Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Learning From Donald Trump's Grammar Mistakes

Over the weekend, Donald Trump wrote an ungrammatical sentence in a press release that was shared with Entertainment Weekly as part of his damage control strategy. I guarantee that either no staffer looked at it, or no staffer was permitted to edit it.

Pertaining to his having been fired by NBC, Trump wrote, “My view on immigration is much different than the people at NBC.” The word much is an adjective that typically modifies non-count nouns: much love, much happiness, much fun. Different is an adjective. What Mr. Trump is looking for here is an adverb - a word that modifies an adjective, not a word that modifies a noun.

The obvious choice here is very, the English language’s most common intensifier adverb. All very does is turn the heat up a little bit. It makes whatever adjective succeeding it just a bit more of what it already is. Trump's view would then be very different, rather than much different. Still, most professional writers recommend against the overuse of adverbs in general and of very in particular, as it is very overused and very unilluminating. 

Next we have, “different than the people at NBC.” Some grammarians permit the “different than” construction. I do not like it one bit. Things differ from one another, not than one another. Thanks to the unquenchable objections of the hyper-permissives, it is not a grammatical error per se, though tens of thousands of writers reject it out of hand. Unsurprisingly, this fractured part of the press release found its way into the headline, with what I'm sure was a lightly suppressed chuckle from the editor.

My preferred translation of Trump's inscrutable utterance would be, "My views on immigration differ from NBC's."

Donald Trump packed two grammar oversights into three words in a written statement that was supplied to the press. In releasing this hack language to news outlets, he shows such a shameful disinterest in expressing himself properly that he merits every harsh rebuke that this tawdry little corner of the Internet can muster.

And I guess that was it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Word That Means Its Own Opposite is not a Politician: It's a Contranym

We touched briefly on the idea of contranyms last week through the gradual morphing of the word terrorism’s initial 18th century definition into the one that now contradicts it. In the case of terrorism, it’s not really a contranym; it’s a word that grew to mean its virtual opposite. Contranyms are chameleons. Depending on where they are, they can become wholly different, even opposite things.

You can garnish wages or a swordfish dinner. One is amelioration and the other is diminishment. Troy can rent an apartment to Julian, and Julian can rent an apartment from Troy. Seems fair, right? Aught ought to mean one thing, oughtn’t it? It doesn’t mean one thing at all. In fact, it can mean everything or the digit zero. And when you provide oversight on a project, you try to catch any oversights.

Here are a few more to ponder:


Have fun with contranyms! You can find lists of them all over the web. Some are cheesy and weak, but some are unbelievably weird.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Grammar Rules to Unlearn

Today’s item is, "things you may have been taught are wrong that are in fact grammatical," the first of which is split infinitives. Not only are split infinitives permissible, they always have been.

Would America’s most famous split infinitive, “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” lose anything as “To go where no man has gone before,” or worse yet, "To go boldly where no man has gone before?" Quite obviously it would, so, case closed.

That said, in my opinion, split infinitives often diminish a piece of writing and if you find yourself tempted to use one, you may wish consider revising the sentence. By their nature, split infinitives invite an adverb, so not only do you interrupt a two-word phrase, you do so with what is in many cases a superfluous word. If you are one of those rarefied souls who can split an infinitive like William Shatner, be my guest and split away. But know that you are in very heady company.

Another good one to unlearn as an absolute is the rule against beginning a sentence with a conjunction, such as and or but. The final sentence in the previous paragraph began with a conjunction  and I think it worked. I mean, it’s not Jonathan Franzen, but it was pretty good rhythmically, and altogether a perfectly fine sentence to end the paragraph with.

Which leads me to the next former rule you’re off the hook for. Dangling prepositions. The utterance, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put," which has been misattributed to Winston Churchill, stands as the test case for the crumbling rule’s flaws. Please notice that the last sentence of the last paragraph and the first sentence of this paragraph both end with prepositions and neither of them are horrific. Again, not Franzen, but not horrific.

