Friday, February 1, 2008

Pre- this, baby

A tip of the cap on this to Brian Santo (aka Wretch, as in ink-stained), who years ago published what amounted to a chemical equation as a headline in EE Times. It hung in another colleague's office until just last year.

Onward... Brian brings up the abuse of the prefix "pre." “Pre” is a prefix that you can easily begin to watch out for. There are scores of words where it is correct, but scores of words that lazy writers have coined and, in the process, created hilarious redundancies. For instance:
"...it comes pre-installed..."
"...it's pre-packaged..."
"... the system is pre-configured..."
"When I'm really old, I expect my food to be pre-chewed."

As I noted in my inaugural post, there's "pre-plan ahead." And there's a "pre-established" whatever.

Researching this post, I came across "preadult," which originated between 1900-1905. What's wrong with "adolescent" and "child?"

In any case, I'm feeling prescient that there will a fair amount of pre-game imbiding this Super Bowl Sunday, which will precipitate a predisposition among many to precarious amounts of tipsness. There is precedent.
But this may just be my prejudice.

Words of the day

Aliquot: (adj.) 2. Chem., Pharm., comprising a known fraction of a whole and constituting a sample: "an aliquot quantity of acid for analysis."
From Latin ali, some other and quot, as many as.

Bolus: 1. Pharm., Ve., Med. A round mass of medicinal material, larger than an ordinary pill.
From the Greek, bolos: clod or lump.

I'm fairly confident that I will never again come across these two words in the same editing session. These popped out while I was reviewed an awards-nomination form for a high-tech, transdermal patch that delivers multiple medications.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Focus, focus, focus


The longer your parents are gone, the more the questions build. I have stored up bunch for my old man. Among the top five are: "You had money. Why did we have a monocular? Why not binoculars???"
If you've never seen a monocular it was because my old man bought the only one ever sold on the market. At any one moment in history, there are only so many one-eyed bird-watchers. But he had to have it. And it was a lot cheaper than the cheapest binocular set, which played to the core values of a man who, despite being wealthy, bought sport coats at K-Mart for $15. (The deal thrilled him, but it made my mom weep publicly).
The monocular: Undoubtedly it was designed by a German count who lost one eye in an artillery blast at Verdun. Everyone else in the world has binoculars, and while it's never easy to get each lens focused, you can at least at least try. With a monocular, you're squinting into the eyepiece and trying to determine if, yes, by golly, that is an ivory-billed woodpecker, or, more accurately, you're looking at an eyelash that's been permanently embedded in your cornea because you've been spending 20 minutes shoving your eye socket into the damn device trying to see something, anything.
Why, oh why, do I bring this up? Because I read constantly the construction "heavily focused" or "focused heavily." I Googled "focused heavily" in quotation marks and it returned 114,000 citations.
It's one of those phrases that drives ya nuts. Focus and weight do not go together the way that McDonald's and weight go together. In fact they don't go together at all.
If you want to modify focus, try "narrowly." But even then, why modify a perfectly good verb?
When it comes to good writing, the mantra is focus, focus, focus.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I hear that train a-comin'



Trains are loud, and steam-powered locomotives probably louder than diesel-powered trains. But Julia Flynn Siler took that noise to a new level in her book, House of Mondavi. In the first chapter, she wrote of family patriarch Cesare Mondavi travelling to California:

"As their smoke-bellowing train transported the family across the Great Plains and the desert into California..."


So not only did Mondavi have to put up with rocking and rolling, clanking and clatter of the old train (not to mention cranky kids, sleepless nights and flatulent fellow travellers), but the smoke was yelling at him.

Billowing is what she was looking for.

bil·low (bl) n.
"A great swell, surge, or undulating mass, as of smoke or sound.

Dictionary.com tells us the origin:
1545–55; <>bylgja wave, c. MLG bulge; akin to OE gebylgan to anger, provoke]

Monday, January 28, 2008

You know, um, she's like...

When I was a kid, my father would ride me mercilessly to get rid of a speech tics.
"I have a funny story for you," I'd start.
"I'll be the judge of that," he'd reply. (He got that response from HIS old man).
The biggest thing was "um." I had a habit, as did many kids in their pre-adolescent years, of inserting "um" in mid-speech as a way to pause and think about what to say next. He dinged me on it constantly. I remember vividly riding in our old Willys Jeep through the woods one summer day trying to tell him something laced with "ums." He kept knocking them back at me like Arthur Ashe volleying at the U.S. Open.
He won. Eventually. He forced me to pause silently as I searched for the next phrasing and he allowed me to feel comfortable pausing because he wouldn't interrupt.
Today, it's almost impossible to pause in the middle of a sentence because whomever you're with will interject something. It's a massive problem in this era, and we'll take that subject up later.

Onward...

"Successfully achieved..." You can't unsuccessfully achieve, win, pass, modulate or do anything.
So when it comes to adverbs, I'll twist a line: "Trust yourself with adverbs the way you would trust a toddler with a butcher knife."

An annual headache

Often, people build sentences like McMansions. They insert phrases they think are giving heft to the communications, when they're just muddying the message.
"In an effort to..." and "seeking to bring"... are common poor constructions.

The following graf, which I pulled from a BusinessWire release this morning, uses one of those phrases in a sea of words, which, viewed as a whole border on the meaningless:

"Home-based occasions are rising with consumers seeking to bring the favored aspects of on-trade alcoholic drinks consumption into the home. However, although volume sales are rising, heavy discounting is limiting value growth and undermining the potential in consumers' openness to trading up."
Onward...
"Five finalists for its first annual..."
It can't be annual if it's the first.



Sunday, January 27, 2008

Safire On Language

Columnist William Safire is retired from the New York Times, although he continues to write "On Language" for The New York Times Magazine. Some years after I got the Edwin Newman books on language, someone gave me Safire's "On Language," which is and will be a classic. He had a chapter in there about whether to use "dived" or "dove" as the past tense. He weaved through arguments on both sides--arguing strongly, though, that "dived" is correct--until concluding that he wasn't sure it mattered.
"I'm not a hawk on dove," he wrote.
(His column today focuses on the word "change," beaten like an old horse in this year's presidential campaign.)

 

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