Category Archives: Grammar

The Art of Rhetoric

What am I like, writing a blog on rhetoric?

Don’t worry, that is a rhetorical question, as is your possible answer to the question (if you’d decided to provide one after all) ‘Who cares?’

Rhetoric had its origins in Mesopotamia, but is largely associated with ancient Greece where, alongside grammar and logic, it was regarded as one of the three ancient arts of discourse. Rhetor is the ancient Greek for a public speaker.

Cicero

Cicero

Rhetoric was part of a scholar’s education from the time of the ancient Greeks, through ancient Rome (Cicero being perhaps the most famous of the Roman practitioners) and into the twentieth century. One could argue that modern university courses in ‘communication studies’ are continuing the tradition.

 

Aristotle

Aristotle

Rhetoric – the fine art of constructing sound arguments – according to Aristotle, was largely  seen as a good subject to teach. However, even all those centuries ago, Plato could see that, in the wrong hands, it could be used to justify bad actions. He likened the specious rhetoric used by the Sophists to justify murdering Socrates, to cooking – which he saw as the means of masking unhealthy food by making it taste good.

 

Today, the word sounds old fashioned and pompous, and we often associate it with bombastic speakers and empty arguments (the image of a tub-thumping rabble-rouser springs to mind). But its first two meanings in my latest Collins dictionary are:

  • The study of the technique of using language effectively
  • The art of using speech to persuade, influence, or please …

Such aims are not a million miles away from what a writer tries to do, when sitting down to write a story that they want someone to read, be moved by, and sufficiently motivated to go out and buy their next book.

And in case you are still wondering what exactly a rhetorical question is, it is a question to which no answer is required. Who knew?

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, and would like to read more of my work, please go to my Amazon author page: 

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How are your apostrophes today?

How are your apostrophes? Does that question look odd to you? Do you feel you need an apostrophe before the ‘s’? The answer is no, but there does appear to be a growing amount of confusion about when and where an apostrophe should be used

For example, over the last few days I have been helping with the shortlisting of applicants for a senior post in a local company. We have had a large number of applications, and many have impressive work records. It has been hard work making the selection for interview.

What has been noticeable though, even within this group of highly intelligent, articulate, experienced and educated candidates (a degree is an essential requirement, a management qualification, desirable), is that quite a few do not know how to use an apostrophe correctly. Examples of misuse include apostrophes being inserted before the ‘s’ in plurals –  ‘I have been a senior manager for many year’s.’ Or dates – ‘during the 1980’s I…’  

As you know (of course), there are only two kinds of apostrophe:

The apostrophe that denotes possessionMargaret’s blog, the dog’s bone (or, if there are several of them, the dogs’ bones) …

And the apostrophe used to indicate that one or more letters have been omitted – It’s a bit chilly today, so I won’t be swimming. Instead of It is a bit chilly today, so I will not be swimming.

In Bristol, UK, one man has felt so impassioned about the misuse of the apostrophe by shop keepers and other local businesses that he has taken to creeping out in the dead of night to correct their mistakes. At risk to life and limb (Bristol is not the safest city in the world after dark) he climbs a step-ladder to paint over offending apostrophes (or insert them where needed). He’s even made his own gadget for reaching the hard to get to signs.

Earlier this year this self-styled grammar vigilante featured in the local and national news. His interview with BBC Radio Bristol is on Facebook, so you can see more about the ‘apostrophiser’ on this link:

https://www.facebook.com/bbcradiobristol/videos/1359545534102549/

Some of the abuses of the apostrophe simply add to the gaiety of life, and allow clever folk to have fun at the expense of our less literate compatriots.  The fruit stall selling  ‘Potatoe’s and tomatoe’s, for example, or the business advertising itself as a Gentlemans Outfitter.

It is true, too, that we can be overly pedantic. Grammar, after all, is there to assist with clarity, and language is an evolving entity with spelling and grammar changing over time. If it didn’t, we’d all be writing like Chaucer, or still communicating via ‘uggs’ and shrugs, like cavemen.

But for now, the apostrophe is still in the game. So, like the tennis backhand or the football cycle kick (I think  that’s the right term), it should be played selectively and appropriately.

If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to read one of my stories or novels, you can find more about them on my blog page for published work, or go to:

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Where has your ‘taxi’ come from?

The word, taxi, is commonly regarded as an abbreviation of taxicab. Various dictionaries will explain that the word derives from the Latin word, taxa, meaning charge, Taxi germanassessment or tax; and taxare, meaning to assess or to tax.  Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when a German entrepreneur named Friedrich Bruhn and associates invented a device, originally referred to as a ‘taxameter,’ that could be put into cabs to monitor various aspects of any journey undertaken, including tracking cost.

