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You Can Look It Up

What happens when you come across a word you don’t know? Do you just keep reading? Most people do. They believe they can figure out a word’s meaning by looking at the sentence and using common sense. Maybe they’re right … but what if they’re wrong?

Here is a passage from a profile of a historical figure: “The prince, once a redoubtable opponent, became enervated by constant warfare.”

Choose which of the following sentences is true of the prince:

• The prince was a mighty warrior at first, but constant warfare exhausted him.
• The prince was not much of a soldier at first, but constant warfare made him a mighty warrior.

Those who cannot be bothered to look up redoubtable and enervated risk going through the entire essay with a distorted impression of the prince. Such readers are just wasting time—theirs and the author’s.

Serious readers look up every word they don’t know, even words they’ve seen before but are a bit fuzzy about. It is astonishing how few people demand this of themselves. Looking up a word never enters their minds, even though doing so takes mere seconds nowadays.

According to the language scholar Charles Harrington Elster, the average educated adult American has a vocabulary of between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than six hundred thousand words—more words than exist in French and German combined.

So even if you had three times the vocabulary of the average person, you still would only know one out of every six English words that have ever appeared in print.

Last week’s article included a sentence that prompted a surprising reaction. We wrote: “Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling.” Some readers assumed we meant “speculators.” Their emails ranged from civil to scornful. One correspondent simply sent us the offending sentence, with “peculators” blown up to three times the size of the other words. This is the verbal equivalent of rubbing a naughty puppy’s nose in the mess he’s made.

It is beyond us why anyone would write a “gotcha” email before doing basic research. If you type peculate into a search engine you’ll get the definition in a few seconds. It probably took longer for the puppy-shamer to enlarge “peculators” than it would have taken him to look it up.

Speculating is legal; peculating is a crime. “Speculators” was too mild for our purposes. To us, “peculators” was le mot juste.

So exercise due diligence before you hit “send,” or the mistake you expose may be your own.

 

Pop Quiz

Choose the best word. Answers are below.

1. Taking advantage of that nice woman is ___.

A. contemptible
B. contemptuous
C. A and B are both correct

2. The ___ business of life is to enjoy it.

A. principle
B. principal

3. I am ___ to participate in this activity.

A. reluctant
B. reticent
C. A and B are both correct

4. Boris felt no remorse, no ___ about what he had done.

A. compulsion
B. compunction

5. Billie suffers from the ___ that she can sing.

A. allusion
B. illusion
C. delusion

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. A: Taking advantage of that nice woman is contemptible.
2. B: The principal business of life is to enjoy it.
3. A: I am reluctant to participate in this activity.
4. B: Boris felt no remorse, no compunction about what he had done.
5. C: Billie suffers from the delusion that she can sing.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 15, 2015, at 8:59 pm


Euphemisms: Lying to Us Gently

Let’s talk about euphemisms, those soothing words meant to assure us that something’s not as bad as we know it is. A euphemism is a lullaby, a sedative, a velvet glove enfolding reality’s iron fist. In a way, the word euphemism is itself a euphemism—so much kinder and gentler than cop-out.

Euphemisms are employed for many reasons, some of them nobler than others. The ultimate euphemism is pass away. “He passed away” sounds peaceful, effortless. “He’s dead” is a two-syllable gut punch.

Nonetheless, there are those who are temperamentally unsuited for hiding stark truths behind fluffy words. In the 1944 film This Happy Breed a patriarch tells his family: “Mother died. She didn’t pass on, pass over, or pass out. She died.”

A euphemism can transform a narcissist into a temperamental perfectionist, a bigot into a traditionalist, or an unhinged demagogue into a passionate idealist.

It’s not surprising that we find some really clever euphemisms in politics, where double-talkers known as spin doctors speak of collateral damage and enhanced interrogation. It’s not an invasion, it’s an intervention or an incursion or sometimes an uncontested arrival. Terrorists are freedom fighters—if they’re on our side. Our opponents lie; our allies may have misspoken.

Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling. The financial world likes to couch its mischief in opaque phrases like subprime mortgage bonds and collateralized debt obligations. One of our favorite Wall Street euphemisms is overleveraged, a mealy-mouthed term for expanding too fast, borrowing too much, and defaulting on the debt.

Alcohol’s prominent and often problematic place in society has given rise to many colorful euphemisms: Bertie is lit up like Broadway. He just got back from the old watering hole. He was talking to John Barleycorn. Now he’s got his wobbly boots on.

Here are a few more choice euphemisms, some common, others less so:

Nail technician  A manicurist.

Hair stylist  Are there still barbers?

Personnel surplus reduction  Means you’re fired.

Sampling  “The process of taking brief segments of sound (from a song, movie or elsewhere) and using that sound to form another sound or musical piece.” That’s how UrbanDictionary.com defines sampling. We can define it in one word: stealing.

But the winner by a landslide …

Atlantic triangular trade  A few years ago the Texas State Board of Education voted to use this Machiavellian phrase in history textbooks to replace slave trade.

When it comes to euphemism-wielding prevaricators, the Texas State Board of Education is in a class by itself.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 8, 2015, at 10:34 am


Compare To vs. Compare With

Is there a difference between comparing A to B and comparing A with B?

The answer is yes, and it is a difference worth maintaining; but these days, compare to and compare with are in danger of becoming interchangeable. This looks like yet another fight that the grammar patrol is about to lose.

When we compare something to something else, we are placing two things—sometimes very different things—in the same category and commenting on connections we perceive. We are expressing an opinion or making an observation. Others might not have noticed these similarities; still others might disagree with them. Some examples: I’d compare the view from your living room to a painting by Bierstadt. Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food. Note that these are subjective statements—they are not verifiable.

When we compare something with something else, we are not expressing opinions or making personal statements. We are placing two things side by side and noting empirical similarities and differences. Our purpose is to be fair and impartial. The accuracy or inaccuracy of our findings can be verified. For instance, if we flout the old cliché and compare apples with oranges, we find that neither fruit contains fat, cholesterol, or sodium; that oranges contain more than twice as much potassium as apples; that a cup of oranges contains twenty more calories than a cup of apples.

The act of comparing to—claiming that two distinct entities share a noteworthy similarity—is something children do all the time. When a child says, “Mommy, that owl looks like Uncle Al!” she is comparing her uncle’s face to a bird’s. That is not exactly in-depth analysis. Comparing with tends to be a more mature, responsible, and demanding act than comparing to. Comparing with requires objectivity—and often necessitates research.

In the writer’s guide Simple and Direct, Jacques Barzun issues this caveat: “Any writer can compare himself with Shakespeare and discover how far he falls short; if he compares himself to Shakespeare (i.e., puts himself on the same level), then he had better think again.”

 

Pop Quiz

Choose the better options. Answers are below.

1.
A) Corey compared Eva’s running style with a gazelle’s.
B) Corey compared Eva’s running style to a gazelle’s.

2.
A) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature with the e in the forged name on the contract.
B) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature to the e in the forged name on the contract.

3.
A) Compared with the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.
B) Compared to the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.

4.
A) She compared my singing with the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.
B) She compared my singing to the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1.
B) Corey compared Eva’s running style to a gazelle’s.

2.
A) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature with the e in the forged name on the contract.

3.
A) Compared with the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.

4.
B) She compared my singing to the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 18, 2015, at 8:39 pm


Anachronisms: Time Out!

Shakespeare typing Hamlet. JFK on a cellphone. Elvis using Twitter. Each is an anachronism, the technical term for a chronological blunder.

Many years ago my family took me to see Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. As young as I was, I gave up on the movie in utter disgust when Cleopatra winked at Caesar. I didn’t care that the filmmakers were having a little fun with their presumably sophisticated audience. To me, it was a deal breaker.

In HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, loving care and great expense went into the costumes and the lavish set design. So I was jolted when, in the first episode—directed by Martin Scorsese no less—a showgirl shrieks, “No way!” My Partridge Dictionary of Slang says that no way first appeared in 1968.

In Mail Order Bride, a western set in 19th century Wyoming, a character says, “She couldn’t take the lifestyle.” The Oxford English Dictionary says life-style was coined in 1929. That surprised me, because I would have sworn that lifestyle didn’t show up until the 1960s.

So beware what you call an anachronism—you might get taken down a peg, as I was by the 1933 film A Man’s Castle, when Spencer Tracy says, “I’m hip to all the panhandling routines.” Really? He was “hip” back in 1933? I’d have lost that bet.

I was also put in my place by the great AMC series Mad Men when a character in the 1960s said “synchronicity,” a word that became trendy with the popular culture in the eighties. But it turns out synchronicity goes back to the fifties.

The creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, was meticulous in his replication of sixties vernacular. Good for him, because a lot of watchdogs were paying close attention. I’ve read that Weiner was grilled about the show’s use of self-worth, regroup, and recon, but like synchronicity, those terms were around back then. “When in doubt,” Weiner said, “I don’t use it.”

Not all the quibbles were false alarms. Even an artist as committed as Weiner is going to slip up, as when he had someone say, “You have to be on the same page as him.” On the same page, I understand, didn’t enter the language until the late seventies.

Other Mad Men lines I had doubts about include “I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl” and “push back.” These both sound decidedly post-sixties. Instead of “glass-half-full kind of girl,” why not use an expression more typical of the period, like “I’m a cockeyed optimist”? Same with “push back.” Why use a term that’s overused by politicians and pundits in 2015 when any number of hardy perennials (“oppose,” “resist,” “defy”) are readily available? If a phrase sounds too current, it risks spoiling the illusion.

And even if you could prove to me that winking goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, it still didn’t work in Cleopatra.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, August 11, 2015, at 10:15 am


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 Tuesday, August 4, 2015, at 7:19 pm