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Democracy, Aristocracy, Plutocracy

Democracy, Aristocracy, Plutocracy

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The English suffix –ocracy derives from a Greek word for “power,” “rule,” or “authority.”

Six examples of such words are aristocracy, autocracy, democracy, kakistocracy,theocracy and plutocracy.
Some of the terms overlap.

Aristocracy
Literally, an aristocracy is “rule by the best citizens.” In theory, the best citizens (IMHO) would be the most intelligent, best-educated, and most compassionate members of society. In practice, aristocracies are governed by citizens born to the upper classes, regardless of their personal character.

Autocracy
The element auto (“self”) says it all. An autocracy is run by an autocrat, one person (or party) that holds absolute power. Two modern examples are Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

Plutocracy
The Greek word plouto signified “wealth” or “riches.” A plutocracy is rule by the wealthiest citizens.

Theocracy
Literally, a theocracy is “rule of God.” In practice, a theocracy is rule by a priestly order or religious political party. Laws in a theocracy are based on religious beliefs and/or sacred writings. Iran, for example, is both an autocracy and a theocracy.

Kakistocracy
Whereas an aristocracy is “rule of the best citizens,” a kakistocracy is “government by the worst citizens.”

Democracy
In small societies, the basic form of a democracy is a gathering of all members of the group to make decisions that affect the group.

In large societies, the people elect representatives to govern in such a way as to ensure that all citizens have equal rights, “without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.”

Various forms of democracy exist in the modern world.

Liberal Democracy
A liberal democracy may have different constitutional forms. For example, France, the United States, and Germany are republics. The United Kingdom, Japan, and Spain are constitutional monarchies. What they have in common is the existence of more than one political party, a separation of powers into different branches of government, and a commitment to a rule of law to protect the rights and liberties of all citizens, regardless of social status.

Social Democracy
A social democracy embraces the ideals of a liberal democracy, but also focuses on universal access to public services such as education, medical care, transportation, child care, and care for the elderly. Sweden, Denmark, and Finland illustrate this model of democracy.

Totalitarian Democracy
This phrase, coined by historian J. L. Talmon (1916-1980), sounds like an oxymoron, but it describes a type of democracy that appeals to voters who think about politics in a particular way. According to Talmon,

The essential difference between the two schools of democratic thought [liberal and totalitarian] as they have evolved is not, as is often alleged, in the affirmation of the value of liberty by one, and its denial by the other. It is in their different attitude to politics. The liberal approach assumes politics to be a matter of trial and error and regards political systems as pragmatic contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity. It also recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavor, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics.

The totalitarian democratic school, on the other hand, is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics.

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The Use of “They” for Gender Identity

The Use of “They” for Gender Identity

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Merriam-Webster recently announced that it has provided an additional sense in the definition for the pronoun they: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” What does this mean?

First, two more definitions: Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “gender identity” as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female,” and nonbinary, in this context, means “relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.”

Therefore, the publisher has updated the dictionary to reflect the fact that gender identity is not a simple matter of gender assignment according to physical characteristics. And as a post published on this site a couple of years ago points out, usage is evolving in parallel with an evolution in scientific thought.

However, a complication arises. In journalism, and in other contexts in which a person is identified by gender, the writer should accurately describe that gender, and the way to do that is to ask that person to identify the pronoun by which they wish to be referred. (The choices are he, she, and they.) But this, you may protest, is an onerous burden: Journalists are seriously expected to ask every person they interview to provide their gender identity along with the spelling of their name?

Doing so is an additional logistical step in the reporter’s task, but a trivial one that stands out only for its current novelty. However, a simple alternative exists, which was discussed in this post years ago: Accept they as a singular personal pronoun.

As that post explains, people have employed they to refer to a single person for hundreds of years, in classic literature as well as in casual conversation, and there is no good reason not to accept it in formal writing as a sensible alternative to, in referring to a generic person, using he (and thus implicitly excluding and therefore invalidating more than half of the human population), referring to “he or she,” alternating between he and she, using plural forms, or employing several other strategies.

