Click here to buy a lifelong subscription to Vocabula Click here to buy a one-year subscription to Vocabula
Thursday, May 5, 2016   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
April 2013, Vol. 15, No. 4 There are now   5484   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

Bravo! What a wonderful essay — I think it beautifully and elegantly captures a poignant moment of life. I found it very moving, and it reawakened old memories of the immigrant dreams of my parents. I also enjoyed the photos and learning about dirndles. — What do you say?

I thought at first that you were merely darkening counsel with a rather too-finespun casuitry, but I own now that your logic is irresistible. You stayed with your argument long enough to convince me (I'm ashamed to admit that if you had stopped your pen earlier I might have tossed the article aside with only a grimace, and an air of bemusement disguising my uncertainty). I am persuaded now that I have been guilty of using "or" as I do the word "and" when I have gone about negating; I had never noticed before the ambiguity involved. You have uncovered a very well hidden landmine in the language — one so well hidden that even when pointed out it remains difficult to see, camouflaged as it is under so many layers of accepted (though inexcusable) usage.

Your article is one more proof of the importance of The Vocabula Review. Thank you for it. — What do you say?

Bravo to Kerr Houston and Ingrid Pimsner! Their essay on art criticism is pellucid, learned and elegant. — What do you say?

I like this article. I have probably 3,000 books in my home (I hope I never have to move). In a moment of weakness I bought a Nook. I read one book, then gave it to be my niece. Bless her for taking it off my hands. I like the heft of a printed book. I like to turn the pages. I enjoy reading it. Had ebooks never been invented, my life would be just as enjoyable — so long as there are books. — What do you say?

A fascinating article. I just wanted to add that in Quebec, dolphins are often called marsouins (sea swine) rather than dauphins. — What do you say?

What a preposterous, linguistically naive and snobbish essay! Ms. Anderson's is a fascist view of language that ignores how living languages operate. She posits that vocabulary items must not stray outside their originating specialties. Poppycock! — What do you say?

Simply, what a lovely essay. — What do you say?

Good article; sweet, too. But the way you slipped in the pronouncement, "By the age of four, children from welfare families have heard thirty-five-million fewer words than their financially better-off peers" wasn't quite fair. You don't cite a source, but even if you have one or two sources, I'd remind you that there are many financially well off families who bring up their children up in front of the television just as there are many so-called "welfare" families who do quite the opposite. If money were the deciding factor in language acquisition and/or the accumulation of an extensive lexicon, we'd have a nation of Churchills and Chisholms. But, uhm, like, you know, just like listen, ah, to like just about uhm anyone in the, you know, like, public eye? — What do you say?

It was a pleasure to read Clark Elder Morrow's perceptive but scary article. It came at an interesting time, for I had just returned to Salisbury, Maryland from Baldwin, Long Island, where, with nine fellow alumni from the high school class of 1947, I celebrated our 65th reunion. It was a refreshing few hours of animated conversation where nary an "Oh my god — it was like amazing" comment was uttered. There were no "We shudda wents" or "They sent an invitation to Johnny and I" blunders, just English as we learned it at home and in our classrooms during the late thirties and early 1940s. I sent copies of Mr. Morrow's article to my three kids, 52, 54 and 56. who may be among the last generations of Americans who treasure the language and do it no harm. — What do you say?

So, Ms., Miss, or Mrs. Iqbal, it seems you're speaking to the choir, as we say. Those feminists, those narrow-minded "members of the PC brigade," as you call those of us who believe that language reflects the values of its speakers, have made it possible for you to have a platform from which to speak your mind, have welcomed you into the fold, as it were, of our culture and language. You could have approached the topic in a more inclusive and kinder manner by speaking directly to us without the belittling remarks. We obviously come from very different cultures and histories; therefore, it's remarkable that you would attempt to impose your linguistic prejudices on "people like us." I remember hunting for work in New York City during the early 1960s. Could I type? Could I wear more makeup? Could I hike up my bra straps? Did I do shorthand? Oh, no, you certainly can't wear pants to work. I remember working in an engineering department at Columbia University where there was one female grad student in mechanical engineering. Why didn't she go home and have a baby? Or, she's not very pretty, so who cares if she wants to be an engineer. That's the culture women my age come from. We worked against all sorts of ridicule and opposition to knock down barriers set up for us by history, culture, and language. Now conservative women are working to put them right back, and deriding those of us who don't agree with them. Keep your "mankind" and your generic "he." I won't disparage you for it because you don't share my history or my cultural values. But don't swoop down on my culture and insult me for speaking my language the way I choose to speak it. Ask me about it. Give me a good reason why I should speak English the way a native speaker of Urdu or Hindi speaks it. You won't convince me to hop on your linguistic bandwagon, but I will respect the differences we have. — What do you say?

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English
A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English

Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.

You can order Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English from Vocabula or Simon & Schuster or Amazon or elsewhere.

