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Month: December 2017

Lapses and Collapses

Lapses and Collapses

This post lists and defines lapse and its family of related words that pertain to a passage of time or to falling.

The words discussed below all derive ultimately from the Latin verb labi, meaning “fall,” “sink,” and “slip,” in addition to other related actions, by way of lapsus, meaning “falling” or “slipping” (figuratively or literally) or “passage of time” (from the sense of “gliding”). Lapse, as a verb, originally pertained merely to that last sense, but it later applied as well to something becoming invalid or void and acquired the additional meanings of “commit a sin” or “fail to retain religious faith.” As a noun, lapse means “decline” or “fall,” or “interval,” “interruption,” or “termination,” or it may refer to a mistake due to forgetfulness or inattention, or to abandoning one’s faith.

The adjectival form is lapsed; the adjective labile once meant “prone to fail or fall,” but now it pertains to instability or propensity to change. (The adjective labial and other words pertaining to lips are unrelated.) Labefaction, meanwhile, is a rarely used word meaning “downfall” or “overthrow” in the sense of a weakening of civil order or moral principles.

When time goes by, it is said to elapse. That word was at one time also a noun, but lapse has superseded it.

In theology, several words with the root lapsarian pertain to various beliefs about the biblical account of the fall of humankind as told in the story of the Garden of Eden: postlapsarian (“after the fall”), prelapsarian (“before the fall”), sublapsarian (“under the fall,” which is also the translation of the synonym infralapsarian), and superlapsarian (“above the fall”).

The verb collapse (literally, “fall together”) means “fall” or “fall apart,” “break down” or “lose effectiveness or significance,” or “fold down” or “give way” and as a noun refers to any of these actions. Something that can be collapsed, generally limited to the sense of “fold down,” is collapsible, and that quality is called collapsibility.

When a body part falls or slips, it is said to prolapse (“fall forward”), and such an occurrence is a prolapse. A relapse (“fall again”), meanwhile, is an instance in which symptoms of a disease that had abated recur, and the word also serves as a verb.

Lava is an unexpected cognate; the word describing magma, or molten rock, after it has surfaced from underground (in its molten state or after it has cooled and hardened) stems from lapsus by way of Italian. The adjective lavalike refers to something resembling the molten state.

Lapidary, referring to cutting of gems and stones, is an unrelated word derived from lapis, the Latin word for “stone.”

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Grammar Quiz #19: Reflexive Pronouns

Grammar Quiz #19: Reflexive Pronouns

Pronouns ending in -self, -selves should be used only to refer to or emphasize another word in the sentence. These reflexive pronouns should not be used in place of other personal pronouns. Some of the sentences below are incorrectly using the reflexive pronouns. Edit as necessary:

1. His cousin and himself are the same age.

2. Jimmy fell off his bicycle and hurt himself.

3. The children himself decorated the tree.

4. The mother explained that her toddler likes to feed herself.

5. When you have finished filling out the form, give the paper to myself.

Answers and Explanations

1.
Original: His cousin and himself are the same age.
Correct : His cousin and he are the same age.

Himself does not refer to any other word in the sentence, so it’s incorrectly used here.

2.
Original: Jimmy fell off his bicycle and hurt himself.
Correct : Jimmy fell off his bicycle and hurt himself.

This sentence was correct originally, as himself refers to Jimmy.

3.
Original: The children himself decorated the tree.
Correct : The children themselves decorated the tree.

Children is plural so themselves should be used. The reflexive pronoun is used correctly here because it emphasizes the word children.

4.
Original: The mother explained that her toddler likes to feed herself.
Correct : The mother explained that her toddler likes to feed herself.

This sentence was correct originally. Herself refers to toddler.

5.
Original: When you have finished filling out the form, give the paper to myself.
Correct : When you have finished filling out the form, give the paper to me.

Myself does not refer to any other word, so it’s incorrect here.

