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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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Bedbugs and Bessie Bugs

Bedbugs and Bessie Bugs

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The other day, I heard a celebrity say that someone was “as crazy as a bedbug.” I laughed, amused that the person had gone so far wrong with the idiom “crazy as a bessie bug.”

As I usually do when struck by some linguistic oddity, I began searching for other examples. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that “crazy as a bedbug” is not only a recognized idiom, it is more common in the printed record than “crazy as a bessie bug.”

A Google search resulted in 81,500,000 results for the bedbug version compared to only 1,340,000 for the bessie bug. “Crazy as a betsy bug” fared a little better at 4,430,000 hits.

“Crazy as a bedbug” comes up on the Ngram Viewer as early as the nineteenth century and the idiom appears in a book called The American Joe Miller published in 1865.

“Crazy as a bessie bug” doesn’t produce any ngrams, but “crazy as a betsy bug” registers in the early 1920s and peaks in 1998.

Merriam Webster offers an entry for bess-bug: “any of various gregarious flattened dark-colored beetles constituting a family (Passalidae) and living in decaying wood.” Bessybug is given as an alternative name.

Thankfully (up until now anyway) I’ve never seen a bedbug, but I’ve read that they hide during the day and only come out to torment sleeping people. I wonder why a creature that spends most of its time unnoticed would become the epitome of craziness, which is usually depicted as extreme agitation.

My musings on the bedbug idiom brought to mind two others that have given me difficulty in the past.

full of beans
To me, the expression “to be full of beans” means to be full of energy and ready to go. The idiom makes sense to me because I’ve read that horses used to be fed beans as well as hay and that people thought that bean-fed horses were livelier than those that lacked beans in their diet.

My surprise came when I heard someone react to something someone else said by exclaiming, “That is not true. He’s full of beans!” In researching that idiom, I discovered that some English speakers use “full of beans” to mean “misinformed” or “untruthful.”

I can only guess that the “full of energy” meaning came first and that the alternative one may have resulted from confusion with another bean-related idiom: “not know beans,” as in, “He doesn’t know beans about cybersecurity.”

The Grammatist site (US-based), acknowledges that“the phrase full of beans is sometimes used to mean ‘not truthful,’” but admonishes readers that “this is not the correct use of the idiom.”

Merriam-Webster places the “full of energy” definition first and the “untruthful” meaning second, labeled as United States usage.

to be out of pocket
I can’t remember where I first heard this idiom. It may have been in England, but it’s possible I first heard it in Rochester, New York. In the context, “to be out of pocket” meant to have used my own money to pay for something. The idiom can also mean “to be short of funds.” Here are examples of both meanings:

Use the company credit card so that you won’t be out of pocket.
I would pay for your ticket, but at the moment, I’m out of pocket.

Years later, at work in a newspaper office in Arkansas, I was confused when the boss announced one day that she would be “out of pocket for the rest of the afternoon.” I finally figured out that she meant she’d be away from the office and not available by telephone.

Merriam-Webster’s entry for “out of pocket” gives only the following definitions:

1. low on money or funds
2. having suffered a loss
3. from cash on hand

Grammarphobia, on the other hand, a US blog site, acknowledges the existence of the “unavailable” meaning and quotes the use of it in an O. Henry story published in 1908:

Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can.

For my part, I will stick with bessie bug for “crazy as a” and look for contextual clues when others talk about being “out of pocket” or “full of beans.”

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Creative Writing 101

Creative Writing 101

What is Creative Writing?

Creative writing is anything where the purpose is to express thoughts, feelings and emotions rather than to simply convey information.

creative writing

I’ll be focusing on creative fiction in this post (mainly short stories and novels), but poetry, (auto)biography and creative non-fiction are all other forms of creative writing. Here’s a couple of definitions:

Creative writing is writing that expresses the writer’s thoughts and feelings in an imaginative, often unique, and poetic way.
(Sil.org – What is Creative Writing?)

Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.
(Don DeLillo)

Writing of any sort is hard, but rewarding work – you’ll gain a huge amount of satisfaction from a finished piece. Being creative can also be difficult and challenging at times, but immensely fun.

