Friday, December 25, 2009

Pray Tell Me What This Means

It's come to my attention that people commonly believe that Shakespeare coined the phrase "pray tell" and launched its popularity. It may be that he expanded the knowledge of the term, but in reality people used it long before ol' Will brought it to their attention. In this case, the word pray escapes religious connotations and grew from the Latin precari into preier in Old French, and then became preien, to beg or beseech.

Lest you think that precari the end of that particular language trail, the verb came from a Latin noun, prex, meaning a prayer or earnest request. A ha! Now you see how the same word can be used in both Christmas and "pagan" celebrations without any sort of religious qualms. Certainly Shakespeare had little to do with that. Happy holidays to you all, whether you're praying for world peace or simply asking your sister why she thought you'd like those socks.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Give Immemorial the High Sign

I have a habit of using archaic idioms and, as you can see from the existence of One Step Forward, becoming curious about their origins. The other day I told a co-worker that I would give her “the high sign” when I was ready for her and immediately wondered about that phrase’s history. Naturally, my friends, I thought that you might wonder the same thing.

While I discovered the term in many a dictionary and contentions that it dated back to first few years of the 20th century, I had some difficulty in uncovering the source of it. At first I thought that the high sign may have come from police or military terminology, because I could envision numerous situations in which non-verbal signals would be necessary in either field. Much to my disappointment, I’ve been unable to verify (or disprove) that theory. I’ve not yet given up the search, but I’ve no results to share just yet.

In the meantime, I read an odd phrase in an Arthur C Clarke novel that struck me as something an editor should have required him to change decades before this particular edition had been published. In the story, a robot was recalling its “immemorial memories”. I thought to look up the word immemorial before chiding Mr. Clarke here.

To my surprise, immemorial means something ancient, a thing so old that, in essence, people cannot remember a time when it did not exist. Since time immemorial, to me at least, I’ve assumed that immemorial meant that it came from a time before memory and thus could not be recalled, which meant that I took Mr. Clarke’s phrase to mean “memories so old they could not be remembered”. The subtle distinction makes a memorable difference, here. I thought I’d share these thoughts with you, in case you had a similar reaction to the phrase “immemorial memories”.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Horror in Headlines

For your edification, I'd selected a few of the least helpful headlines I've seen recently and attempted to explain just what, in my ever-so-humble opinion, has gone wrong with the things.

Feds balk at Google book deal, hopes for changes The Feds hope for changes, and Google hasn't made a deal to publish a book but to re-publish out-of-print books from many authors. This headline not only misleads readers but appears to confuse singular and plural—Feds hopes for changes—when adding the word “have” would at least have clarified the grammar. The writer of this mess thought brevity would work, but they were wrong.

EU officials warn of disappearing cod Foolishly, I thought this headline referred to the theft of a shipment of fish or perhaps to a prank pulled by a fishy magician. Imagine my surprise at reading that the poor cod faces extinction from overfishing. I feel bad for the cod and the writer of this ambiguous teaser-gone-wrong.

Mich. stares down 2nd govt. shutdown in 3 years So, three years from now Michigan will have a staring contest? Is the state trying to intimidate a shutdown for the second time within three years? Wait just one minute—Michigan is a state. It has no eyes. I'm confused, and that puts the authors of this headline in the wrong. Speaking of wrong...

White House stiffens against illegal immigrants Yes, I did find this one hilarious, but it was still a poor choice of words. I don't think a preposition exists that could have saved this one from the mental image that it generates. (Or do I just have a dirty mind? No, it must be the construction.)

I have more examples from published bits and pieces, but these headline horrors seemed only appropriate for a Halloween post. Please share any badly-written headlines you may have seen, as well. Unfortunately, writers do not limit such terrifyingly-bad language to one day a year.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pizza Hut Fails Basic Grammar

As if Apple's grammatical abandonment weren't bad enough, now Pizza Hut has joined the refusal to use proper English grammar in their advertisements. I know that they've chosen the word because it so obviously breaks the rules, but I hardly think that's the best way to teach our children how to intensify their modifiers. (All of this ignores the nutritional atrocities that this product will commit, but One Step Forward is not a health blog so I'll leave those out of this post.)

