Tag Archives: English language

Singular or Plural?

 

Have you noticed that some everyday words look like plurals and can be plurals but are also used as singular nouns? Here are a few:

Pants   Those brown pants George is wearing are very baggy.  George is wearing only one pair of pants, but grammatically they appear to be plural: pants are

Trousers  Some people call pants “trousers.”  George is wearing baggy brown trousers today.

Scissors   Where did I put those scissors I was just using to cut this fabric?  Chances are, the writer wasn’t using more than one pair of scissors to cut the fabric.

On my recent trip to Central Europe, I marveled at little children chatting away in Hungarian, Polish, German, Slovakian, and Czech. I couldn’t understand anything. But I’m sure speakers of those languages are amazed that English speakers learn all the idiosyncrasies of that language, even as small children. For the most part, by kindergarten age, they get it right. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? When you think about examples such as those above, you have to wonder how. I’m calling it learning by osmosis.

 

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What’s UP?

Here’s the last offering from my friend Nicki:


There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is ‘UP.’

It’s easy to understand UP, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP?At a meeting, why does a topic come UP?
Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report?
We call UP our friends.
And we use it to brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver; we warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen. We lock UP the house and some guys fix UP the old car.

At other times the little word has real special meaning.
People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses.
To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed UP is special.
A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP.

We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP at night.
We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP!
To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of UP, look the word UP in the dictionary.

In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4th of the page and can add UP to about thirty definitions.
If you are UP to it, you might try building UP a list of the many ways UP is used.
It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don’t give UP, you may wind UP with a hundred or more.

When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP.When the sun comes out we say it is clearing UP.
When it rains, it wets the earth and often messes things UP.
When it doesn’t rain for awhile, things dry UP.
One could go on and on, but I’ll wrap it UP, for now my time is UP, so…….it is time to shut UP!
Now it’s UP to you what you do with this information.

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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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Crazy English

Thanks to my friend Nicki for sending this to me.

In case you didn’t realize English is a crazy language:

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.

2) The farm was used to produce produce.

3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

4) We must polish the Polish furniture..

5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.

6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

10) I did not object to the object.

11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.

13) They were too close to the door to close it.

14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.

15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.

16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.

19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

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Similar Sentences, Different Outcomes

I’ve had a book for eons, Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About English (but were afraid to raise your hand), by Maxwell Nurnberg. Many of the exercises make you think. Look at these pairs of very similar sentences and answer the questions:

A. Which sounds more conspiratorial?

  1. We’d like to invite you to dessert with us tomorrow evening.
  2. We’d like to invite you to desert with us tomorrow evening.

B. Which draft board’s needs were the greatest?

  1. The medical board accepted men with perforated eardrums.
  2. The medical board excepted men with perforated eardrums.

C. Which question would an investigator ask about a specific group?

  1. Were there voices raised in protest?
  2. Were their voices raised in protest?

D. Which Joe is the eager beaver?

  1. Joe submitted to many orders.
  2. Joe submitted too many orders.

E. Which statement is concerned with ethical standards?

  1. The principles in the case are well known.
  2. The principals in the case are well known.

Remember, if you write an actual word, even if it’s wrong, your spellchecker won’t pick it up. Proofread meticulously.

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A Quick Punctuation Quiz

Which choice is correct? Check your answers at the end of the quiz.

  1. (a) Smith referred to her as, “that useless cow.”  (b) Smith referred to her as “that useless cow.”
  2. Eyewitnesses fled the scene in (a) a brown, 2002 Ford  (b) a brown 2002 Ford.
  3. (a) Dr. Allen told her to: do whatever it takes to get the consent signed. (b) Dr. Allen told her to do whatever it takes to get the consent signed.
  4. Exxon is a (a) publicly traded company (b) publicly-traded company.
  5. The defendants seek to (a) run out the clock (b) run-out the clock.

 

Answers: 1. (b)  2. (b)  3. (b)  4. (a)  5. (a)

How did you do?

This quiz is modified from Bryan Garner’s Law Prose lessons. He is a consultant who leads continuing legal education seminars. The answers are correct whether you are a lawyer or a third grader.

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There’s a Name for It

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Have you noticed how so many politicians drone on and on and on and on, frequently using the conjunction and, as I just did, to connect clauses, phrases, and complete (and sometimes incomplete) sentences? Trust me, they do it:

“And just let me add, Ms. Reporter, that we are going to have a budget by next week, and some people have said we won’t have one until September, and I know they are skeptical, and I want to reassure you that the American people won’t be willing to wait that long, and you’ll see how efficiently Congress can work.”

Wake up, please, just long enough for me to tell you that using a conjunction repetitively is a figure of speech called polysyndeton.  You will probably forget that Greek word in about 15 seconds, as will I, but we can at least recognize that poly means many, as in many, many ands, ors, buts, fors, and yets.

