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Monday, October 20, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
September 2013, Vol. 15, No. 9 There are now   159   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

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?

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?


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.


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.



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 In the September 2013 Vocabula
 The October 2013 issue is due online October 20.

When the bell rang, signaling mid-morning break, the floors of the factory shook as workers scrambled away from their stations, rushing to vending machines or out exit doors for a smoke. Morning break was eight minutes. The men on the loading dock kept working. They kept working because they were blind and eight minutes was not enough time to navigate from one place to another.

Every day during the mid-morning break some of the women who didn't smoke or drink coffee because they were pregnant or still breastfeeding, or because they were sanctimonious goody-two-shoes, or simply too young, came down to the loading dock to watch the men load the trucks. The men knew when the women were watching because they could smell the fragrances, not as a mix but each individual scent. The men could almost taste each woman's proximity; through some enriched sense of smell they were able to separate the young from the old, the maidens from the mothers from the matrons. More ... 

by John Kilgore

Here we go again. The July–August issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, here on my desk, features a gaily illustrated cover story entitled "Why ‘bad' English isn't." An owlish subtitle adds, "Yale's grammar non-discrimination team wants you to let go of your prejudices."

The YAM has your number, it seems. It just knows, somehow, that you are a language snob, infected by the hateful "prejudice" that in English, or in language generally, certain things are right and others not. But don't panic! You are not beyond redemption, for the cure is simplicity itself: just "let go."

The article describes the work of Yale's Grammatical Diversity Project, a research group headed by linguistics professor Rafaella Zanuttini, which has set itself the task of cataloguing syntactic variation across the English-speaking world. Illustrations to the article offer a very generous sampling of the data: "Ain't nobody a man," for instance, recorded in New York; "Everyone is SO wearing flip-flops this season," in New Hampshire; "You might could keep the cuffs," in Texas; "She ain't in no seventh grade. She in eleventh grade," in Pennsylvania; and so on and so forth, colorfully and intriguingly, for five cartoon-like pages (six, if the magazine cover is counted) on which each little bit of variant speech appears inside a speech-balloon tethered to a spot on the map. More ... 

Ever sailed on a big luxury cruise, me hearties? Welcome to the ship's galley, ye venturesome landlubbers. Head Chef of ship's kitchen is Sanborn Patterson. His nickname? Foodborne Pathogen. The Greek pastry chefs are a happy married couple, Sam and Ella Streptococcopoulos. More mirth on cruise food appears below, but first, we humbly serve you the origin of the word cruise.

Here is my elaboration of the usually unclear dictionary entry about "to cruise." The metaphor appears to have originated in Holland during naval record-keeping, in sailing journals and mapmaking. In sixteenth-century Dutch nautical cartography, kruisen, was a verb meaning to make an "x" mark or a series of "x" marks, that is, serial crosshatching, to show on a nautical chart that a ship had "crossed" a certain expanse of water: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

Damn it, every single time I use the word normal in conversation, some unwarrantably superior pseudo-sage arches an eyebrow, grins the grin of smugness, and drawls, "After all, what is normal?" And (to make the thing even more annoying) he or she does so with the olidous air of having struck forensic gold. I've had enough of this fatuous rhetorical question. Let's go to the reference books.

The mathematical sense of normal predates, by a hefty hunk of time, the usual or conversational sense of the word. The term originally had to do with geometry, and referred to perpendicularity or the meeting of straight lines at right angles. The carpenter's square used in building was called a norma, possibly from the Greek gnomon. The square was used in construction to establish a "norm," or standard 90-degree angle. It was thus a preset pattern useful for creating uniformity where the erection of buildings was concerned. This use of the word dates from medieval times, though the sense of normal as "common" or "typical" arose somewhere around 1500. Later shades of meaning, including most of those we use today, date from the nineteenth century. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

"Democracy," like "justice," is one of those words that commands near-universal assent, which means that it means different things to different people, or even to the same people on different occasions; it is only by such polysemy that any term can achieve such general acceptability. Here are three senses in which the word is understood today by various people on various occasions:

1. Democracy: a polity in which the general population gets its way by voting

2. Democracy: a polity in which the general population gets its way by means other than voting

3. Democracy: a polity that obeys the law, respects its citizens' rights, and treats them equally

More ... 

Zizzebots are "the marks on the bridge of one's nose visible when one's glasses are removed."

