Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: etymology (2).

etymology (2).

Today: Native vs. Classical Elements.

The English language has benefited from diverse sources. This diversity springs mostly from the English Renaissance, when writers supplemented what they considered a meager vocabulary by borrowing freely from foreign languages, mostly Latin, French, and Greek. Thus William Caxton, who introduced printing into England in 1477, is credited with the first use of many words that have become common {admiration, capacity, desperate, nuptial, seduce}.

But other borrowings withered away, coined not to fill any need but to indulge a particular writer’s penchant for the far-fetched. Thus, our historical dictionaries are brimming with strange and ridiculous formations that appeared only once or twice, such as “celeripedian” (= a swift footman) and “latrocination” (= highway robbery).

Many sets of words formed from analogous etymological elements have coexisted in English for many centuries with the same basic meanings, such as the Greek “prophesy” and the Latin “predict.” Others have undergone differentiation to varying degrees, such as the Greek “sympathy” and the Latin “compassion.”

In specialized writing, a knowledge of classical languages is especially helpful: Latin in law, for example, or Greek and Latin both in medicine. But regardless of your career path, it’s useful to enhance your awareness of Greek and Latin word roots. You’ll gain a greater sensitivity to the English language and its origins and nuances.

Next: Etymological Awareness.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself.” Sir Ernest Gowers, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 5 (2d ed. 1965) (in a Gower’s entry that didn’t appear in H.W. Fowler’s first edition).

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LawProse Lesson #181: Grammar and usage resources.

Grammar and usage resources.

Which grammar books are most useful?

People frequently ask this question. Perhaps the most compendious treatment can be found in my own chapter five of The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed. 2010). That chapter, which first appeared (in a shorter form) in the 15th edition, is essentially a restatement of the principles of English grammar, together with a usage glossary. The Manual also contains a terrific chapter on punctuation.

If you’re looking for other highly usable grammars, you might try these:

George O. Curme, English Grammar (1953).
George Lyman Kittredge & Frank Edgar Farley, A Concise English Grammar (1918).
George Philip Krapp, The Elements of English Grammar (1908).
Raymond Woodbury Pence & Donald W. Emery, A Grammar of Present-Day English (2d ed. 1963).

Often, people who ask about English grammar don’t actually want a grammar book at all. Instead, they want a book on English usage. Here are some very readable ones:

Kingsley Amis, The King’s English (1997).
Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer (2d ed. 1995).
R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3d ed. 1996).
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Ernest Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965).
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (3d ed. 2011).
Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed. 2009).
Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage (1942).
Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004).

These books are alphabetical treatments of thousands of anomalies, curiosities, and nuances that exist in the English language. You’ll find entries discussing “between you and me,” “can’t hardly,” “etc.” (how to use it, when not to use it, and how to pronounce it), “gauntlet” versus “gantlet,” “home in” versus “hone in,” “incident” versus “incidence,” “precipitate” (as an adjective) versus “precipitous,” and much more. There will also be guidance on parts of speech (their use and misuse), and thousands of other points. Many otherwise literate people are unaware of these books, but they are fascinating. If you’re thinking about reading up on your grammar, consider a usage guide. You’ll probably find yourself checking it almost every day. (Or should that be “everyday”? Are you 100% sure? Better look it up.)

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: etymology (1).

etymology (1).

Today: English Etymology Generally.

Etymology is the study of word derivations. Understanding etymology often leads to a greater appreciation of linguistic nuances. For example, “exorbitant” is Latin “ex-” (= out of, away from) + “orbita” (= a wheel track), hence “off track” or “out of line.” “Symposium” is Greek “syn-” (= together) + “posis” (= a drink). The term was extended from “a drinking party” to “a convivial meeting for intellectual stimulation,” then further to “a collection of articles published together on a given topic.”

But making a fetish of etymology can lead to linguistic fallacies. For example, pedants object inflexibly to hybrids or morphological deformities. Some insist that “homophobe,” in Greek, would refer to a self-hater. But in today’s English, “homo” is a slang shortening of “homosexual,” and “homophobe” — though at variance with classical word formation — is perfectly understandable to any reasonable speaker of American English. The etymological “error” is no error at all.

