Denominatives and Verbal Nouns

rogersgeorge on June 14th, 2017

I mentioned this topic twice before over the years (here and here), but not with the actual names. So here’s an appropriate Calvin and Hobbes comic, and my definitions afterwards.

When you make a verb out of a noun, we call the word a denominative. For example, chair.

When you make a noun out of a verb, that’s a verbal noun. For example, run.

This is so common in English, and we’ve been doing it for so long, I think sometimes it’s hard to decide whether the verb or the noun came first. It’s easier in highly inflected languages; you just put a verb or noun inflection on the root word and there you have it. In English you need to rely on the context.

The humor comes in, of course, when you do this to a word that this doesn’t often happen to, such as the noun verb.

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Anthropomorphism in Technical Writing

rogersgeorge on June 12th, 2017

A while back I wrote a series of posts on figures of speech. Figures of speech are ways of playing fast and loose with the language, on purpose, and managing to be understood when you do so. Someone (Hi, Sara) asked me to write about anthropomorphism, a figure of speech you don’t generally find in technical writing. Technical writing is supposed to be as direct and plain as possible.

Anthropomorphism is attributing animal (or inanimate) characteristics to humans (You lucky duck, you) or human characteristics to animals (or inanimate things), such as when you draw a comic with talking animals. Ahem:

Does this figure of speech have a place in technical writing? Perhaps, if it’s the best way to make an obscure point clear. Abstruse subjects can be made easier to understand with an illustration, an analogy, and that illustration could, sometimes, be an anthropomorphism.

I run into this a lot in the field of computing. We say computers think, have memory, and want things. A message recently popped up on my screen saying that a website wanted to know my location. Pure anthropomorphism! More than one mathematician has said that an asymptote (look it up) is a line that wants to approach something but never quite can. I’ve heard genuine astronomers refer to the man in the moon, an image of a face. As luck would have it, I just ran into this passage from a Scientific American article:

When I look at the Moon I see the history of our planet engraved on its pale grey surface. I have to see something, I still can’t make out this “man” you tell me about.

I suppose I could include an anthropomorphism that goes the other way. The first thing that came to mind was the title of an old hymn, Rock of Ages.

Now that you’ve seen a few examples, keep your eye open for this figure of speech in technical subjects. If you think of or notice a good one, share it in the comments.

Grammar Nazi gets it Wrong!

rogersgeorge on June 10th, 2017

Okay, sometimes those dogmatic folks who correct your English unasked get it wrong! Jump Start is a Case in point:

She makes three points, and two are wrong.

Split infinitive. Not putting an adverb between the “to” and the rest of the verb is a hold-over from Latin, promulgated by stuffy English teachers. English has been splitting infinitives for centuries. Just remember that Star Trek Movie, “to boldly go…”

Passive voice. She’s correct here. Not that the passive is ungrammatical, but writing that doesn’t use the passive is more energetic. Don’t go passive unless you want to hide the blame.

Ending a sentence with a preposition. Sorry, those are actually adverbs, part of separable verbs. Think of Churchill’s famous (and possibly apocryphal) remark, “Impertinence, young man, is something up with which I will not put.”

However, most of the time in this comic, she’s right.

Parallelism is Good

rogersgeorge on June 8th, 2017

A lot of sentences in English are constructed with two parts that are semantically connected. We call this parallelism. Whenever you construct a sentence with parallel parts, those of us in the know consider it good form to make the parallel parts have the same structure. (Search on “parallelism” in the search box on the upper right of this page to find at least five other times wrote about this.) I remember my English teacher back in high school mentioning this, and our grammar book, Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, had some pretty good examples, which I don’t remember. I still recommend that book if you want to have a good grammar text on hand. You can get it on Amazon. But I digress.

An example should help, because what I just wrote is rather vague. Here’s an example of a guy getting it wrong in one sentence and getting it right in the next.

To invoke another axiom, he shows rather than telling. And whether that’s a rule or a cliche, it’s true.

“Shows” is parallel to “telling,” a verb and a participle—bad. The second word should be “tells.” In the next sentence, “that’s” is parallel to “it’s,” both of which are subject-verb combinations, so that’s good. Nice even, because both are not only s-v combinations, but they’re both contractions. He’s a professional writer, a journalist even, so I suppose I should add that this rule is often broken.

But you’re better off if you don’t break it.

Redundancy

rogersgeorge on June 4th, 2017

Redundant text is a bane of technical writing. It’s when you add words that repeat what you just said. I wrote about this clear back in 2010 here and here. Use the Search…  box near the upper right corner of the site to find several more posts on the subject. That’s how bad redundancy is! Anyway, I just ran into an Adult Children comic that uses some obvious examples to give you the idea.

Those were pretty obvious, but it’s easy to be redundant accidentally. For example, don’t say “do it over again.” Don’t say “return back.” Be alert and you’ll find lots more.