Sunday, November 18, 2007

Be listening out there for redundant words, and so on and so forth

Today’s column will, I willingly admit, contain no small amount of whining on my part. However, if we’re lucky, you’ll agree with some of my points, you’ll learn from one or two others and, all in all, I’ll end up a happier person. Not bad for one column.

Let’s start with OUT THERE. I put it in caps here to create what I hope will be a splashy farewell. By my estimate, more than nine out of 10 uses of OUT THERE are simply not necessary. All of us want to reduce (eliminate?) our use of unnecessary words, yes? Listen to how often people throw in “out there,” and mentally, quietly, ask yourself if the statement would make as much sense without those two terribly overused words.

Let me cite some recent examples from the radio. “Is there any evidence out there that contradicts this suggestion?” See that? Take those two oft-repeated words away, and you have a shorter, cleaner sentence that’s even easier to understand.

Here’s another: “There are many programs out there that can help — Fannie Mae’s out there, some others are out there … many programs already exist out there and are helping.” First, you have to believe me when I say that’s a direct quote, with a national financial expert using “out there” four times in one sentence. Second, those two words give some comfort to the speaker (obviously), and they are not wrong, but they are off-putting in their repetition and usually not needed.

One more, from the radio on the same day: “There are two faith-based arguments out there that contradict what you say.” Do we need that “out there” out there?

The other thing is, kill “The other thing is” — unless you have set it up. Here’s what I mean (and boy, I’m starting to feel better already). Many people say “The other thing is” without first saying “There are two things here. We’ve covered one of them, now here’s the other one.” A better way to phrase it, in this perfect language world you and I are building, is “Another” thing is, rather than “THE” other thing is.

This next one slays me. “He loves her more than anyone on Earth.” Really? Then where is she? Isn’t she on Earth? The solution, of course, is to say “more than anyone else on Earth.” Prick up your antennae whenever you approach any “any” words (anyone, anything, anywhere, etc.). Today I read this in a university magazine: “I think Carnegie Mellon University placed more emphasis on that plan than any other university did.” See there? That’s the correct approach. The “other” lets us smile.

Another antenna alerter is “annual,” as in this from the paper recently: “The company will create jobs with average annual salaries of more than $94,000 a year.” Oh, please. See the redundancy there?

Now let’s zip through some. It’s tenterhooks, not tenderhooks. It’s smorgasbord, not smorgasborg. It’s biceps and triceps for both the singular and the plural of those muscles. It’s convenience, not convience. Don’t say “In my mind I was thinking … .” Where else would you have been thinking? In your elbow, perhaps?

We need to stop people from referring to the real truth and to true facts. All truth is real and there are no false facts, only false statements. And, as you may know, it’s harebrain, not hairbrain. You lose change that is loose, you swim a lap that you swam yesterday, and for heaven’s sake you care about language a lot, not alot.

Please tell me that you don’t say someone graduated college. The person graduated FROM Wake Forest (or wherever), FROM college. Language purists will point out that the institution does the graduating — we are graduated from the school. Four little letters (f-r-o-m). Use ‘em.

Do you say “And so forth and so on” or “And so on and so forth”? I hope not. Are they wrong to say? Of course not. But tell me what “and so on” adds that isn’t already covered by “and so forth,” and vice versa. Keep it simple; you don’t need both parts.

Is it a card shark or a card sharp who cheats when playing? Actually, they’re interchangeable, along with card sharper.

“Prices on the New York Stock Exchange rose higher yesterday.” Have you ever heard that? Of course they rose higher; could they have risen lower?

I’m done for now. What a relief. Thanks.


It’s no problem, between you to me

Language changes with the times. We all know that. Sometimes it’s even for the better. There are a few cases, however, that are so irritating they make my teeth hurt. Even the crowns.

These days if you go to almost any store and say “thank you” to a clerk under the age of 30, the odds are very good indeed that the person will respond with a two-word phrase. That’s OK, because in English the standard response to “thank you” already is a two-word phrase. You know it; you grew up with it. It’s one of the hallmarks of polite conversation. Someone says “thank you”; you respond with “you’re welcome.” Neat. Tidy. Standard.

But the two words you’ll hear now are “no problem.”

Is that a problem? You bet. Here’s why: It implies that I just got you to do something that could have been a problem. Handing over my change is simply doing your job.

The same applies to something like holding a door open for two extra seconds to accommodate my passage. To be courteous, I’d normally say “thank you.” Now I cringe, knowing I’m likely to get a “no problem.”

No problem? Well thank heavens. I don’t even know you; I certainly don’t mean to cause trouble.

Unfortunately, this is not simply an American or an age issue. It may have started with young Americans, but it is becoming a phrase to dread from people of all ages. It’s not grammatically incorrect, but it’s irritating.

The next peeve, however, is as wrong as it is off-putting.

It’s a little more difficult to describe, but it is SO wrong that you’ll want to think about it just for your own protection. Even well known journalists – people actually paid to write for a living – make this mistake … but you can avoid it with a moment’s thought.

“The prices of the sweaters range between $10 to $50,” she said. And boy howdy was she ever wrong. The prices might have been accurate, but that “between … to” is definitely wrong.

Think about it. Would you ever say “Let’s just keep this between you to me”? Of course not. You would never say that Burlington is located “between Greensboro to Durham.”

What you want – and you always want it – is to use “and” instead of “to.” That is, things are between A and B, between you and me, between $10 and $50.

It must be the numbers that throw some people off. We’re used to saying that the store is 10 to 15 minutes away, or that we need to diet to lose 15 to 20 pounds. But “between” changes everything.

Just keep in mind that you would never say, “Something happened between here to there.” Instead, and naturally, you’d say, “Something happened between here and there.”

Or you can always remember the usage mentioned above: “This is just between you and me.”

Let me end by pointing out two massively unnecessary repetitions. Maybe the most interesting thing about these two examples is how widespread their usage is. Ready? PIN number and ATM machine.

Here’s betting that you have used at least one of those at least once.