Normally, I am conservative about responding to evolutions in grammar and usage, arguing that writers should adhere to authoritative resources such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and, well, Merriam-Webster. Chicago, and usage maven Bryan Garner, both advise against using they as a singular pronoun. (Chicago’s editors acknowledge the lack of a universally acceptable solution, while Garner simply dismisses the use of they in this context as one of a class of words he calls casualisms, which are more or less informal.) Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, acknowledges the longstanding popularity of they as a singular pronoun in prose and speech and its utility in the absence of a grammatically perfect alternative.

In light of the frustrating (and perplexing) failure of the English language to organically produce such an essential element of its vocabulary (one that exists in many other languages), Merriam-Webster’s practical approach is attractive.

Some people point out that if a universal function for he and other alternatives are unsatisfactory, it should perform this role. At first look, that pronoun is a much more logical choice; it is, after all, grammatically valid. However, the logical choice isn’t always the best one, and the impersonality of it, which is otherwise used to refer to an animal of unknown gender and to inanimate objects, disqualifies it for consideration. The fact that almost no one, in writing or speech, employs the word in this way means that a movement to support it as a singular pronoun referring to a person would likely go over as well as the spectacular failure to introduce the metric system in the United States decades ago.

To return to the topic of this post, it is not logistically reasonable for people with nonbinary gender identities to expect every person with whom they come into contact to remember their choice of self-identification, and it is not always necessary; there is often no reason to refer to someone else with a gender-specific pronoun. But publications can keep a record of preferences of newsworthy people in their style guide (subject, of course to the vagaries of popularity in popular culture). And any sympathetic person should, of course, strive to honor the choices of family members, friends, colleagues, and associates with whom they are more than casually acquainted. Understandably, however, depending on who one associates with, the challenge of remembering how people in one’s interpersonal orbit self-identify can be daunting—unless everyone is a they.

This is an additional argument for promoting they as a singular pronoun in formal writing. Widespread acceptance will take time, but publishers, from governments and global corporations to local publications and the most obscure bloggers, can be proactive in adopting such usage, incorporating it into the entity’s style guide and even posting a statement on its website’s About page.

Everyone else, of course, is welcome to exercise their linguistic free speech.

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Is ’til a Contraction of Until?

Is ’til a Contraction of Until?

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A curious request for a post has come across my desk:

Please discuss the misuse of “till” for the contraction “’til”.

The best place to begin is with the term contraction.

As applied to speech, a contraction is the contracting or shortening of a word or a syllable by omitting or combining some elements.

For example, info is a contracted form of information. ID is a contracted form of the word identification.

In writing, a contraction is formed by substituting a single syllable for one or more letters.

Common written contractions and their complete forms include the following:

aren’t—are not
can’t—cannot
it’s—it is

In each example, the symbol of the apostrophe replaces one or more letters.

Now for the reader’s request. (I’ll use italics to make the contraction clearer):

Please discuss the misuse of till for the contraction ‘til.

As I understand the statement, the reader is suggesting that people who write till really ought to write ‘til.

Of the two—till and ‘til—the form ‘til (presumably a contraction for the word until) is the interloper.

Back when English-speakers lived cheek by jowl with speakers of Old Norse, we borrowed such intimate vocabulary as the pronouns they and their. That’s when the ON word til came into English with the meaning to, as in, “I’m going til [to] Iceland.”

English already had the preposition to, so ON til eventually (fourteenth century) took on the temporal meaning it has now: “So it will be till [until] the end of time.” It also began to be spelled with a double l (till, tille, tyll).

The un of until also came into English from Old Norse, with the meaning “as far as, up to.” For example, “He went until [as far as to] his inn.” By the 1300s, until was also being used in the context of time: “His family has owned that land until [up to] this day.” Sometimes, until was also spelled untill, un-til, and un-tille.

