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Joe Carillo
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« on: January 10, 2017, 09:14:13 PM »

Do Kingfishers Eat Butter?
By Jose A. Carillo

“Dad, do kingfishers eat butter?”

I thought my 12-year-old son was kidding me when he asked me this question sometime ago, but he wasn’t. As proof, he showed me the front-page newspaper item that had this curious passage: “The Silvery Kingfisher . . . thrives in aquatic habitats and eats fish, insects, butter and dragon flies, and small crabs.” [italics mine]

“No, Jack,” I said, “The kingfisher couldn’t be that fastidious as a food connoisseur. A butter-eating kingfisher? No way! I think it’s simply a bad case of elision. What that statement really meant was that the kingfisher eats butterflies and dragonflies.”


“Mmmm . . . I think you’re right, Dad. I just wish the writers of this piece were more organized and careful with their English. You see, I was thinking that since butterflies and dragonflies are insects, and fish and crabs are both aquatic animals, that passage would read much better if written this way: ‘The Silvery Kingfisher. . . thrives in aquatic habitats and eats fish and small crabs as well as insects like butterflies and dragonflies.’ Everything would have been in its proper place.”

“Right, Jack! That’s a neat organizing touch—putting together fish and small crabs in a single phrase, and putting together butterflies and dragonflies as the insects that they are. You’ve made the statement much clearer by grouping similar things together instead of the helter-skelter way they were presented in that passage. Now you should get going for your football practice.”

“OK, Dad, but just one more question. You used a word that’s new to me—‘elision.’ What does it mean?”

“In general, Jack, elision is the omission of one or more sounds from a word or phrase—maybe a vowel, a consonant, or a whole syllable—to produce a more easily pronounced or euphonic statement. In the kingfisher case, however, it was the omission for brevity’s sake of something presumed to be obvious. But the writer made a serious mistake. He or she thought that since the term ‘flies’ is common to the words ‘butterflies’ and ‘dragonflies,’ that term can be detached from each of them to stand as a generic word for both. This is a wrong and deadly case of elision. ‘Flies’ couldn’t be a generic term for ‘butterflies’ and ‘dragonflies.’ That word is an entirely different genus, or a class, kind, or group marked by common characteristics. ‘Butterflies’ and ‘dragonflies’ are generic on their own, with insect flight—not flies—as a common characteristic.”

“I get it, Dad. But is elision always bad for language?”

“Only if done badly as in that kingfisher passage. Elision actually works very well in informal conversations, as when people make contractions like ‘I’m’ for ‘I am’ and ‘shouldn’t’ for ‘should not,’ or in poetry, when it becomes necessary to omit or elide an unstressed vowel or syllable to achieve a uniform metrical pattern.”

“I see. But does elision have any practical uses in day-to-day writing?”

“Definitely, son! In written compositions, when things in an enumerative sequence are modified by the same compound adjective, it’s much better to elide or take out the common term in that compound adjective and use it only once at the end of the enumerative sequence. For instance, professional business writers will never be caught writing statements like this one: ‘The strawberry-flavored, apple-flavored, cherry-flavored, and mint-flavored drinks sold very well during the summer months.’ They would elide the common term ‘-flavored’ to produce this more concise, streamlined statement: ‘The strawberry-, apple-, cherry-, and mint-flavored drinks sold very well during the summer months.’ Keep in mind, though, that the intended effect of the hyphens is difficult to achieve when such statements are spoken, so elisions like this work well only in writing.”

“Well, Dad, I guess I’ll just have to be very careful with elisions. I’d hate to end up writing about fastidious birds like that butter-eating kingfisher without really meaning to.” (circa 2003-2004)

This essay in conversation form, which first appeared in my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004 and subsequently formed Chapter 141 of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, is part of a collection of my personal essays from 2003 to 2006. The Forum will be running one essay in conversation from a selection of my 2002-2016 essays every Wednesday starting January 11, 2017.
« Last Edit: January 17, 2017, 10:30:01 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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