You might not even know that ATM stands for Automated Teller Machine. It does, though. That means that saying “ATM machine” is the same as saying “Automated Teller Machine machine.”

Sometimes we want to repeat things to drive home a point, but “machine machine”? I’d guess not.

Now let’s look at the ole PIN number. I bet you do know that PIN stands for Personal Identification Number. So you see, saying “PIN number” is the same as saying “Personal Identification Number number.”

What’s really fun is lumping those redundancies together — “I’m going to the Automated Teller Machine machine to try out my new Personal Identification Number number.”

Does that help? Don’t thank me. It’s no problem.


Be looking for a tiny little problem at 12 noon

Are you ready for some language challenges? Whether English is a first or a subsequent language for you, odds are good that you have a long list of redundancies unknowingly engrained in your speech patterns.

You don’t want to say things that are unnecessarily repetitive, do you? Previously in this column we looked at ATM machine and PIN number as popular redundancies. Let’s start today with one that is certain to be part of your everyday speech – tiny little. It was a tiny little cookie; we lived in a tiny little place.

As opposed to what – a BIG little cookie, a huge little place? Obviously, if it’s tiny, it’s little. But you know what? It is somehow … satisfying to lump those two words together, isn’t it? That’s not to say they’re both necessary or that it’s not redundant. I’m just saying, I understand.

Let’s look at another very common redundancy, at this point in time. The comma is there because that’s it – “at this point in time.” It would be enough just to say at this point. Or at this time. You don’t need them both.

Sometimes I’ll translate, saying “at this point in time” means “now.” If that is true, then “at this particular point in time” must mean “right now.”

That probably makes some sense, yes? It makes sense that you would do something simply at this point or at this time. The next one, however, could require some deep thought on your part, and some open-minded thought, at that. Not only because you and the rest of the civilized world have said it forever, but also because its illogic seems, at first glance, logical.

Here it is: 12 noon. Now work with me on this. Your first thought probably is what’s wrong with that? When I respond that there is no 11 noon, no 10 noon, etc., that noon alone is sufficient, you’re likely to think yeah, but there’s a 12 midnight.

I say there should not be. Midnight suffices.

Do you see? Noon is noon, period. Midnight is midnight, period. Drop the 12 from the phrasing and you’re home free.

Finally, let me address one tiny little (so much fun to say) matter of punctuation. Don’t shy away from this; it’s not hard at all. It’s about questions. Are you familiar with questions?

Guess what. Saying “Are you familiar with questions?” was correct with the question mark because it is a question. More important – and the point of this paragraph – is that “Guess what.” correctly did NOT have a question mark.

Guess what is NOT A QUESTION. So every time you see it followed by a question mark (yes – even in well-known newspapers), know that you are staring at a mistake.

If you say “guess what,” you are issuing a command. You are telling someone what you want done. Question marks are meant for questions, not commands.

If we put these all together, we can have: “Guess what? It’s 12 noon so we’ll take a tiny little break at this particular point in time.”



When statements? Sound like questions?

Warning: This column could get ugly. There is a trend in current speech that is so pervasive that, well, I hate to say it, but it might be found in your own family. And it is, to put it nicely, obnoxious.

The headline? For this column? Shows you what I mean?

The trend is for an increasingly large number of speakers to put a question mark where there is no question, often in the middle of a statement as well as at the end. It is said that this unappealing tendency began in California – certainly a state that has some wonderful things going for it, but if the San Fernando Valley and Valley Girls started this, then I am not happy with them.

I can hear a teenaged Valley girl now: “So, like, Heather goes, ‘Josh is like happy? When he like plays baseball? Or when he’s like drunk?’ And I go, like … what-EV-er.”

How do we put an end to this assault on our sensibilities? I have, in fact, a remedy – a little phrase that we can use to correct such behavior. Surely you have little tricks that stay with you from childhood (how do you spell arithmetic? A-r-i-t-h-m-e-t-i-c … a-rat- in-the-house-may-eat-the-ice-cream! Easy. Memorable.).

Here’s one little thing to remember to help fight The Question Inflection. It’s only two words. You can simply say these two words to anyone vocally misbehaving. Here they are: “Stop it!”

Do you know who Terry Gross is? She is the host of “Fresh Air” on National Public Radio, and many listeners feel that she is arguably the most accomplished, effective and entertaining radio interviewer there is. But I have bad news – over the last year or two, she has become the stereotypical teenager parodied above.

Her inflections are constantly and needlessly rising, and she even intersperses the aggravating and unnecessary “like” uses to match.

The truth is, how we speak is a choice on many levels, and people who go up? In their inflections? When they don’t need to? (OK – I’ll stop.) I say that talking like that is a choice. Terri Gross is an adult who makes her living by talking. If she chooses to adopt the language of a Valley Girl, we should blame her, not the girl in California.

Let me use one more name: Mark Niegelsky. He’s local, and he’s one cause for hope. I have never met or talked to 15-year-old Niegelsky, but he is brilliant with language. He writes occasional columns for the section of this newspaper called “the ’boro,” and without ever having heard him speak, I can guarantee he’s no Valley thing.

Niegelsky is, as I said, a hope. He is a teenager, and his writing is engaging, insightful, considered and at times elegant. Young people do not have to speak in cadences that are irritating, in words that are imprecise, in sentence fragments that reveal no awareness of language. They can, instead, be like Mark.

Mark, if you ever meet Terry Gross, tell her for me: Stop it!


Very sort of perfect: The repetitive use of a filler phrase

You’ve heard it all your life, and you’ll probably hear it or read it before today is done. It’s the oft-used phrase “sort of.” The biggest problem with it, in my view, is how often it is used and misused.

Anything done to excess is bothersome, and people who say “sort of” tend to say it ALL THE TIME.

“We can all have a delightful time sort of enjoying the beach.” Sort of sort of sort of … . Here’s my standard, helpful advice: STOP IT!

It’s like a potato chip for some people — they can’t have just one. Maybe they say it to soften their views, to keep from sounding too opinionated, too harsh. Maybe they feel it makes them sound kinder, gentler. It also makes them sound wishy-washy, unfocused, bumbling and, if I may say so, it makes them deeply irritating.