It wasn’t long before ‘taximeters’ were being fitted into cabs used commercially. Originally these were horse drawn cabs, but the device was proving popular, and the idea was transferred to the new-fangled motorised taxicabs. These soon became known as taxis. Which all sounds very rational, and a good illustration of how useful words get adopted, adapted, and abbreviated.

But Robert Winston, in his book about how some of our creative ideas for improving lifeTaxi Italian don’t always work out as planned (Bad Ideas?), puts forward another suggestion and gives the credit to Italy. According to him, there was a Lombard family called Tassis. In around 1450, Ruggiero de Tassis, devised a courier system between Bergamo and Verona. This proved very successful and, throughout the rest of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth century, his descendants expanded the system across large chunks of Europe. It was, in Winston’s version, a small step from ‘tassis’ to ‘taxi.’ And taxis, as you know, whilst we usually associate them with taking people from A to B, are still sometimes used to ferry goods about

TaxiSo, when you hail a taxi in Thailand, England, America, France, Spain, Italy, Germany wherever …, climb in and watch the meter ticking over as you speed (or crawl) towards your destination, should you be mindful of the German inventiveness that is monitoring what you will owe at the end of your journey? Or the Italian development of a convenient means of transport, tailored to the individual customer’s needs?

 

If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to read one of my novels or short stories, please go to my Amazon Author page:

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Time to slay your shibboleths?

Do you have any shibboleths it might be wise to get rid of?

A shibboleth is a long-standing belief or principle that all your friends and family would regard as wrong, out-dated, or no longer important. Like BBC news readers having to read any news bulletin after 8pm wearing a dinner jacket – on the radio! This practice has long gone, and even wearing a tie on TV has started to look a bit old fashioned.

Shibboleths abound in English grammar, although many are falling by the wayside. Who now worries about the split infinitive in ‘to boldly go…’? And who writes letters to the newspapers (or bloggers) if they spot a sentence starting with an ‘and’ or a ‘but’?

Shibboleth can also mean a phrase or use of language that distinguishes one group of people from another. In fact it first came into use in the English language to mean a word that a foreigner finds difficult to pronounce, such as ‘naphthalene’ (the stuff that goes into mothballs), or the French word for you, ‘tu,’ which flummoxes most non-native French speakers

cornLike many words in the English language it is foreign in origin, being Hebrew for an ear of corn. According to the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, when the Ephraimites were beaten in battle by the Gileadites, the Gileadites set up blockades by the river to stop their defeated enemies escaping. (Judges X11, 6)

Members of the two tribes looked similar and Israel tribethe only way to tell them apart was to get anyone crossing the river to say ‘shibboleth.’ Apparently no Ephraimite was able to make the ‘sh’ sound, so was promptly put to death.

To me, the link between the meaning for shibboleth in Hebrew, and its original meaning in English is obvious. But if anyone can tell me how it came to mean an out-dated belief, please get in touch!

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, and would like to read more of my work*, please try the links below:

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*April 23rd being Shakespeare’s birthday (and the anniversary of his death), you may like to try one of my Shakespeare themed short stories:  A Midsummer Day’s Dream, Journey to the Fair Mountain, Chains of Magic, The Ghost Queen. All published by http://www.solsticepublishing.com, and available on Amazon Books for about £1/ $1.

 

How much is a comma worth?

Comma usage can be surprisingly contentious. I am always surprised by how many additional ones proof readers put into my manuscripts before they go to the printers (though I have never seriously thought that they were paid by the comma). However, a recent court case has shown just how valuable a comma (or in this case the lack of one) can be.

In Maine, USA, a Mr O’Connor and 50 fellow truck drivers went to court to argue their caselorry for overtime pay. According to the laws of that state, workers are entitled to overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week, unless there is a specific exemption. The truck drivers’ firm had told the drivers they were not entitled to overtime pay because the law did not apply to those involved in:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packaging for shipment or distribution of:  1)Agricultural produce, 2) Meat and fish products, 3)Perishable foods.”

The firm claimed that this clause included the drivers who distributed the product. The drivers’ lawyers disagreed, noting the absence of a comma after the word shipment. This, they argued, meant the law could only apply to the people packing the produce ‘for shipment or distribution,’ and not to those whose job it was to distribute it.

In other words, a comma after ‘packaging for shipment’ and before ‘distribution,’ would have made it clear that the drivers were not entitled to overtime. But the absence of a comma, judgemeant they were.

