Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reader News

Since I began blogging, I've come to appreciate how difficult it is to attract readers and earn their attention. Anyway, Deb, one of the readers I've been lucky enough to have at this blog, has just achieved a downright impressive accomplishment, so I wanted to share.

Deb, who is Deborah Diesen, has a children's picture book, "The Pout-Pout Fish," and it just made the NY Times picture book best seller list:

Congratulations, Deb!

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Friday, August 29, 2008

One That Almost Got Away (A copy editing tale)

Came across this sentence in a story I was editing. It was a quotation.

"Separating out the variables quickly clarifies to job hunters concerned about earning power [and] which fields pay most."

It contains a mistake that got past a wire editor, then a section editor. It got past me. It got printed on a proof page. Then I looked at it on paper and that's when I finally saw the mistake.

Breaking down the sentence:

Subject: separating out the variables
Verb: clarifies
Prepositional phrase: to job hunters concerned about earning power
Object of verb: which fields pay most

The writer inserted "and" because she thought that "which fields pay most" was part of the prepositional phrase — something job hunters are concerned about. Seeing it on paper and without the benefit of hearing the speaker's intonations, she didn't see that the speaker meant it as the object of the verb. The speaker meant that the act of separating "clarifies which fields pay most."

The mistake is the inserted "and."

The long prepositional phrase inserted after "clarifies" threw the writer and me and at least two other editors. So it just goes to show you ...

Well, I don't know what it goes to show you. But, whatever it is, I hope it made reading this worth your time.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Words influence people. Not us. Other people.

No one is affected by advertising. No one. Just walk up to anyone in the street and ask ’em:

You: See that Coca-Cola billboard right there? Does that make you more
inclined to buy Coke?

Random Stranger: No.

You: But what about the pretty girl in the billboard? Surely her wholesome, toothy smile is
giving you a warm fuzzy feeling that’s making you thirsty.

Random Stranger: Not at all. Advertising doesn’t affect me.

You: But it says right there, ‘Have a Coke and a smile.’ How can you resist such a persuasive imperative?

Random Stranger: I suppose I’m just smarter and stronger willed and more
independent and more savvy than everyone else in the country.

You: I see. Say, what about that 976-SLE-Z-GIRLS billboard over there? That one have any effect?

Random Stranger: (Grabbing pen and writing down number on own forearm.) None in the slightest.

I’ve always been baffled by advertising. Especially the mathematics of it. I remember being a little kid – old enough to know that TV commercials cost big money – and being unable reconcile the numbers.

I asked my mom something like: “So people see a commercial that says Windex is new and improved and millions run out and buy it and that more than makes up for the cost of the commercial? That many people who weren’t going to buy Windex go and buy it because it’s supposed to be a little better?” (Mom: "Go play in traffic under that Coca-Cola billboard.")

Then, sometime after, I started to think about all the advertising to sell advertising -- the television spots trying to get you to watch television shows, the billboards trying to get you to listen to radio programs. It’s like a pyramid:

  1. One hundred thousand motorists see a billboard for the KWZZ “Morning Zoo”
  2. For a fraction of them, one in sayten (a number I just made up because I have no idea what the real number is), the billboard is just what they needed to nudge them over the edge of deciding to listen to the radio station.
  3. Of those one in sayten, one in sayten hear a commercial for Hennessy’s.
  4. Of those, one in sayten run out and buy Hennessy’s.
  5. That’s about a hundred bottles of Hennessy’s, which, after manufacturing, distribution, overhead, lawyers, and advertising costs, Hennessy’s makes saytwo bucks a bottle (total $200).
  6. One in sayten of these dollars go to KWZZ (total $20).
  7. One in sayten of those dollars go to the billboard company ($2).

Yeah, yeah, I know: Those ad dollars also buy brand recognition, which has greater, longer-lasting value. And, yeah, yeah, I know: Clearly my math and logic demonstrate that I don’t know jack about how it really works. And, yeah, yeah, I know that if it didn’t work, nobody would do it. Still, I can’t wrap my head around it.

And if you think that’s stupid of me, consider this: Advertising has been my sole means of support for about ten of the last twelve years (much of which I spent working at newspapers). Advertising bought our house. My husband’s in the business, too – the most mathematically unlikely aspect of it. He’s an editor for a company that makes TV promos. Here’s his most famous:

(I’m very proud! A shorter version ran during the Super Bowl two years ago, and he won an award for it.)

Anyway, the reason all this advertising stuff is on my unable-to-grasp-it, bite-the-hand-that-feeds-me mind has to do with the presidential campaign and the convention. Specifically, I’m flabbergasted by the nature of punditry. We watch a convention speech and then the pundits “analyze” the speech and then we go to our little jobs and where we offer to co-workers our own brilliant analysis the speech and how it will affect others.

But none of us are affected ourselves.

We’re all above it. Too smart. We sit in judgment, but we’re above being judged. We analyze, but we’re too clever to be the subject of another’s analysis. It’s downright freaky.

Somewhere out there is person who saw an ad for “new and improved” Windex and immediately ran out to buy some, burning rubber and exceeding the speed limit and endangering countless squirrels and pedestrians in his red-hot haste to get his hands on this amazing new product.

