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May 2002, Vol. 4, No. 5

Coming in the June issue of The Vocabula Review: "The Missing Link" by Darren Crovitz

Darren Crovitz teaches composition at the University of Central Florida, and also coordinates the University Writing Center. This is his first article for The Vocabula Review.

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

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The Elder Statesman
by Clark Elder Morrow
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 TVR Forum

If the notion of 'correct' English is to have any force, a definition of 'Standard', from which usage can deviate, is surely required. Writers on this website recognise that British English and American English are different, and have different ideas themselves about how closely their speech should be modelled on British English (I should rather say English English; Scottish English is different again). I suggest that there is no such thing as one 'Standard' English; alongside American English, Scottish English and English English, we find Australian English, South African English, Canadian English, and so on. These all have demonstrably different limits on vocabulary (South African English, for example, contains many words of Boer origin), syntax and so on, and yet can and are regarded as Standard by many. — What do you say?

This discussion began with someone's thinking dinghy an unpleasant word (unspeakable? unwritable?). Surely a far less pleasing word refers to the floating object to which one might tether one's dinghy. Buoy is a word whose spelling defies both pronunciation and etymology. — What do you say?

A co-worker of mine, who is approximately the same age as I am, uses some terms that I can only describe as anachronistic, the prime example being "icebox" to refer to an electric refrigerator. Now, if my grandmother were to use that term when she was alive, I would have ascribed it to her growing up in the days that iceboxes were really in use, and therefore a common term for the early refrigerators. This, however, is a well-traveled man in his 40s who certainly grew up in the age of electric refrigerators, not iceboxes. He claims that it's the term his parents always used. Well, my mother has got to be from the same era as his, and mine never uses the term icebox. Granted, they grew up in different areas (North Carolina, mine; Missouri, his) but could the different regional dialects account for this disparity? — What do you say?

I recently obtained a copy of The Standard of Usage in English by Thomas R. Lounsbury, published in 1908. In light of the recent discussion of the "Worst Words" page I was interested to read the following, from the preface: "The aim throughout [this book] has been to make as clear as possible what seems to me the only rational and safe grounds upon which to base any trustworthy conclusions as to the propriety of impropriety of words and phrases and constructions, independent of the presonal likes and dislikes in which all of us share. This means, above all, the substitution of the authority of the great writers of our speech for the confident assertions of the more or less imperfectly trained and even more imperfectly informed persons who profess to show us what we are to do and what we are to refrain from doing. It further involves the acceptance of the doctrine that rules of grammar are of no value save as they are based upon the practice of these great writers, and that the grammarian who does not make such practice his guide proclaims by that one fact his own incompetence and the worthlessness of the results he reaches." — What do you say?

Maybe it's merely my problem, but I take umbrage at using "gift" as a verb. Yes, yes, I know it's in the dictionary as a transitive verb, but it just seems bumptious to hear it used as such. After all, how would it sound if said users of "gift" as a verb were to present this immortal phrase for our approval: For God so loved the world that he GIFTED us his only begotten Son. — What do you say?

People, in general, do not ponder the little chink filling words that they use wondering whether someone is going to make rash assumptions about them on the basis of these words, nor should they. The words "most definitely" carry a meaning that the speaker intends; if another person decides that the speaker is silly and semiconscious for saying "most definitely" or prissy and anal for using the words "just so" in a given context then that is the problem of the person making that decision and says nothing about the speaker. — What do you say?

My point was exactly that all words have connotations (yes, including the word woman [wife-man] as well as wymyn [angry feminist women]). The reaction you have to wymyn is probably similar to the reaction some people have to the word chairman. And we get nowhere by pretending that these reactions do not exist, or by proclaiming that they are misguided and should not exist, or by cooking up some etymological explanation that no one ever thinks of (you see, it's manus, not man) to try to explain them away. — What do you say?

I don't think the motto of the journal is necessarily about dotting every "i", etc.; rather, it announces a general philosophy of moral striving through heightened attention to our written or spoken words. Far from being an empty slogan, I think the motto of The Vocabula Review is profound. A care with words — a concern with the integrity of their usage — reflects a principled approach to human relations. Precision in stating what you *mean* secures the ethical moorings of a society. — What do you say?