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3 Examples of Slang in Journalistic Content

3 Examples of Slang in Journalistic Content

There is always a tension in language usage about achieving a balance between sesquipedalian obfuscation and, um, like, you know, overly casual language. Ultimately, clarity on the writer’s part and fluency on the part of the readership are the key criteria for whether content succeeds in communicating ideas, knowledge, and information, and writers can be flexible about linguistic register based on context.

However, it can be unsettling for older readers and those for whom English is not their first language when they read journalistic content online; there is a trend among some news outlets to make content both more accessible and more potent by using slang. Note the following examples, all of which involve vivid verbs:

1. The twenty-year veteran anchor of Today was abruptly canned.

Canned, slang for “discharged from employment” (perhaps from the analogy of putting the terminated employee in a garbage can), can also, in the form can, mean “score,” as when a scoring attempt in basketball or golf is successful (from comparison of the basket or hole to a can), or “put a stop to,” as in the dated command “Can the chatter” (“Stop talking”), from the notion of containing one’s speech in a can. (As an adjective, canned means “lacking originality” or “prepared in advance,” with the notion that a canned speech or canned music, for example, was retrieved ready-made from a can.)

2. The motocross rider must soar over the train and then stick a landing on the hillside across the tracks.

Stick, originally employed in reference to executing a flawless landing in a gymnastics competition, apparently comes from the comparison of the gymnast’s contact with the floor with piercing or stabbing something. Stick may also refer to tricking someone into paying a bill, or overcharging someone, or to baffling or cheating someone, as well as to remaining in place or being halted.

3. They decided to spike the draft when the agency released its guidance in 2014.

Similarly, here, spike alludes to the previous practice in clerical routines of impaling a document on a spike when done with it; the term also refers to submitted content that is rejected for publication or to blocking or suppressing information. As a noun, spike is used informally to refer to a sudden sharp increase, as in temperature or power consumption, or prices or rates; this usage is based on the shape of marks made on a graph to represent such a change. In verb form, spike might also pertain to a stimulant added to a substance, or to an analogous figurative addition (as in spiking a speech with jokes).

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3 Sentences with Flawed Parallel Construction

3 Sentences with Flawed Parallel Construction

In each of the following sentences, an attempt to make a list within a sentence has gone awry. Discussion after each example explains the problem, and one or two revisions suggest solutions.

1. We have specific plans about what we are going to do, how and when.

This sentence implies a list consisting of “what we are going to do, how we are going to do them, and when we are going to do them,” but it elides one word too many: “We have specific plans about what we are going to do, and how and when.”

2. He holds various roles, from celebrated guest, martial arts envoy, unofficial chargé d’affaires, and even close confidant.

If what appears to be a list of associated nouns or noun phrases is preceded by from, it is not a list, but a range that includes one or more intermediate parameters, so from should be complemented by to, and the sentence must be further revised so that parameters are connected with conjunctions, thereby combining to be clearly associated with either to or from: “He holds various roles, from celebrated guest to martial arts envoy and unofficial chargé d’affaires, and even close confidant.

Alternatively, revise the sentence slightly to avoid the range construction altogether: “He holds various roles, including celebrated guest, martial arts envoy, unofficial chargé d’affaires, and even close confidant.”

3. The company has embarked on the initiative with the objectives of process improvement, increased automation, compliance with internal and public company requirements, and to support future growth.

The grammatical structure of the final list item is inconsistent with those preceding it—it alone includes an infinitive phrase (“to support”)—so revise it to match the others by shifting support from a verb to a noun: “The company has embarked on the initiative with the objectives of process improvement, increased automation, compliance with internal and public company requirements, and support of future growth.”

Alternatively, convert the third item to a final item by inserting a conjunction before it, then make what was the final item a distinct phrase by inserting an of before it to make it parallel with the list (which is preceded by of) and changing the form of the verb: “The company has embarked on the initiative with the objectives of process improvement, increased automation, and compliance with internal and public company requirements and of supporting future growth.”

