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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 March issue of The Vocabula Review: "The Muse of Mopar" by David Carkeet

David Carkeet is a linguist and novelist. He is the author of five novels, Double Negative, The Greatest Slump of All Time, I Been There Before, The Full Catastrophe, and The Error of Our Ways. His short stories and essays have appeared in American Literature, Carolina Quarterly, Kansas Quarterly, The North American Review, The Oxford American, The San Francisco Review of Books, New York Stories, The New York Times Magazine, and The Village Voice. Carkeet teaches in the MFA program at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.



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New   TVR Revisited — "Our Democratic Language" by Tina Bennett-Kastor.

February 2001, Vol. 3, No. 2 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

Four Cheers Five Victor Borge Richard Lederer

The Comedian of the Keyboard, also known as The Unmelancholy Dane, exited the earthly stage this past December 23. Victor Borge, the irrepressible musical humorist, didn't quite make it into the true third millennium, but he lived almost 92 very full years and performed more than 100 nights a year right up until the spotlight winked out. Borge left the world a triple legacy. Born in Copenhagen to a family of musicians, Borge became a fine pianist and conductor. What's more, he was that rare comedian who never used foul language and never made fun of anyone. "The smile is the shortest distance between two people," he observed. Most astonishingly, he became a genius in his second language — English, which he learned by spending day after day in movie theaters. More ...

Grammar Matters Marylaine Block

My generation may well have been the last one to be taught to diagram sentences in school. Some of you may not even know what diagramming a sentence is: a kind of exploratory surgery in which you open up a sentence to see how it works by finding out what grammatical function each word is serving. You identify the subject, the verb, and its object; then you put the adjectives with the nouns they are modifying, the prepositions with their objects. It was boring drudgery, and I never knew anybody who enjoyed doing it. More ...

Practicing Prescriptivism Now and Then Edward Finegan

Claudio: Nay, but I know who loues him and in despight of all, dies for him.
Prince: Shee shall be buried with her face vpwards. — Much Ado About Nothing

Come let me love you ... let me die in your arms. — Annie's Song by John Denver

In a class I once took, we were asked to identify a scholarly reference work that reported the sense of die intended by Claudio in Much Ado. Admiring the riches of the great Oxford English Dictionary, I checked it and was puzzled not to find the Shakespearean sense. The OED cited Claudio's line but assigned die the meaning "to languish, pine away with passion; to be consumed with longing desire." I thought perhaps I'd too cursorily skimmed the entry and lamely offered OED as my answer anyway. To a knowing and probing instructor, I then had to admit that the greatest dictionary of English had diddled the language of its greatest poet. For the exercise, the OED was the obvious answer, but the right answer was Shakespeare's Bawdy, written in the twentieth century. Aiming perhaps to influence thinking and behavior, the OED's editors had fudged their descriptivist principles, and on sexual matters Victorian morality trumped Victorian scholarship. More ...

TVR Audio Snobs and Slobs David R. Williams

What we have, and have always had, in American English is a classic battle between conservatives on one side who are afraid that the structures that provide our security are in danger of collapse and radicals on the other who seem willing to embrace any new fad that promises utopia. The conservatives want to retain the rules of grammar and diction and punctuation as handed down to them by their grandfathers. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it's good enough for them. Any change appears to them like the Hun at the gate about to pillage the city. These language snobs can be found in the letters-to-the-editor pages of all our major newspapers bewailing the fate of the republic if people don't follow every jot and tittle of the classic rules. More ...

TVR Audio Two Poems Elana Wolff

1949 Santa Fe Lounge Car

Low under indigo,
hull of the day. Two across formica sitting
underneath a metal ceiling, perforated
ceiling lit by timid pin-
point stars. The land outside is incognito — eddy
in the rattle of a storm. The trees
along the track
are great galoots in grubby habits, grabbing
at the glass in mad abandon. 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.

aggravate Solecistic for annoy (or similar words). • What is most needed from us, instead, may be the simple quality of steadfastness — the persistent, open-hearted willingness to simply hang in there with the clients who most confuse, aggravate, or discourage us. USE annoy. [Family Therapy Networker] • Most of the time, swapping human contacts for electronic ones looks as though it's saving us time, money, and aggravation. USE irritation. [Prevention] • Every women knows that satisfying a man is easy, but aggravating him takes a special talent! USE exasperating. [How to Aggravate a Man Every Time]

Aside from the added amusement of "Every women knows," the online advertisement for How to Aggravate a Man Every Time, a book, offers another example; it's too dear: • Learn the best aggravating tricks, such as: take over the remote control, make the most of PMS, make friends with his ex-girlfriends....

The modern (as well as, apparently, historical) view is that aggravate may mean, along with to make worse or exacerbate, to irritate or annoy. If people who use aggravate to mean annoy also had knowledge of its sense of to make worse and could occasionally use it in that sense, perhaps careful writers and speakers of the English language would be less inclined to carp — while, of course, never agreeing to capitulate.

Let us, if need be, create distinctions between words where, perhaps, there have been none. We have words aplenty that mean to annoy; the only other words that mean to aggravate are worsen and exacerbate, itself often ridiculously confused with exasperate. More ...

The Grumbling About Grammar Awards (GAGAs)

What kind of facilities does your gym provide? — Jennifer Laing, Real Simple

The allure of an all-expenses-paid jaunt to a faraway place, otherwise known as the business trip, has women running for their luggage like never before. — Staff, Real Simple

Thankfully, it comes in an updated instant form.... — Staff, Real Simple

For now it's the Ericsson T28 World cell phone (the cost, depending on the service provider: from nothing to $199; www.ericsson.com) with VoiceStream Wireless or Cingular Wireless, who include international service. — Staff, Real Simple

This magazine is true to its name, for it doesn't let the apparent complexity of using correct grammar (such as kinds instead of kind, as instead of like, We are thankful instead of Thankfully, and which includes instead of who include) interfere with its mission.

