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You Can Say That Again

Because English is so unpredictable, it’s often impossible to infer a word’s pronunciation from its spelling. Dictionaries help, to a point. But dictionaries often seem all too willing to penalize time-honored pronunciations after a word gets mispronounced by a sufficient number of people.

So here is another in our series of pronunciation columns. The words are familiar, but their traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Hysteria  The er is pronounced like ear rather than air. Say hiss-TEER-ia, not hiss-TAIR-ia.

Jewelry  It’s hard to figure how anyone who can spell this word would mispronounce it, but the fact remains that many people say “jula-ree.” To them we say, please explain how j-e-w-e-l spells “jula.”

Consummate  When used as an adjective, as in “She is the consummate hostess,” the correct pronunciation is cun-SUM-it, although CON-sa-mit has all but taken over. You don’t hear many Americans say cun-SUM-it, but to its credit the latest edition (2011) of theAmerican Heritage Dictionary of the English Language still prefers it.

Memorabilia  It is often mispronounced memmer-a-BEE-lia. Say memmer-a-BILL-ia. (Few people use, or are even aware of, the singular form: memorabile.)

Repartee  This word for witty banter is pronounced rep-ur-TEE or rep-ar-TEE. Repartee came into English from the French repartie, meaning “a sharp answer.” Our 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists rep-ur-TEE as the only allowable pronunciation. The 2014 Webster’s New World does not list rep-ur-TEE at all. It prefers rep-ar-TEE, but also accepts the pseudo-French rep-ar-TAY.

Incognito  Everyone pronounces this word the same: in-kahg-NEET-o, right? Not according to our ’68 American College Dictionary. A mere 47 years ago only one pronunciation of this word was acceptable to Random House: in-KAHG-nitto, stress on the second syllable, with the third syllable pronounced “nit” instead of “neet.” Quite a change. The aforementioned American Heritage dictionary, so meticulous that it has its own usage panel, now gives first preference to in-kahg-NEET-o, but in-KAHG-nitto gets second billing, so someone is still pronouncing it that way.

Blithe  The sticking point here is the th sound. It’s the difference between writhe and wreath, with the soft th the correct choice; blithe and writhe make an exact rhyme.

Elvis Presley  Those who grew up listening to him will verify that PREZ-lee is the wrong way to pronounce Elvis’s last name. PRESS-lee is how the singer himself pronounced it.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 22, 2015, at 7:35 pm

Media Watch

Here is another assemblage of less than shining achievements in journalism.

• From a review of a movie about a ninety-three-year-old designer: “She makes no attempt to deny the pains and rigors of life in her ninth decade.” Let’s see now, a three-year-old is in her first decade; a thirteen-year-old is in her second decade; a twenty-three-year-old is in her third decade. Do the math: a ninety-three-year-old is in her tenth decade.

• “It’s a real kudo for Yahoo.” There is no such thing as “a kudo.” Kudos is a Greek word meaning “praise” or “glory.” Despite the s on the end, kudos is singular, not plural.

• “Green yelled, ‘I told ya’ll it was over!!!’ ” The punctuation is a mess even before the sentence ends with that intemperate outburst of exclamation points. Apparently the writer’s MO is to just fling apostrophes around and pray they make a smooth landing. Well, the one in “ya’ll” sure didn’t. Why would anyone want to harm a nice word like all by disfiguring it with a wayward apostrophe? The correct contraction of you all is y’all. The apostrophe replaces the ou in you—just as it stands in for the wi in you will when we write you’ll or the ha in you have when we write you’ve. What missing letter or letters does the apostrophe in ya’ll replace?

• Three sentences from three articles that share one problem: “But improvements could take awhile.” “Every once in awhile, then, you feel like you’re watching an old mystery.” “Hanging around with fantastic writers rubs off on you after awhile.”

All three writers should have used the two-word noun phrase a while. It is worthwhile preserving the difference between awhile and a while. As one word, awhile is an adverb meaning “for a while.” Obviously the writer of the first sentence didn’t mean “improvements could take for a while,” which makes no sense. He should have gone with the noun phrase “a while,” making the noun “while” the object of “could take.”

The writers of the second and third sentences have mistakenly made awhile the object of the prepositions in and after. But only nouns and pronouns may be objects of prepositions, never adverbs. Claire Kehrwald Cook sums it all up in her book Line by Line: “Use the article [a] and noun [while], not the adverb [awhile], after a preposition … Use awhile only where you can substitute the synonymous phrase for a time.”

• “It is a memorial to the thousands of soldiers who fought and died in the June 18, 1815 battle of Waterloo.” Add a comma after “1815.” Most people still use a comma to separate the day of the month from the year, but many forget to put another comma after the year.

• “Our design critic’s favorite example of ‘defensive architecture’ are the wooden benches on Mission.” The writer forgot what every schoolchild learns the first week of English class: The verb must agree with the subject. The subject is “example.” The critic’s favorite example is the wooden benches. Case closed.


