Category Archives: Words and Reason

What Do Those Marks Mean?

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Quotation marks and apostrophes: what do they mean? It may seem absolutely clear to you, but it’s obvious that a lot of society is losing the concepts. In fact, in the general population, things seem to be spiraling out of control.

Quotation marks seem to be popping up with stunning and usually inappropriate frequency these days. They’re for quotations: for setting off words that were said or written by other people. Or, if you’re writing dialogue, they set off words said by characters. They are not meant to simply add emphasis.

Of course, as with most things, it’s a little more complicated than that. Instead of quoting a specific speaker, you may be quoting a vague and undefined entity—popular opinion or common usage. But the idea is that you’re relating what someone else has said or written, in contrast to what you are writing.

This second form of usage can create irony or sarcasm—you’re quoting an unnamed source to show that you are not willing to take credit for something. For example, when speaking of the “cream” served with coffee, you might use quotation marks to note that you don’t think it’s real cream, and may even know for certain that it’s not real, but someone has identified it as such. There, the quotation marks are saying, “someone said it’s cream, but I’m not saying it.” The quotation marks alert people to the fact that it’s not your idea or it’s not something you’re saying is true, and actually suggests pretty strongly that you think it’s not true.

However, in recent years, I’ve seen an explosion of signs, menus, magazine ads, product packaging, and other writing for public consumption, where the use of quotation marks borders on the incomprehensible. It has actually become difficult to find a menu that doesn’t have masses of inappropriate quotation mark usage—though generally, the fancier the restaurant and the higher the price tag, the crazier the usage of quotation marks. What is one to make of a menu that lists something like this: “Fresh” Vegetables in “Butter” Sauce “French” style. Or one might come across a packaged food that claims to contain “real” cheese. So what are they really using, if it’s not real? Or who is claiming it’s cheese?

On the whole, only words being quoted get quotation marks. However, there are a few other places they can be used and not be goofy. Among the few other correct uses of quotation marks is when you are defining a word, because you are in essence showing what the word says. For example: extol means “praise highly.”

Apostrophes are suffering a similarly misguided fate. I think most of us have seen the school buses with the signs that say “Driver’s Wanted”? I think most editors will recognize right away that the sign has made “driver” possessive, while it meant to make it plural. However, obviously someone doesn’t get it—and this is not the only way one can go wrong with apostrophes.

The apostrophe has two basic uses: making things possessive and showing where things have been left out.

I think most people get the idea about ‘s to make a noun (but never a pronoun) possessive. Singular nouns get ‘s: the teacher’s, the dog’s, James’s, Mr. Jones’s. Note that a singular noun ending in “s” still gets an ‘s. A plural noun that does not end in an s also gets an ‘s: women’s, children’s, geese’s. Plurals that end with an “s” just get the apostrophe: girls’, footballs’, churches’. About the only exceptions are some ancient names: Isis’, Moses’, Jesus’. These have traditionally been made possessive without the additional “s.”

The only exceptions to the rule about never using an apostrophe for a plural is when single letters are made plural that might look like words without an apostrophe. So if you’re talking about X, the plural is Xs, but if you’re talking about A or I, you’d put A’s or I’s, because As and Is are words, and would therefore be confusing.

Pronouns are never made possessive by means of an apostrophe. You just add the “s”: hers, ours, yours, its. If it’s a pronoun and there is an apostrophe, it’s a contraction.

As for replacing things that are left out, again, I think a lot of folks get the general concept, but there is one recurring error that makes it clear that the concept is a bit vague for some, and that is the reduction of and to n. It’s ‘n’—not ‘n or n’. The apostrophe replaces what is missing, and with and, since both the a and d are gone, you need an apostrophe on both ends.

For dates, if you’re leaving off the century, an apostrophe is used: ’01 or the ‘90s. With ‘tis, the initial i of “it is” is replaces, while in it’s, it’s the central i. (And remember —no pronoun is made possessive with an apostrophe, so its is the possessive, and it’s is the contraction of it is.) An apostrophe can represent more than one missing character— nat’l for national, for example.

An important application of using apostrophes to notify readers of missing characters is in dialogue. It is virtually impossible to reproduce colloquial speech without a solid understanding of where the apostrophes go. So this isn’t just information for newspaper reporters or sign painters.

So watch those marks. The way you use them may be saying more than you think they are.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, and

Continental Confusion

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Most good writers know that writing is a bit livelier if they use a variety of words, rather than just repeating the same word over and over. This is probably truest for verbs, but also applies to nouns. For example, Windy City or Big Apple might stand in for Chicago or New York. However this substituting really only works when the substitute truly parallels that which is being replaced. Problems arise when a term, name, or phrase is not completely understood.

