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Phrasal Verbs and Phrasal Nouns

Phrasal Verbs and Phrasal Nouns

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A phrasal verb is a verb consisting of two or more words—a verb and (usually) a preposition or a particle—that, when combined, describe an action. When formed into a closed or hyphenated compound, however, a phrasal verb is transformed into a phrasal noun, which can, alternatively, be employed as an adjective. This post explains the distinction, with examples.

Forming Phrasal Verbs

Take just about any basic verb, and it can likely be paired with one or more words to form a phrasal verb. (A phrasal verb is also called a compound verb, or a prepositional verb or a particle verb, depending on the function of the word following the verb, along with other names.) Consider walk, for example. One can walk in a line, out a door, through a tunnel, up a flight of stairs, down a street, on a rug, near a park, by a shop, off a cliff, or away from a fight. In many cases, however, a writer can name the action by combining the verb and the preposition or particle into a compound.

Walk-in, for example, describes someone who arrives at a location without an appointment, or it serves as a truncation of “walk-in refrigerator” or functions as an adjective in “walk-in closet” or “walk-in apartment.” A walkout, by contrast, is a labor strike or an action in which a number of people leave a meeting or a location to express disapproval. (Notice the inconsistency of treatment; the former word is hyphenated, while the latter is closed.) A walk-through is an inspection or a rehearsal, and a walk-up is a building with no elevator to the upper floors. (As an adjective, the word might refer to a window where a customer can be served without entering a business location.)

“Walk down” can also refer to an act of walking to help oneself recover from illness or poisoning or to wear someone down to exhaustion (“wear down” is also a phrasal verb), but—so far, at least—English-language speakers and writers have not felt a need for a corresponding phrasal noun. (That is the case with a couple of other phrasal verbs in this list.) But a walk-on is a small theatrical role (from the fact that such parts often involve an actor simply walking onstage, perhaps to deliver a message to a main character, for example) or a person who attempts to join an athletic team without an invitation or a scholarship offer. Walk-off, meanwhile, describes a final winning play in a baseball game.

Note that with any of the phrasal verbs listed, at best, a sentence’s meaning will differ if the preposition or particle is omitted; at worst, it won’t make sense. One can, for example, walk a line, but that means something different than a reference to walking in a line, while “walk a door” is meaningless. However, some phrasal verbs are redundant, though they are often used colloquially. Such phrases, which often unnecessarily pair a verb with up or down, include “climb up,” “meet up,” “rest up,” “sit down,” “stand up,” and “write down.” (One may climb down, but descend is a better alternative for that phrase.)

Note, though, that some of these redundant phrases can be legitimately repurposed as phrasal nouns or adjectives when hyphenated. For example, meet-up is an informal synonym for gathering, and a sit-down is a work stoppage or protest or a meeting convened to resolve a conflict or problem. (As an adjective, the term also pertains to a meal or a restaurant at which one is seated.) Meanwhile, a stand-up comic is one who performs while standing, though the term may also informally denote the quality of integrity (“He’s a real stand-up guy”) or simply refer to something literally upright. The term alone can also refer to the entertainment form or a television broadcast with a similar setup—there’s another phrasal verb transformed into a compound verb—or to the performer.

“Write down” does not have a corresponding noun. However, the words write and up, though they do not form a phrasal verb (“write it up” comes close), are used, linked with a hyphen, to describe a report, review, or summary, as in “Did you see the write-up about the game in today’s paper?”

Numerous other examples exist. Note, however, that as in the case of walk-in and walkout, treatment of two words with a common verb may differ: One performs a turnaround but comes up with a work-around. A blow-up is not the same as a blowout, and the compounds are not styled the same. And though hand-down is not (yet) a word—it might someday be coined to describe an edict or pronouncement—a hand-me-down is something passed on (such as an article of clothing given to a child when an older sibling outgrows it).

When contemplating using a phrasal noun (or a phrasal adjective), first, use a dictionary to determine 1) whether the term exists and 2) whether the phrasal noun is hyphenated or closed. (And double-check that the adjectival form is the same as the phrasal noun. Exceptions exist, including the noun/adjective pairs castoff/cast-off and takeout/take-out.) For example, when one calls out, it is a callout, but when one logs in, it is (usually) a log-in. (Login is also employed; the correct form is the one that appears in the dictionary or style guide you consult.)

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Oxford Comma: Yes or No? A Compilation of Opinions and Recommendations

Oxford Comma: Yes or No? A Compilation of Opinions and Recommendations

First things first: what is the Oxford comma? Also called serial comma, it is a comma placed after the penultimate item in a list and before the conjunction “and” or “or.”

Here’s a sample sentence without the Oxford comma:

We traveled to China, Thailand and Japan.

And here is the same sentence with the Oxford comma:

We traveled to China, Thailand, and Japan.

The Oxford comma is the one after “Thailand.”

There is a hot debate around its use because this is technically an optional punctuation mark, and in some sentences it clearly helps understanding and removes ambiguity while in others it can be redundant at best and confusing at worst.

i want your oxford comma

Making things worse, this punctuation device can sometimes have serious business implications. In 2017 a company settled for $5 million with its drivers because the absence of the Oxford comma in the law text created ambiguity about overtime compensation.

Author Lynne Truss once wrote: “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

Below you will find a compilation of opinions and recommendations from publications and style guides, so that you can decide for yourself whether or not to use it.

In favor of the Oxford comma

Maeve Maddox (English Ph.D. and DWT writer) (link)

After a lifetime of being wishy-washy about the serial comma, I’ve reached a decision: I’m going to use it all the time. Such a momentous decision is, of course, a deeply personal matter. The pros and cons are widely, frequently, and hotly debated.

My choice is to travel the path of otiosity for the sake of uniformity.

Mark Nichol (UC Berkeley instructor and DWT writer) (link)

I strongly favor the serial comma. Why?