Should you be unaware of the reason I find this ad objectionable, the adjective "awesome" (overused as it is) does not follow the -er and -est pattern when you compare just how awesome two things are. As someone concerned with using intelligent English, you use more and most to intensify the awesomeness (I can't believe I just wrote that). Like Apple and their "funnest iPod" ads, the company has chosen to use slang to garner your attention. Like those same ads, I choose to excoriate the choice (and the choosers) rather than be convinced how "hip" and awesome they want me to believe they are. I can't say that I'd have expected better from Pizza Hut, as I had from Apple, but I still consider them unhelpful in the extreme, when it comes to teaching people the finer points of the English language.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Would You Dismantle the Mantel?

Someone noted the other day in a discussion that when you've dismantled something you never say that you're going to mantle it again. As folks often do, that person wondered aloud why the two words were not antonyms and used as such. Naturally, I've had to uncover a reason.

It turns out that mantle and dismantle are related more as second cousins than brother and sister. While both share the same Latin root word (mantellum for cloak), dismantle took a bit of a detour into France and spent generations masquerading as desmanteller. The two words evolved separately in their different environments.

A mantle came to mean a covering or protective shroud in English or the outward appearance of authority, the "mantle of power". As a related tidbit, for some reason it became accepted that the covering for a fireplace should be spelled mantel instead, for no good reason that I could find. In the meantime, the French were using dismantle to mean making someone vulnerable by taking off his or her cloak and then to strip something in general of its defenses.

No source I found even attempted to explain how dismantle evolved from removing a protective outer shell to completely disassembling a piece of machinery into its component parts, but that's generally the accepted English use. Often, a certain destructiveness is implied along with a simple taking apart of a thing. When a company gets dismantled, for instance, those who do so will not be putting it back together again.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Immune To or From?

I've repeatedly heard a local newscaster state that we are "not immune from the recession" or some other negative influence or foible. It's long been a curiosity to me, as I'd heard the word used extensively in a medical context but less so, until this seemingly-global "correction" of the economy, when discussion vulnerability to non-pathogenic questions. I've also heard plenty of people caution that no one stands "immune to the recession".

Understandably, I've been drawn to investigate the question. In Barbara R. DuBois's more-general article on prepositions for Verbatim, a fascinating publication on the vagaries of the English language, I found this tidbit that seems to answer the question quite thoroughly:

Some words give difficulty because they use different prepositions for different meanings. Immune, for example, is a troublemaker since it has become popular in figurative use. It takes to when we discuss disease, and so we can talk about "immunity to jet lag." But when we discuss taxes or fines, we use from: "Kings and queens are immune from taxation"...
Merriam-Webster confirms this use and explanation. Apparently, I've simply never felt the need to look up immune in the dictionary. It all goes to show you that you should never be too complacent in your understanding of any language. You can often find such shades of use for words you thought you knew. None of us is immune from learning.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Can Something Blatantly Flagrant?

I recently received a question from Geneva on an old post about commonly-confused words asking me to clarify the difference between the words blatant and flagrant. The two words share a similar sense of the obvious, but are used to convey different senses. Consider this sentence (which I'd avoid in a real writing situation, as it's redundant and stilted):

Such a flagrant act show blatant disregard for established procedures.
The word flagrant implies contempt rather than a simple lack of guile. While I may commit a blatant violation, it's possible that I am simply uncouth and thus unaware of the rules that I am breaking. If you label my transgression as flagrant, however, you mean that I not only broke that rule in an obvious way but that I did so because I either don't care about rules in general or that I purposely set out to break a particular rule that I find, for whatever reason, objectionable.

Blatant generally indicates an obvious act committed without taste or discretion. Flagrant, on the other hand, adds a taste of disdain to that same act, and perhaps a bit of flair. The difference between the two words lies in their implications. Thus, something could be blatantly flagrant, although your readers may blatantly turn away from your flagrant unwillingness to write well.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Word Tidbits: Uncouth

Some words fall out of favor and become archaic simply because they make you sound uncouth. Couth is not one such word. No one uses couth, regardless of how those around them act. When you compliment someone on how couth they behave, it sounds as though you are so socially backward as the be uncouth.

That's because couth never attained “word” status. The Old English word “cuth”, which meant known or familiar, spawned the now-defunct use of uncouth as uncommon or uncanny, essentially unknown. The word has grown to mean clumsy, unpolished, and crude of manner. It now indicates a person to whom social graces and civilized behavior are unknown. Spammers show just how uncouth they've become when they post unrelated links on every site they visit.

