Sunday, December 28, 2008

Word Tidbits: Expatiate

In one of those lexical coincidences that befuddle many, I recently came across the word expatiate in two books in a row. I can't recall ever having seen the word before, and so I immediately made a note to research it for you folks.

Expatiate acts as an intransitive verb, meaning that it does not require an object. It generally gets an explanation, however, because it generally means digression or wandering off-course. Thus, if you could say, “I expatiate,” and have spoken a grammatically correct sentence, but your listener will wonder from what or about what. Actually, they'll probably ask you for a dictionary.

The roots of the word explain its meaning. Expatiate, as are so many English words, started in Latin and is built from the preposition ex, meaning out of or away from, and spatiatum, meaning space or course. You could use it thus: the captain allowed the ship to expatiate until the crew were convinced that they were hopelessly lost. I didn't find any similar examples, however. It seems that writers use the word as a synonym for expound or digress, and sometimes a combination of the two, instead of literally indicating a diversion from an intended course.

“I found myself expatiating on the merits of digital music at Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Alfred expatiated on office supply choices and his peculiar filing system rather than contributing helpfully to the meeting.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Loath and Loathe

Loath and loathe comprise two sides of the same linguistic coin. You can find many instances of the words being used interchangeably, perhaps because the pronunciations appear identical in text, but the silent "e" in loathe indicates that the word is a different part of speech.

Loth, or loath, works as a predicate adjective and means that the subject is unwilling or reluctant to act. Often, writers use loath to indicate that a character doesn't want to do something that they will do, whether by choice or not. "Bob was loath to touch the gelatinous goo, but reached out a trembling, exploratory finger anyway." The word it pronounced just how it looks, with a long "o" sound.

Loathe, on the other hand, acts as a verb, indicating that the subject hates, detests, or is disgusted by something. "Bob loathed the way the goo oozed about the table, seeming to search for a way to escape." Check the Merriam Webster page for the pronunciation. I can't think of a way to explain the "-the" sound here.

So, you can be loath to do what you loathe. While some placed claim that the spellings are interchangeable, I'd be loath to use them so. It would serve only to confuse readers because they won't be able to tell the difference on the screen or page. Forcing them to stop reading and start interpreting weakens your writing and make readers far more likely to stop entirely. I'd loathe that, personally.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The -Ous Suffix

I’ve spent a few days searching for a definition of the adjective suffix -ous. One would think, given the thousands of English grammar and language sites on-line, that finding such a definition would be simple. One would be mistaken. I found many sites that purport to list suffixes and their respective meanings, but nary a one included a -us or -ous ending. Thus, I’ve begun a list of such words and an inexact definition of each.

I aim, here, to find a meaning of the -ous suffix for adjectives. Thus, the following “definitions” focus on what that suffix adds to the root word rather than the meaning of the word as a whole. As a rule, dictionary and etymology resources cite Latin origins for these words ending in -us. Then again, many Latin words share that ending and do not take an –ous suffix, so I can’t leap to the conclusion that those two circumstances are related.

If you know of anything that these words share in common in their respective histories, please let me know. You may see a theme emerging, below. If I find or learn more, especially a more widely-accepted definition, I’ll post again. Until that happens, my list stands as follows:

  • tortuous (and circuitous) - in a complicated or round-about manner
  • devious - in a deviant or devilish manner
  • capricious - in the manner of caprice (a whim)
  • joyous - in a joyful manner
  • felicitous - in a happy manner
  • delicious - in a delightful manner
  • porous - having pores (in an open or penetrable manner)
  • voluminous - having volume (in a large manner)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

My 300-Posts Review

I thought I should recognize my 300th post (since I completely missed number 250) by talking about what has been successful and interesting about the blog, from my point of view. I'm going to do one of those self-congratulatory posts, in other words, so if you don't want to find out my most humorous or curious recent search term or the posts that bring the most people here, you might want to skip this one. If you're one of those curious and easily amused people, however, as I am, you might find this mildly entertaining.

My post about when and where to use commas in dates reigns as far and away the most-visited post I've made to date. In fact, using commas in general has been a huge area for exploration. Punctuation creates a lot of confusion, and I'm glad to see that people look for answers rather than just “winging it”.

It seems that Americans are searching for ways to describe their Thanksgiving holiday, as I had a few versions of “Thanksgiving adjectives” pop up in recent search engine activity. I don't know if schools assigned papers and One Step Forward offers more entertainment than a thesaurus, but apparently there was some sort of draw here. I can't imagine what help they found, but I hope that something useful matched their collective query. The reason was Thanksgiving, 2007's post about adjectives in general.

More strange than that were the two people who arrived here in search of “pump your brain” information or tips. I've written more than once that writing exercises help you do just that, and that post pops up at number five for the phrase on Google, but I still don't know for what those searchers were looking. I must admit that there were search terms on topics I've not yet addressed, but I'll certainly use them for future inspiration. Thank you all for your interest and feedback. I'll “see” you in December!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Punny Business: I Couldn't Resist

Normally, I write my own material, but I couldn't resist posting this groaner list of puns.

  1. The roundest knight at King Arthur's round table was Sir Cumference.
    He acquired his size from too much pi.
  2. I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.
  3. She was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still.
  4. A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class because it was a weapon of math disruption.
  5. The butcher backed into the meat grinder and got a little behind in his work.
  6. No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.
  7. A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
  8. A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart.
  9. Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
  10. Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
  11. A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.
  12. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
  13. Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat said to the other, "You stay here, I'll go on a head."
  14. I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger. Then it hit me.
  15. A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center read, "Keep off the Grass".
  16. A small boy swallowed some coins and was taken to a hospital. When his grandmother telephoned to ask how he was, a nurse said, "No change yet."
  17. A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.
  18. It's not that the man did not know how to juggle, he just didn't have the balls to do it.
  19. The short fortune-teller who escaped from prison was a small medium at large.
  20. The man who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
  21. A backward poet writes inverse.
  22. In democracy it's your vote that counts. In feudalism it's your count that votes.
  23. When cannibals ate a missionary, they got a taste of religion.
  24. Don't join dangerous cults: practice safe sects!
A Happy Thanksgiving to the Americans among you, my readers.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bad English Grammar from around the World

Some days, I get so interested in reading the rants of others that I forget to write my own. Today is one of those days. I'd like to share some of those rants with you, both because they relate to grammar and because I like to demonstrate that I'm not the only one who has strong feelings about the English language. If you've got a rant of your own, or a favorite post that relates, please add a comment with the link.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Help with Diagramming Sentences

I've long harbored the idea of including complicated sentence diagrams on One Step Forward, but I've come to accept that I have neither the space nor the graphics skills to make them worth our collective while. I firmly believe that diagramming sentences gives people insight into how language fits together and helps them learn to identify various parts of speech. Then again, I could simply by trying to rationalize my inordinate fascination with the practice.

Whatever the case, I'd like to draw your attention to several sites that focus on diagramming sentences. While you may have as much difficulty as I do diagramming them on the computer, doing so with pencil and paper--especially when you use a different color pencil for each part of speech--forces you to focus on how the words in any sentence relate to each other. You find yourself considering the function of each piece of a sentence, and once you see that function you can better decide whether you truly need that piece of the puzzle or it simply wastes words and dilutes your point.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Toney Topic for Today

I've always found the adjective "toney" to be a mite pretentious, which fits my plebeian lifestyle. I never gave it much thought, however, until I recently read a sentence regarding a "tony" club. Being me, I got to thinking about the word itself.

Toney, or the more-common tony, simply describes something as having "tone". The tone indicated thus has nothing to do with music but with social standing. It implies an upper-crust flavor or a sense of "quality" in an aristocratic sense.

Tony has rather fallen out of favor as an adjective, so its use caught my attention. It gives a rather British air to the thing being described, at least in my perception, perhaps because the arguably-aristocratic American families tend to behave so badly, whether they are Kennedys, Hiltons, or Trumps.

In considering the word toney, I tried to recall when last I'd heard it used. I suspect that it came in an older British novel, perhaps from Agatha Christie although her stories generally did not involve such upper-crust locales. Perhaps it was in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. If you've seen someone or something described as tony, please let me know. I would be interested to know if I'm simply not reading toney publications or if there really are fewer things deserving such an adjective.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Are You Onto Something?

Many of my questions come from my reading, when I see usage that I know should never have made it past an editor or phrases that I think have been used incorrectly. Recently, an author used the phrase "he was onto something" several times, and I found myself unable to decide whether he should have written "on to something". (Clearly, I need to start reading books with more absorbing plots, but that's a discussion for another blog.)