Elecelleration is "the mistaken notion that the more you press the elevator button, the faster it will come."

Carperpetuation is "the act, when vacuuming, of running over a piece of string or piece of lint at least a dozen times, reaching down and picking it up, examining it, then putting it back down to give the vacuum cleaner one more chance."

A charp is "that one green mutant potato chip found in every bag." More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by James Csank

The law — like many other occupations and professions — has its own jargon, a short-hand in which complicated concepts are encapsulated into a few words. In this essay, I explain the phrases "accord and satisfaction" and "anticipatory repudiation."

I. Let's start with one that arises in contract situations: "accord and satisfaction." When a dispute arises between the parties to an agreement, they often resolve the dispute by entering into a new contract that takes the place of the old one. Suppose A lends B five thousand dollars, which B agrees to pay back within six months. The six months comes and goes, but A remains unpaid. A sues B to recover what is owed. B's attorney offers A's attorney the sum of three thousand dollars. He says that B owes a lot of money to a lot of people; unless B can make reasonable settlements with his creditors, he will have no choice but to file bankruptcy; if that happens most creditors will get no more that ten cents on the dollar. But unfortunately, the attorney continues, B cannot come up with the three thousand in a lump sum. He will have to make payments of, say, five hundred dollars a month for the next six months. A's attorney, on the theory that "a bird in the hand, etc." convinces his client to accept the offer. When A's attorney asks for some (any) kind of security, B's attorney says that, sadly, none is available, but B will agree to a judgment in favor of A for three thousand dollars. The parties prepare an Agreed Judgment Entry setting forth the terms, and the lawsuit is ended. The new agreement (three thousand dollars, six months, five hundred per month) is an "accord and satisfaction." More ... 

by Skip Eisiminger
I am the hero of Africa. — Idi Amin

[My "heroism"] was involuntary. They sank my boat. — John F. Kennedy

Heroes are often misrepresented. Samuel Johnson thought they must drink brandy, Emerson thought eventually they become bores, and Scott Fitzgerald thought their lives must end tragically. I suspect these gentlemen are mistaken, but I've yet to find a thoroughly unblemished hero outside of fiction. From Beowulf to Atticus Finch, literature teems with ideals life cannot provide.

To be sure, I misrepresented or misunderstood my share of heroes growing up. For years, I idolized Joe DiMaggio like many baseball-playing kids in the 1940s and '50s. Joe was heir to Babe Ruth; he was the "Yankee Clipper" who'd hit safely in seventy-two of seventy-three games and led the Yankees to nine World Series championships. After Joe's retirement, Paul Simon would wail, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo, woo, woo." It turned out that "Joltin' Joe" had not gone anywhere. He was making ads for Mr. Coffee even after spending much of WWII on Hawaii's beaches and battering Marilyn Monroe because none of that mattered if you ever hit a sinking fast ball. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  News from the Front, Once More
by Carey Harrison
A new academic year; new recruits. I feel like a German soldier writing home from the Eastern Front. Shall I tell Mutti and Vati the truth? Can they stand more bad news? The news pertains to my City University students, whose linguistic abilities seem to be sinking to a new low. Certainly I encountered fewer undergraduates, ten years ago, who routinely wrote, "she have" and "he eat." A colleague asserted just the other week that the decline has been steady over the twenty-five years during which she has taught at our institution. Perhaps this should be no surprise. The Teachers' Union diktat, issued to the public schools in the 1970s, which asserted that standardized English was a patriarchal conspiracy, has never been revoked. Nor need it be; its consequences, along with the half-baked liberal conceit that linguistic anarchy is a weapon in the class war, will be reversed not by a counter-diktat enforcing consistency of spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation, but by the refusal of parents to tolerate the consequences of their offspring's sloppy English. This is already happening. The counter-revolution has begun. The fact that America's class divides are policed by degrees of literacy is gradually being understood, along with the fact that class divides will not be penetrated by certificates. If you write "she have" and "he eat," it doesn't matter what degrees you possess, your earning capacity in the white-collar world will in all probability be limited — unless you're a genius in some extra-literary respect, which not even the fondest parents can go on believing about their children for ever. 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 ... 

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 ... 

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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.

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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 The Dictionary of Concise Writing, Fiske shows how to identify and correct wordiness.


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