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August 2003, Vol. 5, No. 8 ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the September issue of The Vocabula Review: "Congratulations, Valetudinarian!" by David Carkeet

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The September issue of The Vocabula Review is due online September 21.

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The new slang-filled 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary does as much as, if not more than, Webster's Third to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously.

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"of all the analogues" or "of all of the analogues"? -- Can someone help me with this grammar? I can't seem to find an answer as to whether the second preposition is required or not. — What do you say?
Does anyone know the reason for the terms used prior to hiking a football? Why is the word "hut" used, and why is the same word also used in military context of the marching cadence? — What do you say?
This question was raised by a recent Trivia note: Why do the words 'testes' and 'testimony' have the same root? The explanation in the trivia was that when a man gave testimony, he swore on his testicles that he was telling the truth. — What do you say?
When did "to swipe" come to mean "to pass a credit card through an authentication device?" — What do you say?
Does anyone know the source of what has become an irritatingly common phrase used recently — "went missing"? As in, "Before Mary went missing, she was seen by friends downtown." This phrase is now used often, both on TV and in print media. It can't be correct? Can it? — What do you say?
The evidence is widespread, even inescapable, that society suffers if people use language sloppily. At the very least, people misunderstand -- or may very well misunderstand -- each other, which can result in anything from embarrassment to ruin. Worse than this, perhaps, is the deliberate misuse of language. — What do you say?

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The Elder Statesman
by Clark Elder Morrow
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The Critical Reader
by Mark Halpern
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The Last Word
by Christopher Orlet
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Love Your English
by Valerie Collins
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Back  Sayonara, Mr. Fowler: On the Use and Abuse of Foreign Words and Phrases John W. Nelson
Those who use foreign words or phrases belonging to languages with which they have little or no acquaintance do so at their own peril. — H. M. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926)

Among the many oddities of life in the United States, none is perhaps quite so peculiar as the fact that a nation born of immigrants has so little proficiency in foreign languages. Headstrong and willful, generations of American students struggle through two years of high school Spanish and come away with the ability to ask after the whereabouts of the loo — no doubt a propitious skill to have after a night of overindulgence in Mexico, but a meager reward for all those hours lost in the classroom.

Spend enough time in Europe and you'll eventually hear someone declare in a haughty and well-rehearsed voice that a speaker of three languages is trilingual, a speaker of two is bilingual, and a speaker of one is American. This old Continental barb has as much longevity — and veracity — as American quips about the French inclination to surrender. More ... 

Back  A Few Guidelines to Good Writing Paula LaRocque
Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all. — Winston Churchill

Early in my university teaching career, I agreed to teach basic or remedial English one night a week to special-needs students, many of whom were itinerant farm laborers who spoke English as a second language. The students were of varied backgrounds but of similar zeal: each had paid for sixteen weeks of instruction. Because it was a university extension course, tuition was nominal compared to that of a college credit course, but it was still expensive for people who labored seasonally for minimum wages.

Because of their commitment and enthusiasm, those students did well, but in one important way, they taught me more than I taught them. More ... 

Back  On the Comma's Cutting Edge Mark Zimmermann
At best one can advise that punctuation marks be handled the way musicians handle forbidden chord progressions and incorrect voice leading. With every act of punctuation, like every musical cadence, one can tell whether there is an intention or whether it is pure sloppiness. — Theodor Adorno, fr. "Punctuation Marks" (trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson)

Seldom is the comma praised. Seldom does it rise above the obscurity of its name. Even among many dedicated English teachers, comma inspires about as much enthusiasm as that word it so closely resembles: coma. This is easy enough to understand; of the punctuation marks most commonly affecting the rhythms of English — ellipses, semicolons, colons, dashes, periods, exclamation points — the comma is weakest, signaling only a slight pause. Never in any major English-language writer's work has it attracted the degree of stylistic, convention-busting attention lavished either by Dickinson on the dash or by Whitman and Ginsberg on the exclamation point. Never has, likely never will. Meanwhile, a poet as gifted as Theodore Roethke consigns the comma to meekly rot amid bureaucratic oblivion:

Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.1
More ... 
Back  Doing a Number on English Richard Lederer

Recently, some organizations in Germany joined forces to compile a list of the hundred words that best reflect the twentieth century. AIDS, beat, bikini, camping, comics, computer, design, Holocaust, image, jeans, pop, single, sex, star, stress — English words that became part of the German language during the past hundred years — are featured in the list. That's just one piece of evidence that English has become the closest thing that humankind has ever had to a universal language. More ... 