How to get started

Many people think that just because they’ve read a lot of stories (or even if they haven’t!) they should be able to write one. But as Nigel Watts writes:

There is a common belief that because most of us are literate and fluent, there is no need to serve an apprenticeship if we want to become a successful wordsmith. … That’s what I thought until I tried to write my first novel. I soon learnt that a novel, like a piece of furniture, has its own set of requirements, laws of construction that have to be learnt. Just because I had read plenty of novels didn’t mean I could write one, any more than I could make a chair because I had sat on enough of them.
(Nigel Watts, Teach Yourself Writing a Novel)

By all means, if you’re keen, jump straight in and have a go: but don’t be too disappointed if your first efforts aren’t as good as you’d hoped. To extend Watts’ metaphor, you may find that these early attempts have wonky legs and an unsteady seat. There are lots of great books aimed at new fiction writers, and I’d strongly recommend buying or borrowing one of these:

I’d also recommend starting small. Rather than beginning with an epic fantasy trilogy, a family saga spanning five generations, or an entire adventure series … have a go at a short story or a poem.

And if you end up chewing your pen and staring at a sheet of paper, or gazing at a blank screen for hours, try kickstarting your writing with a short exercise. Don’t stop to think too much about it … just get going, without worrying about the quality of the work you produce.

Tips and tricks for beginners

  • Do some short exercises to stretch your writing muscles – if you’re short of ideas, read the Daily Writing Tips article on “Writing Bursts”. Many new creative writers find that doing the washing up or weeding the garden suddenly looks appealing, compared to the effort of sitting down and putting words onto the page. Force yourself to get through these early doubts, and it really will get easier. Try to get into the habit of writing every day, even if it’s just for ten minutes.
  • If you’re stuck for ideas, carry a notebook everywhere and write down your observations. You’ll get some great lines of dialogue by keeping your ears open on the bus or in cafes, and an unusual phrase may be prompted by something you see or smell.
  • Work out the time of day when you’re at your most creative. For many writers, this is first thing in the morning – before all the demands of the day jostle for attention. Others write well late at night, after the rest of the family have gone to bed. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
  • Don’t agonize over getting it right. All writers have to revise and edit their work – it’s rare that a story, scene or even a sentence comes out perfectly the first time. Once you’ve completed the initial draft, leave the piece for a few days – then come back to it fresh, with a red pen in hand. If you know there are problems with your story but can’t pinpoint them, ask a fellow writer to read through it and give feedback.
  • HAVE FUN! Sometimes, we writers can end up feeling that our writing is a chore, something that “must” be done, or something to procrastinate over for as long as possible. If your plot seems wildly far-fetched, your characters bore you to tears and you’re convinced that a five-year old with a crayon could write better prose … take a break. Start a completely new project, something which is purely for fun. Write a poem or a 60-word “mini saga”. Just completing a small finished piece can help if you’re bogged down in a longer story.

Online resources

NaNoWriMo
Every November, hundreds of thousands of people just like you do something extraordinary: they write a novel in just thirty days. Want to be part of the coffee-fueled, manic-typing, adrenaline-rush that is National Novel Writing Month? (NaNoWriMo for short). Make sure you sign up by October 31st. The “rules” state that you can’t start writing Chapter 1 until 00.01am on November 1st but you can spend as long as you like before that planning…

Authors’ websites and blogs
I read lots of websites and blogs written by authors and these give real (sometimes harsh) insights into what it’s like to write professionally. One which has been a strong favourite of mine for many years is Holly Lisle’s. Check out her
advice for writers and her weblog. She also has an excellent newsletter which I subscribe to, and some very thorough and helpful e-books on various aspects of writing available for purchase.

Competitions listings
Having a theme and a deadline can make a startling difference to a writer’s motivation! If you’re in the UK, Sally Quilford’s competition listings are a comprehensive and regularly-updated list.

I Should Be Writing podcast
This is a practical and inspiring podcast: I Should Be Writing by Mur Lafferty. She describes the podcast as “For wanna-be fiction writers, by a wanna-be fiction writer” (though since starting it several years ago, she’s had considerable success selling her short stories) and focuses on science fiction and fantasy.

