This and That Thursday: Adjective Sequence

I came across this fascinating article recently and wanted to share it here. The article talks about rules non-English speakers are taught when learning English, and how most native English speakers follow these rules automatically without even knowing they exist.

In particular, did you know that a series of adjectives has be in a specific order? I didn’t! But when you think about it, you would never put adjectives in the wrong order, because it wouldn’t sound right. For example:

  1. Her beautiful long blond hair.
  2. Her blond beautiful long hair.

Why does the second phrase sound wrong? I couldn’t have told you, other than “it just does.” Turns out, there is actually a correct order for a series of adjectives. It goes like this:

Opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose.

In the first example above, the adjectives are in order: opinion-size-color. When reversed, they don’t look right at all.

Try this yourself: next time you hear or say a series of adjectives, try rearranging them. I bet you’ll automatically know when they are in the wrong order.

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This and That Thursday: Oops

So, I thought I had a post scheduled for this morning, and then I logged in to see how it was doing and… Nothing. Whoops.

Speaking of which, I’ve been blogging pretty consistently for the last couple of months. It hasn’t been too difficult; there’s not much else going on in my life and besides being a great learning experience for me, blogging has also been a great way to just kill the time.

In the next couple of weeks, though, that’s all going to change. I’m starting classes this fall (on Sept. 26th, to be exact), and I’ll probably be pretty busy between that and a part-time job, and another part-time job during November and December, and my husband coming home for the winter in late October. Yeah, my plate might be a little full. So just to warn you all, my faithful readers, things might get a little sparse around here.

With that having been said, I am going to do my best to keep the blog going. As always, I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions for future posts, et cetera.

Thank you for reading!

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

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.

This and That Thursday: Is it Okay to use Swear Words in Writing?

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Nice graffiti, dude. Image via Foter

Is it okay to use swear words? Like with most questions about writing, the answer to this one depends on your audience.

Most magazines, newspapers and other publications have a formal policy addressing the use of profanity. For instance, The New York Times has a pretty strict no-swearing policy. But some argue that these policies are too restrictive and some banned words are not actually that big of a deal.

For your own writing purposes, you can really do whatever you want. It all depends on who your audience is and whether they will be alienated by or feel uncomfortable with swearing. I keep my blog free of any language I wouldn’t want my mom hearing from me (and no, it’s not just because she reads my blog). I am writing to a wide audience and want my content to be accessible to kids, students, adults, and other bloggers, to name a few. A large portion of my target audience would be alienated by bad language, plus what I write about doesn’t really necessitate the use of obscenities, so I just don’t use them.

To figure out what’s right for you, think about your readers. Will they find the use of bad language amusing, or will the be put off by it? Are you trying to make a point which is emphasized by the use of profanity? Are you looking for shock value? Do you have readers whose computers are controlled by their parents? Would swearing fit the tone of your writing?

It’s up to you, but this is a choice that can really divide your audience, so be careful!

This & That Thursday: Capitalization in Titles

Capitalization of a title, or headline, can be quite complicated. If you’re not confined to a particular style guide (e.g. Chicago, AP, etc.), you can pretty much do it however you want – within certain limits. Clarity is your top priority here, and because the title is the first thing people will see when reading your piece, you want it to make them interested and convey the impression that you know what you are talking about. It should give your readers a preview of what’s to come. So it follows that if there are typos, glaring mistakes or problems with your title, readers are going to assume that the rest of the piece will be poorly written as well.

In order to have a good title, you should follow certain guidelines – and while there are a few different guidelines to choose from, you should adhere to some basic rules no matter what. Here are some of the most common title styles:

Chicago – The Chicago Manual of Style’s guidelines for writing a title are: capitalize the first and last words of the title, and all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, subordinating conjunctions, and some conjunctions. Only capitalize a preposition if it is used adjectivally or adverbially.

Associated Press – The AP Style Manual says that you should capitalize the first word of the title/heading and of any subtitle/subheading; capitalize all “major” words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns) in the title/heading, including the second part of hyphenated major words (e.g., Self-Report not Selfreport); and capitalize all words of four letters or more.

Sentence Style – This style only capitalizes the first word, proper nouns and names. It’s called “sentence style” because the capitalization is the same as it would be in a regular sentence.

