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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The Two Sides of Autocorrect

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Some people love it, others detest it. I find it convenient, but always, always, always proofread before I send a message.

The New York Times recently ran an article about the perils of Autocorrect, highlighting a message an 83-year-old woman sent to her great-granddaughter. She signed it “Great Grandma.” Unfortunately, Autocorrect thought it knew better and changed her signature to “Great Grandmaster Flash,” a hip hop pioneer not within Great Grandma’s ken.

We’ve all had our embarrassments with Autocorrect. Years ago I wrote to a friend named Patricia, who ever since has been known to me as Patella.“Prosciutto” on a menu became “prostitute.” The investment firm Goldman Sachs became “Goddamn Sachs.” Naomi Campbell congratulated “Malaria” (Malala) on winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and Barrack Obama has been known as “Osama.”

It’s obvious to me that Autocorrect has advanced, if that is the correct word, to be sufficiently familiar with my vocabulary and tone that it substitutes words and phrases I use fairly often. It’s a little creepy.

Autocorrect is a feature you can disable if you want to avoid it. We all make enough mistakes without having our computers add to them. I’m not giving up Autocorrect (yet), but I urge you to proofread absolutely everything before you hit Send. Do it one word at a time and slowly. If you proofread at your normal reading speed, as I have mentioned numerous times, you will read what you think you wrote, not what you (or Autocorrect) actually wrote.

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Linguistic Metamorphoses

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This is a numpire.

The British paper The Guardian recently ran an article about how English has changed and continues to change because of mistakes in pronunciation. You may not have to wait too long before ex-presso and ex cetera become standard (although I will fight to the finish to prevent this).

Did you know that apron, umpire and adder at one time all began with an N? The blacksmith wore a napron, the referee of a game (Quiddich, perhaps?) was a numpire, and a dangerous snake was a nadder.

I’ll have a lot more tidbits from this fascinating article in the coming days. If you’re interested, grab an ESpresso and stay tuned.

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Jargon

imagesJargon is a special kind of cliché, specific to a particular profession. Every profession has words understood by members of that group, and I don’t have too much of a problem when that language is confined within the group. At times it may even help colleagues to communicate with each other, although clear, simple English is fully up to the task.

I object, however, when that jargon is used to pollute the rest of the world. It may be largely incomprehensible to many people and is a way to keep outsiders out of the anointed inner circle.

I will pick on lawyers now, just because I am most familiar with the language of their profession. Why is it necessary to use jargon such as the following?

Enclosed herein please find; as per our previous conversation; to wit; aforementioned; the favor of a reply is requested, ad nauseum. It would be no less professional and far more comprehensible to write Here is; as we discussed; specifically; already cited; please respond.

People who use jargon is general conversation or writing think they are being professional. In fact, they come across as pompous, bureaucratic and somewhat foolish. At least that’s my take on this topic.

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A Quantum Leap: Big or Small?

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Welcome back. It’s good to be with you all after my holiday hiatus. We have now made a quantum leap into 2015 (doesn’t that sound space-agey?). Or have we?

I subscribe to A.Word.A.Day at http://wordsmith.org. Monday through Friday I am emailed a different word, some familiar, some esoteric. Most weeks have a theme; a few offer miscellaneous words, but all are interesting. I highly recommend you subscribe (free) to this endeavor.

Over the break, I was surprised about the word “quantum.” It seems we rarely see it used except with the noun “leap,” and I always assumed it indicated an enormous distance or amount. Much to my surprise, this was the entry sent to explain what it actually means:

quantum

PRONUNCIATION:
(KWAHN-tuhm)

MEANING:
noun:
1. A quantity or amount.
2. A portion.
3. A large amount.
4. The smallest amount of something that can exist independently.

adjective:
1. Large.
2. Relating to the quantum theory.

ETYMOLOGY:
From Latin quantus (how much or how great). In physics, a quantum jump or quantum leap is usually a small change, while in popular usage the term is used to mean a significant change. Earliest documented use: 1567. (Bold emphasis mine—JB)

USAGE:
“A quantum jump in the volume of traffic has made major snarls on the capital’s periphery a routine affair for commuters.”
Dipak Kumar Dash; New Roadmap; The Times of India (New Delhi); Nov 7, 2009.

Explore “quantum” in the Visual Thesaurus.

A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. -John Morley, statesman and writer (1838-1923)

In fact, “quantum” does mean a large amount—but it can also mean a very small amount, especially when used in physics.

Whether your leap into the new year was major or minor, I
hope 2015 will be healthy, happy and productive for all of you. As always, I love it when you send me suggestions for topics to address. Stay in touch!

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