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.