An exercise for the reader

rogersgeorge on January 30th, 2014

Alas for the hardships of an English teacher. I present this strip, Luann from December 10, 1991, without comment. How would you correct the last panel?


Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

A little Greek lesson

rogersgeorge on January 28th, 2014

Bob Thaves, the cartoonist who creates Frank and Ernest, is the master of the pun. If you don’t read his strip, I recommend you check it out. It’s a good way to start your day.

Frank & Ernest

So the humor here is (I think, unless Bob knows Greek) that the guy on the right is using the subjunctive in his reply. However, he’s not! The subjunctive expresses unreality. I plan to get into more detail on the subjunctive in a future post; let it suffice here that if he had said something like “I would have, but Grog beat me to it.” —that would be the subjunctive. (Notice that I just used the subjunctive—I’m saying that he didn’t actually use the subjunctive.)

And that leads to my Greek lesson: In Greek your verb forms can get yet one more step away from reality. It’s called the optative, and its meaning is to express a wish. (It’s pretty easy to spot an optative in Greek. Look for an oi in the middle of the verb. Subjunctives are harder; they generally involve lengthening the thematic vowel, and the rules for that can get tricky. But I digress.)

So our cave man could have just invented the optative, and Bob is giving us Greek geeks an inside joke.

Linguistic change

rogersgeorge on January 26th, 2014

This comic,um, literally addresses an issue I mentioned not so long ago, so I won’t go into that. It also addresses another issue–linguistic change. As a technical writer, I am tempted to wish that language didn’t change. Eliminating the ambiguity of having new meanings for words would certainly make it easier to be understood. I think this is the rationale for the French Academy, which is infamous for its insistence that the French language not change.

But language has to change over time. After all, the world changes over time. New ideas mean neologisms (and if you know what neologism means, I don’t need to explain this to you). A principle in linguistics is that all languages are sufficient. That is, for their environment. A corollary of this is that when something new comes along, we make or borrow a word for it.

Language also changes for less justifiable reasons, and that’s what makes me roll my curmudgeonly eyes.

Let’s look at the comic, from January 17, 2014:

Basic InstructionsDefinition creep is a neologism, by the way, derived perhaps, from “scope creep,” a term you hear too often in software development circles. The comic dances around the point, dear to my heart, that if you mush around the meanings, you can lose the use of perfectly good words. If if “literal” and “figurative” both mean “figurative,” how can you say that something is literal? Here’s another example: nauseous means “making one want to throw up,” and nauseated means feeling like throwing up. Both ideas are useful (in the right context), so don’t make both words mean the same thing.

We’re going to lose a lot of these battles, but I recommend that when you write, you exercise care to use the right word. In fact, here’s some evidence that we’re going to lose the nauseous/nauseated battle. The character speaking in the center panel is one of the intellectuals in the Luann Strip (Nov 9, 1998).


On the other hand, perhaps Greg Evans has already gone over to the dark side. This one is from 1992.


One last comment: Note that the guy on the left in Basic Instructions said “…in a recent dictionary.” It’s been a running battle in the lexicographical world whether dictionaries should prescribe the “correct” meaning, or merely describe what people are saying, without casting judgement. Currently the trend is toward being merely descriptive. Alas.

Weird plurals with titles

rogersgeorge on January 24th, 2014

Most of the time in English (unlike many other languages) you put adjectives ahead of the nouns they modify. However, there’s a short list of notable exceptions. We tend to treat them as single words, but the order shows up when we make them plural. Everybody knows about these—

  • attorney general—attorneys general
  • court marshal—courts marshal
  • passer by—passers by
  • Knight Templar—Knights Templar not to mention knight errant and knights errant.

But what about this? Mr Smith. What’s the plural? (And don’t say it’s always singular—we could be referring to a couple brothers, for example. In fact, while you’re thinking about how to pluralize Mr., here’s a quote from a blog I read called Your Wild Life (January 4, 2013, to be exact). The blog is about things like insects and bacteria in your home. It’s sponsored  by several educational institutions.

 Dan Fergus had two encouraging math teachers in middle school, both named Mr. Conner. The Mr. Conners were enthusiastic brothers excited about teaching.

Doesn’t read quite right, does it? The correct plural is “the Misters Conner.” If you want to go with an abbreviation, it’s ” the Messrs Conner.” What about Mrs.? Plural is Mesdames. Yup, for some reason, we revert to French here.

So the rule with names is: the title is the part that gets pluralized: Professor, Captain, Justice, Private, Secretary.

In which I pick on a paragraph

rogersgeorge on January 22nd, 2014

Scientific American has pretty high editorial standards, but the blogs must use a different editor. This isn’t entirely bad–the goofs provide grist for my mill. I recently ran into a thought-provoking article in the Information Culture blog about removing books from a library’s collection. Thoughtful content notwithstanding, I found a couple things to edit. Here’s the guilty paragraph:

Scientists learn new things everyday that render previous books and articles on a topic out-of-date or simply incorrect.  Yesterday I pulled a book off the shelf about how to conduct radiometric dating published in 1954. There have been major advances in the topic in the past 60 years and we have more up to date information available on the shelves.

I found three solecisms. See if you can spot them before you continue. Here they are, with some additional remarks.

  1. First one: “everyday” is an adjective. In this sentence we want an adverb (tells when), which in this case should be “every day.”
  2. “previous” is correct. A lot of people would have written “prior,” which is wrong. I mentioned that in at least one past post.
  3. “simply incorrect” gets along fine without the “simply.” I wrote several times about fluff—unnecessary words—two of them are “just” and “simply.” However the writer here is being conversational, not giving instructions, and the word is not ungrammatical, so we can call it a stylistic choice. But it’s tighter without the extra word.
  4. Second one: The hyphenation in “out-of-date” shouldn’t be there. It’s a plain old adverb phrase that goes with “render.” No need for hyphens.
  5. This remark is rather picky. I would have put a comma after “radiometric dating” because “published in 1954” goes with “book.” The comma separates dating from published, making you look elsewhere. Books and publishing go together so commonly that you’re not likely to be confused, but the rule is that a modifier belongs as close as possible to what it modifies. The comma makes sure you don’t suppose that the dating itself was published in 1954.
  6. Third one: “up to date” should be hyphenated. It’s a compound adjective, which we hyphenate.

That’s a lot of chopping on one poor paragraph in an interesting article. I should add that nothing else jumped out at me in the whole rest of the article, and I shall give credit where it is due: the last sentence in the article is nice:

Weeding no-longer-useful books is just as important to collection building as acquiring new books.