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Misbehaving Memes: thou, with, and went

Misbehaving Memes: thou, with, and went

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Since Richard Dawkins coined the word in 1976, meme has become familiar to social media users as a captioned graphic used to convey a thought meant to be amusing, inspiring, or informative and shareworthy.

Thanks to their popularity, memes have spawned slapdash versions consisting of little more than a colored square containing words. Many, however, reflect considerable creativity and labor. Unfortunately, many otherwise attractive memes are marred by inattention to basic language conventions.

1. A Birthday Meme
Using a form of the archaic English pronoun thou is a frequent attention-getter for advertisers and meme-makers. Unfortunately, the forms are often used incorrectly, as in this birthday meme.

The graphic shows the portrait of a leering Restoration rake pointing at the viewer, overlaid with this text:

Have Thineself A
[graphic]
Ecstatic Day of Yearly
Birth Celebration

The meme contains two errors. Most blatant is the nonword Thineself.

The forms for the archaic singular second person pronoun thou are these:

Subject: thou
Object: thee
Possessive Adjective: thy
Possessive Pronoun: *thine
*thine was also used instead of thy before a vowel sound or letter h.
Reflexive/Emphatic Pronoun: thyself

Examples of usage:

Thou art a good friend. (subject)
I love thee. (object)
Where is thy house? (poss. adj.)
This dog is thine. (poss. pronoun)
Keep thy hands to thyself. (reflexive pronoun)
Thine eye shall be instructed, and thine heart, Made pure . . . (thine substituted for thy)

The other error in the meme is the use of the article A preceding the word Ecstatic. The placement of the A far from Ecstatic doubtless contributed to the error.

The indefinite article has two forms, a and an. The form an is used before words that begin with a vowel sound. Ecstatic begins with a vowel sound.

Here is a possible improvement:

Have Thyself
[graphic]
An Ecstatic
Day of Yearly Birth Celebration.

2. An Inspirational Meme
An interactive drama series called Trylife, a nonprofit project designed to help youth make reasoned decisions, posts many text memes with positive messages worth sharing.

One that caught my approving glance is this one:

The only people with whom you should try to get even with, are those who have helped you.

I noticed the embarrassment of withs only upon a second reading: with whom and get even with.

Two possible syntaxes have been conflated:

The only people with whom you should try to get even are those who have helped you.

The only people whom you should try to get even with are those who have helped you.

3. An Amusing Meme
The graphic in this one is the photo of a car parked by a fireplug. The front windows have been broken to admit passage of a fire hose. The photo says it all, but a caption has been added:

Sure They Could Have Went Under Or Around The Car But That Teaches No Lesson

Alas, our few remaining irregular verbs are under assault, not only in memes, but also on the airwaves. I have heard news announcers make the same error.

The irregular verb to go has the following forms:

Present: go/goes
Past: went
Past participle: [have] gone

Corrected meme text:

They Could Have Gone Under Or Around The Car . . .

There’s nothing wrong with the use of informal language in memes aimed at a popular online audience, but “informal” doesn’t mean “nonstandard.” Meme-makers can improve their chances of having their creations shared by observing basic language conventions.

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3 Sentences in Which Semicolons Are Superfluous

3 Sentences in Which Semicolons Are Superfluous

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Many writers—even professional ones—are wary about employing semicolons, at best because the punctuation mark carries a hint of excessive formality and at worst because users aren’t clear on the concept. However, some writers who do use them are confused, too, and are apt to include semicolons when they aren’t warranted. Unnecessary semicolons litter the following sentences, and the discussions and revisions that follow each example explain the problem and offer solutions.

First, a primer. Semicolons have two functions: They serve as weak periods and strong commas. In the first role, they separate two independent clauses so closely related that dividing them into two distinct sentences seems excessive. In the second role, they supplant commas separating elements in an in-line list (a series of related items in a sentence) when one or more of those elements itself includes one or more commas, helping clarify the sentence organization. This post focuses on the latter function.

1. Pressures from boards; volatile markets; intensifying competition; demanding and potentially disruptive regulatory requirements; changing workplace dynamics; shifting customer preferences; uncertainty regarding catastrophic events; and other dynamic forces are leading to increasing calls for management to design and implement effective risk management capabilities, as well as response mechanisms to identify, assess, and manage the organization’s key risk exposures.

