rogersgeorge on December 5th, 2016

I mentioned separable verbs before, but I ran into two nice examples of correct and incorrect usage of the same verb, so here you go.

The verb is “to center on.” It’s transitive, so you have to have a direct object. You center on something. So:

The filter uses dual etalons in a double stack configuration (40mm external and 20mm internal) to provide a very narrow <0.5 Ångstrom passband, centered on the 6562.8 Ångstrom H-Alpha line.

It’s a telescope that you can look at the sun through. I have a similar one (with only the internal etalon). Stop by sometime during the day and I’ll get it out and let you look through it. You can see solar prominences around the edge of the sun. Pretty interesting. If you want to buy one like mine for yourself, go here. It’s a little less expensive than the one in the picture.

Now here’s now not to use that verb:

Virgin Galactic tests its new spacecraft<br />  

Virgin Galactic’s resurrected dreams of private spaceflight following the crash in 2014 centers around SpaceShipTwo.

That sentence was written about Virgin Galactic, not by them, so no discredit to VG. But the center is a point. You center on that point. If you want to go around, use rotate or revolve.

Using this verb correctly is one of those little things that not a lot of people notice, but doing so improves your writing.

Then there’s the verb “center” all by itself. Used that way, it’s some sort of new age thing meaning to concentrate on one idea, or something like that.

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Verbing Nouns

rogersgeorge on October 11th, 2016

I mentioned this topic before, so this post is more a rant than an actual lesson. Look at the first cell in today’s Lola:


She said “loan” instead of “lend.”

Using a noun as a verb has a long and popular (notice I didn’t say “noble”) history in English. It’s so common that sometimes folks for whom English is a second (or third or more) language can get confused. This is a virtue of highly inflected languages—the inflectional endings make it easy to tell nouns from verbs. The trouble is, you have to memorize all those inflections.

My rant is this: don’t use a noun for a verb unless you can’t think of a good word that’s already a verb.

Be Agreeable! part 2

rogersgeorge on June 9th, 2016

Last time we looked at compound subjects. This time we look at hard-to-find subjects. Read the first cell of this comic:


What’s the subject? It’s “last,” not “tulips”! Liv got it right.

We often add information about the subject of a sentence before we get to the verb, and that information doesn’t have to agree in number with the subject it’s referring to. Sometimes that information can be lengthy, and the subject, especially if it’s nondescript (such as Liv’s “last”), is easy to get lost. The temptation is to make the verb agree with the closest noun, so be careful.

Sometimes you don’t even have a nice neat noun for a subject, either. Look at this, from a recent Gizmag article:

But what exactly is going on beneath the atmosphere’s chaotic exterior is a question that has mystified astronomers for some time.

I made the main verb bold so you could find it. What’s its subject? It’s “what exactly is going on beneath the atmosphere’s chaotic exterior,” a noun clause with its own verb.

Finally (for now, anyway) the subject doesn’t always come before the verb. You already know this is common in questions (Do you not?) But sometimes the subject comes after the verb for effect. Here’s another sentence from the same article:

“Jupiter’s rotation once every 10 hours usually blurs radio maps, because these maps take many hours to observe,” says study co-author Robert Sault, from the University of Melbourne.

Putting the stuff about Jupiter’s rotation first has more punch than starting out with “Robert … says.”

Be Agreeable! part 1

rogersgeorge on June 7th, 2016

The technical term is subject-verb agreement. This means that if you have a plural subject, you need a plural verb form. Singular subject gets a singular verb. Third grade stuff. But sometimes it’s easy to get agreement wrong. The biggest pitfall is when you have a compound (more than one) subject. (The second pitfall is when you’re not sure what the subject is; you have so much stuff between the subject and its verb, you lose track. We’ll get to that in another post (ahem) the next one.)

Here’s the rule when you have more than one subject: If they’re joined by “and,” use a plural verb. If they’re joined by “or,” agree with the subject closest to the verb.

Planes, trains, and automobiles are types of transportation.

A plane, a train, and an automobile are in your display of transportation toys.

Trains, planes, or an automobile gets you there.

A train, a plane, or two automobiles get you there.

And now, a curve!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the name of a movie.

If the subject is a single entity, no matter what its form, it’s singular. You have to think!

Now an exercise for you. I found this sentence on the website of a place where I used to have a job, many years ago.

A welcome stop along the Glacial Ridge Trail, the Terrace Mill and the Terrace Mill Historic District features a 1903 Vintage Flour Mill, Keystone Arch Bridge, Weir Dam, Mill Pond, Log Cabin, and a Heritage Cottage.

Is the sentence correct or not?

Pronouncing “use” and “have”

rogersgeorge on September 11th, 2012

Sometimes we change the pronunciation of a word depending on how we use the word. Everybody knows about changing the accent on some words to distinguish between their noun and verb usages. Address, accent on the second syllable, is a verb (the speaker will address the crowd). Address, accent on the first syllable is a noun (my address is the name for where I live).

Never mind that there’s also a slight variation in how you pronounce the “a” at the beginning of the word. On second thought, what about that slight difference? In address, the noun, the a is pronounced like the a in AAK! (The phonetic character is æ, and we call it a short a.) But in the verb, the a is pronounced with a sound called the schwa, rather like uh, and it happens to be the most common vowel sound in English, and we don’t even have a letter for it. In fact, ASCII doesn’t have it in its character set. The phonetic symbol looks like an upside down lowercase e.

Okay, that was a long digression. Sorry. Back to “use” and “have.”

Use: Mostly we think of “use” as a verb, and we pronounce it “yuze.” When we (ahem) use the word as a noun, such as when we say that we put something to good use, we pronounce it “use.” The “s” is unvoiced. But what about when you refer to a past customary activity? That’s a verb, and it’s always in the past tense. For example, we say

We used to do it that way.

When you refer to a past customary behavior, do not betray illiteracy by spelling it “We use to do it that way.”

Have: We use “have” all the time as a helping verb, and when we want to indicate possession. We pronounce it “hav,” or to be phonetic, “hæv.”

But when we refer to an obligation, we pronounce it “haf;” the second consonant (the “v”) is unvoiced. (I have to explain the correct spelling or illiterate people will get it wrong.)

I have to help you with your English.

 When you refer to an obligation, do not betray illiteracy by spelling it “haf.”

I did, however, find something that is called a HAF: a high air flow computer case.