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February 2003, Vol. 5, No. 2 ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the March issue of The Vocabula Review: "How to Err in Italian" by David Carkeet

David Carkeet's Titanic Blunders appeared in the December 2000 issue of The Vocabula Review.

The March issue of The Vocabula Review is due online March 16.

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by Clark Elder Morrow
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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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Back  Sorry, Charles Joseph Epstein

"The language," exclaimed Flaubert, attempting to tell his mistress Louise Colet how very deeply he felt about her, "is inept." Mot juste man though he was, Flaubert, I suspect, meant "insufficient." And language often is insufficient. There ought, for example, to be a word that falls between "talent" and "genius"; and another word between "envy" and "admiration." The other day it occurred to me that yet another word is needed, one to describe the relationship that falls between "acquaintance" and "friend." More ... 

Back  The Okay Man Is Gone Richard Lederer

This past October 16, Allen Walker Read, a playful prospector of the American tongue, died at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.

A long-time professor at Columbia University, Read was the word detective who traced the word Dixie to an 1850 minstrel show, the word Podunk to an Indian name meaning "a swamp" or "a sinking," and the almighty dollar to the American author Washington Irving. More ... 

Back  Why Teachers Can't Read Poetry John Kilgore

First, a disclaimer. I think the world of high school teachers. They have one of the world's hardest, most essential jobs, and for the most part, they perform it with dedication and grace. My hat is off to high school teachers. I need to say so at the outset since in what follows I will be sharply critical of them. More ... 

Back  Discover the Theme; Animal Words Anu Garg

It is human nature to find patterns in things where there might be none, whether it is in the shape of clouds or in the arrangement of sand, in a chain of events, or in the digits of pi. Or in a list of words. What unites these words here in a common thread? You find out! Don your word-sleuth hat and discover the theme that weaves these words. Each word is another piece of the puzzle. More ... 

Back  The Death Rattle of the Collective Noun Bob Wakulich

I think it all started with the sports broadcasters, but not the ones I remember from my tender youth. Long before I became a lapsed jock, I would listen in rapture to Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese rambling on about the Boys of Summer, or to Howard Cosell drenching the visuals of pigskin warriors with purple prose, or to Danny Gallivan screaming about hockey goaltenders making enormous saves. Sure, they were stretching their artistic licenses to the point of atomic disintegration, but I never noticed them taking the collective nouns in vain. Chicago is playing well. New York is running out of steam. More ... 

Back  Sound Off  
Train-of-Thought Writing
Marshall Dean

Writing in the "train-of-thought" mode would make my eighth-grade English teacher cringe in her crypt. She taught me almost everything I know about wordcraft. She drilled us on sentence structure, verb tense, spelling, punctuation, and how to diagram a sentence. But when I get rolling in the train-of-thought mood, I disregard much of that hard-earned knowledge. More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
Oliver Wendell Who?
Clark Elder Morrow

If some amiable and openhanded jinnee from the Arabian Nights were to accost you on your way to work tomorrow, and impose upon you the pleasant task of rescuing from obscurity a favorite artist or thinker, whom would you choose? Many of us entertain the occasional fantasy of seeing our pet reclamation projects thrust into a brighter limelight, in a much bigger auditorium, than they currently inhabit (my own choice would be Sir Charles Stanford in the world of music, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the visual arts). Everyone knows of some unjustly neglected near-luminaries who deserve to be resurrected (if they were ever prominent) or firmly established (if they happened to be ignored in their lifetimes). More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
Orwell Suffers the Death of a Thousand Cuts
Mark Halpern

Several months ago, in a piece written for The Vocabula Review (Myth-Bashing as a Substitute for Thought), I sharply criticized George Orwell's famous rules for good writing — something no one else, so far as I know, has done. I mention this otherwise irrelevant fact to make the point that I am not an Orwell worshipper, and do not by any means regard him as beyond criticism. I want to establish this at the outset because I am going to defend him against some arguments made by Louis Menand in a review1 of Christopher Hitchens's Why Orwell Matters, and I don't want it thought that I'm rushing to his rescue because I think him sacrosanct or infallible. More ... 

Back  The Last Word  
The Vocabulary of Democracy
Christopher Orlet

When the language in common use in any country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin and their degradation. — John Milton

Sometimes when I sleep at night I think of Hop on Pop. — George W. Bush

In Vladimir Voinovich's satiric novel Pretender to the Throne, the political prisoner Zapataev tells how the higher he rose in the Soviet hierarchy, the more he discovered that the rich and full language he spoke differed sharply from that of the new masters of life. More ... 