It’s Friday, and that ought to do for now. Have a pleasant weekend, and just as Don Miguel Ruiz would have you always be impeccable with your word, so too may you be with your words.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What Does the Word "Terrorism" Mean?

That of course depends on whom you ask and when.

Terrorism is derivative of terror, from the Latin terrorem: something that intimidates, an object to be feared. Of greater relevance to modern usage though is the 11th century Roman term, terror cimbricus, which referred to the fear in the ranks as an army was anticipating a battle with a fierce enemy. Watch the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan before the ramps on the Higgins Boats go down. Men shaking, retching, smoking, some of them laughing in response to the abject fear. This state of dread is terror cimbricus, and it is the point of terrorism; not necessarily the spectacular assaults, but rather the unease that inhabits the time between them.

The guillotining of Louis XVI in Paris ushered in the Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre, who routinely guillotined his political opponents in the town square. This period in France’s history would become known as The Reign of Terror. In a tip of the hat to terror cimbricus, a well understood term in those days, a journalist for The London Times coined the word terrorism to describe the actions of Robespierre. In 1795, it was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary as describing government by intimidation.

The definition has since come to mean the use of violence to coerce or intimidate governments or civilians. So when did that happen? Well, it took some doing. First, unrest in Russia in the late 19th century led to the rise of The People’s Will, a reasonably successful group of assassins who killed Alexander II among other prominent political figures. A giddy American press watching Russia in turmoil described the covert, committed and surgically accurate assassins as terrorists, only with a connotation of revolutionary gusto, while still implying the reek of being less than moralistic.

American newspaper writers would wrestle the word “terrorism” back again to its original meaning in the 1930s to describe the totalitarian governments of the time, notably Russia and Italy, Stalin known in those years as “The Great Terror.”  Then after World War II, the pendulum swung back to the revolutionary nuance of the word, only this time without the glint of approval, as it was happening to the friends of post-war industrialists seeking to make the most out of fresh treaties and new borders, and so began the contemporary definition of the indiscriminate killer of innocents, often to political or religious ends, sometimes indiscriminately. It is such a good word, such a prima facie indictment of its target that it couldn't lay fallow while the enemy was our own so the definition had to be managed a bit, and that was all done in the press.

The definition of terrorism is fluid, and it has been since its initial coinage, largely massaged by power and media, and in classic Orwellian 1984 Newspeak, terrorism has now come to mean its own original opposite. That one of the most important news stories of my lifetime is a contranym spanning the centuries is just one example of why words fascinate me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Enough About Me. What Do You Think About Me? Personal Pronouns in the Age of Narcissism.

As individuals and society grow more narcissistic, it behooves everyone to master the use of first-person pronouns. George Harrison saw it heading this way back in 1969 when he wrote, “All through the day, I me mine, I me mine, I me mine. All through the night, I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.”

The self-obsession pronoun you really want to watch out for is myself. The opportunities for proper use of myself are rare, as it should only be used reflexively, that is to say when the action of the verb happens to the speaker or writer personally.

In The Four Tops' number-one smash hit from 1965, “I Can’t Help Myself,” the act of not helping is being done both by and to the persona of the song, so the reflexive pronoun is appropriate. To digress briefly, “I Can’t Help Myself” is one of those songs that is perhaps better known by its first lyric, “Sugar pie, honeybunch,” than its title. Avoid constructions like “The winning team consisted of Mark, Debra, Steve and myself.” Not only is it incorrect, it also feels a little pompous. The correct first-person pronoun in this case is “me.”

The great peril lies in subject usage versus direct object usage. The reason this grammar school staple still trips people up is because you are so trained to say, “Ara and I went to the Pearl Jam show with Tibbetts,” that it can feel unnatural to say, “Tibbetts went to the Pearl Jam show with Ara and me.”  You might instead feel like saying, “Tibbetts went to the Pearl Jam show with Ara and I.” But please, don’t do it. Your lack of personal pronoun mastery will reveal you as being an amateur narcissist, and that is so far down the rabbit hole you may never get out.