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3 Cases of Insufficient Punctuation

3 Cases of Insufficient Punctuation

Each of the following sentences is compromised by the lack of one or two punctuation marks, resulting in a potential for confusion among readers. Discussion following each example explains the flaw, and a revision demonstrates clearer sentence composition.

1. Move over millennials—this group is taking over the rental market.

The imperative “move over,” followed by a word identifying who is to act according to the imperative to step aside, reads as if an unspecified audience is being told to change their location at a position above a certain demographic group. When a sentence begins with a directive and a modifier, separate the two sentence elements with a comma: “Move over, millennials—this group is taking over the rental market.”

2. This paper introduces a methodology based on industry-accepted frameworks that details all the steps firms need to take to conduct a comprehensive and compliant risk assessment.

Here, the lack of agreement between frameworks and details signals that the verb does not apply to the noun, but their proximity still introduces a signal-to-noise obstacle, which would be amplified if the noun and verb did agree. To clarify that details pertains to methodology, not frameworks, bracket the modifying phrase “based on industry-accepted frameworks” with commas: “This paper introduces a methodology, based on industry-accepted frameworks, that details all the steps firms need to take to conduct a comprehensive and compliant risk assessment.”

3. Distribution and routes to market can be helped by implementing an automated digital portal although this is a bit more complex since it can have an impact on commission.

This breathlessly barreling sentence benefits from a couple of inserted commas to signal nested subordinate clauses—the phrase beginning with since is subordinate to the one beginning with although, which in turn is subordinate to the main clause: “Distribution and routes to market can be helped by implementing an automated digital portal, although this is a bit more complex, since it can have an impact on commission.”

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Merriam-Webster’s 2017 Words of the Year

Merriam-Webster’s 2017 Words of the Year

Toward the end of each calendar year, around the winter holidays, various dictionaries trot out their annual Words of the Year feature. This year, as can be expected, the focus (according to Merriam-Webster) was predominantly on terms directly or indirectly associated with politics.

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, prompted by various events and incidents regarding gender equality and women’s right, is feminism. The term has various connotations, depending on one’s perspective about the concept, but the objective meanings, according to the company’s website, are “the theory of . . . equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

More unusual words that appeared in Merriam-Webster’s top ten include dotard, which refers to one in a state or period of dotage, or senility; the root word is dote, the verb form. (However, dote is more commonly employed for the sense of “give generous attention or affection.”) Like dotty (meaning “crazy or eccentric,” or “obsessed” or “ridiculous”), dote stems from a Germanic word meaning “foolish.”

Another term prominent in online-dictionary surges earlier this year is the spelling bee participant’s bane, syzygy, which simply refers to a generally straight-line configuration of bodies in a solar system or other gravitational system, such as occurs during an eclipse. The word, by way of Latin, is from a Greek term meaning “yoked together.”

Greek is also the source of gyro, which made the list in the sense of a type of sandwich of Greek provenance, rather than a spinning device such as a gyrocompass. Both senses relate to turning; the sandwich is so named because the meat filling is traditionally turned on a spit over flame to cook it.

Then there’s gaffe (meaning “blunder or mistake”), sometimes erroneously spelled gaff, the word from which it is derived. A gaff is any one of several types of hooks or hooked implements, and as a verb it applies to using or applying a hook. As a slang term, it means “music hall or theater”—my guess is that it’s derived from the notion of the proverbial hook used to yank poorly received vaudeville performers off the stage—and it also informally pertains to abuse or an ordeal, or a trick or hoax. (It also serves as a verb associated with these senses.)

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Vocabulary Quiz #13: Commonly Confused Words

Vocabulary Quiz #13: Commonly Confused Words

In each sentence, choose the correct word from the pair of similar terms. (If both words possibly can be correct, choose the more plausible one.)

