Thursday, July 31, 2008
Apparently, the new novel "The Rotters' Club" by Jonathan Coe contains just 13,955 words.
Oh, but all 13,955 of them form just one sentence. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/reports/archive/arts/sentence.shtml
I'm withholding judgment until my inner copy editor puts down her Uzi.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Experts have amassed a wealth of information on how to react in an earthquake. But, as is true in most fields of science, there remain hypotheses that cannot be verified due to the ethical problems of performing certain tests on human subjects.
For example, would a person react to temblors in a fundamentally different way if he were raised from infancy in an oversized maraca? Would it or would it not increase your chances of survival if, when the shaking started, you immediately took cover under the belly of Rush Limbaugh? Or would you be pummeled by a barrage of pills and/or curses against the liberals responsible for the quake?
The sad answer to these and many other questions is: We may never know.
But one such scenario -- previously thought untestable -- was indeed subjected to inadvertent empirical analysis during yesterday's 5.4 magnitude temblor. And I was the unwitting subject.
This fluke occurrence, which could never before be simulated for a human subject, answers at long last the age-old question: Should you or should you not attempt to eat a chicken wing during an earthquake?
The spontaneous experiment began at approximately 11:41:59 when, in a fifth-floor office in downtown Los Angeles, I lifted a cafeteria hot wing to my mouth. At approximately 11:42:00, a tremor rocked the building.
The following observations have been recorded for science.
* In a quake, chicken wings becoming highly elusive targets. A subject may try jerking her head back and forth in an attempt to capture her rapidly moving quarry. Yet these efforts will be for naught, as the hand holding the wing is likely moving at a speed unattainable by subject's open mouth.
* Interestingly, colleagues' yells of, "Earthquake! Earthquake!" do not immediately hinder the test subject's efforts. Attempting to eat the moving chicken wing proves sufficiently engrossing as to cause a delayed response, temporarily muting the noise associated with less-important matters such as building evacuation.
* Attempting to eat a chicken wing during a magnitude 5 or higher temblor can result in an effect similar to that seen in the 1980 documentary "Airplane" -- illustrating an experiment in which an airline passenger attempts to apply lipstick amid extreme turbulence -- except with blue cheese dressing instead of lipstick.
* Though a subject who maintains laser-like focus on a chicken wing during a life-threatening emergency may indeed possess certain academic skills, such as adeptness with language and grammar, such subjects are nonetheless not very smart.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I've been doing a lot of copy editing in the last year. It's satisfying work. The bad kind of satisfying. The drunk-on-self-righteousness kind of satisfying. The "this sentence is a pile of crap and I and only I can whip it into a work of art but not without first nursing some very unkind thoughts about the writer" kind of satisfying.
Okay, I'm being a little hard on myself. I'm not that big a jerk. But I do enjoy getting angry at clunky, fatty, inefficient sentences. I enjoy pummeling them into submission. I enjoy the little rush of outrage I get in the process.
Here's what I don't enjoy so much these days: Looking at my own writing.
Don't get me wrong. I can write some good sentences. Elegant and efficient. But I also excrete some colossal steamers. And it's making me mad.
Here's how thoughts come out of me.
When I consider whether it's important to write shortHere's how I want that to come out of me:
sentences I can't deny that, in more skillful hands, long sentences are, indeed,
often quite effective and, when used as a form of artistic license, can
serve as a form of Cormac McCarthy-esque poetry-as-power sort of device.
Yes, some long sentences kick ass.I suppose the good news is that I'm catching more problems in my own sentences. The bad news is that I don't want to catch them. I want to write sentences perfectly in the first damn place. I can only hope that, slowly, that's what I'm learning to do.
In the meantime, I should probably lighten up on the freelancers I edit who don't know a dangler from a dingleberry.
Nah. That's not gonna happen.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Yet upon closer inspection they revealed some interesting differences:
Friday, July 25, 2008
Recently, a New York Times editor named David Shipley rejected an opinion piece written by presidential candidate John McCain not long after running one by rival Barack Obama. A July 22 Los Angeles Times article asked why and then reported:
For a parallel piece to pass his muster, Shipley added, it "would have to
articulate, in concrete terms, how Sen. McCain defines victory in Iraq."
Normal people reading this may find their thoughts turning to issues of media bias and perceptions of media bias. Me, I'm stuck at: "Pass his muster"? What the hell is a muster and how do they know if Shipley really has one?
