Thursday, December 30, 2010

Make those antecedents and pronouns agree!

Here is the lead sentence in the lead story in a recent Knoxville News Sentinel: "Ask anyone involved in managing stormwater runoff to cite their biggest problem, and the answer is universal -- enforcement."

One quick fix is to replace "their" with "his or her." Antecedents like "everyone, " "someone, " "everybody," "each," "either" are singular.

[We used to treat "none" strictly as singular, because it is a contraction of "not one," but these days Harbrace 6a(7) says, "When used as subjects, "all," "any," "some," and "none" may take either a singular or a plural verb, generally depending on the context. Praise be.]

A better fix in the sentence above might be to change "anyone" to a plural -- e.g., people, folks, civil engineers, those.

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In the mood . . . for the subjunctive

Atop our Sunday's "Week in Review" section of The New York Times stood the jarring headline: "If Bill Clinton Was President." It was corrected in later editions and on the Times website to read, "If Bill Clinton Were President."

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

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

Indicative Dannice calls me every day.

Imperative Call me every day, Dannice

Subjunctive It is important that Dannice call me every day.

What the heck do we do with the subjunctive mood? Even between the 14th and 15th editions of the Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, the editors made some changes to the section on mood.

Neither one of those sections is much of an improvement over what University of Tennessee Professor John C. Hodges had in his 2nd edition, back in 1946. "Only a few distinctive forms of the subjunctive remain," wrote Hodges, who went on to describe the top two, the --

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Adverbial Clauses--Two warnings about

Here's the first sentence of a pretty good column in today's University of Tennessee Daily Beacon:

"This last election has seen a rather interesting polarization of American politics, something of which I have been guilty myself, such as when I wrote a column after the health care vote on how Democrats were trying to destroy America."
It conveniently illustrates both warnings in the Ruge Rule below -- about adverbial phrases as predicate nominatives and as objects of prepositions.


"This last election has seen a rather interesting polarization of American politics, something of which I have been guilty myself, such as [when] the time I wrote a column after the health care vote [on how] asserting that Democrats were trying to destroy America.
Here's an SAT Question of the Day that turns on the same rule:
British author Charles Dodgson, best known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, is renowned for when he wrote two of the most famous and admired children’s books in the world, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass.
A. is renowned for when he wrote
B. renowned in that he wrote
C. received renown, he wrote
D. is renowned for writing
E. was renowned and wrote
From Ruge Rules

1) An adverbial clause may never be the object of a preposition.

Wrong: I suppose death is like when you go to sleep and don't wake up.
Right: I suppose death is like going to sleep and not waking up.
(Note: in correcting for the used of the adverbial clause as the object of the preposition "like," we are automatically correcting for the used of the indefinite "you.")

2) An adverbial clause may never be used as a predicate nominative.

Wrong: The reason I like my math class is because Doc Arnds keeps me on my toes.
Right: The reason I like my math class is that Doc Arnds keeps me on my toes.

Wrong: Cheating is when you copy someone else's work.
Right: Cheating is copying someone else's work.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Be careful about the spelling of "bated breath"

No. 2 on Daphne Gray-Grant's Top 25 grammar and language mistakes is misspelling "bated breath."
"If you write baited breath," explains Gray-Grant on, "everyone will suspect fishing is your favorite hobby. The word should be spelled bated, which comes from abated, meaning held."

Another good one on her list is No. 5:
Confusing “racked” with “wracked.” If you are racked with nerves, you are feeling as if you are being stretched on the torture device, the rack. You rack your brain when you try to write difficult stories. Wrack, on the other hand, has to do with ruinous accidents. With luck, this won’t apply to your writing, but it might just apply to the stock market, which has been wracked by recession.

And then there's the very important No. 21:
Using “they” when referring to a business. “Starbucks said they would give everyone a free latte today.” Although this might sound right, the correct sentence is: “Starbucks said it would give everyone a free latte today.” And if that grates on your ears, then rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem: “Starbucks is offering everyone a free latte today.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mnemonic Devices (for spelling)

John T. Bird of Birmingham, Ala., is an old friend best known for writing Twin Killing: The Bill Mazeroski Story and successfully campaigning to get the longtime Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Lately Bird has put his energy behind mnemonic devices for spelling, as he prepares to publish Fuchsia Shock: 151 Common But Difficult Words You Will Never Misspell Again!

