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:

100_2304 

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:

photo
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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Seventeen Problems Only a Book Lover Will Understand

English: Title page of first edition of Anna K...

English: Title page of first edition of Anna Karenina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a compulsive reader married to a compulsive reader, whose house walls are convex because of all the books inside, I can relate to these situations.

One of the “problems” is when a movie ruins a book you loved. For me, it was Tom Woolf’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Another one: “The Remains of the Day.” However, a movie I found far better than the book was “The Godfather.”  And some books you simply cannot do justice to in a couple of hours: “David Copperfield,” “Ulysses,” and “Anna Karenina.”

What are your book “problems”?  (See that use of quotation marks? It’s my way of saying I know these are not serious problems in the grand scheme of things.  It’s a tickle in the ribs.)

http://www.buzzfeed.com/harpercollins/17-problems-only-book-lovers-will-understand-9npd

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Where Are the Editors?

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard,...

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard, 42 × 33.7 cm., Art Institute of Chicago (F 345). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Big news in the art world the other day when a large Van Gogh landscape was identified as being his and is about to be displayed in Amsterdam at the Van Gogh Museum. But a friend sent me the following excerpt from an article in USA Today about this revelation:

“The Van Gogh Museum says it has identified a long-lost Vincent Van Gogh painting that spent years in a Norwegian attic believed to be by another painter.”

OK, let’s look at that sentence. It’s fine up to and through the word “attic.”  Then comes the modifier: “believed to be by another painter.”

Remember that modifiers have to be followed immediately by the person or thing who did the action? The USA Today sentence says that the Norwegian attic is believed to be by another painter.  A house painter, perhaps? This sentence can be fixed immediately by stating that “the Van Gogh painting, believed to be by another painter, spent years in a Norwegian attic.”

Anyone proofreading that sentence would have seen and heard the problem. Again, I ask, WHERE ARE THE EDITORS?

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Capitol or Capital?

English: The western front of the United State...

English: The western front of the United States Capitol. The Neoclassical style building is located in Washington, D.C., on top of Capitol Hill at the east end of the National Mall. The Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you get confused about which of these homonyms you need? Here are the differences:

CAPITOL refers to the actual building of state: “The governor entered the Capitol to deliver her annual State-of-the-State report.”

The Capitol in Washington, DC is the seat of the US Congress.

CAPITAL has several meanings:

It refers to the city or town that is the seat of government. “Sacramento is the capital of California.”

It also means the place associated with a particular product or activity: “Salzburg is the capital of festivals devoted to Mozart’s music.”

Capital also refers to the money a person or group has to invest: “Getty’s capital has funded several museums.”

Then there are capital letters, which are not recommended for e-mails, except for their commonly accepted uses; OTHERWISE, YOU WILL COME ACROSS AS A SCREAMER, AND WE WOULDN’T WANT THAT, WOULD WE?

 

 

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Esq. and Other Titles

You’ve probably seen the abbreviation “Esq.” fairly often. In fact, it applies only to lawyers, male or female.

Originally, an esquire was a young man (a squire) who was a manservant to someone of higher rank, doing menial chores for that person. Gradually, “esquire” was used for any young man, and at some point it became associated entirely with attorneys. When you see “Esq.” after someone’s name, it’s an attempt to confer status on that person. It’s the equivalent of adding “M.D.” for medical doctors and “Ph.D.” for academics. I’m not sure any of those add-ons are necessary, but that’s just my opinion.

I’ve often wondered about the honorifics given to certain professions. We call someone “Dr. Smith,” but you never hear anyone referred to as “Dogcatcher Jones” or “Pilot Ramirez.” Oh, wait. Pilots are called “Captain.” As my comedic idol George Carlin said, “Who made this man a captain? Did I sleep through a military swearing-in?”

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Dangling Modifiers Can Be Funny

These examples come from Maxwell Nurnberg’s book Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About English (but were afraid to raise your hand). He got the examples from newspapers and magazines. In each set, one sentence is correctly written and the other should make you scratch your head:

1. After taking a test, the faculty panel accepted me as a candidate for a degree.

2. After I took a test, the faculty panel accepted me as candidate for a degree.

 

1. Being of fragile material, the jerseys worn by the boys on the football team are hard to keep intact.

2. Being of fragile material, the boys on the football team are having a hard time keeping their jerseys intact.

 

1.Hopping from one tired foot to the other, the crosstown bus finally came into view.

2. Hopping from one tired foot to the other, I finally saw the crosstown bus come into view.

Correct answers: 2,1, 2.

Here’s the rule: When you begin a sentence with an introductory clause, what immediately follows that clause must be the thing mentioned in that introduction. In the first set, the faculty panel did not take a test. In the next group, the boys on the football team were not of fragile material. In the last group, it’s not likely a bus would be hopping from one foot to another. If your grammar check program highlights an introductory clause, check to see if you are dangling that modifier. You want your readers to laugh at your writing only when you intend it.

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