Do not heap up empty phrases.
- as a matter of fact
- at any rate
- for all intents and purposes
- in a manner of speaking
- in a very real sense
- in my (personal) opinion
- needless to say and it goes without saying
- the point I am trying to make
- what I mean to say is that
- uh, like . . . you know?
More About Clutter and Claptrap:
This year, for the first time since the event was established in 2008, I didn't celebrate National Grammar Day on this website. Like a true-born Irishman who refuses to guzzle green beer on St. Patrick's Day, I decided not to compete with ardent amateurs--or with grammar ranters like Mr. Wagner, who recently shot me this email:
You're a moron if you think ending sentences with prepositions is acceptable. People who end sentences with prepositions appear uneducated. Like yourself, (probably a stinking left-wing liberal) these buffoons probably think it's also acceptable to re-distribute wealth from those who write properly to those with English degrees.I imagine that Mr. Wagner's analysis of preposition stranding was incited by my article Is It Wrong to End a Sentence With a Preposition? But what that has to do with the redistribution of wealth leaves me perplexed.
Fortunately, most visitors to this site are more thoughtful than Mr. Wagner. Though I don't always have time to reply to emails, I'm grateful for all the fresh examples of figures of speech, the clarifications from scholars I've foolishly misinterpreted, the original specimens of word play, the gentle corrections of typos, the news of forthcoming articles and books, the amusing examples of family slang, and the encouraging expressions of thanks from students and retirees alike.
So for the benefit of those readers, I've decided to mark the day after National Grammar Day with these celebratory posts from years past:
- Three Ways to Watch Our Grammar on National Grammar Day (2013)
- A National Grammar Day Grammar Quiz (2012)
- Celebrating National Grammar Day With Eliza Doolittle (2011)
- It's National Grammar Day, Right? (2010)
- Which Grammar Will You Be Celebrating on National Grammar Day? (2009)
- Start Spreading the Syntax for National Grammar Day (2008)
My thanks to everyone who visits About.com Grammar & Composition.
Blackboard: Kirk Fowler on name-calling, in Potty Training for Liberals: Realistic Solutions for Today's Problems (Tate, 2011)
You know the drill: ten questions, two minutes, correct answers at the end of the post. (For explanations, examples, and exercises, follow the links to our Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words.)
- Amend or Emend
Alberta plans to _____ one of its main privacy laws this fall to comply with a Supreme Court of Canada judgment that found the legislation unconstitutional.
(GlobalPost, January 29, 2014)
- Comprehensible or Comprehensive
The scene certainly fit the official slogan of these Games: Hot. Cool. Yours. The motto was about as _____ an advertising line as the sign that offered "honey with uterine milk" at a kiosk outside my hotel.
(The Boston Globe, February 23, 2014)
- Connotes or Denotes
The word principle _____ a moral rule or belief that helps one to know what is right and wrong.
(Zimbabwe Independent, February 21, 2014)
- Demur or Demure
Mayor Ed Murray regrettably chose to have his Income Inequality Advisory Committee meet in secret. If you ask what they've been talking about for the past two months, they _____, saying they've been sworn to secrecy.
(The Seattle Times, February 25, 2014)
- Precipitate or Precipitous
Even now Blackpool's decline remains _____, with the numbers of visitors to the town almost halving since 1992.
(Daily Mail [UK], February 28, 2014)
- Reeked, Wreaked, or Wrecked
Britain is to be hit by a fresh onslaught of gale force winds, heavy rain and snow as storms _____ havoc across the country, felling trees and power cables and causing further flooding.
(The Daily Telegraph [UK], February 14, 2014)
- Regime, Regimen, or Regiment
Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder says he's gone from lifting weights to an MMA-style workout _____ that he believes has him in the best shape of his life.
(The Dallas Morning News, February 13, 2014)
- Shudder or Shutter
Across the Island, a growing number of districts are grappling with the question of whether to _____ schools amid shrinking enrollments and tighter budgets.
