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Evolution or …?

Today we’ll home in on three examples of the English language’s capriciousness.

Self-deprecating  Few contemporary writers would hesitate to use self-deprecating to describe someone who is refreshingly humble. But the term’s wide acceptance is yet another triumph of the slobs over the snobs.

Technically, the correct term is self-depreciating. Although deprecate and depreciate appear almost identical, these words have different roots, and different meanings as well. Traditionally, to deprecate is to disapprove of or denounce. To depreciate is to devalue or downgrade. Because the two words are easily confused, most dictionaries caved forty or fifty years ago and started listing them as synonymous.

Why did self-deprecating prevail when self-depreciating is the right choice? Possibly because deprecating sounds mysterious and swanky.

It’s not as much fun to use depreciating, with its unwieldy extra syllable. It’s a dreary word that evokes decline and obsolescence.

Momentarily  Since the mid-seventeenth century, momentarily has meant “for a moment.” But in the twentieth century, casual speakers and writers started using it to mean “in a moment.” This johnny-come-lately meaning of momentarily has caught up with and maybe overtaken the traditional meaning.

There is quite a difference between for a moment and in a moment when you think about it. Most travelers are heartened when they hear “Passengers’ baggage will arrive momentarily.” But this announcement could be stressful news to traveling language sticklers—they might take it to mean that their arriving luggage will disappear after only a few seconds.

So why say something like Let’s speak momentarily and risk being misinterpreted? The solution is to drop momentarily and instead say either Let’s speak soon or Let’s have a short talk.

Presently  This word has changed meanings more than once since its arrival in the fourteenth century. At first it meant now. But today careful speakers and writers use it to mean “in the near future.” Others use it in its original sense. The 2014 edition of Webster’s New World lists both “in a little while; soon” and “at present; now: a usage still objected to by some.”

We recommend that you avoid this fussy word. If you tell a houseful of ravenous guests, “We are serving dinner presently,” many will think you mean right now and start elbowing their way to the front of the line.

Good alternative: “We are serving dinner soon.”
Not so good alternative: “We are serving dinner momentarily.”

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Posted on Tuesday, April 21, 2015, at 10:13 am


The Elusive En Dash

When a compound adjective precedes a noun it is describing, we often need a hyphen:
prize-winning recipe, twentieth-century literature. If a compound adjective comprises more than two words, we use as many hyphens as are needed: a three-day-old newspaper,
a dyed-in-the-wool snob.

But try to punctuate the compound adjectives in these phrases: a New York based artist,
a Charles Dickens inspired author, a post World War II novel. Most writers would take pains to avoid “New-York-based artist,” “Charles-Dickens-inspired author,” and “post-World-War-II novel.” Hyphenating open compounds like New York, Charles Dickens, and World War II feels wrong and looks weird.

Most of us would write New York-based artist, Charles Dickens-inspired author, and
post-World War II novel. We would respect the integrity of the compound proper noun, recognizing that a hyphen intrusion would not assist readers, and might confuse and distract them.

Some time ago, publishers decided that a hyphen was too puny to join open compounds to other words in a compound adjective. So they replaced the hyphen with the en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than a long dash. Here are en dashes in action:
New York–based artist, Charles Dickens–inspired author, post–World War II novel.

Most books and many magazines would pick the en dash over the hyphen in those three examples. The en dash is used for other purposes too. But you won’t find this mark in most daily newspapers—there is no mention of the en dash anywhere in the Associated Press’s influential stylebook for journalists. In fact, the most respected reference books and style guides of the twentieth century give short shrift to the en dash. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not acknowledge its existence. Neither does Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful WriterWilson Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the en dash two sentences, and discourages its use.

Before the age of computers, only professional printers could make en dashes; everyone else muddled through with hyphens. Many people have never heard of en dashes, despite having seen them a thousand times. The irony is that although the en dash mostly goes unnoticed, its function is cosmetic. It resolves no ambiguities. It clears up no confusion. It does nothing that a hyphen can’t do and hasn’t done, except to look a bit more symmetrical in certain constructions. It is an elegant flourish that most readers haven’t been trained to recognize, let alone benefit from.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

If the en dash seems right for you, here is how to type one. On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad located on the far right of the keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.

 

Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Answers are below.

