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Archive for December, 2008

Not that Great of an Error?

Friday, December 19th, 2008

On Kieth Olberman’s MSNBC show “Countdown” last Tuesday, Howard Fineman of Newsweek said: “He doesn’t have that great of a story to tell,” instead of, “He doesn’t have that great a story to tell.” Why do people make this mistake?

The problem resides in the nature of quantifiers, which serve as both nouns and adjectives in sentences.  “Quantifier?” you might want to ask. “What is a quantifier?”

A quantifier is pretty much what it sounds like: a category of words that indicates quantities. Much, some, many are all quantifiers. So is little, as in, “Little of the money Madoff made off with can now be found.”

We know little in this case is a quantifier because of the presence of the preposition of following it. In English, of marks the items or substances that are measured by quantifiers. It is used with all the quantifiers mentioned above:

  • much of the money
  • some of the money
  • many of the investors


Unsurprisingly, numbers are also quantifiers, as we see in:

  • two of the investors
  • 43 of the investors
  • eleven of the investors


The problem is that all of these quantifiers can also function as adjectives: much money, some money, many people, a little dog; even the numbers: two investors, eleven investors. This is one of the characteristics of English quantifiers: they are both adjectives and nouns. This leads some to use pure adjectives as quantifiers, as Fineman did when he said, “that great of a story” where he apparently meant either “that great a story” or “that much of a story.”

In fact, the correct construction itself may be a syntactic curve ball that confuses some speakers.  Noun phrases like, “that great a story”, are unique in allowing the adjective to be placed before the article a(n). This construction may throw some speakers, leading them to think a preposition is missing. Well, it isn’t. That is a normal syntactic construction of English, one that proves the article does not always come first in a noun phrase.

Clichés and Idioms

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Someone (probably Paul Ogden) last month sent me a link to an article by Robert Fulford in the National Post of Canada called, “Are Clichés the Achille’s Heel of Language?” He comes to no conclusion (some clichés are bad; others are OK) but it opened the door to a question I have long pondered: “Why do literary critics and grammarians write so much about clichés but never mention idioms?

What are most often called clichés are, in fact, idioms. For example, if you enter “cat” into the amateurish Cliche-Finder website, the following idioms are produced:

rain cats and dogs
there’s more than one way to skin a cat
let the cat out of the bag
fat cat

These are not clichés but idioms. An idiom is a phrase that is a metaphor of the meaning intended, as cats and dogs really means “heavily, intensely”, while skin a cat in the second example simple mean “do anything”. The entire phrase fly off the handle means “to get angry” while to climb the walls means “to be extremely frustrated”.

These are idioms, phrases that cannot be interpreted word for word and each is, in fact, treated as though it were a single word. Unlike actual words, idioms are stored in the right side of our brain, the side that does holistic thinking. Right-brain thought interprets the world in terms of whole things rather than breaking them down into their individual components for interpretation. That is how we process idioms: pretty much the same way as we process individual words.

Clichés are, as any good dictionary will tell you, trite, overused expressions like sprawling epic, minor quibble, penetrating insight, emotional roller-coaster, mentioned in Fulford’s article. These are not idioms with one meaning, but rather analyzable phrases comprising individual words bundled together. The problem with them is that they are overused when other word combinations are possible, combinations that express more subtle semantic variations.

Clichés are turns of phrase that were original when first used but which have subsequently become boring and wooden, if not stilted. They need to be replaced by fresher metaphors: a hurricane of emotions for emotional rollercoaster, a petty quibble for minor quibble, an eye-opening insight for penetrating insight (or something better).

We could just as well say, expansive epic, broad epic, awkwardly oversized epic, and so on. In each case the phrase’s meaning is changed only by the meaning of the replacement adjective while the meaning of epic remains unchanged. By making such changes in different contexts, however, we achieve a higher level of subtlely and expressiveness.

We do not have this flexibility with idioms. We cannot adjust “fly off the handle” to “fly off the frying pan” or “leap off the handle” and still retain the reference to losing our temper. Unike those of the cliché, the meanings of idioms are tamper-proof.

All we can do to eliminate repetitious idioms from our speech and writing is to avoid them altogether. But avoiding idioms renders language lifeless and academic if not lexically prudish. Idioms are the curve balls of language that shape its character.

We have a separate category of jokes based on the potential literal interpretation of idioms (The flies in our kitchen are so frustrated they are climbing the walls). We play with them every day in other ways, as well. Idioms are, in fact, unavoidable in any written or spoken language that is alive. Long live idioms!

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.