Posted on September 29, 2011 Posted by Bertha Perez


Dots, Words, and Juice: Three Books on Words

by Erin Brenner on September 29, 2011

I’ve reviewed several serious reference books in this blog. But language books don’t all have to be serious to be worth reading. Sometimes they can be fun and entertaining—and still teach you something. Here are three books that fit that description.

Alphabetter Juice

Roy Blount (pronounced blunt) Jr. is the author of many books on various topics, a frequent panelist on Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and a member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel. Alphabetter Juice is a follow-up to Alphabet Juice, both humorous works of word stories.

Blount espouses the concept of sonicky, a word he created from “sonic (evocative of sound) and kinesthetic (evocative of body movement).” Sonicky words, “the most expressive English words,” he writes, “engage the ear, the vocal apparatus, and by implication other parts of the body: call me suggestible, but I can feel hump, which first appeared in English as part of humpback, in my upper back and shoulders.” It’s an interesting concept, one that leads Blount to look at all manner of words, including ad hominy, gag, and knickknack.

The entries are arranged alphabetically (more or less), so you can jump in and out any way you’d like, making it a great read when you don’t have much time to read. Read a couple entries while your computer boots up. Read a couple more while the cupcakes bake. Read a couple of pages just before bed. (Now you know how I get my reading done. Cupcakes, anyone?)

One note: I read this book on my Kindle. I love the advantages of an e-reader, but Blount’s book deserved better treatment than it got. There were many odd line breaks and some typos, neither of which exist in the print edition. I’ve read other e-editions that don’t have this problem, so I know this isn’t a universal problem. Whoever prepped the book for e-readers needs to hire a proofreader (I’m available). Do yourself a favor with this particular book: read it in print.

On the Dot

On the Dot by Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez is ostensibly about that mark we use for periods. Really, though, chapters just start with the different uses of the dot, such as in Morse Code, as bullets, with musical notes, and as part of several punctuation marks. The discussion then goes wherever the words lead the authors. You might get a brief history of Morse Code and ciphers, such as the cipher George Washington used, or an explanation of bullet lists followed by an entertaining history of the word bullet to mean the projectile that comes from a firearm.

The brothers Humez know their stuff, too. Writers independent of each other, they’ve coauthored several books on language, including Latin for People and Alpha to Omega. Their writing is rhythmic and witty, their topic light and entertaining. On the Dot is a fun read for a dreary day.

How to Read a Word

Historical lexicographer Elizabeth Knowles knows words and how to build “word files.” She’s worked on the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And she knows how dictionaries work.

Her book How to Read a Word introduces readers to the art of creating word files and, thus, dictionaries. Knowles walks us through the process, sharing plenty of word stories along the way. You can read the stories behind wordhoard, Twitterati, vocabulary, and more.

Knowles encourages readers to build their own word files. In the introduction, she writes:

Encountering an unfamiliar word or phrase … is a provocation to find out more. … There has probably never been a time when someone who wishes to explore words has had richer resources to hand. I hope that How to Read a Word will offer its readers a chance to make full use of what is now available to us all.

The book is smartly written. A little more formal than either On the Dot or Alphabetter Juice, it is nevertheless accessible to general readers and is a wealth of information for word lovers.

Don’t forget to vote for The Writing Resource in Grammar.net’s Best Grammar Blog of 2011 contest!

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Posted on September 29, 2011 Posted by Bertha Perez


Word Story: Adverse Reactions

by Erin Brenner on September 28, 2011

For quite a while in this blog, I’ve been writing Vocab Builders to help readers learn new words. Most Vocab Builders included four or five words, their definitions, and sample sentences found in the wild. Studying words in this manner is one way to improve your vocabulary.

Lately, though, I’ve been drawn to learning the story behind a word to learn the word. Where has the word been? What was its original meaning and how was it used? This column will give you the story behind the word.


