Saturday, November 14, 2009

Besieged by bazillions

Today we’ll examine the horrendous act of blending two decent words into one trendy and ugly new thing (I hate to call the new things “words”). Let me state what should be obvious by now: I am not a linguist. Linguists are scholars. They really, really know about words. Also, they describe language as they study it. Describing what has been done to our language is markedly different from prescribing what needs to be done.

Your favored columnist (that would be me), on the other hand, prescribes like a madman. He is no language scholar, nor does he claim to be. He’s more of a, um, well, not to put too fine a point on this, a language curmudgeon. And today’s griping will focus, as said, on that one part of our language’s evolution that gives us ugly, irritating, overused and unnecessary-to-begin-with new words.

Of course there are some great new words in our lives today, and thank heavens. After all, very few of us want to go around speaking the English of Chaucer. But some of the new stuff, well, keep reading.

Many young people, all over the world, now say that they are chillaxin’. In case that’s confusing, they’re both relaxing and “chilling,” another word for relaxing. So with the new word, we get two words for relaxing combined needlessly into one new and ugly word.

We can’t blame youth alone for this trend. TV Guide recently wrote, “Is there a showmance in the works on Top Chef’?” Of course, “bromance” has been around for a good while, combining the deep affection that males, not necessarily brothers in fact, feel for each other. It only makes sense, I suppose, that if the bromance is on a TV show, we get a showmance.

Of course, if things go badly in a bromance or a showmance, you can end up with frenemies — a combo of friends at times and enemies at other times. Wow. Does any of this bother you, too, or should I simply be chillaxin’?

It seems to me that this kind of word blending began about the time we started using “guesstimate,” which is said to have come to us from statisticians in the mid 1930s. Some feel that the delicious combo “guesstimate” means a guess that is made without sufficient information. Really? I’d call that a guess. Others say it’s an estimate arrived at by conjecture. Again, I’d go with “guess” or “estimate,” and I’d never feel deprived by not using “guesstimate.”

Anyway (and please, try to avoid ever saying “anyways”), we’ve now gone down the path to “dinnertainment” (dinner with entertainment, of course), “twonversation” (I’m not sure what that means, but it rhymes with “conversation,” if that helps), “daditude” for today’s fathers and, for extra thin men, “manorexic.” Shoot, there’s even a respected organization in D.C. now with a building named “The Newseum.” Golly, isn’t our new language swell?

Here’s a request from me to you: Might we please stop with the -illion permutations, such as gazillion, jillion, bajillion and gadzillion? Maybe we can move into kill-illion. Oh, and let’s toss “ginormous,” the blend of “gigantic” and “enormous,” into the Kill Pile, as well. It’s been around since 1948; that’s long enough.

Previous generations used to say “We’re doing this for the umpteenth time,” and that was similar to the –illions. Maybe it was less irritating to me because it didn’t spawn an umpzillion permutations.

My clever nephew Steve Clark has written me to say that he agrees — “daycation” and “staycation” are unappealing (not his exact word, but you get the drift), and he offers us some new -cation terms, just to see how they fly: Praycation — a religious day camp; Haycation — a farmers’ retreat; Gaycation — a getaway to San Francisco; and Ayyy-cation — a chance to spend the day with Henry Winkler.

He sent more, but I’ll stop here. The list could go on ad Newseum.


Mike Clark writes a monthly language column for the News & Record. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter (

Saturday, October 17, 2009

In loo of a proper restroom

Many, many years ago, way back in 19cough-cough (all right — it was 1969 and some of you weren’t even born yet), I was in London for the first time. I found myself in a car rental office, eager to start driving on the wrong side of the road. As I waited, I needed to use a men’s room.

Of course, I knew that British English and American English had differences, and that them Brits (as we Texans are likely to say) said “loo” or “water closet” to indicate the facilities. But when it came time for me to ask the nice lady for permission, I simply lacked the courage to try either of those words. So I reached for the most courteous-sounding term I had, and I said, “Is there a restroom I can use?” She thought for a moment, then said, “No, just that settee in the corner.” I realized that she truly thought I want to “rest,” and the sofa was all she had to offer.

Last month I had occasion to return to England, and I found some other language differences that you might find interesting. Let me start by telling you that the restrooms — the men’s rooms and ladies’ rooms — are still called loos and water closets … sometimes cloakrooms. But mostly they’re simply called toilets. And where we have handicapped restrooms, they have adapted toilets.

Not surprisingly, a lot of their terms are a bit more genteel than ours. For instance, instead of commanding that tourists stay on board while the bus is moving, they ask that you not alight whilst vehicle is in motion. Alight and whilst — genteel. And they don’t cook tea, or even brew it; they allow it to infuse. Yes.

On the other hand, their signs can be quite graphic (forgive the pun). We saw one street sign that warned of elderly people crossing the road, and the artwork featured drawings of people who were bent over, shuffling behind canes and walkers. And then we saw an even more graphic one showing exactly what kind of dog mess one is expected to handle (another pun to pardon).

