Thursday, December 31, 2009

English Usage - access.

The verb to access is standard and common in computing and related terminology. But its use outside computing contexts, although well established, is sometimes criticized as being ‘jargon’: you must use a password to access the account. If you want an alternative, you could use a word or phrase such as ‘enter’ or ‘gain access to’: to gain access to the information.
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

English Usage - able-bodied,abled.

It is best to avoid using able-bodied to mean ‘not having a physical disability’, since many people with disabilities object to its use in this way. Their preferred term is non-disabled. Abled, meaning ‘not disabled’, is a revival of an obsolete 16th-century word, and has been recorded in print in the US since the 1980s. It is now used in the phrase differently abled and as a more positive alternative to disabled.
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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Leaving Words Out - Noun Phrases.

You can often leave out parts of noun phrases. The main noun, for example, need not be repeated if the second noun phrase contains numerals, colour adjectives, or superlatives:
There’s your mouse, but where are my two? Just behind the green car I can see the white approaching. I’ve had some marvellous holidays, but this was the best ever.
Note that you can usually recover a singular from a plural (mice from mouse), and vice versa (holiday from holidays). What you cannot do is omit a noun after just any adjective.
?? There’s the fat mouse, but where’s the thin? ?? Behind the fast car I can see the slow approaching.
In each case, an extra word should be added at the end – either the original noun once again (mouse, car) or the pronoun one, as in Behind the fast car I can see the slow one approaching.
And you cannot recover a singular from a plural – or a plural from a singular – if they both occur within the same phrase:
X. The avoidance of tax was the sole or one of the main purposes of the transaction.
This should read: was the sole purpose or one of the main purposes. As it stands, the sentence reads: X. was the sole . . . purposes.
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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Leaving Words Out - Prepositions and Constructions.

If a part of one element has been omitted as ‘understood’, try inserting the ‘understood’ element and see if it really fits; alternatively, leave out second of the elements and see if the sentence still makes sense.
X. She is as talented, if not more talented than, any of the male riders in the team.
The two related components are not properly matched: to match more talented than, the earlier phrase should read as talented as. To see how the syntax has gone wrong, leave out all the parenthetical words between the two commas. The need for an extra as at once becomes apparent.
X. The performance of an alcohol-fuelled car is comparable – or slightly better – than that of a petrol car.
For the sake of symmetry, and syntax, a to should be added after comparable, and the sentence should be repunctuated: is comparable to – or slightly better than – that of a petrol car.
One final example of the common error in which a single preposition is applied to both parallel elements where it is in fact appropriate to only one:
X. Employers remain ignorant or uninterested in the abilities of polytechnic graduates.
Correct this so that it reads: Employers remain ignorant of or uninterested in the abilities of polytechnic graduates.
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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Handling Negatives – Not . . . But . . .

Once again the two elements should be grammatically symmetrical:
We shall fly not the green flag but the blue one. We shall not fly the green flag but display the blue one.
In colloquial idiom, these two structures are mixed:
? We shall not fly the green flag but the blue one.
Avoid such imbalance, expecially in formal writing. Take care, however, not to let ambiguity creep in when you balance the construction:
? The new militancy presents a danger to democracy. It is trying not to make a point but to deny a hearing.
The intended meaning here is surely not trying to make a point but actual wording, for the sake of symmetry, has been twisted into trying not to make a point. Only a fairly drastic rephrasing will resolve the problem: It is not trying to make a point – it is trying to deny a hearing.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Leaving Words out – Verb Phrases – I can and have said so.