Human Ken and Human Barbie, two narcissists who hate one another.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Sick Look at "i.e." and "e.g."

Two closely related items that are often interposed are i.e. and e.g., both Latin abbreviations, and as such potentially off-putting to some readers, which can result in people never nailing down the distinction. At their most basic level, i.e. means in other words and e.g. means for example. (Please note that i.e. and e.g. are not italicized in common usage. I italicize them here because they are being referred to and not used per se).

The way my mind got straightened out on i.e. was a string of synonyms delivered by a teacher expressing exasperation over our class’s slow pace in grokking the matter: “In other words, that is to say, so to speak, if you will, I.E.!!!”

The Latin phrase it abbreviates is id est, translating directly as that is, but in keeping with usage, it is best thought of as in other words. Its function is to set up an alternate description, usually one in finer detail: “I have flu symptoms, i.e., fever, sore throat, cough, chills and fatigue.” As a side note, correct punctuation of i.e. is to include a comma after the second period.

One could also write, “I have flu symptoms, e.g., fever, sore throat, cough, chills and fatigue.”  There would be a different inference taken with e.g., however. The letters e.g. are an abbreviation of exempli gratia, which can be translated as for example.

The abbreviation i.e. carries with it a sense of finality in that what follows i.e. is a practical equivalent of what precedes it, expressed in other words. In our example then, the fever, sore throat, cough, chills and fatigue constitute all of the symptoms being experienced.  

With e.g., you are merely citing examples, and you could very well be supplying only a partial list. In the case of the flu symptoms illustration, if my last bout with the flu is any barometer, the writer has probably left off runny nose, nausea and vomiting for the sake of decorum.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Oxford Comma Debate Illustrated Through The Three Stooges

I have been hesitant to wander into that most enmired debate in all of grammardom, the Oxford comma, but as I embark upon the fourth week of my language blog, I feel that to delay my vote any longer would amount to ignoring the eight-hundred-pound comma in the middle of the room.

The best magazines in America, featuring the best writing in America, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic, all adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style, which “strongly recommends” the Oxford, or serial comma. It is a shame that these three fine magazines are wrong about such an important subject.

The Associated Press recommends against a comma preceding a conjunction in lists of three or more, legend contending that it was initially an ink-saving measure. This ascription is apocryphal, and my opinion is that it was revised as a diversion from Strunk & White because it is a more graceful and readable construction.

AP prefers omitting the serial comma, but permits it to relieve ambiguity and that is the least doctrinaire policy, the one that presumes the best of both writer and reader, and invites a subtle nuance that adds a splash of austere beauty through its absence. As Miles Davis said, “It’s the notes you don’t play.” The Chicago Manual of Style is far more authoritarian, requiring it in every instance. I believe it is unpatriotic to force an extra comma into my red, white and blue. 

The best rule is simple. Complex lists, yes; simple lists, no. Like all things in life, the Oxford comma’s proper use is best expressed in terms of The Three Stooges, whose names are Moe, Larry and Curly. No serial comma. Moe is the one with the bowl haircut, Larry has frizzy hair, and Curly is bald. Serial comma. And the crowd goes wild. Elliott bows, someone throws him roses. Elliott, normally a pretty composed and dignified guy, breaks down and weeps openly.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Case of the Compound Adjective and the Grown-Ass Man

What constitutes a compound adjective? Do you do hyphenate them or don’t you? If so, do you always do it? Shouldn’t punctuation be used as sparingly as possible? Or was it Cormac McCarthy who said that?

A compound adjective is one that comprises two or more distinct words. Most compound adjectives are two words, but three-word compound adjectives are not uncommon. Holier-than-thou, when used adjectivally, is an example of a three-word compound adjective, and conveniently enough, “three-word” is a fine example of a two-word compound adjective as used in this sentence.