Still, it’s smarter than listening to Joe Scarborough.

(Unrelated note: I chose to treat “one in ten” and some instances of “none” as plurals. It was a choice, not a boo-boo. So don’t yell at me. Have a Coke and a smile instead. Or, if you really think I deserve to be yelled out, go to Scarborough country.)

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dangler, Cliche du Jour

Dangler* du Jour: "Themed 'Where the Wild Things Are,' kids can have fun in this interactive animal exhibit."

Better: "Themed 'Where the Wild Things Are,' this interactive animal exhibit is a fun place for kids."

Cliche du Jour: "She's like a bad boomerang. She just keeps coming back."


No, that white space isn't a mistake.

(*Procured while copy editing. As always, the actual words are changed to protect the innocent. As always, "the innocent" means me.)

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

I hate grammar = 4,640 hits

I love grammar = 7,770 hits

I hate grammer = 909 hits

I love grammer = 263 hits

I love grammer -kelsey = 248 hits

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Saturday, August 23, 2008


Yesterday, I began reading a book by the celebrated linguist Steven Pinker. I wanted to be him, or something like him. A brilliant scholar. A Harvard heavyweight. I felt the need to scramble to catch up. Maybe … just maybe.

The day before yesterday, I was reading Cormac McCarthy. I wanted to be him, or something like him. How much writing do you have to do before you can make words dance for you like that? Is there still time for me to catch up? I hoped so.

The day before that, I read a little about Simpsons show runner Al Jean. Man, do I want to be him or something like him. I won quarterfinalist in a script-writing contest some years ago with my Simpsons spec script. Who am I kidding? That’s a crazy-tough business and you have to get in young. Still …

In late June, I performed standup comedy as an opening act for Paula Poundstone. It was a lifelong dream. Back in college I once vowed I would take a stab at a local open mike night someone had told me about. I never followed through. Poundstone’s had some troubles I wouldn’t wish on anyone. No rational person would ever want to be her. Still, watching some old clips on YouTube, I couldn’t help but wonder.

A few weeks ago, I saw some old photos of Brigitte Bardot. Man, do I want to be a once-upon-a-time her. I know she didn’t turn out too glamorous. But the longing affixed to a 1970s photo doesn’t care. Surgeries are much better these days. Diets. Chemical peels and rhinoplasty. Maybe …

A week or two before that, I watched a special about the Mars rover and the men and women at JPL, just a few miles from my house, who against insane odds landed a rover on Mars and subsequently proved there is water on that planet. Has that door slammed shut on me? Of course. Don’t be ridiculous. (Still …)

On August 23, 1986, twenty-two years ago today, I took my last drink. It ended seven years of blackout drinking and wrecked cars and early-stage DTs. It began a struggle I wouldn’t have undertaken had I known what I signed on for.

Today, I don’t want to be Pinker or McCarthy or Jean or Pounstone or Bardot or the most accomplished JPL scientist of the bunch. Today accomplishment is not an elusive wisp. It’s rock solid.

Today what I am is what I am.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

What Demon From Hell Hath Brought These Monsters Upon Us? Oh, Yeah, It Was Lynne Truss

This just in:

Two guys have been sentenced to a fine and probation after correcting apostrophes on a historic sign. When asked why, during their multi-state sign-editing spree, they didn't also change the word "emense" to "immense" on the 1930s-era Grand Canyon sign, one remarked: "I was reluctant to disfigure the sign any further."

It's good to see their cross-country rampage was tempered by calm restraint and sound judgment.

Here's the whole story:

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Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

Here are some sample hits from a search for the word atrocious.
The atrocious sequel to Are We There Yet?

We've been keeping tabs on the Associated Press's atrocious campaign
coverage this year.

$100 million private-equity buyout boosts (are) atrocious

Do you remember the atrocious and disappointing OECD report on

And here are some sample hits for this adjective's noun form, atrocity(ies).
Conditions of atrocity: The crimes at Abu Ghraib are a direct expression of
the kind of war we are waging in Iraq.

In the first months after 9/11, the administration's ruthless exploitation
of the atrocity was a choice, not a necessity.

All varieties of atrocity: battle deaths, civilian casualties of war,
democide, famine caused by the economic disruption.

Other hits for atrocity/atrocities referenced Nuremberg, the Nanjing Massacre, and "Bosnian Muslim atrocities in Srebrenica."

Okay, so now that I've thoroughly bummed you out, I hope you don't mind me pondering the question: How did these two words -- really the same word as different parts of speech -- come to have such very different connotations?

Atrocity, it seems, is used to mean slaughter and bloodshed and torture, while atrocious is often used to ridicule bad sitcoms, bad hair days, and other non-brutal bad choices.

Why? I don't know. But I have a theory. It's a conspiracy theory pointing to a 6-foot-tall English-speaking mouse. A tyrant whose atrocities include forcing innocent children to wear plastic ears and those "Escape from Witch Mountain" movies of the '70s.

My evidence: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious. ..."