Writers sometimes call in the heavy-lifting semicolons when a list is extensive but not complex. However, no matter how many elements a list includes, if none if them is further subdivided, commas suffice. Furthermore, semicolons can serve as supercommas only when an in-line list constitutes the predicate of the sentence (the part that follows the subject). Here, the list itself constitutes the subject, which results in confusing syntax.

For both reasons, use only commas in this sentence: “Pressures from boards, volatile markets, intensifying competition, demanding and potentially disruptive regulatory requirements, changing workplace dynamics, shifting customer preferences, uncertainty regarding catastrophic events, and other dynamic forces are leading to increasing calls for management to design and implement effective risk management capabilities, as well as response mechanisms to identify, assess, and manage the organization’s key risk exposures.”

2. Smith, who raised roughly three million dollars more than Jones; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and allied groups, spent millions on data and organizing efforts to turn out traditionally Democratic demographic groups, such as college students, blacks, and Native Americans.

Here, the list is a parenthetical that is technically part of the subject—it precedes the sentence’s primary verb, spent—and the punctuation strength is inverted; the commas preceding and following the list carry more syntactical weight (setting off the parenthetical in which the semicolons are employed) than the semicolons themselves.

Furthermore, semicolons are unnecessary in this sentence—as in the previous example, no element in the list itself includes punctuation, so semicolons are superfluous: “Smith, who raised roughly three million dollars more than Jones, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and allied groups, spent millions on data and organizing efforts to turn out traditionally Democratic demographic groups, such as college students, blacks, and Native Americans.” (The punctuation setting off the parenthesis doesn’t need to be stronger than the punctuation setting off the list within it, because the relative weight of the parenthesis and the list elements is already evident.)

3. Traditional methodologies; long-trusted, stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs; and conventional thinking simply can’t accomplish these tasks at the speed of change that is occurring.

But what if one or more elements in an in-line list itself include punctuation, as here? (The writer does not want long-trusted (which is part of the element “long-trusted, stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs”) to appear to be a distinct element after “traditional methodologies and before “stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs.” (The third element is “conventional thinking.”)

Unfortunately, this sentence has the same flaw as the first example above—a list that constitutes the subject should not include semicolons. A possible revision involves setting off the second and third items as a parenthetical: “Traditional methodologies, as well as long-trusted, stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs, and conventional thinking, simply can’t accomplish these tasks at the speed of change that is occurring.” However, the comma after needs is necessary so that “conventional thinking” is not read as part of the preceding item, but because there is now a series of commas with multiple syntactical roles, the sentence’s organization is still muddled.

A cleaner solution is to transpose the second and third elements so that the more complex element stands alone as a parenthetical: “Traditional methodologies and conventional thinking, as well as long-trusted, stand-alone point solutions that address specific needs, simply can’t accomplish these tasks at the speed of change that is occurring.”

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From Mercury to Hermeneutics

From Mercury to Hermeneutics

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One of the most popular of the Roman gods was Mercury, patron of merchants and thieves.

Mercury had other associations. He was noted for eloquence, speed, trickery and magic. In addition to shopkeeping and thievery, he was associated with roads and boundaries. Because of his speed, he carried messages for the other gods and acted as a psychopomp, a supernatural being who guides the newly dead to the underworld.

Words coined according to Mercury’s various attributes have enriched our vocabulary.

The planet Mercury was so named because it moves fastest of all the planets around the sun. The metal mercury, also known as quicksilver, flows quickly at room temperature.

The adjective mercurial refers to the supposed qualities of people born under the planet Mercury: eloquence, ingenuity, and aptitude for commerce. Mercurial people are volatile, sprightly, and ready-witted. I don’t know if Robin Williams was born under Mercury, but he certainly possessed a mercurial personality.

As with most ancient gods, cultural currents resulted in a conflation of similar deities. The Greek version of Mercury was Hermes. They became associated with Thoth—the Egyptian god of writing, magic, and wisdom. The result was the hybrid Hermes Trismegistus, “Hermes thrice greatest.” In this triple form, Mercury was regarded as the author of all mysterious doctrines, especially of the secrets of alchemy.