Common mistakes beginners make

While the most important thing when you’re getting started is to simply enjoy flexing your creative muscles, if you’re aiming toward publication (or if you want to enter competitions) then it’s a good idea to steer clear of some common creative writing mistakes.

Three very common mistakes that often crop up in beginners’ work include:

  • Too much descriptive detail. This is a tricky one, because description is a good thing – and some well-known writers are particularly loved for the vivid, well-realised fictional worlds that they create. (I always think Joanne Harris does a great job with description, for instance.) But when you’re new to writing, it’s easy to go over the top in trying very hard to describe everything – when readers are more interested in the actual story: the action taking place, and the dialogue between your characters.
  • Unintentional repetition. This can crop up in lots of different ways – but any repetition of a word that stands out to the reader, without the author intending it to stand out, is a bad thing. This could mean simply using the same word in several sentences running (e.g. “I put the money back in his wallet while his back was turned. Thinking back…”) It could also mean starting a run of sentences or paragraphs in the same way – e.g. always starting with “He” or “She” plus a verb.
  • “Headhopping” to a different point of view. While it’s fine to shift between viewpoints in a short story or novel, you need to do so deliberately. Even when you’re writing in the first person (“he” or “she” rather than “I”), most readers will expect you to stick with one character’s feelings and thoughts – so don’t suddenly give us access to the inside of another characters’ head.

Ways to get support with your creative writing

When you’re starting out with creative writing, you might feel that you’re on your own. Perhaps you don’t have any family members or friends who are interested in writing (or worse, you might even have people around you who scoff at your dreams of writing success).

There are lots of ways to find support, though. Two of the best are to:

Take an evening class or a weekend course. Unless you live somewhere very remote, there’s a good chance that there are writing classes available near you. These might be run by published authors, by organised groups, by local libraries, and so on. You might want to ask around locally or via a local Facebook group.

Join a writers’ workshop group. These don’t tend to offer “teaching” content, but instead, you’ll find a group of likeminded peers who get together to write and/or to share what they’ve written. It can be nerve-wracking to share your work with others (I still remember my knees shaking the first time I read out a piece to a writing group!) but it’s

If finding an offline, local group of some sort really isn’t a possibility, there are lots of writing communities available online through forums, Facebook, and so on. Whatever your situation, do try to find other writers who can support you (and who you can support in turn) – it will make a huge difference to your motivation and to your growing skill levels.

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5 Problems with Parenthesis

5 Problems with Parenthesis

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Parenthesis is the strategy of setting a word, phrase, or clause off from a sentence to interject additional information into that statement. Despite the name, parenthesis can be accomplished with two commas or a pair of dashes as well as with a brace of parentheses. However, several problems can occur when writers attempt to parenthesize: The punctuation employed is not appropriate, the parenthesis is not framed with complementary punctuation, the parenthesis is misplaced in the sentence, the inclusion of the parenthesis is grammatically faulty, or what appears to be a parenthetical element is in fact something else. The following sentences illustrate these five problems respectively.

1. He took it from me, stole it, really, years ago.

Really is a parenthesis subordinate to “stole it” (a parenthesis can follow rather than interrupt the phrase or clause it supplements), and “stole it, really” is a parenthesis subordinate to “He took it from me years ago,” so a hierarchy of punctuation should be employed to clarify the sentence organization. Because dashes are more emphatic than commas, they should assume the major parenthetical role; the comma separating “stole it” and really remains as a marker of the secondary parenthesis: “He took it from me—stole it, really—years ago.”

2. Extra money and facilities must be focused on, not away from the disadvantaged.

The writer intended “Extra money and facilities must be focused on the disadvantaged” to be the main clause, with “not away from” as the parenthesis, but the second of a tandem team of punctuation marks is missing: “Extra money and facilities must be focused on, not away from, the disadvantaged.” (Often, a main clause or a parenthesis also lacks one or more words because the writer failed to be vigilant about making the two sentence elements complementary, rendering the sentence grammatically flawed; search for “interpolated coordination” on this site for posts about this related issue.)

