Zapping Three Grammar Myths

I learned a few things in grammar school. For example, I learned that boys shouldn’t dip girls’ pigtails into the inkwells. I lived near the Little House on the Prairie then and went to third grade with “Half Pint” Ingalls. Okay, maybe not, but my ancient schoolhouse in Moorhead, Minnesota, did have desks with inkwells—dried up, yes, but I could still fantasize about dipping Half Pint’s pigtails into the inky blackness on my desk. Naughty little fantasizer! Something to be punished for. 

 I learned the hard way not to push friends down the cement steps while waiting in line to go back to class after recess—because, supposedly, friends don’t appreciate that. Oh, bother!

 I also learned not to run into the classroom coat closet to escape from the acrid smell of vomit when a classmate heaves his entire lunch onto his desk and the floor—because not all 30 panicked kids can fit in a coat closet filled with Minnesota-winter coats, mittens, and snow boots. Such things can trigger lifelong bouts of claustrophobia.

 It’s strange to think that this could come from a grammar school: I vaguely remember learning a couple of things about grammar somewhere in my youth or childhood. I learned how improper it was to begin a sentence with a conjunction, or to split my infinitives, or to end a sentence with a preposition. I have no specific memory of these heavenly dictums, but everyone from my generation simply knows such proscriptions are writ large in the canon of divine grammar and must be avoided on penalty of death. I never actually saw a student receive that penalty. Apparently, some teachers stopped short of killing their students. Instead, they rapped their knuckles with a ruler, which explains why most adults hate grammar.

Nonetheless, what a joy to grow up and learn that Miss Grundy may have gotten a few things wrong in the dark days of the Grammatical Inquisition. Today, I am going to take my trusty keyboard and explode three grammar myths. ZAP! There, it’s done. Too simple, you say? Let me explain: Continue reading “Zapping Three Grammar Myths”

Five More Commonly Confused Word Pairs

Only 1 in 96 people keep all of these straight.

Two weeks ago I wrote about five pairs of commonly confused words. It’s a topic that always stimulates a lively and full-bodied discussion among readers. While waiting for that discussion to begin, I’ll present you with five more pairs of commonly confused words.

Advise vs. Advice (ad-VĪZ vs. ad-VĪS) 

To advise (an action) is a verb and advice (a thing) is a noun that refers to the information given or received in the act of advising. But confusing these two words is understandable because of another pair of words, vise and vice, which are homonyms: they are pronounced exactly the same (vīs). A vise is a tool attached to a workbench that is used to hold something securely in place. A vice, as people generally use it, is a “habitual and usually trivial defect or shortcoming.” Advise and advice are not homonyms. They are pronounced differently and mean different things. Many people have given me sound advice about a lot of things in my lifetime, some of which I have heeded. Let me advise you to heed wise, godly advice when you receive it.

 Momento vs. Memento

When I stopped into a gift shop to purchase a souvenir, the clerk said it would make a “nice momento.” This is a common mistake; the correct word is memento. Momento is not a word. Continue reading “Five More Commonly Confused Word Pairs”

Who Doesn’t Love These?

We All Use Acronyms and Initialisms

Today I hope to enlighten the world like Lady Liberty on the difference between acronyms and initialisms. My colleagues in education often joke that our realm is all about acronyms. I used to laugh at that until I sat down one day and tried to list all the acronyms for departments and programs used on our campus. Writer’s cramp forced me to stop before I’d gotten halfway through. But the joke was on me when I discovered that there are acronyms and there are initialisms and, although similar, they are technically not the same. We all must love acronyms and initialisms as we use them all the time.

Acronyms

Acronyms are abbreviations of multi-word nouns, consisting of the initial letters of each word and are pronounceable words. That last phrase is key. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is universally known by its acronym NASA, and “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” is the mouthful better known by the acronym laser. Continue reading “Who Doesn’t Love These?”

How to Know If You Might Be From England

Common telltale signs of British origins.

You might be from England (or the UK) if …

. . . you usually tag an –s  onto the word toward. The preferred British spelling is towards. The preferred American spelling is simply toward (no –s). When I copyedit a document written for American readers, almost the first thing I do is to execute a global search-and-replace to eliminate all those pesky s’s (if there are any) in one automated swoop. A copyediting instructor years ago taught me that trick. (Shhh! . . . let’s keep it our little secret.)

. . . you often use single quotation marks for quoted words and sentences instead of double quotation marks. ‘You guessed it, good fellow. I’m from Liverpool’, (British) instead of, “You guessed it, good fellow. I’m from Denver,” (American). In American English, we use single quotation marks for quotes within quotes, such as, “Here’s the answer he gave,” said the investigator. “He said, ‘I’m from Denver.’” Otherwise, we use double quotation marks for quoted words—even one word—and sentences. To make it ridiculously complicated, in British English that punctuation scheme is reversed. What were they thinking? Next thing you know they’ll be driving on the wrong side of the road.

