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A society is generally as lax as its language.

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September 2002, Vol. 4, No. 9

Coming in the October issue of The Vocabula Review: "Penman" by Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar, teaches writing and literature at Northwestern University. His Author's Choice appeared in the June issue of The Vocabula Review.

The October issue of The Vocabula Review is due online October 20.

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A society is generally as lax as its language.

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Back  Yes, We Have No Bananas Valerie Collins

We had a plague of lobsters the other day. We also had a store selling truly delicious wrapping paper, a bar in which candles with decoratively dripping wax mix with modern seats, and a team of designers who amalgamate people around them. Welcome to the twilight world of tourist brochures and coffee table books, advertorials and assorted bumf and blurb. Where nightlife boils, the beaches are bang in the center of the city, and the boulevards are fringed with bananas. Surreal, isn't it? Salvador Dalí must be turning in his mausoleum. More ... 

Back  The Prepositionless Excremental David R. Williams Illustration by Jeff Danziger

"Simply stated," Vice President Dick Cheney said the other day, "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." He went on: "There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." More ... 

Back  Negative Thoughts Brenda Townsend Hall

Have you asked if someone would like a cup of tea recently? The next time you do, make a note of the replies. Hardly anyone seems to say simply, "Yes, please." I collected the following responses: More ... 

Back  Why Good Grammar? Richard Mitchell

I have been given this assignment: To write on the question, Why good grammar? I have not been explicitly asked to answer the question, however, and for that I am grateful. It is a strange question, after all, something like Why clean hands? And its best answer is really, Well, why not? If there is anything to be proved here, it ought to be left to those who support the cause of "bad grammar." More ... 

Back  Two Poems Sarah Skwire

We've lost them all,
or rather dropped them all along the way,
like refugees unloading precious things
the endless dusty road
has turned to nothing more than weight.
The words that we have left are everyday. More ... 

Back  Mr. Goldentongue Clark Elder Morrow

As it happens, I am a great bewailer. I have been known, on a good day, to bewail twice before breakfast. Just the other day, I was bewailing the absence of eloquence in the speeches of our highest elected officials. I despair of ever hearing any prose style from senators and congresspeople other than the boilerplatish tin-ear tone found in the most quotidian of press releases. It is, of course, a great pity. More ... 

Back  Proverbs Reconsidered Christopher Orlet

There is no lie like an old lie, as the saying goes. The same can be said for most of the proverbs one hears bandied about ad nauseam. Although the majority of these sayings are dead on and full of barnyard wisdom ("Don't count your chickens before they're hatched," "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear"), others seem to me infuriatingly off the beam. And some are simply incomprehensible: "Don't try to teach your Grandma to suck eggs." Does somebody really need this advice? I realize, like all good proverbs, the phrase is a metaphor for something else, but what that something else might be is beyond me. My best guess is its meaning is similar to "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." In other words, Grandma has been sucking eggs since before you were born, so don't tell Grandma how to suck eggs. 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.

canvas Misused for canvass. • Extensive public workshops and meetings were held in 1998 to canvas the public's views about solid waste management. USE canvass. [Department of Renewable Resources] • In formulating Esap, Chidzero was determined to canvas opinion far and wide, drawing upon the expertise of as many as possible, and to be aware of the detailed circumstances impacting upon all facets of the economy. USE canvass. [The Zimbabwe Independent] • The meeting was designed to canvas views of trends in the nuclear and regulatory fields against the background of changing economic and decision-making processes. USE canvass. [IAEA Press Release]

Canvas is a strong, heavy, unbleached cloth; canvass is a survey; as a verb, it means to survey or question. 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.

