Category Archives: syntax

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The Risk-Free Trial? Guilty

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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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Person, Place, or Thing

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 17
Chapter 7: Metaphorically Speaking
Part 1: Things That Don’t Go Bump in the Night

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

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.

 

Poetic Devices

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 16
Chapter 6: Figuratively Speaking

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849
The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849

 

Figures of speech are tools of poetry. Please do not even think about memorizing this list. The most important concepts are those in bold type.

Figures of Speech (Rhetorical Devices)

Figures of speech are linguistic tools that turn plain writing into art. They are words or phrases used in nonliteral, unexpected ways — for any of a hundred reasons, including

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

* emphasis
* elaboration
* dramatic effect
* tone (resonance, smoothness, softness, roughness…)
* clarity
* deliberate ambiguity
* shading
* freshness
* humor

 

Figures of speech are sometimes classified as schemes and tropes. There is, as you can see, a good deal of overlap between schemes and tropes.

Schemes

Figures of speech involving the arrangement (balance, order, repetition, or omission) of words or sounds

Balance

Parallelism-Repetitive use of a grammatical element (in the example below, repetition of gerund phrases)

Standing on the corner, watching all the world go by;
Standing on the corner, giving all the girls the eye. (1)

Antithesis-Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas

When they met, Alice was pure uptown; Jake was down on his luck.

Word Order

Anastrophe-Departure from usual word order

[Death] dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell —John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet 10 (“Death, be not proud”)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Parenthesis — A clarifying word or phrase within a sentence, set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses

My friend, the writer I was so jealous of, would call and say, like some Southern belle, “I just don’t know why God is giving me so much money this year.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (2)

Four of the church’s elders — all women — …were having a prayer meeting. — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Appositive — A parenthetical element that defines or renames (is in apposition to) an adjacent element (In the example below, the “something” that “glittered in her eyes” was “tears or old memories.”)

Something glittered in her eyes — tears or old memories…. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Repetition

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.” — C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Assonance — Repetition of a vowel sound or similar vowel sounds

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. — W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (The poem opens with the words, “That is no country for old men,” from which American author Cormac McCarthy drew the title of his 2005 novel. The film adaptation 2007 film adaptation earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 

Anaphora — Beginning successive clauses or phrases with the same word or group of words

I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Zoroastrian nor Muslim,
I am not from east or west, not from land or sea,
not from the shafts of nature nor from the spheres of the firmament,
not of the earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire. — Rumi

Epistrophe — The same word or phrase used to end consecutive clauses. (The following example illustrates both anaphora [“They compassed me about”] and epistrophe.)

And all nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them.
They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.
They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. —
Psalm 118:10-12

______________

* aposiopesis: A break or pause in speech for dramatic effect

Paul grabbed hold of Haffner’s shirt, tearing seams. “If you had anything to do with Eve’s murder — ”
— Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

* apostrophe: Addressing a personified abstraction or inanimate object

0 Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light. —
Robert Frost, “Take Something Like a Star”

* cacophony: Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. — Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky

* consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds, especially the final consonants of accented syllables, often within a short passage of verse

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

This is why I live here,
this immaculate occasion once
a day. Desert turns to fairyland,
early-morning light turns drab
dead gray to glory, wind stirs
sunlit leaves like thirty kinds of
lettuce, green and gold, green
and gold, limb motion whispers;
creosote and squat mesquite
quiver in devotion —
sweet-smelling, sunlight-drenched, still
cool and fresh and equal to the
coming heat. —
Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* enjambment: A breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses.

I wonder — How can people find
the world such a contaminated
kind of place when sunlight
reaches into every pore of
being — sanctifying, desiccating foul
detritus of anxiety and indolence? — Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* euphony: The opposite of cacophony — pleasant sounding, perhaps mellifluous

Lord Byron's House in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Lord Byron's house in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o’er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place. — Lord Byron, “She Walks in Beauty, Like the Night”

* homographs: Words that are identical in spelling but different in origin and meaning

Claire ripped the ruffle off her petticoat and wound it around the delirious soldier’s wound.

* homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but differing in origin and meaning.

key: “metal piece that works a lock,” from O.E. cæg
key: “low island,” 1697, from Sp. cayo “shoal, reef” (3 )

* homophones: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation but differing in origin and meaning (led and lead, for example)

* hyperbole: Exaggeration beyond reason (“Yo’ mamma” jokes are hyperbolic: “Yo’ mamma so fat she got her own ZIP code.”)

