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.)



LUNASEE(* said...

hey there. nice to read your new blog. and funny you should mention the plurals again with the is and theys....i run into that with the proofing i've been mentioning. don't you have to say " we used our senses of smell to smell the candle" instead of "we used our sense of smell to smell the candle."? i thought they had to match. the plurals that is.....that's been bugging me lately. also people's use of the word supposeDly...NOT supposeVly...yeah. i know. i've got more if you want 'em. hehe

falkenna said...

Ah, but the use of "they" and "their" in the surgeon example is no longer that simple. It used to be. But after decades of struggling to eliminate sexist language (no, I will never feel included in "he", I don't care how often you tell me I should be), and inventing horrors like "sher" and "nis", common speech has chosen this way of saying that a surgeon could be either male or female. Something similar happened when the schoolchild's "Miz" for both married and unmarried teachers was adopted as "Ms".(Admittedly, "their" is not yet good enough for formal writing.)

A question about the Congress example: I was taught that collective nouns swing both ways, according to context. "Congress is mixed" might be an acceptable singular, but surely only plurals can fight among themselves? (Although presumably the juxtaposition is too abrupt.)

I am shocked that anyone is accepting "literally" in the sense of, well, "not literally". Surely this turns it into a non-word, as having no meaning whatsoever.

Incredible Joie said...

And I thought I was the only one left that still cared about these things.

How about my current pet peeve: "I was just laying there...." Laying what--an egg? Shouldn't it be "lying there"? At least that's how it was when I was still in school. Yet I hear it all the time now on American TV and the movies. It's a small matter, I know; but it never fails to annoy me.