Ceely's Modern Usage

Are there grafs in blooks?
There are two ways to spell "Renaissance," one of which I dislike. Doesn't matter: that disliked version is a legitimate, recognized variant of the word, and is to be accepted as such. Furthermore, that is how it should be.

Such liberality does not extend to the internet-created mistake "medireview," nor do I tolerate such frontal assaults on the language as "irregardless" and "thru." They are monstrous.

Which is why I was delighted to find this story this morning, in the online Telegraph: what, indeed, is the most irritating internet word?

But while the internet may be responsible for the greatest blossoming of new phrases since Shakespeare it has also been blamed for some of the most irritating.

Now a poll has revealed the web-related words that drive most computer users up the wall. "Folksonomy" was voted the most annoying new phrase in a survey to mark the 10th anniversary of the word "web-log".
But...no, not entirely. I've never encountered some of these words outside the Telegraph story itself. I refer to "folksonomy" and to " blook," although, yes, "folksonomy" is irksome, and "blook" should be a hanging offense in any civilized community. But others, it seems to me, were created out of necessity -- "blog," and "blogosphere," and "podcast," for example. Need noted. Word created. Done.

I demand equal time in a room, alone, with those 2000 poll respondents, for an offense of their own: they omitted (oh, it's all spite, I'm sure of it) some of the monstrosities I would have included. Where is "graf," eh? Where is "lede?" Where is the here's-proof-of-my-hipness "money quote?"

Zinsser noted, decades ago, that "ripped off" had graduated from slang to English because it filled a legitimate need in a colorful, vital way. He was right, too. I would extend the same consideration to "blog" and to "burn a CD." But "blook" and "lede" offer us nothing: they serve only to corrupt the mother tongue.

YouGov should conduct this poll again, and often, and the Telegraph should report the results. It should in fact be celebrated throughout the, er, the blogosphere. Absitively! There should not, I hasten to add, be any "ledes" or, heaven help us, "money quotes." Nor should a collection of the findings be published as a "blook." We have enough problems already.

Why, enough, in fact, to fill a ... well, not a "blook." Not if I can help it.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Craig)
Publ.Date : Sun, 24 Jun 2007 00:55:00 +0000

Errors in Speaking and Writing, Part I
There are still lots of things to be learned from Lessons in Our Language (Quackenbos, 1882), as well as a couple of things to scratch our heads over.


Errors in speaking and writing are so numerous that the student cannot be too watchful for avoiding them. The most common mistakes have already been pointed out; further examples of these, arranged promiscuously, follow.

Apparently, "promiscuous" did not yet have the connotation it does today. I just cannot see using the word in a textbook that doesn't deal with psychology or sexuality. However, I have found that the old Randomhouse dictionary gives it no such connotation. It merely means "indiscriminate" or "casual." So, moving along.

Five dollars are a small sum to leave to the poor.

Five dollars being referred to as one sum, the verb are should be changed to the singular form is.

But we knew that, because we read Ceely's Modern Usage.

It was supposed that his first act would have been to have hurled defiance at his enemies.

The reference here is to an act future as regards the time when it was supposed. But have does not express future time; say would be and hurl.

The next one is an error that is still quite common, and many of us fall victim to it. However, we can see how correcting it would make our writing much more precise.

The class should here be shown a globe.

It is the globe that should be shown, and not the class. Make the right noun the subject: -- "A globe should be shown to the class."

And one more.

On examining his horse's foot, he found his shoe was loose and cutting his hoof.

In the first part of the sentence, his and he are used with reference to the rider; in the latter part, his is used for the horse. Change to "the shoe." "the hoof." -- In the same sentence, do not apply the same pronoun to different persons or things.

Now, here are a few sentences to correct on your own.

Five-eighths are more than one-half.

Another, perhaps, might have been able to have managed the affair better than me.

We were presented with sweet smelling nosegays.

When they looked at their stock of provisions they found they were near ruined with salt-water.

Angry men permit of no explanations nor apologies.

I have to say that your guess is as good as mine on some of these. The book does not provide an answer key.

Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Tue, 12 Jun 2007 13:42:00 +0000

Too Fine
I've been gleaning old newspapers for genealogical tidbits - and I have found many good tidbits - and marveling at the news I find therein. Gruesome deaths, freak accidents, and brutal murders appeared on the same pages as notices that the "Misses Myers have returned from visiting friends in Chicago," and that the little daughter of Frank Bond had a birthday party and here is a list of the 5 to 10-year-olds who attended (my grandfather was mentioned in one such as this). But when I ran across this, I had to scratch my head.

Fort Wayne Weekly Gazette, Thursday, May 7, 1896

'Twas Too Fine

The Police Sends a Traveling Show Out of Town

A "fine art" show opened up Saturday in the vacant room adjoining the old National Bank, and it had run but a little time until word came to Superintendent Ligget that it was entirely "too fine." He made an investigation and the result was that the outfit was ordered out of town. The proprietor was quite indignant, but he had to go. He claimed that he had showed in Detroit and other large cities, and had never before been molested.

One can only assume that the show contained nudes, but I find the euphemism "too fine" a bit "too cute." I suppose readers of the paper knew exactly what it meant, but I have to wonder if even they thought the phrase was reaching a bit.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Wed, 06 Jun 2007 14:09:00 +0000

The Unwritten Laws
I thought this was pretty interesting: there are rules that aren't really taught to native speakers of English, but are known anyway. By absorption, I guess.

Having done a lot of reading and writing in my time, some of it for that purest of reasons (the pursuit of filthy lucre), I'm quite uncomfortably familiar with the notion of Ruth Walker's title: "Rules no one teaches but everyone learns." Familiar because that's the way of it, really. Uncomfortable because I want to know more of the rules, the theory, the structure. My ambition is to take a side in The Great Adverb War.

And...to blog it.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Craig)
Publ.Date : Fri, 01 Jun 2007 04:17:00 +0000

Literally and Metaphorically
It has come to our attention that there exists a blog with the unlikely name of "Literally: A Weblog." It describes itself in its subtitle as "An English grammar blog tracking abuse of the word 'literally.'" An unlikely mission as well.

Ceely's Modern Usage approves (in fact, it's blogrolled here). We're just afraid to discover a blog tracking misuse of "hopefully..."
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Craig)
Publ.Date : Fri, 01 Jun 2007 03:51:00 +0000

"All Your Lives Are Belong To Us"
A post by Andrew Stuttaford the other day brought this John Edwards quote to my attention:

One of the things we ought to be thinking about is some level of mandatory service to our country, so that everybody in America _ not just the poor kids who get sent to war _ are serving this country...

So this John Edwards, a lawyer, believes "everybody in America are serving this country" to be acceptable grammar. Hmm. Ceely's Modern Usage does not agree.

Furthermore, we find such statism particularly offensive on this observation of Memorial Day, and hereby declare our anti-endorsement of John Edwards.

Finally, a Ceely's Modern Usage Fearless Political Prediction: John Edwards will never be the President of the United States of America. Everybody here are quite sure of that.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Craig)
Publ.Date : Sun, 27 May 2007 18:15:00 +0000

The Economist Style Guide
Jonah Goldberg at The Corner posted "Useful stuff we should all know, but most don't, " in which he linked to "Some common solecisms". Some interesting stuff from the list:

Blooded means pedigreed or initiated. Bloodied means wounded.
Cartel. A cartel is a group that restricts supply in order to drive up prices. Do not use it to describe any old syndicate or association of producers?especially of drugs.
Cassandra's predictions were correct but not believed.

And if you read the whole list, you'll encounter one I thought was quite well put:

Like governs nouns and pronouns, not verbs and clauses. So as in America not like in America. But authorities like Fowler and Gowers is a perfectly acceptable alternative to authorities such as Fowler and Gowers.

And -- why,yes, authorities do like Fowler and Gowers. I do.

More here. The links to the Johnson essays require a subscription, but the link to Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" takes you to a great read.

