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The Best Thesaurus

Have you ever needed a better word than the only one that comes to mind? Nowadays, the easy solution is to type that word plus “synonym” into your Google search box. Call me old-fashioned, but I turn to a book: the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Anyone serious about writing needs this book—a quantum leap in thesauruses (thesauri?), and so much more besides.

Every writer but the most gifted needs a resource for synonymous words and phrases, but for years all I ever saw was something called Roget’s Thesaurus. Call me a nitwit, but I just couldn’t figure the damn thing out. Why couldn’t I just look up a word and find a list of synonyms after it?

Then in 1978 came J.I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder. At last, a thesaurus that worked like a dictionary. I still have my copy, and it still comes in handy, but the OAWT is even better. The front cover says, “For the writer in everyone.” An excerpt on the back dismisses utilize as a pretentious way of saying use. Yes! I liked this book before I even opened it.

The OAWT is the Swiss Army knife of wordbooks. Though it’s a straight Rodale-style thesaurus most of the way, there’s a lot more after the last entry (zoom, which can mean both “charge” and “enlarge”). There is a handy 24-page refresher course on the rules of grammar, followed by a spelling guide that includes a substantial list of commonly misspelled words (e.g., inoculate, minuscule, Philippines) and familiar foreign-language terms (roué, serape, Zeitgeist), after which comes a capitalization and punctuation guide. Taken as a whole, these breezy, easy-to-understand sections provide a solid understanding of how our language works.

The most fun comes at the very end: a list of clichés and, better yet, a collection of redundancies. Writers will squirm at the clichés, knowing they’re guilty of having used several of them: acid test, all in all, done deal, duly noted, in the near future, touch base, wreak havoc, and so many, many more. The redundant phrases are startling: many seem fine until you think about them: advance warning, brief moment, climb up, empty space, false pretenses, plan in advance, whether or not, written down.

Here are a few features that I think make OAWT the thesaurus of the 21st century: Unlike Rodale, OAWT uses your word correctly in a sentence or phrase before offering alternatives. If a word has two or more meanings, each gets its own paragraph of synonyms—easy, for instance, has seven paragraphs, from uncomplicated to promiscuous. You’ll find notes on “Easily Confused Words” throughout, like after founder or rack, to alert you about flounder and wrack. “The Right Word” sections deal with fine distinctions, helping writers choose between, say, riddle and conundrum. “Word Banks” are comprehensive lists of everything from amphibians to knitting terms to wine grapes. “Word Notes” and “Usage Notes” explain the finer points and pitfalls of common words and phrases.

Hard-core word nerds will have beefs. I wasn’t thrilled with the hedging on media (it’s plural, OK?). There are opposing points of view on the validity of the disinterested-uninterested dichotomy (to me there’s no question disinterested means “unbiased,” not “apathetic”). On the other hand, I found terrific passages on troublemakers like comprise, data, impact, and like.

Memo to smart alecks: the OAWT indeed does offer synonyms for synonym … and for thesaurus.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz

Can you spot the commonly misspelled words? (gleaned from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus)
Suggested answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We will be happy to accomodate all those in attendence.
2. The chauffer flinched when the lightening struck the limouzine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinious act.
4. The mechanic sat in the restaurant feeling susceptible to melancholy.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. We will be happy to accommodate all those in attendance.
2. The chauffeur flinched when the lightning struck the limousine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinous act.
4. All correct.

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Posted on Monday, July 28, 2014, at 1:52 pm


Nothing Is True Forever

Just about every week, GrammarBook.com receives emails like this: “My brilliant ninth-grade English teacher drilled into us that so-and-so, but now you say such-and-such.” The painful truth is that with each new generation the rules change.

If you were in high school in the 1970s, it’s a safe bet that your brilliant English teacher lectured you about the word hopefully. Forty years ago this word polarized America. People loved to say it, and language snobs loved to hate it. The veteran TV journalist Edwin Newman had a sign in his office that said, “Abandon ‘hopefully’ all ye who enter here.”

