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A society is generally as lax as its language.

The June issue is 23,574 words long.
June 2004, Vol. 6, No. 6 There are now  7074  people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Back  Word Wise Skip Eisiminger

Robert Louis Stevenson's father used to fine his son a penny for each slang word that passed his lips. My father did no such thing, but he did charge me a nickel whenever both of my hands appeared above the table at the same time unless I was cutting my steak or buttering my bread. Consequently, my manners are impeccable, and slang does not intimidate me. In fact, I fear no word regardless of which side of the tracks it calls home. This is due in a circuitous way to Mrs. Thigpen, my sixth-grade English teacher, who advised our class to place a checkmark beside every word we looked up. If a check was already there, we were honor bound to cut off a finger joint. We had twenty-eight chances, therefore, to acquire a good vocabulary; after that we had to fall on a sword. Fortunately my fingers are whole, not because I have a good memory, but because I was blessed with an appreciation of hyperbole and irony. More ... 

Back  The Gap That Shouldn't Be: Journalistic Writing Versus Academic Writing Robert M. Knight

Decades — maybe centuries — ago, a gap began to develop between how journalists look at the language and how English academics look at it. The separation might have begun as long ago as the eighteenth century, about the time that Joseph Addison and Richard Steele began to experiment with the periodical and separate themselves from poets like Alexander Pope and scholars like Samuel Johnson. English has been the poorer ever since. More ... 

Back  Bowl and Blood: An Essay on What Hangs Above Us Kerr Houston

Recently, I became suddenly and deeply interested in the appearance of the sky. I'm not sure I understand the reasons for this abrupt new curiosity — and, to be honest, I'm not sure I really want to since coming across Albert Camus' claim that "for rich people, the sky is just an extra, a gift of nature. The poor, on the other hand, can see it as it really is: an infinite grace." My deepening interest in the vast, varied beauty of the sky has truly changed the way I move about, and wake, and think — and now read, too, for in watching and thinking about the sky, I've also started to pay closer attention to the way in which writers have described the heavens. More ... 

Back  Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire Richard Lederer

About three years ago, the H&R Block Company ran an ad claiming that it "prepares more complex tax returns than any CPA firm in America."

Does this mean that the Company prepares tax returns that are more complex (which is how most consumers interpreted the claim) or that it prepares a greater quantity of complex tax returns? Grammatically, does the adjective more modify complex or returns? More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
Oscar Wilde Meets the Cartoon Network
Clark Elder Morrow

"Bathos" is defined (in my mind, at least) as the sudden and precipitous fall of the sublime into the ridiculous — as a hot and sweaty expectation of the elevated, followed by an abrupt cold shower of the silly. To come across the bathetic in drama or fiction is to experience a sort of aesthetic coitus interruptus, and we all know what effect that sort of thing has on the nerves and disposition. Far better would it be for the erring artist to indulge in gross incompetence, or brute stupidity, than to provide a denouement that is more frustrating than cathartic. More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part III
Mark Halpern

The most important sources of information for editors are still printed books. Although the Web offers enormous quantities of information, that information is so mixed with useless and even harmful stuff (more about this later) that every search on the Web is a journey into No Man's Land. There is as yet no systematic reviewing mechanism for websites as there is for books, so for reliable information we still have to turn to printed works that have themselves gone through editing, been reviewed by the authors' peers, and often evolved into second and later editions. Here are a dozen books that I have found useful, even essential: More ... 

Back  The Last Word  
The Man Who Taught Americans to Laugh
Christopher Orlet

I don't rightly know who takes the prize for the preeminent funnyman, the driest wit, the most expert ribtickler of the twentieth century; I'm not sure whether the title belongs to Groucho Marx, a young Woody Allen, John Cleese, Richard Pryor, Flann O'Brian in his cups, or some Chinese guy we've never heard of (out of a couple billion people there must have been some fine cutups). But I can say without the slightest hesitation who the greatest humorist of the nineteenth century was: Charles Farrar Browne. More ... 

Back  Postcards from Babel  
All the Rivers Around Here Are Dutch
Amalia Gnanadesikan

The traffic report I listen to in the mornings always mentions the conditions on the "Skoogle" Expressway, or so it sounds to the uninitiated. Other people — those with more time than traffic reporters have to enunciate — will tell you that in Philadelphia the Delaware River is met by the "Schoolkill" and will spell it Schuylkill. More ... 