According to American Heritage and other dictionaries, muster is primarily a verb meaning "to call (troops) together, as for inspection" and variations also about calling things together or summoning (think "I mustered up the courage").
Muster does have a noun form that means, most often, a gathering -- usually of people.
So obviously, the well-known expression "pass muster" isn't literal. If so, it would mean to get something past a gathering of troops or other people. Clearly, "pass muster" is an idiom and a reference to the inspection of the troops that form into one of these muster things. And, yes, the dictionaries acknowledge the idiom.
Idiom. pass muster: To be judged as acceptable. -- American HeritageBut they don't mention any variation that uses a possessive determiner like "his." So "pass his muster" is not an idiom, nor is it completely logical as a straightforward construction.
Could you make a case for "pass his muster"? Probably. If you really wanted to. But if I were a copy editor in the Los Angeles Times editorial department and I had a muster, this usage would not have passed it.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Long Sentences I Like and Long Sentences I Don’t Like (Or “How Not to Read While Poolside in Vegas”)
I always have a hard time finding beach/poolside reads. Narrow indeed is the range of reading fare that mixes well with both the sound of techno music from a deejay somewhere off to your right and the smell of tequila from the fat guy to your left.
Such interferences compound another problem I have: copy editor’s disease – defined just now by me as the irksome tendency to focus not on words’ meaning but on their arrangement.
Usually, any time I’m off to tempt the melanoma gods, I have in tow a copy of the day’s newspaper and something in paperback. Sometimes, that paperback is a good book, sometimes it’s a bad book. Either way, it’s usually a bad choice for beach/poolside read – just as a newspaper is usually a bad choice, too.
For example, Tuesday I was poolside at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas with a copy of the Los Angeles Times and a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. They were the worst possible choices for someone struggling amid Vegas smells and sounds to score some textual escapism.
Not three minutes after picking up the Times, I stopped dead at this sentence.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday dismissed Iran’s response toThat’s a lot of tacked-on prepositional phrases ...
a proposed solution on Tehran’s nuclear program in Geneva over the weekend as
‘small talk’ meant to buy time.
to a proposed solution
on Tehran’s nuclear program
over the weekend
as small talk
... plus another tacked-on modifier ...
meant to buy time
I understand that, in news writing, it’s often necessary to cram several ideas into a sentence in order to assure they’re weighted properly. But still. Yuck.
I put down my newspaper. I picked up All the Pretty Horses. I came across this sentence.
At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only.
This is the kind of sentence that no high school composition teacher would tolerate. Yet, for me at least, it worked. And it was all the more brilliant for the fact that I didn’t completely understand it.
The sentence was a sort of stream-of-consciousness straying away from the cowboy who was the subject of the paragraph and off to a place just over the horizon where Indian lives and histories made an otherwise desolate land nothing short of mystical.
It worked for me. But confronted by someone who hated McCarthy’s sentence, I would be at a complete loss to defend it. Yes, its literary context gives it an unfair advantage over the article -- amounting to near carte blanch. But, to me, the success of this sentence is more about McCarthy’s ear and his ability to extract slavish compliance from every word he wields.
How to truly understand the difference? I don't know. But these are the kinds of questions that torment me every time I find myself armed with SPF 50 but not armed with a guilty-pleasure paperback a la The Da Vinci Code.
So, if anyone else out there is "special" enough to find such sentence comparisons interesting: Do try this at home, kids. Just don’t try it poolside in Vegas.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
I have to stop posting for a few days. I'll be back soon. But first ...
I've been doing more copy editing in the last year. As a result, my attention to words, sentences, and their meaning has improved. Basically, I get paid to stop and wonder: Did that sentence make sense? Was it clear? Did it do the best job possible of enlightening the reader?
I enjoy the work, but I'm just now beginning to realize the full value of keeping this particular mental muscle in shape.
A postcard I got in the mail yesterday served as an eye-opener. The postcard was from a bank with which I have a credit card account. I don't use this credit card anymore. The bank pissed me off two years ago when they sided against me in a charge dispute. (CompUSA had, without notifying me of their plans, erased my hard drive and then charged me $209 for the honor. The bank said that I failed to demonstrate that CompUSA's tech desk was staffed by primates.)
