Sunday, December 16, 2007

He drives me cra-zy, whoop, whoop

It’s time to make a wee confession: I drive my wife crazy with the language stuff. It’s OK around other people — I manage to suppress all comments and face-making in public (mostly). However, at home it seems to go differently.

I assume that you are somewhat the same way. After all, you’re not likely to read a language column unless you care about language more than the ordinary person does. Maybe you can relate to this.

Yesterday I happened to glance at a check that my wife had just written. She saw the glance and said, “What?” I replied that all was fine. Evidently, there was an infinitesimal catch in my voice. A teeny tone thing that gave me away.

“What’s wrong with it?”
“Hmmm, then what would you have done differently?
“Well … .”

Then I explained that when you write a check, you want to hyphenate numbers with “ty” in the first part (forty-one, twenty-four, etc.). She had written, simply, “thirty two.” After my explanation, she kindly suggested that a future column of mine might look at how an excessive degree of language awareness can, well, how to put this … it can drive a spouse CRAZY!

Let me quote British author Lynne Truss in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” as she talks about us language sticklers: “In short, we are unattractive know-all obsessives who get things out of proportion and are in continual peril of being disowned by our exasperated families.”

We know that our desire for correct punctuation, spelling and usage is based on the fact that language is the building block of thought, of communication. We’re not seeking precision for the sake of precision, you and I. Certainly not, nope, nuh-uh, not us. We’re seeking correctness strictly to avoid any possible misunderstandings, doncha know.

It’s all a matter of balance, isn’t it? The people who fear talking to us (remember — you’re right here with me on this), fear writing to us, simply because they assume that their language will be riddled with embarrassing errors — they and all friends and relatives who might somehow occasionally think you and I are too aware of language … all of those people are still quick as a cobra when they need help, hmmm? They’re more than willing to say, “What’s the rule for commas and quotation marks?” Or “Is it ‘different than’ or ‘different from’?”

They want to have their cake and their cookies, too. They want us to stifle our normal inclination to react slightly to language errors (you know — our barely perceptible eye-closing, head-shaking, hands-on-mouth-to-prevent-screaming gestures) in front of them, but they want us on call when they need us!

At least I’m not alone. Here’s what Reader Catherine says: “You can't know, until now of course, how much I enjoy your column and look forward to it each month. You've hit so many topics that I've seethed about for years. My grown kids (10, count ’em) tease about my being the grammar police, but I don't mind; those nuns in elementary school drummed it into my head, all right. … (Incidentally, does continual repetition really make ‘alright’ all right???)”

Catherine, I am happy to report that “alright” is still considered nonstandard, even though it has become increasingly commonplace since it first appeared (in the 19th century). What’s more important is that you’re right there with me on the GPF (the revered Grammar Police Force). Also, thanks for raising another important point when you write this: “I confess to making a few gaffes myself … I am an 83-year-old who’s a long time out of class. [But] before I conclude, please attack the poor use of the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’ The nuns drilled, ‘lie, lay, lain’ if the subject, even inanimate, is doing the action; and, if you could substitute ‘to put or place,’ use ‘lay, laid, laid.’ Is my memory of this now obsolete? … How many times do we hear someone was ‘laying on the couch’?”

Right you are, Catherine. If you put an object down, you lay it someplace. If you put yourself down, as in assuming a reclining position, then you lie somewhere — if you’re lucky, someplace comfortable. You lie on the couch, you lay the book on the desk, you have lain on the bed a long time, you have laid the plates on the table.

It’s not easy being a stickler, and that’s no lie.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Don't revert back - give 110 percent

Do you like morning radio shows? I don’t. The main problem is that so many of them feature broadcast studios filled with various obsequious-sounding staff members who laugh like hyenas at every inane utterance by the morning hosts. The constant laughter is not my morning cup of tea. But millions of people love it. They go gaga over the morning laugh fests. (There’s an interesting saying for us to consider — going gaga. Have you wondered about how someone can go gaga? Supposedly gaga evolved from a French saying in the early 20th century, and it had to do with losing your marbles, as in your senses. So if you go gaga over something, you’ve lost the ability to think reasonably about it. I’ve always wondered if an infant could go goo-goo gaga.

Now my question to you: Did you spot the wee punctuation error in the preceding paragraph? I don’t have any statistics about it, but it seems to me that people who use parentheses are almost as likely to leave them open as they are to close them. That’s what I did in the first paragraph — I deliberately failed to close them. Don’t do that.

My wonderful nephew Stephen knows of — and shares — my inability to read a parenthetical remark without first glancing forward to see if the parens are closed. Being a perpetual scamp, Steve sends me emails in which he never closes them. Who cares? You should, because you probably use parentheses, and not closing them (as in this example makes it difficult to read.

You might be surprised to hear it, but I have a point to make here. Most radio personalities have some specific language uses that irritate me (surprise!). It is almost a certainty that if the radio station runs a contest, the listeners hear something like this: “Be the 11th caller and you’ll qualify for an all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii!” Wrong. That lucky caller will NOT qualify for the trip. The caller will qualify to continue as a contestant, moving on to the next round. If you’re caller 11 and you truly qualify for the trip, pack your bags, babe, and get some swimwear.