3. Attacks relating to phishing fraud attempts have been very common in recent times (e.g., someone posing as an organization’s CEO emails its chief financial officer to request an urgent payment transfer).

A parenthesis should be directly adjacent to the element of the sentence it pertains to. This parenthesis relates to “attacks relating to fraud attempts,” not to “recent times,” so it should immediately follow the former phrase: “Attacks relating to phishing fraud attempts (e.g., someone posing as an organization’s CEO emails its chief financial officer to request an urgent payment transfer) have been very common in recent times.”

4. The financial services industry has raised concerns related to the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection’s (BCFP) authority to take action against financial institutions.

When using a term that will be subsequently referred to by an acronym or initialism, introduce the abbreviation in parentheses immediately following the spelled-out term. However, avoid doing so when using the term possessively and following the parenthesis with a noun that is a referent of the possessive; recast the sentence so that the possessive form of the term is not employed: “The financial services industry has raised concerns related to the authority of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (BCFP) to take action against financial institutions.”

5. But the battle has not been lost—the battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve—as one door closes, another is opened.

This sentence is punctuated as if “the battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve” is a parenthetical statement interrupting the framing sentence, but the statement that remains when the parenthesis is omitted is “But the battle has not been lost[;] as one door closes, another is opened.” The resulting sentence makes sense, but when the omitted phrase is reinserted, the final clause reads as if it is an offshoot of the reinstated phrase, rather than a parenthetical phrase interrupting the two clauses. In other words, this sentence’s syntax does not support a parenthetical phrase.

Each dash, by itself, correctly signals that a shift in syntax is imminent (another function of the dash besides parenthesis), but so that the two dashes are not misinterpreted as bracketing a parenthetical comment, another punctuation mark should replace one dash or the other; any of the following solutions are suitable:

A. “But the battle has not been lost—the battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve; as one door closes, another is opened.”
B. “But the battle has not been lost—the battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve. As one door closes, another is opened.”
C. “But the battle has not been lost: The battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve—as one door closes, another is opened.”
D. “But the battle has not been lost. The battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve—as one door closes, another is opened.”

Any of these revisions will resolve the issue; I prefer either of the two that result in two sentences: examples B or D.

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Deck the Halls with Etymology

Deck the Halls with Etymology

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Traditional Christmas songs are a treasure trove of archaisms and words that have changed their meanings through the centuries.

“Deck the Halls,” published in 1794, but dating from a much earlier Welsh carol, contains several such words. The melody dates to the sixteenth century. The familiar English lyrics were written by Thomas Oliphant (1799-1873) in 1862.

I’ll focus on the relevant lines and avoid all the fa la la la la la la la las.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
As a verb, deck’s earliest meaning in English was “to cover,” as with a roof. Next, it could mean to cover with garments, especially rich or ornamental garments. In “Deck the Halls,” it refers to the act of decorating a room with holly boughs.

Don we now our gay apparel
The verb don means “to put on.” It’s a shortening of the verbal phrase “do on.” Its opposite is doff, “to take off”—a shortening of “do off.”

The adjective gay has numerous definitions. The ones that fit the context here are “Bright or lively-looking, especially in color; brilliant, showy.” and “Finely or showily dressed.”

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
When I was a child, my first encounter with troll in “Deck the Halls” puzzled me because I associated the word with the Norwegian folk tale, “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” in which a Troll “with eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker” lurked under a bridge, waiting to pounce on its victims.

Today’s youngsters are more likely to think of “trolling” as the actions of an internet troll : a person on the internet who seeks to stir up conflict by “trolling” other users with ugly remarks and misinformation.

Here’s an early definition:

to troll: “To sing (something) in the manner of a round or catch; to sing in a full, rolling voice; to chant merrily or jovially.”

Yuletide combines the words Yule and tide. Yule derives from an ancient Germanic winter festival. Tide can mean “time” or “season.” The meaning in “Deck the Halls” is “Christmas time” or “the Christmas season.”

