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TVR Home > December 2001 TVR Today is

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A society is generally as lax as its language.

December 2001, Vol. 3, No. 12

Coming in the January issue of The Vocabula Review: "Upsizing" by Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar, teaches writing and literature at Northwestern University and is the author of many books, including Narcissus Leaves the Pool; Ambition, the Secret Passion; Once More Around the Block; Partial Payments; A Line Out for a Walk; and Life Sentences. His Snobbery in America will be published this year.

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 TVR Forum

The command to "speak English" is more easily written than obeyed. What separates a dialect from a language? The prescribed English of 1800 would not be considered standard today; who has the authority to draw an inviolable line? Call my speech vague and jargony, and I can just as easily regard yours as stiff, pretentious and outdated. Language is a natural, constantly evolving phenomenon. To decide that using "I" instead of "me" is wrong, is as irrelevent as deciding that men shouldn't have nipples. If it's happening, it's part of the language — if you define language as what people actually say and not the rules we learned in grammar school. As for the potency of non-standard language, Burgess, Kesey and Joyce are all the argument I need. — What do you say?

I am hardly a prescritivist, but I wince whenever I hear the word "proactive". ... I recently attended a seminar where the speaker made a conscious effort to avoid the word. The circumlocutions which resulted provided what little interest the session held. The problem is that this is a trendy word in business-speak, and the sort of people who favor trendy business-speak rarely have anything of interest to say. The odium which is properly bestowed on such speakers inevitably spreads to the words they use. — What do you say?

I see it all over the place now: "...the author of a treatise on spanking, one Karen Spall...," "..the podiatrist's secretary, one Ed Dinkums...." I've seen instances in the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, the Village Voice. You name it. Where does this "one" business come from? What is its purpose? To me it suggests an arch, ironic tone. But I could be wrong. Please, my God, someone, help me out here. — What do you say?

I wonder if there has been any discussion concerning the media's new favorite term "Ground Zero"? There has to be a better, more sensitive way to refer to the results of that terrorist act. Hearing talking heads using the term over and over trivializes the thing we are deeply concerned about. I bet (to question) it is too politically incorrect to rate a discussion. — What do you say?

"Portion" is one of those words to which I have a visceral reaction: disgust. "Portion" and its ilk (including "meal") are mean, stingy little words. They bring to mind slapped hands and lectures about "people starving in China," and also those scary, molded plastic trays with sections for individual foods (slop such as creamed corn and Jell-O and boiled fish). "Portion" is also insidious: a simple, concrete word, it is used constantly by people unaware of its niggardly nature. To me, "portion" is THE worst word. — What do you say?

I teach English to college freshmen, and regularly find linguistic bits from TVR a quick way to cover more ground with my students. For instance, the "like virus" was a topic we discussed yesterday. Or when I was chatting with a doctor friend recently, a TVR column fit his tirade over our society's inappropriate linguistic etiquette. If you think TVR isn't getting to those who need it, maybe you're an armchair grouch talking to the walls. Take part! — What do you say?

No one can deny that there are explicitly 'literary' e-journals now produced on the internet. Should these journals address the mass of (vanity?) self-produced/published writing appearing on internet home (and other) pages? Surely, the avalanche of 'autobiographical' poetry and prose on these internet pages is a phenomenon worthy of the interest of readers of literature. — What do you say?

The study of language naturally includes (and historically has almost always included) an evaluation of grammar and usage, as "good," "bad," and various steps in between. The main reason is obvious: language is the vehicle of moral thought; it is the means by which "good ideas" and "bad ideas" are expressed and passed on to others. — What do you say?

Language precedes linguistic study; linguistic study is predicated on the existence of language. Does this suggest to anyone besides myself that a prescriptionist point of view is fundamentally flawed where language study is concerned? — What do you say?

As every English graduate student knows from force-feedings of liberal, milquetoast course offerings and faculty arguments, most of the curmudgeons who read "The Vocabula Review" are aware of linguistic "communities" where a maddening variety (babble?) of usages and constructions are the mutually-understood methods of communication. — What do you say?

His opening line in "Empowering or Cowering" seems to pay tribute to Orwell's 1984. But he calls it "justifiably famous." That's like saying the novel's fame can be justified. Some reason (or excuse) can be found for it. Granted, as a freelance editor I can claim no fame whatsoever. Still, it seems to me Dr. Williams, if he were taking care, might better have called 1984 "justly famous." — What do you say?

LOOKIT! Not "Observe." Not "Look here." Not even "Seewattimean." Lookit, the man says. Cleverly pandering to the lowest common denominator, as almost every politican seems to do at one time or another. Am I the only one on Earth who is irritated by this? — What do you say?

