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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I used to teach preparatory classes for the SAT.  In addition to all the stratagems for outwitting the test writers, vocabulary development, and writing drills, the main printed guides to the SAT also included sections in which commonly misspelled or confused words were defined for the student’s review.

One of the most common of these pairs of frequently misused words was effect and affect.  Both have noun and verb forms, and while there is some relationship between them in meaning, they are not one and the same.

Affect as a noun is rarely used (except in psychology), and most of its meanings in this context are obsolete.  Its use nowadays is more often as a transitive verb (i.e. taking an object).  Here it means “[t]o assume the character or appearance of; to put on a pretense of; to pretend; to feign; to counterfeit; as, to affect indifference” or “[t]o lay hold of or attack (as a disease does); to act or produce an effect upon; to impress or influence the mind or feelings; to touch.”  Common synonyms for affect include influence, operate, act on, and concern.

Effect, on the other hand, has many current and relevant uses as a noun.  The most common is “[t]hat which is produced by an agent or cause; the event which follows immediately from an antecedent; result; outcome; as, the effect of luxury.”  Synonyms for effect as a noun here include consequence and result.

One can see the relationship between affect and effect in this context where, for example, bad publicity could affect a candidate’s public image, the effect of which might be that candidate’s loss at the polls.

If what I’ve written above satisfies your interest in the difference between these two words, feel free to stop reading.  But being an English language nut-case, I’ve opted (in the interest of thoroughness) to include some other definitions of effect as a noun:

— Purport; intent;  They spoke to her to that effect (2 Chron 34:22)

— Goods; movables; as, The people escaped with their effects (used frequently by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)

a. fulfillment or accomplishment; —now only in phrases to carry into effect, to bring to effect b. Reality; fact; —now only in the phrase in effect

— A distinctive impression; as, to act for effect

— State or fact of being operative; execution; performance; as, the law goes into effect in May; to take effect

Effect strikes out on its own as a transitive verb when used to mean, in contemporary parlance, “to bring to pass, to execute; enforce; accomplish; They sailed away without effecting their purpose.”  Synonyms for this meaning include complete, realize, carry out, consummate, compass, fulfill.

When I see these two words confused, it is usually in cases where the writer means to use affect as a verb and effect as a noun.  In cases such as this, one can think of their cause-and-effect relationship alphabetically: to affect people is to have an effect on them.

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English rant #14: Try and…

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.

It has become so common for people to say they’re going to try and do something, I’m not sure anyone who reads this is even going to know what I’m talking about.

But it’s weird.  If I’m going to try and make it to work despite a debilitating case of hangnails, what am I saying?  The and in the sentence suggests a parallel structure of the two verbs so that the person is carrying out two separate actions: trying it to work, and making it to work.  Make sense?  Of course not.  Am I trying to make it to work?  Yes indeed.  Professional English pedants can help me out here, but when used correctly, try here becomes a sort of qualifier, a bli neder statement for the Hebrew speakers out there.  I’ll try, but I may not succeed.

Try is not a helping verb.  (These are: am is are was were be being been has have had do does did may might must can could shall should will would.)  But it still reminds me of the other verbs that are followed by infinitives.  “I have to trim my hangnails before I can go to work today.”  I wouldn’t say, “I have and trim my hangnails.”  Have to, try to, like to, toTOTO!

So let’s everyone try and to remember.

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In studying philosophy or theology, I have sometimes heard teachers and others describes the tenants of a particular system.  Does this make philosophy a landlord?

There is widespread confusion about the correct word to use in this context.  People who use tenant in this fashion have probably heard (but perhaps never seen written) a word meaning “any principle, dogma, belief or doctrine, held as true, especially by an organization.”  That word, as stored in their memory, begins and ends with the letter t, but there the word’s specifications end.  Since most people have at one time or another been renters of an apartment or house, and the word for renter begins and ends with t (and sounds almost identical; see rant #2), they latch on to that word in this new context.

But alas, they are wrong.  A tenant is not a belief or principle according to anyone’s definition.  The correct word in this case is tenet.  The root of both words lies in the Latin word “to hold,” as in “property holding” or “to hold a belief.”  (Spanish students may remember the verb tener; for French students it is tenir.)  But to be precise, tikkun olam (repairing the world) is a tenet of Judaism, but pays no rent for the privilege.  And former CIA director George Tenet, who may be a very responsible renter, is probably not an integral part of anyone’s dogma or belief system.

Still confused?  An -ant lives somewhere.  An -et doesn’t.