When you use a phrasal verb that includes the preposition "on", you use "on to". Thus, "they walked on to the next block" means something different than "they walked onto the next block." The former indicates that they, whoever they may be, kept walking (walked on) to the next block. The latter means that they walked until they were upon a block, and would be interpreted more likely as a block of wood or stone than the street between two intersections. You can easily establish the difference "moving on" and "moving onto", for another example.

In the phrase "he was onto something", however, you are not using a phrasal verb but merely a verb of existence, a form of "to be". The phrase is an idiom. I ran across another version of the idiomatic use of onto, "they're onto us". Both phrases offer the same sense of a subject having knowledge of a hidden or little-known predicate. In all of the scholarly discussions of these idioms, however, the authors have used onto in their examples. I take that to be the consensus, then. I think I'm onto something, there.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Risible and Derisive

I ran across the word "risible" in a book, recently, and immediately thought of "derisive". Specifically, I wondered if something that you found risible would generate derisive laughter, and using both words in a sentence would make it redundant. That, of course, meant that I needed to research the question for you folks.

The adjective risible indicates that something is generally related to laughter. The common usage adds an element of contempt to that laughter, and saying that someone's ideas are risible means that they are foolish and thus laughable. So far, so good.

When you deride someone, whether through derisive laughter or some other method, you show contempt or scorn. But do risible and derisive share roots, and did the "ris" portion of both words grow from another indicating such contempt?

Not exactly. Risible grew from the Latin verb "risus", the past participle of "ridere", which means "to laugh". That seems fairly straightforward. If you add the "de" to "ridere", you get another Latin word, one that means "to laugh at" or "to scorn". The "de" preposition is translated as "down" or "away from". If you "laugh down" at someone, you deride them.

So now you know that, when you let you boss know that you found his proposal risible, the derision may escape his attention if he possess a limited vocabulary but it still applies. Just do yourself a favor and save the peals of derisive laughter for your trip home.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hey, Apple! Funnest Is Not a Word

I've posted before concerning my dislike for inventive spelling in company names or who can't spell the name of their product. I've even ranted about badly-written advertisements.

Apple manages to offend under both of the latter two categories. They can offer no earthly reason for the lower-case "i" at the beginning of their product names except an attempt at cuteness. They then compound the problem by adding slang in the tag line for their newest, unnecessary, and over-priced product. What, pray tell, is so wrong with saying they've made the "most fun" device in their catalog?

In case you don't understand the problem, let me explain. Funnest is not a word. The adjective "fun" does not take suffixes to specify degrees of just how enjoyable of a thing it modifies. You can write that you had "more fun" or "less fun" or that an activity was the "most fun" you've ever had. Funner and funnest are the sorts of mistakes that teachers explain away by the third grade.

And so, I've lost respect for Apple. I would have thought that a company priding itself on appearing intelligent and well-informed would have told the advertising company that pitched this ad just where they could have some fun (playing on the freeway, for instance). Instead, they've chosen illiterate-looking over intelligent-sounding ads. For shame, Apple.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Is a Sentence, Anyway?

In all of the months I've blathered on about grammar basics and writing, not once have I dedicated a whole post to deciding whether your sentences actually are. I've certainly mentioned in passing the criteria, but I thought it about time to specify the requirements in one place.

A sentence requires two essential elements to qualify as such. It must posses a subject and a predicate, minimally a noun or pronoun and a verb, either written or understood. I could write a sentence as simple as, "Sit." In this example, we understand that I mean "You sit" and likely that I mean you to sit on something--your behind, at least, if not on a particular spot.

Hey! Only an interjection may violate this basic rule, and even then it may be considered a part of the related sentence. In the case of an interjection, the entire context may be understood and a mere ejaculation suffice to register your surprise or displeasure. But I've wandered into risqué territory and away from the point.

The subject of a sentence may be found by asking who or what receives the action or feeling of the sentence. About which thing has the sentence been written? No matter how many phrases, clauses, and other decorations are hung upon it, you must specify a central topic for your sentence. You may complicate matters by writing about "Bob, Jules, and Nancy" but they, as a set, still constitute a subject.

The predicate explains something about the subject--action that it performs or receives, its feeling, or its state of being. There are a whole lot of grammar terms that can be used in relation to the words in the predicate, but the whole point remains that they describe the subject or its action and are not the subject.

Thus, you may write: Bob, Jules, and Nancy, dancers all, attended the fourth annual holiday recital in Quebec. The subject remains "Bob, Jules, and Nancy" while the predicate begins with "attended". It explains what the subjects did, where, and when (even if you have to do a web search to find out on what date and time the recital took place). No matter the complexity, you cannot have a sentence without a subject and a predicate. Specifying only one or the other leaves you (and your audience) with a fragment, and often with only a fragment of your meaning.

If this came across as unclear as I think it did, please drop me a note about where your need for clarification lies. Thank you. (You understood the "I" as the subject in that sentence, didn't you?)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Parts of Speech Round-Up

While I've written plenty about the various parts of speech, I'd not thought to specify a list of them. Recently, however, I've noticed that a fair amount of you folks have wandered by in search of information about one or more of those topics. In order to facilitate your finding those posts, I thought I'd gather the basic information here. Tomorrow, I'll post about the next step: what makes a sentence?


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Word Tidbits: Enunciate or Annunciate

While not a commonly-used word, annunciate can be easily confused with enunciate. In truth, I'd never heard the word until a co-worker did actually confuse the two. Naturally, I researched it.

Enunciate comes from the Latin root word, nuntius, meaning messenger. The prefix "ex" was added and shortened, and the word meant an announcement from a messenger. Over the centuries, however, the use, and thus the definition, have evolved. When you use enunciate now, you generally refer to careful and particular pronunciation of something. Do you see that root word, again?

Annunciate comes from the very same Latin word with the added prefix "ad", creating the word annuntiare. It meant, and still means, "to announce". Why, pray tell, do we need a longer word for announce? Obviously, we don't. That's likely why you rarely, if ever, hear it used, except in the most formal of settings. Lawyers may use it, as it has come to specifically refer to the announcement of a judicial sentence.

While I'm at it, I'll write about pronounce, or pronunciate, as well. Clearly, it shares the same root with the prefix "pro" attached. Pro now means "in favor of", but as a Latin preposition it meant "before" or "in front of". Now, the combination implies a less-public sense of announcement, although you're more likely to hear about a judge pronouncing sentence than annunciating it.

The grey shades of difference between these words make selecting the appropriate form rather more a matter of knowing your audience than exercising your vocabulary. If you enunciate your pronunciation, listeners can clearly understand your words. When writing, choose the words according to their common usage rather than their roots. If your readers will be distracted by annunciate when you could just as well use announce in the sentence, KISS - Keed It Simple, Sweetheart. If you don't, your readers may well renounce you.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

More Avoidable Errors

The time has again arrived for some real-world examples of avoidable errors that I discovered in on-line articles. Please enjoy these examples of various writers' inattention to their work. Consider them reminders of why proofreading matters.

"Also, it is non-polluting and environment friendly rather than nauseous gases of most cars nowadays."

This sentence should read: "Also, they are non-polluting and environmentally friendly, as opposed to the noxious gases created by most cars these days." That's still unfocused, but at least it has the right words and punctuation marks. You could hyphenate "environment-friendly", if you choose, but it sounds awkward. The more common phrase works better, here.

"The LS427's body lines are elegant in every since of the word with one of, if not the classiest interiors."

Try, "The body lines of the LS427's show elegance in every sense of the word. The car offers one of--if not the--classiest interiors available, as well." The body lines don't relate to the interior and thus should be in a separate sentence. The original sentence was constructed as completely passive, as well, and included the "since" error.

"My bags were carefully packed, my trip precariously planned."

Since the author was trying to make the point in this paragraph that she had carefully prepared, I can only assume that she does not know the meaning of the word "precariously". She likely meant "meticulously".

When you proofread, using a dictionary or thesaurus, you avoid these sorts of errors. Your readers will thank you for your diligence and you will look much more intelligent.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Objects: Direct or Not

Direct and indirect objects create some confusion in the study of English grammar. In essence, a direct object receives the action of a verb, while an indirect object is involved more obliquely. If you write, "I sent the results to Bob," the results act as a direct object, since they are what you sent. Bob is an indirect object.

The source of the confusion lies in the argument that Bob received the results and thus it sounds perfectly direct. But the prepositional phrase "to Bob" acts as the indirect object because Bob wasn't sent, the results were. The phrase modifies the verb, explaining the direction of the action but not the actual object on which the verb acts.