The mysterious wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus was closely guarded by its practitioners, giving us the word hermetic: “airtight” or “impervious to outside influences.” It can be used literally to refer to a physical object with an airtight seal, or figuratively, to refer to a closed society, as in an article about a genre of radio announcers:

. . . with few exceptions classical announcers exist in hermetic bubbles, known only to their flocks, ignored by their peers.

The adverb hermetically is also used both literally and figuratively:

By hermetically sealing microsystems and protecting them from harmful environmental influences, their reliability and lifetime can be significantly increased.

[Pedestrians engaged with electronic devices] are hermetically sealed off from one another, not taking in the air or the stupendous buildings or the sky or just the miracle of confronting the earth as it is.

Some other words that derive from the name Hermes are herm, hermaphrodite, hermeneutics, and the female name Hermione.

A herm is an ancient boundary marker in the form of a squared pillar that often had the carved head of Hermes on the top.

The word hermaphrodite combines the names Hermes and Aphrodite. According to the version of the myth in Ovid, Hermaphroditus was a handsome youth, son of Hermes and Aphrodite. In a switch from the usual god-rapes-nymph story, Hermaphroditus was assaulted by the naiad Salmacis as he bathed naked in a spring. While her victim struggled to free himself, Salmacis prayed the gods would unite them forever. I suspect she just wanted the poor man to become a willing lover, but the gods took her literally and combined them into one bisexual body. In science, hermaphrodites are plants or animals for which it is normal for both male and female reproductive parts to exist on the same individual.

Hermeneutics is the branch of knowledge dealing with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.

Hermione is the feminine of Hermes. The name has acquired a new popularity, thanks to the character Hermione Granger in the J. K. Rowling books. Before that Hermione entered the literary scene, I was familiar with the name as a character in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and as the name of the actress Hermione Gingold. If you’ve watched the film The Music Man, you’ll probably remember Hermione Gingold as the mayor’s wife, admonishing her husband to mind his “phraseology.”

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Discomfiture Is Worse Than Discomfort

Discomfiture Is Worse Than Discomfort

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I’ve noticed the two nouns, discomfort and discomfiture, being used interchangeably, as if both meant simply, “the condition of being uncomfortable—physically or mentally.”

A toothache causes discomfort. Certain topics of conversation cause discomfort in some listeners. When I peruse the comments on my posts, vulgar language and ad hominem attacks cause me discomfort.

Discomfiture, on the other hand, seems to me to convey something more intense than the discomfort of the body or the unease of seeing or talking about uncomfortable subjects. Discomfiture is discomfort accompanied by additional feelings such as embarrassment, frustration, and humiliation.

For example, discomfiture is what I feel when I spot a typo or (worse yet) a factual error in one of my posts after I’ve clicked on the Submit button and have no way to correct it.

Here are some examples of apt uses of discomfiture:

Mr Gove, cheeks delightfully rouged, was stumped. Eventually he muttered something about the Prime Minister being a man he admired. Mr Sheerman, thrilled by the minister’s discomfiture, afforded himself a hearty chuckle.

The administration can do at least two things, and quickly, to demonstrate real support for Iranians — and intensify the discomfiture of Khamenei and Rouhani.

There is something in the British psyche that sort of quite enjoys the discomfiture of successful people.

Excited by the discomfiture of their masters, the peoples of European empires elsewhere in the world licked their lips and awaited the next European war.

In each example, the word points to feelings of embarrassment, frustration, failure, or defeat.

The nouns discomfort and discomfiture have related verbs: discomfort and discomfit.

Discomfort as a verb dates from the fourteenth century and discomfit from the thirteenth.
The older verb, discomfit, seems to be making a comeback, but modern speakers rarely, if ever, use discomfort as a verb. That’s too bad.

In a culture that places a great deal of importance on making people feel “comfortable,” we need a verb that means, “to make uncomfortable.”

An early meaning of the verb discomfit is “to defeat or rout in battle.” For example,

He had prayed that the Lord would scatter, discomfit, and destroy all those that rose up against his Majesty.

