Saturday, May 01, 2010

More Problem Words and Such from Bill Bryson

Here’s some more things from Bill Bryson's book that I either didn’t know or wasn’t completely clear on.

1. “Strictly speaking, paper clips and pencils are stationery.” Apparently, the term applies to all office materials, not just paper and envelopes. I actually vaguely remember this fact from long, long ago, although I wouldn’t have recalled it without Bryson’s help.

2. Split infinitives are not grammatical errors and are not routinely condemned by writing authorities. They usually occur when infinitives and adverbs are used together. Here’s an example from Bryson. “He proceeded to climb the ladder.” “To climb” is the infinitive. “He slowly climbed the ladder.” “Slowly” is the adverb. Now you put them together, “He proceeded to slowly climb the ladder.” The elements of the infinitive are split by “slowly.”

3. The belt that is worn diagonally across the chest, as seen in various westerns, is called a “Sam Browne.”

4. “To the manner born” is the correct version of the quote from Hamlet, not “To the Manor born,” which I pretty much assumed it was.

5. “Plenitude,” not “plentitude,” is the correct spelling of this word, which means abundance. I think I’ve messed that one up more than once.

6. The correct quote from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” is: “Their’s not to reason why / Their’s but to do and die.” I’ve often heard it as “do or die” at the end, which is a completely different meaning.

7. Remember “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast?” That’s not the way the original quote went. It was “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” I could have sworn it was “beast” instead of “breast.” I know I’ve heard it said as “beast.”

Finally, here’s a quiz I put together from information in Bryson’s book. Can you tell me what is wrong with the following sentences? (The first two are exact quotes that Bryson used as examples; the others have been modified for this exercise.)

1. “Now throw in two tablespoons full of chopped parsley and cook ten minutes more.”

2. “The yacht was doing about nine knots an hour, according to Mr. Starr.”

3. “Instead of in years, their progress should have been measured in light-years.”

4. “I accused him of libel for the things he said about me behind my back.”

5. “Laying on his back, James pointed out some cloud formations that resembled faces.”



Angie said...

I heard that split infinitives began to be condemned by snotty grammarians who worshipped Latin. You can't split an infinitive in Latin (or any Latinate language), therefore you shouldn't split one in English. It's ridiculous, but there you go.

Interesting about the Sam Browne belt. I've heard of that, but never knew what it looked like. And I thought the over-the-shoulder thing was a bandolier.


1. Step two: fish the tablespoons back out of your soup, then....

2. This one's stumping me, unless he's being persnickety about wanting "per hour" instead of "an hour?" More precise, but I would't call the other wrong. [ponder] Other than that, I dunno.

3. Year is a measurement of time; light-year is a measurement of distance. (George Lucas needs a lesson on this.)

4. Libel is written, not spoken. Spoken nastiness is slander.

5. Laying what on his back? "Lay" is transitive, "lie" is not. You lay down your book before lying down to sleep.


Bernita said...

Same results as Angie.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Funny I read it as stationary at first and wondered why would paper clips move?

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I think bandolier must be the same kind of thing as a Sam Browne but I may have to look that up. Knots actually contains the meaning of "an hour" so that is redundant.

Bernita, gotcha.

Pattinase, that's the other thing about that word. I confuse the spellings, though not the meanings of the two.

Angie said...

Knots actually contains the meaning of "an hour" so that is redundant.

That's right! [facepalm] I completely zoned on that. :P


laughingwolf said...

1. tablespoons full, same as governors general, not governor generals, etc.

2. yup, nautical knots does already include 'per hour'

3. what angie sez, plus, it's a lightyear, un-hyphenated

4. what angie sez

5. if already laid down, he is lying on his back, indeed

...yup, split infinitives drive me nuts, as do sentences beginning with 'and' or 'but', and a ton of other crap non-writers believe it's okay to write how you speak

Angie said...