The whole reason for hyphenating compound adjectives is to alleviate confusion. By their nature, a compound adjective modifies a noun, creating a three-word grouping; it is naturally ambiguous then, as the second word can often be thought to belong to one or the other, at least as an annoying echo, if not as a sensible coupling.

One phrase containing a compound adjective that has emerged into common modern parlance is the term, “grown-ass man,” describing a fully developed gent, capable in every way, with perhaps a connotation of indignation at a suggestion otherwise. You’ll notice the hyphen couples the first two words, whereas had the hyphen not been there, the term might refer to an adult male who has an established preference in potential mates.

You do not use the hyphen when a second word of a compound adjective is expected, and the most common instance of that is when the first of the two words is an adverb ending in -ly. Invoking Cormac McCarthy's austere prose as concerns punctuation, the hyphen would be redundant clutter here and we eschew it. It was a newly minted coin used as a hastily constructed alibi in a poorly written novel, but it was a hard-fought battle in a war-torn land for the benefit of a conflict-weary nation.

A grown-ass man

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pluralization and Possessives for Words Ending in "S"

Pluralizing words that end in the letter “s” freaks people out. And it should. Because closely related to pluralizing words that end in the letter “s” is the indication of possession as well. More s’s are involved (yes, that’s the correct pluralization of “s”), along with apostrophes and special cases.

It’s not for the squeamish, but now that everyone’s a defacto writer by virtue of our digital tools, it’s important to comport oneself well in written communication. On Match.com, it will take you from a six to an eight, and on Facebook your ad hominem attacks and revilement of others’ political opinions will be far more clear and potentially hurtful.

The letter “s,” in words ending with them, are like mice: where there’s one, there are usually two. With words that end in two s’s, just add “es” and your troubles are over. “Passes,” “kisses,” and “brisses,” in that order, one would presume, can be your guideposts.

As to words with one “s,” simply add another “s” and then follow the last rule of adding “es.” In other words, the plurals of most words ending in “s” are going to end in “sses.” In today’s society, where everyone is covering their own asses, it is almost certain that you will be thrown under a bus socially, personally or professionally, and highly likely that you will be thrown under multiple busses multiple times, so it’s important for you to know that when pluralizing a word that ends in a single “s” like bus, you need to add a second “s” and the usual “es.”

Adding the second “s” is not true for proper names. You must keep up with the Joneses on this issue, otherwise the Joneses’ mastery over pluralization and possessive forms of words ending in “s” will obviate their grammar classes’ superiority over yours.

With possessives, just add ’s for the most part, though there is wild disagreement with proper names. I say this in Jesus’ name. Not in ISIS’ name. Or Ulysses’ name. This is my and AP’s preference. Some will suggest for consistency’s sake that you keep the ’s even in Jesus’s name.  I don’t think Jesus needs any help in this area, so I say leave off the extra “s.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Did You Drop Something? A "D" Perhaps?

For me, drop D doesn’t just refer to a death-metal guitar tuning scheme. It refers to adjectival phrases containing simple past verb forms, which over time have dropped the “d” or “ed” that was formerly at their end. Ironically,  drop D also serves as an example of it. Drop D tuning really ought to be expressed as dropped D tuning, but the accepted nomenclature is drop D. Two others that come to mind are roast beef and ice cream.

It’s not roast beef at all now is it? It’s roasted beef. Likewise, ice cream is iced cream. Both are so common that one never hears them described correctly. Let me be clear: I do not advocate dredging up the original expression into some hipster second lifetime either. On the contrary: if you were to utter roasted beef or iced cream now, it would in my view be conspicuously arcane and didactic.

Another such instance of adjectival simple past abuse can be seen emblazoned in foot-tall capital black letters against a bright yellow background, strapped to the rear of lumber trucks and heavy machinery transport vehicles, speeding down America’s highways and warning motorists wishing to pass that they should exercise particular caution when doing so. I speak of course of “Oversize Load.”

