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?