Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


On the radio today, I heard something like, "Kids should bring two pair of shoes."

I've always heard "pair" used as the plural -- interchangeable with "pairs." So I figured it was okay. (Personally, I hate it. But that's just my prejudice and one I wouldn't try to foist on anyone else.)

Today I finally looked it up.

Webster's New World College Dictionary permits either "pairs" or "pair" as the plural, but prefers "pairs." American Heritage Dictionary, remarkably, lists "pair" as its first preference, but also allows both.

As for other usage questions, including whether to choose "the pair is" over "the pair are," American Heritage adds:
The noun pair can be followed by a singular or plural verb. The
singular is always used when pair denotes the set taken as a single
entity: This pair of shoes is on sale. A plural verb is used when the
members are considered as individuals:
The pair are working more
harmoniously now.
After a number other than one, pair itself can
be either singular or plural, but the plural is now more common: She bought six
pairs (or pair) of stockings.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Book Promotion and the Protestant Work Ethic

I’m old enough to remember the existence of people who believed in good, honest, hard work. I’m not one of them. But I can attest to the fact that, for the first part of my life, these types did indeed roam the planet. They would complain about kids these days. They’d use phrases like “the value of a buck” and talk about things that “build character.”

From what I could glean, such things all had to do with either getting shot at on a battlefield, sweating in a coal mine, or saving up for six months to buy one Sunday dress. And because such values were a direct threat to my desire to watch “Josie and the Pussycats” while fishing through my Cap’n Crunch box for a “real” gold doubloon, I tried to tune these people out.

Yet, somewhere between the Yabbadabbadoos and Hey, Kool-Aids, a few of their words must have sunk in. Their influence crops up in my attitude toward book promotion in general and “stock signings” in particular.

Stock signings are to book promotion what stuffing those little 3-oz. bottles into a Ziploc bag are to a Hawaiian vacation -- irksome, unglamorous, and seemingly pointless, but probably a good idea nonetheless.

Stock signing refers to the process of going to a book store -- preferably one you’ve called first -- to sign copies of your book. Hopefully, this will also include a little positive face time with a book store employee, one of those little “autographed by author” stickers on the front cover, and maybe even face-first placement on an eye-level shelf instead of spine-first placement on toe-level shelf, which is how you found your book when you got there.

Bookstore employees often think you’re nuts if you show up knowing in advance they only have “a couple of copies.” (Translation: Their computer says they have two but, search the store over, and you only find one. Translation of translation: Once that copy sells, there will be none left on the shelf. Yet the store's computer will say there is one -- one that’s been sitting there unloved and unwanted for months on end. So there’s no reason to order more. Ever.)

Tell a bookstore employee that you drove to the Grove shopping center in the middle of gridlocked Los Angeles from your home 20-odd miles away in Pasadena, and she’ll think you’re nuts for bothering to sign just one book. Still, this is the good, honest, hard work of the book-promoting business -- the shut-up-and-just-show-up legwork I’m convinced must have some value beyond the 85-cent royalty that will be credited toward my advance when that one signed copy (probably) sells.

That’s why I didn’t mention to the woman on the phone just how far I would be driving to sign those two copies burning up the shelf at her Grove Barnes & Noble. I just thanked her for her help, told her I’d come in that afternoon, and got in the car.

But it was in the car on my way to the bookstore that I realized that my approach -- and all the “hard-work-builds-character” types who inspired it -- are dead.

There was news talk show on the radio. A call-in show. The topic was air fares, and the caller (just a listener who called in, mind you) did indeed manage to stay on this subject for a full 15 seconds before creating a segue from jet fuel costs to a mention of his new book, “How to Spend Less Money on Gas for Your Car.” (Not the real title. I don’t remember the real title, and, if I did, I wouldn’t write it here.)

Cost of phone call: free. Sounding like a sleazebag on your local NPR affiliate: priceless.

