Tag Archives: English language usage

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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Emailing Your Boss

An article in NYMag.com by Catie L’Heureux had some good tips on how to email your boss. I don’t know how L’Heureux knows this, but she says your boss gets about 500 emails a day. Even if the total is a measly 348, your boss is going to see only the first few words of your email and will make a decision on the spot whether to reply, delete, or ignore.

A good way to get her attention is to open with a question: Could we…? Do you think…? Will you confirm…? Will you please tell me whether…? Would you consider…?

You will come across as professional and, unless your boss is a descendant of Frau Blücher, she will do what she can to accommodate you. Instead of responding, “No problem” or “Sure” if she asks for your help, try answering “Of course.” You will sound glad to help. That is likely the way you want people reporting to you to sound.

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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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More on Capitalization

 

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Whatever you do, DO NOT study Trump’s tweets for a lesson in capitalization. He seems to have zero idea of when to use capital letters and just does so at will, most often for emphasis. Of course, when you emphasize everything, you end up emphasizing nothing.

Here’s the deal: If you are writing the official name of something, capitalize it:

I went to Hollywood High School.   But I went to high school in Hollywood. My high school was in Hollywood.

She was born in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. But She was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. The hospital she was born in was in Philadelphia.

If the word you are using is not the official name of the thing you are citing, use lower case. In addition, the word the is rarely part of anything’s official name. It’s not The Statue of Liberty. Use lower case for the word the.

 

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More English Craziness

More from my amiga Nicki. Thanks, Nickala! Enjoy, everyone.
Let’s face it: English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese? One index, two indices? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

PS. – Why doesn’t ‘Buick’ rhyme with ‘quick’?

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Ten More Commonly Misused Phrases

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Here are some more phrases that sound almost right—but aren’t. Check to see if any belong to you:

  1. For all intensive purposes   It’s for all intents and purposes.
  1. One in the same should be one and the same.
  1. Make due  Nope. You need to make do. Make what you have do what you need.
  1. By in large is by and large.
  1. Do diligence is not something done. You want due diligence.
  1. Peak one’s interest  This has nothing to do with height. It has to do with pique, sharpening your interest.
  1. Shoe in? This has nothing to do with footwear. It’s shoo in, the way you would shoo your cat inside at night.
  1. Extract revenge. Nothing is being removed. You are going to exact revenge.
  1. Doggy-dog world.  You’re describing a highly competitive situation, which is a dog-eat-dog world.

 

  1. Supposably   No such word. You want supposedly.

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More Typos From Abroad

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Or since I’m writing this, perhaps the subject line should be More Typos From a Broad. Either way, here is some midweek entertainment—along with a reminder to proofread everything you write.

Please leave your values at the front desk. (Sign in a Paris elevator)

Before entering this mosque: Please remove your shoes. Please remove your socks. Please remove your hat. Thank you for your co-ordination. (Sign in Istanbul mosque)

Guests are requested to be as quiet a possible in their rooms after 11 pm so as not to disturb the quest in the other room. (Swedish hotel)

When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Name of a hilarious David Sedaris book, title based on a sign he saw in an elevator, educating guests what to do in case of fire)

Come Fartably Numb (Song title on pirated Pink Floyd CD, Hong Kong)

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