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Making aliyah has presented the Cap’n and me with some interesting challenges where our children are concerned.  We were delighted at the thought of coming to Israel where our children would learn to speak fluent Hebrew, understand holy texts and the prayer book, and generally master a language their parents only began to tackle seriously in their mid-twenties.

Oy, but what it’s done to their English!  Our kids learn and play during the day in Hebrew, then come home.  The only decent English speakers they hear in their off-hours are the Cap’n and me, and the rest of the English speakers they encounter—their peers, most of whom have been here longer than we—usually speak atrocious English.  And we are finding that no amount of correction seems to have the effect of improving their speech—a first sign of the value of peers over parents in some aspects of a child’s life.

Below are a few examples of the simply awful constructions they use:

If…so. This is Hebonics for if…then.  Example: “If you’re cold, so go put on a sweater.”
Or…or instead of either…or.  “I want or a cookie or a brownie.”
What instead of something, as in, “You’re from Newton too?  We have what to talk about!”
To let sans object.  Example: “Gee, walking that close to the edge of the cliff looks dangerous.  Does your Ima let?”
Take, also sans object.  “You want one of these oranges?  So take!” (So is optional here.)
Make, as in void.  This bothers me less (it’s pretty cute when Banana says it), though it’s clearly Hebrew/Eastern-Seaboard-Jewish and not what the Cap’n and I grew up with.
The verb to be sans object.  Peach has been doing this a lot lately: “I wanted to show this to Chaya yesterday, but she wasn’t.”  This doesn’t mean Chaya ceased to exist, but that she wasn’t there.

Much of what I encounter in the name of Hebonics is actually perfect Hebrew just translated into English.  (In fact, I can sometimes learn a good deal about Hebrew grammar and how to say things correctly in that language by listening to the mistakes Israelis make in English.)  But like jokes in a foreign language, Hebrew grammar should be reserved for Hebrew speech, and English grammar used when speaking English.

It should also be noted that I have heard many adults speak using some of these awful-isms, both here and in the Jewish world in the U.S.  Either these adults didn’t learn grammar, the grammar they did learn they just forgot, or living in Israel so long made them just surrender to the assaults on English here.

Whatever it is, I’ve found a new nails-on-the-chalkboard to add to my collection.  Whoopee.

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English rant #11: Possession

In my post entitled “Thank you,” I made an annoying grammatical error.  Did anyone catch it?  I wrote, “[T]hank the person for their gift and don’t mention what you did with it.”  See it?

The word their is a plural possessive pronoun, as in belonging to them.  The word person is singular, and calls for a singular possessive pronoun, i.e. his or hers.  Now do you see it?

I was once a barmaid in a pub in England (a long story for another time.)  I had a gay manager who would sometimes confide in me his romantic woes.  Since he wasn’t “out” to everyone in the pub, he would talk about his relationship partner using they and their rather than the person’s name.  Since this was to protect his privacy, I consider it an excusable grammatical infraction.

But under normal circumstances, one should choose a side of the gender divide and stick with it when using possessive pronouns for an unknown person.  I understand that gender in English is limited to masculine and feminine, and that there is no neutral ground.  This being the case, I recommend to all speakers of English to come up with a plan for possessive pronouns and stick to it.  Here are two suggestions:
1. Stick with (sexist) tradition and treat masculine as neutral (using his for all unknown persons) and feminine only for known females.
2. Let the sexes sort themselves, with men using him and his for all unknown persons, and women using her and hers.

One person remains one person and needs the singular.  Work it out, people.

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Inspired by the recent report of a spousal beheading in Buffalo, NY, I hereby present a double-post on a related theme:

I’ve only written a handful of letters to the editor in my life.  Something has to really bug me to get me to sit down at the computer and set out to prove someone else wrong.

One time when I actually sat down and went to town was after the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl z”lThe Boston Globe had crassly referred to his “decapitated head.”  I and everyone else know what they meant—the head without the body.  But it’s not only grisly, it’s wrong.  You can’t take the head off someone’s head.

When the head and body are separated from one another, the head becomes disembodied and the body is decapitated.  Thus, the fiery head that appears to Dorothy and her friends in the film The Wizard of Oz is disembodied, while the Headless Horseman that haunts the pages of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is decapitated.

I haven’t found an expression that describes the unhappy situation of Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter series.  If anyone else knows one, please chime in.

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English rant #9: Feeling bad

Speakers and writers of English often commit the error of expressing remorse by saying they feel badly about something.  I suspect this is an overcompensation of some sort, though I’m hard-pressed to figure out how. (Perhaps to distinguish themselves from people who actually are bad.)