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?

Join the discussion.
Back  The Melancholy of Anatomy Richard Burnett Carter

When children are old enough to commit follies that make others swear at them, they are at that very moment old enough to begin learning how to swear competently at someone else's foolishness. But our younger contemporaries have never gotten the hang of the thing. Their cussing is dully unimaginative — drawing as it does almost exclusively on body parts and functions — and so I've been tempted over the years to take a few minutes with each of my classes to discuss the art of expressing civilly displeasure with persons, places, and things. More ... 

Back  Myth-Bashing as a Substitute for Thought Mark Halpern

Several times within recent months, kindly correspondents and critics, worried about my persistently reactionary and unenlightened attitudes toward language, have recommended a course of reading that would help me recover. The most frequently mentioned and praised of the books prescribed for me were a collection of essays by various authors titled Language Myths (Bauer & Trudgill 98), and a monograph titled Language Change: Progress or Decay? (Aitchison 01). I have now read them — at least as much as seemed relevant — and find myself not only unredeemed by the experience, but more confirmed, if possible, in my benighted views. I find the writings that were supposed to instruct and enlighten me had just the opposite of the effect they were supposed to have, and have even given me fresh reason to reject the views of the linguistic orthodoxy of the day. More ... 

Back  Mach 1 Michael J. Sheehan

You slide into the passenger seat of a car, and your friend waits patiently while you fiddle with the seatbelt. The metal buckle to your right is incredibly elusive; you must grope repeatedly until your fingers close around it. Even when you find it, the retractor lets you pull the belt only part way to its goal, requiring you to seesaw repeatedly until you feel as if you're getting a workout on a demented weight machine. The receptacle latch is hidden between the seats somewhere to your left, and it defiantly refuses to reward you with that soul-satisfying click. You, my friend, are engaged in unholy kolymachy [Gr. koly, restrain or inhibit + machy, battle], and the driver's patience will undoubtedly give out before your heaving chest is finally strapped in. More ... 

Back  Myths and Takes on Writing Web Content Ken Bresler

About a month after going online with my own website, I started writing for other people's websites. But first I canvassed the web to learn about writing for the web. That's how I learned that the writing on the web about writing for the web is mostly mistaken and myth driven. I don't have the stomach — and I like to think, the heart -– to name names and cite sites. But a Big Myth and a Little Myth about web writing are circulating with little, if any, challenge. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Brian Taylor

In eighteen-ninety-one two gentlemen,
Frock-coated and wing-collared hommes-d'affaires,
Assisted by an Arab artisan,

A wretch in rubber boots and butcher's bib,
Are going to electroplate a child.
The child is dead and yet assumes a pose
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.

absorbtion Solecistic for absorption. • Total energy absorbtion coefficients are used for the calculation of deposited dose by a given energy fluence. USE absorption. [Calculation of Shielding of Photons] • These wheels are used to achieve higher top speed and better shock absorbtion. USE absorption. [Motoworld Racing] • In broccoli for example, cooking increases iron absorbtion from 6% to 30%. USE absorption. [Anti-Aging Center]

Absorption, not absorbtion, is the process of absorbing or the condition of being absorbed; the state of being much interested or engrossed. 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.

I was just going to say, when I was interrupted, that one of the many ways of classifying minds is under the heads of arithmetical and algebraical intellects. All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2+2=4. Every philosophical proposition has the more general character of the expression A+B=C. We are mere operatives, empirics, and egotists, until we learn to think in letters instead of figures. ... As to clever people's hating each other, I think a LITTLE extra talent does sometimes make people jealous. They become irritated by perpetual attempts and failures, and it hurts their tempers and dispositions. Unpretending mediocrity is good, and genius is glorious; but a weak flavor of genius in an essentially common person is detestable. It spoils the grand neutrality of a commonplace character, as the rinsings of an unwashed wineglass spoil a draught of fair water. No wonder the poor fellow we spoke of, who always belongs to this class of slightly flavored mediocrities, is puzzled and vexed by the strange sight of a dozen men of capacity working and playing together in harmony. He and his fellows are always fighting. With them familiarity naturally breeds contempt. If they ever praise each other's bad drawings, or broken-winded novels, or spavined verses, nobody ever supposed it was from admiration; it was simply a contract between themselves and a publisher or dealer. ... All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called "facts." They are the brute beasts of the intellectual domain. Who does not know fellows that always have an ill-conditioned fact or two which they lead after them into decent company like so many bull-dogs, ready to let them slip at every ingenious suggestion, or convenient generalization, or pleasant fancy? I allow no "facts" at this table. What! Because bread is good and wholesome and necessary and nourishing, shall you thrust a crumb into my windpipe while I am talking? Do not these muscles of mine represent a hundred loaves of bread? and is not my thought the abstract of ten thousand of these crumbs of truth with which you would choke off my speech? — Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table 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.