(Newsday, February 26, 2014)
- Tasteful or Tasty
Never substitute "trendy" for _____--or for durable. Good taste lasts forever, no matter what the latest style is.
(The Times [Shreveport, Louisiana], February 26, 2014)
- Whoever or Whomever
_____ said Canberra was boring obviously hasn't had a meal at Eightysix. (In fact, they probably haven't been to Canberra recently.)
(The Sydney Morning Herald [Australia], March 1, 2014)
More Quizzes on Commonly Confused Words:
It's time for our end-of-month roundup of language-related items in the news--from the linguistically profound to the lexically ridiculous.
- The Influence of Welsh on English
When English was taking shape, linguists now believe, its speakers continued to rely on patterns of grammar that made sense in their old language. The syntax of English is built on a partially Welsh base. . . . Read more
(Mark Abley, "Watchwords: Welsh Had Lasting Impact on English." The Gazette [Montreal], February 26, 2014)
- Digital Punctuation
Ending a sentence with ellipses . . . presents a friendlier alternative to the angry period. But it can convey a passive-aggressive or irritated tone that you may or may not intend. . . . Read more
(Sara Boboltz, "These Things You Do Every Day Have Changed the English Language as We Know It." The Huffington Post, February 20, 2014)
- 800,000 Words and Counting
If you thought you had a big vocabulary, think again. The average English-speaker knows between 25,000 and 40,000 words, Oxford English Dictionary Chief Editor Michael Proffitt told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday. His organization--which bills itself as the "definitive record of the English language"--has recorded 800,000 words and counting, he said. . . . Read more
(Mick Krever, "Thought You Had a Big Vocabulary? Think Again." CNN, January 30, 2014)
- Lil Wayne Lyrics Not Cool for School
A Florida teacher has been suspended for three days after assigning students Lil Wayne lyrics to analyze for homework. . . . [S]chool principal Wayne Owens said the assignment "did not meet school standards" and was a failed attempt to pick material that her pupils may be able to relate to: "The lesson was for students to learn to identify literary devices." . . . Read more
(Olivia B. Waxman, "Middle School Teacher Suspended for Assigning Lil Wayne Lyrics as Homework." Time, February 5, 2014)
- Borrowed Words
Although English is now borrowing from other languages with a worldwide range, the number of new borrowed words finding their way into the shared international vocabulary is on a long downward trend. One big reason for this is the success of English as an international language of science, scholarship, business, and many other fields. . . . Read more
(Philip Durkin, "Does English Still Borrow Words From Other Languages?" BBC News Magazine, February 3, 2014)
- The Enduring Influence of Good English Teachers
Great English teachers boost their students' achievements in math, a very different subject, according to Stanford researchers. The researchers found that students of good language arts teachers had higher than expected math scores in subsequent years--a crossover effect. . . . Read more
(Clifton B. Parker, "Stanford Research Shows Long-Run Benefit of English Instruction." Stanford News, February 24, 2014)
- An English-Only Workplace in the UK
Foreign workers employed by arts and craft chain Hobbycraft have been told to speak English or face the sack. . . . Staff were told the firm's policy was they should only use English during work hours and, if caught doing otherwise, they could be disciplined. . . . Read more
(Ben Endley, "Speak English or You're Fired!" Daily Mail [UK], February 14, 2014)
- On the Loss of a First Language
There came a time when I couldn't think of the synonyms of certain words in Gujarati, and even when I tried to speak in Gujarati, I could not communicate a few sentences in it without mixing them with English. My original medium of expression, so close to my heart, was going away from me. . . . Read more
(Kanan Dhru, "Killing Them Softly." The Huffington Post, February 3, 2014)
- Trilingual Confusion in Lebanon
[F]or Lebanese of all stripes, the lack of cohesion among what language to speak in Lebanon--and how uneven the literacy is among the three languages--has long been a source of confusion when opening a business or trying to launch a political campaign. For a large number of Beirutis, English is their mother-tongue and many are unable to read Arabic, while Arabic in the north and south is the only language for most and French is holding on strong in some mountain ranges. . . . Read more
(Maria Abi Habib, "Lebanon's Trilingual Confusion Underpins Identity Crisis." The Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2014)
Back Issues of Language in the News:
Near the end of last Friday's post I used the word very, and it's been bothering me ever since.
