Tag Archives: linguistics

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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Some Old Words You Might Find Useful

Not being a techie, I tried everything I knew to make this a clickable link. Obviously, I failed. Copy and paste this into your browser and enjoy your new vocabulary:

http://historyhustle.com/20-awesome-historical-words-we-need-to-bring-back/

 

 

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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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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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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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The Most Mispronounced Words of 2016, Part 2

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The US Captioning Company listened to newscasters to find the most commonly mispronounced words during 2016. The British Institute of Verbatim Reporters did the same in the UK. Here is the rest of the list:

6.  Nomophobia  Fear of being without one’s cellphone. This was a biggie on both the US and UK lists. Pronounced no mo PHO be uh.

7. Quinoa  A grain from the Andes. Both US and UK broadcasters had great difficulty pronouncing this word. It’s KEEN wah.

8. Redacted  Censored or blacked out on a document. The Brits had trouble pronouncing this (why?). Not so the Americans, probably because of how frequently it was used when referring to Hillary Clinton’s emails. Parts were revealed but others parts were redacted. You saw those heavy black lines. ree DAK tid.

9. Xenophobia  Fear of foreigners, foreign ideas, and of the people who espouse them. This was Dictionary.Com’s 2016 word of the year.  Zeen uh PHO be uh.  It was often mispronounced on both sides of the Atlantic.

10. Zika  A deadly virus transmitted by mosquitos, sexual contact, and passed from mother to child. It reached epidemic proportions in 2016. ZEE kuh.

If you’ve been mispronouncing any of the words on these two lists, don’t feel too bad. If enough other people also mispronounce them, that pronunciation will eventually become standard. All languages change. Sometimes that change is slow, but at times it happens almost overnight. I’m thinking of homogeneous. The dictionary pronunciation is ho mo JEEN ee is. But I hear huh MAH jin us so often that I’m expecting to see it as an approved pronunciation in dictionaries next week.

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“Speaking American”: A Book I Love

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I recently bought this book by Josh Katz. The subtitle is “How Y’All, Youse, and You Guys Talk.” It’s a visual guide to American regional English. For years now I’ve been pining for DARE, the Dictionary of American English. The last time I looked it was three volumes and cost close to $400. That price was steep enough that I haven’t checked back.

But along came this book for $25 and I knew I had to have it. What the author did was take everyday objects and illustrate with maps of the United States what those objects are called in various parts of the country.

For instance, take “a sandwich on a long roll with meats and cheeses.” Here in California, I instantly think “sub.” But around Pennsylvania, it’s a “hoagie,” in NYC and on Long Island it’s a “hero,” a little piece of Connecticut says it’s a “wedge” (who knew?), the Upper Midwest and the Illinois/ Indiana area prefer “grinders,”  and most of New England has decided it’s an “Italian sandwich.”

Do you call this type of sandwich something other than one of these regionalisms? If so, tell me what it is and let me know where you live.

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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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Do We Really Need Prefixes?

I have been a subscriber to The New Yorker since the Millard Fillmore administration and must have read this humor piece by Jack Winter in the July 25, 1994 issue. Somehow, I had forgotten it, but my longtime friend Darrell F. sent it to me, knowing it would be up my proverbial alley. Mr. Winter must have spent a long time with a thesaurus and dictionary to get the perfect words for this article. Do enjoy it!

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How I Met My Wife

It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate.

I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.

I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn’t be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do.

Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion.

So I decided not to risk it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make heads or tails of.

I was plussed. It was concerting to see that she was communicado, and it nerved me that she was interested in a pareil like me, sight seen. Normally, I had a domitable spirit, but, being corrigible, I felt capacitated–as if this were something I was great shakes at–and forgot that I had succeeded in situations like this only a told number of times. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings.

Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. Wanting to make only called-for remarks, I started talking about the hors d’oeuvres, trying to abuse her of the notion that I was sipid, and perhaps even bunk a few myths about myselfs.

She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savory character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. “What a perfect nomer,” I said, advertently. The conversation become more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.

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Three Words Often Confused

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                      Daniel on slice #2

These words look quite similar but they serve different purposes:

RESPECTABLY means being worthy of respect or admiration. Misty Copeland, a prima ballerina, performed far more than respectably in “Swan Lake.”

