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Archive for the 'Style & Usage' Category

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 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, 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.

Of Rubes and Reubens

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Carol Hood wrote just the other day with a cry for lexical help:

Duhhhh“I have recently been quietly informed that I used a racial slur in casual conversation. Needless to say I was appalled! PLEASE explain to me how the word rube when used to denote a rustic or unsophisticated person is a slur! We were with some Jewish friends and my helpful friend said I had used an ethnic slur…something about the origin of this word and the usually Jewish name, Reuben. She then alluded to the gradeschool song ‘Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking’ as a racially charged song in the same vein as rube. HELP!!”

There is no doubt that rube comes from Reuben for the word Reuben itself was used at the beginning of the 19th century to refer to yokels. Reuben is a Jewish name. However, Jews were never farmers in American and this term clearly originated as a derogatory reference to sod-busters (there’s a sure slur for you) in the US and Canada. No semantic connection.

It did not come from the circus term rube used in the circus May-day cry, “Hey, Rube!” referring to local yokels,  either. Reuben was used in this sense at least 80 years before the circus term appeared. The circus seems to have gotten its term from the same source.

I thought it might have originally been applied to the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers since Reuben is also sort of a German name However, it is not a common name among the PA Germans.

If all words implying that a person is ignorant, true or false, are slurs, this word is a slur. But if no one—including Jewish etymologists—can show that this word is related to a Hebrew name for sure, and some people deserving of the epithet do in fact exist, how can it be taken as an anti-Semitic slur?

Relational & Qualitative Adjectives

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

In an article entitled “Sarah Palin: A Big Gamble for Religious Conservatives” that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 2, 2008, 11:00 pm, Steven Waldman, the former national editor of U.S. News & World Report wrote: “After a year’s worth of stories about whether the religious right was ‘dead,’ they now seem to be flexing great muscle, helping to bring about the most antiabortion ticket running on the most antiabortion platform – ever.”

The most antiabortion platform is a grating phrase because a relational adjective is used here as a qualitative adjective. Relational? Qualitative? “You mean there are different kinds of adjectives?” I hear someone asking. In fact, there are about a half dozen different kinds of adjectives which most of us have little difficulty distinguishing and using properly.

A qualitative adjecive is sometimes called a “real” adjective because it has all the possible qualities of an adjective: it can be used in both predicate (the platform is simple) and attributive position (the simple platform), we can derive a noun and an adverb from it (simplicity, simply), and we can compare it (simpler, simplest or more simple, most simple).

A relational adjective is at the other end of the spectrum: it can only be used as an attribute (a naval maneuver). We can’t use relational adjectives in predicate position felicitously (the maneuver is naval), compare them (more, most naval maneuver). This type of adjective is most often derived from nouns without suffixes in English (a city regulation), which makes them relatively easy to spot.

English does have lots of filters for the misuse of vocabulary which make errors like the one mentioned above comprehensible. We understand that more antiabortion doesn’t make sense, so our minds supply the missing semantic pieces, giving us “the strongest antiabortion platform”. So, what’s the big deal? If we can figure out the meaning of the phrases, what is wrong with them?

Well, assuming that we should write as clearly as possible, if we mean the strongest antiabortion platform or the most antiabortionist platform, why not use one of these phrases rather than making the reader do the work for the writer? That way, no rules of grammar are broken, either.

We have to commend Waldman for avoiding the marketing term, pro-life (itself a relational adjective), but we also need to encourage the avoidance of all relational adjectives in the comparative or superlative degree.

A Press Obsessed with ‘Addiction’

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Google alerted me this morning to a blog article entitled “Addiction: The Most Overused Word in our Language” by a Fox News commentator named Greg Gutfeld. Since word usage is one of my interests I looked it up to discover, well, not much. Gutfeld concludes that addictions are simply diseases easily cured by disposing of the focus of he addiction: throwing the offending computer out the window, throwing all the booze out the window, throwing all the drugs out the window, and so on.

The point should have been that the media has long used addiction as a pejorative metaphor for obsession. This leads to the more interesting question of why the US news media has developed its current passion emphasize the negative in all it reports, most of which are about as well thought through as Gutman’s blog.

An addiction is a physical dependency on some chemical: narcotics, alcohol, nicotine—all sinful within the Puritan code of ethic. The pejorativity of this term comes from this ethic, which has inevitably worked its way into the laws of the land. Alcohol and smoking is controlled, narcotics are mostly illegal. This is because addictions do measurable physical and psychological damage to the addict.