This may be my imagination, but Yule seems to be catching on in some commercial quarters, possibly as a nonsectarian stand-in for Christmas. I noticed a caption under a photo in which a woman and her daughter are said to “look at yule trees for sale Thursday at Wisconsin Tree Farms.”

Finally, the word carol is one that has changed meaning over the years. It originally denoted dancers holding hands in a circle. Then, it developed the general meaning of “a joyous song.” As a verb, carol is frequently used in the context of birdsong, but the most common modern meaning of the noun is a hymn or song about the birth of Jesus. To carol, is “to sing Christmas songs.”

Related post: Happy Yuletide!

To all our readers, best wishes for a
Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukah
Joyous Kwanza
Prosperous Pongal
Delightful Dongzhi
Super Solstice
and any other cherished winter festivals I don’t know about.

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Illeism and other English Words from Latin Pronouns

Illeism and other English Words from Latin Pronouns

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We’ve all noticed it in the speech of celebrities—a tendency to refer to themselves in third person.

“Make no mistake, Bob Dole is going to be the Republican nominee.”— Robert Dole.

“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore…” —Richard Nixon to the Press.

‘Trump hears that you don’t like what Trump is doing.’—Donald Trump to Bill Gates.

“I wanted to do what was best, you know, for LeBron James, and what LeBron James was gonna do to make him happy.”—LeBron James.

“Without the fans, Floyd Mayweather wouldn’t be where he’s at today.”—Floyd Mayweather.

Authors also make use of the device with their fictional characters.

Caesar shall forth: the things that threaten’d me
Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanished.—Julius Caesar [Julius Caesar II;2.]

“Hobbits always so polite, yes! O nice hobbits! Smeagol brings them up secret ways that nobody else could find.”—Smeagol, aka Gollum.

“Do not lie to Lord Voldemort, Muggle, for he knows…”—Lord Voldemort.

“Dobby is used to death threats, sir. Dobby gets them five times a day at home.”—Dobby, the House Elf.

There’s a name for this conversational device of referring to oneself in third person: illeism.

Coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1809, the word is formed from the Latin singular masculine pronoun ille (he).

Coleridge also came up with tuism from tu, the Latin second person singular pronoun. From what I can learn, Coleridge used the word to mean the act of referring to oneself as thou and not you. In the context of ethics, tuism is defined as “primary regard to the interests of another person or persons,” as opposed to egoism, “the theory which regards self-interest as the foundation of morality.”

Like illeism and tuism, egoism derives from a Latin pronoun: ego (I).

The Latin plural pronoun nos (we) gives us the ethical term nosism, “an attitude of mind in a group of persons, corresponding to egotism [self-conceit] in the individual.”

Another meaning of nosism is “the use of the second person pronoun we, in stating one’s own opinions.” This use is also known as the “editorial we” or the “royal we.”

Queen Elizabeth I of England uses the “royal we” in the opening sentence of her memorable speech at the Tilbury docks in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada:

We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery.

In the next sentence, however, she slips into first person singular and continues with it. In this century, in her speeches, Elizabeth II tends to refer to herself with the singular pronoun, like the rest of us.

The “editorial we,” on the other hand, is still found in opinion pieces and in academic writing, although first person is making in-roads in both. Advice to graduate students now varies as to whether to avoid first person pronouns in order to convey an objective, impersonal tone and keep the focus on content rather than author. Students are advised to consult their teachers as to preferred usage.

A use of nosism that I could definitely do without is the cheery “And how are we feeling today?” uttered by perfectly fit medical caretakers to bedridden patients who feel awful.

As far as I can tell, the Latin word for you, vos, is still available for an –ism word. I suggest the creation of the word vosism to specify the “indefinite you,” also known as the generic or impersonal you. This use of you is usually condemned by writing teachers in all but the most informal writing. Instead of standing for a specific antecedent, this you can be interpreted as “a person.”

You can’t grow tomatoes without plenty of water and sunshine.

You shouldn’t go hiking alone without telling someone your plans.

So, there you have it, five English nouns formed from five Latin pronouns: egoism, tuism, illeism, nosism, and vosism. Who says Latin is dead?