Back  The Decline of the Dictionary Robert Hartwell Fiske

The new slang-filled eleventh edition of "America's Best-Selling Dictionary," Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Frederick C. Mish, editor in chief), does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster's Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously. "Laxicographers" all, the Merriam-Webster staff reminds us that dictionaries merely record how people use the language, not how it ought to be used. Some dictionaries, and certainly this new Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Mark Shadle

words are everywhere
out of nowhere

they'll burrow down into
yogurt as a raspberry
or drape themselves over
a table as linen

unstoppable as air
words name and rename
themselves like water
mercilessly following
the fall line,
looking for a fall guy
or finding a fallen woman More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
Cheesed Off at the Chowderheads
Clark Elder Morrow

Today is payday. Today, I gather a sort of remittance for my ongoing labors in this electronic vineyard, by indulging myself in the gratifying act of public griping. It is one of the great unwritten prerogatives of the ink-stained drudge that he is permitted on rare occasions to breach like a whale from his shadowy routine, and spout harmless gas on a number of personal peeves. Today, I fully intend to avail myself of the pleasure of doing just that. More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
Birds of a Feather: On Hating "Hate"
Mark Halpern
... the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well governed by Europeans. — Lord Curzon

Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized, except where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale. — Mill, On Liberty

Everyone's a little bit racist — it's true/But everyone is just about as racist — as you!/If we could all just admit/That we are racist a little bit/And everyone stopped being so P.C./Maybe we could live in — harmony! — Song from the musical Avenue Q

On my desk as I write is the most recent expression to have reached me of an argument we have all been exposed to many times over the years since the mid-twentieth century, if not before. The argument holds that children are born free of any prejudices, racial or other, so that the presence of such feelings in adults implies that someone — perhaps that all-purpose villain, society — must be responsible for inculcating them into us. The example before me to is a glossy flyer sent out by The American Jewish Committee, consisting largely of a color photograph of nine or ten babies of various races, all lying or sitting on a neutral fabric background. The caption reads, "No one is born hating," and it's true that the babies depicted do not seem to be hating each other; in fact, most of them seem to be doing nothing in particular except lying on their backs. More ... 

Back  The Last Word  
That Endless Refrain
Christopher Orlet

There is a belief popular among the virtuosi of belles lettres that they do what they do because they can do nothing else. Ask an author why he or she writes and ten to one you'll get the standard, cookie-cutter response:

The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer. — Russell Baker

It seems I was fated to write, which is horrible. But I can only do one thing. I'm rather useless. — Jean Rhys

I can't do anything else. I've always regretted having gotten involved with literature up to my neck. — Eugene Ionesco

More ... 
Back  Love Your English  
Ain't Misbehavin'
Valerie Collins

What frenzied, action-packed lives we lead. We email and conference and courier, we video and DVD and microwave, we, er, parent and mentor, network, liaison, and task, we message and text and journal, we (God forbid) impact and leverage....

Since my first column, when I described my fascination (okay, obsession) with the ability of English to "press nouns into service as verbs," that is, to verb them, I've been on the lookout for examples, and they are everywhere, joyfully proliferating ... mushrooming ... snowballing ... you can barely open your mouth without one popping out. To take just one semantic field, almost every single body part can be used as a verb: you can toe the line, elbow your way through the crowd, finger your money, scalp your enemy. ... What economy! What precision! More ... 

Back  Grumbling About Grammar

Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Grumbling About Grammar" will encourage us all to pay more heed to how the language is used — by ourselves as well as by others — while bettering our ability to speak and write it.

predominate Idiotic for predominant. • But of course, the magnificent flag of the USA flies in the predominate position on the Giant Stride. USE predominant. [Giant Stride] • While this pattern conforms to that predicted based on known changes in diving physiology and metabolic control, the over-riding influence of age on the diving behavior of pups younger than 3 months contrasts with the predominate influence of size and condition observed in yearling seals. USE predominant. [Moss Landing Marine Laboratories] • While central station power will continue to be the predominate delivery system for our industry for years to come, Consumers Energy is exploring the USE of on-site generation often times referred to as distributed generation. USE predominant. [Consumers Energy] • Her workshop on Feminist Perspectives on Masculinity will examine the predominate view of what it means to be a "real man" in society and explore more life-affirming options for male development. USE predominant. [UAA Student Leadership]

The adjective is predominant, not — despite what some dictionaries now suggest — predominate. Predominate is a verb meaning to prevail or dominate. That this word is now sometimes used to mean the adjective predominant (having superior strength, authority, influence, or force; most common or conspicuous) is due to people confusing the words and, what's worse, to laxicographers endorsing people's ignorance. More ... 

Back  Elegant English

We all know far too well how to write everyday English, but few of us know how to write elegant English — English that is expressed with music as well as meaning, style as well as substance. The point of this feature is not to suggest that people should try to emulate these examples of elegant English but to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from.

I have struck a city — a real city — and they call it Chicago.

The other places do not count. San Francisco was a pleasure-resort as well as a city, and Salt Lake was a phenomenon.