It is very common to use the simple past form of a verb in an adjectival way, and if you were to follow those common conventions, the signs would read “Oversized Load.” Most common expressions that use the simple past form of a verb as an adjective keep the “d” or “ed.” Freddie Fender got it right twice in his lost love lament,  “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” as do “fitted sheet,” “pickled herring” and “canned ham.”

Keep an eye out for simple past verbs used as adjectives that over time have dropped the “d” or “ed.” They are fun to find if, like me, this sort of thing entertains you.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I'm in a Mood; a Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood seems to be slipping from a lot of English speakers’ grasps and that’s a shame, as it is a subtle, mysterious and beautiful construction that is easily missed but warmly appreciated when delivered correctly. The English subjunctive exists to express intention, uncertainty, conjecture, or anything that’s not quite nailed down. That alone makes it cool.

Say you are throwing someone out of your house party. You might say, “I insist that you leave.” Whether you know it or not, you just used the subjunctive mood. That’s another reason why the subjunctive is cool. It’s not a tense; it’s a mood.

Where you will actually hear the subjunctive mood is in third person usage. Suppose the guy you want to throw out of the party is a thick neck drinking long necks who could easily break your neck. You think to yourself, “Hey, I’ll get this guy’s wife to take him home.” That’s when you stride bravely up to the poor woman and hit her with the subjunctive case. “I insist that he leave.”

The indicative mood of the verb to leave would be declined as “he leaves,” but because Bruiser Boozer hasn’t yet left and his departure at the time of the utterance remains a mere fantasy, the subjunctive case is appropriate.

The only word that has its own highly visible subjunctive form is the verb “to be,” whose third person mood is “be” instead of “is,” and “were” instead of “was.” The word "if" often invokes the subjunctive mood. Tim Hardin got it right with his song, “If I Were a Carpenter.” Eminem got it wrong with his song, “What If I Was White.”

I suspect that Mr. Mathers, an absolute expert in the English language, in fact didn’t get it wrong. I think that had he employed the subjunctive mood and said, “What If I Were White,” it would have sounded a little too, well, white, which in turn would have undermined the ironic comedy of the track.

Although it sounds a little bit yacht club sometimes, the subjunctive mood is one that I recommend you not ignore.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Difference Between "Which" and "That" in Terms of Monkey Attacks

Which versus that is an old grammatical muddle that has stubbed the toes of many writers, who after guessing a few times, eventually look into it and encounter the phrase “restrictive clause” being applied to constructions using that. Grammar terms in general are stodgy and standoffish, and “restrictive clause” by its sound and very makeup feels like a nasty and unpleasant thing, a language concept wreathed in barbed wire, snarling marmots and other prohibitive agents. But it’s really not that bad.

It all boils down to necessity. The word that provides an unmistakable qualified description; it says what a thing is, and it implies what it is not, whereas which often prefaces a mere ornamental aside. Which heralds the imminent arrival of a lovely gem of nice-to-know attributes or clarifying information, a colorful and descriptive addition, but the clause it connects to is not critical to the sentence’s intended sense.

With the sentence, “There’s the monkey that bit me,” you can’t remove the word that and its dependent clause without changing the meaning of the sentence. All you’d have is, “There’s the monkey.” Whereas if you wrote, “The monkey, which was a rhesus macaque, bit me.” You could easily remove “which was a rhesus macaque” and not change the main thrust of the sentence.

Most people getting bitten by a monkey are going to want to know the genus soon enough, but the main thing would be to get away from the biting monkey. Especially in case it is a rhesus macaque, as they carry the sometimes deadly Herpes B virus. And remember, never try to fight the monkey. Due to the massive amount of lactic acid in his bloodstream, the monkey is many times stronger than most humans. He is faster than you, has awesome teeth and can jump like crazy. Just get the hell out of there.

One angry-ass monkey.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Famous or Infamous?

