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A society is generally as lax as its language.

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The March issue is 20,080 words long. Recent issues:  Feb.  Jan.  Dec.  Nov.  Oct. 
March 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3 There are now  147  people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Back  When the Teacher's Wrong Skip Eisiminger

Once when Socrates finished a lesson, Plato and the other kids took out their cigarette lighters and waved them overhead in unison. What?! There were no lighters four hundred years before Jesus, you say. Well, perhaps not, nor were there any cigarettes. The fact is that good as Socrates was, he wasn't Mr. Chips or Yoda every day. Indeed there was the time when Plato himself complained, "Master, you're killing us." To which Socrates sharply replied, "Then you'll die educated, Grasshopper." And he did. More ... 

Back  guardian | guidewords Michael J. Sheehan

Guidewords are the two words that appear at the top of every dictionary page to indicate the first and the last entry to be found on that page.

Guidewords are sober, reliable, and unobtrusive to a fault. To the uninitiated, they are invisible. To the experienced dictionary user, they encourage speed reading to find the precise page on which a word resides. More ... 

Back  The Deadly Game of Corporatese Jose A. Carillo

I learned to compose corporatese by the backdoor route. This often strange and exasperating English of corporate financial headquarters and smoky boardrooms is not really something you learn in college or from a formal writing course. You learn it by hint and feel. You learn and execute it by cultivated intuition, something like getting to play the piano or guitar by oido. How I achieved a passable mastery of it is a long story, and I will spare you its seamier parts because they really do not concern the English language. It is enough to say that one day, invited by a senior friend, I had found myself in a nice little mahogany room in the Ayala District, saying yes to a cushy job of writing scripts for little slide shows about how good and how socially responsible my new employer was. More ... 

Back  Euphemisms: The Fig Leaves of Language Richard Lederer

Prudishness enjoyed (if that's the word) its golden age in the straitlaced Victorian era. Take the widely read Lady Gough's Book of Etiquette. Among Lady Gough's social pronouncements was that under no circumstances should books written by male authors be placed on shelves next to books written by "authoresses." Married writers, however, such as Robert and Elizabeth-Barrett Browning, could be shelved together without impropriety. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Susan Snively

Greasy Joan

There she is, "keeling the pot,"
stuck in the middle of the great winter poem.
Shakespeare calls her greasy,
as she labors over some big hot stew
surrounded by other laborers,
Tom and Dick, who mess about with wood
the way men do in the winter,
and Marion, nursing her overblown nose.
More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
Titbits from the Tanakh
Clark Elder Morrow

A famous critic once said, "Those who talk of reading the Bible 'as literature' sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense." More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
When a Species Needs a Pal
Mark Halpern

We humans are lonely. The universe is frighteningly big, God is dead, and nobody loves us. So we're looking for pals everywhere: in outer space, in the animal world, and in the chip fabs of Silicon Valley. More ... 

Back  Postcards from Babel  
Conversations with the Dead
Amalia Gnanadesikan
Giving a language a written form has a very strange effect on it. A language is in essence an invisible body of knowledge that its speakers share; individual uses of language are ephemeral, the words gone the moment they are uttered. But a written language becomes suspended in time, preserved and even fossilized. Words, sentences, and even grammatical conventions become permanent. More ... 
Back  Bethumped with Words  
Snow Motto Has Ancient Source  
Bill Casselman
Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Sometimes considered the motto of the United States Postal Service, even used to refer to Pony Express riders, this is in fact a translation of a line written in the fifth century BCE by Herodotus, the Greek writer known as "the father of history." His master work was On the Persian Wars, composed between 500 and 479 BCE. In this famous passage, Herodotus praises the stamina and persistence of horsed messengers in the service of Xerxes, king of Persia. More ... 

Back  Ask Fiske  
Twelve Questions
Robert Hartwell Fiske

1. I should like to ask why anyone would use the word doubtlessly. The usage with which I am familiar is doubtless as both adverb and adjective. The -ly seems to me to be redundant. — Juliet Telford 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.

downtalk Idiotic for disparage (or similar words). • A lot of people down talk our military; they don't realize that if we don't have this, they can't talk at all. USE vilify. • Why down talk religion? Religion is a faith, a belief. USE denigrate. • So many uninformed people down talk the tapes and equipment, and others call themselves "Eight Track Nuts" to describe their interest in the format. USE sneer at. • Also, I've seen other car forums where people downtalk Japanese cars yet praise the Elise, and it just makes me wonder, since the B18C and 2ZZ are both Japanese engines. USE ridicule. • The Fed as a whole does not like to downtalk the economy, but the data is not matching what their yak has been saying. USE criticize. 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.

In reading the newspapers here, I have reckoned up not less than twenty-five great men, seventeen very great men, and nine very extraordinary men in less than the compass of half a year. These, say the gazettes, are the men that posterity are to gaze at with admiration; these the names that fame will be employed in holding up for the astonishment of succeeding ages. Let me see — forty-six great men in half a year, amounts to just ninety-two in a year. — I wonder how posterity will be able to remember them all, or whether the people, in future times, will have any other business to mind, but that of getting the catalogue by heart. 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.

(a; the) green light Like red light, the expression green light appeals to people who grasp the meaning of colorful visuals and expressive pictures more easily than they do polysyllabic words and complicated thoughts. Some people upgrade simple or straightforward ideas to unintelligible ones; others degrade substantive or nuanced ideas to unsophisticated ones. Green light is an example of the latter, but both tactics suggest an insincere mind, an unknowable heart. 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.

acclimatize acclimate. • Perhaps your company has recently hired several Nigerian accountants, and you want to help them successfully acclimatize to your corporate culture. Perhaps your company has recently hired several Nigerian accountants, and you want to help them successfully acclimate to your corporate culture. • It's hard to acclimatize myself to the literary world, and I don't want to be a part of it. It's hard to acclimate myself to the literary world, and I don't want to be a part of it. 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.

betise (bay-TEEZ) n. 1. stupidity, foolishness. 2. a foolish remark or action. 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.

Evelyn Waugh: Scoop 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 12  Topic: In the news  Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 

 Features

When the Teacher's Wrong — Skip Eisiminger

guardian | guidewords — Michael J. Sheehan

The Deadly Game of Corporatese — Jose A. Carillo

Euphemisms: The Fig Leaves of Language — Richard Lederer

Two Poems — Susan Snively

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Titbits from the Tanakh

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — When a Species Needs a Pal

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — Conversations with the Dead

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Snow Motto Has Ancient Source

Robert Hartwell Fiske: Ask Fiske — Twelve Questions

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Hyphenology, or the Missing Link — Darren Crovitz

Like — Maggie Balistreri

Holy Wars — Julian Burnside

Quote-idian — Joseph Epstein

DisenYOUGUYSing American English — jjoan ttaber altieri

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A distillation of Fiske's The Dimwit's Dictionary, this handy reference includes some of the most foolish phrases we speak and write. Incisive, sometimes acerbic, commentary accompanies each entry. 101 Foolish Phrases encourages you to speak and write more carefully and thoughtfully. Think critically: read a Vocabula Book.


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