In modern usage, discomfit has two common meanings: “to embarrass” and “to thwart the plans of.”

Here are apt examples of discomfit:

“Many changes for the better, I should expect,” said my uncle, who took pleasure in discomfiting priests. —Gary Jennings, Aztec Autumn (2006).

Johnson’s claim that he needs the proroguing to prepare major legislation is of course just window-dressing. This is a tactical move to discomfit his opponents. —The Australian, August 31, 2019.

But I doubt there is a judge in the state who would dare discomfit a police chief in such a manner [jail the chief until subordinates return confiscated goods]. —A lawyer’s blog April 5, 2019.

Here are two examples of discomfit used where it seems that discomfort would be the better choice:

We wanted to engage students both cognitively and non-cognitively, to discomfit them to a degree, to occasion self-reflection without the usual challenges of privacy and cultural filters.— 2019 case study on public policy teaching.

At other places, but I’m happy to say not yet at Purdue, students have demanded to be kept “safe” from speech, that is, mere words, that challenge or discomfit them.—Commencement address.

In both these examples, the meaning seems to be “make uncomfortable” and not “embarrass or thwart their intentions.”

I’m always pleased to see archaic words brought back to life—as long as they fill the need for a new meaning or shade of meaning. Discomfit and discomfiture deserve to be used as meaningful words in their own right, not as faintly pompous synonyms for discomfort.

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5 Cases of Faulty Parenthesis

5 Cases of Faulty Parenthesis

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When a sentence includes a form of parenthesis—a word, phrase, or clause framed by a pair of commas, dashes, or parentheses—writers must take care that the statement surrounding the interjection is structurally valid so that if the optional parenthesis is omitted, the remaining wording is still coherent and thus the parenthesis makes sense grammatically. To test whether the sentence’s composition is complete, temporarily omit the interjection, then repair any syntactical and grammatical issues that manifest themselves before reinstating (or restating) the parenthesis. The following sentences are flawed in construction, and the discussion and revision that follows each resolves the problem.

1. He is considered to be one of, if not the, deadliest assassin in the empire.

This sentence, without the parenthesis, is “He is considered to be one of deadliest assassin in the empire.” This faulty construction demonstrates that the article the must appear in the main clause before the interjection to form a complete sentence, and assassin must be in plural form to correspond with the modifying phrase “one of the” (“He is considered to be one of the deadliest assassins in the empire”); in addition, a repetition of deadliest must be inserted into the parenthesis to form a complete thought: “He is considered one of the deadliest assassins, if not the deadliest, in the empire.” (The extraneous “to be” has been deleted as well.)

2. There is little doubt he will be regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst, governors in the state’s history.

The flaw in this sentence is similar to that of the previous example, though in this case, correction of the error is simpler—the main clause is valid, but the plural form governors is at odds with the parenthetical phrase “if not the worst.” To rectify the error, simply relocate that phrase to the end of the sentence to transform it from a parenthetical to a subordinate clause, thereby disassociating it from governors, the singular form of which is now implied after the phrase: “There is little doubt he will be regarded as one of the worst governors in the state’s history, if not the worst.” (Another possible solution is to transpose the two complementary phrases: “There is little doubt he will be regarded as, if not the worst governor in the state’s history, one of the worst.”)

3. Effective risk management can help predict—and prevent—major implementation problems from occurring.

In this case, the wording that remains after the parenthesis is excised—“Effective risk management can help predict major implementation problems from occurring”—is syntactically flawed, because “from occurring” modifies prevent but not predict. For the sentence to make sense, that phrase should be inserted into the interjection: “Effective risk management can help predict—and prevent from occurring—major implementation problems.” Better yet, integrate the interjection (with a pronoun standing in for a repeat of “major implementation problems”) into the main clause: “Effective risk management can help predict major implementation problems and prevent them from occurring.”

4. This has not (and should not) prevent smart companies from taking advantage of innovation.

With the parenthesis in this sentence removed, the remaining statement is “This has not prevent smart companies from taking advantage of innovation.” Because “has not” and “should not” must be accompanied by differing forms of prevent, both forms of the verb, one in the main clause and one in the parenthesis, should be employed: “This has not prevented (and should not prevent) smart companies from taking advantage of innovation.”

