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The Vocabula Review

A society is generally as lax as its language.

Even today — subjected as we are to the apotheosis of popular culture — using the English language respectfully helps us maintain a sense of ourselves and our values. To do otherwise, to disregard the ways of our words, is to forsake our humanity and, perhaps, even forfeit our future. A society is generally as lax as its language. And in a society of this sort, easiness and mediocrity are much esteemed.

Coming in the January issue of The Vocabula Review: "Grammar and Disputation" by Peter Corey

In January, TVR will publish "Grammar and Disputation" by Peter Corey. Peter's essay summarizes the arguments from his book, Ten Grammatical Errors in the American Heritage Dictionary, which analyzes errors in grammatical judgment made by the editors of the AHD. The book also provides a rigorous presentation of traditional grammar.

New!  Now you can contribute to The Vocabula Review using your credit card. If you would like to make a donation, please click on the Pay Pal button:

Although there are no subscription fees to The Vocabula Review, voluntary contributions would be gratefully accepted and used to support the continuation of this journal. We are loath (and embarrassed) to ask people for money, but without some sort of regular funding, this journal will likely cease to exist.

Anyone who sends a donation of $20 or more will receive Speaking of Silence, a play, as a Microsoft Word email attachment.

Notice: Beginning in January 2001, the email version of The Vocabula Review will no longer be made available. TVR will be available online only. However, if you wish to receive an email announcing that a new issue of The Vocabula Review is online, please sign up.

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New!  TVR Week to Week — No longer strictly a monthly, TVR will now publish articles whenever we have something new to offer, or whenever we please. This will not disturb the monthly issues of TVR; they still stand.

New!  TVR Editorials — Essays from the archives.

The Vocabula Review (TVR) is published on or about the third Tuesday of each month.

December 2000, Vol. 2, No. 12 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

Titanic Blunders David Carkeet

It was 1958, on a summer's eve, and the Sierra air was pure and clean. My sixth-grade friends and I were horsing around in front of the Sonora Youth Center. Some friendly banter arose between us and an older group in a pickup truck, two high school boys and one girl. Our jabber rose to shouts as they sped away. From the pickup came this response: the girl, seated in the middle of the cab, turned and gave us the finger through the rear window. More ...

Getting the Words Right Tracy Lee Simmons

Once upon a seminar in the mid-1980s, a cadre of graduate teaching assistants gathered to hear a talk delivered by the author of a textbook designed for courses in freshman English. "This is an exciting time to teach writing," she intoned, "because it's not just about writing anymore." She extended her arms from a billowing smock of clashing colors and balanced an invisible balloon upon her head. "Writing is about self-realization. You have the power to help your students discover their own uniqueness." Mere writing, stringing words together with concision and clarity, suddenly seemed pedestrian. What those TAs could not figure out, though, was how her textbook, damp with its New Age mist of self-discovery, could help to teach anyone how to write anything one might generously call English. More ...

The Long and the Short of It Richard Dowis

You don't have to use long words when you write. Most of the time, you can make your points quite well with short ones. In fact, big words may get in the way of what you want to say. And what's more, when you write with short words, no one will need to look them up to learn what they mean. More ...

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.

meretricious Misused for meritorious. • I informed her that that was a meretricious plan except for the fact that it involves lying. USE meritorious. [Journal for June 2000] • They serve the public interest by reminding readers not to believe a message simply because it is widely distributed, and carries the meretricious authority of the published word. USE meritorious. [Back in the African American] • If the Other Side is Wrong, their arguments, however meretricious, will not in the end survive exposure to ours. USE meritorious. [The Implications of Gödel's Theorem]

Meretricious means of or relating to a prostitute; falsely or vulgarly attractive; pretentious. It does not mean meritorious, having merit, deserving of honor. More ...

The Grumbling About Grammar Awards (GAGAs)

Under certain circumstances, after the sampling part of that process is taken ... it's supposed to go forward with a more fulsome process. — Theodore Olson, attorney for George W. Bush

"Full" or "complete" is what Olson meant, not fulsome, which means insincere or offensive flattery. If someone is to make such an error, it's best not to do so, as Olson did, before the U.S. Supreme Court. More ...

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.

