Mental Floss: What's the Difference?

Mental Floss: What's the Difference?


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Enlighten Up Already!

Monet? Manet? Who can even tell the difference? Well, with the help of the newest mental_floss tome, you can! Want to learn how to tell egg rolls from spring rolls, nuclear bombs from dirty nuclear bombs, or even how to tell an idiot from a moron (there's a real scientific difference)? Piece of cake! Whether you're trying to impress your boss, your mother-in-law, attractive singles, or a pack of fourth graders (you know how they love semantics), mental_floss gives you all the tips and tricks to have you sounding like a genius.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060882495
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/03/2006
Series: Mental Floss Series
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 801,499
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.12(h) x 0.52(d)

About the Author

Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur met as first year students at Duke University. Ignoring the lures of law school and investment banking, the pair co-founded mental_floss and have been grinning ever since. Maggie Koerth-Baker is a freelance journalist and a former assistant editor at mental_floss magazine, where she consistently astounded Will and Mangesh with her amazingness.

Read an Excerpt

Mental Floss: What's the Difference?

By Virginia Editors of Mental Floss

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Virginia Editors of Mental Floss
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060882492

Chapter One

Idiot vs. Moron

The Dilemma: You want to assail someone's intelligence, but you don't know quite which word to use, which calls into question your own intellect.

People You Can Impress: Well, idiots and morons both, for starters. But also psychologists. And you really, really need to impress psychologists, because--as you'll see--you don't want them to think you're an idiot.

The Quick Trick: These days, the words are completely synonymous. But back in the dark days of psychology (which is to say until about 30 years ago), there was a difference, and here's the quick trick psychologists used: Ask a question. If your subject answers, they're a moron at worst. If they don't answer, you might have an idiot on your hands.

The Explanation:

Anyone who says that political correctness never accomplished anything worthwhile should take a long, hard look at the lot of the idiot.

In 1911, French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon created the first modern intelligence test, which measured intelligence (hence the "intelligence quotient") based on whether children could accomplish tasks like pointing to their nose (honestly) and counting pennies.The concept of "IQ" followed soon after, and psychologists fell so deeply in love with the scientific nature of the tests that they created classification systems. Any child with an IQ of above 70 was considered "normal," while those with scores above 130 were considered "gifted." To classify scores below 70, psychologists invented a nomenclature of retardation. Those with IQs between 51 and 70 were called morons. Morons had adequate learning skills to complete menial tasks and communicate. Imbeciles, with IQs between 26 and 50, never progressed past a mental age of about six. And the lowest of all were the idiots, with IQs between 0 and 25, who were characterized by poor motor skills, extremely limited communication, and little response to stimulus.

The moron/imbecile/idiot classifications remained popular, amazingly, until the early 1970s, when people started to note that the developmentally disabled have enough difficulties without being saddled with condescending labels.

Today the classification system is one category broader--moron, imbecile, and idiot have been replaced with mild, moderate, severe, and profound retardation--and diagnostic factors other than IQ are considered in making a diagnosis.

I.e. vs. E.g.

The Dilemma: You're reading a document that's riddled with needless, pretentious Latin abbreviations (a legal brief, e.g., or mental_floss's exploration of differences--i.e., this book), but your year of high school Latin has been obscured by the fog of memory.

People You Can Impress: Roman emperors, lawyers, and grammar nerds

The Quick Trick: E.g. means "for example"; i.e. means "that is." We at mental_floss remember this simply by employing Valley Girl speak. Where a fancypants Latinist would use e.g., a Valley Girl would use "like." And where the Latinist uses i.e., the Valley girl goes with "I mean." Like: "I love going out with Todd. He has, like, a really nice car. I mean, it cost a lot of money." The Explanation:

We will never understand why English abbreviations like BRB and LOL are derided as lazy, while Latin abbreviations are seen as the height of class. But now and again, it just sounds better to spice things up with a little dead language, and since Greek and Sanskrit both use unfamiliar alphabets, Latin's your best bet.

E.g. is short for exempli gratia, which literally means "by grace of example." I.e. is more straightforward: id est means "that is." The confusion stems from the fact that both abbreviations seek to clarify or focus a broad proposition, but e.g. is followed by a specific example, whereas i.e. is followed by a restatement.

Now that you know your i.e. from your e.g., we hereby provide a guide to other Latin abbreviations and phrases that some people use, even though the English language has already stolen all the Latin words it needs.

En Dash vs. Em Dash

The Dilemma: You're writing an important memo/term paper/mental_floss book, and you need a dash. But not just any dash.

People You Can Impress: almost no one, really

The Quick Trick: It's almost always an em dash. No document can ever contain too many em dashes--in this book alone we use 173.

The Explanation:

Having learned to not dangle your participles or split your infinitives,* grammar offers bolder, deeper mysteries. Like, can you start a sentence with like? And what about starting (or finishing) a sentence with and? And also, what's the difference between an en dash and an em dash? The answers to those questions: Sure; yeah; and well, read on.

An en dash (-) is bigger than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash (--). The names come from an obscure typographical measurement system, but the dashes have now taken on a life of their own in grammar. The em dash is the spork of English grammar: It ain't particularly pretty, but you can use it for most anything. Em dashes can replace colons or sets of parentheses, or represent a sudden change in thought or tone.

But if the em dash is a spork, then the en dash is nothing less than a salad fork: We often forget what it looks like and when to use it. But here are the two basic uses of en dashes:

  1. To show numerical ranges, signifying "up to and including"--of dates, ages, pages, etc. (Example: "I read pages 7-22 last night.")

  2. The storied "compound adjective hyphen," an event so rare in the English language that proofreaders shiver with excitement whenever they come across it. Basically "pro-American" gets a regular hyphen because "American" is only one word, whereas "pro-Falkland Islands" gets an en dash because "Falkland Islands" is two words. So, too phrases like "Civil War-era."


Excerpted from Mental Floss: What's the Difference? by Virginia Editors of Mental Floss Copyright © 2006 by Virginia Editors of Mental Floss. Excerpted by permission.
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