This place is the first American city I have encountered. It holds rather more than a million of people with bodies, and stands on the same sort of soil as Calcutta. Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages. Its water is the water of the Hooghly, and its air is dirt. Also it says that it is the "boss" town of America.

I do not believe that it has anything to do with this country. They told me to go to the Palmer House, which is overmuch gilded and mirrored, and there I found a huge hall of tessellated marble crammed with people talking about money, and spitting about everywhere. Other barbarians charged in and out of this inferno with letters and telegrams in their hands, and yet others shouted at each other. A man who had drunk quite as much as was good for him told me that this was "the finest hotel in the finest city on God Almighty's earth." By the way, when an American wishes to indicate the next country or state, he says, "God A'mighty's earth." This prevents discussion and flatters his vanity.

Then I went out into the streets, which are long and flat and without end. And verily it is not a good thing to live in the East for any length of time. Your ideas grow to clash with those held by every right-thinking man. I looked down interminable vistas flanked with nine, ten, and fifteen-storied houses, and crowded with men and women, and the show impressed me with a great horror.

Except in London — and I have forgotten what London was like — I had never seen so many white people together, and never such a collection of miserables. There was no color in the street and no beauty — only a maze of wire ropes overhead and dirty stone flagging under foot. — Rudyard Kipling, Chicago More ... 

Back  On Dimwitticisms

Whereas a witticism is a clever remark or phrase — indeed, the height of expression — a "dimwitticism" is the converse; it is a commonplace remark or phrase. Dimwitticisms are worn-out words and phrases; they are expressions that dull our reason and dim our insight, formulas that we rely on when we are too lazy to express what we think or even to discover how we feel. The more we use them, the more we conform — in thought and feeling — to everyone else who uses them.

I mean Elliptical for "what I mean to say," I mean is said by those who do not altogether know what they mean to say. • Nobody deserves to die like that. I mean, he didn't stand a chance. DELETE I mean.I mean, being in the entertainment field is not easy; I mean, I work hard at my job and still have performances to give. DELETE I mean. • I enjoy the outdoors; I mean, how can you live here and not enjoy it? DELETE I mean.I mean, if you were in the movies or on TV, I mean, many more people would be interested. DELETE I mean. More ... 

Back  Clues to Concise Writing

Words often ill serve their purpose. When they do their work badly, words militate against us. Poor grammar, sloppy syntax, misused words, misspelled words, and other infelicities of style impede communication and advance only misunderstanding. But there is another, perhaps less well-known, obstacle to effective communication: too many words.

a lesser (lower; smaller) degree (extent) (of) less. • Transparent WDM systems offer a lesser degree of monitoring and network capability than TDM systems. Transparent WDM systems offer less monitoring and network capability than TDM systems. • The less common plants are given a smaller degree of treatment not just because of their limited use in food production but because of their scarcity on sites. The less common plants are given less treatment not just because of their limited use in food production but because of their scarcity on sites. • Most land areas in China have a lower extent of soil degradation. Most land areas in China have less soil degradation. More ... 

Back  Scarcely Used Words

Inadequate though they may be, words distinguish us from all other living things. Indeed, our worth is partly in our words. Effective use of language — clear writing and speaking — is a measure of our humanness. What's more, the more words we know and can correctly use, the broader will be our understanding of self, the keener our acquaintance with humankind.

astomatous (ah-STOM-ah-tes) adj. having no mouth or oral opening. More ... 

Back  Oddments and Miscellanea

Each month, "Oddments and Miscellanea" will focus on a particular matter of faulty grammar, slipshod syntax, or improper punctuation. This month's admonition:

Use through, not the informal thru. More ... 

Back  On the Bookshelf

Among the best written, if least read, books are those that we will be featuring each month in "On the Bookshelf." No book club selections, no best-selling authors are likely to be spoken of here. Best-selling authors, of course, are often responsible for the worst written books.

Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady More ... 

 Features

Sayonara, Mr. Fowler: On the Use and Abuse of Foreign Words and Phrases — John Nelson

A Few Guidelines to Good Writing — Paula LaRocque

On the Comma's Cutting Edge — Mark Zimmermann

Doing a Number on English — Richard Lederer

The Decline of the Dictionary — Robert Hartwell Fiske

Two Poems — Mark Shadle

 Columnists

Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Cheesed Off at the Chowderheads

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Birds of a Feather: On Hating "Hate"

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — That Endless Refrain

Valerie Collins: Love Your English — Ain't Misbehavin'

 Departments

Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

 TVR Revisited

Lawyers vs. Language — Kelly Cannon

The Myth of Gaps — Allan Metcalf

The Prepositionless Excremental — David R. Williams

You Got Attitude? — Joseph Epstein

The Grammar of Anthony Burgess's The Eve of Saint Venus — Richard Burnett Carter

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