Entries in Fascista (5)

Friday
Oct302009

Collective Nouns

Logo-geek that I am, I love collective nouns.  My mother owns a terrific book of them called An Exaltation of Larks. The internet has no shortage of lists of them; here's a terrific compilation, some of which were coined or collected by Dame Julia Barnes in 1486. 

A murder of crows (one of the more famous collective nouns) recently appeared in an episode of Flash Forward.  But all this is merely a preamble to David Malki !'s latest genius, which I graciously reproduce for you below.  In the interest of full FTC disclosure, David Malki ! (see here for the explanation for the interesting "spelling" of his name) in no way compensates me for my faithful fandom.

Wednesday
Sep102008

This Man Is Clearly Writing For Me

(Click on the comic to enlarge it.) A friend just sent me another Wondermark comic today, and I fell in love instantly. Find more neo-Victorian hilarity at www.wondermark.com.

Thursday
May012008

Fascista Friday: Author and Attorney

If this is your first time reading a Fascista post, please read the disclaimers first.

Thanks to everyone who has written to me with requests and suggested topics. I've made a list (sorry, Brillig; no spreadsheet yet) and will address them in the future. Keep 'em coming! I love your feedback.

I'm a writer; Patrick is a lawyer. Today I take on the misusage of two words related to the professions we have chosen: 'author' and 'attorney.' Despite what you probably hear in everyday conversation, neither word can stand alone in describing what someone does for a living.

An author is someone who creates something, as in the following examples (emphasis mine):

"The author of our salvation was made perfect through suffering."

"...it will be necessary to provide affidavits establishing the commission of the crime and the identity of the fugitive as the author of the crime."

"As the author of Moby-Dick, quite possibly the greatest American novel, and slippery protomodern works like 'Bartleby the Scrivener,' 'Benito Cereno' and 'Billy Budd,' Melville is a towering presence."

Notice that in the preceding sentences, the word "author" is always followed by "of [something]." Let's say that I'm at a swanky Manhattan cocktail party, the kind where as a conversation opener, someone invariably asks, "So, what do you do?"

I would normally answer, "I'm a writer," but I could also use the words "novelist," "lyricist," "poet," or "essayist," depending on which part of my body of work I feel like highlighting. I would never say, "I'm an author," full stop/period. Never.

The word 'author' demands a modifying prepositional phrase describing the creation. I might say later in the conversation, "I'm the author of Shannon's Mirror," or "I'm a co-author of the essay collection Silent Notes Taken," or (let's all cross our fingers together) "I'm the author of ZF-360, a fantasy novel being published next year by [reputable publisher]."

This means that the creator of the course title of a class I took my freshman year of college, "Major British Authors Before 1800," employed incorrect usage. Why would an English professor, of all people, fall prey to such folly? I have to assume that s/he thought "Authors" sounded somehow more weighty and important than "Writers." And in fact, Fowler points out that a large portion of usage errors arise from the desire to dress up language; insecurity is often the sorry parent of this desire.

People misuse the word "attorney" for precisely this reason. "Lawyer" has had negative connotations from at least the time of the translation of the King James Bible ("Woe unto you also, ye lawyers!"); these connotations obviously persist today ("A lawyer, a loan shark, and a garbageman are in a bar..."). But here's why "attorney" should not be used as some kind of distancing euphemism.

Patrick went to law school, earned a Juris Doctor degree, and passed the New York State Bar to become a lawyer. But all this didn't make him an attorney.

An attorney is "a person legally appointed by another to act as his or her agent in the transaction of business." This is why when someone grants you a power of attorney (though you may not be a lawyer), you are authorized to act in behalf of that person in specific instances. In this case you would be an attorney-in-fact, as opposed to an attorney-at-law.

If Patrick has no clients, he is not anyone's attorney. Fortunately for us, he does have clients; he is Bill Brohn's attorney, for example. (Trivia: the Attorney General is the main legal adviser to the government.) So, at that same swanky cocktail party, modest, self-deprecating Patrick will declare that he is a plain, ordinary lawyer, not an attorney, and endure the inevitable jokes that ensue.

Can you think of other professions that get dressed up with fancy words to make them sound more important? Other than the two I've addressed here, I can only think of "sanitation engineer." Let me know.

**UPDATED** I am in no way saying that all those who use "author" instead of "writer" or "attorney" instead of 'lawyer' are doing so because they are pretentious. These are common, everyday errors that the unwitting can easily pick up through linguistic "osmosis."

Friday
Apr252008

Fascista Friday: House and Home

If you're new to Fascista Friday, please read the caveats and disclaimers here.


It's a reality that language is a changing and evolving entity. Verbs become nouns, nouns become verbs, and slang transforms from shibboleth to common usage in the blink of a generational eye. Those fluent in modern English don't speak, write or think using the same language the translators of the King James Bible or the framers of the Constitution did, even though it seems that way some of the time. I can accept this, for the most part.

Today's subject is a crusade doomed from the start; I stand as but a feeble stem in the tsunami-level tide on this one. Why bring it up for the Fascista's sophomore week? Maybe because it's my most cherished usage peeve, or maybe just to prove to the world how very quixotic I am. If I were Catholic, I would take the matter to Saint Jude, the patron of lost causes. I'm not, though, so I guess I'm on my own.

My topic today is the usage of 'home' and 'house.' Traditionally, 'house' described a particular type of physical structure, whereas 'home' meant the place where you live and feel you belong.

Here's how Robert Frost famously defined 'home,' from his 1915 poem "The Death of the Hired Man."

