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A Word about Word of the Year

It’s the time of year when word professionals choose words of the year. In this most political of years, it’s no surprise Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year.

For those unfamiliar with the word, “post-truth” is defined as “relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influentional in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oxford dictionary editors noted a roughly 2,000 percent increase in the word’s usage over 2015 as the United States and the United Kingdom endured political campaigns that kept fact-checkers busy debunking untrue statements.

Another finalist for word of the year also had political overtones: “alt-right.” Oxford defines “alt-right” as “an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.” Another finalist had nothing at all to do with politics. It was “adulting,” a word which, so far as The Scribe can tell, is used primarily by young adults to describe acts they associate with adulthood, such as “I’m adulting so hard I found a job, bought a stationwagon, and acquired a golden retriever.”

The 2016 word of the year might remind some readers of Merriam-Webster’s 2006 word of the year, “truthiness.” That word, coined by Stephen Colbert, described the phenomenon of believing something that feels true, even if it isn’t supported by fact.

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“They” have chosen the Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society’s word of the year is “they” as a singular pronoun.

This has been coming for a while. Standard grammar demands that “they” must be used with plural antecedents, such as this example: “Music lovers were saddened when they learned of David Bowie’s death.”

But when it comes to singular pronouns, there are only two choices: he or she. English lacks a gender neutral singular pronoun. For reasons I don’t know, but can probably guess, the default rule has been that where a sentence calls for singular pronoun describing a generic, unknown antecedent, the male pronoun is used: “Every voter must do what he can to become informed about the issues.”

That rule has been under attack for at least 20 years, leading to a variety of clunky alternatives, such as “he/she,” “he or she,” or “(s)he.”

In response to these unsatisfactory alternatives, writers have begun using “they” as a singular pronoun despite the fact such usage violates standard grammar. But as often happens with English, what began as a nonconventional usage has started gaining broad acceptance. The American Dialect Society’s award recognizes the emergence of “they” as an acceptable singular pronoun. Similarly, in 2015 The Washington Post style manual changed to allow using “they” as a singular pronoun. Most official style manuals still reject “they,” but there’s a pretty clear trend toward acceptance.

What should you do? The Scribe still prefers to avoid the problem by writing around the need for a singular pronoun that doesn’t describe a specific person. But where it’s unavoidable, “they” seems a preferable alternative to “s/he,” or “he/she.” If it’s good enough for The Washington Post, I can live with it.

And if you’re interested, other finalists for word of the year included “ammosexual,” “ghost” (as a verb, meaning to abruptly end communication), and “on fleek” (a term I admit to having never heard).

You can read about all of the awards here: http://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they

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Fair Well, Fare Well, or Farewell?

This week we discuss a word—farewell—that is used to express good wishes when parting (the correct spelling of the word is “farewell,” not “fair well” or “fare well”).  According to one online source, the word was first used by the Vikings and derives from the Norwegian words “far vell,” which means “travel good.”  Another source says that “fare” comes from the Middle English word faran, which means “to journey.”

But whatever its source, the word is nice, warm way to say “goodbye.”

That is all for now …

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Is it ok to start sentences with “and” or “but”?

The Scribe could devote a lifetime to debunking writing myths.   One such myth is the “rule”—pounded into the heads of unsuspecting elementary school children—that sentences should not begin with “and” or “but.”

But read any publication featuring good writing and you’ll find a high percentage of sentences beginning with “and” and “but.”  And for good reason.  “And” and “but” are nifty connecting words that help your writing flow smoothly by seamlessly linking ideas.  So instead of avoiding “and” and “but,” look for opportunities to use them—and soon your writing will have the creamy consistency of vanilla ice cream left out in the sun for eight hours … or something like that.

That is all for now …

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Is it ok to split infinitives?