The text on a nearby sign sounded genteel, though: “It is an offence to allow a dog to foul the footway.” Alliterative, even.

You don’t rent a tux there; you hire a dinner suit. We went to a wedding in a chapel at Oxford University, and the invitations had this: “No photography is allowed in the Chapel … and no confetti is allowed full stop.” Darn, I was hoping to stuff my hired dinner suit with confetti. But full stop, well, that put a definite halt to it. (“Full stop” means “and nothing less.”)

I signed up for a newsletter online with these instructions: “Fill in your details here and we’ll tip you the nod every few weeks.” Isn’t that interesting? Tip me the ole nod.

The vent in an English bathroom (well, toilet) is called an isolator, I suppose because it isolates the odors one wants isolated. Glass blocks are called air bricks, which makes sense. Scotch tape is called celly, Saran Wrap stuff is called cling film, and of course they watch adverts on the telly. (I assume they have adverts for celly on the telly.)

Finally, you and I have talked before about the British saying “he’s in hospital,” where they drop the “the” that we would use before “hospital.” I pointed out that we do it occasionally ourselves, such as in “he’s in school right now.” But they win, hands down — I heard all of these: “She’s downstairs in kitchen,” “Have we got problem?” and even “I’ll be down in minute.” Makes me want to write “the” a few thousand times and mail it over there as a helpful gift.

Can’t do it now — I need to go see if my dog has fouled a footpath.


Mike Clark writes a monthly language column for the News & Record. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter (

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Twitterary allusions

Please read this entire column, whether you hate Twitter, love Twitter or don’t even know what Twitter is. The reason I’m writing to you about Twitter is this: I want to offer periodic advice on language via Twitter, and you can help make it happen.

It’s a challenge, you see, to write helpful notes about language in the teeny space that Twitter postings, known as “tweets,” allow: 140 characters maximum. That counts all letters, spaces, punctuation, etc. It makes one work a little bit to distill thoughts all the way down to the essence … similar to haiku, perhaps. (Forgive me if I sound all in a twitter.) Let me give you some sample tweets that I’ve already posted on Twitter — see what you think.

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

Do you see how it works? Short, if not sweet. Here’s another one.

Which is correct - it's "a lot" [2 words] of fun, or it's "alot" [no such word] of fun? There's your answer.

Each of those is pithy (yeth indeed), and necessarily so. Look at two more, and then we’ll talk.

Do letters get an "s" or an apostrophe and an "s" for plurals? Singles get apostrophes (your p's and q's vs. the POs and two Ph.D.s).

Journalists get this one right, generally, but nonjournies do not. Ready? Under way, two words.

Please know that I am neither endorsing nor complaining about Twitter. What I am saying is that if enough of you sign up to “follow” me, then I’ll know that Twitter is a good way to pass along my language tidbits, and I’ll happily craft and post language tweets regularly.

Shoot — just stick your toe in. If you don’t like it, stop.

Yes, many people grouse at the very thought of Twitter. “If I want to know every time people eat a bagel, I’ll ask them” is a common kind of complaint. By the uninitiated, I might add. Here’s the way one tweeter, a young British comic, tweeted to make fun of that kind of posting:

I have my knees in my T-shirt, stretching it to a more desirable size. Stay tuned to my Twitter for more developments as they happen.

As I said, that’s a joke. If you encounter someone who really is mundane, simply stop following that person. The people and organizations I follow on Twitter tell me useful things — I follow news organizations and newsmakers to find out breaking news far ahead of stories on the wire services, for instance. Millions of people follow various celebrities for various reasons. You can keep up with your relatives if they’re tweeting. And, of course, you can send your own messages. Say your spouse is hospitalized, and friends and relatives want constant updates. Tweets can provide that, instantaneously and for free.

Here — have two more samples of my language tweets.

Bellwether = mix of bell and wether, a castrated male sheep, from the practice of hanging a bell from the neck of the flock leader.

Header in today's paper re BOA: 'Backing out of the deal might have lead to ouster ... .' Try not to use a metal (lead) for the verb (led).

Ready to sign up? It’s extremely simple to do. The whole process is free, and getting started truly takes only a few seconds. Simply go to and fill in the blanks to join. Then add writermike as someone to follow, and we’re set.

To update the James Taylor lyric, how tweet it is.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

A novel approach to language

Everyone makes typographical errors at some time, yes? What’s troubling me is that organizations that should not make them — book publishers — do.

We should be able to read a novel without finding egregious mistakes, don’t you agree? All right, I admit that some people feel that popular fiction need not be held to high standards. But c’mon, really? If it’s a book?

Let me give you a few examples that I’ve found in novels recently. And please keep in mind that these are from publishers with international reputations for high quality, not some DIY firm.

In fact, the mistakes I’ll tell you about are from the novels of New York Times best-selling authors. The first we’ll examine has written dozens of books, all best sellers and all published by leading publishing houses — Ballentine Books, Bantam Books, etc. I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are J.K., and these errors are to be found in every one of his books. Every one, I tell you.

