Robert J. Thornton, professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA., was feeling frustrated about one of the worst occupational hazards of being a teacher — that of having to write letters of recommendation for people with dubious qualifications. In an attempt to address the problem, he decided to put together an arsenal of statements that can be read two ways, and he called his collection the Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations — or LIAR for short!
LIAR may be used to offer a negative opinion of the personal qualities, work habits or motivation of the candidate, while allowing the candidate to believe that (s)he is being praised to high heaven. If you study the following examples, you'll soon get the hang of it:
Thornton points out that LIAR is not only useful in preserving friendships, but it can also help avoid serious legal trouble in a time when laws have eroded the confidentiality of letters of recommendation.
In most American states, he notes, job applicants have the right to read the letters of ecommendation, and can even file a suit against the writer if the contents are too negative. When the writer uses LIAR, however, "whether perceived correctly or not by the candidate, the phrases are virtually litigation-proof."
Professor Thornton's book first appeared in October 2003 and is published by Sourcebooks Hysteria at a list price of $14.99. If you're stuck choosing a birthday present for the person who already has everything, this highly entertaining read might just be your answer.
© David V. Appleyard 2013 All rights reserved
Over the years there have been postings to alternative usage English (AUE) websites that were based upon the misconception that the genitive case always indicates possession. This fallacy leads to people saying things like: "It can't be right to say 'the room's furnishings' because a room can't possess something."
The genitive case is in fact used for several things besides possession. Bergen and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, discuss seven genitive types:
(The Evanses give a detailed discussion of each type; I've only hinted at their discussions, mostly by giving a few examples.)
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says, in part:
Bishop Lowth in 1762 used the word possessive in place of the older term genitive; so then did other 18th-century grammarians, and many grammarians since have used it. This change in terminology has led to a few minor usage problems based on the erroneous supposition that the only function of the genitive is to show possession. [...] Fries found that the possessive genitive was the most common, but that it accounted for only 40-percent of all genitives.
They discuss a number of uses of the genitive and give examples of each. Under "descriptive genitive or classifying genitive", with the comment "Fries adds the genitive of measure to this", they list:
the room's furnishings
the airplane's speed
the building's foundation
one day's leave
a dollar's worth
a year's wages
the Eighty Years' War
A comment in MWDEU concerns the rephrasing of the genitive with apostrophe to a structure with a prepositional phrase, as in:
"the airplane's speed" => "the speed of the airplane".
They point out that, in what one grammarian (Evans) has called the genitive of purpose (listed above), the prepositional phrase must use the preposition "for" rather than "of", as in:
"men's shirts" => "shirts for men", and
"a girls' school" => "a school for girls".
Mark Israel's AUE FAQ doesn't cover the genitive-equals-possessive fallacy per se, but he does skirt the perimeter of it with:
The Latin plural of "curriculum vitae" is "curricula vitae".
[ . . . ]
This is a feature of the Latin genitive of content, which differs in this regard from the more common Latin genitive of possession.
A classic story in linguistics lore tells of the grammarian who tried to classify all of the ways the genitive can be used. He eventually threw up his hands and said that the genitive is the case that shows any relationship between two substantives.
© Bob Cunninham 2004 All rights reserved
You may have noticed that virtually all EFL textbook authors are going to considerable lengths to promote so called gender-neutral vocabulary among foreign students of English. They would also have overseas learners believe that most of the newly contrived, gender-inclusive job titles have won widespread public acceptance beyond the shores of lobbyist-ruled America, which is often not the case.
Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of English job titles have always been—and always will be—gender-neutral. You have your cleaner, clerk, engineer, florist, hairdresser, pilot or doctor, to name but a few. What varies is whether or not either of the sexes is prevalent in any given profession in any given location, and how this influences our own expectations.
If a particular job is unevenly distributed among men and women, we instinctively feel the urge to add either male or female to the job title when clarification is deemed important. Because this can be awkward, yes—even in this day and age—it is hard to resist the temptation to make use of a gender-specific form when such a variant exists and is universally understood.
Not an inconsiderable number of us still wonder what is actually wrong with referring to a female flight attendant as a stewardess, a female waiter as a waitress, or for that matter a male nurse as a male nurse—given that men remain very much underrepresented in the nursing profession. The fact that surviving gender-specific names for a few professions are more word-economical and have greater informational value is indisputable.
If you then attempt an honest assessment of which job titles actually sound more appealing, perhaps "flight attendant" and "server" just aren't that cool after all. Furthermore, if we must insist on calling our chairman a "chairperson," then why not a horseman a "horseperson?" Should we even go so far as to tackle openly "sexist" nationality nouns and replace an Englishman with the gender-inclusive "Englishperson?" The sky is the limit if you choose to go looking.
