Tuesday, November 6, 2007

One Space after Closing Punctuation. Period.

Today I get to put on my "picky English teacher" hat. To adapt a Seinfeld phrase, this is a blog entry about...nothing. Just dead air after punctuation marks.

I am always amazed when I am working on formatting issues with my students and I mention to them that they should have just one space after a period, not two. Alas, the consternation! The heavy sighs, the panicked looks, the livid faces! Generally, someone will say, "But my other English teacher said we should have TWO spaces after a period."

I'm always tempted to say, "But is your other English teacher giving you a grade for this class?"

Instead, though, I work to smooth over ruffled feathers. You see, people really don't like change, and students like change least of all. And when you start messing with their spaces after punctuation, well, you have a potential mutiny on your hands. Yes, they're right. The rule USED to be two spaces after a colon, a period, and other closing punctuation marks. However, now it's one space.

Why only one space? The publishing industry is partly to blame. In publishing, space is money, and an extra space after each closing punctuation mark is wasted space--and therefore, wasted money.

Additionally, PCs have to take part of the blame. Remember the old Courier font? Well, each letter of the Courier font takes up the same amount of space--for example, an i and an m would each take up the same amount of space--so we needed two spaces after the period in order to be better able to recognize where one sentence stopped and the next began. Now, however, we have proportional-spacing fonts, which means that each letter takes up only the amount of space it needs--an i takes up less space than an m, and therefore one space after a period is sufficient.

Bill Walsh, copy chief at The Washington Post's National Desk, discusses the spacing issue in the first chapter of his book The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English:

Are you still putting two spaces after periods, exclamation points, question marks and colons? You shouldn't be. Some places are still clinging to this typewriter convention, no doubt, but as a standard operating procedure it went out with the IBM Selectric. (3)
If you're a student, however, you're perhaps more interested in what your particular citation format handbook has to say. Here is a rundown of a few of the more commonly used citation styles:

APA Style, from the
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 15th ed. (2001), p. 290

5.11 Spacing and Punctuation
Space once after all punctuation as follows:
  • after commas, colons, and semicolons;
  • after punctuation marks at the ends of sentences;
  • after periods that separate parts of a reference citation; and
  • after the periods of the initials in personal names (e.g., J. R. Zhang).
Exception: Do not space after internal periods in abbreviations (e.g., a.m., i.e., U.S.) or around colons in ratios.

CMS Style, from The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (2003), p. 61

2.12 Line spacing and word spacing.
A single character space, not two spaces, should be left after periods at the ends of sentences (both in manuscript and in final, published form) and after colons.

Turabian Style, from A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed., p. 375

A.1.3 Spacing and Indentation
Put only one space, not two, following the terminal punctuation of a sentence.

MLA Style, from MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th ed. (2003), pp. 93-94

3.2.12 Spacing after Concluding Punctuation Marks
Publications in the United States today usually have the same spacing after a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point as between words on the same line. Since word processors make available the same fonts used by typesetters for printed works, many writers, influenced by the look of typeset publications, now leave only one space after a concluding punctuation mark. In addition, most publisher's guidelines for preparing a manuscript on disk ask professional authors to type only the spaces that are to appear in print. [. . . ] [I]nternal punctuation marks, such as a colon, a comma, and a semicolon, should always be followed by one space.

I deal with MLA format last because although the other formats require one space after closing punctuation, MLA is a little, well, forgiving:

As a practical matter, however, there is nothing wrong with using two spaces after concluding punctuation marks unless an instructor requests that you do otherwise. (94)

And I say, come now, MLA! What gives?

I suspect that the Modern Language Association is catering to the traditionalists who can't break the habit (or simply aren't willing to) of typing two spaces after a period; therefore, the MLA Handbook offers them a one-sentence license to forgo industry and academic standards. Is it any wonder my students complain that their other English teacher did things differently?

Bottom line: One space after closing punctuation. Period.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

To Boldly Split What No One Has Split Before...

Space: The final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
Its continuing mission:
To explore strange, new worlds,
To seek out new life and new civilizations,
To boldly go where no man has gone before.
--Captain James T. Kirk

I confess--I'm a Star Trek fan. I have attended small-venue conventions and met cast members from all the Star Trek series except Enterprise. But you don't want to hear those stories. You want to hear what Star Trek has to do with language.

Well, it's all about the split infinitive. In my previous blog, Grammar "Policies" Masquerading as "Rules," I indicated that avoiding split infinitives is what I would consider a grammar policy, not a hard-and-fast rule. And the Star Trek prologue noted above doesn't just split an infinitive--it does so boldly.

An infinitive, simply put, is the to form of a verb: to run, to spit, to go, to laugh...you get the picture. When an infinitive is split, an adverb is inserted between the to and the verb--in our Star Trek example, to boldly go is a split infinitive, with the adverb boldly inserted between the two halves of the verb to and go.

The problem is that the grammar we have such a love/hate relationship with derives from Latin, which was once thought to be THE language. Our grammarians thus tried to organize the structure of English to replicate the elegance of Latin.

