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Archive for the 'Style & Usage' Category

Perambulating Perambulators

Monday, December 14th, 2009

I’ve been terribly negligent of the Language Blog. My apologies, though I’m afraid the Christmas holidays will not make things any easier. Faye and I are traveling to Colorado where we will be taking the grandchildren out to high tea and their first performance of “The Nutcracker” by the Colorado Ballet.

However, yesterday’s Good Word perambulate brought out such a good story from Eileen Opiolka that I must drop everything and report it. Eileen wrote:

“Today’s good word [perambulate] reminded me of my husband’s first visit to Cambridge’s colleges over 30 years ago. In those days his Latin was stronger than his English, so when he saw the notice “No perambulators”, he docilely decided not to go in. Pity!”

I consider this evidence that a vocabulary too large is as liable to mishap as one too small. Anyway, I presume this incident did not preclude Eileen and her husband to eventually meet and, no double, perambulate many times together.

Improving Conversational Skills

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Marnie Kaur recently raised a question I’ve heard many times before. This time I will share my thoughts on it with everyone within eyeshot of this blog.

I have always been fascinated by words. Having never had the chance to study them I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on being able to converse with the best of them. Regards, Marnie.

Conversation is an art, which means it requires practice. To become an excellent conversationalist, you must converse with excellent conversationalists. The best conversationalists tend to be people who read a lot, thereby developing a large vocabulary that they can use to make subtle distinctions that other well-read people pick up.

Repetition plays some role in learning. That is why we repeat our Good Words so many times in our essaylets. We always give two or three examples, play with the words creatively, and repeat them in discussing their derivational history—even in our acknowledgment to the people who suggest them.

However, human learning is more complex than repetition. Sometimes we can hear a word a hundred times and never remember it, as kids often exhibit a problem remembering “no” no matter how many times it is repeated. Other times we hear or read a word once and never forget it: once is usually enough for a kid to remember “candy” the rest of his or her life. 

Reading is the starting point for vocabulary building. My students often asked me what they could do to improve their spelling. I always told them that there is only one way: read more. Reading builds our word recognition or comprehension but does not bear directly on conversational skills.

We have a far larger vocabulary in our memory than we can actively use. This is another way of saying that we comprehend far more words than we can use in speech. However, the passive and active levels are connected, so the larger our passive vocabulary, the large our active vocabulary becomes. Our active or spoken vocabulary trickles down from our passive or comprehensional vocabulary. (For ages I thought this was the “trickle down” theory.)

Every language has four aspects familiar to every language teacher: (1) reading, (2) writing, (3) comprehension, and (4) speaking, ordered here from easiest to most difficult. That’s right: reading any language is far easier than speaking it. Actively using grammatical skills and vocabulary on the fly is by far more difficult that slowly reading the words on a printed page, where we may reread them and mulling them over as long as we wish. In conversation we don’t have time for all that.

Still, language written by clever writers contains a larger vocabulary more sensitively deployed than even the writer can use in speaking. If we read a lot, remembering the words that stick out, examining them closely as we do in our Good Words, that passive vocabulary eventuallly meanders into our speech. It is therefore the best way to improve spelling and the best if not only starting point for improved conversational skills.

Do-Gooders and Good-Doers

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I could never understand how a word like do-gooder could be pejorative. I would like to think of myself as someone who does good and find that attitude laudable rather than damnable. Only WordNet, compiled by the Princeton psychologist, George Miller, allows a positive take on this word. Here is what the best dictionaries have to say about this word:

  • American Heritage: “A naive idealist who supports philanthropic or humanitarian causes or reforms.”
  • Encarta: “[S]omebody who sincerely tries to help others, but whose actions may be unwelcome.”
  • Merriam-Webster: “[A]n earnest often naive humanitarian or reformer.”
  • Oxford English: “A well-meaning, active, but unrealistic philanthropist or reformer; one who tries to do good.”
  • WordNet: “[S]omeone devoted to the promotion of human welfare and to social reforms.”

I must be missing something here. My attitude has always been that supporting philanthropic and humanitarian causes, and sincerely trying to help others, are neither naïve nor unrealistic, but are undertakings that recommend decent men and women. (I think I read this somewhere in the Holy Scriptures.)

Well, do-gooder is a contrived compound. The head of a compound (do) should be on the right, not the left. Maybe this arrangement negates the word’s meaning and a regular English compound, good-doer, antonym of the obiquitous evildoer, bears the positive meaning.

But guess what? Although all dictionaries have room for evildoer, good-doer is found in none of them excepting only the Oxford English Dictionary. Its entry shows that this word thrived outside the United States at least up to 1887.