Back  Love Your English  
The Hit-Your-Audience-in-the-Eye Guide to English
Valerie Collins

"As far as translations go," said my colleague on the phone, in a bid to hook me into her team, "this is a real Mercedes-Benz project."

She could have said high-quality, first-rate, first-class, or even top-end. But how much more vivid and enticing to tell me it was a Mercedes-Benz. It immediately triggered a picture of the gorgeous sleek car gliding weightlessly through the snarled-up metropolis, and of the translator, an underpaid and underappreciated subclerical worker no longer but, well, a Beautiful Person. 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.

duck tape Solecistic for duct tape. • In view of the possibility of a chemical, biological or nuclear dirty bomb attack, they were also told to have duck tape and plastic sheeting ready to seal doors and windows. USE duct tape. [Edinburgh Evening News] • Wrap five kinds of tape around the wheels of a wheelchair: clear (scotch) tape, duck tape, electrical tape, packaging tape, and masking tape. USE duct tape. [Which Tape Is Toughest?] • Well, this here ain't just any ol' tape, this here's duck tape; I'm fixin' to catch me some ducks. USE duct tape. [Farmer on the Porch]

The term is duct tape, not duck tape though there is, from a company apparently trying to capitalize on people's ignorance, Duck (brand) tape. Duct tape has fewer uses than we have perhaps been led to believe; duck tape, fewer still. 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.

The pattern American, this dry, moral, utilitarian little democrat, has done more to ruin the old Europe than any Russian nihilist. He has done it by slow attrition, like a son who has stayed at home and obeyed his parents, all the while silently hating their authority, and silently, in his soul, destroying not only their authority but their whole existence. For the American spiritually stayed at home in Europe. The spiritual home of America was, and still is, Europe. This is the galling bondage, in spite of several billions of heaped-up gold. Your heaps of gold are only so many muck-heaps, America, and will remain so till you become a reality to yourselves.

All this Americanizing and mechanizing has been for the purpose of overthrowing the past. And now look at America, tangled in her own barbed wire, and mastered by her own machines. Absolutely got down by her own barbed wire of shalt-nots, and shut up fast in her own 'productive' machines like millions of squirrels running in millions of cages. It is just a farce. — D. H. Lawrence, Benjamin Franklin 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.

(for) a laugh This expression is spoken by people who tally their giggles and count their guffaws, people who value numbers and sums more than they do words and concepts, people who consider laughter a commodity and life a comedy. • I need a laugh. • Sue and I want to do these silly things to you for a laugh. • I'm always looking for a laugh. 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.

(the) reason (why) ... is because because; reason is (that).The reason the business failed was because it was undercapitalized. The business failed because it was undercapitalized. • Another reason why the example fails as a good strategic goal is because it violates the rule of accountability. Another reason the example fails as a good strategic goal is it violates the rule of accountability. • The reason why statistics work is because for large numbers of molecules some events are overwhelmingly more likely than others. Statistics work because for large numbers of molecules some events are overwhelmingly more likely than others. • The reason this is an editorial and not a review is because you've got to rummage through your library discard carts to find this book. This is an editorial and not a review because you've got to rummage through your library discard carts to find this book. 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.

belles-lettres (bel-LET-rah) n. 1. literature regarded for its aesthetic value rather than its didactic or informative content. 2. literature considered as fine art. 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:

Never use your's. The correct form is yours or your. 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.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby More ... 


Sorry, Charles — Joseph Epstein

The Okay Man Is Gone — Richard Lederer

Why Teachers Can't Read Poetry — John Kilgore

Discover the Theme; Animal Words — Anu Garg

The Death Rattle of the Collective Noun — Bob Wakulich

Sound Off: Train-of-Thought Writing — Marshall Dean


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Oliver Wendell Who?

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Orwell Suffers the Death of a Thousand Cuts

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — The Vocabulary of Democracy

Valerie Collins: Love Your English — The Hit-Your-Audience-in-the-Eye Guide to English


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

 TVR Revisited

Practicing Prescriptivism Now and Then — Edward Finegan

Urban Renewal English — Jeff Danziger

Words of a Feather — Valerie Collins

Student Bloopers — Michael J. Sheehan

The Art of Conversation — Tim Buck

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The point of this collection is to show that the language can be written with grace and polish qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. Read these examples of elegant English, and from each you might glean some turn of phrase, some device of rhetoric, some clarity of expression, some novelty of thought that, in more contemporary writing, you seldom will have noticed.

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