RESPECTFULLY means showing respect or admiration for another. After eating two slices of cake, Daniel respectfully declined a third.

RESPECTIVELY refers to a series of items taken in the order listed. Pat and Corey, a teacher and scientist respectively, first met in college.

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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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My Feelings Exactly. Literally!

As always, thank you, Brian B.

 

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Don’t Call Me Maiden

When I got married, it was quite unusual for a woman to continue to use the surname she was born into. Even though I became a Birnberg, my husband and I continued to use my original name, Stone, when we made dinner reservations. Otherwise, we’d have to spell Birnberg several times. In fact, when someone asked our daughter, when she was about three, what her name was, she answered, “Joan Rebecca Birnberg BRNBRG.” Obviously, she had heard us spelling our last name repeatedly and, despite omitting the vowels, she thought the spelling was part of her last name.

After my marriage, though, I never referred to Stone as my maiden name. It conjured up a damsel-in-distress to me, so I referred to it as my unmarried name or my birth name. Birth name seems more appropriate to me now because both males and females change their last names for various reasons, whether or not they are or have been married.

Do I wish I had kept my birth name? Yes. If you could only see how our mail has been addressed: BRINBERG, BEINBERG, BIENBERG, BIRENBERG, BRINBAUM and many other creative attempts, including our favorite, BIZENBERRY.

 

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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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Gotta Love Those Misplaced Modifiers

© Judi Birnberg 2016 Pots are Better Than Shoes

© Judi Birnberg 2016
Pots are Better Than Shoes

Misplaced modifiers happen when a word or group of words ends up modifying (giving information about) another word in the sentence. Often, the results are very funny.

I found this in one of my favorite magazines, The Week, which is a digest of articles from around the world. In an article on street food, with an accompanying recipe for Dan Dan Noodles (too complicated for me), Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau, chefs at a Philadelphia restaurant, V Street, declare, “We want the stuff that a little old lady is frying up in her flip-flops….”

Where to begin? First of all, how does the little old lady stand the heat? How does the food stay on her flip-flops? And do we really want to eat food cooked on a shoe and redolent of the odor of the foot that recently occupied that flip-flop?

Hungry?

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Bigly?

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© Judi Birnberg  My Bigliest Painting

If you were among the 84 million people who watched Monday night’s presidential debate, you might have sat up straighter in your seat when Donald Trump announced, “I’m going to cut taxes bigly.” My posture suddenly improved as I yelped, “BIGLY?” Perhaps, as many now think, he meant to say “big league.” But he didn’t say that.

I then joined the  zillions of people googling “bigly” and discovered that it is, according to Kory Stamper, a linguist with Merriam-Webster, a word that dates to approximately 1400, when it was used to mean “with great force” or “boastfully.” Then “bigly” disappeared for a very long time, only to be curiously resurrected this past  Monday night.

I started thinking: If we do something “grandly,” “spaciously,” minutely,” or “microscopically,” then we could do something bigly. If we wanted to. I don’t want to. How about you?

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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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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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How Best to Edit

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

                                                           A Jumble of Words © Judi Birnberg

If you edit as you write, stopping frequently to go over what you’ve just put down, you stop your creative flow and get lost in the words, debating with yourself whether one version of a sentence is better than others. In that process, you tend to forget where you were headed. When I say “you,” I mean “me” and everyone else.

You will end up with a better document if you follow this rule: Down and Up. Write it down and then fix it up. Get your ideas out and, ideally, let the document sit if you have the time.

It’s helpful to get distance from your writing. I realize that with today’s pressures you can’t always do that. But at least give yourself perhaps five minutes to do something else and then come back to what you wrote to take another look at it and fix it up.

Can you do that? Let me know.

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Do You Pronounce the T in Often?

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I was recently asked why we sometimes pronounce the T in often but not in listen. I wasn’t sure, so I consulted the grammar guru who writes the invaluable blog  Grammarphobia, Pat O’Conner. She wrote the equally invaluable (and funny) book Woe Is I. You can subscribe to Grammarphobia and get her frequent posts on English language oddities. I highly recommend it.