This week we talk about split infinitives.  Usually, an infinitive begins with the word “to” followed by a verb, e.g., “to sleep,” “to dream,” “to run,” “to go.”  An infinitive can be used as a noun (“To be or not to be: that is the question.”), an adjective (“MHKC needs volunteers to cut wood.”), or an adverb (“The staff member returned to help carry wood.”).  In the first example the infinitive “to be” is the subject, in the second example the infinitive “to cut” modifies the noun “volunteers,” and in the third example the infinitive “to help” modifies the verb “returned.”  An infinitive can also function as a verb of course, although it cannot be the only verb in a sentence (e.g., “You have to think before you speak.”).

With that basic understanding of what an infinitive is, we come to this week’s topic:  when, if ever, is it ok to split an infinitive?  Let’s start with some examples:

  • To boldly go where no one has gone before.
  • Alice was told to always pay attention to the lesson.
  • She wants to simply live.

It seems to be generally accepted that nothing should come between the word “to” and the verb that follows; otherwise, a “split” infinitive results.  But is that really a hard-and-fast grammatical rule?

Well … no.  According to most grammarians, splitting infinitives is not improper.  For example, Strunk & White (“Elements of Style,” 4th ed. 2000, page 78) opine:

Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does.  “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.”  The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible.  Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal.

And the Scribe’s favorite grammarian, Bryan Garner (“Modern American Usage,” 2nd ed. 2003, pages 742-744), agrees that many infinitives—including “to boldly go”—need to be split to avoid an awkward-sounding sentence.  So, dear readers, there is no hard-and-fast rule against splitting infinitives.

Nevertheless, if it is easy to move the infinitive-splitting word to the beginning or end of the phrase, then you may be better off keeping the infinitive intact on the off chance that your reader thinks that there is a rule against splitting infinitives.  For example, if you’re trying to convey that the object of the sentence wants to simplify her life, then “She wants to simply live” can be changed to “She wants to live simply.”  On the other hand, “To boldly go where no one has gone before” sounds awkward when changed to either “Boldly to go where …” or “To go boldly where …,” and is therefore best left with a split infinitive.

That is all for now …

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What is “people first” language and why should we use it?

Mark Twain once observed, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”  In the spirit of Mark Twain, on July 1, 2005, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed a bill into law that requires state bills, laws, and regulations to adopt people first language in new documents, specifically forbidding language that does not put the person before the disability.  Since then, other states have enacted their own people first language laws.  But what is “people first” language?

Historically, society viewed people with mental or physical impairments as broken or afflicted; and language used to describe people with developmental disabilities reflected that view.  By changing the way that people are described, the people first language movement seeks to change how society views people with disabilities and foster more positive attitudes.  (As background, the federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act defines a “developmental disability” as a severe chronic disability that is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination thereof, manifested before the individual attains age 22 and likely to continue indefinitely—which results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity:  self care; receptive and expressive language; learning; mobility; self-direction; capacity for individual living; and economic self-sufficiency.)

In the developmental disability context, people first language is language that promotes understanding, respect, dignity, and a positive view of people with disabilities.  People first language puts the “person” first in thought and word—and emphasizes abilities, not limitations.  For example, in Oregon administrative rules and statutes the phrase “individuals with disabilities” has replaced phrases such as “disabled person” or “special needs child.”  This puts the person before any disability and describes what the person has … not who the person is.

So why use people first language?  First of all, people with disabilities are ordinary people who—like everyone else—have individual abilities, interests, goals, and needs.  Their contributions enrich our communities and society, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  Also, old descriptions perpetuate negative stereotypes and generate attitudinal barriers.  So, as part of our efforts to eliminate discrimination of all types, we should strive to use language that demonstrates respect for all people.

For more information, go to http://www.oregonpublichealth.org/assets/2014_Conference/2014_Presentation_Slides/respectful%20interactions%20final.pdf

That is all for now …

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Preventive and preventative …

Today’s tip is brief, because the Scribe is headed to court to argue a motion and save the world.

On NPR this morning, there was a discussion about “preventive care” and I thought, shouldn’t it be “preventative care?”  After consulting Webster’s, I determined that “preventive” and “preventative” have the same meaning and are used interchangeably. But while neither form is wrong, “preventive” is the more common, and strictly correct, version.

That is all for now …

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