Nobody claimed that hopefully was invalid—it was the way everyone used it that was unacceptable. The word’s strict meaning is “filled with hope,” as in Hopefully, I knocked on my true love’s door. But few used it that way. It came to mean “it is hoped that,” as in Hopefully, my dream will come true.

The authorities were up in arms for several reasons. For starters, hopefully became a fad word, like today’s awesome or amazing. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing it everywhere. The more people said it, the more grating and vapid it became.

Beyond that, language scholars saw hopefully as a cop-out—no more than a glib way of avoiding “I hope.” It’s intentionally unclear who is hoping in Hopefully, my dream will come true. The word just floats there, unattached. Are you saying the whole universe hopes your dream will come true? Are you really that special?

Those who weren’t there can’t know how passionately the sticklers despised hopefully. “Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications,” says writer Geoff Nunberg. The odd thing was that the same detractors had no objection to other “floating” adverbs, such as thankfully, happily, and frankly.

For decades the venerable Associated Press Stylebook said in its entry on hopefully: “It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.” So imagine the surprise of many who opened the 2012 edition and found this: “The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Now, after all these years, the uproar is a dim memory, and the word is accepted in most quarters (although you will never see a floating hopefully in this space).

So much for that English teacher’s scolding in 1979. To the dismay of traditionalists, a language’s rules are bound to change when enough people refuse to obey them.

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Posted on Monday, July 21, 2014, at 10:25 pm


Based Off Is Off Base

Enough is enough. It’s time to blow the whistle on an obnoxious faux idiom that has the popular culture under its spell. The offending usage is based off and its alternate form, based off of.

Both are everywhere. One hears and sees them constantly over the airwaves, in print, and online. A Google search yields these nauseous nuggets: “Dr. House is based off of Sherlock Holmes.” “Their favorite classic movies are based off old fairy tales.” “It’s basically a stretched out HTC One M8, which is what the tablet is based off of.” There are hundreds more.

Everyone knows the correct phrase, based on, which has been around forever. But somehow, on became off, or worse, off of—a compound preposition that all English authorities reject as substandard.

The logical conclusion is that anyone who says “based off” doesn’t know what based means. As a verb, to base means “to form a foundation for.” The noun base refers to the underlying part that something rests on, not off.

The words base and basis are closely related and sometimes synonymous. Would anybody say, “The board meets off a daily basis”?

There’s really no excuse for based off. Whoever coined it was just fooling around or talking too fast. It subsequently caught on with other knuckleheads, and now there are those who defend its legitimacy.

But based off is another example of what might be called “Frankenstein formations.” You know, grab a part from here, another part from over there, and stitch them together to create a monstrously unsuitable word or phrase. Witness how the unholy merging of regardless and irrespective begat irregardless, a gruesome beast that even pedants with pitchforks can’t drive from the countryside.

Today’s high schools and colleges turn out students with negligible language skills, and the result is heedless writing and speech. Once upon a time, people who knew their pronouns said, “You and I should invite her and her husband for dinner.” Now you’re more likely to hear, “You and me should invite she and her husband for dinner.” For some perverse reason, those who don’t watch their language tend to say things that are the precise opposite of correct.

That would seem to explain how based on became based off.

 

Pop Quiz

Two of the options in each sentence below are correct. Can you identify the “Frankenstein formation”?

1. I am calling in regards to/as regards/in regard to the job opening.
2. The paragraph comprises/is comprised of/is composed of three sentences.
3. The novel centers on/revolves around/centers around marriage in the eighteenth century.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The phrase in regards to is nonstandard.
2. The phrase is comprised of is incorrect. The word comprise means “to be composed of,” so “comprised of” would mean “composed of-of.”
3. The phrase centers around is nonstandard.

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Posted on Monday, June 23, 2014, at 4:13 pm


Be Careful with the -a Team

The first letter of the alphabet is also a common English word that is virtually synonymous with one. As a word, a is the very antithesis of plurality.

This might help explain why there’s so much confusion about a group of words that I call “the -a team.” Here they are: bacteria, criteria, data, media, phenomena, Sierra. As you can see, all end in the letter a, which just sounds so darned singular that these words continue to confound even careful writers and speakers. Because the fact is, they’re all plural.

