Living in a Material(ized) World

When something “materializes”, what happens exactly?

If I’m on the spot, I’ll say something goes from a state of being invisible or nonexistent to visible or existent.

But there are a lot of gray areas there… magical, even spooky stuff.

There’s a nice fat usage note on “materialize” in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Let’s break it down:

“In its original sense, materialize is used without an object to mean ‘to assume material form,’ as in Marley’s ghost materialized before Scrooge’s eyes…”


*chains rattle*


So it sounds like back in Dickens’s day, the word was reserved for the literal description of an invisible thing reverse-fading (is that what you call it?) into visibility.

What have we done since then?

“But these uses are probably less common nowadays than the two extended senses of the verb. In the first, the meaning is roughly ‘to appear suddenly,’ as in No sooner had we set the menu down than a waiter materialized at our table.

I like the idea of “extended sense”. Isn’t extending sense how language evolves?

The waiter wasn’t a chain-lugging ghost who emerged from some ether to take a mozzarella stick order.

He just walked over to the table. But as far as the hungry, distracted diners were concerned, he may as well have pulled a Jacob Marley.

Not everybody is happy about this:

“Some critics have labeled this use as pretentious or incorrect, but it has been around for more than a century, appears in the writing of highly respected writers, and seems a natural extension of the original sense.”

Have these critics ever succeeded in shutting down a change to English? I’m imagining  Gandalf and the Balrog: (“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!“)

If you know of such an instance, please let me know in the comments.

One more step in the evolution of materialize:

“Materialize tends to be applied to things or events that have been foreseen or anticipated, and usually occurs in negative constructions: The promised subsidies never materialized. It was thought the community would opposed the measure, but no new objections materialized.”

So we’ve ended up at materialize referring to: Things that never existed continuing to never exist.

And even if they came into existence–objections, subsidies, whatever–they would still just be intangible words or numbers.

I’d say this is fitting in our increasingly digital world of bitcoins, blog posts, information products, et al. What can we still touch?

The tangible is fading, like Jacob Marley back into the fireplace.

What does the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come have to show us tonight?

Don’t Let Functional Variation Torch Your Thanksgiving Turkey


5.31 It is fairly common in English for nouns to pass into use as verbs; it always has been.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Maybe, but it’s also fairly annoying. This occurs to me as the holidays loom and I resolve that if anyone “gifts” me anything next month I’m going to spit eggnog in their face.

In fairness, it’s subjective which noun-to-verb functional variations work and which don’t. Yes, I Google and friend like any red-blooded American who wastes too much time online, and I don’t think twice about handing you the rake so you can rake the toilet paper those little punks rolled our house with.

A good article in More Intelligent Life presents this fun factoid:

“Some lovers of the language deplore the whole business of verbing (Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to Noah Webster, the lexicographer, in 1789). . .”

If he wasn’t a fan of this sort of manipulation, I wonder how the elder statesman would have reacted to Philadelphia’s “Benergy” fiasco. I digress…

What do you think separates a good noun-verb functional variation from a ridiculous one?

How Safe Is Your Syntax From A Dangling Modifier?


Having determined that dangling modifiers make the writer look like a chump, Layman’s Terms will avoid them from now on.

Wait, wait…  Layman’s Terms didn’t determine anything. I did! For myself, at least. You probably knew it already. But it’s another rule of usage that was never on any test I took.

The worst ones sure do look bad. Bill Bryson uses “Handing me my whisky, his face broke into an awkward smile” as the poster pimple illustrating this syntactical blemish. It’s a funny one–the face hands the whisky.

But it’s not often that a truly egregious dangling modifier like it finds its way into print. I think our brains come standard with a low threshold for such jumbling.

Avoiding the passive voice is one way of staying out of trouble. Purdue University’s helpful online grammar site gives several examples of dangling modifiers, almost all of which flop because of passive voice in the main clause.

Here’s my modest proposal: Just don’t begin any sentences with modifying clauses. You’ll never get a dangler. And even when the modifier is clear about what it modifies, it usually sounds bad.

How many terrible bio blurbs begin with something like “A passionate world traveler, gourmande and djembe beater, Petunia Zickafoose is a polymath without equal…”? No laws are broken here, but it sets my AMATEUR! alarm blaring.

Put the main thing first, then tell more about it.

Layer Cake


This post is an attempt to intellectually recover the twenty minutes I just lost.

“Rule 2 

That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses.” 

Sounds good. So what is an “essential clause”?

“An essential clause is a relative clause that limits a general, ambiguous noun.

And a “relative clause”?

“A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun phrase, most commonly a noun.”

And a “noun phrase”? The whole thing is a bulbous freakin’ Matryoshka Doll. Each new discovery places you farther from the truth. But this is the way it is. We have our primary colors–subject, verb, object–and the usually tacky adjective/adverb ornaments. The blank canvas is anywhere and everywhere, we just need to find new ways to fill it.

New rules of grammar and usage can only be defined in terms of the ones that came before–I just shudder to think of how many Wikipedia clickthroughs it’s going to take writers a generation from now to hit the bedrock of what they need to know.

Rated R

“Use commas to bracket nonrestrictive phrases, which are not essential to the sentence’s meaning.

  • King and Lucille, his customized black Gibsons have electrified audiences all over the world.
  • King and Lucille, his customized black Gibsons, have electrified audiences all over the world.”

-Gerry O’Connor, Professor of English, Suffolk County Community College, “11 Essential Rules of Grammar”

Well, I’m not sure if The Beale Street Blues Boy thinks of all the black ES-355’s he’s ever used to shoot lightning bolts as one collective “Lucille”.

But that’s not the point.  Restrictive phrases and the right way to bracket them are one of those things that most of us know and practice instinctively.  But they’re also one of those things worth pausing and looking at for a few seconds to better understand what we’re doing on the page.

Mr. O’Connor gives this example to demonstrate the opposite:

  • “The cats, with six toes, are a unique attraction of the tour of Hemingway’s house.
  • The cats with six toes are a unique attraction of the tour of Hemingway’s house.”


This is not quite as obvious a wrong/right binary as the first one.  It sounds OK with the commas.  But the point comes across–bracketing with commas declares a detail less essential than it may otherwise be.

Awww, C’mon!

"Seriously, buy it."

convince, persuade You may be convinced that something or of something.  You must be persuaded to do something.

-AP Stylebook, 39th Edition

I don’t like either of these words.  In high school, I invested a lot of time and effort into Lincoln-Douglas debate.  Early mornings, late nights, Friday evenings–I was grinding out research and case revisions, or talking forcefully to the wall, practicing my stock rebuttals so the real ones would rain down like arrows at that weekend’s tournament.

I went to tournaments most weekends, sometimes on foot, sometimes by car, sometimes by plane.  My performance at these mattered more to me than my grades.  I usually did well enough to motivate trying even harder for the next one.

But there were times when I would debate before a judge who couldn’t care less about my intricate, trapdoor-laden arguments and my briefcase full of factoids.  I would unleash the beast on some lesser-prepared opponent and then kick the mangled corpse until my toes ached.

And the judge, either disliking my style or just not paying attention, would dismiss the heaps of evidence I had presented and sign the ballot against me with a simple note explaining that I “was not persuasive” or that I failed to “convince” him or her.

In retrospect these were probably good lessons in humility, but at the time they were crushing.  I would be sullen and angry for the rest of the weekend.  It seemed so unfair. Once, after such a decision eliminated me from a prestigious tournament with real silver-plated trophies, I vented my aggression on a sawtooth oak in a university quad with predictable results for my knuckles.

So that’s why I cringe a little whenever I read or am tempted to write “persuade” or “convince”.  The ghosts of poorly considered decisions and quarterfinalist awards begin to taunt me from the rafters.

This is juvenile, of course, and I’m getting over it.  These words describe a basic, essential process in how we interact with others and with ourselves: When we didn’t want to do something, or weren’t sure if we wanted to do something, and then someone or something changed our minds.  We’re all convincing and persuading and being convinced and being persuaded every day.

And it’s good to understand how they differ, because until now I saw them as melded together in one molten lump.  A convincing never has to manifest itself outside the brain of the convinced.  A persuasion always leads to specific action.

It’s curious that convince derives from the Latin for “conquer”, considering it’s the gentler of the two in that it doesn’t necessarily compel action.  Persuade, which by definition has more real-world influence, derives from the Latin for “advise, make appealing, sweeten”.

Perhaps this is an etymological reminder that to get people to do what you want, a sly, gentle hand beats brute force every time.