In a sentence such as “I bought one apple, two bananas and three oranges,” no ambiguity exists. But in “I ordered ham and eggs, toast and jam and pie and ice cream,” the cavalcade of conjunctions gets confusing, and in contexts in which it’s not as clear which list items might be distinct and which might be linked, the absence of the final comma might require readers to reread the sentence to establish the organization. So, the solution in this case is to use a serial comma when confusion could arise.

Mary Cullen (Business writing instructor)

I recommend using the serial comma in business writing, since it is the customary convention. And, to me, it is much easier to consistently follow this convention, than to omit it most of the time and add it in when clarity is needed. Keep it simple.

The Chicago Manual of Style

When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction.

The Elements of Style

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

MLA Style Guide (link)

Fair-weather comma users: publications that do not require the serial comma may use it only when misreading results. Proponents of the serial comma, like the MLA, would decry the inconsistency of the use-it-when-you-need-it approach and advocate using the serial comma in all series of three or more items or phrases.

Grammarly (link)

Unless you’re writing for a particular publication or drafting an essay for school, whether or not you use the Oxford comma is generally up to you. However, omitting it can sometimes cause some strange misunderstandings.

Against the Oxford comma (with exceptions allowed)

Associated Press Stylebook

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series. Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction:

I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

The New York Times style guide (link)

Style guides for book and academic publishing generally would insist on another comma after “pears,” the so-called serial comma or Oxford comma. But news writing has traditionally omitted the serial comma — perhaps seeking a more rapid feeling in the prose, or perhaps to save time and effort in the old days of manual typesetting.

We do use the additional comma in cases where a sentence would be awkward or confusing without it: Choices for breakfast included oatmeal, muffins, and bacon and eggs.

University of Oxford stylebook (link)

Note that there is no comma between the penultimate item in a list and ‘and’/‘or’, unless required to prevent ambiguity – this is sometimes referred to as the ‘Oxford comma’. However, always insert a comma in this position if it would help prevent confusion

Canadian Press Stylebook

Put commas between elements of a series but not before the final and, or or nor unless that avoids confusion.

Penguin guide to punctuation

Note also that it is not usual in British usage to put a listing comma before the word and or or itself (though American usage regularly puts one there.) So, in British usage, it is not usual to write The Three Musketeers were Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.

Conclusion

This discussion has basically two camps: those who favor the universal use of the Oxford comma for the sake of simplicity and uniformity; and those who are against it, except when it is necessary to remove ambiguity.

DailyWritingTips.com favors the universal use of the Oxford comma.

If you are still unsure about which style to adopt, Wikipedia has a list of clear arguments for and against the Oxford comma.

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A Guide to Terminal Punctuation

A Guide to Terminal Punctuation

This post outlines the functions of punctuation marks employed at the end of a sentence: the period, the exclamation point, the question mark, and ellipses.

Period
Periods are employed as terminal punctuation for statements other than questions or exclamations. In American English, periods precede a close quotation mark at the end of a sentence (with some technical exceptions in such fields as botany, linguistics, and philosophy). Periods also follow numbers and letters that precede each item in a vertical list.

When an abbreviation ending in a period closes a sentence (such as in “Such abbreviations are common in content pertaining to mathematics, science, etc.”), it does double duty as terminal punctuation; do not add a period. An exclamation point or question mark can follow such use of a period, but revision to avoid consecutive punctuation is advised.

See this post for information about the use of periods in abbreviation.

Exclamation Point
In formal writing, use of the exclamation point is rare, but it performs a useful function in expressing exclamation of surprise (“That’s absurd!”) or communicating an imperative (“Halt!”). It may also be employed to indicate enthusiasm (“Hi!”).

An exclamation point should replace, not accompany, a comma (“No!” she replied”), though an exception is made when the exclamation is part of the title of a composition or of a component of one (“Her latest painting, titled simply Yes!, is on display”; “The final chapter, ‘Where Do I Go from Here?,’ is essential reading”).

When both an exclamation point and a question mark are appropriate, choose one or the other, though in informal writing, an interrobang, a hybrid of both symbols, can be employed. Frequent use of the exclamation point, or use of two or more in succession, is distracting and should be employed only, for example, to signal in fiction writing the exuberance of a character. An exclamation point in parentheses indicates an editorial interpolation expressing alarm or surprise, as in “A speaker who seriously proposed summary execution (!) was heckled.”

Writers should take care to place an exclamation point before or after a close quotation mark depending on its function. Compare, for example, “John screamed, ‘Get out!’” and “You can believe I was shocked when Mary quietly responded, ‘I know the truth, because I was there’!” In the first sentence, the exclamation point, positioned inside the quotation marks containing John’s outburst, emphasizes the screamed command; in the second sentence, the exclamation point, located outside the quotation marks framing Mary’s reported comment but within those bracketing the reporter’s statement, signals the surprise the reporter felt about Mary’s unexpected but quietly uttered admission.

Exclamation points that are integral to a proper name (for example, in the company name Yahoo! or in the title of the television program Jeopardy!) are usually retained, though they may, especially in the former example, invite confusion. (Ambiguity is unlikely in the case of an exclamation point that is part of a word or phrase formatted in italics or boldface.)

Question Mark
A question mark is employed in place of a period to indicate an interrogative word, phrase, or full sentence—usually the latter, although it may follow a single word or a phrase functioning as a sentence, or one or more interrogative elements can be embedded in a sentence, as in “Was he feeling envy? resentment? humiliation?” (Alternatively, the last two words might be treated as one-word sentences: “Was he feeling envy? Resentment? Humiliation?”)

Question marks should not punctuate indirect questions (“The question is whether the initiative should be funded by taxpayers”), sentences ending with interrogative words (“Naturally, you might ask why”), or formal requests (“Would you please respond at your earliest inconvenience”).

A question mark may also replace or accompany an unknown quantity, as in “John Smith (1452?–1506) . . .” or “John Smith (?–1506) . . . .”

See also the discussion of exclamation points above; all the guidance after the first paragraph in that section applies to question marks as well.