Because I don't use this credit card anymore, the bank's announcement probably would not have affected me. The problem was that, from their wording, I had no way of knowing:
At BankyBank (name changed to protect me from the dangers of announcing who I bank with), we're always looking for ways to enhance your BankyCard experience. That's why we're pleased to introduce a new feature for your credit account this fall. If you receive this offer, it means you can borrow at a lower APR than the standard purchase rate you pay on your credit accounts, with repayment in predictable monthly installments.
If you accept this new feature by using the check offer, your minimum monthly payment will increase by the monthly installment to which you agree. If you do not want to receive the offer for this new feature, please call the customer service number on the back of your card.
That's all it said. There was nothing else written on the postcard.
In other words: We're doing something to your account and we refuse to tell you what it is. Oh, and only people who wade through this nonsense will realize that silence equals consent.
I called the number of the back of my card. After wading through the computerized menu system, I got a woman on the phone. I told her the situation.
She asked, "What is the offer you're referring to?"
That's exactly the point, I said. I have no frickin' idea. When she finally figured it out, she started on a spiel about the benefits of this new feature. Not what the feature is, mind you -- just its pluses.
I cut her off. I'm quite sure, I said, that the feature has benefits. I just resent your company foisting it on me without a word about the potential costs or even a basic explanation of what the hell it is. I ended by issuing the clear instruction: Don't make any changes to my account.
She assured me that they would not alter my account in any way, however, it may take up to 30 days for them to make the change.
Friday, July 18, 2008
The other day in my column, I ran an interview with Grammar Girl, the queen of the grammar podcast and my new e-friend. Her real name is Mignon Fogarty and she has a new book out, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
The column was a Q&A with her, which I trimmed down to column length. Soon after, I got an e-mail from Fred in Southern California:
Your interview with Mignon Fogarty interested but puzzled me. I’m sure thatI wrote Fred back. But it didn’t occur to me until just now how two-faced I can be in situations like this. My column readers seem a very different set from the people who see my blog. The column appears in little community news sections that cover city hall votes and school plays. People who read it tend to be older and more traditional. People with names like Fred and Rose. You know -- people who scare me. So I tend to sugar-coat my responses: “Yes, traditionally you’re right. But authorities are loosening their standards on this stuff. Blah, blah …”
she must understand the principle of agreement of a pronoun with its antecedent;
yet, in response to your question “Do you get grief from grammar snobs?” she
responds, “…the more rude someone is, the more likely they are to be wrong”
[italics added]. Would it be rude of me to request a word of comment about her
The truth is, I believe that this rule is almost dead. The word “they” and its corresponding forms might not appear in the dictionary with the definition “he or she” yet. But I think they will soon. It has clearly become the most popular alternative to saying “he or she” in every sentence.
It’s a “skunked” usage right now: It’s in transition from being considered wrong to being considered right. Which means that lots of people who were taught it’s wrong will stand by that teaching. Understandably so.
Still, if anyone wants that rule to live forever, they are probably going to end up disappointed.
(Now I'm off to check whether I edited out of the Q&A any discussion of this what would have explained it before Fred fired up is computer! I'll probably run the full Q&A here soon, once the papers who carry my column have all had a chance to run it.)
Thursday, July 17, 2008
In her hilarious book, There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say, comedian Paula Poundstone talks about her aversion to computers. She doesn’t use them. She doesn’t trust them. And she’s not exactly convinced they’re a great thing for society.
Her Exhibit A: She once got an e-mail, printed out by her assistant, that contained just one line: “Is this really your e-mail?” Her closing argument: Nobody sent stuff like that back when doing so meant finding a stamp and licking an envelope.
I’m a member of the “loves computers” camp, but found myself tempted to switch sides yesterday after getting an e-mail from a reader of my weekly column.
The column, which runs in a handful of community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas, offers mini-grammar lessons. True, it isn’t exactly the dream of my early journalism career. Young reporters often start out vowing, “I’m going to be just like Woodward and Bernstein.” They never vow, “I’m going to be just like Funk and Wagnall.” Still, I have a few readers who enjoy it.
Apparently, I also have some readers who do not, as evidenced by yesterday’s e-mail. It came on the heels of a column I wrote about clauses (and which, apparently, one editor titled "Baring My Clause"). Here's the reader's e-mail, unedited.
"Baring my clause" Could not find in the dictionary the following words you used descriptor,nonetheless,subset. A strange article what meaning does it have? My conclusion,another modern day gumsnapper trying to be different,as in blog,reditt etc. You are a product of schools failing.