Famous and infamous are neither synonyms nor antonyms. They mean different, though similar things, both related to fame. The simplest and best way to look at it is in terms of favorability. When you are famous, you are widely known. When you are infamous, you are widely known for negative reasons.

You can be famous for something negative, but you can’t really be infamous for something positive. For example, it could be said that Richard Jewell is famous for having been suspected of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombings, but it could not be said that he was infamous for having been exonerated.

Of all of FDR’s many loquacious utterances, perhaps the most widely known, or famous if you will, is his address to Congress after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in which he sought a declaration of war: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

And he was right about infamy. The same resonance that currently comes along with the date 9/11 was present in the 1940s with December 7. Infamy is the noun form of infamous, much like fame is the noun form of famous.

Many seeking fame find infamy instead, and given that America and Americans’ obsession with celebrity shows no signs of abatement, you should ready yourself for plenty of both words by having a clear understanding of their meaning and common usage.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Affect, Affect, Effect and Effect

Many important yet irksome distinctions in the English language hinge on a single letter - one such hornet’s exists with the affect versus effect problem. When you add in the alternate pronunciation of affect and the alternate meanings of both words, all of which are maddeningly similar, the alphabet soup quickly turns to bisque. A presentable riff I’ve come up with to wrap the four most common contemporary usages (there are others) into a tidy little four-way care package employs an analogy of putting on airs. One might don an affect (accent on the first syllable) in hopes it will affect (accent on the second syllable) one’s social standing. The only actual effect (noun) would be to effect (verb) one’s further rejection. In the case of affect, if the accent is on the first syllable it is a noun; if on the second, it is a verb. In the case of effect, its use in the sentence determines its grammatical function, as the noun and verb versions of it are pronounced identically.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Unique and Enormity: Two Words Destroyed Through Misuse

It’s terrible what has happened to the word unique. While it still has as its primary definition that rare status of being one-of-a-kind, it now has a secondary definition of being merely unusual.

So how did this occur? The same way literally came to have as a secondary definition its literal opposite and the same way George W. Bush’s means of saying the word nuclear became an acceptable pronunciation - through repeated error. When a mistake is made in the press and elsewhere with enough concentrated frequency, dictionaries soon embrace the aberration if it seems as though it’s becoming part of general usage.

Such is one source of the charm and vibrancy of the English language, but it is also a source of some diminishment. In researching when the watering down of unique happened, you’ll find conflicting reports, some claiming expansion of the definition in the later 19th century. In my reading though, one pattern has been consistent: good writers use unique exclusively according to the original definition.

Another fantastic word that has almost been destroyed through misuse is enormity. Its etymology is translatable as “not normal,” though numerous writers, even some good ones, have misused it, and now the cow is out of the barn. Whereas once upon a time it solely referenced heinousness and depravity, because so many people think it references vastness, that secondary definition has been ushered in. When you speak of the enormity of OJ Simpson’s accomplishments, in my opinion, you should only be referencing the double homicide.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Horrors of Comprise

It’s time for us to take a look at comprise, a word that is often used incorrectly. Like all things in life, the definition of comprise is best illustrated through The Three Stooges. A correct usage of comprise would be, “The Three Stooges comprise Moe, Larry and Curly.”

For many, the urge is to say, “Moe, Larry and Curly comprise The Three Stooges," or "The Three Stooges are comprised of Moe, Larry and Curly,” both of which are incorrect. A nice little gadfly to have haunting your mind is that there is no such construction as comprised of. Some writers have success keeping away from it by repeating the old country librarian’s mantra, “Comprised of is like a downed power line. Don’t touch it. Evah!”

An important thing to know about the word comprise is that I have been using the word comprise incorrectly in this article up to this point. One of the chief connotations of comprise is that the enumerated items following the word comprise constitute the parent word in its entirety.