Remember that you can only have a direct object with a transitive verb. That's one way to figure out whether your sentence contains a direct object. If you can create a full sentence with only the subject and verb (e.g. "I slept"), then the rest of the sentence is comprised of adverbs and adjectives, probably.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Some words act as both transitive and intransitive verbs, depending on the sentence. I told you this was confusing. To decide whether your sentence contains a direct object, you'll have to consider the elements rather than depending on rules of thumb. Why should you care? That's a topic for another day.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

More Confusable Vocabulary

It's been a bit since I went through some of the commonly confused terms. I've got a few laying around, waiting to be explained, but none that warrant a full post of their own. If you're looking for more, just check the versus page of this blog. For today, let's look at practicable versus practical, discomfort versus discomfit, and allude versus refer.

Practical versus Practicable

You can do something practicable. It is possible, viable, and doable. It may not, however, be practical.

Building a mechanism like those elaborate contraptions that cross rooms and use marbles and household objects to crack your eggs and drop your toast in the morning may be practicable, but they're a total waste of time and effort and, thus, are not practical. Describing something as practicable doesn't necessarily mean that it is a waste of time or money, but describing that same thing as practical means that it is not.

Discomfit versus Discomfort

Although discomfit grew out of the French word for defeat or destroy, writers and speakers more commonly use it today to say that someone has been confused or embarrassed, often through having been thwarted.

You may find yourself in discomfort, that is feeling uneasy or awkward, because of having been discomfited, but the word discomfort does not imply that sense of having lost a battle, whether physical or verbal.

Refer versus Allude

You can refer to a dictionary, a person, or an idea. But in order to do so, you must speak or write of it directly. If you wish to be more circumspect, you allude to something. An allusion is simply an indirect reference.

I think that's probably enough fascinating vocabulary for one day. Stay tuned for another round of "which means what", the next time I'm feeling so inspired. And if you've got a pair of words confounding you, please let me know.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Intransitive Verbs in Transition

Reading ESL pages can give you a new perspective on English grammar. In reading about particles, I ran across a page about phrasal verbs because the preposition portion of such verbs acts as a particle rather than serving as an actual preposition.

I was reminded of the terms "transitive" and "intransitive" for verbs, the former meaning a verb that takes an object and the latter indicating one that cannot. For this post, I am disregarding linking verbs, which are wholly passive and merely attach the predicate to the subject without any action on either part.

Many verbs act as either transitive or intransitive, depending on the context of the sentence. "This box holds my favorite records" would be incomplete without the object, but "The dam will hold" is not.

It turns out, though, that you can convert an intransitive verb into a transitive one, in many cases, simply by adding a preposition and making it a phrasal verb. (I bet you were wondering how I was going to tie together the two.) This I can write, perfectly grammatically, "She runs." If I add "with", then I have to write, "She runs with a bad crowd."

Using a phrasal verb converts the intransitive run into a verb that requires a direct object in order for the sentence to be complete. And, because this addition forces the further addition of a direct object but does not behave like a preposition, it's a particle.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Does Autumn Fall?

Hubby and I have an ongoing disagreement about the correct term for this time of year in the northern hemisphere. He contends that autumn designates that part of fall during which trees shed their leaves. I contend that that makes no sense, and that the terms are synonymous.

Naturally, these discussion made me research the question. Even more naturally, I wanted to share what I found with you folks. While I don't intend to rub his nose in it, I had the right idea.

I uncovered the most interesting explanation of the etymology and usage of fall and autumn at The Weather Notebook. You can read the transcript or listen to it, if you've got a Real Audio player. In essence, both terms were used in Great Britain during the 1500s but fall became less and less favored there and has evolved into a mostly North American word for the season.

Most etymological references listed autumn as originating from the Old French word autompne, which has since dropped the complicating p. lists the common information, which appears to be eerily similar (read: nearly identical) to the Wikipedia article. Which came first hardly matters, as the shorter references that I read agree with both.

Monday, September 1, 2008

De-Fluffing Abstract Nouns

Abstract nouns refer to concepts and other intangibles. In the phrase "freedom of the press", "the press" is a concrete thing that enjoys the abstract "freedom".

You need abstract nouns to discuss abstract things like ideas and feelings. Superheroes need them to defend truth, justice, and the American way. But therein lies a problem.

People do not define such things the same way. What I believe to demonstrate the epitome of justice may seem, to you, to be utterly unjust. Because of their insubstantial nature, writers must take care when using abstract nouns.

To get your point across, make sure that you add concrete nouns that define your abstractions. In discussing freedom, for instance, give specific examples of what it means to you. Do you believe that the press "is free" to write whatever they like, regardless of the source or veracity? What limits exist to that freedom?

Without such examples, you leave your readers to puzzle out your meaning or to insert their own. They may come away from your piece with quite the opposite idea that you intended.

You cannot get philosophical without abstract nouns. Logic itself cannot be touched or tasted. But hazy language will never convince readers of anything, even simply to suspend their disbelief long enough to read your short story. Back them up with hard examples into which your readers can really sink their teeth.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Do You Really Mean It?

After a rash of posts this week at BlogCatalog in which "really" appeared in quotation marks, I was moved to explore this overused word. Really acts as an adverb that intensifies other words or means "in truth" or "in fact".

Really does not, however, indicate the degree to which a writer wished to intensify the word modified. For that reason, many regard it as a fluff word, intended only to take up space rather than to add meaning to your sentences. In telling your readers that you feel "really sad", really only implies "more than a little".

In that case, you may as well use "very sad", as both nondescript words leave your readers with a nebulous idea of your intentions. Rather, you could specify that you are morose, that you feel dejected, or that you are prostrated with grief. All give your audience a clearer idea of what you mean.

It its other use, really stands for "actually" or "truly". These adverbs intensify words as well. After an accomplishment in a new hobby, you may write that you consider yourself "really a lacrosse player, now". You played the game before, but you feel more like a player after the new experiences.

While this second definition works better to explain your intent to your readers, really has garnered such a poor reputation from its excessive use that you would do better to avoid it. You can alter your sentence and use the adjective form of real. Instead of "I am really a lacrosse player, now," you can write "I am a real lacrosse player, now." Thus you make clear that you felt like a pretender until your recent successes. Then again, you could just write that and remove all doubt.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Particles of Grammar

I was considering tag questions, today, and wondering how they would be classed in terms of the parts of speech. Much to my surprise, I discovered that linguists consider them to be particles. Naturally, I had to learn more.

Grammarians identify uninflected words that explain the grammatical purpose of other words. The lack of inflection sets particles apart from other parts of speech. They lack the ability to indicate number, gender, tense, or person. Thus "the" operates as a particle while "an" does not. The latter modifies only a singular word or phrase, such as "an open house".

Tag questions are a more interesting subset of grammar particles. They exist as additions to a declarative sentence, either to flip its meaning from positive to negative, or vice versa, or to add a fillip of sarcasm. "You'd like waffles for breakfast, wouldn't you?" "You'd like waffles for breakfast, would you?" The former hints to the addressee that he or she would, indeed, like some waffles. The latter implies that asking for waffles is a bit much, and that perhaps cold cereal would have been a more reasonable request.

I'll be posting more about particles in the future, as I'm not yet clear on the difference between an article and a particle, outside of the additional letter p. If you've got questions or insight to share, I'd welcome it, wouldn't I?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cleaning Up After Yourself: Editing

Editing your writing can be harder than composing a piece in the first place. While enjoying the heat of creation, you can blaze through five hundred words, marveling at your own cleverness and erudition. Only with a little time and some self-discipline can you see that what you found witty was only cute and that your brevity came at the price of skipping a word or two, destroying your clarity.

You can find editing advice all over the web. Most places, including my own editing suggestions, reiterate some of the same key points. Most of them bear repeating because writers forget or ignore them so often.

From time to time, you can find new editing tips in the mix. Things like changing the font of your piece and covering all but the line or paragraph you are editing can help you focus on the words themselves rather than getting distracted by the piece as a whole. These tricks make spelling and grammatical errors stand out from the concept on which you were concentrating when you wrote the piece.

Take some time to explore the editing advice you see on-line. Reminders to read your writing aloud and to check for subject/verb agreement call your attention to these basics, and new ideas can help you improve your writing by offering tools that make your editing time effective and less frustrating.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Word Tidbits: Macaroni

In reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I came across this phrase: "He had been a macaroni of the eighteenth century". Having not seen that use before, I immediately thought to share it with you. Naturally, I hastened to find a definition outside of the more familiar noodle associations. I could only guess that Oscar Wilde did not mean that Mr. Gray's ancestor was, indeed, a piece of pasta.

