Tag Archives: English usage

Hanged vs. Hung

 

Hanged and hung are both past tenses of the verb to hang. You want to display some photographs on the wall. Which will it be? Would you say you hanged them or you hung them? I hope you hung them. Hanged is used to indicate death by suspension: The criminal was hanged at dawn. All other uses call for hung: you hung up the phone, you hung laundry out to dry, you hung out with your friends, you hung loose during the quarantine. Even to describe, ahem, male endowment, you’d use well hung.

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Where Are the Positives?

The other day I was thinking about words, as I often do, and came up with a few that are negative but have no positive: I thought of unbeknownst and unwieldy, wondering if something we are familiar with could be knownst, and if something easy to handle is wieldy.

I was mayed and jected by my conclusion, that indeed no positives exist for them.

In fact, I felt downright gruntled and consolate. But I was definitely hibited and decided to stage a promptu tryout of my new positive words. I was proud of how sipid they were. They were ane and challant! I was couraged as I approached strangers and began to talk in my most communicado manner. But how sad I soon became as these strangers held me in dain, trying to make me feel less ept. I had givings and found myself in a souciant mood, realizing I would have have to try another day to spread my new and enhanced vocabulary.

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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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Spoonerisms

 

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Frigate bird, Galapagos  © Judi Birnberg

Now that you know what a mondegreen is, we can turn to spoonerisms, named for the Rev. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930). Apparently, he was prone to transposing the initial consonants of two words to such an extent that his mistakes came to be named after him.

Can’t you picture him officiating at a wedding and telling the groom, “It is now kisstomary to cuss the bride”?

In England, a popular dish is chish and fips. You might want a few belly jeans for dessert. And George W. Bush, known for his verbal gaffes, once declared, “If the the terriers and bariffs are torn down, the economy will grow.”

Maybe Rev. Spooner would have recognized my illustration as a brigate fird.

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What In the World is a Mondegreen?

 

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©  Almost Spring           Judi Birnberg

For my next few posts, I’m going to entertain you with spoonerisms, eggcorns, malaprops, and mondegreens. In fact, I wrote this particular post almost three years ago, and you may not have been a reader then or may have forgotten what a mondegreen is. They tickle me no end.

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, please! I bet you all have at least one.

 

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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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Continuous vs Continual

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These two words are not synonymous. Continuous  means an unbroken event or series of events. Continual means events that occur repeatedly but not in an unbroken period of time:

The snow fell continuously from Monday through Thursday, leaving four feet of snow over much of New England. (It never stopped snowing.)

The snow fell continually from Monday through Thursday, leaving three feet of snow over much of New England. (It snowed on and off during those four days.)

I wish I had a simple way for you to remember the difference between these two words. The only idea I can come up with is that continual is a shorter word than continuous; the snow that falls continually has breaks, so it falls for a shorter period of time. Any better suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

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A Word to the —wise Wise

 

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Speaking of locutions that make me cringe (we were, weren’t we?), the suffix “—wise” is near the top of my list. Limit it to a very few situations:

• Clockwise, counter clockwise

• Otherwise

• Lengthwise

Spare others from uses such as “healthwise,” “timewise,” “costumewise,” “stylewise.”

Instead of saying or writing, “Healthwise, I’ve had some problems with my elbow recently,” just drop that silly introductory word. It adds nothing.  Nor does “costumewise”:  “Costumewise, I’m going as Darth Vader as a schoolboy.” Just describe the getup you are planning on wearing to that Star Wars-themed Halloween party.

And so ends my word(s) to the wise.

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Abbreviations vs. Acronyms

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When people see an abbreviation, many refer to it as an acronym, thinking they mean the same thing. They don’t.

You all know what an abbreviation is.  An acronym is also an abbreviation—but one that is pronounced as a word:

NASA

Snafu ( it lost the caps when it became a common word)

Scuba (ditto)

Fubar (ditto)

MOMA in New York and LACMA in Los Angeles

You’d never say “Oosuh” or “Yoosuh,” so USA is not an acronym, just an abbreviation.

All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms.

(If you’re not sure what snafu and fubar stand for, look them up in your online dictionary; there you will discover the slightly off-color meanings.)

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To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize…

 

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Readers of my blog sometimes wonder about whether to capitalize certain words. For the next few entries, I’ll go over some of the trickier uses of capital letters.

What about geographical areas vs. directions? Look at these two sentences:

  1. Despite my New York accent, I was born in the South.
  2. To get to San Diego, I drove south on the dreaded 405 for over two hours.

If it’s a geographical area (the East Coast, the far North, Southern California, the Mid-Atlantic states), you do capitalize. If it’s a general direction, use lower case.

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Tearing My Hair Out

I’ve got a lot of hair, but at the rate I keep hearing a particular verbal atrocity, I may be bald by the weekend. My friend Cami in Miami heard this from the mouth of a supposedly literate and sophisticated lecturer and reacted as badly as I do when I hear it. I’m just surprised I haven’t written about this before.

Here goes: DO NOT SAY, “My wife (or anyone else) and I’s (fill in noun).”  “My friend and I’s lunch date had to be canceled.” 

No such possessive “word” as “I’s” exists. I think this problem arises because so many people think I is a classier pronoun than me or my. It’s not. If you need a subject pronoun, use I.  For an object pronoun, it’s going to be me or my. My wife’s and my apartment was painted last week. My friend’s and my lunch date had to be canceled.

The good news is that I have never seen anyone write this horror. You can use the search box on my blog to get more info about “I vs. me.”

 

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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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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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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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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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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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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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What Kind of Graduate Are You?

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Latin lesson coming up:

If you are a female graduate, you are an alumna. Plural female graduates are alumnae.

If you’re a male graduate, you are an alumnus. Plural male graduates are alumni. Plural graduates of males and females are also alumni. Sexist, I know.

I must admit it bothers me when I see license plate frames reading UC BERKELEY ALUMNI. Why not make plates with the female and male words for graduates? I am not a plural male graduate from Cal. I am, however, a member of the Cal Alumni Association, a large mixed group, men and women. Go, Bears!

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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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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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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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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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