Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Grammar Quiz

I don't know how long these things stick around on gotoquiz.com, but for now, you can test your grammar here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

False Friends

A short article in Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader reminded me about false friends, which are words in one language that resemble words in another language but that have different meanings.

For example, "kill" in mideastern languages (not sure which) means "friend"; "pies" in Polish means "dog"; "king" in Estonian means "shoe."

For more information, Wikipedia has a fine article about the subject and also an extremely extensive list of false friends.

Monday, January 15, 2007

To Of or Not To Of

A fan writes:
For 53 years I've believed the phrase was "a couple of.....", now, everywhere it is "a couple....".

Did "of" become extinct? Or are we in a new phase.....

HELP. please! Inquiring minds must know!

I respond: A group of, a flock of, a team of, a couple of... It's just another case of idiomatic speech being a little sloppier than what's grammatically correct. And it goes only so far; you wouldn't hear this response:

"I've got a couple sets of weave poles."
"I've got a couple them, too."

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Them Ferrin Words

I was struggling for the right phrase the other evening to describe something that is the best of its kind. I found that I didn't know whether sine qua non or ne plus ultra was the more apt phrase. Then, as I was about to spew out "ne plus ultra", I realized that I wasn't sure that I had ever heard either phrase pronounced. Ah, the challenges of having a larger written vocabulary than spoken! (Which as I understand it is normal for literate people, but I'll be danged if I can quote a source for that.)

  • sine qua non: Late Latin; literally "without which not"; meaning something essential. As a mathematician, I wanted to pronounce "sine" as in "sine and cosine", but I know that in Latin that arrangement of vowels and consonants should be two syllables. I'll invent my own typology here to avoid diacritical marks-- "i" is short as in "tip"; "a" is as the "o" in "bother" or "cot": si' ni qua nan' preferred by Webster's but a long I as in sigh' ni qua non is also used.

  • ne plus ultra: New Latin (OK, next question--what's difference between Late Latin and New Latin? some other time, perhaps) for "no more beyond"; meaning the highest point capable of being attained or the most profound degree of a quality. Use "u" as in both the a and u of abut and A as in "day" or "fade": nA plus ultru.

In any event, I was glad to confirm that I had picked the right one and had pronounced it reasonably close to the correct manner. Another vocabulary faux pas avoided!