Monthly Archives: August 2013

Antidote or Anecdote?

I went to an event last night at which two different people got up to introduce others, and both of them said they wanted to tell an “antidote” about the people they were introducing.

You have to give me credit for smothering my urge to groan. I can’t guarantee I didn’t roll my eyes.  This is not hard, folks. An ANECDOTE is a brief (we hope), interesting story about another person. An ANTIDOTE is a medicine or other substance used to counteract a poison.

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My Mistake (One of Many)

A reader clued me in today that the headline accompanying the magazine article on Rachael Ray indicating that she was a cannibal and a dog eater had been Photoshopped to remove the necessary commas.

I’m kicking myself that it never occurred to me that might have been the case.

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Parameters and Perimeters

Here’s what my computer dictionary says about PARAMETER:

parameter |pəˈramitər|noun technical

• A numerical or other measurable factor forming one of a set that defines a system or sets the conditions of its operation: the transmission will not let you downshift unless your speed is within the lower gear’s parameters. [I have no idea what this means.   JB]

• Mathematics—a quantity whose value is selected for the particular circumstances and in relation to which other variable quantities may be expressed. [I have no idea what this means, either.  JB]

• Statistics—a numerical characteristic of a population, as distinct from a statistic of a sample. [Ditto. JB]

It then says that the word is often used to mean  “limit” or “boundary.”  Now even though I don’t understand the mathematical or statistical meanings (I got freaked out by numbers when I was in first grade), it annoys me to see people describe the “parameters of a problem.” I’m guessing this happens because of the similarity to the word “perimeter.”  Why not just say the “scope, size or limitations” of the problem? I know why not: because people think “parameter” makes them sound important.  It’s jargon.

English: parameters

English: parameters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Are You Ready for These New Words?

Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

Cover via Amazon

Every quarter, the Oxford English Dictionary comes out with a supplement containing words it deems worthy of inclusion, words it expects to stick around. The most recent additions include TWERK (verb), a dance motion made popular by hip hop dancers but now, apparently, more mainstream and reported to have been around for close to 20 years; SELFIE, a photographic self-portrait, often pouting, you post to digital media; DIGITAL DETOX, taking time away from social media (it can be done); and BITCOIN, the electronic currency not associated with any nation.

Now you know. I wonder what the next three months will bring.

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This Toilet Won’t Be Getting Much Use

How many disabled, elderly, pregnant children do you know?  Using commas in this sign wouldn’t help. It needs bullet points.  And it would be lovely to eliminate the multiple exclamation points at the end. Such enthusiasm!!!enhanced-buzz-1608-1369835469-8

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Adverbs: Are They Necessary?

I’m not advising you to avoid all adverbs. But so often adverbs are no more than fillers or result in redundancy. Take a look at these:

ALSO:  “In addition, Ronnie is also attending the conference.” In addition/also?  Choose one.

PERSONALLY: If you write, “Personally, I don’t care for pineapple,” you are being redundant.

SIGNIFICANTLY:  When you write that “the horse’s weight dropped significantly,” you are not conveying useful information. Be specific. How much weight did the horse lose?

CURRENTLY: Writing that “Edward is currently living in Chicago,” is redundant.

LITERALLY: You know this is a big annoyance for me; I’ve already written a post or two about it.  It means something actual. If you say someone was “literally blown away by the news,” I expect to see socks and shoes spinning through the air in addition to the body.

ABSOLUTELY: This word adds no meaning. “We were absolutely stunned by the birth of quadruplets” doesn’t make your amazement any stronger. Either you were stunned or you weren’t.

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Rachael Ray, Cannibal and Dog-Eater?

enhanced-buzz-29104-1369834930-5

 

Given Rachael Ray’s love for extra-virgin olive oil (or EVOO, as it seems to be called in many parts these days), I’m guessing sautéing was her preferred method of cooking her family and her dog.

