Category Archives: grammar

Test Your Pronunciation

colorbarSO ANYWAYS, HOW GOOD DO YOU PRONOUNCIATE THESE WORDS?

I often err (which rhymes with her).
I’ve said re-PRIZE and re-OCCUR
and of-TEN and ho-MOG-en-us.
I’ve even been a CHAUVINIST.
So ANYWAYS, I’m over it.

detritus (n)—waste material or rubbish, especially left after a particular event (Cambridge Dictionary)

A few months ago I discovered that I’d been pronouncing detritus incorrectly all my life. That’s a small exaggeration; I probably didn’t use the word at all before high school. I doubt that I ever complained to Mom that my brother had ransacked my dresser drawers and left detritus in the wake of his illegal search. If he had done so, I wouldn’t have noticed. My bedroom was a monument to detritus. My mom dealt cleverly with the pile of rubbish that was my room; she closed the door. Mom was detritus-prone herself.

I listen to numerous podcasts, and I had heard a podcaster pronounce detritus as DET-rit-us, rhyming more or less with “rest of us.” I’ve always said duh-TRY-tuss, as if it were an inflammatory disease: appendicitis, colitis, detritus. I’ve even written poems in which I rhymed detritus with something, as in

“The light is brightest on my duh-TRY-tus.”

Was I going to have to change it to “…upset about my DET-rit-us”?

Today I googled detritus, and it turns out I was right all along. Duh-TRY-tus it is. I’ll sleep better tonight.

TO AIR IS HUMAN

English-speakers are forever mispronouncing things, especially if they (the English-speakers) read a lot. It’s bad enough that British and American pronunciations often differ for no good reason. But the notoriously complex English-language pronunciation issue is rooted in the history of English and its many borrowings from other languages. I treasure English for its eclectic origins, but they leave us with spellings that bear little relationship to pronunciation, as in through. Consider height and weight, chattel (pronounced CHAT-tle) and Mattel. If you encounter a printed word but never hear it spoken, you’re likely to pronounce it phonetically, or as nearly so as you can manage.

When my daughter, Marian, was nine or ten years old, we were discussing her newest Nancy Drew book, The Clue of the Broken Locket (1934), and the characters therein—Nancy herself, of course, as well as Nancy’s father (eminent attorney Carson Drew), her chums (Bess Marvin and George Fayne), her sweetie pie (Ned Nickerson), the Drew family housekeeper (Hannah Gruen), and, in this book, someone called Gladys—which, as Marian pronounced it, rhymed with ladies. Of course it did. We’d all pronounce it that way if we’d never met a Gladys or watched an episode of the television show Bewitched featuring Samantha’s nosy neighbor, Gladys Kravitz. Coming across the name in a book, you’re not likely to “hear” GLAD-iss in your mind, but rather GLADE-eez or, at best, GLAD-eez.

NANCYDREW-BROKENLOCKET-1934I don’t speak of “correct” pronunciation, since the English language is fluid and “correctness” changes from day to day. Moreover, most dictionaries no longer judge the speaking habits of their users, preferring to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.* Twenty or thirty years ago, dictionaries gave the “correct” pronunciation first, followed by less-respectable alternatives. Now they offer pronunciation possibilities nonjudgmentally, although the standard (read “correct”) pronunciation usually appears first.

If you want prescriptive advice on pronunciation, the best source I know of is Charles Harrington Elster’s delightful book There Is No Zoo in Zoology (which has been incorporated into The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations—The Complete Opinionated Guide). From the title alone, you learn that (a) zoo-OLL-uh-jee is just plain wrong and (b) Elster’s book will tell you how and why to say it (and hundreds of other words) right. (It’s zoe-OLL-uh-jee, with a long O in the first syllable.) As useful as the book is, you’ll be dismayed to find that you’ve been mispronouncing two-thirds of your vocabulary for your entire adult life. Still, I heartily recommend Mr. Elster’s books and website.

If you want a dictionary that guides rather than merely informs you about pronunciation, you’ll appreciate online audio guides. Google the word and hear the disembodied official internet voice, which offers only one pronunciation. Not all the online guides agree, however, as in the case of err.

IF YOU CAN BE ENVELOPED, CAN YOU BE MAILED?
Abused, misused, misunderstood

ERR—It rhymes with fur, not hair, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, the Macmillan Dictionary, Charles Harrington Elster, and most (but not all) of the other sources I consulted.

SHORT-LIVED (LONG-LIVED)The I is long; lived rhymes with hived.

