Archive for October 2010

Principal’s Bad Grammar Angers Parents (link)

October 30, 2010

Principal’s Bad Grammar Angers Parents (link)

Oh, my.

This article is a great demonstration of Aristotle’s concept of ethos; here we have a middle school principal who sends out an email with numerous typos, punctuation errors, grammar errors, and mixed or inappropriate metaphors.  While many of us would just read through an email like this from a friend and think nothing of it, someone who is in a position of authority over children’s education really needs to be a grammatically correct, if not inspired, writer.

This is the same reason so many people made fun of George W. Bush; there’s a longstanding tradition of presidents being solid, if not great, communicators.  Sure, these days they all have their speeches written by lackeys–I mean speechwriters–but Bush just could not string a grammatically or intellectually coherent thought together when speaking extemporaneously. Does that make him a bad president? No. A pad person? Of course not.  But when an audience has particular expectations of a person, and that person fails those expectations, his or her credibility is shot.  This is ethos: a person’s character or reputation.

If I had a nickel for every time a person said “oh! I better watch my grammar!” when they found out what I do, well, I’d have a lot of nickels.  They assume that I am a certain kind of person–an English professor turned writer has a certain reputation, right? I always reply with, “I don’t grade unless I’m paid,” but the fact is, in casual interactions I don’t care how you speak or write or communicate, as long as I can understand you.  In fact, my English is sadly lacking in conversation because it’s informal.  That’s how it should be. But if you’re being paid (and in NY, where this principal is located, the pay is astonishingly high) to supervise other teachers and educate students, you bet your bippy I’m going to judge your grammar.


My friend, the hyphen

October 28, 2010

I can’t say I’ve ever thought all that much about the hyphen.  Sure, I’ve got a hyphenated last name (what a mess THAT is!), and I generally know when to use them, but until I got a facebook message asking me about a specific use of the hyphen,  realized just how confusing the darn thing can be!  Here’s the question:

My great great grandmother was born in Italy. Do you cap any of the G’s?? Hyphen any where??? Same with great grandmother. . . [and what about] Step-Great-Grandfather, Anthony – is this correct?

The general rule for usage is to hyphenate greats.  And capitalization is for proper names, not generics. So, the answers would be:



step-great-grandfather Anthony

It’s complex, but keep in mind that most grammar and usage rules exist to create clarity.  If you said “my great great-grandmother” a listener might think you were bragging on great-grandmother Lucy, rather than referring to her mother, your great great-great-grandmother.

Which brings to mind a recent joke I heard, which seems to have gone viral and may be an urban myth.  In this story, a nurse looks at a newborn baby’s chart and comments on the unusual name, La-a.  She asks the mother how to pronounce the name, and the mom looks at her like she’s an idiot and says, “It’s LaDASHa–the dash ain’t silent!”

Me being me, I immediately had to wonder: what kind of dash was it? An em dash? An en dash? Or was it, secretly, a hyphen aspiring to dashhood?

Quote of the Day

October 25, 2010

“If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”–B Franklin


October 21, 2010

Can anyone out there explain to me what exactly Rev. Myron Yandle is trying to tell me?

I drive by this church sign daily, and occasionally there’s something really witty and thought-provoking on there.  I love church marquees and their sometimes pithy, often preachy, usually punny remarks.  Last week this particular church sign said: “I am just a sign.  The Bible is where its at.”  Points to Rev. Yandle for the witty remark.  Demerits for failing to insert an apostrophe (what, were those extra at Church Marquees R Us?) and for ending a sentence not with a preposition (that’s pretty accepted these days) but with a wholly unnecessary one.

But before I get all riled up about that idiotic “at” people seem intent on plopping at the end of sentences (I propose an “at tax” of 50 cents per use), I just want someone to explain the meaning of the sentence on the marquee this week.

What is “refined” stupidity?  I double checked my interpretation of the word “refined.”  Here’s what I found:

From free from impurities

From having or showing well-bred feeling, taste, etc.: refined people.

From Cambridge Online: A refined substance has been made pure by removing other substances from it.

OK, so wisdom is purified stupidity? Well-bred stupidity?  all-natural stupidity?  I’m confused.

