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A society is generally as lax as its language.

The May issue is 24,888 words long.
May 2004, Vol. 6, No. 5 There are now  10027  people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Back  Getting the Answers You Want Barbara Wallraff

What would the perfect dictionary be like? None of the dictionaries in existence is perfect, so we'll need to imagine the range of features we want. Let's think big. More ... 

Back  Collective Nouns Aaron Rosenberg

Collective nouns are everywhere. Herds of cows, schools of fish, and swarms of bees are strewn across our landscapes, while wings of aircraft, fleets of buses, and convoys of trucks pass us by. They are the words that integrate, aggregate, accumulate, agglomerate, incorporate, congregate, and amalgamate our nouns. Some seem highly unnatural, yet are so commonplace that we don't even bother to question their relevance: a gaggle of geese or a litter of kittens. Why are a group of actors called a cast, and a bunch of directors a board? Collective nouns run the gamut from the ordinary (a pack of wolves) to the fanciful (a singular of boars). They apply not just to creatures, but also to objects and professions. Some are well known, even to the most elementary of English speakers (a flock of sheep), whereas others you would be hard-pressed to find regular use of by even the most ostentatious grammarians (a superfluity of nuns). More ... 

Back  Fairly Familiar Phrases Richard Lederer

On the cover of the March 29 Time magazine appeared a boxed item referring to the verdict against Martha Stewart. In the box was a photograph of the corporate goddess and, in bold white letters, the caption JUST DESERTS FOR MARTHA? More ... 

Back  Odds and Ends Julian Burnside

Email, with its address template addressee@server.com, is virtually universal. Nevertheless, the @ that unequivocally marks it as an email address has no generally accepted English name.

Officially, it is called the atmark, or commercial at. If you think these names are widely known, just try using one of them when giving an email address, and see the confusion it causes. More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
How Not to Write Broadway Lyrics
Clark Elder Morrow

I have always thought that writing the lyrics for a Broadway musical would be the best of all possible jobs for a poet. I except, of course, the sort of fantasy sinecures one could dream up without effort: Poet Laureate of the World, for example, with a yearly income of, say, half a million dollars, and an unlimited travel budget (for "cultural purposes," of course: attending operas worldwide, taking in first-rate museums, scanning local literary periodicals while supping and wining at fine restaurants, and that sort of thing). More ... 

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

The purpose of punctuation is to enable the reader to understand a text at first reading, without backtracking. There are various approaches to punctuation — among others, the aural, the visual, and the syntactic — and a sometimes bewildering variety of rules and conventions within each, but much of the confusion can be eliminated by applying the first — and only — law of punctuation: the reader must never be misled. More ... 

Back  Shibboleths  
Of Babes and Babel
John Kilgore

The spring of 1993 was a strange period in my life. Never before had I so wanted to murder a child. More ... 

Back  Postcards from Babel  
Of Mangoes, Curry, and Catamarans
Amalia Gnanadesikan

English is rapidly becoming a global language. It is the language in which much of the global marketplace conducts its business, and those who wish to participate must learn English or be left behind. The trend is far from new. English began its intercontinental journey with the rise of the British Empire in the seventeenth century, and the tribal tongue of the Angles now holds official status in a number of countries, located on all six of the inhabited continents. Wherever it has traveled, it has taken on a distinctive local flavor — a flavor that has enriched the language as a whole. 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.

braggadocious Idiotic for boastful (or similar words). • We're full of it. We're vain. We're braggadocious. USE conceited. • As for that braggadocious young associate, his days at the firm were numbered. USE bigheaded. • He knew that being braggadocious would bring people to his fights and give black people pride. USE arrogant.

Though the noun braggadocio (a braggart) is a word, the adjective braggadocious is not. Let us admire those who use the word braggadocio, and mock those who use braggadocious. 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.

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. 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'll tell you (something) This phrase — like I got to (have to) tell you (something); I'll tell you what; I'm telling you; let me tell you (something) — is mouthed by unimpressive men and irritating women, the one no more able, no more elegant than the other. • You got off easy, I'll tell you. DELETE I'll tell you. • I'll tell you something, they look like the greatest team ever. DELETE I'll tell you something. • I'll tell you something, if it doesn't work out, you've always got a job here. DELETE I'll tell you something. • The publisher got a sharp letter from me, I'll tell you. DELETE I'll tell you. 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.

in a manner of speaking as it were; in a sense; in a way; so to speak; delete. • Meanwhile by going inside the body you would be penetrating it; in a manner of speaking, you would have sex with it. Meanwhile by going inside the body you would be penetrating it; in a sense, you would have sex with it. • This time around, the company has, in a manner of speaking, thrown caution out of the window. This time around, the company has, as it were, thrown caution out of the window. • Last night, in a manner of speaking, he began life anew. Last night, so to speak, he began life anew. 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.

heldentenor (HEL-den-ten-or) n. 1. a dramatic tenor voice well suited for heroic roles, as in Wagnerian opera. 2. a person with such a voice. 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 had, not would have, in a sentence that states or implies a condition. 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.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves More ... 

Back  Letters to the Editor

The Vocabula Review welcomes letters to the editor. Please include your name, email address, and professional affiliation. Send your letters to editor@vocabula.com. If you'd rather, you may post, at any time, a message in TVR Forum.

Dear Editor

I have just spent five minutes of what's left of my life
Downloading a file
So that I can give ear to Susan Snively recite
"Hurt Words"
In the hope, vain hope, More ... 


Getting the Answers You Want — Barbara Wallraff

Collective Nouns — Aaron Rosenberg

Fairly Familiar Phrases — Richard Lederer

Odds and Ends — Julian Burnside


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — How Not to Write Broadway Lyrics

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

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Of Babes and Babel

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — Of Mangoes, Curry, and Catamarans


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

Letters to the Editor

 TVR Revisited

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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