Fast-forward five hundred years and the birth of the late-blooming “contraction” ‘til.

As far as I can tell, ‘til is the invention of lesser nineteenth-century poets who needed a one-syllable form of until and didn’t know that they already had one in till.

Today ‘til is ubiquitous.

What do the authorities say about the use of ‘til instead of till or until?

AP Stylebook
till Or until. But not ‘til.

Garner’s Modern English Usage
. . . the incorrect ‘til: has no literary history as a contraction. Not until the 1980s was it widely perceived to be one.

Chicago Manual of Style
till. This is a perfectly good preposition and conjunction {open till 10 p.m.}. It is not a contraction of until and should not be written ’til.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary
. . . until and till can be used freely and interchangeably, but you will probably want to avoid ’till and use ’til advisedly.

The OED provides a non-judgmental entry: ‘til Variation of till prep., conj. or short for until prep. and conj.

However, the usage example is rather telling:

1939 P. G. Perrin Index to Eng. 606 Till, until, (’til), these three words are not distinguishable in meaning. Since ’til in speech sounds the same as till and looks slightly odd on paper, it may well be abandoned.

That’s what I say. We may as well abandon ‘til.

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How to Write Concise, Active Sentences

How to Write Concise, Active Sentences

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One of the most valuable results of revising one’s writing (or inviting another person to do so) is leaner, more active prose. Review written content with the objectives of reducing the number of words in a sentence and using stronger, more direct syntax. (Accomplishing the latter occasionally increases rather than reduces sentence length, but attack the problems in that order.) The following sentences are prime candidates for this treatment; discussion and revisions explain the problem and offer solutions.

1. There are many factors at play that are contributing to this increase.

One of the most common culprits in verbose sentences is the expletive, an imposter subject consisting of some variation of there and a form of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, “has been” or “have been,” and so on) that masks the sentence’s true subject. It is easy to overlook such constructions—I did so just now. “Overlooking such verbosity is easy to do” is an improvement on the first part of that previous sentence (though no more concise than the original version), but the subject, the gerund overlooking, is still weak; the strongest subject is one in which an actor (not a thespian, but a person, place, or thing that performs an action or causes one to occur) appears, as in “Many writers overlook such verbosity.”

The example sentence is easily rendered more active and direct by omitting the weak expletive “there are”—thus giving “many factors” its rightful place as the sentence’s subject—and, as a bonus, the attendant but superfluous “that are” and changing the form of the verb: “Many factors at play contribute to this increase.”

2. If this package is worked out with the Senate’s blessing, there will likely be significant regulatory-relief provisions that are passed.

Note, however, that expletives don’t occur only at the head of a sentence. In this example, a subordinate clause precedes the main clause, which begins with the expletive “there will.” The expletive, again, is easily eliminated: “If this package is worked out with the Senate’s blessing, significant regulatory-relief provisions will likely be passed.” The “to be” verb has not been omitted, though, but merely replaces one (are) at the end of the sentence. If an actor is assigned to the sentence, the statement will be no more concise than before, but it will be stronger: “If this package is worked out with the Senate’s blessing, Congress will likely pass significant regulatory-relief provisions.”

3. There is a tendency for companies to hew too closely to the baseline scenarios provided by the agency.

Note, however, that when an expletive is omitted, the first noun to follow—in this case, tendency—is not necessarily the hidden true subject. This revision not only eliminates the expletive that begins the sentence but also condenses the wordy nominalization of tend and eliminates the passive—and wordy—phrase that ends the sentence: “Companies tend to hew too closely to the agency’s baseline scenarios.” (Nominalization is the transformation of a verb to a noun phrase, which in a misguided effort to make a sentence seem more authoritative usually succeeds only in making it stilted and verbose.)

4. The organization has a Cyber Risk Oversight Resource Center, which offers relevant questions for assessing the board’s cyber literacy.

