposition

From The New York Times
February 24, 2009

Op-Ed Contributors: The I's Have It

Since his election, President Obama has been roundly criticized for using "I" instead of "me." Here is a tip, Mr. President.

peripatetic -- just a ramblin' kind of word


peripatetic (per-uh-puh-TET-ik)

1. Moving or traveling from place to place.
2. Of or related to walking, moving, or traveling.
3. Of or related to Aristotle: his philosophy or his teaching method of conducting discussions while walking about.

1. An itinerant
2. A follower of Aristotle.

From Latin peripateticus, from Greek peripatetikos, from peripatein (to walk about, to discourse while pacing as did Aristotle), from peri- (around) + patein (to walk). Ultimately from the Indo-European root pent- (to tread) that also gave us words such as English find, Dutch pad (path), Hindi path (path), French pont (bridge), and Russian sputnik (traveling companion).

USAGE: "With his back to goal in a crowded space, the peripatetic Frenchman [Nicolas Anelka] deftly chipped the ball over his shoulder, and into the net for the equalizer."Rob Hughes; Michel Platini Set to Make Plea to Cut Influence of Money in UEFA; International Herald Tribune (Paris, France); Feb 15, 2009.

Friday, February 6, 2009





1. Quick-tempered.
2. Showing anger or resulting from anger.

ETYMOLOGY: From Latin irascibilis (quick to anger), from irasci (to grow angry), from ira (anger). Ultimately from the Indo-European root eis- (passion), which is also the source of irate, ire, hierarchy, hieroglyphic, and estrogen.

USAGE: "Mr. Weir concludes from his large experience that the erection of the feathers is caused much more by anger than by fear. He gives as an instance a hybrid goldfinch of a most irascible disposition, which when approached too closely by a servant, instantly assumes the appearance of a ball of ruffled feathers."Charles Darwin; The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals; 1872.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

That pesky comma before the conjunction linking independent clauses

From today's News Sentinel:

"The new head of the University of Tennessee’s main campus in Knoxville aims to minimize the harm of imminent state budget cuts with careful planning but he said effects will be felt at the classroom level."

Whoops! The prolific and talented Chloe White forgot the comma before the "but."

Harbrace 12a A comma ordinarily precedes a coordinating conjunction that links independent clauses.

as in --

subject + predicate, . . . . {not so yet} . . subject + predicate

The minutes would pass, and then suddenly Einstein would stop pacing as his face relaxed into a gentle smile.


13b Delete commas that immediately precede or follow coordinating conjunctions unless they link independent clauses.

as in (remove the parenthesized comma)

I fed the dog (,) and put it out for the night.

In other words, if there's just one subject and two predicates, no comma.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A lyric little bandbox of a ballpark and Ted Williams' last home run

On the passing of John Updike, we offer this column

By John Ryan, Mercury News

John Updike, the celebrated author who died Tuesday at age 76, had an eye for sports. His "Rabbit, Run" featured the travails of a former high school basketball star.

And his essay in The New Yorker on Ted Williams' final game at Fenway Park remains a staple of sportswriting nearly 50 years later.

Appearing in October 1960 and titled "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," the article begins: "Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark."

That description is repeated to this day. But Updike's more memorable writing involved the buildup to Williams' last at-bat, in the eighth inning.

"Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult."

Williams hit a home run, of course. And Updike writes:

"Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs — hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted 'We want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009





1. Having a mix of diverse elements.
2. Universal; general.
3. Pertaining to the whole Christian church; concerned with promoting unity among churches or religions.

From Latin oecumenicus (general, universal), from Greek oikoumenikos, from oikein (to inhabit), from oikos (house). Ultimately from the Indo-European root weik- (clan) that is also the forebear of vicinity, village, villa, and villain (originally, a villain was a farm servant, one who lived in a villa or a country house).

USAGE: "An ecumenical group of Cincinnati area leaders called for an end Wednesday to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Gaza Strip."Rebecca Goodman; Area Groups Call For End to Gaza Conflict; Cincinnati Enquirer; Dec 31, 2008.

Write with nouns and verbs

From Strunk & White's The Elements of Style,

Section V, An Approach to Style, item

4. Write with nouns and verbs.

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power, as in

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We adren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men . . .

The nouns mountain and glen are accurate enough, but had the mountain not become airy, the glen rushy, William Allingham might never have got off the ground with his poem. In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The "like" debate continues

Today's SAT Question of the Day brings up a topic that has been bothering the GTOTD:

Digital technology, like every marketer knows, it is synonymous with speed, precision, and the future.

A. technology, like every marketer knows, it is
B. technology, similar to what every marketer knows as
C. technology, as every marketer knows, is
D. technology is what every marketer knows as
E. technology that every marketer knows is

On Sunday, one of the GTOTD's patron saints, Don K. Ferguson of the News Sentinel (above right), wrote the following in his Grammar Gremlins column:
Make 'actually' add to sentence
Are you one of those who use the word "actually" like it is used in the following sentence?
Several others were in the race, but no one actually knows how many.
Many use "actually" like this, where it adds little to the sentence. Although it often is unnecessary, it can be useful at times, as in pointing up a contrast.
Example: Those large dogs look ferocious, but actually they are quite gentle.
The most common use of "actually" is to add strength to a statement that might seem surprising. Example: She actually invited him to the party.
Handbooks say that, while "actually" can be omitted, including it often improves the rhythm of a sentence.
The GTOTD e-mailed Mr. Ferguson and asked about his use of "like" in the first sentence.
Gentleman that he is, Mr. Ferguson offered the following very nice reply:

Thanks for your note. Here is what one of my handbooks says on the point you raise: "Like ... meaning 'as, in the same way as' ... has been used for nearly 500 years and by many distinguished literary and intellectual figures. Since the mid-19th century there have been objections, often vehement, to these uses. Nevertheless, such uses are almost universal today" in informal speech and writing.
That said, however, I will say here that perhaps I should have been a bit more formal and used "as."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Madding crowd v. maddening crowd

From Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

madding crowd; maddening crowd

By historical convention, "madding crowd" is the idiom, dating from the late 16th century. Unlike "maddening," which describes the effect on the observer, "madding" (= frenzied) describes the crowd itself.
Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" (1749) and Thomas Hardy's novel Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) helped establish this idiom, especially Gray's "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife."

In modern writing, "madding crowd" remains about seven times as common as its corrupted form.

But some writers get it wrong -- e.g.:

o "Far from the maddening crowd [read 'madding crowd'] of shoppers and away from the tinsel and mistletoe, Grinches, apparently, are everywhere." Mike Pellegrini, "Bah! Humbug!" Pitt. Post-Gaz., 22 Dec. 1996.
o "'Being typecast would bother me if my career weren't flourishing outside of the show,' the 47-year-old Williams says earnestly in a tiny office away from the maddening crowd [read 'madding crowd']." Joel Reese, "Here's the Story, of a Man Named Williams," Chicago Daily Herald, 13 Aug. 2002, Suburban Living.

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