Editor! Find your comma stash currently going unused and put a comma after “cooking.” If you’re in the mood to give up another, put it after family. That one is optional. A period at the end would be nice, but magazine covers have a style that eschews them. However, exclamation points are found in abundance!!!!

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A Little More on Quotation Marks

Here are the traditional ways to write about various forms of media:

1. Book titles: italics

2. Book chapters that use words (but not Chapter 1, for example): quotation marks

2. Magazine titles: italics

3. Magazine articles: quotation marks

4. Song and movie titles: quotation marks

Here’s what happens when people go nuts with quotation marks, trying to emphasize ideas:enhanced-buzz-22370-1369830393-6

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Lose the Quotes!

Here’s a sentence in an email from a friend. What do you think of his use of quotation marks?

[Tom]  spent the summer in Buenos Aires doing a practicum with the poor, ensuring clean water is getting to their “shanty” homes.

If these people are poor and living in Buenos Aires, their homes are shanties. But the use of quotation marks indicates that they really aren’t. The word “shanty” is certainly not being quoted. Calling attention to a word by putting it in quotes is not an acceptable use.

• Use quotation marks around words actually spoken or written by someone.

• Use quotation marks when you are using a word in a manner that is not literal. For example, you could write that the previous American Embassy in Moscow was found to be full of “bugs.” Your reader will then know that you are not referring to cockroaches and that “bugs” is slang for listening devices.

Every day I see quotation marks misused. Painted on a plumber’s truck is information telling me he has been “in business since 1973.” No one ever said that. Misused quotation marks are a distraction. Don’t annoy your readers.

 

 

 

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How Committed Are You?

How often do you come across people saying or writing they are going to give 110%? Have you ever stopped to think what that means?  If they give a mere 100%, what are they giving?  Everything!

Q: How can you give more than everything?

A: You can’t. So don’t say you will. You will only sound trite, and we don’t want that to happen. Giving 150% is no better. Your limit is 100%.

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Why I Post Writing Tips

English: Education.

English: Education. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been sending out writing tips for about 15 years. They end up going to thousands of people, primarily people who work in companies for which I gave business writing seminars. Do you ever stop to wonder why I send these tips out, tips that I now also post in my blog?  Because I want you to succeed.I cannot overemphasize how important it is to be able to write well.  By “well,” I mean writing clearly, concisely, precisely and confidently:

• Writing so your readers don’t have to guess what you mean

• Writing that invites your readers in

 • Writing that makes your readers feel good when they see they have received an email, letter or report from     you

• Writing your readers won’t delete before they even read it when they see who wrote the document

If you are looking for a job, your résumé is your calling card. Do you have any idea how many résumés are deleted at the first typo?  If a résumé has no typos but is badly organized or if it looks sloppy on the page, you can kiss that job goodbye.

If you have a job, your writing skills are no doubt part of your performance evaluation. Who will be promoted, a person whose writing is careless, ungrammatical, disorganized? Or will it be the person whose writing possesses the opposite of those characteristics? (Obviously, those are rhetorical questions.)

 

What will help your writing?  My tips can’t do it all. How I wish it were that simple. I do suggest you make a folder and save them for future reference, however.

The best thing you can do to improve your writing is to read, read, read. Find an author you like—it doesn’t have to be a so-called highbrow author—and just make yourself read. If you like a TV series, get the book it was based on. You’ll find it in iTunes or Amazon.

One other tip I used with my college students is a one-month experiment: write one page a day for 30 days. If you start on the 20th of the month, do this every day until the next 20th rolls around. Just write those single pages on any topic you want (each page can be a different subject), print them out, and put them in the order of oldest first.  After doing this for a month, start with the first page you wrote and read through them.  Finally, read the first page and then the most recent one you wrote. I guarantee you will see improvement you didn’t think would be possible.  No one read these for you. No one critiqued them. The improvement came from the simple act of writing.  Magic!

If you do this, I would love to hear from you at the end of your month. Remember, just one page a day. That is only about 250 words. No biggie!