But Latin does not have infinitives in the way we think of them, and therefore it was impossible to split them! Since Latin had no split infinitives, our grammarians decided that English shouldn't have them, either. As a result, avoiding split infinitives has been considered a rule by grammar purists; however, good reasons exist for using split infinitives. Don't get me wrong--I don't advocate splitting infinitives just for the sake of splitting them or splitting them unthinkingly. You should have a purpose for splitting them. Know the grammar policy before you bend it!

Acceptable reasons for splitting infinitives include
  • Emphasizing how something is done. When an infinitive is split, the emphasis rests on the word doing the splitting. In to boldly go, boldly receives the emphasis--since it is an interruptive force in the verb--but isn't that the point of the phrase? It isn't enough to go where no man has gone before--one should do it boldly!

  • Avoiding confusion. Sometimes, not splitting an infinitive leads to misplaced modifiers or other confusing problems. For example, "Joe decided to quickly move for a vote," where quickly splits the infinitive to move, means that Joe moved for the vote quickly after making the decision to do so. If we were to avoid splitting the infinitive and move the adverb quickly to a different place in the sentence, the meaning of the sentence changes. For instance, "Joe quickly decided to move for a vote" means that he made the decision quickly, but not that the motion for the vote was quick. Why avoid splitting an infinitive only to end up with a sentence that doesn't say what you mean?
One caveat: if your English instructor or your company style manual indicates that splitting infinitives should be avoided at all costs, it's smart to follow their guidance. But at least you can take secret delight in knowing that splitting infinitives is sometimes acceptable. And we can thank Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, for showing us how to boldly split them!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Grammar Policies Masquerading as Rules

As a college English professor, I find that many students come to the classroom full of grammar "rules" that they have been admonished to live by. Clearly traumatized by the blood-red ink on their essays and by indecipherable abbreviations such as awk scribbled in said pen blood, these students are greatly surprised when I tell them that it's okay to, say, split an infinitive. This surprise is quickly followed by wide-eyed panic as students leap to the conclusion that either their tight-bunned English schoolmarms of yesteryear lied to them or that my summer sausage has completely fallen off my cracker.

I suppose I see English teachers residing on a continuum: At one extreme are what I call the grammar purists (instructors who are unforgiving of broken--or even slightly bent--grammar "rules," no matter how nonsensical or archaic); at the other extreme, grammar organicists (instructors who see grammar as a language structure that changes and develops as society changes the language). In other words, a purist would scarcely survive being in a room where someone says, "It just ain't right," whereas an organicist wouldn't even blink an eye at the contraction that has been in the language since the early 1700s. A language purist would experience a massive coronary if her child said, "And I went, 'you're so lame,'" whereas an organicist would understand that went is youth-speak for said.

I see myself as a sort of grammar moderate, falling between the two extremes, probably because I recognize that since our grammar is essentially a language structure imposed upon English from Latin, it doesn't always work as well as it should. In fact, if one adheres strictly to grammar rules, we would all be walking around saying things like "A grammar handbook is something without which one cannot be." Come again? Adhering strictly to grammar rules often leads to difficult-to-interpret sentences, awkward phrasing, and unlovely language. I recognize that sometimes it is better to bend the grammar "rules" (or at times, break them) in order to achieve clarity, special emphasis, or just be able to hold a normal conversation with an audience without seeming overly formal. Additionally, language is organic--it changes over time--and therefore the grammar rules we once lived with may be a bit outdated.

So, by now you are probably wondering why I've been writing "rules" in quotation marks. I've done that because many purists will teach students grammar "rules" when what they are really teaching them are grammar policies--or rather, policies of style--designed to create clarity and help students avoid more serious grammatical problems.

For example, one grammar policy that is often promoted as a "rule" is that one shouldn't begin a sentence with the words and or but. And yet, one can begin a sentence with and or but that is grammatically correct--as I have done in this sentence. But English teachers have a reason for instituting this policy: following this policy prevents students from writing certain kinds of fragmented sentences, such as

Outside, it was raining. And snowing.

The second sentence isn't really a sentence at all--it's a sentence fragment, and should be combined with the first sentence:

Outside, it was raining and snowing.

Because instructors teach such policies as "rules," students avoid committing these grammatical sins, only to find in college that some of their instructors (although not all) encourage them to break the rules. It doesn't mean their previous English instructors were bad, or wrong, or even out to get them; rather, it was a way to ensure that the students stopped committing grammatical suicide.

Here are a few grammar policies that my students have faunched over:

  • Never begin a sentence with and or but.
  • Never split an infinitive.
  • Never dangle your participles.
Do any of these sound familiar to you? Have you been taught certain grammar "rules," only to find out later that they were actually policies? Share your story! Or, if you have a grammar question, feel free to post that, too. You never know--I might actually do a complete post about it!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Blog Entry

Pretty catchy title for a blog entry, don't you think? Or are any of you actually reading this blog?