Guess what? That’s the first one (I hope you got it). As we all know, “guess” is a command, not a question. So kill the question mark, J.K., and use a period. Here are some others. Let me combine them into one sentence for you, just for purposes of illustration. Here we go — I told the both of them to continue on, because they knew more about the agencies in the city than anyone.

Did you catch all of those mistakes? “Both” means “the two of,” so saying “the both of them” is like saying “the the two of them.” Kill the “the” before the “both.” Also, “continue” means “go on,” so “continue on” is the same as saying “go on on.” Stop it. The final error is trickier to explain, but stay with me.

The last portion of the illustrative sentence should have read this way: “they knew more about the agencies in the city than anyone else did,” or, more simply, “they knew more about the agencies in the city than anyone else.” It’s the “else” that’s crucial. You always want to be careful about including an “else” when you’re saying “more than anyone” or “better than anyone” or any other comparative statements with “anyone” in the mix.

Let’s say your goal is to say that Bob knows more about cooking than any other person you know. Bob, we assume, is a person. That is, Bob himself is an “anyone.” See? If you simply say that ole Bob knows more about cooking than anyone, that means more than ANYone! But wait – he is an anyone, so it makes no sense. (Are you confused yet?) If you’ll just toss that “else” in there, all becomes clear. Instead of saying that Bob knows more than anyone (in the world), say that Bob knows more than anyone else in the world.

If that’s still confusing (and if you care), let me know and I’ll tackle it again later. For now, I’ll stop. You’re welcome.

Now we come to a New York Times best-selling author from Greensboro, a brilliant and talented writer with the initials J.H., published by St. Martin’s Press. Check out these two sentences from his latest novel: (1) Detective Cross was in the yard; so was his wife and Gerald. (2) Yoakum lead the boy away.

You see the problems there, yes? You’d have said, “Detective Cross was in the yard; so were his wife and Gerald.” And I can almost guarantee that you and the author, if asked, would vote to substitute the verb “led” for the metal “lead.” My point is that these errors belong to the editor, who works for the publisher.

Maybe hard economic times at publishing houses have led (I was tempted) to using fewer editors. Are they getting the job done? I’d say no, but tell me if you disagree. Otherwise, I’ll continue on whining louder than anyone. (I had to, sorry.)


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Some beg you not to beg the question

We all have our pet sayings, yes? You know people who say “you know,” others who rely on “um” or, well, don’t even get me started on “like.” Thing is, any saying can be irritating if it’s used to excess.

Take the ever-popular “bless her heart.” That phrase, with its various permutations (his heart, your heart, etc.) has been used, discussed, trotted out as quintessentially Southern, laughed at and with, reviled and revered for decades, at least. It’s useful, but you must admit that if it’s in every other sentence, it’s tiresome.

Same goes for “sounds like a plan.” Certainly you’ve heard that one; you’ve probably said it. There’s nothing wrong with it … unless, of course, you say “Here’s the plan,” you detail it, and then someone else says, “Sounds like a plan.” Of course it’s a plan. Didn’t you say it’s the plan?

Anyway, it’s repetition that gets to me. I once ate lunch with a very respected and talented reporter friend. While we were eating, he uttered one sentence — and admittedly, he was flustered by something — in which he said: “You know, I mean, you know, uh, you know, this, you know … .” I did the only normal thing. I sat there, transfixed and counting. In that one sentence alone, he said “you know” 19 times. A talented writer, who would never use “you know” in his writing, even once.

Overuse, that’s the key to some of my whining today. Not the actual words, but their overuse. That’s what makes them lose effectiveness. They become irritating. They make diners count up to 19.

I once wrote a whole column on the overuse of “sort of” (, and the same goes for “clearly,” “actually” and “just.” It’s amazing, but people who say any of those (especially “just”) once in a sentence are likely to say it repeatedly, in every sentence: I just hope that you just know that we just need to just just just … help!

If you hear someone say “kind of,” “sort of” or “just,” you should start counting big time. Just for your own secret pleasure, of course. There is something about those particular verbal crutches — once they get their hooks into you, they own you. They rule your speech.

Some words and phrases currently riding high in popularity are “at the end of the day,” “powerful,” “transparent,” “sea change” and — oh, here’s one that’s ubiquitous — “Best. Something. Ever.” Sometimes there is a period after each word, but not always. TV Guide, talking about an online game: “Best. Game. Ever.” On another page: “When Dave met Blago. Worst. Idea. Ever.” And again: “Colbert and McCartney: Best. Interview. Ever.” British YouTube sensation Tom Milsom, announcing a live online show: “Best BlogTv Show Ever.”

There are some phrases, however, that are simply wrong, no matter how infrequently (or frequently) they are used. You know not to say “not hardly,” “can’t hardly” or (as a state senator just said) “cain’t hardly” when you mean “hardly.” So “she can hardly carry that by herself” is correct, whereas “she can’t hardly carry that by herself” means just the opposite from what you want.

Have you ever said, “begs the question,” as in this example from an Associated Press story about a performer appearing on the TV show Dancing With the Stars: “Lil’ Kim had an X-rated public image until she appeared on DWTS. Which begs the question: Is DWTS the new rehab?”