. . . you tend to place your commas and periods outside of quotation marks* instead of insideBritish flag and phone booths them. Here’s an example: The film critic from the Times wrote that the latest sequel was “pabulum not befitting an infant”, but the critic from the Daily News countered that it was “a feast fit for a king”. Note the placement of the comma and period there. In the US we would keep that comma and period tucked safely inside (to the left of) the quotation marks. And that’s true even if just one word is enclosed in quotation marks. Try it, you’ll like it!

So there you go: a simple, non-exhaustive test for determining if in fact you might have grown up in England, or some other land where British English is used, and somehow forgotten it.**  Δ


*Our British friends call periods full stops and single quotation marks inverted commas.

**With apologies to my friends across the pond for this tongue-in-cheek piece. It wasn’t my intent to be cheeky. If this essay seems like tosh, I may be a nit, but hopefully not an oik.

© 2018 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

Five Commonly Confused Word Pairs

Only 1 in 97 people keep all of these straight.

Some pairs of similar words are commonly confused in speech and in writing. There is no “speech-checker” to catch our oral miscues, unless we hang out with grammar snobs who don’t care if they keep on friendly terms with us. And with technologically as advanced as Microsoft Word’s spelling-and-grammar checker is, it doesn’t catch everything. How well do you know the differences below?

Gist vs. Just

As a kid, my teachers persistently corrected students who sloppily said things like, “I jist tapped that boy a little on his cheek—not enough to knock out that bloody tooth there on the floor.” So when we grew up, some of us were so paranoid about not saying “jist” when we should have said “just” that we now reflexively say “just” when we should say “gist” (pronounced jist). Confused yet? No? Well, I’m not done yet. Gist means “the main point or part.” When we’re talking about the main point or part of this article with all our friends (yes, all of them), it’s okay to call it the gist of the article—jist don’t call it the just.

Moot vs. Mute

Then there is the infamous moot–mute mix-up. Continue reading “Five Commonly Confused Word Pairs”

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch

A short book review

Vex, Hex coverConstance Hale provides one of the most thorough treatments of verbs I’ve read.* The book is aimed at writers, both novice and experienced, and unless you hold a PhD in English composition, you will learn something useful to make your writing better. Do you know all about verb tense, mood, and voice? How well do you understand participles, gerunds, irregular verbs, and phrasal verbs? Do you know why these things matter—and they do matter—and how mastering them will help your writing shine brighter? Hale’s book provides the answers.

The title is a bit awkward (try saying it three times fast!)—I think “Let Verbs Power Your Writing” by itself would have been just fine—but “vex,” “hex,” “smash,” and “smooch” provide the framework around which Hale organizes each chapter, and the scheme works pretty well. At times she ventures into murky waters where even she may be out of her depth. For example, I’m still scratching my head at how “tight-fisted” is a past participle (instead of an adjective), as she asserts on page 224. But for the most part, she’s spot on. She includes many examples from real life and literature to illuminate the concepts, along with plenty of endnotes and an extensive bibliography to warm the hearts of readers who care to dig deeper.

I highly recommend this book to writers, wannabe writers, copyeditors, and students (high school and college), and I know that I’ll regularly pull it off my bookshelf to consult for my own writing.  Δ

*Constance Hale, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).

© 2018 by Dean Christensen (The Dean’s English)

Of Cranks, Bugs, and Fans

Are you one?

When the United States began to recover from the terrible trauma of the Civil War in the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s, the game of baseball provided a healing tonic for many Americans. Baseball (or base ball, as it was typically written) had been around in one form or another for several decades prior to the Civil War, but that national tragedy provided fertile soil for the sport to grow exponentially in popularity. Soldiers from both Northern and Southern armies played baseball, and they took it home with them when their military service ended. A mere four years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the first professional baseball team had formed in Cincinnati, and two years later, in 1871, the first professional baseball league had been (loosely) organized.

Oldtime base ball game

Cranks

As baseball’s popularity skyrocketed, newspapers featured detailed accounts of games, box scores reduced each contest to a quick-and-easy statistical snapshot, and top ball players—or “ballists”—became the idols of boys everywhere (men, too, if they were honest). Enthusiastic devotees rose up from all walks of life, but guardians of polite society frowned upon them and referred to them as “cranks,” a decidedly pejorative term. Continue reading “Of Cranks, Bugs, and Fans”