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April 2003, Vol. 5, No. 4 ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the May issue of The Vocabula Review: "Fading Distinctions" by Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside's Holy Wars appeared in the December 2002 issue of The Vocabula Review.


The May issue of The Vocabula Review is due online May 18.

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by Mark Halpern
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The Last Word
by Christopher Orlet
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Love Your English
by Valerie Collins
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Twenty-five of the best essays, and sixteen of the best poems, published in The Vocabula Review over the last few years.

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Back  DisenYOUGUYSing American English jjoan ttaber altieri

The way we address one another reveals our cultural and personal attitudes, our self-awareness, our sensitivity to others, even our social standing in relation to that of our interlocutors; for, as sociolinguists remind us, words never exist in isolation. It is also true that language, like all living creatures, is in a constant state of evolution, and most linguistic changes are initiated in the lower echelons of society and flow to the more resistant, less populated upper classes. Along with relaxations in rules of social etiquette that have occurred during the last fifty years, there has been a similar relaxation in what constitutes polite language behavior, especially in regard to forms of address. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, senators, teachers, graduate students, mothers, fathers, grandparents are now addressed as "you guys"; and though this leaves a portion of the population with the curious sensation of having been insulted, the designation seems firmly entrenched in American English. More ... 

Back  The Law of PeepeePoopoo Robert McHenry

Almost 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau, no enthusiast of his day's Information Revolution, expressed his reservations thus:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

The key word here is "important." No doubt Maine and Texas contrived to communicate something, and probably to keep the wire busy 24/7, as they did not say in those days. But if the present is any guide to the past, much of the dit-dah traffic was mere busyness, chat, nonsense. More ... 

Back  Rhetorical Abusage: Oxymorons and Pleonasms Bruce O. Boston

The ancients were fascinated by rhetorical figures — specific types of expressions designed to shape from ordinary words the power to convince disbelievers and inspire the dispassionate to great deeds. For the Greeks, rhetoric was the lifeblood of the polis, and the Greek arsenal of rhetorical figures was well stocked. In his 1983 study, The Garden of Eloquence, the modern rhetorician, Willard Espy, treats an amazing 234 figures, from abbreviatio (a shortened form of a word used to represent the whole word (for example, p.m. for post meridiem) to zeugma (using one word to govern or modify two although its use is grammatically or logically correct only with one of them (for example, "The last election proved less than it cost"). More ... 

Back  Words That Never Stray Richard Lederer

What do the following words have in common: galore, extraordinaire, akimbo, aplenty, aweigh, fatale, royale, par excellence, immemorial, aforethought, and manqué? The answer is that all these adjectives are "deferential words." While the vast majority of adjectives usually precede the nouns they modify, the words in this list always come after the noun they modify. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Brian Taylor

Among things that strike fear
are the pink faces of men
in lederhosen. Their fervor —

though no more loony than that
of English morris dancers —
troubles the English boy. As if More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
A Bit of Lit Crit for a Brit Flit Hit
Clark Elder Morrow

One of the most sublime passages in all of travel writing is found in David Livingston's Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, published in 1857:

On coming across the plain to Loanda we first beheld the sea; my companions looked upon the boundless ocean with awe. In describing their feelings afterwards they remarked, "We marched along with our father thinking that what the ancients had always told us was true, that the world has no end, but all at once the world said to us, 'I am finished, there is no more of me.'"

Now the question before the house is: what makes this short passage so haunting? More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
"It's Safe to Predict ..." — Yes, Unfortunately
Mark Halpern

Most of Yogi Berra's dicta are profoundly true — in another column, I hope to celebrate his "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!" — but one of them is false; I mean "A guy ought to be very careful in making predictions ... especially about the future."

I call it false because we have counterexamples all around us. Experts and authorities are forever making predictions (many of them about the future), being proved wrong by events, and then continuing their career as experts or authorities without missing a beat; there seems to be little reason to be careful. I remind you of Karl Marx's prediction that Communism would first appear in the most highly industrialized countries; Paul Ehrlich's prediction that before the end of the twentieth century there would be worldwide starvation and desperate shortages of all the most basic commodities; and Alan Turing's prediction that by 2000 it would be generally conceded that a computer can think. None of them seems to have suffered any penalty as a result of being proved wrong. More ... 