It’s a complicated phrase to judge. It began as a form of logical fallacy, described by Aristotle a very long time ago. Today’s usage is the result of confusion over the translation of “petitio principii,” which literally means “assuming the starting point.” However, “petitio” also means begging; as a result, “this begs the question” may incorrectly be translated as “this begs us, entreats us, to raise and consider the question.”

Even though some recent dictionaries grant that the newer usage is correct (standard), some purists still fight it. There’s even a website ( that offers T-shirts and other merchandise saying, “Oops — you used Beg the Question in an improper way.”

Who’s right? Old fuddy-duddies like Aristotle (bless his heart) or modern linguists, descriptivists who say that language is always changing, so live with it? Hmmm, I’d say it actually, just, you know, like begs the question, clearly.

Mike Clark writes a monthly language column for the News & Record. Reach him at

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Readers get A's for their Q's

What is more enjoyable than a good, old-fashioned question-and-answer session? Well, here’s what I come up with: ice cream, golf, movies, good books, the beach … wait a minute. I’d say almost everything is more fun than boring questions and answers. But we’re going to do a Q-and-A format today because these are special Q’s — they come from you, faithful readers. So by definition they are fascinating.

Q: In the sentence “Everyone should mind their manners,” “their” is plural and hence is not in agreement with the singular “everyone.” The correct version, “Everyone should mind his or her manners,” sounds clumsy, and so everyone simply minds their manners! What’s the solution?

A: Like it or not, many experts now allow that inconsistency as standard. My ongoing advice: Make it all plural (“People should mind their manners”).

Q: I read and re-read my work and still end up with errors. I write my book club blog, commercial real estate descriptions for work and personal and business letters. How can I become a better proofreader of my own writing?

A: First, know that you will seldom, if ever, see a perfect document ... and that goes for novels, ads, technical reports, cereal boxes, you name it. So don't be too hard on yourself. Second, find someone with a good eye to be your backup proofreader. Third, create good (well-proofed) templates whenever possible, then use those to reduce typos. This might be a good tactic for business letters. Fourth, read your writing out loud and slowly. That will help you find missing words, especially. Finally, if it's something really short (say a bit of real estate description), try reading it backwards slowly, one word at a time, after you've read it aloud. Going backwards will help expose spelling/typing errors.

Q: I'm so long beyond my grammar books, I need a new, succinctly written guide. Any suggestions?

A: I always tell people that two main rules apply: (1) If a style guide is designated for what you’re writing, follow that; (2) Be consistent throughout the writing assignment. That might mean choosing a style guide to follow if none is specified. Some of the most popular guides are the Associated Press Stylebook (for journalists), the APA Style Book (the American Psychological Association has a style guide that is widely used not only in scientific writing but also in many university settings) and the Chicago Manual of Style. Investigate several until you find one that seems friendly.

Q: Please write a column on the ridiculous phrases that are acceptable, such as “near miss.” Isn’t a near miss a hit?

A: hahahaHAHAhaha. That's a great thought. In fact, "near miss" is a quasi-legal term that refers (or at least referred originally) to the actual distance between or among objects that almost collided. In other words it was a miss in which the objects came perilously near each other.

Q: My sister is a cheat. Should I tell on her?

A: Wrong column. You want Annie’s Mailbox.

Q: My alma mater advertises this: “… every student receives an extraordinary education in a fun environment." I was always taught that “fun” is a noun, as in “to have fun.” I realize that “fun” is used increasingly as an adjective, and I know that it is colloquial, meaning enjoyable, but I still don't like it, especially advertising quality education in a college or university. It sounds ignorant and smacks of slang to me. (I'm not really a curmudgeon, at least most of the time!)

A: Having spent the last eight years of my employment marketing a private college, I feel that your university went with the “fun environment” phrasing precisely because it is, as you said, colloquial, a slang use. The goal is to sound very informal in an attempt to appeal to high school students. Unfortunately, “fun” as an adjective is now widely accepted in informal use, along with (and this part could send you over the edge into permanent curmudgeon-ness) “funner” and “funnest.” I'm not kidding. I'm not pleased, but it's true.

Q: I hear the state of Massachusetts sometimes pronounced “Massatusetts,” with the “chu” changed to a "t.” Also, the word “nuisance” [two syllables] is sometimes heard as three syllables: nu-i-sance. Finally, the word “mischievous” [three syllables] is often pronounced mis-chee-vee-ous, with four syllables. Are any of those pronunciations correct?

A: No, but they are among the funnest.


Friday, May 15, 2009

I’m too flusterated to conversate

Sometimes people misuse or even make up words, and when they do, readers of this column seem to be within hearing (and note-taking) distance. That’s good for me, because they tell me about it. Here are some examples.

Reader Douglas offered a “conversate” note: “Loved your column today, as usual! Let’s conversate about it!” I had never heard that word, possibly a verb derived from the noun “conversation,” but soon thereafter came this from Reader John, lamenting the language of people he once knew: “No amount of gently telling them … could keep them from using the word ‘conversate,’ as in ‘I would love to conversate with you.’ Oh, me.”