Maybe he’s being clever and letting us know his sign is really, really stupid.  But in a refined, purified, kinda way.

Do you  have any ideas?  Let me know!

Ethos and the Identity Sell

October 6, 2010's just water, but it's water of good character.

I am a rhetorician, not a grammarian.  Sure, it bugs me when people end sentences with the entirely unnecessary “at,” and I have spent a good part of my career correcting other people’s grammar, but my real passion is rhetoric–what Aristotle called the art of finding the available means of persuasion.

One of his three main kinds of rhetoric is called ethos (from the Greek for character).  If you want to be persuasive  using this approach, you must make your case based on your character or reputation.  You can persuade people using one of the other approaches (logos=logic or pathos=emotions), but sometimes it’s best to make your case based on who you are.

Here’s an example.  Remember those sugar free gum ads that boasted that 4 out of 5 dentists recommend the brand?  That’s using ethos–the ethos of the dentists, that is.  Because if dentists recommend a product, it surely must be ok for you.  Right?  If Michael Jordan recommends something, it must be great, right?  Oh.  Wait.  Not too sure about that.  See, he recommended everything from shoes to hot dogs to underwear.  He kind of starts to lose his credibility when he strays from his area of expertise–basketball.

Anyway.  I happen to love this bottled water because I associate it with my love for rhetoric and all things rhetorical.  But I am guessing they use the word to communicate that they are an ethical company.  Their ethos is one of social responsibility: “Ethos Water: Helping Children Get Clean Water.”  So for every petroleum-based plastic bottle of purified tap water we overindulged Americans buy from them at nearly $2 a pop, they donate a nickel to help children in developing nations get clean drinking water.  You know, the kind from a well, or a tap or something.  Not a bottle.

I just wish they didn’t have a missing apostrophe in the first paragraph of their “About” page.

Lets Eat Grandma

October 4, 2010

One of my means of introducing a lecture on punctuation usually started like this:

Me: I am going to write a sentence on the board and I want you to punctuate it.

(wrote the following on the board):

woman without her man is nothing

Students invariably chose two ways to punctuate this sentence, which follow:

1) Woman, without her man, is nothing.

Woman: without her, man is nothing.

Clearly these have two entirely different meanings, and the lesson would get a giggle from the students, who usually stayed interested for another 37 seconds until they realized that was the high point of the class and the rest was boring punctuation reminders.

Some time ago I “liked” a page on Facebook that I like even more than my sentence: “Let’s eat Grandma!” or, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” punctuation saves lives.  Never mind that the punctuation itself on most of these Facebook pages is atrocious, and this site itself seems to have become a landing page for spammers; the cleverness of this one caught my eye.

The moral of the story?  Don’t scoff at commas and semi colons.  They really do matter.

2 pair or 2 pairs? Musing on usage

October 4, 2010

We all have our pet peeves when it comes to grammar and, especially, usage.  For example, in college I got into a debate with a roommate over whether the correct plural of pair was “pair” or “pairs.”  We were talking about shoes, if that matters.  She would say “I have three new pair of shoes,” which I found quite awkward because I’d always said “pairs of shoes.”  So we looked it up.  Turns out, both are acceptable according to the dictionary.  But “pairs” was listed as “preferred.”  Ha! I was right! Well, sort of.

This extends to all sorts of other pronunciation practices in English as well.  Take neither/either.  Some would insist that they are pronounced with a long e (NEEther), and others would say a long i would be appropriate (NYEther).  Both are acceptable, though the long e sound is more common in American speech.  the ei and ie constructions in English are pretty tricky anyway, since English is an amalgam of so many languages. In German, the 2nd vowel calls the shots—unlike much of English where, as my daughter taught me, “when two vowels go a walkin’, the first one does the talkin.’”  Of course there are exceptions, as in “freight” (long a)  and “height” (long i). This would explain why so many people have problems with my husband’s last name (Giesler), which is German and by German rules would quite clearly be “GEESE-ler.”  Not so in English, where the first vowel should be doing the talking–which is probably why everyone calls us “GUYS-ler!”