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LinguaPhile, August 2002

A monthly e-mail newsletter nurturing the development and enjoyment of English language arts at home and at school.


Happy Anniversary to Us!

LinguaPhile is now beginning its third year. Of the 526 groups in Yahoo's Language section of the Schools and Education category, LinguaPhile is the third largest, with well over 1,000 members. Acu-Write, younger sister of LinguaPhile soon to celebrate its first anniversary, holds eighth place with about 725 members. Please continue to forward these newsletters -- or information about them -- to anyone you think might be interested in subscribing.

Also, please be sure to keep your e-mail address current. You can do this simply by clicking on the "subscribe" and "unsubscribe" links at the end of this newsletter. Or you can send a reply message in which you include both addresses and identify which is which. We thank those of you who have updated your e-mail address. (LinguaPhile currently has more than 250 additional subscribers whose newsletters are "bouncing" from defunct e-mail addresses. Please do not allow yourself to fall into this group.)

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Register Now for FREE Online Writing Course

It's not too late to register for the FREE online writing course that Fran will teach. The course is called "Make Your Voice Heard: Express Your Ideas Effectively." Topics to be addressed during the seven-week course include breaking the writing process into manageable steps, getting feedback by conferring with a partner, and packaging your message so that it receives the attention you desire. Three of the lessons will deal with specific aspects of editing: usage, punctuation, and conciseness. The course is appropriate for students (junior high or older) and for adults. Parents and children might effectively take the course together. To register, visit

The first lesson was posted earlier today, and an additional lesson will be posted each Tuesday for the next six weeks. Once lessons are posted, they will remain on the Eagle Forum Web site indefinitely. However, the message board, which will allow you to discuss aspects of the lessons with your classmates -- and with Fran -- will be available only between August 6 and October 1. (Registering for the course will put your name only on the list of people who receive notices that the lessons are posted -- not on any other e-mail list.)

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Quote of the Month: Similes

A simile must be as precise as a slide rule and as natural as the smell of dill.
--Isaak Babel, Russian writer (1894-1941)

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Expand Your Vocabulary: Tropes

Any kind of figurative language (language in which words are used in other than their literal sense) is called a trope (with a long o and a silent e). Some of the following tropes are so common that everyone should be sure to know them; others are less common but no less interesting.

simile: an explicit comparison (using like, as, than, or seems) of two things that are basically dissimilar:
Toby is as gentle as a lamb. [Toby and the lamb are more different than alike, but they share the quality of gentleness.]

metaphor: an implied comparison that says one thing is another:
Maxine is a lioness protecting her young. [Maxine is a person but is fiercely protective of her children as a lioness would be.]

personification: attribution of human characteristics or feelings to non-human organisms, inanimate objects, or abstract ideas:
The clothes long to be hung up rather than dropped onto the floor. [Clothes can't really yearn as humans can.]

irony: expression implying the opposite of the words' literal meaning:
Lovely weather, isn't it? [said when the weather is very bad]

hyperbole (hi PER buh lee): extreme exaggeration:
I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!

litotes (LIT uh teez): understatement, especially when an affirmative is expressed in terms of a negative:
Not bad! [said as a commendation]

metonymy (muh TAHN uh mee): substitution of the name of one thing for the name of another to which it is closely related:
The crown must choose an heir to the throne. [Crown represents monarch.]

synecdoche (suh NEK duh kee): expression in which a part is used to represent the whole, or vice versa:
Three sails set off across the sea. [The sail represents the whole ship.]

Some of these tropes are so closely related that distinguishing one from another may be difficult in some situations. More important than identifying each trope is understanding the meaning that each figurative expression conveys.

Reviewers of Hands-On English have said that the vocabulary section alone is worth the book's modest purchase price. Learn more -- and place your order -- at

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Q and A: moot

Question: The dictionary's explanation of moot doesn't seem to fit the way the word is generally used. Help!

Answer: I thought I understood moot -- until I checked my sources to provide a comprehensive answer to your question.

Webster's dictionary gives this as its first definition: "subject to argument or discussion; debatable." Furthermore, it gives the example "a moot point." This does not jibe with my understanding of "a moot point." Webster's second definition is "of little or no practical value or meaning; purely academic." The third is "theoretical; hypothetical." The second and third definitions do fit my prior understanding of the word.