Here, an element of an organization is introduced in a main clause, and a function of the entity is described in a subordinate clause. But no additional clause is necessary when the sentence is revised to eliminate the form of the verb “to be”; the entity is simply associated with the organization by using that word’s possessive form, eliminating the need for a nonessential clause: “The organization’s Cyber Risk Oversight Resource Center offers relevant questions for assessing the board’s cyber literacy.”

5. The possibility of allowing users to self-declare to designated authorities on a voluntary basis is still being considered.

The reference to possibility of enacting a policy is nearly redundant to the phrase indicating that the policy is being considered, so the sentence can be condensed somewhat by beginning with allowing: “Allowing users to voluntarily self-declare to designated authorities is still being considered.”

As advised earlier, however, when possible, replace a gerund with a true noun for a stronger sentence. If we know the identity of the entity considering the policy, we can employ this slightly longer but more direct revision: “The agency is still considering allowing users to voluntarily self-declare to designated authorities.”

6. The rising moon illuminated the blossoms. It was a magical atmosphere that lingered into the cool winter night.

These two sentences are easily combined into one by converting the first sentence to a subordinate clause connected to the second sentence, which now serves as the main clause: “As the rising moon illuminated the blossoms, the magical atmosphere lingered into the cool winter night.”

7. An organization is subject to compliance obligations and penalties for noncompliance. Noncompliance can result in fines of up to twenty million euros or 4 percent of the organization’s annual global revenue, whichever is greater.

In this revision, the first sentence serves as the main clause, and the second one is relegated to subordinate status—and note that the edited version eliminates the awkward repetition of noncompliance at the very end of one sentence and the very beginning of the next: “An organization is subject to compliance obligations and penalties for noncompliance, which can result in fines of up to twenty million euros or 4 percent of the organization’s annual global revenue, whichever is greater.”

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Worshipped and Worshipping Revisited

Worshipped and Worshipping Revisited

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A recent comment on a past post, “Worshiping and Kidnapping” made me doubt my sanity:

You note that Merriam-Webster lists worshiped and worshiping as preferred spellings in the US, but my M-W app lists the double-consonant spelling first. Which should I recommend to an American writer whose readers are also American?

In my post, “Worshiping and Kidnapping,” I stated confidently that the single consonant spellings are given first and the double letter spellings are second-choice variants in the US Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.

I am happy to report that I was not seeing things.

A query to M-W brought me a response from Senior Editor Susan L. Brady:

Our unabridged dictionary at https://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged shows the inflected forms as:
worshiped or worshipped; worshiping or worshipping

Our online dictionary at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary shows the inflected forms as:
worshipped also worshiped; worshipping also worshiping

According to Ms Brady, the latter dictionary is more up-to-date concerning styling conventions such as capitalization, hyphenation, and variants of inflected forms.

I had assumed that the Unabridged was better for my research than the other versions, but I hadn’t considered the logistics of keeping them all in sync. Says Editor Brady, “As much as we would like to make both dictionaries consistent, it is just not possible to update both of them on the same schedule.”

Here’s what I’ve learned by revisiting the topic of worshiping/worshipping.

Some spelling sources, both dictionaries and online teaching sites, continue to honor the wraith of Noah Webster by insisting that the preferred US spellings of these participles have only one p.

In his 1828 dictionary, Webster used John 4:20 from the KJV as an example of the use of worship in the past tense: Our fathers worshiped in this mountain.

If you ask your magic search engine, “How do you spell the past tense of worship?” you may get this answer from WordHippo:

The past tense of worship is worshipped UK (Britain) or worshiped US (US). The third-person singular simple present indicative form of worship is worships. The present participle of worship is worshipping UK (Britain) or worshiping US (US).

Or, you may find this answer from a teaching site called Preply:

verb (used with object), worshiped, worshiping or (especially British) worshipped, worshipping. . .

On the other hand, The AP Stylebook has an entry for worship, worshipped, worshipper.

