Tag Archives: English usage

Cold or Allergy?

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When someone near you sneezes, what do you say? In Josh Katz’s book, Speaking American, he explains regional differences. Approximately 73% of Americans respond with some form of “Bless you.” God may or may not be invoked. But in the upper Midwest, gesundheit, meaning health, is popular because many German-and Yiddish-speaking immigrants moved to that region over 100 years ago.  Approximately 6% of people near a sneezer say nothing, with twice as many men as women not responding. (When I’m near a sneezer, I tend to hold my breath, hoping not to catch what the sneezer has. So I’m also likely not to say anything because I’m too busy not breathing.)

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How Do You Like This Euphemism?

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Euphemisms are generally used to change something icky into something more palatable. As George Carlin said, “Sometime in my life—no one asked me about this—toilet paper became bathroom tissue. The dump became the landfill. And partly cloudy became partly sunny.”

I was in a medical center the other day, where an information station was set up under an umbrella. Emblazoned on the umbrella were the words SERVICE AMBASSADOR. I find nothing distasteful about the word INFORMATION, but I am entertained by the thought of a group meeting to find a supposedly better (and definitely more pompous) description of the services offered under that umbrella. SERVICE AMBASSADOR: Do you suppose the, ahem, ambassadors who staff that desk need congressional confirmation?

Keep it simple. Not everything needs to be prettied up. In most cases, your readers aren’t fooled.

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What’s a Shebang?

images  I had no idea. Of course, I knew the phrase “the whole shebang,” meaning the totality of an entity. But I never knew a shebang was a specific thing until the other night when I was watching a documentary about a group of archeologists excavating the Civil War site of Ft. Lawton, in Georgia. Those archeologists had to spend some nights on the site and set up their individual shebangs (small and uncomfortable). A shebang is a rustic shelter or primitive hut. Did you know that? Neither did I until I watched this somewhat tedious documentary. But I learned something because I watched the whole shebang.

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What Is Business Writing?

© Judi Birnberg

 

Somewhere, somehow, people in the business world got the idea that using everyday English for their written communications was just not professional. The simplest sentence turned into a Pronouncement From On High. It was taboo to write As we discussed yesterday. Writing As per our previous conversation/dialog yesterday…. was suddenly seen as elegant and professional. The Latin phrase and redundancy made it even weightier. Bravo for you, middle manager!

I spent over 20 years in the corporate world leading business writing seminars in which participants came to see this stilted and pretentious style of writing as an impediment to communication. I urged them to write as if they were speaking to the recipient sitting across their desk. No one speaks in that bureaucratic manner, so why write that way? Obviously, the corporations that hired me knew what I was teaching and wanted their employees to lose the jargon. I did my little part, but I am quite sure the pompous style still lives at many companies. Simple, straightforward, everyday English ensures that all recipients will understand the message. It saves time and money. Questions about intent are no longer necessary. Say what you mean, just as if you were talking to your audience face to face. Business writing is clear, direct, and concise. That’s all it takes.

 

 

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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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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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