Ellipses
When ellipses end an unfinished sentence, the implication is that the reader is familiar with the full sentence (“When in Rome . . .”), which is delivered in an offhand manner, or that the speaker is faltering (“I was just trying to . . .”). (To represent interrupted speech, use a dash rather than ellipses; see this post about the use of dashes as internal punctuation.)

When representing omission of one or more words at the beginning of a sentence that follows a full sentence, use a period and ellipses as shown here: “Finish each day and be done with it. . . . Tomorrow is a new day.” When indicating elision of one or more words at the end with a complete sentence, which is followed by another sentence, place the period for the first sentence after the ellipses as shown here: “I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience . . . . And I am horribly limited.” (The period is the fourth dot.) Do not place ellipses at the end of a quotation to indicate that more text follows the quotation in the source material.

The use of ellipses as internal punctuation is discussed in this post.

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Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility

This post lists and defines words derived from the Latin verb sentire, meaning “feel” or “perceive.”

The direct descendant of sentire is sense, which means “be or become conscious of” or “comprehend” or “detect.” As a noun, the word has a more extensive set of definitions—it can pertain to awareness; intelligence; conveyed or intended meaning; and the faculty or function of perceiving through sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. (The word also pertains, less directly, to the capacity to appreciate validity or wisdom, as in “That makes sense,” or an overall feeling about a mood or a trending opinion, as in “The sense among the committee members was favorable.”) As used often in these posts, the word also pertains to the various meanings of a word depending on connotation.

A sensation is an awareness, feeling, or state of consciousness, or something that is the cause of such; by extension, the word applies to excitement or to someone or something that causes excitement, such as a particularly successful theatrical production or extremely talented athlete or performer; the adjectival form is sensational, and sensationally is the adverbial form. The adjective also pertains to an appeal to emotional reactions, as in the case of publicizing gossip. Sensationalism is the use of subject matter or communication techniques for this purpose; sensationalist is the noun form as well as one adjectival form; the other is sensationalistic. In addition, the adjective sensate describes something that relates to the senses (the adverbial form is sensately), while its antonym, insensate, along with the corresponding adverbial form, refers to a lack of awareness or to brutality or foolishness.

The adjective sensory refers to the faculties of the senses, as do sensual and sensuous, though those terms are more often employed in reference to gratification of the senses, especially in terms of sexuality. The respective noun forms are sensuality and sensuousness.

Assent and consent both mean “agreement” or “approval,” but the former is used in the context of an idea or a suggestion, while consent applies to permission; the distinction can also be expressed as pertaining to judgment or understanding on the one hand and feelings or the will on the other. Both words also serve as verbs as well as nouns; in addition, one who assents is an assenter (or assentor), while consenter is a noun and the adverbial form is consentingly.

The adjective consenting is used in the phrase “consenting adults” in the context of freedom to engage in acts or behaviors as long as other participants are willing partners, while “age of consent” pertains to the age at which a person is legally considered an adult and is entitled to make decisions about personal behavior. Consensus is a general agreement or solidarity; the adjective, consensual, refers to mutual consent in any endeavor but often pertains to sexual behavior.

Dissent is a noun and a verb referring to disagreement or, less often, withholding of approval; it is often employed in the context of a judicial panel, though on a larger scale it pertains to deviation from political or religious ideas. One who dissents is a dissenter, and the term is often capitalized in historical references to various groups of people who did not conform with orthodox religion.

Insense is occasionally used in British English to mean “inform” or “instruct” or “impress with an idea”; incense is unrelated. To resent is to feel annoyed or envious; the feeling is resentment.

Nonsense refers to words or other communication that does not convey any ideas or meaning or that is absurd, impudent, or trivial; the adjectival and adverbial forms are nonsensical and nonsensically. (Nonsense, as well as antisense and missense, is also used in genetics in reference to coding.)

Sensible means “rational” or “reasonable,” “aware,” “conscious,” “perceptible,” and “receptive”; additional meanings are “convinced” and “practical,” and the noun form is sensibility. Sensitive shares the meaning of “receptive” and is a synonym for sensory, but it also applies to restricted information or to issues that require caution or tact, and it often applies to susceptibility to differences or fluctuations or to delicate emotions.

Extrasensory is an adjective pertaining to perception of stimuli outside the five physical senses and usually applies to clairvoyance, precognition, and telepathy. Multisensory applies to something involving several of the senses, while multisense pertains to multiple meanings. Sensorium, meanwhile, denotes the areas of the brain associated with receiving and interpreting stimuli; the plural is formed as sensoriums or sensoria. Sensurround, a trademark for a sound system used in movie theaters, is a combination of sense and surround.

Common sense is the ability to behave with good judgment and think and make prudent decisions; the usual adjectival form is commonsense, but variations include commonsensical and commonsensible, and commonsensically is the adverbial form. “Horse sense” is a synonym for “common sense,” based either on the notion that people who handle horses are attuned to them or on the behavioral qualities of horses.

Words descended from sentire that writers may not associate with feeling and perception include sentence, which (from the notion of expressing a feeling or an opinion) denotes either a self-contained syntactical unit or an analogous mathematical expression or a legal judgment or the punishment stemming from such a judgment; sentence is also a verb in the legal sense, referring to the action of imposing a legal judgment or, by extension, causing one or more people to experience suffering.

Another such word is sentient, meaning “aware” or “conscious of or responsive to stimuli,” or, less commonly, “acutely perceptive.” The adverbial form is sentiently, and the quality is sentience.

A sentiment is an emotion or feeling, an opinion or a thought based on feeling, or the emotional subtext of a thought, statement, or passage. To be sentimental, meanwhile, is to be influenced by feelings or governed by emotion rather than reason or thought; the adverbial form is sentimentally. The word can have a negative connotation pertaining to an excess of emotion; the noun form for this sense is sentimentality.

A sentinel is a guard or someone or something suggestive of a guard; the synonym sentry is perhaps a truncation of sentinel, though it may be derived from sanctuary.

