Bureaucrats and Politicians

Bureaucrats and Politicians

A reader has asked for a discussion of the words, bureaucrats vs officials, and lawmakers vs politicians. [I’d] like to know what teachers and English-language experts think of the use of these terms in the media, politics, or in everyday conversation. For example, why using “bureaucrats” in a sentence will generate a different reaction than using the neutral “officials”? All but the most utilitarian words in English have connotations— shades of meaning that influence the way a statement is understood…

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Misbehaving Memes: thou, with, and went

Misbehaving Memes: thou, with, and went

Since Richard Dawkins coined the word in 1976, meme has become familiar to social media users as a captioned graphic used to convey a thought meant to be amusing, inspiring, or informative and shareworthy. Thanks to their popularity, memes have spawned slapdash versions consisting of little more than a colored square containing words. Many, however, reflect considerable creativity and labor. Unfortunately, many otherwise attractive memes are marred by inattention to basic language conventions. 1. A Birthday Meme Using a form…

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3 Sentences in Which Semicolons Are Superfluous

3 Sentences in Which Semicolons Are Superfluous

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

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From Mercury to Hermeneutics

From Mercury to Hermeneutics

One of the most popular of the Roman gods was Mercury, patron of merchants and thieves. Mercury had other associations. He was noted for eloquence, speed, trickery and magic. In addition to shopkeeping and thievery, he was associated with roads and boundaries. Because of his speed, he carried messages for the other gods and acted as a psychopomp, a supernatural being who guides the newly dead to the underworld. Words coined according to Mercury’s various attributes have enriched our vocabulary….

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Discomfiture Is Worse Than Discomfort

Discomfiture Is Worse Than Discomfort

I’ve noticed the two nouns, discomfort and discomfiture, being used interchangeably, as if both meant simply, “the condition of being uncomfortable—physically or mentally.” A toothache causes discomfort. Certain topics of conversation cause discomfort in some listeners. When I peruse the comments on my posts, vulgar language and ad hominem attacks cause me discomfort. Discomfiture, on the other hand, seems to me to convey something more intense than the discomfort of the body or the unease of seeing or talking about…

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5 Cases of Faulty Parenthesis

5 Cases of Faulty Parenthesis

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

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Naming a Character

Naming a Character

The most unforgettable fictional characters begin as a glimmer in the author’s mind. Only in writing the novel does the character go on to acquire the dimensions that will make him or her live in the imagination of the reader years after the book has been read. Sherlock Holmes, Captain Ahab, Huckleberry Finn, Jo March, Dorothea Brooke linger in our memories as if they were real people we have known. These examples are all from the English classics, but even…

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

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

Uses of the word painstaking that I’ve noticed recently suggest that some speakers may think it’s a synonym for painful or difficult. Painstaking combines the noun pain and the verb to take. One meaning of pain is “trouble taken for the accomplishment of something.” Also, in early use, it meant “trouble in accomplishing something, difficulty.” As a noun, painstaking is the action of “taking pains.” A person who takes pains in doing something is exerting diligent care and effort. As…

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Common Errors in Vertical Lists

Common Errors in Vertical Lists

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

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Democracy, Aristocracy, Plutocracy

Democracy, Aristocracy, Plutocracy

The English suffix –ocracy derives from a Greek word for “power,” “rule,” or “authority.” Six examples of such words are aristocracy, autocracy, democracy, kakistocracy,theocracy and plutocracy. Some of the terms overlap. Aristocracy Literally, an aristocracy is “rule by the best citizens.” In theory, the best citizens (IMHO) would be the most intelligent, best-educated, and most compassionate members of society. In practice, aristocracies are governed by citizens born to the upper classes, regardless of their personal character. Autocracy The element auto…

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