Note that, as is often the case, the three forms of punctuation are interchangeable, although their functions vary slightly: Commas are neutral, parentheses suggest that the information is incidental, and dashes signal information that is divergent or unexpected.

5. One could argue that regulators are neither responsible for, nor able to, change a financial institution’s culture.

Here, as in the previous example, the parenthetical is compatible with the phrase that follows it but not the one preceding it, and the error can be tested by temporarily omitting the parenthetical to discover that the base sentence is grammatically incorrect. In the resulting sentence, “One could argue that regulators are neither responsible for change a financial institution’s culture,” change should be changing. However, change is correct when associated with “nor able to,” so when the parenthetical is returned to the sentence, both forms of the verb must be included, one in the main clause and one in the parenthetical: “One could argue that regulators are neither responsible for changing, nor able to change, a financial institution’s culture.”

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Naming a Character

Naming a Character

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The most unforgettable fictional characters begin as a glimmer in the author’s mind. Only in writing the novel does the character go on to acquire the dimensions that will make him or her live in the imagination of the reader years after the book has been read.

Sherlock Holmes, Captain Ahab, Huckleberry Finn, Jo March, Dorothea Brooke linger in our memories as if they were real people we have known.

These examples are all from the English classics, but even the writer whose ambitions focus on something less monumental than Moby Dick or Middlemarch needs to give adequate thought to the principal character/s who will carry the story, whether it’s a light mystery, a romance, or a middle school adventure.

The place to begin is with the character’s name.

Some writers, in a hurry to start that first draft, will tack the first name that comes to mind on the main character, intending to come up with a better name “later on.”

Bad idea.

A purely practical objection is the danger that the substitute name will creep into a few paragraphs in the completed draft, creating embarrassment for the author and confusion in the reader.

A more important reason to begin with the most appropriate name is that the name is part of the character’s persona and can inform the developing action. The right name can also send a subliminal message to the reader. Take the name Atticus Finch.

The antique Roman name Atticus suggests formality and is imbued with connotations of law and justice. Finch is the name of a harmless bird and, as such, reflects the title of the book, To Kill a Mocking Bird. Harper Lee may or may not have been aware of the useful qualities of the finch as a destroyer of weeds and harmful insects, but Atticus Finch lives in our memories as a dignified representative of the law doing what he can to protect the social garden from destructive influences.

The very letters in a name can connote characteristics. The k sound suggests strength and courage. Consider: James T. Kirk, Kinsey Millhone, Alex Cross, Brother Caedfal, Kate Beckett.

Other sounds, like those of h and r and the vowels, can suggest such characteristics as weakness, hypocrisy, and—sometimes—evil. Consider: Iago, Humbert Humbert, Professor Moriarty, Dorian Gray, Uriah Heep.

A combination of strong and weak sounds can produce a name that suggests a multi-layered character who possesses strength and courage, together with a willingness to use others to their advantage. Consider: Becky Sharp, Scarlett O’Hara.

The sounds of l and n may suggest sexiness or feminine weakness: Ulalume, Lolita, Annabelle Lee, Anna Karenina.

And, finally, it’s possible to incorporate a suggestive word in the name of a character. Holly GoLightly’s name contains the sexy l ‘s, together with a word that conveys her unconscionable view of life. Bigger Thomas, born in different circumstances, could have had a bigger, better fate. Edward Murdstone has a heart of stone and a murky disposition. Sam Spade digs ploddingly for information, while Mike Hammer gets what he’s after by any means necessary.

Before you get too far into that first draft, take the time to give your protagonist the right name.

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“Painstaking” Does Not Mean “Painful” and a “Perk” is not a “Prerequisite”

“Painstaking” Does Not Mean “Painful” and a “Perk” is not a “Prerequisite”

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Uses of the word painstaking that I’ve noticed recently suggest that some speakers may think it’s a synonym for painful or difficult.

Painstaking combines the noun pain and the verb to take. One meaning of pain is “trouble taken for the accomplishment of something.” Also, in early use, it meant “trouble in accomplishing something, difficulty.”

