Some Words go Two Ways

rogersgeorge on July 18th, 2017

Some common words are one word when they’re adjectives and two words when they are nouns. Lots of text in this comic, but look at the bottom full line in the second panel.

“Everyday” as one word is an adjective! What she means is “every day.”

Here are a couple more that come to mind:

  • altogether, all together;
  • already, all ready;
  • alright, all right;
  • aftermath, after math. (Okay, not many are likely to confuse those two.)

Can you make a couple correct sentences with them? Can you list a few more such words? (Put them in the comments.)

That third one is particularly irritating to me. Here’s a good quote about it:

Word Fact: Alright vs. All Right. … The form alright is a one-word spelling of the phrase all right. Alright is commonly used in written dialogue and informal writing, but all right is the only acceptable form in edited writing. Basically, it is not all right to use alright in place of all right in standard English.
“Edited writing”—a nice turn of phrase.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

Compound What?

rogersgeorge on July 12th, 2017

Here’s a sentence. Is it right or wrong? (Maybe I should say, “Is the grammar correct?”)

While Subversion is still primarily a copy-modify-merge system, it still recognizes the need to lock an occasional file and thus provide mechanisms for this.

I saw this in some instructional material for a file management program named Subversion. (Yes, the first word should be “Although,” but that’s not the thing I’m thinking about.) What about “provide”? Shouldn’t it be “provides” to go with “recognizes”? After all, the subject of the sentence is “it,” right?

Well, yes, the word could be “provides” to go with the singular subject. But the sentence is correct nonetheless! Can you tell why?

Because instead of the sentence having a compound predicate, it has a compound infinitive! It’s “to lock” and “to provide.” That “to” serves both words.

This is one of those (rare) cases where no matter which you do, you’re right!


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.

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.