Saturday, October 30, 2010

Parvum Opus 378: Mistress of Unobtanium


Miss Manners (Judith Martin) explains the origins of Mrs. and Ms.:

… the title of Mistress was used for both the married and unmarried, just as its equivalent, Mister, was and still is. Seventeenth- and 18th-century* tombstones can also be found in which Mistress is also abbreviated as - get this - Ms.

That's right - using Ms. for both the married and the unmarried is not a modern feminist invention. No disrespect is intended in the old or the modern usage.

Later, two other abbreviations of Mistress, Miss and Mrs., took on distinct meanings: Miss meaning unmarried, and Mrs. meaning "wife of..." Therefore, Mrs. would not be used with the lady's first and last names [i.e. Mrs. Jane Smith rather than Mrs. John Smith], because it would make no sense to call her the wife of herself.

I think she errs here. True, today Mrs. always means a married woman, or a formerly married woman. It’s also a title to sort of distance the speaker from a woman, so you don’t have to holler “Hey you” or “Hey Sue”.

But to go further in her line of thought, is Mister John Smith the husband of himself? No, we suppose he is the master of himself; a free man, whether married or not. In the old days, Mistress Mary Meade was a female in her parents’ house or in her husband’s (and her) house, perhaps her own house, and the mistress of herself to a degree.

While women today sometimes object to being called housewives (“I’m not married to a house”), no one objected to being considered the mistress of a house. It was a great responsibility, a mark of the progression from female childhood to maturity.

*By the way, we all learned not to start a sentence with a numerical digit, but to spell out numbers. In a sentence like this one, where the spelled-out century is paired with the numbered century, should this rule be ignored? It looks clumsy, yet spelling out both dates would be awkward. You could reword the sentence to save the rule, but sometimes this involves twisting the natural flow of the English sentence, but try: “Tombstones in the 17th and 18th centuries…” This has the further advantage of eliminating the hyphenated adjectival phrase.


Rhonda - You rang several of my bells this time!

On Teaching English

"The mother-tongue differs in one respect from all other subjects of study. It is not only an end, but the vehicle, of instruction. For this reason all teaching is English teaching, and every school exercise may be made, and should be made, an English lesson." Nicholas Murray Butler, Introduction to Percival Chubb's The Teaching of English xx (1902).

The Maryland State Board of Ed. must not have read this in 1973, when I was a volunteer in my youngest's third grade class. Correcting papers, for all subjects, was one of my duties. I was disturbed to learn that, while spelling and punctuation could be marked (i.e. red penciled) on all papers, such errors could only be counted against the grade on ENGLISH papers. The teacher almost apologized when he told me that, and encouraged me to make BIG red marks for bad spelling wherever it occurred. Even on a science paper, misspelling of words in the science lesson (the planet Merkry, for instance) didn't lower the grade as long as the INFORMATION was correct. No wonder we can't spell today! (Btw, this was NOT the way it was done in Minnesota - everything counted on every paper - so it was doubly shocking to me when I learned the Maryland rules. Remember, too, that Dave and his sibs had to learn all verses of the Star Spangled Banner before getting a passing grade in Senior English - things were much different there!)

On apostrophes
The apostrophe is used mainly in hand-lettered small-business signs to alert the reader that an "S" is coming up at the end of a word, as in: WE DO NOT EXCEPT PERSONAL CHECK'S, or: NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY ITEM'S. Another important grammar concept to bear in mind when creating hand-lettered small-business signs is that you should put quotation marks around random words for decoration... [Dave Barry]

And then there's the issue of incorrectly using the apostrophe when a plural is intended - i.e. on addresses or mailbox signs, "The Smith's", or "We went to the movies with the Smith's" - the Smith's WHAT? For the address/mailbox, it could be considered a verbal shortcut to "The Smith's house"; your guess is as good as mine regarding the companion(s) at the movies... and we won't even address the problems with correct usage of its and it's.

Cereal Comma

(LOVE this! Grape Nut's?)

Back to the serial comma, I still don’t know of a rule saying a modifier at the end of a sentence modifies only the final element in the series (Laugh, Sing, and Eat Like a Pig—laugh like a pig? sing like a pig?)...

Perhaps no rule, just 20-some years of training (continuing education, of sorts) proofing and editing legal text, where everything had to be expressed in a way to promote maximum clarity and minimum opportunity for misinterpretation (by clever lawyers trying to bend the law to suit their purposes?) Enough, already - just everybody buy the book and make up your own mind what the author does like a pig... or not.

Illusive allusion may elude

This was the teaser on one of the "current news" bits on AOL's Welcome page. Things like this annoy me almost as much as reporters who incorrectly use "might" and "may". As in, "...he died last January, and this newly approved drug may have prevented his death."

“Tara Lipinski says she remembers a lot of things about winning gold medal during the 1998 Winter Olympics. But one tiny thing still alludes her…”

Wonder what I'll do for entertainment when everyone (at least in America) writes and speaks proper English?

Respectfully submitted - Anne

When everyone speaks proper English, I will have nothing to write about. As for Lipinski, I respectfully submit that the tiny thing is the journalist who alluded [to] her. Apropos of which is an item from Overheard in the Newsroom ‎#5998: Student in basic reporting class: “I think my major in English and my minor in journalism is a conflict of interest.”

And while we’re there, here’s another: Overheard in the Newsroom ‎#6017: Reporter 1: “God, I’m feeling flungover today.” Reporter 2: “What’s ‘flungover’?” Reporter 1: “It’s like hungover, only further over.”

And another clever coinage heard on the Dennis Miller radio program from a movie producer: “They moved to the left coast looking for unobtanium.”


This selection shows the problem I’ve always had with the word “timely”:

verify, correct, and update primary law data timely, efficiently, and accurately…

Efficient and accurate are adjectives and can be made into adverbs by adding ly. Time is not an adjective, but timely is. Timely is not really the same formation as the two other words in the series. We can say “do it in a timely manner” or “do it on time” (which is slightly different in meaning, implying a specific deadline), but we never say “do it timely”, at least I don’t. There isn’t really a parallel construction to maketime/timely into an adverb.


You’ve probably seen signs like these:

Thank you for bringing only service animals into the store.

The idea is to avoid being negative, e.g. “Do not bring animals into the store, except service animals. And by the way, thanks.” The word “only” is crucial here. I’m waiting to see “Thank you for wearing shirts and shoes”. Or how about “Thank you for parking somewhere else” or “Thank you for driving straight and maybe going around the block instead of making a U-turn”. Even “Thank you for not smoking” requires the use of “not” which is so, uh, negative.


I was watching a documentary video on The Book of Kells—I was lucky enough to find a used CD containing the entire ms.—and in the demonstration of cutting a quill pen, I realized where the term pen knifecame from: obviously a smallish blade suitable for trimming quill pens.


Vote early and often and anywhere you want

A federal court has found that Arizona cannot require proof of citizenship for voter registration, though polling places can require photo ID. This ruling is from the same administration that has chosen not to pursue the appearance of Black...

Columbus Day is for all native Americans

Today is the "official" (Monday) Columbus Day holiday. Someone has posted an anti-Columbus video featuring good-looking young non-white people talking about the heinous crimes of Christopher Columbus (meaning, of course, all white...


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Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list.Copyright Rhonda Keith 2010. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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