Sloppy speech and writing result from lazy thinking. It really is a good idea to choose your words carefully before committing them to the screen or the airwaves.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt.”

This quotation is variously attributed to Lincoln, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, and that most prolific of authors, Anonymous.

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Some Random Comma Rules

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In the following examples, I’m going to put an X where a comma belongs.

I’ve noticed that a use for commas I learned as a child has been disappearing (see above):

Thanks for everythingX Laura.

GoX Bears!

Both of those sentences should take a comma before the official names. This may be a battle I’ve lost, but I’m still using this rule in my own writing.

Some commas are needed for clarity:

When I was about to enter the houseX my cousin showed up.

Don’t forget a comma when your sentence ends with a confirming question:

You finished the report yesterdayX didn’t you?

 

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Quotation Marks, Part 2

Bugposter

Sometimes we write a document in which we use a word in a way that differs from its more usual meaning. If you write that a location is filled with bugs, you need to put that word in quotation marks. Otherwise, people will be rushing to call an exterminator.

However, after the first use of bugs, omit the quotes for that word and for all other forms of it (bugged, bugging, etc.). You’ve already clued your readers in to the fact that you are referring to listening devices. No need to call an exterminator.

 

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Trite Expressions

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TRITE—Overused, worn out, lacking in originality

Just about anything can be trite: art, music, dance, food (think kale salads). But this blog is concerned with language, so that’s what we’ll focus on today. Read through these trite expressions and then vow to avoid them whenever possible. It will always be possible; just think of straightforward alternatives. You can do it.

  • No sooner said than done
  • By hook or by crook
  • Busy as a bee
  • A bolt from the blue
  • Few and far between
  • In this day and age
  • Words fail me
  • By leaps and bounds
  • Better late than never
  • A good time was had by all
  • Breathed a sigh of relief
  • From the ridiculous to the sublime
  • It’s a small world
  • Life and limb
  • Sticks out like a sore thumb
  • To all intents and purposes
  • In the final analysis

In the final analysis, I hope you can see why it’s better to avoid these expressions.

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Proofreading for Me, Myself, Personally, and I

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Apparently, Steve Coogan has never seen himself as a paragon of good writing, either.

Have you ever heard another person say or write something similar to the following sentence?  I myself personally am opposed to the senator’s proposal.

I myself personally find that sentence exceedingly painful. It contains a triple redundancy. Get rid of the clutter. Say what you mean. Get in, get out.

Personal and its relative personally are often redundant. Why say you have close personal friends? If they’re close friends, obviously they are people you know well. When you state, “Personally, I enjoy skiing,” that’s the way you feel. Personally adds nothing but redundant clutter.

  • Proofreading involves more than looking for typos. Proofread for spelling errors, grammar and punctuation problems, content, awkward phrasing, redundancies, clichés, parallelism, jargon and slang. If that seems too much to look for on one go-through, proofread more than once, looking for just a few problems (or even one) at a time. Your readers will thank you, and your writing will show you to be a professional.

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Not Exactly Synonyms

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All words have explicit dictionary meanings—denotations—as well as associated meanings—connotations. Often these connotations are cultural. For example, a color, such as white, may connote purity in one culture and yet be the color of death in another.

It’s important to be certain what connotations words carry. Words you may see as synonyms may have either positive or negative connotations, depending on the context and the culture. For example, the word odor may be seen as positive, negative, or neutral. But if you’re looking for synonyms, check this list and see if some of them might not work for you. When in doubt, look up words in the dictionary to see if a word might have a connotation you weren’t aware of and don’t want. When writing a poem to your love and seeking to focus on how wonderful that person smells, it might be better to stick away from stench and reek.

Odor
Smell
Scent
Tang
Pungency
Whiff
Musk
Stench
Stink
Must
Reek
Aroma
Bouquet
Perfume
Essence
Sachet
Redolence
Spice

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My Travels

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Author unknown.

I have been to a lot of places , but I have never been in Cahoots. Apparently, you can’t go alone. You have to be in Cahoots with someone. I’ve also never been in Cognito, either. I hear no one recognizes you there. I have, however, been in Sane. They don’t have an airport; you have to be driven there. I have made several trips thanks to my friends and family. I would like to go to Conclusions, but you have to jump, and I am not too much on physical activity involving heights.

I have also been in Doubt and in Decisive.  Those are unsettling places to go, and I try not to visit too often. I’ve been in Toxicated, and I woke up the next day with a headache. I’ve been in Flexible, but only when it was very important to stand firm.

Sometimes I’m in Capable, and I seem to go there more often as I’m getting older. One of the most exciting places to be, is in Suspense. It really gets the adrenalin flowing and pumps up the old heart.

