Monthly Archives: September 2013

Commas Can Save Lives

A few days ago I received a giggle-inducing present from a business contact who has become a friend. Unfortunately for him, he spends a lot of time flying, but fortunately for me he found this gift in SkyMall Magazine. No, it isn’t a lawn Yeti. This is my  present, now hanging over my desk and making me smile every time I read it:

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I am one grandma who is very grateful for that comma.

 

 
 
 
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Decimate

The Roman Forum, the political, economic, cult...

The Roman Forum, the political, economic, cultural, and religious center of the city during the Republic and later Empire, now lies in ruins in modern-day Rome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you know the origin of “decimate”? Historically, it means to kill one in every ten people. In Roman times, when mutinies were not uncommon, as a warning to the troops one in every ten soldiers would be executed: “Follow orders, or this will happen to you!” You can see the “deci” root in the word, also found in “decimal.”

 

Over time, the word “decimate” has come to be taken not so literally, thank goodness, and is commonly accepted to mean the destruction of a large amount or number of something: “The recent floods decimated several Colorado towns.”

 

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Grammar and Advertising

Reader and friend K.S. alerted me to the label on this bottle of an orange juice-type beverage. Of course, I then had to go to the supermarket and be the crazy lady taking a photograph of a bottle of juice:

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Look at the blue banner across the orange; you’ll see that it says “50% less sugar and calories….”  You can’t count sugar, so using “less” is grammatical. But you can count calories, and for things you can count you need to use “fewer.”
 
COUNTABLE=FEWER
UNCOUNTABLE=LESS
 
 

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Between or Among?

“Between” is used when referring to two people or things: “That discussion should be only between Roger and Dennis, the only ones involved.”  “Please put the chair between the sofa and the wall.” 

“Among” is the word you want when more than two are involved: “This discussion should take place among all the employees who are planning to retire next year.”  “Among the five of us, three of us were born in July.”

 

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Shouldn’t the New York Times Know Better?

 

English: Costa Concordia Polski: Statek pasaże...

English: Costa Concordia Polski: Statek pasażerski Costa Concordia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Operations began today to try to turn the wrecked Costa Concordia upright. In reporting this event, the New York Times published this sentence:

 

“On Monday, a salvage crew used pulleys, strand jacks and steel cables, placed on nine caissons attached to the left side of the ship, to slowly dislodge it from the two rocks where it has been laying.”

 

Where it has been laying? I thought the Concordia was a ship, not a hen. “To lay” means to put or place. “To lie” means to rest or recline. The Concordia has been lying on two rocks.  Arrrrrrgh!

 

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Principal vs. Principle

Despite having the two meanings hammered into us since grade school, many of us still have to stop and think which one we need:

PRINCIPAL means the head of an organization, such as a school.  We all know “the principal was our pal.”  (I knew one who wasn’t, but I digress.)  It means anyone who plays a main or leading role.

Principal also means the main amount of money.  You earn interest on the principal.

PRINCIPLE means a standard or rule:  we hope most people live by principles that will benefit not only themselves but others as well.

 

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A Rave About a Book

Opening of De rerum natura, 1483 copy by Girol...

Opening of De rerum natura, 1483 copy by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris for Pope Sixtus IV (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just finished The Swerve, by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt. It was recommended to me by (shameless plug coming up) my dazzlingly bright 18-year-old grandson, who has studied Latin for seven years and is an avid reader. I have to say this is one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read. Thank you, Josh!

Greenblatt’s style is completely accessible, entertaining and fascinating. The briefest way to describe the book is that in the early 15th century, a papal scribe (there were three, count them, three, men claiming to be pope at this time) named Poggio Bracciolini, was obsessed with finding long lost Greek and Roman manuscripts and copying them in his meticulously beautiful handwriting to preserve them for posterity. He was looking particularly for Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), and serendipitously found it stowed away, ignored, in a German monastery in 1417.

Because of the rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem, the world swerved in a very different  direction from where it was and where it had been heading: Lucretius posited that everything in the universe is made of atoms colliding randomly; that humankind has free will, that there is no life after death, that the goal of life should be pleasure, and many other ideas that foretold the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Darwin’s thinking, as well as that of modern liberal-minded writers (e.g., Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins). Remember, Lucretius conceived of these ideas 1,400 years before Poggio rediscovered him.

This book is far from dry; in fact, it is a page-turner. Greenblatt vividly paints what life was like in Roman times and in Europe during the chaotic years of the plague. The machinations around the time of the three popes and what had to be done to decide who was the “rightful” heir to St. Peter were fascinating, as all three contenders and their retinues, numbering perhaps 100,000 people, descended on the small town of Constance in Germany to prove their legitimacy.

Greenblatt explains what was necessary to copy manuscripts: finding and preparing vellum and ink, the scriptoriums that monks (primarily) labored in: cold, unlit, with no candles because of risk of fire, writing over previous manuscripts after scraping off as much ink as possible so they could re-use the vellum—and who knows what treasures were lost because of that practice?

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and the National Book Award. No surprise to me. Five stars!

 

 

 

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