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Indirect References to Questions

Indirect References to Questions

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When referring to a paraphrased question, writers often introduce grammatical mistakes in the course of confusing the query for a quoted question. In the following sentences, errors are introduced in the course of posing an indirect question (or, in the case of the final example, a direct one). Discussion of the specific error, and a revision demonstrating a solution, follows each sentence.

1. This raises an interesting question, what is it about current customer service and customer experience management investments and programs that appear to resonate more with younger customers?

This sentence has a comma splice—an instance in which a comma is erroneously employed where a stronger punctuation mark is needed. In this case, what is punctuated as a subordinate clause is in fact a main clause, and what follows the comma is another. To resolve the issue, the comma must be replaced by a period, or, better, a colon (because the first clause introduces the second one): “This raises an interesting question: What is it about current customer service and customer experience management investments and programs that appear to resonate more with younger customers?”

2. Therefore, the real question is not whether the event will occur, but how will the entity respond if it does occur?

The bulk of this sentence consists of paraphrases of two questions, one of which is considered more significant than the other— “Will the event occur?” and “How will the entity respond if it does occur?” However, the sentence itself is not written in interrogative syntax, so the second paraphrase, which is phrased as if it is, must be revised slightly: “Therefore, the real question is not whether the event will occur but how the entity will respond if it does occur.” (Alternatively, both questions can be posed as literal queries, with quotation marks framing each one: “Therefore, the real question is not ‘Will the event occur?’ but ‘How will the entity respond if it does occur?’”)

3. The question is how much risk should they take?

Here, the sentence’s syntax supports the interrogative form of the question within it, but a comma must precede the paraphrase of the question: “The question is, how much risk they should take?” (The question should be enclosed in quotation marks only if it an actual reported spoken or written statement, not merely a point of discussion.) Alternatively, the comma can be omitted if the question is revised to be noninterrogative: “The question is how much risk they should take.”

4. This finding raises a question whether the organization should factor in a margin of error.

The syntax of this sentence is correct, except that the phrase “as to” should be inserted to fortify whether before the paraphrased question: “This finding raises a question as to whether the organization should factor in a margin of error.” (Alternatively, the sentence can be structured so that the question is posed as a direct quotation; note the substitution of the article a with the: “This finding raises the question “Should the organization factor in a margin of error?’”)

5. That factor raises the question, “Is this amount sufficient based on the report’s assessment?”

As shown in the alternative revision of the previous sentence, the comma in this sentence is erroneous: “That factor raises the question ‘Is this amount sufficient based on the report’s assessment?’” Including the comma creates the impression that only one question exists, and that single question follows. However, the quoted question is only one of an infinite number of possible questions, which the omission of the comma communicates.

This common error is possibly perpetuated because writers confuse this sentence construction with one in which a quotation is attributed, in which case a comma precedes the quotation, as in “John asked, ‘Is this amount sufficient based on the report’s assessment?” But “That factor raises the question” is not an attribution, so the rule does not apply.

An analogous distinction is seen in the following sentences: “He wrote the phrase ‘Do not enter’” and “The sign read, ‘Do not enter.’” The phrase “Do not enter” is not set off with a comma in the first sentence here, because that phrase is not the only possible phrase. An exception would occur if the phrase had previously been identified as the only possible one in context, as in “She whispered a phrase in his ear. He wrote the phrase, “‘Do not enter.’” But even here, a colon would be a better choice of punctuation for setting the phrase off from the rest of the sentence.

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Original post: Indirect References to Questions

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Use Correct Tense with Third Conditional Sentences

Use Correct Tense with Third Conditional Sentences

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Most English speakers have no difficulty with first and second conditional clauses, but a great many speakers get into trouble with the third conditional.

First a review.

Conditional clauses take their name from the fact that they place limits or conditions on the main clause they modify. Here are three examples of subordinate if clauses modifying main clauses:

First conditional: If you miss the bus, you will be late for school.

Second conditional: If I won the lottery, I would give my children a million dollars each.

Third conditional: If he had revealed his past before the marriage, she would not have married him.