Scent also stems from sentire; it means “odor” but also refers to the sense of smell or the power of detecting an odor and, by extension, a course of discovery or pursuit, or an inkling. Scent is also a synonym for perfume and, by extension, refers to any mixture used to lure fish or game.

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A Guide to Nouns

A Guide to Nouns

A noun was traditionally described as “a person, place, or thing,” but some definitions further specify what can constitute a thing, including an action, an idea, a quality, or a state of existence. This post discusses types of nouns and other issues related to nouns.

Classes of Nouns
Abstract and Concrete Nouns
Abstract nouns are those that refer to concepts or ideas, such as justice or evolution. By contrast, concrete nouns represent physical entities that can be observed by one or more senses; examples include apple, dog, and house. Some nouns have both abstract and concrete meanings—for example, a pillar is a column that serves as a commemorative object or a structural support, but by extension, the word refers to a figurative concept related to the latter sense: a principle, for example, that is part of the identity of an organization. (In addition, a person may be referred to as “a pillar of the community,” but although person is concrete, the person does not literally provide structural support for an edifice.)

Collective Nouns
A collective noun is one that, despite the lack of plural inflection, refers to a group (as in the case of committee) or to an entity consisting of multiple members (for example, government or police). In American English, such terms take a singular verb form unless the emphasis is clearly on the constituents of the collective, as in “The staff were pleased to hear about the new workplace policy,” though many writers (and editors) are more comfortable with a revision that more explicitly focuses on the individuals, such as “Members of the staff were pleased to hear about the new workplace policy.”

Compound Noun
A compound noun is one that consists of two or more words. Compound nouns may be closed (warlord), hyphenated (mind-set), or open (“post office”). Generally, a compound of more than two words is hyphenated, as in jack-in-the box, but a proper name consisting of more than two words is almost always open (“Royal Canadian Mounted Police”).

Countable and Mass Nouns
Countable nouns are those that may take an indefinite article (a or an) or a plural form, or be combined with a numeral (such as three) or a counting quantifier (such as several). Countable nouns include car, finger, and event. Mass, or uncountable, nouns, are those that do not have these properties, such as blood, equipment, and information. Many nouns have senses as both countable and mass nouns. For example, rain is an uncountable phenomenon, but one can refer to a succession of rains.

Proper Nouns
A proper noun is one that denotes a unique entity, such as a specific person (John), place (Earth), or thing (iPhone). Writers frequently err in capitalizing generic descriptions thought to be specific. For example, a person might be described as “a Marketing Director”; though the person does in fact hold that job title, it is not unique to that person (although it is capitalized as part of the entity description “Marketing Director John Smith,” which is unique).

Similarly, one might be said to have “earned a Master’s Degree”; although the diploma that documents conferring of the degree is unique, a degree demonstrating mastery of a particular academic discipline is distributed to numerous people, and thus the word is generic. In addition, words that, as part of a specific appellation, are capitalized are sometimes erroneously capitalized in isolation, as in “the Committee.” This style is common in content published by institutions and organizations (and sometimes codified in their house style guides) that refers in shorthand to a particular committee, and it is a tradition in legal text, but in most other contexts it is considered an error.

Considerations About Nouns
Nominalization and Conversion
Avoid the jargonistic overuse of noun forms of verbs in place of the verbs themselves, itself known jargonistically as nominalization, to make sentences more concise, direct, and accessible. (For example, “effect a transposition” is easily replaced by transpose.)

A related issue is conversion, by which a verb becomes a noun (as in the use of take in “We filmed the scene in one take” or “What’s your take on that?”). Many conversions are unobjectionable in isolation, but take care not to let them overwhelm your prose.

Noun Plagues
One obstacle to clarity, prevalent in business content, is the use of multiple nouns as adjectives describing a terminal noun, as in “The topic of the webinar is compliance risk management program governance.”

Avoid such strings of nouns-cum-adjectives before a noun, which many people may read haltingly because even if they are familiar with the terms that constitute the phrase, they will not know until they reach the actual noun that they have come to the end of it. Revise the phrase to reflect a more relaxed syntax so that it can be read with relative lack of effort: “The topic of the webinar is governance of programs pertaining to compliance risk management.”

Plural Forms
English is maddeningly inconsistent, especially in forming plurals. For example, the plural of avocado is avocados (avocadoes is a variant), while tomato is rendered tomatoes in its plural form. (These words derive from the same language, Nahuatl, and as in the case of the name of the language, the ending sound of both native words is l, but they took different paths through Spanish.)

Other problematic words include those ending in y and some words adopted from Greek and Latin; for example, plural endings for some Latin words (such as antenna and index) vary depending on sense. Another complicating category is compound nouns (such as fathers-in-law). When in doubt, consult a dictionary. (And, to be safe, when not in doubt, consult a dictionary.)

Other types of nouns that may require writers to consult with a dictionary (or a style guide) so that plural forms are correctly rendered include plurals of proper nouns and for abbreviations, letters, and numerals.

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Names of Plants, Food, and Drinks Formed by Folk Etymology

Names of Plants, Food, and Drinks Formed by Folk Etymology

This post lists words for plants, food, and drinks, as well as some terms associated with drinks, derived from words in other languages as a result of folk etymology, a process by which speakers adopt the foreign terms after revising them by using existing elements from their native language.