“The Smiths brought a sort of casserole to the event, a sort of neighborhood gathering that sort of brought all the residents together to sort of meet and sort of chill out.”

You have to ask yourself if that statement is even worth hearing.

In the first place, what in the world is a “sort of” casserole? For heaven’s sake, if it’s a casserole, call it that. Same for a neighborhood gathering and for a bringing together and for every other thing you want to say the rest of your life. Say it all and take your chances.

Try this experiment — next time you hear someone say “sort of,” pay attention. Start counting. You’ll be amazed and secretly delighted as the count soars. They cannot help it.

Of course, we all know that “like” users do the same with their favorite crutch, as do those who use “you know” repeatedly. And “kind of”? Same as “sort of.” (Don’t even get me started on those who say “kinda sorta”! Whoa.)

There’s an extra danger with “sort of.” The people who can’t escape using that language space filler, that weakening and softening toss-in phrase, go so far that inevitably they mess up their language even further.

With their endless (but not countless, thanks to you and me) uses of “sort of,” they eventually make statements like, “It was a very sort of happy time,” or “We were very sort of shocked.”

See the problem? You can have very, and you can have sort of, but you can’t have them together. If something is very anything, then it can’t be sort of that thing. The hole is either very deep or sort of deep; it is not very sort of deep.

In what instances is it a good idea to say “very sort of”? Oh, never.

Now here’s the worst of all. At some point, our “sort of” user will declare that something is “Sort of perfect.” No, nope, nuh-uh. There are no degrees of perfection. It’s perfect or it’s not.

My daddy used to say, “There’s no such thing as a little bit of garlic.” Same goes for perfection.

You’re aware of some absolutes — things that either are or are not. It seems obvious, does it not, that perfect is an absolute, as are unanimous and dead. Some add pregnant to the list.

However, a few scholars maintain that something can be “more perfect” or “less perfect.” Their argument is that nothing in the world is perfect, and we therefore should acknowledge the degrees of it.

Naturally, those experts toss ole Thomas Jefferson and his “more perfect union” into their argument. I say it’s a mistake to let the language get so loose. It’s perfect or it isn’t.

“That is the most perfect gift!” No it’s not. Can’t be.

Personally, I like garlic. Flavorful, aromatic, plentiful and healthful. All in all, it’s very sort of perfect.


Having a hang-up with the word 'up'

We all use words in ways that are familiar to us, even if those uses are not smiled upon by the rules of formal English. Have you ever noticed the many uses of “up”? I’ll bet you’ve said “Wait up” or “Hurry up” when you meant for someone simply to wait or hurry. Or “Listen up” when you really just meant “Listen.” Why add the “up”?

In recent years, the most famous use of “up” undoubtedly came from the Budweiser commercials chanting “Whassup,” with the phrase spreading around the world. But I have to tell you, I have rewritten this column many times, and it has nothing to do with beer (this is not Bud Write). The truth is, the column was going to look at some interesting uses of “up,” but examine other fascinating (I hoped) things as well. However, every time I’d walk away from writing, more colloquial uses of “up” came up (see there?). I’d either say it or hear it, and I’d have another example I just had to include here. There are so many ways we all use “up” that it could fill several columns (but cheer up, I’ll soon finish up).

All right, now that we’ve set up the topic and geared up for examples, I’ll try to clear up any confusion by listing things you might say or hear often. If it’s time to leave, you might say, “Let’s pack up now.” Of course, saying it’s time to pack would work just as well. Ever heard this with leftovers in a restaurant — “Want me to box that up for you?” Sure. Don’t just put it in a box; box it UP for me. Tastes better, probably.

“We got caught up” means you had a chance to talk and fill each other in on the latest happenings, whereas “We got caught” is entirely different. “Up” matters. Sometimes those two innocent little letters, “u” and “p,” mean bad news. You know you do not want to get stood up. Never a good thing. And we all know that if we ever mess up, we’re likely to get written up. Robberies, of course, are holdups (or stickups), and if we’re late, it’s likely that we got held up (but probably not in a holdup). If you have hang-ups, that’s not good, and of course breaking up is hard to do, even for a stand up guy with a leg up on the competition.

Moving up in the world (maybe movin’ on up, to the East Side), running up a large bill, holding up a line, cheering up, finishing up a task, creeping up on someone and, of course, throwing up. What’s up with that? It goes on — we sign up to volunteer, we cough it up if forced to pay, we talk it up to promote it, we even cook up some grub (you’ve done that, ‘fess up).

If we want to get next to someone, we chat ‘em up. If the outcome is uncertain, we say it’s a toss up. As we prep for a challenge, we ramp up, and a smart-aleck is just a cut up. Think about make up. Those two words can be cosmetics, of course, but also a lie (you make up a story), a special task if you missed class (your make up assignment is …) or what you do after you break up (you can even kiss and make up).

Sorry. I’ll let up … but I won’t give up. Feel free to email me your language thoughts — hit me up sometime, but don’t call me up. I guess it’s time to wrap this up. Things are looking up, but time’s up.


Redoubtable readers’ rejoinders

The readers of this column share one important attribute: intelligence. (If that doesn’t keep you reading, what will?)

Because every reader note I’ve received so far has begun with praise for my writing, it’s perfectly obvious that every writing reader of this column is a person of great intelligence, taste and manners.

After I moaned about people saying no problem as a response to thank you, many people sent me suggestions for responses. Reader Bob wrote this: “I experienced a great joy in reading your column this morning … . I am probably a crotchety 84 year-old coot, but when the expression began to take hold, I would simply respond … I didn’t expect any problem.”

Actually, the pattern of reader emails has been surprisingly consistent. First come some words of praise (that’s the best part, of course), then agreement with one or two of my language complaints and finally the kicker — almost every writer goes on to tell me what REALLY is irritating. Many of them state that if I should decide to cover their peeve in a future column, well, that’d be swell.

So here we go.