One place I hope never to be is in Continent.

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Shakespeare Insult Kit

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Here’s all you need to find the perfect insult. Just follow the instructions below. You don’t need to read across, necessarily. Just take one from each column, wherever you find an appealing word.  Thanks to my friend Lee G. for posting this.

 

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Red-handed

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When we use the expression to be caught red-handed, did you ever think of its origin? It means to be caught in the act of doing something wrong or possibly illegal, with absolute proof of guilt.

Originally, it showed up in Scotland as long ago as the 15th century and literally meant to find someone with blood on his (or, in the case of Lady Macbeth, her) hands. By the mid-19th century, you no longer needed to exhibit bloody hands but merely be caught committing  some offense.

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The Order of Adjectives

unknownMark Forsyth wrote a book called The Elements of Eloquence, which includes this unspoken and largely unwritten rule we all follow but were never taught:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

Try moving just one of those adjectives to a different spot and you’ll see and hear how weird the sentence sounds. I find it fascinating that we all pick up the intricacies of our native languages before we even start school, without being taught the grammar. I call it linguistic osmosis.

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Unprecedented

Tweeting about the Chinese retrieval of an American drone, Donald Trump recently tweeted:

“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.”

Did you notice the typo? Trump said it was an “unpresidented” act. I don’t believe such a word exists, but obviously he has things presidential on his mind. I would tender the observation that many things he has done and said are unprecedented. I only wish there were a way to unpresident him. Just my opinion.

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What to Call Half the Population

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ICK!

Are they females or women? In most cases, female is the adjective and woman is the noun. Referring to women lawyers is unnecessary; we don’t refer to men lawyers. In vocations that were until quite recently male, it may be necessary to write, for example,  female soldiers.

If you want to use female as a noun, reserve it for the following situations: for animals; when you don’t know if the person in question is a girl or a woman; and when describing a gathering that includes both girls and women.

It’s common for women to describe their close female friends as their girlfriends. It would be a very good idea for males to avoid calling women girls. And it grates on my ear when I hear women refer to their female friends as gals. Ick. But that’s just me.

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Redundancies: Don’t Say It Again, Sam

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VIN=Vehicle Identification Number, so just use VIN, not VIN number.
Same idea with PIN.
ATM machine? ATM says it all.
HIV virus? The V tells us it’s a virus.
No need to say something is blue in color, square in shape, absolutely complete, a total disaster or a true fact.
Unless it’s by John Phillip Sousa, no need to say the month of March.
Nine a.m. in the morning? Choose a.m. or morning, not both.

This is my final conclusion.

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Pre- or Pro- scribe?

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Here are two more frequently confused and misused words:

PRESCRIBE means to recommend: I hope my doctor will prescribe something to cure my bronchitis.

PROSCRIBE means to forbid: When you go to the rally, you will have to remain on the lawn and will not be able to enter the proscribed area in front of it.

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For Your Entertainment

1. The fattest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference. He acquired his size from too much pi.
2. I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.
3. She was only a whisky maker, but he loved her still.
4. A rubber band pistol was confiscated from an algebra class, because it was a weapon of math disruption.
5. No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.
6. A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
7. A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart.
8. Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
9. A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.
10. Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
11. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
12. Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat said to the other: “You stay here; I’ll go on a head.”
13. I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger. Then it hit me.
14. A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center said, “Keep off the Grass.”
15. The midget fortune teller who escaped from prison was a small medium at large.
16. The soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
17. A backward poet writes inverse.
18. In a democracy, it’s your vote that counts. In feudalism, it’s your count that votes.
19. When cannibals ate a missionary, they got a taste of religion.
20. If you jumped off the bridge in Paris, you’d be in Seine.
21. A vulture carrying two dead raccoons boards an airplane. The stewardess looks at him and says, “I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”
22. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. One turns to the other and says, “Dam!”
23. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Unsurprisingly, it sank, proving once again that you can’t have your kayak and heat it too.
24. Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, “I’ve lost my electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first replies, “Yes, I’m positive.”
25. Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain during a root canal? His goal: transcend dental medication.
26. A person sent ten puns to friends with the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

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Dept. of “Hmmm”

 

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You may be aware that a few nights ago Donald Trump and Mitt Romney dined together at Jean Georges, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Trump Tower in New York City. It could have been an awkward situation, since during the presidential campaign Romney called Trump a fraud and a liar, in addition to other damning epithets.

However, according to the New York Times, “Despite their rocky past, Trump and Romney didn’t show any animosity whatsoever between each other, as servers dressed in neckties and vests carried out their duties.”