* isocolon: Juxtaposition of parallel structures of the same length in adjacent clauses: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

* internal rhyme: The presence of rhyming words in a single line of verse

…where
children, hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing in the
breeze. Inside, bread rises in the oven, herbs depend from
oaken beams, and last night’s chicken in its steaming broth
becomes this evening’s stew,
tomorrow’s casserole. — Mary Campbell, “On This Side”

Yeast bread rising before baking

Yeast bread rising before baking

* non sequitur: A statement that marks an abrupt, and often puzzling, change of subject

* onomatopoeia: The quality (of a word) of sounding like what is described: the buzzing of bees, the bark of a dog; a hacking cough; hiss; murmur, thrum

* pun: Use of a word or phrase in two different senses at the same time

* sibilance: Alliteration in which the letter or sound of S is repeated

* superlative: Unequaled; uttermost

* spoonerism: Interchanging of (usually initial) letters of words with amusing effect (“Madam, may I sew you to your sheet?”)

* tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice (“Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”; “I decided to go to New York because it was my decision to go to New York.”)

* tmesis: Division of the elements of a compound or other multisyllabic word (Example: “Hoo-freaking-ray”)

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. —Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Tropes

In linguistics, trope is a rhetorical figure of speech that consists of a play on words — that is, using a word in a way other than what is considered its literal or expected form. The other major category of figures of speech is the scheme (see above), which involves changing the pattern of words in a sentence.

Trope comes from a Greek word meaning “a turn, a change.” We can imagine a trope as a way of turning a word away from its normal meaning, or turning it into something else.

Types of Tropes

Metonymy — Using a word associated with an object or idea for the object or idea itself (e.g., referring to actions of the U.S. president as “actions of the White House”)

Irony — A word are phrase used in a way that is opposite to its standard meaning, such as describing poverty as “good times”

Simile — An explicit comparison between two things using the word like or as (“When she was angry, she was as fierce as a tiger,” and “When she was angry, she was like a tiger” are examples of simile; “When she was angry, she was a tiger” exemplifies a metaphor.)

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Metaphor — Representation of an object or idea — often intangible —using a tangible, dissimilar substitute (“My mother had a cocker spaniel’s eyes and a lion’s heart.”)

Synecdoche — Related to metonymy and metaphor, creates a play on words by referring to something with a related concept: for example, referring to the whole with the name of a part, such as “hired hands” for workers; a part with the name of the whole, such as “the law” for police officers; the general with the specific, such as “bread” for food; the specific with the general, such as “cat” for a lion; or an object with the material it is made from, such as “bricks and mortar” for a building

Allegory — A sustained metaphor, carried through entire stories, sometimes even long works of literature, such as The Faerie Queen. An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject. Aesop’s Fables are usually short allegories.

______________

* allusion: An indirect reference to a quotation, event, or work of literature. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” is a common allusion to Judy Garland’s famous line in the (1939) film version of The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

* anthimeria: The substitution of one part of speech for another, often turning a noun into a verb

* anthropomorphism: A word or phrase that ascribes human characteristics to something that is not human, such as an animal or a god (see zoomorphism)

* aphorism: A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion, an adage

* aporia: Deliberating with oneself, often with the use of rhetorical questions

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

* archaism: Use of an obsolete, archaic, word (a word used in olden language)

* catachresis: A mixed metaphor (sometimes used on purpose and sometimes by mistake)

* circumlocution: “Talking around” a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis

* commiseration: Evoking pity in the audience.

* double negative: Redundant repetition of negative words (“I don’t have no money.”)

* dysphemism: Substitution of a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable term for another. Opposite of euphemism.

* erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question

* euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another (e.g., downsizing for layoffs)

* hypophora: Answering one’s own rhetorical question at length

* innuendo: Sly suggestion; hidden meaning

* invocation: An apostrophe to a god or muse

* malapropism: Confusing a word with another word that sounds similar (“Put your hand in the hand of the man who spilled the water.”)

* meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something

* metonymy: Substitution of a related word or phrase for a larger idea.

Many standard items of vocabulary are metonymic. A red-letter day is important, like the feast days marked in red on church calendars. Red tide, the marine disease that kills fish, takes its name from the color of one-celled, plantlike animals in the water…. On the level of slang, a redneck is a stereotypical member of the white rural working class in the Southern U.S., originally a reference to necks sunburned from working in the fields. — Connie C. Eble, “Metonymy,” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992

* neologism: The use of a word or term that has recently been created, or has been in use for a short time. Opposite of archaism.

* oxymoron: Contradiction in terms; using two terms together that normally contradict each other (e.g., “sour sweetness”)

* parable: An extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson

* paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth

* parallel irony: An ironic juxtaposition of sentences or situations (informal)

* paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over

* pathetic fallacy: Ascribing human actions or feelings to nonhuman objects

* periphrasis: Using several words instead of few

* personification/prosopopoeia/anthropomorphism: Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena (see pathetic fallacy)

* proverb: A succinct or pithy expression of what is commonly observed and believed to be true

* rhetorical question: A query that doesn’t require an answer

* superlative: Uttermost: the ugliest, the most precious, etc.

* synecdoche: A form of metonymy in which a part stands for the whole (Example: “Keep your nose out of my business.”)