This is blog post of hers that addressed the meandering T:

<<Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the version with the audible “t” occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some.

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today. Even a word like ‘oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.>>

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A.Word.A.Day

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Are you familiar with this website in the title? I recommend it highly: It’s free, fun and useful.

If you subscribe, every day your inbox will greet you with a new word, some of them quite unusual. Occasionally the words are a miscellaneous collection, but often they come from a common theme. This week’s words all begin with silent letters, and I’m not talking about especially common words like knife and write.

You get the etymology, pronunciation (both written and spoken), notes, and use in a sentence. Does this sound stuffy and boring? It’s not. Give it a try.

Here’s the link: www.wordsmith.org

 

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Common Language

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Linguists recently announced that “Huh?” or a similar word seems to be a universal way of confirming that another speaker is understood. They studied 10 languages on five continents, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha. These languages have very different grammatical structures, but all contain a syllable people use to make sure they are understanding what is being said. The variants sound like “huh?,” hah?,” “eh?” and other closely related sounds, and all end with a questioning intonation. I’m wondering if the questioning tone is like the American “Really?” meaning, “I get it.”

Others had proposed that “mama” and “dada” might be universal sounds, but “huh” is much more widely distributed. This came as a surprise to me.

For what it’s worth, when I taught college ESL classes, my students showed me how widespread our word “chocolate” is. The accent may be slightly different but you would instantly recognize the word as “chocolate.” So no matter where you are in the world, you will always be able to get your fix without someone saying, “Huh?” to you.

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Three More Japanese Signs

Sadly, this hotel looked neither grand nor fine.IMG_1839.jpg

This was the name of the restaurant in our hotel in Hiroshima. I kept waiting for the plates and bowls to get into formation and march snappily out the door.IMG_2043.jpg

Here was a breakfast choice in Dish Parade. Both objects look very similar, although the one on the right might be the flitter. I think it’s the common Asian mistake of substituting an L sound for an R. But neither looks like any pizza or fritter I’ve ever seen. Not a clue.IMG_2224.jpg

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A Quick Return to Japan

Here are two more Japanese signs I saw that made me ponder:

The only thing that goes through my head when I see this is a song. “Imagine you and me, so happy together….” Do you have any idea what the business might be? A dating site?

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This is one of my favorites. When you see this store, you must think ONLY about a suit. NOTHING more. What if I dare to think about a necktie? Or a pair of shoes?

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When to Omit Apostrophes

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© Judi Birnberg

I have written previously about the error of putting apostrophes into words that end in S but are not possessive: My cat’s chase each other through the house at high speed’s. Cats and speeds are merely plurals and do not take apostrophes since no ownership is shown.

Here are three other instances when an apostrophe is not needed:

1. When referring to decades: the 1990s
2. When referring to temperatures: highs in the mid-70s
3. When using abbreviations that are plural: 12 CPAs, two BMWs

Every time you want to use an apostrophe, take a good look and see if it really is in a possessive word or in a contraction. If not, delete it.

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A Common Agreement Problem

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

How often have you seen or heard the following construction?

There’s three reasons to buy your tickets early.

Omit the contraction and you will see you are saying There is three reasons to buy your tickets early. There is three?

To restore agreement to your sentence, you need to write There are three reasons…. Making that into a contraction, however, is awkward: There’re three reasons…. Ick.

Starting sentences with There is or There are (or Here is or Here are) is a weak construction. Better to write Buy your tickets early for three reasons—and then list them.

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Hungry?

This appears to be some kind of fruit juice—named PRETZ? Maybe you’re supposed to eat pretzels with it. This box was about $10; they had to squeeze a lot of pretzes to fill it up.

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Instead of pretzels, you might prefer a little pried seaweed. Fried? Or pried from a rock in the ocean?IMG_2094.jpg

 

You can ask the chef. He’s live!IMG_1858.jpg

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Still Lost in Translation

Some signs I found on my recent trip to Japan. 

