Portmanteau Words

Seems to me I mentioned these guys recently, but I’m too lazy to do a big search for my post about them (I think it was a post about buzzwords). Besides, this Dagwood oops Blondie comic is a good example of these words.

A portmanteau is an old kind of suitcase, usually made of leather, and usually with some kind of straps. You put unrelated things inside, hence the analogy with portmanteau words, parts of unrelated words put together into one word.

Blondie - 05/16/2017

“Ever-popular” is just a plain old compound adjective.


I mentioned enormity a while back, as a word that most people get wrong. Here’s someone who gets it correct!

In case you didn’t see that earlier post, “enormity” means extremely bad, not extremely big.

And here’s a more serious example of getting enormity right. It’s from This Day in History for May 11.

Still, many in the crowd did not realize the enormity of the disaster. Some young fans reportedly danced and sang in front of the raging fire while others threw stones at a television crew.


Watch your Person

You see this mainly in informal English, especially spoken, but if you don’t want to cause that little jolt to your reader that comes from sloppy writing, don’t mix persons. That is, don’t start with something like “me” and end up with something like “you.” (Emphasis mine:)

This pair got an especially hard laff this morning because, for those of us who work at home, time off means time spent thinking there is  something more productive you ought to be doing.

This excellent example of gear-changing is from Comic Strip of the Day, by one of my favorite bloggers, Mike Peterson, who writes both thoughtfully and informally, occasionally providing me with something to quote. The quote is toward the bottom of the post, in a section labeled “Juxtaposition of the Day,” referring to two strips about people who work from home.

Don’t throw your readers this kind of curve. The statement isn’t literally true; (well, maybe it is, but) his meaning is probably about …something more productive that we ought to be doing.

Tesla Gets Comprise Right

This is part of a strip about Nikola Tesla, quoting part of his autobiography. Follow the link to see the whole thing. Yes, I have a thing about getting “comprise” right (see the text at the bottom of the picture), but I recommend Zen Pencils anyhow because it’s a good, often inspirational comic. Go poke around the site.

Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Really concise today…

Mallard Fillmore - 04/29/2017

http://ift.tt/2pO54tc  Bruce Tinsley

My solution is to avoid pronouns. Pronouns are an easy source of accidental ambiguity. The singular “they” goes back to Milton or Chaucer, so the duck can’t really object to the usage.

We have no gender neutral singular pronouns in English–you can’t have a group of a singular, but in our current culture, it’s less in style to be so specific, although sometimes you don’t know the gender. Sex, btw is the biological term, gender is grammar, though our culture has started using gender to refer to sexual preferences.


Easy post today. Jim Scanarelli must save these up to fit so many into one Gasoline Alley strip. It’s at http://ift.tt/2r4Pehv

Most places I’ve seen the term written as “malapropism,” but the first time I saw it, the word was “malaprop,” and I like that word better. The longer word sounds pretentious. The term comes from a Dickens novel that had a Mrs. Malaprop, who got a lot of her words humorously wrong.

May and Can

When I was a kid, my teachers (several of them, in grade school) taught us that “may” meant permission, so when a clerk asked “May I help you?” They were being deferential—”Do I have your permission to help you?” Use of “may” in this circumstance is still considered to be polite and high class. “Can,” my teachers said, meant ability. So “Can you open this pickle jar? It’s too tight for me,” is appropriate (unless the speaker is being manipulative or something, though most manipulative would be to assume the person can open the jar by using “would,” but I won’t get into that). Anyway, this Retail comic does a nice job of describing the subtleties of these words.

Retail - 04/23/2017

All that said, The language seems to be changing. I wrote some math curriculum for IBM once, and the PhD SMEs we worked with insisted we use “can” even when “may ” was technically more correct. And I see “may” used a lot as a weak version of “might.” On that last usage, if you can use “might” instead of “may,” use “might.” Your writing will have more punch.

A Word about Apostrophes

Okay, Brooke McEldowney (he of Pibgorn and 9 Chickweed Lane fame) is one of my favorite cartoonists, but I don’t get the punchline in this one. That doesn’t matter, though, because I want to mention the references to apostrophes in the first cell. [I just figured out that it’s not “cell,” but “panel.” At least that’s what I see the cartoonists using, and they ought to know. Several panels make a strip, and a “cel” is a single frame in an animated movie. I guess a “cell” is where you put prisoners or honey.]

Okay, in the first panel, she mentions that apostrophes are to indicate a missing letter in a contraction, and separately to indicate the possessive case. As it happens, the possessive is also derived from a missing letter! We still see it in the German, whence we get a lot of our possessive forms. Originally the possessive was -es, and we took out the e and replaced it with an apostrophe.

My other comment is the pair of apostrophes in one word. You can actually do that, sometimes. For instance the helping verbs in the future perfect, “will have” can both be contracted, mainly in informal spoken English: “I’ll’ve been writing this blog for nine years come January.” If I think of (or see) any other examples, I’ll add them.

Meantime, if you get the joke, explain it to me.

A Mathematician who Changed my Life

Or at least had a profound influence on my life. This post doesn’t have much to do with writing, but I ran into a comic that serves as an excellent illustration of Gödel’s Proof. This proof also revolutionized mathematics, but that’s another story, which I’ll tell a little of next.

Kurt Gödel was a German mathematician who escaped Germany in time to miss being there for the second world war. He moved to Princeton and he and Albert Einstein were best of friends. A famous British mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, and philosopher Bertrand Russell had an ambition at the time to write a book that unified all of mathematics, beginning to end. The title was Principia Mathematica. The multi-volume book is extremely dense reading and I don’t recommend it. It’s not finished either. Kurt Gödel proved that they couldn’t do it. When the Brits learned of it, (long story short), after trying to figure a way around the Proof, they gave up.

Fortunately for me and non-mathematicians everywhere, Gödel’s proof, although is is not light reading, it can be understood if you’re willing to stop and think, and sometimes re-read parts. I recommend that you give it a read in you’re into this sort of thing.

It was back in my college days. (Paul Fosmark, you might remember me mentioning this in one of our U of M campus evangelistic street meetings.) I was asking a lot of questions about the meaning of life, what is true, and so on, as people that age are wont, and I ran into an article about this piece of mathematics (later I found the book, but I loaned it so someone, and it, shall we say, went into the ministry) and, as I mentioned in the first line of this post, it had a profound effect on me.

What he proved, among several other things, was that no logical system can be complete. You can always ask questions within a system that the system can’t answer.

Another way of putting this is that all systems contain statements that are true within the system but you can’t prove that they are true. A corollary of this was that you could generate contradictory statements and still be following the rules of the system.

(Still with me?) Gödel showed that a logical system gets into trouble when it makes self-referential statements. Statements that refer to themselves. And that’s what this comic contains an example of.

Two outcomes of this proof (of many): You will never have 100% bug-free software, and the problem of free will versus God’s sovereignty will never be solved by any living theologian. Whitehead and Russell did figure a way around the proof, but it’s not very practical for us here on earth. You can get around the incompleteness if the system is infinite. Think about that!

I’ll do my best to make the next post lighter reading.

PS—Here’s a simpler example. Is it breaking news or not?

Mutts - 04/19/2017