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Test Your Vocabulary

“Words have a longer life than deeds.”
—Pindar

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
—Confucius

“Proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style.”
—Jonathan Swift

“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
—Ludwig Wittgenstein

Here is another of our intermittent vocabulary tests. The answers directly follow the quiz.

1droll

A) sad
B) unaffected
C) humorous
D) agile

2mitigate

A) inspire
B) reduce
C) resist
D) contradict

3. laconic

A) defiant
B) devious
C) lacking energy
D) using few words

4. respite

A) depression
B) constant anger
C) a short period of rest
D) a loud noise

5. ubiquitous

A) everywhere
B) enormous
C) swerving
D) weakened

6. ruminate

A) think deeply about
B) minimize
C) make space for
D) copy

7. demagogue

A) madman
B) outlaw
C) great leader
D) agitator

8. brusque

A) brilliant
B) cheerful
C) abrupt
D) easily offended

9. obfuscate

A) complain
B) clarify
C) confuse
D) mumble

10. ad hominem

A) a tactic used to wear down an opponent through constant repetition
B) a tactic used to win an argument through personal attack
C) a tactic used to distract an opponent by introducing another topic
D) an argument that assumes the truth of a statement that is unproven

ANSWERS

1: C) humorous. Her droll observations had me laughing all evening.

2: B) reduce. The panel submitted a plan to mitigateand manage the causes and consequences of violent conflict.

3: D) using few words. His laconic young friend rarely said more than two words at a time.

4: C) a short period of rest. The treaty gave the country a respite from twenty years of war.

5: A) everywhere. Computers have become ubiquitous in everyday life.

6: A) think deeply about. They spent long hours ruminating on what needed to be done.

7: D) agitator. He’s just a power-hungry demagogue with no coherent plan.

8: C) abrupt. I gave him a brusque reply because I was too busy to chat.

9: C) confuse. This is an effort by the agency to obfuscate, misdirect, and conceal.

10: B) a tactic used to win an argument through personal attack. The mayor ignored the issue and launched a ten-minute ad hominem assault on Wilson.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 14, 2016, at 4:26 pm


Copy Editors Are People Too

There can’t be many books about the life and adventures of a professional word doctor, but one that came out in 2015 is definitely worth a look.

It’s Between You and Me, by Mary Norris, a longtime New Yorker copy editor who calls herself a “comma queen.” Norris admits that the book’s very title is a grammar lesson: “My fondest hope is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly ‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’).”

Copy editors are those driven souls who spend their days fixing authors’ manuscripts. They cherish a perfectly sharpened No. 1 pencil as if it were a flawless diamond. And they look askance at technology, which breeds terrible language habits. Norris once texted a friend “Gute Nacht” (good night in German), and her autocorrect changed it to “Cute Nachos.”

Norris touches lightly on her pre-New Yorker days. In her teens she checked swimmers’ feet at a public pool and later delivered dairy goods on a milk truck. She first started reading The New Yorker in graduate school at the University of Vermont. She got an entry-level job at the magazine in 1978 and worked her way up to copy editor, working with a roster of illustrious writers that included Philip Roth, James Salter, and George Saunders.

Much of this tidy two-hundred-page book is an informal but informative discourse on grammar and punctuation. The author’s voice is warm and cordial, and also self-assured and feisty. Reading Between You and Me is like sitting at Norris’s table while she speaks about her life and her passion for language.

There are ten chapters, whose titles reflect the book’s breezy tone. Chapter One is called “Spelling Is for Weirdos.” A later chapter is titled “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar.”

Early in the book Norris profiles Noah Webster, whose greatest achievement was 1828’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. This hugely successful work established the legitimacy and singularity of the American language.

Webster was an odd man who sometimes just made stuff up and claimed it was true. But he was a scholar of great influence who counted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among his friends (Franklin felt that the letters c, w, y, and j should be removed from our alphabet).

We have Webster to thank for the American spelling of jail instead of gaol and mold instead of mould. America’s u-less spellings of words like color and flavor (as opposed to the British preference for colour and flavour) are Webster’s doing. He also got the k removed from the end of such words as music and traffic, and got re changed to er at the end of theater and center. But he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get ache changed to ake or soup to soop.

Norris is no prude. She sometimes uses language that would make your Aunt Matilda blush. (“Profanity ought to be fun.”) Still, she is a traditionalist. Even though some publications are now endorsing the “singular they” in sentences such as  someone forgot their keys, instead of his or her keys, Norris won’t hear of it: “ ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.” This past January must have been a bleak month for Norris. That was when the American Dialect Society proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015.

This “comma queen” takes her commas seriously: she once asked a writer to justify his use of the comma in “a thin, burgundy dress.” But then Norris is deadly serious about all punctuation—that’s her job. Most amateur writers misuse or ignore hyphens, but they are crucial in the war against ambiguity—can you see the difference between a high-school principal and a high school principal? (“If the school principal is high she should be escorted off the premises.”)

Apostrophes are also endangered. “Are we losing the apostrophe?” Norris asks. “Is it just too much trouble?” The mark’s mistreatment has led to the formation of England’s Apostrophe Protection Society.

Dashes—as opposed to hyphens—can replace quotation marks, periods, colons, and semicolons. Ah yes, semicolons: “Used well, the semicolon makes a powerful impression; misused, it betrays your ignorance.”

Copy editors have devoted their lives to the principle that if people would be conscientious about English, more would be right with the world. Those to whom good grammar and good writing are stimulating topics should spend a little time with Mary Norris. She’s classy company.