So learn all you can about etymology, but temper that knowledge with other types of linguistic facts. Then you’ll be in a position to choose words prudently. And you’ll be better equipped to answer questions such as these: Must “alternatives” be limited to two? Must a “magistrate” be the supreme judge in a jurisdiction? Does “inflammable” mean that something will ignite, or won’t?

Next: Native vs. Classical Elements.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “A trained dialect geographer can sometimes uncannily identify a speaker’s habitat within a few miles.” John E. Jordan, Using Rhetoric 9 (1965).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: whilst.

whilst.

“Whilst,” though correct British English, is virtually obsolete in American English and reeks of pretension in the work of a modern American writer — e.g.: “Whilst [read 'While'] I was on vacation last week, it seems the Bethlehem Police Force got off the hook for killing a young man, John Hirko, in April.” Paul Carpenter, “Just Makes You Feel Warm All Over,” Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.), 21 Sept. 1997, at B1.

But the word predominates in British English — e.g.: “Whilst president of the Royal Statistical Society, he told statisticians that government is about asking questions.” Ray Thomas, “Working Out the Figures,” Guardian, 22 Sept. 1997, at 16.

Like its sibling “while,” it may be used for “although” or “whereas.” But again, this isn’t good usage in American English

Language-Change Index – “whilst” for “while” in American English: Stage 2.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Beginning writers want to start with large abstractions, in the mistaken belief that the bigger the topic is, the more there is to say about it. It doesn’t work out that way. Usually the first sentence of the essay tells whether the writer knows this or not.” Jack Rawlins, “Five Principles for Getting Good Ideas,” in About Language 10, 13 (William H. Roberts & Gregoire Turgeon eds., 2d ed. 1989).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: vale of tears.

vale of tears.

In this age-old idiom, “vale” means “world.” But writers have often mistakenly spelled it *”veil of tears” — e.g.:

o “Edwin C. Daly left this veil [read 'vale'] of tears on Monday (April 15, 1996) at his home in Tamarac, FL.” “Edwin C. Daly” (obit.), Hartford Courant, 30 Apr. 1996, at B8.

o “‘For my part, and I know some here will disagree, I’d like to have the right to terminate my stay in this veil [read 'vale'] of tears and bow to no man with respect to maintaining a high measure of privacy as to my personal life,’ Wright said.” James Bradshaw, “Ex-Justice Says Courts Go Too Far to Call Assisted Suicide a Right,” Columbus Dispatch, 25 July 1996, at C5 (no doubt mistranscribing the quotation from Craig Wright, a former justice of the Ohio Supreme Court).

Because “vale” has so commonly been confounded with “veil,” some writers have begun using the latter noun as if it referred to a stream of tears covering the face (a watery veil) — e.g.:

o “This time, prosecutors were so eager to puncture the dissembling veil of tears that Lyle Menendez never took the stand to repeat his Oscar-caliber performance.” “Justice for Two Killers,” Seattle Times, 22 Mar. 1996, at B4.

o “Three weeks ago in a veil of tears, Abdur-Rahim announced he was leaving school to make himself available for the June 26 NBA draft.” John Crumpacker, “Shareef Returning to Bears,” S.F. Examiner, 30 May 1996, at D1.

Perhaps a pun was intended in each case, but the phrasing arouses the suspicion that the writer simply doesn’t know any better.

Language-Change Index – *”veil of tears” for “vale of tears”: Stage 1.

*Invariably inferior form.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “For whatever else you may have to offer as added inducements, to be effective your communication has to be interesting — first and last.” Ernst Jacobi, Writing at Work: Dos, Don’ts, and How Tos v (1976).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: transpire.

transpire.

The traditionally correct meaning of this word is “to pass through a surface; come to light; become known by degrees.” But that sense is now beyond redemption, though writers should be aware of it. Today, of course, the popular use of “transpire” is as a formal word equivalent to “happen,” “occur,” or “take place.” But when used in that way, “transpire” is a mere pomposity displacing an everyday word — e.g.:

o “The group all had an interest in what was transpiring [read 'happening'] in the Catholic Church as the Second Vatican Council got under way in 1962, Martinelli said.” Gerald Renner, “Witness Tells of Abuse by Priest,” Hartford Courant, 22 Aug. 1997, at A1.

o “Satisfied that something unusual was indeed transpiring [read 'happening'], the team then arranged for a visit to the house.” David Lazarus, “Ghostbuster Snares Clients on Net,” S.F. Chron., 13 Oct. 2002, at G1.