In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White characterize very as one of the "leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."
To Bryan Garner, very is a weasel word:
This intensifier, which functions as both an adjective and an adverb, surfaces repeatedly in flabby writing. In almost every context in which it appears, its omission would result in at most a negligible loss. And in many contexts the idea would be more powerfully expressed without it."Very lessens the presence of the word it is modifying," says Natalie Goldberg, and Paula LaRocque calls it a "simpering, say-nothing stinker":
(Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2009)
I can't be the only one who'd be pleased never again to hear or see the word very. It's the most rampant four-letter word in English--yes, even considering other rampant four-letter words. Very drains life and vigor from otherwise robust expression. Intended to heighten, it merely flattens.
(The Book on Writing. Marion Street Press, 2003)
All the same, very (along with fellow intensifiers really, truly, actually, and so) does serve a purpose, as Arthur Plotnik explains:
Stock intensifiers are so much a part of the English idiom that our prose feels uncomfortable without them. They may do little intensifying, as the rhetoricians say, yet they are part of the background rhythms of our language, the anticipated beats of narration. Speakers often deliver them with musical inflection--"He's really hot"--which is welcome relief amidst the monotone of average American speech.
(Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style. Random House, 2005)
Very good. But if you want to get rid of the leeches in your prose, consider the advice attributed to Mark Twain: "Substitute damn every time you're inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
Cutting the Clutter:
- Totally Overworked Words: The Use and Abuse of Qualifiers and Intensifiers
- Practice in Cutting the Clutter
- Exercise in Eliminating Deadwood From Our Writing
Blackboard: from the poem "Very Very Important" by Carl Sandburg (The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg. Harcourt, 1970)
In The Teacher's Grammar Book (2005), James Williams admits that "defining the term noun is such a problem that many grammar books do not even try to do it." Interestingly, however, one of the founders of cognitive linguistics has settled on a familiar definition:
In elementary school, I was taught that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. In college, I was taught the basic linguistic doctrine that a noun can only be defined in terms of grammatical behavior, conceptual definitions of grammatical classes being impossible. Here, several decades later, I demonstrate the inexorable progress of grammatical theory by claiming that a noun is the name of a thing.Professor Langacker notes that his definition of thing "subsumes people and places as special cases and is not limited to physical entities."
(Ronald W. Langacker, Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008)
It's probably impossible to come up with a universally accepted definition of noun. Like many other terms in linguistics, its meaning depends on context and use as well as the theoretical biases of the person doing the defining. So rather than wrestle with competing definitions, let's just briefly consider some of the conventional categories of nouns--or more precisely, some of the different ways of grouping nouns in terms of their (often overlapping) forms, functions, and meanings.
For additional examples and more detailed explanations of these slippery categories, follow the links to our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms.
- Abstract Nouns and Concrete Nouns
An abstract noun is a noun that names an idea, quality, or concept (courage and freedom, for example).
A concrete noun is a noun that names a material or tangible object--something recognizable through the senses (such as chicken and egg).
But this apparently simple distinction can get tricky. Lobeck and Denham point out that "the classification of a noun can change depending on how that noun is used and what it's referring to in the real world. When homework refers to the idea of schoolwork that will be completed over time, it seems more abstract, but when it refers to an actual document that you submit for a class, it seems concrete" (Navigating English Grammar, 2014).
- Attributive Nouns
An attributive noun is a noun that serves as an adjective in front of another noun--such as "nursery school" and "birthday party."