The main clause in each sentence describes a situation that is unreal. The bus has not been missed. The lottery has not been won by the speaker. The man did not reveal his past before the marriage.

First Conditional
The situation described in the main clause is likely to happen. The if clause takes present tense and the main clause takes future tense.

Second Conditional
The situation described in the main clause could happen, but is not likely to happen. The if clause takes past tense, and the main clause takes would have + the past participle form of the verb.

Third Conditional
The if clause of the third conditional addresses a situation that did not happen in the past. The main clause speculates as to what might have happened if the action mentioned in the if clause had taken place.

In this situation, past perfect tense is used in the if clause, and present perfect in the main clause:

If you had dropped the vase, it would have shattered.

Many English speakers go to pieces with the third conditional by overdoing the woulds.

To illustrate, here are a few examples drawn from blogs, advertisements, news items, and the quoted speech of public figures.

INCORRECT: If they would have listened to the news and the weather reports, they would have been a little smarter.
CORRECT: If they had listened to the news and the weather reports, they would have been a little smarter.

INCORRECT: If they would have hired a better architect the desk area would have been closer to the plug.
CORRECT: If they had hired a better architect, the desk area would have been closer to the plug.

INCORRECT: If he would have said that, I would have thrown him out of the office.
CORRECT: If he had said that, I would have thrown him out of the office.

INCORRECT: What would have happened if they would have covered the paper with only wax and not the chitosan?
CORRECT: What would have happened if they had covered the paper with only wax and not the chitosan?

INCORRECT: Would have given 4 stars if they would have honored no spice request.
CORRECT: Would have given 4 stars if they had honored no spice request.

Remember, when the if clause refers to an action that did NOT occur in the past, use the past perfect and NOT the present perfect.

The word would should not appear in both clauses of a third conditional construction.

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Impeachment Latin: 8 Terms Related to Politics

Impeachment Latin: 8 Terms Related to Politics

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The phrase at the heart of the current impeachment process, quid pro quo, is unaltered Latin, but several words less obviously Latin have been sharing the spotlight. Their etymology is interesting.

castigate
More than one person involved in the hearings has been reported as “castigating” someone or other. The verb castigate comes from Latin castigare, “to chastise, correct, reprove.” The Latin verb derives from the Latin adjective castus, “pure.” The original idea is that the person doing the castigating is attempting to “purify” the person seen as acting improperly. Castigate is related to chastise. Both refer to an authoritative attempt to improve the behavior of someone.

corruption
In the context of the hearings, corruption applies to dishonest dealings in government. The word derives from a Latin verb meaning “to destroy.” Corruption in a physical sense is the breakdown of something solid into another state, as in the decay of a corpse. In the figurative sense of corrupting a government, it refers to influence by a bribe or other wrong motive.

dilatory
Several times the impeachment panel has been warned against the employment of “dilatory tactics.” In law, dilatory tactics are methods used to delay the progress of a proceeding so as to benefit the party that causes the delay. The Latin noun dilatorius means “one who delays; a delayer.”

impeachment
The word impeachment itself comes by way of Old French from Late Latin impedicare “to fetter, catch, entangle,” from the Latin prefix in plus pedica, the word for a shackle that restrains the feet. At first, the word was used in a broad legal sense to mean “bring charges against.” The current, more specific meaning, “to accuse a public officer of misconduct,” was in place by the end of the sixteenth century.

innuendo
This word came up in reference to efforts to damage the reputation of one of the participants “by fiction and innuendo.” Innuendo comes from the ablative gerund of innuere, “to nod to; to signify.” It suggests the modern expression, “a nod and a wink,” used of a situation in which someone expresses a thought indirectly or by making some sort of bodily signal like a nod, wink, or shrug.

intimidation
Latin timidus, “fearful,” gives us our adjective timid, “subject to fear, easily frightened.” Our verb intimidate means, “to inspire with fear.” The term “witness intimidation” refers to an attempt to discourage someone from testifying by threats or violence.

subpoena
In law, a subpoena is a writ issued from a court of justice or, in the case of the US impeachment hearing, by a Congressional committee. The subpoena examples I’ve seen on the web begin by saying, “You are commanded to…” or “Pursuant to such and such…” Some writs, however, begin with the words “Under penalty of. . .” and go on to state the recipient and purpose of the writ. Subpoena combines Latin sub, “under,” with poena, “penalty; punishment.”