Consider this sentence:
?? All future editions will or have been corrected at this point.
You cannot just pick and choose what to omit. If you recover the missing pieces here you get either X. All future editions will been corrected or X. All future editions will corrected. Neither of these is English. Rewrite it either as All future editions will be or have been corrected or as All future editions will be corrected or have been (already).
Here now are some further examples of unacceptable ellipses:
?? No convict has ever or can ever escape. X. My brother refuses to and my sister insists on speaking French. X. We are, and must, work in London.
The mishandling of the -ing form of the verb, as in the last two example, is generally considered to be especially awkward.
By a curious convention, ‘faulty’ ellipsis is more acceptable if it occurs after rather than before the ‘recoverable’ word has appeared. Compare these two sentences:
?? I shall always and have always loved you. I have always loved you, and always shall.
Only a pedant would insists on adding the words love you at the end of the second sentence. Here are two more examples that most people would accept as standard:
They went to the shops because they were asked to (go to them). I live in London and my brother (lives) in Edinburgh.
There is a particular limitation on ellipsis in passives. Take a sentence like I had seen him but I hadn’t been seen by him. Although seen is shared, it cannot be omitted because in the first clause it is in a perfect construction while in the second it is passive: X. I had seen him but hadn’t been by him. Ellipsis only works if the shared forms are both passive or both not:
We were told but my sister wasn’t (told). He has told me and I have (told) her. X. He has told me, but my sister wasn’t (told).
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Friday, December 18, 2009

Controversial -LY words - Hopefully.

In the sense of ‘in a hopeful way’, hopefully is a long-established and unobjectionable adverb: We travelled more hopefully after hearing the news of Nicholas’s miraculous release.
In its more modern sense of ‘I hope that’ or ‘with luck’, it has aroused the opposition of purists: ? Hopefully the letter will arrive tomorrow.
Among the objections are: that it is an Americanism; that it is ill-formed (it should perhaps be hopedly or hopeably instead); that it usurps the older sense of hopefully, and could even cause ambiguity (? Hopefully he has paid off the last of his debts), and that as an adverb it has the grammatical duty to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb – but not an entire clause.
This last objection is no more cogent than the others. Modern English has a great many ‘sentence’ adverbs, widely used to reflect the attitude of the speaker or writer – Unfortunately, I can’t join you – or the truth or likelihood of the event mentioned: Probably I’ll go straight home.
Not that all such ‘sentence’ adverbs escape criticism. Purists dislike the use, or at least the widespread overuse, of basically, for instance, at the beginning of sentences: ? Basically, the melting of the fuse wire breaks the electrical current. And three other -fully words often attract similar criticism to that of hopefully: namely, mercifully, thankfully, and regretfully – often used in place of regrettably.
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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dangling Participles and Lack of Symmetry - Ambiguity and Word Order.

Careless word order is perhaps the commonest cause of ambiguity. Sentences need to be thoughtfully structured to ensure the intended relationship between words or phrases, and to avoid any unintended relationship. The rule of thumb is to place related words as near to each other as possible.
Hence the comically ambiguous advertisement X. A piano is being sold by a lady with carved legs is easily rectified by shifting the last phrase with carved legs to a position closer to the noun piano that it relates to: A piano with carved legs is being sold by a lady.
With truly ambiguous sentences, such an adjustment may resolve the ambiguity in one direction, but not in the other.
Take, for example, this sentence: ? The government ordered an inquiry into the unrest last year. Does last year relate to ordered or to unrest? If to ordered, you can shift last year to a position alongside it: The government last year ordered an inquiry into the unrest.
But if last year relates to unrest, you will have to add an extra word or phrase to remove the ambiguity: The government ordered an inquiry into the unrest that occurred last year (or simply, the unrest of last year).
Here now are several more example of ambiguity – real ambiguity, with a pair of rival meanings, or merely comic and theoretical ambiguity – based on poor word order.
You might try restructuring or rephrasing each sentence to produce the intended meaning or the two possible meanings.
At all events, examine all the examples closely with a view to learning the dangers and avoiding them in your own writing.
Mary Wiggins wants to play Lady Macbeth very badly. My supporters urged me to speak with great fervor. The officer testified that Dr Henley had cycled past the protesters hurling insults. The mayor shook hands awkwardly with the visitor, inconvenienced by an attack of arthritis. Please send us your ideas about planting seedlings on a postcard. A volley of gunshot was used to disperse the riot by the police. The militia was criticised for firing tear gas into the crowd yesterday without causing serious injury. Further north are the hills covered in heather that visitors find so attractive. You’ll never find a policeman just walking here in the park. Children, this fruit is not to be eaten without washing first.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Origins – Birth