Yes, methinks mesmells Mickey brand sanitizer.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Don't Take My Word for It (Plus a late-edition addition**)

Yesterday's mention of the no-splitting-infinitives myth prompted a plea from Evie. She asked for further info to release her from a lifetime of "knuckle rapping" she has received for placing adverbs after her infinitival "to."

So I opened my books and typed up some selective excerpts*. Here they are:

Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is
now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the 'to'
from the principal verb. —Chicago Manual of Style

No absolute taboo should be placed on the use of simple adverbs between the
particle 'to' and the verbal part of the infinitive. —Fowler's Modern English

Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round
stovewood does. 'I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.' —The
Elements of Style

I don't have anything against split infinitives--in their proper place. —
Word Court (Barbara Wallraff)

I consider it my calling to dispel the myth that it's against the rules to
split infinitives. It's fine to split infinitives. —Grammar Girl's Quick and
Dirty Tips for Better Writing

There is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive. —The Careful Writer
(copyright 1965)

Split away! ... No matter how many knuckles have been whacked with rulers
over the "split infinitive," grammar experts will testify that there is no rule
-- and never has been a rule -- against splitting infinitives. —Lapsing Into a
(Bill Walsh, Business Copy Desk Chief, Washington Post)

Avoid the split infinitive wherever possible; but if it is the clearest and
the most natural construction, use it boldly. —Usage and Abusage (first
copyright 1942)

Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey
the meaning. —Associated Press Stylebook

Split infinitives. See "Superstitions." —Garner's Modern American Usage

If some windbag ever tells you that the famous Star Trek opening is
grammatically incorrect, you can tell him to boldly blow it out his transporter.
After that, you'll have no more tribble at all. —Grammar Snobs Are Great Big
(written by yours truly)

* In fairness I should note that I was deliberately gathering ammo for Evie. Many of these publications include caveats and say that such "splits" are less than ideal. Still, none of 'em says they're a no-no.

** For those who don't see the comments unless they click on them, Blackwell shared a link to really fun comic: Thank you, Blackwell!

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Refresh My Memory: I Like Grammar WHY?

Sometimes, to get focused in the morning, I do a Google news search for the word “grammar.” I like to see* what people and publications are saying on the subject -- make sure I’m abreast of any grammar-related news, stuff like that.

Then I pick up my coffee cup and bonk myself on the head with it.

It’s always the same thing: Some columnist in Polukaville has written a column about how readers shredded her for using “their” to refer to a singular. Invariably, the columnist concludes that there are a lot of people out there who like to play gotcha (who knew?). Then some clown posts a comment ranting about how the New York Times (gasp) split an infinitive and another clown bemoans the widespread horror of people using “healthy” to mean “healthful.”

(None of these linguistic crimes is actually a crime, by the way. Split infinitives, if there exist such things, are fine. “Healthy” now means “healthful” and the use of “their” to refer to a singular is defended by some of the nation’s top language authorities.)

And then I remember why so many people hate grammar: Because the people who claim to love it give it a bad name.

To me, grammar is more about understanding phrase and clause structure and using that understanding to write the most effective sentences possible. But not today. Today it’s about a never-ending bumble dance between anti-split-infinitive thugs and dazed columnists who never saw ’em coming.

So today, instead of writing my column or some other grammar-related project, I’m going to work on my novel. To give you an idea of how dedicated I am to my fiction writing, here’s a picture of the space in my home set up specifically for fiction writing. To encourage me to write more fiction. (Note that the only evidence of life is of feline life -- cat hair on the tree thing).

And here’s where I usually write my columns and other grammar stuff. (Note the actual signs of human life.)

Wish me luck.

* If you want to try this grammar search at home, kids, do an “advanced” search and specify that you want hits only from the United States. Otherwise, you’ll have to sift through hundreds of hits from news sources in countries where they actually teach grammar.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Favorite Edit I've Made of Late

In a feature article, changed packaderm to pachyderm.

Now don't get me wrong. I've made a lot of mistakes, misspellings, and typos myself. But this one strikes me as really special. Like the writer was thinking, "This is America, dammit. I can spell it however I want. Only commies use dictionaries and spell-check."

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

rein him in + rein her in + rein them in = total 60,720 hits
reign him in + reign her in + reign them in = total 26,720 hits

free rein = 769,000
free reign = 1,010,000 hits

Traditionalists say both expressions call for rein. To rein someone in is a reference to a horse's reins and means to get someone under control. Conversely, to give free rein means to let someone or something run wild. (I've actually done this on a horse = let go of the reins, yelled "ha!," and seen where I ended up [I was young].)

But you could, if you wanted to, make a case for free reign, since reign, like rein, refers to control or power. In fact, some sources sanction free reign, sort of.

But think twice before you include the G -- a lot of us "we were taught differently" types will assume your spelling is out of ignorance and not conscious choice.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Don't Assume the Boss is Grammar-Smarter Than You -- Especially If the Boss Works in Hollywood

A friend wrote recently with a question. She had just applied for a job with a powerhouse entertainment company that made her take a grammar quiz. One of the questions: What’s the plural of pizza?

My friend, having been raised in society and not in a hole in the ground, is fully aware of the word “pizzas.” I have no doubt that she has heard it thousands of times and said it thousands of times, too.