Apart from the exceptions (and there are several) the usual rule that applies to doubling the consonant when adding an ending to a multi-syllable word is this:

If the final syllable is stressed, double the consonant: control, controlling
If the final syllable is not stressed, do not double the consonant: travel, traveling

According to this rule, worship, which is not stressed on the final syllable, should not double the p when adding an ending.

HOWEVER, as pointed out in the entry for worship in Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016),

Although some American dictionaries give preference to the inflected forms worshiped and worshiping, these have never achieved predominance in AmE print sources.

A look at the Ngram Viewer set to “American English” bears this out. Worshipped and worshipping are more common than the single-p versions.

Like worshipped, kidnapped breaks the doubling rule because the stress falls on the first syllable and not the second. I would guess that most of us probably feel that worshiping and kidnaping “just look wrong.” Something that could explain this feeling is that both words contain one-syllable words that do double the consonant when adding an ending: ship, shipping; nap, napping.

Those writing for US publications must pay attention to house rules for these spellings, but in the absence of a stated preference in a publication’s guidelines, I think it’s safe to say that American writers can go with worshipping as well as kidnapping.

PS: Just the other day, I saw a photo caption in the Washington Post that gave the spelling “worshiped.” I guess they don’t use the AP Stylebook.

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5 Types of Case and Punctuation Problems with Quotations

5 Types of Case and Punctuation Problems with Quotations

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The following sentences demonstrate issues writers confront when they write sentences that incorporate quotations that are not framed with attribution (phrasing that identifies the source of the quotation, such as “he said” or “she writes”). Each example is followed by a discussion of the problem in the sentence and a solution.

1. The consultant’s answer to the question of how to get started is always: “Begin with a plan.”

A quotation should be introduced with a statement that ends with a colon only if the statement is a complete sentence, as in “The consultant’s answer to the question of how to get started is always the same: ‘Begin with a plan.’” Otherwise, the punctuation is only obstructing the syntactical flow of the overarching sentence, so omit it here: “The consultant’s answer to the question of how to get started is always ‘Begin with a plan.’” (The presence of a “to-be” verb—is, in this case—obviates the need for punctuation.) Another exception is if what precedes the quotation is an attribution, as in “When asked for advice, Jones said: ‘Begin with a plan.’” However, in such cases, a simple comma before said suffices.

2. The old adage of “what gets measured, gets done” applies here.

The adage should be treated like a complete statement—with the first word capitalized (and no intervening punctuation): “The old adage ‘What gets measured gets done’ applies here.” Also, notice that because “What gets measured gets done” is an actual statement, not merely a paraphrase or distillation of a statement, the extraneous word of has been deleted. (However, even when the adage is described and not directly quoted, about, not of, is appropriate, as in “The old adage about something getting done if it is measured applies here.” Note, too, that adage has a connotation of familiarity, so some would consider old redundant.)

3. Smith warns that, “The actual federal commitment will be only a small fraction of that, and it may be poorly targeted.”

Although as a stand-alone statement, the quotation is a complete sentence, it has been integrated into the syntax of the overarching statement beginning “The actual federal commitment . . .” and thus loses its independent status: “Smith warns that ‘the actual federal commitment will be only a small fraction of that, and it may be poorly targeted.’” The first few words might seem to constitute an attribution, in which case the first word in the quoted sentence would remain capitalized, but that after “Smith warns” serves as a bridge that syntactically links the quotation with that phrase. (Note that the attribution can also be inserted before the second clause—“and it may be poorly targeted”—or at the end of the sentence, and if an attribution is employed, the quotation must be capitalized no matter where the attribution occurs.)

4. The commission asserts that, “as a general rule, the full board should have primary responsibility for risk oversight.”

