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March 2004, Vol. 6, No. 3 There are now  9607  people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Back  The Archbishop's Pronoun Amalia Gnanadesikan

I've been hearing a lot about pronouns lately. These parasitic little words mean almost nothing in themselves, but they can acquire meaning from other words around them. By itself, them means nothing beyond some notion of plurality, but if I say, "Tigers are beautiful; I like them," them now suddenly means "tigers." By putting them in a different context I could equally well have made it mean "senators," "amoebae," "children," "equations," or any other plural noun you can think of. Pronouns are the chameleons of language. More ... 

Back  A Mosaic of New Words Paul McFedries
A community is known by the language it keeps, and its words chronicle the times. Every aspect of the life of a people is reflected in the words they use to talk about themselves and the world around them. As their world changes — through invention, discovery, revolution, evolution, or personal transformation — so does their language. Like the growth rings of a tree, our vocabulary bears witness to our past. — John Algeo

The bold and discerning writer who, recognizing the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is tartly reminded that "it isn't in the dictionary" although down to the time of the first lexicographer (Heaven forgive him!) no author ever had used a word that was in the dictionary. — Ambrose Bierce

ne-ol-o-gism noun A meaningless word coined by a psychotic. — Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

What could be more relevant, more interesting, more fun than new words? Well, yes, lots of things. However, for many people a newly minted word is one of life's little pleasures, something that can be counted among what James Boswell called "the small excellencies." But then there are those of us who have been stricken with a malady that I call neologophilia, the intense attraction — oh, why not say it? — the love of new words. More ... 

Back  An Irish Bull Is Always Pregnant Richard Lederer

Since St. Patrick's Day was just a few days ago, it's time to throw some bull — not just any kind of bull, but an Irish bull. And while we're at it, let's throw a herd of Irish bulls.

What is an Irish bull? Some dismiss it as a silly blunder born on the Emerald Isle. Others more tellingly describe an Irish bull as a statement fueled by a delightful absurdity that sparks forth a memorable truth. When asked the difference between an Irish bull and any other kind of bull, Professor John Pentland Mahaffey of Dublin University replied, "An Irish bull is always pregnant," providing a definition that is itself an example of the form defined. More ... 

Back  Thoughts on "A society is generally as lax as its language" David Isaacson

I am of two minds about the motto of The Vocabula Review: "A society is generally as lax as its language." The law-abiding part of me agrees that language has rules that should be followed carefully and perhaps also strictly enforced. If we're lax about obeying these rules, we risk being misunderstood. If we don't follow conventions of standard usage, we run the risk of being bewildered. Even worse, some lax language is not just sloppy but deliberately vague. It is in the interest of bureaucracies as well as individual control freaks to hoodwink us with deceptive language. Big Brother spoke Newspeak in 1984 because that pared down, unambiguous language helped him control thought and therefore the behavior of the citizens of the totalitarian state of Oceania. More ... 

Back  Life and Death Punctuation Mark Painter

A Panda goes into a bar. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then pulls out a gun and shoots the bartender dead. He then starts out the door.

The manager says, "You can't do that."

The Panda replies, "I sure can — I'm a Panda — look it up."

The manager consults a dictionary and, sure enough, finds this entry under Panda: "Furry mammal. Lives in Asia. Eats, shoots and leaves."

Sometimes punctuation can be a matter of life and death. The bartender would have lived if the dictionary entry had been correctly punctuated as "Eats shoots and leaves." More ... 

Back  Two Poems Miriam N. Kotzin

Buck Season

This is the way we live:
we wake to news; flags
hang in ranks on screen.

We hear hunters' rifles.
Even at dawn we know
what counts. This windless

morning leaves do not
tremble, as though even
day holds its breath.
More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
Why the Early Sixties Was Better Than the Late Sixties
Clark Elder Morrow

The early 1960s (which, by my reckoning, includes the years 1959–1965, just as the late sixties includes the first few years of the 1970s) was an era of wit and relative sophistication, whereas the late sixties was a time of vulgarity and doltishness. How's that for an opening declarative statement? But think about it: in the early sixties, you had the best of the James Bond movies (though for this series the swan-dive into mediocrity and self-abasement did not really begin until Diamonds Are Forever in 1971). In the early sixties, you had a wonderful slew of movie epics, with — compared to the end of the decade — a disproportionate share of what are called "thinking man's epics" (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Becket, How the West Was Won, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Tom Jones, El Cid, Spartacus). More ... 