I don’t know about you, but I cannot unsee those servers wearing only neckties and vests. Did Jean Georges allow his waiters to forgo pants? That sentence certainly implies the waiters’ outfits were on the scanty side. Imagine the conversation between a thrice-married womanizer and a long-married Mormon—if you can. I can’t.

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Immigrate or Emigrate?

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You often hear and see these two words used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference in their meanings. It depends on whether you are leaving or arriving.

IMMIGRATE is the word to use when referring to people entering a new country: Canada has experienced great interest from people wanting to immigrate to that country from the United States.

EMIGRATE is used to refer to people leaving a country to take up residence elsewhere: Many people are considering emigrating from the United States to Canada .

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Welcome Aboard

 

images We were in Florida over Thanksgiving week, visiting our daughter and her family and celebrating our granddaughter’s 16th birthday. Sixteen? How can this be?

I have always been fascinated with “airline speak,” and Delta did not disappoint me on this trip. Airlines take what could be a simple sentence and puff it up, using more and fancier words than necessary to get the same message across.

My theory is that because most people have some degree of fear when flying, airlines believe that by sounding more “professional,” you won’t think so much about being seven miles up, going five-hundred miles an hour in a metal tube, and having zero control over what happens. Turbulence? Almost a given. Another plane in the area? How close is that plane I see out the window, anyway? Did a terrorist get through security? Does the constantly coughing person next to me have tuberculosis? Flying is a joy, right?

Therefore, we hear things like, “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure,” which really means, as George Carlin explained, “Broken plane!” “If your ticket is still in your possession” translates to, “If you have your ticket.” “This is Captain Parker” made Carlin wonder,”Who made this man a captain? Did I sleep through a military swearing in?” “Welcome to Los Angeles, where the local time is 10 p.m.” Of course it’s the local time. I know we didn’t fly to Laos. “Be certain to retrieve all your personal possessions.” “What else would I have with me?” wondered Carlin. “A fountain I stole from the park?”

Bon voyage!

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Trump’s Use of Language

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Full disclaimer: I am not and never was a supporter of Donald Trump. As much as I abhorred his style of campaigning and saw him as a misogynistic, racist, and cruel candidate (I cannot shake the image of him imitating a disabled reporter), I was always fascinated by his use of language. He usually spoke in very short sentences with a severely limited vocabulary, often in fragments, and repeated words and phrases many times in a row. He was far from a polished speaker, but I have no doubt his conversational style struck a chord with his audiences: he showed he was not above them, that he was at their level. He made them comfortable. Many poor, jobless, undereducated and uneducated people were able to relate to a New York City billionaire who attended an Ivy League school. Go figure.

The following items are far from a full analysis of his favorite words, just some that have stuck with me.

CLASSY: I built the Grand Hyatt right next to Grand Central Station —beautiful, classy job— but then the city denied my request to have the top 10 floors illuminated with my face at night. Can you believe that?

TERRIFIC: (About Obamacare): Repeal and replace with something terrific. (But no details were given.)

TREMENDOUS: I am worth a tremendous amount of money. I have had tremendous success.
(on Islam) There’s something there…there’s a tremendous hatred there.

HUGE (pronounced YUGE): It’s gonna be huge!

AMAZING: Yesterday was amazing—5 victories.

DANGEROUS: (on protesters at Trump speeches) They are really dangerous and they get in there and start hitting people.

TOUGH: Mike Tyson endorsed me. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. I like that. OK?

SMART: I’m, like, a really smart person.

MORON: (on Nelson Mandela’s funeral) What a sad thing that the memory of Nelson Mandela will be stained by the phony sign language moron who is in every picture at [the] funeral!

WE: (This indicates solidarity with his audiences. He is telling them what they believe and that he agrees with them.) We need to build a wall on the Mexican border. We are going to make Mexico pay for it.
We are going to make great trade deals.
We are going to bring back our jobs.
We will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network.

THEY: (This word indicates “the other,” those who are in opposition.)  (on immigrants) They’re pouring in. They are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime.
The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.
(on poor people who become politicians) And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.

LOSER: (on John McCain) I supported him, he lost, he let us down. But you know, he lost, so I’ve never liked him as much after that, because I don’t like losers…. He’s not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

STUPID: I went to an Ivy League school. I’m highly educated. I know words. I have the best words, I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid. Right?

WINNING: We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored!

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Is it Raining Continually or Continuously?

This is a repost from over two-and-a-half years ago—when we had a little rain in Southern California. We are now entering our sixth year of drought (but remember, climate change is, ahem, a hoax). A reader asked me to cover these two words, which I had done in February 2014. Don’t forget to use the search box on my blog to see if I’ve already written about the topic you’re wondering about.

 

Finally, finally, we have had measurable rain in Southern California. Until this storm began last night, we had just a little over an inch of rain this entire season, which began last July. Normal rainfall for this period is 11 inches. We who live here want and need more—a lot more. But do we want it to rain continuously or continually?

