Malaprop Monday: Happy Labor Day

Happy Labor Day!

People frequently get confused about the names of holidays, especially ones they aren’t familiar with. For example, Labor Day is often confused with Memorial Day. This could be because these two American holidays are the bookends of summer, or because each one is a 3 day weekend for most American workers.

The backgrounds of and reasons for celebrating the two holidays, however, are very different. Memorial Day, originally named Decoration Day, was established sometime after the Civil War as a day to remember all the people who died in service to the United States (source). Labor day, on the other hand, came out of the labor movement (when workers organized and formed unions). Labor day is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers – so laborers, union members, those in public service and essentially everyone else who holds a job in this country (source).

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Slang Saturday: Punctuation Slang

I’ve seen a lot of people, especially bloggers, using symbols to punctuate where they should have used the correct punctuation mark. As a result, I’ve decided to put together a list of punctuation marks and what should NOT be used in their place.

  1. The Ampersand: &. Not +.
  2. The Dash: There are a couple of types of dash, and they aren’t interchangeable. See my post about dashes here.
  3. Quotation marks: they are not the same thing as apostrophes (although on a regular keyboard, they’re the same key).
  4. The asterisk: a symbol (*) used to mark a reference to an annotation or to stand for omitted matter. Should not be used for emphasis (as in “I am *really* tired of how people misuse asterisks!”)

Have you seen any unusual misuses of punctuation? Tell me about them in the comments!

Phrase Friday: I Could(n’t) Care Less

I’ve seen a lot of contention over the correct way to say this phrase. Either way, usually the writer’s/speaker’s intent is “I don’t care,” but the phrase makes more sense if you use “couldn’t.”

  • I Could Care Less: this implies that you do care a little bit, because the potential for you to care less than you already do exists.
  • I Couldn’t Care Less: The implication here is that you don’t care at all, so you could not possibly care any less than you do.

Of course, the argument could also be made that “I couldn’t care less” would still be true if you cared a lot, but felt that there was no way you could stop caring. Whereas with “I could care less,” maybe you care a little, but you can find it in your heart to care even less than you do.

How would you say this phrase, and why?

Further reading: Dictionary.com; Grammar Girl

This and That Thursday: Where Did English Come From, Anyway?

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The history of English can be divided into three periods: Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English and Modern English. While the language’s evolution was gradual, events in the area of Britain throughout its history caused major changes at three points: around 700 A.D., 1100 A.D. and 1500 A.D.

A group of West Germanic tribes – the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – arrived in Britain as invaders between 500 and 700 A.D. The Celts who lived in Britain at that time were pushed north and west into what is now Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Germanic peoples spoke what became Old English, which lasted until 1066 when William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England.

After the Norman conquest, Old English evolved into Middle English with the influences of French (and Latin, by way of French) brought by the Normans. For a while there was a class division, with the lower classes speaking English and the ruling and business classes speaking French. Middle English was spoken for around 400 years, from 1100-1500.

Early Modern English is what was spoken during Shakespeare’s time and is dated from around 1500. Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) began. Every English vowel underwent changes in how it was normally pronounced.

From the 16th century onward, the British had more and more contact with the outside world. Along with the Renaissance period, this contact meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that more words were written down. Books became cheaper, so more people learned how to read. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard.

Late Modern English, what we speak today, is really only different from Early Modern English in terms of vocabulary. We have a much larger vocabulary now than we did 500 years ago. This is due in large part to the industrial revolution, when new words were invented to name objects, processes and more that just didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time.

American English, incidentally, is much closer to Early Modern English than modern British English. In many ways, the language was “frozen” when it was brought to the new world. A lot of words that are now considered “Americanisms” are actually left over from 17th century English, and while they were dropped by the British, we hung onto them. For example, “trash” is now referred to as “rubbish” by the British, “fall” as “autumn,” and “loan” as “lend.”

Mostly because of the United States’ global influence, English has become sort of the “lingua franca” of the modern age. It is the most-spoken language in the world, and in 3rd place (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish) for native speakers.