It's nearly time for my Composition 2 students to write their first essay. We've gone through the introduction to the course, the online orientation, an introduction to academic thinking and reading, and now they're watching Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the first of several sources of varying opinions about global warming. Their first assignment is what we call a summary/strong response essay--students are charged with writing an essay that summarizes the main arguments of the documentary and then responds to them, agreeing with some points and disagreeing with others, taking into account both the subject matter (what Al Gore presents about global warming) and also the rhetorical concerns (the persuasive strategies used, the purpose, the audience, the format of the material, and so forth).

I'm dreading these first essays.

Oh, not for the reasons you think. These students have made it through Composition 1, so presumably they can write reasonably well. It's not that I'm expecting dreadful essays (although I occasionally get them). It's also not the grading load--60+ drafts to look over. Rather, I'm dreading the beginnings.

My students seem to think that titles are disposable, unimportant. So despite my mention to them already that titles should engage the reader and imply or reveal something about the essay's main idea, I will get titles like "Blog Entry," stating the obvious:
  • "My Essay"
  • "Essay 1"
  • "Summary/Strong Response Essay"
Only slightly better are the essays titled "A Response to An Inconvenient Truth." At least that title tells the reader what the essay is about in vague terms.

I ask my students this question: If you were looking at the table of contents of a magazine and saw an article titled "My Article," would you read it? I usually have one or two students raise their hands (I suspect these are the students who think cereal box prose is High Literature or they are just being smart alecs), but the rest of the class just sit with Cheshire grins on their faces. I then launch into my soapbox about titles.

And guess how they generally fix the problem? By eliminating the title altogether. What's an English professor to do?

Once we get past the title, it's time to deal with the atrocious introductions. I'm not sure where students learned how to write introductions, because I know that no conscientious high school English teacher would give a student a passing essay grade with some of the introductions I receive. Here's a representative sample of what my students submit to me:

1. The Long-Term-Memory Beginning
. All too common, the Long-Term-Memory Beginning is so named because it sounds a lot like the stories your 93-year-old grandfather tells: "When I was just a kid..." or "When I was born...." My students aren't far enough removed from their childhoods to use these starts, so instead they turn to a Jungian "collective unconscious" beginning:
  • "Since the beginning of time, man has had to deal with Mother Nature." (Really? I don't recall, even drawing upon the collective unconscious, humanity being around at the beginning of time.)
  • "Since the time of Adam and Eve..." (The church-going students prefer this take.)
  • "Since the time of the cave man..." (Well, at least we are in humankind time.)
Such starts are not only obvious and inaccurate, but they're also not the least bit interesting for the reader.

2. The Webster's Dictionary Definition
. Ah, the joys of the dictionary! And how my eager students love to share definitions with the reader at the beginning of their essays! Now, sharing such definitions is even easier since many print dictionaries have an online presence. Students don't even have to leave their computers to whip up a Webster's Online Dictionary beginning:

  • "Webster's Online Dictionary defines 'global warming' as 'The progressive gradual rise of the earth's surface temperature thought to be caused by the greenhouse effect and responsible for changes in global climate patterns. An increase in the near surface temperature of the Earth. Global warming has occurred in the distant past as the result of natural influences, but the term is most often used to refer to the warming predicted to occur as a result of increased emissions of greenhouse gases. See climate change, greenhouse effect, enhanced greenhouse effect, radiative forcing' ("global warming," s.v. "weather")."
Stunning piece of prose, isn't it? Doesn't it call to you, sing through your veins, make you want to leap joyously into the essay, putting aside your plans to watch Big Brother or read those Kashi Go Lean cereal boxes? Dictionary definitions have a time and place, and often need to be in the introduction in order to help readers understand the issue under discussion. But please, not in the first sentence! Additionally, rephrasing the definition in terms the reader can easily understand would help considerably.

So, readers, are you still with me? Did anyone even read this blog given the title? If you're still out there, leave me a comment--what kind of beginnings grip you? What advice for beginning an essay would you offer up to my students? We use this blog in our classroom, so they'll be reading your responses.

But I suppose if none of you respond, that tells them something, too--boring titles don't work.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Brotherly Love

From time to time, I'll post a creative writing bit I've done. This vignette first appeared in the Decatur Herald & Review's Prairie Talk column in a slightly different form on March 14, 1995, and is dedicated today to my brother Steve, who is shipping off to Iraq this month to serve our country.

Brothers are wonderful and special creatures. I had only sisters until I was six, when my father remarried. My two new brothers introduced me to a breathless, inventive world. But what would we have in common? How would we play together? Surely my brothers would not be interested in playing dolls or jacks.

Soon, with help from my younger brother, Steve, I found myself racing cars down the hallway and swinging through our neighbor’s weeping willow trees. Because we were both avid fans of The Wild, Wild West, we practiced our kicks and karate chops together on my life-sized dancing doll. I was disappointed when the doll, one of my favorites, started to fall apart.

