Onomatopoea

rogersgeorge on October 22nd, 2017

The other day I wrote about alliteration, so let’s take a look at another figure of speech, onomatopoeia, pronounced ah-nah-ma-ta-PEE-a. It’s from the Greek, meaning literally, “doing the name.” As you no doubt remember from seventh grade English (Hi, Miss Austin!) it means “a word that sounds like what it means.” Or is supposed to, anyway. Words like “peep,” “woof,” and “moo.” A lot of these words don’t actually sound like what they say they sound like. Ever listen to an actual rooster? It doesn’t really sound like “cock-a-doodle-do.” What about “bang,” “crash,” and “pow”? And the French word for the sound of a dog barking is pronounced something like “ngaf,” or so I’m told. Sometimes we don’t have a word for some sounds, a problem comic artists deal with often. For example, what sound does a rake on concrete make? Here’s a panel from Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries. Or what about the sound of a subterranean critter, maybe a Bobbit Worm, being eaten? The Edge of Adventure, by James Allen and Brice Vorderbrug, has something to say about that:

 

 

 

Well, those aren’t likely to end up in the OED, but here’s a good commentary on the subject. Thanks, David Malki, of Wondermark: ''You teach the KIDS, Ray! You teach it to 'em when they're KIDS!!''

I think you should feel free to make up your own onomatopoetic words. If you think up a good one, share it in the comments.

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Two Bad Jokes

rogersgeorge on October 20th, 2017

But they’re about language, so I guess it’s okay. First the pun. It’s the last word in the comic.

And that leads to the less jokey joke, use of a figure of speech that we call alliteration. Alliteration is when you start two or more words with the same letter. The Peter Piper tongue twister is a good example of alliteration. The fewer non-matching words you have, the better the alliteration is considered to be, and the non-matching words should never be emphasized. So this comic is a decent example of alliteration.

It’s still bad, though. But I like it. Thank you, Stephen Beals.

Another Curmudgeon!

rogersgeorge on October 18th, 2017

His name is Brian Patrick Byrne and he wrote an article about a NASA-sponsored computer game that he says is riddled with errors, both of fact and of English. He seems to be correct. If you’re interested in mistakes in video games, go read the article. It’s not bad, (though once he used “within” when just “in” would have been fine). Here’s a quote:

Cosmic Quest teaches players bad math about the size of solar arrays, and gives false instructions for an important process used to make fuel and water in space. It also screws up the name of a vital chemical element needed to power NASA spacecraft. Among the game’s typos are misspellings of the words “analyze” and “oxide,” and confusing the verb “affect” for the noun “effect.”

As a writer and editor, I think these are pretty serious errors, even if they occur only once each. NASA has the excuse that an outside company did the development, and I’m certainly glad it’s not a real NASA project. Here’s a screen shot, by the way. I put the pointer under the misspelled word, but you probably didn’t need the assistance, did you?

The Difference Between “That” and “Which”

rogersgeorge on October 16th, 2017

I usually ignore things like grammar checkers, but Microsoft Word’s grammar checker happens to be pretty good at this distinction. I should add that we have lots of uses for both words, but today we’ll look at only one use. Here’s the rule:

Use “that” in restrictive clauses.
Use “which” in non-restrictive clauses.

Whatever that means, right?

Restrictive means the information is necessary. Non-restrictive means the information is added info; an aside or parenthetical remark.

Restrictive: The list includes an account that has been set up in the general ledger.

Non-restrictive: The list includes uncollected funds, which is what distinguishes this list from the collected balance.

I should add that you need to use a comma before this usage of “which” to show that the remark is parenthetical.

Here’s an example:

We set up an account that includes uncollected funds, which is what distinguishes it from a collected balance account.

A good exercise is to watch for this construction in your daily reading. You will see a lot of people using “which” when they should use “that.” They’re being pretentious. Don’t you be pretentious.

The Present Tense in Technical Writing

rogersgeorge on October 14th, 2017

Here’s the rule:

Use the present tense to indicate customary behavior, no matter when it happens.

That’s right, when you do something, something happens. Doesn’t matter whether you’ve actually done it yet. Here are a few examples:

When true, the boolean indicates acceptance; when false, it indicates rejection.
When you press Enter, the window appears.
When I get hungry, I eat!
Tomorrow I go to the dentist.
Every day I get up before 6:00.

Maybe you’re writing instructions for operating a machine that hasn’t even been built yet. Use the present: When you turn the key, the engine starts.

When may you use the future? I can think of four times:

  • When you want to be vague:  Someday we will get married.
  • When the time is important:  Tomorrow I will go to the dentist, but the next day I won’t
  • For a command:  You will clean your room! (In military tech writing they use “shall.”)
  • When something isn’t customary: We will go on the trip if we can ever get the car started.

By the way, this is a good rule even if your writing isn’t strictly technical.