The situation where I see this most commonly occur is in discussions of Latin America. I find that a lot of writers, and probably most of the general public, are usually a little vague on definitions when talking or writing about Latin America.

As both an editor and a general reader, I’ve seen numerous instances where the term Latin America is used interchangeably with South America. However, they’re not interchangeable. Not all of South America is Latin America, and Latin America is considerably larger than just South America.

Broadly defined, Latin America is those parts of the North and South American continents where they speak a Latin-based language. Again, that brings in another element of potential confusion. It’s not just Spanish, but also includes Portuguese and French. So one should not use “Spanish-speaking countries” in lieu of “Latin America,” because Portuguese (official language of Brazil) and French are part of the mix.

Latin America includes Mexico, which is a substantial part of North America. It also includes parts of the Caribbean, but certainly not all of it: for example, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti are part of Latin America, but English-speaking Jamaica, Nassau, or Barbados are not.

Latin America also includes most of Central America, which is not actually a separate entity; it’s just the tail end of North America. Belize, however, though it’s part of Central America, is not part of Latin America. It’s part of the British Commonwealth.

Most of South America is Latin America, but don’t use Latin America to mean South America, and don’t assume all of South America is part of Latin America. The official language of Suriname is Dutch. In Guyana, the population is of East Indian, African, Amerindian, and mixed origin, and they speak English, Guyanese Creole, or Amerindian languages. So neither is part of Latin America. French Guiana is a department of France. Like Haiti, they speak French, so they are part of Latin America, but not Hispanic America.

Actually, Hispanic is occasionally another part of the confusion. It doesn’t just mean Spanish, it means Spanish and Portuguese people, speech, and culture. So, again, “Spanish-speaking countries” would not be a good substitute for Latin America.

So when writing, regardless of the outlet, make sure you use the term Latin America correctly. It is not Spanish America. It is not South America. Lots of folks are unclear on this, but as writers, we can help clear up the confusion.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, and

Words and Reason: Hear Ye, Hear Ye

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

It is unlikely that any of you have ever heard Old English (and, to be honest, it’s not highly likely that loads of you have even heard Middle English, unless you studied Chaucer in school). Most people are surprised to learn that Shakespeare was writing in Modern English, but that’s what it was. However, as you’re probably aware, a few things have changed since the bard’s day.

One thing that makes a big difference is the change in the size of the working vocabulary of the general population. Shakespeare’s vocabulary ran around 25,000 words (though I’ve seen higher estimates), while the average vocabulary of English speakers today ranges between 3,000 and 5,000 words. Granted, there are some of us who collect words as if they were gold, but that is becoming less common.

Pity that working vocabularies are so low today, as English is a wildly rich language. Because it in essence merged two languages (Anglo-Saxon and French, after the Norman Conquest in 1066), and has since that time adopted words freely from languages around the world, it has vastly more words than any other language—something like three times as many words as our nearest competitor, German.

English is an amazing language, evolving and absorbing words: kangaroo, pecan, rodeo, pajama, shampoo, kimono, chipmunk, safari, barbecue, and thousands more. However, some of the evolution in modern English makes it harder to understand what one is reading, even when reading things written as recently as the first half of the 20th century.

Today, I thought I’d share a couple of things that could help you if you’re visiting England or if you’re reading anything written a while back (in some cases, that includes anything before about 1970). Continue reading

Words and Reason: In a Fix with Affixes

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Continuing our focus on writing language-acquisition lessons for educational publishers, I’d like to talk about affixes. Affixes are things that get stuck on words to change their meanings or their parts of speech. The two primary types of affixes—the only ones you’ll be asked to teach in textbooks—are suffixes and prefixes, stuck on (or fixed) after or before the words to be changed.

Most people think they know about suffixes and prefixes, but it’s surprising how often they are misled by words that look like they might be affixes but are, in reality, word parts. A word is only an affix if you can take it away and still have a word (or close to a word, as minor changes do occur occasionally).

Part of the reason this gets tricky is there are a few roots that appear as both word parts and affixes. These word parts that double as affixes are known as combining forms. For example, uni-, which means “one” or “having only one,” can be a prefix, as in unicycle or unicellular. But it can also be a word part, as in unify. Unify means to make one, so it still has the same meaning from the same root, but it’s clearly not a prefix. If you take it away, you’re left with -fy, which is not a word.

Another example is trans a word that is very useful to teach. However, if you teach it as a prefix, use examples such as transatlantic or transcontinental. If you use transfer, we’re again talking word part, not prefix.

When explaining these two affixes, point out to students that prefixes change meaning and suffixes change part of speech. For example, unhappy is the opposite of happy. Meaning changed. Happy is a noun; happily is an adverb. Part of speech changed.