This discrepancy necessitated more research. In The Careful Writer Theodore Bernstein says that the second and third definitions are erroneous; he sanctions only the first, "debatable."

This may be a case where a word's meaning has changed so that what was once considered non-standard is now prevalent (The Careful Writer bears a 1965 copyright). Whether this is evolution or deterioration of our language is, in both senses, a moot point.

What say the rest of you? Do you ever hear moot used to mean "debatable"?

Hands-On English will put a wealth of information at your fingertips so that you can quickly find what you need to know about grammar, usage, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and more. Get details -- and place your order -- at

We invite your questions for this feature:

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The 2002-2003 School Year Is Upon Us!

"For School Success, Don't Coddle Your Kids"

Whether you are an educator or a parent, you will find these two dozen tips helpful in promoting a successful school year for students. Find the printable version at If you are an educator, you might want to give this to parents at back-to-school night. If you are the parent of a school child, use the article yourself and share it with your friends.

* * *

"Vision: 20/20 Is Not Enough"

Be sure that your children's learning will not be hampered by poor vision. I have found that, in general, the vision exam given by a developmental optometrist is more thorough than that given by an ophthalmologist. To learn more about vision problems and how they can impede learning -- and to find links to sites that list developmental optometrists in your area, see this article from the July 2001 LinguaPhile:

* * *

Hands-On English

Whether you are an educator or a parent, Hands-On English and its companion products can help the students in your life have a successful school year. This concise handbook will make the year go more smoothly for you as well! Hands-On English gives quick access to the basics of English, and it makes grammar visual by using icons to represent parts of speech.

Students who have Hands-On English at their fingertips will quickly be able to find answers to questions they may have about sentence structure, usage, capitalization, punctuation, outlines, bibliography form, and more. They will learn how to study efficiently so that they can get the most from their textbooks in the least amount of time, and they will learn how to break the writing process into manageable units.

See a complete table of contents and sample pages at Orders can be placed by phone, fax, or snail mail -- or on line. Substantial discounts are available on quantity purchases.

If you have questions, or call (toll free) 1-888-641-5353. This number will also accept fax orders.

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Review: Books of Idioms

Idioms can be the nemesis of many people learning English -- either as their native language or an additional one. While idiom can simply refer to conventional word order, I am using it here to mean "an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the meanings of the words it comprises; an expression whose meaning is figurative rather than literal." "Making a mountain out of a molehill" is an example of an idiom.

This month we are going to look at several books that will help people understand idioms. Because different people have different needs, some of the basic features of the books will be described so that you can identify the one that will be best for you.

Several criteria to consider when selecting a book of idioms are the book's organization (how the idioms are arranged), its target audience, its comprehensiveness, its physical size, and its special features. All of the books discussed include both the definitions of the idioms and their use in context, certainly a necessity. Also, all of the books are paperbacks. Prices might vary from the cover prices quoted here.

The Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms by Marvin Terban is likely to be classified as a juvenile book. It is the only one of the books reviewed here that uses a second color (yellow), and it also has a few illustrations. The 600 idioms are arranged alphabetically, about three to a page. Each idiom is first presented in context; then its definition is given. In addition, this book includes a paragraph about the origin of each idiom. The origins, in fact, make up the majority of the book's content. The origins are very interesting (even to adult linguaphiles) and help people remember the idiom's meaning. An index of idioms according to their key words makes partially remembered idioms easier to find.

Scholastic, Inc.; 1996; 245 pages; approximately 1/2" x 8 1/2" x 6 1/4"; $8.95.
Available from Scholastic Dictionary Of Idioms

Idioms for Everyday Use by Milada Broukal has a textbook format, introducing about 230 idioms in 20 thematic units: Idioms from Colors, Idioms from Food, Idioms from Body Parts, etc. Idioms are first presented in context -- in a brief story and then in a sentence. Next, students match the idioms with a list of definitions. Exercises involve yes/no questions about the idioms and identification of errors in idioms (such as omitting an article or using a wrong form of a key word). Short dialogues give students the opportunity for oral practice, and open-ended activities round out the lesson. While the first half of each lesson seems appropriate for upper elementary or middle school students as well as for people learning English as an additional language, the second half seems more appropriate for the latter group. The book provides review lessons and a glossary (including the number of the lesson where each idiom is featured). High- frequency words and short sentences make the text easy to read.

