Monthly Archives: November 2013

Sea Change

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 o...

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 of his Last Will and Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an undergraduate English major at UC Berkeley, it never occurred to me to be a STEM major. In fact, that acronym hadn’t been invented. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Word on the street today is that if you are not majoring in one of those areas you might as well crawl into a cave with your literature, philosophy  and history books and be happy and useless away from society. I contend that liberal arts majors have much to offer, even in today’s STEM-heavy environment: they are well rounded and can think and write clearly and logically.

Which brings me to Shakespeare. As a senior, I took a seminar with the best professor I ever encountered—as an undergraduate, graduate student or as an English teacher myself. (I’m talking about you, Joseph Kramer.) He once made the statement that any three lines of Shakespeare could be read as a microcosm of the world, and went on to demonstrate that point repeatedly and brilliantly.

Which brings me to today’s jargon. Recently I wrote about clichés and jargon that originated in Shakespeare’s plays. Of course they weren’t clichés at the time of their origin, but they did catch on. A more recent cliché, or bit of jargon, is “sea change.” I see it everywhere; no simple “changes” exist any more. They are all monumental, life-altering “sea changes.” If the price of oil were to drop five dollars a barrel, that would be a sea change. If Donald Trump were to fix him comb-over to the left rather than to the right, that would be a sea change. (If he were to remove the small animal that lives atop his head, I would grant that would truly be a sea change.)

The word originated in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” Here is how he used it:

                                                    Full fathom five thy father lies,

                                                          Of his bones are coral made:

                                                   Those are pearls that were his eyes:

                                                          Nothing of him that doth fade,

                                                   But doth suffer a sea-change

                                                   Into something rich and strange.

We’ve lost the hyphen and also lost—or changed—the meaning. Until quite recently, “sea change” indicated an enormous transformation. Now, any old change will suffice. I wish the original meaning were still appreciated.  How long until someone writes about “an enormous sea change”?

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And the International Oxford Dictionaries Word of 2013 Is……..

Selfie!  Here’s the news flash from the website Mashable:

“Oxford Dictionaries announced “Selfie” as the international Word of the Year 2013, noting its frequency in the English language has increased by 17,000% since last year.

“According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word “selfie” first appeared in 2002, when it was used in an Australian online forum. It was popularized by social media during the years (it was used as a hashtag on Flickr in 2004), but it became widely adopted around 2012, when it started commonly being used in mainstream media.”

So get out your smartphone, make those duck lips, take your picture and upload it to your favorite social media sites.

(What is wrong with me? Why am I promoting this?)

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Countable vs. Uncountable Nouns

I know I’ve nagged you several times about fewer vs. less and number vs. amount. You use fewer and number when you can count the items and less and amount when you can’t:

We’re having fewer people for Thanksgiving this year than we did last year. That means we will need less cranberry sauce.

The number of people coming from out of town is small. The amount of luggage they will bring will still be considerable.

The same distinction exists for many vs. much:

We won’t need as much silverware, especially not as many forks.

Got it? I knew you would. Now the trick is to remember.

Wishing you all a wonderful and meaningful Thanksgiving.

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More Latin—As In Mea Culpa

While distracted about several things going on in my life yesterday, I wrote about English words derived from Latin and how some distinctions between singular and plural forms are disappearing because of common usage. Two of the words I listed were criterion and its plural, criteria. 

Imagine my embarrassment when I received an email from a friend, gently pointing out that those two words are Greek.  Damn!  I knew that. But I was so intent on my topic of frequently misused singular and plural forms that I lumped them in with the Latin culprits.

Lesson learned: Focus! Concentrate! Even if quotidian annoyances are gnawing at me, I need to set them aside while I take care of the job at hand.

As I said, mea culpa.

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Singular or Plural? How’s Your Latin?

Without thinking about the etymology, many of us use Latin words every day: criteria/criterion, museum, auditorium, agenda, data, premium, for example.

For the most part, we take those words and subject them to our English rules. Except for criterion and data, we simply add an S to make the plural and no longer realize that the Latin plurals are musea, auditoria and premia. The singular of agenda is agendum, but we never see that any more.

One word losing the distinction between singular and plural is data. That is the plural form (datum is the singular), but we rarely see or hear the latter. It is becoming standard English to use “The data is confusing.” In fact, I’m guessing most people would be surprised to hear “The data are confusing.”  Because data is not something easily separated into its components, this swing toward the ubiquitous singular is understandable.

The distinction between criterion (singular, referring to one component) and criteria (plural, meaning more than one component) still exists, and I admit I cringe when I hear or see a sentence such as, “I have only one criteria for cooking Thanksgiving dinner: someone else has to do it.”  Keep using the singular and plural forms of these words; they still carry meaning.


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Thinking About the Gettysburg Address

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. Latviešu: Abrahams Linkolns, sešpadsmitais ASV prezidents. Српски / Srpski: Абрахам Линколн, шеснаести председник Сједињених Америчких Држава. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address 150 years ago. Contrary to popular belief, he did not write it on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. In fact, it is not known where he wrote the speech, but he did continue to edit it in the bedroom of the house where he stayed the night before the battlefield was dedicated as the first national military cemetery.

Before Lincoln spoke, he was preceded by a former president of Harvard, Edward Everett, who droned on for two hours and eight minutes. Lincoln, who had been added as a speaker almost as an afterthought, rose to the podium and began. He delivered his speech in less than three minutes.

