Sunday, December 14, 2008

Write right, read right, be right

Let’s leap into language today with some actual examples that have darkened my path recently. We’ll start with a tennis announcer who said: “The thing about [Rafael] Nadal is that he forces so many unforced errors.” As a former tennis player myself, I know what the announcer meant, but really — on the face of it, does it make any sense at all? I think not.

The same goes for this military expert’s quote: “We need a new strategic strategy.” By definition, every strategy is strategic. It might be ill-timed or badly executed, but it’s still strategic.

A weathercaster on TV recently gave us this: “We could potentially see scatterdly thunderstorms.” hahahaha. I’m sure you’re with me on “scatterdly,” but let me ask you this: Would you have cringed had he said, “We could potentially see scattered thunderstorms?” You should, and not just to avoid getting wet.

The problem is “could potentially.” You see, “could” means that potential exists. “You could fall if you’re not careful” means that the potential for falling exists. A potential is always present in “could,” so it’s always redundant to say “could potentially.” The solution is easy. Just say “could.”

We’ve looked at avoiding redundancies many times before, with “kinda sorta,” “also too,” “totally and completely” and “new innovation” leading the pack at times. Today let me add “The reality is is … .” There’s something about “The reality is” that almost compels some of us to add an extra “is.” I don’t understand it, but you hear it consistently (as opposed to scatterdly). The trouble is is (it must be contagious) that now whenever I hear “The fact is” or “The reality is” or sometimes even “The truth is,” I grit my teeth in anticipation of an extra “is” being tossed onto the sentence.

Oh, here’s a good one. I recently heard a noted historian say this: “Alexander Hamilton was literally the loose cannon.” Nooooooo. No he wasn’t. Not literally. “Literally” means for real, babe. It means “in an exact sense.” All right, I know that today many sources tell us that it is used loosely in an informal sense, but you and I don’t have to give in, do we? Do we?? Do we have to accept the lack of logic in hearing that “last night that comedian literally killed us”? I hope not.

All right, quickly spot the error in this. It’s from the front page of a local university’s pamphlet I received in the mail: “The Paralympic Games are a window into the human spirit. [The university] supports that spirit through it’s sponsorship of the U.S. Paralympic Team.” Did you get it? It should read “its sponsorship.”

Ace Reader and Favored Nephew Steve Clark emailed me this about a TV rerun of Family Feud: “Name something a surgeon keeps near them during their work.” He adds that not only did host Richard Karnes read it, but also the text appeared on the screen. You do see the problem, yes? “A surgeon” is obviously only one, but both “them” and “their” mean more than one.

That singular versus plural challenge appears elsewhere in even more subtle forms … harder to discern but, well, I think you’re up for it. See if you can catch and correct the inconsistencies in these. From a local paper: “UNCG is moving their annual event.” From USA Today: “Agency says they will keep DeGeneres’ dog.” And from a wire service: “Congress is mixed on this. They are fighting over the details.”

In each of those examples, we begin with singular subjects — UNCG is, Agency says, Congress is — but then we go to plural pronouns (their, they, they). Don’t do that. Instead, say UNCG is moving its event, Agency says it will keep the dog and Congress is mixed and it is fighting. Nice, eh?

Why do people often say “oftentimes”? Does it add anything that plain ole “often” doesn’t give? The same goes for “summertime.” If it’s summer, it’s summer.

Finally, let me explain why some words ending in “ly” are followed by hyphens whereas others are not. (Admit it — this question has kept you awake many nights.) Here’s a nice general rule: Don’t use a hyphen after adverbs ending in “ly,” but do after nouns that end that way. For example, you could write about a family-owned tanning salon that is heavily financed but badly managed.

(Sounds like they could potentially make a profit in the wintertime.)


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Readers show love of language

Occasionally I’m able to share some of the entertaining and intriguing notes I receive from readers of this column. Today is one of those times.

After I wrote about a trip to Arkansas, Reader Barry sent this. “My father, who passed on in 1998, carried the following classified ad in his wallet until his dying day, clipped from [a small Arkansas paper].” And then Barry included the following ad for a dog, probably a form of the American Eskimo (a member of the spitz family), copied exactly:

For Sale. Eskimo
Spits at corner of
Walnut and Oak.

Reader Catherine, who says she is 84 years old and has 10 grown children, sent this delightful note: “Am acutely aware of capitals for Mother and Father as names, but admit I’m fearful when I mention ‘your mom’ or ‘your dad’ in my Grammy notes to my kids and grands. They'll think I've slipped. Hate to seem preachy, knowmsayin’? (And isn't that one a bummer -- right up there with the constant ‘y'know’!)”

Yes, Catherine, “knowmsayin’” is a bummer, and it is right there with “y’know” for irritability, except when you, Catherine, write it. I’m still laughing from reading your note. And yes, “Mom and Dad said this” is right, and “Your mom and your dad said that” is right. Of course, you, too, are right to worry that it might seem wrong to your “grands.” But let’s face it, they can still learn from you!

Catherine also asked that I talk about the suffixes –ous and –ual, specifically in “continuous” and “continual.” I had not done so previously because there is no easy answer (and that’s what we all seek, yes, easy answers?). In general, “continuous” means without interruption. “Continual” also can mean that, but in precise usage it means frequent, repeating at intervals (in other words, WITH interruptions). Many experts fail to draw a clear-cut distinction between “continuous” and “continual,” so there is no easy answer.

