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Archive for the 'Style & Usage' Category

Malapropisms Again

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Seth Twiggs writes: “We who teach find malapropisms often in student writing, of course. One should not take such occurrences for granite.”

My reply: I hope you didn’t think we have the same a devil-make-hair attitude about them that students have. Far from it.

Attending to the Problem of ‘Attendee’

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Aubrey Waddy dropped me a line right after the Good Word mentor appeared. Here is the gist of our conversation:

“Thanks for the daily exploration and today’s word, mentor: good fun as usual. I read the Odyssey and the Iliad as a boy, in English I hasten to add, and they were great adventures; I’d forgotten Mentor.”

“Your use of the word advisee, however, prompts me to ask whether you can address the abominable word attendee. I pedantically make a point of using attender, but it’s a lost cause.”

This confusion is a result of the two different meanings of attend: “to take care of” (intransitive) and “to go to” (transitive). There is an old tendency in English to use (1) -ee (standee, devotee, retiree) and (2) -ant (congregantclaimant, and applicant) as the personal (agentive) suffixes for intransitive verbs, words that cannot take a direct object in some sense. The suffix -er at one time applied only to transitive verbs like drinker, eater, player, words that can take a direct object.

Notice, however, I say ‘tendency’ not ‘rule”, for the tendency is dying out now in favor of a general suffix -er: runner, swimmer, walker. This probably relates to the difficulty in keeping transitive and intransitive verbs straight. Run, swim, walk may all now be used transitively, as to run the course, swim the river, walk the dog.

Now, getting back to attendee. Someone who attends to someone might be called an attendee but for whatever reason attendant seems to be preferred, probably because this word is a borrowing from French. To attend a meeting, however, implies a transitive verb, suggesting attender the correct form. So you are right in claiming that attender is more appropriate than attendee; in fact, I see no room for attendee under any guise with its current meaning.

But don’t expect a change any time soon; this word is too firmly embedded in the vocabulaty now.

Tmesis

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

I received a question from Jerrel de Kok today which I thought might interest those following this blog. First, let me apologize from my long silence. Lexiteria, the parent company of alphaDictionary, has been working on a large order for highly customized frequency lists for 25 languages from Google. It has taken over my life for the past year but today I am happy to announce it is completed.

Now for the question:

Do you have a service where I could enter a definition and get the appropriate word to use? The situation that got me thinking about this is as follows. I got an email from a service member and in it was contained the expression; ‘WAAA-FRIEKING-HOOOO!’ I would think the English language has a word describing the interjection of one word into the middle of another.

It does, indeed, Jerrel, though you might have trouble pronouncing it: “tmesis”. You might prefer the old fashioned linguistic term “sandwich word”, since the interloping word is sandwiched in between the first and second part of the matrix word. The interloper is usually vulgar: abso-damn-lutely, far-freaking-out, kanga-bloody-roos.

They are not always vulgar, however, as any-old-how, what-place-soever, and a-whole-nother demonstrate. The misanalysis of the latter matrix word is giving rise to a new word in some dialects.

Sandwich terms are speech flourishes we use in order to maximally emphasize a word. Most linguists would not consider them a legitimate part of English grammar.

Cast a Glamour

Monday, January 30th, 2012

John Brantley just sent me a note in connection with my treatment of glamour:

“I have also seen glamour used as type of magic spell, particularly one that affect the perception of appearance.  For example, “Marcie cast a glamour on herself to enhance her beauty.”  or “Marcie uses cosmetics as a glamour to enhance her beauty.”  Admittedly, this meaning is mostly limited to Fantasy literature, but it is reasonably widely used there.  It also clearly fits in with the word history that you describe.”

I’m not surprised that it would still be used in the world of magic. That is the world in which the two meanings parted company for most speakers of English. However, I was unaware that the usage persists even there and though you all might be interested.

Let’s Hash Out ‘Hashmark’

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Joan Gerbereux recently sent this intriguing question to me:

“Would you discuss hash tag? I don’t know if it’s one or two words, what it means, or how the ‘pound sign’ became something else. Do you?”

It is a word with the symbol # in front of it, used especially in microblogging to identify or search for subjects or on Twitter to denote the subject of a post. It is a blend of hash sign and tag. Hast sign is probably a mispronunciation of hatch sign. To hatch something is to score it or engrave lines in it. The meaning probably originated in “crosshatch”.

I’m not sure when the pound sign or number sign became a hash sign or mark. A hash-mark during World War II meant the symbol of rank, worn on the left sleeve of enlisted men. This sense arose in the 40s.

This symbol (#) was called the pound sign only in the US; £ was the pound sign elsewhere. It emerged in the 20s but didn’t last long in general speech (or writing). Can you remember seeing 10# standing for “10 pounds”? It seems to have become a specialized technical symbol.

Train Milk

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Today’s Marketwatch website carries a story that contains the following sentence:

McGill said, “They’re going to ride the train and milk it for all it’s worth.”

How much is train milk worth these days?

Dilemma, Trilemma, . . . ?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

My recent treatment of trilemma in the Good Word series prompted a response from the very creative mind of an old friend of alphaDictionary, Chris Stewart, way down in South Africa. I was so amused by it that I thought readers of this blog might enjoy it, too. Here is what Chris wrote. Notice he gives another common example of a trilemma, one that I didn’t think of when writing up the word.

