Tag Archives: language

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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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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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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Test Your Pronunciation

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For language lovers only! Here is a poem, “The Chaos,” written in 1922 by Gerard Nolst Trenité. He used 800 words that illustrate the absurdity of English spelling. My favorite is the British surname Cholmondeley: it’s pronounced Chumly. Go figure. “Take a deep breath and try your tongue on these:

“The Chaos” Gerard Nolst Trenité (1922)

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
 I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
 Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
 Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
 Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
 But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
 Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
 Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing,
Same, examining, but mining,
 Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.
From “desire”: desirable-admirable from “admire”,
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier,
 Topsham, brougham, renown, but known,
Knowledge, done, lone, gone, none, tone,
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel.
 Gertrude, German, wind and wind,
Beau, kind, kindred, queue, mankind,
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
 This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
 Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
 Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
 Discount, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward,
Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
 Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Is your r correct in higher?
Keats asserts it rhymes Thalia.
 Hugh, but hug, and hood, but hoot,
Buoyant, minute, but minute.
Say abscission with precision,
Now: position and transition;
 Would it tally with my rhyme
If I mentioned paradigm?
Twopence, threepence, tease are easy,
But cease, crease, grease and greasy?
 Cornice, nice, valise, revise,
Rabies, but lullabies.
Of such puzzling words as nauseous,
Rhyming well with cautious, tortious,
 You’ll envelop lists, I hope,
In a linen envelope.
Would you like some more? You’ll have it!
Affidavit, David, davit.
 To abjure, to perjure. Sheik
Does not sound like Czech but ache.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
 We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed but vowed.
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover.
 Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice,
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
 Petal, penal, and canal,
Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal,
Suit, suite, ruin. Circuit, conduit
Rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
 But it is not hard to tell
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
 Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor,
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
Has the a of drachm and hammer.
 Pussy, hussy and possess,
Desert, but desert, address.
Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants
Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
 Courier, courtier, tomb, bomb, comb,
Cow, but Cowper, some and home.
“Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker”,
Quoth he, “than liqueur or liquor”,
 Making, it is sad but true,
In bravado, much ado.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
 Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.
Arsenic, specific, scenic,
Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
 Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.
Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
 Mind! Meandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.
And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
 Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.
Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
 Prison, bison, treasure trove,
Treason, hover, cover, cove,
Perseverance, severance. Ribald
Rhymes (but piebald doesn’t) with nibbled.
 Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.
Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
 Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.
Say in sounds correct and sterling
Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
 Evil, devil, mezzotint,
Mind the z! (A gentle hint.)
Now you need not pay attention
To such sounds as I don’t mention,
 Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
Rhyming with the pronoun yours;
Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
 Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
No, my maiden, coy and comely,
I don’t want to speak of Cholmondeley.
 No. Yet Froude compared with proud
Is no better than McLeod.
But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
 Troll and trolley, realm and ream,
Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.
Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
 But you’re not supposed to say
Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.
Had this invalid invalid
Worthless documents? How pallid,
 How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
When for Portsmouth I had booked!
Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
 Episodes, antipodes,
Acquiesce, and obsequies.
Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
 Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.
Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
 Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
Wan, sedan and artisan.
The th will surely trouble you
More than r, ch or w.
 Say then these phonetic gems:
Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.
Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
There are more but I forget ’em-
 Wait! I’ve got it: Anthony,
Lighten your anxiety.
The archaic word albeit
Does not rhyme with eight-you see it;
 With and forthwith, one has voice,
One has not, you make your choice.
Shoes, goes, does *. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
 Real, zeal, mauve, gauze and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age,
Hero, heron, query, very,
Parry, tarry fury, bury,
 Dost, lost, post, and doth, cloth, loth,
Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.
Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
Bowing, bowing, banjo-tuners,
 Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
Puisne, truism, use, to use?
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
 Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
Put, nut, granite, and unite.
Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
 Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.
Gaelic, Arabic, pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific;
 Tour, but our, dour, succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
Next omit, which differs from it
, Bona fide, alibi
Gyrate, dowry and awry.
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
 Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
 Rally with ally; yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
 Never guess-it is not safe,
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.
Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
 Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Bass, large, target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, oust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
 Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
Do not rhyme with here but heir.
Mind the o of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
 With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.
Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
 Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
 Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.
A of valour, vapid vapour,
S of news (compare newspaper),
 G of gibbet, gibbon, gist,
I of antichrist and grist,
Differ like diverse and divers,
Rivers, strivers, shivers, fivers.
 Once, but nonce, toll, doll, but roll,
Polish, Polish, poll and poll.
Pronunciation-think of Psyche!-
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
 Won’t it make you lose your wits
Writing groats and saying “grits”?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
 Islington, and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
 Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??
Hiccough has the sound of sup…
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

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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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