Charles Lamb, born in the Inner Temple, 10th of February, 1775; educated in Christ's Hospital; afterwards a clerk in the Accountants' Office, East India House; pensioned off from that service, 1825, after thirty-three years' service; is now a gentleman at large; can remember few specialities in his life worth noting, except that he once caught a swallow flying (teste suâ manu). Below the middle stature; cast of face slightly Jewish, with no Judaic tinge in his complexional religion; stammers abominably, and is therefore more apt to discharge his occasional conversation in a quaint aphorism, or a poor quibble, than in set and edifying speeches; has consequently been libelled as a person always aiming at wit; which, as he told a dull fellow that charged him with it, is at least as good as aiming at dulness. A small eater, but not drinker; confesses a partiality for the production of the Juniper Berry; was a fierce smoker of tobacco, but may be resembled to a volcano burnt out, emitting only now and then a casual puff. Has been guilty of obtruding upon the public a tale, in prose, called Rosamund Gray; a dramatic sketch, named John Woodvil; a Farewell Ode to Tobacco, with sundry other poems, and light prose matter, collected in two slight crown octavos, and pompously christened his works, though in fact they were his recreations. His true works may be found on the shelves of Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios. He is also the true Elia, whose Essays are extant in a little volume, published a year or two since, and rather better known from that name without a meaning than from anything he has done, or can hope to do, in his own. He was also the first to draw the public attention to the old English dramatists, in a work called 'Specimens of English Dramatic Writers who lived about the Time of Shakspeare,' published about fifteen years since. In short, all his merits and demerits to set forth would take to the end of Mr. Upcott's book, and then not be told truly. He died 18  , much lamented. — Charles Lamb, Charles Lamb's Autobiography 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.

I'm sorry No simple apology, the plebeian I'm sorry pretends to soothe while it actually scolds. Even though it may seem like an apology — often for something that requires nothing of the sort — I'm sorry is said, unapologetically, in a tone of resentment.

Traditionally, a woman's emotion — for women have been, more than men, reluctant to express anger, bare and unbounded — resentment more and more of late finds favor with men and women alike. • Nine years old is too young to be left alone, I'm sorry. • I have to disagree. I'm sorry. • I know you guys are going to blow up after I'm done talking, but I'm sorry. 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.

(an; the) important ... for (in; of; to) important for (to). • Because decision making is an important element of a manager's job, we need to discover anything that can improve the quality of decision making. Because decision making is important to a manager's job, we need to discover anything that can improve the quality of decision making. • Their willingness to commit capital was an important factor for success. Their willingness to commit capital was important for success. • Certainly, overall physical health is an important component in any society. Certainly, overall physical health is important to any society. 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.

exemplum (ig-ZEM-plem) n. 1. an example. 2. a brief story used to make a point in an argument or illustrate a moral truth. 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:

The plural of an acronym is signified by an s, not a possessive 's. 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.

Palinurus: The Unquiet Grave More ... 

Back  Ungrammatical Graphics
An occasional department of The Vocabula Review, "Ungrammatical Graphics" displays images of English-language blunders and other verbal nonsense.

Cheese Etc.; Pasta Etc. More ... 


Yes, We Have No Bananas — Valerie Collins

The Prepositionless Excremental — David R. Williams

Negative Thoughts — Brenda Townsend Hall

Why Good Grammar? — Richard Mitchell

Two Poems — Sarah Skwire


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Mr. Goldentongue

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Proverbs Reconsidered


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

Ungrammatical Graphics

 TVR Revisited

Memo to Reviewers — David Carkeet

Snobs and Slobs — David R. Williams

Writing: The Democratization of American Letters — Christopher Lord

Grammar and Disputation — Peter Corey

Four Cheers Five Victor Borge — Richard Lederer

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Cliches. Once they were so original, so fresh. Now, everybody uses them, and if your work depends on lively prose, they're a problem. This book is the solution. Fiske takes you on a tour of the world of "dimwitticisms"; moribund metaphors, torpid terms and wretched redundancies that have all the impact of foam-rubber cannonballs. Fiske's comprehensive thesaurus lists hundreds of problem phrases along with witty commentary and useful synonyms.

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