As a noun, painstaking is the action of “taking pains.” A person who takes pains in doing something is exerting diligent care and effort.

As an adjective, painstaking can be applied to an action, as in “the painstaking collection of forensic evidence.” Usually it applies to the person who is taking pains over a task.

The following examples seem to suggest that painstaking means painful, unpleasant, or difficult:

Many students find research assignments difficult and painstaking. But once you know all the steps, the task becomes less complicated.

Painstaking Truths in Life & How to Overcome Them

. . . the job of attaching the wire was much too painstaking and time-consuming for any large-scale production.

My take on these three uses of painstaking:

1. An English teacher at heart, I think that students should take pains over their writing assignments. It is misleading to suggest that completing a research assignment shouldn’t be “painstaking.”

2. I have no idea what a “painstaking truth” might be. I read the blog post under these words and still didn’t understand the significance of the title. Painful would perhaps be the more appropriate word here.

3. Another word seems to be called for. Perhaps the job of attaching the wire was too fiddly, fussy, delicate, or intricate to be practicable on a large scale.

Mark Twain makes a clever pun on pain as “effort” and pain as “physical discomfort” in Chapter XVIII of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1888), when he describes the executioner as “a good, painstaking and pain-giving official.”

Perks
The word perk and the plural perks have become well established in standard English since the 1960s. The shortening’s original word, perquisite, has become less familiar, with the result that some writers, feeling that perk is too slangy for formal writing, may be in danger of spelling out the wrong word in an effort to upgrade their word choice.

Here, for example, is an example of what I mean:

More than 40 years before, as a 19-year-old aristocrat with scant military training to back up the honorific “Major General” rank that was a prerequisite of his family’s wealth, he had presented himself to Gen. George Washington expecting to be given a command.

The aristocrat in question is the Marquis of Lafayette. The intended meaning is that he received the rank of major general because he came from a wealthy family. The unearned honorific was a “perk” of wealth and aristocratic status. The writer, however, not wishing to use the word perk has written prerequisite instead of the true source word, perquisite.

A prerequisite is something that must be gained in order to gain something else. The rank of major general for a nineteen-year-old was not necessary for the family to be wealthy. The wealth of the family enabled the young man to acquire the rank. Here are some appropriate uses of the word prerequisite:

. . . an accurate knowledge of thermodynamical properties of the system is a prerequisite for the calculations.

Understanding the formation of biogenic molecules in abiotic conditions is a prerequisite in the origin-of-life studies.

English 101 is a prerequisite for the Shakespeare course.

A perquisite, on the other hand, is an advantage that attaches to something like a job or wealth or other type of privilege.

The annual scouting trip to England and the Continent by sea was a traditional perquisite, compensation for monastic wages.

Three guild board members also have ex officio positions on the Met board, and donors solicited by the Met receive a subscription to the magazine as a perquisite.

Is flying around in the corporate jet to attend to the business of another company just part of a chief executive’s job or one more perquisite of corporate power?

A writer wishing to avoid the word perk, but who feels that perquisite has become too obscure a word, can use advantage or benefit.

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Common Errors in Vertical Lists

Common Errors in Vertical Lists

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Employing vertical lists, which display related sets of words, phrases, or sentences entered on separate lines and marked with bullets (dots or other symbols), numbers, or letters to clarify the organizational scheme, is a sensible strategy for presenting numerous or complex details that would otherwise clutter a sentence. (An in-line list, a sequence of such elements in a sentence, is best used when the list is short and simple; the first sentence of this post includes two brief in-line lists.)

Take care, however, to avoid repetitive elements and inconsistent grammatical construction—the key is to make the list flow as smoothly as an in-line list. The following examples demonstrate faulty use of a vertical list; each is followed by a discussion of the problem and a revision of the list that provides a solution.

1. The tool is organized under four key areas:

    • Understanding how the financial statement auditor considers cybersecurity risk,
    • Understanding the role of management and responsibilities of the financial statement auditor related to cybersecurity disclosures,
    • Understanding management’s approach to cybersecurity risk management, and
    • Understanding how firms can assist boards of directors in their oversight of cybersecurity risk management.

