Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sympathy or Empathy?

images

It’s probably not necessary to define “sympathy,” the feeling of commiseration for the problems of another. (But I just did.)

“Empathy” is not just a fancy synonym for “sympathy.” It contains the idea that the empathic person holds a very deep understanding of the problem or feelings of another, often with the idea that the listener has experienced that same troubling situation as the speaker or writer.

If you are divorced and your friend is telling you about his painful split from his partner, you can certainly be empathic. You have gone through a very similar situation. If you have not been divorced, you are sympathetic. There is nothing wrong with that; but empathy denotes a much closer understanding of the problem.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Because or Since?

Unknown

People wonder if BECAUSE and SINCE can be used interchangeably; in most cases they can be.

BECAUSE indicates a reaction: “Because we had neglected to have our tires checked for two years, we found they were out of alignment.”

SINCE indicates either reaction or time: In the above sentence, you can substitute “since” for “because” without changing the meaning. That sentence shows cause: your tires were out of alignment as a result of not checking them for a very long time.

SINCE also indicates time: The cartoon above gives a good example of the fact that “since” can sometimes lead to an ambiguous statement. That’s something to watch out for.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Five Expressions You Might Want to Lose

images

Looking through a copy of Real Simple while getting my hair cut, I came across these suggestions from five people highly concerned with language. See how many you hear and use:

1. “It is what it is.” John McWhorter, a linguistic professor at Columbia University and the author of several books on language (my favorite being Word on the Street), says this sentence is a cruel response. If someone has revealed a difficult situation and you reply, “It is what it is,” you are offering no empathy, no suggestions, nothing but a dismissal. You are saying nothing is to be done. That may be the case, but empathy is what the speaker is looking for.

2. “To your point” is the suggestion of Nancy Gibbs, editor of Time magazine. She asserts that people use this wording not to agree with what has been said but in fact to make a contradictory point. If you’re going to disagree, say so: “I see your point, but I cannot agree with it.”

3. “Don’t take this personally” comes from Peggy Newfield, a specialist in business etiquette. No matter what follows that admonition, the receiver is going to take it personally. What you say may be very hurtful. Think before you give advice and choose your words carefully.

4.Whenever you ask, “When are you going to…?” you are pointing out something you feel the other person hasn’t yet done but should do. “When are you going to have a baby?” “When are you going to find someone to settle down with?” “When are you going to buy a house?” Questions like these make the recipient defensive. The answers to these questions are really none of your business. So says Emily Yoffee, who writes the “Dear Prudence” advice column.

5. “No problem.” This is a major peeve of mine and of Liv Tyler, the actor, who has written a book with her mother, called Modern Manners. You have just said “Thank you,” and you get “No problem” for a reply. Saying thanks is not a problem. What happened to “You’re welcome” or “My pleasure?”

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

What Is Your Criterion?

imagesDoes that subject line look odd to you? If you are referring to only one standard, then “criterion” (singular) is correct:

“My criterion for listening to modern classical music is that it must have a melody I can remember.”

“Criteria,” the plural, is used for more than one standard:

 ” I have several criteria when looking for a new car: it has to be affordable, comfortable, miserly on fuel, and better looking than the Aztec.” *

* Apologies to Walter White

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Complement or Compliment?

images

Both these words are used frequently, but their meanings differ considerably:

COMPLEMENT means to fill out or complete. It’s easy to remember this definition if you focus on the E in complete.

Maria’s sweater complements her eyes.

COMPLIMENT expresses praise or acknowledgement.

Maria complimented her co-worker on her editing skills.

The nice-nice words you write at the end of a letter, memo or (possibly) an email, such as Sincerely, Best regards, etc., are called the complimentary close.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Only on Tuesday’s

2014-05-10 18.50.34

A rather blurry shot through a window, inviting one and all to come hear some jazz—but only on Tuesday’s. Why that apostrophe, you might ask? (I hope you ask.)

Because “Tuesdays” ends in S, and some people have a compulsion to throw an apostrophe into every word ending with an S, even when the word isn’t possessive.

It’s just an ordinary plural, people. Curb your apostrophe mania, I beg of you.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Another Way Commas Are Essential for Meaning

Unknown

Another way a comma can clarify your meaning is the following:

Sometimes commas are used to set off non-essential information. By non-essential, I mean that if the words set off by commas were removed, your readers would still fully understand what you mean.

Here are two examples:

1. Let’s eat, Grandma.  If you remove that comma, you are telling your readers that you are a cannibal. But it really isn’t necessary to add “Grandma” because you are obviously speaking directly to her. You are simply saying to her, “Let’s eat.”