The pronunciation (-laɪvd) is etymologically correct since the compound is derived from the noun life, rather than from the verb live. But the pronunciation (-lɪvd) is by now so common that it cannot be considered an error. In the most recent survey 43 percent of the Usage Panel preferred (-lɪvd), 39 percent preferred (-laɪvd), and 18 percent found both pronunciations equally acceptable.  English Language & Usage Stack Exchange

KUDOS—This much-abused word has strayed a great distance from its original pronunciation and usage. Usually pronounced KOO-doze and treated as plural in the U.S.—though there’s no such thing as one KOO-doe—It means “the praise and respect that you get from other people because of something that you achieved” (Cambridge Dictionary).  Some Americans, most Brits, and Charles Harrington Elster say KYOO-doss.

The noun kudos was originally a mass noun, but it is now sometimes treated as a plural noun,… contrary to the original Greek κῦδος ‎(kûdos), which is a singular noun. The American pronunciation implies this plural usage, which many authorities nevertheless consider erroneous. Wiktionary

CLOTHES—The items that hang in my closet are cobwebs. The stuff behind them is what I refer to as my close—shirts, pants, dresses, and so forth. Clothes, with the th combination pronounced, is difficult to say. I suspect that one day soon, CLOZE will be the standard pronunciation. That day, sadly, has not yet arrived.

ARCTIC—Even experienced network news announcers say ARTIC and ANTARTIC, and they’re wrong, wrong, wrong. It seems to me there’s even a beverage called something like ARTIC BLAST. Let’s agree to get this one right and unite behind ARCTIC.

HISTORY, HISTORICAL, preceded by A or AN—It’s a mystery to me that so many people drop the H when saying historical and precede it with the article AN, as in “an historical account.” There’s no accounting for what the British do, but in the U.S., the H in history (and historic, historical, and so forth) is sounded, not silent as in honor and heir, and the construction “an historical” is incorrect.

ENVELOP, ENVELOPED—Letters placed in envelopes are not thereby enveloped. The verb envelop (enn-VELL-up) means to wrap, enclose, or shroud: “The landscape was enveloped in fog.” In the past few weeks, I’ve heard two Hay House authors on hayhouseradio.com talk about being enveloped in a sense of peace, which might have been worth hearing about had they not said ENN-vuh-loped.

chaise-longue

SO YOU THINK HE’S A CHAUVINIST? Here, so and chauvinist are usage issues, not pronunciation ones, but they bug me so I’m slipping them into this discussion. Why, over the last six or eight months, have I begun hearing so many people introduce a sentence with the superfluous word so? It’s common in radio interviews:

INTERVIEWER: Dr. Mathers, why did you resign from your position at the university?

MATHERS: So… my department head was a chauvinist S.O.B. who treated women like the lower orders of rodents… worse, even… like fleas on rodents.

INTERVIEWER: Dr. Mathers, are you saying that your department head was aggressively and blindly patriotic, especially devoted to military glory, as the word chauvinist suggests? Or do you mean that he was a male chauvinist, aggressively and blindly sexist in his dealings with woman faculty members?

MATHERS: So… yeah, that. What you said.

phone_1896

OFTEN-MISPRONOUNCED WORDS

anyway not anyways

cardsharp not card shark

cavalry not Calvary

champ (not chomp) at the bit

cohabit not cohabitate

diphtheria not diptheria

espresso not expresso

February not Febuary

for all intents and (not intensive) purposes

forte not fort

herbal not erbal

homogeneous (5 syllables) not homogenous

lambaste not lambast

mauve (rhymes with rove)

mischievous (3 syllables) not mischevious (4 syllables)

often (rhymes with soften; the T is silent)

orient not orientate

potable (rhymes with notable)

recur not reoccur

reprise (second syllable rhymes with ease), not reprize

spayed not spaded

spit and (not spitting) image

suite not suit

supposedly not supposably

utmost not upmost

verbiage (3 syllables) not verbage (2 syllables)

______________

*The truth of the matter is that today virtually all English language dictionaries are descriptive. The editors will usually say that they are simply recording the language and how its words are used and spelled. True, there may be some guidance. For example, most Merriam-Webster dictionaries will note if certain words are deemed nonstandard or offensive by most users; however, the words are still included. Of modern dictionaries, only the Funk and Wagnall’s contains a certain amount of prescriptive advice. All the major dictionary publishers – Merriam-Webster, Times-Mirror, World Book, and Funk and Wagnall’s – will tell you that they are primarily descriptive. Englishplus.com

 

Standing Firm on ‘Podium’

colorbar

A podium is something you stand on

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE NEVER STOPS EVOLVING. Since I’ve learned to accept change as an inevitable and even beautiful quality of our language, I’ve become more flexible, less rigid, and more adventurous about choosing and arranging words on a page. Right. When pigs fly and hell freezes over. I hate change. If it were up to me, the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn.

