Posts Tagged ‘English’


Contrary to my first impression, a paraprosdokian is not an Armenian.  It is, in fact, a “figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; frequently used in a humorous situation.”  “Where there’s a will, I want to be in it,” is a type of paraprosdokian.  Here are some others to enjoy.

1. Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.
2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on my list.
3. Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
4. If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
5. We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.
6. War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
8. Evening news is where they begin with ‘Good Evening,’ and then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.
9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
10. A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.
11. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.
12. Whenever I fill out an application, in the part that says, ‘In case of emergency, notify:’ I put ‘DOCTOR.’
13. I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.
14. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they are sexy.
15. Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.
16. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.
17. I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.
18. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
19. Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.
20. There’s a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can’t get away.
21. I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.
22. You’re never too old to learn something stupid.
23. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
24. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
25. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
26. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
27. A diplomat is someone who tells you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip.
28. Hospitality is making your guests feel at home even when you wish they were.
29. I always take life with a grain of salt. Plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.
30. When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

And finally, words of wisdom from Jon Hammond: “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

(Hat tip: Pop)

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It’s been a while since my last English rant (nine months).  In that time, I’ve been gestating a post about a particularly irritating word whose increasing frequency of use has been attended by a corresponding decrease in meaning: respect.

There’s been plenty said (and sung) about this word.  Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” calls for her man to give her her “propers” when he gets home, i.e. the decency, kindness, and loving treatment due her (especially in exchange for her financial support).  Not too much for a woman to ask of the man who lives off her largesse, is it?

Respect is defined by the late social psychologist Erich Fromm as one of three components which make up love (the others being care and responsibility).  Fromm was the child of Orthodox Jewish parents, and as such, probably knew a thing or two about the command to love one’s fellow as oneself, how to honor parents, and to listen to one’s wife (even if she is soft-spoken).

Chazal (the Jewish sages) define respect for parents (kibud av v’em) as encompassing honor and reverence.  Respect by children for their father includes a sense of awe, demonstrated by not sitting in his chair or calling him by his name, and honoring both parents entails a commitment to care for both parents in illness, need, or old age, either personally or through an agent.  Respect here is not actually love; to command the children of cruel parents to love them is unrealistic and unfair.  (Besides, the only being Jews are commanded to love is God, and even that is defined in ways that go well beyond emotion.)  But to command a certain standard of behavior is deemed reasonable, and if your mother has taken a contract out on your life?  You must still see to her care and maintenance, but you are not required to live near her.

Respect has traditionally been the main concern of young women when considering whether to have sex with an amorous suitor.  “Will he respect me in the morning?” she asks herself.  One of my favorite sketches by Nichols and May is of a pair of high school students parking their car in a secluded place.  While Nichols’s hormones are clearly raging, May tries rationally to sort out her feelings and the possible consequences of giving in to her companion.  When she asks how he might perceive her afterward, he assures her, “I would respect you LIKE CRAZY.”

Respect nowadays seems to be used all the time, for parents, government officials, clergy, the police, people with special needs, people of other cultural affiliations.  In graduate school, I had a class full of aspiring schoolteachers who, in discussions led by a short-tempered education professor with a finely-tuned BS detector, would often use respect to describe how they would treat all of their students, regardless of background or ability.  The teacher would become irritated any time he heard this word, would demand that the student rephrase her sentiment without using it, and soon forbade the word’s use in his class altogether.  I remember wondering at his ire at the time, but I have since come to understand it better.

What is respect?  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provides the relevant definition as “high or special regard: esteem” or “deference.”  One must naturally accord one’s own parents this esteem and deference, at least in specific circumstances.  But high or special regard seems a bit strong in relation to one’s students, especially if a student is indifferent towards his teachers, lazy, unkind to peers, or highly disruptive.  Clearly, one’s attitude toward such a student should be put in other terms reflecting one’s recognition of the student’s humanity and uniqueness, while also expressing concern for the student’s problems, challenges, and behavior.

My sense, though, is that when most people nowadays use the word respect to talk about people different from themselves, what they are doing is describing an elevated form of tolerance or acceptance.  To respect all cultures is not really to bestow esteem or high regard indiscriminately, especially if those cultures promote genocide, torture, conquest, war-mongering, or xenophobia.  When I taught in a high school history department, a colleague told me about a conversation he’d had with the department chair in which she’d said she wanted those of us in the department to promote an attitude of “celebrating” all cultures and peoples.  When he asked if that included celebrating Nazi Germany, she was brought up short.  An attitude of blanket respect for all nations, cultures, peoples, or individuals else seems grossly overstated.

I’ve almost completely stopped using the term.  If I say I respect something, I see some validity or value in it, while not necessarily agreeing with it or espousing it myself.  If I don’t respect something, I think it is dishonest, myopic, delusional, or in some way invalid.  Respect is used so willy-nilly nowadays, I feel a need to use more precise language to convey what I want to say.  When I saw a Whitney Houston movie years ago in which her character yelled at her mother, then later apologized in another scene, I was stunned.  “Mama, I’m sorry I disrespected you,” she said.  Disrespect?  I realize that’s Black speech, and probably means something quite specific in that community, but what I thought was what a gross understatement that was.  Her behavior toward her mother had been coarse, rude, hurtful, and completely out of order, not “disrespectful.”