One of these days I'll sit down with a cup of tea and do an item-by-item comparison: the Style Guide from The Economist and this one.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Craig)
Publ.Date : Fri, 04 May 2007 02:22:00 +0000

Just a Quick Note
I realize it's been quiet around here. My apologies. We will, perhaps, have something to write about in the near future. Until then, you might click over to Home Educator magazine where I have an article on How to Teach Using 19th Century Readers. (Please note that the various typos are not necessarily mine. I know I sent them a clean copy.)
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Sun, 31 Dec 2006 15:21:00 +0000

Its a Sin, Its a Crime -- It\'s an Error!
Some errors, increasingly annoying today, are in fact old enough to have been recognized by Fowler.

Yes, that Fowler.

In his (Fowler's; pay attention!) Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, he devotes two pages to it, and well he should; our concern here is on page 303, with item number 4 of that topic:
4. The possessive of it, like that of who, & the absolute forms in -s of her, their, our, and your, has no apostrophe : its, hers, theirs, ours, yours, not it's &c.

Pretty succinct, I think -- and, to reward our loyal readers, particularly fellow admirers of H. W. Fowler, I offer A Guilty Pleasure at the end of this post.

(The 1965 second edition (ably revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers), contains a slightly briefer version on page 312 of Fowler's original entry.)

In both cases the brevity of the treatment leads one to believe that confusion between its and it's was occasional, not rampant. That situation no longer obtains, as witness R. W. Burchfield's treatment on page 422 in the Third (1996) edition of Fowler:
its, it's. Just a reminder that its is the possessive form of it (the cat licked its paws) and that it's is a shortened form of it is (It's raining again) or it has (It's come).

Note that the confusion itself now rates its own entry!

Now, how difficult can it be to avoid this error? The distinction is taught to very young children, yet otherwise literate adults fumble it every day -- and as we can see, all three editions of Fowler discuss it. What to do, what to do? How does one avoid this error?

Once again, we turn to the sources held at the Ceely's Modern Usage Library.

In Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, Patricia T. O'Conner explains it the way I generally do: "If you can substitute it is, use it's."

She also says, on page 39, "It, like he and she, is a pronoun -- a stand-in for a noun -- and pronouns don't have apostrophes when they're possessives: His coat is too loud because of its color, but hers is too mousy." We'll return to this business of possessive pronouns with apostrophes, because there is one. Do you know what it is?

(I didn't guess it, either, but I enjoyed the discovery anyway.)

Richard Lederer and Richard Dowris, in their delightful Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged, say the same thing:
Of course, possessive pronouns (his, hers, mine, ours, its, et al.) exist on their own and are not "formed" by apostrophes.
Lederer has nice words (on the back cover) for Nitty-Gritty Grammar: A Not-So-Serious Guide to Clear Communication by Edith H. Fine and Judith P. Josephson. They devote page 20 "Pronouns As Possessives (they list my, mine, our, ours, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, their, theirs, and whose; they're missing one). They also have a great little mnemonic at the bottom of the page:
TIP: Possessive its never splits.
Constance Hale gets serious in Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, in which she speaks of "the one truly unforgivable sin that haunts the use of pronouns:"
Possessive pronouns are all apostrophe-less: my, your, his, hers, its. Who's and it's are contractions of Who is and it is.

Learn this or die.
That's all there is, before we get to our little treat at the end (in a seasonally appropriate vein, it's also a bit of a trick). Keep two things in mind, one tip and one test:

1. The tip: Possessive its never splits, from Nitty-Gritty Grammar.

2. The test: Are you saying "It is?" If so, go ahead and use your apostrophe (Patricia T. O'Conner recommends this test, too, remember).

And now, Our Guilty Pleasure...disagreeing with the distinguished writers I've cited here. They all say that possessive pronouns aren't formed by apostrophes -- but that's not quite so (and I gave you a clue, above; did you spot it?).

