Tag Archives: All aspects of words and the English language

Look-alikes and Sound-alikes

So many words look and sound similar but have different meanings. Here are a few:

 

 

 

FORTH means onward or forward: Brianna set forth from her apartment, not knowing what to expect from the blind date at Starbucks.

FOURTH has within it the number four, containing its meaning.

 

DESSERT. Yummy. Hard to resist. Mmmm. Strawberry shortcake.

DESERT as a noun means a sandy, dry area. As a verb, with the accent on the second syllable, it means to abandon or leave behind.

 

COMPLEMENT completes something: A glass of beer is not the perfect complement to a serving of strawberry shortcake. Her sweater complements her green eyes.

COMPLIMENT means praise: Why is it difficult for so many people to accept a compliment?

 

A LOT is a piece of land you can build on. It also means “many” or “much.” There is no such word as alot.

ALLOT means to parcel out or distribute. I told my children I would allot them two pieces of Halloween candy each day.

 

MINER is a person working in a mine.

MINOR means lesser or not particularly important: It’s hard to believe Van Gogh was once considered a minor artist. If you are a minor (less than legal age), you cannot buy alcohol in your state.

 

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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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If You MUST Use a Cliché

At least be certain you are using it correctly. Here are some clichés I’ve seen and heard that weren’t quite right:

Ellen burst the candle with both hands.

Brittany said it’s an error to be human.

Last night Rodney slept like a lark.

Taylor behaved like a bull in a china closet.

Zander is rotten to the cork.

The burglar struck Marlie, and she fell down with a thug.

Ramona never takes planes. She likes to be on terra cotta.

Jeremy sticks to his girlfriend like a leash.

That’s Donald’s whole story in a bombshell.

Obviously, your best bet is to avoid clichés like the plague.

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Singular or Plural?

I often hear people talk about a phenomenon, which refers to one thing or situation, when they need the plural of phenomenon—which is phenomena, referring to more than one thing or situation.

• Global warming is a potentially disastrous phenomenon.

• The phenomena that contribute to global warming are being studied extensively in hopes of avoiding worldwide catastrophes.

Another pair often misused are criteria (plural) and criterion (singular). If you have only one standard that must be met, you want criterion.

But here’s one you can stop worrying about: datum. That’s the singular of data. Today, data is used for both singular and plural.  Why? Because common usage changes all languages. However, if you are using data as a plural, make your verb plural also:

The scientific data are unequivocal that ocean temperatures are rising rapidly.

 

 

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What Constitutes a Sea Change?

 

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 o...

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 of his Last Will and Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an undergraduate English major at UC Berkeley, it never occurred to me to be a STEM major. In fact, that acronym hadn’t been invented. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Word on the street today is that if you are not majoring in one of those areas, you might as well crawl into a cave with your literature, philosophy  and history books and be happy and useless away from society. I contend that liberal arts majors have much to offer, even in today’s STEM-heavy environment: they are well rounded and can think and write clearly and logically.

Which brings me to Shakespeare. As a senior, I took a Shakespeare seminar with the best professor I ever encountered—as an undergraduate, graduate student or as an English teacher myself. (I’m talking about you, Joseph Kramer.) He once made the statement that any three lines of Shakespeare could be read as a microcosm of the world, and went on to demonstrate that point repeatedly and brilliantly.

Which brings me to today’s jargon. Previously, I wrote about clichés and jargon that originated in Shakespeare’s plays. Of course they weren’t clichés at the time of their origin, but they did catch on. A prevalent cliché, a bit of jargon, these days is “sea change.” I see it everywhere; no simple “changes” exist any more. They are all monumental, life-altering “sea changes.” If the price of oil were to drop five dollars a barrel, that would be a sea change. If Donald Trump were to fix his comb-over to the right rather than to the left, that would be a sea change. (If he were to remove the small animal that lives atop his head, I would grant that truly would be a sea change.)

The phrase originated in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” Here is how he used it:

                                                    Full fathom five thy father lies,

                                                          Of his bones are coral made:

                                                   Those are pearls that were his eyes:

                                                          Nothing of him that doth fade,

                                                   But doth suffer a sea-change

                                                   Into something rich and strange.

We’ve lost the hyphen and also lost—or changed—the meaning. Until quite recently, “sea change” indicated an enormous transformation. Now, any old change will suffice. I wish the original meaning were still appreciated.  How long until someone writes about “an enormous sea change”?

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Words That Sound As If They Should Mean Something Else

My pulchritudinous furry grandson, Gus

Have you ever come across a word whose meaning doesn’t seem right? For me, a big one is ENERVATE.

The hot weather we are dealing with in Southern California enervates me. That means it saps me of energy. I think because enervate starts the same as energize, it should mean something similar. However, it means the opposite.

Another deceptive word is PULCHRITUDE. Ugly word. Seems to me that it should mean an ugly demeanor or condition. But no! It means beauty. See above.

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Random WordThought

                                                 Is Mylie Cyrus proud of her tung?

You’ve probably figured out that I’m obsessed, OK, intrigued by the English language. I was stopped in  traffic (surprise!) on the way to the gym this afternoon and saw that the car in front of me was a Nissan Rogue.  The —gue isn’t pronounced. That made me think about other words ending with —gue, such as argue and ague, in which the —gue is pronounced. Why aren’t those words pronounced arg and ag (aig), respectively? I can think of many other —gue words: tongueintrigue, demagogue, synagogue, league, fatigue, harangue, meringue, prologue, epilogue, travelog(ue), ideologue, and pedagogue—but none of those final two letters are pronounced.

Please try to hold your comments urging me to get a life. And I apologize for subjecting you to the photograph of Ms. Cyrus and her revolting tung.

 

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