Further reading: English Club; Merriam-Webster; The Way We Think About Grammar is Broken

Wordy Wednesday: Fewer/Less

Most people have no idea what the difference is between “fewer” and “less.” This is evidenced by the number of grocery store checkout lanes with signs designating them only for people with “ten items or less.” Usually, the mistake people make is using “less” when they ought to have used “fewer.” Here are the rules:

  • “Fewer” refers to items that can be counted individually
  • “Less” refers to a commodity, such as air or dirt, that cannot be counted individually

Incorrect:

  • He has less marbles than I have
  • Ten items or less

Correct:

  • He has fewer marbles than I have
  • Ten items or fewer
  • There’s less water in my bucket
  • Fewer drops of water spilled from her bucket than from mine

While we’re on the subject, the words “amount” and “number” work in the same way as “less” and “fewer,” referring respectively to commodities and individual items.

 

  • He has a smaller number of marbles than I have
  • There’s a smaller amount of water in my bucket

 

Further reading: Grammar Girl

Tricky Tuesday: Dashes

 

Today I’m going to tell you about the various types of dashes and how to use them. Each one has specific uses and contrary to popular belief, they are not interchangeable. The most common dashes are the em dash (so called because it is about as wide as an uppercase M) and the en dash (which is the approximate width of a lowercase n). Here’s a list of dash types and the correct way to use them:

  1. The en dash is used to indicate spans or differentiation, where “and” or “to” could be used, as in “from 1880-1890” or “the Mason-Dixon line.”
  2. The em dash is used to denote a break in a sentence, set off parenthetical statements, or to set off the source of a quote. For example:
    1. It was a beautiful day — warm, sunny, but not too hot.
    2. The girl gasped and smiled as he presented her with a bouquet of daisies — her favorite flowers — on her birthday.
    3. “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
  3. The figure dash looks the same as the en dash. It is the width of a single digit and is used to separate the digits in phone numbers, social security numbers, etc. For example, (123)555-4567.
  4. The hyphen also looks the same as the en dash and is used to connect words like hyphenated names and prefixes or suffixes; for example, “pre-Civil War era” or “ex-convict.”
  5. The swung dash, ~, is commonly used to mean “approximately equal to,” especially in dictionaries where a phrase is given to show the context in which a word could be used. For example,

    henceforth (adv.) from this time forth; from now on; “ she will be known as Mrs. Wales”

A few notes on these dashes:

Most computer keyboards don’t actually have a key for the em dash. Microsoft Word will usually autocorrect an en dash to an em dash if you put spaces on either side of it, but not all applications do this. On my blog, I actually went into HTML view and entered the character entity reference —. I’m sure there’s an easier way but I haven’t found it yet. Technically, you can use two en dashes (–) to stand in for the em dash, but I don’t like the way it looks. You can also use an en dash with spaces around it, but I am not happy with that either. That’s not to say that you have to be as picky as I am – do whatever works for you.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, dashes are not interchangeable. Besides the en dash/em dash substitutions I just mentioned, it’s not correct to use the swung dash, for example, even though it might look cute or something. I’ve seen a few people using the swung dash to set off the source of a quote, like:

“If a man does his best, what else is there?”~ General George S. Patton

Sorry, it might look cute to you but it’s not correct.

I hope this has improved your knowledge of the correct way to use a dash. For further information on dashes, go here. Also, I don’t usually like to recommend Wikipedia but they do have a pretty complete and well-researched page on dashes, here.

Malaprop Monday: Jive

People often confuse the word “jive” for the word “jibe.” Unless you’re referring to a type of dance popularized in the 1920s, you probably want to use “jibe.” Following are definitions of each word:

Jibe: (intransitive verb) 1. to shift suddenly and forcibly from one side to the other —used of a fore-and-aft sail

2. to change a vessel’s course when sailing with the wind so that as the stern passes through the eye of the wind the boom swings to the opposite side

Jive: (noun) 1. informal language that includes many slang terms

2. deceptive or foolish talk

3. a type of fast lively music that was especially popular in the early part of the 20th century; also : a dance performed to this type of music

Source: Merriam-Webster

Phrase Friday: Non-English Phrases, Part 3 – Other Languages

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Image via foter.com

Read part 1 on Latin phrases here, and part 2 on French phrases here.