It’s easy to get these two words confused. CONTINUOUSLY means without interruption, whereas CONTINUALLY means continuing but sporadically, intermittently. The former would be a problem, as the hillsides are so dry that a deep soaking all at once would lead to the landslides you read about here. On-and-off rain, continual rain, would allow the water to sink in without causing erosion. A way to remember the difference between these two words might be to notice that CONTINUOUS has an S, and that, unfortunately, stands for slides. Think continual rain for us here in this parched land.

Yes, the climate is changing rapidly, a cause of concern for all.

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Peek, Peak, Pique

Peaks in the Mist © Judi Birnberg

Peaks in the Mist
© Judi Birnberg

These three words all sound alike but are often misused.

PEEK means to sneak a glance, usually furtively. Adam peeked in the attic where the Christmas presents were stored.

PEAK is the apex of something: the top of a mountain, a gable on a house, the points on egg whites when they are whipped hard.

PIQUE as a noun is a feeling of annoyance, especially if one’s pride or honor is insulted.

PIQUE as a verb means to stimulate interest: A review of Ian McEwan’s latest book, Nutshell, piqued my interest in reading it. It is an achingly clever novel narrated by a full-term fetus (unnamed, but obviously a modern-day Hamlet, whose mother is Trudy, father is John, and doltish uncle and Trudy’s lover is Claude).

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Beside or Besides?

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When you’re angry or frustrated, are you beside yourself or besides yourself? Here’s the difference:

BESIDES means in addition to.
Besides me, only three people showed up at the meeting.

BESIDE means next to, alongside.
At the meeting, I sat beside a woman I had never met before.

However, the expression beside myself (with frustration, for example) strikes me as odd. Obviously, it’s idiomatic; you can’t physically get next to yourself, no matter how hard you try. But if you are sufficiently frustrated, you might feel as if you have been torn into two people. I’m just guessing here.

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Time to Groan

Here are puns sent to me by my friend Cami; she found them on a site called Lexophilia (love of words). I generally don’t care for puns, but these are very clever.

• Venison for dinner again? Oh, deer!

• How does Moses make tea? Hebrews it.

• England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.

• I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.

• They told me I had type-A blood, but it was a typo.

• I changed my iPod’s name to Titanic. It’s syncing now.

• Jokes about German sausage are the wurst.

• I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid, but he says he can stop any time.

• I stayed up all night to see where the sun went, and then it dawned on me.

• This girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I’d never met herbivore.

• When chemists die, they barium.

• I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I just can’t put it down.

• I did a theatrical performance about puns. It was a play on words.

• Why were the Indians here first? They had reservations.

• I didn’t like my beard at first, then it grew on me.

• The cross-eyed teacher lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils.

• When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.

• Broken pencils are pointless.

• A dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary is called a thesaurus.

• I dropped out of Communism class because of lousy Marx.

• I got a job at a bakery because I kneaded dough.

• Velcro, what a rip off!

• Don’t worry about old age, it doesn’t last.

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Who’s Murgatroyd? Or Betsy, Flynn or Riley?

All languages change through common usage. English is no exception. Do you remember any of these once often-used words and expressions?

Heavens to Murgatroyd
Heavens to Betsy
Jalopy
Hunky Dory
Don’t touch that dial
Carbon copy
Broken record
Hung out to dry (before clothes dryers, I’m guessing)
Gee willikers
Jumping Jehoshaphat
Holy moley
In like Flynn (again, who’s he?)
Living the life of Riley (another unknown person)
Not for all the tea in China
Spats, knickers, poodle skirts, fedoras, saddle shoes, pedal pushers
Pageboy, beehive and DA hairdos
Kilroy was here
I’ll be a monkey’s uncle
A fine kettle of fish
Pshaw!
Knee high to a grasshopper
Fiddlesticks
Don’t take any wooden nickels

And fifty years from now, many of today’s common expressions will be looked at as quaint and archaic.

See ya later, alligator! After a while, crocodile!

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Incredible or Incredulous?

 

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Steve’s looking incredulous.

These two words are often confused.

INCREDIBLE means difficult to believe:
Jumping from a plane at 25,000 feet without using supplementary oxygen and landing alive seems like an incredible feat; yet a man did this not too long ago.

INCREDULOUS means unable or unwilling to believe something:
If I had not seen the video myself, I would have been incredulous if someone had told me a person had jumped from a plane at 25,000 feet and lived.

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Gotta Love Those Misplaced Modifiers

© Judi Birnberg 2016 Pots are Better Than Shoes

© Judi Birnberg 2016
Pots are Better Than Shoes

Misplaced modifiers happen when a word or group of words ends up modifying (giving information about) another word in the sentence. Often, the results are very funny.