After the fire was well kindled we repeated the ceremony of the previous day; and more wine was poured over Shelley's dead body than he had consumed during life. This, with the oil and salt, made the yellow flames glisten and quiver. The heat from the sun and fire was so intense that the atmosphere was tremulous and wavy. The corpse fell open and the heart was laid bare ... and as the back of the head rested on the red-hot bottom bars of the furnace, the brains literally seethed, bubbled, and boiled as in a cauldron, for a very long time. — E. J. Trelawny, Last Days of Shelly and Byron More ...

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.

I'm bored (he's boring) Being boring is preferable to being bored. The boring are often thoughtful and imaginative; the bored, thoughtless and unimaginative.

We would do well to shun those who whine about how bored they are or how boring another is. It's they, these bored ones, who in their eternal quest for entertainment and self-oblivion are most suited to causing trouble, courting turmoil, and coercing talk. More ...

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.

(what is) a (the) manner (means; mechanism; method; procedure; process; technique) by which how.The manner by which the man ultimately inflicts himself on his companion is, of course, immaterial. How the man ultimately inflicts himself on his companion is, of course, immaterial. • We will now examine the process by which natural and global marketing activities are controlled. We will now examine how natural and global marketing activities are controlled. • What is the means by which a nation can increase investment? How can a nation increase investment? • The answer should describe a process by which all corners are equally likely to be chosen. The answer should describe how all corners are equally likely to be chosen. More ...

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.

atlantean (at-lan-TEE-an) adj. of or relating to Atlas; having great strength. More ...

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:

Avoid foreign terms that are not thoroughly naturalized when there is no need for them. More ...

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.

Herbert Read: English Prose Style More ...

Descriptivist vs. Prescriptivist

It is our dismal duty today to consider the evil that prescriptivists may do to the cause of clear communication. More ...

Letters to the Editor

I have been a professional copy editor for ten years. I adore our language and find much of The Vocabula Review educational and stimulating. However, I become nauseated when I read statements such as "Best-selling authors, of course, are often responsible for the worst written books" and "Two people are apparently not enough to write a grammatically correct sentence at People magazine, where the writing is so often reminiscent of someone who never did graduate from high school."

I wince when I come across shoddy writing and incorrect grammar in print. But I also wince when I read or hear of educated people coming across as snooty and condescending. While I do agree with your assessment of the sentence in People magazine, I felt your condemnation of the writers was mean and unnecessary.

Perhaps educating the masses with a little less venom would serve you well. People are more likely to accept that they've made a mistake when they're not vilified for it. Of course, these people you chide are most likely not reading The Vocabula Review. So I suppose you'll have to keep impressing yourselves with your high-minded views and opinions.

And I find it sad that I felt compelled to read this letter over a few times before sending it, solely because I didn't want to be attacked for any incorrect usage.

Jen Bulat
jbulat@flywheelmedia.com More ...

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Titanic Blunders

Getting the Words Right

The Long and the Short of It


Grumbling About Grammar

The Grumbling About Grammar Awards (GAGAs)

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

Descriptivist vs. Prescriptivist

Letters to the Editor

TVR Editorials

On Dimwitticisms: An Introduction

The Imperfectibility of People

The Perfectibility of Words

The Remains of All Writing, the Spoils of All Speech

Other Business

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David Carkeet

Richard Dowis

Tracy Lee Simmons

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August 2000

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The opinions expressed in The Vocabula Review are not necessarily those of 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.

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Copyright 1999-2000 Vocabula Communications Company. All rights reserved. No material from this site may be used without permission. Vocabula is a registered service mark of Vocabula Communications Company. Grumbling About Grammar is a registered service mark of Vocabula Communications Company.

November's TVR Poll results: Do you, too, think that this writing is deplorable, or do you, more charitably, perhaps, believe that this may be an example of "dumbing down" to today's reading public?

• It's worse than deplorable; it's offensive: 16%
• It's not dumbing down; it's just plain dumb: 64%
• What people read matters less than that they do: 2%
• I see nothing wrong with the style or sense of it: 8%
• These words are perfectly lucid and well arranged: 10%

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Copyright © 1999-2001 Vocabula Communications Company. All rights reserved.
No material from this site may be used without permission.
Vocabula is a registered service mark of Vocabula Communications Company.
Grumbling About Grammar is a registered service mark of Vocabula Communications Company.