Ronald C. White, Jr., a visiting professor of history at UCLA and a fellow at the Huntington Library, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (Nov. 17, 2013) explicating why Lincoln’s brief speech is one for the ages. Lincoln did not need two hours to illustrate the greater significance of the cemetery dedication, essentially, as White writes, “no longer defending an old Union but proclaiming a new one.”

The next day the former president of Harvard stated, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the dedication in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

White’s point in closely examining Lincoln’s brief speech is that it should serve as a beacon for today’s writers, both professional and casual. Do not write to impress. Use short words. The Gettysburg Address is only 272 words and, of those, 204 are of one syllable. White encourages his readers to read the Address slowly, as Lincoln delivered it slowly. “Think about the power of the words. Words fiercely mattered to Abraham Lincoln. They ought to matter to us.”

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicatewe cannot consecratewe cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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Lose the “Pre—”

Preconditions, prerecorded and preplanning all can be shortened by eliminating the pre—.

“We will meet with our opponents when they have met all our conditions.”  See how “conditions” in its unadorned state says it all?

“Recorded music has undergone enormous changes in the last few years.” All music is recorded before it is released, so the “pre” adds nothing.

“Our move to our new headquarters will take a lot of planning.” Of course you will plan before you move your headquarters. The “pre” is understood and redundant.

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How Much Energy Do You Have?

Are you familiar with the word ENERVATE? Do you think it’s equivalent to ENERGIZE? It’s not, but that ENER—fools a lot of people. In fact, ENERVATE means to drain the energy from something or someone.

These days many good shows are on television on Sunday night, and although we record them, my husband and I tend to park ourselves in front of the set and watch as many as we can stay awake for. When we finally give up, we are both completely enervated, feeling as if we will never be able to move again.

If you are not sure of the meaning of word, rather than making an awkward mistake, take a second to use your dictionary. All it takes is one click, hardly an enervating task.

Seal of the United States Department of Energy.

Seal of the United States Department of Energy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Beginning an Email

Johannes Vermeer - A Lady Writing a Letter - W...

Johannes Vermeer – A Lady Writing a Letter – WGA24650 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently wrote about closing emails and noted that “Yours truly” is stilted and somewhat archaic. When you think about what those words mean, you see how silly they are when taken literally. (However, I guess that is a better closing than when people regularly closed their letters with “Your Obedient Servant.”)

Similarly, when we begin an email with the salutation “Dear,” perhaps we should think about how many of the recipients of our emails are truly “dear” to us. When writing casually, starting with “Hello,” “Good morning” or “Hi” can all be acceptable, given your relationship with the person or people you’re writing to. In a more formal situation or when writing to someone in a higher position, you can begin your email like this:

To Ms. Jane Doe:  or   To the Director of Human Relations (if you cannot discover that person’s name):   Then begin your message.

When writing more formally, use a colon after the greeting. After a more casual greeting, a comma is fine.

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How to Close an Email

People sometimes ask me about closing a business email: how do you sign off?

The main consideration is the relationship you have with the person to whom you are writing. If you are on a first-name basis, then think about what you’d say in person. You might be very casual. Some of these might fit your style:




Have a good one

If you are writing to someone you don’t know well or who is in a position above yours, you should tend toward more traditional closings:

Best regards


Best wishes

Sincerely—I favor this one because no matter what you have written, I hope you have been sincere.

Yours truly—This one annoys me because how many people we write to are truly ours?

In addition to commonly used closings, you can also close using thoughts that are pertinent to what you have just written:

Good job

Keep up the good work

Thank you

Thanks for your time

I look forward to hearing from you

Continued success

When you use a two (or more)-word closing, only the first word is capitalized. If you are writing to a group and you know some people more casually and others less so (some of the people you may never have met), address your closing to the latter group. Avoid slang.

In all instances, your closing needs to fit the tone of the content. If you have been critical, stern, annoyed, or even angry, then you certainly don’t want to close with “Warmly” (even though you may be hot under the collar).


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Forwarding Emails

When we receive emails from friends, relatives or colleagues containing religious or political topics or anything else we might find annoying or objectionable, it is often difficult to find a kind way to tell them to stop. Perhaps it is best to delete those emails rather than sunder a friendship. You’ll have to make that choice. If the situation becomes oppressive, you’ll have to find a way to let those senders know your time is limited and you would prefer not to get emails on those topics in the future.

Before you forward an email, here are some pointers to remember:

1. Before passing on an email, think carefully about whether it truly is worth forwarding. Is it really that funny? That important? Could if offend some people you might send it to?

2. If you do decide to forward it, strip out everything except the guts of the message. If any personal information or email addresses are in the body of that email, get rid of them. You do not want to disseminate information that should remain private.

3.  Make sure to send the email BCC: to everyone. That way, you are not divulging people’s addresses to everyone on the list. If you send the email TO: or CC:, everyone’s address will appear. Again, those emails are private unless their owners want them made public. In addition, if some recipients decide to reply to you but accidentally click on REPLY ALL, then everyone you sent that email to will receive those answers from people they neither know nor care about. Everyone today gets far too much email as it is.  Forward only using BCC.

4. Before forwarding something, if you have any doubts about its veracity, check with  first to see if the content is valid.

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