Change is sometimes necessary, even beneficial. I get that. Pantyhose had to go. Lard in the cupboard, lead in the gasoline… I don’t miss them. But the English language is, for the most part, nontoxic and fat-free, so let’s not mess with it more than we have to.

There must be a better way to write respectfully than this:

Someone’s at the door. I wonder what they want.

…or this:

Someone’s at the door. I wonder what he or she wants.

The latter is “correct,” but neither is going to win a prize for dialogue. No one talks like that, just as no one answers the question “Who’s there?” by saying—correctly“It is I.” We can be forgiven for colloquial speech that breaks the rules… until it descends into grunts and snarls. I’ve been embarrased by my own mumbles lately during the half-block stroll to the grocery store. I usually pass other pedestrians, and one of us says something on the order of

“How ya’ doin’?”

Understanding that this isn’t a request for an organ-by-organ medical status report, I used to answer…

I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?

…but lately what comes out of my mouth sounds more like this:

Doin’ gud. H’boucherself?

Speaking is work…

…a highly complex motor task that involves approximately 100 orofacial, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and respiratory muscles… [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_science]

and we sometimes take short cuts. Over time, our sloppy speech becomes formalized in the language. What’s a contraction, after all, except sanctioned laziness? It’s easier to say “didn’t” than “did not,” and even easier to say “di’n’t,” dropping that second pesky plosive altogether.

This is nothing new. The word lord, for example, comes from the Old English hlāfweard with a meaning similar to “breadwinner.” I learned this from Kevin Stroud on his excellent History of English Podcast (mandatory listening for anyone who’s interested in English-language and British history). Kevin explains how our language evolves to reflect the way we actually speak. A word’s journey from its earliest appearance—quite possibly among the ancient Indo-European people long before there was an alphabet—to its current spelling, pronunciation, and usage, can be a fascinating tale. When you know the word’s story, you don’t like to see it misused.

podium-lectern

Illustrations from “What Is a Lectern or a Podium?” Message Masters Toastmasters

Consider, for example, the beleaguered podium. If ever a word deserved mercy, surely podium is that word. It’s expected to do not only its own job—that is, to be the word associated with a low platform of the type shown in Fig. B (above right)—but also the job of another word, which was assigned hundreds of years ago to objects such as that shown in Fig. A (above left); and that word is lectern. 

  • A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands.
  • A lectern is the tall desk or stand, usually with a slanted top, that holds the speaker’s books, notes, sermons, and so forth.
  • You stand on a podium and behind a lectern.

As a rule, using the wrong word interferes with communication, but that’s not the case here. If I ask, say, the Scratchnsniff triplets to come on stage by summoning them “to the podium,” and there is no podium—only a lectern like the one shown in Fig. A— the siblings will cope. They won’t get lost or wander around looking for the podium that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Why? Like 58.17 percent of the English-speaking population, they think that podium and lectern are synonymous.

I stand by podium for a different reason—its etymology. Podium is related to the Greek word pous “foot.” Octopus has the same root. Did you know that the plural of octopus is octopodes (if you are Greek)? Pous evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ped– “foot” c. 2000-4000 BCE.

Thus, podium has something like five or six thousand years of history to its credit, as summarized below:

The Life & Times of Podium

  1. Starts out as ped- with the Indo-Europeans, c. 2000-4000 BCE.
  2. Evolves as pous among the Greeks, arty souls who refined it as podion, meaning “foot of a vase.”
  3. Borrowed into Latin, where the Romans fiddled with it and came up with podium “raised platform.”
  4. Word and meaning arrived intact in English, late 17th or early 18th century—not the typical way for Latin words to enter the language. Most of our Latin vocabulary came through the French language after the Norman French invaded England in 1066. The army—led by the Duke of Normandy (soon to be King William I of England)—mopped the floor with weary English foot soldiers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the aftermath, Normans and their families arrived in great waves, bringing their culture, their customs, and their language. Obviously, podium wasn’t part of the initial onslaught.

What, precisely, do a podium and a foot have in common? I guess I had assumed, without giving it much thought, that the podium got its name because people stand on it. You know, with their feet. No; that’s not it at all—though it can be a useful memory trick. The “foot” in this equation isn’t a human foot but an architectural or artistic one, as illustrated in the photo labeled “foot of a vase” below. As the Romans apparently saw it, a podium was analogous to the foot of a vase (Greek podion).

Got an extra podium? Maybe you should take out an ad: Podiums for sale. You could use podia instead, but trust me, people will smirk when your back is turned. Me, I’m a Nebraska girl. I don’t say celli or concerti or podia or gymnasia, I don’t eat raw fish, and I buy my jewelry on eBay.

foot-of-a-vase

Where do you stand?