It ended there. The sender did not give a name.
For a moment, I was ready to join Poundstone’s camp. But just as I was about to drop my laptop out a two-story window, I had an idea. I went to Dictionary.com, entered a few terms, then began composing my reply.
My e-mail reply contained just four lines: a URL linking to the definition of “descriptor,” another linking to the definition of “nonetheless,” and another linking to the definition of “subset.” The fourth and final line was a link to my Dictionary.com search results for the word “gumsnapper”: a link that showed there's no such word.A pretty adept use of technology, I thought, for “a product of schools failing.”
Oh, and one more thing, Ms. Poundstone: The guy clearly wanted to remain anonymous. But he was unaware that his e-mail server wasn’t as shy. His name is Anthony Cibello.
That’s all for today. I’m taking my computer out for a romantic picnic followed by a few hours of passionate defragging. I love it that much.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
A recent comment by the Reverend Jesse Jackson regarding the reverend's desire to express dissatisfaction with presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama by severing certain of the senator's body parts has revealed the disturbing unreadiness of the nation's newspapers to deal with newsworthy vulgarities and issues of censorship.
For example, though the Los Angeles Times printed in full the reverend's comment, the New York Times euphemized the most anatomically illustrative and thus most objectionable portion of the comments. Papers in Kansas, I'm told, used no words at all and relied instead on crayon drawings depicting swords and figs. (Note: the accuracy of such accounts has not been verified.)
Clearly, our nation's newspapers find themselves at a critical point in history, facing the toughest question in their esteemed history: When, where, and in what context can one make reference to certain protein-rich kernels? Meetings in editorial boardrooms stretch into the wee hours as the nation's best news minds make keen observations such as, "... yet I'm very comfortable printing it when Rachael Ray says to put them in brownies."
This crisis threatens to grind our nation's newspapers to a halt. And I, for one, cannot just sit back and let that happen. So, in a patriotic and altruistic application of my language expertise as well as my experience as a newspaper editor, I have come up with a complex but foolproof formula for newspaper editors to discern the printability of any profanity.
I call it the Customary Usage Normalizing Test.
According to this system, all obscenities are assigned a number value based on their relative offensiveness. The higher the number, the less printable the word.
This variable, referred to as the Forensic Unambiguous Censorship Kurtosis, centers on two main variables:
Modifiers can increase a word's value -- a process referred to as Adjectival Shock Supremacy.
1. a word's definition as pertinent to bodily elimination functions
(Septic-Highlighting Ingestion Terminology), which carries a base value of 7
2. pertinence to reproductive functions (Total Wantonness Algorithmic Table), which gives a word a base value of 8
Like the values of the base words themselves, Adjectival Shock Supremacy is measured in terms of relevance to elimination (added value of 1) or reproduction (added value of 2).
For example, Webster's word for "a stupid or silly blunder," that is, "boner," does not carry any offensiveness points when used thusly. But a homonym with an anatomical connotation would have a value of 8. A modifier with reproductive connotations, e.g. "raging," would increase that value to 10. While a waste-elimination-connoting modifier, e.g. "pee," would bring our root word to a less-objectionable 9. Other modifiers commonly considered to imbue obscene impact include "stiff," "wet," "bouncy," "hairy," "sucker," and "engorged."
As it is true that words spoken by such influential people as the president carry greater news value and thus greater justification for reprinting potentially objectionable quotations, newspapers should subtract a value of 2 from these leaders' words. This is called the President/Regent/Imperialist/Commander/King quotient.
The final variable factors in the sensitivity of any publication's readership. Community papers with extensive coverage of school, church, and family activities, for example, would use a different formula to assess acceptability in their publications than a national newspaper of record. Thus, all papers can assess each word's acceptability based on a simple rating system called Publication User-Specific Sensitivity Yoke.
Thus, "cock" (+8) modified by "engorged" (+2) spoken by the president (-2) could be printed in the Los Angeles Times, because that publication carries a PUSSY rating of 9, but not in the New York Times which carries a PUSSY rating of 7.
I sincerely hope our nation's newspaper editors will adopt this system.
Monday, July 14, 2008
"supermarket" -- 44.7 million Google hits
"grocery store" -- 18.9 million Google hits
Sort of shoots my theory that people don't really use the word "supermarket" in their everyday lives. Must just be my little corner of the world.