Another loose usage occurs (not transpires) when “transpire” is used for “pass” or “elapse” — e.g.: “Three days transpired [read 'passed'] between the call and discovery of the dead child.” Steven K. Paulson, “911 Call Was Made from Mansion Before Body Found,” Times Union (Albany), 10 Jan. 1997, at A3.

All in all, “transpire” fits the definition of a skunked term: careful writers should avoid it altogether simply to avoid distracting readers, whether traditionalists (who dislike the modern usage) or others (who may not understand the traditional usage).

Language-Change Index – “transpire” for “happen” or “occur”: Stage 4.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “A bad or mistaken name may lead to wrong rules which may have a detrimental influence on the free use of language, especially in writing. Thus the term ‘preposition,’ or rather the unfortunate knowledge of the Latin etymology of this word, is responsible for that absurd aversion to putting a preposition at the end of a sentence which many schoolmasters and newspaper editors profess in utter ignorance of the principles and history of their own language.” Otto Jespersen, The Philosophy of Grammar 342 (1934; repr. 1965).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Scylla and Charybdis, between.

Scylla and Charybdis, between.

As described by Homer, Scylla /SiL-uh/ was a sea monster who had six heads (each with a triple row of teeth) and twelve feet. Though primarily a fish-eater, she was capable of snatching and devouring (in one swoop) six sailors if their ship ventured too near her cave in the Strait of Messina. (In the accounts of later writers, she is rationalized into a rocky promontory.) Toward the opposite shore, not far from Scylla’s lair, was Charybdis /kuh-RiB-dis/, a whirlpool strong enough thrice daily to suck into its vortex whole ships if they came too close.

Thus, to say “between Scylla and Charybdis” is a close literary equivalent of “between a rock and a hard place” or “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” The main difference between the phrases is that there is no comfort between a rock and a hard place; there is a safe, though precarious, way to proceed between Scylla and Charybdis. All three phrases are clichés.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “For the writer — any kind of writer — the dictionary is an indispensable resource. No matter how extensive vocabulary the writer may have, no matter how skilled he may be in selection of words, there is always the likelihood that use of the dictionary may sharpen his discrimination in the use of words, may supply him with a synonym better than his first choice, or may even open up a new line of thought.” Edward N. Teall, Putting Words to Work 78-79 (1940).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: regiment.

regiment.

“Regiment” (= a military unit made up of several battalions) is coming to be misused for “regimen” (= a systematic plan designed to improve health, skills, etc.) — e.g.:

o “Wealthy people plagued with weak nerves and ‘auto-intoxication’ flocked to the San, as it was known, from all over the world to undergo a strict regiment [read 'regimen'] of sinusoidal baths, Vibrotherapy, laughing exercises and five enemas a day.” Laurie Muchnick, “In Battle Creek, Not All Flakes Were Made of Corn,” Miami Herald, 6 June 1993, at I3.

o “No one wants to return to a strict regiment [read 'regimen'] of dreary alphabet drills.” Mike Berry, “Whole-Language Dives into Words,” Orlando Sentinel, 9 Apr. 1995, at K1.

o “As he heads toward his 58th birthday on May 13, Dill is playing some of the best golf of his career, thanks to better equipment, a strict training regiment [read 'regimen'] and a successful diet.” Raul Dominguez Jr., “Thanks to a Fresh Start, This Dill’s Not in a Pickle,” San Antonio Express-News, 26 Mar. 1997, at D3.

Language-Change Index – “regiment” misused for “regimen”: Stage 1.

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Slang has, in many cases, a pith and pungency which make it not only pardonable, but tolerable. It often expresses a feeling, if not a thought, of the passing day, which could not be so forcibly expressed — for the day — in any other phraseology.” Richard Grant White, Every-Day English 484 (1880).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: premises.

premises.

“Premises” (= a house or building) has a curious history. Originally, it denoted in law the part of a deed that sets forth the names of the grantor and grantee, as well as the things granted and the consideration. Then, through hypallage, it was extended to refer to the subject of a conveyance or bequest, specified in the premises of the deed. Finally, it was extended to refer to a house or building along with its grounds. In short, someone who says, “No alcohol is allowed on these premises” is unconsciously using a popularized technicality.