Labeling the man a macaroni, in this case, meant that he had been well-traveled and affected foreign habits and mannerisms. In essence, the man was a poser and a fop, a well-dressed trend follower.

Finally, I understand the meaning of the words to Yankee Doodle. Calling the feather "macaroni" was not some sort of pasta hallucination. Nay, young Mr. Doodle meant his hat to be Continental and suave. My sympathy for him has evaporated, as I used to think he suffered from some sort of mental illness and now know that he was, quite simply, an imitator.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another Freelance Resource

I've spent some time today writing for clients at Textbroker. (There is no referral program that I know of, and that is not an affiliate link.) I just joined the site, and immediately found assignments that I could fulfill with a little research and a little time.

I spent about two hours exploring the site and writing to two such assignments. One of them took five minutes to complete and will pay about $1.50 when it's accepted. If I find and complete even half a dozen of those in the course of an hour, that works out to nine dollars for very little effort. The other was longer and pays a penny a word. My by-line won't appear, but I'm content to ghostwrite for that sort of pay.

In a case like this, where you are ghostwriting for another site, it behooves you to read the content already posted. For my first assignment, the site displayed articles in the third person with little individual personality displayed. The second was a blog-style post in which I could write more freely, as myself. Had I not paid attention to the existing style of the sites, I might have written them not as the clients wished and had them rejected. What a waste of time that would be for me and for them.

I will wait and see what comes of this site, but to go from first sight to earning over $5 in two hours doesn't seem too bad to me. At the very least, the assignments will work as writing exercises, to help me practice using different styles for various topics. Were I freelancing full-time, I could fit these little pieces between larger tasks to supplement my income.

Clients can ask you directly to take an assignment at this site, which seems like an excellent way to break into freelance writing. I will also have clips on-line that I can add to my portfolio. These can display versatility and skill to prospective clients without requiring links to Helium or Associated Content. Both sites are good for their purposes, but many publications feel that their lack of professionalism in general carries a stigma that it may be best to avoid.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Invaluable Consideration

Contrary to initial appearances, the word invaluable does not mean worthless or without value. Although the in- prefix adds "not" to the word valuable, you have to take into consideration the structure of the word.

Valuable essentially means "of worth", so adding an in- prefix would create a word that means "not of worth". That seems pretty straightforward, but it isn't what is happening here.

Invaluable actually consists of three parts: the prefix in-, the root value, and the suffix -able. When you define value as "place a price on", the meaning comes clear. An invaluable service is not worthless but one on which a value cannot be placed, one which we are not able to value. Thus, priceless and of inestimable value work as synonyms. Why you would choose to use the latter when the word invaluable means the same thing and requires fifty percent fewer characters, I couldn't say.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Dictionary Foolishness: Everybody and Everyone

I attempted to research any difference between everybody and everyone today. I discovered a curious thing: Merriam-Webster each of these terms by using the other. Everyone is defined as “every person: everybody” while everybody displays an even more succinct definition of “everyone”. defines both as “every person”. From everything else that I read, writers make no distinction in use between the two. Both are indefinite pronouns. The only difference I could uncover was that everyone originated in the 1100s and everybody dates back to the 1500s.

I find no reason to believe that one or the other works in more formal writing. If you seek a formal version, try using the word each, instead. Each person or one or student means the same as everybody, as well.

Which term you choose depends solely on your preference. All of these terms work the same, to indicate a single person in a group without specifying which one is meant. Everybody knows that, and everyone has his or her own writing style. Each of us may avoid the entire question by writing in the second person. All of you can do that, can't you?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Some Unexpected Validation

A few months ago, I posted about phrases like way back when. I wondered if the word way should have an apostrophe at its beginning, since it acts as an abbreviation of the word away or the phrase far and away.

The answer that I arrived at was that there is no answer. I could find no indication that the apostrophized version had ever been standard or, indeed, that it had been considered by more than one other person.

Imagine my delight when, in my rereading of Joseph Heller’s delightful Catch 22, I came across the following:

“…if the chaplain’s reticent, unimpressive manner were really just a sinister disguise masking a fiery ambition that, 'way down deep, was crafty and unscrupulous.”
This provides no further information on the etymology of that use of way or away, but I’m relieved to know that I’m not alone in my belief that such phrases warrant an apostrophe. I’d welcome any other examples or opinions, though.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Bad Examples for Writers

We have come to another round of scolding for lazy or under-educated writers. Today's examples come from articles and discussion boards where people ought to know better. Revel in the snark, and add your own examples if you feel moved so to do.

“Do bare in mind...” While this gentleman may have meant, “Do think about removing my clothes (or your own),” I suspect that he intended to ask the reader to “bear in mind” the concepts he went on to address.

“I haven't tried that one yet, but I about bet I could get it accomplished too!” This beauty appeared as part of an article. The author wondered why it had been rejected for payment. It closes out a four-sentence, introductory paragraph and springs the second exclamation point in those four sentences. Nowhere in the introduction does our illustrious author mention the subject of the article. At this point, the article appears to be about the feasibility of grilling cookies.

The “writer” follows the example sentence with a passive construction and a sentence fragment, both proudly displaying their own exclamation points. I don't remember the last time I was that excited about cooking, even on the grill.

“No amount of money can ever be set aside to reward teachers.” As the intent of the article from which I took this was to praise and support teachers, I presume that the writer intended to say just the opposite of this. Since the author claims to be a teacher, one would think he or she would have written, “There can never be enough money set aside to reward teachers.” I'd respectfully disagree with that notion, but at least the article would make sense.

“...I want to bring in examples of studies from the news or political poles.” Another teacher apparently uses some sort of sticks or perhaps signs gathered from various candidates. I suppose she could have meant that she uses “political polls” as examples for her classes. I would have assumed that this was a typographical error, except that the same spelling appears later in the paragraph.

“it's all about the benjimins!” The horrors of this “sentence” do not bear exploration. I simply offer it so that you may feel better about your own writing abilities. I realize that discussion boards do not require the formality of an article, but a small dose of not looking like an idiot would make his advice much more credible. Surely, you would never write something replete with capitalization and spelling errors, based in a passe cliché, would you, dear reader?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Word Tidbits: An Etymological Quandary

I find myself in a quandary today, as I intended to write about the origins of that word but have been unable to identify any solid idea of them. Most dictionaries list the origin as “unknown”. I quite like some of the synonyms, however. I may be on the horns of a dilemma, in a state of perplexity, or simply in a predicament.

The only tentative etymology I could find for quandary was in a book titled Notes on English Etymology by Walter William Skeat. This entry discussed outlines an interesting but ultimately doubtful theory. Most sources that hazard a guess at all list the word as dating from the late 1500s. Some of them indicate that the word is rooted in the Latin quando, meaning when, but no one seems certain how it came to be used.

I apologize for such a scanty entry, but the word fits so nicely with its meaning and is part of such an evocative set of terms that I still wanted to write about it. Please share any other words or phrases you use for uncertain or untenable situations.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Another Grammar Resource

I uncovered a new and fascinating resource, today. Daniel Kies at the College of DuPage has compiled and generously shared an entire set of books for his English students at various levels.

Not only does Mr. Kies tackle such complications as the adverbial “but” and clausal ambiguity, but has posted a lengthy exploration of the necessity (or lack thereof) for a comma after an introductory phrase or clause. The site labels this as the first tip of the week, but I was unable to find a second. I can only hope that more will be forthcoming, as the Mr. Kies appears still to be developing the site.

I also uncovered an interesting piece about nominalization and the ever-dreaded passive voice. While I haven't had time to explore the courses, I wanted to take some time out of my reading to pass on this resource. I hope that you find it as attention-absorbing as I have.

(That was my subtle way of saying that I have once again squandered my blogging time performing unrelated research, or simply reading something I found interesting rather than concentrating on my topic. Tomorrow I'll writing something insightful and deep. I hope.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Word Tidbits: Describing Naughty Behavior

I was asked recently about whether you could use shenanigans in the singular. While shenanigan appears to be a perfectly acceptable word, I could not find any examples of its having been used, either in definition exemplars or in normal sentences. Except, that is, for examples in which an apostrophe was added in error. There are many examples of “Shenanigan’s” bar or coffee shop or blog. I blame the movie Office Space.

The real reason I am writing this, however, lies not in the shenanigans of apostrophe abusers. I want to remind the world of a fabulous word with a related meaning, one that has sunk beneath the seas of public regard. Yes, I am attempting raise skulduggery from its watery grave.