This reminds me of the time two years ago when I was in the Minneapolis Public Radio studios to do an interview about Grammar Snobs -- an interview I was very grateful to get. The show host asked if I needed something to drink. Then she saw I was holding a soda and said: "Oh, you've got your pop."
She left the room and I marveled to the other woman there. "Pop. Pop. Hmm. Wow. Pop."
It was just idle word wondering, which I often do. I didn't realize it could have sounded like mockery until I heard a disembodied voice say, "Yeah, we say pop," then realized the host was right on the other side of the glass and I was sitting in front of a microphone.
Color me Jesse.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Saturday, July 12, 2008
I remember: I Can't Believe It's Not Butter
I don't remember: Being naive enough to believe it was butter
I remember: When David Lee Roth was hot
I don't remember: When Marlon Brando was hot
Friday, July 11, 2008
Generation X-Lax: How old am I? Gather 'round children and I'll dance around the question till my Buster Browns wheeze like an old jalopy
It’s official. I've gotten to the age where I don’t want say my age anymore. Okay, I’m lying. I crossed that line years ago. Now I’m at the age where I run every cultural reference I might utter through a “Will This Date Me?” filter and where every mention of AMC Gremlins and “The Bugaloos” risks baring my (well worn) bottom.
So I remind myself that old is relative and there’s no better way to put my wrinkles in perspective than to compare stuff I’m old enough to remember with stuff I’m too young to remember. So without further 23 skidoo, here’s my cleverly titled list of:
“Things I Remember and Things I Don’t Remember”
I remember: Jimmy Durante impressions
I don’t remember: Jimmy Durante
I remember: Coke spoons
I don’t remember: “Reefer Madness”
I remember: Girdles
I don’t remember: Petticoats
I remember: Richie Cunningham
I don’t remember: Opie Taylor
I remember: The cutest boy in the world, Donny Osmond.
I don’t remember: The cutest boy in the world, Rudolph Valentino.
I remember: Nixon’s assurance, “I am not a crook”
I don’t remember: Anyone believing him
I remember: Eight-track tapes
I don’t remember: Being able to endure “Ben” just to get past it on the track to hear “Dancin’ Machine”
I remember: Percolated Maxwell House
I don’t remember: Anyone liking percolated Maxwell House
I remember: Josie and the Pussycats
I don’t remember: Any other G-rated use of the word “pussy”
I remember: Eastern Airlines
I don’t remember: Anyone who answered to “stewardess” and said “Coffee, tea
I remember: AMC Pacers
I don’t remember: Anyone in the government saying, “Isn’t that a lot of glass to be encased in when you’re doing 50?”
I remember: Everyone wearing $5 Adidas T-shirts
I don’t remember: Anyone wearing $40 Adidas sneakers
I remember: Refundable 32-ounce glass soda bottles
I don’t remember: Refundable 32-ounce glass soda bottles without dead bugs in them
I remember: The evening newspaper
I don’t remember: Reading the evening newspaper
I remember: Looking forward to the day when I would grow up to be as beautiful as Cheryl Tiegs.
I don’t remember: Rhinoplasty
I remember: Free drinking water
I don’t remember: Drinking any water without first adding a whole cup of sugar and the form of FD&C red dye No. 5 marketed as Kool-Aid
I remember: Billy Beer
I don’t remember: Billy, with our without beer, coming within 100 miles of the Whitehouse
I remember: Hitchhikers
I don’t remember: Picking up hitchhikers
I remember: Jokes about Studebakers
I don’t remember: Studebakers
I remember: Sego brand low-calorie diet meal-replacement drink
I don’t remember: Drinking Sego without ice cream blended in
I remember: People with a strong work ethic
I don’t remember: Listening to the lectures of people with a strong work ethic
I remember: Junior high school
I don’t remember: June in high school
I remember: Bobby Vinton
I don’t remember: Why anyone watched Bobby Vinton
I remember: E-ticket rides at Disney World
I don’t remember: Ever having enough E-tickets
I remember: “Well-marbled” steaks
I don’t remember: 76-year life expectancies
I remember: Jordache
I don’t remember: The mirror ever confirming that I had acquired the “Jordache Look”
I remember: Harvey’s Bristol Crème
I don’t remember: Keeping down Harvey’s Bristol Crème
I remember: The Yugo
I don’t remember: Dating anyone who drove a Yugo
I remember: Milli
I don’t remember: How or why I blocked out Vanilli
I remember: Sonny Bono the hippie
I’d rather not remember: Sonny Bono the Republican congressman
Thursday, July 10, 2008
E-mails I get about my columns and books are frequently laden with apologies, disclaimers, and self-deprecating remarks about the sender's grammar. Stuff like: "I'm sure I'm making a ton of grammar mistakes in this message." That's a shame, because the grammar in those e-mails is usually fine.