But she let the question throw her, and that was her big mistake.

Pizza? Well, pizza’s a food. And if you have one pepperoni pizza and then you order a mushroom pizza, what you really have is more PIZZA, right?

I’m paraphrasing her explanation, but that was the general idea.

My friend felt stupid, but she was actually being very smart. She was exploring her innate understanding of “mass nouns” versus “count nouns” – even though she had never heard the terms.

Count nouns are countable things, like “smiles.”
Mass (or non-count) nouns are words like “happiness.”

Yes, there’s some overlap. You can have meat and more meat but several types of meats.

“Pizza” has even clearer boundaries than meat (crusty, delicious, circular boundaries stuffed with cheese if you're lucky). We are much more likely to say “a pizza” and “some meat” than “a meat” and “some pizza.”

But that doesn’t even matter. What matters is the quiz asked for a plural. Mass nouns, for practical purposes, don’t have plurals. (Unless you really stretch it, such as with “happinesses.”) So the question could have only referred to the countable “pizza” and not the mass one.

My friend overthought it and got it wrong.

The lesson here is one we knew all along: To make it in Hollywood, check your brain at the big white sign.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Q&A with Grammar Girl

Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty has a new book out, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

A few weeks back, I did a Q&A with her for my newspaper column, but I had to trim a lot to make it fit. (I realize only now that I made a bad cut. I left out a part in which she says she supports sometimes using "their" to refer to singular antecedent. But I left in a sentence in which she did just that. The result? You guessed it. Angry reader e-mails.)

Anyhoo, here's the complete, never-before-seen full text of my Q&A with Grammar Girl.

JC: Why are so many people either indifferent to grammar or downright hostile to it?

MF: I suspect those are the people who have been terrorized by a grammar stickler at some point. Someone took pleasure in using grammar to make them feel stupid, so it turned them off to the whole idea of grammar. For example, imagine a person who took a long time to write out a forum comment on some contentious topic only to be slapped down by someone who doesn't even address his or her ideas, but instead writes, "You typed 'their' instead of 'they're.' You're clearly an idiot and don't know anything about foreign policy." That kind of thing doesn't make people grammar fans.

JC: A lot of people feel as though they should "know" grammar -- that they're deficient if they don't know it all. Do you have any words for them?

MF: Well, I do believe it's important to be able to construct a solid sentence because, whether you like it or not, people will judge you on your writing. But nobody could possibly remember all the grammar and usage rules. We're talking about thousands of pages of material. I'm looking at my bookshelf and I have about 30 different reference books on grammar and usage. And then there's the problem of all the contentious "rules" where there isn't a simple answer. So whether you feel deficient or not, I 'd say it's important to invest in a few good reference books and if you aren't sure about something, look it up. It only takes a few seconds.

JC: What are three (or five or six) tidbits of grammar knowledge that people find most helpful?

MF: Knowing how to identify a subject and object is useful because so many other choices depend on it--"lay" versus "lie," "who" versus "whom," and "sit" versus "set," for example. (A subject takes action, an object has action taken on it.)

I also think it's helpful to be aware of the differences between American English and British English because it's common to see both on the Web. For example, in American English periods go inside of quotation marks, and in British English periods go outside of quotation marks. And in Britain, it's more common to say "have got" (e.g., Have you got any spare change?), whereas in America it's more common to just use "have" (e.g., Do you have any spare change?). Things like that are good to know.Beyond that, people often ask usage questions: "affect" versus "effect," "lend" versus "loan," "may" versus "might," "more than" versus "over," stuff like that.

JC: Is there a grammar war going on? What side are you on?

MF: Before I started the Grammar Girl podcast, I was unaware of the grammar wars; but after writing about grammar for a couple of years and receiving angry e-mails from people on both sides of the battle, I definitely believe there is a war. There are people who believe nothing should ever change [prescriptivists], and there are people who believe anything goes [descriptivists]. They would both probably object to such a cut-and-dried description of their beliefs, but those are the broad strokes.

I try to give practical advice, so I have found myself on both sides of the spectrum. For example, I angered people when I said I thought it was OK to use "their" instead of "him or her" or "he" to refer to a single person of unknown sex; and I got a deluge of hate mail when I said that "irregardless" is a word. Mind you, I didn't say people should use it, I just said it's in every dictionary I checked and therefore qualifies as a word--a bad, nonstandard word, but something that exists in the English language. You'd have thought I said it was OK to kill puppies. On the other hand, I don't see any reason to allow people to modify absolutes; for example, I don't think people should say "very dead" or "very unique." Something is either dead or it isn't; it's unique or it isn't. I got less hate mail about that, so maybe the descriptivists are less militant.

JC: Do you believe people want grammar rules? Why or why not?

MF: I do believe people want grammar rules. I believe they desperately want grammar rules. There are so few things you deal with as an adult that are black and white. Language seems as if it should be straightforward, and writing would be so much easier if there were one set of rules. If it wasn't OK to refer to a single person as "their" 100 years ago, why would that change? Who are these language experts who decide that the rules are only suggestions? Are they the same people who came up with "speed Monopoly" rules? It can be incredibly frustrating for people who just want to follow the rules in their cover letter so they can get a job, or don't want some grammar snob tsk-tsking them.