She adds this: “Also, I once knew and have forgotten (soggy memory syndrome) the further/farther drill.” Gosh, she might not like this answer any more than the one about “continual.” See, back when Catherine and I were young, “farther” was urged on us to express distance (it’s far from here, even farther), and we were encouraged to stick with “further” when expressing advancement to a greater degree. The “further” rule is still happily in use — you further your education, you do things without further delay.

However, the old advice about distance … well, “further” and “farther” are now used interchangeably in those cases. As the Oxford English Dictionary says, you can move farther down the train or further down the train. There you go; I have nothing further to say.

Reader Libby does, though. She sent some great thoughts, including this: “As for ‘farther’ and ‘further,’ I figure that’s a lost cause. Nobody uses ‘farther’ anymore, and I guess the game is lost when KFC’s current slogan, repeated prominently in their commercials, is, ‘Your dollar goes further at KFC’!” Gosh, Libby, I haven’t seen those commercials. Darn.

Reader Bill says he wants me to discuss “absolutely.” He says: “It is becoming the standard reply to every question or comment on the tube. No, yes, perhaps won't work. Am absolutely sick of absolutely.” Wow, Bill, I know how irritating the overuse of any word or phrase can be. I’ll send you my list.

Reader James writes this: “Being a language person myself, I greatly enjoy your column on language usage in the Greensboro, N.C., newspaper, which a friend sends to me in Tennessee. I am writing to suggest you caution your readers … against the incorrect use of the word ‘less.’”

James is talking about “less” versus “fewer,” of course. He spells it out nicely, saying this: “‘Less money’ is correct, as is ‘less time’ or ‘less effort,’ but ‘less people,’ ‘less cars’ and ‘less problems’ — all of which I have heard or seen recently — are not. ‘Fewer’ is, of course, correct in those instances. (‘Fewer’ with so-called countable nouns; ‘less’ with mass nouns.) Surely no one would make the same mistake in the opposite direction, saying ‘fewer money,’ ‘fewer time’ or ‘fewer effort’; why then abuse ‘less’ with ‘less people,’ etc.?”

Why indeed, James. Are you right? Yes. Have you said it all? Absolutely. (Uh-oh.)


Saturday, October 18, 2008

A little language laughter

Because this is Sunday, I’m reminded of some of the church humor that’s been circulated widely lately, all of it supposedly (key word, that one) derived from real church bulletins and all funny because of language. You may have heard or read many of these, but maybe not. For instance, “The peacemaking meeting scheduled for today has been canceled due to a conflict”; “The Fasting and Prayer Conference includes meals”; and “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our community.”

The beauty of these is their reflection of exactly the kind of language errors we make daily. (Reader and university professor Chris says that his students would likely write “the beauty is there reflection” or “the beauty is they’re reflection.”) For instance, sometimes we forget to pay attention to the placement of the components of a sentence and to the fact that the placement really matters: “For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs,” or “Eight new choir robes are currently needed due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.”

Look at this one: “Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered.” You know what? That example epitomizes the raison d’être of this column. My hope is that once in awhile — not always maybe but at least occasionally — this column will serve to encourage you to listen to what you’re saying, read what you’ve written, simply pay attention to how it might be misunderstood. And then, if you’re so moved, make a change (e.g., Please place your donation in the envelope along with the name of the deceased person you want remembered).

I mean for heaven’s sake (couldn’t resist that), think about what you’re saying: “The Youth Group will present Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ in the church basement Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.” Or even worse: “Weight Watchers will meet at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use the large double door at the side entrance.” And then we have this, um, less tasteful one: “A bean supper will be held on Tuesday evening in the church hall. Music will follow.”

Before we leave the church and turn to medicine for some more examples, let me issue the important disclaimer that none of the above came from the bulletin of my church (relax, Rev. Alex) … and none of the following came from any of the doctors I’ve known. Well, they might have, but I didn’t discover them. All of today’s lil’ smiles came from lists that arrived from friends and family via email. All of these supposedly actual mistakes have been around for a long time, and therefore I’ve received them … let’s just say multiple times. I hope some are new to you.

Remembering the advice of Mary Poppins about sugar and medicine, we turn now to sweet errors from doctors and hospitals. Again, their humor depends somewhat on accepting that they are real, and, as above, I’m sending them your way because they remind us to pay attention to how our words might be misunderstood. For instance, “On the second day the knee was better and on the third day it disappeared.” Ouch! “She is numb from her toes down.” Say what?

Sometimes we come close to using the right word, but our choice is either slightly off or we type it wrong: “While in ER, she was examined, X-rated and sent home.” “I saw your patient today, who is still under our car for physical therapy.” “The lab test indicated abnormal lover function.”

Often, however, we know what we want but we simply fail to give sufficient detail to make it clear: “The skin was moist and dry.” I’m sure there’s an explanation for that, but it isn’t revealed in that sentence. Actually, the description reminds me of a radio voiceover I did once where the audio engineer gave me this direction for reading a particular line: “I want to hear an excited nonchalance.” It’s now decades later and I still remember it, that’s how puzzling it was.

We’ll end today’s language potpourri with a final church note. Please remember that I am not inventing these; they are allegedly from printed church bulletins. Ready? “The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on the Water.’ The sermon tonight: ‘Searching for Jesus.’”