The worrying trend of overusing words until they lose all their meaning has, alas, infected this word also.  I therefore hereby bury it with full honors, and a high regard for what it once meant.

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I love accents, and ever since hearing my father imitate his Yiddish-speaking relatives when I was a child, I’ve attempted to cultivate them for fun.  When I was a student teacher at Boston Latin School, I managed to persuade the same ninth grade English students that I was Irish on one occasion, cockney Londoner on another.  Lately, after being put in charge of an Australian client for the transcription company I work for, I’ve been walking around the house conversing in an Aussie twang (including the slightly disdainful tone that lurks behind the pronunciation of the word “Ammairrica”).

The Cap’n shared this with me the other night.  I thought it was (mostly) very impressive, and she also has YouTube videos up which purport to teach the viewer how to speak in any accent.  Okay, I think her South Carolina accent sounds straight out of “Gone With the Wind,” there is an unfortunate omission of the South African (my favorite accent in English) and Bostonian, but the Transatlantic accent (including the dreadful, toothy smile) was perfect.

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Writing whoredom

I’ve done a spot of freelance editing for an agency that has tried to throw all kinds of strange projects my way.  Among the offers I’ve turned down are two to write undergraduate (i.e. college student) papers.  Besides my hesitance to write anything depending only on the Internet as a source (and the fact that, while the Efrat library has a good English fiction section, it probably lacks anything valuable in terms of  research except, perhaps, on the history of Zionism), I object on other grounds.

I remember college almost as though it were yesterday.  I spent a good portion of my time there engrossed in my studies, but certainly not all of it.  I spent time with friends, toured the cities of Boston and Cambridge, sang in the college choir, trayed down the snowy hill on which my dorm was perched, and was a coxswain in intramural crew.  I can only remember a half-dozen facts I may have learned in college, though I’m sure the academic discipline and methods of inquiry instilled in me are so ingrained by now as to be indiscernible from the rest of my education.

Looking back, I could have spent more or less time with friends, more or less time off campus, and choir, traying, and crew were strictly optional.  The one thing that was expected of me was that I produce the work products (a sterile educational term for tests, papers, and other grading instruments) necessary to earn decent grades.  (This became all the more important once a woman on my floor figured out that it cost $50 an hour for us to be there.)  That meant that if I didn’t hand in papers that were mine, then there was very little of my education that I could legitimately call my own, and my purpose for being at an academic institution could be called into serious question.

There was a recent debate on the CIWI chat list (Connecting Independent Writers in Israel) over “a standard per-page rate for upgrading the English of a 100-page MA thesis in Israel.”  The chatters were divided between those who have compassion for non-native speakers of English and people with great ideas but poor writing ability, and those who expressed their disgust with deteriorating skill and professionalism in a world where someone without the English or the writing chops can just hire someone to make them look good.  I could see both sides of the story when it comes to getting help to bring an important document up to high academic standards.

I have more difficulty with the notion of being a pen-for-hire for undergraduates whose only reason for being in college—besides discovering how much beer they can hold without passing out—is to study and to produce something of worth.

I never moralized about this to the agency that sent me the offers.  In fact, I was flattered that they thought I’d be good at it.  (See, kids?  Practice makes perfect.)  But I always politely declined.  I could never live with myself if I thought I’d helped a kid through college by doing his work for him.  The fact that in this competitive writer’s market, someone else is probably willing to turn those tricks without the pricked conscience, only makes it sadder.  (No wonder I can’t get any writing work.)

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English rant #18: Lay v. lie

Bless me, reader, for I have sinned.  It’s been over a year since my last English rant.  Does that mean that in the past year I have not encountered any new distortions of the English language to annoy me?  If only.

Frankly, I’m surprised at myself for taking this long to address the pervasive misuse of lay and lie.  It’s a rare writer (or speaker) these days who can use them correctly.  Their main difference?  Lay is a transitive verb (i.e. takes an object, as in you lay something else down), where lie is intransitive, meaning something lies on the table inert, or reflexive, as in “I’m so tired after that foxhunt that I simply MUST lie down.”  The children’s bedtime prayer that begins “Now I lay me down to sleep,” while not conventional in style, is grammatically correct since lay is used with me as an object.  “Now I lie down to sleep” doesn’t scan in the rest of the prayer (which, aside from the trochaic first line, is in iambic tetrameter) and “Now I lay down to sleep” would fail either to scan or to impress the HolyOneBlessedBeHe.  The first line of the closing song in Peter Jackson’s film “The Return of the King” is grammatically correct: “Lay down your sweet and weary head.”  (Whatever I might think of Annie Lennox’s politics, she and Fran Walsh did write a beautiful song, and in proper English.)