Our martial arts skills were soon put to the test. As we played along the sidewalk of our cul-de-sac one day, Steve spied Pat, a teenage neighbor boy, smoking in the vacant lot two doors down. Impressed by the Smokey the Bear advertisements regularly shown on television at the time, my brother threatened to call ol' Smokey if Pat didn’t put out the cigarette. Unfortunately,the smoking teen did not take the threat lightly; he rewarded my brother's altruism and environmental concern by stuffing him in the neighbor's trash can. Pat and friends jeered at Steve as they forced down the lid.

My brother was a little guy since he had spent the last few years homebound, battling rheumatic fever. He didn’t have the strength to fight off three high school kids, but he put up one heck of a fight. I stood by, helpless, while Steve flailed around in the can, thumping and bumping, to no avail. Finally, inspiration struck me. “Steve,” I yelled, “Remember The Wild, Wild West!” Seconds after that battle cry, my brother rallied, kicking the lid with all of his meager might. The lid flew off the can, startling the high school kids.

Of course, before my brother could escape, the teenagers had the lid back in place and were sitting on top. I had no choice but to scurry home to fetch my parents. They marched to the neighbor’s house, rescued my brother, lectured the boys, and escorted us home. For days afterward, my brother and I spoke proudly of his amazing feat (and his amazing feet). Later, I decided that the damaged doll was a worthwhile sacrifice; perhaps a sister could offer a brother something, after all.

Steve, remember The Wild, Wild West! Serve well and be safe. Love, Kris

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pet Peeve: Poor Public Spelling

Our local Taco Bell marquee reads

There here
Grande Quesadillas

Question: What's wrong with this sign (giving the sign-spellers the benefit of the doubt for the missing punctuation)? Answer: There should be spelled they're since it is the contraction for "they are." Otherwise, there here doesn't make any sense.

This example is just one of many misspellings around town, some of which are emblazoned on signs that are more permanent. For example, a local Chinese buffet named Mongolian Garden had, for many months (perhaps even longer), a sign mounted above its front door that read Mogolian Garden. Who knows whether the owner or the sign printer erred; the fact that the restauranteurs would actually mount a sign that misspelled their own business name amazed me. Then a new, correctly spelled sign hung above the front door, with the misspelled sign moved and re-mounted over the back door. I was a little happier with that change, although I did wonder whether egg roll supply companies might think they were at the wrong restaurant when they pulled up to the Mogolian Garden entrance. However, just before the restaurant closed for good, the correctly spelled sign disappeared and the misspelled sign was moved to the front again. Why?

Another example was the dueling road sign problem we had on Greenswitch road. The sign on the southeast corner read Greenswitch (the proper spelling), but the sign on the northeast corner argued that the correct spelling was Greenswich. I felt agitated every time I crossed the intersection until finally the sign with the incorrect spelling was replaced.

Thinking about each public faux pas made me wonder whether business owners ever check with editors, teachers, or people who can spell before making their sad spelling skills permanently public. How hard is it to, say, look up words in the dictionary? Or ask a friend who can spell to take a look at your sign? After all, if you don't pay attention to details in your signs, potential customers will wonder whether you'll pay attention to the details in the product or service you provide to them. If I could give one bit of advice to business owners, it would be to please have someone check your spelling before putting up a sign!

I realize that by tackling this topic I have, of course, exposed my blog to scrutiny. I'm prone to mistakes, as everyone is, but I do run my blog past a second reader to reduce the chances that mistakes slip by undetected.

Your turn: what signs have you seen recently that cause you to cringe?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Our Oxymoronic Language

I have a special 24/7 Phone Policy with friends, family, colleagues, students; that is, they may call me any time, day or night, for any reason. Maybe they have a question about an assignment. Maybe they just want to talk. Maybe they need a ride home from a local bar because they've had too much to drink. Maybe they need a shoulder to cry on. Regardless of the reason, I'll pick up the phone and talk as long as they want or need to. People think I'm crazy, but hey, it works for me.

In fact, my friend Phil likes to call at odd hours to discuss deeply philosophical issues or lesser ones, depending upon his mood. He and I are both night owls by nature, and I always look forward to finding out what his question will be. We've had many interesting discussions, and he challenges me to stretch myself, to think about issues deeply that I might never otherwise consider. No question is too silly to discuss. (He even puts up with questions from me such as "Why, when birds land on a telephone wire, are they all facing the same way?)

The typical call goes something like this: after greeting me, he'll ask a question like "How would you define intelligence?" or "Do you think today's students have a sense of entitlement?" or today's question, "Have you heard of the word asyndetically? Do you know what it means?"

Today's question threw me. I assumed (always dangerous, of course) that the word was an adverb derivative of the noun asyndeton. I seemed to recall that asyndeton was a figure of speech, but darned if I could pull a definition out of my head on such short notice. Since I was sitting at my computer, I headed to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary to refresh my memory.