With illustrations by Stefanie Slaughter, Fuchsia Shock coaches us to associate exhilarating with hilarious. "Example: laughing in the theater at the hilarious movie was an exhilarating experience."

In one entry, Bird advises us to associate potato with NATO. Similarly, he advises us to think of currency to remember that second "r" in occurrence. When the book comes out, it should be a hit, although Bird and Slaughter may find themselves adding words in future editions.

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 “exhi lerate.” 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.

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.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

James Webb, Scots-Irish culture and guns

In this week's MetroPulse, Jesse Fox Mayshark does an excellent job of answering the question, "Why do East Tennesseans love their guns?"

Among many insights, Mayshark hits paydirt when he invokes Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, Sen. James Webb's 2004 book that was featured in a political context a couple of years ago in a Grammar Tip of the Day.

In Mayshark's story, he quotes University of Tennessee law professor (and blogger) Glenn Reynolds as he eloquently describes the Scots-Irish culture of Appalachia as follows:

“Their model is that of the independent frontiersman who takes care of himself and his family with no interference from the state.

"They are conservative in the sense that they cling to America’s unique pre-modern tradition—a non-feudal society with a sort of medieval liberty at large for everyman.

"To these people, ‘sociological’ is an epithet. Life is tough and competitive. Manhood means responsibility and caring for your own.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The 50th Anniversary of Ted Williams' last game -- and "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"

Fifty years ago today, the Splendid Splinter played his last game and hit a homer in his final at bat. John Updike memorialized the moment in“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which Charles McGrath described in Sunday's New York Times as "probably the most celebrated baseball essay ever." [To read McGrath's story, click on here.]

McGrath notes that "Updike had actually scheduled an adulterous assignation that day. But when he reached the woman’s apartment, on Beacon Hill, he found that he had been stood up: no one was home. 'So I went, as promised, to the game,' he wrote years later, 'and my virtue was rewarded.' "

Strangely, Updike never wrote another baseball story before or after. For years there was a small letter from Updike framed on the wall of the managing editor's office at Sports Illustrated, declining an offer to write another baseball story and noting the irony that, based on the "Hub Fans" piece, everyone assumed Updike was a baseball aficionado, which, Updike said in his letter, he was not.

Nonetheless, as McGrath writes, "It’s not too much to say that “Hub Fans” changed sportswriting. Affectionately mocking the tradition of sports clich├ęs (as in the title, which didn’t actually appear in any of Boston’s seven dailies at the time, but easily could have), the essay demonstrated that you could write about baseball, of all things, in a way that was personal, intelligent, even lyrical. Updike compares Williams to Achilles, to a Calder mobile, to Donatello’s David, standing on third base as if the bag were the head of Goliath.
"A groundskeeper reminds Updike of Wordsworth’s mushroom gatherers. In a couple of memorable phrases, calling Fenway Park a “lyric little bandbox” that looks “like the inside of an old-fashioned, peeping-type Easter egg,” Updike gave the place a freshly painted sheen, so that if you grew up in Boston, as I did, you could never look at the old ball yard the same way again."

Near the end of Updike's story, he described the moments after Williams' home run, when he refused to emerge from the dugout and doff his cap to the cheering fans: "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."
To read "Hub Fans," click here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dartmouth President touts the importance of effective writing

At the 241st Convocation of Dartmouth College, Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim said, "Among the many things I have learned from the Dartmouth faculty, one of the most significant lessons is that the ability to write clearly, effectively, and creatively may very well be the most important skill you will be taught in your time here.
"My expectation, as I have always said, is that each of you must go out and change the world after you have completed your time here. After many years of working on social problems like world poverty and lack of access to health care, it has become clear to me that for you to succeed in your world-changing mission you must leave Dartmouth with the ability to think clearly, imaginatively, and critically, and then render your thoughts in the written word. . . .
" . . . Now, don’t get me wrong: I am still a wildly enthusiastic believer in the power of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to help us solve problems. But it was in graduate school that I realized changing the world would require the ability, as one of your professors put it to me just the other day, to “see the world as it is, imagine the world you want to create, and then render that vision in a way that convinces others that it is both attainable and desirable.”