“Luggages” is a common mistake speakers of languages other than English make. It’s logical, if ungrammatical, especially if you have more than one suitcase. But remember, “peaple” need their seats. As for the last line, I’m wondering if it was directed at the Koch Brothers.IMG_2237.jpg

Will do!IMG_2239.jpg

 

 

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A Few Signs in Japan

As a former teacher of ESL, believe me when I tell you I am aware of how difficult it is to learn English, especially when your native language uses characters and you have no cognates to cling to. Here are a few signs I saw in Japan that made me smile. I give their authors A for effort.

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A Few Pet Peeves, Linguistic Variety

Yea! You wrote "espresso! © Judi Birnberg

Yea! You wrote “espresso”!
© Judi Birnberg

Here’s a quick and simple one for you, suggested by a reader. I share her pet peeve: The “word” anyways does not exist. Just use anyway.

I would be so pleased if people looked at etcetera and pronounced it correctly. There is no EK in the word. It begins with ET, which is Latin for and.

Your favorite coffee drink is an espresso, not an expresso.

Thank you for your cooperation.

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Fillers

Speakers of all languages pepper their listeners with fillers, those sounds and words that take up little space and allow the speakers to figure out where they’re going. Here are some language-specific fillers:

Britain— spelled er (but pronounced uh)
France—euh
Israel (Hebrew speakers)—ehhh
Holland—uh and um
Germanyah and ahm
Serbia and Croatia—ovay
Turkey—mmmm
Sweden—eh, ah, aaah, m, mm, hmm, ooh, a and oh (very creative, no?)
Norway—e, eh, m, hm

Sometimes fillers are more than just a sound; they are complete words:

English speakerswell, you know, I mean, so
Turkey—shey, shey shey, which means thing
Mandarin Chinese—neige, meaning that
Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong—tsik hai, which means equal
Wichita Indian—kaakiri, meaning something

It seems that um is ubiquitous, found in every language.
My information comes from, um, the book titled Um, written by, um, Michael Erard.

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More Spoonerisms

Is this a pird of brey?

Is this a pird of grey?           ©Judi Birnberg

 

A Spoonerism is born when, most commonly, the initial consonants of two words are transposed.

The Reverend William Spooner, for whom this verbal glitch is named, was renowned for many of these slips, several of which I listed in my previous post. In chapel at Oxford, Spooner once called for the singing of the hymn, “Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take.” Got that? Other clerics praised God as a “shoving leopard” and spoken of John the Baptist’s “tearful chidings.”

Chances are we’ve all fallen prey to these slips. I clearly remember speaking of a “grebt of datitude” once at a job interview. The interviewer and I both laughed and, somehow, I did get the job. It’s nice when people are understanding.

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Two Common Mispronunciations

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MISCHIEVOUS is pronounced MIS CHIV ISS, not MIS CHEEVE E US.

GRIEVOUS is often misspelled and pronounced GREEVE E US. It’s GREEVE ISS.

Incidentally, looking at the subject line of this post reminds me that some people say and write PRONOUNCIATION and MISPRONOUNCIATION. True, the verb is PRONOUNCE, but for the noun forms, the O before the U is dropped.

Remember, I just teach the rules. I think they’re as crazy as you do.

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The OED 2015 Word of the Year

You may be wondering what took the OED so long; to me it seems as if emojis have been around for a very long time. In fact, emojis have supplanted emoticons, those emotions portrayed by punctuation marks, such as ;- ). (That may not come through the way I typed it; apparently, Unicode seeing those punctuation marks strung together automatically translates them into emojis.)

Some facts for you:

Over 80% of smartphone users in Britain use emojis; of those under 25, almost 100% use them. I’m guessing the numbers are similar in America.

Something called the Unicode Consortium processes applications for new emojis. You, too, can enter a request on the Unicode website by writing a detailed proposal. It may take two years for the committee to decide if your emoji is going to fly. Surprisingly (to me), they receive only about 100 proposals a year, so maybe you’ve got a shot.

Linguists seem to agree that emojis are not going away any time soon. In face-to-face conversation, about 70% of communication comes from non-verbal cues such as facial expression, body language, gestures, and intonation. Your spoken words count for approximately only 30%.

Without these non-verbal cues, our words can easily be misinterpreted online. That is where emojis can reinforce your meaning. Bloomberg has found that 8 trillion (!) text messages are sent each year, so that’s a big opportunity for misunderstanding.