* truism: A self-evident statement

* zoomorphism: Animal characteristics ascribed to humans or gods

_________

1 From the song “Standing on the Corner,” by Frank Loesser 1956), composed for the Broadway Musical The Most Happy Fella. Recorded by the pop quartet the Four Lads, it reached number 3 on the charts that year.

2 The parenthetical phrase “the writer I was so jealous of” is also an appositive; it is in apposition to “my friend.”

3 Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=key, accessed May 20, 2008

Next: If Only I’d Gone to Parma

 

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.

The Thing Is Is

In a Tuesday news conference, Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama responded to comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on Monday. Wright had said, among other things, “Based on [the] Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything,” including introducing the AIDS virus into the black community as a form of genocide.

Senator Obama’s reaction: “All it was was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth.”

Why would a well-educated, manifestly articulate public figure such as Barack Obama use the clumsy phrase “All it was was…”?

All it was was is a cousin to the common construction the thing is is. How troublesome such word combinations must be to nonnative English-speakers who are trying to learn the language.

Here’s the thing: The little groupings the thing is and all it was have become, essentially, familiar noun phrases—roughly synonymous with “the crux of the matter” or “what it boils down to.”  So familiar are these colloquialisms that they are easily processed by American minds, as follows:

SUBJECT: All it was
VERB: was
SUBJECT COMPLEMENT (or PREDICATE NOMINATIVE): a bunch of rants….

Senator Obama might better have said, “What it amounted to was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth.” But speaking under duress and off the cuff, any of us might have used the less graceful syntax.

In fact, in Senator Obama’s position, I, the Writing Queen, might have used less felicitous language, along the lines of, “All it was was a noisome mass of bovine fecal matter.” Or words to that effect.

  • Got a question about grammar, syntax, or bovine fecal matter? Please leave a comment.
  • Purge your writing of bovine fecal matter. See Write Better Right Now at www.LifeIsPoetry.net.

Of Lists, Commas, and Doubtful Parentage

 

One of my former jobs was to introduce new faculty members in a college newsletter. At least half of each introduction consisted of the person’s educational attainments, teaching awards, innumerable publications, and so forth. The dean insisted that the entire introduction be in narrative format, so I was constantly inventing new ways to say, “After earning his Master of Science degree at Prestigious University, he received a Ph.D. from Even More Prestigious University, where he continued to teach until joining the faculty of Backwater University,” and so forth.

When you are conveying data, as above, the data belong in a list — which may be in paragraph format or in the usual “list format,” one item under another. List format has the advantage of breaking up daunting blocks of text.

Either way, items in a list should be parallel (similar in type and construction).

Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback riding, and making crank phone calls. [All items in the list are gerunds or gerund phrases.]

No: Our powerful software is flexible, intuitive, easy-to-use and integrates seamlessly with your other tools.

No: Artemis’s Labrador retriever, Margaret, had several jobs in the household:
1. She licked Artemis’s face when he was sad.
2. She brought Artemis his pipe and slippers every evening.
3. Barking at intruders.

No: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and the opera.

Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and going to the opera.

 

 

About the Harvard Comma, or the Oxford Comma, or whatever you want to call the comma that belongs before the final item in a series

I’m for it. Associated Press style omits it. Here’s an example, followed by my rationale:

With Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole, and peanut butter on my eggs, please.
Without Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole and peanut butter on my eggs, please.

1. When you say it out loud, your voice pauses after guacamole. One of the purposes of a comma is to signal such a pause. Be courteous to your readers: Let them go with the flow of text that simulates natural speech.

2. Often the items in a series are phrases rather than single words. In complex sentences, omitting the final comma can muddy the meaning, causing the reader to reexamine the sentence or stop reading altogether. I know what you’re going to say: If the sentence is that complex, it should be recast. Here’s what I say: Go soak your head.

3. Even in short sentences or phrases, omitting the Harvard comma can be all but fatal, as in the famous (possibly apocryphal) book dedication “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Adapted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell
GOT A QUESTION? Enter it as a comment, or e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net

 

Ah! I Am Writing

Bad writers sit down to write, and they think, “Ah, I am writing. I must use special Writing Language.” These people may communicate beautifully in conversation, but their writing is stilted and usually verbose. They write to impress rather than to communicate.

The difference between writing and conversing is that conversation isn’t a unit. When you are talking with, say, Marcella, she is usually talking too. So your conversation is interactive. You and Marcella give each other verbal and nonverbal cues that guide the conversation. You can tell if she doesn’t understand something, and you say it a different way. You can also use body language to make your point. The two of you make constant little adjustments to keep the communication flowing.

When you’re writing, however, the reader (Arturo) can choose to read or not read your writing (unless he is your English teacher). He can stop reading at any time without letting you know. Arturo bases his choice on three things:

(1) his interest in the subject,
(2) the energy in your writing (your style), and
(3) the integrity (unity) of your narrative (that is, does the piece hang together?).

Excerpted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell, designed for business writing but useful for any nonfiction genre

GOT A QUESTION? Enter it as a comment, or e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net.