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Our answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “Iran is as great a threat that Israel has ever faced.”
2. “It’s a extremely politicized department.”
3. “Every one of our allies in the region are up in arms.”
4. “It’s a good opportunity for whomever becomes the nominee.”
5. “This could spurn other people to do the same thing.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “Iran is as great a threat as Israel has ever faced.”
2. “It’s an extremely politicized department.”
3. “Every one of our allies in the region is up in arms.”
4. “It’s a good opportunity for whoever becomes the nominee.”
5. “This could spur other people to do the same thing.”

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Posted on Monday, August 3, 2015, at 7:19 pm

Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain

English verbs are either regular or irregular. We call a verb regular when we add ed (wanted, looked) or sometimes just d (created, loved) to form what are called the simple past tense and the past participle (see third and fourth paragraphs below). A regular verb’s simple past tense and past participle are always identical.

Not so with irregular verbs. They form the simple past tense and the past participle in any number of unpredictable ways. Some irregular verbs, like let, shut, and spread, never change, whether present or past. Others, like feel and teach, become modified versions of themselves (felt, taught) to form both the past tense and the past participle. Still others, like break and sing, change to form the past tense (broke, sang) and change again to form the past participle (broken, sung). And then there are a few really weird ones, like go: its past participle (gone) is recognizable enough, but its simple past tense is a strange new word (went).

Let’s get back to the irregular verb break. The simple past tense is broke, which we use in sentences like I broke your dish. We use the past participle, broken, to form compound verbs in sentences like I have broken your dish. The compound verb have broken is so called because we’ve added a helping verb (have) to the main verb’s past participle (broken). Be careful never to add a helping verb to the simple past form of an irregular verb—I have broke your dish is an embarrassing confession in more ways than one.

The past participle of an irregular verb can also function as an adjective: a broken dish. But the simple past form, if it differs from the participle, cannot function as an adjective: a broke dish is substandard English.

There are far fewer irregular verbs than regular ones, but we use them all the time. “The ten commonest verbs in English (be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, and get) are all irregular,” notes Steven Pinker, an American experimental psychologist and linguist, “and about 70% of the time we use a verb, it is an irregular verb.” Pinker acknowledges 180 irregular English verbs, but the website has an Extended Irregular Verb Dictionary which contains over 470 irregular verbs, including rare ones such as bestrew, enwind, and hagride.

Proper use of irregular verbs requires old-fashioned memorization—there are no secret formulas or shortcuts. This is why these words can create havoc for conscientious speakers of English. See how you do on the irregular verb quiz below—and please, no peeking at the answers till you complete the last question.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. He should have definitely ___ it before sunset.

A) did
B) done
C) have did
D) have done

2. This year has not necessarily ___ the way they hoped it would.

A) gone
B) went
C) going
D) go

3. He hopes he has finally ___ his last grammar test.

A) took
B) tooken
C) take
D) taken

4. The dry soil has ___ up every last raindrop.

A) drank
B) drunk
C) A and B are both correct.

5. She claims she ___ it happen before it occurred.

A) sees
B) seen
C) saw
D) had saw

6. It looks as if Tanya has actually ___ to visit Reggie.

A) come
B) came
C) coming

7. The Smiths were all ___ by a loud crashing noise.

A) awakened
B) awoken
C) A and B are both correct.

8. It had just ___ to snow when the plane took off.

A) began
B) begin
C) beginning
D) begun

9. Don’t they know I’m already ___ up?

A) shook
B) shaken
C) shooken
D) shaked

10. The wind has ___ like this for a week now.

A) blow
B) blowed
C) blown
D) blew


1: B) done

2: A) gone

3: D) taken

4: B) drunk

5: C) saw

6: A) come

7: C) awakened and awoken are both correct

8: D) begun

9: B) shaken

10: C) blown

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Posted on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, at 4:05 pm

Rewriting Great Poetry

The twentieth century produced no greater poet than Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). And Thomas produced no poem more powerful or impassioned than “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” You read that right: Thomas said “gentle,” not “gently.”

In the poem Thomas exhorts his dying father not to be meek when facing the end, but rather to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The poem’s title is also its opening line, a line which since its first appearance in 1951 has been “improved” by a host of armchair grammarians who prefer gently.

It happened again last week, in a sentence written by a damn good journalist: “You know what Dylan Thomas wrote about going gently into that good night.”

A 2007 documentary called “Do Not Go Gently” received the Gold World Medal in Humanities at the New York Festivals Film and Video Awards. I am sure the film is a fine piece of work, despite its bungled title.

An Internet search turned up this article: “Poem Analysis of ‘Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas.” One can only hope that the heedless chowderhead who wrote that heading did not also write the essay. But just to be on the safe side, I didn’t read a word of it.

Another online expert proclaims: “OK, Dylan Thomas gets a pass, but if he were still in school and that were an assignment, his teacher would probably take off points. It should read, ‘Do not go gently.’ ” Well, no, actually it shouldn’t. This mastermind is the one who needs a remedial English class.

In Thomas’s poem, go is an action verb (see short essay below), which is why these clueless critics insist on the adverb gently. True, we modify action verbs with adverbs, but certain sentences complicate the issue. We could say Don’t go into that meeting angrily, but we could just as properly say Don’t go into that meeting angry.

