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TVR Home > October 2001 TVR Today is

The Worst Words Click to hear TVR signature tune. The Best Words

A society is generally as lax as its language.

October 2001, Vol. 3, No. 10

Coming in the November issue of The Vocabula Review: "The Game of the Name" by Marylaine Block

Marylaine Block has been an English teacher, a librarian, and a freelance writer. She also wrote a weekly column for Fox News Online titled "Observing US."


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 TVR Forum

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.
  Empowering or Cowering David R. Williams

Years ago, in a justifiably famous essay titled "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell pointed out that the way politicians use language tends to confuse the public and destroy the clear communication that is the basis of a true democratic politics. His novel 1984 shows how a totalitarian state can destroy people's understanding of the meaning of words in order to keep those people in a state of oppression. The cure for this is for all of us to use words clearly, to insist that academics and politicians speak to us in a language we all can understand. From the days of the Puritans, the plain style has been at the root of all true social revolution. The rules that maintain clear communication are thus tools of progressive, not reactionary, politics. While it is true that some snobs do defend strict rules simply to hold onto conservative structures of power, good reasons do exist to insist on rules that keep the language from the incomprehensible extremes of both snobs and slobs. More ... 

  Two Bad Papers on Language Usage Mark Halpern

By coincidence, our two leading upper-middlebrow journals, Harper's Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly, have almost simultaneously run long pieces about language usage and books that offer to guide us on it. In April 2001, Harper's published Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage by David Foster Wallace; in May, The Atlantic ran Word Imperfect by Simon Winchester. It's reassuring to see that questions of usage are still live ones, and that editors can be induced to publish articles on them; it's dismaying to see how poor even educated thinking on such matters is, and how little editors demand in the way of quality in what they print on the subject. More ... 

  The Root of the Matter Brenda Townsend Hall

Recently, I heard someone talking about feeling nauseated on a ferry crossing; her companion said, "Oh, you mean seasick." I couldn't help giving a knowing smile because the first speaker had in fact chosen the more accurate term. The word nausea derives from the Greek and Latin words meaning ship and sailor (the same word that has also given us "nautical") and thus originally carried the idea of sickness from sea-travel. Smollett used the word in its original meaning in his novel Humphrey Clinker in 1771: "Most of the passengers were seized with a nausea." More ... 

  The Odyssey of the Arabic Language and Its Script Habeeb Salloum

Are all Arabs terrorists? Is Islam a cruel faith? I would say after the terrible carnage and tragedy in New York and Washington, and the almost immediate association by the media of the Arabs and Islam to terrorism, many people in North America have been making these conclusions. More ... 

  Been There, Done That David Isaacson

"Been there, done that." The first time I heard these words I loved them. Yes, that's the way I feel too, I thought. I wish I'd come up with such a catchy phrase myself. But now I'm sick of it. It's no longer fresh. In fact, I'd like to persuade you to join me in killing it. Let's make "been there, done that" as passé as "deader than a doornail." 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.

dissemble Misused for disassemble. • When asked about the U.S. decision to dissemble the American plane in China and fly it out on a Russian cargo plane, Powell said that was the preference because the Russian cargo plane is readily available and it is the plane that is best able to handle this kind of mission. USE disassemble. [News from the Washington File] • If the engine happens to be going through a rebuild, it would be best to have this done before all components are installed even though you can install this kit without having to dissemble the entire engine. USE disassemble. [Off-Road.com] • They codenamed Weems the Modular Man due to the ability to dissemble and reassemble his body, and due to the number of detachable components of his body. USE disassemble. [SpiderFan.org]

Dissemble means to disguise or hide behind a false appearance; to feign. Disassemble means to take apart; to break up randomly. 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.

The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled. — E. B. White, Here Is New York 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.

a (welcome) breath of fresh air Of what it purports to describe, a (welcome) breath of fresh air offers the antithesis. If intelligent or heartfelt sentences are invigorating, this dimwitticism should make us gasp as though we've been throttled by foul-smelling thoughtlessness. • A toy industry analyst called the news a breath of fresh air. REPLACE WITH refreshing. 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.

for the purpose of (-ing) for (-ing); so as to; to. • All deposited items are received for the purpose of collection, and all credits for deposited items are provisional. All deposited items are received for collection, and all credits for deposited items are provisional. • The mission of the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund is to provide education and funding for the purpose of improving and/or saving the lives of deaf dogs. The mission of the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund is to provide education and funding so as to improve and/or save the lives of deaf dogs. • Trade Council of Iceland was established in 1986 for the purpose of promoting exports and increasing marketing awareness among Icelandic companies. Trade Council of Iceland was established in 1986 to promote exports and increase marketing awareness among Icelandic companies. 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.

isocracy (i-SOK-rah-see) n. equality of power or rule; a government in which all people have equal political power. 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 an apostrophe-s (or s-apostrophe) to denote a plural. 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.

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence 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.

I have just read the first few pages of Peter Corey's latest column "How Linguistics Killed Grammar" [Vol. 3, No. 9]. I personally believe that prescriptive grammar has a very useful role to play in helping to standardize conventions of English usage, particularly in academic and other forms of "formal" written discourse. I'm sure the vast majority of linguists would agree. However, what I have read so far of Corey's article is so riddled with factual inaccuracies and unjustified assertions about the structure of English that I have to question how it survived the editorial process. His discussion of the English infinitive and infinitival "to" is particularly flawed. Can I suggest that he take a look at a good reference grammar such as Quirk and Greenbaum? By the way, the term "humanistic grammar" strikes me as pretty overblown for a nondescript bunch of conventions about English usage. "Prescriptive grammar" is much more to the point. More ... 

 Features

Empowering or Cowering — David R. Williams

Two Bad Papers on Language Usage — Mark Halpern

The Root of the Matter — Brenda Townsend Hall

The Odyssey of the Arabic Language and Its Script — Habeeb Salloum

Been There, Done That — David Isaacson

 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

Words That Stab Like a Sword — Pamela Jones

Titanic Blunders — David Carkeet

Grammar Matters — Marylaine Block

Practicing Prescriptivism Now and Then — Edward Finegan

Bottle That Punaphor — Joseph Epstein

 Other Business

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September 2001

August 2001

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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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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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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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