artichoke: The name of the vegetable stems ultimately from the Arabic word al-khurshūf by way of the Spanish term alcarchofa and the Italian term arcicioffo (rendered articiocco in an Italian dialect), with the English form likely influenced by choke.
avocado: The native word for this New World fruit is ahuacatl, which was rendered into Spanish as aguacate, which in turn came to be spelled and pronounced like a now-obsolete Spanish word meaning “lawyer.” (Note the resemblance to advocate.) That word was then adopted into English.
burger: This word is a shortening of hamburger, which originally was styled as Hamburger to denote a resident of Hamburg, Germany, or various things originating there. The connection to Hamburg is obscure, but a patty of ground meat was called a hamburg steak during the late nineteenth century and later, when paired with a bun, a hamburger sandwich, then simply a hamburger. After cheeseburger was coined, hamburger was often shortened to burger.
cocktail: This term for a mixed alcoholic drink or, by extension, various mixtures of substances (as in “fruit cocktail”) has an uncertain origin, but it may derive from the French term coquetier (meaning “egg cup”), from the use of such containers to serve mixed drinks in the late eighteenth century.
demijohn: Several hundred years ago, a large, round bottle wrapped in wicker was in French termed a damejeanne (meaning “Lady Jane,” perhaps from its anthropomorphic appearance). Nearly a century later, an adaptation of the term was adopted into English.
mandrake: Originally, in Greek, mandragoras, the term for a plant whose root has narcotic qualities passed into English through Latin. Because of the resemblance of the middle of the word to dragon, the term was adapted by folk etymology to end with drake, an English variation of dragon.
mangrove: The Spanish word for this tropical coastal tree is mangue (likely adapted from a Caribbean language), and in Portuguese it is called mangle. Adopted into Middle English as mangrow, it evolved to its current form influenced by grove, meaning “a stand of trees.”
mistletoe: Mistel, of uncertain origin, was the name of this shrub that grows on trees and is associated with Christmas (originally, with fertility, hence the custom of kissing under a sprig of the plant around the time of the holiday); in Old English, it was called misteltān (“mistel twig”), and the fading emphasis on the final syllable resulted in the current spelling.
mushroom: The name for various species of fungus is derived from the Latin term mussirionem by way of the Old French word meisseron and its Anglo-French variation, musherun.
pumpkin: The name of the gourd was derived from the Greek word pepon, meaning “melon”; the second syllable of the Middle English descendant pompone (also spelled pumpion) was altered to the diminutive syllable -kin.
saltcellar: A bowl or other container for salt was in Old French called a salier; this term, transformed by folk etymology into cellar, was redundantly attached to the English word salt to describe such an object.
serviceberry: This edible berry acquired its name from the resemblance of the fruit to that of the genus Sorbus, some species of which are called service trees; service is derived from the Latin genus name and is unrelated to serve. (The alternative names juneberry and shadberry derive from the fact that the berries ripen in June, at about the same time as shad proliferate in creeks in New England.)
sparrowgrass: Asparagus, borrowed directly from the Latin version of asparagos, the Greek word for an edible plant, was altered by folk etymology to sparrowgrass.
Welsh rabbit: The name given to melted cheese on toast or a dish with melted cheese and bread was originally a jocular reference, at the expense of the Welsh people, to cheese as a poor person’s substitute for rabbit meat, a delicacy; “Welsh rarebit” is a variant.
witch hazel: The first word in the name of the tree derives from the Old English word wice, meaning “pliable”; the use of witch hazel twigs as divining rods may have prompted the alteration of the name.
wormwood: The alteration of the Old English word wermod, denoting the wormwood plant, the aromatic herb harvested from it, and its derivative, absinthe, perhaps stemmed from the bitter aftertaste of the liquor. Vermouth comes from the German equivalent, Wermuth; that liquor was originally flavored with the herb.

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A Guide to Vertical Lists

A Guide to Vertical Lists

A recent post described how to organize and format in-line lists, those that occur within a sentence. This one explains the proper use of vertical lists, which are organized by setting the items on the list (following an introductory phrase or sentence), apart from each other, distinguished by numbers, letters, or other symbols, on consecutive lines.

Vertical lists are best employed in place of in-line lists when the list is long and/or the items consist of longer phrases or even complete sentences (or even more than one sentence). However, vertical lists are often useful in contexts in which guidance or instruction is being offered, though they are most effective when they are concise, and extended list items are not advised. If list items consist of more than one sentence, the information might be better displayed as regular text.

The following vertical list (too simple to be formatted as such but used here for illustrative purposes), is offered as a basic example:

The colors of the American flag are

  • red,
  • white, and
  • blue.

(Note: This and other correct lists in this post are formatted in boldface.) Just as is the case with an in-line list, if one or more items in a vertical list itself requires a comma, each item should be set off from the others by a semicolon.

Note that despite the vertical-list formatting, because the introductory phrase and the list constitute a syntactically organized sentence, the introductory phrase is not punctuated, but terminal punctuation follows the final item. (Some publishers, however, simplify this format by omitting especially the conjunction and perhaps the commas as well.)

However, compare the previous example with a version in which the introductory phrase constitutes a complete independent clause:

The colors of the American flag are as follows:

  • red
  • white
  • blue

Here, the introductory phrase and the list do not constitute a sentence, so the list items are not punctuated. Terminal punctuation is included, however, and first word of each list item is capitalized, if the items are themselves self-contained sentences:

Although the colors of the American flag did not have any official meaning when it was designed, the colors on the Great Seal represent the following virtues:

  • White signifies purity and innocence.
  • Red signifies hardiness and valor.
  • Blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

Note how the sentences in the list are organized consistently. In the following examples, the list items must be revised to make the list syntactically consistent:

According to our survey, the top three factors are

  • lax enforcement of budgets and savings being spent in other areas,
  • invalid savings assumptions or changes in the assumptions used to calculate savings, and
  • realized savings are not being effectively tracked.

Note how the first two items follow the syntactical structure of the introductory phrase but the third one is an independent clause. The list can be rendered consistent in two ways:

According to our survey, the top three factors are

  • lax enforcement of budgets and savings being spent in other areas,
  • invalid savings assumptions or changes in the assumptions used to calculate savings, and ineffective tracking of realized savings.

According to our survey, these are the top three factors:

  • Budget enforcement is lax and savings are being spent in other areas.
  • Savings assumptions are invalid or there are changes in the assumptions used to calculate savings.
  • Realized savings are not being effectively tracked.

