Archive for category Language Commentary
Words Matter Week – Day 2 Prompt
Today I want you to think about published writers and why you like one in particular more than others. Try to consider more than just their subject matter, because many great writers can successfully choose the same subject (space or sci-fi, for example). What is it about their style that appeals to you? For example, do you like the way the language seems natural to the character? Does a story told in first-person appeal to you more than one narrated by an outside observer, and why or why not? Do you like the way the sentences are constructed, for example like those of Henry James, so that “compounded clauses, digressions, and qualifications allow for temporal compressions and expansions”?
Here are 20 quotations from writers on their own use of words: Writers on Words.
Who is your favorite author and why?
“Words Matter Week during the first full week in March coincides with National Grammar Day. The week is designated to stamp out verbal slop and drivel.” — National Day Calendar
More importantly, I think, this week is about considering the value and import of words, each word we speak or write, and the effect they have on our audience. DO we even think about the words we use? Or do we often throw them out like confetti in the wind, not intending any meaning (the habitual insertion of “like” comes to mind) or, just as often, not realizing the power they have to injure, stir, soothe, inspire, control. Could we not be more intentional with our use of words, realizing that, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between almost the right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
I’ll have more to say each day this week on the power and significance of words in a variety of contexts. Join me!
On a lighter note, grammarNOW! offers you some fun grammar resources suggested by NAIWE:
- Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English
- Things That Make Us (Sic): The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, the White House, and the World
- Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage
- The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English
Finally, to get you thinking and hopefully responding, each day this week, I’ll post a writing prompt. Let me know what you think in 100 words or less. Here is today’s food for thought:
Words can change history. What word, speech, or document do you believe to be most important?
I had to give you a laugh and something to consider about yourself today:
The first comment on this one is as funny as the name: “Is this syrup you put on a boy to make them taste better or syrup that comes from a boy?”
Now consider which punctuation mark best represents your social personality:
I don’t hear it as often as I did for a while, but since it’s still in common usage, I want to correct the misuse of the phrase “beg the question.” It does not mean to ask for the question. Here is an example of incorrect use:
The new information begs the question, what really happened?
As you can find in many places online, the phrase “beg the question” means to assume something is true because it is said in the first place. It might also ask the reader or listener to accept a conclusion without the premise having been proven. This is called circular logic. Some examples:
I’m intelligent because I say intelligent things.
It takes a great general to win a war. What makes a great general? One who has one a war.
Circular reasoning works because circular reasoning works.
Just avoid the usage. In the misuse above, you could just as easily say, “This new information causes us to ask what really happened.”
Do you bring something or take something? These days, all I ever hear is bring! It seems that take is in danger of being lost as a verb of transport. There is a difference, and basically, it is that you bring something toward or with yourself and take something away from yourself. Examples:
Would you bring that book to me when you’re through reading it? (to yourself)
I’ll be happy to bring a salad with me to the party. (with you, speaking to the host, who is not with you)
Will you take this report to the meeting? (away from yourself)
I’ll take the car to the shop to get the tires aligned. (away from where you and the listener are)
The difference between some of these is subtle, but it used to be natural for a native speaker and only difficult for a non-native speaker. Now it seems difficult for all speakers because of the ubiquitous use of bring. Nearly everyone is losing the distinction and natural understanding of that distinction, so it is harder and harder to explain.
Here is an excellent source that offers a more detailed explanation: http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/grammar/practical-english-usage/bring-and-take
Listen for yourself. What do you hear people saying? I’ll bet you hear bring most of the time. In fact, if you hear take at all, I’d be surprised. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard it in the past month, in personal conversation or on television. I’m not the only one who cares, judging by the number of sites I see discussing this online (about 27,000,000 Google results). Plenty of people have opinions, but the experts all agree: Bring it here and take it there, unless you’re bringing it with you (as above).
Bring back take!
I hope I am not a pedant, but even those who are must enjoy this artful commentary:
Language should be enjoyable. There are circumstances that call for correctness and others that call for pleasure. Being grammatically wrong can be fun if it is intentional. So what’s “wrong”? There are basic grammatical rules for communication that should be adhered to in order to be understood and that keep one from being thought of as illiterate or unintelligent. Then there are more specific rules that keep writing or speaking from being unclear or unpleasant as a result of confusion. These are the “rights” and “wrongs” of grammar.
It is important to know the difference between grammar and style, but that’s another post. Stay tuned, and meanwhile, enjoy your language.
Interviewer: How did you come up with this amazing invention?
Inventor: So I put two paperclips together and . . . .
How many sentences do you hear beginning with the conjunction “so”? Far too many. As Geoff Nunberg of NPR writes, this little word usually ” introduces some background qualification that the question calls out for . . . ,” the backstory the speaker or writer feels compelled to give in order to answer the question. Another post on NPR in reply to a reader question speculates “that the word ‘so’ generally functions as a better verbal pause than ‘um’ while an interviewee may be considering how to phrase their response to a question.”
While I do not think that “um” is an effective (not to say useful) verbal pause, I disagree that “so” functions better. In what way? How is “so” better? It has no more meaning than “um.” Nevertheless, it does have some usefulness: “So is not being used just to fill a pause, it seems, but as a tool for conversation management” (Dictionary.com). I will concede that it is useful for bringing the conversation back to a previous direction. Otherwise, it is an irritating verbal tic picked up from all the usages one hears without discerning whether to perpetuate them.
“So” can be properly used as a conjunction within a sentence to connect thoughts that need connecting, but I highly dislike its use as a sentence starter, and I sincerely hope this trend doesn’t stick.
Not at the end of a sentence that starts with Where, I hope!
Where are you at? is redundant. Both where and at ask the same location information, so the question should just be Where are you?
I know this usage is ubiquitous, among all ages and any other group distinctions you care to make. That doesn’t make it grammatical. I’m also aware that it has a long history. That still doesn’t make it grammatical.
Yes, we use informal grammar all the time (I won’t criticize your ain’t), but if you’re going to use wrong constructions, do so intentionally, not accidentally.
Of course, my criticism of at ending a sentence that begins with Where does not apply to one that begins with What.
What are you looking at? is just fine and should not be awkwardly manipulated to read At what are you looking? just to satisfy some pedant’s misinformed “rule” about not ending a sentence with a preposition. (See my Tip on that eventually.)
The next time you’re tempted to ask Where are you at?—please don’t! Just ask Where are you? instead.
If I’ve managed to stop just one usage, I’ll consider this a successful post. Maybe it will catch on.
First, the common misspelling “alot” is not a word. When you mean a great deal or much, the correct spelling is “a lot”: two words. Examples:
Valentine’s Day is coming, and I plan to eat a lot of chocolate.
A lot of the time, I prefer to use “most” rather than “a lot.”
It shouldn’t take a lot of examples for you to get this right.
The word that is spelled with two lls is allot. It means “to give out, set aside, assign, or distribute”:
The rules allot each of the debaters 5 minutes per topic.
The judges will allot $500 to each winner.
“Allot” is NOT what you mean when you write a lot.
The phrase a lot is overused and should be reserved for informal writing or speech. Try for a more specific word choice in formal writing.
Stephen Fry is widely known for his kinetic typography. I particularly enjoy this piece on language, in which he discusses the “rightness” and “wrongness” of grammatical usages and attitudes toward language use. It’s thought provoking and entertaining—fun to watch.