It's also hard to teach kids about grammar and usage without giving them firm rules. It's a lot easier for a fifth-grade teacher to tell his or her students that you should never end a sentence with a preposition than to explain the difference between unnecessary prepositions and phrasal verbs that happen to contain prepositional words. But then those kids grow up thinking they know certain "rules" when they actually have it all wrong. There are a lot of reasons it would be nice if there were more real grammar rules, but it would also be nice if books wrote themselves and ice cream were free on weekends.

JC: Is there any usage matter on which you've recently changed your position? What was it and why?

MF: I used to believe it was important to hyphenate "e-mail," but compound words regularly evolve from hyphenated form to closed compound (i.e., "email"), and sometimes they even revert back to hyphenated form over time. Back in September, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary released [according to] a new edition and dropped the hyphen from approximately 16,000 words, including the hyphen in e-mail. The more I researched hyphens, the more I realized they are a particularly cagey punctuation mark. I continue to hyphenate, but I no longer believe the "e-mail" versus "email" debate is worth getting worked up over.

JC: Do you get grief from grammar snobs and, if so, what are of the things they say to you?

MF: Most of the people who write to me are pretty polite when they point out errors or perceived errors. The funny thing is that the more rude someone is, the more likely they are to be wrong.

JC: I spend a lot of time trying to help people prioritize their grammar learning. That is: Don't worry about knowing whether to capitalize 'master's of business administration.' Worry about danglers instead. What's one issue people should worry less about and one they should worry more about?

MF: People should worry more about spelling. Typos happen, but there's no excuse for lots of misspellings in a final document. It's shocking how many things go out riddled with spelling errors. As I said before, I think hyphens in compound words tend to be pretty arbitrary, and I agree that capitalization is also low on the totem pole, although I confess it does bug me a little bit when people arbitrarily capitalized nouns for no reason. On the other hand, there was a time when nouns were capitalized in English--most of the nouns are capitalized in the Constitution--so you can't even say that keeping nouns lowercase in English is an age-old rule.

JC: Why do you like grammar (assuming you do)?

MF: I hate it! Just kidding. I couldn't resist. I think I initially became interested in grammar because I thought it would be a set of hard-and-fast rules that I could learn and then be more secure in the world. But the more I read about the controversies and history, the more fascinating it became. I know it's nerdy, but I honestly enjoy reading usage guides.

JC: Are you good at learning history? Geography? Math? Science? Economics? (Subtext: Is your grammar savvy compensated for by a deficiency in another subject matter?)

MF: I love history, but I'm terrible at math. Just horrible. There are some people who have a sense of numbers, and I am not one of them. Oddly, I have a graduate degree in biology, and I often had people check the math in my formulas before I would mix solutions in the lab so I wouldn't cause an accident. I'm clumsy too; the lab was a bad place for me.

JC: Besides a good dictionary, what one grammar or style book should everyone own? (Besides yours and mine, of course!)

MF: Garner's Modern American Usage. It's the most complete, straightforward usage guide I know of.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

As You're Curious ... (On 'as' as 'because')

Someone asked me yesterday whether as can be used to mean because. Yup. It can.

Webster's New World College Dictionary, American Heritage's fourth edition, and all list because as one of (many) definitions of as. Also good to know ...

As, when used to mean because, is a conjunction.

Example: As you are late, I'll dock your pay.

Think of subordinating conjunctions such as because, if, though, while, since, etc. (Refresher: Remember that conjunctions join things, but subordinating conjunctions join things in such a way as to make them grammatically inequal in a sentence. That is, I like you is a complete sentence. But when we put because in front of it -- because I like you -- it ceases to be a complete sentence. By adding a word, we have subordinated our clause -- made it grammatically less than a complete sentence. More is less. That's the magic of subordinators.) But ...

As is, first and foremost, an adverb, the dictionaries say.

Remember that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or whole sentences and they answer the questions
how, when, where, and to what degree?

So in I'm just as happy at home, the word as is modifying happy in a way that expresses degree.

As can also be a pronoun.

In, We are tired, as anyone can see, the word as is pretty much an object of the verb see. It's almost like saying anyone can see it. Therefore, this as is a pronoun.

As can also be a preposition.

As a preposition, it often means (basically) like. It's pretty easy to identify because, like all prepositions, it takes an object. In He's mean as a snake, the noun phrase a snake is the object of our preposition as.

Find these distinctions less than clear?

Don't feel bad. The dictionaries themselves seem to struggle with this stuff. For example, here's an American Heritage example of as being used as an adverb: The child sang as sweetly as a nightingale.

And here's an American Heritage example of as used as a conjunction: You are as sweet as sugar.

A while back, I reported
here that linguist Geoffrey Pullum says that dictionaries are often very bad at distinguishing between adverbs and adjectives. Apparently, there are some other parts of speech they're none too clear on either (or at least not clear enough to demonstrate it better than this).

