Monday, November 4, 2013

A little "fatal" goes a long way

in case you were curious
According to NPR reporter Greg Allen, dengue fever is “very fatal.” My first reaction to this September report was not to research the disease, but to wonder what it means to be “very fatal.”

“Fatal” means “to cause death.” The last time I checked, humans (unlike cats) have only one life, so we can only die once. Other than dying more than once, what could “very fatal” mean? How is dengue fever different from afflictions that are only plain, ordinary fatal, like a fatal car crash or a fatal heart attack? Once we are dead, we are dead. End of story. 

Reporters seem determined to hype everything, even events that need no hype. “Fatal” is a strong word, and adding “very” diminishes its strength. This addition serves as a reminder that sometimes enough is, well, enough. The modifier simply makes the entire story silly. I was so busy giggling about the unnecessary hyperbole that I failed to pay attention to what could have been a concern for my family. The hype diverted my attention rather than cause the alarm the reporter was trying to convey.

Why do writers of all stripes add ‘very” so often? I suspect this usage goes deep into their writing heritage, back when a teacher assigned a 500-word essay on a topic where they only had 200-words of information. How did they reach the limit? By adding unnecessary words. Instead of fostering economy and precision, these assignments promote bloated, nonsensical prose. If an adjective or adverb isn't strong enough, it's enough for many writers to slap a “very” in front of it and be done with it, instead of diving deeper into their vocabulary well to find a more exact word to express the idea more precisely. 

Writers have a responsibility to their readers to weed out redundancy. Listeners and reader have become almost immune to some of the most egregious examples: free gifts, future plans, unconfirmed rumors, false pretense, dead corpse. Seriously, who pays for a gift? Aren't all plans in the future? Aren't rumors by definition unconfirmed? If it's a pretense, can it be true? A corpse is a dead body, so is a dead corpse a dead, dead body? Maybe that's what Allen was trying to say about dengue fever, but I doubt it. He was probably against a deadline and needed a longer sound bite. I'd rather listen to dead air myself. Wouldn’t you? 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The power of positive thinking

This blog has given me a venue to expose grammar gaffes and pet peeves, but with the start of the new school year, I'd like to recognize excellent writing and writers. As the old saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Perhaps by sharing beautiful prose (and explaining why I like it), you will want to both embrace and emulate it.

A friend gave me a copy of The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, and I fell in love with the prose, the story, and its universality. It's a lovely novel set in post-World War I Australia. The main characters are a lighthouse keeper and his beautiful wife. You may ask, "How in the world is a story about an Australian lighthouse keeper universal?" It is universal in love the couple shares, the hardships they face, and their struggle to overcome hardship.

Stedman's writing brings these characters to life almost as certainly as the midwives helped usher my children into the world. Isabel and Tom are with me a month after finishing the book. The story begins...

   "On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff's edge, tending the small, newly-made driftwood cross. A single fat cloud snailed above the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below. Isabel sprinkled more water and patted down the soil around the rosemary bush she just planted.
   "'...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,' she whispered.
   "For just a moment, her mind tricked her into hearing an infant's cry. She dismissed the illusion instead drawn by a pod of whales weaving their way up the coast to calve in warmer waters, emerging now and then with a fluke of their tails like needles through tapestry. She heard the cry again, louder this time on the early morning breeze. Impossible."

This passage begins with a certain attention grabber, "On the day of the miracle." Stedman does not question miracles, nor does she immediately explain the miracle in question. The last sentence of this passage is a fragment, "Impossible." It is separated from the word miracle, but it is close enough for a careful reader to see the connection that miracles are impossible.

It is not just a cross that Isabel tends, but a "small, newly-made driftwood cross." The carefully selected adjectives introduce us to Isabel's grief but spares the reader a maudlin explanation. Her word choice is exquisite--the cloud "snailed"  describes its movement with precision. She uses alliteration to capture the movement of the whales, and the repetition of the sound of the initial consonant of the mammals being described is both elegant and whimsical. Stedman introduces this biological fact that the whales know enough to move to warmer waters to calve before she tells us about Isabel's loss.

Stedman sets this introduction in late-April, a month that TS Eliot describes as "the cruelest month," a month where Chaucer's pilgrims begin their journey. Is she alluding to these writers? Who knows? But a writer should make every decision count, and by choosing April, Stedman allows us the opportunity to consider the connection to these writers, as well as to remember that April is the harbinger of spring, of new life. The fact that she is tending a rosemary bush near a newly-made cross is ironic. And if Stedman did not want us to consider allusions, why plant a rosemary bush? ("Rosemary for remembrance," you might remember, is spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet.) April is often associated with rain, but Isabel is sprinkling the rosemary bush with water, suggesting that nature is perverse in Isabel's world.