National Textbook Company (NTC); 1994; 129 pages; approximately 3/8" x 8 1/2" x 11"; $12.95.
Available from Idioms for Everyday Use - Student Book

Longman Pocket Idioms Dictionary is the most portable of the books reviewed here. It is both compact and economical, and it includes over 3,000 idioms arranged alphabetically by key word. Each idiom is defined; then it is used in one or more example sentences. A special feature of this dictionary is the section called the "Idiom Activator," which includes ten basic concept words, each with a web of related idioms.

Longman; 2001; 296 pages; approximately 1/2" x 4 1/4" x 6"; $4.99.
Available from Longman Pocket Idioms Dictionary

NTC's American Idioms Dictionary, 3rd ed., by Richard Spears, Ph.D. is the most comprehensive of the books reviewed here. It includes about 7,500 idioms and averages two example sentences for each definition. The idioms are arranged alphabetically according to the first word in the phrase. More than one fourth of the dictionary comprises the "Phrase-Finder Index." One can look up almost any word in a phrase and find how that phrase is entered in the dictionary. For example, "more fun than a barrel of monkeys" is listed under each word in the idiom except "a." This book has many listings involving prepositions, which can be so troublesome to people learning English as an additional language. Another special feature of this book is the listing of more than 500 "Irreversible Binomials and Trinomials" -- sequences of two or three words that are always used in the same order, such as "thick and thin" and "Tom, Dick, and Harry."

NTC; 2000; 625 pages; approximately 1 1/4" x 9" x 6"; $14.95
Available from NTC's American Idioms Dictionary

Essential American Idioms, 2nd ed., also by Richard Spears, Ph.D. follows a format similar to that of the book above. It includes only about 1700 expressions, however. They were selected to meet the needs of people speaking English as an additional language. This volume includes the handy Phrase-Finder Index but does not include the list of "irreversibles."

NTC; 1999; 232 pages; approximately 5/8" x 9" x 6"; $11.95
Available from Essential American Idioms

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Vivid Figure of Speech or Trite Cliché?

Many idioms are overused figures of speech that you need to understand but will want to avoid using when your goal is to be original. These expressions are called "clichés" (klee SHAYZ). Each cliché was once vivid and ingenious. It expressed an idea effectively. If it hadn't, people wouldn't have remembered it or repeated it.

Cliché began as a printing term. This original use provides a concrete illustration of how clichés become overused. A cliché was a plate made from wood, clay, or metal. After being inked, the plate could print hundreds of thousands of identical images. You probably do not like to think of repeating something that has been said hundreds of thousands of times before.

Since fresh figurative language is to be encouraged, but trite, overused expressions are to be avoided, discerning the dividing line becomes desirable. In The Play of Words verbivore Richard Lederer cites predictability as the factor that distinguishes the original from the hackneyed. If the first part of an expression immediately brings the last part to your mind, the expression is so overused that you should avoid it in your writing.

People inexperienced with the language may not recognize clichés. When they encounter a cliché for the first time, it may seem clever to them because they do not realize how overused it is.

On the subject of triteness in modern writing, English novelist George Orwell said, "Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse." While fresh, custom-made writing may require more effort, it is also more distinctive and more valuable.

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Activities Involving Figurative Language

Students should learn both to understand figurative language and to effectively employ it in their own writing. They should be able to understand not only clichés but also fresh figurative language that they encounter in literature. In order to use figurative language effectively in their own writing, they should first know which expressions to avoid because they are overused. Finally, they should be able to create apt fresh expressions.

Considering the literal meaning of an idiom often provides a good start toward understanding its figurative meaning. For example, in order to "make a mountain out of a molehill" you would need to make it much bigger -- or perhaps perceive it as being much bigger than it really is. If you have a problem and someone says you are making a mountain out of a molehill, you are making it bigger in a similar way.

The following activities will help students understand and generate figurative language:

1. Having students illustrate the literal meaning of an idiom, such as "having butterflies in one's stomach," produces an attractive drawing and reinforces the idea that the literal meaning is a good starting point for determining the figurative meaning. So that a class can illustrate as many idioms as possible (and avoid duplication), you might want to have students get approval from you before they make their drawings. You might have them make two drawings for the same idiom -- one of the literal meaning, the other of the figurative meaning. Also have them write the idiom on their paper. Requiring the use of color and notifying students that their drawings will be exhibited results in a display that is instructive as well as attractive.

