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Friday, February 23, 2018
Misadventures In The English Language
It’s always a joy to curl up with a book like Caroline Taggart’s Misadventures in the English Language. If you love words, as I do, you’ll enjoy this lively look at vocabulary, punctuation, parts of speech, sentence structure, the creation of new words and all things English.
If you want to know what kind of writer Caroline is, let her say it in her words: “I believe in precise language, the right word in the right place. I think it’s a shame to lose nuances (such as the much argued-over differences between uninterested and disinterested) for want of paying a little attention, punctuation is there to help convey meanings; so is correct spelling. Obeying grammatical rules can help avoid ambiguity – if you say what you mean, you don’t have to shrug and say, “Well, you know what I mean.’”
She proposes a short list of expressions she’d love to see disappear, including:
· The elephant in the room.
· Firing on all cylinders
· On message
· Seeing how it will pan out.
· Win-win situation.
· Taking your eye off the ball.
She also notes how words can be confusing:
· Apprise (advise) vs. appraise (assess).
· Averse vs. adverse.
· Disinterested vs, uninterested.
· Imply vs. infer.
Her book dances with split infinitives dangling participles, auxiliary verbs, and all facets of grammar. But it doesn’t come off as elitist, boring, or stuffy. She makes it fun to understand the building blocks of our language.
She also throws some foreign words at us that have been adopted into our lexicon, from vendetta and schlep to tete-a-tete and schaden freude (German expression: the pleasure we feel at someone else’s misfortune).
Early on she discusses how new words - or neologisms -- come to be and notes how we get them from a variety of sources, including:
· New coinages that cover new inventions, discoveries, or developments-television, amphetamine, Internet.
· Words formed from amalgamating two or more existing words -- workaholic, brunch, blog, motel.
· Words adopted from others languages, such as foods (spaghetti) or other fashions, utensils, building styles, etc.
· They come from existing words whose meanings are now applied to some new phenomena, such as satellite, disc, file, forum or avatar -- all words that had been used for something different than how we think of them today.
I leave you with a few passages that cover topics that may interest you:
If we were to abandon them, think what confusion there would be in the use of words such as wont, cant, well, ill, hell, shell and were. Okay, it is not difficult to tell from the context the difference between, say, We found a pretty shell on the beach and if you ask her nicely, shell drive you to the station, or Hell for leather and Hell be with you in a minute. But, as with my ‘I was in a state of course’ example earlier, it might make a reader pause for a moment to work out what you mean. That would interrupt the flow of his or her reading and, as an author, you don’t (donut) want that, do you?
Punctuation may be the bane of many people’s lives, but its intentions are entirely honorable: it’s there to help. It should – it really should – clarify meaning, indicate emphasis, distinguish a statement from a question or an exclamation and show where one train of thought stops and another begins.
We hear a lot about the illogicality of English spelling - the many pronunciations of ough, for example (borough, bough, brought, cough, dough, rough, to name but six); the silent letters in castle, gnome, psychology and thumb; and the fact that mint doesn’t rhyme with pint while main rhymes with both rein and reign and row can rhyme with either cow or show, depending on whether you are having an argument or competing in a boat race. It makes English a joy for lovers of puns and crosswords and something of an ordeal for foreigners.
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