Golly, I guess I’ve missed out on a lotta conversatin’. Reader John had some others up his sleeve, as well: “Where I live, I often hear the terms ‘flusterated’ and ‘chimley’ for, of course, ‘frustrated’ and ‘chimney.’ I guess they just combine ‘flustered’ and ‘frustrated’ and come up with ‘flusterated.’ Where ‘chimley’ comes from, Lord knows.”

I’ve heard “chimley” myself, John, and all I can add is that it seems to be slang for “chimney” in Dorset, in the southwest of England, but that doesn’t tell us much.

Did you happen to notice my use of “myself” in the preceding sentence? Readers ask me about the proper use of “myself” more than they ask about any other single word. Here’s an example, from Reader Audrey: “I am an uneducated 72-year-old homemaker … [who does] not remember the rules of grammar and would have difficulty identifying the parts of speech beyond the initial ones. But, I frequently hear things that I feel are incorrect because they just sound wrong. Recently, it seems people being interviewed by the media use the word ‘myself’ when I think they should say ‘I.’ Could you comment?”

Audrey, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Other than occasional exceptions granted by poetic license, “myself” should be used only to refer back to the subject of the clause (I hurt myself) or for emphasis (I myself could not swear to it). And by the way, your practice of deciding whether a usage is correct by how it sounds means that you’re paying attention to what’s said, and you’re striving to use language correctly. Great awareness.

Reader Steve sent this: “I just heard a new word, and I hate it — shoportunity.” It’s safe to say that I always agree with everything this Reader Steve says. Try these, also from him: “On my all-time hate list are ‘happytizers’ and ‘happyteasers.’” I know what you mean, Steve. It’s enough to drive you to drink.

National media are rife these days with uses of “bromance” for brotherly romance, “frenemies” for people you love and hate, “dramedy” for stories that can make you laugh and cry and even “staycation” for taking a vacation where you stay at home in tough economic times. And if that’s not enough, I just heard a National Public Radio host talk about “celebutantes,” meaning, I suppose, someone who’s a celebrity debutante.

Some new words are actually quite useful; others are downright endearing. Reader Scott sends us this: “As [beloved baseball announcer] Loel Passe used to say on KTHT [radio] in Houston when a Houston Buffalo would hit a home run, ‘Hot ziggity-dog and good ole sassafras tea!’”

I remember that, actually. I also recall Loel saying, “Now you chunkin’ in there.” For those unfamiliar with the patois, if you’re throwing a ball well, you’re chunkin’ it. See why I like the Loel Passe sayings? They’re colorful and memorable.

We turn now to Reader Wiley, who writes me this: “In your article you mention ‘prioritize,’ ‘levelize,’ ‘monetize’ and ‘Talibanize.’ Another common use is ‘accessorize,’ and I think I saw the ultimate use of this practice recently when a writer said someone had been ‘funeralized’!”

Whoa, that is ultimate, Wiley. It demonstrates how things can get ugly when we add the suffix “ize” to make verbs where none have gone before.

Finally, we come to this from Reader Ginny: “Today I was watching Fox News … [describing] the Obamas’ European trip. The hostess, Martha McCallum, told what gift the Queen had given them. She said that it was a silver framed picture of ‘she and her husband.’ I wanted to throw something at the TV set but restrained myself.”

Yikes. I’m glad you restrained yourself. That would have been a costly way to satisfactionize.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dialects and twitterary criticism

When I was 21 years old (so long ago, rope was a new invention), I lit out for the territory, driving from my native Texas to attend graduate school in Pittsburgh, in large part simply to learn what Yankees were like. I’ve never been the same.

On the drive north, I spent much time fretting over how to talk to Northerners. The greeting was the first and the most problematic issue. I feared that my Texas accent and my choice of words would lead to ridicule.

I wondered if people Up There greeted each other the way we real people did. Whenever we hailed each other, it was with a simple “Hey” or, even more commonly, “Haddy!” — a word I’ve mentioned before that rhymes with “caddy” and was the way we Texans said “Hidy,” our version of “Hi.”

So I worried as I emigrated, driving north and practicing what I thought might be right: Hello, Hi, Hi there, How are you, Good day. Gosh, I was lost; it was hopeless. I stopped rehearsing and vowed simply to be mute until I had observed enough to parrot what they said.

Of course, it all worked out. I learned that my fears were mostly unfounded, that I could — and should — say whatever came to mind without forethought; that other people offered many, many different styles of greeting; and that the Yankee I married would even occasionally ask me to “talk Texan” … and she still does.

Here’s the surprising part of the story: I have a point to make. Yes! Even though it’s been buried, here it is. How you talk is often influenced by where you are, by the context of the communication, and that’s just fine.

Kids who are born and spend a few years in one part of the country and then move with their families to another will often become bi-dialectal. They’ll play with their new neighbors outdoors, speaking with the patois of those new friends, and revert to the dialect of their own family when they’re in the house.

