Friday, December 9, 2011

Obligate: Two Words, One Spelling

I read a book in which the big baddy was an organization called Obligate. The author chose not to explain the reason for that name until halfway through the story, which meant that I did not know how to pronounce it for about two hundred pages. It surprised me how distracting that was.

If you are scratching your head, wondering what other pronunciation I’m writing about, this post is for you. Obligate does double duty, as both a verb and an adjective. You pronounce the two forms differently, however. When used as a verb, whether it’s compelling someone or committing funds, you say OB-li-gate (with a long A). That’s the form with which most people are familiar.

However, if you’re a biologist you likely use the word much differently. When referring to an organism that can live only in a particular environment or in a specific role in an ecosystem you call it OB-li-gƏt (with a short A represented by the schwa). The dictionary says you can use the long-A pronunciation of obligate as an alternate but it seems to me that doing so would only create confusion.

In case you’re curious, the organization in the book used the second definition and thus, when reading to myself, I used the short-A pronunciation of obligate. The rest of the book was much more interesting when I didn’t stop to wonder about that every third page. Think about how your readers will interpret such ambiguous words when you’re naming things in your own writing.

There! You get both a language and a writing tip in one post, something as dual-purpose as the word obligate itself.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Word Tidbits: Discreet versus Discrete

I doubt most people realize that discrete and discreet are discretely separate words. Today I thought I’d explain the slight difference between the two adjectives and clear up any confusion.

Discreet refers to cautious or tactful action. The word generally applies to something secret, such as a discreet rendezvous, or that you wish kept quiet, like dropping a discreet word in someone’s ear to let them know they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe after a trip to the facilities. Off the top of my head I can think of only one way I’ve seen discrete used regularly: to follow someone at a discrete distance.

While at first blush the two words look interchangeable in fact the latter implies not secrecy but separation. Discrete means something that is isolated or distinct from something else. Much of the confusion between the two words arises from the fact that people who follow someone at a discrete distance are usually trying to be discreet. Were they not they would simply travel with the person they’re trailing in the first place, thus eliminating the need for discretion entirely.

In that last sentence we find the rest of the reason that people conflate discreet and discrete. The noun form of both words is identical. It’s no wonder people don’t realize they are two discrete terms. Next time I'll post a difference on two more discrete words: confuse and conflate. Be discreet and don't spread it around, okay?

Monday, September 26, 2011 2011 Contest and a Thank You

The darling folks at have nominated One Step Forward for the "Best Grammar Blog of 2011"! If you would be so kind, and if you agree, do click over to their contest page and vote for this humble attempt to explore the English language. (Note: They've listed it as "Legbamel's blog on writing" rather than its official name.  Further note: They've fixed the listing and now it's under One Step Forward and open for voting now!)

Such kindnesses keep me interested in writing about writing and English grammar, as do the comments and questions from you interested readers. Thus I'm taking this as an opportunity both to toot my own horn and to thank you all for helping me to prove that grammar is alive and well in the twenty-first century, text messaging and L337-speak be darned. I may not post as often as I used to do but writing and English fascinate me as much as ever.  There's definitely more to come!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hyphens and the Compound Adjective

We’ve never tackled compound adjectives, here on One Step Forward, partly because it’s such a complex subject. Often you can make your sentence clearer by using an adjectival phrase or clause rather than worrying about whether to hyphenate. But today we’re going to ease your fears and explain just when to put that pesky hyphen between words in a compound adjective.

Here’s the short version: hyphenate when you place the compound adjective in the sentence before the noun.

This too-simple rule, however, does not address some specific kinds of adjectives. For instance, you would hyphenate a “one-week extension” but you would not add a hyphen to the possessive form, “one week’s extension”. And then there are compound adjectives that you write as a single word, a surefire way to confuse people.

Add to this the fact that, in a passive construction where the adjective end up as the predicate you still hyphenate. Thus you would write about a hard-core song, “This song is hard-core.” User-friendly programs are user-friendly.

Note that a compound adjective can consist of other parts of speech. You may have a noun and a participle, as with an attention-getting headline, or even a pair of nouns used to describe a third. The latter depends more on the nature of the words used than the placement. You would write about an African-American teacher but a Supreme Court decision, the space-time continuum but a real estate exam.

