Another Dieresis

I wrote about this little-used punctuation back in October, so click the link to see the lesson. Today you just get an example of correct usage. It’s from 1955, so it fits the pattern of the dieresis being an old usage. Middle panel.

A Little About Word Order

English, being light on inflections, uses word order a lot. Classical Greek, for example, is heavily inflected, so word order can be played with more than it can be played with in English. They even have a figure of speech called chiasmus, in which they arrange the words symmetrically in the sentence (for example, noun, adjective, adverb, verb, adverb, adjective, noun) and you use the inflections to figure out what refers to what. 

Sometimes getting the word order correct in English can be tricky. I have mentioned where “only” should go several times. (Search for “only” in the search box in the upper right corner to see some examples.)

So this Buckles comic, first panel, gets it wrong, at least in expository writing. Perhaps we’re more relaxed in conversational speech.

The rule is that adjectives go right before the word they modify, so technically, the dog is saying that it’s Paul’s good pair, not good shoes

Not a lot of difference there; it could go either way, and you might even make the excuse that “pair of shoes” counts as one word. Well, maybe.

But when you’re explaining something, be on the lookout for ambiguity, and avoid it.

An Interesting Plural Quirkiness

Is “bacteria” singular or plural? Well, it’s plural. The singular is “bacterium.” But here’s an example of using the singular to refer to a whole bunch of the little critters. Twice:

A bacterium named Moorella thermoacetica won’t work for free. But UC Berkeley researchers have figured out it has an appetite for gold. And in exchange for this special treat, the bacterium has revealed a more efficient path to producing solar fuels through artificial photosynthesis.

The writer isn’t referring to a single bacterial cell, but the whole species. 

We do this a lot in American English, refer to a collective noun in the singular. We say “the team is,” for example.

Irony and Sarcasm

What’s the difference? 

Irony: a figure of speech in which you say (or write) the opposite of what you mean in such a manner that your listener (or reader) can tell what you actually mean.

This statement (last panel) is an example of irony.

Sarcasm: A subset of irony. Making an ironic statement in a way to intend some kind of rebuke.

The guy’s first statement in this comic is sarcasm:

And there you have it! Personally, I prefer irony to sarcasm. I think it’s my Minnesota background.

Many of What?

We normally expect adjectives to have a noun that they refer to; however, some adjectives get their noun from the context, and we are expected to supply it ourselves. I recommend that you supply the noun anyway, particularly when you write expositorily (when you’re explaining something). In English, using “many” without its noun assumes you’re referring to people. Sentences such as these are taken to refer to people:

How many died in the hurricane?
How many came to your party?

But we use the noun when we’re not referring to people:

So, pardner, how many head of cattle yeh got out back?
How many pages in your term paper?

So I suppose these guys have a point.

So put in the noun!

Try to Avoid Virgules

Sorry for the pretentiousism—I thought using “virgule” might make the headline more interesting. A virgule is a slash, (also unnecessarily called a forward slash.)

Most of the time when people use a slash, it’s because they don’t want to have to think and actually choose a word, so they use both, separated by a slash. Something like

Ask the manager/owner of the document about its history.

Here’s another example, perhaps a bit more legitimate:

Total pasture/range areas are proportionally divided by animal group based on National Agricultural Statistics Service livestock counts.

In the footnotes of an interesting article about US land use.

The first example could replace the slash with “or,” and the second example could use “and” instead of the slash. (By the way, pastures are fenced, and range is not.)

I admit, a slash is shorter than a whole word, and I generally recommend making the shorter choice, other things being equal. But a slash is a lazy person’s way out. Rather like “etc.,” but that’s another story.

Getting “As” Right

People sometimes use “as” when they mean “because.” Well, don’t. Use “because.”

“As” means something like “at the same time as,” and here’s an example of how “as” should be used:

Now the company has removed a link from its download site, and updated a support page to say “We have paused the rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update (version 1809) for all users as we investigate isolated reports of users missing some files after updating.”

This is The trade rag Engadget quoting Microsoft. Guess Microsoft got something right, eh?

Nouning a Verb

A common complaint by grammarians is about verbing nouns (meaning using a noun as if it were a verb), which you can actually do in English. For example, you can say “Let’s table the motion.” 

Looks like you can noun a verb, too. Here’s what I mean:

Is “Much” Singular or Plural?

We think of “much” as a measure of part of a group of things, so it has a plural feel to it, but it’s a singular! (The equivalent plural is “many.”) So we ask, “How much is enough?” But take a look at this sentence, taken from Bruce Schneier’s book on cyber security, Click Here to Kill Everybody, page 147.

So much of Internet+ hardware, software, protocols, and systems overlaps between wildly different applications.

Shouldn’t that be “overlap”? Nope. Look closely. That list of things, two of which are plurals, is the object of “of.” The subject of the sentence is “much”! My compliments to Bruce for getting this sentence right; it would be an easy sentence to get wrong.

Synonyms for “Synonym”

It’s an old joke, and people are generally amused that they can’t think of a good answer. The guy in the comic has a good answer, though.

Of course English does have a couple synonyms for “synonym;” they just aren’t in common usage.

For example, you have “metonym,” a type of synonym where you refer to part of something to mean all of it. When you say “wheels” to refer to your car, that’s a metonym.

“Analog” can be used to mean “synonym. ” Not very often, though. I suggest you make it into a phrase, such as:

“Beater” is a noun analog for “car.”

Sorry for spoiling the joke.