2. My ex-husband, Igor, lives in a dungeon. By setting Igor’s name off in commas, you are telling your readers that your ex lives in a dungeon, but it isn’t essential they know his name is Igor. You can remove his name and your readers will still understand your meaning completely. However, if you remove those commas around his name (and leave his name in), you are implying that you have at least one other ex-husband whose name is not Igor and probably does not live in a dungeon.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Sometimes a Comma Is Essential for Meaning

images

I am currently reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for which she won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. I am into only a few chapters of this 700+ page book and enjoying it greatly. However, one sentence stopped me short. In a description of a living room, Tartt includes the following items:

“…silk-shaded lamps burning low, big dark paintings of naval battles and drapes drawn against the sun.”

Without a comma after “battles,” it sounds as if some of the painting were of those drapes. Usually, when items are in a series of three or more, that last comma (known as the Oxford or serial comma) can be omitted. I prefer not to use it: my motto is, “When in doubt, leave it out.” But at times it is needed for clarity. Logic may tell you some of the paintings were not of drapes, but this is an instance where a comma was called for.

Here’s a link to a short video about the Oxford comma:  http://www.wimp.com/oxfordcomma/

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Less vs. Fewer

Unknown

As my last post discussed “amount” vs. “number,” a closely related topic are the two words in the subject line: “less” and “fewer.”

Just as “amount” is used for objects you can’t count, such as traffic, milk, luggage and equipment, “less” is the adjective you need for those uncountable nouns:

You carry less luggage than you used to when you fly. You need less kitchen equipment than your brother does. We definitely do not experience less traffic than we did five years ago.

“Fewer” is used for countable nouns, such as suitcases, roasting pans, glasses of milk, and automobiles:

If you want fewer cars on the road, move to Montana. Children today drink fewer glasses of milk than I did when I was younger. I could manage with fewer pots and pans than I currently own. I have fewer pieces of luggage than I did 10 years ago.

(Notice that in the last sentence, the subject is “pieces,” not “luggage.”)

My last post contained fewer words than this one.

1 Comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Amount vs. Number

images

I found this error in the NY Times in an informative article about an app that helps you with flights (Skyscanner).

“You can filter this list in a number of ways to find the flight with the best price,            the least amount of interim stops, and so on.” (Bold added by me.)

Here’s the rule: if you can count something, use “number.” If what you’re writing about is uncountable (e.g., milk, luggage, equipment), use “amount.”

Because you can count interim stops, the sentence should have read, “…the fewest/least number of interim stops.”

I shall stop now.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Impractical or Impracticable?

Use “impractical” when something can be done but isn’t worth doing: It’s impractical to run the dishwasher now because it would probably wake the baby.

“Impracticable” means something can’t be done at all: Trying to use the dishwasher is impracticable because it’s been broken since last summer.

 

1 Comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

The Power of Punctuation

images

Here is a sign, seemingly forbidding access, you found at a lake. But you knew you could swim or sail at this lake if you added one exclamation point, one question mark and one period to the sign (with the Sharpie pen you just happened to have with you).

PRIVATE

NO SWIMMING

ALLOWED

I know you can figure this out. Happy sailing!

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Alternately vs. Alternatively

images

These two words look almost alike but the meanings are quite different.

ALTERNATELY means to occur in turns, repeatedly: “Jessie and Samantha alternately cleaned their cat’s litter box. Jessie did it in the morning and Samantha’s turns were at night.”

ALTERNATIVELY offers another option: “Jessie, you can clean the litter box every morning or, alternatively, you can do it morning and night for a week and then Samantha will clean it the next week.”

Be sure to proofread everything you write; your spellchecker will not highlight an incorrect word if it is spelled correctly. You are smarter than your software.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Syntax and Lexicon

images

No, not SIN TAX; that’s an entirely different matter. I’m sure you hear the word “syntax” used (perhaps not as frequently as the homonym), but you might not be certain of its meaning.

SYNTAX means the way words are put together to form grammatical, comprehensible sentences. People who garble their meanings are said to speak and write using deficient syntax. Think of Sarah Palin and George W. Bush—they aren’t guilty all the time but often enough to be notorious for their use of the English language. The derivation of “syntax” is from Greek to Latin to French.

LEXICON refers to the vocabulary used by a person, by a language or by a branch of study, e.g., the lexicon of the Basque people of Catalonia. The derivation of “lexicon” is from Greek to Latin.

1 Comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language