Because so many nouns can serve as adjective equivalents, it's more accurate to regard attributive as a function than as a type. The clustering of nouns in front of another noun is sometimes called stacking.
- Collective Nouns
A collective noun is a noun that refers to a group of individuals--such as team, committee, and family.
Either a singular or a plural pronoun can stand in for a collective noun, depending on whether the group is regarded as a single unit or as a collection of individuals. (See Pronoun Agreement.)
- Common Nouns and Proper Nouns
A common noun is a noun that's not the name of any particular person, place, or thing (for instance, singer, river, and tablet).
A proper noun is a noun that refers to a specific person, place, or thing (Lady Gaga, Monongahela River, and iPad).
Most proper nouns are singular, and--with a few exceptions (iPad)--they're usually written with initial capital letters. When proper nouns are used generically (as in "keeping up with the Joneses" or "a xerox of my term paper"), they become, in a sense, common--and in some cases subject to lawsuits. (See Generification.)
- Count Nouns and Mass Nouns
A count noun is a noun that has both singular and plural forms--like dog(s) and dollar(s).
A mass noun (also called a noncount noun) is a noun that's generally used only in the singular and can't be counted--music and knowledge, for instance.
Some nouns have both countable and non-countable uses, such as the countable "dozen eggs" and the non-countable "egg on his face."
- Denominal Nouns
A denominal noun is a noun that's formed from another noun, usually by adding a suffix--such as guitarist and spoonful.
But don't count on consistency. While a librarian usually works in a library and a seminarian usually studies in a seminary, a vegetarian can show up anywhere. (See Common Suffixes in English.)
- Verbal Nouns
A verbal noun (sometimes called a gerund) is a noun that's derived from a verb (usually by adding the suffix -ing) and that exhibits the ordinary properties of a noun--for example, "My mother didn't like the idea of my writing a book about her."
Most contemporary linguists distinguish verbals from deverbals, but not always in precisely the same way.
Now that you have a simple starter kit, see these articles to learn a bit more about the forms, functions, and meanings of nouns:
"One damned thing after another," is the way Aldous Huxley characterized the essay: "a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything."
As definitions of the genre go, Huxley's is no more or less exact than Francis Bacon's "dispersed meditations," Samuel Johnson's "loose sally of the mind," or Edward Hoagland's metaphorical "greased pig." The essay is a slippery form indeed, one that actively resists any sort of precise, universal definition. (But that hasn't stopped us from trying: see What Is an Essay?)
Since Montaigne adopted the term to characterize his "attempts" at self-portrayal, "essay" has been used to describe just about any short piece of nonfiction: an autobiographical ramble, a newspaper editorial, a critical article, a student composition, even an excerpt from a book-length study. And what do these have in common? As Justin Kaplan observed, "All you can safely say is that [the essay is] not poetry and it's not fiction."
Instead of trying to define the essay, Annie Dillard encourages us to enjoy its mercurial qualities:
The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There's nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them. The material is the world itself, which, so far, keeps on keeping on.
(Introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Ticknor & Fields)
Sounds pretty good--until you begin thinking about those formulaic five-paragraph themes that students are required to churn out (in half an hour or less) on an assigned topic for a standardized exam. Let's face it: the world of that sort of essay is depressingly circumscribed.
How refreshing it would be to open an exam booklet one day and read these instructions:
Take the day off to think about something that truly matters to you. Explore your ideas on paper, experiment with different approaches to your topic, and be sure to play with language along the way. Then, after you've had time to reflect on what you've drafted, revise and edit your essay with real readers (not "graders") in mind.What would be the result of such an assignment? On a very good day, maybe some contemporary versions of what we call Classic Essays.