Back  Love Your English  
Valerie Collins

It all started with hootlessness.

Having ranted on a great deal (in this column and elsewhere) about how English loves above all else the snappy monosyllables of its original Germanic stock, and how it can't resist shortening and clipping longer words, I never paid too much attention to what would appear to be a contradictory tendency — the making of new, longer words by adding bits on.

Until I discovered hootlessness. 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.

minutia Misused for minute. • Midway through his junior year, Rick switched majors ("I enjoy business," he said, "I didn't enjoy the sort of minutia study of it") and transferred to Calvin College, where he majors in mass media. USE minute. • A million-and-a-half dollars for a city is minutia. USE minute.

Minute (my-NOOT), an adjective, means exceptionally small; insignificant; extremely thorough and meticulous. Minutia, a noun, is a small, trivial detail. Perhaps more disturbing than the misuse of minutia for minute is the mispronunciation of it. Minutia is better pronounced (mi-NOO-shee-ah), not (mi-NOO-sha), as the lazy ones would have it. The plural of minutia is minutiae, whose only pronunciation is (mi-NOO-shee-ee). Though people may mean minutiae (mi-NOO-shee-ee), they invariably spell it minutia and pronounce it (mi-NOO-sha).

• It's the basic framework of government, not the day-to-day minutia that is involved in statutory law. USE minutiae that are. • They're all reminders — tangible or imagined — of the lives he touched, the people he knew and loved, the minutia that made up his life. USE minutiae. • Often in discussions like this people get bogged down in the minutia surrounding such attacks. USE minutiae. 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.

There are a dozen flippant, merry treatises on Bohemia in London, that talk of the Savage Club, and the Vagabond dinners, and all the other consciously unconventional things that like to consider themselves Bohemian. But these are not the real things; no young poet or artist fresh to London, with all his hopes unrealised, all his capacity for original living unspent, has anything to do with them. They bear no more vital relation to the Bohemian life that is actually lived than masquerades or fancy dress balls bear to more ordinary existence.

Members of the Savage Club, guests of the Vagabonds have either grown out of the life ... or else have never lived in it. They are respectable citizens, dine comfortably, sleep in feather-beds, and find hot water waiting for them in the mornings. It is, perhaps, the unreality of their presences that makes honest outsiders who are disgusted at the imitation, or able to compare them with the inhabitants of the Quartier or Montmartre, say that there is no such thing as Bohemia in London. 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.

(take) a look see This phrase is one of the new illiteracies. Expressions like a good read, a must have, and a look see are favored today by the "illiterati" — smart, articulate people who find it fashionable to speak unintelligibly. 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.

(8:00) a.m. ... morning (8:00) a.m.; in the morning. • I want the cost estimates by 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. I want the cost estimates by 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. • At the start of the week, everyone was predicting strong winds and rain, but who would have thought that at 11 a.m. this morning there would be a pleasant breeze and the April sun burning through the cloud? At the start of the week, everyone was predicting strong winds and rain, but who would have thought that at 11 a.m. there would be a pleasant breeze and the April sun burning through the cloud? 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.

rictus (RIK-tes) n. 1. the expanse of an open mouth, a bird's beak, or a similar structure. 2. a gaping grimace. 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:

When speaking numerically of a decade, use an -s (1960s), not an -'s (1960's). 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.

E. M. Forster: Howards End More ... 


The Archbishop's Pronoun — Amalia Gnanadesikan

A Mosaic of New Words — Paul McFedries

An Irish Bull Is Always Pregnant — Richard Lederer

Thoughts on "A society is generally as lax as its language" — David Isaacson

Life and Death Punctuation — Mark Painter

Two Poems — Miriam N. Kotzin


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Why the Early Sixties Was Better Than the Late Sixties

Valerie Collins: Love Your English — Hootlessness


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

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Black Holes — Julian Burnside

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

Bumper Bites — Tina Bennett-Kastor

The End of Linguistics — Mark Halpern

Rhetorical Abusage: Oxymorons and Pleonasms — Bruce O. Boston

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The point of this collection is to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. Read these examples of elegant English, and from each you might glean some turn of phrase, some device of rhetoric, some clarity of expression, some novelty of thought that, in more contemporary writing, you seldom will have noticed.

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