It’s also important to keep in mind that some affixes have more than one meaning, and more than one root. For example, the prefix “ex-“ can be the Greek “out of” or the Latin “former.” Make sure you know which one you’re teaching in a lesson, and make sure the examples you give all match the definition you’re using. (Only in rare cases will you have enough space to compare both meanings, so remember to say, when defining, “One meaning of ex- is…,” so students know there are other possibilities.) Continue reading

Words and Reason: Eating Our Words

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

The importance of food is in many ways reflected in our language. In fact, food permeates our conversation in ways we don’t usually contemplate.

Salt is a good example. We speak of people not worth their salt, take things with a grain of salt, or say someone is the salt of the earth. We may not be thinking of food when we say these things, but we at least recognize the word salt. What about your salary? The word salary is anchored in the Latin salarium, which was the salt ration given to Roman soldiers. It comes from salis, which means “salt.” Actually, salad is related, being anchored in the Latin for “salted vegetables.”

Many of these phrases and words reflect the value that salt has had, both historically and still in some countries today. Salt is life in hot, dry lands. It has been money during much of history. Both “worth their salt” and “salt of the earth” reflect this idea of value. Taking things with a grain of salt comes from the Roman believe that salt was an antidote to poison.

Salt is not the only consumable used as currency. If you are discussing things pecuniary, you may think you’re speaking of money, but it is anchored in a time when cattle were a primary way of calculating wealth. Pecus was the Latin word for cattle.

Swine have given us a wide range of phrases, names, and words, both directly and indirectly. One can eat like a pig, bring home the bacon, or live high on the hog. (While the first two may be obvious, “high on the hog” refers to where the most tender and costly cuts of meat are found.)

Less obvious is Wall Street—but then, that’s one of the indirect connections. In the 1600s, semi-wild pigs (pigs introduced to the New World by colonists, but then allowed to run free) were wreaking havoc in the grain fields and gardens of colonial New York. So a long wall was built on the northern edge of the colony on Manhattan Island, to control the roaming herds. The road that ran along the inside of the wall became, of course, Wall Street.

One food that became part of the language, but later fell out of use, helps explain a popular American song: macaroni. In the 1700s, a group of well-traveled young Englishmen became known as macaronis. These young men were very impressed with themselves, adopting French and Italian styles, eating exotic foods they discovered on the continent, such as macaroni, a dish with which they were sufficiently delighted to think it would be a good name for their club. These men were not merely travelers; they were fops—over-dressed and self-impressed. However, they were still admired by some as being terribly fashionable. Therefore, when the British wished to mock the more rough-hewn American colonials, they sang of a rustic dandy who stuck a feather in his cap and thought that made him one of the macaronis. While the song was originally derisive, the Americans adopted it and sang it until the British couldn’t stand it any more.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, and

Words and Reason: Getting Back to our Roots

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt

Because a lot of freelancers work in educational publishing, I thought I’d offer a little help with something that is increasingly demanded by publishers—because it’s demanded by state and national standards. I’m offering this because I worked for years as an in-house editor at a major publisher, and I saw over and over again that this is an issue.

It has been my experience that few freelance writers understand how to teach Greek and Latin roots as a skill to aid students in comprehension and language acquisition. I’ve already mentioned, in a previous column, the most frequent (almost universal, in fact) error I saw: teaching that export and import mean coming out of or going into a port. Even in situations where we’d had meetings with development houses where I stated explicitly, “Do NOT send me a lesson that teaches that export and import are things moving out of or into a port,” I’d still, often as early as a week later, get the dreaded lesson. (Of course, if you were following my earlier suggestion to look everything up, you probably wouldn’t be turning this in.)

That is an example of a lesson that understands the concept but gets the information wrong. The other problem I’d see is a complete lack of understanding of the concept. I received many lessons that ran along the lines of, “The word “volunteer” comes from the Latin voluntarius, which means, “voluntary.” Umm, yeah. But what have you just taught?

The point of teaching Greek and Latin roots is to help students understand English, not to teach Greek and Latin.

So what is the concept? Taking the export/import example, a lesson might go something like this: The Latin portare means “to carry.” We can see this root in export and import, which mean to carry out and carry in. It is also in transport, which is to carry across—if you transport something, you’re carrying it across some distance. A porter is someone who carries things. The word portable also shares this root. Using what you know about the suffix “able” and the root “portare,” what do you think portable means?

You might, if there is space (though there rarely is) add a note that student should not confuse this with the port in seaport or airport. That comes from the Latin portus, which means entrance, passage, or harbor.

Always remember that you have to have more than one word derived from a root. If, as in the “voluntaris” example above, there is only one word in English related to the root, you have not given students a useful tool for understanding new words—and that’s the objective—handing out tools.

Here are some examples of roots with multiple derivatives—though there are many others. Continue reading