I feel pretty confident that the same transformation can occur, will occur, in fact does occur with today’s young people as they move from technology-based talking to formal writing, from daily talk to giving a speech, and so on.

Many people lament the fact that kids use a “terrible” form of language when they utilize text messaging, instant messaging, tweets, email, etc. I don’t think we need to worry. I think that just as I went from Texan to other sounds in my daily speech, today’s technology-using young people will change as well. Just as little kids change their language from the playground to indoors with family, context will triumph over technology. (Or with it.)

Your young person might spend hours a day typing short, cryptic messages onto some electronic medium — a cell phone with texting, a computer … any of a slew of PDAs (personal digital assistants). You might wring your hands over messages filled with “brb,” “lmao,” “OMG,” “lulz” and countless other codes. I say relax.

Just because (or “b/c”) texters use abbreviations and other tech slang throughout those communications does not mean that they will use them in all other settings. It’s no different from using slang with friends but not when making a class presentation. They will know, or can be taught, how different contexts call for different language, different dialects.

I mentioned “tweeting” above. That’s the term for messages sent over Twitter, a program that lets you communicate in messages of 140 (or fewer) characters. Twitter often is disparaged because, for instance, “I don’t need to know every time you have a bagel.” In many ways that’s a shortsighted complaint, in that Twitter facilitates easy and quick communications that can be very useful – following breaking news, updating relatives on hospital situations, reporting things that matter to those who “follow” you.

And think about those parameters. Imagine what a good exercise it is to write something in 140 characters (including punctuation and spaces) max. I think it was Pascal who wrote: “I’m sorry for the long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

If you’re a teacher, you must like that kind of discipline for your students; it forces them to focus, to write with attention and precision. The preceding sentence is 141 characters. Can you effectively remove one character? Twitter people can, even the young ones. Let’s say hello to a new age of talking: Haddy.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sending thanks to sharp-eyed readers

When I signed on to write these columns, my wife said, “Do you have enough to write about?” I laughed, saying: “I have enough material to write several per day.” Get this: Today marks the beginning of this column’s 4th year, and one of the reasons it remains easy is that you, readers nonpareil, have an endless supply of topics that you ask me to address.

Without any contest, the # 1 complaint that prompts readers to write to me, and I do mean far and away the most deeply felt, the most complained about, the favorite by far (get the picture? this is the big enchilada) deals with the improper use of personal pronouns.

It is a widespread problem area, I’ll admit. Here’s an example, part of an eloquent email from Reader Page after the last presidential campaign: “I've noticed within the past few years that often pronouns are used incorrectly, especially in the objective case. Our own president-elect, whom I admire and support, erred in an instance during his first press conference after the election. Mr. Obama said that President Bush had ‘graciously invited Michelle and I’ to the White House.

“This is a case,” she goes on, “where folks will argue with you about ‘I or me,’ saying that their teachers and mothers insisted that they always say ‘So-and-so and I,’ regardless of case. I've heard lawyers do it, preachers do it, school principals do it, college professors do it, CEOs do it, your best friend does it and now, presidents-elect do it. I guess I'll forgive him, but we need to give him a bit of help in the good grammar department.”

I touched on the problem in the November 2007 column (, but even if we devoted every column to it, the misuse wouldn’t go away. In case you’re reading a print version of this column now, and can’t easily click on the link to the earlier column, here is a portion of what I proposed as a solution.

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.”

The reader complaint that probably comes in second — although it truly represents an infinitesimal fraction of letters compared to the first —deals with using apostrophes incorrectly to form plurals. We have covered that before, too, talking about dogs and cats versus dog’s and cat’s. I think it’s still a common complaint because the error’s easy to find. (Were you on heightened alert when you saw “error’s”? I wanted to stick in a contraction, where the apostrophe stands for the “i” in “error is,” to show an apostrophe in one of its legitimate uses.)

Here’s an example, this one from Reader Scott: “I went to the local cafe Monday and noticed that the menu featured white beans and pinto's. The lady manager stopped and asked if everything was OK. I couldn’t help it; I said: ‘I see you have added white beans and pintos to your menu.’ She said: ‘Honey, we’ve always had them.’ I said, ‘Oh look, there is an apostrophe after the word pinto.’ She blithely explained, ‘That's to take the place of the word beans.’

Scott adds that as he drove home, he glanced at a sign in front of his neighborhood Arby’s. The sign sported an arrow and said “Delivery’s.”

Reader Rusty emailed me this note: “Yes, that wandering apostrophe has landed in another strange place. A sign in North Asheboro offers Cash For Junk Car's.”

While we’re with Reader Rusty, let me give you one more he sent: “Don't want to be a pest, but just had to pass along this wonderful sign observed by my wife today at a store: No Credit Card Orders For Under $10 Excepted. We have no idea what this may mean.”

That’s a good one. My guess is that the policy calls for credit cards to be accepted only for orders of $10 or more. Say, for a big ole mess of pinto’s.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I’m gonna be sick

If I’m not very careful, this could become the most disgusting article ever to appear in this paper. Nay — in any daily newspaper. At least, I hope you agree with me that it’s disgusting. You might think I’m just out of touch.