And with that, I must sign off for the day. I’m off to New York, where I plan to spike the water cooler at the Comedy Central studios so that Stephen Colbert will pass out long enough for me to tattoo one of my book titles on his forehead. Clearly, it’s the only way I’ll ever be able to afford a new Sunday dress.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Words I Hate Today But Reserve the Right to Change My Mind About Tomorrow


Over the last two years, I’ve been lucky enough to be interviewed on perhaps three or four dozen radio shows. During these interviews, a lot of the same questions crop up – stuff like “Are you bothered by ‘between you and I’?” (Yes.) And, “Is it wrong to say, ‘try and’?” (It should probably be avoided.)

But only one question is guaranteed to come up every time. It’s the one that precedes the formal interview: “How do you pronounce your name? Is it CAAH-sa-GRAHN-day or CASS-a-GRAN-day?”

In other words: Should we pronounce the A sounds as we would in Spanish or Italian, or should we anglicize them? Both are correct, obviously, but I opt for the latter pronunciation. When saying my own name, a Latin A sounds downright pretentious. The anglicized Cassagranday sounds to me more relaxed and less affected.

It’s the same reason I don’t roll my Rs when I order a burrito or belly up to the barista at my local Starbucks to order a “cwoissan.”

The way I deal with foreign/adopted words is: If there’s an accepted American pronunciation, such as “cRoissant,” I use it. For less common words, I try to observe true-to-their-mother-tongue pronunciations only to the extent they can be spoken in an American accent.

I happen to know the correct pronunciations of “Al Qaeda” (the Q part, anyway) and Kadafi. But they both involve consonant sounds that don’t exist in English. So I pronounce both Qaeda and Kadafi as if they started with a K sound, and thereby eliminate the danger that someone will try to perform the Heimlich maneuver on me.

Foreign words in English are wonderful when we can reach a sort of harmony with them. But “haute,” to me, just doesn’t sit right on an American tongue.

Don’t construe this as anti-French sentiment. I love French. In fact, French class is where I first discovered my passion for English grammar. So my dislike of “haute” is in no way a lack of appreciation for the French language.

Say “haute couture” with a French accent and it sounds nice. Say it with an American accent and it sounds not just silly but self-conscious. Compare this to, say, “aujourdhui” – pure music in a French accent and good clean fun in an American accent as well. But “haute” is another beast.

I suspect I'm not alone. This would explain why why, though I often see “haute” in print, I almost never hear it spoken. Most telling of all, this may be why the how-to-pronounce-it recordings of two major dictionaries disagree.

Click the little sound symbol on Dictionary.com’s pronunciation for “haute” and you’ll hear “ought.” Click on the entry below, the one authored by the American Heritage Dictionary, and you’ll hear a slightly fancified version of the word “oat.”

And that, to me, is why we haute to find a replacement for this word.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


The guy is talking about architecture. And, as a docent at the Gamble House in Pasadena, he knows quite a bit about the subject. It’s clear I could learn a great deal from him if only I could maintain focus. But I can’t, because this docent has just used the word “spline” and I am one of those people for whom a bizarre fixation on words paralyzes other areas of my brain to create a sort of subject-specific mental retardation.

So as our docent continues to share fascinating and downright impressive insights about architecture, a voice in my head is saying. “Spline, spline, bobine, bananafanabospline. Where’s the spline? What’s this spline? Whence came this word 'spline' and am I the only one in this tour group who thinks that it just might have too many consonants?”

Fast forward just 22 hours, and I’m at my local hardware mega-retailer buying materials to make a window screen. 3x5 piece of aluminum screen: check. Two 8-foot pieces of cuttable window frame: check. Gray rubber spline: what?

And that’s enough spline-endipity to persuade me to actually look it up.

spline. n.
1. Any of a series of projections on a shaft that fit into slots on a corresponding shaft, enabling both to rotate together.
2. The groove or slot for such a projection.
3. A flexible piece of wood, hard rubber, or metal used in drawing curves.
4. A wooden or metal strip; a slat.