But there is one mistake that crops up in them a lot. These people often put periods and commas outside of quotation marks.
When he said, "Make my day", Eastwood became legend.This is how they do it in Great Britain. But it's an error here in the U.S.
The rule here is that commas and periods always go inside quotation marks. Colons and semicolons always go outside. Question marks and exclamation points can go either way, depending on whether they pertain to the quoted matter or to the whole sentence. So it's:
Did you hear the policeman yell "Stop"? (Whole sentence is a question, quoted matter is not.)Strangely, e-mails from people other than readers -- ones from friends and even forwarded messages originated by complete strangers -- do not seem as prone to this mistake. Perhaps it's because people writing to me about grammar and usage are more likely to include quotations. But it's also possible that it's a product of self-consciousness -- at least partly.
I heard Jane ask, "Why won't you stop?" (Question falls within the sentence.)
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Can you say "You did it good" to mean "You did it well"? Yup.
Webster's New World lists good as an adverb. A synonym for well.
American Heritage does too, but clearly labels it "informal."
Merriam-Webster allows it, too, but includes the note:
Adverbial good has been under attack from the schoolroom since the 19th century. Insistence on well rather than good has resulted in a split in connotation: well is standard, neutral, and colorless, while good is emotionally charged and emphatic. This makes good the adverb of choice in sports <“I'm seeing the ball real good” is what you hear — Roger Angell>. In such contexts asI'm not sure I buy that business about a split connotation. But I like that they included a note of caution. Personally, I'll take this word of caution to heart. People tend to rough me up when I use adjective-sounding words as adverbs. But it's good to know I have a solid defense if I slip up.
good cannot be adequately replaced by well. Adverbial good is primarily a spoken form; in writing it occurs in reported and fictional speech and in generally familiar or informal contexts..
Thanks to Dennis Shay over at RedRoom.com for the suggestion!
Monday, July 7, 2008
Webster's New World College Dictionary does not contain the word "McJob." American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language's fourth edition doesn't have it, either. Merriam-Webster does.
Webster's New World does not contain the term "air quotes." American Heritage doesn't have "air quotes." Merriam-Webster does.
Webster's New World does not list "dead presidents" as a synonym for money. American Heritage doesn't, either. Merriam-Webster does.
Webster's New World does not list "accidently" as an alternate spelling of "accidentally." American Heritage does, which surprises me. But Merriam-Webster's choice to report this spelling does not.
Webster's New World doesn't list "Frankenfood." Neither does American Heritage. Merriam-Webster does.
In the introduction to his 2005 Dictionary of Disagreeable English, "grumbling grammarian" Robert Hartwell Fiske examines Merriam-Webster's judgment, as reflected in its 11th collegiate edition, to make two points: 1. that dictionaries need to be more prescriptivist and less descriptivist, and 2. that Merriam-Webster are attention whores.
His first point is hogwash. But his second point is dead on.
Fiske and I would not hit it off at a cocktail party. Fiske hates language liberals, of which I'm one. But my liberalism has its limits. There's a difference between free love and prostitution. And Merriam-Webster's ability to make the NBC Nightly News website has "toot toot, hey, beep beep" written all over it.
I don't have in hand a copy of whatever press release Merriam might have used to score this segment on the home page of a nationally respected news program. But based on my experience receiving and sending press releases, I'd bet dollars to donuts that it touted some of Merriam's quirky, "fun," headline-grabbing new additions.
Fiske says of Merriam-Webster's approach: "It's a marketing strategy. It's not lexicography." I agree. A lot of people might ask, "What's wrong with that?" I have an answer.
Imagine you're the sweet, slightly mousy wallflower who has decided to try speed dating amid friends' assurances of, "Just be yourself. Guys will see how great you are." And imagine you get there and see that one of the other women is wearing a soaking-wet cropped T-shirt and starting every conversation by singing a few bars of "Do You Think I'm a Nasty Girl?"