When the nouns refer to a well-known concept or an institution they need not be hyphenated. Thus a life insurance salesman does not require a hyphen while a roller-derby skater might. You may fill out your tax return form but only after performing a cost-benefit analysis.

“Wait!” you may cry. “Everyone knows what a cost-benefit analysis is.” But therein lies another wrinkle in the hyphenation question. Two nouns of essentially equal importance should be hyphenated when used as a compound adjective. Whether the social or the security means more, you still get a social security check if you qualify.

All of this ignores the fact that some pairs of words become a single, compound word and others do not. Skin diving stays just that when used as an adjective but skydiving is a single word. Housewarming parties get no hyphen but your house-sitter does. Adding more modifiers to a noun doesn’t change the hyphenation rules, either. The ever-popular, oft-misunderstood space-time continuum keeps all of those little dashes.

So how do you figure out whether to hyphenate commonly-used phrases? Sadly, the best answer remains the same thing your mother told you when you asked her how to spell something: look it up in the dictionary. Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to tackle compound adverbs.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Word Tidbits: Reveille vs. Revelry vs. Reverie

A recent incident sparked this post: I heard someone singing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B) and, yet again, use the word revelry instead of reveille. I thought perhaps I should point out to folks that the two words have absolutely nothing to do with one another. If you substitute one for the other you'll be blowing nonsense. Then I thought of reverie, a third word that sounds similar but, again, has a very different meaning.

Reveille, as you may guess from the spelling, comes to us from the French imperative réveillez with its understood vous. If you shout, “Réveillez!” you mean, “Wake up!” The term in English refers to both the bugle call at sunrise that signals time for troops to form up and the actual formation that results. Thus when the Bugle Boy of Company B plays reveille in boogie woogie fashion it makes the company jump to its positions (and perhaps dance about once there).

Now, should Bugle Boy, whom I'll just call BB to save repetition, get those soldiers jumping they may turn to revelry instead of standing at attention as they should. Revelry pretty well opposes military order and discipline. It's the word for partying, merrrymaking, and general festive good times. I suppose BB could play a song called Revelry but that's not what The Andrews Sisters meant.

Reverie stands utterly opposed to both revelry and the focus of soldiers organizing themselves into ranks. Rather than stiff attention or cheery dancing, someone in a reverie daydreams, is lost in thought and as likely to bump into his or her fellows as anything else. As it's early in the morning I suppose some of the troops might be lost in reverie, their minds still in their beds and on their dreams. But if BB blows something so mellow and emotive as to encourage that condition the company will never get into reveille.

Thus you can see that our vigilant BB leaps from his bunk to play reveille at the base of the flag, not to incite revelry or plunge his fellows into reverie. If he gets a little boogie into the steps of the others perhaps that enthusiasm would be no bad thing. But partying and woolgathering have no place in forming up ranks at the crack of dawn, whatever soldiers do on their off time. Click the song name above to find a series of different versions of the song. En Vogue manages to have poor BB playing reverie. You may be rolling your eyes as much as I did when I heard it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Too Quick with the Acronym

What is it with me and acronyms? I seem to have become obsessed. But when I read my post about using pronouns clearly I found that I had used one without explaining it. Shame on me!

I referred in that post to Dave from “HR”. While many people likely knew for what words the acronym stood the proper thing to do would have been to write out the phrase and then give the acronym in parentheses if I intended to use it in the rest of the piece. Thus it should have read, “What if I had written about Don, Ted, and Dave from Human Resources?”

If I had continued to talk about the human resources department I would have included (HR) before the question mark and then I would be free to use HR as an acronym (or an abbreviation, if you will) rather than tediously spelling it out each time. Of course, I could have avoided the whole issue by using the word personnel.

All of that merely means that you and I should watch our use of colloquialisms and common abbreviations in our writing. A shortened term that you commonly use may slip right past your internal editor, as it did mine in this case.

By the by, I have a new favorite acronym that I just couldn’t resist sharing with you all. Apparently there exists out there somewhere an organization called Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human or PHLUSH. I will resist the urge to make puns and just leave my announcement at that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

For Whom the Pronoun Stands

In my post about may versus might I included the sentences, “Don may be forced to fire Ted if he cannot resist the temptations of YouTube while at work. I’ve heard that he might seek counseling to curb his addiction.” In rereading that example, I wondered if my pronoun use was perhaps unclear. Naturally, that made me wish to post about how I could tell.