To those who learned and remember their English grammar, there are two types of verbs: action and linking.  Action verbs express an action, are modified by adverbs (many of which end in –ly), and sometimes take a direct object, sometimes not.  “I feel the sun’s heat” is an example of how an action verb works.  Linking verbs connect the subject of a sentence with a descriptor: “I feel hot in the sun” is an example.  The group of verbs which can be action or linking verbs is as follows:












Think about what role the word feel plays in the sentence, “I feel badly.”  The adverb suggests that this use of feel is as an action verb, and suggests that one’s nervous system is experiencing a malfunction.  (Badly is an adverb and modifies feel rather than I in this sentence.)  To say I am experiencing remorse requires that I say I feel bad.

Adverbs should be used only to describe the quality of the sensation or action in these verbs; use adjectives to describe a person or thing described using them.  I feel happy is self-explanatory; I feel happily sounds bizarre.

The message in all this is that sometimes it’s okay just to feel bad.

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English rant #8: It’s

In the course of writing my rant on apostrophe abuse, I came across another Bob the Angry Flower cartoon regarding the word it’s. Here it is:

Note that while possession is often indicated by the addition of ’s (e.g. Shimshonit’s pet peeve) the word it is an exception to this rule. One makes it possessive simply by adding s, as in “The dog lost its collar.”

There you have it: Shimshonit’s shortest rant yet.

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English rant #7: Apostrophes

Back when I first hatched the idea of featuring English rants on the blog, the rant I looked forward to writing the most—and the one I think the English-speaking world needs the most—is this one. It’s about apostrophes, and while I don’t remember seeing many apostrophe errors as a kid, I can’t look in any direction nowadays without seeing them. They’re on storefront signs, restaurant menus, web pages… ANYWHERE unvetted English is used, apostrophes are sprinkled as liberally as sequins on a ballroom dancer’s gown. (Alas, the image is too wide to feature in its full legibility on this blog. Click on the cartoon to get a full image of it.)

For those guilty of misusing apostrophes on a regular basis, feel free to buy a poster of this cartoon to hang in a place convenient to your writing station. They are available for order here. Get some for your friends, pass them out on the street, and help clean up all the apostrophe litter you see.

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I almost can’t believe I’m writing on this topic, but I just can’t stand it any longer. I have twice read people’s descriptions of their hobbies as pasttimes (and that was before Googling “past times” in a search for images for this post). I looked this one up just to make sure I am not missing something obvious. If there was any lapse on my part, it was shared by the AH, the NI2, and no, I didn’t even bother with the OED.

Then I remembered having browsed in a charming store by the name of Past Times in Cambridge, England (it’s a chain; the shop pictured right is the shop on Fife Road, Kingston-upon-Thames). They offer a range of wares on themes from Celtic (distant past) to the 1960s (more recent past). If I still celebrated Christmas, this would be one-stop shopping for me. It’s gorgeous stuff, definitely in the category of eye candy, but not a hobby.

In an effort to be helpful, the Cap’n suggested that the meaning of pasttime should be “late” as in, “The flight will be arriving pasttime.” Makes sense to me. But it’s still not a hobby, and definitely not a compound word.

The correct English word for a hobby is a pastime. This is a compound word combining the words pass and time, i.e. something one does in order to pass the time. By this token, if someone wants to misspell the word, he or she should do so by doubling the s, not the t.

When in doubt about how to spell a word like this, think a moment about its origins; this can often help one arrive at the correct spelling. Occasionally, the English language strays (unintentionally, I’m sure) into the realm of logic. Enjoy it when it does.

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Today’s rant is dedicated to the wanton overuse of the word passionate in the United States.

Growing up with my nose in books, I usually only encountered the word passionate in connection with infatuation, love-making (in the mostly verbal, Jane Austen sort of way) or, in J.K. Rowling’s terms, “a cauldron full of hot, strong love.” Its meaning as I took it was along the lines of overwhelming, powerful, or keenly felt admiration or attachment.

In college, I came to understand that the root of passionate, i.e. passion, is connected to the word pain. (In this context, the John Cougar Mellencamp song about love entitled “Hurts So Good” makes sense.) This explains its use in describing the lengthy, blow-by-blow account of the unhappy demise of a Jewish boy in Greek Scripture, as well as J.S. Bach’s musical dramatizations (according to Matthew and John) of same.

Love and death. These are stirring, existential issues for the human race. So imagine my revulsion when hearing the word passionate applied to college students for their major subjects, people endeavoring to start businesses, and basements. Yes, I said basements. A company whose line of business was finishing and prettifying basements advertised frequently on one of the Boston radio stations, and in their ads, a man with a broad New England accent plugged his company saying, “We’re passionate about basements, and we luv helpin’ people.”