1. Toby is a four year old terrier.
2. The apartment featured a bowling alley length hallway.
3. It was a Star Wars inspired fantasy.
4. The dessert had an ice cream like texture.
5. My terrier is four years old.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Toby is a four-year-old terrier. (two hyphens)

2. The apartment featured a bowling alley-length hallway.
(OR bowling alley–length OR bowling-alley-length)

3. It was a Star Wars-inspired fantasy.
(OR Star Wars–inspired)

4. The dessert had an ice cream-like texture.
(OR ice cream–like OR ice-cream-like)

5. My terrier is four years old. (CORRECT)

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Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at 3:40 pm


Stengelese Spoken Here

The long and winding big-league baseball season started this week. Every year at this time we profile a baseball immortal who is equally celebrated for his unorthodox language skills. The choice this year is Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel (1890-1975), who at the age of fifty-eight became manager of the mighty New York Yankees and took them to ten World Series in twelve years.

Casey Stengel broke into the major leagues in 1912 and played for fourteen seasons. He later said, “I had many years that I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill.”

As player and manager, Casey was for decades baseball’s class clown—but a lot of snooty Yankees fans thought he was a no-class clown and opposed his hiring. They weren’t alone. Boston sportswriter Dave Egan’s reaction to the new manager: “The Yankees have now been mathematically eliminated from the 1949 pennant race.”

Instead, Stengel guided the Bronx Bombers to five straight World Series championships (1949-53), a baseball record that may never be broken.

Casey spoke a dialect of English called “Stengelese,” utterances that concealed nuggets of wisdom in a dense matrix of dizzying gibberish. “Stengelese was mostly a public act,” said sportswriter Maury Allen. “He double-talked in part to diffuse pinpoint questions.” An extreme example: “He’s the perdotious quotient of the qualificatilus.”

Stengel seasoned his speech with trademark words and phrases, one favorite being “at the present time,” which he’d drop in anywhere: “Most people my age are dead at the present time.” He also found creative ways to use “fairly,” as in: “This club plays better baseball now. Some of them look fairly alert.”

Some Stengelese could be harsh. On a player’s lack of potential: “He’s only twenty years old and with a good chance in ten years of being thirty.” On another player’s batting prowess: “He couldn’t hit the ground if he fell out of an airplane.” On managing twenty-five men successfully: “Keep the five guys who hate you from the five who are undecided.”

The baseball lifestyle, with its constant travel and unsupervised free time, has ended many a promising career, but Stengel came to believe in players who could hold their liquor: “I have found that ones who drink milk shakes don’t win many ball games.” “We are in such a slump that even the ones that are drinking aren’t hitting.” “Look at him. He don’t smoke. He don’t drink. He don’t chase women. And he don’t win.”

In 1958, Stengel appeared before Senator Estes Kefauver’s U.S. Senate subcommittee on baseball’s antitrust status. Here is one exchange:

Kefauver: I was asking you, sir, why it is that baseball wants this bill passed.

Stengel: I would say I would not know, but would say the reason why they would want it passed is to keep baseball going as the highest paid ball sport that has gone into baseball and from the baseball angle. I am not going to speak of any other sport. I am not here to argue about other sports. I am in the baseball business. It has been run cleaner than any business that was ever put out in the 100 years at the present time. I am not speaking about television or I am not speaking about income that comes into the ball parks. You have to take that off. I don’t know too much about it. I say the ballplayers have a better advancement at the present time.

That’s quite an oration. Most of us would have quit talking after the first seven words.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at 11:16 am


The Man Who Hated Semicolons

Ten years ago, the author Kurt Vonnegut stirred things up with four sentences he wrote in his final book, A Man Without a Country: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

One must consider the source here. Vonnegut was a world-renowned novelist who had earned the right to make outrageous statements. He was not condemning all semicolons; he was condemning all pretentiousness.

As Vonnegut well knew, semicolons have at least one legitimate role: to separate items in a series when one or more of the items contain commas. Look at this mess of a sentence: The conference has people who have come from Italy, Texas, Moscow, Idaho, Venice, California, and other places as well. How could a reader know that only three specific locations are mentioned? The simple fix is three semicolons:  The conference has people who have come from Italy, Texas; Moscow, Idaho; Venice, California; and other places as well. (Yes, Italy is a town in Texas.)

What Vonnegut disdained was the discretionary semicolon, used by writers to combine complete sentences when a period feels too final, as in this example:  I looked at her; she smiled; we danced until dawn. Here the semicolons blend three terse statements into one sentence, which, in the writer’s opinion, more faithfully evokes the flow of events on that enchanted evening. (Vonnegut would have preferred three short sentences.) Note that there are no conjunctions in the sentence. If the last clause were  and we danced until dawn, commas would suffice, and most editors would banish the semicolons.