In short, the general rule runs thus: unless the sentence otherwise specifies to which person it refers, a pronoun used refers to the last person/group/object named. That means that you have to pay attention to the gender and number of the pronoun. In my example you’ve only the two to choose from which makes identifying “he” much simpler. What if I had written about Don, Ted, and Dave from HR?

“Dave told Don that he may be forced to fire Ted if he cannot resist those great kitten videos while on the clock. He said he’d heard that he might seek counseling for his problem.”
In the first sentence we’ve referred to both Don and Ted as “he” but only after using their respective names to identify them. In the second I am theoretically still writing about Ted except that the sentence doesn’t make sense if he is the only subject.

As the entire raison d’être of pronouns is their ability to stand in for nouns so that you need not use a name over and over in your writing, I’d never advocate avoiding them. You’d end up with something like this:
“Dave told Don that Don may be forced to fire Ted if Ted cannot resist Daft Punk mash-up videos at Ted’s desk. Don said Don had heard that Ted was going to Daft Rehab.”
Who wants to read that sort of garbage, let alone write it?

You must remember that your audience doesn’t have the inside knowledge you do of the situation, fictional or factual. When you write you already know who acts, who feels what, and who speaks to whom. If you’re on fire with creativity you may not notice how often you substitute pronouns for names. Cast an eye over what you’ve written and consider whether your readers can tell the difference between Ted and Don in any given sentence. You’ll be doing all of you a favor.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

If I May, If I Might

If I may, I’d like to explore the infinitesimal difference between may and might. In this case, I don’t see a “wrong” way to use one word in place of the other so much as I harbor a curiosity about why there are two such words. I retrieved my enormous dictionary and found the following definitions. I’ve abbreviated them to the salient points.

May: be allowed to or capable of, be likely to (to some degree), or to be obliged to (in matters of contract or statute). For purposes of brevity, I am ignoring “may he reign in health for a century” uses and the completely irrelevant definitions.

Might: the past version of may, in bygone days, and something less likely to happen than what you may do. Again, I’m ignoring uses and parts of speech that range away from my point.

Consider this sentence: Don may be forced to fire Ted if he cannot resist the temptations of YouTube while at work. I’ve heard that he might seek counseling to curb his addiction.

The difference between may and might lies in the degree of likelihood. It seems Don has seriously considered firing Ted but the video-watching fool doesn’t sound ready to admit he’s got a problem. I may paint my house green and I might add purple trim. I’m much more likely to find a pleasing shade of vermilion than I am to combine it with aubergine. I certainly am capable of doing both (though I may not like living with the results).

I may stop writing before I beat you over the head with another example for fear you might choose not to return. Yikes!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Making Sense of Oxymorons: A Writing Prompt

I received one of those obnoxious chain mails filled with clip art and Comic Sans font in seven colors and eight sizes. I’d been forwarded this one in particular several times because it purports to contain oxymorons. Of course is contains nothing of the kind but I (mostly) appreciate that people think of me when they see jokes about the English language.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an oxymoron is a phrase that contradicts itself. I’ve most often heard “military intelligence” cited as an example but I find that to be unkind to the gents who actually do sneaky things for the armed forces and who often show some scary smarts.

I’ve been sitting here attempting to create an oxymoron of my own and for some reason I now want to open a coffee shop called The Speedy Turtle. I seem to recall reading an article about the fastest sloth as well. But I was having trouble thinking of a really good example.

Then I thought about the example given in my dictionary of “legal murder”, which took me in two directions: right back to military intelligence and to the Wild West and the idea of a deputized outlaw. Could you have a gentle bully or a terrifying bunny (Monty Python notwithstanding)?

And so I thought that might make an interesting writing exercise: pair two contradictory terms and write a story to explain how both apply to a character. I don’t expect you to post results here, of course, but if you do write something based on the idea I’d love a link. If you’ve got a good example of an oxymoron please do share.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Misusing Malfeasance

I recently read what purported to be an indictment (informally, rather than in the legal sense) of a public-sector employee who the writer was calling to task for what he viewed as a refusal to enforce a law. The specifics of the issue don’t matter to us because we’re here to talk about the English language and abuses to which it is subject. The sentence in question began thus:

This appears to be a blatant malfeasance of justice…
Ah, the overblown sentence! When your opponent resorts to this sort of rhetoric you know that you have him or her on the run. Disregarding the excesses of ire, I was struck by the phrase “malfeasance of justice”.