I found this in one of my favorite magazines, The Week, which is a digest of articles from around the world. In an article on street food, with an accompanying recipe for Dan Dan Noodles (too complicated for me), Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau, chefs at a Philadelphia restaurant, V Street, declare, “We want the stuff that a little old lady is frying up in her flip-flops….”

Where to begin? First of all, how does the little old lady stand the heat? How does the food stay on her flip-flops? And do we really want to eat food cooked on a shoe and redolent of the odor of the foot that recently occupied that flip-flop?

Hungry?

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Clever Thoughts for Clever People

This is from my friend Janet. I love it when my readers suggest topics or send me goodies like this one. The English language is so malleable!

1. ARBITRATOR: A cook that leaves Arby’s to work at McDonald’s

2. BERNADETTE: The act of torching a mortgage 
3. BURGLARIZE: What a crook sees with
  

4. AVOIDABLE: What a bullfighter tries to  do

 

5. COUNTERFEITER: Worker who assembles kitchen cabinets

6. LEFT BANK: What the bank robber did when his bag was full of money
  
7. HEROES: What a man in a boat does

8. PARASITES: What you see from the Eiffel Tower 

9. PARADOX: Two physicians

10. PHARMACIST: A helper on a farm 

11. RELIEF: What trees do in the spring

12. RUBBERNECK: What you do to relax your wife

13. SELFISH: What the owners of a seafood store do

14. SUDAFED: Brought litigation against a government official

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The Lie vs. Lay Dilemma

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I’m guessing that within ten years the distinctions between these two words will have disappeared. But until September 2026, you might consider sticking to the following rules.

LIE (we’re not going to deal with the situation in which the truth is ignored) means to lie down, to rest or recline. Every day after lunch, I lie down. I don’t lay down. I lay something down.

LAY means to put or place: Every day when I lie down, I lay my head on my pillow.

That covers the present tense of both verbs. It gets a little sticky when you go into past tenses:

LIE in the past tense is (wait for it) LAY. Yesterday after lunch, I lay down. OMG, in the present tense you lie down, but in the past tense you lay down! Remember, I don’t make these rules up; I just teach them.

It gets even worse: in the past perfect tense, when has, had or have is part of your verb, you need LAIN. (I bet you’ve never written that word in your life—but it’s not too late to start.) Every day after lunch, I always have lain down.

As for the past tenses of LAY, here is what you want: Yesterday I laid my head on my pillow. I always have laid my head on my pillow.

If your head is aching, perhaps you’d like to lay your head on your pillow.

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Simplifying Legalese

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Here is the writing on a T-shirt I bought for my husband, a lawyer. It’s labeled “The Layman’s Glossary of Legal Terms”:

ACQUIT: To wimp out
APPELLATE: Hamster food
ARRAIGN: Stormy weather
ATTORNEY: Major sporting event
BAR ASSOCIATION: Drinking buddies
BONA FIDE: Dog treat
CRIMINAL LAWYER: Redundant
COURT OF APPEALS: Justice for bananas
CRIME OF PASSION: Sloppy kisses
DEBTOR: Less alive
DECEIT: A place to sit down
DISCOVERY: Cable TV channel
EXTRADITION: More math homework
GRACE PERIOD: Just before the meal
HUNG JURY: Overreaction to verdict
IN TOTO: Where Dorothy places trust
INNOCENCE: Fragrant when burned
LEGAL BRIEFS: Always boxers
LEGAL SECRETARY: Old enough to party
LIEN: Not overweight
MIRANDA RULE: Wear fruit on head
ORDER IN THE COURT: A call for takeout
PRO BONO: Cher before the divorce
ROE V. WADE: Tough choice at river
SUPREME COURT: Where Diana Ross plays tennis
TRIAL DATE: More fun than dinner and a movie

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Did Dickens Consider This?

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September 16, 2016 · 3:26 PM

Who’s Joe?

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I’ve been wondering how the word joe came to be used in a slang sense for coffee. I consulted Evan Morris’ book The Word Detective to see what his theories are.

In fact, no one seems to know for certain. It may be that joe is somehow associated with the island of Java, since java is another synonym for coffee. In the 19th century, the Indonesian island of Java was a major source of the world’s coffee.

Joe is often used to refer to the average man, the common man (his female equivalent is Jill), and has been especially associated with the military (we all know GI Joe,  slang for the common soldier long before he hit the toy store shelves). Because coffee is said to fuel the military, an association between common soldiers and their drink of choice is fixed.

Maybe.

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Paraprosdokians (huh?)

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Would you like a smoothie?

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence is unexpected and often humorous. My friend Jill sent these to me. Enjoy them.

