Tag Archives: Latin

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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Does “Proper English” Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal this past week raising the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London. Here is the link to his article:
http://on.wsj.com/1CcHQ3V .

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 students 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. I will be here all this week. I am disappearing for the following two weeks for vacation. Whenever you write, I will have your emails when I get back (yes, I’m unplugging) and will answer you.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to AW for alerting me to the article that gave rise to this letter.

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Non Sequiturs

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Here’s a bit of Latin accepted in everyday English without translation. For the record, a non sequitur means “it does not follow.”

It shouldn’t have to be stated that one thought in your writing should logically follow the preceding idea (but I just stated that). However, we often are struck by words that raise our eyebrows and elicit a “Huh?”

Here’s an example from the New York Times:

“Slim, of medium height and with sharp features, Mr. Smith’s technical skills are combined with strong leadership qualities.”

Surely you are asking yourself what Smith’s technical skills and leadership qualities have to do with his physical description. This is a glaring example of a non sequitur and, as a bonus feature, it is also a misplaced, or dangling, modifier: a grammatical twofer. As the sentences are written, Smith’s technical skills and leadership qualities are slim, of medium height and possess sharp features. Huh?

When you begin a sentence with a description such as the one above, what follows immediately has to be the person or object that possesses those traits. Then your modifier will be undangled.

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Syntax and Lexicon

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No, not SIN TAX; that’s an entirely different matter. I’m sure you hear the word “syntax” used (perhaps not as frequently as the homonym), but you might not be certain of its meaning.

SYNTAX means the way words are put together to form grammatical, comprehensible sentences. People who garble their meanings are said to speak and write using deficient syntax. Think of Sarah Palin and George W. Bush—they aren’t guilty all the time but often enough to be notorious for their use of the English language. The derivation of “syntax” is from Greek to Latin to French.

LEXICON refers to the vocabulary used by a person, by a language or by a branch of study, e.g., the lexicon of the Basque people of Catalonia. The derivation of “lexicon” is from Greek to Latin.

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Ending Sentences With Prepositions

I’m often asked if it’s OK to end sentences with prepositions. The answer is definitely YES. The injunction against doing so comes originally from a Latin construction, but no reason exists not to end sentences with prepositions in English.

Someone recently asked me, “Would you write, ‘Where is the library at?'” Of course I wouldn’t. I would ask, “Where is the library?” That “at” serves no purpose because the word “where” is already asking for location. 

Would you ask, “Who was that person with whom I saw you?” I very much doubt it; instead, you’d rephrase the sentence to say, “Who was that person I saw you with.”  As  you can see, ending sentences with prepositions often makes sense, sounds more natural, and will keep you from sounding like a grammar pedant. 

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Singular or Plural? How’s Your Latin?

Without thinking about the etymology, many of us use Latin words every day: criteria/criterion, museum, auditorium, agenda, data, premium, for example.

For the most part, we take those words and subject them to our English rules. Except for criterion and data, we simply add an S to make the plural and no longer realize that the Latin plurals are musea, auditoria and premia. The singular of agenda is agendum, but we never see that any more.

One word losing the distinction between singular and plural is data. That is the plural form (datum is the singular), but we rarely see or hear the latter. It is becoming standard English to use “The data is confusing.” In fact, I’m guessing most people would be surprised to hear “The data are confusing.”  Because data is not something easily separated into its components, this swing toward the ubiquitous singular is understandable.

The distinction between criterion (singular, referring to one component) and criteria (plural, meaning more than one component) still exists, and I admit I cringe when I hear or see a sentence such as, “I have only one criteria for cooking Thanksgiving dinner: someone else has to do it.”  Keep using the singular and plural forms of these words; they still carry meaning.

 

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Decimate

You can see the Latin root for 10 in this word, and originally it meant to slaughter every tenth person.  We’ve loosened up a bit since those Roman days and usually use the word to mean widespread damage or destruction.

However, today’s meaning still does not mean total annihilation.  Some people or objects have to be left.  And don’t use “decimate” with a specific number, as in “Ninety percent of the island was decimated.”

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