The next time you're tempted to tell someone how couth they're behaving, do yourself a favor and use “cool” instead. To do otherwise would be uncouth. On that note, I'd like to apologize to you, my dear readers, for my uncouth lack of posts this past month. I've been neglecting you for the glitzy world of music blogging, which I find inexcusable. I promise another one for next week, a “versus” post requested by one of you lovely folks.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Word Tidbits: Ruthless

When writing descriptions of an evil foe, terms like tireless, relentless, fearless, and ruthless come to mind. Of those, most are easily defined. The -less suffix indicates that the noun so described lacks the root word, as a tireless leader does not tire and a fearless enemy attacks without fear. What, however, is a ruthless tirant without?

The word ruthless comes to us not from the name Ruth but from the twelfth-century word “reuwen”, a verb meaning “to rue” or regret. Over the next couple of centuries, it grew into “reuthe”, a word for pity or compassion, much as the adjective “true” grew “truth” as a noun.

Reuwen has fallen out of use, as has reuthe or ruth as a word for mercy. Ruthless, however, turned out to be such a striking and useful word that its use has continued for another seven or eight hundred years. If case you wonder, ruthful was used for many years to indicate a kind and benignant individual. Apparently, such folks have become nigh impossible to find and the word dropped from language radar in the eighteenth century except when a writer or speaker intentionally meant to use an archaic word.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fargo Flood Highlights Evacuee versus Refugee

As have many Americans, I've listened to a great deal of flood talk, these last two weeks, including orders and the discussion of requests that residents evacuate endangered areas. At one point, a Fargo official referred to those forced to leave their homes as “refugees”. This sparked an immediate objection from others, who quickly agreed that Fargoans seeking shelter were, instead, evacuees. What, you ask, is the difference?

Linguistically, there exists very little to differentiate between the terms. Per Merriam-Webster, refugee refers to “one that flees ; especially : a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution” while an evacuee is one who “withdraw[s] from a place in an organized way especially for protection”.

The difference lies in the sense of two key words in these definitions. When one flees, whether from a force of nature or a ruthless dictator, such action implies a lack of control or power. Withdrawal, on the other hand, generally arises as a matter of choice, rooted in safety though it may be.

While the meanings may differ very little, the emotional impact of the words on those to whom they are applied can be great. Thus, Fargo and Moorhead residents who left their homes, and an orderly and protective choice it was, did not flee from the rising Red River, nor did they abandon the fight to keep the water from their homes. They withdrew those who could not help themselves and returned to help their friends and neighbors protect what they love. Evacuees they may be, but do not call them refugees.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Brief Consideration of Mood

As I recently mentioned, it's high time we thought about mood and writing. Most resources recognize four basic moods: indicative, imperative, infinitive, and subjunctive. This post will offer an overview of each mood. The first two on that list won't need much explanation, but I'll do a separate post for each of the others, so if you don't find an answer to your questions here please be patient. In fact, share your questions with me and I'll make sure that I answer them in up-coming posts.

Indicative Mood

As its name implies, you use this straight-forward mood to indicate direct statements and questions to your readers. Thus, the indicative mood comprises the majority of communication, both written and spoken. Verb forms remain true to their names and what you've written can be taken at face value.

Imperative Mood

Delivering an imperative requires, surprisingly enough, the imperative mood. In essence, you use this mood when giving a commend or making a request for action. In many cases, the imperative mood leads to what appear to be sentence fragments, as the subject is often understood rather than stated. Don't make that mistake!

Infinitive Mood

The topic of infinitives covers a lot of ground, but you create the mood by using an infinitive (the “to” form of a verb) as other parts of speech than verbs, at least as I understand things at this point. “To believe is the most important consideration.” In this example, the act of believing does not occur. “To believe” acts as the subject of the sentence, thus putting it into the infinitive mood, which somehow sounds a bit dirty.

Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive allows you to express a wish, to make a suggestion, or to otherwise address something that you know not to be the case, although it may well be a possible future or outcome. You clue your audience in on the fact that you're doing so by shifting the verb to a different form. Clearly this can lead to confusion in editing for tense agreement, and that requires more explanation. I'll return here and add a link to my next post when it's been completed.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ultra-Quickie Post: Happy National Grammar Day

I wanted to extend to you all a reminder that today is the Society for the Protection of Good Grammar's National Grammar Day. In its honor, let me share the worst headline I saw this morning: "OMG! Italy [sic] Catholics asked not to text during Lent". Apparently the Associated Press has never encountered the word Italian to describe people who live in Italy.