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I Wish I Had Service for 12!

A friend who took my writing seminar several years ago sent me a link to these dishes today.  Of course I chortled with delight, wishing I had a whole set of dishes with grammar rules imprinted on them.  (Of course, my guests would probably lose their appetite if confronted with these at the dinner table.  But I LOVE them!)71db18aeb8c71589bf1874ae3f400dc0

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Verbal or Oral?

“Verbal” refers to words that are both spoken and written. “Oral” refers only to spoken words.  This is my shortest post ever.

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Crazy English Indeed

A friend emailed this to me today. It’s been making the rounds for years, but I hope it will be new to many of you.  I think it was written originally by Richard Lederer, who wrote many books on the vagaries of the English language, one of which is called Crazy English.

“Let’s face it:  English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

“And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce, and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese? One index, two indices? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends, but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

“If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

“How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

“English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

“P.S. Why doesn’t ‘Buick’ rhyme with ‘quick’ ?”

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Enormity’s Two Meanings

Until fairly recently, language purists would have insisted (and many still  do) that “enormity” means the extreme extent of something thought to be evil:  the enormity of his lies, the enormity of Madoff’s fraudulent activities, etc.

However, because of the word’s similarity to “enormous,” through common usage “enormity” has picked up a secondary meaning of largeness of scale: the enormity of a building or the enormity of a writer’s body of work, for example.

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Nauseous vs. Nauseated

Chocolate brownie in detail.

Chocolate brownie in detail. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s the situation: you found your long-lost recipe for Extra Yummy Fudgy Wudgy Brownies and ended up eating all but four of the batch at one sitting.  Decidedly green around the gills, you announced to everyone around you (you, know, those people astounded by your performance), “I’m nauseous!”

Prescriptive linguists, as opposed to descriptive linguists, would correct you. “Nauseous” means to cause nausea in others.”  The prescriptive gang would say, “No, you are not nauseous; you are nauseated, you Fudgy Wudgy inhaling fool.”

Descriptive linguists would support your initial statement.  Common usage has changed the meaning of “nauseous” to include the feeling of being nauseated. It still means to instill a feeling of nausea in others, but it also is commonly used to indicate personal gastric distress.

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Same Word, Evolved Additional Meaning

It’s not that uncommon to hear language mavens complain that others are using words incorrectly.  If you say a movie is “terrific” or “awesome,” they will ask you if you really thought the movie caused terror or awe. Both meanings of those two words are accurate today, only because language changes according to common usage.  It wasn’t that long ago that “twitter”  and “tweet” were sounds made only by birds.

I do think both “terrific” and “awesome” are annoyingly overused, however. It’s a good idea to look for fresh ways to express clichés.

In my next few posts I’ll come up with some more words that have come to be used differently than originally intended.

 


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Learning a New Language

Hello again. Dobre utro. I have just returned from a wonderful two weeks in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Russia is a fascinating country, and I had not nearly enough time to see all I wanted in just those two cities.

As a lover of language, I was both fascinated and frustrated by trying to read Russian signs, which are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. My frustration made me appreciate all the more how difficult it must be for learners of English whose native language is written either in characters, such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean, or in a completely different script, such as Armenian and Arabic.

The Cyrillic alphabet contains 33 letters. Some correspond to English letters: M, A, O, T and K are the same. Other letters look nothing like our Latin ones: ж = “zh” as in “measure, Д = “d” as in “door,” and З (yes, that’s a letter) = “z” as in “zebra.” Look at this word: MAKДOHAЛД’C. Can you figure out what it is?  It’s a PECTOPAH (restaurant), and the biggest one in the world is in Moscow. Yep, it’s MacDonald’s.

Right now I’m trying to adjust to the 11-hour time zone difference and getting my eyes to focus on English words, with renewed admiration for those people for whom English originally looked the way Cyrillic looks to me.

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