This adjective means “unfavorable or harmful,” as with an adverse reaction. It also means “acting in opposition.” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says that adverse first appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (spelling modernized):

Then said he thus, fulfilled of high disdain,
“O cruel love, and thou, Fortune adverse,
This all and some, that falsely have thee slain
Criseyde, and sin thee may do me no worse,
Fie on your might and works so diverse!”

It’s thought that Chaucer borrowed adverse from the Old French avers, meaning “unfriendly” or “contrary,” according to Online Etymology. Originally avers descended from the Latin adversus, “turned against” or “turn toward.”

These days, you’re likely to find adverse paired with effects, reactions, or impact, among other nouns.

Not cryogenics, just a carefully maintained cold period above freezing, but low enough to slow metabolism almost to a standstill, prevent cellular damage, other adverse effects. —The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Jan-Feb 2011

That’s especially important if you have kidney or liver problems, since both ailments multiply the risk of adverse drug reactions. —Consumer Reports, July 2008

If the costs to society of an action by the agency exceed the benefits, that situation has no immediate adverse impact on the agency. —USA Today Magazine, November 2008

What word stories are you interested in hearing? Let me know in the comments section below.

Shameless Self-Promotion

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Posted on September 28, 2011 Posted by Bertha Perez


Celebrate National Punctuation Day

by Erin Brenner on September 23, 2011

Tomorrow is National Punctuation Day. Jeff Rubin, creator of the holiday, offers lots of ways to celebrate the day on his site. In addition, you might view punctuation videos, like this one from the original Electric Company:

If the new Electric Company is more your style, LL Cool J has song for you, too:

For the more serious among you, check out my post on Copyediting for punctuation reading, plus a new contest.

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Posted on September 23, 2011 Posted by Bertha Perez


Forget Everything Strunk & White Told You

by Erin Brenner on September 22, 2011

Recently on Twitter, fellow copyeditor CopyCurmudgeon offered this advice to writers and editors:

Tip: Put down Strunk and White and slowly back away. Then forget everything they told you.

CopyCurmdgeon then links to an article by Geoffrey Pullum, a well-known and well-respected linguist, on what’s wrong with Strunk and White’s famous little book. Writes Pullum, “Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.” He then details what he dislikes about the book. What he likes about the book he labels, quoting Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless.”

The real problem is that many people (including some writers and editors) suffer under the illusion that if you can speak you can write. Not so. Language is complicated, and we’re nowhere near to understanding it completely. Writing is hard work. Trying to wrestle an entire discipline that concerns something we don’t understand perfectly and that constantly changes into short, pithy rules is bound to fail. Sure, you can create some rules, but they’ll never be comprehensive or complex enough. Even in this blog, where I can write as much as I want, I can’t write enough to cover something completely. Pullum’s grammar book is almost 2,000 pages!

I’ve read of teachers defending Strunk & White because it’s easy for students to follow. But if the content is misleading or downright wrong, what are they following? It’s like telling students not to start a sentence with because. There’s more to the story than that. Starting a sentence with because can sometimes create incomplete sentences. But it’s actually OK to start a sentence with because if (1) it’s part of a complete sentence or (2) you are intentionally writing an incomplete sentence and you don’t overdo the incomplete sentences.

But instead of teaching a more comprehensive point, many simply teach “don’t start a sentence with because.” Maybe that works for middle-school students, but even by high school, students should be learning more than that. And in a book for college-aged and adult writers, writing such a simplistic rule is irresponsible.

This has long been a complaint of mine: many grammar and writing books written for adults simplify the rules too much. People follow the rules slavishly, but they miss the nuances. As a result, they write poorly but think they write well.

Writing is not easy. It’s a skill and an art. You need some aptitude and lots of training, as well as editors and readers to help you see the writing separate from the meaning. This will help correct the writing to make the meaning clearer.

Given that I’d steer writers and editors away from Strunk & White, what would I recommend? Here are a few books that are readable and knowledgeable but that don’t skimp on the meaning:

What’s your favorite writing or grammar advice book? Share it in the comments section below.

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