The first thing that struck me about this word was not the definition, however, but its etymology (word origin). According to M-W, asyndeton derives from "Late Latin, from Greek, from neuter of asyndetos unconnected," but also "from a- + syndetos bound together, from syndein to bind together, from syn- + dein to bind." Dictionary gobbledygook aside, what we have here is an oxymoronic word--a word that means both "unconnected" and "bound together"--a seeming paradox!

Can you see why I love language so?

When I looked at the dictionary definition for asyndeton, though, the oxymoronic family tree for this word began to make sense. M-W defines the word as an "omission of the conjunctions that ordinarily join coordinate words or clauses." When conjunctions like and, but, and or are omitted but still implied (usually replaced by a comma), that's an example of asyndeton. M-W provides the following example:

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.
In this example, the conjunction and is missing (read: I came [and] I saw [and] I conquered.) Dictionary.com provided me with another example:

  • He has provided the poor with jobs, with opportunity, with self-respect.
Again, the conjunction and is missing at each comma.

Connecting the etymology--asyndeton meaning both "unconnected" and "bound together"--and the definition, the word makes sense, even though it seems to contradict itself. The clauses are "unconnected" because the expected conjunction is missing, but because the ideas are parallel in importance and expressed in parallel form, connected by the commas in place of the conjunctions, the ideas are "bound together."

Cool, huh?

Our language is filled with seeming paradoxes, or oxymorons. Jumbo shrimp, for example--how can they be big (jumbo) while also small (shrimp)? A girlfriend of mine once described me as "calmly aggressive." How can one be calm but aggressive at the same time? (I like to think of it as being assertive rather than aggressive.)

So...what are your favorite oxymorons?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Pet Peeve: Definitely Defiant (or is that Defiantly Definite) about "Definitely"

It's pet peeve time again, folks. I recently finished grading papers for the summer session, and I am amazed at the number of students who use the word defiantly when they mean definitely. I'm not sure whether they think defiantly is the actual word they want, or whether they just really messed up the spelling and spell check suggested defiantly as the best course of action and the student thankfully accepted the correction. Argh!

So, let's do a quick review. If you are doing something defiantly, you are being bold, impudent, or rebellious. If you are planning to definitely do something, then you are certain you will be doing it. Here are a few examples to set the record straight:

  • She pouted defiantly when her mother grounded her.
  • "Don't you dare do that," said her father. In response, she defiantly broke the plate by dashing it to the floor.
  • I definitely want to see Peter Jackson produce The Hobbit.
  • I definitely hate it when students use defiantly when they mean definitely.
Feel free to share your pet peeves. What language abuses fan the flame of your ire?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Who is Winning the War of the Words: PC or Non-PC?

My friend and colleague, Michelle, was over this evening and we were talking about jargon and euphemisms. One of the euphemisms she mentioned was the politically correct term differently abled, which she and I both agreed about: we hate the term. It's an ugly, too-general phrase that attempts to disguise the fact that the person it refers to has a physical, emotional, or intellectual disability of some sort. The intention behind the term is good, of course: using this term instead of, say, handicapped is an attempt to be kind, an attempt to minimize the disability and maximize the humanity of the person being described.

But to paraphrase Shakespeare, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions--and so is the PC movement. The plan was to use carefully selected words to eliminate discrimination, build self-esteem, and create a new, more empathetic awareness for one another. But rather than providing solid solutions, the movement raises more questions than it answers. Emily Tsao, in "Thoughts of an Oriental Girl," poses this query: "Minority groups want new labels to give themselves a more positive image, but unless the stereotypes disappear as well, is it really going to help very much?" One can talk up a PC storm, but if the speaker's thoughts or actions are discriminatory, what good will a change in language do? Will we treat one another better because we are calling each other by a different name?

Whether such changes to the language effect a change in our behavior or the way we view others is really not the focus of this blog entry; rather, I want to take a look at how the movement changes our language, even diminishes it, makes it, well, unlovely.

Eloquence has been a mover and shaker of the English language since the Renaissance. During this period of artistic rebirth, scholars turned to Greek and Latin classical literature as examples of beautifully expressed, persuasive language. In an attempt to make English more eloquent, many Latinate words were borrowed, and thousands of words were coined. Like the Renaissance, the PC movement has created a need for new words and phrases. But the question is whether they increase the eloquence of the language. The consensus seems to be best expressed by Bill Bryson in Made in America: that these "verbal creations are burdening us with ludicrously sanitized neologisms [word creations] that are an embarrassment to civilized discourse." His argument is that we have taken perfectly good, specific, descriptive words and generalized them, stripping meaning and color from the English language. And I agree. Often, several words replace one, making politically correct language verbose and cumbersome.

Let's take a look at the way in which politically correct words are actually coined. The Oxford Companion to the English Language categorizes word coinages, or neologisms, into seven categories, and I'll explain how the Companion defines those categories and then provide some examples of PC coinages for each.

  1. Compounding. Compounding is forming a word or phrase from two or more different words. It seems to be used in the PC movement most commonly to classify races of people, as in African-American and Native American (instead of the previous Black and Indian).

