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Get Thee to a Dictionary

A sentence in last week’s article included the phrase “disrespect or disregard you.” In short order we received mail questioning whether this use of disrespect was appropriate on a website promoting proper grammar. “Are you sure that you are okay with using ‘disrespect’ as a verb?” asked one reader.

Most of the angst over disrespect stems from the word’s popularity with putative thugs. In the words of English scholar Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, “The hip-hop subculture revived the use of ‘disrespect’ as a verb.” Say no more. To many language watchdogs, hip-hop is a worst-case scenario for where English is headed.

An online search seems to confirm this. “My vote? That is not a word,” states one armchair linguist. “No one should use it.” An iffy Internet dictionary calledWiktionary (compiled by anonymous contributors with undocumented credentials) has this to say: “ ‘Disrespect’ is not a verb. ‘Respect’ can be used as a noun or a verb, however ‘disrespect’ should only be used as a noun.”

But note that Brians said “revived.” We consulted our brand-new 2014 Webster’s New World (Fifth Edition) and found disrespect listed as a transitive verb meaning “to have or show lack of respect for.”

Hold it, you say. Webster’s is notoriously permissive. Perhaps its editors’ inclusion of disrespect as a verb merely reflects the company’s longtime policy of publishing a nonjudgmental, up-to-date record of how people communicate.

So we turned to Random House’s 1968 American College Dictionary, and sure enough, there it was: “to regard or treat without respect.” We also found disrespect listed as a verb in the oldest dictionary in our office, a 1941 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.

Our last stop was the Oxford English Dictionary (which has been called “the ultimate authority on the English language”). Here we discovered that disrespect as a verb first appeared in print around 1614—four centuries ago.

We believe that those who are serious about language matters should have at least two dictionaries within easy reach: a contemporary one—many are available online—but also one that is at least thirty years old. (You can get one if you really want it.) Although having your own Oxford English Dictionary would also be nice, its twenty gargantuan volumes take up a lot of space … and cost a lot of money. However, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com) is a terrific alternative.

This episode proves once again that what people feel to be indisputable about proper English all too often says more about them and their biases than about the issue at hand.

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Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015, at 3:51 pm


Words in Flux

Today we’ll discuss two words whose meanings in casual conversation may vary significantly from their traditional meanings in formal writing.

Despise Not so long ago, despise was more than just another word for detest. “Syme despised him and slightly disliked him,” wrote George Orwell in his 1949 novel 1984. Orwell knew that, strictly speaking, despise means “to look down on” but not necessarily “to dislike” (although that’s usually part of the deal).

“Let no one despise your youth” reads a line in the Bible (1 Timothy 4:12). Note that “despise your youth” does not mean “hate you for being young.” The passage means, “Don’t let anyone disrespect or disregard you for being young.” Disdain is not the same as downright hostility.

Affinity Some seven hundred years ago, affinity meant “relation by marriage.” By extension, the proper use of affinity involves mutuality. But that sense of mutual attraction is often absent in contemporary uses of affinity. An online search reveals many examples such as these: “She always had an affinity for growing fruit.” “I have an affinity for vintage chairs.” “My friend has an affinity for making things out of cardboard.” In these examples, “growing fruit,” “vintage chairs,” and “making things out of cardboard” are passive elements, not active components in a relationship. Better to say “a talent for growing fruit,” “a fondness for vintage chairs,” “a flair for making things out of cardboard.”

In the examples above, affinity is followed by the preposition for. But in formal English, the phrase affinity for is despised. The editor Theodore M. Bernstein advised writers to “discard for” and instead “use betweenwith, or sometimes to.”

Here are three sentences that use affinity correctly: “There is an affinity between the Irish and the Italians that can be hard to explain.” “Some people have a natural affinity with children.” “Two vaccines containing native proteins with affinity to porcine transferrin were tested.”

There is no affinity unless it is shared by both parties.

 

Pop Quiz

Are these sentences all right? Do any need fixing? Suggested answers are below.
1. She has some affinity for math.
2. This is a politician with an affinity for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. She has some talent for math.
2. This is a politician with a gift for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me. CORRECT

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Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2015, at 10:28 am


Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find ten New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We are a group that needs its own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness. So let’s get right to …

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments

1) No using big words to intimidate. You can’t beat a polysyllabic onslaught for sounding authoritative. But laying big words on someone who may not be as educated as you are is just shabby.

2) No correcting someone’s English in an argument. It’s the wrong time to do it. When someone makes a valid point, picking on that person’s language is a cop-out, and a contemptible way of gaining the upper hand.

3) Do it in private. If a person you care about says “irregardless,” it can be a thoughtful gesture to gently advise that there is no such word—but don’t do this when others are within earshot.