Avoid producing vertical lists in which to or more list items begin with the same word or words, as in this example:

In this session, you will learn

  • how to get business processes and systems to scale to business growth,
  • how to build out a financial team to drive and support growth,
  • how to build these important pillars within an audit/business controls mind-set, and
  • securing/managing financing to support corporate growth strategy.

To revise, incorporate the recurring word or phrase into the introductory phrase and revise any list items that begin with different wording so that they conform with the others, as shown here:

In this session, you will learn how to

  • get business processes and systems to scale to business growth,
  • build out a financial team to drive and support growth,
  • build these important pillars within an audit/business controls mind-set, and
  • secure/manage financing to support corporate growth strategy.

Note, too, that any symbol may be used in place of bullets, but the same symbol should be employed throughout not only a single vertical list but also all such lists throughout a document or publication. If one or more items in a vertical list marked by bullets are followed by subsidiary items of their own, a distinct symbol (such as a hollow bullet) should be used for those items, which should also be indented farther than the primary list items.

Sometimes, no symbols are used at all, but this strategy is best employed if the items are brief and numerous, such as in a vocabulary list consisting of one- or two-word items. (In addition, a vertical list in which items are short can be formatted into two or more narrow columns if the width of the printed or online page is wide enough to accommodate them.)

Also, numbers and letters may be substituted for bullets, but numbers are recommended only when the items in the list should be read in a particular order, such as when outlining a procedure or ranking the list items. Letters are appropriate primarily for multiple-choice test items, for example, or when the text includes frequent cross-references such as “See item d.”

A basic outline-style vertical list can be organized using a simple hierarchy of Arabic numerals and lowercase letters. For a complex outline, the recommended hierarchy of numbers and letters varies according to various style manuals and writing handbooks, but The Chicago Manual of Style advises the following sequence: Roman numerals (I, II, III, and so on), capital letters (A, B, C, and so on), Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, and so on), lowercase letters (a, b, c, and so on) followed by a close parenthesis, Arabic numerals enclosed in parentheses, lowercase letters enclosed in parentheses, and lowercase Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, and so on) followed by a close parenthesis.

Another outline format is the decimal outline, as shown below (appropriate indentation not used here):
1.
1.1
1.1.1
1.1.2
1.1.3
1.2
1.2.1 . . .
1.3
1.3.1 . . .
2.
2.1 . . .

Ultimately, the goal of any list organization is clarity.

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Cars and Carriages

Cars and Carriages

Car and carriage, and many other words containing the element car, derive from the Latin word carrus, meaning “two-wheeled wagon.” This post lists and defines many of the words descended from carrus.

A car is a passenger vehicle designed to be driven on roads; autocar and motorcar are outdated terms used in the early days of automotive travel to describe cars so as not to have them be confused with train cars and streetcars, which were dominant modes of travel at the time.

A streetcar is a public passenger vehicle, running on a network of rails within a city, that can be drawn by horses (this type was sometimes called a horsecar) or propelled by electricity; one drawn by cables is sometimes called a cable car.

Car also describes a segment of a railroad train, and terms for specialized cars include boxcar, denoting an enclosed car for carrying freight, flatcar, which refers to a platform freight car, and “stock car,” meaning “a ventilated boxcar for hauling livestock.” (“Stock car” also describes a racing car with a stock, or mass-produced, chassis and a customized car body.)

A car wash is a public facility for cleaning cars, either staffed or self-service with coin-operated equipment. A carpool is an arrangement in which two or more people share a car driven by one of them to reach a common destination. A carport is an area, like a garage but generally with only a roof on posts and no walls, for storing vehicles. (“Car park” is a British English term for a parking garage or parking lot.) To be carsick is to become nauseated by the motion of a car; the ailment is called carsickness.

Carriage originally denoted the act of carrying but came to apply to a vehicle that carries people, including a train car; the meaning was extended to refer to one’s posture as well as specialized senses pertaining to a moveable part of a machine, such as a typewriter’s carriage, or to having a pathogen in one’s body.

Carry also derives from carrus; among the most versatile of verbs, it has numerous senses pertaining to bearing, moving, or directing something from one place to another or to associated actions. But it is also employed as a noun, as in the case of a method of bearing something, as in describing the advance of a football player with the ball. A carrier is an entity that carries something, and a carryall is a vehicle or a large bag; the latter word stems by folk etymology from the French term carriole.

Chariot, denoting an ancient two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle, is, with charioteer, derived from the Old French verb charrier, meaning “transport,” by way of Middle French and Middle English. The word, as well as chariotee, a diminutive of chariot, and “post chariot,” pertain to types of carriage used before the automotive age.

Charabanc is a British English word for a sightseeing bus; the term is derived from the French phrase char à bancs, meaning “wagon with benches.”

Carousel, originally describing a jousting match and later pertaining to an amusement ride in which people mount statues of horses or other animals set on a revolving platform, is from the Italian word carusiello, possibly descended from carrus.

Cart and its compound variations (from cartwheel to “shopping cart”) are unrelated, stemming from an Old English word, related to the Dutch word for basket, that likely alluded to the fact that early carts often included a body made of wickerwork. However, charette (also spelled charrette), a word originally pertaining to a cart used to carry drawings—by extension, it now describes a meeting involving architectural plans—is French for “little cart” and is from carrus. (The modern sense might derive from the notion of viewing and discussing architectural drawings spread out on a cart at a building site.)

However, a few words that may not be easily recognized as belonging to the same family do stem from carrus, including career, which means “course” or “passage” and by extension came to denote a field or profession one pursues. As a verb, it describes speeding along a road or other course. (However, careen, denoting turning something over or a side-to-side movement, is unrelated.)

Carrack, the word for a sailing vessel common during the 1400s and 1500s, derives from an Arabic word for “merchant ship” that may have been borrowed from the Latin term carricare, meaning “load a car.” Cargo, meaning “goods conveyed by a vehicle or vessel,” stems from the same word by way of Spanish, and that language is also the source of supercargo, denoting a ship’s officer responsible for freight and related matters. Carricare is also the source of cark, an obscure word used as a noun or a verb to refer to trouble or worry, from the notion of a burden.