  2. Derivation. Derivation makes more complex words out of simpler words, usually by adding one or more prefixes and/or suffixes. This category is probably the largest for PC coinages. Favorite suffixes of the movement include
    • -ism as in Ableism
    • -ist (one who promotes -isms), as in Ageist (one who promotes age discrimination)
    • -free, as in charm-free (boring).
    • Other examples of derivations include autoeuthanasia (suicide) and disempowered (powerless).

  3. Shifting meaning. Dog warden (for dog catcher) is a good example of shifting meaning. A warden is one who guards something; generally, we think of a guard in a jail. In this case, a "warden" actually catches dogs instead of guarding them, giving a new spin to the word.

  4. Extension in grammatical function. Extension in grammatical function occurs when one part of speech is used as another, as in verbing nouns. :-) An example would be the term unwaged (fired), as in "Mary's employer unwaged her." Here, unwaged (a derivation of un + the noun wage + ed) is used as a verb.

  5. Abbreviation. Abbreviation uses a shortened version of a word or creates an acronym for a given phrase. Several abbreviations have entered the English language including, of course, PC (Politically Correct); BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Current Era), replacing BC and AD, abbreviations which demonstrate a preference for Christianity; DWEM (Dead White European Males), e.g., Shakespeare, and PWA (Person with AIDS). Of these examples, BCE and CE have gained serious acceptance, perhaps because scholars of that most serious of books, the Bible, use them in scholarship. So many of the other examples have become jokes.

  6. Back-formation. Back-formation occurs when suffixes are removed from a word. Chair for Chairman or Chairperson can be considered an example of back-formation; however, it is less a neologism than it is a revival of an older term.

  7. Blending. Blending is a mixing of two words by attaching part of one word to part of another. Amerindian (Native American) is a classic example, combining American with Indian.

  8. Borrowing. Borrowing occurs when words from another language are used. Surprisingly, this neologism type does not often occur in PC language, and I am still searching for an example (please e-mail me if you find one). It is curious to me that a movement associated with multiculturalism should be so rigidly English.

  9. Root-creation. Root-creation, which is also rare in PC word coinages, is the genesis of a completely new word with no known root. I could only find one example, although there may well be others (again, please e-mail me if you find one): Kwanzaa. The December 29, 1991 issue of The Observer indicates that "Three years ago, the Smithsonian in Washington added 'Kwanzaa' (a complete invention by a black studies professor at California State University) to Hanukkah and Christmas exhibitions" (qtd. in Rees, 84).
In addition to being neologisms, most of the movement's terms are also euphemisms, or words that replace other words that might be considered too negative or direct. Often, euphemisms are used to replace job names that sound demeaning; for example, rodent operator instead of rat catcher, sanitation assistant for garbage collector, and street orderly for road sweeper. Others are used to relive the unpleasantness of uncomfortable topics: family planning for birth control, pro-choice for abortion, survivor for victim. But although we have switched the words we use for these situations, the euphemism doesn't change the situation: the sanitation assistant still picks up garbage. The woman who exercises her pro-choice right still has an abortion. The rape survivor is still a victim. It just sounds more pleasant than it really is and allows us, for a moment, to say the words without feeling squeamish about it.

Sexist language has also been affected by the movement. Feminists are trying to purge sexist references from the English language, which tends to be gender biased in favor of males. Among the attempted coinages are womyn or wimmin for women, utility access hole or femhole for manhole, herstory for history, and femstruate for menstruate. Some of the more successful attempts have renamed employment positions that were male-oriented in tone: firefighter for fireman, council member for alderman, company representative for spokesman, and flight attendant for steward/stewardess. What makes this purging process problematic, however, is that many of the words feminists are attempting to get rid of--he, his, man, and men--may have no etymological link to maleness. For example, in words like manufacture and manual labor, the word man means hand. This sweeping attempt has caused a fervent backlash among the male population and even among some women, who dismiss the need to change sexist language and instead chalk the attempt up to the foolishness of feminist extremists. This dismissal of the language results in a dismissal of the problem; thus, arguing about language becomes an avoidance technique.

Political correctness primarily influences vocabulary; however, in some instances, the movement has also affected our grammar. For instance, it used to be proper to say colored people. That term is no longer in vogue; it has since changed to Negroes, then Blacks, and now African-Americans. But now we are seeing a revival of the term, this time as people of color. Humorists have turned Frosty the Snowman into Frosty, the Person of Snow. We may see more of this grammatical juxtaposition in the future. Unfortunately, the wordiness that results from the extensive use of prepositional phrases only makes PC language more unwieldy.

It is abundantly clear that the political correctness movement has profoundly affected the English language, both its grammar and vocabulary. These changes were instituted in an effort to emphasize the positive qualities in people and situations, downplaying the negative. The intent was to change the English language by removing words that hurt and replacing them with words that build up and encourage. Unfortunately, the effects do not always turn out as intended, often resulting in ridicule of an admirable cause. What started out as a serious attempt to help humanity through language has become silly, and humorists who have coined terms like Vehicularly Compressed Maladapted Life Form for road kill and Mortgage-free living for homelessness ("Glossary of Politically Correct Terms") have exacerbated the problem.