• If I had a dollar for every girl who found me unattractive, they’d eventually find me attractive.

• I find it ironic that the colors red, white, and blue stand for freedom, until they’re flashing behind you.

• Today a man knocked on my door and asked for a small donation towards the local swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.

• Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.

• If tomatoes are technically a fruit, is ketchup a smoothie?

• I’m great at multi-tasking: I can waste time, be unproductive, and procrastinate all at once.

• If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame.

• Take my advice — I’m not using it.

• Hospitality is the art of making guests feel like they’re at home when you wish they were.

• Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.

• Ever stop to think and forget to start again?

• Women spend more time wondering what men are thinking than men spend thinking.

• He who laughs last thinks slowest.

• Is it wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly?

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The Many Sounds of OUGH

How does anyone ever learn to spell in English? How many sounds of OUGH are there? The following was written on a mug I saw:

Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.

And don’t forget plough, slough (pronounced sloo) and hiccough.

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What in the World is a Mondegreen?

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Have you ever discovered lyrics that were not what you originally thought you heard? You misinterpret a phrase that sounds very similar to the real deal, but your interpretation gives it a new meaning, one that may raise eyebrows. That, dear readers, is a Mondegreen.

The name was coined in 1954 by author Sylvia Wright, who misheard the lyrics of an old Scottish ballad; she thought these were the words:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

In fact, the last line is And laid him on the green.

Here are some other Mondegreens:

the girl with colitis goes by (the girl with kaleidoscope eyes, from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”)

There’s a bathroom on the right (There’s a bad moon on the rise, from “Bad Moon Rising”)

Surely, good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life. A more common reading of the 23rd Psalm includes the line, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

When I was very young, a popular singer named Patti Page recorded a song called “Cross Over the Bridge.” It contains the line, Leave your fickle past behind you, and true romance will find you…. I was just discovering love songs on the radio and had no idea what “fickle” meant. To my ears, Patti Page was singing, Leave your pickle pats behind you….

I still wonder what pickle pats had to do with true romance. And what are pickle pats, anyway? Send me your own Mondegreens. I bet you all have at least one.

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Whatever Happened to These Words?

© Judi Birnberg

“Two Ruly Birds”         ©Judi Birnberg

Many words once in common use are rarely seen today, but prefixes and suffixes have kept the root alive:

COUTH meant known, familiar. So UNCOUTH is bad-mannered, strange.

RUTH meant to rue, to feel compassion for. If you’re RUTHLESS, that compassion is gone.

HAP meant lucky. Now HAPLESS means unlucky or incompetent.

KEMPT meant combed, tidy. UNKEMPT implies a person is sloppy or messy.

FECK meant effective, strong, so FECKLESS is weak or ineffective.

GRUNTLE meant to complain . DISGRUNTLE, however, isn’t an opposite; it’s an intensifier.

WIELDY meant agile. (You saw all those wieldy athletes at the Olympics, right?) UNWIELDY is clumsy, awkward.

RULY meant well behaved, obeying the rules. UNRULY behavior is rarely tolerated.

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A Letter No Longer in the English Alphabet

And here it is: 220px-Latin_alphabet_Þþ.svg

Those are upper- and lowercase thorns. In Old English it had the sound of th, as in the. As Old English morphed into Middle English, the thorn was dropped as a letter and y was substituted, which is why you see cutesy names for tearooms and other shops using Ye for The.

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I don’t know about you, but I love trivia about language (and just about everything else).

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Really? Literally?

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I admit it: I’m addicted to “The Antiques Roadshow,” both the British and the American versions. The other night, an American appraiser was so excited to be seeing an item that he, with uncontrolled excitement, practically shouted,“When I saw you come in with this, I literally was blown across the room!”

I can’t even remember what the item was because I was so fascinated by the image of him taking one look at the piece and then flying across the room, arms a-flappin, a look of amazement on his face. Did he actually fly across the room? Obviously not. Maybe he virtually flew. Or maybe he just got really excited and felt his heart pound. However he reacted, one thing is certain: he was not literally blown across the room. That would have meant it had really happened.

Incidentally, if you watch the show, you likely have noticed that almost every American who receives an good appraisal responds with, “Wow!” For years the Brits have been far more reserved, politely smiling and nodding or saying something along the lines of “Lovely.” Very understated. But recently I have noticed that Wow! has now made it to the British Isles although it is uttered, as you might expect, with great poise and restraint.

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Words to Persuade With

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(To those of you moaning about my ending a sentence with a preposition, I ask if you’d rather read Words With Which to Persuade. It truly is fine to stick a preposition at the end of your sentence if it sounds more natural.)

To persuade your audience, here is a list of words that will entice your readers to your side: youyes, free, guarantee, easy, save, new, safety, benefits, discovery, health, now, sale, proven, money, results, love.