So the good news is I have a new word and a new window screen. The bad news, of course, is that I still don’t know jack about architecture.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Dangler du Jour

“With an all-new cast, set and score, fans will fall in love with ‘Phantom’ all
over again.”

Changed to:
“With an all-new cast, set and score, ‘Phantom’ will have fans falling in love
all over again."

(Names and details changed to protect the innocent -- i.e. me.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An Analogy That's Like Oleo

When SNL character Linda Richman liked something, she said it was “like butter.” It was an analogy anyone could grasp. It could mean something was smooth, rich, luxurious, satisfying, or indulgent. Butter’s butteriness is universally understood.

I was thinking about this the other day when I heard on the radio that something ran “like clockwork.” This expression is so clichéd that its fatigue is actually contagious. It puts our brains to sleep. How else can you explain the fact that people continue to use the expression long after a day when people might have had much firsthand experience with the stuff actually called “clockwork”?

According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, clockwork is defined as:

1. the mechanism of a clock; 2. any similar mechanism, consisting of springs and
geared wheels, as in some mechanical toys

Really, how close a relationship do we have with this word? How often do we get a chance to use it outside the above-referenced cliché? “I overslept because the Sanyo on my nightstand isn’t working. So I’m going to open it up and look at the clockwork.” Add to that the proliferation of digital clocks and suddenly the word “clockwork” is about as meaningful to most Americans as references to the choke levers on cars.

An analogy is supposed to shed light on one thing by comparing it to a second, familiar thing. Yet when I say that planes run like clockwork, I’m actually trying to shed light on something you know well by comparing it something you don’t really know at all.

That’s just weird.

Weirder yet, that’s the kind of stuff that occupies my mind for more hours than I care to admit.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Satisfying Moments in Copy Editing -- One in an occasional series on writing errors I’m surprised I caught

The sentence*:
“With recent trends in fashion and the new color palettes, many women are
adapting a new attitude toward cosmetics.”

The catch:

changed "adapting" to "adopting."

* Sentence modified to protect the author and my job.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

We Are Not Enthused

This post was inspired by a woman who writes for one of the publications I copy edit. She’s a good writer. I like her writing. So it is with some hesitation that confess that I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until her eyebrows are on the back of her head.

You see, right in the middle of a perfectly good article, she inserted something like this:

“It’s a great place to visit,” Jones enthused.

She does this a lot. So my gag reflex was toned enough to be under control. But then, a few paragraphs later, she wrote something like:

“The clams casino are wonderful,” Wilson enthused.
That’s right, both Jones and Wilson are caught in the act of “enthusing” – in the same article even.

So, with this added strain on my gag reflex, you’ll see it was a miracle that I didn’t blow chunks when, two paragraphs later, I came across something like:

“We love the beach here,” Thompson enthused.
There are really three issues here:
1. whether “enthuse” can be used as a verb
2. whether it can be used as a verb in the way our writer friend used it
3. whether any jury in the country will prosecute me when the learn the circumstances contributing to my inevitable crime

The cut-to-the-chase answers:
1. Yes
2. No
3. No

The editorialized answers:

1. “Can” and “should” are two different things. Just because you can eat earthworms doesn’t mean you should. And since the verb “enthused” is even more nauseating than earthworms a l’orange, I suggest you avoid it entirely.
2. See below.
3. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m no hero. I only did what any of you would have done in my shoes. But I do gratefully accept this plaque and your heartfelt applause.

The American Heritage Dictionary reluctantly* defines the verb enthuse as follows. As an intransitive verb, it means “to show or express enthusiasm.” An example from dictionary.com: “All the neighbors enthused over the new baby.” As a transitive verb, it means “to cause to become enthusiastic.” Think “His praise really enthused me,” or, in passive construction, “I was really enthused by his praise."