To read Kim's full address, click here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of Carry the Rock by Jay Jennings

Click here to read the excellent Wall Street Journal review of Jay Jennings' book Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Are tests biased against the apathetic?

An interesting study hints that caring matters on standardized tests. Listen to a report here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Profile of University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley

To read Brooks Clark's profile of Derek Dooley, click here.
Above, then-UVA coach George Welsh with receiver Derek Dooley.

Friday, June 18, 2010

perquisite; prerequisite

From Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

"Perquisite" (often shortened to "perk") = a privilege or benefit given in addition to one's salary or regular wages {executive perquisites such as club memberships}.

"Prerequisite" = a previous condition or requirement {applicants must satisfy all five prerequisites before being interviewed}.

Although Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says there is "almost no evidence of the words' being interchanged," the confusion certainly does occur -- e.g.:

  • "Have executive salaries, bonuses and other corporate prerequisites [read 'perquisites'] been cut, or will the proposed rate increase maintain them?" "Sorry, Wrong Numbers," Wash. Post, 11 July 1993, at C8.

  • "Then, it needs to start selling permanent seat licenses, luxury boxes and club seats, all the wonderful prerequisites [read 'perquisites' or 'perks'] an NFL owner requires." Ken Rosenthal, "Forget Legal Avenues, Take Baltimore's Route to NFL," Baltimore Sun, 30 Nov. 1995, at D1.

  • "The five-year contract has an effective date of March 1. In addition to salary, it also provides for negotiated prerequisites [read 'perquisites' or 'perks'] and compensation features." Doug Hensley, "Tech, Dickey Agree to $ 1 Million Deal," Amarillo Daily News, 7 May 1996, at D1.

  • "Job descriptions are detailed and present information on duties, salaries, prerequisites [read 'perquisites'], employment and advancement opportunities, relevant organizations, and special advice for getting into the desired field." Kent Anderson, Book Rev., School Arts, 1 Dec. 1996, at 46.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Setting off in commas states (after cities) and years (after dates)

Not sure why, but many college students have trouble setting off states (after cities) and years (after dates) in commas , as in -- Boston, Massachusetts, is the cradle of liberty. And, Tracy applied for the job on April 13, 1993, and accepted it on Monday, May 24, 1993.

This falls in a note under the sacred of Harbrace section 12d, which states:

Commas set off nonrestrictive and other parenthetical elements as well as constrasted elements, items in dates, and so on.

Nonrestrictive clauses or phrases give nonessential information about a noun or pronoun. They can be omitted without changing the meaning. Restrictive clauses or phrases are essential to the clear identification of the word or words they refer to. They limit (rather than describe) those words by making them refer to a specific thing or person or to a particular group.

Geographical Names, Items in Dates and Addresses
This subnote contains the examples above. Note that commas are omitted when the day of the month is not given or when the day of the month precedes rather than follows the month (European style), as in -- Tracy applied for the job in April 1993 and accepted in on Monday, 24 May 1993.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pulitzer Prize-winner Kathleen Parker thanks her 11th-grade English teacher

A sprig of verbena and the gifts of a great teacher
By Kathleen Parker
In 11th grade, my life changed in a flicker of light

Mr. James Gasque enters the Grammar Tip of the Day pantheon.
Bring back diagramming sentences!

Monday, April 5, 2010

From Ann Wylie's Writing Tips

Ann Wylie is a great writing teacher, and her Wylie's Writing Tips e-newsletters are filled with useful, practical ideas. (Click here to subscribe.)

Here are three tips from her April issue:

After a couple of months of reading on a reader, I decided to review my clippings. What I found will help me — and, I hope, you — model the masters, or steal techniques from some of the year's best writers to make your own writing more creative and compelling.