In this sentence, as in the previous example, the quotation is syntactically integral, and as is correctly treated lowercase. But is the comma essential here, considering that “as a general rule” is parenthetical to “The commission asserts that ‘the full board should have primary responsibility for risk oversight”? It can be read that way, but the phrase “The commission asserts that ‘as a general rule’” can also be read as subordinate to the main clause beginning “the full board,” so the first comma, though not outright erroneous, is not necessary: “The commission asserts that ‘as a general rule, the full board should have primary responsibility for risk oversight.’”

5. As Jones so eloquently observed, “The ability to recognize that the winds have shifted and to take appropriate action before you wreck your boat is crucial to the future of an enterprise.”

This sentence is correct as is, but it can easily be simplified somewhat by converting the attribution to the subject of the sentence: “Jones so eloquently observed that ‘the ability to recognize that the winds have shifted and to take appropriate action before you wreck your boat is crucial to the future of an enterprise.’”

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Adverb Placement

Adverb Placement

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A reader wants to know “if there is a rule for the proper placement of an adverb in sentence structure.”

The general rule with adverbs is to place the adverb as close as possible to the word being modified. Most adverbs can go in one of three positions in a sentence.

First position (before the subject)
Cautiously, she opened the door.

Second position (before the main verb)
She cautiously opened the door.

Third position (after the verb or after the verb and its direct object or clause)
She opened the door cautiously.

Sometimes the position of the adverb doesn’t affect the meaning of the sentence, although it can contribute to a stylistic effect. For example, with cautiously in the above examples, placing the word first seems to suggest a dread of something that may be on the other side of the door.

With some adverbs, position affects meaning.

Take this example from the Chicago Manual of Style:

[The] marathoners submitted their applications to compete immediately.

Did the marathoners hit the trail as soon as they submitted their applications? Or did they submit their applications in a timely manner, in order to be eligible to compete? Placing the adverb next to the verb submitted eliminates ambiguity:

The marathoners immediately submitted their applications to compete.

Adverbs with Intransitive verbs
Adverbs generally follow an intransitive verb (a verb that does not have an object).

The children laughed uproariously.
The audience applauded wildly.
The accidents occurred intermittently.

Some exceptions are always, never, often, generally, rarely, and seldom. They can precede an intransitive verb:

He never laughs at my jokes.
His parents seldom agree.

Adverbs with Linking Verbs
Adverbs can follow a linking verb: The king is always angry.
Adverbs can follow the complement of a linking verb: The old man seems confused sometimes.

The important thing to remember about linking verbs and adverbs is, never try to use an adverb as the complement!

INCORRECT: Charlie feels badly.
CORRECT: Charlie feels bad.

Note: If Charlie has a disability that interferes with his sense of touch, then yes, he could be said to “feel badly.”

Adverbs with Transitive Verbs
Adverbs never go between a transitive verb and its object.

INCORRECT: He climbed determinedly the rock face.
CORRECT: He determinedly climbed the rock face.

Adverbs with Compound Verbs
When a verb is compound (has one or more helping verbs) the writer must decide where to put the adverb.

With one helping verb, place the adverb between the helping verb and the main verb.

I will gladly give you a ride.
The dog was secretly burying its toys in the garden.

With two helping verbs, place the adverb in one of two positions.
1. If the adverb modifies the entire thought expressed by the sentence, place it after the first helping verb:

They will certainly have read your submission by Thursday.

2. If the adverb is strongly modifying the main verb, place it directly in front of the main verb:

The boy’s behavior has been repeatedly reprimanded.

The reader who posed the question about adverb placement asked about four sentences in particular:

Managers often give employees feedback to help them improve their skills.
Managers give employees feedback often to help them improve their skills.

The first sentence places often next to the verb give, making it clear that the feedback is given frequently. Placing often in front of the infinitive to help in the second sentence suggests that the infinitive phrase is being modified.

We are limited to only storing five vehicles at this location.
We are limited to storing only five vehicles at this location.

With the adverb in front of storing, the sentence suggests that “We” can store five vehicles, but not other types of property. The second sentence makes it clear that a limited number of vehicles may be stored.