I’ve always spelled the word with two ls and associated it with pirates. Much to my chagrin, the word appears to be Scottish in origin and has nothing to do with buried treasure and dead men telling no tales. I still like it as a word, however. Meriam-Webster lists both spellings as acceptable and will give you the modern definition.

Don’t forget these two ways to describe the hanky panky perpetrated by others. Label their monkey business appropriately, and call them on their mischief, light-hearted or not.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Comparative Adjectives Work Better

Today's public service announcement concerns comparative adjectives and the abuse thereof. Be careful when using these handy tools and remember that an added suffix that shows the degree of comparison makes a “more” or “most” superfluous.

While Branford Marsalis may have believed that he had more better blues than, say, Satchmo or BB King, what he really had was Spike Lee's grammatical error. Comparative adjectives and adverbs like better and taller work without the modifier “more”, unless you use the positive form (more swift or more good, although the latter makes no sense when better is around).

You can say that Mr. Marsalis plays more, better blues. In this case, you apply two comparative adjective to one noun, “blues”. You could also write that Keb' Mo' has more and better blues than Johnny Lang. The problem comes when you attempt to make a comparative adjective more so. Daft Punk may work better, harder, faster, and stronger, but they would never act “more faster”. They may, however, move more quickly, using an adverb modified by the comparative “more”.

You need “more” and “most” only when the word you choose does not accept the “-(i)er” or “-(i)est” suffixes and does not have irregular forms like bad, worse, and worst. You could write about the more haphazard arrangements or the most beautiful sunsets, but the beautifulest landfill exists only in the minds of lazy grammarians.

I need not make this post longer. Someday soon, I'll tackle the list of adjectives that does not accept degrees of comparison. Many fans of the English language hold that pet peeve near and dear. Until then, be cautious in your comparisons.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Writing Links to Keep You Busy

On this lazy, rainy day, I've decided to do some blog hopping. That means juicy links for you, my favorite readers.

  • Bob Younce at The Writing Journey shares 178 writing tips. You'll find dozens of good reminders and a slew of handy links.
  • One of those was to Vanessa Guinta's blog, where I found support for my “hunt down and kill the passive voice” stance.
  • Freelance Writing Gigs delivers not just what their title promises but a useful post and discussion about paid blogging jobs.
  • Georganna Hancock covers the difference between since and because at A Writer's Edge.
  • The Word Strumpet, Ms. Charlotte Rains Dixon, offers some tips for what to do when you're spinning your writing wheels.
  • In her sidebar, I found a link to Ink Provoking, a good-sized set of writing prompts. While they don't appear to live up to their subtitle, there are plenty of prompts to tide you over.
  • 11 Rules of Writing now has a discussion forum. One of the boards is dedicated to writing pet peeves. I may never leave, if I dare to enter. I'll certainly never finish this post if I start reading and responding there.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Word Tidbits: Gauche

Tim over at McWriters posted on the etymology of the word gauche the other day. I've always found it to be a useful insult, perfectly suited to the sort of snobby disdain it implies.

As a lefty, however, I take exception to the word. While I have suffered many a clumsy episode, I do not lack social refinements, nor am I devious, deviant, or dangerous. Gauche and the Latin "sinister" imply all of these flaws. What a hurtful term for a sophisticated lady.

Please consider this your notice to apply the term gauche whenever applicable, rescuing it from the language rubbish heap. Avoid using it rather than the word "left", however, unless you are speaking French. It's so gauche to over-vocabularize your sentences.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Minor Housekeeping Note

I'm keeping my fingers crossed, so I'll have to keep this short. I am switching to my new domain name this week. If the Internet gods love me even a little, you may not even notice a change, unless you glance at the address bar. It should read after Wednesday, but I'm told that the status quo remains unchanged for the rest of the page. Thanks for your patience and support!

Edited to note that it appears to be working perfectly, except that I've lost my header image. I'll have to get to work on figuring that out.
Edited again to note that the problem seems to have come from Blogger and not my site. The header has been playing hide and seek but I hope that Blogger's efforts to fix their picture troubles will solve this as well.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Although and Though

I see a common thread regarding the use of though and although. Most posts on the subject say simply that though is the informal version of although and the two words can be freely interchanged. They note that though may act as an adverb, but don't afford the point much consideration.

It seems to me that though's flexibility makes rather a crucial difference between the words. You can choose either to mean “in spite of the fact that”, writing either, “I will attend the concert, although my head hurts,” or, “I'm going to the concert, though I have a headache,” but that's as far as although can go.

Though, on the other hand, can wander freely about the sentence. Instead of acting as a conjunction, as both words do in the previous examples, it can park itself in the middle or at the end of a sentence. “My head hurts. I'm going to the concert, though.” When thus used, its meaning subtly changes to however or nevertheless.

I cal that a subtle change because both of those words mean “in spite of that”. The last example says to readers, “I'm going to the concert in spite of my headache.” I could write, “My head, though hurting, cannot keep me from the concert,” or “My headache, though, cannot keep me from attending.” You cannot substitute although in any of those three examples.

What point, you may be wondering, am I trying to make? I've no rant or pet peeve regarding either word. This point has been neglected in other posts regarding the topic, so I thought I'd save time by posting my thoughts here rather than in the comments at several other sites. As common board-speak goes: Just sayin'.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Excellent Writing Advice

In reading about writing today, I Stumbled across a 1950s essay by Paul McHenry Roberts entitled “How to Say Nothing in Five Hundred Words”. I offer this as proof that good writing has always been good writing, SEO and AdSense notwithstanding.

Mr. Roberts injected wit and pointed examples into the essay to carry his points, setting an excellent example for his readers and aspiring writers. I am resisting the urge to quote extensively from it and will add only one section on brevity:

You may ask how you can arrive at five hundred words at this rate. Simple. You dig up more real content. Instead of taking a couple of obvious points off the surface of the topic and then circling warily around them for six paragraphs, you work in and explore, figure out the details. You illustrate. You say that fast driving is dangerous, and then you prove it. How long does it take to stop a car at forty and at eighty? How far can you see at night? What happens when a tire blows? What happens in a head-on collision at fifty miles an hour?

Pretty soon your paper will be full of broken glass and blood and headless torsos, and reaching five hundred words will not really be a problem.
This, my dears, perfectly explains how to write effective, readable, read articles for the Internet. Hack the fluff from your sentences and replace it with specific illustrations. Don't just tell your reader what you believe; support your case with facts and examples. Make room for useful and interesting words, instead of using four adjectives and an adverb to describe a simple noun.

Then read the section labeled “Call a Fool a Fool”.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Word Tidbits: Myriad

Out of curiosity, I looked up the word myriad today. You can see the definitions for yourself. To my surprise, myriad not only means a large number or variety but also indicates ten thousand of something.

Should I wish to say, for example, that a myriad of insect species inhabits the Amazonian rain forest, you could take that to mean that there are ten thousand different kinds of insects living there. You're far more likely to read that as indicating that a great variety of insect life can be found around the Amazon river, however.

While it's nice to know a word to indicate ten thousand, that use of this word occurs infrequently (or is unclear) enough for your readers to misunderstand your meaning. Unless you follow the sentence with specific numbers, people will assume that you simply mean many and various things, rather than ten thousand of a specific type.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Pluperfect Site for Verb Tenses

Ignoring verb tense leads to sloppy writing, as you can't be consistent with your tense if you don't know which one you are using. Most people don't realize just how many tenses exist and cannot tell when they mix tenses. Purdue University's table of verb tenses explains the name, purpose, and construction of each English verb tense.

Writers care about verb tense because it guides readers through the action in their stories. If you narrate a story in the past tense, writing that your character “dances like Fred Astaire” confuses your reader, not least because so few people these days remember him.

Unless you are making asides to your readers or writing dialog between them, choose one tense and stick with it. When switching from one tense to another intentionally, clearly signal that to you readers. A simple phrase like, “That was four years ago,” indicates that you've moved from the past tense to the present, for instance. The audience can follow the action if they know in what order it occurred. Mixing tenses mixes up readers.

As an aside of my own, for those of you who recall grammar classes from decades ago, I remind you of the pluperfect tense. That excellent word is increasingly shoved aside for the name “past perfect”. I mourn its passing, as it was the pluperfect word for what it described—something completed and thus unalterable. I also like to say pluperfect. Don't let the word die an ignoble grammar death. Use it today!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Quickie Post: Pour versus Pore

An article on Yahoo! yesterday prompted me to focus on yet another word pair. Pour and pore mean two different, but easily-confused, things. The quote read as follows: “Some future researcher, pouring through Yahoo!'s old files, may be very amused that I made a big deal [about this].”

