Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

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Word order, wrong words, and old chestnuts

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Wordsworth, the butler here at Wordwatch Towers, likes things to be in good order. Including words. So, reader (hope you’re OK, Gladys), we have him to thank for this one.

Why don’t we write: “the blue big boat”? Or: “a square huge table”? Or: the “meal French lovely”?

As Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence points out, these are examples of ‘hyperbaton’ – or putting words into an odd order.

He explains that certain words have to be put in a certain order or the whole thing sounds wrong. For example, in the case of adjectives (descriptive words), the order has to be:

opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose – with the noun coming at the end. So our phrases above should be:

  • the big blue boat

  • the huge square table

  • the lovely French meal

We can hear they sound right, but it’s nice to know there’s some method in the English language madness.

Geniuses can do what they like …

Hyperbaton is not always a complete no-no. As Oxford Dictionaries points out, it can be used as a stylistic tool. For example, to emphasise something as in: “This I must see” instead of “I must see this”.

And as Mark Forsyth points out in his book, the line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II) has far more impact than the correctly ordered “The head that wears the crown lies uneasily”. But then Shakespeare was a genius; it’s probably best if the rest of us stick to the right word order, unless we want to a bit like Yoda sound.

 Not music to my ears …

The BBC, eh? They’re usually very good at getting words in the right order, but selecting the correct ones appears to be more of a challenge. This old chestnut slipped into the latest issue of the Beeb’s Music magazine while the editor was taking a nap (and not reading my previous post on this topic):

New York’s Met Opera has a long association with Wagner’s Parsifal as it was, in 1903, the first opera house to stage it outside Europe, flaunting the composer’s wishes …

Flaunting? No. In fact, the New York Met would have been flouting Wagner’s wishes. Flout means to openly disregard  a rule or convention; flaunt means to ‘display ostentatiously’.

 One thing leads to another …

The phrase ‘old chestnut’ is an idiom. While writing this post I became curious about why ‘old chestnut’ came to mean ‘a joke, story, or subject that has become tedious and uninteresting through constant repetition’. (See Oxford Dictionaries) Thank you, Wiktionary, for the answer.

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Written by Wordwatch

10/02/2018 at 12:06 pm

A confession and some lovely words

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hhuntitledI’m so ashamed. The butler claims he told me ages ago (he didn’t) and is now sulking in the pantry. I considered pretending that I knew all along but my reader, Gladys (who seems to be spending a lot of time with the butler lately), would never forgive me for lying. So I have to ‘fess up.

It’s all to do with ellipsis. Now, ellipsis (plural: ellipses) can mean two things:

  • a word or words that are left out (in speech or writing)
  • the punctuation mark of three dots … that indicates the position of the missing words.

images5D26IYSEWho could possibly get this wrong? Oh, that would me.

Because, apparently (she said, trying to suggest that it’s been a well-kept secret until now), when using the three dots as a punctuation mark, there has to be a space either side of them. (I *ahem* sort of thought there only had to be a space after the end of the final dot.)

Here’s a great example from the story The Sisters in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners:

No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly … but there was something queer … there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion …

(Not read Dubliners yet? Grab a copy – if only for the final genius story, The Dead.)

Multi-tasking

The ellipsis punctuation mark is also used in informal writing to indicate a trailing off of thought …

It can be used in this way both at the end of the sentence as above, or in the middle of a sentence:

I used to think I was good at this punctuation lark … oh, well, onwards and upwards.

education-project-class-a-schools-in-victorian-timesnowadays-in-the-uk-11-638Drama and hesitation

The ellipsis can also be used to build up dramatic effect:

I can’t believe it … you mean to say … he was the murderer?

Or hesitation:

Really? It doesn’t seem possible  … he seemed to … well, I’ll wait and see.

Note the correct use of a space either side of the ellipsis punctuation mark in all these examples. *makes note to self while standing in corner with dunce’s cap on*

In mitigation

What can I do to make up for all this? Oh, I know, share some lovely words with you.