Kingsley Amis, in The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage, has no entry for distinguishing it's from its. He does, though, have an entry for "Apostrophe," and on page 15 of the book we're directed to common errors, one of which is
(a) Putting in an apostrophe where none is needed, as with possessive pronouns such as its, ours, yours, theirs; though an apostrophe is required in one's.
I told you it was tricky, and if you knew that one already, then my compliments to you! And as I said above, I didn't guess this one, either. Well, British English does differ from the American, but not that much. I've used "one" and "one's" before, so I should have gotten it: but Richard Lederer and Constance Hale should have gotten it, too!
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Unknown)
Publ.Date : Mon, 16 Oct 2006 16:26:00 +0000

Bad Writing: On the Efficaciousness of Not Obfuscating the Obvious
I have to rant on a subject that has been making me crazy for many years now. Why do some authors of "scholarly" works feel the need to use jargon and incomprehensible pseudo-scientific sentence constructions to make themselves sound important? This language, which I will call "PhDese," is found in every discipline. It's like a coded language that only scholars who have been through grad school can understand: it's a way to sort the riff from the raff. I remember encountering it in grad school when reading articles and books by prominent scholars in the field of modern art theory, and thinking what a crock it really was. Now I am encountering it in Library Science papers, which may be some of the most useless pieces of "scholarship" on the planet. I suppose when a librarian gets a PhD, he feels the need to sound like he deserves it. PhDese is a way to take fairly simple and often lame ideas and conflate them to make them sound new, innovative and important.

Now a lot of people can tease the meaning out of this type of writing. Well, so can I. My point is, I shouldn't have to. Why should I read the sentence 3 times to get its meaning? How is this "good writing?" I am a graduate of, and was a teacher for, The Little Red Schoolhouse, a reasonably well-known and highly respected writing program at the University of Chicago. Their emphasis was on being clear and concise. And that's how we should all write, clearly and concisely.

So I was reading this article, "A Service Framework for Libraries" (D-Lib Magazine, vol 12, no 7/8, 2006), and found myself wondering what the hell they were actually trying to say. This was for a class for which we were supposed to find 3 points in the article and comment on them. My main point was that they had only one point, and the rest was gobbledy-gook. It took them 10 pages to say that libraries needed a standard for library services and that this particular group was going to work on that. That's all. Everything else was filler, examples, and incomprehensible prose. Let me elaborate.

First of all, any paper that spends an inordinate amount of time and space defining the terms they are using has a problem. The problem is that they already know that few people will have a clue what they are trying to say. For instance, here is their definition of "service framework."
A service framework is a set of reference models, along with a set of concepts and vocabulary for expressing and relating them. The service framework ? i.e., vocabulary and reference models ? covers the range of entities relevant to the articulation of library business goals at varying levels of granularity, as well as the services that support these goals.

Then they had to define "reference model:"
A reference model is defined as a formal description of a library activity, expressed using consistent, well-defined terminology and relationships.
Then they defined "service:"
A service is a discrete piece of functionality, manifested in the form of a technical implementation, and deployed for use, usually on a network (e.g., as a Web service).
And "abstract service:"
Abstract Service: conceptualization of a business function as a discrete piece of functionality (possibly networked), consisting of a description of its functional scope and an abstract model of its behavior and data.
With each definition their language gets progressively more pseudo-technical to the point where it makes no sense at all. What does it really mean to "conceptualize ... a business function?" What is a "discrete piece of functionality?" These authors are making their readers work far to hard to understand their meaning.

A second problem is the use of everyday English words in unorthodox ways.
Decomposing library activities into granular, self-contained functions helps us better understand libraries, and in doing so, helps in the development of flexible, consistent library services.
I'm sorry, but in American English - and probably in British English as well - something that is decomposing is an organic thing, and it's dead. And granular applies to sand and salt and the like.

I have heard the argument that it just takes practice to be able to read this stuff, that the more you read, the easier it gets to understand. I might concede that point if I didn't feel that the only reason people do it is to sound like they know more than they actually do. Or perhaps they just feel that they will sound stupid or ignorant if they don't write this way. I don't know the real reasons behind it. All I know is that I prefer my prose to be straightforward, clear, concise and non-obfuscated.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Fri, 11 Aug 2006 16:24:00 +0000

What Not To Use
I find it interesting to see what early textbooks tell us not to do. It gives us a fair idea of what was once "common" usage, otherwise why mention it? Lesson XXXIV in Illustrated Lessons in Our Language (Quackenbos, 1882, p. 47) presents us with these possessive pronouns.
Do not use hisn for HIS; hern for HERS;
ourn for OURS; yourn for YOURS;
theirn for THEIRS; who's for WHOSE.
These possessive forms do not take the apostrophe.