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Posted on Wednesday, June 8, 2016, at 9:38 am


Might You Mean May?

What is the difference between may and might? There may have been a clear difference long ago, and there still might be a difference in some sticklers’ minds, but today the two verbs are, with few exceptions, interchangeable.

Grammarians tell us that might is the past tense of may, but that fact, while interesting, does not offer much guidance, considering how frequently we use both may and might to talk about the present (I may/might be ready to leave now) and the future (I may/might call you tomorrow).

Many scholarly discussions of may vs. might state that may is used when something is more likely to happen, and might is used when something is less likely to happen. So when you say I may be ready to leave, there is a good chance you are departing, but when you say I might be ready to leave, you’d probably prefer to stick around awhile.

It is remarkable how many authorities, even today, buy into this. In the 2016 revised edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan A. Garner writes, “May expresses likelihood … while might expresses a stronger sense of doubt.”

We find this assertion baffling, and we are not alone. The online American Heritage dictionary says in a usage note: “It is sometimes said that might suggests a lower probability than may … In practice, however, few people make this distinction.” This echoes what the language scholar John B. Bremner wrote forty years ago: “Some lexicographers see a nuance between may and might in the context of probability … If such distinction exists in common language, the distinction is even thinner than nuance.”

Here are some exceptions to the interchangeability of may and might:

• Sometimes might means “should”: You’d think he might be more careful means he should be more careful. No one who speaks fluent English would substitute may for might in that sentence.

• Most of us choose may over might in wishful or hopeful statements, such as May they live happily ever after.

• When a hypothetical sentence is set in the past, might is usually a better option: If she had worked harder, she might have kept her job. But when such sentences are in the present tense, either may or might can be used: If she works harder, she may/might be able to keep her job.

• And you will note that the first word in the title of this article could not possibly be “May.”

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Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, at 4:43 pm


A Couple of Things, and a Couple More

The word couple literally means “two,” but it is often used to mean “an indefinite small number.” So if you were to say, “I only have a couple of dollars,” you would probably not be called out if you really had three or four.

However, your friend the grammar stickler might take exception if you said you had “a couple dollars.” Although “a couple dollars” is common in everyday speech, traditionalists insist on “a couple of dollars.” And since a couple of dollars doesn’t sound stuffy or pretentious, why leave of out?

But things get tricky when couple is used with words and phrases of comparison, such as more, fewertoo many, too few. Many people would say a couple of more dollars, but in that construction the of is dropped: a couple more dollars and a couple too few dollars are correct. However, if we slightly revise those phrases, ofmust be put back:  a couple of dollars more and a couple of dollars too few are correct.

When the noun couple refers to two people, you often see it used as a singular: The couple was having dinner. But the more one writes, the more one discovers that with couple the plural verb should be used unless there is an excellent reason not to.

While it is true that The couple was having dinner is unobjectionable, what if we expand the sentence a bit. If the subject of a sentence starts out singular, it should remain singular. So if we wanted to say where the dinner took place, we would be forced to write The couple was having dinner in its home. That is atrocious, but so is The couple was having dinner in their home. Therefore, make it  The couple were having dinner in their home. And make couple plural whenever possible (which is most of the time). You’ll be in good company.

*****

We recently heard from a reader who objected to a sentence she found in one of our online quizzes:  We’ll hire the applicant whom we talked with. She urgently informed us that “you do not end a sentence with a preposition!!!!”

This “rule” is the Walking Dead of English-grammar superstitions—a festering pest that cannot be destroyed. We are scolded about it at least once a year, and without exception those who upbraid us offer no evidence to substantiate their claims. (That is because none exists.) So we hereby challenge anyone who still swears by this dubious principle to relocate the preposition in this sentence: Speak when you are spoken to.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 25, 2016, at 9:03 am


Irregular Verbs: Handle with Care

During a recent broadcast of America’s professional-basketball playoffs, a popular commentator said, “I wish he had did it” instead of had done it. A few days later, a longtime Washington insider with his own TV show said “if he had ran” instead of had run.

When those who should know better misuse irregular verbs, it is jarring and distracting. We use these verbs all the time. We might as well get them right. See how you do on the quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. She was gazing at a picture that her son had recently ___.

A) drawed
B) drew
C) drawn

2. You have finally ___ me a reason to trust them.

A) gave
B) given
C) give
D) gived

3. Have you ___ that thank-you note to your aunt yet?

A) write
B) wrote
C) written
D) writ

4. Just hearing that old song ___ back a lot of memories.

A) brang
B) brought
C) A and B are both correct

5. She still has not ___ him for the mistake he made.

A) forgiven
B) forgave
C) forgive
D) forgived

6. Lannie had his favorite shoes ___ in the back of the closet.

A) hid
B) hidden
C) A and B are both correct

7. A problem had suddenly ___ with our dinner reservations.

A) araised
B) arose
C) arised
D) arisen

8. The sweet smell of orchids ___ in the air.

A) clung
B) clinged
C) clang

9. My jacket ___ her perfectly.

A) fit
B) fitted
C) A and B are both correct

10. We had not even ___ two miles before we came to a fork in the road.

A) rode
B) ridden
C) ride
D) riden

ANSWERS

1: C) drawn

2: B) given

3: C) written

4: B) brought

5: A) forgiven

6: B) hidden

7: D) arisen

8: A) clung

9: C) A and B are both correct

10: B) ridden

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Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, at 4:20 pm