61kXxVeed+L__SX323_BO1,204,203,200_These are stolen from an article by Robert Macfarlane, author of the bestselling book, Landmarks, a celebration of the relationship between words and landscapes:

  • burra: a sheltered spot, tucked away out of the wind , where certain flowers can grow (used in Oxfordshire, UK)
  • kesh: a makeshift ramp or bridge over a stream or marsh (Northern Ireland)
  • wicker: a goldfinch (Cheshire, UK)
  • dimmity or dimpsey: twilight (Devon, UK)
  • hazeling: of a spring morning, warm and damp, good for sowing seed (Hertfordshire, UK)
  • smeuse: the gap in the base of a hedgerow made by the regular passage of a small animal (Sussex, UK)
  • crizzle: the freezing of open water (Northamptonshire, UK)
  • zawn: a wave-smashed chasm in a cliff (Cornwall, UK)
  • ammil: the gleaming film of ice that cases twigs and blades of grass when a freeze follows a thaw (Devon, UK)

 And finally

Note that some style guides say that as well as a space either side of the ellipsis punctuation mark, there should be a space between each dot. But, hey, let’s not go mad; that would be a kesh too far.

Rabid sexism… Oxford Dictionaries says sorry

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untitledODFlippant? Oxford Dictionaries? Who said so? Oh, Oxford Dictionaries.

Just for the record, here’s Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of ‘flippant’:

 ‘Not showing a serious or respectful attitude’

And here’s why (as reported in the Guardian today) Oxford Dictionaries fessed up to such undictionary-like behaviour:

A Canadian anthropologist, Michael Oman-Reagan, tweeted Oxford Dictionaries last week to ask it why “rabid feminist” is its usage example for the word “rabid”. Oxford Dictionaries responded by suggesting Oman-Regan may be a rabid feminist. It has since apologised for the “flippant” response and is reviewing the example sentence.

Here is the definition of ‘rabid’ Michael was referring to (reproduced below in case it’s – hopefully – taken down in the near future):

‘Having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: a rabid feminist’

untitledrabidOh dear. And good.

Wordwatch Towers has previously pointed out examples of sexism within the (virtual) pages of Oxford Dictionaries and we’re (me, the butler, and my reader, Gladys) are glad to see this being given a prominent airing over the Interwebs.

Since this – um – discussion surfaced on Twitter, Oxford Dictionaries has published an article about how it chooses examples of word use. It has humbly eaten humble pie and is to be commended. Brace yourself, the key paragraph rambles on a bit, but the upshot is that Michael has been vindicated:

‘In the case of an example which has recently received much attention, of the phrase “rabid feminist” to exemplify the sense of rabid meaning ‘having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something’, the example is an accurate representation of the meaning of the word: rabid is used in this way to denigrate the noun it modifies, and the real-life sentence from which the example was taken involved someone denigrating a person described as being a feminist. However, it was a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning. A more generic example, like “rabid extremist” or “rabid fan”, would also have been supported by evidence on our corpora, and would have illustrated the meaning of the word without those negative impacts.’*

Go, Michael.

*Just in case you’re interested in a plain language version of this explanation, here you go:

‘We used a sexist example to explain the word ‘rabid’. Sorry. We’ll put that right now.’

This is just to say…

with 12 comments

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom

… that ‘ensorcelled’ means ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’. See Oxford Dictionaries. You can see from the word that its derivation is linked to the word ‘sorcerer’ (which I just had to check how to spell). I kind of like all of that, but is it a good choice in this article in the Guardian? The first paragraph includes the following sentence:

I was immediately ensorcelled by the singularity of the Shrigley worldview: here were pictures that had a bewilderingly complex naivete about them – it was as if a preternaturally intelligent child were rendering the attempts of a smart-aleck adult to draw like a kid.

Ensorcelled? Really? Why send your readers away (probably never to return) to consult a dictionary when ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’ would work just as well (probably better) there? Yes, I learnt a new word, no, I didn’t go back to read the rest of the article (I wrote this post instead). And is the writer just showing off? Oh, I don’t know. Sunday morning tea and toast calls.

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