Reader S.P. praises former major league pitcher, Duke baseball coach and author Colby Jack Coombs, who “admonished outfielders never to say I’ve got it or I got it as a fly ball approached. The correct thing to say was I have it, and, by George, if you played for him, I got it … got you removed from the game and a seat in the dugout.” Now, that’s teaching. Unfortunately, even though people who prefer a formal approach to language will say that I’ve got the answer is redundant, preferring the simpler I have the answer, the truth is that we’ll never escape the informal use of got. I agree that the cleaner version is more appealing — you’ve got me there.

Reader Earl has a long list of irritants. Here are a few: “What really galls me is the apparent interchangeability of your and you’re. I see it all the time — I hope you’re business is good, or Your the best salesman I know.”

Earl, I like to tell myself that most people remember that the little apostrophe stands in for the letter that we lose in the contraction as we go from you are to you’re, but that they simply are in a hurry or are thinking about the rest of the sentence. If that is the case, it’s not a matter of education (as you fear) so much as one of attention.

Earl goes on: “Also the confusion over almost and most, as in — Most all of our customers are advertising agencies. Boy, that gets my skin crawling in a hurry.”

I think your good example clears that up nicely, Earl. (I almost said you’re good example just to drive you crazy, but I stifled.)

Reader Earl and Reader Dave both wrote me about went missing, what Earl calls “an idiot phrase.” Dave says: “It may be grammatically correct, but something about it just sounds incorrect, and I can’t find my old high school English book. Susie disappeared sounds better than Susie went missing. Maybe it’s no problem.”

Cute, Dave. In fact, went missing has been a hot topic for quite a few years. We happily say that we went shopping or went hiking, but it’s often less appealing to hear that someone went missing. The answer seems to be simply this: It’s a British phrase, a choice of dialect. Many Americans seem to feel the British are welcome to keep it at home.

“Do you have any idea why our British cousins say someone is going to hospital or is in hospital and we always say going to the hospital or is in the hospital?” asks Reader Jim.

That phrase is so common among the British and the people of former British colonies that many Americans wonder about it. The tiny word the demonstrates an important syntactic difference between the British and us. Interestingly, they and we have some syntactic parallels that also omit that little word — we both say Jim is in jail or Jim is going to school.

More readers’ comments will appear in future columns. Thanks to you all.


Readers Could Care Less, Really

Years ago, when my wife and I lived in a farmhouse with enough land for horses, we bought a beautiful Appaloosa mare. My wife wisely declined my request to name the horse Spot. Over the intervening years, as we have taken on dogs, she also has resisted my impulse to name one Peeve, just for the fun of the introductions: “This is my pet, Peeve.”

Today’s column focuses on the pet peeves of readers of this column who have written to me. Here’s one of the peeviest of the peeves, one mentioned often and a long-standing complaint of mine, as well. Reader Tony says: “Have you ever heard people say they could care less about something, when they actually mean they couldn’t care less? If they could care less, then whatever they’re talking about isn’t so bad because they still care a little.”

Reader Don says: “In earlier years, when I first began to hear ‘I could care less,’ I tried to explain why ‘I couldn’t care less’ probably better expressed the intention. However, it seemed to fall on deaf ears; people didn’t understand the difference.”

If there’s something that doesn’t matter to you, then you don’t care about it. Maybe you care so little, you could not possibly care less. So don’t say you COULD care less! For heaven’s sake. This has been going on for decades, and the good readers are right — it should stop.

Don must be right about deaf ears, too. On page A1 of the paper recently was a paragraph mentioning two groups of people — those who “live by” instant messaging and “those who could care less.” If this keeps up, we’ll all stop caring.

Reader Walt, also railing against the “care less” misuse, goes on to ask me to address the use of the word “hone” for “home.” He says: “I know that a homing torpedo is one that homes in on a target. And I know that one hones a knife to sharpen it. One does not hone in on a correct answer any more than one homes one’s skills.”

Right you are, Walt. You hone to sharpen (skills or appetites or whatever), and you phone home. It’s confusing to many people, I think, simply because the two words sound so much alike.

Let’s move our peeve watch now to what seems to be an infinitely confusing area. Reader Candy writes about “for she and Bob.” Reader Wayne wants me to “take aim at the modern-day butchers of our language who hack it unmercifully with phrases like ‘between you and I.’” Reader Gene cites “He gave it to her and I.” Reader Paul gets displeased “when people use the nominative pronoun instead of the objective pronoun,” adding, “I hear this all the time, from movie stars to college graduates.” (But not from Candy, Wayne and Gene!)

It must be truly challenging, this her and me and I and we and them stuff. We can’t expect normal people to remember grammar rules from decades ago, can we, or to deal happily with terms like nominative and objective, or know what “pronouns acting as objects” means. Life is complicated enough these days, just with cell phones taking pictures.

Good news: It’s pretty easy, if you stay calm. Just take your time with the sentence and use this little ploy. When you’re deciding how to word a statement with Someone and Someone, just mentally try it without the first Someone.

Example: “The prizes went to Bob and … .” Uh-oh, to Bob and I? To Bob and me? Eliminate the first one, ole Bob, and it’s easy. The prizes go to me. So now you can comfortably (and correctly) say, “The prizes went to Bob and me.”

One more. “He told Heather and ME? I? the truth.” Wipe Heather out of it for a split second: “He told me the truth.” There ya go. It should be “He told Heather and me the truth.”

Reader Gene suggests placing parentheses around the first part. “He told (Heather and) me the truth.” That works.

Finally, here’s one that drives Reader (and Neighbor) Steve downright batty: “We should have went yesterday.” Ouch. Some mistakes become so widespread that they get accepted into standard usage. We must be vigilant here. Remember: The past participle of “go” is “gone.” What does past participle mean? It means you should have gone. GONE, you hear me? Always should have gone, never should have went. Hang tough, Steve. We’re counting on you.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

puh-TAY-toe, puh-TAH-toe

We were sitting in the NBC studios in Manhattan, waiting impatiently with other audience members for the taping of a game show to begin. Behind me were two women, obviously together, and a man, even more obviously alone. The women were in their 20s, he was late 40s. At one point he leaned to the woman closer to him and said, “So, uh, where youse from?”