  Next Page Back Issues
  1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013

 In the April 2013 Vocabula
 The May 2013 issue is due online May 19.

by David Galef

When I go over student essays, I allow a fair amount of latitude. If a student supports his assertions with solid evidence but can't spell that well, for instance, I correct the errors and give him a good grade. Similarly, if a student writes sentences worth reading, I'm inclined to forgive punctuation gaffes. Still, I do tell the class that many little errors add up to a real problem because they trip up readers who should be absorbed in the essay. Imagine a debater, I tell them, who argues beautifully but has an unfortunate stutter. The students get the point.

Or at least they nod. Then they go back to writing papers rife with mistakes. This installment of "The State of the Art" shows a kind of writing beyond mere typographical errors: mangled words and phrases, twisted by students who don't know the correct forms (I know; I've asked them). More ... 

by Timothy Burns
One and the Other, bat'ling brothers,
A pas de deux to rule all others.
One is first, and stands alone,
The Other, 2nd, is chaperoned
by def'nite article afore,
Ever with him in their war.
"On one hand, and on the other,"
So One must introduce his brother.
Manu et manu come in handy.
(A handwringer's modus operandi.)
And as always with pairs that fight,
One must despise the Other's right.
Yet stand they paired, like men and de,
Or outs made in a double play:
On One hand, similarities,
On the Other, differences,
So each to each remains a brother:
You can't have One without the Other.
The bit of whimsy quoted here, discovered at Skidmore College among the papers of the classicist T. William Brûle, appears to have been intended for his students, instructing them to use the expression "on one hand ... on the other." Today we are much more likely to encounter the expression "on the one hand ... on the other." I wish to defend Brûle's teaching by explaining why use of the first expression — the one with only one definite article — makes more sense. I will do so by examining analogous and nonanalogous idioms, and explaining the difference, to which these idioms point, between what can be called "the indifferent One," on one hand, and "the chosen One," on the other. More ... 

On the night of June 21, 1932, in Madison Square Garden, Joe Jacobs, the manager for boxer Max Schmeling, heard the judges award a decision to Schmeling's opponent, Jack Sharkey. Enraged, Jacobs grabbed the announcer's microphone and shouted to the world, "We was robbed!" Turns out that Jacobs fashioned his patch of rhetorical and oratorical immortality from a Greek figure of speech called enallage, an effective mistake in grammar that drives home an argument. To those who complain that "We was robbed!" is a grammatical atrocity I say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," another enallage and one considerably more effective than "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." In the immortal words of a Duke Ellington song, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

When Abraham Lincoln concluded his remarks at Gettysburg by majestically describing a "government of the people, by the people, for the people," he was enlisting isocolon, a parallelism of grammatical forms, in this case prepositional phrases.

When Jonathan Swift sardonically wrote, "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance," he was taking advantage of the power of litotes, a deliberate understatement that helps make a point. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest
The 2013 Contest Ends May 31.
Enter Today.

Rouse not the slumbrous droop of sleepy noon's siesta. Obey slug-slow limbs sweetly heavy with cumbersome and numbed fatigue. Stop not the drone of languid indolence, nor lassitudinous ponderosities of listlessness. You, torpid as a sloth, sink down; succumb to snoozing lethargy. Be Hamlet to his father's ghost, and to your inner ghostly self say, "Rest, rest, perturbèd spirit."

To approach a meaning of siesta, take a sandaled step backward, shod like slippered Venus or buskined like Adonis, back into the temporal abysm of ancient Rome and learn how they divided their day. Latin dies, "a day," had twelve hours of light, Latin horae, and twelve hours of night, Latin horae noctis. From Latin hora descend many modern words naming the twenty-fourth part of a day: English hour, French heure, Spanish hora, Italian ora. The Latin word was cognate with the ancient Greek word for "time of day," namely, ὥρα, hora, from which derive words like English horoscope and modern French horologe, "clock." More ... 

by James F. Csank

Hearsay is an out-of-court statement that is offered to prove the truth of the matter stated.

The rule against hearsay prohibits such evidence from being admitted in a court proceeding, but there are so many exceptions to the rule that hearsay is accepted perhaps as often as it is excluded.

Readers of the first part of this essay may recall the hypothetical Fact Situation Two, in which person A heard Speaker accuse the Mayor of Cleveland of being a terrorist and a member of Al-Qaeda. At the trial of the slander action by the Mayor against Speaker, A's testimony that she heard Speaker make that accusation is not hearsay, since what Speaker said is not being offered to prove that the Mayor is a terrorist. The operative fact is not the truth of what Speaker said, but the fact that he said it.