Unlike podium, the word lectern—which originally meant a reading desk in a medieval church—came into Middle English “through channels,” you might say, if you don’t mind perpetrating a vicious pun that relies on a clumsy reference to the English Channel , which separates France and England. In any case, lectern came through Old French letrun, from medieval Latin lectrum, from legere “to read.”

Now, if you can remember that we read at a lectern and stand on a podium, my work here is done.

Is lectern lost forever?

I was a fan of Allison Janney in the role of C. J. Cregg on NBC television’s The West WingShe was spectacular, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to stomp on my heart every time she spoke of the “podium” in the White House press-briefing room, night after night, week after week, for seven agonizing years. As White House press secretary, C. J. spent a great deal of time at, behind, beside, or otherwise in the aura of the miscalled “podium.”

During 155 episodes in seven seasons, certainly hundreds of people, if not thousands, had to have noticed the solecism: There’s a lectern on your television screen for all the world to see, and a star of the show is calling it a podium. No doubt many viewers contacted the show. But the lectern remained a “podium” throughout the program’s run, and that means one of two things:
(a) Nobody in the real White House ever referred to the thing as a lectern, or
(b) lectern is yesterday’s soggy Rice Krispies. It’s been written out of The West Wing and drop-kicked out of our lives. If it were a lame horse it would be taken out and shot, and We the Righteous are going to have to suck it up… unless…

Hey! You guys wouldn’t want to join me in putting our collective foot down and making a stand for standing on (not at  or behind) a podium, would you? Because if you would, send me an email (mary@annagrammatica.com) for a list of public officials and prominent educators to contact, starting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The man conducts his entire life behind a lectern.

 

lecterns-galore

A plethora of lecterns

Okay, maybe it’s not a global hot button, but the podium | lectern controversy isn’t just about little me with a bug in my brassiere. The experts and scholars are unanimous in their assent: A lectern isn’t a podium and it’s not okay to call it one. Here’s a heartening comment from a Toastmaster, followed by another from an authority on public speaking:

A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands while speaking. If that sounds like a stage, you are correct. It is like a stage. A podium can have a lectern on it, [as]… can a stage. You could have a lectern on a podium on a stage. A speaker stands on a podium. —Message Masters Toastmasters
http://messagemasters.squarespace.com/articles/what-is-a-lectern-or-podium.html

Many people confuse the words lectern, podium, rostrum, and dais. A lectern is the slant-topped high desk that you as the speaker stand behind and use when reading your presentation notes. It can be placed in the middle of the stage or off to one side. To remember lectern, think lecture.

A podium is a raised platform on which a speaker stands during a presentation. To remember podium think podiatrist – which is a foot doctor. You will want to use a podium, especially if you are short or there are more than three rows of chairs, to ensure everyone in the back of the room can see you. Standing on a platform will also dramatically increase your vocal projection. A rostrum or dais is a larger platform or stage on which a head table might be placed during a formal dinner.

Source: http://questionsaboutpublicspeaking.com/whats-the-difference-between-a-podium-and-a-lectern/

More voices for the good and the true

The Daily Chronicle, “Never again confuse lectern for a podium”
http://www.daily-chronicle.com/2013/05/06/never-again-confuse-lectern-for-a-podium/b57qunb/

Mannerofspeaking.org, “Podium vs. Lectern”
https://mannerofspeaking.org/2012/03/10/podium-vs-lectern/

Dailywritingtips.com, “Podium vs. Lectern”
www.dailywritingtips.com/podium-vs-lectern/

…and here’s the megasite for all things presentation-related:

Podium-vs-lectern-megasite

Does it really matter?

No and yes. If it were only a matter of clarity, using podium instead of lectern might actually be the better choice. If you ask for a podium, you’ll probably get a lectern. If you ask for a lectern, you’ll probably get a blank stare.

From the Daily Chronicle story cited above…

Just before a speaking engagement at a hotel several years ago, Mose asked a hotel staff member for a lectern, describing its intended use: to hold notes for the presentation. “You mean a podium?” the young man asked. “No, a lectern,” Mose insisted, though he should have known better. The man came back a few minutes later with a lectern, which he continued to refer to as a “podium.”

I won’t give up, but I’m not optimistic. When the White House falls, can the entire free world be far behind? Maybe I’ll reach out to the Lectern people, see if they’re interested in a combination fundraiser | podium/lectern-awareness event: Pennies for Podiums… in the U. K., maybe Pounds for Podiums and, um, Lbs. for Lecterns? Meanwhile, if you’re looking for me, I shouldn’t be hard to spot; I’ll be (sigh) the Last Man Standing.

 

Mary Campbell
July 23, 2016

 

 

 

Put a Stamp on Me, I’m Done

WRONG, WRONGER, WRONGEST

POSTAGEstamp-first-PennyBlack

Penny Black, the first postage stamp

Many of us studied English grammar and usage in the black-and-white school of language-learning favored by the textbooks and teachers of my childhood. To say ain’t, for example, as in “I ain’t got time,” was just plain wrong, only slightly more benign than shoplifting. “He don’t have no lunch” and “me and her already ate” were equally undesirable.

