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TVR Home > November 2001 TVR Today is

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A society is generally as lax as its language.

November 2001, Vol. 3, No. 11

Coming in the December issue of The Vocabula Review: "Nice Distinctions" by Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside is an Australian barrister with a keen interest in the English language. He writes regularly about words and language. He also writes about notable criminal trials and is the author of Matilda and the Dragon, a children's book in verse (Allen & Unwin, 1991).


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 TVR Forum

"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?

Has anyway written or read a really penetrating article on this phenomenon ["between you and I"]? It has been widespread for years and years. It even appears in some standard pop tunes. It is used frequently by those who would refrain from the opposite: "Me and Mama went to town." — What do you say?

Even apart from this destruction of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact, the argument does not sustain Mr. Corey's assertion that "linguists misrepresent the history of humanistic grammar, claiming that it has sought to force English into a Latin framework." His support for this consists of showing ways in which this grammar differs from Latin. This would only refute the assertion that linguists claim that this grammar sought to make English grammar identical to that of Latin, but no such claim has been made. — What do you say?

John Simon is a cranky old fart, a supercilious snob, and why anyone takes him seriously is beyond me. (When Vietnam antiwar protests were at their most feverish pitch, John Simon was ranting against the use of "hopefully".) — What do you say?

Without question, certain foreign words have nuances in meaning that initially resist our attempt to articulate them elegantly in our native tongue. That does not imply, however, that speakers of that foreign language possess some privileged feeling, sensation, or knowledge that our own language prevents us from acquiring. — What do you say?

Where are we on this subject? Can we go back to saying "The user resets his password" or are we still mired in "Ask the user his/her mother's maiden name" to the point that we are allowing "Ask the user their mother's maiden name" just because we're so sick of the whole issue? — What do you say?

I disagree with Mr. Fiske's casual definition of "team player." His misunderstanding leads to an unfair representation of how the phrase is used. To me (and I think to many others) a team player is one who consciously subordinates what might be best for himself to what might be best for the organization, when the two are in opposition. — 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 sensitivity to the language out of his mind. — What do you say?

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 United Kingdom). — 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?

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 Game of the Name Marylaine Block

One of the things that makes me despair of the Democratic party is that its leaders don't understand why their own issues are always discussed on terms set by Republicans. They simply do not grasp the power of naming: those who name a problem define it, decide which field the game will be played on, and set the rules of play. Because Republicans have been so good at naming issues, Democrats have found themselves voting to keep the death tax, not the estate tax. Since Republicans also have an uncanny ability to get there first with a catchy name for any issue, and to get all of their members to use that name and spout the party line, they constantly force Democratic leaders to react to Republican definitions rather than to define their own issues. More ... 

  Writing: The Democratization of American Letters Christopher Lord

The English novelist Martin Amis, in the preface to a newly published collection of essays, writes of the democratization of literary taste, and in particular of literary criticism, arguing that the Internet, among other factors, has contributed to an atmosphere in which everyone has an equal right to an opinion, and in which the elitist standards of previous decades must therefore be abandoned. Nevertheless, he is confident that "literature will resist leveling and revert to hierarchy." This is a comforting doctrine for those at the top of the tree, particularly, as in Mr Amis's case, when it might be mentioned that Daddy's connections could have had something to do with his earlier successes. It expresses a thought that most littérateurs, famous or not, would probably agree with in some form: the thought, that is, that there is some special talent that provides a piece of writing with that extra sparkle that makes it worth reading in the first place. Fiction, essays, criticism, even journalism: if it is vivified by this magical force, this élan, it will be transfigured and become, yes, literature. The highbrow publishing industry, the literary weeklies, and the English departments of universities could hardly stay in business without such a premise to justify their activities. More ... 

  Bumper Bites Tina Bennett-Kastor

At least a decade or two before the sound bite became such a popular tool in American political conversation, ordinary citizens began an equally condensed dialogue on the backs of their cars. Like graffiti, short and pithy, bumper stickers are a literary genre ideally suited to hurried Americans who may nevertheless feel morally obligated to express opinions. If we don't have an opinion, at least we can display our affiliation or our sense of humor or a few words of folksy advice during the fleeting seconds that others have to size us up before the light turns green. Because they make reference to various extended public discourses, bumper bites are intertextual in nature. They allow us to state the thesis without the supporting paragraphs, or to run up our flag even when we don't have time to defend the ground. More ... 

