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A society is generally as lax as its language.

July 2001, Vol. 3, No. 7 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

Coming in the August issue of The Vocabula Review: "The Like Virus" by David Grambs

David Grambs has worked as an editor, lexicographer, and writer, including stints as a staff member of the original (first edition) American Heritage Dictionary, French and German translator, encyclopedia writer, and magazine copyeditor. He is the author of eight word books (or dictionaries), from The Random House Dictionary for Writers and Readers and Death by Spelling to, more recently, The Describer's Dictionary and The Endangered English Dictionary.

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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 UK). — 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?

I work at a state university, and there are more "likes" punctuating the students' sentences to drive a person with even the least sentivity to the language out of his mind. — 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.
  The End of Linguistics Mark Halpern

There's only one thing that everyone knows about language — that it's a living, growing thing — so it seems particularly unfortunate that it should be false. It is a metaphor that may once have served some useful purpose; today it is a noxious cloud whose effect is to stifle rational discussion of language. It is heard whenever A questions a usage of B's: someone, usually C, will counter the criticism by reciting the one thing everyone knows — and with that remark, reason flies out the window. You raise your eyebrows at his use of reticent to mean reluctant? You think him ignorant for using disinterested to mean uninterested? You groan because he speaks of running the gauntlet? I tell you in response that language is a living, growing thing; thus I refute pedantry — and carry the day! More ... 

  Memo to Reviewers David Carkeet

If you don't know what's going on in the book, quickly send it back to the review editor so that someone else can get the assignment. Don't, of all things, go ahead and write the review. More ... 

  Student Bloopers Michael J. Sheehan

A blooper is defined as an embarrassing public blunder, but as long as it's someone else's mistake, most of us are quite capable of getting past the embarrassment to enjoy the humor. Not only have books appeared in recent years to document and preserve bloopers, but TV shows on the subject have delighted in exposing human fallibility, too — especially when authority figures are involved. 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.

ascetic Misused for aesthetic. • Installation of a new storm door takes about two hours and may greatly improve the ascetic beauty at the front entrance of your home. USE aesthetic. [Windows & Doors] • The flowers are not just for ascetic pleasure, but have amazing flavoring qualities. USE aesthetic. [FareShare] • The use of such a team could give your products or services a leading edge in the marketplace by addressing safety, ascetic and practical concerns all together. USE aesthetic. [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] • Run it with the fountains going for the ascetic pleasure, along with the very real aeration of the water, breaking up ammonia nitrates! USE aesthetic. [Virtual Pool Adviser] • Citizens Against Ugly Street Spam is a non-profit organization formed to fight against the proliferation of advertising signs placed along roadways for the sole purpose of advertising at the expense of the ascetics of the community. USE aesthetics. [What Is Street Spam]

Ascetic means pertaining to or characteristic of an ascetic; rigid in self-denial or devotions; austere; severe. Aesthetic, which might easily mean the opposite of ascetic, relates to aesthetics or what is beautiful; artistic; pleasing in appearance, attractive. 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.

It is a wonder to see, how many poor, distressed, miserable wretches one shall meet almost in every path and street, begging for an alms, that have been well descended, and sometime in flourishing estate, now ragged, tattered, and ready to be starved, lingering out a painful life, in discontent and grief of body and mind, and all through immoderate lust, gaming, pleasure, and riot. 'Tis the common end of all sensual epicures and brutish prodigals, that are stupefied and carried away headlong with their several pleasures and lusts. — Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy 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.

shocked (surprised) and saddened (dismayed) These are formulas that people — especially spokespeople and journalists it seems — use to express indignation. And, as formulas, the shock and sadness, the shock and dismay, the surprise and sadness is hardly heartfelt. These expressions convey only false feelings. • I was shocked and saddened by the news of his death. • Shoppers and shop owners were also shocked and saddened by Mr. Stuart's suicide. • Relatives were shocked and dismayed by what they saw today. • When Kissinger was selected instead of the banking mogul, Rockefeller's staff were shocked and dismayed. • Sullivan says she is surprised and saddened by the recent turn of events. • We are terribly shocked and dismayed; Ed was an active and important member of our community who will be missed by his colleagues. • Needless to say, my dear husband was, and is, shocked and saddened. • I am shocked and saddened by these allegations. • I want to begin by saying that Hillary and I are profoundly shocked and saddened by the tragedy today in Littleton. • The man who was at the heart of the Cape Verdean neighborhood leaves behind a wife, five children, and a shocked and saddened community.

A newspaper editor who had just learned of the mutilation of one of his female reporters in a strife-torn country remarked that he was saddened and distressed by her death. This is the same thoughtless formula; anyone who has not surrendered to this dimwitticism would surely have said it differently. 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.

during the course (length) of during; for; in; over; throughout; when; while; with.During the course of the analysis, we suppose the array or list contains n elements. Throughout the analysis, we suppose the array or list contains n elements. • During the course of trying to negotiate with the gunmen, her husband was shot and killed. While trying to negotiate with the gunmen, her husband was shot and killed. • In addition, all regional students must attend one colloquium during the length of their enrollment. In addition, all regional students must attend one colloquium during their enrollment. • I wish to have my sheets replaced on a daily basis during the length of my stay. I wish to have my sheets replaced on a daily basis during my stay. 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.

anathematize (ah-NATH-ah-mah-tize) v. to utter an anathema or condemnation against; curse. 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 using the plural pronoun their, them, or they following words like each and one, every and any, everyone and everybody, anyone and anybody, someone and somebody, and no one and nobody when the antecedent is clearly singular. 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.

Hermann Broch: The Sleepwalkers More ... 

  Letters to the Editor

In Habeeb Salloum's "English Words of Arabic Origin" [Vol. 3, No. 6], he claims the West portrays Arabs as "oversexed belly dancers, bloodthirsty terrorists, treacherous money grabbers, sadistic slave traders, and primitive men of the desert." If only this were true. Western children from the tenderest age are again and again exposed to soporific litanies of Arab achievement. Our children are repeatedly reminded that while Europe was spiraling into the fanciful and exciting Dark Ages, the Arabs occupied themselves with mathematics, medicine, and preserving the philosophical treasures of classical Greece. Portrayed as studious Goody Two-Shoes, the Arab fails to capture the juvenile mind. On the other hand, "oversexed," "bloodthirsty," "treacherous," "sadistic," and "primitive," would be words guaranteed to make even the dullest Western child sit up and take notice. More ... 


The End of Linguistics — Mark Halpern

Memo to Reviewers — David Carkeet

Student Bloopers — Michael Sheehan


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 Editorials

On Dimwitticisms: An Introduction

The Imperfectibility of People

The Perfectibility of Words

The Remains of All Writing, the Spoils of All Speech

 TVR Revisited

Practicing Prescriptivism Now and Then — Edward Finegan

Bottle That Punaphor — Joseph Epstein

Getting the Words Right — Tracy Lee Simmons

Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage — Mark Halpern

Double Your Pleasure — Michael J. Sheehan

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