Greek genesis, birth or origin, a root we discovered in discussing psychogenic, is the source of a great many English words.
Genetics is the science that deals with the transmission of hereditary characteristics from parents to offspring. The scientist specializing in the field is a geneticist, the adjective is genetic . The particle carried on the chromosome of the germ cell containing a hereditary characteristic is a gene (JEEN).
Genealogy is the study of family trees or ancestral origins (logos, study). The practitioner is a genealogist.
The genital, or sexual, organs are involved in the process of conception and birth. The genesis of anything – a plan, idea, thought, career, etc. – is its beginning, birth, or origin, and Genesis, the first book of Old Testament, describes the creation, or birth, of the universe.
Congenital is constructed by combining the prefix con-, with or together, and the root genesis, birth.
So a congenital defect, deformity, etc. occurs during the nine-month birth process (or period of gestation, to become technical). Hereditary (hi-RED’-i-ter’-i) characteristics, on the other hand, are acquired at the moment of conception. Thus, eye colour, nose shape, hair texture, and other such qualities are hereditary; they are determined by the genes in the germ cells of the mother and father. But a thalidomide baby resulted from the use of the drug by a pregnant woman, so the deformities were congenital.
Congenital is used both literally and figuratively. Literally, the word generally refers to some medical deformity or abnormality occurring during gestation. Figuratively, it wildly exaggerates, for effect, the very early existence of some quality: congenital liar, congenital fear of the dark, etc.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Origin – Veterans

Inveterate, from Latin vetus, old, generally indicates disapproval.
Inveterate gamblers have grown old in the habit, etymologically speaking; inveterate drinkers have been imbibing for so long that they, too, have formed old, well-established habits; and inveterate liars have been lying for so long, and their habits are by now so deep-rooted, that one can scarcely remember (the word implies) when they ever told the truth.
Latin senex, source of senile and senescent, also, you will recall, means old. In inveterate in- means in; it is not the negative prefix found in incorrigible.
The noun is inveteracy or inveterateness.
A veteran as of the Armed Forces, grew older serving the country; otherwise a veteran is an old hand at the game (and therefore skilfull). The word is both a noun and an adjective; a veteran at (or in)swimming , tennis, police work, business, negotiations, diplomacy – or a veteran actor, teacher, diplomat, political reformer.
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Monday, December 14, 2009

Verbs - Used to.

This verb too can operate either like can and should or like an ordinary verb, but with certain reservations.
Purists dislike the question forms ? Did/Didn’t you use to wear glasses?, though it is very common, especially in American English. The alternatives, Used you to wear glasses?, Usedn’t you to wear glasses?, and Used you not to wear glasses?, are all rather formal – and the last is also ambiguous.
Similarly, some purists regard as non-standard the negative form ? I didn’t use to like cabbage. But I usedn’t/used not to like cabbage strikes others as old-fashioned. The form I never used to . . . is acceptable in cases where the action could be repeated: I never used to eat cabbage. But it is less acceptable to purists when referring to a past state: ? I never used to like her.
One solution is to avoid the structure altogether: Didn’t you wear glasses at one time? I didn’t like cabbage, and never ate it.
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Trouble With Tenses - May I? Can I?

Can and May provoke some odd ideas in ‘popular’ grammar. When adults tell children Don’t say, ‘Can I leave the table?’; it should be ‘May I leave the table the table?’, the assumption often seems to be that can is restricted solely to ability – Am I able to leave the table? – and has nothing to do with either permission or compulsion.
In fact, the distinction between the two verbs is far more subtle. Can does have a meaning relating to permission – specifically when the permission is general or of unknown origin. You would hardly say ? May children under 12 see this film? or? I may do whatever I want. You would use can.
May is used when you are giving permission yourself (You may go now) or when you are asking permission of a specific person: May I go now? So Can I smoke here? is a question about general rules and customs; May I smoke here? is a specific request for permission from someone with the power to grant it.
In many contexts, either can or may will do. If you have to ask your manager for a day off work you could say Can I or May I have tomorrow off? There may be a theoretical difference: Can I . . . ? – Is there anything against it? May I . . . ? – Do you say I can? But in effect it comes down to the same thing.
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Trouble With Tenses - Shall We, Will We, Should We Dance?