And then there is the purely Latin expression, quid pro quo.

By now, surely everyone in the US knows that this oft-repeated phrase means, “this for that.” Not an ancient Latin coinage, the expression originated in the 1560s, when Latin was still the lingua franca of the medical profession. Nowadays, it is used in a general sense to refer to a conditional exchange, but it originated in a medical context. Unethical apothecaries (druggists) were known to substitute one drug for another in filling prescriptions. Doctors used the phrase in reference to the substitution of a prescribed drug with one of lesser quality.

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Reluctancy and Humbleness

Reluctancy and Humbleness

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Synonyms are good. They enable us to narrow a concept to the exact connotation we wish to convey.

Unnecessary synonyms, on the other hand, weaken writing and speech by replacing a strong word with an invented or obsolete equivalent.

Reluctancy and humbleness are two such “unnecessary synonyms” I’ve noticed recently.

Recent examples of reluctancy in the media:

What we see quite a bit is that there is a reluctancy to change at the end user level. —The CEO of a “maintenance and asset management solution” business.

[A player] kept getting walloped either because of bad offensive line play or a reluctancy on his part to get rid of the ball. —sports article Nov 2019.

The researcher noticed the reluctancy of the courts to become involved in school-related decisions… —Research review on ERIC [Education Resources Information Center].

In these examples, the word reluctancy is being used to mean, “unwillingness” or “disinclination.” The better choice is reluctance.

Latin reluctari, “to struggle against, resist, make opposition,” gives us reluctant, reluctantly, and reluctance.

Here are the examples without “reluctancy”:

What we see quite a bit is that there is a reluctance to change at the end user level

[A player] kept getting walloped either because of bad offensive line play or a reluctance on his part to get rid of the ball.

The researcher noticed the reluctance of the courts to become involved in school-related decisions…

Humbleness is another word that grates on the ears of careful writers. Here are three recent examples:

Meanwhile, Morrison also garnered a lot of respect in social media for his humbleness. —Item on TV station website.

In a society where there are so many different beliefs, I just appreciate his humbleness and how well he embraces all people. —An article about Fred Rogers on the Liberty University site.

A lack of humbleness and empathy in this situation can lead to qualities such as self-confidence and self-assurance becoming pride, arrogance and high-handedness, which characterise a doctor suffering from HS [Hubris Syndrome]. —Abstract at US National Library of Medicine.

The word humble derives from Latin humilis, “low.”

As an adjective, humble can mean “low, modest, unpretentious.” People often use it humorously in reference to themselves or their possessions, perhaps describing themselves as “a humble editor,” or their residence as their “humble home.” Sometimes it’s used with an edge of bitterness, as in “Sure, I’m just a humble taxpayer. Why should I have a say in how my money is spent?”

In the context of a social hierarchy, a person of “humble birth” is one not born to wealth or high social position.

As a verb, to humble means, “to lower in dignity or standing.” The verb can be used transitively to describe what one does to others: “He sought to humble all his competitors,” or reflexively, to describe an act of humility toward another: “Huck humbled himself to Jim when he realized how much he had distressed him.”

Lately, the verb humble has become a popular substitute for grateful. Being forced to spend a night in jail might cause someone to feel “humbled,” but I’d guess that being elected to office or winning a coveted literary prize would bestow feelings of delight and gratitude.

The abstract noun humility conveys the opposite of pride, haughtiness, and pretentiousness

Here are the “humbleness” examples recast:

Meanwhile, Morrison also garnered a lot of respect in social media for his humility.

In a society where there are so many different beliefs, I just appreciate his humility and how well he embraces all people.

A lack of humility and empathy in this situation can lead to qualities such as self-confidence and self-assurance becoming pride, arrogance and high-handedness…

Both both reluctancy and humbleness are “in the dictionary,” but in this century, reluctance and humility are the better choices.

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