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dealing with two nasty words, and more

Today I’m going to use two words you may find nasty (or, as some say, “nassy”). But think of today’s column as you do medicine — something that is good for you, even necessary. So take your meds and keep reading. Here they are, those two words. Ready? Subject, verb. KEEP READING! I promise that you will be a better language person if you’ll just soldier on with me here. It won’t hurt (much).

The problem is this: More and more people, it seems, are using singular verbs with blatantly plural subjects … and to illustrate the silliness, the ugliness, the just-plain-wrongness of that, I have collected examples from the press.

From People magazine: “Praise and solid scores from the DWTS judges wasn’t enough for [the contestant], who was sent packing Tuesday night.” Do you see the problem? Praise and solid scores wasn’t, it says. You, knowing better, would realize that X plus Y equals two things. Two things make a plural! So you’d say “X and Y weren’t enough,” or “praise and solid scores weren’t enough,” right?

Think of it this way. Would you say, “We was happy” or “We were happy”? With a plural subject, “We,” you’d use a plural verb, “were.” This is easy, right? We (plural) were (plural) happy. I’m feeling pretty pleased, myself!

So why would People — or any other publication — say that praise (that’s one thing) and solid scores (that’s at least one other thing) “wasn’t” enough? Dunno.

This from Patti Davis, daughter of Nancy and Ronald Reagan: “How lucky celebrities are to be able to go to one of these [rehab] facilities and to benefit from the wisdom and help that waits behind the gates.” So, we have a plural subject (“wisdom and help”) followed by a singular verb (“waits”). Yech.

Try this statement from newspapers concerning a song from the wildly successful High School Musical 2 and quoting co-star Monique Coleman: “It was performed very beautifully and the connection and chemistry was just exceptional.” You’re starting to catch the problems, right? The connection (that’s one thing) and chemistry (that’s a second thing) “was” — uh-oh! We’re in “We was happy” territory!

Now read this from the President’s Challenge Adult Fitness Test: “Muscular strength and endurance is critical to both your health and ability to carry out daily activities.” So, both strength and endurance is critical, eh? And I bet the adults is hungry, too. Maybe they even is as hungry as they is happy.

We’re not finished. I’ve been clipping examples for this peeve for a long time, and the scissored snippets are covering my desk (or, they is covering it). Here’s one from a monthly magazine talking about a baseball team’s on-field host, named Spaz: “Never before has a name and personality matched up this perfectly.” How about matching a plural subject with a plural verb?

In the paper, from last MLK Jr. Day: “The nuance and breadth of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message escapes most Americans.” Evidently, plural verbs escape us, too.

This one, with the paper quoting a new author/publisher, is amazing: “The three things that helped me realize my dream is belief, determination and the preparation.” Oh my. Well, I s’pose the three things is important, all right.

Did you read any of the praise for talented Jim Schlosser when he retired from the News & Record? One award he was given had this as part of its presentation: “While newspapers and journalism has changed over many years, readers of the News & Record know when they see the Jim Schlosser byline … .” Got it?

And this from a regional radio broadcast: “More information and a list of sponsors is available … .” Look closely at that quote and you can see one of the reasons that we tend to use a singular verb with a plural subject. Whoever wrote it probably thought that “a list” was the subject, and so a singular verb was the way to go.

In truth, the more distance — and the more words — you have between the subject and the verb, the more likely you are to make the plural-singular agreement mistake. A second common reason for the error is having a collective noun (crowd, family, group, committee, etc.) as the subject. Those really do tend to take a singular verb — the crowd was dispersed, the group is ready to meet, the family was in attendance.

But don’ gimme no “We was happy” talk.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Odder odds with still no ends in sight

My last column admitted right up front, “there is no theme here!” It was a brazen emptying of Mike’s Miscellany, and it felt terrific (for me, at least). So we’re doing that again today. Odds and ends, kids, and here we go.

An ugly arrived in the mail today, and it’s the last straw. I’ve had it with this particular language misuse, and to compound the injury, this mail is from an alma mater of mine — the University of Texas at Austin (actually from The Texas Exes, those of us branded as alumni). On the outside of the envelope it says this: “Now you can save up to $327.96 or more a year on auto insurance.” I have no trouble with saving money, of course. But do the good people at UT not realize that “up to” means that the figure about to be stated is the TOP, the maximum that can be reached? You can reach up to seven feet, for instance, or save up to, well, $327.96. But don’t then say “or more.” I mean, you can, but only if you want to appear idiotic.

Are you familiar with the company called Lands’ End? It was originally a sailboat equipment company, with the name Land’s End. But the misplaced apostrophe was a typo that appeared on promotional materials (or so the story goes), and the owner couldn’t afford to reprint them. So Land’s End became Lands’ End.

Being from Texas, I grew up drinking Dr Pepper (every kid in Texas must do so; it’s a state law). (Just kidding.) You may not have noticed it, but there is no period in Dr Pepper. The story is that the period was used sometimes and forgotten sometimes until the 1950s, when the logo was redesigned to include a slight slant. Because of the tilt to the letters, the period almost looked like a colon, so Dr. looked like Dr: (it has to do with how the “r” is shaped). Anyway, the Pepper people decided to drop the period permanently — partly so there would be no implicit medical claims, but mainly because it looked better.

