Click here to read about Language Guardian Editorial Services

Click here to read The Best Words

Click here to buy a one-year subscription to Vocabula

Click here to sign up for The Daily Vocabula

Sunday, May 1, 2016   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
November 2013, Vol. 15, No. 11 There are now   114   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

Jean Mallinson's essay on prepositions is instructive, deeply felt, and beautifully written. It leads me to think that the opposite of the old pedant's rule is the truth: sentences not just may, but must, end with a preposition, since that which determines structure, hence meaning, is conclusive. — What do you say?

Right ho for Mr. Morrow, and for his sentiments, which are spiffy in my view! I think he's dead on about the techie influence, but I would like to suggest another, more eldritch one, the speech of the British Upper Classes, already elevated to the voice of angels by Mr. Wodehouse before it became the dialect of my own youth. — What do you say?

Bravo! Mr. Halpern, your writings on this subject are an unfailing source of insight and pleasure. Thanks so much for the wit, will, energy, and patience you bring to this oddly important controversy. Enlightening enough on its own turf, Linguistics seems to insist on jumping the fence into the traditional fields of rhetoric, editing, criticism, and of course humanistic grammar (which I like to think of as language criticism), where its highly abstract methods and principles grow clumsy, unhelpful, and sophomoric. You do a better job than anyone of leading the bull back out of the corn, over and over. — What do you say?

Actually, there really are some good reasons to Google oneself, as page rank and visibility can have considerable importance. Thanks for a great article. And the word, fantasts, too. I have never used that one, but will correct that problem. Much appreciated. — What do you say?

Well written, and I totally agree. I have never found it irritating or offensive to read "he" as a generic pronoun for both sexes. In fact, what I find more irritating is the use of the two words (he/she, his/her) when one will do. When an author goes so far as to make attempts at political correctness by changing words like mankind, postman, or even policeman, I start stewing over how much of an influence a petty minority has had on contemporary writers. And I find that really, really, sad. — What do you say?

Excellent. — What do you say?

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?

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

However curmudgeonly, Mr. Fiske betrays a bluff humanitarian spirit. ... Fiske wants to save the English language. And he knows that he can count on little help. "Dictionaries have virtually no standards, offer scant guidance, and advance only misunderstanding." His own flogging of Merriam-Webster's is one of the many pleasures of this lovely, sour, virtuous book. — Wall Street Journal

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

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing
The essential guide to writing succinctly

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing is the perfect reference book for anyone who wants to communicate more effectively through clear and beautiful prose. In this freshly updated edition that features hundreds of new entries, Robert Hartwell Fiske lays out multiple lines of attack against verbiage. He starts by training writers, new or experienced, to tackle wordy trends in their work. His "Dictionary of Concise Writing" helps them identify and correct — or delete — thousands of specific redundant phrases. In addition, writers can turn to the new "Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary" to build a more pithy vocabulary. Filled with real-world examples that provide clarity and context for Fiske's rules of concision, this is a writer's sharpest weapon against verbosity.

You can preorder To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing from Amazon or W. W. Norton.

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

 In the November 2013 Vocabula
 The December 2013 issue is due online December 22.

by Bill Casselman

WHY! Who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles ... — Walt Whitman

Has a moment of the miraculous ever befallen you? I don’t mean a wonderment as prodigious as a tall tale from the ancient Near East, for example, when cousin Ned sits up in his coffin at the wake and starts rapping "Yo! I jus' offed a granny in the parking lot / Shit! Found out later she the welfare snot." No, I mean a day, an hour, a breath-stealing, heart-thumping nano-second when the scientific conduits of your daily life plug up and the pleasing flow of cogency is clogged.

You, a sceptic about ghosts, suddenly see a long-dead friend buying his favorite scotch at the liquor store. A second look shows you the person bears only the faintest resemblance to your dead friend. But for those milliseconds of phantasmal similitude, dread constricts your heart. Lubb-dupp. Lubb-dupp. More ... 

by Jean Mallinson

When I was teaching English as a Second Language, I found the use of prepositions hardest to teach, next to the use of the definite and indefinite article, because like articles, prepositions are unthought knowledge to native speakers, many of whom would be unable to state a rule governing their appropriate or correct use but who — with exceptions, like between and among — use them correctly in a way that seems intuitive but is actually learned, and that articulates their sense of the world they live in.

Harold Whitehall in Structural Essentials of English writes, "Prepositions (hooking words) are empty words used to hook nouns, pronouns and word-groups onto preceding words, word-groups, and sentences. They indicate location, direction, association, agency, time." "Nine one-syllable prepositions (at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, and with) form the basis of the English prepositional system. The meanings ... are not expressed by the prepositions themselves but are inferred from the surrounding contexts." More ... 

by John Kilgore

It's October 16, the shutdown is in its third week, the debt limit deadline looms like an iceberg off the starboard rail of the Titanic, and what it all seems to be about — the thing that has thrown the Republic into this deadly fever of inaction, this senseless whirl of 'tis and 'tisn't — is something called "Obamacare": an essentially modest attempt (or so my crowd, the hated Liberals, believe) to tame the costs of American Health Care while extending its benefits to neglected millions. Irresponsible flibbertigibbet that I am, I find myself wanting to talk not about the thing itself, but just the word.

Obamacare. What a remarkable journey that bit of badinage has come, in just three or four years! — all the way from a jeering, jarring slur, unwelcome in most companies, to more or less the right name, or at least the right nickname, of the new law. How has it happened? More ... 

"Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope," once wrote a student. In one fell swoop, that young scholar managed to misplace a modifier and perpetuate an inaccurate myth.