She smiled weakly and said, “Excuse me?” He said, “Where youse from, are youse from New Yoak?” She thought for a moment, then said, “Oh, I’m from Detroit.” He said, “And who’s dat which youse?”

Of course, at this point I’m all ears. This might be better than the game show. She pondered his last words, and then she said, “Ah — this is my sister.” Then he uttered my favorite question, “So, is de bodie youse from Detroit?”

That just flat out stumped her. She looked at him right in the face, and said nothing. He repeated, “Is de bodie youse from Detroit?” She said, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand your …” So with some vigor, he said, “De bodie youse, de bodie youse — is de bodie youse from Detroit?”

Here’s the end of it, and I promise you I am not making this up. She looked at him and said, “I’m so sorry, but what’s a bodie?”

The point of the story is that how we pronounce words does matter. Dialects — the particular forms of language and speech determined by geographic regions or by groups of people — make language rich and interesting. For all of us, the words we choose and how we say them are, to varying degrees, dialectal. But that is not today’s topic.

I want to talk with you today about some pronunciations that are very common … and very wrong. Remember, this rundown has nothing to do with dialects; it has to do with wrong.

Let’s start with hearing how you say “Realtor.” Say it aloud and count the number of syllables. If you say it with three distinct syllables (REE-la-tor), then you are wrong. The word has two syllables (REEL-tor). Can you find any dictionary that gives three syllables as an option? Yes, but most that do so also indicate it’s a less-than-desirable pronunciation. Trust me: two syllables.

Let’s look now at “jeweler.” Say that one out loud and listen to yourself carefully. If you say JULE-er or if you use the British JOO-el-yer, you’re fine. Here’s the off-putting and wrong version: JULIE-yer. Have you heard that? Let’s hope it’s not from your own lips.

While we’re on that topic, let’s make sure we’re all saying “jewelry” correctly, shall we? That two-syllable word, to be pronounced JOOL-ree, is not meant to sound like JOO-la-ree.

You know that we cannot discuss pronunciations without at least mentioning “nuclear.” Regardless of how you feel about our current president, his NOO-kew-lar pronunciation is wrong. I grew up in Texas. Have I heard others pronounce it NOO-kew-lar? Sure. Does that mean it’s an endearing component of the Texas dialect, helping make spoken English a varied and appealing aural landscape, adding to America’s rich tapestry of sounds? No, it’s just wrong.

These next two take a bit of thought. They’re great words, but pronouncing them offers some challenges — “erudite” and “virulent.” Each can be said with or without a “y” sound (although I invariably cringe if the “y” is there), but the absolutely wrong way to handle them is with four syllables. You do not want to say VEER-ee-u-lent, as I heard a National Public Radio announcer in D.C. say last week. Just as important, limit the sound of “erudite” to AIR-uh-dyte or AIR-you-dyte. You do not want to say AIR-ee-you-dyte, as thousands of ill-informed people say, in an effort to sound erudite.

Finally, is it “sherbet” or “sherbert”? Do you know? These days it’s spelled both ways and pronounced both ways, depending on where you are and what you’re talking about. Sherbet is a cold drink, frothy and sweet. Sherbert is an American version. We added milk and other ingredients to ice, threw in an extra “r” and made a tasty frozen treat. Many people, including some readers of this column who have written me about it, feel that only “sherbet” is correct.

If there’s no easy answer, why did I bring it up? It’s always nice to end on a sweet note.


Language laughs – For the health of it

We think in words, mostly. So if we have a lot of words at our command, and if they are complex and sophisticated words, we can think complex and sophisticated thoughts. That seems only logical, yes? It doesn’t mean that poor language skills make us dumb, but it does mean that a rich vocabulary can lead to fuller, more intellectual thinking.

That’s why language is both essential and worthy of our attention, even of our study. Today’s column, however, looks at a different benefit of a full and robust vocabulary — humor. No one will deny the sheer classic joy of using a banana peel properly, but humor that is word-based brings a different kind of delight, and it can take many different forms.

Playing with words’ sounds or appearance can make a joke, often by using a familiar phrase or concept in a new way. Look at the following examples. Attribution for them is mixed at times, but the Internet has facilitated their widespread enjoyment.
- If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent?
- If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages?
- Rigor Morris: The cat is dead.
- Respondez s’il vous plaid: Honk if you’re Scots.
- Acupuncture is a jab well done.

A favorite of mine is the silly Groucho Marx line, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” It’s clever because it uses two meanings of “flies,” two meanings of “like,” and a wonderful sense of rhythm. The two clauses are so similar in cadence that you’re caught unawares when you get to “banana.”

Another from Groucho: “A child of five could understand this. Fetch me a child of five.” I laugh every time I remember that one, partly because it fits his snide persona, partly because “fetch” is so much funnier than, say, “bring.” “Fetch” is funnier because the “f” sound is better (the play and movie of “The Sunshine Boys” will explain that), but also because “fetch” is more arcane. “Find me a child of five” would give the “f” sound, but it’s too common.

I don’t know which of his classic sayings Groucho wrote and which he bought, if any, but his bizarre humor is apparent in this one: “Outside of a dog, a book is your best friend, and inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.” Weird humor, but I mention it because it is dependent on the double meaning of “outside,” without which the joke couldn’t go inside.

Here are a few more, all from well-known humorists who were extremely aware of words and how to use them.

“I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” - Mark Twain
“He had delusions of adequacy.” - Walter Kerr
“Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.” - Oscar Wilde
“He has Van Gogh's ear for music.” - Billy Wilder

Of course, it helps to be old or learned enough to know who those people were, because most of the quotes fit the public persona of the speaker. Are you familiar with Mae West? If so, you can hear the inflection of her voice in this quote: ““His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”

Finally (and this might very well be just me), I find daily humor in unintended redundancies. For example, my wife and I have terrific yoga instructors, and almost all of them give the instruction to “slowly lower yourself down to the mat.” Naturally, I always do so with a smile as I wonder if the really advanced yogis can lower themselves UP.