Experience has taught me that a wise and compassionate response to “he don’t have no lunch” might be to give the guy something to eat rather than to correct the speaker’s way of speaking. Assuming that the fellow is indeed lacking a midday meal, “He don’t have no lunch” describes the situation clearly and succinctly.

Further (about which see below), If you set yourself up as an authority on any aspect of the English language, fastidious and vigilant defenders of the opposing point of view will rise up to prove you wrong, throwing nasty clots of evidence like yellow snowballs in your face.

GREENlightFord’s “Go Further” slogan irritates purists who insist that further and farther aren’t synonymous. Further, they argue, means “in addition” as an adjective and “advance” as a verb (“He used the stolen money to further his aims”). Farther is defined as “at or to a greater distance.” In any case, that ship has sailed. The horse is out of the barn. Further and farther are in practice interchangeable and likely to stay that way.

YELLOWlightThe same is true for nauseous as a synonym for nauseated. This, to my way of thinking, is a bit unfortunate, in that nauseous, with the meaning “causing nausea or disgust,” was a yeomanly alternative to nauseating. In that sense, to say “I feel nauseous” would be to declare oneself repulsive. Again… horse, barn.

However nauseous is defined, the preferred pronunciation (according to some authorities) is NAW-see-us rather than NAW-shus. I suspect that this preference is sailing away on the same ship as long-LIVED (rhyming with the second syllable of arrived), now usually heard with a short I, like the in gift.

REDlightTwice in the past year I have heard authors during radio interviews mispronounce enveloped, saying EN-vuh-loped — as in “the travelers were EN-vuh-loped in a dense fog” — rather than en-VEL-upt. In each case, until the solecism occurred, I found the writer interesting and credible. Afterward — post-solecism, if you will — I switched stations. Even the most forgiving commentators on language draw the line somewhere.

Truth in Advertising?

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I'll have what she's having

The Risk-Free Trial? Guilty

Vintage Garden

Vintage Garden, by Xx_rebeldiamonds_xX

Last summer I bit on a “risk-free trial” for an açaí-berry formula and a colon-cleanse detox product, both in capsule form. I was aware of the risks of a “risk-free trial.” The strategy is similar to that used by publishers such as Bottom Line Books and Rodale Books, which let you “examine a book free for thirty days,” during which you could doubtless read the book and send it back, keeping the bonus gift, usually a small but useful guide to Growing Healing Herbs in a Sunny Window, or perhaps Homemade Garden-Pest Repellents.

(At least I suppose that reading a book doesn’t violate the rules for examining it. Or are you just supposed to check the binding, count the pages to make sure they’re all there, and verify that the book is printed on recycled paper and that no animals were harmed in the research, writing, printing, or distribution?)

I lost 12 pounds

In any event, I was quick to read the fine print on my “risk-free trial” of açaí-berry formula and colon-cleanse detox product. I needed to return the bottles containing the “unused product” to an address in Florida within ten days of my receiving them, which the company estimated at three days after shipping. Otherwise, my credit card would be charged $89.95 per month until cancellation.

Usually, it’s a miracle if my mail gets opened within ten days of receipt, but the phrase risk-free trial sets off warning bells. So… an unprecedented TWO days after receiving the product, I extracted my ten-day supply from each bottle and sent the remainder via USPS Priority Mail to the Florida address. Even so, my credit card was charged $89.95.

Astonishingly, the charge was removed without my having to make so much as a phone call. I’ve heard from other victims, however, that such charges can be very sticky.

You are actually at risk the minute you divulge your credit-card information, which is required for the “minimal shipping charge” of $1.95 or whatever.  If you must take the risk-free-trial risk, consider using a temporary (prepaid) credit card and keep the balance very low or cancel it altogether. Or not. Consult your legal professional.

By the way (and DO consult your healthcare professional before trying this regimen), I lost 12 pounds in two months on the colon-cleanse detox capsules.

Next: Truth in Advertising, Your Just Deserts — “Get the Smooth, Flawless, Young-Looking Skin You Deserve”

Below: I thought there was missing text, but it’s just Silly Syntax

From an Arizona Department of Health Services Report…

Neurological Effects [of exposure to hydrogen sulfide in sewer gas]:
Ataxia, choreoathetosis, dystonia, inability to stand in one 20-month-old child


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Speaking of Homophones

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Sidebar: Sound-Alikes

Charlie Chan (http://www.impawards.com/1934/posters/charlie_chan_in_london_xlg.jpg)

Charlie Chan

I read this afternoon — in a novel, by a usually careful or at least painstakingly edited author (Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb) — about how the heroine’s strategy wasn’t succeeding so she decided to try a different tact.