Perhaps they are experts at finishing basements. Perhaps they will take on the challenge of making habitable even the dankest, moldiest basement. And I have no doubt that they take pleasure in improving the quality of life of their clients. But to say that they are passionate about basements suggests to me that they not only clean up, enclose, carpet, and tastefully finish basements, but that they whisper sweet nothings, read Byron, or sing Neopolitan love songs as they are doing so. Or worse, that having completed a particularly nasty job, they crucify themselves on the beadboard wainscoting.

The NI2 defines passionate as follows:
1. Capable or susceptible of passion, or of different passions; easily moved, excited, or agitated: specif., easily moved to anger; irascible; quick-tempered; characterized by anger; angry.
2. Affected with, or characterized by, passion, or strong or intense emotion; expressing passion; ardent in feeling or desire; enthusiastic; impassioned; vehement.
3. Specif., affected with, or under the influence or control of, the passion of love.

The following is the AH’s definition:
1. Capable of or having intense feelings; excitable.
2. Wrathful by temperament; choleric.
3. Amorous; lustful.
4. Showing or expressing strong emotion; ardent.
5. Arising from or marked by passion.

One can picture enthusiasm (part of the NI2’s definition) driving someone to start a business, or an English major having an ardent admiration for Wordsworth’s poetry. But no, fellow anglophiles, one may not claim to be passionate about fixing up basements. A statement of that nature ventures into gross hyperbole. Let us save passionate for Cathy and Heathcliff, Tristan and Isolde, and Heloise and Abelard. And, perhaps, that nice but wayward Jewish boy who should have stayed in yeshiva.

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There was a discussion some time ago on the group blog for which I used to write regarding what Jews believe versus what Christians believe. One person made the following comment: “Yeshu was a common enough name, and while it is possible that one (or both) of these men form part of the Chrstian myth of Jsus [sic], the details of the Greek Text and the Talmud don’t ‘jive.’”

Jive. Those who remember the 1970s remember a time when this word was used much more frequently than now. Jive turkey. Jive talkin’ (i.e. tellin’ me lies, as the song goes). Hand jive (just Google this one and see all the stuff that comes up). But what do the squares who write dictionaries say it means?

It turns out the Merriam Webster New International Dictionary, Second Edition (known in future rants as “NI2”) is too old or too square to include a definition of this word. So we turn to the much hipper, now-er American Heritage Dictionary (known hereafter as “AH”): Slang. 1. Jazz or swing music. 2. The jargon of jazz musicians and enthusiasts. [I crack up every time my very white jazz musician brother refers to other jazz musicians as “cats.”] 3. Deceptive, nonsensical, or glib talk.

So the writer of the forum comment about the “Chrstian myth of Jsus” may be technically correct in saying that “the details of the Greek Text and the Talmud don’t jive.” The Christian Scriptures and the Talmud were written far too long ago to have been delivered in the language of either jazz musicians or enthusiasts. But somehow, I don’t think that’s really what she meant to say.

So what is the correct word for this context? In my second English rant, I identified a common culprit in the use of malapropisms: “The two words sound similar enough that they must mean the same thing.” Aha! And a word that sounds like jive but that means “to agree” or “to harmonize”—jibe!

So now we know. Leave the jive to the cats playing tunes on their axes, and stick to jibe when you want to say “to agree” or “to harmonize.”

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The Cap’n and I have enjoyed a long and beautiful friendship with X and Y.  And while I have always been a stickler for correct language (You noticed? Really?), I have rarely met anyone else for whom misuse of English can feel like Chinese water torture. But Y, it turns out, is every bit my match for proper English usage.

We hadn’t known each other long when, sitting around the Shabbat table, I made the comment that something at which I do not excel was “not my forte.” I pronounced forte with a silent e, French style.  Y smiled, his eyes twinkled, and he said, “Thank you for pronouncing that word correctly.”

It seems I’m not the only person to note the frequent substitution of the Italian word forte (pronounced FOR-tay) for the French word forte (pronounced FORT). What is the difference? one may ask.

Forte in the French sense is a noun defined as “one’s strong point; that in which one excels.” This is the meaning most people are after when they mistakenly pronounce the word as an Italian would. But the Italian pronunciation of forte is an adjective, a musical term meaning “loud; powerful.” They are clearly related, but not interchangeable. One cannot excuse oneself from an impossible or undesirable task by pleading that “It’s not my loud.” That sentence makes no grammatical sense.

So if you have been doing this, STOP IT. Right now. Forever. And correct anyone else you come across who is making this error. To paraphrase an old British environmental slogan, Let’s keep English tidy. Even when it’s not English.

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