I seen it. There it is. Not I saw it, or even I have seen it, but I seen it. The past tense of see, saw, has gone missing along with helping verbs. I hear it coming out of lips that should know better. Seen has become a standalone word with no present or past. — What do you say?

By the way, do you know what's wrong with this site? The people who really need to read articles like yours will never see them. — What do you say?

In your manifesto you seem to suggest that one of TVR's aims is to embrace the flexibility and creativity the English Language offers. However the articles I have read your contributors and your manifesto all maintain extremely prescriptionistic views. — What do you say?

Has anyway written or read a really penetrating article on this phenomenon ["between you and I"]? It has been widespread for years and years. It even appears in some standard pop tunes. It is used frequently by those who would refrain from the opposite: "Me and Mama went to town." — What do you say?

Even apart from this destruction of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact, the argument does not sustain Mr. Corey's assertion that "linguists misrepresent the history of humanistic grammar, claiming that it has sought to force English into a Latin framework." His support for this consists of showing ways in which this grammar differs from Latin. This would only refute the assertion that linguists claim that this grammar sought to make English grammar identical to that of Latin, but no such claim has been made. — What do you say?

John Simon is a cranky old fart, a supercilious snob, and why anyone takes him seriously is beyond me. (When Vietnam antiwar protests were at their most feverish pitch, John Simon was ranting against the use of "hopefully".) — What do you say?

Without question, certain foreign words have nuances in meaning that initially resist our attempt to articulate them elegantly in our native tongue. That does not imply, however, that speakers of that foreign language possess some privileged feeling, sensation, or knowledge that our own language prevents us from acquiring. — What do you say?

Where are we on this subject? Can we go back to saying "The user resets his password" or are we still mired in "Ask the user his/her mother's maiden name" to the point that we are allowing "Ask the user their mother's maiden name" just because we're so sick of the whole issue? — What do you say?

I disagree with Mr. Fiske's casual definition of "team player." His misunderstanding leads to an unfair representation of how the phrase is used. To me (and I think to many others) a team player is one who consciously subordinates what might be best for himself to what might be best for the organization, when the two are in opposition. — What do you say?

I work at a state university, and there are more "likes" punctuating the students' sentences to drive a person with even the least sensitivity to the language out of his mind. — What do you say?

In a private message, I apologised to a number of critics of my essay "The End of Linguistics..." for being unable to answer them individually, and promised that I would post a general reply on this Forum that would deal at least with their major points. This is it. — What do you say?

When you've never had consistent access to good education, to familial reading, to the countless small rules that govern clear expression, you crave someone to tell you: this is how this engine, the one that drives the entire culture, works. — What do you say?

Business operatives are almost competing with post-modernists in the quest for ever-greater pretension and obscurity. And, of course, the pedantic adviser, the word nazi, can quickly wear out his welcome. — What do you say?

Has anyone else noticed the maniacal insertion of hyphens when using the grammar check of Microsoft Word? Yes, I turn it off, but drafts from my coworkers come back to me with all of them reinserted. Who dreamt of such punctuation? — What do you say?

When did "absolutely" begin to become the way to respond positively to a question or statement, instead of simply "yes"? — What do you say?

I read Mark Halpern's piece with interest, as a person holding a strongly descriptivist point of view with regard to language evolution who somewhat disagreed with the author's argument. However, I must say it was nice to see the prescriptivist view being put forward in a clear, logical manner lacking in the hysterics and paranoid rambling often sadly associated with it (at least in the United Kingdom). — What do you say?

Our local TV "weathercaster" has taken recently to pronouncing temperatures such as -5, "negative 5" instead of the conventional "minus 5". — What do you say?

If "a society is as lax as its language," can freedom from an empirical society be defined as "poor grammar"? — What do you say?

Join the discussion.
  Nice Distinctions Julian Burnside

Of all the words in the English language, few have more varied careers than nice. Its meaning has altered more often than that of most other words, and it has always borne several different meanings simultaneously. It was once a verbal chameleon, whose instability might have threatened its survival; it is now much overworked and has sunk to the verbal equivalent of a food extender, or flavoring-101. More ... 

  Don't Throw It Away Susan Elkin

Accurate grammar is the essence of effective communication. Silly old UK chestnuts such as "Rugby is a game played by men with misshapen balls" or "There's a hole outside 10 Downing Street and the prime minister is looking into it" make the point well enough without my having to labor it. When those same sorts of errors aren't jokes, they fudge and blur meaning so that much of what passes for written English these days is mere gobbledygook. More ... 