Let's modify the situation a bit; we call this Fact Situation Four. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

Starting around the last quarter of 2007, articles, editorials, and op-eds about the ethical implications of military robots appeared with such frequency that it seemed as if one could hardly open any serious periodical without coming across another warning of the terrible problems posed by these new weapons. Although their numbers were significant, it was not so much their quantity as the variety of the publications in which they appeared that showed that interest in the subject was both deep and broad. In November 2007 alone, almost an entire issue of Armed Forces Journal was devoted to the subject of robots as war weapons, with emphasis on how to control them now that they seemed to be on the verge of acting autonomously. And evidently by pure coincidence the November 16, 2007, issue of Science, the foremost scientific journal published in America, and perhaps the world, was also devoted to the ethical issues supposedly raised by robots in civilian and military affairs. After 2007 the wave of such stories subsided, and it seemed that journalistic attention had turned to other threats, but now in early 2013 we seem to be facing a second wave, perhaps because such weapons are now called "drones," suggesting they are something new, and because the U.S. government apparently wants to preserve the option of using them against U.S. citizens. And with this new batch, the specter of robot or drone "autonomy" returns, along with proposals that their use be regulated by an elaborate special code and a judicial apparatus for applying it. More ... 

Personal Essay
Back to Top  The Lure of Lefkowitz
by Larry Lefkowitz
Lefkowitz the cop
He blows his whistle
And the cars
They gotta stop

These are the opening lines from a Yiddish-inflected song on a record (then a 78) called "Lefkowitz the Cop," which thrilled me as a child when my father brought it home as a gift.

Not many years thereafter (with a feeling of joined pride and kinship), I perceived the name "Lefkowitz" featured prominently on a sign on a leather goods establishment outside New Brunswick, New Jersey. Later, from time to time, a person, learning my name, would ask if I was related to "Lefkowitz the furrier" or Lefkowitz, the whatever, in his home town.

In this way I learned that Lefkowitzes outside my family were not confined to leather goods and traffic control. New York State Attorney General Louie Lefkowitz — the most prominent Lefkowitz discovered to date — bore my surname. Lefkowitzes suddenly seemed to sprout everywhere, as in the story "Unto the Fourth Generation" by Isaac Asimov. Asimov's story was replete with (in addition to Lefkowitzes) Lewkowitzes, Levkoviches, Levkovitzes, Lefcowitzes, Lefkowiches, Lefkowiczes, Levkowvitsches, not to mention their shortening, Lefkov. Asimov recounts that the inspiration for the story came from the editor of a science fiction magazine who had seen the name Lefkowitz, and its variations, on several different and unrelated occasions. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  The Absence Note
by Joan Taber

"Dear Skool, Tony is reel shamed of hisself," began my mother's carefully misspelled letter regarding my brother's unexcused absence from school the previous day, "an he wont do nuttin like dis aggen."

It was a joke that no one understood except my mother and brother. I didn't get it either, but I was happily impressed by the frowns etched on the secretaries' faces. Mrs. Endee, the head secretary, was the first to read it: "Tony dint wanna cum to school iesturday cuz he wuz laizy an dint feeel like getin outta bed." She narrowed her eyes and handed the note to Mrs. MacKillop, who skimmed it, emitted a "tsk," and passed it to Mrs. Bernhard. "It wuz reel rong a him." They kept glancing at my brother's stony face, not sure how to react. I couldn't decide whether they pitied his genetic legacy or suspected a conspiracy. After all, the handwriting was meticulous, the syntax only slightly reproachable; even the writing paper was clean, crisp, whiter than newly washed linens drying in the summer sun. More ... 

Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Disagreeable English" 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. More ... 

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 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. More ... 

People long to write a clear, a readable, even, at times, an elegant sentence. In "Toward the Making of a Sentence," we talk about the style and sound, the grammar and punctuation, the words and meaning of a sentence. More ... 

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. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Gotcha Grammar

Here are quotations from well-known people, all of whom have used words ungrammatically or unstylistically. These are unnotable quotes, a collection of solecisms, by well-known people who speak as though they should be unknown. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Best Words

Love a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Best Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your high regard for a word; emotional reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you love is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, love the word. The Best Words have an aura of fun or majesty. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Worst Words

Hate a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Worst Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your distaste for a word; visceral reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you hate is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, hate the word. The Worst Words have an aura of foolishness or odium. More ... 

 Featured Essays

 Departments and Diversions

 Other Business

 Recent Issues

Among the 5484 people now reading The Vocabula Review are the following subscribers:

What's this?

Robert Hartwell Fiske's
Disagreeable English

A Quarterly Bulletin of Misused, Misspelled, and Mispronounced English

Four times a year, we will email you this addendum to Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English. Each bulletin will include new examples of misused, misspelled, or mispronounced English.

The cost is $25 a year. Sign up today. Please make your credit card payment using PayPal.

EBSCO makes Robert Hartwell Fiske's Disagreeable English available in its Literary Reference Center Plus database.

Click the image to order101 Wordy Phrases by Robert Hartwell Fiske

The Vocabula Bookstore Is Now Open.
(click the image to order)

A distillation of Fiske's The Dictionary of Concise Writing, this handy reference includes some ludicrous, though much used, examples of wordiness. Sentence examples illustrate how wordy phrases can be made more concise.

Click to see another book.