“Indeed, [trilemma] is like the classic options of ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’. How do you respond to such an injunction when half way across a gorge on a tightrope?

If one is on the horns of a trilemma, is a triceratops involved?

How does one extend it further? Poly-, multi-, omni-, mega-, sub-, super-, peri- … ? Sometimes I feel I am experiencing all of the above.

Chris also reminds us of how the phrase “on the horns of a dilemma” came about. Dilemma originally meant a tough decision between only two choices, both of which are unpleasant. Since horns also come in pairs and can be painful, voila, the analogy.

Today we have all but lost sight of the meaning of dilemma. Its semantics has fallen into such a disarray that many are using it now as a simply synonym for “problem”. We hear such utterances today as, “Traffic downtown has become such a dilemma.”

No, actually, it hasn’t unless we are faced with only two corrective measures, neither of which is appealing. I was tempted to say much more about dilemma in my essaylet on trilemma but resisted. I guess I should take it up some day.

Are We All Ready for Already?

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Dianne Ericson recently questioned the good Doctor’s use of the word all in his treatment of the Good Word already. Here is what she asked:

“In your example today, ‘The children were all ready and bundled up warmly to go caroling on the snowy evening,’ is all really an adjective, or is it an adverb modifying the adjective ready? If it were a discrete adjective, then the sentence would still make sense if the adjective ready were omitted. I’m afraid that doesn’t quite work.”

In this particular sentence all is an adjective modifying children. We can’t say, “The children were all” (unless you are Pennsylvania Dutch, in which case it means “there were no more children”) but we can say “The children were all (ready, gone, happy, reasonable, crying, etc.)”

The oddness of this sentence comes from the fact that all is misplaced. It is an idiosyncrasy of the adjective all that it may be placed in the predicate even though it modifies the subject. “The children were all ready” is synonymous with “All the children are ready.”

We all especially appreciated this note, which Dianne was kind enough to add to her question:

“Thanks for all the wonderful help. Thanks to you, my child has the best vocabulary in her 8th-grade class!”

Your child can compete with Dianne’s daughter if he or she is subscribed to our daily Good Word or Good Word, Jr.

Buckets about Buckets

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Buckets of bucketsMy wife and I just drove past a house in our newest McMansion development and my wife noticed a tree with buckets hanging from its limbs. She asked my opinion as to why someone would want hang buckets from a tree. I didn’t know for sure but immediately set my imagination to the task of resolving the issue with relish on gusto.

  • To symbolize how much money they have?
  • To symbolize how much money the property cost them?
  • In hopes someone would help pay the maintenance costs on the house?
  • Too much chlorine in their tap water?
  • They prefer acid to fluoride in their water?

My immediate association was with the phrase “buckets of money”. As I sat there waiting for her to stop laughing, I wondered why we keep saying “buckets of money” at a time when a bucket of money wouldn’t cover a car payment.

But that led to thinking about bucket in general. I floats almost effortlessly though the catalog of English idioms. “To kick the bucket” led to the “bucket list”, which I’ve heard two people use recently. This is after the Morgan Freeman-Jack Nicholson movie of the same name about two men working their way through a list of things they wish to do before they kick the bucket (die).

That led to sweet remembrances of the British comedy series “Keeping Up Appearances” with Patricia Routledge playing Hyacinth Bucket, who insisted her name be pronounced “bouquet”.

Of course, buckets is a fairly common synonym for lots: buckets of love, buckets of money, buckets of whatever we have lots of. It is a common word that does a yeoman’s work for English and makes us laugh doing it.

Porn in the Slow Lane

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

My favorite newspaper, the Sunbury Daily Item, carried an article with this lead sentence last Friday: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man has been charged with stealing $500 raised by middle school students to purchase porn videos from an Internet site.”

This sentence immediately catches the eye because you wonder why middle school students were raising money to purchase porn in the first place. Moreover, didn’t the 57-year-old do us all a favor by stealing the money and keeping porn out of the hands of those children?

Well, reading further we discover that the money was actually being raised for middle school band and chorus activities and that it was the thief who purchased the porn, keeping good and evil in proper alignment. Of course, that is not what the lead sentence says.

The infinitive phrase “to purchase porn videos . . .” in the first sentence is closer to “middle school students” than to “57-year-old Lewiston man” and for that reason goes with the former and not the latter.

Restructuring the sentence to correct it in journalese is a bit difficult and the author probably should have just worked on a different story. It seems to me that this is one of those situations where a passive sentence might work despite the bad reputation this construction has among journalists. “$500 raised by middle school students was stolen by a 57-year-old Lewistown man to purchase porn videos from an Internet site,” is perfectly good English that states the case more clearly.

The active variant would be: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man stole $500 to purchase porn videos on an Internet site from middle school students in Beaver Creek.” This variant lets you pack more information about the middle school kids into the sentence but is a tad clunky.

Anyway, the sentence that went to press wrongly stated the facts by misassociating the infinitive phrase, thereby frightening readers with the suggestion that we had somehow swerved into the fast lane in the not-too-distant past.