In questions, the choice between shall and will, is more complicated, since should and would come into the equation as well. Which form you use depends on the kind of question.
Questions that seek advice or information, or make a suggestion. The rules here are as follows:
X. Use shall before I or we – What shall I/we do? Shall we dance? Shall I open the window?
X. Use should (or sometimes shall) before he, she, it, you, they, the cat, Mary, and so on – Should/Shall Peter cook the meal, instead? Should he put another log on the fire?
Questions that put forward a request. Use Will you . . .? or Would you . . .? – Will you lock up when you leave? Would you help me to lift the table, please? Would you move the lamp?
Questions that seek information about the future. If you are asking for a prediction that does not depends on the speaker or the subject of the sentence, use will – What will I/we need? Will they believe us? Will I pass my exams?
If, however, you are asking for information about the future that depends at least partly on the speaker or the subject of the sentence, follow these rules:
X. Use shall for I and we – When shall we three meet again? What shall I do tomorrow?
X. Use will for he, she, it, Harry, the cat, they, and you – Why will he do that? How will you deal with this situation?
Again, there are exceptions to the rules. Instead of Shall I open the window?, North Americans often use the form Should I (rather than Shall I), and Scottish and Irish people Will I open the window?
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Trouble With Tenses - Double have.

X. ‘If I’d have known, I’d have told you’. This is a colloquialism often heard today, though rarely seen in written English. The have in the first clause is superfluous and ungrammatical.
Change to:
If I’d known, I’d have told you. (If I had known, I would have told you.)
A warning, by the way, about spelling. It is all too easy to write X. I’d of done it if I’d known and X. You might of told me. The words have and of may sometimes sound the same, but they are not the same word.
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Monday, December 7, 2009

Irregular Verbs - I Swam The Channel.

The problem of deciding between past and perfect does not arise for regular English verbs. The forms are the same: I talked, I have talked.
The difficulties arise with irregular verbs, where the past and the past participle forms are different (go, went, gone; bite, bit, bitten; and so on). Some require special comment.
Drunk, swum, and others.- In many dialects the past participle form of verbs like sing and drink is used for the past tense. For instance, people say X. The ship sunk and X. We begun yesterday. This is wrong in Standard English.
With some verbs, there are alternative forms for the past and past participle. The verb spin, for example, has spun and the old-fashioned span as past-tense forms: She spun/? Span some cotton. The past participle in spun: She has spun some cotton.
Shrink has shrunk and shrank as past-tense forms. Most people use shrunk to mean ‘got smaller’, as in The pullover shrunk in the wash, but shrank to mean ‘recoiled’, as in He shrank back in horror. The past particle is shrunk: The pullover has shrunk in the wash. The form shrunken is now used only as an adjective: a shrunken head.
All the other similar verbs have lost the distinctive past form completely, such as slink, slunk, slunk and wring, wrung, wrung.
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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pronouns and Case - Me Doing, Or My Doing?

Which of these sentences is correct?
I hope you don’t mind me asking? I hope you don’t mind my asking?
The same problem occurs with nouns:
I was amazed at Paul saying that. I was amazed at Paul’s saying that.
Purists point out that asking and saying in these sentences are gerunds – that is, they act like nouns – and so should take a possessive, just as in sentences like I hope you don’t mind my question and I was amazed at Paul’s insolence.
Nevertheless, idiom often favours me asking and Paul saying that, especially in informal contexts.
Certainly the possessive form –my,Paul’s – is more formal, and is clearly preferable at the beginning of a sentence:
His saying that was very strange. ? Him saying that was very strange.
And it must be used if the -ing word is so noun-like that it is followed by of plus a noun or pronoun:
We enjoyed his parodying of the minister.
On the other hand, possessives are awkward or impossible in some contexts:
You can depend on something/?? Something’s turning up. She did it without either of us/X our knowing. She did it without her brother or sister/?? Sister’s knowing. I caught him/X his rifling through the files lying on my desk.
If you are worried in particular cases, avoid the problem altogether by rewording – I hope you don’t mind that I asked; You can depend on it that something will turn up, and so on.
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Friday, December 4, 2009

Origins - Hints and Helps.

