Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Autoantonyms Speak with a Forked Tongue

An autoantonym (pronounced auto-ANTA-nim) is a word with two opposite meanings. A familiar example is the Hawaiian word aloha, which means both “hello” and “goodbye.”

Autoantonyms (also known as contranymscontronyms, and Janus words) are not rare. We see, hear, and use them all the time. Too often, miscommunication ensues.

It’s awful when you think you said “purple” but the whole world heard “green.” The great challenge of speaking and writing is to convey your intended meaning and avoid misunderstandings. This is why autoantonyms, with their split personalities, must be recognized and remedied before they do their mischief. Here are a few examples:

Off  It doesn’t necessarily mean “not operating”: First the lights went off, then the alarm went off. What happened after the lights went off? Did the power outage trigger the alarm system or shut it down?

With  This word can mean “side by side” or “in opposition to.” Maxine fought with Charles to gain custody of her daughter. It is unclear whether Charles was helping or hindering Maxine in her efforts to gain custody.

Finished  Accomplished successfully or ruined? Thanks to my investors, this film is finished. Either the investors’ generosity was instrumental in the film’s completion or their interference doomed the project.

Oversight  It is the act of rigorously keeping your eye on something or negligently taking your eye off something.  Your oversight proved to be the difference between success and failure could mean “your diligence was crucial to our success” or “your carelessness caused us to fail.”

Trim  After we trimmed our Christmas tree, it was a perfect fit for the living room. Did the family adorn the tree or prune it?

Left  Who’s left? It can mean “Who has departed?” or “Who is still here?”

Some autoantonyms are phrases, even complete sentences. The expression I could care less has befuddled linguists for decades because it usually means “I could not care less.”

The hipster culture devises autoantonyms to confound society’s mainstream. Throughout most of the twentieth century, jive meant both “jazzy, swinging” and “empty, fraudulent.” For over fifty years, bad and wicked have been hip terms for “great.” More recently, sick has come to mean “ridiculously excellent.” A bomb used to be an embarrassing flop, but all that changed when it’s da bomb! became high praise.

The standard definition of uptight is “inhibited, unable to enjoy life.” But it once meant “as good as it gets.” The singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder scored a big hit with his 1966 album Up-Tight. Would Wonder have chosen an album title that meant “inhibited”?

Slim chance—or, to put it another way, fat chance.

 

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2016, at 7:29 am


No Question About It

Let’s see if you can spot what is wrong with this sentence? On closer inspection, most of you will see that the sentence should end in a period rather than a question mark.

Question marks are used only with direct questions. The sentence above certainly contains a direct question: what is wrong with this sentence? However, Let’s see if turns the sentence into an indirect question.

Here is the difference between direct and indirect questions: Do you agree? is a direct question. That same question is embedded in I wonder whether you agree. But now the sentence is a statement. The question is still there, but it is no longer direct.

Sentences that start with Let’s see if, I wonder whether, and the like are statements that ask questions in a roundabout way. Avoid the trap of ending such sentences with question marks.

Some sentences that sound like direct questions are really declarations (What wouldn’t I do for you), requests (Why don’t you take a break), or demands (Would you kids knock it off). Questions like these, which do not require or expect an answer, are called rhetorical questions. Because they are questions in form only, rhetorical questions may be written without question marks.

One-word questions within sentences do not ordinarily take question marks either. There might conceivably be a good reason to write The child asked, why? but that sentence is heavy-handed compared with The child asked why.

When direct questions of more than one word occur in the middle of a sentence, they are generally preceded with a comma, or sometimes a colon, and some writers capitalize the first word: Rantos wondered, How will I escape?

It is not wrong to capitalize a direct question in midsentence. Sometimes it’s a good idea, other times it can be distracting. Many writers would prefer Rantos wondered, how will I escape?—no capital—because the question how will I escape? is clear and concise.

The venerable Chicago Manual of Style offers this handy guideline: “A direct question may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.” Chicago then provides an example: Legislators had to be asking themselves, Can the fund be used for the current emergency, or must it remain dedicated to its original purpose?

You will notice that the stylebook says “may take,” not “must take.” When it comes to writing questions there is a lot of leeway. Some writers use a colon where others use a comma. Some capitalize where others do not. But an uncalled-for question mark is amateurish in anybody’s book.

 

Pop Quiz

Fix any sentences that need fixing. Our answers are below.

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure?