Action verbs and adjectives combine forces all the time. In Joe sanded the table smooth, the adjective smooth describes table, not sanded. Same with The book is lying open: no one would argue for the adverb openly, even though is lying is an action verb.

There is a subtle but pronounced difference between go gentle and go gently. And great poetry raises subtlety to an art form.

Thomas would never have chosen gently because it trivializes and vitiates his message. As an adverb, gently lasts only as long as the action it describes. Thomas is concerned with much more than one finite action. By choosing gentle ((Do not go gentle = “This is no time for you to be gentle”), Thomas puts the focus on you, all of you; all of us. He implores us to be tenacious and unwavering as we brace for the battle no mortal will ever win.

Tom Stern

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Action Verbs and Linking Verbs

Main verbs fall into two broad categories: action verbs and linking verbs. In a sentence with an action verb, A does B. In a sentence with a linking verb, A is or is like B.

An action verb describes something being done (He left home) or taking place (The building collapsed). A linking verb is a kind of equal sign. It connects a noun with an adjective (They appeared restless) or with another noun (Bill was being a jerk), or it fleshes out the subject (I remain your friend always).

Where action verbs take adverbs, linking verbs require adjectives. This is why it is incorrect to say I feel badly about what I said. When feel is a linking verb, we feel bad (adjective), not badly (adverb); we only feel badly when our hands are numb. And when we feel with our hands, feel is an action verb.

Many verbs we think of as action verbs can sometimes be linking verbs. In They were getting breakfast, it’s clear that were getting is an action verb. But They were getting sleepy makes were getting a linking verb.

Pop Quiz
Can you tell linking verbs from action verbs? Answers are below.

1. She looked fond of her husband.
A) In this sentence looked is a linking verb.
B) In this sentence looked is an action verb.

2. She looked fondly at her husband.
A) In this sentence looked is a linking verb.
B) In this sentence looked is an action verb.

3. Katie says that when she and Ana grow older, they will grow the best tomatoes in the county.
A) The first grow is a linking verb; the second grow is an action verb.
B) The first grow is an action verb; the second grow is a linking verb.
C) Both the first and second grow are linking verbs.
D) Both the first and second grow are action verbs.

4. When I turned to reply, her face turned red.
A) The first turned is a linking verb; the second turned is an action verb.
B) The first turned is an action verb; the second turned is a linking verb.
C) Both the first and second turned are linking verbs.
D) Both the first and second turned are action verbs.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. She looked fond of her husband.
A) In this sentence, looked is a linking verb. (She = fond)

2. She looked fondly at her husband.
B) In this sentence, looked is an action verb.

3. Katie says that when she and Ana grow older, they will grow the best tomatoes in the county.
A) The first grow is a linking verb; the second grow is an action verb.

4. When I turned to reply, her face turned red.
B) The first turned is an action verb; the second turned is a linking verb.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2015, at 3:30 pm

Evolution or …?

Today we’ll home in on three examples of the English language’s capriciousness.

Self-deprecating  Few contemporary writers would hesitate to use self-deprecating to describe someone who is refreshingly humble. But the term’s wide acceptance is yet another triumph of the slobs over the snobs.

Technically, the correct term is self-depreciating. Although deprecate and depreciate appear almost identical, these words have different roots, and different meanings as well. Traditionally, to deprecate is to disapprove of or denounce. To depreciate is to devalue or downgrade. Because the two words are easily confused, most dictionaries caved forty or fifty years ago and started listing them as synonymous.

Why did self-deprecating prevail when self-depreciating is the right choice? Possibly because deprecating sounds mysterious and swanky.

It’s not as much fun to use depreciating, with its unwieldy extra syllable. It’s a dreary word that evokes decline and obsolescence.

Momentarily  Since the mid-seventeenth century, momentarily has meant “for a moment.” But in the twentieth century, casual speakers and writers started using it to mean “in a moment.” This johnny-come-lately meaning of momentarily has caught up with and maybe overtaken the traditional meaning.

There is quite a difference between for a moment and in a moment when you think about it. Most travelers are heartened when they hear “Passengers’ baggage will arrive momentarily.” But this announcement could be stressful news to traveling language sticklers—they might take it to mean that their arriving luggage will disappear after only a few seconds.

So why say something like Let’s speak momentarily and risk being misinterpreted? The solution is to drop momentarily and instead say either Let’s speak soon or Let’s have a short talk.

Presently  This word has changed meanings more than once since its arrival in the fourteenth century. At first it meant now. But today careful speakers and writers use it to mean “in the near future.” Others use it in its original sense. The 2014 edition of Webster’s New World lists both “in a little while; soon” and “at present; now: a usage still objected to by some.”

We recommend that you avoid this fussy word. If you tell a houseful of ravenous guests, “We are serving dinner presently,” many will think you mean right now and start elbowing their way to the front of the line.

Good alternative: “We are serving dinner soon.”
Not so good alternative: “We are serving dinner momentarily.”

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Posted on Tuesday, April 21, 2015, at 10:13 am