Still feel a little bad? Then consider this: The person who asked me whether as can be used to mean because said that, while studying for the GMAT, he had been taught that it was strictly forbidden.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of grammar snobbery … (On “yay,” “yea,” and “yeah.”)

As someone who’s made a career (sort of) out of tilting against grammar snobs, it’s hard for me to admit the darker side of my true nature. Yet when I’m honest, there’s no denying it: I have a meanie streak. And it goes way back -- all the way to middle school.

In those pre-Blackberry days, girls passed notes. The cooler you were, the more notes you got. As a mere satellite in the cool-girl constellation, I didn’t get many. But I got enough to know that the notes covered just three topics: guys, clothes, and repressive authority figures. The topics all had one thing in common: They all provided the opportunity to cheer -- to express in print something that, when spoken, sounds like “yay.”

But, in the notes, the cool girls all spelled it “yeah.”

Perhaps if I’d been invited to more sleepovers or shopping outings, I wouldn’t have even noticed. But, as it turned out, I had plenty of time on my hands to think how, if they were as smart as me, they would have spelled it “yay,” you know, something that rhymes with “bay.” Not “yeah,” which has the same vowel sound as “pat.”

Occasionally, they also spelled it “yea,” which seemed better. At least it seemed to have the right vowel sound, even if it did read like something Moses would say to his flock.

Finally twentymumbmumble years later, I looked it up.

American Heritage Dictionary affirms my petty attempts to feel better about not being more popular.

Yay,” it says, is an “alteration” of “yea” and has the same pronunciation. But unlike "yea," which usually means "indeed" or something like that, "yay" is “used as an exclamation of pleasure, approval, elation, or victory.”

Yeah” has the same basic vowel sound as “pat,” American Heritage says. It means “yes,” not “hurray.”

And if you attended Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School circa 1980, that’s all you need to know. You can stop reading here. Go on now. I’m sure you girls have some shopping or character assassination to do. In fact, look. I think see a heavyset girl with high-waisted acid wash jeans over there. Off you go, now. Bye bye.

They gone? Good.

Now I can confess to the rest of you that Webster’s New World College Dictionary doesn’t quite agree.

According to this Webster's, the correct word to use as a synonym for “hurray” is actually “yea.” The one I preferred, “yay,” is an alternate spelling of “yea.” The spelling "yay," Webster’s says, also is also the one you use to write, “I caught a fish yay big,” or, if you’re a formerly cute but now Us-Magazine-reading Floridian named Brenda or Tracey or Vikki, it's the one you use to write, “I owe June a hug yay big.”

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Yeah, I 'Knew' That

I "learned" a term this weekend. One it seems I "should" have known, since it's in the Chicago Manual online and probably the hard copy version, too. (I'll check when I get "home.")

The term is "scare quotes." It means, according to Chicago online, quotation marks used not to identify a quotation but "to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense."

How did I, someone who has "read" the Chicago Manual and other style guides "many" times, manage to overlook that term? I'm sure I was just focused on more "important" things.

Hope someone out there finds this "helpful."

P.S. Thanks to Cortney for edumacating me on this one!

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Weekend Edition (Wherein I stray even further than usual from the topic of grammar): The Queen of "Huh?"

In an episode of The Simpsons, Bart nabs a handful of someone else's business cards then hands them out saying, "Look at me! I'm a business jerk."

I'm not a business jerk. Not that I'm not a jerk, mind you. It's just that I'm a little challenged by the business part. Still, on the increasingly less frequent occasions when I actually read the newspaper, I like to read the business page. There's some good stuff there -- stuff you can't learn anywhere else.

For example, I learned today that Edison International's profit in the second quarter nearly tripled. Interesting during a time of so many energy woes. But it gets more interesting: According to the Los Angeles Times, this is due partly to "lower utility taxes."

Huh? We lowered taxes? In a way that helped add about $157 million to Edison's profits?


The Edison story was on the main page of the Los Angeles Times business section. But when I turned to a very small Bloomberg wire story on the bottom of the next page, that's when I really started to wonder about this business-jerk business. It's also when the business stuff began to intersect with my usual blog topics of writing and words.

The 173-word inside story is about a lawsuit against Chevron -- a lawsuit alleging anti-competitive behavior that "caused substantial harm to (California) consumers of gasoline due to increased retail prices."

From what I can piece together, here's what happened. In 2003, after California adopted some new clean-air standards, the Federal Trade Commission sued Unocal for failing to disclose it had some patents pending on refining technology for cleaner-burning gasoline. Two years later, Chevron bought Unocal and inherited the suit. Sometime in the last few weeks, the company coughed up $48 million in a settlement with California consumers who were members of the class action.

So, distilling down further the alleged injustice to consumers:
  • Company applies for patents.
  • Company stays mum on applying for patents.
  • Consumers are thus screwed.
In the grammar game, ignorance has become my sort of stock in trade. I ask stupid questions (a humiliating-but-essential survival habit I picked up as student who entered college with just an eighth-grade education) and share the answers. How DO you spell "ambience"/"ambiance"? Stuff like that.

But today I'm extending my brazen ignorance to another arena: business. So with that I ask, is it just me? Or has the LA Times/Bloomberg failed to connect the dots for all of us who can't insert the word "business" before the title "jerk"?