Fledgling writers especially should be wary of semicolons where commas will do. One wonders what the Vonnegut of 2005 would have said about the following sentence, written by a twenty-seven-year-old novelist: “Kroner’s belief [was] that nothing of value changed; that what was once true is always true; that truths were few and simple; and that a man needed no knowledge beyond these truths to deal wisely and justly with any problem whatsoever.”

The young author would defend his semicolons, claiming they give more weight to each clause than a comma could. But many editors would want commas there. The sentence, by the way, is from Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel, Player Piano (1950).

Less than twenty years after Player Piano, Vonnegut achieved success beyond his wildest dreams. He had found his voice and streamlined his approach. Taken at face value, Vonnegut’s writing tip is sound advice—for Vonnegut. Semicolons do not suit the inimitable laconic style he perfected in the sixties, when he was lionized by the Baby Boomer generation.


Semicolons: Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Our answers are below.

1. He was too critical she was not critical enough.
2. Vanitia told me her wishes; a white picket fence a wonderful husband two gifted children and a million dollars in the bank.
3. Vanitia told me her wishes a white picket fence a handsome, successful husband two intelligent, gifted children and a million dollars in the bank.
4. He walked down the street he could not find her he went home feeling hopeless.
5. He walked down the street he caught a bus and it took him home.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. He was too critical; she was not critical enough. OR He was too critical. She was not critical enough.
2. Vanitia told me her wishes: a white picket fence, a wonderful husband, three gifted children, and a million dollars in the bank. (Note the colon after “wishes.” Do not confuse colons with semicolons.)
3. Vanitia told me her wishes: a white picket fence; a handsome, successful husband; three intelligent, gifted children; and a million dollars in the bank. (The commas after “handsome” and “intelligent” make semicolons necessary.)
4. He walked down the street; he could not find her; he went home feeling hopeless. (Or periods.)
5. He walked down the street, he caught a bus, and it took him home.

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Posted on Wednesday, April 1, 2015, at 8:34 am


Proper Pronunciation: A Sound Policy

Pronouncing words correctly helps convince listeners that you know what you’re talking about.

By correct pronunciation, we mean words as you’d hear them enunciated at formal occasions: a lecture by an English scholar, say, or a first-rate production of a play by George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O’Neill.

To settle pronunciation disputes, we recommend an old dictionary. New ones are fine, but having access to an old one minimizes the intrusion of trendy (mis)pronunciations.

Also, those serious about their diction might want to pick up a copy of The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster, who says in the book’s introduction: “I am not opposed to change. Such a position would be untenable. I am skeptical of ignorant, pompous, and faddish change. I am annoyed when people invent pronunciations for unfamiliar words. I am exasperated when they can’t be bothered to check the pronunciation of a word they look up in a dictionary.”

Here are ten familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.

Alleged  It must come as a shock to those in the media, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It is pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Envelope  Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of this word is ENN-va-lope, rather than the pseudo-French AHN-va-lope.

Controversial  Four syllables, not five. Say
contra-VER-shul, not contra-VER-see-ul.

Camaraderie  It’s a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Forte  When the word refers to a specialty or area of expertise (math is his forte), this is a one-syllable word pronounced fort. Most people mistakenly say for-tay. That pronunciation is only correct as a musical term. When forte is pronounced FOR-tay it means “loudly.”

Short-lived  This is not the lived of She lived well. The is long; short-lived rhymes with thrived.

Schism  It’s pronounced sizzum. The 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists no alternative pronunciation. You rarely hear this word, but when you do, it’s generally pronounced skizzum, a pronunciation that, in Elster’s words, “arose out of ignorance.”

Integral  Why do so many people say in-tra-gul, despite the spelling? Make it IN-ta-grul.

Homage  A reviewer called a film “a homage to motherhood.” The critic wisely did not write “an homage,” knowing that the h is sounded. This word has spun out of control in the twenty-first century. Its traditional pronunciation is HOMM-ij. But then AHM-ij gained a foothold, and it went downhill from there. Now, just about all one hears is oh-MAHZH, an oh-so-precious pronunciation that was virtually nonexistent in English until late in the twentieth century.

Pronunciation  As the spelling indicates, it’s pronounced pra-nun-see-AY-shun. Too many careless speakers say pra-nown-see-AY-shun.

Most words have been around longer than any of us have. Pronouncing them properly is showing respect for our elders.

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Posted on Friday, March 27, 2015, at 7:18 am