Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Word Tidbits: Do You Want Your Cake to be Moist?

I thought I’d do a little exploration of synonyms and how words convey different meanings. This all started with a rant about the word “moist” and my feeling that it ought not to be applied to food. I was brought up short by the question of what word could possibly be placed on cake mix boxes and food commercials that would give the same sense as “moist” without the dirt-and-worms connotations it carries for me.

Though I did not have a ready answer, I turned to my trusty thesaurus, hoping for a little enlightenment. Words like “damp”, “dank”, and “wet” certainly would not work as appetizing food descriptions. Who wants to be told that the muffins you spent so long baking were “soggy” or, worse yet, “tacky”?

Similarly, “muggy”, “humid”, and “sodden” don’t really convey the texture desirable in such baked goods. While “rich”, “creamy”, and “buttery” give favorable impressions they don’t precisely address the moisture content of a dessert. The visual often used in commercials of sticking the crumbs together with a fork implies just what we want—delicious, soft, tasty, somewhat gooey without being sloppy or undercooked and crumbly without being dry—but what word can carry quite that much freight?

And so, my dear readers, I turn to you. Can you think of a word that does what “moist” intends when applied to describing food? I’m open to suggestions but if you must resort to inventing a word, try to avoid overly-cute or obviously made-up terms like “pudding-y”. Think of this as a freelance PR assignment: Betty Crocker commissioned you to find a new word for the millions of boxed cake mixes the company ships every year. Give me your best shot!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

To Infinitives and Beyond: the Infinitive Mood

Infinitives are interesting creatures, grammatically. Though they look like verbs they act like nouns. I’d like to take you through a little look at them and the infinitive mood in general.

Infinitives live as symbiotic verbs, unable to exist on their own in sentences. They rely on other verbs to give them context and sense. You can use them in place of subjects, as in the famous, "To err is human," or employ them as objects, as I replaced the direct object of "like" in the third sentence of my first paragraph.

The term infinitive indicates merely the "infinite" form of a verb, on that has no real sense of time, number, or person. Most forms add "to" to the first-person present form of the verb. As such you can write that Julie wanted to dance on the table and everyone will know what you meant. (No, not that she’s a lush, you cruel thing.)

But though "wanted" gives you a sense of when Julie had that desire, "to dance" is timeless. It indicates nothing about whether that dancing was imminent or whether it was some long-held wish that she intended to fulfill some day, or if she wanted to be joined by a partner or fifteen friends.

Not every infinitive moves a sentence to the infinitive mood. So what does this mean for mood, you may well ask. In most cases the author has relocated the action of the sentence in the infinitive mood to the infinitive itself and replaced it with a more-ephemeral verb like want, wish, or like. You can go all-out and write, "To hope for progress is to express faith in humanity." You can’t get less specific about the subject than that. And, as a rule, your readers couldn’t care less about it, either.

While the occasional sentence in the infinitive mood brings contrast to a piece (note that the "to" here is a preposition and not the harbinger of an infinitive), too many of them create stilted prose that distances your reader from both the action and the characters about whom you are writing. Save the infinitives for clauses, instead, and keep your writing active and engaging. "Though all she’d wanted was to dance on the table, Julie plunged into the fray and swung her pointy boots to an altogether different effect." Go get ‘em, Julie!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

More Bad Headlines for Fall

The weather is cooling here in the Heartland, as it’s called, and I thought you’d all enjoy a new batch of finger shaking to warm your hearts. I receive a lot of newsletters from national organizations and magazines so I get some terrific fodder…information, that is, in my e-mail every week. These four stood out of the recent batch as the best examples.

"A World of HVAC&R Information at Your Fingertips"

Pardon my language, please, but who the hell puts an ampersand in an acronym? Either use the “a” for and or skip it altogether they way it was before you added the R in the first place. (Folks have used HVAC—heating, ventilation, and air conditioning—for decades. Apparently refrigeration ranks highly enough to be included, now.)