I said, “The Three Stooges comprise Moe, Larry and Curly,” when to be factually accurate and correct in my usage I should have said, “The Three Stooges comprise Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp and Joe Besser,” a far less streamlined mnemonic. I hope you’ll understand why I skipped it, and I hope mentioning this ultra-literal interpretation of my chief example didn’t throw any of you off the trail of having the correct usage of comprise firmly in your grasp.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Compliment versus Complement

Most people, myself included, don’t articulate any pronunciation difference between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement,’ and while the case could be made for a bit more nose in ‘compliment’ and a bit more palate in ‘complement,’ perceptible distinction between the two in speaking is, in my opinion, conspicuously sophist. As a result, some people never get clear on the distinction, and then when they have to write it, they not only suffer correction from cub reporters, copy jockeys and word nerds, everyone from Moms to trolls knows this one so they hear from them as well.

And it’s simple; to compliment someone is to say or write something nice about him or her. It is a thing one human being does to another. I suppose a cat could compliment his owner on her fine taste in moving to the country with a fresh dead mouse on the doormat, but it is most commonly an expression of admiration regarding a possession, action or attribute from one person to another.

The word ‘complement’ references things as well as people. A chair complements a room, a building complements a street, and a European kicker complements an American football team. That which makes another thing better or more complete. Some of my early readers have told me the following example is obscure, but I find it helpful, and I think it merits presenting. I am fond of what I like to call the Lebowski method in distinguishing between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement.’ The rug complements the room in that it ties the room together, whereas “Hey, nice marmot!” is a compliment.

We have been discussing the verb forms of these two words, and they each have a noun form as well, both of which present similar points of distinction so we'll not belabor those, as even the crux of this entry has certainly been more than enough on something you’re probably comfortable with already. At least the price was right. As with all of the postings here at The Grammar Dance, this disquisition doesn’t rise to the point of even being my two cents worth. Rather it is offered with my compliments.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Farther versus Further, Bobby "Blue" Bland versus Eric Clapton.

Today’s game of grammatical mumblety-peg is a bit more involved than the others have been, as we explore the difference between farther and further, and we do so through the history of the blues classic, Farther up the Road, written by Joe Veasey. 

The basic distinction between farther and further would be that farther refers to a physical distance whereas further articulates a description of degree. The word farther contains the word ‘far,’ so it should be easy to remember. Still, for whatever reason, people mess it up all the time.

So what does all of this have to do with the low-down dirty blues? Well, a road is a thing you travel physical distances on, so at first reading, you might say the songwriter is correct in his usage, Farther up the Road. Bobby “Blue” Bland had a big hit with it in 1958, the year of my birth, and I remember it being such an exciting track I would sometimes have an accident when I heard it.

The recording most people know now is Eric Clapton’s version either from “EC Was Here” or “Just One Night,” in which he sings, “Further on up the road.” Roads support physical distance and he is using a delineator of relative intensity instead. Grammar police, or more precisely, usage police, strap on your beanies and break out your ticket pads, you’ve got a violator! Or do you? Is Slow Hand busted, or is he just fixing something that was broken for decades? Check out the rest of the lyrics with Clapton’s word preference:

Further on up the road, someone's gonna hurt you like you hurt me (2×)
Further on up the road, baby you just wait and see

It’s not a physical distance at all. It is a metaphor for the road of life if you will. When you hear the next two lines, that interpretation becomes further validated.

You got to reap just what you sow, that old saying is true (2×)
Like you mistreat someone, someone's gonna mistreat you

This third line is a biblical reference presented in a metaphor, so you’ve got a comparison of a road with life itself, then an expression of the harm this woman has caused and her coming retribution examined through a biblical metaphor of the planting and harvest cycle. It doesn’t remotely refer to physical distance, so in my opinion Clapton wins with the twenty-year-old edit, resulting in an ever so slight, for me at least, furtherance of the arts. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Words