Bacteria Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there, but Staphylococcus is a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. The singular is bacterium. So a sentence like The bacteria in the cut was infecting it is flawed—the bacteria were infecting it.

Criteria It’s the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. The sentence Honesty is our chief criteria is ungrammatical; there can’t be only one criteria. Make it Honesty is our chief criterion or Honesty is one of our chief criteria. Your criteria are your standards, plural.

Those who know that criteria is plural aren’t out of the woods yet either: many believe the singular is “criterium.” And there are some who will reveal to you their “criterias.”

Data John B. Bremner, in Words on Words, states unequivocally, “The word is plural.” This one is thorny, because the singular, datum, is virtually nonexistent in English. Many people see data as a synonym for information, and to them, These data are very interesting sounds downright bizarre. Maybe, but it’s also correct. English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein says, “Some respected and learned writers have used data as a singular. But a great many more have not.”

Media Among the language’s most abused words is media, a plural noun; medium is the singular. A medium is a system of mass communication: The medium of television is a prominent component of the mass media.

Every day we hear and read statements like The media is irresponsible or The media has a hidden agenda. In those sentences, media should be followed by are and have.

There are some who prefer and defend the media is and the media has. To them, the various means of mass communication—newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, blogs, etc.—make up one “media.”

But writers should insist on the media are. It’s important that people think of the media as many voices, opinions, and perspectives rather than one monolithic entity.

Phenomena This troublemaker baffles even articulate speakers. Phenomena is plural; phenomenon is singular.

“Management is a universal phenomenon,” declares a business website. But a commentator on national television had it exactly backward. He spoke of “the phenomena of climate change” and later used phenomenon as a plural. Others say “phenomenas” when they mean phenomena.

Sierra Avoid “Sierras” when the topic is the vast California mountain range. An online camping guide says, “Translating from Spanish, sierra is plural in itself.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, a conservation organization, elaborates: “The Sierra Nevada is a single, distinct unit, both geographically and topographically, and is well described by una sierra nevada. Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never pluralize the name—such as Sierras, or Sierra Nevadas, or even High Sierras …”

“Strictly speaking,” you say? What a concept!

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5:05 pm


Media Watch 2

Recent cringe-inducers from the print media …

An upscale music venue ran ads for “An Evening With Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.” The second line said, “Formally of the 5th Dimension.” It was only after several weeks that someone caught the silly gaffe and sheepishly changed “Formally” to “Formerly.”

From an article about a musician: “He hardly fit the paradigm of an insecure singer/songwriter.” Why not “singer-songwriter,” with a hyphen, instead? In recent years the slash has become all the rage, but many authorities dismiss it as a substandard option—“a mark that doesn’t appear much in first-rate writing,” says Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Use it as a last resort.”

A columnist wrote, “It is I who is the bamboozled one.” At least he didn’t write “It is me.” But written correctly, the sentence would say, “It is I who am the bamboozled one.” In technical terms, the relative pronoun who agrees with its antecedent (“I”) in both number and person. If who is representing I, it must take am, the same verb that I takes.

A curious sentence about a San Francisco neighborhood: “They can kiss goodbye to Alamo Square.” No, they can say goodbye to Alamo Square. Or they can kiss Alamo Square goodbye. They could even give the beloved locale a kiss goodbye. But “can kiss goodbye to”?! Maybe the copyeditor was on vacation.

A world-famous writer of steamy novels fired a broadside at critics of her larger-than-lifestyle: “Reading the latest vitriolic article about the hedge around my house, my reaction was enormous sadness.” The sentence falls apart under close analysis: it says her “reaction” can read articles. A best-selling author who writes danglers? Say it isn’t so. She should have either replaced “Reading” with “When I read” or changed the second part to “I reacted with enormous sadness.”

Even seasoned professionals are liable to make loopy mistakes when they don’t proofread.

 

Pop Quiz
The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grieviously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whomever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correctly.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grievously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whoever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correct.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, at 5:41 pm