Back  Ask Fiske  
Thirty-Five Questions
Robert Hartwell Fiske

1. Dear Fiske, when did the word homophobia appear on the scene? It would seem to mean "fear of sameness" — a morbid horror of monotony or boredom — a fine concept and a needed word.

So why do I keep seeing it used to mean "fear of faggots"? — Barbara Holland

No dictionary defines homophobia as "fear of faggots," no dictionary defines homophobe as "a hater of faggots" — but the word faggot identifies a homophobe.

Homophobia, a late 1960s coinage, has had only one meaning: a morbid dislike or fear of homosexuals. The prefix homo, here, is short for "homosexual"; it does not mean "same." 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.

documentate Solecistic for document. • These data are documentated by three machine-readable portable document files. USE documented. • We provide fully documentated results with a publication quality print and stained gel (wet or dry). USE documented. • It is the aim to experience and documentate the impact on rural areas, urban development and social organizational structures. USE document. • During this expedition we were able to closely documentate the breeding and the birth of these frogs. USE document.

Not only a noun, document is also a verb. Aside from document, the English language admits documentary, documentation, documental, documentable, documenter, documentalist, documentarian, and even documentarist. Barred is documentate. 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.

We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudice and hatred. This is the melting pot, the seal of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble, idealistic sentiment. Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment? The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle. The goal of all of our striving has long been forgotten. We no longer wish to succor the oppressed and homeless; there is no room in this great, empty land for those who, like our forefathers before us, now seek a place of refuge. Millions of men and women are, or were until very recently, on relief, condemned like guinea pigs to a life of forced idleness. The world meanwhile looks to us with a desperation such as it has never known before. Where is the democratic spirit? Where are the leaders? — Henry Miller, Good News! God Is Love! 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.

keep smiling Keep smiling is insisted on by ghoulish brutes who would rob us of our gravity, indeed, steal us from ourselves. 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.

afford (give; offer; present; provide) ... (an; the) opportunity (to) allow; give ... (the) chance; let; permit. • Winning the Boston Marathon provided me with an opportunity to make running my career. Winning the Boston Marathon allowed me to make running my career. • Raising cattle gave him an opportunity to practice genetics on a large scale, though the results weren't always what he expected. Raising cattle let him practice genetics on a large scale, though the results weren't always what he expected. • Tessa Martin of Surrey said she has always wanted to visit Australia and basketball has presented her with an opportunity to do so. Tessa Martin of Surrey said she has always wanted to visit Australia and basketball has allowed her to do so. 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.

bacronym (BAK-roh-nim) n. a reverse acronym, where the words are chosen to fit the letters; a regular word that also doubles as an acronym. 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:

Avoid using the expression way or way too; instead, use, for instance, exceedingly or particularly, much too or far too. 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.

Anthony Burgess: The Eve of Saint Venus More ... 

Back  The Vocabula Quiz

Each ten-question quiz briefly discusses a specific topic, such as history, science, literature, or philosophy. Of course, you are quizzed not on content but on grammar or usage, vocabulary or spelling, punctuation or style.

Vocabula Quiz 3  Topic: In the news  Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 


Word Wise — Skip Eisiminger

The Gap That Shouldn't Be: Journalistic Writing Versus Academic Writing — Robert M. Knight

Bowl and Blood: An Essay on What Hangs Above Us — Kerr Houston

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire — Richard Lederer


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Oscar Wilde Meets the Cartoon Network

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part III

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — The Man Who Taught Americans to Laugh

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — All the Rivers Around Here Are Dutch

Robert Hartwell Fiske: Ask Fiske — Thirty-Five Questions


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

The Vocabula Quiz

 TVR Revisited

Making Peace in the Language Wars — Bryan A. Garner

The Like Virus — David Grambs

The Absence Note — jjoan altieri

Black Holes — Julian Burnside

To Hell with Language: The Language of Comedy — Francis Blessington

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The second volume of Vocabula Bound is a collection of twenty-eight essays about the English language, as well as ten poems, that originally appeared in The Vocabula Review. The essays range in topic from the end of linguistics to the meaning of the term arabber to how bad writing kills.

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