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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 February issue of The Vocabula Review: "Four Cheers Five Victor Borge" by Richard Lederer

Richard Lederer is the author of more than 2,000 books and articles about language and humor, including his best-selling Anguished English and his newly published book The Bride of Anguished English. Dr. Lederer's syndicated column, "Looking at Language," appears in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States.



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January 2001, Vol. 3, No. 1 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

Grammar and Disputation Peter Corey
 What People Are Saying About This Article

In any dispute over the divided usage of a word, there are several methods of resolution. One is to cite common usage, that is, the usage of the majority of people in casual circumstances. The second is to cite authority, the usage of experts in a narrowly defined field. The third is to employ logic, demonstrative reasoning from a set of axioms to a conclusion. And the fourth is to make use of analogy, the perception that a certain relation between two things is similar to the relation between two other things. More ...

The Game of the Name Joseph Epstein

I fancy myself a connoisseur — a kind of sewer — of the naming of Americans, and as such have discovered that we gringos do a few things in this line that no one else does. George W. Bush — whose middle initial has all but become his last name — may be mildly amused to learn that only Americans go in for middle initials. Henry James does a nice bit on the comedy of American middle initials in Daisy Miller, where Daisy's brat brother Randolph cites each member of his family with his or her middle initial included. Thank goodness that Europeans don't go in for middle initials, or we might have had to refer to Dante R. Alighieri, William C. Shakespeare, or Marcel G. Proust. More ...

Flocks, Flights, Companies, and Coveys Susan Elkin

Collective nouns used to be every English teacher's mainstay. They'd give us a list of animals or types of people to sort into named groups and we jolly soon knew that whales come in schools but fishes in shoals, while wolves hunt in packs, pilgrims in bands, and criminals or posturing schoolboys in gangs. 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.

baleful Misused for baneful. • The baleful species have in common the capacity to induce a severe contact dermatitis. USE baneful. [Intriguing World of Weeds] • There is a selfishness which is far less baleful in its poison, and which finds it counteracting power in activity, and which even becomes the spring of actions which have in them a form of good. USE baneful. [Spirit Teachings] • Locutional sloppiness and hyperbole reign in health advocacy literature, where advocacy has displaced scholarship and the only allowable peer review or criticism is that which arraigns authors for underemphasizing the baleful effect guns have on society. USE baneful. [Guns and Public Health]

Baleful means menacing or ominous, portending evil; baneful, the stronger though less often used word, harmful, destructive, or fatal. The distinction between these two words has all but vanished owing largely to irresponsible writers and boneless lexicographers. More ...

The Grumbling About Grammar Awards (GAGAs)

Hey, I'm hardly against men pitching in around the house and helping with kids, or listening to their wives concerns (in fact as a mother of three with another little one on the way, I'm all for it.) — Betsy Hart, Jewish World Review

Certain words do not belong to the realm of writing, or at least nonfiction writing: hey is clearly one of them. Hey is exclamatory, but only less than able writers [note: wives concerns and all for it.) and even little one] — however friendly they wish to appear — would use it, in effect, as an inverted exclamation mark with which to capture our flagging attention. 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.

A poor relation — is the most irrelevant thing in nature, — a piece of impertinent correspondency, — an odious approximation, — a haunting conscience, — a preposterous shadow, lengthening in the noontide of your prosperity, — an unwelcome remembrancer, — a perpetually recurring mortification, — a drain on your purse, — a more intolerable dun upon your pride, — a drawback upon success, — a rebuke to your rising, — a stain in your blood, — a blot on your scutcheon, — a rent in your garment, — a death's head at your banquet, — Agathocles' pot, — a Mordecai in your gate, — a Lazarus at your door, — a lion in your path, — a frog in your chamber, — a fly in your ointment, — a mote in your eye, — a triumph to your enemy, an apology to your friends, — the one thing not needful, — the hail in harvest, — the ounce of sour in a pound of sweet. — Charles Lamb, Poor Relations  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.

an amazing person An amazing person is so only in the eyes of another who, we can be confident, is not. 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.

on a (the) ... basis -(al)ly; delete. • The exercises must be done for 20 to 25 minutes on a continuous basis. The exercises must be done continuously for 20 to 25 minutes. • Every exchange has a clearinghouse that transfers funds from losers to winners on a daily basis. Every exchange has a clearinghouse that transfers funds daily from losers to winners. • Our sole interest in the report is to be sure that each application is evaluated on a fair basis. Our sole interest in the report is to be sure that each application is evaluated fairly. • It has been estimated that, on a worldwide basis, banks and credit card companies lose $3 million annually. It has been estimated that, worldwide, banks and credit card companies lose $3 million annually. • Questions as complex as the ones contained in this collection cannot be graded on a right or wrong basis. Questions as complex as the ones contained in this collection cannot be graded right or wrong. • We will continue to add features to the site and update information on a frequent basis. We will continue to add features to the site and update information frequently. 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.

cimmerian (si-MIR-ee-uhn) adj. 1. dark or gloomy. n. 2. one of a mythical people who dwelled in a land of perpetual mist and darkness. 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 fastening the suffix -wise to words. 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.

Henry James: The Sacred Fount  More ...

Letters to the Editor

I have just discovered your site. What a relief. I have spent nearly all my life trying to teach people to write clear, well-formed sentences in a country where there is little acknowledgement of the need for such things. In the past, under apartheid, there was every reason to use language to distort and confuse reality. Now there is a rejection of standards in the name of democracy and freedom. "A society is generally as lax as its language" strikes a real chord. If you have read our president's explanation for the spread of HIV/AIDS you will understand what I mean. The barbarians are camped beneath the city walls.

If you have a mailing list please put me on it. Otherwise, a carrier pigeon or smoke signals will do.

Michael Rice
pro-civitas@pixie.co.za More ...


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Features

Grammar and Disputation

The Game of the Name

Flocks, Flights, Companies, and Coveys

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

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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.