"2010 Year in Review"

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this headline except that it was emblazoned on a newsletter distributed at the end of August, 2010. The article in question addressed not 2010 in particular but the out-going president’s term with the organization which spanned two years. Thus the headline doesn’t fit the article, which makes it misleading or at least confusing.

"Don't Let Winter Wreck Havoc"

When I’m wreaking havoc I’d rather not have some season wreck it, thank you very much. Your spell check cannot save you from using completely the wrong word. Nor can it save you from forgetting to finish your headline with a hint as to what havoc you intend to help me avoid.

"Low pants have no chance in Louisiana's capital"

I included this example for contrast. I actually think this one is pretty good, except for the lack of capitalization. It certainly gave me an idea of the topic but left me wanting to read the article. (In case you’re curious, it’s a public awareness campaign that wearing your pants sagging off of your behind makes you look like a slacker that no one will want to hire. That’s a rant for a different blog, however.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is Sue Interested in Dative Bob?

I think it’s high time we talked about the dative case, which requires a little exploration of direct and indirect objects. To further this purpose I’ve constructed a little example for you. We’ll try this sentence two ways:

Sue gave Bob her phone number.
Sue gave her phone number to Bob.
As you can see, whether you’re assuming “to” Bob in the first example or congratulating him after the second, the man indirectly receives the action of the verb no matter how direct Sue may have been with him. The phone number gets the giving here and Bob is the indirect object thereof. You can’t use such a verb without an indirect object, but the direct object will always be what is being given or shown.

Now I hear you asking, “What if I wrote ‘Sue gave at the office’?” In this case, your reader assumes the direct object to exist. While our giving friend Sue could have donated anything from half a bologna sandwich to a thousand dollars the crux of the matter remains that she gave something. One also guesses that she handed it to someone or sent it to some place, but that indirect object also declines to appear in this idiom (the general intent of which is to remain non-specific). “At the office” is just a prepositional phrase, not an object of any sort.

Shockingly, I haven’t yet made my point, which was that indirect objects (and any adjectives describing them) take the dative case. And what, pray tell, does that mean to your day-to-day writing life? In most cases it affects your writing very little as the case does not require specialized word forms. You should care simply because, someday, someone might as you to explain the dative case. Alternatively you could take up translating Latin (or a less-dead language) and need to know what to do with those dative forms when you find them.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cute Overload Hurts Everyone

Thanks to my unseemly interest in the residential sprinkler debate, I find myself with yet another example of bad grammar in journalism. The Greenville, South Carolina Examiner published an article recently that contained the following:

After an emblazoned battle between industry professionals and 100's of firefighters that were in support of fire sprinklers and the Home Builders Association and numerous builders who were against, the SC House and Senate sided with the latter.
I can find at least three problems with this sentence, and I don't mean the implication that the HBA and builders are not industry professionals. I started looking at the grammar because of the use of the word "emblazoned", which was too cute by half. While you could, indeed, make a case for interpreting the word to mean "having been made famous" no reader should have to work that hard to interpret a newspaper article.    

The battle may have been bitter, contentious, well-publicized, or otherwise notorious. To emblazon something is to make it more noticeable, certainly, but the usual use involves adding decoration to the thing rather than arguing about it in public fora. Do we suspect the author used the word solely because of the "blaz" in the middle? I don't know about you but I certainly do.

Once I got past that, the "100's" pulled me up short yet again. First, why the heck wouldn't you just use the word hundreds in this context? Second, that apostrophe made me post this. I was willing to let emblazoned pass but this? No. The little jot of punctuation seems to have strayed from the word Builders, where it by rights ought to be at the end. To be fair very, very few associations make use of the plural possessive correctly but the writer should have known better. As the longest sentence of nine in the article, one would have thought the editor would have made him.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Which Is Less Wet? Drier vs. Dryer

As a quickie, let me clarify this little question. If you wish to write about something that is comparatively more dry, you write drier. If you mean a machine or other device that makes something drier, you want the word dryer. A dryer makes things drier. Personally, I avoid the whole things by using "more dry" but technically the comparative form exists. Now excuse me while I makes the driest martini ever while drying my clothes.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

