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.