Changing the language ultimately fails in its attempt at solving what is really not so much a language problem but a much larger problem: humanity's penchant for prejudice and discrimination. The next step must go beyond language.

What are your most despised PC phrases? What do you think about the PC movement?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Scrabbling for Words

Okay--I confess.

Although I am both an English professor and a self-proclaimed verbivore, have been nickname "Verbinator" and "Walking Dictionary," and am a reigning Boggle champ among friends and family, I have discovered that what I once thought of as my "fairly extensive" vocabulary is truly substandard. I am now in my fifth round of e-mail Scrabble (3rd round with two aunts and a cousin, soon to begin a 3rd round with a friend and colleague) courtesy of Scrabulous.com, and I have been soundly defeated each time--and in some cases, embarrassingly so!

Granted, strategy has something to do with it, and trying to make words with only 7 letters fit into little pink, red, light blue, and dark blue squares, making sure that the highest-point letters (q and z, each worth 10 points, I think) hit the best colors while at the same time working around the words that are already on the board is more than I can handle at times. Strategy games (for example, chess) have never been good for me, because I am not a visual person. But working with words, well, I thought that would be a breeze!

And, granted, the other players always seem to get the high-point letters while I get stuck with all vowels. Or all consonants.

But what really gets me are the little two- and three-letter words that are being used against me, like QI (31 points), ZA (26 points), PI (18 points), OX (27 points), GAE (8 points), and KOR (14 points--okay, that one was mine). I mean, what the heck is ZA, for heaven's sake? Who knew that a Q word existed without the ubiquitous tag-along u? Two-letter words are outlawed in Boggle, but apparently they are perfectly acceptable in Scrabble. I just can't get my mind around it.

So, enough whining you say. Get over it. Okay, I'm working on that, and I figure if I play 100 more games or so, I might actually be able to whip out a ubiquitous on somebody given the right cadre of tiles. I thought I'd spend a few moments providing you with definitions for some of the more annoying two- and three-letter words I've been up against, thanks to Dictionary.com:

Apparently za (a noun) has a couple of meanings: slang for pizza, and either the 11th or 17th letter of the Arabic alphabet. I'm not sure how it can be both the 11th and/or the 17th letter; it seems to me it has to be one or the other. I think Dictionary.com may be flawed, or the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006, that Dictionary.com claims to have pulled the definition from.

A variation of chi, qi is the inherent energy or life force of all things.

A variation of gay, meaning "blithe" or "cheerful."

A kor is equal to a homer, which is an ancient unit of measurement equal to about 10 bushels.

Whew. That exercise has drained the qi right out of me. I think I'll order a kor of za to restore my gae nature.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Pet Peeve: An Everyday Rant, Every Day

English instructors are usually blessed with a love of language, which can also be a curse. If I had $1 for every time I have been told, "Wow, you're an English professor? I guess I better watch what I say around you!" I could retire now (but I wouldn't, because I love what I do). My response is to smile and say something along the lines of "Well, I'm off the clock now, so I promise not to correct your grammar unless you ask me to or pay me to." That statement usually puts people a little more at ease--but not fully. For those of you who feel the same way around English faculty, let me reassure you: we are not listening to what you say to tick off grammatical mistakes; rather, we are paying attention to what you are actually saying. Because English students often struggle with writing, English instructors become very good at deciphering what people really mean, whether they are able to clearly articulate their meaning or not.

That being said, when it comes to writing, it's a completely different story. I find that signs and printed materials with misspellings or inappropriate apostrophes get my dander up. For example, please note that if you have your family's name engraved on a rock for your garden or emblazoned on a varnished piece of wood for your house, please do NOT add an apostrophe! In other words, if your last name is Smith, then your sign should read "The Smiths," not "The Smith's."

Occasionally in my blog, I'll point out one of my professorial pet peeves. In this blog, I'm dealing with the difference between everyday and every day. Nearly every day, for instance, I find my students writing everyday when they really mean every day. What's the difference? It's quite simple, really: when you mean an individual day, as in each and every day, use every day. When you use an adjective to describe a common, ordinary object that is used every day, you use everyday. Clear as mud, right? Here are some examples:
  • I would eventually like to be disciplined enough to write a blog posting every day.
  • Every day during the summer, I enjoy playing in the dirt. (I love to garden.)
  • My everyday clothing is very casual.
  • It is an everyday thing for me to feel tired.
Do you have a grammatical pet peeve that irritates you? Share, please!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Quizzes Are No Joking Matter...Or Are They?

Students hate quizzes; as an instructor who frequently gives quizzes to test students' knowledge of a subject, determine whether they're reading the material, or just focus them on important information, I've come to accept that fact. But how often do students think about where the word quiz came from in the first place? A study of the word reveals two different ideas--a quiz as either entertainment or interrogation.