Note that the definition “to express enthusiasm” is not for transitive use. You can enthuse, you can enthuse over something, but you cannot enthuse something.

Compare this to “say,” whose transitive form allows you to give the verb an object like “it” in: “Jones said it.” Jones can enthuse, but he can’t enthuse it.

I suppose that, if I weren’t quite so disgusted, I would allow that quotation attributions don’t necessarily need to be transitive verbs. “‘Earthworms are overpriced,’ Jones fumed.” But that would be stretching it, to say the least. The truth is that attributed quotations are usually presumed to be simple subject-verb-object constructions, even if inverted.

John said, “hi.”
“Hi,” John said.

The bottom line: No matter how you spew it, “enthuse” is just plain icky. But don't take my word for it:
* The verb enthuse is not well accepted. Its use in the sentence ‘The majority
leader enthused over his party's gains’ was rejected by 76 percent of the Usage
Panel in the late 1960s, and its status remains unfavorable: the same sentence
was rejected by 65 percent of the Usage Panel in 1997. This lack of enthusiasm
for enthuse is often attributed to its status as a back-formation; such words
often meet with disapproval on their first appearance and only gradually become
accepted over time. – American Heritage Dictionary

Monday, May 5, 2008

"Than Me"-anies

It was weeks ago, but I still can't get over it: A Pasadena Star-News reporter was on the phone, interviewing me about the new book. It was a very casual conversation in which we talked about my hobbies, my TV viewing habits, and my cats. When the subject turned to grammar, she asked: "Are your friends afraid to talk around you?" That is, are they worried I'll notice their every little grammar mistake? My answer: "My friends don't give a damn what I think. They're all smarter than me, anyway."

I didn't really expect that to end up in the paper. But it did. And that's fine. But then came the fallout.

The next day, the reporter forwarded to me four e-mails from readers who were appalled and infuriated that I said "than me" instead of "than I."

From the perspective of strict, traditional grammar, they were right. "Than" is considered mainly a conjunction. Conjunctions like "than" introduce whole clauses, which include a subject and a verb. When one of those elements is missing, it's presumed to be implied: "than I" is, we know by grammatical inference, a clipped way of saying "than I am."

This is different from prepositions, which take objects (which come in object form). The preposition "to" takes an object -- the "him" in "tell it to him."

That's all well and good if the year is 1958 and you happen to be sitting in Mrs. Snipewell's English class. But this is 2008, I just used the word "damn," and the newspaper printed it.

I suspect that people like this don't really care about grammar, they just want to police others' speech. And that gives the whole grammar game a bad name. I like grammar, but I like it because, to me, it's a different animal. It's academic, it's a study in mechanics, it's liberating, and, I believe, it's truly interesting.

I sometimes suspect that the pedants just don't get the science of grammar, much less the art.

They don’t even have much respect for the rules. Many rule-makers now saw say that, while, yes, “than” is traditionally a conjunction that should be followed by a subject pronoun, it is often permissible or even preferable to use object form in casual speech and writing. Among those experts is William Safire. Among the writers cited as supporting the object form is Shakespeare.

So it was that much more amusing to me when, a few days later, I was doing a reading and signing at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena. Afterward, a bookstore employee came up to me. She had a message for me. It was from a woman who had called the store specifically to leave me the message.

“Let me guess,” I told the bookstore employee, “it’s about my saying ‘than me’ in the newspaper.”

“Yes,” the employee said, smiling. “I asked the woman if she wanted to leave her name. But she said, ‘NO!’”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

If You Were to Care ...

I usually don't like to get school-marmy here (a task best achieved with made-up words like "school marmy"), but since I recently posted some info for someone else, I thought I'd post it here, too.

The person had asked whether it's "If i were taller, I'd be better at basketball" or "If I was taller ..."

The issue is called the subjunctive, and I posted an informal little primer here. Here's the spoiler: choose "were."


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