Now malfeasance exists, both as a word and as a political problem. It simply means unjustifiable conduct or an illegal action perpetrated by a public official. I could argue that the person against whom the charge was leveled was not an “official” but that would be descending into petty semantics. I have much a higher semantic point to make.

“Of justice” in this instance acts as an adjective describing the instance of malfeasance. Yet “of” in this case means that justice was being…malfeased? No such word exists because the word being modified is a noun, not a verb. It’s tantamount to saying the actions were an apple of justice.

You can commit malfeasance, certainly (though I wouldn’t recommend it). You can witness it, call it out, and publicize it. You can even say that it runs rampant. But the fact that I can replace the word with a pronoun in that last two sentences means that it is still a noun.

Nowhere on-line or on paper could I find any indication that malfeasance can act as a verb. So what do you suppose our erstwhile agitator intended to convey? One presumes that the writer wanted to point out that the act was perceived to be malfeasance (and blatant misconduct at that) and that justice was being perverted thereby.

As to whether the author’s somewhat hysterical style swayed those with whom he was communicating, I can’t really say. I didn’t read the rest of the communiqué as I was too busy running for the dictionary.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Word Tidbits: Recap

I was driving home the other day, listening to NPR’s fabulous All Things Considered as I do every night. The woman presenting her story said something like, “For those of you unfamiliar with his record, let’s recapitulate.” Naturally, I immediately wondered how many people know that “recap” is actually an abbreviation of the word recapitulate.

Of course, I immediately looked it up both on-line and in my adored 2,700-page Webster. There, recap is defined as putting a new cap or tread on something. Recapitulate, in many forms, stands fully defined and clearly its own word. In many other places, however, I saw no acknowledgment of the fact that recap stands for a longer word (and one with a more easily-understandable etymology). Indeed my word processor defined recapitulation with “same as recap” with a link to that definition. You can imagine my horror at this sort of linguistic laziness.

And so for those of you who were unaware, I point out that giving a recap is fine for sports scores and television shows. I don’t even believe you should include a period at the end of the word to indicate this apparently-obscure English tidbit. But do remember that in serious writing recapitulate needs to do its own job. Regardless of the widely-accepted nature of recap as a word it will never be more than a small part of recapitulate.

For those among you who are curious, it came from the Latin recapitulare which was a compound of the re- prefix meaning "again" added to the word capitulum for "chapter or main part" or even older, "small head". That makes perfect sense considering that recapitulate means a concise review of the main points or headings of a larger whole.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Own Fit of Pique

I received a newsletter from a printer in town that contained an article purporting to give advice on naming your business. One of the items on the checklist was, “Peaks customer interest”. As you may imagine, this piqued my ire more than my interest. I’ve written before about the two words, but my mind this time took a different turn. I thought of the ways you can and generally do not use the word pique.

You might write, “Alfred stormed out in a fit of pique.” You could certainly say, “Your post piqued my interest,” and I would thank you kindly. But I would not write, “Julia piqued me,” or “The source of my pique was the neighbor’s howling dog.” Those two uses agree with the definitions of the word but seem to have fallen out of use, though GotBrainy shows it used by several writers in the past century or two. The Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton examples in particular show that such uses were not unknown.

While my massive print dictionary promises me that you use pique as a reflexive verb in a sentence about someone takes pride in his appearance or some ability, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it used that way. I can find no real agreement from on-line sources, particularly the venerable Merriam-Webster, except at The Free Dictionary which cites The American Heritage® Dictionary from 2000.

None of this really has much of a point, I suppose, except to celebrate the fact that there are often more and deeper meanings to words than we often realize. In the "related words" sections of various sites I came across some of my favorite words for being offended or anger, including miff and dudgeon. I must admit that I don't believe I've ever seen the latter used with out being prefaced by "high" and most places now define it as archaic except in sentences like, "Celeste slammed out of the house in high dudgeon." Clearly, that's a bit more serious than a fit of pique. I love English. It's like a box of LEGO® pieces, adaptable, evolving, and pointy at parts.