Am I the dense one? Or did the wire/paper fail to fully explain what happened?

This makes me NOT want to read the business page. I feel dumb. I don't get it. Surely, the problem is my ignorance and not the paper's failure to write for us garden-variety jerks, right?

Sure, I COULD try to do some of my own research. I mean, they've probably been covering this extensively and I've just been too pea-brained and distracted to follow it, right? You'd think so. But when I type into the LA Times archives the kewords "Unocal" and "patents." I get exactly one hit: today's story.

Maybe I should stop trying to understand stuff that's over my head and just join in the headline-fueled chorus of voices going all Jerry Springer on how John Edwards cheated on his cancer-stricken wife.

No. On second thought, call me the Queen of "Huh?"

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Friday, August 8, 2008

'Ambience'/'Ambiance' and Let's Hear It for the Weasels

I was thinking the other day about the animals that we refer to as the very embodiment of certain types of people. (It was a slow news day.) You know, like, "He/she is a real ..." Here are some that came to mind:


And that's all I have to say about that.

On an unrelated topic, I was typing out my backside yesterday about "ambience" versus "ambiance" -- trying to say from memory which is right/wrong/preferred. So today I figured it was time to look it up:

Webster's New World College Dictionary says it's "ambience," but notes "ambiance" as an alternate spelling.

Merriam-Webster agrees. It prefers "ambience" but allows "ambiance."

American Heritage's fourth edition disagrees, preferring "ambiance" but allowing "ambience."

In the French, my Harrap's Mini French Dictionnaire, much to my surprise, spells it "ambiance" (I thought the French used the "e.")

And that's all I have to say about that.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Omelets Are Better Than Omelettes, the Apostrophe Does Not Swing Both Ways, and Is Texting Destroying Our Language?

A couple of tidbits to share today that I present in kinda bare-bones form since I'm a little too sniffly-sneezy to weave them into a more entertaining form.

* Three out of three dictionaries I checked with prefer the spelling "omelet" to "omelette." All of them, however, allow both spellings.

* If it ain't facing left, it ain't an apostrophe. In my copy editing work, I'm coming across a lot of right-facing apostrophes (that is, ones with their openings to the right, like the letter C). MS Word likes to make them when you hit the neither-right-nor-left-facing apostrophe key. There's a name for a right-facing apostrophe: an open single quotation mark. Real apostrophes face left.

* I finally found an expert to answer the question, "Are kids screwing up our language with their technology and texting and IMming and blogging and ROFLing?" The answer: No. Technology is not hurting the language at all. Happily, it's just poisoning kids' minds. I got this from a Noam Chomsky clip I found on YouTube. (The whole talk is long, so if you want to hear just this portion, skip to around minute 50.) He makes a good case.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On Second Thought ...

Caffeine is a beautiful thing. Of course, it takes longer to do its magic on days when I have a slight flu bug and am waffling between being sick and being fine. (Strangely, I feel sick when I’m sitting up to do copy editing, but just fine when I’m lying down reading.)

Still, in the clearer light of a coffee-fueled day, I noticed that my previous post failed to recognize that a number of important names are missing from or underplayed on the NY Times’s grammar page:

Steven Pinker -- As far as I can tell, the first guy to identify the creature called the Grammar Puss.

The guys over at LanguageLog, including Geoffrey Pullum, Mark Liberman and Benjamin Zimmer.

From what I can tell, Zimmer is the guy who figured out that the Churchill quotation probably isn’t Churchill’s. Pullum and Liberman, as far as I can tell, have been pointing out the absurdity of extreme grammar grousing far longer than I have (and far more convincingly).

These guys are serious scholars and real pioneering thinkers in the grammar game. I guess that if Zimmer and Liberman aren’t in there, and Pullum and Pinker only get one buried reference each, I was being a little childish in my previous (groggy and sneezing/sniffling) post.

Now if only I could get over that April business …

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Loser Pangs

I'm 18 years old. I'm working the cash register at the local Kash 'N Karry grocery store. It's a good hair day. I feel pretty. A good-looking guy comes through the line -- a guy with the air of being on the make. Big time. He gets to the front of the line. He leans closer. And with a handsome, devious smile he nods in the direction of my co-worker April and asks, "Is she single?"

For a long time, I thought no one else suffered from occasionally feeling like a speck of dust. And I didn't bring it up, either, because I default to pettiness. For example, you wouldn't believe how many things I could find wrong with April's looks -- not to mention her I.Q.

I figured these feelings, which I hereby dub “loser pangs,” were something I would outgrow. Apparently not.

Both my books are about grammar nitpickers gone wild. “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” is in its sixth printing. (Could be seventh by now. I’m not sure.) “Mortal Syntax” I believe is better. I’ve written a column on grammar for about five years. I’ve been on NPR. Been on TV. At a recent library expo, got to be, basically, an opening standup act for Paula Poundstone. Also, I conquered alcoholism and got a college degree despite dropping out of school in the ninth grade.

And none of that can erase the big L on my forehead today.

