Monthly Archives: January 2015

Punctuation Can Be Strange (Yet Fun)

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Do you know what this mark is technically called? It’s a pilcrow, which is Latin for “paragraph.” You’ve probably seen pilcrows the left margins of some text you have written at one time or another. It’s the mark proofreaders use to indicate that a new paragraph should be started.

Now you know.

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Enormity

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This means “gigantic,” right? It must because it is so closely related to “enormous.” True, common usage is bending this word in that direction. However, it also and primarily means an evil, shocking or immoral act,
one of great wickedness.

On entering Dachau, the American and British soldiers immediately understood the enormity of the crimes that had been committed there.

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Flammable vs. Inflammable

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Do you think these two words are antonyms? In fact, they are synonyms, both meaning capable of burning. People get misled by the “in—” suffix: they might think of words such as “invulnerable,” “independent,” or “incapable,” in which that same suffix does make the root word a negative.

However, in the case of “flammable” and “inflammable,” both mean capable of catching fire. Because clothing and upholstery labels still sometimes say the item is “inflammable,” people might assume their couch or sweater will not catch fire. For safety reasons, “flammable” is the preferred usage.

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Perused Anything Interesting Lately?

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Language does change, usually over time and usually because of common usage. Many people think “peruse” means to glance at, skim, or read quickly. In fact, it means to study carefully, to read intently. Perusing isn’t limited to reading material; you can also peruse a work of art.

I wonder how long it will be before the primary dictionary meaning of “peruse” will say “to skim or read quickly.” Maybe next week—but not yet.

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Parallelism

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When you write items in a series, you want to use the same grammatical form for each item. Otherwise, your writing will be grating both on the eye and in the ear. Here are some sentences that are not parallel. Fix them; this should be easy for you. I’ll put the correct answers below.

1. To be a good soccer player you need to have strategy, skill and be agile.

2. My doctor told me to take the proverbial two aspirin and that I should call her in the morning.

3. To end a school paper, you can give a summary of the main points, posit a question or you could quote someone.

4. My English teacher gives us three hours of homework every night and we’re also expected to write a five-page essay every weekend.

5. Spoiled as a child, Alex grew up to be well groomed, talented and an obnoxious person.

Answers:

1. strategy, skill and agility

2. take two aspirin and call her in the morning

3. give a summary, posit a question or use a quotation

4. three hours of homework every night and a five-page essay each weekend

5. well groomed, talented and obnoxious

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When Sounds Disappear

This is from the article in The Guardian on spelling changes. As a lover of languages, I find this information fascinating and hope you do, too.

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“English spelling can be a pain, but it’s also a repository of information about the history of pronunciation. Are we being lazy when we say the name of the third day of the working week? Our ancestors might have thought so. Given that it was once “Woden’s day” (named after the Norse god), the “d” isn’t just for decoration, and was pronounced up until relatively recently. Who now says the “t” in Christmas? It must have been there at one point, as the messiah wasn’t actually called Chris. These are examples of syncope.”

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Switching Letters Makes New Words

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This is a brid on a hros.

Do you cringe when you hear someone say “nucular”? How about “aks” or “perscription” or “perspectus”? I am among the cringers, yet it is possible that these mispronunciations may eventually result in the established forms of what most of us say today.

At one time “bird” was “brid,” “hros” was “horse,” and “waps” was “wasp.” Eventually, enough people switched the letters around so that the standard form became the words we use today.

Who knew, right?

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