  The Art of Conversation Tim Buck

I speak, therefore I am, even when my words echo silently in the cavern of consciousness. But when you speak, do I grant you the equal measure of existence? Our relations to one another are necessarily strung on the filament of language. I wonder: do we realize how fragile this thread of communal existence is? How a lack of conscious maintenance causes that cord to continually fray? This essay is about our speaking and about our listening. It is about the art of conversation. 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.

immerge Misused for emerge. • But fear not, the hangover monster will soon go back to its cave, but threatens to re-immerge next weekend. USE re-emerge. [Totally Jewish] • As far as personality disorders there are theories that there are some personality traits that we can either exhibit automatically or will immerge under some stimulus. USE emerge. [SpeakEasy Seminars] • We are those stubborn little caterpillars that given the grace of God, we may immerge beautiful butterflies. USE emerge. [Lutherans Online] • As the seeds start to develop, in this unisexual plant, bear in mind that they have a 18 month germination factor and the embryo starts to immerge in the fall. USE emerge. [Induced Germination]

Immerge means to submerge or immerse in or as if in a liquid; emerge, much the opposite of immerge, means to rise from or as if from immersion; to come forth or become evident. 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.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail. — William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Speech 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.

plebeian sentiments Plebeian sentiments reflect the views and values of the least thoughtful among us: be nice; (I) gave (him) the best years of (my) life; (it) gives (me) something to do; (these things) happen to other people, not to (me); I (just) don't think about it; I just work here; I'm bored (he's boring); (it) keeps (me) busy; (it) keeps (me) out of trouble; (it's) something to look forward to; you think too much; what can you do; why me?

What's more, these expressions, base as they are, blunt our understanding and quash our creativity. They actually shield us from our thoughts and feelings, from any profound sense of ourselves.

People who use these expressions have not become who they were meant to be. 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.

(please) be advised (informed) that delete. • Please be advised that we must be notified at least two weeks prior to your closing date in order to issue your 6(d) certificate. We must be notified at least two weeks prior to your closing date in order to issue your 6(d) certificate. • However, please be advised that this person is out of town until next week; I am sure she will then respond to you at her earliest possible convenience. However, this person is out of town until next week; I am sure she will then respond to you at her earliest possible convenience. 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.

eristic (i-RIS-tik) adj. of or provoking controversy or given to sophistical argument and specious reasoning. 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 a reflexive pronoun, like myself, where a personal pronoun, like me, is wanted. 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.

Arthur Quinn: Figures of Speech — Sixty Ways to Turn a Phrase More ... 

  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.

Mark Halpern's review of the recent articles by Wallace and Winchester was vitriolic, cranky and terrific ["Two Bad Papers of Language Usage," Vol. 3, No. 10]!

I admit I hadn't read either article when I started reading his review. By paragraph three, I had to go look. Surely they couldn't be as bad as his review implied. I was right. They were worse! Wallace's in particular was so addled that it can only be summarized by the words, "Oy vey."

When a coworker recently compared me to Lois Lane (probably the only female writer he could recall), I corrected him. "I'm Perry White. Prematurely grey from turning out a paper every day despite half of my staff falling off of buildings and the other half running around in UnderRoos."

I thank Mr. Halpern for giving voice to that cranky editor in us all — the one who's just plain fed up with the ignorance of the general populace about their own language and with the academics who make the quest to repair that ignorance such an uphill, solitary chore. More ... 

 Features

The Game of the Name — Marylaine Block

Writing: The Democratization of American Letters — Christopher Lord

Bumper Bites — Tina Bennett-Kastor

The Art of Conversation — Tim Buck

 Departments

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

"Secrets" of the Pros — Richard Dowis

Words That Stab Like a Sword — Pamela Jones

Titanic Blunders — David Carkeet

Grammar Matters — Marylaine Block

Practicing Prescriptivism Now and Then — Edward Finegan

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 Vocabula Books

The Dictionary of Concise Writing

The Thesaurus of Worn-Out Words and Phrases

Grumbling About Grammar

The Dimwit's Dictionary

Speaking of Silence

The Evasion-English Dictionary

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Special Offer
Once you've made your $30 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. Ella Minnow Pea A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable by Mark Dunn

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Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel set in the fictional island of Nollop situated off the coast of South Carolina and home to the inventor the pangram The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog. The islanders have erected a monument to honor their late hero, but one day a tile with the letter "z" falls from the statue. The leaders interpret the falling tile as a message from beyond the grave, and the letter is banned from use. On an island where the residents pride themselves on their love of language, this is seen as a tragedy. They are still reeling from the shock, when another tile falls and then another.