One more product note from the 1950s: I remember when Lite products were introduced. Memories of my mother almost always include the image of her with a lipstick-coated bottle of Tab in one hand and an unfiltered Camel in t’other (ah, those were the days). I also remember how the spelling, Lite, incensed my young language-loving brain cells — “Lite? LITE?? Don’t people know how to spell ‘light’ these days?” We all had a role to play — marketing people were deliberately respelling “light” to indicate reduced sugar, rather than reduced weight; I was practicing for this column.

Let’s jump to today, where we have an area radio station telling us that we have a chance to win “400 dollars in free gas.” Oh boy. Free gas? Are they kidding? What is free gas, and if it’s free, how can we win 400 bucks of it? If it’s free gas, then it’s free! Come on, radio people, think for just one second before you run a promotional campaign. Maybe it’s Lite gas.

Tell me this: If you subscribe to a bimonthly magazine, how often do you expect to receive that publication? Twice a month? Once every two months? Most publishers agree that their bimonthly product is due every two months. However, some people receive a bimonthly paycheck, and that normally means twice a month. You’ll admit that twice a month is very different from once every two months, yes? But the word “bimonthly” has those two meanings. Same goes for “biweekly” — twice a week or once every two weeks.

Here’s the rub, though (in case it’s been too easy so far). “Biannual” means twice a year, period. Not every two years. So if you subscribe to a biannual newsletter, look for it twice a year. But remember — if it’s bimonthly, it probably will not appear twice a month! Hold on, we have one more in the mix. “Biennial” means lasting or occurring every two years. Isn’t that just flat-out too much to handle?

So, to recap for those keeping score: biennial is every two years; biannual is twice a year; and biweekly can be twice a week or once every two weeks, just as bimonthly can be twice a month or every two months. Whew.

Worn out? Me, too. Bi bi for now.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Language odds … with no ends in sight

Oh, this is exciting. At least for me it is. I’ve decided to forego all pretense of attaining a topic, a theme, a focus for today’s column. Today we simply clear out some of Mike’s Miscellany — a way to handle some odds and ends that have lived with me long enough. So, in no order whatsoever, here we go.

One day as I walked through Lowe’s hardware store, I heard this recorded announcement: “Special assistance needed in the blind cutting area.” Gosh, I expect so.

One of my relatives made a needlepoint for a wedding gift, and it said this: "What God hath joined together, let no man put us under." Truly it did say that.

“The best kept secret.” Gosh, could we stop saying that, please, about everything? And we do not need an “s” at the end of “anyway,” at the end of “somewhere” or even at the end of “toward.” And for goodness sake it’s “across,” not “acrosst.”

Say “henceforth” or say “forevermore” (if you like), but don’t use the redundant “henceforth and forevermore.” The word is “infinitesimal,” not “infintesimal” (it has six syllables, not five). Say “LACKadaisical,” not “LAXadaisical,” and you can stick an “r” in “Washington” if you must, but only if you promise to warsh your hands in warter.

In our ongoing battle against inappropriate jargon — meaning usage that tends to confuse, or at least fails to clarify — let me give you this description of a wine that I heard on the radio: “This is a highly complex wine for the price point. You can tell it’s angry because it gives a back-end tannin structure. And it is extremely raising on the nose.” At least I think that’s what I heard. This next one I read in the paper, so I don’t have to guess. It quotes a Yale University art student: “This piece creates an ambiguity that isolates the locus of ontology to an act of readership.” Whew.

Are you still with me? Here’s another from higher education. Examples of degrees one can earn include a bachelor of science degree and a master of public health degree. In so doing, one then holds a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree. That’s where the possessives (bachelor’s, master’s) are appropriate. But you don’t earn the bachelor’s of arts or the master’s of arts degrees.

How often do you hear promos on television along these lines: “Stay tuned for an all-new episode of Prison Break [or whatever]”? Why is it proclaimed as “all-new”? Does that mean that sometimes the new episodes are really part new and part old? I don’t think so. I assume it’s ALL-new, if it’s a new episode. And boy howdy would I love to get back to the days when we had plots and stories and themes and any number of things other than “arcs.” (“Look for a 10-episode arc on Showtime’s drama set in the ’hood.” Yuck.)

Speaking of themes, you have a recurring theme (or dream!), not a reoccurring one. Also, I recommend that you go with “preventive” rather than “preventative” measures and with “orient” rather than “orientate” (when talking about finding your direction or becoming accustomed to something new). What about “flammable” versus “inflammable”? If you’re referring to something that might catch on fire literally, go with “flammable.” However, if you’re describing something that is easily inflamed — your temper, perhaps — then “inflammable” works all right (as opposed to the nonstandard “alright”). Of course, we all know to say “regardless” and to avoid the horrid “irregardless” like the plague.

Here’s a rule of thumb for you when using some possessives. It should be Jack and Jill’s insurance policy, with only one apostrophe, if they jointly own that policy. However, say Jack’s and Jill’s cars if each of them owns a separate car. Get it?

Let’s stop saying “the Rupert Murdochs of the world,” or “the Donald Trumps” or the Whoever Elses. Recently an ESPN reporter, talking about the L.A. Lakers, said, “What is going to happen to the Farmars, the Vujacics, the Radmanovichs and the Waltons [of the world]?” Please. We’re all unique. There is only one Rupert Murdoch, one Donald Trump (thank goodness), one You!