Essayists on the Essay:
- Essays and Essayists, by William Ernest Henley
- The Decay of Essay Writing, by Virginia Woolf
- The Modern Essay, by Virginia Woolf
- A Note on the Essay, by Carl Van Doren
- The Maypole and the Column, by Maurice Hewlett
- The Passing of the Essay, by Agnes Repplier
- The Writing of Essays, by Charles S. Brooks
- The Writing of Essays, by H.G. Wells
To learn more about the essay as a distinctive literary form and about its uses in the composition classroom, see these timeless articles by Emma Miller Bolenius:
- Teaching the Essay: The History of the Essay
- Teaching the Essay: America and the Essay
- Teaching the Essay: Composition and the Essay
Image: Annie Dillard, author of several major works of fiction and nonfiction, including Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), An American Childhood (1987), The Writing Life (1989), and For the Time Being (1999).
Here are 12 grammar, usage, and vocabulary exercises recently added to our collection of Exercises and Quizzes. To view any of these worksheets without ads, click on the printer icon near the top of each page.
- A Quiz on Common Grammatical Terms
- Practice in Identifying Proper Nouns
- Practice in Identifying Helping Verbs
- Practice in Identifying Adverbs: The Stuart Little Edition
- Practice in Identifying Coordinating Conjunctions: The Dr. Seuss Edition
- Practice in Identifying Sentences by Function
- A Quiz on Its/It's and Their/There/They're
- Vocabulary Quiz #3: Defining Words in Context
- Vocabulary Quiz #4: Defining Words in Context
- Exercise in Eliminating Gender-Biased Language
- A Quick Quiz on Lost Metaphors
- Expanding Sentences With Absolute Phrases
Over the past several decades, the colon and especially the semicolon have been steadily falling out of fashion. One reason for their decline in popularity is that many people have trouble telling them apart. But that doesn't have to be your excuse for neglecting these useful marks of punctuation.
In The Language Wars, British author Henry Hitchings clearly illustrates the main difference between colons and semicolons:
Traditionally, a semicolon has been used to separate clauses that have a close relationship. For instance, "The car juddered to a halt; it had run out of fuel." A colon is used when something is to be specified: a result, a quotation, a list, a contrast. A semicolon is like a partition, whereas a colon draws attention to what comes next. Another way to imagine the difference is to think of passing from one room into another: when we encounter a semicolon it is as if the door between the rooms has been left half-open and we need to open it further to continue on our way, whereas a colon is akin to a door open wide, which invites us in but at the same time makes us briefly pause to see what lies ahead.To learn more about these commonly misunderstood marks, see the following articles:
(Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
- How to Use the Semicolon
- Guidelines for Using Semicolons, Colons, and Dashes
- Creating Sentences With Semicolons, Colons, and Dashes
Mark Twain's comments about the Italian verb could just as well be applied to our local variety:
Examination and inquiry showed me that the adjectives and such things were frank and fair-minded and straightforward, and did not shuffle; it was the Verb that mixed the hands, it was the Verb that lacked stability, it was the Verb that had no permanent opinion about anything, it was the Verb that was always dodging the issue and putting out the light and making all the trouble.Unlike other parts of speech, the verb is a shape-shifting time traveler (see tense) that often relies on a trained team of helpers (see auxiliaries). It can be a troublemaker, all right, but it can't be ignored.
("Italian with Grammar." Harper's, August 1904)
In the world of grammar, the verb is the head honcho, the big kahuna--in short (as its Latin root verbum suggests), The Word. Three centuries ago, grammarian Michael Maittaire observed that the verb is "the only word which gives motion and life to all the rest; without which there can be no sentences, and all other words are but like a rope of sand, without any sense at all."
Yet while it may be the grammatical top dog, the verb appears last in our alphabetical list of the The Top 25 Grammatical Terms. So if you're in the mood to brush up on your grammar, you might want to start at the end of the list and work your way back.
With a little practice, you may, like Mark Twain, "catch a Verb and tame it, . . . spot its eccentricities, . . . penetrate its disguises," and, in so doing, "learn its game and play the limit."
More About Grammatical Terms: