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.