Maybe the US media has had a hand in the promotion of do-gooder over good-doer, given their preference for bad news events over good ones. In fact, the earliest recorded instance of the word do-gooder was in a 1927 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 18 14/5): “The dogooder…is all the hokum, all the blather and all the babble of the modern so-called ‘social movement’.”

So the word originated as a specific slur against progressives used by conservatives. This is interesting, knowing as we do even today, that doing the right thing is considered at best naïve among our corporate leaders, who so adamantly oppose the altruism implicit in such social programs as gun control, social security, and universal education and health care.

We do know that language reflects cultural attitudes; racism and sexism is easy to spot in English and other languages. This connotations of do-gooder and the absence of good-doer at least suggest that the lexical and conceptual deck may be stacked against the Forces of Good in the United States.

Polysemy: Adding More Meanings

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Chris Stewart of South Africa has been thinking long and deep about words this week and the result has been short e-mail essays that raise interesting issues that should be shared. Here is another comment from Chris:

Over the weekend I was in an idle moment pondering two unrelated yet somehow connected things. The first was how different words are adopted in different countries to denote the same thing (e.g. you would say hood and trunk to describe parts of your car, whereas I would call them the bonnet and boot). The second is how sometimes the shortest words have the widest variety of usages.”

The word tap sprang to mind as being a rich example, though I guess you would call it a faucet [up North but spigot down South--RB]. It is marvellous how English has adopted myriad words in order to be able on the one hand to precisely describe exquisite nuances, obfuscate, aggrandise or wax poetic, and on the other to be terse, concise and to the point. Plus, it is impressively economical in being able to reuse words to such an extent.”

The linguistic phenomenon is that the most commonly used words tend to change more slowly than infrequently used words. The most frequently used words tend to be short, like come, have, go, and all have several meanings as well as several irregular forms, e.g. go: go, goes, went, gone. Tap has a pretty straightforward set of forms but a wide range of meanings as a noun and a verb.

English once had a rich set of prefixes and suffixes which helped create new words out of old. Most of those have, for reasons we have yet to fathom, been lost. English is becoming more and more like Chinese, which has not prefixes or suffixes. This means that we simply add new senses to old words, senses that are only discernable in context.

The part of the computer that stores data is simply called memory since we no longer use the location suffix -ery (otherwise it would be a datary or informationery). The electronic connection between two web pages is called a link, even though it bears no resemblance to a chain. Highly complex systems of transistors are called chips because the originally were small.

You would think that we would reach a point of overload when we could barely understand each other because each word has so many meanings. But we seem to do OK because, when a problem emerges, we simply to go another language and copy a word from its lexicon. As I have said many times before in the histories of the Good Words, English is a swashbuckling pirate on the high seas of world languages, hauling in any word it needs, often “borrowing” the same word several times over the course of its development, giving each variant a distinct meaning. 

So maybe the accumulation of meanings on words without prefixes and suffixes to distinguish those meanings, forces us onto the bounding lexical main.

‘Off of’ or Just ‘Off’

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Brian Thornton wants to know if I can explain the use or misuse of the adverb off: should we use it alone or with the preposition of. Should we say, “The cat jumped off the table” or “off of the table”?

Well, maybe I can at least define the problem. The adverb off is in the process of becoming a preposition. As an adverb, its object requires the preposition of: “The button flew off [of my shirt].” As this word becomes more and more a preposition itself, the additional preposition of becomes redundant: “The button flew [off my shirt]“. (I used square brackets here to set of the prepositional phrases.)

I am speaking only of the adverb off. Like many words in English, this word has several functions. It is also a prefix (an off-white dress), and adjective (the lights are off), and a verbal particle (Lenny took his hat off). It started out as an adverb, though it apparently was never happy in that function and hence is currently changing careers. While it is in the process of change, we should use whichever form those around us are using; both forms are correct.

This historical shift is not unusual. Out is another example of an adverb becoming a preposition. Out, too, is still used mostly with a preposition to mark its objects: “Melvin came out [of the house]“, “Lucinda Head is out [of her mind]“. It has picked up a new meaning, however, “out through”, and in that sense, of cannot be used: “The dog sniffed his food once and flew [out the door]“. Out is lagging materially behind off in its career shift but it seems to have begun the journey.

Many other adverbs are prepositions and conjunctions: after and before may be all three:

     • I’ve never seen him before. (Adverb)
     • I saw him before he grew the beard. (Conjunction)
     • I knew her before the war. (Preposition)

I’m sure you can think of others. Nothing amiss here: multifunctional words that belong to several categories are commonplace in all languages.