LW -- re: "light-year/lightyear," I actually looked that one up and my dictionary (copyright 1979) says "light-year." It looks weird to me, too, but I suspect it's in the process of evolving. I remember from linguistics that the natural progression is from "word word" to "word-word" to "wordword," so it looks like "light-year/lightyear" is almost through the sequence. I also suspect your dictionary is more recent than mine. :)


laughingwolf said...

seems bryson got the sam browne belt wrong: it's really a wide belt supported by a diagonal strap over the right shoulder, not the diagonal itself [see my post]

also a blurb there on bandoliers

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie and Laughingwolf, I wondered about Sam Browne belt. It didn't sound quite right to me. Should have looked it up. Light-year, yeah, seems to be a changing.

Randy Johnson said...

I'm of the opinion that a bandolier is a belt of bullets and a Sam Brown is a combination around the waist/across the shoulder leather belt. At least that's the way I always understood it.

sage said...

I wasn't ready for a grammar test early this morning and now I've come back and the questions answered... why didn't it work that way when I was in school. I didn't realize that knots included (per hour) in its definition, that's good to know.

Barrie said...

I just read everyone's comments. Very fun. I love Bill Bryson!

Middle Ditch said...

I read the comments too so wont cheat.

Fun though

BernardL said...

Good grammar post. I was surprised too at a few of the assumed lines.

Travis Erwin said...

Savage Breast sounds like the name of an all girl punk rock band.

ivan said...

Ever see an infinitive split?

Ever see a moth bawl?

It's downright tragic.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Having spent all those years in the joint, I don't have much to say regarding grammar.

... cook ten minutes more ...

Is it a Hannibal Lector cookbook? Is he referring to an electric chair?

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I love this post. I think I mentioned this before, but my sister always does the greatest malapropisms, my favorite recently being foreshattering instead of foreshadowing and down pack instead of down pact. But my very favorite -- We don't want to be like those leopards in the Bible who ran away without giving thanks instead of lepors. That one really made me laugh.

Lana Gramlich said...

You're OUT of school & still worrying about grammar? Bad, BAD Charles! *L*

Maalie said...

A fascinating post.

I have not looked at any of the comments already here before answering:

1. A teaspoon as a unit of volume is axiomatically full.

2. A knot is itself a unit of speed; the "per hour" is redundant.

3. A light year is a unit of distance, not time.

4. Spoken abuse is slander, not libel.

5. Lying on his back...

the walking man said...

Methinks mayhaps I needs go back to grammar school.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

You know, I didn't see any sexual references. I'm not sure why this struck me, but I'm just saying.

Charles Gramlich said...

Randy Johnson, I think you’re probably right. I’ve seen what I think is a Sam Browne in pictures of sailors and historical images of the revolutionary war.

sage, I only knew that about knots because of a previous book I read on problem words.

Barrie, definitely a fun book. I’ve finished it but may still post on it again.

Middle Ditch, I thought so.

BernardL, most of the ones he had in the book did surprise me. People generally do not seem to quote them right.

Travis Erwin, I could see that. Maybe there is one.

ivan, I usually tell my infinitives to “make like a tree and leave” instead of to split.

JR's Thumbprints, I have a Hannibal Lector cookbook but I’m looking for something to substitute for the fava beans.

Michelle, oh lol, those are hilarious. Foreshattering is one of the really good uns of all time.

Lana Gramlich, it’s a leftover of all the papers I graded, I guess.

Maalie, very good. You’re right on teaspoon, but the funny thing about that line was that what the writer said indicated that you should throw the spoons into the bowl and cook ten minutes more.

Mark, I think most of us do. I sure wish I’d paid more attention in school.

Stewart Sternberg, I don’t believe there was anything sexual in the book, actually. That never really occurred to me, though.

Akasha Savage. said...

To the manner born?
Do AND die?

I love the facts I learn on your blog! :D

jodi said...