Today’s New York Times website has a page devoted to the topic of grammar. Its introduction begins:

“Why are people so obsessed with grammar, and so offended by real or imagined
lapses? They argue over split infinitives and sentences that end in
prepositions, almost to the point of blows. (Winston Churchill was supposedly so
exasperated by a speechwriter’s avoidance of prepositional endings that he
erupted: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Note the use of the weaselly word “supposedly”: some sources say an anonymous
British official, not Churchill, was the source of the famous remark.)”
Pretty much the drum I’ve been beating for years.

The site lists dozens of resources and blogs and articles and even books -- none of them mine.
I figured that I was on par with “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” by Ben Yagoda.
I figured wrong. And a keyword search confirmed it. I just don’t rank.

So this morning, as my coffee is still just beginning to kick in, I’m wrestling with loser pangs.

I sure hope April got fat.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Veteran's Parting Thoughts on the Los Angeles Times and the News Biz

My former boss, Bill Lobdell, who recently took a buyout from the Los Angeles Times, has posted his insights on the future of the paper. Great reading for anyone interested in the news business:

It's funny how you think your ideas are original until someone who "brought you up" states them -- then suddenly you realize where you got them from. As a reporter and city editor in the Times' community news division working under Bill, I adopted his same passion for and belief in community news. It was only upon reading his post yesterday that I realized my ideas weren't original.

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Copy-editing Arcana and Advertising-related Irony

I’ve come across variations of this twice in the last week:

“Working together, they honed in on the problem.”

It’s “homed in.”

The verb “hone” means to sharpen or make more acute.

The verb “home” means, according to American Heritage:

1. To go or return to one's residence or base of operations.
2. To be guided to a target automatically, as by means of radio waves.
3. To move or lead toward a goal: The investigators were homing in on the truth.
And now for something completely different ... A funny note about my attempt on Friday to trick Google’s ad-assigning computer.

That blog post hasn’t attracted any of the ads I thought it would – male enhancement, etc. But the next-day's post brought a surprise. The post about “relieve/relive stress” attracted a “comment” from a “reader” named Samantha. It said, “I enjoyed reading your post. Read about stress relief at my website …” and a link to a business site.

Somehow I doubt that Samantha enjoyed reading my post. But I suspect that, somewhere in the non-osphere, Google AdSense demons are laughing at me.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Touche, Google!

I expected that, by now, based on my Friday post, Google would have placed here ads for body creams, travel sites, or miracle manhood cures.

Yet, like most every time I come up with an idea I think is so damn clever, this one backfired. Instead of taking the bait and putting the expected ads on my site, Google's surprisingly sarcastic computer put me in my place instead.

As of this writing, the prominent new ad on my site -- the direct result of my clever idea -- is titled, "Bathroom Ideas."

You've won this round, Google.

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Barf-inducing Language Trend du Jour

Enjoy a mani and a pedi.
... meaning "manicure and pedicure."


P.S. I copy edit stuff like this. Please don't think I would read material of this nature unless I was being paid to.

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Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

relieve stress = 1,890,000 hits
relive stress = 17,000 hits

(More fun: The first hit for "relive stress" says, "Physical contact is a great way to relive stress," and appears to be from an article that appeared in some publication of Caltech.)

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Cellulite cures don't work, male enhancement pills are for suckers, fares to Hawaii right now are overpriced, and today's stock market is a money pit

Truth is, I know nothing about cellulite cures or male enhancement pills. They could be modern miracles for all I know. Really, I don't care.

I just wrote that because I'm incredibly amused by this whole Google ad business.

A few months ago, I figured out how to put these automated Google ads on my blog. For most bloggers, it's no-brainer technology. But I still struggle to understand it.

I thought I read that payment is based on the number of times people click ads. According to my statement, I have received exactly zero clicks. (I’m kind of proud of this, by the way. It suggests I have smart readers. No many. But smart.) Yet I have indeed earned money from these ads. Perhaps there’s also some payment that I didn't read about that's based on page views. Still, I report to you today that I have now raked in advertising revenues totaling 15 cents.

(Google, by the way, sends you a check when and if that total ever reaches $100. So I’ll look forward to cashing that in sometime around age 70, when it’ll probably pay for one gallon of gas.)

But one thing I have figured out about these ads: They’re automatically assigned to my blog based on keywords. And the software that assigns them isn’t very discriminating. I write, "Merriam-Webster sucks," and two days later an ad pops up for Merriam-Webster.

That’s pretty funny.

So, hoping that you too find this stuff amusing, I’m dedicating today’s blog entry to seeing whether I score any ads for cellulite treatments, male enhancement, Hawaiian Airlines, or some sucker investing tips.

Who knows? If that’s really where the money is, maybe when I’m 70 I’ll be able to afford two gallons of gas. Or, perhaps by then I’ll want to invest it in male enhancement.

(P.S. If you’re thinking of clicking on the ads to give me a leg up, that’s sweet but please don’t! The Google terms include my word that I won’t pull any tricks like that -- or ask readers to. I suspect that, if there’s one thing their computer really is good at it’s knowing when they’re getting ripped off. I’d rather stay an ad-click virgin.)

Thanks for listening and, P.S., Merriam-Webster sucks.

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