4) No condescending preambles. If you have some wisdom to impart, don’t start with “Didn’t you know,” or “I can’t believe you just said,” or “How can someone from your background …” Such statements sound uncomfortably close to “I’m smart and you’re not.”

5) Casual conversation gets a lot of leeway. Public figures are rightly under scrutiny when they’re speaking or writing on the record. Even private citizens may be held accountable, not just for what they say but for how they say it, in a meeting or serious discussion. However, the language police ought to back way off in settings where people are just relaxing and making small talk. At such times, perfect grammar is probably the last thing anyone should worry about. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl party for a summit conference.

6)  And no correcting playful correspondence, either. If you get an email that says, “I didn’t mean nuttin’ by it,” your correspondent is kidding around. What is friendship without informality and levity? And what kind of a sourpuss would point out that “nothing”was misspelled and that double negatives are bad grammar?

7) Know what you’re talking about. Before you correct someone, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around. Here are three discredited rules that a lot of people think are true: Never end a sentence with a preposition. (Yes you can.) It’s wrong to split an infinitive. (No it’s not.) The relative pronoun that cannot refer to a human, so always say “the person who called,” never “the person that called.” (Utter nonsense.) If you believe even one of these superstitions, you see the problem.

8) Look it up. Good writers choose their words with utmost care. So you can’t go wrong with a dictionary nearby. Many people believe they needn’t look up a strange word. They are deluding themselves. Suppose a critic you respect refers to a book’s “meretricious manifestation of sophism.” The word meretricious sounds a lot like meritorious; and sophism brings to mind sophisticated. Having seen the review, you are eager to purchase and read this admirable, stylish work—not realizing that the critic has denounced the book as lurid and devious rubbish.

9) No excuses when you slip. Two can play this game, professor. We all make mistakes. If someone busts you, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) No correcting strangers. Keep it to yourself; it’s the Wild West out there.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 4:01 pm


What Have We Learned This Year?

To close out 2014, we have put together a comprehensive pop quiz based on the year’s GrammarBook.com grammar tips. The quiz comprises twenty-five sentences that may need fixing. Think you can fix them?

Our answers follow the quiz. Each answer includes, for your convenience, the title and date of the article that raised the topic.

This quiz is by no means a pushover. Good luck, and we hope to see you back here after the holidays.

A Year of Blogs in Twenty-five Questions

1. The day was cold, cloudy, and a storm was coming.

2. He is either coming with us or he is waiting for the next train.

3. My friend (and her brother) are arriving today.

4. Dobbs is one of those people who loves Jane Austen.

5. A collection of books were on display.

6. She ordered him off of her property.

7. I asked him to lend me a couple dollars.

8. Both young actress’s dream is to play Juliet.

9. Roy and Juanita Simms arrived on foot because the Simms’ car was in the shop.

10. We were all in the mood for some New Orleans’ food.

11. When Nick writes a letter, you can’t tell his As from his Ss.

12. Who sang the song Bali Ha’i in the Broadway play called South Pacific?

13. Their favorite classic movies are based off of old fairy tales.

14. The couple was having their first quarrel.

15. A husband, who forgets anniversaries and birthdays, may be headed for divorce court.

16. A friend of mine, living in San Diego, loves the weather there.

17. My grandmother, Gladys, claimed she once had a drink with the writer, Norman Mailer.

18. When you decide to hone in on your weaknesses, you have a hard road to hoe.

19. That fancy place had a $18 dessert on the menu.

20. Some of Hemingway’s best books, i.e., The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, were written before 1950.

21. The exhibit includes major works by many iconic artists: Ernst, Klee, Picasso, etc.

22. The jeweler has unusual gems such as black opals, star garnets, alexandrites, etc.

23. When they doubled my salary, I literally started living like a king.

24. He suggested a Donne sonnet, but soon learned she was disinterested in poetry.

25. His claim of owning a diamond mine in Delaware begs the question, Is this man sane enough to be walking around?

 

Jumbo Pop Quiz Answers

An asterisk (*) indicates that there are more correct answers than one.