An obsession, on the other hand, is an emotional dependency at worst, a passionate focus on one particular thing at best. We may become obsessed with the Web, a person, a job, items in a collection. You must be obsessed with your work to become a star: actors who devote themselves body and soul to acting, baseball players who can do nothing but play baseball, singers who obsessively sing night after night. Their obsessions clear their focus and make them better at their obsession than others who divide their time over a variety of interests.

Now, I’m obsessed with the Internet myself. I spend most of each day working on my website, arranging translations via the Internet, and creating glossaries and word lists from materials gathered on the Web. Like professional baseball players, singers, actors, I do it because I love it, because I am totally in awe of it—not because I am physically dependent on it. It does no physical or psychological harm to me that I am aware of and I have learned immensely from the community of logophiles around the world it connects me with.

Of course, I am also the last person on Earth who would disparage the use of metaphors (figurative usage). However, the reason we have a separate scientific vocabulary for lawyers, doctors, and researchers, a vocabulary of superprecise terms that are never used metaphorically, is that metaphor undermines objectivity like nothing else. Calling pig a pig is as objective as we can get but  calling a friend a pig metaphorically is about as subjective as we can get. Metaphor is everywhere in general speech, where it often leads to misunderstanding.

Using addiction as a pejorative metaphor for obsession, then, is simply one of the more subtler methods the US Press (among others) uses to skew public opinion toward fear and hatred. It is easily overlooked among the sledge-hammer methods we are more familiar with.

Feminism and Feminine Forms

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

A reader who wishes to be known only as “JC” recently sent this comment to our Good Word inamorato:

In response to the inamorato email which states (in regard to feminine/masculine forms); “The use of suffixes like -ette and -ess to distinguish females from males is now harshly frowned upon.”

I can’t help but chuckle, sometimes, at the supposed “good intentions” of our almost obsessively politically correct society. Such morphemes are very useful, and, I suspect, exist for this very reason, [that] they convey meaning much more efficiently.

I’ve noticed this over the last several years in relation to the term actor. The unacceptability of this morpheme now necessitates the use of the term “female actor(s)” if one needs to make such a reference.

Consider the information conveyed in the word bartendress—not in the dictionary, to my knowledge, but useful nonetheless. I shudder to think what would happen if such a fad took hold of a language like Nahuatl, in which there seem to be [a plethora of] morphemes that can be used to construct single words that are pregnant with meaning!

This American sport even takes the liberty of imposing itself on terms from other languages. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that a mixed group in the Romance languages, when referred to in the third person, will use the plural masculine pronoun unless it is composed of females.

Taíno, in reference to the Taíno Indians of the Carribean, is a word that has been Hispanicized (for obvious reasons), yielding Taínos for a (mixed) group and Taínas for a group of females.

In The Cave of the Jagua, an anthropological study about the Taíno Indians, the text constantly refers to “the Taínos and Taínas” just as readily as one would refer to “the English” or “the Germans”. Unfortunately, the Spanish language has made an insensitive and chauvinist distinction that now necessitates undoing.


Using ‘As’ as it Should be

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Barbara Zimmerman brought up a recurring question in connection with our recent Good Word mortify:

“Is it not more properly said: ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as she at the spring cotillion?’ I say that because the full version of the partially unspoken clause is ‘as she was wearing’? You wouldn’t say ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as her was wearing at the spring cotillion.’ Or at least I think you would not.”

Barbara is right, of course, I wouldn’t. But I also didn’t write “as she was wearing” but only “as her”.

The problem is that as, like most English function words, serves more than one function: it is both a preposition, which requires the objective case, and a conjunction, which requires no case at all since it introduces a full sentence. (It can also function as an adverb, by the way.) Using as as a preposition, it is perfectly fine to say things like: “as big as me”, “as round as the moon”, “as important as him”. Using it as a conjunction, we can say, “as big as I am,” “as round as the moon is,” or “as important as he is.”

So, to begin with, we can say “Portia Carr was wearing the same dress as her (Maud)” or “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing.” Both are perfectly grammatical and normal. However, it is also true that repeated phrases are consistently omitted in spoken and written English. So “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing,” may be shortened to “Portia was wearing the same dress as she was” or just “as she.” Again, either is perfectly grammatical and normal.

