About this site

This is a place to explore our language. Do you want to learn more about how languages work? Read here. Do you have a question about what is "right" and "wrong" in English? Read here. Have you ever noticed something funny, strange, or confusing about the way people talk? Then this is the place for you. Here we can explore the do's, don'ts, and d'ohs of our language.

Friday, December 7, 2007

That is, for example, ludicrous

Here is one for my sister:

The abbreviation i.e. comes from Latin and means "id est," -- literally "that is." It is used to say something else in another way.

Here is an example:
My students are having trouble remembering how to conjugate verbs to indicate an action that was ongoing in the past; i.e. the imperfect tense.

Another example:
I never learned this at the university I attended; i.e. Truman State University.

The abbreviation e.g. also comes from Latin and means "exempli gratia," -- "a good example." It is used to introduce a list of examples.

Here is an example:
The students from Notre Dame High School typically choose to go to colleges in Missouri; e.g. Truman or Saint Louis University.

These two abbreviations are not truly interchangeable. "E.g." appears in front of a list of a couple of choices that help to demonstrate a point. "I.e." appears in front of a specific word or phrase that will help to clarify a point. This can be confusing when "i.e." has the same meaning as "specifically." Take this instance:

Suppose you are testing a child's conceptual and language ability. You have set up an experiment to see if the child understands the concept of "first" and "last." After your experiment, you wish to explain your findings to the child's parents. Here is how you would say it:

John had trouble understanding the ordinal numbers that we used in our experiment; i.e. "first" and "last."

The above sentence indicates that the only two words you tested are "first" and "last."

John had trouble understanding the ordinal numbers that we used in our experiment; e.g. "first" and "last."

This sentence indicates that two of the many words in your test are "first" and "last."

I know it's been a while since I posted last, but I've been busy with lots of things; e.g. teaching, grading, and chasing after Michael. I hope that I will have more time for this other hobby of mine; i.e. mavening.

(Hope this helps, Jill.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


jilledwards said...
And speaking of acronyms evolving into mainstream words, did you know that 'golf' is an acronym? At least, I think it is. I learned this from our uncle Dale, who, quite possibly, could have been trying to fool me. (He's gotten me in the past with Nancy Ann Seeancy...) But this one I believe. Know what it sands for?


Jill is referring to a folk etymology. There is an e-mail circulating that says that golf stands for "Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden." The story goes that the Scots came up with this acronym (golf began in Scotland).

No way, Jose.

Please be careful with creative folk etymology. You can safely bet that the majority of the interesting or cute acronyms regarding word origin are entertainingly false.

The word golf probably comes from the Scottish word gowf which means "to strike" or it could come from the Dutch word kolf which means "club." (Special thanks to Michael Quinion's book Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds for this information.)

Could golf really have come from "gentlemen only ladies forbidden?" It's possible, but not likely. The real truth is that our use of a word is always much more interesting than its origin. Word usage changes and evolves. The way we use a word can change over decades and even centuries.

For our final thought on bogus word etymology, let us look at an interesting word. I will not spell it out here, but I'm sure you will recognize it as vulgar. (Hint: it has four letters, it begins with "s," and it rhymes with mitt.) This colorful word has been around for over four-hundred years. It even appears in Shakespeare. It likely comes to English by way of Middle English, on loan from German. (German has its own counterpart scheisse).

If you want comedy about how the word is used, you won't get it here. (George Carlin does it much better anyway.) But I can understand how we might need to think that such a colorful word has an equally colorful birth. I am referring to the entertaining but bogus folk etymology "Ship High In Transit." The story goes that in colonial times it was necessary to transport fertilizer by boat. Men would write "Ship High In Transit" on boxes of fertilizer as a warning so that the cargo would not get wet and spoil.

I'm sorry, but this explanation is a load of "Ship High In Transit."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A classic bit of bad language.

My students will recognize this one, too.

Have you ever stopped to consider acronyms? Here is the definition, according to
American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
acronym [(ak-ruh-nim)]
A word formed by combining the beginning letters of a name or phrase, as in WASP for "white Anglo-Saxon Protestant", or by combining the initial syllables of a series of words, as in radar, which stands for "radio detecting and ranging."