Capitalize The First Letter Of Every Word – This style doesn’t have an official name that I know of. It’s probably the easiest to use, since there’s never a question of what should be capitalized. Just Capitalize Everything.

don’t capitalize anything – This one is weird too. I’ve seen a lot of online writers/bloggers do this. I’ve also seen people write an entire blog post in lower case. Technically, it’s not a “correct” way of doing things, but what makes one thing right and another wrong? Read this post for more about my perspective on grammar.

If you choose either Chicago or AP style, the only words you shouldn’t capitalize are articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, or, but) and prepositions (for, in, at, by, to). The biggest difference between the two is that when using AP style, you will capitalize these words if they have more than four letters (with, although, than, that, before, after, etc.)

What it comes down to is that you have to follow the rules of whoever is publishing your writing/whoever you work for/whoever your target audience is. And to further complicate things, every publisher has a “house style” which usually follows something like the Chicago Manual of Style pretty closely, but invariably has its own quirks as well. The publisher I worked for never used the Oxford Comma, for example.

For my blog titles I use AP style, capitalizing most words with more than four letters. But I’m free to use whatever style I want because this is a blog!

Further reading: APA Style; Quick and Dirty Tips

Here is a site that automatically capitalizes your title for you, using either Chicago or AP style: titlecapitalization.com

This & That Thursday: An Opinion Piece – The Way We Think About Grammar is Broken

I’ve touched on this fact in a few blog posts where I talked about breaking grammar rules: language is fluid. As an editor and writer, it’s easy to get caught up in the rules and be a major stickler about them. But it’s good to be flexible, and it’s important to remember that the fact you were taught something in school doesn’t make it cardinal law.

Take, for example, my post on the phrase “beg the question.” While the misuse of this phrase is a personal pet peeve of mine, and of many linguistic nerds I know, it’s been so widely misused that the new meaning of the phrase has gained acceptance – not to mention the fact that many, if not most, English speakers don’t know the original, “correct” meaning of the phrase.

The way language changes over time can be likened to how the earth’s landscape changes. We humans do our very best to keep things the same, or to manipulate them when it suits us, but in the end language is organic and ever-changing and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The first comprehensive, modern English dictionary, compiled by Samuel Johnson, appeared in print in 1755. In many ways, it changed our perspective of the language – for the first time there was a common standard for how to spell most words and how to use them. As Johnson himself put it, he hoped to compile “a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.” (source)

While it was a noble goal, and Johnson’s efforts certainly helped shape English into what it is today, you can see just by reading that one quote how much the language has still managed to change in less than 300 years. And it will always continue to change; there’s nothing you or I can do to stop it. My job as an editor isn’t to keep English from changing. It’s just to help make your writing as clear and understandable as I can for the audience you’re writing to. Grammar is at the service of language, not the other way around.

This & That Thursday: Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism

Linguistic prescriptivism is the idea that language ought to adhere strictly to a set of rules. A prescriptivist studies and works at promoting implementation of grammar and punctuation and everything that governs proper writing and speech. Prescriptivism aims to establish standards of language and teach effective communication.

Descriptivism, on the other hand, is the study of language as it is actually used. Descriptivism aims to understand the linguistic world as it is, without the bias of preconceived notions about how language should be or what the rules are.

Prescriptivism is the subject of certain criticisms. In particular, it has been accused of favoring the speech patterns of certain localities or social classes over others. For instance,  according to the standard rules of English, much of African-American vernacular English is incorrect. But shouldn’t rap music lyrics offer as much data on the objective forms of communication among English speakers as a Dickens novel? What makes one more relevant today than the other?

Which raises a second issue: how the rules governing language change over time. Prescriptive rules can become entrenched, and changing them to keep up with modern changes in language can be difficult. For instance, in the 1800s someone advised against the split infinitive, the argument being that it was not a common feature of English at the time. However, split infinitives are common today in most varieties of English. Nevertheless, the rule endures long after its relevance has passed.

So where is the delicate balance between prescriptivism and linguistic permissiveness? An editor is constantly walking that line, keeping communication clear and easy to read while still allowing the author’s voice to shine through.

This & That Thursday: Irritations with Initialisms and Acronyms

An initialism is an abbreviation made up of the first letters of each word in a phrase; for example, ATM is an initialism for Automatic Teller Machine.