The case went as far as an appeal court judge who ruled that the language was indeed ambiguous, paving the way for the truck drivers to claim overtime pay.

 

Many guides to grammar state that you should never put a comma before the ‘and’ or ‘or’ that comes before the last noun etc in a long list. Such dogmatism is silly. As the case above shows, the lack of a comma at this point (it is sometimes known as the Oxford Comma, or serial comma)  can lead to ambiguity. The overarching guide for all writers, not just law makers, should be – will a comma here make my meaning clearer or not?

As writers, few of us are likely to gain financially from our use of commas, but by applying them judiciously we can at least save our readers from becoming confused. And that’s were a good proof reader comes in useful.

If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to read more of my work, please check out my published work page, or go to:

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Paying attention to detail

I recently read a book during which I was constantly distracted by typos, changes of tense mid paragraph and poor page layout. It wasn’t a great book, but these distractions certainly didn’t help keep my attention on the story-line.

Aspiring writers often ask what they need to do to get their book published. Well, aside from a cracking plot and believable characters which no doubt you have already, you need to do all the boring stuff too.

Even if you do not spend money on these matters, you need to ensure your manuscript is properly edited to avoid repetition and inconsistencies – your heroine can not be blonde on one page and brunette ten pages later, unless you point  out on a page in between that she has had her hair dyed. She can’t be allergic to eggs in chapter one and have an omelette in chapter fifteen, without her suffering dire consequences by chapter sixteen. You also need to check and re-check for spelling and grammar mistakes, and ensure there is consistency in the layout of pages, paragraphs and chapters, without the odd blank page appearing in between.

Friends and ‘beta readers’ can help with this, if you don’t want to pay for the services of professionals, but if this work isn’t done, your manuscript is unlikely to be picked out from the piles beside each desk in a publisher’s office.

You may have already decided to go down the self publishing route. Your cover, title and story might be enough to tempt a potential buyer. But if your editing, proofreading, and page layout screams ‘amateur’ rather than professional, that might be the only book you sell.

I have been lucky, most of my work has been published by Solstice – http://www.solsticepublishing.com – or other creditable publishers who undertake to get your work ‘bookshop ready’ before it goes on sale. But, even with proofreaders and editors and my final check over, the odd typo still remains. Just goes to show what a difficult, albeit vital, chore this is. (And, even though I’ve read it twice and run a spell checker over it, I can’t guarantee that this blog is fault free either!)

My Amazon author pages:

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Homophones and Homonyms

Do you know your homophones from your homonyms? Yesterday I was relocating a book on the history of English spelling that I had bought as a student. It had been written by my tutor, David Scragg, and I had hoped that buying it might improve my grades. It didn’t – though I suppose actually reading it would have helped!

Tucked in the book was an article from a newspaper. I’m not sure which one, or the date it was published. It was written by Charles Lewis, a barrister with an interest in language. His particular interest was the ambiguities in English and the problems this can cause ordinary folk, let alone lawyers.

His discussion of homophones and homonyms brought back memories of lecture halls in the ’70s that managed to be simultaneously  stuffy and drafty, and fellow students who managed to snooze peacefully through lectures on the more arcane areas of English grammar despite the uncomfortable wooden benches.

But the two ‘H’ words are quite fun. The examples given below may not work for all English speakers because we use different dialects, but you can probably think of your own word pairings that would.

Homophones are words that are pronounced in the same way, but are spelled differently, like Rome and roam, or horse and hoarse, or wade and weighed, see or sea. Teas / tease / tees. Rain /rein / reign. Homophones are words that sound the same, but come from different language roots (Anglo-Saxon / Latin / Greek etc.)

Homonyms, on the other hand, have the same spelling and pronunciation, but mean completely different things.  For example:  seal – the animal, and seal – the means of closing something; lock – hair or bolt; mine – colliery, or possessive; saw – tool, or past of the verb to see; see, the verb and see, a bishop’s area of responsibility. Again homonyms have come into common usage via different language roots.

There are also a whole pile of words that have the same spelling, but are pronounced differently: tear, wind, does. Lewis called these biphones.

A few words can fit all categories. One such is ‘row.’

  • Homophone – row (your boat) / roe (fish eggs)
  • Homonym – row (your boat) / row (of beans)
  • Biphone – row (your boat) / row (argument).

the-ghost-queen-001If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to find out more about my work, go to the Published
work page on this blog, or my Amazon Author pages.

My most recent work is a short story, The Ghost Queen. It is based  on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and is part of my Shakespeare’s women project. It is published by Solstice.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

myBook.to/GhostQueen