Celebrating Standard Written English and Effective Communication
Author: Dean Christensen
Educator, copyeditor, writer, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, guitar picker, classical music aficionado, classic rock 'n' roll and movie buff, sinner, saint, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning how to make the world a better place--grammatically, anyway.
Do you know how to correctly write college degree titles?
The landing gear is down on another academic year as students and faculty make their final approach toward the graduation runway. Many soon-to-be newly minted grads are now wading into the sometimes turbulent, often murky, and always anxiety-producing waters of job hunting.
So let’s think about how to correctly write academic degree titles on résumés, cover letters, celebration invitations, and LinkedIn profiles. This can be confusing, and in my twenty years in higher education I saw many resumes and applications where the writer apparently didn’t know how to correctly indicate his or her own degree. Stumbling over something so basic may not go over well with prospective employers. It never hurts to get this right. Continue reading “How to Write Academic Degree Titles”
“Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman?’” the senator asked the female judge, a candidate for justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, on March 22, 2022.
“Can I provide a definition? No,” the candidate responded. “I can’t.”
“You can’t?” the senator asked.
“Not in this context, I’m not a biologist,” the judge replied.
I realize that Supreme Court candidates are grilled mercilessly prior to confirmation, so I sympathize with the judge, who was thrown for a loop by a difficult question completely outside her field of expertise. I mean, let’s be real here. For example . . .
Would you ask me for directions to my house? Good luck!—I’m no cartographer.
Should I be expected to tell you if it’s sunny or raining outside? Excuse me, do you think I’m a meteorologist?
How does one flush a toilet? C’mon, man, I’m not a plumber, for pity’s sake!
I’m no biologist either, but I know a thing or two about the English language. And being a married man, I know enough about women to assure you that I ain’t one. But I digress.
Allow me to help the good judge by explaining for her what a woman is. I’ll restrict my comments to the realms of lexicography and etymology.
Okay, here we go, your honor! Are you ready? I’ll type slowly, because this can be pretty hard:
Let’s break it down further: An (indefinite article) adult (as opposed to a child or youth) female (as opposed to a male) person (as opposed to an animal, plant, fish, etc.).
That’s the lexicographical answer. Are you still with me, your honor? Good! I know you’re in uncharted territory now, so when you catch your breath, we’ll look at etymology. Fasten your seatbelt!
Woman has been a part of the English language since approximately 1250 AD. It can be traced back several centuries before that. It probably developed out of wumman or womman (before 1200 AD), and before that from the Old English wimman (c. 1000), which probably evolved from wīfman (before c. 766), a compound of wīf (woman) and man (human being). (You might notice, incidentally, that the word wife originated from wīf—woman). Not exactly rocket science—I mean, biology—now, is it?
I do sincerely hope this little tutorial helps your honor in addressing matters of jurisprudence, biology, or simple word definitions going forward. We don’t want you to be caught off guard again. You’re welcome!
 I’m married to a woman, by the way, which, in the history of the world until a few years ago no one would have thought to question.
 That is, dictionaries (lexicography) and word origins (etymology).
 Merriam-Webster. 2020. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. Frederick C. Mish, ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
 Barnhardt, Robert, ed. 1995. The Barnhardt Concise Dictionary of Etymology. New York: HarperCollins (p. 847). Partridge, Eric. 1983. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House, (p. 776).
This Friday, March 4, is National Grammar Day. I couldn’t possibly pass it up without writing a few words for this blog, which is ostensibly about grammar.
Garner’s Modern American Usage claims that “one of the most widely-known of all usage errors” is using lay for lie. This confusion is nearly universal, and whenever I discover a writer or speaker who uses lay and lie correctly, I nearly faint from the sheer wonder of it. It is hardly overstated to say that the correct use of lay and lie is the shibboleth of the educated writer or speaker. (Now there’s a biblical allusion for you biblical allusionists.)
First, let’s have some definitions. Again, Garner says, “lie (= to recline, be situated) is intransitive—it can’t take a direct object <he lies on his bed>. But lay (= to put down, arrange) is always transitive—it needs a direct object <please lay the book on my desk>.”
Let me partially inflect these two verbs and then give several examples (I’ll save the present and past participles for another time):
Verb Present Past
1. lay (v.t.) lay laid
2. lie (v.i.) lie lay
Got it? Still with me? (Just nod your head.) Here are some examples of when to use lay (#1).
Lay (present tense): “Honey, please lay the baby (direct object) down for his nap.”
Lay (past tense): “She laid the baby (direct object) in his crib for his nap.”
Lay (present tense): “Let us lay our heads (direct object) on our pillows and get some sleep.”
Lay (past tense): “We laid our heads (direct object) on our pillows.”
Here’s a trick to help you remember: When you mean “put,” use “lay.” When you are doing something to something, use “lay.” You never use lay to describe lying down (unless it’s past tense—see the chart). Here are some examples of when to use lie (#2):
Lie (present tense): “Sheila went to the beach to lie on the sand.”
Lie (past tense): “When Sheila went to the beach last weekend, she lay on the sand all day.” (Note, the past tense of lie is notlaid. You use laid only when talking about putting something somewhere—“The Ladies Guild laid out a feast for all the revelers to enjoy.”)
Lie (present tense): “It’s time for me to lie down and take my nap.”
Lie (past tense): “I lay (not laid) in bed for two hours this afternoon.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the right idea about race relations, eloquently expounded during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. His “dream” for his children was that one day in America they would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I believe we could call that world a colorblind society. One of the definitions of colorblind, according to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, is “not influenced by differences of race … free from racial prejudice.” The New Oxford Dictionary similarly defines it as “not influenced by racial prejudice: a color-blind society.” That seems to be the sort of society that MLK lived – and died – for. It is a world in which “all men are created equal,” the ideal of the Founding Fathers.