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Gary Wills dulls the saw that claims Lincoln, divinely inspired, dashed off his speech during a brief train ride: "These mythical accounts are badly out of character for Lincoln, who composed his speeches thoughtfully. His law partner, William Herndon, observing Lincoln's careful preparation of cases, records that he was a slow writer, who liked to sort out his points and tighten his logic and his phrasing. That is the process vouched for in every other case of Lincoln's memorable public statements. It is impossible to imagine him leaving his speech at Gettysburg to the last moment."

On July 1 through July 3, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Americans slew Americans in the most lethal battle ever fought on United States soil. In that most pivotal clash of the Civil War, more than 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or reported missing. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

Between 1652 and 1654, a woman by the name of Dorothy Osborne wrote a series of letters to the man she would eventually marry, in the teeth of strong opposition from her immediate family. Her brother in particular was determined to stop the alliance. Dorothy was of a respectable upper middle-class family (as we would term it today), and the man she would marry, William Temple, would be made a baronet in 1666. William was a noted essayist and diplomat in his time, and while he and Dorothy battled the obstinacy of her family, Temple traveled throughout Europe, providing an opportunity for Dorothy's famous letters. But this was no Romeo and Juliet situation: these star-cross'd lovers were destined to live a married life of forty-one years together, and William would see a great deal of success in the political and literary worlds in which he moved. Of course our stepmother Tragedy always resents not being invited in at our birth celebrations, and so obtrudes in everyone's life later on; in the case of the Temples, "she" would appear in the form of seven dead babies. Only two of Dorothy's nine children would survive infancy.

The early letters are — for a woman in love — remarkably cool and distant. This is the prevailing tone of the age in which they were written, in which dignity and self-respect were prized above almost anything else. In the very first letter, she writes to William: More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by James Csank
When I asked Jem what entailment was … (he) described it as a condition of having your tail in a crack .… — To Kill a Mockingbird, 40th Anniversary Edition, pp. 22–23

Later (still on page 23), we learn that though Atticus says, "Jem's definitions are very nearly accurate sometimes," he explains entailment to Scout without, presumably, metaphors.

Entailment is a word used in the Law of Real Property. We will start in feudal times.

In the Middle Ages, wealth, power, and position were based on land. The more land you owned, the higher in the scale you were. The king owned all the land but gave possession and use of large parcels to the lords, dukes, and earls who supported his reign. The lords, dukes, earls, and others, in turn, gave the land in smaller parcels to those who were loyal to them, and so on, down to the villeins (no, that is not a misspelling) who worked the land. Everyone under the king was a tenant. The land passed upon death of a tenant, usually, to his oldest son (hence the name of the system, "primogeniture"), who was accepted by his overlord as long as the loyalties remained and the obligations of the tenancy were fulfilled. More ... 

The U.S. Army kept horse cavalry units until 1945. — Various sources

Conservatives accustomed to clover worry that with the re-election of Barack Obama the horses are gone and the barn door is shut, but let me put their skittish minds at ease. The horse-and-buggy values of the Dubya era are as securely rooted as blue grass in Kentucky. Though horses started disappearing from America's roads and fields about a century ago, Pegasus is still kicking up his heels in English prose, poetry, and speech. Indeed, after studying the impact of horses on the language today, one might think they'd never gone to pasture. In a sense, they never did because most people reading this will understand it whether they think the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse played for Notre Dame or Satan. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Singin' the "We" Blues
by Heidi Huse

We Americans. We feminists. We Republicans (Democrats, Libertarians, Independents). We environmentalists. We language lovers. We the People. Really?

What collaborative spirit is imagined, created, or assumed when "we" choose to identify ourselves with others, or when we identify others with ourselves (with or without their knowledge or consent)? Who's included? Who's excluded? What universal beliefs, goals, lifestyle, or practices are assumed by a "we," seemingly unified, identity? What gets overlooked if not erased by this first-person-plural, corporate-identity creation?

As faculty advisor to a student vegetarian society at my university, I learned of a conflict among group members last year, when a few students, independent of the vegetarian society, decided to protest the student rodeo (a campus athletic team). It's not unreasonable to assume that a collective of vegetarians might perceive a potentially harmful animal-centered activity in a negative light. However, other society members loudly opposed the protest, concerned that the protesters were appropriating the vegetarian identity for their rodeo protest as being representative of all society members. 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  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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  TVR Radio 2

We welcome your submitting MP3 recordings of literary essays or poems to TVR Radio 2. If we like your recording, we'll add it to our database. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Vocabula Quizzes

Each ten-question Vocabula 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. More ... 

 Featured Essays

Wonder Words — Bill Casselman

The Geography of Prepositions — Jean Mallinson

Flipping a Coinage — John Kilgore

Sesquicentennial Look Back at the Gettysburg Address — Richard Lederer

The Hard-Won Wisdom of Love Letters — Clark Elder Morrow

Legal Jargon — Part 3 — James Csank

Old Horses Don't Die, Nor Do They Fade Away — Skip Eisiminger

Vocabula Revisited: Singin' the "We" Blues — Heidi Huse

 Departments and Diversions

 Other Business

 Vocabula Books

 Recent Issues is a free writing guide with tutoring materials on practically any type of academic or non-academic writing task. is a free resource aimed at nothing but helping us all become better writers. Our writing guides and samples cover a variety of life's spheres where you might face the challenge of having to write a document, a paper, or a reference.

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 Elegant Paragraphs — Kindle Edition by Robert Hartwell Fiske

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

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.

Click to see another book.