The verb intimate is from Latin intimus, innermost, the same root from which the adjective intimate and its noun intimacy are derived; but the relationship is only in etymology, not in meaning. An intimation contains a significance buried deep in the innermost core, only a hint showing. As you grow older, you begin to have intimations that you are mortal; when someone aims a gun at you, or when a lorry comes roaring down at you as you drive absent-mindedly against a red light through an intersection, you are suddenly very sure that you are mortal.
Alleviate is a combination of Latin levis, light (not heavy), the prefix ad-, to, and the verb suffix. (Ad- changes to al- before a root starting with l-).
If something alleviates your pain, it makes your pain lighter for you; if I alleviate your sadness, I make it lighter to bear; and if you need some alleviation of your problems, you need them made lighter and less burdensome. To alleviate is to relieve only temporarily, not to cure or do away with. (Relieve is also from levis, plus re-, again – to make light or easy again.) The adjective form of alleviate is alleviative – aspirin is an alleviative drug.
Anything light will rise – so from the prefix e- (ex-), out, plus levis, we can construct the verb elevate, etymologically, to raise out, or, actually, raise up, as to elevate one’s spirits, raise them up, make them lighter; or elevate someone to a higher position.
Have you ever seen a performance of magic in which a person or an object apparently rises in the air as if floating? That’s levitation – rising through no visible means. (I’ve watched it a dozen times and never could work it out!) The verb, so to rise, is levitate.
And how about levity? That’s lightness too, but of a different sort – lightness in the sense of frivolity, flippancy, joking, or lack of seriousness, especially when solemnity, dignity, or formality is required or more appropriate, as in ‘tones of levity’, or as in, ‘Levity is out of place at a funeral or in a house of worship’, or as in, ‘Okay, enough levity – now let’s get down to business!’.
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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pronouns and Case - But Me, Or But I.

But is usually a conjunction: I like the idea but I think it’s impractical. But when it means ‘except’, is it still a conjunction?
Nobody but I took the idea seriously.
Or is it a preposition, which takes the object pronoun me instead?
Nobody but me took the idea seriously.
Unlike the as and than examples, these cannot be expanded into a reasonable sentence by adding an extra verb: X Nobody took the idea seriously, but I did. So but seems to be a preposition, and but me to be logically correct. If you remain uneasy, you can always avoid the whole issue by rewording:
I was only person who took the idea seriously.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Origins - Heads and Headings.

Latin caput, capitis means head. The captain is the head of any group; the capital is the ‘head city’ of a state or nation; and to decapitate is to chop off someone’s head, a popular activity during the French Revolution after the guillotine was invented.
Latin capitulum is a little head, or, by extension, the heading, or title, of a chapter. So when you recapitulate, you go through the chapter heading again (re-), etymologically speaking, or you summarize or review the main points.
When you capitulate, etymologically you arrange in headings, or, as the meaning of the verb naturally evolved, you arrange conditions of surrender, as when an army capitulates to the enemy forces under prearranged conditions; or, by further natural extension, you stop resisting and give up, as in, ‘He realized there was no longer any point in resisting her advances, so he reluctantly capitulated’.
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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pronouns and Case - It's Me Or It's I.

The most controversial question about pronouns is whether to use the subject or object case after is, was, and other forms of the verb to be.
In earlier times, grammarians trying to model English grammar on Latin argued that the verb to be cannot have an object and insisted on using subject pronouns after it, as in It is I and Was that she? This habit survives in the common American usage when answering the phone: Can I speak to Maria Higgins? – This is she.
But what comes after to be is not really a subject either. It is a complement. Modern Standard English remains undecided about what to do here, but the fact is that most people nowadays say It’s me and Was that her? This is acceptable usage for everyone except the most formal and traditional.
As always, you can rephrase things to avoid the problem entirely. In answer to the question Who’s there?, you do not have to say either It’s I or It’s me: you can say, uncontroversially, I am instead.
Note that if a who-clause follows the personal pronoun, Standard English usually prefers a subject form. For example:
It’s I who do the shopping.
Colloquial English, on the other hand, would probably still favour me here, together with various other changes:
It’s me that does the shopping.
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