Initialisms are similar to, but not the same as, acronyms. An acronym is an abbreviation for a phrase which makes up a word; for instance, the word “laser” is an acronym which comes from the phrase “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” While many acronyms such as this one are also initialisms, not all initialisms are acronyms and not all acronyms are initialisms. The initialism example mentioned above, ATM, is not technically an acronym since it does not make a word.

There’s no concrete rule on how to make an acronym. Many acronyms are an irregular combination of letters chosen specifically to make a word, and not necessarily based on the order of words or letters in the phrase they come from. Some acronyms make up a brand new word, such as laser; others spell a preexisting word, such as MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and also the name of an old TV show).

You should always know what an acronym or initialism means before you use it in your writing, for a few reasons. Obviously it’s always best to understand the subject you’re writing about as well as possible. But another reason is to avoid the common mistake of using redundant words that are part of the acronym/initialism already, for example, “ATM machine” – when you say this you’re basically saying “automatic teller machine machine.”

Here is a list of particularly common acronyms and initialisms and their meanings. This list is not comprehensive (that would be miles long) and shouldn’t be a substitute for doing your research. Please feel free to comment with anything I missed!

This is also a helpful resource for looking up acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms.

Common Acronyms You Should Know

  • AAA: American Automobile Association
  • AED: Automated External Defibrillator
  • AM/PM: Ante Meridiem, Post Meridiem (Latin for before and after mid-day)
  • AD/BC: Anno Domini (Latin again, means year of our Lord); Before Christ. These are sometimes replaced with CE for “Common Era” and BCE for “Before Common Era” since apparently acknowledging the fact that our calendar system is based on Christian history is difficult for some people. You can change the name but it doesn’t change the fact… Sorry, getting off my soapbox now.
  • AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
  • ASAP: As Soon As Possible
  • ATM: Automatic Teller Machine; Asynchronous Transfer Mode; Air Traffic Management
  • Bae: Before Anyone Else (modern slang; we covered this on Saturday)
  • Blog: a shortening of Web Log
  • CEO: Chief Executive Officer
  • HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus
  • HTTPS: Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure
  • IQ: Intelligence Quotient
  • FEMA: Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Laser: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
  • MASH: Mobile Army Surgical Hospital
  • MLB: Major League Baseball
  • NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization
  • NBA: National Basketball Association
  • NBD: No Big Deal
  • NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service
  • NFL: National Football League
  • POTUS: President of the United States (there are a few variations on this one, including FLOTUS for First Lady, SCOTUS for Supreme Court, etc.)
  • Radar: Radio Detection and Ranging
  • SARS: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
  • Scuba: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
  •  SQL: Structured Query Language
  • UNICEF: United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund
  • WASP: White Anglo Saxon Protestant
  • Wi-Fi: This is a weird one. Wi is for Wireless, and the Fi part is arbitrary – the term was made up to sound like Hi-Fi, which stands for “High Fidelity.” I’m not positive, but it’s likely this was done for marketing reasons; it sounds catchy and everyone used to understand the term “Hi-Fi” referred to a high-tech, quality sound system. From a marketing standpoint, it would have made sense to draw the association with the term “Wi-Fi,” but “Wireless Fidelity” makes no sense.
  • WWW: World Wide Web
  • YMCA/YWCA: Young Men’s Christian Association/Young Women’s Christian Association
  • Zip, as in Zip Code: Zone Improvement Plan

This & That Thursday: Another Announcement

So this may be obvious already if you’ve read the About page of this blog, but I recently started an editing business. I have always been passionate about reading and writing and I’ve always been a bit of a grammar nerd, and I decided that this was a good outlet for my insatiable editing habit.

But to be serious here… I announced today on each of my social media pages that this editing business is a thing, so some of you who are reading this may have come across my blog that way. I hope you’re interested in what you see here. I hope you think of me when a friend, coworker, classmate, or other acquaintance comes running to you saying, “help help I have to write this thing by Friday and I have no idea where to begin” or “help help I am applying for jobs and I don’t know how to write a cover letter” or “help help I have writing woes of any kind.” Helping people with their writing woes is one of my absolute favorite things to do and I would be honored and thrilled to assist you. And while my rates are posted on my website, I’m also willing to do work for much less than those advertised rates in exchange for some help from you – whether it’s referring your friends, writing an honest review of my services, or even sending me cookies. Let’s chat about our options – you can contact me through social media, my website, or email.

I am so excited to work with you! Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog and website, and again, please remember me when you or anyone you know needs writing assistance! You won’t regret it!