Finally, having railed against silly hybrid word inventions before — including “guesstimate” and “harassination” — let me tell you what I just now heard on the radio: “All I can say is that I have deep skeptimism.”

Heaven help us.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Language lessons from the open road

Road trip! Oh, is there anything else in the world as much fun as a road trip? All right, maybe there is, but I just returned from driving 700 miles to Arkansas (and 700 back), and as a lover of language, well, golly, the open road is filled with wondrous sights and sounds.

It started in Tennessee, where I was behind a large (or, as they say there, one of them big ole) 18-wheelers. This one was a beauty, and someone — I assume the driver/owner — had paid a pretty penny to have some very fancy lettering scribed onto the back, up near the roof. The sentiment was writ large, loud, clear, patriotic and interesting, all at once. In fancy script, it said this: “Support Our Troups!”

Not long after that, the car radio delivered a jewel. I heard a male speaker describe a colleague at work who stood up for his principles, saying: “He fought the bosses tooth and neck.” That was rich enough, but that evening, I turned on the TV in the motel, and a speaker on a cable network put it this way: “They were fighting tooth and tongue.”

As I settled into the car seat for the next day’s leg of the journey, a pompous legal expert was asked if torture could ever provide valid information. He said, “That is one way to effectuate that result.” Isn’t that a great example of using language that is more complicated than necessary?

Throughout most of the state of Tennessee, I noticed recurrent billboards for an adult bookstore — a chain of them, I’d guess. The sign promised “video’s, magazines, toys and more.” I checked each sign as I drove, thinking maybe one of them would offer “video’s, magazine’s, toy’s and more.”

When I stopped to buy a soft drink at a gas station, I had a hot, sweaty, dusty guy in front of me, mulling over a bottle of Brisk sweet tea. I helped him decide by saying, “That stuff is great.” He said, “OK, I’ll try some,” whereupon he immediately opened it and took a long swig. He exhaled loudly, looked at me with an expression close to rapture, and said, “That is the best thang I have ever drank.” Thinking of this column, I honestly replied, “I was hoping you’d say something like that.”

When I arrived at my destination, Arkansas, the fun intensified. I went there to be with my brother, who had to spend some time in a hospital. One day as I was standing in line at the hospital cafeteria, the female cashier glanced at a man walking in and said, “Ha wheel.” I finally figured out that she had said “Hi, Will.” It was like North Carolina on steroids.

A friend of my brother’s, we’ll call him Pete, is unusual. He plays golf right-handed but he putts left-handed. I heard someone ask him, “How can you do that?” Pete’s answer was memorable: “I guess I’m amphibious.” Later that day, I heard Pete say: “I told you that was going to happen. Sometimes I can predict things.” When asked how, he said, “I guess I have ESPN.”

When my brother got home from the hospital, he called the city library to ask if he could renew a library book over the phone. I swear to you, the library worker said this: “You want to renew? You has to come in for that.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Arkansas and Tennessee have any kind of monopoly on language limitations. This great note came from Reader Marty: “When traveling through Virginia recently, I saw a sign posted in a gas station window advertising ‘Pure bread pit bull pups for sale.’ I couldn't resist asking the attendant if the pups were really made of pure bread.”

When I got home, Reader Chris — a university professor — told me about grading papers a week or two earlier. He said that one paper included this: “He made some comments that were definitely anti-semantic.” Yup, I had just heard a lot of those kinds of comments on my trip.

I have one more thing to tell you. While in Arkansas I saw an ad in the paper. It offered quite a deal, proclaiming: “Celebrate Mother's Day with a family golf outing! Play after 11 am on Sunday May 11 and Mom's play free!”

Sounds fun! Unless she’d rather stay home and watch video’s with wheel.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sometimes a dot’s just a dot, period

Have you noticed how computers have affected our language? My Uncle Hubert (yes, that was his name) used to work on typewriters for a living. You remember typewriters— they’re those things that used to ring a wee bell when the carriage reached the end of the paper and you had to … oh, never mind.

These days we use keyboards that contain more keys for functions than they do for letters. Computers have changed the way we type (or the way we input). Computers also have changed the way we verbalize certain symbols. You probably know that what used to be a “period” is now a “dot.” What used to be an “exclamation point” or “exclamation mark” is now a “bang” (Bangs are fun! Have another!).

You do remember the asterisk, that * symbol that so many people mispronounce (it’s asterisk, not asterick), yes? These days it’s also known as a star. That makes sense; it looks like a star. But what has confused some older people is the # symbol — now commonly called the “pound” key. Some knew it as a symbol for “number,” or they called it a hash sign or hash mark, but not “pound.”

(An aside: One statistic claims that people over 60 spend more time on computers now than people under 30. My nephew claims it’s because we older people can’t remember how to turn the computer on.)

Also confusing to technology neophytes is “underscore” for this mark _. And many argue about which is a backslash and which is a forward slash. One easy way to keep those straight is to go by the direction the top of the symbol points. That is, the top of / points forward (in the line of text), so it’s a forward slash, whereas the top of \ points backward (hence, a backslash).

The forward slash was always a “virgule” to me, and it still is. And oh — where do you find the backslash on the keyboard? Under the pipe, of course! (The pipe looks like this |, and it’s also called a vertical bar. [It’s to the right of the brackets.])

