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 read 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."
The current edition of Professor Thornton's popular work 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 be just what you're looking for!
© 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 (MWDEU) 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
Back in our schooldays, how many of us didn't learn to tell left from right by saying our right hand was right to write with and so the other must be left?
The notion that right is right seems to have been deeply rooted in western culture for a very long time. But not only there — throughout Africa and South Asia the right hand is used to handle food and the left hand reserved for 'other' activities.
Already at the time of the Roman empire, the Latin word for right or right hand, dexter, also meant handy or skillful. This positive connotation eventually found its way into English in the form of the noun dexterity and the adjective dexterous.
According to Norman Lewis in his now classic vocabulary builder Word Power Made Easy:
'The right hand is traditionally the more skillful one; it is only within recent decades that we have come to accept that 'lefties" or "southpaws" are just as normal as anyone else — and the term left-handed is still used as a synonym of awkward.
'The Latin word for the left hand is sinister. This same word, in English, means threatening, evil, or dangerous, a further commentary on our early suspiciousness of left-handed persons..."
'The French word for the left hand is gauche, and, as you would suspect, when we took this word over into English we invested it with an uncomplimentary meaning. Call someone gauche and you imply clumsiness, generally social rather than physical. (We're right back to our age-old misconception that left-handed people are less skillful than right-handed ones.)
'A gauche remark is tactless; a gauche offer of sympathy is so bumbling as to be embarrassing; gaucherie is an awkward, clumsy, tactless, embarrassing way of saying things or of handling situations. The gauche person is totally without finesse.
'And the French word for the right hand is droit, which we have used in building our English word adroit. Needless to say, adroit, like dexterous, means skillful, but especially in the exercise of the mental facilities. Like gauche, adroit, or its noun adroitness, usually is used figuratively. The adroit person is quick-witted, can get out of difficult spots cleverly, can handle situations ingeniously. Adroitness is, then, quite the opposite of gaucherie.'
Notice here how adroitly Mr. Lewis steers us clear of leftist politics, ha-ha!
I'm sure you'll find his bestselling 500-page digest a timeless treasure-trove of etymological information, and outstanding value at a list price of just $7.99.
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