The confusion, I fear, stems from the mental image of pouring your attention over something like a cup of honey, coating it with your regard. That may work for imagery, but it ignores the meaning of the word pore.

When you pore over or through something, you scrutinize it, paying it close and steady attention. Thus, the phrase from the quote above should have read, “...poring through Yahoo!'s old files...”

To pour over something implies tipping a container of some substance, usually liquid, over that that thing. Def Leppard wants you to pour some sugar on them, apparently, meaning that you should take a five-pound bag thereof and dump it over their heads. Why they should wish that to happen, I'm not particularly sure. Perhaps they were using some imagery of their own.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Alternating Alternatives

I alternate between wanting to write about this topic and finding alternatives to it. It seems writers confuse this nigh-identical pair of words and today I'll finally clarify, for those of you who wonder how to differentiate between them.

If someone offers you an alternative, they are letting you choose a different idea or action. You may find an alternative solution or reply with an alternative approach. Whatever the situation, the word “alternative” means that you have a choice between at least two things.

Alternate, on the other hand, has more than one use. When you use it as an adjective (pronounced with a short a in the last syllable), you find an alternate or different route to your destination. In that case, you must do so because you cannot choose your original plan, because of road construction or a parade or some other obstruction. An alternate plan, or Plan B, is used not by choice but because the Plan A will no longer work. You can recycle your plastic bottles on alternate Wednesdays, taking them to the recycling center every other week.

You can also alternate between two things, using it as a verb with a long a in the final syllable. When translating, you alternate between, say, French and English so that both parties understand what the other has said. This use does not restrict you to two items, however. You can alternate among several pairs of jeans, in order not to wear out any one. This use implies a set rotation of choices, rather than simply choosing your favorite of the moment.

Both words can be transformed into adverbs, however, adding to writers' confusion. You can draw alternately from your personal experience and from the research into that of others when writing an article, meaning that you change your source from one to the other and back again. You can drive to work or alternatively take the bus. Did that sail over your head or, alternatively, do you catch what I'm throwing?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Personal Grammar Rant

I've not written about the importance of grammar and writing style for quite some time. Today I felt essentially slapped in the face by someone who wrote that people only care about such things because they live too-complacent lives in which they have no larger concerns. I beg to differ.

I care about my grammar and how I use words because I cannot clearly express myself without them. An incoherent rant acts to reinforce someone's negative impression of your point of view, rather than convincing them of anything. Dislocated modifiers and mangled syntax obscure your meaning and can destroy your credibility.

While pointing out the flaws in someone's grammar rebuts nothing of their argument, using correct subject-verb agreement and knowing the definition and spelling of the words you choose strengthens your own. Writing well contributes to better school performance. A person who can express themselves well If you can express yourself well, you can land a job that requires interacting with people.

I submit that people who deplore all those concerned with grammar and language use do so not because they have believe the sentiment that prompted this post but because they can't be bothered to learn the rules. Certainly, confusion abounds about some of the subjects I've covered here, but starting a sentence with, “I is” reflects not a lack of understanding but a willful ignoring.

If you choose to do so for a political reason, I support your choice to do so. In this case, (in a grammatically clean and well-spelled manner) a case was made that people only care about grammar because of my race or because they are somehow spoiled and weak. That not only offends me, personally, but it should offend people of any race or socioeconomic status, as it implies that being poor or of color makes you inherently unable to learn to express yourself well. I can think of many historical figures who would beg to differ, as well.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Do I Feel Bad or Badly?

In considering the passive voice and how it affects writing, I appear to have overlooked something that overturns a rule much beloved by grammar snobs. Today, I discovered the copula, R-rated though that may sound.

As the wiseGEEK explained, copular verbs may look like something else entirely and can change the correct word choice for your predicate.

Take, for instance, the sentence, “I look fabulous.” I would categorize this as a “passive” sentence because the verb involves no subject acting. If I wrote, “I look fabulously,” that would change it to an active sentence in which I am looking at or for something and am doing a bang-up job of it. Fabulously modifies look, in the second example, rather than “I”, acting as an adverb.

In the first example, look acts as a copula that identifies “I” as belonging to the set of attractive or well-groomed people. Fabulous remains an adjective and the copula links me to a state of being. People (read, "I") use this form consistently without even realizing that they do or why.

I'm relieved to have found a name for such a construction, finally. It will make answering a question like that posed in the above title so much simpler. I can archly reply, “It's a copular verb.” I only hope that I don't get reported for inappropriate language.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Yes, It Is Wrong Per Se

Of all of the Latin terms that have reached common use, “per se” suffers the most misspelling. Because “se” is not a word in English, people insist on “correcting” it to "say". Let's take at what the individual words mean and hope that it will help people remember how to spell and use it.

In Latin, per means “through” or “by means of”. You can use it with units of time, such as per diem or per annum meaning daily or yearly, and with parts of the body, like per os (by mouth, indicating how you take a medication) or per pedes (by foot or as a pedestrian).

Se simply acts as a reflexive pronoun, regardless of number or gender. It takes the place of herself, himself, itself, and themselves. A handy tool for a writer to have, don't you think?

Let's try an example.

Necessity is not the mother of invention per se. It requires inspiration to complete the creation.
In this case, you could write, “Necessity is not the mother of invention by itself,” or, “Necessity, alone, is not the mother of invention.” Either would capture the meaning of the Latin phrase.

Now that you know what it means, please do not hesitate to use it. The correct spelling will not make its way into the world per se, you know. It needs you to help show others the way.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Quickie Post: Apostrophe Abuse Alert

I grant my “Misused Apostrophe of the Day” award to the question I found this morning that began thus: “In Tom Jone's 2002 remix”. Perhaps a brief apostrophe review would help the asker more than the answer to the question posed.

Follow this simple rule for indicating possession: add an apostrophe and an s if using a singular noun. Poor Tom Jones has been stripped of his own s and reduced to Mr. Jone. That's no way to treat a musical legend.

The question should have begun, “In Tom Jones's 2002 remix...” At this point, I've forgotten the name of the song in question. There's nothing like a completely misplaced apostrophe to distract you from a writer's point.

For those of you who are thinking, "I though you only needed an apostrophe after a final s," please see my post on apostrophe placement after an s. Thanks for asking!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hear! Hear! Can You "Here" Me Now?

It seems that I am besieged by pet peeves of late. I reached the tipping point with another common error this week and have decided that clarification was long overdue. Let me hear you say, “Hear! Hear!” (That I wrote that, disregarding the fact that I know full well that I cannot hear you, must wait for another day. My irritation arose over the interjection.)

When you express your enthusiastic support for another, you write, “Hear! Hear!” You intend to call the attention of others to what you consider an important or eloquent point so that they may “hear” what the original “speaker” had to say.

Because the phrase grew out of oral.(and aural) situations, the spelling makes sense. In posts and comments around the Internet, however, you find people writing, “Here! Here!” While I sympathize with the idea that the respondent means to point out something about which they feel strongly, that doesn't make them correct.

Imagine the British Parliament of three hundred years ago, a rowdy bunch arguing and debating many issues at once. Of a sudden, a man shouts, “Hear him! Hear him!” and the group quiets to listen to one member make a point. So far as I can uncover, the abbreviation of that practice explains the phrase.

Recall that mental image when you write your support for another's post. The on-line rabble squabbles and squeals like a spoiled, drunken bunch of landed gentry in1750. When one of them breaks out of the crowd with a valuable contribution, help it get heard. Now, pardon me whilst I stow my soap box.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Difference Is Duly Noted

The following post caught my attention today: “Dually noted.”

While I would (almost) never presume to correct someone's post directly, I felt that this one deserved some attention here. When you want to use “due” as an adverb, you drop the e and add the -ly suffix. The poster above intended to let the person to whom he or she responded know that their point was worth noting and that it had been.

If you exercise due caution, you are being duly cautious. If the person with whom you are talking says something that is due your attention, you tell them that it is duly noted and thus clarify that it has received that attention.

You can substitute properly, promptly, or appropriately for duly. What you can't do is add extra letters. The phrase “dually noted” means that you've not only made a note of something, but that you've done so twice or in two places. I suppose that would be a higher compliment, but one that would be inaccurate and unintended in most cases.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Adverse versus Averse: I'd Rather Not

Adverse conditions make me averse to work. How often we see these two words confused for one another, forced to assume roles for which they are ill-suited. Let us take a moment and review the abused and confused meanings.