Isn’t this fun? Believe it or not, one of the questions I am asked most often seems, at least to me, quite arcane. So I’m always surprised, but here it is — how does one make the apostrophe slant the correct way when abbreviating a year or a word? Here’s what they mean. Let’s say you want to abbreviate 1990 as ’90. Look at the slant of the apostrophe there as opposed to ‘90. Or let’s say you want to write ’N Sync instead of ‘N Sync. See the difference?

I’m surprised people pay attention. Surprised but happy, of course. The answer is this. Some new programs do it for you automatically now, but if your computer does not, I don’t know a single key to hit to make it happen. So here’s what I do: Type the apostrophe before inserting the space before it. So it first looks like this: “abbreviate 1990 as’90.” See how it made the apostrophe slant correctly? Then simply go back and insert the space, and the apostrophe will stay the way you want it. So 1990 as’90 turns to as ’90 and write’N Sync becomes write ’N Sync.

This last hint is for those who sometimes write computer addresses — URLs for the Web and email addresses of all sorts. Let’s say you worry about whether a period (ending your sentence) will be mistaken as a dot (part of the address). Here are two examples of what you might want to say:
For more information, go to
For more information, contact Jim at

But you’re afraid that some people might try to use as the Web address, and you know that the dot/period at the end will mess it up! Same with the email address. What to do? Omit the period at the end of the sentence? Noooo.

The solution is easier: Don’t put the address at the end of the sentence! Try this:
“Go to the Web ( for more information.”
“Contact Jim ( for more information.”
You can even give ole Jim’s phone number after the address if you want to avoid parentheses: “For more information, contact Jim at or at 123-456-7890.” There. No more worries.

Did you ever expect to have so much fun thinking about such things? Neither did Uncle Hubert.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Transparency, transformation, traction: Trendy

Mrs. Willie Loman said “Attention must be paid.” Of course, she wanted attention paid to Willie; I want it paid to our use of language.

How many of the following trendy words have you yourself used in the last 24 hours? Transparent, transformation, traction, on the ground, gravitas, impact, price points, push back, blowback, powerful. How about sea change, mindful, at the end of the day? Ring any bells?

Please know that I am not against the use of any of those words and phrases. No sir, nope, not me. Golly, those are all fine words — attractive, healthy, kind and considerate, I’m sure. No, what I am against — and I hope to get you on my side in this — is their overuse.

You admit, don’t you, that any word or phrase (or gesture, for that matter) used to excess will be counterproductive, in that it will draw attention to itself, distracting from the real message? Of course, overdone things also can be downright irritating. (Reader Jim asks that I attack “having said that” and “at the end of the day” because, as he puts it, “Both are very annoying to me.” Shoot, Jim, you know nothing gets done by the middle of the day!)

“Transparent” has meant several things for many years, and being open to public scrutiny is one of its main meanings. To say “Elections in Pakistan pledged to be free and fair and transparent” is absolutely fine. However, we’re about to overuse the word. I read this recently: “The report should be transparent, the results are to be transparent and the necessary actions will, therefore, be clear and transparent.” Huh? Stop.

Ideas that are popular or widespread now “gain traction.” And “on the ground”? Oh my goodness. That lil’ phrase can drive a person batty, it’s so overused these days.

When we talk about troops on the ground, we mean in the air and at sea, too. The “ground” part is often used apparently (not transparently) as a figure of speech. But the expression has gained so much traction (ahem) that it’s losing clarity. I heard this on the radio: “Your support during this fundraiser is making a huge difference on the ground, where it really counts.” Oh, great. Landscaping? And this: “We need to stabilize the housing market on the ground.” Good gracious. What does that mean?

“Gravitas” — nice word, but sometimes it’s really all right simply to say “dignity” or “seriousness,” if you want. The same goes for “impact.” Unless it involves harsh contact (a bullet impacts its target), you probably just mean “affect.” One thing affects another.

Here’s another trendy one — in the old days, we used to change things; now we “transform” them. It is everywhere. A transformation is a dramatic change, so when we use the word “transform” to describe a change that is not thorough or dramatic, well, we tend to exaggerate. Do you want to exaggerate? Maybe, maybe not.

That’s the thing about trendy words and phrases. They can become hackneyed, losing their power through overuse. However, they can be used to advantage if they’re not yet clichés. Their very familiarity makes them comfy to some readers/listeners.

Let’s just be aware of the trends. Many retail people these days prefer to talk about price points rather than price. “The collection will encompass a variety of sizes, styles and price points.” Designers, also, have been known to mention “price points,” but they say it less than they say “pop” and “space.” You’ll hear, “That color makes the room pop,” and we’re now told that we have a kitchen space, an office space, a bathroom space. Pretty fancy, huh?

We used to resist; now we “push back.” And “blowback”? There are many meanings to that (some of which we’ll not address here), but it seems that the military meaning — a negative effect one suffers from one's own weapons — has been adapted to the civilian world. Now it’s just a negative effect one suffers from one’s own actions or speech. Nothing wrong with that. Unless we overuse it.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, back from Iraq, said this: “What I saw on the ground this time was stunning, impressive and a sea change in terms of security.”