Mark Dunn takes us on a journey against time through the eyes of Ella Minnow Pea and her family as they race to find another phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet to save them from being unable to communicate. Eventually, the only letters remaining are LMNOP, when Ella finally discovers the phrase that will save their language.

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This book presents a unique historical view of American English. It chronicles year by year the contributions Americans have made to the vocabulary of English and the words Americans have embraced through the evolution of the nation. For important years from the settlement of Jamestown until 1750, and for every year from 1750 through 1998, a prominent word is analyzed and discussed in its historical context. The result is a fascinating survey of American linguistic culture through past centuries.

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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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This wide-ranging and erudite exploration of the topic of reading is suffused with the spirit of Manguel's fellow Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. Manguel takes us through the history of reading as if leading us room by room through the infinite library Borges constructed in one of his famous stories. Manguel's approach is not chronological, but thematic. His chapter topics jump from attempts to censor reading to the physical surroundings favored by readers, from the limitations of translations to the esotericism of books written for a restricted readership. Throughout he moves easily through time and geography to quote anecdotes and examples from diverse sources.

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From accents to politics, this fascinating collection of essays from today's leading linguists uncovers the many misconceptions we hold about language. "The media are ruining English"; "Some languages are harder than others"; "Children can't speak or write properly anymore." Such pieces of "cultural wisdom" are often expressed in newspapers and on radio and television. Rarely is there a response from experts in the fields of language and language development. In this book, Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill have invited nineteen respected linguists from all over the world to address these "language myths" — showing that they vary from the misconceived to the downright wrong. With essays ranging from "Women Talk Too Much" and "In the Appalachians They Speak Like Shakespeare" to "Italian Is Beautiful, German Is Ugly" and "They Speak Really Bad English Down South and in New York City," Language Myths is a collection that is wide-ranging, entertaining, and authoritative.

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Children play with language as joyfully and consistently as they play with objects. Language play has a number of functions, including practice of their native (and acquired) language, imaginative exploration of ideas and images, and the marking of peer and hierarchical relationships.

By the time they are five or six years old, children have learnt to explain, complain, admire, speculate, imagine, enquire, agree, disagree and shock in the phrases and images of their mother tongue. Some are fluent in more than one "adult" language. And all but the most isolated are becoming expert in the jargon used by children in their local childhood community.

In the process, children become increasingly competent speakers of a variety of formal and informal language patterns. They can burble and coo to a baby, speak "correctly" to their elders, and join in the special patois of their peers.

This is the first book to offer a rich and comprehensive sampling of the linguistic range, variety and complexity of Australian children's colloquial, vernacular language.

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Empson elegantly demonstrates the weight of allusion and implication borne by even the simplest works of our language: man, honest, quite, dog. He explores the complex play of such words in social situations and in literature, producing in the process brilliant critical essays.

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John L. Austin was one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century. The William James Lectures presented Austin's conclusions in the field to which he directed his main efforts for more than ten years, with important effects on a wide variety of philosophical problems. These talks became the classic How to Do Things with Words.

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Once you've made your $25 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. Championship Writing 50 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Paula LaRocque

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Even veteran writers will enjoy this collection of columns by Paula LaRocque, one of the most respected writing coaches in the country. Her clean, precise prose and cogent examples provide insight into dozens of common writing situations, from how to use analogies to the proper use of who and whom.

LaRocque's book offers advice to journalists, public relations practitioners, business writers, and anybody else who must communicate in writing.

These 50 columns originally appeared in Quill magazine, the publication of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Once you've made your $25 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are and what book you would like. Copies are limited.

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Once you've made your $25 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. The Secret Lives of Words by Paul West

Donate $25 to The Vocabula Review and receive Paul West's The Secret Lives of Words.

In his book, author Paul West shares his life-long obsession with words and their origins combined with a fascinating twist on etymology. Did you know that the word mascara originates from the Arabic term for a buffoon or clown? And the word companion comes from the meaning whom you share or break bread with. Over the centuries, thousands of our words have been so twisted, tangled, and misused that their original meanings have become extremely obscure. The Secret Lives of Words chronicles the travels of words across continents and through various cultures, giving each a life and identity of its own.

Once you've made your $25 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are and what book you would like. Copies are limited.

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