1. Mozart was a musical ______ who gave his first concert at the age of four.

a) prodigy
b) prodigal

2. None of the freshmen wanted to room with Felix because of his _____ manners; he piled wet towels on the floor, used anyone’s toothbrush, and left food scraps to moulder in the wastepaper basket.

a) barbaric
b) barbarous

3. Your design would probably work, but building it is not ______ because of the expense and rarity of the materials.

a) practical
b) practicable

4. His friends’ plan to vandalize the school went against the boy’s ______ , so he refused to take part.

a) conscience
b) conscious

5. Some have called this ______ life “a vale of tears.”

a) earthy
b) earthly

Answers and Explanations

1. Mozart was a musical prodigy who gave his first concert at the age of four.
a) prodigy

A prodigy is something out of the ordinary. It’s often used to refer to a child with gifts beyond his age. A prodigal is a wastrel, a person who spends his wealth foolishly, with no thought for the future.

2. None of the freshmen wanted to room with Felix because of his barbarous manners; he piled wet towels on the floor, used anyone’s toothbrush, and left food scraps to moulder in the wastepaper basket.
b) barbarous

Barbarous and barbaric are similar in meaning; many speakers use them interchangeably to mean “uncivilized.” Barbaric always refers to extreme, gruesome cruelty; barbarous can refer to behavior that is merely coarse.

3. Your design would probably work, but building it is not practicable because of the expense and rarity of the materials.
b) practicable

A practical idea is sensible and reasonable. A practicable idea, on the other hand, is one that can be done or put into practice.

4. His friends’ plan to vandalize the school went against the boy’s conscience , so he refused to take part.
a) conscience

Conscience is a noun. It is a person’s moral guide. Conscious is an adjective meaning “alert, aware.”

5. Some have called this earthly life “a vale of tears.”
b) earthly

Earthly is an adjective referring to things on or of the earth. Earthy is also an adjective. Earthy is a pleasant word for vulgar. “An earthy remark,” for example, is one that would not be spoken in polite company.

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Bills, Bolls, and Bulls

Bills, Bolls, and Bulls

The Latin noun bulla, meaning “knob” or “round swelling,” is the source of a family of words starting with b followed by a vowel and the l sound (and sometimes additional letters and sounds), which are listed and defined in this post.

Ball (in senses pertaining to a round object) and related words such as ballistics are cognates of words derived from bulla; like that term, they stem from a proto-Indo-European root meaning “blow” or “swell,” though by way of a Germanic language rather than Latin. (The word for a fancy dance party, and its derivative ballet, by contrast, are from a proto-Indo-European root meaning “reach” or “throw”; though one can throw a ball that is an object as well as one that is an event, the roots are apparently unrelated.) Meanwhile, bell (and bellow) likely stem from the former root with the sense of “roar” or “sound” but are not descended from bulla.

Bill, in all the senses pertaining to a document or other piece of paper, comes ultimately from the notion of a knoblike seal used to authenticate a document. (In the sense of a bird’s beak or an ax-shaped tool or weapon, however, the word is unrelated.) Billet, referring originally to a written statement and then by extension to the housing of soldiers in private homes, authorized by such a statement, is a diminutive of bill. (Billet-doux—literally “sweet note”—is adopted from the French term meaning “love letter.”)

Bowl, and bowler (the word for a type of hat) and bowling (the term for a sport), derive from bulla, as does boll, which describes a pod of cotton produced by flowering of the cotton plant. Bollocks are testicles, and the word is British English slang for “nonsense” or a stronger retort; the spelling variant bollix is reserved for describing an act of bungling or messing up. Bolero, the word for a type of dance, comes from the extension of bulla to describe a circular motion; the name for a short jacket sometimes worn by participants in such a dance has the same origin.

Bulla itself survives in medical usage to describe a bony or blistered prominence, while bull, in the sense of a papal decree, and bulletin, denoting a notice, are cognate with bill. (Bull, when referring to male cattle and, by extension, the adult male of various species, likely comes from the proto-Indo-European root from which both “blow” and “roar” are derived, though linguists disagree about which sense inspired the word.) Bullet, meanwhile, betrays that projectiles fired by guns were originally ball shaped.