But as with everything you write, you need to evaluate whether using emojis is appropriate. Sending a text or email to a business superior? Writing a letter of complaint? It might be a good idea to keep those emojis locked up. Make sure your written words are doing the work you want them to do. Every word counts. Read what you’ve written out loud. Have you been clear? Polite? Forceful? Respectful? Good. Now hold the smiley face. You’ll get plenty of other chances to use it.

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American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society chose as its 2015 Word of the Year—THEY.

Are you wondering what is behind their choice? This linguistic society has chosen “they” to be a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, as in “They and Mary went to the movies.” It is used when a person does not identify as either male or female or when the gender of a person is unknown.

Schools today are dealing with a somewhat new situation. College application forms used to ask students to identify as either male or female. However, “gender fluidity,” in which some people do not identify solely as one gender or the other but may move between them, has prompted colleges to offer far more choices. Traditionally all-female Smith College has now admitted transgender students. The word “cisgender” has been used to mean chromosomally male or chromosomally female. My spellcheck software just underlined that word as I typed it, but it won’t be long before it is recognized as a “real” word.

Surely, 2015 raised people’s awareness of gender variety, including Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner’s transformation, and the wonderful (in my opinion) series on Amazon, “Transparent.” Facebook now offers 50 different choices for gender identity. Fifty.

Obviously, this new awareness has reached the corporate world as well. I imagine human resource departments are scrambling to accommodate the panoply of forms that human beings inhabit.

©Judi Birnberg

©Judi Birnberg

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Adopt or Adapt?

These two words are frequently confused, but the distinction is easy:

ADOPT means to take as one’s own. You adopt a child or take something as it is. You’ve probably also heard the phrase “early adopter”; that’s a person who uses new technology as soon as it is released. That may be you.

ADAPT means to change something to suit your needs. You adapt yourself to living in Boston after having moved there from Australia.

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

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How Do You Feel: Bad or Badly?

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It depends. If your fingertips are worn to nubs, chances are you feel badly. You have a bad sense of touch.

But if you have a monster headache and a fever of 102˚, you feel bad. Really bad.

Just as people think I is a classier pronoun than me (it isn’t), they often think badly is more elegant than bad. (It isn’t.)

Let’s talk about body odor for a minute. I think it will make this distinction more clear. Would you rather smell bad or smell badly?

If you go camping for two weeks during the hot summer and are never able to find a shower or even a stream to bathe in, chances are when you get home, you will smell really bad. In fact, you may reek.

But let’s say you have a terrible cold and cannot breathe through your nose. Someone blindfolds you and asks you to smell two things: a rose and an ancient, dirty sneaker. You inhale deeply and try to identify each item. In fact, you can’t smell anything. The rose and the sneaker transmit no scent to your nose. You smell badly. Very badly.

If smelling badly defines your sense of smell, feeling badly describes your sense of touch. If you need a bath, you smell bad, and if you experience sadness or illness, you feel bad.

Questions? Let me know.

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A Powerful Word

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I saw this idea on Facebook today; it reminded me of an exercise I used to do with my corporate writing groups.

Place the word ONLY anywhere in the following sentence and see how it changes the meaning:

SHE TOLD HIM THAT SHE LOVED HIM.

Only she told him that she loved him. (No one else did.)
She only told him that she loved him. (But she didn’t show him she did.)
She told only him that she loved him. (She didn’t tell that to anyone else.)
She told him only that she loved him. (She didn’t tell him anything else.)
She told him that only she loved him. (No one else loves him.)
She told him that she only loved him. (But she didn’t like or admire him.)
She told him that she loved only him. (She loves no one else.)
She told him that she loved him only. (Again, she loves no one else.)

ONLY is a modifier. That means it gives information about another part of the sentence. Modifiers may be one word or a group of words. They should be placed right next to the word you want to give more information about. If you put modifiers in the wrong place, you are creating, yes, misplaced modifiers. At times that will lead to embarrassing or awkward situations:

Be certain to buy enough yarn to finish your mittens before you start.
Wearing red noses and floppy hats, we laughed at the clown.
For sale: Mixing bowl set for chef with round bottom for efficient beating.

