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 clich├ęs. 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.