Some Light Reading

Think you could you change this using “reed,” “leed,” “red,” and “led”?

Thank you, Soup to Nutz, for the diversion.

(Yes, “leed” is a word (so is “lede”). Look it up.)

PS—Another blogger whom I read regularly recently commented on this strip, too. He takes a rather different approach to the funnies than I do, but still… Here’s the link to the correct Comic Strip of the Day.

Singular or Plural Verb?

The two regular readers of this humble site probably recall that I studied Greek in my youth. When I saw the first panel of this strip, I thought of something that had not occurred to me in all these years. Was the verb plural to go with wages, or is it singular to go with death? So I rushed to the original of the passage quotes on that sign, Romans 6:23. Then I read the rest of the comic, to discover that the comic was about that very topic! Here’s the comic, Barney & Clyde:Okay, here’s what I found out: In Greek and many other languages, it’s okay to leave out the verb “to be” in any of its many forms, and that’s what Paul of Tarsus did here. Basically, he wrote, “The wages of sin—death!” I’d be curious to know what he would have written if he had included the verb, but since it’s perfectly idiomatic to leave “is” and “are” out, I’ll bet he didn’t even consider including it. I’ll add, since we’re talking about Greek grammar, “sin” is singular, and there’s a rule in Greek and Latin called attraction, where a word picks up a form from the word that precedes it, regardless of the precise grammar. So maybe that’s why the translators felt comfortable using the singular verb in English, to go with the singular “sin.” And, as the comic suggests, “wages” is a collective noun, so you can treat it as a singular.

It’s a good punchy way to get the message across, though, isn’t it?

An Error I Mentioned Before

I mentioned this error before, so here’s a grim reminder not to make it. Perry Bible Fellowship is a rather grim comic anyway, even if it is funny to those of us with a grim mind set.

The error is made by both the students and the, um, professor, and the error is promulgated by lots of stuffy English teachers, so it’s fairly common.

That “preposition” at the end of the sentence isn’t a preposition. It’s an adverb! It’s part of a separable verb, of which English has many. (Or I might say, “…which English has many of.”)

Those words, which can also be used as prepositions in other contexts, are perfectly correct at the end of a sentence when they’re part of the verb. It brings to mind the apocryphal Winston Churchill quote, said when someone correct his English, “Impertinence, young man, is something up with which I will not put.”

How to Improve your Spelling

First the comic, Reality Check. Doesn’t work this way in real life, of course.

I still have trouble remembering whether or not to put that “e” into that word. It’s because I don’t follow my own rule about learning to spell those last couple works that you don’t remember how to spell.

When I was younger, I had trouble remembering how to spell “until.” Was it one “l” or two? I also had trouble remembering the conjugation of “lie,” as in lie down. Then someone told me a trick, and here it is:

Write down the thing you have trouble remembering on a card, and tape it up where you can see it when you write. Look at the word whenever you feel the slightest doubt. Eventually you’ll remember and stop doubting.

It worked. I now remember “until,” and know the past tense of lie is “lay,” not “laid.” The wall in my desk nook was not quite plastered, but adorned maybe, with 3×5 cards containing the correct spellings of an assortment of words. Currently I have a card in front of me with a half dozen or so ASCII codes for several symbols that I use occasionally I have about half memorized, the others I use maybe once a year or less, so they’re there when I need them.

So there you have it: post your doubtful spellings up where you can see them.

Sometimes English Could Use the Dative

Lots of Indo-European languages use inflectional endings on words to indicate how the words are used in the sentence. About all we have left of inflected nouns in English is the possessive case.

Now, when we have a direct object and an indirect object, you can usually tell which is which without an inflectional ending. So If I say,

Give the woman the ball.

We rely on word order to know that woman (indirect object, dative) is getting the ball (direct object, accusative). That’s easy when you have nice short sentences. Suppose the ball isn’t in the sentence:

Give the woman.

Sounds like something from a wedding ceremony. Now let’s add a man into the picture:

Give the woman the man.

A little harder. Who’s getting whom? Put a “to” in there:

Give the woman to the man—or—give to the woman the man.

We use a “to” to indicate the indirect object. An inflection would be something like -em for dative (indirect object) and -en for accusative (direct object). Then we could put the words in either order and our meaning would still be clear.

Give the womanen the manem.

Now we can see that he’s getting her! No need for “to.”

All this is a bit trivial with these nice short sentences. But what about a long sentence? Here’s one, from the book Listening In by Susan Landau, page 107:

When a user instructs her iPhone to update, the iPhone sends an Apple authorization server—directly or via iTunes—the device’s unique ID, hashes of the software the phone is requesting, and a random number.

Where did the iPhone get the server to be able to send it? Oh wait—the server is the indirect object; the ID and so on are being sent to the server. Not obvious until you wade through the sentence.

A dative inflectional ending on “server” would have been handy.

A Good-Natured Dig at Small Town Writing

Sioux City is one of my favorite places; it’s where I lived when I worked for Gateway 2000. But a recent article written there betrayed a solecism that a writer from (ahem) the big city would have known not to make. Here’s the passage:

An anxious group of football players and their parents took up a full room at The Wheelhouse Bar & Grill – one of Sioux City’s newest sports bars – Wednesday night.

The athletes were there to celebrate their future as members of the Morningside College program, which became official as soon as the players signed letters of intent.

No, it’s not that high school athletes becoming college athletes sign up a bar is inappropriate. Places like that tend more to be community centers than in big cities. (Besides, I’m here to comment on what the writer wrote, not what the kids did.)

It’s the use of “anxious” when the writer meant “eager.” I even wrote about this at least once before. I guess the Sioux City writers don’t read The Writing Rag, eh?

Well, that’s okay. I still greatly enjoyed the time I lived there.


An Example of Early Compounding

English has a tendency to change hyphenated compounds into single compound words over time. For example, “today” used to be “to-day,” and “pickup truck” used to be “pick-up truck.” This process takes a generation or so to happen. As people become more and more familiar with a phrase, they tend to leave out the hyphen. (We call this sort of thing linguistic change. Linguistic change is a common source of grumbling among grammar curmudgeons.)

Today I read an article by a reporter who covers politics. He used a compound word that I would have hyphenated. IMO the spelling is on the early side:

The decadesold informal understanding between the government and the press — that the government would only go through the motions on leak investigations — was dead.

I’m not saying he’s wrong, just early. We don’t use “decades-old” very often.

You saw it here first second!

PS—I ran into another premature compound (for the moment, we’ll ignore the false subject and “upon” where they should use “on.”):

There is a critical need to establish organizationwide data security policies and controls based upon DSG.

A Little Letterplay

Gotta show you the comic first—I didn’t notice the joke in this Argyle Sweater until I read the caption at the bottom.

Now you know why I wrote “letterplay” instead of “wordplay.” A palindrome is a situation where something has the same order of letters both backwards and forward. Punctuation and spaces don’t count.

And here’s the academics: “palin” (πάλιν) is Greek for “back” (in the sense of “again”) and “drome” (well, dromos (δρόμος), is Greek for “race,” which implies running.

So there you have it—a lesson in Classical Greek based on a comic.