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January, 2008

Greek Ghosts

Coining And Choosing Language
Nonconformist English
By  Helen Dunn Frame

The Public Information Department staff of Consolidated Edison of New York, Inc., of which I was the first female member years ago, used to play verbal word games. One in particular I recall being popular was "claper pip" (for paper clip). I still smile when someone says "He's out to lunch," because we used that phrase to indicate someone was loco. Years ago I combined "drowsy" with "groggy" to make "droggy," which aptly described a night person who had to rise early in order to earn a living.
However, current Associated Press (AP) and New York Times Style books were our primary guides for penning news releases, reports, and articles along with a grammar guru on the staff of the employee magazine who campaigned to spell "employe" with one "e" in an effort to stay on the cutting edge. It's listed in the dictionary as a second spelling even today.
About the same era, Kleenex™ struggled to keep people from calling tissues by its name for fear of losing its trademark. Capitalized in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a trademark, it now signifies any brand of tissues the world over. Recently Google asked publications not to use the name as a verb. The same dictionary lists the lower case spelling as a transitive verb, and it notes that "Google" – with a capital "G" – is a search engine to obtain information on the World Wide Web.
When a writer chooses newly coined or innovative words like "coeval" that are not in common use, a reader may become confused or annoyed. Why not use "contemporary" for someone living at the same time and wait until new words or uses are widely accepted? Isn't the point to communicate and not to show how erudite (scholarly) the author is?
So you won't feel bad (the adverb badly describes action or verbs), sometimes even NY Times best selling authors misuse words. For example, have you noticed that they often write "anxious" when they really meant to use "eager to"? To illustrate, "John is anxious to start a project." Maybe some anxiety exists because he doesn't know if the endeavour will succeed, but it should have been written, "John is eager to start a project," if in fact he is experiencing anticipation.
The use of the word "its" stumps many people. They scribe "it's," a contraction for "it is," instead of the possessive without an apostrophe, or vice versa when it should have one. Often one encounters "can not" when the NY Times Stylebook lists "cannot" with no choices.
"None" is construed as a plural like the word "pair." If "none" describes an idea, it is better to use "not one" or "no one." Foreigners learning English probably get hung up on the word "pair," meaning two identical halves, because a person can only wear one pair of pants, jeans, or glasses at a time. After "neither . . . nor," if the subjects are both plural – neither the teachers nor the students understood – use the plural form of the verb. If the subjects are both single, use the singular form of the verb. However, if one subject is single and the other plural, use the verb form for the subject following "nor." Alternatively, revise the sentence!
Is it "to lie" or "to lay"? Why couldn't the English language have one word signifying both to rest or recline (lie) and to put or to place (lay)? On top of this, "lie" is the past tense of "lay," and it means to speak falsely.
To hyphenate or not, how does one know? Take "half," which has compound words like halfback, halftone, and halfway yet stands on its own as half dollar and half pay. It couldn't be based on how long a word has been au currant if we judge by half-baked, half-hearted, and half-mast. None are new concepts. Americans could be responsible for coining words like these because pioneers developed the habit of combining British words to form their own decidedly different English.
Commas seem to follow the same path as fashion designs. Sometimes using a minimum number is in vogue; other times, sprinkling liberally like beads on a wedding gown prevails.
To know that you are composing using the latest Associated Press or New York Times styles, check the most recent editions or google the phrases on Google. Like fashion, use of certain words and punctuation changes; coining words parallels new designs. Only some endure.

(Editorial note: IN generally follows the standards of The Canadian Press Stylebook and the Oxford Dictionary Of English.)
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Helen Dunn Frame. A Syracuse University journalism school graduate, published in major newspapers, magazines and trade publications in the United States, England, and Germany. Her writing skills and love of travel led her to write her mystery novel Greek Ghosts. Email: Web site:

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