I am editing this on March 11th to add this horrendous sentence from the AP, this time out of Germany and a confusing introduction to a story that is bad enough without poor writing: "A 17-year-old gunman dressed in black opened fire at his former high school in southwestern Germany on Wednesday then fled in a hijacked car, killing at least 15 people." One assumes that the young man in question did not kill people using the car, but how can one tell?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Difference between Parentheses and Brackets

As far as specialized punctuation goes, brackets rank as one of the most useful types, if only under their very specific uses. Parentheses mark off material that supplements a sentence, explanations and asides that add information or feeling but are not grammatically necessary. You can use them either within a sentence or to set off additional exposition within a paragraph.

Parenthetical additions, however, should be carefully monitored. They tend to distract your readers from the content of your text, as writers often add their own running commentary to the flow of the story. Adding things like a location, a telephone number, or an explanation of a detail that clarifies a connection helps your readers to make sense of a piece. Placing your opinion, however, within parentheses (such as noting that the actress who won an award was wearing a particularly unattractive dress), simply provides a side track for their thoughts that takes them away from the point of your writing.

In part, brackets perform a similar function but only within direct quotes. You use brackets for such clarifications as naming the person or thing to which a pronoun refers, changing a capital letter to a lower-case one or vice versa (to preserve correct punctuation and sentence structure), or to note an error in the original language with the “sic” notation. Brackets have only one other generally-accepted use: they prevent you from having to use parentheses within a set of parentheses. As you may imagine, you should reserve that use for the most pressing of matters, such as adding a citation to an explanation.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Will This Tide You Over?

I often see sentences containing something like, “It is there to tie you over...” Something may be there to tide you over until you can do or get another thing, like an afternoon snack that will tide you over until dinnertime. But what does that mean, exactly?

As far as I can determine, the phrasal verb “tide over” grew out of nautical terminology. The in-coming tide would lift your ship over an obstacle, such as a sandbar, or free you from having run aground. Thus, something that tides you over satisfies a need, like hunger or money, until you can give it your full attention. That need acts as an obstacle to other activity, often by serving as a distraction that prevents you from focusing on something momentarily more pressing.

“Tide over” these days means much the same as the phrase “get you over the hump”. Both imply assistance that boosts you over an obstacle or carry you through a difficult situation. Think of that, the next time you ask to borrow a little to tide you over until payday.

Monday, February 2, 2009

If I Were You...

Recently, someone asked about the difference between, “If I were you…” and “If I was you…” In short, you use “were” to indicate the past subjunctive of “to be”. I doubt that that answer clears up the question, however, so let’s consider the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive mood arises in sub-conjunction use of a verb, that is, when you use a verb after a conjunction as part of a dependent clause. As with so many English grammar rules, you can find exceptions to prove this one but it holds true for almost every example. If that doesn’t confuse you enough, consider that the labels “past” and “present” subjunctive refer to the form of the verb used rather than its meaning.

Thus, “If I were you, I’d let it go” uses the past subjunctive as a part of the dependent clause at the beginning of the sentence. In this case, the phrase points out something that the speaker or writer knows to be not the case. You could imagine the sentence prefaced with, “I know that we are two different people,” or even, “I know it’s none of my business.” You can express all of that in the simple phrase, using the past subjunctive.

As to the original question, many people either don’t know about or choose to ignore the subjunctive mood. It has become very common for people to use the perhaps-less-formal-sounding “if I was you” form. Grammatically, that form remains incorrect. Colloquially, however, it has gained widespread acceptance. If I were the person who asked the question, I’d keep using the past subjunctive.

I think it's high time I did a post or two on verb mood and voice. In the meantime, for an brief but informative review of verb mood and voice, including the subjunctive mood, try the Purdue English Lab.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Be Cautious with Auto-Correct

As I’ve not been inspired by any heinous grammatical failings in the past week, I thought I’d warn you all of the insidious influence of the auto-correct feature available in many kinds of word processing software. Certainly, it’s handy to have your typographical errors corrected without having to stop and find them yourself, but allowing your computer to think for you will never replace careful proofreading.

As a case in point, I have had two notable typos that I blame completely on my word processor. The first arose from my inability to spell the name William without stopping at least twice to make certain the letters are in the correct order. My fingers insist on spelling it “Wililam”. I’ve added this spelling to my autocorrect feature, which means that I never actually misspell it any more.

Unless, that is, I’m creating the URL for a page that includes the name. While I could compose the rest of the information in a word processor, that one thing needed to be entered by hand. Having forgotten my name-spelling weakness, I didn’t check what I’d entered until I tried to find the site later. Imagine my chagrin, and how carefully I pored over the rest of the page after I found it.