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3 Types of Errors in Interpolated Coordination

3 Types of Errors in Interpolated Coordination

Errors in sentences with interpolated coordination, in which a phrase providing additional information is inserted but punctuation and/or words that provide complementary structure are omitted or misplaced, are frequently made but easily avoided, as explained in the discussion and demonstrated in the revision following each example below.

1. It is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest films ever made.

The flaw in this sentence is simple to detect—simply omit the parenthetical phrase: “It is widely regarded as one of greatest films ever made.” If the base sentence is syntactically flawed, then the same sentence, with interpolated wording, is also incorrectly constructed.

To repair the damage, word the base sentence so that it stands on its own (“greatest films” must be preceded by the article the within the base sentence), and revise the parenthetical phrase so that it complements the corresponding phrase in the base sentence (“greatest films” cannot serve both the base sentence and the parenthetical phrase): “It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films, if not the greatest film, ever made.” An alternative revision that interpolates the parenthetical phrase early but is not as elegant is “It is widely regarded as, if not the greatest film, one of the greatest ever made.”

2. Mobile apps perform the same or better than they did a year ago.

Here, the phrase “or better than” is not technically a parenthetical phrase because it is not punctuated (though some writers would do so), but it serves the same function—it interpolates additional wording into the base sentence, in this case “Mobile apps perform the same they did a year ago.”

But notice the flaw here: The comparative phrase “the same as” is missing a word, so revise as shown here: “Mobile apps perform the same as or better than they did a year ago.” Without this insertion, the erroneous implication is that than serves as a conjunction for both same and better when, according to grammatical rules, it supports only the latter word.

3. Membership or inviting support for the organization is a criminal offense that carries a sentence of up to ten years.

A missing word is the problem here, too, but this time it is an absent preposition—membership requires its own preposition so that, similar to the problem in the previous example, it is not misunderstood to share for with “inviting support”: “Membership in or inviting support for the organization is a criminal offense that carries a sentence of up to ten years.” (Again, the interpolation “or inviting support for” could be treated as a parenthesis with bracketing punctuation, but doing so is unnecessary.)

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3 Types of Erroneous Use of Dashes

3 Types of Erroneous Use of Dashes

Dashes, like semicolons, are basically commas with superpowers. However, while semicolons take the place of commas to set off independent clauses or separate a series of list items in which at least one item itself consists of a list, a single dash denotes an abrupt break in syntax, and a pair of dashes signal a parenthetical phrase that is more emphatic than one bracketed by commas (or parentheses). In the following examples, though, dashes are misused. Discussion after each sentence describes the problem, and a revision illustrates a solution.

1. Everybody thinks their job title should be capitalized—and why not—it’s about them.

In this sentence, the writer has conflated the two functions of a dash. What follows capitalized is an emphatically delivered opinion about the previous assertion, and the first dash is correct, but then the writer seeks to repeat the effect by setting off “it’s about them.” However, the result is that “and why not” mistakenly appears to be a parenthetical phrase. For this reason, single dashes cannot be used consecutively, even at a greater remove, so the second emphatic phrase must be distinguished in another way: “Everybody thinks their job title should be capitalized—and why not? It’s about them.”

2. Changing channels on the radio while driving—even adjusting your vehicle’s climate controls are distracting activities.

Here, the opposite error is committed. The writer apparently intended to sequester a parenthetical phrase from the main clause but neglected to provide a complementary second dash: “Changing channels on the radio while driving—and even adjusting your vehicle’s climate controls—are distracting activities.”

3. Combined with a focus on disruptive innovations like artificial intelligence, telehealth, and virtual care—an abundance of new data is becoming available to healthcare providers.

Here, the flaw is that the dash is inserted in place of a comma to suggest a syntactical swerve, but the syntax itself does not take off in a new direction, and a quotidian comma is appropriate: “Combined with a focus on disruptive innovations like artificial intelligence, telehealth, and virtual care, an abundance of new data is becoming available to healthcare providers.”

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