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That’s what that means?

I know many avid readers, and I wish I read as much as they do. But to my surprise, very few of them read with a dictionary on hand. When I ask why, the answer is some variation on “It ruins the mood” or “I want to relax, not study” or the most self-deluded one: “I can figure out most words from the context.”

As for that last one, I can only say that I myself have guessed wrong on a word’s meaning too often to count, and many times if I had gone with what I guessed and not bothered to look it up, I’d have gravely misunderstood some of the author’s fundamental premises — yes, the stakes are that high.

I can illustrate this with a simple example: “Joe inferred that the judge was disinterested.” There are many smart people who would take that sentence to mean, “Joe insinuated that the judge didn’t care.” Boy, would they be wrong.

The sentence actually means, “Joe decided that the judge was unbiased.” Huge difference there. Would you rather have a judge who’s fair or one who wants to go home? “Disinterested” means “impartial.” It does not mean “apathetic” — that would be an uninterested judge.

And because so many people mistakenly think infer is a synonym for imply, a reader might see “inferred” and think Joe was hinting at something, when in fact he had reached a conclusion.

If just a simple seven-word sentence can cause such a misunderstanding, imagine tackling difficult authors like Lawrence Durrell or William Faulkner. Without a dictionary nearby, what you get out of these writers’ books might be a far cry from what they actually wrote.

So here are a few words that may not mean what you think they mean. Misinterpreting a key word can distort the meaning of a sentence and set off a chain reaction of misunderstanding that leaves the reader with a message the author never dreamed of sending.

Livid  When someone is “livid,” do you think of red, white, or blue? The best answer is blue, not red. “Livid” does not mean “red-faced with anger.” The Latin lividus means “of a bluish color.” Second-best answer is white: “livid” can be a synonym for “pale.”

Benighted  “He was a benighted soul in an enlightened time.” Many people associate it with “knighted,” and think “benighted” is a good thing to be. Far from it. Note the lack of a k — don’t think “knight,” think “night.” A benighted soul is clueless, ignorant, “in a state of moral or intellectual darkness.”

Scarify  is a benighted synonym for “terrify” — scarify has more to do with scar than scare. It means to scratch or make superficial incisions. It also has agricultural applications having to do with seeds and soil.

Meretricious  When you hear it, the first two syllables echo “merit,” and the word resembles meritorious. The similarity ends there. It means “flashy,” “cheap,” “tawdry”: “The candidate made a meretricious display of piety.”

(This tip was contributed by veteran copy editor Tom Stern.)

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Posted on Monday, October 29, 2012, at 6:47 pm

Spell Check Overreach

My spell check has been drinking again. It just told me “déjà vu” should be “deejay.”

Everyone who uses Word software probably has some form of spell check. Mine — I call him “SC” — also makes occasionally helpful (but often just surreal) suggestions about grammar and punctuation. To be fair, SC sometimes saves me from my own carelessness. But all in all, I think I’d rather get dating tips from a praying mantis.

For less-experienced writers, spell check is a mushroom in the woods: be careful what you swallow. I once typed “public enemies” and SC wanted “enemy’s.” Nouns ending in y are tricky enough without bogus advice from a clueless tool. It pains me to think of all the insecure people who follow blindly.

SC is no panacea to grammar-challenged Americans. He changed “how is it possible” to “how it possible is,” and “all of the above” became “the entire above.”

The word snarky, referring to a snide attitude, has been in popular usage for a long time. But no one told SC, who thinks my hand slipped while I was trying to type “snaky” or “snarly.” Come to think of it, those two words pretty much sum up snarky. But that’s beside the point.

Another familiar term is “A-lister”: someone who’s show-business royalty. SC doesn’t get out much, so he thinks I must mean “lifter” or “luster” or “blister” — or even “leister,” which is a three-pronged fishing spear. That’s no way to describe Angelina Jolie!

And it’s not just trendy words that SC botches. The French word chez, referring to home or headquarters, has been prevalent in English usage since the early 18th century. So why does SC think I mean either a revolutionary (“Che”), a singer (“Cher”) or some bloke named “Chet”?

For several decades, Luddite has been a handy word for someone who rejects or is confounded by modern technology: “I’m such a Luddite I can’t program my DVR.” You’d think SC could do better than “landsite” or “audited.”

Clearly, at this point, spell check is too erratic. The irony is that it’s least valuable to those who need it most.

(This tip was contributed by veteran copy editor Tom Stern.)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 25, 2012, at 1:42 pm

Paraprosdokian Sentences

This is from Dan, who offers us a new word and an idea worth understanding and enjoying. He suggests looking at Wikipedia’s link for more paraprosdokians:

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists. We hope you enjoy these!

Read more…

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Posted on Tuesday, August 31, 2010, at 11:28 am

Excuses Sent by Parents to Schools

Sometimes I receive a humorous e-mail that is an excellent example of the importance of good grammar and communication. Then I have to pass it along to you. I promise to write something more serious next week but hope you smile when you read these.

Apparently, these are real notes written by parents. (Spellings have been left intact.)

1. My son is under a doctor’s care and should not take PE today. Please execute him.

2. Please exkuce lisa for being absent she was sick and i had her shot.

3. Dear school: please ecsc’s john being absent on jan. 28, 29, 30, 31, 32 and also 33.

4. Please excuse roland from p.e. for a few days. Yesterday he fell out of a tree and misplaced his hip.

5. John has been absent because he had two teeth taken out of his face.

6. Megan could not come to school today because she has been bothered by very close veins.

7. Chris will not be in school cus he has an acre in his side.

8. Please excuse ray friday from school. He has very loose vowels.

9. Please excuse tommy for being absent yesterday. He had diarrhea, and his boots leak.

10. Please excuse jimmy for being. It was his father’s fault.

11. I kept Billie home because she had to go Christmas shopping because i don’t know what size she wear.

12. Please excuse jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the sunday paper off the porch, and when we found it monday. We thought it was sunday.

13. Sally won’t be in school a week from friday. We have to attend her funeral.

14. Please excuse Jason for being absent yesterday. He had a cold and could not breed well.

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Posted on Friday, January 18, 2008, at 4:39 am

You Could Look it Up

I hope you enjoy this. Thanks to Peter H. for sending it.

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that word is up. It’s easy to understand up, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake up?

At a meeting, why does a topic come up? Why do we speak up, why are the officers up for election, and why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?

We call up our friends
and we use it to brighten up a room,
and polish up the silver.
We warm up the leftovers
and clean up the kitchen.
We lock up the house
and some guys fix up the old car.

At other times the little word has real special meaning.
People stir up trouble,
line up for tickets,
work up an appetite,
and think up excuses.

To be dressed is one thing
but to be dressed up is special.

And this up is confusing:
A drain must be opened up
because it is stopped up.

We open up a store in the morning
but we close it up at night.
We seem to be pretty mixed up about up!

To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of up,
look the word up in the dictionary.
In a desk-sized dictionary,
it takes up almost 1/4 of the page
and can add up to about thirty definitions.

If you are up to it,
you might try building up a list
of the many ways up is used.
It will take up a lot of your time,
but if you don’t give up,
you may wind up with a hundred or more.

When it threatens to rain,
we say it is clouding up.
When the sun comes out we say it is clearing up.
When it rains, it wets up the earth.

When it doesn’t rain for awhile,
things dry up.

One could go on and on,
but I’ll wrap it up,
for now my time is up, so …

Time to shut up!


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Posted on Friday, March 30, 2007, at 2:06 pm