Note that USA, NBC, NCAA, NAACP, and ATM are not acronyms, because they are not pronounced as words. (We say "en double eh see pee," not "nackup.")

And speaking of ATM's, sometimes abbreviations don't really take the way they are intended. Consider how many times you hear someone utter the abomination "ATM machine." I hope by now you are realizing that ATM of course stands for "automated teller machine." Equally repugnant is the commonly used "PIN number." PIN stands for "personal identification number."

So... "PIN number" really refers to a "personal identification number number."

Am I being picky here? No, I don't think so. Why have wonderful expressions like ATM (an abbreviation) or PIN (an acronym), and then not use them correctly? But I don't get steamed when I hear a friend (or even a stranger) use them incorrectly. What really steams me is when I see "PIN Number" on a machine or even worse, in a newspaper ad. My wonderful wife found a Regions Bank ad in our newspaper where we saw this sentence:

Union Planters Bank is now Regions Bank. Only our name has changed. You still get the same great service, same friendly faces, same account number, even the same PIN number.


A professional wrote this ad, and a professional allowed it to be printed in a newspaper. ARRG!

Well, that's all I can bear to say on this subject right now. Later we might talk about how an acronym finally evolves into a regular word. You don't believe it happens? Of course it does, when we forget the origin of the acronym. Now, scuba is a word. It started out as the acronym which stood for...

Does anyone know? Bonus points if you do! I'll start you off: "Self Contained..."


Friday, April 20, 2007

An oldie but goodie...

Here's a quirky bit of rant for you. My students will recognize this one for sure.

I am at the supermarket with a cranky wife and a crankier nine-month-old. We have just finished filling our shopping cart and now we are standing in line at the check-out lane.

Ben: (Points to the sign above) I can't believe this! Can Wal-Mart really be this dumb?
Laura: What?
Ben: That sign says "Twenty Items or Less!"
Laura: So?
Ben: It should say "Twenty Items or Fewer."
Laura: ...
Ben: The opposite for "more" can be "less" or "fewer." But "less" is reserved for quantities that can't be counted. "Fewer" is used for items that can.
Laura: Only you get worked up about this.
Ben: I'm going to say something about this to the cashier...
Laura: (Sighing) Please don't.

At the cash register
Cashier: Hello. Cute baby.
Laura: Thanks. Say "Hi," Michael.
Michael: Heh!
Ben: Um, your sign should say "Twenty Items or Fewer."
Cashier: Huh?
Laura: Ignore him.

On the way out
Laura: Do you have to embarrass me like that?
Ben: Doesn't it bother you that nobody even cares about that sign.
Laura: (Sweetly) I guess it bothers me fewer than it does you.
Michael: Heh!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

What is a Language Maven

So what is a language maven? I am borrowing this term from Dr. Steven Pinker, a professor of Psychology at Harvard. (Pinker borrowed the term from the great New York Times columnist William Safire.) In his book The Language Instinct, he describes a language maven as a self-styled expert on the language. Mavens, according to Pinker, have firm views on the way language ought to be. He goes on to say that they tend to come across as pontificating know-it-alls who believe that American English is sliding into decay. I highly recommend The Language Instinct to anyone who is interested in how our minds process language.

Here are some things to look for in a good Language Maven:
**Precriptivity. A true language maven is prescriptive: they believe there is a right way and a wrong way to use language. (Compare this with descriptivity. Descriptivists are more interested in describing how language is used, without making value judgments.)

**Knowledge about language. This can be found with a little (or a lot) of research. Have fun reading about how we use language!

**Vitriol. Language mavens are a passionate breed. With unwavering conviction, and with the white-hot authority of a thousand zealots, they must sing out loud, sing out strong.

**Reliability. This is related to knowledge. A good maven should at least have the credentials to back up what he says.

**Accessability. Ideas are meant to be shared, and every language maven wants to share his expertise.

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About The Author

My name is Ben Edwards. I live in Cape Girardeau, Missouri where I grew up. In 2002, I graduated Truman State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics. I have a wife named Laura and a son named Michael. I am proud to be a Spanish teacher at Notre Dame Regional High School. When I am not working, I like to spend time with my family.