My second example reveals a different problem with auto-correct, namely that sometimes your computer doesn’t know what you mean. I recently asked someone in an e-mail, in essence, if he had a “like” I could include in the post he had inspired. I don’t know what letters I actually had typed, but they had been “corrected” to like rather than link. I didn’t catch that on a quick read-through and, unsurprisingly, received a rather confused response from the gentleman in question.

Let my proofreading failures stand as a warning to you. Tools help, but you can’t always trust them. Remember to proofread carefully, rather than depending on those squiggly lines to alert you to your errors.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A or An Historic Day?

I received a suggestion that, on this historic occasion, I review the use of the articles “a” and “an” with regard to the word historic. I could have sworn that I wrote about this question long ago, and intended to drop a link for everyone with some wishes that everyone enjoy this auspicious inauguration day.

I could find no such post, so I’ll start from scratch. You can use a very simple rule for deciding whether to use a or an before a word, a rule that relies not on the written word but on your accent. You use the article “an” before a word for which you pronounce with a beginning vowel sound.

No one can dictate how different regions or countries pronounce a word. Thus, in some places, Barack Obama’s inauguration is an historic event. In others, a hippopotamus holds more interest. In the United States, as a rule, people pronounce the initial h and thus use the article “a” with such words. In Great Britain, again as a rule, trying to twist your tongue from “a”, over a dropped h, and straight to ‘istoric, may result in an horrible sprain.

So enjoy the spectacle of a historic event, be tolerant of the vagaries of regional dialects, and use whichever article allows you to comfortably read this sentence aloud.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Poor Examples from Some Pros

In perusing the back of a cereal box, the other day, I realized that I hadn't posted bad examples for writers in some time. Thus, I'll share the errors I've recently noted in articles and other commercial writing of late. We'll start with that cereal box, upon which it was made clear to me that punctuation lies outside of the capabilities of the design and copy writing folks at Post. It read as follows:

So enjoy
delicious fiber
rich whole grain
Post [product]...
The text was wrapped around a picture, but still could have been saved with a hyphen, a comma, and more judicious placement of line breaks. As printed, it looks like a list of things to enjoy rather than a recommendation of their product.

There are sites dedicated for the soul purpose of chatting.
Note that this was not an article about religious bulletin board sites. I post this for the sole reason of reminding people that a difference exists between the words.
…leaving $.36 to be split evenly between [our site] and the user who is "recompensated" for the download. The system determines which user to recompensate based on things such as…
This came from the explanation of an affiliate program. One would think that putting the word “recompensated” in quotation marks in the first sentence would have been a clue that it wasn't a real word and should have been treated similarly in the second. The “author” would have done better simply using the word compensate.

Updated January 16, 2009 to include this gem from an Associated Press article:
Police divers were using sonar to find the engines, which was believed to be in the water.
One would think that the police divers would know where the sonar device lay, as they were using it.

I post these examples for two reasons: to point out that even professional copy writers make errors and to remind you to proofread not only for language but for layout. In many cases, a writer has little or no control over how their work appears, but using proper punctuation and language can ensure that those who do the layouts understand what you've written and keep words like fiber-rich together, where they belong.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Back to Basics: Apostrophes

In response to a recent comment from Linda on an earlier post, I have gathered here my previous apostrophe posts and will attempt to cover any ground I've missed among them. I had intended this post to rely heavily on these earlier examples, but I discovered, to my chagrin, that I hadn't ever written a really basic piece about apostrophes. I intend to correct that oversight here.

And now for the basic definitions. You use apostrophes to indicate either possession, by a noun, or at least one letter having been left out of a word. The latter occurs most often in contractions such as “don't”, “can't”, and you've” but also shows up when parts of words or numbers have been left off of the start or end, especially in dates. You can write, “During the '80s,” to indicate that you have left off the 19 in the year. Note that the expression requires only one apostrophe, as the ending s indicates a plural number of years and not the decade's possession of something.

If you are anything like me, you'll find one use of the apostrophe confusing. Sources consider it appropriate to use the apostrophe when indicating more than one lower case letter, as in “mind your p's and q's”. You need not include the punctuation when talking about more than one capital letter (Ls), number (7s), or symbol (?s). I don't understand that rule, but I include it here for completeness.

I hope that answers your questions, Linda, and gives you an idea of what you can and should not do with apostrophes. If anyone needs more clarification, please drop me a note below and I'll answer them in the near future.