I know you don’t want people to laugh at your writing, so check for misplaced modifiers as part of your proofreading.

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Negatives Without Positives

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In English, we have many negative words that have no paired positives. Here are a few of those non-existent positives for you to ponder:

Are you ept, gruntled and couth? Are you ever shevelled, hibited or sipid? I bet you are never plussed, gainly or ert. But perhaps you may feel sipid, sidious or beknownst. My wish for you is that you are always jected, petuous and consolate, and that you will also be cognito and communicado. I think I have given you enough false positives now that this list needs to become cessant.

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Capitalization Rules

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(Add a question mark and I agree completely.)

Sometimes I get the feeling that many writers think they were, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin or Abigail Adams in an earlier life. Those people lived during the time when words could be capitalized at will. In fact, rules now do exist for when to use them. Here’s a quick refresher:

1. The personal pronoun I, no matter where it occurs in a sentence: My friend and I just ate lunch. I’m no longer hungry because I’ve had a big meal.

2. The first word of a sentence.

3. Names of specific people: Madonna, Captain Kangaroo

4. Names of specific places: Acapulco, the Caspian Sea

5. Names of specific things: the Statue of Liberty, Kennedy High School

6. Days of the week, months of the year, but not the seasons: Tuesday, August, spring

7. Titles of books, movies, TV programs, courses: The Goldfinch, Midnight in Paris, Curb Your Enthusiasm, History 101

8. People’s titles only when the person is named immediately before or after the title: Secretary of State John Kerry (but John Kerry is the secretary of state); Pope Francis I (but Francis I is the pope)

9. Names of specific companies, organizations and departments: Occidental Petroleum, Kiwanis, the Human Resources Department

10. Geographical locations but not geographical directions: the Far East, Southern California, the Midwest (but I drove south on the San Diego Freeway for 50 miles)

11. Prepositions when they are four or more letters long: From, With, Among, in, out, Between

Be very sparing in using capitalization for emphasis. Let your words show the emphasis. As with any form of calling attention to your message (e.g., bold, italics, underlining), when you emphasize everything you end up emphasizing nothing.

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End Punctuation for “Wonder” and “Guess”

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More often that not, I see sentences like the following:

I wonder what time Mike will be arriving?

Guess who I met at the basketball game?

“Wonder” and “Guess” sentences are almost always punctuated (incorrectly) as if they were questions. In fact, they are declarative sentences.

In the first sentence, you are not sure what time Mike will arrive. You have a question in your mind: Will he be here at three o’clock? Four o’clock? You just don’t know. But your sentence is not a question. You are merely stating the fact that you’re unsure when to expect Mike.

In the second sentence, you are asking someone to guess whom you met at the game. That person doesn’t know. But you know and, in fact, you are ordering the other person to do something: to guess who the mystery person is. The sentence is a command, not a question.

I suggest that when you write a “wonder” or “guess” sentence, check specifically to make sure you’ve used the correct end punctuation.

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Some More Typos

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Victoria on her thorn

Actually, these are not so much typos as words misheard by British students. But these misheard words and phrases do add a touch of spice to what would ordinarily be far less entertaining writing:

According to the bible, Jesus was born because Mary had an immaculate contraption.

In India, a man in one cask cannot marry a woman in another cask.

The Black Hole in Calcutta was a small dark prison with ninety men and only one widow in it. In the morning all the men were dead.

Abraham Lincoln became America’s greatest precedent….he said “in onion there is strength.”

Finally the colonists won the war and no longer had to pay for taxis.

Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years.

Thanks again to Drummond Moir and Just My Typo

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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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A Wonderful Podcast on “So”

Unknown I didn’t expect the response I got to yesterday’s post about the ubiquity of the introductory “So.” Either literally or in essence, the responses said, “GUILTY.” One person sent me the link to this entertaining and informative podcast on this very topic, and I pass it on to you. It’s about half an hour, but if you can squeeze in the time, it’s well worth your while: http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2012/04/lexicon_valley_beginning_and_ending_all_of_our_thoughts_with_so_.html

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Filed under All things having to do with the English language