Charles, it WAS a savage beast, damnit!

Steve Malley said...

Hm, missed the festivities, so I'll just contribute this one small tidbit courtesy of Messrs Strunk and White:

Re lightyear/light-year, compound words seem to undergo a predictable melding process. When young, these novel concepts start as two separate words ('wild life' or 'humming bird'). Through more frequent use, they become hyphenated ('wild-life' and humming-bird'), and when fully mature they finally merge into one single word ('wildlife' and 'hummingbird').

We just happen to be living through the transition from 'light year' to 'lightyear'. (And apparently, blogger's spellcheck hasn't caught up yet).

And don't even get me started on the transition from 'cellular phone' to 'cell phone' to 'cell' to the now-ubiquitous 'phone'. And the poor old phones of yesteryear being demoted to 'landlines'...

Incidentally, a great way to sound older than dirt is to re-insert the hyphenated pauses. (Eg "I see you're on that inter-net.")

Charles Gramlich said...

Akasha Savage, glad you enjoyed. I will post more from the book at some point.

jodi, I know I've heard it said that way.

Steve Malley, yeah, it's especially weird how "phone" has undergone such changes. A useful word, I guess, but to see Landlines now. That's just weird.

Jo said...

“Laying on his back, James pointed out some cloud formations that resembled faces.” It should be "lie".

That's the only one I got...

Tyhitia Green said...

I will definitely have to pick up his book. Thanks for the exercise and sharing this with us.

Heff said...

I would've SWORN "stationery" just meant paper products for office use.

Ah, shows what I know.

Voidwalker said...

LOL I fail'd on the Plenitude word :)

No quiz for me at the moment, my brain is like butter in the outdoor Arizona sun.

Mary Witzl said...

I'm marking my students' writing just now, contemplating sentences like the following: Him names Chris Gardener live San Francisco. He have some problems so Him lifes don't good.

Go on and split infinities with a will -- it'll look good to me!

(Number 4 caught me up, but I figured out almost all of the rest -- honest! -- but my senses are getting dulled: the parsley question made me frown for far too long. Another year working here and I'll be getting 'theirs' and 'there's' mixed up.)

Charles Gramlich said...

Jo, lay and lie always confuse me. Well, almost always.

Demon Hunter, glad you enjoyed.

Heff, well it wouldn't have been in the book if most folks didn't think just like you did about it.

Voidwalker, I'm pretty sure I have too.

Mary Witzl, I blame grading student papers for my own erosion of grammar. What little I had to begin with.

Spy Scribbler said...

Stationery?! Those are school supplies! Man, how I miss buying school supplies! All those shiny new papers and pencils and pens, with the possibilities of the year being only good. :-) Everything's downhill from the school supplies, LOL.

Greg said...

the only one of those i could get was the last one, which should be "lying on his back" (right?) guess it's a good thing i don't write for a living.

writtenwyrdd said...

I wouldn't dare to guess at the answers to the quiz. :) I'd have to spent hours racking my poor brain and looking stuff up!

But I have to say that a Sam Browne belt, despite the correctness of the historic description from Bill Bryson's book, is not always a belt with the shoulder strap. Many of the belts that cops wear are called Sam Browne belts.

Danette Haworth said...

OMG, Charles, I am guilty of either speaking or hearing numbers 5, 6, and 7. Plus, I like the number 3 tidbit.

As far as your quiz, I am backing away . . . slowly . . . reaching for my Little Brown Handbook.

Charles Gramlich said...

Natasha Fondren, yeah, I felt that way about notebooks. I always wanted new notebooks, with the thought that maybe I'd write something cool in this one.

Greg Schwartz, lots of folks who do write for a living still make those kinds of errors. I've made my share.

writtenwyrdd, well, it wasn't meant to be agony. Some have already answered anyway. I did not know that about the police belts.

Danette Haworth, I've been guilty of them all as well, which is why they are here. To help ME remember.