Wow. A sea change on the ground. Maybe not transparent, but definitely transformational. And having said that, I admit that Graham’s gravitas gives traction … at the end of the day, of course.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Trendy words: Use or lose, you get to choose

“Heather,” I said, reading the nametag on the shirt of the cashier at a local grocery store, “would you tell me where the film is, please?”

Milk, wienies, bread … those would have been easy. But I needed film for a 35-mm camera, and I had searched the store. Heather said, “Film?”

Uh-oh. Age alert! Age alert! “Yes,” I said, “I need to buy film for my camera.” She repeated, “Film?”

Oh my goodness. There it was, and there it stayed. I explained how some cameras don’t use memory cards and don’t serve as telephones. She still had no inkling what film is. Finally a neighboring cashier overheard us and pointed me to the Customer Service spot, where a few vestigial rolls of film awaited dustily.

It stands to reason that as time goes on, some products go away. So successive generations, I suppose, inevitably will have no knowledge even of some WORDS that we more, um, mature people have. (“What’s a record?”) On the other hand, I’ll bet that every teenager in America can tell you what brb, ttyl and btw mean, even if you have no idea.

I’ll explain those later — or, as those same teenagers might type, L8r. Let’s look at some words that are abundantly popular with all of us today. Clichés, of course, are words or phrases that are so overused that they become predictable and essentially meaningless. We try to avoid them, choosing fresh and more expressive terms, but we all slip. (A character in Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two” says: “Be that as it may — and I hasten to add that I never use expressions like ‘Be that as it may’ or ‘I hasten to add’!”)

Some words and phrases that are extremely popular today may be clichés by tomorrow. So let’s stop overusing them before that happens, eh?

Before I mention some of the popular utterances that I fear already are being used to excess, sucking their force out of them, let me state categorically that these words and phrases are not wrong. They are not mistakes, they’re not bad grammar, they’re not even to be avoided at all costs. S’matter of fact, you might even be well advised to use them in certain circumstances, simply because they are so popular, familiar, comfortable. I’m cautioning only against overuse, not against use. Almost anything done to excess is ineffective and/or annoying (“Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”).

We need to start with excellence, as in academic excellence, excellence in education, schools of excellence, the pursuit of excellence and all the other uses of “excellence” associated with education. When will educators, educated as they are, realize that the word has been used to excess, that it has lost real meaning, that they need to find other ways to express their goals and standards? A fresh, new term — that would be excellent.

Surely you’re aware that we over “ize” things these days, adding that suffix as a too-easy way to make an action word out of a noun. We prioritize, of course, and we even monetize, levelize and, if you can believe this replacement for “rotate,” we now circularize. Yesterday I heard that one part of the world was about to Talibanize.

You know what would make me happy? The death of “location, location, location.” Undoubtedly the first time it was used by someone selling a house, it was clever. Now it has wormed its way into areas of life other than real estate, and it’s even more annoying. If you’re in a vow-taking mood, let’s pledge to stop all unnecessary uses of things in threes, shall we (e.g., etc., etc., etc.; no, no, no; wait wait, wait)? Thank you.

These days, “inform” is appearing all over. “These convictions will inform his presidency.” “I hope this report informs some legislation.” “They tell how their experiences can inform the national debate.” Sometimes it’s enough simply to shape, influence and define.

More from politics: “Edwards’ message didn’t resonate with the voters.” Boy, we love to resonate. And his campaign lacked, get this, “traction.” I guess he needed the farmers’ support. Oh wait, that’s tractors.

Gosh, my space (not MySpace) is almost gone, so let me make this Trendy Words Part One and give you the promised explanations — “ttyl” means talk to you L8r, “btw” is “by the way,” and I hasten to add that “brb” stands for “be right back.”

I’m off to buy film, so ttyl.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Colons on parade: Meet your new best friend

What in the world is going on with colons? I’ll bet that you have avoided thinking about colons — as punctuation, that is — most of your adult life. Maybe most of your pre-adult life, as well. Not anymore. Colons are in, way in.

“I never know the difference between colons and semicolons,” people tell me, “so I avoid using either.” That’s OK. Writing around confusing punctuation and phrasing is a great exercise.

(By the way, let me spell out the purpose of this lil’ column I’m allowed to write, the one that now has you reading about colons, of all things. It’s simple: My goal is to get you to enjoy an awareness of language. That’s all. Just enjoy the benefits of paying attention to what you say and write. If I’m lucky, I’ll also paste a wee smile on your face along the way.)

Now, about those frisky colons. These days they’re everywhere (including 13 in this column). I’m not complaining (surprise!), just noting. For a long time, if you needed a colon you’d go to the title of a professor’s writing. Simply turn to any college or university website, find a professor and look at her/his publications/presentations. You’ll find enough colons to last a lifetime. Look here — “Integrating Locomotor Energetics, Mechanics and Gaits: Insights and Key Directions at the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology.” Can you find the colon?

What’s amazing to me is how those little bitty things, one dot lined up over another, now permeate movie titles. The current movie listings boast seven movie titles with colons, right here in our fair city. They include National Treasure: Book of Secrets; Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.

Isn’t that interesting? And just to illustrate colons and semicolons working together happily, look at the list of movie titles again to see how semicolons separate the items. (Reminds me of the old joke: “I’m not yet 50 years old, so my doctor said I need to have only a semicolonsocopy.”)

I won’t spell out all the ways colons are used appropriately (mainly to introduce a list, a definition or a direct quote). My purpose is merely to share the observation that a punctuation mark is in vogue. Maybe colons will become less scary through familiarity.