Here’s the problem: Let’s call it, um, regurgitation. And I’m talking about in movies and on TV, not in real life. In real life, regurgitation is usually not an option. In movies and TV, it is always an option, and I think it’s an activity that need not be shown.

In the good old days, when hula hoops were new and hot dogs were a nickel, fictional characters did not regurgitate on screen. They seldom did it in novels, for that matter. Now it’s everywhere, almost every time we start a story.

Whether you think of it as tossing cookies, vomiting, hurling, ralphing, puking or throwing up, it is meant to provide a touch of shocking realism on screen. At least, I suppose that’s why it has become so ubiquitous — the people in charge think it will be grossly funny or realistically gripping. It’s not. It’s disgusting.

Even though I’ve included TV shows and novels in my whining here, it’s really movies that have become most saturated with it. (I must find different words … soon.) I can’t think of a movie that I’ve seen in the last several years that did not feature this abhorrent act, and usually it’s in the first half. “The Reader,” a wonderful recent film, features its young hero retching his guts out (sorry — violently regurgitating) almost before you have time to dive into your popcorn.

That, of course, brings us to another aspect of the complaint. It’s not easy to enjoy stuffing movie snacks into one’s mouth while watching this trend that I’m unhappily describing. Keep in mind that if you shell out wads of hard-earned money to see a movie in a theatre these days, the event, the activity, the tossing of cookies will be shown on a huge screen with surround-sound enveloping you — a presentation many times larger and louder than in real life. And, of course, the concession stand is now open.

Here’s a suggestion. The next time you watch a TV drama or any fairly recent movie (comedy or drama), pay attention to the phenomenon. See if it happens, and see if you think it was absolutely essential to the character or the plot development.

Seriously, how can it be essential? Unless the story concerns a plague that is identified by massive regurgitation, then we do not have to see it, hear it, be grossed out by it. Do we? The character could do it off camera and then tell someone that it happened.

I’m certain that it is simply a trend in modern movie making. There have been other trends, also designed to provide a shock, a jolt, of realism — profuse blood flow, slow-motion gunplay, head-butting. Of course, more mature (old) viewers have complained for decades (maybe forever) about sex and profane language in movies. Admittedly, the complaining has not decreased the incidence of those trends.

However, you do see what I mean about vomit being an option, right? Think of the most egregiously violent scenes in movies, such as the massive shootings of Bonnie and Clyde in their car and of Sonny Corleone at the toll booth; the fight scenes of Rocky and Rockys 2,3,4,5, etc.; the gunfights at all of the OK corrals. Those were crucial, pivotal, downright necessary to the telling. On the other hand, we can be told that someone has hepatitis or is drunk or has the flu or whatever other million things evidently make all actors regurgitate … can’t we?

Let’s all work together to aim for a Tell, Don’t Show policy. If you don’t agree with me yet, maybe now you’ll notice the trend and come to my side of the argument. I must admit that many people are fans of this thing I find so revolting. Fans, I tell you. But I’m optimistic that you’ll join my parade.

Once you do agree, once you are disgusted and insulted by the gratuitous displays, do this: Send an email to the production company of the offending movie or TV show. It’s easy — in that email, simply say “Please stop it,” and then link to this article you’re reading now. Simply paste this URL ( into your email.

Just think: Together we might be able to curtail this Linda Blair Pea Soup Phenomenon, this if-you-drink-you-must-puke mindset.

A Stephen King short story and then movie, Stand by Me, featured a whole crowd of people vomiting. Let’s turn the tide. Let’s collectively say, Don’t Stand Anywhere Near Me.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Drowning in language errors

Well (to quote the outrageous Little Richard), good golly Miss Molly, it seems that errors surround us.

You would expect that Barack Obama would merit more than his fair number of typos and other errors, given the vast amount of copy dedicated to him since he entered the race for president. You would be correct. Let’s look at two Obama-related grammar mistakes that have jumped into my brain in the last few months.

The first one came from the newspaper wire services: “Obama, wife Michelle and their two young daughters flew to Chicago … .” If you have read and memorized every one of these columns of mine (as you should have), you’d know right away that “wife Michelle” would be correct only if Mr. Obama had more than one wife. That is, you could correctly state that he went with his wife Michelle but his wife Heather did not join them … if he had wives named Michelle and Heather. Otherwise, it should read “Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters … .” The commas surrounding “Michelle” make the difference.

There is a daily news update emailed to subscribers from a local TV station, and I always enjoy reaching for a calculator to tally the egregious errors in that daily smile. During the campaign I noticed this in one of the TV news postings: “Obama have pulled ahead of McCain in the three states that have historically chosen the president.” You like that “Obama have”? I think it refers to Barack, Michelle and Heather.

In that very same e-news came this typo about a student with tuberculosis: “The student will the potentially fatal disease has alerted health officials and the community.” If you’re like me, you had to read that thing more than once to figure out that the author meant to describe the student “with,” not “will,” the disease.