  Archie's Gone, But Not His Bunkerisms Richard Lederer

Back on January 12 of 1971 (has it really been that long?), the landmark series All in the Family lit up the tubes of our television sets. Created and written by Norman Lear, the series, depicting a bigoted blue-collar worker and his family, attracted increasingly large numbers of viewers by pushing the envelope long before that phrase became the cliché that it is today. It "changed the face of television," as one critic put it, by presenting some very new elements for a situation comedy — realistic characters, mature themes, frank dialogue, and socially sensitive issues. More ... 

  TV Empathy Robert Bové

It's been almost eighteen months since the death of my father, a Marine combat veteran of Okinawa and other Pacific locales, and I have gradually come to accept that I'll live with the loss the rest of my life. Any observer of Dad's funeral Mass, though, might have doubted whether I, my family, or any of the weeping mourners would reach such acceptance when, at the climactic moment, we lined up beside his flag-draped bier and slowly filed out of church, the organist and choir breaking our hearts yet again as they struck up the Marines' Hymn. More ... 

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

Simply to speak ill of those who truly deserve it shows a lack of imagination. All it requires is simple description. An infinitely more engaging task is merely to praise those who we think are worth our consideration — and ignore the rest. This positively dispraises the unmentioned by implication. And, indeed, a very effective way for tenure-track literature teachers to stay on track while helping their students distinguish between sound literature and literary litter is to require that those students read good writing to learn what good writing is, and Cliff Notes to prepare for department-wide exams. Those teachers who are given tenure can then stop assigning Cliff Notes to, for instance, that recent well-seller that has a male dolphin kill the bad guy by raping him. Merely to notice such grotesqueries is to seem to elevate them beyond their proper status — that of literary litter. More ... 

  Two Poems Ernest Hilbert

A Writer's Life

A young Napoleon, his hair coursed back, ferine,
Was already, as a lieutenant in the King's artillery,
Expert in ramrod and shot. Being of lower nobility,
And Corsican into the deal, he considered

A career in the military infeasible, and so set
To work on a novel. He soon found that fictions
Weren't so agreeable as muzzle loading
And distance sighting, characters 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.

flounder Misused for founder. • Staff writer P. J. Connolly muses over Apple's ill-fated OpenDoc and wonders why a floundering ship would toss women and children overboard to stay above water. USE foundering. [LAN Times] • Sparks fly when Dawson manages to talk Rose out of jumping overboard, but tragedy awaits as the unsinkable ship hits an iceberg and begins to flounder. USE founder. [Titanic Movie Review] • After starring roles in The Krays (with brother Martin), The Bodyguard (with Kevin Costner) and heist caper Killing Zoe, his acting career floundered. USE foundered. [BBC News] • Unfortunately, while the business thrived, the marriage floundered. In late 1997, Pete and Linda divorced after 33 years together. USE foundered. [Business Week]

To flounder is to move clumsily or thrash about; to struggle confusedly. To founder is to fill with water and sink; to cave in; to fail or collapse. 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.

Animated by this important object, I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style; — I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for, wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, nor in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart. — I shall be employed about things, not words! — and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversation.

These pretty nothings — these caricatures of the real beauty of sensibility, dropping glibly from the tongue, vitiate the taste, and create a kind of sickly delicacy that turns away from simple unadorned truth; and a deluge of false sentiments and overstretched feelings, stifling the natural emotions of the heart, render the domestic pleasures insipid, that ought to sweeten the exercise of those severe duties, which educate a rational and immortal being for a nobler field of action. — Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 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.

alive and kicking One of the consequences of endlessly saying and hearing and writing and reading formulaic phrases is that, eventually, people do become weary of them.

But instead of expressing themselves differently — more eloquently or more inventively, perhaps — people will simply substitute one word in these selfsame formulas for another.

Thus, along with alive and kicking, there is, for instance, alive and well and even alive and thriving; along with a thing of the past, there is a phenomenon of the past; along with business as usual, there is politics as usual and life as usual; along with mover and shaker, there is mover and shaper; along with neck of the woods, there is the noisome portion of the earth; along with needs and wants, there is needs and desires; along with in no way, there is in no way, shape, or form and the preposterous in no way, shape, form, or fashion; along with remedy the situation, there is rectify the situation; along with out the window, there is out the door; and along with nothing could be further from the truth, there is, incomprehensibly, nothing could be further from the actual facts. 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.

for (in; to) (the) furtherance of for; to advance; to foster; to further; to promote. • Neither the conspiracy itself nor the overt acts allegedly done in furtherance of it were directed toward Boisjoly. Neither the conspiracy itself nor the overt acts allegedly done to foster it were directed toward Boisjoly. • This is done in furtherance of the principle that all witness identifications be made independently. This is done to advance he principle that all witness identifications be made independently. • In furtherance of its corporate purposes, the corporation shall have all the general powers enumerated in Article 1396-2.02. To further its corporate purposes, the corporation shall have all the general powers enumerated in Article 1396-2.02. 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.

billingsgate (BIL-ingz-gate) n. coarsely abusive language. 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:

Do not use who (or whom) when referring to animals or things. 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.