As a nation, we made great strides toward realizing that dream and that ideal, until the unfortunate rise of cultural Marxism, Critical Race Theory, BLM, and the so-called antiracist doctrines of those who would demonize a certain segment of our society. Today it is no longer good, or even okay, to be colorblind, to be not racist. Now, according to the twisted linguistic and ideological gymnastics of the cultural Marxist elites who shape the prevailing progressive narrative in America, to be colorblind is to be actually racist! Astoundingly, to be not racist, according to this convoluted logic, is to be, in fact, a white supremacist, of all things. Now one must be antiracist.
The net effect of these progressive efforts has been to divide us, rather than unify us, based solely on the color of our skin. The current mantra of the so-called woke is that America is still incurably, systemically racist, as though the hard work and sacrifices of Dr. King and his fellow laborers in the Civil Rights Movement were all in vain, that they amounted to nothing. I seriously doubt Dr. King would agree with that assessment. To preach such a grim, false message dishonors his memory.
I am truly thankful for Dr. King’s tremendous insight, courage, and dedication, all tragically cut way too short by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.
Not about “English” per se, this is for my fellow baseball fans.
There are at least two easy ways of answering the question of which are the all-time greatest teams: (1) the teams who were most dominant in particular seasons, and (2) the teams who have won the most World Series. The second criterion is easy, the New York Yankees have won by far more World Series than any other team in MLB history.
As for the first criterion, I have employed three easy, objective criteria to rank the top ten teams—those that were most dominant relative to the rest of their respective leagues in individual seasons. The three criteria are as follows:
A winning percentage of .650 or higher. This means that for a 162-game season they won a minimum of 105 games; for a 154-game season, at least 100 games.
They won the World Series (WS) that year. This criterion excludes several great teams that had phenomenal, league-dominating seasons; however, if a club fails to continue that dominance all the way to a championship, can I honestly rank them among the best-of-the-best all-time teams? I debated this at some length and decided I could not.
Their Delta score ranking. (Their what score?) The first two criteria whittled down the possibilities tremendously. The teams meeting those minimum qualifications were then ranked according to a very simple statistic I devised: the Delta score. (It needed a name, right? Why not Delta (∆), the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, which happens to be the first letter of the author’s name. (Disclaimer: I wrote originally wrote this long before the delta variant of COVID-19 had raised its ugly head.)
The Christmas season is “the most wonderful time of the year” for many of us. Just think of the many words we associate only with Christmas. The following ten words are among them.
1. Advent – Advent is derived from the Latin adventus, meaning “arrival” or “the coming.” By the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I had instituted in the Roman church the practice of conducting a special mass on each of the four Sundays leading up to “the coming” of the Christ-child. Similar to Lent, the season of Advent included fasting and penitence followed by a time of celebration. Eventually, the penitential nature of Advent gave way exclusively to the celebratory nature. Today, Advent is still celebrated in many churches, with each Sunday featuring a different theme, such as the prophecies of Jesus’ birth, the Annunciation to Mary, the visitation of the angels and shepherds, or the gifts of the wise men—with a candle lit for each theme. Continue reading “Ten Christmas Terms Explained”
Want to listen to an audio podcast version of this post? Here you go:
Momento vs. Memento
When I stopped into a gift shop to purchase a souvenir, the clerk said it would make a “nice momento.” This is a common spoken mistake; the correct word is memento.
Momento is not a word. At least not in English.
It’s understandable why a lot of people (and I do mean a lot of people) get this one wrong. I can think of two reasons: (1) Momento is a Spanish word that means moment, and (2) it makes sense that the souvenir from your vacation will help you remember a particular moment—thus a momento, right? Sorry, but no. Again, sadly, momento is not a word in English.
Here’s how to keep it straight: a memento is a MEMory aid that helps you reMEMber a person, place, or thing, or comMEMorate something. That should be easy to MEMorize.
Parenthesee vs. Parenthesis
This is kind of a joke, but I have actually heard parenthesee used by more than one person. However, parentheses is the plural of the singular parenthesis, referring to the curved symbol we place around a parenthetical word or phrase. We almost always use those symbols in pairs; thus the plural parentheses is more common. (E.g., “Remember to enclose verbal asides in parentheses in your script.”)
Parenthesee, as the singular form to refer to just one of those curved things, is incorrect; it’s not a word. Nope, nope, nope. The word is parenthesis. (Yes, really!)
Both of these can be found in the chapter “Usage Uncertainties” in my new book, Whatever Happened to English? available on Amazon in both paperback and e-book versions.
My newest book, five-plus years in coming, based on this blog, is now a reality. It’s available on Amazon in paperback (e-book to come).
Here are some details:
Speakers and writers of American English don’t have to know how to diagram sentences or write grammatically perfect sentences at all times, but we should aim for a solid grasp of the basics of good usage, syntax, and punctuation—what teachers and copyeditors call the “mechanics” of English, or simply “Standard Written English.” Our goal should be to communicate in writing more clearly, concisely, coherently, and correctly.
Liberally lacing Whatever Happened to English? with practical grammar, usage, and punctuation tips and examples, often with a humorous edge, the author includes nearly one hundred essays of varying lengths—from a single paragraph to several pages. Approximately half of these essays originally appeared in The Dean’s English blog. The other half are brand new. The book is organized into these chapters:
Whatever Happened to English?
A Grammar Miscellany
Fun with Words
A Dean’s English Potpourri
English at the Holidays
Whatever Happened to English? is for writers as young as middle school and as old as Methuselah.