I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Pretending she is British, perhaps? Or emulating Charlie Chan?

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    Sidebar: Pore Me

    pp_sadman

    Pore Me

    Homophones are words that sound alike but that have different meanings and origins — poor, pour, and pore, for example. (Depending on where you were raised, you might pronounce these words slightly differently from one another. Poor might sound a bit like POO-er, and the O sound in pore might be more rounded than that in pour.)

    Pouring Over the Bible

    Pouring Over the Bible

    In a sentence on studying the Bible, in the book Prayer, Faith, and Healing: Cure Your Body, Heal Your Mind, and Restore Your Soul, the authorsKenneth Winston Caine and Brian Paul Kaufman—recommend that we “ponder …[the Bible], study it, and really pour over it [emphasis added].”

    It’s easy to use the wrong member of a set of homophones because sometimes the incorrect word seems to make more sense than the correct one. I thought for years that a sound bite was a sound byte.

    * * *

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    Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)

    [A National Public Radio reporter] said that for some people “Medicare was literally their lifeline.” That is a shocking misuse of literal…. The correct thing to say would be, “Medicare is their virtual lifeline.” [A literal lifeline is]… a rope or a cord on a boat to which sailors can cling to prevent them from falling into the water. [The reporter meant that] Medicare is like a lifeline; it is a figurative lifeline. —From a listener’s letter to NPR.org, published March 29, 2005

    Baby boomers’ almost comic fear of aging reminds me of that silent movie scene in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from the hand of a giant clock, literally pulling time from its moorings [emphasis added by the editor].  —New York Timessyndicated columnist Maureen Dowd, “Recline Yourself, Resign Yourself, You’re Through,” April 13, 2005

    Let us focus for a moment on the difference between literal expressions and nonliteral expressions. By so doing, we will begin to understand how the truth of poetry is genuine and necessary, and we will perhaps not embarrass ourselves by having our grammatical lapses called to the attention of the entire English-speaking public.

    The untidiness of nouns

    How well I remember sitting in Miss McCluskey’s cozy classroom at Dundee Elementary School, wrapped in the schoolroom scents of floor polish, eraser dust, books and paper and Miss McCluskey’s talcum powder, and mesmerized by her passion for parsing sentences. How wonderful to have such power over words, assigning the parts of speech to their proper places in sentences such as “Jane gave the ball to Jim” and “Jane gave Jim the ball.”

    Jane Is Generous

    Figure 1: Jane Is Generous

    It was all so easy then, learning that a noun is “a person, place, or thing,” and the things were always stuff you could handle or eat or touch or see or at least wrap your mind around, like marshmallow, cow, apple, Cincinnati, and Mother.

    Just when you thought you’d mastered the concept, you got promoted to the next grade and they threw stuff at you like this:

    Jane was gripped by excruciating fear.

    Some of my fellow pupils in Miss Rubelman’s class, the future social scientists, actually spared a thought or two for poor Jane and her terror. Why was she so afraid? Was she in an airplane plummeting toward a shark-infested sea? Had her boyfriend, Ned, found out that she was really at the amusement park with Victor when she’d told Ned she was visiting Monique at the hospital? Or was it existential angst wrought by the uncertainties of contemporary society?

    A majority of the class cared nothing about Jane and her problems or about the meaning of excruciating. It was almost time for recess.

    But a few of us had already diagrammed the sentence, as follows: 

    Jane Is Afraid

    Figure 2: Jane Is Afraid

    Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

    Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

    It was as easy to identify the noun — the object of the preposition by (In this case, fear) — as it would have been if Jane had been gripped by a gorilla. Even so, a noun such as fear — not a person, not a place, not exactly a thing — didn’t fit neatly into the little noun-world we had learned about. Suddenly nouns weren’t so tidy. In fact, the whole noun business got out of hand in a hurry. Nouns could be collective, concrete, countable, uncountable, animate, inanimate, mass, proper, and any number of other things — gerunds, infinitives, and on and on and on.

    This, I believe, is where the entire population of the world separates itself into two groups: (1) people who care about nouns, in any form, as well as verbs and conjunctions and subordinate clauses, and (2) people who realize that it’s just going to get more complicated from here on out and it’s probably time to become interested in the opposite sex. I, alas, was One who Cared.

    The people who want to know more about the subjunctive mood, and why “if he were at the party” is different from “if he was at the party”; the people to whom it matters whether to use which or that, as in “It was the pollen that made my eyes water, not the mold, which makes me sneeze” — these people study Latin because verb conjugations aren’t enough for them, they want noun declensions too. These people are doomed to forever probe the Nature of Things, if for no other reason than to line them up in sentence diagrams.