It is also the origin of charge, which originally referred to a load or a weight carried but now has a variety of meanings, including “command” or “supervision,” “obligation,” “expense,” or “complaint,” “criticism,” or “assertion of guilt.” It also describes a rush, especially of attacking mounted soldiers, and still refers to a load of in the sense of a quantity of electricity or explosives. In addition, it serves as a verb pertaining to these senses.

A charger is something used in charging, such as a warhorse or a device for holding or reinforcing a weapon or an energy source. and something that can be charged is chargeable. Recharge means “charge again,” and something that can be charged again is rechargeable. A countercharge is a response to a charge, and overcharge and undercharge denote excessive or insufficient charging, while supercharge refers to applying energy, pressure, or tension and a surcharge is an extra charge, usually in the financial sense of an additional fee. The noun “chargé d’affaires,” borrowed directly from the French phrase meaning “charged with affairs” (and pronounced the same), denotes a deputy of an ambassador or other senior diplomat.

Carpenter, meaning “worker who builds and repairs wood structures” (from a Latin word denoting a wagon maker), and carpentry, referring to the practice, are related to carrus.

Although caricature is in a sense a synonym of character, in that both pertain to a representation of a person, and the terms are pronounced similarly and appear as if they might share a root, they are unrelated: Character, by way of Latin, is from the Greek word kharacter, meaning “engraved mark”; it retains its original sense of “symbol” but also developed the meaning of “person in a work of fiction,” then simply “person” (and later “eccentric person”) as well as “the sum of one’s defining qualities,” or “integrity.”

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A Guide to Internal Punctuation

A Guide to Internal Punctuation

This post outlines the functions of punctuation marks employed within a sentence: the comma, the semicolon, the colon, and ellipses.

Comma
A comma performs a number of functions, including

  • setting off elements of a list (“I’m going to order soup, salad, and an entrée”)
  • combining with a conjunction to separate two independent clauses (“She ordered dinner, but she declined the dessert menu”)
  • separating a preceding dependent clause from the main clause (“Depending on the size of the entrée, I might not order dessert”)
  • separating a nonrestrictive relative clause from the main clause (“We were overwhelmed by the menu, which was six pages long”)
  • setting off an adverb from the main clause (“Ordinarily, I would not order dessert”; “I would, ordinarily, not order dessert”; “I would not order dessert, ordinarily”)
  • framing parenthetical phrases (“I will, just this once, order dessert”)
  • setting off an appositive (“My favorite dessert, cheesecake, is missing from the menu”)
  • setting off coordinate adjectives (“I feel like having a big, thick slice of cheesecake for dessert”)
  • setting off an attribution from a quotation (“My friend said, ‘I’m going to order dessert’”)
  • setting off one or more words identifying the subject of direct address (“John, are you going to order dessert?”)
  • setting off a date from a year and parenthesizing the year (“January 1, 2018, dawned just like any other day”)
  • setting off a city name from a state or country name and parenthesizing the state or country name (“Lebanon, Kansas, is the geographic center of the contiguous United States”)
  • setting off a surname from a given name when the first-name, last-name order is inverted (“She is listed as ‘Doe, Jane’”)
  • indicating ellipsis of one or more words (“Everything was as I remembered it—the church was white, the barn, red”).

A comma should not separate a subject and a verb (as in the erroneous sentence “The tiramisu, is sublime”) except when it is closing a parenthetical phrase (“The tiramisu, as expected, is sublime”) or setting off repetition of a verb (“What it is, is sublime”). Likewise, a verb and its direct object should not be split asunder (as shown in the incorrectly punctuated sentence “She intuitively grasped, that she was in trouble.”)

Another error that involves a comma is a comma splice, in which a comma, rather than a stronger punctuation mark such as a semicolon or a dash, appears between two independent clauses not separated by a conjunction, as in “You see a half-empty glass, I see a half-full one.” (An exception can be made for brief declarations, as in Julius Caesar’s famous summary “I came, I saw, I conquered.”)

Semicolon
The semicolon has two primary functions. First, it unites two closely related independent clauses, as in “You see a half-empty glass; I see a half-full one.” (In such cases, it takes the place of a period or a conjunction; including both a semicolon and a conjunction is an error.) Second, it replaces two or more commas in an in-line list (a list with a sentence) when one or more of the list items itself includes commas, as in “The names, as listed, are Doe, Jane; Jones, William; and Smith, John” or “I spotted many squirrels; several deer; and a hawk, an osprey, and a heron.” (If the list organization is obvious, as when list items begin with distinct verbs, commas may be employed, as in “She shopped at the supermarket, visited the bank and the credit union, and ran errands at the hardware store, the drugstore, and the dry cleaner’s.”)

Earlier usage included setting off coordinate clauses in complex sentences or to otherwise signal a more pronounced pause than a comma would suggest, but these approaches, especially the former, are outdated.

In quoted material, a semicolon always follows a close quotation mark. Also, the mark may seem too formal in the midst of a sentence in quotation marks; a dash more clearly conveys a transition to a separate assertion or idea, as in “Mary said, ‘Don’t go in the abandoned house—it’s not safe in there’” rather than “Mary said, ‘Don’t go in the abandoned house; it’s not safe in there.’”

Colon
A colon precedes

  • quoted material set up by a complete statement rather than an attribution (“His reply was succinct: ‘Not a chance’”)
  • an explanation (“We declined the invitation primarily for one reason: He insists on driving, and we don’t feel safe as his passengers”)
  • a list (“The meal consists of the following courses: appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert”).

It is also employed between pairs of numbers

  • to represent ratios (“The results indicate a 5:3 ratio”)
  • in references to time (“The next train is at 1:35”)
  • in numerical representations of elapsed time (“The record stands at 3:26.00”)
  • when citing biblical verses (“John 3:16 expresses the same sentiment”).

A colon also separates a book’s title and subtitle or, in bibliographies, the city where a publisher is located and the name of the publisher. In formal writing, it follows the salutation.