Finally, on that same fateful day, the newsletter gave us this: “The Senate now has their turn to vote on the $700B bailout, but also plan to discuss raising the federal deposit insurance limits.” No matter what your position is on whether “The Senate” should be treated as plural or singular, our wonderful e-news did it wrong, at least in part. (Or, the TV people might contend, they did it right, at least in part. Nothing quite like a half-full glass.)

See, we have “The Senate now has.” There’s no question that “has” is singular. “The Senate now has their turn.” We all know that “their” is plural, so we have the collective Senate followed by a singular “has” and a plural “their.” You see? Singular and plural together. But we’re not done. Let me condense the sentence to get to the next problem: “The Senate now has … but also plan to discuss … .” So we have the combo of “The Senate has” with “The Senate plan.” Are you confused by this whole thing? Don’t blame me! (Blame the government.)

Even in People magazine you find uglies (language uglies, that is). The People people certainly have time and expertise to find and correct typographical errors, no? Try this, directly from People: “Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, who's wife Sunrise Coigney is expecting their third child, joke around … .” Of course you know that it should have been “whose” wife.

A recent photo caption for a wire-service story about the talented basketball-playing Curry brothers reads thus: “Stephen says the game’s traditional powers overlooked both he and Seth.” You know, certainly, the easy test to determine the right pronoun (overlooked “him”). Does everyone make mistakes? Certainly.

Mark Stencel is a prestigious editor and columnist in Washington, D.C., as well as a terrific writer with an astonishing resume. He told me that recently he was a panelist speaking about media careers to a group of journalism students at the University of Virginia. With his focus on online writing and editing, Mark emphasized that in today's world, many journalists are asked to blog frequently, so mastering the discipline and skills to edit one's own writing is critical.

Right after the discussion, Mark received a text message from an eagle-eyed reader, alerting him that in his latest blog posting, Mark had left out an important “r” when he wrote about "an Obama T-shirt."

See there — even with the best of us, shirt happens.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Words can be so darned funny

After my last column appeared, Reader Amanda said, “I have to give you the title.” What title, I dutifully asked. “My curmudgeon title. I think you’ve earned it.” What? Me? Oh — you mean my complaining just a little bit, here and there, about the occasional use of language that makes me want to scream. Oh, that.

Then Reader Cheryl hinted that the column was a little, um … I think “dense” was the word we agreed on. Any way you look at it, the result is that I might have complained a step too far for some readers. So today’s column will be — ta da! — filled only with smiles and laughs, just for you who want to see how language is still the cornerstone of our humor (unless there’s an available banana peel).

Most of these language laughs — none of them written by me — have been circulating electronically for quite a while, but I’m hoping that at least some of them are new to you.

Try these definitions, reflecting our current society. Cube Farm: An office filled with cubicles. Prairie Dogging: When someone yells or drops something loudly in a cube farm, and people’s heads pop up over the walls to see what’s going on. Ohnosecond: That minuscule fraction of time in which you realize that you’ve just made a BIG mistake (like after hitting “send” on an email by mistake). WOOFS: Well-Off Older Folks. Irritainment: Entertainment and media spectacles that are annoying but you find yourself unable to stop watching them.

Of course, words don’t have to be new to be amusing. Try these thoughts: In a democracy it’s your vote that counts; in feudalism, it’s your Count that votes. A chicken crossing the road: poultry in motion. With her marriage she got a new name and a dress. Local Area Network in Australia: The LAN down under. A boiled egg is hard to beat. He had a photographic memory that was never developed. Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end. When you’ve seen one shopping center you've seen a mall. When she saw her first strands of gray hair, she thought she’d dye.

Is this fun? Do you prefer it to my saying “Next time you hear someone say ‘Thanks for inviting my wife and I’ you need to yell STOP IT!”? In case you’re enjoying the humor, here are some more smiles, many of them attributed to George Carlin, some to be found on T-shirts, all using language for amusement: One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor. Atheism is a non-prophet organization. I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where’s the self-help section?” She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. If a deaf person swears, does his mother wash his hands with soap? If someone with multiple personalities threatens suicide, is it considered a hostage situation? Is there another word for synonym?

Where do forest rangers go to “get away from it all”? What should you do when you see an endangered animal eating an endangered plant? If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages? Would a fly without wings be called a walk? If a turtle doesn't have a shell, is he homeless or naked? If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent? One nice thing about egotists — they don't talk about other people. How is it possible to have a civil war? If one synchronized swimmer drowns, do the rest drown too? If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done? Why is there an expiration date on sour cream? (What happens after that date? Does it turn sweet?)

Finally, let’s look at some signs that the online community has made well known. Are they real? Who knows? They use language as the basis of their humor, so here we go.

In a podiatrist's office: Time Wounds All Heels
On a plumber's truck: We Repair What Your Husband Fixed
On a maternity room door: Push. Push. Push!
At an optometrist's office: If you don't see what you're looking for, you've come to the right place
At a propane filling station: Thank heaven for little grills
In a veterinarian's waiting room: Be back in 5 minutes. Sit! Stay!

There, that’s it for the laughing stuff — the next column will be All Curmudgeonly!