The following site will give you many idioms, along with their meanings and examples:

2. If students are having difficulty understanding similes and metaphors -- and other figures of speech involving comparisons -- have them analyze a comparison with these questions:
a. Which two things are being compared?
b. What quality do the two things have in common?
c. To what extent does the [known object] possess this characteristic?
d. What is the author saying or implying about the less familiar object? (Sometimes it might be necessary to draw on a context broader than the mere comparison.)

The following example shows how the questions might be answered for the sentence "Sheila is proud as a peacock."
a. Sheila and the peacock
b. pride
c. The peacock is likely to strut around, displaying its beautiful tail feathers.
d. Sheila might walk around with her nose in the air and/or display or brag about things that other people do not have.

3. Visualizing the image described can help to clarify its meaning. Consider these lines as an example:
We walk in single-peopled worlds,
Each shielded by our own favorite color.
a. What situation is being described? (Where do people walk alone with different colors over their heads? Do you get the picture of people walking in the rain with umbrellas?)
b. Might the author be suggesting a deeper level of meaning beyond the physical description? (perhaps that people are more isolated and seek their own comfort in times of sadness -- suggested by the rain)

4. Have students write short stories to illustrate proverbs that employ figurative language. If students have difficulty jumping into this task, you could lead them into it gradually. Let's say, for example, that they were going to illustrate "Don't put all of your eggs in one basket." You might first tell them a story about someone who literally put all of the eggs in one basket, dropped the basket, and lost everything. Then you might start a story that illustrates the proverb but does not involve eggs. It might, for example, be about a person who relies on one friend and does not form friendships with other people. Tell most of the story, but have the student supply an ending that illustrates the proverb. Finally, have the student write an entire story (not about eggs) to illustrate the proverb.

5. Have students create fresh similes or metaphors to illustrate abstract concepts. Have them explain their metaphor in either a sentence or a longer composition. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone." To what, besides a city, could "language" be compared? What other concepts could you explore?

6. Have students describe an emotion or abstract idea in concrete terms according to this formula:

[Emotion] is [color].
It sounds like . . . .
It smells like . . . .
It tastes like . . . .
[Emotion] feels like . . . .

For more on this nearly fool-proof formula (and an example poem), see Activity #7 in the September 2000 LinguaPhile:

7. When you are describing something, look for a fresh way to express your idea instead of settling for an overused expression. You might first ask yourself what quality about the person or thing you are trying to convey. Then ask yourself what things, besides the usual, also have that quality.

8. To spark original juxtapositions of words, have students brainstorm a list of nouns -- some abstract, some concrete. This could be done in two lists or in one combined list. Or students might generate concrete lists individually and then pass them to classmates. Students create similes or metaphors by thinking of ways that two listed nouns are alike. For example, Infatuation is like cotton candy; it appears substantial, but then it dissolves into sweet nothing.

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Puzzler: Color Words

List as many words as you can think of that name both colors and things. Orange is the most common example. (There are at least eighteen of these words.)

Answers next month.

Answers to July Puzzler

1. muscular (brawny)
2. houseboat (floating home)
3. sustenance (food, perhaps)
4. nuisance (gnats, for example)
5. understatement (antonym of exaggeration)
6. foursquare (playground game)
7. causeway (means of crossing Lake Pontchartrain)
8. frustration (stalled traffic, for example)
9. upstage (to "steal someone's thunder")
10. unsurpassable (the Hare's opinion of himself)

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Thank you for reading. If you find LinguaPhile helpful and interesting, don't keep it a secret! Consider which of your friends would also enjoy it, and send them information about subscribing. We welcome your comments and suggestions:

The index to LinguaPhile, which is updated monthly, is now available in either a text or .doc format on the GrammarAndMore Web site:
This makes the information from previous issues readily accessible. You are encouraged to print the index for your convenience or to share it with friends. Why not send them the URL of the text version?
It's a gift you can give, yet still have for yourself!

© 2002 Fran Santoro Hamilton


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