Here’s another. It’s not a knee-slapper, but I’d like you to think about it. Sometimes, numbers are treated in this way — “We have sixty-two (62) faculty members; twenty-four (24) have graduate teaching status.” What part of “62” or of “sixty-two” is so confusing that one needs both words and digits? Oh — I read sixty-two, but I didn’t see any digits, so I thought you meant eleven!

Let’s finish with an amusing redundancy that is almost universal and certainly will never disappear. Let it serve as a reminder to pay attention to what we’re saying. Do you like tuna fish? Do you see the redundancy? It makes me want to order chicken fowl.


You completely and totally annihilated that word

Oh, people. Sometimes we say such dumb things, don’t we? Then we hear others say dumb things, and we wonder if there is a way to let them know a better way, a right way. OUR way, of course.

Many readers of this column have written me asking how to stop people from saying things badly. Today’s suggestion: When you hear something egregiously wrong and/or irritating, simply shout, “Stop it!” It might work, or it might get you hurt. We’ll just have to see.

Sometimes people say ugly things by combining words to make a new one. “Guesstimate” now is well established as a combination of “guess” and “estimate,” and it never fails to irritate me. You can guess at something, you can make an estimate. Either one will suffice, neither is precise, why combine them? Stop it.

Heard just last week: “It was a rememorable weekend.” “I got so flustrated I couldn’t speak.” “They need to stop calling — it’s downright harrassination.”

We also hear people who like to sound educated, so they use unnecessarily long words (sometimes inventing them on the spot), relishing all the syllables. I’ve heard these lately: parameterized, polarizabilities, summarization, derivatization, containerizing … and, perhaps my favorite of this group, reflectionization. Long words can play important roles in language, but unnecessarily long ones can sound, well, puffed up.

The same goes for many phrases that many of us use (you? do you say any of these?), and that are really short. The trouble with them is, they’re still longer than they need to be. Consider the following, and see if you notice a reflectionization of yourself in here.
• continue on — “continue” means to go on with something, so “continue on” is like saying “go on on.”
• safe haven — “haven” means a safe place. So why say “safe safe place”?
• protected sanctuary — see “haven,” above.
• may or may not make it happen — “may make it happen” automatically means it might, it might not. So we don’t need to add the “or may not.”
• how to behave and not behave — face it, knowing how to behave covers how not to behave.
• complete and total annihilation — if something’s complete, it’s total; if it’s total … well, you know. Besides, annihilation is total by definition.

Now for a Stop it that makes me want to scream. Ready? “Sooner than later,” as in “This is an important move, so we need to do it sooner than later.”

If I had hair, I’d pull it out. SOONER THAN LATER?? What kind of phrase is that (other than immeasurably annoying)? If you mean something needs to be done quickly, say “We need to do it quickly.” If it has to happen soon, say “We need to do it soon.”

To be closer to correct and a tad less irritating, you would say that it should be done sooner rather than later. Rather! However, sooner is ALWAYS going to happen before later happens. So ditch the “later” part altogether and simply say that it needs to be done soon.

Now that we’ve salved the sooner than later burr under my saddle, let’s try to stop similar annoyances. See if you can stop others — or yourself — from uses such as “stronger, not weaker” (heard on National Public Radio yesterday), “taller rather than shorter,” “happier rather than sadder” and all the rest of the “rather than” sayings that belabor the obvious. Of COURSE most things have opposites, for Pete’s sake — you don’t have to spell it out with up not down in not out cold not hot white not black just Stop it!

Now that we’re rolling, let’s stop people from giving their phone numbers faster than a speeding bullet. “What’s your number?” “Three three six seven zip zip zipzipzipzip.” Say what? Especially on an answering machine. I’ll have to play that sucker back a hunnert times, and I still won’t understand it. Is it a new contest of some sort? Stop it. Slow down.

One more and we’re done for the day. I know, you can’t hardly wait. That’s it. Can’t hardly. Somewhere in the back of your brain there probably lurks a grammar school lesson on the evils of double negatives. Dust it off. If you’re having trouble waiting (or hearing or seeing or moving or whatever), then you can hardly wait (hardly hear, see, move, etc.). If you say you can’t hardly, then you’re saying the opposite of what you mean. You CAN hardly. Do you sometimes say “can’t hardly”?

Stop it.


Friday, November 2, 2007

Before you hang that big ole sing, proofread it first

You’ve done it — you’ve driven innocently along a road and glanced over to read a huge sign with some horrendous language error proudly displayed. It’s one thing to make mistakes in private, but to pay someone to make a mistake on a sign … and then to display it? Well, that’s another story.

For a long time I’ve enjoyed going along Market St. downtown and seeing the big banner shouting about the wonderful “Condo’s” for sale. (I think it’s gone now.) Let’s talk a little about plurals, shall we? Do you think that the same people would offer dog’s for sale? Or cat’s? What in the world inspires some people to add an apostrophe to plain ole words? Do those people buy ticket’s for a show or get meal’s to go?

As I said, it’s one thing to do that unthinkingly, but don’t PAY a sign maker to do it, and — worst of all — don’t put it on display. Check with someone first. Go online and look it up, use a dictionary, ask an English teacher. (N.B., I did not say to ask a columnist.)

A long-standing and common public error occurs on signs and in menus. You’ll often see restaurants bragging about their special “dinning room.” I have noticed that misspelling so much that at home I now tend to call it that, rhyming it with “winning.”

Mistakes happen. My strong advice is to ask someone before you take your print job to the printer. Shoot — ask the printer!

There’s a private college in Greensboro that has signs in many of its toilet facilities, and the signs read, “Please flush comode.” At least the signs say “please”; they could have just issued a comand.

Oh — you know the apostrophe-for-plurals mistake we began with today? I think we should talk about a similar error that you might have made yourselves: your mailbox. All right, it might be a freestanding sign in your front yard. Let’s see if you have it right.