Language is not stagnant. It is changing all the time. Language change is not simply the coming and going of words; that is the least interesting change in language. Words are shifting from one category to another, the categories themselves are changing, syntactic structure is changing, juggling words as it goes along. All this is taking place now right under our noses, where tongues and lips are constantly churning out grammar and vocabulary, producing nuances that eventually add up to new dialects and even languages.

Life in the Slow Lane Stumbles on

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

Lewisburg now has a new diner, replete with waitresses that call eveyone “hon.” Like true diners, where the cuisine never exceeds the flavor of the meatloaf, its menu is traditional diner food cooked in traditional diner ways by two recent immigrees from Mexico (no, not Mexico, PA—the original one). Since Lewisburg is a cultural center of Central Pennsylvania, however, our diner has been experimenting with some new creations.

You wouldn’t want to miss the meatloaf cordon bleu: meatloaf with several slices of chopped ham slatered with Cheez Whiz. It could also be called a Philly chopped steak. I tried it and was surprised to discover that it tastes like—last week’s meatloaf. I guess Cheez Whiz doesn’t cover up as much flavor as it once did.

Next time I want to try the Monte Crisco sandwich. They don’t use mayonaise on this one, so it shouldn’t break my diet. And guess what they warm up the meatloaf in.

I thought I would just drop this brief note to let everyone know that life in the slow lane isn’t speeding up.

Latest Clichés: Skin and Haircuts

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

The latest Beltway clichés are beginning to irritate me and I can no longer resist the inclination to complain about them. “Put some skin in (the game)” brings up memories of falling and scraping knees, elbows, heads, and the like. 

This cliché replaces “ante up”, which replaced “cough up”, whose demises please no one more than me. “Put some skin in” is milder than “give a pound of flesh”, donated by Shakespeare but still it is pretty raw. “Ante up” comes from poker; it means literally to put more money in the game and hence is more fitting for the financial crisis than “putting in more skin” (unless, of course, you’ve been skinned by Bernie Madoff).

OK, the image is bad, so what is better? Let’s try “give/get a haircut”, as to give GM employees or AIG managers a haircut. Well, that isn’t a graphic image of an injury but then it doesn’t really imply a contribution to the cost of resurrecting our economic institutions. Hair cuts are something we all get on a regular basis and implies willingly giving up something we consider superfluous. It implies no kind of sacrifice at all which is the very point of these metaphors.

This is what comes of ignoring our poets and listening to the faces on radio and TV that talk faster than they think. Clichés, of course, are simply metaphors that catch on and are repeated ad nauseum by those who cannot come up with their own. I’m sure at least one poet in our midst has dreamed up a better metaphor than the ones that are morphing into clichés even as I click away now.

Guaranteed Bonuses

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Donnella dropped a note yesterday, writing: “I’m hearing “guaranteed bonus” in the news a lot, referring to the AIG situation. It seems to me an oxymoron. I understand there are legal concerns but the word bonus must have a different meaning in a contract. I’d like to see your take on this.”

It would seem that money-addicts have invaded and taken control of most large US corporations. The compensation packages they have been giving themselves became more and more obscene as the years lumbered by.

Typical large corporation heads started with outlandish salaries plus stock warranties or options but no amount could satisfy the money addicts, so “(guaranteed) bonuses” were added outside salaries, probably to becloud the issue of total compensation. The term “guaranteed bonus” is not an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly”, but simply a contradiction of terms.

We all know what a bonus is: it is additional compensation given for outstanding performance, finishing a project ahead of schedule or overfulfilling a contract. So we can’t know ahead of time that a bonus will be due. However, people whose sole measure of worth and accomplishment is income, need money beyond what stock holders might be willing to endure if their compensation were reported as a lump-sum salary. So, “bonuses” were built into contracts, that is, guaranteed.

The current euphemism for them is retention bonuses, under the assumption that without them, an executive would move on to another company. A retention bonus actually sounds more like a bribe. Now, the absurdity of bribing the total failures at AIG to stay and continue undoing the company seems to escape those who tender this argument.

The argument goes on: only those who led AIG into its mess have the skills and knowledge to lead it out of its mess. It strikes me that these people are far more likely to make mistakes of the same magnitude leading the company back toward solvency that they made leading it flatly into insolvency. Maybe logic has changed since I was an undergraduate.