The issue here is not which is right or wrong but which is preferable in any given context. In most US dialects, the preposition as offers the same comparative sense as the conjunctive as, so both as she and as her are correct and acceptable.

Not all dialects outside the US allow the comparative meaning of the preposition (it has two or three others, too). This means that as her would not be acceptable or correct in those dialects. As is so often the case, the preference here boils down to which dialect we prefer—or your own personal preference.

Hard Words are not for Hard Heads

Friday, November 30th, 2007

I didn’t mean to stay away so long but for some curious reason many companies need word lists, word games, and glossaries this month and those who come to us (Lexiteria) have kept me very busy

One of our on-going projects here at Lexiteria is a dictionary of English affixes (prefixes and suffixes) including most Latin and Greek stems. The project is about 2/3 finished. Most of the words are either highly technical scientific terms that we are unfamiliar with or scientific terms we are marginally familiar with, so it is a time-consuming project.

In those giddy moments toward the end of the day, we begin to see potentialities in these words that were never intended by their creators. We even run some highly technical terms as Good Words at alphaDictionary just for fun. For example, when we ran across the medical term oocephalus “person with an egg-shaped head”, it struck me as the same as egghead. The latest example I couldn’t resist is pygalgia “buttocks pain”–pain in the butt. Look for it in December.

This exercise led me to question why we are interested in esoteric words with meanings already served by ordinary words. In science, of course, the purpose is unambiguous communications, so pygalgia was created to refer exclusively to phyical pain in the gluteus maximus. There is little chance that such words will wander away from medical usage and make their way into the sea of colloquial expressions we paddle our lives through.

So why are the rest of us interested in these words at all? Most of us, I would guess, aren’t. However, if you are reading this blog, you are probably among the few overliterate souls who are.

Curiosity is the best reason. Most of us reading this blog are simply fascinated at how words arise, how they are used, and what they tell us about ourselves and our history. Medical terms tell us a lot about Greek while legal terms introduce us to Latin. English is rich with “borrowings” from other languages. Technical terms like these, then, provide us with a kind of low-level language learning and, don’t forget, to know another language is to possess another soul.

More La-Di-Dahs and La-Di-Da’s

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

Sue Gold, Communications Director of Westtown School, was one of two Good Word readers who asked the question: “Why do you have to put an apostrophe before the s in la-di-da’s?”

ApostropheGood question. The traditional answer is that since “la-di-da” is not a real noun or verb, the apostrophe is appropriate. Words and other things used as major lexical categories have traditionally been marked by using an apostrophe between them and any suffixes that accrue to them, especially if omitting the apostrophe results in a odd-looking form.

Many writers in the US are moving away from this rule, though. I’ve long since given up on writing the decades with apostrophes, e.g. 1980s rather than the traditional 1980’s, since it is a number, not a noun.

In the midst of change like this, when there is no basis for a choice, I sometimes make my choice democratically just to keep the decision from being totally arbitrary: the la-di-da’s outnumber the la-di-das 2 : 1 on the Web (today). This fact probably reflects the fact that the non-noun rule is still in practice in all the other English-speaking regions of the world. Of course, democracy is not the way matters of style are settled so the question remains an unsettled one.

Of course, you can also use an H in this case: la-di-dahs.

La-di-da: Putting on the Dog

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Hanne Quillevere, a Good Word subscriber living in Canada, was reminded by today’s Good Word, la-di-da,of a funny phrase now slipping out use. She wrote:

“If you are up to dealing with a phrase, rather than a single word, how would you trace the meaning of the phrase, “putting on the dog”? I have now looked through four reference works on idioms, slang and quotations, and while “dog” appears many times, “putting on the dog” does not. I have always thought it meant something along the lines of today’s la-di-da.”

The Oxford English Dictionary reports the phrase “put on dog”, e.g. in A. Gilbert’s No Dust in Attic (1962) xiv. 190: “Matron put on a lot of dog about the hospital’s responsibility”. Here the phrase uses “dog” as a mass (uncountable) noun. The phrase generally means “to splurge, to make a flashy display” or, as one of the OED citations puts it: “cut the swell”. I have always heard it as “putting on THE dog”, too, but I heard it only when living in the South.

This phrase means to do something up in a showy fashion, a synonym of that lovely British phrase, “(dress up like) the dog’s dinner”. (These phrases must have arisen during a stretch when all British dogs were show dogs.) It isn’t the same as “la-di-da” but both these phrases refer to situations that might well elicit a “la-di-da” or two.