Let’s say your last name is Smith. Let’s also say you have a family with people using your last name, and they live in your house. Would that make it a house containing Smiths, or would it give us a house filled with Smith’s? Remember the dog-and-cat rule: one dog, two dogs; one cat, two cats. It applies here, as well: one Smith, two Smiths. Simple.

So why do some Smith people put out signs saying Smith’s? You see it all over — Hudson’s, Wilson’s, Johnson’s, etc. Interestingly, apartment dwellers (I was tempted to write “dweller’s” just to keep you alert) don’t seem to suffer the same plural problem. On their mailbox plates, they tend to write Hudson or Johnson or whatever, in the singular. As in, this is the Smith apartment.

Maybe the Smith’s people think that their apostrophe shows ownership. You know, the Smith family members own this house, so it is the Smith’s house. Unfortunately, if that’s the desire, then Smiths’ is the way to go. Make it plural first, and then show some possession.

Enough. Let’s drive along some more streets and laugh at more commercial signs. You have to love the ones enticing you to “pre-register” for something. Another favorite of mine is when a new complex puts up a banner screaming that it is “pre-selling.”

You do see the problems, yes? No one is going to pre-register. You simply register. And how can you pre-sell something? You simply sell the darned thing. I get mail announcing that I’m “pre-qualified!!” No, I’m put out. Stop the pre-nonsense.

We all goof up when we’re in a rush, but please try to be extra careful before you go public. Also, try to remember that if you have a simple noun or a simple name, odds are that the way to make it plural is just to add an “s” at the end. If it already ends that way, “es” is the way to go (the Jones family, the Joneses). And if you want clients to register early, say just that.

Gotta run — we’ve finished pre-cooking our steak’s so I’m off to the dinning room.


You guessed it: Did-dint, could-dint, and so on and so forth

Have you heard announcers and hosts and others on radio and television say what distinctly sounds like this: “We did-dint know the answer,” or “He could-dint stop it”? It’s sweeping the nation, it’s like a wildfire and it’s driving me crazy.

Let’s assume that throwing the extra “d” sound into “didn’t” and “couldn’t” is done for a noble reason. Let’s assume the speakers are merely trying to enunciate as clearly as possible. Chances are, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do — speak clearly and distinctly. Unfortunately, it lets us hear clearly and distinctly how wrong they sound.

Do this: Say “did.” Say it aloud, please. How many “d” sounds do you pronounce in that word? Try it again — “did.” Two, right? That is also how many there should be in “didn’t.”

There should be only one “d” sound in “couldn’t,” in “wouldn’t” and even in “shouldn’t” — one each. No extras, as in did-dint, could-dint, would-dint, should-dint. Holy consonants, Batman, we need to get busy. We’ve blinked in the past, and the language has suffered. Let’s put the pride back in did-n’t.

Speaking of speaking, there’s a phrase that, you guessed it, drives me bananas. It’s “even as we speak.” It wouldn’t (not would-dint) bother me if the people who say it were truly engaged in a two-way conversation when they say it. Trouble is, it’s usually tossed in when only one person is speaking. In those cases, it’s both inaccurate and off-putting. The person really means that the thing is happening “as I speak,” but it would be much better merely to say that it’s happening “now.”

Another irritating phrase is “you guessed it.” I used it in the preceding paragraph as an example. Look back and try to remember if you really did guess that I was going to say that the thing drives me bananas. I doubt that you guessed it. The phrase is used widely in newspapers and in broadcast, and almost every time I encounter it I shout: “NO. I DID NOT GUESS IT.” It makes me feel better, but so far it hasn’t changed anything else.

While I’m on a semi-rant about speech matters, let’s look at “et cetera.” In the first place, it’s to be pronounced et cetera, not ex cetera. Second, its abbreviation is etc., not ect. Third, because it means “and the other things” or “and the rest,” it is redundant to write or say “and et cetera,” because you are in effect saying “and and the rest.” Finally, one et cetera covers ALL the rest of the things you’re discussing, so you do not have to say “et cetera et cetera.”

While we’re in this category, is it absolutely necessary to say “and so on and so forth”? Don’t you think “and so on” covers it? When is enough enough? Same thing goes for “in any way, shape or form.” Really now. “In any way” covers the gamut. You can stop there.

I have a preacher friend who says, “… in any way, shape, form or fashion.” Oh, all right, I can happily announce that he used to say that. I think he’s gone to the more economical “in any way” these days, but I can’t shake the feeling that on occasion the rhythm of the long version might seduce him.

Rhythm probably does not explain why some people repeat the “or not” in a “whether or not” sentence. I always cringe when I hear “whether or not,” waiting for the repetition. “Whether or not he resigns or not” was on the radio this morning. Blech. My preacher could say “whether or not he resigns or not or not or not.” You could almost dance to it.

Some final pronunciation thoughts — My personal preference is to pronounce the “g” in “recognize.” Many people do not, and in some places it’s listed as optional, but I think it belongs. It gives the word so much more presence, no? It’s already there, go ahead and give it a good hard hit. And for heaven’s sake, the word is pronounced “supposedly,” not “supposebly.”

Where do people come up with this stuff? “She was here before, supposebly, but I did-dint recuhnize her.”

Whether or not you want more or not, my time is, you guessed it, up.


It won’t wrong, just Southern

One of the reasons I went to college up North was to see what Yankees were like. At first, they sounded funny. Then, over Christmas break, I found myself having trouble understanding even the dialect of my home state.

I grew up in Houston, but when I went to spend the holiday with relatives in a small Texas town, I was called an unusual name. Driving slowly through the neighborhood, looking for the right house and enjoying the warmth with the car windows open, I occasionally waved at little kids playing in their yards. Almost every time I waved, a kid would smile, wave back and holler “Hattie” at me. It happened repeatedly, always “Hattie.”

When I got to the right house and settled in, I asked about it — who’s Hattie? Why in the world would kids call me Hattie? The answer: “Oh, they were just being friendly and saying hello.” But they didn’t say hello, they called me Hattie. “Oh no,” said the relatives, “they were saying ‘Hidy,’ as a form of hello.”