In still another sentence, Jean Gorman (as well as, presumably, staff members) neglects to place a period after the sentence Be kind to them — simple indeed; simplicity itself. 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.

Somewhere, I knew not where — somehow, I knew not how — by some beings, I knew not whom — a battle, a strife, an agony, was conducting, — was evolving like a great drama, or piece of music; with which my sympathy was the more insupportable from my confusion as to its place, its cause, its nature, and its possible issue. I, as is usual in dreams (where, of necessity, we make ourselves central to every movement), had the power, and yet had not the power, to decide it. I had the power, if I could raise myself, to will it; and yet again had not the power, for the weight of twenty Atlantics was upon me, or the oppression of inexpiable guilt. "Deeper than ever plummet sounded," I lay inactive. Then, like a chorus, the passion deepened. Some greater interest was at stake; some mightier cause than ever yet the sword had pleaded, or trumpet had proclaimed. Then came sudden alarms; hurryings to and fro; trepidations of innumerable fugitives. I knew not whether from the good cause or the bad; darkness and lights; tempest and human faces; and at last, with the sense that all was lost, female forms, and the features that were worth all the world to me, and but a moment allowed, — and clasped hands, and heart-breaking partings, and then — everlasting farewells! and, with a sigh, such as the caves of hell sighed when the incestuous mother uttered the abhorred name of death, the sound was reverberated — everlasting farewells! and again, and yet again reverberated — everlasting farewells! — Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an Opium Eater 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.

celebrity As the most popular books are sometimes the least worthy of being read, so the most public people are sometimes the least worthy of being known. If we must acknowledge these creatures — these celebrities — let us better understand them for who they are. All dictionary definitions of celebrity should include: 1. a mediocrity; a vulgarian; a coxcomb. 2. a scantly talented person who through shameless self-aggrandizement and utter inanity becomes widely known. 3. a baleful, often boisterous, presence. 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.

a bigger (greater; higher; larger) degree (extent) (of) more. • Whereas the UC-Davis site assumed users want to focus on extensive reading, the American Girls site assumed users want a higher degree of graphics, less external linking, and briefer and simpler sections of text. Whereas the UC-Davis site assumed users want to focus on extensive reading, the American Girls site assumed users want more graphics, less external linking, and briefer and simpler sections of text. • Politicians and public officials should be required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. Politicians and public officials should be required to tolerate more criticism than ordinary citizens. • One can speculate whether concentrating all the army special forces units in one regiment is the most appropriate solution or if a bigger degree of diversification would contribute to achieving more specialization and introduce a competitive factor among the units. One can speculate whether concentrating all the army special forces units in one regiment is the most appropriate solution or if more diversification would contribute to achieving more specialisation and introduce a competitive factor among the units. • A bigger extent of improvement was prevented by the HUF 197 million of cash contribution made by BC Rt. to promote the development of its subsidiaries. More improvement was prevented by the HUF 197 million of cash contribution made by BC Rt. to promote the development of its subsidiaries. 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.

autochthonous (aw-TOK-tha-nes) adj. 1. indigenous; native; aboriginal. 2. formed or originating where found. 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 expressions like this writer or this author when I, me, or my is meant. 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.

H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler: The King's English More ...

Letters to the Editor

I agree with you about dimwitticisms. I've always felt foolish and lazy using the tired expressions of others: words that have lost their impact, phrases that fade into the background. I used to get irritated with the Italians for having such a dull way of expressing themselves (everything is "oh che bello!" or "oh che bella!" and when it's really beautiful, "bellissimo/a!"). In Italy, upon meeting a dear friend on the street, the conversation would always end in "vi auguro tutte le belle cose" — "I wish for you all things beautiful." How could they possibly know what's "beautiful" for me? And furthermore, what's beautiful for me is not necessarily beautiful for you. I used to think sometimes the entire conversation would not require any thought, not even for me, a Canadian speaking Italian. It would consist of a string of overused expressions.

Okay, it's true that the English language is the richest language in the world, with over 800,000 words. And the next richest is German with half that number. The Italian language may only contain 250,000 words and it's no wonder they have so many problems because no one ever gets to the point of what they are saying — they know not how to communicate using real words — especially the politicians, they never say anything. This is the start of a typical formal discussion: "e alora, tutto sommato, dicono che, in ogni caso, insomma" ("and so, all things considered, they say that in any case, to summarize...").

The sad thing is that since I've been home I see that we too have the problem of endlessly stating the obvious, using words that numb our brains to thought and creativity. One thing about your article is that you provided plenty of information on the problem but no solution. I speak three languages, I am a journalist and a published writer but often feel at a loss for the words that fit. I wish you could tell me how we English speakers can improve this problem. And I don't mean just books, but truly, in your opinion what is the solution and how can we avoid this period of dull expressionism?

MaryAnne MacDonald
Watchfire Corporation
maryannem@watchfire.com More ...



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Features

Four Cheers Five Victor Borge

Grammar Matters

Practicing Prescriptivism Now and Then

Snobs and Slobs

Two Poems

Departments

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

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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TVR Revisited

Language Links

Letter from the Editor

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Richard Lederer

Marylaine Block

Edward Finegan

David R. Williams

Elana Wolff

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January 2001

December 2000

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October 2000

September 2000

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