Category Archives: All things having to do with the English language

My Favorite Book on English

Patricia O’Conner has done it again: she has updated and revised her classic book on writing and English usage, Woe Is I. I can hardly tell you how much I love this book. Before you stop reading, let me tell you that you will laugh out loud on just about every page. OK, read on. O’Conner realizes how all languages change over time, which is why she revised this classic book to fit with current and accepted usage. This is the fourth edition and, as English changes, there will be a fifth and a sixth and a twentieth.

O’Conner writes in everyday English. Here are a few chapter titles:

PLURALS BEFORE SWINE  Blunders with Numbers

YOURS TRULY  The Possessive and the Possessed

COMMA SUTRA  The Joy of Punctuation

DEATH SENTENCE   Do Clichés Deserve to Die?

THE LIVING DEAD    Let Bygone Rules Be Gone

Here’s an explanation about subject-verb agreement: “A substance was stuck to Sam’s shoe.”  Or  “A green, slimy, and foul-smelling substance was stuck to Sam’s shoe.” O’Conner adds, “The subject is substance and it stays singular no matter how many disgusting adjectives you pile on.”

See? Not your typical book about English and writing. This one is Wonderful. Entertaining. Fun. Comprehensible. Helpful. Essential.

O’Conner also has a blog to which she posts almost every day, giving explanations about questions people (including me) have submitted. If you subscribe, you’ll get it in your inbox. It’s definitely not spam: www.grammarphobia.com

 

 

 

 

 

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A Fascinating (and Horrific) True Tale

Do you agree with the following paragraph? Let me know.

“Language is mobile and liable to change. It is a free country, and man may call a “vase” a “vawse”, a “vahse”, a “vaze”, or a “vase”, as he pleases. And why should he not? We do not all think alike, walk alike, dress alike, write alike, or dine alike; why should not we use our liberty in speech also, so long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with?”

-James Murray, lexicographer and editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (7 Feb 1837-1915)

Personally, I can’t argue with Murray. The Dictionary of American Regional English gives examples from around the country of pronunciations and differing words for the same object. You call it tonic or a Coke (even if it’s 7-Up) or fizzy water or a soft drink, and I call it soda. As long as we understand what each of us means, we should get along.

Professor James Murray is the focus of Simon Winchester’s gripping book, The Professor and the Madmen. Here’s a blurb from Amazon about the book. It’s an unexpected and remarkable tale about the most prolific contributor to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

“The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.”

And from Wikipedia:

“In 1871 he (Dr. Minor) went to London, settling in the slum of Lambeth, where once again he took up a dissolute life. Haunted by his paranoia, he fatally shot a man named George Merrett, who Minor believed had broken into his room, on February 17, 1872. Merrett had been on his way to work to support his family of six children, himself, and his pregnant wife, Eliza. After a pre-trial period spent in London’s Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Minor was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in the asylum at Broadmoor in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire. As he had his US army pension and was not judged dangerous, he was given rather comfortable quarters and was able to buy and read books.[4][5]

“It was probably through his correspondence with the London booksellers that he heard of the call for volunteers from what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). He devoted most of the remainder of his life to that work.[6] He became one of the project’s most effective volunteers, reading through his large personal library of antiquarian books and compiling quotations that illustrated the way particular words were used. He was often visited by the widow of the man he had killed, and she provided him with further books. The compilers of the dictionary published lists of words for which they wanted examples of usage. Minor provided these, with increasing ease as the lists grew. It was many years before the OEDs editor, Dr. James Murray, learned Minor’s background history, and visited him in January 1891. In 1899 Murray paid compliment to Minor’s enormous contributions to the dictionary, stating, ‘we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.’[7][8]

“Minor’s condition deteriorated and in 1902, due to delusions that he was being abducted nightly from his rooms and conveyed to places as far away as Istanbul, and forced to commit sexual assaults on children, he cut off his own penis (autopenectomy) using a knife he had employed in his work on the dictionary.[9] His health continued to worsen, and after Murray campaigned on his behalf, Minor was released in 1910 on the orders of Home Secretary Winston Churchill.[9] He was deported back to the United States and resided at St. Elizabeths Hospital where he was diagnosed with dementia praecox. He died in 1920 in Hartford, Connecticut, after being moved in 1919 to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane there.”[10]

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Clever Definitions

Thanks to my friend Paul:

The Washington Post’s Mensa Invitational once again invited readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition.

Here are the winners:
1. Cashtration (n): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.
2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.
3. Intaxicaton: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.
4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.
5. Bozone (n): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.
6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.
7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.
9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)
11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.
12. Decafalon (n): The gruelling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.
13 Glibido: All talk and no action.
14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.
16. Beelzebug (n): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.
17. Caterpallor (n): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

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Feel Free to Laugh At Me — I Did

The other day I saw a headline in the Los Angeles Times: “Ex-state senator finishes sentence.”

If you know me, you know how I read that. My first thought was, “What kept him from finishing his sentence? What was he speaking about?”

I finally realized that the no-longer-a-California- state-senator had been sentenced to prison and had completed his required time in the pen.

Such is the hazard of being a word nerd.

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Does “Proper” English Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal asking the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London.

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make the student feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback on this topic.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hold That S! Or Perhaps Add It.

Another way to refer to Paris is the City of Light, not Lights. All cities have light, but Paris prides itself on, among other things (such as pastries and art) the beautiful light of the city, so often painted by the Impressionists.

When you name something, such as Paris or George Washington and then immediately mention a name closely associated with that thing, such as the City of Light or the Father of His Country, you have just created an appositive. Did you know that? Set that appositive off with commas, e.g., Bruce Springsteen, the Boss, recently gave a concert.


Here’s an S you may need to add: the university in Baltimore is not John Hopkins. Here’s what its correct name is:

Yep. it’s Johns Hopkins. Of course, I understand the confusion because who names their baby boy Johns instead of John? Well, the Hopkinses did. And that baby founded a world-renowned university (after a suitable time).

 

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Looking for a Job?

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Conventional wisdom (I use that term advisedly) has held that résumés should be no longer than one page. However, BusinessInsider.com revealed the results of a study that found two-page résumés were greatly preferred to a one-page version.

Twenty-thousand résumés were sent to almost 500 recruiters, who were asked to screen them for a simulated hiring decision. Over 7,700 résumés were approved and of those, 5,375 were two pages. In the next round of evaluations, 74% used the two-page format. The results held for both management and entry-level positions.

Take this study for what it’s worth. Padding your résumé will serve no purpose; all your information must be relevant, concise, and clear. If it takes two pages to show your skills and experience, don’t hold back. However, don’t go onto a third page. TMI.

 

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