Personification is when you have something not-human do something that only humans do. We can extend that definition from non-human/human to inanimate/living.

For example, the magma under a volcano is not alive. But we have this sentence from the Washington Post:

As pressure builds in the magma chamber, the magma seeks out weak spots in the surrounding rock, squeezing through the earth until it reaches a vent to the surface.

Magma doesn’t “seek out” anything; that’s something only living creatures do. You could be literal and say the magma is pushed through weak spots. (Or get rid of the passive, and say that the pressure forces the magma through the weak spots.)

Here’s another:

“Magma is going to look for the easiest way out,” she said.

See if you can change that second sentence to not have personification.

Here’s a lesson of sorts: Personification isn’t necessarily wrong. It can make a passage more vivid. Just be aware when you’re using personification. Rule of thumb: the more technical the writing, the less personification.

And of course, perhaps, a diagram might be even more vivid than personification.

Image result for kilauea volcano diagram

Looking for a Writing Job?

Apparently the Border Patrol need a couple writers. Here’s a sample of a paragraph from one of their press releases. It’s pretty bad:

On April 23, 2018, Border Patrol agents assigned to the Laredo Sector Marine Unit rescued two subjects in distress found struggling to stay afloat in the Rio Grande River near Zacate Creek. The two subjects were pulled on board the marine vessel and treated by an Emergency Medical Technician. The two subjects were determined to be from the country of Mexico.

Here’s a link to an article about some of the edits that this paragraph needs. Before you click the link, do an edit yourself, then see what the writer of the article came up with. (I’m resisting the temptation to do it myself.)

Dis-, Mis-, and Un- Are Not Quite Synonyms

Our first root word today, class, is interested.

Uninterested means you don’t care.
Disinterested means you don’t have a stake in the outcome.
We don’t have misinterested as a word.

Here’s another root—used

Unused means something isn’t being used but it could be.
Misused means something is being used incorrectly, especially in a damaging way.
Disused means something has been abandoned; it is no longer used at all.

Where am I going with all these? I dunno; they just crossed my mind. Here’s the sentence, though, that got me started. It’s from Atlas Obscura, and it’s interesting, even though I already knew the subject matter:

He estimates that there are more than 100,000 miles of old, disused stone walls out there, or enough to circle the globe four times.

Remember Those Misused Introductory Adverbs?

I mentioned these guys before. More than once. People, even professional writers, sometimes start a sentence with an adverb when they should use an adjective or a phrase. Some examples of doing it wrong:

Firstly, we pour water into the bowl (how about just plain “first”?).
Reportedly, most kids don’t like peas (who’s doing the reporting? Identify the source!).
Supposedly, we can go play after dinner (how about “I suppose we can go play…).

You might remember the definition of adverbs as words that modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Sometimes this can place an adverb first in a sentence, and here’s an example of that:

Equally important, MacLeish mobilized the Library of Congress for war.

So “equally” here tells how, or to what extent. Far better than “Equally importantly…”

Adverbs are often superfluous anyway. If you can leave an adverb out, leave it out.

And just to satisfy your curiosity, here’s a picture of Archibald MacLeish.

PS—Wouldn’t you know, I ran into a comic from Strange Brew on the subject. She calls it a sentence adverb, but same thing:

Few is More Than Two

We use “few” when we’re counting (and “less” when we’re measuring), But in a sentence like this, the correct term is “two.” “Few” implies three or more.

Older analog hygrometers come in various forms including hair tension hygrometers and sling psychrometers to name but a few.

I suppose the writer could harrumpf and point out that both are plurals, implying at least four, but I don’t think so. The topic is really about two things.

The sentence is from an Interesting Engineering article about weather instruments.

To give the writer credit, he (or she—the article is unsigned) uses correct terms later:

The former, as the name suggests, use animal hair (which is hygroscopic – water absorbing) to ‘detect’ changes in relative air humidity as the hairs length changes.

 The latter uses a set of two thermometers, one moistened and one dry, that are spun in the air.
Those, “former” and “latter,” are correct when you have two items. (When you have more than two, it’s “first” and “last.” We don’t have a special term for the items in the middle.)
If you’re interested in weather instruments, go read the article.
PS—toward the end of the article I ran into this sentence. It’s correct:
They tend to be equipped with instruments to measure local temperature, wind speeds, and barometric pressure to name but a few.

Don’t Know What to Think About this One

He makes a good point about the comma, though. The construction with the comma is called “direct address.” Without the comma, it’s “direct object.”

Got if off of Facebook, and now I can’t find it to give credit.

(sigh) Another Missed Latin Plural

When you have only one, it’s PHENOMENON!

Here’s the goof, by someone who ought to know better.

Although the ideas have persisted for generations, the modern Flat Earth phenomena is surprisingly recent.

This is from The Guardian, a British newspaper. If anybody ought to get their Latin plurals right, it’s the Brits! Harrumpf.

The article, except for this error, of course, is kind of a fun read. Flat Earthers say this photo is fake:

What’s a Sundae?

Sundae, meaning a dish of ice cream with topping, is from the Sanskrit sandhi, meaning “a putting together.” It’s a grammatical term for the effect the ends of two words have on each other. This is one of the things that makes Sanskrit hard—The beginnings and ends of words constantly change depending on the words they are next to. Apparently the person (note I didn’t say “guy;” who am I to assume it was a male) who invented the sundae knew Sanskrit, and had a poetic bent, calling the dish a putting together of ice cream and topping.

We don’t exactly have sandhi in English, but sometimes the beginnings and ends of words can have an effect on each other. So be careful how you pronounce what you say. Hence the third panel of this edition of Basic Instructions:

Correctly pronounced, the two s’s (esses?) between the words “brussels sprouts” lasts a hundredth of a second or so longer than in “brussel sprouts” and you can hear it if you listen carefully.

That’s a little bit like sandhi, eh?

Another Gender Item

English allows plurals such as “they” and “them” as a substitute for long expressions like “him or her” even when the person in mind is singular. We don’t, after all, have a gender-neutral singular third person pronoun.

Another gender-related quirk in English is to use the masculine to refer to everybody. This is falling out of style, but you still see it, such as in this Curtis, panel 1:

We have perfectly good gender-neutral substitutes such as humanity, humankind, humans, people, and so on.

Old habits die hard, though, so don’t make too big a fuss when someone uses the masculine to refer to people in general.

PS—Here’s another example of using the masculine to refer to everybody, this time from Darren Bell’s Candorville. Third panel, top line.

Interesting that he used “itself” referring to humans in the last line of the panel…

An Historical Note

Many years ago, type was set by hand, and human typesetters kept the capital letters in an upper tray, called the upper case. The other letters were kept in a case below it, called the lower case. Over the years, as you know, all this became automated, and separate letters weren’t kept in cases at all, but were imprinted by typewriters and later made digitally. (I’m leaving out a lot of history here.)

But we kept the names for the two types of letters, and the terms “upper case” and “lower case” became adjectives, hence the change to single words, after a brief stint as hyphenated compounds. I remember when this transition to single words became official, in the mid 1960s.

All that history to give an excuse for sharing this episode of the Lockhorns: