In the days since the Tucson shootings, there have been many calls for Americans to “tone done the rhetoric.” I’m all for that. In fact, I would even like to see the word “rhetoric” catch a break. It has its roots in the Greek “rhetor,” which was derived from the verb “eirein,” meaning “to speak.”

In the days since the Tucson shootings, there have been many calls for Americans to “tone done the rhetoric.”

I’m all for that. In fact, I would even like to see the word “rhetoric” catch a break. It has its roots in the Greek “rhetor,” which was derived from the verb “eirein,” meaning “to speak.”

Originally, “rhetoric” was “the art of using words effectively in speaking or writing.” In ancient Greece and Rome, says Webster’s, a “rhetor” was “a master or teacher of rhetoric”; later it referred simply to an orator.

Eventually, “rhetoric” became more commonly applied to “artificial eloquence; language that is showy and elaborate but largely empty of clear ideas or sincere emotion.”

In “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” Bryan A. Garner suggests an additional definition: “the bombastic or disingenuous use of language to manipulate people.”

That’s the rhetoric that many would like to see dialed down, but it’s been around for a long time. Garner says this “slippage toward the pejorative sense” can be found at least as far back as the 17th century.

It is possible to be passionate in expressing your beliefs without being obscene or incendiary, However, there appears to be a direct correlation between hotter language and bigger audiences.

Too many Americans seem to revel in their anger. They may be willing to take a break from it, but dare we believe toned-down rhetoric can become the norm?
That may have been a rhetorical question.

Woe over ‘slow’: I received an e-mail this week from a reader who was dismayed by our use of the phrase “drive slow” in a story and its headline Tuesday. She contended that the adverb “slowly” was called for.

Yes, an adverb is needed, but “slow” can be an adverb, one that means “in a slow manner or at a slow speed.” This is in an edition of Webster’s that is often characterized as being too permissive in such matters.

But in the case of the adverbial “slow,” the dictionary has good company, including the venerable “Modern American Usage” by Wilson Follett and “The Careful Writer” by Theodore M. Bernstein.

Much more recently, we can find this take from Garner’s book (mentioned earlier):

“Though ‘slowly’ is the more common adverb, and is certainly correct, ‘slow’ is often just as good in the adverbial sense,” so “let rhythm and euphony be your guides.”

So you can choose “slow” or “slowly” when you’re telling people not to go fast. Luckily, there’s no “fastly” to make matters worse.

Very observant: I also received an e-mail Jan. 2, and I’ve been trying to work this into my column ever since.

The reader contended that in a front-page item that began “In observation of the holiday,” the second word should have been “observance.”

And “Garner’s Modern American Usage” agrees. He cites this as an example of “differentiation,” a “linguistic process by which similar words, usually those having a common etymology, gradually diverge in meaning, each one taking on a distinct sense or senses.”

Broadly speaking, “observance” is special attention paid to something and is rooted in custom; “observation” is just noticing something, although it can involve special intruments and recording devices, perhaps in an observatory.

As always, my thanks to people who read and write.

Punctuation Station

Here’s a recent item from our paper that bothered me:

A headline on an update on Tucson shooting victim U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords contained the phrase “Gifford’s condition.” That indicates the person’s name is “Gifford,” not “Giffords.”

A person could write a book on apostrophes, but this point is fairly straightforward: A punctuation mark should never be inserted into a proper name, because it changes the name. It should have been “Giffords’ condition” (Associated Press style) or “Giffords’s.” Either way, the name remains intact.

Contact Barry Wood at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.