So the Texas dialect had them saying hidy for hello, and the thick, small-town accent made it sound like Hattie. It makes me glad for the North Carolina “Heyyyyy”!

I learned some other interesting phrases and pronunciations when we moved to North Carolina, decades ago. One involves “won’t,” as in “She didn’t see it coming, but it won’t no surprise.” Putting aside the misuse of “won’t” for “wasn’t,” the “won’t no” double negative means it WAS a surprise (as would be the equally incorrect but less used “wasn’t no surprise”). However, few people who hear “it won’t no surprise” misunderstand.

Also interesting are the pronunciations of “Wal-Mark” for “Wal-Mart” and “dest” for “desk.” They’re interesting mainly because the “k” and “t” sounds are switched so neatly. At one point I had some scratch pads printed that said “From the dest of Mike Clark,” but too few people caught the joke.

There are tons of books that talk about Southern pronunciations and other language quirks attributed to the South. I’m mainly interested in regional sayings that convey some real meaning while having a style that is interesting, filled with character, often rhythmical.

Another Houstonian, Dan Rather, used Texas-styled sayings throughout his career. Many people felt they were inappropriate, but some of them were interesting. Consider these: “This race is tight like a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach”; “Bush has run through Dixie like a big wheel through a cotton field”; and, possibly his most famous, “We don't know what to do. We don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon.” The Ratherisms weren’t successful all the time, but at least they encouraged a closer listen.

My mother used to exclaim, “Oh for heavenly stars and garters.” Have you heard that expression? I think it goes back to a British astronomer in the 1800s. He was reputed to have commented on the heavens with “my stars and garters,” with the garters referring to a mark of his knighthood. But even if that’s the case, I have no idea how my mother got to her version of it, or why she used it.

Of course “bless her heart” and “sit a spell” and others are so widespread that they raise no eyebrows, but if your family has sayings that sing, some phrases that contain a touch of poetry in the depth of regionalism, please email them to me at the address below.

In the meantime, let me address one school phrase that you hear from grade school to graduate school. You must admit that at some point, your teacher told you to write a paper that would compare and contrast something. I have had this reaction to “compare and contrast” since I was 8 years old — in three words: (1) drives (2) me (3) crazy.

What does it mean to compare things? It means to examine them to see where they’re the same and where they’re different, to note the similarities as well as the dissimilarities. So if you compare things, you automatically contrast them. I’ll admit that a “contrast” command would look only for differences, but if you compare, you’re done, finished; no further contrast work is needed. So teachers, stop saying “compare and contrast,” please. Makes us want to bark at the moon.


Language mavens, we’ve come so far

Talk about preaching to the choir. You’re not reading this column — or any column about language — unless you’re already converted to the mission, the goal, the lifelong quest. You and I are here to ferret out abuses of our language and, even more important, to correct them!

We’ve come so far, you and I. We’ve effectively stopped people from saying “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome.” We’ve stopped others from saying or writing “at this point in time,” “tuna fish” and even “12 noon.” Shoot, we’ve even corrected all the abuses of personal pronouns, so we’ll never again hear “It belongs to her and I.” We’ve done all that.

Haven’t we?

Let’s pretend that we have. And with that kind of success under our collective belt, let me give you some items that you, yourself, language maven that you are, might benefit from. Today’s column is for you, babe.

We’ll start with acronyms. The mistake is in thinking that “acronym” sounds fancier than, but is really a synonym for, “abbreviation.” It does sound fancier, but the two words are not interchangeable. IBM and HTML are abbreviations; NATO and AIDS are acronyms. Can you figure out the difference?

An acronym is a word. Yes, it comes from the initial letters of a group of words, but it has its own pronunciation. So here’s the easy test: If you pronounce each letter of something (IBM), it’s an abbreviation. If you pronounce the letters as if they comprised a new word (NATO), it’s an acronym.

There are some well-known lowercase acronyms, including laser (for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and scuba (for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). I mention that because it leads us to the next just-for-you-I-hope-you-enjoy-it item: The word “lowercase” is just that, a single word. Same goes for uppercase. (But remember — “under way” should be two words.)

Now let’s talk about some of your pronunciations. This’ll be fun, yes? (We can start with making sure you never pronounce that word “pronounciations.”) Some people — even those who are particularly literate in many ways — pronounce “particularly” this way: “particurly.” Dropping one of the word’s sounds or syllables is called an elision, and it is not something we want to do.

How about this one — have you ever heard people say “finely” instead of “finally”? I’m sure you have never done that yourself, but you might KNOW people who have. The same goes for “didn’t.” In an earlier column, I talked about the current trend of over-pronouncing that word, making it “did-dint.” But today’s topic of elisions means we need to ensure that we never say “dint,” dropping the second syllable.

Being a native of Houston, I’d like us to talk about the different ways we pronounce the letter “h.” The word is Houston, not You-ston. There is a huge hill over there, not a yuge hill. And while we’re at it, let me encourage you not to say, “It was an historic event.” If you pronounce the “h,” then precede it with an “a”; if the “h” is silent and the word starts with a vowel sound, then swing right into an “an.”

That means you would correctly say, “It was an honest mistake, the event was a historic one — all in all, a horrid tale.” Yes, some sophisticated people like to say “an historic.” I think that they think it makes them seem even more sophisticated. La-dee-da. Some say, “Well, it’s British!” (So, it must be classy, eh?) It might be British, in that some British accents give us, “She’s an ‘istorian, Guv,” with the “h” being dropped.

In truth, so many people say it that it is not considered wrong. But you and I know better. Don’t say “an history book,” don’t say “an historical day” and don’t say “that was an hysterical joke.” Not even in Houston.

Thinking of things British and with a nod to both Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, let us all promise that we will never, ever, even accidentally, pronounce Wimbledon with a “t.” It might take some vigilance, but “Wimbleton” is flat out wrong.

A final thought for you. One day I was with Greensboro College President Craven Williams, and he laughed at a sign in front of a house. It said: “For Sale by Owner.” I asked why he was chuckling, and he said, “Aren’t they all?”

Think about it.