Monthly Archives: June 2016

Common Language

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Linguists recently announced that “Huh?” or a similar word seems to be a universal way of confirming that another speaker is understood. They studied 10 languages on five continents, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha. These languages have very different grammatical structures, but all contain a syllable people use to make sure they are understanding what is being said. The variants sound like “huh?,” hah?,” “eh?” and other closely related sounds, and all end with a questioning intonation. I’m wondering if the questioning tone is like the American “Really?” meaning, “I get it.”

Others had proposed that “mama” and “dada” might be universal sounds, but “huh” is much more widely distributed. This came as a surprise to me.

For what it’s worth, when I taught college ESL classes, my students showed me how widespread our word “chocolate” is. The accent may be slightly different but you would instantly recognize the word as “chocolate.” So no matter where you are in the world, you will always be able to get your fix without someone saying, “Huh?” to you.

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Proofreading Prevents Embarrassment

© Judi Birnberg

A Frigate Bird (please spell it correctly) © Judi Birnberg

The following groanworthy errors are from Just My Typo, compiled by Drummond Moir. It’s all too easy to write a word you know well, a word that is close to the one you meant. We’ve all done this. Careful proofreading will prevent a red face.

As I’ve often nagged you, if you proofread silently at your normal pace you will read what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote. You need to slow down and read out loud. Quietly is fine. The authors of the following sentences obviously neglected to do so:

Doctors now treat their patients with ultra-violent rays.
A polygon is a man who has many wives.
In biology today we digested a frog.
In the Middle Ages, people lived in rough huts with mating on the floor.

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A Misplaced Modifier

 

 

Unknown In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, a little squib (are squibs ever large?) announced that Eddie Redmayne and his wife had had their first child. The next sentence was,”The actor confirmed in January they were expecting their first child at the Golden Globes.”

This, my friends, is a misplaced modifier. They were not expecting this baby at the Golden Globes, as the text states. They were attending the Golden Globes when Redmayne made the announcement. When you use a modifier, put it immediately next to the words it refers to. To fix this sentence all you have to do is write, “The actor confirmed at the Golden Globes in January they were expecting their first child.” Done!

Often, when the modifier is in the wrong place, you may inadvertently cause people to laugh at you: The man chased his neighbor’s dog in orange pajamas and carrying a broom.”

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Have a Seat

 

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I remember many years ago first hearing chair used as a verb and thinking it was odd. But with all language, usage makes the strange familiar. In the olden days, the person heading the committee was a chairman, no matter that person’s sex. Now chairman is used to indicate a male, chair is used for either sex, and chairwoman is frowned upon. Dianne Feinstein is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, even when she stands up.

Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer and Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, thought chair (v.) was a fad and spoofed its use by inventing some parallel words: He imagined people elevatoring themselves to their penthouses, getting dinner-jacketed and going theatering. Fortunately, none of those atrocities caught on, but today you can sit on a chair or guide a committee.

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More Spring Cleaning

© Judi Birnberg Time to Clean

© Judi Birnberg
Time to Clean

Last week I suggested you do some spring cleaning and rid your writing of redundant jargon and clichés. I heard from several of you who added additional suggestions, such as 7 a.m. Monday morning and the month of March. (I used to tell my classes, if it wasn’t by John Phillip Sousa it had to be the month.)

Jeff Wright, a very smart man I was lucky enough to have in one of my seminars, sent me a list he has compiled of his, ahem, favorites. With thanks to Jeff, I present the following:

Completely unique
Ask a question
Emergency situation
Cameo appearance
Filled to capacity
Tough dilemma
Close proximity
Shower activity
Storm system
False pretense
Added bonus
Very critical
Kneel down
Tuna fish
Heat up

I can also add these:

Any qualifier with unique (very, most, really, truly)
True fact
Surrounded on all sides
Exactly identical
New innovation
Disappear from view
Repeat again
Final conclusion
Purple in color
Completely free
Circled around

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Be Precise

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© Judi Birnberg    A Confusing Web of Thoughts

When you write, aim for precision. Vague writing can leave your readers confused or bored—or both:

John’s father said he couldn’t go to the concert Saturday night.

Who can’t go, John or his father?

Instead of writing  The long vacation was scheduled for a warm location, try They booked a two-week vacation in Tahiti.

Before you write, think carefully about your message. Then write it succinctly and specifically. Anticipate what questions your reader might have and then answer those questions in your message. Your goal is to avoid follow-up messages: Who can’t go to the Saturday night concert? Where are they going for their vacation? How long will they be away? 

 

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Spring Cleaning

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©Judi Birnberg 2016

So often we combine words without realizing they are redundant. Here is a partial list to get you thinking. It’s a good idea to proofread your documents one time specifically to see if you might have fallen into the trap. It’s time to sweep out the clutter:

Free gift
Open trench
Jewish rabbi
Easter Sunday
Refer back
Nodded her head
Sales, storm, hurricane, earthquake event
Plan for the future
Crime activity
End result
Prior notice
Suffocated to death
A new record
Shrugged his shoulders

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