Please be sure when you use these words that you are not blowing smoke. If you are offering benefits, guarantees, or health, mean what you say. If you cannot back up your promises, you will lose all credibility.

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Voila, Wallah, or Viola?

I’ve been busy with visiting children and grandchildren, but I was inspired by this morning’s email from the Grammarphobia blog (so worth your while). The author, Patricia O’Conner, covered the topic you see in my subject line. A reader had contacted her, saying he often saw wallah in print to mean voila. Apparently, no dictionary gives it as an alternative spelling.

Voila is French and essentially means, “There you have it!” It’s pronounced vwaLA. Note the V sound. Wallah is a Hindi word used in India to mean a person concerned with a specific business, such as a chai wallah, one who sells tea. It also can signify a person from a particular place, such as a Mumbai wallah.

I not infrequently see people write Viola! when meaning to write Voila! I guess those people are music lovers.

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How Does This Issue Impact You?

So many issues to contemplate and solve. Issue after issue. Issues are issuing forth from radio, television and every segment of media all day and all night. We are bombarded with issues.

We are constantly being asked how these issues impact us. So many impacts. Impacts here, impacts there, impacts, impacts everywhere.

What I want to know is what happened to problems affecting people. I’m guessing impact has replaced affect, at least in writing, because so many people are unsure whether to use affect or effect.

Either of those can be used instead of impact:

  1. How does this problem affect you? (Affect is a verb.)
  2. What will be the effect of this problem? (Effect is a noun.)

It’s true that affect can be a noun: The patient had a flat affect (no facial expression).

Effect can also be a verb: Every new president hopes to effect changes (meaning bring about). 

However, you can see how rarely each of those words is used in those ways. Try memorizing the overwhelmingly more common uses of affect and effect (see sentences 1 and 2 above) and take them out for a spin every now and then. Don’t get stuck in the Issue and Impact Rut.

 

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You Guys

 

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I’m wondering how you feel about the ubiquitous phrase you guys. We went to brunch today with another couple: two women and two men. The server repeatedly referred to us as you guys: Are you guys ready to order? Do you guys want any coffee? Is there anything else I can get you guys?

I’m not sure what the female equivalent of guys is. Gals? (I hate that word.) Girls? I’m long past my girlhood. Dolls, as in the great Broadway show? (But ick.)

It’s not as if people don’t recognize two sexes at the table. But if a female-denoting word were habitually to be used to address a mixed-gender group, I’m guessing the males would stifle that immediately. Are women ready to announce they are not guys? Or do we let it roll over us and fuggedaboudit?

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Can You Do These Things?

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Glued to the TV

Can you do your level best? Can you throw a fit? How about throwing someone under the bus? Or throwing a birthday party? Can you crack a smile, float a trial balloon, pose a question, bear the brunt, beat a hasty retreat, grab a nap, or cause someone’s words to fall on deaf ears? Are you glued to the conventions? Can you drive a hard bargain and nail down an argument?

If you can do these acts, it might be better if you didn’t. They’re all clichés, and everyone knows clichés should be avoided like the plague.

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About Capitalization

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Food Fight   ©Judi Birnberg

If you’d like a list of rules governing when to capitalize a letter, use the search box and put in Capitalization Rules. I posted the list a little over a year ago.

I just want to add that although a word may have special significance for you, your response won’t be universal: Exercise will fill you with Joy and Energy. When you finish your 75 pushups, you may be elated and buzzing with verve. Nevertheless, joy and energy are nothing more than ordinary, common nouns. They aren’t official names of anything (proper nouns) and should not be capitalized.

As I wrote in my previous post about capital letters,

Be very sparing in using capitalization for emphasis. Let your words show the emphasis. As with any form of calling attention to your message (e.g., bold, italics, underlining), when you emphasize everything you end up emphasizing nothing.

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Who Said That?

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Are you aware that almost every day you see one or more signs using quotation marks improperly?

“In business since 1979”

“Apple pie like your mom used to make”

“Call us for affordable repairs!”

“Free” delivery

No one ever said these things. They were made up to call attention to what the advertisers want you to remember.

Legitimate uses of quotation marks are when you are quoting the actual words someone else either said or wrote, or when you use a word knowing that your readers are aware you are being facetious or sarcastic.

For instance, if you write that your Aunt Edna is on a “strict” diet and then you go on to write that she eats strictly high-calorie foods, your readers understand your sarcasm. But in the last sign listed above, putting quotation marks around “free” seems to indicate that the delivery is, in fact, not free. It’s as if the company is poking you in the ribs and saying, “Ha! Not really.”

If you want to call attention to certain words, instead of quotation marks, you can use italics or boldface type. But please do this very sparingly.

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