The second paragraph is from The Lord's Prayer, but Stedman elects to include only the last line. The reader is forced to ask, what temptation? What evil?

In three short paragraphs, Stedman introduces and denies a miracle. She juxtaposes a recent death with whales getting ready to calve. She alludes to Chaucer and Eliot and Shakespeare but introduces these allusions lightly, with no particular demands on the reader except to make him or her want to learn more about Isabel and her world.

I will not spoil this book by telling you more, but you can expect a story that will keep you engaged and prose that will make you wish the book will never end.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Nails on a chalkboard: apostrophes

It's happened again, my friends. I've flipped out over something that any normal human would simply ignore. I know that I overreact, but why oh why do writers use apostrophes when forming a simple plural?

My morning had been reasonably calm, a cappuccino on the deck while writing down my goals for the week before sitting down to the computer. Clearly, my mistake was checking a popular social networking site. A post that was intended as cute brought my blood to the boiling point. It was about yarn, for crying out loud. Basically, it said that we should keep yarn away from "cat's and kid's." "Cat's and kid's WHAT?" I screamed at my screen.

I think my anger escalated because the quotation had been added to an illustration, and it flowed perfectly around a line drawing of a woman crafting a list. The writer of the post had taken care with presentation but not with grammar. It was as if she carefully iced a cake before baking it.

How do we know when we need an apostrophe? It's easier to figure out when we don't need one. If you are writing about more than one object, it's plural. Plural nouns do not take apostrophes. I repeat, they do NOT take apostrophes. One cat, many cats; one dog, many dogs; one kid, many kids. See the pattern?

So when DO you need an apostrophe? The primary use is to show ownership. If you are writing about the sound that belongs to a cat, it's "the cat's meow." If you are writing about the end that belongs to a dog, it's "a dog's tail."

The location of the apostrophe can be a little tricky. If the noun is singular, the apostrophe goes between the singular noun (cat) and the "s" that indicates possession, as in "cat's." If you are writing about more than one cat, the apostrophe follows the plural noun. We have two cats, and if I'm writing about playthings they share, it's "the cats' toys." Our cats happen to be very proprietary, so if I'm writing about the toys that belong to one cat or the other, it would be "the cat's toys." Can you see why the position of the apostrophe is important?

There are numerous other occasions where the apostrophe is used, and it can be difficult to keep track of them all. For less common uses of the apostrophe, you should bookmark a reliable on-line resource, such as Grammar Girl's It's a searchable guide that is easy to understand. An online resource for more scholarly writing is hosted by Purdue University:

If you consider yourself a serious writer, you should invest in the style guide related to your field. These include the MLA Manual, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Gregg's Reference Manual. While you might not spend your free minutes reading the style guide to find interesting anomalies of grammar, it is a comfort to have it at hand, knowing that you will always be able to check your writing before you hit "Post."

P.S. When I went back to look at the offending social networking site's post, I found that it was gone. Do you think it was my comment that made it disappear?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Are you there or their or they're?

Grammar mavens know the difference among these three homophones, but do you? Take this quick quiz to test your knowledge. Select the correct spelling in each of the following sentences.

Who's (their/there/they're)?

They had better watch (their/there/they're) backs.

(Their/there/they're) going to be in big trouble.

Before I reveal the answers, let's inspect each of these three words to see how they are supposed to function.

"Their" is a possessive personal pronoun, so it is used to show ownership. It is always used before a noun. Their cat, their books, their vacation, their phobias, their unusual collection, their twin Porsches, their quant, unpretentious home on the Riviera are all proper uses of "their."

"There" is an adverb and is used to indicate position or location. Put the marble bust over there on the mantle. I want to go there.

"There" is also used as a noun meaning that place or that position. For example, "Chris will drive to Paoli and take the train from there."

"There" can also be used as a pronoun, usually as the subject of a sentence that uses some form of the "to be" verb (is, are, was, were, will). Here are some examples: "There are 26 letters in the alphabet."  "There Will Be Blood."  "Is there any reason why I should believe you?"

"There" can also be used as an interjection, a word that shows strong emotion or sentiment. You can imagine your sweet Auntie Eustace saying, "There, there, dear. Don't worry."

"They're" is a contraction, a substitution for "they are." Contractions give a more conversational tone to your writing. "Have you tried Eclat caramels? They're my favorites." "They're waiting." "They're watching the children."