James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner More ... 

  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. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity.

Marylaine Block's article ["The Game of the Name," Vol. 3, No. 11] while true, was obvious and essentially unnecessary. "The Game of the Name" needs no more powerful example than the names given to the opposing sides in the ongoing abortion "debate." "Pro-Choice" is decidedly not the opposite of "Pro-Life." "Pro-Death" is, but that does not put the "Right-to-Choosers" on helpful linguistic — and argumentative — footing, does it? More ... 

 Features

Nice Distinctions — Julian Burnside

Don't Throw It Away — Susan Elkin

Archie's Gone, But Not His Bunkerisms — Richard Lederer

TV Empathy — Robert Bové

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

Two Poems — Ernest Hilbert

 Departments

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 Like Virus — David Grambs

"Secrets" of the Pros — Richard Dowis

Words That Stab Like a Sword — Pamela Jones

Titanic Blunders — David Carkeet

Grammar Matters — Marylaine Block

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 Vocabula Books

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Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

Speaking of Silence

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Once you've made your $30 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. Metaphors Dictionary by Elyse Sommer with Dorrie Weiss

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A masterful metaphor, like a picture, may be worth a thousand words. By comparing two unlike objects or ideas, it illuminates the similarities between them, accomplishing in a word or phrase what could otherwise be expressed only in many words, if at all. The Metaphors Dictionary is an expansive collection of 6,500 colorful classic and contemporary comparative phrases (with full annotations and a complete bibliography of sources). The Metaphors Dictionary revisits most of the great and respected names in the annals of cultural literacy while dipping into current literature and media sources.

Quickly accessed via the author and subject indexes as well as the table of thematic categories, the Metaphors Dictionary is an intoxicating stew of expert word play.

From Molière to Mailer to Mother Theresa, the Metaphors Dictionary provides quick access to some of the greatest minds that have ever compared one thing with another and arrived at a sum greater than the parts.

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Once you've made your $25 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. The Skin That We Speak Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom by Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy

Donate $25 to The Vocabula Review and receive Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy's The Skin That We Speak.

The "Ebonics Debate" brought issues of language and education out of the classroom and into the public eye, but represents only a fraction of the embattled history of language attitudes in education. In The Skin That We Speak, McArthur Award-winner Lisa Delpit, bestselling author of Other People's Children, writes of her struggle for understanding when her daughter transfers to an African-American school and begins to use African-American English instead of Standard English. Building on these types of issues to form an honest dialogue, The Skin That We Speak explores the layers of politics, power, and identity that surround language, adding context to the furor around standardized English in the classroom.

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Once you've made your $30 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. Ella Minnow Pea A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable by Mark Dunn

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Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel set in the fictional island of Nollop situated off the coast of South Carolina and home to the inventor the pangram The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog. The islanders have erected a monument to honor their late hero, but one day a tile with the letter "z" falls from the statue. The leaders interpret the falling tile as a message from beyond the grave, and the letter is banned from use. On an island where the residents pride themselves on their love of language, this is seen as a tragedy. They are still reeling from the shock, when another tile falls and then another.

Mark Dunn takes us on a journey against time through the eyes of Ella Minnow Pea and her family as they race to find another phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet to save them from being unable to communicate. Eventually, the only letters remaining are LMNOP, when Ella finally discovers the phrase that will save their language.

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This book presents a unique historical view of American English. It chronicles year by year the contributions Americans have made to the vocabulary of English and the words Americans have embraced through the evolution of the nation. For important years from the settlement of Jamestown until 1750, and for every year from 1750 through 1998, a prominent word is analyzed and discussed in its historical context. The result is a fascinating survey of American linguistic culture through past centuries.

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The latest installment of this trusted literary companion covers all aspects of literary theory, from definitions of technical terms to characterizations of literary movements. Geared toward students, teachers, readers, and writers alike, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory explains critical jargon (intertextuality, aporia), schools of literary theory (structuralism, feminist criticism), literary forms (sonnet, ottava rima), and genres (elegy, pastoral) and examines artifacts, historic locales, archetypes, origins of well-known phrases, and much more. Scholarly, straightforward, comprehensive, and even entertaining, this is a resource that no word lover should be without.

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diaskeuast: an editor; someone who makes a revision