Tag Archives: linguistics

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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Parallelism

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When train tracks or skis are parallel, one of them doesn’t veer off. They stay the same distance apart. When writing, you want your prose to be parallel as well. When it isn’t, your readers will be jarred by the parts that veer off on their own. Here’s an example:

The most frequent causes of snowmobile accidents are mechanical failure, the driver is careless, and the weather conditions might be dangerous.

It’s easy to rewrite this sentence in parallel form, seeing that all the pieces are of the same grammatical form:

The most frequent causes of snowmobile accidents are mechanical failure, careless drivers, and dangerous weather conditions.

Here’s one more:

Roger is overworked and not paid adequately.

This is very easily fixed:

Roger is overworked and underpaid.

When you proofread what you’ve written, check to see that lists are in parallel form. If something grates on your ear, you’ll know how to fix it.

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Are You Thirsty?

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Speaking American, Josh Katz’s book about US regional English, is endlessly fascinating to me.

When I was growing up just north of New York City, my family sometimes made a summer visit to my aunt who lived in Massachusetts. As soon as we arrived, she would immediately offer us a tonic (pronounced tawnic). She didn’t necessarily mean tonic water; she was offering us any kind of fizzy, bubbly, non-alcoholic drink we wanted. According to Katz, tonic was the word of choice, particularly around Boston but throughout most of Massachusetts. Today, that word is declining among the younger generation there but is still strong among older people.

About 60% of the country now calls those drinks soda, with that designation particularly strong on the West Coast, in South Florida, and throughout New England (even among the former tonic people in Massachusetts).

Soft drink accounts for 6% around Washington, DC and in Louisiana. Pop is the word across all the northern United States from Washington State through Pennsylvania up to western New York. Coke is your word if you live in New Mexico, all the way through the deep South. Realize that Coke does not necessarily refer to Coca Cola; even 7-Up, Sprite and root beer are Coke. And (for me, this is the kicker) if you live in Georgia across to western South Carolina, your drink of choice is Cocola. Again, you might want Mountain Dew—but that’s just a form of Cocola.

Bottoms up!

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What’s a Run-On Sentence?

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It’s been my experience that when people see a very long sentence they immediately decide it’s a run-0n. In fact, you can have one sentence comprising thousands of words (even though no one would possibly want this), and it would not be a run-on, as long as it was structured correctly.

A run-on is a complete sentence, no matter how long or short, that is joined to another complete sentence by two different means:

  1. Jim is tall his brother is shorter. Here you have two complete sentences that have nothing to join them. This is the classic run-on.
  2. Jim is tall, his brother is shorter. Here the two sentences are joined by a comma, making what is known as a comma splice, another form of a run-on.

It’s easy to fix run-ons.

  1. You can put a period between the two sentences: Jim is tall. His brother is shorter. With very short sentences like these, using a period may seem a bit simplistic, but it’s not wrong.
  2. You can also use a semicolon between the two sentences, assuming they are closely related in subject matter: Jim is tall; his brother is shorter.
  3. You can add a connecting word: Jim is tall although his brother is shorter.

We most often write run-ons when we’re in a hurry. If we don’t take time to proofread (audibly—quietly so you can hear your own voice—and slowly), chances are we won’t catch them. But our readers may, and it’s best not to let that happen. It may not be fair, but we are often judged by our writing.

 

 

 

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Choose the Correct Pronouns

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Here’s a sentence like one I used to use in my corporate writing seminars. See if you think the given pronouns are correct:

She and I approve of Martin traveling with them and we.

Did you find any problems? It’s easy to evaluate if you take it one at a time, pronoun by pronoun.

She approves…. So far, so good, right?

I approve…. OK by me. You too?

I approve of Martin traveling with them…. Also fine.

I approve of Martin traveling with we. Ouch.

You can hear that you need us for the final pronoun. (Us is the object of the preposition with. Prepositions are always followed by nouns or object pronouns.) Other than that one change, the rest of the sentence was grammatically correct. So even when a sentence seems overly complicated, if you take it one little piece at a time, you should be able to sort it out and make sure it’s right.

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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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