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Another Good One

January 21, 2008

Although, sadly, it’s from a book about how to teach kids better composition and editing skills:

This paradigm shift in your teaching is a slippery slope, and kids will want to jump on.

To be fair, there’s nothing in the book on how to avoid mixed metaphors.


Posted in Grammar, Word Use

Getting Back on Track with a Good Cause

December 19, 2007

Come January 2, I’ll be full-time at Geode Editorial and will likely have a lot more time to keep up this little site. In the meantime, I’ve become addicted to the perfect computer game: Free Rice. It has everything–crazy vocabulary, maddening setbacks, obsessional simplicity AND it generates food for starving people around the world. It presents you with multiple-choice vocabulary questions; for every correct answer, they donate 20 grains of rice to hunger relief organizations. For every three correct answers, they bump you up a level (highest is 50); for every incorrect answer, they bump you down a level. If you think a mere 20 grains doesn’t make a difference, consider this: I’ve only been playing for 20 minutes and I’m up to 7,760 grains (and have been as high as level 49). That has to be at least enough to make dinner for a family of four, right? Anyhow, play and learn–I’ve never seen a lot of these words.

Update: It took me nearly 12,000 grains of rice, but I made it to level 50. This is really honing my root-word skills.

Posted in Word Use

Something Else to Ponder

August 3, 2007

I just ran across the following on another blog post devoted to “classy” insults of days gone by:

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” (William Faulkner, about Ernest Hemingway)

As most of you know, these writers, both Nobel laureates, had a decades-long rivalry and writing styles at opposite ends of the spectrum–Faulkner was abstruse* and florid, and Hemingway was direct and spare. I am a long-time devotee of the latter and a firm believer in simplicity. In fact, I think it’s a testament to Hemingway’s brilliance that he could write so powerfully with so few flourishes. So I put it to you, readers: Is Faulkner’s dig a true insult, or is it an unwitting compliment?

* I had originally written “obtuse,” but Will pointed out that that has more the connotation of stupid, which wasn’t my intent. I just meant that he seems to be deliberately difficult. And this isn’t to say I don’t like Faulkner–I’ve read four of his books and enjoyed them to a certain extent (not as much as I enjoy Hemingway’s books). I just think his remark was wrong.

Posted in Word Use

The Start of the Don’t-Do’s

July 30, 2007

I’m determined to get back in the saddle with this whole style gripe and discussion thing. Back in February, before this site got its feeble launch, Will contributed a hilarious post to Always Double Back about the list of cliches he was determined to purge from all articles that crossed his desk at Esquire. Our readers jumped in on the comments and helped us geek out a little further with other egregious examples. See that post here.

Now, inspired by the list cited in the post below, I’m going to start a list of common usage errors that I run across with disheartening frequency. Here’s a few off the top of my head; please, smarty-pants readers, jump in with ones that I’ve either forgotten or haven’t thought of. One of these days, when I have enough, I’ll pull together the whole list of errors, clumsy phrases, and cliches and spread my manifesto throughout the land so that Americans will stop sounding like such dumb-asses.

Errors of Usage:

comprise: Once and for all, five people comprise the group. The group is not “comprised of” five people!

myriad: It’s an adjective, not a noun. You don’t have “a myriad of” choices, you have myriad choices. I rejected an intern once for getting this wrong in her letter of application.

Update: Sendhil points out below, and Webster’s 11th backs him up, that this apparently is okay to use as a noun, but I still can’t bring myself to agree. The first definition is (noun) ten thousand (but I wouldn’t say “a ten thousand of”). The consensus seems to be that both are correct, but I just can’t accept that–it just looks and sounds wrong to me as a noun. Then again, I once had strong feelings about split infinitives, and now I allow them when the alternative would sound too stilted. Perhaps it will be so with this.

further/farther: Further applies to more abstract concepts (to further one’s career); farther applies to distance. I can’t believe how many people get this wrong.

principle/principal: Again, these are shamefully misused. A principle is something you believe in. A principal is someone to whose office you’re sent when you’ve been caught smoking in the bathroom.

who/whom: Who is the subject, whom is the object. Why is this considered to be such a complicated concept?

impact: This is my mom’s favorite. I will allow that you can have an impact on something, although that veers into lame cliche territory. But if you start talking about impacting stuff, you’d better mean that you’re squashing it into a tiny little cube or something. In my last job, I often had to purge the made-up atrocity “impactful” from various reports and speeches.

that/which: Most common misuse throughout academic writing. “That” introduces dependent clauses and “which” introduces independent clauses. As with who/whom, this stymies people as if it were advanced calculus.

decimate: Latin class! To decimate means to reduce by one in ten–this is often significant, but it’s not the total wipe-out that people mean when they misuse this word.

where/when: Seriously, how could someone mess these up? “Where” refers to places, “when” refers to time. Why, then, do I so often see something like “there was this time where I was so embarrassed”?

who/that: “Who” refers to people, “that” refers to objects. It makes my skin crawl when people refer to their friends that are so much fun.

I’m getting tired of typing now, but there will be much more where this came from. Please contribute your own peeves in the meantime.

