Two Biblical Ellipses

rogersgeorge on August 2nd, 2017

The Bible is often misquoted. I ran into a common misquote recently from a fellow who experienced a motorcycle mishap that demonstrated the wisdom of wearing “all the gear all the time,” as we responsible motorcyclists say. He ended his misadventure with

Pride goeth before the fall.

The actual verse is

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.

Leaving out that part in the middle is called ellipsis. Ellipsis isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I recommend you be careful with it.

And that reminds me of one of my dad’s favorite Biblical misquotes, also an ellipsis. The verse is

For the love of money is the root of all evil:

My dad says

Money is the root of all evil, and a man needs roots!

Do you have a favorite Biblical misquote? Share in the comments.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

Somebody else gets “Comprise” Right

rogersgeorge on July 13th, 2016

First, in case you haven’t already read it on these pages, the rule is “Never say ‘is comprised of.’” That’s a big fat pretentiousism. Comprise means, in effect, “is composed of.” Saying “is composed of of” is nonsense.

Second, I’ve mentioned before that cartoonists tend to be pretty good at English, and I like to use them as good examples. Here’s an example of a cartoonist getting it right:

Each year’s Eisner judging panel comprises completely different people, and I had no reason to hope that this year’s panel would feel the same about my work as last year’s did.

See that? His use of “comprise” is absolutely correct. By the way, here’s another grammatical subtlety: the last phrase (…as last year’s did) has a possessive adjective but no noun! Last year’s what did? That’s not a goof, it’s an ellipsis. He left out “panel” because you can tell from the parallel structure that he’s talking about another panel. High-quality adult-level writing.

Third, I have an ulterior motive for mentioning this example. I stumbled onto a comic that I recommend to you all. It’s called The Last Mechanical Monster, by Brian Fies. It continues the story of a really old Superman animated short—it’s about what happens after the bad guy gets out of jail, aged 99. Don’t follow the link unless you have some time to read; it’s a real page-turner. The quote, by the way, is toward the bottom of page 160 in the comments.

My copy of Figures of Speech Used in the Bible is packed away; I’m preparing to leave Annapolis, MD and return home to Newark, DE. One of my hangouts while I was here is a nice independent book store called Back Creek Books, Rock Toews, prop. If you ever visit the place, tell him hi for me.

Anyway, I ran into a book with the catchy title Orthometry the Art of Versification and Technicalities of Poetry by a Brit named R. F. Brewer, B.A. (I wonder what figure of speech it is when you call attention to something by saying the opposite of what you mean. Sarcasm?) I like books on this topic, so I bought it, and the book isn’t too bad. The book has plenty of examples from English poetry, and he discusses quantity as well as stress accents, not to mention other interesting things about how to put meter into a poem. Perhaps the greatest weakness is that he completely ignores the existence of four-syllable metrical feet.

Now that you’re curious, it’s called the paeonic foot. Remember the Indian tom-toms in the old Westerns when you were a kid? Boom-boom-boom-boom. That’s paeonic. Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha is written in paeonic, with the stress on the third syllable. My thanks to 2719 Hyperion for this picture:

Wrong Hiawatha, right meter

All that to say that the book has a nice section about figures of speech, some of which I’ll share. These three are common figures that you ought to know about.

Ellipsis. When you leave something out that’s grammatically necessary, but you can figure out the meaning without it. Did you ever hear your parent end a sentence with “…or else!”? The grammar asks “or else what?” The meaning is presumably stronger if Mom doesn’t specify the doom in store for you, leaving it to your imagination. Suppose your son reports that he finished mowing the lawn, and you respond “Including the trimming?” No subject or verb; ellipsis.

Pleonasm. Extra, technically unnecessary, words to strengthen an idea. I call this fluff when someone does this improperly. The rule in expository writing is if you can leave out a word, you should. But in a descriptive, poetic passage, where you want something beautiful for its own sake, or you need something to make the meter work, go ahead and add to the description. In my recent fish poem, I call the fish a great big fish. “Great” and “big” mean the same thing, but this pleonasm makes the meter work, and conveys the colloquial tone that I was going for. Think of “tiny little” and Burns’ famous poem about the mouse, a “wee small cow’ring beastie.” The next time you hear someone using rather too much enthusiasm describing something, you can suggest that they be less pleonastic. I have a pleonasm in the next paragraph. See if you can find it.

Tmesis. Sigh. I see this one a lot in coarse writing. It’s when you add a word between the parts of a normal compound. In the New Testament someplace is the expression “to-us-ward” instead of “toward us.” Descending to the absolute utter bottom of the literary ladder, you might have heard your slightly sloshed beer-drinking buddy wax eloquent about his favorite team “Duh, they are abso-blanketyblank-lutely the greatest!!!” My delicate sensibilities prevent me from supplying the word you have no doubt heard.

Never knew an inebriated sports fan would be so literary, did you?


A nice insult

rogersgeorge on January 27th, 2012

Somebody criticized Robert Burns’ writing, once. I think you could call his reply “strongly worded” even though he uttered not a single profanity. Many of the metaphors are particularly apt, and it requires a classical education (or access to Google) to “get” all the allusions.

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

Of course I can’t resist making a grammar comment. Did you notice that the entire passage contains not a single main verb? Plenty of participles, and a “was” in a subordinate clause, but the whole thing is really a sentence fragment! At first glance it looks like an extended direct address, as if someone called “Hey you!” and then didn’t follow up with anything.

Actually, Burns isn’t quite so guilty of bad grammar. He left out the main verb (this is called ellipsis), which would have been the second word, “art” or nowadays, “are.” The verb “to be” is easy to leave out in many languages, and we use this particular construction not infrequently when we want to insult someone. Ever hear someone call out “You Sunday driver!” or “you nincompoop!” Same thing.

Only Burns did it rather more eloquently.

Everybody shows a picture of the poet; here's a picture of his home