Back  The Last Word  
Quoth the Maven
Christopher Orlet

As an art form, the quotation lies modestly between the poem and the aphorism. Like the others, the quotation may cloy and reek of the motivational, or be profound and full of caves. When Thoreau wrote "the squirrel you kill in jest, dies in earnest," he said as much in one lyric line about the relationship between hunting and barbarism as an entire essay in Sierra Magazine. 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.

illicit Misused for elicit. • It is interesting to note that sugar placed directly over the diaphragm or on the Crown Chakra will not illicit a reaction of any kind in a balanced body. USE elicit. [Ewater.com] • It can illicit a response from a child who is ill or a person who has been in a coma. USE elicit. [Sweet Music] • I love any film which can illicit debate and "Session 9" is one film which will have anyone who has seen it talking for some time. USE elicit. [Reel Criticism] • Several vaccine strategies have been designed in order to illicit a heightened immune response that use HPV type-specific epitopes (components of viral surface antigens) involved in viral replication and transformation. USE elicit. [Vaccine Strategies] 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.

It is the doing of the middlebrows. They are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality. They are the go-betweens; they are the busy-bodies who run from one to the other with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief — the middlebrows, I repeat. But what, you may ask, is a middlebrow? And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer. They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. Their brows are betwixt and between. They do not live in Bloomsbury which is on high ground; nor in Chelsea, which is on low ground. Since they must live somewhere presumably, they live perhaps in South Kensington, which is betwixt and between. The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige. The middlebrow curries favour with both sides equally. He goes to the lowbrows and tells them that while he is not quite one of them, he is almost their friend. Next moment he rings up the highbrows and asks them with equal geniality whether he may not come to tea. Now there are highbrows — I myself have known duchesses who were highbrows, also charwomen, and they have both told me with that vigour of language which so often unites the aristocracy with the working classes, that they would rather sit in the coal cellar, together, than in the drawing-room with middlebrows and pour out tea. — Virginia Woolf, from a letter written, but never sent, to the editor of The New Statesman 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.

politics as usual This is but a euphemism, a politic phrase, for words like cheating; deceit; deceitfulness; deception; dishonesty; duplicity; falsehood; fraudulence; lying; mendacity; perfidy; self-interest; selfishness; tergiversation; treachery or backbiting; bad-mouthing; calumny; cruelty; defamation; denigration; infighting; insult; malevolence; malice; meanness; nastiness; slander; slur; spite; spitefulness; viciousness; vilification; vindictiveness. • In the course of this election, there has been too much politics as usual. REPLACE WITH dishonesty. • Democrats have been somewhat more restrained than Republicans in returning to politics as usual, apparently because they don't want to be seen as undermining Bush during wartime. REPLACE WITH backbiting. 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.

as a consequence (of) after; because of; by; due to; following; for; from; in; out of; owing to; through; with.As a consequence of the 43 million babies born in the years immediately following World War II, a middle-aged bulge is forming and eventually the 35- to 45-year-old age group will increase by 80 percent. Owing to the 43 million babies born in the years immediately following World War II, a middle-aged bulge is forming and eventually the 35- to 45-year-old age group will increase by 80 percent. • He showed that production increased not as a consequence of actual changes in working conditions introduced by the plant's management but because management demonstrated interest in such improvements. He showed that production increased not because of actual changes in working conditions introduced by the plant's management but because management demonstrated interest in such improvements. 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.

dyspeptic (dis-PEP-tik) adj. 1. relating to or having a disturbed digestion. 2. of or displaying a morose disposition. 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:

Often, after a comparative like better, use than, not rather than. 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: Put Out More Flags 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 letters@vocabula.com. If you'd rather, you may post, at any time, a message in TVR Forum.

I was greatly disheartened by Mr. Isaacson's excellent article on literary criticism ["Kvetching About Literary Criticism," Vol. 5, No. 3]. Like him, I am a refugee from the world of literary studies. I left academia thirteen years ago, and am sorry to read that the same issues that afflicted the field then continue to afflict it today. Also like him, I am a fan of Strunk & White and lucid prose in general.

It took me two years to "detox" from academia before I could read a novel for the pure pleasure of the thing, and before I could again write straight, simple sentences. The happy result is that I am still reading and enjoying novels, and have found a less academic but more rewarding outlet for my scribbling. In the last decade, I have written a number of pieces for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and other general reading publications. My most recent effort will appear in The Atlantic Monthly this spring.

I always enjoy receiving and reading TVR.

Tim Ryback
tryback@salzburgseminar.org More ... 


DisenYOUGUYSing American English — jjoan ttaber altieri

The Law of PeepeePoopoo — Robert McHenry

Rhetorical Abusage: Oxymorons and Pleonasms — Bruce O. Boston

Words That Never Stray — Richard Lederer

Two Poems — Brian Taylor


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — A Bit of Lit Crit for a Brit Flit Hit

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — "It's Safe to Predict ..." -- Yes, Unfortunately

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Quoth the Maven


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 Grammar of Anthony Burgess's The Eve of Saint Venus — Richard Burnett Carter

Heaven and Hello — Heinz Insu Fenkl

Practicing Prescriptivism Now and Then — Edward Finegan

Urban Renewal English — Jeff Danziger

Words of a Feather — Valerie Collins

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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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