Let’s look briefly at that punch line again: “I need to have only a semicolonoscopy.” The placement of the word “only” within a sentence is important to several people who have written to me. It began with Reader Leila, who wrote from the mountains of North Carolina in May 2006 (here comes a colon; enjoy): “LOVE the column. Please do one on the misuse of ‘only.’ As in, ‘The President only asked Congress for a ba-zillion dollars.’ Is that — only the President? Or — asked only the Congress? Or — only asked but didn't demand? Or — asked for only a bazillion dollars? Placing ‘only’ in the correct position would give one of my pet peeves a rest!”

Others emailed about the same problem. Then, in my last column, I wrote this: “… and so far the claims have only been about my uses of language that would be … ill advised for formal writing.” Uh-oh. Look at the “only” in that sentence. I committed one of the “only” sins.

Reader Raymond was on it, emailing me this: “The restriction of ‘only’ should be closest to the subject of restriction. … The restrictor word should be as close as possible to whatever is being restricted. I would prefer, ‘And so far the claims have been about ONLY my uses …’ Why split a verb (‘have been’) when better comprehension is posited upon ONLY being closest to its object of restriction?”

Better comprehension; can’t argue with that, Raymond. So I agree, and I wonder: Does Raymond know Leila?

One more note about readers. I asked to hear from readers who are under the age of 30, and some kindly responded. Not everyone gave an age, but of those who did, the two youngest were 14-year-old Kelli and “almost 14” Stephanie. All of them professed a love for language, with one proclaiming thus: “Of course, I say the word ‘like’ about every five seconds and stuff, but as far as just incorrect grammar, I try to avoid it.”

If only everyone would.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Readers are language sticklers, too

I’ll say it again: The readers of this column are, by definition, bright and wonderful. (That means you. Congratulations.) They also occasionally email me to ask if I have not, in fact, broken one of my own language rules. Sometimes they gleefully claim that I have erred. Ouch, babe.

Of course, the rules I praise are not mine; they’re yours and mine. And so far the claims have only been about my uses of language that would be, I readily admit, ill advised for formal writing. However, any column that includes expressions such as “Ouch, babe” is not an example of formal writing.

That’s why I told my wonderful brother, when he questioned it, that my ending a sentence with a preposition is OK in this informal context. And so is beginning a sentence with “And.”

One phrase I used shook up Reader Jane, who wrote: “As a retired English teacher, I enjoy your column immensely. I often hope my ‘educated’ acquaintances read it as well, since I find myself buttoning my lips to squelch the urge to correct them. Please tell me, however, that the closing paragraph of today's [Nov. 18] column is a trick question! ‘I'm done for now’ is one of my pet peeves. I do correct my grandchildren by responding, ‘So I guess you are FINISHED cooking!’”

Naturally, I encourage anyone with a pet peeve to pursue its proper use relentlessly. But this complaint is subject to context, in that “done” does mean “finished” in informal uses. (I won’t tell your grandchildren.) Again, some of the strict rules for formal writing don’t have to be in play for informal uses.

Reader Linda wrote this: “When I was in school, we were taught that the proper way to read ‘125’ was ‘one hundred twenty-five,’ not ‘one hundred AND twenty-five,’ which is what often assaults my ears. Now I know, in the overall scheme of things, this is unimportant. But I, too, am a stickler for good spelling, punctuation and grammar, and while I know that all of this is in a continual state of flux, I suspect that much of what is passed off as ‘modern’ is simply laziness or carelessness on the part of the speaker/writer.”

Golly, Linda, that “state of flux” statement could fill several whole columns, with you and me on one side and linguists — true scholars — on t’other. I’ll table that discussion for a while. As for the (incorrect, according to you) “and” in pronouncing numbers exceeding 100, I wish we had an absolutely simple answer to that. Wait a minute, WAIT a minute — that’s what this column is for. (Do you like that sentence with a preposition at the end?) I’m here to give clear-cut dicta. So here we go: I’m with you. Say “125” with no “and,” and tell Jane’s grandchildren to do the same.

This arrived from Reader Bud: “I have not seen this addressed by anyone and have grown very distressed over the years as its usage has seemed to grow to include virtually everyone except me and possibly you. I am referring to ‘take’ and ‘bring.’ When I was growing up, a correct sentence would have been, ‘I am taking my mother to the doctor.’ Now, the word ‘take’ has completely disappeared from this usage. Now it's, ‘I have to bring my son to school each day.’ I see this almost daily, and nobody but me seems to be bothered by it! That is why I'm hoping you will be too, or if you aren't, could you explain to me what is going on?”

Let’s not fool around here, Bud. Let’s cut to the end — I agree with you. Take that to the bank. (Don’t bring it; take it.) Rule of thumb: Take it there, bring it here.

In the near future, I’d like to discuss the language used by young people. Are there any readers of this column under 30? I don’t think so, but I’d love to be wrong. If you’re 30 or younger, please drop me an email. Even if you’re reading this for a class assignment, I’d like to know. You don’t have to write a letter; just tell me that you’re under 30.

Just for a smile, let me close with what my young nephew Steve emailed me recently. He saw this sign posted in his D.C. condo complex: “We are aware of the garage door staying in the up position. Bare with us.” Ouch, babe.