NOTE: Only is the trickiest adverb of all.

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Wringer or Ringer?

Wringer or Ringer?

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The other day I read an essay in the Washington Post in which a woman describes herself as having been “put through the ringer” with a difficult birth.

I’m always surprised to find an error of this kind in a major publication because I imagine that their owners still employ copy readers.

The idiom intended is “to be put through the wringer,” meaning, “to suffer an unpleasant or difficult experience.”

The verb to wring means “to twist and squeeze.” The forms are wring, wrung, have wrung. The noun form is wringer.

The wringing action is usually to remove moisture from something. My mother’s first washing machine had a wringer attached to it. She fed pieces of clothing between rollers to get as much of the water out as possible before hanging them out on that other old-fashioned piece of laundry equipment—the backyard clothesline.

Wringing one’s hands, that is, clasping and twisting the fingers, is a sign of helpless distress.

Figuratively, one might try to wring an agreement from someone, using persuasive arguments.

A sad story might be said to wring our heartstrings.

Here are some examples:

Johannsen made an attempt to save her orphan girls by wringing permission from Sevret to take them to Harput. –The Armenian Genocide, Raymond Kévorkian, p.348.

[Elsa] wrung her hands piteously, and exclaimed, “Oh, my poor, poor brother!” —Great Opera Stories, Millicent Schwab Bender.

Ameche and Cronyn wring the heartstrings during all the emergency ward scenes.—unattributed movie review.

Wringer‘s homonym ringer has several meanings.

Literally, a ringer can be a person or a device that rings a bell.

Figuratively, a ringer is someone or something that bears a strong resemblance to another person, animal, or thing.

In the context of horse racing, a ringer is a fast horse entered under the name of and in the place of a slower one.

The brewing scandal over whether a “dead” horse had won a race at Belmont could be at least the sixth incident this year involving ringers at race tracks in North America.—from a 1977 article in the NY Times.

Now, if you remember, Jenni was the saucy, bold one in the group whose dark-chocolate mane made her a dead ringer for Catherine Zeta Jones. —article about Jenni Farley in Glamour.

NOTE: The word dead in “dead ringer” is an adjective meaning “utter, absolute.”

In Australian English, ringer has three definitions: the fastest shearer in a shed; a stockman or station hand; a person who excels at an activity.

Finally, ringer has specialized meanings.

In brickmaking a ringer is a long iron bar for handling pieces of iron in a furnace.

In the sport of curling, a ringer is a stone positioned within the circle drawn around either tee.

Capitalized, Ringer refers to “various saline solutions having a composition similar to that of blood serum.” In this use, the word is an eponym from the name of English physician Sydney Ringer (1836-1910).

More meanings for ringer exist, but these will do for now. No need to put ourselves through the wringer trying to include every last one.

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Original post: Wringer or Ringer?

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Questions on WAS and WHO

Questions on WAS and WHO

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A reader poses two grammar questions, one on linking verb agreement and one on pronoun case.

Question One
What is the rule that governs which linking verb to use when the subject is singular and the predicate is plural?

The highlight for me ______ the poems that Mary wrote and read.” was or were?

The rule for linking verbs is the same as for any verb: Verbs agree in number with their subjects.

When the verb to be is used with a predicate nominative, writers are often misled by false attraction to the word that appears as the complement of the verb.

Reminder: A predicate nominative is a noun or pronoun that completes a linking verb. The noun, pronoun, or adjective that completes a linking verb is called a complement.

In the sample sentence, the subject noun, highlight, is singular. The word that completes the linking verb is the plural noun poems.

The fact that poems is plural is irrelevant. Why? Because verbs agree with their subjects in number.

Here is the correct construction:

The highlight for me was the poems that Mary wrote and read.

The correct construction is not always the one that sounds best. Most of us probably cringe to hear the singular verb was so close to the plural noun poems. The solution is to rework the sentence:

The poems that Mary wrote and read were the highlight of the evening for me.