1. The day was cold, cloudy, and stormy.* (An Unparalleled Letdown, 2-18)

2. He is either coming with us or waiting for the next train.* (Simple Words, Fancy Label, 2-25)

3. My friend (and her brother) is arriving today. [(All About) Parentheses, 3-23]

4. Dobbs is one of those people who love Jane Austen. (The Wicked Of3-31)

5. A collection of books was on display. (The Wicked Of, 3-31)

6. She ordered him off her property. (More Of, 4-16)

7. I asked him to lend me a couple of dollars. (More Of, 4-16)

8. Both young actresses’ dream is to play Juliet. (Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble, 5-6)

9. Roy and Juanita Simms arrived on foot because the Simmses’ car was in the shop. (Apostrophes and Proper Nouns, 5-13)

10. We were all in the mood for some New Orleans food. (Apostrophes and False Possessives, 5-19)

11. When Nick writes a letter, you can’t tell his A’s from his S’s. (Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive, 6-3)

12. Who sang the song Bali Ha’i in the Broadway play called South Pacific? (Italics vs. Quotation Marks, 6-16)

13. Their favorite classic movies are based on old fairy tales. (Based Off Is Off Base , 6-23)

14. The couple were having their first quarrel. (Collective Nouns and Consistency, 7-8)

15. A husband who forgets anniversaries and birthdays may be headed for divorce court. (Essential, but Is It Important? 8-19)

16. A friend of mine living in San Diego loves the weather there. (Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II, 8-26)

17. My grandmother Gladys claimed she once had a drink with the writer Norman Mailer. (Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III, 9-2)

18. When you decide to home in on your weaknesses, you have a hard row to hoe. (A House Is Not a Hone, 9-23)

19. That fancy place had an $18 dessert on the menu. (Wails from My Inbox, 10-2)

20. Some of Hemingway’s best books (e.g.The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms) were written before 1950.* (Note also the added parentheses in the sentence.) (i.e. vs. e.g.10-7)

21. The exhibit includes major works by many iconic artists: Ernst, Klee, Picasso, et al. (All About etc., 10-15)

22. The jeweler has unusual gems such as black opals, star garnets, and alexandrites. (All About etc., 10-15)

23. When they doubled my salary, I really started living like a king.* (Fighting for Literally, 11-11)

24. He suggested a Donne sonnet, but soon learned she was uninterested in poetry. (Don’t Dis Disinterested, 11-18)

25. His claim of owning a diamond mine in Delaware raises the question, Is this man sane enough to be walking around?* ( Begging the Question, 12-1)

 

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Posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2014, at 7:40 pm


2014 Christmas ’Log Review

Have you noticed that Christmas is in the air? I started noticing in October, when I received my first Christmas catalog eleven days before the start of the World Series.

New ones have been arriving ever since, filled with gift ideas so remarkable that I just can’t keep them to myself.

The Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, replete with high thread counts and decadent relaxation devices, is always on the technological cutting-edge—we’re living in the age of the voice-interactive coffee maker and the talking wristwatch. For the discreet creep, there are the “video camera pen” and the “video recording sunglasses.” Merry golfers will go for the “drink-dispensing golf club,” which pours an ounce of booze per second from a spout in the club head. After a few pops, the “golf ball locating glasses” may come in handy. These ungainly-looking goggles find that lost ball even as they identify anyone wearing them as a dork. The catalog is laden with pseudo-sophisticated phrases like “an ubiquitous ritual,” apparently written by someone who’s never said “ubiquitous.”

The Frontgate catalog got my attention with “100s of best-made gifts” instead of “hundreds” and “1,000s” instead of “thousands.” That just looks silly. Otherwise, a tasteful brochure, filled with good ideas. This isn’t one of them: a $500 treadmill—for pets. How will I ever get Rover to use his treadmill when mine was gathering dust six weeks after I bought it?

Among Gump’s tree ornaments is a comely reindeer wearing a chic cocktail gown. And what brightens up a Christmas tree more than an exquisite hand-blown … fried egg on toast?!?

Grandinroad has some interesting entries in the ornament sweepstakes, including blown-glass kitties in bow ties and terriers in tutus. But this year’s undisputed champion of all ornaments is Grandinroad’s kissing fish. The fish has big blue eyes with coquettish long lashes, and puckering, collagen-pillow lips ablaze with a garish smear of scarlet lipstick. A tank of famished piranhas might not be as festive but would certainly be less disturbing.

The catalog of the Smithsonian Institution devotes two pages to its Jacqueline Kennedy Collection, including the “Jackie Kennedy Sunglasses” and the “Dual Faux Pearl Floral Leaf Pierced Earrings.” Do we even want to know who out there still sports the Jackie look?

Finally, a holiday quiz. What do these words culled from Christmas catalogs refer to: carbide, cinder, daybreak, eclipse, fig, flag, fog, fossil, gargoyle, lava, lichen, lily pond, mallard, moonlight, muleskinner, Nero, oasis, picante, saddle, sprig, thunder, tobacco. Hint: they’re not rejected first names for Sarah Palin’s kids. They’re colors!?! … “Remember our first Christmas, darling? You were standing in my muleskinner foyer, your mallard hair perfectly matching your gargoyle dress. I wore tobacco slacks and a Nero tie with fossil stripes to complement the warm earth tones of my carbide cape.”

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, December 9, 2014, at 12:07 am