If you would label something “adverse”, it must be hostile to or unfavorable for something else. Adverse current keep sailboats from landing. Stockbrokers sell when they read adverse financial reports. You use adverse as an adjective to explain that the related noun works against another thing.

Averse is also used as an adjective, and can also mean hostile. I'm not surprised that the two become confused in many writers' minds. The sense of the word generally indicates, however, a milder dislike or disinclination to act rather than actively working against an action. I may be averse to driving on the freeway, but I will do so when necessary. I'm not averse to a drink every now and again, but neither am I actively seeking one.

I could not come up with a sentence containing averse that did not have a passive construction. That seems fitting, considering the weakness of emotion it implies. You can change the first such example above to begin “I prefer not to drive on the freeway” without changing the meaning of the sentence. Thus, “I am averse to driving under adverse conditions” could be changed to “I would rather not drive in rough weather” without losing your point or confusing your readers.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Distractions at

I spent my blogging time today reading the fascinating responses at's Frequently Asked Questions section of Ask the Experts. I don't know how frequently those questions are asked, but you can certainly travel a distracting breadcrumb of English language questions.

They will tell you, for instance, whether a tomato should be considered a fruit or a vegetable. They've tackled this question not just because most people want to know but because it gives them a chance to explain just what constitutes a “fruit”.

Not only can you better understand the silent h, honestly, but you can find a list of collective terms for animals and a collection of tips for better writing. I swear, I didn't know about their “One Step Ahead” series when I named this blog. I feel obligated to explore it, however. In the meantime, enjoy the fruits of other people's labor, on me.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Making a Moot Point: Moot versus Mute

I know that I cannot be the only person to commonly see and hear people refer to another having made a “mute” point. As my community service for today, I would like to clear up the apparent misunderstanding.

A mute thing makes no noise. You could substitute the word “silent” for "mute" in a sentence without changing the meaning of the rest of the words, except insofar as mute generally describes something that should be able to create sound but is not or cannot. That subtle difference explains why we have two distinct words for the condition of not making noise.

Moot, on the other hand, can mean anything from debatable or unsettled to pointless or meaningless. Most commonly, you see it used in the phrase “moot point”. When someone responds that a question is a “moot point”, it indicates to the maker of the point in question that someone thinks that their statement adds nothing to the conversation, or, more commonly and less correctly, that the issue cannot be resolved.

Most often, people use the phrase as shorthand for, “Let's agree to disagree.” Sometimes, folks will use to save face when they feel like they are losing an argument. Now that you know the real definition, you can point out that you are debating the issue because it is moot, then proceed to demolish them with your insight and verbal acuity. No more can your opponents escape the relentless logic of your arguments. Go get 'em, tiger!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bad Language: A Pile of Pet Peeves

I nominate these for the worst language abuses of the week.

  • “Can you status us on the email situation?” I could, but now I won't.
  • “Debate's started forming in my head.” Does that mean “debate is” or does something belong to Debate and you've left it out?
  • “For all intensive purposes...” What types of purposes would those be, exactly? Wait, did you mean “intents and purposes”? I should do a post on that phrase. I thank you for the idea, sir.
  • “I know you can't say much, but do you think Mrs. Smith will ever except that she doesn't work here...” I can't even formulate a snarky response to this one, except to point out the the writer meant to ask if Mrs. Smith would accept the fact. Excuse my heavy sigh, please.
  • “Hm...patience is WHO'S virtue?” There's nothing like capitalizing your error to call attention to it. Whose idea was that?
And I hereby propose that this sentence be named “Worst Attempt at Being an Expert, Ever”. It was part of a post on a discussion about commas and punctuation to which I've linked before (and on which I have posted plenty).
“well camas are used a lot, basically use a camma where ever it ruins the flow of the sentence; there us you should use a camma after every pause you hear yourself reading the article.”
Oh! the horror! In case you were confused, "cammas" come from other planets and are alien commas.

Apparently, the rest of the people who posted decided to ignore this little contribution. I couldn't come up with a constructive response, so I'm letting it pass, as well.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Comma Review

Due to time constraints, I won't do much more today than posts the list of my comma-related posts. I would love, however, to receive questions from you folks. If you can't understand or disagree with a rule, please let me know so that I can explore and explain.

Since I have a three-day weekend going, I'll have a more interesting—and useful—post tomorrow. I may even be moved to rework this one, should good questions arise between now and then either in my own mind or here in the comments. Here's the list of posts specific to commas:

Saturday, May 24, 2008

How Did You Get Here?

For my 250th post, I thought I'd share some of my favorite search phrases that led people to this blog.

Some of the terms left me bemused. What, for instance, do you suppose the person who typed in “rant 'people starting sentences with this,'” was seeking? The esoteric quest of the one asking “why do we need to be good” caused a bit of concern for me, but I hope that he or she found some inspiration here, if only for better grammar.

In much the same way, “how to hyphen director” leaves me puzzled. Was this searcher looking for hyphenation advice or instruction on directing hyphens? Alas, I shall never know. Another visitor “need[ed] to grammar”, and I hope that I helped at least a little.

After all of my preaching about the passive voice, the conspiracy theorists may finally have found me, at least one of them. He or she searched for an explanation of “the passive voice as a political tool”. Beware! Politicians could manipulate you with their passive language.

I suspect, however, that the person seeking the “thesaurus of insulting words” was disappointed. Could the same person have visited in search of “sophisticated insult vocabulary” words? Perhaps they were mortal enemies looking for just the right words for bantering during their duel.

Browsing through the list brought home to me that many, many people would like advice about using commas. Tomorrow, I'll pull together some of my previous posts about them and try to cover areas that I missed or over which I passed too lightly. Just remember, the Oxford comma is your friend. Have a lovely May day and thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Making Plurals from Fs

The other day, someone told me something about “chieves of staff”. My brain refused to process the rest of the sentence, after such flagrant misuse of a word, so I'm afraid I can't give you the context.

In reaction, I thought I'd sit down and write a public service announcement on making plurals out of words that end in the “f” sound. Then I began to consider the applicable rules. If a word ends in a double f, you make it plural by adding an s. Staff becomes staffs. That seemed pretty simple.

Unfortunately, other words don't cooperate so nicely. A thief and his cohorts can be called thieves, but my friend should have made those department heads into chiefs. Many roofs were damaged in the hail storm. The cow's hooves left dimples across the pasture. Oh, dear.

Most of the web sites I visited in researching this question simply suggested removing the -f or -fe at the end of a word and adding -ves. That's terrific, when it works. It clearly doesn't solve the whole problem, however.

I've decided that no simple rule exists for remembering which words ending with an f sound should retain that sound in the plural form. What's a writer to do? Practice using such words, and look them up from time to time. Don't assume that you know the correct form, especially when it's a word you don't often use. Set an example for lazier writers and help end f abuse, once and for all.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bloggers Unite: What Do You Mean By “Rights”?

While I don’t wish to veer off-topic, I do want to acknowledge BlogCatalog’s fantastic Bloggers Unite program (as mentioned on CNN today). They arrange a date and topic of import for bloggers around the world to discuss on their blogs. This time, they have encouraged folks to post about human rights.

I’m posting about the words themselves, more specifically about the word rights. This word muddies the waters during discussions about such basic rights as freedom from religious or ethnic persecution. People abuse the word itself and rob it of its meaning.

When Lena Horne sings, “I’ve got a right to sing the blues,” she uses the word in a perfectly acceptable way. She means that she has earned the right, the morally just privilege, through her suffering. Incarcerated Americans who talk about their “rights” to free education and cable television, on the other hand, imply that their claim to these things lies in the fact that they are human. They do not make a case that they have gained such boons but that the benefits should be afforded to felons simply because they are members of the same species.

These diverse applications of the term “rights” obscure discussions about what basic human rights every person deserves. While I may believe that the privileges outlined in America’s Bill of Rights really apply to all people, others’ ideals extend far beyond that brief list. Can you claim a “right” to clean drinking water? What happens to the “right” of a family to farm the land that they own, upstream from the community that drinks from the same stream their livestock uses and into which their run-off flows?

I have posted this to urge people to think about claims of rights violations, rather than to react with their hearts. Dictators and tribe leaders and prejudiced mental laggards treat people the world over in horrific and undeniably inhumane ways. But remember that people stretch the word to suit their own purposes and evaluate the trumpeted claims of human rights abuse by discovering as much about the situation as you can before you jump on the bandwagon. If you agree that someone is suffering, however, act in any way that you can to limit or eliminate the cause.