Infuriating Phrases

June 20, 2007

Today, Slate had a good piece on why Hillary Clinton’s (and most other politicians’) speeches are so maddeningly boring. It’s because she and people like her stuff their addresses with meaningless jargon that has become so common we don’t even hear it anymore–mainly because we’ve learned to tune it out:

The worst offender—and this week’s column is officially apolitical—is Hillary Clinton, who is “running for president because I believe if we set big goals and we work together to achieve them, we can restore the American dream today and for the next generation.” Clinton also believes that “we can give people the education and opportunities they need to fulfill their God-given potentials,” and that “the foundation of a strong economy is the investments we make in each other.” Who could possibly disagree?

The article also leads readers to a hilarious contest run by the UK Daily Telegraph that asked readers to submit essays stuffed with as much jargon or slang as possible. A favorite excerpt:

A re-evaluation of our methodologies has led to a sea-change. Tasked with delivering sustainable growth in our external horticultural environment, a work-in-progress encompasses benchmarking the broccoli, risk-assessing the radishes and applying change management principles to the diverse peripherals on the compost heap.

This blog will provide frequent rants against jargon and hackneyed phrases. We welcome our readers to submit examples of their own pet peeves.

Posted in Word Use

I Have a Craven

June 8, 2007

This morning I read a column in the New York Post in which Steve Dunleavy huffed and puffed about how Paris Hilton was released from jail after serving only five days of her sentence. [Aside: She’s since been dragged, literally kicking and screaming, back to the slammer. Woo!] I barely skimmed the piece, but my attention sharpened when I reached the concluding sentence:

So why would we expect anything from La La Land, which long ago replaced God with craven images – celebrities like Paris Hilton.

Ignore for the moment the fact that the question ends with a period. My first reaction was “What a doofus! It’s graven, not craven!” But then I wondered–was he actually making a very subtle play on the words? Per Webster’s, craven means “contemptibly faint-hearted.” One could certainly describe Miss Hilton that way. So tell me, smarty-pants readers, am I being too literal-minded, or am I giving Mr. Dunleavy and the Post too much credit for cleverness?

Posted in Word Use

Book Dip: More Fowler

June 3, 2007
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First, in response to readers’ requests for an example of an inversion, here is one from Fowler:

Little by little are these poor people being hemmed in & ground down by their cruel masters.

And, since he cross-referenced to Elegant Variation in that entry, here is an excerpt:

It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. . . . There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, & this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity.

The fatal influence is the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence–or within 20 lines or other limit. . . . The writer, far from carelessly repeating a word in a different application, has carefully not repeated it in a similar application; the effect is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointedly that it has none:– The Bohemian Diet will be the second Parliament to elect women deputies, for Sweden already has several lady deputies.

Boiled down, it’s the cliche of a foolish consistency, etc. Don’t be slavish to your English teachers’ admonitions, kids! Your writing will come out tentative and stilted.


May 25, 2007

Today’s Times carries a brief review of Pearl Harbor, a “historical novel” by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, and all I can say is that my heart went out to the book’s copy editor the moment I saw the headline: An Assault on Hawaii. On Grammar Too. This book was put out by St. Martin’s Press, a venerable house that I’m sure employs wonderful copy editors. I’m also sure that Mssrs. Gingrich and Forstchen stetted every single red mark on the manuscript. How else could the following be explained?

[Y]ou . . . find phrases like “to withdraw backward was impossible,” sounds like “wretching noises” to accompany vomiting, or constructions like “incredulous as it seemed, America had not reacted.” Although the book has two authors, it could have used a third assigned to cleanup patrol.

This is not a matter of isolated typographical errors. It is a serious case for the comma police, since the book’s war on punctuation is almost as heated as the air assaults it describes. “One would have to be dead, very stupid Fuchida thought,” the book says about the fighter pilot Mitsuo Fuchida, “not to realize they were sallying forth to war.” Evidence notwithstanding, the authors do not mean to insult the fighter pilot’s intelligence — or, presumably, the reader’s.

I can’t imagine that these issues went unnoticed by the good people at St. Martin’s, although I’m sure everyone connected with the book (except, perhaps, for the agent, who probably made a lot of money on this deal) is now writhing in embarrassment and regret. They can comfort themselves, though, with the knowledge that the book’s target audience probably doesn’t know any better.

Book Dip: Fowler

May 22, 2007

[We’re going to test-drive a few regular features here and see which ones stick. This one will involve a “book dip,” i.e., a random selection from a book on language or style. Today’s book dip comes from the 1944 edition of H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. If you like this feature, let us know!]

Inversion. By this is meant the abandonment of the usual English sentence order & the placing of the subject after the verb. [. . .] Inversion is the regular & almost invariable way of showing that a sentence is a question, so that it has an essential place in the language ; & there are other conditions under which it is usual, desirable, or permissible. But the abuse of it ranks with Elegant Variation [a cross-reference to be explored in later posts–ed.] as one of the most repellent vices of modern writing. Inversion and variation of the uncalled-for kinds are like the fashionable high heels placed somewhere below the middle of the foot–ugly things resorted to in the false belief that artificiality is more beautiful than nature . . .

You don’t have to look very far to find a life lesson in there.

Posted in Word Use