Some helpful hints:

First, notice that all three words begin with THE. Forget the i-before-e rule--it's THEIR.

Second, when in doubt, substitute.

  • If the sentence makes sense if you substitute "his" or "her," then "THEIR" is the correct choice. (His cat, her book, her vacation, his phobia--you get it, right?)
  • If it makes sense using "here," go with "there."This substitution only works if "there" is used as an adverb, but if neither of the other substitution tricks work, you are safe in assuming that "there" is the word you want.
  •  If it makes sense using "they are," use "THEY'RE." (They are my favorites; they are waiting; they are watching the children.)
Third, notice that "there" can be used in four very different ways. In most instances, it is the right choice.

Finally, if you are still not sure, the safest trick of all is to rewrite the sentence to eliminate the word "there" entirely. The result will usually be a stronger sentence.

Do you want to go back and check your answers? Go ahead.

Drumroll, please ....
Who's there?
(In this case, there is an adverb showing position. You could substitute the word "here" and the sentence would still make sense.)

They had better watch their backs.
(Here, the word "their" tells us whose backs they are watching. To check your response, you have to do a little more work in the substitution--We had better watch our backs--but it still works.)

They're going to be in big trouble.
(In this sentence, "they're" is a contraction. You can substitute "they are" and the sentence will be grammatically correct.)

If you answered all three correctly, give yourself a pat on the back.

Please let me know if you have other questions about homophones.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Collaborate vs corroborate

The words collaborate and corroborate don't fall under the category of homophones (see last post), but people do confuse them on occasion. This confusion causes more problems in speaking than in writing, which makes me think the misattributions are more a slip of the tongue than an actual lack of knowledge. Sometimes people substitute a less frequently used word under the assumption that it makes them sound smarter. Sometimes people don't even recognize that there is a distinction.

Regardless of why they are confused, it's easy to separate the two words, despite their similarities. How are they similar? Both are transitive verbs that form nouns the same way (the verb collaborate turns into the noun collaboration, and the verb corroborate turns into the noun corroboration), and they both have to do with working together in some capacity.

How are these words different, then?

Collaborate means to work together. For example (shameless plug here), my mother and I collaborated on Pizza Friday. Lennon and McCartney formed one of the most successful musical collaborations of all time.

On the other hand, corroborate means to confirm or give support to a statement, theory or finding. Your doctor might use corroborate this way: "The tests corroborated my diagnosis." A detective might say, "Fingerprint evidence corroborated the witness's testimony that you were in the apartment."

Looking at the history of a word can help clarify meaning. I love to explore the roots of words both because I can get a more precise definition and often expand my vocabulary in the process of seeing other related words. Remember, I was an English major, and I take my fun where I can get it!

The root of collaborate is "laborere-" (to labor). In addition to the word labor, other words that come from the same root include elaborate and laborious.

The word corroborate comes from the root "robor-" (strength). Another word that comes from this same root is robust.

The bottom line: To collaborate is to labor or work together. To corroborate is to provide strength, um, evidence.

If you have pairs of words that you'd like to learn more about, please let me know. Happy Sunday!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Compliment or complement? Homophones, part one

What in the world are homophones? Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but have different spellings--and different meanings. These pairs are different from homonyms, words that share the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings. "Compliment" and "complement" sound alike, but they different spellings and different meanings, so they are homophones. The word "tire" is a homonym--even though it is spelled the same way, it can mean a part of a car or bicycle, or it can mean fatigue. While you might not really care what these crazy things are called, you really should care about how a difference in spelling changes meaning.

Believe it or not, "compliment" and "complement" were originally used interchangeably. Over time, the two words have come to have two different definitions. I listed "compliment" first because it more commonly used. "Compliment" with an "i" is something nice you say to someone. For example, "I love your blog" is a compliment. The way I remember to use "compliment" when I write, "Thank you for that lovely compliment," is by thinking that I like to receive compliments, and there is an "i" in the correct choice.

"Complement" has to do with making something complete. My husband's willingness to do dishes complements my love of cooking. In other words, when we are in the kitchen together, our strengths allow us to complete the task. If you have a necklace or a tie that is especially effective with an outfit, it complements it. People also will write about a "full complement." For example, "Microsoft Office and Apple Works both offer a full complement of computer programs." If you are writing about things that complete, you need to use "complement," and complete has two "e's" in its spelling.

Did you notice that my explanation focuses on writing? When we talk, we don't need to think about the fact that there are two different spellings, but it is important to know the difference when you are writing because you want to make the best impression possible.