I Said That I’d Return

Actually, I didn't say that. But I have returned and I will again, the dearth of posts this year notwithstanding. I chose that name for this post because I want to write about the word that today. It's been a bone of contention between a co-worker and me when used in documents for an official record so I thought I'd explore its role in sentences such as the title above. Consider the following:

He explained that he had seen four different versions.
I contend that (nudge nudge) you should include the word "that" in this example for the sentence to be grammatically correct in its formal setting. My "opponent" in this believes it to be superfluous in this and all similar cases (said that, believes that, opined that, hoped that, etc.) and requested that I remove all "thats" from the record I'd created. Which of us will stand victorious?

When used at the start of a predicate noun clause as shown, "that" acts as a conjunction linking the thing being expressed, believed, or what have you with the subject. It ties a comment to the person making it. (What, you did think I'd turn out to be wrong, did you?) While the conjunction can be assumed, in informal communication, strict English grammar requires that (hint hint) it exist.

Without that you can be left with unclear or awkward sentences, both of which cause your reader to work to understand your meaning. You wouldn't want that, would you? Well, in this case you would.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Yet Another Failure, This Time of Logic

I have no stake in the fight over requiring sprinklers in new houses. I wanted to make that clear from the beginning. I was, however, frustrated by the complete perversion of logic that this author perpetrates after chiding her opponents for the very same failure. Notice that her responses to the “red herrings” often consist, themselves, of red herrings.

Notice, also, her exaggeration of the number of deaths in home fires by over 9% (from 2,740 to 3,000) in an attempt to shore up her argument that the number of deaths, despite consisting of .55% of the total number of fires, is acceptable. This appears to be a response to an argument that was never made, as what sort of fool would contend that any deaths constitute an “acceptable” number? (I'm ignoring the red herring of automobile deaths for space considerations.)

The argument that sprinklers “only” cost $1.61 per square foot fails, as well. Regardless of the costs associated with whirlpools, nicer carpet, or any other voluntary upgrade, they remain voluntary. If this “refutation” intends to convince people that sprinklers should be required then you cannot compare those apples to this orange, logically. And she fails to respond to the allegation that sprinklers have not been proven to perform their intended function.

Indeed, the author attempts to say that the opponents of in-home sprinkler requirements had been wrong in the past about a different requirement and thus clearly could not be trusted to be correct about this one. Is anyone else rolling his or her eyes, by now?

I’ll not analyze the entire post here, but I wanted to share my outrage over what I see as propaganda and what is a clearly flawed set of reasons to require anything by law. Such poorly-written "refutations" make the organization for which they were written look shady rather than safety-conscious and lend weight to the very arguments purported to be disproven.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sudden and Complete Acronym Failure

Imagine, if you will, that you read a press release that begins with the following sentence, more or less.

The City of Fargo has installed a HAWK Beacon (High Intensity Activated Crosswalk Beacon) aid pedestrians in crossing 40th Avenue S by Centennial Elementary School.
A laudable effort, no doubt, and one that may save the lives of incautious children. I, however, reacted not to the concept of the light but to the apparent inability of the people who created this thing to understand acronyms.

For those of you who don't see the problem here, let me explain. An acronym is a “word” made up of the first letters of a much longer name for something. They're exceedingly useful in talking about government, for example, because the names of agencies can be quite a mouthful. They also take up a lot of room on a page. Once you've explained the origin of the acronym you can write or talk about it and your audience will still know what you mean.

You cannot, however, take random letters from the name of a thing and create an “word” that you like. Doing so means that there is no way someone who sees the acronym would ever guess what those words may be. They might as well have named it a GENERA Beacon, because those letters appear in that order as well. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) could just as well have been the NIN. The rules for making acronyms exist for a reason, you know.

What struck me even more strange was that HIAC sounds pretty high-tech and impressive, especially followed by the word beacon. HAWK gives me an impression of swooping and predation. Do I want small children crossing at the street where this HAWK stands, poised and ready? I'd rather a HIAC were watching out for their safety, sending out a beacon to drivers reminding them to be cautious. Wouldn't you?