Some things are newfangled, but nothing is ‘oldfangled.’ It is one of many words whose imagined opposite does not exist. The most ironic thing about the word ‘newfangled’ is that in spite of what it means, it is itself an old-fashioned word. Tangentially, the word ‘old-fashioned’ is like ‘newfangled’ in that its imagined opposite, ‘new-fashioned,’ likewise doesn’t exist. And poor old ‘newfangled.’ It seems to have been relegated to usage that mocks unsophisticated persons presented with modern ideas and technology; a dramatist might stuff a line into the mouth of an actor portraying some hayseed rube that goes something like, “Golly Cletus, what’s that newfangled contraption?” And poor old ‘old-fashioned’ as well. Whereas once upon a time, it was used reverentially, it is now as commonly said with an implicit sneer and roll of the eyes or at best a fond patience. Two tangentially related words, each of whose imagined opposites do not exist, and both of which are sometimes used with a certain amount of patronizing condescension. Some words have it rough, and ‘newfangled’ and ‘old-fashioned’ are two of them.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Empathy versus Sympathy via The Wizard of Oz

In today’s Grammar Dance, empathy and sympathy will be explained in terms of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was sympathetic to the Scarecrow. She could tell how sad he was not to have a brain through the abstract metaphors he used to convey his disconsolation. Likewise, she is sympathetic to the Tin Man. She understands how he must long for the heart he has never had because of his powerful emotional testimony. And she is lastly sympathetic to the Cowardly Lion who bravely seeks his courage. But because Dorothy is not a shirt and set of pants stuffed with straw, she cannot precisely know what the Scarecrow is going through. Similarly, Dorothy is not a transplant patient and cannot know in detail what it’s like to be without a heart. And being human rather than Panthera, she can feel badly about what the Cowardly Lion is going through without knowing precisely how he feels. It is a case of shared experience versus genuine caring. Like assume and presume, sympathy and empathy are similar in type, but differ in degree. So toward whom does Dorothy feel empathy? Why, Auntie Em of course! Auntie Em, as in EMpathy. Like Auntie Em, Dorothy is human and also knows exactly what it is like to be missing family. She is from Kansas, they have the same friends, and they share a litany of other common experiences, so there’s your mnemonic. Auntie Em for empathy. There’s no place like home.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Assume versus presume

Today’s nugget is assume versus presume. I assume you’ve heard the old expression, assume makes an ass out of u and me. In fact, assume doesn’t make an ass out of u and me, rather it adds an ass to u and me. But I digress. It is interesting to note for the purposes of this discussion that what would really make an ass out of me is if I presumed that you had heard the old adage, not merely assumed you had heard it; that would mean I was sure that expression ought to be common knowledge in a normally intelligent and aware individual, and that would make me an ass, or at least kind of a dick. The difference then is relative certainty. With assume, you’ve got no proof, but with presume, you’d be an ass to need more proof than you have. To take the expression further, if indeed assume did make an ass out of u and me, presume would make an utter twatwaffle out of u and me, seeing as presume has a much higher bar of indubitableness. With so gracious an explanation now in your recent memory, I presume you now know the difference between assume and presume.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Lie versus lay

Today’s item is the old bear trap, “lie” versus “lay.” In grammatical terms, it boils down to a reflexive function of the verb as opposed to the verb modifying a direct object. In the case of “lie,” it is a thing one does with one’s self, or that someone else does with him or herself. You lie down. I lie down. Why don’t we lie down together? So, lying down can get you laid. This brings us to the word “lay,” which is used when the action of setting something down is perpetrated on an external object or person. You lay a baby in the crib, you lay bare your soul, and you lay down the bass line to Low Rider. Where it gets nasty is that “lay" is the past tense of “lie.” Whereas I lie on the couch every day, yesterday I lay on the couch. The best “lie” versus “lay” story I have ever heard is taken from the final moments in the life of a friend of mine’s mother. Her hospice nurse was working with her and said, “Lay down, please.” My friend’s mother said, “It’s lie down. You lay a thing down, a person lies down.” She was dead within minutes.