The origin of the word appears to be unknown or obscure. However, the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins provides an anecdotal discussion of the word's origin:

"It seems that late in the eighteenth century one James Daly, the manager of a theater in Dublin . . . made a very rash wager. He bet that he could introduce a word into the language overnight. . . . He hired all the urchins in Dublintown, equipped them with pieces of chalk, and sent them out into the night with instructions to chalk a single word on every wall and billboard in the city. The word was quiz. And, as a result of Daly's enterprise, it was on the lips of all Dublin in the morning."

What makes this anecdote plausible is that it coincides with one of the earliest meanings of quiz--that of a practical joke. However, since there is no written evidence at the time this event supposedly occurred, it is unlikely that it is anything more than a tall tale told over a pint of ale.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the first use of quiz to 1782: "He's a droll quiz, and I rather like him." At that time, the word mean an "eccentric person," (but by 1798, the term had expanded its meaning to include "an odd-looking thing," as in "[w]here did you get that quiz of a hat?" (OED). Both meanings are considered obsolete today.

The OED then notes a reference in 1833 to an obscure meaning of quiz--a toy, called a bandalore in French and a quiz in English. The toy may have been odd-looking--hence the name quiz, but this idea is purely conjecture. This is, however, the first time we get a sense of quiz as a game or form of entertainment. The word later comes to mean "a practical joke; a hoax, a piece of humbug, banter or ridicule; a jest or witticism" (OED). In the United States, a quiz becomes "an act of quizzing or questioning; specifically an oral exam of a student or class by a teacher. . . . A set of questions to be answered as entertainment (my emphasis)" (OED). The latter definition reminds us more of the entertaining quizzes in poular magazines that ask readers to rate their "love quotient" or some such nonsense than it reminds us of the more traditional quizzes given to assess a students' knowledge of a subject.

So where does quiz as a kind of knowledge test come into play? John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the verb quiz "later came to be used for 'look at mockingly or questioningly through a monocle,' and it may be that this led on (perhaps helped by associations with inquisitive or Latin quis? 'who?, what?') to the sense 'interrogate.'" The American Heritage Dictionary reinforces this theory, indicating that quiz might be associated with question, inquisitive, or the English dialect verb quiset, "to question." However, when we think of an interrogation, we think of a formal questioning, like police questioning a suspect, or a cruel questioning, like a war enemy extracting information through torture. (Much like my crotchety-but-beloved high school government teacher, Mr. Agosta, who called our class Q&A sessions interrogation. If we replied "I don't know" in answer to one of his inquiries, we were reprimanded for not reading or studying the materials. If we replied "I forgot," his response was always "Senility is not indigenous to youth.") What's ironic here is that the questioning--the quiz--started off in fun, if we go back to the earlier definitions of quiz. And students, of course, do not seem to see quizzes as fun!

So it is through the idea of questioning in fun that we get to quiz as an examination, the definition we are most familiar with today. Of course, using today's connotation of an impromptu test, many students might agree that, hearkening back to one of the original meanings of the word, today's quizzes are indeed practical jokes, or rather are no joking matter!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Are You Phobophobic?

I stumbled across the word phobophobia today--fear of phobias. The first phobia I remember learning about was hydrophobia--fear of water, as well as a term used for rabies (since rabies creates a fear of water in the human or animal who has the condition)--thanks to reading Old Yeller. Nobody can accuse me of having triskaidekaphobia (an irrational fear of the number 13), since my birthday occasionally falls on Friday the 13th. So I joyfully consider 13 my lucky number.

Thinking about phobias (meaning "irrational fears") led me to wonder about other kinds of phobias people might have, so I searched for "phobias" and came up with this site: The Phobia List . Here are a few of my favorite phobias from this site:
  • Alliumphobia - Fear of garlic. (I guess this phobia is genetic for vampires.)
  • Amathophobia - Fear of dust. (I can honestly say this is a phobia I do NOT have--as anyone who has seen the dust bunnies in my house can attest to.)
  • Genuphobia - Fear of knees. (What?)
  • Papyrophobia - Fear of paper. (I can understand this one. I once got a papercut on my eyeball--don't ask.)
  • Thaasophobia - Fear of sitting. (I can't imagine going through life only standing or reclining.)
  • Vestiphobia - Fear of clothing. (My cat exhibits signs of this phobia. She absolutely refuses to be dressed up. I have shown her pictures of the three little kittens who lost their mittens and cried as a result, but she remains unconvinced that clothing is necessary for felines.)
  • Xenoglossophobia - Fear of foreign languages.
  • Zemmiphobia - Fear of the great mole rat. (Sounds like the premise for a bad sci-fi flick.)

If you enjoyed The Phobia List, try The Phobias or About.com's Phobias List. If you are looking for more serious sites, visit Mayo Clinic's Phobias fact sheet or the American Psychiatric Association's Phobias site.

If I suffer from any phobia, it's agoraphobia--fear of being in crowded, public places like markets. I don't have a problem in most crowds, but if the crowds get really close, I feel like I need to scream. So...what's your phobia?