What suddenly brought the topic of lay v. lie to mind?  I recently received a forward of some amusing cat pictures from my father which included some witty captions.  As one who detests cats (with only a few notable exceptions), I nonetheless found the captions to complement the photos nicely.  My main complaint?  The spelling was atrocious.  Deliberately atrocious, mind, in the way teenagers and other illiterates use shorthand in written communication, e.g. “THE ART OF DISGUISE: not wurkin so gud,” “YOUR MAMA LOVES U: even if the other kids calls u fat, she knows uz jes fluffy,” and my least favorite, “u lookin 4 trubble? heer we are!”  In the two photos I’ve included in this post, you can see that the individual who compiled this album of kitty kitsch, who seems bilingual in English and Webhand, is seriously challenged by the distinction described in this rant.

Readers, please teach your children the difference between lay and lie, and don’t let them grow up to be people who have too much time on their hands and spend it by displaying their ignorance of the English language aside some pictures of fluffy kitties.

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I’ve been keeping a log in recent months of English language errors that get up my nose.  If I see a glaring mistake once, I write it off as a mistake.  But if I see it more than once, I begin to worry that it’s a trend.  Here are some examples of things that I am seeing with alarming frequency:

The word supposably.  It was cute coming out of the mouth of the Boston-Irish accountant at the Archdiocese when I temped there oh-so-many-years ago.  But it’s really not a word, and if you’re not Maureen McCarthy, don’t think about using it.

I should of turned left at Albuquerque. I know how this one gets started; it’s how the contraction “should’ve” sounds.  But “should’ve” is  short for “should have,” not “should of.”

For once and for all. I saw this in the Jerusalem Post a couple of months ago and wrote it off as one of the Post‘s many errors.  Then it turned up in Daniel Gordis’s newest book, Saving Israel.  The expression is “once and for all.”  Please make a note of it.

For all intensive purposes. Someone please tell me what an “intensive purpose” is.  I’m dying to know.  (The correct expression is “for all intents and purposes.”)

Fleeing the coop.  Chickens “fly the coop.”   But perhaps if they come from a particularly dysfunctional coop, I suppose one could say they “flee.”

In general, I thought the team of Jackson, Boyens and Walsh did an excellent job on the screenplay for The Lord of the Rings.  But I’ve always been bothered by the weird line they give Elrond in his speech about how the walls of evil are closing in on the forces of good: “Our list of allies grows thin.”  I loved the consonance between “list” and “thin” (as, I imagine, did they) but it doesn’t make any sense.  Lists grow short, not thin.

$300 million dollars.  I did this one myself recently.  REDUNDANT!

Ruthie Blum Leibowitz wrote in the Post recently: “Now is the time for the Israeli and American media to step up to the plate and further, for once and for all, the cause of genuine freedom fighters, as opposed to those who are misrepresented as such by themselves and by their Western apologists, among them a large portion of the press.”  Nudge nudge.  Psssst!  Copy editor?  Yeah, you.  No sleepin’ on the job.

While there is no hard-clad prescription to deal with such a religiously convoluted reality.”  Fool-proof?  I’ve heard of hard-clad rules, and I think the Monitor and the Merrimack were pretty hard-clad.  But prescriptions are more delicate things.  I don’t think hard-clad describes them at all well.

Did she not experience terrible shame in having to drivel in the face of her rabbi?”  This was written about a woman whose rabbi told her to spit in his face to save her marriage.  (It’s a long story.)  I suspect the writer of this sentence meant “dribble,” but even that doesn’t adequately describe the necessary propulsive, spraying action of spitting.  If he had instructed her to blather on about some nonsense to him, THAT would have been drivel.

If I were a fourth-grade teacher and saw these errors, I would conclude that the writers of this stuff were about where they should be.  But I would bet a pound to a penny that these writers all worked their way well past fourth grade.  (Besides, the errors of fourth graders are much cuter, as indicated by those cute emails that circulate where the kids write about how Magellan circumcised the world with a giant clipper.)  Sigh.  The state of the English language these days–and even worse, the state of the English language user.

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English rant #16: Niggard

It’s been a while since my last English rant.  Thought I’d exorcised all of my English language pet peeves, did you?  Hah!  It’ll never happen.

Many years ago, I used the word niggardly in the classroom in which I worked.  My cooperating teacher blanched, and spluttered something about would I please not use words like that in her classroom.  I blushed, but headed straight for the dictionary.  I KNEW there has never been an association between black-skinned people and stinginess, and I was determined to prove it.

I was right, of course.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a niggard is “a mean, stingy, or parsimonious person; a miser; one who grudgingly parts with or expends nothing.”  The OED says the origins of this word are obscure, but suspects French.  (When in doubt about an English word, French is usually safe.)  The Merriam Webster New International (Second Edition) is a little more decisive about this word’s origins.  It points to Middle English, in which nig is probably of Scandinavian origin, as in the Norwegian dialect where gnikka or gnigga mean “to be stingy.”

A lesson: Just because a word has an offensive sound does not mean it should be shunned as offensive.  Postpone panic-stricken looks and self-censorship until you’ve looked it up in a dictionary.  It’s what they’re for.

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