You may not try speed dating again, but if you did, you'd definitely slap on some mascara first.
When dictionary-making takes its marketing strategy to Girls Gone Wild extremes, they lower the bar for all dictionaries.
Yes, dictionaries should be descriptivist. They should document how people use the language. But at the same time they must bear in mind the responsibility that comes with the job. Once they "document" a usage, they have, inadvertently or not, sanctioned it.
This is a responsibility that, before we reached the apex of our our cola-wars culture, they handled quite well. But with Merriam-Webster setting the terms of the competition, that may not be the case much longer.
Merriam-Webster seems to operate on a, "Hey, we're just reporting it, we're not saying it's right" philosophy. But they know perfectly well that, inadvertently, they are saying it's right. They should stop cheating and get back in the ring with the serious lexicographers who compete for our dollars by aspiring to quality through editorial and academic integrity.
dis — I realize this word isn’t silly for everyone, but when it’s coming out of a 40ish white woman — well, let’s just say it gets people primed for my crunk routine. I use this word so much that the copy editors at Penguin actually included it in the little style guide they made to edit my books.
schmutz — What else could you possibly have on your chin after eating the artichoke and spinach dip?
dude — I don't like it either. But this is California. It's the law.
bubkes — A word no comedy-minded nihilist can do without.
noggin — Someday, respectable folks will take back the word "head." But until then ...
Thursday, July 3, 2008
pronunciation: noo-kle er, nyoo
-- Webster's New World College Dictionary
I was curious to see whether the dictionary sanctioned the pronunciation "nu-CU-lar." It does not. Though I have read some interesting explanations as to why the president and others pronounce it that way, including this 2002 article in Slate.
Understandable, perhaps. But at least Webster's still supports my skin's decision to crawl every time I hear this.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Anyone who found yesterday's post intimidating will find today's particularly interesting.
It has to do with the following question: In the sentence, "Preparations were underway," is "underway" an adverb or an adjective?
After checking two different dictionaries, I actually had a worse grasp on the matter than I had before I started. One dictionary seemed to assert that the job being performed is that of an adverb. Another seemed to suggest it was an adjective.
So I sought out the help of an expert and came to a truly surprising conclusion: Nobody knows. Not even the damn dictionaries. I kid you not. I wrote to Geoffrey Pullum, a professorly linguistical guy and one of the head heads over at LanguageLog.com:
Unless my brain is broken (which is quite possible), Webster's New World and Merriam Webster can't decide whether "underway"/"under way" can be an adverb. ... Am I a dink?Pullum's answer: Even the dictionary makers don't know. People would actually have to research how people use the term in order to figure out whether it really qualifies as an adverb or an adjective. But he puts it better:
Webster's seems to treat "under way" as an idiomatic preposition phrase, and "underway"(as in "The ship is now underway") as an adjective. Dictionaries are very bad at diagnosing adjectivehood and adverbhood in general; there are good reasons for being suspicious about whether they have it right. Investigation would be needed to figure out whether people are using "underway" adverbially now.Check that out: "Investigation would be needed."
I hope that anyone who was a little overwhelmed by yesterday's post finds great comfort in that. I, for one, will continue flying high on my favorite of Pullum's comments:
You are not a dink. Whatever that is.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists only the one-word version and lists it only as an adjective. So it seems they're saying that underway can’t be used as an adverb and under way doesn’t exist.
Does this mean that Webster’s New World and Merriam-Webster disagree on whether it’s an adjective or adverb in “preparations were underway”?
Remember that, among their other jobs, adverbs answer the questions “when?” “where?” and “how?” So in “Finals were yesterday,” the word “yesterday” is an adverb. Merriam-Webster seems to think that the setup “preparations were …” calls for an adverb. Webster’s New World may be suggesting that it’s really an adjective.
Remember that adjectives can also go after (be complements of) the words they modify. That is, “tall” is an adjective in “the tall man” and in “the man is tall.” So is that what Webster’s New World is thinking?
We may never know.
Here’s some good news: American Heritage allows both forms – under way and underway – as both adjective and adverb. It prefers the two-word form, by the way. But, either way, if you now find yourself more confused than you were before you started reading (as I know I am), at least know that American Heritage will back you up no matter which form you use or how you use it.