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.