In all probability, if bonuses returned to what the word means, stock options were curtailed, and salaries were reasonable, large corporations would fare much better. Why? Because fewer money addicts and more people with a long-term commitment to the company would apply for executive positions. People who are as smart and experienced as the current executives of AIG are not hard to find—many are sitting right there in the company now.

Building a net worth of $100 million would still be possible, but only as a result of continuing excellence in management over a significant period. A $50 million per year compensation package and $150 severance payment regardless of performance discourages any commitment to a company beyond the first year.

The newly defined bonuses in the obscenely high compensation packages for corporate executives are therefore bad capitalism. They play to only the basest motivation toward excellence, the one that attracts money addicts. Moreover, without complex compensation packages, we would need far fewer absurd euphemisms like “retention bonus” to becloud the discussion of corporate leadership.

Periods, Commas and Quotations

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Bob Meinig raised a question yesterday that comes up now and then. It concerns the placement of quotation marks vis-a-vis periods and commas in our Good Words and on the website.

At yourDictionary.com I decided to use the US style of placing commas and periods inside quotations marks no matter what. This bothered me because the US system leads to confusion. The US punctuation style would look like this: …the meaning of the word is “to dance.” This is illogical because the period is not part of the meaning of the word which the quotation marks set off. When I give entire sentences, where the period is a part of the sentence, the period goes inside the quotation marks: “The dog began to dance.”

This is the style of punctuation used throughout the non-US English-speaking world and also the style of most scientific journals in the US, certainly those intended for a world-wide audience. Since I am an unrepentant scholar widely published in such journals, this style comes most naturally to me and—it’s logical!

So, when I started up alphaDictionary.com, where I often argue a point of grammar on the basis of consistency, I decided to go with the logical style. I honestly expected to change my mind and do a simple search and replace to change back to the US style. I knew that many visitors, particularly those who consider the entire planet the US, would think me ignorant of the rules of punctuation.

But I never did. I don’t know why. It would be a problematic job going through the entire website now to make a correction. I did decide to use the US style in my new book, “The 100 Funniest Words in English”, just to avoid the hassle this side the Atlantic and Pacific. Hmmm. I guess someone could take that as inconsistent, couldn’t they?

Defending the Fort for Forte

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

David McReynolds today became the third person to call into question our claim that forte meaning “strong point” should be pronounced [fort] rather than [fortay]. He writes:

“Concerning your 100 most mispronounced words: Forte pronounced [for-tay] is a musical term meaning “loud”; it is Italian. Forte meaning strength is pronounced [fort]; it is French.”

“Modern dictionaries allow for both pronunciations of forte meaning “strong”, but the original and more correct remains [fort].”

It is difficult to determine when a language change has taken place definitively. Finding a word in print or even in a dictionary does not mean that it is a part of the language. However, in this case, I think the change has taken place and it is time to admit it. Here is what the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), which we consider the best US English dictionary, has to say about the issue:

“The word forte, coming from French fort, should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, (fôr’-ta), which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian. In a recent survey a strong majority of the Usage Panel, 74 percent, preferred the two-syllable pronunciation. The result is a delicate situation; speakers who are aware of the origin of the word may wish to continue to pronounce it as one syllable but at an increasing risk of puzzling their listeners.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the pronunciation as “fo:ti, fo:te, formerly fo:t,” omitting, as the Britons are wont to do, the R. The point is, this shift is not limited to the US but has occurred throughout the English-speaking world.

The origin of a word is irrelevant to its pronunciation in English. Those words from French, pronounced in the French way, cannot be convincingly be considered English words: if an word used by English-speakers has the same sound and meaning as a French word, what claim does it have of being English? It is possible to use foreign words in conversations if both coconversationalist are familiar with the language in question.

I would disagree with the inconsistency of AHD in claiming that [fort] is the “proper” usage. If 74% of the educated population and the editors of the OED think that the ENGLISH pronunciation is [fortay], then we would seem constrained to using that pronunciation or run the risk, as the AHD note warns, of puzzling our listeners. (Our Mispronounced Words glossary is aimed at promoting clearer speech.)

In fact, all the dictionaries may be in error in claiming that English forte was borrowed from French fort and not Italian forte: both words have the same meaning (among others) in their respective languages. Where did that final E come from? The OED claims that, “As in many other adoptions of Fr[ench] adj[ective]s used as n[oun]s, the fem[inine] form has been ignorantly substituted for the masc[uline].” My impression is, however, that those who use the term at all are far from ignorant people and, moreover, include knowledgeable speakers of French and Italian.

Hence I see no reason impeding the pronunciation of this word [fortay] and much speaking in its favor.