2. Why don’t you run along home now?

3. The question is not only how? but also why?

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight?

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure?

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I’d like to ask, what makes you so sure? CORRECT

2. Why don’t you run along home now.

3. The question is not only how but also why.

4. I wonder if they’re coming over tonight.

5. I’d like to ask what makes you so sure.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, at 3:59 pm


Words in Flux

The words we’ll examine today highlight the rift between language purists and less-fussy people who just want to get their point across. You probably can guess which side we are on.

Podium  This word might not mean what you think it means. A podium is not a stand with a slanted top for notes or books—that would be a lectern. A podium is a raised area that speakers, performers, or orchestra conductors stand on. People do not stand behind a podium—more likely they are standing on a podium, behind a lectern.

Back in 1989 The Random House College Dictionary got it right, defining podium as a platform. But a mere ten years later, dictionaries had caved. The 1999 Webster’s New World says that podium and lectern are synonymous. The 2016 online American Heritage dictionary lists “platform” first, but its second definition of podium is “a stand for holding the notes of a public speaker; a lectern.”

The difference between a podium and a lectern is as clear-cut as the difference between a floor and a table. Shouldn’t a dictionary resist muddling these words’ meanings?

Fortuitous  This is a chronically misunderstood word. Purists will not tolerate fortuitous as a synonym for “lucky” or “fortunate.” It simply means “by chance.” True, you could describe winning the lottery as fortuitous, but getting flattened by a runaway truck is also fortuitous.

So let’s haul out the dictionaries again. This time the ’89 Random House cops out, listing “lucky” as the second definition of fortuitous. That is disappointing, considering that just nine years earlier The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language allowed only “happening by accident or chance” and warned that “fortuitous is often confused with fortunate.”

Epitome  Those who use it correctly know it means “a perfect example.” Those who misuse it think it means “an example of perfection.” The epitome of means “the essence of.” But it does not mean “the best” or “the pinnacle.” Denzel Washington is the epitome of cool means that the actor exemplifies coolness. Washington may well be one of the coolest men alive, but that is not what the sentence is saying.

We are pleased to report that even though epitome has been widely misused for years, we have yet to find a dictionary that lists the incorrect meaning. Maybe it’s because the distinction is so subtle.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2016, at 9:30 am


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 Englishpage.com 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

ANSWERS

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

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

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


Say It Again, Sam

It has been a while since our last pronunciation column, so here’s another group of familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Antarctica  Like the elusive first r in February, the first c in this word is often carelessly dropped: it’s ant-ARC-tica, not ant-AR-tica.

Err  Since to err is to make an error, it seems logical to say “air”—but who said English is logical? The correct way to say err is to rhyme it with her.

Inherent  Properly, in-HEER-ent. Most people say in-HAIR-ent, but that’s wrong and we can prove it: How do you say adherent?

Covert  Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t. You may not hear CUV-ert much these days, but it is still listed in the 2011 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Nuptial  It’s two syllables: NUP-shul. A lot of people, including many in the media, say NUP-shu-ul. How do they get “shu-ul” from tial?

Naiveté  Should be nah-eve-TAY. More and more broadcasters are polluting the airwaves by pronouncing this as a four-syllable word: ny-EVE-it-tay, ny-EVE-itty, or ny-EV-itty. The 1999 Webster’s New World dictionary lists only the three-syllable pronunciation, but the 2014 Webster’s New World has caved, giving the four-syllable alternatives unwarranted legitimacy. Charles Harrington Elster, in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls the four-syllable variants “illogical.” Elster’s point: naive is two syllables, and is one syllable. Since when does two plus one equal four?

Margarine  Relax, you’re saying it right. But when it was coined by the French in the 1870s, margarine had the same first two syllables as Margaret and the third syllable rhymed with clean. Yes, believe it or not, people used to say MARG-a-reen—hard g, plus “een” on the end.

Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary lists but two possible pronunciations for margarine, preferring MARJ-a-reen over MARG-a-reen. So seventy-four years ago, it was not usual for the third syllable to be pronounced “in” rather than “een.”

Twenty-seven years later, the 1968 edition of Random House’s American College Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” and said the final syllable could be pronounced either “in” or “een.” And as recently as 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” but by then “een” was gone.

Standard pronunciations evolve, and margarine has done more than its share of evolving over the last 140 years. But today “MARJ-a-rin” has won out.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, at 12:23 pm