1. Use metaphor, not modifiers.
One problem with modifiers — thin, lean, straight — is that they don't paint pictures in your readers' heads. Instead of simply describing your subject with adjectives and adverbs, engage your readers' senses with analogy.
Meg Gardiner used this technique to describe a charismatic religious leader in her Edgar Award-winning mystery, China Lake:
"Peter Wyoming didn’t shake hands with people; he hit them with his presence like a rock fired from a sling-shot. He was a human nail, lean and straight with brush-cut hair, and when I first saw him he was carrying a picket sign and enough rage to scorch the ground."
Find yourself writing an adjective or adverb? Could you develop an analogy instead?

2. Coin a word.
Rebecca Goldstein is quite the neologist. In 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, she creates half-and-half words in this passage:
"Auerbach harbors such impatience for the glib literati—the 'gliberati,' as one of his own digerati had christened them—that Cass has wondered whether there might not be some personal history."
Can't find just the right word? Why not make one up?

3. Twist a phrase.
To call attention to an idea, change a word or two in a colloquialism to give it new meaning.
After seeing David Mamet's Boston Marriage hilariously performed by the Kansas City Actors Theatre, I read the play to make sure I didn't miss any lines like this phrase twister:
"ANNA: Have you taken a vow of arrogance?"
Want to call readers' attention to your point? Surprise and delight your readers with twist of phrase.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Seven tips to improve your writing

From Writing that Works


Writers must keep pushing to improve and to stay interested. Here are some ways to do both.

1. Read about writing. Look at many new books and buy the 10 to 12 a year that seem to offer at least two or three ideas or to reinforce the basics.

2. Attend writing seminars. At least once every other year attend a writing seminar to get reinforcement and hear others' points of view.

3. Soak in good writing. Read such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated and Vanity Fair. Read what you like and admire. Read as a writer; when you read something really good, go back and analyze it. Look for techniques you can use.

4. Notice how broadcast interviewers work. For example, Bill Moyers does extensive homework and shows intense interest in his subjects. Watch for questions and techniques you can use.

5. Don't try to perfect everything at once. Work on different elements on different pieces. For instance, on your next piece focus on writing great verbs.

6. Edit a paragraph or two of someone else's writing each day. Select a paragraph, perhaps from a newspaper, and improve it.

7. Talk shop. Keep your batteries charged by talking to other writers, whether in monthly departmental meetings or in groups writing completely different material.

SOURCE: WRITING THAT WORKS, a print-only, bimonthly newsletter.
Nonsubscribers may sign up here for a free trial subscription.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Scotty Hopson of the UT Vols profiled in Metro Pulse

Despite the Behind-the-Scenes Drama, the UT Men's Hoops Team Rallies Together

Heading into March Madness after a soap-opera season, the Vols’ men’s team finds an unlikely hoops hero: Scotty Hopson

By Brooks Clark
Metro Pulse

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

For a profile of UT basketball player Scotty Hopson, click here

Article summary: "The University of Tennessee’s athletic program has certainly seen its share of controversy in the past several months, with various arrests and sudden estrangements. And with the dismissal of star player Tyler Smith, it looked to be a grim season for the men’s basketball team after several rebuilding years under coach Bruce Pearl. But what do you know—in classic underdog fashion, the team pulled together a strong season. And one of its new leaders became Scotty Hopson. As the team heads into March Madness, Brooks Clark introduces us to its unlikely hero."

As the clock ticked down to zero against Florida, University of Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson picked up his dribble and launched the basketball high into the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sad day for spelling -- "Mohammed Ali" in The New Yorker

In Ken Auletta's story about the Obama Administraton and the media in this week's New Yorker, Auletta quotes from Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson's book The Battle for America 2008: "At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don't know if you are Mohammed Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you."

Since the name of arguably the greatest athlete of the 20th century is spelled "Muhammad Ali, " The New Yorker should have put a [sic.] in there. This is especially strange since the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, is the author of the fabulous book King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. (Although, to be fair, the name in the title is misspelled in several places on the Amazon listing.)

Tomorrow: an anecdote from the 1970s about English director Jon Amiel, whose movie Creation is reviewed in this week's New Yorker.