I think that most of us would consider such usage particular to parts of the deep south. It may even sound ignorant to certain (northern) ears. But it must, at one time, have been more widespread before our hard-working school-marms stamped it out.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Sat, 08 Jul 2006 00:24:00 +0000

My thanks the the editoress for pointing out the unfortunate spelling of "apsotrophe" in my blogroll. It has been corrected.

I or my partner will post in the next day or so. I've been away on vacation, but will be back in the swing of things soon.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Thu, 06 Jul 2006 19:15:00 +0000

Foreign Words
An interesting lesson from Illustrated Lessons in Our Language by G.P Quackenbos, 1882, discusses how to create plurals from foreign words:
Some English words of foreign origin retain their foreign plurals, changing us to i, is to es, and um or on to a: as,
Alumnus, alumni.
Crisis, crises.
Animalculum, animalcula.
Phenomenon, phnomena.
Some words of foreign origin take both the foreign and a regular English plural; as,
Beau, beaux or beaus.
Cherub, cherubim or cherubs.
English is full of foreign words. So many, in fact, that a great deal of them shouldn't really be considered "foreign" any longer. Quackenbos lists many Latin words which may be considered so thoroughly incorporated into the English language as to be English. After all, many English words have Latin or Greek roots. The exercises following the above lesson present several challenges. Decide if the following words are plural or singular, then see if you know what its opposite is:


(Let me know if you want me to post the answers in the comments :)
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Tue, 13 Jun 2006 21:23:00 +0000

While I will normally just add blogs to my blogroll quietly and without fanfare, I came across a new one that made me want to point it out to my readers. Separated By A Common Language is a blog by an American living in the UK. I particularly liked the problem of "how long... it takes for a person to lose the intuition for what's in your own dialect and what you've acquired in a second dialect." Since I have lived in the US all my life, this shouldn't be a problem I have ever had to deal with. However, having also spent much of that time watching Monty Python, Masterpiece Theater, Dr.Who and all those wonderful Brit Coms (Vicar of Dibley, Keeping Up Appearances, Yes, Minister, Absolutely Fabulous, etc.) I have found that I am rather more comfortable with British English than I might otherwise have been. I also find the difference between the two dialects fascinating.

Keeping with the theme of liking all things British, I introduce you to The Perorations of Lady Bracknell. You may have noticed from my previous posts that I enjoy the "higher" English of the 19th century. I recently tried to introduce an acquaintance to H.H.Munro (aka Saki). She sat down to read a story, but could not concentrate enough to "translate" the language (I sent it to her via email so she could read it in quiet). It hadn't occurred to me that my tastes might be so esoteric. I have always enjoyed reading this type of literature. Well, Lady Bracknell may well be Saki reincarnated. She is witty, funny, and her use of the English language is nothing if not masterful. Well worth the read.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Tue, 06 Jun 2006 03:14:00 +0000

Ye Olde Curiosity
I am not a big fan of RenFaire Speak. The few times I encountered someone at a fair attempting to speak to me using "the" and "thou" I wanted to strangle them, or at least tell them to stop. Having been in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) I can say that people who are serious about the "modern middle ages" usually dispense with "the" and "thou," knowing how painful it is to discerning ears when not done with absolute perfection and confidence.

While trying to find actual proper usage of "the" and "thou" I came across this interesting tidbit in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W.Fowler (1937):
ye. The pronunciation of this is the, not ye, the y being not our letter, but a representation of the obsolete single letter (called thorn) now replaced by th. [italics mine-AC]
Well, I never knew that. It often seemed to be used as a replacement for "the" but I never really knew why. I think many of us assumed it also meant "you." There you go.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Alexandra)
Publ.Date : Fri, 02 Jun 2006 13:58:00 +0000