Here’s another — “Stay tuned for our extra-long 40-minute music set.” Think about it. Forty minutes is 40 minutes, period. I recently called one of the stations saying that and told the representative, “If your 40 minutes really is extra long, it’s only because you’ve picked boring music.” The response I received is what I expected: “Huh?”

This morning I heard an announcer on a national radio show say, “Every since it happened … .” That’s a common usage in some dialects, but it’s no more correct than “ain’t” is. You and I should work to eliminate “every since” and the ubiquitous — on the radio and off — “110 percent.”

Logic applies: There is no “y” in “ever” and for heaven’s sake you cannot give 110 percent. I know, those who talk about giving 110 percent are trying to express that one should give more than humanly possible. The trouble is, it’s a self-defeating phrase. If one can give 110 percent, then one theoretically could give 111 percent. Or, if you really, really tried, maybe even — oh, I don’t know — 114 percent. What about 150, or 213 or (as some truly say) a thousand percent?! A thousand! Why, that makes 110 seem paltry. He must not have really wanted it — he gave only 110 percent.

While we’re in a helpful mood, let’s stop our friends and neighbors from saying “revert back” and “repeat it again.” If a speaker has repeated something and you need to hear it a third time, then “repeat it again” is all right. Just keep in mind that you utter something the first time, the second time is a repetition and only THEN are you able to “repeat it again.” So — if you want to hear something a second time, ask the speaker to repeat it, not to repeat it again. And “revert” means to go back, so naturally we never want to say “revert back” (unless we intend to say “go back back”! Is that what you want want? Here comes a close parenthesis. Enjoy.).

Don’t go gaga, but I’ll repeat this again — I’ve heard “revert back” every since I was a child (giving only 500 percent effort at the time), but it’s terrible to hear it for an extra-long 40 minutes.


Write right? Write on

People tell me this a lot: “I wanted to write you, but I was afraid of making mistakes.” It’s a shame that people would not want to talk or write to me just because they think I’ll catch (and include in a column?) any little language transgression.

I received this great, clever email from a college professor, written in telegraph style: “Read your article in the paper. STOP! Laughed a lot. STOP! Writing in short spurts to try to avoid misuse of words. STOP!”

We all make mistakes in life, of course, and we all make them in our use of language. Pick up a cereal box, read an advertising flyer, even open a novel and you’ll find mistakes.

Unfortunately, I’m not immune to it myself. In a recent column I wrote this: “For all of us, the words we choose and how we say them are, to varying degrees, dialectical.” In response, alert reader Sandy wrote: “You want to say ‘dialectal,’ not ‘dialectical.’” You’re right, Sandy, you are so right. I say thank you (and at home, alone, I holler “ARRRRRRRRGH!”).

I just flat out had typed the wrong word, and I failed to catch it when I proofread my own writing. Which leads us (yes, finally!) to today’s topic: getting it right.

The best advice is to get someone else to proofread your writing for you. The closer we are to what we’re reading — if we write it ourselves, we’re very close indeed — the more apt we are to overlook obvious errors.

Proofreading is not easy. Did you know that we are able to read and understand words and sentences that have letters missing or are terribly jumbled? Check this out; it’s been on the Web in many guises and discussions, and it is interesting:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.
If you’re able to decipher that, just imagine how your brain will accept other little errors in text, especially if they are isolated. A tip: Let’s say a co-worker asks you to look over a proof of an advertisement, a business card or some other small print job. If you will read it backwards, it will really improve your chances of catching spelling errors. It won’t help with other mistakes, of course, like omitted words, but it does isolate words to make spelling more obvious.

Try it with this sentence. Start with “sentence” and read to the left. Do it now, please. See how it makes you read more slowly and examine each word?

Do pay attention to what words you use and how you use them, but don’t get paralyzed from fear of making little mistakes. They are practically impossible to avoid making. The News & Record has some truly talented writers and award-winner editors, and mistakes still happen. (Getting a daily paper out the door is a miracle; don’t look for perfection!) See if you spot the mistakes in these three examples from the N&R (ignore the punctuation; that’s not the problem).

“Princeton isn’t exactly desperate for attention — not when it counts a couple of U.S. presidents and Nobel Peace winners among its alumnus”

“High School Football Practice Gets Underway”

“They … will give shoppers a 10 percent discount on Crane and William Arthur stationary orders through the end of September”

It should have read “among its alumni,” “Gets Under Way” and “stationery.” Big errors? Certainly not. Life goes on. Now for one of my favorites.

From syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts: “It was … a violent, controversial and moving account of the crucifixion of Jesus that lead many Jewish leaders to accuse Gibson of an anti-Jewish agenda.”

Did you see it? It happens often — writers mentally say the word “led” but type it “lead.” And editors sometimes rush past it, also hearing the right word in their minds. Right sound, wrong word.

Try for perfection but accept the best you can do at the time. Shoot, Pitts has won a Pulitzer Prize. All you need to do is drop me an email. Write on.