    These people eventually become English majors. You read about them in the newspapers, running their cars off the road while proofreading billboards: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette shou—!” And as the EMTs carry the crash victim’s mangled body to the ambulance, he or she moans, “As a cigarette should. Not like a cigarette should….”

    But this would come later. In elementary school, the future English majors/car-crash survivors were reveling in our discoveries about nouns. A noun could actually be not just a single word —

          Jane found a cat

    — but a whole bunch of words: clauses, clauses within clauses, entire sentences containing three or four prepositional phrases

    Jane found a haunted house in which lived a family of lizards that could speak in Cantonese

    Better yet, nouns could be things that weren’t items but were instead ideas, feelings, concepts, and other intangibles — “things” that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, tasted, or heard. Instead of thinking about her cat, Jane might be thinking about…

    …the dichotomy of good and evil
    …a method of separating egg whites and yolks
    …her future as a thoracic surgeon
    …her desire to throttle her little brother

    The nouns dichotomy, good, evil, separating (here, a gerund), method, future, and desire describe “things” — real, actual, important things — that cannot be discerned by the five physical senses.

    The five senses: their usefulness and their limitations

    We depend so keenly on the five physical senses that the absence of any one of them is tragic. We pity the blind and the deaf, and those whose sense of touch is lost through paralysis.

    The senses of taste and smell are less important; we don’t depend on them for survival, as our primitive ancestors might have. Most of us buy our mushrooms at the grocery store and get our drinking water out of a tap or a bottle. We trust that the grocery-store people don’t stock poisonous mushrooms and that Evian water is pure and clean. Most of the time, our assumptions are justified.

    There are people in this world who have virtually lost the use of all five senses and have yet managed to convey the rich, internal, spiritual life they are experiencing. Such people are rare, and few of us would voluntarily surrender any of our five senses as a path to spiritual purification. Certain individuals do, however, practice sensory deprivation — on purpose — by spending days or weeks in caves. Sometimes the reason for this isolation is to develop what the practitioners consider “spiritual senses” — ways of perceiving that are independent of the five physical senses.

    I hope that you’ll be able to grasp this concept in the comfort of your home. Cave-dwelling isn’t for everyone. There are inconveniences, such as, for example, the proximity of bats.

    My apartment is in an active ninety-year-old church, which is clean and well kept, with modern offices and classrooms and a magnificent sanctuary. But all of us here deal with the occasional bat. People will be chatting in hallways or gathering in their classes when — inexplicably to the clueless observer — everyone screams and runs in some random direction, inevitably smashing into each other in their panic. Bats can be very startling.

    This is especially true if a couple of them fly out from behind your shower while you are showering in it. It’s even worse if the bathroom door is closed and they keep flying around in that erratic sonar-guided way they have, so that you have no idea where they’ll end up or which way to dodge. I speak from experience. One minute I was showering, the next I was naked in the living room, having gotten there without traversing the distance in between, making me the only human being who has ever, literally, made a quantum leap.

    As useful and necessary as the physical senses may be for informing you of the presence of bats, they (the senses, and no doubt the bats as well) are incapable of perceiving abstractions — intangible things — ideas, beliefs, and emotions such as fear, love, happiness, and disgust, as illustrated in Table 1.

    Yuck

    Table 1: Yuck

    Sometimes people make the mistake of classifying tangible things as real and intangibles as unreal. A parent will comfort a child who wakes up in the night, frightened by a dream or an unexplained noise, by saying, “It’s all right. It was only a dream,” or, “It was only your imagination.” Yet it is these intangibles — imagination, dreams, and others, such as love and vengeance — that propel us through life.

    All language is, of course, metaphor. A word is only a symbol of the thing or action it represents. And, as we shall discover, virtually every word in every language — even conjunctions and prepositions — originates in metaphor.

    Lesson 17.1 Assignment

    Find at least ten examples of metaphors in this lesson. E-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

     

    Sidebar: Profanity Revisited

    Fact-oid

    "Just the Facts, Ma'am"

    Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb): "Just the Facts, Ma'am"

    On June 10, I wrote in this blog about justifiable uses of the F-word, occasioned by a late-night intrusion of my apartment and a half-hearted attempt to intrude on my personal self. All’s well that ends well (Shakespeare), and I was only superficially scarred physically and not at all damaged emotionally. I’m pretty sure. Although it shook me up a bit when somebody rang my doorbell, repeatedly, at about 5:30 this morning and refused to identify him- or herself.

    In any case, police detectives have questioned and requestioned me, and at this moment I am looking at a “Victim Profile Sheet” that I’m supposed to fill out. Whoever put together this “Victim Profile Sheet” has, you might say, precarious command of the English language:

    ♦ JUST BEFORE THE INCIDENT — What were you doing? ie. walking, running, came home from work, etc.