Again, here are my tricks: I like to receive compliments, but to complement is to make complete.

This blog on homophones is the first of a series. Do you have any demons that you would like me to slay? Leave a comment or send me a message, and I'll try to help.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The semicolon, part two

Now that you have had a few weeks to digest the first lesson on semicolons, I'd like to offer you an additional option for using this sometimes maligned mark of punctuation. In the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (you all have copies on your desk, right?), there are six rules for the use of the semicolon. Here is Rule 6.60:
"In a series. When items in a series involve internal punctuation, they should be separated by semicolons."

Perhaps that rule isn't very clear. Let me try to explain just what it means. Have you ever been confused when reading a list? I would bet that the reason for confusion is because the writer included supplemental information in the list. What do I mean? It's easier to give examples than to explain.

Here is an example of a sentence that includes a confusing list:
Representing the United States are Joe Biden, Vice President, John Kerry, Secretary of State, Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.

Mind you, the above sentence is grammatically correct. You certainly may use commas to separate the items in the list and their titles, but when you read the list, you have to wonder just how many people are in attendance. To make this list easier to follow, use a colon AFTER the descriptor. I've underlined the semicolons to make them stand out.

Representing the United States are Joe Biden, Vice President; John Kerry, Secretary of State; Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense; and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.

Here is another example of using a semicolon in a series:
The trip includes stops in Dublin, Ireland; London, England; Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and Athens, Greece.

Another advantage of using the semicolon in this example is that it forces the writer to keep the list parallel. Notice that each item gives the name of city followed by the country rather than a hodgepodge of cities and countries. The reader knows exactly what the trip includes.

By using a different (and stronger) mark of punctuation to separate the items in a list, it is easier for the reader to grasp what you are trying to communicate. While it's easy to forget sometimes, our job as writers is to make our meaning clear. Punctuation is designed to help. If it doesn't help, then we need to either use punctuation differently or rewrite the sentence to make the meaning clear.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Letters that didn't make the cut

"12 Letters That Didn't Make the Alphabet," appeared in the The December 13, 2012 edition of Mental Floss. It should be required reading for everyone who loves language and its history. Do read it, and as you read, think about the reasons we still might encounter these graphemes as well as why we no longer teach them to children learning their ABC's.

M. Asher Cantrell gives us a look at letters/graphemes that have been discarded for a variety of reasons. For some, type setters found substitutions, but we still see them in specific situations. For example, if you have been to Williamsburg or watched movies set before the American Revolution, you will see the thorn in signs (for example, Ye Olde Tavern). While the thorn looks like a "Y," it should be pronounced with the strong "th" sound that appears at the beginning of its name. In this case, the language was becoming more streamlined. Printers didn't need to include another letter in their type drawers, but they were still able to convey the sound without any confusion. That is, they didn't have confusion back in the old days. Now, as often as not, people will pronounce the thorn with a "yuh" sound and say, "Yee oldeee tavern" and think they sound literate.

Some of these characters are still in use, but they are not included in our recitation of the alphabet song,  the ampersand (&), for example. It was the final letter of the alphabet before it was cast aside. Then, as now, "&" meant "and." According to Cantrell, because of its terminal position in the alphabet, people said, "and, per se, and," which eventually was changed to "ampersand." (Hmmm. Think about how we slur together "LMNOP" when we say the alphabet. I hope we don't lose any of those letters!) When we want to conserve space, we still substitute the ampersand for the word "and." For sign painters, it can add an interesting flourish and can help with spacing. Long before Twitter limited us to 144 characters in a message, we had telegrams where we paid by the character. In this case, the ampersand's brevity was allowed a place on our keyboard but not when we recited the alphabet.

Another letter that you have seen is the ash, the combination of AE that dates back to Old English. We still see it in churches and in words like aeon (eon) when a writer wants to lend a sense of age or gravity to a piece. The reader has to pause and recalculate the word, which gives the word and the surrounding text more weight. Most word processing programs include the ash under special characters (along with dingbats), so you, too, can integrate it into your writing. It's probably fortunate that it is a little more labor intensive to use the ash than an ordinary "a" or "e." Including it too often would take away some of its grandeur. It's a little like keeping your tiara in your jewelry box for special occasions. If you used it every day (just as if you wore your tiara with your jeans), it would become a joke.

The article goes on to describe nine other characters that have been dropped from our alphabet. I hope you will take time to read about them--and to check out other articles in Mental Floss. Let me know what you think!