But wait. Even if we did all consent to having our English doctored in the prescribed manner, what in the world are proponents of all-inclusive job titles hoping to do about the likes of French or German? The logical consequence of their seemingly misguided argumentation would be to have entire European languages branded as "sexist" on account of their grammatical genders. Across much of Europe there are feminine forms of the definite and indefinite articles, and people's titles and professions are regularly feminized with a suffix equivalent to the -ess that guardians of political correctness in the English-speaking world take such exception to. No one could assert, however, that this allegedly sexist language has prevented either France or Germany from making greater strides toward sexual equality than many an English-speaking country. Interestingly, occidental francophone territories appear to be heading in the exact opposite direction to us, with Quebec taking the lead in promoting feminine job titles that previously didn't exist for certain professions traditionally dominated by men.
So perhaps it is time to view things in perspective and stop taking ourselves quite so deadly seriously. If your mail is brought to you by a male man then it is still fine by me (and I guess a good many others) to refer to him as a mailman (or postman) rather than a "mail carrier." If your next drink is served up by a barmaid, the chances are she'll be even more tender than a bartender. And if the star of that next box-office success happens to be female, there is no commonsense reason to postpone appreciation of this propitious circumstance by vaguely referring to her as an actor instead of an actress. That is unless you yourself want to!
The bottom line has to be our right of free expression.
© David V. Appleyard 2014 All rights reserved
We get invited to so many "meetings," but do we really need to attend all of them? Use the following 10 questions to assess if you should accept that next meeting invitation:
Don’t attend any meeting without a clear agenda. Otherwise you are wasting precious time. Don’t ever schedule a meeting unless you make it clear to your attendees what the purpose, time-frame and outcomes of the meeting will be.
Ask this question to ensure the meeting is set at the right level and the correct people are involved.
Make sure there is a good reason for you personally to attend the meeting.
Be strict with your own time and also those of the attendees. If you are scheduling the meeting, always start on time regardless of if all attendees have arrived. Make it known you will start on time.
Advise all attendees that it will finish on time to allow them to attend their next engagement.
Where possible, don’t sit through unnecessary discussions; only attend when the agenda item relates to you or your department.
Get clear instructions on the preparation required. If the person scheduling the meeting advises that you don’t need to prepare anything, ask question 3 again: Why do you want me involved?
If possible, take minutes at the meeting (handwritten OK), walk to the photocopier, make enough copies for everyone, and then give them out. Avoid the extra work of typing minutes unless absolutely necessary.
Ask for clear instructions, including the floor and meeting room number to ensure you don’t waste time looking for the right location.
Where possible, handle matters over the phone or the Net to avoid wasting time traveling to and from meetings.
By asking these 10 simple questions, you will help educate those around you on the importance of managing and respecting time. You will save yourself time and be more productive in your day.
News reports from the sub-continent suggest some Indians may be trying to Americanize their English in order to make themselves attractive to U.S. corporations and to find new job opportunities created by outsourcing. This is especially true in the hi-tech field, and is most prevalent among those in their 20s and early 30s — a burgeoning age group keenly concerned about future employment prospects. They are now taking advantage of special courses designed to familiarize them with American vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling.
This is a significant development because ever since colonial times British English has been the language of officialdom and the elite in India, serving as it has as lingua franca in a country with no fewer than 17 constitutionally recognized national and regional languages. If we then consider the fact that these 17 mainstream tongues are actually spoken in some 1600 dialects, it is not hard to understand why this vast nation has chosen English as its official working language.
What many don't realize, however, is that seen in a longer-term perspective the linguistic influence has not been all one way. Especially UK English has enriched itself with Hindi words such as 'guru' and 'juggernaut', Hindustani words such as 'bungalow' (derived from 'Bengal') and 'gymkhana', Tamil words such as 'mulligatawny', and Urdu words such as 'khaki' and 'pyjamas'. Nowadays, however, if one is to believe these latest trends, ambitious young Indians are probably learning to say 'ranch house' instead of bungalow, and to write 'pajamas' instead of pyjamas.
They are, no doubt, also having to unlearn a whole host of expressions still commonly used in India but now perceived as quaint or antiquated elsewhere in the English-speaking world — words like 'needful' and 'felicitations', or the 'fooding and lodging' seen on signs outside cheaper hotels.
Indians appear comfortable with the easygoing conversational style of American English and perhaps see it as a welcome departure from the rigid grammar-adherence of the British English learned in their schooldays. Nowadays more and more of them can afford to make the odd mistake and expect to get away with it. Nevertheless, British English itself is far from static. Once sacred grammar rules are becoming less strict, and even die-hard conservatives are having to face up to challenges posed by internationalization of the language.
Despite the recent flurry of interest in American English, the BBC is still said to attract a larger following in India than any of the U.S. networks, and I doubt this will change any time soon.
© David V. Appleyard 2013 All rights reserved