a (must) read Colloquial usage such as this leads only to everyday thoughts and commonplace actions; few insights, fewer epiphanies, can be had with mediocre language. In essence, a (must) read is an expression that secures the banality of what it describes. • Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities is an enormously entertaining read. REPLACE WITH enormously entertaining. • This book is a tough read but one of the most important recent accounts of personal identity. REPLACE WITH tough to understand. • There are a few books on the list that I feel are clearly easy reads. REPLACE WITH easy to read. • It's a very challenging read. REPLACE WITH book. • Is it Tolstoy? is it Dostoyevsky? no, but it is a wonderfully satisfying read. REPLACE WITH story. • The manuscript is 312 pages long and a pretty easy read. REPLACE WITH easily readable. • But the problem with the "ho-hum" approach to a life story is that it makes for a tiresome read. REPLACE WITH tiresome reading. 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.

in the absence of absent; failing; having no; lacking; minus; missing; not having; with no; without.In the absence of any other form of security, the shareholders of the contractor might be willing to let the company go out of business in the face of a serious problem. Absent any other form of security, the shareholders of the contractor might be willing to let the company go out of business in the face of a serious problem. • So in the absence of widespread XML+CSS rendering support, what is the importance of CSS in an XML developer's toolkit? So without widespread XML+CSS rendering support, what is the importance of CSS in an XML developer's toolkit? • The surface of the Earth is warmer than it would be in the absence of an atmosphere because it receives energy from two sources: the Sun and the atmosphere. The surface of the Earth is warmer than it would be with no atmosphere because it receives energy from two sources: the Sun and the atmosphere. 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.

agglutinate (ah-GLOOT-en-ate) v. 1. to stick together, as with glue. 2. to form words by combining words or word elements. 3. to cause red blood cells etc. to lump together. 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:

Do not use e.g., for example, or for instance along with and others; and so forth; and so on; and such; and the like; et al.; or etc. 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.

Emily Eden: The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House More ... 

Back  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.

A very fine piece by Epstein ["Situation Comedy," Vol. 4, No. 4], although I'm reminded of the old Jewish saying, "Who is the truly virtuous man? He who suppresses a wisecrack."

I liked the Williams piece, too ["Christian Dogs and Politicians," Vol. 4, No. 4]. It reminded me of the day I picked my son up from an after-school program at Harvard — a course in archeology for kids. Two boys were fighting over some toy and the teacher advised them to "Do the Christian thing." More ... 


The Melancholy of Anatomy — Richard Burnett Carter

Myth-Bashing as a Substitute for Thought — Mark Halpern

Mach 1 — Michael J. Sheehan

Myths and Takes on Writing Web Content — Ken Bresler

Two Poems — Brian Taylor


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

Four Cheers Five Victor Borge — Richard Lederer

Like — Maggie Balistreri

The Wrong-Headedness of Linguistic Self-Righteousness — Alan Pagliere

Snobs and Slobs — David R. Williams

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

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Many writers use compliment when they mean complement, comprise when they mean compose, or assume when they mean presume. And hundreds of other mistaken word identities also exist. This quick reference aims to filter this confusion of words. With clear and concise definitions, the book speaks to many of the common word choices that challenge us daily. It consists of more than 600 separate word pairs (with sentence examples for many) and the meanings of more than 1,500 individual words. The sentence examples alone will help you master word choices as well as help you sharpen your writing skills in general.

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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