In this vertical list, each element begins with an identical word: understanding. To avoid such repetition, simply integrate the common wording into the lead-in phrase:

“The tool is organized under four key areas, including understanding

    • how the financial statement auditor considers cybersecurity risk
    • the role of management and responsibilities of the financial statement auditor related to cybersecurity disclosures
    • management’s approach to cybersecurity risk management
    • how firms can assist boards of directors in their oversight of cybersecurity risk management.”

Note, too, the omission of the colon in the revision. In the original, the colon correctly follows a complete statement (“The tool is organized under four key areas”). However, in the revision, the lead-in text has been revised to be an open phrase that each element of the list completes, so no punctuation should intervene between the end of the lead-in text and the beginning of each element.

Also, the punctuation following each element, and the conjunction and preceding the final element, which mimic these components in an in-line list (as in “My pocket contains keys, a comb, and a pen”), is optional, as demonstrated by their omission in the revision. Do retain the final period, however, when the entire vertical list has a grammatically valid sentence construction.

2. Institutions will need to develop policies, procedures, and controls to define

    • when it is reasonable to remove a loan from a loan pool for individual analysis
    • when it is reasonable to develop a new loan pool if loans removed from a loan pool share similar risk characteristics.

In this example, each element begins with an entire identical phrase: “when it is reasonable to.” As in the previous example, such common wording can be moved to the lead-in text:

“Institutions will need to develop policies, procedures, and controls to define when it is reasonable to

    • remove a loan from a loan pool for individual analysis
    • develop a new loan pool if loans removed from a loan pool share similar risk characteristics.”

3. The following strategies are recommended:

    • Design and deliver an annual cybersecurity strategy and program
    • Mitigate active and emerging threats and exposures
    • Demonstrable and quantifiable cybersecurity risk reduction
    • Business and executive objectives alignment
    • Predictable security budgeting

Here, two phrasing structures are employed inconsistently: The first two elements are complete sentences, and the others are phrases. To produce a cohesive list, revise list items so that they share a consistent syntax:

“The following strategies are recommended:

    • Design and deliver an annual cybersecurity strategy and program.
    • Mitigate active and emerging threats and exposures.
    • Demonstrably and quantifiably reduce cybersecurity risk.
    • Align business and executive objectives.
    • Predictably budget security.”

Note that each complete sentence, following lead-in text that is a complete sentence, is now followed by a period. Alternatively, the first two elements of the original list can be revised so that all are phrases. (In that case, no final punctuation is necessary.)

4. Our approach to compliance includes the following steps:

    • Discover: Identify high-risk areas to ensure a focused approach.
    • Manage: Determine exposure and prioritize compliance activities.
    • Protect: Implement changes to achieve compliance.
    • Report: Provide evidence of accountability and compliance.

The use of colons after the first word of each element when a colon already appears at the end of the lead-in phrase is awkward; either revise the closed lead-in text to an open phrase that each element completes (lowercasing each initial word and each word following a colon in the process, and omitting all periods but the final one), or retain the original lead-in text but replace each element colon with a dash or parentheses (retaining initial capitalization of the key word but not the first word of the explanatory statement), or both. After some thought, I favor the second approach, opting, for a clean look, to parenthesize the explanatory statements and omit all final punctuation. The revision based on that strategy is shown below:

4. Our approach to compliance includes the following steps:

    • Discover (identify high-risk areas to ensure a focused approach)
    • Manage (determine exposure and prioritize compliance activities)
    • Protect (implement changes to achieve compliance)
    • Report (provide evidence of accountability and compliance)

5. The three primary cloud-deployment options are

    • public cloud
    • private cloud
    • hybrid cloud.

This list has no errors, but it is too simple to merit vertical treatment unless it is displayed as shown for graphic emphasis, such as in a slide presentation, in which case the lead-in phrase could be condensed to “Three primary cloud-deployment options,” followed by a colon, and the period omitted. (Cloud could be omitted in each element, but because the phrasing in business jargon is “public cloud” and so on, it is best retained.) Here is the revision for in-line treatment: “The three primary cloud-deployment options are public cloud, private cloud, and hybrid cloud.”

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Original post: Common Errors in Vertical Lists

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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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