    There are several questions about my residence— “Is residence and entryway visible from the street?” “Is residence on alley?” “Multi-level?”

    Here’s the one that has me scratching my head:

    ♦ Is residence indoors?

    Is that a gentle way of asking whether I am homeless? Or do they want to know if I live on the roof?

    I’m tempted to editorialize on my “Victim Profile Sheet,” but the likely response would be: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

    Sidebar

    Metaphors Can Cause Headaches

    Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

    Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

    I read this morning that Barack Obama had named Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and that Senator Obama had done so either before or after (I don’t remember which) “unleashing a fusillade of vitriol” about his opponent, John McCain.

    Writers and speakers of the English language—especially journalists—slip into metaphor-ese automatically, disregarding the literal meanings of the metaphors and throwing various symbols together any which way. That’s forgivable, usually. A language is built mostly on metaphors whose original definitions stopped mattering long ago.

    Unleashing a fusillade of vitriol, however, is just plain nonsense. Fusillade and vitriol are startling words that call attention to themselves, and since the writer was bold and foolish enough to combine them in this way, I feel justified in picking that combination apart.

    What we have here is three words, actually, used metaphorically with feckless indifference to the metaphor’s integrity:

    • unleashing, which means “letting go of”; but to be “unleashed,” a thing must first have been “leashed,” or restrained. It’s common, and appropriate, to speak of “unleashing one’s anger,” which has presumably been pent up. Unleashing a fusillade doesn’t make much sense, really, because it’s hard to picture a fusillade as having its own impetuous energy.
    • fusillade, which is a rapid discharge of gunfire. It isn’t the bullets themselves, or the guns, or the people firing them.
    • vitriol—sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical, often used as a metaphor for “abusive language” or “invective.”

    We native speakers of English know what the writer means, which is that Barack Obama harshly criticized John McCain. But someone who is just beginning to understand the English language might easily be flummoxed. She sees unleashing, and pictures a dog straining at and perhaps breaking his tether. She sees fusillade and thinks, perhaps, of the action of a firing squad. Then she reads vitriol, which she knows to be a particularly nastily corrosive liquid that she has read about in detective or crime stories, where it is thrown in the face of an enemy, usually for vengeance or retribution.

    Add it up and you have, what, impatiently frisky rapid-fire emissions from squirt guns? I don’t know. I can’t think about it any more. It gives me a headache.

    Sidebar

    Bugged

    I can live with sloppy grammar—sometimes. Regionalisms and colloquialisms don’t bother me—much. I ain’t got no time to worry over them things.

    Here’s what bugs me: imprecise usage, when the words being misused have such distinct meanings. I am particularly annoyed by the following:

    • disinterested, when the speaker or writer means uninterested
    • alternate, when the speaker or writer means alternative

    Disinterested means, roughly, “unbiased.” A judge, for example, is supposed to be a disinterested party in a trial, but you wouldn’t want your judge to be uninterested, would you? Well, you might, depending on the circumstances. Don’t tell me, I’m better off not knowing….

    Alternate, as a noun, means “every second one of a series” or, very roughly, “substitute”; as a verb, it means “swing back and forth between two states or conditions.” Alternative, as a noun or an adjective, refers to one of two or more options.

    • I take tuba lessons on alternate Tuesdays.
    • Francesco and I alternate as Richard III in Richard III.
    • There are rest rooms on alternate floors [that is, on every other floor].
    • We could drive to Walla Walla, or, as an alternative, we could roller skate.

    I get pretty irked, for me, when I read (as I just did, in Nora Roberts’s Ceremony in Death), “Alban—no known alternate name—born 3-22-2020….” Roberts also consistently, tediously, and infuriatingly uses disinterested when she means uninterested. (Ceremony in Death is published under Roberts’s alternative pen name, J. D. Robb. Alternate might be marginally appropriate here because, as far as I know, she has only two pen names and she goes back and forth with them, in a manner of speaking. If she had several pen names to choose among, “J. D. Robb” would be one of the alternatives.)

    Strictly speaking, a thing can have only one alternate. Thus if I work at the popcorn counter every three days, taking turns with Betty Sue and Napoleon, we do not (strictly speaking, as I said), alternate. But that usage wouldn’t make me rip out my eyeballs, as I do frequently when reading Nora Roberts, though she does write a fine tale… where was I? Oh. That usage (re Betty Sue, Napoleon, and me) isn’t as troublesome because there’s no good alternative verb. “Take turns” doesn’t quite work; it sounds too playful.

    Okay, that’s it. Thank you for allowing me to purge here in print. The only alternative is to rip out my eyeballs, and I’ve exhausted my supply.