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

But this strict and precise definition of 'home' started to change in the 1950s. After World War II, when America invented the Suburban Dream, a profession rose up out of obscurity into great prominence. I refer, of course, to the vast army of real estate agents now entrenched permanently throughout the global village. These humble soldiers, given the task of marketing properties to a prosperous public, redefined 'home,' with far-reaching results. Here's what usage guru Kenneth Wilson writes [bold emphasis mine; italics his]:
Realtors have turned home into a euphemism: no realtors worth their salt will sell houses, only warm, emotion-filled homes....Nor is this the only euphemistic entanglement the highly charged word home has been involved in: the terms convalescent home, retirement home, and nursing home are in such universal use that the more explicit, informative asylum, convalescent hospital, retirement center, or nursing hospital are no longer current. Much tugging and hauling is ill-concealed in this double use of the word: We wanted to keep mother at home, but the doctor said she’d be better off in a home.
--Kenneth G. Wilson (1923–). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1993.

Modern dictionaries are now bowing to the weight of nearly universal usage of 'home' in this way, though stalwarts like the OED persist in more traditional (though somewhat slippery) meanings such as "the physical dwelling-place of a family."

Redefining and using 'home' for purposes of commerce has cheapened the term. I hear nearly everywhere phrases like "a home's energy use" or "that old Victorian home on the hill" or 'his home value went up with the pool installation" or "buying a home in Montclair" or "sold their home for less than what they paid for it."

Just as money can't buy you love, money can't buy a home. In all cases in the preceding paragraph, 'home' is used incorrectly; 'house' would have been proper usage. It may seem extreme to you, but I believe that using 'home' to refer to a physical structure rather than a place of the heart (or at least, habit) shows our culture's unhealthy focus on material objects as substitutes for the things that really matter in life.

Here are some examples of 'home' used appropriately:

She returned home after a grueling semester at college.

They made their first home in Ames, Iowa. [They didn't buy or build the physical structure; they settled in and made the house their home. Got it?]

He filled our home with laughter and chaos.

And finally, a bit of doggerel that may prove a useful mnemonic for those willing to join my crusade: “A house is made of walls and beams; a home is built with love and dreams.”

Some of you are now muttering, "Lighten up, Francis." I bow to your wishes and offer you a lighthearted, but topical, bit o' fun:

Friday
Apr182008

Fascista Friday: The Launch


I heart grammar.

Here's why. The object of prose writing--novels, essays, short stories, blog posts--is communication and expression. To communicate clearly, prose should only be a vehicle; it should never draw attention to itself (poetry is another story). If it does, it distracts the reader, and its effectiveness to communicate the underlying idea is diluted. If I'm reading fiction, for example, the minute I focus on the words, I've fallen out of the story. Not good.

In order to have the most transparent and effective communication, a writer should pay attention to infrastructure: spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage. Otherwise the writer runs the risk of losing her audience.

Let's say I want to brush up on current politics. I drop in on a popular blogger to get her view on the latest GOP scandal. As I read, I encounter spelling errors and usage of the word 'lay' when the writer clearly meant 'lie.' Since I can't trust her knowledge of the rules of her chosen medium, I find I also can't trust the opinion she is attempting to convey.

I'm not a licensed grammarian (nor do I play one on TV, more's the pity). However, my daily dealings with the general public lead me to believe that I know more--or, at least, care more--about spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage than does the average bear.

The reference books on my desk are probably another clue:



In case you can't read the spines, the books pictured are (from left to right):

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary;
The American Heritage Dictionary;
Words into Type;
The Chicago Manual of Style;
The Modern Rhyming Dictionary;
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations;
The Little, Brown Handbook of Grammar;
Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus;
Strunk & White's The Elements of Style; and
20,001 Names for Baby (I use it for naming characters).

Not pictured but often consulted is Fowler's Modern English Usage; I keep that one by my bed.

I'm afraid I'm not kidding.

I'm trying something new here at Novembrance for the next few Fridays: I'm going to write a piece each week on a little-understood, much-abused rule of grammar or usage. I might toss in some punctuation or spelling advice just for spice. I'll try to keep the posts brief and entertaining, and we'll see how it goes.

Disclaimer 1: Since I heart grammar, it's possible that you and I have different ideas of what constitutes entertainment.

Disclaimer 2: I sometimes break the rules. In fact, I've broken several rules of formal written English already in this post. Usually I do it consciously for various creative reasons, but sometimes things slip by me. I'm not setting myself up as any sort of infallible authority, even though one of Patrick's pet names for me is "The Grammar Fascista."

Disclaimer 3: The rules of written English differ slightly depending on the field in which one is writing. For example, the rules of the Modern Language Association (MLA) govern the world of academia, while the Chicago Manual of Style and Words Into Type are large and in charge in the world of mainstream publishing. The latter arena will be my focus here. I haven't written a term paper in years, so when you need the nitpicky details of academese and its particular shibboleths, ask someone else.

Now that we have all that out of the way, here's a little snippet of usage goodness to kick things off.

The word 'unique' means "being the only one of its kind...without equal or equivalent; unparalleled."

In other words, 'unique' is an incomparable; either something is unique, or it isn't. If you don't believe me, go ask Stephen King. 'Unique' should never be modified with adverbs such as 'very,' 'more,' or 'so.' (Fowler says 'unique' can tolerate a very few adverbs, 'almost,' 'nearly,' and 'perhaps' being the best examples. But Fowler was a pro; my advice to you is to err on the side of caution and don't modify it at all.)

Bad usage: "Her hairstyle is totally unique."

Good usage: "Her hairstyle is unique," or "Her hairstyle is very unusual."

There you have it. Tune in next Friday for another installment from the Fascista (but I'll be around here plenty in the meantime, so don't be a stranger).