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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von M√ľnchhausen

Grammatical Rules of Thumb

We all know the term "rule of thumb"... it's a simplified version of a more complex set of rules. You may have also heard that the phrase originally comes from a law that stated a man could not beat his wife with a stick any thicker than his thumb. I'd heard it, too, but apparently, this isn't the case:

It is often claimed that the term ["rule of thumb"] originally referred to the maximum size of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife. This claim has been debunked, for instance by Christina Hoff Sommers in her book Who Stole Feminism? (1994 ISBN 0684801566). In particular Sommers notes that there is no mention of this in the legal commentaries of William Blackstone.
Wikipedia: Rule of Thumb
But the purpose of this post wasn't to blather endlessly and self-importantly on the origins of this term. The purpose of this post is to blather endlessly and self-importantly on grammar, and show how a rule of thumb can lead you astray.

This weekend, I went to Shakespeare in the park (this in itself is a long story that may or may not become the subject of another post). As I was sitting reading the synopsis in the program, I read something in the synopsis about "effecting change". I stopped, re-reading it a couple of times, and couldn't decide whether it was correct or not. The rule of thumb, of course, is that "effect" is a noun and "affect" is a verb, leading me to conclude that it was incorrect usage, but my grammatical spidey-sense was tingling. It looked right. So, I looked it up, and found that I should have trusted my instincts:

A commonly heard differentiation between these two is that "effect" is a noun, while "affect" is a verb. This, however, is a gross oversimplification. True, it is correct to say that the drug Viagra has a miraculous effect on male sexual performance, while unchecked ingestion of the substance can negatively affect the long-term viability of one's urethra. But "effect" is also a verb meaning "to bring about." ("Nothing short of electroshock therapy can effect change in my chemically ravaged nether regions.") And likewise, "affect" can be a noun denoting feeling or emotion.
—Steve Schneider, Metro Times Detroit

Another such rule that has thrown me off in the past is the whole "'i' before 'e'" thing. We've all heard it, "'i' before 'e', except after 'c'". But did you know the second part? It's "except when said 'ay', as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh'". But even that's not enough. According to my research, it looks like there are a number of exceptions to the rule. What good is a rule if it's broken so often?

But never fear! I put together a new poem for people to memorize, so that they will be better able to know when to put the "i" before the "e" or vice versa:

"I" before "e"
Except after "c"
Except when it's said "ay"
As in "neighbor" and "weigh"
Or a plural after "cy"
"Fallacies" and "frequencies" are sly
Or when it's two separate sounds
Words like "deity" abound
Or when it derives Latin scire
"Science" and "conscience" are the other way
Because when it's "weird" there's no rule –
Just look at a word like "dreidl"

Comments on Grammatical Rules of Thumb
  Comment from Blogger Herself at Wednesday, July 20, 2005 4:37:00 PM
Rather brilliant, but it does lead me to believe that you failed to get laid this weekend.
  Comment from Blogger MacFurious at Wednesday, July 27, 2005 1:37:00 PM
"grammatical spidey-sense was tingling"

that line alone made it worth the time to read it. Talk about a f*cking useless Super Power, eh?

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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.