You can peruse the list of hundreds of human rights posts at BlogCatalog. Put your thinking caps on and consider how you can help.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Writing Exercises Pump Up Your Brain

I browsed through Meredith Sue Willis's extensive lengthy set of writing exercises today and found myself thinking about how I work out my writing muscles. I thought I'd share the procedure I use to warm up when inspiration proves elusive.

You can't write about anything without giving it a setting. Even something floating in a void must be described as doing so. When I'm stuck on a plot point, I forget the action and concentrate on the location.

Once I've put my subject somewhere, I realize that I have to explain why it arrived there and why it can't stay. If the character is acting towards a goal, would the reader know about it? I ensure that I've shared the motivation behind the action.

Now that I have a place and a push, I need a method. How does my cast get from Point A to Point B? They'll need to discuss things, at some point, if I don't want them wandering off in opposite directions. How do they relate to each other, angrily or cheerfully or brusquely? Can I communicate that without relying on adverbs?

By the time I've answered these questions, my brain has stretched itself, yawned, and gotten ready to do some heavy lifting. The who, where, and why lead you to the what, when, and how. Now you've got all of the elements of a real story, whether fiction or article.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

That's New(s) To Me

Thanks to a comment from Den on one of my recent posts, I was moved to research the origin of the way “news” interacts with verbs as a singular plural. While it is a collective noun, you never see someone write about a “new”.

In several places, folks have repeated the folksy rumor that news stands for “north, east, west, south”, as an acronym for information coming from all points of the compass. However cute that story, it holds no truth. As the Wordwizard has kindly explained, the etymology began in the singular word “newe”. agrees, as well, but I link to them plenty.

Imagine someone calling out, “What news?” They are asking you for any new information about people or events that may be of interest to you. While the dusty origins of the word may be plural, its use refers to a conglomeration of single events.

Thus, what used to be a “newe” has now become an article or a “piece of news” or even, heaven forfend, a “news item”. The news has become a single entity, like the ocean, and just as polluted with garbage, as often as not. Both are made up of myriad tiny pieces, in which unwary explorers can drown if they forget to use their brains.

I fear I've gone a bit off track, here. Suffice it to say that the word “news” acts as a singular word, a sort of collective noun for tidbits of information that you may not yet have known. I suspect that this is not news to you.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Not All Modal Verbs Are Weasels

I've added a new blog to my sidebar today. The Language Guy fascinated and entertained me for about an hour this morning, keeping me from the research I had intended to do. Instead, I ended up looking for more information on modal verbs.

Mr. LG pointS out, quite correctly, that advertising uses modal verbs to weasel out of making accurate and specific claims. You can correctly claim that your product “might” or “could” do nearly anything. After all, it only takes one instance of such a thing happening to show that it “can”.

Advertisers can take a short leap from there to stating that your peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich may reduce the signs of aging. It may not, but the possibility certainly exists. Who could argue with that logic?

To be fair to maligned modal verbs, such uses do not define their existence. When you write that “Bob searched frantically for his keys but couldn't find them anywhere” you've used the modal “couldn't” to explain that the luckless Bob was not able to find them.

When Gandalf roars, “You shall not pass!” he launches a modal challenge at the beast with no weasel in sight. He clarifies that it may attempt to pass but that it will not succeed. Of course, I'd have used “shan't”. I just like the word.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A Pair of Pants "Is"?

Today we'll discuss pairs of pants. I was all set to do some fascinating research on the etymology of the phrase and share it with you, when I discovered that The Word Detective had explained it so well that I couldn't improve upon this post. Michael Quinion had some more tidbits to add about pants and breeches at World Wide Words, however.

Using such phrases, however, remains a mystery, or at least a common source of confusion. “How,” the question goes, “can a pair of something be singular?” Certainly, when you have a pair or group of something you have more than one.

You need to remember that, when writing about a pair or pants or glasses, the subject is not “pants” or “glasses”, it's “pair”. The phrase “of glasses” tells readers what kind of pair you mean. It modifies the subject. If you remove the word pair, however, you change your verb to a plural. “My glasses are on the counter.” “My pants are in the laundry basket.”

Readers assume that, in such sentences, you mean “a pair” of them, but you could be referring to three or five, for all they know. Assuming, that is, that you regularly wear a monocle or act in accurate historical costume dramas set four hundred years ago.

Imagine the tagline above reading, "Nice pair." Now imagine a woman saying that to a stranger, as in the old commercials. Word choice makes your meaning clear.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pet Peeve of the Day: I Could Not Care Less

As an example of people saying the opposite of what they mean, consider the ever-popular phrase, “I could care less...” Either the author has left out a phrase beginning with “but”, or he or she has written a lie. You can imagine, however, the cheery attitudes I uncover when I respond to such a sentence with, “Liar.” For some reason, my co-workers do not care for this response.

In the interests of purging the bile that rises when I hear this phrase, and preserving the generally good relationships I enjoy with my co-workers, I am posting this as fair warning. If you really could not care less that Bob has a new shirt, then say so. If you could care less, then simply express your interest and stop attempting to confuse and frustrate people. Should you be stretching for uber-sarcasm, finish your thought and say, “I could care less about Bob's new shirt, but that would require more effort than it's worth.” Ouch!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Reflexive Prounouns and Other Pet Peeves

In all my blather about pronouns, I haven't adequately addressed reflexive pronouns. If you don't understand that sentence, suffice it to say that words like myself, himself, yourself, and herself are pronouns that you use when the subject does, says, or feels something about itself. In preparing to write the post, I came across this grammar rant that does the job quite well. Rather than gild the lily, I'll just leave the link.

That leaves me, however, with very little to post today. I thought I'd throw out some other grammar rants for your entertainment (and possible edification). Enjoy!

David Gagne posts quite a few rants, but this one about non-words struck me as particularly pet-peevish. By that, I mean that I agree with him, particularly that itch is a noun and only a noun. Then again, he'll probably post one about my adding two hyphenated fake words in the same sentence as the link to his post.

Have you not been entertained enough? Then check out the Grammar Rant Thread on Apple Insider. My favorite section was the the improper use of the phrase “illiterate knobcheese”, supplemented by LOLcats. I couldn't make up this level of quality! (In truth, you will find good information and useful examples here, interspersed with enough silliness to keep you interested. But be aware that the thread is rated “R”and is appropriate for adults only.)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Subtleties: Because of and Due To

Today I consider the subtle difference between “due to” and “because of”. Let's ignore the habit that many writers have of adding “the fact that” to these phrases. That's simple fluffery and deserves no quarter here. Consider the following:

Mike succeeded because of his dedication.
Mike's success was due to his dedication.
“Because of” modifies verbs, as seen in the first example. That makes it an adverb, for those of you who care about labels. “Due to” acts as an adjective. Why? No one seems to know, or particularly care, from what I could find. Apparently this question was debated a hundred years ago, but no clear winner arose.

Until the dust settles, consider this was to decide which phrase to use: eliminate the phrase and ask why. For the first sentence above, you'd be left with “Mike succeeded.” Why? “Because of his dedication.” You don't need a full sentence to answer the question, just the phrase you removed.

The second sentence would read, “Mike's success was.” Asking why makes no sense, here. Thus, you would use “due to”.

If you've been paying attention, you'll notice that “due to” follows “to be” verbs and act as predicate adjectives. I've tried to find or write an example in which that did not happen but have not found one. You should care because that means that “due to” lives in passive sentences, generally if not strictly. If you've read this blog before, you know how strongly I feel about avoiding the passive voice.

If you can think of or find an example that proves me wrong, please post it in the comments. And I do realize that "fluffery" isn't a word. I was only testing you.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pet Peeve of the Day: Updation Is Not a Word

I was so interested in writing my post yesterday that I forgot to include the reason behind it. I was (rather forcibly) reminded of the nominalization problem by a post that asked which factor was more important for a successful blog, “updation” or promotion. Hence, my scolding.

To verify my nauseous reaction to this question, I researched the “word”. I found a strong consensus that its use stems from someone trying to sound "techy" or knowledgeable about programming rather than from the natural evolution of language. Apparently, the word is spreading because of database and other computer-related uses.

I found many instances of its use in the phrase “insertion, deletion, selection, and updation”.While I sympathize with the desire to make the words sound similar, as it improves flow, I suspect that this arose from an error and proliferated because people assumed that it must be a “real word” if they saw in in an official-looking venue.

Users of this neologism ignore the fact that English already provides a perfectly good noun for updating things. It's “update”. When you update your server, you may need to install an update (not perform updation) for your software. What benefit does lengthening the existing noun offer? None that I can see, except creating another buzz word for writers like me to deplore. Thanks!