Why do most Americans only speak English? I think it’s because we don’t need to learn any other languages. English is the only language most of us will ever use to get through our day-to-day lives.

I know some Spanish and some Latin (a dead language, but hey! It counts), but I’m nowhere near fluent in either – though I’d like to be. I’ve just never had to use a language other than English to get by, so I’ve never been really forced to learn one. I think most Americans are similar. We studied a language in school, maybe even spent a month or two in a foreign country, but in the end never really “mastered” any other language.

Anyway, here are some non-English words and phrases English speakers use a lot. You might have heard some before, but it’s important to know what they really mean before you use them in anything you write – it’s easy to interpret words or phrases based on context, and forget that we don’t know their actual definition.

As always, please comment if you want to add any foreign words or phrases that I may have missed!

Hasta la vista: Spanish – usually used in place of “see you later,” but literally closer to “until the next time.”

Mano a mano: Spanish – directly or face-to-face, usually used in reference to a confrontation or conflict.

Prima donna: Italian – literally “first lady.” 1. a distinguished female operatic singer; a leading female operatic star; a diva 2. a person that’s considered vain, temperamental and/or conceited.

Alpha and Omega: Greek – “first and last” or “beginning and end.”

Hoi polloi: Greek – the common people; the masses.

Mazel Tov: Yiddish – Literally “good luck” – used to congratulate someone rather than to wish them a good outcome that hasn’t yet happened. Consider it more of a declaration that good luck has already fallen on someone and you’re congratulating them for it.

Nota bene: Italian – literally “note well.” Usually used in text, telling the reader to carefully observe what comes next.

Que sera, sera: Italian – this phrase became popular when Doris Day sang the song of the same name for the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Literally, it means “what will be will be.” It translates similarly in multiple languages so the exact origin is unknown, but it’s been around for a while: I found an excerpt on the phrase from the World Heritage Encyclopedia, via gutenberg.org, which says it may have originated in either Italy, Spain or France in the 15th or 16th century.

Schadenfreude: German – comes from schaden (harm) + freude (joy). Pleasure at someone else’s misfortune.

Verboten: German – forbidden, as by law; prohibited.

Zeitgeist: German – comes from zeit (spirit) + geist (time). The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of time.

This & That Thursday: The Ampersand

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“And” is the only word that has its own unique symbol. Why, and where did it come from?

The Latin word for “and” is “et,” which when written in Old Roman cursive (uppercase E, lowercase t), looked like &. This is why “etc.,” short for “et cetera,” is sometimes written as “&c.”

The symbol we now know as the ampersand first appeared written on a mural in Pompeii in the 1st century A.D. As the centuries passed, it actually became accepted as the 27th letter of the English alphabet, although it has been dropped from the alphabet in the last two centuries or so.

The term “ampersand” comes from the phrase “et per se and,” which means something like “et, in other words, and” (not a literal translation).

Here is a short video that gives a nice summary of the ampersand’s history.

Wordy Wednesday: Affect vs. Effect

Affect/effect – this is a pretty easy mistake to make considering how similar these two words look and sound, but hopefully this will help you remember the difference:

  • Affect is a verb meaning to influence or have an impact on something.
  • Effect is a noun referring to the result of being affected by something.
  • There is also a verb “to effect”, meaning to bring something about – “to effect a change.” However, it is not commonly used, so I have left it out of the examples below to avoid confusion.

Incorrect:

  • I had hoped all my practice would have an affect on the quality of my writing.
  • Hiring an editor has positively effected the size of my blog’s audience.

Correct:

  • I had hoped all my practice would have an effect on the quality of my writing.
  • Hiring an editor has positively affected the size of my blog’s audience.

Just try to remember that the verb begins with A and the noun begins with E. It’s difficult, I know! I get confused by these words sometimes, too. At least if you remember that there’s a difference, when all else fails you can look it up to make sure you’re using the right one.