Question Two
What is the rule that determines if a word should be nominative or objective if the word functions as both a subject and object in the same sentence?

This prize goes to _______ gets the highest score. whoever or whomever?

This question relates to grammatical case.

In an earlier form of English, all nouns had special case endings, but in modern English, only pronouns show case.

Note: Next to verbs, pronouns produce the greatest number of errors committed by modern English speakers. These errors can be avoided by learning to tell if a pronoun is being used as subject or an object.

In the sample sentence, the correct choice is whoever:

This prize goes to whoever gets the highest score.

I can hear the wails go up. “Get a grip, Maeve! That pronoun follows the preposition to. Any fool should know that the object of a preposition is in the objective case!”

True. The object of a preposition takes the objective case, and the object form of who is whom.

However, in the sample sentence, the pronoun is not the object of the preposition to.

Most of the time, the object of a preposition will be a noun or a pronoun, but sometimes, the object of a preposition is a clause.

In this sentence, the clause “whoever gets the highest score” is the object of the preposition to.

The word whoever does not serve as “both object and subject.” Its only function in this sentence is to serve as the subject of the verb gets.

Many modern speakers have given up the struggle with whom and use who indiscriminately as subject and object. Several modern authorities feel that this is permissible.

Some speakers have the notion that whom is somehow “more elegant” than who and use the object form as a subject. This is never cool.

Who vs Whom

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Two Verb Puzzles in the News

Two Verb Puzzles in the News

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I suppose I may be exposing my own comprehension failings by writing about two verb uses that puzzled me recently. I’ll just have to take the chance.

In a New York Times article (Jan 3, 2020) about the death of an Iranian military operative, I had to read the following sentence three times before I understood what was being said:

They also say he has masterminded destabilizing Iranian activities that continue throughout the Middle East and are aimed at the United States and Saudi Arabia.

My problem focused on the word destabilizing. At the first reading, I took it to be a gerund.

Reminder: Words ending in –ing are verb forms. To function as complete verbs, they must be used with a helping verb. Used alone, they can function as different parts of speech. A gerund is an –ing word used as a noun. A gerund can do anything a noun can do. It can function as the subject or complement of a sentence, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition. It can also do things verbs can do, such as take an object.

Gerunds

I thought that destabilizing was the direct object of the verb masterminded. It took me three readings to figure out what the sentence actually says.

First reading
I knew the article was about a man who had made a career of causing trouble for the enemies of Iran. I assumed he would know how to destabilize things. Ergo, my first thought was that he had “masterminded the craft of destabilizing various activities.”

Second reading
But then I saw the adjective Iranian before activities. The man being written about was an Iranian officer. Why would he want to destabilize the activities of his own side?

Third reading
At last, as I read further, the penny dropped. Destabilizing does not function as a gerund here. It functions as an adjective. The man masterminded activities that are still being used on behalf of Iran to destabilize the efforts of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Because I can usually understand articles in the Times without multiple re-readings, I think this sentence is a good example of why writers need to pay attention to the way they use –ing words in long sentences.

As it’s already clear that the man was in the service of Iran, the sentence could have been made shorter and clearer by leaving out the qualifier Iranian and rearranging the words:

They also say he has masterminded activities that continue throughout the Middle East and are aimed at destabilizing the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The other usage that puzzled me is contained in this headline in the Washington Post from the same date:

Minimum wage increases fuel faster wage growth for those at bottom

As I began reading, I perceived increases as a verb, fuel as a noun, and faster as an adverb. I wondered why the wage increases would affect fuel, but then I backed up and realized that increases is a noun and fuel is a verb. Aha. The wage increases are causing wage growth for wage earners at the bottom.

I know, headline writers take wicked pleasure in making readers figure out their creations. Most writers, however, want to make things easy for their readers.

Beware of juxtaposing two words that can be either nouns or verbs.

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