The term is always used in the plural — e.g.: “These premises were originally let in 1957 by the appellant’s predecessor in title.” Paul Magrath, “Variation of Lease Did Not Create New Tenancy,” Independent, 14 Sept. 1995, at 12.

It is pronounced /PREM-i-siz/, not /-seez/.

Unfortunately, some people (misunderstanding the term and its history) have begun referring to “this premise” when they mean “this piece of property.” In 2003, a famous San Francisco steakhouse sported an unidiomatic, ill-premised sign inside the front door: “No alcohol may be taken off this premise.”

For more information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Beginning writers want to start with large abstractions, in the mistaken belief that the bigger the topic is, the more there is to say about it. It doesn’t work out that way. Usually the first sentence of the essay tells whether the writer knows this or not. Essays on friendship that begin ‘Friendship is one of the most important things in life’ are doomed, because the writer doesn’t know it. Essays that begin ‘Mary was my best friend in high school’ will thrive, because the writer does know it.” Jack Rawlins, “Five Principles for Getting Good Ideas,” in About Language 10, 13 (William H. Roberts & Gregoire Turgeon eds., 2d ed. 1989).

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LawProse Lesson #180: Conjunctions as sentence-starters

There are certain bits of knowledge that distinguish connoisseurs from poseurs, professionals from dilettantes, cognoscenti from wannabes. In the realm of grammar and writing, it tends to be the sureness that sentence-starting conjunctions are perfectly acceptable and often desirable (connoisseurs), or else the certitude that they are outright mistakes (misinformed poseurs). From at least the time of Chaucer, expert writers have tended to begin 10-20% of their sentences with conjunctions. Grammarians have either been silent on the point–and have begun about the same percentage of their own sentences that way–or have heartily endorsed the technique. From the beginning of the 17th century, no reputable grammarian has denounced it (and before that they were silent).

       Oh, but your third-grade teacher denounced it, and how! She wanted to break you of the habit of starting every sentence with “and.” That was a bad habit. So she tried to curtail your habit, neglecting to tell you that you’d ultimately want to have a fair percentage of your sentences begin with conjunctions (especially “but”). But truth be told, she might not have known that.

       On any given day or week, check pages of the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, or whatever other outlet for first-rate nonfiction you like. If you haven’t noticed this point before, you may well be surprised. Oh, and if you disbelieve what you’re reading here, look at the work of any recognized authority on English grammar. Almost certainly you’ll find denunciations of the myth that “initial-position adversatives” are bad grammar. The more prescriptive the grammarian, the harsher the denunciation.

       One last thing: please don’t think this technique has anything to do with formality or informality. No. It has to do with effective vs. ineffective style. There are ten sentence-starting conjunctions in the United States Constitution. And rightly so. While an ill-informed drafter tends to write “provided, however, that,” a well-informed legal stylist tends to write “But” and to put the exception in a separate sentence.

        Please don’t send hate mail. Just look in books. Real books. You choose them. Try proving me wrong. And start observing. Ask yourself why an initial “But” outperforms “However,” why “And” outperforms “Furthermore,” and “So” outperforms “Consequently” or “Accordingly.” There’s a rhythm and euphony behind a sprightly, brisk style. For the mortar words in the language, the monosyllables can’t be equaled.

FURTHER READING:

Kingsley Amis, The King’s English 14 (1997).
R.W. Burchfield, Points of View 109 (1992).
The Chicago Manual of Style 257-58 (16th ed. 2009).
Roy H. Copperud, American Usage: The Consensus 15 (1970).
Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage 64 (1966).
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 29 (Ernest Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965).
Garner on Language and Writing 63-87 (2009).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 44-45 (3d ed. 2009).
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 56, 126-27 (3d ed. 2011).
Charles Allen Lloyd, We Who Speak English 19 (1938).
Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage (1942).
Lucile Vaughan Payne, The Lively Art of Writing 85-86 (1965).
John Trimble, Writing with Style 81 (1975).
William Zinsser, On Writing Well 74 (6th ed. 1998).
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