Quick Vocabulary Lesson

rogersgeorge on November 20th, 2017

I feel lazy today. Besides,  I don’t think I can add much to this Mallard Fillmore comic unless to add a list of more words that lots of folks get wrong. But you know all those, right?

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Circumlocution

rogersgeorge on November 16th, 2017

I recently read an article about a book of words that English should have but doesn’t. (I tried to find it, and discovered there must be a million articles on the subject, so I suggest you do a search on “words not in English” or a similar phrase and go surfing. You’ll even find quite a few if you limit yourself to Scientific American.

Which brings us to a philosophical question: If English doesn’t have a word, can we even think the thought that the word represents? Yes! We use a circumlocution.

A circumlocution is a way of describing something without using the actual word; saying the word’s definition, as it were, or a metaphor of some kind for what the word is about. Usually we think of a circumlocution as a way to avoid using an embarrassing word; we sometimes call these euphemisms or “beating around the bush.”

It turns out English is full of idioms that are circumlocutions; today at breakfast I used a circumlocution and got teased about it; I decided this expression was a good subject to write a post about.

Four of us were enjoying breaking our nighttime fast (circumlocution for breakfast) and the coffee flowed generously (circumlocution for I drank a lot of coffee). Presently I had to get up, and I said, “Excuse me, I need to go use the men’s room.” (an obvious circumlocution for, um, what I intended to do in there (another circumlocution)). My buddy said, “Hope everything comes out all right.” (another one) And everyone laughed. This exchange would make no sense to anyone from a culture that had no taboos on scatology, but it made perfect sense to us American English speakers.

If you listen for them, I bet you’ll hear lots of circumlocutions in normal conversation.

And because I like to include pictures in my posts, I did a search on “men’s room comics” and found this example of not intending a circumlocution:

Image result for men's room cartoon

Sometimes “Their” is a Plural

rogersgeorge on November 14th, 2017

For years grammarians and writers have unsuccessfully tried to figure out a good singular alternative to “him or her” (and its variants), because using three words is awkward. We have examples going clear back to Edmund Spencer of using the technically plural “their” or “they” as that singular. We even call it the singular they.

For example:

Somebody left his or her car running.

Usually we say

Somebody left their car running.

Sometimes you can recast the sentence to avoid the problem:

A car was left running out front.

But let’s face it, the singular they is pretty useful, and I think we curmudgeons just have to learn to live with it.

PS—I ran into an interesting (read tactful) use of the singular them:

Individuals who have shared intimate, nude or sexual images with partners and are worried that the partner (or ex-partner) might distribute them without their consent can use Messenger to send the images to be “hashed.”

Now having said all that, “they” and “their” are legitimate plurals, and you should be alert for when you have an actual plural. Here’s one where a professional writer (and the editor) missed the boat:

Kids will flock to a natural play area that sparks their imagination.

Plural “kids,” plural “their”—so far so good. But what about “imagination”? That should be a plural! Each kid has his or her own imagination, so the sentence should read

Kids will flock to a natural play area that sparks their imaginations.

I won’t embarrass the writer by identifying him. (I considered a little tongue-in-cheek humor by using “them” or “the person,” but I figured out that the writer is a guy, so I can safely use “him.”)

Mainly so I can have a picture in this post, here’s part of what he was writing about:

Rodney pond

Lots of People Get this Wrong

rogersgeorge on November 12th, 2017

“Who,” among other things, is an interrogatory pronoun. We use it when we ask a simple question about someone.

Who ate the last cookie?

To use “who” correctly this way, you need two things:

  1. The “who” must be first.
  2. “Who” must be the subject of the sentence.

The problem is that being the first word in the sentence is a stronger signal than being the subject of the sentence, and that leads to people using “who” when they should use “whom.” For example:

Who do you think ate the last cookie?

The subject is “you,” making that “who” be the direct object, which means you need “whom.” Here’s the sentence in declarative form to make it easier to see:

You think whom ate the cookie.

Let’s change the pronoun to make it more intuitive, because I have a surprise for you:

You think him ate the cookie.

“Huh??? Shouldn’t it be ‘You think he ate the cookie.’?” you ask.

And yes, you’d be right. “He” is the subject of the subordinate clause “-he ate the cookie,” even though the whole subordinate clause functions as the direct object. So in a declarative sentence, with the subordinate subject right there in the clause,  “he” is correct. Sorry to have to throw a grammatical weasel at you, but when you drag the word to the front of the sentence, as you must do when you ask a question, you have to use “whom” to warn your reader that you have a direct object coming up.

All that to praise the porcupine in this Grizzwells comic for getting it right:

Simple version of the rule: If the question has two verbs, use “whom.”

A little Quiz

rogersgeorge on November 10th, 2017

Scott Meyer is a pretty funny comic strip artist and writer. This recent comic made me twitch. See how many mistakes you can count. You should be able to find at least one in every panel. I counted more than a dozen. I don’t think he’s writing about me; I corrected him only once and that was years ago.