Archive for the ‘Language and Grammar’ Category

WOTD

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

mumpsimus
1. Adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy.
2. A person who persists in a mistaken expression or practice.

sumpsimuses
1. Adherence to or persistence in using a strictly correct term, holding to a precise practice, etc., as a rejection of an erroneous but more common form.
2. A person who is obstinate or zealous about such strict correctness.

The Sense of Style

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

I somehow made it through four years of High School English, Freshman Composition, Shakespeare, and Comparative Literature without being exposed to traditional grammatical terms. I can usually identify nouns, verbs, and adjectives but would have trouble identifying adverbial phrases, case markers, and the various kinds of verb tenses. I suspect, as Steven Pinker says, that I “pick up the nuances of words by focusing on their makeup and their contexts over the course of tens of thousands of hours of reading.” Over the years I have read many style guides, particularly those written by actual writers—like Stephen King and Lawrence Block. I also kept the Chicago Manual of Style handy on my bookshelf, although lately I tend to use on-line resources like the Purdue OWL. So when The Sense of Style came out, I immediately put it on my to-read list.

I love the Oxford comma, singular they, and have no problem starting a sentence with a conjunction. Likewise, ending a sentence with a preposition and splitting infinitives seems perfectly natural to me. It turns out that Pinker agrees with me that these elements of my style are perfectly fine. But he goes further than just validating my stylistic choices and explains why they are perfectly reasonable. He also provides a framework for understanding why some sentences work and some do not. Most of the book is easy to follow if you have an interest in writing well, but he does use grammatical terms—generative, nominative, supplement, adjunct—that I was not familiar with and needed to look up. He explains many of the terms in the text and provides a glossary of terms for others, but he does presuppose a level of grammatical knowledge that the casual reader does not necessarily possess. I still have trouble remembering some of the terms and need to refresh my memory when encountering them later in the book. That’s why, now that I’ve read the book, I am revisiting and carefully studying parts of it. I’m sure that the effort will improve my writing, but require a bit of work on my part to fully incorporate.

The grammatical concept that seems most useful for writing understandable prose is the tree metaphor. The tree metaphor is useful for understanding complicated sentence structures and is especially useful for matching verb tenses with the subject. Since most of my writing is expository, it was interesting to learn that I write in the classic style. And for the most part I follow left-to-right ordering which means that readers can process the sentence without having to jump back and forth in the sentence to decipher the point.

A large part of the book deals with linguistic theory and about a third of the book, Chapter 6: Telling Right From Wrong, deals with specific rules of grammar, word choice, and punctuation. So even if you are not interested in learning why good writing is good, you can use the book as a reference.

As I said earlier, I just started studying parts of the book. I’ll update this post with my thoughts on specific ideas in the book as I run across them. But for now I will comment on one thing that was a bit off-putting on the first read. I am a long-time user of singular they. In my experience, readers don’t even notice that I am doing it. Even the authors of my manuals, who object strenuously to it, don’t notice that I have changed their pronouns to they. And that’s the biggest reason that I use it. Alternatives like he/she, he or she, and ze interrupt the flow of the sentence and distract from the concepts that you are trying to get across. Which is why it is puzzling to me that Pinker, who supports the use of singular they, switches back and forth between he and she. In each chapter the generic writer is of one sex and the generic reader is of the other. Then in the next chapter it is the reverse. If you are familiar with the linguistics literature it may seem natural but it was confusing to me.

Ending a sentence with a preposition.

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Of what is the universe really made?

Come on! Nobody who knows how to write natural English preposes the preposition when talking about what X is made of.

h/t Geofry K Pullum

Framing the issue

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

I think it’s interesting how words can change then nature of how you think about things. Is Superman an illegal alien? An undocumented immigrant? How about a H1B Visa candidate? Was he a child refugee?

Undocumented

Illegal Immigrant

Illegal Alien

Child Refugee

Visa

A as in Hay

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

We recently got a comment about this exercise.

Oh my gosh!

“the dog has A furry paw.” A as in HAY??

I spent a lot of years in the elementary classroom trying to soften that pronunciation to “uh” instead. Middle school and HS too!

Robert

 

It could be our Midwestern accent, but there are many occasions where we prefer the long a to a short one.

Long a used for emphasis (or surprise).
We had a wonderful time at your party.
I hadn’t seen her for a while so I gave her a big hug.
I didn’t study and I still got a B on the test!
Guess what? I got a car for my birthday!

Long a used in enumeration to indicate just one of something.
We took seven bats and a ball to practice.
She had pens, paper, some textbooks, and a sandwich in her backpack.

Almost always when starting a sentence.
A speeding car almost hit the kids.
A penny saved is a penny earned.

And sometimes, it just sounds better to use a long a.
Congress met on New Year’s day to avoid a fiscal crisis.
This is a fine mess you’ve got us in Ollie.

In this particular case, we were probably just being consistent with the short phrase.
We are trying to get the initial p pronunciation and the short phrase is: a furry paw
Since it has a long a, when we said the sentence, we probably just used the same intonation. Although, we could have unconsciously been applying the first rule, and used the long a for emphasis.

And possibly.

I suspect the real reason I said “ae” is because when you read that many sentences sometimes you switch to the decoding only mode and don’t say it as if you were speaking it. It is easy to over articulate as well. I have a note from a teacher in college that gave me an A- because of my “over precise speech.” Think I might still frame that!
M

Well Golly


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