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Grammar's fluid, rules not absolute

by BERNADETTE KINLAW | December 5, 2016 at 1:53 a.m.
Excerpt from Oxford English Dictionary definition of hypallage

I love scouring used bookstores for old grammar books.

On a recent trip, I found An A.B.C. of English Usage by H.A. Treble and G.H. Vallins, published in 1937 by Oxford University Press. You won't find the word "internet" anywhere in it. Inside the front cover, someone had practiced writing a signature, and a couple of pages in the book were stamped with "Ship's Library -- U.S.S. Wichita."

Some of the entries are things I have never heard of and probably could go the rest of my life without hearing again.

• The writers define "hypallage" as "the transference of an adjective or adverb from the word with which it naturally goes to another with which it is associated." I think the title of the George Bernard Shaw play Too True to be Good is an example. The regular expression would be "Too good to be true."

• "Synecdoche" is "the figure by which a part is used for the whole, or the whole is used for the part." For example, using "the United States" for the gymnastics team in the recent Olympics is a synecdoche.

Some grammatical phrases in the book make my eyes glaze over: jussive subjunctive, diaeresis, prolepsis and the retained dative case. Someday when I can decipher the definitions, I will try to explain them.

But I did find some interesting items on word usage.


Few rules in the English language are absolute, but following general rules tends to work.

Some words change their meaning depending on which syllable has the accent. For the most part, when the accent is on the first syllable, the word is a noun. When the accent is on the second syllable, the word is a verb. I hadn't realized before that this had any logic to it.

When you pronounce the words below, the noun form has the accent on the first syllable and the verb form has the accent on the second syllable.












This is when a word has been formed over time in reverse of how words are normally developed.

Usually, the verb form of the word comes first and something is added to make it a noun. You can't know this simply by looking at the word. You have to rely on the language experts.

Examples of the normal way words are formed:

act, actor

love, lover

Examples of back-formations:

editor, edit

peddler, peddle


The writers give a couple of reasons why spelling in English is so difficult.

• The alphabet is inadequate. We have 26 letters but many more sounds. Many letters have to do double or triple duty.

• Many spellings are based on their original pronunciations and not how they sound now.

The "gh" at the end of plough and dough is silent, but it's pronounced "f" at the end of "cough" and "rough."

The "g" at the beginning of "gnat" is silent, and so is the "p" in "psalm."


In a recent column, I said that using "12 noon" was wordy. A couple of readers wrote in to say "noon" is needed because 12 could be noon or midnight. What I meant to say was that you could simply say noon or midnight. No need to say 12 noon. Noon is 12.


These are sometimes used interchangeably, but they shouldn't be.

The abbreviation "e.g." is Latin for exempli gratia. It means, "for example."

They had everything at the lavender store, e.g., lavender soap, lavender honey, lavender tea, lavender cookie mix.

The abbreviation "i.e." is Latin for id est, which means "that is." Use this when you want to clarify something.

Las Vegas provided a fun way to pass the time, i.e., blackjack.

I can't remember ever using i.e. or e.g. in writing before the above examples. They are mainly used in research papers and technical writing.

Sources: An A.B.C. of English Usage by H.A. Treble and G.H. Vallins, Encyclopedia Britannica,, The Associated Press Stylebook, The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein,, Washington State University's Common Errors in English Usage

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ActiveStyle on 12/05/2016

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