A colon always follows a close quotation mark.

Ellipses
Ellipsis means “omission,” but it primarily refers to a succession of three periods, called ellipses, usually interspersed with letter spaces, or a single symbol representing three periods. Style guides differ in which form is preferred, but the ellipsis symbol looks cramped, and use of ellipses (a series of periods) is more visually pleasing.

Ellipses represent omission of one or more words in the middle of a sentence (“A friend . . . knows all about you and still loves you”); generally, they are unnecessary when omitting what precedes a partial quotation.

The use of ellipses as terminal punctuation will be discussed in a separate post.

Dash
Uses of the dash are detailed in this post.

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10 Ways to Render Sentences More Concise

10 Ways to Render Sentences More Concise

This post details various strategies for reducing and simplifying sentences.

1. Sentence Combination
Avoid consecutive sentences that end and begin, respectively, with the same word or phrase as occurs here:

A common way to track the current state of systems is monitoring performance metrics. Performance metrics show how assets are performing at the transaction level.

In such cases, replace the period between them with a comma and delete the second iteration of the word or phrase with which: “A common way to track the current state of systems is monitoring performance metrics, which show how assets are performing at the transaction level.”

2. Condensing by Subordination
When a sentence includes two consecutive verb phrases, consider converting one to a subordinate clause. For example, note how the subject of this sentence is followed by two statements of fact:

The renowned tea is a symbol of the city’s gracious hospitality and is often served in a glass to display its jade-green color.

The first statement can easily be subsumed into the main clause as a parenthetical phrase: “The renowned tea, a symbol of the city’s gracious hospitality, is often served in a glass to display its jade-green color.”

3. Integration of Clauses
Here, an introductory subordinate clause sets up an unnecessarily wordy sentence:

For health care entities with similar classes of customers, they may be able to reduce the overall evaluation effort by applying the portfolio approach.

The clause is easily integrated into the main clause by omitting for and treating “health care entities,” rather than they, as the sentence’s subject: “Health care entities with similar classes of customers may be able to reduce the overall evaluation effort by applying the portfolio approach.”

4. Denominalization
Nominalization is the complication of prose by using nouns when employing the verb form of that noun, or revising the sentence to eliminate the need for a noun, produces more clear, concise prose; nouns, of course, are integral to prose but, especially in the case of formal nouns with such elements as -ation, they can be abused in the service of conveying authority. This sentence is not overly formal, but it is wordier than necessary:

Furthermore, companies are taking backups of the production applications and storing them for indefinite periods.

Denominalization—literally, “unnaming”—is simply a fancy way of saying “rephrasing to eliminate nouns.” Note that in this sentence, the noun backups can be converted to a verb, rendering the verb taking superfluous, and the final phrase can be condensed by transforming the adjective indefinite into an adverb, which enables deletion of the noun periods: “Furthermore, companies are backing up the production applications and storing them indefinitely.”

The following sentence is an example of a statement with a double-decker nominalization:

Management may find it beneficial to engage in a dialogue on a periodic basis regarding the organization’s policy.

As in the previous example, one word easily replaces a phrase—“on a periodic basis” can be reduced to periodically: “Management may find it beneficial to periodically engage in a dialogue regarding the organization’s policy.”

But further reduction is achieved by replacing the phrase “engage in a dialogue” with a synonymous word: “Management may find it beneficial to periodically discuss the organization’s policy.”

5. Employing Terms Rather Than Definitions
One strategy to achieve conciseness is to avoid describing something by defining it; note the explanation in the following sentence:

He was prone to making embarrassing mistakes in public.

Here, the person’s behavior can be described with a term that embodies the definition: “He was prone to committing faux pas.”

6. Deletion of Expletives
The expletives “there is” and “there are” are poor substitutes for a strong subject; note how the following sentence gets off to a weak start:

There are few, if any, finance and accounting departments that are not experiencing some form of extreme change.

Expletives need not be excised in every case, but minimize their use by deleting such phrases in favor of the definite noun or noun phrase that follows (and delete the associated that that appears later in the sentence): “Few, if any, finance and accounting departments are not experiencing some form of extreme change.”

7. Avoiding Tautology
Tautology is redundancy or repetition, such as shown here:

Could you repeat that again?

To repeat is to do something again, so this sentence is equivalent to “Could you say that again again?” Indicate the action one way or another: “Could you say that again?” or, more concisely, “Could you repeat that?”

8. Using Brief Modifiers
When modifying a noun to provide more information about it, use a preceding adjective or phrasal adjective rather than an extended phrase following the noun. The following sentence demonstrates use of a verbose modifying phrase:

She offered an explanation that was brief and to the point.

This sentence can be tightened up by locating the description of the explanation before the noun: “She offered a brief, to-the-point explanation.”

9. Excising Single Words
Sometimes, reducing a sentence by just one word improves it, as shown in the following examples:

Rather than assessing all of the contracts, select a representative sample to assess.

In the phrase “all of,” of is generally superfluous: “Rather than assessing all the contracts, select a representative sample to assess.”

How is technology helping to change the way elderly people are cared for?

In the phrase “helping to,” to is extraneous: “How is technology helping change the way elderly people are cared for?”

That is the most annoying error I have ever seen, and also the most prevalent.

Also, when it immediately follows and, is redundant: “That is the most annoying error I have ever seen, and the most prevalent.”

10. Avoiding Prolixity

Refrain from florid, verbose descriptions. The following sentence is an extreme example of self-indulgent wordiness, but unless one is deliberately prolix in the service of humor, be vigilant about reining in excessively ornate prose:

One might with the utmost confidence essay to prevail in a debate in which one asserts that possessing one’s own means of vehicular conveyance offers one greater flexibility than public transportation provides in the matter of travel to one’s place of learning or employment or to social occasions.

Pare such overly complicated composition: “It’s easy to win an argument that having one’s own car makes it easier to get to school or work or to meet friends than if one uses public transportation.”

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